Monday, November 3, 2014

Classroom Methods

By Rory Gesch
Navasota ISD Superintendent

There have been many comments and questions thrown out under the umbrella of PBL, which is a generic term for project-based learning. It is important to define what PBL is and what PBL is not. First, PBL is an instructional method. It is not a curriculum. Curriculum is all about what we teach. Instructional methods are about how we teach. In Texas, the curriculum standards are called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). PBL is an instructional method for teaching curriculum standards.

Why use PBL as a method of instruction? The most important reason has to do with the curriculum standards and how the state of Texas assesses students. The state moved to a new accountability system with new assessments that are more about how a student applies what they know and have learned rather than just choosing the right answer.  The TEKS are now assessed at a greater depth and complexity, which means student learning, has to match that depth and complexity. The classical methods that we know, they are less effective at providing students opportunities to expand low-level learning or to use knowledge in productive ways to get to deeper levels of understanding. The PBL instructional method does not abandon traditional teaching methods; it expands on them. PBL incorporates more time-tested and researched-based strategies for helping students master curriculum standards at greater depths and complexity. The accumulated evidence reveals that the instructional strategies and procedures that make up standards-focused, project-based learning are effective in building deep content understanding, raising academic achievement, and encouraging student motivation to learn.

The path to using project-based instruction in our classrooms was not an overnight process. Project-based learning was brought into practice by a teacher at Navasota High School a few years back. There is a link to a video about this process on the NISD website. After the Dyer Mill fire, the NHS Statistics class used a service-learning, project-based approach to show students a real life application of the statistics they were learning in class. The project was presented to the Navasota City Council and NISD School Board.  From that point, other teachers from the secondary campuses began looking at this method. Over the next two years, teachers began to research the method on their own and introduced project-based lessons into their classrooms on their own. Most of these teachers were on the junior high campus. Both of the secondary campuses were struggling with how to reach our student base. Our student population is over 70 percent minority in this district, and almost 80 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Many decided that lessons and units based in real scenarios provide better ways to engage students in academic learning and communicate the curriculum to the students than using only a one-sided conversation. As teachers saw successes with students being more involved with their work through PBL-based techniques, the district began looking at a process to put a structure around the practice that would  create consistency for the students, focus on the curriculum standards, allow teachers to work in their classrooms to design what they wanted for their students, and give teachers the opportunity to work with students of multiple levels in the one-classroom setting of today's all-inclusive public education model.

That brings us to why the district chose the Engage Model. First, there is no perfect model of instruction. We have to depend on the teacher to be responsive to the needs of their students. In all honesty that task is more difficult within our district than others. The move to the Engage Model to guide PBL is really grounded in two major points. The first is that Engage Learning is a Texas-based model, and the focus is to set the project designs on the Texas curriculum standards.  The second point is that the Engage Model focuses the work on the process of mastering curriculum standards rather than on the project itself. The lessons are intended to be designed so that the project must address the guidelines, but the learning comes through the process.  The teacher must closely guide and direct this process. When well implemented, the teacher's role is actually expanded in this environment. Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time designing experiences, digging deep into subject matter, and determining in advance what problems students are likely to have in the learning process; teaching is more responsive to student needs. Teaching is both direct and indirect. Teachers are continuously interacting, leading, assessing, and evaluating student learning as it relates to mastering the standards. Teacher who take advantage of the process are able to give students more individual and small group attention than ever before. Timely feedback is among the most effective strategies for improving student learning. When one considers the time required to develop a problem, oversee and assist students throughout the project, assess and evaluate student performance, and encourage students to be more independent, it is clear that the teacher's role is as critical as ever.

Among the problems we must solve in Navasota ISD are how to integrate, into classroom, the strategies known to be most influential on student achievement: How do we get more individual attention for students in the general classroom so that feedback about learning and corrective guidance can be provided before the test is given rather than looking back after and wondering why many students didn't learn? How do we integrate activities that provide scaffolding for students who begin a unit of instruction with that need and still provide enrichment for students who don't? How do we create a situation in which teachers better connect with students who often come from very different backgrounds from themselves; better understand what students struggle with, what motivates students, and how students learn? How do we give students opportunities to think about their learning, to think about process, to extend knowledge? How do we allow for more small-group, direct instruction? How do we make the work students do in school more likely to connect to something they know or have experience with or care about? How do we integrate opportunities for students to interact and communicate with one another, something research shows greatly benefits children of all knowledge and skill levels? How do we integrate more opportunities to speak and use language for an increasingly diverse student body that requires language-assisted instruction? How do we create environments in which the design of learning is about getting all students to master standards rather than present content to them as a whole and hope they all choose to learn it?

Expectations for student performance, as reflected in the state learning standards and in state assessments, have dramatically increased in recent years with the introduction of STAAR assessments and End-of-Course exams. Instructional practices that once facilitated the kind of learning that was considered exemplary by the state of Texas don't allow students to apply knowledge fully enough to meet the rising expectations of the new system. Project-based learning is a tool in the toolbox for building learning environments that allow students to move toward mastery of the curriculum standards and toward levels of learning that will help more students meet the new expectation.

Monday, September 22, 2014

X-Rays or Autopsies: Assessments Should Strengthen Learning, not Label It

By Libby Bailey 
Navasota ISD Assessment Coordinator

A lot of educational discussion today focuses on assessment as the media reports on results of state, national, and even international tests. These results rank us in relation to other schools, other students, and other cultural situations. The findings almost always depend solely on the scores of one type of test on one particular day and may or may not be indicative of actual student abilities. Nevertheless, that ranking is attached to us for a year and is used by many as a measure of our effectiveness as educators.

Despite the public’s focus on this type of assessment, we educators must remember that the truly important assessments happen repeatedly--assessments for learning, not assessments of learning. These formative assessments should occur almost continuously as we try to measure student understandings and misconceptions during instruction, not after the fact when it may be too late. They are intended to strengthen learning, not to label it. As much as possible, it is better to assess individually rather than whole-group to get an accurate idea of individual needs.

I was often guilty of covering large amounts of new and often high technical information before finally asking the full class, “Are there any questions?” or “Does everyone understand?” Thinking back now, I realize most students said they understood because, the Lord knows, they didn’t want to have to live through my going through the whole thing all over again. Or, if someone did have a question, I would ask what part they didn’t understand, and the answer would invariably be “all of it.” Neither of these situations was good for them or for me.

This scenario can be avoided with frequent effective formative questions to adjust instructional materials and methods and to improve student understanding while the learning is in process rather than at the end. To plan for effective formative assessment, it is necessary to study the requirements of a standard so that we can scaffold questions to measure it. Most standards have KUDs (something students need to know, a concept they need to understand, and something they are to do).  For example a 3rd grade math TEK requires students to explain a fraction. This requires a student to know numerator and denominator, to understand the concept of relationship of parts to a whole and how the change in one impacts the other, and to do an explanation of that relationship. We should purposely mentally prepare questions for each of those steps in the mastery of the standard to be aware of where understanding may be faltering so that we can make the proper adjustments in instruction and materials as early as possible.

The ultimate goal is to make this frequent questioning such a ritual in the learning process that the student learns to constantly question and think about his own understanding and the strategies he is using during the learning. To help him learn to do this, we must model by metacognition (thinking out loud) how we would approach learning new information. “What is clear to me?  I wonder what this sentence means? Would re-reading, drawing the steps, highlighting, asking my partner, etc help me here?”

Formative assessment is the kindest measurement we can give our students. Its focus is on improvement of the student’s learning rather than an evaluation of academic worth that we reflect with scores and grades. It won’t be reported in the media, but it could easily have the greatest impact on the lives of all your students in their educational journeys.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Unintended Outcomes

By Karen Oncken 
Navasota Intermediate RSVP Instructional Coach

I am of the belief that we, as teachers, in our heart of hearts, want each and every one of our students to be successful. I am also of the belief that we will do whatever it takes to secure their success. However, there are times when our actions bring about unintended outcomes that are far from what we want for our students. As we are all aware, many of the students in our district are struggling with reading. Too many are one grade level or more behind and their ability to comprehend what they are reading is low. As teachers it is very important that we have this data in order to help our students succeed, but do our students need this information?

Each year when our students arrive we begin by using a variety of diagnostic reading tests to figure out just where each student's strengths and weaknesses are in regards to reading. We use this data to determine the  reading level of each student. Many times we share this reading level with the student, and we restrict them to a range of reading levels from which they can choose books. My question to each of us is this:

Is it really necessary to share this information with our students, or could it potentially bring about an unintended outcome that is harmful to our students?

I will be honest, when I first started teaching language arts, I did the exact thing that I am now questioning. I gave the test, looked at the results, and issued a reading level to each of my students telling them what level books they could read. I did this in what I thought was the best interest of my students because I did not want them to be overwhelmed. I wanted them to be successful. However, over time I began to notice that my lowest readers were not improving as fast as I would have liked. Many did not enjoy the books that were available to them in their reading level. To further agitate the situation, often students would pick out a book that was of interest to them just to be told that they could not check it out because it was above their level.

After some time, I decided to let every child choose any book from my classroom library, regardless of the reading level. What happened from that point on totally changed my belief about telling a student what level book they needed to be reading. What I discovered by watching my students was that they would self-regulate the books that they were reading. They would find the books that they were comfortable with on their own without me ever sharing that reading level with them. Not only that, they would also push themselves to read books that were a little harder than what they were comfortable with if the subject was of interest to them, and in turn their reading levels began to rise and so did their love of reading.

This point was driven home to me last year when my own son was given a diagnostic test that showed that his reading level was much lower than it had ever been before. He had always been on grade level, but this particular test stated otherwise. He was told that he could not check out the books that he was used to reading and quite frankly had been successful at reading. Reading has never been his favorite thing to do, but he has never questioned his reading ability until he was given that low reading level. All of a sudden he was convinced that he could not read and that he must be dumb. Thankfully for him he had a Mom that was a reading teacher, and I did my best to let him know that he could read and he was not dumb. I told him not to worry about the test, and we made sure that he still had access to the books that were interesting to him at home. All of this really made me think about the students that don’t have teachers as parents. They have parents that trust us as teachers to help them know what to read.

Are we letting these students and their parents down by giving them their reading levels? How many times does a student have to hear us say, “You can’t check out that book because it is not on your level.”, “You can’t do that math problem.”, “You can’t play that sport because you are too small.”, or “You can’t compete against those animals so why go?” before they begin to believe us?  And if they begin to believe us, no wonder they are struggling on state mandated tests.

As teachers we place before them a test at a reading level that we have been saying for months is too difficult and that they “can’t read”.  They are scared to death because all they have heard from us is: “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” To me this is one of the most egregious unintended outcomes that we could have happen to our students. While we want only the best for them, we want to protect them and we want them to be successful, we are in my opinion, setting them up for failure which was never our intention at all.

In my mind this same concept can be applied to just about any situation. In order to truly set our students up to be successful, shouldn’t we be pushing them to take risks and try new things? Whether it is reading a new book, trying a harder math problem, trying out for the choir or sports team, raising an animal or being involved on a team in ag, or working and learning with your group using the ELM model, shouldn’t we always be pushing them to try their best to be better at it than they were the day before? My challenge to each of us is to take the words “you can’t” out of our vocabulary and start pushing and encouraging our students to try to be better every day. We need to help them not only find their genius, but believe in it. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but we will help each of our students know that they CAN when they TRY!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Choose2Matter Founder Angela Maiers to Deliver Keynote, Present at District Symposium

"We were created for significance," Angela Maiers said in her 2011 TEDTalk entitled, You Matter, "and
one of the most dangerous things that can happen to us as individuals, as organizations, as a community, is the feeling that we don't matter."

The words, you matter, Angela asserts can change your mood, mind, and heart and they can change lives, and even the world, if they are understood and leveraged the in the right way. When someone believes that they matter, they see the world in a different light, and behave differently. They approach life and work in a manner that understands that their actions can have a positive impact on the world.

Angela Maiers - a teacher educator, author, and consultant - will kick-off this year's professional learning symposium as the keynote speaker at the district's convocation Monday, Aug. 18 at 9 a.m. Angela launched Choose2Matter, a global movement that challenges people to recognize that they have a unique genius to contribute to the world.

Angela taught in elementary schools in Des Moines, IA for 14 years. For the past 10 years, she has worked as a literacy coach, special programs coordinator, teacher trainer, and university professor and speaks often at major education and business conferences around the world. Angela earned a Bachelor of Science in Education and a minor in Biology from the University of Iowa and completed her graduate and post graduate work at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She has also authored six books, including Classroom Habitudes and The Passion-Driven Classroom, which introduced the concept of “Genius Hour” in education. Her "You Matter" talk at TEDxDesMoines has been viewed several hundred thousand times and was the impetus for Choose2Matter.

The district will hold a two-and-a-half-day professional development symposium at Navasota High School. Teachers, administrators, and outside presenters will hold 50-minute, conference-style sessions for teaching faculty, staff, and parents (schedule coming soon). Participants will be able to choose from 10-12 topics during each presentation hour beginning Monday afternoon and ending at 12 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20. MORE INFORMATION

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

House Bill 5 & New Texas Graduation Requirements

Students beginning their high school careers this year (2014-15) will have more choice than students that came before them, but with that choice will come more responsibility. The Texas Legislature has changed high school graduation requirements for students who will enter 9th grade during the 2014-2015 school year. The change in graduation requirements allows more flexibility for high school students to pursue either higher education or a career pathway. The Texas Legislature has created one graduation plan called the Foundation High School Program (FHSP) or Foundation Plan. In addition to the Foundation Plan, students will have the opportunity to earn Endorsements, Distinguished Achievement and Performance Acknowledgements.

To receive a high school diploma, students must meet the requirements of the state's Foundation Program and must pass all required high school end-of-course assessments (EOCs). In addition, the law also requires students to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of non-content related skills, including:
  • delivering clear verbal messages; 
  • choosing effective nonverbal behaviors; 
  • listening for desired results; 
  • applying valid critical-thinking and problem-solving processes; 
  • and identifying, analyzing, developing, and evaluating communication skills needed for professional and social success in interpersonal situations, group interactions, and personal and professional presentations.