Educon 2023: Where Conversations and Dialogue Are the Heart of Education

This year my students and I returned to Educon, the national education conference focused on progressive conversations about how we might improve education for all people. We had planned two conversations and both were geared to have high levels of student engagement.

Transparent and Dehydrated: Innovating with a Minimum Viable Curriculum

Our first sessions was geared towards opening the curriculum document for NOVA Lab and having members of the audience help us suck out some of the curricular water that had bloated the system. (I’ve written about that before and finally decided to take my own advice.). While the attendance was small, our troop of students had ample time to present their projects, both present and past, and create awareness for the good things they are doing. Our audience engaged us in frequent questions that helped us not only explain the methods and content of the class, but which also helped us understand the privilege it is to be able to have a class like this. Challenging the staid and standard curriculum is not something allowed, it seems, in most inner city districts. This opened an entirely new perspective about how systems suppress innovation in order to maintain dependencies and suppress upward mobility.

Gradelessness & Microdocumentation of Learning: Assessment through Learning Journeys

This session saw our largest audience ever at Educon, about 11 people. Ok, so that seems small, but with about 15 different conversations running during each session, it’s not easy to get a huge audience. Regardless, the attendees were engaged, asked hard questions, and received a huge amount of documentation via the sliidedeck we’d constructed. Students again had a huge role, culling data from “Big Paper” recordings of initial readings, creating a list of discussion topics, and also helping to describe the different ways we have attempted, in both my English and Innovation classes, to capture student Learning Journeys.

This session also allowed us to explore how we’ve been using Unrulr.com to capture learning journeys throughout the year so far. While my system for pulling in Unrulr is not where I want it to be, the success I’ve had with it has allowed me to showcase the beauty of cultures of commenting and communities of feedback like nothing else.

In the decade or so since I first started attending Educon, I have had the pleasure to meet with like minded educators who have helped shape my own learning journey. It is my hope that, by bringing students to Educon and allowing them to discuss their learning, the systems of both my own classes and the school in general, we are able to influence others and learn from others in ways that not only question why things are the way they are, but empower us all to make them better.

Teaching and Learning through Conceptual Understanding: an Example

This past summer I had the opportunity to take a “curriculum camp” with Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan and the whole “Learning that Transfers” crew. Learning that Transfers is the umbrella organization for Julie and the team’s work in Conceptual Understanding.

This is not an informative post on Teaching for Conceptual Understanding. For that powerful method, I’d suggest you visit the Learning that Transfers team at their website. Also, follow the hashtag #LTT on Twitter. This is a post about a technique I used to great effect with my 10th grade English students that is based on the LTT team’s teachings in their amazing book, Learning that Transfers. However, for a quick overview, this video below will serve well.

My students and I started the year with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS). Rather than read the novel as I had in previous years, by splitting the class into groups and having them read by focusing on allegory, satire, the Hero’s Journey, and allusion, I taught them a few key concepts.

Concepts are like nodes on the cognitive web of discrete information. Where a fact about rocks, for example, would be “Wissahickon schist” or “Baltimore Gneiss”, the concept, or node, that connects them is “metamorphic rocks.” So concepts, at least in one formation, are a type of classification. But it goes deeper than that. Concepts act as containers for ideas and actions. Thus, in any young adult novel, one could probably read the novel and identify numerous instances of identity formation. Thus, “identity” becomes a key conceptual lens to read though when reading books like Huck Finn, Invisible Man, The Joy Luck Club.

In our study of HATSOS I identified 5 key concepts: Truth, Identity, Power, Language, all of which orbit around the ultimate concept of “Story” itself. I then divided students into groups in which they would read and annotate the text in groups with their similar concept partners. We did this by using the social annotation application, Perusall.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, I asked students to create a series of three observations about how their concept was crucial to the development of the story so far. Those observations could also be things they’d learned by reading in this way that could be applied to the world outside the text.

Next, students moved into their concept groups and wrote their observations on to post-it notes (one observation per post-it). These were then placed onto special boards I have for just such purposes (they’re called “gator boards”).

Finally, and this is the most important part, after each group had placed all its post-it notes, groups rotated and visited the three other groups’ boards. There, they read the observations and collected two or three observations about the novel through this lens that they found interesting. As a final act, each group had to leave behind a new observation that connected their personal concept, with the other group’s concept.

I know it is impossible to read though just one conceptual lens when more are given; obviously students were always aware of the presence of the other concepts in the story. But by having them focus first through one lens and then giving them a chance to step back and see the novel in a wider sense, understanding better how their peers were reading similarly and differently, students became primed to jump into making deeper conceptual connections within the novel and in the world itself.

This “carousel,” produced some of the most impactful observations at the end of the novel when students engaged in thinkpieces, a type of “essaying,” through exploring their responses to questions they formed using the question stems from http://www.learningthattransfers.com.

Author’s copy of handout from http://www.learningthattransfers.com

Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything. Their peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

STARTedUP At Fluxspace: Feb. 17

On Wednesday, February 17 at 7PM, the Central and SE Regional Chapter of the STARTedUP Foundation will be linking you to the national discussion on Changemakers and the Entrepreneurial Spirit.

The BIG ANNOUNCEMENT here is that our guest speaker will be PayPal cofounder, David Sacks! Please join us via Zoom

STARTedUP is a National Foundation created by educator Don Wettrick to help spread the wealth of learning that comes from youth entrepreneurship. Don’s work as an educator in Indiana has garnered national attention, and he’s leveraged the power of his good works there to bring the excitement of entrepreneurship to students all across the USA.

