Friday, April 27, 2012

Ask your kids, "Do you feel respected?"

I'd like to involve parents and kids in a little project. Parents, ask your kids, "Do you feel that the adults in school respect you?"

There is no right or wrong answer. If kids feel respected, I'd like to know more. If they don't, I'd like to know how it makes them feel about learning.

Here are some ideas for figuring out if you are really being respected:

  • Do your teachers know you well? Do they honor you for your abilities, your interests, even your passions?
  • Do they allow you to be comfortable, i.e. go to the bathroom, stand or sit or walk around when you need to?
  • Are you doing work that satisfies you, and keeps you wanting more?
  • Do you sit in rooms that you'd rather leave and do something else?
  • Do you or your classmates get yelled at?
  • Do you feel trusted?
  • Do you have rights over your possessions?
  • Is your voice heard when you have something to say?

Share the answers with your school board and your school principal, but if you like, sent them to me, as well. I'd like to compile a post of kids' answers.

So don't be content with a yes or no answer. Ask them why. Ask them how they'd like to be treated. Write it down or have your kids write their answers, and send them to me. (I won't publish any names, of course!)

Let me hear from you!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

8 Ways to Assess without Standardized Tests

Guest Post by Lisa Nielsen

(Cross-Posted from The Innovative Educator)

Caine's Arcade
You don't assess innovation with bubbletests

You got the message.

Standardized tests are not what's best for learning
Not only are they not best for learning, but they have become an insurmountable obstacle for innovative educators like me to do my work in schools because helping kids become good and filling in bubbles on a piece of paper is anything but innovative!


Unfortunately, many politicians, parents, and even students don’t know a world without testing and wonder...
“If we don't use standardized tests how will we measure learning, teacher effectiveness, or school effectiveness?”
When people ask me that question, I usually respond with this question:
“How do we assess learning in real life?”
Think about it, learning is rarely measured via a test in real life. For instance, as a educator I had to take a few meaningless tests that no one bothers studying for more than a decade ago but that's it. A few tests 15 years ago and not another test is required the rest of my career. Our elected officials who often impose these tests upon children so they can claim they care about learning don't take tests. My Dad who was a cinematographer never took a test. My boyfriend who is in sales doesn't take tests. My girlfriend who is a professional photographer doesn’t take tests. My best friend who owns a successful fundraising business doesn’t take tests. The reality is that for most of us, success in life has little to do with how well we can fill in bubbles.

School life, needs to take a look at real life measurement tools and consider making the school world, look more like the real world with meaningful and authentic assessment. In short, we should measure individuals by how well they do stuff rather than how well they do the meaningless work of memorize, regurgitate, and fill in bubbles on demand.

8 Ways to Assess Students without Standardized Tests

  1. Look at student’s school work -Students are doing work across the year. Let's assess that, rather than a bubbletest. For instance, we can look at a piece of writing and use a standardized rubric to measure that. We can listen to a recording of a student's reading and retelling and use a standardized measure to assess their readIng and comprehension level. The great thing is that teachers already do this. No need to fork over millions to a publisher and grading staff.
  2. Games -More and more games are being created that allow us to determine a student’s level mastery by their ability to progress in a game. Simulation games/contests and games like Tabula Digita, Manga High are examples.  
  3. Challenges -In real life we’re assessed by how well we do, not how well we fill in bubbles. Instead of bubble tests, support young people in in tackling real challenges to demonstrate their capabilities and get scouted for awesome apprenticeship/internship/career opportunities.  This is exactly what companies like Rad Matter (life is rad, make it matter) do.  
  4. Badges and Points -Folks like Tom Vander Ark (Author, Getting Smart) predict badges will be big in education and I agree. A badge (think boy/girl scouts) is an award for demonstrated mastery of a skill that has become popular as a reward mechanism in games and social networks like In education a badge could be awarded for successful completion of an activity. An example of this is Code Academy co-founded by Columbia U dropout (school got in the way of learning) Zach Sims. Code Academy is a site where you learn to program by actually coding and as you do you receive points and badges as you complete each exercise. I'm a newbie learning Java and html. I have 22 points and 2 badges.
  5. Real World Work -Encourage students to get out of the classroom and into the world doing work in an area of interest. The iSchool is an example of a school that does this well with their Areas of focus Program. Staff supports students in figuring out what it is that interest them and them helps them go out into the world and do it via an internship, apprenticeship, job. Just like in the real world, their work is assessed by their supervisor.
  6. Real World Projects -I talk to so many students who are doing amazing work...just not in school. They're making viral videos, writing for publications or publishing their own blogs, engaging in public speaking, etc. The problem is, in today's paradigm of school, when we do work worthy of the world, this just doesn't matter. Let's change that! When kids are doing amazing things in the world, let's give them credit for it.
  7. Personal Success Plans -Assessment should be customized to the student, not standardized to the system. This is exactly what happens with a personalized success plan with measurable goals. Teachers work with students to help them identify their goals then develop a real plan to achieve them. This involves input from teachers, mentors, family, friends, and community. The teacher, students, family. mentors, etc. can see at any time the student’s progress at anytime and provide scaffolded support as necessary.
  8. ePortfolios -ePortfolios provide a great way to capture, document, make meaning, and share with others what we learn. They are a wonderful assessment tool that tells much more about a child than a letter or number on a piece of paper.  Not only that, they form the basis of what can lead to academic and career success.  There are numerous ways to create free, student-owned ePortfolios. Knowit App is a new site that is helping students do this work, but as ePortfolio guru Helen Barrett explains, Google Sites and Wikispaces are also great resources.
This isn't that hard and it's better for everyone (students, parents, teachers, school leaders) except the mega-billion dollar testing industry. Now that we've saved millions of dollars and saved countless hours wasted on testing and prepping, how do you think we can better serve students? I have my ideas!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Let's Get Organized

As I observe the debates in education in the Great State of Maine, I think the time is ripe to present a coherent alternative viewpoint to that presented by Steve Bowen He is positioning himself as the great reformer and those who don't get on the Common Core/Proficiency-Based Education train are gonna get left behind.

Have we accepted the Common Core as the blueprint of all necessary learning? Is PBE the way to the Promised land of those critical thinkers and innovative problem-solvers we all agree we need so badly? Those of us who believe in education transformation need an organization in this state that is presenting a radically different view of the failure of education and the remedies that are needed.

Opposition to high-stakes testing is our rallying cry, but there is much more to talk about. There are people throughout the state who are dissatisfied with the education their children and grandchildren and neighbors are receiving. There is common ground between us, even if we disagree on points of pedagogy or finance.

I think a conference on education change would help galvanize our side. The meeting and greeting and rubbing shoulders with those who agree with's not something I've ever done anywhere, let alone with people from my own state.

You know what I mean; one of those big ol' conferences with concurrent workshops and plenary sessions and hobnobbing in hallways and getting excited about creating an education system that truly puts the value of each child at the center, relegating all else to the back seat.

Do we think we can make something like this happen?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grading kids on how much they care?

Behavior, cooperation, participation and homework.

These are the factors that go into a grade in our middle school, evaluating a student's "work ethic."

It is an effort to separate the grade on an end product from the effort that went into it. Maybe it's an attempt to give kids who "under-perform" a chance to get credit for how hard they try. Maybe it's just a way of factoring in how seriously a student took the work, whether he/she was "mailing it in" or really working.

But I think it's a way of grading kids on how much they care.

So here's the irony: maintain schools that institutionally disregard who kids are when determining their course of study. Cope with the resulting disengagement by providing a grade system on how much/little they seem to care about the learning.

Kids work hard when the work matters to them. Since they are not choosing what they learn, with this system they not only have to learn stuff they don't care about, but receive a grade on how much they don't care about it.

Insult to injury.

Whose fault is it when a kid doesn't care? It's nobody's fault. The kid just doesn't care. Find out what matters to kids, what they know, what they love, what they are "experts" in, and let them direct their learning.

Stop worrying about whether kids are going to learn to read, write or do math if we allow them to pursue the learning that is most meaningful to them. A student who is engaged with the world around them in a way that matters to them is going to learn to read, write and do math.

Stop worrying that kids will not be able to hold down a job unless we teach them work ethic. The work world and school are two entirely different arenas. Adults have choice, even if choice is limited; and adults get a paycheck. I can't tell you how many times that has inspired me to learn what I didn't care about. But what the reward for kids when they are asked to do it?

Self-respect is what enables people to function in the work world. Self-respect comes in part from accomplishment. Accomplishment comes from doing work that truly matters.

Kids are powerless in the school system. We uphold this, then hand them our judgment.

Is anyone else seeing the irony here?

Monday, April 2, 2012

If it's broke, fix it!

Let's think about those school practices that have actually been proven to be harmful to kids. Not big-picture issues this time; let's think of the littler stuff that is very big in the eyes of the kids who are subjected to it.

1. Homework. Get rid of it. Elementary grades: we should be giving none at all. Middle and high grades: only stuff that is supported by research. Don't make kids work a second shift. Do we really have any idea the happiness this would bring to so many kids? Instant good will on the part of children, with accompanying positive impact on learning.

2. Extrinsic motivation. Snuff it out. No more lollipops for "good behavior," no more rewards for conforming to adults' expectations. Again, check out the research. All negative. Dump it.

