Here’s to the New Year! (A Little Planning Break)


I’ve been spending so much time keeping up with reform talk, political issues, writing a book, and watching my amazing grandson grow that I almost lost track of the time!  It’s already July 19, which means that I will be officially reporting for duties in less than a month and will be setting up a brand new classroom in two weeks.  If you’re new here, you may not have heard that I just transferred from one district in North Carolina to a neighboring district.  Now I work in the district in which I live and where my daughter goes to school.  Good move.  But that’s not all.

Go Eagles!

The best part is that I’ve moved from a huge district that is experiencing some pretty wild growing pains and is going to be adjusting to a new superintendent after not having one for a whole year.  Technology is scattered at best and teachers are having a very hard time adjusting to the increasing amounts of testing that the district is subscribing to.

My new district is considerably smaller, more closely knit, and is in its third year of 1:1 technology implementation.  I’ve spent the past two years planning (dreaming?) of how I would use 1:1, but was always missing one thing: the technology.  This year, it’s coming to fruition and I’m just a little overjoyed about it!  My building administrators are the courageous types that believe that teachers know best how to teach, and will take the risks associated with letting teachers take risks.  It only makes sense–when you roll out a new initiative like 1:1, there’s plenty of PD that can be done (and this district does deliver), but the rest is up to the creative and innovative teaching in the classrooms.

Only one more statement about the comparison between the two districts: the change is refreshing.  It’s like walking out of a dark, smoky room into a wide-open, sunny field.  I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, I love science!  I’m a die-hard STEM teacher who truly believes that our next generation must be scientifically and mathematically literate.  (Don’t worry, ELA and SS teachers, that totally means that they should be able to communicate legibly and deeply in the English language, and that global understanding of history and culture are very important.)  I also love project-based learning, inquiry and discovery, and creativity and innovation.  I’ve taken the buzzwords of the past five years and made them my passion.

So, again, wow!  What a great year this is gearing up to be!  I can’t wait to share my ideas, my successes, my trials, my mistakes, and my reflections.


P.S. Seriously, if you aren’t blogging right now, get started!  This feels great!


You Talk Too Much (A Lesson in Tact)

In the classroom, we tend to take over the pace, the goal, and every little piece of the lesson—we planned it and we want it to go exactly as planned.  Again, that’s how we were trained.  My last school took part in a video pilot program, where we voluntarily collected videos of our lessons and used them to open discussions in PLC meetings.  This is the sort of thing I discuss in the preface of the book I’m writing, which takes an incredible amount of trust and courage—and an immense understanding of the concept of constructive criticism, and a willingness to accept it.

We watched a video of a teacher (who was in the meeting at the time) who had taught a well-planned and well-aligned lesson.  Blocks were about 80 minutes long, so to save time, we watched the lesson launch, the middle portion, and then the wrap-up.  When it was over, she asked for feedback; and she wanted honest feedback only, since she recorded her class in order to better her teaching.  I volunteered some constructive criticism, perhaps too quickly: “The short version is, you talk too much.”

She asked what I meant.


I answered, “There’s too much teacher talking.  I only heard a few kids answer low-level questions,” followed by a smile as charming as I could muster.  She wasn’t amused.  (In her defense, there hadn’t been any trust built into our professional environment. More on that later.)

The point I had made was that the students spent 70 minutes listening to their incredibly smart teacher explain things, let them work in groups, and then take over again, several times.  That’s exactly the way we were taught to do this job in teacher school, remember?  The problem is it’s not working.  Even in the low-quality video, you could see student after student disengaging and finding something more interesting to think or talk about.  You can almost hear the voices in their heads: “Well, she’s got this.  She doesn’t need me anymore.”

I could’ve been more tactful, I suppose.  My sense of humor(?) isn’t always appreciated.

Anyway, I defer to this blog article that says it way better than I can:


They Need Us to Prepare Them

This last section is a little different from the others, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the previous sections are nothing particularly new, but maybe have the need to be REnewed.  This last section, though, is at the heart of what this book is intended for: thinking about our preparation for the unknown and mostly unpredictable movement into the 21st century.  The second reason is that our students can tell you that they expect their teachers to perform the other sections as part of their jobs.  Most students, however, have no idea what’s in store for them in the next ten years, so it will be our place to make sure they are prepared.  This part, unfortunately, is not going to be simple, everyday teaching.  Fortunately, as I’ve said before, we will not be doing it alone.

We’ve heard it over and over again: our current curricula and methods are mirrored closely to those that were created to educate a 19th century agrarian society; and we have only seen major changes to fit a 20th century industrial society.  It’s true!  Nothing much has changed since then, but we can’t say that things flat lined over that time period.  There were some times when truly revolutionary practices and designs were put into play and things looked totally different in classrooms.  Those revolutionary educators—and those before them—tend to suggest that the climate of standardized testing and the accountability measures that come with it are suffocating the creativity of students and the innovation of teachers.  There are still many teachers who are moving their classes in new directions using their creativity, innovation, and the collaboration with people they work with to create truly effective practices.  The problem is that we all aren’t doing this and, seriously, we all need to be doing this.

It’s very difficult to predict what the world will look like 20, 30, or 100 years from now.  We can look backwards at the changes that have happened over the past 20 years and realize that the next 20 will be very different.  That means using a 19th century model of teaching would be the most harmful thing that we can collectively do at this point.  The old model attempted to move kids from one prescribed level to the next with the necessary skills that were deemed appropriate.  We’re still doing this; we call the program of the decade the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS).

The architects of the CCSS tout the standards as being revolutionary in preparing students for the workforce of the future.  I think parts of the CCSS are very good, using the literacy standards across content areas as an example.  Using the math standards as another example, I think we’re seeing more of what didn’t work previously—one-size-fits-all knowledge and skills standards, building on top of each other, with very little idea of how they are useful in the future lives of our students.  Even worse, they have opened the floodgates for a slew of new testing methods and scenarios.  In a climate where student testing has become problematically often and intense, this is the last thing we need to be striving for.

Look at the math standards for K-8: The ultimate goal of reaching calculus in high school is still present, with an emphasis on Algebra I in 8th grade.  All of this was pretty important during the middle of the 20th century, since we had to have lots of scientists with solid math and science backgrounds to build rockets, probes, and weapons during the Cold War, using little more than slide rules and program-on-the-fly computers.

It’s still important to have scientists, but now, in the 21st century, it’s much more important to have a literate society—and more importantly, a mathematically and scientifically literate society.  Therein lays the difference between then and now: The current model (based on the 20th century) seeks to prepare walking libraries of scientific knowledge, facts, vocabulary, and formulas so they can solve problems on the spot using their brains; the next model we use needs to prepare students to find and understand many types of information, analyze statistical data, work collaboratively to achieve a desired result, and communicate that result across a global audience.

In the 20th century, we had the luxury of guessing what our students would (or could) be when they grew up.  Now, we have no idea.  That’s because a growing number of jobs that our kids may hold don’t yet exist.  Tell that little snippet to a room of 8th or 9th graders.  You will hear an audible gasp and lots of looks of confusion.  What they’re thinking is, “then how will I know what to do to get ready?”  Tell that snippet to a group of veteran teachers, and I hope you hear the same thing.  Unfortunately, there is no real consensus, with one side saying, “More skills, more homework, more practice!” and the other side saying, “More technology, more inquiry, more critical thinking!”  There is, of course, a majority in the middle ground saying, “Both, but how?”

Right now, there is a movement happening from state to state to reduce the weight of standardized tests on school performance and student achievement measures.  Over a dozen states have opted-out from the NCLB requirements as of this writing, and several more have applied to be opted out.  But, when you read about the victory of opting out, you also see something else: just because those states are free of NCLB, doesn’t mean they’re all now moving in a totally new direction.  In fact, the Department of Education is allowing these waivers with the understanding that the states will be able to show the exact same data using different measures.  We are breaking free of NCLB in order to be trapped again by Race to the Top (RttT).  Different name; same beast.

Our students need us, the teachers and principals, to prepare them for their futures (and the future of their country as a continued player in the global economy).  The politics at the national and state levels are not going to do it.  The boards of education are not going to do it.  The president and his education secretary are not going to do it.  The for-profit test development companies are certainly not going to do it.  This is our job.  We need to speak and advocate for these kids and prepare them for their real futures.  And we must do it together.

They Need Us to Remember Why We’re Here

The following post is actually the introduction to the first chapter of my project, so it is a little shorter.  But, I feel that it belongs in this series and lends weight to the other posts.  The final post in the series, “They Need Us to Prepare Them,” will come along soon.

Let’s go back in time a little bit, to when we were all brand new teachers.  (If you are a brand new teacher, or a pre-service teacher, this applies to you as well.)  When we started, when we graduated and walked into this journey fresh and ready to use our skills, there was one thing on our minds: making a difference.  Those three words may have meant many different things for many different teachers, but the sentiment was the same: we wanted to make a difference in the lives of our students.  That passion will never die because it’s what we all believe in.  But how many times does a teacher now get sidetracked from that mission to make time for meeting deadlines, keeping up with district mandates, learning new standards, and making sure that her students are geared up, practiced, and in solid form for the upcoming high-stakes state assessments?  How does this prepare our students for their futures and, more importantly, how is this making a difference in our students’ lives?

