Friday, March 15, 2019

Professional Learning Time and Most Likely To Succeed

By Mark Heintz

Every school day, teachers start with about forty-five minutes of professional time.  The time is great for staff to learn, connect with peers, share with each other, and overall grow as professionals.  The Collab Lab structures a few things each week for the morning time and creates conditions where teachers can use that time purposefully.  Last May, I purchased Most Likely to Succeed through our professional reimbursement fund in hopes of showing the documentary to the rest of the staff this year during the morning time. Ted Dintersmith’s documentary is powerful; it instantly gets teachers thinking about making their classrooms better. In my district, there is support for changes to take place. District 214’s school board and superintendents support efforts of innovative practices that put learning in the hands of the students.  In many parts of school that exists. Our electives offer authentic, hands-on learning.   However, some of us struggle to offer the same experience and need an inspiration to make larger changes in our classrooms.

I was hoping the film would offer that inspiration for teachers to try new things.  I love that “the film poses questions rather than attempts to shove a point of view down the throats of the audience. As a result, we find people across a wide range of audiences engaged and inspired by the film, with lots of energy and commitment to a future of possibility.” It’s a great way to get people thinking about school could be without feeling like they are doing something wrong.  That is why I wanted to show the film.  I need the inspiration just as much as others and I don’t want to feel like someone is shaming me into making those changes.


The Process

The film was shown for three weeks in January on Friday mornings.  I broke up the film into three parts due to time restrictions in the morning. Over twenty-five staff members came, watched the movie, and discussed it at the end.  At the end of each segment, the staff discussed what they felt, what they were inspired by, and what they wanted to try.  There was an energy in the room after showing the movie.  Staff members left talking about what they could try in the classroom or what they could do. It was exciting to see staff members energized about school in the middle of the year. I had the same feelings and wanted to keep that energy going. 



This movie has pushed staff to what they think is possible in a traditional classroom.  This movie was just one step in a larger goal of shifting instructional practices. The Collab Lab used this movie to get staff to think about what the purpose of their course and what they wanted students to know and be able to do at the completion of the course. I’ll detail more about that process in a later post. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Changing the culture of traditional grading practices



By Mark Heintz

Last week, I celebrated my attempts to minimize the value placed on grades in order to focus on learning. In my previous post, I triumphed over my progress and stated, “So far, I have never felt better about finalized grades.  Some student anxiety has been alleviated and I don’t feel that I have as many students point-grubbing.  I feel that students are learning. The grade is an afterthought.  They know they can argue to make a change.  They know they have a voice in the process other than just the assessments I use.  It has become a partnership.  Something it should always be.”

I wish it was always this easy.

Minimizing grades is a process, and what I hope to do in writing these blog posts is to be as transparent as possible in hopes others see what I do and are willing to try it as well. I hope to not just present a perfect picture of the process of going to gradeless.  I have encountered many bumps in the road because it’s hard to move away from relying on coercive grading methods, which, if we were to be honest with ourselves, grades are.  It is even harder for students not to feel under the thumb of those practices. I firmly believe in order for me to make larger shifts in going gradeless it will require more people making the effort.  Joy Kirr has curated a lot of educators attempts and practices in going gradeless, and I hope to continue to contribute to that resource hub.



The day I posted that blog, I asked my students some additional questions.  As a class, writing is a focus, and I wanted more descriptive feedback.  In another Google form, I asked them how they felt they're doing and what they needed more help/time on in each of the following areas: making claims, using evidence, explaining that evidence, making connections between arguments, using prior knowledge to set the stage, and again what grade would they give themselves.


I am still incredibly happy with how this is going.  The feedback from the students was overall positive.  Their feedback was constructive and helpful for them and me.  However, I did receive a comment that is troubling me.  One of my students gave themselves an F and was very critical of themselves. I was confused by this reflection because the student has a clear voice, and they actively can do all of the things required of them.  They are a strong reader, and they naturally make connections between topics and disciplines.  If I were using traditional assessment metrics, this student would have an A.

