How to be a together teacher

I started this self-paced MOOC on the 29th. It’s offered on Coursera by Relay/GSE. It’s a six-week course that helps students develop a few time and task management tools.

There are three main strategies discussed in the course. The first strategy introduced is the “Weekly Worksheet”, where you track all your time and to-dos, and that extends to a “Comprehensive Calendar” that involves tracking all your deadlines and events for the entire school year. Finally, you’re encouraged to keep a comprehensive list of to-dos that would not fit on your weekly worksheet or calendar.

I use a different tool for each of these functions, and in my opinion they are all really good at what they do. I like Google Calendar to maintain my weekly schedule, because I can always access it and it’s easy to add events and move things around. I prefer Remember The Milk to track deadlines because it’s simple to add tasks, group them into lists, and see what’s due today, tomorrow, or this week; a lot more functional than Google Calendar’s tasks function. And I like the old-fashioned pocket notebook to catch tasks and ideas as they arise, and to record all to-dos without deadlines, because it’s always there and as we all know there’s something about the physical act of writing things out that makes them memorable.

One of the first assignments is to place a pin in a map along side your fellow students, and it shows that people all over the world want to be together teachers. It’s always interesting to interact with people from other parts of the globe in these MOOCs. All of the assignments are peer reviewed, so you get a look at a diverse group of submissions. I’ve looked into the lives of teachers from South Africa to Singapore. They’re not so different from my own. The struggle to manage time and task is real.

I recommend this course for any teacher in need of some basic being-an-adult skills. This is stuff they don’t cover in EDU-101, and they weren’t teaching it when I was in high school. It’s not as specific to the classroom as I imagined it would be when I signed up, but still well worth anyone’s time. Taking the course in the summer was a little challenging. The assignments ask that you build these tools, and mine were quite empty. But in the end I regret nothing.

Keep it together. Stay virtuous!


Where To Look: Games and Learning

You’ve taken an interest in games and learning…

Suggested Readings

The Game Believes In You – an excellent introduction to the intersections of games and learning.

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy – the seminal text explaining what is compelling about video games and what could make school equally compelling.

The Multiplayer Classroom – a primer for teachers looking to add a game layer on top of the action in their classroom.

Rules of Play – the 700 page bible of game design.

Around The Web

Video Games and Learning, Coursera – a wonderful course from UW-Madison, delivered by two instructors on the leading edge of the study of games and learning.

Playful Learning – professional development and networking for teachers interested in GBL.

Playforce – a searchable database of digital games with educational value.

Classcraft – a commercial roleplaying system designed for school.

View On YouTube

Gaming can make a better world – fascinating TED talk by Jane McGonigal.

Made With Play – video series from Edutopia.

ExtraCredits: Games in Education – “because games matter”.

’90s Kids Play Oregon Trail As Adults – one of the very first educational digital games, revisited.

Follow On Twitter

@GLScenter – Games Learning Society

@instituteofplay – Institute of Play

@G4C –  Games for Change

List: Teachers Who Have GAME


Bernard Suits defined playing a game as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. I think many students view school as an unnecessary obstacle, but they will voluntarily shell out $60 to play a game. That’s right! They’ll pay money for the chance to do tough cognitive work!!

Did I miss something? Comment with additional GBL resources.

Turn your classroom into a magic circle, but don’t feed your students chocolate covered broccoli. And stay virtuous everybody.

leveling up Aloth

Outside of the Black Hound Inn in Gilded Vale I met an elf named Aloth; a wizard. Happily, after helping him settle a misunderstanding with a group of locals, he agreed to join my party. One restful night in the inn later, each of the characters was ready to level up.

Choosing new skills for myself was easy; as a low-level monk there was not a wide selection.

But choosing new spells for Aloth was difficult.

It wasn’t just that the number of spells to choose from was overwhelming. It was the possibility that I could choose wrongly, and that choosing wrongly would make things too difficult or prevent my progress altogether later in the game. If I made the wrong choice now, why even bother playing?

