Friday, December 19, 2014

Start With Changing the Mindset

Merrian-Webster dictionary defines learning as, " the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something" When we practice something we are identifying skills that we wish to improve on. We then apply repetition, reflection and instruction to improve in a particular area. The act of doing something over and over must be paired with instruction and adjustment in order to result in a change in behavior, action or understanding.

Athletes are not born professional. It takes countless hours of instruction, practice and adjustment. It is the instruction paired with practice that will most likely equate to growth. Albert Einstein defined insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result. For this reason, we must embrace failure and not hesitate to change direction or seek instruction.

In our classrooms we need to cultivate a culture that takes risks, embraces misunderstanding, seeks instruction and can adjust. Only when our students can embrace that the first step in learning is not knowing can we move toward growth. How we provide an environment that encourages kids to participate, not be afraid to be wrong and recognize the strategies that can be employed to transition from not knowing to knowing?

I recently read Carol Dweck's book Mindset. The idea of a Fixed vs. Growth Mindset and it's influence on the classroom struck a chord with me. Our educational system provides variables that make it easy for students to develop a fixed mindset. Leveled classes, honor rolls, GPA's, and standardized testing establish labels and groupings that present students with a fixed interpretation of their ability.

The research presented by Dweck shows us that our brains are malleable. Our intelligence is not fixed, but can grow. Dr. Dweck presents a number of strategies that can be employed to develop the growth mindset. This mindset must be embraced by both students and teachers.

When working with our most at-risk students it is my belief that a counseling approach in which we can reroute the belief that their intelligence level is fixed is vital. As demonstrated by our most successful athletes, scholars, and entertainers it is a commitment to practice, recognition of weaknesses and perseverance that resulted in their development. As Malcolm Gladwell has proposed it takes 10,000 hours of emersion in your craft to produce an Outlier. I encourage educators to explore this idea and integrate its principles into their instructional practices .

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Assessing Student Understanding With RAFT Writing

The translation of knowledge, opinion and understanding into a written response can be a challenge for a number of students. Teachers across content areas often discuss the challenge of not only improving the quality of student writing, but also having it be a reflection of what students know. The typical protocols for developing written voice involve a variety of strategies and resources including pre and post writing strategies. Graphic organizers, journaling, conferencing, word webbing and collaborative authoring and review through online documents are just a few of the strategies employed. Typically students are presented with a prompt and asked to formulate a written response that includes supporting evidence. The guiding words used in such prompts are typically who, what, when, where, why and how. 

RAFT writing takes a more holistic approach to the process, but segments the objective into four components that students can easily understand. It also provides an authentic and engaging connection to the content.
  • Role of the Writer: Who are you as the writer? A movie star? The President? A plant? 
  • Audience: To whom are you writing? A senator? Yourself? A company? 
  • Format: In what format are you writing? A diary entry? A newspaper? A love letter? 
  • Topic: What are you writing about?
* Read Write Think -
    Image -
      The flexibility, choice and alternative formats offered with this strategy offer differentiation and authenticity to the task at hand. The final product presents a higher order understanding of the content presented.

      I recently observed a U.S. history course in which the students were being introduced the the viewpoints of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists with regards to the ratification of the Constitution. A simplified explanation of the objective was for students to understand the supportive and opposing views of establishing and investing in "big government"

      The RAFT writing strategy may be applied to this lesson in a variety of formats:
      • Role - A concerned citizen
      • Audience - State Senator
      • Format - Letter
      • Topic - Your concern regarding the proposal to unite all of the schools in Morris County, NJ into a single school district. 

      • Role - George Washington
      • Audience - Self
      • Format - Diary Entry
      • Topic - The opposition to the ratification of the constitution
      The infusion of a RAFT writing task may be utilized to introduce a topic or as a formative or summative assessment.   There are a variety of resources available including online random generators.  I have curated many of them within the Wiki linked below.

      Tuesday, October 21, 2014

      Quick Writes - An Underutlized Instructional Strategy

      During a recent classroom observation I observed the use of a quick write strategy. While this is not new or something I have not used myself I reflected on its value. A quick write strategy is simple by design, but powerful in many ways.  A teacher poses a high quality question to the class and asks students to jot down their thoughts regarding the question. After providing some time the teacher asks students to share their thoughts.

      The quick write strategy offers the following advantages in the classroom:

      • All students in the class are provided the opportunity to reflect on the question and organize a response. 
      • Students who are slower processors are provided time to formulate a response before sharing with the class. 
      • Teachers may use this strategy as a formative assessment by circulating the room to view what students have written.
      • Students may use this as a self-assessment by analyzing what they wrote in comparison to what other students in the class share. 
      • A quick write might be assigned as a "do now" in order for students to activate prior knowledge or  as a closure activity to reflect on a lesson. 

