Set sail

Set Sail

It’s that time of year again. Classes began this week. Here are a few goals that come to mind as I set sail for the year.

1. Conference with my students more. I have a table set up in my room designed for this. My hope is to sit and have small group discussions on a regular basis.

2. Lag homework/practice. I see the power in requiring students to recall information while learning new concepts.

3. Lag unit exams. I see this as a corollary of lagging homework; if students are spending the majority of their practice time on “old” content, then it only makes sense that their informative assessments follow suit. Therefore, unit exams will be given in the midst of the following unit. My hope is that it will set higher expectations for preparedness and promote better long term comprehension. I may be off my rocker, so we’ll see.

4. Be a better mentor and colleague to new and developing teachers.

5. Earn highly effective. It’s a label that can be subjective, but in my eyes if I can earn it, then I deserve it.

6. Encourage my kids to show their thinking (vs. show their work).

7. Work towards NBC. It’s daunting, but a challenge I’m looking forward to.

8. Simplify my school day and focus on what matters most, both in and out of my classroom.

9. Mandate all students to retake standards on which they didn’t achieve proficiency. This was an option in the past that I didn’t push hard enough for.

10. Set higher, more rigorous expectations for my kids. This is a fine line, but I’ve become too lax and my students are suffering because of it. In conjunction with 3 and 9.

11. Seek in-depth student feedback.

12. Get my kids to understand the ‘why am I doing this?’ aspect of each lesson. Thanks Z.

13. Give students more control of their learning. I simply do too much. When they have ownership over their own learning, the need for my inspiration minimizes.

14. Have a top ten posted in my classroom. Overall and Most Improved?



End of the 2014-15 school year

-1. Several weeks ago I began thinking about the end of the school year. I suddenly realized the startlingly amount of reflection that awaited me. Today is the last day of school and the only way for me to systematically get it all out is in a list. Here goes.

0. Leading up to this year, my school had a solid four-year stretch of low-turnover and highly stable school atmosphere. 2014-15 not only broke that streak…it was shattered and thrown it under a bus. Things were quite eventful.

1. With any change in leadership, one should expect adjustment in the day-to-day happenings. I found that I had grown too comfortable under previous leadership. Things and people change and I need to evolve with these changes so my productivity doesn’t stagger.

2. During and after vast transformations this year, my optimism was put to the test several times and, in some cases, folded. After scarring disappointments early on, it took a good amount of time to rededicate myself to the school’s mission. I let my frustration get the best of me at times – which I don’t regret. Live and learn.

3. What kept me going? What kept me from completely disconnecting from my school community?

4. The incredibly inspirational people around me. My students. My colleagues (in and out of my school). People I’ve never met. My family.

5. Teachers at my school are an awesome bunch. Despite the disarray abound, somehow they found a way to use their collective strength to keep us moving forward.

6. This was also my first school year blogging, which had a great deal to do with my naturally reflective nature this year. It framed my teaching like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I gained serious perspective by reflecting on my own practices via my blog.

7. I implemented standards-based grading. In terms of assessment, it’s one of the best moves I’ve ever made. I committed to it mid-year, which was tough, but it worked pretty much as planned. I had students assess their own retake exams, which was great, but I need to make a stronger push for retakes next year.

8. I helped plan weekly district-mandated professional development sessions for colleagues at my school. I found it both more engaging and challenging than I imagined before the year began. Professionally, this was an area of growth I didn’t expect. Thanks to MfA, I’ll be taking that a step further next year with my video club.

9. I absolutely struggled with four preps in the fall. The quality of my teaching was stretched thin and my students were shortchanged immensely.

10. I was entitled department chair in the spring. The math department had a tough year and we have a long journey ahead. I hope I am able to provide whatever leadership we need. That said, I passionately hate titles and the connotation that often comes along with them. They are hollow and irrelevant. I just want my work to be meaningful, collaborate, and help all of us reach another level.

11. Our robotics team made progress this year. We performed noticeably better than during the last two years of the program. Next year I hope to use class time (versus after-school) for competition preparation. This should afford the kids more time to build and tweak the robot. My robotics class expanded to include introductory arduinos along with the usual Lego Mindstorms.

12. My students did rather poorly on state exams. This is very disappointing given the amount of work both the students and myself have put in this year. So much so that I began questioning myself. How can I adjust to improve this result?

13. A woman leading a PD once told me “When my students don’t succeed, I look in the mirror and ask What could I have done differently?” This has stuck with me all year. It’s not about all the issues, setbacks, and lack of prerequisite skills that students bring into the classroom that hinders their learning. Instead, all that matters is what I do to meet their needs and get them to succeed. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But this perspective is key for me in my hopes of one day becoming a great teacher.

14. I could have been a better mentor. Despite many shortcomings, I have experience and insight that is conducive to the growth of colleagues new to this profession. I did a poor job this year mentoring a new teacher. She is wonderful and would never tell me so, but inside I know I could have had a much better impact on her.

15. I tried many new approaches this year to teach my kids. Just as importantly, I also implemented new ways to reach them. Whether it was friday letterspersonal notestwo stage exams, plickers, speed dating, problem-based learning, exit slips, or others, I can say that I have definitely made an effort to improve the happenings in my classroom.

