Monday, March 31, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 3-C: "Better Late Than Never")

Another issue with most grading systems happens when there is an emphasis on penalizing students for late work. Rick Wormeli deals with the 'late work' challenge here.

This topic gets to the heart of a much larger problem in our schools. We need to find ways to transition from time being the constant to learning being the constant. I won't dig in to that idea here too much, but I will say that the more asynchronous practices we can introduce, the better. We must begin to deconstruct the factory-model approach.

As far as grading goes, the bottom line is that policies that eliminate hope also tend to eliminate learning. Since learning is our business in public education, this should concern us.

This is my final entry dealing with the problems of grading as they relate to forcing all kids to learn at the same time and in the same way, although one could probably argue that all grading practices somehow connect to that issue.

I will look at another aspect of grading in next week's post.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Baby Step: Pray for Freedom

While I will not be attending IJM's Global Prayer Gathering, the fact that it is right around the corner is good timing for a reminder about one of the most important steps any of us can take to promote freedom and justice.

Since we can't all attend great prayer conferences, it helps to have practical ways for us to talk to God about things like this that matter to us. One way you can consistently remember to pray for those in bondage today is to sign up for IJM's prayer updates or download their prayer devotional.

Whether you use a resource or devotional or nothing, the main thing is to simply call out needs to God and listen for his heartbeat. I am "preaching" to myself here because having a superior prayer life is something I could never boast about. Taking time to converse with God is, embarrassingly, a constant work in progress for me. Fortunately, I always find God to be a gentle and forgiving Listener.

2 Corinthians says, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." There may be many things in our lives that we wonder if they are a part of God's will. This subject is not one of them. We can be confident that setting people free is as close to the heart of Jesus as anything else we could ever pray about.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


By now, I have shared a lot about how we "do church" simply.

You can see our Mission in a Minute and our Plan on a Page.

You can start to read beliefs about Children and our Measures of Success.

Our theology, evangelism, and discipleship is entirely based on one question: Who is Jesus to you?

In addition, we do have some practices that we want to keep at the forefront of the way we "do church." These are priorities for us, and we do not declare that they should be priorities for any other churches or ministries. Here are a few:

  • NO WALLS: Our ministries are not primarily based around buildings. The money, energy, property and personnel required to keep a church building running is not the wisest use of resources for our particular church network.

    Scene from Patch Adams movie
  • "PATCH ADAMS" APPROACH: The main character (played by Robin Williams) in the movie Patch Adams (based on a true story) is driven by his belief that every person is both a doctor and a patient. Likewise, we believe every person is a teacher and a learner. The expectation is that each follower of Christ can both give and receive ministry. We try to keep a participatory model that involves everyone (all ages) as much as possible so there are no passive spectators. There may be times when one person will teach a lesson or facilitate a series, but these are exceptions, not the rule.

  • SOCIAL JUSTICEIn other places, I have reflected on growth barriers vs. impact barriers as a metric of effectiveness. I see a gauge of our community's spiritual health in how well we attempt to break through obstacles so that we can minister to more people in our communities and cities more effectively. Each person is encouraged to foster a cause or need that they are passionate about. One way we try to harness these interests is in meeting needs both Here (locally) and There (globally/internationally).

As I said, these are some of our priorities.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 3-B: "Practice Makes Permanent")

The next issue with most grading systems occurs when teachers grade students' first efforts or grade practice.

In his work on faulty grading practices that inhibit learning, Ken O' Connor includes the practice of "grading first efforts." As he explains, "learning is not a 'one-shot' deal."

This bad practice ties directly to the notion that all students should learn all things at the same time, which I discussed in my previous post. Instead of rehashing that idea here, I want to move now to the specific, problematic grading practices that result from this faulty thinking, the greatest of which is giving summative scores to people while they are still in the learning process.

The sports world already well understands the learning-performance cycle. Practices are used as opportunities to learn and develop skills while coaches constantly, immediately, directly, and specifically provide feedback for athletes. With good coaches and teammates (peers), athletes are receiving information in an ongoing manner for the purpose of helping them improve.

Athletes work hard and learn from mistakes in practices despite the fact that none of their efforts or stats is counted toward a single game’s outcome! You never see a basketball scoreboard start out with one team having an advantage based on free throw percentages during practice the night before the game. You never see a football team having to start a game down a touchdown because a quarterback had too many incomplete passes in practice that week.

When you watch ESPN’s Sportscenter, you are going to see and hear reports of all kinds of statistics and highlights, but none that come from practices. Why? Because the reporters, broadcasters, coaches, and fans from everywhere all recognize that it is the game where players need to be held accountable for their achievement.

