Sunday, April 5, 2015

Letter Grades Inhibit Deep Learning. They Must Die.

In the world of school, grades are supposed to represent where a student is at in relation to mastery. A = spot on, F = far from it.  Well, that's the idea, anyway, but I have a hunch that's kind of rare.

My guess is that it's more likely grades are used as leverage, lorded over students as a form of academic "justice"; rewards go to the high-achievers while punishment is doled out to the offending slackers who didn't get the work done.  

When it comes to what we know about the nature of learning, though, letter grades fall short in fostering, within our students, a willingness to think about, discuss, and reflect on their learning.  For the most part, there's no solid sense of the why behind them or what was learned as a result, so it's no wonder that high-achievers are hyper-focused on them and struggling students avoid them (and the loser-tag they exact).

Learning is a process that needs choice, voice, reflection, timely feedback, and opportunities to revise in order to grow, but points awarded for simply completing tasks (we'll call them giddyap gradesconvey the opposite. They're more about getting things done so they likely represent a student's level of agency rather than where they're at with the content. The problem is that no one would really know for sure, including the student, who sees an A, and thinks "success!" and sees the F and thinks, "Oh dang, no cell phone for a month."  

Dan Pink makes the case that the carrot and stick approach motivates people when the work is menial, rote, or mechanical. In other words, if the task doesn't require any specialized knowledge or ability, rewards and punishments increase motivation and productivity. But when the tasks require even the most rudimentary cognitive challenge, increased incentives have the opposite effect. 


Pink's target audience is the tech industry, so he pushes to dispel the myth that innovation is driven by monetary incentives.  Money is a motivator in that if you don't pay people enough, it's likely they won't be motivated.  However, the best use of money as a motivator, the studies suggest, is to take the issue of it completely off the table. Pay people enough so that the monetary reward is not perceived as conditional. When this happens, three factors emerge that seem to drive people toward increased productivity, innovation, and satisfaction around the work they do. Those factors are autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Autonomy = the desire to direct our own lives
  Mastery = the urge to get better at something that matters
  Purpose = the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Now, take money out of the equation and replace it with grades. Notice how Pink's definition for mastery jives with growth mindset, where all endeavors are viewed as practice, and where failure is merely an opportunity to learn rather than grounds for punishment. If I can make mastery the focus of the work we do, but do so within contexts that are meaningful to my students (purpose), where they set their own goals, work at their own pace, and assess their own gains (autonomy), then yes, I can make that almighty letter grade work to my advantage by challenging students to give themselves the grades they deserve. They'd use their body of work, feedback, and their reflections to make that case. That would be the only time grades would come into play and it would be on their terms.

My gut and my experiences tell me this is possible and it's the right direction for me to move toward.  It's already being pioneered by teachers who are generously sharing their journeys and inspiring others to do so (see Starr Sackstein here and Mark Barnes here). 

I don't call this blog EduNut for nothin'. I'm obsessed with teaching, and so a lot of my personal time is spent striving to build on what I know. It's a weekend morning and I'm wrestling with pedagogy on the pages of my blog, obviously driven by a sense of purpose and a desire for mastery of my craft. Pink's ideas resonate with me because I can easily see how they play out in my own learning. I want to replicate that for students.

I'll be transitioning to as close as I can come to a "no grades" assessment plan for next year.  I still have to ultimately place letters into that grade book at the end of each term, but at least I can do so in a way that honors my students' work and progress more authentically than not. 

Beginning in late-May, I'll be blogging and vlogging to make it all transparent as best I can (Sackstein-style).  I'm excited and nervous at the same time. In the past, those two feelings together have always preceded the crossing of a meaningful threshold in my life or career.  'Tis a good sign.

Friday, April 3, 2015

I Pseudo-Stalked My Students and Found Some Things

Each year, I've tried to impress upon my advisees that they must stay mindful of the digital footprint they've made. Instead of the usual talking to, this year I decided to make it "for reals" and stalk their social media profiles to collect potentially-incriminating items they never thought were public, where prospective employers might find them, should they do a simple search.

The idea was to spend no more than five minutes searching for each of my twelve advisees, so that when it was time to show them (privately) what I'd found, I could say, "And this (points to compromising picture) was only after five minutes of searching!"  

Don't worry, it never got to that point. 

