My Back to School Pledge

Every year around this time I start to get excited. Excited for the possibility of the upcoming school year. Excited to meet my new charges. Excited to learn and try something new. Excited to buy all the supplies I will need to be successful during the upcoming year (I admit this unashamedly). Excited to catch up with my colleagues. The charge is almost electric.

This year, I am taking this electricity and channeling it into a pledge to my students, to my colleagues, and to myself before I even walk over the threshold of the building. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

To my students:

I pledge to be tough with you. My goal is not to be your favorite teacher, my goal is to make sure you learn. Some days it may upset you, but in the end, I care more about your success than about your feelings toward me as a person. Your future is linked with mine, too and I’m invested in your success.

I pledge to listen to you. I understand that we are coming from different perspectives, and I will consider your needs, but I will also push you past your comfort zone.

I pledge to smile long before Thanksgiving. My classroom is not a scary place, it’s a safe place where you are free to make mistakes and learn from them. Such an environment requires strictness, but it also requires a sense of humor.

To my colleagues:

I pledge not to complain. It feels so good sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t get us anywhere. I’m going to try to be more positive and find solutions to our frustrations. If I can’t, I can offer you a drink and an ear at the end of a tough day.

I pledge to help you when I can with whatever I can. Last year, I was so swamped with work that I was stressing about making it to my morning and afternoon duties. Two colleagues were willing to cover them for me and I was so very grateful. I want to pay it forward.

I pledge to laugh with you. No explanation needed. A smile always makes us feel better.

To myself:

I pledge to revamp the successful lessons I’ve already taught. I don’t want to get stagnant. I want to keep improving and I can’t wait to make good lessons great ones.

I pledge not to stress about things that are out of my control. There is so much that is out of my hands and I can’t waste valuable time worrying about things over which I have no influence.

I pledge to enjoy even the tough moments. This year I want to embrace my (past and present) mistakes and learn from them. I want my students to learn from their mistakes and I want to be more open to learning from my own as well. It’s tough sometimes, but worth it.

What are your pledges for this school year?

education, engagement, teachers

Reso-and Revo-lutions for 2015

In my classroom:

  1. Create more buy in.  I recently read the transcript of a speech given by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action.  He repeats this very impactful phrase: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. So I vow to share more of my love and passion for my profession with my students.  They don’t have to love English class, but they have to try hard, work hard, and be successful. I am the variable–and catalyst–in that equation.
  2. Create real engagement. I want my students to take my class seriously.  I work hard to make lessons for them that are not only valid and worthwhile, but engaging. But what is real engagement? Silent students working at their desks?  Loud groups debating important content? For me, it’s making my kids forget they have a cell phone.  When they are so engaged in something that they do not need to check their latest text or play a round of Trivia Crack, I know I’ve got them.
  3. Offer real feedback instead of praise.  I’ve written about feedback before, and I truly try to follow my own rules concerning it, but at times it’s so easy for me to walk around my classroom and say “nice!” or “good job!”–sometimes I give in. I want to focus my feedback to students in order to help them reach the lesson’s goal instead of making them feel “good”. So I vow to incorporate more questions that lead my students to truly reaching the goal set forth for them. No more shallow praise!  Everything that comes out of my mouth needs to be worthy of being said and have a purpose for my students.  Praise can be saved for more 1:1 experiences if necessary.
  4. Let go and trust…myself and my kids. If I truly want to teach my students about persevering through difficult content and learning challenging skills, I need to let them struggle.  Sometimes I think, “Oh no! I made this too difficult. Now they are never going to get to where I need them to be.” This almost always turns out to be false.  By the end of a difficult lesson I have heard “I can’t” more times than I can count, but 99% of the time, the kids are successful and accomplish the goal of the lesson.  I have been teaching for 7 years.  I’m no newbie and I need to trust that my skills and understandings of my students are on par. And I need to trust that they will make it to the goal without my constant watch.