When I conferenced with her, she said she needed the validation from me.  She wanted me to give her the grade.  She has been so accustomed to a teacher being the authority that without my grading her, she simply can’t do it.  I expressed my hope that she should know what she needs/wants, that “grading” yourself would lead to me helping where she need it.  I told her to go back and reevaluate what she put and why.  I got an email later that day asking me to give her a grade.  I again expressed my wishes, but I caved and said I would give her an A.  This was her response:

“You're the teacher. Ultimately, I have no say in what you do. Even with the illusion of us having a voice in anything, we don't. I'm sorry for challenging your beliefs about how you run your classroom, but it's justified by your control over the grade book”


This comment is hitting me in the reflection stomach.  Comments like these demonstrate just how much power a teacher has in determining grades.  Even as I am pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a school, I ultimately hold all of the power. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, using grades leads to a lack of motivation.  The kids are stripped of the agency that I want them to have--partially because I do have the authority, but also because these students are experiencing traditional grading practices throughout the rest of their day and have experienced this practice for most of their schooling.  I have spent this entire year minimizing grades, and I still get comments that reinforce traditional grading views.  Next year, this student will most likely go to classes that reinforce their beliefs.

The ultimate problem of having all of the authority is that students will learn less.  Grading causes a loss of intrinsic motivation.  Giving a grade lends to a mentality that there is an end to learning; The grade is more meaningful than the process and the outcome.  We use grades to get kids to be compliant, but we also see that they don’t take risks and often do required work to memorize what we are asking for the test and then forget it.  However, that is not what I want school to be.  I want them to have agency over their learning, and to do that, they need to have conditions that allow them to take risks, see that learning doesn’t have an end, and not feel threatened nor shamed to learn what we are asking them to learn.

I will continue to make shifts and share my journey in hopes that others do the same.


A special thanks to Kim Miklusak for feedback and edits on this post.  She continues to be the best English teacher I never had.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Year in Learning at Elk Grove: Mathematics - Living our Values

By Dave Dompke, Evelin Cortez, and Mark Heintz

This is part of a blog series intended to document and define learning at Elk Grove High School throughout the 2018-2019 school year in order to increase student learning, give professionals autonomy, increase trust in our learning community, and foster a sense of personal-intellectual collegiality within the building across departments. You can read all of the previous posts here.  I am going into each teacher's class four times and then they are reflecting alongside their students on the learning that took place and what they hope for.

Dave is part of a group that came together and defined learning.  Part of that group's goal is not only to have a definition but to live its values.  In other words, try to create conditions to represent the values stated in the definition.  I visited Dave's class and met with him after.  Here is our group's definition and his reflection on how attempts to live his values.

Learning is the integration of values, or importance to the individual, and beliefs with new and relevant information, skills, and/or abilities for long-term application in life outside of the immediate task.

The process of learning is an evolving journey that includes engaging tasks and processes, emphasizes voice and shapes meaning and authenticity.

The product of all of this is an ever-evolving worldview, the development of skills and awareness to continually evaluate and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.


Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how are you putting your beliefs in to practice? 

I continue to focus my work on the individual.  Students are not going to learn from me until they are comfortable with me.  I continue to use time during the period to engage with the students, not about schoolwork, but about what’s going on with them personally.  I feel getting this knowledge will help me with their background and build a better relationship.  Once that relationship has trust, then I feel the student will be open more to learn from me.  Sure, students will learn something regardless, but with trust, they can learn more.

What is holding you back and not letting you live your values?  

Time is the biggest obstacle.  It is tough to reach each student every single day.  I want to make sure our conversations have value and aren’t simply scripted and rushed.  I want to value their time and work together.

Evelin Cortez

Why do you like school?  

I like school because I feel comfortable and feel supported.  I also like how teachers are nice to me and help me.

What is it about Dompke’s class that you like or makes it especially good?

He makes the class fun comfortable and is supportive of all the students.  Anytime someone has a question he helps them and helps them understand.



Wednesday, February 20, 2019

S1E8: Bruce Janu "Moving away from the traditional classroom"


By Mark Heintz



In this episode of School Chat, I sat down with Bruce Janu, a history teacher at Elk Grove High School. We both recently watched most likely to succeed and have since been inspired to try new approaches to our classes. Bruce started a project in which students could choose to create a podcast on World War I as an alternative to the traditional assessment. Our conversation pushes the boundaries of what a traditional classroom could be and how do we engage all of our students. I hope you enjoy.