      The quick write instructional strategy provides an opportunity for everyone in the class to have a voice and reflect on the content. It levels the playing field and ensures active participation and engagement. 

      Monday, September 15, 2014

      What will I see when I search?

      Last week I had the opportunity to present to a creative writing class in our high school. Being in the role of assistant principal it's not often that I have the opportunity to teach a mini lesson. I was asked to introduce students to the idea of creating a digital portfolio in which they will publish the various formats of writing that they will be crafting in this class. The teacher and I developed a template using Google Sites for students to work with as they develop their portfolios.

      While this opportunity could have been a simple tutorial in which I demonstrated the "technical intricacies" of Google Sites, I was compelled to pair this with a discussion on online reputation management and the power of publishing.

      In the era of social media, smartphones, and mobile apps the ability to publish online is not only accessible, but enticing. Sharing online is the most common form on communication among students.

      Over the years we have educated students about the danger of online publishing. Our message has been about protecting your identify and minimizing the availability of personal information. We have also spoke about the dangers of anonymity. The talk of 'being safe' expanded to reputation management. Students have been exposed to conversations regarding their digital footprint. We have focused on the permanency of what we share online and the outcomes that may be a result of these actions.

      In speaking to this class of students I asked how many of  them have ever Googled themselves. I was surprised to see only about 10% of the students responded yes. When I asked them what they have learned about online publishing they were quick to cite the topics I discussed above. In my conversation with them I challenged the idea of protecting your identity online.

      We discussed who may be looking for you online. Employers, college admissions officers, friends and family were discussed. My approach regarding this audience shifted their thinking from "be careful with what I share" to "what are you publishing online under your full name that adds value or differentiates yourself?" "How can you create a digital footprint that puts you at an advantage over others when applying for a job or seeking admission into a University.

      When working with students we should be modeling best practice strategies in online publishing. Students should be sharing their best work, thoughts, ideas and creations for the world to discover. A Google search of your name should uncover the products that best represent you. Examples may be not only writing portfolios, but art work, images, or comments on publications.

      As educators we should be working to develop the skills required to publish online. Authoring for the web requires an understanding of how we read online. The quality of the content must be paired with an appreciation and understanding of intuitive design and rich presentation.

      Monday, August 4, 2014

      Why do we grade everything?

      The common core standards and the next generation science standards have provided a common framework that represents the skills and content knowledge that we expect students to master in order to be prepared for college and careers. The standards and correlated high stakes tests are designed to assess students on the application of these skills and content.

      If we accept these standards as "what kids need to know and do" then we need to develop curriculum and assessment that scaffolds students toward this goal. How we get students their should be variable. The activities, technologies, lesson design and products should be representative of the dynamics of your class. Students should be given what they need based on observation, data and their feedback. While this represents the "art" of teaching, close consideration should be given to best-practice instructional strategies. It is at this stage that collaboration among teachers may result in improved instructional practice.

      If the goal of our efforts is "student learning" vs. "teaching"  we need to consider the opportunities we provide students and teachers to check for understanding and progress towards learning.  Learning is defined as "the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught" Research and experiences has proven that failure is an essential component to growth, development and learning.  How can we provide opportunities for students to not fear failure in order to provide them a chance to take risks, recognize areas to focus improvement and channel resources? How can we provide teachers with a true understanding of where students are on the learning curve? 

      The use of formative assessments provide opportunities for this type of measurement. Whether its a do now, exit slip or a short quiz these types of "check for understanding" assessments are effective. If we eliminate the grading of these assessments we take away the punitive nature of these assessments. The assessments may now be on-demand and unannounced. There will not be grade inflation representative of study guides, tutoring or intensive review. The feedback is immediate, authentic and relevant.

      When we provide formative reviews of student learning our instructional practices can align to what students need vs. what we have to 'cover'.  The summative assessments, aligned to the standards can then represent a greater weighting of the overall grade and will result in a course grade that better reflects student understanding.


      Wednesday, July 9, 2014

      Teaching and Testing vs. Student Learning and Assessment

      In a 2011 issue of Ed Weekly, Peter DeWitt published an article discussing how our focus on testing should be shifted to assessment. This idea of assessment, whether formative or summative, has been widely spoken and debated for quite some time. Our movement towards common core standards and PARCC assessment has forced our shift to summative testing. In other words, we are preparing students for end of course summative assessments that provide an "autopsy" of how well the students have mastered skills and content. By incorporating "Student Growth Percentage Scores (SGP's)" in teacher evaluations we are also assessing how well teachers have done in ensuring such mastery with a defined group of students. 

      While there is value and relevance to summative assessments, our goal as educators is not to teach, it is to ensure student learning. In order to meet that demand we need to employ formative assessment to constantly check for understanding. The results of which will impact our pacing, lesson plans, follow-up assessments, interventions and support models.

      In most schools teachers embark on this challenge in isolation. They develop tests, quizzes and other formative assessments  on their own. Teachers calculate percentage scores, averages, and hopefully varied levels of itemization resulting in data analysis for their group of students.

      The work of DuFour, DuFour and Eaker support a hybrid approach to formative assessment by introducing common formative assessment.  The advantages of teachers teaching the same content developing common assessments are highlighted in their many works.  It is important to note that they are speaking of assessments and not content tests. These assessments provide a variety of prompts, questions sets and tasks that assess the skills, critical thinking, problem solving and content connected to the standards. The results of each assessment are itemized and discussed collaboratively. Interventions, curriculum changes, and  instructional planning are developed collaborative as a result of the data.

      "If five teachers teaching the same course or grade level are responsible for ensuring all students acquire the same knowledge and skills, it make sense those teachers would work together to determine the best methods to assess student learning. A team of teachers could divide responsibilities for creating a unit and developing assessments. Teachers working in isolation replicate and duplicate effort. They work hard, but they do not work smart.", (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, 2007).  Other advantages cite equity, collaborative problem solving, improvement of individual and teams of teachers, systematic interventions and increased student achievement.

      Teachers of the same content working together to develop 3 or 4 benchmark assessments, aligned to standards, presented timely, and analyzed and discussed collaboratively will undoubtedly have a greater opportunity to ensure student learning than high stakes, summative tests.

      Friday, June 20, 2014

      For This Generation.....Content is King

      The digital shift over the past 15 years has created a unprecidented demand for content. The value of original and authentic content is evident in the current value of sports franchises, reality television, and app development. We live in a world of social media, on-demand digital access, and 24/7 connectivity. This type of network demands content.

      With this new demand creates opportunity. Opportunity exists for our students to develop communication skills, literacy skills, and content knowledge that will allow them the opportunity to be contributors in the content era rather than passive consumers.

      How do we provide our students with the skills necessary to be valuable "content contributors"? How do we prepare them to navigate, manage and authenticate the content available to them?

      We start by exposure to multiple mediums across content areas. For example, a mathematics teacher considers a variety mediums for content delivery and assessment of knowledge such as  direct instruction, video tutorials, case studies, or online discussions.  Teachers may provide students with a repository of resources utilizing a learning management system. 

      When we provide students with opportunities to publish and share their thoughts, opinions and final products we begin their journey towards a contribution to global content. It is at this juncture that we should encourage them to publish and to accept and reflect on criticism, commenting and peer review. By developing both their confidence to share and refining their craft of writing and critical thinking we develop the next generation of "content creators".

      Student publishing is accomplished in a variety of ways. The shift from writing for your teacher to writing for an audience may be stressful for some. Through exposure, positive support, and authentic feedback students may develop a comfort with sharing publicly.

      Teachers may abandon paper based journals for blogs. Class discussions my transition between the classroom and threaded discussions. Student writing may be shared electronically for peer review. Teachers may connect their students with classrooms around the world or content area experts. These connections might involve collaborative blogging, collaborative authoring, peer view,online discussions, or video conferencing.

      Having students comment on public blogs, newspapers or writing book reviews on Amazon present authentic opportunities to hone their craft as well.

      Wednesday, May 7, 2014

      Mobile Apps Promote Communication and Education

      Mobile devices have increasingly found a home in schools. No cell phone policies have been amended or replaced with electronic device guidelines. Student and teacher cell phone use in schools has transitioned from "do not" to "do it this way" .  Students and teachers have become creative with the use of these devices. The use of polling services to check for understanding, students taking pictures of information posted on the board, backchannel conversations, and on-demand research have caused a paradigm shift for students and staff. 

      School administrators must recognize the opportunity to maximize this resource to promote communication, collaboration, and increased student achievement. By utilizing social media or the roll out of a school app, administrators have the ability to "push" information. The idea of posting information on a website for those who choose to visit the site can be replaced with a pushing out information through Tweets or app notifications.

      Learning Management Systems offer a centralized repository of content, assignments, important dates and communication. Many of the most up-do-date LMS systems offer mobile apps that provide students and teachers with this repository in their pocket. The availability, accessibility and organization of these materials provides a classroom level intervention that will impact student achievement  and home-school communication.

      Tuesday, April 22, 2014

      Collaborative Teaching Teams in a High School

      In high schools across the country teachers meet as departments or entire faculties. These standardized, contractual, meetings typcially involve the dissemination of information, schoolwide PD, or discussion about curriculum and assessment. While these gatherings are valuable and necessary, they may fall short in meeting the needs of at-risk students. The establishment of inter-disciplinary teaching teams provides an opportunity for teachers from multiple content areas, who teach the same students to meet on a regular basis. The collaboration of such teachers shifts the focus of conversation from curriculum and instruction to students.

