Thursday, December 19, 2013

World Read Aloud Day

March 5, 2014.  This time, we are going to do it up right!  I'm so excited to partner with our fabulous lower and middle school librarians to support this excellent cause.  Check out all the information about the day from LitWorld. 
Every year on the first Wednesday of March LitWorld's advocacy campaign for the human right of literacy calls worldwide attention to the importance of reading aloud and sharing stories. 
Imagine a world where everyone can read...

World Read Aloud Day is about taking action to show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people. World Read Aloud Day motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words, especially those words that are shared from one person to another, and creates a community of readers advocating for every child’s right to a safe education and access to books and technology.
- See more at:

And go vote for this organization over at the Project 4 Awesome!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment: My Favorite Passages from Maja Wilson's book

Product Details
Wilson, Maja.  Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann, 2006.

I ordered this book right after P.L. Thomas referenced it in his De-Testing and De-Grading Schools session at NCTE. 

The book arrived at my door, along with several other gems I ordered while in Boston (look for favorite passages from these soon), and I took some time yesterday to plow through it.  The timing was perfect since I'd come to a roadblock in the planning of my semester project for my sophomore English class:  how to assess.

First, a confession:  I have used rubrics to grade writing.  I am even a certified 6 +1 Traits trainer.  I believe rubrics are better than a grade at the top of a paper.  But I know they aren't authentic.  I just don't know how else to assess in a grade-hungry school environment.

The book explains the history of assessment, what's wrong with rubrics, and Maja Wilson's approach to assessment.  While I'm still figuring out how to stop grading writing, I can change how I assess it.

First, from Alfie Kohn's forward...

"What's our reason for trying to evaluate the quality of students' efforts?  This is a question we rarely ask, but it matters whether the objective is to (1) rank kids against one another, (2) provide an extrinsic inducement for them to try harder, or (3) offer feedback that will help them become more adept at, and excited about, what they're doing" (xii).

"Studies have shown that too much attention to the quality of one's performance is associated with more superficial thinking, less interest in whatever one is doing, less perseverance in the face of failure, and a tendency to attribute results to innate ability and other factors thought to be beyond one's control" (xiv).

Now, from Maja herself...

She begins with a history of assessment, which I found interesting.  Here she explains how universities' admission policies impacted standardized writing:  "As the efforts of the College Board attested, standardization was becoming crucial in the effort to rank students and their work or capabilities.  The vocabulary of ranking includes variations on three words:  worst, average, and best.  Determining winners and losers, as everyone who has watched a contest of running ability knows, requires common starting and ending points and times...The effort to standardize writing tests and their scoring in the service of ranking would guide writing assessment through the birth of the rubric" (15).

Later, in her chapter entitled "The Broken Promises of Rubrics," Wilson slams home her problem with rubrics:  "If rubrics, developed in the mid-twentieth century, are based on a limited notion of good writing, then we hold students to an outdated notion of good writing when we use them today" (37). 

She continues, "The disconnect between the writing we honor in our own literary lives and the writing we encourage from students is illustrated by our approach to teaching research and expository writing versus the research and expository writing we actually read" (38).

And two more doses of reality from this chapter:
"Rubrics encourage us to read and our students to write on autopilot" (39).
"The reductive categories of rubrics don't honor the complexity of what we see in writing and what our students try to accomplish" (41).

The realization?  A radical idea:
"Each piece of writing might demand an entirely different response, based on its structure, intent, and effect.  In other words, we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria" (42).

In later chapters, Wilson outlines her vision for how to assess:

"I wanted my assessment and assignments to honor the rhetorical purpose of writing, be meaningful, to match writing pedagogy, and to avoid reductionism" (69).

"I don't view assessment as something we do after the writing process is complete.  All writers assess writing as we go, hesitating slightly as we make judgments about what works best or what ideas should come next" (89).

"In order to find time for these assessment conversations, I have to give students time to write in class.  I've never walked into an art class where students aren't actually engaged in making art; imagine how silly art classes would become if the teacher expected students to work on all of their projects at home alone, leaving class time for lectures or slides" (90).

No new ideas here--just a well-written reminder to do what we know is right:  to assess students the way we would want to be assessed--the golden rule of assessment.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Academic Awards: What's a mom to do?

Last week was the fifth and sixth grade awards assembly.  During the assembly, which all fifth and sixth graders attend, any fifth and sixth grade student who earned all A's during the first quarter was to be publicly named to the Headmaster's List.  For many reasons, I am not in favor of this award.  First, it puts emphasis on grades, which contradicts the work the teachers are trying to do with the students to help them be intrinsically motivated and attentive to their individual growth.  Second, according to my fifth-grade daughter, 10 out of 14 students in her class received this honor.  Picture the four who were not called up to the stage to shake the Headmaster's hand and how they must have felt.  I have a knot in my stomach imagining it.  Third, if 10 out of 14 received the award, what's the great accomplishment?  Earning A's is the norm--why reward that?

So, given my beliefs about awarding academic success for middle schoolers, I faced a dilemma.  Should I stand on principle and not attend the awards assembly?  Would my daughter's feelings be hurt?  Or should I just go, clap for her, and be a "normal" parent?  It helped that I had a meeting that went until 1:50 (the assembly began at 1:35) and that the assembly was just ending as I headed toward my office (my route there passes right by the theater). Lucky break. 

As I passed the stream of students going back to class, I scanned the kids for my daughter.  I wanted to tell her that while I don't believe in the award, I love her and am proud of her for doing her best in school.  She had already gone back to her class, so I ran up to her classroom to whisper my message to her. 

Before I could tell her anything she looked at me and said, "I know why you weren't there, Mom.  I know you don't believe in it."  That made me more proud than any award she could receive.  I gave her a quick squeeze and walked away.

I heard from several fifth grade teachers that the students, who are new to the idea of academic awards, wondered why the certificates weren't just mailed home.  If only one of them would start a petition...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Today's Meet Meets Macbeth

Yesterday my sophomores and I began a study of Macbeth.  My goal is to read through (or listen to/read) the whole play quickly so all of the kids know what I know about the plot and then back up and study certain scenes, monologues, and lines more closely.  But it still takes time, and we still have to stop and clarify what's literally happening.  I felt frustrated that I fell into the typical trap of stopping and saying, "So what's going on here?" and getting answers from a few kids. 

We picked up today with Act I scene 6 with a new gameplan:  Today's Meet, a free, easy backchannel site that does not require a login.  I explained to my students that I wanted to hear more of their voices and do a better job of understanding their understanding.  We talked briefly about the concept of backchanneling, I shared the link, tossed out a question, and we were off.  A transcript of their posts from the end of Act I and beginning of Act II is available here

I wasn't able to read their posts in class (though I'm thinking about assigning moderators for future discussions), but after class I scrolled through to see who was thinking what.  I found quoted lines from the play, quick jots, answers to questions I threw out verbally or in my own post, and general impressions. 

Overall, I think it was a success and I look forward to trying it again soon.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Best Version of School, Revisited

Yesterday I wrote a post about what helps me get grounded when thinking about school reform--imagining my daughters' experience.

My husband, who supports my ideas but does not live in my head, sent me this comment:

"I’m all for your view of education, but I think that your three NO’s are going to lose support, rather than gain it.

Vague statements like that can quickly be damaged with examples that contradict those statements—“Biology can be looked up on the internet, but my daughter is going to be a doctor”…”Some good learning may exist outside of school, but what I learned in school helped me become a doctor….”

I’d suggest always inserting an example after each NO, so that people better understand your views.  Otherwise, statements like your NO,NO, NO sound more like the angry parent than the hard working educator.  Examples will make your blog worth reading…"

Thanks for this feedback.  Here's my revised version...

Do I want them sitting at their desks doing work other people deem important?  No.  But I DO want them hard at work learning how to think, how to analyze, how to appreciate different perspectives.  I DO want them to have choice in how they learn and how they share what they have learned.  And I DO want them to learn to assess their own strengths and areas for improvement.  I want them to be able to handle any academic challenge with confidence and competence.  I DO want them to have the support of talented teachers who can nurture and guide them as learners and people.

