Going Gradeless and Getting Better Writing Conferences!

I had my first more formal writing conferences today with students under my new gradeless regime. (Read about it here, here, and here.) So they all wrote complete rough drafts. I gave them all feedback. I provided rubrics (just a list of the CCSS that the assignment targets) but did not mark anything on the rubrics. And this week, they are working on thorough revisions of those drafts.

The thorough revision assignment asks them to do a few things: highlight all the changes they make. Put comments in the margin (via google docs) to explain the thinking behind them. Write a paragraph at the end of the revised draft that explains which three standards from the rubric they targeted for their revisions and how those standards guided their revision work.

I had over half of my class today (optional day–paper work session). In 70 minutes, I was able to have a meaty conference with each of them as they worked. I came prepared with copies of the rubric and the instructions for the revisions. I started with the students I knew needed the most help, and these are the questions I used to get students talking with me about their writing:

Let’s look at my feedback on your draft? What do you want to work on in the revision?

So which of these standards then do you think address what you need to work on?

Which three standards do you want to choose to guide your revision work?

And finally, here they were taking control of the thinking about their writing. THEY were identifying the focus for their revision. THEY were struggling with the rubric to figure out what they could do well and what they wanted to work on to improve. THEY were making plans to guide their own revision work. They were ALL doing the grunt work of becoming better writers–they were re-seeing, re-evaluating, re-working their writing. They were thinking carefully about feedback and using it to make plans to improve their work.

In the past, I’ve given feedback, marked up the rubric, gave them a grade, invited them to revise if they weren’t happy with the grade. Those who chose to pretty much just fixed the mechanical stuff but didn’t really engage in the piece of writing that much for the revision. They did just enough to bring up their grade if they weren’t happy with it.

This increased engagement and ownership in the writing process I saw today–is it simply because there’s no grade at stake here on this paper? That’s some of it. But I think it’s more complex than that. In the process of going gradeless, I’ve had to define the learning objectives differently than in the past–if success is not determined by a certain number of points acquired, then what is it based on? Hence, I built a rubric that is a list of the CCSS that the piece of writing targets. In the process of going gradeless, I’ve had to figure out how to get my students really thinking about those CCSS that lay out the learning objectives for our course so that individual students and I can both be on the same page about how well s/he is doing. Hence, I asked THEM to use the rubric to determine which standards they think their work shows they can do and which ones they need to work on rather than me marking up the rubric to identify this for them. In the process of going gradeless, I wanted to figure out how to get my students focused on the WORK and not the GRADE. Hence, the assignment that requires all students to do thorough revision work of all major papers.

And all of this helped influence the meaningful writing conferences I had today. We had plenty to talk about. Students were intensely engaged in the conferences. We were REALLY talking about their writing and their thinking about it.

They showed ownership in the process at a level I’ve not seen before.

I can’t ask for more than that.

But I did tweet this at the end of class (exhausted after about 15 intense conferences in 70 minutes):


Posted in CCSS, education, grading, literacy, making change, teaching writing | 1 Comment

Reign of Error tidbit: The Language of Corporate Reform

If you’re not reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, you should be. I’ll take it upon myself to post a few tidbits while I’m reading it. Here’s today’s installment:

From Chapter 4, “The Language of Corporate Reform”:

Recognizing that most Americans have a strong attachment to their community schools, the corporate reformers have taken care to describe their aims in pseudo-populist terms. While trying to scare us with warnings of dire peril, they mask their agenda with rhetoric that is soothing and deceptive. Though they speak of “reform,” what they really mean is deregulation and privatization. When they speak of “accountability,” what they really mean is a rigid reliance on standardized testing as both the means and the end of education. When they speak of “effective teachers,” what they mean is teachers whose students produce higher scores on standardized tests every year, not teachers who inspire their students to love learning. When they speak of “innovation,” they mean replacing teachers with technology to cut staffing costs. When they speak of “no excuses,” they mean a boot-camp culture where students must obey orders and rules without question. When they speak of “personalized instruction,” they mean putting children in front of computers with algorithms that supposedly adjust content and test questions to the ability level of the student but actually sacrifice human contact with a real teacher. When they speak of “achievement” or “performance,” they mean higher scores on standardized tests. When they speak of “data-driven instruction,” they mean that test scores and graduation rates should be the primary determinant of what is best for children and schools. When they speak of “competition,” they mean deregulated charters and deregulated private schools competing with highly regulated public schools. When they speak of a “successful school,” they refer only to its test scores, not to a school that is the center of its community, with a great orchestra, an enthusiastic chorus, a hardworking chess team, a thriving robotics program, or teachers who have dedicated their lives to helping the students with the highest needs (and often the lowest scores).

Posted in education, policy, reform, society, the system | Leave a comment

Traversing the Chasm between Research and Practice in Education: My response to “Professors, We Need You!”

Nicholas Kristof, NYTimes columnist, recently published “Professors, We Need You!” This piece argued that academics are essentially irrelevant in the biggest debates in our society because they isolate themselves in the ivory tower and cultivate a culture that values nearly unintelligible writing that they only do for each other. Here are a few tidbits:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. [...]

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I’ve written a few times in this blog about the tension between research and practice as I see it in the field of education:

So it’s really no secret that I’m frustrated and have been for awhile. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I know my work is most relevant when I am fully immersed in practice. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I missed my students in the time I was out of the high school classroom and working on my doctorate. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to every day have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of adolescents. I chose K-12 practice over pursuing a career in academia because I wanted to work on the problems that challenge education from the inside.

But I have not felt much support from the academy regarding my choice.

And I feel so alone. For a few years now I have been trying to cobble together a job description that would allow me space to do both, practice and research. But there’s no model that exists for this in my school district, no structure to support it. I have some time this year to do some research and writing and instructional support for literacy across the district, and I’m grateful for that. But it’s still not the life I have envisioned for myself as a teacher/researcher who works out of the context of a high school. The mind space and time necessary to manage a high school language arts classroom are significant. I would have to cut way back on the teaching to have the space to really dedicate to research. But then my work would not have the immediacy that I get from being totally immersed in practice for most of my days. If I’m fully immersed as a classroom teacher, there is NO space to do the writing and research aside from evenings and weekends which are already full of work to keep my classroom running anyhow (this month, already 39 hours spent beyond the school day toward my high school teaching obligations) (I’m using a new app on my phone to keep track of where my time is going). I worry that if I pull way back on the teaching to make space for other work supported by the district, it will take me away from my teaching community. I don’t want that. So I’m not really sure how to achieve what I hoped I would be able to do as an education PhD in the high school classroom.

Perhaps if K-12 practice was a more overtly valued outcome of a PhD in education, it would not be so difficult to imagine a way to make this happen.

Which brings me to Kristof’s piece and the furor among academics that has exploded as a response. Literacy professor Greg McVerry (in his conversation with fellow professor Antero Garcia on DML central) characterized this furor with a key question:

Should research be accessible and for the community or should research be just to gain knowledge?

In the field of education, this question takes on critical import. Decisions made by people who are not educators are changing the daily lives of students in classrooms–significantly in schools under serious pressure to get certain test scores. So research in education should absolutely be accessible and for the educational community, to guide policy makers’ decisions and to support and empower teachers to advocate for what best serves their students. Doing research for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge is a selfish pursuit when we’re talking about children and their experiences in school and their ability to use those experiences to build a successful life for themselves. Antero Garcia says,

I want to use scholarship for public good.

Yes! And yet, the academy values, over everything else it seems, original research published in the top tier peer-reviewed journals. Journals that are really only read by other academics, mind you. Journals that teachers do not read. Journals that policy makers do not read. If we are not doing research in education for the purposes of building knowledge for and with teachers and policy makers, then what are we doing?

Back to Kristof’s piece:

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

My writings in this blog have seen far more readers than the few pieces of my dissertation that have been published. And what about that book chapter I co-authored with my advisor and another professor early in my doctoral program? I’m pretty certain very few people have looked at it. But when I look at my CV, it’s one thing on there that gives me street cred as an academic. This blog certainly doesn’t. But that won’t keep me from continuing to write here.

Greg McVerry says,

I’m educating more people in digital spaces than I am being cloistered off in academia.