16. Following up on a new year’s resolutionintervisitations played a significant role in my development this year. I discovered the need to not only get outside my classroom, but outside of my building, and explore the work of others. It helped motivate a colleague and me to apply for the 2015-16 NYCDOE Learning Partners program, which we were accepted. More to come!

17. I relearned how to be patient with my students. Big ups to my AP for pushing me to slow down the pace of the class and remind me to provide more scaffolding.

18. Goal for 2015-16: highly effective. Focus for 2015-16: to be better than I was in 2014-15.

20. Every school year seems to fly by when you’re at the end of it. This one was no different. It was a bumpy flight, but it was over before I knew it. Another one in the books.

Until June 2016.



Observe. Think. Share. Connect.

One day during a class exam a couple months back I paused to look around at my students. They paid me no mind. They were working diligently, finding their way through the problems, struggling, succeeding, you know, the usual.  During exams, I’m usually keeping an eye out to make sure the kids don’t feel the need to take a peek at their neighbor’s work. But this time was different.

I thought about who they are. I thought about who they’ll become in ten years. Will they be engineers? Marketers? Electricians? Marines? Teachers? Fathers? Mothers? I thought  about their interests and hobbies: beat-boxing, track and field, repairing computers, TV, basketball, music. I thought about how they’ve grown and how they’ve struggled in my class. I thought about their personalities and insecurities. I thought about their families. It goes on and on.

In that moment, I felt deeply connected to them in a weird sort of way and wanted to share this with them. As a teacher, I’ve always cherished being able to share the human experience with my kids. Beyond teaching, beyond learning, beyond report cards, beyond learning objectives, beyond school. That’s how I’ve always tried to relate to my students.

So with all this racing through my mind, what did I do?

I wrote to them.

Besides, I couldn’t just blurt out all of these thoughts in the middle of the exam. Plus, even if I did, this would initiate a conversation – which I didn’t really want. Not only did they need to focus on their exam, but I wanted to share my thoughts in a one-sided manner. I wanted to express how I felt and not have them feel the need to respond.

I looked around and began writing short notes to an array of students. I placed the notes face-down on their desks while they worked. I wrote down things concerning their effort, how much they’ve grown, how I appreciate them, why I believe they’re awesome, and where I think they’ll be in the years to come, among other things.

Some students read the notes immediately while others waited until the end of the period. (Some didn’t even realize I put it on their desk.) Afterward, I didn’t get much reaction from those students I wrote, nor was I expecting it. One student passively said “thanks” while others simply smiled as they walked out.

After class, I felt whole. I conveyed my thoughts and feelings to my students in a way that was personal and direct. And writing allowed me to express everything in a way that I could never do by speaking to them either as a class or individually. I felt connected.

I didn’t get a note to every student that day, but during subsequent exams I have made sure to reach out to other students. Has it become a “thing”? I think so.

Writing these short notes has been analogous to Friday Letters. It’s all about connection. Connecting not for the sole purpose of bettering their grade or getting them to work harder, although those things can result from writing my students. Instead, it’s about sharing the human experience and connecting with someone else that just so happens to be my student.


My feeble attempt at SBG

This past week I attempted my first unit using standards based grading.

Letting SBG be the driving force of my class was one of my new year’s resolutions. I got much of my inspiration from Frank Noschese, Jonathon Claydon, Jason Buell, Shawn CornallyMichael Ziloto and many other teachers I have met in person and virtually met online.

My motto the first time around was to keep it simple. So I did. Here’s my approach.

Before I thought about SBG, I always broke down my units into distinct concepts using standards. So nothing new here. Next, to help simplify things, I decided to give two smaller exams covering 3-4 concepts instead of one larger exam that would have covered 7 concepts.

For each exam question, I went with a four point scale. Each question is assigned a value between 1-4:

4 = mastery
3 = proficient
2 = developing
1 = needs improvement

For free response questions, this is pretty straight forward. For multiple choice questions, I decided to go with 1 for an incorrect response and 3 for a correct response. There will be at least two questions for each concept and I will average the scores earned. This will provide a final measure that determines their level of understanding for each concept.

My biggest issue was deciding how in the world I was going to keep track of all this. Whatever method I finally land on must be sustainable and practical. Well here’s my system as of now. As I grade the exams, I enter each student’s score for each question into a spreadsheet. (We luckily have a scanner that does this for multiple choice questions.) There’s only 3-4 free response questions, so its not terrible. I have the spreadsheet compute the averages and spit out a final score for every student on each concept. The spreadsheet will serve as my tracking system for each student towards mastery of all the concepts we learn.

Their cumulative score for the entire term will be given by:

Now for student ownership of their knowledge. When I hand an exam back, I’ve always provided each one of my students with an individualized report that summarizes their performance. Before, the report contained their overall score, the class average score, etc.

Now the focus is on what they actually understand (or don’t understand). For SBG I use a simple mail merge to print out a report for each student stating which concept(s) they achieved proficiency/mastery on and which one(s) they need to reassess on.

My next step, which will be a doozy, will be to decide how to maintain and organize my reassessment system. I know I will assign Friday as the one day that will serve as a “Retake Day.” This will be the only day where students are permitted to retake the concepts they need. This will help me stay sane and keep organized. Also, I need to get in the habit of creating retake material for each concept.

Of course this is a work in progress. I’m just glad one of my resolutions is coming to fruition.


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