Co-authoring Student Narratives Daily

Two books by Peter JohnstonChoice Words and Opening Minds, are the foundation of this reflection on the impact we have on children.

Every child walks into school each day with much of their story already written. The perceptions and comments of others have already begun to shape their self-image. As educators, we must engage, inspire, and empower children to continue writing this narrative, and in many cases, revising and editing it. The language and words we use with children change their lives. Over time, their experiences with the language of their parents, teachers, peers, and selves begin to become reality and define them.

How can we promote a positive narrative during the short time we have them in our care on a daily basis? We must provide a democratic, dialogic, and positive learning environment filled with opportunities to think, imagine, collaborate, and challenge one another respectfully. Such conditions welcome voice, choice, change, and growth. This environment removes the authoritarian presence and allows students to be co-creators of learning, which in turn breeds a positive and productive learning environment.

Remember, being positive does not always mean complimenting the learner but rather the learning! Most commonly used forms of praise are actually counterproductive. Praise is most productive when used in casual processes. Feedback like “Good job!” or “You are so smart!” implicitly suggest that a student is either good/bad or smart/dumb, and you become the judge. Prevent using stems such as “I like how you…” because this puts children in the position of being the pleaser while other children listen in and wonder why their work is not valued. Again, you become the judge. More productive language would be “I noticed that you…,” or “How did that make you feel?” The focus becomes less about the result and more about the effort and process. By doing so, we develop children with dynamic learning frames who view learning as an opportunity to grow rather than children with fixed-performance frames who believe intelligence is inherent and outcomes are predetermined.

It is critical to remember that you are a co-author in the personal narratives children write.

How do you use language to inspire, empower, and NOT judge your students?

~Jered Pennington

Nobody Rises to Low Expectations

The title for this post came from a quote I heard in a professional development workshop a few years ago in regard to raising the achievement expectations for all students, especially students with special needs or learning challenges.  The basic premise of the presentation was that artificial ceilings should not be accepted for specific students depending on their perceived “learning potential”.  Talk about a major paradigm shift!  To say the presentation made a lasting impact on me personally and professionally would be an understatement.  The following were some of the implications I gleaned from the presentation that day:

1 – Encourage your high-performing students to perform even higher!   Challenge them to go above and beyond the grade-level expectations and benchmarks.

2 – Do not presume that students with disabilities cannot perform as well as their non-disabled peers. As a school psychologist, I have seen students with disabilities surpass many peers and grade-level expectations with the appropriate interventions.

3 – Rely on data to drive instruction and intervention.  Hunches and “gut-feelings” can often lead to stereotypes and artificial ceilings.

4 – Everyone enjoys to be challenged! We are intrinsically motivated by meeting new and challenging goals.

5 – As we set the bar higher for our students, we also set the bar higher for ourselves as educators.

We know that merely raising the expectations isn’t enough to raise student performance; rather it takes a strong community of support from fellow educators along with progress monitoring and intervention tools to meet the specific needs of each student.  All of this underscores the importance of Professional Learning Communities, research-based interventions (academic and behavioral) within each tier of provision, and reliable and valid Curriculum-Based Assessments to frequently measure progress.

Raising the bar shouldn’t mean raising the time and energy requirements of educators if the appropriate tools and resources are being used efficiently.

We’re ready to set the bar high.  How about you?

~Jason Cochran

What is the purpose of your lesson? Did your students actually “get it”?

Why, exactly, are students spending time with you today?  What is it you want students to know, understand, and be be able to do as a result of this lesson and unit? Great teaching starts with a great reason to teach!

My favorite analogy to describe learning objectives (or lesson objectives, learning targets, learning goals, etc.) is to think about a GPS system.  Unless you are on summer break, it is not often that you get in your car and just start driving.  It’s even less often that you get in your car and the car decides to take you somewhere.  Instead, you take about 30 seconds and type in your destination.  Magically, the GPS system gives you turn by turn directions, and you can even look at the route in advance to know why the GPS system is taking you in a certain way.  Is there an accident on your typical route?  Perhaps a road is closed?  And what happens when you miss a turn or make a pit stop?  You receive specific and targeted feedback on how to stay on course.  Voila, you are at your destination!

How does this translate to the classroom?  Clear and specific (measurable even?) lesson objectives, teamed with effective checks for understanding and modifying instruction as needed, allow for students to know where they are going and when they have arrived.  Without a “road map” giving directions and feedback along the way, there is no ending.  Students will never know if they’ve gotten anywhere, let alone their destination. What’s just as important is the why.  Do students also know why they are spending time in school learning this?  Do they understand the significance and real-world application of the concepts being taught?

As simple as this sounds, the magic of these clear and specific lesson objectives comes from the teacher communicating them to the students.  Make it no secret – the students should know precisely what they are doing and why it is important.  Be explicit, and your students will take ownership of the learning themselves.

One simple and effective way of gauging how well students understand the purpose of the lesson is to ask them!  As an administrator, I made it routine at the end of each observation to ask a few students what they were doing and why.  I typically wrote the students’ answers in the feedback I sent teachers so they could read their students’ comments.  The student comments became an important part of my post-observation conversation with teachers.  If students are able to articulate the day’s learning, its impact, and its importance, there was clarity.  If students could not, it was time for me to ask more questions of the teacher to better understand why this might be.

Teachers can ask the exact same question at the end of a lesson, either as a quick exit slip, a short dialogue, or in some other way.

Are you allowing your students to know their final destination before even beginning the lesson, or are you having your students jump into the car without any idea of where they are going?

~Eric Bransteter

How Do You Measure Teacher Effectiveness?

As educators, we have a lot on our plates.  Somewhere among best practice, student relationships, responsive instruction, 21st century skills, and our own families/personal lives we need to find time to reflect.  What is going well for you and your teachers right now?  What is not?  How effective are your teachers?  And probably most importantly, how do you know?

There are a myriad of ways to measure teacher effectiveness.  Rubrics and walkthroughs are the most common ways, but some schools and districts have also included student assessments into the teacher evaluation mix.  Personally, I am a huge fan of the word ‘balance’.  Relying on any one tool to measure all aspects of teacher effectiveness is short-sighted and may result in faulty data or incorrect conclusions being drawn.  Instead, looking at several data points can increase the credibility and validity of data.  This is the concept of data triangulation.

When thinking about data triangulation, consider multiple data points collected in various methods (qualitative and quantitative) and sources, such as:

  • Rubrics: rubrics are powerful and communicate to teachers their performance based on a continuum of effectiveness.  Typically 3 – 5 different descriptions of teacher performance are described with specific teacher actions in each rating category.  Ratings could range from ineffective to highly effective, basic to distinguished, and other categories.  Observers can give very specific feedback to teachers when using rubrics.  Rubrics are typically used for longer observations and final teacher ratings (when applicable) but can also be used for formative feedback throughout the school year.
  • Walkthroughs: walkthroughs are typically meant to be used during shorter classroom visits.  Walkthroughs have the ability to collect big-picture data to determine trends among things like teachers, grade, subjects, buildings, and observers.  Walkthroughs usually have a specific list of possible selectable options in various categories, such as student engagement, types of questions, or instructional strategies being use by the teacher.  Walkthroughs are highly customizable and provide flexibility for organizations to collect data that matters most to them.
  • Short observations: short observations can be very simple in design and are typically used for narrative observations and feedback.  This narrative feedback communicates to teachers what was observed and the observers’ own reflections after the lesson.  Within the feedback could be questions, comments, commendations, and recommendations.
  • Student assessment data: Ultimately the goal of education is for students to do well when taking some form of an assessment.  The assessment could be a performance, creation, reflection, discussion, test/quiz, state assessment, portfolio, etc.  When the assessment itself is valued and reliable, the student data can be a very important part of the teacher effectiveness equation. On the other end, though, if the assessment itself is not valued (think state assessments…) or reliable, perhaps it’s better to consider other assessments for teacher evaluation data points.

There are a few other data points schools could consider when thinking about teacher effectiveness: parent input, student input, and peer input.  All must be carefully considered before deciding to include within your teacher evaluation program.

This leads me to a few questions: what’s best for you and your unique situation?  What information do you want to be able to measure and track?  How do you know that your teachers are performing well or not well in certain areas?  Each school/district/organization will have specific indicators of success based on the the unique community the organization serves.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all organizations.  Instead, consider what your collective goals are, what your vision of success means, and align your teacher evaluation program to your goals.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your teachers?