Saturday, December 17, 2011

Update: What Grades Mean in My Classroom

Last week I posted my beliefs about what grades mean in my classroom.  On Monday I made my beliefs public to the math department at my school.  As I shared each belief and explained how I was implementing it in my math classroom I was flooded with so many feelings.

My first feeling was fear.  Although I have been at my current school for 8 years and have a wonderful rapport with my fellow teachers, the grading debate in our school is a hot topic with many sides and emotions embedded.  I was fearful that after sharing my beliefs I would lose respect from my colleagues.  As I began to share my beliefs, the seven other math teachers listened intently and respectfully and the fear quickly turned to relief. 

The feeling of relief was a result of letting my colleagues in on what is going on in my classroom as far as implementing standards based grading.  I have been breaking agreements that our department made about grades and although my administrators were well aware of what I was doing I still felt like I was cheating and lying.  Part of the reason I had decided to "come clean" with my department was a result of parent comments to my fellow math teachers which caused them to wonder about what was going on in my classroom.  I was relieved to get my grading policy off my chest by sharing my beliefs.  I was also relieved at the response, my colleagues listened intently and we began a meaningful discussion about grading.  

The next feeling I felt was appreciation.  As we discussed and questioned, I realized we are all in very different places in our beliefs about grading.  However, as a department, we could appreciate where each individual was on the continuum of what grading meant in their classroom.  An example was a comment a fellow math teacher made to a parent about my grading based on standards and her grading based on completion.  Knowing that she is okay with where I am and also okay with where she is allows for appreciation.  It is also the foundation for the next step of moving more teachers towards standards based grading.

Again I am going to mention the  ASCD Article by Susan Brookhart.  She states,

"All opinions need to be heard, and people's right to hold them should be affirmed.  Educators will be much more receptive to new ideas - even those that challenge their own opinions - that come from colleagues who understand where they stand and why."

This is so key in the grading discussion!

The final feeling I am experiencing is acceptance.  The standards based grading conversation is so tough.  I admire my administrators for taking it on.  I accept the fact that it is a journey and it will be a long one.  I realize that as a staff we need to take baby steps.  As someone who is fully vested in helping facilitate the change, I need to be patient, listen to concerns and share resources.  I need to accept the fact that I am still learning and stumbling in my implementation and that I need to seek out help and advice.

For those of you working to implement standards based grading, JUMP and share with your colleagues.  Get a copy of the November issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership on Effective Grading Polices.

Stay the Course!  As difficult as it is to work to implement standards based grading, it has completely changed the conversations and attitudes and learning in my classroom.

I'll keep you updated with our ongoing conversations and the struggles I encounter as I learn to implement standards based grading.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What is the Purpose of Grades in my Classroom?

My first semester of the new school year will be over in eight days.  I have whole heartedly began my journey into using standards based grading this year.  At the halfway point, I want to share some beliefs, insights, and struggles that I have acquired the past few months.

First, I want to begin with my beliefs on the purpose of grades in my classroom:

  • I believe that grades are about what students learn not what they earn ASCD Article by Susan Brookhart
  • I believe grades do not motivate or provide incentives for students to do well
  • I believe one single grade given on a test with multiple learning standards is not an accurate measure of student knowledge and understanding.
  • I believe that students should not be punished for taking longer to learn essential skills or standards
  • I believe the students should be asking: "What does advanced look like on this standard?"
  • I believe students should get credit for showing thinking and understanding in any way that makes sense to them as long as they can explain their thinking and procedures
  • I believe students should get full credit even if they did not learn the standard "on time" 
  • I believe that Summative Assessments are also Formative because the students know anything they do not score proficient on, they still have to show proof of understanding.
  • I believe any work I assign to my students must be tied to a standard
How has my classroom environment changed based on my beliefs?
  • My classroom atmosphere encourages thinking and problem solving rather than rule following because students have to understand the process they are using to solve math problems
  • Students work and persevere on problems rather than giving up and waiting  for a fellow classmate or the teacher to give them the answer (#1 rule in my classroom - no one will give an answer, we agree to ask questions to guide thinking and learning).
  • The students know that proof of understanding requires deeper knowledge and the ability to explain their process/thinking.  So when they don't understand something, they tell me rather than hiding it
  • They do more work to show their understanding
  • My students know their strengths and weaknesses and  find relief in the fact that I will work with them to improve and show understanding

I feel like I am in my infancy in the standards based grading journey.  I am experimenting with grade book formats and a variety of resistance from my colleagues, parents, and the students who have become comfortable taking the F.  At this point I feel as though I have made a break through with the kiddos that are used to taking the F.  They have learned that failing is not an option and that they have to prove understanding.  I also love the conversations that occur around standards based grading:

"how is advanced different from proficient on this standard"
"what do I need to do to prove understanding of this standard"
"I don't understand this concept/standard"

I am struggling in a few areas:

  • providing timely feedback often is challenging
  • my grade book and how it informs students and parents
  • strong resistance from my colleagues (hence this post to share with them)
  • training middle school students who are entrenched in the "old way" of grading to work to prove understanding
What I know for sure:
  • my classes have changed for the better of all students
  • I have so much work and growth in this area
  • I will use my Twitter PLN and especially #sbar for resources, support and learning
I can't believe my school year is almost half over... YIKES!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Is My Classroom So Loud?:

The other day in the staff room during lunch I mentioned how chatty one of my students is during class.  His other three core teachers (science, social science, and language arts) all looked at me in shock. Are you kidding, that kid does not say a word in my class.  I was just as shocked at their response because he is a confident, and vocal member of my second period Algebra 1 class.  Now you are thinking he is a math geek if he is in 8th grade Algebra 1.  Not so fast, he is in my Algebra 1 support class that is 2 periods.  He is an at risk Algebra 1 student so he gets an extra period of support to make sure he is successful.  My colleagues comments gave me pause as I contemplated the atmosphere in my classroom, why are my students so loud and talkative in my classes?

While contemplating if the level of conversation in my classroom, I started observing my students to acquire insight as to what is going on and this is what I discovered:

  • I have worked hard to create a safe environment for my students and when they walk into our classroom  I sense a sigh of relief.  The students are not afraid of making mistakes, of being wrong, of not knowing.  So, when they enter, they want to tell me things about their day, what is going on in their lives and they are relaxed and relieved to be in our classroom.
  • They see me being myself (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and that is a model and invitation for them to do the same.  I want to know my kiddos and they have to feel comfortable and trust me.  We laugh at my weaknesses and celebrate my strengths which in turn allows them to do the same with each other.
  • I am implementing standards based grading (I am at the infancy level) which has given students a confidence level I have not seen in my 20 years of teaching.  They understand that they have to prove knowledge of standards and instead of asking what to do to get an A, they ask "what do I need to do to show advanced or proficient on a standard?"  What an incredible shift in conversation in the classroom!
  • The students are persevering on problems that they would have given up on and proudly stating: "I did it the long way because that is what made sense for me."  
  • The students freely admit, "I don't know what to do or understand what is going on", knowing that I will not tell them the answer, but will ask guiding questions to help them make meaning and build their understanding.  I love when a student comes to me and says: "I know you will not tell me anything, but could you ask me some questions to help me move forward?"
So, as I contemplate the loudness of my classroom, instead of thinking that I am failing at discipline, I need to look at the reasons for the increased level of conversation.  The students are comfortable, relaxed, and confident.  Isn't that what any teacher would want happening in their classroom?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's Time To Break the Rules

The other morning my son and I had to leave for school when it was still dark because I had a morning staff meeting.  As we drove he asked me a question, "Mom, do I usually go to school at night?"  He is in kindergarten and he still equates darkness with night time.  What shocked me was the next thing out of his mouth, "Mom, the sun will rise over there" he pointed to the east, then he continued, "I know that because when I look that way (to the west) it is very dark, and when I look that way (to the east) the sky is turning blue and the clouds are pink."  As a middle school math and science teacher I was amazed and alarmed at the same time.  My almost six year old son was hypothesizing, thinking, and being a scientist and that amazed me.  What alarmed me was thinking about my middle school students and how they are obedient rule followers who no longer trust the thinking, hypothesizing scientist and/or mathematician who lives within.

I have had a week off for Thanksgiving and it has enabled me to get my head in the right place for my students. I have been able to follow my twitter PLN.  Monday I watched Angela Maiers Purposeful Play Keynote for the upcoming K12 Online Conference.  As I watched I wrote down the 10 Sandbox Rules and I observed my 5 year old son demonstrate the rules all throughout our week off.  I sat back, kept my mouth shut, did not interfere and realized, these rules are innately there, the kids know them, follow them, and when they step out of line, they are called on them.  You really have to check out Angela's video to discover the 10 Sandbox Rules!

So, what does this have to do with middle school mathematics?  My kiddos have been taught to abandon the Sandbox Rules and blindly follow rules that make no sense to them.  Interestingly, I have transformed from a rule follower to a rule breaker and I am encouraging my students to do the same.  Utilizing standards based grading has enabled me to do this.  This is my first year of implementation so it is VERY MESSY (which is sandbox rule #2).  The students and I are muddling through together defining standards and discussing what proof of understanding looks like.

We came to a place a couple of weeks ago that I had not expected.  We were discussing a math standard and the difference between advanced and proficient scores.  We began debating mathematical understanding in algebra.  My students brought up that my requirement was for them to prove understanding, yet I was punishing them for not blindly following a rule (Rule # 6 take it to the community when you need help).   I have always encouraged my students to solve problems in ways that make sense to them and to make sure that they explain their way so that I understand their process.  Yet on an assessment, I was not honoring the various methods of solving the problem.

 It was an eye opening experience.  My students were doing what Skyler did on our early morning drive: think, hypothesize, and prove their understanding of a math problem which is what I have been working on having them do since day one of the school year.  Outside pressures had momentarily gotten the best of me and thankfully my students pulled me back to the reality of how our classroom works.  We are going to break the rules and still learn all of our standards.  How awesome is that?

I am so looking forward to the upcoming K12 Online Conference on Purposeful Play!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Filling Up the Love Tank

I am in Napa Valley this weekend hanging with my girlfriends from high school.  We have been friends for 40 years and we get together twice a year to "fill our love tanks".  It is a weekend of good food, good wine and unconditional love between old friends who have been through the adolescent years together (good, bad, ugly) and as adults have built a sacred circle of friendship.  We counsel, discuss, encourage, support, laugh, cry, hug, and just "BE" without any expectations.  As I get my head and heart ready to head home today, I can't stop thinking about the things that fill my love tank in my daily life, which in turn leads me to think about my students and their love tank

In my personal life, my tank is filled by the usual suspects: family, friends, pets, spirituality, gratitude, music, exercise, hobbies and writing.  Sacred family time everyday, sacred writing time every morning, and sacred exercise time every night allow me to maintain sanity and live with gratitude in my heart for all that I experience.  They also provide me with the strength I need during the times that my tank is emptying out from multiple holes that cannot be stopped up fast enough.

In my educator life, I also have many things that fill my love tank.  Exactly a year ago I attended my first Classroom 2.0 Live Saturday class.  That one action has snowballed into many other actions and has changed the entire make up of my classroom and what I do as an educator on a DAILY basis!  I began attending the weekly classes every Saturday learning from incredible educators from all over the US and the world.  I could not learn enough from the presenters who shared what they knew and their resources so freely.  The next stop came after months of encouragement from the presenters,  I opened my twitter account @teachteKBeck.  Again a small thing that has lead to huge changes.  A few months later, the birth of this blog.

I see myself as a newborn in this process of building a professional learning network, yet the process makes so much sense.  I began with a will to fill my love tank by learning how to integrate technology and new teaching strategies into my classroom.  Then I began following the people who were teaching me and took, took, and took more.  Although I am predominately a taker, I am slowly becoming a sharer.  It is a natural path that all of my mentors on twitter have traveled.  And as I "follow" (on twitter) their path, I move forward in my learning and sharing and growing as an educator.

In the past I filled my professional love tank by attending summer institutes.  Now, with my PLN I can fill my tank any day, any time, any where.  Just as I found kindred spirits at the writing and math projects, I have many more in my PLN.  My learning has increased exponentially, and even though I have not met members of my PLN face to face, I feel closer to them than most of my colleagues that I see everyday at my school.  The educators I learn from on twitter push me to close my eyes and leap.  I have blind faith that I can trust and try new things with my students.  So far, I have not been let down.  They push me, I push my students and we are all better for it.  I model how to learn from mistakes on a daily basis.  I also admit to my students that I am trying something new and I am not sure how it will work but we will see together.  I tell my students "I don't know" all of the time.   I have so many places to go for help that I have no fear in trying new things.  Interestingly, my students openly admit when they do not know how to do something knowing that we will work through it together.

So, What I worry about is my students and what fills their love tanks.  Middle school is such a hard time for kiddos and I see so many students with very low tanks.  Now that I have found the unlimited professional love tank filler, I want to help my students find as many ways as possible to fill their tanks.

In my math classes we are creating math blogs where the students begin by sharing a "passion paper" (The Passion Driven Classroom).  My plan is to help students connect what we are learning in math to their passion on a monthly basis.  I have also integrated the first Classroom 2.0 Live Saturday webinar I attended by Karen McMillan on Paper Blogs.  Wow, I have come full circle in a year.

Looking forward to continually filling my love tank and my students love tanks!  I would love any ideas!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How am I going to stop the cycle of failure?

I have had a blessed teaching career!  However, this year has been a struggle that I can only compare to what I experienced my toughest years of teaching.  I leave school everyday wondering how I am going to find the will to want to come back in the morning.  Every morning I wake up re-energized and ready to fight for my students one more day.  I am back to the day to day fight for survival in the classroom which makes me feel guilty (I'll explain more in a little bit).

The past few years have allowed me to pretend that I was reaching all of my math students.  Before this year, I had a mix of students and because my high and middle students were succeeding, I pretended that the small percentage that were not succeeding were just those kiddos who don't and won't get math.  Of course I provided advisory periods, before and after school help, and lots of encouragement.  But in the end when they still struggled and did not show proficiency on standards I could let it go because it was not a "significant" number of students compared to the ones who were being successful in my classes.  Although I did rationalize it away, the fact that they were not succeeding gnawed at me, unfortunately not enough for me to address the issues.

This year, the lack of student success is in my face each and every day.  As I stated in earlier blog posts, I have a class of 35 eighth grade pre-algebra students, 23 of which are the lowest eighth grade math students in the school (project class).  This class has taught me so much in the first eight weeks of school!  They teach me about patience, about fear, and that even though they have lost hope as math learners they want to somehow succeed.  I am going to spend more time writing about these kiddos, because these are the ones that are pushing me.  I am questioning so many things as an educator, as a parent, and as someone whose passion is life long learning.  One thing I know for sure is the reason I have been a classroom teacher for 20 years is because I am full of hope and faith.  Hope and faith come back to me as I sleep each night and allow me to eagerly take on a new school day no matter what happened the day before.

This Week:  We started our fractions unit and I thought equivalent fractions would be a "confidence builder" for my "project class".  I asked the students to write 5 equivalent fractions for two thirds.  Interestingly, about two thirds of my class could not do it, and did not even want to attempt it.  They completely gave up.

The Facts:  These students have been learning fractions rules since third grade.  Their brains are full of muddled rules that make no sense.  They have no confidence in their ability to be mathematicians.

Story Time:  My little sister was one of these students.  She was an extreme math phobe.  It took her four years of high school to pass algebra 1.  Luckily way back then, you could get your diploma!  She struggled in math in junior college but got through.  Not only did she graduate from college, but from Oregon State, a Pac 10 school (a dream of mine that was never fulfilled).  She still believes that she is a math idiot.  Remember the  "guilty" part from above... I mentioned my day to day fight... My sister had breast cancer at age 29.  Talk about a day to day fight (hence the guilt!).  I know that many of the kiddos in my "project" class have day to day fights in their lives that I have no idea about and some I do know about and wish I didn't.

What I'm Wondering:  How am I going to help these students?  Do I have enough time to make a difference and change their beliefs?  What am I going to do that will make a difference?  Will connecting math to real life situations help them understand math better?

What I Know:  Re-teaching the "rules" will not work with these kiddos.  They felt comfortable enough to let me know that they couldn't do it.  They want math to make sense.  They trust me not to make them feel stupid.  They know I want to help them succeed.

Next Steps:  Use tools.  Show the students that they have an innate ability to understand fractions by providing meaningful situations connected to their lives.  Keep building trust.

I have to give a shout out to my PLN!  If it weren't for my twitter tweeps, I would be feeling extremely isolated and alone.  Thank you for sharing your experiences and resources and learning!

Any ideas or suggestions would be welcome!!
I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Need Perspective on "Learning Tools"

I need some feedback on whether I am way off on this or not.  I teach middle school math and for the first time in 8 years, I am not also teaching science.  I have also volunteered to work with the eighth grade students who struggle the most in math to help build their confidence, teach them how to think mathematically and get them ready for a fast paced 9th grade Algebra 1 class.  This class was supposed to have the 23 lowest students, however, the other classes that period we too large so they added another 13 pre-algebra 8th graders so now it is a class of 36 math phobic middle school students. 

I am working my tail off to help these kiddos and make learning math a positive experience for them.  I am up against some interesting attitudes.  These kids have been failing math for at least the past three years or more.  They see math as a bunch of meaningless rules that are all mixed up in their brain.  They see themselves as stupid and have no confidence in their ability to think mathematically or "do" math.

When I spend time helping them by asking questions and guiding their thinking, they show me they can think mathematically, however I don't see the lightbulb go off or hear the "OHHHH".  They prove to me everyday that they have math understanding, but they are almost shocked and surprised when they realize they have it.  It is almost like the movie 50 first dates, everyday they walk in not remembering the success they had the day before - success amnesia.

So, my questions...
I am wanting to build their confidence by letting them use tools - calculators, computers, smart phones, iPods, etc...  It is my belief that if their lack of confidence and skills is getting in the way of their showing understanding on the grade level content standards then why not let them use a calculator?  If they use the tool to prove that they do understand, then they will eventually no longer need to rely on it.  I would combine the use with explanations of understanding and by having the students write exactly what is being put into the calculator.  I need the students to see for themselves that they can do it.  They have felt for so long that they can't be successful in math so they do not even try.  I'm getting pressure from my math department on a variety of issues - standards based grading, using tools, making real life math connections, using computer collaboration tools, etc...  Am I way off on this one?  Any other suggestions?

I appreciate ANY feedback my PLN can provide!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I can't believe I have to defend thinking...

I am posting an email I sent to a concerned parent this week.  I want to make sure I have it documented as I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say.  I thought of this process as a "position paper".  I have had to write something similar the past few years as I work in a very conservative school district.  I have to battle each year to defend what I do in my classroom.  How dare I demand that my math students think!  Here are the major concerns of the parent: 

 "My concerns are this, He comes home everyday concerned about the "looseness" of your class, He doesn't feel he is being taught to, that they have to figure it out on their own"

"I understand that 7th grade is an adjustment and that every teacher has their own teaching style. I think that every kid should be taught to regardless of their level and wonder if there are any changes that can be made or if he needs another more straight forward class assignment. Ipods and cellphones are allowed? The class is very chaotic? Alot of independent study??" 

Hi Concerned Parent,

As an educator, my goal is to help students become literate citizens.  Math literacy is more than students being able to blindly follow a rule or set of procedures given by the teacher to solve problems.  It involves a deeper understanding and the ability to argue, prove, explain, and/or demonstrate understanding.  Therefore, I use research based methods (I would be happy to share my resources!) to facilitate instruction and learning.  I work to help students make their own meaning of the math standards/concepts.  The students have to prove their understanding rather than follow a prescribed set of instructions that become forgotten and meaningless once an assessment is over.  Their grade is based on understanding not compliance.

Everyone in my class is expected to think mathematically including me.  I work to provide an environment where I am not the answer provider but the question asker.  I will help and support all students as they work to make meaning and to understand a concept.  I will ask guiding questions to enable students to re-discover the mathematical thinker that lies within, but has been silenced and squelched by an obedient rule follower.  Not that rules are not important but they need to be the students’ rules not the teacher’s.  Math is not a discipline of blind faith.

I use standards based grading to involve students in their learning by informing them of their areas of weakness and strength.  Then they have a chance to work to improve and show me they truly understand a mathematical concept as opposed to regurgitating a rule or process they copied from me.  I expect students to prove their understanding by not only providing a correct answer, but by also providing evidence of knowledge.

I can understand a student’s discomfort with getting to know the way my classroom works.  In general, I follow the exact same pacing guide as every other math teacher at our middle school.  We are all giving our first unit assessment which is a common assessment next week.  We all teach the same exact standards.  I believe I am fairly explicit in my expectations and due dates.  I have 6 assignments each week: Math Book problems, Question of the Week, Real Life math problem solving, graphing and/or statistics, Analytical Reading and BuzzMath.  Two of the 6 assignments are specifically done on the computer: BuzzMath and Analytical Reading (Collaborize).  Since Monday’s are shorter, we use our time to look at Real-life connections to our math concepts.  The other assignments are given on Tuesday and are all due the following Tuesday.  Late or missing assignments are not counted against a student’s grade, however that does not mean they “do not matter”.  I do not assign meaningless work.  Each activity is tied directly to a content standard or to our school wide smart goal of “analytical reading” as it relates to mathematics.  Weekly quizzes are given so that I can assess where the students are with their understanding and provide feedback for all students and instruction for struggling students in a small group environment. 

Our daily routine starts with a warm up which gives the students practice and allows me to walk around the room and monitor where the students are in their understanding and ask guiding questions.  Then the last 35 minutes of class the students work on their assignments for the week and I monitor to help them when they ask or when I see a student has a particular need.  Yes, I allow students to use their cell phones and/or iPods as tools – calculators mainly as I do not believe a parent should buy a calculator when the student’s phone can be used as one.  On Fridays, if the students bring headphones they may listen to their music, another research based strategy that I can share with you.  The environment has a lot of activity because the students are choosing what to work on which is formally called differentiated learning and what I like to call “organized chaos”.  It may be louder than the typical classroom, but every student is actively engaged in learning mathematics.  I also have a mix of 7th and 8th grade students in the class and there are times when middle school students can be immature and inappropriate which I deal with immediately as needed. 

I would be happy to meet with you, have you come in to observe, or speak on the phone if you need more information.

Thank you for sharing your concerns,
Kristen Beck

Please feel free to steal and or copy from this!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Real Life Problem Solving, Really?

On September 10, 2011 I attended Dan Meyer's Perplexity Session.  I have been reading Dan's blog regularly and following him on twitter.  I also regularly check his #anyqs hashtag for interesting pictures, videos and discussions about math topics that make math real and meaningful for students.  

So, last year after attending a Classroom 2.0 Live webinar in which Dan was the speaker of the day, I decided to start creating weekly real-life problems with pictures of myself with my family.  I worked to tie the content standards of the particular unit we were studying into things that I experienced on the weekends.  The following link is my "bastardization" of Dan's vision:  Real Life Problem Solving.  

I began my journey while on a trip to a Christmas tree farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  It was a big deal because my husband grew up on a Christmas tree farm in the Santa Cruz mountains and had never paid for a tree and had never had a tree that was not from his family farm.  As we walked for hours looking for the perfect tree, I took pictures of my 5 year old son, my husband, tree prices, snack bar menus and more.  Some were for the sake of memories, others were an experiment in giving my students some examples of how math occurs in their daily lives.

Last year I would compile pictures from my weekend into a Google document, always keeping  the content standards we were studying in mind.  Monday morning I would show the document to the students and ask for questions based on the pictures and information I had on the Google document.  I strayed from Dan's vision significantly because I included information with the picture which I thought would steer the student questions in a certain direction.  Interestingly, my students still surprised me with the things they thought of/about when asking questions.  As they posed questions, I typed them into the document and we decided as a class what questions to explore and not explore.  I gave the students a week to work on the questions and it turned out that I had the highest completion rate on any outside of class assignment EVER.  

I am thinking there are a few possible reasons for increased student interest in solving my real-life problem solving questions, non of which are research based.  First, I shared my life with my students weekly and I got to tell some interesting stories while taking pictures for the problems: such as my son and Star Wars pancakes, getting banned from taking pictures in a super market, why we have piles of mail on our floor, valentines, soccer games, toys, and much more.  Second, I integrated technology by using Google documents, Google data, Google maps, Kiva micro loans, and other links and websites.  I did not have a classroom full of computers, in fact I only had 3 student computers, however, the students worked on the problems from home.  Third, the problems promoted collaboration.  The students would sit in front of a computer, pull up the pictures and questions and discuss, debate, contemplate, assume, and problem solve together rather than work alone.  Finally, it provided an opportunity for students to persuasively argue a position they took when solving the problems.  This allowed for multiple perspectives and an incredible discussion the day the assignment was due.

This year the assignment and process are morphing into a different beast.  I think last year I did what was comfortable.  I took the pictures, integrated the technology, aligned the standards, and allowed the students to ask the questions.  This year I have a different group of kiddos and I have the seven hours I spent with Dan Meyer to learn his process and 3 act plan.  This year I am working to make the process more inclusive and collaborative.  I am also working to make it 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is it Worth the Battle?

Four weeks into my journey of creating a student driven classroom I have one thing to say: It Is Extremely Difficult!  At the same time I keep in mind the word TRUST.  As I stated in an earlier post, Dr. Metzger trusted his graduate students to take the reigns.  In that same spirit, I remind myself everyday that I do truly believe that my students are capable and that if I stay the course, provide the foundation and not allow the skeptics everywhere to pollute my vision, the students will make it happen.  My heart tells me this, it is my head that I have to shut up on a daily basis.  Since this blog will be documentation of my journey with this process, I want to acknowledge the difficulties I have encountered thus far.

One of the great changes and great challenges has been starting a standards based grading system.  I believe that to truly have a student driven environment, evaluation must be standards based because then everything is driven by students proving they have learned the content standards.  It has enabled me to align every activity to a standard.  I throw out anything that does not provide a valuable opportunity for students to practice and eventually prove they know a content standard.  It also allows students an opportunity to not waste time on things they already know how to do.  They can provide proof of understanding to me and then spend their time on standards they need to master.  Students have multiple opportunities to prove knowledge and time is of no concern.  I do not believe in punishing students for taking a longer time to learn something.  

The challenge of implementing this is immense.  By the time students reach middle school, they are used to not having to be responsible for their learning.  They turn something in, it gets graded, and they are "done".  I have found that students resist taking responsibility for their learning.  They have not been asked to do so in seven years and now that is exactly what I am asking them to do.  This system that is new to students has created great anxiety for them.  The students who are used to striving for and getting the A are baffled by a rubric score for each standard.  They just want to know what their overall grade is.  They are also not used to having to explain their thinking and provide evidence of deeper understanding rather than just regurgitating information.  The kiddos who are what I call "willful non-performers" are uncomfortable because they can't just take the D or F.  I am in their face poking, prodding, asking, and making them provide some sort of evidence of their learning.  It is the students in the middle that seem to immediately embrace this system.  They feel that they finally get a chance to prove their smartness and they are relieved that although there is a pacing guide for the course, they have a second chance and will work hard to prove they know a standard.  

So, I TRUST the process, the students, the parents, myself.  We are in an uncomfortable spot right now.  Interestingly, the atmosphere in my classroom is energetic even though the students are uncertain.  I tell the students daily that I trust them to make responsible decisions.  My classroom is turning into a place of inquiry, and collaboration.  The best part is that they do not look to me for the answers, they are looking to each other.  As Dr. Metzger did with his students, I am teaching mine that we are a community of learners and I am not the all knowing powerful OZ.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Student Driven Learning

This summer I had to move to a new classroom.  As I unpacked my boxes of books and resources, I came upon my "big binders" box.  I recognized all of the binders except one.  It was full of stuff and as I opened it, the memories came rushing back.  It was a binder that contained the best learning/teaching experience I have had as a student and as a teacher.  It was from one of my master's classes and it taught me more about myself as an educator, and a learner.  It was an incredible example of what I would now consider a "flipped" classroom experience.  Ironically, it was the last thing I unpacked and placed on the bookshelf, and it seemed to yell at me, "Hey Dummy, this is what you are looking for!"

One of my goals for the new school year is to utilize student driven learning.  I have been collecting all sorts of resources to support my journey into this area.  Josh Stumpenhorst has a blog that I follow regularly and he is the impetus for making the jump.  When you click on his name you will be taken to his blog posts about student driven learning and many other topics.  In my 21 years of teaching, I have always been a risk taker and every time I have closed my eyes and jumped into something that another educator has shared with me I have not regretted it!  So what does the binder I found in a box and my goal of student driven learning  have to do with each other?  Good question!

The master's class that was contained in the binder was about issues in education but in reality it was about student driven learning.  The professor had turned the class over to us, his students.  We got to pick issues in education that we thought were important, assign readings and authentic work for our classmates to complete.  Then the following week during class, we guided the discussion based on our assignment and we graded the work that our fellow classmates turned in.  Talk about taking a risk for all members of the class.  For the professor, he had to trust the educators as learners.  He had to let go of control and have faith that we would provide rich learning experiences for our fellow classmates.  As students we had to prove to our professor and our fellow classmates that we could rise to the occasion and not only challenge each other but provide a thoughtful, meaningful assignment that would encourage a lively, deep discussion of education issues.  I had never worked so hard for a class in my life.  I spent hours each week reading, writing, and thinking about each incredible assignment based on an assortment of educational issues that were real for me in my daily practice.  

