Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It


Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.


To Auf, or Not to Auf: A Lesson in Communication

Watching the latest episode of Project Runway (hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it) made me think about project-based learning and the importance of communication of grading practices.

For those who don’t know, Project Runway is Heidi Klum’s challenge-based reality show where one day you’re “in”, and the next day you’re “out” (or “Auf’d!” as we say based on the German-born host’s good-bye catchphrase). Pitting upstart fashion designers against each other, the 18-week run showcases one elimination per week, creating a sewing fight to the finish where only 1 designer can end up on top.


Normally, I end up watching the show through the lens of project-based learning and performance assessment. It’s not really much of a stretch:

  • Given parameters for a task, designers make a plan (for an outfit), gather resources to execute that plan, and develop the final product of a runway-ready outfit – usually within two days or so from soup to nuts.
  • The final product gets assessed by a panel of fashion professionals, who judge the outfit accoding to some specified criteria along with their own professional opinion.
  • These panelists provide each “Top 3” and “Bottom 3” designer with both commendations and critical feedback. Through deliberation, they then choose one designer as the winner, and one to be Auf’d.
  • Every designer who has participated – whether they continue on or not – has ideally learned more about the skills and understanding it takes to make it in this business.

This panelist interaction highlights for me the distinctions between tests and assessments, between feedback and grades. These terms get thrown around and conflated in education all the time – I thought maybe that applying them to this show would be a helpful way to distinguish them. Here’s how the analogy works for me:

  • Test = The task given to the designers
  • Assessment = Observation of the products that resulted from this task, and judgement of the relative quality of that product
  • Feedback = The process of sharing these observations and judgements, while potentially suggesting some changes for future endeavors
  • Grade = In this case, a norm-referenced rating: Winner of the challenge, Top 3, “Safe” in the middle, Bottom 3, “Auf’d”.

Fast-forward to this past week. (SPOILER ALERT, for those who care about that kind of thing.) In episode 7, the task was to make a design that fit into an existing collection developed by Lord & Taylor, a reputable fashion company. After completing the challenge, the runway walk revealed the 9 designers’ dresses – all of which were pretty good. I didn’t think there was a “bad” one in the bunch.

Apparently, the judges felt the same way: they decided that everyone “met par” on the challenge, and no one was Auf’d. The decision made perfect sense to me, but I’m a standards-based addict. The response from Christopher (a contestant on the show):


Because these contestants are used to a certain norm-referenced grading scale – Winner, Top 3, “Safe”, Bottom 3, “Auf’d” – they will react negatively if the scale gets changed on them somehow. They will consider any decision based on that change to be “unfair”, even if it is the fairer thing to do.

Something to keep in mind for all of you starting up the school year with new ways of assessing and grading (standards-based or otherwise): make sure you’ve communicated the change and its rationale before acting on the change. Otherwise, your kids will likely respond just like Christopher did.

Flip On the Tube! 5 Made-for-TV Video Sites for Science Instruction

This is the third in a series of blog posts, collecting links to websites that contain some interesting videos for teachers looking to “flip their classroom” without starting from scratch.  (For more on what it means to flip a classroom, see Monday’s introductory post.)  For each site below, I have tried to summarize by including information about

  • content areas collected on the site,
  • the intended grade level/age of viewers, and
  • the type/style of video (e.g. lecture with written notes, music video, made-for-TV)

There should also be an example video posted along each title.  Between the description, the links, and sample video, you should end up with a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.  (Note: after being organized into categories, these sites are listed alphabetically by title, not based on any evaluation of relative quality.) 

Made-for-TV Videos

Mythbusters http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/mythbusters/

Content Areas: Scientific process skills and engineering around a variety of topics

Intended Age Group: Most clips would be all right for ages 8+, though be sure to screen topics accordingly

Style of videos: Problem-focused vignette as two (or more) people try to design a solution

Sample video: Dimpled Car MiniMyth


Description: Mythbusters Jamie & Adam are at it again!  As most know, these two (and their newly-formed team) challenge widely-held beliefs of all shapes and sizes, using science to debunk myth.  Discovery.com has collected over 1,000 clips from the show on their website.  The clips- ranging from 60 seconds to 5 minutes- could serve a great purpose as a focusing tool, or as a model for engineering, problem-solving, or investigation.  The downside: the clips on this site are not really organized in any way.  To find something of value to you in your classroom, be ready to do some searching and some bookmarking.

NBC Learn http://www.nbclearn.com/

Content Areas: Physics (Science of NFL Football, Science of the WInter Olmpics), Chemistry (Chemistry Now!), and Earth Science (The Changing Planet)

Intended Age Group: I’ve used these resources with students as young as 3rd grade, as old as 12th.  

Style of videos: What you might expect in a feature story on the news- interviews, stock footage, telestrated explanations over video.

Sample video: The Chemistry of Chocolate

Description: The team at NBC News got collected, produced, and archived these resources for the K-12 classroom.  The subject matter of each collection puts the content into a context that matters to kids.  (My pesonal favorite: Science of the Winter Olympics!)  A select few videos (about 100 altogether) are free for use in classrooms, while the rest of the collection require a subscription.

One interesting tidbit: NBC Learn uses a media player called a Cue Card™ that supports various media besides video.  It is also “flippable”:  like a flash card, the media player provides bibliographic information, clickable keywords and a citation generator on the back, and a full transcript along the side.

SportScience http://search.espn.go.com/sports-science/videos/6

Content Areas: Mostly physics, though several touch on biology- or chemistry-related topics

Intended Age Group: Like NBC Learn, I have used these with all ages of student.

Style of videos: TV scientists pose a question, and measure data from athletes’ performance in order to answer the question

Sample video: Jayron Hosley – Reaction Time and Speed

Description: John Brenkus and the SportScience team mix Mythbusters with SportsCenter to bring SportScience, a show that digs into the science behind the world of sports.  In most situations, the clips consist of Brenkus posing a question about an athlete: “How does Rory McElroy drive the ball so far off the tee?”  “How fast is Jayron Hosley?”  “Can Chicago Bear Devin Heser outrun a real bear?”  The team then goes into data collection mode, strapping high-tech probes and tracking equipment to the athlete in order to study his/her movements.  The data is then analyzed in order to try and answer the initial question.

ESPN has collected about 100 3 to 5 minute clips on their website.  Unfortunately, like the Mythbusters site, the organizational structure of this site leaves a bit to be desired- teachers will need to be ready to spend a little time digging here to find just the content they need.  (Be sure to bookmark it in some way once you find it!)

Time Warphttp://dsc.discovery.com/tv/time-warp/time-warp.html

Content Areas: Bit of a mixed bag, though there is a lot of physics.

Intended Age Group: Generally for older viewers, though I think everyone could be easily awed by the super high-speed camera.  Given that explosions and fire are often a topic of conversation, be wary of the clip in its totality before assigning it.

Style of videos: Hosts Jeff Lieberman and Matt Kearney pose questions, and then film subjects with a super high-speed camera in order to see events in super slow motion (which hopefully helps to answer the question at hand).

Sample video:  Nucleation in a Soda Geyser

Description: Like SportScience, Time Warp digs into the science behind that which happens too quickly for our eyes to see.  Through the use of a high-speed camera, the hosts are able to capture many more frames per second than your average video camera, allowing us to receive much more information about what really happens in the blink of an eye!  The site has two different video sets.  One set of 20 videos from HowStuffWorks.com goes into more of an explanation for phenomena like bubbles, rockets, and fire walking.  The other is a collection of interactive videos where the user controls the speed and direction of the playback- perhaps to answer a question of his or her own!  While these vids may not be of enough substance to fly as flipped videos on their own, the interactive videos might cool enough of a resource to be used in the classroom during application time.

Twig Science http://twig-it.com/

Content Areas: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics

Intended Age Group: These have different videos for all ages of students.

Style of videos: Most I have seen are documentary-style, with a single speaker scripted over archived footage from the BBC, NASA, etc.

Sample video: How Hot is the Earth’s Core?

Description: Twig Science is a company based out of the UK advertised as providing “outstanding short films on science…made with teachers, for teachers.”  They are not lying.  The videos I have seen are short (usually no more than 3 minutes or so), and outstanding in quality and clarity.  As described about BrainPop in yesterday’s post, Twig Science also offers several supplementary resources that could be used in conjunction with these videos, including sample lesson plans, checks for understandings, The organizational mindmap is an impressive feature, as well.  Also like BrainPop, Twig Science is a paid site.  The free videos give a taste of what’s inside (including a nice categorization between “Core Concept” videos and “Extension” videos), but to get full access, there’s a fee involved.



If you know of any other resources that fit this description, please share them in the comments boxes.  Happy flipping!

Don’t forget your units, Mr. Schue!

During the opening scene of tonight’s episode of Glee, I was met with the most recent “shout at the TV” moment.  (P.S. Here’s a Tumblr with an appropriate caption.)  Here’s what I imagine must have been written in the screenplay (along w/my italicized internal monologue):



Open scene on whiteboard.  Close-up on MR. SCHUESTER’s hand as he writes what appears to be a math problem across the board:

5,000 x 0.25 = 20,000

(My eyes are stuck on the board.  Do they know that this should equal 1,250?)

MR. SCHUESTER puts the cap on the marker, and turns to face the class…

(I cannot look away, and I can’t hear anything that anyone is saying.  Awaiting the impending correction from the students in the room.  There is no correction.  Awaiting him using this “silly mistake” to build a metaphor for something larger.  There is no metaphor.  Maybe he’ll have some clever way of jarring the kids to think differently about a problem they have.  There is no clever plot twist.  Wait…I think he’s walking to the board- maybe he’s going to make that big point to the kids now…)

MR. SCHUESTER (pointing at whiteboard)

It’s easy, see?  We need five thousand dollars, times a quarter a piece, means we need to sell…20,000 pieces of saltwater taffy!

MR. SCHUESTER turns around, unwraps a piece of taffy, and pops it in his mouth.  (No reference to our little math snafu.  I am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise.)



In all seriousness, here’s what I assume Ol’ Schuey was trying to convey (once again highlighting the need for units with your numbers):


Not necessarily 2+2, but also not exactly rocket science, either…so what gives?  I mean, I kind of understand it when I see a show like ER has some inconsistent medical science in it, or when CSI propagates common misunderstandings in science (like the idea that a car’s rubber tires make it safe during a thunderstorm- check out these guys from Top Gear if you’re looking for the “real” explanation on this).  It doesn’t make me too happy, but I get that these kinds of things sometimes fall through the cracks.  But to have something like this go unchecked?  I’m lost for words.

Do any of you have any of these kinds of jaw-dropping “STEM misconceptions in pop culture” moments to share?  I’m looking for more reasons to break out the discomfort of this “Oh, no, they didn’t” laugh.

There Are No Repeats


I found myself flipping through the channels this evening, looking for something interesting to watch.  Wading through the multitude of offerings that is modern-day cable television, I ran across The Graduate playing on AMC.  A thought ran through my head: this is a classic.  While I have not seen the film in upward of a decade, I do remember admiring its complicated narrative, its intricate cinematography, its nearly perfect soundtrack. The TV info bar validated my thought, with 4 stars stamped next to the title.  I quickly recalled a recent viewing of (500) Days of Summer, which referenced the movie in what I thought to be an intriguing way.  All of these factors coalesced into a desire to tune in and watch the film again.  

Quickly, my mind then contradicted my impulse, reminding me that I had already seen this film and shouldn’t waste my time.  We have but one life, after all- why take any portion of that precious little time watching something I have already seen?  Just at that moment, I had a thought so compelling that I felt it necessary to obey those impulses and watch the film:

I have never experienced this film.

The above statement may come across as a bold-faced lie, a complete contradiction to every word that preceded it.  But I believe it to be absolute truth.  And yes, I do remember seeing the film.  Oddly, I remember that night like it was yesterday.  I was a college student, living in a friend’s apartment over a summer between leases, working in a record store and writing album reviews for a local magazine.  Just before going to bed at some ungodly hour, I saw Dustin Hoffman’s face flash across the TV screen and thought, “Is this The Graduate?  People say this is good- I might as well see what the big deal is.”  I really enjoyed it, and have since brought up its multifaceted closing scene in multiple contexts.

So then, why would I say that I have never experienced this film?  If we consider our true selves to be a conglomeration of our past experiences, then the me who exists today has not taken in this film.  Since the night I watched this movie, I have traded in the student role for that of a teacher.  I graduated college, and have since helped students on their path to get there.  I have moved three times, and changed jobs twice.  I have fallen in and out of love multiple times, and have now found someone with whom I look forward to spending the rest of my life.  We have two dogs, two car payments, and a mortgage.  And, perhaps less importantly but just as true, I have since seen (500) Days of Summer, as well as dozens of other films and stories that have referenced this movie in some way.

In short, the me who exists today- he who has lived through these times and countless others- has never experienced this film.  What will I pick up on today that I would have never noticed when I first saw it all those years ago?  It dawns on me today that there are no repeats: tonight’s experience will be wholly different, because I am different (as is the world around me as I interact with it).

Teachers, I hope you will keep this apparent contradiction in mind the next time one of your students looks at you and says, “I did this already in (insert grade here) – why should I do it again now?”

Standards-Based Grading, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defuse the Bomb

When considering my contribution to this month’s SBG Gala, I remembered the power of stories, as they give us examples on how to act when we aren’t sure what to do next.  I decided to tell the story of how standards-based grading and I found each other, anchored by a group of quotes that served as springboards in putting the story together.  Hope you enjoy.


“Welcome to Who’s Line Is It, Anyway?  The show where everything’s made up, and the points don’t matter.”  

– Drew Carey

You may remember this line from the improv show adapted from the BBC: for years, you could have replaced the show’s title in the quote with my classroom number, and it would still have fit.

Starting out as a first-year physics teacher, I struggled conceptually with the larger meaning of points-based grading.  To me, the practice makes class seem like a game show, where kids try to collect all of the points in whatever form they exist, all for the purpose of “winning” a good grade and a pat on the back.  My belief has been that any grade worth its weight should serve more as a diagnosis than a “score,” one that helps all of us get a feel for our current status, and how to respond as a result.  That being said, I knew no other way to assess student work than to put some total out of 100 on everything, so that’s just what I did.

Thinking back to that first year, I remember making a distinction between the types of work that my students completed in class. There were those products that showed me and everyone else what the kids knew, understood and could do (tests, quizzes, projects, lab write-ups, exit slips, and even some ‘Do Nows’), and there were others that served more as scaffolds to get kids ready to know, understand, and do (homework, class exercises, “preview” questions, and other studying practices).  I decided to draw the line in the sand: the first group of products would make up students’ grades, while the second would have no part in them.  Unfortunately, I found no way to formalize that line within the maelstrom of point-collecting (aside from asserting at the onset that “these things get points,” while “these others do not”).  The lack of an external motivator led to less and less participation in these important learning activities: it made these practices seem like they were separate from the game.



– Countless teachers, to countless students and parents as feedback on a report card

Aside with my issues in how all of the assignments & assessments fit together, I also grappled with the lack of specificity in feedback that I was able to offer to students and parents using a cumulative, points-based grading system.  What does “B” actually tell you?  The comment above always stuck out at me in the options for feedback aside from a grade on a report card.  The statement seems to say to kids and parents, “You’re not doing so great on the important work in this class.  Study harder, and you’ll do better.”  That advice is always true, and there is never a time where that statement would be helpful.  How am I helping students to grow if this is my response?  

To add insult to injury, another way of reading this comment would be, “You’re not doing so great, which means that what I’m planning & doing as a teacher must not be ‘prepping’ you very well.”  I’m as dedicated to the idea of kids taking ownership of their learning as the next guy, so by saying this to students, haven’t I put the onus back on me to change?  I sought methods of feedback that would help students know what they understood and what they could do next, while helping me to know how I could improve the state of my teaching practice.  I found the reporting practices I had to choose from to be less than ideal for these purposes.

Forest-path-blog“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
– Henry David Thoreau  

Over the next two or three years, I continued to question my teaching practices, beliefs, and assumptions, hoping for a breakthrough.  Small, incremental changes in practice seemed to help periodically- changing how “points” were averaged together, or adjusting the weights of any given assignment- but nothing I did ever moved me into a system that really fit my beliefs.  I felt the need to unpack the the entire practice to defuse its harmful power.  But how?  Which wire of the bomb do you cut first, if you haven’t necessarily seen any other schematics?

Four years ago, I happened upon a workshop facilitated by colleague Chad Sansing at an in-house summer PD institute.  During his presentation (and the ensuing discussion), I was introduced to standards-based grading for the first time, albeit through the lens of language arts and social studies.  All it took was seeing a table for recording a student’s scores for my brain to find a pathway.  In his demonstration, he put the topics where the assignments were “supposed” to be.

It had me at hello.

Why did I make the shift to standards-based assessment?

After learning about other philosophical tenets and lessons learned, I decided that day that I must try this ‘standards-based grading’ over the next year, for several reasons:

  • The promise of diagnosis versus point-collecting: Standards-based grading offered the opportunity I had been searching for to diagnose strengths and weaknesses, just by dropping the charade that we should organize gradebook information by quiz, test & homework.  In this way, I found that the assessment became a vehicle to shed light on specific skills acquired & understanding gained (as opposed to a game that kids try to win).  I felt free to assess multiple skills & understanding in the same tool withoutworrying that those pieces of information would be lost in the combination to some “total test score.”  In the same way that people say, “I don’t teach physics, I teach kids,” I could now say, “I don’t check test papers, I check understanding.”
  • The promise of a separation between assessments and activities for learning: As an added benefit, I finally had a method to distinguish between that which showed what the kids could do versus that which prepared them to be able to do.  I had a new question: “Does this product serve as evidence of a student’s mastery of a standard?”  If yes: make it part of the grade under a corresponding topic/concept header.  If no: let’s keep records, and then look back to see how these assignments may have benefited (or not) in the assessment-related products.  (Ties to mastery learning also ensured the relevance of these assignments, but that is a different post for a different Gala.)
  • The promise of specific feedback versus broad validation: Instead of a project score being the primary feedback mechanism (e.g. “You got a 92 – good job!” vs. “You got a 78 – do better next time!”), each score could give kids specific feedback on where they succeeded and where they struggled.  In place of the 78, a student would receive information about their demonstrated knowledge and skills around their logic (how they arrived at an answer,) their content knowledge (how well they use information in order to construct an answer), and their communication (how well they shared their answer with others).  In terms of knowing how to respond to this assessment, students would definitely have more opportunity to uncover next steps.
  • The promise of a unified curriculum versus distinct topics of study: Like many teachers, I noticed that many of my students “learned” material for the unit test, and then promptly forgot it.  That each unit seemed so distinct didn’t help matters at all.  While unintended, I noticed that this system would allow me to track students on some of those concepts and skills that run throughout the school year.  In the system I used, 3 strands – Communication Skills, Systems-Thinking, and Mathematical Skills – followed the student in every unit throughout the year, while each unit has its own content-specific topic.  In the ubiquity of these strands, I felt like I had an anchor in the curriculum to be able to keep the kids seeing the conceptual connection between seeminglydisparate units. (In retrospect, I really wish that I had thought to include an Investigation component as well, but alas.)
Leaving Chad’s workshop, I felt renewed.  I had been walking this route long enough to have finally worn it down into a path – now, instead of looking down at each step, I was seeing my surroundings for the first time in a new light.  I knew that I needed to change my practice for the sake of my students, and seeing this presentation gave me an option to try something new.  After adjusting and tweaking practices to allow for collaboration with my teammates, I ended up with a standards-based system that gave me what I was looking for.

“Tell me and I forget.  Show me and I remember.  Involve me and I understand.”

– Chinese proverb

What struck me at first over the ups and downs of my two years of implementation in the classroom was the student and parent response to the practice of standards-based assessment and reporting.  They were interested, no doubt – but I can’t say that I did a fabulous job of communicating it (given that I was in all honesty still trying to figure it out myself, especially the first year).  That all changed, however, on two specific dates.

For the students, that day was one in which we all put our SBG glasses on and scored a “multi-standard” assessment together.  From the beginning of the year, I had been having the class score smaller, single-standard assessments together as a class against a rubric, while also having each student keep an individual record of all of their assessment scores associated with any related standards (and their corresponding topics).  I felt like I was including the students in the process, keeping everyone informed and on top of their learning.  

I noticed a lot of push-back, however, on those cumulative assessments that measured standards across multiple topics.  Instead of the “92” they were used to seeing, they would receive upwards of 5 separate scores (depending on the number of topics represented by the assessed standards).  While they appreciated the targeted feedback, they kept asking me: “So, what’d I get?”  Finally, it hit me: just because the kids were keeping up with their own scores does not mean that they are involved in the process.  What if we were to score one of these larger assessments as a class, forcing them to adjust their minds to think about different standards related to the same piece of evidence?  

