The Tempered Radical
In a recent bit over on his blog, my buddy Tony Baldasaro argued that the decisions schools make are often designed to support the system rather than to support students or to advance learning.
Let's start with a simple truth, y'all: Student engagement matters.
When kids care about the lessons that they are learning, they are WAY more likely to master the kinds of essential skills, content and behaviors that will help them to become productive, contributing members of our society.
Regular Radical Readers know that high stakes testing is in the forefront of my mind right now. I guess that's just what happens when you live and work in a nation hellbent on tying teacher evaluation to the scores that students produce on multiple choice exams.
Regular Radical Readers know that high stakes testing is in the forefront of my mind
right now. I guess that's just what happens when you live and work in a
nation hellbent on tying teacher evaluation to the scores that students
produce on multiple choice exams.
The testing pressure is worse than usual for me this year simply because in response to President Obama's Race to the Top initiative, North Carolina has introduced new "Measures of Student Learning" exams for science.
That means a "value-added" score based on nothing other than results my
students generate on a late-May exam will be tied directly to my
evaluation -- and, if our Republican-led legislature has its way, will eventually be the SOLE factor in determining whether or not I'm placed on a terminating contract.
of design flaws that will make this "measure of student learning"
nearly impossible for the 12-year olds that I teach to actually pass --
it is primarily composed of 35 isolated knowledge-driven questions that
cover topics from a 23-page curriculum guide that we started learning in
July -- I'm worried for one main reason:
I don't think I'll get through our entire curriculum before the test.
of the blame for failing to get through the curriculum before the test
rests with the curriculum designers, who really did jam the proverbial
kitchen sink into the sixth grade pacing guide.
proof? Then check out this PARTIAL list of "essential" vocabulary words
and tell me whether or not you think it's possible for teachers to
engage sixth graders in a meaningful exploration of this content in one
Convection, Radiation, Heat Transfer, Mediums, Frequency, Amplitude,
Pitch, Wavelength, Longitudinal Waves, Transverse Waves, Trough, Crest,
Rarefaction, Compression, Electromagnetic Energy, Disturbances.
Melting Point, Boiling Point, Solubility, Solute, Solvent, Saturation, Phase Changes.
Density, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Oceanic Crust, Continental
Crust, Plate Tectonics, Alfred Wegener, Convergent Boundaries, Divergent
Boundaries, Transform Boundaries, Primary Waves, Secondary Waves,
Surface Waves, Parent Rock, Contour Plowing.
Phases of the Moon, Tidal Patterns, Hubble Telescope, International
Space Station, Fermi-Gamma-Ray Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory,
And part of the blame for
failing to get through the curriculum before the test rests with the
calendar writers, who have my students taking our end of grade exam
almost THREE FULL WEEKS before our school year actually ends.
If I had another three weeks to work with my students, I'd get through the curriculum without any trouble.
most of the blame for failing to get through the entire curriculum
before the test rests with me. After all, I spent a TON of class
periods covering things that AREN'T going to be tested.
Here's what we were "wasting our time" on:
Sustained Silent Reading:
My interdisciplinary team made the decision long ago to do silent
reading once a week in every classroom. Our thinking was that students
need daily time to read silently AND need to see EVERY teacher as a
PRETTY sure that this time is well spent. Our team is full of
passionate readers this year who love talking about books with us.
colleague stopped by the library the other day while we were reading and
asked how we got our kids to be so quiet during SSR time. My answer:
Give kids chances to read every single day.
Time "Wasted": 30 minutes per week, or two class periods per month. 16 total class periods.
Teaching the Nonfiction Reading Skills in the Common Core Curriculum: Science teachers in North Carolina have been buried in training around the literacy standards for social studies, science and the technical subjects in the Common Core curriculum
In fact, it was the PRIMARY professional development that I
received -- and the expectation was that science teachers would
integrate nonfiction reading lessons into their curriculum.
that teaching students the skills necessary for being literate
consumers of scientific text and literate participants in scientific
conversations, my learning team jumped into that instruction with two
feet. Check out the lessons that we developed.
