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!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Let’s talk about Biology class.

by guest bloggers Jess Lemieux and Mike Abbott, science teachers at CVUHS.

“I used to Juul for about a year, nonstop. Sometimes I would feel super sick but I never had a problem with it until we started this unit. At first, I was really upset and kinda mad (because of the withdrawal symptoms). But I’ve been six weeks clean and I honestly have never felt better.” Student, 16

Type “vape” into your Google search bar and your screen will flood with recent headlines about the teen vaping epidemic. The first article that popped up today, “Teens don’t vape, they Juul, Making E-Cigarette Use Hard to Track,” highlights the fact that teens are speaking a different language (as they have since the beginning of time). If we are afraid to learn their language, we risk miscommunication. This is fine if we’re talking about fashion, but dangerous when talking about health.

In December of this school year, we decided to talk about Juuling in our Integrated Biology course, a tenth grade, heterogeneous class. We had noticed high levels of compliance in our classes, but wondered how to spark true engagement. While they clearly enjoyed class and respected us as teachers, we realized we were not allowing them to apply science to their lives. To tackle this we looked for a way to teach our required content (e.g. circulatory system, respiratory system, etc.) through a more relevant and engaging lens. Enter juuling. We quickly realized that as science educators we could facilitate an investigation of teen nicotine use from a scientific lens, free of judgment, but in order to do this effectively, students would need a safe place to talk.

Many approaches to teen issues employ scare tactics that extensively highlight the negative aspects associated with the topic in hopes that it will deter kids from making unhealthy choices. (Some of us are old enough to remember Reefer Madness). These scare tactics may work if teens are weighing their options in a safe place with adults they care about. Most teenagers are capable of the same mature, logical thought as adults when they are acting in a state of “cold cognition,” which means they are in the absence of peer interactions or pressure. Ask a kid if they want to Juul in these moments and they will likely say, “No, it’s so bad for you.” However, in the state of “hot cognition,” when the adolescent is in the middle of the social pressure, stress, and anxiety of high school, their answer may be very different. In these situations, the limbic system of the adolescent brain overrides the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which leads teens to make quick and irrational decisions. One student wrote, “In sophomore year, as school was getting more difficult I was just kind of fed up so the next time I was with a friend and they told me about how de-stressing Juul is, I tried it. I also simply do it to fit in.”

Failing to recognize, understand and talk about the reasons that lead teenagers to use nicotine is a general trend across the country, and knowing this is eventually what led us to our “Science of Teenage Vaping” unit. When we began to design, we decided to go big right out of the gate and host a 200-student kick-off. The sole purpose was for students to answer two questions: How do you talk about it, and why do you do it? We asked students to break into small groups and come up with a list of words/phrases that they use to talk about vaping. The world cloud below is the product generated via that work. Look very closely, right between the words “vape” and “Juul” and you will see the word “addiction” in very small print. For the adults in the room, this was eye-opening. Not only did we recognize that there is an entire language surrounding teen nicotine use that we are completely unaware of (e.g. nick, stick, rip, juice), but teens are oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

The next question students answered was, why do you do it? After some time consolidating their thoughts they came up with the following reasons: peer pressure, marketing, family modeling, coping strategy, and addiction. These reasons and the science behind them became the foundational knowledge of our unit curriculum, along with the skills of Making Scientific Claims, Using Evidence and Scientific Reasoning.

We spent the next six weeks guiding students through investigations and analyses of the factors that lead to nicotine use through the lens of the teenage brain. We designed target-based practice activities and assessments that focused on immediate and long term physiological effects of nicotine use (at the molecular, cellular and system level), the factors that contribute to addiction and its development (tolerance, withdrawal, conditioning) and the specific marketing of Juul to teens. In doing this, students used rigorous, engaging, student-driven content to develop transferable skills.

Demonstrating Learning

At the end of the unit, students wrote an essay (using Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning) to respond to one of the following prompts:
  • Are the risks of Juuling worth the rewards?
  • Is adolescent nicotine use really something we should be concerned about?
  • Do personal freedoms trump public health?

Students had already developed the skill of Making Scientific Claims independently throughout the first part of the year so we felt we had solid data regarding each student’s level of mastery. Because of this we encouraged them to work together to write claims. The video shows two groups engaging in this process.

We also had a handful of students choose to rewrite our school Juuling policy as an alternative. Regardless of the format, the skill assessment was the same. Students needed to choose a claim, support all parts of their claim with reliable and specific evidence from a provided resource document, and use their content knowledge to provide scientific reasoning. The results were fantastic! Students who had previously struggled with engagement found themselves “in the zone,” writing multiple pages and reaching the target or going beyond on the class scales. However, it was the student reflections that confirmed our choice to take this risk in curriculum redesign for our students.

“I think it is extremely important for me to understand how the teenage brain makes decisions because now I can have a different view on my peers who choose to Juul. Obviously, I never thought they were “bad people” but I know that the environment they are in (inside and outside of school) impacts their decisions. I will know to be thoughtful of the issues people may be facing in their daily lives that will make them want to Juul.”

“I realize why people act differently when they are surrounded by different types of people, which is cool!” 
“Thanks for breaking the walls and the stigma regarding this hard issue!” 
“One aspect that made learning about the negative impacts of Juuling especially hard was knowing that many people I am close with have this addiction. By learning about negative impacts I am learning about bad things that are happening to them.

“Learning about Juuling has made me more nervous for my younger siblings and the choices the will have to make. Have I prepared/equipped them with enough information? According to this unit, no. I need to talk to them more.”

“This information was important to me to understand because both of my parents smoked and my grandma smoked up until she died. Her death was an effect of smoking almost her entire life.”

“My older sister said “I just don’t understand why people would inhale nicotine. It’s so bad for you.” I had a thing or two to say in response to that. I told her all of these complex scientific processes that lead to nicotine addiction and in the brain that I didn’t even realize I knew! She was impressed!”

“I think it was better than learning about the systems and what the do, which would be pretty boring, even though I don’t Juul.”

So, where do we go from here? One thing is certain, we will definitely be teaching this unit again next year, but we hope to broaden the scope to focus on other addictions. As one student wrote, “I think we should do more with weed and booze because that will help a lot of kids with choices in the future.” I guess some language hasn’t changed!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Working Together to Solve the "Homework Problem"

Guest Blog: This post is written by 11th grade student, Beckett Pintair

As a student, homework is a daunting task, with all our countless responsibilities, sometimes, homework can seem like a trivial formality. However, if you think about homework from the teacher perspective, it's a whole different story. Teachers assign homework for various reasons, for practice on subjects taught in class, to read more content for the class, or projects to get kids to do new learning. Whatever the reason, teachers usually have a plan for class that somewhat relies on the completion of the previously assigned work. If students constantly come into class without their homework done, how do you move forward? 
Image result for motivation
In the past, to solve this problem, teachers were able to grade homework. Students would have to complete their work or their grade would drop. However, in the new age of standards-based grading, where Habits of Learning and homework are ungraded, teachers don't have this power. So the question is: 

How do you get students to complete their homework?

The easy answer is to go back to forcing kids to do their work by dangling a grade over their head. But we have learned through research, by Daniel Pink and other leading motivation experts, that "Carrot and Stick" motivation is a short term fix that leads to disengagement. "Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement." This quote by Daniel Pink is about the concept of intrinsic motivation. When students are given the freedom to explore and learn with the sole goal of learning, their engagement levels actually exceed any engagement from grades. With all of this research about intrinsic motivation (I encourage you to read Daniel Pink's Drive), we know that grading homework will only lead to stress, not engagement. 

Now all of this knowledge is great background information for overall education reform, but, none of it helps with the short term problem of homework completion. Here are a few tips from a student to help you improve homework completion without sacrificing long term engagement. 

1) Give students time in class to work on homework.

Now I know that this idea might seem like a time suck. However, I have seen first hand how well this strategy works. In classes I have taken where the teacher gives us time in class to work, it ends up saving them time in the long run and increases the quality of the work. When you think about it, a lot of teachers end up having to go over homework, line by line, during class because no students did it in the first place (or they rushed through). A student's schedule is very busy, with sports, SAT practice, college prep, and countless other things; we sometimes don't have time outside of school to do anything, let alone time-draining homework. By giving students time in class, it gives us a designated block that lets us work with no distractions from outside responsibilities. 

Image result for homework2) Give students a time limit for working on their homework.

This may seem like a small insignificant detail that won't change anything about students' motivation for homework. However, this small parameter often lets students plan accordingly and give themselves time to complete their work. Students work things up in our heads. A simple 10-minute task can seem like a five-hour project if we don't know how long it is supposed to take. By telling students, "Don't work on this longer than 15 minutes," it takes almost all the pressure away and helps us plan our schedule more effectively. 

It's easy to overthink homework, for both the students and teachers. By giving students these tools and focusing on what is most important, we can decrease student stress and increase class productivity. 

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)