I set out to search and I braced myself for shock and/or alarm (we're talking members of the teen species here).  It was very easy to find them, especially the ones with unusual names, but finding potentially embarrassing stuff was a whole other matter. There wasn't anything to find except the usual and mostly-innocuous shared stuff of adolescent lives.  

But as I was searching those first few minutes, reading through bad jokes, glancing quickly through pics of friends making faces, getting distracted by cute sleepy kitten videos, clicking through all those awkward selfies, something started happening.  

I started seeing my students-- seeing them in ways they wanted others to see them, I could see hints of insecurities, their frustrations, their fears, and their aspirations.  It was both humbling and deeply moving at the same time.  

Jason, a student new to our school, is quite the artist with a gift for portraiture. He seems able to hone in on whatever it is about his subjects that reveal their humanity. I wanted to see more of his art than what was on his Tumblr. 

Then there's Mona, whose anti-authority persona at school is tough as nails, and yet her Facebook stream was chock full of Buddhist quotes and messages of inspiration. "How you make others feel says a lot about yourself," says one of 'em. Indeed, Ms. Mona, indeed.

I got lost in Lena's joyous collection of photos, including that of her recent quinceaƱera (a rite of passage for Latina girls). She looks incredibly happy in each picture, surrounded by loving friends and family. There is so much pride in her heritage, and in all the pictures of celebrations, she's surrounded by children looking up at her, adoringly. She's shared with me how incredibly anxious she is about her struggles with reading and writing and getting into college.  Now I can see a little more of that story; how she may be taking her family with her on that dream, and how she may fear letting them down should she fail.  Suddenly, the role I play in her life takes on more weight and possibility. I can help her. I will

One hundred students a year; that's one hundred beautifully-flawed, sad, joyous, lonely, witty, hopeful, and complex human beings under the same roof with me every day and yet, I don't know much about them aside from a few surface facts and their reading and writing needs.  That's okay, they're teens and so they have secret lives that even their parents don't know about. I'm good with that, and honestly, I don't want to know everything.

But a lot of what they shared was public for a reason, and if there's any take-away from that ill-fated search for potentially-embarrassing photos, it's that (just like me, doing what I'm doing at this moment) they're all reaching out in the hope they'll be seen on their own terms.  As a Humanities teacher, I can do more to make room for that in my classroom and at my school.  I can and so I will

I end with this last little find: It's what one student tweeted about the project we were doing (Pan-African music analysis):

The truth is out there, and it ain't always pretty...and-- invariably, someone will retweet it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Note to Self: Professionalism Begins with a Smoothie

Today's question: What's our most important professional responsibility outside the classroom?

Initially, I was compelled to shoot off a litany of professional badass-erisms starting with staying up to date on what's happening in the world of education and making our instruction transparent, as I'm gearing up to do with these daily blogs. That's wholly due to the culmination of a 30-year anti-public ed movement and the groundswell of discontent parents are finally becoming a part of. I'm fired up!  

But then I remembered a lesson whilst parenting: Take care of yourself first so you're in better shape to take care of others.  

I'd guess that's true for teachers, too. If we take care of our health and well-being, it pays off in all other aspects of our lives.  I struggle with sustaining that. When I don't eat breakfast, exercise, or sleep, it impacts my energy and brain power, not to mention my justifiable outrage and my willingness to get out there on the street and fight!

So, eat your Wheaties, boys and girls!  A kale smoothie is probably better.  Just do it so we have the energy to save public education and then get back to our usual business of saving the WORLD!

Disclaimer: I do not endorse consumption of said Wheaties. 

Note to Self: Keep Asking Why It Is You Teach

I remember the moment I chose teaching as a career. I was two years into college and had to declare a major. Among the choices, teaching offered the greatest potential for positively impacting others. That was the clincher.

I'd love to be able to think pure altruism was what has sustained my desire to teach these last fifteen years, but that would mean I would've expected nothing in return for my time and energy, and that was just not the case.  I'm hardly as selfless as that. Sure, I've depended on the paycheck, but ultimately, I've expected at least the sense that my time as a teacher meant something to others. I didn't need to see it, I just needed to feel it. I didn't even need to know that others saw it. I just wanted to be sure for myself.

Fortunately, I have been, and here's why:

1. The odds were pretty damn good!  I've taught close to 100 students each year, which meant close to 1500 students passed through my classroom.  Given there are 180 days in the school year, that would mean I had 180 days with each student where there was a very good chance of having impacted them in a positive way (since that was what motivated me). 

2. I've had some great teachers whom I quietly admired and even revered.  They impacted me in ways they could have never known (well, okay-- some do know now thanks to the modern-day magic of Facebook, where everyone you've ever known somehow finds you).  If even one of my ~1500 students took a piece of me along on their life's journey, in spirit, it'd be pretty cool. I've been fortunate enough to be told this was the case by former students.

3. Lastly, there have been those moments where I sensed it; a personal connection that was made, a mutual understanding, a shared experience, time, patience, and honesty acknowledged. Even if they didn't get it, I did. Maybe some day, they would, too, the way I could only do in retrospect when thinking about my own teachers and how they quietly left their imprint on my teacher-being.  

Interestingly enough (to me, anyway), I care less about all of that.  What sustains me as teacher has shifted quite a bit. Where before it was about using my "superpowers" to inspire and to help students become self-aware (that being the "positive impact"), now I'm more inclined to want my experiences and my knowledge to be of value. If there's an impact to be made, it's on their learning, and I feel much more equipped to do that given the depth of knowledge I've acquired. It's a quieter impact, but one that's more likely to endure and have a direct & positive impact on their self-concept. 

Also, there's no denying that all this time, I've been impacted by my students on so many levels; as a parent, a learner, a teacher, and as a fellow human being. For that reason, I have a sense that in a few years, even legacy will cease to be a factor in what fuels me. If it's anything like parenthood, what will mean the most will be the sum total of those quieter moments where we all ran outside under the first snowfall to catch snowflakes on our tongues (high schoolers, these are), or all the times we found ourselves in mutual awe of things serendipitously stumbled upon, or that made us appreciate the mysteries of our own human nature. 

I feel the start of that shift, and I embrace it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wabi-Sabi Teacher = Beautifully-Flawed

A couple of decades ago, while learning how to spin a clay pot, an art instructor told me about wabi-sabi, a Japanese art form that conveyed the beauty of impermanence and time's impact on objects. Picture a sculpted piece of driftwood along the beach, or a smoothed-over river stone; both are wabi-sabi-ware, organically worn and shaped by nature's geologically-slow hand. The instructor applied it to the imperfections in my clay pot noting that it gave it a wabi-sabi feel. I didn't think too much about it, except that I felt relieved she saw the asymmetry of my piece a thing of beauty rather than a newbie flaw. It was a natural part of my process as an artist, she said, and that's what made it special.

When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I could've used someone like that art teacher to tell me I didn't have to be perfect right out the gate. We enter into our first classroom with a head full of theory and meticulously-constructed "units of study", and it doesn't take much more than a spit wad hurled across the room to realize we're going to have to adapt to survive. When it happened to me, the sense of fear and urgency was strong enough to put me into overdrive. 

As a result, I would spend a good amount of time and energy those first years trying to reach edu-nirvana, that state where all those rock star teachers in the movies were at. You know who I mean, the ones who stood and delivered atop desks and, at the risk of life, job, and limb, challenged students to positively disrupt their lives using education as the way to do it. I wanted to be that teacher, as many young teachers did. It wasn't hard to shed that myth after a year or two of experience, but the motivation for impacting others and the passion for teaching remained. 

Now that I'm at the mid-point of my career as a teacher, I find myself thinking about that clay pot. Teaching is a craft, like ceramic art. There is no higher place to be than where we are when we're knee-to-knee with students as their mentors and guides.  

We can embody wabi-sabi, not only in our aesthetic (gray hairs and the wrinkles of a smile), but in our ways of "being", too. I see it in artists and teachers who value process over product. I sense it in those who accept their own finite natures with grace and brevity, making sure they're "present" for their students; honoring their learning journeys with patience and compassion. It's in anyone who seems to be in sync and at peace with nature's rhythms.

This is what I wish to remember as I embark on the second half of my journey as a teacher: that I am that stone, newly-aware of being less jagged in all the right places, and I embrace all that which makes me beautifully flawed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Idea: Easing into the Launch of a Class Blog

I stumbled upon a process for launching a class blog that was non-threatening to struggling writers and yet, still engaged the more confident scribes in the room.

For our first post, I had students collect ten images (self-created or not) representing different aspects of their lives or personalities.

They then created a slideshow with the images and embedded it into the main page of their blog.  The only requirements: (1) images must be "appropriate" enough to show a roomful of grand-folks, and (2) no text.   No text piques readers' curiosity and prompts them to comment with their questions, thereby inspiring the blogger to draft another post in response.

The next day, I had students create a list of "Top Ten" (any topic of their choosing). I used my own blog as an exemplar, sharing my list of "Top Ten Moments of Bliss" (in no particular order):
  1. Snowboarding with Tommy, my nephew
  2. Receiving my Bachelor's degree- my whole family was there.
  3. Falling in love and realizing it for the first time
  4. Rock climbing, making it to the top, breathing, and then turning around to take in the view
  5. Biking down the Sandia Crest trail
  6. Backpacking around Cuba, up to the mountain valleys (lush)
  7. Bungee jumping off of a New Zealand mining bridge (where bungee jumping first originated)
  8. Walking along the Nova Scotian coastline
  9. Waking up on mornings after a big trek along the New Zealand coast (Akaroa)
  10. Floating on a river through a cave- looking up and seeing glow worms (they looked like stars!)
I asked the class which item on my list was most intriguing to them and conveyed how I could use their feedback to determine the topic for my next post.

Happy blogging!
P.S. I use Google Sites as a platform for our class blog.
If you'd like a template that you can simply copy, leave a comment and I'll kick it your way.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Welcome to Being Human- A Syllabus Intro to Humanities

Syllabus Intro to Humanities, Gr 10

Once upon a time, roughly 5 billion years ago, a gravitational collapse gave birth to the solar system you're presently spinning around in. At first, things were a mess. Most of the cosmic matter gathered and fused at the core while the rest of it scattered outwardly into a flat, orbiting disc of debris. 

As that debris field spun, it slowly (over the course of a billion years) started massing into clumps, thereby forming a number of stars and satellites, one of which we're all sitting on as it orbits its own star (the sun).

A billion years later, after things cooled down a bit on this home-planet, conditions were ripe for simple life forms to emerge, and eventually they evolved into increasingly-diverse complex organisms. It took mammalian life billions more years to emerge, but the planet was still hostile to larger forms of life, so there were a few mass extinctions. Each time, though, life continued to evolve.

Tens of millions of years after the last of those mass extinctions (that of the dinosaurs), ape-like animals began to emerge and at some point, they adapted by standing upright on two legs, thus heralding an evolutionary chain of events that would lead to the emergence of the species you, yourself, are a part of. That species' brain slowly grew and evolved to become self-aware of its own existence, and with the use of language (this one, the one you're using as you read this), created words to carry and record ideas from one generation to the next, words such as "human," which conveyed a category of life separate from all the rest.

Which brings us to this moment, whereby we find ourselves here in this class focusing on that very thing we call human. Welcome to World Studies, fellow human beings. Here, we'll explore what it means to be human and, if things go as planned, you may see more clearly your part in the ongoing story.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Infographic: Anatomy of the PBL Process

I created this PBL infographic using Piktochart to help students and their parents visualize the anatomy of a project at my school.  Some have requested if they could use it, so here it is- have at it.  Modify as needed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Idea: 30-Day Challenge Blog

Matt Cutts, in his short TED Talk, shares how he was inspired to change one little thing in his life and commit to it for at least 30 days. It changed him in ways he didn't anticipate.  Since my advisory students were setting academic goals, I decided to share Cutts' Talk with them since it validated my own advice about how changing habits takes time and a commitment to being consistent over a period of time.

I love moonlighting as an advisor.  Sure, I'm an englush teecher at heart, but I chose that path as a career because it held the most potential for positively impacting the lives of others, and being an advisor significantly ups that mojo.  Also, much of what we address is stuff I need reminding about to keep my own house in order, which brings me back to the 30-Day Challenge.

What I hadn't anticipated was how inspired my students would be after veiwing Cutts' Talk.  They proposed we each take on a goal for the next month just as Cutts had done.  I loved the idea, especially since it furthered my own advisory agenda! 

That evening, I built a group blog using a Google Site as the platform.  First we used it to brainstorm ideas for goals, then once they were decided, we chronicled our attempts to either rid ourselves of our habits or develop them.   We spent roughly ten minutes at the start of each class crafting our posts and providing supportive feedback to one another.  Those students who had a hard time deciding on a goal found it easier to piggy-back off of an idea that was already started, like turning in work on time, or drinking a certain amount of water each day.  

Shortly after, another advisory class joined us and our blogroll grew to 37, including the other teacher, who had a newborn infant and felt the family pet was being neglected, so her daily goal was to spend at least 5 minutes playing with her dog.  

