Be ‘Real’ & ‘Consistent’ to Build Positive Student Relationships

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This post was originally published as part of Larry Ferlazzo’s column in Education Week Teacher on October 12, 2018


What are the best ways to build relationships with students?

Response From Lisa Westman

Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems across the country to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and an instructional coach specializing in differentiation. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin). Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @lisa_westman:

One of the most staggering statistics I have read came from the 2016 National Student Voice Report published by Dr. Russell Quaglia and the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. After surveying over 38,000 students in grades 6-12, the researchers found that only 58% of students feel like their teachers respect them, while 99% of the teachers surveyed reported that they respect their students. This statistic really forced me to ask “why”?

In my book, Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom(Corwin) and outlined in the infographic below,  I share my answer to “why” and identify the most crucial components of respectful student-teacher relationships.

In short, to ensure teachers and students both perceive relationships to be respectful, teachers must follow these three tenets of respectful relationships: be real, be consistent, and be a listener. And, because teachers are the adults in the relationship, the onus is on us to create these conditions.

Be real: teachers are human, yet, students often don’t see this side of us. It frequently amazes me how afraid teachers are of sharing personal information with students. Now, I am not talking about sharing all personal information (no, we don’t share information about our dating lives. Yes, we can share that we have lost pets or loved ones and experienced pain in our lives).

Be consistent: There is no doubt about the fact that some students are more difficult than others. And, there is no doubt that sometimes it requires more effort to respond to our more trying students with the same level of patience and understanding as the less difficult students. However, in order for respectful relationships to exist, we must take care to be consistent in our actions and reactions with all students.

Be a listener: Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sums this tenet up best. He said, “see first to understand, then to be understood.” We must ask our students more questions and then ensure we listen and understand their answers.”

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Fix Contentious Parent-Teacher Conferences in These 6 Steps

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This post was originally published in Education Week Teacher.


Parent-teacher conferences can be some of the most rewarding—or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year for teachers.

If students are making progress academically and thriving socially, it’s a joy to discuss these achievements with families. But often, teachers may need to have more difficult conversations—discussing strategies for students who are struggling, or fielding parents’ questions about new school or district initiatives that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.

Sometimes, these programmatic changes can be extremely stressful for parents. One example, which I’ve encountered often, is the phasing out of gifted education pull-out services. Some schools do this in favor of meeting the needs of all students in a whole-class setting through differentiated instruction.

During the first year or two of this transition, teachers often have to address the questions, concerns, and criticisms of parents whose children had previously been pulled out by a specialist and are now receiving this enrichment in the general classroom.

When a parent presents concerns to a teacher who is still adapting to this change herself, it can make the teacher anxious, or even put her on the defensive. Once on the defensive, teachers (and humans in general) struggle to redirect conversations to a more positive place. Ultimately, in these cases, the parent-teacher conference ends poorly, with both parties feeling unable to move forward with a good plan for the child’s education.

To avoid these precarious situations, I recommend the following six steps for ensuring conferences with contentious (or concerned) parents are productive:

Step 1: Summarize what the parents say to ensure a common understanding.

“It sounds like you are concerned that your son is bored/not challenged in math now that he is no longer being pulled out for enrichment services.”

Step 2: Acknowledge and validate the parents’ emotion.

Parents are entitled to feel how they do. When you validate the emotion, parents no longer have to be on the defensive.

“I completely understand and agree with your frustration. Your son should absolutely be engaged and appropriately challenged in math. Please know, I want the same thing as you.”

Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of where the parent is coming from.

Teacher: “What is making you think your son is bored in math?”
Parent: “He says he is.”
Teacher: “Does he say why or when he is bored?”
Parent: “No. He just says he is always bored.”

Step 4: Respond with evidence.

“I understand. Now, what I want to do is determine if your son is bored because he is not being challenged, or if your son is bored because he doesn’t find the content relevant.

Either way, it is my job to make sure we find a remedy. I want to ensure I choose the most appropriate approach. Take a look at this information with me. [Here, share recent formative-assessment data related to the math concept.] What I see here is that your son is being challenged. He’s making appropriate growth toward mastering this content and is on track to master it soon. That leads me to believe your son may be bored because he doesn’t see why it’s important to learn this.”

