Paradigm shift one (re-dos, re-takes, do-overs)

Stand Tall, Guitar

“Stand Tall, Guitar” by Chris Miller, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The past 15 months have inspired me to reconsider so many of my long-held truths.  In this series of posts, I’m laying bare the evolution of my attitudes, the fears and reservations that have held and continue to hold me back, and the steps taken so far to get closer to where I want to be.

Re-dos, re-takes, and do-overs

Reading Rick Wormeli and watching his TED talk on the subject started the ball rolling for me on this one.  Further fuel was added by the thoughts and research of Carol Dweck and the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset which Wormeli mentions at the beginning of the talk.  Along the way, I watched another enlightening presentation about skateboarding by Dr. Tae.

Whether these beliefs are practical or not, whether they conform to the way we have always done “school” or not is truly not relevant.  Eternal idealist, I am holding as my guiding star what should be, rather than what is or even what can be.  The three points below summarize my idealistic epiphany:

  1. Failure is not merely a common human occurence, but a necessary stepping stone to success.  We fall countless times while learning to walk.  We stumble over sounds and syllables on the way to learning speech and language.  Nothing we do, love to do or learn to do well is an exception.  I’ve spent more hours than I could recall playing guitar.  The fingers of my left hand have developed callouses and the muscles have ached.  Despite all the failure and the inability to do what I want or what others can do, I still pick up the instrument for the joy it provides, and I still agonize to learn new songs, new licks, new techniques, new chords.  School ought to be this way, too. Missteps ought to be allowed, maybe even encouraged.  If students are being asked to demonstrate too often what they do well, they are not growing enough.  Granted, there is a satisfaction in succeeding, but it needs to be nurtured more than the satisfaction of having succeeded.

    The satisfaction of succeeding needs to be nurtured more that the satisfaction of having succeeded.

      Everything is a formative assessment.  Failure, by another definition, is not being able to do it as well as one will later, or being able to do fewer things than one will be able to do later.  Progress and growth require a vision of greater and later accomplishment.
  2. If learning the content or the skill matters–to society and/or to the learner–the amount of time needed to learn it can not and should not matter.   We have gotten this wrong for so long that we’ve alienated the vast majority of our fellow humans, far too many of whom have learned little more than to hate school and to hate learning itself.   The factory model of instruction, with one conveyor-belt speed for all, is the main culprit.  We’ve anointed ourselves as gate-keepers, sweeping off the belt those who can’t keep up, and lavishing praise on those who trot along without breaking a sweat.   A better model might involve putting each individual learner on his/her own treadmill that turns independently, creating that perfect zone of proximal development for each one.  An even better model may be to allow learners the joy of the walk, jog or run through nature, discovering, dwelling, turning back to revisit, accompanied by a trainer/guide to urge them on and point things out.
  3. Neither failure at first attempt nor success at final attempt is as important as the process of expanding one’s knowledge and abilities.  It makes no sense to average the first and the last attempt. (More in a later post about grades.) Success in the final frame trumps all the unsuccessful attempts.  It also makes no sense to consider one successful attempt as the end.  We don’t stop being able to crawl once we can walk, nor do we give up walking once we can run.  Students should be allowed to continue to pursue their knowledge and skills until they can nail them.  Then, the new knowledge and skills should build on the old ones so that not only do students get the first set right, but it becomes so automatic that they couldn’t get it wrong.

I am not insensitive to the pull of practical concerns.  Educating scores of young people together requires “COMMON” threads, “CORE” principals, and an understanding of what normal progression looks like.  All good teachers know when they’re moving too slowly or too quickly.   By the time some students are 10, they may be as much as four or five years behind age-mates who’ve progressed more quickly.  Would it be appropriate for classrooms to have 10- and 5-year-olds all working on simple addition?  I am not sure, but I also wonder if it is appropriate for 14-year-olds to be pursuing mastery of algebra when large segments of them never really conceptualized addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.  How can we possibly demand mastery before moving on?    I do not pretend to know yet HOW what I’m proposing can be achieved. Will each one of the students in my care be working on a different objective?  Is my already taxed attention to be further diluted?   When does the timer run out on certain skills and competencies?  Never?

In the next phase of my professional life, I aim to find answers to these questions, rather than to allow their mere existence to blind me to truth.  I am now more compelled to figure out how to do it, because why we should do it is so overwhelmingly clear.


AP Reading

In the summer of 2011, I joined a couple hundred high school and college French teachers to come to Cincinnati to score AP French exams.  For seven days in June, teachers work closely together to fairly, consistently, and accurately evaluate what students have written and recorded for the free-response sections of the AP exam.  Since that first year, I have touted the experience to my colleagues as an opportunity for incredibly rewarding networking and growth and an invaluable week to anyone who is an AP teacher.  In this post, I share with a broader audience why this experience has been so important to me and close with a list of my top ten reasons you should consider it.

Perfect timing

I applied to be a “Reader” (the official title) a couple of years before I was invited to participate.  Teachers may submit application materials online.   They are invited to be readers in order to fill open positions each year.   While I did not receive my initial invitation until April the first year, the invitations I received in each of the subsequent years arrived early in the spring semester with plenty of time to make summer plans.

“Reader” is a bit of a misnomer, because while some teachers are reading written responses, my first year, and every year thereafter, I have actually been a listener.  I have been tasked with listening to and scoring recorded responses.  The 2011 invitation was perfect timing.  The reading that year was to score the final administration of the old version of the French exam.  (old version = verb and function word fill-ins + essay + picture sequence + split/pane comparison ).  Consequently I got to be there for the adieu to the old standard and for all the discussion of the new course and new exam.  (new = 6 themes with contexts, much more holistic language approach, task-oriented free-response–email reply + persuasive essay + simulated conversation + cultural comparison).   There were nightly presentations by the very people who had worked tirelessly to develop the new course, had created new materials and would be editing the exam in its new format.  In addition to these formal sessions, there were countless discussions in anticipation of how we, as teachers, were going to prepare our students the following year.

When I returned my second year, I was fortunate to be part of the very first reading of the new exam.  As such, I got to participate in the training and realignment, and sometimes heated debate, as we transitioned from scoring discrete-point language usage to evaluating more holistically and judging student performance at accomplishing the task.  The Spanish readers are making this transition this year.

Top Ten Reasons to Become an AP Reader

10.  Although perhaps not appealing to some, I have enjoyed the opportunity to room with a colleague.  You can actually SPEAK your language for an entire week.  Those in need of more privacy can have single rooms, although they do have to pay for this.

9.  Speaking of expenses, your transportation (mileage reimbursed or air travel arranged through a dedicated website), your meals (3 square per day plus two snack breaks), and one half of a double-occupancy room in a nice hotel are all covered.  You will be out Nothing. Rien. Nada. Nichts.  Niente.

8.  I chose those languages because the French, Spanish, German and Italian readers are all on site at the same time, so if you want to have some multilingual interactions, this is about as good as it gets. On any given day, I can have breakfast with the Germans, lunch with the Spanish and dinner with the Italians.

7. As a teacher of an AP course, you are probably the only person in your school teaching your curriculum.  There are other AP teachers with whom you may commiserate and celebrate, but they only share your wins and woes tangentially.  At the reading, you are surrounded by more people in the exact same situation than at any other time in your career.

6. As a reader, you learn to internalize the grading rubric.  Your ability to evaluate your own students becomes rock solid because you’ve helped grade a global sample and have been trained to assign grades fairly, consistently and accurately.  While you may be more or less stringent back at home, you know for a fact just what it takes to “get a 5″.

5. Not only are you able to grade your own students’ work with confidence, but the confidence and experience give a new authority when you assign grades in your AP classes.  The students and their parents know that YOU know what it takes to “get a 5″, and they believe you when you say “this is a 4″.

4. During the reading you work closely with a “table leader” and collaborate with others at your “table”.   It is one of the few times in my career when I have ever been able to ask a colleague what score he/she would assign and fully trust the response.  It is also one of the few times you can share an impressive, original or amusing response with someone who will get it.

3. In the evenings, after you’ve worked during the day, you get to socialize with people from all over the country, some even from other countries, who all speak your language AND all teach your language.  It isn’t all work, work, work.  I’ve been to Reds baseball games, listened to live music, been to an art exhibit and a museum, along with various restaurants and cafés.  These outings have been at my own expense, but are part of social networking that has forged close, cherished ties.  We enjoy seeing each other in June.

2. The College Board makes sure to provide information, updates,  workshops and opportunities.  The readers get access to this first.  They also engage the readers for feedback during the week.  There is at least one professional development night and one open forum while you are at the reading.  Both of these are “language” specific.  I have had face-to-face access with College Board officials and exam development team members every year.

And finally,

1. You get paid.  There is a very respectable honorarium that goes along with the honor of being chosen to be an AP reader.  Usually professional development costs you or your school a bit of money, or at best, is free.  Becoming an AP reader was the first time I ever got paid to become a better teacher, interact with amazing colleagues, learn and have fun all while contributing in an important way to a capstone event in the lives of my students.

If you want more info or want to apply, check out this page on AP Central.