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108 Articles Categorized in "Life in the Classroom"

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | March 29, 2014

Washington Education: A bargain, for now...


By Mark

A recent guest piece by Bill Keim in The Seattle Times's Education Lab Blog points out some sobering numbers about education funding in Washington, particularly considering the Supreme Court ruling that the state of Washington is not adequately funding public education.

Keimgraphic-517x620Particularly interesting is the infographic from the Washington Association of School Administrators that compares Washington's per-pupil funding over time as compared to the national average, to Massachusetts (similar in demographic, economy, and education standards), and to Alabama (historically under-funded and under-performing by various measures).

Simply put, our state has been in neutral while Massachusetts, Alabama, and the nation as a whole has been in high gear. 

And here's the problem with that: As of right now, Washington's schools seem to be performing well

This is of course a problem for two reasons. First, it weakens the argument that Washington schools need to be better funded. Second, it runs the risk of leading people to believe that good performance can be sustained without resources.

The last three years in my classroom I have been living the good life. Due to local support, my program received funding that provided me access to desktop computers every day, every period for each my 9th grade English students. Every day, if I want, I can have my students use technology to consume and produce meaningful texts and engage with content in exciting ways. Instead of having to rely upon the (decades old) literature anthology on the shelf, the whole world can be our textbook thanks to the technology--which of course, came with a cost.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | March 3, 2014

HB 2800


boxesBy Mark

I strongly believe that civil consideration of all sides of an issue are important for a literate society.

So let's take the Inslee/Dorn joint venture, House Bill 2800, which adds to RCW 28A.405.100 at section 2(f) a passage that begins on line 31 of page 3:

"Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, when relevant to the teacher and subject matter, student growth data elements must include results from federally mandated statewide student assessments."

This language is also inserted elsewhere in the document where it is relevant to define student growth.

Based on what I am reading, I hesitate to boil this issue down to a simple pro v. con. This issue, as are most, is more complicated that our society's convenient dualistic reduction.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | February 15, 2014

Squeezing the Joy out of Teaching


Red_geranium_largeBy Mark

Common Core State Standards, TPEP, data-collection, student growth. These have all been the culprit in many conversations with teachers wherein they, with understandable sadness, talk of how all of these new initiatives and expectations are squeezing the creativity and joy out of teaching. I empathize with where these teachers are; I even wrote here a while back about the sense of mourning I felt as I began to align my course content to the Common Core.

When I was in the ninth grade, we found out that my mother had breast cancer. As a family before and even during this, we experienced little strife--I had it quite good on our little farm in the middle of a blank spot on the map of Oregon--but we were not particularly emotional, super touchy-huggy, or all that. (When we were first together, my wife, lovingly, equated my family's mealtimes to a board meeting.) After the cancer diagnosis, I'm sure the experience for my mother and father was very different, but I remember only the simple resolve with which my parents approached her cancer as a task to be taken care of--it is what it is and now we need to do something about it. Surgery and a slew of pills took care of the first round of cancer. It returned again a couple of years later, and surgery again was, thankfully, enough. My mother has been cancer-free since.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | February 13, 2014

The Simple Solution: TIME.


File52fd6410c3384By Mark

My six-year old son sometimes gets frustrated that there are certain privileges I enjoy as a grown-up that he cannot due to his age and size. Recently, as we built his car for his school's pinecar derby, he just didn't want to accept that we was neither allowed to use the radial arm saw nor the set of carving chisels I have in the garage. I tried to explain to him how hard it is to reattach fingers, but he wasn't having it.

"When do I get to?"

"Not yet," I explained, as I handed him a rasp and some sandpaper and readied the plastic miter box and back saw he could use to angle the nose of his car. Time, practice, growth... that's all he needs. He's a hands-on boy and I have no doubt his skills can soon surpass mine tinkering with scraps of wood in the garage.

I mentioned in comments earlier on this blog that I recently had the opportunity to host two legislators in my classroom. The discussions were wonderful, and one exchange in particular stands out: when asked how long policymakers should expect for changes in education to show real fruit, I replied "twelve years." For change to take root, it takes time. Our state education system includes something like 295 individual school districts, 60,000 teachers, and around a million students. You cannot expect to see the "change" as the result of policy changes even within the term of a single elected official. My guests admitted that they had never really thought about an implementation timeline like that.

Just like my son working his way from a rasp, sandpaper, and plastic miter box up to carving chisels and power saws, seeing the desired outcome will take time. If I rush my son into it... I give him a crash course in powertool safety and toss him a pile of wood... the likelihood that he will fail (in limb-threatening ways) is incredibly high. What we need time for if we are going to do it right:

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Games, Life in the Classroom, Parent Involvment, Social Issues | February 2, 2014

Playgrounds and Education Policy


File52eec04d490efBy Mark

This story was circulating on social media recently, and despite my initial reactions, it appears to be true.

A primary school in New Zealand has changed rules around recess as a result of research conducted at local universities. The essential finding: fewer rules on the playground resulted in "a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing" (from the article linked above).

At my own son's elementary school, students are apparently not permitted to run during recess. That's right, no running during outdoor recess. Only brisk walking. And forget about tag, let alone touch football. I am not an elementary school teacher or staff member, so sure I can sit over here and judge, but the findings from this (albeit small) research project where children were allowed to be children during recess seems to me yet another indicator of how our drive to protect children from harm actually harms them more than the bumps, bruises and grass-stained knees we want to spare.

Sadly, this article above also makes this statement:

[M]any American school administrators do not feel they have the freedom to eliminate playtime rules the way Swanson [the primary school in New Zealand] did. And they certainly don’t see it as a zero-cost game. Parents drive our nation’s tendency toward more restrictive playground rules because parents are the ones who sue schools when their children get hurt.

It is all very interesting to me both as a parent and as an educator.

I wonder: what if a whole education system had no externally ascribed rules? Would the flaws we are trying to eliminate with laws, rules, and policies diminish (and achievement increase) as analogous to the positive changes witnessed on that playground in New Zealand? 