In my career:


  1. Stop questioning my own decisions.  I make professional decisions every day.  Not only about content, teaching and learning strategies, and lessons, but also about how to interact with my students, how to tackle a particularly difficult situation, and how to combat (and comply with…) the constant barrage of mandates from the state, county, and district. I make professional decisions because I am a professional. I can back them up with valid evidence and reasoning. There is no need for me to question my own thinking every step of the way.  So I vow to trust myself.
  2. Not get pushed around. I will not let politicians–or anyone else who knows nothing about educating students–tell me how to do my job.  I am going to do what is right for my students (within the boundaries of my position) because, well, I DO love my job, and I AM passionate about what I do. And I am not about to let someone who is not invested in my students’ success tell me what is best for them.

What are your Reso-and Revo-lutions?

education, effort, grades, grading, mastery, scoring, teachers, teaching

The Difference Between Right and Wrong

Last year an engineer received an important assignment. The project was to build a bridge.  He put in hours of time–even more than his boss required. He worked for months. He spent hours at the office viewing and reviewing plans. He spent 12-hour days on site telling the builders exactly what to do. He went home exhausted every night, but satisfied with his work.  When the bridge was finally finished, the day before it opened to traffic, it collapsed due to a design flaw. Such a flaw could have been potentially life threatening had the bridge crumbled while cars were whizzing across it.


Recently, I attended a presentation about the upcoming PARCC assessment and how to properly prepare our students for it. The presenter reiterated the fact that if a student answers a question incorrectly, s/he receives no credit for the answer. This idea is nothing new for multiple choice questions.  We all know there is one right answer, but the rule also applies to the writing portion of the assessment. It doesn’t matter how much time or effort the student puts into answering the question. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.


This got me thinking about my grading practices.  I always offer partial credit on what I can. I think that a grade should reflect if a student is on their way to achieving a standard or approaching mastery of a skill, but this tidbit of “wrong is wrong” keeps nagging at me.  Consider our engineer, his bridge, and its design flaw. It doesn’t matter that he put hundreds of hours of time and copious amounts of effort into his project, all that matters is that the bridge that he designed was not successful.  His “mistake” could have cost people their lives. Now I’m not saying our students’ assessments are life or death situations, but I am proposing that we look into making sure our students “get it right” no matter what they are working on.


In English class there are times when there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and that same sentiment is felt throughout all disciplines at one time or another. So for the sake of defining right and wrong, I will explain a bit about how I run things.  For example, in my class I often have students work on making a claim and defending it with strong evidence and clear reasoning.  The combination of these two things–strong evidence and valid reasoning–make an answer “right”.


But there comes a time when the evidence given is not strong enough and the reasoning is not clear enough in order for a claim to be supported. This makes an answer “wrong”.  At this point it is my job to make sure my students know that weak evidence and incoherent reasoning are not acceptable. (Note: poor evidence and unclear reasoning may not result because of insincere effort or because students were lazy– unfortunately this happens–but it could be because students simply have not mastered the necessary skills in order to provide the proper evidence and reasoning needed to prove their claim.)


I have decided that because “wrong is wrong” (which you can’t dispute, especially if you believe that bridges should be well-made) I am going to have to hold my students more accountable for the work they turn in.  Sometimes, and yes, I admit it, if I know a student worked hard, I will let certain mistakes slide: “S/he worked really hard and deserves this grade.” But this needs to stop.  That student did not deserve that grade, because their work was not correct. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students for more insight on the topic of fair grading.) I’m doing nothing but an injustice to those students who hand in work that is “wrong”.  We can no longer allow “effort” to become a part of our evaluation system. There are students who walk into my class and master certain skills right away, while there are others who come in and need extra help with a skill.  The effort each student puts into their work differs, but ultimately, it’s the outcome that matters. Their bridge is either going to stand or collapse. It’s my job to help them make a strong one that holds traffic, stands in even the worst weather, and won’t cost any unnecessary funds or take innocent lives. I do that by helping them master all the work in between being introduced to a skill and showing mastery of it.


The point is this: The end product, or summative assessment, is not always directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort a person puts into their work. We need to keep this in mind when we are offering students feedback, when we are grading their work, asking them to redo work, and evaluating their levels of mastery concerning particular skills. Remember, effort does not equal correctness. (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying persistence and concentration are bad qualities, I value them very much!)  But we need to recognize the difference between dedication and diligence and true achievement. (They are mutually exclusive.)  Then, we need to establish a norm in our classrooms that supports students on their way to mastery through truly learning and using brain power as opposed to showing them that time and effort spent on something equals mastery.  Because even though time spent and hard work will get the project done, the bridge still has to stand.

education, teachers, teaching

What Teachers Need

Ask a teacher: “What do you need more of?”


Textbooks.  No.

Computers. No.

Supplies.  No.

Space. No.


The answer is simple and I can almost guarantee that most teachers will agree when I tell you the answer.





Teachers need time.  I could ask any of my colleagues at any given moment, “what do you need?” and the inevitable answer always has to do with the desire for more hours in a day than the frustration of needing more desks in the room or bandwidth for the internet.


This phrase is worth repeating: Teachers need time.


Think about the last time you planned a party.  It took a lot of time, didn’t it? Days, even months, of planning for 4 hours of enjoyment.  Forming the guest list, sending out the invitations, creating the menu, buying all the goods–including the food, the tablewares, the decorations, and any other commodity fit for celebration–preparing the food, coordinating any other important provisions such as music or entertainment…and this all happens before the guests arrive. And even after the guests arrive, you, the host, spend a lot of time (there’s that word again…) making sure the party runs smoothly, everyone is happy, and the food and drink keep flowing. And when it doesn’t flow, you make it flow.  By the end of the night you’re exhausted and grateful you only plan parties once or twice a year–if that.


Planning a lesson and implementing it is like preparing for a party every day. Teachers must consider their students, determine the goal of the lesson, and set up an interesting way for students to accomplish that goal.  They must create materials, sometimes several versions of one particular tool in order to differentiate for various learners, make sure they have enough materials for everyone–and extras–and coordinate outside components such as booking time in the media center or getting an iPad cart. And this all happens before the students arrive to class.  After the students show up, the teacher has to put her plan into action by making sure the lesson runs smoothly, everyone is happy, and the flow of the class period leads the students right to the ultimate goal.  By the end of the period she’s exhausted, but has to do it 4 more times with different students and usually with different content.


Please understand, I am not trying to make all the non-teachers feel sorry for those of us who chose this profession.  I knew what I was getting into and if I wanted to get out of it I could.  I say this because just as planning a party takes time, so does planning a lesson.  Really thinking about the students, what they need, what materials will help them achieve the goal you have set forth, and how they best learn takes a lot of time.  And the time it takes to plan and prepare for a lesson is disproportionate to the time it takes to implement that lesson–just as it takes more time to plan a party than to host it.  It takes hours to plan a lesson and minutes to put it into action. So, if we know this, why are teachers always clamoring for more time?


During the course of a typical day I have 42 to 84 minutes of preparation time built into my 7-hour scheduled day. (I work far beyond this required schedule as most of my colleagues do. Nights and weekends are definitely not ‘free minutes’ for us.) So out of my 420 minutes a day I have 84 with which to plan and prepare my lessons.  That’s 20% of my day.  And that’s on a good day.  Most days my planning periods end up being about 10% of my time. The other 336 minutes of my day are taken up with teaching, duties, or curriculum development/PLC time.


Eighty percent of my day is spent in action, right?  I’m performing.  I’m maintaining the flow of the party, if you will. It’s easy to see that I’m “working” when I’m interacting with my students and colleagues.  It’s easy to justify the 336 minutes of work because it’s visible. Anyone can walk into my classroom, to my duty post, or into my meeting and say, “great! Looks like you’re working hard.” but what about those 42 minutes my body is off but my brain is on? No one ever says, “great! Looks like you are really thinking.” unless there is something to show for it.


