Reflections onTeaching & Learning

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

It is not common practice in Maine and the country to have recess in middle school, especially for all grades. I must confess that I have a love-hate relationship with recess, which is probably shared by the nurse, school counselors, and Mr. Delehanty. Recess means scrapes and occasional bloody noses and issues of conflict between students that have to be resolved, usually by adult mediation. It also means running and activity and unstructured play that is becoming so rare in our connected and scheduled society. We don’t limit games at recess, and allow pick-up soccer and basketball, and imaginative play. Just yesterday I watched a group of 5th grade boys play some sort of game that involved robots that are electrocuted and brought back to life? I’m not exactly sure - but they were sure, and annoyed with my questions interrupting the game. But they were also pretending to shoot each other, with exaggerated collapses on the ground, and were occasionally wrestling and rolling around. In many schools, recess has become “no contact” and no pretend violence, eliminating basketball, tag games, soccer, and the game I watched yesterday. The opportunities for social learning from unstructured, unrestricted play are tremendous and lasting, but that social learning can also be complicated, difficult for students to manage, and occasionally emotionally harmful. Schools that eliminate recess often claim they need the increased instructional time, but it is usually more about limiting unstructured student time, because that also reduces student conflict and school liability.

I believe in the value of unstructured, rules-limited recess, but it will take family support as well - to understand that there will be conflicts that need to be resolved between students, and occasional hurts - both physical and feelings - that will inevitably happen. Working together we can grow kids who are resilient and socially adaptable, even if it comes with the occasional recess bumps, bruises, and hurt feelings.

Barbara Maling, Principal

YMS parent Kate Gardoqui wrote a wonderful blog post about the experience her son had in Mr. Tony Beaumier’s classroom here at YMS. She captures beautifully the heart of our student centered learning model, and how Tony and our other teachers are trying engage students in their own learning. Educational jargon calls it “proficiency based learning”, but for us, that feels like a somewhat clinical term. Really, we want to keep evolving in our efforts to make learning clear and meaningful to students, and to provide a supportive environment for them to reflect and grow as learners and human beings. Thank you, Kate, for honoring one of our veteran teachers and our whole school community!

How I Learned What Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning Really Means

Barbara Maling, Principal

We had a group of teachers from an area middle school visit us recently, and during a sharing session, one visiting teacher asked, “How do you handle extra credit”? The silence from our teachers was deafening, as they puzzled over the question. Finally, one of our teachers said, “Our students don’t ask about it”, which was a diplomatic way of saying that the concept of “extra credit” has become completely irrelevant in our instructional model. In a traditional grading system that is focused on accumulating points to reach a grade, extra credit is typically part of the classroom experience. Teachers grant it for a variety of activities, some related to the classroom learning, and some completely unrelated. I once got extra credit in a class for donating blood! Raising the issue of how much to “count” homework, or what rules should exist in granting extra credit is done with foreboding by school principals, as it will invariably lead to “spirited” faculty debates. As we have transitioned at YMS to a system focused on learning, and reaching mastery of a target, we no longer need to have these debates. We see more clearly now that these discussions are focused on all the wrong questions. In a recent survey that I gave to teachers after a group discussion about literacy instruction, every single staff member responded with thoughtful comments about student learning, and ideas to improve the student experience. I am grateful that we are having the right conversations at YMS, and that for the first time in my 25 year career in education, the “extra credit” question wasn’t debated, but pushed aside as irrelevant.

Barbara Maling, Principal

We have been thinking and talking about HOWL’s lately here at YMS. As you probably know, HOWL’s stand for Habits of Work and Learning, which for us fall under the broad categories of Respect, Responsibility, and Perseverance. A core element of our instructional model is to separate these behaviors from what a student knows and can do academically. Why do we do this? So we can help students both understand what they know academically, and how their work habits that may influence their level of learning. With the traditional 0-100 grading system, a student can get a score of 80% by doing all their homework but failing tests and quizzes, OR by doing no homework but acing all their tests and quizzes. The same score would result from students with two very different levels of learning. By expecting a consistent level of learning, and separating that from work habits, we are able to be much more responsive to individual student needs. The student who is acing tests and quizzes but not doing homework? She probably needs more of a challenge, and would benefit from work that is hard, and requires some grit and persistence. The other student? He may need more instructional support and chances to have re-teaching and redoing until he masters the material.

As we have become more attuned to work habits, we have realized that we need to find ways to make these HOWL’s more meaningful to students, so they understand that we expect all students to seek out challenging work and stick with it. And that demonstrating responsibility toward their learning, and showing respect to others is an essential part of functioning successfully in a community, both in school and eventually in the workplace. We are exploring ways to deeply embed the value of HOWL’s into our school model, and help them be seen by students as an essential component of their school success. We are talking about it to each other, and asking students for their feedback. We would also welcome ideas and thoughts from parents. Please share!

