A Learning Pathways Approach to Professional Development

A Learning Pathways Approach to PD

In May, I published a post on Leading Professional Development. This post emphasized our school’s need and readiness for a more personalized approach to professional development for our teachers. This approach has been implemented in more schools recently. From micro-credentialing, or badges, to complete free choice. One of the dangers of this approach is having teachers pursue a hodgepodge of topics that are disconnected and/or not aligned to building or district goals. As @RossCoops31 writes in his blog post, “We need to balance choice with vision.” I agree a balanced approach is necessary, and a school should only implement a personalized learning approach if it is balanced with other department/district professional development aligned to its vision, mission and goals. Feeling confident in the quality of department and district professional development, and its alignment with our vision/goals, was a prerequisite for our school choosing to pursue this model for our building PD.

After soliciting topic ideas from teachers, we narrowed down our Learning Pathways into the following seven topics: School/Classroom Culture; Foster Traits of an Effective Learner (3 small groups); Growth Mindset; Project-Based Learning; Social-Emotional Learning; Technology Integration; Digital Citizenship. We then organized teachers into small groups of no more than 4-8, based on their pathway choices. We organized groups with a focus on creating diverse representation of grade level and content areas.

My assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5 and I, then met with our SILT (School Instructional Leadership Team) and identified teacher leaders that would facilitate the work for each pathway. We are extremely fortunate to have a large group of effective teacher leaders, which we have been encouraging and empowering the past few years. This was a major factor in giving us the confidence to take our learning pathways approach. During our meeting we shared a Learning Pathways planning guide. This included guidance on creating norms and goals, identifying materials and resources that will be used, and developing a plan. It also includes ideas for how the work can be shared at the end of the year. This guide was designed to assist our teacher leaders with the facilitation of the work their groups would be pursuing.

The most encouraging thing so far has been teachers who have already begun work on their pathway before the school year has even begun. Teachers have shared planning documents, access to their Google Classroom page they will be using, research they’ve found, and resources they would like to pursue or purchase. This evidence of motivation shows signs of a good start. I am excited to see the learning and growth this empowering approach yields throughout the year. I plan to update our progress in future posts.

What thoughts or feedback do you have on this approach so far? Has your school tried a similar approach? If so, what guidance do you have for our school on our journey?

 

Leading Professional Development

Traditionally, and all too often, professional development sessions have been designed and facilitated in a top-down manner. District and building leaders identify areas of focus, sometimes with little input from teachers, and design sit-and-get sessions for teachers to “learn” so they can improve their practice. There are several flaws with this traditional model, including a lack of learner input, engagement, monitoring & measurement, and follow-up. In this model, there is an overall lack of ownership over one’s learning. This has led to tons of criticisms and jokes from teachers. My favorite was one comment I heard from a co-worker when I was still teaching. While leaving a PD session, he said to me, “That was just like Chinese food, it went right through me.” Personally, I thought that was an insult. But to Chinese food, not the PD session. His assessment of that, I felt, was accurate.

@PrincipalMKelly (1)

As a building leader for the past six years, I have tried to balance professional development that is focused on district and building goals, with personalized learning opportunities. Balancing building goals with personalized learning is an ongoing challenge when designing professional development. To try and personalize PD, our school has facilitated teacher led, #EdCamp style PD sessions, and administered surveys to identify areas in which teachers wanted to learn. In addition, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT), which is made up of about 15 teachers and building administrators, meet monthly to discuss and design building PD. However, I must admit that as the building principal, over the past few years I have identified certain areas that I felt our school needed to improve, such as grading and assessment. As a result, some of our building PD topics have followed a more “top-down” approach. This is where the challenge of balance comes in.

Looking forward into next year, my assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5,  and I discussed whether there were any glaring areas of improvement in need of building-wide professional development sessions, which were not already being addressed through department work. We both felt our building was in a good place, and there was no single-topic that required PD for all teachers. As a result, we began to discuss next steps for our building professional development. From our discussion came the idea of Learning Pathways.