Planning requires thinking and thinking is not visible. Because of planning’s invisible nature it is not as valued as much as visible work is. This is evidenced by the fact that teachers don’t get a lot of time in their day to plan or prep. You can’t look at me and know that my brain is calculating which teaching strategy I want to use or how to set up a particular graphic organizer–you will see it later if you come into my classroom, but that’s if you decide to do so.  If not, it looks like I sat at my desk for 42 minutes and stared into space or doodled on a piece of loose-leaf.


My point is this: Teachers need time and unfortunately the sad truth is that they will not get any more time during the day to plan and prepare lessons. Already for some (particularly politicians who know nothing about teaching or education) 42 minutes of “prep” time is too nebulous…too open-ended…as it does not yield immediate results. So it’s up to us, those of us who live education to resolve this need for more time. Whether you are an administrator, a teacher, or a support staff member, help out the teachers in your building.  Administrators can give teachers co-planning time during department meetings or PLC time.  Teachers and support staff members can offer to take over duties–I have had this done for me, and it was as productive for me as it was kind of my colleagues to do so for me. Teachers and support staff members can share ideas they have used or have seen in the past. There are ways to create more hours in a day for teachers, but we need to work together to make that happen.


And even if I end up working on those nights and weekends–beyond my 42 minutes a day–which is highly likely, I invite you to come see what my brain did by watching me in action. It’s just further proof that time really is a commodity when it comes to planning and implementing successful lessons every day. And that it is necessary in order for teachers to be successful in the classroom.

education, scoring, teachers, teaching

Reporting Outcomes: What is an “A”?

Several blogs have been popping up lately about doing away with grades (see Parents React to a Classroom Without Grades and Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades) and it seems a worthwhile topic to explore. Let’s take a serious look at a world devoid of our traditional grading system.


The Common Core has certainly pushed–some say forced–us (teachers, students, parents, administrators) to make some serious changes at the national level all the way down to our individual classrooms.  Some of those changes have been effortless and smooth while others have been laborious and frustrating. One impending reform is a transition to standards-based reporting as opposed to the traditional “report card”. This transformation will require doing away with our popular and widespread grading system. There are some benefits to this major shift that could become a way of life in our near future.


Learning Becomes the Focus in the Classroom

Passing. GPA. Class rank. Exemption status. Students concentrate more on these factors than they do on learning. Worse, grades become a motivational factor for students. (Grades should not be the reason why students work hard. Unfortunately, the reality is that grades are one of the only reasons students work hard and this is a problem.)  Numbers have become the point of obsession when learning the skills should be paramount. And the students are not the only guilty culprits who give in to number obsessions, districts do it too. They prepare the students for the NJASK, and the HSPA, and now everything being done in our classrooms relates directly to our new standardized test mandate: PARCC. Will our students be proficient?  Advanced proficient? We hope for those two labels to dominate our paperwork, but what do those labels–and their corresponding numbers–actually mean?  Can you tell me?


All Stakeholders Have an Accurate Understanding of What Students Know and Are Able to Do

Grades should be indicators of what students know and are able to do.  But sometimes teachers’ personal biases, test curving, extra credit policies, etc. infiltrate the scoring process and grades become skewed. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students). So, how are grades really relaying reliable information if they are influenced by factors other than student performance? It’s not to say that standards-based grading will completely rid the system of this misrepresentation of scores, but it will help level the playing field.


Regulation of the Reporting Process

At some educational institutions an “A” can fall within the range of a 100% to a 90%.  In others, an “A” may equate to a 100% to a 92% (I have worked at districts with both of these grading systems–these numbers are not arbitrary). With standards-based grading, letters and their corresponding numbers no longer exist when it comes to reporting student achievement and outcomes. Instead, each standard has its own label that indicates a level of mastery which shows what students know and are able to do.  For example a report card may look like the same ones you and I received in grammar school.  A skill is listed and various columns appear next to it with “S” for satisfactory, or “N” for needs improvement.  The column that is checked shows the student’s level of achievement for that skill at that moment in time. A standards-based report card is reminiscent of this.



RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.


Beyond Mastery


Approaching Mastery   ✓

No Mastery Yet


Comments: Formative assessments showed steady growth toward mastery, but ultimately the summative assessment(s) proved that the standard has not yet been mastered.




Of course the 4 levels of mastery must be outlined.  Those schools implementing the CCSS should make sure that each piece of criteria has its own indicators of mastery.  Those indicators should be uniform as well.


Meaningful Learning

With standards-based grading, the goal is no longer to get an “A” but instead, to master standards.  This may sound the same, but it’s not.  An “A” is nebulous when you really think about it. What do you need to do in order to get that “A”? (Answer most multiple choice questions correctly? What does that show?) What does the “A” really mean? (The student turned in a project on time?) With standards, the outcomes are clear.  For instance, let’s go back to our report card example: RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. The skill is to analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience. Either students cannot analyze a point of view or cultural experience (No Mastery Yet), or they recognize that there are different point of view and they know how to analyze, but students cannot fully apply the skill to a point of view or cultural experience (Approaching Mastery), or they can analyze a point of view or cultural experience (Mastery), or maybe they can even go beyond analyzing a point of view and cultural experience, by evaluating others’ answers (Beyond Mastery). It is clear what is expected of students in order to master each standard.  I suppose you could connect a grade to each level of mastery, D, C, B, and A, respective to the above example, but without the indicators those letters mean nothing.


We may be nervous about the ever-mounting changes in education, but remember, not all reform is negative.  Some ideas have a lot of validity.  As for doing away with grades, it doesn’t mean we are getting rid of assessments, it just means we are genuinely examining evaluation and how to represent it through a different lens.  And that lens has the potential to make the way we view reporting student outcomes much more coherent and transparent.


education, teachers, teaching

Tests. What Should We Do?

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about district standardized tests (i.e. quarterly exams, and/or midterms, and finals) and their growing popularity and prevalence.  There are many pros to having standardized quarterly exams in schools: they prepare students for formal testing situations, they offer valuable data to stakeholders, and they hold teachers accountable for keeping a fair pace in their instruction. But there are cons, too, and with the advent of the Common Core and PARCC it’s time to reexamine their presence and value in our schools.


“We are losing too much instructional time. We need to stop having all these tests. I say, get rid of the Q1 and the Q3 and just have a midterm and a final,” my colleague said.


I thought about this statement.  “I agree we are losing instructional time,” I said. “But what about having the Q1, Q2, and Q3 exams count as formative–or even non-graded–exams and the final exam count as the summative exam?”


Although he had some real reservations and concerns about my crazy idea, I think I got him on my side. Here was my thinking:


I agree that instructional time is being zapped by our incessant need to test our students, but I don’t think the tests are “bad” unless we make them that way. We need to find a way to maintain all the pros of having district standardized tests while also capitalizing on all they can offer to teachers and other stakeholders.


Since we now work within the capacity of the Common Core we teach students skills, not content, and we teach them these skills continuously throughout the year.  For example, we don’t teach students how to support claims with evidence once and then move on; we teach them how to support claims with evidence and then we have them apply these skills to new situations. Having a summative quarterly exam to test this (and other) particular standard(s) is not congruent to what we teach and how we teach it. If we revisit skills over and over again, having a summative assessment in the middle of the year is counterintuitive.


So let’s change that Quarterly Assessment to a Benchmark Assessment. With a simple change of jargon (wink, wink) it becomes formative.  Now the test’s results are used not just to measure whether or not a student has acquired a skill, but also to determine students’ level of mastery with certain skills. This data is important.  It answers a lot of questions: how are my students progressing with this standard or skill?  Where should I focus my instruction in order to help students master a particular standard? Which standards and skills can be touched upon rather than focused on? When we use quarterly exams to inform our instruction we are tailoring that instruction to the various needs of the students in our classes.


The best part about using these assessments as informative tools is that they allow the teachers to truly mold a unique group of individuals.  For instance, some classes may master Standard 1 before they master Standard 2, while other classes may master Standard 2, but need more practice with Standard 3. So, instruction then becomes about the students and the class instead of solely about the pacing guide.


With formative quarterly benchmarks, teachers can refine their instruction, change its focus, and manipulate it as needed.  When we make quarterly assessments summative we miss out on teaching opportunities that genuinely help students learn. We force them to acquire, practice, and become proficient with skills in short periods of time that take weeks and months to master. And then, even if students don’t master those skills, we still have a pacing guide that implores us to move on.


Making these assessments formative still maintains all the pros of having district standardized tests.  They still simulate formal testing situations, they still offer feedback and data, and they still hold teachers accountable for teaching the necessary material.


What they don’t do is truncate the learning.


administrators, education, educational administration, observations, scoring, teachers, teaching, Uncategorized

Why “Gotcha” Isn’t Funny Anymore

I don’t attach disclaimers to my writing.  I never feel badly about what I have to say, but this disclaimer is different. It’s for you, the reader, not for me. It’s a simple promise that the content to follow is not an empty string of self satisfying complaints, but rather it is a genuine concern for teachers, especially young and non-tenured teachers, and for the field of education itself.


There is a big problem in education today, and that is the “Gotcha!” mentality that is so keenly masked by the “we are here to help you grow” tagline.  Why does this happen?  Why isn’t there a growth mindset? Why must “bad” observation scores mean penalization or retaliation as opposed to identifying weaknesses or challenges accompanied with genuine feedback that will help the teacher improve?


So many young teachers, and even veteran teachers, who are talented, smart, and effective are leaving the profession because their bosses are not offering them feedback that genuinely helps them grow and without that facilitation of growth, teachers stagnate, become frustrated, and find other careers in which they can put their talents to good use. Now, there are other reasons for the lack of teacher retention, but I have seen and lived this scenario before so it’s the one in which I have the most practice.


I am my harshest critic, so after every lesson I teach I reflect upon it and determine how to improve it; I don’t need a supervisor for that, but I appreciate the feedback from another party because it offers me the ability to learn and grow–when it is not contrived so that an administrator can make themselves seem important in order to keep their job. Please understand, I am not an administrator-basher–I would like to be one some day–but I have a problem with any person who will hurt others’ careers in order to make themselves look good.


So, let’s stop trying to find what’s wrong with students’ work, or teachers’ lessons, and let’s take the challenges and mistakes we see and make them learning experiences so our students, teachers, and all educational professionals can grow from them. Here’s why a growth mindset will make you a better supervisor, administrator, and even a better teacher:


1. Your genuine desire to help will be clear and others will value your feedback.


When you want to help others improve and you make this idea clear to them, the people you work with–whether they are students, teachers, or other administrators–place deep value in the feedback that you give them. Your authenticity is transparent and that makes your opinion instantly worthy of their respect.

2. You appreciate others’ feedback because you subscribe to the idea that growth comes from listening to others.


You become more effective when you allow others to help you grow, which in turn, allows you to help others.  It’s really a fantastic cycle! The more you learn from others, the more you can teach others. Plus, when your students, colleagues, and even your subordinates know that you welcome criticism, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say and what you have to say is more likely to be effective and valuable.


3. Others trust you.


When you support other people you create trusting relationships. When people trust you they want your feedback. And when others trust you, they are willing to help you grow, too.


So, adopt a growth mindset, and stop giving senseless feedback to others just to prove you know something or to keep your job. The fate of education and the future professionals depend upon it.