Tag Archives: George Couros

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.

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Related Radical Reads:

Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

More on My Digital Portfolio Project.

As regular Radical readers know, I started a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project in my room last week.

I have 25 students using Blogger to record evidence of their learning over time.  I am trying to encourage them to write four different kinds of posts in the main stream of their blog — which we are calling their “Learning Portfolios.”  I am also trying to get them to think deeply about the essential questions in our required curriculum on static pages in the main navbar of their blogs that we are calling their “Showcase Portfolios.”

While we are only a week into our project, I’ve learned a few lessons worth sharing:

Blogger is better than I thought.

When I started this project, I was worried about using Blogger.  I’ve always seen it as a wonky tool.  That wonkiness was confirmed as I tried to create a template for my kids to use as a starting point for their portfolios — which isn’t impossible, but which also isn’t as easy as it should be (see my previous post).

But for every example of wonkiness that I find in Blogger, I discover a feature that I really like.  One specific example is Blogger has a feed reader built right into the blogging platform.  It’s called the “Reading List.”  What that allows users to do is consume and create content in the exact same place.

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As soon as I found the reading list, I had my students add the blogs of their classmates — and then I started encouraging them to read and comment on new entries during silent reading time.

That does three things:  (1). It provides extra motivation for writers — if you know your friends are reading, you are more likely to create something new on a regular basis, (2). It provides readers with a constantly updated stream of new ideas for posts that they can create in their own digital portfolios and (3). It encourages students to comment on the content of others, which is exactly the type of first-draft thinking that I want to encourage in our digital portfolio project.

The reading list has also made MY life easier.  I’ve added the blogs of all of the participants in my portfolio project to the reading list in my Blogger platform.  Now, new content posted by my kids is one click away — making it easier to monitor their work and provide the kind of feedback and encouragement that they need in order to become better at systematic reflection.

A clear naming structure for student blogs is super helpful.

I think the best decision that I’ve made so far is requiring all of my kids to use the same naming structure when creating their blog in Blogger.  That has made it easier for me — and for the students involved in my project — to track down content being created by kids on our team.  Our blog addresses are predictable — and that predictability makes it possible to quickly guess the blog address of peers that you are interested in following.

I won’t tell you what our naming structure is yet — I don’t want anyone stealing it on me until I get all of my students signed up first! — but here’s a sample of what I mean:

Blog Naming Formula:  [student first name]isalearner.blogspot.com

Samples:  joeisalearner.blogspot.com, samiyaisalearner.blogspot.com, dewanisalearner.blogspot.com, laurenisalearner.blogspot.com

If I hadn’t required a common naming structure, my guess is that my students would have chosen blog names that would have been as unique and diverse as they are — and while I love that uniqueness and diversity, having a standardized way to find one another without much challenge facilitates connections between the kids in my classroom.  Those connections matter most to me right now.

A common naming structure also made it possible for us to get started quickly.  Instead of spending thirty minutes trying to come up with an interesting address for their blog, my kids spent two minutes replicating the naming structure that I created for them.  Getting started quickly matters, too.  It builds momentum in the hearts and minds of the kids who are participating and it reduces the likelihood of teachers saying, “I love the idea of digital portfolios, but I don’t have the time for them!”

My kids needed no technical help, but they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

Getting started on our digital portfolios was a complete breeze.  It took less than 30 minutes to get our blogs up and running and then another 30 minutes to show kids how to create posts, monitor comments, and personalize their templates.  The simple truth is that because twelve year olds like to tinker with tech, they didn’t need much coaching at all on how to accomplish basic tasks in Blogger.  In fact, the first portfolio entry written and posted by a student went live in the middle of my first 30 minute training session.

But they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

For example, every one of my students wanted to personalize the colors and text styles on their blogs — and at least half of them chose color schemes and font families that made their blogs more difficult to read.  Instead of thinking about their audiences, they were thinking about themselves — and the result was content that few people could consume without serious challenge.  That’s been a neat conversation and learning opportunity — but it is one I didn’t totally expect going into this project.

