Sunday, November 27, 2011

ITTD: Iowa Test of Thanksgiving Development

I wonder what my cumulative “Thanksgiving GPA” would be? I lost my chance at a 4.0 in 1985, when my dad and his wife, Martha Stewart (a.k.a. “Mom”) visited our little home in North Carolina when we were newlyweds. I was doing fine until the marshmallow-covered yams burst into flames, resulting in a small but containable kitchen fire. The 30-pound turkey that I had purchased for the four of us was still raw after hours of cooking. And my overall grade was significantly lowered when my dad discovered the Mrs. Smith’s box from my self-proclaimed homemade pie while he was rummaging through the trash, presumably looking for something to eat.In recent years, my ITTD (Iowa Test of Thanksgiving Development) Scores are remarkably higher on the national norm-referenced scale. Just between you and me, I cheat. Actually, I utilize my resources to encourage collaboration and group-work. Daughter #1 is annually assigned the Vegetable and Bread sections of the test. Daughter #2 works on the Potato and Stuffing free response. Daughter #3 fills in the Bread or Pie bubble sheet. The husband was long ago promoted to Turkey Man, and routinely scores in the top 98th percentile in carving ability. I set the table, provide encouragement and take pictures. Together, we are proficient!
The Flaming Yams Incident of 1985 was a formative assessment. I have moved beyond it—in fact, I have embraced the yams as an important reminder that it is OK not to be perfect. It is OK to ask for help. It is OK to laugh when food is on fire. It is OK to be labeled as “Needs Improvement”.
The four point grading scale was invented 1780 by Yale University. The “A = excellent” thru “F = failed” designation was used first in 1897 by Mount Holyoke College. Over one hundred years later, the College Board reports that 3,113 high schools (91% of the total US schools) still use an “A thru F” grading scale.  The point system can be traced back to World War I, and the multiple-choice test was invented in the 1940’s when technology capable of scoring a bubble sheet first emerged.
I love school, I love grades and I am a multiple choice rock star. In fact, when I graduated, the thing I missed the most about school was the positive reinforcement of “grades”, to which I was firmly addicted. I sometimes still wish I could check a JMC report, just to see what my scores would be in the categories of caring mom, kind wife, loving daughter, trusted friend, education professional, decent person, or even Thanksgiving Dinner Coordinator. In real life, grades aren’t posted and no one is keeping score in a red book (not even God, but that is a different topic). The reflection of who we are is instead carried in the countenance of those around us—and, thankfully, all assessments are formative. Team-work is strongly encouraged, mistakes are expected and failure is just an opportunity to practice forgiveness and to try again. Oh, and there are no “right” answers at the back of the book. You have to make them up as you go along.
I wonder what school would look like, if it were more like real life?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Learning Made to Last

It would not be much of an exaggeration to report that the entire town stopped into the high school office to buy football tickets over the past several weeks. Some folks breezed in and out in a hurry, but most stopped to smile and chat for a minute or two. Michele and Penny smiled and chatted right along with them. We heard the stories and the hopes and the memories of countless alumni, parents, and grandparents.

Cost of a ticket$8
Benefit to school in terms of community pride and relationship building? Priceless.
My favorite question to answer was “Are we going to win?” I liked to reply, “We already have.”
My second favorite question to answer was “Is anyone getting any work done around here?
I wish I had thought about offering a walking tour of the high school to anyone who asked that question during these past few weeks. People would have seen the incredible teaching and learning that happens here: day in and day out, football or no football. I would have liked to have people sit in a government class to listen to guest speakers, campaign discussions, and rousing debates. I would have liked to invite people to the life sciences lab to watch anatomy students teaching elementary kids. Hey, I should have made an enormous graph of lab reports written, tests taken, books read, research papers completed, projects assembled and competencies gained during the football playoff weeks! Next year…
That is the beautiful thing about most kids—they are incredible at juggling, multi-tasking, goal-setting and rising to the occasion just in time. Still, I’m glad that this is a short work-week for all of us, punctuated with “Thanks”-giving.
When we return from the holiday, it will be a race to the finish. For the first time in a long time, the semester ends prior to Winter Break. I can appreciate the challenge of releasing breadth of content when the number of days doesn’t match the number of chapters in the textbook. We will have to collectively decide to go deep instead of wide, finding and firmly grasping the essentials while holding the content details with an open hand. To be honest, I am beginning to see a whole new value to the Iowa Core, and its role in helping time-crunched teachers decide “that which must not be forgotten”. If you ever find yourself feeling like you cannot possibly “cover it all”, take a moment to re-read the IA Core for your discipline. No kidding, you’ll honestly feel inspired!
We don’t cover it all….we cover the core—deeply, rigorously, meaningfully and with purpose.
We CAN do this…we are, after all, Spirit Lake!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Moments and Minutes

