Aliyana’s Mindset Moment

I’ve got a student this year — let’s call her Aliyana* — who just plain makes me smile.  She’s unique times ten — comfortable being different and always ready to think creatively.  She’s also super funny and super kind — which means she’s super well-liked by her peers.  In a lot of ways, she’s the kind of kid that I hope my own daughter will become.

But at times, I think she doubts herself as a learner.

She not the first to raise her hand in classroom conversations — and when she does, there’s a hesitance in her voice that hints at an intellectual insecurity that surprises me.  It’s almost like school hasn’t been kind to her over the years and so she’s just not sure that being a thought leader is a role that she’s supposed to fill in our classroom.  In her own mind, she’s the funny kid — not the smart kid.  She makes us laugh.  Other kids help us learn.

Today was different — and it all started with a unit test on the Lithosphere.

It was a big, fat, hairy deal — the first real TEST that my students have taken all year.  You could feel the tension in the room when Aliyana’s class rolled through the door — and you could see the tension inside of Aliyana, who was quiet for probably the first time in a month.

As the kids worked, I watched — wrapped up in my own thoughts about the role that years worth of grades have played in defining each of the students in my class.  Some tackled their tests brimming with self-assurance after years of high marks and perfect scores.  Most — including Aliyana — were noticeably anxious.  Concentration was high, but confidence was low.  Answers were circled, erased and replaced time and again.  It was a startling lesson in the impact that testing and grading has on kids.

What was most interesting, though, were the reactions that my students had to their final scores — which they got instantly after entering their answers into a digital program that we use for tracking progress by student and standard.  Few — if any — students showed ANY signs of surprise.  There was no jumping for joy or breaking into tears or giving high fives or whispering “Yessss” under middle school breaths.

In fact, it was almost as if every kid got exactly the score that he expected to get — and that broke my heart.

That single score meant SO much to my students and yet it told them SO little about who they are as learners.  It did nothing more than reinforce the notions that my students had already built about themselves as learners.  It was almost like they were resigned to some false sense of academic predetermination, convinced that they’d ALWAYS earn the same grades on task after task in class after class.


So I made a simple instructional decision:  I called every student up one at a time to show them their pretest scores for the same unit right next to the scores that they earned on today’s tests — and it was the best instructional decision that I made all day.  You see, EVERY kid on my team grew from the pretest to the post-test.  In fact, MOST kids saw their scores rise somewhere between 20 and 30 points.  The shifts were obvious and impressive.  More importantly, they left every kid — regardless of final score — convinced that they WERE a learner.  Some still had work to do, but it was work they knew they could tackle simply because they had proof that learning was possible.

Aliyana darn near made me cry, though.

Her score from pretest to post-test rose from a 45 to a 97.  When she saw the two numbers side-by-side, she was caught off guard, convinced she was looking at the wrong numbers.  When she realized that those numbers really were hers, she let out the longest “oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhh” that I’ve ever heard during the middle of my annual Lithosphere test.  The class laughed, we both smiled — and then she spent the rest of the period part-beaming/part-bragging about how many points she’d gained over the course of the unit.

Her spontaneous joy was an awesome reminder for me, y’all:  Grades shouldn’t define learners.  Growth should.  EVERY assessment should end with opportunities for students to reflect on the progress that they’ve made instead of the scores that they’ve earned.



*Note: Aliyana is NOT this student’s real name. But she is a real kid.  And she’s real proud tonight — convinced for perhaps the first time that she is just as capable of every other student in her classes.  THAT’s an instructional win.  


Related Radical Reads:  

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action

@shareski is Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Giving Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

Three Lessons on Intervention from Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum

One of the real treats of my work with Solution Tree as a Professional Learning Community Associate is being able to learn regularly from REALLY bright people.  Recently, I had the chance to hear Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum — two of the three minds behind the RTI at Work process — talk through some of the most important lessons that schools interested in intervention need to learn.

Here are three takewaways:

Tier 1 Intervention isn’t really an “intervention” at all.  

Instead, it’s ensuring that ALL kids have access to high quality initial instruction around essential grade level standards.  And the key here is that ‘all kids” means ALL KIDS — including those who are several grade levels behind or who are identified by special programs labels or who have limited proficiency with the English language.  If some students don’t have access to essential grade level standards or learning targets because they are in remedial classes that have different priorities, your school has an equity issue that needs to be addressed.

The essential question to ask for students who have fallen several grade levels behind ISN’T “Can kids master essential grade level standards?”

Instead, the essential question to ask is “what can we do to get kids to master essential grade level standards.” That shifts collective attention towards action.  Ensuring high levels of learning for all only starts when (1). we realize that we CAN move every kid forward and when (2). we readily call out the  flawed assumptions about students that define learning — and learners — in traditional schools.  

Notice that attention remains focused on ESSENTIAL grade level standards.

That word “essential” is powerful, y’all.  Our work becomes more targeted and more focused — and WAY more doable — when we identify a small handful of instructional priorities that we want our students to master.  If your learning team is trying to tackle EVERY grade level standard in your collaborative work with one another, you will become overwhelmed before you even begin.  Instead, work together to define the outcomes that matter the most and spend your collective energy assessing that learning and providing multiple opportunities for your students to master that content.

Any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are these core beliefs a part of the work that YOUR PLC is tackling?  

If not, why not?


Related Radical Reads:

Structuring Tier Two Interventions in a PLC

Interventions are NOT Optional

Grouping Students for Learning in a PLC

Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow

Months ago, a good friend named Jen Hasler-Troutman asked me to whip up a list of folks that I think all new teachers should follow — either in Twitter or on their blogs.  She’s a mentor this year and wanted to give her mentees a starting point for swimming in the digital soup.  I FINALLY got a few spare minutes to put that list together for Jen and thought you might like seeing it, too.

Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow:

John Spencer (Twitter, Blog):   After spending eleven years as a middle school teacher, John has just moved into a position as a professor of instructional technology.  What I love about John’s writing and thinking is that (1). it is incredibly practical, full of ideas that I’m ready to try the minute that I read them and (2). it challenges my thinking around what classrooms could/should be.  John also writes more generally about creativity and living in a connected world.  That writing forces me to wrestle with bigger ideas and trends beyond the classroom — and I appreciate that.

Pernille Ripp (Twitter, Blog): After spending the majority of her career teaching elementary school, Pernille is in the middle of her second year as a seventh grade language arts teacher.  Her blog is also incredibly practical and full of ideas that I often take “as-is” and use in my own work with students.  She’s grown a reputation as an expert on classroom blogging, but I find her to be just as skilled at sharing ideas about reading and writing instruction — as well as an expert at strategies for structuring healthy classroom environments where students are empowered.

Richard Byrne (Twitter, Blog): The plain and simple truth is that technology is going to play a seminal role in the work that teachers new to our profession are going to do over the course of their careers.  No blogger introduces me to more new technologies than Richard Byrne.  The short, tool-centric bits on his Free Tech for Teachers site spotlight new services worth exploring OR new applications for existing tools that I’d never considered.  He’s a amazing curator of #edtech content — and that curation saves me time.

MiddleWeb (Twitter, Website): While it is specifically designed to support teachers in grades 4-8, I think MiddleWeb is a FANTASTIC resource for every teacher who is new to the classroom.  In fact, over the years, they’ve developed an incredible collection that they call New Teacher 911 designed to point rookies to resources that they can use to tackle all of the common challenges that trip us up early in our careers.

Mindshift KQED (Twitter, Website): Finally, I think it is essential for new teachers to question the fundamentals of our profession.  Doing so depends on constantly reflecting on cutting edge ideas.  That’s the kind of content that Mindshift — a blog maintained by a Bay Area public television network — produces regularly.  On any given day, you’ll find bits challenging grading practices or spotlighting practitioners who are reimagining learning one lesson at a time.  It’s good stuff that will resonate with any teacher who knows that our schools need to change in order to better serve modern learners.

What thinkers would YOU recommend that new teachers follow?  Drop your suggestions in the comment section and let’s see what kind of list we can come up with together!


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

Twelve Remix-Masters Who Have Changed My Thinking

Three Blogs that You Should Start Reading


Are We Too Busy Schooling?

Blogger’s Warning:  I’m cranky today.  That means this post is like 20 percent truth and 80 percent emotion.  Take it for what it’s worth.


Can I ask you an uncomfortable question:  How excited are your students about being in school?  Do they regularly get lost in their learning, surprised — maybe even disappointed — when the bell rings to end the class period or the day?  Can you feel a sense of relaxed joy when you walk into your building?  Do your students smile and laugh often?

Or are they just counting the minutes until the end of the day?

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


Here’s why I ask:  I don’t think my kids care about my class.

There.  I said it.

Don’t get me wrong:  They are a GREAT bunch.  One of the best that I’ve had in years.  They come to school ready to listen and ready to follow directions and ready to finish any task that I put in front of them.  But they are also ready to bolt the minute that class ends.  I know they care about ME.  It’s my class that they can’t seem to stand.

That bothers me.

On the bad days, I feel like a Busker — fighting for attention and hoping to entertain just long enough to get kids interested in my lessons.  On the really bad days, I feel like a taskmaster — doing little more than keeping the peace and enforcing the rules for 50 minutes at a time.  I rarely feel like a mentor or a coach or a role model or any of those other beautiful terms that we use to describe the Mr. Hollands or the Dead Poet Society teachers that we love to make movies about.

And it ain’t like I’m not TRYING.  In fact, I think I try pretty darn hard.  My lessons are full of hands on activities.  I use technology as much as possible.  I’ve got a collection of quirky takes on the topics in our required curriculum that generally leave kids wondering just long enough to get my hopes up that I might have them hooked.

But in the end, I’m still teaching a required curriculum.

Whether my students like it or not, we are going to spend the next 120 days marching through content that someone else decided was important.  And I won’t deviate too far from those requirements out of fear of failing to cover everything that I was supposed to cover.  Even though I work for good people who want my class to be creative and inventive, the pressure to comply — a function of the “accountability culture” that has had education in a professional death-grip for the past decade — feels all too real to me.

Imagining and inspiring and wondering and questioning are a remnant of a simpler time when we cared about “the whole child.”  That kind of stuff happened in open classrooms.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

My guess is that MOST kids experience that same forced march through the required curriculum in every class, every day, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade.  

Need proof?  Ask yourself this:  When was the last time that you created space for students to study something — ANYTHING — that they cared about?  When was the last time that you gave them a real choice in what they were going to learn or when they were going to learn it?  And I’m not talking about “you may choose to create a poem or write an essay or make a comic strip to demonstrate mastery of the content in today’s lesson” choices.  I’m talking about “the next thirty minutes are yours.  How would you like to spend it?” choices.

The stakes are too high for that kind of genuine ownership over the time kids spend in our schools, aren’t they?  

We’re too busy schooling.



Related Radical Reads:

Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

The REAL Board Bored of Education


The Learning Potential in Purses and Back Pockets