Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

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Grading, Assessments, and Hot Pockets

So you’re at a PD, a really awesome one at that. Everybody is quietly thinking about the prompt “What is assessment?” Your neighbors are writing things like “Assessment is knowing where kids are, where they need to go, and what you should do next.” These poetic statements allude to many parts of a real-time data gathering and analyzing process . Diagnostic assessment, summative assessment, formative assessment are all critical pieces of information that end up letting the teacher know what they need to maximize student growth and learning. The information gained from assessment become the ingredients that “Chef Teacher” can use to create any number of delicious stews, or salads, or souffles.

The facilitator tells everyone to stop writing and to stand up and share with someone new. After 15 awkward seconds of trying to lock eyes with someone, you find a partner across the room. After shaking hands you read your poetic statement with a serious flourish. Your partner responds with the following:

Assessment is how you give kids grades.

You wonder for a second if their table was given the same task. This statement describes a calculation chore that happens at the middle and the end of each term. Grades are what you show to parents and administrators if they want to know how the kids are doing. Assessment is a process that ensures that you have the information at any given point to be able to make the grade, but also to do so much more. Assessment can help you make decisions in the moment, tweak tomorrow’s lesson, or even alter your unit structure. Your assessments can tease out which students understand what you taught today and which ones are relying on the trick they learned last year. Viewing assessment as only a tool for finding grades is like “Chef Teacher” going to the kitchen, by passing all the groceries, and microwaving a Hot Pocket.

You rack your brain for how to begin a conversation about Grading, Assessments,…and Hot Pockets, when your partner cracks a smile. Turns out he was messing with you. He didn’t really believe that Assessment is solely for producing grades, but lots of teachers out there do. How would you describe all the things that assessment could be to someone who thinks it is only for getting the numbers to put on the report card?

SQR post

I am trying to experiment with posting more about some of my administrator work,  even though it might be boring. This will provide some detail about one of the biggest things we had to do this past year to keep the school running. I started this post back in February, but am just now finishing it. If you make it to the end of this, let me know what you think about this kind of post.

We just had an our Quality Review, and it went pretty “Well”. Like so many things in NYC’s Department of Education, the QR is a thing that helps rate the school, and it fosters the kind of wide-eyed terror reserved for reacting to swarms of angry bees. The School Quality Review is a process where an impartial evaluator comes to your school and evaluates everything. Everything. They talk with the administration, they look at your data and reports, and they ask the administrator about any red flags they saw from your data.. and that’s all before the end of first period. The rest of the visit is spent with the observer looking at a number of things. Here’s a brief list:

  • Classroom visits
  • Meeting with students about work from those classes
  • A teacher team meeting
  • More classroom visits
  • A parent meeting
  • A meeting with a larger group of students
  • A focus group with teachers
  • Even more classroom visits
  •  3 meetings with the school leadership meeting
  • Conversation with the Union Rep
  • And a working lunch

The working lunch is the most tense. During that time the evaluator will process all the evidence they’ve gathered and give you a preliminary rating on the spot. For all the stress it causes, it is actually a really good opportunity for our school. While most ratings seem to only look at the quantitative measures of a school, the QR takes a qualitative approach. This can be very good for a school like ours who works with a population that can succeed with things the quanitatiave measures won’t pick up.

What are they observing?

QR observers use a rubric to analyze the mountain of evidence they gather from the various parts of their visit. This image from the newly updated DOE website has the rubric categories: 

If the Microsoft word flow chart didn’t tip you off, the most important areas are Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Assessment, often called the instructional core. When your review is finished your final score will be five ratings. I rating for each area in the instructional core, one rating for school culture and one for systems for improvement. The observers will look at the evidence they collect from around the school in order to figure out where the school falls on this rubric with the highest performers getting a “Well Developed” rating. In the past we would only have one day for a visit, but this year we had two action packed days.

Getting Prepared

We knew that we are having an QR from the beginning of the year, so we could get a number of things going from the beginning of the year. The number one thing was the Principal working out the School Self Evalution Form way ahead of time. About a month ago the QR date was announced, he was able to share a finished draft of this document that we as an admin team could give feedback on. Later, the school school read and provided feedback on the SSEF as we used it to think of the kind of evidence we wanted to highlight. The document was a really clear picture of what makes our school special. Having the clear vision of what we are about drove our upcoming cabinet meetings, staff meetings, and department meetings. We all thought about what we need to observer to see in order to really witness the vision of our school. lessons would be best to highlight. The administrators then worked to take all of the different resources, student work, and lessons plans that people were proud of and gathered it in to binders or google drive folders. These would later come in handy when the evaluator wanted to see evidence of one thing or another. We also used all of the notes we had collected at those meetings to remind our staff on the day of the review in case they got nervous and forget what they wanted to say about the school.