Another example:  My kids haven’t always done the best job REFLECTING in their initial posts.  Instead, they are REPORTING on what they are learning in their classes.  I blame that on the traditional structure of schools, y’all.  We don’t ask kids to do a ton of reflecting, so it’s not something that they are naturally drawn to.  Until we start to teach the difference between reflecting and reporting — a conversation we are going to have together in class next week — I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the content my kids are creating isn’t all that reflective yet.

I’d love feedback from all y’all on this stuff.  Does it make sense to you?  Do you have any suggestions for how I can make this better?

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Related Radical Reads:

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning

 

 

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a committee in my school district to think about the role that digital portfolios can play in helping students to document their learning.  I LOVE that our district is committed to the idea of portfolios simply because they promote more reflective learners and help our schools to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback.

That’s kinda my jam.

The defining moment in my own thinking about digital portfolios came in December, when I listened to my buddy George Couros explain the difference between Learning Portfolios and Showcase Portfolios at Convergence — a meeting of the professional minds hosted by our district’s Media and Technology team.

According to George, Learning Portfolios are all about giving students chances to collect evidence of their own growth and progress as learners over time.  They aren’t about spotlighting perfection.  They are about promoting reflection.  Showcase Portfolios, on the other hand, are designed to give students spaces to spotlight their very best work.  Both types of portfolios have value to learners — but both serve very different purposes.

George went even further, arguing that blogging tools make for perfect homes for digital portfolios primarily because they allow users to house a Learning Portfolio and a Showcase Portfolio in the same space.  For George, the constantly updated stream of posts that stands at the center of a blog space is the Learning Portfolio.  It should house regular reflections — celebrations of progress made, plans for moving forward, evidence of current levels of mastery, questions for consideration.

Static pages on a blog — which are almost always found listed in a header under the Blog’s title — are perfect for housing Showcase Portfolios.  It is a place where kids can do deeper thinking around what they have actually mastered.  Students can link to their best evidence in their Showcase Portfolios — and can update the content on each page as they demonstrate additional mastery over time.

That’s BRILLIANT thinking, right?  

The truth is that encouraging students to keep a Learning Portfolio and a Showcase Portfolio promotes different kinds of reflective behaviors.  We DO want our kids to get into the habit of regular reflection on what they know in the moment.  And we DO want our kids to get into the habit of organizing their BEST evidence that they’ve mastered important outcomes.  Making those two different practices manageable starts when we use ONE tool that can create separate spaces in the the same digital home.

I’ve finally decided to take George’s advice and start a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project with my students.  Here’s what I’ve done so far:

I spent a ton of time creating a sample of a digital portfolio.

You can check it out here.  Remember:  The posts in the body of the blog are a part of a hypothetical student’s Learning Portfolio.  They show progress in the moment.  The pages listed across the top header underneath the title are a part of the same hypothetical student’s Showcase Portfolio.  The are evidence of mastery of bigger curricular ideas.

This sample portfolio has been SUPER valuable in helping kids to understand just what it is that they are going to be doing as a part of our portfolio project.  The sad truth is that few had any idea what I meant when I said, “Anyone want to create a digital portfolio to document your learning?”  Those are practices that we haven’t prioritized in schools.

I’ve created several resources for the PARENTS of participating students.

Perhaps the two most important resources are my digital portfolio permission slip — which details some basic expectations that participating students have to follow — and my Digital Portfolio Tips for Parents — which outlines ways that parents can get involved in supporting the reflective work that their students are about to begin.

I’ve whipped up a list of every essential question that students are supposed to master in their core classes this year.

Those are listed in documents posted at the top of each Showcase Portfolio page.  Here’s a sample.  My plan is to have students use those questions as starting points for content that they can put on their Showcase Portfolio pages.  I figure that if they can answer those questions AND link to evidence in their Learning Portfolio of places where they were wrestling with those essential questions, they’d have something really impressive to “showcase” for the important adults in their lives.  The questions almost serve as prompts for kids who are working to build out their Showcase pages.

Along with my buddy Pete Caggia, I’ve created several different types of posts that I want students to try writing in their Learning Portfolios.