It was interesting because I did not want to disappoint my fellow students almost more so than my professor.  It was the ultimate example of student driven learning.  I am embarrassed that it has taken me 14 years to realize that I should have been doing more of this in my classroom.  I remember my professor telling us at the end of the semester that he was worried that we would not be able to handle the format of the class and take it to the place he was hoping we would.  We had exceeded his expectations and it was not until the end of the semester that we learned this was the first time he had done this with any of his classes.  We were the guinea pigs.  He closed his eyes, jumped and trusted us, his students.

So, as I begin a new year, I will be working to provide opportunities for my students to drive the learning.  I will make sure that I continue to trust their efforts by continually providing examples, having conversations and tracking their ideas and progress.  I plan on using technology tools such as collaborize, voicethread, glogster and prezi to facilitate discussions, share resources, and allow students to present their knowledge and understanding.  

Now on to standards based grading...

Friday, July 29, 2011

13 Days and Counting

Holy Cow, I go back on August 11th and my students start on August 17th.  It is time to get serious  about what I am going to do this coming school year.  I have an insane amount of twitter links uploaded to multiple evernote notebooks that I need to re-visit.  My concentration has been on homework and grading.  I have some great resources!  My type A side of my personality is obsessing on planning.  I love that part of myself, but right now I want to embrace my creative, flighty, global thinking, child part of myself who is loudly protesting the task master.  She is screaming  to remind me that as much as I try to plan and organize, and make never ending lists what I really need to do is stop and trust my gut!!  And more importantly, think about the kids who will be walking through the door in a matter of days.

So now I am looking at the notes I took while watching Chris Lehmann's ISTE Keynote and thinking of what has been the basis of my teaching career for the past 21 years: my students.  It has always been and will always be about the relationship I build/have with my students.  Here are some key ideas taken from his keynote that will guide me in the next days as I plan for a new school year:

  • Thoughtful, Passionate, Kind
  • "The ethic of care" I care about my students and I care for my students - a family
  • Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, Reflection
  • Okay to fail as long as I am learning
  • Never doubt the Wisdom of the Voices of children
  • Teach them to ask powerful questions
  • Head, Heart, Hands, Voice
  • Technology should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible
I am a mathematics teacher.  So it is easy to get caught up in the high stakes testing and endless standards.  But this year will begin differently, it will begin by acknowledging passion.  I have read the The Passion Driven Classroom by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold this summer.  So to begin my school year I plan on incorporating passion in the following ways:
I'm thinking that this is not the beginning my department chairman is expecting.  However, as I sit here listening to Phil Collins sing "You'll Be In My Heart" I think of the incredible students who have touched my heart for the past 21 years.  It is about the students first, then the mathematics I am supposed to teach.  

Now I have the perspective I need to start my new school year!

Friday, July 22, 2011

New School Year Technology Tools

I just received an email from my district notifying all teachers that we will be getting two furlough days back.  That means I will be starting school earlier than originally planned.  So tonight I am thinking about the new school year.  Not that I have not been thinking all summer, but I want to write some ideas and plans I have for integrating technology.  Here are some of the tools I am planning on using...

My Teacher Tools: these are the tech tools that will make me more organized etc...

Twitter - the most incredible professional development tool EVER
Evernote - an incredible note-taking application - shortens all websites so that they are easily embedded into websites or elsewhere.
Livebinders - a great tool for collecting and sharing websites, blogs, and web 2.0 resources.
Snapgrades - an online gradebook that allows me to walk around with my phone and grade students, use rubrics, standards based grading and much more.  Students and parents can log in also!
Google Everything - I use a google email for students and parents to get a hold of me and I can easily respond on my phone, google docs, google sites, etc...  I am looking forward to using google+ for my student groups and parent groups.

Student tools I will use (I am sure I will add to this list!)
Collaborize - I am planning on using this as my go to blended learning tool.
Prezi - this is a tool the students love to use to make presentations
Glogster - another great tool for presenting
Google Docs etc... Love this for collaborative writing projects, yes we write in math!!
Voicethread - I really like how students can create a voicethread and then others can contribute and collaborate!
Evernote - I'll teach my kiddos how to use evernote as a tool for organizing and taking notes.
Livebinders - Another tool for organizing
BuzzMath - this is a cool website for students to practice math... Middle School Level!

I know this is only a handful of sites.  I spent last year playing with things and attending Classroom 2.0 Saturday webinars on many of these sites.  I want to mention Edmodo.  I think it is a great site, however for my middle school students it did not work, therefore this coming year I am going to use Collaborate.  I believe Edmodo would be great for younger students.

These are my plans, I just wanted to share.