The Voice in Their Head

My life is blissfully busy as a Junior High School Principal and a Mom of two kids in middle and high school.  When there is a little time for me to sneak out on my own, or even more rare, with my spouse, I cherish it!  A few weeks ago, I was surprised with an invitation to dinner out without the kids who promised to retreat to their own corners of the house to keep the peace while we were gone, and promised they were capable of feeding themselves.  As I waved goodbye and shut the front door, my seventh grade daughter sang out “Make Good Choices!” and I froze.

She burst out laughing, repeating in a sing song voice “Make Good Choices, Make Good Choices…hee hee” getting a huge kick out the chance to say those words to me as I walked out the door having heard them countless times from me not only said to her, but mostly to her older brother in high school.  I smiled, chuckled, and said “Yes, of course I will” as I waved again and shut the door.

I know I am not the owner of that phrase, I am sure I heard it on a TV show somewhere (where I get all my good parenting advice you know) but I again realize every time my kids walk aways from me how helpless I am to control what happens to them.  I have to trust their ability to make choices without me feeding them my answers, my vision, my values, and my guidance right there in the moment.  The best I can hope for is to be the voice in the back of their head, the helpful or even if necessary nagging voice of conscience that reminds them of all of those things I would tell them, remind them, if I were actually there instead.  Most of the time, they choose well, sometimes they don’t and they learn.  They are growing in to amazing people through those lessons and because of that I know it is a good thing that I’m not in control all the time or I would be preventing that growth.

As a Junior High School Principal, I watch students interact with one another all the time and I watch the wheels turning as kids access the voices in their heads.  Oh, that’s definitely a real thing- you can actually see it – adolescent children are really fascinating creatures!  Where I see it most often is when kids encounter situations outside of the “social norm”.  And, in a junior high school – oddity happens.  Choosing to respond with inquiry and kindness, or stigma and meanness is a choice grounded in empathy.

Empathy is a skill that junior high aged students have not mastered, I would barely consider them novice level.  We focus on empathy so frequently I would call it as much of a core subject as Math. Yet, no matter what curriculum we might teach defining, describing, or showing examples of empathy; what matters most I believe, is the voice in their head in the moment they are making the choice of response to a peer.  The voice that asks them to “Make Good Choices” would suggest they ask questions instead of judge, and think about how their words or actions might impact another before saying them.  That momentary pause – a blink of time really – helps them think about what an adult that cares about them would expect of them and is often just enough for an adolescent brain to choose compassion over cruelty.

Kids still don’t always choose well.  I wish they did. When they don’t, we help our kids own their choices, forgive themselves because we all need our own grace sometimes, and make it right with the person they hurt.  We go back to focusing on learning and practicing empathy (remember, the most skilled are barely novices!)  and we make the world a better place one reflective interaction at a time.

By the way, I made good choices, I didn’t check my phone at dinner once (a gigantic pet peeve of my husband’s) and thus, had an excellent two hour quiet dinner out during my blissfully busy life!

 

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First Day of School Wishes from a Principal and Mom

I really thought as an educator who has spent much of her life in the junior high school setting first as a teacher and now as a principal I would be just fine with my kids transitioning through junior and senior high school.  News flash…I’m not.  Every year at the start of the school year I am a bundle of nerves.  Will my kids have a good first day?  Will they have someone to eat lunch with? Will they like their teachers?  Will their teachers like them?

My kids generally like school, and because of the support of their teachers and administrators, have had amazing learning experiences. I’m a realist, however.  I know my children won’t love every experience they have at school. They won’t get along with every adult they encounter, and they won’t enjoy every lesson planned for them in each class.  They will not get along with every student, they won’t be sheltered from every unpleasant social interaction.  They will hear things I wish they wouldn’t, do things I wish they wouldn’t, make mistakes I wish they wouldn’t, and all the while I expect them to learn from everything.  It’s a pretty tall order – some pretty big expectations for a seventh grader and tenth grader but still, I know they can do it.  I know that in order to build the resilience they need to continue to navigate life they need to experience the good and the bad.

I take a deep breath – of course everything will be fine.  The day will be what it will be – they will find a seat at lunch, caring adults will help them find their way, and they will experience ups and downs with friends.  At the core of the problem, I realize, is a fundamental lack of control on my part over their experience, a fundamental need to trust their judgement, and the judgement of the adults in the wonderful school they each attend.  I place an amazing amount of trust in those adults, and I know they accept that responsibility with pride and care.  I see it in their smiles at open house, the high fives they offer as my daughter walks in the door of her middle school, and the more mature “what’s up” head nod offered at my son’s high school.

Here’s how I also know…I live it.  Junior high students are capable of amazing and impressive things and I get to experience that every day! Living a first day of school as a junior high principal over and over and being so proud of the staff and students at my school doesn’t mean as a parent I don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I don’t fret over my own children.  I smile and joke fussing over how much I love them and how fast they’ve grown up, hoping I get the inevitable eye roll which helps me hold back the catch in my voice as I walk out the door wishing them a happy first day of school.  But then, I square my shoulders to bear the responsibility of making sure that resilience can be built safely for the students in my school.  We aren’t perfect, but we are earnest and genuine in our care and really love what we do.  We prioritize partnerships to continually build trust – I hope through that we ease the inevitable first day worry – that is my wish as a principal, and as a mom.

Happy back to school – it’s going to be a great year!

Testing, Assessment, Accountability…

My children will tell you I believe in accountability and there is no where else that shows more evidence than my comments to my kids at their sporting events.  When my son played baseball (years ago…) and it was the first year kids pitched, he got hit at the plate…a lot…  He was a left-handed hitter and as such all the right handed pitchers tended to pitch a bit inside for him.  Of course, he was averse to being hurt so he had a habit of jumping out of the batters box and thus, striking out.  I told him, of course in a loving tone, if he jumped out of the batters box again, I would have to consider gluing his feet there.  I would never…not really…but it made a point I guess because two years later when my daughter started to play soccer, my son clued his younger sister in to my standards for accountability.  She got kicked in the shins (on the shin pads you know) and sat down on the field crying.  The whole game stopped and coaches had to help her off the field.  A moment later she was begging to go back in. I told her (again in a loving voice) that she was not to stop a game crying on the field unless she was really hurt again.  I continued that she was a part of a team and had to try her best and that means being honest about being hurt or not and if she’s not really hurt but needs a break – she needs to take herself out of the game, but let play go on.  My daughter said she understood, but I saw the tear.  My son put his arm around his little sister and said, “It’s ok sis, that’s just the way mom rolls…she expects us to try our best and be a good part of the team”.   They laughed.  So did I.

I admit, I have high expectations when it comes to doing one’s best, and I believe in being accountable for that.  However, I also know that doing one’s best and being accountable is not synonymous with perfection.  It is a belief that carries over into my role as a school principal, especially relating to accountability testing in school.  Progress, not perfection is what I expect and multiple measures of effectiveness is necessary to really gauge progress.

In school we use multiple assessments to determine whether or not a student is making progress toward goals and meeting standards.  One measure is the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) in math, science, and reading.  This test is given yearly for our middle level students (grades 7 and 8).  These measure progress toward grade level standards and are re-normed each year so student percentiles will change as the grade level achievement adjusts year after year.  I mention this because it is different than the other tests we give that are normed against a national sample that remains a more constant measure of percentile rank.  I also mention it because this year, again, I was even a little taken aback that my own children scored as well or better than they did the year before and their percentile rank dropped.  It was a good reminder for me that is likely a good thing as their peers, as grade levels, are scoring higher too. So a dropping percentile rank means others are may be catching up – not necessarily that my child is doing worse. These tests help individuals as well as our school measure progress against the Minnesota State Standards. This is one measurement of progress in school, but not the only.

We also use the NWEA Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test in reading and math once a year in the fall for grades 7 and 8 and in the fall and spring for grade 9.  This test measures yearly growth – we measure from fall to fall in grades 7/8 and fall/spring in grade 9.  The test gives us yearly growth targets based on their score and we aim to make sure that progress is made toward those goals.  Students who receive supplemental support in reading and math will take this computer adapted test more often to measure progress more frequently so we can make adjustments in intervention. This is also not a high stakes test, meaning there is no state accountability action for this test, and because we give it over time, we can tell if a score is an outlier because a student had a tough day etc.  This test is normed against a national sample so the percentile remains more of a stable target and actually the students take the same test each time – but it adapts to the level of achievement the student can attain.  It continues to adjust difficulty until the student is answering more questions wrong than right – indicating their instructional level of understanding.  This way we can consistently measure growth against a constant standard.  Again, another measurement of progress, but not the only.

We also use in-class summative and formative assessments.  You’ll notice I’ve changed my vocabulary from test to assessment.  We, as educators, are much more comfortable with assessments because they aren’t terminal achievement measures, they change as the objective and instruction changes.  They truly indicate individual progress because they’re frequent, they are directly tied to what is taught in class, and measure more than content.  We can also measure skills and more complex understanding because we aren’t limited by multiple choice, or short answer formats.  Some assessments are performance assessments, some require creation, some require content replication, yet others require making connections between content and new problems to solve.  We can measure thinking through class assessment and this gives us a really good picture of progress on multiple levels.  This is another measurement of progress, but not the only.

Finally, we get to know our kids.  We can tell when something is hard because a student is getting up to sharpen her pencil more than normal.  We can tell when something is not challenging enough because a student can’t wait to pick up his book instead of listen to the discussion.  We can tell when a connection happens between new and old learning when a student’s raised hand can’t go far enough up in the air begging for her to be called on first.  We also know that there is no test to measure our kids’ capacity for learning, their curiosity, ability to create, and depth of character.  We measure these through the little things, like observations as well as class assessments, and these assessments make a tremendous impact on our ability to meet our “why” – we help our students realize their awesome possibilities.

Here’s my bottom line about testing, and test results. No test can measure awesome possibilities, nor should there be one that defines one’s potential.  Likewise, no test measures the true progress or potential of a program, or school. However, we are incredibly accountable for meeting our objective of helping students discover possibilities and that is a tremendous responsibility.  We really do believe in what’s possible at NJH and each measurement of accountability – including tests, assessments, and daily interactions with students- help us measure our progress toward the possible.

 

 

Service Learning

I’m not sure that anyone who lives or works with a junior high aged student needs to be reminded the world revolves around him/her.  Or so they all think anyway.  Additionally, have you ever noticed they always seem to sneak glances in the mirror whenever they can just to be sure that in case everyone really is looking, all the hair is in the right place and nothing could be embarrassing to see?  Although, the ever annoying selfie habit has replaced much of the quick look and is memorialized on Instagram for all their friends to like and share.

It is true this age is extremely self-absorbed, but I also know they are incredibly interested in helping others – I would even go so far to say they look for opportunities to help others. So much so, at times it is a challenge to harness this willingness into productive service learning opportunities.

We have had wonderful service opportunities at North over the past five years I have been the principal, some initiated by staff and others by students.  We have had students attend We Day, plan food drives, grade levels have attended service field trips, and our AVID ninth grade class sponsored a community event last spring for students to interact in a positive way with our supportive law enforcement partners in Hopkins and Minnetonka.  Students have also mustered support for service outside of school in their own communities through connections here at school as well.  At times, to be honest, it is overwhelming the amount of service opportunities we have for students!

The struggle, I think for all educators, is to make service learning relevant by connecting students to the real world around them, and not have it just be about collecting pennies to win a pizza party.  Hey – the external reward certainly works, but we are striving to make service learning more connected, more relevant, more impactful (I hope that is a word!) for our kids and our community.

As an IB World School, we are committed to service learning as a core tenet of our identity and the key part of that phrase is learning.  We are working to be more systemic in the way we approach service learning by scaffolding components of service each year directly into our students work here at NJH so by the time they are ninth graders, they are able to create a community project focused on service in a small group.

The Hopkins Education Foundation has been able to help us this year (with all of your generous support) by connecting us with a consultant who is working alongside our teachers to build a cohesive and connected program of service learning in all three grades.  She provides the guidance and community connections, we provide the enthusiasm, the structure and the power of our kids’ dedication to serving others.

Seventh graders will all encounter a “taste of service” through classes at school.  This will occur later this year, but the gist is all of our students doing some element of service in classes throughout a school day. Local and curriculum based, every student in the grade level will be able to participate in service learning in real time with guided reflection.

Eighth graders study the impact of service through their “Power of One” projects in Global Studies investigating how individuals can make a difference through acts of service.  This scaffolding helps students reinforce research skills and learn how to identify and target specific needs when building service plans.

Eventually, as we continue to build our program, all future ninth graders, beginning with the current 7th grade class in two years, will be involved in planning a community project, but this year, we will continue to pilot this endeavor with our AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) elective class who will be developing and implementing a service project to benefit our local community.

Meanwhile, students will continue to have the opportunity to participate in a variety of service projects benefitting our local and more global communities throughout the year as well.  The first big event we do as a community is We Scare Hunger, a gigantically successful food drive, sponsored and organized by our student council.  More information will be coming out on our website soon.

As always, I am proud of being the principal of a learning organization.  We don’t settle for doing something part way and the scaffolding of service learning is a great example of this – we want all of our kids to learn from helping others and are willing to commit the time to get it right.

No matter how self-absorbed they seem, our kids are capable of amazing things, amazing kindnesses, and can have an amazing impact.  Thank you for sharing them with us!

A grade by any other name…

It seems of all the things we change in education, the unit of a grade (A-F) seems to be like a concrete block that has its own kryptonite type powers averse to change.  As a result, as we learn more about how students learn, how we motivate students, and how best to measure student achievement, we are stuck tied to a grading system that is the proverbial square peg in the round hole that is progress in education.

All of us, parents, students, and educators alike have wondered at one time or another what is meant by the grade we received on the report card.  Wondering whether an A in one class is the same as an A in another, or why we got a B for 88% of the total points in one class, but in another that is an A-?  And, what if one teacher has 1000 points in the grade book and another only has 100 – does that matter in the final grade?  Classroom teachers have traditionally had a great deal of independence and leeway in determining what gets counted as an academic grade and what doesn’t.  This is good and bad in that professionals have professional judgement and we all know (and can probably describe in detail) the times when a grade really didn’t fit – or at least didn’t tell the whole story so professional judgement in the assignment of the grade was essential, fair, and reasonable.

In other cases, getting 5 extra credit points for bringing in a box of kleenex or knowing everyone’s name in class is not a measurement of content learning and not really essential, fair, or reasonable (on a side note…I was TOTALLY guilty of these point additions as a classroom teacher).

So the conversation started to bubble at North and the question was asked, what is best practice in grading?  Over the past four years as principal, I have been able to see the staff grapple with this question, do research, and implement practices that help to truly identify for students, parents, and teachers exactly what a grade means.

So where does that leave us?  With the following grading purpose and some changes in our junior high grading practices across both buildings this year.

Our purpose is to use research-based best practices to provide students and families with consistent feedback and information on their academic progress.

Our grading process shifts from the traditional approach of adding total points and dividing out percentages in three ways:

Focus on Formative and Summative Assessments

Formative assessments are assignments that are assigned to evaluate students’ learning while it’s happening — during an instructional unit — giving students ongoing feedback of their progress, and opportunity for improvement. Examples of formative assessments may include quizzes, assignments, or teacher observations.  Some of these assignments may come from in class work, and some may be homework.  Students get descriptive feedback on progress on the assessments recorded in the formative category. These are progress checks and account for no more than 20% of the weight of the final grade.

Summative assessments are used evaluate student learning and achievement at the end of an instructional unit — to assess the knowledge acquired. Examples of summative assessments may include midterm exams, a final project, a written paper, a performance, or final exams.  These account for no less than 80% of the weight of the final grade.

Practice – you may see a third category recording how students are doing on practice assignments.  These may be practice homework assignments, class participation, or other indicators of behavior or work habits.  These are important to communicate both to students and parents as we know these habits are a crucial part of building student skills that will endure through high school and beyond.  In fact, we are explicitly teaching approaches to learning such as organization and communication and progress in those areas may be recorded in this category.  This category doesn’t get recorded as a weight in the final reported grade.

PAUSE BUTTON!

I will admit the first time I read about the research that supports this shift, I was SO concerned about my students that worry about tests to the point of detriment.  However, Summative Assessments are more than just tests.  Projects, presentations, labs, and tests are all summative assessment tasks.  What I learned, however, is that when you give kids a chance to practice, check on progress a few times (formative assessment), and then do some sort of final assessment (which may or may not be a test), there is less of a stress because they know it!  The content on the summative should not be a surprise and the teacher will have given feedback on progress along the way.  My message to my worriers is…you’ve got this, now show me what you know!

