Monday, April 25, 2016

The Jeet Kune Do of Learning, Part 1

As a kid I grew up watching the old kung-fu films with Bruce Lee on our independent television station on Saturday afternoons. My older brother prefered the old John Wayne westerns, which I enjoyed as well, but when the time of year came around for the horribly dubbed kung-fu flicks came on I was glued to the television. I have always admired Bruce Lee and as I grew up I have slowly come across his training philosophies he used in Jeet Kune Do. As a teacher, Bruce Lee was the epitome of teachers - he was a lifelong learner and a patient teacher all in one. Lee and his seven training philosophies are an integral part of my teaching style and should be added to every educator’s development as well.

Bruce Lee Training Philosophy Concept #1 SEEK THE TRUTH

Lee was a master at this and used it as he sought to find his own style and philosophies eventually creating his own approach to martial arts. Lee Don’t didn’t just rely on what his instructor or other martial artists experts told him was the best way, he did his own homework  and ended up creating an enduring legacy and philosophy.

As with any educational endeavour it is up to us as teachers to help our students, as well as ourselves, to learn to seek our own learning. Great teachers have this innate ability to point their students in the direction they want they to go, but to let the students find exactly what it is they are to learn. This runs counter to many districts’ policies and some teachers may even push back against this approach, but in the end we can only offer our students the opportunity to learn for themselves.

Bruce Lee Training Philosophy Concept #2 BECOME AWARE OF THE TRUTH

“Know what you’re looking for and don’t be in denial when you discover it,” said Bruce Lee in his book the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Lee was famous for always studying everything he could on all forms of martial arts - Western, Indian, Filipino, and Eastern styles - in order to take what he say as being efficient and practical. This approach was at times done against the traditions of his homeland’s martial arts masters, yet in the end the ability to see through the lies open Lee up to possibilities that would not have been possible with the traditional approaches.

Education is the same way with its almost dogmatic practitioners who do what has always been done or what has always worked. The tried and true is now on conflict with the new approaches (data driven instruction, differentiated instruction, technological additions, etc) and with it the change in the pedagogy involved. The students have changed in the respect to the way they use technology and with it must change the way education looks and uses technology to stay relevant to the students. Keith Hughes, of Hip Hughes History on Youtube, said that, “If your job is to disseminate information, you’ve been replaced by Google and YouTube.”

Bruce Lee Training Philosophy Concept #3 PERCEIVE THE TRUTH

Bruce Lee believed that perception is everything and that it is up to the individual to gather as many facts as possible. This concept is not solely Bruce Lee’s doing, but one of the many different philosophies he read and studied during his life. To gather the facts needed to make a perception real is to bring one’s thoughts in line with nature. From this place a true master can truly understand what is real and what is not.

In education we deal with perceptions all the time - whether it is about a coworker, parent, student - we live and work in the realm of perceptions. We face the ideas of others that seem to think that teachers are only in the job to have summers off and that we go home right after our students do, but the reality  of it is that we spend way more time, effort, and our own monies to create the positive perceptions needed in our classrooms. Even with our own students we are in a constant battle with perceptions as we are dealing the with unique psyche of our adolescent charges.

As like Lee stated it us up to us as individual teachers to seek our own truths that allow us to ground ourselves in the realities we face. Our students are also unique individuals that we must help guide towards developing their own truths regardless of the conditions, or perceptions, they live in. As educators it is part of the lifelong learning cycle that we learn to adapt to our perceptions as well as the realities we and our students face.

Next week I will do part two of this series as I cover Bruce Lee’s last four training concepts as they relate to education.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

FAIL: The Case for Standards Based Grading

of standards based grading

First Attempt In Learning, or FAIL, is not a bad word, or at least it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately FAIL does have a bad connotation that is due to the normative approach to grading and those teachers that seek to inflate or deflate grades as students race to the top of the grading scale.  The approach of grading everything and then adjusting the weight of an assignment, adding in extra-credit, or adjusting grades down for late work has a negative effect on the students and tends to bring into the teaching of our teachers. School shouldn't have this negative vibe to it and should be a place where the focus is on learning and less on class ranks.

Traditional Grading

Traditional grading of using letters to denote student proficiency has been around for as long as school has been around. A letter grade connotes a convoluted and mysterious mixture of learning, participation and extra credit, yet fails to answer the basic mission of schools - what did the student learn? (Vander Ark 2013) This very limited measure of student abilities does have its benefits.

