Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Don't Show My Own Children Their Report Cards!

I really don't! So yes, perhaps I am a bit crazy. But I must say, it has worked out better than I ever could have imagined. Yes, they have ways of finding out this information, but...

Grades have always been a key topic at the professional development presentations and workshops I give. But before getting into a detailed discussion of all the questions and frustrations that go along with grades, let me start here. This is the abridged version of the keynote address I gave at our school's National Honor Society induction ceremony two years ago. I was honored to be asked. I know it's long, but again, it's my way of sharing just how off-putting it is to report a grade.

"...I have two daughters, one is in fourth grade and one is a freshman in high school. At the end of first semester this year, my oldest daughter and I were driving home from school and she said, “Hey Mom. I think you need to call my school.”
I asked, “Really, why is that?”
She said, “Well, everyone has been talking about their report cards for a couple weeks now and we haven’t gotten mine yet. So I think we should call the school and ask for a new copy to be sent.”

I said, “Oh. Your report card? We got that a couple weeks ago.”
"What? We did? Did you look at it?” she asked.

“No. I haven’t opened it. I’m not even sure where it is. I think I recycled it.”
She gave me her disapproving “here-we-go-again” look and said, “Mom, you know you’re crazy right? I don’t even know how to explain you to my friends. I’ve gone all these years without looking at my report card. Can I please look at it this year?”

Before going any further, you should know that I haven’t shown my younger daughter her report card either. So I’d like to provide some self-defense, however off-the-wall it might be, for the torture I put my daughters through by not showing them this certain piece of paper.
When I was younger, my parents told me that it was important to find a balance in life between academics, athletics, a social life and a spiritual life. Every day at the dinner table we would have conversations that touched upon all four of these areas. “What did you learn today? How was basketball practice? Did you enjoy playing piano? How is your friend doing? What did you do today to make somebody feel better?”

So after getting married and having children, I decided to teach my children similarly—find a balance. When my daughters were about 2 or 3 years old, they really got into the whole talking thing. And everything out of their mouths was a question. "Mommy, what’s that? Where did she go? How do I tie my shoe? Why do I need to say that? Who was that person and why was she here?" Etc.
As I began to focus on these questions, I found that they all fell within the categories my parents had shared with me. My children were NATURALLY finding a balance. I thought, “Geesh! Parenting is gonna be easy! All I have to do is to continue to nurture what they’re already doing!”

And then a few years later, I went to my first parent-teacher conference as a PARENT. I had conducted a number of conferences from the teacher’s perspective. But this was the first time I was the parent. So I asked questions about my daughter. How is she behaving? Does she treat her peers well? Is she respectful to authority figures? What is she interested in? Does she ask a lot of questions? Is she too quiet? Too loud? And I found it interesting that the teacher kept bringing the conversation back to the grade sheet. This is completely understandable; it was her comfort zone. Being a new teacher myself, the grade printout was typically the focus of the conversations I would have with parents, as well. But now that the tables were turned, I realized how little I cared about those things and how little that piece of paper actually communicated about my daughter. And I realized at that moment that keeping that natural balance would be more challenging than I thought. The institution of school was going to tip the balance in one direction, academics. I now needed to provide the counterbalance to keep them well-rounded and grounded in the other three areas. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking that academics was necessarily more important than the other three. Nor did I want them growing up believing that their report card dictated their intelligence. So, I decided then and there that I would never show my children their report cards in an attempt to provide the counterbalance.

Perhaps you are now all in agreement with my daughters in that you think I’m a bit crazy. Please know that I do believe that doing well in school is very important; I’m a teacher, after all. And all of you have obviously done well in your classes here at GBN and are therefore being recognized for that this evening. Congratulations. You should be proud of yourselves...

(I then shared three points with the students that I thought were worth thinking about. I've left these descriptions out to narrow this post to the "grades" issue. If you're interested, I can always add the details later!)

...So how has my not showing my girls their report cards panned out? Magnificently well, thank you very much. They have learned to not use a grade as motivation for learning. Of course we have those normal conversations in my family about tests and projects once in a while. And of course there are more variables than just not showing them their report cards that have played a part in who they are as students. I have simply tried to help them keep the balance. For the most part, I like to think that our family focus is, “What did you learn today? How was practice? How is your friend doing? What did you do today to make your tiny segment of the globe a better place?”
I think my children know that learning and education are extremely important to me. I’ve dedicated my life to it, as has their father, who is also a teacher. But I also think they know it is not a means to an end. Formal education is one small fraction of ONE facet in their lives. As I purposefully try to tip the scale in a direction that illustrates four areas being equally important in life for my children, I’m challenged to do the same in my classroom. And it drives most of my students nuts! I’m sorry for that, but I know no other way. I wish you well and I congratulate you on all you’ve accomplished. I am excited for you as you grow through life’s adventures...

I was thrilled at the reception to the above story. Parents loved it. I wonder how many of them still reflect with appropriate measure on the assessments and report cards in their lives.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I have grappled with the idea of grades—the philosophy, the mechanics, the influence, the meaning of grades. Grading is an incredibly complex issue, one that I don't believe is given enough reflection by the education system, in fact by society in general. But that's understandable. I just wrote my longest blog ever and have not even begun to scratch the surface.

Suffice it to say, it's a complicated issue.
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Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our typical family dinner routine begins with asking our kids about their day. "What was the best part of your day? Most frustrating? What did you learn that you'd like to explore further?" And as enthusiastic as our sixteen-year-old is, our twelve-year-old has been equally moody lately. Yes, I know, it comes with the territory of having a tween in the house. But when the girl who used to find excitement and adventure in every part of her day, from math to recess to chores, is completely turned off by school, it's very upsetting. Being a mother and a teacher, it's excruciating.

