Monday, May 29, 2017

Imagine the Possibilities: Romancing SBL

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about why SBL is so important. For the past 8 years, this has been almost our sole focus, first as classroom teachers trying to make it work, and then as instructional leaders, helping others make it work. And after almost a decade, we are not yet burnt out; in fact, despite frustrations and obstacles and curveballs and exhaustion, we are more energized than ever. Why? Because SBL has the potential to transform education in really cool ways.

If you haven’t yet watched Dr. Robert Duke’s amazing lecture at Cornell University, clear your schedule for the next hour and do so. It’s called “Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach,” and centered within 50 minutes of insight and humor, he talks about the balance between romance and precision. So often, Duke says, we think learners need to master the details--precision--before they can truly experience the romance of a discipline or a subject or a topic. But the problem is that the precision is hard. It requires patience and perseverance and reflection. It requires sweat and failure and doubt. All of that is important--vital, actually--but why on earth would anyone struggle through all of that precision? Why take the time to sweat and fail and doubt and practice and reflect and repeat? Because of the romance. Because of the possibilities that precision open up.

The same is true of SBL. It’s so easy to get caught up in the precision of the transformation and forget the romance. We spend so much time on targets and scales and assessments and reporting; we dive into the measuring and the calibrating and the tracking so we can more accurately communicate about learning. This is all vital. And it’s hard. So hard (See: This SBL Thing is Freakin’ Hard). We want teachers to be patient, to be reflective, to persevere, to fail, to sweat, and to keep trying. We say it’s better for learning (true), and that it will improve engagement (true), and that we will have much more honest and clear communication (true). But if we don’t balance that precision with the romance of possibility, then we risk getting lost in the details and losing sight of what can be.

So, set aside your targets and scales and grade-books and KUDs and common assessments for a few minutes, and let yourself be romanced. Imagine the possibilities that SBL allows!

Imagine if we had no bells.

What if the schedule was driven by interest and need rather than by bells? Bells were instituted in schools to efficiently move large numbers of students in and out of classrooms. They are a system of control that signify the start and/or end of usually equal blocks of time someone has determined is necessary. Google “Bell Schedules” and poke around at the first few you find. Here are some interesting things we found:

  • A school in Connecticut: 5th period is from 12:13-1:06
  • A school in California: Period 2: 8:48-9:36
  • A school in Arizona: Period 6: 11:19-12:12

In some schools bells ring every 28 minutes (to accommodate middle and high school needs with a single bell system), some ring every 53 minutes, and some every 90 minutes. In some schools there is a bell to signify the start of class, a bell to signify the end of class, and a warning bell to signify that the bell that will signify the start of the next class is about to ring. When you stop to think about it, it’s nuts. When was the last time you met a friend for lunch at 12:13? When was the last time you had a meeting with your financial planner at 9:36? How can any learner, particularly adolescent learners, be expected to reach any understanding or depth when switching activities every 28 or 42 or 53 or even 87 minutes?

We could overhaul the schedule. Imagine what it could look like (and sound like!) if students moved when we and they determined it was time based on learning needs and interest. Students might build their own weekly or monthly schedules (with help from an advisor), and may spend 28 minutes on certain tasks and 3 hours on others. If we have a way to track and monitor learning--and if students understand their own strengths and challenges more than they ever have--then we no longer have to live by the bell. If we are working together as a school on transferable skills, then we will no longer need to chunk the day into equal-size blocks, and can instead flex our time to meet the needs of our learners. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Imagine if we had no disciplines.

What if we didn’t sort learning into content areas? Content or discipline areas allow us to organize sets of knowledge, skills, and understandings into manageable silos. Students talk about having “history work,” or doing “English” or going to “science class.” But we all know that’s not real. None of us break our days into disciplines. Sure, we focus on different types of tasks throughout the day, but could you actually label your tasks based on discipline? Scientists do science, but aren’t they also communicating through writing (English) and calculating (math) and looking at historical precedence (history) and graphically expressing findings (art)? Writers are writing, but aren’t they also pitching their ideas (public speaking), researching background (science or history) and depending on the topic of the writing, incorporating all sorts of other content areas? Life is not sorted by discipline.

