Unconference: A New Model for Professional Development

You have probably heard the joke about professional development: “Dear Lord, please let me die at a staff development workshop. The difference between being alive and being dead is so indiscernible that I probably won’t even notice I’ve died.” In fact, my dear former colleague Barbara Rosenblit at the Weber School in Atlanta recently quoted the joke as well in her article for Ravsak, “Inverting the Triangle: Reimagining this So-Called Profession.” Barbara says in her article that “we regularly infantilize teachers with what we offer as educational opportunities.” She doesn’t explicitly say so in her article, but having worked with Barbara for eight years, I feel confident in saying that one of the big problems she has with professional development is that teachers have no choice about what kind of professional development is on offer. They are not supported to go to conferences of their own choosing. They are not offered opportunities to design their own learning experiences. Professional development days are dreaded as long, boring days in which we are talked at and perhaps made to watch excruciatingly bad PowerPoints.

When my Dean of Faculty offered us the opportunity to be on a Vision Steering Committee tasked with working with the administration and the faculty to help articulate and build a shared vision for the school as well as help guide our school culture toward that vision, I jumped at the chance. The way I see it, it is important for teachers to step up when they are given opportunities to have their voices heard in this way. Teachers have a stake in the vision for their school, but they’re not always asked to share their ideas for that vision.

One of the first tasks of the Vision Steering Committee was to brainstorm a plan for our professional development day following the winter break. One member of our committee suggested we try an unconference model. She described her experiences at the Boston Edcamp. I was enthusiastic about the idea after participating in SocialEdCon (previously EduBloggerCon) prior to ISTE on three occasions. To me, it’s often the best part of that conference. Another colleague shared her own experiences of visiting High Tech High for an unconference and finding herself volunteering a topic of interest and facilitating the topic. In her words, one of the problems we often encounter with PD days is that we don’t get what we need out of the day, but an unconference model allows us to “get exactly what [we need] out of the day.”

Unconference BrochureThe trouble as I see it with widespread adoption of the unconference model is that it involves a great deal of trust in the faculty. It takes a courageous administration to trust the faculty to pull off an unconference. However, I think the time has come for administrators to trust their faculties. There is a lot of angst in the air among educators right now, and the core of the problem lies in feeling we are not to be trusted. Planning professional development is only a small part of it, and Barbara articulates more of the problems in the article I linked above.

We used a Google Doc to plan and talk about how the day would take shape. In the end, we settled on two one-hour unconference sessions, and because this is new to our faculty, we invited them to propose ideas for sessions in a Google Doc before the PD day itself. First, a few of us shared our experiences with unconferences as a means of explaining what they are to our colleagues. Next, a few of us discussed norms for participation in an unconference. Then it was time for the planning to begin.

Unconference PlanningWe divided into tables with about eight people at each table, and we had a three-minute idea dump. We wrote ideas on sticky notes. After the idea dump, we voted on the ideas and selected two from each table to present to the faculty as a whole. I know my table decided to put checkmarks on the ideas we liked, and we tallied the checks and chose the top two. These ideas were added to large pieces of chart paper along with the ideas already shared on the Google Doc and placed in a large room where we could further narrow down the topics after lunch. We elected to supply sticky notes, and teachers attached sticky notes to the topics that interested them most.

Unconference PlanningThose topics that received the most votes made it to the final round and became sessions. In the end, we offered six sessions during each time period, and a total of eleven topics were explored (one session idea on scheduling was so popular, we ran it twice). Among our faculty, these ideas were selected for sessions:

  • Specific Strategies to Build Morale (School/Division) and Managing Conflict Among Colleagues
  • Finding the “Right Balance” Between Old Practices and New Practices
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Combatting Grade Obsession
  • How can the schedule best facilitate learning?
  • Independent Research Electives
  • Homework: How Much? Assessment?
  • Activity Requirements (Students and Faculty)
  • Students’ Fear of Failure
  • Portfolios as Authentic Assessment
  • Fostering Student Independence and Agency