I closed the game and then busied myself with some chores. I kept thinking about Aloth. I’ve played other CRPGs; would Aloth even stay in my party the whole game? Aren’t all his spells useful, given the right circumstances? He would level up again later and I could choose different, better spells then. It’s just a game! If I mess up I can load an earlier save. It would be a setback, and it would cost me some time, but I could use my mistakes to make even better choices a second or third time through. And the quickest way to lose the game would be not playing at all.

That’s life and learning in a nutshell. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and to disengage. It’s harder to accept failure as part of the process, but it gets you further.

I leveled up Aloth by choosing a couple support spells. I ended up adding two new members to my party before, while straying from the road to explore, we were all summarily slaughtered by a pack of wolves.

But I keep playing!

Stay virtuous everybody.

Summer Reading

I’m going a little hard with the professional reading this summer. Here are my picks.

Teaching Word Recognition

Explicit Instruction

The Differentiated Classroom

Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom

This is me focusing on getting two aspects of my special educator game on lock; direct service with a focus on reading, and coaching general education teachers in practices that facilitate inclusion. I hope to spend more time in general education classrooms this coming year compared to the past, so I want to come prepared.

But wait! There’s more!

I am going to re-read How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action, so I can help make our weekly team meetings more productive and focused on student learning. From talking with other teachers last week about teacher leadership, this is a very common issue in schools. And with the emphasis in the VT MTSS framework on using “research based problem solving approaches” to make decisions, I think this would be a valuable contribution to the school’s goals. (also, it’s part of a project for my master’s degree program)

On the fun side of things I’ve been reading Seveneves. I’m a huge Neal Stephenson fan. Snow Crash is the book that turned me on to reading. I get the feeling that Seveneves connects to Anathem and that’s really been driving my interest. The importance of making predictions!

And as always I have Meditations close by. Stay virtuous!

Teaching and the Trichotomy of Control

Epictetus said;

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

There are things we can control, such as our opinions and desires and choices. There are things we cannot control, among which Epictetus includes our bodies and our reputations. Some more obvious examples would be time, the weather, gas prices, or cats. Basically anything except our own mind.

Will Irvine expands on this dichotomy by splitting the category of things that are not up to us into two; things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

When it comes to our students’ learning we have very little control.

Stoic philosophers often used the metaphor of an archer to describe our attachment to external outcomes. An archer’s job is to line up the shot to the best of their ability. Of course they would like to hit their target, but they also have no control over the wind and many other variables that will effect the arrow’s flight. So, having shot their best, a Stoic archer is satisfied even if they do not hit their mark.

Like the archer, as teachers all we can do is perform our duties well and then hope for fortune’s favor.

It has been difficult for me to work in a profession where there is so little actual control over the results, especially when accountability measures want to judge teachers by something as probabilistic as their students’ standardized test scores. Try to extend the metaphor of the archer to a teacher and her students’ test scores. Much like the flight of an arrow, despite how well prepared the student is leading up to the test, how well that teacher lines up the shot, the teacher has no control over the other variables that can effect the student’s performance in that particular moment. Did the student eat breakfast that morning? Were the police called to their house the night before? Does the student care to do well on this test, today? And let’s not forget that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to line up over a dozen shots all at the same time!

It’s frustrating to think that we can only lead students toward learning, as a horse to water, and only hope that eventually, fortunately, they will drink. It’s also strangely liberating. If I choose and act rightly, I have done my duty as a teacher, regardless of any external outcomes. But as we can see this is at odds with current accountability measures, which assume that the classroom teacher has nearly complete control, and that would judge us by our students’ single performance on a standardized test.

Would we honestly accept the idea that any teacher, having inordinate control over their students’ learning, would nevertheless allow them to underachieve?

A perfect accountability system would somehow weigh the rationality of the thousands of choices a teacher makes because this is the sole element of education that is completely within their control.

And likewise I believe the best measure of the effectiveness of an education system is not the results of standardized tests of achievement but the quality of the choices its students make. If we changed our focus, we might even find that one follows from the other. Although we have no control over our students, I am suggesting that we can measure our impact by the amount of control students leave schools with over their selves.

What did Greg Graffin say? Oh right. “We have no controooooooooooooooooool“. Stay virtuous everybody!

Materials Review: Test of Orthographic Competence

We’ve added the Test of Orthographic Competence (TOC) to our assessment closet as a way to more accurately understand students’ reading difficulties.

Steven Feifer, author of the recent Feifer Assessment of Reading (FAR), tells us that the research points to seven areas to consider when assessing students who struggle with print;

  1. phonemic/phonological awareness
  2. rapid naming
  3. verbal memory
  4. reading fluency
  5. orthographic skills
  6. attention
  7. executive function

Chances are you have measures for most of these between the comprehensive batteries like the  Woodcock-Johnson and other common cognitive and achievement tests, but assessing orthographic skills was a new idea to me and we needed something to fill the gap, so we went with the TOC.

The TOC is very easy to administer. All you need is a protocol and the manual, and a way to keep time. I say manual because it includes all the scripts for each subtest, and I’m sure after several administrations you won’t even need it. The TOC can also be given to a group of students, and although I think it’s a bit long to be used as a screening (I keep clocking in over 30 minutes), that’s still a handy feature. I think, like the WIST, I’ll start using it as a pre- and post- assessment of small group interventions.

The test is made up of nine subtests, and which ones you administer vary by the age of the examinee. Those subtests include;

  1. Signs and Symbols
  2. Grapheme Matching
  3. Homophone Choice
  4. Punctuation
  5. Abbreviations
  6. Letter Choice
  7. Word Scramble
  8. Sight Spelling
  9. Word Choice

So far I can only speak to the subtests for ages 13-17, which do not include the first three subtests listed. I will say that the main difference between the 8-12 form and the 13-17 form appears to be that the subtest Homophone Choice is administered instead of Word Choice.

So what are the implications of some of these subtests. Word Choice and especially Homophone Choice, I think, gives a good indication of which students will benefit from the use of computer spell check, because they require that we identify the correct spelling of a target word. Letter Choice pretty clearly shows how well a student visually processes letters and words; in this timed subtest, students add one of four letter (p, d, b, q) to a few other letters to make real words. The same is true about Word Scramble, which is exactly what it sounds like; unscramble letters to make real words. When I look at the subtests, I’m reminded of some of the word scrambles, word searches, and other puzzles I was asked to do in elementary school that I thought were a waste of time, and that I occasionally see getting a bad rap and requests for opt-out on Twitter. Could it be that, intentionally or unintentionally, my teachers were improving my orthographic ability?

Ultimately you won’t learn much that you didn’t already know from observing a student’s writing. You will get norm referenced scores though.

Reading teachers have known for a long time that for some students, especially older struggling readers, phonics instruction is not sufficient to make them independent readers. This has been a bit of a revelation for me, where I’ve been using an explicit phonics program for every student with basic reading skills deficits because it’s all I had and I didn’t know any better. More on that in future posts.

So the TOC is a useful little tool when it comes to comprehensive evaluation. We can do a better job matching students to interventions if we do not ignore orthography. I think we all have experience with students who receive years and years of phonics instruction but make little progress with word recognition, and the TOC can provide an early indication that an alternative approach is necessary.

What kinds of interventions would you consider based on results of the Test of Orthographic Competence? According to the Dyslexia Training Institute, the focus should be on the structure of written language. Students with orthographic deficits will access reading by studying spelling. I’ve been criticized by general education teachers in the past for teaching struggling readers spelling, but if a student can spell a word, they can read that word. And what’s the general approach to teaching spelling? A strategy for dissecting multiple syllable words and systematic teaching of syllable types and morphographs.

Hit me up with questions or concerns about this post. And stay virtuous!

A philosophy of life: my personal foundational texts

My life has been a bit of a mess. When I want to fix things, I read a book.

I started with some specific areas; depression, procrastination, countless books on teaching and learning thinking that if I read enough to achieve my career goals everything else would fall into place.

Then I moved on to general self help texts, starting with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I want to be effective! But apparently not the kind of effective Covey had in mind because I just couldn’t connect with it.

Finally I came to “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Philosophy. But surely philosophy has little to offer when it comes to happiness. I had studied philosophy in college and it was all logic and epistemology, and never practical. Irvine assures us that it was not always so. There was a time when philosophers dealt in philosophies of life.

And Irvine has this to say of philosophies of life:

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

And I may have found a philosophy of life in stoicism, a philosophy that plays on many of my strengths. And ultimately I can distill that philosophy down to just three words; virtue, tranquility, and fortune.

Below are the texts that have helped me understand each.


“How To Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie

Marcus teaches us that our purpose as human beings is to befriend each other, and that our duty is to our fellow man. Carnegie gives practical advice on how to practice fellowship, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence of the rewards.

“The Marshmallow Test”, Walter Mischel

Ancient philosophers practically worshiped the “rational principle” within each human being. Mischel explains the origin, function, and limitations of that rational principle.


“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine.

This text provides an excellent introduction to stoicism, but focuses on methods Roman philosophers taught for maintaining tranquility. Those methods include negative visualization, internalization of goals, voluntary discomfort, and exercises in fatalism.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg

“The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work”, Christine Carter

Noticing and managing my habits has done a lot to help me preserve my tranquility. The latter chapters of Duhigg’s work I did not find helpful, but the beginning does an excellent job of explaining the fundamentals of habit formation and change by way of the “habit loop” model. Carter references Duhigg’s work, and expands upon how to use habits to create peace of mind.


“The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”, Leonard Mlodinow

I love probability and statistics. I was fascinated by Mlodinow’s account of how that mathematics has developed over time, but he also describes very well how large of a role Fortune plays in success and failure.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman details our reactions to randomness; the heuristics and biases we use to make a coherent story out of a chaotic world. This text helps us understand how to be virtuous in the face of Fortune, or in Kahneman’s words to invoke our lazy System 2 when System 1 starts jumping to conclusions.

NCES Brings Us #Wormeli2014

Yesterday I spent about five hours listening to Rick Wormeli talk about differentiating assessment and grading in Berlin, NH.

He’s an excellent speaker, but yesterday was not really professional development that I needed. I already understand the problems with grades. I’ve written about them for teachers at my school myself. I’ve read the same literature Rick’s read.

Did I take a few things away from his presentation? Of course. I learned that I was right to doubt myself for averaging students’ grades. I picked up on how to deal with assignments that address multiple standards. He also had a great response for educators worried about how much work good pedagogy is;

Can you do it all of the time? No. Can you do it 51% of the time? Yes.

Rick shared a great TED talk by Dr. Tae – “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?”

And one other great quote:

We’re in the world to help each other out

Assessment and grading aren’t a “gotcha” enterprise. They’re meant to provide information about learning.

Oh he also briefly mentioned students with disabilities. He emphasized that evidence of mastery of standards can be collected in many different ways. He also acknowledged that grade-level standards aren’t appropriate for some students, but they can work on similar standards at their own level, and that they should not be stigmatized by having their grades reported in some alternative fashion (ie. putting an M next to their grade to indicated their curriculum was Modified).

On second thought maybe I did need yesterday’s professional development. It really allowed me to flesh out some of my ideas about the principles of assessment and grading. And I really hope that having all the faculty in our school attend pushes the conversation about grades and assessment forward.

#pbgrVT work day

Thursday I attended a Proficiency-Based Learning Work Day at South Burlington High School. The purpose of these work days is to examine and help refine the work of other educators who are implementing proficiency based learning in their schools and classes.

Unlike a typical conference, most presentations utilized either a tuning or consultancy protocol. The presenter had a dilemma or sample of student work which became the center of discussion. The first two sessions I attended used the consultancy protocol. I heard from the head of an independent school struggling with how to quantify proficiency, and from a technical education teacher wondering how to communicate the expectations of his proficiency based assessment to his students. It was different from any professional development experience I have ever had. Rather than being talked at by an expert, we addressed the concern of a fellow educator through a rich discussion. It provided a window into the current practices and problems people are facing when it comes to proficiencies. A++ would participate again.

Representatives from the Agency of Education were on hand for a Q&A session about proficiency based learning initiatives at the state level. Tom Alderman made some comments to the whole group about the current policy environment. Basically, PBGR is on its way. The groundwork is set in Act 77. It’s in the draft Education Quality Standards. There are funds available for schools willing to implement PBGR and Personal Learning Plans for all students sooner rather than later. The essential message was that The Agency is there to support PBGR implementation, but it’s up to educators in the field to get the real work rolling.

