Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Most of Radical Nation knows that I am the proud father of a beautiful, funny, curious girl named Reece.  I love darn near everything about her — the sweet notes that she’s taken to leaving on my nightstand, her excitement about riding bikes or learning to hit a baseball, the fact that Who Was history biographies are her favorite things to read, the constant questions that she’s asking in an attempt to understand the world around her.  “Tell me something about science Dad,” or “Tell me something about our Presidents” are the most common conversation starters in our home.

Need proof that she’s something special?  A recent homework assignment asked her to generate a survey question to ask others that had three potential responses.  The example on the classroom handout was, “What color eyes do you have – Blue, Brown or Green?” Reece’s question:  “Who was your favorite person in history — Clara Barton, Einstein or Picasso?”

#loveher

But she came home from school broken the other day.

She’d gotten her progress report for the fourth quarter and it was full of low scores for things like her ability to sound out letters and to fluently read text.  She was also in a panic over her weekly spelling test — which she always struggles on because letter sounds really aren’t her strength.  “Dad, I’m dumb.  Everyone else is smarter than me — they don’t have any ones on their progress reports — and my friends say they are better than I am because I have ones on my report card and they have lots of fours and I don’t have any fours,” she said while crying her way through her bedtime routine.

Her tears tore me up.  I felt like I had failed her somehow by not finding a way to help her master her reading and spelling just as fast as her classmates even though I know that reading is a developmental skill that takes some kids longer to master than others; I was angry that progress reports had turned into an “I’m better than you are” competition in her social group; and I was panicked about the realization that my daughter was falling behind academically simply because I know what “falling behind” can mean for her long term future.

Mostly, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that anxiety over grades — which continue to define everything about the work that we do in traditional schools — has creeped into the back of my daughter’s  joyful, unpredictable mind.  Instead of seeing the scores on her progress report as nothing more than evidence that we can use to spot areas where she needs more practice and polishing, she sees them — like most students and parents who have spent their lives being ranked and sorted by the public school system — as a judgment of her self-worth as person.  In her mind, her progress report is proof positive that she’s “not as good” as her peers.

And she’s only six years old.

#sheesh

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t hold my daughter’s school, teacher, or classmates accountable for any of this.  Progress reports are required by our system and grades are “just how we’ve always done things” in education.  What’s more, there’s nothing inaccurate about the marks that Reece has earned.  She really does struggle with letter sounds, she really hasn’t gotten as far down the road to being a reader as her peers, and she really is still spelling phonetically.  If I were filling out her progress report, she would have earned the exact same marks.

But it leaves me even more committed to the notion that the kind of feedback that we provide to students in our classrooms needs to change.

Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

If that kind of ongoing student-involved assessment were the norm in our classrooms, progress reports would be a source of celebration and continued reflection — instead of embarrassment and shame — for kids like Reece.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Welcoming the Newest Radical

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

The REAL Feedback Experts in Your Building

One of my best buds is a brilliant Canadian elementary school teacher named Diana Williams.  She’s this super motivated, talented woman who finds great ideas and then runs with them — challenging both her own practice and the practice of others along the way.

Recently, Diana has been tinkering a bit with the feedback practices that I’ve been pushing here on the Radical — and while chaperoning a school band trip to an out-of-town performance, she had a Eureka moment:

(click here to view image credits and download on Flickr)
Slide - Rehersals as Feedback

Diana’s right, isn’t she?  There ARE places in our schools where high-quality feedback is the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  

In fact, every art teacher, chorus teacher, band director and coach in your building knows just how to turn feedback into detective work for their students.  After all, they’ve spent their lives polishing and perfecting knowledge and skills in performance-based fields.  As Diana — who was a musician before ever becoming a teacher — explains:

In my own training I had this immediate feedback/application cycle and the thinking skills that are inherit in that process/feedback modeled for and with me and practiced until it became unconscious muscle memory.

That’s true for your softball coach too, guys.  And for your carpentry teacher and your auto mechanics instructor, your drama director, your family and consumer science teacher, and your dance instructor.  They are all highly trained experts with first-hand experience with the kind of feedback/application cycle that Diana describes.

That also means every experience that your students have had in classes beyond the core curriculum has probably been FULL of examples of high quality feedback.

