Sunday, December 17, 2017

What in The World Are We Doing With Grades?

     If you've been following my blog for a while, you already know I am not a fan of grades. However, I felt the need to explain my strong dislike for grades. Last week I was in a Twitter chat (as I so often am these days) and made the comment that one great myth in education is that we need grades. Later, someone responded with the remark that we need to be careful with this kind of thinking as it can go too far. Additionally, he commented that we need standards and objectives. Well, on the latter point, I think he is 100% correct. This led me to realize that many people, like him, probably hear the grade-less argument and misunderstand its means. That, my friends, is my purpose of today's post. I would like to clarify my stance on going grade-less, and further explain its meaning.
     When I say grade-less, I don't mean that we teachers have no end goals, objectives, or standards. I don't mean we don't evaluate or assess our students. In fact, what I mean is instead of a system that relies on grades, we should instead rely on standards, objectives, and skill sets to drive instruction and learning. This requires frequent and regular evaluating and assessing of students not to give a grade, but to provide feedback and instruction appropriate to where each student is on the learning continuum. This is very different from the idea that "anything goes", which is what I think many believe going grade-less means.
     If we change our system to one that puts importance on learning, growth, and progress, grades begin to mean nothing. In fact, what does an 80% even mean? Of course I understand that it means a student did something correct on 80% of the assessment, and something incorrect on 20% of the assessment. However, what exactly was it that the student knew or did? What exactly didn't the student know or do? That's what an 80% doesn't tell us. This ambiguity is what I am arguing against. Even if we state that a teacher could dissect the assessment to extrapolate that information, I would contend that most teachers simply do not. Do you know teachers who do? Are they many or few?
     Now, a system that runs on learning, growth and progress requires the teacher to act more like a coach. The coach must analyze what the player (student) is and is not doing well. This means the coach must really know his or her players, providing feedback on how to improve so that the player can master the game. Why are we not doing this in education? Why do we continue to run on a system of meaningless grades? A system that neither encourages its own players to improve, nor encourages its coaches (teachers) to really help its players grow. In today's current school system, grades are carrots that teachers dangle in front of students and parents. Grades give teachers all the power with little motive to help students reach mastery. This is because in this dinosauric system of grades, the burden is placed completely on the student. Don't get me wrong. The student should have some burden, but so should the teacher. Our current grading system just asks the failing student, "What's wrong with you?" This must change.
     In sum, I am not against standards or objectives. Quite the opposite is true. Going grade-less does not mean we flounder around like fish out of water. What it does mean is that we have clear end goals and skill sets in mind. We work towards these end goals, acting like coaches who truly know what each of our students need instructionally and otherwise. We push them along the learning continuum, relentless in the journey to mastery. Are you willing to take on the grade-less challenge?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Teaching To Each Learner