Our students need us to be leaders and advocates for their futures.  This sounds automatic and relatively easy, but anyone who’s spent any amount of time in the job knows that there are challenges today that never existed before.  These challenges seriously impact the way our students learn and the way that the future will be laid in front of them.  They need us to do what we do best.  These challenges have also changed the way we need to teach in order to help them make the most of their potential.  This is going to take commitment and courage and dedication and hard work.  Most importantly, we have to do this together and we have to do it now.

The main driving force in education these days—other than politics—is data.  In order for any movement or program to gain attention, we have to be able to show that what we’re doing is working.  When we know something is working, it’s one thing to brag about it, but the power comes from being able to show it.  If we are to be the force behind true middle school reform, we have to be ready to show that what we’re doing is helping our students achieve, perform, and master.  That doesn’t always have to involve cold, hard, numerical data either.  In fact, several teachers will attest to the idea that the qualitative data is better than the quantitative.

Paradoxically, it’s been shown by brave educators all over the country (both qualitatively and quantitatively) that “opting-out” of the types of instruction that are prescribed by their districts to pass standardized tests eventually leads to successful performance on those tests.  In other words, putting the end-of-year tests out of mind and out of the playbook for the year will end up resulting in acceptable performances on those tests anyway, and has the added benefit of leading to real learning, engagement, and achievement in our students.

So, maybe we can start by simply forgetting that high-stakes assessments even exist.  Period.

Then, we can start making that difference that we all signed up for.

Where Do We Put the Middle?

In 1909, the first American junior high schools—grades 7and 8—opened in Columbus, Ohio, with the idea that there needed to exist a transition period between elementary schools and the college-prep years, known as high school.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The junior high model spread rapidly, with the intention of preparing students for the more complex world of high school by offering dedicated core classes, standalone electives, and sports.  By 1950, it was becoming widely accepted that students who were entering 6th grade needed to be removed from the confining curriculum and basic social structure of the elementary school as well and into a more “adult” structure.  In Bay City, Michigan, the first middle school opened and welcomed grades 6 through 8, a model that also spread quickly.  By the 1980s, almost every public middle-level institution was either a junior high school (7-9) or a middle school (6-8).

So, enough of the history lesson; let’s get to the new stuff.  There hasn’t been very much scientific research done on our nation’s schools that leads to data to compare the models.  The research that has been done is snapshot and leads to the assumptions that the 6-8 model is actually not very effective compared to the K-8 or the very few 7-12 modeled schools.  Unfortunately, much of the data from these studies is heavily weighted by standardized test scores, so take that as you may.  What I want to talk about is developmental readiness and where the middle fits in.  The rest is up to the serious discussions that must happen in a community of educators, parents, students, and leaders to determine what’s best.

Proponents of the K-8 model point to behavior as the biggest benefit of their school structures.  It is suggested that the presence of younger children keeps preadolescents “in check” and less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior, since they are basically serving in a role-model capacity.  This is an interesting and hopeful notion, but the evidence to support it is scant.  As any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t always mean causation, and not all K-8 schools report these correlations.

Others report that keeping young adolescents in the same building with the same “nurturing” environment keeps them grounded and less likely to become anxious about the big changes that come with starting middle school, which means more independence, more teachers, more homework, and the adjustment of a new system with new rules and expectations.  The evidence to support this argument is certainly anecdotal and, again, spread thin.

Critics of the K-8 model will generally refute the points I’ve listed above, using the arguments I’ve listed above, and I will list a few more reasons I’ve heard in a moment.  The K-8 school inherently teaches and treats these young teenagers as though they are, as Rick Wormelli puts it, “slightly more complex primary students,” which they are not.  The 7-12 model suggests that middle school students are “immature high school students,” where perhaps the upper grades peers will lead them by example (which, in my high school, may not have been a good thing).

What do you think?  Does your school incorporate a non-traditional model that is working (or not working)?  Does the middle school model work the way it is now?

They Need Us to Inspire Them

I heard it again from a very passionate pre-service middle school teacher the other day: “I love history!  I can’t wait to share my passion with my students!”  This is a great attitude for a new teacher to have when being prepared to enter this challenging profession and it’s nice to see teachers model their passion and their own love of learning.  I had the same feelings about math and science.  My eyes were opened to the wonder and I couldn’t wait to open my students’ eyes!

I heard this exact line in early 2005 from one of my classmates in college.  She was a history buff who loved reading period literature and, even back then, was blogging about the things she’d learned or loved (did we call it blogging back then?).  Her mock lessons were fascinating and eye-opening and her facial expressions while presenting them were almost enough to keep an audience on its toes.  Two years after we graduated, I saw her at a district professional development session and almost didn’t recognize her.  The smile was gone, the passion was waning, and the surety of sharing her expertise was wilted to nothing.  It became apparent that her dream had not coalesced and the last I heard she had returned to college to pursue higher education in order to teach at the college level.