ALSO…there is no excuse to not do homework.  Whether the homework is practice or a formative/summative assessment, it is crucial for the learning progress.

*PLUS…here is the segue to the next shift in thinking about grading at Hopkins junior highs…

Summative Re-take Opportunities

To ensure that teachers record a true account of what a student knows, and to allow students to own their own learning through accountability, students are allowed to retake summative assessments. The student must take responsibility for initiating and following the retake procedures with the teacher – the process for retakes is detailed in the class syllabus. Only one retake per summative assessment is allowed.  There are some times, however, where it is not feasible to retake a summative assessment either because of the time it is taken (like end-of-semester exams) or the format of the assessment (like a demonstration, or a performance).  If the summative assessment won’t be able to be retaken, the teacher will notify the students prior to taking the exam.  Finally, the teacher may require that students do additional practice or complete all missing/incomplete practice assignments or formative assessments before a retake can be given.

*The final shift is our way of trying to make the square peg fit in the round hole (reference to the beginning of this post if you can remember that far back already!)

Elimination of the “zero” in grading

In our traditional percentage based system, a grade is demarcated every 10 percent or so (90-100 = A, 80-89 = B and so on…) all except for an F which gets 50% of the scale dedicated to itself.  Although and F is a pretty important indicator of achievement, there really aren’t 5 different levels of failure.  So, in this sense, a score of zero is seldom an accurate description of a student’s achievement.

This means the bottom of our grading scale (an F) is 50 percent to 59 percent.  That’s the floor.  Anything below that level is an F but won’t require students to recover five levels of F to get to the next level of achievement.

Non-completion of work, or work refusal, will be communicated to parents/guardians through the Infinite Campus Parent Portal comments, rather than through letter grades. The use of a zero score in grading will be eliminated.

(Helpful hint…use the computer version of parent portal to check for missing assignments.  If you see a score recorded at 50%, the comments will tell you if it is missing.  On the app, you have to click to see the comments, on the desktop version you can see comments on the same screen so one less click.)

PAUSE BUTTON!

Again, when I read the research, I thought of how weird it sounds to record a score of 2 out of 10 as 50%.  It’s weird.  No denying it.  But, this is the only way we can work around the outdated system of the 100% scale.  An F, is an F, is an F.  If you think about it this way, 2/10 is an F…which is recorded in the grade book as an F – at the lowest level F we’ve got…50%.

Phew…I know this is a lot for a blog post, but it’s even more for an email!

I am proud to be a principal in a district that follows what the research says is best for students and, in practice, really gets at measuring and communicating what is learned.  Ask questions, and by all means communicate with your children’s teachers as we navigate some of these shifts this year.

For more information and research on grading, there are a few authors to check out- here are a few places to look…to start, anyway – I have lots of resources if you’re interested!

Ken O’Connor has several books and articles – this is more of a handbook but has some great research and background –

  • Connor, K. (2011). A repair kit for grading: 15 fixes for broken grades(2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Thomas Guskey is also a prolific writer and researcher on grading practices – below is an article and a book citation.

  • Guskey, T., & Bailey, J. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

A Focus on Transformational Learning

Hopkins North Junior High School is a wonderful school full of dedicated staff who really, really focus on kids.  What I love most about North Junior High is the community and the dedication amongst our community to be the best, and do the best things for kids in the classroom, and school wide.  Many, many people talk about being innovative, but at North we take that word and make it work because innovating is HARD work.

In the past three years we have worked through a journey to become and International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program.  Along with that journey we have integrated iPads into our classroom instruction and become a one-to-one technology tool building.  Although these two endeavors started as divergent initiatives, we have learned that innovation with technology, and designing instruction through the IB framework is all part of a larger whole…transforming student learning to encourage ownership and purpose for our students.

On Thursday during our staff time late start, we had a few minutes as a staff to discuss how our journey of becoming a innovative, international baccalaureate school can truly be transformative in nature, and we will be using these questions below to guide our continued work.

Transformational Six Questions

  1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  2. Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  4. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  5. Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

November, Alan (2015, January).  Clearing the confusion between technology rich and innovative poor: Six questions . Retrieved from novemberlearning.com.