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Science | January 11, 2014

Speed Dating and Student Work: Half Days and a Senate Bill


Stopwatchby Maren Johnson

We sat down at a table in the science classroom at 2:30, just 10 minutes after the bell rang at the end of the school day.  We were ready to go: three teachers looking at student work.  Oh wait, there’s a student at the door who needs an assignment—one of us went to help him, the rest continued on.  What were we up to?  We were trying to collaborate, and we only had twenty minutes.  One of our members had volunteered to facilitate, and we even had an informal agenda: 5 minutes—introduce the lesson and provide background.  10 minutes—follow a simplified high-medium-low protocol for finding characteristics of the student work.  5 minutes—debrief.  

Partway through the high-medium-low protocol, a recently graduated student appeared at the door with a big grin, coming back to our high school to say hello.  We were happy to see him (he was a very jolly student)—we wished him well and sent him on to visit the math teacher.  Then we continued looking at the student work!  2:50 rolled around—we got up and left the room.  None of us usually leave the school at 2:50, the end of the contracted day, but on that day, I had another appointment, and needed to go, meaning that our collaboration time truly was limited to twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes is the length of time collaboration would have to be if it were to fit within the normal school day, with no early release, late start, or other modified schedule.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | January 10, 2014

Growth, and then...


Rock and rollBy Mark

Two steps forward, one step back. Climbing a hill of sand. Sisyphus without the deceitfulness.

Or, January in my classroom.

For the three weeks prior to winter break, we all worked very hard in room 116. By the time the quiz rolled around, we'd practiced, reviewed, self-assessed, strategized, tried new approaches, and for the most part, achieved the goal. On my proficiency level scale for identification and analysis of figurative language, the data was finally--finally--showing not just growth, but mastery.

Interpreting abstract figurative language is difficult enough for grown ups, let alone for adolescents who struggle to even understand overtly stated concrete concepts. Add to that the fact that interpretation of figurative language hinges tremendously on a reader's prior schema and life experiences upon which to draw and adolescents are set up to struggle. Nonetheless, through practice, diverse examples, more practice, and trial and error, growth happened by December 20th.

And then it went away.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Social Issues | December 19, 2013

Common Core: Irony, Commerce and the Clock


File52a4a9f585e15By Mark

For English Language Arts 9-10, Common Core standard #8 for Informational Text is this:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I thought of this when I read a rant recently about how Common Core required education about safe sex rather than abstinence. This was the same week I read two different assertions: one claiming that Common Core specifically outlawed the teaching of cursive, the other claiming that cursive was now required. A few weeks ago I was lectured by a parent about how Common Core was forcing kids to just memorize a list of facts and spit them back on a test. My school year this year started with a colleague upset at the required reading list identified by the Common Core State Standards for high school English.

A seven-second Google search enabled me to "evaluate the argument and specific claims... assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient" and "identify false statements." 

1. Common Core does not address issues of sex education...

2. Common Core does not address handwriting or cursive in the standards...

CSTP--Staff | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | December 11, 2013

Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic


Jeff Dunn 1

Our guest blogger, Jeffrey Dunn is 2014 Regional Teacher of the year from ESD 101. Jeffrey is an educator, cultural critic, & backwoods modernist currently teaching in Deer Park, Washington. He invites others to read bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Richard Brautigan.


Try and imagine the impact this fact has on my students. No longer am I a model of all that is correct. No longer am I the authority on all that is academic. In this case, I am learning disabled as defined in Washington State law (WAC 392-172A-03055). This law reads that learning disabilities may include “conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In short, I am not the model of perfection students are led to believe all we teachers are.  

Researchers from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity's Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia) and the College de France and  Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale'sStanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) estimate that between 10-20% (call it the midpoint, 15%) of all human populations are dyslexic (variation  is a result of definition and assessment practice). Think of it, in any class of 25, we should expect 4 of our students to be dyslexic. My thirty-six years of teaching experience has proven this statistic to be true.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | December 7, 2013

More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth


220px-Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_054By Mark

Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.

The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | November 16, 2013

College Ready?


File5287936e9b106By Mark

Why do we want every kid to be "college ready"?

True, the new phrase is "college and career ready," but I feel that the word career too often carries a distinctly cubicled and clean-fingernailed connotation. A very informal verbal and non-scientific poll of a few of my own students helped reinforce this to me. When given a list of professions, from plumber to welder to salesperson to doctor, I asked them to identify which ones were careers. Being a doctor, lawyer, businessperson, teacher, and nurse were immediately identified as careers. Without me even giving them the words, most kids identified being a welder, electrician, plumber, mechanic, and engineer as "just jobs, not careers." When I pushed for the difference between a job and career, most kids couldn't articulate it (and by then, the bell was ringing and I needed to get class started). A couple did say something about college being required for a career. In effect, "college and career ready" is redundant.

I got to thinking even more about this when a former student of mine came to ask for some advice about a paper he was writing in his English class. The students were looking at power structures in society and considering different perspectives on literary criticism, and he was learning about the Marxist literary critical perspective by considering the social and power dynamics of his hometown. His essay, tentatively titled "The Hill and the Mill" was attempting to explore the social and economic dynamics of a small town originally built around a local mill (the mill), but which has in the last decade and a half seen an influx of high-tech businesses (the hill).

The resulting shifts in the community are not inherently negative, but certainly precipitate changes in the culture. Many men and women have cultivated success and lucrative careers through hard work in the mill, just as many men and women have done the same up on the hill. Nevertheless, assumptions to the value of each are not unique to this small down. This dichotomy, oversimplified, is the divide in perception of what constitutes a "career" versus a "job."

Maren Johnson | Books, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | November 13, 2013

Class Size and Deathless Prose: Clamor in the Classroom!

image from

by Maren Johnson

When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.

~Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

McCourt, a thirty-year teaching veteran and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, is describing the reason it took him so long in life, until the age of 66 actually, to write his first book.

Unlike Frank McCourt, I am not trying to "fashion deathless prose." I am just trying to write this blog post. However, I know what he is talking about. After a day of five classes, interacting with one hundred-and-some-impossibly-large number of high school students, putting together a coherent series of thoughts can be a daunting challenge.