And he goes on to explain how he is taking the risk to include his Twitter handle in his tenure package, how he is finding ways to argue for the importance of blogging about his work to an audience beyond his fellow academics. He explains his primary goal is to reach teachers, to support teachers so that he can have an impact on their practice, but,

As professors, we’re becoming irrelevant in education to the people we want to serve. They [teachers] are searching out their own learning, and we need to recognize that.

I teach high school language arts. I advise my school’s newspaper and yearbook. I support literacy instruction across the district. I am just finishing up my three-year term as editor of the journal for my state NCTE affiliate. I work with the local writing project. I sit on several district committees. I present at my state annual conference and at NCTE’s annual conference. I write in this blog. I use Twitter to stay connected to others in my field. I try to write about my classroom in ways that might be relevant to other teachers. I teach methods classes at the university in my town. I show up to school every single day and work to have a positive effect on my students and my colleagues.

I do a lot (too much at times). I can’t alone wage the battle that will become more and more necessary to fight for what best serves my students. I can think of plenty of ways that research in education could help the work that my colleagues and I endeavor to do:

  • Research in education could help us mount a wave of well-supported resistance to the forces currently driving education: high stakes testing, teacher accountability measures based on metrics that are neither reliable nor completely under teachers’ control, and what seems like a willful ignorance to the real problems that face education in our country: poverty, segregation, inadequate funding, inequities across states and districts.
  • Research in education could help us figure out how convince the decision makers that the billions they are sending to testing companies in order to enact their vision of testing every school child in our country as much as possible could do far more good if put toward resources for schools, smaller class sizes, tech tools in all students’ hands, and paying teachers adequately for the very important work that they do.
  • Research in education could help us to show the American people the corporate interests currently involved in “reform.” As Diane Ravitch argues in Reign of Error, these corporate interests serve to threaten a backbone of the democracy of our country: a strong public school system focused on equal educational opportunity for all.
  • Research in education could support us to maintain a focus on meaningful classroom experiences in the context of all of the above, particularly by supporting the changes in instruction that need to happen so that classrooms will make sure students meet the ever-evolving literacy needs of the 21st century.

There ARE researchers in education focused on these goals. There really are.

But academia as a whole in the field of education is not currently oriented on these goals, and it needs to be. Reach out to teachers in the places where we are already–we read and write blogs, we use Twitter, we connect on Facebook. Forge partnerships with us so that we can work together to problem solve. Value what we know about teaching. Seek our expertise. Invite us to engage in your scholarship as equal partners. Bring us in to talk with your students. Spend time in our classrooms. Help us figure out how to get policy makers to do the same. They don’t really listen to us, and they don’t really listen to you–but maybe they’ll listen to all of us together.

Work to encourage education PhDs to work in K12 classrooms, not as a plan B when the job in academia doesn’t work out (as this article discusses), but as a sought-after outcome of a PhD program in education. And then support education PhD K12 teachers to live a life as both teacher and researcher. We can be powerful allies.

Like Kristof says in his blog post “Bridging the Moat Around Universities,” I do not want this piece to suggest I am writing off academia. He writes,

I hope people don’t think my column is a denunciation of academia. On the contrary, I think universities are an incredible national resource, with really smart thinking on vital national issues. I want the world to get the benefit of that thinking, not see it hidden in academic cloisters.

I totally agree. Education professors across the country are absolutely a source of really smart thinking about the problems that face students and teachers in classrooms every day. I just want this country to get the benefit of that thinking–we need it. And we need it now.

Posted in academia, collaboration, education, literacy, making change, policy, reform, teaching, testing, the system | 4 Comments

Going gradeless: rubric ruminations

I’ve had several people ask me in the past week or so how the gradeless experiment is going. Since nothing was really that different yet from how things had been before, neither my students nor I have noticed anything new. But this weekend now I’m sitting on drafts of the first major papers my students have turned in under the new gradeless grading regime and I need to figure out how to best proceed.

I have their drafts in Dropbox, ready to import into my note taking app on my iPad to read and respond to them. I also have my newfangled rubric, now literally just the 11/12 grade standards from the CCSS that are relevant to the writing task.

Seems like I should be all ready to go, but I’ve not touched a single paper today.

