Thursday, November 3, 2016

Smarter Balanced and the New Normal

True story:  when I was a kid, I liked taking the Iowa Tests.  I looked forward to them, loved everything about them: the bubble answer sheets, the #2 pencils, the vocabulary section--all of it.  I was a weird, weird kid.
Not much has changed now that I am an adult.  Still weird, still like tests.  And I wanted to devote some time this month giving you advance notice that the Iowa Tests (love them or hate them) are going away.  As a matter of fact, this is probably the last year our students will take them.
Instead, a new test is required called Smarter Balanced.  The designers of this assessment say that it will provide better information for teachers and parents, because teachers can check students’ progress throughout the year, and end-of-year tests measure what students know and how much they’ve improved.
They also say that, using computer adaptive technology, the tests are customized to every student. When a student answers correctly, the next question will be harder, and a wrong answer will lead to an easier question. This format lets students show what they know.
So far it sounds just like the MAP tests we administer two to three times a year, right?  But while it's close, it's not quite a MAP test, and while the end-of-year tests sound like Iowa Tests, it's not quite that either.
And that's because of the third component:  Students take the test online and must research, write, and solve problems. These questions measure the critical thinking skills students need for college and careers. 
Here is where these tests become very different from MAP or Iowa Tests.  The Smarter Balanced assessments will take longer than students are used to, because they demand higher levels of thinking.  Scheduling them will be different, because they take time to complete.  As with many changes, there will be some discomfort.  Eventually, the weird kids like me who enjoyed testing themselves against an assessment to see how well they can do will grow to look forward to these new Smarter Balanced challenges, as well.  And this will become the new normal.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


"I dunno."

"OK, I guess."

Quiz question: Can you guess the question that preceded each of these answers?

Hint: a parent asked the question of their child.

Give up? If you guessed it was a parent asking either, "What did you do at school today?" or "How did school go today?" then you are 100% correct! I have two kids of my own, and I've certainly been met with the same response.

It's a scene played out in homes all across America, probably all around the world. That's because kids are people, too, and they get tired after a long day just like we do. But you are an important adult in the life of a child, dear reader. And everyone appreciates someone taking a genuine interest in their lives, especially our kids.

So don't quit trying to engage in conversation with that young person because their answer is weak at first. Ask better questions!

Specificity and persistence are the keys. Toss a class name or teacher name in there, like "What did Mr. Capitani ask you to do in American History today?" or "My friend Dan says that the anatomy class is dissecting that what you're doing right now?" Follow that up with, "...That sounds kind of fun. Did you enjoy it? What did your friends think of that?" Dead end? Met with a shrug and a return to scrolling through their cell phone? Come back around later, the next day even. But don't give up. Be curious about their experiences at school, in class, at practice, during rehearsal. Follow up is important, because asking one question and then going back to watching Wheel of Fortune clearly shows you're not trying hard enough, either.

As a parent you will get out of the relationship what you put in to the relationship. Maintaining and cultivating a curiosity about your child's life--whether it's about school or elsewhere--will provide fertile ground for that relationship to flourish.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Graduation time

As I write this, my seniors have eleven days of classes left. How do they spend their time for those eleven days? Perhaps this will surprise some of you, but by and large they spend those last eleven days much like they spent the preceding 167 days—doing homework, trying to get good grades, competing in musical and athletic competitions, and generally enjoying each other’s company before they begin to drift apart following their graduation. There’s much to accomplish before then: mandatory CPR for everyone, dealing with scholarship applications and student housing notifications, helping parents with cleaning out the garage before their graduation reception, and wrapping up the big senior project for English 12. Despite the sometimes popular opinion to the contrary, the seniors don't coast or check out for the end of their high school careers. And our teachers wouldn't let them! Standards remain high right on through the end of the school year; and with what I'm seeing for post-high school plans from this group of seniors, college will continue to challenge them academically. And although I hear the word “stressed” uttered from the mouths of seniors more often now than usual, I quietly smile because I know that what they're experiencing doesn't hold a candle to the stresses and pressures they'll face as adults. But that's the way of things: perspectives change with experience, and we seek new experiences based on changing perspectives. The more we learn, the more we can handle. Next fall, the cycle comes around again...a fresh faced wobbly group of little pre-schoolers will let go of their teary-eyed parent's hands and walk into their new classrooms for the first time, and last year's juniors will step into the high school and seek out the seats in the lunchroom that seniors traditionally occupy. Happens every year. So when my seniors ask me if I'll miss them, the answer is 'yes' of course, but I'm not sad. Graduation is the day we've been preparing for all these years, after all.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"A Job Well Begun Is Half Done"

KIMT recently did a news piece dealing with the expensive cost of post secondary education. They interviewed our counselor Ms. Renwick and two of our students: Jenna Schaefer and Josh Einertson. So often, news pieces on this topic focus on the high cost of college, the cost of student loans, and how a student can pay for it all. What too many people overlook is the most important cost factor of all when thinking about postsecondary education: how much training does a person actually need? Choosing your post secondary training is like choosing a car, or a house. It’s a product that you purchase, right? And like buying a car or a house, you need to make that purchase decision wisely, and make sure it suits your needs. We work hard at N-K to help students and their families focus on that most important question: how much training does your student actually need? What if they could use their WCDA grant to ‘purchase’ a year of training at NIACC and earn a certificate as a welder, and start a job at the age of 19 making $30,000 a year, with no student loan debt? What if they could live at home, work part time, and spend two years at Riverland earning a nursing degree and enter the workforce at the age of 20? What if attending one of the regents universities provided the same training and employment outlook as a private college, at a fraction of the price? By starting the conversation about skills and interests early, continuing those conversations regularly over the years a child is in school, and engaging them in opportunities like field trips to NIACC, bringing in college reps, small group lessons with our staff about life after high school, and requiring them to learn financial literacy skills, we believe our students graduate with a sound preparation for their future. A team approach to making these big decisions works best, which is why we bring parents in for special events like financial aid nights, help completing their FAFSA, and send home newsletter articles and information that can help. The best way to keep the cost of an education manageable after high school? Part-time jobs, avoiding debt, and earning scholarships all help, but the most important factor of all is knowing how much training you really need, and matching that with a cost that works for you.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"I Can't Take You Kids Anywhere!"

I guess I looked pretty young when I started teaching here back in 1994, so it came as no surprise that my students would often tease me good-naturedly about looking like them and blending in with the crowd. In particular, I remember bringing my speech team to contest one wintry Saturday and stopping at McDonald's on the way home for a bite to eat. Back in those days, if you brought a team in to eat the coaches received a complimentary meal. So I'm at the counter asking for my free meal, when Jake Hanson (who is now our county treasurer but at that time was a high school kid on my speech team) said loudly enough for the counter worker to hear, "Are you trying that speech coach thing just to get a free meal again, Keith?! " Of course I was embarrassed, but also greatly amused, and the team enjoyed a good laugh over it. It also serves as an early example of the topic of my message to you this month, and that is what good representatives our students are of this district's and this community's values. You may not know this, but it is not uncommon for our activities director, our superintendent, or me to receive an email or phone call from somebody commenting on our students' behavior following a game or some other event where our students have been out in the public eye . Contrary to the negative news about teenagers that we often see on television and online, our students receive compliments from these folks. Examples include a call we received this fall from a restaurant manager in Mason City telling us how polite and well-mannered our entire football team was when they ate there for team supper. And an email we received from the activities director of a school district at which we played football complimenting our athletes and our student spectators on how classy they conducted themselves. Or the parent who caught one of our board members at a volleyball game to what good sportsmanship they saw from our students in the stands and on the court. The sometimes overt and sometimes subtle ways we try to model good character here at school, and more importantly the way that the parents in the N-K district raise their children at home produce good results. Rather than thinking that, "I can't take these kids anywhere" I would be proud to take them everywhere.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How About the Common Core?

Driving home from a trip to Mason City the other day, on the radio I heard a commentator lamenting the move by the designers of the SAT to better align it to the Common Core. He decried this "dumbing down" of the SAT test and urged his listeners to contact their legislators to help renounce this move. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that in nearly all areas of my life I am a conservative person. But as I listened to this commentator I could only shake my head in disbelief. Too many people appear to be latching onto bits and pieces of news reports showing examples of poorly designed test questions and ridiculous classroom activities and linking them to the Common Core, which (in their minds) somehow proves that this set of guidelines is dragging our schools into a downward spiral from which we may never recover. That's just not true. The Core is not a mandated curriculum, it is not a pre-packaged set of textbooks and worksheets, and it certainly does not reduce the rigorous expectations we hold for our students. As a matter of fact, N-K's achievement data not only remains as high as it was before The Core existed, but in mathematics (the subject which receives the most criticism from those who disagree with The Core) our achievement has steadily increased year after year. ​The Iowa State Department of Education maintains a website for parents containing information about the Iowa Core, which is a blend of the Common Core standards and our own state standards. On that website, parents, you can see the expectations the state holds for each grade level. If you take a look at these expectations, I think you'll find they're really a "sheep in wolf's clothing" when it comes to the manner in which the standards are sometimes portrayed in the media. Find out for yourself, and then let's have a conversation one-on-one if you're curious to learn more about our standards for educational excellence at the level that matters most to our students: those occurring right here at N-K. ​

Monday, November 16, 2015

Family Conferences: Some Tips for Parents

​As a parent, you are your child's first and most important teacher. We have something in common: we both want your child to learn and do well. When we talk with one another, we can share important information about your child's talents and needs. Family conferences are a great way to start talking to your child's teachers. What should you expect? A two way conservation. Like all good conversations, parent-teacher conferences are best when both people talk and listen. Ask to see information about your child's attendance, grades, and test scores. Find out whether your child is meeting school expectations and academic standards Emphasis on learning. Good family conferences focus on how well the child is doing in school. They also talk about how the child can do even better. Be sure to bring a list of questions that you would like to ask the teacher Opportunities and challenges. Just like you, teachers want your child to succeed. You will probably hear positive feedback about your child's progress and areas for improvement. Be prepared by thinking about your child's strengths and challenges beforehand. Be ready to ask questions about ways you and the teacher can help your child with some of his/her challenges. ​Progress. Find out how your child is doing by asking questions like: Is my child performing at grade level? How is he or she doing compared to the rest of the class? What do you see as his or her strengths? How could he or she improve? Assignments and assessments. Ask to see examples of your child’s work. Ask how the teacher gives grades. Support learning at home. Ask what you can do at home to help your child learn. Ask if the teacher knows of other programs or services in the community that could also help your child. Support learning at school. Find out what services are available at the school to help your child. Ask how the teacher will both challenge your child and support your child when he or she needs it. Finally, talk to your child. The family conference is all about your child, so don't forget to include him or her. Share with your child your thoughts about what you learned. Show him or her how you will help with learning at home. Ask for his or her suggestions. ​(excerpts taken from the Harvard Family Research Project)​