Blended Learning is a Good Start, but…

A model of personalized learning?

I recently visited a school district that  had recently implemented blended learning.  Specifically, teachers were using the station rotation model of blended learning.  It was a clear and welcome departure from the teacher at front, student in rows model that had been an instructional staple.

As the superintendent welcomed us, he said, that blended learning allows us to assess and intervene in real time, which he considered key to personalization.

Hmmm.  I’m not so sure.  

Let me be clear, I’m a big fan of using technology to personalize learning.  I applaud and push all schools—K-12—to get to a 1:1 learning environment so that all students can easily and quickly use technology for a variety of things.

And, I think that the station-rotation model of instruction represents a huge and welcome instructional shift.  Done well, it allows for rich collaborative time with peers, independent time to work and struggle productively, and time in small groups with a teacher who is using all forms of data to hone in on individual students’ learning.

But that doesn’t mean it’s personalized.

For learning to be personalized, students must own their learning.  They must have a clear sense of the what, why and the how.

The What: Standards and Competencies

If learning is to be personalized, we adults must clearly articulate what mastery looks like in a given course.  We must have determined power standards, unpacked those standards and created proficiency scales so that we, students and parents have clear indicators of what it takes to get to mastery.

Even our youngest students can and should understand what is expected of them, what they will be learning and what it will look like for them when they’ve “got it”.

The Why: What Will I Do With This?

Courses of study and units within them must be tied to Essential Questions.  Those EQs  put the learning into a larger context and transferability.  Additionally, connections can and should be made to real-world applications. We adults must also understand that the goal is deeper learning. 

The How:  How Will I be able to demonstrate mastery?

Ownership, voice and choice. Station-rotation can be heavily teacher-directed.  No doubt, students are often more on-task in small groups than in the traditional teacher at the front model, but they still may not get to those higher levels of engagement in which they direct the learning.  Providing more opportunities for students to direct their learning and to truly engage with the learning, via long-term projects, for example would allow student to truly personalize.

Blended learning is a must for us in 21st century classrooms. Teachers can use a number of resources and platforms to allow students to dig deeper into content and skills, to take real-time assessments and get directed feedback, and to collaborate with peers in and out of the classroom using online tools.  It’s a necessary first step to deep, joyful and personalized learning. 

But it’s not the end.

3 Steps to Eliminate Fs…NO Extra Credit Required

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

“Um, Ms. Smith, is there some extra credit I can do to bring my grade up?”

Such an annoying question, right?  And yet, many teachers succumb.  They find or create something the student can do to earn a few extra points. Especially when those points are the difference between and F and a D.

No teacher wants her students to fail. 

But how did we get here in the first place?

There is no reason for students to earn Fs—or even Ds in a class.  I mean , really, why do kids ever fail a class? 

Is it truly because they are not capable? 

If that’s the case, then there’s a system problem — a need for interventions, guidance,etc. 

But, for the most part, any student sitting in your classroom is capable of earning a passing grade and of mastering what is deemed ESSENTIAL for the course.

They may not all excel, but they can and should all pass… And extra credit need not play any role.

Here are 3 steps to take to eliminate Fs—with no extra credit!

1) MAKE 50 the lowest possible grade.

If you haven’t already, do not give scores lower than 50.  Or, if you prefer, use a 0-50 point scale. 

That simply keeps the grading scale aligned. 

The zero-100 scale is flawed:

A= 90-100 (10 point range)

B=80-89 (9 point range)

C= 70-79 (9 point range_

D= 60-69 (9 point range)

F= 0-59 (59 point range)

(See Monte Syrie’s discussion of the harmfulness of this scale here.)

Of course, if you want to keep the 0-100, that’s fine, but only if you insist on  multiple retakes until the student reaches the desired level of proficiency. (See #3 Below)

2. Replace or weigh grades over time.

Have you heard the one about the parachute operator?  Let’s say you’re going skydiving and you have your choice of two instructors to jump with you.  They both received a B in parachute opening.  Instructor Jamie did really well at the beginning of class, folding the parachute correctly and doing well on quizzes about the parachute. As time went by, his grades dropped when it became clear that he couldn’t open the parachute quickly. Instructor Jody did really poorly on those early folding and multiple choice quizzes, but toward the end of the course could demonstrate her proficiency in opening the darn thing. Both averaged a B.  Which one do you choose?

In my work, we’ve used a Decaying Average so that the later grades carry more weight.  There are other options, including a Power Law or Replacing Grades.  Erin Werra describes all three better than I can in this post.