By the end of the last session of the afternoon, I had developed a severe educator-crush on Math Henchen from Harwood Union High School. Matt’s session was a deliberative dialogue on the specifics of proficiency-based assessment systems. The goal was to build consensus on the meaning of various terms related to PBGR as well as some general best practices. Matt shared a Google Doc where questions could be posted, and which also includes useful PBGR resources.

I came away with a few big ideas from Matt’s session. The first was what he described as a “Two Tier System” of proficiencies which I feel has significant implications for curriculum. The first tier includes the basic competencies required of all students. The second tier encompasses the specializations that a student can choose to pursue. Something Matt stressed that struck a chord with me was the need to decide on the first tier of proficiencies as a community. It made me think about our school as we work to develop a K-12 curriculum, and whether members of the community will have an opportunity to review and help shape that work.

Matt also got us thinking about the need to balance standardization and personalization. Proficiencies are a form of standardization; they are a set of outcomes required of all students. But to be successful, there needs to be a degree of personalization in how evidence of meeting those proficiencies is acquired. We require common educational outcomes, but also to acknowledge that students and teachers are at their best when they can leverage their own affinities.

The last big idea I took from Matt’s session was to consider the differences between Lenin and Bernstein. Lenin was an advocate of revolutionary socialism; that revolution was necessary to effect social change. Bernstein, by contrast, formed the idea of evolutionary socialism; socialism is the final result of liberal reforms which will occur slowly over time. When it comes to PBGR implementation, we should be like Bernstein. As well meaning as we are, if we try to drag educators kicking and screaming towards proficiencies we are likely to fail. Instead we can take small steps, always with the larger goal in mind.

Ultimately I found a common thread that ran through each session and the conversations I had. Teachers and schools need clarity of purpose. Proficiency based learning and assessment requires explicit expectations, and the hardest work comes from making the tough decisions about what every student needs to know and be able to do, and to have high expectations for their work. Everybody has a different answer, but somehow a community needs to build consensus.

What Works–Weekend Reading of Robert J. Marzano

About six months ago I posted about my weekend reading of William Glasser’s Schools Without Failure and The Quality School. To follow it up I’ve spent time reading through the work of Robert J. Marzano.

Marzano has published a number of titles in a series of “…That Works” meta-analyses of the existing research into the effectiveness of methods and interventions within a number of education topics. So far I’ve gone hands on with Classroom Instruction That Works, Classroom Management That Works, Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work, and School Leadership That Works. As part of my experimentation with standards-based grading I have also read Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Learning which is part of a more in-depth “Classroom Strategies That Work” series.

One powerful combination is Classroom Instruction That Works and the accompanying Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Classroom Instruction That Works sets out the evidence behind each of the nine categories of instructional strategies that Marzano identifies as being the most effective. The handbook provides a more detailed look at the application of Marzano’s nine categories. It also includes many worksheets, rubrics, and questions for reflection and self-assessments that are meant to guide you toward effective use of specific strategies within the nine categories. It is a great tool for the reflective educator.

There is nothing especially moving about Marzano. Glasser is deeply philosophical and his work reads like an urgent call to action. Marzano simply presents facts; the best evidence to date. It does not start a fire in the heart, but it does make a good basis for reflection. Am I doing what the research says will have the greatest impact for my students? Really that is the essential question we face as educators. It is our job to continually evaluate our effect on student learning, and make necessary adjustments. Marzano identifies for us a set of teachers’ tools that are typically effective. The trap I can imagine some educators falling into, however, is taking Marzano’s nine to be the only instructional strategies worth using.

The struggle I have, and this is something I want to work hard on over the summer, is identifying when to use what strategies. When is it important to identify similarities and differences? When should I use non-linguistic representations, and how do I make them most effective? What’s the best time and method to have students generate and test hypotheses in math? These are questions I want to take time to address as I methodically pick apart the standards I want to address with my students for the coming school year.

Marzano was, overall, a good read. It’s nice to know that some of my current practices are supported by the research, such as my foray into standards-based grading and my sustained use of formative assessments. Now I have just a few titles left on my reading list, including John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers and a neat cognitive science book called Why Don’t Students Like School.