It's Not About Us


If you read this blog regularly or have worked with me in any capacity, you know I love a good edtech tool.  I am a slobbering fool for these tools, especially if they are free and allow students to synthesize information to create a new "something," a something that shows how students can use and put together information in new, creative, and innovative ways.  

I often use technology tools in my professional development presentations to staff, trying to model how they can be used in the classroom.  However, sometimes teachers get the wrong impression and think I am trying to push this technology use on them, mandating them to use the tools and be masters of them before they unleash them upon students.  My only intention is to give teachers ideas for technology use in their classroom, to make them aware of the electronic potential that's available for their students.  I understand that technology is not appropriate for every lesson and every learning experience; however, it is my duty as a Director of Teaching & Learning to help teachers become aware of the tools that can help students show what stuff they have joined together to create their own understandings.  

Further, teachers don't have to know how to use every single feature all of the technology tools their students use. One of the wonderful things about using technology in a classroom is the inherent problem-solving that comes along with students having to figure out how to use a tool on their own, helping them become those independent learners we all want them to be.  One of the first things I learned as a 1:1 teacher is that showing students how to use a tool step-by-step to the entire class is a complete waste of time; students passively watching you do all the work doesn't teach students how to use the tool.  Only students actually using the tool for themselves teaches them how to use the tool.

And the key to technology use in the classroom is just that--that students are using these tools on a regular basis, not the teacher.  The real power of educational technology comes from student use, not from teacher use.  Remember, students are the ones that have to do the work of learning, and that means students have to be the ones using technology to create, collaborate, and publish their work for feedback from a larger, more authentic audience than the teacher in the room.  We have to prepare them for their world as they will know and interact with it and not the world in which we know and with which we are most comfortable.

This means that technology use in the classroom isn't just a nice add-on or a bonus after teaching a traditional and outdated curriculum that no longer serves the needs of today's students.  It means that teachers can't wait to use technology until they are comfortable with it.  As George Couros said
See on

Remember, this learning thing isn't about us and our technological and pedagogical comfort zone--it's about preparing students to be the learners they need to be right now and after they graduate.

It's not about us.  It's about them.
Our middle school is in its second year of its 1:1 laptop initiative.  While I understand they had some infrastructure issues last year when they first rolled those laptops out, this year seems to have gone much more smoothly for them.  They are really doing a nice job of integrating technology in their classrooms, and below is an example from a science teacher's room:

Create your own Playlist on MentorMob!
Students designed their own labs testing the effectiveness of various products, summarized the results on one slide, and then the teacher put all of their results together in a MentorMob playlist.  What a great idea for not only collecting and displaying student work in an electronic format, but also for allowing students to evaluate other students' work without the the fuss of emailing, scrolling up and down through Edmodo posts, or sharing documents.   After putting all of the student work in the playlist (which, if you know Mentormob, is pretty stinking easy), just shoot out the link to the playlist to students via email or an LMS, and students have multiple samples to evaluate and practice giving feedback.  And you don't have to use Mentormob if you don't want to-you can use any learning playlist tool out there (such as Blendspace).

Mentormob...not just for putting together lessons anymore.  Now you can put together an opportunity for students to practice some upper-level skills.
One of my roles in my new-ish (it's starting to feel not so new anymore, which I think is a good thing) role is planning professional development regarding the shifts in literacy instruction that the Common Core Standards require.  I have been focusing on close reading, which I believe is a fundamental skill that students need in order to squeeze out all the meaning from text they can.  It also forces students to grapple with a complex text, giving them strategies for how to handle tough reading.  In my opinion, close reading is much better than what I used to see all the time in my classroom: telling students to read something and the only thing going on neurologically was motor neurons firing when their eyeballs moved back and forth across the page.