2) Allow retakes. 

Better yet, insist on retakes below a certain score.   You can apply this to everyone so that anyone with X score has to retake it.  You can also  allow students to individually determine their lowest acceptable grade—with your blessing and, perhaps, with a parent notification form.

This is a shift and there will be grumbling from students (who might prefer to just ask for that dreaded extra credit later.)

Here’s a script:

In this class, it’s not okay to fail.  We are working on very important skills and concepts. I wouldn’t be doing my job if any of you failed. 

However, you all come to this class with different levels of skill, enthusiasm, etc.  So, while it would be great if everyone got an A, that might not be reasonable —or even in your best interests if you need to conserve time and effort for some other classes.

Therefore, I want everyone to share with me your highest desired grade, the lowest you can deal with and your expectation ( a best case scenario, a worst-case scenario and a realistic expectation). 

I’d also like you to share why you have this grade goal.  Might be something like:

  • This subject comes easily to me.  I think this class should be an “easy A” for me and will help boost my GPA
  • This subject has always been a struggle for me.  I know I can do the work with effort and I’d be okay with a C range grade.
  • I like this subject and can do the work, but I have to give more effort to some other, tougher classes. So while I think I could get an A, I’ll be satisfied in the B range.

As your teacher, I simply cannot accept Ds and Fs. Luckily for you, we have a retake policy in this class.  Anyone who scores below our Desired Level of Proficiency on a major assessment will have the opportunity to earn the DLP by retaking or redoing some or all of the assessment (or an alternate assessment). I have some guidelines about when, where and how that will happen.

EXTRA CREDIT Is just that..

It’s extra…beyond…unnecessary.

Don’t do it! Don’t have them do some throwaway extra something that neither of you cares about.  Instead, have them prove that they can do what’s necessary.

Listen, extra credit is additional time, work and energy for you and for your students.  So are retakes.  Which one makes more sense?

5 Ways to Help ALL Students Love School

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

All kids should love school.

 

Yes, they should. 

But we all know that they don’t.  In fact, many hate it.

By high school, many students have become disenagaged.  And we’re losing some really bright minds along the way.

Jake’s* story:

My friend Kelly and I have talked many times over the years about her son, Jake.  For years now, Kelly has been frustrated—wondering how to support this boy she loves so much.  Parent teacher conferences focus on what a great kid Jake is—how articulate he is, how full of enthusiasm about the stuff he loves.  However…there’s the issue of not completing homework.  And losing papers.   And indecipherable handwriting.  And occasional distractedness.

So, Kelly asked me. What should we do?  Should we get him a tutor? A peer mentor who will help him create better homework habits?

Here’s how I see Jake.  This is a kid who, at age 8, devised a trap for Santa.  Wanting to get a glimpse of the elusive fat man, Jake created an elaborate trap with trip wires and bells.  (It would have worked, too, if someone hadn’t tipped off Mr. Claus at the last moment.)

This is a kid who spends hours, days, months focused on projects that often involve digging up the yard and rigging contraptions.  He contemplates problems and devises solutions.  He’s curious and visionary.  He tries, fails, learns and tries again.

And his grades are pretty lousy.

Does that add up?

So, what I told Kelly is this.  If it’s a choice between better grades and his enthusiasm, joy, curiosity and creativity….well, the choice is clear, isn’t it?

This shouldn’t be a choice.

So, what can be done?

1) Ditch traditional HOMEWORK. 

That doesn’t mean that kids don’t need to practice or that they don’t need to do work or thinking beyond the school day.  Often, they do.  But not always.  Experiment with ways to balance practice, skill development and responsibility.  Middle school math teacher Michelle Russell ended up doing this.  What will you do differently?

2) Create choice boards for EVERYTHING…

…including the above-mentioned homework.  While some may think they are better suited for elementary school, the truth is they work at all levels.  I’ve worked with HS teachers to create summer reading choice boards (that included options for watching videos, listening to podcasts or audiobooks as well as space for student-created options).  I’ve also used choice boards when creating professional development opportunities for teachers!

Kasey Bell shared some choice board ideas on her site, Shake Up Learning.

3) Have students reflect and self-assess ALL THE TIME. 

Here’s my Smiley Face Self-Assessment. Don’t be fooled by the name—this isn’t just for young learners.  A colleague adapted this for use with his AP Physics classes—with great success.

4) Show parents your syllabus/course overview.  Ask for feedback about projects, assignments, their child’s response. (I included a more detailed, teacher-facing overview template in my last post.)

