Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why I Still Give Homework

I have written before about being anti-homework and I need to clarify this.  I don't grade homework.  I don't make it mandatory.  My students know all of this.  However, I believe that learning should continue throughout the day.  Therefore, I have my students use the following approach to homework:

1. It is not optional.  If you are too busy with extracurricular activities, I understand.  If your family requires you to babysit, that's fine as well. I'll give you some class time to keep a journal about your sports or your babysitting time and you can consider these activities a part of your homework. I might ask you to keep a log of what you are doing or a short journal where you write a few paragraphs as a reflection, but I will be respectful of your personal time.
2. It is not graded.  I'm not going to punish you or reward you for homework.
3. It is open: Homework is a chance for you to extend the learning from school into your life and from your life into the classroom. I would love to have you bring in your work and share it with the classroom community somehow.  I'd love to have it on our website and allow you to do in-class activities based upon what you worked on at home.
3. It is assessed: I will provide feedback on any homework you provide:  If you do a drawing and want some help with shading or perspective, I'll meet with you and help you.  If you do a video and want help editing it, I'm here as well.  If you are choosing to do community service for homework, I will give you a chance to do a reflection and I will leave a comment on it.  If it's writing you are choosing, I'll edit it.
4. It is not time-bound: I do not need you to do one assignment per week.  If you want to write a book over the course of a year or do a History Day project or Science Fair, these are all great options.  Run with them.  I support your decision to think long-term.  If you'd rather go short-term, that's fine as well.
5. Technology is optional: If you have access to a computer at home, I fully support a tech-integrated project. If you don't, that's okay as well.  You won't be punished or rewarded for what gadgets you own.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Learning Oriented Learners

The best kinds of learners concern themselves mostly with what they are learning and only occasionally stop to reflect on how well they are doing. Alfie Kohn writes about this at length in his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, and I wrote about it briefly here.

Research also supports this. I was reading Education Weeks' Inside School Research when I came across this:

"Learning, Performance and Improvement," in the latest issue of the London-based Institute of Education journal Research Matters finds students learn and behave differently if they—and their teachers—focus on improving their knowledge and competence rather than proving it. Yet simply talking about learning won't overcome a classroom atmosphere focused on meeting test benchmarks.
In a review of more than 100 studies from the U.S. and across the globe, Chris Watkins, Institute reader in education at the University of London, ties the current discussion over how to teach modern critical thinking and problem-solving skills back to the decades-old discussion of students' motivation in the classroom.
The research suggests two parallel motivations drive student achievement: "learning orientation," the drive to improve your knowledge and competency; and "performance orientation," the drive to prove that competency to others. Watkins found the highest-achieving students had a healthy dose of both types of motivation, but students who focused too heavily on performance ironically performed less well academically, thought less critically, and had a harder time overcoming failure.
Two guesses which orientation develops under a U.S.-style assessment accountability system, and the first doesn't count.
"When teachers are told to improve performance, they talk more, they judge more and they control more," Watkins said. Students of all grade spans proved highly attuned to their teacher's motivation in the classroom, even if she or he did not explicitly state a desire to improve test scores. One included study showed 10-year-olds mirrored their teacher's performance orientation even in unrelated tasks outside the classroom—and performed poorer on those tasks as a result.
In a learning oriented classrooms, students are less worried about looking smart and more about becoming smart. Ironically, to do this you have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes which can create a kind of vulnerability. The best classrooms embrace this vulnerability in a safe and caring community of learners who truly understand that proving how good you are over and over again is an inferior use of your time especially when you could be using your time getting better.

Friday, August 13, 2010

experiencing five models of professional development this week

My Experience
This is the first year of professional development that I haven't spent the time sketching pictures (okay, I drew a few pictures) and playing Buzzword Bingo.  I actually enjoyed the professional development  in different formats:

  1. Out-of-Town Consultant
  2. District Office Workshop
  3. Informal Small Group Meeting
  4. Having a Pint (not district-sponsored)
  5. Twitter / PLN (not district-sponsored)

What Worked Best:
I don't think there is a "best" in this case.  The consultants had some great information that they shared and some well-thought-out answers to the questions we asked.  I learned more about multi-syllable words and brain theory than I ever imagined I would.  However, what they had in knowledge they lacked in contextual knowledge.  Parts of their workshops were irrelevant.  The guy from district office was great and the conversations helped shape the shift from traditional to authentic assessment. He was less of an expert than the consultant had been, but he knew the context of our school since he had been the assistant principal a few years back.

