Chicken or the Egg – Whose Learning Should Schools Prioritize?


The topic for Thursday night’s #moedchat was “Out of the Box PD”. I guess the first question was my favorite, because I’m still thinking about it.




I didn’t get the feeling that it was a very popular answer – maybe only because the focus of Thursday’s chat was on TEACHER learning – but the more I reflect on it, the stronger I’m convicted. Wrapping it as a chicken/egg paradigm instead of front burner/back burner makes it a slightly different question, but the principle remains.

Student learning should be the primary focus of a school or distict over teacher PD because teacher learning would have to be a part of the discussion to serve that goal.

What happens when teacher learning comes first? Reflecting on my own career gives me a few things to consider.

1. Saying the right thing and having an instructional plan that LOOKS good takes precedence over evidence and results.

We can have high-quality PD and high-five each other for the great conversations we have at edcamps, other conferences, or on Twitter chats, but there’s a big step between knowing best practice, attempting best practice, and ACHIEVING best practice. In my own experience, when MY learning is most important, its tempting to blame anything that is unsuccessful in my classroom on various student factors.

2. PD that does not focus first on the impact of a strategy or tool on students serves only the people in the room.

I am not a fan of “cool tool” sessions at conferences or PD trainings that focus on one particular tool, because in my own experience, my excitement to squeeze that tool into my own classroom sometimes results in a negative impact on learning as students hurdle the tech to learn the content or demonstrate their learning. If “how will my students use this” or “what challenges will my students face” is the first question, we risk complicating an environment that is already difficult to navigate for high-needs students.

The first semester I had iPads in my classroom, I tried giving a final exam on the Socrative “clicker” app. From my perspective, this was a slam dunk. My students had already used the app several times, so I knew they liked it, and while you could not put images into your Socrative quizzes at that point in time, I had gotten around it by printing copies of the exam with Socrative setup as a bubblesheet. What I thought was the big advantage for me and the kids was that Socrative was going to score their responses as they worked, making the feedback immediate – they would not be stressing for hours to find out how they did on the final. There was only ONE problem – Socrative forces the students to work linearly through the exam, so anyone that would normally skip around and do the work they were most comfortable with first could not. On top of that, if a student accidentally pressed a response different than what they wanted, there was no way to go back and change it. Bottom line: for as much added benefit as Socrative provided with its immediate results (and easing my grading burden) the times kids were penalized for an errant finger resulted in a net impact of ZERO at best.

3. Focusing on teachers’ learning needs FIRST ignore the needs of the students in their context.

Instructional design 101 demands that before you prepare any instruction (or in this case, provide training for teachers to better teach the students), you conduct a needs assessment to meet the students where they are culturally, and what they bring to you in prior knowledge.

The students’ learning must come first because they are the school variable that is always changing! Yes, there are circumstances for which meeting a set of students will require more training for a teacher, but that is in response to the student context.



Advertisements and Standards-Based Grading

The badge art I uploaded.

Kids LOVE competing, right?

What I appreciate about the grading reform away from A-F that we’ve seen the last several years is that there is less comparison between letter grades amongst students and more emphasis on “what do you know?” More students have a chance to be the “smart” ones because their failure on Standard X does not always mean they will fail on Standard Y, which traditional letter grades can suggest and sometimes lead to.

However, standards based grading can get a little black-and-white cut and dry sometimes, and kids can get overwhelmed by charts, so why not gamify your students’ standards growth and get your kids to compete with each other than against?

This summer I was “strongly encouraged” to use Accelerated Math, a system we use mainly for intervention during the school year. AM is an adaptive, differentiated learning system that links in with the STAR assessments which everyone in the district uses for benchmarking. I’d been previously trained on AM, but never actually used it myself, but one thing I’d remembered from my colleagues’ feedback was that AM is a great program for kids that can set goals, kids that can pace their work, and kids that can monitor their own on-task behavior. As I mentioned in my last post about summer school, these are not usually qualities I see in my students, so to mitigate the summer being a total disaster for 3/4 of my class, I decided to use to track their objective mastery (and other, more PBIS-type accomplishments as well.)