Classroom teachers would do well to take notes from this analogy and refuse to grade students’ practice, including homework. Notice that I am very intentional about distinguishing grading from giving feedback. Feedback that “feeds forward” is a critical part of the practice component of learning a new skill or concept! Formative assessment is ongoing and necessary. Grading should not be mistakenly equated to providing feedback. Indeed, grading often interferes with effectivefeedback and has no correlation to learning.

Practice should be an opportunity for a student to receive timely feedback from teachers, experience peer-assessment, and carry out self reflections. Ensuring that these aspects are key ingredients to the learning cycle will help prevent another poor practice all too often employed, the infamous completion grade.

Completion grading is what teachers use to entice students to do their homework while not destroying their hope with a string of low grades for poor performance. It is most likely done with good intentions. However, it can be quite a destructive practice when it comes to learning. 

What teachers do not often have the chance to do is take a big step back and look at the big picture of practices that they have been using for a long time. With time to do so, I believe many educators would see just how illogical it is to use completion grades to build knowledge or skills.

First, completion grades mis-communicate ability and progress to both students and parents. Many times, a student receives several consecutive 100's on homework assignments only to fail the assessment. This leaves everyone confused.

Second, completion grades discourage critical thinking because there is no need for a student to evaluate his or her work, analyze errors, attempt more challenging problems, etc.

Third, completion grades do not adequately prepare students for assessments. In fact, they can actually interfere with the learning process because of poor practice. Students can repeatedly be doing things incorrectly if they are only graded for completing the task. This is probably the most obvious and harmful negative effect of completion grades.

Imagine a coach telling a baseball player to practice batting for a "completion" grade. No coach would ever tell the player to just practice swinging a set number of times just for the sake of doing the activity, while neglecting to consider form, stance, follow-through, contact with the ball, etc., and expect that to prepare the player for game situations against pitchers.

The above example is only baseball. What if we were to apply the mentality behind completion grades to other serious endeavors, let's say preparing to do surgery or flying a plane or putting a roof on a house? Even the thought of such a thing is unacceptable.

Virtually any activity that requires a particular execution of a skill should never be rehearsed over and over without considering the quality of the action because brain research teaches us that practice makes permanent. Good practice leads to better performance. Poor practice, which can go unchecked with completion grading, can lead to poorer performance. Think about that! A student can actually be "taught" to be worse at something through this type of grading method.

So, what is the solution to the problem of completion grades?

The answer is to not grade practice at all. Only give feedback!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Baby Step: Know the Law

Another practical step you can take in understanding what is going on with slavery and human trafficking is to take a few minutes to read the summary of legislation that is now in place regarding these issues.

I tried reading the actual bills that became laws, but that was overwhelming and confusing to me. I prefer getting the highlights that help me make a little more sense of them. 

With that said, the baby step I recommend for today is to take about 3-5 minutes to skim over recent federal legislation as nicely summarized by the Polaris Project. I also suggest making the Polaris Project website one of your bookmarks or favorites. It is a wealth of great information and resources!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Simple Church Guide

For those of you that can't handle a church group not having a manual to address all the "big rocks" like doctrine and evangelism and leadership, here you go. This is what ours would look like.

Our Theology & Beliefs

  • Jesus is All.
  • Be willing to unlearn some things so that you can learn new insights.

Evangelism & Outreach
  • Ask and answer one question: Who is Jesus to you?

Discipleship & Ministry
  • Let the answer to the question in the previous section dictate how you live.

Church & Fellowship
  • Keep it simple!

Leadership & Service
  • The Holy Spirit is the Leader. Everyone else follows as they share in His gifts. 

    Organization & Policies
    • This section is not applicable due to no buildings, budgets, or big shots. 

    There you go!

    Monday, March 17, 2014

    Grades Gotta Go! (Part 3-A: RE-thinking RE-dos)

    In my previous post in this series, I shared about how my real world job experiences did not match the popular mantra that the "real world" does not allow for "second chances" or "re-dos". To be fair, in this post, I have to explore more perspectives beyond my personal experience since, after all, this argument is the primary justification given from educators and parents who are against the practice of test re-takes. But first...

    I think it is worth noting that when teachers are mandated (by school policy or state legislation) to allow for re-takes, many of them often want to still penalize students by making the re-take much more difficult or capping the score that can be earned. In their minds, students who learn something first should be rewarded for doing so. Essentially, the timing of the learning, they contend, should be a factor in the grading. 

    My previous post already dealt with the fact that this position defies common sense. It is not as important when a student learns something as it is that they learn it. However, because of this faulty thinking that demands all learners to perform equally well at the same time, teachers will employ averaging or grade reductions for students who show mastery or growth later than their peers.

    This middle school teacher does a great job of thoroughly addressing the problem of averaging in this blog post. I will let it suffice for my take on that issue.

    Now, back to considering how the "real world" works. Do we need to prepare kids for a "one and done" world that sends people packing if they fail the first time?

    Well, Rick Wormeli handles this issue very well in this video.

    Coincidentally, I just heard this TED Talk from General Stanley McChrystal where he highlights the necessity of being able to fail and later improve even in military contexts. 

    Here is an interesting commercial from one of the greatest professional athletes of all time.

    It just so happens that someone close to me recently failed their driving test, but then this person went back and took it again. Now, this person has a license! It also happens that I work with administrators in my district who failed their certification exam the first time. Now, they are certified and doing very well in their positions. These are two more real-world examples of situations where people can re-take tests for full credit. Nowhere on the driver's license or professional certificate is it indicated that it required multiple attempts to show mastery.

    It makes one wonder if some teachers are fighting hard to prepare students for a world that only exists in their imaginations. Oh, by the way, I know a number of teachers who did not pass their certification exams the first time either. But you know what? They eventually did pass them, now have teaching jobs, and get this, they make the same pay as their colleagues who passed their tests the first time! Hmm...what do you know about that?

    Finally, here is a great summary of the reasons to encourage retakes/redos. 

    Friday, March 14, 2014

    Somebody's "Emerson" (aka. Why I am Becoming a Modern-day Abolitionist")

    Recently, my family and friends surprised me with a birthday celebration. Boy, they got me good! I never saw it coming!

    In addition to the event itself, another surprise was the collection of donations toward a personal interest I had of trying to raise enough money for a slave rescue operation with International Justice Mission (IJM). Due to their generosity, I needed to find a way to organize these efforts so I could track funds and progress toward the $5000 goal. So, I went to the IJM website and started a FreedomMaker campaign called Somebody's "Emerson". (You can check it out here.)

    My daughter was naturally curious about the name, "Somebody's 'Emerson'." So, I explained to her the reason I am becoming a modern-day abolitionist. Here is what I told her.

    "Every night I get the honor of tucking you in at night and praying with you. Many times, we read together and talk about our day and laugh. I look around your room and I see stuffed animals that you can hold in a comfortable bed, a nightlight, a dresser full of clothes, and shelves covered with books.

    Emerson with her daddy
    "You are my Emerson. You have a lot of nice things and are protected in a home with a family that loves you. Your mommy and daddy get to kiss and hug you and tuck you in safely each night.

    "But did you know there are children like you all over the world, and there are some of them that don't get to be in safe homes at night? Some of them don't get to sleep in comfortable beds. They don't have even one stuffed animal to hold on to. They are hurt by people stronger than them. They are told lies. And the worst part is that they don't have a mommy or daddy they can go to for help. Some of these precious kids don't have someone to hold them and love them and do what is best for them.

    "If you, my Emerson, were ever in a situation like that, I sure do wish someone would do something to help you. And if that is what I would want someone else to do for my Emerson, then it is right and good for us to do something to help someone else's "Emerson".

    Every hurting, exploited or trafficked child is "Somebody's Emerson"!

    Monday, March 10, 2014

    Grades Gotta Go! (Part 3: "All Kids Learn the Same Content in the Same Way at the Same Time - Um, No!")

    Another major problem with most grading systems is that they perpetuate the obvious myth that all students learn in the same way at the same time. Clearly, this ridiculous, factory-model perspective is at the heart of many educational ills, but in the next few posts I will focus on the part grades play in exasperating this problem. In particular, I will address concerns associated with re-do/re-take policies, grading homework/practice, and penalties for late work.

    Before getting into specifics, though, let’s just deal up front with the absurdity of this paradigm that serves as a driving force behind most of our grading practices.  

    It is pretty crazy when we consider what we do to children in our current educational system without even questioning some of the inherent assumptions. One of the assumptions is that if a teacher teaches something, then that automatically equates to a student learning something. Therefore, we (teachers) "cover" an enormous amount of material in our classes. Then, we hold students accountable for knowing, understanding and applying that material (all of it!) right away. To take matters worse, in many cases, students have only a passive encounter with the curriculum.

    Some will contend that doing anything different equates with lowering expectations. "It worked for us when we were in school. It should be the same for students now. We didn't get second chances or do-overs. Kids these days are becoming so irresponsible. Besides, the 'real world' doesn't allow 'do-overs'!" The argument goes something like that, and I have heard it way too many times.

    The most significant flaw in this argument is that it just isn't true. There are tons of facts and concepts that you "learned" in your K-12 education that I am quite certain you don't know now. Don't believe me? Take a few minutes sometime and Google the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), or curriculum standards for your state if you are not in Texas, for any grade level and see how many of them you know today. I just did this with the 5th grade TEKS in Language Arts and Social Studies. Prepare to be humbled.

    The point is that while your teachers most likely explicitly "taught" all of that material, we cannot assume that much learning took place. (That is not a knock on any of your teachers by the way. The same is true for the classes I taught.) It is simply unreasonable to expect humans to master all content when it is initially introduced. Students of all ages need time to review, rehearse, manipulate, analyze, synthesize, and organize information. None of these things can be rushed.

    Moreover, the totally insane idea is to expect all people to advance through new knowledge at the same pace. All it takes is a parent of only two children to tell you that kids learn and develop differently! We readily admit this differentiation exists, but our practices betray us.

    So, the traditional cycle of repeatedly and quickly presenting lessons, assigning homework about those lessons, testing on those lessons, grading students based on their achievement on the tests over the lessons, then moving on to other lessons so that we can "get through the curriculum" is an approach that has been shown to be sorely deficient.

    It is also false that most of the "real world" does not allow for making corrections or re-doing activities. At least, not in my real world. I recently listed all the jobs that I could recall having in my life. There were about 15 of them, including YMCA membership clerk, fast food cook, grocery bagger, bus driver, youth minister, and teacher, to name a few. I realized that there is one thing all the jobs had in common: I frequently made mistakes and constantly had to learn from my failures. Over and over and over. It is no different in my current position as a school administrator.

    In fact, mistake-making and continuous improvement upon initially poor performance are not only practices that I was, and am, not fired, reprimanded or punished for, but they are valuable to my growth as a contributor to the organization. See, my real world has no resemblance to the “real world” for which many teachers fear we are not preparing students.

    Furthermore, it is most ironic to hear the argument against re-dos and corrections come from public school educators who are in a profession that makes it extremely difficult to get rid of teachers who perform poorly year after year, much less one time. If teachers in the real world fail to meet expectations, then they do not lose their jobs. They may receive extra training, resources, or time. They may be placed in a professional learning community. They may be put on a growth plan. They may have additional people provide them with feedback. The list goes on and on, and the objective in all these cases is to provide the employee with a way to recover from the loss or failure.

    Is it hypocritical to refuse the same opportunities to young people still in their development?

    Friday, March 7, 2014

    My Heart Will Sing No Other Name

    I am actually writing this very short post in early January 2014 as I think about what I want to do and be this year. I have scheduled it to publish close to my birthday as a reminder to myself and a testimony to others as to what I want to be the theme of my life.

    I feel like the words of this song capture it well. May these lyrics be my prayer today.

    Lord, help my heart to sing no other name.

    I chose this version because there is no distraction of a band, cheering crowd, or images...just the words.
    Maybe the message alone can bless you today wherever you find yourself.

    Wednesday, March 5, 2014

    Should Christians Follow the Bible or Jesus? (part 2)

    Isn't this picture so sweet? 
    Could you not see this on the wall of a children's worship room in a church building? 
    It has everything, doesn't it? The good old commandments of the law and friendly Jesus, together forever?
    The best of both worlds, the "total package", everything we're supposed to teach our children? Isn't that how it is supposed to work?

    My last post claimed that we should choose Jesus over the Old Testament (Law, covenant). Here is a little more explanation of my position.

    It is hard to imagine how the New Testament could be any more explicit that followers of Jesus are not to look to the law for guidance regarding salvation. Think of Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, being able to boast in his knowledge of the law as a Jew, stating that we are dead to the law through the body of Christ (Romans 7). He also added, "What the law was powerless to do...God did by sending his own Son..." (Romans 8:3). Moreover, Paul writes to the church of Corinth about this former "ministry" that came with a fading glory that keeps a veil over hearts and dull minds and brought only condemnation, and contrasts it with Jesus who brings hope and righteousness and removes the veil (2 Corinthians 3).

