Student-Led Conferences and Authentic Assessments

Student-led conferences are a growing trend in late-elementary and middle grades, since they have been shown to boost parent response and attendance to conferences and increase student sense of responsibility for their own work.  Using a portfolio of collected work and performance, students follow guidelines that lead a meaningful discussion for all involved.  It also creates a unique opportunity for students to leave the comfort zone of their classroom to communicate with an adult audience.  It creates an opportunity where students must prepare, plan, and present.

These presentations should be a time to showcase the performance of skills and knowledge instead of tests and homework.  Authentic assessment is a showing that the student has taken what she has learned and used it to create something new or to solve a complex problem.  This is what students should be discussing with parents.  And they should discuss the successes as well as the failures.  Sometimes, the failures are even more important and glorious than the successes, since that’s where true learning comes from.

This practice should start to become more standard and not simply trendy.  With the help of classroom technology, it should be easy to adapt student work to eportfolios and LiveBinders, which are magnificent tools for collecting, presenting, and showcasing student work and progress.  The work in setting up the practice is minimal and the rewards and benefits are so very worth it.

What’s better is the idea that student-led conferences pave the way nicely for those end-of-the-year portfolio presentations for grade-level promotion, which we all know should be one way to replace standardized testing!

Check out this resource from to learn how to get started:


Problem-Based Learning


I only taught them the tools. They answered the questions. Imagine what this would look like if technology were available, from the data collection to the presentation?

Mr. Nielsen’s Class

They spelled my name wrong, but the sentiment is there. They told me they drew it because it was the one class they had where everyone got along and worked together. Made me smile!

The Deal with Common Core in Math (and Science and Social Studies)

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) over the past two years; I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and everything in between.  I’m certainly not of the public caliber as many of the most followed, most revered, or the loudest, but I am a serious and growing educator who has been reflecting on this deeply for some time.  So, it’s my turn to weigh in.

Here’s the deal with CCSS in math.  And science.  And social studies.  I will leave the reading discussions for the dedicated reading teachers, since I’m not a reading specialist.  I do consider myself a literacy specialist though, so I will include that discussion here.  I am not yet truly informed on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so I will save that for a later post.

First of all, the Common Core standards are not perfect. But here’s the thing: there will never be a perfect set of standards.  There can’t be.  When the educational system tries to prescribe a list of skills that must be taught at certain levels, the lists will always be a step behind.

It’s easy to understand the concerns of math teachers who know their students will be rising to their classes with some deficiencies.  That’s a struggle that will be overcome.  That’s the optimist in me.  I don’t want to talk about those concerns right now.  If you’d like to read more about the pessimistic side of things, you can do a Google search for “Common Core will destroy America.”  I want to talk about the good stuff (since I sincerely believe that the bad stuff can be overcome with dedication, flexibility, and collaboration).

We are living, growing, teaching, and learning in a new era.  Things change so quickly now that trying to maintain skill standards that will last through the ages is an act in futility.  I do, though, believe that the CCSS is a pioneering model in what could be an evolving set of practices and standards that is easily flexed as the needs of society change.

Here are a few reasons I strongly support the Common Core State Standards Initiative:

First of all, I’m not a certified English-language arts teacher.  I never want to be.  I do proudly consider myself, however, a literacy teacher.  I absolutely love how the CCSS prescribes writing proficiencies to all students in all content areas at all levels.  This is something that I’ve always thought should be done.  Students shouldn’t be doing math all the time; they should be writing about it too!  What’s the point of doing a science lab or investigation if you aren’t going to write about it?  And why in the world would you ever want to give a multiple-choice test in social studies?  Make them write!

Writing is the assessment of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking – the famous 4Cs of P21.  It’s also the path to those skills.  These are the skills of innovation, which is the main focus we should have as educators of any content.  Additionally, writing leads students to slow down and think about what they’re learning, and to reflect on what they understand and on what they need more information.

Additionally, the standards have put into place the benchmarks for college and career readiness.  Speaking, listening, researching, reading, and writing, as well as building inferences, coherent statements, ideas, productions, and models are new structures for educational standards.  They are so important because they ask educators to give our kids skills that will help them evolve with the changing world around them.

Finally, when it comes to math, there are prescribed standards for each level that build on top of each other.  This is nothing new, since it’s basically the way that state standards have always operated.  What I have really focused on are the 8 math practices standards.  This is where we turn consumers into producers.  This is where we lead students to understand mathematics rather than do mathematics.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is not perfect.  It is, however, the best step we’ve taken in a long time toward preparing our students for the global knowledge economy of the 21st century.  We won’t know if we keep using outdated assessments and NCLB.  The CCSS points to a pivot – a point in our country’s history where we begin to understand that we can’t predict the future accurately.  Therefore, we must give our students the tools and skills necessary to grow and change with the world.  We must teach them that content and practice are equally important points of their education, and that being a creative collaborator, critical thinker, and communicator are of the utmost importance.  It’s time we put the tools of the 21st century into the hands of the next generation, so that they may be prepared to lead our country into global competitiveness and growth.  And, equally important, we must give them these skills so they lead productive, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

I Miss Them! Is That Weird?

For the past year, I have been teaching at a school in a  relatively affluent area of town, where there are many honors-level students, an active PTO, and lots of money.  (There’s no money for the school; I’m speaking of the families that send their kids to school there.)  I thought I had reached the pinnacle of public school education.   This is the place teachers want to work and never leave.  This should be the point when a veteran teacher knows he has done his time in the trenches and has reached the Holy Grail.

My students took the end-of-grade summative state tests this past week, and they did great!  My regular math classes reached a 91% pass rate.  If my math classes were their own school, it would be labeled an Honor School of Excellence with that rate.  It was accomplished with a math program that is highly controversial in this area and with a teacher who was new to the city and the school.  I do feel vindicated and I feel accomplished, since there were many eyes on me and the program we used.

So, why am I so unfulfilled?

There is one very important thing that I’m missing: pride.  Considered the worst of Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins, pride is also part of a teacher’s paycheck.  One of the things that keeps us all going is the knowledge that we are making a difference in the lives of kids.  While I do believe I advanced the skills and knowledge of my 51 math students, I don’t really believe I’ve changed any lives for the better or made a deep impact that turned any lives around.

I read every day about the serious shortage of veteran teachers in the country’s most disadvantaged schools.  There’s an internal conflict here for me, because I’m one of those.  I left my old school through no fault of my own, but I still chose where I am today.

This is new to me.  I’ve spent my career before this point teaching in schools with at least 50% free and reduced lunch, and a few that were Title I eligible.  There’s something that happens at those schools when a student succeeds (where failure was seemingly the norm).  They cry and hug, their parents cry and hug, and not just because they’ll miss you.  It’s because you led them to do something they didn’t think was possible.  They left your class motivated to be more than they thought they could be.

They have hope.

I’m talking about the student who only eats when he’s at school.  I’m talking about the student whose mother works until eight at night and can’t cook dinner.  I’m talking about the student whose parents moved from Mexico two years ago so she could have an American education and create a life they never had.  I want to see the tears of pride in those kids’ eyes as their families beam proudly at an 8th grade graduation ceremony.

I miss that.  I want to go back to that.  I want to teach the kids everyone labels as “tough.”  I know how to get their attention, I know how to get them to trust me and each other, and I know how to make them want to learn.  That’s where I come from and where I specialize.  That’s where I’m most happy and most proud.  Even if my students forget my name as they go through life, there will be seeds in their minds that I planted; the seeds of wonder, inquiry, creativity, perseverance, cooperation, and dedication.

I’ve worked very hard over the past two years to turn myself into more of a “specialist” in math and technology.  I’ve spent hours and hours finding the common links and the big picture.  Now, I want to share what I’ve learned with the kids who, statistically, do without more than students with higher socioeconomic statuses.

I’m ready to serve in that capacity again.  I’m always thankful for every opportunity, and I will chalk this one up as a valuable experience.  Now, I’m going to try to get back into my comfort zone–the zone everyone else seems to want out of.  This is my mission.

My Top Ten List

Every time I refresh my page on Facebook or Twitter, there is a new top ten list of essential educational technology resources for teachers.  So, I will get on the bandwagon and post my own.  This is the list of ten essential resources that I will (hope to) have in my classroom next year, so that I can continue in the evolution of 21st century skill building.  This is geared toward middle level math classes; I’ve read tons of articles that relate resources to high school and a few to elementary school.  I also read many posts that seem to be trying to sell me something.

So, here is the list that I created, because everything is free or cheap and it fits in with what’s already in use or available.  Not everything is tech, but everything is 21st century.

1. A central display.  I understand that I will be moving into a new room next year, which will be equipped with a SMART Board.  I’ve already written about my ideas about that, but I’m looking forward to taking my own advice.  This will be the hub of in-class communication and collaboration, but not a standalone instructional device.

2. Student technology.  Students need to have real, helpful tools at their fingertips.  Whether it’s a set of tablets or laptops in the classroom (we’re looking at enough to put three students to an iPad next year) or BYOD, students have to be able to interact with the technology and use it to collaborate with small groups and the class through the aforementioned hub.  The products they use in the classroom should be as close as possible to the real-world tools of science, math, business, and other fields.

