Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Assessments to Remember

As I write this blog, the Standards of Learning testing window has just commenced. Everyone has put in long hours to assist our students in achieving at the highest possible levels. However, we intuitively know that a single measurement will never define the worth of a child, teacher, school, or school division. To be clear, I am not implying that accountability is unnecessary. In fact, I believe that we all need to be held accountable, and testing has its place.  It simply should never be the “be all, end all” of education.

Recently, I was reminded that we rarely remember scores on SOLs, or any tests for that matter. In fact, I do not recall a single numeric score on a quiz, a test, an exam, or even a teacher licensure assessment that I have taken.  While this may not be terribly surprising, I admit that I have no trouble at all remembering that Cal Ripken Jr.’s lifetime batting average was .276, or that the Spanish-American War took place in 1898 during the McKinley administration.  I love numbers, dates, and trivia, but I don’t remember test scores, ever.

Test scores aside, I want to share a couple of examples of what I do remember about my education.  I remember learning our states and capitals in 5th grade.  Rather than a simple 100 question test with 50 states and 50 capitals, my teacher (Mrs. Scott) allowed us to pick a partner (that’s right, we actually got to pick our own partner) and make an information booth about our assigned state.  Then, we held a “state fair” in which all of the other 5th grade classes participated.  My friend and I had the good fortune of being assigned Virginia.  We lived in Virginia, so we knew everything there was to know, or so we thought.  Over the next few weeks, we wanted our information booth to be the best, so I found out more about my home state than I had ever known previously.  I’m sure there was a traditional states and capitals test at some point, but I don’t remember if I correctly identified Montpelier as the capital of Vermont.  However, I do remember the collaboration, the research, and the end product we produced on that project.

During my 11th grade year, I remember an American History teacher bringing in a discarded butcher’s cut of meat.  He then proceeded to saw through it with a rusty hacksaw before proclaiming, “And that’s what medical procedures were like on a Civil War battlefield!”  Yes, it’s a gruesome example, but it made a lasting impression.  I don’t remember what I earned on my Civil War test that year.  I do, however, remember that I decided to become a U.S. History teacher in large part because of his passion for teaching. 

One final example I recall occurred in my 10th grade English class.  To my surprise, my teacher told me that my writing had potential.  It was the first time I can remember someone ever complimenting my work in this regard, and it motivated me to write more.  To this day, it still inspires me, and I haven’t stopped.

Traditional assessments have their place.  They give us data points that can help us assess both progress and needs.  They are not, however, the only game in town.  As we wind down this year, let us remember that ten years from now (probably more like 10 weeks from now), our students will not remember their score on a standardized test.  They will remember engaging lessons, being empowered, relative hands-on experiences, and teachers who believed in them.  While it is natural to count the few days remaining to a much deserved summer break, let us all commit to using the time we have remaining in the most impactful way possible.  Your students will remember it.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Why Do We Do It This Way?

A good friend recently told me the following story: 

There was a young married couple, and the wife wanted to impress her new husband with a home cooked meal.  He liked ham, so she prepared a ham the same way that she had seen her own mother prepare it countless times over the years.  Her husband walked into the kitchen and noticed that she cut off the end of the ham before placing it in a pan and into the oven.  He asked her, “Why did you cut off the end of the ham?”  She paused, somewhat perplexed.  She responded, “Well, that’s what my mother always did.”  While her husband did not think anything more of it, she found herself pondering the same question. 

The young bride phoned her mother and asked her, “Mom, when you prepare ham, why do you always cut off the end before baking it?”  Her mother was similarly perplexed and responded, “Well, that’s what my mother always did, so I did it, too.”  By this time, the young lady was determined to get to the bottom of this conundrum.  She phoned her grandmother, certain that her sage wisdom would shine a light on this mystery.

The matriarch of the family was glad to hear from her granddaughter and listened intently while she explained her source of confusion about the ham.  After the question was posed, the grandmother laughed to herself.  She then responded, “Honey, the reason I cut off the end of the ham was simply because this was the only way it would fit into my small pan.”

Are there lessons for educators here?  Absolutely!  Effective business leaders will tell you that the seven most dangerous words in business are, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  To be fair, sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for doing business a certain way for years, decades, or even centuries.  Sometimes, it simply works.  However, there is nothing wrong (and often everything right) with questioning, “Why do we do it this way?”  In fact, we grow in our profession by asking this very question.  Next time something seems a bit peculiar to you, I challenge you to dig a little deeper.  Does the tried and true method yield results, or is it just cutting off some perfectly good ham?

