How Do You Refuel?

We’re in it, now… It’s “that time of year.” I like to call this time of year, particularly, the month of October, “Shocktober.” Shocktober is followed by “Blovember.” I’m sure you can figure out why that is.

At this point in the school year, we’re all coming to the realization that the school year has indeed started, and we’re working our way into the second quarter. For many, that beginning-of-the-year excitement, the buzz that circulates the school as we get our classrooms/offices ready is starting to wane. Also, not sure if you’ve noticed, but the days are getting shorter. It’s PITCH BLACK out in the mornings. Soon enough, we’ll be driving to work in the dark, and driving home from work in the dark. All of which is pretty depressing. Welcome to Shocktober!

Then, after Halloween passes, we enter Blovember. Maybe you’ve noticed this phenomenon as well. November flies by. With all the school events, parent/teacher conference preparations, and fall break/Thanksgiving Break, November just BLOWS by!

All that being said, I’m trying to think about all the ways I stay motivated during these particularly difficult/trying/crazy months of the school year. For me, in order to maintain balance and motivation, I MUST spend time with family and friends (and my dog!), exercise, eat healthy, make/play music, read (for fun and for work), see movies, and make/enjoy art. All these strategies help me stay fueled up and keep going for my students, teachers, and parents.

I just I realized another strategy that helps me stay fueled up, and it may be one of the most beneficial strategies: connecting with the people who inspire me. While at an educational conference today, I got to see so many familiar faces and meet so many new ones. Yet, the biggest impact came when I ran into my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Rockaitis! At first, I couldn’t believe it was him! He teaches way up north. What would he be doing at this conference “down south?” But, he reminded me that he lives in the city, which wasn’t too far away. We chatted for a bit. He introduced me to some of his colleagues. I found myself giving him advice on a doctoral program. DEFINITELY never thought I’d be giving Mr. Rockaitis advice! Overall, running into Mr. Rockaitis reminded me of my “why.” I mean, this educator hit me at my core. Besides my Mom, he was the biggest influence on me deciding to become a teacher. His passion for learning and for teaching was contagious. He spread that passion to many, including myself. Though our reconnection was brief, it reminded me of my purpose. It reenergized me. It brought clarity.

As we get to this point in the school year, I think it’s important to remember, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Stay fueled up. We still got a ways to go.

How do you refuel? Like/comment/share!

October House Day Success!

If you don’t know, we’re in the process of implementing a House System at my elementary school (read for more info). We plan to host a House Activity Day once a month. Last Wednesday, we hosted our October House Day.

During the time allotted for our House Activity Day, students and staff in each House created a banner that displayed their House animal and House color. Students and staff personalized the banners by putting their painted hand prints on them. The banners look incredible! Even our superintendent came by and made his mark on each House Banner!

Yet, the thing I noticed most about this exciting day = how palpable the energy was in the gym as I began to introduce the day and lay out our expectations for the activity. It was incredible! Seeing all students sitting together with their Houses, wearing their House colors, doing their House chants… it was riveting! As soon as I walked into the gym, I got goosebumps! They were pumped to be with their Houses, and excited about creating their House Banners! The pride and excitement on their faces was contagious. I loved it!

Since Wednesday, I’ve been reflecting on this experience, and can only imagine how it’s been for our students. I’ve had parents calling me about how they and their children love this new initiative! During arrival/dismissal, I’ve had parents and/or guardians running up to me gushing about the Houses, the animals, and the colors! Teachers and staff have talked to me about how they’re so excited to come to work on House Days because of the reaction they see in their students! At the end of the year, I plan to interview and film students regarding their experiences with the House System, and collect any suggestions they may have for improvements.

So far, it’s been an incredible experience, especially for our kids! I can’t wait to continue with this endeavor!

Grading: Learning What Not To Do From My Own Experiences

I learned a lot about grading during the 2016-2017 school year. I read a few books. I attended a few workshops/presentations. I got to meet and speak with (at length) prominent grading gurus in the field. However, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I needed to read the books/papers/journal articles/blog posts, attend the presentations, or engage in dialogue with the gurus to see a fundamental flaw in many of our grading practices (though, all of this most certainly helped raise my awareness concerning the issue). All I truly had to do was reflect on my personal experiences with grading, both as a student and as a teacher.

As a young student, I received extra credit points for bringing in school supplies. I received deductions for late work (which, if we think about it logically, these point deductions don’t reflect a lack of academic ability, but a failure to observe the punctuality standards set by the teacher). My grades were penalized for my excessive talking (probably not hard to believe, but I LOVE talking). Clearly, these grading practices focused more on behavioral assimilation rather than actual learning. Just as unfortunate (I hate to admit it), I also engaged in some of these practices as a teacher. Not a shining moment in my career as an educator. However, I have to give myself some credit. I’m happy that at least I can admit these faults. At least I’m willing to reflect on my mistakes and strive for improvement. That’s not the case with some educators, especially in the realm of post secondary education (at least from my experience).

My worst experience with grading came in graduate school in my School Finance class. The monetary incentive (paying my own school tuition) probably contributed to my disdain for this class, the professor (let’s call him “Professor John”), his grading practices, and the outcome. Professor John mentioned many times (verbally) that if we (his students) positively completed his evaluation at the culmination of the class, he would “help us out with our final grade.” Alfie Kohn would probably refer to this behavior as “bribing.” Often times, teachers/professors engage in bribes in order to achieve compliance (some researchers go as far as saying that all grades are bribes). As luck would have it, I was on vacation while the course evaluation opened, and did not submit my evaluation for the class. As I received no less than an A+ on every assignment throughout the eight-week class, I wasn’t worried and was fairly certain that I would receive no less than an A for my final grade. When I received my grade for the class, I was shocked. I “earned” a B+ in the class (my obsession with grades is probably a good indicator that I experienced flawed grading practices). I couldn’t believe it.

I tried to communicate my concern with Professor John. Conveniently, he was also on vacation. I don’t like jumping the chain of command, but I brought my concern to the department chair’s attention. He was rigid and contemptuous. The department chair stated these types of cases were always resolved in favor of their professors and that their professors were beyond reproach. I was disgusted. I kept thinking, while upholding Professor John’s decision about my grade, it was quite obvious that the university was not only invalidating my concern, but also perpetuating bad grading practices (considering they knew that it was going on and did nothing about it). I doubt they’ve done anything to improve.

Though this was five years ago now, this experience was an extremely valuable lesson for me. We all must be willing to reflect on our mistakes and take steps towards improvement. While reflecting on my grading experiences as a student and as an educator, I have a better contextual standing on which to pivot. I will not perpetuate poor grading practices (or other flawed educational practices). None of us are beyond reproach.

Just an update… What’s equally frightening is that Professor John is a high-ranking elementary school administrator in the south suburbs, and is still actively employed as a professor by the university. Truly unfortunate…

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Teacher Quality and Practice Comes First

At yesterday’s district institute, we had a wonderful presenter who initiated the conversation regarding grading practices and homework. He brought the data to help support his claims. He cited relevant research that showed that homework, especially in the primary grades, often results in an effect size of zero when it comes to student learning. Yet, one of the aspects about his presentation that made it so compelling was his connection to our children and our students. We may have heard the message before, but he was particularly effective in communicating “If it’s not good enough for your own kids, why would you consider it good enough for the students you teach?” I’ve traveled to neighboring districts to see similar presentations from different presenters on grading practices and homework policies. The presentations lacked that compelling piece.

I completely see the validity in the presenter’s claims regarding homework and grading. It’s hard to argue with the majority of the evidence he presented. However, I’m not quite sure that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices is a step towards district improvement (or the most effective step towards improvement). For example, with homework, if a teacher looks at an assignment and determines that it’s good/quality, but in reality, the assignment is not very good and serves no purpose for student learning, I’m thinking there’s a deeper issue at hand. With this scenario, we may have an issue of teacher quality. In this instance, I do not believe that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices or what good homework should look like (if homework is given at all) is the first step in the process of improving the quality of that teacher. Yes, having this knowledge regarding grading practices and homework is essential. But, like I said, there may be an underlying issue that can’t be completely addressed by learning more about homework and grading.

Point being, improving teacher quality (especially from an instructional standpoint) before focusing on grading and homework policies is essential. We may be putting the cart before the horse by considering homework and grading policies before considering teacher quality.

Later, I was fortunate enough to participate in a round table discussion with the presenter. He agreed that addressing teacher practices and teacher quality before grading practices and homework policies was essential. He then clarified (which I had difficulty articulating for some reason) that with good teaching practices and improved teacher quality, grading practices and homework policies could lead to school improvement.

Overall, the presentation was fantastic. I’m simply concerned about any execution of his suggestions before improving teacher quality (and administrator quality for that matter).

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