She said something incredibly insightful the other day, something that made me think that perhaps there was more to her mood than just being a tween. She looked up from her homework, homework she had been working on for two hours, and said, "You know, Mom, I wish teachers thought that every day was the first day of school."

I paused, absorbed her statement and asked, "How so?"

She continued, "Classes were exciting. Teachers were so happy then. They seemed to really like us; they seemed to like their job. Now, not so much!" And she turned back to her books to complete her homework.

As a mother, my heart broke. As an educator, my head understood.

I gave her a hug and shared a strategy with her that I thought might help. (She is bringing a journal to school and writing down one thing she finds interesting, funny or confusing in each of her classes. We're going to explore together. We'll see what happens.)

You'd better believe my lesson plan for the next day met her approval!

The mid-winter teaching slump hits us all; education is a draining profession, physically, emotionally and intellectually. But it's easy to find the energy to keep going when you see first-hand how directly you influence the growth of your students.

After two decades, I am still impressed by how perceptive kids can be. They pick up on everything! And if we're paying attention, it can make all the difference.
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Thanks to the People on Twitter

I have been teaching for nineteen years now, and as one would expect, there have been many experiences responsible for who I am and why I do the things I do in my classroom. Certainly at the top of the list would be the gift of watching my own children grow. Equal in influence would be the constant source of inspiration, knowledge and encouragement I receive from my husband, Spiro Bolos. And I have been incredibly lucky to have collaborated with a gifted educator and scientist, my best friend, Dennis Smithenry, over the past fifteen years.

This morning, inspired by posts from Jen Wagner and Nadine Norris, I began thinking about what other experiences have really transformed my approach to the classroom, particularly within the past two years. My ultimate goals have not changed, but how I reach these goals has certainly been modified thanks to the people I follow on Twitter. (My goals? Simply put, it is to create a self-sufficient scientific community of learners using Whole Class Inquiry so that each person feels valued and is confident he has something worthwhile to contribute to the class. Yes, this is likely the focus of another blog.) It is very difficult to describe what tangible change the people on Twitter have allowed, but there's one thing that's certain. It's not the tool; it's how I use the tool. It's the people I've listened to through the use of the tool. Let me repeat. It's the people.

My parents taught me that in order to grow, and not simply exist, one must never stop questioning. Following certain people on Twitter, and then reading their blogs, has allowed me to continue to generate educationally sound questions. This, in turn, keeps me reflecting on my practice. And if I'm lucky, I get the chance to meet some of these people in person and share thoughts about what is best for students and why and how we do the things we do.

I've only met three of the people in this thank you video, other than my students, of course. But to all of you—including those of you I may have forgotten, forgive me—thanks for keeping me on my toes. I hope I have the chance to talk with you face to face some day. I'm quite certain we'd have much to discuss!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

PDing. Oh, How It Makes Me Smile!

“How do I make this happen?”
“That’s interesting, but I'm curious…”
“This is wonderful! I want to...spend time processing what we’ve talked about and reflect on my own practice.”
“Do you have trouble covering the standards?”
“These were great ideas. We should all be doing this! Show me how.”
“What kind of support do you get when you implement these ideas?”

There is NOTHING quite like being in a room with dedicated, passionate, hungry educators who are willing, in fact eager, to spend a day reflecting on their practice. They dig through their thoughts with fierce desire to make a positive change in their teaching. They find a way to a mental place that removes all barriers, allowing them to get back to improving their practice for the sake of teaching well, teaching fun, teaching students, teaching…period. And it’s an incredible experience to be a part of. This describes the day I had working with teachers from the San Mateo High School District this past weekend.

My friend, Dennis Smithenry, and I have had the privilege of sharing our Whole Class Inquiry strategy with a host of audiences over the past eight years. Basically, we have developed an approach that nurtures and creates a self-sufficient community of learners, where the whole class inquires through a range of challenges together.* This was the focus of our professional development day this past weekend. (My slides are attached here.)

It was a particularly rewarding weekend for me. We spent the day presenting to a group of teachers all from the same high school district. I think this made for a unique audience, unlike audiences at regional and national conferences where people in the crowd do not likely know one another. It was thrilling to see new information being absorbed, a myriad of questions being raised and smiles filling the crowd. And then slowly, the conversation level would rise as they turned to talk to their colleagues about how they could make "this" happen in their rooms! These teachers walked away with new ideas to kick around, and will feed off of their colleagues' similar excitement regarding the possibility for change because they started the journey together.

Another part of this day that was exhilarating for me was that the day was all about TEACHING. It wasn’t housed under a subcategory of education like, standards, technology, accountability, etc. It was all about the practice of teaching. Of course these ideas surfaced within the context of best practice and what we were introducing. But the overarching conversation kept the classroom as a whole in mind. We tried to help these teachers connect theory with practice, and more importantly, we talked about how to make this happen. We were focused on our students and what we could do to help our own classes. This day was about “our kids,” the familiar classroom where all the real-life drama and history and vision and learning occur. The place we call home-away-from-home because we spend more time there than anywhere else in our lives. The identity that is and always should be the focus of our reflection and growth. Teachers have a finite number of days to share, to inspire, to connect, to challenge. As an educator, whenever I have the opportunity to reconnect with those practices that best touch students’ lives, I feel rejuvenated. Speaking with these teachers was a very beneficial day for me. I am hopeful it was for them, as well!

*We are thrilled that our second book (cover shown above) will be released this spring, hopefully at the NSTA conference, and it will contain dvds to show how and why I’ve chosen to implement this strategy in my classrooms. It is also accompanied by the educational researcher’s analysis—done by Dr. Dennis Smithenry—of the study done that began this process in the first place. (Shameless plug, I know. But we are very proud of this book!)