We could reorganize learning. Imagine what it would feel like to be in a building organized by topics or themes rather than disciplines. Students might be based in a sustainability hub, working to solve problems and make the community a better place. To do so, they would need to learn relevant math and history and science and art and language, but these would all now be in service to the central theme or topic. Teachers with expertise in a certain areas would do deep dives with students, acting as mentors and facilitators and even at times, lecturers. Hubs would need to be grounded in transferable skills, and together we would work to create learning targets that help students push their current abilities and challenge existing understandings. Students could track their own learning (with lots of guidance and help from the teachers), set goals, and reflect constantly; we could graduate students who are curious, self-directed, and who are not only prepared to change the world, but have already been doing so. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Imagine if we had no locks on the doors.

What if school never closed? When I was in college in New Hampshire, we made a yearly middle-of-the-night trek to Freeport, Maine to visit LL Bean. While we could have made the two hour drive in the morning or afternoon, knowing that we could show up at 2:00 in the morning was just novel enough that it made it irresistible. If you aren’t from New England, you may not know that the store in Maine doesn’t have locks on the doors. They are always open--weekends, nights, holidays. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Most schools open their doors around 7:00 am and close around 4:00 pm, with exceptions for some club or sporting events. This is true 5 days a week, 181 days a year. There may be a few summer school classes, or an innovative evening class for students, but for the most part, school runs at predictable and regular times for limited hours, days, and weeks.
We could reimagine the days. Imagine what it would be like to come into the building on a Saturday morning and see dozens of students and a handful of teachers working on a project together. Students might decide they need access to the stage, so they sign up and show up. A teacher might decide to run a three hour workshop on a Tuesday night for anyone who wants to attend--students or community members. The school might decide to offer night classes for juniors and seniors who need their sleep during the day, or who want to be part of internships. Families could learn together in the summer, community organizations could take advantage of the facilities, teachers could pursue their own learning, and students could offer to teach courses to students. While many of these activities are allowed at schools now--often with special permission and lots of planning and money to pay someone to show up with a key--they could become the norm. If we are focused on transferable skills and have ways to document and track learning, then that learning can truly become the constant and how and when students learn can be so much more creative and flexible. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Romance and Precision

It’s amazing to imagine the possibilities for the future of public education. There are so many cool, innovative ideas out there, and even more that no one has thought of yet. Each year we learn more and more about the brain and learning, and each year our world changes faster than we ever imagined it could. SBL is a result of those understandings, and each year we struggle to make changes to our systems that align with what we currently know while anticipating needs for the future.

We must dive deep into the precision of the work, learning how to write effective targets and scales, learning how to assess transferable skills rather than content knowledge, learning how to instruct students at all different readiness levels, and figuring out how to track, report, and respond to the learning. We must dig in and determine the best way to communicate about learning with students, with parents, with colleges, with careers, and with each other. We need to challenge our own experiences and understandings in order to challenge our students. And all the while, we need to keep doing the daily work of building relationships with our learners and maintaining enough sanity and energy to do this effectively (and sustainably). That’s not easy. The precision required for SBL will take time and sweat and failure and perseverance and reflection, and we may even want to give up. That’s why we must continue to imagine the possibilities...and keep the romance alive.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Grain Size Matters: Determining the Scope of Learning Targets

There have been many questions lately in the schools where we work about the scope of our learning targets. How big or small should they be?  How general and how specific?  Are they meant to show student achievement for the whole year, or for a shorter period of learning? How do we track and report different types of targets?

After years of working with learning targets in our own classroom and in classrooms throughout our district, we have some answers (many of which will lead to more questions). Please note that our answers are based on our particular context around targets and grading here in our district, and might vary in other contexts.

When writing targets, we must consider grain size, meaning the scope of the targets and how much time we expect it to take for students to meet or surpass them (knowing that time is the variable and the learning of the target is the constant). Here are the three most common grain sizes we are seeing in our district and when and how we might use each.

Yearlong Target: A yearlong target is a target that you anticipate will take the entire year for students to become proficient in. Yearlong targets must be broken into unit (or specific learning period) targets before you track and report them. Students (actually, all humans) need to see incremental growth in order to stick with learning, so when writing targets, we must determine the appropriate level of achievement in the skill over a smaller period of time. If we are scoring using a 1-4 scale, we cannot report 1s and 2s all year and expect students and parents to understand that learning is happening; in addition, these scores are too broad to be useful to us as teachers when we are trying to respond to our data in order to differentiate. Here is a blog we wrote about this very issue using a marathon metaphor. For the first 6 weeks of training (of an 18 week program), the runner cannot be expected to run the full 26.2 miles; her 6 week target might be 10 miles, so her distance achievement at that time should be based on the appropriate expectation. Thus, she would be scored on her achievement of the week six goal at that time, not week 18. This is the same for learning.

It may be easier to think of yearlong targets as “standards” that need to be broken into parts or shifted into incremental chunks, or interim targets. Interim targets (see below: repeating or unit) are precise and specific, and provide smaller destinations--where students should be along the way in order to be prepared to meet the yearlong standard.

  • Tracking and Reporting: We suggest that you track and report the interim targets only, as these are the ones that will provide data that allows you to be responsive with your instruction, and will provide appropriate level feedback about progress to students and parents. The goal of reporting is to be accurate and clear, so our scores must tie directly to the language of the target.

Example of Yearlong Target: Note the number of parts in this standard; it may not be realistic to expect students to be proficient in all parts of this standard early in the year, so breaking it into achievable parts and then writing scales will help us instruct and provide feedback.

I have a clear thesis with organizer; my purpose is appropriate to my audience and to the assignment; my leads support my thesis and organizer, and introduce subtopics; my purpose stays consistent throughout my paper.

Repeating Target: A repeating target is a target you will repeat in multiple units or over multiple reporting periods, and you anticipate students will reach proficiency each time with different content. This is the most common type of transferable target, often being introduced and heavily instructed in an early unit, and then brought back throughout the year. For example, targets that ask students to show cause and effect, that ask students to make claims, or that ask students to create models would all be targets that could repeat over and over with new (and perhaps more complex) content.

  • Tracking and Reporting: If you have set up your standards-based gradebook by unit, then you will include this target in each unit, entering scores that show achievement of that target with the specific content of the unit. When you do this, the “most recent” score calculation will be within the unit only, so a score of a 4 in your final unit will not replace a score of a 3 in an earlier unit. The scores live within the unit. If you have set up your gradebook by year, however, then you will enter the target only once, and each new score will replace the one before, regardless of unit content. See this document to help you decide which set-up works best for your course.

Example of Repeating Target: Note that this target will be instructed, practiced, and assessed in multiple units with different content; in later units, more time can be put on the practice, as instruction will be much more targeted based on need.


I have a clear thesis/claim with a single idea; the claim requires simple evidence and no analysis to prove.
I have a clear thesis/claim with more than one idea; the claim requires a single type of evidence and limited analysis to prove.
I have a clear thesis/claim with multiple relational  ideas; the claim  requires multiple types of evidence and substantive analysis to prove.

Unit Target: A unit target is a target that appears in only one unit or trimester, and is not be repeated for the full class once that unit/trimester is complete. These targets should still be transferable within the unit, meaning that they cannot be single-score targets. Students should be able to practice these throughout the unit with a variety of content in order to improve over time. In addition, just because the target will not formally repeat, students who did not meet proficiency should still have opportunity to show new learning later in the year. Our job is to ensure students learn, not just to teach, which means that unit targets may need to be readdressed for some or all of our students.

  • Tracking and Reporting: These targets are entered at the beginning of the unit, and tracked and reported throughout. Once the unit is complete, the final score will stand throughout the rest of the year and will appear on all reports and in the portal. If there is new learning later in the year, you will need to go back to that unit, add an assessment, and enter new scores for any students who have shown new learning (this new assessment will not have any effect on the other students, as no new data will be entered for them).

Example of Unit Target:

Reading: Rhetorical Analysis
I am currently working towards the next level.
I can locate/observe rhetorical devices in a text and can explain what they are.
I can analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance a specific POV or purpose in a text.
I can analyze the effect of multiple rhetorical devices on the text as a whole, considering context and audience.

Remember that the goal of reporting is always clear, accurate communication of achievement, and our targets and scales should assist in that communication. The grain size can help make these targets clear, provide instructional specificity, and communicate incremental (and effective) progress to our learners.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Standards-Based Learning and Special Education

Guest Blogger: Sarah Crum, Special Educator at CVUHS

The thing about working in a standards based teaching environment is that it invokes new questions. I don’t believe that I have any more questions about my teaching than I did before, but I am certain that my questions are different than they used to be. One of the most genuine questions that I have and that I hear from teachers who are shifting to standards based learning and assessing is “what do I do when I can’t get a kid to the target?” Here at CVU, teachers develop classroom targets that articulate the skills being taught and assessed in the class. Accompanying that target is a four point scale that defines the foundational skills (a 1 and a 2 on the scale) leading up to the target (a 3 on the scale) as well as beyond the target (a 4 on the scale). Teachers develop intentional instructional activities to meet students at their current skill level and help to move them forward on scale. This scale is also used for assessment purposes and gives students feedback about what they are able to do and what they need to do next. Teachers are currently able to give feedback in increments of .5, when evidence indicates achievement in both levels.
Gone are the days when we could just give fewer problems on the math sheet or give more points for perseverance. It is no longer adequate to alter the rubric to account for student effort or to reflect our compassion for a student’s individual struggles. In a true standards based system, I, as the teacher, have to be able to define, and report out, on what a student can do. This requires that I actually know what the student can do, not which areas of the rubric the student could not achieve nor what habits of learning or achievement deficits are preventing the student from succeeding. I have to actually be able to clearly articulate what each student is able to do. This is an ambitious task.

To support teachers in this endeavor, it is helpful to begin to categorize the types of accommodations, modifications, and differentiation one might use. Jung & Guskey, in their article Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education, 2007, publish a flow chart and explanation that gives guidance to teachers in distinguishing between accommodations and modifications for students who are struggling. Using that model, we have developed a more detailed flow chart that articulates specific scenarios for modification and the implications for reporting that are specific to our school’s approach to SBL.

Click on flow chart link above to see as a PDF

Accommodation vs Modification
For any classroom task or activity, the first step is to ask oneself if the task at hand is an appropriate expectation without being adapted. Many classroom activities will fall into this category as intentional groupings or purpose of the task reveal that adaptation is not needed. However, there will also be many instances when a teacher will know that there needs to be some sort of adaptation of the task to render it accessible to a student or group of students. This often looks like planning one lesson but thinking about the types of adjustments that are made for different levels of reading or students who may struggle to maintain attention. This is still one lesson, but includes accommodations or differing approaches that allow students to access the learning. At this point, the teacher asks whether these adaptations allow the student to demonstrate the given standard or whether the adaptation fundamentally changes the standard. For instance, if the standard is a critical thinking target, then adjusting for different reading levels does not impact the standard itself, and the adaptation is an accommodation. However, if the standard being assessed is a reading comprehension target, then a student who needs an adapted reading level may also need a modified standard.

Types of Modifications
We have found that the students who require modified standards generally fall into three categories: needing temporarily shifted scales, needing shifted scales, or needing new scales. However, it is important to note that students may fluctuate between categories. It is also important to note that in our experience, the percentage of students who require shifted scales or new scales is quite low: about 5% of students, five out of a grade level of 100 students, or perhaps one student in your class of twenty.

Temporary Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets Primarily for Instruction
This type of modification requires taking the classroom target and spending quality time articulating the two and the one as well as a couple of steps below. It helps the teacher plan for instruction, maybe breaking the learning down into smaller steps. These students may need classroom activities & tasks designed at the two, one, or even below to make incremental steps towards the three. But by the end of the unit, these students can perform consistently on the typical classroom targets (may be receiving 1.5, 2, 2.5), but have clearly made significant progress in learning throughout the unit because they started at the 1 or below. These students typically feel good about their progress and their grade is an accurate reflection of their mastery of those targets. This modification can be, and should be used, for any student who is struggling to show progress on the classroom scale. However, adding an accommodation to an IEP, 504, or EST is an important step for those students who have a plan so that communication is clear. An example accommodation is as follows: Use shifted targets to clearly define small, incremental steps in learning. This level of modification applies to the majority of mainstreamed students with disabilities.

Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets for Instruction & Assessment
Again, this type of modification requires taking the classroom target and backing it out by articulating the two, the one and below. Then, like using a ruler, the teacher assesses the student on a different set of 1-4, but using the same targets and skills so that the ultimate goal is to get back on the classroom targets. This is a student who may start the unit two or three steps below the one and work towards making the one on the regular classroom target. This student now has a new scale: the original course target of a one has become this student’s three. The expected growth for the student is the same as peers in that we would hope a student would jump maybe two slots on a scale and should receive a grade that reflects that achievement (this prevents a student who has jumped from a negative 2, so to speak, to the 1 from receiving a D in the class when the amount of growth is the same as peers). The number of targets that are backed out may vary, and depending on the student and the team, can decide the appropriate credit reported; the class name can be changed on a high school transcript if appropriate. This is the type of scenario where it may be appropriate to share the whole scale with the student and/or family (depending on the situation), so that they are clear about their child's skills in comparison to peers. This can be really delicate and would be done on a case by case basis. The Shifted Scale may be incorporated into the IEP goals, but an accommodation agreed upon by the team is also included. This type of modification typically applies to students with more significant disabilities. However, it is important that the school district is willing to make this level of modification available to any student.

New Scale: Developing Learning Goals for an Individual Student
This student is significantly below the targets in most areas and needs separate learning goals for class: New Scales, that may relate to the classroom targets, but aren't necessarily in perfect alignment with the classroom targets. In this case, they aren't really backed out targets. The classroom teachers and special educator take data on what the student can do and develop learning goals that make sense for that student in the mainstream classroom. Because the scale is different, the course name on the transcript in high school can be different. Showing the typical classroom targets may not be appropriate here; the family may already be aware of the need for an alternate curriculum. However, it is important to communicate with the IEP team that this student needs a New Scale and that this decision is made as an IEP team. This level of accommodation typically applies to more intensive needs students and the New Scale may become some of the IEP goals for the student. It should also be listed as an accommodation for those students with a formal plan.

Source: Flowchart has been adapted from Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2007). Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), 48-53. Copyright 2007 by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Differentiating in a Standards-Based Class

Perhaps the single greatest instructional benefit of standards-based learning is how effectively it sets us up to differentiate by readiness. When tracking achievement based on tasks (as we did in the traditional teaching model), it’s easy to gloss over differences and complicate our assessment and communication; we can add or subtract points for everything from lateness to neatness to skill demonstration to content knowledge. When planning, instructing, and assessing using learning targets and scales, however, it’s nearly impossible to ignore student differences. In a standards-based classroom we track specific skills, not general tasks, and so we can no longer confuse a student’s neatness with her ability to develop a thesis statement. Once we have isolated this skill achievement, we cannot ignore our role (and responsibility) in each student’s progress, and so we must differentiate.

There are many ways to differentiate and many reasons to do so. The focus of this blog is on differentiating by readiness based on formative assessment data. Differentiating by readiness is not tracking. One main difference is the flexibility that comes from determining needs based on precise learning targets; students in the top group for one skill will not be in that same group for another skill, and students who struggle with a particular skill one week will find themselves in a different group (and with different peers) when focusing on a new skill the following week. Another main difference between readiness grouping and tracking is the timing; tracking is long-term, while grouping is often no more than 30 minutes in a class. Tracking assumes a broad skill strength or deficit (often incorrectly or unfairly), and readiness grouping is based on specific evidence of a precise skill, and is therefore much more likely to change and vary in time. We should not group students based on broad categories of skill (i.e. Reading, Writing, Speaking), but rather on specific skills that we have assessed (i.e. inference in reading, purpose in writing, or projection in speaking).

