Amplifying Minds

Learning and Growing Together

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Mindsets and Expectations

I think most teachers go into each new school year with high expectations for a new beginning, to try new strategies, and to work anew to be a better teacher.  I believe students go into new school years with enthusiasm for a new beginning as well. The excitement, especially in an elementary school, is palpable– at least for the first few days.

I always have the expectation that this year will be the year I can keep control of the piles on my desk and not let them run away willy-nilly so that I only have enough room on my desk to open my laptop each day.  I expect that I will manage to control those piles, but so far I have not lived up to those expectations.

But mindsets and expectations are so often communicated subliminally…and I’ve begun wondering what all the pre-assessment we do at the beginning of the year communicates.

Recently we gave a pre-assessment in one of our grades, and the test was simply a released state test, usually given at the end of the year to see if kids learned the mandated curriculum.  The reason we give this is to find out which kids know a lot of the curriculum already so we can do an initial sorting of kids for instructional groupings.  It’s not a test we use for remediation, but instead for a kind of acceleration–sorting out the “high achievers” so they can go faster through and further than the mandated curriculum.

Why aren’t we using different kinds of assessments to find out what kids know? We talk about how the state multiple choice tests aren’t the best way to assess….so why use it here? This one was already created and easy is why–and there are times we just do that, for sanity’s sake, to save a bit of time, or to get a quick sort.

We tell the kids that this test is to see how much they already know of what we are supposed to teach them–so they will likely encounter things they have never seen or heard of before and if they truly have no idea, just to skip the question. As the gifted resource teacher, I was given  the kids who were identified, who had worked in math groups with me before, or who were new and records indicated they might be high achievers. I also asked my kids to note the numbers of the questions they made educated guesses on and which they just plain guessed, if they chose to answer one they really didn’t know.

Of course the kids who know how to play school tried to answer every question. Despite us teachers telling them it was okay to skip, not one of my kids skipped a question–and they had several “guesses” noted. So, I would bet their scores were a bit inflated by the fact they guessed–and probably are good test takers to begin with. In another room, though, there were kids who skipped more questions than they answered–and their scores were some of the lowest of the group.  So what does that tell us other than perhaps they give up easily?

Now we’re triangulating data–how they did on the pre-assessment, how they did on last year’s state test, what their records show, etc., to set up our instructional groups.  Did kids who skipped many, many answers end up in a group together?  Did kids who guessed well get given to the group whose instruction is being designed to go faster and further? As we group, are we addressing kids who work fast or slow, who persevere or not, who have strategies or who don’t? Should we? Have we analyzed the data we got beyond the scores, or are we simply looking at the numbers?

My expectation is to look at learning and testing behaviors as seriously as we look at the number they got right or wrong.  My expectation is that kids will share their thinking with me as they go along, marking which questions they guessed on and not simply skipping things. My expectation is that working slowly does not nix you getting into the fast group–I want to know what’s the reason for that slowness?  Lack of knowledge?  Checking the answer a variety of ways?  Inattention to the task?  I need to know more before allowing anyone to knock the kid down a group for the speed at which they work.

And do we really believe kids don’t know when they are sorted into bluebirds and buzzards? What mindset does that give them, to find they are a buzzard?  What expectations do they then have of themselves?

Should how fast or slow a kid works determine what group they’re in? Do we care whether a kid guessed or made an educated guess, or knew the answer on a multiple choice test?

Should we have achievement groupings anyway? Please notice I use the term achievement versus ability.  We know what kids have done–we can document their achievement.  We do not ever truly know what a child’s ability is–and if we profess to, we are using a fixed mindset rather than a growth one.  I’d rather assume kids are capable.

What do we inadvertently teach and show through our actions? What mindsets do kids and/or parents assume by what we do? And, how many of the reflective questions posed here really have to do with learning? With “Amplifying Minds”?


Bucket Brigade…or is it?

Today many of our Crozet Elementary kids participated in a piece of history making.  You see, our small town has been building a new library all summer and it is due to open this week.  BUT, all the books weren’t moved yet, so someone had a brilliant idea–instead of hiring professional movers, involve the community!