In our February 17 meeting Don will be discussing the importance of reaching out and netrworking with people whether you know them or not. He’ll drop some tips on how to do this, and we’ll be voting on a Changemaker we’d like to hear from at our March meeting. Here’s a brief overview.

STARTedUP Central and SE PA is affiliated with the National Chapter. All meetings can be attended through Zoom, (Contact gheidt@startedupfoundation.org for the link); however, we have also negotiated the use of the Fluxspace.io Learning Accelerator in Norristown, PA to host our meetings in person for those who are willing to attend. (Please click the link for directions.)

If you are interested in attending in person, you will need to register via Eventbrite. Space is limited.

Fluxspace is affiliated with Corbett Inc. An interior design firm dedicated to improving working and learning environments for businesses and schools around the world. They have the following protocols:

“Corbett Inc/Flux is following CDC and PA State guidelines for businesses, please do not enter our campus if you are feeling unwell or have a fever, if you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive, has had symptoms within the last two weeks, or if you have tested positive within the last 2 weeks.  Face coverings to be worn at all times, except when eating.  Maintain a 6-foot social distance.  Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer.”

If you have questions about our live events at Fluxspace, please contact Garreth Heidt at gheidt@startedupfoundation.org

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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From Amy J. Ko

(Like many teachers, I’m suffering from so many feelings right now.  July is winding down.  I’ve been taking classes on distance learning, working on new units, and rethinking how to build a culture of caring, community, and creativity on-line, as it seems that’s the way things will be heading for a while.  I’m also, as my friend @MonteSyrie notes of himself (and so many educators) mourning a loss of place and self…of who I was in the classroom.

But there are also ample opportunities to do things better, to become more and constantly evolve.  After all, as I often note, we are all human beings in the becoming.  We are all chasing a better version of ourselves…or we should be.

And that’s where this blog post comes from.  How can we be better in the classroom for ourselves and for our students?  Perhaps an admission that love is at the core of our work is a good place to start.  Not that most of us don’t already know that…but, as with so much about love, we may not always show it.)

Three years ago I began moving my classes to a grade-less system.  It is still a work in progress, but it is one I will not abandon.  Still, I sometimes forget that not everyone is in that same headspace.  When I recently came across a blog that recalled a small school’s pivot to standards-based grading during the spring of 2020, I started to think back on all the reasons why I’d switched to a gradeless system.  And I discovered, in the musings recounted below, one more reason–love.

I have to think that there are many teachers who now, in this time of uncertainty and crisis, are wondering how they’re going to grade fairly.  How they’re going to overcome issues of -plagiarism, fair testing, etc.  I also have to think that many teachers and schools will push back with more punitive systems to force student compliance.    Why?

 Rather than trying to create punitive mechanisms that punish students for seeking ways around the system (which, come on…teenagers?  Rebellion…?  No kidding?), what if we were to make a switch to standards-based grading?  It is not that hard a shift, but the culture behind it utterly alters students’ perceptions of what school is and how much more meaningful and purposeful the learning that happens here can be. 

That Culture shift is huge. As Peter Drucker noted a long time ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And really, our schools, at this crisis point…?  If all we’re looking for is a strategy or methods to bridge the gap between now and a return to “normal,” if we’re not thinking about culture shifts, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and we misunderstand the potential of this moment to shift our culture for the better of our students.  We can add as many apps as we want to our “ClassLink” landing page, we can create as many virtual opportunities for kids to meet with us as time permits, but if at our foundation we’re still about ranking and sorting of humans?  The system is built on sand. 

 Given the uncertainties in so many areas of our lives, to what extent does the compliance-and-extrinsic-reward model that grades represent really serve anyone?  Is anyone not getting the fact that compliance and working for extrinsic rewards doesn’t foster meaningful learning for many students? That it certainly hasn’t done much for critical thinking in our country (though I’d not lay all the blame for that at the feet of education)?  One vivid example of the problem with grades is that they perpetuate the inequities in the system and enslave the mind to working for others’ approval.   

Traditional Grading for a VUCA World…Really?

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 And in that, grades don’t serve the country well.  If we look to the numerous future-of-work documents populating the web, there’s little there to support a continuation of a grading system that harms more than it helps, that reports little but how well one meets deadlines and turns in what’s expected.  In a VUCA World, the skills required to thrive in the future are not skills of compliance and climbing the corporate ladder by performing the right tricks at the right time for the right people.  They are far more about experimentation, iterative improvement, innovation, and working for a common good.  Grades and the competition inherent in that system drive all those things underground, and in doing so, bury many a great learner.  

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I’m not saying we’re not already shifting in this direction.  But if school this year is going to be a huge change for all of us, why would we try to stuff the old experience–the good, the bad, and the ugly–into some new box that we’re trying to make just like the old box?  That old box was broken from the get-go; we have a huge opportunity to pivot and change for the better.  If the school in the article I’ve cited can make the change during the spring remote learning emergency, surely we, as a department or as a team can pilot something that could truly increase students’ voices, and promote deeper and broader ownership of their learning.

A sermon of courage, fear, and love

This has been my liturgy for several years now.  I preach it not to raise specters of fire, brimstone, and damnation to those who believe in grades, but to bring those who question the orthodoxy and dogma into the fold.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person for this pulpit/that purpose.  I’ve no real congregation at my school…no one comes to this church; my outreach is paltry and, perhaps, intimidating.  After all, my teachers are offering up a gnostic gospel.  We could be burned at the stake.  But as Parker Palmer noted, it takes Courage to Teach.

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It doesn’t take weeks of work to switch.  What it does take is courage, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a love for others we serve that supplants the power we lose by abandoning the “rod” of grades.  And if love isn’t reason enough to change, I think we’re in the wrong business.