We met with our SILT and discussed the idea of creating several learning pathways (topics), which teachers could choose from to focus their professional learning. Our SILT brainstormed about twenty possible learning pathways and our plan is to allow teachers to select their pathway, or create their own. During our meeting, we discussed the idea and importance of collaboration. Rather than having individuals follow their own path, we felt it was important for teachers to work in groups of 6-8, so they could benefit from a collaborative learning experience. This is where more balance was needed, between personalized and collaborative learning.

Our idea is that teachers will work in groups on their learning pathway, design their own goals, share leadership and facilitation responsibilities, and guide their own learning. This will empower teachers as leaders within our school. As administrators, we will participate in one of the learning pathways, while providing coaching and resource support to teachers in other pathways. In our school, we are very lucky to have a tremendous group of teacher leaders, which makes it easy to put our trust in their leadership. 

We hope our plan for creating a personalized Learning Pathway PD model, with a focus on collaborative learning, will be a success. In future posts, I plan to share updates on our growth and progress.

Has your school ever tried a similar professional development approach? Was it a success? What feedback do you have on the ideas I have shared in this post?

 

We Have a Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools!

mental-health-crisis

We have a mental health crisis in our schools, and the lack of a sense of urgency is alarming. Anderson and Cardoza (2016) report “Up to one in five kids living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year.” Despite these growing numbers, discussion about this crisis in education has been comparatively mute. Tons of focus within education has been focused on technology. Logan (n.d.) reports that 20% of schools who responded to one survey indicated they had a 1:1 device/technology program. While Blad (2016) cites a Civil Rights data report stating anywhere between 13-20% of schools do not have a school counselor. Minority children being the least likely to attend schools without a counselor. But educators don’t need research to tell them we are in crisis. Teachers and administrators have seen this crisis unfold before their eyes. It’s in their classrooms, offices, hallways; it’s everywhere.

So why aren’t politicians, school boards and educational leaders addressing this crisis the way they should? Where is the sense of urgency? It is possible that discussing mental health is still a taboo subject for some school districts. We may be fearful of admitting we have a problem for which we are ill-equipped to handle. Maybe it’s that promoting mental health needs doesn’t make for an exciting school board presentation, or school promotion on Twitter or Facebook. Or possibly, dedicating funds and implementing programs for mental health aren’t as flashy as buying new computers, or setting up a new Makerspace. Whatever it is, the lack of response is unacceptable. A large number of students are not getting the counseling and therapy they need to meet their needs. Without this support, making academic growth really isn’t an option.

Educators and parents need to take action now. If OUR students, OUR children, are not getting the help they need outside of school, we must bring supports into school. I am finished debating whether the responsibility for providing mental health services should lie with the school. It doesn’t matter. We cannot sit back and watch this crisis continue to grow. We must be transparent about the problem, and communicate our needs at every opportunity. We must speak up in district meetings. We must contact our legislators, departments of education, school boards, and district leadership and demand they make this a priority.
mental-health-debateAt the very least, every school should have at least one school psychologist, guidance counselor, and social worker. Every school should provide individual and group mental health services/therapy. We must find funding and ways to provide these supports. We can partner with local agencies and organizations to bring programs and supports into our schools. Some may be able to provide free services, but some may come at a cost. However, if one of the main goals of our schools, is to create a safe and supportive environment; if we are truly aimed at serving students and meeting their needs; Then schools need to prioritize these items in their focus and budget. We find money for what we value. Let’s make sure we value the most basic needs of our students first.

The investment we make in the mental health needs of our students will not only benefit those students we serve in this capacity, but our society as a whole. It is our duty to improve the way we view and support mental health needs. Addressing these needs at a younger age will result in improved academic, behavioral and long-term outcomes for our children, and our society. This is a call to action!

What is your school doing to meet the mental health needs of its students? What can our education system do better?

References

Anderson, M., & Cardoza, K. (2016, August 31). Mental Health In Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions Of Students. Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/31/464727159/mental-health-in-schools-a-hidden-crisis-affecting-millions-of-students

Blad, E. (2016, December 09). Schools With Police But No School Counselors: A Closer Look. Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/2016/12/black_hispanic_students_more_likely_to_attend_schools_with_police_but_no_counselors.html

Children’s Mental Health (Rep.). (n.d.). doi:10.1136/ebmh.10.4.e2

 

Transitioning to a Continual Grading Period

Last April, I published a post The End of Marking Periods, in which I challenged the relevance and need for marking periods. I shared several reasons why I felt the use of marking periods were one of the many, traditional, outdated practices in education. Then, instead of just talking about it, our school began to take action.  

Over the past four years, our school has been taking steps to improve our grading and assessment practices. We have tried to move away from a culture of grading, which exists in many schools, and instead, promote a culture of learning. We’ve explored many flaws of traditional grading, and identified steps we could take to make improvements. Some of which, I discuss in my post Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes.

To enhance our improved grading practices, we proposed the idea of piloting an new approach to grading periods. Instead of the traditional, four marking periods, we would pilot a year-long, grading period. Our Continual Grading Period would allow teachers more flexibility with their pacing, lesson design and assessment practices. It would also allow us to enhance our assessment practices, which have incorporated re-takes and re-dos. But ultimately, and most importantly, it would provide more opportunities for students to learn, and demonstrate their learning. We discussed and reviewed the idea with our sixth grade teachers, evaluated the possible benefits and shortfalls, the decided to move forward with Continual Grading Periodour proposal.

Late last spring, my assistant principal and I met with our central administration, made a short presentation to our school board, and with their support, moved forward with our pilot.

Throughout the implementation this year, we continued to have conversations and meetings with students, parents and teachers to gain feedback. We informally collected feedback from students, and formally collected feedback from parents and teachers via surveys. Our student and teacher feedback was overwhelmingly positive. All of our sixth grade core teachers supported the continuation of our Continual Grading Period.

Our parent survey responses were a mix of positive and constructive feedback. The positive feedback included some pleasant surprises, and the critical feedback we allowed us to reflect and make improvements to our communication and implementation. We shared an overview summary of our parent survey, which included our planned improvements (which you can view here).

This month (May 2016), we evaluated all of the feedback and decided to not only continue our grading period in sixth grade, but also expand into seventh grade. With the support from our district, we plan to continue implementation during the 2016-17 school year. I am confident we will learn more in our second year of implementation, and continue to make improvements.

What are your thoughts on the relevance of traditional marking periods?

 

 

Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes

arbitrary GradesTraditional grades are at best, arbitrary, and at worst, destructive to student learning. For those of us stuck in a traditional grading system, there are flaws we need to be aware of, and practical fixes we can implement, to at least improve the system in which we are stuck.

Purpose and Beliefs

Flaws: Most teachers and schools have not established a specific or consistent purpose for, or beliefs about grading. In most schools, the teachers within a building establish their own individual policies, practices and calculations of grades. Due to a lack of quality focus on grading in undergraduate programs, these policies and procedures are usually based on their own educational experiences, personal opinions, and other non-research based factors. This inconsistency creates poor communication and understanding of grades for students and parents.

Fixes: School leaders should work collaboratively with faculty to develop a set of beliefs and/or guidelines about grading. For example, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a “Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights” created at his school. If you are a teacher and cannot push for school wide change, create your own set of beliefs and guidelines and clearly communicate them to students and parents.

imageIn our school, we’ve been using the belief statement: “A grade should accurately communicate what a student knows, understands and is able to do, as related to course learning objectives.” We use this statement to guide guide our work related to our grading practices. In our school, we do not have standards based grading, but we have been working to ensure our grades accurately represent a student’s level of mastery of course learning objectives (which we’ve created for each course, based on state standards).

What Gets Graded?

Flaws: Tradition, and lack of understanding related to student motivation have caused most teachers to create a “kitchen sink stew” of items to make up a student grade. Teachers add a little testing, a touch of homework, a pinch of participation, a sprinkle of attendance, and a handful of “secret ingredients” to create their own, individual grading recipes. Apart from the confusion and inconsistency this creates for students, it also creates an inaccurate reporting of student learning. This links back to the need for a belief statement. If we believe grades should accurately reflect student learning, then adding things like attendance, behavior and work completion make the reporting of actual learning, inaccurate.

Fixes: When discussing or evaluating WHAT we grade, there are a few topics that always seem to come up in discussion. First is the grading of formative assessments (ex: homework; classwork; some quizzes). Since formative assessments are used to provide feedback, drive instruction, and guide student learning, their purpose is not to be included in a grade. Teachers should only be including summative assessments in their grade calculation. Rick Wormeli has stated that a teacher has the power to ultimately decide when an assessment becomes summative. This means that teachers have the power to allow redo’s and retests in order to provide additional opportunities, after an intervention, to reassess. The student’s grade should then reflect the new, and hopefully improved, assessment score. Averaging the first and second scores, or deducting points for attempts, would then fail to meet our previous criteria of reflecting an accurate grade.

The other topic that inevitably comes up is the inclusion of behaviors into a grade. Things such as attendance, participation, work ethic, or taking points off for late work, would lead to an inaccurate reporting of the academic grade. However, these behaviors could certainly be reported elsewhere on a grade report, as they provide important feedback to students and parents.

Weighting

Tom Petty once sang: “The wai-ai-aiting is the hardest part.” Well, when it comes to traditional grading, I find that the “weighting”  of assessments is the hardest part.

Flaws: How many teachers participated in education courses or professional development on the practice of weighting assessment items or assessments in general? The answer here is “very few.” So, in a traditional grading system, how do teachers determine the appropriate weight, or “number of points”, to assign to each question, task, or assessment? At best, the answer is “arbitrarily.” Often times, teachers assign a certain number of points based on the type of question or task. Test? 100 points; Quiz? 50 Points; Homework? 2 Points; Multiple Choice question 3 points each. Essay question? 30 points.

When I created assessment as a teacher, I would assign a number of points based on how difficult the question. The assignment of points ignored the amount of course content, or number of objectives I was assessing with a question, task, project or test. On a test, I would sometimes assess a lower level skill, but through the use of an essay question. I would assign it 20-30 points. My essay prompt asking students to compare and contrast the Virginia and New Jersey Plans was really only assessing my students’ ability to recall the similarities and differences of the plans. This was a low level task void of  evaluation or analysis. At the time, it seemed good to me. It was an essay question afterall. I imagine other well intentioned teachers have made similar mistakes.

Fixes: This is a challenge! However, teachers in our building have been working to assign a weight, or number of points, to an assessment based on the amount of learning objectives it assesses. For example, if their course has 100 learning objectives for the year, they would assign up to four points for each objective. This allows them to grade the assessment of the objective using a 4 point scale. Therefore, the score of the assessment would be based on the student’s performance on each learning objective assessed. Focus on learning over product. One student may be able to demonstrate mastery through a conversation, another may do best offering a presentation of the content, while a third most accurately demonstrates learning on test. If the points are based on demonstration of mastery, the method in which students demonstrate learning, is not as imperative.
Our teachers have also been discussing the fact that not all our objectives are the same level or rigor. We have been working to evaluate objectives and agree upon a 1.0 or 2.0 weight, based on the level or rigor.

Marking Periods

Flaws: In a previous post (found here) I called for an end to marking periods. I explained that in my situation, a student’s final grade was calculated by averaging the grades from each marking period. Aside from averaging being a bad practice itself, giving each marking period an equal value/weight was misrepresenting the grade report. The final grade certainly did not meet the criteria for being a mathematically “accurate reflection.” Due to weather, standardized testing, field trips and award ceremonies, not all marking periods were created equal.

Fixes: If marking periods are a problem, why not get rid of them? This year we are piloting a “Continual Grading Period” with our sixth grade students. In this model, the entire year serves as one long marking period. This allows teachers to implement best practice in reteaching and retesting without the frustration of arbitrary deadlines. The continual grading period also eliminates the unfair weighting of clearly unequal marking periods. How did we make this magic happen? The steps, process, and reflection on this endeavor will be shared in a later post.

Setting a purpose and beliefs about grading, deciding what gets grading, developing weighting methods, and establishing a fair way to report student learning are key first steps for those of us stuck in the traditional grading system.

What are some other practices or strategies we can use to improve grading practices in a traditional model?

 

 

 

Five Simple Rules of Teacher Questioning

Teacher questioning can be a very effective and engaging instructional strategy. However, if misused, it can be a strategy that has very little impact. As we know, since the days of Socrates, teachers have been using questioning to encourage student thinking and check for understanding. However, high-quality teacher questioning is much more than just tossing out questions. Developing questioning skills can take a lot of time and professional development, but there are some simple rules teachers can follow to make some immediate improvements.

Here are Five Simple Rules for Teacher Questioning:

1. Have a Purpose!

When asking a question, the question itself should have a purpose. A teacher should know if the question is intended to promote a conversation, dialogue, discussion, or simply solicit a simple response to check for understanding. Good questions engage more than one student at-a-time. They provide an opportunity for students to discuss (ex: turn and talk; debate; conversation), lead to students generating their own questions, and allow for multiple responses. However, when teachers ask a question that has one specific answer, and call on one student to answer it, the question has very little value for the rest of the class.

2. One at a Time!

Most teachers would be surprised to have a count of how many questions they ask in one class period. In our building, when we tallied the number of questions teachers were asking in one, 42 minute class period, the total number was usually between 100 and 200 questions. In some classrooms, the number of questions posed in one class period exceeded 200. Without realizing it, many teachers use a rapid-fire approach to questioning, asking multiple low-level (Webbs DOK) questions, one after another. When it comes to high-quality questioning, less is more.

Challenge: Have someone come into your room, unannounced, and count how many questions you ask in one period.

3. Pick One Question!

Teachers should know the question they are going to ask, and ask it clearly. If it needs to be repeated, it should be repeated verbatim. Many times, teachers will ask a question… immediately rephrase it… add more detail… ask it again in a different way… add even more detail… then rephrase the question again. By the time the teacher states the final, revised question, it is drastically different than the original one. This can leave the student who raised their hand to answer the original question, pretty confused. Pre-planning some of our questions is the only way to ensure we are asking high-quality questions. These questions should be aligned to the objectives or learning outcomes for the lesson. Of course, teachers can also utilize spontaneous questions, as appropriate. However, key questions should have a purpose, be pre-planned, and align with objectives or learning outcomes.

4. Wait a Minute!

Some teachers feel rushed to get through a lesson. Others feel uncomfortable in silence. However, it is important for teachers to provide appropriate wait-time after asking a question. Remember, if teachers are asking high-quality questions, requiring thinking and discussion, it will take time. Teachers should avoid calling on the first student who raises their hand. Personally, I stopped allowing students to raise their hand in my classroom. I called on students randomly, making sure I always responded to them in a way that made them feel safe, whether they knew the answer or not. Although I am not aware of a specific, scientifically proven “appropriate” amount of wait-time, I like to use at least ten seconds. It is also important to never include a student’s willingness to raise their hand as part of a “participation grade” (which shouldn’t exist anyway). I’ve heard teachers say a student’s participation grade has suffered due to lack of participation. Then I’ve watched the same teacher repeatedly call on the first or second student to raise their hand, which didn’t even give most students a chance to participate. Give time for students to process the question.

5. Use Scaffolding!

When planning questions, it is important for teachers to review the content around the question. Teachers should review the prerequisite knowledge, as well as the knowledge that will extend the learning beyond the initial answer. If a teacher asks a question and a student doesn’t know the answer, they can scale down to more simple, prerequisite knowledge questions. Then the teacher can build back up to the original question. This strategy is more supportive of that student’s learning, than just jumping to another student when someone doesn’t know the answer. Be able to adjust questioning from simple to complex, as a student requires.

Reference Disclaimer:

Some of the rules and ideas shared in the post were adapted from information shared by Dr. Rebecca Woodland, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the work of the East Penn School District Instructional Leadership Team, during a professional learning session.

Student Behavior: It’s Not About You!

“You don’t have the skills to get a job a Walmart. Even they require their employees to remember to bring their vest everyday!”

It is with great shame I admit these horrible words once came out of my mouth… to a student. It seemed like the hundredth day in a row one particular student forget his pencil. My frustration, with what turned out was my lack of control, overflowed and I let him have it. I verbally attacked, and probably humiliated, this student in front of classmates. It was soon after this shameful experience that I realized something was wrong with my traditional methods of classroom management. Sure my rewards and consequences approach seemed to work for many students, but not for all. In reality, any system works for the majority. Eventually I realized, even when something works, it doesn’t always make it right. In addition, my approach certainly was not working for some of my students. I knew something had to change.

Changing Your Mindset

The first step in establishing a positive classroom environment is to have the right mindset. In his book, Lost at School, Dr. Ross Greene (2008) proposes the idea that “kids do well if they can.” This idea promotes a belief that if a child is not meeting academic or behavioral expectations, it is because they lack the skill to do so. Early in my teaching career, I had a very hard time accepting this belief. In fact, my beliefs in terms of students being able to meet behavioral expectations were completely opposite. However, after a few years of teaching and implementing traditional behavior management strategies, it became clear to me that no child would willingly subject themselves to the punishment and embarrassment I sometimes put them through.

By changing my mindset, I began to approach all students, in all cases, as if they needed help to meet expectations. I started to believe that kids would do well, if they had the skills to do so. When a student wasn’t getting started on an assignment, I would approach them and ask questions like:  “Is everything okay?”, “It looks like you’re having trouble getting started, do you have any questions?”, “Let me sit with you and help you get started.” I completely stopped assuming students were just refusing to do their work.

And, when a student forgot a pencil, I gave them one. In reality, it didn’t really matter why they didn’t have one. Ensuring they had what they needed to be successful became my only priority.

When responding to student misbehavior, it is important to remember it is not about you. It’s not personal. It is not you v. them. Remembering this in a frustrating situation can be difficult, but when it becomes part of our everyday mindset, it gets easier.

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment

Here are a few ways to establish a positive classroom environment or respond to misbehavior:

 

  • Give Verbal Praise (A LOT OF IT!)

 

This is one of the most powerful strategies a teacher can use. Recognize students, individually or as a class, for every direction/instruction they follow. Students who crave attention will often adjust their behavior to receive this praise.

Examples: “I really like the way you are walked into the classroom; Thank you for using a quiet, raised hand; I really appreciate the way you are including everyone in your group discussion.”

  1. Use Subtle Strategies for Redirection

Using proximity, walking over and standing next to a student while continuing to teach, will often be enough of a cue for a student to stop talking.

Quietly going over to a student and whispering “Do you have a question?; Is there something I can help you with?” will either unearth a student question, or cue them to get back on task.

A teacher can also quietly ask the student if they can speak with them on the side, or in the doorway. When doing so, the teacher should state the expectation the student should be meeting, and ask them what they can do to help them meet the expectation: “I see you are having trouble getting started on your fraction activity, is there something I can help you with, or any questions I can answer?”

  1. State/Restate the Expected Behavior

When a student is not following a direction, instead of using “no; stop; don’t”, recognize a student who is meeting expectations, or restate the expected behavior to the whole class.

Example: If a student is calling out in class, a teacher can remind the class, “Please remember to use a quiet, raised hand when you would like to participate.” The student who is not following the expectation will often get the hint.

  1. Avoid a Power Struggle

When responding to students with challenging behaviors, it is important to avoid power struggles, especially in front of their peers. Teachers can completely destroy a relationship with a student in a power struggle scenario. If a student is refusing to do work, and does not respond to offers of support, it is important not to increase the demand and create a power struggle. Threats such as, “Do your work or go to the office; Get started or I’m going to call your parents,” create a me v. you power struggle. In this situation, even if the teacher wins in the moment, overall, they lose. They lose because they damage the relationship. And ultimately, that damage will have to be repaired at some point in order for the teacher and student to have success working together in the future. If a student is not causing a significant disruption to the whole class, the teacher is better-off waiting until the end of class to have a private conversation to establish the cause of the student behavior. Other students pick up on this, as well. Creating a scene by yelling or posing threats does not “prove” to the rest of the class that you are in charge. Instead, they may be left worrying about the possible consequence the next time they make a mistake. Maintaining composure and offering respect, even if it is not being reciprocated at the time, goes a long way in building a positive classroom culture.

How do you ensure students’ emotional needs are being met in your classroom? What strategies are successful for you?

To learn more about responding to students with behavioral challenges, I recommend:

Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. New York: HarperCollins.

Sometime We Fail!

A few weeks ago, I attended a fundraising dinner for a rescue mission in my area, which supported homeless men. I’ve attended this event for the past few years, and each time the chosen speaker from the mission would share inspiring stories of the recovery and success of some of the men they’ve supported. These stories were encouraging, captivated the audience, and inspired them to continue to support the mission. They would also share statistics of all the meals and beds they provided, and all the great programs they were running. These were awesome stories of success! But this year was different. This year, the speaker began by sharing three stories of tragedy. Three stories of men, that despite their best efforts, they were unable to help. The end of each story resulted in death or long-term imprisonment. The speaker shared these stories to share the reality of what they do. The reality that sometimes they fail. That despite all  the work, all the heart invested, all the tears, that sometimes, they still fail. I don’t share this story of failure to damage our hope or resolve, but to encourage us not to be afraid or ashamed of our failures.

Our Reality

In education, it seems it is never okay to admit that we will fail some of our students. I use the term “fail” in reference to the reaching the goals we want to accomplish with all of our students. The reality is that all of our efforts, interventions and supports will not be enough for some students. The reality is that some things are beyond our ability to support. So when this happens, it can create shame and feelings of failure among teachers and administrators. As a principal, I’ve recently experienced situations where we’ve felt like we did everything in our power to help and support a student, but in the end, we failed. We didn’t fail at trying or doing everything within our responsibility and power necessary to succeed. We failed in achieving the goal of helping all students be academically and behaviorally successful. We may have made the decision that another placement was more appropriate, or we eventually had to promote the student despite failing grades, but we didn’t meet our goal. We failed.

Taking it Personal

As a leader, it’s hard not to feel guilty and down about these experiences with failure. After all, when I look at social media, all I see is success stories and celebrations. But how often do schools share their failures? In what way do we discuss these situations? I am not saying we should promote these situations on our Twitter feeds, but how do we share and discuss them within our PLN’s? Or are they just ignored and hidden away, not to be discussed in public. I wonder how much we could grow by sharing and discussing our failures. After all, it is a least a small part of our reality.

Failure Can’t Stop Us!

We should never give up hope, diminish our efforts, or let this reality change what we do. We should never let our failures stop us. However, we need to admit this is part of our reality, discuss it, and use it to help us improve moving forward.

Where do you discuss your failures openly and honestly?

How can we safely share failures within education?

Creating A Culture of Learning, Not Grading

Grading practices can have a major impact on student learning. However, grading is often an overlooked aspect of classroom culture. We must remember that everything we do impacts our relationships with students. Sometimes our grading practices create a culture of grading, rather than learning. We need to make sure our grading practices promote trust, reflection and growth, not a “gotcha” culture of rewards and punishment. The purpose of grading is to accurately communicate learning. They should be used as a communication and reflection tool to promote student growth and learning. Grades should not be for rewarding, punishing, ranking or sorting students.

Creating a Culture of Learning, Not Grading

Most teachers would agree they would like their classroom to be a supportive learning environment. However, many times, their approach to grading sends a different message. For example, when teachers do not accept late work, they are putting the grade in front of the learning. They send the message that the learning demonstrated is not as important as the grade that must be enforced due to the behavior of turning in the work late. When teachers put the importance of behavior in such a high position that the learning no longer matters, they are destroying a culture of learning. Grades should not be used as punishments for student behavior. Too often, teachers hit students with the “grading paddle” as punishment for not following directions on an assignment or failing to follow protocol for submitting work. These behaviors rarely have to do with the learning that is aligned with standards, but instead fall in the category of miscellaneous things teachers choose to grade based on personal preference.

Another example is when teachers assign zeros for students who don’t complete assignments and just move on. Many teachers will argue this practice is done to “teach” responsibility. However, punishing a student with a bad grade for a behavior doesn’t “teach” anything. If this was a successful teaching method, we’d have much more responsible students. No student would ever get a second zero because they were “taught” responsibility. This is just not the case. The reality is that the student who receives the first zero usually follows up with several more zeros because the teacher didn’t hold them accountable to the right thing, which is the learning.

How Re-Testing / Allowing Re-Do’s Improves Learning

If a student fails to demonstrate the knowledge and/or skills on an assessment, and the teacher moves on to the next unit with no additional follow-up, the learning becomes secondary to pacing and grading. Learning must come first. There must be a level of reteaching and reassessing to show the importance of learning the content or skills to students. When teachers just move ahead and plow into the next unit, they send the message that the learning not attained during the previous unit, really wasn’t that important.

How else do grading practices communicate a culture of learning, or grading? Share either view.

Looking to implement effective grading practices, I recommend:

Preparing Students for Higher Ed or The Real World?

The title of this post shouldn’t be a question. Additionally, it shouldn’t contain an “OR”!

The photo above is of a sign hanging in a classroom at a well-respected university. The school itself doesn’t matter, because I am sure there are too many like it, in colleges and universities throughout the nation.

As K-12 schools, we are challenged to build the necessary skills students will need to be successful in the “real-world.” However, by now we know that our approach is often in conflict with what students need to be successful in higher ed. Notice, the set of skills is not the same for both. But it should be!

As a middle school principal, I constantly hear about how we need to do certain things differently, or in some cases, not provide certain supports, in order to “prepare our students for high school.” I usually respond by reminding people that our primary purpose is to educate our students in our curricular areas, and build the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace. In response, I often hear how we are setting kids up for failure. But why should we have to do things that are not in the best interest of student learning, just because high schools or colleges do them? I refuse to budge from making sure we are doing what’s best for students, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

So why do many high schools have different views on what’s educationally appropriate and necessary? Of course — It’s because of what colleges and universities deem educationally appropriate and necessary. But what if they’re wrong? What if many of our post-secondary institutions, who are notoriously slow to change, are not doing what’s best for students? What if they are still refusing to embrace the power of leveraging technology in and out of the classroom to engage students in a type of learning necessary to compete in the real-world? What if the professors in our universities have been out of real-world practice and have only been doing research and teaching college courses? What about the fact that many university professors are/were knowledgeable in their fields, but frankly are just poor teachers? Should they be setting the example for K-12 schools to follow?

To be honest, I’m tired. I’m tired and frustrated with higher ed dictating what high schools should be doing, and down the line. There are too many decisions influenced by higher ed that shouldn’t be. Grading practices would be the first one I’d like to throw out the window. But there are others.

Whether you are at the elementary, middle or high school level: How are you, or your school, negatively influenced by practices of schools at the level above you?