ASSESSMENT · blogging · Community · Leading · Literacy · Students · Teacher Leadership · Uncategorized

Raising Voices in Secondary Classrooms

I had five minutes to inspire ELA teachers at Dublin’s Literacy Conference. This is what I said:

I co-teach 9th-grade inclusion English I at Dublin Coffman High School, and I’ve been to NCTE twice now.

There’s a LOT to love about NCTE. 

NCTE’s theme this year in Houston was “Raising Student Voice,” but what I’ve come to learn about the conference in the two years I’ve attended is that the learning transcends so much more than the year’s theme.

I got to attend the First Timer’s Breakfast this year as a table host, which was super exciting. I got to see Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell speak.

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The way Donalyn opened her speech will stick with me forever. She said, “Look around you. This is where you need to be. This is your family. This is your home.”

And she went on to talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are proactive in seeking out their own learning. Her wisdom can undoubtedly apply to today. I always consider Dublin’s Lit Conference to be a mini-NCTE. Look around. We may not know each other, but we are all related because we share common hopes and dreams for our students. So, to me, days like today are as much about professional development as they are about networking.

Donalyn also said this: “Kids need champions, but teachers do, too.”  Ain’t that the truth. We’ve all heard the statistics of teacher retention rates. And I’ll be honest here. Every year, as NCTE and as Dublin’s Literacy Conference approach, I start to hesitate. NCTE is RIGHT before Thanksgiving. I find myself asking do I have time for this? Shouldn’t I be home with my family preparing for the holidays? I’m tired, and I’m busy, and I’m wearing 100 hats, and I don’t feel good… Why do I keep signing myself up to go to these things? And then I go (because I already signed myself up for it), and get this: I NEVER regret it.

I never regret attending NCTE or DLC because of (1) the networking and (2) all the reminders as to why we became English teachers in the first place (like how to raise students’ voice). I don’t know about you, but when I don’t attend or participate in PD, I start to lose focus on what’s really at the heart of my job.

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So, I keep attending these conferences and surrounding myself with the people who also do because these people push me and praise me and help me find and reach my “true north.” This is a term that Kate Roberts used at NCTE. I figured out a few years ago that my “true north” when it comes to reading instruction is choice, and that has been the focus of much of my professional development over the last few years. I decided that in order to be a truly skilled teacher of reading, I better be a reader. I started reading YA books with my students, I worked on perfecting the art of the book talking, and I do all this because I strive to provide choice to insure success for all of my students.

This year, though, I’ve decided to put more focus on my writing instruction, and call me crazy, but I’ve decided that in order to be a truly talented teacher of writing, I need to be a writer.

Falling back in love with reading and identifying as a reader was easy for me. This new journey? Not so much. I’ve never in my life called myself a writer, and I don’t know how long it will take me to identify as one, but I’m trying.

A big part of this journey is a switch that I’ve made in my mind frame.

I used to teach writing with this in mind: “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” I always try to praise a few specific parts of students’ work before providing one or two pointed bits of criticism to show room for improvement.

Then I saw this:

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It stopped me in my tracks. I’m always the critic. I’m always either reading and analyzing student work or reading and analyzing literature, and let’s be honest, it’s a LOT easier to be the giver of criticism than the receiver.

So, if I haven’t made it clear by now: I’m currently mustering the courage to build a writing identity.

A group of educators for Dublin City Schools has taken on this journey together. We’ve started an educational blog, we meet in person monthly, and we try to post weekly.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.57.49 AMFor many of us, this is truly scary work for countless reasons. First and foremost, as someone at NCTE said, “Teachers, on a daily basis, are reminded of their failures.”  It isn’t often that we are reminded of our successes. So, it’s scary to write about the happenings of our classrooms in a public forum that is open to criticism.

Someone else at NCTE said, “Every student has a story. The most dangerous presumption is that they don’t want their voices heard.”

Now that I’ve started to write beside my students, I’m coming to learn that every teacher has a story, too, and the world needs teachers’ voices. I read this on teachthought a few days ago:

“In the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal legislation that guides education policy in this country, the words accountability and assessment are mentioned in some capacity at least 250 times each.

The words teaching and learning? 22 times.

Combined.”

This is scary stuff because we all know words have power. I want you to ask yourself this today:

Who is currently writing the story of what happens inside your classroom? Whose voice is loudest?

In these ways, I’m learning how to raise student voice while simultaneously learning how to raise mine:

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And these are just to name a few. As I continue this journey to becoming a writer, I will share more on how my teaching of writing improves.

If you had five minutes in front of a room of ELA educators, what would you say?

ASSESSMENT · Community

Feeling Safe Enough To Learn

For the past week, my students’ word study has been centered around observing word parts. As part of our work, I’ve been challenging my 7th graders to notice word patterns to help them make sense of the words’ spelling. Yesterday, I wanted to check to see if they could transfer the work we had done into spelling more accurately. As a warm up, I had them number their papers 1-19 and I explained that I would be pronouncing each of the words. Their job was to try to spell at least 10 of them correctly.  

Yep. I gave a spelling test.

They began numbering their papers and then a couple of hands shot up:

Student 1: Is this for a grade?

Me: I haven’t decided yet. Let’s just try it and see how you do.

Student 2: So, even though there are 19 words, all I have to do is spell 10 right?

Me: That’s right!

Student 2: Huh. Okaaaay.

Student 3: Wait, what if I spell one wrong?

Me: It’s ok. All I’m looking for is 10 words spelled correctly. It’s like “flex points”. Which 10 you get right might be different from the 10 someone else gets right. It’s all good. We’re just trying to get better at spelling.

Student 3: What if we spell more than 10 right? Can we have candy?

Me: No, but you WILL have the satisfaction of knowing you learned some new spelling patterns this week! That’s awesome, isn’t it?

Student: Yea, I guess.

Student 4: What if we spell all 19 right? Can we have candy then?

Me: No, I am not prepared with candy today. You’ll have to be happy with internal satisfaction.

Student 5: What if we can think of other words that use the bases we studied? Can we try to spell those too? Can we get extra credit for that?

Me: [stunned to silence]

Wait, What?! They were all over this. Who knew an old-fashioned spelling test would spark this much enthusiasm on a Tuesday morning? I think they sensed that they could do this–especially when there was room built into this assessment for mistakes. That cushion helped them relax and they were excited about showing me all the words they knew how to spell and even try to spell some new words that came to mind.

After all was said and done, I found moderate spelling growth; all but 4 students could spell at least 10 words from our list correctly. More importantly, though, was that I had found a motivational strategy, providing flexibility and ample room for mistakes in assessment.

A Shift In My Mindset

I realize what I did today wasn’t really that profound. For years, many teachers have been offering students the choice in what questions they will answer on assessments. I have done it myself-many times. But I had a mindshift about this practice today. Is offering more choice and flexibility, even in assessment situations, what it is going to take to make this generation of students feel safe enough to learn?

The world is full of dangers and kids today are being raised in a more protective environment than in generations past. Parents are very present in every aspect of their children’s lives: their extracurricular activities, their play time, their decision making, even in their social lives. Good or bad, this is reality. We have raised kids to know “safety first” and we have worked hard in making them feel safe. The problem is, learning is risky–and students know it.

It is clear that my students feel safe asking questions, they feel safe (and somewhat compelled) asking for clarification; they even feel safe asking for help. What they don’t feel safe enough to do is make mistakes. No matter how big or small the task, they crumble at the thought of making a mistake. They feel their safety is jeopardized if they cannot depend on the outcome. I think they feel this way because they don’t know if they can bounce back on their own.

Like with any generational gap, teachers have to figure out how to respond. We know our kids are afraid to fail, and as adults, we work hard to teach “growth mindset”. Still, my students are genuinely afraid. How can I help them feel safe enough to learn? I try to build their confidence. I tell them there is nothing they can’t do or can’t figure out or can’t work toward improving. This is my mantra, but it takes them a long time to really buy what I sell as the truth about learning.

Today, however, was a step in the right direction. My true purpose was to build awareness and confidence with understanding how language works. Aren’t my students’ reactions to the spelling test the epitome of the growth mindset? FINALLY, they weren’t worried about making a mistake. They were feeling confident and wanted to try more.

Happy Birthday, Dear Flex Points!

I could feel a change in the energy when I allowed a cushion for them to make mistakes. Most didn’t need the cushion, but they thought they did. The revelation I had today was that this generation of students might actually NEED this flexibility in order to feel safe enough to learn.

I wish students were less afraid to learn, but until they get there, I need to act in their best interest and provide appropriate scaffolds. That’s what teachers do. I feel like Flex Points might catch on in my classroom. As I get better at differentiating and move closer and closer toward personalizing my students’ learning experiences, I am finding that I can offer quite a bit of choice and flexibility without compromising my assessment of growth or student learning. If I am willing to “flex” how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, they feel more empowered to make mistakes, and ultimately they will learn more.

ASSESSMENT · Goal Setting · Reflection · Students

Alternate Exams: Turning Assessments Into Opportunities

Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.

With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.

The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

We made this decision for many reasons. Very few  English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.

While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:

  • We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
  • We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
  • We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
  • We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
  • “We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
  • We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer  

Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.

For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:

  • To reflect and practice metacognition
  • To revisit old work
  • To set future learning goals
  • To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
  • To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
  • To review why we do what we do in English class  
  • “Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
  • “Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski

Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)

One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”

At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:

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And here are some student responses:

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Surprising Findings:

  • What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
  • What students are most proud of
  • Students fessing up to being lazy
  • Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
  • Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
  • Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
  • Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)

Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?