Thursday, February 13, 2014

How To Have An Open Source Mindset

The whole concept of  "Open Source" technology came about because programmers wanted the ability to take existing computer programs and customize them, improve upon them and figure out the thinking behind the code to make their own programs better.  I have always looked at my own teaching from this mindset as well.  I spend time planning lessons and units of instruction that align to standards, that are integrated within strands of my content or across multiple content areas and are accessible to a wide range of students.  I can be better at lesson design if I have the chance to break apart someone else's work or to take an idea that worked in their classroom and build on it to make a new unit that will work in mine. So, I have always freely shared the work I do with others and in exchange, have grown as an educator because of opportunities I have had to work with and discuss lesson ideas with my peers.

I have been fortunate to have many colleagues throughout my career who shared this "Open Source Mindset."  One, who I still refer to as the "other half of my brain", looked at science lessons differently than I did - even though we taught the same course.  Frequently, we would find ourselves meeting in the hall between our classrooms because we each had an idea to share with the other at the same moment. Our teaching styles differed, but we each were better teachers because of our willingness to open our lesson planning books to each other and share our thinking and ideas behind the lessons - and how they worked with our students.  I still find myself emailing her when I hear an NPR story on the radio or read a science article that I think might be a good lesson starting point.

As a former technology integration specialist and now district level administrator, I have had lots of opportunities to work with a lot of different teachers on developing lesson materials.  Each conversation, each brain storming session, each lesson I have observed has given me new insights into my own thinking as a teacher - It is an opportunity to take out my own "teacher program" and reevaluate my thinking.  Is this new idea, concept, way of approaching something better than what I currently have in my "teacher programming" or can I tweak something in my own "program" to improve it because of an insight I gained?  Is there something in my current "teacher program" that I need to replace all together?  Think about becoming an "Open Source Teacher".  Don't keep your ideas, your strategies that work or your experience to yourself- open the classroom door and let them out! You may be surprised at what will come back in.

Resources for developing an "Open Source Mindset"

Monday, February 3, 2014

How To Find the Hidden Value of Student Work

Miss Shields Grading Essays from the film, A Christmas Story

Admit it. We have, at some point in time, sat down to grade a stack of student papers and wondered why on Earth we had even given the assignment to start with.  And the grading! Mountains of papers waiting for our feedback. Bookbags full of papers being carried back and forth from home to school.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie A Christmas Story is the grading scene.   Miss Shields wonders if her life's work has gone down the drain as she grades paper after paper filled with mistakes, until she comes across the shear poetry of Ralphie's essay. Don't forget Ralphie's wrong ideas about how is work was going to be assessed. How might she have used those essays to find exemplar work for students who "get it", students who are on the road to "getting it" and students who just don't "get it" at all?  How could she have used the student work to evaluate the alignment of the lesson to the standards she was focusing on? What might she have written on the papers that would have provided instructive feedback to the students? How could she have used rubrics to improve the student work? Could her students have helped to build the rubric? We have entered the age of "Evidence Based Instruction" and we need to recognize the hidden value in student work.

Defining common understanding of what standards "look like" and what evidence of learning should be expected.
Evidence Centered Design is one way to work together as a teacher team to come to a common understanding of what students are supposed to know or do based on the standards.  There are all kinds of crosswalks, flipbooks, and unpacking the standards documents that help teachers to have collaborative discussions around the standards.  What is missing is the use of student work "exemplars" to help teachers to really define what the standards "look like, sound like, and act like" and what evidence of this they would want to collect.

Try this. The next time your team works together to plan an instructional unit, agree to bring back to the team examples of student work from the unit.  Each teacher should bring not only the best work, but work from students who are showing partial understanding and students who are showing little understanding of the standards.  Put this work out on the table, minus student and teacher names.  As a team, sort the work along a learning continuum - from mastery to developing. Look back at the standards that were tied to the work. What was the purpose of the assignment -  building mastery of a skill, assessing learning growth, building knowledge? Does the student work reflect that the purpose? What is the evidence that students produced that shows an understanding of the standard/skill at the level of rigor the standard defines? Does the student work show that the lesson really got at the standard that was tied to it?

Using work as a formative assessment tool
Formative Instructional Practices (FIP) help teachers plan instruction and help students measure their progress toward understanding/applying knowledge and skills that are part of the class. All of this work begins with a shared understanding of the standards based learning targets for a lesson or unit. Assignments then become a source of feedback to both the teacher and the students.

Try this. The next time you give an assignment, make a data chart for yourself. As you look at the student work, track things like common errors, misconceptions, ideas or answers that go beyond expected responses, ideas or answers that show a student has a more basic understanding of concepts or skills.  Use this data to plan for follow-up instruction. Share this data with colleagues who are working with the same lesson materials.

Then, look at the feedback you choose to give students. How much of it is success feedback - check marks, smile faces, general comments like "good" or "ok" or "I agree"?  How much of it is constructive feedback - coaching remarks to help students move their learning forward like "How might you  use evidence to support this answer" or "What other strategy might you use to approach this problem?"

 Finally, look for opportunities for students to reflect on their own work. One good example of this is a follow-up to the assignment/assessment sheet - What am I not understanding yet? Why am I not understanding it? What am I missing because of a careless error? What do I need to do to improve my learning of this concept?

Student work is also a great tool for developing rubrics with your students rather than for your students. Keeping exemplar work from assignments/units that students can then use to identify traits for each level of a rubric is a great way to get them thinking about the quality of their own work - and the depth of their own learning.  Working together on a rubric also gives them a road map for their own learning. They have an idea of what "mastery" vs "developing" looks like.

Using student work to identify gaps in learning, plan for extra scoops or build in stretch.
Student work can be a great indicator of how  we are challenging or not challenging our students. It can also be a tool to identify where there are gaps in their learning. As we focus more and more on helping all students to grow as learners, it is becoming increasingly important to use student work to help us measure the effectiveness of our differentiated lessons.  How?

Try this.  The next time you give an assignment, ask students to track how much time they spent on the assignment.  Have them circle or share with you the parts of the assignment that they found "easy" and "challenging".  Ask them what they liked about the format of the assignment?  When you or your team work to create new assignments, think of ways to scaffold the problems or tasks.  Start with questions, activities or smaller tasks that are more foundational and require students to pull from prior knowledge or build new knowledge. Then layer on questions or larger tasks that push them to think about a problem from a different point of view or apply knowledge in a different way. Look closely at how they approach the work and where they become frustrated or start to push ahead.  Use their work to help plan for instructional groups, extra scoops of learning or identify students who are ready to go deeper into a concept.  Think about the difference between benchmarking assignments/assessments that are meant to give you and your students a snapshot of their learning over larger chunks of time and more formative assignments/assessments that give your students a point on their learning map so that they can measure their progress.

The next time you walk out of the building with a bag of student work, think of it more as a bag of evidence of learning and teaching and less as bag full of work that has to be graded and recorded.