Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Learning Progress

Years ago, when I worked as a literacy consultant during the summers, I had a favorite sequence that I did in a workshop on scaffolding independence. My purpose was two-fold, to demonstrate a strategy teachers could use to get kids processing content and to get teachers talking about grading. The sequence went something like this:

  1. Quick write: What does a grade mean?
  2. Share out and chart initial responses
  3. Read an article by Tom Guskey on using zeroes in grading like this one.
  4. Do a dialogue journal (silent conversation between partners): write, exchange respond, repeat
  5. Discuss/share out whole group

I've got to tell you, in the late nineties, those conversations would ignite teachers! Many of the teachers  then believed kids should be "held accountable" or "penalized" for not doing an assignment. Many could not understand why I would "give" my high school students no grade or a 50% F if they had turned nothing in. In some places, teaches still believe those things.

Singapore American School recently hosted a Solution Tree Institute:  Professional Learning Communities at Work.  It was the first time I'd heard Tom Schimmer speak.  He is a fabulous story teller, and speaker. His review and teaching about assessment affirmed my thinking and validated everything I know to be true about grading. He cited many educators I'd read and some I haven't, so I mapped out some learning for myself. I love to learn and I am passionate about equity and fairness in grading practices. How did I miss  Grading from the Inside Out last year ? I don't know, but I'm reading as fast as I can now.

My son learned to walk on a different day, and at a different age than my brother's daughter did. His path to learning to read was different than his buddy Ethan's path to reading. As Richard Allington has said every time I've heard him speak over the past ten years, research has proven one thing definitively about learning: kids are different. So, pair that with the idea that we teachers need to demystify the learning process for students.

Remember when we were demystifying the writing process and how we "grade" writing?

We need to do the same thing for every standard we assess.

Different communities, different departments, different districts or buildings are at different places in this work.  Here at Singapore American School (SAS) , ninth grade has been teaching theme. Our SAS rubric has four levels of understanding: exemplary, meets, approaching and area of concern.  Here is the top level of what the ninth grade team is using:

 The SAS rubric draws directly from the language of the reading standards one and two (citing textual evidence and analyzing theme). Each level of this rubric repeats the same language with different   qualifiers; the approaching level, for instance, uses the words "attempts to", instead of with sophistication.

At my former school in Florida we had been using Marzano's scales to score students. I led a grade level team and worked for several years to develop and revise scales for each of the standards we taught. Those scales are still changing because what we understand about learning and learners changes. The first scales our teams made embarrass me now --I wrote about them this very week in 2013.  What was I thinking with the bird metaphor? How is labeling a learner dependent or limited mitigated by also labeling him or her a fledgling or nestling? Our early teams struggled to come to consensus on language.

I've been tinkering with my scales from last year. Here is my most recent iteration. 

In my daily practice the steps to the skill -- teaching kids how to analyze a theme (or deconstruct an argument) has weight and purpose: kids attend and practice in the one on one conferences over their work in reading journals over the course of the quarter. They see clear steps and act on the feedback they get on their bi-weekly writing (we're on a rotating block here).

Still, it's a work in progress.

What I've learned since  Maya Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics book study many of us did on the English Companion Ning, is that feedback really matters. Learning progressions, called scales at my former school, called rubrics here-- are tools I can use to make feedback clear.

I  have to give kids feedback (and encouragement ) as quickly as I can to support their learning. I have to tell them where they are on track and were they need to do more work. I need to be systematic about about tracking what I say to whom, and when, so I can check back in and I need to monitor or keep an eye out: are kids acting on my feedback?
Feedback ideas I want to remember. Mine the institute by searching the #atplc hashtag on Twitter

You know, if they are not , then maybe I need to rethink my delivery.

I'm working on that part next.

Sorry, this is sort of slice of a week ago last week, right? Sometimes my ideas take some time to take shape
especially in a tropical climate on the Singapore side of the world. Thanks so much to the team at  Two Writing Teachers
 for hosting the weekly link up.  I learn so much by writing and reading with you all. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Best Laid Plans

The bell chimes three tones. It is time to begin class. We start with independent reading. It's the second week of September, so it takes a few minutes for the class to get settled. This week, I had three students come to class early, break out a snack and a book and get started long before class time--that sort of reading behavior is much more common in February--it can mean a lot of things though, so I won't read too much into it right now.

Minutes before the bell chimes,  a teacher asks if it is okay to sit in and observe. Another student would like a sports book recommendation. Someone has a book to return. There is a lot going on in the first five minutes. I point the sports reader toward Cheripko's Imitate the Tiger which, as it turns out, is not shelved where I thought it was. I redirect him to When I Was the Greatest and see what happens as he previews the book. Two others are book shopping next to him and the room begins to settle.

Did I greet the class and say hello? Did I review our plan for the day?
We won't be able to have two discussions on Thursday-- one is part of our formative assessment and the other is
routine in my room, but I have not yet revised the plan. Plans in my room are flexible. I revise them
before or after each class based on what kids understood or were able to do. 

Today was a C day; our schedule rotates A-D. I am still getting used to all of the moving pieces. My last class of the day, block three, are freshmen. They are excited, energetic, connected and ready. I have five students sitting in the "u" (a u-shaped collection of desks at the front of the classroom). They have their reading journals open, some have underlined their claims and they are ready to talk to me about the writing they practiced this week. One students asks how to return a book. Another needs a book recommendation.  Two more students are camping out in the "u"  just to sit together and read.

 At year's start, settling into story at the beginning of class can take a few minutes. These independent reading routines are new to kids. I remind myself that readers have needs. Not all readers need the same thing at the same time either.

One of my personal-professional goals is to personalize reading and writing instruction. One way I aim to get to this goal is through regularly scheduled reading-writing conferences.  I create a schedule.

Students sit in small group on their assigned day (or jump into the group if they want additional feedback and there is an additional seat). I wrote about this last year and I am still working on it.

I set a timer for twelve minutes for independent reading  and we are off. I confer with a small group while the rest of the room reads. They record their reading weekly on our Reading Record. The record has changed in the past year or two, but that is another post. One goal for year's start is to get independent reading routines running smoothly in the first two weeks of school, so that I can use that time to work with individuals. It often takes more than two weeks.

When my classes met every day of the week, the schedule was, perhaps for me, easier to remember and routinize. On a rotating block schedule, I am seeing kids one every two weeks, but with holidays and altered schedules, I have yet to meet with all of the Monday kids.

Ideally, I see a different group of students in small group five days a week.  I talk with them individually, so it's not a group conference. The seating arrangement just maximizes the time and my ability to confer. This first quarter of the year, we are talking about what kids write about what they are reading.

I am teaching students how to read closely in order to analyze theme or tone. The practice writing they do in their reading journal prompts them to do just that. I've been working on this practice for a while--its coming along.  That is one of the joys of teaching--figuring out what works best for the learners that are sitting with you right now. No two years are exactly the same for me. Routines are. Procedures may be, but specifics often shift.

This week, we are on our second round of conferences for most. As I talked with students today, I thought about last year.

I want to make a shift from:

  • me taking notes in/on students entries to students recording notes from our conversations.
  • me talking to kids talking.
Those are two starting points I'm focused on for our conferences this year. I am not there yet. I realized it as I wrote (scribbled) notes while talking to readers today. I need to hand off the responsibility for noting a student's goals for next week.

 How do I do that ? What words should I use? 

That's what I am thinking about  this evening. Well, that and Hurricane Irma.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Inquiring Minds

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the 
christening of all children, I would ask that her gift 
to each child in the world be a sense of wonder 
so indestructible that it would last throughout life.
- Rachel Carson

Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds question. They wonder and are curious. Such minds seek patterns and aim to make sense of the world around them. Inquiring minds learn continuously.


All of us have minds made for inquiry. One visit to a pre-school group will confirm such a claim. We are born curious. It is through observation and exploration and discovery that we learn. We began our learning lives that way and if we are lucky such learning ignites our passions and interests in ways that engage us our entire lives.

This week at Singapore American School,  authors, Kath Murdoch and Trevor Mackenzie are working with teachers around inquiry. Their books are new to me, so I've been playing catch up with my professional reading--modeling reading during independent reading time in class and continuing my own learning reading and thinking at home. They are working here at school to deepen inquiry practices across campus.

In the two sessions I sat in on, Trevor Mackenzie, discussed stages of inquiry (structured, controlled, guided, and free) as well as how teachers' current practices can act as scaffolds to inquiry later in the school year.

Today I am thinking a lot about those scaffolds. How do my current practices structure opportunities for student agency? How do I give students voice and choice everyday in the classroom? What language do I use or can I use that will help kids develop inquiry mindsets as Murdoch says?

Today in Catalyst class [Catalyst is a semester long inquiry course where students delve into an interest--the course takes them or gives them space to create from pitch to product to presentation.] a student was working on an idea around putting on a course for young children on financial topics.

He had completed a self-assessment of his strengths and interests and he was working on what the course developers call a "Squid diagram." This thinking tool aims to get students to flesh out the who, what, where, when, how much, how and so what of an idea. The student had drawn a squid diagram on the whiteboard wall and he called me over to review it.

"So, talk me through your idea," I said to him.

"Well, essentially, I want to share information about finance with kids... uh, you know like create a syllabus of things I could teach to kids. I'm not sure what age, and I'm thinking of all of these finance topics, " he gestured to his diagram.

I borrowed his marker and wrote on the wall's edge: so what? for whom? how?  "Can you tell me a little more about these ideas: so what? for whom? and how?"

He reviewed his "for kids" whom and the importance of financial literacy and his interest in finance and then a bit of magic happened. When he looked at the how, he pointed at the word "syllabus" he'd jotted in his diagram and he replaced it with "course."

"Ah, a course, so how would you deliver that content? what would that include?" I asked.

From there came more ideas: video, an age-appropriate book, course handouts or modules kids could use to learn. He gestured to those ideas, I'd scribed for him and said, "ah, that can move over here... " to grow the "what" and "how" of what he wants to accomplish.

In another part of the room a student was working out several ideas. She was considering large topics: personal defense, the environment, ceramics and tolerance.  They seem so disparate at first glance don't they? I asked her, "where do they intersect?"

She drew a four-circle, Venn diagram showing the overlaps. I offered an example: ceramic water filters that people carry during trail hikes or when wilderness camping.

That example did stretch the tolerance aspect of her interests in a direction that may not have been true to her first thoughts (I was modeling on the fly). She understood my thinking  and started to brainstorm possible intersections. Another boy wandered by and asked us what we were doing.

"Thinking. Trying to figure out an idea," she answered.

"We're looking at the intersections of her interests," I said.

He looked down at her table drawing, pointed to the overlapping center of the four circles and said, "It would be really cool to design a project that would fit right in there."

Wouldn't it?

In sharing one of those moments during Trevor Mackenzie's session this afternoon, he suggested that, that moment with the how? and so what? questions would have been a moment when he stopped the class for a mini-lesson. He said he would have shared the student's thinking and ah-ha around the question stems in order to demonstrate for students how to think about their topics in generative ways in order to focus on a viable product (to use Catalyst  language) or a unit of study or idea (to use Mackenzie's words).

I can see where stopping the class and sharing that moment could work. It would not have worked mid-class in that Catalyst class period though. My co-teacher and I had 38 students spread across several spaces -- some not in shouting distance. Context matters. We had a good chat about how I could use that moment next class to focus on students' individual ideas and the work ahead. Work flow and routines matter too and I am reminded once again of the beauty of the infinite. There are an infinite number of ways to learn and to organize or support learning.

What resonates with me right now is how I can shift my practice. How can I use the language kids need to internalize the thinking long before they will use it on their own? How can I create  instructional routines-- that sort of mini-lesson ah-ha share out --on a regular basis to teach kids the transferable thinking skills they need as they approach independence as impassioned learners?  How do you establish that sort of routine? What sort of remembering (or anecdotal note-taking) would the teacher need to do in order to insert this into the work cycle of the class?

I love thinking about the possibilities. After all, like Emily D., I dwell there.