My students wanted to make their own final. When I let them, they did more than “exceed standards.”

In late November, my Mass Comm students and I were reviewing the finals schedule. One student asked, “What will our final be in here?” Every kid in the room had a puzzled (and somewhat concerned) face as they waited for me to answer.

I had to admit pretty quickly that I wasn’t sure. The previous year, the students in that class had written a blog post for their final. They had a detailed rubric with lots of writing and tech requirements, and they enjoyed it, but my class this year had already started blogs, and I wasn’t excited about just doing something similar because while we do blog in class, we do a lot more than that. They write the school newspaper, plan professional development on apps for teachers, sell advertising to area businesses, create digital stories, and pretty much take on any project they can find. How could I possibly assess their learning on all of those things in one traditional final?

The truth was that I couldn’t. And the kids knew that just as well (if not better) than I did. One girl raised her hand and asked, “Can we make our own finals and just show you what we’ve learned?” Each student nodded hopefully in agreement.

Absolutely.

But we had to do some brainstorming first. I gave the kids five minutes at the end of class to do a group quick list of the things they thought they’d learned in the semester. This is what they came up with together.

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These were great ideas but big ideas. I wanted to make sure they could narrow this down to specific things and also be able to show their progress in those areas. We sat together and came up with some requirements, and everyone had a voice in deciding what was important to show, including me. We all agreed that all things informative writing, multimedia, and presentation were important. Creativity was a must.

I wrote up the assignment and shared it with them to make sure I hadn’t missed or misunderstood anything. In it, I also included some hyperlinks so that they would feel challenged to really be creative and try producing something completely new for them.

After we went over the assignment, the kids only had one question: “Can we start now?” They spent the next two class periods (and time at home and in homeroom) working on these projects. I couldn’t believe their enthusiasm, and I got to spend all of my time during class checking in with them, giving feedback on their scripts, helping them self-assess progress with their rubrics, trouble-shooting equipment problems, and learning new apps they planned to use to present. My teaching was truly based on their group or individual needs, and most importantly, I saw their critical thinking in progress, and got to provide feedback on those skills as well as their writing and technology content skills.

The day of the final, there were no nervous faces, and there was no last minute cramming. The kids were so excited to share what they had produced. They supported each other like no other group of kids I’ve seen before, and they gave honest, constructive feedback (based on standards from the rubric) after each presentation. They evaluated themselves using the rubric as well, and their assessments were shockingly accurate. I had never felt more effective as a teacher, and all I had really done was give them the opportunity to choose their own path. They felt empowered to do more, so they did; it’s amazing what can happen when we hear and trust our students.

To my Mass Communications class: Thank you for pushing me to give you more opportunities and for your drive and commitment to make your world a better place. I’ve learned just as much (if not more) from you than you have from me, and your influence will stick with me long after you’ve left this class.

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An open letter to my seventh graders after their standardized tests

My wonderful, unique, 7th grade humans:

Today you finished up your winter MAP test. It’s results are supposed to show your areas of strength and weakness, providing you and your teachers with valuable feedback regarding your instruction. Some of you were jubilant about meeting your goal and showing how much you have learned since September. Others of you made growth but felt self-conscious that you didn’t hit the goal you set for yourself, or worried that your score was “still too low.” And some of you didn’t “make growth” this time around. I watched your disappointed faces as you finished your tests, and I watched the confidence you’d built all year slowly dissipate because of this one number.

Now, I don’t know everything, but there are two things I do know for sure: 1) You are not defined by a number determined by the answers you select on a multiple choice test, and 2) You have made more growth these last few months than a test could ever begin to show you.

Let me start by explaining that you came to my classroom this year already wonderful. Your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family frieKids working.jpgnds and previous teachers who all play a role in making you the people that you are have done an outstanding job. You are kind, thoughtful, enthusiastic individuals. You have empathy, and when someone else is hurting, you do whatever it takes to help alleviate their pain. Do you know how incredible that is? So many adults struggle to be compassionate when someone else’s experience or background has been different from their own, but it seems to come so naturally to you. The resilience you show when something doesn’t go quite right the first time is so admirable, and you’ve taught me that — to never give up and to always come back stronger and with a new plan after a day that tests me.

 

And throughout this year, you have only become even more impressive learners and people. You’ve kept the empathy, generosity, and kindness you brought with you, but you’ve also become some of the greatest critical thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. When you write, you write about things that matter, not just to you, but also to your classmates and to me. You see the heart of a story, and you understand that writing isn’t meant to be formed from a prompt — it’s meant to deliver a message others need to hear: of hope, of change, of pain, of resilience, of love. All of you recognize that reading is a vehicle for exploring your passion, not a task of which the purpose is to determine your supposed ability.

You are not 210, 237, 205, 223, or 214. You are so much more than a score, and you are anything but average. You exceed my standards for what students should be every day. You take charge of your learning, inside the classroom and outside, and that motivation is the true determiner of success in life.

Keep striving to do well on these tests. Knowing how to survive or thrive in tasks that feel overwhelming is such an important life skill to master. More importantly, though, continue mastering these most important traits: caring for others, loving yourself, engaging in respectful debate and discourse, and reading and writing to learn. Aristotle said that we are more than the sum of our parts. What you do with the skills you learn will always be more important than having the skills themselves.

Keep doing. Keep creating. Keep changing your world. And know that I am proud of you — each one of you.

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Image from flickr

Why blog?

This fall, I joined the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC after some serious urging by our district’s Instructional Tech Director. The facilitators of the MOOC encouraged participants to blog about their learning as they read and then share their posts and comment on others’. Even though I write constantly for myself and coach kids in writing every day, I was skeptical about taking the time to set up a blog and put my writing out there for others to read, use, and maybe even criticize. Wouldn’t writing in my notebook have the same reflective value? What could I have to say that someone else wasn’t already thinking?

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Two weeks into the course, I had a little chuckle to myself when I realized that I had gone against everything I knew about education when I doubted what blogging could do for me. I preach that learning is doing, and yet, I was hesitant to “do” blogging and see what I was capable of producing.

When I started reading others’ posts and receiving comments on mine, I realized that blogging isn’t about saying something that no one else had ever said or thought before; it is about connecting, relating, sharing, and growing. I think the whole point is to say what other people are feeling — to give voice to a common thought, issue, or concern — and then come together to share ways of improving.

This is why blogging is good for any subject, but especially education.

I have always felt that teaching can be isolating, which is ironic because I’m surrounded by people all day, and by nature, my job is pretty transparent. My administrators are in and out of my room all the time, and the kids share what is happening in all their classrooms. But there are not many opportunities for me to bounce my ideas off of other professionals and have a lengthy troubleshooting session during the school day.

It’s tough to match the quality of face time with a trusted colleague, but to be able to come home and fully process my thoughts, write them out, and then share with a wide audience of people as passionate about their work as I am is as close as I’ll probably ever get. Blogging is limitless. I can connect with any person who happens across my little corner of the internet, and if they share it online or even with a colleague, my corner gets a little bigger. Suddenly, my community isn’t just the people I try to squeeze in conversations with during the day; my community is a web of people that read what I share and share their thoughts for me to read, too.

In that way, blogging completely changes the way I reflect on my teaching. I teach my kids that writing is a way of learning, and again, it’s important for me to practice what I preach. In class, my students self-evaluate and peer-evaluate. They often say that hearing from other students helps them recognize things they wouldn’t have noticed before. Blogging does that for me, too. Reflective writing for myself is still really important, but like my students, I’m noticing that sharing it increases the benefits tenfold.  In the words of AJ Juliani, “When you write what your heart tells you it will always have a dual impact. The reflection impacts us personally, and also those who read it.”

 

A few months ago, I had countless reasons why I couldn’t blog. Now that it’s part of my practice, I can’t think of one.

Embrace the new

I constantly hear teachers talk about educational trends as a metaphorical pendulum. It swings back and forth every ten years or so, reintroducing previous ideas rebranded as something new, shiny, and necessary for students’ success.

My tenure in education is not yet a decade deep, so I haven’t experienced the pendulum swing myself, but I do know that when teachers are excited and enthusiastic, kids are more likely to perk up and get involved in their own education as well. Maybe the whole point of rebranding something old is less about introducing something better than before and more about getting people excited again so that they can transmit that energy to students. After all, when you see the same scene over and over again, it gets a little boring, but if you view that scene from a slightly different angle, an entirely different world can emerge.

Sometimes as teachers, though, we fail to see the “entirely different world” because we feel so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to look out the window, let alone look outside twice — from two different windows, no less! And when we get overwhelmed, we get a little… negative. While I’ve certainly been guilty of attending (and even hosting) the frustration-with-education pity party, I also know that dialogue gets us nowhere. Here are a few practices that can help minimize the education pendulum whiplash.

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See the good before pointing out the bad.

Today I was totally overwhelmed. My calendar is filled with IEP meetings, ELA PD, and testing over the next three weeks, and I need to get evaluated sometime in there. On top of that, I just started three new units with my classes this week, and my Mass Communications students need to finish final drafts of their articles so that we can get the newspaper to print by next Saturday. And that’s just my professional life.

So today after school when I walked into my Future Ready meeting, I was mentally listing all the things I needed to be doing instead. I came in with a negative attitude; it felt like one more thing I needed to do instead of the next great thing I got to do. And yet, we had a productive meeting. I got to sit next to my sister, who is the teacher and person I have always admired most, and when I left, I felt like I had more direction for myself because I was reminded of the vision we have for students. So tonight, I’m excited again about all the busy because all of it boils down to doing better for kids. And that’s my job. Can you imagine how much I could have offered and gotten out of that meeting had I thought of the positive outcomes first?

When presented with a new opportunity to improve student learning, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to find all the good first. My guess is that after listing all the potential positive outcomes, you’ll find that any downfall pales in comparison to the benefits for kids. Immediate excitement will replace temporary negativity.

Be a problem finder, but show up with a solution, too.

If you consistently showed up to a potluck with friends sans dish to pass, do you think you’d continue getting invited? Probably not. Even worse would be showing up with liverwurst every time.

This is what happens when we constantly bring problems to attention without providing any positive, concrete solutions. Pretty soon, we’ll find ourselves without a seat at the table. George Couros (and lots of other really incredible educators) see the obvious value in being a person who can recognize real issues, but problem-finding can quickly equate to complaining if there is no action suggested to resolve the issue.

If you’re going to be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver, too.

Know that you don’t have to know everything to get started with a new practice.

The true beauty of the age we live in is that information is easy to come by. When I was in middle school, if I forgot my textbook at school, I was calling (on my landline phone) to every neighborhood friend begging (read: sobbing) to borrow the book. The book had ALL THE ANSWERS! If I were to pull a textbook out in class now, it would be because all of the power in the universe had been consumed and our Chromebooks were dead. If my students want to use a new app, and I don’t know how to use it, we find a YouTube video or an online tutorial and we figure it out together. If I’m busy helping someone else, sometimes the kids just teach themselves without a resource and then they get me caught up later.

I don’t have to know everything to help my kids learn that they can learn anything they want. And if we really want them to view learning as a lifelong, enjoyable endeavor, it’s best that we don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Develop the lesson for the consumer

Probably the most important thing I have ever done as an educator was ask my students what they wanted. I’ll never forget the first time I did this. I was using a poetry highlighting strategy to analyze “One Face Alone” with a group of Pre-AP 9th graders. We had done it before with other poems, and the kids had responded well, but this time they didn’t seem into it. I stopped and asked them if something was wrong. One very straightforward but sweet girl in the front said, “Mrs. K, I don’t know about them, but I’m tired of doing it this way, and I’m not a huge fan of the strategy we learned yesterday.” When I asked how they’d rather do it instead, they wasted no time coming up with new ways to get to the same outcome: analyzing the poem to be able to write about it. I couldn’t believe how fast they came up with the ideas, but in actuality, they’d probably spent most of their lives in education dreaming of the ways they wished they could learn in school.

As I milled around the room, I saw that they were all working in different ways but coming to many of the same conclusions about the poem, and I got to spend time working with kids instead of asking questions from the board. It wasn’t my idea, but it was better.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and so whenever a new idea in education arises, before I think about how it affects me, I think about how it affects the consumers: the kids. If it would benefit them — prepare them better for the world in which they’re going to be leaders — I’m trying it as soon as is humanly possible. And I’m sharing the why with the kids so that they see it as the new, exciting opportunity that it is.