Monthly Archives: November 2011

How do we share the learning?

There are always a few articles that remain as anchors for my thinking. These are places I go back to in an effort to recalibrate the work. Often they are instructional, curricular or assessment based. My friend Steven’s article, The Power of Audience resonated deeply with me as I observed learning across Graded’s campus last week. There are learning experiences that naturally lend themselves to an audience – and in fact, fall flat without one. The perfect example is music. Tuesday night, as I listened to Robbie conduct the semester culmination of band classes, Steven’s comment, “the most effective way to engage  students in learning is to create an authentic audience, giving them a sense that someone else (besides teachers and parents) cares about their work. They need to have a vision of a product that matters. They need to learn content and develop skills to complete the product,” rang true.  And I began to reflect on where do students have a vision of a product that matters? A product that results in more than a grade in a grade book?

Clearly, the yearbook itself is much like music – audience is essential. But the stages along the way matter as well. Forward to Karin and yearbook and a panel of 10 teachers and administrators evaluating four different designs for the 2011-2012 yearbook.  It would have been easy to isolate this experience within a class, with classmates voting on the strength of proposals of their friends. Instead, as we probed the thinking that served to inform their designs, I was reminded of  the work of Graded’s Project-based PLC Group and the audiences that exist to serve student learning on a daily basis. (If you scroll to attachments, there is an article that serves to highlight different examples of audience, called “A Hierarchy of Audience”).

Finally, the 4th grade team also provided another example of the powerful role of audience in their “math games for parents” event. As I wandered through the classrooms, I was struck by students’ ability to teach their parents some rules and mathematical concepts that had a few mom’s and dad’s scratching their heads, including a certain superintendent that we all know.

I’d like to challenge Steven’s conclusion, “When student work culminates in a genuine product for an authentic audience, it makes a world of difference.” I propose that we don’t wait for a culmination, but take advantage of serving students’ learning along the way.

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Round and round… and round

Graded’s Curriculum Cycle  has defined most of the last week and good, albeit messy, work is happening. We’re smack dab in the hardest part of the work for “Year 1” subjects, de/re -fining department missions.  We’re not starting from scratch (which helps) but conversation at this stage is essential for colleagues to muck about in what can be — what should be — the expectations we have for student success. A commitment to a mission can have significant implications for our work. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

As I think through supporting this work, I’m sensitive to the fact that Graded, as most international schools, remains vulnerable to change. In the first stages of work, many commented on a concern of “not wanting to recreate the wheel,” or wanting to “get it done right the first time.”  The nature of the cycle is intended to combat both – to build on what is in place and honor that improvement never ends. As thinking rises to the top, I’ve been grappling with how to embed the good ideas that are born in D-28 and E-12 into our current and continuing practices – and I think the second semester will be especially relevant in answering this question. Benchmarks aligned with grading practices, cornerstone assessments, clear and user-friendly communication tools, structures that carve out time to change our planning habits, orientation of new teachers and support for present teacher leaders in leading this work remain as tasks on my to-do list. (I’ve already started to rethink what my work looks like with principals in second semester).  Already I see pieces that were started last year failing to take deep root (insert 6-12 thoughtful, strategic sequence of experimental design, a conventions scope and sequence for grades 5-8, essential learning outcomes for English/Language Arts here) and one can easily see how easy it is to invest and then revert back to “business as usual.”  Sustaining change is the REAL hard work.

As I continue this work (work that has been at the center of my career for at least the last 10 years) I love the fact that we are still in dialogue with the likes of Herbert Spencer and John Dewey, and Paulo Friere.  I applaud the hard work of asking, What is a Graded diploma worth?, and will continue to problem solve how to ensure the work we are doing today, will impact the learning of Graded tomorrow.

… so how would you know you learned something if you didn’t get a grade?

“I don’t know,” was her response. And she looked at me with great confusion.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with two middle school students for “make up”  student-led conferences. We gazed intently at their laptops as they walked me through work they completed, observations of MAP scores and a self-assessment against some work behaviors (“I work hard in class all the time” – sometimes, always, never…) Unfortunately for them, I recently read Kohn’s The Case Against Grades and they were a captive audience coached to respond to my probing questions.

They were both well-prepared and I had been part of a thoughtful conversation with middle school teacher leaders on how to improve a potentially powerful structure. It seems things are off to a good start. Slides had been compiled to guide a story of the beginning months of school – but when it came to the question of “how do you know you’re learning,” they both hesitated, and started by going back to the grade to prove  they learned.

Kohn claims that, “Grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.” I’ve taught in non-graded environments, and although I believe deeply in the learning culture that emerges,  it was always a struggle. Learners need feedback; they need tools to help them measure their growth. They need to know where they are in relation to where they want to be. The question to me isn’t about grades, it’s about having a deep understanding of what the grade represents.

As we continued through her conference, one student spoke deeply about her goal – to play midfielder on the JV soccer team. Why? “It’s the hardest position – you need to defend and attack — you need to have endurance. You need to be a well-rounded player.” She knew exactly where she needed to grow to achieve her goal. It gave me pause of how I can support students in speaking with the same clarity in other areas.  As we continue with our curricular review and build shared clarity around strategies for communicating learning targets to students, I’m confident we’ll see consistent dialogue from the soccer field to the science lab about what it takes to advocate for learning. Our school-wide goal around assessment is intended to foster exactly this culture.

It is exciting to watch  practices emerge across the Graded campus, and hear thinking percolate about the importance of reflection as noted in a number of PLC Groups. Like the middle school students, I, too am tackling going beyond what I do – to consider what it means, both to the organization and to my own practice.

I had six (scheduled) meetings today…

It has become a little bit of a running joke at the Broderick house of how many meetings I attend… and, well, I’m getting a little sensitive about it.  Teachers have meetings all day long – and you call them classes. Your meetings foster a journey of learning, of a cohesive and consistent dialogue – and so do mine… and I decided this morning when reviewing my calendar that if they don’t, then I’m walking out.  I didn’t walk out of one. I won’t bore you with each and every one, but a sample includes…

  • 8 am: Team planning with M- and K-.  ENERGIZING.  Clearly, the agenda was an ambitious goal – as I couldn’t imagine how one could get through updating Rubicon (3 cheers!) and identifying the core learning for the upcoming units. We started big – really big – asking, “what do we want kids to walk out the door knowing and doing…”  and then we whipped out those Essential Maps in Language Arts and Social Studies (happily stored on “The Hub”) and began to assign and align to units. This is where I had to exit to the next meeting, leaving them to 3 more hours of work!  I know how difficult it is to find this sacred time for sustained planning that gives the space to move from big picture, to the details of the day, and back again. BUT I IMPLORE YOU to advocate for this time and I’m happy to serve the process.
  • 9 am: LLT (Learning Leadership Team) I’m not going to lie, I was walking the fence on this one for about the first 20 minutes. Was I really going to walk out? Then we settled in… and communication was a key theme. We investigated the statistics of the Gazette readership. Dauntingly pitiful. I celebrate this moment for many reasons. One, the greater role data is beginning to serve in our school to drive good questions. Two, deep reflection about what we communicate, when we communicate, and how we communicate at Graded — which certainly gave rise to reflection about my own communication patterns. Three, the power of group thinking to solve a complicated issue – we really are smarter together.

11 am… 1:00 pm… 2:30…

  • 3:15: Individual teacher meeting contemplating leaving Graded. Sigh. This is a stressful time of year for many as the deadline for the “intent to return” draws near. I have been plagued with a poor ability to make decisions (insert Prufrock’s “analysis paralysis” here) for most of my life and recognize the quandry of many. Graded (and Brazil) is a powerful place. I don’t know how to advise someone of when it is time to move on… I appreciate the opportunity to reflect, to dream, to consider powerful paths that have the potential to feed us personally and professionally – and I am always a willing listener.  As this teacher concluded, I’m not looking for a new job, I’m building a career. I recognize and appreciate hard decisions, and respect where you land.

I include these as part of a survey of today’s meetings because they share a theme and do give rise to my own (and hopefully other’s) journey of learning.  All of them included deep collaboration – whether in planning, problem-solving or processing, and I HOPE all of them contributed to a layer of the ongoing dialogue of the organization, from the classroom to the school to the individual…