Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

Among the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last week, and start a new term with a new course and students next week.

This past semester, I taught two courses.  The first, Looking for an Argument, was probably the best I ever taught.  The structure was creating by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can read more about it here, and buy it here.  I hope to write more on that soon. My second class was an interdisciplinary English and Global history course which I dubbed Build Your Own Civilization.  The global focused on ancient and golden aged civilizations, while the English focused on post-apocalyptic or “kids on a deserted island” scenarios.  In addition, the first 30 minutes of every class was devoted to independent reading of books of the students’ choice.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to what I’ve learned about independent reading to East Side Community High School’s very well established program, my former colleagues Steve and Chris at Bronx Lab, and my department mate Kiran, who generously gave me all her independent reading materials.

I want to start with my students’ reflections.  I borrowed heavily from Paul Blogush’s evaluation, and was quite please with the info I got.

First, I asked my students to choose one words to describe myself, and one word to describe the class.  Here are the results:

I’m not sure I could be happier about helpful and challenging being the most common words to describe me, and am quite pleased they found the course interesting.  The one student who described me as “awesome” but the course as “less awesome” actually points towards my feelings about the class. Continue reading Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

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We're Huge in Japan

I’ve been told this article is about how American teachers teach 9/11, in comparison with how students learn about Hiroshima & Nagasaki in Japan. I’m just pretty pumped that the very first class at Harvest Collegiate High School showed up half-way around the world.

My Complete 2011-2012 Teaching Portfolio

Here’s the entire portfolio in one shot.  Over on the DOENuts blog, the author really captured the reason I feel this is worthwhile:

As the words from my in-law bounced around my head, this teacher, who has been blogging his teaching portfolio all week  popped into my mind. I know from reading his blog that he’s not looking for a job. In fact, he’s a National Board Certified Teacher. He’s got his credentials and then some. He’s also part of a founding team of a school that is opening in the Fall. Surely he’s got better things to be doing than to be constructing and blogging his teaching portfolio.
Or does he?
Ok follow this: If teaching is the essence of what we do, and learning is the essence of teaching (which it is), and if subjecting your work for public display (for the purpose of, among other things, peer review) is a very important component of learning (which it is. Why else do we have our kids give oral presentations in front of the class?), then why aren’t we all subjecting our work for public display and discussion?
I would only add that reflecting is also an important part of learning, and taking the time to do so has made me a better teacher.  Thank you all, for being the audience that encourages me to do that.

Each of the past two years, I put together a portfolio of my work along with other teachers at Bronx Lab.  I missed that tradition at Young Writers this year, so have decided to take some time to do it on my own before I completely dive into the work of opening Harvest Collegiate.  

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.

  1. Best Lesson
  2. Best Things I Used from Other Sources
  3. Best Unit
  4. Reflection on Goals
  5. What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year
  6. Top 10 Moments from My Year at Young Writers
  7. Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School
  8. Using Standards Based Grading in Social Studies

Using Standards Based Grading in Social Studies (Portfolio #8)

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

Other than two angry reactionary pieces that got picked up by the press (why is that the case?), the most read piece I’ve written was Implementing Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in My Social Studies, Finally a year ago.  I’m updating that post here.  

Last year, I went 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.  All my courses at my new school will also using SBG.

Background

I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class two years ago, and updated my plan last year.  Before this year, I had three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote two years ago, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this post on that issue)

Changes Made for Last Year

I went in better prepared.  I had a clear list of historical skills standards from the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, which gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.  Two other teachers at Young Writers were also doing SBG, allowing me to plan using SBG from day 1.

For everyone in the pilot, there were three categories of standards: Unit Goals, Essential Skills, and Citizenship.  Somewhat arbitrarily, the units will made up 45% of the grade, Essential Skills were 45%, and Citizenship the remaining 10%. Here is one example of a standard for the year:

LG A: Argument – I can create effective written or oral arguments

SWBAT construct arguments that integrate and evaluate multiple perspectives, explanations, or causations, including counterclaims

SWBAT develop controlling ideas that clearly address prompts or fulfill assignments

SWBAT support their ideas using explanation of evidence

At the start of the year, I had 4-7 Unit Goals for each unit, 12 Essential Skills for the year, and 3 Citizenship Goals.