Not bad, huh?
the problem: NONE of those skills will be tested on the fact-driven
"measures of student learning" exams that my kids have to take. Of
course, the language arts teacher on our team is probably jazzed that I
spent so much time teaching nonfiction skills like identifying bias and
evaluating evidence, but it ain't going to help me.
Time "Wasted": 4 two-day lessons. A total of 8 class periods.
Introducing Information Technology Standards: Here in North Carolina, there is a required Information Technology curriculum
that has to be delivered by core area teachers.
That curriculum is
actually pretty solid -- it addresses essential themes like teaching
students to manage and evaluate information in online spaces and
encouraging kids to use digital tools to publish for wider audiences.
my interdisciplinary team, most of those lessons happen in my classroom
simply because I'm comfortable with introducing students to digital
tools and spaces. Wrote a book about it, even.
To address those standards, I had my students work in groups to use Diigo
to create a shared collection of resources connected to the New York
City Soda Ban -- a high-interest topic that played a role in our
nonfiction reading work. Check out the lesson here.
We also talked about the characteristics of collaborative dialogue -- and then practiced those skills by engaging in a VoiceThread conversation about the New York City Soda Ban. You can see the conversation here and explore the lessons here.
-- not bad stuff, huh?
But nothing in these lessons is going to be
tested either -- even though it IS a part of the required curriculum
that students are supposed to be introduced to.
Time "Wasted": 8 class periods.
Spending Two-Weeks Introducing the Scientific Method with an Actual Lab:
Probably the worst decision that I made this year was deciding to start
the year by introducing the scientific method with a lab activity.
spent the first few weeks using different liquids and materials to
explore density -- the ONE theme that appears again and again in the
content of our curriculum.
It was a pretty awesome experience for the kids.
know little about density when they come to sixth grade, so watching
liquids separate out even after they are mixed and shaken vigorously
raises a TON of wonder questions in their minds -- and because density
appears so frequently in our curriculum, I've been able to use that
experience as a starting point for a thousand conversations in our study
of the required curriculum.
I loved the most, though, was watching groups ask their own
density-related extension questions -- and then try to figure out how
they could (1). develop a lab to test their hypothesis and (2).
communicate their findings with others. Those are fundamental
scientific behaviors, right?
Unfortunately, they're not TESTED scientific behaviors.
Time "Wasted": 8 class periods.
Allowing Students to Ask and Answer their Own Wonder Questions: One of my favorite goals in the Common Core
writing standards for science and social studies argues that students
should be able to "conduct short research projects to answer a question
(including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and
generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple
avenues of exploration."
AWESOME, isn't it?
We are LITERALLY saying that students should be
spending regular time in schools asking and then researching answers for
their OWN questions.
tackle this goal, I started the year by having my kids spend 5-10
minutes at the end of each class period recording interesting questions
connected to the content that we were studying.
Then, at the end of the
quarter, students had an entire class period to study one of the
questions that they had generated during the quarter.
practice, sadly, was pushed aside at the beginning of the second
semester when I realized that we were going to run out of time before
testing season started.
To ensure that my kids were prepared to ANSWER
questions, I stopped having them ASK questions -- but not before we'd
"wasted" another chunk of valuable instructional minutes.
Time "Wasted": 5-10 minutes per day, or two class periods per month for one semester. 8 total class periods.