Barbara Maling, Principal

As you may know, we have a math program in place at YMS called Math In Focus. Math teachers have been continuing to work hard to grow our professional knowledge about what helps accelerate student math learning. Teachers have taken an online course based at Stanford University, and led by Professor Jo Boaler, a leading practitioner in promoting a “growth mindset” in math education. We have also worked through another course focused on the use of learning targets and high quality assessment in math that was taught across the state of Maine. In addition, we have some expert consulting help from a math specialist who is coaching teachers in the classroom. It’s been a lot of great professional learning, and we hope you are seeing the results in the classrooms through your children. Across the country, educators are starting to focus more closely on helping students think deeply about math, instead of just teaching calculation procedures. I’m including a link to a video that has been shared in many classrooms, and gives you an idea of the messages we are trying to convey to students about math. Take a few minutes to watch and learn about growth mindset, the importance of making mistakes, and why thinking deeply about math is better than being speedy!

Boosting Math for Students by Jo Boaler

Barbara Maling, Principal

I’ve been reflecting lately on the importance of supporting student voice in our building. We have a group of four 5th grade girls who, in their short time at YMS, worked with various adults in the building to create “Wildcat Walkers”, a recess walking and running club for their grade. To let their classmates know about the club, these girls created a slide show, and confidently told me they would present it to all the advisories in their grade. No problem! As I watched the 8th grade students give their student council election speeches in front of their whole grade today, I was also struck by the power of student voice. Through stumbles and bouts of stage fright, these students showed their peers what it means to take a risk to be heard. Our proficiency based learning approach is also grounded in the power of student voice, but with a different twist - it’s voice about their own learning process. Students who understand the learning target clearly and the process to reach it can use feedback effectively, monitor their own learning, predict their own performance, and ultimately own their learning. Research from across the globe shows that this process is the strongest lever of increasing student achievement in schools. Student voice - it’s beautiful for us to watch unfold in the building!

Barbara Maling, Principal

From French Teacher Stephanie Carbonneau:

I am lucky. My students are lucky.

I am lucky to work in a school with such passionate and creative teachers. I am lucky to work for an administration that empowers it's staff, gives us time to grow, and at the same time holds us accountable. I am lucky to work with students who truly strive to be the best versions of themselves, and I am lucky to work in a community whose parents care about education and support what I do.

I am also lucky to have the opportunity to work with my students for two consecutive years. Thus, I have time to get to know them, and to get them where they need to be. I am lucky that language learning and instruction, since I began my teaching career 17 years ago, has always been taught with standards. It is hard to put a number or letter on what a student has learned. For example, you can ask and answer simple questions in French well, do this with help, or with errors that may or may not hinder communication. And if you aren’t there yet, what are we; teachers, students, parents, going to do to make sure you can? Students now know more than ever what they need to do to be successful. My favorite part of this initiative is students must now reflect on current progress. What did they do to meet or exceed? Why didn’t they meet? What are THEY going to do to prepare to re-assess? How can they demonstrate to me or the target audience they have met the standard?

I am lucky that with PBL I can clearly see who understands what, who doesn’t, who is ready to move on, who isn’t and who is ready for level 2 French at the high school. It was difficult in the past to justify to a parent that a student was ready or not ready for high school French based on a number. Numbers aren't always accurate. It has never been clearer where students stand in terms of what they do and do not know, what they are still working on, and what they excel at. I can identify with confidence what individual students exceed at, have mastered, are still working on, and where they are insufficient. Students now show me what they know and have the ability to prove it.

My students are lucky that learning is not a “one and done” deal anymore. I assess my students more than once on a content standard to determine if they truly understand and have reached mastery. It may seem like a lot of assessment or “testing,” but really, we are assessing students in more authentic and meaningful ways then we could have with traditional “one and done” assessments. My students are being asked to do real-world tasks and solve real-world problems using real-world language. Traditional language goals were related to grammatical structures, vocabulary lists, and textbook chapters. Now, goals are related to communication objectives and students showing what they can do with the language. They are doing so in very creative, real life ways. Each day I grow more and more impressed with what they are able to do. Yes, my students learn the French specific content such as the alphabet, but more importantly, they show me what they can do with it. No one is ever going to stop them in a French speaking country and ask them to say or sing the alphabet, but people are going to expect them to be able to order a meal in a restaurant or ask for directions while traveling. Students are lucky that we are now learning and addressing language expectations that they can actually use.

