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