First Quarter Comments and a New Assessment Scale

This weekend teachers are writing comments marking the end of the first quarter of school It’s the time of year when teachers are frequently heard to say “Can you believe a quarter is already gone?” This year, it is different for me. I am thinking the opposite. I am thinking, “It’s only been a quarter of a year – only a few weeks that we have existed as a 1-to-1 tablet school. Look how much we’ve accomplished!”

If I were writing a comment for the faculty (using the standard what have you done, how have you done, what should you work on format) it would read:

Wow! It has been an exciting and fun quarter and we have accomplished so much! This quarter we implemented a tablet program in grades 9 and 10. Our focus has been on revising curriculum to leverage the power of this program as well as on supporting students as they learn to take notes and live in an electronic environment. We have concentrated on opportunities to formalize research and citation and have attempted to provide students greater opportunities to present and create because we have tools that give us the ability to do so.

Your work with the integrated units that started the year provided a firm foundation on which to build. I am proud of the work you did with creating graphic novels, researching and discussing in ning networks, producing political commercials, and teaching collaboration with wikis and google docs. You have done a nice job helping students begin to develop understandings of creative commons and visual literacy as evidenced in the geometry blog project. In order to reflect on what we are learning, you have participated on Elgg. You have shared information using delicious accounts. In short, you have started to build your own PLNs.

To make sure you continue to be successful, you need to begin to ask:

What does it mean to be a learner in the 21st century at MICDS?
What does it mean to be a teacher in the 21st century at MICDS?

We’ve talked about a framework for learning previously and we will now begin to give greater meaning to that concept as we develop and refine our concept of 21st century learning. We have much to accomplish in the next three quarters and I know you are up to the tasks. There are so many opportunities and learning experiences before us!

Faculty, you have done an exemplary job this quarter. I salute you! (I wouldn’t give a grade just to be consistent with the idea of fostering an environment that values learning over grades.)

To date we have used the Framework for Learning and the Library/Instrucitonal Technologist Mission Statement to guide our thinking. The Framework poses 4 questions:

    Is the content essential, relevant and engaging for my students?
    Am I addressing the skills my students need to be successful in life?
    Am I effectively assessing the learning that is taking place?
    Am I fostering the spirit of inquiry (i.e., creative, inventive and critical thinking) that will sustain learning in my students for a lifetime?

The Mission statement consolidates 21st century skills as referenced on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the NETs into 4 categories that we could understand and work with. Using this, faculty have been revising their own classes in light of the move to 1-to-1. We are now ready to progress from addressing our individual classes to collectively addressing what the new literacies are and how they are taught in a divisional and institutional scope and sequence. We are ready to create new assessment criteria for ourselves and our students.

The questions against which we must measure our progress are now reframed:

What does it mean to be a learner in the 21st century at your institution?
What does it mean to be a teacher in the 21st century at your institution?

It may seem that these should have been addressed earlier and to some extent they were but it’s time to address them again and with more sophisticated understandings that are reflective of what we have learned. It’s important to answer the questions in a way that fits our institution and is cognizant of the many initiates that are underway and competing for faculty time. Our answer will necessarily encompass elements of Charlotte Danielson’s domains, Understanding by Design principles of instructional design, and brain research. I’d argue that all of those initiatives can be brought under the umbrella of the essential questions that will drive the next steps in developing our learning environment.

For example, Danielson divides teaching into four domains.
When I read Danielson, technology is everywhere, but there are teachers who would find the domains relatively devoid of technology because it isn’t explicit. Danielson’s first domain includes demonstrating knowledge of resources, designing coherent instruction, and designing student assessments. I don’t know how to do that without using technology! I’ll stop with domain one and leave you to “see” the technology in the other domains. Danielson’s domains revised to make tech explicit could constitute an entire post. Certainly the concept of networked learning for both student and teacher needs to live within the framework if it is to stay relevant.

Similarly, if we look at UbD as a method for designing curriculum, the tech component isn’t necessarily explicit. However, if faculty understand new literacies and new technology tools and their implication for learning and can envision the possibilities for assessment alternatives made possible because of technology, then it is inextricably present. Until all faculty members are fluent with 21st century teaching, it may be helpful to update some templates to create new UbD-T (Understanding by Design with Technology) templates. It’s a delicate balance making sure faculty “see” the technology in the initiative without making it so explicit that it starts to feel like the technology is a driver and is paramount to designing the intended curriculum – technology should be integral but not paramount.

While faculty utilize UbD and the Four Domains by looking through a lens that “sees” technology, they must simultaneously develop, understand, and own the divisional vision. Faculty must create the divisional learning environment that is dictated by the answers to the essential questions above. As the instructional technologist it feels like I have owned the upper school’s institutional vision while faculty members have owned the curriculum revision and the adoption of skills in their individual courses. It’s time to move to a more sophisticated approach that shifts the divisional vision to the masses now that they have a solid understanding of what a 1-to-1 environment is. Please don’t misunderstand; faculty were part of the discussions about our 1-to-1 program and the divisional vision was communicated to and accepted by them; the shift is that they must now actually own and create the vision. As faculty gained understandings of 21st century skills and the emerging shifts in education, they made revisions to curriculum, both content and skills, first in single courses, then as grade level teams. They are now revising as departments and as a division. They understand that the skills students need transcend individual departments and must be addressed as part of a divisional and then institutional scope and sequence. This shift was a necessary piece of the evolution to developing our version of a modern learning environment (using modern instead of 21st century because one of my personal shifts will be to talk about the proper learning environment that leverages everything at our disposal to engage kids and develop their understandings and skills- seems this is appropriate given it is 2009.) What we need now is a well established common vocabulary that can be readily used and understood between departments and a well understood scope and sequence of the skills/literacies. Articulating a scope and sequence of the new literacies must not only be made transparent to all but implementing it must be mandatory, intentional, systematic, and sustainable. Fortunately, the majority of the faculty are ready to embrace that responsibility.

The Assessment Criteria Moving Forward

This year we have a group of 5 teachers participating in a year-long sustained professional development program, Powerful Learning Practice (PLP), facilitated by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum Beach. This program forces teams to examine and articulate their thinking. Our team decided to define and articulate the 21st century literacies in a way that make sense for our school culture and that is more sophisticated than previous attempts; to take the various ways of describing the new literacies from external sources and give them categories and descriptors that can be used as talking points that every faculty member not only understands but can assess student progress against. It is important to move an understanding of the literacies into the masses instead of situated in the geek elite. Since our PLP team does not have representation from each department, we added some “adjunct” members including the librarian and devoted a half day to determining the literacies using the two essential questions to frame our work.

The NCREL 21st century skills and the NETs for both students and teachers served as our external references. We examined our collective knowledge base and while it is relatively sound, we want every teacher to be fluent in the skills and comfortable with employing them. They must achieve this fluency since we owe it to our students impart these skills to them before they graduate. This naturally led us to consider the foundational skills students should have mastered in 2 years of a tablet 1:1 program in middle school. Could we assess this after 8th grade and provide a course either f2f or virtually that they must take before starting Upper School if they are deficient? It was suggested that we offer a stand-alone course (while noting that discipline teachers must understand that they are not absolved of responsibility for teaching new literacies) as well as embed the skills in the curriculum. Our current structure has students start the year with a week-long interdisciplinary unit that serves to teach research and technology skills and attempts to embed everything else in the individual courses. The question became, what exactly is it we embed and what should that be? What are the major categories of literacies that we must address and how can they explained to the entire faculty in a way that gives them life, that gives us a common vocabulary about the skills associated with each literacy to allow those skills to be thoughtfully embedded into the divisional curriculum and subsequently assessed. How can we leverage Danielson and UbD to move us forward?

At the end of the meeting, there were 5 catergories- technological fluency, global/multicultural fluency, basic fluency, visual/media fluency, and information fluency. How do we generate a scope and sequence that moves students from introduction to mastery? Can we assess this with a portfolio? The more we talk, the more questions we generate. We put some skills and thoughts into a spreadsheet labeling the most advanced, comprehensive skill in yellow.
It might not look like much but represents solid thinking that needs to be further developed and made transparent to all.
One teacher sent an email after the meeting that confirmed for me that we do get it.

“Of course the overriding factor is that we all need to continue to learn and adapt what we do to the changing world to best produce students with the tools to be successful .. rather than just teach what we like to teach, want to teach, comfortable teaching, and have always taught(it can’t be about the teacher– must be transferred to the kid). Ultimately many different paths can be used to reach the goal but we all have to know where we are going and realize that we are 21st century learners as well.”

Not one to hesitate to push things forward, I already took the conversation and preliminary thinking to the foreign language chair. He readily took the top skill in global collaboration/multicultural fluency strand and set as a goal that all 9th and 10th grade students in world languages classes will have 1 significant collaboration with a school in another country or at least with a class learning the same language. He believes that all students should have a mini-flatclassroom experience because he understands the literacies in that strand. Likewise, I approached the history chair and he is ready to work towards a 21st century research scope and sequence that attempts to connect with the other departments. Math will continue to articulate what they expect students to demonstrate in their 4 year math research portfolio using UbD-T! We also have interdisciplinary examples of 21st century curriculum to serve as models of 21st century classes. We are participating in the FlatClassroom project and have the Sudan Project going as well. As we move forward, we will develop a continuously-evolving, divisional scope and sequence framework that does breathe life into the fluencies that are important for today’s students to obtain. We are basically creating new assessment criteria for student learning. We will make steady progress.I’m optimistic that the semester comment can be just as positive!

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