That’s not necessarily surprising. I’ve been prone to procrastination since I was quite young. But I do think something else is going on here.

I hear Alfie Kohn rumbling in my memory about grades: a focus on grades makes the locus of the classroom on what the teacher thinks about the work, not on what a student knows s/he can do. I want to make this shift in my classroom, and I think that if I use my new rubrics in old ways I will not make that shift.

The rubrics do not have any grades on them or numbers–only check boxes. But what I was planning on doing with them was attaching one to each draft and marking up on it what each student is doing well and what each student needs to work on.

But do you see how this is still a focus on ME and what I think about each student’s writing rather than helping each student to identify clearly the strengths and weaknesses of his/her own work?

So here’s my new plan. We need the rubrics. The rubrics are the connection at this point in the semester to the standards upon which each student’s grade will be based in the end. The standards are what my students and I will place at the center of our conferences about what their semester grades should be. They can not be seeing the standards for the first time then, so they need these standards-focused rubrics. THEY need them. Not I.

Hence, I will respond to each draft as a reader and leave feedback all over each of them. Upon returning these drafts, I will ask students to use my feedback to determine how they have done according to the rubric–which standards do they know they know how to do? Which standards do they need to work on? From here, they’ll make their plans for revisions, and their revised versions will include a thorough memo about what changes they made and why, invoking the standards from the rubric in their explanations.

And then they’ll keep the rubric as their own record of their progress toward the standards. And they’ll slot their final drafts into a portfolio where they’ll use their writing as evidence toward their learning toward the standards.

My intentions? Get my students to own their learning, to be able to articulate clearly themselves how they are doing, to know without my judgment whether or not they are meeting the standards for their work. I just assist them with feedback along the way.

That makes me much more of a partner in their learning rather than the evaluator of it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in CCSS, grading, making change, muddling through, teaching writing | 2 Comments

Going gradeless and ending up at the Common Core

I have a confession to make.

I’m one of those teachers who has claimed to know the standards. I’ve claimed to know that I’m covering the standards just fine thank you very much, I don’t need to have them all over my lesson plans and unit plans and rubrics.

And how did I know this? I knew it from looking at the standards after the fact, after the lessons were planned and taught, after the units were laid out, after the papers were graded. I have several times looked over the standards and put in some mental check marks–covered that, covered that, covered that, could have covered that more, and I’ll work on that next year.

Raise your had if this is you.

So a funny thing has happened to me.

As I wrote recently, I’m going gradeless this semester with my seniors. Instead of giving grades on their writing along the way, I will focus on feedback. At the end of the semester, I’ll sit down with each student, look over his/her portfolio, and together we’ll determine what grade s/he has earned. And I’ve known from the start that we would need to have some standard quality, some set of learning objectives to base that conversation upon.

Enter the Common Core State Standards. I don’t need to create this set of learning objectives. It’s already there.

And if the end grade will no longer be based on how many points a student has amassed over the course of the semester, it must be based on something. And let’s be honest–basing it on points collected is far less meaningful than basing it on how a student has done toward a set of clear learning objectives.

Just because I’m going gradeless does not mean I’m not still putting rubrics in front of my students. I am. But now instead of rubrics that show students how they collected the points necessary to determine their location on a grade scale, they are rubrics that help students see how they are doing toward learning objectives. They are rubrics full of the language of the standards. And my students and I will have to look at those learning objectives together and figure out how the students’ work shows what s/he knows and is able to do.

The conversation shifts from “what grade did you get” to “hey, kid, what do you know that you know? What do you know you need to work on?”

I just find it funny that in my efforts to side step grades I’m actually getting into the standards finally and for reals this time, not just as an activity to assure myself that whatever I just did with my students likely met some standards.

The next step is not just putting the standards at the center of the conversation with my students to assess their work but putting the standards at the center of my lesson plans every single day. I learned this clearly yesterday when visited by a colleague of mine who observed my discussion with my seniors. After class, he asked me what my teaching objectives were and then he read off several standards that my class that day had worked on. How lucky for me! My plan that day got the students engaged in the standards! I didn’t even realize it! Neither did my students! But imagine if I had planned it that way from the start? I would have been more focused, more deliberate. My students would have better understood why they were doing what I asked them to do.

