Why I Teach

Before Thanksgiving break, I gave my classes a short evaluation. It was totally anonymous and they were asked about things they liked, things they disliked, and things they would change. To be totally honest, reading the responses was both easy and difficult. Some were good and gave constructive criticism on how to address issues I knew existed. On the other hand, some made (personal?) attacks on my classes and my style of teaching. I know the flipped class is different than any other class, so I didn’t expect glowing evaluations from the kids because it has been a hard year for many of them.

Anyways, I’m not one to commiserate an evaluation, so I addressed issues today in class and apologized for my shortcomings and promised to try to do better for the end of the semester. I found this note from a learner on my desk after school:

Don’t blame yourself for our mistakes. You are making tasks as simple as possible. You are a really good teacher and a lot of students take advantage, I know becuz even I do it. I’m sorry.

*Take Pride*

The person that wrote this is not the one I would have picked to offer an encouraging note to their hardest teacher. Notes like this remind me not to take for granted the impact, positive or negative, I have in a child’s life.

I don’t find my meaning in affirming notes, but they sure do help me remember not to miss the bigger lessons.

The Greatest Struggle, Part II

I’m trying to capture the small moments each day with short posts. I feel like I glaze over these moments too quickly and I lose out on one of the joys of teaching.

Today, I had a chance to work with a couple of girls really struggling with a concept. I rephrased, remediated, and gave new examples. The frustration was tangible and you could tell they were thinking harder than they’d been asked to in a while.

Then, it broke. The light bulbs went on and the got it. And I mean they got it.

Meaning gets lost in quick answers. I could have easily just told them what to do step-by-step, but at what cost? It is painful to watch and our instincts as teachers tell us to swoop in and save the day. Let the kids struggle sometimes. It’s worth the pain.

The Hidden Message

I had an interesting conversation with our pre-service teacher this morning concerning a make up quiz she had given to her chemistry class. In short, the learner used “ammonia” for her answer to the prompt “NH3.” In chemistry, this is perfectly acceptable as “ammonia” is used regularly, even though it is a common term for a substance. It is widely recognized and the learner demonstrated her knowledge.

The teacher was not planning on giving credit for the answer because it “was a lucky guess.” I asked this teacher if she gave instructions not to use common names or other synonyms, and she said no. This, of course, led to a discussion about what we’re really trying to assess in classes.

Are we asking kids to take in and repeat a specific response? Or are we asking kids to demonstrate their knowledge? If we are pushing for freedom in learning, there should there be freedom in demonstration. Changes in a system cannot be isolated from one another. We cannot expect kids to think freely and creatively when learning the content and then try to stifle the creativity or independent thinking when it comes to assessment.

I don’t know if she’ll take my advice or even think about what I was trying to get across. Everything we do sends a message to learners, parents, and other teachers. Think about the message you are sending in everything you do and continue to work hard for a better system.

All or Nothing

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I think to be a teacher, you have to be. If I didn’t have the ability to look on the bright side, I wouldn’t want to go back the next day. Part of that is because of the stories I see and hear each day. Some of my kids go through heartbreak and deal with bigger issues than I’ve ever had to. I do my best each day to give wisdom and good advice and I try to encourage and build as much as I can. Another reason to be optimistic is to combat the fear of failure. And I fail. A lot. But, I recognize that I fail a lot because I try new things. A lot.

I’m always looking for new ways to do things in my classes. I’m never satisfied with what we were able to do…I want something to go more smoothly, to wrap up nice and neat. But, whenever you’re working with other people, especially young people, perfection rarely happens. In fact, I’m not sure I think it should ever happen. There should always be a loose end that drives learners to want to know more than what you gave a taste of. We are, after all, trying to spark curiosity and a desire to learn more.

When we hear about new ways to do things, we tend to look at barriers. It’s in our nature. What can go wrong? How can we avoid failure? How can we prevent x or y from happening? That’s good planning and it is good to exercise prudence. But, when you’re at the front of any group, physically or metaphorically, there is risk involved. We may be planners, but we’re not prophets…we cannot see the outcomes of our risks. We can only effect change as much as we’re willing to put into taking a risk.

Is risk inherent in the changes we’re trying to make? For example, is a change in methodology or practice risky because of the pedagogical change? In some cases, yes. I am not going to start letting my chemistry learners play with flame and gas to learn about the rapid expansion of hot gases. There is inherent risk in that change because of burns, property damage, etc.

What kinds of changes are we afraid to make because of the change in school culture that would be required? It is risky enough to change a small piece and the risk factor increases as it begins to challenge the culture more directly. You will be an outlier, but that is the risk that is appropriate when trying to change an established system.

Schools are cultural hubs and to change education, we need to change the culture of schools. Every day, we bring in millions of young people that will be changing the world before we know it. Are we teaching and demonstrating willingness to take risks? Are we embracing and learning from those risks? Far too often, we are discouraging and even punishing risky learning behavior.

I am not a master of risk-taking. I probably won’t ever go skydiving or learn to wrangle alligators. But, I am willing to dive in and try new things. Sometimes, the experiments and changes are a spectacular failure. Other times, they are spectacular successes. Either way, we learn together from the outcomes. But it takes a willingness to accept either outcome.

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This post stems partially from meeting Stephen Harris, principal of the Sydney Center for Innovation in Learning in Sydney, Australia. Also, from following the Anastasis Academy in Lone Tree, CO, outside of Denver. Both of these schools pushed for change in the face of great failure and have become two of the best examples of learning done right. Thank you.

Culture of Change

A few weeks ago, I came to Twitter lamenting the abysmal grades from a quiz I had given. You’d think I had learned my lesson at that point…well, I didn’t. I gave another quiz today and I didn’t even finish grading the stack of papers. That got me thinking about what I’m really running into problems with.

