Category: Teaching Practice

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.

__________________

Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Kahoot

Three #edtech Tools Worth Exploring Right Now

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

Tool Review: Blendspace by TES Teach

One of the challenges of teaching science to sixth graders is that many of the most common lab procedures and processes are new to them.  Everything from identifying constants and variables to using lab equipment properly can lead to a slew of questions and slow groups to a steady crawl.

That’s why I started tinkering with Blendspace — a digital tool that makes it possible for users to create a landing page filled with content that users can consume.  I figured that if I could point students to one site that could answer all of their questions, lab time would be more manageable for me and more productive for my kids.

Need to see a sample of Blendspace in action?  Check out this one, covering important information for a lab we are currently completing:

http://bit.ly/6sciptlab

Each tile on the Blendspace represents a piece of content that will help students to successfully complete their lab.  Students can work through the space in order from beginning to end by hitting the “Play” button at the top of the screen OR they can click on the icons in the bottom right hand corner of each tile to explore individual resources answering specific questions.

Creating my Blendspace was a breeze.

After planning out all the content that I thought my students would need in order to successfully complete our lab, I sat behind my cell phone camera to record and upload my videos directly to YouTube.  Adding those same videos to Blendspace tiles was a one-click process.  The other content — links to online tutorials or videos, links to individual Google Docs, text-based slides sharing directions and/or information — were just as easy to add.

Putting this Blendspace together — recording videos, organizing content, adding tiles, making a short link with Bitly — probably took about 90 minutes from start to finish.  That’s TOTALLY worth it if it helps students to answer their own questions during our labs AND if I plan to use the same lab in future years.  Better yet, my Blendspace will help other teachers on my learning team who are teaching the same lab — saving everyone a ton of time and energy.

I see potential in Blendspace because it’s a tool that solves a specific problem for me.

Providing students with recorded directions and organized sets of materials for every lab promotes independence and frees me up to interact more meaningfully with the kids in my classroom.

Whaddya’ think?

______________

Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Screencastify

Tool Review:  Google Expeditions

Tool Review: Edpuzzle

“There Will Always Be an Overhead.”

Marcy Hannula — a fantastic teacher and friend who has challenged my practice for the better part of a decade — was cleaning out her professional library the other day when she stumbled across a chapter in a book on computers in the classroom.

The graphic below caught her eye because she knew it would rile me up.  See if you can figure out why it drives me completely crazy:

(click to enlarge)

Overhead Projector

Have you figured out what it is inside the text that rubs me the wrong way?

It’s not the suggestion that overhead projectors would be around for “many generations to come” or that overheads have always been “a much loved tool” of teachers.  It’s not even the suggestion that overheads “have undergone a metamorphosis” as teachers use tools like PowerPoint to “make their transparencies more effective.”

It’s the tacit suggestion that the primary job of classroom teachers is to communicate information to the kids in their classrooms.

What frightens me the most is that while we may have pushed our overhead projectors aside, we are STILL hell-bent on finding new digital tools that can make it easier to deliver information to the kids in our classrooms.  Teaching — which ISN’T synonymous with learning — still stands at the forefront of the work that we do in our schools each day.  We still control what our students study.  We still control the questions that are asked and the ideas that are shared in our classrooms.  And we still control the steps that students take and the pace that those steps are taken through our “courses of study.”

Isn’t it time that we retire “content delivery” as an instructional priority?

In an era where instant access to ideas and opportunities is nothing more than an internet connection away, shouldn’t we be working to create learning spaces that encourage students to discover essential truths — about themselves and about the world around them?  And if discovery really is more important than delivery, shouldn’t we be investing in technologies that allow teachers and students to challenge the existing structures of schools instead of using our purchases to reinforce the status quo?

Worth thinking about, right?

__________________

Helping Students be Comfortable with NOT Knowing [ACTIVITY]

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

Note to Principals:  STOP Spending Money on Technology

 

I’m Planning a Pokemon Go Rally for My Middle Schoolers

I have a confession to make:  I spent the first two weeks of July rolling my eyes as I read article after article in my social stream about the “transformational power of Pokemon Go.”  I had the app on my phone, I’d caught more than a few Pidgeys, and hit up more than a few Poke stops — but to me, there was nothing truly transformational about it.  In fact, I was pretty sure that I’d delete the app before school even started.

But then I showed it to my seven year old daughter, and she was hooked!

Something about the clever monster names, colors and actions caught her attention and it’s no exaggeration to say that it has enriched our lives.  Each day, the first thing she asks me is, “Dad, want to go for a walk and catch some Pokemon?!”  Those moments together are worth everything to me — including the extra $25/month I had to plunk down because I blew up my data plan.

And when my sixth graders started school on Monday,  I realized that I just couldn’t ignore Pokemon this year.  As soon as I mentioned that I was a Level 16 trainer with a pretty hyped up Vaporeon, stories started.  “Oh yeah?  Well I have two Snorlaxes!” said one girl.  “My dad wasted like 15 Poke balls on a Pidgeotto.  He stinks” said another.  Needless to say, catching Pokemon is well and truly a middle school craze — and that makes it worth exploring.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I STILL don’t think there’s anything transformational about chasing imaginary pocket monsters around.  Pokemon Go ISN’T the silver bullet that we’ve all been waiting for to save education.

But I have hatched a plan to use it as a fun team building activity.  In just a few short weeks, I’m going to host my first ever Pokemon Go Rally.  

Here’s the handout:

Handout – Pokemon Go Rally

The basic plan is to invite parents and their kids to work together in teams to catch Pokemon at a local hot spot that offers free Wifi.  My guess is that our first rally will happen at the local mall, given that it is like 105 degrees outside here in North Carolina.  To make the game more challenging and to encourage strategic thinking, I’m limiting:

  • The time that players have to capture Pokemon.
  • The number of Poke Balls that they can use during the rally.
  • The extras — incense, lucky eggs, lures — that can be used to increase capture rates.

I’m also awarding bonus points for a range of different captures.  Participants who hatch the most eggs or catch the most Rattatas can earn a huge bump to their final point tallies. 

All of these limiting factors will force participants to think critically about their choices.  If you have only 60 Poke balls, can you really burn four of them trying to catch a Pidgey with a Combat Power of 30?  If hatching an egg is worth 100 bonus points, would walking further be a better strategy than hanging out at a Poke stop where a lure has been set to catch whatever happens to show up?  Will staying in the well-trafficked areas of the Rally Grounds be a better strategy than traveling as much ground as possible to get away from the other teams who are playing?

In the end, I’m hoping to get a ton of parents and kids to come out and play together for an hour.  If it works, it will be an easy way to build a bit of team spirit.  Better yet, it will be easy to replicate.  All I’ll need is a list of public spaces with free Wifi!

Can you see my unique technology lens here?  What matters to me is building a classroom community by bringing people together for a shared experience.  Pokemon Go makes that possible.  My goal is driving my technology choices — not the other way around.

Technology is a tool.  Not a learning outcome.

So whaddya’ think?  I know this isn’t transformational, but is it worthwhile?  Is it something you’d think about doing?

Looking forward to your feedback.

_____________

Related Radical Reads:

Technology is a Tool.  Not a Learning Outcome.

More on Technology is a Tool.  Not a Learning Outcome.

Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology?

Celebrate Your TEACHING Geeks.  Not your TECH Geeks.