They’ve already learned to set goals and measure their progress against examples of excellence.  They’ve already started identifying areas of personal strength and weakness — and they’ve already felt the satisfaction that comes from discovering that forward progress IS possible.

THAT’s why kids dig electives more than any other part of their day.  It’s the ONE place where they can see evidence of their own improvement on a moment by moment basis.  And THAT’s why we need to push against cheap attempts to cut “the specials” from our school days in order to save cash and/or prioritize “academics.”

The simple truth is that learning to receive and react to feedback — a skill that has natural connections to classes outside of the “core” curriculum — may be the most important academic skill that students ever learn.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

The Best Feedback is Gathered, Not Given

New Feedback Activity:  Not Yet/You Bet Lists

New Feedback Activity: The Best Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

The Best Feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN

All y’all know that I’ve been completely consumed by reimagining the role that feedback should play in the modern classroom, right?  I’ve been reading darn near everything written by experts like Dylan Wiliam, Grant Wiggins, John Hattie, Rick Stiggins, Jan Chappuis, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.  More importantly, I’ve been tinkering with the feedback practices in my classroom for the better part of the past four years.

If there’s any single thought that holds together the key findings of all of these folks, it’s that the best feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN:

(click here to view and download original image on Flickr)

Slide - Gathered By Filled

Here’s why:  When we reverse the traditional roles that teachers and learners play in the classroom feedback cycle, we are helping our students to recognize that the people who are the MOST successful in our world AREN’T those who can take critique from a boss and adjust their actions/behaviors/work products accordingly.

The MOST successful people in our world are constantly critiquing THEMSELVES.  They are identifying meaningful goals worth pursuing, looking for exemplars to measure their own performances against, setting criteria for determining success, measuring their own progress, and constantly adjusting their goals, their decisions, their actions and their direction on the fly.

To borrow a related thought from Mortimer Adler, author of The Paideia Proposal:

All genuine learning is active, not passive.  It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory.  It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.

So ask yourself this:  How often is the feedback process that you are using with students active and not passive?  How often does it turn your students into the main agents in a process of discovery, using their minds to create meaning and find sense in their own patterns of performance?

#toughquestion

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Related Radical Reads:

New Feedback Activity:  Unit Analysis Forms

New Feedback Activity:  Not Yet/You Bet Lists

New Feedback Activity: The Best Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

This is Why I Teach: Watching Kids Learn

Over the last few days in class, my students have been working on an activity designed to introduce them to the similarities and differences between elements, mixtures and compounds.  It’s pretty dry stuff, to be honest — and the chances are that no matter how successful you’ve been in your life, you probably couldn’t tell me much about the concepts that my kids are expected to master before the end of our matter unit.

That’s the worst part of teaching a subject like science.  

While sixth graders are naturally curious about the world around them and FULL of wonder questions worth studying, much of what we are required to teach — and what our students are required to learn — are handfuls of isolated concepts and vocabulary words that will be forgotten before we even begin our next unit.

But something happened today to remind me that teaching is remarkable even on the days when it can feel like a complete and total grind.

It started when a boy I’ll call Mike* — one of the happiest kids on our learning team — rolled into my room during our school-wide enrichment period.  I could tell that something was bothering him because he didn’t even say hello to me.  He just sat down behind a computer, opened up our elements, compounds and mixtures task, and stared at the screen.  He was stuck on the second task:  Brainstorm a list of three metaphors for elements, compounds and mixtures.  Explain the strengths and the weaknesses of your metaphors.

I wasn’t surprised that Mike was stuck.  Thinking metaphorically is a complicated task for many kids.  But I knew that being stuck was driving Mike — a confident, capable student used to succeeding at darn near everything — completely NUTS.  I could see him wrestling with his own ideas, with his confidence, and with what to do next.  Asking a question would be a vulnerable act for a kid not used to feeling vulnerable in school.  But NOT asking a question would mean earning a poor grade, something that Mike couldn’t handle either.

A few minutes later, he called me over for help.  “Mr. Ferriter,” he asked, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to come up with a metaphor for a science concept.  I’m not sure I know what you mean.  Can you help me?”