The hardest part of this work for my kids is going to be understanding what in-the-moment reflection looks like in action.  Again, that’s a function of the fact that reflection has been pushed aside in schools in favor of rushing through required curricula.  To facilitate better reflection, Pete and I whipped up four different kinds of thinking that we’d like to see in student portfolios.  This handout details those different kinds of thinking and includes samples that students can use as models.

I’ve settled on a blogging tool and started to introduce it to the students participating in our project.

The tool that I’m using is Blogger.  That’s not because I’m in love with Blogger.  In fact, I think that Blogger templates are kind of boring.  Wordpress has templates and formats that are WAY more polished.

But Blogger is approved for use by middle school students in our district — a key factor in making ANY tech decision — AND my students are already using Google products (think Docs, Classroom, Drive, Photos, Slides) for darn near everything else.  That makes Blogger the right tool for this project.  Familiarity + District Approval = Winning for Everyone!

I also put backups of my sample blog’s template and content onto jump drives and had every student install both my template and my original content when they were getting started.  Here’s why:  By pushing all kids to install my template and content, I can introduce the different kinds of portfolios by looking at an actual exemplar.  All they will need to do to make their own portfolio “personal” is delete my content and posts whenever they are ready.

Finally, I’ve started to create a bunch of quick tutorials that students can use to learn more about simple processes and practices in Blogger.  They are posted on the Portfolio Tools and Resources page of my sample blog — which also ends up on each STUDENT’s blog after they import my template and content.  My hope is that these tutorials will be enough to get most kids started with their portfolios.  They are pretty smooth operators, after all — unafraid of tinkering to figure out how things work.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?  Does it sound useful to you?  What questions do you have?  Suggestions?  What resources do you like?  What resources can you share?

 

 

Wonder = Joy. (And Joy Should be Shared!)

Longtime Radical readers know that there are few people who have influenced my practice as much as Dean Shareski.  Dean has pushed my thinking around everything from the role that humor and humanity should play in our digital spaces to the role that students should play in assessing their own learning.  When I look back at the practices that I use in my classroom, I see elements inspired by Dean everywhere.

That’s why I was completely jazzed to sit down and read through his first book — Embracing a Culture of Joy.

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Dean’s argument throughout the text is that in our quest to bring more rigor and accountability to schools, we’ve stripped away much of what it is that makes learning spaces inspirational — and without inspiration, genuine learning really isn’t possible.  Dean goes on to share several practical ideas about the steps that teachers can take to bring joy back into their classrooms.

The idea that resonated the most with me was Dean’s argument that a sense of wonder is often a prerequisite for joy.  Dean writes:

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers.  This is certainly contrary to how we’ve traditionally viewed schools.  Schools are places to learn things, find answers to questions, and leave with knowledge.  Questions suggest doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.  Yet the idea that we learn to ask really interesting questions is indeed what sustains us and what makes us true learners.”

As a science teacher, those words ring true.  After all, science is inherently about asking interesting questions about the world around us.  And I’ve always tried to push my kids to take an #alwayswonder approach to the world around them.  In fact, the only homework that I regularly give students is writing two interesting wonder questions per week in a journal.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve never made time to celebrate those wonder questions during our regular class periods.  The reason is simple:  I’ve always believed that sharing those wonder questions steals minutes from an already short class period — and given the fact that we have an end of grade exam covering an enormous curriculum, the pressure to push forward has always won out over my belief that wondering matters.

What Dean forced me to wrestle with was that by giving lip service to the value of wondering, I was robbing my kids of the opportunity to revel in the joy that comes from curiosity.  NOT knowing the answers is a helluva’ lot more interesting than having to memorize a never-ending stream of answers delivered by the classroom teacher.

So I made a decision on Monday that I think is going to breathe a little more joy back into my classroom:  Now, we are going to start every single day wondering together.

Here are the details:

When my kids roll into class, they know to get out their wonder journals and have them ready to go.  Some kids are journaling on paper.  Others are using a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides to record their thinking.  I’ve simply told them to figure out a system that works for them.

