Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom

Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom (2009), by Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart, was actually better than I thought it would be. Some educational books are so theoretical that they offer little to be practically implemented in schools and classrooms, but I didn't feel that was the case at all with this book. In fact, Moss and Brookhart were intentional about addressing the issues of carrying out their suggestions.

The idea that basically serves as the central theme throughout the book is utilizing "feedback that feeds forward." I like this phrase because it reminds me how important it is that we take students somewhere in their learning, that we help them progress, or move forward. So, the authors do a good job of analyzing certain practices, such as grading, goal-setting, and questioning, views them through the formative assessment lens.

There are a lot of practical ideas in the book, but the overall take-away for me is to remember how important it is that I teach and resource students how to learn. This represents a shift from a focus on what to learn. While both are important, great learning requires a feedback cycle that includes the following elements:
  • specific
  • positive
  • focused on work
  • descriptive
  • compared to the target (objective, goal)
One of the more interesting discussions in the book dealt with goal-setting. Moss and Brookhart contend that goal-setting is not an event, but a process that needs to be practiced in a minute-by-minute manner as part of learning.

In their own words, the bottom line is that either "students are the captain of their own ship of learning or there is no ship" (page 95). For all the talk these days about students owning their learning, there has to be practical tools in place to encourage them to take ownership. We have to equip students with ways to ask themselves questions, set goals, and evaluate their progress toward those goals. And the key to all of this is evidence. There has to be evidence of learning!

Therefore, the whole process begins with clearly defining the learning target.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dedicating My Work

Here is one more idea from A Whole New Mind. I originally wanted to write about several things from the book, but I decided to limit myself to this suggestion.

Daniel Pink writes about Naomi Epel's idea, which in turn, came from Danny Glover. It is simple. Just like an author dedicates a book to someone, why can't we do that with anything we do? Glover talked about dedicating a performance. Pink says it could be anything we do. A sales call. A presentation.

So, let me try this out.

I dedicate this post to my wife, Nannette.

I am creating assessments for a new learning process that I am experimenting with in my classes. I dedicate the project to a former student that moved away. He believed that teachers didn't like him. I hope that my work can help create environments so that less students feel that way.

I am praying for an interview soon for a job that I have been excited about for a long time. When I get the chance, I dedicate that interview to the students of a new middle school opening in Leander ISD.

What is it you want to dedicate? And to whom?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: A Whole New Mind

It took me quite a bit longer than it probably should have, but I finally finished Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind (2006). There is much to process in this book, and the "Portfolio" sections at the end of most chapters offer practical suggestions that could keep one occupied for a lifetime.

One topic Pink deals with in the book is abundance. At the time A Whole New Mind was published, 13 percent of all homes purchases in America were second homes. Pink notes that the "United States spends more on trash bags than ninety other countries spend on everything" (quoting Polly LaBarre). There have been some substantial economic shifts since he authored this work, but our lifestyles of material over-abundance are no less apparent. I wonder what these kinds of statistics are now.

Arguing that "right-brainers will rule the future," Pink contends that creativity is largely a practice of seeing connections, or relationships, that no one else sees. As I read how he developed this concept, I couldn't help but think of our education systems. Frankly, it is hard to be creative in public education precisely for this reason. (We could probably benefit from Sir Ken Robinson's input on this topic.)

It is easy for educators to critique the fact that there is too much isolationism in our schools; what some call the "silo effect." Many departments, grade level teams, etc. act independently of others with little communication between different groups. Ironically, at the same time, many educators also are so strapped for time that every meeting, conversation, or task that is required of them elicits the question, "What's in this for me?" If it appears to be unrelated to their primary responsibilities, then it is viewed as a waste of time.

We recognize the problem with the system overall, but we forget that the system is made up of the individual parts. If each one of us chooses not to cross boundaries (that really only exist in our minds because of how we are organized), then the overall system remains stagnant and unimproved.

But, as with any insights, I have to look in the mirror to truly reflect on this thought. I see that I could improve in this area. I get so busy that I hardly talk to teachers of different subject areas or grade levels or those that don't teach the same kids I do. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. Who has time to do that with everything else going on?

However, what if the art teacher holds the key to motivating students in my remedial math classes?

What if the science department has figured out effective goal-setting strategies for students, but I never carve out time to observe and learn from them?

What if the way the workers in the cafeteria prepare meals for hundreds of people everyday could shed light on how the office staff could be more efficient?

These are only a couple highlights from the book. There were many others. I enjoyed the read and recommend Daniel Pink's writing to anyone that likes to be challenged with thought-provoking material. In fact, I just went here and signed up for his newsletter, which is accompanied by a free e-book.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

March Madness - (aka Yeah Baby!)

There are several reasons why I like the month of March, but the NCAA Basketball Tournament is definitely near the top of my list. The "big dance" or "road to the Final Four" is the single greatest sports competition ever designed!

A field of 68 teams battling in a "one-and-done" tournament...

quickly reduced to 32,

then sweet 16,

elite 8,

until the top two teams arrive at the championship game.

The one left standing is crowned the victors and we begin the countdown until we do it all over again next year.

Woo hoo!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is a Disciple Anyway? (or "Getting Back to Basics")

 Not long ago, our simple church group had to discuss the idea of "starting from scratch" with a fundamental and basic topic: What does it mean/take to make a disciple? Practically, to work through this discussion, we used what I am calling the "way of the whiteboard" (described on this page).

It is simple. Start with a blank whiteboard. When everyone agrees with a fundamental, non-negotiable component of disciple making, then we write it on the whiteboard. What we were left with has provided us with what should give us a very appropriate mandate for the rest of our lives.

A friend of mine did the same thing with the concept of church, but I felt we needed to go even more foundational than that. At least, I need to in my life. After all, we are commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself to "go and make disciples." As much as I want to organize a simple church planting network, I have to realize that He does not commission us to all "go and plant churches." Making disciples must come first! That responsibility and calling belongs to all of us!

I am inspired by what Alan Hirsch writes in his Handbook to The Forgotten Ways (emphasis added):

"When dealing with discipleship, and the related capacity to generate authentic followers of Jesus, we are dealing with the crucial factor that will in the end determine the quality of the whole - if we fail at this point, then we are almost guaranteed to fail in all the others...For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is not the first step in a promising career, but the fulfillment of their destiny to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29)" (pg. 63).

"When we look at the stories of Christian movements that change the world, we can say that they are simply disciple-making systems" (pg. 64).

It has been eye-opening and humbling to start over with this elementary, yet enormously profound, question!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

You are Either a Pastor or a Quitter?

Some time ago, a discussion in a group I was a part of on LinkedIn posed this question: "Are you a quitter?" It was a question about pastors "leaving the ministry," bemoaning the idea of anyone "getting out of the fight." Below is my comment in response to this question.

I think the "job descriptions" we have made up for pastors is part of the problem. You can say a lot of things about what you think a pastor is supposed to do, but the one thing you can't do with all those claims is back them up with Scripture. The word "pastor" or "pastors" only shows up one time in the Bible (in its plural form - Eph. 4). Now, let that sink in!

There is not a single piece of inspired text that comes out and ever describes what a pastor should do. (People will go to verses about deacons and elders and overseers, and notice that we all walk away with a hundred different interpretations from those teachings.) Bottom line, at the end of the day, all the duties we say a pastor must perform are made up by man.
That puts a lot of pressure on a person that may have nothing to do with God.

Also, the idea that someone leaving a pastoral position is "leaving the ministry" may be troubling wording. There is so much communicated in just that choice of phrase, which could be condradictory to much of the New Testament when it is unpacked. Here's another one I hear a lot: "Are you in full-time ministry?", or "Do you work in the church?"

All these phrases smack of a sacred/secular distinction that the Bible simply does not present. Jesus is not the Lord of some things and not others. Jesus is LORD of ALL! Jesus is Lord of your work. Jesus is Lord of your home. Jesus is Lord of your family. Jesus is Lord of your recreation. Jesus is Lord of the marketplace. Jesus is Lord of your health. Jesus is Lord of your finances. We may struggle to acknowledge or obey his Lordship in all of these areas, but it does not change the fact that He is the Lord of life - all life!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beyond These Walls - My School & Community Engagement Project

I had a vision at the start of this school year of engaging as many co-workers as I could in a community engagement project. I called it "Beyond These Walls." The presentation included above is a PowerPoint (minus the song and transition effects) that I showed to the faculty to kick it off.

The crazy thing, as I reflect now, is how "prophetic" it turned out to be. I thought we were busy before, but this year has cranked everything to a whole new level! It is more challenging than ever to stay focused on what matters most.

There are demands and pressures coming at teachers and administrators from all sides. Unfortunately, some of them have very little to do with keeping the main thing the main thing - a focus on student learning, which is, appropriately, our district's central aim.

