Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grading Participation?

Today, I had an unexpected and quite interesting conversation about grades, including how we evaluate participation, and so I wanted to record some ideas here for further discussion. In the past, while teaching both as a TA and in my first few years at the secondary level, I've always built a participation component into my overall schema. But, after reflecting on what participation means over the past year, I no longer include it. It's a big shift from how I used to approach grading, but I think it's for the best.

The current conception of grading is severely flawed, as more and more educators are realizing; but I just want to focus here on participation, in that it may help us to see this bigger and fuzzier picture more clearly. I'm particularly interested in this question, since it has a lot to do with developing EQ and non-cognitive skills in students, which is one of my major projects this year. With that, grading participation, as I see it, is flawed for developing emotional and social intelligence for a number of reasons:

  • Grades are founded on the "carrot and stick" model that Pink has criticized so well in his discussion on motivation (cf. Drive pp. 32-57). I've come to believe that we should never force kids to participate in class, but rather create the sorts of environments that encourage and welcome their participation in their own individual ways. It's thus our responsibility as educators to facilitate classroom participation, not our kids'. As such, they shouldn't be penalized for our own failures.
  • Based on our different levels of "social comfort" within classrooms, participation cannot be evaluated evenly and fairly within a given group. How do we evaluate the more talkative students beside those who aren't as comfortable or confident voicing their opinions? How can we take into account different levels of brain development and self control? Too often, I fear, we attribute participation grades to personalities more than anything else.
  • As far as I know, participation can't be easily defined and therefore measured. Is there such a thing as a "rubric" for participation, especially within "one size fits all" model? How do we give effective feedback for participation that accurately reflects an understanding of the brain?
  • Most critically of all, perhaps, participation is often used as a tool to "fudge" grades, arbitrarily moving some kids up or down a grade level. Is it fair that one student with an 89.7% should get an "A-", while another a "B+" based solely on participation? Shouldn't an 89.7% that's fairly earned equal another 89.7% (whatever that even means!)? Opacity in grades just isn't fair.
Ultimately, this is a discussion about ego. It's not that egos are inherently bad, per se, but when we let them control us, as in this particular case, we build an expectation for participation, which we use grades to enforce. Within the traditional framework, then, assigning a grade to participation is more about us than about our students. But if we can let go of these expectations and let the kids be themselves, while we work to design engaging environments for them, we can develop EQ without the need for a carrot or a stick. In other words, it's about controlling our ego and expectation by building empathy, or an understanding of our classroom experience from our students' individual perspectives. It's not easy, but I think it's the right thing to do.

I'll admit that I'm heavily biased, so I welcome comments or other ideas below or on Twitter. What do you think about participation? Why or why not do you believe in using it to evaluate students? Can we make it work, or is it inherently flawed? What have I missed?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Building d.Teams with DEEPid

N.B.: This post can also be found on the #dtk12chat community page.

I've been talking with more people about design thinking (DT) lately, and the question about how to do DT within classes consistently resurfaces. It's a great question, and, to be honest, I myself have been thinking for quite some time now about how to incorporate DT into our Latin program. Below, I'm going to take a circuitous route outlining my ideas for an answer.

MVIFI's DEEPdt Model for Design Thinking
I'm sure most educators have some familiarity with the STEAM movement that now occupies the center stage at many schools. And I'm sure most are also familiar with a number of the attempts to twist the STEAM acronym to include other subject areas within an interdisciplinary framework (cf. the evolution of STEM to STEAM and another interesting idea that adds SEL elements in the equation). I deeply value cross-discipline thinking and the project-based approach; but while the inclusion of these other disciplines is often thoughtful, it's also forced and ultimately uninspiring, as I see it.

Since I've been paying attention to the development of STEAM, I've been keen to see when language study will finally find itself a part of the acronym; but to date, I've yet to see a single argument in favor of including our field. As a Latin teacher and an advocate of language study, I'm disappointed, if not not too surprised, by the relative neglect of language study beside more alluring subjects like math and science. The failure to include language study echoes our nationwide attitudes toward language learning.

As we've been rethinking our approach to pedagogy at our school and in our own World Languages department, we've had to work to justify why language study plays a valuable role within education. Fortunately, I think the justification is easy: language study is most valuable when it involves a high degree of cultural fluency in complement to linguistic fluency. That is, the best and most effective language programs focus on people, rather than the just language itself. That sounds a lot like DT to me, and I'm of the opinion that this is the direction that language study needs to take in order to stay relevant in the next generation.

To return to how we might use DT within our classrooms, I use DT in Latin to help me build discovery skills with my students. We focus on this one phase of the process and we learn to do it as best we can, now that I have come to understand how language study plays the role of discovery within the process of innovation. Language study teaches us how to communicate with people and, namely, how to value and learn from differences through divergent thinking, which is a critical component of problem solving. This is what discovery is all about, and since discovery is arguably the most important phase of DT, I think that language study is more relevant than ever.

So, I don't take students through the entire DT process in my Latin classes. Instead, we focus on the process of discovery by learning about the people who used Latin communicated. We work to build fluency of Roman culture, alongside the Latin language, through the documentation that they left behind, and by doing so we develop a number of critical non-cognitive skills like effective collaboration and listening to hear (rather than listening to reply), we test our creativity, and we build empathy for people who lived rather far away from us in both time and space.

