Monday, June 30, 2014

The Power of Not Yet

“You haven’t taught until they have learned.”  Sage advice from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who credits his time as an English teacher with shaping his coaching philosophy.

For the first five or so years of my teaching career, students had one shot to demonstrate their mastery of subject. If a student failed to complete an assignment, the “logical” consequence was a zero. If an extremely capable student earned a C or below because of a lack of effort, then that’s the mark that went into my grade book. Or so I reasoned.

My thinking and my grading system were seriously flawed. If the students couldn’t demonstrate their learning, had I really taught them?

Assigning students zeroes or unsatisfactory grades doesn’t teach responsibility; rather it teaches students that they don’t have to do the assignment. If it’s worth assigning a grade, students—and teachers—must see the value in ensuring that each student does his/her best on that assignment. As educators we must constantly communicate that we see the potential of each and every student and hold them to high expectations.

Here’s where NOT YET comes in to play. No longer would I let students off the hook by giving them a zero or a grade below C. No longer would I accept less than a student’s best effort.

I’ve previously written about why zeroes make no sense, so here I’ll focus on the not yets for students who turn in work that doesn’t reflect their abilities.

How did Not Yets Work?
Simply, D’s and F’s were removed from my grading; instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Students would no longer be punished for not achieving mastery; rather feedback was provided and students were given an opportunity to relearn and demonstrate their knowledge and skills again.

Some students scoffed at the idea, “C’mon, just give me the D.”

I held firm, “I believe in you. I know what you’re capable of and this isn’t it.” Again a Wooden quote epitomized my new philosophy, “Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing that you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”


By providing students with meaningful feedback and giving them the opportunity to improve, they seized the opportunity to learn from their errors and approached the assignment in new ways with more effort. Instead of allowing less than their best, students were provided with the opportunity to reflect and adjust so they can learn from the situation and meet the learning objective.

Yes, it meant more work for me, but was I really teaching if they hadn’t learned it? 

My Journey to Standards-Based Grading

I’ll be honest; I came upon standards-based grading totally by accident.  

I had become increasingly frustrated with my students’ attitudes toward learning and grades. Many of my “top” students were motivated more by “What do I have to do to earn an A?” than “What do I have to learn?” My less motivated students were too quick to accept less than their best. They were perfectly satisfied to earn C’s or D’s. It was the latter that spurred me to make changes to how I taught and how I assessed.

My three original reasons for adopting standards-based grading:
  1. Students avoided work because they didn't feel they'd be successful. 
  2. Too many students were not completing their work. 
  3. Many students were turning in work that was far below their potential.

high school career. But over the years far too many students were not completing their work. Many turned in work that was far below expectations and often extremely below grade level. Challenging assignments were met with trepidation; if the assignment was difficult, many students either simply didn’t do it or their efforts were minimal.

In conversations with other freshman teachers, we lamented that in middle school many students had the option to not turn in assignments, and at the end of the semester or year, they were given opportunities to raise their grades. These ranged from extra credit to fluff assignments to being allowed to turn in work that was assigned months ago. (Disclaimer: I know it’s easy for high school teachers to blame middle school teachers and for middle school teachers to blame elementary teachers. I also know many high school teachers have the same ineffective policies, but the point here is that if we’re going to prepare our students for college and life, we must do better.)

I pledged to myself and to my students and their families that I was no longer going to let students off the hook. I believed in their abilities and I was going to hold them accountable. They would leave my class with a newfound confidence in themselves. They’d be better prepared for life and along the way they were going to have fun learning about history.

On the first day of school, I explained my new learning and grading to all of my students. I explained that redos, retakes and revisions would be allowed (for more on redos and retakes: here and here). I went on to say I would never assign a grade less than a C, instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Practice assignments, including most homework, and formative assessment activities wouldn’t be graded. In addition, students would be given freedom to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

My standards-based grading goals were simple:
  1.  By attaching learning goals to each assignment and activity students were more likely to challenge themselves.
  2.  Instead of emphasizing grading, I’d be providing more feedback
  3. As author Ken O’Connor suggests, I wanted to be confident that the grades the student in my class received were accurate, meaningful and supportive of learning.
  4.  I wanted to remove subjectivity from grading.
  5.  I was no longer going to grade behaviors by punishing students for late work or work that wasn’t turned in.
  6. I'd make greater use of differentiation, flexible grouping, pre-assessments, and redos and retakes. All were intended to increase student motivation, reflection and increase intrinsic motivation

By no stretch of the imagination was the process easy or flawless. During the first year, I struggled to “compute” grades, the administration admonished me for giving incompletes on report cards, and several students and parents complained. Student grades provided a more accurate snapshot of student learning, but more importantly more students became motivated to learn and pushed themselves. Instead of avoiding challenges and withdrawing from tasks, they became risk takers; their efforts increased. They became more analytical, reflective and persistent. They established their own goals and strove to achieve them.