As soon as class starts, I set a timer and ask students to write for five full minutes.  My hope is that they will write a new wonder question each day — but they are also allowed to polish previous questions or look for answers to a question that really moves them. The only rule is that they have to work for the full five minutes.  I’m finding that sitting in their own thoughts isn’t a skill that every student has — so building intellectual stamina is another goal of mine for this task.

When the timer goes off, students spend two minutes sharing their wonder questions with their table mates.  I’m emphasizing that “sharing your wonder questions” doesn’t mean simply reading them to one another.  I ask students to build on the questions asked by their partners — adding related questions, making additional observations, providing predictions or theories as possible answers.

Finally, I ask three students to share interesting wonder questions with our whole class — but they have to share a question asked by someone else!  That accomplishes two things:  First, they learn to see and to celebrate their peers as interesting people with interesting questions — which I hope will build community in my classroom.  Second, it gives me the opportunity to model the process of building on questions asked by other people.

That whole sequence takes about 10 minutes at the beginning of every period — and that’s 10 minutes that I’m more than happy to spend simply because the questions my kids have been writing are really, really cool.

Here’s five of my favorites:

“I wonder how brains work, like how do they send things to your body saying like your hurt? Does your brain also control how you move?”

“In class my teacher was talking about space and I woundered if space doesnt have oxygen and earth does how does the oxygen from earth not flow all the way to space does it just die out and stop flowing? It cant just stop flowing and die out it has to go somewhere and since we have already been to the moon and outer space there is no force that is keeping the oxygen from not flowing to outer space.”

“Today I was printing something for my mom, and I wondered how does an image that originated from the computer pas over to the printer and then the printer magically knows what colors to blend together, were to put them, and what shapes to make? I know that printers only come with 4 or 5 colors, pink, light blue, yellow, black, and maybe grey, so how does the printer create red and lighter colors, with only 4 inks?”

“I’ve always thought fingernails were weird. But, I wonder about is the process of a growing fingernail. Do they grow at the tip (like the white part) or, do they grow near the cuticle part.”

“I read every night, last night I didn’t read before I went to bed and I had a hard time going to sleep. I wonder what effect reading had on my mind before I went to sleep. And does reading help, or hurt your mind?”

All of that in and of itself seemed like a pretty good start at prioritizing wonder in my classroom until I had the chance to hear George Couros speak on Wednesday at the Convergence conference here in Raleigh about building the digital presence of your school .

George made a simple point that stuck with me:  When working in social spaces, your goal should be to make the positives so loud that the negatives are impossible to hear.  If we consistently share the best things that are happening in our classrooms, we can create a culture of outward celebration and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders that we serve.

George’s examples were all incredibly approachable:  Teachers using Twitter to record video reflections after days of professional learning, principals using YouTube to share videos of students reporting on the academic happenings at different grade levels, teachers using Instagram to post pictures of classroom activities.  “As a parent,” George asked,”what would you rather have:  A paper newsletter to hang on the fridge or a video of your child sharing what they’ve learned in class that day?”

So I decided to take my wonder project one step further:  I’m going to record short videos of students sharing their wonder questions and post those on Twitter using our school’s hashtag.

Here’s our first:

My primary goal with our #gnomeswonder Tweets is a simple one:  I want my students to recognize that it is okay wonder out loud.

I also want to give parents the chance to see the curiosity in their own kids and to see my classroom as a place that prioritizes questions over answers.  Finally, I’m hoping that we’ll get some dialogue started between my curious kids and experts in our community that might be willing to post answers to my students online.

Of course, I’ll have to check the video/photo permissions list before choosing kids to record daily wonder tweets — but my guess is that as more and more parents see what we are doing, they will be more than willing to sign our video waiver in order to have the chance to see their kids wondering live, too.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?

Will setting time aside for wondering be worthwhile — even if it means I have ten less minutes of instruction time every day?  Is encouraging my kids to share their wonders publicly a good idea?  Is this something you’d consider trying with the kids in your classrooms, too?

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Related Radical Reads:

How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students Today

More on the Challenges of Wondering in Schools.

This is Why I Teach:  They Always Wonder