      Recently, I recorded a three-part mini series podcast all about teaching to each learner. I find that it is this very area that overwhelms teachers, leaving them feeling defeated. Once, I was watching a Youtube influencer whose video discussed why she left teaching. She couldn't find a way to teach to all the needs of her students, so she left the education altogether. In fact, to hear her speak, she believed it was impossible to meet all of her students' needs. I am here to tell you that while the task of teaching to every stident's needs seems daunting at first, it is not impossible. In fact, once you begin to teach to each learner, you find a rhythm, it begins to flow, becoming a much easier task. Read on to learn how you can meet the needs of all your learners while keeping your sanity.
     The magic begins in keeping your lessons short. Why? Because students have better things to do than sit and be idle. Okay, that's kind of why, but there's more to it than just that. Passive learning doesn't result in much learning. We all need some small tidbits of instruction, information, or demonstration to get going, but we don't learn much from others talking. Time is precious and of the essence, so lessons need to be fast and direct. "But I have so much to say, how can I do that?", you might ask. Simple. Just stop talking. Just stop it. We all need to stop it. It's a waste of time. What do you really need to say? Figure out the most important information or talking point that you absolutely must say, couple it with a demonstration, perhaps get the students to practice it with you, and then send them off. It is only then, when your students go off and work, that the real magic happens. They begin to make sense of all those words thrown at them, and the process of learning and understanding starts to construct.
     Once your talking time is minimal, you will have more time to teach to each learner. This is going to require organization on your part. Good organization. I like to keep a binder (some teachers hate binders. Some teachers despise binders. Choose whatever system works for you) to help with this. In my binder, I have a sheet for each student (it grows as my student notes grow). This is where I keep anecdotal notes of behavior, work habits, strengths, areas of improvement, my goals for them, their goals for themselves, etc. You name it and it's in there.
     My binder keeps me organized so that I can keep track of the individual learning happening in my classroom. I do a lot of my teaching while conferring with students. Through observation (this can be fast), I can quickly determine a student's strengths and next steps. I begin by complimenting my student on what he or she is doing well (you always want to start positive). From there, I teach something new. Just as I would do in front of the whole class, I demonstrate the skill, then have the student practice it. Before I move to the next student, I like to make a note of the next teaching point for that student. Typically during an observation I might notice several things a student could work on. However, it's important to give students one thing at a time, otherwise it can be overwhelming and difficult. Choose the next step that seems most appropriate to help move them along in their growth, and save the others for teaching points for another time. Once a student is practicing the skill or strategy, I am ready to move on to the next student.
     This same kind of work can be accomplished by pulling small groups of students instead of conferring. Based on all your observations of your students, you're probably going to find some overlapping needs and shared next steps. When you have a handful of students with common needs, you can pull a group instead of conferring one on one. This implies that you'll need a spreadsheet where you can see all your students at a glance. This might be a spreadsheet of their next steps, your goals for them, of their goals for themselves. There are many ways to do this, and it will likely stem from what your current goals and objectives are.  

      This all sounds great, but how will I logistically do this? 

     If you're asking this question, then keep reading. You're almost there. I suggest you use a calendar. This could be a monthly and weekly calendar, but you'll definitely want to have a weekly calendar to stay organized and focused. Perhaps you dedicate Mondays for conferring, and the rest of the week for small groups. Or, maybe one day you confer, and the next you pull small groups. Either way, you want to have a fixed schedule that you adhere to if this is going to work. Even so, don't forget that we also need to be flexible. Having a schedule keeps this kind of teaching and learning well organized, making it possible to teach to each learner. However, you'll also want to make room for learning priorities. Let's say it's a day that you planned to confer, but you saw a great need that was shared between a group of students. You don't have to wait for your small group day if you feel it's urgent now. Be organized and consistent, but also be flexible.
     In sum, students will always have varied skills and abilities, as well as different appropriate next steps. This is never going to change, but it does not have to defeat us as teachers. It might be easier to teach the entire class one thing, but easier doesn't equate to better. We can teach to each and every learner, but it requires ample time, organization, and really knowing our students. Are you ready to teach to each of your learners?

     If you would like even more detailed information on how I teach to each of my learners, you can check out the three-part series from my podcast, Time to Teach. The third part will not be published until a few more days, but I will come back and link that episode when it's ready.

Teaching to Each Learner: Part 1

Teaching to Each Learner: Part 2

    Has this post helped you in some way? If so, I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment, or tweet me at TamiJ123.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Keeping the Humanity


     As I write this, it is currently parent-teacher conference season. We've been in school for a couple of months, and finally it's time to meet with parents. Even though the day always feels like I've ran a marathon when it's over, it truly is enjoyable to sit down and talk with parents. In preparation for our fall conferences, I began to think about what goes into a good parent-teacher conference. I will discuss those points in this post.

1. Start With Positives

     I think we hear this a lot, but I'm not sure we always adhere to it. Start with the positives. If you are starting with data, then at least don't start with the negatives. Beginning with the negatives will start your conference on a negative tone. That's not good for you or the parent. It can put up an invisible wall between you and the parent. Remember, we are stronger when we work together. We don't want to push parents away, and starting out negatively can do that. Every child is a person and has something wonderful about him or her. Draw on those positives and share it with the parents. This will help make it easier to flow into any areas of concerns and/or improvements later in the conference.

