Wednesday, August 14, 2019


For years, I posted on this site.  If you wish to continue to follow my journey you can find it at

Here is the latest post. 

School made sense to me growing up. It had rules for everything. I knew that if I followed the expectations I would excel. I bent the rules where I could…Okay, I bent a lot of them. At the same time, I was compliant with what the teachers wanted. It was more that I completed the assignments without really doing them. Overall, school “worked” for me. However, I followed the rules to a fault and consequently molded myself into what they wanted me to be. It was easier to comply and nod along then do what I wanted to do. Then I went off to college and became a teacher.  
Once I had my own classroom, I maintained the status quo by asking my students to follow the same path as I did; follow my rules.  It worked for me, it would work for them. In doing that, I saw many students remain silent or simply regurgitate my opinions or facts back to me; just as I had done as a student.  For the kids who the system “worked” for, they traded a piece of their identity in the process as they became who I wanted them to be. For those that didn’t color inside the lines, I saw first hand how the system doesn’t “work” for everyone.
This blog is for the students; everyone of them.
“Students are marginalized people in our society. The silence that we face in the classroom is the silence that has been adopted by people on the margin — people who have reason to fear those in power and have learned that there is safety in not speaking…Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voice, have the voices heard.”   — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach 45-47 
As I stated before, I marginalized students in the past. If I’m being honest, I still do. It’s near impossible not to with the power I have as a teacher. In marginalizing them I’ve seen their fear first hand; I’ve heard their silence.  They fear what they might lose if they speak their voice. It’s different for each of them. Some fear not making the grade, doing well on a test, or having a wrong answer. Others fear being seen as an other by either their peers or me. It’s safer and easier to stay within the rules the teacher, that I, sets out.
That’s not creating conditions that people learn best in. That’s not getting rid of their fear.  That’s maintaining their silence.
My first major attempt to hear students and dispel their fear happened a few years ago. I set out to document an entire school year through a weekly post. At first, I was a little scared, but a few people pushed me to continue. From blogging each week, my voice was heard. I benefited immensely from my weekly reflection and changed my classroom practices. But…after a while it was self-indulgent. Everything was from my perspective; the classroom center around ME. Conscious of the decision to or not, I didn’t feel like writing about something if I didn’t. The post could be safe. I didn’t have to check my beliefs or attitudes about my students.  Even though the reflection was meant to benefit them, I forgot their perspectives and didn’t get their feedback. Their voices remained silent.
It didn’t take me long to notice something was missing. To change, I started shifting the weekly posts to minimize my voice. I gave the forum to the marginalized- the students. As the year unfolded, the kids wrote most of the posts. I only contributed a response to what they said, but ultimately, it was their voice that was heard. 
That was years ago.
This blog will once again feature their voice. I can’t just ask them their opinions and not act on it.  As Will Richardson posted that “if we ask them what they want…we’d actually have to make some of that happen.”  To ensure I do just that, I will respond to it publicly. This blog will serve as a check on me to actually make as much of their requests as I can happen.  After all, the school is here for them, right? But, when they speak, it will check my beliefs and attitudes about them. Hopefully, they will tell me if I am living up to meeting all of their needs and allow me to examine my own bias.
Through this blog, I want to show that I struggle. I struggle with how to live my values. I don’t want to be the all-powerful authority figure at the front of the room with the “right” answers. I want to learn how to change that. I want to break down the traditional hierarchy of the school system to raise every student up. I want school to give each student what they need.
While I am a professional, I didn’t go to school and get “trained” with the necessary skills for the rest of my life. I don’t have all the answers, nor should I. Actually, I have more questions than answers, and writing helps me work through those questions. This blog is for my students to see me as a learner. I tell them I’m a life-long learner but fail to show how that’s true. I want this to be a place to curate my learning. In doing so, I hope they can see what I do to continue to grow and learn to find the answers I need to serve them. 
With the students’ contributions, this blog will be a forum for their voice to help me answer those questions; to tell me what I am and am not doing. The blog is not only to help me, but for them to know their voice carries a power. I hope that in creating this blog, that not only do I listen but I respect, honor, and adapt because of it to co-construct the learning environment together.
I am a teacher and this blog is for my students. 
A special thanks to my wife and also, Kim Miklusak for reading this beforehand and guiding me through this journey.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

How to use student's questions in AP Biology to drive learning

By Mark Heintz, Krista Glosson, Avi Patel, and Alexa Fontanetta

I had the pleasure of going into Krista Glosson's AP Biology class.  In the class I came to visit, she used the Question Formulation Technique to foster students connections between topics.  The students were into it.  They worked collaboratively, were inspired, and wanted to learn more.  Krista was able to walk around and see the learning taking place.  The students knew what they learned and they knew that their teacher did too.  What follows is a reflection of a post-visit discussion I had with Krista and what her students felt about the process.

Teacher: Krista Glosson

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

I am giving students an opportunity to determine their own beliefs about my statement, then to branch out in a direction that interests them while they construct their knowledge around their belief.  It was refreshing for all of us to give them a challenge that did not have a right or wrong answer.

What were the students learning?  

The students were researching specific examples of cell signaling pathways to apply the information we had previously covered in class.  The process allowed them flexibility and an opportunity to stretch themselves to answer a challenging question while we worked on asking good scientific questions.

How do you know they learned? 

I talked with each group and they were excited to share their new information with the class the next day.

How do they know they learned?  

They were able to make a connection between the material we learned in class and the information they chose to learn.  They were confident in sharing their interpretation with the class.

Student: Avi Patel

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how is your teacher putting the beliefs into practice?  

She beats the knowledge into us! Just kidding! For real though, she connects with us on a level further than just academic. She understands and communicates with us, and that I think is the best values a teacher can have; Connection, Communication, and Understanding

What were you learning?

We were learning whether or not a fault in signaling pathways causes diseases or not.

How do you know you learned?

I walked out of class knowing more than what I knew walking in.

How does your teacher know you learned?

By noticing my responses and answers to questions she asks, and also me asking her questions.

Student: Alexa Fontanetta

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how is your teacher putting the beliefs into practice?  

Mrs. Glosson understands that though we chose to take this class, we are all taking biology for different reasons. She has taken the time to get to know us on a personal level. By incorporating relatable examples into the lessons based on the things that interest us, she has conveyed the “integration of values, or importance to the individual.” Therefore, because of the connections she's formulated, the curriculum has become more valuable for all of her students.

What were you learning?

If faulty pathways always cause disease.

How do you know you learned?

I know I learned because I left the room with more knowledge than I had before. I also felt challenged throughout the lesson and accomplished at the end.

How does your teacher know you learned?

Mrs. Glosson knows I learned because she allowed time for us to brainstorm before fully understanding the topic. After brainstorming, she encouraged us to have meaningful conversations on the topic to gather any additional ideas from our peers. The questions we couldn't answer as a group was researched. Mrs. Glosson also gave her attention to each individual group to clear up any further confusion. Consequently, due to the structure of the lesson, Mrs. Glosson knows we learned.

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.