Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Amazing Things Await Those that Can Learn

       Our school system has an event we call Future Link.  Seventh grade students come to the local community college and participate in conversations with scientists and botanists and engineers; and they think about what they want to do as an adult.  Every speaker has the same message: People and companies are doing amazing things and you can be part of this world of discovery if you work hard in school and learn as much as you can.
       I listened to a talk about the building of the James Webb Space Telescope and was amazed by the scope of the project.  Over 1000 people from 17 countries have been working on the design and building of this telescope.  Eighteen specially designed mirrors will be used.  The telescope is so big that it can't fit in the spaceship, so it had to be designed to fold in sections and then to unfold once it got into space.  Huge problems had to be solved, designed, and built.

       I was particularly impressed with the list of engineering fields that were employed by the team that build this telescope.  All sorts of specialties and specialists were needed to work together to build this amazing product.  Some of the seventh grade students in today's classrooms will one day work with the James Webb Space Telescope on its 5 to 10 year mission to identify stars and galaxies and planets and black holes that we (today) don't even know exist.

       It's amazing and it all starts in school.  Math, Science, Technology, Coding, English, Foreign Languages; everything that are students learn today will one day be used to do amazing things.  I can't wait to see their future.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Is There Too Much Testing?


       The very word conjures up emotions in students and parents and school officials alike.  Within the educational community, this word conjures up other words like: measuring, accountability, fairness, purpose, practice, instructional time, online, paper/pencil, formative, and summative.  Your connection to these feelings and issues probably shapes your views about testing in our public schools.  Part of what makes this such a big issue is that there are no simple "right" and "wrong" solutions.  It is a complex problem that requires thought and discussion among many stakeholders.

       The goal of schooling is learning.  There may be other benefits such as socializing, joining a club or team, earning a diploma; but the goal is learning.  Our ability to measure learning has grown significantly over the past twenty years as educators come to understand the value of frequent formative assessments in combination with teaching strategies that engage students.  In the past, the school classroom was a very dictatorial place:  Teacher in the front doing most of the talking; students sitting in rows listening to the teacher and taking notes; test or quiz every Friday.  This system worked fine for the student who was able to learn by listening, but if you needed to ask questions, or clear up any confusion with the content prior to the test you probably struggled to learn in this environment.  And if you weren't able to concentrate on the teacher's words for two or three hours, you might have missed your first and only chance to get that precious information from the teacher.

       Today we know that learning requires doing and talking and questioning in addition to listening (and note taking).  We also know that we want to get a sense of the learning that is taking place on a daily basis and not just once a week or whenever the "Big Test" occurs.  This "measuring of daily learning" is what we call Formative Assessment.  It could be a game, a series of verbal questions from the teacher, an activity during class, a exit ticket (or exit pass),  Anything that gives the teacher and the student information as to their level of understanding the content or the objective for the day.  Usually when we argue about "Testing", this isn't the sort of testing that we are arguing about.

       The discussion over testing usually centers around what educators call summative tests.  These are chapter or unit tests, final exams, end-of-course tests, and major state tests.  These tests might be required to graduate from high school; or they may command a large portion of a final grade in a course; or they may be used to determine if you are ready for college (or if you will be accepted to college).  These are the tests whose results have some sort of consequence.

       A common issue that arises is a student who appears to be learning very well based on class grades and report card grades, but then this same student demonstrates a lower level of learning on one of these big tests.  I think that I worry when there is a public outcry over testing because of this scenario.  I feel that rather than arguing against giving the test, we should question why the discrepancy happened in the first place.  Clearly a student who fails an end-of-course test and earns an "A" or a "B" as a course grade cannot (both) be very knowledgeable about this content AND be very weak with this material.  Something is going on.  Perhaps both the course grade and the test are not true reflections of the student's ability.  Perhaps it is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

       Since the goal of school is learning, there should be accurate and valid methods for determining the extent of this learning.  It isn't enough for a student to come to school everyday and do what he's told to do and then walk out of school without some measure his learning.  Getting grades isn't enough.  What does it benefit a child to get good grades in school and not be able to read or do math at an acceptable level when he leaves school?  This is one of the reasons for instituting summative and state testing in the first place.  Also far too many students begin college but never finish college.  If more people took the results of these big tests seriously, they might be less in a rush to go to college until their abilities were more in-line with college-level expectations.

       Is there too much testing?  Why are you asking this question?  If it is because you don't like to see your child getting poor results on this test, than you should question the discrepancy between the course grades and the big test.  If it is because the results are not used for any useful purpose, then you should discuss this with you child's teacher or school.  Everything done in public schools should have a purpose; this includes testing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

High School Graduation and Beyond

       May and June is the time in the school year when we think and hear a lot of graduation.  High school and college students are graduating; completing one important life event and moving on to the next.  It's exciting, it's a happy time, it's a time to celebrate!

       As a nation, we have a lot to celebrate because we have seen a rise in the high school graduation rates over the past few years and that's a very good thing for our nation.  In the 2013 - 2014 school year, the high school graduation rate was 82.3%--an increase of over three percentage points from the 2010 - 2011 school year.

       Our society demands a workforce that is willing and able to continually learn and to use the knowledge of past learnings.  Students who succeed beyond high school are the people who understand that their ability to do a job is not dependent on the grades they earned in high school as much as it is on their desire to continually learn and to do their best.  We need thinkers and doers and believers.  While high school graduation is a big step (and an important step), it is still only one step.  Those students who were only successful in "playing school" and earning grades without any concern for learning will find it difficult to succeed in college or the workforce in places where thinking and problem solving is necessary.

       Sometimes it seems like we put too much on our schools.  We teach courses, but we also teach how to work together, how to get along with others, how to learn, how to struggle, how to accept responsibility.  No one gets a grade for these things; no one is denied a diploma for not attaining these traits.  But those that lack the ability to do these things often struggle to live in a society that doesn't always give you second chances; a place where breaking the rules have real consequences and no one is there to remind you what to do and when to do it.

       We all get one chance to make the most of our 13 years of K-12 education.  After that, the number of opportunities rise with the number of decisions.  It's not enough to do what you're told; just ask those that barely graduated high school.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Helping Students with Learning Disabilities is Common Practice

       In my lifetime, the transformation in public schools towards helping students with learning disabilities has been incredible.  We've gone from self-contained classrooms--in which these students rarely or never interacted with their peers, to full inclusion--in which, today, it is rare for almost any classroom to not have a student with a learning disability.  We used to call it "Mainstreaming"; but now we just call it normal.  Teachers from the 1970's and 1980's would have never imagined a world in which this was possible.  They never had the training that our teachers have today.

       Teachers know that the sort of strategies that help our Special Education students are just good teaching strategies that help all students.  We are better (now) at teaching students who might be weak in reading or mathematics (and don't have a learning disability) than we were in the past because of our training for Special Education students.  Every school has a Special Education department chair or specialist that works with a team of teachers that assist students with learning disabilities AND help to train teachers on best practices.  These students have special learning plans that we call Individual Education Plans (or IEP for short) that give them goals to reach.

       Every year we look at data that measures the learning of our students with IEPs and we consider ways to increase their achievement.  Gone are the days when these students were made to feel that couldn't learn and they spent their days doing basic reading and math skills.  Companies outside of our public school system have developed software and resources and programs designed to help these students to reach their potential.

       The story of our special Special Education students is (indeed) a success story of our public schools.  It was a huge problem and we figured out a way to make it a much smaller problem.  There are lots of young adults in our society today that proudly hold their high school graduation certificate thanks to our public school's efforts to identify their learning disability and to find a way to help them to learn.

       This success story gives me hope that our public schools will solve today's issues:  increasing the achievement of our poor students, better education for our English Language Learners, raising the high school graduation rate without compromising our high standards, and eliminating the achievement gaps that exist between certain student groups.  These are huge problems and every one of them has a solution.  I believe that we have already begun to address these issues.  And I believe that when my students are my age they will look back on the early years of the 21st century be proud of the accomplishments of our public schools.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


       EdCamp is sweeping the nation!  Have you heard about EdCamp? Check out this quick (1 minute) video:

       EdCamp is like a huge faculty room with teachers from all over your school district (or state) coming to one place to talk about whatever education topic they want to talk about; and to do so with other teachers who are interested in sharing ideas and hearing from others on the same topic.

       I often tell our new teachers that an important way to grow and to improve professionally is to talk with and hear from other teachers.  Everyone has ideas; everyone has something to contribute.  Different teachers have different experiences; different teachers hear about and use different resources.  One teacher uses Desmos (for example) to demonstrate attributes of graphs and equations; another teacher uses PearDeck to gather quick formative information from students (and to enhance student engagement); a third teachers uses TenMarks to determine the level of understanding her Algebra 1 have of a particular standard.  (And so on.)  The teachers using these resources may feel like they don't have anything special to share, but these resources that they use everyday might be completing new to someone else.  Everyone gets better at what they do when they hear from other teachers.

       EdCamp brings together teachers to talk about teaching.  And the teachers that come to EdCamp are the teachers that want to share their knowledge and want to hear from others.  Contact your state education office or your district's Office of Professional Learning.  See if there is an EdCamp being planned near you.  Or host your own EdCamp.

       Better teachers make better students; and EdCamp makes teachers better.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Science of Learning

       This is an exciting time to be a teacher.  The field of education, like medicine and energy and information technology, is growing in the knowledge domain.  We are constantly learning more about how children learn and the best ways to help them to learn.  Brain research and its connections to learning have been able to provide to our teachers simple strategies to help students to learn.  For instance, we now know that our student's brains grow and thrive when they are able to have good social connections with other students.  Therefore, we need to provide time for student-to-student discourse in the learning environments of our classrooms.  We know that the brain and the body are interwoven and are built to help each other.  That's why it is important for students to get up and out of their seats regularly during class time; and recess is an important part of learning and brain development.  Also, we know that fear and stress prevent students from doing their best in school because our brains are designed to err on the side of caution.  Fear shuts down our student's ability to explore and to try new things because their brains are more concerned with staying safe.

       In the past, teachers and relied on their own experiences as students themselves and later on their own teaching experience to help them to reach their students.  But this is never going to be good enough because we are all limited in our experiences to a particular school or a particular town or a particular age group of students.  The research findings and subsequent professional development about these findings help our teachers to learn about learning beyond what they see in their classrooms.  Initiatives such as Blended Learning, Universal Design for Learning, and Flipped Classrooms all stem from relatively recent research on how children learn best and how to incorporate these research findings into the classroom.

       Of course all of these exciting frontiers in education require (at least) some level of changing from the "known" image of the classroom to something different--and that can be scary for some people.  Present-day parents who sat in neat rows in every classroom and rarely spoke in class and worked on (the now-dreaded) worksheets all day long may be against anything different from what they experienced simply because "It worked for me."  That's why the research is so important.  It isn't some guy with and idea, it is actual science that is informing us of the most effective classroom strategies to help students to learn.  This is a good change for our students and a necessary change.

       This is an exciting time to be a teacher!

Monday, May 2, 2016

It's OK To Struggle When You're Learning Something New

       Years ago I knew of a little boy whom I never heard speak a word until he was nearly ten years old.  It wasn't that he couldn't talk; his disability was more serious than that...he was born with two older siblings and a mother who wanted the world to view her son as "Always Correct".  To ensure this perception, whenever anyone asked him a question, she would answer the question.  The older siblings did the same thing--but not for the same reason.  They just thought of him as a child that didn't talk much.  Clearly my nephew got the message (at a very early age) that other people would do things for him--even speak for him.  There was no reason to speak or even to think very much.  Of course, his mother loved him and she wanted the best for her son.  She didn't like to see him struggle to learn how to do things and didn't like to see him cry, so she did just about everything for him.

       Sometimes teachers are like this mother.  We want the best for our students and we want them to succeed.  So, sometimes we give them hints to nudge them toward the right answer; we compliment them for minor things (like repeating what we say); and we never want to suggest that they might be wrong about something.  Teachers are caring people and it makes sense that we want the best for our students.  But allowing students to have a false sense of achievement is not a caring thing to do.  And if this sort of (false) encouragement continues for a whole school year, and then the next year, and then the next year, we end up teaching students that learning is just memorizing stuff and repeating what the teacher says, and following directions.  That's not learning.

       Learning anything that is worth learning requires a certain amount of struggle.  No one expects you to learn something complex the first time you hear it.  You have to think about it, and practice with it, and make some mistakes, and learn from the mistakes, and make more mistakes, and then (maybe) you can claim success at learning.  It's OK to struggle and it's OK to allow your children to struggle.  We want students to know that learning is full of challenges and effort is required to overcome these challenges.  We want students to believe that they can do anything if they have the will to work at it until it is done.

       This is a difficult message for most parents to hear.  A lot of people have a fixed mindset about their children's abilities.  This means that they believe that their children are capable of doing some things and incapable of doing other things--and no amount of effort will change that.  This mindset leads to statements such as, "It's OK if you're not good at math because I was never good at math and some people just can't do math."  (Feel free to substitute other words in place of the word "math".)  This is a terrible message for students.  Instead, the message should be that hard work pays off and struggle leads to learning.

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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