I saw this tweet this morning and it almost consumed my thinking during my 45 minute commute to school:
Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies. A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time. That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level. The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly. This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years. Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established. More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.
To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math. Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class. I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer. I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math. None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.
It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective. I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?” The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.
- The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present. In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble? How do I break the shell? What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
- Have you called home? The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive. Not sure which students need called? Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call. The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
- A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write. “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker” The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways. Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note. This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose. I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him. If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about. Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them. Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
- Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
- Have you visited the home?
- I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.” The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students. The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year. The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.
I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year. I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years. I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students. I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught. I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach. Consider the penalty if they get left behind? Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.
Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve? You bet I do! I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners. That’s for another time.
I adopted the practice of writing handwritten notes about 3 years ago. It wasn’t until this year that I really began to harness the power. Before, I would occasionally write a note when a student performed extraordinary in class. If I recognized that a student had overcome a large obstacle in content, I would try and write the note and deliver it within the same day. At my previous school, we had Blennerhassett Middle School post cards that you see in the above picture. I moved schools this year and realized that as far as I knew, I didn’t have anything similarly suited for writing handwritten notes to students. I have used Vistaprint this year to order business cards that include my contact information, website, and instructions on signing up for my Remind class. On the back of the card, I included a motivational image from Dave and Shelly Burgess, authors of Teach Like A Pirate.
This year I determined to leverage the power of a sincere note to a greater degree than I had before. During the first few days of school, I made literal and mental notes about students through observation and conversation. I tried to identify students who seemed disengaged. In some cases, I have students who are repeating the course for a second of third time. As I identified those students, I watched closely for that small spark of excitement, engagement, or some input to any conversation. That was when I jumped on the opportunity to praise! As soon as I could I wrote a handwritten note, checked out their schedule, and began delivering the notes during my planning period. In four days of school I have delivered four quality notes with a sincere and personal message to that student. I ordered my Vistaprint cards late so I had to use notecards for a few days.
Often the only feedback you get from a handwritten note is the evidence of excitement, motivation, and engagement that student displays the next day in class. Occasionally you’ll get a “thank you” in return.
A couple years ago I had a student that many educators would have considered a handful, to say the least. During our team plan, this student’s name would come up often when discussing behavior issues. This student was among the top five offenders in detention-hall that year. I wrote him a handwritten note praising him for his perseverance during an exercise in class one day. A few days later I noticed his binder laying on the floor next to his desk. In the clear plastic sleeve on the front of his binder was my handwritten note. He was displaying it proudly for all to see. I didn’t want him to notice, but I tried to quickly snap a picture of that binder that day. The image isn’t real clear but that’s my handwritten note in the sleeve. He never thanked me for my note. I got all the thanks I needed when this student worked his butt off in my class the rest of the year.
I saw this life changing lesson performed during a church service about three years ago and I have used it in the classroom ever since. I call it a life changing lesson, titled after Dave Burgess’ LCL’s he uses in his classroom (Teach Like A Pirate). The experience begins by blindfolding a volunteer at the front of the classroom. It’s necessary that the volunteer take his/her shoes off as it helps increase the suspense or thrill. Obviously you need enough clear space to establish a point A and point B for the volunteer to travel. Once blindfolded, the teacher will grab his/her bag and begin to pull out mouse traps, knives, forks, scissors (anything that will elicit some gasps from audience). Strategically place the mouse traps and other obstacles out front of the volunteer, creating a maze-like pattern of dangerous obstacles. I do this slowly, while instructing the volunteer to stand very still. I even let a mouse trap or two snap loudly to help build the intensity. Often the volunteer will nervously ask “what was that Mr. Oldfield?” I typically respond “Oh that was nothing. You trust me right?” Anything you can do to help increase the intensity here will help hook the audience and the volunteer. Once the path is set, I explain that the audience will have opportunity to direct the volunteer down the path, but they’ll have to be careful and very specific in their directions. What usually plays out next is a combination of the audience calling out directions, some good and some bad, while I stand next to the volunteer confirming some orders and monitoring his/her safety. Once the volunteer has surpassed one or two obstacles, I will step on one of the mouse traps, setting it off loudly. This normally ignites some anxiety in the volunteer. I kick the trap out of the way and the volunteer continues. Once the volunteer has completed the journey, he/she is allowed to remove the blindfold and look back at the obstacles.