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Lessons Which Stay With Us

Throughout the school year, I’ve been inspired by listening to feedback from several advisory groups who represent various stakeholders within our schools and community.  This year, some of these groups began meeting for the first time, such as our community faith leaders, while others have been revived, such as the Superintendent’s Business Advisory Council.  In addition, we have expanded existing advisory groups, including the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Panels (elementary and secondary), in an effort to include more voices and create greater opportunities for feedback.

At a recent student advisory panel meeting, I asked secondary students to discuss their favorite lessons and innovative teaching techniques.  The students were divided into several groups and provided several amazing examples.  I was convinced that students have the highest regard for our remarkable teachers.  I then posed a different question to them, “Of all of the lessons you have been taught, whether you enjoyed the lesson or not, what percentage of the lessons do you feel can be applied in a real-life situation?”

Without exception, all of the students paused.  They contemplated their response and then spoke, but some were apprehensive.  Out of approximately 30 students, all but one indicated that they only saw a real-life connection in 5-15% of the lessons.  Taking the mid-point of the responses, we can surmise that students are seeing a connection in roughly 1 out of every 10 lessons that they are taught.  Admittedly, this is not a scientific study.  However, I believe it is far more important—it represents the voices of those we teach.

To be clear, the intent of the question was to gauge the relevance of lessons from the students’ perspective in order to gain greater insight.  It was not intended to question the quality of the lessons currently taught by our exceptional educators.  As noted above, students clearly have an abiding respect and love for our teachers, as do I.  Rather, my question was all about making authentic connections. 

For instance, we have all attended conferences, lectures, and professional development sessions.  While some may have been entertaining, they did not necessarily have a significant impact upon us.  However, others made a lasting impression upon us, which I believe remain with us because they have an immediate application to our lives and/or profession—they were relevant.  They serve to influence and inspire us.  Our students are no different and need these type of relevant connections in order to remain engaged and inspired.

My son and I experienced one of these moments while he was in elementary school.  He took Tae-Kwon-Do for several years and even earned his black belt.  This involved a lot of repetition, but the instructors also tried hard to “keep things fresh,” which was a key reason my son kept coming back.  One Saturday morning, the students seemed rather lethargic and class was not going well.  The master teaching the class called everyone together and explained to them that before every class, he would imagine that this would be the last time he would ever have to work with his students.  He said he would ask himself, “How will I teach this class if it is my last one?  How will I connect with students, and what do I want them to know and remember?”  By doing this, he strived to make every class truly meaningful.  It was a very transparent moment with the students.  Instead of being reprimanded for being disengaged, the students saw an instructor who cared enough to keep himself accountable to them and wanted them to remember his lessons long after the class ended.  The teacher connected with the students in an authentic way; the class rallied and ended on a high note.

I know that we all care immensely about our students in a similar way, and the quality of teaching in our classrooms is outstanding.  Now, let’s concentrate on making sure our students are able to make authentic, relevant connections to the lessons we teach them.  I’m not suggesting that we must completely overhaul our curriculum.  There are still incredibly relevant lessons in everything from classic literature to mathematical formulas.  Rather, I submit to you that sometimes it is appropriate to simply explain to students that while a particular formula, problem, or passage may not itself be directly used later in life, the process of problem solving, using the scientific method, writing, editing, revising, etc. are skills that are critical life skills, invaluable across a wide range of professions.  In addition, I challenge you to find specific ways to connect the curriculum to the world in which they are interested, such as designing a problem or lesson around a topical issue, or allowing students to present their work to an authentic audience.  This will immediately increase the relevance of the lesson, yielding higher levels of student engagement and achievement.  This is at the heart of education!

When you are planning your next lesson, or just reflecting, ask yourself, “If I only had today to make a difference in the lives of my students, what would I want them to remember and be able to apply?”  While this question may seem a touch grim at first, you may be surprised to learn how making relevant connections with students becomes your first thought rather than a secondary thought.  Our students have spoken—they need and want to understand the connections.  Our themes this year of “Relevance, Equity, and Innovation” are not new fads or trends, or boxes to check off a laundry list of “best practices.”  Rather, they represent a daily journey of growth, reflection, and constant improvement.  I thank you for taking that journey with me.  It will serve our students well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Literacy of the 21st Century

In the last couple of weeks, we have made significant progress towards making our Five-Year Technology Plan go from words and numbers on paper to a reality.  On January 24th, I presented the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget to the School Board.  The budget includes funding to replace our technology infrastructure in all schools, adding ITRTs and technology support personnel, funding teacher laptops, and funding a 1-to-1 computing device initiative for all secondary students.

This was followed by the unveiling of our new Classrooms of the Future initiative, which I first identified as a goal in my Post-Immersion Report last summer.  With funding provided by the Hanover Education Foundation, this exciting opportunity allows teachers to compete for a complete classroom makeover, including modern furniture and technology, in order to promote more innovative and active learning spaces.  I’m encouraged by all the many possibilities that await us as we explore better ways to serve our students’ needs.

In the Information Age, we have access to more resources than ever before that can be used to design lessons that are more relevant and make real-world connections.  Further, technology affords us the opportunity to know our students in a more authentic way through adaptive software that aids in identifying which students would benefit from more rigorous work, as well as which students may need concepts retaught in a different way.

However, as with any new initiative, we must be deliberate in our efforts.  As we transition into a more digital platform, it is easy to fall victim to changing methods simply because something appears “cool” or “fun.”  In other words, technology should not simply be a substitution for what is already being done.  For instance, a dry erase board has become the modern substitute for the chalkboard of yesteryear.  A computer though, should not simply be a replacement for a textbook.  While a substitution may serve as a starting point, we will eventually need to work towards redefining what is possible in our classrooms by providing students with opportunities to participate in lessons through the use of technology that was not previously possible.

As technology becomes more prevalent in our classrooms, begin asking yourself these questions as lessons are designed:

1.    Is using technology going to enhance the delivery of the curriculum?
2.    If so, will it likely be a more effective method than my previous way of delivering similar material?
3.    Does the lesson deliver the appropriate amount of rigor?
4.    Is it relevant/applicable to real-world situations?
5.    Is the lesson student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered?

If the answer to all of these questions isn’t “yes,” that’s okay!  Start with making sure the answer to at least one or two is “yes.”  As you become more proficient and comfortable in a new environment, begin using technology to make your classroom truly transformational.

Happy Trailblazing!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Lesson from a Soldier

In the spring of 2012, I had the opportunity to tour Fort Lee in Prince George County.  The tour was led by Colonel Loren Schriner, who commanded the ordnance division.  The purpose of my visit was to learn more about the U.S. Army’s approach to handling logistics in order to assist me with planning a new CTE course on logistics and supply chain management. 

What became more interesting to me during my visit was the Army’s approach to education.  They used the phrase “blended learning,” as well as stressed the importance of critical thinking skills and hands-on application.  I asked what precipitated this new direction since it was very similar to the approach taken in PK-12 education.  One of the instructors explained to me that the Army’s old approach to teaching was to simply yell at soldiers until they “understood” a new concept.  The Army also previously stressed making soldiers adept in one or two very particular skills, which could be performed repetitively and quickly.  However, the Army came to realize that this approach did not fit the needs of the world’s most modern fighting force, so their teaching techniques had to change.

At this point, Col. Schriner interjected and explained that in a battle situation, nothing ever goes according to plan.  The Army simply could not afford to have soldiers who were only good at doing one thing and did not know what to do when something they had not trained for occurred in the field under hostile conditions.  Instead, by letting soldiers “discover” solutions and work on critical thinking skills, they were better equipped to adapt to the inevitable problems they would encounter in battle.  With this in mind, the Army reformed their entire approach to education.  They focused upon helping soldiers overcome whatever obstacles might be thrown at them through problem solving and critical thinking.

Both then and now, I find this a wonderful testament to the importance of updating our teaching techniques to ensure we provide our students with the most relevant education possible.  Just as the Army combats the enemy, they also combat ineffective education techniques.  Similarly, I believe we should embrace the dismissal of  outdated adult-centric approaches and replace them with critical thinking skills, problem solving techniques, collaboration, innovation and a holistic approach to education.  In a world where it will be impossible to predict the future professions or problems, we need to take a page from the U.S. Army and focus on preparing students to think critically to solve any problem through a well-rounded, student-centered approach in the classroom. 

During my visit, I was convinced that the soldiers I observed would run through a wall for Col. Schriner.  I was even more convinced that Col. Schriner would prefer that they, instead, use their skills to find a more useful way of clearing the wall without injury.  Let’s help our students discover 20 ways to clear the wall rather than a single way to run through it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Our Duty to Share

A recent article in Kappan Magazine* details a talented elementary school teacher who was being observed by another educator (external to her building).  The observer wanted to learn from the teacher’s uncanny ability to differentiate instruction to multiple learning styles in a humorous and engaging way.  However, what became more striking to the observer was that none of the teachers on the same grade level with whom she taught had ever observed her; not once.  In fact, one teacher had worked alongside this master teacher for nine years and the other for seven years.  The author exclaims that this, “isn’t just poor practice, it’s almost malpractice.”

Now, before there are too many feelings of guilt, I am the first to admit this has described me at times.  In fact, just a few months ago, I saw a news segment that featured my assigned mentor teacher from my first year in the classroom.  She was being honored for her 50th year in education and has no plans to retire.  In my initial year and those that followed, she gave me advice on lesson plans, pedagogy, school culture, classroom management, and so much more.  Yet, I can only remember watching her teach one time!  Imagine all of the decades of knowledge that were readily available to me that I did not take advantage of when I had the opportunity.

