October 30, 2011

Betraying my students with standards

I just read Nancie Atwell's, The Reading Zone, a brilliant treatise on leading all students to the joys of voluminous reading.

Atwell, arguably education's top expert on teaching reading, smacked me in the face, figuratively speaking, when she explained the dangers of removing students from "the zone," by creating activities that, at best, serve only to interrupt reading. Most of these interruptions -- summaries, book reports and, yes, even projects -- are often included because teachers feel compelled to meet standards and to prepare students for high stakes testing.

Atwell's sobering words on the subject sent me scurrying off to my classroom web site, where I quickly eliminated the posted learning outcomes (standards). As a results-only learning teacher, who vilifies standards and high stakes tests as often as possible, I am ashamed that I included these in my teaching in the first quarter.

I was shocked at myself for being seduced by the inclusion of standards into project-based learning.

Next came the reading project. As a ROLE teacher, I advocate the use of year-long projects to capture objectives, in order to engage students in learning and to create autonomy. I'm still a big believer in this. Atwell, however, reminded me that reading is best taught without this sort of interruption. So, I had more work to do, the kind that would take more damage control than simply removing a project.

At the end of the grading period, my students completed self-evaluations and assigned themselves a report card grade. Much of their decisions were based on a project I assigned that involved integrating learned book structure into various web tools. (Sounds cool, I know, but after reading Atwell's book and revisiting my own goals as a ROLE teacher, I realized the project was a huge mistake.)

Now, I need to have a long heart-to-heart talk with my students and explain my error. I'll then ask them to re-evaluate their performance. You see, many students had a fine 9 weeks, filled with many completed books, excellent collaborative work and insightful in-class activities. Some of these, though, performed poorly on the reading project, for one reason or another. Based on that result, they assigned a low grade for the quarter.

I'm sure some teachers would say I should live with my error and just move on without bringing it up. Results-only learning depends on self-reflection and integrity, though, so this has to be dealt with.

I'll let you know how it goes.

October 28, 2011

The power of "Really?"

Knee-deep into the second day of self-evaluation and discussion about report card grades, I realized just how powerful a word can be.

As I wrote in Trust your students to evaluate themselves, most of my students choose the grade I would have, if I were assigning the grade, instead of asking them to do it. A very small percentage of students initially ask for a grade that seems too high, based on their production. When this happens, I respond with, "Really?" Then, I pause and silence fills the air.

This pause is important, because it sends the student back to reflection and self-evaluation. A moment later, most say, "Well, maybe the grade should be lower."

It's important to note here that I'm in no way trying to manipulate students into selecting a lower grade. In fact, I tell them that I will give them whatever grade they choose. "I want you to give an honest evaluation," I say. "When that report card arrives in the mail, you need to be satisfied that you were honest with yourself."

This honest self-evaluation is one of the most important elements of the Results Only Learning Environment.

October 27, 2011

Trust your students to evaluate themselves

With our first quarter officially ending this week, it is time for reflection, self-evaluation and final report card grades. Since my students have had no points or letter grades on any activities or projects throughout the grading period, they review their production, my narrative feedback and, together, we decide on an appropriate letter grade for the report card.

My first year using this method in a Results Only Learning Environment, I was a bit nervous about this process, wondering if the students would "get it right." Subsequent school years, including this one, have been no different; I enter with trepidation. As is usually the case, my students quickly allayed my fears.

One after another, they paraded up to my desk, and we discussed the quarter. At the end of each discussion, I say, "Okay, you play teacher, and based on our discussion, tell me the letter grade."

Seventy-five percent of the students land on the exact letter I would assign, if I were grading without their input. Roughly five percent assign a grade higher than what they deserve, based on their production and how they handled my feedback. Remarkably, about 15 percent of my students assign themselves a report card grade lower than I believe they deserve. Some do it with tears in their eyes, saying their parents will be disappointed.

And, yes, students do give themselves failing grades.

I am always amazed by the honesty of these 13- and 14-year-old students. One girl in an honors-level class, who had not completed a project but had done most of the other work, quickly announced that she should have an F. "Definitely," she said, when I questioned it. "I need to do better."

This is the power of the results-only learning.

October 24, 2011

Can you inspire like Mr. Holland?

This is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes about inspiration. I find myself always searching for my own "Play the sunset" phrase that will inspire a student like Mr. Holland inspires Miss Lang.

So, do you have an inspirational phrase?

October 23, 2011

Are your students this smart?

Here is a kid who has obviously learned a lot more than can be demonstrated in simple multiple choice tests.

October 22, 2011

Feedback and mastery learning

This is a guest post by Justin Vail. A junior high social studies teacher in Indiana, where fellow guest blogger, Joey Till, works, Vail, like his colleague, has committed to results-only learning this year.

How Self-evaluation Drives Students to Mastery Learning

All of my activities are either simple completion assignments or projects.  The completion assignments are essentially deconstructed parts of the project.  

When I grade a completion activity I sit down with the student and we scan the various parts of the document.  If the basic requirements are met, the student moves on to the next activity and I put a 10/10 in the grade book.  If the basic requirements are not met, we identify the problem areas and the student makes a second attempt---this is repeated until the student meets the basic requirements.  

When I grade the project (most recently a Regional Geography Video Podcast over the major physical features of 8 different regions), I sit down with each student individually for a more in-depth evaluation of their work.  We listen/watch the podcast together.  Afterwards, I ask the student some or all of the following questions:
  • What do you think is the best part of your final product?
  • What parts of the building process will you do again (reviewing how they worked)? What worked?
  • What is the biggest weakness of the product?
  • What parts of the building process do need to change next time? 
  • What did you learn from this whole process?
  • If you were to grade yourself from A+ to F, what grade did you earn?
  • How can I change the project to make it better?
The self-evaluation process is difficult for some kids.  I sometime have to prod the students to express themselves, but eventually they are very honest about their work and their work ethic.  In fact, students are often harder on themselves, than I would be.   I have evaluated nearly 200 projects this year, and less than 5 times have student's suggested a "grade" higher than what I thought. 

October 21, 2011

A funny look at cheating in school

Love this video about how kids conspire to cheat. Anything to be learned here?

October 19, 2011

Some students need more autonomy

I teach five sections of language arts to 8th graders. This year, I have one group that struggles more with independent work than the other four classes.

Recently, we were working on a reading strategy, which required some individual commitment, coupled with small-group discussion. The concept was new, and some students struggled to see the value in it. This was not one of our finest days, and I spent about five minutes explaining how we needed to improve in this area. The day ended in frustration.

The next day, we were right back to our full workshop setting. The students had all of the class time to choose what they wanted to do. This was one of our best days of the school year to date.

When I reflected on this at the end of the day, it occurred to me that some students just relish the autonomy more than others. I knew at that moment that more workshop days were ahead for this particular group.

October 18, 2011

Innovation at work

The Innovation Lab at a school district in Loveland, Colorado is a remarkable place where students are deciding what school should look like. You can learn more about this very cool project at the Lab Connections blog.

The video below is an amazing look at the genesis of this project. The music alone makes the video worth watching.

October 17, 2011

New look, same thought-provoking content

You may have noticed an overhaul in our appearance, right down to the subtitle, "The results-only learning blog."

Don't let the new look confuse you. ROLE Reversal will continue to bring thought-provoking content about a Results Only Learning Environment and the progressive methods that make education all that it should be.

We've got some big ideas, and a new look was in order.

Please feel free to tell us what you think by leaving a comment.

The impact of self-evaluation

This is a guest post by Joey Till, who teaches math to 7th graders in Indiana. With a large amount of students on free and reduced lunch, Till is dealing with reluctant learners on a daily basis. Till has made the conversion to a Results Only Learning Environment this year. 

Giving Grades. . . Without Really Giving Grades

Each student and I have a quick 2 - 4 minute conversation about what they learned from the project and how they contributed to their group (if it was a group project).  The student and I talk about their grade and what they deserve. We together come to an agreement on what they deserve, (and) with the exceptions of a few cases the kids are usually dead on.

It has been amazing to see the positive things from these conversations, as opposed to handing back a piece of paper with a grade on it.

When kids have to look you in the face and say they did poorly because they didn’t do their best, you can really see the disappointment in their face. Almost every kid has shown improvement. In some cases, major improvements.

On the other hand, it is so nice to see the grin when you tell a student how great they did, especially kids that have struggled with Math in the past. I have really seen the confidence growing in many of my students, which in a Math class is always an issue.

These short conversations have been invaluable with my students. I really feel like I have a better handle on what they know and don't know through these conversations. I also feel like I know the students much better than I ever have at this point in the year. 

October 11, 2011

You never know where autonomy may lead

Indiana teachers Joey Till and Justin Vail are taking the ROLE Challenge. They have transformed their classrooms into Results Only Learning Environments, and the experiences are remarkable. They are sharing anecdotes periodically about the effects of going to a ROLE. Joey writes:
"Had a student not working in class. Instead of taking him in the hallway and threatening him with punishment and being confrontational and forcing him to work, I simply let him know that he could use his class time wisely or he would be doing this on his time. With the fumes coming out of his ears, I walked away and helped a couple other kids, not worrying if he was going to get busy or waste the day. . . .The next time I walked by, he was busy and ended up doing extra work that he didn't even need to do.  It is enjoyable to put the responsibility on them instead of me feeling it is my responsibility."
Try giving your students this kind of choice. You never know where autonomy may lead.

October 8, 2011

Fun lessons with Voki

I've written widely about using Web 2.0 and social media tools to introduce and teach mini lessons. Here is an example of using the podcasting application Voki to launch a strategic reading activity.

After the brief podcast, I place simple, short step-by-step instructions for GIST on the Interactive White Board, and the students are soon working the strategy in small groups.

There is no more than three minutes of direct instruction, not including the Voki. So, as I always tell the students, it's less from me and more from them.

Of course, they love it this way, and they learn a lot more.

October 6, 2011

Teachers can learn plenty from Steve Jobs

A visionary. A powerful presenter. A creator. An innovator. Uniquely Brilliant. . .

Steve Jobs.

While we mourn his passing, consider for a moment all we teachers can learn from him. Steve Jobs always wanted more -- not for himself, but for the world.

He was driven to give "one more thing." We should do no less for our students.

October 5, 2011

What is the logic of a homework pass?

Let me begin this post with the precursor that no one has yet clearly explained the logic of homework, so the idea of a homework pass is even more elusive to me.

My 7-year-old, who has more homework than some Ph.D candidates, I think, announced today that she won a homework pass, because she earned stickers for, what else? Completing homework.


Is it just me, or is this the craziest system in education? First, teachers inundate second-graders with hours of homework, which they, of course, hate.

Then, if  the students complete enough homework, the teachers hand out a homework pass, which forgives future homework, as some twisted reward for doing homework in the first place.

So, what exactly is the message?
  • Do boring homework. . . reason unknown.
  • Complete a particular amount of homework, and you can stop doing homework for a night.
I don't get the logic. I wonder if my 7-year-old does.

October 3, 2011

Getting students to collaborate

A reader e-mailed me about students wanting to work just for the sake of completing a task and also not talking enough. Sounds strange, I know, but in a successful workshop environment, communication is necessary. Here's my response to her queries.

First, I don’t think doing a task for completion is necessarily a bad thing.
Many people are task-driven, which can be positive when it comes
to achieving goals. Obviously, the learning is important, and we want to
constantly do what we can to develop that critical thirst for learning that
a ROLE typically creates.

Next, If they aren’t “putting it together” and not talking, there are a few steps you can take. Start with breaking the project into smaller steps and focusing on them one at a time. The kids may not be talking because they may be struggling. 

Be sure to move about after a mini lesson on the step you want completed and listen in. I often sit with a group but say nothing. (In my book, I write how difficult this is for teachers, because we’re so conditioned to simply give it to them). 

After some silence, someone will ask a question. Once you direct them a bit, ask your own questions, “What would you do? What do you think is the first step? Who will be responsible for what?”
Unfortunately, students don't take immediately to collaboration, because most have spent the bulk of their school years sitting in rows and working independently. So, don't be surprised if you have to teach them how to work together.