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L2Gura | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Parent Involvment, Teacher Leadership, Web/Tech, Weblogs | September 1, 2014

Let Freedom Ring!



The joyFreedomfranklful whispers started a month ago when the administrators in my school district announced that they didn’t know which state standardized assessment would be administered in the spring of 2015.  Sighs of relief and plans of creative teaching were heard throughout the schools.  You can feel the chains of the oppression of high-stakes assessment being broken.  Teachers are heard saying, “Well, now that we aren’t tied to a standardized assessment…..”  Let academic freedom ring!

Before anyone starts assuming that Arizona is completely going rogue and allowing teachers to have their one professional dream come true, let me clarify.  As Arizona has adopted the Common Core standards to become the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, they are updating the state achievement assessment to reflect on these changes.  According to the Arizona Department of Education’s website, “the State Board of Education’s final selection and adoption of a new statewide English language arts and mathematics achievement assessment is expected to occur in early October. This new statewide achievement assessment will be aligned to the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and will be administered beginning in spring of 2015.”  Teachers are hoping that there is a delay in that schedule. 

As much as I rejoice with the other teachers to not begin the school year with plans to prepare our students for another high-stakes test, the attitude of having freedom in the classroom is a little disconcerting to me.  Although the pressure of being evaluated and labeled as a proficient teacher based on my students’ performance on a week-long assessment is frustrating, it did provide me with a benchmark of how well I need to teach the standards.  To strip away the constraints of a high-stakes assessment without any scaffolding into freedom could be disastrous for teachers.  I’m not saying that we are not professionals, but this is a reminder that although freedom from state assessments sounds refreshing and inspiring to overburdened educators, we must not fall into the penalty of freedom.

For those of us who work with children, we know quite well (and shudder) at the penalty of freedom with children.  When children are placed in an environment without rules, consequences, or schedules, they begin to get frantic and destructive in the freedom they feel.  Humans need to feel some kind of constraints- we need the walls around us to know we are held by somebody.  Therefore as teachers we still need to recognize and relish the feeling of freedom but provide ourselves with our own high-stakes benchmarks.  How do we do that?

If you haven’t done so yet, it’s time to create goals with your class.  Including your students in the goal-setting process will provide valuable ownership and responsibility on their part to achieve these goals.  Statistics show people who determine and document their goals have over an 80% higher success rate of achieving them.  Create an overarching classroom goal with your students, and then facilitate them to make independent goals for themselves. 

Portfolios are a great way to hold your students accountable to accomplishing classroom projects with quality work and 21st century skills.  Portfolios also merge the elements of freedom and assessment as teachers can incorporate Common Core standards, rigorous instruction, Gradual Release of Responsibility model, and creativity into higher-level thinking activities.  Portfolios can be used to track the students’ progress toward their individual and class goals, and these can be communicated as evidence to parents and community members throughout the school year.

Team-planning is critical to create higher-level classroom projects.  Although collaborating with your grade-level team is important to keep your projects and portfolio assignments aligned to the same schedule and standards, it is very inspiring to create a network outside of your school.  Reach out to other teachers in your district within the same grade level range, and also find new teacher collaborators around the world!!  Pinterest has become a motivating force for teachers to publish their creativity through blogs and pins.  The world of collaboration is out there for you to join!

Freedom is liberating, fun, and refreshing.  But it can have a penalty if you don’t remember to hold the standards in highest regard, provide rigorous instruction, and create your own benchmarks to successfully accomplish. 

Greg Broberg | August 24, 2014

What We Say Matters


“Intervention?  That sounds like another word for special education.”

These were the words of a parent at a Curriculum Night presentation.  Her comment came after being told that students would be placed into a new program designed for either intervention or enrichment. It is interesting how parents construct certain phrases that have become commonplace in schools.  Even more interesting is how educators have adopted and reinforce this thinking.  One of the unfortunate realities of such educational initiatives like Response to Intervention is the discourse that surrounds its use in schools.   Academics often refer to this discourse as deficit-thinking -- those conversations where students are constructed in terms of what they “can’t do” rather than their strengths.   For this reason, we should not be surprised that parents have learned from our example.   With so much work being done in terms of professional learning communities and the Common Core standards, data has become an integral part of our intervention discussions.  With data comes the propensity to consider the deficits of students.  But does this have to be the case?  Can we ensure that students are seen in terms of what they “can do” rather than what they “can’t do”?  As teacher leaders we can bring the most important data to the forefront of our discussions – a student’s voice. 

A multiple choice assessment provides a score but does it really describe what students need to achieve mastery.  Like teachers, students need to have space to reflect on their learning.  Reflection assignments that ask students to identify what they need to achieve mastery takes the second guessing out of intervention or re-teaching.  This is something that educational scholars such as Richard Stiggins have articulated for some time.  Providing regular opportunities for students to reflect on assessment results makes them active participants in the assessment process – not simply test takers.  If we hope to meet the individual needs of students then we have to collect data that helps us understand these needs, thus avoiding a rapid-fire approach to re-teach some particular skill.  If our goal is to build critical thinkers then students need an adequate amount of time to reflect and provide us direction towards productive learning practices.

Jen Robinson |

We Get To Do This Work!


Beginning a new year naturally brings excitement and anxiety among staff and students. Teachers have new initiatives and mandates for which they are required to implement. There is never enough time to plan and prepare before the kids return on the first day. Students are nervous about new teachers and upcoming expectations.

That said adding additional requests upon teachers is always a delicate balancing act. This year our school is beginning the Leader in Me process. This is s a whole-school transformation model that is intended to improve the performance of all other programs. It is based on the seven habits of highly effective people, and equips students with the self-confidence and skills they need to thrive.

In May we participated in a three-day training focusing on the seven habits: Be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek first to understand and then to be understood, synergize and sharpen the saw. This gave us the foundation for our upcoming adventure. In July we participated in a one-day training exploring how to implement the seven habits into instruction and we created a team of teacher leaders who were charged with identifying our school needs and creating action teams to address those needs.

As an administrator, sitting in the leadership meeting was daunting, but what happened next was inspiring and a testament to the power of teacher leadership. We created a list of ten high need items that needed to be addressed. From there we narrowed it to five and created action teams each with a teacher coordinating and facilitating the conversation. The action team coordinators then invited staff members to join the cause. Over the past three weeks teams have met to determine school wide expectations for teachers and students. What was initially overwhelming and intimidating is becoming more manageable and represents our school, our teachers and our students.

Our action team are addressing: Curriculum and planning, student, class and school mission statements, class and school-wide student leadership roles, school environment and student leadership notebooks and goal setting. Teams meet weekly to debrief, discuss concerns and celebrate successes while tracking our progress. It has been amazing and inspiring to watch teachers step out of their traditional roles and navigate through our leadership process, exploring ways to integrate and align leadership strategies and opportunities into everything we do for students. We have embraced a simple belief – We get to do this work with our students! Stay tuned this year as we share our stories.

In what ways are teachers stepping into leadership roles on your campus?

Donnie Dicus | August 21, 2014

And I'm baaaaccckkkk!!!!


After a year long "vacation,' I am back in the classroom and I can honestly say that now I know I am right where I belong. But to get to this point of self-awareness, I had to go on quite a journey.

A couple of years ago, I had reached my limit as a classroom teacher. I had been teaching 2nd grade for 8 years in Tucson. I was burnt out, over worked and in extreme debt. Over the course of my career, I managed to rack up nearly $25,000 in credit card bills. That's a lot of crayons and scholastic books! I was no Destiny's Child. I was strugling to pay my bill,s bills, bills. I had also just completed my National Board portfolio and did not see any where else for my career to go. I knew I needed something different. At some point in my life, I'd like to have a family and I'd like to be able to support that family. I know I am not alone in this desire. There is something in the male ego that drives us to be the primary bread winners for our families. Maybe we're not as secure as our female counterparts. So I made a decision. I decided to leave the classroom and pursue other avenues.

I resigned from my school and got a job as a bartender at a swanky resort in the nice part of town. This new job was one of the most fun jobs I ever had. I got to go to work and basically socialize and joke around my whole shift. A bartender's main job is to keep people happy and I was good at keeping people happy. Therefore, this position was highly lucrative for me. I had some nights where I made my two week teacher paycheck in a matter of three shifts. And there were some nights where I made it in one shift.  Besides the money, the stress level was much more manageable. When I clocked out, I got to go home and enjoy my life! I didn't have to bring stacks of papers home with me. When I got up in the morning, I was able to leisurely read in bed with coffee, go to the gym, do errands in the slow part of the day, and to take long lunches with friends. I was loving this new life! For a time. After months of these days, I was getting a little bored. As the seasons progressed, I saw that there was no purpose, no challenge, and no creativity to my "new" career.  I tried to get into other postions and jobs but nothing worked out.

Over the course of the year, I was able to create a friendship with someone I had met at my job. He worked at a school district here in Phoenix. He knew I used to be a teacher so he began asking my advice about many different issues. We would have hour long conversations. These conversations made me realize how much I missed the classroom. The classroom gave me a purpose. It gave me a career that I found mentally challenging and stimulating. In the classroom, I was able to look at problems and come up with new, creative and innovative solutions. Daniel Pink talks a lot about what drives us. Yes, I need money to live my life and I would still love to make the big bucks. But I know I need more than money to have a successful career and a happy life so I made another change. After months of his insistant nagging, I applied in his district and as you can tell the rest is history.

I am now in my second year of teaching third grade in Phoenix. I still bartend part time and it has helped me cut my debt nearly in half in one year. I know many teachers are leaving this field in droves due to the same struggles that I had. That is heart wrenching because our students deserve our best teachers. What is a resort going to do with a highly qualified, effective National Board Certified (I found out I achieved during my year off!) teacher? We need our good teachers in the classroom. I urge any teacher who is struggling with the decision to leave the field to answer this question. What motivates you to get up in the morning and teach your students? You may find that there are more reasons to stay than you realize and you'll remember why you began teaching in the first place.




Mike Lee | Education | August 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Heroes


My eight year stint as principal is coming to an end this month, and I'm finding it hard to say goodbye to my colleagues.  

To my friends.

I am often reticent to use military analogies.  Terms like "heroes" and "warriors," should be reserved for those who have experienced true moments of life and death, or have sacrificed neary everything for their cause or country.  Although an athlete, for example, can be a positive force by serving as a role model, I hesitate to call him or her a "hero."

That said, having accepted a position with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, I have found myself "looking around the room."   I've been thinking about those with whom I've had the pleasure to work and the profound impact they have on our children, and, subsequently, our nation.  Facing an uncertain climate, hostile politics, vasciliating policies, and the unending challenges attributable to the difficult profession they have chosen, many of the peers I leave behind have earned our admiration and respect.  They deserve to be viewed with a sense of awe.

My district is facing the most depleted talent pool in recent memory, as people leave the profession or avoid it in record numbers.  But this group stays on for the fight, committed to our children, regardless of the odds.  They are tired, overworked, underpaid, and poorly understood.   But, that's what heroes do. They fight.  They don't give up.

Those to whom I'm saying goodbye are, indeed, warriors.  

And, they are heroes. 


John Spencer | Education Policy | August 14, 2014

It's Harder to Speak Up When It's Local


I am bothered by certain things in my district. I think it's irresponsible to spend half a million dollars a year on the digital worksheet program Success Maker. I think we lose too many days to testing and we misuse the data we get back as a result. Last year, students lost 35 days minimum to benchmark testing. I was bothered last year when they cancelled field trips altogether (a local site decision fueled by a desire to keep things "academic"). 

I rarely speak out about these issues. I haven't blogged about them. I haven't gone to any Governing Board meetings and talked about the damage caused by lost instructional time. I've never met with the assessment department and advocated for a better system.

Instead, I have spent most of my time and energy advocating for larger systemic change. I've written about immigration reform. I've bashed standardized tests and advocated for authentic assessments. I have offered a critique of VAM scores and Race to the Top.