I’ve been thinking a lot about TIME lately. Is it linear or cyclical? Should we measure it in moments or in meaning? Why do we use time as a yardstick for learning or productivity? What is lost time, or is there any such thing? Can we bargain for more time or rationalize less time? Do student-days and schedules, semester exams and school calendars really matter as much as I think they do?

We began the school week on Monday with a historic football victory—the radio announcers had to reach back to 1917 to find a comparable year of football glory. I wonder if they’ll still be talking about the 2011 football season in 2111? We ended the school week by gathering on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year in the 21st Century—to celebrate heroes past and present on Veteran’s Day. I like numbers and symbols, so I was glad that our school didn’t let the day pass unnoticed. Together, we made the moment meaningful.

It’s true that 11/11/11 will happen only once in our lifetime. But, when you stop to think about it, every date happens only once in a lifetime! That is the very nature of time.
Linear. Progressive. Unvarying. Sequential.

As educators, we have come to associate the passage of time with learning. We award credit based on the Carnegie Unit—measured in minutes of time spent in a classroom, at a desk, learning under the direct supervision of a certified instructor. We like the Carnegie Unit. Every student is awarded one credit for 120 hours of class time. Simple. The Carnegie Unit implies that being in a teacher’s presence for a predetermined amount of time will cause 1.0 credit of learning to occur. Nice. Tidy. Standardized. Quantified.
As a further measure of learning, we superimpose a grading scale on top of the credit system, so that a GPA can be calculated. Once a credit is recorded, the GPA is determined and is irrevocable. No second chance—the 89.4% is forever a “B+”. Unlike the game of football, the game of “School” doesn’t offer a fresh start every season. You carry your win/loss record with you, year after year. Oh, and you play alone. No team. No cheerleaders. No band. Just you and the game we call “school”.

Lately, I have started to wonder if learning really can be measured in minutes and multiple-choice tests. Maybe that is why I am so excited about January LIVE. What if we try something so radically new in our school that learning happens outside of the classroom, and cannot be quantified by a GPA? What if we award credit based on competencies rather than Carnegies? What if the moments matter more than the minutes? What if every kid had a chance at a winning season, every time they took the field?

We’re going to “lose” a day’s worth of minutes from first semester on Monday, November 14th 2011…but we won’t lose the learning! We’ll learn about community pride and good sportsmanship. We’ll learn about hard work and working from the heart. We’ll understand leadership and character and team-building, and bonding. What we lose in minutes, we’ll make up for in moments.

11/14/11 will only happen once in our lifetime---Let’s Win The Day!!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