      Popular topics for the planning meetings may include the establishment of consistent policies and procedures, communication strategies, classroom interventions, classroom accoommodations, student achievement, and behavior observations.

      In order to organize such a team it it necessary to identify grade levels and courses that share a significant percentage of common students. When scheduling, teacher must be provided with a common planning period. To meet contract obligations consider substituting a non-instructional duty for this assignment.


      Friday, March 14, 2014

      A New Homework Strategy

      The completion of homework remains a point of focus for some students when analyzing their achievement in particular courses. Some students find it challenging to complete assignments for a variety of reasons. When class grading policies incorporate homework grades this can have a significant impact on a student's grade. This can also be a point of frustration for parents, teachers and counselors.

      Typically the goal of homework is to apply a concept that was introduced in class or to enter class the next day with prerequisite knowledge necessary for productive class discussions or group work. The goal is not to produce a grade, but to further student learning and understanding. Grading homework is an extrinsic motivator that does not impact some students. Homework that does not focus on student learning and understanding is graded for compliance.

      I like the idea of providing students who miss an assignment the opportunity to complete the assignment. Myron Dueck, Assistant Principal of Summerland Secondary School in British Columbia shared an incomplete assignment form that he has students submit. This was shared in the March edition of Educational Leadership. When students complete this form they must select from a list of Interventions that are available to them. These may include extra help sessions, study hall, viewing a tutorial, or any other intervention that they will utilize to complete the assignment.

      By providing an incomplete grade and a clear intervention plan to complete the assignment the student is provided with choice and a motivation to not have an incomplete for the course grade. There are many variations to this idea, but I believe this is a concept that is worth exploring with our at-risk students.

      Sunday, February 16, 2014

      Common Core Sharing

      Now that we have established and committed to the Common Core Standards we have a common expectation. We have a framework that will be used to assess our students based on curriculum aligned to these standards. While the implementation of common assessment vehicles is beginning to unfold there remains skepticism and concerns regarding the focus on testing, logistics and value of high stakes assessment.

      One advantage of national common standards is the unity of our educators around the country. By providing common standards we simplify the process of making connections between educators of the same content area. Teachers across the country who have common core aligned curriculum are sourcing and developing instructional materials and resources that are aligned to these standards. By standardizing what we teach we open up the opportunity to crowd source the content, materials and plans we implement in our classroom. The breadth of sharing escalates when we align all of our teachers.

      The Learning Registry, was developed to connect the thousands of pre-qualified resources being utilized by teachers around the country. The Learning Registry is a portal where educators may find standard aligned digital content. Educators may simplify their searching of the registry by using the site  

      This is a start in the right direction. As the web continues to grow the resources for educators grow with it. The common core standards has standardized "what" educators need to explore with students. Together we can vet the digital content aligned to these standards and share it with our peers. I hope to see more sites like the learning registry simplify this process.

      Monday, January 27, 2014

      Identifying the Gaps Using Flipped Instruction

      I recently read Salmon Khan's book The One World School House.  The book chronicles the history of the Khan Academy. It also presents alternative methods of instruction and curriculum design that emphasises personalized learning and pacing. I enjoyed the text and found myself in agreement with much of the content. 

      One of the pilot programs that the Khan Academy setup involved a mathematics class. A class was designed in which the curriculum assigned was based solely on the Khan Academy. Students would work through the practice problems, view videos when they required direct instruction, and work with their teacher/facilitator for extra help. The resources and structure for this implementation are available on the Khan Academy website. While this concept of flipped learning and personalized planning is not a new idea their selection of "where to start" was unique. Rather than having all of the students in this Algebra I course start with Algebra I, the students started with simple addition and worked their way up through the math concepts.

      The idea of starting from the beginning provided an opportunity for students to fill the gaps in their mathematical knowledge. If they struggled with a particular math topic in earlier grades or possibly just a had a "bad day" when a certain concept was taught the result may be a gap in knowledge that follows them.  What is interesting is that they were able to meet the requirements of Algebra I even by starting with addition because of the autonomy, personalization and accessibility offered by the Khan Academy. The class that followed this instructional shift recognized a significant increase in performance. One would assume that this method provided each student with the remediation that they needed in the most efficient manner.

      In high schools across the country students are placed into remedial math courses if they have not passed a high stakes test required for graduation. These classes are test prep classes that prepare students to retake the assessment. I wonder if a better placement is to identify at-risk student preemptively and assign them a course based on the principles of the Khan Academy pilot?