Sweet Sweet Lesson

Today my new bedroom set was delivered, and I must say it looks absolutely beautiful. During the delivery I began talking to the moving advisor who works in my building (I live in a high rise condo). This man is a ski instructor on the mountain just over a pass from where I grew up. It turns out he knows my first two bosses, Serge and Patrick (to be said with a highly seductive French accent).

These two men ran the ski school at Loveland Ski Area in the 1980s when I got my first job teaching skiing there. They not only hired my two other friends and me, but they also helped to train us into the skiers we became. They were the best type of boss: they pushed us to be our best in our vocation, but they pushed us to be even better in our occasion, the passion that brought us all to teach skiing in the first place, our love of skiing. These two men made sure the three of us never lost sight of our passion, and they gave us “free” ski days where they came out with us and actually pushed us hard to become better than any of us thought we could become.

This notion of finding what you love and becoming better at it has stuck with me. These two men were the first to teach me the growth mindset. They helped me understand that you can be good at what you do, but lose passion for your occasion for doing it in the first place. They always said that nothing else matters when the mountain is in front of you. All of the little things should fall away. Even if I was stuck teaching three year olds all day long, it didn’t matter because a day on the mountain, no matter what I was doing, is ALWAYS better than no day on the mountain…and that was exactly the attitude they took.

Any day I get to show kids the craft of writing, that I get to play with words, is always better than a day sitting in meetings. Figuring out ways to get better at my vocation, both teaching and writing, is better than a day without. For I have chosen my passion, teaching students to write well is the most important skill we can give them, to fuel my vocation.

That, my friends, is a sweet sweet lesson from my first job.

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Who does it work for, students or teachers?

The other day I posted about rubrics vs. feedback and I got some push back that made me think. First I would like to clarify a couple of points. I would never dream of assigning grades without some kind of rubric. Rubrics are a great tool for assigning grades. The conversation I had with this administrator put into question how valuable rubrics are to students, how effective they are in promoting student growth.

That is the question I would like to explore here, and I would love any feedback or thinking any of you might have on the subject as I consider this merely an exploration, nothing that I am firmly tied to.

I had a conversation with a colleague after the last post I wrote. In our conversation we discussed who the two work for: students or teachers? Here’s where we landed:

  • Rubrics work for teachers. They might be used as a diagnostic to determine where students are in a given moment in their skill base. They might also be used as a formative assessment to determine which skills need to be retaught or reengaged. They work to speed the grading process so that teachers are focused on just the parts that have been taught, or that need to be assessed. They also speed up summative assessments, and give students some feedback on where they are in skill level.
  • Checklists work for students during writing. Giving  students a check list as they work through a piece of writing helps them acknowledge what will be graded according to the rubric. Checklists are a form of self assessments that might help students engage and reaffirm their practice. The hope with checklists is that they will assist students to understand the complex parts they will be graded.
  • Feedback works for students after writing. The type of feedback teachers offer students will come from the rubric. The intention of feedback is to move the writer. I think of Lucy Calkins approach that when we offer students feedback, it should be something that they might remember to do in their writing a year from now.

So in putting this lens on rubrics, feedback, and checklists, it becomes clear that some work for teachers and others work for students. It seems that we need to be very clear about our intention in using these tools. I had not thought about the use of checklists for many years until my colleague mentioned them. This might be a great way to bridge the use of rubrics for teachers and the need students have to understand not just their feedback, but also why they are earning the grade they earn on any piece of writing.

Rubrics vs. Feedback: What’s the Difference

  • What is the role of rubrics in your classroom?
  • How are rubrics different than feedback?

I had an interesting discussion yesterday that has me thinking about these questions, and I am curious what all of you think. This person said that he is not sure he believes in rubrics any more because students get them back and do not know what it is they need to do to improve. So if they don’t have clear indicators (for instance, transitions are unclear), students walk away unclear how to grow from the experience.

The point I made is that rubrics are to create an ability to put a grade in the gradebook, while the feedback we give students creates a place for growth. The feedback I give my students may or may not be on the rubric when I hand back a piece of writing. Feedback creates a space for relearning, redoing, and quite possibly rewriting, while a rubric is a grade. I’m curious what your thoughts are about this?

I have a friend who I talked to today who teaches at a different school who told me how she has a gradeless classroom. She sets up her gradebook with 50% completion/in-process grades and 50% growth. She has a portfolio conference with students at the end of the semester to decide on their growth grade together. She gives students a ton of feedback both in conferences as well as on their writing.

She said that it gets tricky with those students who wait until the last minute to do assignments…but isn’t this true any way? Don’t those students struggle to turn things in no matter what we do to help them?

What makes a difference?

I have been amiss at writing this last two weeks as I have had some time off and have not been in the habit. But that changes today. I have been cleaning and purging our house because we have some new furniture coming in. I have also been thinking a ton about my new job and making an attempt to be ready for it, if that is even possible.

I have been listening to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success about the growth vs. the fixed mindset. It has me thinking a lot about my colleagues and the students I teach. I would venture to say that many of my Writing Lab students fall under the fixed mindset, that they don’t feel they will ever improve, that their struggles with writing are a manifestation of their intellect and therefore they won’t improve. I wonder, though, if many of my AP students hold the growth mindset. Those who come in for help definitely do, but there are a lot of students who simply give up and hope for the best.

Here’s what’s interesting, those students who give up more often than not are students who have been told since they were small that they have some kind of underlying talent. It is this very notion that their ability to write well is some kind of innate talent that kills these students’ motivation in the end. If they have to work at it, something must be wrong.

This then got me thinking about my own daughter’s experiences in organized sports. She does not have an innate talent towards any sports. She works hard and tries hard and always has. Her last soccer coach saw no talent in her, and therefore, bullied her, made her feel less than worthy to be on the team, and did not even work with her to make improvements. These actions based in the fixed mindset killed any kind of love for soccer that Maya was forming. She gave up midseason because this person clearly did not believe Maya could grow into a decent player.

Those coaches who do believe in the growth mindset are willing to work with their students, to help them improve. This has me wondering how many teachers I work with believe in the growth mindset.

When I was a kid, I did very poorly in school. I didn’t believe I was a student much less some kind of academic. I had no one in my life to coach me otherwise. Granted, I was a mess for a lot of different reasons at this point in my life, but I believe that if someone had reached out to help me grow, I may have done better as a student. It was my boss with the National Ski Patrol who first taught me about the growth mindset. In order to make it on the patrol, I had to improve my skiing on steeps and bumps that season. It is this person who believed that I could make improvement and worked with me until I got it who first taught me the power of the growth mindset.

  • What kind of world could we have if those of us who work with kids hold this mindset?
  • How might our students’ beliefs about themselves change?
  • What would it take to show students you believe they can grow into whatever they want to be?

the PD Challenge

I had the amazing chance to have lunch with my good friend Jessica Cuthbertson today. She is attending the Denver Writing Project’s Advanced Institute this week while I am teaching our Young Writers Camp. Over lunch we talked about professional development in this day and age.

I thought about this a couple of weeks ago while I was at the GAFE conference in Breckenridge. While I learned a ton and had a really great time, my beef is the same as it is with any professional development that is not with the National Writing Project. Sit and get PD doesn’t work. I never remember what I’m being given. It is boring to me. It doesn’t allow me to engage in professional conversations. In short, I struggle to keep what I am getting at these types of PD sessions.

Teachers are like students. We crave interaction. We crave time to send our ideas into the air to see what’s caught. We crave to bounce ideas to see what sticks.

This is why I believe it is important to have a few basic elements in every PD session I am a part of giving:

  • a chance for people to think about how they might already use the idea I am about to present.
  • an opportunity to learn something new or a new lens to look at something they might already know.
  • a chance to talk to other teachers about how they view this new thing, and perhaps most importantly,
  • an opportunity to practice with the new ideas presented, a chance to put it to practice.

This last part is perhaps the most important, the time to practice and to play. Playing with ideas is what we want our students to do, so why don’t we do this with our teachers.

Writing Teacher Heaven

This week I am teaching at the Denver Writing Project’s Young Writers Camp. I participated the first time last summer. I was super discouraged and beat up by my school year. I had a really tough spring for a lot of different reasons, and was apprehensive about doing the camp. But this year I’m back and obviously had a great experience.

First, the caliber of teachers who participates in this experience is truly incredible. Last year I walked away from this group with so many ideas for my classroom. And just today, one of the gals who is teaching one of the workshops used stickers. To watch the middle schooler’s faces light up when she gave them their small, but heart-felt prize was  priceless and reminded me the power of small reward, those atta boys we all crave.

That is not even to mention the kids that do this camp. It is the kids last year that gave me hope in teaching once again. I really had lost hope last year. I had begun to think that maybe it was time to get out of teaching, that I wasn’t good enough for the profession. Who would think in a million years that being in a room with 40 middle schoolers would reinstate hope and passion? Not me, that’s for sure.

Just a small taste of how awesome these kids are: their biggest complaint in their feedback last year was that they didn’t get enough writing time. I mean, did I die and go to heaven. What middle schooler says that, right?

Selfish Mom Moment

Yesterday was my daughter’s continuation from eighth grade to high school. She looked forward to it and wanted me to go an buy her a dress for the occasion. It is a big deal at her school which is a k-8 magnet school in our district. The problem is that she asked me to take her shopping the Sunday night before the last two days of my school year. I just couldn’t swing it and I knew if I tried I would make myself crazy in the process.

She found an outfit and she looked great, but I know it wasn’t the same had she actually had a new dress to show off and feel really good in. Like the kid she is, she made the best of it and moved on and had a lovely day.

After the ceremony, where I must admit I shed a few tears, my husband and I were standing at the reception, awkwardly as always, when she came bounding up to us. She gave us a hug and said that we had not signed the permission slip to go to the celebration at the beach volleyball place near her school. I could feel myself tense up. I had to get back to school to finish a report that was not good enough the first go around , and to finish checking out for the school year. In short, I was feeling selfish and wanted to close out my school year as quickly as I could. I wanted to be done.

While we stood arguing over her permission slip and where to find one, Maya’s fifth grade friend walked up, tears streaming down her face. No words. Just a big heartfelt strong bear hug. After about a minute, and many tears from my whole family of three, Abbie pulls Maya away and said, “I just can’t imagine school without you. I’m going to miss you so much.”

In that moment, that precise moment I took a deep breath realizing the weight of this day for Maya. While it seemed like a big deal, but maybe not a huge deal to me, that moment made me realize how much this day meant for Maya. This day meant goodbye to people she cares very deeply about, people who are all dispersing to different schools around the city and the country. These are people she bonded with over the last four years. Let me be clear if I haven’t yet; my daughter’s school creates middle school experiences atypical of most middle schools.

The students there really care deeply about one another.

This short scene has made me think about the times in class when I have been in that same selfish place with my students; wanting to move on because we have so much to cover, wanting to jet off to my next class or my next meeting when a student has a question, giving harsh feedback without sitting with the learner to coach them, getting frustrated in the light of learning…so many things, so many times.

To be mindful is to be present in the situation, to neither think of the past or what is to come in the future. To be present with kids is to be with them in their experiences, to neither minimize nor blow their experiences beyond what they are. To be with them in whatever moment they are in.

I hope the next time my daughter (or my students) present me with an opportunity to share their experience, I am more mindful and open to sharing it.