What are We Talking About?

“…grades are a problem. On the most general level, they’re an explicit acknowledgment that what you’re doing is insufficiently interesting or rewarding for you to do it on your own.” Derrick Jensen

Early in my career, the recurring dream that would wake me at night had me standing in front of a class of students who were completely oblivious to me and what I was trying to do. Classroom management. Likewise with the pre-service teachers I have worked with over the years – most of their questions are aimed at managing behaviors. We were worried about the wrong things. Grades and grading burn most of my professional oxygen – still, even as my career enters its fourth decade.

Perhaps an ostensibly non-academic example might make visible the issue. Sometimes, changing the angle of vision allows for new insight or connection.

Below is the first fly pattern I ever attempted. For this post it will serve as a lesson’s learning intention: Following the pattern and instructions, the learner will be able to create a Woolly Worm fly.

Woolly Worm
Hook: #12-2, 2XL
Thread: Black
Tail: Red wool yarn. Marabou for a woolly bugger
Hackle: Grizzly, palmered
Body: Medium black chenille

Here is some work produced as a result of the lesson:

Wooly Woras

These four flies make fine standard anchors. Scoring from left to right:
Letter Grade: D, C, B, A
If you prefer numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4
Standards: Does not meet, Approaching, Meets, Exceeds.

Now, imagine a swarm of flies tied up by a class. It would be fairly easy to sort and score them. Grade them. If the purpose of grading is to communicate, I wonder what, exactly, these grades communicate. If the purpose of grades is motivation, imagine tying up that first fly: D. How, I wonder, is that motivating?

Let’s complicate the debate. What if each of the flies pictured above was tied by the same tier? What grade do we give this learner? Fairly standard practice is to average scores, C. What does that C communicate? What sort of motivation to improve, grow, learn does a C in this case nurture? The tier clearly produces a fly exceeding standards.

Another complication. What if I told you that I could easily, easily, catch a fish with the lowest quality fly, the D, does not meet standard.? Even better, if I give you the A fly, the best one, to fish with, and I fish with the D. Unless you are an avid angler, I will, without question, out fish you with the D. And even if you are an avid angler, I will still give you a run.

This last complication speaks to the trouble of grading against some arbitrary, clinical standard devoid of context. Quoted in the new anthology Ungraded edited by Susan Blum, Peter Elbow writes, “The reliability in holistic scoring is not a measure of how texts [flies] are valued by real readers in natural settings…but only of how they are valued in artificial settings with imposed agreements.” I have written in an earlier post about the problematic real world/school world dichotomy.

The reason we keep having the same discussions about grades – norming sessions, revising assessments, analyzing data – with no significant change in results is that we never talk about instruction. We pretend context is irrelevant. We see the classroom as clinical, sterile (dead) and not of the real world.

I am far more interested in how these flies came to be, and why these flies came to be.

For my fifth birthday, my mom gave me a Milwaukee Brewers batting helmet, baseball, and a bat. I was disappointed, and at five showed that disappointment, I am embarrassed to say. I carried on so much that my mom had to tell me about the gift my dad had for me. I feigned surprise as I pulled wrapping paper off the Zebco spin-casting rod and reel, and a blue plastic tackle box. The joy, the sense of self, was genuine.

Dad gave me this gift in Grandpa’s front yard on the banks of Lake Koshganong. With help, I strung the rod and tied on a small red and white Daredevil spoon. I stood at the end of Grandpa’s pier and heaved the lure toward the center of the lake. Winding in the third cast, I felt a wiggle worm up the line, through the rod, and into my soul. A small white bass bounced on wet planks as Grandpa walked up. He slapped me on the back and said, “We’ll eat him for breakfast!”

While this story flirts with melodrama, I tell it to point to a profound connection between identity and learning. Regardless of the grade I earn on my wooly worm, I am going to tie and tie – going to start creating my own patterns to meet needs I discover exploring trout water.

What if we take a broader view of learning intentions and grades? I can envision two pedagogical moves that might allow for more personal connection to learning than we’ve been able to achieve with grades and grading. Student inquiry, and Transdisciplinarity – bringing many disciplines to bear on a given question or problem.

If the standard (pretty low bar) is “tie a wooly worm,” what if, in addition to the pattern and tying instructions, learners read and discussed all the Nick Adams stories or the writing of Gordon MacQuarie. What if learners wrote their own stories?

Any expert tyer will tell you that a key variable in a given fly’s success is proportion. Getting wing height and tail length right, setting the wing or thorax the right distance from the eye determines whether or not a fish will eat it. What if students designed flies of various proportions and tested them?

What if learners explored their watersheds, their rivers? What if they tested water quality? What if they gathered and documented insect life, learned the various stages of insect life and compared those to fly patterns?

What if students prepared a menu of locally accessible food – including fish. What if they researched how that food came to be: where was it grown, how, by whom? How did it get to stores, to tables?

What if students explored answers to their own questions and presented their answers? With such a curriculum, how many more opportunities are there for learners of diverse backgrounds, interests, and curiosities to connect personally to the learning?

What if we spent more time talking about instruction and less time talking about assessment?

River Stories and Writing Standards

Common Core State Standards are typically scored and reported on a four point scale: 4 exceeds standard, 3 meets standard, 2 improving or approaching standard, 1 does not meet standard. For the purposes of this discussion, we will look at narrative writing standards for 7th grade; though, notice that the standards are the same regardless of rhetorical mode (narrative, informative, argumentative). More specifically, let’s unpack standard 7.3a: Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

This standard speaks to organization. English teachers might call this a story’s exposition – the time and place the story teller “establish[es] context,” and “introduc[es] characters” and plot (event sequence) tensions. Consider next, the descriptors in this Smarter Balanced aligned rubric, specifically the slice along the left edge, narrative focus. This rubric and these descriptors have further unpacked the standard for us and tried to give us a sense of what this looks like along that 4-point continuum.

I wonder if we can consider a piece of student work through the lens of this standard and this rubric. Here is the latest episode of River Stories.

Narrative Focus: 4 Evidence: “Welcome back to River Stories. Today I am here with my mom [“Hello”]. We are all going through COVID together, most of us in school, work, or at home. My mom is an essential worker. She works at Home Depot for eight hours a day and still has to come home to her kids. I am going to be asking her some questions about what it is like to work during this crazy time.”

If you are so inclined, I invite you to apply all the standards to this story. Score the piece and supply evidence for your score. For expediency’s sake, I will offer that “Essential Workers” is an exemplar piece of narrative writing – 4, exceeds standards. I would argue that the piece exceeds other writing standards as well under the categories “Production and Distribution of Writing,” “Range of Writing,” and even research standards.

Most discussions of teaching and learning stop here: unpack standards, assess, analyze data. A more valuable discussion should unfold around the question of how “Essential Workers” came to be. What happened in the classroom that allowed for this story?

Let’s try again. Same standard, same rubric and descriptors applied to this piece of student work:

I’ll grant that this is not a finished episode, but I will also say that the finished episode does not meet our own class standards for publishing. How will you score this work against the narrative writing standards and unpacking provided by the rubric?

If your scores are 1s and 2s – does not meet or approaching standards, I would agree. Again, though, I would argue there are more significant questions to pursue than whether this piece scores a 1 or a 2 on a given standard. What do I do for and with this student in class? What is this student working on? What lesson is next?

I started teaching in 1991 – a long time ago. Unequivocally, the predominance of faculty meeting and professional development time in all those years has gone to unpacking standards, writing and revising assessments, and analyzing data. My dad taught for nearly thirty years, our careers overlapping for just a few of those years as I was starting out. Faculty meetings and professional development during his era focused on unpacking standards, writing (or buying) assessments, and analyzing data – two generations that I am personally connected to doing this work with fidelity, sincerity and passion and yet we continue to have the same conversations.

If standards, assessment, and data are the science of education, then pedagogy, philosophy, relationships, and theory are the art of education. I have experienced throughout my career a frightening efferent lean – a will toward the logical, a privileging of the question “what.” The reason we continue to have the same conversations, the reason you couldn’t pick an agenda guiding a meeting from my dad’s career from one guiding a meeting from my career is this efferent lean, the fetishizing of standards and standardization.

We need attention to the art of teaching – what happens in the classroom. We need to reconcile the classic/romantic split Robert Pirsig debunked in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We need conversations around the question why.

Classic/romantic, science/art, objective/subjective, logic/emotion these are false dichotomies. They should not be set out on a continuum in opposition. They are parts of the same whole, symbiotic. Descartes did us a disservice privileging logic and reason. We need a smarter balance, one that recognizes the whole human being.

The Real World

Maybe ten years ago now, about this time of year, I debriefed a lesson I’d taught with my assistant principal, part of the observation/evaluation process teachers endure. After we’d checked all the boxes and signed documents, the meeting fell into a more informal, relaxed space. Though we were friends and in other contexts our rapport was jocular, adolescent sometimes after a few beers on a Friday night, the power dynamics and agenda were different here. 

Still, as we each tried to find that more comfortable space, I offered that I had the answer. I had figured out teaching and learning. I said so with irony and a smirk because I knew full well it couldn’t be heard. I’d offered this insight in various other places to a variety of other audiences – much lower stakes, and always listeners reacted as if I’d just farted audibly. 

“If we could make this shift in our thinking about teaching and learning,” I said, “so many of the conversations we keep having in education could move forward. We have to stop thinking of teaching as delivery, and learning as reception.”

He didn’t know if I was being serious or not, a funny, I-just-heard-a-fart look on his face. “OK?”

I pointed to the many things we (educators) do, the language we use to talk about what we do, to make visible this assumption about teaching and learning – so ubiquitous as to make other metaphors or possibilities impossible to see or consider. He politely agreed but acquiesced to the status quo, “Maybe so,” he said, “but the reality is that this is the world we live in. We will be judged by our scores on these tests.” He made visible a distinction between “school-world” and “real world.”

That was ten or more years ago. We are still having the same conversations, like a broken record, like that Bill Murray movie. I believe our metaphors for teaching and learning have to change – that the pandemic and this virtual-learning experiment have given us an opportunity we can’t miss, but I am going to change tack. My principal made visible a possible path – his allusion to the “real world.”

If we are unable to view teaching and learning as anything but a transaction, then what if we simply try to close the gap between what happens in school and the “real” world. We do so much in schools to create a false dichotomy between the “real world” and whatever it is we are doing: low quality learning intentions and success criteria, grades, grade-level distinctions, ability grouping, testing, testing, testing, zero-tolerance policies, testing.  

If we perpetuate a school world/real world dichotomy, we focus intently on learning intentions and success criteria, on standards and assessment. Pedagogy becomes little more than prompts and rubrics, memorization. What and whose knowledge counts atrophies to what can be easily seen, easily quantifiable: I can write a complete sentence. I can write a five-paragraph essay (which, it might be noted, is another of those unicorns that does not exist in the “real”world, only in classrooms).

What if, within any discipline, we give learners more autonomy over the rhetorical forces of audience and purpose? What if we tack onto all those low-quality learning intentions and outcomes, those I-can statements, the language “in order to…” (Thank you Malinda Kalinoff for that language):

     I can write a complete sentence in order to…

     I can write a multi-paragraph essay in order to…

     I can solve multi-step math problems in order to…

It could look like this. And as wonderful as this product is, it is only the tip of an iceberg. Consider her planning document. How many “I can…” statements could this learner claim and compose based on this document alone. How many common core standards about narrative writing, about organization, about language and conventions has she met or exceeded. 

Yes and, neither of these artifacts makes visible the work and learning that happened on our Miro board collaborations on story ideas, or during her conferences with me and classmates.

We (public education) still need to revise our metaphors for learning – to understand teaching and learning as something far more complex than mere delivery and reception. Perhaps a step in that direction is to reconcile the school world – real world dichotomy.

The thesis here is not “start a podcast.” I like podcasts; I listen to them, share them, make them. They are a wonderful vehicle for me to teach so much – so many standards, but so much more. The thesis here is let’s close the gap between the platonic cave we are stuck in and the real world whose shadows we chase and try to pin against that cave wall. Let’s be more intentional and reflective about the language we use to talk about what we do. Maybe if we do that, our metaphors will mature as well.

Articles of Faith

Rio Del Sol STEAM Academy is trying to be something different, true to ideals most young teachers I’ve worked with hold but which often smother under the sediment deposited in the slack water and eddies of careers flowing toward some ocean. These ideals center on the learner, a belief that learning is active, inquiry-driven, social, natural, and fun. Such ideals struggle against a strong current of accountability that has scoured the educational landscape since I flopped up on shore in the early 90s: Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, CCSS. 

While well intended (or maybe not, depending on how jaded, cynical, or woke you are), these various movements and programs dangerously narrowed what counts as knowledge, and privileged the knowledge of what Lisa Delpit calls “the culture of power.” What and whose knowledge counts eroded away to what can be easily quantified and measured. And, I will say it, white.

Del Sol, in its commitment to learners and the development of Five Cs: Collaboration, Community, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Caring – posed a question, an overarching, guiding question: Whose knowledge counts? The intent behind this question is to sharpen focus on the learner, all learners. The question serves as a sort of test, an accountability measure for us. Is our pedagogy respectful of all learners? Is it learner-focused?

COVID-19 and the civil unrest resulting from George Floyd’s murder have made visible the importance of this guiding question: Whose knowledge counts? I am proud to work in a school asking, and trying to answer this question. However, I want to argue that simply posing the question does not go far enough. I want to offer some revisions.

First, some substitutions – matters for counts. These are near-enough synonyms. Whose knowledge matters? Next, let’s define knowledge as the acquired wisdom, talents, skills of lived experience – life: Whose lives matter? 

Whose lives matter, posed as a question, implies there are answers. The answer to that question could exclude or privilege certain lives – the culture of power. White lives. Again, COVID and George Floyd remind us that a prevailing answer to the question has been historically and systemically racist. Therefore, rather than posing the question, “Whose lives matter?” we must assert: Black and brown lives matter.  

 Before we pose guiding questions, we must compose certain articles of faith. I suggest the first to be: Black and brown lives matter. Full stop. No question.

Given this assertion, then, what guiding questions are available to us? 

What are our other articles of faith?

River Stories: Episode 9

River Stories is a podcast series created and produced by students at Rio Del Sol STEAM School. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues.

Please listen, learn from and with River Kids, and share our stories. 

This particular episode was produced in conjunction with our school’s culminating performance task: What is a Day? Every student, K-7, was asked to produce something that explores the question “What is a Day.” Ayden chose to look at the question through the lens of a local activist and his day spent at a recent Black Lives Matter rally. He created this episode for River Stories.

River Stories: Episode 8

River Stories is a podcast series created and produced by students at Rio Del Sol STEAM School. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues.

Please listen, learn from and with River Kids, and share our stories. 

River Stories: Episode 7

River Stories is a podcast series created and produced by students at Rio Del Sol STEAM School. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues.

Please listen, learn from and with River Kids, and share our stories. 

Feedback vs Grades

At a recent faculty meeting, we were asked to think about the vulnerability needed to “enter the ring,” to think about who we are becoming and what we are making. These have always been important questions to think about but especially so during these unusual times. If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has been a powerful invitation to reflect on what matters, to interrogate beliefs and “truths,” and to ask if these things are still true. Do I still believe them; do they hold up here in these new virtual spaces?

And, given this move to e-learning, or distance learning (I’m not sure either of those new terms quite gets it right), questions of making and vulnerability take on layered significance. What counts as engagement, as participation in these digital spaces? What do grades mean? A shift we have taken is away from grades and towards feedback (a move many have argued for before COVID). The quarantine framed the issue as one of equity. It is hardly fair to grade a population of learners on teaching/learning enacted in cyberspace when that population does not have access to devices or WiFi. The question of grades, however, has deeper philosophical and pedagogical implications.

I realized, coming out of that meeting, I had no answer for who I was becoming, for what I was making. I had entered no ring. I had not accepted the invitation to reflect and test assumptions. My response has been to hole up and slather myself with armor and defense. I survive, but I am hardly thriving. It is past time for me to lean in to the discomfort, to show the hell up.

Among the guiding principles of Rio del Sol, is inquiry. I want to share some slices of practice with you and ask that you help me think about questions I have of my own practice – questions precipitated by that faculty meeting about showing up and being vulnerable. I have no answers; this is no show.

My question: Does this protocol (this thing I made) for responding to student work generate actionable feedback for the learner? Does it provide actionable, formative feedback for the learning guide?

Before I share the protocol, I need to name some underpinning theory, principles I have tried to apply to this thing, name those whose shoulders I stand on. In a popular Brene Brown talk, she names four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, suspending judgment, recognizing emotion, and communicating emotion. I believe for feedback to be accessible it has to come from and within an empathic culture.

Rather than focusing on deficits, I want feedback to name specific successes. What is working? In his book Walking on Water, Derrick Jensen shares his philosophy for coaching high jumpers: coach through honest praise. Focus on strengths and help jumpers identify and build on those strengths. Anecdotally, all of his eligible jumpers qualified for nationals. Each made All-American status, and one became national champion.

This feedback protocol rests on ideas of empathy and praise. In response to a given piece of student work, I provide feedback as follows:

Summarize: I notice…I read…I heard… (Objective description only)

Point to successes: I liked…because… (Build on strengths, on what is working)

Questions: I wonder… (Inquiry, empathy, suspend judgment)

Apply the protocol to the following slivers of student work:

River Stories

Math Video

Solar Powered Car

Science Writing

When you have finished, return to my question: Does the protocol provide actionable feedback for the learner? Does it provide actionable, formative feedback for the learning guide? I’m happy to read your responses in the comments.

River Stories: Episode 6

River Stories is a podcast series created and produced by students at Rio Del Sol STEAM School. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues.

Please listen, learn from and with River Kids, and share our stories. 

River Stories: Episode 5

River Stories is a podcast series created and produced by students at Rio Del Sol STEAM School. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues.

Please listen, learn from and with River Kids, and share our stories.