Thursday, September 30, 2010

The "Ike Special"

One day this week, a teacher shared a news story with me about Ike Ditzenberger (thanks, Brad), a 17-year old football player who dreams of playing college football. He attends daily practices and toils away in offensive drills with his Snohomish HS teammates. Ike could represent thousands of young athletes, but he doesn’t: Ike Ditzenberger has Down Syndrome.

Ike achieved a major milestone last Friday in a game as he ran for a 51 yard touchdown with 10 seconds remaining. The “Ike Special” provided the only points in Snohomish’s 35-6 loss. It was Ike’s first varsity touchdown, a ramble through an opposing defense that mirrors the end to Snohomish practices every day, when he gets the final run of practice and somehow finds the end zone, through a combination of running guile and intentionally passive defenders.

I was certainly touched by this sentimental moment for this young athlete; however, it was the other players on the field that struck me. They created a moment for this young man that will be with him forever. It was evident from the news video that Ike’s teammates cared about him; lifting him into the air after the touchdown. It was just as evident that the other team cared for this young man, too, as they intentionally missed diving tackles and feigned being blocked, all this to create a special moment for Ike. These young men knew and understood what it meant to be empathetic, compassionate, and caring.

As I watched this news story I felt wonderful warmth in this event, which made our recent 4th-6th grade assembly on Thursday that much more meaningful for me. For those of you who couldn’t attend, we had Chris Burke and the DeMasi Brothers perform many wonderful skits and musical numbers, sponsored by the Down Syndrome Society. Many of you probably remember Chris Burke as “Corky” from Life Goes On. Chris’ message was that of perseverance and setting goals. He believes that Down Syndrome should be called Up Syndrome and that people should concentrate on what they can do instead of their limitations. It was an inspirational assembly and I was impressed with how our students enjoyed and “got into” the presentation.

As I clapped, sang, and signed along to the music (I found out I sing better in sign language) I realized how fortunate we are to have students with special needs here at AAK. I don’t mean to sound facetious, but as Chris Burke mentioned in his performance, he wasn’t allowed to go to public school as a child. It’s one thing that many students like Chris Burke have the chance for an education, but it’s just as wonderful that our general education students have this tremendous opportunity that many of us didn’t have. They’re learning all the traits demonstrated by Ike’s teammates; empathy, compassion, and caring. Acceptance is a gift that we give to others as well as ourselves.

I was impressed with Chris Burke’s abilities. I was touched by the news story of Ike. I’m also glad that our students have the opportunity to learn about others who may be different. Celebrating diversity means so much more to me today.

I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questioning the Zero Factor

The Potsdam Central School District is beginning the third year of reforming its Grading and Homework Policy. This process began in Spring, 2009 with a district committee including teachers, parents, students, administrators, and a Board of Education member. After considerable deliberation and research, the committee crafted a draft policy and presented it to the Board of Education for consideration. Though normally most policies become effective immediately upon ratification, the Board provided the 2009-10 school year as a time for presenting the new policy to all teachers, students, and families for discussion and feedback. Training was provided during staff development days and a consultant was used periodically to guide the effort and present the philosophical basis for the new practices. As a result of this period of gathering perspectives, the policy was rewritten and adopted for full implementation in the 2010-2011 school year.

As with many changes in education, this reform-minded policy garnered substantial debate. However, one component stands out as being particularly controversial; not accepting zeroes as grades for missing, late, or incomplete work.

When I began exploring how this new policy might affect the middle-level, I found guidance from the Essential Elements of a Standards-Focused Classroom; most importantly that assessment and evaluation should promote learning and inform our instructional strategies. From this research and my own experience, I concluded that our traditional system for dispensing zeroes for missing homework did not allow students any learning opportunity past the due date. The idea of allowing a student to “opt out” of an assignment for the measured consequence of a zero certainly did not help a student develop personal responsibility and self direction (EE 2.12). Moreover, I found that the student who struggles with a concept only to be punitively assigned the zero deters a positive sustained relationship between that student and the teacher (EE 3.6). In many situations, the formative assignment for which a zero is given may be the last opportunity to practice/learn a particular concept. This may also be the only opportunity for the teacher to monitor a student’s progress and inform their instructional strategies (EE 4.14, 4.15, 7.10). The intention of our new policy is to allow the learning process to continue throughout the formative as well as after the summative assessment.

The basic premise for our policy is to accurately measure a student’s knowledge in a usable format. The policy states that grades should reflect achievement, in other words, what students know and are able to do. Assigning a score of zero indicates that the student knows nothing and is able to do nothing, which is most likely inaccurate. Furthermore, when computing an average, a score of zero in a percent system carries a disproportionate weight. For example, a student who earned an 80 on four assignments and failed to turn in a fifth would have an average of a 64 and fail the course, even though the four 80’s would indicate competency with the subject matter. The policy also states that allowing a student to receive a zero for incomplete homework is “letting them off the hook”. Personally, I have had many students say to me, “I’ll take the zero” or “Just give me a zero”. When we allow this option, we fail to hold the students accountable. I would rather have a student say, “I hate this. The teacher is making me do homework even when I don’t want to.” I would rather have these students whine all the way to the honor roll instead of failing a class for not doing their homework. Traditionally, most of our course failures were a result of zeros being included in grade calculations. If many of these zeroes were inaccurate measures of a student’s academic ability, then the conclusion would be that we are failing the student on their behavioral merit.

From this policy’s opponents, we have heard both parents and teachers claim that assigning a zero for work not completed “teaches responsibility.” They have also opined that extended timelines are unfair to the students who complete their work on schedule. While these arguments sound logical prima facie, the reality is that most students who are assigned zeroes in September are the same students who receive them in June – and the same who will probably receive them the following year. If we are “teaching responsibility,” we are not doing a very good job. I would rather have students be given a behavioral consequence for missing the deadline but be required to complete the assignment. This will indicate that zeros are not accepted and will have a greater potential to change behavior if it is known that the teacher will not give up on students by allowing their work to go uncompleted. Such a practice is not inequitable but rather creating the conditions for all students to meet the standards.

Inherently, the traditional approaches to homework and grading have forced teachers and students into adversarial relationships. If a student did not complete a homework assignment, justice was swift and sure – a zero. Teachers appeared to be insulted by the perceived slight and simply put, the learning opportunity was over. In many cases, there was no guarantee that late work would be accepted, so few students made the attempt. It was a matter of fact, if you didn’t get your homework done then you would earn a zero, and our students paid for this through continued poor habits and lack of knowledge assessment. With the new policy adopted at PCS, it is our goal to open a dialogue between students and teachers about the reasons why homework is not completed. Is the student just being lazy or are there other reasons, which, if uncovered, can lead to better practices and less angst? Though this will require some additional effort from administration and faculty, it could pay dividends in the long term through mutual understanding and a better environment for individual learning.

The new Grading and Homework Policy at Potsdam Central School also focuses on additional ideas for improvement, beginning with teachers not assigning a grade for routine formative homework. For the most part, formative assignments are designed for practice after the student receives feedback and additional practice, if necessary. They should be evaluated by teachers and may be graded. The overall grade for formative homework under the new policy may not exceed 10% of a student’s overall grade. This will ensure that a student’s grade is a more accurate reflection of achievement as it will be based chiefly on work completed under direct supervision of the teacher. Summative homework (homework whose intent is to ascertain the level of student achievement) will be assigned, evaluated, and graded by teachers. Teachers will decide which summative assignments to include in grade determination.

It is our intent that consequences are levied for students who do not turn in their homework. Consequences will be behavioral, not academic, in nature. After school detention, lunch detention, or loss of privileges should be dispositions instead of assigning an inaccurate grade of zero. Furthermore, natural consequences are enabled for our older students who should learn the value of practice. Students who fail to complete formative assignments often perform poorly on tests and quizzes. Per our policy, teachers also have the ability to assign an Incomplete for assignments/assessments which are so crucial that course credit should not be awarded if a student fails to complete them. With an Incomplete, the policy also encourages the teacher, student, and parent to collaborate and coordinate a process for completing the missed work.

From our perspective, a policy that does not permit a score of zero is raising the bar for student achievement. It also has the potential to create a more positive school environment which is critical for student motivation and learning. Though we know there will be challenges with any educational reform, it is our intention that this new policy will lead to more students meeting the standards and their potential.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Special Memories

I remember being told by my sixth grade teacher that everyone had a special talent. I’m not sure what my talent was, but I think she spent most of the year trying to help me discover it. This was no easy task. My sixth grade experience with Mrs. Maguire is a memory worth keeping. In retrospect, she went above and beyond to help me. She connected with me and at the time I didn’t truly appreciate it, but I do now. I think sixth grade was when I learned the most about who I was and who I wanted to be. It appeared to be a turning point of sorts. Was this due to my natural maturation or was it because I had a guide? I can’t really answer this, maybe a little of both, but I do think fondly of everything Mrs. Maguire did for me.

My thoughts now turn to my classmates and I wonder if they got this special treatment, too. I’m not planning on calling them to ask, but I can speculate that they probably have similar memories. My evidence is in my own memories. The special moments that my teacher created for me weren’t just for me, they included some of my classmates as well. They were there with me and we were all being guided by Mrs. Maguire.

Who are you thinking of now? Which teacher helped you find your talents?

Who are you helping to guide today?


The concept of intentionality came to me this last year as I discussed Invitational Education with Carol Fries; SUNY Potsdam professor, former AAKer, and 2003 Teacher of the Year. The concept of our discussion surrounded AAK and how we unintentionally developed an inviting atmosphere and climate. We concluded that this developed through years of individual people making a true difference in the lives of their coworkers and of their students. They made a positive impact on others. This welcoming spirit at AAK has led Carol to additional prominence as a conference presenter and author.

The next time the idea of intentionality was mentioned to me was at a conference this past summer. Paul Vermette, a Niagara University professor who is best known for collaborative educational strategies, spoke about the Social-Emotional Learning Standards (Yes, NYS does have standards for SEL). He suggested that we should be intentional about our interactions with kids. He professed that we have to teach them proper rules for society, civility, and etiquette. I don’t think he was referencing Emily Post – he was simply stating that to get a desired behavior we have to teach and model it. During my time with Paul Vermette I discovered that the concept of Invitational Education and Social-Emotional Learning are infinitely connected. Both depend on intentional actions which positively impact others.

This has led me to the idea of purposely and intentionally creating the environment that we treasure here at AAK. Is eating together one of my intentional acts? Yes. Is saying good morning to you with a smile intentional? Yes. Do I really want to smile? Actually…yes! Are the huge plants in our entryway intentional? Yes. What about our new painted Sandstoner Man in the office? Yes – and thank you Jani, it’s really cool. We need to be intentional with our thoughts and actions towards others and create an environment that is inviting and welcoming.

What about our interactions with the students? Can we intentionally impact them? We definitely can. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I’m not sure where this quote came from, but I would speculate that the originator of this taught more academic information than I ever dreamed of as a teacher. Creating a welcoming environment for students is paramount to their success. Kids really will tune you out if they don’t believe you’re there for them.

According to Carol Fries, AAK already has a tremendously inviting climate and I would agree. Paul Vermette is trying to come to AAK this fall to see us for himself – not that he doesn’t believe me, simply to find an example of a school who attends to the Social-Emotional Learning of the students. What both Carol and Paul recognized was that schools who implement the NYS Essential Elements are, by design, inviting. We are the stewards of this environment and our responsibility lies within Essential Elements.

Thank you for your intentionality. The students, staff, and AAK are better because of it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome Back!

I took a walk around the darkened halls of AAK recently and found myself thinking of the wonders our students will experience over the course of this new school year. This surreal moment exposed each closed doorway that I passed soon to be a portal for a student to enter. What will they learn? What will they do? Who will they become? What will you mean to them?

This Tuesday will be my nineteenth “Opening Day” and I still get just as nervous as I did on my first. The sense of excitement and anticipation which I feel surely pales in comparison to what a young student feels. We are challenged to live up to their expectations. I am confident that you will continue the tradition of excellence that is AAK. I am proud to be the leader of such a tremendous group of professionals.

With that said, this year will be full of challenges for us. A new Grading and Homework policy, shifting cut-scores, more rigorous assessments (or elimination of some exams), budget woes, bullying, and the list goes on. As Superintendent Brady mentioned in his opening speech, there are now more requirements on public educators than ever before. It is imperative that we succeed.

In an attempt to add some humor to my prosaic start, I found the following:

You Might Be in Education if...
• You believe no one should be permitted to reproduce without having taught in a middle school for at least one year.
• You want to slap the next person who says, "Must be nice to work 8-3 and have your summers free."
• You can tell if it's a full moon without ever looking outside.
• You can't have children because there isn't any name you can hear that wouldn't elevate your blood pressure.
• Your personal life comes to a screeching halt at report card time.

Thank you, in advance, for your prodigious efforts this coming week. I can’t wait to see you all in action. You hold the power to shape tomorrow.

Have a fantastic Labor Day weekend,