My hope with this project was to simply reinforce that students are whole beings. They live multi-dimensional lives. Learning is affected by numerous factors, and responding to this reality only makes us better educators.

The project consisted of three phases that anyone could opt in or out of at anytime. The first task that faculty and staff members were asked to consider was riding a school bus. (Yes, with kids on it!) The second task was to be a "student for a day," following one student's schedule throughout the school day and doing all they were asked to do - take notes, read silently, get to class on time, etc. The third task, which many of us have yet to complete, is to interview a family about their dreams and goals for their child as well as their perceptions of our school system.

While I am still compiling the feedback from the adult participants so that I can share it with the faculty, I want to reflect on an interesting twist I added once the project was underway.

About mid-way through the school year, I told my students about the project and asked them two questions:

(1) What do you think teachers learned from riding your buses and going to your classes and trying to see your world from a new perspective?

(2) Is it important for teachers to do things like this? In other words, is it worth it for the adults in school to spend time trying to better understand students' lives or should we focus on other tasks instead?

Many of the responses to the first question centered on one theme: "how hard it is to be a kid." They discussed issues like the challenge of changing classes, the way behavior changes when adults are around, crowded hallways, etc.

Now, none of this is really all that surprising or dramatic. We all have experienced these dynamics. There is no "news" here. However, what I found most intriguing about all their comments is how honest and open they were about the fact that everyone changes how they act when other adults are around.

In fact, what caused them to cry foul the most was the thought of educators getting any kind of an accurate picture of what really goes on through an experiment like this one. They objected that each teacher, bus driver, or other adult in authority over them would change attitudes and actions when another adult was present to observe. And, as far as their own attitudes and actions, they didn't even try to hide the fact that they change when adults are around. They treated it as a given.

Right now, I am just sharing. I am not reflecting or evaluating this feedback. I am not saying that it is good or bad. I am not even saying that it is fair or accurate. There are deeper social and developmental factors that color these circumstances. It is interesting, though, just how pervasive the cynicism is that they have toward us.

So, why throw it out there? Because regardless of how we feel about their perceptions, they exist. Most of our work with people is living with the situation that another person's perception creates a reality for you and I to deal with, just as ours does the same for them.

Ignoring it is an option, for sure, just not a wise one.

By the way, their answer to question #2 was an emphatic yes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Ideal Approach to Discipline

As a follow up to my book review of The Connected Child, here is the one part of the book I found most instructive. The authors presented a discipline approach that they called "IDEAL."

I - Immediate   The response must be quick. They recommend within 3 seconds of the misbehavior.

D - Direct   Be near. Make eye contact. Avoid distractions.

E - Efficient   Use the least amount of firmness and words necessary to make the point clear.

A - Action-based   Lead the child to a "do over," redirecting him or her to an appropriate behavior.

L - Level the response at the behavior, not the person.

These are good reminders for me to consider in my interactions with all children. The process seems like a simple, effective test/checklist that can be used in a variety of scenarios.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: The Connected Child (2007)

I was first introduced to the wisdom of Karyn Purvis at an adoption conference in Austin, Texas over a year ago. After hearing her speak in person, I was eager to gain more insight from this particular PhD. My chance came with the purchase of The Connected Child, a book she co-authored with David Cross and Wendy Sunshine (two last names that almost sound made-up under the circumstances). The book is intended for parents welcoming children into their homes from "hard places." Not surprisingly, there are plenty of good lessons here to benefit people in all aspects of life. Personally, I appreciated it as a parent and educator, but I recognize how essential it must be for the targeted readers to have this knowledge.

One of the major take-aways from the book is actually an obvious, simple point. Abused and neglected children need full attention eye contact each and every day from a caregiver. This is one of those truths that is easy to agree with intellectually, but I have to humbly reflect on my own practice. (In fact, just this very moment my daughters entered the room playfully, loudly talking, playing music, and seeking my attention. My initial reaction was to say, "Turn that down, please." I immediately turned my concentration back to this blog entry, barely acknowledging them. After all, I had to get on with this post about giving children attention with your eyes!)

The funny thing is that it works. Eye contact really communicates something that maybe no other method can. It is hard to put into words. My youngest daughter, when being obstinate, will comply and be more accepting of redirection much more often when I say, "Look at the brown in my eyes" or "I need to see your eyes" instead of just "Look at me." (A tip from the book.) It hasn't been a 100% guarantee, but a big improvement.

What I have also noticed is just how much full attention eye contact really bothers some of my students. They are very uncomfortable with it. To be honest, I can't even say that I am all that comfortable with it sometimes. The deep, psychological reasons for that will probably never be revealed in this blog, not because I want to hide them, but I have to first figure them out myself.

Eye contact was only one great reminder in this book. Other practical strategies included keeping a behavior log or observation journal for a couple weeks, preparing children for changes (especially with special needs), using the "sandwich" approach of wrapping any negative inside two positives, and using "stock phrases" or "scripts."

Scripts or stock phrases are those one-line principle statements. They can be used over and over again to drive home foundational elements of how family relationships are going to work in the household. Some examples are:
  • "Use your words." or "Give me a whole sentence."
  • "Adults are in charge."
  • "With permission and supervision."
  • "No hurts."
  • "Focus and complete your task." (after clarifying that they understand the task)
I think this book is a great resource for any parent, but I would imagine it is a must read for parents with foster, adoptive, special needs, or cross-cultural children.

I am saving the best take-away from the book for its own post.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Could It Be Time to Do Away with Grades?

The past six months have been elightening for me. I have been on a journey of researching the effects of something we all take for granted in our school system: grades!

There is so much I want to question and share about this topic, but for now I merely want to go back to a book review I already posted on this blog. Robert Marzano is one of the most respected experts on instruction, assessment, and grading practices. Check out these direct quotes from his book.

Marzano's Thoughts:

p.30 (top): “In fact, research indicates that the score a student receives on a test is more dependent on who scores the test and how they score it than it is on what the student knows and understands.”

p.99 (middle): “In fact, measurement theorists tell us that a student’s true score on a given test is unobservable directly.”

p.105 Quoting Brookhart (2004):“…in a perfect world there would be no need for the kind of grades we use in school today…[but] grades are not going to disappear from schools anytime soon” (p. 4 – from Brookhart’s book).
p.122 (bottom): “However, regardless of the scheme the district or school uses, it should realize that an overall letter grade is an artificial construct because the cutoff points for the various grades are arbitrary.”

p.125: “I believe that the biggest changes will occur when overall grades are not the norm.”

My Thoughts:

The final section of the book is bold to take on the larger “sacred cows” of education, such as grade level progression and the requirements of minimum competence to advance through the system. I believe Marzano is right on in his conclusion that these elements present major obstacles to quality learning and student mastery, and I also agree that there is a much greater need for specific and timely feedback within the system. My concern is whether his approach involving standards-based grading, rubrics and power laws deliver either the effectiveness or efficiency that he says it will.

Why do so many educators clearly see a better vision for kids outside of our current system, but then resort to offering little tweaks here and there? They know an overhaul is necessary for the benefit of children, but almost always draw back due to fear of the logistical barriers within the system.

I wonder if having no grades at all wouldn’t accomplish all the same effects that Marzano hopes to see with exponentially better results. The funny thing is, based on the last quote above, Marzano seems to feel the same way.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Being Discipled by a Dead Man (2)

This is my 2nd post about my insights from Oswald Chambers. I have always been impressed by people who can get me to consider re-framing my whole world with just a sentence or two, or a couple short questions. Oswald Chambers seems to have that ability in his writings. Here is what he has challenged me with most recently.

**He charges, "If we were asked whether we believed God could make us blameless, we would all say 'Yes'." Then, he asks, "Well, has He done it?" His rhetorical response: "If God has not sanctified us and made us blameless, there is only one reason why He has not - we do not want Him to."

**The other thought challenges my entire perspective on what it means to be a disciple. Chambers posits that it is not whether we know Christ is with us as we face our temptations. That is a given. The more important question is, Are we going with Jesus in His temptations?

It's strange. Sometimes, I will not open this devotional book for a few days after reading just a paragraph. The truth is so sharp. It cuts. I am left processing something that is just straight forward. I don't find many people that talk this clearly about the reality of God's Kingdom. And clear talk is usually not easy to hear for me.

Of course, I realize it is Jesus talking this clearly to me. But I still don't like it much better knowing that. In fact, it is all the more reason I am uncomfortable. I know there is nowhere to hide. And yet, I know He loves me relentlessly, passionately, insanely, jealously. I told you it was strange.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Our Deepest Fear

This is absolutely one of my most favorite quotes.

The only problem is that this film version cut out Nelson Mandela's references to God. I read the actual quote from time to time, and I swear a different phrase strikes me each time. Today, I am especially impacted by the part, "You are a child of God; your playing small does not serve the world."