Step 5: Suggest an action, and ask the parents if this suggestion sounds reasonable to them.

“I think it would be helpful if I chatted with your son to see if we can get more information as to the cause of his boredom. Once I know that, he and I will create a plan of action and share that with you. How does this sound?”

Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.

After the conference, talk with the student about the issue at hand and create a plan. Then, bring the parents back into the loop. Ideally, the student is also a part of this conversation. Consider using technology like FaceTime, Skype, or a group chat to involve all parties.

Parents want what is best for their children, yet they don’t always know what is best when it comes to their education. Students can excel in classroom environments that may be foreign to parents. But if parents are worried about their child’s needs being overlooked, it can make conferences feel like an attack on teachers as both professionals and human beings.

This is the most unfortunate of circumstances because when it comes down to it, parents, teachers, and students all want the same thing: for students to learn. By following these six steps during parent-teacher conferences, teachers ensure that they form a partnership with parents rather than an adversarial relationship fraught with negative emotions and power struggles.


Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on edutopia.org


Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.

HONORING TEACHER EXPERTISE

For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.

OBSTACLE 1: PRE-ASSESSMENT

Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.

OBSTACLE 2: GROUP WORK

Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.

IN THE END

All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?


Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

Would you hire one of your third-graders? I did.

 

This post was written by a guest blogger, my husband, Keith:)

When I was a third-grade teacher, the beginning of every school year was pretty much the same. I did my best to relax and recharge in July, and as soon as August arrived, my brain shifted back into school-mode. Like the sound of an alarm clock, early August would mean the arrival of the “Welcome Back” email from our school district HR department outlining my classroom assignment, building information, and initiatives I would be involved in during the year. I received this same email every year, over and over again, knowing very well that this email was my signal to get back into teacher mode.

But, with the monotony of the operational aspects of a new school year came the adrenaline rush about everything that lay ahead of me. I was always most excited to meet my new students.

At the beginning of each school year, I always felt it was important to try and see each child as their best adult self. Maybe I was teaching the next Bill Gates? Or, the next Axl Rose? Or, maybe just the next Keith Westman? How would I want these “soon-to-be-adults” to remember their year with me, their teacher?

I realized this past year, that the 2002–03 school year was completely different than any other school year.

That year, a student named Samuel entered my third-grade class. He was very much like my other students: a bit nervous (because who wouldn’t be a little nervous having a 6’ 6” male teacher), eager to please, and generally happy about being back in school with their friends.

Samuel, like every student, had many strengths and passions one of which was his tenacity for perfection. I speak one language- English (the north side of Chicago dialect). I never was able to pronounce his last name with the perfect Mandarin Chinese tones that made his name special to him. Samuel made sure to give me every tip and suggestion as to how to make that happen.

But, like all other years, at the end of the school year, Samuel moved onto fourth grade and then transferred to another school for middle school.

I, too, did some growing up after that school year. I taught another year of third-grade, then took a district-level position as an Instructional Technology Coordinator, and then became a middle school principal (back with Samuel and his classmates from my third-grade class).

In 2008, Samuel graduated from my middle school and headed off to high school. That same year, I left working IN schools to join my junior high friend who created these edtech products called AppliTrack and K12JobSpot (you’ve probably all used them). So, both Samuel and I started new journeys- he began high school and I began a new career in edtech.

Samuel and I didn’t keep in touch over the years. The last time we saw one another, I was Samuel’s teacher-turned-principal- our last interaction was me handing him his elementary school diploma on an extravagant (and maybe a bit gaudy) auditorium stage.

But, one day last year, Samuel connected with me on LinkedIn.

It turns out that Samuel, once a tenacious third-grade student of mine, grew up to be a tenacious software developer during the same period of time that I grew my career in the edtech industry. Samuel was working for a large Department of Defense contractor and I was the COO of Otus, an edtech company in Chicago. Samuel had connected me with one of his friends who was looking to work in the edtech industry. We ultimately hired his friend. Then, eight months later, we hired Samuel.Sam and I today!

When I think back to my days as a teacher, I always felt I learned much more from my students than I believed they were learning from me. I can tell you that nothing has changed. Each day at Otus, Samuel and his colleagues teach me more than I believe I help them. Moreover, I never would have expected that not only would I be in a completely different line of work than what I was doing in 2002, but I would be doing that work with a student in my class!

