Saturday, February 28, 2015

Taking the Plunge: My Standards Based Journey

Post by Amanda Halfman: Amanda is in her 7th year of teaching Family Consumer Science and her first year teaching at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Amanda on Twitter @MsHalfman

I hate jargon, theories without practicality, and educational bandwagons. Like many of you I have sat through professional development or a conference and rolled my eyes thinking, “and how does this apply to me?” or “Yeah right, like that would work in my world.” Therefore I am promising you now; I am not trying to sell you anything. Really, that is not my thing.  Instead, this blog posting is about my own endeavor in implementing Standards Based Grading (SBG) into my curriculum, what I have observed in student achievement, and my future goals.  As I like to say to my chiropractor, let’s get crack’n.

Now I know that in many circles of education, SBG is a dirty word, at times viewed derisively and others with confusion.  I myself felt this way in regards to SBG when I was first introduced to the concept. Here is the deal.  Three years ago in my former school district, the article “Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” by Patricia Scriffiny was shoved in our mailboxes with an attachment that said read it and be prepared to discuss in our next late-start meeting.  The intent was good, the delivery not so much.  What occurred was a brief statement by the admin about SBG, no logistics, and a follow-up statement stating, “SBG is taking over and as a school district we wish to switch over. Thoughts anyone?” Instantly, hands were raised, snarky side conversations buzzed, and the line to the coffee pot grew.  As teachers, we were concerned about losing the power of the F. We did not see the difference between a 1-4 in a grade book or any other point value. And what college accepts Proficient on a high school transcript?

As luck would have it, I was assigned to the SBG data team. Like many of my Career and Technology Education comrades, I was looking for a way to balance assessing students by what they know, what they can do, and what they understand, while not overloading the grade book. (Sorry, but it doesn't make sense to have so many points by the end of the quarter that any project or test must be worth hundreds of points to make a difference in a student’s grade. Doing this simply devalues the work.) In addition, the skills and concepts we work with require continual training and, with enough practice and feedback, mastery.  Skill attainment is not a one and done deal when students are required to demonstrate evolving concepts.  Although my team was a fantastic group, we had no established goals, were lacking direction, and needed assistance from someone other than Google. Although we did try to implement SBG into our curriculum, it ended up looking like a modified point system without any real meaning.  So, I headed back to the drawing board.

 My first “Hallelujah” came from participating in the co-district EdCamp with Bettendorf and my previous school last year.  After attending a session led by Kim Rojas (@krojas711), the discussion led me to reflect on my own pedagogy. This included my lesson delivery, assessments, and the levels of academic achievement in my classroom.  More importantly, I was able to see SBG in action with concrete materials. Kim’s methods made sense. The syllabus and rubrics were well detailed, and verbally justified the spectrum of her grading. Kim’s grade book was simple to follow and evolved with each student as he/she developed their skills under user-friendly standards. This omitted any possibility of assigning arbitrary points. And hello, no more silly extra credit.

The hallelujah grew into a choir of baby angels after I was hired on to the Bettendorf team and made contact with Kim about her work on SBG.  At this time, I was wrapping up my Master’s degree and needed an action research project. I decided to give SBG another shot and made that the focus of my research.  After condensing down hours of research in Marzano-land and harassing specialists on the phone, I realized that for me to really make this work I had to throw all of my previous years of teaching out and start over. I needed to forget many former habits and beliefs and instead establish new ones. For example, I needed to believe all students can achieve mastery. Everyone can master something, but it may come down to a matter of when it happens. Not only is this a positive and optimistic teaching philosophy, but this also holds me responsible to all of my students.

My next steps were to analyze my curriculum standards and rewrite them in student-friendly language, identify learning targets (“I can” statements) for each unit, establish levels of proficiency, and create rubrics for the different ways I would evaluate what my students know, understand, and can do. These tools have become essential in my classes in assisting my students with goal setting and more focused skill attainment. In my observations and record keeping over the past three quarters, I have found students’ scores to be stabilized with fewer failing range and higher proficiency. I attribute much of this to students engaging in the relearning and reassessment process so they can show a higher level of proficiency. In regards to attitude and motivation, my students have oriented themselves towards an optimistic self-fulfilling prophecy. My at-risk students stay engaged in learning - they have hope because their grades now represent what students actually know and can do, not how compliant they are with arbitrary rules. It’s no longer focused on students “playing the game of school”, but rather on their own individual skill attainment.