After years of differentiating  in our humanities class (sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so well), we developed a system that helped make the planning and organization much more effective. Since becoming coaches and working with classrooms at all levels and in all disciplines, we have seen this system help teachers new to and experienced with differentiation become more intentional and efficient in their attempts to help all students progress.

The Readiness-Differentiation Planning Model

Target and Scale: Start with a target you are currently working with in class. You will need a scale for the target, preferably a transferable skill scale. As we discovered years ago, trying to differentiate content targets is nearly impossible without just throwing more work at some students and less at others. This usually does little to improve skills and may lead to frustration from all involved. But if you have a scale that defines multiple levels of skill progression (increasing in complexity), designing multiple tasks becomes much more manageable. Our example is a speaking scale with a specific focus on voice and presence. Our summative was a persuasive speech, so we needed to work on multiple elements of speaking; we isolated this skill as it seemed to have the most variation.

Formatively Assess and Sort: Carefully and intentionally design a formative assessment that will provide data of student achievement at all levels of the scale. For the sample below, we had already introduced the scale to the class and practiced at all levels as a group. Once we had played with the skill for a few classes, we designed a formative (a practice speech)  asking them to demonstrate what they could do. Sort your student formatives into 4 piles, each corresponding with a level on the scale. This is a great time to revise the language of your scale if necessary, as often seeing student work can help define the levels of the scale more accurately and clearly. If you do revise the language, remember to let students know you did! Once you have your student work sorted, enter the student names (names below have been changed!) in the second row of the template.

Determining Needs: Now that you have work sorted, take a look at each pile or evidence of work (in the case of the speaking scale, we had filled out rubrics with notes on achievement) and look for common misconceptions, patterns, missing ideas, and clear areas of need. Based on your analysis, what does each group need to move “plus one”? Think about the difference between instructional needs and practice needs. Consider which groups would benefit from individual work, and which need group instruction or work. This is where you plan for the ideal, meaning you write what each group needs regardless of logistical difficulties.

Organize and Manage: Finally, it’s time to determine the best way to organize the differentiated lesson. You may need to compromise a bit based on realities of your experience, your particular students, your environment, or your time constraints. But try to get as close to the ideal as possible, as that is what you (the professional) has determined will provide the greatest learning. You may decide to combine a few groups, to split the lesson into multiple days, or to ask a colleague to help for the lesson. Note that we chose to run 3 groups only for this lesson, as the needs of the two middle groups were similar (and we were worried about the management of 4 groups in a small space!). Here is a link to the 3 task sheets that we used to keep students focused and organized.

Here are some questions to consider when planning:
    1. How many groups do you think you can manage? Is there another person who can help you?
    2. How can you minimize transitions?
    3. How will you explain the differentiation to the class? (if this is not the culture of the class)
    4. What kind of task sheets will you need to ensure clarity?
    5. Which groups need you first, last?
    6. Within groups, do you want them working together or individually?
    7. How will you physically organize the space to meet the above needs?
    8. Do you have specific students you need to consider when grouping?

Here is a link to a google doc of the full template filled out (better quality than images above!).

Differentiating by readiness is the most efficient and effective way to ensure student progression on a particular skill. When we meet students where they are and provide appropriate challenge to get them to the next, clear target, they are much more likely to get there. Experiencing success is vital to learning, and when students see that the work they did in differentiated groups led to immediate growth, they will be much more willing to persevere when struggling. The outcome for the most advanced students is equally as rewarding; we all want to be challenged, and when our achievement is recognized and honored by added complexity rather than additional work, we feel respected as learners. Our role as teachers is to challenge each one of our students, and differentiating by readiness not only allows us to do this, but demands that we do.

There are many ways to differentiate by readiness, but this model has been successful for us and for the teachers and learners we work with. Here is a blank template. Feel free to make a copy and turn it into something that works for you and your students.