Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.

Things I Know 168 of 365: It was a good year

It is not so much the example of others we imitate as the reflection of ourselves in their eyes and the echo of ourselves in their words.

– Eric Hoffer

I listened more this year. I built structures into the classroom that led to better listening. Putting a point on it, I’d say the theme of my classroom this year was definitely choice. In ways I wasn’t ready for, comfortable with or even cognizant of when I started teaching, I opened up each unit plan and class activity to choice. Not hippie, “Do what makes you happy” choice, but choice of activities and ways of showing work that spoke to what I needed to know as a practitioner and also let our students speak to what they wanted as learners.

Reading in my G11 classes this year was opened up to texts of choice. Students were free to choose the books they wanted to read throughout the year. The first semester was successful in that more students were actually reading than any other class I’ve taught. But, because I couldn’t hand out the same assignment or ask the same text-based questions of all 32 students, I needed to create new structures to capture the information I needed to make better choices about instruction.

This is where collaboration really set in. Mid-way through the year I got to sit down with Larissa and our two interns from the Penn Literacy program. They helped me come up with a plan for information gathering that led to the collection of student information in one-on-one, small group and self-reflective spaces. I knew more about my students as readers than I ever have before.

The challenge of the year was grading. I’m not talking grading from a perspective of getting it all done (though that remained an omnipresent challenge). Because of the structures and approaches that shifted in the classroom, my feedback to student work was more voluminous than ever before. The spaces that had been created were spaces for conversations about learning. Still, students wanted a grade. We could have the best conversation about a piece of writing, but a B as the final grade seemed to negate all of that.

In talking to Meredith about it, she suggested no grades until the end of the quarter. I think that’s an interesting idea. I wonder too, if asking the students to grade their own work and then something akin to an artist’s statement explaining the work and their assessment might be an interesting way to go. My role could be that of Agree/Disagree. It still puts the ultimate authority in my hands, but it makes the students part of the process in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Next year, I hope to find dynamic ways to be a part of my advisory.

I hope to still be a part of the conversation about pedagogy and caring at SLA.

I hope to get to experience the capstone process as an outside mentor.

I hope to learn with everyone at SLA from afar.

I hope I get all A’s.

To everyone who was a part of my teaching career over the last 4 years, thank you for making this school a home for me.

Things I Know 144 of 365: I learn by teaching

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case.

– Donald Schön

As of tomorrow, SLA will have been host for two weeks to 5 pre-service teachers from Millersville University. They’re part of a larger cohort taking part in an urban seminar built around the idea of providing experience in urban classrooms to pre-service teachers who would otherwise not have such exposure.

I’ve been happy to have them.

No part of that has come from any excitement over providing these students with a taste of the urban teaching experience. Sadly, SLA isn’t the average urban school.

Instead, my excitement has come from the thoughtfulness in my own practice inspired by, in some small way, being responsible for helping future teachers learn their craft.

I gave Spencer, the student assigned to my classes, room to teach a lesson to my G11 classes today.

He did well.

As we were processing the lesson, I talked to him about having students share their thinking with the person sitting next to them and then sharing out what they heard with the whole class.

I explained it helps encourage active listening, takes off the pressure of having to say something original on the spot and builds their summarization skills.

As I was talking, it occurred to me that I had done the exact opposite during the first period when I randomly called on students to answer questions or offer their thinking on a text.

“Let me explain why I didn’t do any of what I just suggested with the earlier class today.”

In an average day with just my students and I in the classroom, I probably would have taken the advice I’d just given Spencer when working with the G11 classes and employed the random calling method with the senior class, thinking nothing of the disparity of the two approaches.

Held up to the mirror of attempting to explain my pedagogy and practice to someone I was attempting to help prepare for a teaching career, understanding my rationale became suddenly important.

The concepts with which we were dealing in the senior classes have been the topic of our learning and inquiry for the past month or so. By this point, any question should be met with a confident and thorough response. What I was doing was meant as a quick formative assessment to help me decide if they were ready for the next step.

The ideas with which Spencer was asking the G11 students to play were newer, fresher and unanticipated. Giving the students time to think about their understandings and perceptions around the issues would have insured a deeper and more thoughtful conversation.

It didn’t take me long to realize my reasoning. I wasn’t even making excuses. Those were truly the reasons I’d suggested approaching the classes differently.

Because Spencer was there and because I very earnestly want to help him and the others of his cohort meet with as much success as possible when they enter their student teaching experiences and eventual classrooms, it was incumbent for me to pull my thinking apart and explain it.

And aside from all the teaching of pedagogy, being mindful of someone observing my classroom and teaching from a place of curiosity has made me a sharper teacher over these past two weeks.

I’m going to miss Spencer and the others next week. They’ve helped me be a better version of Mr. Chase.

Things I Know 135 of 365: Processing matters

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

– Peter F. Drucker

My friend Darlene earned her master’s in counseling. Never one to do things in a small way, Darlene’s degree is in Adventure-Based Counseling.

In the two years we worked in the same school and the eight years we’ve been friends, Darlene’s made one point about ABC over and over again: The activities are only only useful if you process them with the kids.

Darlene’s processing mantra of choice was, “What? So what? Now what?” asking the kids what they noticed about the activity, the implications of what they noticed on their success during the activity and what they would do to move this new knowledge into practice in their daily lives.

At SLA, we introduce students to inquiry thinking by taking them along a similar line of questioning: “I noticed…Iwonder…What if?”

As I’ve been considering caring lately, these questions and other iterations thereof have been striking me as increasingly important from both an academic and socio-emotional point of view.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a grandmother who was flying home after watching one of her grandsons graduate. I confessed to being a teacher and we felt silent again as often happens with the edd and flow of airline conversation.

“You know, every child needs at least one good and important teacher in their life,” she said, pulling me back to the conversation.

“More than one if they’re lucky,” I said.

“Mine was in ninth grade,” she said, “He told me, ‘I’m going to transfer you out of my class because it’s not quite what you need,’ but he also took the time to explain why.”

We talked for a while about how much it meant to her that the teacher explained to her why another class would be a better fit.

Now in her 70s, it is the processing she carries with her as the memory from both of those math classes. The processing of the why of it all turned out to be the greater moment of learning for her.

I suspect it influenced how she interacted with her own children – taking the time to explain when they asked the omnipresent, “Why?”

Darlene is right, what we do is only as useful as our effort to process it with our students. The processing takes many forms such as giving a response more detailed than “Good answer” in class or providing words rather than numbers when filling out a rubric.

Not only is processing in this way helpful to my practice as a teacher, it’s helpful to my students in their acquisition of the language of learning.

I’m a little cagey on the idea of teaching students to learn. Teaching students the language of learning and how to express the ideas and progress inherent in their learning – that I can get behind.

Things I Know 122 of 365: I avoided the educational flea market

You can tell a lot about a person by what they sell at their garage sale. What kind of books they read, what kind of music they listen to …

– Wynetta Wilson

People are selling their old junk across the street from my coffee shop. Twice a year, whatever secret society organizes flea markets brings 100+ stalls to set up shop around Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve walked the stalls a few times in years past, careful each time to leave my money at home.

I don’t need more junk.

In fact, I need less junk. My impending move to Cambridge is helping to hammer this point home.

As is usually the way with my brain, home-thinking has seeped into school-thinking.

At the beginning of the year, I told my G11 students we’d be conducting an experiment with our class reading for the year. Rather than whole-class text studies, students would have the choice of reading whatever they wanted.

As an experiment, I explained, this approach would be subject to refinement.

That’s how teachers collect junk. We try new things. They don’t work. We try all new new things. Rinse. Repeat.

The reading of books of choice was a bit rocky.

My initial plan was to have students meet in small groups with other students who were reading texts of the same genres.

They would do this once a week and report out on what they heard.

I hadn’t planned for just how many genres and shades of genres exist.

Coordinating genre groups each week as students of various reading speeds moved from one text to another proved a logistical nightmare.

I was making work for little return.

I could have given up, but instead decided to revise.

Students would meet in small groups once a week, but group composition would vary from teacher-organized to student-organized to random.

It worked much better.

As an unintended consequence, the depth of discussions was improved as well. Students were working to make connections across texts and challenging the assertions of those connections.

Experiment = Success.

Not so much.

By the end of the second quarter, I needed more information and evidence of student learning. The summaries of small group conversations were helpful in highlighting the ideas that came up in organic conversation, but I had no record of other key concepts that simply didn’t get discussed.

It certainly would have been easy at that point to junk the experiment and try something new. That would have disrupted class and meant adopting wholly new structures and procedures. Instead I sat down with my G11 counterpart and our two literacy interns from UPenn.

I explained the problem and we collaborated to find a solution.

Using Google Docs, we would create a template spreadsheet that each student would access and create a copy of. Each column of the spreadsheet would be headed by a pertinent piece of literacy knowledge: theme, symbolism, point of view, setting, etc.

Once per week, the class would fill in a new row of their spreadsheets based on the reading they’d done since the previous week. Five categories were identified as needing to be filled in each week. For the remaining columns, students could choose three each week without doubling up on a category until they’d contributed to each one. By the end of the cycle, I’d have evidence of students’ learning across each assessment anchor identified by the PA state assessment.

These self reflections would be completed in addition to the small group summaries.

I needed a third component as well.

Asking students to reflect on their reading through writing alone wouldn’t give me a clear enough picture of what they were learning and experiencing as they read. Similarly, passive reflection wouldn’t push them to think more deeply the next time they picked up their books.

Back to Google Docs, we created another template spreadsheet.

This one included the standard identification number, the text of the standard and a series of discussion questions about each standard respectively.

My intern, my student assistant teacher and I split the class into three groups and planned to sit down one-on-one with the students in our groups to discuss whatever they were reading. We’d focus on a few discussion questions during each meeting and record their answers and our notes in successive columns headed by the date of our discussions.

These one-on-one conversations helped to model what it looks like when we talk about reading, and also gave us the chance to push students’ thinking on the topics being discussed. If a student offered only a description of the physical space within a plot when discussing setting, we could probe more deeply to generate a better understanding of how readers can think about plot.

The small group summaries, individual reflection logs and one-on-one discussions helped to identify the junk already present in the experiment – the empty space. Rather than calling the approach to reading instruction a failure because of all the things I hadn’t thought to think about, I stopped, sought help from my peers and adjusted course.

As we head to the end of the year, more needs to be adjusted. Implementing such systematic structures in the classroom requires a greater element of planning on my part. In the next version of this approach, I would set a schedule for one-on-one conversations. In the busyness of teaching, they were often the first piece to be pushed off until later.

I’d also do a better job of using the student reading reflection logs to guide instruction. After the first few weeks, it became clear where students were lacking the language to speak richly about some literary concepts. In the next version, I would plan holes in the teaching calendar for drop-in lessons designed to provide remediation as it became necessary.

The approach, unlike much of what is in my basement, wasn’t junk.

Like the stuff in my basement, the difficulty and work inherent in refining this choice-based approach to reading could have meant its discarding at several steps along the way in favor of something newer or shinier.

I’m glad I stayed with it rather than becoming the educational equivalent of the throngs of people picking over junk at the flea market hoping to find that one thing that will make their lives complete.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Reflection

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program a few weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

I’m a reflective guy.


I journal. I blog. I seek peer advice. I seek learner advice. I even took a job teaching at a school where reflection is one of the core values.

If I were any more reflective, people would wear me whilst biking at night.

When I looked at my last few assignments for this first grad school class, and saw they were all about reflections, I was, in a word, giddy.

Then, I read the assignment descriptions.

For the assignment titled “Course Reflection,” here’s what was asked for:

The purpose of the Course Reflection is to give you the opportunity to reflect on what you have learned in a specific instructional block and how this knowledge relates to the core propositions. The reflection is written in narrative form with all the conventions of English language. It is a personal document you are willing to share with others.

The reflection summary has distinct sections in which you provide different information. The first section is a reflection on how you applied the most important topic/issues presented in the instructional block.

The second part is a reflection on your personal growth. The emphasis should be on application of knowledge you have experienced as a result of what you have learned in a particular block. This is the most personal part of the reflection. You might discuss application of knowledge to your classroom or a change in your philosophy.

The “core propositions” referred to in the first graf are the props set forth by the National Board. They drive our program. I kept waiting in the course for the chance to discuss and debate the propositions. If it’s what we’re working toward as the goal, we should, perhaps, think about them rather than accept them as though handed to us from the mount on stone tablets.

(No offense meant to the National Board. BTW, nice mount.)

As a reflective assignment, not bad. Really.

I mean, it was due a week before the end of the course, but I’m sure they didn’t really want us to reflect on the whole course.

The rubric was a little odd:

The course reflection exhibits clear, concise, thoughtful, and substantive evidence of the learner’s professional growth, with superior and insightful articulation of expectations or evidence of improved teaching and learning in the classroom.

Sounds good at the face value. My learning, though, wasn’t due to the content of the course or the teaching. The bulk of my learning took place in my thinking about the structure, delivery and pedagogy of the course itself. I’m a better teacher because I looked at the course as a case study.

Because of the tone set within the course, though, I couldn’t say as much. I said what they wanted to hear.
I’ve received no authentic sign that Educational Specialist was worried about my learning or teaching. Assigning work that asks questions about my learning and teaching, yes. Actually curious as to how to improve my practice, no.

You’d think one reflective assignment would be enough. Silly.

The last assignment of the course was a reflection on the learning surrounding the inquiry-based project we’ve been working on throughout the module.

A little sidenote on the project for those of you playing at home. The project is designed for the course when it’s taught during a school year and the learners in the course are, you know, teaching. For the summer session, we pretended. Not quite the same.

In the “Helpful Hints” doc we were given, ES stated:

Using the Reflective Self-Assessment section for each lesson plan, analyze more completely what might be successful and what might not, if and how you might accomplish your goals and objectives, and if you think your implementation plan will help you resolve your problem statement.

Some mental gymnastics there, no?

The guiding questions were a little silly as well:

  1. How were my goals and objectives met?
  2. What were my “aha!” moments and/or successes?
  3. What did not go well and/or was not as successful as I had hoped?
  4. What needs improvement?
  5. What would I do differently next time?
  6. What will I do again?
  7. What were the key concepts I learned?
  8. What did others see that I did not or could not and how will I use that
  9. intelligence to continue to refine and improve my teaching?
  10. What did I learn about my own teaching?

Number 5 was certainly the easiest: Next time, I would probably put all of this into practice rather than teaching it hypothetically.

Again, that’s not what I wrote. I wrote what they wanted to see.

One more thing about what they wanted to see.

In the second half of this second course reflection, we were asked for more references:

  • Include a complete reference list of all the resources you used for the entire inquiry project.
  • Follow the guidelines found in the most current edition of the American Psychological Association (APA) format and style manual.  Please put the original 15 sources at the beginning of this section then add the additional sources after the 15 original sources.
  • MINIMUM 22 sources.  15 sources from Assignment # 1 and 7 new sources. The 7 new sources should be 5 from our class material and 2 OTHER.

I don’t know why.

The part that positively made my head explode happened in the final bullet point. Seven more sources? I mean, I like prime numbers as much as anyone, but, why? For the final assignment of the course – a reflective piece – we’re to manifest 7 new references for work that was already done? What’s the reasoning for the 5-2 split? And adhere to APA style, but post the most recent sources at the bottom?

I’m not given to conjecture often, but my guess would be that this new ordering process is so ES can count sources. I mean, I’ll do it, but, why?

Reflective work from learners can provide some intensely rich feedback for the teaching of a course and any corrections that might need be made. We’ve actually read quite a bit about this as part of our studies in the course.

This isn’t effective reflection. Absent a safe and open learning environment, reflection has become another version of, “What does the teacher want to hear?”

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.

A Humbling Moment

The Whole Story:

This semester has afforded me the opportunity to teach a class I’ve always wanted to teach – Storytelling. Thus far, we’re still fumbling with the ideas of what makes a story and what stories tell us about who we are. We’re playing directly and academically with those ideas every day we meet.

Except one.

Each Tuesday is story slam day. A blend of the stylings of The Moth and Philadelphia’s own First Person Arts’ story slams, the slams in class have some simple rules:

Five storytellers are randomly selected for each slam.

Their stories must be inspired by the week’s theme.

The stories must be true.

No memorization / scripts.

After each story, three randomly selected audience judges score the storyteller on content and presentation on a scale of 1-10. All the SLAms are here and here.

The room is re-arranged and coffee and tea are served.

In general, it’s a light-hearted, informal experience.

This Tuesday, though, proved one of the most profound and humbling experiences I’ve had in a classroom from my first days in Kindergarten.

The theme was “Giving Up,” and Lewam took the stage.

(audio not available in feed readers)

I’ve been working to process the story from the moment she told it.

Here’s where my mind stands. I’m at once incredibly sad and incredibly proud.

No matter how much I’ve tried or organized or listened or worked, a student in my charge felt pain within my room and within my walls.

In talking to Chris about it, he gave me the words I think I needed. Pieces of what we do will always be invisible. Pieces of our students’ lives will always be invisible. Unless we want to suit up with full-on, both-end-of-candle-burning messiah complexes, we will never see all of the invisible pieces of each child’s life. I’m not so dense as to be ignorant of this fact.

When the fact stands at a microphone in front of 30 of its peers and pronounces itself, though, the effect is markedly different. It is strikingly visible.

She stood in front of the room and said that, to her, the care and culture and collaboration had, for much of her time, failed her.

So, what do stories tell us about ourselves?

What does this moment mean?

It is complex.

When her name was called, she did not hesitate to take the mic. She did not attempt to negotiate to tell her story later or go last. She spoke truth to the power of community because the community told her it was ok.

What do we do with that?

That is, of course, rhetorical. We must honor it. To maintain integrity, we honor it.

Ego is pushed aside, and the community must reflect.

She found her voice, but felt we did not honor it. I am saddened by this and feel I did the best I could by her. It would be easy to go to “My best wasn’t good enough.” Instead, I’m drawn to the idea that my best should have been different. I’m not the only player here. Her classmates, the faculty, Lewam – they’ve all played their parts. My part is to be responsible for what I do and what I can influence. For sure, I’ll be asking Lewam for advice for the future. I’ve already told her her words impacted me more than most anything I’ve experienced in the classroom.

The Gist:

Lewam likely couldn’t have told this story last year or the year before.

She told it though.

And the room listened.

The applause you hear were the longest and most sincere of any slam we’ve put on. Even the kids who tune out or make cute jibes were silent. They saw her, they connected.

Not altogether surprisingly, she received straight 10s from each judge.

Something sits and works at my brain. What do I do with the fact that her story points to the community’s failure, but her telling of the story leads me to believe the community had something to do with helping her find her voice?

What do stories tell us about who we are?