I attended the sessions on Project-Based Learning and Portfolios as Authentic Assessment. I thought it was the best professional development day I ever had. I had an opportunity to talk about issues I care about with peers who care about the same things. We talked about what was happening in our classrooms and how we envisioned carrying the ideas further. For instance, one of our science teachers described a project he designed with a colleague for physics in which students spent just about the entire trimester building their own cars. They learned the principles of physics in the process, but the learning became more relevant and important when it moved from the theoretical to the practical. He described a point at which he realized all the student groups were having the same problem with acceleration and gave direct instruction about the issue. They didn’t have to memorize information about acceleration. They had to understand it and apply it to their car design. He also shared candidly that there was a point when he thought it would be a disaster and that the students wouldn’t pull it off, and he wouldn’t pull it off—the students were frustrated, and he was frustrated. They pushed past it, and in the end, he said most of the students felt it had a great deal of value. The learning all branched out the project. The issues that arose over the course of the project became the focus of lessons and quizzes. He mentioned that some topics he covered might not have been explored until much later in the year, but because they became important to learn because of the project, the students explored these topics earlier. I loved hearing about what was happening in his classroom.

The feedback I have heard so far is that faculty enjoyed the opportunity to choose what they wanted to learn more about and to cross departments and divisions (we have a middle school and upper school) to talk about what they wanted to learn. I can’t remember ever leaving at the end of a PD day feeling energized and wanting to get in my classroom as soon as possible. That is a really sad statement, if you think about it. Conferences? Sure. I almost always leave conferences excited to go back to my classroom with what I’ve learned. However, I left this particular PD day excited about going into my classroom the next day and thinking about the discussions I had with my colleagues.

Some things we might do differently? I think in our haste to honor topics that received the most votes, we let some really good and important topics slide. Some of the topics we explored wound up not really being about professional development so much as discussion of policy. Perhaps that is fine, but not everyone walked away feeling like I did after my two excellent sessions as a result. It is easy to let such sessions devolve into venting frustration. While it is validating to hear others voice your own concerns, it isn’t very energizing.

Teachers need to be trusted to care about and design their own learning experiences. The unconference model offers schools a great opportunity to put professional development in the hands of their teachers.

Thanks to Cindy Sabik, our Dean of Faculty, for permission to use her photos in this post. You can follow her on Twitter @sabikci

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A Poll: What Would You Like to Read?

I have been trying out quite a few new things, and I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about them here. Take a look at this list and let me know in the comments which topic piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my next blog post on the topic that generates the most interest.

  • Using Google Docs to create rubrics
  • iMovie book trailers
  • (Almost) Paperless Classroom with Google Docs and Schoology
  • Carving out a hybrid position (or how I’m teaching two English classes and working as a Technology Integration Specialist at the same time)
  • Writing Workshop: going beyond peer editing with partners
  • Teaching The Catcher in the Rye

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like Great Expectations. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like Ulysses. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write The Great Gatsby because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

This review is cross-posted from my book blog because I thought it might appeal to English teachers.

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An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 4 and Afterword

An Ethic of ExcellenceIn the final chapter of An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger addresses the need to support teachers. This chapter in particular is one I think administrators should read. I wish those in business and educational bureaucracy would read it and let it sink it and really reflect on it as well.

Berger points out that teachers do not go into teaching because it’s lucrative. All the bonuses, merit pay, and monetary incentives in the world will not really attract quality teachers in the same way that supporting teachers will. Berger cites the oft-quoted statistic that “[a]lmost half of all America’s teachers leave the profession within five years” (121). I was almost among their number. After my fourth year, I was overwhelmed. There was no support for me. I was burnt out. I had no time to plan or grade, not the time I needed anyway. I was isolated in my own building despite the fact that I was teaching in my former high school and counted among my colleagues some of my own former teachers. I decided maybe I just wasn’t any good at this teaching thing, and perhaps I ought to just pack it in and go into public relations or something. I had some writing skills.

I was out of the teaching profession for about five months before I came back. I taught preschool because it was what I could find in November. The one thing you don’t hear about going into teaching is that jobs are not just going to fall into your lap. People figure everyone needs teachers, so finding a teaching job is easy. Another lie I was told in undergrad was that so many teachers would be retiring in the early 2000’s that they would leave huge gaps, and there would not be enough teachers to fill them all, so we’d have our pick.

