Is Your Team “Flunking Unsuccessful Practices” Together?

Over the summer, I had the chance to hear Eric Twadell — the Superintendent of Stevenson High School District 125 in Illinois — deliver a keynote at a Solution Tree PLC Institute.

While his whole keynote was amazing, Eric shared a quote from a book called How Children Fail — which was written in 1964 by John Holt.  Holt’s goal was to study the characteristics of highly effective schools.

His main finding about exceptional schools is as relevant today as it was when first written over 50 years ago:

“The researchers then examined these schools to find what qualities they had in common.

Of the five they found, two struck me as crucial: 1) if the students did not learn, the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever. They did not alibi. They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

2) When something they were doing in the class did not work, they stopped doing it, and tried to do something else. They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.”

Those are two really easy filters to evaluate the work that you are doing together, y’all. 

If you catch yourself coming up with alibis to explain away the struggles of your students, change is necessary.

And what change is the most important to embrace?  Start studying your practices in a systematic way.

Put evidence behind the impact that those practices are having on students — and then amplify those that work the best and give up on those that are doing little to move your kids forward.

The good news is that there’s nothing difficult about any of this.

Studying practices in service of student learning should already be a regular part of the way that you are doing business.

#trudatchat

___________________________

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What Role Do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?

Interventions are NOT Optional.

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy. 

 

Second Guessing My Kids of Color?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is on race in America. It’s full of ideas I’ve been wrestling with for a long while.  Like the issue, there’s nothing neat and polished and finished about my thinking.  But like the issue, I think it’s time for transparent reflection — particularly from white people in positions of authority and leadership — no matter how messy it may feel.  

Read it if you want.  And then do some reflecting of your own.  This is a conversation we have to stop avoiding.  We owe it to one another.  


I think I’m an outstanding teacher.  At least that’s what I’ve heard from parents and students time and again for 25 years.  It’s not unusual for kids to smile when they see me, anyway — and I”m not bashful about telling students that I believe in them and that I care about them.

That matters, right?

But here’s a really uncomfortable confession:  I’ve caught myself time and again over the past few weeks treating my students of color differently than I treat the white students in my school.

Simple things, really — but treating kids of color differently nonetheless.

Things like saying, “Where are you supposed to be?” to Ja’Quon when I saw him outside the bathroom, jumping immediately to the conclusion that he’s either skipping or stalling instead of simply going to the freaking bathroom.  I even used the word “caught” when describing the interaction to Ja’Quon’s teacher — implying, with little evidence, that he was in a place he wasn’t supposed to be.

Or things like chasing Cadedra and Samyria away from the water fountains when they are saying good morning to one another each day, jumping immediately to the conclusion that whatever they are doing, it’s going to end up causing some kind of social drama that I’m going to have to deal with later.

Or things like being really surprised when Ashante asks the best questions in my classes and that her parents are some of the most interested and involved parents that I’ve ever met — and then realizing that I can count the number of interactions that I’ve had with the parents of my black students on one hand.

Or assuming that Tadion was screwing around in the hallways when he showed up late to class after lunch — and then finding out that he had an upset stomach that he was dealing with.

Heck — I did it today, y’all:  De’Andre and Jonaad showed up in my room for our school’s enrichment period.  “You’d better be here to work,” I said the MOMENT they walked in the door.

“If you aren’t interested in working, you aren’t welcome here,” I said, with skepticism in my voice even though I hadn’t questioned any of the other kids who showed up to work in my room.

#sheesh

Look back over my list of examples for a minute.   There’s nothing overtly racist there, right?  

In fact, I’d bet those kinds of moments happen a thousand times a day in your schools, too — especially if your school is staffed, like most, with a whole bunch of white, middle class teacher people.

But that’s what makes them so damn insidious, y’all.

Imagine being De’Andre or Cadedra or Tadion and being doubted and second guessed at every turn by every adult in your building.  Want to say hello to a friend?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Need to use the bathroom?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Late to class because you forgot something in the cafeteria?  Yup.  You are going to get hassled for that, too.

Meanwhile, your white classmates — let’s call them Sarah and Alex and Jack — are all saying hello to friends, using the bathroom and coming to class a minute or two late without having to explain themselves.  Instead, they’re getting  friendly reminders to be more responsible next time!

Stew in that for a minute, y’all.

Does it sound like your school at all?

Be honest.  It won’t hurt.

But also imagine the impact that being doubted over and over again, day after day, year after year has on our kids of color?

#doublesheesh

And don’t forget that while being doubted at school, our kids of color are ALSO living in a world where the President of the United States defends white supremacists as “very fine people” while simultaneously calling black athletes protesting police brutality in communities of color “sons of bitches” who deserve to be fired.

Our kids of color THEN see those same athletes called “arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates”  and “crybabies” and “no good n*****s” by commentators and community leaders.

ALL. OVER. A. PEACEFUL. PROTEST.

And not just a peaceful protest about ANY old thing — a peaceful protest designed to draw attention to troubling stories like those of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — cases where black men were literally killed in the streets.

Need MORE proof of how bad things really are?

Consider the fact that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.

And worse yet, we haven’t even really BOTHERED to consider the concerns of the #anthemprotesters.

Don’t believe me?

Go read through your social media streams right now.