On the other hand, our informal conversation this morning about balanced literacy had less expertise (the curriculum specialist is phenomenal, but also humble enough to admit that she doesn't have it all figured out) but a deeper understanding of the needs of our students.  Having a pint was a step closer in the relational, contextual and intimate level.  The conversation was deep and interactive, but there was less diversity of viewpoints. Meanwhile, the Twitter / PLN conversations were both intimate and involved expertise and the diversity of opinion was much higher, but the contextual knowledge of my school was almost non-existent.

I used to pretend that I had all the answers in professional development.  I ripped on workshops, but now I see the need for some short reminders and introductions to new information.  I used to think curriculum specialists were a waste of time, but now I see their role in spurring new conversations. I'm beginning to realize that professional development isn't chained to binary thinking.  There is no either/or solution.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Come Join the Abolish Grading Movement

I want to develop a page on my blog dedicated to exhibiting teachers who have abolished, are abolishing or want to abolish grading from their classroom.

Below is my story with abolishing grading and my contact information for others to get in touch with me. If you are interested in being a part of a group of teachers who want to share their abolish grading stories, please e-mail me your story.

Joe Bower
Middle School Grades 6-8
language arts, science, physical education
twitter: @joe_bower
Skype: bowerjj

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

Six years ago I stopped grading. The only grade that my students ever see from me is on their school board mandated report card. That's it.

Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?

Six years ago I became very angry and disenfranchised from the education system. I came close to quiting. I hated marking. I hated grading. I hated the judging. Rather than quitting, I began searching for a better way - I came across Alfie Kohn's The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement and it blew my mind. I quickly came to understand there is no good reason to grade.

What do you do in replace of grading?

Assessment can be simplified as the process of collecting information about student learning and then sharing that information (only sometimes would you ever need a hint of an evaluation). I use Jerome Bruner's Law to shape my collecting and sharing: "Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information." Bruner provides us both with what we shouldn't do (reward and punish) but he also provides a rich alternative (information). First and foremost, I utilize verbal, two-way conversations with students to provide feedback. Secondly, I use written comments that take shape three ways: I describe what I see the student doing, I provide suggestions (continue to... or consider doing...) and finally I ask reflective questions about their learning.

How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

Firstly, even if a grade is demanded of you for the report card, it makes very little sense to me that the only way to come up with a final average would be to take a list of other averages and average them together to get a final average. I'm no mathemagician, but that smells fishy to me.

1) My students collect the evidence of their learning in their paper and electronic portfolios. The paper one is nothing fancy - just a file folder while the electronic one takes the form of a discussion forum or a Ning that I created using or

2) I am a professional. I spend hours everyday with each of my students for 10 months of the year. I get to know them quite well, so my professional judgement and intuitive thinking count for a lot - and have proven to be quite accurate (there is a wealth of evidence to support that teachers assessment of their students may be the most accurate form of assessment we can depend on). There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears when observing and interacting with students while they are learning.

3) I ask the students to self-assess. It is amazing how close they come to picking the same grade that I would pick. Interestingly enough, when there is disagreement between me and them, they are usually too hard on themselves - and the odd time a kid over-inflates their grade, I either decide to let it go or I have a conversation with the student and make the adjustment.

Together, I use these three components to justify the grade that the student and I come up with.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

My fears are almost too many to count. I've feared being different from my colleagues. I've feared being challenged by a parent or administrator. These fears still nag at me despite my confidence and research - I routinely have to tell my amygdala to shut-the-hell-up.

Interestingly enough, my fears have never been about the kids.

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

The high achieving students have the hardest time with this initially, but after a detoxing period, I've yet to have a student not appreciate this moratorium on grading. I received very little comments from parents - either they trust me that much, or they care that little - I have a feeling it was a combination of the two. I reflect on this often. I was fortunate enough to have very supportive administration for almost my entire career.

I am both well researched and well experienced in the game of abolishing grading. I jump at the opportunity to discuss this with parents, colleagues, administrators, anyone. If you wish to abolish grading, you have to be well spoken on the topic. Research comes first - read anything and everything you can. Start with reading Alfie Kohn and then my experiences. And if this page is successful, I hope to share a plethora of educators who can lend you a hand.

Are you willing to speak with others who are interested in abolishing grading?

Absolutely! You can contact me by:

Twitter: @joe_bower
skype: bowerjj


If you are interested in being a part of a group of teachers who want to share their abolish grading stories, please e-mail me your story. You can follow my format above or personalize your story anyway you choose. Please consider providing contact information for others to get in touch with you. I'll then post your story with mine in a page that I hope will grow and grow and grow.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

a 20th century perspective

While attending the 20th Century Education Conference, we watch a series of speakers telling us exactly what is needed for students in the New Economy. It's about innovation. It's about creativity. It's about collaboration and connections.

"We need to prepare students for jobs that don't exist yet," each speaker would explain.

Preparing students for non-existent jobs? Sounds a bit like training students for jobs in Santa's Workshops.

At one point, the keynote speaker, Thomas Edison, offers his ideas on Innovation Factories. He mentions how they worked toward perfecting the light bulb and the phonograph and now motion pictures. "In this Industrial Age, it will be less about farms and factories and more about innovation and creativity. This is progress."

* * *

So, I'm sitting with Mr. Brown, having a pint and discussing the ideas from the conference. He's a bit skittish, knowing that parents from the Temperance Society might be lurking around the corner.

"If we define the goal of education by economic norms, we run the risk of becoming slaves to the economic interests of those at the top."

"Right. We become a plutocracy."

"Exactly. It starts to feel like bread and circus all over, where free education isn't all that free."

"I had that thought. As Edison began to advocate for more phonographs and motion pictures in the classroom, it struck me that he those devices have the ability to entertain and distract . . . "

". . . all the while making the Edison Company a fortune. It's anti-democratic, really. I know it sounds so important that we help students to get into the Innovative Class, but it starts to sound like they are advocating that we move our students into the Patrician Class who will think and create while the farms and the factories do the grunt work."

"Something about that bothered me."
"I don't want to create a factory of innovation. I want to create a community of critical thinking. I don't want to develop skills for non-existent jobs. I want to develop a deep, democratic classroom. I'm not so interested in bread and circus, but in students who challenge injustice and think well about life."

"I kept thinking about our children at school and then the children working in the factories. Kids die every day extracting resources to fuel the Innovative Class. I'm not sure I trust the Patricians with my students."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shiny Education Commercialism or Reform?

Have you noticed there are many slick salesmen in education bringing up education reform in every breath or tweet?

Educrats, college professors, county department of ed personnel, district office suits, even well meaning people on Twitter are all trying to sell you the snake oil that will guarantee student success and achievement in the 21rst century.

Many of these salesmen likely have students' best interest at heart; however brightly they shine, be cautious.

My friend Erik once sang in our college band, "I would rather read a stupid book, than sit down in front of a salesman."

Remember, despite one's best efforts to keep the kitchen sink clean, there will always be specks of toothpaste on the bathroom faucet.

No politician, pundit, principal, parent, teacher, or edutweeter is without blemish that dulls the brilliance of their well meaning shine.

It is a good thing to be critical and cautious when it comes to new pedagogical tools and theories in the classroom.

Many of these salesmen likely have students' best interest at heart; however brightly they shine, be cautious.

Living and teaching in nuance and being rigidly malleable in the classroom are where idealism meets reality in education.

Rethink your inherent trust of those speaking about anything related to education, regardless of their sheen.

You can follow me on Twitter @rushtheiceberg , or read my blog.

Friday, July 2, 2010

the schoolhouse wasn't all that bad

I'm Tom Johnson. I'm fictional and I live in the nineteenth century. Here's my blog. I love pencils, but I love learning even more.

The consultant (read "salesman") begins his pitch, "We went from one room school houses to a cluster of one room school houses. What we need is a professional place. We need teachers working together scientifically sharing their research."

Heads nod in agreement.


I flashback to my childhood. Our one-room school house was just that - a house, a second home of sorts. We sat together and learned together, with the older students mentoring the younger ones. Our teacher was not a professional. He was like a second father to me. Call it paternalistic. Call it parochial. Call it small and narrow-minded, but my mind expanded in that narrow context.

The school house was an extension of the community. It wasn't created to mimic a factory or an office or any other economic institution. It wasn't meant to "prepare students for the technological advances so desperately needed in an industrial age." It was a democratic community where we learned to think critically about all subjects.

Don't get me wrong, there were some dark sides to this. Though our teacher avoided the paddle, I know most teachers believed in corporal punishment. Though our environment was positive, I've heard of places where bullying was the norm. Though our desks were arranged in a circle, many school houses were arranged in rows.

Perhaps I'm being nostalgic, but I'm wondering if, before we adopt new models of 20th century learning, perhaps we need to look back and see what we've already lost:
  • a connection to the local community
  • a connection to the land
  • multi-age learning opportunities
  • mentoring and apprenticeships
  • school as a civic rather than economic institution
  • a connection to classical learning - slides an telegraphs are great, but so is Aristotle
  • the teacher as a leader rather than a cog in an educational factory
I'm not suggesting we bulldoze our schools and build schoolhouses. Progress has its place. But moving forward for the sake of moving forward is not innovation. It's novelty and I have a hunch that the novelty of factory learning will someday fade.