By Gina Meinertz
As a leader, I have always avoided data. I know that sounds crazy.
We all know that we can’t make decisions without data, but every time I heard data analysis, goal setting, or SMART goal, I thought about someone else’s accountability for objectives and goals in someone else’s dream (or mission and vision if you want to use the 'correct' terminology). I would go into these meetings and learning opportunities knowing I would spend the time complying to the process without much excitement, action, or vision for how I would implement changes in connection to the data we were reviewing.
Then, along came an opportunity for me to help guide a data collection, reflection, and action-planning process for an area organization. It would be a way to give back and guide other districts in our region with their own MTSS structures.
My first response, internally, was the same as always, a little gag reflex and a deep breath, but then a "yes, I can do that."
I went to work learning about the Tiered Fidelity Inventory that the Minnesota Department of Education recommends. I learned how to give this inventory to other school districts and how to help these districts create an action plan from their data.
As I worked through this inventory in a few different systems, I started to appreciate how the data from this inventory was bringing each district’s story of collaboration alive. We were not just analyzing student growth, but discussing what processes and structures supported a productive team. The inventory used such depth and clarity, people who used to shrug their shoulders and say, “We do that,” started to question their system, their teams, and their data in new ways. They started to look at the patterns of their system to find specific ways to shift their system for the better. Finally, I was seeing data for the possibilities that it holds.
Many of you may already see it, but for those of you who don’t. Keep searching. You just have found the right data, reflection process, or personal connection to the data yet.
Here are a couple of things that I have learned about data once my fear decreased and my curiosity increased.
I am not in a place to call myself a data geek quite yet. But I am ready to share how I think you could find more meaning in the data you use. Here are three directions to explore:
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Know your strengths and interests. Then, find data that tells you the story that relates to your strengths and interests. For instance, I am a big picture and systematic thinker. By looking at data that was drilling down into specifics, I was missing the view that serves me the best. I need data that gave me a view of where we needed to be as a system and what we needed to do and change to get to our desired point.
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Data takes many forms. Many times, we feel like we only have one option, standardized assessment data, to guide our decisions. This is a great starting point, but we also need to be able to use other points of data to guide our decision making.
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I hope this quick read has convinced you to look at data with a new perspective, a curious one.
Ideas by Gauri Sood & Dr. Amit Sood, framed by Heather M. F. Lyke
Building trust, whether it be with students or fellow staff members, is foundational for learning and growth to occur. In our recent conversation with student Gauri Sood and her father Dr. Amit Sood, we explore five aspects that, when laid out and actively implemented, help establish trust.
Amit Sood notes that, “people don’t like you for who you are: people like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.”
Plotting it Out
The Soods share five ways to build trust in such a way that people will grow to “like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.” And, not surprisingly, these five fall into line much like the points found on a traditional plotline.
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Social Emotional Learning as a Collaboration
with Gauri Sood & Amit Sood | 9.28.21
Daughter and father, Gauri and Amit Sood (an international expert on mental health) speak to the team about collaboration with your audience as well as great mental health tools for teachers and students.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also authored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Gauri Sood is co-creator and lead trainer of HappiGenius, a Social Emotional Learning tool for young learners. She also serves as a member of the education committee for the Rochester Community Initiative and the Rochester Youth Commission, and she is the teen representative for Food Allergies of Rochester, MN. Gauri is a senior at Mayo High School.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
My students have taught me an important lesson over the years that is a step beyond my vocabulary lessons. They taught me that words can be powerful. Words have power not only in the academic world, like my vocabulary lessons, but in the social and emotional world as well. Each word that is spoken has meaning. Even the most simple words, like “hello,” have meaning to both the speaker and the listener. The speaker has a meaning, but the listener may interpret it differently. Our words are powerful to our students, families, and colleagues.
Here is an example of where words matter.
As I was walking down the hall to visit a classroom, I noticed a student slithering like a snake down the hallway. I knew this student was not where he needed to be and that his teacher was looking for him.
My first thought was to say, you need to walk down the hall to your classroom.
Feeling like this was a demanding statement and one he may not respond well to, I decided to say instead, “You have great snake-like skills! Let’s think of another animal that walks on two legs that we can mimic as we head to your classroom.”
This is one example of how words can be powerful with adults too (not just our students).
“Ugh, Johnny is driving me crazy today! He just won’t stop tapping his pencil during math! I told him to knock it off and he wouldn’t!
What if you heard the teacher say this instead?
“Johnny likes to tap his pencil on his desk. I noticed it was bothering other students. So, I went up to him and said, ‘I bet you are going to be a fantastic drummer someday. Let’s practice drumming with your pencil at recess and I’ll give you a fidget toy to use until then’. He loved using the fidget and we finished the lesson without any more disruptions.”
The article “15 Ways to Bring More Positive Language into Your Classroom and School” from We Are Teachers provides a great infographic with examples of how to tweak phrases to be both affirming and positive.
The old phrase “think before you speak” is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I started my career in education. I hope you fall in love with positive and powerful words, too!
One day, after several spirited classes, in which school was starting to feel pre-pandemic normal, in part because I could see smiles in student’s eyes above their masks. I was congratulating myself for a great morning as I headed to the restroom where a quick check in the mirror necessitated a double take: right in the back of my carefully parted hair there was a Alfalfa spike, and it took some water to tame, so it had been there advertising my silliness all day, like the inflatable “air dancers” at car lots. I swallowed my pride and obsessively checked to be sure my buttons and zippers held the rest of me in place.
The next day, a less literal oversight occurred as I engaged my AP Lit class in an analysis of a provocative short story, Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.” (Quick synopsis: a group of young gangsters in post-World War II London destroys a thing of beauty. Utterly.) As we unpacked the piece, first in small groups and then as a whole class, our spotlight focused on one of the main characters, a boy called “T.” I pointed to a piece of textual evidence in which T behaves with kindness and empathy, which seems to run against the grain of his destructiveness. A student raised a hand.
Another blindspot! I’ve taught that story a dozen times, and I still missed something, not because I hadn't looked, but because I had--again and again; I’d looked so often that my view had become fixed, despite the fact that it was incomplete.
Dueck’s new book, like Grading Smarter, Not Harder before it, offers a wealth of research and classroom tested strategies for engaging students where they’re at and honoring their perspectives. Here are a few quotes from the book to chew on before we get into specifics:
- John Hattie, who wrote the foreword, argues, “Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them” (ix).
- “Inviting students into the realm of assessment is linked to increased motivation, confidence, self-regulation, and performance” (6).
- “We need more testing but less grading” (89).
- “Why are so many individual educators, schools, or entire districts married to a percentage system when in the end they intend to report on one of five levels?” (123)
For students, these communication tools proactively circumvent embarrassing and deflating blind spots, and they provide empowering information to help students track their progress toward targets.
Some of his findings, summarized:
- Difficulty is desirable, especially when building long-term learning (81).
- Students learn more from an hour of testing than an hour of studying (84).
- Teachers and students need to distinguish between performance and learning, then lean into the latter (85).
- Immediate feedback may boost immediate performance but undermine lasting learning (86).
- Feedback too often provokes emotional reactions; we need to make sure it inspires cognitive ones (87).
- Grade inflation results when we confuse performance with learning (87).
- Event-based gradebooks are unreliable; grades must be standards-based (91).
- Students can and should track their own learning (92-99).
- Teachers need not grade homework (95).
- Pretesting may be more effective than retesting (98).
Yes, there are challenges there, and Dueck backs them with logic, personal experience, and recent, compelling research. Most importantly, he explains how to improve assessment practices: he includes classroom-ready materials for both elementary and secondary settings; he offers a detailed amplification of how to create and employ rubrics that function as learning tools by focusing on communication, as opposed to evaluation; and he makes and a persuasive argument for why and how we must revise grading practices to include student self-reporting and to escape from the imprecision. The tools he offers are substantial, timely, and actionable.
with Myron Dueck & Phil Olson | 9.14.21
Dueck triumphantly returns to Third Eye, this time joined by teacher Phil Olson, to discuss his new book and giving students voice.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
- Which of my stories, my data, support a more human-centered approach to education? To life?
- Which stories lend to more empathy and understanding?
- Which stories are staved in assumptions, even bias?
- Which stories do I most lean on when trying to understand someone with whom I disagree?
- How do I want to appear in the stories of others?
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Perhaps the hardest part of downsizing was that we sometimes run into those items we needed to get rid of but struggled to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but were no longer of use. Items like:
- The quilt I once bought on sale at Carson Pirie Scott—the one that covered my bed in the home I purchased when I was 24 but has become ratted and faded over the years.
- The Lego sets my husband used to play with growing up—the ones his parents gave us when they were cleaning out their closets that suddenly sat stacked in ours.
- The extra wedding invitations we ordered because ordering in bulk was cheaper, but once in our home they simply sat on a shelf.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are always items that are easy to donate or toss:
- extra paper handouts
- past seating charts
- meeting notes about things that have since occurred
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
- that lesson on ___ that didn’t quite work out as planned
- that article I thought was great but that students didn’t quite get into
- that teaching strategy that just doesn’t seem to keep students engaged anymore
In 2019, to get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), found ourselves watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Now, in the fall of 2021, a reminder of all the downsizing we did has resurfaced in the form of Kondō’s newest Netflix show, Sparking Joy with Marie Kondō. Having read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when it was first released, both Netflix series have served as a reminder to me of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas (which are also reinforced by her newest book, Joy at Work). Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
7 Steps for Applying the KonMari Method to Our Classrooms:
Commit to tidying up all at once.
"From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."
Imagine the ideal to prevent relapse.
Is there a certain skill your students consistently struggle with and you need more time to fortify that skillset?
- Is there a certain group of students you struggle to connect with and want to add some material that might better engage them?
- Are there new strategies that you’ve learned and want to try, but are not sure where they best fit?
Keeping the answers to questions like these at the forefront will help you stay on track, should the tiding ever get overwhelming. (And, if you’re anything like me, it will.)
Ask yourself questions for each item.
When working with home items, she suggests:
- What is the purpose of this object?
- Has it fulfilled its purpose already?
- Why did I get this thing?
- When did I get it?
- How did it land in my house?
Since these questions don’t really work with instruction; instead, we might ask ourselves questions such as:
- What was the purpose of this activity/resource/lesson/text/etc.?
- Does it still fulfill this purpose?
- Why did I start using this activity/resource/lesson/text/etc.?
- When did I start using it?
- Why has it remained in my lesson plans?
- Does this still spark joy in my classroom?
- Am I still passionate when I teach ___ the way I’ve been teaching it?
- When I use/do ___, is joy sparked in my students?
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ then keep it around: teach the lesson again, use that text next year, and/or continue to utilize that strategy.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
- Must keep, but need to revamp. This pile/list is for items that are critical to student learning: items that align tightly with power standards, essential learning outcomes, or prioritized learnings which help scaffold instruction for struggling learners, or that are specifically noted as a curricular requirement. However, despite them being critical, they are not sparking joy—so they need a makeover.
- Donate. This pile/list is for items that no longer work with your course or student population, but that would still spark joy if used in a different course or with a different group of students. Maybe it’s a strategy you used to use with 9th graders that now would better fit 8th graders. Maybe it’s a book that used to work in the Contemporary Novels course, but due to its publication date may now fit better in American Literature. Share these gems with your colleagues!
- Discard completely. This pile/list is self-explanatory, although it certainly can be challenging to let go of items we once used as a reliable activity/resource/lesson/text...
“when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
Finish discarding before moving on.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
Organize by category.
Designate a spot for everything.
This step reminds me of what I did over decade ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding it into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it led to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As Marie Kondō states:
“the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.”