Teacherpreneuring

I haven’t been quite sure how to write about this, but I’m featured in a new book that came out last month. Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave advocates for a very attainable vision for the teaching profession.  Barnett, Ann, and Alan do a masterful job of capturing the work of seven brilliant and inspirational teachers who are leaders in their school and communities.  I’m thrown in as well. It’s well worth the read, but more importantly, it’s worth sharing with others, be them powers that be or lay people with strong opinions on education.  Here’s a nice little teaser video that captures the main arguments:


Also, I did a little teacherpreneuring of my own last week, traveling down to DC for an Alliance for Excellent Education Project 24 webinar on Data Driven Decision making.  My presentation is about how not to use data to make decisions.  You can watch it here, and click on my name to jump to my presentation.  The questions were interesting and are worth watching.

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A few recent pieces of writing

Two pieces I wrote were recently published.  One – What Works: Collaboration, humility and audacity  – sums up the first year at Harvest Collegiate:

Over the past year, I have had the honor, privilege, and daunting task to co-found a new public New York City high school, Harvest Collegiate High School. The proposal for the school was set forth by Kate Burch, then an NYC teacher and now our principal; I joined the team last January and helped move us, along with a team of experienced teachers and a social worker, from an idea that existed on a dozen sheets of paper to a fully functioning school with 126 ninth graders when we opened this past September.  As we finished our first year at the end of June, I looked back and realized that without a doubt, this was the best year of my teaching career.  By any measurement — student learning, attendance, student and staff morale, excitement from incoming students and families — things went outstandingly well.

As I think about this incredible past year, I think about the infusion in it of both audacity and humility.  It’s audacious to start a school, but I think we did it with humility for how much we could do well, for the giants whose shoulders on which we stand, and for our place in the larger political/educational world.

The second piece is in my role as a member of the “Team of Experts” for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Project 24: From Rocks to PowerPoint: Technology is a Tool.  It seeks to remind people that as districts rush to implement new technological platforms, we need to remember that technology is a tool, not an end:

One of the earliest lessons I teach students in my Global History courses is that technology is not something that was newly invented, but rather, it’s anything humans create to help make our lives easier. Language was a good starting place for humans.  A lot of progress has been made from there: parchment, ink, pens, paper, the printing press, telegram, computer, iPhone, etc. Thanks to technology, the communication that defines our humanity became more powerful over time.

Another lesson I teach my students is that we’ve also made pretty big advances in the technology of murder.  For thousands of years, humans used technology like rocks and sticks to kill people.  Humans worked their way up from there as well: slingshot, bow & arrow, sword, rifle, machine gun, nuclear bomb.  Over time, we got a lot better at destroying humanity as well.

I think it’s important to keep these two extremes in mind when thinking about building up a technological infrastructure for schools and districts.  Technology has the power the amplify our humanity, but it also can deaden it. Technology is the tool, but it’s not an end in itself.

Humility for Harvest

I wrote two more pieces for Gotham Schools on starting Harvest in the past week.  With both, I really wanted to capture the real sense of humility we have for our work.

The first, “Harvest Collegiate: A Small School Where Nothing’s New,” talks about the many schools from which Harvest draws inspiration:

When I meet educators from across the country and tell them about my new school, they ask one question more than any other: “What is new and innovative about Harvest?” I am increasingly comfortable and proud of the following answer: absolutely nothing.

Or, perhaps, Isaac Newton’s line is most apt: “If [we] have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

At Harvest Collegiate High School, we are taking the best elements of many other schools. We are a traditional school, but our tradition is one of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier, educators with a decidedly nontraditional outlook. We are taking the lessons our staff learned while working at wonderful schools in New York City and elsewhere — including East Side Community High School, Humanities Prep, The Met, Bronx Lab School, the Academy for Young Writers, and The Facing History School — as well as inspiration from other members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, particularly Urban Academy, the Parker School, and Wildwood School.

The second, “An Embarrassment of Riches” which has got a ton of comments already, talks about many of the unearned structural advantages Harvest has over other schools:

The Harvest Collegiate High School that I helped to open in September is the result of an inspirational plan written by a brilliant principal, deep and thoughtful work and planning by a team of passionate and experienced educators, and the incredible courses imagined by our teachers. Our school can be proud about these accomplishments.

But Harvest is also equipped with a number of advantages, some born of current school politics and others of luck, that will give us a huge leg up on other schools in New York City.

First, we have our founding staff. While immense time and thought was put into recruitment and interviewing, Harvest had something going for it that few schools do: the opportunity to start something new. Our staff shares a wonderful mix of experienced teachers looking to implement the lessons of decades of teaching and school design with novice teachers with unbridled enthusiasm and visions for what is possible. Without exception, every teacher we have is a rock star in the classroom, or well on his or her way to being one. We have expertise in curriculum development, assessment design, and pedagogy in every discipline. We have former department chairs, professional developers, and published authors. We are also incredibly diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and home background — in fact, we’re the most diverse of any staff I’ve been part of.

Please read and let me know what you think of them over at Gotham Schools.

 

Why I Started a School – Part III

The final piece in my series about why I helped start Harvest is up at Gotham School:

Nearly all political discourse around so-called “school reform” misses the most important part of schooling. The charter vs. public debate, or the big vs. small debate, or the which teachers should be hired or fired debate, while important, only address the container in which learning happens. It doesn’t address the learning itself, which is the result of a relationship among students, teachers, curriculum, and assessment. While there is public dialogue around these pillars as isolated pillars, there is rarely any around what happens in the actual classrooms when they come together. You can’t just focus on one; you have to look at pedagogy, or the complex multifaceted relationship between them. Anything that doesn’t is oversimplifying an immensely complex challenge, thereby making it harder to address.

Ultimately, my decision to help open Harvest is about creating a school where a certain kind of teaching, learning, and assessment can flourish. This kind of pedagogy is captured in the Coalition of Essentials Schools Common Principles. My greatest hope for Harvest is that we’ll embody and realize them.

The piece generated a lot of interesting comment (leading it to be featured as Gotham’s “Conversation of the Week).  I would encourage people to read and respectfully chime in if they so choose.

Why I Started a School – Part II

Part II of my series on starting Harvest Collegiate High School is now up on Gotham.  Please read it and leave your thoughts:

At Harvest, so many of my selves get the opportunity for fulfillment. The 18-year-old me gets to prove his English teacher wrong; the 20-year-old me gets to be a Sizer apostle; the 22-year-old me gets to focus on teaching. The teacher gets to create the environment in which he teaches. The school designer gets to apply the lessons he learned from Bronx Lab. The professional developer gets to support teaching and learning. The advocate gets a platform to show, among other things, how a school that focuses on essential skills and understandings better serves all students than test prep factories. The writer will have plenty to share. I, all of us, get the biggest challenge of my life.

Why I'm Starting a School – Part 1

Despite the lack of updating, I’ve actually written a bunch over the past couple of months about starting a school.  Some of it is being published on Gotham Schools.  The first piece went up this week.

In early January, a friend told me she knew someone great who had just been approved by the Department of Education to open a new school. When I emailed Kate Burch to find more about her school, I was skeptical. Having joined Bronx Lab in its second year and experienced the challenges of growing and sustaining a school, I swore I would only join a school in its infancy if the conditions were otherwise perfect.

Yet Kate’s plan for Harvest Collegiate was perfect — and perfect for me.

You can read the whole thing here. 

Interview with Harvest Collegiate's Principal

(The no-longer connected to the NY Times) Schoolbook published a nice interview with my new principal, Kate Burch. My favorite line:

I think something that’s really important to me and our staff is not to be driven by DOE mandates, but to understand what we value as a school community. We’ve developed our own internal accountability metrics that are probably a higher standard than the DOE’s.

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

It's Official: I Work at Harvest Collegiate High School!

I am very proud to write that at about 7pm last night, I officially became the first faculty member of Harvest Collegiate High School.  To this point, I was a member of the school’s planning team, but after the formal interview yesterday, I will now get to actually work there.  I am immensely excited, and am eager to write about the work that has and will go into planning a brand new school (that, for the record, is NOT a charter; we’re 100% NYC Department of Education Grade A Public, and proudly and fully unionized).

Next week, I’ll watch both the juniors I taught last year in the Bronx, and my seniors from Brooklyn this year, graduate.  It will close the door on the first stage of my teaching career. For all of us, the word “Commencement” could not be more apt.  But first, I’m going to spend some time in the coming days and weeks reflecting on the past year.  It’s been a great one, and I’ve learned a lot from it.