At any rate, the entire time I was in public education, I was not given the respect, resources, time, or support needed to do my job effectively, and I would venture to guess that is the case in many (if not most) public school situations. Many people naively assume that private schools have tons of resources. My own experience is that time, resources, respect, and support vary in private schools as well.

I think it starts with what Berger calls “visionary administrators” (121). If you do not have a school with a strong, visionary administration that advocates for and supports its teachers, that doesn’t give its teachers the time, respect, and resources needed to teach well, then it is going to be an uphill battle to stay enthusiastic about your teaching job or even to stay in the profession.

This support needs to go deeper than lip service, too. I have had an administrator that I will call John who swore up and down that he supported his teachers, but in reality, he micromanaged them, didn’t trust them, and was rather quick to throw them under the bus. He was responsible for a toxic work environment. There was no recourse for teachers who worked with him. He was a bully. He did not have what Berger calls the “courage” to trust his teachers, and his teachers didn’t have the tools they needed to innovate, both in terms of actual resources and professional development. Teachers were not involved in “decision making in genuine and significant ways” (150). They were consulted, and if their thoughts did not align with his, he discarded them. If a teacher did have an innovative idea, often John’s way of discouraging it was to send the teacher on a fruitless research and report assignment to prove it would be effective, and no matter what the results of the report were, John would discard the idea if it didn’t align with what John wanted to do. After I while, I stopped bothering to offer my opinion. It was easier to agree with John and do things his way because my opinions would not be seriously considered anyway.

I have learned recently that it’s important to assume people have good intentions. I wish John had assumed that I had good intentions with my students and that I was a teacher because I felt called to teach. I wish he had trusted in my professional expertise. I think that John had good intentions. He wanted a quality education for the students at his school, and he felt very strongly that it had to look a certain way, and his micromanaging of classrooms was intended to ensure teachers were doing what he felt was best.

I think the education bureaucrats and business people involved in making major changes to our educational system have good intentions. They see students who fall through the cracks. They see teachers who aren’t good teachers. They want opportunities for all students. But the way they are going about it is not going to reap the results they are after any more than the way John went about administrating his school achieved the results he was after.

And just like Ron Berger, I don’t have an answer. There is not a magic bullet that would fix all the ills in education. If there were, I wouldn’t be blabbing here on my blog. I’d be writing up the discovery and ensuring I could make a mint on it. But I think it does start with a mindset, as Berger has said in this book:

  1. Consideration of the school culture and creation of a positive school culture.
  2. Consideration of student learning.
  3. Consideration of the craft of teaching and respect, time, resources, and support for teachers.

Berger will give you a lot to think about if you are a teacher, particularly with regards to authentic assessment and project-based learning. But I would highly recommend his book also to administrators, education bureaucrats, and everyone else involved in shaping education policy.

Related posts:

An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 3

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe third chapter of An Ethic of Excellence is a meaty one. After you’ve tackled school culture (chapter 2), this chapter asks you to think about the work.

Don’t focus on students’ self-esteem before expecting them to do good work. The praise is not genuine, and students know it. Instead, encourage them to produce quality work, and the self-esteem will follow.

So, how do you inspire students to do excellent work?

The chapter is long, and I’ll do my best to digest.

Powerful Projects

Assignments should be authentic. “There’s only so much care and creativity that a student can put into filling in the blanks on a commercially produced worksheet” (65). In addition, assignments have to be connected to the learning. You are probably thinking that’s obvious, but there are a fair amount of projects assigned—and I’ve been guilty of it, too—that have nothing to do with what the students are studying. Berger gives the example of the science fair. After seeing my daughter through that particular drudge this year, I think he has a point: she picked a random science-related topic, went home and learned about it, and produced a project based on it. It didn’t have any connection to the science she was learning in school. He also describes making a diorama based on Pecos Bill and receiving an A for the project, despite not having read the book. There is a big difference between projects and project-based learning. He describes the classroom as “the hub of creation, the project workshop” (70). Projects are not something done outside of school. They are important work, done in class, with rubrics (often written in collaboration with students) and models. It strikes me that the flipped classroom model is a gift of more time to be able to spend on workshop in the classroom. Project components are broken down, with checklists and deadlines. The process might look the same for each project, but the projects themselves are not the same.