If my math is right, that means I spent 48 class periods on things that AREN'T going to be tested. That WAS a foolish decision, right?
should have known better than to spend so much time encouraging
reading, introducing the skills necessary to tackle nonfiction text,
teaching about the role that technology can play in making learning
easier, developing the core behaviors of scientists, and allowing my
kids to ask and answer their own questions.
mind the fact that EVERY one of those skills is a part of one of the
three different required curricula that I'm supposed to teach or that
EVERY one of those skills are skills that sophisticated, responsible
learners must master in order to be "college and career ready."
only thing that matters right now is that NONE of those skills will
show up on our "measures of student learning" exam, so spending time on
them was a decision that I'll pay for when my students struggle to
answer questions about Contour Plowing, Pangaea, Geotropism, the
Chandra X-Ray Observatory or the Fermi-Gamma Ray Telescope in a few
Unless I get lucky and the 35 multiple choice questions
chosen by test writers all cover the content that I DID get through, the
results could be disastrous: My "value-added score" will be low,
"needs-improvement" will be slapped next to my name, and I'll be placed
on a terminating contract all in the name of "holding teachers
I won't make the same mistake twice, y'all.
is going to look a lot different in my room next year. Whether I like
it or not, the content that is tested will get WAY more attention than
the content that isn't -- and I'm pretty sure that's NOT a good thing.
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Blogger's Note: My thinking here is unpolished.
I'm wrestling with the time-honored notion that one of the primary
purposes of high school is to prepare kids for college. As a teacher,
that's always rubbed me a little wrong. Not sure I have the answers,
but I wanted to have the conversation. Looking forward to hearing what
son is just completing his freshman year of high school and has been on
high honors throughout the year. Unfortunately, he is focused solely on
what he needs to do to get the A and not much more. For some classes
that means putting in a lot of effort and for others…not so much.
am more worried about what he is learning than just his grade. I would
not even mind a C if I could see that he was being forced to challenge
himself and think deeply. I see little passion for what he is learning
about, so while the good grades are certainly a bonus, the grades
certainly don’t mean a heck of a lot."
familiar, doesn't it? In the eyes of kids like Patrick's son, high
school isn't a place for learning. Instead, high school is nothing more
than academic purgatory -- a place to aimlessly toil until they've paid the price necessary for admission into "higher education."
(click image to enlarge)
Are we okay with that? Are we okay with the suggestion that preparing kids for college -- places that many students find
to be nothing more than ANOTHER pointless academic grind -- should be
one of the primary goals of our public schools. More importantly, is
preparing kids for college SO important that we're willing to let kids
like Patrick's son lose any sense of the passion and purpose that drives
Can we REALLY say that being "college ready" and "career ready" are one in the same?
I guess what I'm asking is just HOW important IS college?
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One of my all-time favorite assertions about grading in schools comes from Grant Wiggins. He writes:
most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the
school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as
actionable feedback. Grades are here to stay, no doubt—but that doesn't
mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback."
I'm starting to think that Wiggins is right, y'all: Maybe grades ARE utterly useless as a form of feedback.
In the minds of many students, learning stops as soon as a grade is given.
too many students, grades are end points in the never-ending rhythm of
traditional schooling. Instead of encouraging continued study, they
signal that it's time to move on to a new idea -- and that old ideas can
be neatly boxed up and filed away and forgotten. Learning in a graded
classroom becomes an isolated act delivered in units that have clear
starting and ending points instead of a fluid process of continual
exploration and connection and growth and discovery.
Grades have created a world where students have forgotten that THEY can assess their OWN growth towards important academic goals.
in learning spaces where the only feedback that anyone seems to value
are scores given by adults, too many of today's students sit passively
waiting for the judgment of others, stripped of the self-reflective and
evaluative skills that literally define the most successful people.
crazy part is that BEYOND schools, students assess their own progress
all the time. Need proof? Then check out the self-reflection and
evaluation being done by this boy -- who is determined to learn how to start a fire without using a match.