Do you see the difference here? The goal is teaching FROM the standards rather than seeing if my instruction as it is already meets the standards. (Credit to @axmaughan for articulating this distinction so clearly yesterday at the executive board meeting for the Colorado Language Arts Society).

It’s letting the standards shift my instruction. For the better. Because I’ll become more and more intentional. Because my students will know more clearly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Because it won’t be about how I think my students are doing on a grade scale but rather the focus will be on what my students know they know and on what they know they need to work on to know better.

And in case you’re thinking that there are significant problems with the CCSS, and I shouldn’t be letting them drive my instruction, I will ask you if you’ve really read them. They do not attack narrative writing–in fact if teachers use them there will maybe be more narrative writing (in high school especially) than there is now. They do not attack literature–the CCSS ask us to teach literature but alongside many other kinds of texts as well. We owe our students this anyhow. They need to be fluid in all kinds of texts.

No set of standards is perfect, but the CCSS do focus on the literacy skills students will need for their 21st century world. I really have no significant issues with them.

Besides, the standards are not the power broker here–the mandated tests that assess them are. These tests and the high stakes attached to the results of them are what we should be talking about.

In the mean time, we can use the standards to get us unified on those complex literacy skills our students need to build their own futures in a world we can’t even see clearly right now.

My students are heading into the first paper in our first gradeless semester. I’ll write about how it goes with only feedback and no grades. I’m hoping for more engaged writing, for more rigorous revision, for more risk taking. I’m hoping for more clear focus on the learning objectives and reasons for writing effectively.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, cultivating real learning, grading, literacy, making change, muddling through, policy, reform, testing, writing | Leave a comment

Going Gradeless

For the last couple of years, Mr. S and Mr. B have been moving away from grading writing in their classes and instead focusing on feedback and conferencing instead. It’s been a slow process–starting with simply taking the numbers off of the IB rubrics they were using to respond to writing and moving toward where they are now, at full-on portfolio assessment where the grade for the course comes at the end.

As I’ve watched their evolution away from grades, I’ve thought about my own classroom but figured that I just couldn’t go gradeless. My students were less motivated (not IB students) and they needed that grade on more things to do them, I thought. I had to have grades to figure out which students had the option to attend or not on flexible attendance days, I thought. There were more reasons, and I wrote about them in this blog. (Go here to see our conversation about grading as it has unfolded in this blog). 

And then we went to NCTE in Boston last November. Alfie Kohn spoke at a session about grading. These are the notes I wrote as I listened to him speak:

Three effects of using grades:

  • students who are graded are less engaged and less motivated to learn
  • teachers who grade students create students who tend to choose the easiest path to the grade–they avoid intellectual risk whenever possible
  • the quality/retention of learning is lower in students who are graded–grading undermines the depth of their learning

None of this changes if we use standards-based grading, grades on line, or rubrics.

With grades, it’s not about what the students learn but about how teachers think students are doing.

Stop grading.

You have to put a grade at the end but  never put a grade on any individual assignment.

Conference instead.

Avoid in culpability of degrading learning.

Settle a grade in negotiation with student.

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

It was at this moment that it all came crashing together for me, all the conversations with the other Paper Graders, all the moments with my students when I saw them caring more about the grade than the work and what they were learning, all the emails and phone calls I’ve had from parents and students asking me to round up a grade, all the things I’ve read about grading and its effects (including Alfie Kohn’s works), all the times it felt so wrong to be putting a number on a piece of writing, all the moments it felt like I was paying my students to do their work, all the “revisions” I’ve gotten from students who simply fixed commas rather than rigorously revising just to bring up a grade. All of it came together in that conference center ballroom with Alfie Kohn himself telling me to STOP GRADING.

And I was done. At that moment. Done.

I came back to finish out the semester without changing anything about the grading because it would not be fair to change the game at the end of the semester. But I let it all percolate in my mind to figure out how I would approach it with my students at the start of second semester. The truth is that my class was mostly gradeless already. Many of the things I asked my students to complete never got a grade upon them–simply a “yes” or “missing” in Infinite Campus to build a record for me and my students about how much of the work I had asked of them they had chosen to complete. The critical difference would be with the major papers. Those are the only single assignments I have put grades on for a while now. But now I will not.