Unit Goals included skills or content, depending on the unit. For the most part, they were content heavy goals.  For example, the learning goals for my final unit on Financial Planning & Investing were: “Financial Planning: I can make a successful long term financial plan for myself” and “Economic Decision Making: I can analyze economic decisions in terms of risk/reward over short/long terms.”  However, my Project Citizen unit focused on research, with students working on a wide variety of content.  The goals for that unit were: “Governmental Decision Making: I can explain the short and long term effects of governmental decisions,” “Research: I can find reliable and useful information” and “Citing: I can cite information properly.”

The Citizenship Goals remained the same the entire year (Timeliness, Growth, Supportiveness).  I wrote the following last year, and stand by it even stronger now:

I know there are a lot of people using SBG who do not feel these aspects should be part of students’ grades, but I feel like most of these people teach in more privileged communities where most students know how to and are able to do these things.  It is very important for my students to get explicit feedback on these aspects of their performance so they can improve them.  With that said, no one will fail the course because they turn things in late.

I taught seniors last year, and 10% was an appropriate amount for this part of their grade.  In teaching 9th graders next year, I plan to increase it.

Certain large assignments were designated “Must Complete” assignments.  It didn’t matter what students have demonstrated from other assignments, they will not be eligible for credit without completing the large projects for the course.

It’s NYC policy that every student receives a number grade at the end of each semester.  Students received these grades using some form of a Bump & Space grading system.

Changes Made During the Year

I did not make any significant changes to the structure as the year went on, but I learned a very important lesson: you can only really teach to a small handful of skill based performance standards.  Yes, you can assess students for twelve different key skills during the year.  However, the main power of SBG is that it gives both teachers AND students clarity on how they are doing, which informs instruction and opportunities for practice within the class.  Here is the most important lesson I learned this year:

IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE WILLING TO EXPLICITLY TEACH, ASSESS, RETEACH, AND REASSESS A SKILL MULTIPLE TIMES THROUGHOUT THE UNIT OR YEAR, IT SHOULDN’T BE A LEARNING GOAL FOR SBG.

For example, nearly every assignment students did involved creating an argument of some form.  Creating an argument was a foundation of my class, and therefore, it was a good standard. On the other hand, “Oral Communication” while important and something students were doing regularly, was not something I was frequently teaching students how to do, nor assessing, and therefore was not a good standard to have.  This does not mean I should not have had students work to improve their oral communication, it just meant it did not need to be part of the formal feedback I gave students through grades.

I started the year with twelve key skills I planned on assessing throughout the year.  I finished the year using only six (Argument, Using Evidence, Sourcing, Content, Written Organization & Clarity, Complexity, and Audience).

Similarly, my first unit had five learning goals.  All subsequent units had 2-3.

For Next Year

I am in the unique position of creating a school, and the school has certain structures that will enable SBG (we have yet to decide if SBG will be mandatory for all teachers, or just strongly encouraged).

To this end, the school has four Habits of Mind that will be explicitly assessed in every course in the school: Evidence, Connections, Perspective, & Voice.

Each department crafted a list of transfer goals.  For each semester, teachers will focus on 1-3 of these goals.  For the Social Studies department, are goals are:

  1. (a) Students will be able to develop questions that help them understand problems in the world, and (b) be able to find and evaluate sources of information that allow them to answer the question
  2. Students can critically evaluate events, claims, decisions, and issues in their moment based on their knowledge of the past and present
  3. Students will have the tools to participate actively and effectively as informed citizens of a representative democracy.

Therefor, there will be 5-7 Essential Skills for each semester (4 Habits + 1-3 Transfer Goals), which will be relatively uniform within each department.  Each course will then have 2-4 additional goals for each major unit, where appropriate.

Why This Can Work for Me, but Might Not for You

I wrote the following last year:

The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I worry about my students learning this year.  I am focusing on depth over breath.  While I think SBG could work in a survey history course, I’m not sure there’s  reason for it, given the need for 200-400 learning goals.  The same would be true for a traditional government or economics course.  I am probably doing half of the content that one normally would in these courses, but doing so in much more depth so that my students can really develop the skills they will need as citizens and in order to be successful in college.  I am willing to have my students not be able to explain the entire process for how a bill becomes a law in exchange for them knowing how to research a policy, and to take action based on that research.

I stand by that, and am lucky to create a school where we will not need to worry about it.  With that said, I think the value of SBG for students outweighs the challenges a survey course presents.  The next time I teach a survey course, I will add “Content Knowledge” to the categories of Essential Skills, Unit Goals, and Citizenship.  This category will use more traditional grading, and will count for 20-40% of a students’ grade.

Portfolio Entry #7: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

At this time last year, I was really looking forward to being “just” a teacher within my school, and thanks to Young Writers being a well-run school with established leadership, I was able to do just that.  This enabled me to do more out of school.  I want to use this entry to reflect on some of that work.

Professional Development:   Continue reading Portfolio Entry #7: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School

Portfolio Interlude: Good-Bye to Young Writers

The Academy for Young Writers 2011-12 Staff on the roof of MS 50 in Williamsburg on the school’s last day there.

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I am very thankful for my short time at Young Writers, and I will take much from it to Harvest Collegiate.  Young Writers gets many things right, both big and small, that I want to highlight.

First, and beyond foremost, it is a caring and safe space for students.  That shone through even in the one day I spent here two years ago with ISA, and the year there deepened my appreciation and respect for the culture they created.  Students at Young Writers are truly known, and loved, by the staff.

The school is also a place I would recommend, without hesitation, to teachers.  It is a professional, hard-working environment, that takes the awesome responsibility we have as educators seriously.  They avoid the pitfall of too many small schools that try to be everything to everyone, and instead, have created a clear and consistent culture of learning and expression that was easy to walk into.  Their interim assessment structure, which I’m taking with me, emphasizes the most important skills in each department, giving teachers a strong spine on which to build the rest of a course.

Moving into a new building provides an invaluable opportunity young schools never get: that same pioneering spirit and energy that comes with the first couple of classes is likely to return next year, giving an opportunity for change and improvement that rarely exists in well run and established institutions.  When we had a transition of leadership at my previous school, we looked at it as an opportunity to go from “good to great,” but failed to even stay good.  With the strength of staff and leadership they will continue to have in place, I think Young Writers can make the jump to greatness.

Next Entry: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership /Professional Life Outside of School

Portfolio Entry #6: Top 10 Moments from My Year at Young Writers

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

10) The impromptu game of Hide and Seek my global students played with me at The Met, without telling me we were playing.

9) A surprise birthday cake from my advisory.

8) Reading The Marriage Plot in Student/Staff book club.

7) Watching a bunch of my advisees experience a moving sidewalk for the first time at the Court Square subway station in Queens.

6) Watching students interview occupiers at Zuccotti Park a couple of weeks into the occupation.

5) Watching three of my students share what they learned about school closing and gentrification at Columbia University as part of the Manning Marable Memorial Conference; the shout out they received during the afternoon keynote from the brilliant Dr. Rhonda Williams.

4) Getting to tell 100% of seniors that they passed their history regents.

3) Having countless students realize I wasn’t going to help them, and then that they could do it on their own.

2) Citizenship Night.

1) Every Monday in advisory listening to my advisees spending 40 minutes sharing their “Nags and Brags” from the weekend, and really, just about every other moment with them as well.  I was blessed with an incredibly special group this year:

Prom, on the famous staircase of the Grand Prospect Hall.
With almost all of my graduates.

Next Entry: Good-Bye to Young Writers

Portfolio Entry #5: What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’m going to examine this prompt again a little differently when I reflect on my year out of school in Entry #7, but here, I’m focusing exclusively on my Government/Economics course.  Back in March, I posted the following question:

How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

I’m not sure I know the answer universally, but I do know how I wish I would have approached it for last year’s course.  I wish I would have divided the year into three equal parts, each mainly focused on one mode of praxis.

  1. For the first third, I would have focused on using inquiry using a slightly expanded version of Looking for an Argument.  I’d want the course to focus on a series of questions, many of them developed by students using the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique.  These questions would be based exclusively on current government events.
  2. The second third would focus on authentic intellectual work to make sure student learn how to research.  I still would use Project Citizen as the focus of this section of the class, but I would have added an initial research assignment where students choose one of the topics we looked at in the first third, and do something with that, perhaps an op-ed that would be submitted to local newspapers.
  3. The final third would be a more traditional course looking at the major ideas of classical microeconomics, budgeting, and investing.  I did six weeks of this; kids love it and need the info to be functional adults.  I think any attempt to do more with economics might be a huge disservice to students.  With that said, I actually think high school economics should be moved to math departments.

Next Entry: Top 10 Moments from My Year at Young Writers

Portfolio Entry #4: Reflection on Goals

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’m not sure I still like how I do goals.  Or maybe I’m just not good at setting goals.  But having done this goal reflection on my blog for two years now, I’m not sure how much value it adds to my life throughout the year.  With that said, I feel like the process of setting goals at the start of the school year, knowing that I’ll later reflect on them, has been worthwhile.  I am thinking that next year, perhaps, instead of setting measurable goals, I’ll pick some key questions that I’ll answer regularly.  But without further ado, here is my last reflection on this year’s goals.  As always, my reflections are in italics.

Teaching 

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

This was one of my largest areas of growth this year.  My final portfolio entry will be a big reflection on using SBG, but needless to say, I am a full convert, and it is a system that will greatly inform my new school.  

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

More or less, I accomplished this goal.  I was better with essential questions than I’ve been in past years, and definitely had students do the most reflecting.  There was not enough revision in my class, though increasing time spent revising may not be possible with my students’ work completion rates.  I need to keep this goal for next year.  

Leadership

The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

We met once a month, and I believe it was valuable for all its participants.  We have at least seven people committed to continuing next year, which I take as a good sign.  

Advisory

100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

Two students didn’t graduate because they were out of school for most of second semester for medical reasons; one missed by a few points on the Algebra Regents, which killed me.  

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

Everyone accepted, and with a couple more steps, everyone will have a plan to pay.

Personal / Professional Development 

At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

With the exception of the period I couldn’t type because of a broken wrist, I met this goal, and will continue it moving forward.  

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

Check. Check. Check. Check. And check.

Next Entry: What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year

Portfolio Entry #3: Best Unit

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

In hindsight, there’s only one unit I taught I would be willing to hand to another teacher.  It’s not that the others weren’t good, but all my government units ended up responding to events at the time, and my economics units were okay units I took from established curriculum, since my background in economics is not strong.

That is not to undersell my Project Citizenship Unit, as it is one of the best I have taught in my career. It had all the hallmarks of my greatest units: students learned and applied a new skill set (researching), were able to choose from a range of topics that interested in them (any public policy that affects them), had a structured project to guide their inquiry (a persuasive speech and Project Citizen), all ending in a public showcase of their work (Citizenship Night).  While this was not dissimilar to the History Day units I have done over the years, I think adding a deliverable halfway through the process, the persuasive speech, really took the development of students’ skills within the unit to a new level than in earlier years, since they got formal feedback doing research once, and then immediately had to use that skill set again.

The one area where this unit could have been greatly improved was in preparing students for the last part of Project Citizenship: writing an action plan to carry out their proposed policy change.  I didn’t do anything to really prepare students for this, other than teaching them in earlier units how government works.  Looking at some case studies and theories of action, even if for a day or two, would have paid great dividends (thanks, Critical Friend Andy, for pointing that out).

Project Citizen Unit Plan

Project Citizen Curricular Materials

Next Entry: Reflection on Goals