The next portion of the lesson is where the teacher facilitates the valuable learning experience. My discussion begins by acknowledging that this experience that took place actually represented something larger. I like to give my students some time to discuss at their tables some ideas they may have about what they think the entire experience represented. Next I usually reveal the three key players in the experience: the mouse traps, me, and the crowd. I allow my students some time to discuss the three roles and who each of them represented. During the discussion at the tables, I make my rounds listening and guiding the discussions in the right directions. The easiest connection to make seems to be that the mouse traps represented danger or obstacles that lie in our paths. So that’s a good place to start with your students. You can carry the rest of the discussion out however you best see fit. But I think it’s important to emphasize the distinction between the teacher and the crowd, and who those two parties represent. In my opinion, the teacher represented the following groups of people that you may want your students to recognize: parents, teachers, coaches, pastors. The crowd represented the following groups of people: classmates, friends, teammates. While developing this distinction, I always try to remind my students which person kicked one or two of the obstacles out of the way for the volunteer. I (teacher) kicked an obstacle out of the way because I was close to the volunteer. It’s all about distance, literal and figurative. Typically classmates, friends, teammates have an impact on us, but they can’t really remove obstacles from our path. Their impact is never that direct. But parents, teachers, and coaches sometimes have an impact that can be that direct. Moral of the story is that during my students’ years (14-17 years of age), they often tend to distance themselves from those who have the most impact on their journey. The class always agrees that the volunteer never would have made it through the path without any guidance. It’s often the case that they never would have made it exclusively on the guidance of the crowd, because it was sometimes hard to distinguish between good advice and bad advice when listening only to the crowd. The noise level also made it hard to hear the right voices. Bottom line, it’s nice to be reminded at 14-17 years of age, that as much as we sometimes think we don’t them, we really do need those people who offer to walk life’s journey right by our side.
I regularly read blogs from a circle of educators that I follow on Twitter. Though I haven’t actually met most of these people face to face, I feel as though I know them well. Each time I read a new post, I have a good idea where their feelings and thoughts are coming from. With that in mind, this post comes from an educator entering his 7th year. Five previous years have been spent as an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting. I became a connected educator about 3 years ago and I started blogging to keep a record of my own growth as an educator. To be transparent, I’m also in the middle of Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz and many of Paul’s points inspired my motivation to write this post. I’ve started the change discussed in this post and I wanted to write down my thoughts today.
Rewind 4-5 years ago and the phrase “student-centered instruction” or “learner-centered classroom” were buzzwords I probably would have used in a job interview, but that was the threshold of my experience with those phrases. Looking back, my preservice training in college wasn’t bad, but I did not enter the profession in 2009 armed with the shifts in teaching that prepares a teacher to reach today’s students. In fact, my student teaching and my first year as a full time teacher likely reflected the exact same teaching style that I received when I was in middle school back in 1997. I want this post to highlight some steps any educator could take to begin to move away from a very teacher directed classroom dominated by rules, compliance, and students playing the game of school. If you’re a teacher today you’ve definitely heard of the phrase “student/learner centered classrooms”. You’ve likely heard your principal, instructional coach, professional development facilitator spout those terms about your school as if everyone in the building, regardless of experience, knows exactly how to initiate those changes in their own classroom. Not to mention, the fear and anxiety some educators may feel every time someone stands and talks about a classroom that sounds nothing like their own.
