Thursday, May 26, 2016

First Classroom Mentors

My first mentor teacher, Bernie, kept a manilla folder on each student and walked the aisles, every day, folders in hand. When he checked homework, he recorded a plus or a minus on each student's folder. When students submitted work, each sheet went into a folder.

Every two weeks or so, Bernie emptied the folders into individual portfolios in a cabinet (or returned the work he no longer needed) so that the folders he carried up and down the aisles never grew too thick, too heavy. If he scored something with a number or a letter, that also went on the outside of the folder.

Every week, Bernie transcribed the records from the outsides of his folders into his grade book. That was his system, and it worked for him. He was organized and diligent. This was 1993. We did not have computers in our classrooms for students. Teachers did not have an individual computer in their classrooms. Record keeping happened with pen and paper. Writing, for the most part, happened at home.

Almost 25 years later, my memory locks onto Bernie's fastidious record keeping on manilla folders. That couldn't be all I "learned" from student teaching...was everything reduced to that one memory?

Wanting to dig deeper, I started a list of what I remember:

-Bernie served in the Peace Corps in Brazil.
-In 1993, he was writing a novel based on his experiences in Brazil.
-He kept a theoretical chart of the consistency of symbolism. He had sketched it out for himself: midnight, winter, December/January, black, blue all aligned in the same way that 3pm, summer, red and yellow, and June/July all aligned. His chart had a dozen different layers of details...much more than I can recall.
-Bernie telephoned my parents to tell them how well I did as a student teacher.
-As a parting gift, he bought me a first edition of a novel he loved: Butterfield 8, by John O'Hara.
-He wore a jacket and a tie every day.

-He told me he worked at being a better teacher every day, every year. He said it took effort.
-He coached soccer at various points of his career.
-We taught Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet. We taught The Scarlet Letter.
-Bernie was highly respected by his colleagues. Accordingly, his colleagues treated me very well and always spoke with great admiration about Bernie. They were pleased that they knew him, that they worked with him, and that I got to be his mentee.

The thing is, I don't remember anything about how we taught.

I don't remember great lessons or failed lessons. I don't remember teaching strategies. I just remember scattered fragments of content. And I remember how Bernie was, who Bernie was. I remember the great respect he afforded me, but I especially recall the great respect he gave to the profession.

In retrospect, I don't remember Bernie conferring with students or working or getting to know them. I don't recall ever seeing the students write or seeing them read. This isn't to say that it did not happen--I just did not experience it when it did happen or my memory fails me. While Bernie was a writer, I don't remember his sharing that fact (or his writing processes) with the students. I don't recall Bernie writing in front of them.

But the one thing I still carry with me is Bernie's affect--his control and confidence in who he was and what he offered in the classroom. I remember trying to process what Bernie meant about trying to be better every day...did he mean that his record keeping became more efficient? Did he mean that he grew smarter about the novels? I didn't really know, and even today I can only surmise from a different point in my life.

Bernie was true to his spirit, his style. He knew how to make himself--who he was--most effective for his students. And, it seemed at the time, that many of his colleagues also had that trait...they seemed to enjoy that they worked with people who were different than they were. Teacher A wasn't trying to be like Teacher B. Teaching wasn't standardized even though the content was. It was ok to teach to your strengths.

Maybe my one significant take-away from student teaching is just that--maintaining control and confidence in who I am in an escalating climate of assessment, judgement, and policy. Maintaining control and confidence comes from action. Taking control over who we are fuels our confidence.

Maybe the best we can all hope for, after leaving student teaching, is remembering one key thing. Maybe we are so overwhelmed by all of it that our brain does not know which kernels of experience are so valuable that we must remember them forever.

Maybe we don't really know what to see, what to hear. Or maybe a teaching career does have to begin with content, and maybe growth only comes with practice and experience. There are no magic packets or workbooks. There are no magic techniques.

As a student teacher, I remember being so concerned with knowing the facts, knowing the books, knowing the answers, that the pedagogy often came a distant second. I didn't want to be wrong. I didn't want to get caught not knowing something. What if students asked a question that I could not answer?

The only energy I put into pedagogy was a reliance on how I remembered being taught as a student and what I observed when Bernie taught. I mimicked what I experienced and observed.

And I wonder what it was, in me, that flipped a switch to start to grow, to seek change, to find a process that would help me become a better teacher later in my career. The thing about Bernie is that I met him towards the end of his career. I don't know how Bernie started. I don't know how Bernie grew. Yet, I remember Bernie telling me that the previous year was his best year of teaching. I remember being surprised. Thirty years into the profession, Bernie only just felt that he had a great year.

As I reflect on that experience, I am reminded that we may never master this thing we do, teaching; yet, that does not mean that we just settle on being who we were when we started.

Even though policy and climate may shift from year to year, it is incumbent on me to take responsibility to grow and change from year to year while retaining the confidence and control of who I am and who I can still become in this profession. I cannot wait for guidance to make me better. I cannot wait for top-down Professional Development to make me better. Growth, confidence, and control are all within my power and, quite honestly, what makes up much of my being professional in this vocation is what I do--taking responsibility for my actions and development.

I wonder, what have you taken with you from student teaching or your first classroom experience? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Unkept Promise of Rubrics

In ELA classrooms, the rubric reigns over writing. Yet, I am wondering if others also feel that rubrics aren’t truly as helpful as we make them out to be?

When I was thirteen-years-old, I had a hard enough time prying bubble gum from my sneakers let alone untangling the language in a rubric. And even if I could untangle it, what would I have done with it? Would it have made me a better writer?

And now I wonder, does a rubric make a student a better writer?

Consider these two variations on the left from the same slot (Organization) on the rubric for Pennsylvania Writing Assessment:

While the bottom example has been rewritten as kid-friendly, it is no more helpful to students (and this is key) than the example at the top. 

How does either version help kids? Reminding students to have a beginning, middle, and end is not a bad idea...but is it helpful? Does it make or break a student’s ability to grow as a writer? Seriously, is this the guidance parents are clamoring for whenever their child receives a writing assignment? In education, we scratch our heads wondering why our students don’t grow; yet, when we introduce words like sophisticated to describe the difference between a 3 and 4 we offer little evidence as to what sophisticated means. 

A consequence is that our assessment of writing becomes subjective under the guise of making expectations transparent and concrete.

We treat the domains on rubrics like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart treated pornography: “I know it when I see it.” That colloquialism isn’t helpful to anybody, yet it is very much alive in ELA. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Why Aren't Rubrics Effective?
Constructed to rank and sort, rubrics have been leaned on as guidelines for the end of the process. The time of distribution does not make up for the absence of engagement. Rubrics send the message that good writing has very specific features. Aim for these features and we’ll let you know how you did later. Just look at any state assessment.

This standard fare of rubric is ineffectual in the classroom. Features such as organization become targets to hit, a finish line, and in many cases a brick wall. Writing to the rubric, turns the rubric into their audience. Students do not understand what is asked of them in a rubric any more than they understand comments in the margins of essays. For example, writing “Be Concise!” in the margin helps no one unless the teacher demonstrates how one writes in a concise manner.

When rubrics are not effective it is because they became scoring guidelines first, writing guidelines second, and conversation (mentoring) guidelines last--if at all. Rubrics, too often, are dead ends for students because the feedback comes at the end of the process and that is too late.

The Scoring Trap
Even though our state assessments insist on modelling it, avoid using the rubric to score.

The state assessment arena is much different than writing in the classroom or the real world of writers. Yet, teachers continue to debate how to best use a rubric to score according the presence of or absence of evidence from the noted domains

The kinds of conversations I have engaged in sounded like:
  • “if a student has three areas marked a 3 and one area a 4... is that more like a that an 85% an 86%...but I really like what they did; could I still grade it with an A-?" 
  • "if we treat the numbers as points and add up the 1s and 2s and 3s and 4s and divide by the number of possible points according to the number of categories..."
In my opinion, these conversations were misguided. I chased the score and lost sight of what positive actions could be taken with conversations, mentoring, and modeling.

And so I am left wondering--is the score on the rubric evidence of student growth or is the score on the rubric evidence of a teacher's effort? Are we scoring with rubrics for the student or are we scoring with rubrics to cover our asses?

This scoring trap is exacerbated when we learn that state assessments are scored holistically--as in, this is what a “4” looks like. Scorers literally create piles of paper (4s and 3s and 2s and 1s) while teachers in classrooms scrutinize rubric summaries (re: sophisticated) and mark errors on student writing in pursuit of the justification of a given grade. When teachers try to shoehorn a score into a rubric, we turn writing into a transaction--if you do this, then we will reward you with that.

And this, indeed, is the trap. Too much writing has become transactional in our schools. The consequence is that students do not have enough experience with expressive writing because expressive writing is the development of thinking and the development of thinking is much more difficult to score...even though it is much more valuable developmentally.

Academic Wallpaper
Perceived as a measure of a job well done, some schools encourage (or require) teachers to display the state rubric in all ELA classrooms--academic wallpaper to make us feel good about ourselves.

How can we transform the rubric--or our use of it--into learning and evidence of learning? How do we turn this around?

Use a part of a rubric, not all of a rubric.
If you can’t justify abandoning the state model or if you are precluded from using anything but a standard district model, teach it in parts.

For example, display only the Organization column. As the days and weeks pass, teach students strategies within each concept. For organization, we would focus on leads, transitions, and conclusions in addition to studying multiple structures. Exploring mentor texts to uncover how different writers organize different types of text--depending on their purpose--takes time. There is no reason to rush the process.

Some of the best teaching and coaching I have experienced has been through a part-part-whole philosophy. Think of dancing lessons or yoga. We learn a series of steps or positions in stages. We learn to improve in increments and with support. We improve when our instructor talks with us, guides us, and asks us questions. They do not hand us a form with gradients of performance circled or attributed to a score and say, “see you when it’s over.”

Use the piece of the rubric to be the topic of conversation over a lengthy period of time. Hold professional texts up to the piece of the rubric highlighted in your class and talk about it. Make time for your students to be able to write and talk about it. Let them practice on mentor texts and let them practice on their own drafts in nonjudgmental (un-scored) situations. Open up your notebook and ask the class to have a conversation about a rough piece of your writing--pull the goals of the rubric domain into the conversation. Ask your students to brainstorm what you might do next as a writer to accomplish the organizational goal on that one slot in the rubric. I am confident our conversations will be richer and more meaningful for our students. Learning will exceed the standard set by the rubric.

And do these things again and again and again.

Assessing a part of the whole
If we had to use a rubric, could we use one column today and a separate column another week when the student was ready to move on?

Could one student’s rubric grow at a different rate than another student’s rubric? According to Janet Emig, writing is a natural process and everyone grows at differing rates. Why deliver the same doses of a writing rubric to all kids at the same rate on the same day?

For example, couldn’t we focus on organization for several different drafts--encouraging ongoing feedback during the process--and when a student articulates the elements and strategies of organization add another component of the rubric--something they are ready for. They all do not have to move through the domains of the rubric in the same order at the same rate. When it comes to writing, students are not going to be in the same place as their classmates. I have learned that student growth does not often happen by our watch.

Asking students to highlight or explain their organization reveals more about what they are learning than a teacher serving as a judge at the end of the process. In the example to the left, a student demonstrates her learning.

I use this model at all stages of the process--and rarely at the end. I try to instill a sense that this type of rubric is more about the writer and less about the piece of writing. These writing moves are appropriate and measurable irrespective of the writing assignment. We can return to these skills again again throughout the year.

While I did not have to score anything, I did score her ability to show me what she learned. Literally, all I was looking for was the student's ability to show me a writing skill found in her writing. 

Additionally, I confer with students about their rubric and pick their brain about their choices. Students understand that these conversations contribute to my assessment of their work. We keep the conversation alive throughout the process as the student continues to develop as a writer. 

Another element of the re-imagined rubric is providing space for reflections and explanations. This particular rubric was built around only one domain: organization.
Sending the message that students are not just plugging in correct answers engages them as writers. At each step, I want students thinking, writing, and talking about writing. 

I share these rubrics through Google Docs (Google Classroom makes everyone their own individual copy) and most students will type their responses and reflections right into the shared document.

Using parts of a rubric, and building upon them, serves each student where he/she is today.

Use the comprehensive rubric at the end of a marking period
If a comprehensive rubric must be used in its entirety, ask students to write reflection letters about what they see in their own writing as it pertains to the classroom rubric. Perhaps students would point out topics not yet covered, but topics of concern in their own work. Students might be able to go back into their own writing and demonstrate their growth. Also, it is much more valuable for a student to explain their growth. Put another way: ask students to explain how they believe they moved from a 4 in organization to a 6 in organization. What did he/she do?

A final thought on scoring and writing
Resist the urge to see the numbers on a rubric as reflective of a score.

Distance the score from the prose. Move the score as far away as you can. If you must score something, score the process in a portfolio at the end of the marking period or isolated skills within an early draft. Score their ability to demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses as a writers and what they would like to do about it. Score the reasons behind their upcoming goals. Score their articulation of how they feel they improved. Score what is there instead of what is not there. Score it in conversation in lieu of or in addition to writing. Discuss the score. Guide them. We do not need to score students in a private vacuum. If they can’t take the feedback in person with a compassionate human being what makes us believe that they can take, process, and understand on their own what we mark on a rubric by ourselves at our desk?

Ultimately, how we use rubrics (if at all) should come down to the following question for our students to answer: did it make you a better writer?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Paper Elephants in the Classroom

A friend summarized the difference between short and long term solutions in the teaching of math. She said kids can fall into the trap of relying on tricks. The problem rests in the fact that the trick does not promote deep understanding. The student learns a work-around without understanding the content.

Credit: Asiatic elephant by Satoshi Kamiya
In ELA, I find myself feeling similarly about buzz words or phrases: hook your reader, writer's purpose, audience. While I understand what we mean when, as teachers, we present concepts to kids, our terminology can often turn into paper tigers. Well, maybe tiger is too strong. Maybe our words becomes more of a paper elephant in the classroom. Large and ineffective.

Each term hook your reader, purpose, audience remains vague to kids as a concept and unhelpful to kids when posed as advice: set your purpose; define an audience; etc. Often, our kids are left with one silent question: "How?"

Offering concrete examples of what writers do, and constantly returning to examples helps students focus on the moves made by writers. Seeing the strategy within an authentic newspaper, magazine, or text reinforces that these tools exists. Furthermore, teaching leads, or any aspect of organization, is ongoing and recursive because each new text opens new possibilities. 

Some of the more common and specific moves used when writing a lead:

  • striking image
  • startling fact
  • action!
  • dialogue
  • scene that sets the stage
  • intriguing question or quote
  • anecdote
  • summary of a problem

Take a look at the following leads. These are a small sample of what I pulled to discuss with my classes over the last week. Each image from the March 2016 edition of Teen Ink.

When I asked my students what they noticed in the first example, they noticed that the writer blended a summary of a problem with a scene that sets the stage. We don't have these terms memorized even though we have been working with them for several months. They are still displayed on the board. Students glance back and forth from the newspaper to the list before making a decision.

It is necessary to note that I use several interchangeable words for "problem" as in "summarize a problem." Writers might use a summary of a connection, a summary of an accomplishment, a summary of a solution, et al. Often, it is this element--the summary of a [problem]--that directs a reader towards an understanding of a writer's purpose. I don't need to say develop you writer's purpose. Most kids don't grasp the context of that word. Most need something more concrete. Without this brief summary, writing tends to plummet into narrative. As the writer risks writing a(n) (un)remarkable moments without much for the reader to hold onto, the writers risks allowing the reader to drifting away from the text, disconnected, uninterested.

Notice, in the second example, that we can point out the use of a dialogue blended with a summary of a problem. The dialogue is one of several ways in, but the path chosen by a writer always leads to a summary of something.

Currently, my students are wrestling adding this element--summary of [...]--to their writing. Through conferring, I understand that many are still writing to find their purpose--and this is ok. Actually, I prefer this method of writing to discover connections. Writing to make meaning. Writing to pull together fragments of life experiences, learning, and observations. 

I would rather a student write and write and write in order to make their own meaning than for students trained to write for my meaning, to my prompts or to the prompts of a textbook. Students trained to make widgets. Assembly line writing. Short term methods in lieu of deeper understanding. 

We do no one any favors when we focus on teaching the writing instead of teaching the writer. In other words, students can apply and adjust what they learn about leads to almost any writing or reading asked of them in school. 

Encouraging students to write to find their own meaning takes time. However, we can reclaim a lot of time by offering concrete moves. When students can refer to what they want to do by a specific term, instead of the blanket term (hook my reader) we are all positioned to help one another move and grow as writers with a long term understanding.