Go Slow to Go Fast

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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The beginning of a new school year brings both excitement and anxiety. We are excited to see our students and start on the path of learning for the year, but we are also stressed with the logistics of getting started. Room setups, technology infrastructure, processes, curriculum planning—we have a lot to do as educators to make the year start off in a positive and productive way. We are also pressured with the idea of limited time. “I only have a year to get through the curriculum” or “We need to start the unit now” may be some of the thoughts that creep into your mind. Breathe. Those things will come, but only if we take time to slow down. All of us—teachers, students, administrators, and parents—need to slow down at the beginning of the year.

What’s the Why?
Things happen so fast that we often forget to ask why? Between assemblies, field trips, meetings, and so forth, when do we take the time to ask why? Why are we doing this? What’s the reason behind this? Why is this useful? Tradition can be important, but it can also be a prisoner. If we commit to asking why, we commit to continuous improvement as a school and as teachers. When you explore the reasons for doing something, you will feel more confident in your decision and establish a sense of purpose. If there isn’t a why yet for something you do, maybe it is time to craft one. My team of instructional coaches sat down and created our shared purpose for how and why we work together so that all decisions are informed and aligned. Take some time to do the same before you make decisions or jump in. Slowing down to think about the why is crucial and important for school morale, mission, and vision.

Focus on Culture
This, of course, is nothing new, but it’s really important to take time to build and rebuild the culture of your school. Are there new issues around school culture to address? Are there school culture initiatives already in place to build upon? Consider addressing culture at both the school and classroom levels. Are they in alignment? Are students receiving mixed messages? There is and should always be time to slow down and focus on school culture. Take time daily, or perhaps take entire days, to work solely on culture. When you rush to the curriculum, you miss a valuable opportunity to set and sustain culture. When you focus on culture, student achievement will naturally follow suit.

Take Time for Yourself
Don’t forget about your personal life. Take care of your mental and physical health. Build in norms and routines to support yourself. Reflection is a way of thinking, and you may need to set sacred time aside for reflection as you start to get more and more busy with different tasks. What do you need to do to slow down and take care of yourself? Some of the teachers at my school and I meet regularly for mediation every Monday morning. Look at your week and find ways you can incorporate things that provide a sense of calm and focus.

Remember, we all need to go slow to go fast. When we take time for ourselves, our school and classroom culture, and our shared purpose, we can feel confident about our next steps.

Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure
In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces
The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary.

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice
This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Assess More, Grade Less

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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One of the best things we can do in our classes to not only increase student achievement but also improve school and classroom culture is to stop grading everything. We live in a world where much is driven by grades. College admission counselors want to see grades. Many district policies, in an effort to encourage formative assessment and reporting, demand a certain number of grades in a time period. Many of our students are grade driven and constantly ask, “What’s my grade?” There are several forces that drive teachers to grade. We must, however, push back on these forces and instead focus on assessment.

Do We Really Want to See Grades?
I would argue that when a parent, for example, wants to know his child’s grade, he really wants to know how his child in doing the class. A grade alone gives no clear feedback on what students know or where they are in their learning journey. Many schools realize this and no longer report grades; instead, they report on clear learning objectives. Work and assignments may be associated with these reports, but rather than grades coming first, learning comes first. Students and parents want the same thing—to know how they are doing. We should meet that need by providing assessments with clear feedback rather than simply reporting grades.

Grading Can Harm Learning
Yes, grading can harm student learning. Often, grades are used as an enforcer to make students perform; in reality, this approach doesn’t work. Grades are commonly used as the wrong consequence to address a problem. One prime example is how some teachers deal with late work. To try to prevent students from turning in late work, teachers threaten to take off points or negate a score. This is highly problematic because it muddies the true academic grade with a behavior issue, and it often doesn’t fix the root problem. We should stop using grades as punitive tools. In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck provides some great grading strategies, such as marking incompletes instead of zeros on late work to encourage students to work to correct a behavioral problem.

Focus on Formative Assessment
When we focus on formative assessment, we are actually taking a huge workload away. We aren’t spending all our time grading everything and can instead start working smarter. We can give more timely feedback in the moment. We can look for patterns in student errors and adjust our instruction accordingly. We can assign smaller, low-stakes check-in activities that help students know where they are in their progress toward the learning goals. Eventually, we may need to assign a summative mark to a student, but even then it shouldn’t be a priority. I was talking with a colleague about formative and summative assessment, and he jokingly said, “We give summative assessments when we are done with teaching.” We both laughed, but I knew he had a point. Summative assessments are assigned arbitrarily for the purposes of reporting, scoring, and sorting students. I say we instead focus on formative assessment to show that learning is never truly complete. Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s a dream I have.

Many teachers, schools, and districts have or are moving to grading models where assessment is meaningful and focused on feedback. It will take time to transform a culture of grading into a culture of assessment. We have to work with all stakeholders to reframe the conversation around student achievement and focus on meaningful assessments rather than hollow grades.

Grades Should Reward Students At Their Best

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards-based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

Taking Close Reading to the Next Level with Text-Dependent Questions

 

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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I remember some of the writing prompts I used to gives students as well as ones that were given to students in assessments from the state. They often looked something like this:

Imagine you were given all the funds and resources needed to go on a trip of your choice. Write a persuasive letter to your parents to convince them you should be allowed to go on this trip. Use evidence to support your ideas.

This isn’t a bad assignment necessarily, and, in fact, it could prove to be a great scaffold if I were teaching students persuasive or argumentative writing. However, we are all in the process of adopting rigorous standards and curriculum, and the rigor of this assignment, as it stands, may not cut it. Our students deserve to be appropriately challenged with the curriculum. Our students can do better, and one way we can challenge students to read the text more closely and write from their critical analysis is through text-dependent questions.Text-dependent questions, as the name implies, require that students read the text in order to answer the questions. There is no “faking” an answer. Such questions require students to dig deep into text in a variety of ways. Some text-dependent questions might be more surface level, while others may require analysis. Here are some tips teachers should consider as they craft text-dependent questions.

Scaffold the Level and Type of Questions: While you might be tempted to immediately demand high-level analysis questions, consider using a scaffolded process: begin with simple comprehension questions, then move on to questions that require inference skills, and finally build up to deep-analysis questions. This will help students gain the necessary knowledge to answer the more challenging text-dependent questions. It will also help students gain confidence, which will encourage them to persist when more challenging questions are posed. These scaffolds can also allow you to assess for gaps in reading skills and plan lessons accordingly.
Know What the Text Does Well: What does the text that you selected do well? Is it a poem that really brings to light the power of metaphor? Is it an article that shows a strong argument? Is it a novel that really highlights character development? Knowing what the text does well can help you pick and craft the best questions for student learning. It will also allow you to align the text-dependent questions to standards more clearly in both literary and informational learning targets.
Use Questions for Both Formative and Summative Assessments: Remember these text-dependent questions can serve as either formative or summative assessments. In your planning, you should begin with the end in mind and determine what you truly want to summatively assess. You can also choose to spiral assess a reading standard or skill to ensure retention and allow you to differentiate if needed. Also, remember to be flexible. While questions may be planned as a summative assessment, you have the power as the teacher to adjust and shift them to serve as a formative assessment if you notice your students need more instruction.

Great resources include the Literacy Design Collaborative, which specializes in full literacy modules for all grade levels that include text-dependent writing assignments. Also, Achieve the Core has many resources related to the Common Core State Standards, including materials on text-dependent questions and professional learning modules to use with teachers.

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