I’m not going to outline these steps in any order, though I’m pretty adamant about the first one. I realize that whatever order some of these appeared for me, may certainly not be the same order in which they appear for another educator. The point is, read these points and consider which ones you can begin to initiate now and be brave enough to risk the change and see what happens. If you haven’t gathered yet, I am a believer in this “new style” of teaching that describes teachers as more of a facilitator of learning than a driver of learning. In fact, I spent much of the first week last year explaining to my 8th grade students exactly what my role would be. You see, in a student’s eyes, a learner-centered classroom can sometimes lead a student to believe that the teacher does nothing. My students’ evidence of teachers’ work is bound to:
- the teacher towering over graded papers
- the teacher standing up front and “teaching” for several minutes before assigning homework and retreating to his/her desk for the remainder of the period
- the teacher rigidly supporting classroom rules by enacting consequences in the form of D-halls, pink slips, you name it
- the teacher adhering to strict deadlines meaning he/she will not tolerate late work and zeroes will be given if such work is turned in late
Notice that all of those actions begin with “the teacher”. In my students’ eyes, they typically evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher by the actions of the teacher. This is understandable and I’m not trying to place guilt on any student, not at all. The classrooms that most teachers today grew up in were dominated by the teacher. The leading in the classroom was driven by the teacher. Teachers took part in most of the action (24/7) while students were mostly passive. The learner-centered classroom seeks to reverse most of the features of 20th century classrooms. Below you’ll find some shifts that any educator can make to his/her classroom in an effort to transform it into one where students take risks, willingly lead, monitor their learning, and engage.
- As I said above, I feel this first one needs to happen immediately. It’s difficult to shift and transform yourself and your classroom if your level of feedback to students is suffocating under the level of grades you give. Let me say that again: feedback needs to heavily outweigh the number of grades your students receive. As a facilitator of student learning, this is one of your most important jobs and it’s one that your students, regardless of age, probably won’t recognize. In fact, if you’re good at it, one could argue that the students shouldn’t recognize it. I sometimes use the analogy of the rudder. Passengers never see the rudder and rarely can even tell when it’s moving, but it impacts the direction of the ship constantly. Your feedback can come in the form of a whisper in a student’s ear, sitting with a few students while they work, catching a student during lunch to talk to them about their work, a handwritten note, or a posttest conference. There are nearly countless ways to offer feedback and perfecting any one of those ways is an art that today’s teachers need to practice. If your grades outweigh the number of times you offer feedback, make this priority number one.
- Information literacy is perhaps the most important skill our students need today. The responsibility for this skill cannot be placed on any one teacher, grade level, or department. 21st century teachers are no longer masters of content tasked with unloading this knowledge into the brains of today’s students. Many of our students come to school with content in their pockets. The role of any teacher should be to design instruction that provides students opportunities to acquire content and create. This is a huge task in my opinion, because depending on the grade level, it’s not uncommon for students to be more information literate than the teacher. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly many classrooms today where the teacher is doing more work than the students. Here’s a start, consider the amount of work your students are doing and consider the work you are doing.
- Do you have “A” students who breeze through your course without putting out much effort? Do you find those students put forth minimal effort required to achieve their A? Do you have struggling students that you find hard to motivate? A learner centered classroom is not described by one pace fits all. Rather, a learner centered classroom is driven by improvement. Students aren’t bound to rigid deadlines and rewards aren’t determined by grades nor are punishments determined by compliance. To place a priority on improvement and learning, the teacher needs to communicate flexibility in deadlines, learning styles, pacing, home lives, and relationships. Teachers in learner centered classrooms are likely leveraging technology to aide them in managing this new flexibility, especially when it comes to learning. Do you allow retakes on your summative assessments? It’s tough to prioritize improvement over grades if you aren’t willing to allow retakes on your assessments. What would a second or third opportunity to demonstrate learning do for that student that you find hard to motivate? Incorporate relentless feedback during that cycle and I’m confident you’ll have a student willing to try to improve his/her score rather than one disappointed again with a low grade. Accept that zeroes do nothing but let that student off the hook. If your assignment was important enough to design than it should be important enough for students to complete. Placing a priority on learning means zeroes have no place in your classroom. Zeroes belong in a teacher directed classroom, not one that is learner centered.
- Let your students lead. Consider some menial tasks that you are carrying out during a typical week. How many of those tasks could be completed by students? Allow them to lead. Paul Solarz writes in Learn Like A Pirate that allowing your students to interrupt the class at any time is one important aspect of a learner centered classroom. Students will feel empowered when they understand their teacher is serious about allowing them to interrupt the classroom. This obviously takes practice, flexibility, modeling, and constant feedback to direct appropriate interruptions and misdirect inappropriate interruptions. Communicate early and often your system for allowing students to interrupt the class.
- If the only evidence of learning you have from your students is a letter on top of a test, quiz, assignment, etc. than you are likely driving too much of the learning and your students are likely forgetting a high percentage of what you’ve worked hard to teach. A learner centered classroom means students are given the tools and opportunities to not only regurgitate their learning, but apply and create with their newly acquired knowledge. Evidence of learning in a learner centered classroom comes in a variety of forms. 2015 presents classrooms with a buffet of choices for teachers and students to incorporate in their classroom as means to demonstrate our learning. Students today are creating avatars that demonstrate learning, they are creating social media accounts of historical figures using Fakebook , they are producing instructional videos and uploading them to a global audience, they are blogging and documenting their learning through text and pictures, and they are using Minecraft to visually represent the acquired skill. These are just a few drops in the bucket of ways that students are doing and creating with their learning.
If you’re like me, you have probably thought at one time, or perhaps you’re thinking it now: “this all sounds good, but it just wouldn’t work for my students” or “I like these ideas, but I’d be the only one trying it and it’s just not worth it.” Imagine with me for a minute, what type of students our schools would be sending out post-high school if all classrooms were learner centered. Imagine what the work force would be like if all teachers made it a priority to design classrooms where students felt comfortable to lead, felt comfortable documenting their learning in a variety of ways, viewed content as something that is readily available, but viewed application of that content as a necessary skill to survive today. Imagine what content and skills would be retained if students stopped playing the game of school and started valuing growth and improvement over a grade. I have already imagined it and that’s what convinced me to step out and try it.
Perhaps the largest impact that this blog has had on my practice can be seen through my journey of improving my efforts to measure student learning. I officially entered the waters of standards-based grading 2 years ago. If you’ve made it to this blog it’s possible you’re wondering “what’s so wrong with Mr Oldfield’s practices of grading, assessment, and measuring student learning that he needed to begin a journey.” Or you may simply be curious about what standards-based grading means. Regardless of the reason, I’ve taken the opportunity to record, quite often, about my progress towards refining my grading practices. I hesitate to say grading practices because it’s much more than grading.
First, it’s necessary to understand that grades are nothing more than communication. Even with poor grading practices, they are still nothing more than communication. Some practices result in better communication than others, but grades are still nothing more than communication. I personally believe grades without consistent, descriptive feedback do a pretty poor job of communicating learning. More on that later.
This post is intended to be about my journey so I’ll try to refrain from pointing out flaws in others’ practices, but you may refer to my own admissions in this post written in Oct of 2013. Since then, a student that follows me on Twitter humorously responded to one of my conversations with other educators about the topic of assessing learning. In reflection, I’ve cleaned up several bad practices since then. I want to update readers on my current progress and goals moving forward. To remind readers, I teach 8th grade math at a 6-8 middle school in Parkersburg, WV. My wife is a secondary ELA teacher and she often reminds me that in her opinion standards-based learning is more easily adopted in the math classroom because of the skill-building nature of the content. Nonetheless, cultivating learners is something for every classroom. I’ve developed a system where most students practice, with great persistence, to demonstrate proficiency in the targeted skill before they attempt a short assessment. I really don’t incorporate homework, which is more reflective of the blended classroom than my opinion towards homework. I offer them a barrage of data that allows my students to self-assess how ready they are before they sit down to perform on an assessment. I’ll refer you to this old post that includes a piece about how I incorporate data into my classroom, but I’ve added measurement tools since and those tools aren’t reflected in that post. At the time of my previous blog post on grading, I was struggling with the management of student retakes and pacing. That means when students would complete an assessment, but the results indicated they needed more practice in specific areas, I had difficulty managing which assessment that student(s) had completed (version 1, 2, or 3?). I also felt the pressure of maintaining pace (and overall classroom management) once half of my class had completed the assessment with proficiency and the other half was still in the process of improvement. Admittedly, those two or three items were obstacles in the journey. I’ve maintained my practice of providing short, tiered assessments. This means that my assessments are often 4-8 problems. Given the specific content and skill, I try to tier those assessments beginning with the most basic idea I intend to measure (aligned to content standards) and ending with the problem that requires higher ordered tasks such as justifying, analyzing, or application. Designing assessments this way makes me pay special attention to the verbs. I still fight myself to avoid restricting my measurement to verbs like compute and evaluate. In math, these verbs result in items that are easy to measure, but often distort the amount of learning that is communicated. For example, a student may demonstrate proficiency at a high level in evaluating the slope of a line. But if the measurement stops there, neither the teacher or the student will know if he/she can explain the slope/rate of change and y-intercept in the context of a real world situation. See:
