Smart Guys Can Get It Wrong

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREYou know that feeling when one of your friends says something stupid that makes a different friend angry?  And you realize that you agree with the angry friend?  Yeah, so that happened to me a few weeks ago.  Let me explain.

I am a big fan of the FiveThirtyEight blog that Nate Silver runs with his team of statisticians/economists.  Nate has a knack for explaining technical mathematical stuff using everyday examples.  He started in sports and moved to politics (correctly predicting most of the 2014 races), and then ESPN brought his blog back over to their site where it lives now.  When he sticks to those two topics–sports/politics–he is a bastion of logic in a world of opinions.

Lately, though, Silver has been dipping his toes into the realm of educational policy and the ridiculous questionable data that supports some of the recent “reforms”.  In the recent article “The Science of Grading Teachers Gets High Marks“, Silver’s ed dude Andrew Flowers analyzes some of the discussion around the Vergara case.  He discusses the back and forth between statisticians at Harvard, Brown, and Columbia and Jesse Rothstein of Stanford.

While I agree with Flowers that the arguments over methods for analyzing teacher impact are a positive sign that science is working as it should, I side with Valerie Strauss when she writes for the Washington Post that,

“The quality of the underlying standardized  assessment is assumed to be at least adequate — or why use the student scores to evaluate their teachers? — when, in fact, many of them are less than adequate to provide a well-rounded, authentic look at what students have learned and are able to do.”

Flowers provided this throw-away phrase that was guaranteed to make educators angry,

“In order to perfectly isolate the effect of a teacher on a student’s test scores — setting aside whether higher test scores is the right goalstudents would need to be assigned to teachers randomly.”  [emphasis mine]

What?!?  How can you “set aside” the source of all of the data that you are analyzing (or, more accurately, discussing the analysis of)?  That’s like saying, “Setting aside the fact that koalas are not actually bears, observing them is a great way to learn about the bear behavior.” We MUST stop pretending that mathematical analysis can make up for crappy assessments.

Opinions?  You know what to do.

 

Image: “Friendly Female Koala” by QuartlOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Writing and publicly sharing what happens in our classrooms demonstrates to the world that learning is at the heart of a classroom. It makes public the messiness of the classroom. It shows the world that we are indeed practitioners. It demonstrates that we are focused on growth. There is also another benefit, people might give you feedback and we might all grow together.”

An argument in favor of blogging to increase transparency from Chris Crouch in Huffington Post Education.

Feedback in the “Real World”

floops_loopsLike many classroom teachers, I’ve worked in a variety of non-educational jobs over the years.  From pub trivia host to tour guide, each role gave me an opportunity to develop skills that made me a better educator.  Working at the Apple Store is probably the best example of this: being a part of a huge, modern, progressive technology company has shown me what the workplace of the 21st century will look like for many of my students.  It constantly reminds me of the difference between what we teach in public schools and what employers seek.  The most important lesson was the critical role of feedback.

Historically, feedback has been something provided by managers to workers, flowing downhill as if pulled by gravity.  Schools have mimicked this flow: teachers evaluating students and delivering suggestions for improvement.  In contrast, at Apple there is an intentional and pervasive climate of feedback by and to everyone.  Employees at all levels and with any amount of experience are required to approach one another, ask for permission, and use a structured protocol to describe what they have observed and the impact that it has had.  The result is a powerful climate of constructive criticism, meaningful praise, and eager self-improvement.

Returning to my classroom after spending time in that environment, I was faced with the hard fact that my students resist feedback.  They see it as evaluation more than as an opportunity to improve.  They cringe at criticism and respond with reflexive words of defense, like “Yeah, but…” and “I tried that”.  Feedback from peers is met with even more pushback: like most adults, students see criticism as something provided by the “ones who know” to the “ones who don’t know”.  Assessment is something that experts do.

Over time, I began to see that the importance of learning to give and receive feedback trumped the challenges of changing student perceptions.  Like so many much-needed changes to grading and assessment, students and parents have been programmed to think a certain way… and they are wrong.  We can not simply acknowledge their resistance to change and give up.  We must push forward to practices that improve learning and develop responsible citizens.

What is the role of feedback in your classroom?

 

 

image from Smashing Magazine, used with permission

Looking Back Through The Eyes of My Students

passenger-traffic-122999_1280This past school year, I decided to embrace an idea that Larry Ferlazzo discusses on his blog every year: End-year Student Surveys.  I know that opinions differ about whether (and how) to poll students about what worked and what didn’t.  And I have frequently shied away from even asking students for their evaluation at the end of the year because I didn’t value their perspective and didn’t want to hear what they had to say.  But, I realized this year that I can’t pretend to be a reflective educator who continuously improves if I don’t seek out feedback about my practice… especially from those who spend the most time with me everyday.

