Thursday, August 8, 2013

Getting Our Athletes To PASS

Passion Lies in a Variety of Places

I am an absolute believer that a teacher should be involved in some sort of extracurricular activity in their school.  Since I teach a class that is mandatory for all students to take, there is no guarantee that the student actually wants to be there.  However, clubs and sports are optional for most students.  (Some students may be forced to participate by their parents, but that's an entirely different blog topic!)  Working with a classroom student outside of the classroom and in a sport/club that is their passion introduces you to an entirely new person sometimes.

Build a Bridge

This is also where we, as teachers, can build a bridge between the classroom and the playing field.  It is no secret that some of a school's most talented athletes will never see the playing field due to academic ineligibility.  This can be for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the athlete just requires structure and encouragement?  It is possible that the hustle and bustle of a home doesn't create an environment that is conducive to academic focus?  Or is it simply that the child does not have access to the technology necessary to research and complete assignments for the 21st century classroom?  It is my contention that some of that at our school can be remedied through a program we call PASS.  PASS stands for "Preble Athletes Scholarly Studies."  The goal is to create a year-round program where athletes on sports teams can get assistance with the academics at a time and place conducive to their schedules.

We Are Starting Small 

Since I coach track and field in the spring, we are going to focus primarily on that schedule.  Most track and field athletes participate in either football or cross country in the fall.  We are going to open our LMC (Library Media Center) every Tuesday and Thursday night from 7:00 until 8:30 during the fall sports season.  This would change to after school during the winter months since the majority of track athletes do not go out for a winter sport.  The goal is to create a quiet and structured environment for athletes to focus on their work.  In addition, having a teacher there will be able to offer basic support for all content areas, and specialized support in at least one.  Peer mentoring/tutoring will also be implemented by encouraging some of our athletes who excel in academics to join us and help teammates who may be struggling in a particular area.  Finally, our LMC is well supplied with a variety of computers/laptops/printers/etc.  Athletes would have access to all of that as well.

Athletic Supporters 

Drumming up support has been the easy part.  The coaches all seem to love the idea since they want to see their athletes be successful in the classroom.  (The myth that coaches only care about sports is antiquated and quite inaccurate.  It has been my experience that coaches thrive on athletes that reach their full potential in every arena:  academic, athletic, and personal).  We are blessed with an incredible administration at our high school that 100% support this program.  We have even had an offer by an assistant principal to come in at night and help in content areas in which she is proficient!  Finally, I will be attending fall sport parent meetings to present the program to the parents.  In addition, social media (Twitter/Facebook/etc) has been a great tool as well to get the word out.


How do we know if we have been successful?  Hopefully this will be the easy part.  We have the ability to track the number of academically ineligible athletes for each 6-week grading window.  The ultimate goal is to have zero students ineligible.  WHEN we hit that, we will look back in time to see the comparable data for years past and show our athletes' academic growth!

The Future?

How do I envision this program evolving in the years to come?  Ultimately, it would be ideal to have both after school AND evening hours available every day of the week.  In addition, we would need to encourage content-area teachers to join us during the evening hours to assist athletes in their subjects.  Expanding the idea of peer mentoring would also be ideal.

Revisit Your Thesis Coach Kline!

School boards and taxpayers do not allocate millions of dollars a year for sports teams simply to win championships.  It is clear that there is a direct link from the classroom to the playing field.  Because of this dovetailed relationship, it is critical that our student athletes are given the tools to be successful in all areas of their life.  The PASS program hopes to take advantage of the passion for competition and apply it back towards academic and personal success.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  (Blatant coaching quote as we break our huddle).  :)


Please comment below with your thoughts and let me know if you have a program like this in your school.  In addition, any other thoughts on eventual expansion would also be welcome!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A New Approach to Homework


"So wait, are you saying that you're going to assign homework but then not check it in for a grade?" asked one of my students at the start of this semester. "Yes - that's exactly what I am saying" came my reply.

These kids were blown away.

However, as an educator, my feeling is this approach has been long overdue and I haven't been doing my students a service these past eleven years by grading something that truly is... well - formative.

Why do I assign homework? What am I hoping to accomplish? The ultimate goal is for students to walk into the classroom the next day with a base of knowledge for that day's discussion. In addition, the hope is that they will have questions from the reading that can be answered through our lecture/activity/etc. the day the homework is due. Traditionally, I have assigned a reading and a number of vocabulary words to be defined as well as around three basic comprehension questions. The students come in the next day, I would go around the room to check in the homework, and put the grade in the grade book. While I was spot-checking for accuracy, with 150 students over 5 periods, I was also basically looking for completion. I wasn't alone in this, teachers have been doing this for generations.

Now - why the change? I felt guilty. I felt painfully guilty. Quite frankly, I felt guilty for giving kids summative points on something that is basically practice. I was assessing them on something brand new and not taught yet. I did feel that this homework was important. I have worked for years on getting rid of "busy work" from any projects I might assign. However, reading comprehension is critical. Some kids learn best by lecture, others by film, and still others by group discussion/projects/etc. However, there are some that like to curl up with a book and glean their knowledge from that. Isn't that a basic element of differentiation?

How to change a culture...(mid-year no less...)

I didn't want to wait until next school year to correct my error from past years. I'm blogging about pedagogical best practice, but not infusing it into my classroom? I couldn't continue to be a hypocrite. However - how do you intrinsically motivate students to do the homework if it's not being graded? That's the big one.

I posted a blog entry back in November about allowing for test-retakes. This is a major cornerstone in my pedagogy. After discussion my plan with numerous administrators and colleagues, I came up with the following approach. Allow kids to simply not do the homework. There are some that just do not learn anything from it. I'll recognize that. So - the homework is simply a waste of time and "busy work." However, there are also going to be those that do not do the homework and will bomb the test as a result. Where is the safety net there? To earn the opportunity to retake the test, they have to show me all of the completed assignments - vocab and reading comprehension questions. In addition, anecdotally, I am tracking who is not doing their homework and also how those individuals do on the test.

Our first test of the new semester showed a wide gap. It was painfully obvious to all of us (teacher AND students) that those who consistently did their homework performed well on the first unit assessment. It was a wake-up call. The students who struggled on their assessment now need to go through all of the steps to retake the test (see the November 5th blog entry). In addition, they need to show me those homework assignments. All of that work is rolling in now and kids are taking a new ownership on their studies. In addition, kids who weren't doing the nightly homework from the first unit or doing it regularly now.

Bits and Pieces

  • When kids come in to class when a homework assignment is due, I immediately put them in small groups to discuss their answers to the comprehension questions AND quiz each other on the vocabulary words.
  • Once completed with that (about 5-7 minutes) I have the students return to their seats and they know that they are all fair game to be called upon. I keep a seating chart by me and I check off the students who are able to answer questions about the reading and make another mark for those who are not able to answer. I then review that chart regularly and take those students aside who are struggling to find out why the work isn't being done.
  • I work hard to tier the comprehension questions based on Bloom. That way there are simple recall questions, as well as ones that reflect true synthesis.
  • Kids are now putting more effort into test preparation, portfolio submissions, and class projects. Why? Simply put, they are worth more. By eliminating the homework grade, other categories are weighted more now.
  • I try to give a little bit of work time in class for kids to get a start on the homework. I have found that kids are more likely to do their homework if they get a start on it in class and can see that the work isn't insurmountable.
Next Time...

I apologize for not posting in the past few months. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season is very busy for our family. In addition, the end of the semester and the start of a new one are painfully busy. We are now three weeks into the new semester, our chess team (which I coach) season is winding down, and we're about a three weeks away from the track & field season (which I also help coach). Seemed like a good time to post a blog entry.

I have a couple of idea in which I am working on for future posts. I'm listing them here so I can remember to post them later on! :)

  • The Unit Syllabus: Giving Students Ownership
  • Coach Extracurricular Activities: Why it Actually COMPLEMENTS What You're Doing in the Classroom.
Until next time - I look forward to your comments and retweets! :)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ah yes... the textbook.

I'm not one that thinks the textbook is an evil shackle purchased by districts to make sure teachers follow the curriculum in lockstep. In fact, quite the contrary. I have always felt the textbook can complement the high school social studies curriculum in many ways. In addition to exposing students to narratives from experts and images/graphs that illustrate what is being learned, textbooks often do an excellent job of infusing higher order questioning (upper levels of Bloom) assessing reading comprehension. Like any strategy or information source, the textbook is one of many tools a teacher can use to differentiate instruction (let's face it, some kids just learn better by reading it) and support learning.

Where I have struggled in the past is how to use the textbook in terms of time and assessment. In the past, I have always been one of those teachers that says: "Read chapter 2, section 1 tonight, define the vocabulary, and answer the three questions at the end of the section." I would then "check in" the homework the next day by walking around the room and either glancing at it to see if it was done or finding one question to see if they answered correctly. Then an arbitrary number of points would go into my grade book.

Okay... feel free to roll your eyes. I deserve it.

My journey towards pedagogical best practice has introduced me to many other ways to encouraging students to study the text, without the simplistic and somewhat punitive approach of assessing these assignments in a summative format.

While I am still attempting to workshop ideas with my colleagues, my goal for next semester is to allow more class time to read the text and then form discussion circles where students can bounce main ideas off of each other in the safety of a small group. Assessment will be based on me working from group to group and listening/joining in on the conversation. In addition, I could pose questions on "Exit Slips" to see if students genuinely understand what was read and discussed. These assessments will be purely formative in nature and will allow me the opportunity to truly gauge what the students gleaned from the text. This will require some intrinsic motivation. I think a great deal of this will come from the way it is introduced and infused into the class. It is my theory that a greater number of students will have a more in-depth understanding of the material at the end of each day and grades will reflect much of the student's knowledge versus their ability to find time to read and answer questions.

So - any thoughts? How do you handle the textbook in your class? If you treat the assessment of the textbook learning as formative on a daily basis, how do you do it? Please share. I'm genuinely interested.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

For a dose of humility - Video yourself...

So - you've been teaching for over 10 years. You've been asked to mentor new teachers. You have a good rapport with your colleagues, the parents know you and your students seem to like you... Things are going pretty well - aren't they?

Then - you decide to take the recommendation of a professional learning coach from downtown and record some video of yourself teaching. No problem, right? I mean - what could go wrong?

Folks - I thought I had this teaching thing sort of figured out. I know I have a long way to go in terms of implementing best practice (hence the reason for this blog), but I thought I had the basics down and was linked to my students in some ethereal way where they magically soaked up all I said. Boy was I wrong!

The coach (a dear friend of mine for many years), has been working with me on implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) in my teaching. This is a recent initiative to the district and I'm trying to get out ahead of the curve and pilot something new. Upon his suggestion, I took some video of myself attempting to implement a GRR lesson. The "GRR" portion was fine. I'm obviously still learning, but overall it was a solid attempt. However, the real shocker was actually seeing myself teach from the perspective of a student in a desk. The way I had the camera set, it was as if I was a teenager during 8th period on a Friday waiting for the bell to ring.
A few [painful] observations...
  • I'm not nearly as engaging as I think I am. I always thought "at 6'5" and 280 lbs with booming voice, how could they possibly tune me out?" Well - I actually tuned myself out watching the video. If the way you present your material is boring, then you're boring - no matter how loud you are. Break things up and get the kids involved. Keep things organic and fluid.
  • I only truly interact with the front row. Outside of a few token glances to the back and an occasional stroll in that direction, I really never interacted with those students outside of the front row.
  • SLOW DOWN!!! I'm still acting like a groomsman trying to rush through his mandatory speech at the head table. Breath. This isn't a stand-up comedy routine - it's education. Take your time!
  • I need to go on a diet and do something about that bald spot.
This has managed to stick with me like an aching joint this weekend. I can't get over it. I'm grateful to my friend for suggesting this and proud of myself for actually doing it for the first time since student teaching. However - now I need to "modify and adjust" based on the viewing. Fortunately, I am teaching a similar lesson the same time next Friday. I plan on recording myself again with adjustments infused into the lesson plan based on this past week's video.

I throw the challenge out there - TRY IT! Check out a video camera and tripod from your school media center. Set it up and have a go at it! Post back here what you find out about yourself. I think you'll be unbelievably surprised.

Monday, November 7, 2011

An Alternative To Traditional Semester Exams

What's the problem with finals?

It's the end of the semester. We've assessed our students right into the ground. We've banned them from retaking earlier tests on which they have scored poorly. We've stooped to the bottom levels of Bloom's Taxonomy in our summative assessments over the semester. What do we do now? Celebrate their learning and share their discoveries over the semester? NO! Let's throw at them a high-stakes, multiple choice exam which consists entirely of recall multiple choice questions already asked earlier in the semester on unit tests!

In addition - we'll expect them to perform their best while testing three or four 90-minute marathon tests back-to-back in one day! Then - when they go home that night exhausted, we'll ask them to do it again the next day.

We justify this as making sure they've "learned something" over the course of the semester. In the United States Constitution, this is called double jeopardy. In high school, we call them final exams.

I've searched high and low for data to support my contention that "final exams" don't truly assess anything new or of merit. Anecdotally, I have heard of major universities in the United States starting to go away from the traditional final exam. However, I have yet to find anything sincerely concrete.

A better way?

A few years ago I finally said enough. There had to be a better way. After a great deal of time discussing ideas with colleagues, researching best practice, and simply thinking through my pedagogy, I settled on the idea of a portfolio where students would synthesize their learning through a writing prompt, apply their learning to their present-day lives, and submit evidence of their learning from the unit. The evidence would range from essays, projects, etc. Students would no longer have to cram for a multiple choice manifesto at the end of the semester. They could submit portions of this portfolio gradually over the course of the semester. I could work in conjunction with the student and offer feedback through various target benchmarks. In addition, I could scaffold the structure of the synthesis essays which would allow me to differentiate based on the writing ability of the student.

How did it go?

Mixed results the first year I implemented it. I had structured my rubrics too strictly around Bloom and students were struggling to figure out what I was looking for in their submissions. Plain-English rubrics followed and that helped a great deal. In addition, the first semester I tried the portfolio, I asked for too many submissions over the course of the semester. In my mind I felt I should request one submission per unit. What I later found out was that true synthesis is the ability to identify themes from one unit to another, or over multiple units. I ended up not burning out the students (or myself) and the students produced a much better product in the end.

Does this take more time? Absolutely. I currently ask for three portfolio submissions over the course of a semester. I have 150 students, with roughly 30 in each class. Each class takes me about 1-2 hours to assess. So - we're looking at 30-60 hours a year of assessment. That's a great deal more time than grading traditional final exams offered twice a year.

Why do it?

In addition to getting a better snapshot of student knowledge and taking a great deal of stress away from the student, the thing I really like is that the student has a nice thick folder of projects, writing, and synthesis examples to take with them to their next year. I have a secret hope that these students are saving these and will pull them out 20 years later when they are cleaning the garage and seeing their growth over time.

What's next?

Digital portfolios. I would like to get to a point with my comfort level and our district's technology abilities where students can submit these electronically. This would not only help the environment in terms of less paper used, but students would be open to a great many other ways to demonstrate their competencies. Think about things like recorded interviews, simulated newscasts, video from outside of school (show me an escarpment and illustrate for me its characteristics), etc... Very exciting. And - if nothing else - not having to drag home 150 thick folders six times year! I think I'm a year or two away from this.


As always, I make no claim to be an expert here. As stated above, I have tried and failed to find concrete data that my approach is correct. However, when I take into account all that I have read from experts in the field and blogs from other teachers, this seems to be the direction in which to head. As for those teachers who say: "You're not preparing these kids for high-stakes tests..." My response is quite simple. There are PLENTY of teachers out there who will continue to give high-stakes final exams for decades to come. I have no fear that students will lose out on the incredible opportunity to exhaust themselves cramming mundane trivia in their craniums for an assessment that is disproportionate to the sum of their work over the semester to date. So - with the exception of that point, please offer me feedback - it is welcome and appreciated!

Blog Update

I've been nervous about the fact that there have only been a couple of comments on these blog posts. However, I've had some great conversations with some of you via Twitter since this blog has been active. In addition, in the past two weeks, we have had 227 people visit from 10 different countries. (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Russia, Germany, Australia, Spain, and Ireland - in case you were wondering). Thank you! I'm glad word is getting out about this. I look forward to continuing to hear from you all.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Test Retakes - Why would we NOT allow these?

It's a rare treat to hear a speaker on a professional learning day say something that changes my pedagogy forever. This happened many years ago when our school district brought in Damian Cooper to speak to us as a faculty. A few years later my building principal at the time also brought Damian to our school to work with our staff over lunch hours. One amazing thing that Damian had said to us that first occasion was something to the effect of... "A student's final grade in a class should a reflection of what they know on the last day of the semester, not based on a variety of snapshots over the course of the semester." This floored me and forever changed my philosophy of education.

I was never one to let students retake tests, resubmit projects, etc. I always wanted students to look ahead to the next challenge versus becoming mired in the past. I convinced myself that this was correct as this is what many of my colleagues did at the time as well. However - what I eventually realized (with the help of Mr. Cooper) is that a child's grade never reflected the sum of their knowledge. Their grade was based on multiple successful and unsuccessful attempts over the course of a school semester.

I immediately revised my classroom expectations and philosophy of assessment. From that point on, ALL students could retake assessments as many times as they would like. Why wouldn't I give a student another opportunity to demonstrate to me their competencies? Perhaps it took some students longer to understand the five themes of geography? Maybe a student didn't know the locations of all 50 states in September, but now knows them in October and wants another shot to show me this newly-gained knowledge? Their end-of-semester grade should be organic and be able to evolve with the child over time versus being locked into these various assessment benchmarks throughout the semester.

As I implemented this policy, I quickly learned that I should also extend this to projects, papers, etc. Education is the acquisition of knowledge over time. I found my old policies were severely inhibiting that pursuit of knowledge. If a child bombed a test, there was no incentive for them to ever go back and learn that missing information.

Now, I do have a policy for test retakes. My policy reflects that one of three things didn't happen the first time preparing for the assessment.

  • The child did not understand the material.

  • The child does not know HOW to study for a test.

  • The child did not put in the necessary time to prepare for the test.

I make my students follow three basic steps in order to earn the ability to retake a test:

  1. Make an appointment to come in, correct the test, and work with me 1-1 to go over the trouble areas of the first assessment attempt.

  2. Create flashcards for all vocabulary from the unit. (Sometimes I have students use other study tools instead of flashcards - it depends on what is being assessed).

  3. Bring in a note signed by mom/dad/guardian stating that the child prepared at least 60 minutes for this retake.

Why do I do this? Am I simply creating busy work? No. If I didn't have a policy like this in place with high school students, my suspicion would be that students would simply not prepare effectively the first time so that they could get a sneak-peak at the test and know in their head that a retake could be immediately taken. In addition, the 1-1 time with the student truly eliminates "stabs-in-the-dark" by students. We have a chance to process the test and synthesize what is being asked in each question. It is my belief that the child ends up with a much deeper knowledge of the content in the end.

At the end of the day I can sleep at night knowing that I am giving every child every opportunity to demonstrate their competencies in our subject area. The child determines the grade they want in the class, not me. I don't give grades - children earn them.

I don't submit today's blog entry as gospel. My pedagogy continues to evolve over time and I know these policies will grow and change as well. I throw this out to all who read this: What are your thoughts? What are your classroom policies on retakes/re-submissions? Is there a better way? I'm open to all - so please post your comments/questions.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Extensions - Let's Work WITH Our Students...

Yes - life has deadlines. However, let me offer another point-of-view... We are constantly telling high school students that they need to get involved in high school: Join clubs, go out for sports, volunteer in the community, accept leadership opportunities, etc... Then, we force them to revolve their lives around OUR grading calendar? The IRS will give adults extensions on their taxes provided they request one in advance. My question is this... Why don't we do that for our students? A child who wakes up at 6 a.m., sits in class all day, then rides a bus to another school an hour away to compete in a sporting event, competes and then rides another hour home isn't going to be in the best place to focus on the unit assessment in class the very next day. This child has been awake for 16 hours and hasn't even started their studies for the evening yet. So - they stay up to get the work done and come into school the next day exhausted and starting over on the same cycle. There has to be a better way to work WITH kids.

My philosophy is simple... allow students to come to me in advance to request extensions on assignments, projects, tests, etc. In the six years I have offered this policy (yes, I once made students revolve their lives around my calendar...) I have never had a student abuse it. However, should one ever get into that habit, I would host a meeting with the parents, child, and myself to discuss how to get out of that rut.

Benefits of this policy?
  1. Less cheating. Kids don't feel the pressure to copy an essay from a peer or the internet because of lack of time due to their busy schedule.
  2. Better grades. Students do a better job with their project or assessment because they have the benefit of time.
  3. IEP compliance and discretion. Students with extra time built into their IEP's have an opportunity to get things done on a schedule compliant with their needs without having to lean on an IEP requirement to get it done. No embarrassing questions in front of the class from other students: "Why does Johnny get extra time?" etc.
  4. Less complaints from parents. Families don't have to rearrange their lives around the classroom teacher's grading calendar. Helps build a bridge between parents/teachers/students.
  5. Students gain ownership and time management skills. Kids feel empowered and be at the helm of their learning. It also forces students to organize their lives into a calendar and plan ahead. Some would say that I'm not forcing students to be responsible for deadlines. My response is that students are now much more responsible and gain some much-needed time management skills as a result of this policy.

There are many more benefits as well.

For those fearing that this extension policy removes students from learning about deadlines, consider the following. There are still plenty of deadlines. There are still dates that end semesters so there are absolute dates in life. Progress report dates are still firm and students want their grades in good shape when those are sent home. In addition, students do not want to dig themselves into holes with a pile of extensions. Deadlines still exist, but students simply now have a little more flexibility in arranging those deadlines. In the end, this policy has worked well for my classroom. My students (and their parents) seem to appreciate the flexibility and agree with the logic behind it.

I am eager to hear from any teachers who might have a similar policy in their classroom. Please feel free to share other benefits, your policy's structure, and the response from your colleagues, administrators, parents, and students.