Last year I had a student teacher--an outstanding one. This year, she has her own classroom in a different district. One of my fellow teachers recently gave her Teacher Man, which we also read for a school book study a few years ago. My former student teacher brought the "deathless prose" and "clamor of the classroom" quotation above to our attention. Yes, that "clamor of the classroom" is often a positive thing, but, still, it is a day-long clamor! My former student teacher is dealing with many of the challenges faced by new teachers as they enter the profession. On top of all this, she has some very large class sizes! I have a few of those as well, and some of my colleagues have classes that are downright physically crowded.

My large classes are full of students with large personalities! One student wants to tell about the funny thing that happened to him yesterday afternoon. He has a new story every day. Another student has a long, complicated, and ongoing drama involving a boyfriend. A student is learning English and wants to follow me around asking questions. Another student is learning English and sits silently. One student unexpectedly shows up with some silica salts that change color when dehydrated. This will require a Bunsen burner. Three students are about to leave for the sports event and need their homework right now. All that put together adds up to "clamor in the classroom," seriously complicated by large class sizes!

While the sheer number of daily human interactions itself can sometimes be hard for both students and teachers, there are other reasons large class sizes pose problems. With smaller classes, we are able to provide more individualized attention to each student--and students have more opportunities to make relationships with adults in the classroom and with eachother. Low income students show especially large academic gains when they have small class sizes. Teachers stay in the profession longer when their class sizes are not so large--and this results in more consistent and stable instruction in schools.  School counselors with large caseloads face similar issues.

Back in 2009, the Washington state legislature passed ESHB 2261, which established the Quality Education Council. The Quality Education Council adopted recommendations for specific lower class sizes, but staffing allocations in the state budget have yet to fund these.

Now the Washington state legislature needs to put its own recommendations for lower class sizes, recommendations adopted by the Quality Education Council, into place in our schools.  It might be time to clamor for it.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | November 10, 2013

What They Learn vs. What I Cover


File527fbcb709896By Mark

I had big plans for this three day weekend. 

Like many of my colleagues, when I look at the calendar and see three or four day weekends (or five-day, in the case of Thanksgiving), I don't think necessarily about all the relaxation I can achieve. Instead, I wonder if I could get a few class sets of essays turned around in that extended weekend. Those big writing assignments take time to provide useful feedback upon. For me, that means 15 or 20 minutes per paper to provide critical, focused feedback for improvement.

My kids submit their writing via Google Drive, so I can add margin comments (and cut-and-paste the comments I find myself adding frequently). When I reviewed their papers Friday after school, I knew I had screwed up.

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | November 3, 2013

Zombie Brains, Talk Moves, and the Next Generation Science Standards!


Brain in hand
By Maren Johnson

The zombies' odd, shambling gait, and their need to hold their arms straight out in front in order to maintain balance?  That's indicative of damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor coordination.  The zombies' hunger, and thus their unrelenting urge to chase and eat humans?  Clearly a problem with the hypothalamus, the appetite control center of the brain—the zombies just don't know when they are full! And all that zombie rage? Oh yeah, that's originating in the amygdala, apparently overactive in the case of zombies.

I started the lesson by giving students a chance to surface their prior knowledge: students wrote answers to the questions, "How do zombies look different from humans?" and "How do zombies behave differently from humans?" We then discussed their answers as a group. I was a bit floored by the response. Students who rarely participated were eager to share, and these students knew A LOT about zombies. All that zombie knowledge gathered over the years from movies, TV shows, books, and video games? Now the students had a chance to share it in an academic setting. They also wanted to know more about the biology involved!

Many of the students were wildly excited about this science lesson.  My choice of words here is deliberate--in one of my class periods, it was a bit, well....wild. Students talking all at once, to me and to each other—they were on topic but almost no one could hear anyone. How to contain the chaos yet still direct that positive energy towards learning?

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | October 12, 2013

Little Red Marbles and the Next Generation Science Standards

Photo Oct 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

by Maren Johnson

"Atoms are little red marbles too small to see," responded one of my students when I asked what he knew about atoms. I teach biology, so while atoms are important, we don't talk about them every day, and it was near the beginning of the school year. I asked a few clarifying questions to figure out what he actually meant.

No, he didn't think atoms were LIKE little red marbles, he actually thought they WERE little red marbles, that is to say, little round hard things colored red. Where did he get this idea? Well, to be honest, probably right here at school! We frequently use models at my school to teach about atoms. There's a few demonstration models up to the left created by the crafty physical science teacher at my school. Down to the right you can see a model of a neon atom constructed by one of my chemistry students.

While use of those models results in a lot of understanding, it can also can result in some misconceptions, especially when taken too literally!

CSTP--Staff | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, Teacher Leadership, Travel | October 5, 2013

Translation from Finnish


The following is a guest-post from Sarah Applegate, an NBCT teacher librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey Washington. She is passionate about quality information literacy instruction, working with teachers to provide a wide range of resources for students, and dark, bitter Finnish licorice.

I have a confession.  I am a “Finnophile” (“one who loves all things from Finland”) and a “ChauvaFinn” (“one who displays excessive pride in Finland”) yet I hold an American passport.  My friends and colleagues will tell you that since I returned from a Fulbright study in Finland in 2011, I have sought out every opportunity to reflect upon and share what I learned and observed during my research on the Finnish education and library system.  Some might say I sought out TOO many opportunities- during casual dinners, on long runs, and while watching our kids at the park,  to share memories, insights and observations from my time in Finland. While embracing my Finnish obsession, I have continued to reflect on what I observed while in Finnish schools and libraries. I have constantly considered how schools in Washington could learn from Finnish education practice and translate them into Washington state settings.

On September 21, I was finally able to make connections between what I had learned and observed in Finland through a Finnish Education Conference, funded by the US Department of State with support from CSTP and WEA. We gathered 50 teachers from Washington to hear and think about what makes Finland’s education system work and how their approaches could be used in Washington state schools. I brought together four US Finland Fulbright teachers, as well as two Finnish teachers, to speak on how Finland organizes their education system, designs and delivers instruction and trains their teachers. During the morning, participants were able to learn about Finnish education practices and in the afternoon, teachers a chance to “translate” what they had learned to their own teaching context and plan for potential implementation of Finnish practices in their Washington state setting. What we translated has some promising implications for us in our schools - read on to see what we cooked up.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | September 20, 2013

Growth, Part Three: Growing Others


File5234868add499By Mark

One drum I beat constantly is that if we want education reform to work, teachers must be the ones empowered to not only implement the change, but to be the ones who design it.

I often hear about "layers of bureaucracy and waste" in school districts. The comments under the news website articles about education tout the inefficiency and top-heaviness of school systems. That is perhaps the case in some places. Over the last few decades, instructional coaching has been in fashion as a layer somewhere in limbo between classroom teacher and building administrator. In tight budgets, these positions are often the first to go, since their impact on students is not always so obvious and traceable.

To some, coaching or being a TOSA (like I am for .4 of my day) is a stepping stone out of the classroom into administration. That's fine, but I believe that for most of us in that role, it isn't a means to some personal ladder-climbing end. For me, having no aspirations to be in administrative leadership, coaching or TOSA-ing is about supporting classroom instruction.

Logic and research both prove that of all the factors within the control of a school, the one with the greatest impact on student learning is teacher pedagogical skill. If this is the case, the potential power of teacher-leaders in coaching or TOSA roles cannot be understated. With so many demands on building administrators for everything from student discipline to recess duty to teacher evaluation, it is very easy for the difficult and time-consuming work of improving instruction to get unintentional short shrift. In too many cases, efforts to improve instruction manifest as hastily assembled sit-and-get powerpoint assaults or the spending of inordinate amounts of money to fly in some expert to talk at teachers for a day or two about decontextualized theory and the next new curriculum to buy. Missing are the intense and reflective one-on-one probing conversations that demand not only time but strong relationships that likewise require time to develop.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Books, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | September 17, 2013

Growth, Part Two: Open to Learning


By Mark

About a year ago I was sitting in a training, titled "Common Assessments, blah, blah, blah" (I can't remember the title).

But it was in that session that I remember, for probably the first time if not in my career then in a long time, actually learning something I thought I could use. Hence, this facebook status update:

Esd training

I had just finished my tenth year of teaching, and was about to embark on my eleventh and begin referring to myself as "mid-career."

In reflection, it obviously wasn't that I had never been exposed to quality professional development. (Well, maybe...) The change, though, happened in my head. Suddenly, I was at a point in my career where I was mentally ready to learn. Seeing a new strategy was no longer a threat meaning that "the way I teach is wrong." Rather than feel obligated to accept and apply everything the trainer offered, I realized that even walking away with the tiniest applicable nugget was a success.

It was really at that moment that I finally began to grow as a teacher. It started by simply becoming open to learning that challenged me, rather than only being open to learning that already fit into my current view of myself and my practice.

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | September 6, 2013

Interest Based Bargaining


By Rob

Last June the members of the association gathered into a high school gymnasium to vote on a new labor contract.  No union member or district official can recall a contract that was settled so early.  We have always bargained through the summer.  Our ratification meeting usually happens in August when room is hotter and tensions are higher.

After the bargaining team briefed us on the new contract a teacher approaches the microphone and asks, “What did we give up with this contract?”

“Animosity.” was the reply.

The district and the union followed a new model of contract negotiation- Interest Based Bargaining (IBB).  In IBB both sides generate a list of issues they wish to see resolved in the contract.  But unlike traditional bargaining solutions are not proposed.  Instead the bargaining sessions are used to brainstorm solutions and the negotiations become problem solving exercises. 

The contract was ratified with over 99% of the union voting yes.  The Association was very happy with the outcome.

The next morning I attended the district’s contract briefing.  Surprisingly, the district was just as satisfied.  In this briefing, the Director of Human Resources shared each issue and solution.  The common denominator in nearly every agreed upon solution was “What is best for student learning.”

The only solution that has the potential to negatively impact student learning was to remove the cap on the number personal days that can be taken by staff on a given day throughout the district.  There is a possibility for a substitute shortage.  Both sides have agreed to revisit this topic next spring and share data on the impact of this new contract language.

I contrast this bargaining process with our past negotiations and the recent brinksmanship in Seattle and I’m convinced IBB should be the model we follow going forward.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | August 21, 2013

Test Scores and Teacher Evaluation: Now What?


File521431c138930There are few things worse than being fired up and not knowing what to do next.

That is where I find myself with the recent discussion about student growth, teacher evaluation, and the federal government. (Chances are you've already read a little about this from me, Tom, Maren and Kristin.)

But here's where I get stuck. It is easy for me to sit here at my desktop and engage in discourse with my peers about how misguided is the federal position on using one-shot test scores to evaluate teachers. In discussion here, on facebook, on other blogs, and even in old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, I've discovered that there are a lot of very intelligent people talking about this issue. (CSTP even noted that the traffic on this blog has spiked by a couple thousand pageviews in the last few days alone.)

For other issues, I've known to whom to go: my local leadership, state legislators, and so on. With this one, though, I truly don't know what to do next. Conversation needs to continue, for sure. At some point it needs to translate to action, or else this is all just a bunch of cached webpages.

Brainstorm with me, if you will: What can you and I do next? Who do we talk to? Is there hope? And what do we do once we've ignored the people who answer "no" to that last question?

If nothing else, let's keep the conversation going--and invite others to join in.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | August 16, 2013

Ignore the Feds on Student Growth


File520e39cc23477By Mark

So, we got a warning.

The Feds have sent a letter to the state of Washington indicating that we aren't quite doing what they want when it comes to teacher and principal evaluation. Aside from our crazy approach of taking time to learn, train teachers and administrators, and implement the system thoughtfully rather than quickly, one sticking point appears to be that we are a little too willing to differentiate when it comes to how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

In my opinion, we're right, they're wrong. As it stands, the state law...

  1. Does not require districts to use state test scores in teacher evaluation; this option is a district choice. (In most districts, only about 12-15% of teachers actually teach tested grade levels and content... oh, also see #2 and #3 below that clarify the limits of state assessments.)
  2. Emphasizes evaluating the teacher's professional ability to choose the right assessment sequence to determine student growth, and then set meaningful growth goals for classes and subsets of students based on student needs, entry skills, as well as appropriate content standards. (This is actually weighted more heavily than whether "all the kids pass" the assessments.)
  3. Requires multiple points of data all aligned to the same learning or skill standard, rather than a single snapshot assessment. (Multiple points show a trajectory, whereas a single point captures a moment.)

Like too much policy, the further the "deciders" are away from the classroom, the more out-of-touch the policy is and the more focused it becomes on what is easiest to administer. Which is easier... looking a a once-a-year matrix of test data OR tracking each individual student using targeted skills assessments over the course of time? Duh.

But the right question is which is better?

That, to me, is just as obvious.

Washington: we're doing the right thing. It may not be perfect, but it is better for kids, teachers, schools and communities than hinging everything on a single moment in time.

Mark Gardner | Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership | June 26, 2013

Lessons in Teacher Leadership


File51cb02ad3388dBy Mark

David B. Cohen at InterACT (Accomplished California Teachers' blog) recently posted an interesting piece about the Teacher Leader Certification Academy in Riverside, California, which got me thinking about my own experience this past year in a newly formed "teacher leader" role in my district.

When I stepped into this role as "Teacher on Special Assignment," the job description was vague. Our district had not had a role like this at the secondary level, and as it was a part-time gig (two periods out of my day--with the other four periods consisting of my prep period and three periods with kids) neither I nor the leadership above me really knew what the work would look like in practice.

In the end, I learned so much this year. I learned things that I can apply in my own classroom, and of course I learned a thing or two about what it means to be this particular breed of "Teacher Leader."

The first thing I learned was to whom I should listen, and why.

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | June 9, 2013

The Post-Game Show: Three Things I learned this School Year

Photo Jun 9, 2013, 7:50 AM

by Maren Johnson

We're teachers. That means whether we end the school year battered and bruised, or triumphant and victorious, we generally don't have reporters following us around on the last day of school asking us about the highlights in student learning for the year. Replays of key moments in our classroom game are not usually publicly rebroadcast for analysis by a panel of color commentators.

Our post-game show is a little different. If we want to reflect on the school year, we're going to have to do it on our own. I checked out my schedule for the period immediately following the end of the school year: there's some professional development, a conference, and quite a few bargaining sessions. Other teachers have similar activities.

What's missing from this end of school line-up? Reflection. It really is. There is no time specifically pencilled in at any of my own particular meetings (as far as I know!) for looking back on the school year. That's interesting. I think the reflection is implicit--many of the meetings include check-ins, debriefs, annual reports, and the like--but explicit individual (or group) reflection is not generally an agenda item.

So how will I tell the story of my school year? Well--I don't want to forget about it--each year is remarkable. I've told several of those stories here on this blog, but a few of my stories from school this year are just going to have to remain at school ;)

Some things I learned this year, in no particular order:

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | May 17, 2013

The Problem


AbaacusBy Mark

I've been having a bit of a problem lately in my classes. 

My students were tasked to create a visual metaphor of the allegory represented in George Orwell's Animal Farm, do research about the "factual" side of their allegorical connection, and assemble this all into an end product that showed their skills at a whole slew of the Common Core State Standards in ELA-Reading-Lit and ELA-Reading-Informational Texts, with each standard accompanied by a proficiency level scale that clearly defined what achievement of the standard would look like.

My problem is that too many of them are earning A's. Even the kids who aren't supposed to. 

Maren Johnson | Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | May 13, 2013

Student (and teacher) Engagement: Increase the drama!

Photo May 11, 2013, 4:04 PM
by Maren Johnson

The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in — and stay tuned in — to watch drama.

~David Mamet, playwright and screenwriter

I don't usually get my teaching tips from television screenwriters, but I thought the above quote was worth some thought. If drama has a wide definition--let's say drama is a story resulting from human interactions--then adding drama to our teaching is definitely a way increase student engagement--the "tuning in" that David Mamet talks about above.

Our students often aren't here for the information, they're here for the drama. The students frequently find that drama in the actions of their peers. One of our jobs as teachers? Try to create that drama in our subject matter and class activities. Is drama necessary for learning? No, but it sure can help. Some ways to create that drama? Building teacher-student relationships, and including stories about content matter and school.

Last week at my school, a teacher sent out a link to an inspiring (and dramatic) Rita Pierson video on teacher-student relationships. Some teachers discussed it at lunch, a few other teachers commented by email. Teachers engaging other teachers, all right.  Another example: also last week at my school, a teacher announced "Staff Spirit Day" with the theme of "Hey, I went to college!" We were to wear our college sweatshirts and tell students positive stories about our college experiences.

No college sweatshirt being handy, I donned my high school FFA jacket--yeah, that's right, vocational agriculture all the way. I was part of an amazing high school FFA team--we competed in nursery landscape contests across the state and even made our way to nationals in Kansas City.

The FFA jacket I wore last Friday prominently featured the name of my high school, a neighboring school district to the one in which I now teach. As I was sharing stories of high school and college, one of my current students reminded me, "Ms. Johnson, my grandpa was your high school biology teacher!" Sure enough, which meant that my teacher-student-teacher relationship with this family now spanned two school districts and several generations! Good, we've got some human drama.

This high school biology teacher, as I described to my class, was a colorful character, a former Marine who was able to do push-ups with one arm while suspending himself between two student desks. He brewed coffee in his science prep room and gave us worms to dissect. He retired with the graduating class: the students proclaimed him the "Senior senior."

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership | April 20, 2013

Trust, Power, Change and Risk


File5172abe3badc9By Mark

Change is hard, and for change to happen, trust is critical.

I've been thinking often about trust lately--sitting in meetings with administrators as they strategize how to build trust within a staff. In meetings at the ESD and with OSPI, I hear about how cultivating a climate of trust is vital for evaluation to produce growth.

Thus, we have more meetings, use surveys to find the root of the distrust. Still, I have bosses I trust more than others. I have colleagues I trust more than others. 

And when I sit and listen to my fellow teachers, they likewise lament situations where they do not trust their administrator or evaluators. As a building union representative, I sit in meetings where we talk about erosion of trust, and that the climate of distrust needs to be fixed. We talk about it, point at it, discuss it, and then leave the table waiting for that trust to somehow repair itself.

If I don't trust my administrator to make good choices, there is an assumption about how that lack of trust is to be remedied: If I don't trust you, the only way for trust to be repaired is for you to change.

Bam. There it is.

CSTP--Staff | Education, Life in the Classroom | April 5, 2013

The New 3 R's


Stories from School would like to welcome Brian Sites as a guest-contributor to our blog. Brian Sites is an alternative educator and National Board Certified teacher, who has earned recognition at the state and national level for his work helping students achieve their full potential at River's Edge High School in Richland, WA. 

This post is an excerpt of his self-publisehd book "Who's Teaching Who? Stories of hope and lessons learned from my first 10 years of teaching" available in pdf format, and free of charge  at:


The New 3 Rs:    Relationships + Resiliency=  Results

The original 3 R’s (Rigor, Relevance, Relationships) always made sense to me, but I felt as though it missed the mark. To me, I saw an underlying assumption that teachers did not offer enough rigor to their students, and that teachers were clueless about how to teach in ways that make content relevant to the lives of their students. As for relationships…being the third “R” somehow seemed to diminish its importance, as if by somehow doing the other two very well, the Relationships will come naturally.

To me, this is entirely backwards! I see Relationships as the cornerstone of good teaching. Building students’ resiliency is what teachers are supposed to do, but why is it never discussed? My experience tells me that because it is not easily quantifiable, and it is not related to specific content areas, resiliency has been banished from our pedagogical vocabulary.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Life in the Classroom, Science | February 11, 2013

Double your fun with dual credit! Your Brain on Drugs

Photo Feb 9, 2013, 10:42 AM
by Maren Johnson


I'm excited about a new class I'm teaching next year. Yes, it's the honeymoon period--I haven't started teaching the class yet, so I'm still in the thinking, dreaming, imagining period--but hey, it's a good place to be--I'm going to enjoy it while I can.

The new class? It's a "college in the high school" biology class--a partnership between my high school and a state university to offer students dual credit. Students will be able to earn both high school and college credit while taking a class right here in their own school.

The class itself is fascinating. We are going to study the fundamentals of biology while looking through the lens of addiction, psychoactive drugs, and the human brain. We're going to do a series of cool labs, there's an online component, and even an interesting text. The biology of cells, organs, systems, and behavior--it's all there, we're just using a specific, high interest focus--the brain and addiction--to study it.

And why do I have time to think, dream, imagine about a new class? It's because I have a student teacher.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | February 9, 2013

Matters of Education...and Class Size


Class sizeLast year was my first foray into tromping the halls of Olympia as a novice education advocate. I'm still far from an expert--which was one of my reasons for being so reticent to have a political voice.

I think many of us feel that way. The first step, as always, is just to pay, watch, listen, make up your mind (and remember, it's okay to disagree with your colleagues, your school, and your union, as long as your disagreement is informed).

WEA keeps an active site that is a good place for your radar to first ping: OurVoice. A few bills of note (and I think they're all still live as I type this...but things can change quickly!)

  • S5588: Restricts use of half-days for professional development, marketed as "changing the definition of 'school day.'" (WEA's take, here.)
  • HB1293: Requires districts to disclose the real costs of testing, which has led parents to ask legislators a question they cannot seem to answer.
  • HB1673: Gradually reduces student-to-teacher class size ratios for calculating state allocations, including provisions for even smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools. According to this document, Washington would need to hire over 12,000 teachers to bring our class size to the national average (we're presently the 4th most crowded). 

While there are other bills (and troubling ideas) out there and various stages of their life cycles, ranging from misguided attempts to businessify the teacher evaluation model that hasn't even been given the chance to get off the ground to others that affect collective bargaining, the class size bill, HB1673, is the one I'm thinking about at the moment. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development | January 12, 2013

Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth


I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

Maren Johnson | Education, Life in the Classroom, Science | December 13, 2012

Should I sharpen up my Teaching Points?


by Maren Johnson Sharp pencil

In my district, we adopted a new framework for teacher evaluation, UW CEL, and I learned a new phrase: Teaching point.  What's that, you ask?  Learning target, learning goal, performance expectation, lesson objective, power standard: while they each have an important nuance of meaning, they all refer to what students should understand or be able to do by the end of a certain period of time.

Posting those learning targets every day so they are visible to all?  Yeah, I've never done that, for a variety of reasons.  However, I have repeatedly heard that all three frameworks in our state are based on research, and hey, I want my students to learn, so when I read in our district’s framework rubric about daily posting as one possible way of communicating learning targets, I figured--I'm game, I'll give it a try—and I have been posting these in class for the last two weeks.

I shared what I was doing with a fellow teacher—and we had a very animated discussion (raised voices in the copy room!) about the pros and cons of posting learning targets and how this might or might not fit into teacher evaluation.  I will say I put some thought into how and when during my lessons I was going to post these targets and discuss them with the students.  I knew that for many lessons, about the last thing that would be helpful would be to have a posted learning target at the beginning of a lesson. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | December 9, 2012

The Time to Do the Right Work


Ship in a bottleAs a writing teacher, one of my greatest struggles involves getting kids to understand the writing process. Writing can be frustrating, arduous work. Understandably, then, when a kid puts the last period on the last sentence in the last paragraph, the impulse then is to put down the pen or click "print" and pass that piece on to the teacher.

As adults, we know that the last period is not the finish line, and that often the toughest work begins when the writing is "finished." The act of meaningful revision--the analysis of effectiveness, the cutting and splicing of sentences, the refining of vivid vocabulary--that formidable work often makes the first stages of writing seem simple. We know, though, that the difference between mediocre and exceptional comes with the time invested in revising, polishing, and refining. It is hard work. It is the right work to do, and it takes time. If that work is skimped upon or shirked, the end product will not have achieved its full potential.

When I had the opportunity to present to the Gates Foundation last week, the other presenters and I never met ahead of time to coordinate our message--yet the same point resonated loud and clear: the new evaluation system is the right work to do to improve teaching, schools, and student learning. 

And the corollary to that point: doing this work will take time.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | December 8, 2012

The Right Work


As some of you might have seen on Facebook, this past Thursday, December 6th, I had the privilege and opportunity to offer a short presentation and serve on a discussion panel for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Education Pathways meeting.

IMG_1558In the audience were names attached to some of most important and influential groups in public education in the state of Washington--and beyond, since also present were Ron Thorpe, President and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Washington's own Andy Coons, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer of NBTPS. Walking into a room with leadership from OSPI, the Gates Foundation, the Association of Washington School Principals, CSTP, and numerous other organizations, I was quick to feel intimidated. After all, my main thought during my drive to Seattle was about whether my ninth graders were behaving for the sub--nothing quite so heady as the future of statewide policy.

My comfort zone is much more intimate with much clearer roles: When I walk into my own classroom, I am the expert, I am the authority. It's not that I wield power like a tyrant over my domain, but to those fourteen- and fifteen-year olds, I am the voice they are to listen to, heed, seek for advice, and learn from. I am the teacher: what I have to say matters.

In my eleven years of teaching, as I've ventured little by little into the world of education policy, there are many times when I find myself in a room filled with nicely pressed suits (and me wearing my one pair of decent slacks) feeling just the opposite way as I do in front of my classroom. I think to myself: I am just a teacher. Will what I say matter?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | November 11, 2012

What I need to change


SharpenerWe are in transition.

As a "Marzano" district piloting forward toward implementation of the new teacher evaluation system, I am coming face to face with the kinds of expectations that are going to rattle my paradigm. The instructional frameworks OSPI allowed us to choose from do not represent dramatically different approaches to teaching or schools of thought about how teaching and learning should take place. What the frameworks do establish, though, are specific "research-based" teaching strategies that emerge as valued and therefore expected, since they are named in the evaluation scales against which I will be measured. In Marzano, a few stand out to me: learning targets, performance scales (rubrics), and students tracking their own growth against those scales.

I agree that these are solid instructional strategies: they just haven't always been a consistent and practiced part of my repertoire. 

Now they are going to be--or else.

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Science | October 24, 2012

Unfortunately, it's not invisible: The Equipment


3_Industrial_Hazardsby Maren Johnson

This month on Stories from School, we are trying to expose some of the "invisible" work that teachers do--the things in teaching that may go unseen by others.  Unfortunately, what I have to write about is not at all invisible--rather, it is all too often in our way!  Science teachers, Career and Tech Ed teachers, and other teachers of project and lab based classes spend much of our time functioning as equipment managers--not the most glamorous duty, but a duty, indeed, it is.  You can see a few of us in the photo off to the left, and yes, we are hamming it up for a Homecoming spirit day dressed as Industrial Hazards, but you get the idea--our equipment is large and can be hard to handle.

What are some of the “invisibles” that come with all this equipment?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | October 20, 2012

The Mindsets


FWhen I was an undergraduate, I loved having the opportunity to choose whichever courses interested me. Outside of my major, I took everything from calculus to photography to sociology. I also took advantage of another benefit offered: the option to take courses "pass/fail." I engaged this option whenever there was the chance that I would earn less than an "A."

At the time, I justified it from a financial standpoint. I had tuition and housing scholarships which required a certain GPA: a "C" would harm my GPA, but a "P" had no effect on it and I'd still earn the credit. However, in hindsight, I see that this behavior was a sign of something I'm only now starting to understand: my transcript was my identity.

Recently at an after-school meeting, one of our building associate principals shared an article summarizing the work done by Carol Dweck of the Stanford University School of Psychology. The gist: while it is not absolute, there are generally two "mindsets" into which people can be classified--the "fixed" mindset and the "growth" mindset. 

A person whose disposition is in the "growth" mindset will relish challenge, recover from failure having learned and applied critical lessons, and "end up" in a different and usually better place from where they "start out."

In college, I was clearly of the "fixed" mindset.

Mark Gardner | Books, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | October 14, 2012

The Budget


Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources--a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times--but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | October 9, 2012

The Job


File5074c0e3670deI was sitting in a conference in another state last week when the conversation got heated.

We had just listened to a very well executed presentation about how to improve assessments so that they minimize the "chance for student error other than not knowing." We'd heard about PLCs and how to make them work. We'd heard about the power of shared assessment rubrics and the value of examining student work. We'd all drunk the kool-aid and sat smiling, basking in the glow of new learning with all its potential for impacting student growth. 

Then reality began to crash in. My colleagues from another district (in that other state) began to recognize the vast gulf--the chasm--between the promise of this ideal about which they'd learned and grown excited, and the real resource and personnel limitations they knew they'd face upon arrival back home.

How are we supposed to do this? They pleaded. We're already so busy doing everything else we have to and we don't even have time to do all that--and now there's more?

The answer was obvious:

Travis Wittwer | Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | October 5, 2012

The Meetings


Picture 2By Travis Wittwer

In keeping with October's theme of Invisibles, I share with you ... The Meetings, but first, a brief definition. "Invisibles" is a general term for all of the unseen things that teachers do to keep the education machine running. The goal of October is to bring a few of these Invisibles to light so that people outside of the school setting have a clear idea of what it is like inside the school. 

So on to The Meetings as my teaching partner and I have been all week. It started on Monday .... 

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | September 25, 2012

The Woods


8013832785_f8351707ba_mBy Travis

Sarah Brown Wessling, an English teacher at Johnston High School and 2010 National Teacher of the Year, wrote that "teachers must be able to expose all the 'invisible' work we do." 

I completely agree.

And her comment made me think of the forest adjacent my school. 

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | September 22, 2012

Guidance Team


By Rob

Struggling students are referred to the Guidance Team.  We identify the most significant barrier to student success.  We develop a plan to address the barrier.  We choose metrics to track the effectiveness of our plan.  We document our interventions and meet regularly to track progress. 

A teacher may bring a student to the team who’s reading below grade level.  We review the student’s reading data.  Perhaps we find evidence they need phonics support.  We align our school’s resources- this student will meet with our reading specialist for an 8 week phonics intervention.  This may lead to improved fluency and the student can then carry the meaning while reading.  As a result, their reading comprehension improves.  I’ve seen this happen.  It demonstrates some of the best work a school can do.

Rob | Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | August 23, 2012

Sparrow vs. Goose


By Rob

One of my favorite summer activities was playing fetch in the park with my dog.  After the pooch was worn out we’d sit in the grass and I’d marvel at the swallows that arrive by late morning.  These birds would swoop, dive, bank and turn.  It was dizzying to see how quickly they’d change directions and commit to a new path.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | August 11, 2012

Building Trust


3d_moviesThese last few days I've been immersed in a professional experience that has shifted my direction as a teacher: how to use video as a means for facilitating my own and my colleagues' professional growth.

To use video observation successfully, one key is to look objectively at a video of classroom practice and identify critical teacher actions and student actions that are observable--and to note or record these observable actions without evaluation or judgment. Instead of watching teachers and thinking "I like how they did that" or "that is not a good assignment," my attention shifted to noticing the actions without judgment: "The teacher waited while the student revised his own incorrect verbal answer" or "The student recorded her thoughts on a continuum to self-assess."

Judgment is not forbidden, it just isn't first. By identifying the "observables"--the objective concrete details of teaching and learning--I can build a better foundation for evaluating what I can use to improve my own practice and what specific actions can do this. This all got me thinking.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | July 30, 2012

Realigning to Common Core


File7011343695826By Mark

This summer, I've been participating in a book study about challenges in implementing Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. In that spirit, I sat down today to look at my scope and sequence for the classes I teach (Freshman English Lit and Comp). All along I've been saying to myself and others that this whole Common Core Standards shifting is no big deal: we're already doing that work, it's just a matter of identifying in those standards all the things we already do--we won't really have to do much that is "new."

As it turns out, this whole process really made me rethink what I teach and how I teach. I found that there were many standards which were addressed, reinforced, and assessed in basically every single unit of the sequence. I also found a few standards which never appeared more than once, buried as a footnote in some broader unit. More concerning: some of the projects and assessments that I and my students enjoy the most were supported by only tenuous connections (at best) to the standards. 

This coming school year, I anticipate that many of my posts will reflect my process with the Common Core. Interestingly, when I try to characterize my feelings, the first word that pops into my head (however irrational this may be) is the word mourning. Some of those projects that kids seem to connect with so well lack strong connection to Common Core, even if they are the tasks that former students still recall to me ten years later. No matter how much I, or they, love the experience, these are the things I really need to examine and honestly assess whether they belong in my classroom under my new expectations.

As I try to help other teachers make this transition to the new standards, I need to remember that word that popped into my head. As I encounter resistance, I need to remember that isn't just about being "opposed to change." I need to remember that the first reaction when you are told to do something new might not actually be a reaction to that which is new, but rather a quick and confusing pang of loss for something deeply enjoyed that no longer seems to fit. 

Mark Gardner | Education, Life in the Classroom | May 9, 2012



Coffee-stainBy Mark

There will be coffee awaiting me in the main office tomorrow in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Coffee: I used to joke with my students that if any of their papers came back with coffee stains from me, it was a bonus 5 points. That comment comes from a deep memory of receiving back many an assignment in Mrs. Jones's class that had coffee rings on the corners.

On my drive in to work this morning, I got to thinking about Mrs. Jones, from whom I took 9th grade science, chemistry, physics, geometry, Algebra II and Advanced Math Pre-Calc. She was basically half the science department and half the math department in the tiny high school from which I graduated. 

My freshman year, a rather self-important group of us claimed that we were going to get her fired. She simply expected too much of us. It was unreasonable. A few of us had parents on the school board, so we knew it would be a slam dunk.

Travis Wittwer | Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | May 7, 2012



By Travis Picture 7

I took my sons to school with me on national Take Your Child to Work day. It humanized me. I have a good rapport with students because I care about them as people outside of my subject area. I know for many students the intricacies of Shakespeare’s language in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not what is important for their survival that day. I also know that my class may just be a blip on their day of ups and downs. Given this, I work hard to make their time in my class an “up.”

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | May 1, 2012



File5561335491384By Mark

Of my seniors, some may graduate, some may become a statistic.

Of the total FTE in my building, some may have jobs next year, some may be RIF'd.

Of the courses on the master schedule, some classes may be scratched, some may be cobbled together.

I may decide to stay in the classroom. So much depends.

All of these this-or-thats will be decided in May. How appropriate.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | April 30, 2012

The English Problem


File3561335707875By Mark

For several years, my building has been identifying and aligning curriculum to standards--first state standards and now Common Core Standards--with part of this process being the identification of the Power Standards! each unit of instruction is to focus upon.

Simultaneously, we are gearing up for a new teacher evaluation system which figures heavily on a teacher's ability to define what his/her students' learning targets are and assess and document student progress toward those targets.

To an extent, both have been an uneasy fit for me as a high school English teacher. It is not so much in the philosophies underpinning these movements. It is that no one that I talk to seems to understand what I've started calling "The English Problem."

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | March 19, 2012

When I'm Happiest


File5971332208838By Mark

Everyone has probably heard about, or actually read, the New York Times website article that discussed the supposed downward spiral of teacher morale. It highlighted how teachers working in struggling schools had the lowest morale, and the teachers with greater satisfaction tended to have "more opportunities for professional development, more time to prepare their lessons and greater parental involvement in their schools."

Travis recently shared his one cent about how morale can easily crumble in our present atmosphere. Tamara shared some thought provoking questions, too. And Tom found himself indigo and then entered stage five.  

In my meetings and phone calls and emails and faxes (yep, faxes) with legislators the last few weeks, I've found myself repeating the phrase that I feel like I have "a target on my back and the blame for all society's ills on my shoulders." In quiet moments in the car or after my kids are in bed, I too have thought about what other jobs I could apply for.

But the next day, I walk into my classroom, close the door on it all, turn to face them and breathe a sigh of relief.

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | February 6, 2012

The School of the Future


Picture 1
By Travis

The school of the future will not be housed on a cloud, or a floating pod. The school of the future will not have whole sides of buildings made out of windows, nor will students sit, discussing great works of literature through their hand-held discussion devices.

No, the school of the future is more real.

It IS attainable.

It IS possible.

The school if the future will have No Tardies, No Failing Students, and No Homework. The school of the future is only a few years away.