The problem was that the passion that she felt and the excitement that her colleagues showed weren’t applicable, and certainly less transferable, to middle school students.  It’s not her fault, but it happens very often.  “Why don’t they care?” is a pretty common question/complaint from teachers, both young and old, new and veteran.  The answer is pretty simple: despite the giddiness that adults feel when approached with such knowledge and discovery, we have not given these kids a reason to care.  I know that seems harsh and almost insulting to our craft and our love of our subjects, but it’s the simple, honest truth.  Our students are not automatically tuned in to the pleasure of learning or the passion of innovation.  It’s part of our job to lead them to it.

My coworker designed beautifully crafted lectures that were loaded with showmanship and excitement.  Strike one.  She also created assessments that were perfectly aligned to standards and let them use the notes from those lectures to answer the mostly-short-answer questions.  Strike two.  Finally, she crafted a final project where students were asked to pick the most interesting time period that they had studied, write a report about what might be considered pop culture at the time, and design a period costume.  Strike out!

Here’s why I’m being so strike-happy with my poor colleague: every one of those things are either fun for adults or fun for adults to watch and brag about.  However, her students complained about all of it, all the time.

Another, more modern example comes from a colleague whose students loved his teaching style.  He was passionate about science, loved to interact with middle school kids, gave them to freedom to find things out through inquiry and investigation, and used performance assessments to gauge competency and proficiency.  It was everyone’s favorite class.  Then came the arrival of the SMART Board.

It was exciting to get such an awe-inspiring and hyped piece of new century technology installed in their classroom, even the students were sharing stories about what they’d seen in other rooms and what the possibilities might be.  The energy was palpable.  Two weeks later, that energy was gone.  I have spent some time on this story here, where I discuss the promises and punishments of technology in the classroom.  The ending isn’t a happy one, however, and ends with the teacher frustrated that his students lost interest in his class so easily.

The first post of this series, “They Need Us to Understand Them,” is the prerequisite to the ability to inspire.  Rarely does a new teacher walk into a classroom, just start teaching, and hold the attention and inspire the hard work and dedication from a class of preadolescents for an entire school year.  Personally, I’ve never met one of those mythical educators.  If you are one of them, please contact me.  Otherwise, I hope that the remaining chapters of the book I’m working on and the ideas within lead to some meaningful reflection and collaboration among colleagues and students to learn how to inspire and motivate our kids.

They Need Us to Encourage Them

The most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had over the years were when a few students who had achieved so highly and proudly all year were deflated after receiving their lower-than-expected scores on end-of-year standardized tests.  Why do we allow this?  Imagine being the student who has been engaged, productive, motivated, and proud for an entire year, only to be downgraded by a percentile and a scale score.

Encouragement is a powerful instrument in an educator’s toolkit.  It doesn’t always have to be praise and pats on the back; in fact, the most effective encouragement is usually of the “try one more time” variety. This means giving students meaningful feedback from which they can grow and continue to learn.  Percentages on tests and averages in class provide neither meaningful feedback nor encouragement—they deliver little more than a final message.  Either you passed or you failed.

One old approach to providing better feedback is the rubric, which any teacher who uses McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (UbD) knows how to use and has used many times.  Starting with the end goal in mind is relatively easy when a rubric for the end goal is created.  This practice is a pragmatic way for teachers to make sure that learning is happening and that the objectives of the unit are met.  Many teachers claim success with this format of instructional design.  But there is one major problem—not with the tool itself, but with the practice.

Too many educators who use UbD as their primary design tool inadvertently trap themselves into using the rubric as the means to assess students in a summative approach (we were trained this way, right?).  In other words, no matter how hard the student worked or how well she showed progress and achievement during the unit, the summative use of the rubric becomes the end measure of her work.  Instead of finalizing the grade for the unit, the rubric should be used as a platform for improvement; it should be the basis for the teacher’s feedback to the student and the basis for the student’s improvement of her work.  A rubric should never be used as a tool to offer a final grade without first providing feedback and an opportunity to revise.

Failure has been compared historically to success as its opposite—when you fail, you have not succeeded, and that’s that.  Apparently, Gene Kranz never actually said, “failure is not an option” when Apollo 13 was in trouble, but the phrase has been adopted as part of an anti-education buzz lately.  The trend among social educator networks is that failure should not only be an option, but even a requirement, since the perseverance to rebound from failure leads to strong achievement.  I believe that this trend has its merits, and students should never throw their hands in the air and say, “Screw it! I failed!”

Let’s make sure that our students are trained to recognize failure as the prompt to try again, to try a little harder, and to revise the work in which they did not show proficiency.  Perhaps we should remove the words “fail,” “failure,” and “failed” from the classroom lexicon altogether.  Try replacing these with terms like, “emerging,” “getting there,” and “needs revision.”  We should tell students that failure is not an option, because we will expect them to keep trying until the failure lends itself to success.

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