Sunday, August 30, 2015

Formative Assessment Is Not a Buzz Word

       Formative Assessments are the keys to identifying the actual learning that takes place within every student.  I'll admit that "formative assessment" is certainly an educational term that one wouldn't typically hear on a regular basis outside of education circles.  But it isn't a meaningless "buzz term" that we use to confuse people.

       Formative Assessment is something that good teachers do on a daily basis to gain information on how well the students are learning the daily objective or standard that is taught in class everyday.  If teachers didn't use some sort of formative assessment, they would only be delivering information instead of actually teaching.

       I think that people outside of education hear the word "assessment" and immediately think of "a test"; and then they think of a grade; and then they think about its impact on the course grade; and so on and so on--only thinking about grades.  Teachers on the other hand are much more interested in learning than they are in grades.  Formative assessments can be traditional quizzes or tests, but most of the time they are activities, questions, discussions, games, projects, exit tickets, pre-assessments--lots of strategies that teachers use to identify the level of learning that is occurring within each of their students.

       Formative Assessment emphasizes learning and de-emphasizes "the grade".  Formative assessment helps students to see the learning target (the goal) and it helps them to be successful in reaching that goal.

       So don't think of "tests" when you hear the term "Formative Assessment".  Instead think, "I'm glad my child's teacher is concerned about helping my child to learn well."

       Another phrase we use a lot is "Assessment for Learning".  Using Formative Assessments effectively helps students to learn and to learn well.  It isn't a "final exam" that (instead) tests what the student knows after the teaching and learning has already taken place.  Formative Assessment is what happens while the learning is taking place.  It recognizes that students aren't going to understand everything the first time they hear it.  They have to hear it and try it and make mistakes and try again and make more mistakes and learn from these mistakes and try it again...and eventually they get it.

       Mistakes are expected, respected, and inspected.  This is what Formative Assessments do.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fifty Million Students

       Public Schools in the United States educate 50,000,000 students.  Fifty million!  With a population of roughly 322 million people, more than 1 in every 7 U.S. citizens are students in our public school system.  These students are taught by 3.1 million teachers in 17,000 school districts that contain 100,000 schools.

       Add to these numbers the number of parents of these students; the number of non-teacher employees of these schools and school systems; and the number of relatives of these students, teachers, and school employees and you have a school system that touches the lives of a majority of our nation's people.

       That's a big system!  And I believe that big is good.

       It is because we are so big that we have so many diverse opinions of the best way to educate students; the best teaching strategies; the best school structures; and the best content to deliver.  This is a natural occurrence for such a large system and I believe that such debate is a good and healthy aspect of our national school system.

       No single person can know everything and I believe that there is value in hearing the diverse ideas of the many in our efforts to do what is best for our students.  In short, I believe that our large size is a great benefit to our students and to our nation as a whole.  I'm not disappointed by the seeming lack of a national consensus on major issues because I believe that such debate is a strength.

       Teachers constantly feel the push and pull of these diverse voices and in the end they build their beliefs of the best way to educate their students.  This makes our teachers more capable and constantly builds their understanding of the very meaning of education.  And this, I believe, benefits our students.

       We are each (indeed) part of a national fabric and when we each do our part to the best of our abilities, we build a nation of able, reasoned adults that contribute to making our nation great.

       Fifty million students.  One great system.

Friday, August 21, 2015

11 Serious Questions for Teachers

       Yesterday I welcomed our 200+ secondary mathematics teachers to the 2015 - 2016 school year.  We do this every school year and it is always an exciting day.  We get to see people we haven't seen since last June; middle school teachers get to network with their high school colleagues.  The first day of school is getting closer and closer.

       This year I welcomed them with 11 serious questions about teaching.  Since this week is filled with the details of preparing those first lessons, decorating the classroom, preparing class resources, and learning about any new school policies and procedures, teachers don't usually get the chance to sit down for 30 minutes and reflect on why they do what they do.

       Here are the questions I asked them.  Read each one and take 30 seconds to reflect on your answer to the question.

  1. Why do you teach?
  2. What is your goal this year?
  3. Will you make a difference?
  4. What will you do differently this year?
  5. How do you view challenges?
  6. Where is the line between impossible and very difficult?
  7. Do your students have a Growth or Fixed Mindset?
  8. How do you know when they "get it"?
  9. Do student's term grades reflect their ability?
  10. How do you move your students from procedural to conceptual understanding?
  11. Why do you teach?
       Teachers have a job to do.  It is a difficult, complex job.  And the need to grow and to improve in the job is necessary because it isn't the sort of job in which a person knows everything they need to know when they graduate from college.  Teachers face new challenges every year and their ability to find solutions to those challenges is generally what separates good teachers from great teachers.

       Here is a movie clip I shared with the teachers in which FDR struggles to stand up straight and then boldly says, "Don't tell me, 'It can't be done.'"

       Why do you teach?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Open Letter to Parents

 This is the third of a three-part series of open letters to the three most important stakeholders in our educational system: students, teachers, and parents.  All three of these groups play a vital role in the education of our children.

Dear Parents,

       The school year is about to begin.  This is an exciting time for your children; but I know that it is an exciting time for you too.  And well it should.  As parents, you are an important part of the educational process of your children.  You encourage your children to do their best and you help them as much as you can.  Your children need you as they navigate their way through the P-12 system.  Thank you for supporting your children.

       I'd like to offer a few suggestions on this topic that you might not have ever heard before.  I say this because these suggestions tend to go against popular thought on the best way for parents to help their children.  Here goes:

1) It's OK to let your children struggle a little bit while they are learning new things.  It's OK if they don't "get it" the first time.  It doesn't mean that they are slow or below average or any other negative buzz word you might want to call a person who doesn't learn new things quickly.  True learning takes time; it takes a little trial and error.  Be sure to let your children know this. 

2) Education is not a competition.  I know that this sounds like a funny thing to say--especially to people who believe that everything in life is a competition.  But education should not be a race for your children to win.  Who cares if your child is a better speller than other kids in the class?  Who cares if your child gets a better grade than other kids on the geography test.  

       Teach your children to do the best they can all of the time.  If they feel that they have to surpass everyone all of the time in everything that they do, then the first time this doesn't happen (and it will; often) they will feel like a failure.

3) Instead of saying "Get good grades!", you should say "Learn well today!"  School is about learning; it's not about getting good grades.  Especially in elementary and middle school; grades should absolutely be secondary to learning.  Students who strive for high grades tend to learn how to "play school".  They do what their told and they turn things in on time.  But they only do things because of "the grade".  They don't care about learning; they only care about following the rules to get a good grade.  Don't be impressed by your children's good grade.  Stress the importance of learning.  What is the point of getting through school with good grades if you haven't learned anything more than following rules and doing what your told?

4) Lastly, make sure your children understand that hard work and studying and practice lead to success in everything that they do.  Making mistakes is OK; in fact, making mistakes and learning from mistakes helps children to learn.  Let your children know that it always OK to make mistakes.  

       Learning is a pursuit for perfection, it is a lifelong journey of wonder.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Open Letter to Teachers

 This is the second of a three-part series of open letters to the three most important stakeholders in our educational system: students, teachers, and parents.  All three of these groups play a vital role in the education of our children.

Dear Teachers,

       If students only knew how excited and anxious and thrilled and nervous and ... all teachers are as the first day of school approaches.  The first impression, the first lesson, the first assignment, the first words that a teacher utters on the first day of school--every second is precious.

       A teacher's role in the education of our nation's children is the most vital and influential component of our educational system. As a teacher, your abilities have more of an impact on student achievement than any other factor.  All of this importance (I know) puts a lot of pressure on you to do the best job possible everyday.

       And to add to these pressures--as you already know--teaching is a very difficult job.  Different students with different learning styles; some having good days and some having bad days ON THE SAME DAY; building positive relationships and teaching to the highest standards.  The demands on you are many.

       I want you to know how much I appreciate the work that you do.  The best of you strive to improve all of the time.  Teaching is the sort of profession that's hard to master.  There is always something more that you can do; more students that you can reach; better strategies that are more effective for more students.

       You also, at times, have to be the one who tells a student that he isn't reaching his potential--and I thank you for that too. We have to be honest with our students and we don't want them to have a false sense of accomplishment only to discover (perhaps in college) that they real do not have the abilities that they were told they had.

       I hope you will be a warm demander as a teacher this year.  That is, be the teacher with high standards who insists that students do their best everyday, and at the same time your students know that you care for them and will do everything you can to help them to achieve.  Students appreciate teachers who believe that they can be successful with difficult material.  Students don't want teachers who make everything easy and demand very little from them. This only tells the students that they aren't worth the effort to teach.  Help your students to engage in productive struggle in the classroom.

       To all of our great teachers, I hope you have the best school year ever!  We often say that our students are our future.  If this is true, than it is true that our teachers are the ones who shape our future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Open Letter to Students

       This is the first of a three-part series of open letters to the three most important stakeholders in our educational system: students, teachers, and parents.  All three of these groups play a vital role in the education of our children.

Dear Students,

       As a brand new school year begins, I want to share some of my thoughts about school and education in the hopes that they will help you to have a successful year of learning.

       Note that I've used the wording "learning" and I didn't say a successful year of getting good grades.  Grades may be one indication of your learning, but grades are not the purpose of school.  Indeed the reason we adults have these rules about going to school is because we want to do our part in preparing you to be as prepared as you can be for the majority of your life as an adult.  Hence, school shouldn't be a competition for grades, but instead it should be a journey of learning.

       Some of you will learn best by sitting still and quiet in your chair and listening to your teacher and (maybe) writing some notes.  But we now know that most students don't do their best learning in this way.  Learning requires you to ask questions and to be curious about what you are taught.  You need time practice; you need time to make mistakes and fix those mistakes and make more mistakes...and so on and so on.

       Have you ever read a book that you really liked and felt that you were a fast reader?  But at other times you read a book that you weren't interested in and it seemed to take a long time to get through it.  Learning is like that.  So try to find something interesting in everything that you learn in school and you will find that learning itself can be interesting.

       I think the important thing to know about learning is that learning can be a struggle at times and that's OK.  If you learned everything the first time a teacher taught it to you, than you probably are ready to move on to a tougher class (or a tougher teacher).  Faster is Smarter.  Learning shouldn't be a competition to be the first person to finish an assignment.  Learning takes time.  So don't worry if you don't get it the first time.  True learning rarely comes fast.

       Your teacher is there to help you when you don't get it the first time.  If your teacher doesn't help you then you need to tell someone; tell your mother or father or a guidance counselor.  No teacher should make you feel bad about not learning.  No one is an expert in everything--including your teacher.  Most teachers are glad to help you--that's why they are teachers.

       So work hard at your learning this year.  Take responsibility for your learning.  Don't look for shortcuts or for "the easy way".  People who know how to learn can learn anything.  You can learn anything.  Ask for help and don't give up.  

       School is an opportunity for every student.  It, unfortunately, is not an opportunity that every child in world is given.  Appreciate this opportunity and do your best everyday.

       Have a great school year!

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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