I remember that day like it was yesterday.  Each student sat with pen in hand, ready to address a group of their solutions to a group of problems.  I asked them first to focus on their communication: “Use this rubric to determine what you can learn about your Communication Skills.”  It was like closing one eye and watching a 3D movie through the red lens – some of the information gets blocked out, and the students can focus on the specific info they were receiving through that mental filter.  Following this examination of Communication Skills, I asked them to switch to a different-colored pen and look at the same solution, but now focus solely on the evidence of their Systems-Thinking – without regard to their Communication Skills.  I highlighted sections on an sample solution that jumped out at me as specifically related to “systems-think” (as opposed to communication, content knowledge or mathematical prowess).

As they changed their focus between topics, it was those watching the 3D movie were now closing the eye behind the red lens and opening the one behind the blue – the information that had previously been blocked out instantly sprang to the surface.  In an instant, a roomful of teenagers’ minds opened at once: I watched their puzzled faces switch from scrunched to smiling as they opened their eyes to see the multi-dimensional image.  That, my friends, is rare.

We repeated this process for all of the topics related to the standards measured on this assessment, and recorded scores for each topic separately.  While the time for doing this with the whole class added up to more than I expected, this one strategy seemed to do wonders in students grasping the concept of this grading process.  Instead of asking what extra credit they could do to get better grades, they asked how they could learn more about those topics with which they had struggled – following up with questions on how they could show that they had now learned it.  They also seemed to have a much better grasp on the relationship between each smaller “one-standard” assessment and the larger “multi-standard” assessments.  It wasn’t until I had truly involved them in the process that they finally understood the process.

For parents, it was usually at our first parent-teacher conference that this practice actually sunk in.  Instead of breaking down their kid’s test scores (and telling them to make the kid study), I was able to share with them real information about their child’s communication skills, conceptual understanding, content knowledge, and mathematical prowess (along with trends that showed if any one of these skills were changing in one way or the other).  Since I kept examples of their assessments on hand, we could also look together at the student’s growth over time.  The ten-minute, one-on-one conversation did more for me than any larger parent meeting I tried to organize, and suddenly I had advocates who understood.


“But what does it all mean, Basil?” – Austin Powers

This quote is a shout-out to physics teacher Shawn Cornally – the first time I saw this quote in his blog, I literally lol’d, as I used to use it with my students as a prompt to wrap things up and find meaning in whatever we had just done.  (It obviously came with the requisitely bad impression – what fun would any Austin Powers quote be without a horrible British accent?)

To me, the practice of standards-based assessment and reporting brought meaning to grades.  It made my students better learners, in that they realized that the only way to improve their standing in the class was to learn the material.  It also helped them to know more specifically what it was they knew, and what would be helpful to learn.  

It made me a better teacher each day, as it made me a better learner.  I learned more about my students’ understanding, which gave me better insights as to how to plan quality learning opportunities for them.  Our division’s mission is to establish a community of learners: for me, standards-based grading played a large part in inspiring a community of learners in my classroom.

Learning as a Mash-Up

I’m a sucker for music mash-ups.  Whether it’s one of the more prominent early mash-ups pairing Nirvana & Destiny’s Childa reworked Beatles record backing Jay-Z’s lyrics (careful with the language on that one), or even a new video from those crazy kids from Glee, consider me hooked in. Though the trend may not be as viral as it was when the novelty first arose in the early-’00s, the practice still strikes a chord in me, as I get down on making “new” ideas by putting two “old” ideas together when they fit.

In the introduction to Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, the authors describe their book as a complement to one specific section of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: “In [our] book…we will identify the traits that make ideas sticky, a subject that was beyond the scope of Gladwell’s book [in the chapter, “The Stickiness Factor”].”  Their description made me think: what would a mash-up of these two books look like?  If I could make a flexbook that switched from the words of Gladwell to those of the Heaths right at the opportune moment, what would that do for my learning?

I started a mindmap using bubbl.us to chronicle the start of some of these contextual connections between the two books.  While the Heaths’ suggestions about making ideas “sticky” greatly appeal to me in terms of shifts in practice (probably a reflection for another post sometime), building this map has me wondering about the next steps related to this “mash-up” idea:

  • Does anyone out there know of a similar “companion text” that might go into more detail related to “The Law of the Few” or “The Power of Context,” the other two focal points in Gladwell’s book?
  • Has anyone seen any real-time flexbook makers for making connections/combinations such as these? While I could dissemble my copies of these books and rebound them, I’m feeling as if there must be a tech tool that might help me in this kind of process.