In following Larry’s lead, I composed a short but detailed survey and administered it to students during the last few days of the 2014-2015 school years.  I explained to them that their responses would be anonymous and that I would be publishing the results here.  I wanted them to know that they were free to be honest and that I would be taking the results seriously.  In the interest of true and complete transparency, you can view the survey here and the results spreadsheet here.  Here on the blog, I’d like to point out my three biggest takeaways from the survey data:


#1: My students really like my class.

Between the grade that they gave me for teaching the class (B+ average), their assessment of their own learning (4.3 out of 5), and their overall comments (e.g., “because he’s a good teacher and he teaches in a fun way”), it is clear that my students have positive feelings about the experience they had this year.  That’s an important fact, especially since their perception often defines their reality and can have significant impacts on their performance in class.

But, it’s dangerous to let positive general feedback lead to a “warm fuzzy” that blocks improvement.  Throughout my career, I found myself improving the most when it was clear that I needed to.  That’s why I smile at these data, but I don’t let them drive my decision-making.


#2: Nearly all of my students took the survey seriously.

By reading the open-ended comments that they wrote, it’s clear that my students took the time to provide meaningful feedback.  Here are some examples in response to a question that asked them to grade me as a teacher and explain the grade:

  • “C. He was a fun and good teacher, but I didnt feel like I learned what was needed to pass the benchmarks, I never got higher than 2+, trying my hardest. Its not your fault mostly mine. Overall, it was a good and fun year.”
  • “A.  I gave him that grade because he is a great teacher who is patient(ish) and always works hard to make sure we learn. Also he is funny. :D”

In every situation where I asked for them to provide feedback, more than 80% wrote multiple sentences.  I think that the combination of anonymity of results and my emphasis on the importance of the survey made an impression on them.


#3: There are concrete ways that I can improve.

I should admit that I didn’t expect to receive a lot of really useful criticism from the students.  In my experience, the advice that students give is often self-serving and non-productive, or just outright logistically impossible.  They often want unlimited free time or amnesty from all of the rules.  In this case, however, my students provided some really useful suggestions, like:

  • On a scale of 1-5, my students gave me a 3.6 average for patience.  By comparison, they gave me a 4.4 for how hard I worked to prepare lessons.  Being more patient (or perceived as more patient) is definitely an opportunity for improvement.
  • On the same scale, my students scored our EOG (End-of-grade standardized test) Review Booklet at 3.5.  This was a tool that I now plan to rethink for next year.
  • When asked why she gave me a “D”, one student wrote: “I felt like that he often ran out of time in class. Some of the material was missed or we didn’t get to do the other things that other classes did.”  That’s a real issue that I did struggle with last year, and knowing that students picked up on it makes it even more important for me to find a solution.

Be sure to check out some of the other submissions, and let me know what you think.  How do you determine what worked (and what didn’t) from year to year?  Share your ideas in the comments.

 

 

ISTE 2015 Presentation Screencast [CROSSPOST]

ISTEMy last two posts on Scripted Spontaneity have been about the steps to convert student-completed Google Forms to WordPress blog posts and a Cross-Post from a colleague on why she uses it in her classroom for Independent Reading.

This technology process was developed with my colleague and friend Erica Speaks (@TeachingSpeaks and teachingspeaksvolumes.com).

We were fortunate enough to present at #ISTE2015 in a Snapshot format on Tuesday afternoon and a Poster Presentation on Wednesday morning about it.

We had lots of positive feedback, and screencasted our ISTE 2015 Presentation to be able to share it with our wonderful, extensive digital PLNs.

 

Check it out here:

 

Related Posts:

[CROSS-POST] How I Turned Independent Reading Into Interactive Blogging

My friend and colleague, Erica Speaks (@TeachingSpeaks) has published a fantastic post about the goals and outcomes that come out of our “book reviews to blogs” system.  She’s graciously allowed me to cross-post it here.

Blogging – writing with a real-world audience – has become an important staple in my reflective practice as an educator, but also in my instruction.  Besides authoring this professional blog about teaching, my students blog about the books they choose to read independently. Reading and writing for real purpose with an open reflection and engagement of ideas with an audience of peers is as powerful for students as it is for professionals.

My students write reviews of books they chose to read on the class Reading Blog. I’d tried many different approaches to independent reading over the years, from traditional book reports and presentations, to book talks and reading logs.  These are very typical of any English Language Arts (ELA) classroom, though I’d always designed my own reading logs, project menus and rubrics. However, for the last several school years my students’ blogging has had a powerful impact for my classroom independent reading.

Publishing independent reading reviews has made my students’ analysis of their reading interactive and authentic in several ways. First, when written on paper as a reading log or project and submitted only to me, spelling and punctuation sometimes seemed an afterthought. However, when published in front of their peers and the world, most students make a genuine and concerted effort to apply conventional spelling and grammatical rules, showing their best work. This has changed the dynamic of my students as viewing themselves as “published writers”. 

The “search” option allows visitors to the Blog to search titles, authors, topics, and even friends’ names to see what they are reading. (Students often post comments to each other about the reviews, although this is optional.) Because middle schoolers are social by nature, the ability to see what their friends are reading and reviewing is a powerful motivating force to read.


Several authors have contacted my students about the reviews about their novels by posting a comment directly to the students on the blog. For example, the 2014 Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo responded this past November to one of my very own students!  No doubt googling their own book title, authors arrived at my students’ reviews and felt compelled to reach out to the young adults who reviewed their works. For all these reasons, this Independent Reading Blog is the very definition of interactive and authentic work by a middle schooler.Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 11.43.01 AM

To reap these benefits and make the switch to paperless book reviews shared to the world, I used the free and open source blogging tool “Wordpress” and I created a blog for my students. The structure of the submission form creates the post. Drop-down menu choices become where each review appears in the blog’s menu. (image) Anyone visiting the site can search all “fantasy” reviews or all “five star” reviews written by my students. The same book may appear in the five star reviews for one student, but another student’s review of the same book might appear with the three-star reviews, if that is how each child rated the book.Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 1.17.42 PM

Students can easily research what their peers are reading, and even use that information as a point of inspiration for what to read next. All of the reasons stated make reading interactive with their peers and this social aspect is very important to young adolescents. By designing this blog for my students “from the ground up”, creating a product similar to Shelfari or Goodreads but with my students’ specific needs in mind, it has revolutionized my instruction.

Turning Independent Reading into Interactive Blogging

The following post is part of a collaborative effort with Erica Speaks (@TeachingSpeaks), and you can find her discussion of the benefits of this activity for student learning on her blog, Teaching Speaks Volumes.

As Will Richardson pointed out in the original edition of “Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts“, student work benefits from the presence of a real audience.  Students are motivated to work harder and gain meaningful feedback from others when they publish their ideas and efforts in an online forum.

But, the technical barriers to setting up a blogging experience for students can be daunting.  Even educators with experience themselves blogging, or publishing other online work, may struggle to find an effective and streamlined way for students to put their writing on the web.  But, the advent of turnkey blogging platforms for education (like Edublogs) and simple tools for collecting student writing (like Google Forms) has made this task much simpler.  I present here a four-step method that any teacher can use to turn old-fashioned book reports into online book reviews that encourage authors to interact with their adolescent readers.


1. Create a blog: The video below illustrates the simplest method (in my opinion) using the free WordPress.com service.  Edublogs is a hosted version of WordPress that is specifically designed for classrooms, but you need their “Pro” level paid service to activate the “post by email” feature that makes this process much simpler.  So, I recommend going to WordPress.com as a free alternative.  After creating the blog, you can customize the site to include a school or district logo, or just tweak the colors to make it more appealing.  Note: Any blogging platform that supports the “post by email” feature will work for this purpose.


2. Create a form: The video below demonstrates how to use Google Docs to create a form that collects the information that you find important.  Keep in mind that some of the collected information will be used to generate the blog post, but other information (e.g., student identifying details) can be kept off the blog and only viewable by the teacher for the purposes of assessment.  Feel free to start with my template, but be sure to go to the File menu and Save a Copy before editing it.


3. Use a plugin to convert the submitted form into an email message: Here I explain how I used formMule to perform this function, including the important step of matching the format that WordPress.com accepts in their Post by Email feature.


4. Create a submission page on the blog: The final step is to embed the Google Form on a page of the WordPress.com site that is password protected so that only your students can submit blog entries.  You can moderate all entries so that no unauthorized submissions get published as blog posts.


Tips and Troubleshooting

  • If the blog posts are not showing up on your blog, start by checking that the form is saving information.  Do this by looking at your Responses spreadsheet in Google Docs.  If entries are found there that are not posted on the blog, move on to the next bullet.
  • Next, go to the Dashboard for your WordPress.com blog and go to the All Posts area.  Check to see if the posts are sitting in Draft form or otherwise waiting to be published.  You may need to tweak the language in the formMule template to get the blog posts to be published automatically.
  • Be aware that the author of the post will be you.  The blog post author’s name will match the name of the WordPress.com account that activated Post by Email.  You may want to adjust the official name on that account to look more like “Student Blogger” or something similar.