Monday, April 28, 2014

Assessment, Grading & ELL Best Practices EDUC 731

Grades and tests have been two words used by many recently as teacher speak swear words. It is my belief that there is a movement of many educators have had enough of the "school system" way of doing things (status quo) and are trying to break free from the bondage of those two words and moving toward understanding best practices of those two words.

From the Center for Innovation and Excellence 
ELL students must be included in this process and be given multiple opportunities to demonstrate achievements. That doesn't mean lowering the standard for new or beginning ELLs, it means having high standards maybe just not at the grade level that they are placed, but the one where they are functioning best, and give them time!
I see this process as a golden opportunity to see students with eyes wide open. Really see them. Not just a snapshot, but a true and accurate picture of their achievement, growth and learning journey. 

Overall, common grading practices have included some type of communication system between schools and families regarding factors like effort, conduct, attitude and grades. Sometimes grades have been used as a form of punishment and sometimes they have been used as a form of reward. But is that what grades and testing is all about? Punishment and rewards?

I have these questions:

  • What is a grade?
  • What should be included?
  • What should not be included?
  • What are standard based grading best practices involving testing?
What is a grade?

Grades should communicate information not just to students but also to parents and guardians about the student's ability when it comes to the standards for the course. I believe that all students deserve to have a grade that is a thoughtful and informative about their learning journey. 

What should be included?

There should not be any surprises for the student or the parent when it comes to a grade. The reason is because of frequent updates and constant communication about learning to the student and to the parent from the teacher somewhat like a window to the learning journey.   It tells the teacher, parent and the student where they are on the learning spectrum. Grades are based only on academic performance, not whether or not the student turned in the assignment on time, at all or behavior during class. A grade should address the quality of the work samples that come in. 

What should not be included?

Here are somethings that I think should not be part of a report card grade

  • Allowing extra credit.
  • Combining a grading score with a behavior in the class score. 
  • Allowing zeros to be used as a grade for a punishment of not getting work in on time.
  • Averaging the work turned in to give an overall grade.
  • Homework being given a grade.

These are still  problems I see and I think that have no place in 21 Century teaching. Extra credit does not often go hand in hand with the objectives and inflates grades and does not show the correct mastery of the standard.  Behavior  should not be taken into account when it comes to a final grade. The average of a students grades does also not show mastery of a standard. Finally, when you give homework a grade, you have taken away the opportunity to have a  conversation. When a conversation is replaced by a grade, the feedback that the student needs to learn isn't there. It is a disservice and lacks meaning and doesn't communicate learning well. 

What are standard based grading best practices involving testing? 

Embracing fail. I have learned that FAIL stands for FIRST ATTEMPT IN LEARNING. If the student did not meet the standard, it is our job to help them by find an another way to progress toward the learning goals and cultivate the grit and determination to do so. (This is my friend 
Another best practice is to take that information from formative or summative assessments and use it to continue to help the student in their learning journey by providing feedback. They should not all be just paper and pencil nor should they all be computerized. 

Some clever ways are as follows:

  • Conferring 
  • Observations 
  • Journals/binders 
  • Exit notes on stickies 
  • Reading conference 
  • Writing conference 
  • Informal reading assessments 
  • Portfolios 
  • Observations 
  • Quizzes using Kahoot or even Poll Anywhere
  • Gamification 
  • Projects 
  • Student work samples 

ELL learners and Best Practices:

From the Center for Teaching and Excellence 
It is my belief that the best practice for ELL learners is using standard based grading. Since grades should reflect only what a student knows and can do, it is more of a true picture of mastery. This type of grading, conferring brings in the support that the ELL students need. 

  • It involves a great deal of communication.
  • It is consistent and fair to the students. 
  • The students know what the learning targets are and they see a road map for how to reach those goals.
  • It holds students to a high standard but does not disrespect the learning journey for the student.

When you use standard based grading, you are looking at the purity of the grade..the purity of achieving the standard. Adjustments to the learning journey are welcomed. In fact, when other reporting is necessary for ELL students, standard based grading fits in nicely to create a great picture of that students learning. I believe that in a sheltered instructional setting, that there would be a strong support system in a classroom where standard based grading is the guideline. 

The great thing is that the students receive information on the progress of their learning. and gain motivation and confidence to keep moving forward as they navigate a new language and country with new customs. This type of grading system opens the doors to time and ELL students really need the time to develop the language skills. 

In the end, the desired outcome is that all students will learn. We need to seek out best practices for them and improve our practices for ELL learners. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

#edcamptc Reflections

I love edcamps. I got hooked with edcamps when I first joined Twitter in March of 2013 and saw so many members of my PLN going to edcamps.  I was overjoyed to learn that there were edcamps in my very own state, Minnesota!

Since then, I have attended and participated in:

  • #edcampmn
  • #edcampmsp
  • #edcamphome
  • #edcampchicago
  • #edcamphome2.0
  • #edcampmagnet
  • #edcamptc

There is something addictive about edcamps and it is that addiction that calls us every time. It is pure organic learning at its finest.

See when you go to an edcamp, you can either host a session or be a learner in a session or a mix of both! Its up to you.  You help make the schedule. You help facilitate the learning. You vote with your feet and YOU decide what you want to know more about and let your feet take you to that room.

The general mantra of the experience is:

The smartest person in the room, is the room. The people who are supposed to be here are here & what we are supposed to learn about, we will learn.

Edcamps are a beautiful way to build on key ideas centered around collaboration as we learn together. Educators come together to discuss things that matter most to them. It is passion based learning at is best.

However, learning together is only one of the gifts you receive. The other big gift other than occasional edcamp swag, is the gift of friendship--authentic & real friendships. Often we have followed one another on Twitter for awhile, we have learned together, joked around together, celebrated our strengths together as well as worked on our weaknesses together.

Now, we gather together. So to all my edcamp junkies, and you know who you are, thank you. Learning with you is a gift that I never imagined. I am better because of you all and very, very thankful.

Here are some pics from #edcamps that I hold dear.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Appropriate Practice Makes Perfect EDUC 731
I have been studying the SIOP model as a way to actively engage students in their learning, specifically ELL students, but I suggest to you that this model will fit all learners at any age. One aspect of this model is that of practice and application.

And now my ears perked up. Practice you say? Ah ha! That is what I have called "classwork" or what some may call "homework." It depends on how it is used.

First off, I will boldly stand in front of you and deny that homework should be given to any child. This leads me to my own definition of what is homework.

"Homework is that which is assigned to a student to do at home which has no great value or merit to the child's learning and instead, is pointless and passive. I believe that assigning it shows a great lack of respect to the families and to the student themselves. Often it must be done correctly. There is a right answer and there is a wrong answer. Homework then is often graded and recorded in a grade book of some kind with no or very little feed back given to the student."
I believe that homework to do at home specifically should not ever be assigned. The main reason is because the only level playing field I have as a teacher is that which goes on in my classroom. I cannot control the home environment of each single student, nor how many activities those children are in throughout the week. I cannot control the levels of education the parents might have nor can I control the language barriers that some students and families face. I even know of teachers who have used homework as a punishment.

So assigning homework to do at home is unfair.

I believe that there are teachers out there..and I know, because as I hang my head in shame, I was one of these types of teachers over the past 20 years, that hand out homework. The feeling was that perhaps if I had handed out homework, that the assumption was that the skill had been taught and the student had learned. Indeed, that is clearly a wrong assumption.

The truth is that if you teach your objectives then assign a task, "homework" and you give them a score, a grade for that, you have not taught. There is more that has to happen for solid learning to occur.

(*Gasp*,  I even handed out "extra credit." I can't believe I did that...and that is another discussion!)

Practice is very important in designing a lesson. "Practice" is the key word. You can call this concept development if you want to, because that is what it really is. The point of practice is to pave the way to understanding the standards and the objectives that you are teaching.  It is vital that students  must be quite familiar with the content. It is also essential that there are in place, many great opportunities for self directed learning and then allowing the students to reflect and share with others what they learn.

To do this you can think of it in this way:

Me (The teacher)
Me (The student)  

Practice is NOT graded. It is formative only. That means that it forms and shapes the students learning. It must be assessed with  feedback to help the student continue well on their learning journey. I like what my friend Rik Rowe said in a #sblchat recently that practice is an, "opportunity to improve skills and uncover thinking stumbling blocks. It's not punishment."
Appropriate practice time is full of feedback, discussions, turning learning corners together and is unrecorded. This is true practice and instruction. If the teacher takes that activity and records it, then it is now an assessment.

So, here are some keys to appropriate practice for students, because practice does make perfect whether it is in education, sports, music or whatever. Practice is vital for growth.


Creative: With so many apps, so many ways to digitize learning, there are no excuses for a lack of creativity. Put yourself in their shoes, would this opportunity for practice motivate YOU?  Do your very best to stay away from artifact sheets...or as you might still call them, worksheets. Be very wise on this, some are meaningful, but most are not.

Challenging: Build in inquiry. A few of the ways I use of the ways I build in inquiry is by using  Wonderopolis , Genius Hour, and Wonder Wall. You can use these things across subject and across grade level.

Engagement: When students are engaged, they will gain confidence in their learning.

Differentiate: Use the 8 Intelligences as your guide on the side for helping you think of creative ways for the students to practice their learning. Design your practice work to reach each child at the level that they are learning. The one size fits all model for learning never worked then, and it doesn't work now.
Listen: For ELL students or for emergent readers it is really important to have time to listen to someone reading a story. For many students, listening to TED Talks is a great idea or small youtube blubs that you pull out and create an aura for with augmented reality that when the students scan the aura, more information comes forth just for them!

Manipulatives: There is no such thing as too many manipulatives. Providing these links their learning. So many kids need hands on learning!

Points: Do not give points for practice. When you do that, it no longer is practice. It is assessment. Assessment is the VERY last thing you do!

Read: They can read anything about any subject. The point is that they just need to read. Reading specifically for ELL students is vital. Time spent practicing reading  whether it is read to self or read to others is essential.

Redo's: Allow redos for all students with no penalty. This comes as a part of formative feedback. It is respectful and helps the students keep on track of their learning journey.

Student Voice: They can design their learning journey. Give them options of how to show what they know. One of my favorites is what my friend Paul Solarz does with digital portfolios.

Speak: Create opportunities for students to lead lessons for their peers. Create technical opportunities for students to record the sound of their own voice. Even record their explanations for math using Explain Everything . They just need time. Time for round table discussions. Create practice opportunities for students to listen to one another or  for there to be debates on subjects.

Short: This time for practice should not take forever. In fact, it should really take place all during the class time. What is not done is what then has the opportunity to go home. That is not homework. That is work that the student for a variety of reasons did not get done in school and needs to return for feedback.

Write: Again, creating a digital portfolio is important. Why digital? Because it can be saved by the student forever as well as parents (and other family members) can interact with it and see what their child is learning about. It is good to write in any way, shape or form. In math, it is good to have students write down HOW they got the answer as much as what the answer is when it comes to assessment.

Zeros: No zeros. For the sake of the students, say NO to ZEROS! When you do that you have erased any incentive for students to do anything at all. Some would say, well, giving them a zero teaches them responsibility. I say, it is a punishment. Curses to you oh student who didn't do their work! Don't give zeros, reduce opportunities for other things like, recess or or any other unstructured time. Yes, the work might not get done, but I think that when you transform your classroom into a standards based classroom and the mindset of the teacher, students and parents have changed about grading over all, you will see fewer zeros..and more work done, because what you are doing is training the students to own their own learning journey, not regurgitate information.

Students no matter if they are ELL students or not, cannot afford teachers who waste their learning time on something called "homework."

So, are you still wondering what I am talking about and thinking I am loopy on this? Here are some great videos from my mentor/guru of all things SGB. Rick Wormeli will talk about zeros, late work, and homework.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Multi-age Classrooms & Looping As A Strategy for placing ELL Students And Deeper Interactions EDUC731
I have spent 20 years in the classroom and woven throughout those years have been wonderful interactions and opportunities to work with and learn from ELL students. As I have been studying the SIOP Method of teaching ELL, I have read numerous articles. I was looking for something. I never found it.

I was looking for how multi-age classroom settings if available at a school, are the ideal place for an ELL student to learn. I am going to address the benefits of a multi-age classroom specifically at an elementary level is a great opportunity for ELL students. I was also looking for information on how looping as a strategy would be a benefit to ELL students if available and create deeper and more meaningful interactions.

I have had the opportunity throughout these many years to teach in multi-age classrooms. In fact, I rather like it. I take it as a challenge and I like challenges. Over the twenty years, I have learned some of the following things from my experience both in looping and as a multi-age classroom teacher.


This allowed me to have a deeper understanding of the child over more than a year's time. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses helps me meet their needs better. In the beginning of a school year, I have spent a great deal of time learning to get to the students. In a looping classroom, that was cut down drastically.

It is like opening up a flower very carefully and the opportunity to have more than one year to do so is a sacred trust. This can build children to be successful learners. Students in this setting develop a family of learners and this support is critical tothe academic growth. It is also good for their social and personal growth as they learn to care for and support each other.


When I have opportunities to multi-age teach, it was a great chance to see above and beyond these students as unique individuals and to group them in many wonderful and holistic ways. What I would do is teach the general lesson concept as a whole group for Reading or Math and then have the guided instruction be at their levels. With some freedom in the curriculum, one would be able to better place a student for success and slowing down as needed or acceleration as needed.

 In a multi-age classroom, allowing students to flourish at their own rate is a beautiful thing.

Creating Education Hackers:

What I desire most for learners in this 21st Century is to be able to hack their own education. Why do I always have to be the one to tell you what to learn? What do YOU want to learn about? What do YOU want to create? I like to think of it as giving the children their own right to hack their education process...speed up or slow down as needed. In a high functioning multi-age setting, you will see several levels of abilities and interests going going on harmoniously. You will see a teacher who has become a lead learner, creating a safe space to learn where there is no shame. No bullying about abilities, just understanding that we all learn differently and that is okay.

I think I like multi-age teaching because I see how holistic practices that I have often admired such those of Maria Montessori are so easy to apply as I seek to first understand each need of the child and work with them and their families to create safe learning environment that is as diverse as they are. Similar to the looping strategy, we become connected as we learn and weave our experiences together.

I have seen the experiences when there are mentorship and leadership roles in a classroom as children begin to realize that they learn best when they are learning together and from each other. It lowers the competition that sometimes traditional classrooms have. That spirit of cooperation is beautiful to nurture in each child. It helps with understanding that we are a micro example of what global learners look like.

I have been privileged to see how young learners can gain skills earlier than peers their same age in same age centered classrooms. The younger learners gain insight from the older learners on ways to see situations, problem solve.

They also learn great deal about how to both be independent and interdependent across the grade level lines. There is a ebb and flow to working together and working individually that takes over as they learn to make choices during guided reading times or guided math times. They become brave learners! They become brave education hackers.

I even had experiences where the student did a better job of reaching another student than maybe I would have at that particular moment because students enjoy learning from peers more than from teachers. (Though I would say that I am a fun teacher and approachable!)

One Final Thought:

Does it strike you as interesting that schools focus so much on separation of learners based on age but somewhere in the world past the walls of education, we are always grouped in different ways? There are children of different ages on gymnastics teams or BMX teams or in drama programs. What is the big deal about the isolation of ages? Out of the four walls of a classroom, we learn about community and getting along no matter what race, religion, gender. If you swing wide the doors to a great multi-age learning environment, you will see a community of learners who will learn that things are not always equal and that is okay. Fair is not equal, and we are all in this together.
There are lots of ways to place children in classrooms. Again, if possible, placing an ELL child in a classroom that is using the looping strategy or multi-age strategy I think is a wonderful blessing and both create deeper, more meaningful interactions.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Teaching: What We Can Learn By Watching Comedians EDUC 731

I had an idea. I have always had this idea in my head but just the other day, when I was doing my homework for my MEd. class on ELL, I had a really great idea and my wheels started turning as I was studying best practices in ELL when it comes to comprehensible input and it was how some of my favorite comedians have modeled for me this vital term: comprehensible input.

What is comprehensible input you ask? Comprehensible input means that any student should be able to understand  what is being said or presented to them.When we understand these messages, we are good to go. This goes for ELL classrooms and non ELL classrooms.

There are several ways to go about this:

  • Use consistent language
  • Frequent use of visuals
  • Providing frequent opportunities for students to express themselves
  • Scaffolding, or layering information. 
  • Provide instruction that draws on the experiences of students
  • Ask many questions
  • Encourage students to express their ideas and thoughts in the new language. 
  • Cooperative learning and peer tutoring strategies
Source taken from: “Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners”, Echevarria, Vogt, Short Compiled by the Bilingual and Compensatory Education Resource Team, Dearborn Public Schools, Michigan 2002

Now, one thing that you should know about me is that I love to laugh. A good laugh is good for the soul and here are four comedians that have always given me a  good laugh: Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres.  In fact, I will just put it right out there that if we studied these people and the way they do their jobs,  that we would be better teachers.

Relationships Matter: Interact!

Carol Burnett 's comedy sketches were AMAZINGLY funny! What she did well is chunk them. They were not too long and drawn out and they left you wanting more. They say to those she worked with, she was nothing but kind and helpful because she was once given a $1000 chance buy an anonymous person (not to her, but to us) to go to New York and to study. She never forgot. She paid it back and paid it forward. It was said that even before she would to go the set, she would study everybody's name to make it feel more personable. Not only that, she would send thank you notes to people even for the most simple thing.

When you look at the way that Fallon and DeGeneres host their shows, you will see some important key elements that they do to build relationships.

  • Be sincere and authentic: When they are laughing or interacting with others there appear to be no false pretenses
  • Laugh at yourself
  • Get the most from your audience: Pull them in! Engage them!
  • Be as creative as possible and don't leave anyone out. 

You have seen them pull people from the audience for things, you have seen the dancing, you have listen to the continuous laughter. See, just like they have these amazing opportunities, we too are to be a good steward of the opportunities that are in front of us as teachers and make the most of every student contact we can. Turn your lessons into opportunities and experiences the students will remember.

Lucille Ball did these things well. She used big gestures, varied the tone of her voice, (No Buller? Buller? with her!). All four of these comedians I think did/ do a great job of speaking clearly and slowly, mostly because they want their jokes to land well and the audience to hear. That is a great skill for teachers as well, especially teachers of ELL students. Talk slowly. Speak clearly! Clearly, they all model wait time well! They are trained comedians. Wait time in the classroom is important. Wait for it..wait for it...DING.

Relationships do matter!  Without a relationship built, you have nothing. You have a class built on nothing but quicksand.

Embrace Change & Reinvent yourself

If you study Lucille Ball, she like Carol Burnett worked hard at reinventing themselves. They tried new things over and over. Lucille Ball was working as a model when she took ill for quite sometime. She recovered and slowly worked her way through as a struggling model and actor, up and up the ladder. Burnett came from a dysfunctional family, worked in night clubs before she gained what you might call true success. Jimmy Fallon always wanted to be a comedian, however on that road, he also reinvented himself many times before he became a late night host. Ellen DeGeneres no longer wipes cars for a living, she sometimes gives them away on her talk show!

Who I started out being as a first year teacher in 1994, twenty years ago...has morphed into who I am today. I feel maybe like you do, I am constantly reinventing myself so that I bring my best A-game to the classroom. Its not easy. It takes grit and downright determination.

Providing time for students to step backwards as they are learning is vital. As they step backwards, they are reflecting. Which direction will I take next? What do I need to do now? Where am I going with this? This is a great opportunity for growth for any learner.

Every learner, not just an ELL student will have setbacks, that is different from stepping backwards in my mind. A setback though can be an opportunity for amazing self awareness. As teachers or mentors of learning, we want to make sure that the students know that these things do not define them. We want them to keep practicing and growing in their learning. This process of reinventing ourselves pushes us to be who we are created to be and constantly moving forward.

Be Joyful! 

Whether you are watching a re-run of the Carol Burnett Show, Ellen, or The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you will see that they come ready to make this place where they are, the place to be. If you like what you are doing, the audience will too! If you don't like it, neither will they. That goes the same for the classroom. Those eyes are on you! Get the most of this opportunity!

The consistent use of visuals by Fallon and DeGeneres to make their point crack me up. Not only that, but they seem to make a fun game out of the most mundane thing. If we did that more learning would happen because the students engagement level would increase. They might not even know they are learning something! Like Pictionary...both Fallon and DeGeneres use this. That works in the classroom.

Laugh. Play music. Have fun! Play! Make a weird skit about something! Sing! Dance!

Scaffolding, or building layers on something keeps students interest engaged as well as increases their independence. It wasn't EXACTLY scaffolding when Fallon did his FINGERS ON A 4X4, but close! He layered it, he build excitement, he had it go over several days. Perfect. Scaffolding is like that and the end result is better learners, more successful learners because they are connecting bits of information previously told to them to new information.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen!

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times how Jimmy Fallon makes sure that people know that he has a TEAM of writers for the show. He includes the band, The Roots in the show in ways that let us know as the audience that he values their contribution to the show. Ellen does the same. You have heard her make mention many times that if were not for all the people on whose shoulders she is standing, she would not be able to what she is doing today!

Who is your TEAM? Yes, it is the people you are working with, but it is also the students in the classroom who bring amazing gifts and talents to you. Tap into them. Allow for every opportunity for them to collaborate with each other in as many ways as possible and by a variety of group sizes. The students are an brilliant resource!

Our students come to us so different from each other, just like any member of a studio audience. Every day, we put on a show for these students. We do. It might not be the best show, but it is a show. They might come to us with families as poor as church mice, with confidence shaken, with culture shock if they are ELL students (especially from war torn countries). They might loose patience with themselves. Our job, our sacred job is to show them, to model for them how to BE BRAVE and to take risks. How high expectations of them are to help them succeed in life not to wear them down. Finally as these comedians that I mentioned, Ball, Burnett, Fallon and DeGeneres, celebrate! Life is so beautiful and so worth celebrating.