Bruce Janu's Wikipedia page can be found here.   And you can watch his documentary on Amazon here! 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Learning: the struggle in going gradeless

by Mark Heintz

I struggle with grading.  Not keeping up with it, but rather assigning a grade as a measurement of learning.  Maybe the struggle comes from my own experience.  As a student, I was a grade manipulator.  I wasn’t a point-grubber, more of a...okay, I was a point-grubber.   In school, my goal was the grade.  As the teacher handed the syllabus to me on the first day of school, I combed through the categories to find out the most efficient way to get a 90.1%. I love a detailed syllabus. The more information the better.  It gave me the rules on how to earn the grade I wanted. The whole process became a game for me, and I enjoyed how to game the system.

Each teacher had their own rules, and my part to play was to earn points.  I played the game fairly well in high school, but things escalated beyond just manipulating a syllabus. Now, I could game the system even more because I could pick the teacher.  I asked, snooped, around to find out teacher reputations on their system before signing up for the class.  In this system, I knew the teacher held most of the power.  I know the teacher’s intention was for me to learn, but my objective was to get points.


Despite all of the manipulation, I loved to learn.  Grades and learning just didn’t go together for me.  That being said, I never tried to get out of anything. When I was assigned work, I would do it.  I just was efficient and completed it quickly in order to get to my interests.  One of the best parts of college was that the abundance of free time allowed me to explore what I wanted.  Each semester I read books, just not the ones in the syllabus.  I talked to people outside my major about their passions.  My utopia version of school would have been just going to different classes all day, simply talking to others and diving into things I was curious about.  I loved connecting with others and learning for the sake of learning. From that love, I became a teacher.

As a teacher

As a new teacher, and like most people new to a profession, I thought I would be different. I could make the grade book represent learning.  I knew the student tricks and throughout my first decade as a teacher, I changed grading practices in an attempt to have the grade book represent what a student had learned.  I tinkered with my categories, did grade replacement, allowed retakes, and only counted major exams  Ultimately though, I became part of the system I manipulated. No matter how much I shifted, I continued to create conditions just like my teachers had, that made me all-powerful in determining a student’s grade.  My ultimate power continued the trend of having most students playing a game to accumulate as many points as possible.  No matter how much I tinkered, I could only deemphasize the importance of the points, but it still remained the most important goal.  In the end, the goal wasn’t learning.

In my course, there was a mandatory curriculum.  To cover the material, I used a textbook.  Students struggled to understand what was important.  Some spent hours each night digesting the material and others gave up because the task was too daunting.  To help them I used reading guides, but then students copied each other or hunted for the information needed not really understand anything. For this course, I needed the students to get the information and what I was doing wasn’t working.  Either the kids gamed the system or it simply didn’t work for them.  I ditched the textbook.  I created videos and questions that students would complete after viewing.  I put these into Schoology checklists and made them required.  I emphasized that all students would need to complete each checklist. It was compulsory and efficient like my learning had been.  I told each student what they needed to know.  To ensure all kids would complete the work, each had to finish the checklist before they could take the exam. To move away from the point-grubbing, nothing went into the grade book if they completed it.  They simply got to take the test.  From this system, kids spent less time on their work, actually did it, and my scores improved.

Something's wrong

Yet, I knew something wasn’t right.  While the system worked for some, there were inherent flaws.  Some kids did all of the work the way it was intended and still struggled to pass. Others gamed the system by fast forwarding the videos and just taking the quizzes. I found that some of the kids who gamed the system earned the highest scores.  Neither one of those things should happen if the system was about learning.  Reflecting on the system I created, I realized that the system emphasized completion not learning.

Ultimately, having to assign a grade gets in the way of learning.  I understand that and the importance in the role a grade plays for a students future.  Despite that conflict, I continue to deemphasize the grade and have it be about the learning.   In that attempt, last year I made another change in order for the class to focus on learning.  I did this at the end of the year, before the final.  I made a simple Google form. There were three questions: What did you learn? What grade do you think you earned? Why do you think you earned it?  After reading through their responses, I only disagreed with a handful of students; Most of which judged themselves too harshly.  For the few others who I disagreed with, their reflection opened my mind to their experience.  Many students cited their effort as a validation of earning a grade, but others detailed how they collaborated, learned about themselves, changed habits, and just an overall changed in abilities. A lot of that reflection is difficult to easily compute into a grade or empirically assess with traditional metrics.  Asking them their thoughts allowed for their journey to be seen.

Students know their experience more than anyone.  The purpose of the class is for them.  As I continued to want the importance of the grade to drop, I realized I needed the students to be viewed as a partner in determining the grade.  I don’t want them to game the system as I had.  I wanted it to be a journey where they are learning, not just grabbing at points to get the A. The problem with last year: I did it at the end of the year.  It wasn’t a partnership.  It was an afterthought.  Even though I did value their responses, the students didn’t know how much I valued it.  I learned that I need to be transparent in the value I placed in their responses. The process can’t just be lip service; Another thing that they do, but ultimately has no influence.

The present

Which gets to this year.  I asked my students the same three questions every time I have had to formally submit a grade, with two additional ones: What are you proud of? What would you do differently if you could go back in time and redo the time that has passed in this semester?  Again, I learned about their journey.  The two additional questions revealed more about who they were. Anyone that I disagreed with or needed more information, I held a conference with them.  I got clarification on the points they made or what happened in class. After that, I submitted the grade.  So far, I have never felt better about finalized grades.  Some student anxiety has been alleviated and I don’t feel that I have as many students point-grubbing.  I feel that students are learning. The grade is an afterthought.  They know they can argue to make a change.  They know they have a voice in the process other than just the assessments I use.  It has become a partnership.  Something it should always be.


A special thanks to Kim Miklusak for feedback and edits on this post.  She is the best English teacher I never had.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Year in Learning at Elk Grove: AP Spanish Literature and Culture - Living our values

By Dean Burrier-Sanchis and Mark Heintz

This is part of a blog series intended to document and define learning at Elk Grove High School throughout the 2018-2019 school year in order to increase student learning, give professionals autonomy, increase trust in our learning community, and foster a sense of personal-intellectual collegiality within the building across departments. You can read all of the previous posts here.  I am going into each teacher's class four times and then they are reflecting alongside their students on the learning that took place and what they hope for.

Dean is part of a group that came together and defined learning.  Part of that group's goal is not only to have a definition but to live its values.  In other words, try to create conditions to represent the values stated in the definition.  I visited Dean's class and met with him after.  Here is our group's definition and his reflection on how attempts to live his values.

Learning is the integration of values, or importance to the individual, and beliefs with new and relevant information, skills, and/or abilities for long-term application in life outside of the immediate task.

The process of learning is an evolving journey that includes engaging tasks and processes, emphasizes voice and shapes meaning and authenticity.

The product of all of this is an ever-evolving worldview, the development of skills and awareness to continually evaluate and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how are you putting your beliefs in to practice?  

I believe the process element of learning is something I am really integrating well, in particular in this lesson. I strive to have student voice and to allow for more authentic applications of course objectives and goals. I think I need to develop more on the product end here. Students were engaged in skills of writing and editing, and working on evaluation, but I don’t know how encompassing of a world view or how much this lesson allowed students to reflect on themselves and the world around them, particularly because our analysis of the song at the end was limited to the final minutes. That said I think there were poignant messages that connected to students and will connect more in future classes.


What is holding you back and not letting you live your values?  

I do feel at times the urgency, sometimes as an afterthought, to do real, hard test prep. Some of our higher level students feel more drawn to and motivated by that practice, others do not. I try to disguise this and makes this as relevant and engaging as possible, but I also feel the need to expose them to the difficulty of the exam and feel like they are developing the confidence they need to be successful in May. I worry that if they are not confident heading into the exam, or not adequately prepared for the rubrics, the requirements and the nuance of the exam, they will not be successful, or worse not register for the exam. I think a lot about how this year, class and experience will shape the way they look back on the experience of this year and their 4 years at EG. These pressures sometimes keep me from taking more risks and confronting objectives in goals more freely.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Lit Circles in Human Geography

By Mark Heintz

“Why is your book better than mine?”  I know I have written about this comment a few times in the past, but it continues to play in my mind over and over again.  Kristen Lesniak and Jackie Randall started using literature circles in their sophomore English courses last year.  Many visits and even more conversations later, I started a lit circle in my freshmen human geography class.  Despite my love of them and enthusiasm to use them in my class because it gave more students autonomy and agency over their learning, one of my students pointed to a shortcoming of the process by asking, “Why is your book better than mine?” 