Building Literacy Through the Work

Use these projects to teach all the critical skills. Projects are not “an extra activity after the real curriculum and instruction is done” (72). Teach reading comprehension, analysis, understanding, writing skills, etc. through the process of creating the project.

Genuine Research

I love the example Berger gives of science experiments in school: “We called them experiments, but we didn’t really experiment. These were scientific procedures, prescribed by a book, that we were instructed to follow so that we could achieve a prescribed result, a result that our teacher knew ahead of time” (75). It seems like every experiment I ever did in school was just like the ones Berger describes. I often wondered what the point was. People already knew this information, so why were we wasting our time marching through a process? What did I really learn from doing these experiments? Well, one thing I learned is not to like science. And then I started making my own soap recently, and all of a sudden, chemistry was interesting to me. Not just interesting—fascinating. Even if you’ve made lots of soap, it can still surprise you and do things you didn’t expect it to do. That’s fun science. I can follow a procedure, but the results are not a given. I am actually learning a lot, and I only wish science had been this interesting to me in school. I never really had a chance to be a scientist in school. But Berger makes a good point when he says that “[t]eaching how to do original research doesn’t come easily to many teachers” (78). The key? Teachers need to “let go of their expectation that they need to be the expert in everything, the person who knows all the answers” (78).

The Power of the Arts

The arts are often cut in schools, but the arts are a powerful tool to enrich student work. Berger says, “The question for me is not whether we can afford to keep arts in our schools but how we can ensure that students put artistic care into everything that they do” (80).

Models

Berger is emphatic that the best way to help students understand what quality work looks like is to show them quality work. Rubrics and descriptions are not enough. While I agree wholeheartedly, the problem is that I don’t always have a student-created model. I can and have created models myself, but my work is not as powerful as a student’s work. Berger suggests borrowing one, but this isn’t always feasible either. I know there have been many times I’ve done a project that is different enough that I can’t find a model. Providing models is ideal, but it’s not always possible. However, Berger is right that the pride students take in being models for others is profound. I have seen it myself: students will ask years later if I still have x project. Berger doesn’t come right out and say so explicitly, but what I infer from this chapter is that you just cannot teach in a vacuum. You don’t have models? Someone else might. You need help figuring out something about an assessment? Someone else can help. This type of connection was the vision I had for the UbD Educators wiki.

Multiple Drafts

Berger describes the ways in which school is one of the last places where rough draft work is still acceptable. Teachers will chalk it up to not having enough time, etc., but ultimately, if you want polished work, that means students need to do multiple drafts. We have some work to do in school to establish multiple drafts as the norm instead of the signal that you failed to do it correctly the first time.

Critique

Berger describes a really interesting model for peer critiques in his classroom, and I think this part of the chapter offers really sound advice for how to move students towards more thoughtful critique. Critiques are boiled down to three rules: 1) Be Kind, 2) Be Specific, and 3) Be Helpful. Within these rules, students are protected from being hurt and are able to get real, helpful feedback. In addition to these three rules, Berger suggests the following guidelines (rules are never abandoned, but guidelines might be):

  1. “[B]egin with the author/designer explaining her ideas and goals, and explaining what particular aspects of the work she is seeking help with” (94). I think at first, you might need to put some sort of metacognitive reflection in place until students become acclimated to asking themselves these types of questions about their work.
  2. “[C]ritique the work, not the person.”
  3. Begin the critique with “something positive about the work, and then move on to constructive criticism” (94). This part can be hard, and it is easy to move into the danger zone of offering empty compliments. But it does help not to feel attacked right at the start. Teachers often call this the “sandwich.”
  4. “[U]se I statements when possible: ‘I’m confused by this,’ rather than ‘This makes no sense'” (94).
  5. “[U]se a question format when possible: ‘I’m curious why you chose to begin with this…?’ or ‘Have you considered including…?'” (94).