With this in mind, I want to rethink the STEAM as the sole solution to interdisciplinary work, in that it's too narrow in scope with respect to the kinds of collaboration and thinking that the world's problems need. In other words, STEAM and all the other acronyms offered for it too often seem to be attempts at pulling content together, rather than combining the skills necessary for creative and innovative problem solving.

DEEPid #sketchnotes
Instead, following on an idea proposed by +Mary Cantwell in her post on building d.Teams, I'm now more interested in considering an interdisciplinary study model through the DEEPdt framework, in which the skills that each subject area teach, not just their content, drive our collective interdisciplinary approach. These skills can then be woven together by members of a given d.Team to offer a more realistic vision for interdisciplinary work that can help us to attack real problems more successfully.

In these d.Teams, with a grounding in the DEEPdt model, our work begins with the skills that we use to learn from and about people. Since our language programs teach precisely these skills, problem discovery can begin in our language courses. Our work can be then passed along to those areas that move into the next phase of the DT process, hopefully encouraging the various subject areas to work together within it. I like this model because it favors skills over content, it brings people into the equation through the social impact that Mary stresses.

That said, I have more questions than answers for how DEEP interdisciplinary work could work in schools (I'll call it "DEEPid" for now). I've sketched out some tentative ideas for it, and I'm eager to think through them with everyone in our #dtk12chat community. We'll have a discussion on building d.Teams on Wed., 10/22 at 6pm PST, and in the meantime, I love to hear how others think that DT can be used to bridge our traditional subject divisions. What skills are most valuable in the traditional content areas? How can they fit into the DT framework? How might a DEEPid program get started? I'm looking forward to our discussion!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cultivating a Gratitude Practice

Latin IA Gratitude Notes
Following the CUE Manhattan Beach Rock Star camp, friend and colleague +Karl Lindgren-Streicher reflected on the incredible experience, sharing his gratitude with a number of influential people who have helped him along his journey. It's a great post, and now that I have spent the summer reflecting about many of the changes sweeping through our school and my role within them, I want to follow suit and start developing a regular gratitude practice of my own, beginning with how I ended up where I am today.

Though I always had an interest in technology and Google in particular, I never really pushed the envelope as far as I could in my current job and wasn't even aware of the possibilities that tech offered. Then, in the fall of 2012 our school went GAFE, and so I decided to attend a Google Summit in Boulder, CO in August to see what others have been doing with Google, working under the assumption that I was farther along than I really was.

It was the first educational conference I attended, and needless to say, I was stunned by the creativity that people were bringing to the table, and the things they were doing with their students opened my eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about teaching (especially as I look back on my notes from the summit). That's when I first met +Wendy Gorton+Molly Schroeder, and +Mark Wagner. They introduced me to the professional world of educational technology and inspired me to get out of my comfort zone by trying new things. And Wendy in particular introduced me to the world of the Google Certified Teacher and the community that GCTs have created for themselves. I was hooked and wanted to be a part of it.

In looking back, though, I wasn't even on Twitter at the time of the Boulder summit! Thanks to what I learned there about the power of being connected, I soon got back on, after two previous failed attempts. It makes me smile to look back on my first Tweet:

It wasn't long before I stumbled onto #caedchat and started regularly participating in the weekly conversations, where I met countless other passionate educators who have since shaped my own thinking. That's where I first met Karl, and I also had the good fortune to start developing a relationship with the HBUSD crew, including +JR Ginex-Orinion+Chris Long+David Theriault+Sean Ziebarth, among others like +Alice Keeler . These guys have helped me to see the value of sharing and leading by example through the interesting things they do seemingly every day.

With that momentum, I applied for the GTA in Mountain View in Dec. of 2012, though without luck. I applied again for Chicago in June of 2013, thanks to some inspiration offered by +Alice Chen, and this time luck was on my side. I had an amazing time in Chicago, thanks to the best community of educators I know and for whom I will always be grateful. They taught me the value of community and hammered home the power of the "Yes, and..." mindset. If I name one, I'd have to name them all.

It was in Chicago that I started to think about innovation and the role that design plays in education, and shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2013, I learned about design thinking and the #dtk12chat community devoted to its role in education. Through #dtk12chat, I met the Mount Vernon crew and a number of other regulars on Twitter who have had a major impact in how I now think about innovation and change. +Trey Boden, +Mary Cantwell, and +Dan Ryder, to only name a few, have made me realize that change first and foremost is about people, which has had a profound impact on how I now approach the teaching profession.

So many others have helped me along the way that it's impossible to thank them all. But these are some the folks who have been present a major turnposts in the evolution of my own thinking, and I'm grateful for the educational community that they have helped to create. Thanks go to Karl for inspiring me to write this post. I'll echo his call for others to consider who has helped them along their own paths and share it out.

A new school mission statement was just recently unveiled to our community, after a year of work building it. It goes well beyond traditional academic emphases, and I expect it to be a beacon for decades to come, and I'm quite proud to share it:
Harvard-Westlake strives to be
a diverse and inclusive community united by
the joyful pursuit of educational excellence,
living and learning with integrity,
and purpose beyond ourselves.
This year, I plan on cultivating a gratitude practice with my students. Once a week, we'll take about 10min to write down on a Post-It note something we're grateful for or share something good that happened in the week, and then we'll post it somewhere in the room for others to see (with or without names attached to the note). By doing this, I hope that we can create a more mindful classroom experience that underscores our new mission by actively engaging with gratitude and sharing it within our community. It should be a great year.