Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Why Our Grading System is Failing Our Kids

"Mommy, I have a stomach ache because I got a 90."

That is one of the last things my first grader said to me before she went to sleep tonight. I've never written a post from the parent perspective before. This is new territory and I've avoided it until now because my expertise and experience lies in secondary education. I didn't feel it was my place to comment on elementary education without studying and experiencing it.

The thing is, I have an expertise at being a mother of two little girls who are just starting school–one is in first grade and the other is in preschool. My daughters’ game of choice is "playing school" with a little easel and some books and paper and a class made up of dolls and stuffed animals. They teach through singing, drawing, and encouragement. They build in rest time and quick chats with the pretend parents who pick up their stuffed animal students at the end of the day. It's funny how my 4 and 7 year olds have intuitively picked up the parts of a learner's day that have the greatest impact. They know that music, hands-on activities, and positive interpersonal connections help create an environment where learners can thrive.

When do we lose that?

For my child, it started to happen today at age 7 and in first grade. She has a great teacher who has not emphasized test scores at all. Today they went over an assessment together and each student figured out how he/she did. As a teaching practice, I definitely see the value. But my daughter somehow interpreted that she did something "wrong" and it followed her all day until she said something to me at bedtime. She even narrowed it down to a score. She gave herself a 90. That 90 made her stomach ache. It isn't her teacher's fault. Maybe it is my fault. I'm her mom and I knew how to play the grades game in school. She's got my genes, for sure. I'm also an educator who talks education...a lot, and she hears some of it. Or maybe she's learned about grades from the chatter of the older kids on her school bus in the morning. More likely she's learned it from all of these sources combined. It isn't really about fault or blame. It's about what I learned about learning tonight.

A teeny tiny part of my little girl started to understand that number ratings will somehow shape how others measure her success. Eventually they might shape how she measures her own success. I'll do everything I can to make sure they are only one factor, one of many, and not THE factor. I'll make sure those numbers pale in comparison to the importance of her actions and intentions. In fact, she and I had this discussion last night. It might have been the first time, but I know it will not be the last.

Maybe it is idealistic to expect the education machine to transition to a gradeless, learner-driven, standards-based place where our children understand that iteration is a part of the learning process. Iteration is not the same as getting something "wrong" or "failing" and then trying again. Iteration is what motivates us to start over and over when we are playing video games, or when we don't instantly solve a puzzle at first glance, or when we are learning the words to a new song we like. Iteration is how our little ones learn to read: they try to sound out, decode, and apply meaning to words. They are not successful with every word, but they are not told they are wrong. They are told to try again and are given encouragement. Why does that mindset change in first grade? Sixth grade? High school? College? The workforce? Ever?

If my preschooler and first grader are aware of the elements needed to help a learner thrive, why are those elements deemphasized as children grow and rise through the grade levels? The way formal schooling is structured now–around grades and percentages–is failing our kids.

Should we change it?
Can we change it?
Will we do something to change it?

Hack Learning Podcast
Thank you to Mark Barnes for welcoming me as a guest on his Hack Learning podcast after reading this post. We got to talk about this topic, my experience with my daughter, and provide some ideas for parents and educators facing this same situation. You can listen to the podcast here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

What Tech Savvy Teachers Want Policymakers to Know

Issues of data privacy, school-home communication, and equity are hard to ignore in the new climate of education. Communities are hashing out how to best use technology as a tool in education, especially in a job market that is forever changing and increasingly utilizing technology at every turn. From the classroom, school-wide, and district-wide educators' perspectives there are a few essential elements policymakers should hear. At SXSWedu, educators like Jose FaustoMatt Worthington, and me had the opportunity, alongside moderator Governor Beverly Perdue, to share our experiences and insights on these challenging, but exciting, topics during our panel. Here's a quick summary:

Teacher-Tested Effective Uses of EdTech Exist

Teachers love technology that gives them a chance to create and curate content; give students a learning experience that is fitted to their personal needs; provide a feedback loop between students, teacher, and parents instantly; and when they are able to bring the world to their students via online media and video chats. Technology has enabled students to be creators of evidence of their learning. School is not longer about taking a test. Students are creating movie trailers or designing infographics, and then sharing that work with the world outside their classroom.

Students are Using Professional Skills and Tools

Frausto made a great point when he said, "I've never been asked as an adult to prove that I can use a glue stick." We want our students to be doing things "that adults have to do," as Worthington mentioned, while they are in school. School should not be thought of as preparation for the real world. It is the real world for our students. Teachers have seen their students as film-makers, designers, advocates, authors, and more. They can build marketing, designing, and communication skills as they contribute to their school and community.

