3 Ways To Blockbuster Your Report Cards

Blockbuster report card image.png

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

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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.

How Walkthroughs Hurt Differentiation Efforts

walkthroughThis post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


For teachers, there is nothing worse than receiving a write-up that is riddled with unchecked boxes, zeros, or vague comments after an unannounced walkthrough by an evaluator, especially one searching for evidence of differentiation.

These write-ups are especially ill received by teachers who work diligently to differentiate instruction for their students yet their informal observation paperwork doesn’t account for this effort.

Many teachers have shared that they feel “defeated” after a walkthrough, and, in turn, “give up” on differentiating instruction. If they are going to get a “zero” even when they are attempting to differentiate, then why try at all?

Why the confusion?

Attempting to spot differentiation during a walkthrough is an exercise in futility, as differentiation is not readily observable.

I can walk into a classroom and see student groups working on various tasks and assume that I see differentiated instruction. Or, conversely, I can walk into a classroom and see all students working on the same task and presume this means the lesson was not differentiated.

However, I don’t know actually know whether or not my assumptions are accurate because, for something to qualify as differentiation, evidence (qualitative and quantitative) must have been considered. For teachers, this occurs during the planning phase of instruction.

A common response from evaluators who include differentiation as an item to look for on a walkthrough even though it is difficult to accurately assess is, “That’s why we check the box for not-evident. That’s not a bad thing…”

Except, to the teachers receiving these reports, “not evident” often feels like a strike. And, any measure that is perceived by teachers as punitive should be avoided. It is vital that our teachers feel confident about their work. In fact, how effective teachers feel is directly correlated with how much their students grow (Collective Efficacy: How Educator’s Beliefs Impact Student LearningDonohoo). Receiving a walkthrough report that highlights deficiencies surely doesn’t do anything to increase teachers’ feelings of effectiveness.

But accountability is a reality.

Many administrators are well aware of the flaws in their informal observation methods, and at the same time, they are accountable for ensuring and reporting on specific practices that are occurring in classrooms.

This is important and I am not suggesting that attempts to verify that best practices are occurring in our classroom be eliminated. Instead, what I recommend is that we employ better systems to gather this information.

My first choice for informal observations would be conversation-based: evaluators confer with students and/or teachers to get a better sense of what is happening in a classroom.

However, practically speaking, I know this isn’t always possible.

Therefore, my second suggestion (as illustrated in the chart below) is to use walkthroughs that include student voice to highlight instructional practices that are indicative of differentiation, rather than identifying what is not evident.

DIFFERENTIATION LOOK-FOR TOOL

Check the boxes for any evident items.

Content(The teacher or student would need to explain why this work is targeted for the student. See questions of walkthrough questions below)
o  Varied texts (titles and/or levels)
o  Different class work or homework

 

Process
o  Teaching Up: all students are working on the same high-level task with different entry points or scaffolding (i.e. complex performance task in math where students are using different problem-solving strategies and/or tools and varying amounts of support from peers or teacher)
o  Goal setting and feedback: students have learning goals and receive feedback from teacher related to goal
o  Pacing: students are at different points working toward mastering the same standard or skill and are actively tracking progress
o  Metacognitive strategies: i.e. some students taking notes and other students taking photos with an iPad
o  Affective strategies: i.e. some students working with a partner, some working alone, and some working in a small group)
o  Questioning differs among students (type, kind, level)

 

Product
o  Students are creating a variety of products aligned with the learning intention (i.e. one student is writing a paper and one student is filming a documentary)

 

Learning Environment
o  Flexible seating arrangements: may include non-classroom space: hallway, large closet, etc.
o  Student interaction: i.e. some students interacting with each other, some students interacting with others virtually, some students working independently)
o  Technology: some students use technology to access content, some students use technology to create, some students not using technology

Include student voice

Ask students this question… Instead of this one…
What is your learning goal?Student should cite a relevant skill or concept

  • Example: I am learning to add rational numbers.
  • Non-example: To finish this assignment.
What is the learning/lesson objective?
Where are you on your path to reach your goal? How have you been tracking your success?Student should cite elements of the learning intentions (standards).

  • Examples: I have mastered adding positive and negative integers, but I am still working on adding positive and negative fractions.
  • I monitor my progress toward my learning goal with ongoing feedback from my teacher.
  • Non-examples: I don’t know.  My teacher tells me. I check our online reporting system.
What are you working on?
Can you tell me about the roles your group mates and you have?Student should cite their specific contributions to the task/goal of collaboration. Students should have different roles that equally allow them to engage with the learning intentions. What is your group doing?

Questions or comments about this post? Share below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Student-Driven Differentiation

I am excited to announce that my first book,  Student-Driven Differentiation (forward by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson and published by Corwin Press), is now available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. You can check out the contents and preliminary reviews here.

What is Student-Driven Differentiation?

Student-driven differentiation shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn. The focus also shifts from the teacher as the owner of the knowledge and the students the receivers of such knowledge. Student-driven differentiation requires teachers to find a healthy balance in their relationships with all students, use multiple types of evidence to ensure student growth, and partner with students in the process.

  • Shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn
  • Requires teachers to find common ground with all students
  • Creates learning environments where students have control over their learning
  • Gives students the autonomy to create, learn, and grow at their own pace
  • Requires honest and mutually respectful teacher-student relationships
  • Students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan

 

The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

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This August marks the first time in 15 years that I didn’t have an official first day of school. Instead, this August, I transitioned to full-time educational consulting and I had numerous “first days” of school at districts in the Chicagoland area and elsewhere in the country.

As I wrap up my first month of consulting, I have one overarching takeaway: in every building, in every district, in every city, in every state, there are administrators, teachers, and students who are so passionate about learning that you can feel the positive energy in the room. It’s humbling, heartwarming, and inspiring.

Yet, what I also see are lots of educators and students who frequently second guess themselves, continuously ask for permission to do anything, or who render themselves silent in large groups and appear to have “given up.” However, behind closed doors, these are the same educators and students who are overflowing with enthusiasm and have a wealth of knowledge.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the strikingly similar behaviors both adult educators and student learners demonstrate in our current educational system. What causes passionate learners to become apathetic toward their passion? Why do students and adults alike ask for permission to learn? And, I keep coming back to one simple conclusion.

The Deficit Model of Education Has Worn Us All Down

Focusing on the deficits (or the kinder term, areas for growth) of students, teachers, and administrators is the go-to in education. We spend so much time beating ourselves up about the areas data shows we need improvement that we forget about our strengths. And, no one is pointing them out to us.

Our expectations are flawed. In theory, all students are expected to master all standards. All teachers are expected to be proficient at numerous criteria in a variety of categories, and all administrators are expected to cross every t and dot every i, always.

When a student, teacher, or administrator demonstrates expertise in one area (i.e. a student is strong in reading, a teacher is strong in curriculum mapping, an administrator has strong parent communication) we give them a quick pat-on-the-back and then immediately present them with their deficit (student- you need to work on math computation, teacher you need to differentiate, administrator- you need to improve student test scores).  Instead of celebrating someone’s strength and recognizing how this strength could help build the capacity of the entire organization, we treat individual’s strengths like items on a checklist. ✅

But, strengths are worthy of more than a check.

What if, instead of focusing on what students can’t do, teachers won’t do, or administrators didn’t do, we focus on what we can all accomplish together? How might education look different?

We need to find systems to authentically detect individual’s specific strengths, share these strengths publicly, and create a culture where we tap into each other’s strengths to build each other’s capacity ultimately benefiting our organizations and the field of education on the whole. We need to retrain our minds to start looking for the skills and qualities that set people apart and focus solely on that.

One idea that can work if properly implemented is something I refer to as a reverse pineapple chart. The traditional pineapple chart is a popular system of professional learning that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in a common location: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, hallway, etc.

What I propose is that rather than putting the onus on ourselves to promote our own strengths, we create a reverse pineapple chart where we promote each other’s strengths and hang that in a high traffic area within the school. The items we celebrate must be authentic and unique, and not general statements like, “John is child-centered.”The key is that everyone in an organization is looking at each other to find the good and recognize them for that.

pineapple chart revearse

The same process can be used in classrooms for students and in central offices for administrators. By using strategies that promote strengths over needs, we can create school climates where applause drowns out protest.

What are your thoughts on focusing on student, teacher, and administrator strengths rather than deficits? Share in the comment section or connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

 

 

3 Lessons I Learned Leading Startups That I Wish I Knew as a Principal

Having worked in leadership roles in both public education and in the edtech startup industry, there are three organizational behaviors that, should I go back to school or district leadership, I would implement on Day 1.  

