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!


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!

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.

William Glasser Weekend

Last Friday I perused the “Professional” section of the school library, looking for something refreshing as I approached the half-way point of the ’12-’13 school year. I settled on two titles authored by Willliam Glasser, the American psychiatrist and education reform advocate.

I’d heard of Glasser throughout my undergraduate studies but never deeply read him. His Choice Theory is covered briefly in my text on Building Classroom Discipline, along with some of his other ideas around raising the quality of instruction and making school relevant to students. I found that intriguing and decided that now was the time to try to see what this Glasser fella was all about.

First of all, these books were a bit of a disheartening read given their place in history. Schools Without Failure was published in 1975, The Quality School more recently in 1998, and yet the problems in education remain the same still to this day. The advantage I suppose is that the time I spent on this material was not wasted since it still applies to my teaching practice; there was no point at which Glasser posed a problem that I could say had been solved – except perhaps homogeneous grouping of students. If anything, new technology has exacerbated some of the issues raised, such as the unbalanced importance we place on memorization.


Schools Without Failure is a criticism of public school education in which Glasser names failure as the key problem in education; a problem that cannot be blamed on external factors such as poverty, but that can only be solved by changing the education system itself. Glasser describes how students whose needs for love and self-worth are not met by school form a “failure identity” that is evidenced by delinquency and/or withdrawal. I think this theory around success in school still holds, based on how I hear at-risk students talk about themselves. Glasser goes on to criticize the emphasis placed on remembering objective information, and on the lack of relevance to students’ lives present in schools. He names several traditional educational practices – grading, objective tests, the normal curve, closed book exams, and low-quality homework – as being harmful to students, and ends by suggesting changes to the educational system including the emphasis of thinking over memorization, heterogeneous classes, the elimination of grading or at least failing grades on transcripts, and the use of classroom meetings.


The Quality School is a vision for public school education based partly on Glasser’s work in psychiatry. In this work he lays out two systems of management; boss-management that depends on external motivators, and lead-management which works to leverage a worker’s internal motivation and is based on Control Theory – which has been re-named Choice Theory. Control Theory is the idea that each person controls their own behavior, and only their own behavior, for the purpose of fulfilling needs. Glasser suggests that what is needed in education is a shift from boss-management of students to a system of lead-management; an educational system that addresses the needs and interests of students. One way to leverage students’ internal motivation that Glasser deems particularly important is requiring students to produce quality work.

I have to say that I agree with Dr. Glasser’s views on almost every point he raises. I do worry about the demonization of memorization, because there are some things that are useful to memorize. I think of some teachers’ misinterpretation of the whole language reading philosophy, who have eliminated instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics and over-emphasized text-to-self connections. Phonics rules and basic math facts and procedures are essentials that need to be internalized. It’s just that as teachers we need to carefully select what we require students to memorize so that memorization doesn’t become an end in itself, instead of the means to do higher quality work.

In The Quality School, Glasser describes the notion that each of us has a “Quality World”; an internal sense of what we believe the world should be like. For too many students, school is not a part of their quality world. Bringing education into students’ worlds, instead of allowing them to develop the sense that school is divorced from their lives, might be the most important challenge that we face as educators. Each of these books has challenged my thinking on the relevance of value of school. I’ve come to realize how different my experience and values are compared to some of my students, and how much the success of my work depends on occasionally setting aside my own middle-class values and framing school work through my students’.

All of this educational theory and philosophy is great, but my superintendent is a hardcore pragmatist so I have to think about how this effects my daily teaching practice, and how I can make changes that will increase the learning of my students and ultimately lead to visible results. I’ve settled on focusing on two strong pushes. First, I’m going to continue to move towards project-based learning and authentic assessments but re-emphasize quality work. Because I support students in their general education classes, I will also engage students in evaluating their own work and not settling for work that is low quality. I think a valid criticism of my support of students in the past is that the goal has been to simply get the work done. The second change I will make is to explicitly discuss the value of school work with students. What I’m looking for to be able to do this effectively is a model to understand why students should value school work in the first place. I’ve done a little bit of thinking in this area on my own, but I’m not sure if I’m missing anything. I know this will effect my planning because I will constantly be evaluating the value of each assignment I give or the information I present. I feel that teaching through this lens will help students be motivated, and I hope apply the same thinking to their other classes.

My William Glasser Weekend has been a mixed bag emotionally. I have gotten the mid-term boost I was looking for, but I’m also more aware of how dissatisfying school can be.

I’m also thinking of making the study of the work of people like Glasser a weekly activity. This week: Bob Marzano.