I am lucky that my students are indeed stretching themselves and pushing themselves in the PBL model. I am asking students to look at more examples of authentic language than I ever have. The work I'm giving them is very challenging, yet they are doing it and being successful, even if it takes extra practice, extra help, or teacher/peer guidance. I would like to argue that although it may be challenging, they are still having fun. Students are seeing more value in what they are learning and thus, are retaining more content. I'm certain my colleagues at the high school are happy with the level of knowledge owned by the students that they are receiving since our transition work began. I can truly say it is a direct result of our change in instruction and assessment practices.

Perhaps a bit boastful, my students are lucky to be in my classroom of “today,” as I have never worked harder as a teacher. I am enjoying teaching once again because, I too, am feeling challenged. I feel challenged to improve my teaching and to find ways for my students to exceed the standards in a way that is beyond simply assigning “extra” work. I am no longer assessing who is good at playing school. I am assessing what my students know and finding ways to get them there. My students have never worked harder. If you were to ask them, they would agree my assessments are not easy nor are my “REDOs.”

Yes, my class, my instruction, my assessments, and my students are different. I have never been more proud and excited to be a teacher than I am right now. PBL makes me want to be a better and more effective teacher. I am lucky to be teaching in an era of such educational transformation. My students are lucky to be part of the new paradigm. The workforce is lucky to soon receive workers who understand standards based evaluation, how it applies to their work, and know how to set growth goals based on this type of feedback. Together we are lucky to be leading the way in what is to be the future of a nation of self reflecting, life long learners.

From 5th Grade Teacher Andy Geranis:

A Walk Through The Forest

Andy Geranis

Where I Stand

Let me be clear about my position: York Middle School’s (Y.M.S.’s) transition to proficiency-based learning (P.B.L.) is long overdue. As a teacher, I not only support our transition, but I have been trying to implement parts of it in my own teaching for a decade. My opinion is that Y.M.S.’s move away from the century-old factory model of operation is about a century late.

Finally, we have gained clarity on both learning and behavior by separating how they are taught, assessed, and reported. Finally, our system supports our efforts to minimize our hypocrisies. Finally, everything we do has a single aim: student learning.

Having said this, I also need to acknowledge the complexity and, at times, overwhelming nature, of this transition. I know from both personal experience, and conversations with parents, that it can be very challenging to make sense of the many discrete changes that constitute this transition. It is all too easy to lose the forest for the trees; to lose sight of just how uniquely special Y.M.S. will be as teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community members grow more proficient in maximizing P.B.L.’s potential.

Seeing the P.B.L. ‘Forest’ More Clearly

The discrete changes that are being made every day cut across every facet of Y.M.S.’s ecosystem: schedules, routines, grades, planning, professional development, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and report cards are but a few examples.

Which brings me to this post’s purpose: clarity. My hope is that after reading this post you will be able to see the P.B.L. ‘forest’ more clearly. My hope is that you will have a more clear understanding of how the many separate parts, or ‘trees’, of P.B.L. work to help create an ecosystem that helps students grow as learners.

In this post, the ‘forest’ is my English Language Arts (E.L.A.) classes’ recent poetry performances.

But first, a little background. In our E.L.A. classes, students spent seven weeks reading and writing poetry. At the end of the seven weeks, students were asked to select their two best poems for publication. After two weeks of revision work, final drafts were published. From those two final drafts, students were asked to choose one to memorize and perform.

Each year our team holds its annual Poetry Spectacular. This event gives each student the opportunity to perform their own work for audiences of 150 people and more. This year our students performed for two audiences of that size. First, they performed for the entire fifth grade. Then, they performed for family and friends of our 60-student team.

Proficiency-based Learning in Action

Using our poetry performance as the ‘forest’, allow me to explain how the following ‘trees’ look in this particular P.B.L. ecosystem:

Tree #1 - Enduring Understandings

Tree #2 - Standards

Tree #3 - Learning Targets

Tree #4 - Instruction

Tree #5 - Formative Assessments

Tree #6 - Performance (Summative) Assessments

Tree #1 - Enduring Understandings

Enduring understandings are the big, transferable ideas that we want students to never forget. After the individual lessons, facts or skills might or might not be forgotten, enduring understandings...well, endure.

The enduring understanding of this performance unit was: Good performances engage audiences. This understanding endures because, whether it be a speech, a play, a recital, a debate, or any other type of performance, engaging an audience can be transferred to anyone, at any age, in any space, and for any purpose.

Tree #2 - Standards

Standards are learning goals. Learning goals are the skills (and occasionally knowledge) students need to learn in order to acquire enduring understandings.

In this unit we taught, learned, and assessed three standards. One standard was specific to E.L.A.. The other two standards came from our Habits of Work and Learning (H.O.W.L.s).

In E.L.A., our standards are almost entirely skills. The standard used in this unit is the sixth Common Core speaking and listening standard for fifth grade: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, using formal English when appropriate to task and situation. We felt this was an appropriate choice because the way we wanted our students to speak in their performance was very different from informal, day-to-day speech. In addition, we felt it was important that students understood both how and why they needed to adapt their speech to this particular purpose.

Our H.O.W.L.s are entirely skills. In this unit we assessed students on two of the three specific habits Y.M.S. has identified as important facets of perseverance. The first specific habit was: I assess my work based on established criteria. The second was: I learn from feedback and revise my work.

Tree #3 - Learning Targets

We do not teach a standard all at once. Generally speaking, standards are much too big a goal for that. Instead, we break standards into learning targets. Learning targets are smaller, clearly defined steps students need to take in order to learn a standard. Learning targets can take many forms. At Y.M.S., “I can…” statements are the most common type of learning target.

Let’s look again at one of this unit’s standards: I assess my work based on established criteria. We used the following rubric as the established criteria for student performances. Each student used their own copy of the rubric to assess themselves and to assess peers, depending on the lesson or assignment.

The learning targets we used to teach this standard were:

I can assess my eye contact based on our Poetry Performance Rubric.

I can assess my voice based on our Poetry Performance Rubric.

I can assess my posture based on our Poetry Performance Rubric.

I can improve my performance based on feedback from myself or peers.

Notice how we took the rubric and broke it into smaller, more student friendly learning targets.

Tree #4 - Instruction

Instruction includes all the strategies, tools, and methods teachers use to teach.

The reason we broke the standard (and rubric) into the three separate criteria was, in large part, because of how we wanted to teach kids to perform.

Experience has taught us that focusing on more than one criteria of performance prevents students from becoming good at any of them. So much of brainpower is being dedicated to saying the newly memorized lines, that very little is left to pay attention to eye contact, voice, and posture.

So, our instructional approach to teaching students to use criteria to improve their performance was heavy on modeling one skill at a time.

First, we reviewed the rubric’s description of each criteria. We began with eye contact. Next, we used our own performances to model what meeting the standard looks like if we’re using eye contact to engage the audience. Then, we modeled what quality feedback sounds like. Finally, we modeled what using that feedback looks like when trying to improve eye contact. Between each demonstration there was time for class discussion and questions.

Tree #5 - Formative Assessments

‘Formative assessment’ is teacher lingo for any method of providing informal feedback to students for the sole purpose of helping students improve their work and learn more.

One formative assessment method we used to help students become better at using the rubric to improve their performance was simple: we watched and listened to each student perform and use the rubric to assess themselves. Then we watched them perform again to see if they were able to use their own feedback to improve.

We also used the an iPad to record each student’s performance. Each student was then asked to watch the video on mute to assess what they saw themselves doing.

Another type of formative assessment we used was a goal setting activity. Students used the rubric to identify a weakness in their performance. They then used the goal setting guide we created to set a goal to attack their weakness and reflect on how their performance improved.

Tree #6 - Performance (Summative) Assessments

Performance, or summative, assessments are tools teachers use at the end of a unit of study to identify what a student has learned and not yet learned. They are the ‘Chapter Seven math test’ or, in this example, the ‘big poetry performance’.

Students were expected to take all they had learned and practiced to engage two different authentic audiences with their poetry performances.

Their performance was assessed using the same rubric they had used to learn, practice, and improve.

Performance assessments are most effective when they are authentic, meaning all participants clearly understand the inherent value in the assessment. Authenticity stems directly from how well matched the assessment is the the enduring understanding upon which the unit is based. So in this example, we feel like asking the students to give an engaging performance to real and large audiences, made up of more than just classmates, fits perfectly with the enduring understanding: Good performances engage audiences.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has helped to clarify just what a proficiency-based learning ‘forest’ can look like. I hope it helps to clarify how many of the discrete ‘trees’ you might hear or read about work together to create a whole that is more than the some of its parts. Enduring understandings, standards, learning targets, rubrics, and formative assessments are highly effective tools that teachers and students now use every day to improve learning.

And that is why we’re making this transition to proficiency-based learning. At its best, (and by no means am I suggesting this poetry performance unit is perfect - having assessed my own work in it, I’ve already planned a great number of improvements for next year!) proficiency-based learning provides an ecosystem devoted solely to student learning.

Below are a few examples of the poems created by our students in this unit. To see our performances, click here.

Student Work:

Poems | The Decision | My Old Friend | I Once Knew A Boy | Mirror