When Tech Can Actually Make your Job Easier

We’ve all been in that situation when someone raves about a cool new tech tool/toy, and we think “What would I use that for?”.  Or, more commonly in education, “Where am I going to find the time to use that?”  It’s a common refrain for teachers, and even early adopters like me find ourselves feeling this way quite a bit.

The problem is that, like so many educational initiatives, new devices and applications just pile onto existing tools which were themselves lumped onto established practices.  Many veteran teachers rightly question the value of taking what’s been proven to help students learn, and smothering it in a layer of flashing lights and whizz-bang features.  As a frequent leader of technology professional development in my building and elsewhere, I have a lot of trouble trying to make teachers appreciate the reason that many digital tools are an improvement.

And, I’ve been thinking lately about the practices that I employ in my own classroom and how I use technology there.  It’s second nature to me, but I realize that this is because the devices and software in my room actually make my job easier.  They do this in a variety of ways.

First, they can simply reduce the time or effort it takes for me to do something.  For example, my Livescribe smartpens allow me to digitize my master copy of our class science notebook simply and easily.  This takes place instantly with very minimal effort on my part.

Second, they can allow me to do new things that improve student learning.  My best example of this is Voicethread.  Students can create a Voicethread instead of a vanilla Powerpoint to communicate their understanding of a topic or concept, and then have an online discussion with questions and feedback from their peers.  I get an opportunity to assess the learning of everyone, not just the students who created the Voicethread.

Third, tech tools can often allow me to assess my students’ learning without them even knowing that I’m doing it.  At its core, assessment is communication.  Students must communicate to their teacher what they have learned.  To be sure, there are plenty of “analog” ways to assess students, but modern technology allows our students to communicate in ways that are rich, instantaneous, and automatically captured.  Consider the power of student discussion in a forum like edmodo where the teacher can review everything that is posted and pose probing questions that help reveal the misconceptions that her students have.

And, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Assessment, especially formative assessment, is most powerful when it takes place with direct student involvement and as a natural extension of the learning process.  Many digital tools can make this sort of assessment seamless and simple.  Kinda sounds like something you’d like to try, huh?

What are the devices and software that you use to make your teaching life easier?

photo credit: f1uffster (Jeanie) via photo pin cc


More Assessment Author Samples

As our conversation with several noted authors approaches, I have been attempting to showcase some of their work related to the topic:  “Formative Assessment and Grading: Creating a System of Quality Feedback for Improved Student Learning”.  The only author who is slated to participate that I have had the pleasure of meeting in person is Tom Guskey.

Last year, Mr. Guskey spoke as part of a regional grading and assessment workshop and I managed to finagle a ticket and a substitute teacher for two days.  It was well worth the effort.  On one hand, he spent much of the time talking about the purpose of grades and the implications of teachers focusing on the communication and reporting aspect of them.  This I thoroughly agreed with, and found myself nodding along as he spoke.

Then, Guskey described how he implements this philosophy in his own college classroom (although he has also used it at every other level of education from Kindergarten to high school).  This is where my opinion and his differed.

He described his “second chance” policy for retakes of major (summative) assessments.  I disagree about limiting the number of retake opportunities, but I noticed that the resistant teachers who were in my group began to agree with him.  In the years that I had tried to convince them of the value of this view of grades and assessments, I had encountered tremendous opposition.  When Guskey recounted his simple system, however, more and more of these same teachers recognized its advantage.

Before I left that event, I picked up a copy of “Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning” which is edited by Doug Reeves.  It contains chapters written by a Who’s Who of assessment experts.  Tom Guskey pens a chapter on making assessments useful to both teachers and students.  This may sound a bit like Dylan Wiliam’s take on student involvement in assessment, but I think that’s a good thing.

In speaking about the strength of teacher-created authentic assessments, Guskey writes

“If desired learning goals or standards are the foundation of students’ instructional experiences, then assessments of student learning are simply extensions of those same goals and standards.  Instead of teaching to the test, teachers are more accurately ‘testing or assessing what they teach’.”

That’s a pretty clear way to explain the importance of appropriately created assessments, right?

I highly recommend Ahead of the Curve, not just for Guskey’s chapter but also for essays by Ken O’Connor, Rick Stiggins, Dylan Wiliam, Doug Reeves, Bob Marzano, Linda Gregg, and even Rick DuFour.  Each essay/chapter is perfect for a short book study in a PLC, or simply to read before planning out your next instructional unit.

If these topics get you thinking and make you want to explore them more deeply, I encourage you to join us here from October 6-8 for the Voicethread conversation about assessment and grading.  Look for more information about how to use Voicethread and some tips for making the most of a digital conversation later this week and early next week.


Book Review: Elements of Grading

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be moderating an online discussion about assessment and grading, which has really got me excited.  While I think of myself as knowledgeable in this area, and others have praised my ability to speak about it, I can’t hold a candle to the way that some accomplished researchers and writers handle it.

Thanks to the good folks at Solution Tree, some of the foremost experts in the field of assessment will be joining us for the Voicethread conversation October 6-8.  First among these is Doug Reeves, whose work I have been reading for most of my professional life.  In fact, after reading Ken O’Connor’s “The Mindful School”, I immediately grabbed a copy of Reeves’ “Accountability for Learning” and devoured it.

While some of his work has been aimed at administrators and district leaders, Doug’s most recent book, “Elements of Grading: A Guide to Effective Practice” is a truly useful book for teachers.  He writes in a style that teachers can relate to, and he backs up everything with sound research and references.  Some of what you will find in this book is beyond the scope of what an individual teacher can do in her classroom, but most of the issues and questions that he discusses are within the wheelhouse of teachers and PLTs.

From the Introduction, Reeves describes a clear mission for what grades ought to be in the form of four “boundaries”:

  1. Grades must be accurate.
  2. Grades must be fair.
  3. Grades must be specific.
  4. Grades must be timely.

From there, Reeves lays out the importance of grading and the implications for discussions and changes to grading.  In the second chapter, which I read and re-read several times, he makes the case for how critical the current grading debate is and how it can be compared to changes in the medical profession over the last 60 years.  He suggests a simple exercise to help teachers assess their own philosophy on assessment:

“Ask your colleagues to complete the following sentence:  The differences between a student who earns A’s and B’s and the student who earns D’s and F’s are…

This really struck me as a powerful way to force each of us to think about how we look at students, and then discuss the similarities and differences within our school.

Aware of the burden that this type of change places on teachers, though, Reeves includes an entire chapter on ways that busy teachers can implement grading reform in their own classes.  He even addresses the issue of Special Education students and the concerns that teachers have about equitable grading for them.

Elements of Grading ends with advice for administrators about how to successfully conduct these conversations in their schools without alienating large parts of their faculty.  At 140 pages, this book is a quick read that is perfectly suitable for a PLT-based book study.  I strongly recommend it for those educators who want to examine their own grading practices and influence the views of others.  What do you think?


Join us for an Assessment Discussion in October

Long-time Scripted Spontaneity readers may remember that my relationship with education publisher Solution Tree has provided opportunities for us to discuss some of the most pressing educational issues of the day with some very knowledgeable people.

Well, a similar experience will be presenting itself in just a few weeks.  Solution Tree is bringing together some of the most amazing assessment experts in the world to have an online discussion with administrators, educators, and members of the public.  As you might guess, the opportunity to moderate a discussion about one of my favorite topics in education has me pretty psyched!  The conversation will be hosted on Voicethread, with this blog serving as the hub for news and instructions.

So, stay tuned for more information, including how you can get in on the discussion about how we measure what our students have learned.


Measurements or Challenges?

I’ve been engaged in a sort of “war of ideas” lately, on the topic of grading.  I have to admit to some arrogance here, however, as I always go into these conversations knowing I’m right.  After all, I come from the perspective that a grade needs to be purely a measure of content mastery.  Anyone who gives out extra credit or includes practice work in a student’s average just isn’t enlightened enough to get it.

For example, I am constantly promoting the idea that assessments are not mountains to be climbed or puzzles to be solved, but measurements of mastery.  Teachers and parents sometimes argue that students try harder when there is a grade on the line.  I keep telling them, that we need to teach students that these are just “temperature checks” that inform our teaching, not some sort of challenge that must be overcome.

But, there are moments when I realize that I don’t have all the answers.  There are arguments that other teachers make that force me to re-assess some of the practicalities of an instructionally sound grading policy.  The fact is that moving toward a system like the one that I’ve described here and here (and others have discussed here and here), requires more than re-training teachers and administrators.  It means helping students and parents to understand why this is better than the alternative.

But, it’s also much bigger than this.

I came to this realization during another extended “sounding board” discussion with my friend and colleague, Erica Speaks.  She rightly pointed out that while I might say that assessments are just “measurements of content mastery” (can’t you just picture the air quotes here?), they have so much more impact than that.  I interrupted to remind her that we need to train students of this new reality.  She countered that school athletics, university admissions, and lots of others create an environment in which kids are made to feel that earning a good grade is an achievement that one gets through hard work.  Academic failure is described as a failure of will and effort.

Should a patient feel like a failure if her temperature is 100.8 degrees instead of 98.6?  She might if it meant that she couldn’t join the Marine Corps (or the Peace Corps).  Measurements have meaning when they are tied to extrinsic rewards and used as standards for participation.

It is now clear to me that grading practices are not going to improve until those “downstream” from public education are on board.  As Russ Goerend put it in a recent blog post,

“Grading is communication. Once all stakeholders are speaking the same language, it becomes a much less meaningful conversation.”


Looking for Something to Read this Summer?

Despite my year-round teaching schedule, it seems natural to catch up on my reading (both fun fiction and work nonfiction) during the summer months.  I spend a lot of my limited free time enjoying (and annotating) various professional and personal books.  Here’s my recommended list:

Helping Students Motivate Themselves” by Larry Ferlazzo

This new book does a great job of taking Ferlazzo’s lessons from his own classroom and making them feasible for any teacher.  His activities that are designed to teach self-control are particularly awesome.


Ahead of the Curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning” edited by Doug Reeves

What? You thought that I might not mention a grading book?  Ha!  This collection of essays by assessment experts gives a nice cross-section of the current thinking on assessment and grading.  I especially recommend that chapters by Ken O’Connor and Bob Marzano.


Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life” by Carl Zimmer

This beautifully written book, like so many science books written by Zimmer, is appropriate for any level of science fan.  It’s as close to fiction as you’ll find in this list of recommendations.


Have you read any of these?  Have strong opinions that you are dying to share?  Put ’em in a comment!