Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ownership of Learning Begins in Kindergarten

  A student in Ms. Regner's  class reads his 

  original story aloud to fellow kinders.
School is where kids go to watch adults work. As much as I’d like to dismiss this aphorism as ridiculous and irrelevant, it is painfully true. As we all work to transfer ownership of learning  to our students, we must consider that classrooms have successfully placed students in the driver’s seat of the learning since the very first day of school. Kindergartners in our district are working in teams, making choices about their learning, evaluating their own learning, and demonstrating their work to the class. If you have just started to give your students more ownership of learning, you may have noticed that this change is not always received enthusiastically by students (especially in the upper grades). If you are starting to doubt yourself during this journey, keep the following in mind:

  1. It is happening! There are great examples of student “owned” classrooms throughout the district. Ask to observe another teacher.
  2. Expect some resistance (especially in middle school)
  3. Just because you face resistance doesn’t mean it is not the right thing to do in the interest of students.
  4. Examine what might be getting you “stuck” - what are your beliefs about learning? Struggle? Your role?

In several classrooms throughout the district, students are owning and showing learning.  While observing Mrs. Regner’s kindergarten reading and writing workshop, I noticed students engaged in a variety of learning activities and learning spaces. Some students sat in pairs at tables while others sat independently on a rug.  Some students used iPads to record and listen to their reading, while others flipped through personalized cubbies of picture books.  Other students worked on writing a story of their own.  At one point, I noticed a student standing in the back of the room near the sink holding something a boomerang. I  suspected that this particular student was not on task. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that it was his turn to look at Mrs. Regner’s items for sharing.
This classroom environment offers choice for learners.
This student knew what choices he could make during class time, and he chose to use five minutes during reading and writing time to take a look at the sharing items placed.  After observing a boomerang and a photograph, this student returned to work on writing his story.
This example highlights the benefits of offering students clear choices in the classroom. Given more ownership of their learning, these kindergarteners are able to exercise choice as independent learners.   Noticeably, these kindergartners demonstrated a sense of pride while organizing their learning materials and working on a skill of choice. By giving our students choices, we communicate our belief  that they can make choices of their own regarding their learning. In addition, when we give students ownership of their learning, we communicate our belief that they are capable of being independent learners--which they are.

If you teach in the upper grades, you may experience a different response.  Stay positive, but do prepare for resistance, eye-rolling, and groaning. For our historically passive learners, this “gift” of independence and ownership also means that we expect students to do more.  
A  few years ago, I decided that it was time to give my seventh grade students ownership of their work through choice and reflection. Even though I knew better,  I romanticized that my students would enjoy being given more responsibility and choice. How wrong I was. Of course, there were some students who appreciated the opportunity to select a topic of choice for research, but the overwhelming response was a resounding groan of the seventh grade type . Many students had become perfectly accustomed to being spoon-fed. And now I wanted them to think and question and select?
After this initial shock, students eventually became more comfortable with the idea of thinking on their own and making choices about their learning. Some students who had not been very engaged earlier in the year  seemed to burst to life. Seeing students rise to the occasion made me realize that I had been underestimating their ability. Unless we give our students a chance to own their learning, we may never know what they are truly capable of.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Uncomfortable Step in the Right Direction

Frustration, anxiety, and struggle are comfortable. Said no human ever.  
Accepting and sitting with uncomfortable emotions that accompany change
is not something that we, as humans, do very well.  In an effort to avoid discomfort, we will  catastrophize, act out, and procrastinate.  As an English teacher, I know this all too well. Rather than deal with the discomfort related to grading 140 something essays, I found a distraction--usually in the form of a domestic task. Removing lint from the dryer and dusting the blinds offered relief from something far more anathema ... a ghastly spire of Ulysses essays.  In the end, my essay-evasion tactics did little to erase my unease. Discomfort persisted until I finally sat down and started my sixteen hour task, one paper at a time. I had to experience discomfort before making any progress.

Struggle is in fact necessary for progress.  This week, middle school teachers in LASD persisted through discomfort  and  were able to accomplish some  progress worthy of celebration--the publication of quarter one reports using the Standards- Based Gradebook in Haiku. Everyone in the LASD community can recognize the hard work that made this progress possible. This publication of quarter one reports represents the first step towards mastery-oriented learning. This was a Herculean task .  Although there was plenty of discomfort, anxiety, and uncertainty along the way, these teacher-pioneers have taken the first steps to adopt a reporting system that promotes individual mastery and ownership rather than performance and compliance.