We Know Student Data Privacy is a Growing Concern

Up until this moment in American education, the adults have been the experts and the children have been the learners. Year to year, month to month technology is evolving so quickly that children and adults are learning it together. Adults don't have time to develop an expertise before their children have adopted it. For the adults who see their children and students using apps they haven't heard of or tested, it feels daunting. This is why data privacy has risen to the top of education policy debates. There are school districts, like Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts and Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, have worked with companies, teachers, and parents to establish a vetting process that keeps all parties informed. When all parties are transparent and we keep the lines of communication open, we can build sensible policies together.

We Care About Equity

We want our students to have access. But access is not limited to putting devices in hands. Our students deserve to have teachers who have had a chance to learn and tinker, so that they know what it feels like to fail and succeed with technology. Equity means that our students need access to devices, skills, and teachers that will help them try, iterate, grow, and eventually succeed at building essential college and career skills. There are ways that school leaders can provide these opportunities for teachers, but they need to have flexibility. If classrooms are going to start looking different, then professional development and school culture have to start looking different too.

This is only a quick review. There is more and the panel is worth watching. After you read and/or watch, please comment or tweet and let us know your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

That Moment When Your Students Find You Online

Note: A teacher at my school stopped by my office this morning to tell me this quick story, and it ended up being so inspirational that I felt moved to write about it and share it. I have her blessing, of course.

Drawing by a middle school teacher
from when she was in middle school herself.
Middle school students are a wonderful combination of curious, mischievous, and sweet. Sometimes it seems as though the mysteries they are most curious to investigate are the personal lives of their teachers. At this adolescent stage they have finally come to realize that their teachers don't sleep under the desk each night. Since our students now have devices in their hands that can quickly find information, they tend to search for anything they can dig up to help unlock the teacher mystery.

One of our middle school teachers comes from an artistic family and was eager to create her own art when she was in her own adolescence. She was hungry to get feedback on her work and to learn from other artists. She looked online, found a positive artistic community, and joined. There, she looked at the art of others and shared her own work as it developed. At some point, she lost her password and ended up locked out of her account. But her art remained.

Well, those curious seventh graders, unbeknownst to her, searched their teacher and found her artwork. Bursting with pride in their research skills and their discovery, they eagerly showed her before class. At first, she was embarrassed. As an adult professional, she certainly holds herself to a higher standard today. When she was telling me the story and showing me what her students had discovered, though, I couldn't help but smile. To my untrained eye, the art was beautiful and a perfect representation of a middle school girl looking for ways to express herself. I thought it was beautiful! But it was what she told me next that really took me back.

What We Do Online is Permanent

She used this opportunity to admit to her students that she knew the work was there, but never thought anyone would find it since she ended up pursuing a subject other than art academically and professionally. (You might be surprised to find out that she is not an art teacher.) So, while she was slightly embarrassed at first that her students found this bit of her adolescence, she was also glad. She talked to them about how everything they post at this moment in their lives could be found by their friends and colleagues when they are adult professionals. The students paused and nodded, seeming to really digest that concept of "digital tattoo" a bit better.

Take Care to Secure Your Online Accounts

She admitted to her students that she had lost the password to her account in that online art community long ago. Even when she tried to contact the site host, she was unable to get it back. If she had followed through the way she intended with her online art portfolio, she would have added pieces consistently and continued to show growth in her work. Instead, the portfolio only contains about 8-10 pieces and then stops abruptly. Without knowing more about her, someone who finds this doesn't know that she continued to draw and her talent evolved and grew. She encouraged her students to think carefully about tracking their passwords and securing their online identity so that they can maintain control of it. Again, her young students absorbed the message.

I think I was most proud of this teacher when she told me she intends to use this unintentional lesson in a very intentional way next year. After she has had the opportunity to carry out her embedded digital citizenship curriculum during the first few months of school, she is going to challenge her students to find evidence from her middle school years online. Perhaps it will be an extra credit challenge, perhaps they will be intrinsically motivated because of that adolescent curiosity. Either way, her students are lucky to have her and many educators can learn from her story.

Many of us have something we posted years ago that is partially forgotten. Can you share it with your students and seize the opportunity to teach them this lesson in a personal way? I guarantee your students will remember it better because you taught it this way and not with a cookie cutter curriculum. Those curricula have their places, but lessons are more powerful when they are personal.

After reading this post, the teacher who inspired it asked that I share her name. Please reach out to her @DeannaStocker. She is a gifted educator.