To improve my management of retakes and pacing I transitioned to paperless tests. I began to offer all my assessments on Google Forms. This means that students are provided a URL in order to access my assessments through a web-enabled device. Students input their name at the beginning of each assessment and those results are sent to me immediately in a spreadsheet. I quickly complete the assessment myself under the name Answer Key. This allows me to keep a line in the spreadsheet as the solutions, allowing quick and easy checking of answers once a student completes the assessment. See a screenshot below with the red cells indicating incorrect answers. The yellow line indicates the answer key. Student names have been blurred. Notice the different dates in the timestamp. You can see that there are more cells that didn’t show up in the screenshot. These particular results indicate to me areas that my students could use more support and practice. Remember that I try to tier the problems, so the problems at the end of the test require a higher level of thinking in order to complete, which is likely the reason why students got the first couple problems correct. Those problems required the lowest level of understanding, mostly procedural. I conference 1:1 immediately after students complete these assessments. We look at their results next to a blank test and together we work out their mistakes. I have incorporated a practice of requiring students to assign a grade to their test before I even look at their results. Before I went paperless I was using the red/green/yellow stickers you typically see on yard sale items. Students were using the stickers to indicate their own self-evaluation of their results before they submitted the test. On the digital assessments, the last item is always a self-evaluation rubric on which students assign themselves an A-F letter. I believe the feedback provided during the conference, the self-evaluation piece, and the efforts to correct mistakes have made a tremendous impact on the culture of learning in my classroom. The idea I try to align with 100% of the time is where am I now, where am I headed, how do I get there? I make sure students leave the post-assessment conference with an idea of what needs to be done before attempting a retake. The spreadsheet does all the organization that I was previously doing quite poorly. The spreadsheet also offers insight on what questions students are missing the most. I heard someone say once why assess if you aren’t going to do anything with the results?
Observation of my classroom would likely look chaotic and unorganized to some. Acknowledging that when the student learns isn’t as important as if that student learns means that I take full advantage of peer to peer interactions to maximize opportunities for students to learn from one another. In a blended classroom like mine, the teacher operates as much more of a facilitator constantly monitoring and managing learning opportunities. This means that I allow data to determine seating arrangements, small group instruction, and peer tutoring arrangements. I believe that the allowance of different paces has benefited all students, particularly those students who would not benefit from strict deadlines on learning.
The only scores that I input in our online gradebook are the results of my assessments. These opportunities make up only a small portion of the learning opportunities in class. Many believe that unless class assignments are graded, scored, and recorded, students won’t do them. I make a genuine attempt to provide my students well rounded meals with an emphasis on presentation, rigor, and real-world application. I believe if you provide students an uncommon learning experience they’ll reward you with uncommon effort and attitudes (Dave Burgess). I honestly can’t judge or begin to justify what would work in other classrooms, but I believe many of my efforts included in this post and others support the culture of learning that needs to be developed in all classrooms. My students will complete an anonymous survey at the end of the year that will help to provide me feedback about their experience in my classroom. I take those results each year and look at them objectively. They often help determine areas that I need to communicate better to them and their parents. Moving forward, I hope to expand on the variety and quality of opportunities for students to demonstrate learning. I know that my students would benefit from having a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. I have attempted and failed to get my students blogging this year. I have multi-seat desktops in my room. Each multi-seat runs up to 6 other multi-seat units on only 2gb of ram. Despite this, I am grateful for the possibilities this lab provides. It has completely transformed my practice. However, I feel I am limited on the variety of ways my students can demonstrate learning by creating. I would love to incorporate video or audio more often but the technical aspect has eluded me so far. Despite the improved culture in my classroom, my students are still forgetting more than they retain. The blogs were intended to serve as a record of learning, but I found quickly my students didn’t enjoy the writing. I could probably have set that standard a bit higher and cultivated a more enjoyable experience, rather than extra work. There’s got to be a way to incorporate images and typed responses in a manner that would support retention and record learning. Of course, I’m open to suggestions!