The first benefit is that a simple letter in our alphabet can be used to denote a student's grade which can be compared to another student’s grade. This is great for a factory-based model of education where the sorting of students into age-based groupings (also called grades) is the primary purpose. Having the ability to rank students allows for stakeholders to quickly compare their student to another student, and to create artificial categories of competition.  This simple classification of students makes it easy for stakeholders to make broad judgments about a class, a school, or the student in general.

Traditional grading also allows for teacher-based criteria to be used to assess our students. This puts a great demand on teachers to evaluate academic talent as it relates to their subject matter. For veteran teachers and those new teachers that were trained well this may not be such a big issue, but for most teachers determining what should or should not be graded and how heavily one assignment weighs on the grade versus another grade is huge and overwhelming. The subjectivity of a grade is then tested as students quickly learn which teacher is easier to get an ‘A’ in versus another teacher and creates a disparity of valuation within the grading system at that school.

The final benefit of traditional grading is that it is a simple overall grade for the student. A teacher can just put the grades in the grade book and an algorithm is used to determine what letter a student receives. Of course teachers will use a valuation system with zeros, extra credit and points of for late work (whole different blog on these three later) are used to determine and distort a grade in the hope of communicating a message of student achievement to the stakeholders.

The biggest disadvantage of traditional grading is this: it is a simple letter that fails to denote what a student learns and is influenced by non-academic factors, such as effort based factors (Wormeli). Traditional grading is the accepted norm, but fails miserably in determining what a student has learned. Student A may have a 93% in their English class while Student ‘B’ also has a 93% in their English class. As a parent of either student what does that tell me about my student’s learning? Actually not much other than they have the same grade and same percentage. What if Student ‘A’ did better on their homework and so-so on their tests while Student ‘B’ did great on their tests but didn't do any homework. What does the simple letter grade tell us about each student’s learning?

Standards-based grading

Like all systems for grading standards based has its challenges and its benefits, yet as a whole it can answer the school’s mission of what did the student learn more efficiently and accurately. Standards-based grading involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).  With a clearer focus on what a student does or does not know, teaching can be fined tuned and differentiated more easily than using a traditional grading system. With standards-based grading the benefits outweigh the disadvantages by a significant amount.

With standards-based grading the teacher, student, parent and other stakeholders get a better picture of what a student is actually learning. With the publishing of state standards being readily accessible to stakeholders, the need to have an accurate report of what a student has learned becomes very important in the grand political scheme of things. With each standard being assessed a student and teacher can look at areas of strength and areas of improvement. With this knowledge teachers can seek to differentiate the learning of each student by challenging those that master a standard earlier than their peers and seek interventions on those students that are lagging behind.

This ability to communicate to the student, parents, and other stakeholders is vital to standards-based grading. By communicating what each standard means and how proficiency can be demonstrated, the student and the teacher have concrete evidence to show student progress as it relates to what they should know. Grades in standards-based grading have multiple grades per student and reflect a student’s ability better when related to the standard. The inconsistency and subjectivity shown in the traditional grading system goes away and focuses on what and how is learned. The focus is on learning not on teaching.

Standards-based grading helps drive instruction by giving a more accurate picture of what a student knows or does not know.  When coupled with frequent formative assessments and the end of unit summative assessments, a teacher can get very useful feedback that will allow them to adjust their teaching in a timely manner. This allows teachers to seek interventions for those students that are struggling with a standard and to  seek more challenging activities for the more advanced learners. Differentiation becomes easier when the correct data is in the hands of the teacher.

Finally, standards-based grading helps to eliminate the need for the unnecessary fluff found a lot of the time in traditional grading. When students are progressing towards mastery in a standard the focus is on the learning and less on the effort (Wormeli, 2006). Rubrics used will have more meaningful labels attached to them highlighting what is to be learned and how to demonstrate it,  and assessments will be addressing specific state, district, and school standards (Work, 2014). Students have less room to negotiate for grades, which unto itself is an ethical dilemma that is better left for a different blog post, and the need for extra-credit will be eliminated as we teach for mastery of a standard.

Opponents of standards-based grading will say that it really does not teach a student any responsibility, since redos and teaching to mastery take away from the accountability of the “real world.” The “real world” does not operate with that level of finality. Just ask any pilot or lawyer if they passed their exams on the first try and if their scores were averaged.