Why Lit Circles

Lit circles resonate with my beliefs on learning.  In lit circles, students read for themselves.  They make connections to their world and then share those understanding with others in their group to make those understandings richer and deeper.  Lit circles emphasize voice and shape their world around them.  Another reason I love them is the process deemphasizes the teacher knowing all of the answers.  I am learning and reading with my them.  Lit circles create a culture of learners, readers, and collaborators as its focus are on reflection upon themselves and the world around them with the people around them.


Even though I loved using lit circles last year, there was something off about the way I implemented it.  I was still the driver and the student’s question clearly showed the issue.  It was too much of me telling my students what they had to do and how they had to do it.  Most of the problems stemmed from everyone reading the same book. 



I went back to Kristen and Jackie and learned how they read a variety of books.  To allow kids to read different books I partnered with my librarian, Dawn Ferencz, to help get into a number of choices for the students.  With attention to the class’s essential question: To what extent can we do whatever we want to the Earth and its people? To focus it even more, the current unit is Political Geography which made the essential question steered towards how laws stated or not, governments, family practices, or social structures are dictating the behaviors of the people in the book. Dawn found ten books that aligned to the theme that the students could choose from.   Each book offered a unique perspective on how people treat each other and allowed students to come together to make sense of how that relates to their understanding of the world.

The Process

On day one Dawn introduced each book and had the students select three they were interested in reading. From their choices, I created groups of four or five. For lit circles to be successful, they need a lot of class time. To ensure their success, I had four consecutive days dedicated to getting them off the ground.  Two of those days, including the first, were full reading days. To learn alongside with them, I read one of the books I hadn’t read.  With the exception of one group, everyone started reading without any coercion.  That one group started reading once they saw I was reading;   We were in it together.  The kids and I read for forty minutes and then I noticed a few kids looking at the clock.  They only became restless after forty minutes of sustained reading! 

On day two, Dawn and I worked together and started with the students coming up with questions. We used the question formulation technique to allow each group to work together to get all of their questions.  We centered their thoughts and ideas about the rules and laws that dictated the behaviors in the book. These rules could be implicit or explicit laws from anywhere in the book.  It didn’t matter who created the rules, we just wanted the students to generate questions.   Afterward, we borrowed/stole from Kristen and Jackie some guides to help focus the students' thoughts on their beginning understandings of their book and the questions that they generated.



From there, the students started recording and talking about their book.  Dawn and I bopped around the different circles.  We tried not to dictate the conversation. The process repeated itself over the next days.  Dawn and I ran into a bit of a problem; one of the groups finished the book after day two.  Most of the kids in that group went home and finished the book after the first discussion.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a great problem to have, but now Dawn and I are trying to figure out what they should do next.  As I write this sentence, I realize the mistake in my thinking.  Dawn and I are trying to come up with everything they are going to do, which goes against the purpose behind the lit circles.  

Partnership

The partnership with Dawn was/is one of the best teaching moments in my career. We had a similar goal and a vision for how we were going to implement it. Having Dawn was crucial to the success of lit circles.  One of the days, a group was struggling.  Dawn went to the group and built on their strengths instead of telling them what they weren't doing.  She worked through their questions and guided them to the place the group wanted to go.  She asked the members to make claims and back those understandings with evidence.  She dug a little deeper and asked the students to explain their thinking.  I’m in awe of how she worked with the students and not talked at them.  

The greater partnership that occurred was the one that developed with Dawn, the students, and myself.  We were in it together. We read, recorded, and worked through our understandings together.  We were all learners and we were learners together.  That's what I wanted from the beginning.