Starting from Scratch- #IMMOOC Round 2

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So here I am blogging for Week #1 of the second round of #IMMOOC. It was such a great experience last time that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn some more from all of the participants. I have “met” so many dedicated educators as a result of the first #IMMOOC and will be forever grateful to George Couros and Katie Martin for taking their time to put these on. So…let’s get to the point of this blog post…If I was starting from scratch what would my school look like? What would stay and what would go?

Obviously the answer to this question can and does fill whole books so I will deal with just one major change…getting rid of grades! I say this having given the topic a lot of thought over the last year. Grades just seem to be one of the root cause of the issues that we have in schools. This is a hot topic that causes much disagreement among educators and the public. Grades, not true learning, are what motivate many students. Grades are the way that schools say, “see what our students know.” Grades in and of themselves aren’t bad, but it is the power that we have given them over time that has become detrimental. If I were to look back anecdotally over my twenty-three years in the classroom, high grades were many times not a true reflection of the talent of a student. There were many instances where those with the high grades simply knew how to play the game of school while those with lower grades had a myriad of reasons for not getting higher grades. Many of those were related to boredom and/or home issues.

The popular feeling among many educators that failure is necessary for student growth runs head on with most grading systems that involve the idea of punishment for making mistakes. The punishment is a set number of points deducted from 100. These lost points are never able to be retrieved. Don’t even get me started on extra credit! The motivation for students is to not lose points. That sounds great until you look at how this plays out in the real world. Every point is a battle! It is a battle in the mind of the teacher, student, and parents. I cannot count the number of times that I had discussions with students or parents about one or two points. From a teacher’s perspective, they have taken the time to grade according to a rubric or set of standards. Through this lens, those one or two points seem to be a carefully arrived at through something akin to the scientific process. Truly being honest with ourselves would allow us to be able to admit that this is fantasy. As much as we try to be consistent and fair with grading, there are too many variables present. Did I grade the first papers when I was relaxed and motivated? Did I finish a class of papers at 2:00 am? Add to the mix that there are some schools who give only letter grades, while some give percentage grades. To make it even more confusing, some grading scales use 90-100 to earn an A where others use 93-100. The district in which I work has college credit granting courses that use different grading scales for the high school and college credit. Earn a 92% and you will receive an A for the college portion and a B+ for the high school credit. Imagine how that goes over with students and parents!!

There are many more examples of the negative impact of grades on the educational system. When I bring this idea up to other teachers and administrators the reaction is almost always same…”Yeah but that’s how it has always been and it is what colleges look at when deciding on acceptance standards. It is so ingrained in how we educate students that there is no way that it can or will change.” But…I have been given the power of a blank slate, a tabula rasa! Standards based grading seems to me to be the best system for being able to hold students accountable for their learning. In a perfect world, there would have to be no accountability because everyone would learn because they wanted to and were motivated. While that would be awesome, I am not so pie-in-the-sky as to believe that is ever really possible. Teachers would learn to evaluate student work according to standards on a scale from not-meeting to exceeding. This would be much “easier” than applying a percentage grade to student work. This work would be looked at in terms of standards that were attempted.  I would personally use a system where a student would always be judged by their best work as to further encourage progress over points. There wouldn’t be a penalty for scoring low on an early attempt at a standard, only room for growth. Quality narrative feedback would help guide students to areas where growth was needed. This would truly allow students to experience the benefit of “failure” in leading toward mastering a standard.

A whole new societal mindset would be needed to throw out grades. There are individuals who are trying, but society as a whole still clings to grades. Starting in elementary/middle schools would probably be easier simply from the standpoint of colleges not being involved.  High schools have the added problem of doing what colleges expect. Until colleges change their focus on grades, high schools will have a tough time trying to reform grading practices. But, I can still dream!

Don Sturm

The process is important!

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Imagine…students working diligently on a project. They are interacting with each other. Their interest levels are peaked. They are seeking out new information. The teacher is happy, the students are happy, everything is right with the world. Then…the final product is turned in…and it is not very good. What happened? What grade do you as a teacher give to the finished product? You have a rubric that you live and die by, you really have no choice but to give a low grade. The final grade is not what the students expected.

