Tracking Mastery

Long ago I decided to start teaching students to master skills rather than remember content. Some colleagues do not see the difference in the two; when asked, I enjoy the opportunity to explain how making subtle changes daily has transformed my teaching journey.

The first difference is the lens through which I plan my lessons and units. Of course, I use  UbD backwards design and those who know me would say “of course she goes over the top and customizes even THAT.” While planning I consider how these particular students are going to respond to the activities that I have planned:

What are the special interests of each student?

Are there parents who have experience in this topic?

How can I link this new learning to things that students have already experienced?

In what ways can I make maximize student agency?

Because I am a science teacher, I must now consider 3-dimensional learning. How are students going to interact with this material and how are these interactions going to progress over time. In my mind, this is a cycle where some students get off and progress to the next step while others are given time to reach mastery before being asked to move to the next step. I have found that this is another divergence from conventional thinking; if there are 25 students then there may be 25 different levels of mastery at one time. This is overwhelming for some teachers, but it all goes back to mindset. The students who are farthest ahead support other learners in the class – remember “the best way to learn is to teach.”

The cycles are composed of progressive activities including the hook, gathering basic information from text or an exploratory activity, reading articles or watching videos to gather information to answer student-generated questions, making claims about what they have learned, and generating evidence to support these claims.

None of these activities are graded. These are learning opportunities meant for students to make mistakes, use feedback and try again. I use these to assess student progress and provide feedback, make suggestions for next steps, and encourage them to think deeper. I teach in a traditional grades school so I have to provide grades for progress reports. My solution is to have a summative (graded) assessment after a cycle of formative (ungraded) assessments. Progress on formative assessments is tracked in the electronic grade book by level of mastery and comments about how this mastery was or was not demonstrated. One assignment may include all 3 dimensions NGSS so this individual assignment may have 3 spots in the grade book.

Sound complicated? It was and still can be at times but I cannot see myself treating students’ learning any differently. I have to value every effort that each student makes no matter how small.




Balancing Autonomy with Instruction

Lately, I have been struggling with the balance between student autonomy and instruction. Many students are not ready for complete independence, some feel most comfortable when they have guidance every step of the way. I want to add 1:1 conferencing but have found that students are not ready for self-assessment. I feel as though my biggest challenge is the time crunch of semester classes.  This is the plan to build a supportive scaffold for my dependent learners.

Question Focus Technique- I have begun using the QFT from Right Question Institute. Through this introductory activity, students are introduced to a new topic or concept and develop their own questions to investigate. Specifically, I am using this with my Physiology students; giving them an image of an organ and they develop questions. This has led to some focused investigations around Science and Engineering Practices and Cross-Cutting Concepts. By starting with student questions, students are looking for answers to their own questions. This has resulted in more engagement as students have determined their own focus questions instead of going through the motions of a teacher-appointed task.

Lab(s) – I determine which lab to start with based on the questions that students have asked. I have found that they usually ask the same questions that a planned lab would have answered anyway. The difference is that now students are invested in the activity because they are searching for answers to their own questions. So far I have found it necessary to plan at least two labs to answer all of the students’ questions. In the future, I will make it a point to show students which of their questions will be answered in the lab.

Notes to support (need evidence of reading/review) – This is where I am stumped. There are still students who want the notes, direct from the teacher. I understand this need; they may not be confident that they have reached the objective or the lab activities have sparked a new interest or new questions. Students want confirmation, in addition to my feedback, that they are on the right track. Stand and deliver instruction is not how I want to use precious face time with students. I am considering adding more interactivity like Mentimeter or Poll Everywhere. This will be my focus for this week.

My focus in the coming weeks will be assessment and reflection. How do I prepare students to self-assess and reflect?  As I type this I realize that reflection should be first… Just breath, one step at a time.



Why Do We Start With Training Wheels?

I began my teaching career as a substitute teacher then moved into a position as an instructional assistant in the special education department. Although accidental, this was the perfect progression for me. I was able to see the plans that teachers wrote for me, how students behaved in their absence and the quality of work that was expected. The most valuable experience, by far, was working with a magnificent special education department and being the “wing person” for the regular education teacher. As I assisted in delivering instruction to students across content areas, I saw one technique that universally was more successful than others.

A fellow teacher and influencer, Brian Rozinsky, shared this analogy with me:

I don’t know about you but when I was learning to ride a bike I constantly tripped over the pedals; sometimes I even fell because I could not get my feet past them fast enough. Someone came up with the brilliant idea to just eliminate the pedals and focus on balance. I watched my neighbor learn this way and it was amazing.

This is very much like PBL or inquiry-based instruction. Starting with big ideas and letting students add in the details when they are prepared, at their own pace. My vision of my teaching used to be this:

training wheels

Supporting students until I was able to let them go and be more independent. Providing support (training wheels) so that they did not fail (never had to put their feet down). The problem with this is that when the training wheels are removed they still are not ready to be independent, they still “trip over the pedals”.

My new imagery of my students is this:

Provide the tools and experiences that students need to explore independently. Start with the big ideas, phenomena, concepts and add the details of vocabulary and punctuation gradually. Let the students be independent, just let go. It is a bit of a blow to the ego to admit that they don’t actually need me every step of the way. There is no “big release” only gradual mastery and pride in accomplishment.


The Framework

When I first opened my twitter account in 2014 to interact with John Mayer I had absolutely no idea the transformation that awaited me. While my brain has been overflowing with all of the ideas that I have amassed over these 3 ½ years, I have hesitated to start a blog. I compare it to a snowstorm (probably because I am in frozen Connecticut right now). Snow sometimes gently falls other times is whips in windswept swirls; there are infinite possibilities for each flake, glistening on the branches of an evergreen tree, shoveled into a snow bank, molded into a snowball, or sculpted into a snowman. My mind has been experiencing a blizzard of ideas and experiences that I was not ready to assemble into a “snowman” until now. This does not surprise me because I have always been a late-bloomer, contemplative; because of this I am always late and usually distracted…. but always thinking and synthesizing. More about this later.

This is my year of synthesis! Finally, I am satisfied that I cannot cram any more unfinished thoughts into my mind, I cannot leave another blog post unpublished.

I want to start by acknowledging some of the people who have changed my life. I need to clarify that I value each and every interaction with each and every person and group of people that I encounter. For example one of the first interactions that I had with an educator on Twitter was with a parochial school teacher who insisted that having lunch with students was intruding on their privacy. This discussion volleyed back and forth with no closure. But, I still carry it with me and am mindful that she may not be totally incorrect :).  I do not fool myself that I am a prominent educator who people should want to be acknowledged by, but I hesitate to list people because I do not want anyone to feel excluded. I will do my best to give credit to the great influencers in my journey at some point in this series.

With that being said, these are the people whose influence I feel every single day. Because of Starr Sackstein, I gave myself permission to think differently about grading and the courage to speak openly about unfair grading practices and create my own grading policy based on student growth and self-assessment.

My chats with Don Eckert and the WGSDchat crew encouraged me to change everything about my classroom and to NEVER reuse a lesson that I was not completely satisfied with.

Dr. Sarah Thomas – the great connector! through one brief interaction, she introduced me to Voxer and #EDUmatch. These have led me to restorative justice (and countless new connections) and the #EDUGladiators the most fearless advocates for students on the planet. Sarah is like a constellation connecting random points to create something recognizable and beautiful.

This is my year of synthesis; taking what I have gathered from countless valuable encounters and putting it all together in my own unique way. My time of being a mere consumer has come to an end.