Update: We got the word that our technology grant fell through.  No iPads this year.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the leaders of our nation and states decided to fund essential components of public education? 

3. Electronic library.  I have yet to hear a good, solid reason why hardcover textbooks are still being purchased en masse for my math classes.  As you can read in this blog, I’m a strong supporter of discovery programs, like Connected Math, but I’m having a very hard time reconciling the use of such a powerful tool with the fact it isn’t electronic and interactive.  It also should not be the only resource to which we turn to guide our students.  Included in the student technology, students should be able to access a large resource library and learn the skills to use it.

4.  Learning management system.  My colleagues love Edmodo.  I love Schoology.  Either way, students need a way that they can interact and learn from each other outside of the classroom.  The main implication I’m looking forward to is accountability.  Properly executed and run, it makes every one responsible for taking part in the discussion.  It also makes practice and homework easier on the teacher and the students.  I plan to put lots of individual assessments and assignments on Schoology next year in order to free up more class time for investigations, analysis, and problem-solving.

5. Ongoing training. Sounds like I’m trying to run a business here, but maybe that’s because I am–in a way.  My students need ongoing training in things like study skills, collaboration, writing, presentation, public speaking, problem-based learning, higher-level questioning, literacy, and digital citizenship (locally and globally).  Every new teacher must read Dr. Harry Wong’s famous book, but veteran teachers should go through it every year, also.  And not just for the “First Days of School,” but for the entire year.

6. An effective curriculum. It’s already well known that I’m a proponent of the Connected Mathematics Project.  I think the developers and researchers out of Michigan State University deserve trophies for bringing this style of teaching and learning math to the mainstream (and Pearson deserves a big, juicy raspberry for turning it into a profit machine).  Connected Math is not perfectly aligned to the Common Core State Standards–yet.  But it is the best I’ve seen so far.  However, it is not self-contained and teacher-leaders and district curriculum specialists have to work diligently to make sure that new and unprepared teachers become fluent and practiced in teaching the new standards.  If it’s not CMP, then it needs to be something strongly student-centered, project-based, and led by the CCSS math practices.

7. The ability to group my students.  Tables would be nice, but I’ll work with (*shudder*) desks.  I’ve called them research teams in the past, and I think that’s still a good name for them.  After all, they aren’t just solving math problems together, they are researching and testing the tools and practices need to complete complex tasks.

8. ePortfolios.  There is an increasing pressure to keep and use student work as evidence of progressing in and reaching teacher standards.  I hope to go one step further, by getting students to keep their work in digital portfolios.  Not only does this serve to uphold my evidence side off the teacher evaluations, it also allows for deeper self-reflection and self-evaluation for my students.  This part of next year’s preparation is a work in progress, since I have not yet found the perfect place.  Evernote?  Three Ring (not real impressed by this one)?  Still looking.

9. A PLC that is open to moving in a more 21st century direction.  The nice thing is, I think most of my colleagues are there already.  But I really hope we can start to embrace the Common Core for what it represents: higher-level thinking and deeper understanding.  Let’s get rid of multiple-choice tests and frontloaded algorithms and start getting into the habit of making our kids think, discover, and synthesize.

10. A fresh outlook.  This summer, I plan to read Dr. Tony Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators.  His last book gave me the gusto to move ahead knowing that I need to help my students be ready to compete in a global society.  Now, I hope to move them forward with the skill necessary to do just that–innovation!  I want my students to move away from the way I was taught math (rote memorization and skills practice) and start moving in the direction of new ideas and novel synthesis of problem-solving methods and tools.

That’s it, so far.  I have a lot of work to do!

A Middle School Math Teacher’s Most Important Job, Part II

Digital Citizenship

21st century students are digital citizens.  One of the problems I’ve always had is finding a systematic method to follow that will help me train my students during the first weeks of school (and throughout the year) to be respectful, helpful, and productive classroom citizens.  I have done a pretty good job of pushing the character traits and allowing my students to help me come up with meaningful classroom rules, but it never seems to be enough.

Next year, I will slate two weeks to making sure that my students are comfortable with my expectations of them as not only classroom citizens, but also global digital citizens.  Common Sense Media offers a free curriculum for middle-grades teachers that seems pretty good.  It’s definitely comprehensive and includes all the media a teacher might need.  It does, however, tend to lean toward the younger demographic at times (grades 5 and 6, perhaps), but it doesn’t seem difficult to tweak it just enough to bring it to 7th or 8th grade level.

In addition to staying safe and secure and treating people right online and in real life, it offers an introduction to efficient searching and source evaluation.  Add this to the library of resources, and follow me as a I put it through its trial run in mid-August!

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