Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Let Data Drive

During the past few days working on student progress reports, I have been looking at a quarter's worth student data. At times, I've muttered that dirty four letter word that often defines success or failure and plays an important role in "driving instruction."

I have a reputation as a data hater. Not true. I love data. My Excel spreadsheets are coveted. I collect all kinds of data from student conferences, exit tickets, group project reflections, blog posts and, yes, even standardized assessments. I admit that I don't care for how student data is used. Too often it is used to narrowly define students, reward those who are proficient in the game of school, and strip choice from those who don't measure up.

I don't use data to drive instruction.

Letting data drive seems irresponsible. Kind of like letting your teenage daughter steer with her knee while typing in an address on her iPhone while changing the radio station. Trust me, I have a teenage daughter learning to drive, changing the radio station is a challenge.

Data alone can't predict every possible outcome or obstacle. Truth is data can be unreliable and is only as good as the method of collection. Too much data can be a distraction.

I prefer to let data inform instruction as I've written about in an earlier post.

When data informs instruction it works more like a GPS navigation system. You enter the address having a general idea where you want to go, and let the data offer suggestions on how to get there. You're still free to change course, stop, or choose a whole new route. The final decision on your route is based on what you discover along the way. The GPS informs and advises, but it doesn't actually drive the car.

Recalculating . . .

Data is great, but I don't want it behind the wheel. That's my job.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A "little blogging love"

or how blogging builds a PLN

It's all Will Richardson's fault.

Prior to the start of the 2012 school year, I had the privilege to hear him speak to faculty in my district who had been granted 1:1 technology for his or her classroom. By the time he finished speaking about student-centered learning, connecting as an educator, the fallacy of standardizing curriculum to improve student achievement, and why school as we know it is unsustainable, I opened a twitter account. And in doing so, opened a connection to some of the most dedicated, intelligent, professional and passionate people I've (n)ever meet.

Connecting was a big deal for me. Over the years, I've come to value my privacy. I prefer to fly under the radar. Twitter changed all that. I began to connect with other like-minded educators, and began building a PLN. One of the first was @JoyKirr. So when Joy said she wrote about me, I'll admit to some mixed feelings. Why would she write about me? What did I do? Did she comment on one of my Genius Hour musings? Although we have never met (and may never meet), I consider Joy not only a valuable resource, mentor, and adviser, but also a friend. To say I found her tweet intriguing would be an understatement, and I began to read her blog post immediately.

As is our family tradition, we were watching A Christmas Story on Christmas Eve; I was also checking my twitter feed before heading to church.  Now, I don't know if it was divine intervention, karma, coincidence, or just dumb luck, but I read Joy's tweet that recognized my blog as one deserving "a little blogging love" at the exact moment Darren McGavin read the telegram informing him that he had won a "major award." I immediately knew how he felt. Thanks Joy. 

But like most major awards, it came with a few strings attached. I had some tasks to complete. Specifically:

  • Acknowledge the nominating blogger. (check, thanks again, Joy)
  • Share 11 random facts about myself
  • Answer 11 questions from the nominating blogger
  • List 11 bloggers that deserve some blogging love
  • Post 11 questions for the bloggers I nominate
So here goes.

eleven random facts - in no particular order

  • Teaching is not my first career, after failing in two previous careers and approaching mid-life, I volunteered in my son's 1st grade classroom. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • I wanted to be an architect when I was growing up. I still love architecture and haven't completely let go of this dream.
  • I swam from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in San Francisco.
  • I have been married to the same wonderful, supportive woman for 28 years.
  • I competed in triathlons when they were sponsored by beer companies.
  • I am an elder in my church after returning to organized religion after a long hiatus. It took a kindred spirit preacher to get me back. 
  • I suffer from TIADD - Twitter Induced Attention Deficit Disorder. (Or is that procrastination?)
  • I was the editorial page editor of my college newspaper. One of my editorials inspired a protest lead by one of my history professors. Awkward.
  • I am working on a master's degree in education technology and leadership. I now have a whole new respect for on-line programs.
  • I have ridden RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) 10 times. Iowa is my home state and I love returning to my roots one week each July.
  • I lived in San Francisco and Marin County for 19 years before moving to beautiful Northwest Arkansas 6 years ago. But don't hold that against me. 

answers to Joy's questions

  • Happiest days of my life
    • the day my son was born
    • the day I delivered my daughter in the hospital
    • the day my wife was found after disappearing for 2 days
  • Latest classroom success - This actually occurred in a colleague's classroom. I taught a project-based math lesson to a class that had been labeled as "unteachable, disruptive and difficult" for all the usual reasons. During the project, they were 100% engaged, behaved (mostly), and collaborative. Like Ghandi said, "be the change you wish to see in the world." 
  • What have you NOT blogged about, yet thought about, and whyI am currently serving on my dream committee. My district is exploring converting one of our elementary schools into a K-8 STEAM charter. I have been preaching student-centered, project-based, tech-infused elementary education to any administrator who wouldn't turn and walk away for 3 years. I'm so excited about this project. Rarely does an opportunity like this come along.
  • Who has influenced you most at your school - Wendy Sooter. She teaches next door to me and is extremely gifted, organized and creative. She is one of those fearless, innovative teachers who make you better.
  • If you had to choose one song to listen to in the car - C2C's Happy
  • What is your favorite holiday? Why - I don't particularly care for holidays. I've always felt inadequate on those that require a gift, and they're all too commercialized. The message is lost. It's sad.
  • Favorite quote - "I never teach my pupils, I only provide conditions in which they can learn." Albert Einstein
  • What are you excited about - The STEAM Charter School Conversion. This could be a chance to truly remake education on a student-driven model. I dream of a school where everyday is Genius Hour. This could be that school.
  • Plans after retirement - Fish. Ride bike. Fish. Read. Fish. Fish. Write my memoir - "Swimming Upstream in a River of Estrogen: My Life as a Male Elementary School Teacher." Fish.
  • What should I be doing instead of reading Joy's blog post - Fortunately, nothing. She was kind enough to post it on Christmas Eve.

list of bloggers - in no particular order

True confessions time. I don't consistently read as many blogs as I would like. And, honestly, I wonder when some of the bloggers I follow sleep! I do try to read almost everything written by the bloggers below. 

Andrea Stringer - Her honesty and positive perspective is truly motivational
Justin Stortz - This incredibly passionate, thoughtful, courageous, and humorous writer speaks to me personally on a number of levels. He'll make you cry - he does me.
Tamara Dollar - Just plain witty. And her thoughts on literacy are spot on.
Oliver Schinkten - "The offensive lineman of innovation" His in-your-face, no-holds-barred passion for student-driven learning is inspiring.  
AJ Juliani - Clever, creative and one of the best curators on the web
Seth Godin - Clear, concise, and poignant strategies for life, I try to have breakfast with Seth each day (virtually). 
John Robinson - My admin zen master, required reading for anyone considering becoming an administrator. 
Pernille Ripp - Absolutely honest and thought-provoking, she keeps it real.
Paul Solarz - Gifted mentor to any who read his blog, he freely shares his best practices with the world. 
Vicki Davis - It's all about what's best for students. Period. 
Dr. Justin Tarte - Perspective is everything. He'll help you keep yours.

questions for the bloggers

  • What educational theorist would you like to see debate Arne Duncan?
  • What 3 celebrities would you like to have dinner with? Why?
  • If you won the lottery, what would you do?
  • What will the title of your memoirs be?
  • If you weren't an educator, what would you be?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would you change?
  • Who would you most like to interview?
  • Who inspires you? Why?
  • What is your superpower?
  • Is there anything that you could not live without?
  • If you could go back in time and stop one thing from occurring, what would that be?

final thoughts

So I blame Will Richardson. And Joy Kirr. And John Spencer. And Daisy Marino. And Mark White. And Angela Maiers. And countless others who have influenced my thinking, inspired me to take on challenges, and initiated conversations that helped me to grow as an educator. I want you to know that you matter and are appreciated.

I haven't been blogging for long. I've always had opinions and actually like to write. I never thought what I had to say mattered that much. But now I understand that it's not what you write, but the process of writing that's important, even if only a few people read the words. Sometimes the most valuable connection is the one you make with your own thoughts. Thanks again, Joy, for the opportunity to connect.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Viva la #nerdlution

As usual, I'm late to the party. I should probably make my #nerdlution to try and be ahead of a trend, but, as I understand it, the point is to set a goal to be accomplished over 50 days that is actually realistic. While I believe in failure as a necessary step towards learning, my experience tells me that setting myself up to fail will not result in any new learning, only frustration, self-doubt and the inevitable internal "I told you so" conversation that really doesn't need to be repeated. I'm too old for that.

I was fortunate to be mentored by an administrator who firmly believed in a whole child approach to everything. She always talked about incorporating a social, emotional and physical component to nearly everything you do in life. To honor her, I'm going to make three nerdlutions, one for each category.

Being a trendsetter in technology, fashion, pedagogy, thought, etc. is out of the realm of possibility. As much as I admire the great young minds on twitter, I'm not going to be one of them. Whoever said "youth is wasted on the young" has never read a blog post or tweet by Justin Stortz @newfirewithin, Oliver Schinkten @schink10, John Spencer @edrethink, Dave Burgess @burgessdave, Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp, or Joy Kirr @JoyKirr. These creative, passionate and thoughtful young educators are just a few of the connections I've been fortunate to make on twitter who have helped shape my thinking. One of my nerdlutions is to send a tweet of thanks out over the next 50 days to people (young and old) who have impacted the how and why of what I do each day to let them know they are appreciated.

I'm halfway through a master's program. For much of the past 9 months, I've felt slightly guilty when I'm actually doing something unrelated to the program during my free time. One thing I haven't been doing is reading just for fun. I remember what it's like to read a book without (references, 2009), but I haven't made the time to actually do it. Therefore, my emotional nerdlution is to read a book unrelated to education for 15 minutes each night. I'm going to enjoy that.

Finally, my physical nerdlution is to ride my bike during the nightly news each night. I have everything I need to make this happen - I'm just lazy. So, enough with the excuses, already. Via la nerdlution!

(I've  just decided  to stay away from toxic people and detox myself; I realize that I should commit to that for more than 50 days, however. I was reading Tamra Dollar's latest post http://www.dollarliteracy.blogspot.com/ while writing this. Her #tweetpreciation will be one of the first.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

What I Learned Shoveling Snow

During the last 1 1/2 hours shoveling show, I did what I tend to do when faced with menial tasks - think about education. I was thinking about how my old middle school math teacher Wayne Spurbeck would grade my snow shoveling assignment. 

December 6, 2013
I'm certain he would have given me an incomplete, with the reminder that when I did finish the task points would be deducted for being late. I'd probably end up with a C in the end, but in this case, it might be a D. I didn't completely clean the driveway, nor did I clear off the car. And my lines and angles aren't very precise. 

I'm sure our conversation would have ended as they usually did, with Coach Spurbeck saying that he was surprised I could find my way home given my absolutely horrible memory for math facts and formulas. (I somehow always found 323 SW 2nd Street, probably because it was 3 blocks south of the library on the opposite side of the street.)

The grade would have accurately reflected what I did, but in no way would it have reflected what I knew about the subject. And Coach Spurbeck wouldn't have thought to ask what I knew, teachers just didn't do that 40 years ago. 

Now, if I were being assessed on my performance, and asked why I made the choices I did, I would have replied that I watched the weather and heard it was going to get bitterly cold. I knew that before it had started to snow, some freezing rain and sleet had fallen. The snow cover had kept this precipitation unfrozen; but the frigid temperatures would change that, so it was important to clear the driveway while it was warm enough to get this slushy layer off along with the 8" of snow, or it would freeze solid and the best I could hope for would be to scrape the snow off the top of the ice creating an inclined skating rink. 

I didn't clear the car because I knew the snow will still be light and fluffy tomorrow when I push it off onto the section I hadn't shoveled, and I can use the heater in the car to loosen the ice and clear it off. I had a plan going into the task. But I wasn't being graded on the plan, outcome, or what I had learned while working on the task - only the correct way to complete the task.

It's important to ask students the why and how questions they encounter while completing and assignment. Waiting until the end of the task and assigning a grade only reflects the "doing" and not the learning that took place before, during, and after the assignment. I failed to get the driveway or the car clear, but that doesn't mean I didn't show what I have learned. 

I'll finish getting the car out, but since the snowplow hasn't shown up yet, I'm not in any hurry.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Out on a Limb

a fresh perspective on Genius Day

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my real or perceived struggles with expanding Genius Hour to a full day in third grade. My effort to give over 20% of my student's workweek, had left me with more questions than answers. I had even considered scrapping the idea altogether or at the very least returning to an hour a week.

I've been reflecting on the questions I posed in that post and have come to realize (as usual) that it's not the kids in the room, but my own perception of what student-driven learning should look like that caused me to doubt the learning that was happening. I had let my perspective be influenced too much by what other teachers might think about the noisy, chaotic, yet, collaborative, creative, engaged maelstrom of learning that occurs on Fridays.

If a school were a tree, I'd be out on a very long limb. Think of the traditional classroom as a sturdy branch well anchored to a stable, grounded, deeply-rooted, structured, and slow growing trunk Now imagine a limb that grew a bit too fast and a little bit too perpendicular to the trunk. It's attached to the trunk, but at its angle and length, its stability is questionable. That's where you usually find me, as far out on the limb as possible, clinging to the little branches for balance.

Lately, however, I realize that I've been inching back toward the trunk. The closer I got, the more focused on the trunk I became. And that's when the questions began. I'd lost the perspective from the end of the branch. I began to view what was happening in my classroom during Genius Day not as learning, but as something more akin to free time. I'd lost perspective.

I began to see the paper airplanes flying around the room as distractions instead of experiments in aerodynamics, velocity and materials; the carpet of construction paper as a waste of resources instead of a study in area and spacial awareness; and the tiny pieces of home furnishings and copious saved images as a waste of time instead of a natural beginning to the creative process.

I've begun inching my way back out to my place on the limb thanks to my PLN and especially Joy Kirr @JoyKirr and Mark White @mwhitedg whose comments and posts helped me realize how fortunate I am to be able to balance on a limb at all, especially when so many teachers are tethered to the trunk either by policy, pedagogy or both.

I am in no way going to reduce Genius Day back to an hour. It's become too much a part of my classroom DNA. The mere mention of not having Genius Day due to a field trip, special visitor or assembly is met with groans and anguished looks of disbelief on the faces of my budding entrepreneurs.

I'm heading back out to my space on the limb. It's not as stable, but the perspective is much better.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Genius? Day

reflections on 8 weeks of student-directed learning

Organic. That's what I wanted. An organic learning experience that, given enough time, would grow into a connected tree of knowledge. If I plant the seed and give students time to explore their passions and to learn what and how they want, will a great learning experience will take root and grow? 

This year, I decided to fully embrace the concept of 20% time and give my 3rd grade class one day of the week to explore anything they wanted. Anything. I didn't give them a rubric to follow, an organizer to use, a planner to guide them, or set deadlines or checkpoints. They are not unfamiliar with self-directed learning. The previous year they were given Friday afternoons for Genius Hour. This time was a huge success and something each student looked forward to every week. Expanding it to a full day seemed like a natural progression. 

More is better, right?

Before they begin Genius Day, we have a class meeting to discuss a topic relevant to self-directed learning. We've covered driving questions, deciding that a good driving question can't be answered by Google in less than a second. We've discovered a variety of search tools and how to use them by searching with key words instead of questions. We've learned to ask why, how, and what if, more than who, what, when and where. We've created a shared blog with a classroom in another country to share our genius with the world. We've established a "wonder wall" where throughout the week anyone can post something they're wondering about. We've learned and practiced "critical friending" our ideas and projects. We've even done a project based learning project to create a rubric so students can self-assess their projects. 

What I haven't done is direct the learning. 

For the last couple of Fridays, here is what has been going on in my room. Two students dismantled a solar powered calculator trying to design a method of charging cell phones while riding a bike. A student is researching making concrete houses in Africa to power ovens for baking after discovering that the Hoover Dam radiates enough heat to bake bread. A group is working on designing a remote controlled bomb squad hovercraft. My statistically least proficient students are working on researching endangered animals, and in the process, reading and comprehending resources standardized tests say they shouldn't be able to read. Last week, a group started working on a rubber airplane, wondering if that wouldn't be more safe in the event of a crash. 

Here are some other things I'm noticing. A group glued 20 sheets of construction paper together to build a tree house. The project was abandoned. Another group, wondering if you could build a floating house, spent their day cutting notebook paper into pieces and arranging them into furniture, lights, etc. for the house. Some students spend the day "searching," ending up with a huge number of saved photos on their iPads and little else. I also saw the rubber airplane group construct airplanes from pencils and paper, which soon took various test flights around the room. Their group suddenly became very popular. 

We're eight weeks into the school year, and eight weeks into Genius Day.

Reflecting on this experiment led me to write this post. As I contemplate scaling back Genius Day to Genius Hour, I'm struggling with so many questions. Why am I feeling like this experiment is not successful? Why have the past few weeks been more frustrating for me? Why do I feel that Genius Day has regressed into "Fun Time Arts and Crafts" Friday? Am I expecting too much? Or worse, too little? Do students have too much time for self-directed learning? Am I too concerned about what other teachers think? Are the kids really learning? Do I need to prove it? Am I managing enough? Is it time for more structure? Have I lost the joy in the process, at the expense of a product? 

Has the plant grown too big and is in need of pruning? Or does it need fertilizer, water, and nurturing to continue to grow and mature? 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

First Quarter Report

With the first quarter of the school year nearly over, it's time for an update on the Entrepreneurial Classroom. In general, I think it is going well. An overwhelming majority of students have bought into the system and are actively engaged in the work of the company - learning. Everyday I see a highly motivated group of kids learning to take risks, think creatively, collaborate effectively, criticize honestly, accept challenges, and take ownership. We have built our classroom around these habitudes of entrepreneurs.

Risk taking

Our Company Logo
An on-going theme in our classroom has been to see failure as necessary for success. This change in mindset from seeing failure as the end of learning to seeing failure as the beginning of learning more than anything else has changed the way students interact with each other and with me. I used to have to pull names from a hat to get volunteers to show their thinking to the class. Now, students enthusiastically volunteer. And the best part, when they don't arrive at the correct answer, a discussion starts not only about what they did wrong, but how and why they made the mistake without judgement.

Creative thinking

Thinking creatively is a difficult concept for eight- and nine-year-olds, who equate creativity with more concrete skills like drawing, painting, etc. We've been focusing more on perspective with regard to creativity, working on the ability to see things differently and look for another way to solve a problem. This is the most difficult area for me as I see the tools we have available in our 1:1 classroom and want to "push" them to use something other than the same whiteboard app for every presentation.

Improved Collaboration

I haven't grouped my kids for lessons, independent practice or activities. They have formed groups as needed based largely on purpose and interest. It's been amazing to watch how they've grouped for the different activities and subjects. During math, I have a group I work with daily because they need extra support. The rest of the class forms cooperative groups without much intervention from me. Likewise during literacy activities the groups are fluid and heterogeneous. Our afternoons are reserved for project-based learning and grouping choices are made largely based on purpose and not personality. While some students prefer to work with certain students, there hasn't been any exclusion of a student or students and all are willing to share information with peers.

Critical thinking and Criticism 

I believe that increased risk taking has lead to an increase in critical thinking among my students. I am certain that risk taking affects their ability to give and take criticism. I notice that my students are questioning more, less concerned with being first with the right answer, and continue searching for more information. They've coined a term "googleable" to use to evaluate driving questions during project-based learning and genius hour. If a question is "googleable" it's not a good driving question because Google can answer it in less than a second. I see them becoming critical consumers of information.
We starting using a critical friends process for evaluating each others work. This process begins with a student providing something to share with the group - writing, a project idea, math problem, research. Students comment by starting with an "I like" statement then move to more critical "I wonder," "I'm confused by," and "I think" statements. The process ends with the student who offered the work for "critical friending" telling what their next steps will be based on the criticism they were given. This process of peer evaluation really holds meaning for students and makes them feel as if they, and what they are doing, matters.

Accepting Challenges

Every group of students has at least one minimalist - the kid who only does what is necessary to get done. While I do have a minimalist, that child is starting to feel alone. This group has been willing to take on new challenges largely because they have bought in to the system and find purpose in what they are being asked to do. They know that failure is an option and that it doesn't matter if they don't know the right answer immediately. It's the process that matters, because in the process of learning, the learning happens.Adopting the habitudes of entrepreneurs has lead to students creating an environment where mistakes are embraced, creativity in thought and action is common place, collaboration occurs naturally, critical thinking is automatic, criticism is accepted, and students have ownership of learning.

As the Chief Learning Officer, I still have to make executive decisions. There are times when you just have to do what you're told in life. But I make very few decisions unilaterally; I trust my team to make good, reasonable choices (for the most part), accept the consequences of those choices, and have given them freedom to do so. From my perspective, I see an engaged classroom, working together to construct and share knowledge on a daily basis. I'd say the first quarter has been a success.