3. Early start times for adolescents. Do you need to see any more research? Our high schools are full of zombies half asleep, half awake, all miserable. Let them sleep. It won't kill us.

4. Ban on cell phones. If you can't hold their attention in competition with a cell, that's not their problem.

5. Ban on social media. Kids have the world at their fingertips...except in school. Figure out how to connect your classes to the world. Better still, let kids do it.

6. Stop making them wait to go to the bathroom when they have to go.

7. Stop the ban on food in the classroom. When kids are hungry, they should eat.

8. Let them play. Let them hang out. Let them socialize.

9. Better lunch food, with kids playing a role in researching and deciding on menus.

Easy peasy, right? Send me your ideas on ways to make kids happier in school, starting right now.

Thanks to Lisa Nielson for her ideas!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Shoe Doesn't Fit

I hate listening to politicians speak. I find it frustrating and almost embarrassing. I avoid it at all costs. The last State of the Union I watched was given by Jed Bartlet. I don't even like watching Jon Stewart skewer Mitt Romney with clips from his stump speeches. It often angers and disgusts me to watch these men and women act like they know what they're talking about, so I avoid it.

But I watched Maine's Education Commissioner Steve Bowen's presentation at the Samoset this past week anyway. What I expected was that this presentation will sound good enough and exciting enough that people will hop on board the good ship Standards-Based Education.

The opposers will be on the other side of the argument from me: "there's nothing wrong with traditional education." For people like me who want the power and control over education to be in the hands of children, it will not go nearly far enough.

What I expected to see was the self-congratulation of a guy who has been touted as Maine's leader of great educational changes that are so crucial to our children. What I will see is change that is no change at all.

My thoughts while watching the video:

He's critical of NCLB, and I guess we can be grateful for that; but who, in this day and age, is still publicly in favor of it? Our President is critical, but his Administration has re-released it with new cover art, and we're still waiting for new music.

He speaks of the Committee of Ten, that "working group of educators that, in 1892, recommended the standardization of American high school curriculum." I am very skeptical that we are moving away from the K-12 course of study as designed by them. The Common Core State Standards and the Maine Learning Results repackages it. The needed refocusing of education is still nowhere to be found.

He has my attention when he talks about customized systems. But what this leads to is a discussion of narrowing in on ways kids can be made to learn stuff they don't care about, though. His segue to School of One reveals that he is NOT talking about narrowing in on who kids are, but how they can best be made to learn what we tell them to learn

Focus on the kids! Restructure school so the first duty is to RECOGNIZE and HONOR them for who they are. Then provide the support, time and resources to guide them to becoming the people they want to be.

When I make this argument, people generally object, thinking that I don't think kids should learn to read and write or do math unless they want to. But you don't need to use silverware to eat food. You can be nourished without it. But if you are around other people much, you'll learn to eat with silverware. You'll want to; your exposure to the world of other folks eating food will make you want to.

Kids will want to learn to read when they are engaged with the world around them. They'll enjoy math when they see that life is full of math.

We are still focused with a kind of panicky anxiety to making sure we control what kids are learning. Adults have learned a lot over the past ten years, and our education has yielded this: If you can't force kids feet into the small shoes of our education system, provide a shoehorn.

But the shoe is still too tight. Nothing will make it larger. Nothing will make it work. Nothing about the mandated K-12 curriculum will replace the need to discover who these kids are, and center their educations around that. I call it the identity imperative in our schools.

I might be faced with this argument, "But Lisa, it works. It's working. Kids ARE more engaged, they are happier, they are pursuing their educations with vigor and zeal!"

In an institution where real choice and freedom to learn is not even part of the conversation, kids will respond to any offer of options. What they won't do, because they haven't been asked, is look inside themselves for what most energizes them. They will take the opportunities we provide.

We lose something in this system, and it is not a small thing. We teach kids that what they need to learn does not come from inside them. We teach them to gain self-respect by complying with adult values. We teach them that to gain our approval, they should become passionate about what we tell them to value. What we lose is the newness of young thoughts, wonderful ideas, originality, creativity, great innovations.

Student Voice and Choice is the biggest lie in this system. What kids are choosing is how they can demonstrate learning of something they have been manipulated to care about. But who they actually are and what they'd really choose is entirely left out in the cold.

All this effort does is create a structure wherein a central focus is co-opted by the manipulation of kids instead of holding genuine value for them. There can only be one central focus in an institution. For my money, it should be those human beings who are shorter than we are in stature, powerless to control their lives, handed only those responsibilities that we impose and without any rights at all.

The standards-based system does not, as advertised, put children in the center. What we need is a true revolution in education, one that gives children rights over the education they create for themselves.