Gone Gradeless

Here it goes, the blog post I have been writing/rewriting for weeks. Thanks to “peer influence” I will finally publish my ramblings. I am not a big “blogger” but finally hitting publish feels important because after 17 years of teaching I finally decided to take the plunge and put my efforts to something I have long wanted to do – I went “gradeless” in a school that requires term grades and in a community that values the “honor roll” as an achievement.

There is ample research to support the value of standards based grading and several other educators that have been advocating for the same shift. My decision to take this big leap was based on two main factors:

  1. As teachers we all have those statements/comments students make that irk us like no other. For me, it has always been, “is this graded?” I absolutely detest this question, but in a world in which students are told that getting an “A” is what matters most in their day, can I really blame them?
  2. I have long been frustrated by how easily some students achieve high scores, when their learning and thinking was not really challenged, while other students who were not as academically astute busted themselves to achieve strong scores, but in the graded system a “B” was often the best mark they would earn. I had always pushed back on students to continue to reach their full potential, but the score to me always seemed to reflect compliance and aptitude rather than effort and resiliency of each individual student.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year I took the plunge. It was not easy! Scores were still required in our student information system and parents (and kids) were still set on achieving high honors, (sigh…), but I was determined to make it work. Here were the  five main steps I took in my journey to make this shift.

Step 1: Alert my classroom community – The first step was sharing with my students and their families that I would be going gradeless. Although there were definitely skeptics, the response was quite positive. I made clear that the expectation for my class was dedicated effort to being the best learner they could be, and that students would learn to evaluate themselves on whether their work was WOW worthy.  “Grades” would be achieved based on this dedicated effort.

Step 2: Break obsession with grades and refocus on learning – It took about 8 weeks to get kids to stop asking if “this was graded” for every activity they undertook in my classroom. My simple answer was always, “Just do your best work.” The key factor was asking them to assess that for themselves AND to let them know when I did or did not think something was their best work. There were no rubrics involved. There were assignment goals, directions I felt were necessary for the task to begin and then interaction. Students were not focusing on the “recipe” or the to-do checklist to get credit (aka, a rubric) – they were exploring and making choices in their own learning, often collaborating with peers to find success.

Step 3: Ongoing feedback as the norm – I can’t remember who said this but it is so true – once a student gets a grade they are DONE with that assignment. Not only does this create a waste of teacher time in giving feedback, it strips the feedback of any utility. I was determined to not waste anyone’s time and to instead give feedback when it would be most impactful. Circulating the room or calling students over to my table worked well and ignited powerful conversations with my students. I also leveraged the beauty of  2018-07-29 (1)_LIdigital and opened work in progress to initiate conversation, share feedback and ask kids questions. “Do you think you could add more detail to this?”, “This is interesting, could you explain it to me a bit more?”, “Hmm, I am not sure that looks like a full answer,” or “I am impressed, keep up the great work!” all can have huge impact on learning WHEN the learning is happening. The simple truth is that by the time students handed in their work I already knew if they hit the mark, and had intervened if necessary. Also it was important for students to see assignments to completion – final grades were irrelevant.

Step 4: Create systems for reflection and feedback – When assignments are submitted,  students need to know that we spend time appreciating their efforts. In making this shift to gradeless I chose to focus on what I knew was most important to student learning – feedback that could influence their learning on the next assignment or learning experience. I had used Alice Keeler’s Pull Paragraph add-on last year and was sold on the benefits of quick digital feedback mechanisms. This year our district 1:1 program was extended to the 7th grade, which also meant my 7th graders now had gmail addresses.  This was important because I knew that digital feedback would have even greater impact if I could share through email as well. Using Google Forms, I created a system that requires students to evaluate their own work in order to submit 2018-07-29assignments. I then used Autocrat to take student feedback and my own feedback to create a dialogue about opportunities for improvement and observations of awesomeness. (Next year I plan to add to this to create a running record as opposed to doing it by assignment.) No longer looking for a grade, students started to really appreciate the comments and feedback. They also appreciated the emojis I used on many of my final feedback forms.

Step 5: Get students to “grade” themselves and buy-in – In March my students completed a summative assessment for our Africa Unit. Borrowing an idea from my friend, Jim D’Entremont, students were asked to create sketchnotes for each side of a cube to demonstrate their understanding of the different parts of the unit. By this point in the year, my “gradeless” system was well established. The “work hard and do your best and you shall be rewarded” system was churning in my classroom. A few days 20180406_192446050_iOSbefore the final project was due SEVERAL students came to me and asked for an extension. “Socko, looking back at my first few squares, they just aren’t good. I know what I was to do now to make them awesome, can I redo them?” I always say yes. When students realize they can be better and want to reach higher, why would I ever say no? And it was in this moment that I realized the system was working – students were focusing on their learning and their own thresholds of success.

So the final question – what goes on the dreaded gradebook/report card?  Unfortunately I have to put something there so I decided to enter the assignments and give points for completion.  The larger assignments/tasks are given more points. If students complete the assignment to the level I believe they should be complete, and that has been discussed throughout the assignment, they earn the full points, if not, some points are deducted. The learning and growing are tied to the feedback, so it did not really matter what I put on the report card. Some may say that it is still grading, but I would disagree. These points reflect successful completion of learning missions, they are not a reflection of competence or aptitude. These scores are the necessary reality of trying to be focused on learning and engagement in an educational world that still values scores and data as the hallmark of student success. These scores keep the mamas and papas, and their little academics, who are still so focused on the coveted honor roll, happy.

As I ready myself for year two of a gradeless classroom I am excited to continue to develop models of assessment and feedback that foster rigor, collaboration and engagement.  I am going to focus on student portfolios so that I can involve the families in the process of feedback and reflection. I am excited about the updates in Google Classroom that will make quick feedback to students even easier.  I am excited to continue to learn new ways I can create the best learning environment for my students.

This is going to be a good year.

It Takes a Village

Next week marks the beginning of my fifth year as a 7th Grade World Geography teacher. Each year I have worked to develop curriculum that creates critical and mindful global thinkers and that also instills in them a sense of empathy for citizens around the world.

My goal is to have my students leave my classroom as competent and compassionate global citizens, empowered to make positive changes in the world. 

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To kickoff student learning this year I want to avoid rote tasks and conversations inherently confined to the four walls of our classroom, and instead go beyond these constraints and demonstrate the power of global. I decided to use FlipGrid to do just this.  I used the tool in the spring and my students loved it. Not only could I hear my students thinking, but they were eager to listen to one another in a way that was far more attentive than in classroom discussion. Will the same attention be paid to voices of strangers? I can’t answer that yet. But I can say that the responses recorded thus far are fantastic, and if my students listen to even just a few of these responses, I am confident that my objective will be met. My students will be considering and evaluating the perspectives of others, a skill essential to global citizens. 
Thirty-three voices shared, 67 more to go! The task of creating global citizens takes a village! I hope many will include themselves in this village and record a response.

What does it mean to be a global citizen?

Please check out the responses and share your voice!

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Photo credit: Pixabay

 

 

 

The Past, Sadly, is Present

It seems like walking on ashes. Although it is eerily silent, you can almost hear the pain in the air. You can feel the agony in the pit of your stomach as you consider the thousands of mothers who had to carry their babies to their deaths. I left Auschwitz a different person, and most definitely, a different educator. Since my return from Poland in January of 2015 I have pursued relentlessly to fulfill my pledge to the memory of the 1.5 million murdered on those grounds.

In July I had dinner with my sister while I was in Washington D.C. for a week at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of the Museum Teacher Fellowship. During our dinner I shared details of the incredible fellowship experience. Lectures, discussions, museum explorations, videos – there was simply too much to share in one dinner conversation. Toward the end of our dinner my sister asked me very good questions – what would I do with all of this? Was there more to learn? The second was easy to answer because the amount I don’t know yet is still astounding, but the first question, I didn’t have the answer that felt full enough. Of course I knew that I wanted to teach, but that seemed too simple. It is hard to explain the deep sense of obligation I felt standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz, or the renewed obligation I feel every time I hear the voice of a survivor or read the words of a victim. So I left my answer to my sister’s question simple, knowing that I needed to figure out a way to explain it so that others might feel compelled to take on the same mission.

Sadly on Saturday citizens of this country provided my answer: without education, without confronting the lessons of the past and the warnings of its survivors and victims, we are doomed to repeat the pain and anguish. Outrage poured from almost every group in society. People could not believe their eyes as they watched video and saw images of citizens of this country chanting Nazi slogans and saluting the Nazi and Confederate flags. How could this happen in 2017?  President Obama’s response in the form of a tweet spoke volumes. (This tweet has already become the most liked tweet in Twitter history.)

These racist, tiki-torch carrying, Nazi-saluting individuals were not born haters, they were taught this behavior. They needed to learn the lessons of history and to understand the evil consequences of the hate they spew. They need to listen to Steven Fenves share his frightening and tragic experience during the Holocaust. They need to listen to Jim Waller explain that evil and genocide is perpetrated by neighbors, not by government mechanisms. They need to hear Carl Wilkens share his experience of terror and selflessness during the Rwandan genocide. They need to hear survivors like Alma Zero share her heart-wrenching experience as a 4-year-old little girl fleeing her home in Bosnia and facing hatred as a refugee during the Bosnian genocide. They need to watch Salam Neighbor, and see that the refugees they scorn today are 10-year-old boys like Raouf. They need to watch and/or read Denial, listen to Deborah Lipstadt, and realize the danger of denying the truth of the Holocaust and the evil of Hitler and the Nazis.  They need to spend time, the more the better, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They need to listen to the words Roman Kent spoke at the commemoration ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They need to feel the ashes under their feet and walk the blocks of Auschwitz. I have done all of these things and I will never forget, nor will I rest until I ensure that others do no forget either.

This is why I learn. This is why I teach.

Note: This is cross-posted on Past is Present – Reflections

Aah, summer…

After 16 years in education I have heard just about all of the veiled and blatant comments about teachers having their “summers off,” having an easy schedule, etc. In the early years I argued these comments, but as I have matured (laughter from those who know me), I now just roll my eyes. I am proud to be a teacher. I love being a teacher. And yet I am probably equally excited about the arrival of the last day of school in June as I am about the arrival of my new flock of inquiring minds on the first day of school. So sitting on my flight bound for Washington D.C. for a week of professional development I can say, without a doubt, that summer has a huge amount to do with my attitude and love for my profession.

From the minute I walk into my pristine and empty classroom in August until the minute I turn in my key in late June, there is rarely a moment to breathe, contemplate and reflect. We all try to do this during the school year, but those moments are often shared with/usurped by other realities and responsibilities of being a teacher. These realities don’t exist in the summer so we can actually have time to reflect and dream, time to consider the possibilities of the new year, time to read, time to create and time to learn. These are essential to classroom innovation and, more importantly, to the emotional well-being of a teacher. 

So here I sit, eager to get to DC and begin my teacher fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I will spend the week with other educators that like me, relish the summer “vacation” as a time to grow as educators. When I return I am looking forward to leading professional development for another group of Massachusetts educators eager to learn. I will attend #BLC17 in Boston, learning alongside inspired and dedicated educators from around the world. I will continue to reflect and dream, filling my toolbox with ideas for the new year. And then I will pack up and enjoy a few weeks recharging with my family as we all prepare for the start of the 2017-2018 school year. I will walk back into school eager for the year to begin because my summer of learning and dreaming put me in the mindset we all want our childrens’ teachers to have. Thank you summer, you are a passionate teacher’s best friend. 

Edcamp Boston 2016 – An inspiration creator

Reading the twitter feed from yesterday may be the reason it is 9:38pm on Sunday night, and I have yet to complete a single item for tomorrow’s lesson. Oops. But even if I went toedcampbos 2016 logo sleep right now, I am confident that I will be a better teacher tomorrow thanks to the thoughtful and meaningful conversations I had with my fellow edcampers yesterday. But because my anal retentive personality about lesson prep will win out, and I do need to sleep, here is my quick run-down of my deep thoughts from Edcamp Boston 2016…

  1. Before I jumped on here to write this post, I was reading the CNN news headlines. We live in a world that is so filled with anger and hate.  As educators, we must remember that one of our most crucial roles is to teach children to be kind and empathetic human beings. Thank you to Henry Turner and Nate Everett for leading an incredible conversation in the “How to create a culture of diverse perspectives ?” session.  There are many discussions that need to happen in our classrooms that are deep and challenging. We cannot shy away from these discussions with our students. We must model for our students how to be good listeners, how to be compassionate to others even when we disagree, and perhaps most importantly, teach them that the identity of any individual is complex and multifaceted and must not be assumed. There is so much anger and hate in our society today, conversations about empathy and identity are essential. I am so grateful to my colleagues in the little Lexington room for this discussion yesterday.
  2. I did not have a single conversation yesterday about an app or new tool. Hallelujah. It is so refreshing to talk about education again. It is 2016. It is should go without saying that technology is implicit in our day, but it does not need to be the focus of our every conversation or every piece of PD. Yes, there need to be opportunities for teachers to become more facile users of apps, tools and devices, but it does not need to be the focus of every conversation.
  3. “Our job is inspiration creator.” I am not sure who inspired me to write that on the notes WP_20160305_14_27_02_Pro wall yesterday during our passion conversation, but it has been in the forefront of my mind today. Maker Spaces and genius hour and choice projects and the like, are all wonderful possibilities in the school day, but they are not always going to be the answer to the curriculum choices we are forced to make on a daily basis.  Our job is to determine what is going WP_20160305_14_27_16_Proto inspire our students to learn whatever material we are tasked to teach. This is not
    always easy, but it is why as teachers we must form strong relationships and trust with our students. We have to know what makes them tick, and they have to know what motivates us as well. Be an inspiration creator and find the entry point.

    And finally…

  4. Kids need recess, or at the very least, longer than 22 minutes to eat and hold a conversation with peers. Yesterday was exhausting. Session to session, taking notes, synthesizing ideas, learning new information…exhausting. Kids do this every day. But wait! We had an hour for lunch! Like is often the case, some of the most meaningful conversations I had were with colleagues during lunch. What are kids Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 11.22.24 PMlosing in not being able to have these interactions with their peers? What are they losing on not having time to debrief and breathe during the school day? Sadly, I do not hold the power to make this change in my school or district, but I do have the power to create change in my own fifdom (aka Room 210). In Room 210 there are no “do nows” allowed. Students enter and breathe for a minute. It makes such a difference. Tomorrow when I do this, I will smile and think of my fellow passionites from Edcamp Boston, then I will set off on my mission to inspire.

Okay, I really do need to plan for tomorrow…

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A special shoutout to my Edcamp Boston organizing commrades, and to the faces that make Edcamp Boston a reunion. You all rock. It is an honor to call you friends and colleagues. Sarah Edson…special award for being the boss and driving all the way out. We will see you in CT on 8/12.

 

Thinking, Struggling and Pride

Thinking, Struggling and Pride.

Published this post on my other blog, Our Global Expedition, last night but wanted to have it here as well. I am having so much fun in the classroom. I have spent many years trying to decide what my next step should be. I am a driven person so moving forward always seems like the right direction. I am so happy that I took a step backward. Not sure what the future holds, or when the urge will surface to challenge myself to try something new, but for now I am not just content, I am passionate about being a 7th grade Social Studies teacher.

What I learned on my summer vacation…

Tomorrow at 8 am the 2013-2014 school year will begin officially as I gather with the faculty and staff in the Natick High School cafeteria for the “welcome back” coffee and a morning of district kick-off meetings. Sitting here readying materials for the start of school I am constantly reflecting on my summer. Tomorrow some friends will share stories of their adventures in Africa or Europe, traveling the country or having experiences that I too might have had BK (before kids, for those that are confused), and even though I will ooh and aah over their stories with slight pangs of jealousy (as much as I love an edcamp, it is not quite as amazing as an African safari!), I will carry my truth with honor – I had an incredible summer of learning.

This summer I learned to “Teach Like a Pirate,” or at least I am now ready to teach like a pirate and am a certified #swashbuckler according to Dave Burgess. Between reading the book, participating in #tlap chats and having discussions with colleagues at edcamps and BLC, I am filled with ideas and inspiration to make my classroom an environment where children are inspired to learn. Not so sure that kids will want to buy tickets, but they will be engaged!  This weekend I have been focused on rapport and how I will begin my year. As Dave so wisely describes in his book, creating a community kids want to be a part of starts in the first three days of school. Students will absolutely feel welcomed to our learning extravaganza hosted by me!  Not sure yet if I am going to be able to pull-off the playdoh, but I do have my desks (which I have no choice but to deal with this year) covered with whiteboard paper. I am thinking about replacing playdoh with drawing. It is a perfect tie-in to my next summer learning item…

This summer I learned the power of sketchnotes. Thanks to Brad Ovenell-Carter, his incredible artistry at BLC, and his encouragement, I have a new way of taking notes that benefit me, and will hopefully benefit my students as well. Combining listening and critical thinking skills, tapping on their creativity and hopefully maintaining their attention, I am confident students will learn to process the important messages of class and engage more deeply in the material.  My students won’t have the opportunity to use Paper or the iPad in my classroom, but I will have them sketch their notes on paper and we will take pictures and post them in their digital portfolios.

This summer I learned the power of design thinking, Notosh style with a good question, three people, some paper and a couple of sharpies. Combining the incredible experience I had in Eleanor Duckworth’s course and her “tell me more” strategy to generate student thinking and exploration, the method Ewan Macintosh and Tom Barrett demonstrated resonated greatly with me. I have long felt that the reason curriculum in many classrooms is boring and the antithesis of learning is not due to the lack of technology, but the lack of thinking present. In an effort to “support and scaffold,” many learning opportunities strip away the opportunity to grapple with topics and generate ideas and questions. We need to coach kids to push their understanding, not deliver it to them in “flipped videos” or masterfully created Haiku decks or Prezis.  My students will be forced to struggle with their thinking this year, started with a design thinking exercise in which students will contemplate their ideal learning environment. I am not sure how it will all work, but if I am unwilling to push my comfort zone, how can I expect students to do the same?

This summer wasn’t all about learning new things, but also about relearning/reaffirming ideas that I have held for a while. This summer I was reminded that if I ever have a “redo” I want to become a library and information specialist. I have the pleasure of working in a building with an incredible library specialist, and throughout the summer I learned and collaborated with several others. Without fail the coolest people at any conference I have been to over the past couple of years have been librarians.  In the age of endless vats of information, librarians understand that the game is not to try to cram this information into kids’ heads, but rather to guide students how to find the best information in the most efficient manner and then inspire them to do something meaningful with the information. Thank you to Amy Bloom, Tara MacDonald, Laura D’Elia, Shannon Miller, Michelle Luhtala, Joyce Valenza, Jenny Lussier, Michelle Gohagon and the many other amazing librarians who inspire me daily.

This summer I reaffirmed that being a connected educator is no longer a choice for educators today, it is a necessity. I simply do not believe that educators that refuse to connect beyond the walls of the school building can provide students with a full learning opportunity. Perhaps I am a being presumptuous, or overly aggressive about the issue, but I don’t believe I am. In the course of the summer I learned more about education and my practice than I ever did in a grad class or school meeting.  Refusal to connect is negligent and there is no defense. I am a different educator because of the connections I have made with other educators. Twitter is a lifeline for me now. In just a few minutes I can have my mind blown by ideas and resources shared by educators around the world. For people that prefer to connect in person, find people! Every month there are free learning opportunities for educators. There are many fantastic paid conferences, but they are cost prohibitive for many – so try one of the many free Edcamps, Playdates, TeachMeets. Not one in your area? Organize one! If you organize it, people will come!

And with that, I must disconnect and focus on some of the monotony of school start, including district mandated online trainings, class lists, and other boring stuff that I need to do now before the excitement of the school year takes over. I am looking forward to tomorrow morning, seeing faces I have not seen since June, and hearing about their wonderful adventures of the summer.  I have a friend who spent his summer working at an orphanage in Africa, then traveling and vacationing in Africa with his fiancee. My adventures are certainly not as glamorous as this, but I am confident I am just as passionate about mine.  Counting down to the return of students on Wednesday, I am filled with the lessons of the summer and energized to get rolling this year!