Category Archives: Teachers Reflect on their Practice

Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable.

Lemme share a funny story with you.

Several years ago, a school that I was working in went through a trend where every teacher was required to post a SWBAT objective on the board every single day.  SWBAT stood for, “The student will be able to,” — and each objective was, like a SMART goal, supposed to end with some kind of measure of proficiency.

The system worked pretty flawlessly in linear classes with easy to measure outcomes like mathematics, where you’d see objectives like, “The student will be able to solve multistep equations four out of five times,” or “The student will be able to apply the order of operations with 80 percent accuracy.”

But teachers in subjects with less tangible, direct objectives — read: every subject EXCEPT mathematics — really wrestled with the requirement.  

It wasn’t that we were opposed to the idea of having clear learning targets for students.  We just couldn’t figure out how to turn objectives like, “Students will recognize the impact that living in the developing world has on economic and/or quality of life indicators” or “Students can explain the spinoff benefits of space exploration” into something that was easy to measure.

(Download original image here)

Meaningful > Measurable Slide by Bill Ferriter @plugusin http://blog.williamferriter.com

 

My favorite example of the challenge that teachers in subjects outside of math had at writing measurable objectives came from a former colleague of mine who genuinely TRIED to write good objectives on the board every day.  

One that I saw frequently posted on her board was:

“The student will be able to self-select silent reading material with 80% accuracy.”  

Think about that for a minute.

Have you caught the problem yet?

Does that mean that on two out of every 10 days, kids are mistakenly picking up staplers instead of books during silent reading time?

If so, we’ve got bigger problems than our test scores!

#sheesh

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to call out my former colleague.  She was a great teacher who inspired kids and taught with a passion that was hard to match.  I have no doubt that her students were better off for having had her as a teacher.  They left with the ability to read texts with complexity, to write with articulation, and to interact in the kind of conversations that result in knowledge-building.

I’m trying to call out a system that simultaneously encourages us to pursue lofty goals like teaching students to critically think or to build consensus or to be creative while asking us to fit every goal that we pursue into some kind of measurable format.

The truth is that the things that are the MOST meaningful are also the hardest to measure.  

If you want kids to wrestle with meaningful objectives, you are going to have to back off your demands that everything be measurable in some way, shape or form.  If measurement is what you want, simple outcomes is what you need to settle for.

#trudatchat

________________________

Related Radical Reads:

Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

Answering Common Questions on Student Friendly Learning Targets

Understanding Learning Outcomes.

 

Are Your Science Standards Producing Scientifically Literate Citizens?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is long and nerdy.  But it’s essential.  I double-dog dare you to read the entire thing. 

As many of you know, I’ve been working hard over the last several months (see here, here and here) to get to know my curriculum better by creating a digital portfolio full of short, standard-specific videos that I record a few times a week and post to the web.

The effort — inspired by Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 work — has really been rewarding.  Not only am I creating content that many of my students dig viewing, I’m also creating instructionally centered content for our school’s social media feeds and creating a searchable archive of my instructional practices all while studying my standards in a more systematic way than ever before.

This week, I was teaching students about experimental design.  Specifically, we were talking about the role that dependent and independent variables play in creating reliable results and in drawing reliable conclusions.

But when I went to post my final videos to Twitter and hashtag them with the standards that those lessons represented, I discovered that the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for sixth grade science doesn’t articulate the core elements of good experimental design at all.

Instead, the standards make general reference to the importance of teaching experimental design in “seamless integration” with scientific content knowledge.

Now I know what you are thinking:  What’s the big deal, Bill?  So content is emphasized in your standards.  Sounds pretty typical for a science curriculum.  

Let me show you just how big a deal this is.  Start by checking out a few standards from the North Carolina Science Curriculum:

Recognize that all matter is made up of atoms and atoms of the same element are all alike, but are different from the atoms of other elements.

Explain the effect of heat on the motion of atoms through a description of what happens to particles during a change in phase.

Compare the physical properties of pure substances that areindependent of the amount of matter present including density, melting point, boiling point, and solubility to properties that are dependent on the amount of matter present to include volume, mass and weight.

Now, look at similar standards from the Next Generation Science Standards:

Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.

You see the difference, right?  

Every one of the Next Gen Science Standards REQUIRES students to engage in good experimental design.  In fact, the emphasis of the standard is on the process of science instead of the scientific content that kids are supposed to learn.

More importantly, the specific element of experimental design that students are supposed to learn is mentioned explicitly by name in each and every standard.  Students should be developing models and analyzing and interpreting data.  Is content important?  Sure.  But scientific and engineering practice is just as — if not more — important.

All kids in North Carolina are expected to do is “recognize,” “explain,” and “compare” — lower level thinking skills that have nothing to do with designing reliable experiments.

Now, think through the impact that one seemingly small difference has on the instructional choices of classroom teachers.

Teachers working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that they need to be creating lessons that allow students to DO science.  Not only that, they know exactly which scientific process skills their kids are supposed to master unit by unit.  To successfully teach their standards, they have to do more than just deliver content.  They need to develop practicing scientists.

And principals working in states that have adopted the Next Gen Science Standards know, without a doubt, that for a teacher to be successful in the science classroom, they need to be doing more than just delivering content to kids.  Instead of observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids the right concepts?” they are observing science teachers through the lens of, “Are they teaching kids to act like practicing scientists?”

In North Carolina, on the other hand, science teachers are told to “seamlessly integrate” science process skills into their instruction, but they are left to figure out what those process skills are.  Worse yet, if they skip over the opening statement in their standards document — something I’m betting most teachers probably do — they would never see a single reference to experimental design or process skills.  Instead, they’d see a list of facts that they were supposed to teach their kids over the course of a school year.

And principals in North Carolina might have no real cause to question science teachers who spend most of their time delivering content instead of engaging students in experimentation.  After all, specific experimentation skills aren’t explicitly mentioned anywhere in the curriculum anyway.  If a principal has no background in science, they’d have no reason to question “content-first” pedagogy — and no way to support something different.

Which classroom do you want to have your kids in?

But here’s an even MORE IMPORTANT question:  Which classroom is going to result in scientifically literate citizens that can make sense of the research being used by politicians to make decisions that will have an impact on our planet for generations?

Take climate change, for example:  Our current president has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China to hurt U.S. manufacturing efforts.  The current director of the EPA has argued that the science around the impact that carbon is having on our environment is unsettled.

Our current Energy Secretary thinks that the oceans — not humans — are the “primary control knob” of our planet’s increasingly rising temperatures.  Organizations funded by the oil industry are generating their own “research” calling climate change into question — and then systematically sending that research directly to K-12 science teachers in an attempt to influence the message being delivered to elementary, middle and high school students.

In the meantime, there are NO professional scientific organizations — groups representing practicing scientists — that doubt the impact that man is having on our planet’s increasing temperatures.

None.

Not one.

So someone’s lying, right?

Whether it is the political leaders currently making policy or the scientists generating research to document our changing planet, someone isn’t telling us the whole truth about the conclusions they are drawing or the positions that they are taking.

There’s simply no way that climate change can simultaneously be a hoax and a position supported by carefully conducted scientific research.

THAT’s why it’s so important that students in every school — regardless of state — learn about experimental design, y’all.

Even if they never become practicing scientists — and most of them won’t — the kids in your classrooms will be faced with a thousand moments where decisions that will affect their lives are made based on science.  Some of those decisions will be supported with reliable research and evidence-based conclusions.

Others won’t.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where they are learning about the characteristics of quality experiments, they will be better prepared to draw their own conclusions about those decisions because they will be able to identify research worth believing in and research worth questioning because of flawed experimental design.

If our kids grow up in classrooms where content is prioritized and the elements of good experimental design are left to chance because they are buried in the opening paragraphs of standards documents and identified only as “essential” and important for “seamless integration”, I’m not sure they will ever have the skills necessary to make literate judgments about the research being used to shape their lives.

Go take a look at your state’s science standards now.  They really are a helluva lot more important than you think.  

———————

 

Related Radical Reads:

When Did Teaching Science Become Political Bloodsport?

More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport.

Climate Deniers Sending Sketchy Science to Every K-12 Public School Teacher in America.

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

I’ve been doing a ton of reflecting lately on just what it is that teachers owe to their parents and students.  

I think that’s because my daughter — a wonderfully quirky kid who can’t stand school — begins third grade on Monday and I’m more than a little worried about it.  I’m already dreading the battles that I know we will have over getting homework done.  They consume much of my evenings — and all of my emotional energy — once school starts.

And I’m dreading the inevitable phone calls from school employees, telling me that my kid isn’t working as hard as she can, isn’t sitting in her seat as quietly as she can, or isn’t making as many friends on the playground as she can.  I’m also dreading the inevitable phone calls telling me that she’s not reading on grade level yet — and that the only solution is some form of remediation that pulls her away from the few things about school that she DOES love.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t blame the school for any of this.  

I know full well that my kid’s strengths don’t align nicely with traditional definitions of success in school.  She’s super curious, but not all that willing to invest her attention in things that don’t interest her.  She’s super articulate and verbal, but not all that willing to wait her turn to share what she’s thinking.  She’s super kind, but only if she feels that she’s accepted by those around her.

And my kid’s weaknesses — stubbornness and insecurity — are only exacerbated by life in school.

She knows full well that there are high stakes attached to darn near everything in her classroom. She recognizes that she doesn’t read and/or write as well as her classmates.  And she understands that she hasn’t found as many friends as her peers.  All of those things cause her to worry and to push back and to quit way more than I would like her to.  And all of those things get in the way of both her happiness and her success in the place where she will spend the majority of her days for the next 10 months.

That breaks my heart.

 

But I do know that being the parent of a quirky kid has changed who I am as a teacher — and as a result, I’m ready to make three promises to the parents of my quirky kids this year:

Promise #1:  I won’t bury you in homework.

For the parents of kids like mine, homework is a source of constant conflict.  When Reece comes home after a day of struggle at school, she’s not ready to sit down and struggle some more.  After all, she’s spent most of her time between 8-3 feeling insecure already.  And she’s exhausted.  Struggling all day will do that to you.

But homework is always ready and waiting for us — and it’s a constant battle to get done.  It probably takes us twice as long as it takes most kids and families — and twice as long as the teacher intended — because it just doesn’t come easy for my kid.  It also leaves everyone in our house frustrated and annoyed and unhappy with one another — and that sucks.  

Sometimes I wish I could just come home and read with my kid or answer HER questions or play outside in the backyard or watch her at dance class or in gymnastics — but even when we make time for those things, we both know that our fight over homework is looming just around the corner.

So I’m going to limit the amount of homework that I give in my own classroom.  Will there be times that kids have to finish a task or two that we started in class?  Sure.  But there’s no way that there’s going to be work every single day.  Instead, I want to create space for families to be families and for kids to pursue their own interests.  Fights over classroom assignments have no place in our daily routines.

Promise #2: I will celebrate your child, too.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth that I’ve never addressed with my daughter’s teachers:  While I get lots of emails and phone calls and notes about the “bad” things that she’s doing at school, I rarely hear about the positive things that she does.

Now, I get it:  I’m a teacher too.  Finding time to communicate with parents is hard enough to begin with.  My planning time is consumed with meetings and developing lessons and grading papers.  What’s more, why should we set time aside to celebrate kids who are simply following classroom rules?  Meeting basic expectations shouldn’t be cause for celebration, should it?

But I never realized how discouraging it can be to parent a quirky kid through the school system until I had one of my own.  I know that I’m going to hear a LOT over the next ten months about the reasons my kid — who I love with every ounce of my soul — is a disruption or a behavior problem or academically behind her peers.  But it’s unlikely that I’ll hear all that much about what she does well or why she’s worthy of celebration.

That breaks my heart, too.

So I’m going to celebrate every single child — including the quirky kids in my room — this year.  Whether I’m writing Kudos Cookies or writing letters directly to parents, you are going to hear me praise all that is unique and amazing and important about your kid, even if they are struggling academically or socially in my room.  You deserve it.

And so does your kid.

Promise #3: If I call home with a concern, I’ll come prepared with suggestions, too.

The worst part about being the parent of a quirky kid is the feeling of helplessness that I have when I get the inevitable phone calls and emails about my child’s behavioral or academic struggles.

While I appreciate the information and always want to follow through at home with a consequence so that Reece knows that I expect her to “follow the rules” and to “work hard in class,” I have no idea how to change her behavior or to succeed academically in the long term.  If I did, she wouldn’t be behaving the way that she’s behaving to begin with and she certainly wouldn’t be struggling academically!

If Reece is in trouble for behavior, I fuss — but I know that she is likely to get into the same pickle in a few weeks time.  At which point, I’ll get another email or phone call.  And I’ll fuss again.  I’ll ground her or take away her privileges or create some kind of threat that hopefully will motivate her to do all that is expected of her.  “Don’t let me hear from your teachers again!” I’ll say, “Or we aren’t taking that trip to DC with your friends!”

Then, I’ll wait until the same behavior repeats itself.

And if she’s struggling academically, I’ll double down on homework time.  We’ll spend even LONGER at the kitchen table, grinding through as many practice worksheets as I can find on the ol’ Interwebs.  She’ll grumble.  I’ll grumble.  But it’s all I know to do.  I can’t just let her fall further and further behind.  I know what happens to those kids when they grow up.

To be honest, I never REALLY know whether or not the steps I’m taking make any sense.  After all, I don’t teach elementary school.  I’m doing the best that I can with the knowledge that I have — but things never seem to change and I don’t know what to do next.

So this year, EVERY time that I send an email or make a phone call to the parents of a student who is struggling with behaviors or academics, I’m going to do more than just let them know what is going on at school.  I’m ALSO going to let them know the actions that I’m going to take at school to address the situation AND I’m going to offer them some suggestions about the things that they can try at home.  What I’m NOT going to do is drop bad news on parents and expect them to solve the problem at home without me.

After all, I’m the professional educator.  Solving problems is my responsibility.

Could my promises work just as well for kids who are succeeding in school?  

Sure.

But those aren’t the kids or families that I am most worried about.

I’m worried about families like mine.  Moms and dads and kids who are discouraged and hopeless — convinced that school is something to be survived instead of something to be enjoyed.  Those moms and dads deserve MORE of our support and encouragement and celebration.  It’s easy to point out the weaknesses in quirky kids.  But it is our responsibility to do all that we can to lift those kids up and help them to be successful, too.

I’m not sure I’ve always done that as well as I should.  That changes now.


Related Radical Reads:

Writing Positive Notes to Students is the Best Way to Start the Day.

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed.

 

Do Your Students Treasure Answers or Collect Questions?

One of the brightest minds I know is a guy named Evan Sharp.  I had the chance to meet Evan at Educon this year and his drive to wrestle with big ideas was instantly contagious.

At one point over the last year, Evan shared this cartoon with me.  

Go ahead and read it.

I’ll wait.

Really.  I want you to read it.

It’s interesting, right?  And it has me thinking this morning.  In fact, it’s stirred up a bunch of provocative questions that have been sitting in the back of my mind.  

Here’s just a few:

Do school cultures teach kids to treasure answers or to collect questions?

We know the answer to this one, don’t we?  Knowledge driven curricula and high-stakes, fact-based end of grade exams have placed a high priority on answers and a low priority on questions.

Need proof?

Ask the kids in your classroom two questions.  Tell them that you are going to grade the first and the second is just for fun.  See which one they tackle first/work hardest on.

#sheesh

How will a “treasuring answers” attitude towards learning help and/or harm students in today’s world?

I’ll admit it:  I’m SUPER skeptical about the “treasuring answers” approach to learning that we’ve taken in the last few decades in American schools.

I think it was a function of easy accountability instead of an attempt to truly prepare students to be successful in life.  And I think kids who treasure answers will struggle with the one skill that Seymour Papert identified as essential for being competitive in today’s world:  Knowing how to act in situations for which you were not specifically prepared.

Treasuring answers feels like rehearsal to me.  “What am I going to be asked — and how do others want me to answer those questions?”

Collecting questions feels like discovery to me.  “What can I find that no one else has considered before — and why are those new discoveries important to me and to the people around me?”

But IS there a place for treasuring answers in school?  SHOULD we be preparing kids with a solid foundation of basic information that they can draw on and from?  More importantly, is it possible to ask good questions if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic information to draw from?

What’s the right balance between treasuring answers and collecting questions?

What steps can we take to create learning spaces where the questions that kids ask are perceived as just as valuable as answers that they give?

Maybe this is an easy fix.  Maybe teachers should just create time and space for their kids to ask and answer their own questions in class.  Kind of like the Wonder Question project that I started tinkering with last year.

Or maybe we need to begin educating parents — who often have traditional views of schooling based on their own experiences in classrooms decades ago — about the tension between treasuring answers and collecting questions.

Maybe we need to do a better job identifying (and eliminating) the nonessentials in our curricula to create time and space for questioning.

Or maybe we should start grading questions.

(That was a joke, people!)


Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

Wonder = Joy (And Joy Should be Shared!)

More on the Challenge of Wondering in Schools.

Is Your School Producing “Copy and Paste” Kids?

Something special happened to me last week, y’all:  I was at school late on Wednesday trying to get myself above water after three days with a brand new group of sixth graders.  I was equal parts exhausted and frustrated.  Schedules were wonky, the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working, and I had a thousand signed parent information forms to file.

That’s when Stephen walked in.  

He’s a senior in college now.  Going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the toughest schools in our state to get into. Majoring in finance and set to make a bazillion dollars over the course of his life.

But he’s got the same energy and spirit and smile that he had when he was my student almost a decade ago.  A kinetic energy.  Constantly moving.  Constantly thinking.  Constantly riffing on ideas and finding humor in situations.  Constantly questioning — questioning rules and limits and expectations and ideas and people.

I’ve always loved that energy and spirit — and I knew it would make Stephen remarkably successful someday.  But it didn’t make him all that successful in school.  Instead, it got him in a ton of trouble with teachers who didn’t see value in a kid who couldn’t sit still and who was just as likely to blurt out 37 times a class period as he was to turn in a piece of work that showed a depth of thinking far and beyond grade level expectations.

I watched teachers try to crush Stephen — and it broke my heart.

They’d sign his behavior tracker for talking out of turn.  They’d call him out in front of everyone when he wasn’t sitting down.  They’d grumble ABOUT him and grumble AT him, wishing that he would “just follow the rules.”  I’d point out that everything that he’d blurt out in class was brilliant and they’d point out that blurting is disruptive and disruptive kids should be punished.

One woman was more than a little open about her dislike for Stephen, going as far as to argue that tolerating his actions would send the wrong message to all of the rest of our students about “what is acceptable and what is unacceptable” in school.  To her, he was intolerable — and she wasn’t willing to apologize for her opinion.

That sucks, doesn’t it?

But it’s a sad fact:  Kids who don’t conform — who aren’t quiet and well prepared every day and willing to raise their hands and take their turns and walk in straight lines — can become outcasts in our buildings pretty darn quickly.

I asked Stephen if he remembered the teachers who had such antipathy for him — and more importantly, if their actions had left him with a bad taste for schools.  He laughed.  Wanted to know WHICH teachers I was talking about.  Turns out that in Stephen’s mind, MOST teachers had a sense of antipathy for him!

And then he shared a piece of slam poetry with me describing his take on his time in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.  His argument:  School is mostly a joke.  A trial.  A test of conformity instead of creativity.  Some people commit to playing the game and they  “succeed” — if obediently producing and repeating thoughts, meeting other people’s expectations, and answering other people’s questions is what you mean by “being successful.”

Stephen wasn’t buying it.  Never was.

Here’s what he wrote*:

COPY AND PASTE

Who are you?

If you answered, they wouldn’t listen

You’re given your name and identification through the perpetual system

Where you’re not you, you don’t exist, and you have no personality

You’re nothing but a name on a piece of paper, a product of formality

For individuality is the fatality

Of conformity’s brutality, it’s the new reality

Where they don’t care about your past, present, future, and they don’t know your face

They just do their very frickin’ best to press copy and paste

To breed and grow you like the rest, what they believe works the best

But nevertheless this is why we get depressed

Because our creativity’s suppressed, our ingenuity oppressed

Because you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know how to test

Now, I must confess, this is a particular skillset that I possess, I study a little less, and get lucky when I guess, but nevertheless I still don’t believe we should attest our success

To our ability to retain and return the bullshit facts that we learn about things we don’t care about – and in ten years won’t know about – but I digress

Learn to love powerpoints, forget about hands-on

Turn on the radio, you’ll keep hearing the same damn song

The world’s foundation is falling, we have nothing to stand on

When everything you are lies in a bubbled-in scantron

This is our handicap, not just something to rant on

If they heard my words they’d laugh hand a tampon

Some of you might too, because you’ve already been stamped on

Our anthem is void, it’s now nothing but a phantom

Damn son, you may say, you seem pretty upset, I say

Upset? I’m frickin’ livid, given the world in which we’re livin’

Where we’re missin’ the frickin’ point, back practicing fast facts and cold religion

Where we’re told not to speak and only to listen,

Where teachers laugh at unique ideas, diss ‘em and dismiss them,

Where school isn’t a place of learning, it’s a clone factory and prison

Where we all get tested under the same curriculum

The rules have been set for you, and you better learn to stick to them

It simply makes me sick, we’re replicated and sent through the reticulum

You try to picket the system? Ridiculous, that’s it, your done

Just find the sum, write the essay, circle C, prepare for test day

Busy work and study dates, up until we graduate

But my friends, that’s not the end, only one cycle complete

Go back to school, go back to rules, apply, dry, rinse, repeat

And then get a job, stabilize, work every day from 9 to 5

Then go home to your kids and wife, don’t disagree, it causes fights

How has it ended up where we all live the same life?

It’s because we’re taught how to find x, and told not to ask y

I couldn’t stress how much potential we waste

When we highlight, right-click, and select copy and paste

When we generalize instead of work case by case

This will be the downfall of the human race

I mean, sure we’ll survive, maybe we’ll even evolve

But if you don’t live your own life, did you really live at all?

Learn your lesson, society, you’ve really dropped the ball

You can either pick yourself up, or continue to fall

But you’ve committed an unspeakable sin, murder in the first degree

For you killed individuality when you pressed “control c, control v”

Stephen told me that he’d written his poem for a college class.  Just something that he’d whipped up because he was tired of the parade of PowerPoint presentations that substitute as learning products in class after class, year after year.  He figured he’d mix things up a bit.  Challenge the norm and watch what happened next.

#awesome

As he recited it for me with all of the cadence and rhythm and emotion that defines a master poet and artist, I couldn’t help but wonder what his university classmates and professor thought when he stood in front of them “presenting” a product that they’d probably never seen before.  Did they respect the risk that he took?  Admire his willingness to stand out — or maybe even apart — from them?  Did they see his choice as foolish — why poetry when PowerPoint was good enough?  Did they knock points off of his grade because he didn’t do what was asked of him?

I also couldn’t help but wonder what the teachers who had tried to squeeze him into their boxes so many years ago would have thought of his poem.  Would they have finally seen him as a deep thinker?  A kid with opinions worth listening to?  A person of reason and rationale instead of as a person who just couldn’t follow the rules?   Or would they have been offended, realizing that he was poking fun at the traditional classrooms they’d created?

But most importantly, I couldn’t help to wonder if we are ever going to get to the point where our schools value something other than creating copy and paste kids.

That’s a question worth asking — and I’m so glad that Stephen is willing to ask it.

#wrestlewithTHATchat

 

*I’ve asked Stephen to record himself reading this for all y’all, Radical Nation.  Leave him a comment down below to let him know how much you would dig that.  I don’t think he realizes how powerful his words can be!


Related Radical Reads:

Can the Quirky Kid Thrive in Our Schools?

Too Many Kids ALREADY Hate School.

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?