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A Trip to the Principal’s Office: Turning Negative Experiences into Positive Outcomes

A couple of weeks ago the principal unexpectedly called me into her office. As I sat down at her desk, she pushed a data sheet towards me and said in an accusatory tone, “Can you explain this to me?”

Well, crap.

I felt my face grow hot as I looked down at the sheet, praying it wasn’t bright red. I had never seen this data report before in my life, so I nervously said, “Um, I don’t know what I’m looking at. Can you explain this to me?” As it turns out, it was a simple report that gave a side-by-side comparison of the amount of seventh grade students with scores in each proficiency level on our first and second benchmark assessments. Apparently, we had more kids score in the beginning steps and nearing proficiency levels on the second test than we had on the first test, which is, as I like to say, bad-new-bears.

My principal wanted to know why the students weren’t showing growth. Well, that’s valid. I was asking myself the same question.

Now, I won’t go into detail describing my explanation to the principal. That’s boring and unimportant, particularly because I just pulled something out of my ass in an attempt to defend the scores.

The reason I’m writing about this interaction is because I believe it epitomizes exactly the wrong attitude about how to address and analyze data from standardized tests. As I drove home after the meeting, I came to several conclusions, which I’ve listed below:

Conclusion #1

My administrator had some valid concerns, but the way she aired those concerns was confrontational and immediately put me on the defensive, which was not at all productive. What she should have said was this:

“Harriet, I was looking at the department’s most recent data reports for the benchmark assessment, and I have some concerns. Here’s the report. Take some time to dive into the data, talk to the teachers in your department, and let’s schedule a meeting to discuss it in a few days.”

Conclusion #2

We’ve adopted a completely new benchmark assessment this year, so we don’t know what to expect in terms of student achievement trends. To put a teacher on the spot like that is unfair and unprofessional. Furthermore, this is just one way of looking at the data from the two assessments. There are dozens of different types of reports on this data. To make assumptions based on one report is equal parts ignorance and laziness.

Conclusion #3

I’m tired. My instruction has suffered because I have too much on my plate. I just want to eliminate the other responsibilities and focus on my teaching.

So, why am I writing about this? What’s the big deal?

I need to focus on my teaching.

I spent two days this past week at a Common Core Mentor Training put on by Solution Tree.  I was sent to this training as the language arts department head, but instead of looking for things to bring back to my department, I mostly focused on how the training could inform my teaching. Luckily, I came across two awesome-possum strategies that I plan on using in my classroom as a way to spice up my instructional repertoire.

Strategy #1: Sock Toss

The workshop facilitator used this strategy as both an ice-breaker and as a demonstration on the importance of collaboration and creative problem solving.

Setup: Before you start, you will three clean socks for each group. The goofier the socks, the better.

Step 1: Project a word or short writing prompt on the board to get the students thinking about the target concept. The students will write a response in their notebooks, or discuss the word or prompt with an elbow partner. Our facilitator projected the word “Efficacy” on the board and had us discuss what that word means to us as educational leaders.

Step 2: Regroup students into circles of 8-10 (if being used as a way to learn each other’s names, do this as a whole class). Give only one student in each group a clean, balled up sock.

Step 3: Have the students introduce themselves. They will then create a “toss pattern” by saying the name of a person across the table and tossing the sock to them. They may only toss the sock to a person who has not already received it. While each group creates their toss pattern, the teacher should be loudly counting off the seconds. Once the sock is tossed back to the original person, the group will write down how long in seconds it took them to complete the pattern.

Step 4: Have the groups do it again, using the same pattern, but this time they will repeat the pattern twice. Once again, they will record their time in seconds when they complete the pattern.

Step 5: Tell the students to do it again (twice again), but this time they will try to beat their previous time.

Step 6: Give the students another sock. Tell them they are to repeat the pattern again, but they are still expected to beat their previous score.

Step 7: Continue with this process until the students start thinking outside the box and breaking the rules. At some point, give the students a third sock.

Step 8: Finally, have the students reflect on the process within their group. The focus of the discussion should be about how the groups adapted, what they learned, and what the experience suggests about collaboration. Finally, discuss how it might relate to learning.

When participating in this exercise during the workshop, my group decided to “bend” the rules first by reorganizing ourselves in the circle, so that the person I first tossed the sock to was standing right next to me. That way, we just had to pass the sock around the circle instead of tossing it around the circle. When a third sock was introduced, we tightened our circle so that we were standing shoulder to shoulder, and (after the facilitator said that every person needed to “touch” the socks) stuffed all of the socks in a cup so that they were all sticking out top. I held the cup in the center of the circle, and then each person just had to briefly tap their hand on top of the cup (thus quickly touching all three socks).

During the reflective discussion at the end of the activity, our group emphasized the point that efficacy is best obtained through collaboration and creative risk-taking.

This lesson could easily be adapted to target learning standards centered around cause and effect, or perhaps as a timeline or sequencing activity. For example: I might use it in my classroom as a review for plot structure by separating the students into groups of six, and then giving one student from each group a necklace sign (a piece of paper attached to a string so that a student can wear it around his neck). Each sign would have one of the terms from the plot structure diagram on it, and the students would then have to toss the sock to each other in the correct plot structure diagram order.

Strategy #2: World Café Conversations

Our facilitator used this activity to encourage discussion about Common Core instruction and assessment. What makes it effective is that for every discussion “round,” the students have to rearrange themselves into different groups at different tables. The image below is a visual representation of the World Café Conversations process. I’ve explained the process below as well.

Setup: Before you start, you will need to have the desks arranged into several groups of four. Eight groups of four would be ideal for a class of 32 students, because it’ll give the students plenty of opportunities to interact with new people during each round. Each group should have a sheet of large, sticky chart paper and plenty of colorful markers.

Step 1: Project the following image onto the board. Explain to the students that they can do any or all of the things in the image while participating in the discussion, but they should pick one specific thing to focus on during the discussion. I decided to focus on the play, draw, doodle option. Who doesn’t love doodling?

Step 2: Project the discussion questions for Round 1 onto the board. Give the students 10-15 minutes (or a different time limit appropriate to topic and grade level) to discuss the questions. Throughout the discussion, the students should be jotting down or doodling their key ideas, words, or phrases onto the chart paper.

Our facilitator used the questions below for round one of our discussion.

Round 1: Connect ideas and images with words and lines

  1. How does instruction and assessment change with our Common Core implementation?
  2. Describe what’s happening in the classroom with deep implementation.
  3. How would you describe the current state of your instruction and assessment work?

Step 3: When the time is up, tell the students to move to a different table with different people for the second round. They will leave their chart paper and markers at the table. Encourage students to avoid staying with the same group from the first table. The point is to interact with as many different people as possible.

Step 4: Project the questions for the second round onto the board. The students will discuss the new questions, and they will continue to write or doodle their ideas onto the chart paper. Repeat this process at least four times.

Step 5: Have the students return to their original group. Then, project the directions for Round 5 onto the board:

Round 5 is for Reflection

  1. Review the notes and drawings on your table.
  2. As a group, write two sentences to sum it up.
  3. What insights might inform your next steps?

Step 6: Once the students have finished writing their two sentences onto the chart paper (you may need to give them sticky notes if there is no more room to write on the chart paper), one representative from the group will bring their paper up to the front of the room to share their two sentences with the class.

harvestsusanKelly

Image From: goo.gl/6OApyk

I plan on using this lesson to facilitate discussion about a short story or novel we read in class. For example, one round could be on how the author uses characterization, another round could be on how the author uses theme, another round could be on the author’s use of language, and a fourth round might require the students to analyze significant quotes.

*Edit 3/2/14: At the end of the activity, have the students reflect on what they learned as a blog post. Not only will this document their learning and exercise metacognitive skills, but it will also give absent students a chance to catch up on what they missed by reading their peers’ blog posts. For more ideas on how to blog with students, check out this awesome post.

Turning Negative Experiences into Positive Outcomes

This post started with a negative experience in my principal’s office, but I’ve realized that sometimes negative experiences are necessary. Over the past few months, I’ve felt drained and disillusioned. I’ve been spending so much of my time and energy thinking about the big goals for the school, that I lost focus of why I decided to become a teacher in the first place.

Being called into the principal’s office to speak on behalf of the department served as a wake-up call. While I am not solely responsible for those scores, I am responsible for the department. How can I expect the department to amp up their instructional practices if I do not do it myself?

Since that interaction with my principal, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the professional development opportunities provided by our district. It’s true that our district offers many more seminars and workshops than other, larger districts in the state; but the focus of these workshops is on creating effective assessments and on analyzing data from those assessments. That’s fine and dandy, but teachers need to know what to do when the data demands that we reteach a standard. This brings me to…

…Conclusion #4

Data-driven instruction cannot be effective without strong instruction, and strong instruction cannot exist without opportunities for teachers to discover and adopt new strategies.

The purpose of the Common Core Mentor Training workshop wasn’t to help teachers discover new instructional strategies; it was to help teachers develop rigorous assessments aligned to the PARCC assessment.

My small act of defiance against the constant state of assessment in education was this: ignore the intended purpose of the workshop, and focus instead on ways to improve the instruction taking place in my classroom prior to the assessment.

I’m such a rebel.

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