Even though the challenge was optional, most of the students joined the blog by the second week, having been inspired by the other class joining us or by the attention given to bloggers whose pursuits from the very first day became a topic of discussion among peers. 

Looking back, I can see there was a wonderful burst of organic energy around this endeavor.  Teachers know this kind of momentum is pure gold when it comes directly from the students themselves, inspired by their own ideas and interests.  Still, there are times when that energy requires the invisible hand of the facilitator to ensure the flow, intensity, and direction of the energy so that it's sure to be sustained.  And that's where I kind of dropped the ball.
As the month rolled on, it became difficult for some to keep up with their daily posts, especially during the weekend when it wasn't a part of their usual day to post to a blog.  A few students had set some high-maintenance goals and started falling behind.  Admittedly, I was a slacker myself when it came to maintaining consistency since I let the blog time slide if there was a school-wide event or grade-wide activity we had to complete.  The other advisor's dog got the ball thrown a few times but by the end of the month, it was clear that tug-time on the rope would remain a rare treat. 

There was definitely  a loss of momentum by the time we reached the finish line. Many had already dropped out of the race and watched as the remaining goal-setters hobbled in.  Regardless, throughout the challenge, some really cool things emerged that helped me to see it as something worth replicating and improving upon.  

Something I hadn't anticipated was how much (and how quickly) I could learn about my students through their chronicles.  The goals they set served as a formative assessment, conveying their interests, values, and a sense of their personalities.  

A few wanted to publish a photograph each day, and their pictures were like a window into their worlds.  Oftentimes, I was taken aback by the beauty they had captured, which conveyed a special connectedness to the natural world. 

One of Noah's photos

Others set athletic goals, like jogging a mile each day or doing something at daily dance practice that would push them further toward a longer-term goal.   Dominic went from a 7:18 mile to ending the month at 6:27.  Ashley wanted to be sure and say something nice to someone each day. She told her mom how much she meant to her and she blogged that her mom wanted to know what she did wrong.   Ivan set out to compliment five people a day, telling them how much he admired them for their humor or athleticism. Curious about the reaction he kept getting, which was a mix of suspicion and gratitude, he began wondering if people, across the board, were under-appreciated.

Christina decided she'd "try not to be mean" to other people, and in the process, she realized it wasn't as hard as she thought.  In my comment to her post, I wrote, "Could it be that being more mindful of our own actions toward others helps us become better human beings?  Does it help us see ourselves in a light that's closer to who we actually are?  Or is it a way toward becoming more compassionate, toward others and toward ourselves?"

Rayne decided to go meatless and curse-less.  It didn't last the month, but after a couple of weeks, he noted there was a change in his mood and wasn't sure if it was the lack of meat or expletives that was doing it.

Mikaela tried to break her habit of saying, "I'm sorry," something her friends told her she did all the time.  She wrote about how they began helping her with the challenge since, even though she tried, she couldn't catch herself saying it. It compelled her to reflect on where it was coming from, which lead to some interesting insights around her own self-concept.

So, I'm going to try this again at the start of the Spring semester with the same advisory group, and I'll build on what worked and change what didn't.

What worked:

  • Making it optional and not attaching a grade to it
  • Inviting other advisories- perhaps this time, inviting the entire sophomore class!
  • Supportive commenting

What didn't:
  • Inconsistency.  We'll make it a for-sure start-of-advisory ritual, no matter what's on our plate.  
  • Weekend lag.  We'll decide, as a group, to give ourselves a break over the weekends, unless otherwise compelled to keep it up.  I'll try to be a model for the "keep it up" crowd.

What I'll add:
  • Reflecting on the experience of the first round so that we can address goals that might've been unrealistic or impractical, what worked, what didn't (their perspective)
  • Adding resources on the blog for generating ideas and how to set realistic goals, with students' contributions
  • End of writing time share-out to the class, for those who'd like to, or for those who'd like to give kudos to someone deserving whose blog they read
  • Amp up the public spin on it with students' permission, sharing kudos on our school's Facebook page.
  • Discussion around the quality of comments and the effects they have on bloggers' motivation 
  • Allowing for students to set their blogs to "private" if they want (Google Sites makes this possible)
  • End-of-week celebration, in some form
  • A reflective written piece, or a video blog for their ePortfolios: "take-aways" around goal-setting 
  • End-of-month wrap-up party, and possibly the launch of a third round...?

Emmy's dog: "The most photographic dog ever!"