So, today we had a “Book Brigade” where kids and community members lined up and passed books from one hand to another, while people inside our new library shelved them as they reached the door.  And, even cooler, it not only was tweeted out (and made the old-timey TV news as well), one of our main proponents for the new library, @janekulow,  STORIFIED the pictures and tweets.  Check it out here!

I get to work with those adorable (and smart!) kids every day….Aren’t I the lucky one?


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The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching

Recently I was asked by ASCD to review this book by Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, and so was given an advance copy to read. I devoured it, to be honest.  It was easy reading, affirmed many of my beliefs, but also stretched my thinking as I constantly was assessing whether each touchstone would be one of my own twelve. I have to say the one I like the best is the last one–“I help students do something with their learning.” Again recently, a friend, Hollins Mills (@htmills on Twitter) commented here on my blog and said, “I always ask myself, “Would this work exist anywhere but school?’ and if the answer is no – it needs to go.” I so agree with Hollins. What we help students do with their learning has to be real.

Another part of this book I liked was the real life examples in areas other than education for checklists, and also the recurring acknowledgement of how complex teaching and learning are. Many educators are talking about Carol Dweck’s book  Mindset–and whether teachers have a fixed or a growth mindset.

But just how much growth do we need to see to feel like we did our job and are doing it well?  Did you know that “if the success rate for air travel was as low as 99%, 870 planes would fall out of the sky every day in the United States alone? ”  ( quote from 12 Touchstones authors)

Every teacher, even every great teacher, can tell you the things s/he needs to work on to be better. But these 12 touchstones are a way to help us reflect and check ourselves each and every day to make sure we are “identifying and sharing what we know we must do and then see that it gets done.”  These 12 touchstones are organized in sets of 4–into three groups.  Each set of four is grouped into one of three organizing imperatives:

1. Be demanding.

2. Be supportive.

3. Be intentional.

I love these three imperatives…and if I asked teacher friends to name 4 components of each,  we may or may not come up with the same four, but some would certainly be similar.  The difference in what the authors of this book came up with is that each and every one of their components is considered a “big Idea” and is based on decades and decades of solid educational research.  We know what works–we often just don’t take the time to make sure we are doing it every day, in every classroom, with every child.

The subtitle of this book is “A checklist for staying focused every day” but it is not about reading the item and doing it–checking it off.  It’s more, as the authors say, a “Do, Confirm” list–do it, then look at the checklist to make sure you have done all you need to do.  We need to “relentlessly focus on doing what we know must be done and doing it well in every classroom, with every student, every day of the week.”

So, to teach writing, we should ask kids to write–not answer our questions, but respond to things they read or events in their lives or feelings, thoughts and questions they have that they want to share with others.

To teach math, we should look for examples of real life mathematics.  In early August, for example, I saw this sign in a Target store:

photo (43)

and immediately thought,

  • Holy Cow!  How much does that mean they make a week?
  • Is that for all Targets or just this one?  Do different Targets have different amounts?
  • How do they define community? My community or all communities they serve?
  • What’s the markup on items they sell?

and I could go on and on and on…but what I really want is to know what the kids wonder when they see this. So this will be one of my first math lessons when we start switching and I begin to work with my assigned group. (I’ll also read Counting on Frank  to my fifth graders and we’ll talk about “Henry questions.” That book begins, “My Dad says, “If you have a brain, use it.”  So I do.”  and it goes on from there, showing how Henry uses his brain every day.)

We won’t be talking about 5 paragraph essays. I know I used to teach those, but that’s before I had a clue how to teach writing- before I participated in two National Writing Prjects and became a writer myself.  It’s also before our Virginia DOE Literacy coordinator flat out said in a workshop that the VA DOE was NOT looking for 5 paragraph essays in our state writing tests, and if they saw a proliferation of them coming from one school, they would know the kids had probably been given limited opportunities for real writing.

I won’t be killing kids’ love of reading (committing “Readicide“) with comprehension packets of worksheets.

I won’t be giving blogging prompts to get kids to respond to books. I will be modeling blogging my own thoughts and sharing those with kids. I will be talking about books I’m reading and pondering themes, characters and plots in conversations with my students.

I will be sharing my passion for learning and thinking aloud a lot with them.

And I will be sharing the three imperatives from this book and asking for student feedback.  Maybe we’ll even create some touchstones for learners….

hmm, I wonder what those would look like?

Our School Board–and the 4th pathway

Yesterday our Superintendent and one of our school board members came by to the last faculty meeting before the first day of school. It was one of those meetings where we were going to go over bus schedules, lunch duties, who sits where in the cafeteria, etc. EVERY teacher’s favorite meeting, right?  But it began with our school board member talking.

Now you have to know how much I respect our school board.  Years ago, I blogged about them here, where I talk about them being a learning board.  They are thoughtful, question-asking thinkers who listen and learn and deeply care about the learners in our system.

Steve Koleszar, our Chair, came to our school yesterday, and I’d just like to share some quotes from what he said.

1. The poor quality of the VA SOL assessments is the biggest threat to education in Albemarle County Public Schools.

To hear it posed that strongly blew me away.  The biggest threat?  Yeah, it is–I completely resent the time wasted on test prep and getting kids to answer stupid questions, or do a dictated writing prompt weekly, or read books just to answer comprehension questions, or do math just to get the problem right…not for understanding. 

2. We, as a board, believe it is more important that our kids can DO, rather than pass a test.

Thus, the emphasis on maker curriculum (which, by the way, is the 4th pathway.) Our board has supported a maker summer school,  renovations in our schools to support making, and professional development that supports teacher understanding of making through doing it themselves! 

Let me be perfectly clear. Neither Mr. Koleszar nor our Superintendent are against assessment.  Nor is anyone else in our Central office, or, I believe, a leadership position in this system.  The overwhelming belief, though, is that assessment should be meaningful, make sense, inform the learner, make a difference and be based in reality–something that the learner will use and find useful in real life. 

3. Everything we do as a Board is focused on improving instruction.

Our board has supported a Math, Engineering and Science Academy, and Health and Sciences Medical Academy, and many, many other opportunities that support our learners in a variety of ways.  We have not reduced art, music and PE during the budget woes in our county.  We still have recess, and believe it is important that children be children while they learn–so they should be active and talk, not be silent  as they learn.

Then, Pam Moran, our Superintendent stood up and said “Creativity, curiosity, passion and engagement are all sucked out of kids with SOLs.”

Can people understand the craziness of high-stakes, standardized testing any better?

UDL And Differentiation

Our 3rd Pathway

(I guess names can change—this one is different from what we used in the spring introducing it. Then it wasn’t individualization, it was differentiation.)

So here’s the county definition:

Universal Design for Learning/Individualization of Learning: Uses alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies to provide access for all learners to acquire lifelong learning competencies and knowledge and skills specified in curricular standards; creates a classroom culture that fully embraces differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs; applies contemporary learning science to create accessibility entry points for all students in the learning environment; supports students to learn how to make technology choices to overcome disabilities and inabilities.

It’s interesting to me that this definition is worded to discuss teacher behaviors, for the most part. For me, it’s about the kids becoming competent at making their own informed choices, knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do, and not only having a variety of tools and strategies to use to help themselves learn, but knowing enough about themselves and those tools to know what works for them.

That means that we have to help students understand and know that “contemporary learning science” mentioned in the definition. It’s about, as Becky Fisher (aka @beckyfisher73 on Twitter) says, connecting kids to content and skills in ways that matter—to them and to the world.

It means when a child asks a question, we don’t presume to know where that question is coming from without probing for deep understanding of the child’s thinking.

It means that providing IOS devices, Android devices or Chromebooks, or any of the other myriad devices and/or platforms is not enough. People who use them should understand the choices involved and be knowledgeable enough to know which tool is best for the situation.

It means we ourselves have to understand, use, and explicitly teach “alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies.”  Eighteen to twenty years ago, I worked with a SPED teacher, Ann Welch, who was a MASTER of differentiation. She took some 3rd graders from my homeroom and had them doing all kinds of alternative work with word study words so that they REALLY knew those words and spelling patterns so they could pass a test each week that included sentences, sorting, and definitions. That work began with her, then I started doing it with other kids, then her kids started writing their own sentences and making their own sorts on the tests They were figuring out how to show in their own ways what they knew. That student ownership was carefully scaffolded through increasing success and teaching the science of learning to the kids.

This pathway means that when we “fully embrace differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs” every kid does NOT take the same test or do the same work for a learning activity, or answer the same questions posed by the teacher. Ann also took every single written test we 4th grade teachers gave in the content area and rewrote and reorganized them to eliminate the “noise” and zone in on what was really being assessed—and then she worked to help the kids learn those facts and/or skills to be successful. That might have meant reading aloud some of it—or allowing research—or doing projects to enhance understanding, but she did whatever it took for each kid on her caseload, and then some. I was blessed to work with her for many years over several grade levels, and I can never be appreciative enough of all I learned with her.

The bottom line is that through my lifelong commitment to listening to kids, and through my opportunities to work with highly skilled educators such as Ann, this is a pathway that resonates with me. Hopefully the kids owning and understanding their own learning is apparent to anyone, kid or adult, who joins my classroom, even if only for a visit.

2nd Pathway-Instructional Tolerance

I absolutely HATE the name of the 2nd pathway:

Tolerance, as defined by Wikipedia is “Tolerance or toleration is a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.”

As defined by Wiktionary, the first definition is the ability to endure pain or hardship; endurance. The second definition is similar to Wikipedia’s.

However, if you compare the definitions to ours (found on our website here), I’m not seeing where “tolerance” is the best choice of naming that kind of support.

Instructional Tolerance: Supports a learning environment where active, engaged learners routinely choose from a variety of learning spaces, collaborative and individual activities, and technology tools, including their own personal devices; values students having opportunities to learn best practices essential to entering contemporary learning and work environments and enables students to sustain an open mindset and skillset in the use of evolving technology tools.

Our definition talks about learning environment.  In my ideal learning environment, I am not tolerated–I am accepted, honored, pushed, supported, questioned, defended, and lots of other things–but I hope simply being tolerated is not one of them.

In our definition, we talk about choice, collaboration, open mindsets and valuing students. That, to me, doesn’t say tolerance. How are we valuing someone if we simply tolerate them?

But, beyond the fact I think it’s misnamed, I certainly buy into our definition, especially the open mindset and active, engaged learners.

This Is a Cup…

…”but you don’t want it to look like a cup, right?” my sister asked as she picked up her coffee cup and put it in front of me. I laughed, but she had a point. I needed to explain better what I was trying to say.

My school is involved in one of our county “Design 2015” grants, which we created to help us teach through 7 specific pathways.  We are working to use the P21 4 C’s (collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking) as we include choice and comfort and work on our learning spaces to meet the needs of our learners.

So, my sister and I were sitting in my room today, trying to figure out how to shake up my classroom to be able to see the 7 pathways and make my room not look like a classroom–or at least look different from traditional classrooms. So, let’s start with the first pathway and check it out–

(The following definition is taken right from our system’s “pathways” page.)

Choice and Comfort

Provides learners with a variety of learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs while supporting learners to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work as they use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies; student learning products demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

So if I dissect that…

well, you decide:

Provides learners with a variety of learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs

Hmmm, there is this and this and maybe even this.

while supporting learners to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work as they use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies;

The picture referenced above shows how kids move things around in my room.

I think these ideas clearly say we use multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies.

student learning products demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

Student Choices? Here and here and even here.

So does that cover it?  It still hasn’t helped me figure out how to rearrange, and what I need to change to “see” the 7 pathways…

Maybe I should move on to the second pathway–Instructional Tolerance.

Oh, that’s my next post. See you then!




The Best…

emails come unexpectedly.  Today I got one from a former student who is entering high school next week.  When he was in fifth grade, that particular group of kids really got into conversations about what school should be like.  I’ve continued to keep up with Nicolas, and he’s continued to think about school each year as he enters a new grade and encounters various school situations. He’s done a guest blog on the Cooperative Catalyst blog, as well as present (by himself) at the k12online conference (as a sixth grader.)  He’s helped out every year but one since fifth grade at our New Teacher Academy, sharing his wiki and talking with new teachers about being connected.  Today’s email shared the latest page he’s made on his wiki about “Reimagining School.” It’s pretty impressive thinking. Enjoy!

Wow…My 40th First Day

The first day back for teachers….what do YOU want to see?  Is it the same each year? What do you want that first day back to be like?

I want to see my class list, my schedule and know exactly what I am going to teach (will I departmentalize with my team, teach all subjects, etc.).  I don’t particularly care to see the school handbook or the lunch monitor schedule (unless I’m on it) but I do want to see what changes have been made around the school over the summer and get a great pep talk by my principal.  I want to reconnect with my staff and teacher friends I may not have seen all summer.  I am anxious to get back into it…

I don’t think that what I want now, as I return to school, is much different from my early years of teaching, in some ways.  Then, I wanted to know the things that would affect my whole year as well. After all, I’m the one who needs to make lemonade out of whatever lemons I may end up with (such as specials at a time I hate or a late lunch when I want an early one, or whatever…)

What HAS changed is my faith in myself to do that- turn the things that could be deficits into assets. I don’t count down the days until school ends–I count ON the days I have to help myself and others learn. (I actually hate to see the end of a school year.) As an experienced teacher, I ask questions to help myself and perhaps others see another perspective or think more deeply. If I don’t ask questions, how can I  be more reflective or see more avenues or help others do that? How do I know what I think until I question myself and what I say as well as think about what others say and do?

In conversations about what to teach when, or how long the various parts of the day should be, or as we develop the specific work we’ll ask the kids to do, we teachers are learning from one another. Today, as a teacher and I talked about geoboards, about whether plastic ones or homemade ones with nails were better, I liked that we were learning from one another’s questions and comments….and isn’t that what we want for our kids?  To incite a curiosity in them that causes them to ask questions of one another and listen carefully so they can form more questions and continue to learn?

I’m still asking them after 40 years in this job…and I’m still trying to amplify all of the minds I meet, and have mine amplified, too….which is why this blog.

What We Get Wrong

Kids forever have asked “When will we ever have to use this?” and teachers’ responses vary. That’s where we get it wrong–not in the answer, but in our actions. We build our classroom work around teaching skills–and many times those skills are taught or worked on by kids in isolation–not in a real context. The work kids do should always have a purpose for THEM, not for us. It should make a difference in their lives.

Last year I used a real example from my life in my math class when we were studying fractions, decimals, and percents, and the kids absolutely loved it. (See the 5th grade posts here about the grocery store problem.) They worked on this problem for days, doing it not only during math time, but also during their free time.  Many even came to ask for help during our “Mastery Extension” time, a 45 minute time period where individualized work occurs. The bottom line is that the kids knew this was real, and that they had to know how to use these skills for THEIR future.

The Washington Post recently published an article on Rafe Esquith’s new book, Real Talk for Real Teachers, where he was interviewed in the article.


One of his responses was the following paragraph:

I have a chapter called ‘Keeping it Real.’ If you ask most kids in school who are doing an assignment, why they are doing it, they will say, ‘Because my teacher told me to.’ In my class, if you ask a student, ‘Why are you writing this essay or doing this problem,’ they will say, ‘Because I will learn a skill and my life will be better.’… I tell my students, ‘Of course I want you to do well on the test at the end of the year, but the real test is what you are doing in 10 years.’  My students aren’t doing anything for me. Their values are inside. They are doing it for themselves.

Rafe has it right. We need to help kids learn to do it for themselves- not grades, or our or parental approval, but for themselves. Those inside values are so much more important than our agendas. We get it wrong when we force our ways on them. Student work needs to be based in reality and matter to the kids.

Amplifying minds to delve deeper and keep it real…that’s my goal this year.

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