Honestly, it's easier to advocate for issues when they are distant, larger and systemic. It's harder when they are local and require a relationship and a conversation with a real person. It's harder when there's a cost to the conflict. However, these local policies are the kind that I know the best. These are the policies that affect my students in a profound way. They're also the policies where I have the biggest chance at changing things.

So, why am I quieter? I'm afraid. I hate the conflict of standing up to bad policies in my district. I am scared of being cited for insubordination. I don't want to make more enemies than I already have. It's easier to advocate for a distance. It's harder when it's my own district. Teacher voice is easy when it's aimed at the world. It's much more difficult when it's a conversation with my own district.

Amethyst Hinton Sainz | Assessment, Life in the Classroom | August 13, 2014

What If? First Week Stories and The Time to Read Them


What if teachers had time set aside early in the year to truly analyze their pre-assessments?

The first week of school is invigorating or exhausting, depending on how you look at it.  There is so much to take care of: establishing routines, procedures and expectations; learning names and developing relationships; assigning things meant to pre-assess specific skills or knowledge; gathering student info. sheets with information about who these kids are.  At the high school level, we are talking about approximately 150 students to wrangle AND pre-assess at the same time.  Not to mention getting a jump on instruction.  There are a lot of standards to cover, after all, and only 36 weeks of school.

Every year I collect several things the first week: a student information sheet that lists activities, interests and prior educational experiences; a writing sample; some kind of reading activity that can serve as a pre-assessment; in some years, a grammar pre-assessment test; perhaps some vocabulary work.  Every year, I take the stacks of papers back and forth between home and work for way too long trying to find the time to really get to know my students’ work.  

I would like to read their essays mindfully: this first assignment always feels like an offering to me. They test the waters, seeing if they will get a personal response, a flicker of humanity, from me. The stories they tell me the first week often surprise me with their candor and trust.  How can I whip through them quickly simply to note who uses paragraphs, who can spell, how complex their sentences are, and whether they use concrete verbs?  I need to linger, but there is no time.

Often, I find myself two weeks into the year with the same stack of papers and folder of information sheets still unread.  And then the weeks continue.  Everyone has gotten their points, but they haven’t gotten validation for their work, and I have not gotten to know them as students. Every year I fight this battle. Some years I manage to get through the writing samples.  My attention to the other pre-assessments often suffers.

What if we had a day off after the first week of school?  A day to sort through everything and to really use all of that information to plan our instruction, which is the whole purpose of assessment, after all.  Instead, we are launched headfirst into the year.  But we do run into those unknowns eventually, no matter what.

Cheryl Redfield | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | August 7, 2014

The Year of Transformation


TransformationThe following keynote was presented at my district’s convocation, Friday, August 1, 2014. My purpose in sharing it with you is simply this: as you read it, think of and reach out to colleagues who have kept you sane and grounded this past year.  Several come to mind for me.

Even though this speech was written for the teachers in my district, you may find that the core message and call to action resonate with you as well, especially when you consider that we all want to make this year… 

The Year of Transformation

 It is so good to be back to school!

 My feelings of excitement and expectation are reminiscent of when I was a little girl. Back then, I was excited because I liked school and I loved my teachers. And of course who can resist the lure of brand new school supplies andthe new clothes that would surely identify me as “in” and cool?

 Do you remember that?

That’s how I feel today because I love teaching. It’s a significant part of who I am as a professional. One of the key reasons why I love teaching is my students. Doing life with them, even for the few months we are together in the classroom, really rocks my world.

The other, and equally as important reason why I love teaching is because of you, my colleagues. I won’t go into the details of my personal journey from broadcasting to teaching, but please know this: I know that I am a teacher because of you.  Your impact on students, your resiliency, your level of care and commitment inspire me to continue and to improve my practice.

 Which is why today, along with excitement and expectation-- to use a euphemism, I am frustrated!

