Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Litany of changes

The school schedule where I teach used to be seven periods; now it's eight. We used to spend 240 minutes per week with each class; that total's now 225.

We're figuring out how to navigate and use a new school website at the same time the district has rolled out refreshed technology. Our desktops or laptops have been replaced by Chromebooks.

The faces of students this August look so different from the ones I remember from May, yet not so different from Augusts past.

Of course, change can create door-opening excitement. It can also roil. Today's weather -- both external and internal -- felt stormy. One thing I know for certain in these parts: it'll change.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

First-day field trip

Monday represented a first on my 23rd first day of the school year, wearing teacher shoes. Colleagues and I were pre-arranged in groups for our initial staff meeting, and we were given marching orders: Visit one student at home along with at least one family member for about 20 minutes to see how they're feeling about the start of school, to get to know them a little better on their home field, and to find out if they needed any additional support before classes next week. Each destination family had been set up in advance.

So, the orchestra teacher, a science teacher, and I all piled into the assistant principal's car (because I had taken the bus to work and the two other personal vehicles were both coincidentally loaded with mattresses). We made our way to the next town over from school. There, we met a beaming sixth-grader and her mother. New to our learning community, they had several questions about which they were curious, and we could see the girl's shoulders visibly ease as a clearer picture of what her school future might look like began to develop. We learned about her, too, in an informal, relaxed way that even the best classroom icebreakers would never quite match.

Back at school after an hour, we compared experiences with colleagues, trading observations that might be useful to others in the teaching team and also stepping back to reflect on this new step interacting with our community. While this was a first, the positive outcomes left me feeling confident it's an event that deserves to be repeated.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Charting a course: learning vs. learned

The subtitle of this blog entry captures an idea I heard from English teacher Monte Syrie in Washington state. Contributing long-distance to a panel in Colorado discussing alternatives to traditional grading, Monte sketched an idea he plans to focus on in 2018-19: favoring learning as an ongoing, continuous, present-tense process over the notion that content can be learned (that is to say, mastered) with past-tense finality. Monte's words have been niggling my brain for a week.

As part of preparing for the imminent school year, I started sifting standards for two of the courses I'll teach. Loose units began to coalesce around these standards, with areas of focus for reading, writing, and speaking. Still, the past-tenseness of the standards irked me in ways it never had before -- the proclamations about mastery seemed more mirage than meaningful. The standards make shiny targets, but they're of debatable worth for every single student in my care: compliance as fool's gold.

Consider representative eighth-grade reading standards like these: "I read to find and record information. I sequence or outline events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning."

For students who aren't yet reading like that when warranted, how might standards like these better point readers to incremental ways forward? And for students who have already performed as such readers, what then?

What if I were to revise course standards foregrounding growth? Here's one draft using the above examples, with emphasis added: "I read to find and record information more efficiently. I sequence or outline increasingly complex events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning more concisely."

Might students and I be able to use standards like those to meaningfully distinguish how readers are progressing or, if they're stalled, how to get their reading lives moving again?

I'm reminded of micro-progressions that I learned about two summers ago during a #cyberPD book study of DIY Literacy. (Tricia Ebarvia sums up this structure in her blog here.) I posit that rungs on a micro-progression might enable growth momentum, helping students and me hash out what progress along the continuum of a particular standard looks like; or when particular students reach the envelope's edge, how we might push it in service of literacy that knows no -- or fewer -- limits.

Now, my leading worry: Once past the heady, often hermetically sealed days of back-to-school planning, these ideas may prove to be pipe dreamy or too murky to implement in a world still governed by black-and-white grades. (For the record, I've got thoughts there, too. Inspired by California educator Mari Venturino, I'm considering tweaking her mastery tasks as growth challenges that will yield a body of evidence that bridges us to grades.)