#1:  Daily or Weekly Standups

What’s the best way to have a well-run organization (whether a school or an edtech company)?  Communicate!  Take ten minutes every morning and assemble your office staff.  Go through the day, discuss what is expected to happen that day, and give every person a chance to ask questions.  Not only will doing so ensure everyone is on the same page, everyone’s day will run smoother.  

Standups allow for daily communication.

Oh, and what’s with the “standup”?  Everyone stands up for the meeting.  There isn’t a more effective way to keep a meeting short and on-task than by making people stand up while it’s happening.

#2:  Chat

I am against intercoms in schools.  In my opinion, they are the most intrusive and abused devices in existence – completely disruptive to teaching and learning (or general sanity). Download Slack (or embrace the use of any messaging tool that your teachers already like) and let every teacher and staff member in your building use it to communicate. These tools are efficient and allow for regular communication.

I like Slack because users can create “channels” that your staff can follow (i.e. lunch duty, after school clubs, 5th-grade team, etc.).  Of course, your staff may think big brother is watching their conversations.  But, as long as conversations on your messaging system put students first, what’s the worry?  

#3:  Ring the Bell!

Make no mistake, right behind the intercom, bells are the most obnoxious systems in schools.  But, in the workplace, ringing a bell is not the way employees know when to stop doing “this” and start doing “that” like the way many schools use bells to determine when Math is over and PE begins.

Bells are a way to let people know something positive has happened somewhere in the organization.  Full disclosure, this is stolen from car dealerships who ring bells with every car sale.  But, at Otus, big or small, we ring the bell.  A code bug is squashed…ring!  A sale is made…ring!  And, more of a full disclosure, we literally ring the bell emoji in Slack (you already know how I feel about distractions).

Bottom line, find your bell.  Don’t literally ring a bell in your school, but do make a point to publicly celebrate successful moments with your staff.  Maybe send an email blast or a group chat message containing small victories from the day (a great PD session, a positive call from a parent, etc.). Everyone has bad days and by “ringing the bell” you are showing that despite your bad day, good moments are always happening at school.

This post is written by my former co-worker and current husband, Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.


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.

How To Coach For Differentiation

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A teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners. – Carol Ann Tomlinson

Raise your hand if differentiation is on your school district’s list of initiatives? If your district is like many across the country, differentiation is something that is talked about frequently, and perhaps a struggle to implement.

I recently completed my second year as an instructional coach who specializes in differentiation, and in this time I’ve started to recognize trends as to why differentiation (which clearly helps students learn) is not fully embraced by educators (who strive to ensure students learn).

Differentiation Is Not the Goal

In short, there is a lot of confusion about what differentiation is, how you do it, and what it looks like.

Because I have the word differentiation in my title, teachers would often seek me out with a predetermined goal for our coaching cycle: “I want to differentiate instruction.”

Initially, I thought the fact that teachers came to me with a goal would make my job easier. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when teachers came to me with this specific goal, our cycles were not as successful as cycles with other identified goals.

It took several stalled coaching cycles for me to recognize why this was happening. Once, I realized the reason, however, my coaching practice improved. The reason is: differentiation in it of itself is not the goal; rather differentiation is the result of the achievement of a number of smaller goals.

What do you mean?

Here’s an analogy. Many people set a goal to “lose weight.” As they make their action plan, they set a series of smaller, more manageable, and trackable goals: eat smaller meals more frequently, limit sugar intake, increase exercise, etc. Weight loss is a natural by-product of any of these smaller goals steps, assuming they are done with fidelity.

The Big Four

In Instructional Coaching, author Jim Knight identifies “The Big Four”  areas in which teachers and coaches can partner to set goals. The big four are: classroom management, content, instruction, and formative assessment.

To differentiate effectively, and to effectively coach around differentiation, the natural starting point is to examine at each of these categories need to be considered for individual teachers.

 

Classroom Management: The learning environment is instrumental for effective differentiation. Teachers and students must have a mutual understanding of expectations and the climate must be evident of respect and rapport. If these elements are not evident, it is in the best interest of the coach, teacher, and students to start here if the teacher is willing.

Sometimes teachers are hesitant to form a classroom management goal as they feel pressured to implement initiatives, like differentiation, and feel they are wasting time and administrators won’t “see” differentiation in their classroom.

I strongly encourage coaches and teachers to not give into that perceived pressure and to engage in a classroom management cycle if needed. It is the coach’s responsibility to also work with administrators so they understand the multiple small steps/coaching cycles that may take place before differentiation is readily evident and effective.

Classroom Management

Example Classroom Managment Coaching Cycle Goal: I want to decrease the number of disruptions.

