Sunday, March 23, 2014

Policy Changes Coming to N-K HS

At this month's board meeting, I'll be sharing some plans with the school
board about some changes we'll be making at the secondary building
with respect to our grading policies and practices, and about providing a
significant intervention resource for students.

First, the adjustments we plan on making to our grading policies and
practices. At a recent student council meeting, the council members
endorsed the change in our grading scale this year, saying they thought it
had worked well. We had raised the bar for what it takes to earn an A, a
B, a C, etcetera and their opinion was that students rose to meet this

I'll be proposing a policy change in our handbook that increases the
emphasis on the learning that occurs when a student does an assignment,
and focuses less on the common practice of having only one chance to
demonstrate learning. In this new policy, students can work with their
teachers to re-do assignments or re-take tests if they want to earn a better

Second, if a teacher assigns work for students to complete for class, they
assign it because it's important. If it's important, then every student must
complete it. But not every student completes every assignment,
correct? So, which approach better supports student achievement: A)
giving the student a zero and moving on, or B) requiring the student to
complete that assignment right away?

The correct answer is B, of course. To make sure this happens, we are
building a two-part system into our day next year. Part One is to provide
an additional period during the day in which all teachers are available to
help students who need it, and to supervise this time so that all students
have at least 25 minutes to do school work. Part Two is to create a
system that alerts teachers to students who have not completed their work
and require those students to be in a structured study hall where their
only task is to finish what's been assigned to them.

What will this look like in real life? Well, if I'm a student with decent
grades and my work is all turned in, then I spend those 25 minutes with
my classmates in the lunchroom or the library, for example. We might
be doing homework in small groups, visiting with one another, or
catching up on e-mails.

If I'm a student with D's and F's or my work is not turned in, then I'm in a
very small, structured study hall where my only job is to complete the
work I don't have finished.

This resource time is becoming a more common element in schools
across the state, and across the nation, as some students become busier in
their after school activities and need more time to keep up with their
studies, while other students fall further and further behind due to factors
such as uninvolved parents and a lack of motivation.

Please let me know your thoughts on these ideas. I would love to hear them
and talk through our students' learning together.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Coke Guy Test

There is a test that I know all schools endure, day in and day out.  A test that all conscientious principals not only want to pass, but ace.  I call it the Coke Guy Test.

I used to call it the Pepsi Guy Test, but then we switched soft drink providers.  Here's how the test works: 
  1. The Coke Guy shows up to stock the pop machines, check the money boxes, and leave a supply of pop for the Booster Club's concession stand. 
  2. He does this at lunch time, when the lunch room is filled with talkative, active, at-their-most-relaxed-and-natural-state teenagers.
  3. This means he inevitably has to move through small pockets of students with his cart, has to leave the money bag lying on the floor while he fumbles with his large key ring, has to find a way to keep the main door propped open while he trucks in dozens of pop bottles.
The test is this:  What does the Coke Guy say about your students when he leaves the invoice in the office on his way out?

Will he drop off the invoice, mutter a brief "thanks" and scuttle out the door, as if he's trying to get out before anything worse happens?  Or, will he take a minute to let the secretary know how friendly the kids were, and how they visited with him while he was in the lunch room and offered to hold the door for him? 

I thought about this test recently, sitting with a team of teachers who were helping interview candidates for a teaching vacancy at our school.  Toward the end of the interview, one candidate began asking questions of the teachers, questions like, "What do you want students to have learned when they graduate?" and, "What do you enjoy most about working at N-K?"

This was it:  a variation on the Coke Guy Test.  What would my teachers say to this person about our school?  Would they be honest, while I was in the same room with them?  Should I leave so they could fully disclose their true feelings? 

When someone from the outside world experiences what life is like in our school, it gives principals a chance to see--through a fresh set of eyes--how things are going.  Are our kids as friendly as I think they are?  Are our staff as helpful and cooperative as they seem to me?  Does our school shine with as much optimism and achievement as I think it does? 

And then it came.  The teachers answered, truthfully.  "We're blessed with good kids.  The parents in the community, and the community as a whole, support our school.  They want to help.  Most of our staff have been here a long time--they raise their families here.  We support and look out for one another, and want what's best for our students.  We are encouraged to try new things, to take risks if it helps learning."

It was affirming when I heard what they had to say.  No day is perfect, but most of them come pretty close, if one maintains the right attitude.  Cooperatively, daily, we are working together to get the highest grade possible on The Test, because doing so means that we are successfully maintaining an environment in which good character and right treatment of one another is the norm.

So when I heard what these teachers had to say, I smiled.  Isn't that what everyone does when they look at the test they just got back and see an "A" at the top?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It Only Makes Sense--Re-dos and Re-takes

“What do you mean, you can’t cross the white line of a crosswalk at a stop sign?!”

I couldn’t believe it.  I’d waited for years (it seemed), taken boring driver’s ed classes, crashed my way through the driving simulation videos, and finally the day of the test to earn my driver’s license had arrived.

I paid my dues.  I did my time.  And then, sadly, during the driving portion of my test for my license I crossed the white crosswalk line as I pulled up to a stop at an intersection.  That cost me three more points from my score, which dropped me below the “passing” mark by one point.

No license for me.

Yet, those of you who know me have seen me drive that ugly brown pickup of mine around town--how can this be?  I failed my driver’s test!  Why am I driving today?

Because every day, in the real world, we have the opportunity to take tests over again until we get it right.  I went back two weeks later, passed the test the second time around, and now have my driver’s license.

A similar scenario could play out in the classroom:  the chapter test is on Friday.  I take the test, and when I get back to school on Monday I learn that I failed the test.  I got an F.  Traditionally, that is the grade that would be recorded in my teacher’s grade book.

But, what if I told the teacher that I’d like a second crack at that test, and that this time I would prepare for it differently?  If you were that teacher, what would you say?

Thankfully, modern educational thought supports my request to take the test again (a different version, of course), for a number of reasons:

  • I want to improve my results, which means I’ll need to do an even better job of learning the material.  That’s a good thing, right?
  • It will take hard work on my part, since I’ll be preparing for the test again AND keeping up on the work that’s already occurring.  Working hard is good, too, isn’t it?
  • I’m focused on what’s most important:  learning and improvement.  That’s much better than having to live with an F and trying to raise my grade with subsequent assignments.

Just like when I re-took my driving test to eventually earn my license, more and more teachers are providing the opportunity for re-dos and re-takes for their students.  It only makes sense.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Importance of Feedback

How often have you heard someone claim that student achievement is lower than it used to be because of increased poverty, or because of substance abuse among teens, or because of more students coming from single parent households, or because of a number of other reasons?

These circumstances do have an impact on student achievement, there is no doubt about it.  However, we have all also heard stories of students, classes, and schools who have apparently conquered obstacles like these and gone on to accomplish great things.  It is possible to transcend negative circumstances to attain the goals we've set for ourselves, and that others have set for us.

For the last year or so, I've been studying the topic of grading as it relates to student achievement.  I've been seeking answers to questions like, What are the most effective methods of measuring and communicating student achievement, and what are the least effective (or even toxic) methods?  What is the proper use of a letter grade or a percent on an assignment, and what does it really mean to the student, or to the college looking at their transcript?  Should homework be graded?  Why do we mark down on an English project, for example, when it's turned in late--after all, turning it in late is not an indicator of how well the student understands Shakespeare, but rather how irresponsible the student was.  

There are two experts in the field of educational assessment from whom I've learned much already:  Rick Wormeli and Doug Reeves.  This school year some teachers and I will be studying the work of these two men, among others, to evaluate our grading practices and look for ways to improve them to most effectively support student achievement.
For example, in one of his books Doug Reeves states, "...accurate, specific, and timely feedback is linked to student learning. is not only more important than most other instructional interventions, it is also more important than socioeconomic status, drug use, nutrition, exercise, anxiety, family structure, and a host of other factors that many people have claimed are overwhelming."  The use of feedback--which is much more than just putting a letter grade or a number at the top of the paper--is one method of evaluating student work that can overcome the negative effects of all those barriers I named at the start of this article.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"...The Most Effective Bullying Interventions..."

The painful effects of bullying lead many educators to focus on justice and safety for students who are targeted and to feel contempt for those responsible for the pain—an approach that often results in harsh disciplinary measures, such as suspensions and expulsions from school. These zero-tolerance measures may appear responsive, but Juvonen and most experts who study school discipline warn against policies that make school a threatening, uncertain place. Juvonen notes that in addition to not addressing the root causes of bullying, such harsh tactics fuel the perception that youth have no choice but to fight for themselves. The most effective bullying interventions don’t focus on only one category of kids, but rather acknowledge that all students benefit when schools empower youth and teach them about healthy relationships.

by Adrienne Van Der Valk

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I've Finally Reached That Age When...

I can't believe it's here:  the end of my 19th year in education.  Well, the end of my 37th year in education, if you count the years I spent as a student.

I remember when I was a young yearbook adviser, and we marked glossy photographs with red wax pencils to crop the photo we needed for whatever page we were building.  Using rulers, ballpoint pens, and 3R graphing paper, we manually built the yearbook from scratch.  Today, as I covered a class for an ill teacher, I watched a couple of yearbook staffers squeeze in page development between projects in the classroom:  there was the page layout, on the student's laptop, and she was plugging in digital photos as quickly as you could say "cheese."  Manipulating font and point size, dropping in various backgrounds, until she finally felt the page was ready for her adviser to review:  it took her about 20 minutes. 


I think back even further, when I was a high school student.  Like many schools in rural America, mine had a small lab made up of a few Apple IIe's.  I was lucky enough to be taking an independent study programming class--I remember I built a rudimentary program that kind of mimicked the lawnmower game that many of us remember from those days.  Basically, the computer operator had a "lawn" to mow, and moved the growing green stripe around that virtual lawn until it was all cut.  Their score was based on how little overlap occurred while mowing.

Kind of lame, really, when I stand behind our VREP (Virtual Reality Education Pathways) students and watch them build and manipulate three dimensional models much like those we see in modern video games and in films like 'Avatar.'

In ten years, as retirement starts to become visible on the distant horizon, I wonder what will seem crude and primitive to me, then?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Depth trumps breadth every time

Don’t let the rush, rush, rush of April and May cause you to lose sight of this truth.  If we cover our material faster than usual in order to get as much in as possible before summer (a common practice among educators), do you suppose our students will learn it as well, better, or worse than they were learning back in October when we weren’t feeling this end-of-the-year pressure?  Trust me, they will learn better by digging deeply into a few key concepts than they will by skimming and forgetting.  Make the correct decision when lesson planning.