Below is a sample presentation that I will be giving to our middle school staff this week regarding close reading, if you'd care to check it out.  It was my first time using PowToon, so please forgive any errors you see in the timing.  You can check out the resources I used in it here and here and here.
Close reading really means getting students to re-read.   But it doesn't mean that they simply fire those motor neurons again to move their eyeballs across a page of text a second time; it means students are re-reading in order to dig deep into the various levels of textual meaning.  It means getting students to annotate while they read so they can be active questioners of the text; it means giving students questions that require they go back to the reading to find evidence to support their answers.  It also means developing student skills at generating their own arguments that are backed with evidence, not just opinions that come from prior experience.  Further, it means getting students to develop strategies for finding meanings of those tier two vocabulary words on their own, and seeing why the author used those particular words in the first place.  It teaches students to slow down when they read, and forces them to see how a reading hangs together as a whole by analyzing its parts.

In other words, it teaches students to think.  And, not only that, it teaches them skills they will actually need to use independently after they graduate.  Much more useful, in my opinion, than most of the content that is held sacrosanct in classrooms these days.  

Does it take more time to do a close read?  Yep.  In fact, that's the one complaint I hear the most about close reading--that it takes too much class time.  But any skill such as this will take more time to teach students at first.  If it is done consistently by all teachers over the course of a school year, then it will become a habit that takes less and less time on the part of the teacher and the student.

And, like I said, it makes students do that "thinking" thing--and teaches them a skill to help them do that thinking on their own, well after they leave your classroom and your content behind.

This morning I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School regarding pretty much all of my favorite topics: focusing instruction on learning, designing assessment focused on learning, and changing grading practices focused on learning.  Yes, I can't help but notice that "learning" theme, too.  Crazy crazy.

Below is the presentation that was used during my little talk (you can also access it here as a Google Presentation), and we had a most excellent question and answer session afterwards which I wish I had recorded--the questions were that good.  I think there will be some absolutely amazing things going on in that school in the very near future.
I haven't blogged in a while.  It's not that I haven't wanted to blog; in fact, I've wanted nothing more than to sit down and pour out my thoughts about anything and everything regarding my fancy new position.  But time and other factors (i.e., training for my second marathon, sleeping, eating, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen) have taken me away from my blogging. Since blogging has in the past often served as the duct tape holding the fragments of my sanity together, I am hereby resolved to blog much more often so as not to edge any farther into the realm of complete insanity.

What's helping to preserve small chunks of my sanity lately is a book called Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie.  He wrote his original book titled Visible Learning in 2008, and it was a pretty intense, data-laden complex read.  But this recent 2012 release has all sorts of easier-to-understand goodness just for teachers.  As the title states, the focus is on maximizing the impact of influences on student learning.  He points out that, when you look at everything that influences student learning, almost everything works. ("All that is needed to enhance achievement is a pulse.") That means that simply providing proof that something works isn't enough; teachers must reflect on what they're doing in the classroom and see if it is having a positive effect that is worthwhile and making a visible difference in student learning.  Below are some nuggets from the first chapter, which have gotten me all fired up as of late:

"The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers."

"Fundamentally, the most powerful way of thinking about a teacher's role is for teachers to see themselves as evaluators of their effects on students."

"What I am
not saying is that 'teachers matter'; this cliche is is the most unsupported claim from the evidence in Visible Learning...What does matter is teachers having a mind frame in which they see it as their role to evaluate their effect on learning."

My take on the above quotes is this: teachers can't make instructional, curricular, or assessment-related decisions with a "what's easiest for me" mindset (the rationale for such decisions often comes wrapped in a thin veneer of student-centeredness, unfortunately).  I've seen that too often, and I've seen student learning suffer as a direct result--with everyone scratching their heads wondering why students aren't getting better at this whole "learning" thing when all the decisions being made are geared towards making adults' lives easier (or maintaining the status quo) instead of doing what's right for student learning.  I've said it before and I'll say it again-what's easiest for us is rarely what's good for student learning.  

Educators need to shift their mindset and start making decisions based on looking at what they're doing in the classroom and the size of the dent it's making in student learning.  Teachers need to, according to Hattie, "know thy impact" and evaluate themselves and their classroom practices so they can help students be better learners.  How do they need to evaluate themselves? By examining their classroom practices through the eyes of their students.

We can't give students the skills they need to become their own teachers if decisions are being made that only benefit the teacher, not the student.  Teaching students to be their own learners, independent learners, is hard work on everyone's part.  It can feel overwhelming at times.  It requires lots of formative feedback, observation, data collection, time, conversations, assessments, reassessments, metacognition, failure, and the teacher knowing a range of learning strategies to teach to students to give them tools in their learning toolboxes so students know how to fix what's broken when failure strikes hard and often.

It takes work.  Lots of it.  But the end result is so worthwhile. 

What it boils down to is this:  We're here for the students, not ourselves.  Decisions need to be made after looking through the eyes of students, not at our own self-interests.  

Yesterday I was privileged to present for the third time at SDE's Extraordinary Educator's Conference.  I talked about a topic on which I have presented about before at other conferences--ePortfolios.  I tried to emphasize that the power of the ePortfolio lies in its potential for showing student growth in understanding and in skill development.  They not only show progress towards mastery to the teacher, but they also show the student how he or she is progressing as well, opening the door for all sorts of metacognitive goodness. (Where have I been?  Where am I now?  Where do I need to go, and how will I get there?)

I promised my audience that I would post the presentation here so they could access the links that were embedded within it.  This is a modified version of a presentation given previously by yours truly, so if you've seen this post, you've seen most of this presentation before.

You can access the presentation directly here, or you can view it in PDF format below.  Enjoy, and please feel free to leave feedback that you have in the comments.


In a recent post, I talked about how I am wanting to phase out multiple choice in my classroom.  So what did I do at work most of last week?

Write a multiple choice test.  The irony and frustration of this is not lost on me.

We implement common assessments in our building, which means that all teachers teaching the same course must develop all of the assessments for each unit, making sure they are aligned to our student objectives (I can statements) and that what students should know, be able to do, and understand are clear to us so we can make that clear to students.  We do this because it does help us have some lively and interesting discussions at times--often in the past we have pushed our thinking about learning, teaching, and assessing in a way that helped some of us grow from the experience.

I like the process.  I just don't care for the final assessment product: that multiple choice test.

I stated as much to a well-respected colleague of mine, right after my Biology students didn't do so hot on one of these multiple choice assessments.  I hadn't given my usual multiple-choice formative assessments along the way during this past unit, so my students weren't as prepared as they could have been (should have been?).  It's not that they tanked the assessment; they just didn't do as well as I had thought they would.  We spent our time analyzing, creating, and writing during class rather than take multiple choice assessments.  You could say that my end assessment didn't match my instruction.  Bad teacher.

My colleague had given more multiple choice formative assessments throughout the unit, and her students had done better.  But she also told me that we still needed to give multiple choice questions because they were going to have to take them not only in their junior year on the state standardized assessments, but also later in life.  She pointed out that the driver's test our students take is multiple choice, and that even our teacher certification tests we take here in Illinois are multiple choice--and that a lot of professions have standardized tests people have to take in order to get licensed.  Her point was that our students would be taking multiple choice tests in real life, so we should be preparing students for them now.

But doesn't the driver's test also have a performance component?  Don't teachers still have to student teach, not only to learn but also to display competence?  Don't other professions have internships and apprenticeships?  Even Grant Wiggins' son had to do the ultimate performance assessment to get a job, not some multiple choice test.  If you read the postscript to that post, a health care professional describes what they do to make sure their new hires can perform to the standards required of them on the job in a real hospital--and nowhere in there does it mention taking multiple choice tests as being an adequate measure of their performance.  

Don't students still have to do in real life, not just fill in bubbles?  Haven't they had enough practice at bubble-filling?  And why are we letting multiple choice assessments become the end-all and be-all of how students demonstrate what they know?

I guess I'm really railing at the bubble-riddled, it-could-be-a-guess-or-they-could-have-really-understood-it system that's in place.  But, really, what's more important: that students can successfully complete multiple choice tests, or that they are prepared with thinking, doing, and reasoning skills that they'll need to perform well in life?  It also doesn't help that multiple choice tests are easier to administer and score, and come with a false veneer of objectivity that some tout as "better" than performance assessments.  Yes, reading blogs and scoring short stories and looking at lab presentations and talking to students about what they know takes so much longer than whipping out a multiple choice test--but they give a much clearer picture as to what skills and understandings students actually possess. 

The more I teach, the more I find that I don't really care that much about how well student do on our multiple choice tests--I find myself taking much more interest in what and how they're doing on their blogs, their labs, and other performance-type assignments. I find I'm caring more about what students can show me they can do and helping them get better at how well they do it rather than how many correct bubbles they can fill in on an answer sheet. 

photo credit: romana klee via photopin cc
Because I spend most of my time in my dark, quiet science prep room these days while my student teacher slaves away setting up conditions for learning in my classroom, I get a little stir crazy from time to time.  My colleague next door knows this, so she steals me every now and then to make videos for her flipped classroom.  She started doing this because she recently attended a session with Jonathan Bergmann at the ICE conference, and one of his tips for making quality videos is that you make them with someone else.  She decided that "someone else" would be me.

Now, I have seen teacher-made videos that are brimming with professional quality.  Their cup runneth over with prettiness and video-editing proficiency.  These videos have a shiny perfection that makes "oohs" and "ahhs" escape my lips without me even realizing it's happening.  I am usually awed by their professional and educational goodness. 

Our videos aren't like that.  Nope.  Not one bit.  We obviously don't use fancy video software (although we would love to).  We do practice and plan out our videos ahead of time, even if it doesn't look like it.  Our videos aren't perfect, but we do try and focus on the objective and what students should be able to do when they have mastered it.  Our videos may (will?) make you guffaw and cringe and roll your eyes.  In fact, that's what they make my colleague's students do, so I'm pretty sure that's what you'll do when you watch the one we made recently below. (It's a little long; however, you should watch the end of the video below about making Bohr diagrams for a good laugh.)

It's pretty obvious that our videos are far from perfect.  

But that doesn't matter to us.  Her students report back to us that, while they really are cringe- and eyeroll-inducing, the videos we make together are more engaging.  Why?  Because, apparently, it is more interesting to watch us interact than a talking head babbling on and on about science.  (By the way, I still find it fascinating that students are more engaged watching videos of us than watching us live and in person.)  

What I'm interested in is the learning, however.  I want to see if the learning is any different, better, or worse.  It's hard to do, though, when you sit in a dark office all day.  But my colleague is reporting positive results so far on her students' progress checks, so I'll have to take her word for it.

At least she lets me have a bit of fun (some say too much fun) during the day.
(I sincerely apologize for any damage done to your brain by our behavior at the end.)
It has been a while since I have blogged.  That's because my life has been a whirlwind of activity lately, with me taking on some things that have made my life busier than ever:
  • I am training for my first marathon, which takes a lot of time.  I get up early to do my workouts (and go to bed early so I can get up early to do my workouts), so this hasn't left a lot of time for my social media addiction.  I have, however, made time to chronicle my adventures in training for this event in another blog, which you can check out here.  I find that I just have enough mental energy to write about my workouts before sleepiness takes over each night.  Just be forewarned that I write a little more casually in that blog.  
  • I have been exploring other opportunities for my career.  More on that in another post.
  • I have a student teacher this semester.  I love giving back in this manner, but it takes a lot of time at the start when the student teacher is getting acclimated and finding their own footing, style, and voice.  But I do like to give them tons of room to experiment, to test, and to fail, so they can learn how to be learners along with my students.
However, I do have some ideas and practices that I have started with my students that I would like to see my student teacher also implement as well, not only to maintain basic continuity between teachers but also to continue the ongoing process of thinking skill development (which, like marathon training, takes a lot of time).  One idea with which I have been experimenting (science teacher pun intended) lately is phasing out multiple choice as much as I can from my classroom.

I know that students supposedly need practice at answering these questions because of those tests they have to take as juniors at the high school level here in Illinois, and they are still going to get that practice on our common assessments that have already been developed in our departments and which are mandatory for me to use.  But, as far as giving me useful information about where my students' learning is, I am pretty much trying to get rid of the methods of assessment as much as possible that were developed to be convenient for the teacher and which have inadvertently developed a need in our students for a quick bubble to fill so they could move on to the next question and finish in the allotted time.

Also, I have had an increasingly hard time giving out assessments to students where the element of chance (i.e., guessing randomly at the answer) can blur the picture of what my students know and don't know--it doesn't help me design effective instruction to meet their needs, and it doesn't help them see where their true learning gaps are in order to determine the next steps for fixing their broken knowledge.  

In short, handing out multiple choice just doesn't make sense if you really want to see what students know, understand, and are able to do.  Not even the teacher that tried to convince me one time that multiple choice is the only type of score that should go in the gradebook because it is "purely objective" can change my mind on this one.

So what am I doing instead if I'm not handing out traditional comfortable, easy-to-score-but-muddy-to-interpret multiple choice questions?  One thing I am trying to do is implement more of what I call "Show me that you know it" days.  Since I put my student objectives in my gradebook rather than tasks, students can log in to the online gradebook and see which objectives at which they are not proficient, having been assessed primarily through their blog posts and the screencasted feedback I give them these days.  Then, students can decide how to fix the problem (often by discussing with other students), and then go fix it.  They are then responsible for showing me that they have fixed their understanding in a manner that they have chosen and is comfortable for them.
Whiteboards are a popular choice.
Do these days give you huge payoff in helping you and your students see what they still don't know?  You betcha.  Better than any multiple choice assessment ever has in my sixteen-year teaching career.

Does it force the student to really look at the learning objective and see if they can do what it says?  Every time.  I send students back for fixing multiple times at first, simply because they have not read the objective.  For example, I have an objective that reads, "I can draw and summarize Newton's 2nd law of motion."  Students see the law of motion, go copy a definition from the internet, and then come back and show it to me.  I then have to have a conversation with them about what the objective says, what the verbs "draw" and "summarize" mean, and then ask the student to verbalize what exactly they will do to meet the objective.  I then send them back to go do that, and come back and see me a second time.  It's all about emphasizing to students to make their own meaning rather than steal someone else's.  

Do these days help you have more meaningful one-on-one conversations and relationships with students?  Absolutely, and that's my favorite part.  I feel like I really know my students as learners by having these fixing knowledge days, and I feel like I have made much more solid relationships with my students by sitting down and discussing not only science stuff, but what they could do to learn the science stuff.  Even though I have a 1:1 classroom, these conversations are still crucial.  It helps my students get their eyes off their screens and onto their learning.  Discussions with me and with other students about what they don't know and what they will do to fix what they don't know are still key to helping younger humans learn--and students can still have discussions while having devices in front of them.  

Do these days take a LOT more time?  Absolutely, but the time spent is so well worth it.  If we're ever going to break our students of the mindset that school and learning is about copying stuff from the internet, a book, or a teacher's brain, then we've got to carve out the time to help our students be better learners.

I know it's going to be hard for my student teacher to really see the value of these days, especially since teacher preparation programs are more concerned with what the teacher is doing rather than how the student is learning (I noticed on my student teacher's evaluation forms that all of the areas are concerned with what she is doing in class--there are no discussions or areas of rating for what the students are doing to learn and to support their own learning).  

But these "Show me that you know it" days are something that I am going to make sure keeps happening.  I know she won't be comfortable with not giving multiple choice to my students, but one thing I will keep emphasizing to her is this: often what's best for students isn't the easiest for us.
Last week my life was filled with grades, scoring, more grades, parent phone calls about grades, and even grades other teachers were giving students (one of the joys of being a Division Chair, you see).   We issued final exams before our winter break, and, as I've written recently, mine didn't go exactly as planned.  But now it is time to somehow summarize all that students have learned in one letter.

Even though I had a lot of students choose not to do my final exam project (30, to be exact--a number that was whittled down to 13 after giving them more time to complete it after break), I refused to let their only source of feedback on this project be a virtually meaningless letter on a piece of paper they receive in the mail next to the phrase, "Final Exam."   So I decided I would screencast their feedback on their final exam projects.  I also decided to screencast because talking out my feedback would take a little less time than typing feedback on each one of their blogs, which was where their projects were located.  I used SnagIt for the majority of my screencasts, mainly for the simple reason that I paid for it when Jing Pro went away and it was already installed on my Windows machine at home, where I was doing most of my screencasting.  However, I also used Screenr, a free web-based screencasting tool, for any ones I had to finish up at school (where we run Linux and SnagIt or any other Windows-only tool wasn't going to work).  

Below is an example of a screencast I made using SnagIt:

After recording each screencast (which I tried to keep between 2-3 minutes), I then privately sent each student the link to theirs in Edmodo via direct post. (For the ones I made with SnagIt, I uploaded the MP4 file up first and then was able to generate a link from that location.) I had students watch them in class, and then fix whatever needed fixing on their projects in the two days we had between the day we came back from winter break and the day my grades were due in the office.

I expected that students would view the videos, fix what was wrong, and that would be the end of that.  But it wasn't the end.  It was only the beginning.

All last week I noticed a subtle shift in the attitudes of some students.  Students that I had verbally tangled with throughout first semester were civil to me, polite to me, joking with me, and much more willing to work.  Students that had not said a single word to me in person during the first semester had come up and asked me question after question on the labs and projects we are now doing to launch the second semester.

It was like dealing with a new group of students at times.

It may have been they all got a needed recharge over break and are ready to start the new semester with renewed vigor.  But I think at least some of the change I saw was due to some of the feedback I left in their screencasts.  If you viewed the example above, you'd see that I got to personalize their feedback to them, and got to talk to them about their own skills and progress.  I took the opportunity that screencasting provided me to talk to them as people, telling them what I appreciated about their efforts during the semester as well as what I would like to see them focus on during the second semester.   This may be why the one young lady from whom I got nothing but pushback over every thing I did or said is now much more willing to work with me; during her screencast I got to talk to her about how much I appreciated her talent for writing and the way her brain made unique connections.  It may be why a young man in my Biology classes is now joking with me and talking to me this semester rather than sitting in an apathetic funk at his desk, because in his screencast I told him he was better than what he showed me on his blog--much better.

You see, I got to say things to them that I never get the chance to say during the hustle and bustle of a busy class period, where my class sizes are bursting at the seams and it's all I can do just to make sure no one harms themselves or others during the 50 small minutes I see them a day. And I think that, even though I wasn't talking to my students face-to-face, it helped to build relationships with them: they finally knew what I actually thought instead of having to guess from 50 minutes of time with me a day where I have to divide my time between many students.

When I asked my students if they would like me to continue screencasting their feedback, the overwhelming response was positive.  You better believe I'm going to keep doing it, if these are the types of changes I can get out of a classroom just by screencasting feedback, just by giving them 2-3 minutes of my undivided electronic attention.

I know that lately there's been a lot of pushback against edtech, with much of the concern being that people use the technology tools just for the sake of using them without concern for the sound pedagogy that should be in place when deciding to use a certain tool in the classroom.

What could be more a part of that "sound pedagogy" than building relationships with your students?