Having spent significant time overseas, I feel like I have a better appreciation of culture now that I’m back in the United States. I also see the American school culture through a new lens. I am convinced American schools have not only trained kids not to think, but also to resist thinking as much as they can by the time they graduate. I would even go so far as to label it as one of the greatest failures of this nation. Our schools are not set up [allowed] to foster true independent thought. I am having such a hard time teaching this year because I am asking every one of my learners to un-learn the previous eight to ten years of their lives. That’s a lot of un-learning that needs to happen.

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I had a discussion with my Honors Biology classes today. Many of them are frustrated because they continue to struggle in the course. To be fair, I do ask a lot of my honors classes. But, these are also highly-motivated learners that need to be pushed. Many of my learners feel that my quizzes are unfair because they don’t look like what we studied or the worksheet we did in class to start learning the content.

This is question two from the quiz I gave today:

There are several organelles that are involved in the packaging and movement of proteins through the cell. Name two or three and defend your choices.

Again, my ultimate goal is to turn these learners into independent thinkers.

* * *

I read a post during lunch today by Becky Bair called Baby Steps: Growing Self-Directed Learners, and I am very grateful for whoever tweeted it out. It spoke to my problems and frustration and I was reminded that I am not the only one facing this fight right now.

Culture is partially defined by the “scholarly ambitions” of a group of people. Right now, the American culture of education is not in a good place. There is a cultural battle over a variety of changes and interests. We must remember that amidst all of the debates and policies, we spend every day with the most important part of a school: the learners.

Our responsibility is not to the test. It isn’t to the principal, the superintendent, or even Congress. Our responsibility is to the learners that come through our doors and to the communities we work in. Our responsibility is to change the culture from one of making the grade to one that centers on creativity, innovation, and novelty.

* * *

This is my 75th post and I want to sincerely thank each member of my PLN for the encouragement and advice you have shared with me. I can truly say that if I wasn’t connected to such an amazing group of educators and advocates of education, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am. I feel blessed to be a part of a culture of change in the schools.

Save Our Schools

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending EdCamp: Grand Rapids hosted by the extraordinary Ron Houtman. About 100 educators from all over Michigan (and a couple from Indiana) came together to talk about current education practice, major shifts in policy, and pretty much anything else under the sun.

At the conference I had the chance to listen to Ira Socol lead a discussion on his views of technology in schools today. While Ira and I don’t agree very much on some ideas about technology, we both agree that technology should not be implemented in blanket fashion across the board.

I tweeted this during the session:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/bennettscience/status/132804061748662273″]

I rarely include my own tweets in my blog posts, but I’ve really been thinking about this a lot since Saturday.

Ira is 100% correct in the fact that schools should not be spending thousands of dollars on blanket technology integration plans if there is no meaningful technology training plan that comes with it. School leaders are investing in technology to save their schools rather than investing in a competent, professional, highly-supported and highly-trained staff to implement the use technology effectively. I think the most egregious example of this is the rise [and fall] of interactive white boards. With tablet availability and handheld power in each of our learner’s hands, what is happening with these boards that are supposed to revolutionize our teaching? Nothing. They hang on the wall as the world’s most expensive piece of whitespace.

The problem isn’t with the technology. Technology is a thing…it can’t help or save a school. For that matter, it can’t make a school fail. What it can do is give teachers a chance to do something better than they used to. But, in order for that to happen, the leaders in our school systems have to recognize that meaningful and innovative use of technology only comes with the proper professional development and investment in staff learning resources.

I am not the first person to write about this, nor will I be the last. But, as we move into a more technological society and a more polarized society over education, we as teachers and administrators must recognize that an investment in technology only has supplemental value. The innovation that technology is so often heralded for for is already in the building, waiting for its investment.

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You can read more of Ira’s thoughts and research on his blog, SpeEd Change

Grades Revisited

I spent some time this afternoon updating my grade book. Like most of us, grading is my least favorite part of teaching and I have a nasty habit of putting it off for longer than I should. I end up having marathon grading stints after school and it usually seems to coincide with other things I would rather be doing.

Anyways, I was putting grades into the book and I began thinking about what I’m going to call “count down” grading and “count up” grading. Very technical.

Currently, my grading is quasi-standards based, where learners are rated on a one to four scale for each learning objective based on an evaluation of some sort. Each person starts with a zero, for no experience, and can progress at any time to a four, which is a class expert. If they are at a level four, they know that they can be called upon to tutor small groups and teach others. It works really well and I have reliable people to help foster collaboration in the class. Learners have told me that it is encouraging to work this way because they can see their learning increasing through the chapter (or quarter, etc) as they gain new skills. This is “count up.”

That all sounds great, but the grade book can cause some concerns for people that aren’t familiar with the system. Until the learner attempts the concept, they are a zero. As a zero, they are not being punished for incompletion or missing work. It is simply a place holder until something is put in there. It helps them keep track of where they are and what they need to be working on. At times, though, there are mild panic attacks because of the number that is associated with their names.

I began thinking about some other books I’ve seen, where learners all begin with full credit (the proverbial “clean sheet”) and are then whittled down over time through testing, homework, or whatever other assignments are put in. I haven’t used a system like this, but I have known teachers that make sure everyone starts at 100% and then works down by artificially setting the grades at the start of each new quarter. This is “count down” grading.

I know this narrative is painfully biased, but I think it is an important questions for practicing teachers to ask themselves (constant evaluation and adaptation) as well as for teachers in training to ponder before they hit the class. Are you using grades to show the learning process? Or are grades simply an average of scores through the year?

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On a side note, I would abolish grades if I could, but that’s not the system we live in. Until that day comes, I’ll do the best I can.