Contrary to performance orientation, mastery orientation, directs students’ focus on developing new skills and improving competence, and is associated with self- regulation, increased effort, autonomy, and the belief that effort will lead to academic success (Ames, 1992; Pintrich, 2003; Seifert, 2004).  If we want to instill and nurture a growth mindset in all of our students, we must also implement tools and systems that support the belief that they can learn and improve.  If we want students to dig deeper into their learning, they must be given opportunities to improve and master before moving on.
The first step to allowing for mastery includes identifying precise learning targets or standards. This is where SBG comes in. Once students are able to identify the specific learning targets they are responsible for, they can begin to create individual learning goals. Standards-Based Grading moves the “what students need to be able to do” from the background to the center-stage. In addition, the mastery model remains true to the values we want to instill in our students:

  • Importance of effort, improvement, and working toward a goal
  • School is about learning, not just performing
  • Student ownership of the learning
  • Student responsibility and reflection
  • Growth mindset

While most of us would agree that these values are essential, we can also notice what is missing--such as time on task and timeliness of assignments. We want our students to manage their time and prioritize, right? When I think about this question my mind always arrives at one image--a giant stack of ungraded, late essays. This is where the anxiety sets in. This is where I get stuck.
It is when I consider the alternative--keeping our current system--that I am able to become unstuck. I consider the many students who stare blankly, exert minimal effort,  and just “play school” to get a grade so that they can “stop learning.”  I consider the fact that many students are unable to reflect upon their own learning. I consider the fact that teachers often feel more responsible for student learning than the students themselves. I consider the fact that many students take little ownership and interest in their own learning. This is when it becomes clear that we must change our system to one that promotes the same values we want in our students. A mastery model of education and the adoption of SBGs is an uncomfortable step in the direction of progress.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

LASD Teachers are Ready to Take Flight!

LASD Teachers Prepare for Flight!

Early in its life cycle, the monarch butterfly exists as a single egg, then as a larva, and finally as an unmoving, translucent chrysalis.  While observing a monarch in the pupa stage, it looks as if nothing is happening. The stillness is deceiving. Beneath the static chrysalis, there is an increase in cellular activity. The cells that will soon become the legs, wings, and eyes, are rapidly developing.The butterfly is in the process of developing the wings it will need to fly.
While many teachers intend to use summer solely for frozen daiquiris and poolside lounging, the truth is that summer is a busy time for teachers.  Empty classrooms and infrequent Tweets might suggest inactivity, but it is summer when many teachers are most active-- re-evaluating, re-organizing, refining and refocusing their craft for the upcoming school year. It is under the still of summer that many teachers develop their wings.   

Many diligent LASD teachers took advantage of  professional development opportunities this summer. These opportunities included Responsive Classroom training, the NSTA (National Science Teacher Association) Summer Institute, the Logo Summer Institute, the SVMI (Silicon Valley Math Initiative),  as well as MERIT and mini-MERIT Programs (Making Education Relevant and Interactive Through Technology). Not only did each of these learning experiences provide teachers with skills and confidence as a professional, but each experience also supports one or more of the seven LASD Learning Principles.
Providing students with social-emotional learning that extends beyond classroom walls, the Responsive Classroom supports four out of seven Learning Principles---Connected Experiences, Valuing Process,  Empowering Students and Nurturing a Growth Mindset. At the heart of the Responsive Classroom are “C.A.R.E.S.” (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control). Common Responsive Classroom practices include morning meeting, offering academic choice, and allowing students to create class rules with logical consequences. The value of process is demonstrated by the positive language and thinking routines observable in morning meeting as students practice C.A.R.E.S.  (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control) though a handshake, eye contact, and a kind greeting.
Mrs. Hu's class practices eye contact and listening during morning meeting.
In addition to Responsive Classroom training, teachers also gained expertise in the areas of STEM and  Next Generation Science Standards through participation in the NSTA Summer Institute and the Logo Summer Institute at M.I.T.  Attendees of the NSTA Summer Institute maintained laser focus on implementing (NGSS) Next Generation Science Standards to be used ASAP!  Similarly, the Logo Summer Institute in New York was yet another opportunity for LASD  teachers to elevate their expertise to a new level.  At Logo, STEM teachers explored design-based constructionist technologies such as Scratch, Arduinos, Bee Bots and 3D printing. Over the course of five days, teachers used the power of technology to engage and provide deeper learning experiences for students.
Both MERIT (two intensive weeks during summer @KCI ) and mini-MERIT (one intensive week during summer at your school site) introduced teachers to a variety of technology tools to facilitate the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning.  At the core of the MERIT program is the use of technology for communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking within a student- centered learning environment.  Several of the LASD Learning Principles were echoed throughout the MERIT experience: the importance of process, providing relevant, connected experiences, as well as using technology to personalizing learning.
Over the summer, LASD teachers did a tremendous amount of learning, collaborating, and developing as professionals. While your colleagues may appear similar to the way they appeared in June, it is very likely that a transformation has occurred.  Perhaps this transformation is revealed through a new focus,  philosophy, or attitude. Like the monarch butterfly in the final stages of its metamorphosis, our teachers  have developed wings and are ready to take flight!