This advice strikes me as something that will be easy to implement in a classroom with a few small changes and some scaffolding upfront, but that will reap large dividends in terms of students’ thinking and understanding. Berger goes on to describe two main kinds of formal critique: 1) gallery critique, in which each student’s work is displayed and students “look at all the work silently before giving comments” (94), after which students discuss examples from the gallery that particularly impress them; 2) in-depth critique, which involves spending a substantial period of time critiquing a single student or group’s work as a class. Berger also adds that when you are talking about written work, it’s important to “differentiate between critiquing for specific content qualities and critiquing for mechanics (conventions); if this isn’t clear, critique can quickly become just copyediting” (95). If you’ve ever tried peer editing and had it flop (I’m raising my hand here), it may be because students have the idea that critiquing is just proofreading.

Making Work Public

A lot of teachers do not make student work public for a variety of reasons, but a public audience does make the work more authentic and meaningful. As Berger points out, if work is public, “There is a reason to do the work well, and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way” (99). Emphasis his. We should be offering our students opportunities to publish their writing and projects. I have a colleague that has difficulty with this idea because students do make errors. So don’t we all. I am continually finding small proofreading errors in work I have published here. I even found an apostrophe error in Berger’s book. Does it detract from his ideas? No. Students should be correcting their work and polishing it as much as possible, but we have to acknowledge when we talk about publishing student work that it won’t be perfect. We should not let that paralyze us and prevent us from doing it. Learning is messy. I don’t have the answer. One suggestion is not to assess the work until the students have corrected all the errors you have pointed out in your feedback. However, there is a reason, I think, that Berger mentions multiple drafts and critique before he mentions making the work public. That work of drafting and editing comes first.

Using Assessment to Build Stronger Students

Berger makes the statement that “U.S. students are the most tested in the world.” I have a hunch that this statement is true, but I would be interested to see if that statement can be verified through statistics. He goes on to say, “Oddly, test-taking skills have little connection to real life. When a student finishes schooling, she is judged for the rest of her life on the kind of person she is and the kind of work that she does. Rarely does this include how she performs on a test” (101-102). See, this is the problem most of us teachers have with testing. I gave one test in my English class last year—the final exam. I was supported in this. I very rarely give tests. They are not the best measure of student learning in my class, for sure. The only kinds of tests I can think of that we might take in “real life,” aside from driving tests and the like, are professional entrance exams like the Bar Exam. I am sure many professions have them. But how is the professional assessed after that? By the quality of his/her work, right? That is what we do in our society, yet it is not the kind of assessment advocated by those who dictate educators’ practices (many of whom are not educators themselves). Why? Because it’s easier than doing a real, authentic assessment. It is much harder to evaluate authentic assessment. Sometimes there is not a neat little letter grade you can put on it. It reminds me of this quote from Dead Poets Society after Mr. Keating has just had the class read the introduction to their text, the subject of which is how to evaluate poetry: “Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? ‘I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!'” Berger says, “If tests are the primary measure of quality, the majority of schools feel compelled to have students spend much of their time memorizing facts and preparing for tests” (102).

Berger imagines a different model for school:

Imagine if students were judged instead on the quality of student work, thinking, and character. Imagine an expectation that an adult should be able to enter a school and expect that any child in that school older than seven or eight would be ready to greet him politely, give an articulate tour of a well-maintained, courteous school environment, and present his portfolio of academic accomplishments clearly and insightfully, and that the student’s portfolio would contain original, high-quality work and document appropriate skill levels. If schools assumed they were to [sic] going to be assessed by the quality of student behavior and work evident in the hallways and classrooms—rather than on test scores—the enormous energy poured into test preparation would be directed instead toward improving student work, understanding, and behavior. Instead of working to build clever test-takers, schools would feel compelled to spend time building thoughtful students and good citizens. (102)

Berger also brings up the fact that grades are not the best motivators:

The strategy most often employed to create pressure for high standards is assigning grades to work. Ideally the promise of good grades and the threat of bad ones will keep everyone working hard. In reality, it doesn’t always work this way. (103)

Any first-year teacher can probably tell you about students who are not motivated by grades. Berger teaches in a school that has done away with grades. Some day I plan to write a huge treatise on grades and assessment because I have a lot of thoughts, but I need to do a lot of research. Suffice it to say that I do not see any reason why grades have to be the way we assess. However, Berger does give good advice if you do have to use grades: “Make sure the grades are seen by students as something they earn, rather than as the arbitrary decision of a teacher” (105).

Berger closes the chapter with discussion of a water study his students did, which was an authentic research assignment that had real-world implications for community members. It’s a perfect example of the kind of science I wish I had had more opportunity to do in school.

Related posts:

An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 2

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.

It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.

Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.

The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.

The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.

The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.

The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.

It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.

Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, parents—have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:

The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prison—massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.

This was an elementary school. (45)

I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.

I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.

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An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 1

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe message of the first chapter of Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students is the importance of student models. I think a lot of educators are afraid to use models because they want student ideas to be original, and they are afraid students will simply copy the models. It is our job as an educator to ensure that they don’t. I think most students really want to be creative and original. Sometimes, however, they don’t know how to start with project until they see how someone else did it. Models give us all something to strive for.

Berger also shares his process for collecting student work. He says, “One of my jobs as a teacher, I feel, is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver of excellence” (29). He doesn’t just use the models and portfolios of student work to show his students. He also uses them to show others what his students have learned and what they can do. Several anecdotes describe the surprise followed quickly by skepticism that others can feel upon seeing his students’ work. If the students are given time to draft, revise, refine, and really wrestle with their learning, they can produce amazing things. I have often found that giving students choices about how to present their learning really awakens them. I have also had students that were much more concerned about their grades than learning and doing excellent work they could be proud of, and that pressure was often external as much as it was internal. Sometimes I really wish we could do away with grades completely, as I think grades become the point of learning instead of learning being the point all on its own.

Another issue Berger describes with great honesty is the fact that his students are mostly white and rural. When he has presented to audiences teaching students of color in urban environments, they are skeptical that their students can do the same great work. Berger says it is about a school’s culture. Teaching is hard no matter where you do it. It’s harder when you don’t have what you need.

When Berger comes to visit our school in preplanning, I hope he brings his students’ work. I have to admit I am curious about it after reading his description of it.

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Reflections on ISTE 2013

Dynamic SerenityI am still gathering my notes on the ISTE conference last week. You can see them in this public Evernote notebook I’ve shared. Sometimes it’s not the most helpful thing to try to parse someone else’s cryptic notes, but for what it’s worth, feel free to have a look.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, but I have two pieces of advice for anyone who is using a slidedeck to present at a large conference like ISTE.

  1. Don’t put text on the bottom of the slide. If the room is really crowded, some of the people in the room will not see the text. They will stand up a little to see better, which only makes the view worse for people behind them. I know lots of templates have text on the bottom, and it looks pretty. I have done it, too. You just never know what the room will look like, however, and text on the top is more accessible.
  2. Why not share your presentation via Google Presentation or SlideShare? If you do that, seeing it in the front is a moot point, and you can put text wherever you want. The presentation is now in the hands of your audience, and they can more easily annotate it, download it, and (dare I suggest it?) remix it.

Invent to LearnI came away from the conference excited about the possibilities of maker spaces, and after an energizing presentation by Sylvia Martinez, I downloaded her new book, co-written with Gary Stager,  Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. I can’t wait to learn more about making and engineering. One statement she made, which I will share here, is that we wouldn’t be talking about how to integrate the arts into schools and turning STEM into STEAM if schools hadn’t artificially removed art. She said you cannot stop kids from being artists. She shared the example of her daughter going through art school and how she learned that artists are on the cutting edge of technology.

One focus of the conference was gamification, and I am interested in exploring that topic further, as well. You have probably heard of the Mozilla Open Badges project (if not, check it out). I am excited to see how this project develops, particularly after Bill Clinton endorsed the idea. To be dead honest, my instructional technology masters was almost completely useless in terms of preparing me for what I do. And don’t get me started again on the test I had to take to add technology instruction to my certificate. It helps to have the degree on your résumé, I guess, but I hope, in light of how expensive education is (and it’s getting more expensive) that we can consider alternative credentials. Put together with endorsements, similar to LinkedIn, and I think badges could be more valuable than wasting money on classes with content you never use again. I’m just thinking out loud, and I don’t have the answer. Certainly some attention to personalized learning is in order.

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Do You Know What Today Is?

Birthday CakeIt is huffenglish.com’s 8th birthday! To make it even more special, I’m celebrating by writing this post in the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE!

Of course, a cursory glance at my content for the last year or so reveals very little actual blogging.