2. Remember Each Student is Someone's Precious Child

     Sometimes behavior and other concerns become so large that, that's all we see. However, it's important that we keep the whole child in mind. Just as there are many factors that make up who we are as individuals, the same is true of our students. While we may hyper focus on certain aspects of our students, it's important to remember their organic, whole self. Each student is someone's precious child. This is to be honored and respected. Not only should this be kept in mind during conferences, but on a daily basis as well.

3. Have a Specific Format

     If your conferences are going to flow smoothly, it's helpful to have a specific format that you follow. For example, I start my conferences with data from a phonemic awareness assessment and reading, highlighting what the child knows and can do well. Then I discuss areas of growth (as well as provide suggestions of practice, etc.). Following that, I discuss the student's writing. I show examples and draw on what the child is doing well, and, once again, then discuss goals and areas of growth. Next, I discuss math and, as the pattern goes, what he or she is doing well, followed by areas of growth.  Last, I discuss the social and emotional aspects of the student. Having a solid format helps guide my conferences. This is especially helpful if I find myself sidetracked by questions or concerns by the parent. I can easily answer specific questions, and then go back to my format. It helps keep me centered.

4. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions

     You want to make sure to ask parents if they have any questions for you once you have finished. This lets them know that you have finished your part, but also that it's okay for them to ask anything they've been wondering about. Aside from this, however, it's important for you to ask parents questions you may have about your student. Sometimes I see a behavior in class and wonder if the same behavior is seen at home. This can be helpful and insightful, especially if I am looking for ways to work with this behavior. Asking questions can help you gather important information about your student, so don't be afraid to ask.

5. Sleep and Eat

     The last important tip (and perhaps the most obvious but least followed) I have is to get a good night's sleep followed by a good breakfast in the morning. I always refer to parent-teacher conferences as a marathon day (we conduct ours during the school day, so students have the day off while we meet with parents) because it is nonstop and leaves me exhausted. There's probably no way around the nonstop aspect of it, but this is exactly why you need to start off strong. Getting a good night's sleep will allow you to enter the conferences energized and well rested. Having a healthy breakfast will provide you with fuel to maintain that energy. These two things seem small, but their impact is huge!

     I hope these tips help you have amazing parent-teacher conferences. If they do, won't you leave me a comment and let me? I'd appreciate it!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Nonlinguistic Representation (Instructional Strategy)


      Currently at my school, each grade level is endeavoring on an instructional strategy PLC. This PLC will span over the duration of the entire 17-18 school year. Since I love to learn, I am loving this PLC (disclaimer: we've only had 1 meeting so far!). We meet once a month to discuss what we did the previous month, learn a new strategy, and then plan how to use that new strategy. My focus for the next month will be on nonlinguistic respresentation.
     As a teacher of young learners, I think I have seen time and time again just how powerful visuals are. I mean, if you put things into perspective, my students begin the school year not reading. However, they will leave as emergent readers. All of this is to say that visuals, then, become extremely critical as these young students understand very little text. Aside from benefiting the youngest of learners, though, visuals remain excellent aids in assisting to make clear what might otherwise be too ambiguous to understand.
     Upon deciding to focus on nonlinguistic representation for the next month, I decided that reading might be an excellent place to start. At my grade level, we use Lucy Calkins' Units of Studies to teach Reading Workshop (love!).  In the first unit, students read all-about-the-world books (nonfiction) and then story books. This got me to thinking that I could use nonlinguistic representation to help students think about what they learn from their all-about-the-world books. Since I am still following a pacing guide, I figured the best way to teach this strategy is in small groups. This allows me to not fall away from the pacing guide, but provide the additional teaching points (and in a more manageable fashion).
     The last two days I have been busy implementing this new strategy. My teaching plan looks something like the following:

Connection: Remind students that they have learned how to read all-about-the-world books and story books. Remind them that all-about-the-world books are teaching books. They can learn lots of information from them. However, sometimes we have to work a little harder to remember the things we learn. Thankfully, there is a trick to help readers remember more of the information they read.

My Lesson: Holding Your Learning on a Sticky Note

Teaching point: Today I am going to teach you how you can use sticky notes to show your learning. This helps to hold the things you learn, and when you look back at it, it will remind you what you learned from your book.

Teach: I demonstrate to the students me reading a nonfiction book. Then, I put my hand on my head and say, "Now, what did I learn?" I look through the book again, and stop on something and pretend to be excited about it. I explain that I learned xyz, and then show how I draw a quick sketch. I then stick it on the front of my book. I share with the students that later when I see my sketch, I will remember my learning. I also explain that when I do read with a partner, I can share my sketch with my partner. I then quickly demonstrate what that would look like.

Active Engagement: Have students read a nonfiction book and do the same thing.

Link: Tell students that they never have to worry about forgetting their learning again. Sticky notes are a great way to hold their learning.

Closing: Reminder students what they learned. Explain to them that now that they know how to do this, anytime they read an all-about-the-world book, they can sketch out their learning.

Note: During the active engagement time, you can confer.

     Feel free to try this lesson with your own students. My idea is to teach it, then continue to work with students as they use this strategy with their nonfiction books. If you do use this lesson, I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Building Classroom Community

     It's the beginning of the school year for most of us and we are back at it! After spending weeks thinking about the new school year, it's finally here! With a new class and group of students comes the massive job of building a posivite classroom community. With this comes the question, "How exactly do we go about this?"
    To that I would answer that there are several things that must be done when setting up a positive classroom community. To begin, yes I believe that setting clear expectations is key. It is important that students know there are specific guidelines and expectations in your classroom. I try to keep my expectations simple and overarching so that everything fits within it. My three expectations are: be responsible, be kind, and be safe. When I talk to students about these expectations, we talk about examples of each of them. This helps create a clear picture of what I mean by, "responsible", or "kind", or "safe".
     Setting up expectations is only part of building a community, however. For some reason I think we hyper-focus on the activities of classroom community building (and those activities are great; I certainly am not advocating against them), and forget what is at the heart of what we are trying to do: build relationships. A community should be one that cares for each other, but typically that is going to grow out of the relationships, and those relationships take time. So, while we work on all our community building activities, it's important to keep in mind that what we are really trying to do is develop relationships with our students, as well as help them build relationships with each other.
     As such, we need real, ample time to talk to and get to know our students. We need to hear what their interests are and who they are as unique individuals. I like to start talking to them on day one. As they work, I go around and check in with them and talk about their work, and then try to start a more personal conversation. After a few days of doing this, I have established a bridge of communication with each student and have learned at least one thing about them.
     It's also important to connect with students by opening up to them. Students love to hear about your personal life (also because it's hard for them to imagine that you have any life outside of school). You don't want to make it all about you, but you do want to open up and share interesting stories and tidbits so they can get to know you. Again, I try to do this whenever it seems fitting when I go around the classroom and speak with my students. However, this is important to maintain during the entirety of the school year. Find times and ways to share something about yourself, especially if it fits into something you are doing. Students get a glimpse of your life, and it helps them to know you as a person, not just a teacher.
    Lastly, students need time to get to know the other students. We can do this with icebreakers that help them begin to feel comfortable, but also learn about their peers. More than this, they need to be able to get to the heart of each other. I feel our turn and talks allow them to begin to actually hear, listen, and learn about each other. In addition, any partnerships can help promote deeper student-to-student connection, as can small group games and activities.
    To conclude, as we enter the new school year and begin to build our classroom communities, let's  keep the deeper meaning of what we're doing in mind: relationship building. This is the time to get to know our students, develop meaningful relationships, and let them know we care. Then and only then can true learning occur.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Starting Strong: 6 Things to Keep in Mind as You Begin the New School Year

     The beginning of the school year is such a special time of year. Teachers excitedly get their classrooms set up, organized and decorated. There is a buzz of excitement and energy all around school. Expectations are high, and hope lingers in the air like a cool breeze on a hot day. When I think of the beginning of the school year, I think of hope. "Hope" because everyone enters the new school year thinking it will be better than the year before. Maybe it will be the best yet.
     There is a special kind of feeling that ensues during this time of year, and it's the kind of feeling one would like to bottle up and keep for later (you know, for when we're exhausted and in need of a "pick-me-up"). If only we could hold onto that feeling and make it last. What would our whole school year be like then? How would this affect students, teachers, and even parents? I contend that the consequences of such a long-lasting feeling would prove positive.
    Maybe we can't bottle up the excitement and positivity of the beginning of the school year, but we can commit to promote positivity and encourage others to do the same. It seems a tall order, but it's something that we can all do if we decide to. Below are 6 key ideas that promote positivity as you begin the new school year. Hold onto them throughout the year, and they will help you maintain a positive attitude even when things feel negative.


     We never have to wait for the big, grand things in life to be grateful for because it's the smaller things in life more worthy of gratitude. Are you breathing today? Be grateful. Do you have access to clean water? Be grateful. Did you feel the cool chill of the wind on your back today? Be grateful.
    Aside from all the wonderful things in life to be grateful for, we can also be grateful for the fact that we have jobs. Not everyone has that. Not everyone has a job for which they will rise and get ready for each morning. Be grateful.

Create an Appropriate Work Environment

     Just as we aim to create a learning environment for our students in which they feel free to take risks and make mistakes, the same needs to be true for our work environment. All faculty have the power to help create this kind of environment. It involves creating a growth mindset where teachers feel safe to make mistakes because they know they won't be deemed bad teachers. This kind of school understands that the only way to grow as educators is to understand that things won't always go well. Teachers might try things instructionally that won't always work and will adjust accordingly, and that's okay. When the entire school participates in this kind of mindset, it makes others feel safe enough to try new things, even if it doesn't work immediately (there's often wrinkles to iron out when trying something new).

Shield Yourself From Negativity

     Negativity can bring someone down like a pile of bricks. Its weight is heavy and constraining. Though it's not possible to remain positive 100% of the time, it is important to attempt to remain positive. When we fall in the negativity trap, it does nothing but bring us down (look for solutions instead of complaints as solutions are more productive). One step to attempting this is to shield your from negativity. If there's a location at your school where you know negativity runs rampant (say the teacher's lounge, for example), refrain from frequenting it. We can't control the negativity from others, but we can choose to not participate in it. Likewise, by modeling positive behavior, we have the potential to positively affect others and improve our immediate environment. This is not only beneficial for you and your colleagues, but for your students.

Assume the other person had good intentions.

     I once listened to a podcast that argued we should always assume the best from others. How often, though, do we do the opposite instead? We read an email and detect a tone and immediately feel offended. Or, we find out a colleague has done something and we assume it was done with bad intentions. Assuming another person had good intentions when they do something that, at first glance, appears otherwise, is not easy (I know, I struggle with this too). However,  by attempting this mindset, we better understand our colleagues, avoid unnecessary conflicts and drama, and maintain healthy relationships. When something happens and we immediately feel upset with our colleague, we should pause, rewind, and think that the person probably had good intentions. With that mindset, you can better examine and then manage the situation because it helps to keep you calm (as opposed to going into the situation upset and angry).


     Communication is key in an institution with so many people. I have had my own fiascos when it comes to communication, which is why I think this point cannot be left off this list. When communication is broken or lacking, relationships can suffer. When relationships between colleagues suffer, students ultimately suffer as well. If there is pertinent information, make sure everyone involved is given the information. This will prevent someone missing vital information, and when that happens, the other person involved could be left feeling upset and disrespected. Likewise, keeping others informed is an easy way to let them know they are being kept in the loop, considered, and, as such, respect.
     Sometimes communication is not easy, though. Speaking with a colleague about difficult matters can feel uncomfortable. These kind of conversations are not easy, but in order to maintain healthy relationships, they certainly are necessary. When we feel confused, upset, or even hurt, it's important to have direct communication with the other person. This can feel extremely uncomfortable, but misunderstandings and conflicts are best resolved when we go straight to the person. Remaining calm while expressing kindness and respect can help make the discussion as comfortable as possible in such a situation. Most people appreciate direct communication and will realize that you are interested in preserving the relationship.