As a former high school history teacher, I can speak first hand about how easy it is to forget the importance of the process of learning. High school teachers especially seem to focus more on the final product than the steps that students followed to produce that product. I am not sure if it is the content heavy nature of high school or the idea that students at this level are ready to be set out into the dog-eat-dog world, but there is a huge focus on final products. Educators, no matter the grade level, need to be sure to place an emphasis on the process rather than the final product.

Don’t get me wrong, at some point the final product needs to count for something. The key for those involved in educating kids is to find a balance of process and product. My biggest issue is that many teachers (myself included) give many one and done type of assignments. Students work for a set amount of time (days to weeks), turn in it in, and wait for a grade. The grade is given and the something new is assigned. The problem…many times the new project involves new skills that haven’t been honed through previous work. This process is repeated over and over throughout a semester or school year.

Wouldn’t it be better to incorporate a set of skills/standards that students would work to master throughout the course or year? In theory, every assignment or long term project would incorporate these skills/standards. This would allow students to use what they learn from each project to hone these skills over a longer period of time. Projects turned in at the end of the course or year would presumably be better than those turned in during the beginning of the year. This is true growth!

Probably one of the biggest hurdles to this type of thinking is the nature of grades in our education system. The belief that everything that students complete has to be graded and then recorded is pervasive in our society. Parents have to have something to see in the gradebook…don’t they?? This expectation is then carried over to assignments. If students complete and turn in an assignment, it is easy for a teacher to just look at that final piece of work and, in turn, the learning process is almost completely discounted. And…if the work is all done at home, there is really no effective way to assess the learning process. Thus, the push by some educators to do away with homework. While I am not suggesting that there is no place for homework, I do think that this makes a final grade almost always reliant on the final product and not the process.

How to implement this is the million dollar question! One thought gaining traction is to use more of a standards based grading system. This type of grading system allows students to work on standards that will be mastered over time. In this type of classroom, students are always assessed based upon their best work. I am currently working with a high school ELA teacher on this type of grading system. It is worth noting that this is being done within a traditional grading system, but grades do not appear until midterm and final report cards. This is what George Couros might describe as innovating within the box. As students work to meet standards, their best attempt is recorded. This is direct attempt to balance process and final product. Final products are always being assessed, but there is a focus on continual growth. The focus is on process.

The challenge for teachers is to at least be aware that the learning process is important. This awareness will hopefully lead to some discussions about how to assess the process and not just the product. It is also important to stress this idea to all involved in the education process: students, parents, administrators, and school board members. When showcasing work…focus on the process that was followed and the learning that resulted. Don’t always feel like you have to showcase the final video or presentation to others. In fact, don’t lead with the finished product, lead with process!

Don Sturm

Why I Do What I Do!

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Officially, my job title is technology integration specialist. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? I help people integrate technology into their teaching! My job is a little messier than the title suggests. A typical day may include any one or many of the following:



  • answering emails from teachers, students, and parents.
  • purchasing and pushing out apps to 2000+ devices.
  • locating lost iPads.
  • explaining the benefits of using ____ app or service.
  • troubleshooting problems with iPads.
  • defending the use of technology in the classroom.
  • attending meetings about technology.
  • visiting other schools to look at their technology.
  • working on Smart Boards, Macs, and PCs.
  • helping to manage the web filter and Google Admin. console.
  • visiting classrooms.
  • recording tutorial videos.
  • updating Google Classrooms to share information with teachers and students.
  • planning professional development activities, both online and inperson.
  • talking to sales reps.


I don’t list all of these to have people feel sorry for me, only to show that there is no real consistency to what I do everyday. There is not one of those jobs on the list that I hate doing, but there are those that I prefer more than others. I should mention at this point that I truly love my job. Sure there are times that I feel (frustrated, stressed, overworked, under-appreciated), but hey…that’s what it means to be involved in education!

Though to be completely honest, I want my position to focus more on discussions of how to best teach kids and less on most of the jobs listed above. If those discussions involve technology…great, but right now the focus seems to be more on the technology and less on the pedagogy behind it. As a result, those who are uncomfortable with technology see me as someone who wants to add something to their already full plate. Some of this is my fault, some of it is the fault of teachers and administrators, and some of it is no one’s fault. Schools are messy places filled with people who are pressed for time! Thankfully, there are those teachers and administrators in my district who I can count on to recharge my batteries when I need it. These are the people with whom I can always count on having a good discussion about growth mindset, Makerspaces, Breakout EDU, Twitter, etc. I’ll share two recent examples that exemplify why I do what I do everyday!

One of the hardest parts of leaving the classroom was leaving a co-teaching situation that I had been a part of for twelve years. Courtney (@CAEddleman) and I had MANY conversations about how to best teach kids, not just how fast we could move through content. It seemed that we were never satisfied with how we were doing things. Moving to this new position meant that I wasn’t going to be able to have those day to day conversations. A couple of months ago, after having read a couple of books about standards based grading, I asked her if she would be interested in trying this approach with her 12th grade expository writing class. We sat down and talked through what this change might look like and, in the end, she decided to give it a try this semester. She also became excited about the idea of Breakout EDU and has worked on incorporating this into her classroom as well as helping me present it to the faculty as a whole. Courtney has created a classroom environment where students are experiencing their teacher being excited to try new things!  Making big changes in how she teaches content seems to have renewed her excitement for teaching and in doing what is best for kids. To hear her say, “I can’t wait to see what the kids do with this” is why I do what I do everyday!

The other example relates to the conversations with the junior high principal Lee Hoffman (@HoffmanLee) about the possibility of a Makerspace and/or STEM lab in his school. These conversations, which have also included visits to other schools, have generated a lot of discussion about pedagogy that have been deep and focused on what is best for kids. Should the 7th grade experience be more “scripted” than the 8th grade? What modules do we want/need to include? How much should it focus on future career possibilities? What kind of teacher is needed for this type of experience? Discussions like these get me geeked up and excited about the possibilities! To see this principal talk about how awesome this type of change is going to be is why I do what I do everyday!

These are not the only two examples of conversations that I have had with teachers and administrators, but they don’t happen as often as I would like. From here on out, my goal is to make these types of discussions the rule rather than the exception. I am not naive enough to think that all of those aspects of my job listed above will disappear, but we have to create opportunities for deeper pedagogical discussions among teachers, administrators, students, and parents. This is how we will make schools better. This is why I decided to leave the classroom after 23 years. This is why I do what I do.

Don Sturm

Goal for 2017: Encourage PLNs!

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Four simple words…I love my PLN! For those who are unfamiliar with the acronym, a PLN is a personal learning network where you decide what you want to learn and who will help you learn. It is an informal, organic type of learning where individuals engage with the goal of contributing to the overall base of knowledge. It typically starts online but may continue in person through attending conferences. One of my professional goals for this year will be to encourage others to build a robust PLN, using my experiences over the last year.

My online presence takes place on Twitter (@sturmdon), Voxer (@dsturm823), SnapChat (don.sturm) and Facebook (member of The Innovator’s Mindset and Teachers Throwing Out Grades groups). These four online resources have provided me with much inspiration as they are filled with educators who truly care about teaching and learning. Even if I don’t use specific strategies that are shared, the interactions inspire me to try new things.

Educators need to be encouraged to take risks and try new things. This is exactly what you can get from a PLN. It is very easy to bounce ideas off of others simply by posting it. The bigger your PLN, the more advice you will receive. People are more than willing to share their experiences, both positive and negative, so that the collective group can benefit. My philosophy is to follow as many educators as possible. As a result, I follow many more than follow me.

Online PLNs help to make collaboration more than just a buzzword. Working with others is easy if you are open to experiences. PLNs can be a one-way street, but if you are willing to share it becomes something more. There have been many times that a Twitter chat or Voxer chat has turned into work sessions with other educators. Most of these work sessions have taken place on Google Hangouts where your online colleagues are now “real” in the sense that you can see and interact with them. I have also had side conversations with individuals where we hash out issues that are important to us in our jobs. I have to give a shout out to Tara M. Martin for being a great PLN collaborator! We have had many conversations about teaching and learning. In the spirit of collaboration, I hope that I have given back…at least a little…to her. She is down to earth and has inspired me (and many others) to create and contribute to our PLNs so as to get the most out of the online experience. Her development of #booksnaps as a way to get students and educators interacting with text using emojis/Bitmojis and images is fantastic. I can honestly say that it has changed the way that I read. Her blog can be found at http://www.tarammartin.com. I have also included a few of the (from the MANY) #booksnaps that I have created. Search for #booksnaps on Twitter to find the hundreds of others who have added their own.

The chat capabilities of these online mediums are AWESOME! Twitter chats are probably the most well known, but I have also taken part in EdCamp Voxer, as well as regular groups that are part of the Voxer experience. My new interest is experimenting using SnapChat as part of my PLN. Recently, I started a SnapChat group chat that has been an interesting experience with the fifteen others who joined.  The point is that chats allow you to discuss real issues with real people and have real-time interactions versus the typical social media experience of posting something and waiting for a reaction. These chats sort of kill two birds with one stone. You get the professional discussion, but you also learn how to use the medium. The later is important with learning and understanding the social media lives of students. While many complain that this generation of kids always has their head buried in their phone, my experiences have led me to believe that kids are being much more social on their devices than we think!

The belief that we need to do things the way that they have always been done is one of the major ideas holding back schools from being even better. The sheer nature of online PLNs will help to combat this feeling. These PLNs surround you with people who do and want to try new things. It helps you to see that there are other ways of doing things. Teaching used to be a very independent endeavor, but it no longer has to be! Give an online PLN a try this year. Find someone in your district/school who can help or, better yet, get someone to join you on the new endeavor.

Don Sturm

 

Don’t be a Goob!

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What’s a goob? We all probably know at least one! You might even have another name for them. They are the negative ones who can and do ruin the possibility of something good just by their comments and reactions. They are the elephant in the room. If you aren’t a goob, you might get trapped in their web of negativity. You start to become goob like! If you are a goob, please stop because you are ruining it for others. Hmmm…the more I think about it, there probably aren’t many goobs reading this blog post 🙂

I write this post with the thought that we can’t just ignore this elephant in the room. Change is needed in schools and we can’t afford to let a small group (hopefully) of people distract us from sharing and implementing these necessary improvements. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not talking about the teachers or administrators who have legitimate disagreements with specific improvements. We need a variety of research based opinions on our quest for a better education system! Goobs are those who will fight anything that is different just simply because…not because of any research.

It is uncomfortable to face the goob and, as a result, many times we just simply try to ignore them. I want to suggest a different approach. Why not talk about the goob, not as an individual, but as a group? What if we acknowledge the elephant in the room? The best outcome would see the goob change and be an open and a willing participant in the improvement process.  The worst case scenario would be that they do not change their minds and start to grumble to themselves, but at least they won’t poison the proverbial watering hole! What if school districts used a hashtag like #dontbeagoob as a way of putting them on notice that we won’t allow the goobs to bring others down? Planning a different kind of professional development activity? Use this new hashtag along with the “legitimate” ones to silence the goobs. Would this acknowledgment of the elephant in the room help to change the culture of a school? I don’t know, but I am willing to try it and see what happens.

Don Sturm

Choices, Choices, Choices

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Today started as a normal weekend morning…get up, drink some coffee, look at Twitter, read a few blogs. The blogs I read always make me think, but my problem is that I can’t stop thinking about them. What I really thought (and thought, and thought) about this morning was how two very different blogs were actually related. The first  blog I read was by Starr Sackstein and focused on the idea that students don’t really know how to make choices because others regularly make decisions for them.

“Children start out naturally curious, asking a lot of questions and engaging with their environment as soon as they are aware of it and have the ability to do so. Then they enter the school systems and almost immediately have that autonomy taken away. It’s a slow, insidious process that systematically strips students of their ability to understand their own interests in academic or even purely passionate way, especially as it pertains to school.”

The next blog I read was by  Kenneth McKee. While his main focus was how instructional coaches can build relationships, one suggestion was to provide teachers a menu of services that instructional coaches can provide. This menu “forces” teachers to pick from a limited list of services. I assume that Kenneth’s decision to provide a menu stems from the fact that not providing any choices would be overwhelming to teachers. I should point out that he did include an “other” choice.

What these two blogs share is the idea that choices are something that many in the field of education have trouble making.  Why is that? Is it because both students and teachers are conditioned to having choice made for them by others? Is it a societal thing? Are we just presented with so many choices in our daily life that we actually like it when others make decisions for us? Does having someone else make decisions for us lessen our responsibility for the final outcome?

It seems that those who have been in a school setting for a long period of time are conditioned to do what others have told/ask us to do. The student is “told” what to read, write, draw, etc. While most teachers are probably not told how to teach, many are told what to teach as well as how long to teach (fill in the blank). We need to start consciously moving toward allowing/expecting students and teachers to make more choices. Making choices is a life skill? If you always have people making decisions for you, how will you ever learn to make them on your own? It would seem wise to allow students the ability to practice in a safe environment like school rather having have to make those choices out in the “real world” without the necessary skills to weigh options, which is necessary for any well thought out decision.

Building in more choice in our schools is imperative. Teachers will need to decide what areas choice can be provided to the student. For example, many schools have a set curriculum outlining what books must be read. If you are in a school like this, the choice may be focused around how the understanding of the book will be shown. When I was a classroom teacher, my colleague and I would provide four or five different modes that could be used for presentations. Students would randomly be assigned to one of these modes. The next project would involve jigsawing students so that there was at least one representative of each mode in the new group. These groups would then choose which mode was best for the new project.  Eventually students could use any mode that they thought would best meet the requirements of the assignment. This was our way of providing some guidance to students on how to make good choices.

Approaching the issue of choice with teachers is a bit more challenging. When presented with so many choices of how and what to teach, and ultimately assess, it is very easy for teachers to choose the way that it has always been done. This is the “safest” choice and requires the least amount of work. The life of a teacher can be a very demanding one. As a result, when trying to reduce workload, the easiest choice is sometimes seen as the “best” choice. Having access to instructional coaches is one way of helping. These coaches can and should start by providing some options from which the teacher can choose. Doing this will hopefully open doors for the teacher to feel comfortable exploring other ways of presenting and assessing their students.

Choice must become more a part of the education process. It allows both students and teachers to feel more of a sense of ownership.  This feeling of ownership has the potential to lead to great things within the education setting. What can you do to encourage more choice?

Don Sturm

There is no time!

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Time is on my side.

Rolling Stones

Don’t you wish these song lyrics were true? Wouldn’t (fill in the blank) be better if I just had more time! Personally I could generate a LONG list of words to fill in that blank. The problem with this way of thinking is that you will NEVER have more time. Time will never been on our side. There needs to be more focus on what we do with our time rather than thinking about what would be possible with more time.

From a professional standpoint, time is what is needed to read about new research and ways of teaching, observe other teachers, reflect on your teaching practices, and on and on and on. I would argue that you need to step back and figure out how you can build in time for those professional aspects that are important. If you aren’t happy with how your students are responding to how you grade and/or teach, you NEED to take time to figure out what can be done differently. Think about the cycle if you don’t. You teach a unit…your students don’t seem to be enjoying it…you get frustrated…they test over the unit…the grades aren’t great…the students take 2 seconds to look over comments that you took hours making…you start the next unit upset… and the cycle continues. Imagine doing this for years! You must find the time to change things up.

But how? I wish I had an easy answer to this question, but it boils down to what many have told me, “you will make time for things that are important.” I say this not trying to offend or upset anyone, but it is true. It has been true for me, and I think it is true for everyone. If you want to lose weight, you’ll find the time. If you want to spend more time with your family, you’ll find the time. If you want to reconnect with your significant other, you’ll find the time. The same goes for your professional life. If it is important you MUST find the time or you will burnout and get frustrated. Neither of these are good for you, your students, your district, or your family!

Look at what/how you teach and ask yourself what you would most want to change. Pick up a book that helps offer alternatives and take the time to read it. Jump on Twitter and follow people who have fresh ideas. Search for blogs from teachers who have new ideas and are willing to share their experiences. Your first reaction will be that you don’t have time…make time! For years I have read every night before I go to bed. Most nights I was reading material that I could use to help make my classroom a better place. If you choose to read books, the reading list doesn’t have to be research heavy. In fact, I would recommend that your reading list include books that will help to inspire you to be a better teacher, not put you to sleep! This is my way of making a little time for professional growth.

Don Sturm

Recommended books: