Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

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It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

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In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

Catching Standards

I had a talk with my 4th graders about tossing and catching. We were also talking about grading and report cards and what those things mean.

Yesterday when I presented them with an obstacle course which included some benches, speed ladders (the flexible kind you put on the floor), a couple of mat spaces, a few micro hurdles and a low Swedish box, I didn’t instruct them on how to travel. They made it up as they went and showed both creativity as well as control. One or two students asked me: Is this going to be on the report card? I frowned-smiled and shook my head, “no” wondering where on earth that question had come from.

Today I took the opportunity to ask them.

Me: How could I put an obstacle course on the report card?

You could write it in.

Me: And then say what?

If we were good or bad.

You could say if a person could do the moves.

Me: Aha, so being able to do the moves would be good and not being able to do the moves would be bad?

But maybe someone could practice and learn how to do the moves.

Me: Practice sounds like a good idea.

Me: Well, what about catching today? I notice that everyone is working with a partner, there’s lots of tossing and catching but I don’t see very many orange tickets yet. (Students put in orange tickets for doing 30 catches in a row with a partner.) Why is that?

*A brief hush and several looks over to the white board where this is written down.*

Me: I believe that you are all capable of doing 30 catches with a partner and there are lots of ways you could do it. You can decide how far apart you want to stand, you can decide which kind of thing you want to toss – a beanbag, a ragball (like a small soft football) or a letter ball (volleyball sized foam dodecahedron (12 sides)). But this is also a chance for me to see how you will challenge yourself. Are you going to stand super close to each other like playing hot potato? Or what if you stand way across the room from each other, how long do you think it might take you to get to 30 catches?

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Catches were made, orange tickets added. (c)edifiedlistener

The conversation was illuminating. I see that my students have a lot on their minds in the gym. And I’m pretty sure that grades and skill performance are not their first priorities upon arrival. At the same time, after they’ve found a friend to work with and determined which part of the lesson they are psyched about, they do care about succeeding. They want to be seen as “good” at something. They try to avoid looking “bad.” They want to have a good time and experience some level of satisfaction. How each child goes about achieving this can look wildly different, even within the same assigned task. This is what makes teaching and learning in groups, in classes, in schools unbelievably complex and ultimately difficult.

I tell my kids I am focusing on catching. That’s what I am planning on assessing. But there’s so much else going on: long haul throws that overshoot the mark, extremely creative attempts to change things up – by twirling, bending over, tossing under a leg; there are a couple of students who need half the time to locate a new partner and then to get restarted; equipment gets lost in the rafters and student lose a couple more pieces trying to knock the first piece down. They are catching and tossing and throwing and missing, dropping and pitching. My students are showing me a host of behaviors, affinities, capabilities, weak points. And I’m trying to focus on catching.

I repeat this exercise over several lessons. I’ve taught the major skill points. We know that catching involves more than just trapping an object between our hands. The point is, that students, as young humans, inevitably are going to show me more than the skill itself. They will demonstrate the art of the catch. Their art of the catch. And over the years, this is the part that I seem to be able to see better and often more clearly than the catching itself.

According to the standards, most of my students meet the grade level expectation for catching. Some students also exceed the grade level expectation for catching, while others are approaching the grade level expectation.

Thankfully for my students and me, we can have space and appreciation for all the things that are going on in class that do not belong to assessments or grading. Sometimes we’re  practicing. Sometimes we’re experimenting and trying out our ideas. We’re trying to be nice to each other. We play old games and make up new rules. We lose track of time. We talk to each other. Many of us believe running and screaming are inseparable. We are in a hurry and some of us have all the time in the world. We’re getting stronger and more flexible. We’re singing and dancing because we know these songs. We freeze when the music stops. Or not.

It’s all happening. These moments of happenings make up the fabric of my teaching days. Altogether it’s far too much to register, note, document. But the impressions they leave are real and substantial over days, weeks, months, years.

I rarely remember what a student got on their PE part of the report card years after I have had them as a student. I can usually recall, however, what she liked, where he struggled and what we discovered in our time together.