Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Reynolds. He would give us projects instead of tests, and would always say "In the real world, they are not going to sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test."
That was 20 years ago.
Two days ago, I took my principal exam. Two days ago I heard a teacher relate that during her student shadowing experience her student had numerous tests and quizzes back to back. Every day I hear students talk about taking tests. Texas' new A-F Accountability is almost entirely based on STAAR test results, so almost every day, teachers feel a pressure- if not from administrators then from themselves- to address the test.
In the real world, they may not sit you down on a Tuesday and give you a test, but the test is everywhere.
Let's be real for a second- we need assessment. We need to evaluate learning so we can identify strengths and weaknesses and set the course for future learning.
But does it half to be true/false, multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank?
After my test and the discussion about how often students are tested, I took a question to my students- "If you could design your own assessments, what would they look like?"
Their responses were surprising, and at the same time, not. They relied on experiential assessment- activities and verbal communication and presentation. I have shared their ideas below, with some commentary.
Teach a lesson-
The students said that teaching their peers a lesson would demonstrate a greater depth of understanding than any written test could. They say it would allow them to demonstrate their learning, and even allow them to create questions for the class to review learning. I have used this in my US History classes and in Communication Applications. For the History class, the students had to cover content in the TEKS, but for Comm Apps, the standards were the presentation itself. The creativity and depth the students went to were even greater than they expected. If you want to talk about students owning their learning- this has got to be a part of the conversation.
Students said they have had some exams where the teacher questions you directly and in front of the class. Other times, the questioning is done privately. Labs allowed for practical knowledge to be actually applied, and demonstrations were helpful to learners who may struggle with the written word and complex written sentence structure but could eloquently present their understanding in a presentation. Students added that verbal assessments in general go deeper than memorization and also provides for group building. One student shared an experience where the verbal presentation missed something, and a student they had never interacted with offered consolation because "It happened to me, too." On the depth greater than memorization, the students said that presenting the ideas or performing the labs demonstrated a practical, and personal, understanding of the content.
Class discussions/Group Interactions
When students work together in groups, collaboration builds skills beyond the content. Students have to learn to work with differing personalities and bring different views together for cohesive presentation. Real world skills were prized in this view, and students said that class discussions can also lead to increased learning- but the assessment piece may be a little more difficult to pull off as a summative assessment, but as a formative or even a check for understanding, it is a powerful tool.
No paper, use demonstrations and movement. Imagine a test where you move around the room- stations that provide different forms of assessment. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic- one test, multiple modes of assessment. Science seems a natural fit, but most content areas use stations in some form or another, so adjusting stations to work as assessments is possible.
In closing, a few observations.
I asked my debate classes, so I was concerned that the high level of verbal assessment responses was skewed by the sample, but students did not feel this was unique to a debate class or communication minded students as they had heard this request from friends not in the class.
Some students felt that STEM classes needed a written test, or a lab. Others argued that verbal and project presentations were still viable means of assessment because scientists have to present their findings.
This observation hurt me a little. Students said they had had this same conversation about alternative forms of assessment in a bunch of classes- but nothing ever changes.
Ouch. When we say we listen to our students, and they say we aren't- this is why. Sure, we talk with them, but do we try to implement? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but our students see that nothing ever changes.
You know what- twenty years ago, Mr. Reynolds had a mind to change things, but today, the landscape of assessment looks startlingly similar. Maybe our students are right- assessments will always look like they do now.
But I challenge my fellow educators to evaluate their evaluations of student learning with the same vigor they grade their tests. Can we do better- can we listen and implement changes?
I believe we can!
I believe there is a soundtrack to our lives.
I love music- and though I cannot play or sing very well, I have strong opinions about music. I have strong opinions because music inspires me and challenges me. It acts as a muse when I think and write and create, a salve when I hurt, and a lyrical voice for my passions when my tongue cannot speak clearly.
But I find a lot of modern music is missing something.
We we live in an age where music is edited and auto-tuned to a point where the voice is lost. What we have is "perfection," but not personal. Not powerful.
The Beatles were not perfect- but their music sticks with you. U2 has soaring ballads that reasonate not just because they hit the notes, but because Bono's raw wailing hits your soul. Joe Cocker's voice may not be pretty, but he makes you feel the miles on his life. Watching Garth Brooks in concert isn't great because he hits perfect pitch, it's great because you hear the joy in his art. Heart may be an 80's band, but they are able to connect you to their struggles through voices that take risks.
So yeah, I sound like an old guy.
Taylor Swift is talented, so are the boys from One Direction. I'm on the fence about twenty one pilots. I like thief music.
But it I don't feel it the way I do the other stuff. It doesn't haunt me.
In today's schools, students strive for perfection. They want greatness, and that is admirable. But they are missing something. They do not see the beauty in their imperfections. Because in our schools, perfection is regurgitating what they heard. Perfection is correct answers and high scores.
But we lose their voice.
That imperfect spelling, that poorly placed infinitive, that backwards 6. These reveal the heart of the student- these reveal the journey. No doubt, we want to correct those mistakes, but maybe we should take a moment and enjoy the rawness our students are letting out- that little bit of insight into who they really are.
My oldest daughter used to say "librarium" and my youngest called crayons "crowns." I tried to correct them some, but my wife smiled and told me to stop. That wouldn't last forever, so enjoy the imperfection because it revealed their innocence.
I miss librariums and crowns today.
When I hear the crack of emotion in a singers voice, or the fluency break in a student, I want to enjoy the reality revealed there. I connect with the person in their humanity, and their journey.
I find beauty in their imperfections because they are signs of growth in life and learning.
For both my Psychology and Sociology classes, I share the following video right before we discuss and debate the role of nature and nurture in our development. If you have not seen this video- pay close attention and DO NOT skip down to the rest until you have watched it!
There is so much to love in this story, but also, so much to make us think.
First, from the question of nature vs. nurture, what plays the biggest role for Jennifer Bricker? Nature took her legs, but it also gave her- we assume- some genetics for athleticism based on the revelation. There is no question that her adoptive parents and her idol/sister played a huge role in her ability to succeed despite the disadvantages. But, one cannot neglect to wonder if the fact that the same birth parents who supported Dominique Moceanu but gave up Jennifer ever weighs on her. While this is an extreme situation, do we not have students who are daily living in this struggle? They have gifts and talents, but other factors weigh them down like lack of support at home or from friends. Or, they have all the support and nurturing you could hope for, but nature has placed obstacles in their path. It goes without saying that we cannot change what nature has given our students, but we can definitely adopt the attitude of her adoptive parents- the only limitation is your use of the word "can't." That is a mindset, a culture we must develop in our schools and classrooms. It is why the phrase "Don't tell me what I can't do" is posted at the front of my room. Do we convey in our actions and words that we truly believe our students can do ANYTHING?
Second, look at the grit and creativity Jennifer demonstrates. My daughters have done tumbling and gymnastics for years. Legs are important to pretty much every apparatus- from running to balance to application of force on the bars. Jennifer had to creatively- and probably through some pain- figure out a new way to do things. I love that in the video, it is her parents who are there with her the whole way. They show her options, they give her aid- but not every student has this advantage. Is her determination and grit naturally part of her personality, or did she learn it from somewhere? For our students who do not have the positive voices at home like the Brickers were for Jennifer- are we being that inspiration of creativity and grit?
Finally, we find Jennifer is making it on her own. Independence is the goal for our children and our students. Our Special Education teachers spend their days equipping their students with skills that will allow them to navigate the world- skills we take advantage of because they come easy to us. Our General Education teachers are also trying to prepare our students for independent thinking and acting. Right now, we as teachers act as cheerleaders for our students, motivators and coaches. We are there, pushing them and challenging them- and loving them. But are we also preparing them for the time when we are not there? Will we prepare them for that day when they are sitting in a college Biology class, or waiting for a job interview, or performing an important task- and we are not there? Jennifer's parents greatest gift may have been that they prepared her to make her own way. They do not live with her, she is living and succeeding on her own. Are we preparing student so think independently, or recite what we tell them?
I love the power of this video. I love that it reminds us that anything truly is possible. And it shows us the power of positive influences when it comes to doing what others say can't be done.
I was supposed to take my principal certification test today. I had stressed and thought through answers, worried if I knew the right stuff, and walked into the room- the first one there mind you and...
The ETS testing system crashed.
Not just got a little buggy. Send-you-home-and-tell-you-they-will-have-to-reschedule down.
I hate having my time wasted, and as I left- angry and frustrated at a lost personal day and a set-back (small as it is) in my pursuit of an administration position- I had a choice.
I could stew in my anger, send an angry tweet to ETS, and not do much with my day off.
Or I could build something.
See, when I am angry or stressed, building helps me cope. It helps me process. I felt ETS had wasted my time, so rather than complain about it, I took back my time.
First, I identified a spot to build. In that place was an old kids cabin. I could take a sledgehammer to it, tear it all down to splinters and it would feel good. But the wood was still possibly useable, so I dismantled it with care.
Then I had to gather supplies. Some were hard to find, others were heavy to lift. Lots of sweat went into getting things ready and in place. This took time, persistence and strain. Some of the objects I had to move were tree trunks from a summer project. Tree trunks are beasts.
Finally, I could build. But I had to be creative and adjust and reshape and dig in and exert some more sweat. In the end, this is what I built.
Once there had been an unusable structure, now there is a place for my family to have a fire and roast marshmallows. Or hotdogs.
Once, the ground was useless, now it can foster relationships.
Now imagine this this story is about that tough student in your class.
They feel you are wasting their time, but lack the coping skills to be productive. So you have to be a builder.
They have behaviors in place that do not have much use- or they are dangerous and harmful behaviors. You can tear them down with a sledgehammer of "Do it because I said so." It'll feel good for minute to be "right." Or you can dismantle the behavior with respect, because some parts of that personality may still serve a valuable purpose. And you create a space for growth.
Second, you have to do work to prepare to build. You have to bring to the student the proof that you want to invest in them. Respect. Trust. Hope. Some of these feel like tree trunks, but they must be brought to the build site, or nothing will be built.
Finally, you have to give the building materials of trust, respect, and hope the opportunity to do their job. Give the student a chance, a responsibility, a role. See what builds.
I am a teacher.
I am a builder.
In my classroom, I want to be both.
Because I hate wasting my time.
For the last sixteen years I have taught lessons, asked questions, answered questions, guided people to understanding, and helped them navigate life.
But I have only been a classroom teacher for the last four years.
Before spending a year as an instructional assistant, I was a youth minister for seven years, then a pastor/church starter for four. In that capacity, I did much of what I do now, just with different content. Both teaching and ministry require innovation, relationships are foundational to success for both, and as the instructor I feel the content is highly important and should be shared.
Despite all my time in the church and in the classroom, there was a connection I never made until I was attending church this morning. It connected via Matthew 28:19-20.
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”--Jesus last words in the Gospel of Matthew
This morning, as I listened to the message, I was asking myself this question: " Am I teaching students or making disciples?"
While the word "disciple" has a distinctly religious impression for most, we do often refer to students who buy into their teacher's view and content as disciples. Aristotle was a disciple of Plato. There are plenty of disciples of Stephen Hawking. Therefore, I think it is safe to apply the term disciple to our educational relationships.
But disciples and students are not not the same thing.
Students Study, Disciples Apply
A student reads books, takes notes, and reviews. Their end goal is to earn a grade and move on to the next lesson. A disciple does all that, but they seek ways to apply the lessons. If you are making disciples, they are making connections between the content and the world outside the class. They WANT to find how the conten is relevant. A disciple maker does not just know their content, they enjoy it and it shows. Their students like the content because the teacher does and makes it easy to see the relevance.
Students Test, Disciples Use
A student demonstrates understanding by reciting or calculating or writing on a test. A disciple demonstrates learning by finding ways to use the learning. For students, the test is the end of their relationship with the material. If you have made a disciple, they continue to ask questions, to dig in and to engage with the content. It is the disciple-maker's ambition to demonstrate that learning is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process.
Students Become Graduates, Disciples Become Teachers
Its all about the goal. A student wants to get through the material to get their diploma. A disciple wants to explore the content so they can share it with others. A teacher hears that parents are glad the student got a good grade. A disciple-maker hears that the kids keep telling their friends and parents about what they learned that day. A disciple maker grows the disciples to a point where they lead the class. School 21 is a school that applies this principle through oracy- which I believe is British for "student voice." When you can, check out this video below for more details:
The common thread that seperates teachers from disciple makers is the depth of relationship they build with students. Disciple-makers relinquish control to their kids. This is because they develop a mutual trust that only comes from respect bestowed by the disciple-maker.
While disciples learn in large part because of their respect for the leader, this does not mean we are making "mini-mes." It is not about you or a cult of personality. Aristotle eventually developed his own views and ideas. But he was only able to reach that point because Plato invested in a type of education that centered not on tests, but on application, use, and reciprocation.
If you make a disciple, they will help others to learn. It was true in ministry, it is true in education.
My question to you is this: tomorrow, will your room fill with students, or disciples?
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.