Calming people down

As we prepared for this we had to spend a lot of time helping people stop freaking out. A great thing about our school is that people pull together when things like this happen, but people might get too worried. It is important to focus people’s efforts on what is important. When talking to teachers that’s letting them know it’s probably more important that they revise their lesson plan, and get a good night’s sleep than to get all brand-new bulletin boards up. When talking to kids it’s letting them know that someone new is in the school. If they are selected for the student panel reassure them that they aren’t in trouble, and in fact they have an important opportunity to explain parts of the school like clubs, or guidance work, that aren’t going to come up in other meetings.

This is happening today

During the SQR I spent most of my day running around the school, as the Principal has one on conversations with the reviewer for most of the visits. Most of my time was either spent calming people down, or dealing with the “OF COURSE THIS IS HAPPENING TODAY” things that you know are going to come up. We got to school early to have the initial Leadership meeting with the evaluator. I would sit on three of these meetings and I would look for opportunities to make my Principal look good. It felt like I was sitting in on three conversations between the evaluator and my principal.

The first leadership meeting was us saying: “This is what you’re going to see, and here’s some documentation about that” and the Observer saying “I’ve already learned so much from your SSEF. Can you tell me more about this one specific thing?” The observer was as nice and polite as you can be while still maintaining a poker face. (What I’ve learned about the observers I’ve met is that they are nice people, who want to help schools get better. They have a hard job and being impartial is a must, so they may come across cold even when they may actually think your school is great).

After the first round of classroom visits there was a second meeting. Classroom visits were only the principal and the observer, so their conversation was hard to follow without context. The observer highlighted the things they had seen and the things they hadn’t seen in the classes and in the meetings they were in. We could also ask about questions about this, occasionally referring to items in the binder that showed evidence of practices the observer might not have seen. things that she might not have noticed or might not have had. I remember at some point running to my office and printing out a whole set of team meeting minutes to explain the pedagogical alignment of a  lesson they watched for 10 minutes.

The last meeting is pretty summative, as they pretty much have the 5 ratings figured out, and have a lot of evidence to explain each one. It kind of feels like the end of a cooking show, as the observer explains why we got the rating that we did for each area. During this it was clear that we had a weakness in one area and the observer was able to point out clear examples why. Over all our schore was well developed(!) so we were over the moon about that and immediately sent emails and texts to the staff thanking them for their hard work. We do need to work on the category we did poorly on. Instruction…

Clog: No one’s ever going to win!

Today was the first day of my new class. We’re calling it The Lottery. The “we” for this cycle is me and my co-teacher, who is awesome. We’ve talked a lot about the class and it is challenging me and my regular routine, and it’s leading to great results so far. My typical probability class is serving as the frame for this class, and we are modifying it. Heavily. It’ll probably be a whole different experience by the time we get finished. We’re calling it the lottery to tap into some of the kids natural curiosity about something around them, as opposed to my previous class which centered around a make-believe carnival.

Today we began class with another number talk, and then we did four corners about the lottery.

Dice, Playing Cards, Cuisenaire rods, and all the random stuff we brought in so kids could make their games.

Next we decided we came up with this thing called “Games of Chance”. We wanted kids to work hands-on with a task that put them in the driver’s seat. This task asked them to work in small groups to make up games that other kids could play. They made up the rules of the game, the price to play the game, as well as the prize that winners could take home. To help make the tangible game we gather a pile of useful things (Dice, cubes, playing cards, etc).

The kids came up with an array of interesting games. One was flip over one of twelve cards, another involved rolling a dice, and then drawing a card from a deck of cards over and over until you got the amount on the dice. At the end of co-teacher’s 15 minute timer, groups paired up and played each others games. Students were deeply engaged in the activity, as I orbited around the edge of the room.

We had enough time for 3 different games to be exchanged before we stopped  and got into a circle to talk about the games that everyone played. Hopefully we wanted to see if students were having the kinds of headaches that the mathematics in my class could serve as the aspirin. My favorite comment was from a student who seemed visibly frustrated. “We made a game that was basically impossible,” said the student, annoyed by the game that their group settled on, “It’s so hard, no one’s ever going to win!!!” This sounds exactly like the kind of thinking that people should be embarking upon for a class called “The Lottery,” don’t you think?

First post of 2018: Itching to get started again

It’s been a long, rough, couple of months since my last post. I can briefly fill you in on all the stuff that has happened.

  • Our second baby is 4 months old!!!
  • My last class ended in wonderful fashion. I had a solid pass rate and I got lots of good feedback about the number talk routines that I began each class with (which I’ll write a blog post about soon).
  • I’ve wrapped up a PD that uses the problem solving and helps teachers learn using video (which I’ll write a blog post about soon).
  • I took a month to come up with some pretty good New Year’s Resolutions (one of which is to write more blog posts, soon).
  • I also started this Eczema Diet after  jump to two kids triggered the worst flare of my lifetime with the disease.
  • After a fall and winter full of audits and external pressure, our school finally has a clear path forward for some of the things I oversee.

This time was rough largely because of my own difficulties shifting to having a lot less free time, but all of the same problems at work. There was an idea that I just should sit down and focus, causing my blog to get a little dusty. This wasn’t really working. Now I just feel bad for all the things I’m not posting, and I feel all alone because I have no one to talk with about the things that happen on the job. In the next year I’m going to try to put more things on the blog, even though they may not all be of the highest quality and hopefully improve that part of my work life.

Ok, so now that we’re all caught up, let me talk about what is going to happen.

  • I’m going to give a black history event with my school’s librarian. It is tentatively called building intergenerational wealth and is going to involve the next version of this Desmos activity.
  • I’m going to teach a class about the lottery, which will talk about probability through the lens of the lottery and how it operates in our neighborhoods.
  • One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more about the administrative part of my job, and figure out how to make it interesting and valuable, so that will be good.

I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and I’m going to get as much of it on this blog as possible. If you have any thoughts, questions, or feedback let me know in the comments below!

Silence And Shared Frustrations At The Department Meeting

This story begins a little after our math team meeting finished their fun math problem and transitioned into Best Practices. Best Practices are where someone on the team can ask the rest of the team a genuine question of the form: “What’s your best practice for…” Once the question is asked, we go around the table answering our own “best practices” that related to the question. As the facilitator of the group, and an administrator, I avoid asking the best practices questions for a number of reasons. As administrator, I want to use any chance I can to hear what teachers have to say, and as a meeting facilitator, I want to hear my voice as little as possible. However, I sent an email out calling for best practice questions and got no responses. It seemed like a good chance to see if the rest of the team could help with the question that emerged when I was doing observations.

The observation story actually begins about 3 weeks prior. The admin team at school began our observation cycle when teachers were all at the end of the first unit. Students were working on the final projects in all the classrooms. Despite us all teaching different projects about different content to different students, I noticed plenty of exchanges like this:

Teacher: For this part of the project you guys need to know how to do _______.

Student: _________? Isn’t that just Cross/Flip/Multiply and Square root?

Teacher: No… What? No, we definitely didn’t talk about that. [I actually don’t think any math teacher talked about that] Do you have notes?

Student: Oh, let me check my folder? [Student 1 pulls out folder with crumpled papers and those wavy stink lines like you see in cartoons] Hmm, I can’t find it.

[Teacher spends 5 minutes flipping through the folder, making small piles for complete and incomplete work until they come across the worksheet about _________. The sheet is largely incomplete, and it seems that the student has a shaky understanding of what they initially wrote down.]

Teacher: It looks like you either need to go back and reteach yourself this, or I need to work with you on it, or else there is no way for you to finish the project with an actual understanding of what you’re doing.

Student: I just need to do what I need to finish this project so I can pass the class. I also have projects in all of my other class, so I don’t really have the time to go back and complete previous work unless I’m doing the barest of minimums.

This scenario could play out with teachers reteaching material, or students working with neighbors to get the work, or maybe even kids looking on their phone to see what google suggests. These scenarios all result in stressed out teachers and students, with not a great deal of understanding to go around.

This all could be avoided if the kids could have actually learned what they were supposed to have learned before the project starts. Everything would be fine if the learning stuck. Failing that, if the kids took better notes, be aware of the things they don’t know, and ask the right questions to repair things that they don’t understand. Everyone would genuinely want to know the answer of this question, right?

This all came to mind during the math meeting. So after the math problem, I said “If no one else has a best practices, I have a question.” What kinds of things are any of us doing in order to ensure that kids really learn, so that at the end of the cycle they are able to finish the project independently? Of course, this was met with silence. I just saw that everyone struggles with it, why was I expecting people to respond with answers? In retrospect this request sounds almost like a demeaning form of torture, or a passive aggressive way to dress down the group, which wasn’t my intent at all. This seemed like a question that everyone was genuinely wondering, and airing it could let everyone know we share this frustration. The silence after the question sort of showed that it was a genuine frustration. Now, everyone else knows that they share this with everyone else on the team. The next steps could provide a chance for teamwork and collaboration on this newly discovered, shared problem. Now I just need to figure out what those steps are…

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