Saturday, July 30, 2011

Standing at the Threshold

This is the last weekend before our school officially starts back for teachers. This past week as I worked with our new teachers during orientation sessions, it occurred to me that this is the threshold or the entryway into a new, yet familiar, adventure. If I had to choose a theme for this new adventure, it would be "empowering learners." For some of you who have read my previous posts, you will notice that this is a familiar theme of mine. Somehow things always come back to this one theme.

This summer has been a time of preparing materials for learners. Two of our teachers have helped me with creating more FAQ documents and video tutorials in an effort to further empower our teachers as learners with digital tools.

As I talked with new teachers this week, I found myself saying multiple times, "Don't worry. This is all written down for you. Your mentor will help you as well." Our school has a mentoring program that matches up new teachers with veteran teachers.

So, now, what can I take from what I've done for the teachers and apply it to my classroom of 6th graders? 1) Prepare materials on the front-end that will provide scaffolding and guidance while empowering the students as learners. 2) Identify those students early on who can provide mentoring to others.

When I looked up the definition of "threshold," I found the definition of the bottom of the doorway. But I really liked this definition, "the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested."(

So I am in search of that point that must be exceeded in order for the result of substantive and rigorous learning to occur. Join me, won't you?

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Raising the Rigor

What is rigor?

I searched for quite a while before I could find a concise definition of what rigor really is when applied to education. Taken from Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement by Richard W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, ASCD, 2001. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”I challenge this somewhat because to me rigorous curriculum is not a sit and get model. To me rigor is not "helping students develop the capacity to understand" but rather rigor is developing the capacity to ask questions and follow investigations in pursuit of answers. Understanding is kind of low on Bloom's Taxonomy. Where's creating, analyzing and evaluating?

I really didn't expect it to be so difficult to find an accepted definition of rigor but maybe that is part of the problem. Educators don't have a clear definition to work with. Many schools claim rigor, but is the curriculum really rigorous? When I engage in a rigorous physical workout, I expect a certain level of pain to be involved. However, I know that from that pain progress will occur. Do we take the same stance when it comes to educating children? Do we expect some pain in route to progress or do we want to "spare" the children any pain?

Applying Rigor to a Classroom

As I have worked with my students using digital tools, the questions of rigor and quality have surfaced. This past year, I had several discussions with my students on what constitutes quality. This summer, I read an article written by Bernajean Porter for Learning & Leading with Technology titled Where's the Beef? Develop Rigor in Student Digital Products. Ok, I admit it. I am a highlighter and I found myself highlighting much of this article. (Bernajean should take that as a compliment!)

Too often digital projects have ended up being nothing more than information summarization. Is that all we want students to do? Reporting back facts and information is an important skill but a low-level skill. Don't we need our students to go beyond that? Bernajean puts it this way, "A book report, for example, typically expects students to distill the facts to demonstrate that they know the book. Putting that paper book report into a slide show, podcast, Animoto, movie, VoiceThread, or Comic Life does not change the intellectual work of the content. It is still a summary report decorated with media." She goes on to say that changing that in a way which students must "sell" the book as a public service announcement or movie trailer helps our students become knowledge producers by demonstrating knowledge beyond just facts.

So how do we do this? Suggested steps include identifying the type of communication, selecting the mode that best suits the purpose and audience, and lastly identifying the tool. In the article, Porter suggests that the type of communication determines the depth of knowledge, format and cognitive style. Mode is the packaging of the message, such as podcasting, comic books, dramatic blogs or movies. It is important to note that the mode is chosen in regard to purpose and audience. All to often the mode has been chosen in an unpurposeful way, "what would be fun to do now?" If we are to get to that place of rigor with these projects, though, choosing the mode based on purpose of communication and audience is important. Finally, the digital tools are chosen to mix the messages. Too often educators learn about digital tools and then take the perspective of how can I use this in my classroom. Rather we should start with a purpose for communication and ask "what tool best helps me deliver the communication?" Anyone who has dealt with technology for any given time knows that available technology tools change over time. By placing the tool last, we are appropriately prioritizing the components of digital projects.

Involving students in choosing the types, modes, and tools as well as discussions of quality surrounding communication expression increases student ownership and independent learning skills. This year, my class worked on 60 second recap videos as an assessment over Literature Circle books they had been reading.

The concept of the 60 second recap videos is a really amazing one. Students have to utilize critical thinking in order to communicate within 60 seconds information about a book in such a way as to invoke excitement and interest in the viewer. You can learn more about 60 second recap videos at the recap resource. As we were working on this, we had discussions about what quality would look like. My students came up with an amazing list that became the rubric for the project. As one of the students said, "If we had known that, we wouldn't have kept talking." Their expectations of quality were even higher than mine!

As teachers, we need to make the transition to embracing the rigor of developing information seekers, collaborators, analyzers of credible sources, problem solvers, and effective communicators. Porter says, "Teachers need to create their own digital works to understand the multiple skills associated with authoring multimedia products." So join the conversation! Share your digital works and join in the quest for rigor.

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Identifying Passions

Every year what we call summer break seems to get shorter and shorter. I believe many educators would agree with me on that. Nevertheless, one way I've used my summer break is to renew, replenish and identify my passions. I believe that to some extent the focus of a person's passion can change over time. As a person changes and grows, so does a person's passion.

There are some passions that I don't know will ever change for me. One of those is a desire to help students internalize that education is something they do, not something done to them. This is a platform of mine that I've been working on for at least ten years now. Still, the work continues.

As part of that overall passion, I have some added focus areas for this coming school year. Ensuring rigor is one of the new focus areas. This is a word being thrown about in educational circles but as I hear of things like the Atlanta Public Schools standardized testing cheating scandal, this teacher wonders where's the rigor? Maybe a better question is what is rigor? How do we ensure that students experience rigor as they grow with skills and content?

Another focus area is assessment. How do we truly assess students so that they continue growing with content and skills? How does variety play into the forms of assessments we use? How do we use assessment to document growth with rigor?

I am wondering what your passions are for this coming school year. When I looked up the definition of passion, I found "any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling." So what is the thing that compels you as a teacher?

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