This is a path I see value in exploring, and I'm stating my in-progress thinking here because I welcome feedback and/or push-back from you. What do you see down this road I'm imagining? How much here might be specific to English Language Arts versus having commonalities with other disciplines? If you've been down any part of this road before, what's it like, and what should I know that I don't?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Professional learning post-mortem

Monday, 7/30/18, 9:57 p.m. MT

By the time you read this, I'll be done freaking out.

See, I'm trying something I've never done before: I'm leading a small panel as part of a district professional-development day (#innovateBVSD). One local colleague and three Twitter connections accepted my invitation to participate. We're planning to swap ideas about the current state of grades, grading, and assessment in our -- and our students' -- respective worlds, and we're going to see what other educators in the area are doing and/or wondering about these critical topics on the verge of a new school year.

These can be topics fraught with both meaning and baggage. Probing them often involves questioning school status-quo, which explains one source of my anxiety. At the same time, I'm trying to imagine (or not imagine) the litany of technical and logistical difficulties that might befall juggling face-to-face participants with those joining remotely via Google Meet. "What could go wrong?" I wonder. "What couldn't?" my inner defensive pessimist jibes.

And yet, I'm excited, too: for dialogue, for collaboration, even for the mundane chance to attach voices and faces to what have until now felt like wise, disembodied avatars in my learning network. Stay tuned for what happens next...

Tuesday, 7/31/18, 9:42 p.m. MT

So. five of us formed a panel this afternoon. Sarah and I were there as flesh and blood while Carla, Amy, and Monte had their mortal coils rendered digitally from afar. The rendering worked pretty well, with sometimes spotty audio. The thinking we shared along with contributions from a dozen participants was anything but spotty in my opinion. In fact, I expect the ways our thinking converged -- across roles, levels taught, physical distance -- are going to stick with me for a while.

There was Sarah making the case for students' integral roles in the assessment process, in particular how that's borne out word-for-word in our district's teacher-evaluation criteria. There was Monte sketching out his distinction between the value in students' ongoing learning versus the finality of what they've learned in the past tense. Mastery, he suggested, might be more mirage than construct worthy of aspiration. There were Amy and Sarah, both, tying Monte's thread to the notion of growth and wondering how our reporting responsibilities as teachers might accommodate that shifty moving target. There was Carla championing portfolios as a potential bridge in this endeavor. There was Kelly noting her own child's ambivalence about changing the game of school that he's in the middle of playing even as Kelly's professional side endorses alternative instructional paradigms. There was Kiffany wishing for innovative efforts in higher education that might lever change throughout PK-12 systems. There were more thoughts, too, of which I know I lost track, but Sarah wrote down a bunch. There was also frustration expressed with traditional applications of grades, apparent in this temperature check captured via AnswerGarden:



Our conversation lasted less than an hour, nowhere near enough time. I can still feel its ripples continuing to spread, and I realize my first sentence written 24 hours ago in this blog missed the mark. Now I'm freaking out for a new reason: There's so much more to do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Hatching a hashtag

I read Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence this spring, thoroughly enjoying the librarian-author's apostrophes to formative books from her life. In planning for the coming school year, Spence's approach inspired me to use a similar structure with middle-school students as we develop our reading community.

My first draft mashed up a Google Form, Sheet, and Site with the help of Awesome Table -- a combination on which I've relied in the past. As a new wrinkle, I mused about how to connect student reviews with a wider audience, perhaps even including their favorite authors. Social media, particularly Twitter, has proven a positive outlet in that regard for me, so I added a choice in the form for students to republish their micro-letters as tweets.

Since Twitter's terms of service say users must be at least 13 and most of my students are not, I'll post reviews via my professional handle from those who opt in. (Class handles may someday prove worthwhile, but I'm not yet ready for that step.) I did capitulate, however, to the necessity for a hashtag that will help aggregate our work. And so, on Monday, #DearTitleHere was born -- both the feed and the site. I've seeded those with a few examples drawn from my summer reading, and I'll invite students to jump in next month.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Nonfiction mission

Summer reading this month has meant a nonfiction binge as the library, all at once, had five titles on my to-read list. About three weeks ago, I checked out Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Ultimate Glory by David Gessner, When by Daniel Pink, The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I made it through four and a half of them -- going to need to come back to Sapiens since my renewal efforts were blocked by an unwitting rival sapient who placed a hold on my copy.

My take-aways from this informational immersion? Justice, Frisbees, time, coffee, and the sweep of history should never be underestimated. More seriously, when we can hitch the horses of our intrinsic drive to a meaningful wagon of extrinsic sense-making, we can unleash heady momentum. Stevenson, a lawyer, did and continues to do this as he exhausts every legal means to ensure his clients -- often on death row -- are treated fairly before the law. What Stevenson pours into his clients, Gessner devoted for decades to chasing flying discs, subsuming all other priorities including growing up, and harboring few if any regrets for his efforts. For both Stevenson and Gessner, pivotal moments prove the outsized influence of timing, an observation with which Pink would agree, I suspect. He distills numerous research examples in his latest book to uncover why the cliche "Timing is everything" should more accurately read "Everything is timing," and then he teaches readers moves they might make to maximize their own time. In contrast, the protagonist in Eggers' literary biography, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, takes a while to maximize his time. He's a Yemeni American who (as the story spins) drifts shiftlessly through odd jobs until finding his life's calling in resurrecting the coffee trade in his family's homeland.

In preparing this slice, I discovered another knot that ties these books together. Alkhanshali, from The Monk of Mokha, was being sued as of May for allegedly shady business dealings in the import/export world, a fact which tends to smear Eggers' mostly noble portrait. It's not the first time Eggers has been in this position. A previous book he wrote, Zeitoun, spotlighted a heroic survivor of the Hurricane Katrina flood in New Orleans, a man later accused of -- and exonerated for -- attempting to murder his wife, a case that sounds like it might be right up Bryan Stevenson's alley.

These puzzling intersections bring us to Harari's Sapiens, with its ambitious reach in seeking to build a massive jigsaw of human impacts on Earth -- and Earth's impacts on humans -- over thousands of years in the planet's run of billions. My reading only took me as far as the agricultural revolution, and we know how much more has happened since. Still, I marvel at how Sapiens presents a simultaneously celebratory and damning picture of what we people have been up to and the consequences, both intended and otherwise, which keep coming to bear.


Three weeks and a pile of books later, my brain is full, my thinking clouded. I remain humble and grateful for the power of reading (and creative writers) to connect me with people, places, and ideas, whether physically or temporally far or near.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Take a hike

This Fourth of July led me to a back-country epiphany. My wife and I were hiking in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains for four days, spending part of each day traveling well-marked trails and (by choice) another part bushwhacking off trail. The on-trail time proved wonderfully scenic as this Exhibit A above Toxaway Lake demonstrates:

Being able to follow clearly demarcated and well-signed paths made for confident, decisive movement through sublime terrain. In comparison, off-trail adventures meant halting progress, occasional missteps, or even backtracking to find a better (read: passable) way. Given those avoidable difficulties, I've been reflecting since, why even bother leaving the path in the first place? My conclusion arrived via analogy -- concocted by my teacher brain, on the clock even in mid-summer.

The trail confers explicit directions, showing one way to proceed in all its glory, making each next step comfortingly obvious. It represents the direct instruction of the hiking world! In comparison, leaving the trail behind opens up new possibilities for simultaneous exploration and confusion. Bushwhacking is genius hour, or whatever name you want to brand open-ended inquiry. Getting from point A to point B or beyond becomes an unspecified puzzle versus connect-the-dots. That uncertainty can frustrate as well as invigorate, and I came to realize how much its enjoyment depends on all the paths I've walked before plus time spent with more-seasoned hikers who've shown me the way(s).

I'll close by repeating words from Marcia Tate that I shared less than a month ago: "If you're not modeling what you're teaching, then you're teaching something else." By way of my epiphany, I'll add: Model both how and why to stay on a particular path along with when and why to diverge where the trail hasn't yet been blazed.