I guarantee that you’ll find plenty of people raging about “rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag” but few who are wrestling with “black men using their position as public figures to speak out about racial injustice in America.”  The one-sided-ness of the conversation speaks volumes about our readiness as a nation to deal with inequality.

#triplesheesh

Long story short: I used to wonder why some of the kids of color in our building were so darn belligerent when I tried to correct them.

They’d mouth off every time.  I’d write them up for being disrespectful every time.  Then,  I’d gripe to colleagues about their attitudes — convinced that I’d done nothing to deserve their back talk.  After all, they were the ones breaking the rules, right?

But when I think with an open heart about the way that I’ve caught myself treating my kids of color, it’s pretty clear that I’m the one being disrespectful.

I really do jump to negative conclusions about the actions of my black students a heck of a lot sooner than I do when I’m having the same kinds of interactions with white students.  Andy gives me attitude and “he’s just having a bad day.”  Anquan gives me attitude and “he’s just a bad kid.”

And if I think with an open heart, I’d bet that at least some of the confrontations that I am seeing out of my kids of color are nothing more than a reflection of a society where doubt and criticism and unfair consequences are the norm rather that the exception to the rule for black kids living in a biased world.

I can’t fix all of this by myself anytime soon.

But I can guarantee you that, moving forward, I’m ready to rethink every interaction that I have with a kid of color to at LEAST ensure that my own assumptions aren’t leading to a classroom where bias is the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  And I can also guarantee you that I’m going to speak out — as a white man in a position of authority — about race in America anywhere that I can.

It might make people uncomfortable, but I just don’t care.

I OWE that to my kids.

And so do you.

#simpletruth

 

*Note: All student names are pseudonyms to protect identities.

____________________

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#charlestonchurchshooting

#ferguson

Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?

 

 

Your Bar Graphs Don’t Impress (or Inspire) Me.

Years ago when we were Racing to the Top and Leaving No Child Behind, a district leader of a professional development session for language arts teachers that I was sitting in asked participating teams to share their greatest accomplishment from the previous school year.

He was nudging teams towards describing the measurable growth that their students had made towards mastering important outcomes in their required curriculum — “Really look at that test score data,” he said.  “What patterns do you see?  What can we celebrate about your work together!”

Group after group stood up with pie charts and bar graphs, proud of the fact that they had increased student mastery of core curriculum objectives by 6.3% or that benchmark screening data showed that growth in reading proficiency averaged 14 months — and sometimes more for their “at risk” populations.

And then I got up to represent our team.  “Our greatest accomplishment was Jarius*” I said, sharing a beautiful picture of a boy who had won our hearts in place of the pie charts everyone was expecting.

He’d been “a behavior problem” his entire school career — chronically in trouble, chronically absent, and chronically behind academically as a result.  He’d tested us early on — but once he realized that we were on his side, he invested fully.  We pushed him — using data to identify gaps in his knowledge and then developing lessons tailored to address those gaps.  Just as importantly, we tinkered with the role that relationships play in driving student learning — and learned lessons that I still apply today.

I’m not sure how Mr. PD Man felt about our presentation.  But I’m also not sure that he realized I was sending a message that everyone in that flippin’ rippin’ room needed to hear.

My point was a simple one:  Our greatest achievements should never be moving SCORES forward.  Our greatest achievements should be moving STUDENTS forward.

When we stop talking about kids and start talking about numbers, we lose the moral imperative of our work.  The passion that drew every one of us into the classroom in spite of crappy salaries, long hours and little public respect is the notion that we can make a difference in the lives of the kids that we cross paths with.

You can’t motivate me to work harder or to give more by celebrating statistical growth.  Bar graphs bore me.  They feel cold and impersonal — and there’s nothing about the hearts of the best teachers that is cold and impersonal.

Want to motivate me?  Show me a kid who is struggling mightily and ask me if there’s something that I can do to help.  I’ll work harder than anyone you’ve ever seen.  I’m more than willing to throw your data away — but I’ll never throw a kid away.

Now lemme ask YOU an uncomfortable question:  Are your school’s most important goals and/or celebrations SCORE driven or STUDENT driven?   

Odds are that, if you are being honest, you just said, “Score Driven.”

Here’s how I know:  When I look at the websites of schools and districts that I consult with, I see tons of impressive sounding statements like, “We will increase graduation rates by 8% by 2018” or “The percentage of students in our school who are college and career ready will move from 71.8 to 74.5% by 2019.”

Those goals aren’t surprising.  They are a by-product of the accountability culture that has strangled education for the past twenty years.  We think that measurable outcomes define our credibility.

And by no means would I argue that we should IGNORE evidence when trying to determine just how successful we have been as an organization.

But imagine how much more powerful our goals and celebrations would be if you told the story of students who you had moved forward.  Shouldn’t every team be able to point to kids like Jarius that they had influenced?  Inspiration matters — and stories of kids who are better off because of the work that we are doing together are a thousand times more inspiring than banners touting the fact that we “exceeded growth expectations” for the third year running.

George Couros calls this being Child Driven, Evidence Informed.

I call it the first step towards capturing the hearts and minds of your teachers again.  

#trudatchat

 

*Jarius wasn’t his real name.  But his accomplishments really were our greatest success that year.  Take THAT, Data Guy.

___________________

Related Radical Reads:

Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

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.