➢    Data Collected: Number of disruptions in a 40 minute period

➢    Strategy used: Break up whole group instruction with structured partner work (specifically a Kagan Strategy called Rally Coach)

➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Rally Coach allowed for students at different placed in their learning to partner and challenge each partner appropriately

Content

As more and more school districts switch to standards-based grading which requires educators to study the language of the standards (CCSS, NGSS, C3) they are assessing, a common conclusion made is often times, there is quite a bit of leeway as far as specific content.

While this can, at times, still be a hard pill for some content experts to swallow (why isn’t studying the Civil War mandatory?) this change allows for teachers to differentiate for student’s interests within a unit of study which ultimately benefits their mastery of the skill being assessed.

Example Content Coaching Cycle Goal I want students to see the relevancy of the content in a unit.

➢    Data Collected: Student engagement data

➢    Strategy used: Essential question(s)

➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Students self-identified areas of relevance to the content and then wrote pieces on different topics all related to the subject area, rather than in previous years where all students wrote on the same topic.

Instruction

Oftentimes, instruction is an area that will require multiple goals and the use of more than one strategy for each goal (read more on why here). This is also an area that lends itself nicely to coaches and teachers partnering as co-teachers for part of the learning phase of the coaching cycle.

Example Instruction Coaching Cycle Goal I want to e ngage more students in class discussions.

➢    Data Collected: Types, kind, level of questions asked and number of students volunteering to answer

➢    Strategy used: Questioning (using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) and options for multiple students to answer simultaneously (using various tech tools)

➢    How did differentiation ensue? Asking questions at various levels (more open than closed questions, more analysis questions than knowledge questions) increased the number of students contributing answers which allowed the teacher to assess students’ understanding of concepts more thoroughly and adjust pacing for those students (differentiate the process) accordingly.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is the heart of differentiation as it provides the evidence as to what students know, don’t know and when done correctly, formative assessment provides both the teacher and student with information as to what to do next.

The biggest hurdle with formative assessment is many times the word assessment is misinterpreted (you can read more about that here) and teachers and students miss opportunities to use valuable pieces of evidence.

Example Formative Assessment Coaching Cycle Goal I want to involve students in the formative assessment process.

➢    Data Collected: Type of peer feedback offered

➢    Strategy used: Peer feedback and video analysis of feedback

➢    How did differentiation ensue? Student products were differentiated as peer feedback promoted student autonomy and allowed choice in showing mastery of a concept or skill.

In the end

Both instructional coaching and differentiation are complex topics and this blog post just scratches the surface. The more educators engage in dialogue about coaching and differentiation the more opportunity we all have to learn and perfect our craft. Please share your experiences with differentiation and working with/as an instructional coach by commenting below or connecting with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

For more on differentiation, read these posts:

For more on instructional coaching, read these posts:

Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground guest blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

School let out in the Chicago suburbs just over a week ago. While I have never been a proponent of the “last days of school countdown” and much prefer Twitter movements like #lastbell, I must admit, I like the time off. I appreciate waking up in the morning without an alarm and drinking coffee from a real mug.

Similarly, my children (ages 11 and 8) have enjoyed sleeping in and playing outside. It wasn’t until day 6 of our time-off together that we did something “educational.” We visited the library where we greeted by a large poster reminding us to read and avoid the dreaded “summer slide.”

What is the summer slide?
The summer slide refers to the phenomena of lost academic growth by students over the summer months when they are not actively engaged at school. On average, students lose one to three months of learning during the summer, with students from low-income homes being disproportionately affected (ASCD).

There are a plethora of recommendations for minimizing the impact of the summer slide. Most suggestions, including those listed in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, focus on two aspects of the slide, one preventative and one reactionary:

  1. what parents/guardians can do to avoid the summer slide

  2. what educators can/need to do to fix the damage done over the summer when school resumes in the fall

Why are we placing the burden of preventing the summer slide on parents?
As an educator, I have insight into what my children should be doing over the summer and I have the luxury of time-off to do things like read with them. Yet, to be honest, I don’t assess whether or not our activities help their retention nor do I want to do so. This leads me to wonder about the majority of parents who aren’t trained educators or who don’t have time-off from work. Are they really the right party to rely on to prevent the summer slide?

There are people, like Geoffrey Canada, who say the idea of no school in the summer is asinine altogether:

“every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can’t run schools in the summer…who makes up those rules? — I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, — but let me tell you why that doesn’t make sense….anyone knows if you farm, you don’t plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring” (Ted Talk, Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough, 2013).

However, considering that a systemic change (like mandated year-round school) could take years to legislate, we ought to focus less on what parents and students should do to prevent the summer slide and focus more on what we (educators) can control.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  1. What are we doing during the school year to ensure that the growth our students make is permanent?

  2. What are we (inadvertently) doing to make students resistant to learning in the summer?

And, I propose that the following practices (or lack thereof) are unwittingly contributing to our students’ summer slide:

Reliance on Bells and Schedules
During the nine months we have students in our classrooms we consistently send them subliminal messages that learning is fixed and structured, rather than fluid and ubiquitous. This is not malicious, but true nonetheless.

We offer our students instruction in the form of “periods” or “blocks” which typically rely on bells to indicate when learning starts and stops. Students learn reading from 8-9, and then they learn science from 9-10. And, while many schools claim to teach literacy in all classes, or engage in interdisciplinary learning, on the whole, these connections are not clear to students. Students struggle to transfer information learned in one class to another class, let alone from one year to another.

What we need to do is recognize, vocalize, and celebrate the fact that the content, skills, and concepts we cover in our classrooms just scratch the surface of what there is to be learned. We need to focus on building students’ metacognitive awareness so they recognize when and where they are learning, so they can self-identify what strategies to use to best understand the new information to which they are constantly exposed. By doing so, even when students are at home “playing video games” all summer, we give them the greatest opportunity to learn something from playing these games (plotline of a story, digital imagery, strategizing) and make connections.

Incorrectly “using” formative assessment
In Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth offers Stiggins’ explanation of formative assessment as something that, “happens while learning is still underway. These are the assessments that we conduct throughout teaching and learning to diagnose student needs, plan for next steps in instruction, provide students with feedback they can use…”

When done correctly, formative assessment (sometimes referred to as assessment for learning) informs both the teacher and the student of whether or not concepts/skills have been consistently mastered. The consistent “loss” of skills or knowledge over the summer months is indicative of improperly assessing students’ progress/mastery throughout the year. Furthermore, this loss suggests the focus is on moving students as a whole, rather than focusing on individual student growth which would require the use of formative assessment evidence to differentiate for their needs.

Perhaps, if we truly shift our focus to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, and resume teaching our students where they actually left-off the year before, the gaps will not be as cavernous.

Making reading a punishment
If (as advertised) reading is the key to preventing the summer slide; the one thing all educators must do is curate a love of reading.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to do just the opposite and systemize reading. For many students, reading is seen as a chore, a measure of compliance, or worse, something it is ok to “lie” about (read more about this here or here).

With this in mind, it is no wonder that students choose to not read in the summer. They need a break because reading feels strenuous and stressful.

Rather than assign reading in it of itself, we need to pose relevant and provocative questions which will naturally compel students to read. Instead of assigning 20 minutes of reading a night, we can ask students questions about what they read outside of class (online, in books, in magazines, even subtitles) and accept that reading takes on many forms.

When we expose students to reading in a variety of forms and recognize learning from reading of any source (wow, that’s pretty cool. where did you learn/read about that, I’ve never heard that before? Can you show me that?) it’s pretty incredible how much more students are willing to read.

In The End
Until school runs year-round we may never fully eradicate the summer slide. But, we can certainly do our best to ensure that what our students learn is permanent and not fleeting. What are your thoughts on the summer slide?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Student-Driven Differentiation: Putting Student Voice Behind The Wheel

Student Voice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Over the weekend, while at a BBQ, I had a conversation with some middle schoolers and their parents about our summer plans. I mentioned the work I will be doing with student-driven differentiation which prompted one of the parents to ask me a question I get asked frequently, “what is student-driven differentiation?”

I replied as I normally do. I stated the traditional definition of differentiation (an approach to teaching in which educators use ongoing assessment to actively plan for students’ differences and adjust instruction so all students can learn). Then, I explained that student driven differentiation calls for the use of one additional, non-negotiable, piece to effectively plan instruction: student voice.

After giving this long-winded answer, one of the middle schoolers sitting at the table said, “Oh, my teacher asks me a lot of questions, but she never listens to any of my answers.”

I respect my students, just ask them!

A few months ago, I read The School Voice Report published by The Quaglia Institute. The report disclosed some very thought-provoking numbers. Most notably, after surveying over 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers, researchers found 99% of teachers surveyed reported they respect their students, while 58% of students surveyed reported feeling respected by their teachers.

Additionally, of those surveyed, 82% of teachers said they actively seek out student opinions and ideas, yet only 47% of students feel teachers are willing to learn from them.

These discrepancies did not surprise me. I often see a disconnect between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of respect and listening. Many teachers will ask students for input and innocently, yet mistakenly, believe that just asking students questions is a clear indicator of the respect they have for them.  However, students feel respected when their thoughts and questions are heard and addressed accordingly. So, without action (whether that be a change or a valid explanation of why a change cannot occur) students do not necessarily feel respected.

When differentiating instruction (student-driven or not), teachers are mindful that some students will master content and skills more quickly while some students will struggle to learn the same content and skills. With student-driven differentiation, rather than plan in advance how to address student needs, students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan. Student-driven differentiation lends itself to teacher action which produces the ultimate result: students who feel respected, heard, and who learn.

But… there is always a “but”.

In my work with teachers on student-driven differentiation, I regularly encounter concerns about differentiation in general (read more about that here), and with student-driven differentiation, teachers often share two additional concerns: not having enough time (we have so much content to get through, it doesn’t leave time for talking with students) and the number of students they have (I have too many students to talk to all of them on a regular basis).

In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso address these and other perceived barriers to seeking student voice to which they respond with the following statements:

  • Time sacrificed in the short run to listen to students pays off in the long run in the form of higher engagement (26).
  • It is impossible to teach well without knowing your students (53).

Back in my day, teachers didn’t talk to students.
In the blogpost, Why Differentiation Misses The Mark for Gifted Students, I ascertain that one of the reasons differentiation can seem unattainable is due to remnants of the factory model of teaching that still exists in today’s classroom. The lack of attention to student voice would be a prime example of one of these remnants. Historically, taking student voice into consideration has not been a component of teaching and learning.

Therefore, using student voice to guide instruction can seem foreign to teachers and they often have fears about adding this element into their practice. When I partner with teachers on student-driven differentiation once we get past worries about time, I frequently hear and address the following matters:

Concern #1: I don’t know what questions to ask students which will help drive my instruction.
Remedy: As educators, we often overthink things. Debating the right questions to ask students would be an example of such overthinking. In short, the answer to any question you ask a student can likely inform instruction. However, I know teachers want more direction than that. So, teachers and I usually work together to create questions related to the four categories of differentiation. For example:

  • Content: What intrigues you about this concept/topic? Or, (for an apathetic student), why do you find this topic boring?
  • Process: Is taking notes helping you to understand the material? If so, how do you know? If not, what learning strategy might be more helpful?
  • Product: In an ideal world where you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show your understanding?
  • Learning environment: Are you and your groupmates able to work collaboratively on this task? If so, how do you know? If not, what are your groups’ obstacles?

Concern #2: Students will become entitled if I do whatever they want.
Remedy: Listening to students relay information about their wants and needs does not necessarily mean you do whatever students say. Rather, listening means students’ thoughts are considered. To show such consideration for these thoughts you can follow these steps: ask questions of students, summarize their responses to check for understanding, and then genuinely think about their questions/thoughts in relationship to your expectations. In doing so, you will gain information as to how to differentiate for their needs within the realm of your expectations. For example:

Teacher check-in with student: “It appears that you haven’t made any progress on your PowerPoint.”

Student response: “Can I make an infographic instead of a PowerPoint to present this information?”

Teacher response: “It sounds to be like you would like to present information about (state concept) in an infographic rather than a PowerPoint. Can you tell me how you will (state learning intentions) in an infographic?”

Teacher’s next steps: Continue to converse with the student to determine the best way the student can incorporate the learning intentions into his alternate product suggestion. If along the way it becomes clear that the suggested alternative won’t allow the student to show understanding, converse with the student as to the reasons why; the student will likely have already come to the same conclusion.

Concern #3: I don’t want to blur the lines with my students. I am their teacher, not their friend.
Remedy: We have lots of conversations with people who we aren’t trying to become friends with, why are students any different? Instead of worrying your students will see you as a friend, follow the three tenets of building genuine relationships with students through conversation:

  • Be Real: ask questions and share appropriate personal anecdotes to find common ground and connect.
  • Be Consistent: deliver on promises and react to similar situations in the same way regardless of which student is involved.
  • Be A Listener: seek first to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What other questions or comments do you have about student-driven differentiation? How has listening to students helped you meet their needs? Feel free to comment below or contact me directly.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.