So while I stumbled upon standards-based grading accidentally, my journey had begun. I haven’t looked back since. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Case for The Case Against Zeros

Cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane

Ten years ago Douglas Reeves made a compelling case against zeros. Since then many districts and schools have crafted no zero policies (some admittedly miss the intended target), but these tend to be the exception. We cannot continue to use grades as punishments, to send "messages," and to "teach students a lesson."

Six Reasons for the Case Against Zeros
  1. If it's worth assigning, it's worth requiring students to do it. 
  2. Work completion is often influenced by home life, learned behaviors, economic standing, etc. It's not fair to punish students for factors beyond their control.
  3. Punishing students for failing to complete an assignment doesn't motivate them. In my experiences, low grades are more likely to discourage students from making greater efforts.
  4. Often a handful of zeros doom the student for the entire term, causing students to simply quit. 
  5. The students we most worry about losing (those who are often deemed lazy, are below grade-level, are labeled at-risk) are most harmed by zeros. 
  6. Zeros distort final grades, which should be an indicator of mastery.
Critics of No Zero Policies will claim that the penalty--a 0--is appropriate to instill proper values within students. This may be true for the highly motivated, mature student, but it's more likely that these students already possess the intrinsic motivation to be successful in school.

It's time for all educators to adopt a no-zero policy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

10 Things That Separate Good Teachers from Great Ones

Cross Posted at Brilliant or Insane 

What separates a good teacher from a great teacher?

1 -- Good teachers teach the subject matter. Their students do very well on assessments.

2 -- Good teachers have high expectations for their students.
Great teachers have high expectations for themselves.

3 -- Good teachers are acutely aware of their surroundings. Their classrooms are well-oiled machines.
Great teachers "pick-n-choose" their battles. They recognize that each student should be treated fairly, but not necessarily equally.

4 -- Good teachers have students who produce.
Great teachers recognize that they are responsible for what their students produce.

5 -- Good teachers reflect.
Great teachers look to their peers, administrators, online, and read books to improve. Most importantly, they look to themselves for answers.

6 -- Good teachers seek to improve themselves.
Great teachers push their peers to become better. 

7 -- Good teachers provide consistent feedback.
Great teachers possess a growth mindset and constantly praise efforts.

8 -- Good teachers arrive to school on time and complete all their duties and obligations.
Great teachers go above and beyond for their students and their school. They never quit and never complain about the hours.

9 -- Good teachers are respected by their students.
Great teachers are loved by their students. 

10 -- Good teachers know their students.
Great teachers know their students better than they know themselves.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Cougar Communication: Graphic Organizer, 1-3-6 Protocol


Excellence in Education: Graphic Organizers
We’re all aware of the research that says students should create graphic representations to assimilate knowledge. Graphic organizers allow students to visually categorize information, their student friendly and creating them enables students to retain and remember the information. Additionally, when used as a study aid, they’re a lot easier to look at and understand than notes or text.

Over the past week, I’ve seen several graphic organizers used as
1.     a summarization activity in preparation for a quiz (Venn Diagram)
2.     part of a guided reading activity (a story strip)
3.     a means of providing structure to a class-wide conversation (viewpoints-reactions-reflections)
4.     a timeline of events
5.     a pre-writing strategy (RAFT-Role, Audience, Format, Topic)

In teaching academic coaching, I kept a binder of graphic organizers. Students were encouraged to find/create their own graphic organizers to represent information from their core classes. Through this process, I learned that it’s often best to allow students to create their own graphic organizers because this requires them to determine what graphic organizer best serves the class’s learning target. 

Ideas for the Classroom: 1-3-6 Protocol
The 1-3-6 protocol puts students in charge of their learning. Working both individually and in groups students develop ideas and opinions about an reading or topic. Most importantly, the students are responsible for their learning and are actively engaged.

1.     Students are given an article to read.  
2.     Students write their responses to the article. For example, you could ask students to write the 5 most important facts from the article.
3.     Students are placed in groups of 3 where they share their ideas. Each group classifies/group their ideas and write a list on newsprint, an overhead, etc.
4.     Merge 2 groups (6 people now) and have the students share their ideas.
5.     Again, groups of 6 write a list of their ideas and bring them together.
6.     Each group of 6 shares their list with the whole group.

Obviously, this is similar to think-pair-share, but by creating larger groups you can more easily manipulate the flexible groups to meet the diverse needs of your students. For example, in a think-pair-share setting, one student may do the majority of the hard work while the other is passively engaged.

Other points:
1.     It need not be an article. Students can be responding to an article, a topic, a video, etc.
2.     A simple graphic organizer can be created by you or by your students.
3.     To get to a higher level, it’s important that students classify their information in the group stages. Alternatively, students can evaluate/rank the ideas. In other words, take this beyond simply summarizing.
4.     In a class with tremendously, diverse students, you can assign and change roles. Some possible roles: summarizer, discussion leader, note-taker, presenter.


Administrative Notes
Please don’t forget that current employees that are covered by VRS may elect to opt-in to the hybrid plan, but this ends on April 30.

With the snow days, we’ve fallen behind in positive referrals. Please take a moment to nominate a student  http://goo.gl/cZIXm7




Saturday, March 1, 2014

6 Simple Ways to Energize Your Lessons

Last week I wrote about the importance of greeting students as they entered your classroom. Now once they're in your class, how do you hook them?

Within the first minute or two of a TV show, we’ve made a decision: Is this show worth watching or not?

The first few minutes of class are no different; student know whether the lesson will be engaging.

To inspire and engage students in learning avoid these engagement killers 
  1. I’m going to come around and check your homework. 
  2. Read through the roster to take attendance. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, for example, only introduce the contestants after game play has started. 
  3. Give a graded quiz (students who do poorly may shut down) 
  4. Read announcements. Could you imagine a television show starting with the credits? 
When students walk into your classroom their curiosity should be piqued and their imaginations stimulated. Excite them.

Six simple ways to energize your lessons
  1. Ask students to make a guess or a prediction. We kill the love of learning by simply giving the answer. By asking the question first, students will be motivated to find the answers. I observed a science class where the teacher had posted a picture of robin's eggs on the projector. Individually students were asked to hypothesize, Why are robin eggs blue? Every student was hooked. They wanted to know the answer. 
  2. A two or three minute video clip can effectively introduce a topic or plant in their minds what they’re about to learn. The brevity of news stories lends themselves perfectly to this. 
  3. Give students a prop as they enter your classroom. These can be elaborate or simple. A math teacher gave students a golf ball and asked them to count the number of dimples (he later showed them a way to accurately figure it out using math and not simply counting). A world history teacher gave students a piece of paper with a role that the students would assume throughout the class. Students were hook
  4. In a BYOD classroom, post a QR code for students to scan. 
  5. Use art or music as a prompt. Ask students to respond to a song or artwork or have them create a drawing of their own. 
  6. Have students respond to a controversial statement. 
As an educator your success depends on your ability to engage students. If students aren’t hooked at the start of the lesson, chances are they won’t be engaged at the middle or end. Strive to start each class with an activity that will energize your students and inspire them to learn.

What are some of your favorite ways to hook and engage students? 

Helping a Student (Me) Break Out of My Shell

It’s safer to be quiet.

As a freshman in high school I was the prototypical geek, weighing 92-lbs with the glasses to match. I earned A’s, did all of my work and was never a problem student. But, I was silent--and I mean as silent as a stone--in every class. My silence was often incorrectly attributed to being shy. In truth, it was masking much more. I hide in the back of my classes. When asked a question, my standard response was, “I don’t know,” even if I did know. I was insecure and suffering emotionally.

One teacher saw me as intelligent but failed to see who I was. In class he called on me whenever another student answered a question incorrectly. “Reed, can you help explain to John why his answer is wrong?”

Despite knowing the answer, I’d purposefully fumble the answer or mumble, “I don’t know.” No way on Earth was I going to correct another student.

As the teacher pushed further for the answer, my heart would race, my palms would become clammy, and my breathing would become shallow. Fairly or unfairly, I grew to hate that teacher. What a jerk.

It was simply safer to be quiet.

Fortunately, most of my teachers supported and nurtured me. In essence, they cracked my outer shell to expose my strengths. They slowly built me up but never let me off the hook.

How’d they do it? 
  1. My math teacher always gave me a heads-up before asking me to go to the board. “Reed, I see you got number 5 right. Show me how you did it….Great! I’m going to have you answer that one on the board.” Even though math was my worst—and least favorite class—I became increasing comfortable. 
  2. In health class, a class that relied heavily on class discussion, my teacher always allowed us to pass on answering any question. In a class where personal matters were often discussed (and I wasn’t ready to share anything about my personal life), this was vital. By allowing us to opt-out, he created a safe and more welcoming environment. 
  3. My English teacher's constant use of think-pair-share also allowed safe participation. Instead of sharing with the entire class, I was given time to develop my own answers and discuss them with a classmate whom I was comfortable with sharing. Getting over this initial hurdle allowed me to become more comfortable in the whole class sharing portion. 
  4. Honestly, I don’t remember any of my teachers making use of wait time, but perhaps no instructional strategy is more important than making use of wait time when trying to encourage all students—especially, shy students and/or those lacking confidence in themselves or their abilities. 
While it didn’t happen overnight, I became more comfortable in who I was, and by my senior year, I became a school leader. None of this would have been possible had my teachers not taken the time to get to know me. They built up my confidence slowly. They worked with what I did well and expanded on it.

They believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.