Above you’ll see all of the badges I created to award to the students. Technically our program this summer is “credit recovery,” so they need only to get 60% or higher (the black token) on the objectives I assign in Accelerated Math, but I knew some kids would work harder to get better badges (just like someone might spend hours getting a certain achievement in a video game), so I made the grey “master” badge for 80%, and the gold “expert” badge for 95% scores on an objective.

I’m still going to work on more traditional goal-setting with my students, and today’s early results with the Pomodoro Technique were positive, but these badges were a fun way to give a few kids an extra, whimsical incentive.

5 Reasons Why Teaching Summer School is Good for Professional Development

I’m beginning my 6th edition of summer school for my district on Monday. My first summer, before we had children and my wife was still working, summer school was a means to cut my teeth in my own real-life math classroom before the fall semester began and stuff got real.

Teaching summer school is more of a financial requirement for our family now, but there are still several things I enjoy about the summer session that I think make me a better teacher.
1. “Do your worst.”
If you can handle what summer school students have to throw at you, you’ll probably be prepared for the worst you may see during the regular session. Some summer school students are highly motivated (which is what I expected of all of them before my first summer), and they are a delight, but most in my district come to me with one or several of the following: immaturity, frustration, anger, dejection, ambivalence, complacency. I jumped over a table last summer in the midst of what was looked to be a fight brewing. It was awesome.
2. Try new things.
The thinking on this is that for most of these kids, whatever traditional activities you or a colleague tried during the spring or fall were not successful strategies, so repackaging the regular curriculum into a shorter chunk is asking for boredom at best, and more failure at worst. I feel less pressure to have my lessons or activities go perfectly during the summer because classes are smaller and we meet longer, so its more feasible to clarify directions and completely change course if necessary without sacrificing an entire day’s 50 minute period.
I love piloting projects, games, and software in the summer.
3. Motivate, motivate, motivate.
This is for my students, too, but secretly maybe for me the most. 🙂
There aren’t a ton of self-starting, goal-setting 16 and 17 year olds to begin with – you’re definitely not going to find them in summer school. Teaching my summer students forces me to rethink why I teach, and what heights are possible for any of these students.
Morning-grump-Chuck does not fly in summer session.
4. Make new connections with colleagues
Since my district consolidated summer school for our 3 high schools into one building 3 years ago, summer school has meant working more closely with teachers I only see on sporadic district PD days. Collaborating with these teachers during the summer has given me a clearer picture of what goes on across my district and helps me make sense of goals and vision given to us from administration across the street. Most of the trainings on this page were made possible by connections I made during summer school.
5. Prioritize and dump.
You know that practice where you teach some things during the regular school year “for exposure,” just because its in your book, or you like that trick?
Reteaching an entire semester’s worth of content is obviously impossible, so the summer session requires refinement of the curriculum to essential topics and strategies. Fortunately for me, my district already has separate pacing guides for the summer, so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every summer.
This year, to cut costs, our district is holding only “credit recovery” courses, which the state allows for students who were close to passing. My class will be 2 weeks instead of the usual 4, so I’m forced to prioritize and predict where the biggest needs will be amongst my recovering students.
Why does this matter for the regular session? The topics we end up covering in summer school often become the subject of smart goals and data collection from common formative assessments in our PLCs.

5 Reasons Why Common Core Will KILL Creativity

My district began compiling PD resources and formally thinking through #CCSS implementation for our administrators, teachers, and parents this week, so I’ve got common core on the brain.

On the whole, I think our districts’ teachers still feel rather in the dark about what Common Core changes will and won’t mean for their classrooms, but I think, in part, the action in Jeff City at DESE is to blame. Missouri is not a Race to the Top state, so there has been less funding available for the guiding the transition, so it makes sense, but disappointing nonetheless.

Locally, our Superintendent Dr. McCoy has been a vocal leader in some criticisms of common core and its effect on the creative freedoms of our students in their lit/comp classes.

To say creative writing and literacy for advancement and personal improvement is a focus in our district   would be putting it lightly. Dr. McCoy wears his literary and creative heart on his sleeve (in an all school assembly, even), and I believe many of students see him as a positive African-American role model because of it. (And his transparency inspired me, too.)

Last word of background, my friend at another high school in the district has seen high results in engagement through creative writing opportunities for her students and shared them in our #METC13 presentation.

So here are 5 things you might start missing if you have a passion for creative, written expression.

1. The classics are de-emphasized.

Do you feel like all you ever read in high school lit class were novels, short stories, and poetry? No longer the case. Our students do need more exposure and readiness to informational text, but find me someone who was inspired to change the world after reading an unbiased account of the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies.

2. Journal writing – where does it fit in?

In Missouri Course-Level Objectives, “reflective writing” is listed across the board for all high school courses. I value reflective writing from my experience as a student and an adult, and I think it can be transformative in understanding who we are, what we think, and what we know, and what we value. How are students to find themselves if they’re only ever summarizing arguments and detailing main points and themes? Who will write the next century’s Walden Pond?

3. Creative writing is devalued

As referenced in the last point, non-fiction, technical writing has been given at least half of the emphasis in the ELA standards, which means fiction writing had to be de-emphasized. Two different Missouri CLEs (W2A and W2D) currently require students to write considering “different audiences”, and to employ “imagery, humor, voice, and figurative language.” When you’re a teenager and you feel like no one else hears you, how do you find freedom in a formal analysis of novel X, Y, or Z?

4. Less choice in composition style

Reading through the ELA standards for high school, what continuously sticks out to me is “analyze, analyze, analyze.” writing styles or works. It seems to me that if CCSS are successful they’ll have produced an army of literary critics, but who’ll be left to criticize?

5. Less time to enjoy and appreciate literature and art.

Those times when you reread a passage because there is such beauty in the alliteration, or you stop in a speech because your heart is racing. If an ELA teacher is “doing” common core right, where does that fit in? Thinking of it this way, if I’m always analyzing my wife, I never appreciate and grow fonder for her. How will we inspire the next generation to beauty and emotion in written word?

But don’t fret!  I’ve got 5 Reasons Why Common Core Promotes Creativity, too.

Fewer Than 1/4 of Americans Use “Advanced” Math at Work…

But how many use “advanced” writing?? No one ever poses this question – is it because a larger portion of Americans think they are “good” writers? (As opposed to anyone who has ever said, “I was never good at math.”)

This post from the Atlantic takes research from Northeastern University professor, Michael Handel, and puts together his charts into graphs. (Here’s How Little Math Americans Actually Use at Work – Jordan Weissmann – The Atlantic.)

This is my favorite-

Here's How Little Math Americans Actually Use at Work - Jordan Weissmann - The Atlantic

Does it surprise you that SKILL and LABOR jobs use the highest percentage of “advanced” math? These careers like machinists, electricians, and others that require extensive trade school training are rising in demand as baby boomers retire. (I wrote more about the new role of tech school here – vocational training is coming back and we need to be steering some traditional “college” students in that direction)

Once I went to Mr. Handel’s Northeastern page and downloaded the research Atlantic used for their graphs, I uncovered another layer of the picture that may (or may not) surprise you.

The drop-off from basic to advanced writing between skilled white-collar and blue-collar to unskilled is even more pronounced than with math.

Here are the numbers together.Math AND Writing Comparison

It’s probably not fair to make a direct comparison between the yellow and blue bands in each section of the table, but even in the “more advanced” red band on the math section, those percentages aren’t drastically lower than those of “five pages” yellow band in writing, and for   blue collar, the percentage of math users is HIGHER.

So, tell me, why is our culture not in an uproar over writing formally as they are over “real,” relevant uses of Algebra? Where are all the programs to get kids using math in their liberal arts courses like we have to get kids writing in math and science?