5)  Remember your WHY.

Why do you do this work?  Why do you teach?  What do you want your legacy to be?

Here are some hints:

YOU are preparing students for a future you cannot fully imagine or appreciate.  Therefore, YOU need to create the conditions where they will learn how to learn.  YOU have complete control over whether students are cognitively engaged, thinking hard and working with enthusiasm.

For more thoughts about this, see the awesome Catlin Tucker’s post about Articulating your Why

All kids can love school.  All kids can learn deeply and joyfully every day.  So can you 🙂

*Names have been changed 🙂

5 Questions to Get Students Engaged

Engagement.  The magic word.  I’ve conducted countless Instructional Rounds, learning walks and other observations focused on engagement. Are kids engaged? It’s a great question.  It’s really THE question. And, unfortunately, all too often the answer is no.

Why? Part of it is the sense that stuff is happening TO them—and much of it is a surprise. Many of us advocate for greater student agency—voice and choice over their learning.  But first, we’ve need to provide a roadmap.

As educators, we often have the benefit of some curricula to guide us.  So, we know what we are teaching, how we want to teach and where we want our students to end up.

Often, though, students are left in the dark.  They show up with some vague idea of what they are learning. When asked, they answer with the subject—math- or maybe even the topic (fractions) or the text (The Great Gatsby) but not much beyond that.  And we wonder why they are not more engaged, more present, more excited.

Getting kids to be cognitively engaged depends on a lot of factors and lots of hard and great work by teachers.

To start, though, they …and we should be able to answer the following 5 questions. (Templates are at the bottom of this post)

Here are 5 questions that students should be able to answer:

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
  2. How will I show what I’ve learned?
  3. How will we learn?
  4. What do I do when I struggle?
  5. Why am I learning this?*

These questions will be familiar to those who have relied on the work of Dufour, et al, on building professional learning communities and those who have engaged in a backwards design curriculum process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?

Include your content standards—but not all of them.  If your district/school has identified power standards, use those.  If not, you determine what’s most important and let them know that’s the focus.

Also, include those life and learning skills that they will gain.  You might want to guarantee greater collaboration or problem-solving skills, for example.

      2. How will I show what I’ve learned?

What are some examples of formative and summative assessments? Does the teacher assess HW? Is there a lot of writing? Is there a major project at the end of the course or each quarter? Will there be an exhibition of learning?

A grading policy is helpful here as well.  (I’ve got lots of thoughts on what that can and should look like, but the important thing is that students understand the practices up front.)

If you allow retakes and redos, a clear explanation of how that’s done and the impact on grades is useful.

3.How will we learn?

What are the usual activities?  Do we take a lot of notes? Will we participate in socratic seminar? Are we expected to explore via cooperative lab work?

What skills are needed/will be developed?  Are we expected to read, speak, explain, draw, act, sing?

Here, I would give students an opportunity to reflect on their level of comfort with each of these and some strategies to ask for and receive help.  For example, the painfully shy student or one with a speech impairment might dread public speaking.  Knowing it’s expected and how they will be supported allows students and teacher to be proactive.

4. What do I do when I struggle?

This is a great time to reinforce a growth mindset.  Let them know and discuss how anything worth doing can sometimes be difficult but that we are all in this together.

This is also where kids need some specifics about their access to additional help. How and when can they meet with you one on one? Do you take email questions? Are they assigned a partner to work with first?

You can keep coming back to this by asking students to reflect regularly on where they got stumped and what they did —or continue to do—to make their way forward.  Of course, a grading system that doesn’t punish kids for not “getting it right away” or indeed a PBL system that is built on struggle is helpful here, but even in the most traditional environments, this can be useful.

5. Why am I learning this?*

Arguably, this should come first,  But I recommend that you explore this together through the school year.  Students can self-assess on this as a part of reflections after summative or formative assessments. This can be a homework assignment once a quarter or every few weeks—ask parents, grandparents, Google, etc—Why should I learn this? What can I do with this now? What will I do with this in the future? How does this tie into what I already know or what I am learning in other areas of school or life?

Come back to this often—weekly, quarterly, at the beginning and end of discrete units of study.  The more students know about the what, why and how  of the lean ringing, the more they can invest of themselves in the learning.

Templates

Here’s a course overview template teachers can use for their own course planning.

Here’s a template to use with  students and families.

Please let me know if this is useful and/or how the templates can be improved.

Wishing you a great year of deep and joyful learning!

Lori