Why is that? Well, I moved 1,000 miles away and started a new job. I now work at Worcester Academy, and this summer I begin my second year as their Technology Integration Specialist. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to work. They value my professional development enough to send me to the premier educational technology conference in the world, and I work with some truly amazing educators.

I have been really dissatisfied with the quiet on this blog. Even though I made some major changes in my professional and personal life over the last year, and I gave myself permission to let the blog go for a while, I have always maintained that people make time for things they consider important. People used to ask me how I had time to blog, tweet, etc. You know, all the social media. I said I made time to do it because it was important to me. And it is still important to me, but clearly not as important as some other things going on. I am announcing today that blogging has once again moved to my front burner, and if it’s not on the very front burner, at least it’s on the stove again. It’s been relegated to the recesses of the freezer as I tried to acclimate to my new home and job, but because blogging is important to me, I’ll be making time for it again.

Why is blogging important to me? It allows me to reflect on what I’m thinking and learning. Sure, I can do that offline in any one of a variety of note-taking apps I use or even with a pen and notebook, but the kind of thinking and reflection I do here on this blog transformed me as a teacher. Eight years ago, when I started this blog, I was an English teacher, and I had no idea technology integration specialists even existed, much less did I dream of ever being one. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career as an English teacher in Georgia. I am still teaching one English class, by the way, but who could have imagined I would be helping teachers integrate technology in Massachusetts? I didn’t even like technology when I started teaching, and I certainly didn’t think I was any good with it. Now I teach others how to use it in their lessons. Is that crazy?

You really never know what trajectory your career is going to take, and it is smart to make connections with really smart educators online and off, to participate in chats with other teachers when you can, and to tap all those great resources online and in your community. You just never know where your life will take you, and even if you plan it, opportunities will arise that you never foresaw, and doors will close where you expected them to be open.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life right now, and a lot of that happiness has to do with my professional satisfaction. But only a few years ago, I felt like I was at a professional nadir, and my dissatisfaction at work made it hard to enjoy everything else. It is really true that if you find something you love to do, you really don’t ever work again.

Here is hoping you can find what makes you happy, too.

Happy birthday, huffenglish.com. To many more years of blogging! (And I mean real blogging.) Cheers!

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Tuning Out

Fingers in EarsSometimes you just need to take time off and check out.

I can’t remember the last time I checked Twitter and tried to read most of the tweets. I can’t remember the last time I checked out one of my favorite blogs. I haven’t written a whole lot lately, either. And all of that is OK because I think sometimes we need to take breaks from all the information overload.

I like to be a part of the edublogosphere and keep up with my colleagues and friends on Twitter. But sometimes it can be overwhelming, and the sheer volume of information can be daunting. So, I have been on an information sabbatical, and it has been wonderful. I have learned how to make soap, and it has become a satisfying, engaging, and interesting hobby for me. I have been reading a little. I watched the entire first season of Doctor Who and a few episodes of the second, so now I’m totally hooked. I have been busy with the start of school in my new position.

The move from Georgia to Massachusetts was mentally and physically exhausting, and I think I just needed some time to recharge my batteries. I didn’t unplug right away, but I would say it’s been about a month since I really kept up with all the social media I usually use. I am beginning to feel recharged. I think once I get my bearings at my new school and find myself settling into the routine of the school year, I will be able to engage in social media again. As for right now, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, here I am. I am not the kind of person to announce a hiatus or quit altogether, but I recognized I needed to tune out the cacophony for just a little while.

It’s been a wonderful vacation, and I know in my heart I’ve missed some really important things, but stepping back can be important, too, and I think many of us hear the message that we need to be continually engaged in the conversation or people won’t read our blogs or will not follow us on Twitter. I decided not to worry about that a long time ago. If my blog is good, people will visit when I post. If they are looking for quantity, they probably won’t. If what I tweet is helpful and interesting, people will follow, and I don’t need to worry about losing folks who think I don’t tweet enough. This is great advice to anyone who wonders how to juggle it all. The fact is, I’m not sure anyone can. You have to set priorities based on your goals. Right now, my goal is to settle into my job and enjoy my new home. So far, so good. I will be in touch soon.

Image via Roxie’s World

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