What’s the moral of this story? Life is amazing.

It’s true that Samuel and I both grew up over the past 16 years, in different ways and in different places. Yet, I can tell you that the bond we share, having learned and laughed together for many our formative years, and being able to pick up where we left off so long ago, is something most people will never experience and it’s something I really cherish.

As you head into the new school year, remember that you never know where life will take you or your students. Enjoy each moment and allow yourself the pleasure of daydreaming where you and your students will be in five, ten, and 16 years from now. You never know, you might end up hiring one of your third-graders and continuing your lifelong journey of learning, together.

P.S. He’s still helping me work on those Mandarin Chinese tones:)

Want To Differentiate Instruction? Use Your Time Wisely.

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This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.

For more on any of the content below, check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin).


What do you find to be the biggest obstacle to effectively differentiating instruction?

Got your answer? Was it “time?”

If so, your reply mirrors the most common response I receive from the teachers I coach on differentiation.

Differentiating instruction, a process that involves recognizing individual students’ varying learning needs and interests and actively planning lessons around them, is key to helping all students learn and grow. It’s become an important part of personalized learning that many teachers are adapting in a variety of ways.

But it isn’t always easy. When I began my journey to differentiate instruction for my own students, lack of time was my greatest obstacle, too. However, over time (pun intended) I came to realize that, more often than not, the issue is not a lack of time but rather how time is spent.

Time Is More Than Hours and Minutes

“The key is not spending time, but investing it,” author Stephen R. Covey once said. A video on the concept of time by Entrepreneur Magazine echoes that sentiment. The video’s narrator explains that the reason time-management strategies tend to fail is that they are designed to manage clock time, and humans live in real time. For example, one may have a planning period from 11 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. each day, but how many of those 40 minutes are actually spent planning?

Similarly, one may “teach” for 360 minutes each day, but how many of those minutes are spent using evidence from formative assessments (one of the key components of differentiation) to inform our next steps?

Is it possible that we teachers aren’t using our time as efficiently as we could?

This rhetorical question is not a critique of teachers. Teaching is hard. It’s almost impossible to be “on” every minute of every day. In my days as a classroom teacher, there were many times that I sat down behind my desk for a few minutes simply because I needed to sit down. (This almost always happened just as an administrator popped into my classroom, making me immediately feel guilty.)

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However, when I talk about efficient use of time, I am referring to the chronic “time killers” that reduce our productivity, such as checking social media on smartphones, online shopping, and water-cooler chats with colleagues. For the average worker, these time killers cumulatively add up to one day of lost work each week.

To get a better handle on how we spend our time, we should track and analyze how every minute of a day is spent and then create a plan to work more productively. But that’s only the beginning of differentiating instruction. To do so successfully requires additional steps, such as understanding what differentiation really entails and collaborating with colleagues.

The Link Between Differentiation and Teacher Collaboration

Much has been written about the need for educators to break out of their silos and collaborate with other teachers. A quick Google search for “teaching in silos” produces close to 500,000 hits, including many explanations for why working in silos is detrimental to educators.

Planning for instruction in isolation isn’t helpful, because it’s: 1) simply not efficient, and 2) less effective in producing positive student outcomes. Moreover, if a person is task-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented, he or she is statistically less likely to be successful, according to two Cornell University researchers. Therefore, when teachers sit down to differentiate, they are often frustrated by the feeling that differentiation is just “one more thing” they have to do.

Conversely, when teachers sit down in teams to identify student needs and create action plans to meet them, they find that their plans organically result in differentiated instruction. The process no longer feels like one more thing, but is the outcome of solid planning and aligns to almost all other education initiatives that work to ensure student success (such as standards-based grading or common assessments).

However, according to a recent study from the RAND Corporation, teachers still overwhelmingly say that they do not have enough time to collaborate with their colleagues. Only 31 percent of teachers surveyed reported that they have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers, despite many having the opportunity to meet with their colleagues on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.

In order to ensure that team time is most productive, I recommend that teacher teams—comprised of grade-level or department colleagues—use a structure that guides their meetings and helps them stick to agenda items that are directly connected to student-driven differentiation (see the roadmap for student-driven differentiation I created as one example). A roadmap or other such framework can help teacher teams focus their time to identify desired learning outcomes, analyze student performance, construct plans to meet the needs of students at varying levels, and, most importantly, incorporate the input of teachers’ other collaborators in learning: our students.

By using a structure to guide our team time, we can guarantee that our energy is spent effectively, and that we are doing all that we can to meet the needs of our students.

How to Overcome Common Anxieties About Differentiation

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This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


In my work with teachers across the country on differentiating instruction, it appears that when it comes to differentiation, teachers fall into one of three categories:

  • teachers who want to differentiate instruction for their students but don’t know how
  • teachers who have tried to differentiate for their students and “give-up” because they found differentiating instruction was too time-consuming, didn’t produce their desired results, or they faced some other insurmountable obstacle
  • teachers who are masterful at differentiating instruction, yet still feel like they aren’t doing it “right”

I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what contributes to these mindsets and have concluded that the following factors shape the perspective of teachers in all of the aforementioned categories and have found that when teachers apply student-driven differentiation, their fears are alleviated.

DOING RIGHT BY KIDS

Last January I attended a meeting on differentiated instruction led by the guru of differentiation, Carol Ann Tomlinson. During that meeting, Carol said something that summarized differentiation in a way that stripped away any ambiguity and got right to the heart of what differentiation actually is.

Carol said that rather than asking teachers to identify examples of teachers providing differentiated instruction, we should ask teachers to identify examples teachers “doing right by kids.”

And, that is precisely what differentiation is: doing right by kids. Some of the terms that describe the methods and strategies we can use to differentiate sound a little bit scary (curriculum compacting, formative assessment readiness, etc). But, if we can allow ourselves to dismiss the lingo for a minute and examine our actions; what we find is that if we just ask ourselves, “Am I doing right for my students?” and then act accordingly, differentiating instruction isn’t so intimidating after all.

In fact, it is likely that the teachers described in category 3 above (those who are masterful differentiators and still don’t feel like they are doing it right) may feel inadequate because they don’t have the vocabulary to describe the actions they take to differentiate. Similarly, those who struggle to implement differentiation in their classrooms may get caught up in understanding educational jargon rather than focusing on actualizing the steps toward differentiation one by one (see roadmap above).

DIFFERENTIATION IS NOT A GOAL

Contrary to popular belief, differentiation is not something else teachers “have to do.” Rather, differentiation is what happens when teachers’ focus is student growth: academic growth, social-emotional growth, and growth of students’ metacognitive awareness. When teachers ask themselves these questions:

  • What do my students need?
  • How do I know?
  • How will I attempt to address this need?
  • How will I know if my actions worked?

and plan for instruction based on the answer to these questions, differentiation is the natural byproduct. In short, differentiation is not the goal: it is the result of actions taken to ensure student needs and readiness are considered, addressed and assessed accordingly to ensure the methods teachers choose to address those needs are effective.

To address the needs of students, teachers tend to differentiate one or more of the following: the content (what students learn), the process (how students acquire information), the product (how students demonstrate learning), and the learning environment (where and with whom students learn).

THE IDEA THAT TEACHERS SHOULDN’T ASK STUDENTS WHAT THEY NEED

I am often amazed when I am having a candid conversation with a teacher who is struggling to meet a student’s needs and can’t seem to pinpoint what the student needs. I typically ask the teacher, “Have you asked your student what he/she needs?” And, more often than not, the teacher’s response is, “No”.

The fear of asking students directly what they need is the fear we (as a field) need to overcome first. Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to “figure things out,” yet when they are stuck, they feel guilty and defeated. And, sometimes, the feelings of guilt and defeat prevent them from asking the students themselves.

However, when teachers cut themselves a little slack and go directly to the source (the students) and ask them specific questions about what they need (AKA Student-Driven Differentiation) they find that by incorporating student voice to drive how that differentiate instruction takes the pressure off of them a simultaneously increases student engagement and ownership of learning.

Sometimes just knowing what questions to ask students is the hardest part about incorporating student voice to differentiate instruction. But these questions need not be overthought. They are simply the questions to which teachers need an answer, questions like: what intrigues you about this concept/topic? Why do you find this content boring? If you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show it?

There really aren’t any “right” or “wrong” questions to ask students as long as the questions garner valuable information for the teacher to create an action plan with the student to ensure they learn.


For more information on items discussed in this post and additional differentiation topics, continue your student-driven differentiation journey by reading Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning in the Classroom now available for purchase on Corwin.com and amazon.com.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

3 Ways To Blockbuster Your Report Cards

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Today’s guest post is written by Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.

Note: I am aware I am not the first person to use the Blockbuster analogy (a company who refused to respond to market changes and made themselves obsolete). While lots of education bloggers use this analogy, most folks first saw it in Innovator’s Mindset, by George Couros.

Multiple times a day, I will see an education thought-leader tweet a one-liner or share a blog post saying something to the effect of, “if schools are still doing ‘this,’ they should stop because it makes no sense!”

Usually, “this” is a relatively small change: keeping kids in during recess as punishment, giving extra work to students who finish a task early, getting rid of homework, etc. The list really can go on for a while. But, we rarely see suggestions for large systemic changes like moving away from the most archaic artifact from the beginning of America’s school systems: the report card.

I’d like to offer you a few tangible steps school districts can take to eliminate this sacred cow.

As someone who doesn’t have to hear from angry parents about making the decision to stop sending out report cards, it’s easy for me to write this blog post. I get that. But, let’s assume that we all agree with three things:

  • Reports cards are intended to communicate important information about student progress in both academic and non-cognitive areas.
  • Educators, in general, would agree that a single letter grade on a report card does not tell the most accurate story of student performance over a period of time
  • Student performance is more than a single letter grade, percentage, or performance level on a learning standard.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose three steps that I think parents would support to rid your school district of the traditional paper report card:

1.Have parents opt-in to a paper report card

Send a letter to parents over the summer informing them the school district believes that frequent communication on academic progress is critical to student success. Then describe the ways in which parents can access your online gradebook. End with a statement like this: “Beginning this school year, parents can choose to receive a paper report card at the end of each grading period. If you would like to receive a paper report card, sign up here.”

 

 

2. Stop SPAMMING parents

Between a teacher’s newsletter, a school newsletter, a PTA update, and important notices from the district, parents may be becoming numb to your communications and inadvertently miss some of the most important communications (like how their child is performing). Consider having an e-mail schedule that parents know about. Every Sunday night you will receive an email about your child. Week 1 will be from the teacher telling you about classroom events. Week 2 will be an email about building events. Week 3 will be important district level information. Week 4 will be an e-mail from the PTA. In every email, remind parents that they can review student progress by logging into your online gradebook. Finally, send that quarterly email saying, “We have reached the end of the first grading period. Please remember to log into your online gradebook.”

3. Create a “Report Card” Kiosk

There will be an argument that if parents don’t get a paper report card, those who don’t have access to the internet will not know how their child is doing in school. According to a 2018 student by the Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans have access to the Internet. So, in case you have any parents in that remaining 11%, set up a computer in the office of your school and let families know that they are welcome to come to the school and review student progress at any time. This will give you a chance to see parents (who may need to feel connected to the school) and will be a great service to them.

Implementing these strategies will allow you to gently bring your school community along with this change.

Now, all of these ideas are useless if your school does not have an online gradebook. If you are one of these school systems — keep that paper flowing, but, let’s get a move on it, too!


What are some ways that your school is rethinking the way that student performance is communicated to families? Please comment on this post or connect with Keith on Twitter.

About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

 

Retakes Do Not Promote Laziness. They Exemplify Compassion

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This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.


Editor’s note: For a counterpoint to this piece, see Baptiste Delvallé’s opinion essay, “Why I Give Students Only One Chance on Tests.”

Even though it was 23 years ago, I vividly remember the countdown calendar I created for my 16th birthday. I marked April 5, 1993 with a giant set of keys and a convertible. I was going to get my driver’s license, and it was going to be the best day of my life.

During the year leading up to that fateful birthday, I diligently practiced and prepared for the written and performance components of the exam. I applied feedback from my driver’s education teacher and my parents. I practiced driving the course I would later navigate. All the evidence from these formative assessments pointed to my mastery of the open road.

However, when I went to take the actual driver’s test, I successfully completed the course but made a silly, yet critical, error on the written assessment. I pleaded with my evaluator to make an exception and pass me anyway. It was only one little mistake.

I felt completely defeated. All of that practice, and still, I had failed. But then my evaluator told me that we all have bad days. “Go sit in the waiting area and think about the reasons why you made the error you did, and how you can avoid errors like that in the future,” he said. “I’ll come find you in one hour.”

An hour later, he let me retake the test, and the license was mine.

Responding to the Unexpected

There is rarely, if ever, a reason to deny a student an opportunity to retake an assessment. In fact, to do so actually negates the importance of the concepts we aim to teach. Additionally, the purpose of retakes is not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies, but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery.

In my work with teachers in school systems across the country on differentiation and standards-based grading, I have found that test retakes are a hot button for many educators. I often hear teachers say things like, “Students don’t study because they know they can just retake the test.”

In response to this perceived lack of effort by students, some teachers refuse to let students retake a test or require them to perform a variety of tasks (worksheets, online lessons, test corrections) or come in during recess to qualify for a retake.

We should never just assume that students are lazy. Retakes aren’t about students being unprepared, but about letting them respond to the unexpected hurdle. I help educators define how to use retakes in helpful ways: for those occasions when there are discrepancies between formative and summative assessment results.

When teachers give smaller assessments for learning—or formative assessments—correctly and with fidelity, a student who unexpectedly bombs a larger evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit—or a summative assessment—should be a rarity. By using evidence from students’ formative assessments, teachers should have a solid grasp on whether or not individual students are ready for the end assessment.

If formative data shows individual students are ready to take the final test, but they still perform poorly, this discrepancy calls for talking with students to determine what happened, offering reteaching if necessary, and letting them retake the test.

What’s more, if a large number of students did not show mastery of the learning, that is indicative of one of three things: 1) The formative assessments a teacher gave did not correctly identify where students were in their learning; 2) All students took the summative on the same day regardless of readiness; or 3) Many students, for a variety of reasons, simply had an off day.

Our ultimate goal as educators is to ensure students learn, which is why we should offer students a second chance to show us their skills.

Being an Educator, Not a Judge

Some educators also argue that if students showed mastery on earlier assessments and not on the final, then they didn’t master the material at all. This statement begs us to think more about what “mastery” truly means. Is the process fixed or is it fluid?

I would argue that mastery is indeed fluid. Case in point is Gabrielle Daleman, an Olympic figure skater who competed this year for the Canadian women’s team. Gabrielle proved she had the skills required to qualify for the Olympics many times. But in February, after winning a gold medal in the team figure-skating event, Daleman fell multiple times on the ice and dropped to 15th place in the overall competition. But can anyone really argue that because Daleman failed her performance she had never shown mastery in the first place? I don’t think so.

There are no retakes in the Olympics. Many will still argue that there aren’t retakes in real life. But lucky for our students, we have the opportunity and, moreover, the obligation to give our students second (and third) chances. There will always be a few students who work the system. But I’d argue that it’s not the student who is flawed—it’s the system itself.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Why not give students the same courtesy and opportunities to learn and grow now?

When it comes to discrimination “good intentions” are not enough

ignorance image

I have a confession to make. One of the reasons I married my husband was because I loved his younger brother.

Now, before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain what I mean by this provocative statement. I am not referring to a romantic type of love, rather I am referring to a strong admiration of the character traits my brother-in-law, Stephen possesses. Plus, Stephen is gay, so a romantic relationship was out of the question (I’m joking, of course).

And, while I begin this post with humor, the content of this piece is no laughing matter. In fact, perhaps just my attempt at humor, in and of itself, made you feel uneasy (I used the words love and gay in the same paragraph). However, you may not want to admit that these words and images made you uncomfortable. Afterall, you are an educator, and we educators treat all of our students equally. Educators do not have biases.

Except, all humans have underlying biases. And, sometimes we aren’t even aware of them.  Tonya Ward Singer, an author who studies implicit bias stated in her 2015 blog post Get Explicit about Implicit Bias, “everyone has implicit bias and implicit associations don’t always align with our intentional beliefs. For example, a teacher may believe all races are equal, and also may unconsciously associate Latino students with low achievement.”

It Is These Implicit Biases That Perpetuate Inequality In Our Classrooms

No teacher sets out to assign students tasks that are discriminatory in nature, however without careful evaluation of all aspects of the projects we assign, we often do just that.

Let’s go back to my brother-in-law for a minute. Stephen is a single, white, gay, foster-dad living in the City of Chicago. He is raising two, elementary school-aged, African-American, boys who also have regular contact with their biological mother and three other biological siblings who live in other foster homes.

Last week one of the boys came home with a homework assignment which he asked Stephen for help completing. The assignment was marketed as the teacher’s “annual, holiday project” and students were tasked with creating linear-style, family trees, including family photos. After reviewing the project descriptor, it didn’t take Stephen long to determine it would be virtually impossible for his family to complete the project as assigned.

No More Excuses

Having been a public educator for over 15 years and currently working with many school systems across the country, I can anticipate how teachers may respond to a predicament like the one Stephen faced. Responses may include statements like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’d be happy to provide an alternate assignment.” or “Feel free to adapt the project to describe your family.”

And, while these responses are certainly appropriate they are reactive. And, we need to be proactive. Simply assigning a project like the linear family tree example sets the stage for inequality. These actions are not malicious in nature, rather they are examples of microaggressions (defined by merriemwebster.com as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group). But, even without malicious intent, the adverse effect of microaggressions on individual students and learning environments, on the whole, are profound.

In July of 2016, The Chicago Tribune published an article by Brian Crooks titled, “What It’s Like To Be Black In Naperville, America.”  In the article, Crooks recalls his elementary school experience:

In third grade, the gifted program focused on the middle ages. I was in heaven. I loved learning about knights and castles and all that stuff. We had a group project to do sometime that year, where we had to give a short speech about something we’d learned during the year. All of the groups broke off to divvy up the work when my teacher came over to my group. Wouldn’t it be “easier” and more fun for me if my group did our presentation as a rap? I’m eight years old. I have no history writing any kind of music, much less a full 3 or 4 minutes of rap verses for me and my teammates. But, I tried. The other kids just expected it to be natural for me. They looked at me like, “What do you mean you don’t know how to rap?” We ended up just doing it as a regular presentation like everybody else, and afterward my teacher came up to me and said, “I thought you guys were going to rap? I was looking forward to MC Brian.” Again, she didn’t know that she was making a racially-insensitive statement. Why would she? It’s not like she’d had deep conversation about how Black people feel about their Blackness, or the way Black people internalized the way White people feel about our Blackness.”

With knowledge of experiences like those illustrated by Stephen and Crooks, we can no longer claim ignorance. The best teachers are reflective. Just like we reflect on what formative assessment evidence tells us about our instruction, we must reflect on what our students’ actions (or lack thereof) tell us about the way in which we instruct.

If a student cannot complete an assignment as assigned the onus should not be on student and/or his parents to adapt the assignment, rather the onus is on teachers to change the assignment and ensure it is accessible to all students.

How can educators make sure assignments are accessible?

We can adhere to some guiding principles to help us avoid microaggressive situations like the following:

  1. Never assume anything. We must remind ourselves that we do not and will not ever know what it is like to be anybody but ourselves. We may have friends of other cultures and we can certainly empathize with others, but we don’t actually know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask students questions. Often times we avoid asking students questions because we fear that asking the question is offensive. But, when we neglect to ask questions, we tend to make inaccurate assumptions (like the rap example Brian Crooks describes).
  3. Revisit your learning objective. As far as I know, there is not a learning standard anywhere that requires students to create a family tree. Fortunately, today’s teachers have solidified sets of standards for all content areas which guide our instruction; we don’t have to determine what we are teaching, but we have the autonomy to determine how we teach it. We can evaluate the tasks we assign by asking ourselves, “what is the learning objective or standard I am trying to assess? Does this assignment do that? Is this assignment the only way I can assess these criteria?
  4. Ask a trusted colleague or administrator to partner with you to evaluate your project. Teachers often grow attached to the lessons we have created. We are proud of them, possibly had several years of success using them, and we don’t want to say goodbye. And, sometimes we become so close to the lessons we teach we fail to see the flaws in their design. Therefore, it can be helpful to seek the input of a trusted peer to help you determine the accessibility and validity of a task.

In the end

None of us are immune from committing microaggressions. And, we will likely make more in the future. But, the first step is being cognizant of this and making a concerted effort to avoid doing so.

What are your thoughts? Share in the comments below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.