Contributed by Lisa Waxman, Technology Instructional Coach

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

LASD Filmfest - Student Agency in Action!

Many educational conversations around change are focusing on student agency. What is it? “Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation.” (Learn more here.) An incredible example of student agency in LASD is our Film Festival. For anyone who attended, you saw student agency in action. The LASD Filmfest just celebrated its fourth year. The film festival began as a PBL (Project Based Learning) project and two sixth grade classrooms. Each year, the film festival is passed on to a new classroom at any of our schools to be planned and implemented. The festival is a student run event, meant to celebrate and encourage student creativity through film. For students, by students.
This year the festival was created by Mrs. Nguyen’s fifth grade class at Almond. They went with an Academy Awards theme with red carpets and paparazzi. Those who entered were encouraged to dress up and come with an acceptance speech. It was great watching two kindergarten students, one in a fancy dress and one in dress slacks and a white shirt, walk solo to to the stage, open up a folded up piece of paper and read their prepared thank-you’s as they accepted a first place award for their class collaboration film. Students who entered, cheered for each other as they anticipated the announcement of each winner. It was a well crafted celebration of student learning and Mrs. Nguyen’s fifth graders owned that event. They were in charge, excited, and came prepared to deliver. It was awesome!
In LASD, student agency is reflected in our Empower Students, Personalize Learning, and Connect Experiences Learning Principles. Speaking to the transformation happening in education, "Most Likely to Succeed Shows How Classrooms Modeled on Real Life can Help Kids Succeed in Real Life”, is an article from Fast Company, with a focus on a new film that studies High Tech High in San Diego. The film previewed at the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival and is gaining momentum across the country.

The students showcased in Most Likely to Succeed represent what’s possible when you give kids more responsibility than you think they can handle and ask them to bring all of their knowledge to bear on a single task.”

Student Agency is the goal, and we’re working on ways to encourage and build more of those experiences for our LASD students. The LASD Filmfest is an incredible example of our efforts. A huge thank you to all students who participated and Mrs. Nguyen’s’s fifth grade class. You rocked it!

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Interim Principal Oak School

Monday, March 30, 2015

STEM to STEAM: A Teacher Field Trip

The acronym STEM has been around for awhile now. STEM is the integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve a real-world problem. So what is STEAM?! It is the same thing, but with an addition of art! When we talk about tinkering and making which is part of STEM one cannot be within that wheelhouse without the idea of art. Since LASD has a STEM program and an Art Docent program we decided to bring the two worlds together for a day of collaboration.

It was a brisk Tuesday morning when a group of LASD teachers and Art Docents met to carpool over to the San Jose Art Museum. It wasn’t a teacher’s day off, but a special fieldtrip that was arranged in order for teachers to experience learning in a different way. One of our districts Learning Principles is “Connect Experiences” and one way to do that is to be out in the world and have shared event. A field trip is a great way for teachers to collaborate and share ideas.

We started in a room with nothing on the walls, nothing on the tables and just a sign-up sheet in front. I wouldn’t have imagined an art museum being so stark, but that didn’t give us any indication of what was to come… As we stepped outside the room there was a beautifully created sculpture hanging from the ceiling made of paper clips. We looked at one another and many of us repeated the same thing “I love that - how can we make that for our rooms?!”

The first part of the day we spent in the museum learning about interpretation of photos or paintings. This was an exercise where everyone participated either with only one word or a story about what they thought was going on in the image. It was truly engaging for all. We even had a chance to be
part of a painting. The focus shifted to the classroom and how as educators we can bring these types of discussions into the classroom, how to honor everyone’s opinion and interpretation as well as having students explain their thoughts by using evidence from the image. Now it was time to apply what we learned about interpretation into our own work. When we entered back into the room with the sign-up sheet I noticed that there was a lot more in the room now. It had materials ready for the city creation project.

We worked in teams of 3 to 5 creating our city or town, but we didn’t jump right in as many of us wanted to do! We first had to brainstorm alone all of the things we could imagine or want in a city or town. Then we had to discuss those items as a whole group and decide what was going to be in our collective living space. The next step was a little difficult for my group. We had to sketch it out on paper. The paper we recieved was the same size as the plot of land that we will be using for our build. Each of us picked up a pencil, but no one wanted to make the first mark. I know personally, drawing is not my forte, so I was nervous that the image in my head was not going to translate on paper. Once

Erika, a team member, took the first step and made a mark we all jumped in and started to sketch. We finally had something to work with; a blueprint which became very handy as we brought our town to life.

Now it was time to start assembling the town. I watched and listened as other groups began their builds. There was a definite buzz of excitement as the teachers and art docents began putting their towns together. We received a small lesson on some paper techniques to help us create buildings and other essential items for our town. As I looked around the room there were four towns/cities erected, all with some similarities and some differences. We had an opportunity to reveal our towns and explain the layout as well as the features. One of the similarities between all of the towns/cities was a water feature where people can sit, walk or bike around and some of the contrasting features were wineries, civic centers and churches.

It turned out to be a great day full of creativity, collaboration and application of STEAM. Teachers walked away with ideas on how to implement more art into the classroom and ways to use active listening skills as part of the VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies), a technique the art museum uses for teaching about art. VTS includes asking questions and tips on how to respond to student's comments as well as emphasis on being open to student interpretation. When students are responding the instructor then uses paraphrasing as well as focusing on accepting students responses neutrally. I think this technique is useful not just for art, but in all subjects!

Contributed by Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Might We Transform Education?

LASD Participates in Re-Imaging Education Project in Washington, D.C.

LASD was recently asked to be a part of a national group re-imagining education,  Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.   This group is focused on creating a new paradigm for learning.  The request for LASD participation links back to relationships developed through our blended learning work.  Convergence created a vision that outlines  five interrelated elements essential to a new learning paradigm:
  • competency-based
  • personalized, relevant and contextualized
  • learner agency
  • socially embedded
  • open-walled

There is considerable overlap between these five elements and the seven LASD Learning Principles we have identified as critical to our vision of “Revolutionizing Learning.”  Simply put Convergence recognizes the current educational system was designed in a different era and structured for a different society.  Their vision is a call to action, not to tweak or modify the current system but to create a drastically different paradigm of learning that will serve all children.
Convergence hosted a “Pioneer Base Camp” of educators who have demonstrated their belief in one or more essential elements outlined in the vision.  “Pioneers” were identified by Convergence team and then if interested asked to interview.  LASD was selected as a Pioneer, interviewed and attended the Pioneer Base Camp in Washington DC last week along with 150 other educators from 35 organizations.  The invitation to participate in this event is testament to the work we have accomplished over the course of the last few years.

Our team consisted of:  Jill Croft, teacher at Covington, Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Initiatives; Katie Kinnaman, Principal of Gardner Bullis; and Sandra McGonagle, Principal of Blach.

After spending time with educators, policy makers, private corporations and foundations dedicated to improving our education system for ALL students, we all returned to LASD with  renewed commitment to revolutionizing learning for all students and BIG ideas about how to accelerate our work in LASD.  It was a tremendous experience to connect and learn with so many diverse groups.  Here is a list of some of the other Pioneers that attended:  Big Picture Learning, Design39 Campus, High Tech High, Iowa BIG, Lindsay Unified School District, MC2, Quest to Learn, Re-School Colorado, and Roycemore School. Our reactions to hearing what is happening elsewhere in the country ranged from “We do that, too!” to “Ooooh, we could do that!” to “How in the world did you do that?”

Fundamentally, our world is changing and so should our education system.  We are fortunate in LASD to have already embraced this mindset.  However, knowing we need to grow and adapt is only the first step, we must now apply new strategies and approaches across an entire organization. This is challenging.   Especially, when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  Too often we hear, “I survived school…. It worked for me, what’s wrong with it?”

Yes, that system worked for me, too. Everything I needed for research could be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and I relied heavily on my ability to memorize content.   In this traditional system, we “learned” at school, and then we left to “do” at work.  This approach no longer works - in today’s world learning and doing have become inseparable.  If we continue down the same path, are we preparing students for a world that no longer exists?  

Having just participated in this national conversation about transforming education, we are asking a lot of questions - questions that challenge the core of our learning system.  Here are a few of the questions swirling in our minds -
  • Why do we determine what a child learns and is exposed to based on how old they are?
  • How can we design a system that embraces the fact that not everyone learn in the same way or at the same pace?
  • What role does learning outside of traditional school “hours” and “walls” look like and how can we partner to make sure we are expanding opportunities to learn, not limiting them?
  • How can we re-organize our current resources (time, money, people, space) to shift our system now, rather than waiting for a full-scale, start-from-scratch re-design?

Knowing that there are big challenges ahead for all educators and educational organizations, I am extremely grateful to work in a school district that has already recognized the need for change and created three year goals headed in this direction.  I am more excited than ever to work on meeting the individual needs of all students.  While we don’t yet have answers to all of the questions posed above, we are working on them and committed to re-imaging what is possible for all students.

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships

Friday, March 13, 2015

How Might We Be Shutting Down the Intelligence of Our Students With the Best of Intentions?

5 Things We Can Do to Bring Out the Best in Students

Sketchnotes by @leoniedawson25 
Last night I had the privilege of hearing Liz Wiseman, best-selling author of Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Rookie Smarts, speak at a parent education event at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park.  It is always a treat to hear Liz speak about Multipliers and Rookie Smarts, but I was even more excited to know that that she would be sharing information on both of these topics through the lens of education.

Liz began her research several years ago with a fairly straightforward question: How do some leaders create intelligence in the people around them, while others diminish it?  Her research uncovered two fundamentally different types of leaders.  In the first group are the Diminishers.  These leaders tend to believe there are few really smart people and that people will not figure things out without them.  The second group of leaders are Multipliers.  These leaders bring out each person’s unique intelligence and creativity.  They see their organization as filled with intelligent, capable people and create the right opportunities for continued growth.  As you can imagine these two types of leaders get very different results.  Multipliers tend to get twice as much from their resources as do Diminishers.  Liz goes on to identify a leadership continuum with Multipliers and Diminishers on opposite ends of this continuum.  As you might expect, just a small number of people fall into either polar extreme of being a Multiplier or a Diminisher 100% of the time.  Most of us find ourselves along a spectrum functioning as Accidental Diminishers.

This concept of Accidental Diminishers is especially intriguing to me in education, as most educators I know are extremely well intentioned, following popular leadership and instructional practices which may actually have a subtle diminishing influence on those we lead whether they are teachers or students.  With some focused effort, we can shift our accidentally diminishing tendencies and develop skills to lead and teach more like a multiplier.  In fact, Liz shared five thing you can do tomorrow in your school or classroom to bring out the best in students. (All of these suggestions work in work in parenting as well!)

5 Things You Can Do to Bring Out the Best in Students

  1. Shift From Answers to Questions
What if we stopped operating in telling mode and shifted to questioning mode?   Too often we fall into the trap of telling our students things they might already know.  Test this out by going extreme and only asking questions of your students for an identified period of time. What do you notice? Chances are everyone will learn more and you’ll improve your ability to ask questions in the process.
  1. Play Fewer Chips
Often as adults we just take up too much space.  We have so much to share, that we actually end up shutting down what our students have to share.  What if we thought of our contributions as poker chips to be played?  When planning, try identifying a number of “chips” to be played.  By limiting your contributions, you might actually create more space for students to do their best thinking.
  1. Offer Bigger Challenges
Imagine for a moment that the challenges we give our students are like the stretch in  rubber bands.  Now imagine that you are holding tight to one end of a rubber band and a student is holding tight to the other end of a rubber band - if you pull the rubber band to it’s maximum tension point (without breaking) the person holding the other end has a couple of choices: let go or they can step in and move closer to you.  In teaching we need to experiment with the amount of stretch on the rubber band.  Are we stretching too much so that students give up?  Are we not stretching enough? Are we stretching but then lessening the stretch at the first sign of struggle?  Try thinking of challenges in the amount of stretch offered.  As a teacher, do you tend to over stretch or under stretch?  Human beings are built for challenges, in fact our best learning happens when there is maximum tension on the rubber band and we have to step into the learning.
  1. Find Their Genius
What if we learned to see our students differently?  We all know our students are unique and have their own innate talents.  What might happen if we saw our primary role as teachers to identify and nurture the native genius of our students?  Challenge yourself to observe and identify the native genius of every student in your class. Help students see this native genius and nurture it.
  1. Give the Pen Back
We all know that learning is a messy process and there are times when people get stuck.  As educators our goal is to help students but sometimes when we jump in to help we end up taking the ownership of the learning.  What if we helped just enough to get students unstuck but then quickly gave the pen back, transferring the ownership of learning right back to the student?

Experimenting with these five shifts, may help you teach more like a multiplier and unleash genius in your students.  If you try any of the above experiments, I’d love to hear what you and your students experience!  

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships