by Stefanie Whitney
It is Friday morning—5:07 a.m. Coffee is brewing. It’s just me on the couch and a few books close by for inspiration. Sounds kind of delightful—except I have already been generously granted an extension on this article; this article that is still five pages of disconnected thoughts. The seed of doubt that usually precedes my “process” (**snort**)—a flurry of typing and accidental connections—is now growing into a grapefruit of trepidation just chilling in my esophagus.
The blinking image in my mind: “tl;dr.” (In case you too are late to this party, “tl;dr” is an abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” which I feel summarizes every email I have ever sent.)
My internal struggle for this article vacillates between two contradictory thoughts:
The latter is winning out; so, today I aim for brevity—windy introduction notwithstanding.
**This is where I introduce some thoughts and then weave them together. Fasten your seatbelts.**
In April 2015, I set out on a program with the goal of better understanding the bigger picture of educational leadership and the intersection of leadership and teacher professional development. More comfortable with even the remotest semblance of a plan, I was filled with hope, believing the next few years would be spent learning about leadership and intricately studying feedback and its impact on professional development.
The pursuit of a degree required me to delve into existing research before developing my own theories, which is a process that I understand and, frankly, enjoy. I’ve always believed that answers can be found through enough digging. That we can lean on the expertise of others to help us find our way. Namely, that someone else has been there, done that, and drawn a map with coffee shops clearly marked.
As a cumulative effect of the past 2.5 years (and quite possibly the previous 42), I am beginning to sense disruption to that which has always given me great comfort. I’m drawn to Brene Brown’s explanation of another form of research—grounded theory:
“I develop theories based on lived experiences, not existing theories. Only after I capture the participants' experiences do I try to place my theories in the existing research. Grounded theory researchers do it in that order so that our conclusions about the data aren’t skewed by existing theories that may or may not reflect real experiences by diverse populations.”
Through my own research, I did mosey into areas that align with Brown’s explanation of grounded theory. In short: educators have a great deal of power. When I researched how administrators can build cultures of trust, what I found through talking with teachers is that, ultimately, teachers choose whether or not they trust their administrators
When I researched the effectiveness of instructional feedback as a driver of professional growth, I found out how often teachers ultimately choose whether to accept feedback as valid and actionable. These points are incredibly simplified; I offer them because what is perhaps more noteworthy is the frequency of conversations with teachers who seem to feel powerless within the system of education. To be fair, I also often feel this way. This bears a need for much more research, but I posit that this research needs to begin grounded in personal experience rather than existing research. I’ll get to why in a moment. But first—a confession:
This bold proclamation, coming from someone who holds no positional power, put an exclamation mark on a conversation centered around key contributors to the current teaching climate in this space--fraught with all the complexities anyone reading this surely knows well. I suppose I feel disclosing this information is necessary based on the “no positional power” reality.
Who am I to suggest such a thing? I have been assured by this group of colleagues that “save yourself” was sound advice, perhaps in the vein of Brene Brown’s “clear is kind” approach; however, I did find my confidence waning as I stepped cautiously into the hallway. How loud was my voice moments ago? Who heard me?
Initially, the meaning behind my words came from a place of compassion; I want my colleagues to be okay. I hear you; I see you; I know this year is incredibly challenging for reasons beyond our control. The oxygen mask version of saving yourself first. I meant this then and I still mean it now.
However, in the passing days since that initial statement, I am more and more convinced of another, perhaps more important, meaning to “save yourself.”
Enter grounded theory: If we know these are indeed unprecedented times. And that no one alive today has dealt with a global pandemic, a divided nation, an assault on critical thinking, social inequities and the long overdue need for justice, an ongoing climate crisis… then why are we looking around to someone else for answers? Why am I delving into books and “experts” and looking to leaders who also have not lived through this before?
We are the leaders we seek. In our families and classrooms and schools and districts. And if we aren’t sure where to begin, let’s do what grounded theory researchers do: listen. We need to ask—and not just the loudest voices, those who expect to be asked and who find it comfortable sharing their opinions. Ask those who are quietly watching, observing the chaos and experiencing its impact. Ask. Ask students who are sitting in class—avoiding eye contact. Ask those who went to the bathroom 30 minutes ago—when they return, of course. And then settle in to listen to their answers. Share power.
Let’s ask students, in the same way we hope our leaders ask us, what they need in order to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of agency.
I spent five years researching the intricacies of professional growth. I started with feedback and found myself reading about the need for effective evaluation systems. I researched leadership and spent a great deal of time reading about teacher agency. I researched relationships and emerged weeks (months) later with a better understanding of trust. I started by researching those in positions of power, and ended up discovering how much power is possessed by educators.
In a time when ‘powerlessness’ is the pervasive feeling:
True to form, when trying to determine how we can manifest power, I’m struck by how ready we are to give it up. We are living through a time where nothing feels familiar, known. Our past touchstones now look and feel different in our hands and in our minds. That which comforted us and made us feel successful in the past no longer carries reassurances that we know what we are doing. Unsettled is an understatement.
But we are not powerless. The rally cry six months ago was that we cannot return to the way things were. Yet, it feels like we returned to school, dusted off our old talisman, and are using standards previously deemed ineffective to measure our current success and the success of everyone around us. And we look to others to be the change we hoped to see.
We have power. Don’t hand it over to someone you may not trust with it in the first place.
“If what’s under cynicism and sarcasm is despair, the antidote is cultivating hope. According to the research of C. R. Snyder, hope isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling; he actually defines it as a cognitive emotional process that has three parts. The three parts are goal, pathway, and agency. We can identify a realistic goal (I know where I want to go), and then we can figure out the pathway to get there, even if it’s not a straight line…. Agency is belief in our ability to stay on that path until we’ve arrived….”
So, what does this mean?
I do not have this mastered, nor am I an authority. Today, I’m simply following Brown’s advice: “Write the book you need to read.”
I needed to read this—this article—to reclaim some of my hope, my action. If you are feeling this way, too: save yourself.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
Over two years ago, in the spring of 2019, I had grand ideas of how to grade differently—of how to motivate students with an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, rather than with extrinsic letter grades and percentages. After having spent four years working in the office of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and with plans to return to the classroom that coming fall, I wanted to take what I had learned over my four years—part of which had been a deep dive into grading practices—and implement them with flare. That plan resulted in the article "Seeing the Motivation: Filling ClassROWEs with Jagged Learners," which was first published in May 2019 and the full text of which is also embedded below..
*All additions are in this font and noted by a gray, vertical line.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, vs. letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as RPS's established Prioritized Learnings.
In my current school community, Dover-Eyota Public Schools, we call these 'Essential Leaning Outcomes (ELOs)'. Some schools call these 'Power Standards'. No matter the name, this is valuable work the really helps hone the focus of student learning and growth.
However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
Last week, a student of mine from 2019-2020 reached out to me to inquire about a letter of recommendation. While a letter was the reason for her setting up a Zoom call with me, during our time together she shared with me that it was this flexibility—this acknowledgement that learning doesn't always happen 'on schedule'—that saved her in the spring of 2020 when we suddenly shifted to online learning. Numerous times throughout the video chat, she thanked me for grading this way.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic), even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
Since 2019, I have also been reminded often of how important visuals are for our English language learners, especially when students are involved with creating those visuals.
Advertisers lean into the power of visuals, so why shouldn't teachers? Essentially, we are 'selling' skills, a love of learning, and content...
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it All Together
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to the classroom in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
Perhaps the most complicated piece of this whole shift was figuring out how to explain it to students and parents. I suspected that many would need to understand why the shift was occurring and that most would want to know the logistics of how it would work and what they would see when it came to student report cards, transcripts, and online student information systems (SIS) like Skyward, JMC, Gradelink, Infinite Campus, etc.
As it turned out, while there were a few parents and students who were initially frustrated, ultimately everyone was either ambivalent (rare) or fully onboard (more common) about the change. Those who were the most hesitant to join us on this journey: students who had done well in the past because they knew how to navigate a traditional school system and now found themselves disquieted by this new one, and those who wanted to know what the minimum requirement was to get an ‘A’.
Independent Choice and Independent Learning in Elementary Physical Education
By Eric Aeschlimann
In most ways, this pandemic has been a tough ride for teachers but it hasn’t been all bad. As educators, if we can’t see obstacles as opportunities for growth, then we aren’t living up to our growth mindset ideals we expect our students to strive towards.
In Physical Education (PE), my system has always included a schedule of units and skill-building that allowed an introduction to skills, time to practice, and opportunities to build on previous skills. Out of necessity, the schedule depended on weather (soccer in fall, gymnastics in winter when stuck in the gym, etc.) and much of that has stayed the same. But, this year, with fewer minutes for PE, it was an opportunity to take a risk and attempt something I’d been wanting to try for a long time: independent learning for grades K-5.
I wanted to have students come to class and immediately start independent work for the first 5-10 minutes of class. In theory, if students were motivated to improve on these chosen skills then these 5-10 minutes would add up to a lot of practice by the end of the school year. After set time for practice, then our PE units would follow the same order as before: a quick chat about the day, a warm-up, and finally our daily unit/game/activity.
Once back in the gym in late January, I trained students to choose a skill to practice for the first 5-10 minutes of class. Luckily, I had whiteboards at my disposal for daily reminders, and I put 6 skills on one board and 5 exercises on another. I had skills and levels of expectation for grades K-5 on each whiteboard. It looked like this:
This became a habit: students were taught that each day they’d have 5-10 minutes to work on a skill or exercise of their choice. My goal for them was to get to their grade-level-ability or better by the end of the school year: the first number was generally a first-grade level and the final number listed a fifth-grade level. I stressed to students that this year we were behind in our typical learning and that while some kids already had some of these skills, others may not, so each should choose a skill they individually needed to improve upon. To keep the “watch me’s” at bay, I told students this was independent work time and that I would ‘test’ each of them on a different day: my goal was to check about 5 kids each day and give feedback to those students, while everyone worked independently on each of their skills of choice.
What I’ve learned in the first month and a half of this process has proven what I had hoped.
Additionally, I have noticed how much interest there has been in the pull-up bars. I have five spots for this and they’re typically full: students race to get to them so they can work on pull-ups or the flexed arm hang. We’ve also had the rope and arm ladders available during much of February and it has been so fun to see students getting stronger just by using those muscles.
I am always reminding students that if they want to get better at something then they need to practice. Climbing the rope, swinging on the rope, pull-ups, and flexed arm hangs are very real examples to students, who after a little over a month of practice, are seeing their work pay off: those who could not do a flexed arm hang have been able to hold themselves up after they work on it and play on the rope.
Students have been able to choose a skill, find out which grade level they are at, and then work on it every day they have PE and track their own improvement. It has been exactly what I had hoped for: not just me telling students what was important, but them choosing a skill and putting actual effort into improving at it. The focus has been tremendous.
I will continue to use this system of choice within my classes moving forward. I’m impressed with how much content I’m able to assess with this new system. Plus, the smaller class sizes we have had this year due to Covid-19 have allowed me to really get to know each student’s skill level better and to monitor individual progress. With elementary PE, units are still practical and necessary due to equipment set-up and the simple fact that elementary kids, in order to learn new skills, need personal practice as well as to see their peers demonstrating practice. At the older levels, however (fourth & fifth), I can see this system expanded to more than the first 5-7 minutes of PE: I can see a warm-up choice, small unit choice, or even skill-practice within each unit.
Prior Understanding Matches Findings & Bonus Discoveries
What I had previously learned about personalized learning was that students would be on task with more focus because each student’s education was tailored to their current level. Students in their ‘sweet spot’ of not too hard and not too easy would take ownership of their learning and really focus to improve their skill. This is true in my newfound experience.
A healthy side effect of this model has been how little I’ve had students give up or refuse to participate. Discipline is hardly needed, as kids simply know what to do and do it. They don’t get bored because they have eleven choices and each one at their own skill-level.
Tips for Sucess
I am excited to see how far, moving forward, I can stretch putting kids in charge of their own learning as they become independent learners. After all, students becoming independent learners is our endgame.
My suggestion to any teacher who wants to put students in the driver’s seat more often:
Personally, I tried this a couple of years ago with fifth graders, tweaked a few things, then added fourth graders. Though it might not be viable in every subject area every day, I do believe whenever individual work is being done, it is possible.
The trick for the K-3 students was to ‘train’ students prior to setting them free to explore: I was nervous about them learning something the wrong way and becoming embedded muscle memory. Therefore, I spent a few minutes on each skill and spent the first few days after not tracking or assessing, but monitoring proper technique instead.
There is a sweet spot of not too hard, nor too easy. For younger students who are not yet readers, this can be tricky; so, I used pictures and symbols with numbers underneath and encouraged kids to help each other or ask me if they forgot or couldn’t figure something out.
Application Beyond PE
This technique is not only for PE! In a math class, for example, one choice could be flash cards, another could be white-board practice, another could be manipulatives (cubes, coins, etc.), money counting, etc. On a whiteboard or poster, could be the levels. I think it is key for students to know where grade level is and beyond. It could look like this:
I was looking for a way to give choice and voice to students and hoped for focused work that led to increased assessment scores and fewer discipline issues. What I learned in my K-5 PE classes this winter was that it can be done. Students were self-motivated and focused on the task at hand; therefore, I had fewer issues with students off task.
I am excited as I look ahead to how I can expand choices in different units and settings, as I feel I have opened a new door that has endless possibilities. When teachers choose to go this route, students will become more independent and self motivated. Who doesn’t love that?
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.