Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Bammy Awards

       Since I started this blog two years ago, from time to time I'd see something about this thing called The Bammy Awards.  I remember that I first saw it on the webpage of one of my favorite online colleagues Daisy Dyer Duerr.  As I continued to make connections via twitter and via reading other great blogs about education, The Bammy Awards would continue to pop up; and they were always linked to something great about public schools.

       Since my blog is all about the great things that are happening  in our public schools, it is time for me to do my part to spread the word about The Bammy Awards--which has the very same mission of spreading the word about the great people that work very hard to make our public schools the best they can be.  The Bammy Awards strive to reverse the narrative that is so often in the public press and minds that says our schools are always failing and our students are sub-standard.

       The Bammy Awards recognize the exceptional collaborators, contributors, and role models in our public schools.  Awards are given in more than 20 categories for teachers, superintendents, principals,  support staff, parent leaders, researchers, bloggers, and more.

       This video shows the 2015 finalists and winners--although everyone making it to the finalist list is truly a winner and a strong supporter of our public schools.


       I would encourage everyone to learn the rules for nominating a educator you know who deserves a Bammy Award.  Everyone can contribute their voice to the process by either nominating someone (or themselves) or by voting for a nominee.  We know that great work is happening in our public schools everyday and I believe that everyone needs to hear about these great, hard-working people who are doing these great thing.

       Learn about the Bammy Awards; and read the articles and blogs that are put out by the nominees and finalists.  Join the twitter chats with these wonderful educators.  You will grow in your knowledge of our education system and in your abilities to help children to improve.  We can't do it alone; we need each other.  The Bammy Awards are helping to bring us together and to share the great news about our great public schools!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Are Your Students Obsessed with Grades?

       Here's a quick checklist to see if your students are obsessed with grades:

  1. They are constantly asking, "Is this going to be graded?"
  2. They refuse to do anything if it is not being graded.
  3. They ask for "extra credit" or make-up work at the end of the marking term to raise their grade to the next letter grade.
  4. They only see the grade at the top of their returned work and ignore the helpful comments that the teacher has written.
  5. They try to memorize the information they need to know for tests.
  6. They follow procedures in mathematics for unknown reasons just to get the right answer.
       In short, students who are obsessed with grades are just "going through the motions" at school; they do what they're told, but they learn very little.  And when they take a test that can't be beat by memorizing (like a final exam) they show their true ability or lack thereof.  The challenge for these students is to do as little as possible to earn the grade they want.


       School is supposed to be all about learning.  If students aren't learning, than we are wasting their time.  And if we are (somehow) justifying how these grades-obsessed students are getting A's and B's, then we are giving them (and their parents) a false sense of accomplishment.  Eventually someone will tell these students the truth about their academic abilities, and it would be a shame if they are in college (and paying for college) when they are hit with this truth-bomb.

       Teachers can help their students to de-emphasize grades by praising them for their thinking and reasoning.  They can emphasize learning by asking students to explain how they got the right answer instead of just accepting the right answer and moving on.  Formative assessments that require thinking and reasoning and justifying instead of just repeating information tell students that memorizing isn't good enough.

       We have to help students to be less obsessed about grades.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

We Are a Community of Learners

       Teaching students is not like like building a model airplane.  We don't have distinct steps to follow that will lead to a completed project in the end.  Students learn differently; they come to school with different experiences and different abilities.  Good teaching requires an understanding of the learners in each classroom and daily lesson plans that are designed to help those learners.

       Good teachers understand the difficulty of reaching each individual student and they seek out the best strategies from experts in the field of education and from the teacher across the hall.  We (educators) are a community of learners.  We have to be.  We can't learn everything from experience and we can't figure out everything on our know.  We can't be experts in child psychology and special education and mathematics and English Language Learners and student engagement and formative assessment and ....  We need each other to be the best teachers we can be for our students.

       After more than 25 years in education, I am still learning and improving by listening and reading and following other educators just like me who have something great to share.  Here is my short list of excellent sources of information for educators who strive to make a difference with their students and who seek to improve their abilities every year:
  1. Annie Murphy Paul - The Brilliant Blog
    1. Her recent writings on how to using testing as a learning tool (aka - formative assessments) are informative and eye-opening to those who only see testing as an end-of-unit assessment.  She has also recently released an e-course that will show parents, teachers, and school leaders how to implement testing strategies as opportunities for student learning and growth.
  2. Robert Marzano - Marzano Research
    1. Great professional development information for teachers and for whole schools on topics ranging from Student Engagement to Assessment and Grading to Instructional Strategies to Teacher Effectiveness.  Don't let the "research" part scare you; Marzano provides effective tools and ideas that are simple to understand and to implement.
  3. Doug Lemov - Teach Like a Champion
    1. Excellent tips that any teacher can use to improve student learning and student motivation.
  4. Starr Sackstein - Changing the World, One Mind at a Time
    1. Great ideas and thoughts from a National Board Certified Teacher
    2. Lots of great recent blog posts about emphasizing learning and de-emphasizing grading

       And teachers don't have to go online to find excellent educators to collaborate with; look to your administrators, and district and state-level leaders.  Find ways to collaborate with teachers in other school buildings in your school district.  There is great value in learning from other professions.  I would say that it is a necessary element for teachers who strive to improve year after year.

     We are a community of learners.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

World-Class Education

       I'm not a competitive person.

       I'm one of those people who sees the value in the journey and believes that there is something to be learned from every situation.   And, "Who Cares" if I did better or worse than the next guy.

       As our public schools are taking their first steps to endeavor to teach our students at the same academic level with the highest performing countries in the world, we stand to learn much from our colleagues.  True learning is a complex process and enabling true learning via classroom instruction is an evolving process.  No single teacher can do it alone; we need the expertise that we can only gain from working together.

       This isn't going to happen if we are constantly concerned with gaining some sort of higher ranking than our neighboring school.  This can only be accomplished through hard work and constant dialogue with the teacher across the hall in-between classes; and during department and team meetings; and in the evenings via twitter chats and reading blogs and paging through journals and taking classes and...

       We are at a major turning point in public education in the United States.  We are making an honest attempt to raise standards and examine our teaching strategies.  We know that change is hard.  In fact I believe that the difficulty involved in this process of change is the piece that has prevented us from moving forward in the past and what may halt the process this time as well.

       The struggle to raise standards requires everyone to take an honest look their current abilities: teachers and students.  We can't be overly concerned about grades and we certainly can't be concerned about beating the next guy (or the next school) in some sort of artificial competition.  We will have a few years of teachers and students with the same abilities that are judged on different standards.  We are truly "raising the bar" and we have to expect some period of time before we are all able to clear that bar.

       It will happen, but it will take time and cooperation and hard work.  It isn't enough (anymore) for students to merely "do what they are told" in school.  They have to actually learn and use what they learn during the learning of future topics.  Teachers need to not only teach but also determine how well their students are learning--everyday.  Parents need to accept the results of standardized testing and encourage their children to ask questions and to spend more time reading and practicing and understanding.

       No one every became an olympic athlete without years of training.  That's what we are trying to do.  We want our students to compare with the best students in the world.  We want them to leave high school with multiple opportunities because they have the abilities to truly do whatever they want to do.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.

       So start stretching--we are in "training" mode.  And we need time to improve.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Growth Mindset Parents

       I'm not sure if the idea of mindsets has broken out of the field of education and into the general public.  I hope it has.  Imagine if the parents of all of your students had a Growth Mindset and imagine if they helped their children (your students) to have a growth mindset.  That would be truly excellent scenario for any teacher!

       If you are not currently living this this ideal world, what can a teacher do to help her students' parents to understand the value of Growth Mindsets?

       Parents often ask teachers what they can do at home to help their children.  In the middle and high school years, sometimes the parents feel that they are not capable of helping their children because the content is beyond their ability.  This is an opportunity to talk about Growth Mindset with parents.  Here are some Growth Mindset suggestions that any parent can do:

  1. Help your child to understand that effort yields results.  Read, study, practice, quiz yourself.  
  2. Tell your child that true learning takes time.  You might not "get it" the first time.
  3. Make sure your child understands that it is OK to make mistakes.  We all learn from our mistakes.
  4. Praise your child for effort; don't praise your child for "being smart".  This seems counterproductive, but kids who are rewarded for "being smart" tend to take less chances for fear of losing the "smart" label.
  5. Never, never, never, never tell your child that you were bad at math or science or anything else.  This gives children an excuse for not doing well, and it makes them believe that they have some sort of genetic deformity that predestines them to be bad at these subjects.
       So much of these suggestions go against the idea of "playing school"--looking smart, pretending to learn, memorizing stuff for the test, only caring about grades, and not caring about learning.  We want students to understand the value of hard work.  Learning faster isn't learning better.  It's OK to make mistakes.  When students hear this from their teachers and then hear it again at home, they will believe it.

       Learning isn't a competition.  Students with a fixed mindset toward any particular subject can change to a growth mindset if they have supportive teachers and parents that encourage a growth mindset.

       Learning real does take a village--a Growth Mindset village would be a pretty good place to live!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Growth Mindset Teachers

       Have you heard about Mindsets?  In my school district, I am hard-pressed to meet a supervisor or a principal or a teacher who hasn't heard about it.  Here's a quick video that defines Growth and Fixed mindsets:

       Teachers who understand the Growth Mindset are able to help their students to understand that effort yields results and mistakes are the building blocks of true learning.  These teachers don't encourage their students to get good grades, they encourage questioning and curiousity.

       Students with a growth mindset believe that their is nothing that they can't do.  They don't mind making mistakes because they don't view them as mistakes.  Instead they view mistakes as an important part of the journey toward learning and true understanding.

       Teachers can help students to develop a growth mindset by praising their thinking and their effort, rather than praising that they simply got the right answer.  In fact, if students are constantly told that they are smart, research tells us that they tend to avoid making mistakes and they will hide the things that they can't do because they fear that they will lose the label of "being smart".

       This is (yet) another reason why we have to end this school culture of over-valuing grades.  School is supposed to be about learning and we want our students to understand that learning requires effort.  Effort requires trying new things and taking chances and not getting it right the first time.  This is not only "OK", it is necessary for true learning to take place.

       We love our growth mindset teachers that produce our growth mindset students.  Learning can be hard work.  We want our students to value this hard work and to recognize that there is always a prize waiting to reward them for this hard work.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing

Warning:  If you are 100% against standardized testing or 100% in favor of standardized testing, you shouldn't read this blog post.  I'm going to some things that you will agree with, but you will be so blinded in anger over the things I say that you disagree with that you will never see the agreement parts.  Besides, you have already determined your thinking on this matter so there is no point for you to hear the opinions of others.


       Alright, maybe that warning was a little harsh.  I apologize.  In truth, I'd like to believe that the people who are on the extreme sides of this issue are a very small minority.  Most people have their views regarding standardized testing, and I would guess that most people fall somewhere in the middle of the issue.  I'm one of those people.

       In an ideal world, the students will come to school and do their best everyday to learn--and testing wouldn't be necessary.  The reason it wouldn't be necessary (in this ideal world) is because teachers would constantly gain an understanding of each student's level of learning through formative assessment practices; and students would ask questions about the things they didn't understand and keep working on these things until they got it.  The motivation would be the attainment of knowledge.

       To be fair, some students and teachers and whole schools work hard to (at least) approach this ideal world of education; but for the rest of us, we are still somewhere on our journey toward this world.  We are striving to emphasize learning over "getting-a-grade"; but we still need effective ways to measure learning--and testing is part of this process; and standardized testing is part of this process.

Some Pros of Standardized Testing

       In my view the "standardized" part of standardized testing is a pro.  Every student takes the same test regardless of the factors that influenced their learning (such as their teacher, the curriculum, the standards, the state they live in, etc.).  Think about the SAT test: colleges know that every student is taking the same test, so SAT scores can be compared to each other regardless of where in the country the test was taken.

       Also, the next generation of standardized tests (think PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests) are written to determine a measure of learning based on understanding content more than based on memorizing formulas and procedures.   This means that it will be harder for students to guess the right answers on these tests.  It also means that results will be based on true learning and understanding rather than on a student's ability to take a test.

Some Cons of Standardized Testing

       It may be a challenge to teach all of the content that is covered in a standardized test prior to the administration of the test.  Standardized tests typically have specific testing windows or a specific testing date on which to give the test.  Since different school districts start and end on different dates during the year and have different days off due to holidays and other reasons, it might be hard to structure a course outline that completely covers all of the material that will be assessed on a standardized test.  This occurs (sometimes) for Advanced Placement tests.  These AP tests usually have a particular May date for their administration and many school districts finish their school years in June.

       Some might argue that a "con" to standardized testing is that it might assess something that we don't teach or don't want to teach in the course.    I believe that there is general agreement of what needs to be taught in each grade and that this is less of an issue than some would have you believe.

       To me the biggest down side to standardize testing is that it gives the message to students (and parents) that the goal of school is getting a good grade on a (standardized) test rather than having the goal of learning.  Sometimes standardized test results are treated with great importance with newspaper articles and school-wide celebrations.  And sometimes these results are given too much importance when making course selection decisions for the next couple of school years.  As I said before, schools should emphasize learning and should de-emphasize "getting a grade".  A standardized test score should be just one piece of data that is used in conjunction with many other data points to make big decisions about a student's ability.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Teachers Who Make Learning Exciting

       There is a secret that every teacher knows...and every teacher hopes that students never find out about this secret.  The secret is...we can't force anyone to learn anything.

       There is no physical way that a teacher (or anyone else) can actually force a student to learn.  It can't be done.  The best we can do is convince students that learning has a practical purpose and that everyone is capable of being able to learn.

       Fortunately, most students "get it" that school is the place where they are taught things, and school is the place where they are assessed to determine the quality of their learning.  So most of the time, teachers don't have to do too much convincing of the purpose of learning.

       Still, there comes a time in every student's life in which they struggle to learn things easily.  When this happens, it is the skill of the teacher to motivate students; to convince students of their (continued) ability to be able to learn; and to engage students in the process of learning that keeps students on the learning path.

       All of us have had teachers like this.  They make learning fun.  You don't even know that you are learning; you don't care about your grade.  You just love going to her class because the teacher treats you like a real person; is glad to see you everyday; and makes a point to have every student feel part of the community of the classroom.

       Our best teachers strive to improve their skills every year.  Increasing these "skills" do not involve strengthening their content skills, but instead involve adding to their skill set the ability to engage their students in the process of learning.  Every students wants all of their teachers to be this sort of teacher and every parent wants this sort of teacher for their child.

       Thank you to all of these teachers who find a way to reach all of your students.  You make learning what it should exciting adventure!

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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