 Recognize Everyone's value

     All school personnel has a special role, and each person's work helps to make the school great. As such, it is extremely important to recognize the value that each person brings to his or her school. Teachers, janitors, cafeteria staff and grounds are only a few positions that make up our schools. We can show our recognition of each other's value by expressing respect and appreciation for each other. No one is above or below, nor is anyone's job more important than another's.

    Want to listen to my full episode on this topic? You can do that here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Rethinking Homework

     Homework is one of those very delicate subjects in education. To give homework or not to give homework, that is the question. However, that's not the only question. If we teachers give homework, what kind? How frequently? How much or how little? What are the parents' role in homework?
     To begin to answer this question, we have to look at the research. There's really no research that supports the idea that homework helps students make academic advances. You do start seeing some advances at the highschool level, but it's hard to tell if this is just correlational or actually a causality.
     However, the subject of homework is still complicated even when you know the research. You have to keep in mind the parents and students, because they are part of the equation. Parents have their own preconceived ideas about homework, which implies the importance of informing them of the research on homework. Many parents believe that homework should be part of school, but this is primarily because that's what parents did when they were in school. Admittedly, most of us experienced having homework while in school, so it feels natural and correct to give homework as a teacher, as well as have your child receive homework. However, just because this is the way things have always happened doesn't mean these are best practices.
     We also have to look at students. What are their experiences with homework? Those who understand the concepts do well on homework. They lose nothing but time to be children and be with their families, but they also gain nothing. What about students who struggle with the homework, though? These are really the biggest losers in the homework game. Not only do they lose time in the afternoons after school, but they experience frustration while they struggle to do something that they do not understand. If they are struggling with the concept, how does new learning occur then? It likely will not occur during their interaction with the homework itself. These students need something different in order to develop understanding. This might be the need to have the material presented differently, or it might be the need to access the content in a different manner.
     Now, I'm not necessarily saying all homework needs to be thrown out. When it comes to reading, I think students should be doing this regularly at home. In terms of traditional homework, I do think we need to move away from this. Here are a few things we can do as we begin to revamp our current homework practices:

1) Require that students read at home.

2) Offer family activities as homework options (cook together; go for a walk as a family and use your senses to explore the world; bond together over a television show or a podcast episode, etc.).

3) Instead of answering a homework sheet with multiple questions, why not offer a sheet that provides a meaningful task? Maybe your student writes on this sheet, or maybe your student doesn't. Some tasks like this might include: find different shapes in your house; using manipulatives, find different ways to make the number x; have a conversation with your child about x.

4) Send home math games instead of homework sheets.

5) Make homework optional (except for reading).

     We can no longer ignore the problem of current homework practices. Students need time to be kids in the afternoon as well as spend time with their families. That's extremenly important to developing a well balanced and healthy child. After spending 6-7 hours at school, it's only fair that students get time for other things besides academics. If we think what helps us adults feel healthy and well (physically, mentally and emotionally), we know that there has got to be a healthy balance between work and our personal lives. This is very much true for our youngest humans. They deserve better, and we teachers have the ability to help them achieve that.

     If you'd like to continue thinking about this concept, I encourage you to listen to an interview I had with a parent. In this interview we get a parent's perspective on homework.  That interview can be found here.

    Want to see an example of the kind of homework my grade level gives out? You can check that out here.

    Do you have some great homework activities you'd like to share? Please leave a comment and share with us. Together we are better.

What in The World Are We Doing With Grades?

     If you've been following my blog for a while, you already know I am not a fan of grades. However, I felt the need to explain my s...