 For myself, these same tools helped me to hone my lesson plans to each target, critically analyze my use of in-class time, and create equitable methods of assessment, which have all made me a much more pleasant and optimistic teacher.  It gives me the time to focus on the relationships with students. And I am not caught up in the minutiae of grading excessive paperwork. If you decide to take the plunge into SBG, realize this is an educational philosophy abiding by key concepts that are not fixed, but silhouette a vision for practical learning. Feel free to make it your own.  What works for one teacher may not work exactly the same for another.  Passing on this advice about SBG, go in willing to try anything and accept the need to constantly evolve your craft for the ever-changing needs of our students.  I am confident you won’t be sorry you took the plunge.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Informed Are We Really?

Post by Cathy Ahrens: Cathy is a Nationally Certified Board teacher in her 25th year of teaching Social Studies, all at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on Twitter @Ahrens_Cathy

As a high school U.S. history and government teacher, I watch serious issues unfold around me with great trepidation.  While there was a road rage murder tonight, global warming impact and social security bankruptcy tomorrow, and the war on terror every day, there is one part of me that is simply just glad its not my job to address these issues.  Then the reality settles in.  It is my job, and your job, and the job of your students in your classroom, including those who are passing and those who aren’t doing a thing in class… it is all of our jobs in a democracy.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt said  “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  How well equipped are we to take on this challenge?

Congress is getting ready to debate the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF , which if passed will essentially renew the President’s power as Commander in Chief to continue the fight against ISIL in the Middle East.  Obama’s administration has already begun the attacks with the authorization “left over” from that gained by Bush in the wake of 9-11.  The very polarized Congress and society within which we live will debate the need for this, and certainly the wisdom of this, but that is not the focus here.  Instead, the question that needs to be addressed is how will  U.S.  Congresspersons make this decision, which will likely cost billions of dollars, the lives of thousands, and last an unknown number of years into the future?  What will they use to guide the all-important yea or nay that will either continue or complicate the fight against terror?  Will it be their party, the media, or their constituents that hold the most sway?  To what extent are these sources of information qualified to guide wise policy? 

In today’s partisan atmosphere, how party leaders cue their members to vote may be more influenced by how it will affect their next election than what will make the best policy for the country in this circumstance.  This is evidenced most obviously by how almost every Congressperson responded negatively to the AUMF when proposed.  Careful to appease both sides, Obama chose wording that would be less likely to result in an over commitment for Democratic members, and would not go far enough toward empowering the military for most Republican members.  Congress knows AUMF is not likely to see results that can be characterized as a “victory” in the near future, if ever, so they are staking their ground so they can point out to their constituents in 2016 that they were opposed to its passage from the beginning.   They have only to look at the new Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama in 2004 who was able to say he opposed the war in Iraq to see how useful such a stance can be.  True debate about the merits of action are likely to get lost in this jockeying for position.

Since most Americans have not taken a trip to the war zones to experience the action first hand and certainly don’t get the opportunity to question the commanders and intelligence analysts involved in the action on the ground, they must rely on the media for information to help them understand what is at stake.  Since most media outlets rely on advertisers for their sustenance, there is an emphasis on the bold and brash, with a good picture, with only enough depth to fit inside a sound bite.  Few go to the effort to research beyond.

 To what extent should our Congresspersons listen to us, their constituency?  How informed are we?  We are tweeting with greater frequency, and are answering the CNN poll that our Congresspersons may be looking at, but do we know what we are talking about?  What are schools doing to arm us with the ability to think critically?  Can schools do more to engender a sense of intellectual curiosity, so voters keep an open mind and recognize value in exploring an alternative viewpoint?  How well can we distinguish between a quality objective source and some radical’s blog?  The rise of radical Islam has been a growing element of American foreign policy for almost as long as we feared communist expansion, yet few history classes teach beyond the cold war.  It’s time students leave high schools with an understanding of the background of the conflicts that directly involve an ever increasing number of Americans.  

As billions of dollars are being spent on the front lines to “win the war on terror”, maybe we are missing the point.  Maybe a better understanding of our history, and a functional democracy that utilizes its resources to make decisions to positively affect the greatest number, based on INFORMED decisions, is where we should start.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Best Gift We Can Give Is Time

Post by Joe Phillips: Joe is in 3rd year of teaching Industrial Technology, all at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Joe on Twitter @BHSIndTech

When I was in high school (which wasn't really all that long ago) I used to start every morning by walking down to the industrial arts wing and saying hello to my favorite teacher, Mr. Mast. He was 68 at the time (no that isn't a typo) but still looked like he was in his late 50’s. Time was very kind to him.

Mr. Mast had worked in Industry before becoming a teacher. He seemed like he had done every job imaginable, from conducting trains, to security, to building extremely expensive cabinetry for million dollar homes. This gave him a huge knowledge base to pull from. We also shared a passion for classic cars, and Mr. Mast had quite a few of them.

I would soak up all the knowledge I could from him, like how steam locomotives worked, or how steam cars work. There were times that he would stay at school talking with me for hours and looking back now, I am sure that there were other things he needed to do, but he never showed it or got angry or frustrated by me being there.

Mr. Mast had one other unique trait; he was always willing to help. He would pull students cars out of the ditch on the way to school in the morning, or help you if you locked your keys in the car ( I still use the coat hanger and wood block trick… perfected it in college). It is these experiences that stick with me. I was in other clubs and activities that did awesome stuff, but none of that really stuck with me after eight years.

Now that I am a teacher, I see these same trends happening with me and my students. I have some students that meet me at the door as I am walking in at 7:30 and remain by my side until the two minute bell rings. Likewise, I have students that stop in to see me after school and stay until I lock up. It makes me laugh to think that not so many years ago I was that kid.

It may come as no surprise that I don’t get a whole heck of a lot done when this happens, but I am okay with that. The emails will be there later, the papers will still be on my desk to be graded, and the shop floor will still need sweeping tomorrow, but for that moment in time, I have the opportunity to brighten a student’s day, or give them advice from my own personal experiences, or just make their life better in some small yet significant way.

If a students would rather come talk to me because they don’t want to go home due to what is or isn't there waiting for them, or if they look forward to seeing me on Monday morning because they know I will ask them about their weekend then I can’t find a better reason to put life on hold for a little while.

Mr. Mast

One of my administrators once asked me, “What are your students going to remember in 5 or even 10 years?” Well, they probably won’t remember my lessons on Shellac or wood finishes. They may not even remember how a coil or carburetor works in a car, but hopefully they’ll remember the relationship we had. They’ll look back on the time they had a flat tire after school and came to get me, or how we used to talk in the hallway during passing time every day about cars that neither of us would probably ever own.

I know in my personal experiences, I don’t remember all the content that Mr. Mast taught me, but I do remember the way he taught. His lessons weren't like lessons; they were more like having a conversation with someone. It was almost like you were just visiting with him, but he sneaked in some learning in there along the way. He was an amazing teacher to have.

Mr. Mast passed away the summer after I graduated, June of 2006. I called him two weeks before his passing. We talked for maybe 20 minutes. He was out working over the summer placing power poles and operating heavy machinery. I think deep inside he was still a kid, and this was his version of Tonka Toys. I’ll never forget the last thing he ever told me, he said “It’s really good to hear from you.” Those words have echoed with me ever since.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What Do I See? The 3 P's

Post by Brian Hughes – Brian has been a Special Education Teacher for 13 years, the past 8 at Bettendorf High School as a resource and functional skills teacher.  You can follow Brian on Twitter: @bwhuz

Click here to Hear From the Author

When I agreed to do a blog, I figured it would be pretty straight forward.  I planned to write about all the things that make Bettendorf High School a great place to work.  When you have great students, talented faculty, a dedicated administration, and a staff that makes you smile, it sure seems that it would be pretty easy to write a blog. I realized, however, that trying to explain to others just how great each area is would be far too long; each area mentioned above could easily fill a blog and then some.  I certainly feel lucky to be a part of the Bettendorf Community Schools and I decided to write about one thing I feel very strongly about:  Bettendorf High School has a group of outstanding teachers and para educators.  Collectively, they epitomize the foundations of our district.

-          I see hard working teachers who demonstrate their PASSION daily. They come in early and stay late to prepare for their students.  When I tell parents that someone will be available to help their student, I say it with the utmost confidence.  Everyone supports each other and will be there for “our” students even if that particular student’s teacher is not available due to other obligations.  Bettendorf teachers not only lift up their students, they lift up each other.

-          I see teachers who go about their day with great PURPOSE.  I see teachers who take a perfectly good curriculum and completely re-design/re-invent it.  They want to provide experiences that not many high school students get. They want to provide real world experiences that students will be able to draw on in the future.  They do this because they are driven to make everything better.  I see teachers who have the ability and dedication to differentiate materials to a point that allows all students to have an opportunity to succeed, not just most students.  They want all students to feel they will have success if they put forth the effort.

-          I see teachers and para educators who absolutely inspire me with their sense of PRIDE in the profession. This is why I have always loved the opportunity to go to other classrooms; I am always amazed at the creativity in lessons, at the ability to manage a classroom of up to 30 students and the capacity so many have to build a genuine relationship of trust with so many students.  I see para educators that make up the best group I’ve ever worked with.  Each is excellent in their approach to working with students, yet does so in a unique way.  I believe this offers students a great opportunity for growth, as they must adjust to working with individuals with universally high, yet slightly varied, expectations.

Of course, one could never capture all the things that teachers and para educators do on a daily basis to make Bettendorf High School a great place for students and adults alike. I've only touched on the tip of the iceberg.  I’m proud to tell others I work here and especially proud to tell them how I feel about my co-workers.  And just to think, this is only one of a number of factors that makes Bettendorf Community School District a great place to work.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Tribute to Mr. Burr

Post by Sheila Conrad: Sheila is a graduate of Bettendorf High School and is currently in her 6th year of teaching French. You can follow her on Twitter @madameconrad

To Mr. Pat Burr, In Memoriam

I have been teaching French at Bettendorf High School for six years now. An alumna of BHS, I have the pleasure of teaching alongside teachers who inspired me when I was young. It is only now that I have come to fully realize just how much they, and the high school experience in general, have shaped who I am today.

Today I want to talk about one teacher in particular: Mr. Pat Burr. I only had him for one course in high school: AP (Advanced Placement) European History. He also taught Latin and Philosophy. Over this past Thanksgiving Break, I went out for drinks with some old classmates from the class of 2003. One of them brought up Mr. Burr, which set us down memory lane.

I was in a class with mainly boys. There were only two other girls, and they were even quieter than I was. (Yes, I was shy in high school, though few would believe it today.) Mr. Burr always made a point to ask our perspective, in addition to the male perspective, which dominated our class (and, as I’m sure he was aware, continues to dominate the field of history). Looking back at old notes packets he gave to us: on p.33 of one of them I found the words “Romanticism and Women: Realize own potential;” I had circled this. Knowing he would ask my perspective in class, I was careful to develop my own opinions during this time in my life. I thought critically about many things and was given an outlet to express my developing opinions. He helped me realize my own scholarly potential.

Why, you may ask, do I still have notes packets from a high school course? I've asked myself the same question. We have Wikipedia now, right? But I still refuse to part with them. He made history at once so fascinating and so clear that I’m not sure I’ll ever throw them away. In addition to notes he provided for us students, I have four blue notebooks full of notes I took on my own. I was reading through AP European History Blue Notebook #4 this evening and came across notes I had taken about authors and filmmakers I wouldn't be exposed to until my college years. It’s funny seeing the words “Milan Kundera” and “Jean-Luc Godard” written in my careful high-school cursive, when these are names that mean so much more to me today.

Other memories:

  • He always wore polo shirts with black pants, and on exam days, he wore a black polo and a bemusedly menacing expression on his face. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (Dante Alighieri), he would say of his classroom on these days. 
  • He used a deck of cards to assign us seats. 
  • At times, he would play classical music on his record player while we would walk around the room in reflective contemplation, before more lecture or class discussion. An old classmate reminded me that these were called “mindwalks.”
  • He read us funny news stories in class, including the Darwin Awards.
  • He hated cats.
  • “Giovanni Aurispa!” “238!” “Come the Revolution, things will change!”
  • He was animated. All of my classmates remember his funny facial expressions, his mannerisms, his voice, and his laugh.
  • He would take and vehemently defend an opposing position as devil’s advocate in order for us to truly get at the principles behind our own logic
  • When I read that Mr. Burr passed away in a College for Kids classroom (which is where I now spend every summer) on July 2, 2010, I was hit with emotion. More than once while writing this, I have choked up with tears. I never got a chance to properly thank him for how much he impacted me. Mr. Burr loved his students. I will never forget him.

Photo caption: My classroom card used to assign seats atop a 5-page in-class essay test on the French Revolution I wrote for Mr. Burr’s AP European History course in 2000