Instead of grading their writing, I will ask all students to complete full rough drafts, to which I will provide focused feedback and require a rigorous revision from everyone. In my record keeping (no longer the “grade book”), I will record “yes” for revisions completed with rigor and “missing” for revisions that I don’t have or that are minimal attempts to engage in the revision process. We will still use rubrics, but they will not have scores on them. They will be our resources for defining what the goal is with the writing–for defining what strong writing looks like. We will use them as the centerpiece of our conversations about their writing.

I cannot keep Infinite Campus from boiling everything down to a percentage that equals a grade on a scale determined by the district, but I can train my students and their parents to look at the IC grade as a percentage of the work completed by a student. And at the end of the semester, I’ll put in a new grade category “final grade” that will be weighted 100% (thus making the record of work completed for the semester not a part of the grade calculation). That “final grade” will be determined via a conference between each student and me.

Of course in that final grade conversation my students and I will need to have some set of learning objectives to use to determine a grade. We’ll be using the Common Core State Standards for 12th grade. So that there are no surprises in that final conversation, my students will be looking at those standards throughout this semester. Those standards will be on the individual rubrics for papers so that we talk about them as we confer on their writing. Those standards will be the basis of their individual e-portfolios–they’ll post hyperlinks to their work that serves as evidence toward individual standards.

On the first day of the semester, I shared with my students my journey toward not wanting to grade anymore. We looked at Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.” I made a proposal for how we could approach things. We talked it out. They voiced some concerns. I asked them to vote individually to let me know if they thought we should try it or not.

They were unanimous. “Let’s go for it!” they said.

I wrote up an explanation of grades for second semester and posted it on my website so that students could refer to it and direct their parents to it as well. And here we go.

So far nothing is different from last semester. We’re reading short stories and discussing them. I’m asking students to write blog posts and bring in books to read and write in their writer’s notebooks, and I’m recording in Infinite Campus whether or not they’re doing those things–same as last semester. It won’t be noticeably different until we’re dealing with our first paper in a couple of weeks.

My hope is that our new approach to grades will lead to my students doing the work for themselves, not for me. My hope is that my students will know well how they are doing and what they are learning. My hope is that my students will do the kind of rigorous revision that leads to real growth in their writing. My hope is that there will be fewer conversations about points and grades and rounding up.

I agree with what Kohn said at NCTE:

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

My hope is that going gradeless shows them trust and respect as individual human beings and that they will rise to it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, engagement, grading, making change, teaching writing | Leave a comment

Adventures on “The Dark Side”

I’m embarking on something new. On a good day I think of it as an adventure, and anthropological exploration. On the bad days…

I’m in a program to get my principal’s licensure. It’s what you do if you want to be an administrator. I don’t necessarily want to be an administrator. I have other reasons for doing this. I’ll explain them at a later date. It just started last week. I did homework for the firs time in a long time this weekend. The meta commentary on teaching in my head was fascinating. I’m sure I’ll have more to say going forward.

But, to the title of this post. Several times now people have made the comment “ah, you’re going to the dark side.” It’s an interesting comment. Why do we think of it that way? Why do we imagine working in that part of the education is inherently oppositional? Why is it that teachers see administrators that way. We have some good administrators in my building. I’m grateful every day for that. I don’t envy them their jobs.

We have had some truly awful administrators in the past. I have never talked to a teacher who didn’t have a story about a bad administrator. But I also have never talked to a teacher who would not wax rhapsodic about a good administrator. So why the ‘dark side’ characterization?

That’s why I used the word ‘anthropological.’ I am (as you should gather from the blog) really interested in systems, how they work, and how systemic factors play out at different scales. How do these decisions get made? Why do teachers tend to react to them so negatively (I don’t know any teachers who speak fondly of their district administration- even if they would speak positively about particular administrators).

So that’s really interesting. I think if we want to effect positive change, that lasts and is meaningful, then the oppositional dynamic is probably where we need to start. I want to know what causes that. One way is to explore how administrators are made. I feel sort of like George Plimpton as he researched Paper Lion.

I’ll probably get cut before the first exhibition game, but it’ll make a great story.  Stay tuned…

Posted in administration, education, making change, professional development, the system | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Happy New Year, and hey, education takes people!

A very happy New Year from The Papergraders to the world. We are wishing for the best for education, our culture, the world. Oh wait, that’s redundant. They’re pretty much the same thing.

This article from NPR rolled across my social networking vision today and struck me as pretty interesting.

The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off-Course

I wrote about my experience with MOOCs last year here and here. My conclusion, based on the unbiased, randomly chosen sample of one, namely me, was that MOOCs were really cool. For people who already had highly developed academic skills and a high degree of intrinsic motivation. Not to mention considerable adeptness with technology and a high degree of adaptability.

But since that describes very few of the people in K-22 education, they don’t work that great for everyone else. The article especially points out that MOOCs do not serve the disadvantaged well at all, precisely because they are often the folks that lack the skills I listed above. So, as the article explains, the companies that create these MOOCs are trying some new techniques:

Udacity and other leading MOOC providers now realize that a more expansive, human-centered support structure is key to helping students retain information, stick with the course — and finish.

Oh, cool. So students need other humans to support them in learning. Awesome. Glad we know that now.

“We [added] human mentors,” says Thrun. “We have people almost 24-7 that help you when you get stuck. We also added a lot of projects that require human feedback and human grading.

“And that human element, surprise, surprise, makes a huge difference in the student experience and the learning outcomes,” he says.

Wow. News freakin’ flash. “Surprise” goddam “surprise.” It takes actual people to make education work for the vast majority of students. No kidding. And, hey, all that human interaction is expensive. So, no, the future won’t be some utopia of independently educated, inexpensive, techno-driven magic.

To their credit, the leaders of Coursera, Udacity and other providers are adapting. As I wrote last year, I had a great time in the MOOC courses I took (through Coursera). Of course, I am exactly the sort of student who will be successful in a course like that. But once again, people who claim to be ‘revolutionizing’ education prove to have absolutely no clue what actually makes learning work.

All sarcasm aside though, wouldn’t it be great if we had a name for the people that provide the human interaction in education? Wait…we do.

We call them ‘teachers.’

Happy New Year teachers.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, cultivating real learning, DUH, education | Leave a comment

The answer is not to stop assigning papers…

I just ran across this in my Facebook feed: The End of the College Essay.

It makes the argument that because college students hate writing papers and college teachers hate grading them, professors should simply stop assigning them (except for in classes specifically about writing) and use exams–written and oral–instead.

This suggestion totally skirts the issue.

If the writing was meaningful and relevant and authentic and mirrored writing that people actually do in the world beyond the walls of a classroom, students would care to do it. Fake writing in college AND high school classes happens when students are playing the game of school and just doing whatever they need to do to get the grade, to get the credit, to get the degree, to move on to whatever is next.

I am doing everything I can to step outside of that old and tired game.

Writing is important, people. It’s practice in thinking. In communication. In putting words to the thoughts rolling around in our heads. We understand when we write, when we struggle to put the words down, when we endeavor to make sense of things. And students, college and high school, WILL do this work when it matters to them.

The answer to the problem identified in this article is to dramatically change the way we handle writing in school. Not grading it is a start. Giving students lots of choice about what they write about is important too. Seeking out models of real writing in the world beyond the classroom as mentor texts helps to prove to students that writing matters in authentic ways.

Substituting exams for writing would certainly mean less time spent on grading and it would probably make teaching simpler. But it won’t make the classes more meaningful for students. Teaching writing well is difficult, including all the work a teacher must do to convince students that it matters to them.

But we must do this work.


Posted in teaching writing, writing | 3 Comments

Gratitude, despite all that is “wrong” in education today

I just read yet another piece about the ills of the teaching profession right now: A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher. I don’t think what is depicted in that piece is necessarily inaccurate, but it is yet one more picture of how our schools are failing. One more voice to add to the dominate narrative about public schools in America. A narrative that suggests we need something to save us, that we are weak and helpless, that there is nothing we can do to fight the forces that seek to take over our schools for profit and to tell teachers what to do.

I am grateful to know that we are stronger than that.

Having just returned from NCTE 2013 in Boston, I’m reminded of the amazing work that is going on all over this country toward the goal of authentic reading and writing experiences for students in schools. This is not to say that there are not places where teachers are unable to deliver those experiences for students due to forces beyond their control–but why aren’t there more stories out there from the places where it is working? How will we ever be able to convince the powers that be that we can handle this on our own without their testing mandates and scripted curriculum if the only story that they see from the outside looking in is one of failure?

We must tell our own stories, and not just the ones that show how the system is failing our students, but the ones where we are succeeding despite that, to show the world that we are professional educators and they need to back off.

Despite the national rhetoric about how terrible our schools are, I am grateful to show up to school every day where I have colleagues who are fiercely dedicated to what is best for our students. They make me better than I am on my own.

Despite the media’s picture of teenagers as unthinking, lazy, and not trustworthy, I am grateful to get to teach an unbelievable group of adolescents, whom I trust implicitly with the future of our country. They are witty and wise, hard-working and kind. They teach me every day.

Despite the impending national tests and everyone’s uncertainty about how they will affect the daily lives of students and teachers in school, I’m grateful for a school that isn’t freaking out and instead is keeping focused on the best practices of teaching that will serve our students well no matter what kind of test that they have to take.

Despite all the rhetoric surrounding the CCSS, who wrote them, whose interests they represent, and what is missing from them, I am grateful to work with people who keep those standards in perspective, leveraging them to advocate for what we know best serves our students and the range of skills they’ll need to build their futures.

Despite our new state law that mandates evaluations for every teacher every year and that ties half of my worth as a teacher each year to my ability to show student growth (i.e. test scores), I’m grateful for a district that is taking its time to figure out how to roll this out meaningfully, in a way that best serves our students and teachers.

Despite the stories of heavy-handed school and district administration across the country creating an us-versus-them mentality, I’m grateful that my administration values the expertise of teachers and seeks to work together with teachers to solve problems.

Despite the abysmal school funding of my state, I’m grateful that mostly I have the resources to do my job. Could things be better? Of course. And I will keep fighting for the resources I need. But I know things could also be far worse.

Despite the fact that I mostly disagree with the choices my state has made toward education policy, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to be at the table for conversations about standards and assessment at the state level. And even though I continue to disagree, the department of education continues to ask my opinion.

Despite the national stories about students struggling and slipping through the cracks, I am grateful that I work in a building that does absolutely everything it can to insure success of all of our students, no matter what they bring with them to school each day. The dropout rate at my school last year was nearly zero. One student didn’t make it, and he came back this year. I am consistently impressed by the creative strategies my school uses to show individual students that they can indeed be successful by their own volition.

I am lucky. I work in a community that values education and many (not all) of our students come in the school each day ready to do school. I am not unaware of the relative privilege of my teaching situation. But I am also aware of how different things could be if we threw up our hands at the weight of the pressures coming at us from outside.

Instead we work on relationships. And this is intentional. Any time I have the opportunity to be at the table talking through decisions that affect the experiences of my students in school, I go. This means several district committees. And time that I really don’t have. But if we don’t participate in these conversations, decisions will be made for us by people who don’t understand what our students need.

The thing is that one-size-fits-all reform doesn’t work to meet the needs of the unique ecosystems of each of our schools and classrooms. But all these stories of failure in our nation’s consciousness create the impression that we can’t handle this, that we need people from outside of education to swoop in and fix the things that they think have escaped our control. There ARE some things that have escaped our control–growing poverty, a shrinking middle class… huge problems that we all need to work together to solve.

But only individual schools and teachers know what best serves an individual community’s students. We must fight for the empowerment to do this work. And one way to do this is to tell our own stories of success, those moments when we are serving our students and their futures well despite all the challenges before us.

I’m not saying all is well in schooling in America.

But if you believed the dominant narrative about it, you would believe that America’s schools are in tremendous trouble and that America’s teachers are powerless to do anything about it.

The truth is that we, America’s teachers, continue to work doggedly for our students. And we are finding success despite what that dominant narrative wants you to believe.

Today, and every day, I am grateful to be a teacher.

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, balancing, CCSS, cultivating our voice, education, gratitude, making change, policy, stories, the system, things made of awesome | 3 Comments