Monday, May 4, 2020

Finding the Right Direction: How Measuring Engagement Changed Everything


This post is written by CVU Principal Adam Bunting:

My mother spent her career as a family systems psychologist. I always admired her work, particularly the deep respect she held for her clients. Just as great educators know about their students, she understood that her clients needed to be the sense makers. She would say things like, “Ultimately, they are the ones who do the work, not me.” I remember asking her once if she ever got frustrated with people who repeatedly made the same mistakes, and she had this to say, “You know...people work really hard...it’s just sometimes they work hard in the wrong direction.”

As a principal, I return to her phrase now and again--especially when the work feels personal and complex. I ask myself, How am I working hard in the wrong direction? I held my mother’s words especially close in 2018 when two events dominated the educational landscape: the Parkland shootings and an increased focus on the devastation of opioid addiction in Vermont families. Our work was well intentioned, but much of it--focused on deficit models--pulled us in the wrong direction of reinforcing walls and policies instead of the relationships that undergird health, connection, and engagement. Current events demand a similar frame as we boil away the superfluous and distill the healthiest educational experience we can for our young people. At CVU, we have landed on this mantra to guide us through this pandemic: connection first, engagement second, and academic learning third.

Connection is more readily described, but defining engagement is no small feat. Like many educators, my understanding of engagement evolved as my respect for my students deepened. I began my career seeing engagement as an individual choice a student makes in our classrooms. Later, I saw engagement as an emotional state where our learners find themselves as receptive, open, and curious. Then I saw engagement more as a product of the systems around us and the conditions of our lives and learning spaces. 

Our school has chosen to define engagement just as we might define happiness or flow--a state of being when humans are both more receptive to and more motivated to seek new learning. We cannot force engagement, but we can ensure the soil from which it grows has the proper nutrients: physical and emotional safety, meaningful adult relationships, meaningful peer relationships, balanced amounts of stress, connection to a purpose larger than self, small successes and appropriate challenges, and rich and relevant content. More pragmatically, engagement may be a school’s most important indicator for wellness and successful learning, and it is something we can measure by examining the conditions that create it.

So it was two years ago we launched the Engagement Survey at CVU--an attempt to map the engagement of all our students. For those who were disconnected, we wanted to build connections, and for those who were thriving, we wanted to understand and grow those conditions. We created simple likert scales asking students to strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree to prompts like…
  • I have friends at school.
  • The adults at school care about me.
  • I believe school is preparing me well for the future.
  • Life outside of school feels calm and manageable.
  • There is at least one adult I could talk to if I needed help.
  • I feel like my input is valued and voice is heard at school.
  • I experience the right amount of challenge.
Unlike any survey we had ever given, this one was non-anonymous, and it needed to be. In fact, the more times we administered these questions, the more we came to view anonymous surveys with a certain derision. What does it mean when we ask students highly personal questions and never follow up? With some serious sweat on the part of our technology integrationist and IT staff, we administered the survey through our advisory system. In addition, we sent the survey to parents and advisors--asking them to predict what their student might say to a given prompt.

What we got back changed the way I saw our school--a place where I’ve been a student, teacher, and administrator since 1990.

The immediate responses to the survey were powerfully positive and underscored a belief that has been long held at CVU: authentic relationships are the backbone of a learning organization. The subtext was poignant unto itself. Giving the survey alone says we care about your real feelings, experiences, and thoughts enough to ask and act upon them. We determined our approach would be one of curiosity and an assets orientation, knowing the data was only as good as the dialogue it inspired.

One of the best things we did was ask students to list at least one of their “go-to” adults by name. Within a few hours of viewing the responses, our advisors began sending emails to one another and to our staff. I got one that read, “You may not know this, but you are [student name’s] trusted adult.” Our staff were often the ones who had the most mentions of being the trusted adults. Anyone who doesn’t value administrative assistants, campus supervisors, or tutors needs only to see the data! I will admit it - I used the control-find function to see who indicated I was their go-to. I was surprised about how good it felt to know kids really counted on me. As one teacher said to me in the hall: “I had no idea I was that important to [student name]. It’s changing how I interact with him.”

Of course, as happy as I was that the survey fostered relationships between faculty and students (and helped teachers see the holistic student--not just the science or English learner), I was equally disturbed by the group of students who indicated they didn’t have any trusted adult. The percentage was less than 1%. Normally, I would have pointed to that statistic and exclaimed, ”Look at what a great job we’re doing!” Now, however, the percentages were connected to names. I can overlook the significance of numbers--but not the names of individual students. We implemented a few interventions, but my favorite was also the most basic: a group of our faculty members took it upon themselves to smile and say hello to our kids who expressed disconnection. As someone said to me recently, the biggest problems don’t always require big solutions; sometimes simple solutions work best.

Another problem was the reams of data created by our modest survey--about which I need to make a guilty admission. Because I was busy and because we simply had too much information on spreadsheets, it took me nearly a month to crudely sort the responses. When I did I was struck by a cascade of questions: What if the students who didn’t have an adult connection also didn’t have a supportive friend group? Wait...what if those same students also didn’t find their classes interesting? It’s not difficult to see where this line of questioning led me, and by the time I sorted the “strongly disagree” responses, a pattern emerged: the data had become predictive of the symptoms of disengagement and disconnection. In the month since we had given the survey, the students who expressed the most disconnection had suffered: one student was failing all of his classes; one student had been suspended for substance use issues; one student had been evaluated for self harm. It hurt to see, but what hurt worse was the surprise I felt when I saw one name on the list: a student who had dropped out prior to us administering the survey. Like most schools we aren’t exactly fast at pulling students or retired faculty from our email system. Despite no longer being enrolled, the young man had gotten the link and responded to the entire survey. Did he just want to be known? Did he just want someone to see him?

As with any important learning I’ve earned in my career, I was faced with a few uncomfortable questions: Why haven’t I been mapping this my entire career? How could I have been leading without this information? What could a proactive approach have meant to my past students? Why don’t all schools do this? And...of course...now what?

The “now what” was obvious. We needed help, and we needed help with something that should be a staple before they let English teachers like me become principals. I reached out to my brother, Matt Bunting, and to Brian Lloyd Newberry, a friend who has the coolest job title ever--Data Architect. In addition to being very systems-smart, both are of the most caring and socially conscious people I know. Brian invested hundreds of hours to build software to ensure we could get the data and correlations we needed instantaneously, and a company, Engage, was created to support these efforts. He crafted a heatmap (pictured below) of the school so we could see the macro data, and he asked me some really tough questions. I won’t forget the phone call when he said, “I thought you said this was for all students.” I responded, “Yeah...of course it is.” His reply: “Not if you think 87% means all.” In sorting through 1100 responses I had missed the most obvious data point: the 200 students who didn’t respond! Who were they? Why hadn’t they taken the survey? What was their experience like?



Stan Williams, co author of this blog, often reminds me that the questions we ask are more important than the answers we seek, and the heatmap above sparked many questions. In particular, it appeared the data skewed to the left (more negative) in questions that drive at personalization, student voice, and choice. Stan and Emily Rinkema tossed the question to their students in their Think Tank class who had this to say: people ask us our opinions...it’s just we never see the outcome of our thoughts. Student voice led us to student agency, and the same student who made the observation recommended we start a student congress instead of a student council to engage a much higher rate of community involvement.

We noticed other correlations supporting what can only be described as educational truisms, especially when triangulating grades and standardized tests with the survey:
Rigor is a vital factor in student engagement.
Intrinsic motivation influences outcomes.
Socio-economics matter.
A match between a student’s vision of the future and the schools influences engagement.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the implications of our Engagement data, and like everyone else, our most recent survey was interrupted by Covid-19. As we have with so much of our curricula in the past few weeks, we scrambled, pulled together a team of caring faculty members, and ditched many of our normal questions in favor of understanding wellness in a new context. Here are a few...
  • I would like it if an adult from school would reach out to me directly to check in.
  • I am aware of mental health support services that are available.
  • I know how to ask for and access mental health support if I need/want it.
  • I am able to get some fresh air and/or exercise regularly.
  • I feel good about my sleep patterns.
  • My home environment allows me to engage in my work.
  • When this is all over, what are you looking forward to?
  • I am worried about my own health and wellbeing related to Covid-19.
  • I am worried about the health and wellbeing of close friends and family related to Covid-19.
We sent the restructured questions to our community and have received 57% of the responses thus far. As usual, I am both inspired and burdened by the data, and I am reminded of another of my mother’s sayings: we are all expressions of the systems from which we grow. And while I have more questions than answers, one data point juts out above the rest: students are much more worried about their loved ones than they are for themselves. My mother probably had a more clinical term, but I am choosing to see that selflessness as goodness and the connectedness as strength.

*For those who would like to run the Engage tool for free at their school during this time period, contact Matt Bunting (matt@engaged.school) and Brian Lloyd Newberry at bln@engaged.school.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Nothing Normal about this New: One School’s Approach to Connecting, Engaging, and Learning

There are so many things we took for granted during what we are now calling “regular school.” We were so comfortable that we didn’t stop to question things--not only tangible things like photocopiers and hallway fist-bumps, but things like our definitions of engagement and learning. That’s all changed now.

Schools all over the world are scrambling to piece together plans and systems and structures to maintain or replicate or recreate a school experience for our students. We are all doing the best we can with the resources we have in the contexts we woke up in a few weeks or months ago (is that all it’s been?!). But one thing I think we’ve all discovered is that there is no way that what we’re doing (or trying to do) now is anything like school as we knew it.

In Vermont, we had two stages to this new normal: Maintenance of Learning and Remote Learning. These were dictated and defined by the state. The Maintenance stage could not include new learning, assessments, or mandatory work. It was put in place to provide families and schools time to develop systems to maximize equity, including ways to provide essential services and access to education for all students. During this stage, which was three weeks long, schools worked to create systems, structures, and strategies for stage two (while still providing food and essential services to all of their students). When we entered stage two, which started officially this week, the goal was to add accountability and learning to the mix. Schools were required to create learning plans and send these to the state, and our goals had to include how we were going to deliver and assess learning for all of our students.

In an effort to document this experience more than anything else (but maybe to provide something that someone else can take and revise and improve), we thought we would share what our school system is doing and what we are doing as teachers within our system.

Defining a Purpose: Our principal, Adam Bunting, declared within the first week of the first stage that the driving values of our school throughout the entire remote experience would be Connection, Engagement, and Learning, in that order. All systems designs and all decisions made were filtered through these lenses--and if the plans didn’t work to maximize these values in this order, then it was back to the drawing board. The clarity and conviction behind this statement gave all of us--school leaders, teachers, students, and community members--a solid foundation and shared purpose.

The Student Schedule: Once we had a shared purpose, we could begin to develop systems and structures. Our student schedule for Maintenance Learning (stage one) provided a balance of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities, all optional. We asked for feedback from teachers, families, and students after two weeks, and then designed our Remote Learning (stage two) schedule to better support connection, engagement, and learning. See the explanations in italics beneath the schedule for details about each part. (Note: The teacher schedule includes optional PD from 9-10 each morning (specific topics posted weekly with links to hangouts), and optional faculty meetings two afternoons a week.)


Agenda, Task, and Materials: Teachers will post agendas, tasks, and materials for the day’s learning by 9 a.m. Students should plan for approximately 90 minutes of work per week for each class; this includes class meeting times as well as the time it takes to make sense of the task, access input, think, and demonstrate learning through output. Teaches will use the scheduling function in Google Classroom so that these are posted at the correct time and day and that students are not overwhelmed by posts at all times of the day/week. *AP courses will follow this expectation as well, unless the class has not completed the abbreviated curriculum published by the College Board.

Class Meeting Times: To maintain our strong classroom communities, all class meetings should ideally begin with a live Hangout for the class during which the teacher explains the week’s assignments and provides some direct instruction. If this is not possible, teachers should post a short video/screencast to meet this purpose. Following the live Hangout, the remainder of class meeting time could be used for quick check in for small groups or individual students, discussion, or work time.

Connect Time: Teachers will be available every day to answer questions from any of their students, through email or Hangout from 2:30-3:00. We understand that there may be days when this is not possible, but having a consistent time when students can access teachers is important.

Exploration Menu: Each week, a menu of options categorized by Think, Feel, Act are posted. Students who want to do any of these activities can document them and send photos to Seth, Jamie, and Tim (This is not mandatory; it’s a way to build community and share with each other).



Grading and Reporting: One of the most complicated decisions our school had to make was what to do about grades and transcripts. We are a standards-based school that provides end of course letter grades, and these grades inform the student GPAs on the transcript. When physical school closed for us, we had just wrapped up quarter 3, so all students had what we call Grade Snapshots that represented their current achievement of the course learning targets. Our quarters are cumulative, not averaged together, so the Q3 snapshot was an accurate communication of evidence students had provided up to that point; however, in most classes, had we continued as normal, students would have had many more opportunities to relearn, improve skills, and ultimately increase their target scores by the end of the year. This was particularly true in many of our semester courses, where the snapshot grades represented a small (and potentially misleading) sample size of evidence.

We spent a lot of time researching what other schools and colleges were doing, what states were recommending, and what leading experts on grading, equity, and assessment were suggesting. While there is no perfect model, we finally decided on the following, which was presented to faculty first, and after some revision, to students and families:

For year-long courses:
  • End of year letter grade: Because students had the opportunity to provide a significant body of evidence of learning throughout the year, teachers can provide accurate scores for the course learning targets that were instructed, practiced, and assessed. Students will receive a letter grade on their transcripts based on these targets. In order to maximize equity and opportunity, the letter grade that students had at the last snapshot cannot go down during this new phase of learning, but can be raised through work they do the rest of the year. In order to receive a grade on the transcript, students must participate in Remote Learning; students who do not participate will get an Incomplete on their transcript.
For semester courses:
  • Pass with Distinction or Incomplete: Students may not have had the opportunity to provide a sufficient body of evidence of learning for second semester courses. Teachers may not be able to provide accurate scores for learning targets in second semester courses at this time, so students will receive one of the following scores on their transcript: Incomplete or Pass with Distinction. 
    • Incomplete (Inc): The following situations will result in an Inc on the student’s transcript, and students will have an opportunity to change this after the school year. Students who had a composite score below a 2 at the Q3 Snapshot and do not participate during Remote Learning to improve these scores, OR students who showed sufficient evidence of achievement at the Q3 Snapshot and did not participate during Remote Learning.
    • Pass with Distinction (PD): Students who show sufficient evidence of achievement (either at the time of the Q3 snapshot or by the end of the year) and continue to participate during Remote Learning will receive a PD on their transcript.
Note about Grading and Transcripts: There may be individual circumstances where the above will need to be amended. For students with specific situations that may require other options, please contact your House Counselor and we will work together to ensure that no harm is done.

Originally, we had gone with 3 levels for semester courses: Inc, Pass, and Pass with Distinction. After many days of intense conversations about equity, access, and the extraordinary circumstances that a global pandemic brings, the decision was to simplify to 2 levels. Our leadership team felt strongly that keeping Pass with Distinction (rather than Pass) was an important symbolic recognition of how challenging these times are for so many in our community.

Assessment, Tracking, and Feedback

Once we had decided how to grade and report, we needed to develop some guidelines for assessment, tracking, and feedback that supported the purpose (connect, engage, and learn) as well as the new grading and reporting decisions. Here is the document we developed to help guide teacher choices.

Classes

We use KUDs as our curriculum documents at CVU, simple backwards-design templates that outline what students will Know, Understand, and be able to Do at the end of a learning experience. Teachers were asked to revise their existing KUDs or develop new ones for this remote period of learning. Our leadership team gave us all the option to either significantly pare down and modify what we had planned to do, or to completely veer from the existing KUD and develop a plan that we felt might be more engaging, relevant, or accessible. Because we needed to document curricular plans for the state, these KUDs provided us a way to be accountable to Vermont while also using what we know about learning design to prioritize our outcomes. As an example, here’s the KUD and revised plan for the course we teach: Think Tank: Remote Learning 2020.

Next Steps?

Our district is about to go on our spring vacation, which seems really strange. CVU created a menu of opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and families to stay connected and engaged over this coming week of break, as we know that cutting off contact may not be the best thing for some members of our community. As for what happens when we get back...who knows. There are so many things that change from day to day--for all of us collectively and for each of us individually. Planning seems virtually impossible, whether at the class level or the school level. What we do know is that we will continue to get feedback from all members of the community and revise and iterate as much as we can. We will continue to design opportunities that maximize and support connection, engagement, and learning (in that order!). And we will continue to do what CVU does best: take care of ourselves, take care of each other, and take care of the place.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Setting Clear Destinations: What Teachers Say

We’re doing a book study with a group of educators from around our district who chose to read The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal, written by us a few years ago. Some of these teachers were in the original pilot program in our district, so have almost a decade of experience in a standards-based system; others are newer to our district and to the practices central to SBL. What they all have in common is a desire to continue their learning and reflect on their practices, For each of the four sections of the book, participating teachers will share their experiences, their reflections, and their questions with each other and with us, and they have given us permission to share excerpts publicly. 

The first section of the book is all about setting clear destinations for learning. Our district uses the K-U-D to help with curriculum planning and communication. This is a backwards design template that articulates what students will Know, Understand, and be able to Do at the end of a period of learning. We use skill-based Learning Targets, which are the Ds in our K-U-Ds, and these targets are the level 3 in our Learning Scales. Thanks to Carol Tomlinson, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe for all of their work in this area that inspired our systems and structures.
Humanities K-U-D

All of the courses at our high school have K-U-Ds that are common for common courses and made public each year. Here is the most recent version of the public document that links to all High School K-U-Ds. We have four middle schools (grades 5-8), and all disciplines across the district share common learning targets and scales. Here are the links to Grades 5-6 Targets & Scales and Grades 7-8 Targets & Scales.


Target and Scale
In our own experiences teaching in standards-based classrooms over the past decade, we have found that clear destinations defined and articulated through K-U-Ds, Learning Targets, and Scales have changed our focus from what we teach to what students learn. Our planning, instruction, and assessment practices have become so much more intentional and responsive, and as a result, learning and engagement have increased. Over time, we have developed some strategies and structures that help improve effectiveness. The teachers in the book study tried a few of these strategies, and here is their thinking:

Geoff Glaspie: High School Math Teacher

One of the [strategies] from the first section (chapter 3 specifically) that resonated with me was the idea of “lose the numbers” on the Learning Scale, because I can see how it has the potential for students to treat a formative more as communication rather than compensation or judgment. Up until now, I have used learning scales with numbers on them and circled or written what the student’s level was — both for formative and summative assessments. This followed from what I observed with my mentor teacher and from other teachers with whom I have taught collaboratively or in parallel. The most common reaction I see when returning formatives is that they absolutely narrow their focus to the # on the paper. They share out loud with others what their level is, ask questions about the score, e.g. “if I had done [x], would I have gotten a 3?”...I see them laser-focused on the number and more often than not, quickly file the returned quiz in their folder or in some cases, throw them out. While I take the time to give very specific feedback on the student’s work within the body of the assessment, my feeling is that they do not absorb the information and insight from my comments or feedback because they are stuck on the number they achieved.

I decided to give [replacing numbers with an arrow] a try on my next formative in Geometry. Instead of circling one of the boxes or writing a number on the scale, I underlined the words in green that the student was secure in, red what they did not show evidence of, and both red and green if they were starting to show proficiency, but were not yet consistent. Before I handed them back, I told them what they would see, why I was doing it, and what their next steps were. Below is an example of a marked scale on a quiz.

What I observed right away was that students were more focused on looking at what they did, my comments, and some immediately asked, “can we go over adding radicals today?” This type of question is not something that I have typically seen in reaction to getting a quiz returned. I was also asked “do you have some practice sheets for solving special right triangles I can have to work on?” This was enough for me to say this is a practice I need to continue.

Leanne Morton: High School Latin Teacher

The simple strategy of removing numbers from scales during the practice and learning process struck me as we reach the end of a marking period where numbers matter. Too often I think students worry about the grade, but with the transition to standards-based classroom, I have noticed a shift. By providing the language in the “I can” statements, students now know how to articulate what they might need to do in order to reach the next step. I have seen my conversations shift and powerfully so because there is actual language to use in helping students understand what they need to do in order to meet the next part of the scale. I have never thought about removing the numbers from the top of my scales on formatives/practice. Sometimes depending on how my copying and pasting goes, they do not appear, but I love the idea of encouraging the continuum of learning by adding a simple arrow. I have seen the arrow used in all the work Emily and Stan have produced for us at CVU, but never once thought about adding it to my work. I too have been trained by the grade/number machine and it is liberating to think about focusing our practice/learning time around the process. I like thinking about how we go from the first part of the scale to the last and what learning do we need to do rather than focusing on “how do I get the four?” I just started a unit on conjugating and translating verbs in the imperfect and perfect tenses. I am moving students from the present tense into the imperfect and decided to remind them about the targets involved. I changed the table to include the arrow and like the next part of my reflection, am employing part of the unit KUD into the work. You can see the slide show here.

Katie Kuntz: High School Humanities Teacher

Using KUDs and targets make so much sense to both teachers and students. When we were first asked to use KUD’s at CVU so many teachers said this was just another fad… that “the pendulum would swing another direction in a few short years.” To be honest, I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

Our basic format is at the very beginning of each unit we give students a packet and the very first page of that packet has the KUD, learning targets, formative and summatives, as well as a tentative calendar. When we hand it out we go over any new targets, explain the formatives and summatives and then ask students to look at the “Understands”. This section usually takes me the longest to write up as I tend not to be a “big picture” kind of gal but I have come to realize that this may be one of the most important parts. It allows students to see the connections and what learning they will do to make these connections. I have to say that I hate writing this section but feel amazing about them once I go through the process. It’s kind of like eating a salad. I don’t really want one for lunch, I’d rather eat a burger and fries, and I’m kind of grumpy during lunch, but then feel much happier in the afternoon about my food choice! Here’s an example of our KUD/scales/calendar format.

Tim Buckingham: Middle School Music: K-U-D's can be a template for all learning episodes -- bigger units, smaller lessons, even daily class agendas, etc...in order to intentionally tap knowledge, have a performance goal, and understand all of it within the context of learning over time. Could it be that easy?! Much like Understanding by Design (UbD), K-U-D's increase not only our organization as teachers but continue to have us focus on performance tasks at the heart of the education -- this keeps intention of designing learning based on the skill, incorporating content knowledge and the understanding of "why" we do it all.

Abby Granoff: Middle School Para-educator and Licensed Teacher: KUDs are the cornerstone of teaching. They help us to plan instruction, design assessments, and let students know what we want them to get out of it. If we don't know where we want our students to end up, we will be much less successful in getting them there. Once we have a KUD developed, we can share it with our students at the beginning of a unit, and ideally hang it up somewhere in the classroom and reference it every day. Also, when designing instruction, we can write what part of the KUD the lesson relates to on the board, so that students know where we're trying to go. KUDs give us a really clear destination, and allows us to be more intentional about the instruction we plan. If we think of the KUD as the destination, and planning is the road to get there, we can refer back to our KUD when planning to make sure that our instruction or lesson will actually get us to our destination and not take us on a scenic route or down a dead end.

Peg Rosenau: Middle School Para-educator and Licensed Teacher: The various standards that guide instruction in different disciplines provide a framework for instruction but also a huge amount of autonomy. Content in the digital age is ubiquitous, if not overwhelming. These combined can create a “drinking from a firehose” situation when determining what is most important to present to students, especially for a prescribed scope of time. K-U-Ds can bring some intentionality to this process by focusing ultimately on the desired skills that one wants students to get out of a unit- as it is the skills that ultimately demonstrate the knowledge and understanding of the experience.


If you have any thoughts or examples you would like to share, please feel free to comment. The more we share with each other, the better it will be for students.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

An Argument for Proficiency-Based Learning

Thank you to our principal, Adam Bunting, for this blog post:

After a five year hiatus from the classroom, I recently had the opportunity to long-term sub for one of our teachers. I can’t say I felt like a first-timer again, but my sleep was punctuated by those teacher dreams usually reserved for mid-August and Sunday nights. You know the ones... you’re standing in front of a few hundred teenagers with no lesson plan or curriculum. You peek to the back of the coliseum-sized classroom only to note your principal furiously scribbling performance notes on a Danielson rubric.

Despite the interrupted sleep, returning to the classroom felt like a homecoming following an extended absence; the places and patterns reassuring but strangely foreign seen from a new distance. Of course, the central questions I needed to ask were utterly familiar: What am I teaching? What have the students learned thus far? Who is in my room? How do I help each student grow? And while I had changed since my first years as a teacher, the system had changed even more thanks to PBL.

In the summer of 1999, I prepared to teach my first ninth graders. I was handed Gilgamesh, Night, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey. Nothing was mentioned about the skills, nor the important understandings we hoped to grow within our students. There was no explicit discussion on how to measure progress or how to prepare to meet the needs of heterogeneous learners. Instead, the system assumed I had learned this in my college preparatory program--as if there was a standardized curriculum across the multitude of universities and colleges in the US.

Of course, that autonomy wasn’t all bad. I had almost complete say over what and how I taught my kids. I took ownership of my classes, and my growth as a teacher was prolific and organic. It’s just that organic growth, like a garden gone feral, results in widely varying outcomes for students and young professionals. And as a new teacher I internalized two dangerous implicit messages: first, I saw the students as mine, not whole individuals in a larger collaborative system; second, when simply handed texts, I was led to believe that a student’s understanding of the material was pinnacle. Trust me, I can give a hell of a lecture on Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. Telling stories is fun, and as a youngest sibling, I don’t mind being the center of attention. And while storytelling is a great tool for a teacher, over-reliance on it grows some funky habits in our students. What exactly are they practicing? Listening? Passivity?

Those first experiences as a teacher were firmly in mind over a month ago when I began subbing. With only a day or two of notice, I had to get up to speed quickly while figuring out how to balance my normal responsibilities as a principal. So, twenty years later, I asked the same question I had in the summer of 1999. I reached out to the teacher and an instructional coach and asked, “What am I teaching?”

What a difference twenty years makes!

Within a few minutes of asking the question, one of our coaches was able to provide a shared Google doc featuring the learning targets and scales associated with the class. The targets had been pre-entered into our tracking and reporting software, so I could see previous formative assessments. Not only did I know how students were progressing on the standards of the course, but I also had a vision of how those scales fed school-wide graduation goals. The implicit message? I’m part of a larger team pulling in the same direction; these kids are our kids, not just my kids. I knew where they had been and where they needed to go next.

Of course, I did need to calibrate my understanding of the scales with the original teacher’s understanding, so I gave an assessment on the first day to see how well they established purpose in their writing. To allay students' fears that the assessment would impact an overarching grade, I simply told them it was formative. They immediately knew the assessment was practice for them (and for me). Guess what I discovered? The students were in varying places with their ability to craft a thesis, but there were patterns to their strengths and challenges. So I didn’t put a mark on their papers (Papers is a bit of a misnomer here as I was using Google classroom...which, for a guy who used to always lose paper, is an awesome tool!), knowing their learning process would be impacted the second they saw my evaluation. Instead, I grouped them by pattern and asked, Can you figure out why you’re together? I also gave them a variety of examples a fellow teacher provided for me. Each group was able to correctly identify problem areas and how to improve.

While only one small lesson in the scope of the course, it provides evidence of how far we’ve come since 1999 when our system only asked us to communicate through aggregate grades. I don’t think I ever realized just how powerful the outcomes are in defining how we see ourselves as teachers. If I am only asked to communicate results as an ABCD or F, I am unlikely to provide the information that matters to students, to colleagues, and to parents. Another surprise was where I was able to focus my creative energy and exercise my autonomy: finding rich and complex content that would inspire students to engage with the course--and more importantly--each other.

We have a long way to go as a profession, but as I reflect on the students I first taught, and for whom I principaled (yes, it’s a verb), I wish I could have provided as cohesive a learning experience as our kids now have. How many times did I watch a kid walk across the stage at graduation knowing they had achieved all the necessary credits but still lacked some skills to ensure success in their next endeavor? Why? Lots of reasons to be sure, but some of the answers reside in what PBL attempts to address: namely our inability to effectively communicate with one another... to redefine teacher from independent contractor to systems thinker.

I never appreciated that there might be small gifts in taking a break from teaching. The hiatus allowed me to skip past the cognitive dissonance that surely would have had me resisting PBL. I didn’t have to wrestle with the odd guilt that new paradigms can inspire as we contemplate our past practices. We know that our own dissonance is our profession’s worst enemy and the discomfort that may inspire the greatest change.

Adam Bunting (@abuntcvu)
Principal of Champlain Valley Union HS

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Standards-Based Learning: Time to embrace our flawed realities.

So, by 2020, according to state legislation, all high schools in our state of Vermont are supposed to use proficiencies--rather than seat time and carnegie units--to graduate our students. Some schools cheered this legislation (Act 77) when it was passed in 2013, along with the ensuing Education Quality Standards that provided guidelines about Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL), as an acknowledgment of what we had already been doing; some schools embraced the challenges and the collaboration that would surely ensue; and some schools dragged their feet and hoped it would all go away before the end of the decade. Well, it didn’t go away. And now we are in the 2019/2020 school year, which means “stuff” just got real for a lot of schools and communities. 

As Proficiency-Based Learning Coordinators, we spend much of our time living in the ideal and guiding teachers and schools towards an aspirational version of SBL. But the reality is that this aspirational version is not currently within reach for most teachers and schools--for very legitimate reasons. We can read all the great books, go to inspirational conferences, and join social media professional learning communities that show us what it could look like, that explain ideal versions of SBL, that support these ideals with indisputable research about the brain and learning; but in our actual classrooms, our actual schools, our actual communities, this ideal may not only be out of reach, but leaping for it may do more damage than good. An ideal exists to provide a destination to move towards, to drive progress--if we try to leap over that progress to grab hold of perfection, do we risk losing it all? Maybe it’s time to embrace the process and be honest about the compromises that might be necessary to keep moving forward.

For a long time now, we’ve been embarrassed by compromise. We so strongly believe in what could be real for Standards-Based Learning (SBL) that we saw anything less than the ideal as failure. That has led to a lot of sugar-coating, rationalizing, and frustration over the past five years, rather than what we should have been doing. We should have been singing our compromises loudly and proudly. We should have been owning each step towards the ideal. We should have been more open about sharing the flawed realities as well as the aspirations.

So here we go...the naked truth:

We convert scores to letter grades. We tell students that learning is about taking risks and making mistakes and not about judgement. We tell them that their learning can’t be summed up in a single symbol, that averaging learning is wrong. But we calculate an ongoing composite score--which is an average of the most recent summative scores for each learning target--and every 9 weeks, we convert this composite score to a letter grade. Yup. We do that. We know it’s not ideal. We know that communicating learning with a single summary score or grade is misleading at best and inaccurate at worst. But years ago, we chose not to fight that fight. A series of very wise leaders knew that the only way we were going to have the space to shift how we teach and learn in our classrooms was to leave the letter grades alone. If we could tell students and parents that all of the changes we were making were still going to result in letter grades and GPAs, then they would give us the freedom to make those changes. We were able to promise them that we would not mess with their transcripts, and by doing this, we bought the time to earn their trust. And even though we still have letter grades, we now have a much better idea of where those letter grades come from and how to help students improve them. We had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it, and in doing so, our grades have more integrity than they used to have.

We have learning targets and scales that don’t support what we say about learning targets and scales. CVU’s approach is to use transferable skill learning targets (rather than content-based) and to use complexity scales (rather than frequency or effectiveness scales). We have clear faculty scales that describe these, and we widely share our targets and scales outside of our school. But if you were to search our target bank and were to ask teachers to see their course scales, you would see quite a few targets that don’t seem to fit our model and some scales that have nothing to do with increasing complexity. But the reality is that those same teachers who still have one or two content targets have worked ridiculously hard over the past 5 years to develop incredibly effective skill targets as well. And the teachers who still have frequency scales (sometimes, mostly, always), are starting to ask incredible questions about differentiation and how they might revise their scales to be more effective for instruction. Had we policed these more strictly (as we wanted to do!), we may have lost some really excellent teachers who just needed to follow their own path and experience success through changes they chose to make. We had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it, and by doing so, teachers felt ownership in the changes they made.

We’re not determining student graduation based on proficiencies. That’s right. We still have credits. We still have course requirements. Students still have to pass their classes, and they are eligible for graduation in a very similar way as they always have been. What’s different--what’s better--is that now their course grades, which determine their credits, are based on our learning scales; they are based on students showing proficiency in clear, agreed-upon targets that provide evidence of our graduation standards. So now when a student gets credit for a class, they also have evidence of proficiency in multiple skills, using the content of the course. Is this what the state had in mind when they said that students will graduate based on proficiencies? Maybe not ideally. Are they okay with it? Absolutely. Is this what we believe is the ideal way to graduate students? Probably not. But we’re not ready to completely toss out existing systems until we have something better. We’re getting closer and closer. Within five years, school at CVU may look significantly different, and graduation will be likely be determined based on evidence that students demonstrate in the standards we believe are essential for success. But for now, we had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it.

Despite all these compromises and all of this messiness, there is no doubt that we are doing better for our students than we were before we started this transition. None. Our implementation was rocky and
scary and messy and spectacularly difficult (And honestly, even though we are now officially standards-based, things are still rocky and scary and messy and spectacularly difficult.), but each decision we made and each revision we made to a previous decision led us closer to where we are now, which is better than where we were before. Students understand their strengths and challenges better than they ever have; in most classes, they say they know how they are going to do on their summatives before they take them, which has reduced test anxiety. Teachers are so much clearer about their goals for students and more intentional about their instructional choices; most say that they understand their students’ strengths and challenges so much better and know how to respond to these. Families have a much better understanding of their children as learners; most say that they can have richer conversations with their kids about learning, not just about grades. For the first time ever, we have agreed upon course curriculum documents for every class, common learning targets for courses, and common grading agreements. These practices continue to improve the integrity and rigor of our academic program, and allow a solid foundation for our ongoing efforts to personalize learning. We have shared understandings about learning, shared visions for the future of the school, and shared language to talk about both the successes and challenges of the work we’re doing to get things right for students. In other words, there are some pretty amazing things happening to learning in our district, even though we are far from the ideal.

Maybe part of the implementation problem we are having in our state right now is an honorable, but misguided attempt to get SBL right, to leap for the ideal. We all want what’s best for students, best for learning; and when we understand how the brain learns and take into account the world we’re now preparing our students to live in, it’s tough to argue that our conventional teaching and grading systems are effective. So when the state said, “Let’s do it!” schools said okay, because it’s the right thing to do. But the trouble is, in our attempt to get the right thing right, we may have forgotten two huge truths:

First, there is no one “right” way to do SBL. There is no prescribed recipe for success or set of guidelines that will work in every school. What will be easy in one community could be a deal-breaker in another. And what an effective proficiency-based system looks like will vary from school to school and county to county as well. While there are some foundational elements that will be the same, the systems and structures that need to be in place to ensure the success of these elements may be as different as the communities they are in. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all share our ways; in fact, I think that’s something we need to do a lot more of, not only here in Vermont, but everywhere. The more we each share our successes, our choices, our pitfalls, and our compromises, the more likely we all are to be able to not only survive the implementation, but to come out feeling strong and supported.

Second, we aren’t going to get it right. And this is a tough one to admit, even though it should be obvious. We’ve never gotten it right in education. Sure, school has always worked for some students, but it has always not worked for a lot of students as well. From the classroom level to the school level to the state level to the national level, we have never had an educational system that has gotten it right, so why do we all of a sudden hold ourselves to a completely new standard?

Maybe our goal shouldn’t be to get SBL right. It should be to get it right-er. And sometimes getting it right-er means compromising the ideal. That doesn’t mean, however, that the ideal is ridiculous and out of touch and a big fat lie that researchers or authors or politicians or administrators came up with to make us all feel bad about our practices. The ideal is built on what we know about learning and the brain and development and pedagogy--it’s built on science that’s been around for longer than we have. It’s what we would create if we were given the gift of starting over from scratch. It’s what we feel every once in a while, in that magical moment in that magical class in that magical school, that reminds us that it is possible and keeps us reaching for more. That’s why we need the ideal, the aspirational. It’s why we need to read the books and go to the conferences and get inspired by stories of teachers, classrooms, schools that are doing it (in some form), that are close, or closer to getting it right than we are. But that’s also why we need to embrace our compromises, to not be ashamed of sometimes doing a right-er thing if it will get us closer to achieving an even right-er thing. Maybe that’s what the ideal actually is...it’s the constant push to get it right-er for our students.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Scare of Self-Compare

Guest Blog: This post was written by senior Elizah Jacobs at the end of our Think Tank course. We asked students what advice they had for educational leaders.


I want educational leaders to remember that as adolescents, we crave the small victories in terms of grades. We have been taught to base our feelings of success on other's success or lack of. This has created an ultra-competitive school environment that is continuing to become even more competitive year after year. In my years of schooling, I have never felt true personal success without comparing myself to others.

I experience self comparison at least once a day. Whether it be a track meet where I limit my success because even though I won, I was running against slow people, or a math test where I get a perfect score but so did everyone else; I let my comparing to other people get in the way of feeling proud of my accomplishments. I may be speaking from past and personal experience, but I know that I am not alone; I am part of the majority. The talk among friends in the hall is not about plans for the weekend or how our families are doing, but about "did you hear "Rachel" applied to Cornell? She'll never get in," or "Daniel's SAT scores rose 200 points with his tutor." Internally students are not happy for the success of others because they are comparing how their tutors didn't help them that much. This just leads to a constant sense of anxiety, even during free time.

One of my main motivators in school is to beat someone else or not be looked down upon for a grade in a class or an assignment. This can be a way for me and other people to end up learning more, but at what expense? A Pew survey found that “70 percent of teens say anxiety and depression is a major problem among their peers, an additional 26 percent say it’s a minor problem”. This percentage has steadily risen in the last 25 years and shows no signs of slowing down. The reality is that more and more students are going to college. This adds more competition within high school because they feel like their grades and test scores really matter. Grade point averages and standardized test scores are compared among students as they are applying to schools to try and self determine who will get in over them and who won’t. College is more normalized so students feel that just getting into a school is not any type of success, but the real success is getting into the label of a prestigious one. Buying into the belief that grades are the sole factor that determines success and happiness in life promotes anxiety.

In the future, this can be extremely detrimental when we realize that we won't always have grades to determine our happiness and success. At this time in our life, we may already be struggling with crippling anxiety and depression that hinders any future opportunity of getting over the barrier of self comparison.

I really want educational leaders to genuinely realize this as a huge issue. They could help this destruction to mind and self by continuing to make schools test optional, changing the standards of learning and the grading system to not be so completely outdated, and eliminating the pressure that teachers and parents place on students. State by state, school by school, and teacher by teacher the efforts could lead to a better future. Who knows, that student who just dropped out of college because of their anxiety could have cured cancer. In the world of rising problems, we need bright and excited minds to want to fix it. What good will we be able to contribute to society when we are already damaged from the first 13-17+ years of our education? I want school to be an exciting place for young minds in the future, with the help of students, educators, and the government, we can absolutely make school a place where creativity and happiness can shine.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

What's the Point of Content?

Last week I was talking with a humanities teacher, Josh, as we got coffee in the faculty room. He was lamenting the pace of class in May, as he tries to get through all of the content for his course. It reminded me of a conversation with a student we had years ago in our team-taught humanities class. We had just delivered a speed-lesson on the Middle Ages in Europe, covering in 80 minutes what historians have spent careers thinking and writing about. A student stopped us at the end of class, panicked, and said it was too fast, that there was no way she could remember it all. We told her that was okay, that the point wasn’t to remember it all.

“Then what’s the point?” She had asked.

I don’t remember how we answered at the time, but as Josh and I walked down the hall with our coffee, we laughed about the absurdity of thinking students will truly learn all that we cover. If we define learning as being able to not only remember content for the short term, but to build knowledge and be able to use that knowledge at some indeterminate time in the future, then I imagine we would all be surprised (and a little bit depressed) by the tiny fraction of our teaching that leads to actual learning.

Most students (and some teachers) believe that all of the content in a course is of equal importance. We have trained our students to think this--sometimes implicitly (through our assessment practices), and sometimes explicitly (by saying they have to know it all).

Picture a traditional content test in a course with conventional grading practices, a test that most of us have taken (or given) in the last half century. There may be multiple choice questions, all worth the same number of points, and maybe some short answer or fill in the blank questions, also all worth the same amount of points. When we get a grade on that test (let’s say an 80%), that’s because we got a certain number of questions wrong (doesn’t matter which questions). This assessment is implicitly telling our students that all of the content being tested is of the same importance--two students could get the exact same grade for knowing (remembering) completely different content.

But all content is not of equal importance, right? We all make choices and prioritize based on internal and/or external factors. Regardless of our discipline, we all have content that we think (or we’re told) is most important or that we are most passionate about. This is where many of the conflicts come from in our departments and communities. Who decides which content--out of the vast and ever-growing pool available--is essential? What biases exist in choosing which content we select (or are told to use) for our courses? Content for science classes in Vermont and Mississippi is not the same; what students are taught in Texas about history, may be different than what they are taught in Oregon; the required reading in 8th grade in DC is likely different than the required reading in the same grade in New Hampshire. And within each of these disparate classrooms, what we each choose to spend more or less time on (and what our students ultimately take away with them) is likely part biased and part arbitrary. We are kidding ourselves if we try to argue that all of our course content is of equal importance.

So what if we were honest with our students about this? What if we were completely transparent about our content and our expectations?
Super important sidebar: Our district is standards-based, and our learning targets are skills, not specific content. It’s easy to hear this and think that we don’t value content, or as some have even said, that we don’t teach content anymore. But the opposite is true. We value content so much that we decided to use what we know about the brain and learning to instruct and assess in a way that maximizes knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2 of The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal (Corwin 2018) that discusses the difference between content and knowledge, an important distinction in this discussion: “It’s important to understand the difference between content and knowledge. Content is what’s available, the pool of rich, engaging, relevant information, texts, examples, and events we have to choose from when determining how to best help students demonstrate understanding and skill; knowledge is what students know at the end of the learning, the content that they have made their own and will be able to use. Knowledge takes time to build. It takes activating prior knowledge, determining relationships and relevance, practicing with ideas individually and collaboratively, and deep understanding.” Skills cannot be taught and practiced without content. Skills cannot be assessed without content. So the idea that it’s one or the other is ridiculous. Schools that choose to have skill-based learning targets are not doing so at the expense of content; they are doing so in order to improve the content acquisition that leads to knowledge and fluency.
Okay, back to content and transparency. What if we talked to students about how content is chosen in our classes? What if we talked to them about bias in content selection? And what if we told them that not all content in our courses is created equal? In thinking about our own teaching, we came up with three distinct purposes for our content instruction or delivery. These are rough at this point, but they show what we’re thinking:
  • Content Exposure: the goal is not to learn the content, but to be exposed to it so that you get an overall sense of the content and have the opportunity to determine specific interests that you may decide to return to on your own.
  • Contextual/Conceptual Understanding: the goal is to understand and remember the larger concepts of the content; you may need to look up the details later, but you will remember how this content fits into the larger picture or systems.
  • Depth of Learning: the goal is deep and sustained learning--you will learn, remember, and be able to use both concepts and details about this content
Imagine being able to talk with students about your course using these levels. You could assign a reading that is meant to Expose the student to a variety of content--and ask them to select a few specifics that are of interest to them for further independent exploration. You could develop an activity that has students determine the major Concepts in a set of content, or ask them to place the content in Context of previous learning. Then you could dive deeply into the content that you, as the expert, determine is most important for Depth of Learning (or that you, the person, is most passionate about); or, you could ask the students to choose content that they want to learn deeply about based on earlier Exposure). By naming the purpose for the content we are using to practice and demonstrate our skills, we may be able to target our instruction and maximize learning. This would also, of course, force us to examine our assessments to ensure that we are asking students to demonstrate their learning in a way that matches our purpose.

We’re not proud of covering the European Age of Exploration in 80 minutes. But when we think about why we made that decision years ago, it was so that we could spend almost an entire quarter on the complexity of the Mongols and the historical, moral, and contemporary implications of their civilization. Because we made choices about where we would skim across the surface and where we would dive deep, we were able to slow down and fully explore one area--using vast amounts of rich, engaging content to learn and practice important transferable skills (see this link for our Mongol unit scales and benchmark sheets). If we can be more transparent with students (and ourselves) about the why and how of our content selection, coverage, and use, maybe we will have a better chance of ensuring that our teaching leads to learning.

So happy May everyone, and Josh, good luck with World War II in a Day!