His behaviors look familiar, don't they?
day, the kids in our classrooms are polishing skills and measuring
their progress without being graded. Our gymnasts are fighting through
bruises to master new tumbling routines. Our fishermen are learning
which baits work in which waters. Our gamers are experimenting with a
dozen new strategies for taking on new levels in their favorite games.
that kind of self-reflection and evaluation happens almost exclusively
BEYOND school. Once the bell rings, progress-monitoring becomes someone
Grades mask the real and tangible progress that students -- particularly those who struggle -- ARE making.
of highlighting areas of individual strength and weakness, traditional
grades bundle the sum total of a student's academic self-worth into a
tidy letter that fits neatly on a report card. Imagine how hard it is
for kids buried in Cs and Ds to maintain any kind of momentum in our
Wouldn't YOU give up if the most important feedback that
you ever received told you that you were below average in everything all
Assessment experts Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappius go as
far as to argue that teachers have a moral imperative to rethink the
role that assessment plays in either encouraging our students from
moving forward. They write:
the essential school improvement question from an assessment point of
view is this: Are we skilled enough to use classroom assessment to
either (1) keep all learners from losing hope to begin with, or (2)
rebuild that hope once it has been destroyed?"
and Chappius, regular opportunities for student-involved assessment --
instead of grades given exclusively by adults -- can help students to
see that they ARE making progress and growing as learners. They can
begin to understand that they ARE capable and successful – a message
that they may never have heard before from anyone in positions of power
in traditional schools.
There's a lot to think about,
right? What role SHOULD grades play in our schools? CAN they be
something more than utterly useless forms of feedback for students?
more importantly, what are YOU doing to make sure that classroom
assessment is helping YOUR students to maintain their own intellectual
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Let's start with a simple truth: Schools have limited budgets and every time that we make careless spending choices, we tie our own hands behind our backs.
a result, I've worked HARD over the past several years to encourage
both teachers and school leaders to think systematically about just what
they want to see happening in classrooms before they spend ANYTHING on
To that end, I've whipped up a set of
stories that are designed to start conversations about just what good
technology integration is supposed to look like in schools.
You can download the stories here:
What I plan to do with the stories is ask audiences to engage in Carousel Brainstorming -- moving in small groups from story to story and answering the reflection questions found on the final page of the packet.
My hope is that every participant will see themselves -- both who they are and who they want to be -- somewhere in the stories.
More importantly, my hope is that the conversations started in small
groups will help participants to wrestle with the rationale behind their
own technology spending choices.
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Blogger's Note: I read a John T. Spencer bit
a few weeks back that touched a bunch of emotions. That's led to a bit
of unvarnished truth that I wanted to process here in a post that is
decidedly light on the smiles and candycorn. Hope that doesn't shake
of the most painful moments in my teaching career happened several
years back when I was working in a language arts classroom.
results of our state's standardized tests had just come back and I was
called into my assistant principal's office to review my scores. "What
are we going to do about this, Bill?" he said, passing a paper covered
with red ink across the desk. "You've got the lowest scores on the
I wasn't mad at the principal. In fact, I
considered him a friend and he was only doing his job. But in that
moment, I was definitely defeated by a system that defined the value
that I add in such a narrow way.
I lost it. Literally
started to cry in front of him. I was embarrassed and brokenhearted
all at the same time. I felt like a failure and a fool all wrapped into
I was ashamed -- both of my results and my emotions:
In that moment, I couldn't think rationally.
I couldn't remind myself that the end of grade exams given in our state
only measured 2 out of 6 objectives in the curriculum. I couldn't
remind myself that my students excelled at untestable skills like
engaging in collaborative dialogue or building new knowledge together.
wasn't thinking about the kids who left my room inspired each year --
motivated to study new topics or to tackle new tasks or to try new
things that they'd never considered trying before. The power of those
connections were forgotten; blurred by the stream of red ink that my
state's legislators intended to use as an indicator of the sum total of
the contributions that I make in the lives of my kids and my community.
I stormed out of the principal's office, grabbed my things and headed home.
the way out the door, a parent chased me down in the parking lot. "Mr.
Ferriter. MR. FERRITER. Can I talk to you for a minute?" she said.
just wanted you to know how thankful I am for you. My son loves you.
He comes home every day so excited about school -- and your lessons
about life are sinking in. He's proud of himself and he's determined
and he told me that you talk about those things in class all the time.
means everything to me -- and sending him away for 8 hours a day is
hard. But knowing he's with you makes it easier. I just thought you
needed to know how grateful I am for you."
Her words mattered.
They were a reminder that I wasn't completely useless -- that some
people really DO care about something other than end of grade test
The entire experience has left me bitter and
angry, though. I haven't let it go -- and I definitely haven't
recovered. Years later, I catch myself thinking back on that day.
of the time, I wonder just what people want from me. Am I supposed to
inspire and encourage -- or am I supposed to grind a collection of
random facts into twelve-year old minds in a march to the end of grade
Am I accomplished when my kids can spit back facts on low
level multiple choice exams, or am I accomplished when my kids care
about themselves and each other and their communities? Can I make a
difference even if I have the lowest test scores on the hallway?
to be honest, my bitterness and anger only grows stronger in a Race to
the Top world where even progressive politicians seem determined to use
test scores to reward and punish teachers while simultaneously stripping
away our resources and publicly celebrating their quest to destroy our
Some days, fighting such a dysfunctional,
confused system seems incredibly pointless, y'all. Things aren't
getting better. They're far worse than they've ever been -- and I don't
see any light at the end of the professional tunnel.
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A close friend who works in a leadership role in a local school asked
me an interesting question this week. "I just want to build something
that teachers can buy-in to that will help kids," she said. "How do you
Chances are that if you've worked in schools for any
length of time, that question resonates with you, right?
We've ALL had
moments where we were completely frustrated by a group of teachers who
just weren't interested in moving forward with a new project and/or
The good news is that getting teachers to buy-in to
change initiatives isn't NEARLY as hard as it seems. You just need to
Teachers buy into change efforts that they believe are important.
The change initiative
that I've spent the MOST professional energy on in my 20 year teaching
career was an effort to convert my traditional middle school into a
professional learning community that started a little over 8 years
Since then, I've literally spent thousands of unpaid hours trying
to polish the collaborative work of my learning teams.
commitment to professional learning communities started because I was
convinced from the start that they were important for students.
that I didn't have the skills to meet the needs of every kid in my
classes, but that peers on my hallway did. If we shared what we knew,
there was a real chance that we COULD ensure success for every student.
were about much more than improving student learning, however. I also
saw professional learning communities as an opportunity for teachers to
reestablish their credibility as instructional experts.
policymakers march towards a world where educators were seen as
professionally dispensable, that chance to reassert our expertise was an
opportunity I wanted to take advantage of.
The leadership lesson for school leaders:
If you want teachers to invest time and energy and effort into a change
initiative, you have to first prove to them that the change you are
championing is important -- for students AND for teachers.
Teachers buy into change efforts that they believe are doable.
change effort that I've struggled with the most in my 20 year teaching
career has been my own personal attempts to incorporate more formative
assessment into my classroom.
It's not that I don't believe that
formative assessment matters -- there's enough professional evidence of
the impact that formative assessment has on student learning that I KNOW
every time that I try to make formative assessment a larger part of the
work that I do with kids, I get overwhelmed by the logistics behind
developing and delivering measures that I think are reliable indicators
of just what students know and can do.
Worse yet, I can never find the
time to look for patterns in or to record the data that I collect from
the assessments that I do give.
efforts have been cumbersome and balky -- and they've literally left me
wondering whether or not formative assessment is even possible.
had 8 students or unlimited access to digital tools that would automate
some of the data collection and reporting," I catch myself saying, "then
I could do this. But I don't. So why bother."
The leadership lesson for school leaders:
Simply convincing teachers that your change effort is important isn't
You've ALSO got to convince your teachers that your change
effort is doable given the realities -- class sizes, time constraints,
other school-based responsibilities -- that they wrestle with on a daily
Teachers buy into change efforts that they believe will be around for awhile.
the course of my 20 year teaching career, I've probably seen nothing
short of 100 DIFFERENT change initiatives championed in the schools that
I've worked in.
were federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
There were team-based projects like studying the role that current
events can play in social studies instruction and the role that Socratic
Seminars can play in language arts instruction.
I've had my cheese moved and I've tried to move from good to great. I've had crucial conversations and crucial confrontations. We focused on The First Days of School. We've done curriculum mapping and PLCs and Reading Readiness and instructional walkthroughs.
single one of those efforts required a significant amount of time and
I sat in countless meetings and planned countless lessons and
filled in countless checklists and took countless surveys about all of
them -- only to see them pushed aside as soon as something newer and
better and flashier came along.
every time that one of those initiatives was pushed to the side, I
learned to see my efforts to invest energy into change initiatives as a
waste of time because the chances of seeing any kind of meaningful
return on my professional investments was pretty darn small.
sense committing to something that won't be around in a year.
The leadership lesson for leaders:
Building teacher buy-in depends on convincing teachers that any
initiative that you are putting forth is going to be around for awhile
-- and that means making a commitment to identifying patterns of
practice that are worth pursuing and sticking to them.
If you can't
make that professional promise to yourself or your faculties, don't even
bother trying to drive change.
Any of this make sense? More importantly, did I miss any important tips for building teacher buy-in?
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Over the past few years, I've become convinced that today's kids are
best motivated as learners when they are tackling a real-world issue in a
meaningful way. That's why my #sugarkills blog and my classroom microlending project have been so successful.
As Marc Prensky says,
technology gives today's students power that they've never had before.
It's our job to help them learn to use that power to change the world
in meaningful ways.
To that end, I spent the day
whipping up a new cause for my kids to tackle during a school-wide
enrichment period that starts next year.
cause will be called Speak Up Salem and our goal will be to push for a
school culture where bullying isn't tolerated by generating influential
Public Service Announcements that pair provocative images with
Here's a sample:
The notion of creating influential visuals ties directly to several of the language arts goals in the sixth grade curriculum
-- and learning to use visuals to be persuasive is probably one of the
most important skills for grabbing attention in today's
I'm also excited about the fact that this lesson will give me a chance to introduce students to the Creative Commons
-- a new form of copyright where photographers, musicians, writers, and
artists are granting other users permission in advance to use their
If this sounds good to you, here is a simple
overview of the lesson that is designed to help other teachers get a
sense for what I'm going to do:
And here are the materials that I'll be using when we start the project:
Speak Up Salem Quotes and Statistics - http://bit.ly/speakupsalemquotes
link connects to a Word document with several statistics and quotes
about bullying that students can use when creating their Speak Up Salem
Encouraging students to select a quote or a statistic from this
collection will save time in the creation process simply because they
won’t have to find their own statistics and/or quotes connected to
Speak Up Salem Slides - http://bit.ly/speakupsalemslides
link connects to a PowerPoint presentation with 67 different Creative
Commons images that students can use when creating their own Speak Up
Encouraging students to select an image from this
collection will save time in the creation process simply because they
won’t have to find their own CC images to use in their final products.
Speak Up Salem Directions - http://bit.ly/speakupsalemdirections
link connects to a set of technical directions on using PowerPoint to
create an influential visual. At a minimum, it can help you to better
understand the kinds of things students will need to be able to do when
using PowerPoint to create an influential visual.
You may also want to
share one set of directions with each student group OR train a few
student leaders that can provide technical support to their peers.
Speak Up Salem Scoring Rubric - http://bit.ly/speakupsalemrubric
I don't plan to grade the work that my students do on this assignment
-- honestly, I get sick of living in a world where everything has to
have a grade tied to it to be considered worth doing -- I DO plan on
having my kids evaluate the overall quality of their final products with
this scoring rubric.
Hope this helps -- and more
importantly, hope you'll stop back and give me feedback if you use this
lesson with YOUR kids! I'd love to know about any changes that you
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