    Could we consider the multiple times Jesus says, "You have heard..., but I tell you...", or how many times Jesus publicly, deliberately violated the Sabbath rules just to make a theological point? Think about Jesus asking the people what Moses taught about divorce just to turn around and tell them that Moses only did that because of their hard hearts. In fact, Jesus clarified that what Moses wrote is not how we are to view divorce at all. (Mark 10)

    Perhaps, nowhere is the Bible more direct about this point than in the book of Hebrews. The old covenant is labeled "inferior", "outdated", "obsolete" (depending on translations), and there are entire sections of this letter devoted to illustrating how it did nothing but find fault in people and could do nothing to cleanse or redeem anyone! Hebrews is equally as clear that Jesus is the new priest over a "new covenant established on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6).

    These are only a few examples. So, what do we tell our kids about the Bible? Marc, would you really tell your children to ignore the Old Testament? Well, I've already addressed that in my previous post. However, here is what I will tell my daughters. If something you read in the Old Testament (or anywhere for that matter) points you to Jesus, then embrace it. If what you read points you to a rule or law, which will either condemn you or fill you with pride because law-keeping is a human effort that compares one person's "works" with another's, then disregard it. Our standard is never the law, but always Christ. Because of that, we are always dependent upon God's awesome grace.

    The value in the Old Testament is that it does indeed point us to Christ and reveal Him over and over, so be on the lookout for Jesus at all times.

    Monday, March 3, 2014

    Grades Gotta Go! (Part 2: "100 Degrees of Separation")

    The first issue with most current grading systems is the 100-point scale
    A couple problems contribute to the inappropriate use of the 100-point scale.
    One is how we use it to calculate percentage grades. The other is the disproportionate weight that zeros have on grades.

    First, this blog post raises the concern of calculating percentages to determine students' averages. Consider the problems described and whether you agree or disagree with them.

    Second, Rick Wormeli does a fabulous job of breaking down a number of the difficulties with the 100-point scale and, in particular, giving zeros on this scale

    If you are a parent, then what questions does this make you want to ask?

    If you are a teacher, how would you respond to the claims made in Rob Eberts' blog and Rick Wormeli's video

    One final thought about taking on the 100-point scale. It may seem impossible to address something so embedded in our assessment practices. The 100-point scale is easily accepted as part of our educational system by parents, teachers, and students alike. Why mess with a "good" thing?

    Consider this. If it such a good practice, then why it is abandoned by both "ends" of most educational institutions? None of the schools where I live use it when children are starting out in preschool or early elementary grade levels. On the other end, college students have used 4, 5, or 6-point scales for years. I realize those numbers are sometimes nothing more than conversions from a 100-point scale, but I wonder what the original intent was for doing it that way.

    We could argue that it is used all over the world, but that's not true. Denmark is an example of a nation that uses a 13-point scale. Belgium, France, Portugal, Peru, and Venezuela are a handful of countries that use a 20-point scale. Even states in the U.S. are beginning to introduce legislation and policies regarding the communication of student progress on different scales.

    I am not arguing that we should model our education programs or policies after any of these nations or even our own American university system, which is fraught with its own problems. The point is to show that there is nothing sacred about the 100-point scale. It is flawed and we can do better for our kids!

    As I write this blog, the Winter Olympics are going on in Sochi, Russia. At least maybe the 100-point scale is all they use there. Oh, wait, that's right...oops!

    Saturday, March 1, 2014

    Baby Step: Become an "Ally"

    I have already mentioned this organization in posts and tweets before, but I want to take a minute to really emphasize and promote a group here in the Austin area, Allies Against Slavery

    (Note: Their website is currently being updated and should be unveiled this month. For now, I suggest just going to their site and subscribing to their monthly newsletter. That is the "baby step": just subscribe to the newsletter!)

    The mission of Allies is to "develop community-based networks that build slave-free cities." I have been to four different events related to Allies, including the Free Austin Summit in October 2013 and a couple of their monthly meetings. Each event has been highly informative and inspiring

    It is awesome to see the diversity of people that come together simply united by the common passion to end slavery in the world around us.

    As someone fairly new to this abolition journey, I am finding that Allies is so beneficial to me, which is why I am so strongly recommending it to others in and around Austin. 

    I see it as a practical way to be engaged with this movement.

    Allies are connecting resources to real needs. 

    They have relationships with local law enforcement. 

    They are collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders in the community, including faith-based groups. 

    They assist with after-care for survivors of human trafficking as they partner with Refugee Services of Texas (RST).

    They are educating people to proactively stop harm to humans. 

    Allies is working on growing and organizing their network. Upcoming opportunities soon to be available are "justice parties" (ways to engage small groups in human trafficking awareness) and book clubs. I will share more as I find out about these avenues.

    The next meeting is Tuesday, March 18 at Space12.