Together, he and I reviewed what metaphors were.  Then, we looked at several of the sample metaphors that other students had already generated for the class.  I could see Mike’s confidence building moment by moment — and knew that he’d “gotten it” a few minutes later when I asked him whether a Lego set would best represent a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture.  “Heterogeneous!” he answered correctly with a sense of both amazement and relief in his voice!

Mike spent the rest of the day brainstorming metaphors — and it was so much fun to watch.  When he found a good one, he’d come up and quiz ME:  “So how about this one, Mr. Ferriter:  How is a screwdriver like an element?” or “Why is a raindrop in a thunderstorm a BAD metaphor for a mixture?”

My favorite moment:  Finding several new metaphors written in Mike’s handwriting on our classroom brainstorming list at the end of the day.  “Mike — have you been writing on my board?” I asked.  His answer:  A HUGE smile that warmed every corner of my heart.

Stew in that story for a minute, would you?  Can you see the beauty in it? 

I had the chance to help a boy who was wrestling with his self-confidence today.  I had the chance to prove to him that he COULD work through a challenging task and succeed no matter how hard it seemed.  I had the chance to witness the moment where the concept clicked AND the pure joy that came along with learning something new.  I had the chance to see him refining his understandings through repeated practice and playing with ideas in a way that he hadn’t ever played with them before.

THOSE are the moments that I live for, all y’all.  

I don’t teach because I’m passionate about compounds, mixtures and elements.  I don’t teach because I’m convinced that every kid has to leave our schools with a strong understanding of the chemical and physical properties of matter.  I don’t teach because I believe that mastery of scientific concepts is essential for success in tomorrow’s world.

I teach because there’s nothing like watching kids learn something new and knowing that you played some small role in helping them to get there.

#truDATchat

#whyIteach

 

*Blogger’s Note: Not his real name.

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Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: The #SugarKills Gang

This is Why I Teach: They Care Enough to Make Cards

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter

 

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You’ve Never Asked

Let me start with a simple truth:  There is no single decision made by the principal of a professional learning community more important than who to hire to fill vacancies on individual learning teams.

After all, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty – working with students, influencing colleagues, shaping decisions, impacting public relations – for years to come.  Heck, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty long after you have left for a new position.  That means every hiring decision that you make has tangible, long-term consequences for the families and the students that you are responsible for protecting and serving.

That’s obvious, right?  Then why is it that the interview questions we ask are so terribly, horribly wrong?

Why do we keep asking candidates to tell us about their experiences with integrating technology into their instruction or their strategies for managing difficult students?  Why are we interested in what a candidate believes about grading, homework or parent communication?  What is the point of asking candidates to tell us more about their unit planning process or to describe the worst lesson that they’ve ever taught?

Every one of those questions is centered around an individual teacher’s decisions and choices – and those individual decisions and choices are almost always made together by collaborative teams in professional learning communities.  When you are hiring for openings in a PLC, you have to recognize that you aren’t trying to fill a roster with remarkable individuals.  Instead, you are trying to build a team full of people who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

So what kind of questions WOULD we ask if we recognized that collective strength mattered more than individual talent? 

That’s easy.  The ONLY interview question that you have to ask to identify the best candidate for a position in a professional learning community is, “Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.”

At that point, ANY candidate that you are considering should be able to light up and tell you about a moment in their professional career where collaboration made them stronger.  Maybe it was a time when they developed a series of lessons that they refined and polished with a peer.  Maybe it was a time when a learning partner challenged a practice that they believed in.  Maybe it was a time when they became a better teacher by borrowing a strategy from someone on a learning team.

Whatever answer they give, look for enthusiasm and animation in their voice and in their body language.  The story should come easy to them and they should be excited to tell it.  They are likely to smile a lot and to lean forward in their chair.  They may talk faster and ask rhetorical questions.  They should be incredibly proud of the experience – and most importantly, they should be convinced that they are a better teacher as a result of the experience that they are describing to you.

And if they can’t give you an answer – or if their answer seems forced or false – thank them for their time and keep looking.

If you are convinced that collaboration between colleagues is the key to improving learning for students – and you should be – then it is time to start hiring people who have first-hand experience with the power and the promise of professional learning communities.

#period

#endofconversation

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Related Radical Reads:

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent