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 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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Decisions, Decisions

Running a start-up is hard work. Especially when your co-owners are 7- and 8-year-olds. We spent most of our time in meetings - very short meetings - and working in collaborative groups to develop our schedule, procedures, and organize our space. Ownership requires a lot of thought, communication and decision making.

We began the week working on our schedule. After identifying the things that could not be changed, we began to list all the things our business had to do and wanted to do. This resulted in a rather long list of academic subjects, but also included time for project-based learning, game-based learning, blogging and genius hour. I really didn't have to lead the discussion toward including these "subjects." They wanted to make sure there was time in our day for them. Ultimately, we settled on a fairly traditional schedule Monday through Thursday and left Friday for Genius Day - yes, they are spending 20% of their workweek engaged in projects they are passionate about. I couldn't be more pleased.

Procedures were addressed as the need arose. And by the end of the week, we still don't have a list of rules or agreements on the wall. That doesn't mean we don't have any, they just weren't the focus of the week. We did create procedures for having discussions, actively listening, and being a critical friend. We practiced them during the week as we dealt with the problems that came up. Funny how that worked out.

To facilitate our discussions, we needed space and our room was not set up to accommodate our need to gather in a common area. We had some desks in the way. This was our biggest problem of the week. I decided as Chief Learning Officer, that I wanted to have the flexibility to group in a square, rectangle, triangle or circle for discussions. We started our first project by addressing our spacial problem: I wonder if it's possible for 24 kids to sit in these shapes in our room; and how large would the space have to be.

This is the kind of authentic problem-solving activity I love to incorporate. We first had to determine how much space each child needed to sit. Using a yardstick, I took some random samples and created a line plot. Our data showed that 18" was the most frequent measurement, but we decided to use 20" so our knees didn't touch. They then set to work figuring out what the perimeter of the shape would have to be to accommodate 24 students in each shape. It was amazing to see them immediately get to work, taking meter sticks, graph paper and rulers to the task.

But the highlight of the activity was when three students arrived at a solution. The first to determine that we would need a square with 120" on each side wasn't the gifted and talented kids, nor the math boys or the right answer gang. It was two English Language Learners and one of the students who scored least proficient on last year's standardized test. These students fearlessly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and took risks. I wish you could have seen the look on the faces of the class when these three students taught me how to find the perimeter of the square necessary to accommodate the class. It was priceless. I have never been so proud.

I wasn't just proud of the students who solved the problem first. The rest of the class was genuinely happy for their colleagues - even the competitive math whizzes, who realized that they had made a mistake early on and were able to explain how it had caused them to arrive at the wrong answer. (They started with 18" not 20.") They accepted their mistake, learned from it, and moved on. I realized then that the entrepreneurial spirit had taken hold.

Funny thing about giving student's ownership. They usually step-up to the task. Throughout the week they made meaningful decisions that directly effect how they are going to learn, what they are going to learn, what behavior is expected, and how they are going to work together. They solved problems in real-time. I'd say week one was a success.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Death of the Packet

I'm in a fortunate position this school year. I chose to loop with my class from 2nd to 3rd grade. I can't say that it was an easy decision; I really liked 2nd grade. But I really want to see what my first group of digital disciples can do with another year of maturity, greater awareness of their connection to the world, and improved academic skills. Also, if you read my previous post on the entrepreneurial classroom, I'm trying to introduce a new level of ownership. It's a big change and I think this is the year to test it. I have a great group of kids and understanding, supportive parents with whom I've already developed a relationship. Conditions are right for change. 

In the past I have sent home a packet of homework to be completed throughout the week. Most of the content on the pages should have been review and practice, but in reality, there were times when it wasn't. I justified this by saying that it gave me a chance to see who could figure out something new. I also communicated to parents that when this occurred, they should circle the item or leave a note on the page and move on. This policy was not perfect, but worked fairly well; although I know there were times when homework caused problems.

I also used standardized testing as an excuse for homework. Over the years I had built my packet around concepts that were going to be on the test in April. I'd given the test often enough to know. I'm not proud of this. I felt like a hypocrite; especially since I'm fond of saying that if you teach a child to think they will do. If you teach a child to do they will not think. You can quote me on that. 

So this year, I'm changing. Over the summer, I did some research and reflection on the purpose of homework and came up with the following policy on homework. 

Your child will not be receiving a homework packet this year. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that homework enhances student learning until fourth grade. (Marzano and Pickering, 2007) Most often, homework is the source of confusion, power struggles, and anxiety (both parent and child). Your child will have tasks to do at home when they are relevant to or enhance what is happening in the classroom. You will be notified when these situations arise. If you desire homework on a regular basis, I can provide resources for you to use.

Your child will be expected to read at least 20 minutes each night, recording their thoughts while they read. They are also expected to post a commentary on the book they are reading each week to I will send home a rubric to use to evaluate the blog post for grammar, punctuation, content and structure.

I may reduce the required reading and make a blog post due every two weeks instead of one. But one thing I do know. There won't be anymore packets.

Marzano, Robert & Pickering, Debra (March, 2007). Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework [Web log post] Retrieved from

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Entrepreneurial Classroom

There's been an idea kickin' around in my head for over a month about organizing my classroom like a start-up company. The thought started after I attended a professional development seminar on using data to drive instruction. (See my previous post Data-Driven or Data-Informed) One of the presenters, a middle school principal, talked about student ownership of data. And how ownership lead to greater achievement. I'm all for student ownership. And achievement. Now the question is how to create a structure that creates ownership of learning, data and provides an intrinsic incentive?

My Entrepreneurial Classroom Logo
So here's what I'm going to try.

I've created the entrepreneurial classroom. I'll be the CLO - Chief Learning Officer - and the kids will apply for jobs in 5 teams: Technology, Logistics, Development, Creative, and Audit. My job as CLO is to engage in strategic planning, vision, and manage the environment - big picture stuff. I will also serve as coach and mentor and set performance goals and objectives.

The teams will be responsible for the day-to-day operations. Technology team will manage the iPad cart, wireless keyboards, headsets, conduct app research and troubleshoot. Logistics team will manage supplies, resources and schedule. Development team is tasked with project planning to meet standards and creating assessments. Creative team will develop presentations for stakeholders, promote the brand, and provide communications support. Finally, the audit team will be in charge of reviewing assessments, quality control and maintaining standards and practices. Students will be tasked with running the company to meet the objectives developed collaboratively. Sounds crazy, I know.

What about parents?

Here's the description I'm sending to parents.

Over the summer, I conducted research on creating a “start-up” mindset in a classroom. This mindset is centered on three ideas. First, the environment should be conducive to risk-taking, innovation and creativity. It should promote problem – solving and not focus on being first with the correct answer. In fact, it should embrace the wrong answer as the jumping off point for discussion, collaboration and learning. An entrepreneurial classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.

The second idea involves ownership. In an entrepreneurial classroom, students take ownership for not only classroom supplies, behavior and consequences, but also for the creation of consequences, assessments, scheduling (to the extent possible), learning opportunities, content, and assessment data. They will be directly involved in the operation of the classroom and held accountable for decisions. There won’t be any surprises; students will know what is expected of them because they created the expectations.

Finally, the third idea revolves around non-academic skills necessary for success. Research shows that grit, perseverance, resiliency, empathy, curiosity and character affect student success to a large degree. Students who have learned to be optimistic and conscientious care more about how they are doing, are better able to accept criticism, and overcome real or perceived obstacles more easily. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough compiles research from a variety of sources to argue that non-academic skills benefit children across the socio-economic spectrum. In an entrepreneurial classroom, "soft skills" are an essential part of the curriculum. 

Company Stock Certificate


Just giving the kids jobs doesn't promote ownership to the extent I'm trying to achieve. I want "buy-in", "what-ever-it-takes", "skin-in-the-game" ownership. To do this I've created shares of stock in the company. The value of each child's shares is equal to their scaled score on a standard assessment. Each child will know the number of shares they own. The only public number will be the number of shares in aggregate.

This was the most difficult aspect for me, since I'm not a big fan of standardized tests. But I do like data when it's meaningful, consistent and used to inform. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, standardized assessments have a purpose. When you want to compare something on an objective measure, then some form of standardized comparison tool is necessary. I needed an objective valuation model to make this work.

I will hold a bi-weekly performance review with each child on Friday to review their work, data and set goals for the next period. These meetings will also be a time for the child to reflect on how and what they are doing, and for me to get in some quality one-on-one time with each student, perform authentic assessments, and connect. In keeping with the entrepreneural spirit, Friday will also be 20% Time/Genius Hour all day long. Due to the success of  Genius Hour last year, I'm going all in and committing 20% of the week to student exploration of their own passions. 

That's the plan. I feel pretty good about it. I'll let you know how it works.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Data - Driven or Data - Informed

A thought came to me after attending a professional development seminar on using data. I purposely attended this seminar because I thought I wasn't going to agree with the presenters' ideas. I know and respect the presenters, and genuinely wanted to hear their take on data and using data to drive instruction.

I have a reputation for disliking data. The truth is, I actually like data. I was the first on my block to build a spreadsheet to house student data. It's the use of data I don't care for. I'm not big on "data-driven" classrooms. Data-driven connotes the kind of impersonal, authoritarian, numbers-run penitentiary of boredom where I imagine a teacher-student conversation goes something like:

Teacher (Warden): I'm sorry student 0493, but your RIT score of 187 is unacceptable. I'm going to have to send you for remediation.
Student 0493: But, sir, I did my best.
Teacher: I know, but the data tells me you have some deficiencies.
Student 0493: May I see my data, sir?
Teacher: See your data? You wouldn't understand it. Let's just do what the data says; It will be easier for us both.
Student 0493: Okay, sir, if the data says that's best.

What we have he - ah, is a de -fi - shin - sah!
I prefer to be data-informed. Data-informed just sounds more collaborative. Data-informed connotes a personal, coaching, we're-in-this-together community of learning where I imagine the above conversation would be more like:

Teacher: Hi Betsy, I have the results of your last (insert standardized test name here). It's very interesting. Today during our coaching conference we're going to look at some of the data that shows what you are doing very well and some areas where we need to focus our attention. 
Betsy: Okay, I really think I did pretty well on some parts.
Teacher: You did. For example, in reading comprehension, you did very well in determining cause and effect relationships, but you missed a few questions on author's purpose. What can you tell me about that?
Betsy: I get confused on author's purpose questions because I don't really understand how to tell the difference between entertaining and informing. All the passages were interesting to me and I enjoyed reading them. 
Teacher: Well, I know you love to read and I can see how you could be confused. Let's review how an informational text is structured and some clue words that authors use to signal when their purpose is to inform, then we can practice some more.

You get the idea.

One of the points the presenter made, and something I recently read about, was sharing data with students so they had ownership of it. Initially, I struggled with this idea for a couple of reasons. First, I worried about the "sharing" of data in a competitive culture, i.e. "I scored a 202 and you only scored a 185." And secondly, would it really do any good to tell a child their number? I've looked at all kinds of data over the years, and still don't really understand what the number means sometimes. How am I going to effectively share this with a child? Will they get it?

Don't get me wrong. I love ownership of learning. Just not sure about how to use the data. That is until now. I think I have a plan to incorporate my classroom. I think I've found a way to structure my classroom on a business model that gives students ownership of not just data, but curriculum development, assessment and project planning. It also builds purpose and community, and places me in the role of lead learner, facilitator, mentor, coach and learning designer.

Stay tuned.

Thanks to Will Richardson for "penitentiary of boredom" and Andrew Miller for "learning designer."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Trouble with TESS

I felt it coming. I've spent hours with TESS over the last few days. We discuss current events, watch short movies, reflect on my life and career. Given the depth of our relationship, it was only a matter of time before we disagreed on something. Couples have disagreements all the time. I get that. They disagree about money, children and, well, the process of making children.

My disagreement with TESS isn't about money or about the origin of children. (We've only been seeing each other a week, it wouldn't be proper.) But it is about children. Specifically about how children are taught and learn. And I'm afraid our differences may be irreconcilable. We're just too far apart philosophically.

I'm an educator. TESS wants teachers. And this is the root of our disagreement.

I believe that children need educators that provide structured freedom. Educators who create the environment where kids can safely explore, question and fail. A place where learners take ownership of the curriculum and an active role in how they engage with it. A place where learning is messy and filled with a chorus of collaboration and communication and the chatter of critical thinking. A place that is home to passionate problem solving and copious creativity. A place driven by inquiry, tied to objectives and powered by a child's curiosity. I believe kids need educators in the classic sense of the word - people with a desire to "draw out the unique qualities of a child." This is what I believe; the kind of educator I want to be.

I have yet to succeed in creating this environment. But I'm an educator. I keep trying.

Unfortunately, TESS appears to feel differently. She wants teachers that provide structured control. In her opinion, teachers maintain classrooms that are orderly, uniform and systematic. Just by looking, she can tell if a teacher is operating an efficient classroom. A place where learning is neat, tidy and teacher driven. A place where teachers manage participation and constrain communication and collaboration. A place home to preconceived problem solving and measured creativity. A place where students know their role and teachers have control. A place where everyone is doing their job. TESS believes teachers instruct students and fill them with knowledge.

In spite of all this, I still kind of like her. She means well and has children's best interests at heart.

I hope.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Who Cares if Betsy Can't Spell

For the record, this will not be the only post I ever write about standardized testing.

I got to look at my students' standardized test scores today. I was impressed at how well some of them did. How do I know they did well? I looked at the bars on the graph.

We take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The report we receive has all these bars on it. At the top, there's a graph that lists the component on left side and a bar on the right that passes (or at least is supposed to pass) through a gray area. The gray area means the child is proficient. Most of my class had bars that passed through or at least were in the gray area. That means they did well. And I am proud of them.

The bottom of the report has more bars (no gray area, however) that represent, in the simplest of terms, strengths and weaknesses. This is the part I like to look at most closely. Here's where real information is. This section also usually confirms what I already knew. It's my job to know the strengths and weaknesses of my kids. Of course, not every child is proficient in all areas. They're all different. Duh! I knew that a three months ago. I could even tell you that Betsy probably wasn't going to be proficient in spelling. (She wasn't.)

It's not that I don't care about Betsy's spelling development. I do. And it's not that I didn't try researched based methods to improve her spelling and bring her to proficiency. I did. The fact of the matter is, Betsy is not a good speller.

Neither am I. As I'm writing this blog the red line that shows up under the misspelled (there it is again) word pops up all the time. I can empathize with Betsy. But my lack of spelling skills doesn't keep me from communicating. Nor am I particularly (darn, again) concerned you won't be able to comprehend what I write. Frankly, I don't need to be a good speller.

In today's world, I'm not sure spelling is fundamental skill worthy of standardized testing. Sure, you need to get close to correct. (That makes the red line pop up.) And phonemic awareness is absolutely critical to reading proficiently. But, in the case of Betsy, and those like her who are very proficient readers, who cares?
So she has to edit her work, re-read, use a dictionary, or check the "ways to make e" anchor chart. She's capable of that. And it doesn't bother her a bit when she has to use those tools.

So now, Betsy will possibly be targeted for remediation in spelling. And it's all my fault. I could have pulled her from a collaborative project, where she was busy communicating, problem solving and thinking critically, for some one-on-one time memorizing spelling words that will be on the test. I could have disrupted her partner reading time during which she was comparing two versions of Cinderella to find similarities in the plot and theme, and sent her with an aide to write her words ten times. I certainly could have asked her to stop doing research on The Statue of Liberty. Had I done that she might have been proficient in spelling on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Instead, she's not. I'm sorry, but I'm all right with that.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I've been married 28 years. But yesterday I got a new girlfriend. I'm not sure how I feel about her yet. We just met. It's an arranged relationship. She's kind of demanding, has high expectations, and requires significant attention. I don't think I'm in love her. I don't know her well enough. What I do know is that she is an important part of my life. I even told my wife about her. She understands, but I doubt my relationship with TESS will last nearly as long as my marriage.

TESS is the new Arkansas Teacher Evaluation and Support System established to provide standards for professional teaching. (Why it isn't called ATESS or ARTESS, I don't know. But, I have to admit, TESS makes for a better blog.) Like many states across the country, Arkansas decided that there needs to be a standardized method of evaluating, tracking and supporting teachers to hold us accountable, measure growth and remediate deficiencies - just like there is for students.

TESS lists 4 domains that encompass 22 components. She is very specific in how teaching is supposed to look. She  gives examples of critical attributes. She knows what she wants to hear. She keeps score. Most of what she desires are things teachers should know and be able to do without being told. I don't have a problem with her in that respect. I'm pretty sure I can meet most of her demands and keep her happy.

What may doom our relationship from the start is the lack of recognition of the role creativity and innovation play in teaching. Of the 22 components in the framework, there is not one mention of innovation, creativity or collaboration. Not one. Zero. "This is what I want," she says. "Do what I say and we'll get along just fine." What fun is a relationship with out some creativity or a little novelty now and then?

Word cloud from TESS Domains and Components
Ordinarily, starting a relationship with another woman is risky, especially a woman as demanding as TESS. Got to be secretive, create a diversion, and keep your story straight so people won't find out. Not a problem here. TESS doesn't care about any of that. With her it's all about routine, conformity and following the guidelines. Who cares what the neighbors think - they're supposed to be doing the same thing.

It's not that I don't like TESS. I actually do. She is only looking out for my best interests. She wants me to succeed, grow and get help when necessary. Her focus and attention is on me, and isn't that the best part of a new relationship?

I really hope our relationship works out. TESS and I will be spending quite a bit of time together. I just don't think I love her.

This post inspired in part by J. Robinson.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Genius Hour/20% Time

One of my goals in life is to embrace the role of the "Positive Deviant". [1] So when my district's high school media specialist sent out an email on Genius Hour imploring someone to "try this", I immediately responded "heck yeah, I'll do it." And thus began a transformation not only in my students but also in their teacher (who now prefers the title "learning designer").

So as I read Royan Lee's post Questions About 20% Time'/'Genius Hour' this morning, I felt my Spockian eyebrow raise. Was he really questioning something that transformed my students into the self-driven learners required in the 21st century and beyond, and myself into a facilitator of learning as opposed to director of learning? I agree that basing pedagogical decisions on the premise of "Google does it" is not the best justification. There are many more compelling reasons to provide students time to explore their intellectual passions in the context of a school environment.

The choice to incorporate Genius Hour was greatly influenced the ubiquitous access to devices and the internet that exists in my 1:1 classroom. This more than any other factor made Genius Hour possible. Could Genius Hour be implemented without dense wireless and 1:1 devices? I would argue yes. Why not have Genius Hour in the garden? Or outside observing clouds? Or with a quantity of manipulatives? John Spencer @edrethink posted yesterday about making a junk drawer in a box. Why not Genius Hour in a box?

Genius Hour provided real-time practice in the skills many educators - including myself - believe critical for the next generation and beyond. With much of the world's knowledge literally in the palm of our hands,  knowing the answers rote is no longer a necessary skill outside of Jeopardy or the month of April. Learning and practicing to collaborate, communicate, problem solve, create and think critically while analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating and applying new learning is the new definition of an intellectual.

As my students engaged in Genius Hour, I watched them group and re-group based not on personality or academic ability, but on a desire to learn and share about a topic of their choice. Their collaboration was authentic and  organic and grew from a desire to learn. I observed them engaged in meaningful communication; they negotiated meaning, tasks, roles, and problem solved when in disagreement, not because they were told to, but because they wanted to. I looked on in wonder as they created ways to present what they had learned to peers and adults. I listened in awe to the questions they asked each other and myself. The level of engagement in real, authentic learning amazed all who visited during Genius Hour. See for yourself, this video clip shows my 2nd grade class engaged in Genius Hour.

My role in the process is largely what you see in the video. I spent most of Genius Hour circulating, checking with students, posing questions, engaging in learning with students, and admitting I didn't know the answer. I wish I had counted the times I said: "I don't know, find the answer and share it with me." I admit that one of my first thoughts when starting Genius Hour was how to manage it. I soon realized that less is more and my students could be trusted to take ownership of this time.

The open-ended nature of Genius Hour was most difficult for parents to comprehend. Many wanted to know when their child's project was due, or how they could help, or what they needed to "do" for their child. By keeping the projects (for lack of a better term) open-ended students went deeper into their subject, spent more time communicating with their co-workers (again for lack of a better term) and focused on the process of learning instead of the product. By emphasizing the process, they learned that there may be more that one way to solve a problem, achieve a goal or finish a project; they learned to persevere through the little failures. They practiced having the grit and determination required to innovate, invent, investigate and instigate.

Genius hour was never seen as a reward, nor would I use Genius Hour as a reward. I don't like the message it sends. You didn't do (fill in the blank), so you can't learn with the rest of us. I don't like the negative connotation of withholding something beneficial to life-long learning as a consequence for (fill in the blank). No transgression can be that egregious.

Finally, my classroom to the extent possible was project-based and Genius Hour was just an extension of that structure. The only critical difference being who initiated the project. Outside of Genius Hour, I initiated a project through an entry document, video, read-a-loud, discussion, or, at times, just showing them the standards to be met. Genius Hour is their time to explore their passion, to be creative, to learn unfettered. It is their opportunity to be a positive deviant in a standardized world.

[1] Dr. Philip Zimbarto

Friday, May 31, 2013


I've written probably 1,000 blogs - all in my head. And in my car while listening to NPR. And during data meetings. And while watching the news. And while lurking on twitter. And . . . 

Here's the truth, I've always been opinionated. It started as a child when Scott Westindorf punched me in the stomach for telling him that he couldn't fly like superman, even with a cape. I'm sure I used the s-word (stupid) to describe his idea. I hope I backed my opinion up with some evidence beyond how stupid it was to try, but since I was probably eight at the time - I doubt it. Or didn't get the chance, because I couldn't breathe at the moment.

In eighth grade as a new kid in a suburban school,  I told the most popular kid at school the week before school let out for the summer that trying to bounce superballs over the school was . . . you guessed it - stupid. With one comment I committed myself to a summer of isolation. Thank God for the Beatles, a turntable, a killer stereo system and my own room.

I was the editorial page editor my senior year at a large Midwestern university. The daily circulation of the paper was over 30,000. Enough said. 

So I've established a couple of things. First, I should never use the word stupid. Second, I have thoughts and opinions and am not afraid to make them known. Or so it would seem.

The truth is that I was afraid. I've read hundreds more blogs than I've written in my head, but rarely commented. I've "lurked" on twitter and connected with some amazing, inspirational people, but only inconsistently entered into conversations. I didn't want to say anything stupid. 

That is until today, when I decided to get back out there and connect with the world in an exchange of ideas about what I am most passionate about - transforming education and myself as an educator. I've lurked on twitter long enough. I've read enough blogs to know their power for connecting, communicating, learning and, most importantly, sharing thoughts and opinions. The time has come to interject some of my own.

Even if they're stupid.