Do I want them learning content that is readily available to them all the time?  No.  But I DO want them learning all of this (and more!):

Creativity and Innovation
Using knowledge and understanding to create new  ways of thinking in order to find solutions to new problems and to create new products and services.
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Applying higher order thinking to new problems and issues, using appropriate reasoning as they effectively analyze the problem and make decisions about the
most effective ways to solve the problem.

Communicating effectively in a wide variety of forms and contexts for a wide range of purposes and using multiple media and technologies.

Working with others respectfully and effectively to create, use and share knowledge, solutions and innovations.

Information Management
Accessing, analyzing, synthesizing, creating and sharing information from multiple sources.

Effective Use of Technology
Creating the capacity to identify and use technology efficiently, effectively and ethically as a tool to access, organize, evaluate and share information

Career and Life Skills
Developing skills for becoming self-directed, independent learners and workers who can adapt to change, manage projects, take responsibility for their work, lead others and produce results.

Cultural Awareness
Developing cultural competence in working with others by recognizing and respecting cultural differences and work with others from a wide range of cultural and social backgrounds.

Beers, Sue Z.  “21st Century Skills: Preparing Students for THEIR Future.”  21st
Century Skills.

Do I want them doing work that does not exist outside of school? No.  But I do want them learning how to make, create, innovate, experiment, reconfigure, organize, explore, imagine...

I want school to be a training ground for the work that will be expected of them when school is over.  Where working together, tackling challenges, using resources, and inventing new possibilities will equal success and fulfillment.

I hope this sounds more positive and less grumpy and stubborn! 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Best Version of School

This weekend I was lucky enough to have lunch with a group of supportive, like-minded educators and friends who helped recharge my passion about making school different.  It's gotten a bit lost this year at work amid administrative changes, a new teaching load, and the general business of getting my job done day-to-day.  Not only did the hours I spent with this tribe reinvigorate me, but it also helped me crystallize my mission:

Simply, what do I want school to be like for my daughters? 

Do I want them sitting at their desks doing work other people deem important?  Do I want them learning content that is readily available to them all the time?  Do I want them doing work that does not exist outside of school? 

No, no, and no.  That's it. 

A school revolution can happen if educators and policy makers think like PARENTS OF TODAY'S CHILDREN, parents who understand that the world is different now and that it will continue to change.

There's nothing more powerful than an angry parent demanding more, demanding better for his or her child.  It's time to demand the right thing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

CAFE comes to the Lower School

Last year our K, 1, and 2 teams began using the Daily Five as a structure for our reading instruction time. It went so well that we pushed it to third grade this year. Our kids love the language and structure of the Daily 5; they feel pride in their developing stamina and their growing right to choose a spot to work/the work to do in that spot. They can explain each I-chart. They know what to do when it's time to get working.

This year we've taken the leap into the CAFE--the "what" of reading instruction. Our K-4 teachers have all committed to teaching specific comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expanded vocabulary skills. They've each set up their boards and have begun their one-one reading assessments. Some have even begun goal-setting with individuals. I've heard from several teachers so far that the kids are digesting the strategies and are eager to show how well they can use them. What a joy to walk from room to room on the two floors of our lower school and see/hear/feel kids gaining confidence as readers. Thank you, Gail and Joan, for providing this excellent menu and all of its support. 

Here are a few of the CAFE boards I saw this morning (ranging from k-4 but in no particular order):

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Standards-Based Gradebook Setup

As I posted last week, I'll be trying a standards-based grading system this year via Active Grade.  Getting started was not as hard as I fear it would be.  It was easy to load in the students and the standards.  Then I hit the first wall:  how will each standard be assessed?  What does mastery look like?  Will I use a different rubric for different standards?  Will I use a 4-point scale?  Will I count zeros or not?   Here's where I landed:  keep it simple...

As hard as those decisions were, things got worse...

How will each standard's scores be turned into a grade?  What is my philosophy about mastery levels--once a student has mastered a skill, does that wipe away previous attempts that did not result in mastery?  Will kids benefit more from a decaying average, a high score replacing all, or some other iteration?  

All of this grade calculation seems to detract from the whole goal of SBG--that students know how they are doing skill by skill.  Forcing their progress into a traditional letter grade feels, well, forced.  For now, I've decided that the best system to go with is that each standard's overall score will be determined by the maximum of a student's "Most Recent" and "Average" methods.  This seems to be the most humane method of awarding a grade to a standard, but I'll have to see how it goes once I enter some grades.

If all of that wasn't hard enough to work through, I had to face the hardest question:  what will it take for my students to earn an A, a B, a C, a D for a marking period?  My patient, intelligent mathematician husband (are you reading this, Marc?) spent nearly an hour with me trying to figure out how to take 40 standards and roll them into one quarterly grade.  After quite a few attempts, we settled on this breakdown:

I have no idea if I'm setting my students up for failure or success.  But at least I'm set up!  And that means I can create my first assessment and put this SYSTEM to the test.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Goal: Standards-Based Grading in an English Class

While I am not new to the SBG mentality, I am new to the SBG gradebook.  I suppose I began this journey about 12 years ago when my team of amazing English teachers at SEED in Washington, D.C decided to switch our gradebook "categories" from the age-old HOMEWORK, CLASSWORK, TESTS/QUIZZES, etc. to the more standards-based WRITING, READING, SPEAKING, LISTENING.  This way, we believed, our students would see their grades by skill category and be able to recognize the areas in which they needed the most improvement.

We were right and wrong.  The overall grade made more sense to students because they could see how they were doing in each major category, but the gradebook still left them without specific knowledge of their specific strengths and areas of need.  Of course it is not the gradebook's job to communicate this; it is our job--the teachers--to TEACH kids, guide them, talk with them about their progress.  But still, I was sure there was a more effective system.

A number of years ago, teachers at Flint Hill began talking about standards-based gradebooks.  Our fifth and sixth grade teams redesigned their report card to reflect students' progress by skill.  Teachers in the math and science departments began using SBG systems to evaluate their students.  I remained, at best, on the periphery of these discussions and experiments, mostly because I was busy with other reforms in our school.

That brings me to right now...Literally.   I'm headed back into the classroom on Thursday after two years away, back into the place I feel most comfortable and the most willing to implement change.  And what would a new year be without a challenge?  So I've decided to join a small band of math and science teachers who use Active Grade, a system that allows me to show students' progress in each standard.  I'm excited, but I'm also sad.

I'm excited because students will be able to see how they are doing in each area of our class even if I haven't had a chance to conference with them.  And the green-yellow-red system is a quick way for them to follow their progress.

I'm sad because at the end of the day, their progress in each standard still has to be wrangled into one overall grade that can be put in the gradebook for transcript purposes.  I have to create a grading system that will distill all of their work across 40 standards and countless attempts into one letter grade.  As Andrew Carle tweeted in response to my request for Humanities people to share their SBG calculations, I will try my best to "create a humane pastoral setting for the majority of the term."
But still, Active Grade wants me to do this:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Recommittment to Reflection (Farewell Summer)

It has been 2 months since my last blog.

I think that sounds like some sort of confession.

It was a conscious decision to step away from my blog and from Twitter, even from my Feedly reader for the summer, so I shouldn't feel the need to apologize.  I lived my summer--at the beach, in the mountains, in the gym, in a book--but I didn't reflect on my summer, at least not in writing.  It was just how I wanted it.

And yet...

I've spent the past three days with our new faculty, and I've asked them all to blog each day this week, to reflect publicly about their new Flint Hill lives.  So it's time to sit myself back down at the computer and recommit to my blog and to public reflection.

Check out our new teachers' blog posts, which have reminded me to get back in the game.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What's the Big Deal About Change?

Why is CHANGE a "4-letter word" in education?  Why do we need to cover it up and make it sound like anything other than what it is? 

Aren't we almost always happy with the changes we make, once we commit to them?  The new car, the new haircut, the new lifestyle regime?

Wouldn't we be just as happy with the results of a (not-so) new way of approaching education?

Change is hard. 

It means more work.
Uh huh.

It means being uncomfortable.

But it opens so many doors.  So many wonderful, interesting doors.
photo courtesy of Vicki Souza; Flickr photostream                                                                                                                   

 OK, then.  Step aside so those of us with our sleeves rolled up and our hearts exposed can not only open the doors but clear the paths they lead to.