November 6, 2011
It’s November. It’s colder, darker, windier and stormier. We’re tired….and it’s a long while ‘til Thanksgiving.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about group dynamics, and the culture of SL high school. Many of us have been co-workers for more than a decade. Over the years, we have developed pretty firmly established patterns of group interaction. And yet, our community is dynamic. It grows and changes with the seasons in a way that is truly unique among institutions. If you research “stages of group development”, you’ll find that nearly every community experiences periods of cooperation and conflict, metamorphosis and growth. One of the most popular models of group development is Tuckman’s: “Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing.” I’m no sociologist, but I think we’re “storming”, right along with the November winds.
Maybe if we name the stage, we can more readily brace ourselves against the stormy winds and move beyond them. My husband likes to remind me, “There is no such thing as bad weather: just inadequate gear.” Consequently, we have a basement full of four-season tents, sleeping-bags (good to -30oF), headlamps (in case of unanticipated darkness?), helmets, snow-shoes, and cross country skis. We are ready.
I have to wonder, “How can we weather the “stormy” season of group development, which is so predictable and so normal, yet sometime so hard to endure?” Perhaps we just need the right gear. A little patience and a good measure of stoicism. A lot of laughter and a willingness to think the best of each other, defend each other and believe in each other, no matter what. And appreciation. A lot of appreciation for the good in each other.
Meanwhile, we can learn a lesson from our students—they are usually our best teachers. Cross-country runners understand endurance, pain, and running until every ounce of energy is spent. They also understand the importance of giving thanks. Last week, Coach Heinitz received this email:
“Tim- I wanted to first off congratulate you and your team with making it to the state cross country meet. I have worked the finish line for a number of years, and it isn't always the most fun or appreciated spot on the course. I was touched by the gratitude your athletes had as I escorted or pulled your athletes to a safe spot. Two members on your squad vocalized their appreciation by saying simple words of “Thanks", not always the easiest thing to do after pushing your body to these amazing limits. I don't hear those words often so I wanted to make sure your guys, and you as well, know what a class-act I thought they were. Thank you for teaching your guys character as well as a strong work ethic.”
It’s November. It’s colder, darker, windier and stormier—but Thanksgiving is coming, and for some, Thanksgiving is already here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Classroom, My Castle

Last Friday, I walked in “sacred spaces”. As I toured the Spirit Lake middle school classrooms, I entered without knocking, I walked through without speaking, and I left without a trace. I took notes on an iPad and recorded my observations on a Google Doc. But what moved me most, that which I cannot measure or tabulate, was the lingering impression that I had entered into sacred spaces, the places where teachers and learners meet, and lives are transformed.
I stepped into the silence of free reading, and wanted to open a book to stay for a while. I walked into the beautiful mess of a 6th grade science lesson, and was tempted to pull up a chair to soak in the magic. In a math classroom, I felt the angst of a Friday test, and I appreciated the quiet strength of the teacher who was determined to bring her kids through it. In every room, I read the posters on the walls, the assignments on the white board, the lessons on the screens. The classroom teacher builds a world for his students—a world of wonder and work, a world of motives and meaning. In a very real way, the classroom becomes a vessel for the chemical reaction between the teacher and the students ---and the unique product is as unpredictable and as volatile as the reagents themselves.
We live on a lonely planet. I think that most of us became teachers because we believe that education builds connections between people, strengthens communication and opens doors. How ironic, then, that we teachers usually work behind closed doors, in relative isolation. If my classroom is my castle, I confess, I sometimes build a pretty high wall around it. I taught chemistry for ten years in our district, and never invited a fellow teacher to visit my classroom to share a moment in my world. After my experience last Friday, I realize the tragedy of that.
There is great power in partnership. I felt so inspired, so encouraged, and so proud to be a part of our school district after spending time in the middle school classrooms. My new, deep hope is to find a way that every one of us could catch a glimpse of the amazing teaching and learning which is happening, just on the other side of the walls. And, the gift returns to us as we share our own classrooms with our colleagues. The pride of craftsmanship and the warmth of hospitality extended to each other become the cornerstones of a strong learning community.
On Monday, the High School and the Elementary School will experience the “walk through”. We will see students at the center of the learning experience: doing, making, building, collaborating, creating and, yes, learning. Beyond that, we will see a team of education professionals who pour their hearts into their jobs, like rain on dry ground. As we begin to see the diversity of the classroom experiences within our school building, we will gain an appreciation of the unique strengths that each teacher brings. There is no doubt that we are better together. Open doors, welcoming attitudes and unhindered transparency will make us stronger—we are, after all, people who love people.
If I recall, that’s why we are teachers in the first place.