Reflections on PD & Choice & Hope

I am not, as I recently heard a colleague say in reference to herself, a “Positive Polly”.  At least not lately.  The confluence of broken contract negotiations, laws and media that attack my profession, the retirement of a beloved boss, and a new teaching assignment (in addition to personal life stuff) has left me feeling…lost and afraid, I suppose.  But in the midst of winter, I found, if not an “invincible summer” (sorry Ralph Waldo), something to inspire hope.  I want to share.

District teachers and administrators met for a day of professional development on MLK day last week.  I have a rocky history with district-sponsored PD.  This time was different.  In advance of the day, our new assistant superintendent for instruction organized several folks from both within and outside the district, to offer conference-style workshops.  Even better, staff were given the opportunity to select the sessions that most interested them.  There were nearly a couple of dozen choices, and I found myself in the wonderful position of having to choose between multiple learning opportunities of interest to me.  I also  had a chance to present, which was a great learning experience.  This probably doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking to the larger world, but it was a big deal to me and many of my colleagues.

Being given choice is something that every learner, and most educators these days, know the power of.  The opportunity to choose confers an unspoken respect on the chooser.  The message I got was, “Hey, you are trusted and competent, and we’d like to offer you some opportunities to continue to evolve your practice in ways you deem most appropriate as a reflective educator.”  And it just felt really good.  Like a little ray of light in the dark.

dark candle by Wim Vandenbussche

And I’m going to try and hang onto that.  The professional development I signed up for challenged my thinking, and that is important.  And the way the PD was planned and implemented is also challenging me to re-frame how I see my circumstances.  For me, at this moment, that is of greater importance.

Transparency Can Be Good For You–Or Me

Caution:  Brain Dump Ahead

Today at RCWP’s Tech Matters I presented myself as a case study on the theme of collaboration. Aside from sharing a few tools I use to stay connected/networked, like Classroom 2.0 and my Google Reader, I told two stories about my collaborative efforts. One is a story of success with student collaboration, and the second story is an example of how really NOT to attempt collaborative projects with colleagues.

So today my brain keeps coming back to how vulnerable it can be to make my teaching practice transparent to even a small chunk of the world beyond my classroom.  I have a reasonable amount of practice at this sort of presenting/sharing, whether it is in front of a supportive audience like RCWP or my district Board of Ed, which not quite so demonstrably affirming. Still, I get scared to lay out my practice, the thinking and choices that expose me to…other people’s judgements! AAAHHH! Run away!

I have never regretted being transparent about my teaching practice, because I always learn from these experiences. It forces me to reflect in new ways on my work and choices, which isn’t my natural desire on a daily basis. But every time it is frightening, albeit with the knowledge that I’ll be better off at the end of a presentation or blog entry or conversation in the teachers lounge.

Teachers in my district don’t much do the sharing or transparency thing.  The vast majority, anyway, are not sharing beyond their teaching pals.  Why?  Probably, I’m theorizing, because they are afraid of being judged and found wanting.  I can relate to that.  And yet, if we want to be afforded respect as professionals, I don’t think we can do that without transparent practices that show the world that we are…respectable professionals.  The paper certificates and degrees just aren’t enough.

What would happen if we opened our practice to the world, or even each other?  Could my colleagues see more than brown-nosing or egoism/self-promotion?  What could we accomplish together, open to one another and open to possibilities for collaboration?

Summer Goals

photo by cool librarian at flickrNeedless to say, my first goal is to rededicate myself to blogging my teaching life/learning. So that I have something to blog about, I’ve got a few other goals to attach to this:

Goal 2: Finish Choice Words by Peter Johnston–I’m hoping it’ll be easier to read away from the daily mistakes I make talking with/to kids…

Goal 3: Read Notebook Know-How by Aimee Buckner. I’ve made some reasonable steps over the past year in Writers Workshop, but I’m still not satisfied with the support I’m giving my students with organizing and effectively using their notebooks.  I’m also planning to read Cracking Open Authors Craft by Lester Laminack–I’m hoping this will get me working more on reading-writing connections.

Goal 4: Read at least 10 new(ish) children’s novels/chapter books to brush up on what the latest and greatest work is out in the world.  I’m through the first 2 Rick Riordan books from his Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, so I’m off and running here!

Goal 5:  Big plans to make progress on a reading/writing matrix I’m drafting as a resource for myself and the other 5th grade teachers in my district.

Goal 6:  Really commit to setting up a wiki for my social studies curriculum.  In my imagination, I can set up a framework and have students build the knowledge from there…in my imagination where I have all the access and opportunity. 

Given that summer vacation works out to be about 6-7 weeks, I think I’ve got an ambitious list and had better quit while I’m (barely) ahead.  I also have personal goals, which hopefully involve me reading at the beach, child-free, for hours on end. 

What I’m Doing Right…For Once

March Madness is not, in my world, connected to basketball.  March is Reading Month, making it four straight weeks of near-religious observance of the joys of readng.  It has also been the month in which I do my Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) for each of my students.  And this year, the month we finished collaborative digital stories on endangered species, culminating in a mini film festival.  I’m tired.

I’ll be reviewing assessments tonight, and that usually brings me down for a while, since it is my failures that grab my attention.  Yes, there’s still time, but I feel freaked out and discouraged about the progress of a few of my little ducklings–at this point it is tradition.  Sure, I’ll forgive myself, share out the blame among parents, past teachers, God, and the ducklings in question–eventually.  But first I’ll hold myself accountable and feel crappy.

So this might seem like a bad time to review a video  that a wonderful colleague of mine recorded last Fall.  In it I’m doing a focus lesson, guided groups and conferencing for readers workshop.  A lesson I hadn’t taught before.  But I’ve been carrying the thing around for many weeks, and just made myself watch until I got over my bad hair, all the fidgeting with my outfit, and how weird my voice sounded.  And after a few minutes, I started paying attention to the teaching. 

It was good.  I mean, I really rocked that workshop, those kids were engaged, and we were learning.  Is this surprising, even though it shouldn’t be?  Kind of.  It is one thing to have a sense that these things are happening, but another to actually watch the happening from the outside.  My district doesn’t practice video-recording lessons as a regular way to reflect on teaching, so this is the first time I’ve seen myself in action since I student-taught back at the dawn of this millennium.  And maybe, just maybe, part of me was still picturing my teaching as it was captured back then–enthusiastic, but not terribly focused or smooth or, for that matter, student-centered.  Back then I would have killed to teach like I do now. 

So instead of starting to analyze this pile of reading assessments in “hot mess” mode, I actually get to go into the process with this picture of a skilled reading teacher inside my head.  And it’s a picture of me.

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Becoming one-teacher-at-a-time-ish…

     Happy FIFTH Snow Day to me…

    I finished One Teacher at a Time last week (first post here), while at the same time dipping my toe into the criterion-based assessment waters in both Math ( a unit on fractions) and Science (a unit on force and motion).  I started by setting up class lists with the benchmarks heading the top row of a table, leaving room for assessment over multiple activities connected to each benchmark.  I also set up a student self-evaluation sheet and started each unit having students rate their own feelings of proficiency relative to each benchmark.

     What I’ve liked so far is the more specific way I’m pushed to introduce content to my class–rather than just a statement on how we’ll be studying force and motion, I gave the specific content we’ll focus on–contact and noncontact forces, balanced and unbalanced forces, etc.  With only a few science lessons completed, it seems like the students have a stronger sense of focus, and so do I. 

    One of the worries a colleague shared with me is that all this observational assessment would suck away time to help students.  I’ve found the opposite so far.  As I travel around the room observing students working through, for example, simplifying fractions, I can quickly determine who seems proficient and who does not.  From there, I can pull a quick small group to re-teach, pair more-proficient with less-proficient students for peer teaching, or access materials (like a fraction strip kit) that might help one or two particular students with comprehending the process and content of the benchmark.  And no one gets left out because I’m caught up with the first kid who needs help or the kid who needs constant reassurance about every–single–problem. 

    The big issue is the one I predicted–I’m having to re-assess how I’ve constructed lessons, chosen materials and assignments/activities, and sequenced the instruction.  I don’t mean to by whiny and lazy, but this is a LOT of work.  I can already picture what a long summer it’s going to be.  Worthwhile, sure–but lots of work.  Setting up a new gradebook online with all the benchmarks is just the beginning, really.  Re-conceptualizing every unit of study I’ve carefully crafted over the last four years in fifth grade is the real work. Once that is done, implementing will be rocky at first, but given what I’ve read and even the small bit I’ve begun to experience in my classroom, it will have a major payoff in student outcomes.  And I’ll get there, but from my cozy deep-mid-winter blogging chair, it seems like I should take a nap first.

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Shifty Paradigms

paradigmshiftby-askpangatflickr.jpg 

Last Wednesday I spent a few hours at my ISD with other 3-5 teachers listening to Jane E. Pollack, author of, most recently, One Teacher at a Time.  I thought I was just going to hear a little about standards-based report cards.  Instead, I had my entire practice challenged.  Yes, it was one of those sorts of presentations.  Jane didn’t want to just tell me about a possiblity–she wanted me to shift how I teach and assess, basing my practice on criterion-based scoring, where every student is made to focus on their proficiency in each benchmark of the subjects I teach.  She walked in with what to her seemed the unshakable assertion that this paradigm is clearly the one in which I as a teacher can really push the learning curve of my students. 

I held my ground, but have always known it was shaky at best.  It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to know that the traditional grading system is not a framework that promotes learning, or even reflects learning.  The grades in my book tell a lot of stories, many of which aren’t really useful.  I often explain to my students and their parents that grades do not necessarily reflect ability or even learning–they reflect performance on assignments.  Have I always been assiduous in my choice of assignments to be sure they strongly reflect the precise benchmarks my students are responsible for gaining proficiency in?  Heck no.  And I’m not alone by a long-shot.  So Ms. Jane comes along and causes tectonic plate movement under my shaky ground. 

I want to cry, partly in frustration over yet another BIG IDEA I have to grapple with in my practice.  But partly in some relief–I knew this grade stuff was kind of bogus all along, but didn’t know what my alternatives were.  So now I’m reading her book, which reflects some of what I heard her say in person.  I just read something Jane mentioned during her talk–that in the 50’s, maybe half of the school-aged children were graduating high school.  Jane talked about what that meant for teachers and education–many classrooms were populated by students who “got it”–the wheat had already been separated from the chaff.  Those students that tear us up with frustration and grief were largely not in the room anymore, and teachers were instructing the motivated, resourced kids.  I’m not saying I’d want that, but it does re-frame the idea that kids were smarter “in the old days” and that somehow today’s teachers and students are falling short of their predecessors.  They weren’t counting all the kids–cheaters.

Back to criterion-based assessment–so I see myself with this gradebook in which each benchmark is listed with a number of activities attached and the students get scored on their level of proficiency (or lack thereof) in each activity/reflection of the benchmark.  And the students are aware of the precise benchmarks we are striving toward, self-assessing as well as being assessed by me as we move through various and sundry compelling opportunities to learn and grow (that part doesn’t change, thank God), and the students focus is on the proficiency goal as opposed to the grade stuff.  At the end of a unit, they (and I) know exactly where they stand in relation to each benchmark of learning.  And this magical online gradebook helps me spit out subject grades using all these criterion-based assessments at the end of each marking period (don’t ask about the magic grading program, I don’t know enough to speak to that as of yet).

And the way I find time to do all that business?  By throwing away some of the stuff I was doing before that was not as geared toward benchmark-y proficiency.  I am teacher-enough to admit this stuff exists, and scared enough to admit I don’t want to let go.  But I can’t have it both ways, of this much I am convinced.  More deliberate pedagogical choices must be made for this brave new classroom.  That queasy feeling could be dread or excitement at the prospect.  I’ll let you know.