As I reflect, I realize that my focus was upon teaching my own classes, grading assignments, meeting the immediate needs of my students, and a variety of other daily demands.  The truth is, however, I could have made time to engage in observations and further hone my skills as an educator.  As Father James Keller noted, “a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”  Margaret Fuller similarly opines, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”  I believe both would argue that we have a duty to share what we have learned so that others may grow.  Naturally, this benefits students and advances our profession, which is where our focus must always remain.

In some ways, I find it ironic that we impart knowledge every day to the students who pass through our doors, but rarely do we do so with the adults on either side of our own doors.  Observing colleagues is quite common and even required in other professions, from surgeons to electrician’s apprentices and those practicing law.  I challenge you to take a page from their script and try the same.  Start small and schedule a time with a colleague you admire.  Do not worry if the subject matter being taught is vastly different from your own.  In fact, you may be surprised by how much you can learn!  Then, if you are feeling confident, invite others to observe you.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make time to discuss the observation afterwards.  This should not be an evaluative conversation or a time to pass judgment in any way.  Rather, it is a time to ask questions, discuss techniques, and grow together as colleagues.  Light a fire and, in doing so, perhaps rekindle your own.

*“Getting Better at Learning” by Joan Richardson in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2016 (Vol. 98, #3, p. 4), www.kappanmagazine.org

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Innovation not Memorization

Recently, in the Future of Jobs Report of the World Economic Forum, the most desired qualities of workers sought by employers were reported, both presently and in the near future.  The qualities were then ranked after surveying business leaders, which are listed below.

                  2015                                                       2020
    1.      Complex Problem Solving                  1.  Complex Problem Solving
    2.      Coordinating with Others                    2.  Critical Thinking
    3.      People Management                            3.  Creativity
    4.      Critical Thinking                                 4.  People Management
    5.      Negotiation                                          5.  Coordinating with Others

At first glance, there seems to be little difference between the qualities desired last year and those that will be desired in 2020.  However, upon closer review, a new skill makes its debut in the 2020 list.  In fact, it is the third most desired skill—creativity!  You see, business leaders recognize that to continue to survive in the future marketplace means employees must do much more than simply replicate or manufacture someone else’s idea—they must come up with the ideas themselves.  This requires a spirit of innovation, creativity, and a recognition that there are multiple pathways to success as opposed to one “right” answer.  Or, as the folks from Google put it:

“We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think.  Show us how you would tackle the problem presented—don’t get hung up on nailing the ‘right’ answer.”

Through the application of creativity and innovation, the most desired quality of employers on both lists—complex problem solving—can be accomplished.  The problem, however, is that in a system measured by multiple choice tests with high stakes consequences, creativity often gives way to “right” or “wrong” answers and singular approaches to less than dynamic or relevant problems.  Fortunately, the state recognizes this and are currently working on an entirely new accountability and accreditation system, which will be unveiled later this school year. 

Even more encouraging is the fact that students who are exposed to innovative and creative ways of tackling material typically score better on standardized tests, not worse.  This does not imply that we should throw out all traditional forms of instruction, quite the contrary.  However, we know that when students are allowed and encouraged to seek creative solutions to relevant problems, their level of engagement increases, discipline decreases, and they often come up with solutions far superior to what most would expect.  This should assist us in taking a leap of faith to approach at least some lessons in a more innovative way.

So, how can you begin?  First, start small with one or two lessons that you might wish to consider altering and then ask yourself these questions:

     1.      Is there a more applicable way I can accomplish the same content/SOLs?
     2.      Is there a way to make the lesson student-centered, where students not only produce the end product, but likewise have some say in the process to create the end product?
     3.      Can I recognize that even if this is not successful, that appropriate risk taking is both a good model for students and the only thing that improves the status quo?
     4.      Most importantly—Is what I’m doing best for students and serving them well?

      Doing something new is always a risk.  You may ask, “Could a process I’m unfamiliar with end in failure?  If I give students more say, will it feel as if I’m relinquishing control?  Could it get the class off pace and negatively impact end-of-course tests?”  All of these are legitimate concerns and questions.  However, I believe the bigger risk is not challenging our students to innovate, create, and find novel solutions to very complex, real-world problems.

      So, praise students for thinking outside of the box.  Encourage creation and creativity.  Use their interests to enhance lessons and give them permission to experiment without fear of failure.  This same innovative and creative spirit has produced Edison, Bell, Jobs and Gates, among many others.  Foster it and you may be amazed at the results