The gradeless journey begins…

This week marks the beginning of a critical journey for my students, my teammate, and me. In my Science class and the Social Studies class, students will be learning about the Gradeless Classroom format that we will be employing when the second semester starts on January 2.

The kickoff this week begins with us sharing a letter with our students and their parents. Then, on Wednesday night, I moderate a Twitter chat for our district about shifting from grades to feedback.

Finally, on Thursday night, parents are invited to a question & answer session after our previously scheduled Curriculum Night.

I’ll post more next weekend, after I’ve weathered this adventurous week. Hopefully, I’ll have good news to share.


Substitute Teacher Video Lessons

One of the more unique things that I do as an educator is the way I prepare sub plans. No teacher enjoys having a substitute—this one of those jobs in which it is easier to go to work sick than miss a day—but the key to a successful day out of the classroom is having plans that any substitute teacher can follow with fidelity. At my school, there is no guarantee that the sub that I arrange to fill in for me will spend the day in my classroom. We often have substitute shortages and need to rearrange sub assignments, so it helps if any responsible adult can deliver the lesson plans without variation. I try to engage with students (sometimes by comically pretending that I’ve been abducted) and make the instructions simple and easy to follow. Here are some examples:

What do you do for your substitutes?


What Did My Students Think Of This Year? (2017-18 Edition)

As I prepare to start a new year of school (#yearroundschools), it’s time again to look back on the year that has just ended. Every year I follow in the footsteps of one of my edu-idols, Larry Ferlazzo, surveying my students about the things that worked and didn’t. I promise them that the results will be anonymous and public, posting about the responses in this space to ensure that I can’t hide from them.

The questions haven’t changed much over the past three years because they give me TONS of useful feedback. You can find the raw results here (filtered for student privacy and inappropriate language), and the posts from previous years here and here. Here are the four biggest takeways from this year:

1. Fewer of my students report that they enjoyed my class most of the time. Dropping from 87% in 2016-2017 to 80% in 2017-2018, this metric tells me that efforts to engage and motivate my students can use some more work.

2. This group of students valued their friendships more than grades in a bigger way than previous classes. Compared to 2017 (80%), much fewer of my 2018 surveyed students stated that they would choose to earn an A without their friends in their class rather than earn a C with their friends.

3. This year’s students gave me a better grade than last year’s students did. More than 80% of this year’s students gave me a grade of an A for the year, which is significantly higher than last year.

4. Even more of my students than usual prefer a single vague grade. When asked whether they would like to get more detailed information about their performance in class, more of my students than any previous year (36.8%) chose instead to stick with a single mark that includes behavior, work habits, and mastery. This disappoints me, but it really points toward an systematic issue with the education system as it currently stands.


Why I’m NOT Marching for #NCEducation Today

Empty school parking lot
The parking lot at my school on May 16, 2018

All across North Carolina today, including in my huge school district, teachers have taken personal days to attend a rally at the state legislature. The goal is to advocate for public education in the state—better teacher salaries, more per-pupil spending, smaller class sizes—at the opening of the General Assembly’s annual session. So many teachers, in fact, are going to be in attendance at the rally today that many districts have made the difficult decision to cancel classes for the day. As a result, I could attend the rally today without taking a personal day or writing sub plans. But I am sitting in my classroom instead.

The reason that I am at school instead of wearing red and toting signs in downtown Raleigh with thousands of my colleagues is not so simple. I obviously want to be paid more and I want my students treated with more respect. I also recognize that more educational spending would make my job easier, reducing the number of students crowded into my classroom at a time and allowing me to build stronger connections with each of the complex teenagers whose learning I’m responsible for. However, I also recognize with great frustration that marching on the state capital will not change this problem.

My normally optisimistic nature was forever darkened by the events around North Carolina’s Amendment 1 in 2012. I had lived in the Triangle region of the state—the research-and-university-rich area surrounding Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—since 1998. It’s easy in a pocket of progressive politics like this to believe that the entire state understands what is so clear to so many people whom I bump into daily. When a conservative coalition of “family values” organizations and christian groups proposed an amendment to the state constitution that narrowly defined marriage to exclude LBGT families, every single lawn sign I passed on my way to work every day decried the move and exhorted “No to One”. Polls showed overwhelmingly negative opinions of the amendment in the cities of North Carolina. Yet, on the night of the vote, Amendment 1 passed by a large margin. The rural/red/low-income/less-educated majority of the state had made their voice heard.

Only metropolitan areas of NC voted against Amendment 1
Results of voting statewide on Amendment 1 banning gay marriage

I was devastated and shocked. I couldn’t believe that so many North Carolinians could let their personal religious beliefs or fears about the unknown prevent them from seeing that thousands of their neighbors deserved the right to commit to long-term relationships and the legal rights that come with marriage. The entire event left me jaded and cynical about the effectiveness of political activities in such a divided state. Four years later, the 2016 passing of HB2 didn’t surprise me: why wouldn’t the same people want to force trans-sexual citizens to use inappropriate bathrooms? The seed had been planted and I would never again trust in the wisdom of the majority in North Carolina.

Fast-forward to today, and I find myself convinced that it is hopeless to try to persuade the representatives that have been gutting public education (and then bragging about having the fastest rate of teacher pay growth in the country) to spend more money leveling the playing field so that every citizen can have a chance at success and the American Dream. The only change that can make a difference involves changing the representation in the General Assembly. We need fairer election maps (a process that is ongoing right now) and then an election cycle or two to balance the voices in our legislature. Raleigh is the not the place to march as those ears are not pointed in our direction. We need to march on small-town North Carolina and convince the people there of the power and importance of public education. The legislature won’t listen to us right now, but this fall a new legislature will be elected and that is where my hope lies.

Forcing parents to find babysitters and alternatives to school lunch so that we can show our stength downtown is only going to add fuel to the fire that burns in rural North Carolina. We have to vote in the fall and force the political pendulum to swing back a bit before public education in this state will return to the place of respect and admiration that it once had. So, I am sitting at my desk right now writing lesson plans and preparing to head to my second job, not because I don’t care about my colleagues or my students, but because I am saving my energy for the fight to come.


Blogging while being a Classroom Teacher

Months since my last blog post: 9

Drafts waiting to be finished and posted: 7

Ideas for future blog posts: 21

Stress I bring on myself for not blogging: Immeasurable

Regrets for choosing other priorities over writing: 0

Over the past few months—and, honestly, for years before that—I have become more and more paralyzed by the friction between my desire to write this blog and my obligations to the rest of the world.

I love writing and I know that I will only become a better writer by practicing the craft. I value the feedback and conversation that come from my work on this blog. I want to share my ideas, and I want to hone them through the crucible of an authentic audience. But the big question is WHEN?

This time of year for year-round teachers is when we begin to make plans for the upcoming school year. My track finishes the year in early June and then starts again in early July, so we can’t wait until we are done with one school year to begin thinking about the next.

As I look toward next year, and what I want the focus of learning to be, I have decided that the theme for the year will be…


Sounds great, right? What will it really mean? Here’s what I’m thinking right now:

1. Everyone will write everyday. Sometimes it would mean a short paragraph to reflect on a lesson. Other times it would be larger pieces, such as lab reports. Every major unit would end with a significant piece of iterative writing. Everyone also includes ME. Blogging and other writing would become part of my daily routine, as well.

2. Lab Reports will become argumentative. Based on some learning that I’ve done lately, I discovered “Negotiating Science” by Hand, Norton-Meier, Staker, and Bintz. Hand and Co explain their Science Writing Heuristic, which is an awesome reflective way to write about science through the lens of argument.

3. Feedback on writing will get faster, easier, and more frequent. For writing to improve, the writer needs to receive A LOT of feedback. That is a struggle for several reasons. Reading and responding to student writing takes time. Lots of time. To do this frequently, I need to identify some tools and workflows that can make the process more efficient. I’ve played around with audio feedback in the past, and with using Chrome plugins more recently, but I want to find a better way.

That’s my plan for the 2018-2019 year. What’s yours?


What Did My Students Think Of This Year? (2016-17 Edition)

Cursor_and_Untitled.jpgAs many regular readers probably remember, each year I ask my students to complete a survey about the entire school year.  It’s the pinnacle of a
year spent building a culture of feedback, and the students know that it provides me with critical information about my teaching.  It’s public so that I am held accountable for what they say, and it’s anonymous so that my students can feel free to be honest.  I knew that our focus on continuous feedback was making an impact when I asked a class why they thought that I use this survey.  The response from one student said it all:

“So that you can be a better teacher next year than you were this year.”

The raw results from this year’s survey (filtered slightly for appropriateness and student privacy) can be found here, and the posts from previous year’s survey data can be found here and here.  Here are my three biggest takeaways:

  1. Some things don’t change.  Compared to last year, my students in 2016-2017 provided very similar feedback in a lot of ways.  They had some very similar responses, such as giving me a good grade for class (98% A or B), and similar comments (one of my favorites is “Mr. C has a way of making you actually WANT to learn. It’s a miracle.”).
  2. My work to build a culture of feedback in my classroom has met some success.  Students are beginning to see their grades as a measure of their learning.  They report that they value grades as a form of feedback.  That’s promising.
  3. Face-to-face beats online.  Based on their responses, students saw the most value in the activities that involved personal contact, like lab activities and discussions.  That surprised me because I assumed that my “digital native” students would prefer  using screens to interact.  I was wrong.survey_activities.png

Have you brought student surveys into your practice?  Tell me about the results.