Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Be Intentional about Scheduling for Student Learning

I believe that intentionality is the missing piece in today's schools. 

There's so much hype and clamor to figure out what's the best new tech tool, what's the latest and greatest program for struggling readers, what's the most ideal class size, how to create new structures for professional development, etc. I'll let you in on a little secret....

We don't need anything new.

We don't. Teachers, schools, and districts have enough tools in their toolboxes. What we need, more than anything, is intentionality about how we use what we have and what we know. And so, this post begins a new series about being intentional in our choices around teaching and learning.

In this first post, I'd like to tackle the issue of scheduling the school day. Notice that the title of this post refers to scheduling for student learning. I wonder if folks who are responsible for designing school schedules even consider student learning, let alone use student learning to drive their decisions. I posed this question on Twitter earlier today: Does the way we schedule the school day facilitate or hinder learning? Below are responses from a couple of my #nced friends.

I believe many of us would admit that school days are structured around the needs and wants of adults as opposed to the needs of children. Think about your school day. Who decided the day would be structured in that way, and why was that decision made in the way that it was? If you can't answer those questions, find someone who can. If no one can, then perhaps it's time for a fresh conversation. I would argue for school and district leadership teams to throw away existing schedules (and everything they know about school schedules for that matter) and start anew. If we could design the ideal schedule for student learning, what would that schedule look like?

I spent three hours this morning in a second grade classroom. During that time, I taught two reading groups, one math group, and one word study group. Oh, and we had a 30-minute recess and a 30-minute lunch. I spend quite a bit of time in elementary schools (admittedly less in middle and high schools), and the thing I notice most often is this: Everyone in the building is rushed. All the time. Think about that for a moment. Does student learning happen best when the teacher and students are rushed? Are teachers their most effective selves in that environment? Is there time for deep learning? For collaborative conversations? For reflection? For asking questions?

It seems to me that we're so busy completing tasks (Math journal? Check. Word sort? Check. Reading group? Check.) that we lose sight of our overall goal. Why is that? Who says the school day has to be rushed? Why do we feel the need to squeeze every content area into the school day?

So what's the solution? I believe there are an infinite number of possible solutions. I also believe that we won't find any of them without asking "Why?" and embracing a willingness to rethink everything. Below are some ideas to consider if we really want to be more intentional about scheduling for student learning.

  • Instead of breaking the school day into a million pieces, let's create and honor large chunks of uninterrupted time for teaching and learning. Design a morning, a class period, or an entire day around a quality essential question. Focus teacher and student energy, time, and resources on digging deep enough to develop meaningful responses to the essential question. 
  • With your students, collaboratively develop learning outcomes for the class period, day, week, or unit. Allow students to work toward those learning outcomes at their own pace, using whatever resources and processes best support their learning. Create opportunities for students to come together collaboratively as well as curl up in a corner on their own to pursue deep learning. Be available for one-on-one, small group, and whole group mini-lessons as needed.
  • Start small. Take one day a week, and throw out your typical schedule. Spend the entire day focused on a complex, real-world issue. Give students time to grapple with the issue and engage in productive struggle. Also give students an authentic audience with which to share their work.
  • Focus less on deliverables and more on the process. Do we really need hard evidence that students have met or are working toward learning outcomes? If the teacher is eavesdropping and kid-watching, there will be more than enough evidence of student thinking. Don't waste your learners' time filling out worksheets just so you have something to grade. Allow them instead to engage in meaningful learning. 
  • Implement sustained silent reading and writing time. Readers and writers need uninterrupted time to read and write. Allow students to choose their own texts and topics. No worksheets. No graphic organizers. Just reading and writing. And while you're at it, grab a book or writer's notebook and pull up a seat.
I would love to hear your ideas for being more intentional about scheduling for student learning. Also, stay tuned for my next post about intentionality in teaching and learning.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Substitution is Not a Bad Thing: Thoughts on the SAMR Model

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of the SAMR model. I think SAMR can help teachers think about ways to use technology to provide engaging and meaningful learning experiences for students. (If SAMR is new to you, you may want to read this and this.)

Although I see value in SAMR as a framework, I think we are heading down a dangerous path by placing too much emphasis on the levels. Lately, I have heard many educators profess that teachers should not use technology as a substitute. They say that all teachers should be working toward redefinition, all the time, and that there's no place for substitution in the classroom. I argue that there is a time and place for all levels of SAMR in the classroom, and that great teachers know when and why.

The truly great teachers move fluidly among all levels of the SAMR model, making choices about technology use after making choices about students' learning needs. These teachers understand that the use of a tool is not what determines student engagement and learning. They also understand that technology is not always effective/appropriate for all learning outcomes.

