Category Archives: Teaching Practice

Transferring Facts v. Building the Future Together.

Over the last five years, I’ve really been wrestling to understand the changes that are needed to create the schools that our students deserve.  

For me, that wrestling started when I realized that it was becoming harder and harder to truly engage my students in the lessons that I was teaching.  Instead of being active participants in class — something that I’d never struggled with before — my kids were increasingly passive and disconnected from the work that we were doing.

Sure, they were still playing the “grade game” — turning in tasks that showed mastery of the standards.  But there was little to no real inspiration in their efforts.  It was clear that they saw school as something to be endured instead of enjoyed.

So I started thinking about the differences between ENGAGING and EMPOWERING learners.

The way I saw it, traditional schools stripped learners of any real agency — and learners without agency are uninspired.  What’s more, I want kids to leave school convinced that they can change the world around them for the better — to see themselves as people with both the capacity and responsibility to be a positive influence their communities.

That’s when I started tinkering with purpose-driven learning — the notion that kids are most motivated when they are wrestling with causes or issues or problems that are meaningful and purposeful beyond the classroom walls.  If I could use problems as an invitation to learn the required curriculum — an idea that Garfield Gini-Newman calls “problemitizing the curriculum” -I could meet the expectations outlined in the required curricula while simultaneously creating learning experiences that my kids really WOULD care about.

But I’ve always struggled to explain in clear and simple terms what this change in education should look like — and that’s kept my thinking from spreading widely beyond my own room.

It’s easy to SAY that empowerment trumps engagement and that purpose should stand at the center of the classroom learning experience, but what exactly does that MEAN?  How would learning experiences be restructured if that shift stood at the center of the work we did with kids.

That’s why I was jazzed to stumble across this Erik P.M. Vermeulen bit describing the expectations of millennial learners on Hackernoon in my stream this morning.

In it, Vermeulen writes:

“The world has really changed. Education has become less about the transfer of “fact”-based information/knowledge and much more about exploring and building the future together with the students.”

That’s SUCH a powerful statement, y’all.  Read it again.

And then ask yourself a simple question:  Are the bulk of your learning experiences about transferring facts or about exploring and building a better future together with your students?

Chances are that if you work in a traditional school, you’re still transferring facts.  And if so, chances are your kids are bored.

How do you fix that?

Constantly remember that transferring facts is a heck of a lot easier and more inspiring when it happens as a part of an attempt to explore and build a better future together.

Kids need purpose, too — and all too often, that purpose is missing from the work we do in schools.

#trudatchat

If you want to learn more about using causes as levers for learning, consider checking out Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences — my latest book for Solution Tree Press.

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Related Radical Reads:

Should We Be Engaging or Empowering Learners?

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

Why Can’t THIS Be School?

 

 

Session Materials: Annual Conference on Assessment and Grading

Over the next two days, I’ll be working with a group of incredibly motivated teachers and school leaders at Solution Tree’s Annual Conference on Assessment and Grading in Phoenix, Arizona.  Together, we’ll be wrestling with what good assessment looks like and the role that both feedback and grading can play in informing practice and developing learners.  My unique contribution to the conference will be primarily centered around student-involved assessment practices.

Here are my session descriptions and materials:

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Creating a Culture of Feedback

Slides | Complete Handouts

In spring 2012, educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog: “I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reins over to them?” This session introduces participants to the tangible steps William M. Ferriter has taken in his sixth-grade classroom to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback as a result of Shareski’s challenge.

Bill discusses the differences between grading and feedback. He helps participants explore simple self-assessment behaviors that can be integrated into any classroom. Teachers learn more about the common challenges of moving from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in a classroom.

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Digital Tools Can Make Differentiation Doable

Slides | Complete Handouts

If schools are working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences should be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles. The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable. While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality. William Ferriter introduces participants to a range of digital tools that can be used to 1) track progress by student and standard, 2) provide structure for differentiated classrooms, and 3) facilitate initial attempts at remediation and enrichment.

Bill shows how digital tools can provide quick checks for understanding and tracking progress by student and standard. Digital tools can deliver content and free class time for individualized instruction. Tools can help teachers use classroom observations to show student progress.

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Assessing Learning in a Purpose Driven Classroom

Slides | Complete Handouts

Technology expert Will Richardson maintains that today’s classrooms are failing students. In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere (2012), Richardson says, “We focus on the easiest parts of the learning interaction, …accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored. Learning is relegated to the quantifiable.”

To create highly engaged learning spaces, classrooms must be reimagined as places where students work together to do work that matters. These arguments aren’t new; project-based learning has been promoted for the better part of a decade. How do we assess learning in classrooms where complex projects — rather than accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored — stand at the center of the curriculum?

Participants discuss why project-based learning should play a role in the modern classroom. They examine a planning template that illustrates project-based learning experiences focused on essential outcomes in a curriculum. William M. Ferriter explores simple steps for teachers to evaluate student mastery of essential outcomes.

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How Do We Turn Failure Into Learning Opportunities?

Slides | Complete Handouts

Over the past five years, the notion of learning from failure has become widely embraced. Businesses tout the importance of failing fast and failing often to succeed sooner. Educators argue that failure helps students learn to be resilient and determined, and failure is the first step towards building a growth mindset.

No matter how well-intentioned we are, failure in schools still carries negative connotations and incredibly high stakes—fail a test and your grade suffers; fail too many district benchmarks and you are assigned to remedial classes; fail an end-of-grade exam and you are held back; fail to earn a very high GPA and your college and career choices are limited. The truth is no matter how intimidating failure can be, it can also be turned into a positive learning experience as long as teachers help students analyze their performance and make plans to move forward—a process William M. Ferriter introduces in this session.

Bill reviews four main reasons people fail at important tasks. He examines differences between learners who see failures as dead ends and those who see failure as a starting point for new learning. Carefully structured feedback can play in helping students turn failures into learning opportunities.

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Using Digital Portfolios in Grades 5-12 to Create a Culture of Feedback

Slides | Complete Handouts

Research on characteristics of effective feedback reveals one simple truth time and again—feedback gathered by learners is more powerful than feedback given to learners. Our primary role in promoting learning should be to develop students who constantly reflect on what they know and what they don’t know—behaviors that can be encouraged through the regular use of digital portfolios in the classroom.

William M. Ferriter discuss the role of reflection in developing independent, self-directed learners. He examines how blogs, simple Web 2.0 tools, can play a role in digital portfolio projects. Participants learn how they can launch digital portfolio projects in their own classrooms.

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If this content resonates with you, you might also want to check out my latest book, Creating a Culture of Feedback.  It’s a quick read that will force you to think carefully about the difference between grading and feedback in the modern classroom.

 

Peer Feedback Matters.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a ton of experimenting in my sixth grade classroom with peer feedback — structured opportunities for students to give and receive feedback from one another.  

That’s primarily a function of efficiency.   Teaching close to 120 students with a wide range of skills and abilities every single year makes it darn near impossible for me alone to provide feedback to the learners in my classroom.  If the best feedback is both timely and directive — an argument that Bob Marzano made nearly a decade ago — we need to teach students to look for guidance and support from one another rather than simply waiting to receive feedback from classroom teachers, who are perpetually buried in stacks of papers that need to be graded.

Every time that I pitch peer feedback to other educators, however, I’m met with real skepticism.  Teachers doubt the value of the feedback that students can provide to each other.  That’s a legitimate concern, given that most students have little experience giving feedback to — and receiving feedback from — one another in traditional classrooms.

The solution, though, isn’t to avoid peer feedback.  The solution is to give students lots of experience and practice with peer feedback.  The more structured opportunities that students have giving and receiving feedback with one another, the more skilled they will become.  And the more skilled that students become with peer feedback, the less teachers have to worry about whether or not the experience will be worthwhile.

So how do you ensure that peer feedback experiences are productive?  Start by encouraging students to give each other observations instead of evaluations.  

Statements like, “I really like” , “You’ve done a great job on _________” or “You need to improve your _____, ” are the kinds of comments that students are used to giving to one another.  After all, they are the kinds of comments they’ve long received from the teachers and other adult mentors in their lives.

But they are also evaluative — implying a judgment — and that’s when peer feedback can feel intimidating and awkward.  Sometimes, peers shy away from giving negative feedback to one another because they are afraid of hurting feelings.  Other times, peers are hesitant to receive feedback from one another because they don’t see classmates as authority figures capable of making accurate judgments.  The result is mediocre feedback experiences, hurt feelings, or both.

Instead, teach your students to use statements like “I notice that _____,” or “I’m not sure that I see ______ in your work.”  Those phrases are simply observations.  They don’t imply a judgment at all, leaving the recipient to decide what the feedback means about the overall quality of a work product.

Best of all, encouraging students to make observations instead of evaluations is easy.  Getting started requires nothing more than sharing lots of examples of observational sentence starters with students.  You can also compile lists of samples of comments made during peer feedback sessions and ask students to identify the statements that are observations and the statements that are evaluations.

Dylan Wiliam likes to argue that we need to turn feedback into “detective work.”  His central argument is a simple one:  The best feedback is gathered by — rather than given to — learners.  Well structured peer feedback experiences built on observations instead of evaluations can give BOTH students involved — the giver and the recipient — chances to act like detectives by reflecting on how well individual work products align with success criteria.

That means time spent in peer feedback experiences is time that everyone spends learning.

To learn more about the role that peer feedback can play in your classroom, check out Bill’s newest book, Creating a Culture of Feedback.  


Related Radical Reads:

Is REAL Formative Assessment Even Possible?

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Handwashing?

Turning Feedback into Detective Work

 

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

Last week, I made the argument that North Carolina’s decision to assign letter grades to individual schools based on nothing more than test scores on final exams was a form of institutional racism that harms communities of poverty and strips support away from the public school system.  I was writing as an advocate for public schools and poor communities — two causes that I feel are under attack by our state’s super conservative legislature.

But I’m not JUST an advocate for public schools and poor communities any more.  I am also the parent of a second grade daughter who attends a public school.  So crappy choices made by our legislators hurt MY kid.  This issue is personal.

My daughter’s school is nothing short of a remarkable place.  EVERY time that I stop by, I feel a sense of happiness from everyone that I meet.  Students smile and skip and laugh and joke with each other and with their teachers.  Teachers are relaxed and joyful, invested in each other and in their students.  Provocative questions are being asked and answered, positive messages are being shared in conversations and in school-wide displays, and programs that concentrate on developing the whole child — from daily Spanish instruction for every student to rich music and art experiences that are valued equally alongside more traditional content-specific subjects — are a priority.

The community overwhelmingly supports my daughter’s school.  Thousands of parents and children turn out for after school events — whether they be teacher talent shows, campus beautification projects, or annual 5K run walks — to work, to play and to celebrate with one another.  Each of these events is a reminder that our school isn’t just a place of learning — it’s a place to belong.  Lots of schools like to talk about being a family.  My daughter’s school actually FEELS like a family.

#simpletruthchat

But they were rated a C — which means something akin to “decidedly average” — by the State of North Carolina last week.  And that has me worried.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not worried about the current quality of the education that my daughter’s getting.  I’ve seen the impact that the people in her building have had on her.  She is LOVED by darn near everyone and she knows it.  She is learning the kinds of academic and social skills that I want her to learn in a place where learning really IS seen as a joyful act worthy of celebration.   She has role models to look up to who challenge her to be better than who she is — and I am convinced that those role models see her as something much more than just a test score.

What I am worried about is the consequences that a C rating will have on the choices that her teachers make.

My guess is that it has been a stressful beginning of the school year for everyone at my daughter’s school.  In a district that takes a lot of pride from having top “performing” students (read: really high test scores), being rated a C is guaranteed to leave everyone rattled and questioning their practices.  There have probably been some serious conversations about changes that have to be made to get those test scores up for next year — and there is probably external pressure coming from folks in the district office to find solutions so that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

And there’s NO doubt that those “solutions” are going to strip away some of what makes my daughter’s school such an unique place.  Questions will probably be asked about the value of daily Spanish instruction in a building with low test scores.  Wouldn’t that time or those dollars be better spent on another reading interventionist?  There will probably be more benchmark testing and more students pulled out of specials or out of the regular classroom in order to make sure that they are “progressing enough” to “produce better results” on next year’s end of grade exams.

Her teachers — particularly those with the lowest test scores — are less likely to run with moments of inspiration in the classroom.  After all, student curiosity is messy and time consuming.  Increasing test scores depends on efficiency and focus.  Worse yet, her teachers are more likely to see kids like my daughter — who ISN’T a strong reader — as a frustrating liability instead of as a quirky ball of happy energy.  Why would you celebrate uniqueness when standardized outcomes are the only outcomes valued by the people governing your schools?

There’s even a good chance that these changes — increased stress and pressure, fewer opportunities to celebrate curiosity, shifts away from valuing the whole child to valuing the parts of a child that actually impact a school’s “measurable results” — will drive some of the best teachers away from my daughter’s school. Once you’ve had the chance to work in a place where joyful learning is a priority, it’s hard to see that priority erased in favor of chasing higher test scores.

My only hope is that the teachers of my daughter’s school will realize just HOW important — and HOW valued — their work really is.

There is NOTHING “decidedly average” about the learning space that they have created.  Children feel loved, parents feel welcomed, and students are learning WAY more than a single C rating based on nothing more than standardized tests could ever possibly communicate.  In my book — filled with experiences as a teacher and a professional developer in probably close to 100 schools in dozens of states and several different countries — they are a solid A.  I’d work there in a minute.

But more importantly, I’d send my daughter there for the rest of her school career without any reservation, convinced that she’d be a better person as a result of the care and attention of the teachers that she had a chance to learn from.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Learning > Schooling

 

Tool Review: Quizlet Live

So here’s an interesting confession:  I am NOT a huge fan of teaching vocabulary.  I get that it is important — particularly in a content specific field like science where understanding individual terms is essential for fluent communication.  I just don’t like doing it.

Which is one of the reasons that I’ve tinkered with Quizlet over the years.  Quizlet has always made it easy to give kids multiple opportunities to practice their vocabulary.  Teachers create word sets by entering terms and adding — or selecting — definitions.  Quizlet does the rest, creating four or five different kinds of activities for student users that range from working with digital flashcards to playing a speed based matching game called Scatter.

Need an example of what this all looks like in action?

Check out this word set that my students are currently practicing with and tinker with the tools available to learners:

https://quizlet.com/_2f8q39

Quizlet upped its game recently by releasing a new activity called Quizlet Live that is pretty darn amazing.

Quizlet Live makes it possible for students to participate in a competitive vocabulary review game against their classmates from any device.

What makes Quizlet Live unique is that students compete on randomly assigned teams of three or four students.  Even better:  The correct answer for each question asked during the game appears on only ONE group member’s screen.  The result:  When a question is asked, teams need to first figure out what the correct answer is and then figure out which partner has the correct answer on their screen.

Here’s a short video introducing Quizlet Live:

We played it for the first time in class on Thursday and I’m sold.

Not only did my students enjoy practicing with their vocabulary words — something that middle schoolers rarely look forward to — but they enjoyed practicing with their classmates.  They worked with students they normally wouldn’t choose to work with, recognized that there were other experts in the room who could help them learn, came to rely on one another because they had no other choice, and celebrated victories together.

In many ways, Quizlet Live is a perfect blend of two other tools that I’ve experimented with over the years:  Kahoot and Socrative.

Like Kahoot — which I review here — my kids LOVED the competitive element of Quizlet Live.  They loved racing against other teams, trying to be the first to answer every question and to get bragging rights over their peers.

And like Socrative — which I review here — Quizlet Live encourages students to find the RIGHT answers to questions instead of rewarding random guessing by forcing teams that get wrong answers to start the entire game over AND to spend five seconds reviewing both the missed definition and the definition of the incorrect answer given.  My kids figured out quickly that there’s some truth to the notion that you have to go slow to go fast.  Thinking through answers together and being right — even if it took a little longer — was often the difference between finishing first and finishing last.

Are there limitations to Quizlet Live?  

Sure.  Probably the biggest limitation is that it is REALLY difficult to play the game productively if you don’t have a ton of devices in your classroom.  Even when students share devices with one partner, teams of three or four quickly swell to teams of six to eight.  That’s unproductive simply because it leads to some students doing a ton of work and some students sitting quietly, hitchhiking instead of participating.  I’m also not convinced that Quizlet Live can handle questions that move beyond simple recall and review of core facts or vocabulary words.

But my kids were JAZZED the entire time we were playing and BUMMED when our class period ended.  For a lesson designed to review essential vocabulary, that’s a pretty darn good outcome.

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Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Kahoot

Three #edtech Tools Worth Exploring Right Now

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices