Monday, January 14, 2019

The Big Edu-Bang: Expanding Ideas Through Collision

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how good ideas develop and spread. As we continue diving deeper into innovative educational thinking, we keep coming across ridiculously good ideas being implemented all over the place. If you read Ted Dintersmith’s hopeful book What Schools Could Be, you’ll find hundreds of examples of districts, schools, or individual teachers doing really cool things. If you spend an hour on Google with searches like “Innovative Education,” you’ll find thousands of examples of individual programs and buildings that are breaking out of the conventional to improve learning and engagement in really cool ways. But these cool things and cool ways don’t seem to be spreading much.

The is true even within our state of Vermont. Visit almost any school and you’ll find a really cool program or system or structure that is unique to that school. We’re a tiny state, no more than about three hours from end to end, so why aren’t these ideas crossing town lines? What hope do we have of scaling innovation in a way that significantly affects student learning nationally if we can’t even walk a great idea next door?

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about nine key ideas that drive innovation. As we think about spreading what works, we have been drawn to three of these ideas in particular:
  • Innovation and evolution thrive in large networks.
  • Lucky connections between ideas drive innovation.
  • Serendipitous discoveries can be facilitated by a shared intellectual or physical space.
What all of these ideas have in common is an expectation of collaboration and connection. Good ideas rarely come out of individuals or out of offices with closed doors. Whether you are looking at Google or Microsoft or Apple or Burton Snowboards or any number of other innovative companies, all have an open, collaborative environments with time and opportunity for their employees to interact and share and question and imagine. Some have completely open floor plans, some have collaborative workspaces, some have flexible schedules, and some have free drinks on Fridays--but all encourage connection by setting up environments that lead to the collision of ideas.

We have had two educational experiences recently that exemplify Johnson’s ideas about good ideas, experiences that have shown us the power and potential of thought collisions.

Experience #1: The Think Tank Summit

We teach a class this year called Think Tank, which is proficiency-based, personalized course that brings high school students to the center of educational change (we're going to invite you all to start your own at the end of this post). Students in grades 10-12 spent the first few months of school learning about the brain, about how people learn, about national and international innovations in education, and about our own local educational strengths and needs. They chose areas of individual interest, researched, blogged, and ultimately developed specific problem statements that they hoped to address. Thanks to a grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation, we organized an opportunity for our students to bring their thinking about the future of education together with experts, stakeholders, and thinkers from their own district (our superintendent, curriculum director, and principal), from around the state (president of Burton Snowboards, local therapists, members of the Agency of Education, college admissions directors), from New England (representatives from Nellie Mae and the Center for Collaborative Education), and from as far as Toronto (assessment expert and author), We had 45 thinkers--half students, half adults--who spent the day talking, listening, and thinking about education. Students shared their concerns and their ideas for how to address them, and the adults asked questions, took notes, made suggestions, challenged ideas, and added complexity. Adults shared their concerns and their hopes and listened as the students pushed back, offered opinions, asked questions, and revised their ideas.
It was amazing. There was so much passion and hope in that room, and each adult left feeling inspired by how thoughtful adolescents can be when provided agency, time to think, and honest conversation. Each student left feeling heard, empowered, and ready to work with adults to make powerful and difficult change. (visit to see the proposed projects that we will work to craft, revise, and implement next semester).

By bringing together all of these amazing thinkers and providing the space and time for their ideas to collide, seeds of change were planted (mixed metaphor noted). The clinical psychologists listened to the students share the causes and effects of stress, then connected with school leaders about ways to address it. The CEO of Burton listened to a student talk about not being connected to school because the environment made it so difficult for him to learn, then offered him the opportunity to intern at the factory and receive credit. The representative from the Agency of Education asked students to present to the legislature, sharing their experiences and ideas. The author from Toronto talked about the summit with teachers the following week at a conference and they reached out to us via Twitter to learn about starting a Think Tank in their school. Two adult participants from different states have started conversations about how to collaborate across organizations in order to share ideas. These are just a few of the many collisions that have the potential to lead to incredible change, and they were made possible because of lucky connections between ideas, shared intellectual and physical space, and a large network of diverse thinkers with common goals.

Experience #2: The Interstate Collaboration on Proficiency-Based Learning

Just a month after the Think Tank Summit, 12 teacher leaders and three administrators from our district went to a conference outside of Dallas, Texas and met with a similar number of teacher leaders and administrators from two other schools (Adlai Stevenson outside of Chicago and Mount Vernon in Iowa). This opportunity was a year in the making and was brought about by a large network and by a lucky connection. Ken O’Connor is an active member of the Standards-Based Learning networks on both Twitter and Facebook. He is an avid reader and thinker, and is always working to bring ideas together. Over a year ago he made the connection between Adlai Stevenson and our school, Champlain Valley in Vermont. He noticed that both of our schools were taking a similar approach to Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL), one focused on skill-based targets rather than content-based targets. Soon we were chatting via email, and a few months later, a large group of educators from Adlai Stevenson came to visit CVU. During that visit we came up with an idea to meet at a conference and spend time collaborating and sharing challenges and successes.

Thanks to Tony Reibel (Director of Assessment, Research, and Evaluation at Adlai Stevenson HS), that meeting happened when we were all in Dallas. Tony had connected with leaders from Mount Vernon who were about to take on the transition to PBL with the same skill-based philosophy, so all three schools met for four hours after the first day of the conference to talk, listen, eat, drink, and build relationships. The shared space encouraged us to talk honestly and exchange contact information with like teachers. Since that evening, individual teachers have reached out to share assessments, scales, questions, and exemplars, and our schools have committed to starting a more formal relationship that will involve school visits as soon as this spring.

Schools are set up to be competitive. In sports, these rivalries are obvious and usually good-natured, but the competition for good press or funds or people is less friendly. Schools compete for excellent teachers, for dedicated staff, and with school choice, they even now compete for students. Local newspapers publish comparisons of test scores, not taking the time to explain the purpose of standardized testing or reasons for variance, and national organizations rate schools based on often absurd criteria. Within schools, the competition can be even more fierce. Teachers compete for student attention, for resources, for time, and for access to opportunities. There is little time or incentive to share ideas or take risks or collaborate. All of those conditions that Steven Johnson writes about take time and demand risk taking. They require sharing and connecting and traveling (physically or digitally) and making the space for collisions and serendipitous discoveries. 

Even though the structure of schools makes it difficult, maybe we can do more to set up the conditions that allow for shared innovation. We can be intentional and creative about how we use time in school. We can establish networks (or join ones that currently exist). We can develop connections between and among educators and business people and students. We can create shared spaces--physical and digital--where ideas can collide and grow.

This work is too hard to do alone and too important not to do, so let’s start by intentionally encouraging collisions. How about starting a Think Tank course at your school? We’d love to us if you are interested. (Emily) and (Stan)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Assessing to Develop Skill, Not Identify It

Thomas Guskey said that a teacher’s job should be to “develop talent, not select talent.” This statement is easy to agree with on the surface--of course we are developing talent, we’re teachers! Students come to us, we teach them, and they leave knowing, understanding, or being able to do more, right? But the true test of whether we are actually developing or selecting is to examine our assessment systems. Does the way we assess ensure growth, or does it just happen to capture growth when it happens? Is the system we set up designed to intentionally improve all students’ skills, or to identify those who can or cannot? 

Here’s an example:

Yesterday in class, we asked our students to use what they had learned about brain-friendly and brain-hostile practices (From Thomas Armstrong’s Power of the Adolescent Brain) to evaluate a half-dozen models of education. They had spent a previous class learning about the models (i.e. Montessori, KIPP, place-based, language immersion schools, etc) and taking notes on each, and they had read and talked about the neuroscience; ultimately, we wanted them to use their evaluation of the models to determine which model (or combination of models) would be most effective in our community.
Simple, right?

Out of 20 students, here’s what we got:

  • Three students nailed it. They applied their knowledge of neuroscience to the provided models and then used that application to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the models in our own community. 
  • Eight students were close, but they jumped right to the evaluation, so their findings, while occasionally referencing the neuroscience, lacked the weight of the first set. 
  • Six students were close in a different way. They had very thorough application of the neuroscience, color-coding and using symbols to critically read and apply a variety of elements of the brain research, but they forgot about the overall goal, which was to evaluate effectiveness of a model in our community. 
  • Three students gave very detailed explanations of their own opinions about the models, using the lens of their experience to highlight pros and cons. 
In the (not-too-distant) past, we would have scored these (using our general critical thinking scale, which includes evaluation), written comments to 17 of them about what they were missing, recorded a few 4s, lots of 3s, and a few 2s or 1s in the grade book, and then moved on to the next set of content. In other words, we would have “selected talent,” identifying those that could do what we asked and those that could not.

Even though we thought we had been clear in our expectations, we fell short in our instruction of the central skill we wanted--evaluation. We assumed that because we had taught the content--the neuroscience--that students would be able to successfully apply it to a skill we had explained. The results of our assessment showed otherwise.

Instead of recording scores and moving on, we discovered that we had do the hard work of determining and articulating what exactly it means to evaluate an idea or a model. It’s not enough for us to know what we want, we also have to be able to communicate the increasing levels of skill complexity that will lead to what we want--and then we have to design incremental instruction and practice to ensure that all of our students improve on the skill. In other words, we have to intentionally develop the talent. (And after our next assessment that uses this skill, we will likely need to differentiate in order to continue that development.)

After yesterday’s class, we determined we needed a separate learning scale for Evaluating a Claim, Model, or Idea, as it’s a skill we will continue to instruct and apply throughout the year. Our general critical thinking scale would have allowed us to assess, but not to instruct what we really intended to instruct. The student work we collected yesterday has helped us figure out what this might look like, and we will continue to test and revise this scale until it becomes an effective tool for development of the skill, not just for assessment of the skill.

Evaluating a Claim, Model, or Idea (Working Draft!)
There used to be an element of assessment for us that involved closing our eyes and crossing our fingers and hoping students nailed it. And honestly (and with a bit of embarrassment), there was often an element that included rationalizing poor performance by blaming the learners (they didn’t try, they didn’t listen, they didn’t focus, etc…). We used rubrics to assess--and maybe to explain requirements--but didn't see their value as instructional tools--in other words, we used them to select, not to develop.

When we accept that our job as teachers must be to develop learning, not merely to identify it when it happens, then everything changes. Our assessments become diagnostic and the results are as much (or more) about us and for us than they are about or for our students. We become compelled to use the results of those assessments to shift (or completely change) direction in order to improve student success. And when our success as teachers becomes inextricably tied to our students’ success, we become better teachers. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stop Judging and Start Trusting: We are ready to change the world

Guest Post: Written by 10th grade student Sabine Foerg

There are so many factors in life that tell us we can't do things.
From a young age, it is the societal norm to teach kids not to take risks. Don't jump off the swing set. You aren't tall enough to go on the slide. Don't talk to strangers, don't cross the street alone.

This is protection, the teaching of survival. At some point in every child's life, they need to take risks, for risks are what define who they are. I am not referring to risks like jumping off the swing set (although some kids just have to learn that one the hard way) . I am referring to larger, scarier risks, where the jump feels much further than the drop from a swing. They start small, with the raise of one's hand in class when they aren't sure of the answer. The risk of the unknown, the risk of being judged. Soon those risks turn to standing up for oneself, one's beliefs, or a peer: the risk of speaking one's mind, no matter the cost. 

There are people in this world who tell youth that we can't do things. We are too busy being on our phones, we don't care about the world around us, we don't know how to interact. They say we have lost the ability to think for ourselves for the sake of the comfort of avoiding risks. This unfair stereotype brings us down as we are told we are stupid. It brings us down as we are told our ideas are invalid. In my own school, I have been told that my generation's collective mind is hollowed out with our lack of ideas. I have been told that we need information spoon fed to us like we are small children in need of constant care. As this opinion of my incompetence was drilled into my brain, a constant stream of busywork and worksheets piles onto my desk. My hand cramps at the end of a long classes of notes, and my brain is filled to maximum capacity with facts and dates and formulas.

Contradiction? I think yes. 

When the worksheets are shoved aside and conversation is finally allowed, conversations filled with ideas and opinions begin. My generation marched for our rights and our beliefs. We have raised thousands upon thousands of dollars for causes we deem important. We debate current issues and share solutions with one another. We talk to and write to and email our representatives and government. We take risks because of who we are, not because our textbooks taught us to. Those risks can and have changed the world. 

So, no, maybe I don't have an opinion on the effects of an obscure war that happened hundreds of years ago and has since been forgotten. I don't care about the chemical makeup of the stalk of a plant, but this does not make me or my generation mindless. We want to know how to make the world a peaceful place now. We want to help solve global warming, we want our opinions valued. The things that we care about don't come from a textbook. We are not shallow, and we do take risks. We can prove society's opinion of us wrong over and over again, and we will continue to prove them wrong for the rest of our lives. Our current education system only prevents us from taking these risks. We should be learning about how TO change the world, not only about how it has changed in the past. We should be out in the world sharing our ideas and opinions, because they ARE valid. Education is stuck in a parked car on the highway while the rest of the world speeds past us. All they have to do is give us the keys.  

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Proficiency, Personalization, and a Cocktail Napkin: or, how PBL became PPBL

Adam (our principal) had these two sentences written on the whiteboard in his office last summer when we came in for a meeting:

Personalization creates ownership without the certainty of integrity.

Proficiency creates integrity without the certainty of ownership.

He had been playing around with the relationship between the two “initiatives” that have taken over the state of Vermont and that had been at the center of our school’s thinking and planning and implementation for years. We all created a mind map around the two sentences that day, listing programs, structures, and systems we had in place to support both proficiency and personalization, and how we would need to balance ongoing professional development to ensure equal focus on each.

But it wasn’t until last week at Lake Morey that we truly understood the implications of those claims and how we needed to make a single, simple shift in our thinking. More about that in a minute.
Our 6 member Curriculum Instruction Team was at Lake Morey for a 2-day conference with personalization expert and researcher Allison Zmuda. Allison is a bit of a legend among our CIT at CVU because of some direction she gave us years ago at a conference in San Antonio Texas. We had been struggling with some heavy thinking and she pulled us out in the hallway, listened to our rambling, abstract, unpolished ideas, asked a few questions, and then cut right to the heart of our intent, providing the direction we had been seeking. That evening we finally figured it out...on a cocktail napkin. We drank to Allison at that moment, and since then she has taken on symbolic status among our group.

The conference focused on personalization and habits of mind, and Allison had done her homework about Vermont. She had met with the Vermont Agency of Education, read extensively about the direction Vermont is headed, and had been on the websites of the schools of the participants. She had name-tags for us all with our first names printed large enough to read from across the room, and by the end of the two days, just about all of us in the room were on a first-name basis. She asked us all about our questions, our concerns, and our interests on the first morning, and then shifted her focus throughout to address them all in some form. She set clear outcomes, provided lots of structure early on, helped us design our own guiding questions a bit later, and then supported us as we broke out on our own towards the end. In other words, she personalized the experience for each of us while remaining true to the integrity of her desired outcomes; through a gradual release model, she gave us voice, co-created goals for our work together, provided opportunities for social construction of meaning, and ultimately set us up for self-discovery.

And just like in San Antonio, our self-discovery happened in the hallway where Allison sent us to push through our stuck points. We had brought tiles (small pieces of paper with words and concepts printed on them) so that we could be flexible in our thinking (we had each sat at the hotel the evening before trying to make sense of the ideas with our own sets of tiles), and we spread them out on the table and spent an hour moving them, challenging each other, revising our thinking, and trying to figure out how to represent the relationship between personalization and proficiency and the way all of our systems, structures, and programs supported this relationship. It was hard. It was unpleasant at times. There was tension, frustration, misunderstanding, disagreement, and awkward silence. But we knew our task (to represent relationships), we knew our purpose (to develop a common understanding in order to drive professional development), and we believed so strongly in the need for clarity that we kept going. And then we got it. And by “got it” we mean we finally came to common understanding of the interaction between and among complex elements driving our work. By no means was this the fact, it finally gave us a solid starting point.

So what did we figure out about the two sentences on the whiteboard from last summer? We figured out that we cannot move forward at CVU thinking that proficiency and personalization are separate components of or pathways to learning. We cannot plan for each separately, divvying up time between them like cake to siblings. We need to shift our thinking to see these as inseparable parts of the same system, not only relying on each other for integrity and purpose, but demanding each other in order to have any chance of transformational learning. 

Transformational learning results in engagement, direction, purpose, and skills that transfer to the world outside of school. That is such a great goal for our students--so much better than a high GPA or polished transcript or a certain number of credits. And the way to encourage that type of learning for ALL students is right in front of us. We are in the middle of real transformation, not just for student learning, but for our entire school system (and state!), and it’s PPBL (Personalized, Proficiency-Based Learning) that will allow us to get there. 

Personalization and proficiency are not the goals; they are the means to the greater goal of transformational learning. Many of us have experienced personalization without clarity of goals and intentional design, and while some students may have positive experiences, we cannot ensure learning or challenge for all. As Allison Zmuda said at the conference, “Creativity appreciates constraints--it thrives on constraints.” Clear goals, constant and timely feedback based on those goals, and intentionally designed opportunities for instruction, practice, and reflection allow students to find their voices, discover their strengths, interests, and challenges, and collaboratively construct meaning. When combined, the elements of both Proficiency-Based Learning and Personalized Learning provide the constraints, the creativity, and the freedom that transformational learning requires.

Now, on our whiteboard we have written:

Proficiency and personalization provide the integrity and ownership necessary for transformational learning experiences.

We have so much work to do as a school, a district, and a state as we all try to improve learning for students. One of the great reminders we took from the conference was that our profession is not about getting it right--it’s about constantly getting it better. Educators need to think of work the way artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs do using the design, prototype, iterate process of thinking. So our school will now move forward with this next iteration knowing that it too will need to be revisited, revised, and reimagined as we continue to work towards transformational learning for all.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How to Argue with Standards-Based Learning

So you are a parent or student or teacher or community member who is currently facing the prospect of significant changes to education. You have heard the talk about standards-based learning and grading, maybe read articles or opinion pieces in the newspaper, maybe listened to a family member get upset or a neighbor or a colleague. And now you are ready to a) make a phone call, b) show up at an informational night, or c) write a letter to the editor.

In order to help you with this next step in the change process, here are some suggestions about how to argue with standards-based grading and learning.

Don’t challenge the intent, question the implementation.

If you are upset with the coming changes, do your homework and find out how your school and district is planning to implement them. The more you understand standards-based learning and grading, the more you will realize that it is not only logical, but will more readily prepare our young people for the learning they will face throughout their lives. Most professions have standards-based evaluation systems, most jobs require clear goals and proficiency in core skills, and most of our futures will require the ability to transfer skills and understanding to varied and challenging settings. One of the major purposes of school is to prepare our young people for the world they will inherit and influence, and the best way to do that it is provide them lots of instruction and practice with innovation, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. That’s what standards-based learning and grading is meant to enable.
“With well-designed pedagogy, we can empower kids with critical skills and help them turn passions into decisive life advantages. The role of education is no longer to teach content, but to help our children learn—in a world that rewards the innovative and punishes the formulaic.” ― Tony WagnerMost Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era
So question the implementation, not the intent. Making significant changes in how we teach, instruct, assess, and report learning will not be easy, and your school and district should have a plan to allow for these changes while providing safety nets for our students. Here are some questions you might want to ask:
  • What type of ongoing training will the teachers have to ensure they understand the purpose behind the changes?
  • What type of support will the teachers have along the way? Who are the people in the building the teachers can go to when they have questions, run into obstacles, or aren’t sure what to do?
  • Do the school leaders have a deep understanding of the why and the how of standards-based learning? Does the school board understand and support the changes?
  • What supports are available for students while they are learning a new set of rules about learning? Who is available to answer their questions if their teachers cannot? Who will listen to them when they are frustrated?
  • What supports are available for parents as they navigate these changes? Who do they talk to when things don’t make sense or their children are upset or they have questions about systems and structures that may look nothing like they are used to?
  • What will the report cards and transcripts look like? Will they be different? Will our students still have a GPA? If not, what additional communication will the school be doing to ensure our students are not at a disadvantage?

Don’t attack the research, request resources.

Research is tricky when it comes to education. Because there are so many factors that influence success (and so many ways to measure success), there is little accurate or transferable research about any pedagogical methods. For example, while many opponents to standards-based learning will say there is “no research” to show that it’s better, they forget that there is also no research to show that it’s not. The research we need to rely on in education is the most recent understanding of how humans learn combined with what we know about the future. When we look at what we now know about the brain and learning, there is no way we can continue to practice education as we have for the last one hundred years; we must adapt our practices--as we do in every other profession--based on the latest understanding in the field. When we combine that research with what we are coming to understand about our present and our future, it’s even clearer that we need to be preparing students differently. Students used to come to school to learn from those who knew more than they did. The goal was for experts (teachers) to impart their wisdom to a new set of young people and then celebrate when those young people could repeat back what they learned. We felt successful when students mastered a set of knowledge, understanding, and skills that we determined they would need. Now, that is not enough. We have no idea what our students will need in 20 years. Their world will look nothing like ours in many ways, and so we need to prepare them to adapt, transfer skills and understanding to new situations, and solve problems that we haven’t even realized yet.

"We hear from employers regularly about how ill prepared graduates are, even graduates from elite colleges, to take on workplace responsibilities. How creativity and imagination have been schooled out of them. How they seem allergic to unstructured problems. How they seek constant micromanagement and the workplace equivalent of a daily, or even hourly grade." Wagner and Dintersmith

So request resources from the school. Ask them to bring in local business leaders to talk to the community about changing needs and skills. Read
Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith--ask your school to purchase copies of this and run a book club. Get them to show the movie for the community. Email experts and researchers with your specific questions--so many of them are willing and excited to engage with the community and assist schools. Ask the school librarian to start a page on the website with resources, and request that they share titles that the school and teachers are reading to stay up to date on the latest research about learning and the latest best practices in pedagogy.

Don’t give in or give up, join in.

Finally, if you really want to write a letter, make phone calls, or show up at a meeting with something to say, let that something be in the name of improving education. Arguing that schools should stay the same or even return to the way they were for us is like arguing that we should bring back leeches in surgery, that we should revisit horse-drawn carriages in transportation, or be satisfied with the overpriced and clunky renewable energy sources. In all other areas of our lives we expect (and demand) progress and innovation. We want our tech people to be up to date on the latest bugs and fixes; we want our doctors to have access to the most recent studies; and we want our contractors using the most energy-efficient materials in our homes. In no other profession do we value the past and fear the future as heavily as we do in education. We want faster internet, we want more effective cancer drugs, and we want safer cars. So why don't we want the same for our schools? Why don't we expect our teachers and administrators to act on the latest research about learning? Why aren’t we demanding that that our local and national education leaders understand how the brain works? Why aren’t we furious at colleges and universities for holding fast to antiquated admissions and pedagogical practices (and charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so)? Why aren’t we holding our schools to the same standards of progress and innovation we demand in the rest of our lives?

"Even the most elite schools do no prepare students for the reality of work as it is today, let alone what it will become in the future. Most large organizations are undergoing a massive transformation as they move from industrial to innovation-economy business models. The students that thrive within today's education system are achievement driven, rule oriented, compliant, linear, singular in focus (i.e., a business or engineering major). The world of work today requires future leaders to be relationship or collaborative driven, rule-defining, creative and innovative, lateral and polymathic in focus. The gap is huge and sadly, I see only a few progressive school really stepping up to the transformation required to match that of our businesses."  Annmarie Neal - author of Leading From the Edge

Standards-based learning and grading is not going to change the world today or even tomorrow. And by no means is it the end game for the educational transformation that needs to occur. But based on what we now know about the brain, about learning, and about the future (and arguably, about the present), it is a a first step, a difficult, but achievable way forward. It has the potential to provide the foundation our schools and communities need to make real change, not for the sake of change, but for the sake of our future and our students' futures.

If you are really fired up, that’s great. Education needs more parents, teachers, students, and community members fired up. We need people willing to read, to listen, to question, to challenge, and to engage in the difficult but necessary transformation that is coming. Our schools are so intertwined with everything in our community, so steeped in tradition and weighed down by communal experience, and so intensely personal to each and every one of us that the only way we are going to make substantive, meaningful, and essential change is to join together and demand it.

So make that phone call, write that letter, and show up at that meeting fired up. But please consider fighting to make things better, not keep them the same.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Communicating with Families in a Standards-Based Class

One of the mistakes we made early on in our transition to standards-based grading and reporting was our communication with parents. Because we understood our students’ learning so much better than we had in the past, we assumed that reporting that learning to parents would not only help them understand the benefits of a standards-based system, but also see that we were intentionally addressing both strengths and struggles. So after a quarter of great learning and tracking and assessing, we sent detailed standards-based reports home with a key and a brief explanation. We waited for the praise to roll in.

What we forgot, however, was that most parents really want one thing above all else. They want to know we like their kids. Yes, most also want to know if they are being decent human beings, if they are getting their work done, where they are struggling, and where they are excelling, but if we know their kids well enough to appreciate the quirks, understand the contradictions, and ultimately enjoy the people they have raised, then parents are happy. Our mistake was showing that we knew their students academically, without taking the time to show we knew--and liked--them as people as well.

Having a comprehensive communication plan is vital in all classrooms, but maybe even more so as we transition to standards-based learning. The shift to a completely new method of teaching and grading can be a difficult change for students and parents, and forgetting to communicate what we often do best--which is getting to know our students--can make the transition even harder. Initially, tracking and reporting learning can take a lot of time for teachers, particularly if they are learning a new grade book tool or using technology differently for the first time; the idea of communicating in addition to standards-based reporting can cause stress and force teachers to steal time from other important tasks such as planning or assessing. Even so, it’s an essential part of the transition that can make the difference between class- and school-wide implementation success or failure.

In order to help teachers and schools avoid (or at least lessen) this aspect of implementation dip, we gathered suggestions and ideas we have seen teachers in our district use to successfully--and efficiently--build and maintain effective communication plans in a standards-based class.

The Plan: A comprehensive classroom communication plan has multiple purposes, which at times overlap. We have separated them here, but you’ll notice that some of the strategies cross parts, making the communication more efficient. Depending on your teaching situation and the number of students, you may need to adjust ideas to fit your context, and you and your colleagues may have other tried and true strategies to add to these lists.

Personal Connections: Parents want to know you care about their kid. This means occasional communications about specific, personal interactions, needs, successes, or other relevant updates.
    • Personal emails: One teacher takes 20 minutes every Friday afternoon to send personal emails. She keeps a list of students and checks off when she emails their families. The emails are short and positive--one nice thing that the student did that week. She can usually get through 10 students each week, though says she tries to send one positive email to each family within the first month.
    • Postcards or notes home: Like the emails, this is a great way to quickly connect. One teacher gets a set of mailing labels printed at the beginning of the year and pre-labels postcards (generic ones that the school prints). She keeps these next to her computer and tries to send one a day.
    • Parent conferences: This is a common way to make personal connections, and teachers we talked to recommended always starting and ending the conferences with positive, personal stories or observations.
    • Individual comments on standards-based reports (at end of unit, in the portal, or at reporting time): Most standards-based grading and reporting tools allow teachers to enter individual comments. While this can take extra time, a few positive and personal words can go a long way to showing parents you know their kids and care about their success.

Curriculum: Parents want to know what you’re doing in class. Letting them know the content you are using to practice important skills can help them feel connected to their kids, and can also give them ideas for conversations at home. If your standards are mostly skill-based, then communicating about content becomes even more important, as your reporting system may not include the rich, engaging choices you and the students are making about content. Some parents are really interested in the curriculum, while others just want to know that there is one, so it’s important to find a balance--consider a system that provides layers of detail that parents can access if they choose.
    • Class and/or team blogs or websites: While it can be time-consuming to keep up a blog or website, many teachers are turning to their students to help, providing a relevant anchor task and another way to work on skills and collaboration. One teacher assigns small writing teams to the task each week, providing guidelines for updates, a chance to include photos, and practice at asking and responding to questions. Another updates his website each unit, providing detailed descriptions of what they will be studying, links to additional videos and related TED talks, and a calendar of summative assessments. In order to ensure the parents see these updates, he sends a group email to the parents.
    • Google classroom or other LMS (learning management system): Many teachers use an LMS to organize tasks and assignments for students, and these can be used with parents as well. Parents can have access to their students’ sites, and some teachers set up views for parents within the system as well.
    • Common blurb on top of standards-based reports: Most reporting tools allow teachers to write and post a common message for parents and families. This is an efficient way to provide an overview of the curriculum, but should not take the place of more detailed communication for parents who want it.
    • Weekly emails from students to parents: This is one of our favorites, and can be used for a variety of purposes. One team of teachers has their students write to their families every Friday. They carve out 30 minutes to reflect on the week in a variety of categories, including content, habits, skills, and questions. The students cc their home-room teachers, and the teachers have set up the emails to go directly into a folder (so they don’t fill up their inboxes!).  The expectation is that this is communication between student and family, but the teachers can monitor what’s being communicated if necessary. Parents have loved this, and often reply to their kids (parents are told that teachers will not reply to these emails!).

Habits and Behaviors: Parents want to know their kid is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and what to do (or what you’re doing) if they’re not. So many parents get in the habit of checking online portals for completion, which can cause misunderstandings and stress when they are not accurate or updated regularly. Constant checking like this can lead to a much greater focus on compliance than on learning, so it’s important to develop a system that allows accountability and provides necessary information without distracting from what is most important.
    • Weekly emails from students to parents: Getting students to keep track of their own work completion can help them practice positive executive functioning skills. Having students include a to-do list in their weekly email keeps parents informed and prevents having to communicate this in other ways. Early in the year, this may require more organization on the teacher’s part (ensuring the lists are accurate!), but as time goes on, there will only be a handful of students who need continued guidance (and this is ok--students’ executive functioning skills develop at different rates through adolescence). These emails are also a great place to ask students to reflect on their behaviors or habits for the week--providing guiding questions can be helpful. One teacher we know also has a few email templates for students who need more structure, with questions already entered.
    • Weekly contact from core teachers: Teachers who work on a team can collaborate on this type of communication. One team we work with has 4 teachers and 80 middle school students. They meet once a week to formally talk about students anyway, and during this time they create a google doc list of any significant habits/behaviors or missing work issues that need to be communicated to parents. The core teacher (homeroom teacher) then writes emails home to the students on their list that need communication. They found this system to be effective, and quickly realized that they did not need to email home every time a student missed an assignment--they were able to coordinate with each other to use school time to address most issues, and those that couldn’t be resolved could then be communicated.
    • Summary habits scores in standards-based reports: It’s the teacher’s job to improve problem habits and behaviors, not just to report them, so we strongly suggest using the formal reporting system for summative habit scores only--and combining this with personal comments and follow up communication as necessary.

Learning: Finally, parents do also want to know how their kid is progressing in skills--where they excel and where they struggle. Some want to know this so they can help at home, some want to know what questions to ask, and others want to make sure their children are progressing as expected. Teachers in standards-based classrooms have LOTS of information about learning to share, and we caution you to work with families to determine the level of information that is most useful and desired. The level of detail we need as teachers is not always what parents need or want, and can lead to overload, frustration, and disconnection.
    • Unit and/or marking period reports: During these formal reporting periods, teachers will have the most accurate, summative data about the learning targets to report. It’s important to let parents and students know that while summative, these current levels of achievement are just that, current. They can change as the learning changes. Make sure there is a simple key with explanations of what they will see, as well as any other contextual information that is relevant to the report. If sending a standards-based report home for the first time, we highly recommend an email or letter prior to receiving it, and an opportunity for questions or feedback after receiving it.
    • Portal: Many standards-based grading tools offer a portal, where parents and students can check their progress and achievement whenever they want. This can be confusing to parents new to standards-based grading, particularly if you previously had a portal based on completion and points. Be sure to clearly communicate to parents and students about what will be updated and when, how it’s different than an assignment-based portal, and all of the other ways they have to see how their students are doing in your class.

There is no single tool that can quickly and comprehensively communicate all of the above purposes at the same time, and wishing that the standards-based grade book tool could take care of it all will just lead to frustration for everyone. Developing new and effective ways to communicate with our families during the transition to a standards-based system may be a bit more time consuming initially, but making sure that families feel included during the changes will provide the safety and trust we all need to improve learning.

Here is a template with an example of a full communication plan for a team. Feel free to use as is or adapt for your needs!

Have other strategies you use to build relationships and communicate for a variety of purposes? Let us know!

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.