Opponents also will cite that it increases teacher workload by having to reteach and reassess students. Significant amount of time is devoted to reassessing previous work that it would impact teacher planning and teaching. In all actuality it allows for higher levels of differentiation and intervention along with the ability to become a blended or flipped classroom.  The goal of the class is to learn the standards not gain compliance.

Finally, opponents will bring up the fact that the teachers are reinventing the wheel and their previous work is now obsolete. With the review of curriculum and assessments each year, the tweaking and adjustments to the use of formative and summative assessments and realignment to the standards should all that be needed on an ongoing basis. WIth sound instructional practices happening already this should be a simple fix.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to grading our students the results should be crystal clear to all stakeholders as to what our students have learned. This transparency only strengthens the profession, which has been under assault for the last two decades, and allows us as a nation to get a real look at how we compare to other countries.  Having a clear understanding of what is being taught and how much our students are learning is essential to providing accurate data to those politicians that determine our fate via the funding and mandate process.

As a teacher, having accurate data to assess would be critical to the sustainability of my classes and give me a more accurate value of what I bring to a school, let alone to how it can help me as I plan my lessons. Granted standards-based grading is a radical idea to what we currently have, but the system we use currently is too easy to manipulate giving false indications of our students’ abilities. Teachers need to encourage their students take risks and fail in order to learn and not worry about some arbitrary measure of success that is generated in the traditional grading system we currently use.  

Having a clear and accurate understanding of what our students understand is the key to our profession regaining its rightful place in our society. The use of traditional grading practices does not allow teachers to provide an accurate portrayal of what their teaching looks like, but with a standards based grading approach then as teachers we can rest assured that our students have learned something of value.

  • Resources

  • Educational Leadership:Expecting Excellence:Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading . (2016) Retrieved 20 April 2016, from

Killer App: MasteryConnect Reinvents the Report Card - Getting Smart by Tom Vander Ark - CCSS, MasteryConnect, parents, report cards, standards-based. (2013). Getting Smart. Retrieved 20 April 2016

Tomlinson, C., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design.Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Work, J. (2014). 3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading. Edutopia. Retrieved 20 April 2016, from

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn't always equal assessing & grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME Westerville, Ohio: Stenhouse National Middle School Assoc.

Monday, April 18, 2016

What Is It All About? Formative and Summative Assessments

All of us have had this discussion at a staff meeting about what constitutes a formative or summative assessment. According to the Kiddom standards based grading website a summative assessment is, “ any assignment that will count towards a student’s final grade.” Well of course it does, and like most teachers, that are still working off of old pedagogies that are based in the mid-1950s, they are saying, “doesn’t everything count for a grade?” Yes and no. It really depends on the strength of your teaching practices, your experience, and whether you see yourself as a criterion-based or normative-based educator. Regardless the question is: how much does formative and summative assessments count for in your grade book?

As a teacher we have to make choices on a lot of different things in the classroom, one of which is how we are going to grade during the school year. Are you going to be a teacher that “toes the line”, so to speak, and do things exactly as it is on the assumption that your strictness will be preparing your students for the real world. Will you be a teacher that give many chances, helps the students with their work, and even eventually lets them out of the failing grade so they don't blow their grade with you? Or do you fall somewhere in between?

Characteristics of Good
The two types of assessments we deal with have very specific jobs within our teaching and in our grade books. Formative assessments are to be used to gauge where a lesson is and the student is in relation to that standard being taught. They can be as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slip, or a short verbal or written quiz to gauge student understanding. As Rick Wormeli states, in his book Differentiation: From Planning to Practice Grades 6-12, the key component to a formative assessment is that it is to be used to track student process as it relates to the standard and allows the student to know where they are in relation to that standard. All too often our students are graded on this formative assessment since it is usually called homework, which is a misnomer unto itself, and too many teachers place too much emphasis on the value of homework. The goal of homework is not to practice what is being taught, but to practice what is already learned (Wormeli).

Bishop Ryan: Behind the ScenesSummative assessments on the other hand are designed for a much greater purpose - to evaluate how much a student has learned in relation to the standard. This would be the end of unit type assessments that are designed to see that a student has got it or not. These are high stakes assessments and should be graded with greater weight than the multitude of formative assessments. Summative assessments are meant to be used to help guide a teacher in evaluating the effectiveness of a unit so they can be tweaked for the next school year.

Both of these assessments bring about the concept of grading whether you are a traditional normative grading school (think 100 point scale) or a standards-based grading school. Both grading styles benefit from the proper use of formative and summative assessments, but standards-based grading (SBG) tends to benefit better by the proper use of formative and summative assessments. In either gradebook though formative assessments (aka homework and exit slips) should count very little, less than ten percent of the entire grade, while summative assessments should account for the rest of the grade. Yes, it should be weighted that much otherwise you run the risk of inflating/deflating grades. By focusing on summative assessments one can limit the amount of “fluff” in the grades and give a more accurate picture of the student’s learning.

All in all teachers need to have a better understanding of formative and summative assessments. Too many of us had very little introduction or continuing professional development on these assessment types, but are to understand what is meant by each when asked by our administrators. Claiming ignorance isn't good enough as a teacher any more. Having the proper mindset and willingness to learn how to use them is highly important in our profession, considering we get evaluated on this every school year. The efficient and proper application of formative and summative assessments allows us to have a better handle on what we are teaching and to actually determine how effective it is that we teach. In the end it is all about our students learning and how can we ensure that if we don't know how effective we are at teaching?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Integrating Technology

Technology is the newest approach to teaching in our district and one that has a ton of potential as a force multiplier as we service students with diverse needs. With a student demographic that is primarily Native American and Latino-descent we deal with students that are torn between two languages and competing cultures. Technology holds the key to helping us bridge that gap between our minority language learners increase their achievement and success levels in school.

In order to do that though, technology needs to be used and implemented properly. Too often, as with most any new tool, teachers are not trained or given continuing training in the proper implementation of this tool in their classroom. Whether it is new curriculum or new technology it is only effective if the teacher can adapt their teaching practices to account for this new tool. What usually happens though is that the teachers see this new tool (e.g. technology) as a single or dual use device and not have the training to truly understand its potential. What has to happen as technology enters the classrooms  its value must be vetted against the one thing that is truly important - how does it improve and strengthen my students’ learning?

Sir Ken Robinson states in his RSA video, How to Change Education, that “an education that isn't nuanced to the individual differences of its learns soon finds that many people are disengaged from it or alienated by it.” Technology has the ability to nuance learning for our students, especially with our minority language learners, yet can also be another $250 pencil as well if the teachers do not have the professional development (training) or the support to take the risks needed to change their pedagogy then it is really just a waste of education funding.

Eric Sheninger and Weston Kieschnick of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) have looked deeply at the need to integrate technology into schools, but not at the expense of sound pedagogical practices of the teachers. In their paper, Integrating Technology into Instructional Practice: Using the Rigor/Relevance Framework as the Primary Tool for Successful Blended Learning, there are several questions that must be answered before the use of technology, or I would say any new program, can be introduced into the classroom. They are:

  1. What capabilities do I want my students to develop?
  2. In what specific ways is my instructional design rigorous, relevant, and goal oriented?
  3. What are my benchmarks for rigor? Relevance? Relationships? Clear objectives?
  4. How does this digital tool support the development of the capability I want to develop in my students?
  5. Is my teaching, using this tool, still as structured, rigorous, and relevant as it would be without this tool?

As new curriculum or technology is added to the mix of things in our schools these five questions must be honestly addressed. Our mission is simple, and Sir Ken Robinson said it best, “education is a teacher and a learner… if there is no teaching and learning happening there is no education going on.” As we integrate technology into our schools we need to do the due diligence and make sure there is still education happening.

This article is shared on this blog as well: HJHS Google In the Classroom: Pedagogy Trumps Technology

Digital Infancy

Happy, Fragile, Infant

This is not an entirely accurate statement, but in a lot of ways it is true too. Let me explain what I mean by this statement. Let me tell you a story to build context for this week.

In my school I am one of the technology leaders due to the fact that I have a classroom set of Ipads and Google Chromebooks , and use Google Classroom in my 8th grade social studies classes. I have had the Ipads for three years now and received the Chromebooks back in early August after we returned to school. I had played around with Google Classroom a bit at the end of last school year when it first came out, yet had issues because the Ipads really don’t work well with the Chrome operating system. When the Chromebooks arrived I became very excited to finally have a tool that would make it easier for my students to use Google Classroom and for me to get out of the mid-20th century.

At first, learning Google classroom and the Google suite of tools for myself was a lesson in patience, redos, and mistakes as I tried to learn what I had in possession and how to teach it to my students. It was clumsy, misguided, and really not much better than how I had normally would have done it sans technology. After reading many articles, pins and watching a ton of Youtube videos on how to use Google tools and classroom. As the year progressed I became more comfortable using Google and even helped several of our 6th grade teachers get Chromebooks for their classes as well. We all began to self-teach ourselves how to use this and as one of us learned something useful we passed it on to the others. As our knowledge grew so did how we approached using this technology in the classroom and came to the understanding that it isn’t the technology that is important, but that I must be change the way I approach teaching with technology.

Fast forward to last week.

File:Hangouts Icon.pngOne day last week when my students were working on their 20 Percent project one student engaged me in a conversation about school and how it really would be better if kids didn’t hate it so much. This lead us to a class discussion on the value of school and two TED talk videos, Why Kids Hate School, by Nikhil Goyal,and Schools That Work for Kids, by Eric Sheninger. After these videos and discussions several of my students made comments about how they would love to talk to them. So, as any good teacher would do, I reached out to both speakers to see if they would talk with my students. The next morning I had a return email from Eric stating that he would be happy to have a Google Hangout (GHO) and talk with them.

All week my students worked on questions for Mr. Sheninger and awaited our GHO where the students could do something that is restricted in our district - streaming video. The students did a great job with the GHO with Mr. Sheninger asking very direct and well thought out questions, listening to his responses, taking notes, and even filming parts of the conversation and posting it to social media. When the GHO was over the students were very excited and looking forward to being advocates of their own education and quickly spread this information to their friends in other classes.

Digital Infancy

The reason I say that this was a week of digital infancy was for one simple reason - I learned how much I don’t know about what I thought I knew well. This assignment, for lack of a better word, talking and learning more about how a school could be really opened my eyes to the plethora of apps, add-ons, and tutorials my students and I became exposed to.

In order for us as teachers to be able to help facilitate the learning our students need we need to get ourselves into the realm that our students live in - the digital realm. Watching my students conduct a Google Hangout with Eric and then use their own devices to record and then post it to social media was an eye-opening experience for me. I am fairly tech savvy and know the students have these capabilities, as do we as well, but they do it so much more naturally than we do. The question that jumps into my head wasn’t we need more technology, but how can I use this to make my students even better?

This enlightened me to the fact that the way I approach teaching will need to change. I am already an outlier in my district in the fact that I think of my students on  relational level and not just someone I give my knowledge to, but the idea that I need to transform my teaching practices even more to really get to these students and use technology to my advantage instead of it being a cool toy or $250 pencil. How am I going to accomplish this in a district like mine is now my objective.

In the words of one of my most favorite literary characters, Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot. It is now time to grow up (digitally that is) and become the leader my students deserve.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This is how we do it (Montell Jordan shout out)

Three years ago, my administration mentor, told me that I would have to change the way I related to my colleagues if I ever wanted to be a principal. At that time in January 2013, I was just completing my Educational Leadership degree from Grand Canyon University and looking forward to being an administrator someday. Three years later in the best description possible I am a quasi-administrator (referred to as student services) since I am on a teacher contract with a stipend for limited administration and athletic director duties . Regardless of what my title may or may not be I am an administrator.

Working in a small border town in Arizona next to the Navajo Reservation, our challenges are not that unlike many other small towns. Our students are primarily Native American ( around 64%), Latino (30%), and the other 6% is the rest of the world. We do live in a severely depressed area of the state and deal with generational poverty and educational issues. The students we see now with severe learning, behavioral, or discipline issues are the children of parents that were once those as well. The list of disadvantages is enormous, yet the few advantages we do have outweighs all of those.

Now that you have some background let me explain what this blog is about. This is an adventure story as I progress through my teaching and administration careers as I boldly go into the future and become a Digital Leader. As technology impacts our lives so should our teaching, because as my mentor used to say, “it’s the teachers that will make a difference in this world.” The lives of students everywhere are in the hands of those in the noblest of professions. It is our job to adjust our ways of thinking and teaching to best fit the needs of our active learners. We can no longer be stuck in the old days where we were taught, but must adjust our pedagogical approaches to support these students.

In this blog I will be detailing my use of technology into my own classroom and as a small rural school out in the wilds of Arizona becomes a digital force, while detailing the trials and tribulations that go with this metamorphosis.