I frequently use my iPad as a calculator, my iPhone to listen to music, and my computer to take notes. Similarly, students often use tools in these ways, substituting the tool for another way of doing the task. Is that a bad thing?

If students use an iPad as a calculator, does that mean they aren't thinking about math in complex ways? Absolutely not. These students could be using the calculator app to solve relevant and complicated math problems.

If students use a computer to take notes, does that mean they aren't thinking about the content in deep and personally meaning ways? Absolutely not. These students could be responding to thoughtful and complex questions posed by the teacher or their peers.

Case in point:

A former colleague and friend of mine, Brooke Simpson, is the most exceptional math teacher I have ever observed. While Brooke is adept at technology use in the classroom, her exceptionality lies not in her use of technology but in the ways she gets students to think and talk about math. In Brooke's classroom, her students do not just do math, they understand math. From the first day of school, Brooke has her students thinking and talking about math in ways that are more complex than many adults understand.

On numerous occasions, Brooke's students would use the Magnetic Alphabet app as a substitution for number tiles. Brooke would select a secret number and provide clues to help students figure out the secret number. Early in the year, these clues may be simple, such as "My number is between the number of days in a weekend and the number of days in a week." Later in the year, her clues would be more complex, such as "My number is a factor of 12 and a multiple of 3." Although Brooke's students used the Magnetic Alphabet app as a direct substitute for number tiles, they were thinking about mathematics in sophisticated ways.

If you were to remove all technology from Brooke's classroom, she would remain a master teacher. I could give many more examples (as I'm sure you could) of master teachers who cultivate a love of learning in their students and impact student growth in profound ways with or without technology.

If technology is not what makes the difference, then what is it? It's the teacher. It's always been the teacher. Master teachers are those we remember years later, the ones who instilled in us a passion to learn, the ones who gave us skills that opened new doors in our lives, the ones who knew us and helped us know ourselves.

Let's stop guilting teachers into feeling bad for using technology as a substitute for traditional tasks. Master teachers engage their students and foster a depth of thinking with whatever tools they have available, and what often sets these teachers apart is their understanding of when technology is appropriate/effective and when it is not.

As we continue to engage in conversations about technology, let's keep our focus on what's really important. We need to find ways to build capacity in all teachers so that they can all be Brooke Simpsons and the other exceptional teachers we have known. Sure, technology professional development can be a good thing. But let's not forget about professional learning experiences that can help teachers learn to ask thoughtful questions, design relevant and authentic assessments, and be responsive to their students' needs.

And please, can we stop bashing teachers for using technology as a substitute? Focus on the learning instead of the tool, and then you'll finally be able to see what redefined student learning looks like.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Update: Gamification and Outcomes-Based Grading in Teacher Education

In July, I wrote a post describing my efforts to gamify a course for this fall semester. I'm using quests, outcomes-based grading, badges, and XPs (experience points) to model a gamified learning experience for students in my course on emerging web and mobile technologies. As part of this approach, I designed a pre-assessment, which my students completed within the first few days of the semester. The pre-assessment was vital for this course, in particular, because students in this graduate-level course vary widely in their background and experiences with technology. This pre-assessment provided students an opportunity to show what they know and is allowing me to customize the learning experience for students.

Based on students' pre-assessment responses, I awarded students XPs that can be applied toward specific quests (modules) in the course. For instance, when a student demonstrated on the pre-assessment that she has a great deal of expertise in concepts related to digital literacy, I awarded her XPs to be applied toward the digital citizenship quest. Later in the semester, when this student begins working on the digital citizenship quest, she can choose how to apply her pre-assessment XPs. Applying XPs from previously learned concepts and experiences can keep students from completing assignments that are unnecessary.

Since each student enters our classrooms with a unique set of strengths and needs, it is important to recognize and celebrate what students know and can do. It is equally important to recognize what students do not yet know and cannot yet do. Based on pre-assessment results, I know the strengths and gaps in each student's understanding of course concepts. Perhaps even more importantly, after completing the pre-assessment, my students now have an understanding of their own skills and competencies in relation to course learning outcomes. After pre-assessment results were in, a few students messaged me to say that they were surprised at how much they either did or didn't know.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this level of self-awareness. Without a pre-assessment or some other opportunity to activate students' prior knowledge in relation to course learning outcomes, my students and I would be moving blindly ahead, tackling each topic and task without regard for students' strengths and needs. In online courses, which many instructors design and construct in their entirety before the semester begins, it can be difficult to envision ways to customize learning for students. This approach has helped me strike a balance between the need to design the course in advance and the need to be responsive to the unique learners in my course.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Using Google Drive for Student Collaboration in Face-to-Face and Online Courses

I use Google Drive daily for creating, editing, organizing, and sharing documents for both personal and professional uses. Google Drive is a tremendous resource for me as an educator, and I use it often for lesson planning, brainstorming, and other teacher-centered activities. I find the most potential in Google Drive, however, in the ways I use it with students.

In both face-to-face and online classes, I use Google Drive for collaboration among students and with others outside the four walls of the classroom. Google docs and spreadsheets work beautifully with many common interactive learning experiences, such as Think-Pair-Share and peer feedback. In face-to-face courses, Google Drive can serve as a resource for documenting the talk and processes that occur as students collaborate. As an online instructor, I've found that Google Drive allows me to easily incorporate interactive and collaborative learning experiences with students who are separated by distance and time. For instance, I designed the spreadsheet below for an activity that tasked students with exploring new-to-them web tools, sharing their learning with their peers, and providing feedback on their classmates' thoughts. This interaction could take place synchronously (at the same time) or asynchronously (not at the same time) and could happen via any device.

The other examples included below represent uses of Google docs for collaboration that work in face-to-face, online synchronous, and online asynchronous settings.


Peer Feedback

Collaborative Brainstorming

Collaborative Note-taking

Since Docs and Sheets can be shared locally or globally, they also provide a way to bring outside experts and other students into those collaborative learning experiences. As students in my technology course explored trending ed tech topics, they were asked to reach out to other educators via Twitter, Google+, and other networks. The Google spreadsheet below allowed my students to record their own learning and also allowed other educators to add their thoughts, experiences, and resources.

There are countless possibilities for structuring Google docs and spreadsheets for collaboration in face-to-face and online courses. I would love to hear (and steal) your ideas, so please share by leaving a comment. Thanks!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gamification and Outcomes-Based Grading in Teacher Education

In the fall semester, I will be teaching my first semester-long gamified course. Thankfully, I have a short summer session in which to experiment with some gamification techniques in order to make revisions for the fall semester. I'm sharing my ideas below in the hopes of getting feedback from you and possibly sparking an idea that could help transform teaching and learning in other classrooms. Below are items taken directly from my syllabus. Feel free to borrow and adapt these ideas for your own contexts.

This course was designed using a gamification approach, which refers to the use of game mechanics in non-game settings. Throughout the course, students will earn experience points (XPs) for completing tasks. As students earn XPs, these points will accumulate and enable students to earn badges to represent their learning. Upon completion of each quest, a badge will be awarded to each student. For each quest, three levels of badges are available: Explorer, Journeyman, and Master. These badges represent the amount of XPs earned by each student during a given quest. To earn a badge at a greater level of difficulty, students will have the opportunity to revise or repeat tasks.

Badges for Each Quest:

21-30 XPs = Master 
11-20 XPs = Journeyman 
0-10 XPs = Explorer 

Badge for Digital Citizenship Quest

Grading Scale for Determining Final Course Grade:

240-300 XPs = A 
180-239 XPs = B 
120-179 XPs = C 
60-119 XPs = D 
0-59 XPs = F

At the beginning of the semester, all students will complete a course pre-assessment. The purpose of the pre-assessment is to provide formative information to the students and the instructor regarding students’ previous learning experiences and areas of expertise. Experience points (XPs) may be earned through the pre-assessment, as students demonstrate mastery of concepts and tools. The instructor will determine the amount of XPs earned (if any) by a given student based on performance on the pre-assessment. Students will have the opportunity to apply XPs toward specific tasks within quests based on their pre-assessment performance.

Along with using gamification techniques, I have also transitioned all of my courses to an outcomes-based grading system. Canvas makes it easy to integrate outcomes-based grading into course assignments by giving instructors the option of using the Learning Mastery gradebook instead of a traditional gradebook. Assignments and rubrics are aligned with course learning outcomes. My students and I will be able to track progress toward course outcomes, and grades will be meaningful for both me and my students. Below are the learning outcomes for one of my courses in Canvas. 

Learning Mastery Gradebook in Canvas

I welcome your feedback on my first attempt at gamification and my shift toward outcomes-based grading. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know how you're using these methods in your courses.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

ISTE 2014 Day 4: Play as learning

This morning I participated in an interactive session about gaming in teacher education. During the session, I was able to download the software for the game, create an avatar, and play in an immersive classroom-based gaming experience for pre-service and new teachers. The game (Quest2Teach) places teachers in a virtual context and allows them to experience authentic challenges they will face in their future or current classrooms. In this immersive environment, teachers face multiple opportunities for real-world decision-making and receive immediate feedback on their choices and actions. The actions and choices made by gamers in Quest2Teach affect how the context responds to them. For example, the clothes chosen by the gamer when designing an avatar will later influence how students behave in the virtual classroom. Decisions about how much time to spend working on a lesson plan, how to respond to a specific student question, and how to respond to feedback from colleagues and supervisors alter the gaming experience and personalize the learning environment for the gamer.

The designers of Quest2Teach explained that immersive environments can help to bridge the gap between theory and coursework in a teacher education program and actual experience in a classroom. Before students are faced with classroom management challenges and critical feedback from a mentor teacher, for instance, immersive environments such as Quest2Teach can provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to face those challenges, take risks, and fail in a safe environment. Further, the immersive classroom helps gamers learn from their mistakes by providing feedback on their actions and teaching through that feedback.

While most pre-service teachers may not be gamers, experiences in immersive games can create a more interactive, authentic learning experience while preparing them for their real work as teachers. And gaming is just plain fun. If you don't believe me, just reflect on how many educators asked you for your networking game code this week.

Image from Quest2Teach gallery

Monday, June 30, 2014

ISTE 2014 Day 3: What should we be doing here?

Many educators are using approaches such as blended and flipped learning to maximize instructional time and increase opportunities for learners to interact with content, with the instructor, and with one another. At the heart of this movement is this question: What is the best use of classroom time? 

If you feel that students should be engaged with tackling authentic challenges during class time, collaborating with one another, and purposefully using available resources, then you may agree that technology can allow you to maximize learning opportunities by putting more static teaching and learning tasks online or moving them outside of the regular school day.

So what I'm wondering today is this: If we believe that student learning happens in interactive, collaborative, and authentic environments, why don't we apply that same thinking to professional learning? We are still learners, after all.

With the abundance of technology we have available for professional learning (just take a look around you at ISTE 2014), we have tremendous opportunities to put static professional learning tasks and resources online and make better use of the time we spend together.

This week, there are roughly 20,000 educators in one building with similar passions and purposes. How often does that happen? How are we using our time, and is that the best use of this time? I see many missed opportunities in the way we could be structuring our professional learning experiences and engaging with one another (here at ISTE 2014 and beyond the conference).

I've talked to several attendees throughout the conference about their best conference experiences, and most them have expressed that the interactive workshops, playgrounds, and poster sessions have been their most amazing learning experiences. Why? Because they were given opportunities to talk with other educators, explore resources, and apply ideas and resources to their own contexts. Kudos to presenters like the Iron Chef crew who are giving conference attendees opportunities to interact with each other and tackle difficult challenges.

P.S. I'm sitting in a lecture session right now as I write this post because I am completely checked out mentally. At ISTE 2015, I will be more purposeful about attending sessions that are explicitly interactive and authentic. I also hope that conference planners will design more opportunities for attendees to engage and play.

ISTE 2014 Day 2: Connecting with other teacher educators

For me, day 2 of the ISTE 2014 conference was all about connecting with other folks who do what I do. One of the most powerful aspects of conferences like this is the opportunity to connect face-to-face with other folks who serve in similar roles, share similar passions, and have innovative ideas they're willing to share.

I had the awesome opportunity to present an interactive panel session with my friends and colleagues Bethany Smith, Dean Mantz, and Lisa Dabbs. We shared strategies and resources we use to engage pre-service teachers, including developing a PLN, using the TPACK framework to make sound instructional technology decisions, developing digital citizenship skills, and blogging. During and after the session, we connected with several teacher educators who are doing this same work in their courses and are interested in sharing ideas and resources and connecting our pre-service teachers with one another. Throughout the day, I was also able to meet up with colleagues who belong to the ISTE Teacher Educator PLN (#tepln). I love making face-to-face connections with other teacher educators I've interacted with online who have been a tremendous resource for me. 

One piece of advice for #iste2014 attendees: Take advantage of opportunities to sit and have a conversation with someone. Don't feel guilty for missing a session to make time for a valuable conversation. There is great value in these connections and conversations, and you never know where those connections may lead. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

ISTE 2014 Day 1: Authentic and Engaged Learning

My friend Melissa Edwards and I have challenged each other to write a blog post for each day of the ISTE 2014 conference. Today was an amazing first day of the conference for me. I was honored to attend a luncheon where this year's Making IT Happen winners were recognized. It's inspiring to hear stories of educators who are doing the hard work it takes to bring about change in teaching and learning with technology.

The highlight of my day, however, was participating in a thought-provoking conversation with Steven Anderson, Thomas Murray, Beth Still, and Kyle Pace as part of the ClassFlow EDULounge. We talked about what engaged and authentic learning looks like, the role of assessment in learning, and the future of educational technology. I had several take-aways from the conversation, including:

  • Engaged learning is authentic learning. This applies to both teacher learning and student learning. 
  • Teachers need to shift the focus away from allowing a tool to drive the learning toward meaningful uses of technology for specific teaching and learning purposes. 
  • Administrators must align their expectations for teacher evaluation and teacher support with innovative teaching and learning. 
  • Sustained, authentic professional learning opportunities are necessary for teachers to develop fluency with purposeful technology integration. 
As with my ISTE 2013 experience, I am again realizing that the power of conferences is in the conversations. I'm looking forward to the conversations that are in store tomorrow.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why NC Needs the Common Core

I've updated this post, adding new resources to articles in support of and opposition to the CCSS at the end of the post.

Districts and schools across the state have spent enormous amounts of money on providing professional learning opportunities as well as stipends for teachers to work on curriculum alignment, assessment development, and unit and lesson planning. Disregarding this when districts have little to no professional development funding would be the worst kind of stewardship.

Teacher education programs have revised their curricula to prepare future educators for developing students' proficiency with the Common Core State Standards. Graduates from our teacher education programs are in the position to be leaders in curriculum and instruction, perhaps having more exposure to the CCSS in their preparation programs than some in-service teachers. Shifting away from the CCSS would not only harm in-service teachers but also put teacher education graduates at a disadvantage.

The spiraling nature of the Standards for English Language Arts has given teachers at different grade levels a common language to use when discussing teaching and learning. This consistency benefits schools and districts, but more importantly, it benefits students. The CCSS enables teachers to collaborate across grade levels and design a consistent learning experience for students from Kindergarten to 12th grade.

The CCSS, while not perfect (nor is any other set of content standards) aim to develop students' conceptual understandings of mathematics. In the past, many students learned math in procedural ways separated from meaningful contexts and real reasons to do math. When we focus on conceptual understandings, as the CCSS advocate, students are able to understand the "why" behind mathematics. Building a strong conceptual understanding of mathematics in the early grades is paramount. I fear that abandoning the Common Core would signal a return to a focus on procedural mathematics in which students only develop a surface-level understanding.

Student transiency rates are high, and transiency has been linked to decreased student achievement and increased dropout. Having a consistent set of content standards is one way to lessen the negative impacts of student transiency.

Contrary to popular belief, the Common Core is not linked to the devastating practice happening across North Carolina right now known as Read to Achieve. North Carolina has, for years, been assessment-crazed. The CCSS did not change that.

Folks who think the Common Core isn't working due to poor results on standardized assessments obviously don't understand how learning actually happens. You cannot transition to new content standards one year and expect all students to be proficient the next. When NC shifted to the CCSS, many students struggled due to gaps in their understanding, as is to be expected. Students in 5th grade, for example, did not have the benefit of developing strong conceptual mathematical understandings from Kindergarten. Giving up on the CCSS now would only cause another drop in test scores, as students are faced yet again with a transition to a new set of content standards.

The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce expressed that repealing the Common Core "would be such a step backwards that it could adversely impact the hiring of future workers." Read more here.

Don't just take my word for it. Below are links to other articles representing both sides of the Common Core debate. Honestly, I have yet to read a solid case for repealing the standards. The cases being made in opposition to the Common Core focus on implementation, not the standards themselves. If implementation is the issue, then states are to blame, not the standards.

Terry McCann: I Will Not Teach the Common Core

Policy Analysis: North Carolina Should Stay the Course on Common Core

Replacing Common Core to Cost NC More than Millions

Common Core: Pushback Grows in the Tarheel State

NC Should Stay the Course with Common Core

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Project-Based Learning in Teacher Education

Teacher educators are sometimes guilty (me included) of teaching students about effective pedagogical approaches instead of teaching students through those effective approaches. Over the past two semesters, I have been intentional about explicitly modeling effective pedagogical techniques and providing time for students to reflect on potential applications for their future classrooms.

One approach to teaching and learning that I want my students to be comfortable with is project-based learning (PBL). To have students explore trending topics in educational technology, I've designed a PBL task for my Technology in the Classroom course. My students and I will meet via Google Hangouts, I'll pose the challenge and set some parameters, and then I'll turn them loose. Instructions for the PBL task are below.

  1. Choose a partner.
  2. Choose one of these trending topics in educational technology:
    1. 1-to-1, flipped learning, BYOD, gamification, or gaming
    2. Record your names on this Google Spreadsheet.
  3. Find information & resources related to your topic. Learn enough about it that you could talk about it to someone else without sounding like an idiot.
    1. What is it? What are the benefits? What are the pitfalls? What details would a teacher need to know?
    2. Record your responses to these questions on the Google Spreadsheet.
  4. Connect with educators who are interested in, experts in, or involved in your topic.
    1. Twitter search, hashtag, Google+ community, blogs
  5. Develop 3 questions for educators who know a lot about your topic.
  6. Reach out to educators about your topic and try to gather some responses to your questions. In addition to getting real-time answers, you may also find answers in blog posts or other places. You’re trying to get responses before we come back together at the end of class.
    1. Think about how to get your questions out to a broad audience as well as to specific people you’ve targeted.
  7. Record what you find out from others on the Google Spreadsheet.
  8. Join our GHO at 5:30 to share, process, and reflect!

This is my first time with this particular assignment, and I'm very much looking forward to learning alongside my students. As I revise this task for future sections, I realize that I need to remove some parameters and provide only a question that needs an answer. I'm hoping to gather feedback from my students about how to improve this learning experience and incorporate more PBL into our teacher education program.

After students complete the task, we're going to come back together in a Google Hangout to reflect on the experience. I'll be using the following questions to guide the conversation.

  • In what ways does today’s information-abundant society change the role of the teacher?
  • What does school look like when the teacher no longer has (or needs to have) all the answers?
  • What are some implications for your future classroom?
  • What are some other ways I could have structured today’s class so that you could learn this content? What would be benefits and limitations of those different approaches?

Have you considered your own thoughts about the questions above? Teachers who don't embrace the implications of today's information-rich society risk quickly becoming irrelevant. It's imperative that we engage other educators in conversations about implications for schools, teaching, and learning in light of the abundant information our students have in their pockets.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Discussing Effective Assessment Practices with Pre-Service Teachers

Today at 12:30 pm ET, Kurtis Hewson will be a virtual guest speaker in my assessment course. Kurtis is my #edteach colleague and a valuable member of my PLN. He will be speaking with some of my pre-service teachers today about balanced assessments and considerations for designing performance tasks and rubrics. The conversation will be live streamed below.

Kurtis created this Today's Meet backchannel for the conversation. Feel free to watch the live stream and join the conversation via Today's Meet. We would love to hear your perspective. Kurtis also graciously shared these resources to support and extend the conversation. We hope you'll join us today at 12:30 pm ET!

Monday, April 7, 2014

7 Questions to Consider Before Assigning Homework

Does the homework matter?

In the bigger picture of the school day, the school week, the school year, and the students' overall educational experience, will the homework have any impact? Is the homework relevant to the students' lives outside of school? Can you say that the homework truly matters?

Do you value family time?

Students spend the majority of their waking hours at school, away from their families. When you account for dinner, bath time, sports practice, creative arts, and other commitments, there is very little downtime in the evening for most families. Often, homework eats away whatever downtime is left. If we want to raise a generation that values family time, we need to respect their time with their families.

Are you maximizing instructional time during the school day?

As a parent who values family time, I want to be assured that teachers are maximizing instructional time during the school day. Are the learning experiences that you design during the school day valuable, relevant, and necessary? If teachers focus on designing rich learning experiences during the school day, homework can become a thing of the past.

Is the homework for students or their parents?

Consider what you're really measuring when you assign homework. Is the homework a measure of student learning or a measure of parent involvement? My 6-year-old daughter currently has a month-long homework assignment asking her to draw the moon each day as part of a unit on the phases of the moon. As a space nerd, I totally appreciate the homework. However, this homework is for me, not for my 6-year old. She is not independent enough to be expected to work on a month-long homework assignment, not even taking into account the lack of visibility on cloudy days and that the times of moonrise / moonset don't always align with bedtime. There have been several cloudy nights when we've relied on the Internet to draw the moon. What does this mean for our students who don't have the kind of parental help at home that is necessary for this type of homework?

Are we preparing students to be good citizens?

Some teachers assign homework in an attempt to "prepare students for the real world." I don't think I want to live in a world in which people come home from a day at work only to fill out worksheet after worksheet and struggle to find time to do something fun with their families. We need to foster good citizenship, which involves balancing time between work, family, and community engagement.

Is the homework differentiated?

If you've decided that the homework you're assigning is, in fact, valuable and worthwhile, have you considered that not all students need the same homework? If the purpose of the homework is to review important concepts or extend students' understanding, then of course not every student will have the same needs for review and/or extension.

Are you planning to give meaningful feedback on the homework?

If you're asking students to spend their time away from school doing schoolwork, I surely hope you are planning to spend at least that much time giving meaningful feedback and using the work to guide your future instruction. As a former classroom teacher, I'll admit that I did not do this well. Homework can easily pile up and become a low priority for the teacher. However, if this is your typical practice, I urge you to reconsider. Show students that you value the time they invested in the work by investing time of your own.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Holding students accountable for reading

In the courses I teach, students are typically responsible for reading and thinking about the reading before coming to class. I've had conversations with several colleagues about ways to hold students accountable for doing the reading and, more importantly, for thinking about the reading so that they're prepared to interact with the ideas during class. Some folks prefer to give quizzes on assigned readings to hold students accountable. My preference is to design learning experiences that require students to apply their thoughts from the reading. There are a lot of ways to do this. In my experience, when students know that they're expected to collaborate with their peers and share their thinking during class, they are more likely to be prepared for that work by engaging with the reading before class. In this way, students' peers hold them accountable for thinking about the reading, not me. Below are a few strategies for holding students accountable for reading, for thinking about the reading, and for coming to class prepared to engage with their peers.

Speed Dating

Speed dating allows students to interact with several peers in a short amount of time. Students talk for a short time (1 or 2 minutes) with a classmate, typically in response to a question or set of questions. After the specified time period has passed, students rotate and have a conversation with another peer. Sometimes the questions for each dating round remain the same, but sometimes I'll post a different question or set of questions for each round. Last week in my assessment course, students went through three rounds of speed dating. During each round, there was a different question or set of questions to guide the conversation. Those questions are below.

Gallery Walk

A gallery walk can take many different forms but is typically structured so that students work collaboratively to brainstorm ideas and display them for the class. Groups then move around the room (or explore different displays on their devices) to review ideas that were shared by their classmates. I like to incorporate peer feedback by asking students to leave comments on other groups' displays. Again, in a relatively short amount of time, students have the opportunity to interact with their peers and learn from multiple perspectives. Today, I used the Educreations app for a mid-term gallery walk, asking students to reflect on topics we've focused on for the first half of the semester.


I use Triptico often to engage students in a game-based review of the reading. Triptico is one of the only web tools I've actually purchased the premium account for, and I'm glad I did. Triptico makes it easy to build interactive games to review important content. In addition to game-like activities, Triptico also includes cool timers, task cards, spinners, and quizzes. Below are a couple of examples of Triptico activities I've used recently.

RAFTs, Menus, and Choice Boards

I believe that it's extremely important that teacher educators model effective instructional practices, such as differentiation, in their coursework. Rather than simply telling students that they need to differentiate learning opportunities for students, I model that for my own students. RAFTs, choice boards, and menus are some tools I use often in order to give students choice. Below is a RAFT I used with students in my assessment course earlier this semester. 


While I'm using more collaborative than independent learning experiences this semester, that changes each semester depending on my students' preferences. I use Google Forms at the beginning of the semester to find out how my students learn best, and I make a conscious effort to design learning experiences that meet my students' needs (more about that here). Some students prefer to reflect on their thoughts independently, and some do their best thinking when they have the chance to write out their thoughts before talking with others. Freewrite is a quick and easy strategy to give students time to process and reflect. In addition to individual freewrites, a collaborative freewrite strategy I like to use is 4-2-1 Freewrite. First, each student identifies the 4 most important ideas from a text, a video, or some other learning experience. Students then work in pairs to narrow down their two lists of 4 ideas to a list of the 2 most important ideas. The act of narrowing 2 lists of 4 ideas down to a single list of 2 ideas takes some negotiating, which can be a powerful learning experience. Next, pairs partner up with other pairs to form groups of 4. In those groups of 4, pairs share their lists of 2 most important ideas. Each group of 4 must identify the single most important idea from the lists that were shared. Finally, each student freewrites for 3 minutes about the 1 most important idea that was selected by the group.

There are countless other ways to engage students with ideas from texts and from their peers. I'd love to hear about the strategies you use often. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Why our Grading Practices Suck, and What We Can Do About It

I always get excited for class (well, almost always), but I am particularly excited to meet with the pre-service teachers in my assessment course tomorrow. This week, we're exploring widely-used grading practices that just, well, suck. I'm looking forward to hearing about my students' past experiences with grades and engaging in dialogue about ways to improve our broken grading system. I don't have time for a lengthy blog post at the moment, so instead of writing a narrative post, I'm basically going to bullet out my lesson plan for class this week. I hope you'll take the time to explore the resources below, reflect on your own grading practices, and create a plan of action for using grades in less toxic ways. Feel free to adapt any of these ideas below if you're planning to facilitate a conversation about grading with colleagues. 

15 Fixes for Broken Grades

  • One-page overview
  • Agree / Disagree human continuum for each statement
  • Brief discussion around the 15 fixes -- share past experiences (positive/negative... why?)
  • Develop an argument FOR and AGAINST including these factors in grades: student behavior, reduced marks on late work, points for extra credit, reduced marks for cheating, attendance, or group scores. 

Toxic Grading Practices

  • Watch this video by Rick Wormeli (Standards-Based Grading)
    • Pause after each main point to journal and discuss
  • The Dilemma of the Zero
    • Facilitate activity 4.4 from study guide 
    • Discuss the soundness of the teacher's actions. What could the teacher have done differently? Why?
  • Watch this video by Doug Reeves (Toxic Grading Practices)
    • Discuss each toxic practice & alternative suggestions (zero, averages, semester-killer)
  • What's in a "B"?
    • Facilitate activity 2.2 from study guide 
    • Analyze list comparing what grades should tell us vs. what's actually included in grades
    • What things on either list are troubling to you? Why?

One Solution: Standards-Based Grading (SBG)

  • Video introduction to SBG
  • Reflect on article: Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading -- How does SBG compare to your experiences with grading as a student? What makes sense? What doesn't?
  • In groups of 2 or 3, sketch out a sample traditional grade book & a grade book using SBG
    • What's the same? different? Which method best serves the purposes of assessment and grading?
  • Virtual guest speaker to share how and why he uses SBG (David Schouweiler, teacher at Newton-Conover High School). You can view the Google Hangout with Mr. Schouweiler below.

Putting It All Together

  • Work in groups of 3 or 4 to construct a list of ineffective & effective grading practices, based on the readings, videos, and class discussions
    • 3 columns: What not to do | What to do | Why

Exit Ticket: I used to think.... Now I think.... Because....

Reflections from Pre-Service Teachers

I used to think that there was only one way to grade. Now I think that there are other ways and that there are ways to think out of the box, because standards-based grading actually grades the content that the student is learning instead of factoring in other things like tardiness and behavior.
I used to think grading was simple - just check to see if it's right or wrong. Now I think (know) that it is a lot more than that. There are so many things you have to consider because it's more than just right or wrong answers. Teachers should be more conscious when they grade. 
I used to think number grades were the easiest way to go about grading. Now I think standards-based grading is the most meaningful and smartest way to go because I feel like students will be eager to learn more and students will learn more as well.
I used to think grading was a one way thing. Now I don't because we have discussed many types of grading. 
I used to think the grading system didn't show students' true ability. Now I know what I thought is true, based on all the evidence I have learned in this class.
I used to think that percentage grading was the only way to grade. Now I think that teachers are breaking the mold, pioneering out of the norm to reach the students because of Mr. Shoe. It is amazing to see people try to start something new and have it be beneficial.
I used to think the 7-point grading scale was the only / right way to grade. Now I think nobody should use it because it isn't fair or a true representation of a grade.
I used to think grading could only be shown by numbers and percentages. Now I think that there are better ways to convey someone else's knowledge because of looking at standards-based grading. 
I used to think the standard had a just meaning. Now I think that it has no significant effect because a number cannot tell you what you are doing wrong.
I used to think grading was pretty much just like the things we talk about the "wrong ways". Now I think it is not a good representation of a student's knowledge because the "F" region is so harsh between 60 - 0. I've never given much thought into this new way. I really like it.

Other resources:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Giving Students Choice in "Getting to Know You" Activities

Each semester, I try to get to know my students as people first and learners second. One way I get information about them as learners is through a Google Form like this one. Once I gather responses from my students on the first day of class, I can begin to adjust my teaching practices to better meet the needs of the learners in my class.

This semester, I'm teaching a course for pre-service teachers on assessment, research, and decision-making. This is my first time teaching the course, and I always get excited about teaching a new course. I'm certain that I learn more than my students the first time around. In all of my courses, I try to model effective teaching and assessment practices for the future teachers in my classroom. In this assessment course in particular, I will be emphasizing fair and meaningful approaches to assessment and instructional decision-making. For the first class meeting, I'm giving students choice in how they participate in a "getting to know you" activity. I'm fortunate to have an iPad cart to use in class and plan to use it during almost every class meeting. Many of the choices below were designed to give students time to get familiar with the iPads. However, I've also provided some non-tech options for students who would prefer to create something in a different way. I can't wait to see what they create.