Thank you for reading this far. I appreciate the opportunity to learn from others and I encourage you to leave a comment if you have any questions or want to provide some input, criticism, or encouragement.
I was intrigued when I read James R. Delisle’s commentary from Edweek, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” As some of you may know, world renowned advocate for differentiation Carol Ann Tomlinson responded recently in her commentary “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work.” I’m in no position to argue either one of these commentaries but I do want to comment on some positions Ms Tomlinson takes in her response.
I’m an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting. I was fortunate enough to have the backing of a previous administration that allowed the counselor and I to experiment with flexible grouping of students. Our intention was to begin the school year with classes (45 min periods) of students grouped by similar strengths and weaknesses as determined by a number of considerations. These groups weren’t meant to be static “tracks” but would allow the teacher to systematically design instruction that would target those weaknesses. Once a student demonstrated he/she could perform at a level demonstrated at the sequential level, he/she was to be moved to the next class. The grouping was to be very fluid. Ms Tomlinson first stated that tracked or grouped classes, particularly the lower groups tend to be taught by newer or less experienced teachers using a curriculum that is far less robust than that used in upper tracks. She states that the intellectual climate is dampened because students placed in lower groups consider themselves less able. Ms Tomlinson points out some other frightening considerations of grouping students by ability, but I’ll allow you to read the article yourself.
My immediate response was that if Ms Tomlinson is accurately describing the environment in which grouping has traditionally taken place, shame on those leaders who allowed that to occur! I can’t imagine that a shred of research would support a situation like that. Flexible grouping, from my experience, is far different than what Ms Tomlinson described. Particularly in a middle school setting, it’s much easier to allow the same teacher to instruct all the groups of students, rather than a new less experienced teacher instructing the low groups. A tremendous amount of communication is required to keep the grouping flexible in nature and to ensure planning is accurately diagnosing and addressing student weaknesses. I can’t imagine that being the case if different teachers are instructing different groups of students in an attempt to keep student schedules flexible. Grouping or no grouping, it’s important that the classroom provide a robust and engaging curriculum. No one would argue that. In reference to the intellectual climate, I made a concerted effort to build a climate where the lower groups of students (you know, the ones who hated math, sat in the back to never utter a word, care less about turning in work on time or passing tests) knew immediately that Mr Oldfield was not going race through the curriculum with entire disregard to whether they were learning or not. I communicated effectively that there would be no time limits on learning. I appeared in my class one day as a “guest speaker”, Mr Brain Researcher, to share with my students the knowledge that all students are geniuses in one talent or another. I most certainly kept my word that students would move up to a different class once they demonstrated they were ready. The students in my lower classes still contact me occasionally and tell me that my math class was the only one where they actually learned something. The students dropped all fear and inhibition at the door when they came to class. I still exposed them to as much of the rich, authentic, technology-enhanced instruction as I did with other classes, I just made an attempt to identify where they were, communicate where they needed to go, and determine how we could all get there.
Don’t get me wrong, the system I attempted to implement was far from perfect. Learning is chaotic.
The levels at which all students perform throughout the year needs to be monitored constantly. Benchmarks for students to accomplish in order to move up need to be communicated often. What I can say with full certainty is that my system looked nothing like the ones communicated by Ms Tomlinson and other commentaries blasting tracking students. I believe it can be done in a manner that puts students first, eliminates any negative perceptions, and fills in the swiss-cheese gaps created by traditional k-12 math progression.
Having experienced both flexible grouping and very heterogenous groups of students in each period, I can’t go to the extreme that Mr Delisle takes on his position against differentiation. I will say, for me and my position, it was easier to differentiate pace, planning, instruction, activities, and support for my students when they weren’t heterogeneously grouped within the same class period. In fact, I feel myself failing more often than not in filling those swiss-cheese gaps this year because each class period presents such a wide variety of skill levels. The struggle to differentiate is a constant fight for me, mostly in terms of time. The time required of me to genuinely structure 5 different class periods each day in a way that maximizes engagement and support, and provides content-rich activities for each student is a real commitment. This commitment is one that often makes me question where to focus my time: my family or my job. I will continue to take Ms Tomlinson’s advice and incorporate low prep strategies as much as possible, while continuing to make progress in those areas she considers high prep. I applaud Ms Tomlinson for her work and do consider her an irreplaceable resource for me and my class.
The new year always presents a good opportunity to write and though I enjoy writing, I’ve been lacking in relevant opportunities lately. Dave Burgess has probably made the biggest impact on my career in the last year. I had the opportunity to see him twice and read through his Teach Like A Pirate book. In reflecting on the last year and looking ahead to my professional goals in 2015, I can’t think of a better way to begin than to write about my own version of Dave’s GPS challenge.
The GPS challenge is a must watch! Five minutes into seeing Dave live in person I was thinking “this is awesome, I can do this!” I had never seen so much passion, energy, and intensity come from an educator, not to mention a professional development speaker! In 2015, I want to set my GPS to these three words:
I’m making a commitment to bringing more energy into my classroom. I’ll be the first to admit, seeing Dave in person exposed some of my own shortcomings, especially when it comes to energy. I intend to begin the new year by giving my students 100% of my attention during school and it will require more energy. Listening is something I’ll always have to improve on and I want to take each and every opportunity to listen because my students need it. I don’t want to serve raw steak! It takes energy to preheat the grill, baste the meat, prepare a nice dessert, and serve an experience that is alluring to the senses.
I’ve always taken measures that seem beyond the norm to build relationships with my students. You have to reach their hearts before you can reach their minds. I’ve learned that my students remember the mark I make on their character, on their emotions, and on their hearts long before they’ll remember any mark I make on their intelligence. I’m committed to making my mark in 2015.
One of the biggest impressions Dave has made on me in the past year is he’s helped arm me with a creative mindset that has unleashed extraordinary experiences in my classroom. As I commit to asking myself more questions on a regular basis, I want to continue providing my students extraordinary experiences in the classroom. This doesn’t come easy! I have a long ways to go before I write my own book of #TLAP math lessons. If I can continue to work in extraordinary learning experiences for my students now and then, I’ll make my goal. As I continue to leverage the power of other pirates sailing these same waters, I know I can forge ahead transforming my classroom experience for my students. Ultimately, I’d like them to say my class was EXTRA ORDINARY!
I just finished teaching a week long course titled Digital Leadership to 14 teachers. I can’t describe how encouraging a week it was for me. I have read Eric Sheninger’s book of the same title. A course modeled exactly from the book would be beneficial for any educator, but especially administrators. I had zero administrators in my course. At the end of the week, the results my participants were sharing with me completely blew me away. I have asked permission to share a few reflections that they wrote on Friday. This is part 1. I really appreciate this reflection because it sounds like something I would have wrote just a short time ago. Even more touching for me, is that the author of this reflection, Mona Busiek, teaches next door to me at Blennerhassett Middle School.
One of the best things I’ve taken from this class is a professional “connectivity,” a cushion of teaching support I didn’t have before. I have been diligent about creating a wealth of material resources for myself, and I thought I had a good support system at school. However, my colleagues are, for the most part, a network of people I enjoying being with; we are not necessarily like-minded. PLCs have provided me with a positive, encouraging, motivating group of people who remind me of why I’m in the field and help me continue to press on toward my ultimate goal: being the best teacher I can be for my students.
What is the big picture? What do we want to ultimately achieve? How can I improve the learning environment? Do I need to redesign my classroom? What do my students need? How can I get to know them better? How can I help them to take responsibility for their own learning? Do I need to change the way I grade? Are there more engaging ways to teach? What changes can I make? What have always done that doesn’t make sense to keep on doing? What first “do-able” step can I take toward change? Where do I need to release control? How can I empower my students?–These are just a few of the questions I have been considering this week. (Actually, they have kept me awake at night!)
Not only have I been re-considering my students’ learning environment, but I’ve been considering how well we are working together as a staff. What steps can we make to strengthen our team? Our school? How can I improve peer-to-peer teaching? How can we connect better at school? What am I willing to give up myself in order to do what works better for our team?
Mid-week, I thought my brain might explode. Today, however, after a week of sharing with people face to face and online, I feel more relaxed. I am less afraid of failure because I’ve received multiple messages to try new things and accept failure as part of my journey. Always very near are my own personal cheerleaders, offering thoughts, keeping me balanced, and sharing practical advice that keeps me focused on the students–my inspiration and reason for pressing on.
8th Grade Reading
Blennerhassett Middle School
Let me say this first. I am beyond blessed to get to work with tremendous students. Not all teachers get to experience such grace. Now I’m not saying things are easy, especially on the last day.
I’m an 8th grade math teacher in a grade 6-8 middle school. For those that may read this that aren’t educators, especially ones of middle schoolers, I hope that I can accurately portray the investment that many of my colleagues and I have made this year. One of the most difficult things for a middle school teacher is to force yourself to give an ear on every occasion that it’s needed. I’m not sure there’s a greater need of middle school students, than a listening ear. I tried to make a commitment to drop what I was doing and look at a student each time they came to talk to me. I failed many times. Often the topic wasn’t of utmost importance, but I tried to listen. At the middle school level, doing this 100% of the time is an arduous task! Why? Because middle school students thirst for someone that will listen. That means you have to be prepared to listen before school, after school, on your planning period, on your way to the bathroom, when you walk by another teacher’s room, when you’re walking outside for kickball, on your way out to your car, during bus duty, during your lunch, and yes, right in the middle of class. To be effective, listening to students must come before you, your family, your colleagues, the work at hand, your grades, your plans, your hunger, and your thirst. The sadness of the last day comes in memories of these conversations. Conversations of:
- moms and dads
- heartache at home
- what someone said on social media the night before
- sporting events: what happened before the game, during the game, after the game
- homework help
- hunting stories
- the pressures of school
As I look at every one of my students, I can recall a conversation with them. Each conversation was an opportunity for me to make an impact on their life. What tremendous responsibility! I’ve found that committing myself to listening stretches my patience and my tolerance; things that can occasionally run thin on this middle school teacher. You get to see so much growth in students as a middle school teacher. All students grow physically, but so many grow in maturity too. Watching my students walk into and out of the auditorium today I was doing really well until this thought entered my mind: I’ve invested more time into these kids than I have my own daughter. I can’t say it enough, I get to build relationships with amazing young people.
During the last 2 days of school, Blennerhassett Middle School organizes a huge school-wide Olympics festival full of competitions ranging from water-balloon slingshot, musical chairs, 3 on 3 basketball, volleyball, quiz bowl, and many others. To my knowledge, the festival is unmatched by any other school. My days are spent running from competition to competition to cheer on my homebase students and fellow competitors. I spend most of the day screaming, fist-pumping, high-fiving or dancing on stage with about 50 middle school students. In between setting up and tearing down the events I’m in charge of, I try and make every last moment count with every student. I don’t eat lunch these two days so I can spend lunch in the cafeteria with my students. The days fly by and I know in just a moment, they’ll be gone. The opportunities to impact the lives of young people are dwindling. After the closing ceremonies and the tribute to our 8th graders, we’ll say our goodbyes, exchange hugs, and watch the students progress into the next chapter.
The last day of school is the hardest for me.