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!

“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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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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