You see we are caring professionals.  But, we also must be highly regarded and respected for what we know, our skilled craftsmanship and the innovation we bravely invest in our schools, our classrooms, our students everyday!  And we are not.

 It is frustrating to know that the profession that makes all others possible is not consistently held in high esteem and regard. 

Which explains why I am captivated by the Valerie Roth novels and the film adaptation, entitled Divergent.  The lead characters, Tris and Tobias live and work in a system where opportunities to lead and implement change are extremely limited.  Those who seek to change the system are characterized as divergent-- a threat to the status quo.

But divergents in the novel are simply people who are selfless, honest, smart, inclusive, and strong.  Their only crime is the desire to use these traits to bring about needed change in their society.

 Like bona fide divergents, educators too are selfless, honest, smart, inclusive, and strong-- and possess a wealth of professional knowledge and skill that can and must be used to bring about transformative change to our education systems.

 The good news, the rainbow in all of this is, my friends that we are the answer.  Whatever the challenges we face in education, we are the answer. I am convinced of this more and more every year, for four main reasons:

  • We possess the expertise to make meaningful and lasting change through initiatives and policy because we know what it looks like in the classroom with our students.
  • We know our students- their abilities, needs, and the challenges; and we seek avenues of growth regardless of race, gender, home language, or cognitive ability.  We know our kids!
  • We know our content and the plethora of strategies we must employ in order to engage students in robust learning experiences that develop valuable real-world skills.
  • We value the community in which we serve and seek ways to strengthen the bond between home, school, and the community so that our student take up their rightful place as global citizens.

That’s who we are as educators, as professionals. That's what we do!

 My take away question for us is: What are you—what am I—going to do in the coming year to leverage who we are as the solution to the challenges we face today, and those we anticipate for tomorrow?

 Remember this, like Tris and Tobias of Divergent, we are more powerful and influential than we know. Let’s move forward to claim our rightful place in decisions that impact teaching and learning in our community, in our state and beyond.

We can do this.  

 We must do this!

 (Photo courtesy of





Sandy Merz | Books, Current Affairs, Education, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | August 6, 2014

Institutional Mindsets and Whether We Stay in Education


Photo (3)Let's see, there are one, two, three, four, hmm..., five, six, hmmm..., oh right, seven, eight,..., nine colleagues, at least, including me, who have changed their professional context in this last year. 

I'm not counting those who have had their professional context changed against their wishes. Nor am I counting those who have left education all together. Rather I'm thinking, for example, about teachers who have chosen to move from middle school to high school, or administrators who wanted to change schools - that kind of thing.  

And in my recent drive time musings, I've been thinking of the difference between someone who chooses to change his or her professional context within education and one who chooses to completely leave education. Then yesterday morning, on the on-ramp to I-10, I remembered reading Mindset: The Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, with last year's cohort of teacherpreneurs.

Drucker distinguishes between growth mindsets and fixed mindsets.

In a growth mindset, "Intelligence can be developed," which:

Leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to...embrace challenges...persist in the face of setbacks...see efforts as a path to mastery...learn from criticism...find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.

As a result they reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

But in a fixed mindset, "Intelligence is static," which:

Leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to...avoid challenges...get defensive or give up early...see effort as fruitless or worse...ignore useful negative feedback...feel threatened by the success of others.

As a result they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.

Now, please don't jump to the conclusion that I'm going to opine that those who change their jobs but stay in the profession have growth mindsets and that those who leave have fixed mindsets. Rather, I'm going to speculate that individual schools and districts and departments inadvertantly develop their own institutional mindsets. 

But it makes some sense. Say you start your career in a school with a teacher-oriented principal who rewards risk taking and penalizes opacity. You're more likely to assume that that's the state of the profession and pursue new challenges within education. But if you work in a school with an insecure principal who blocks teacher led initiatives and punishes setbacks, you could well conclude that that's the profession-wide status quo and pursue achievement in a different field.

Maybe growth mindest colleagues stay in education as long as they find an institutional growth mindset whenever they pursue a new challenge, but leave education when they encounter a fixed mindset. It sounds like a twist on the Peter Principal.

By the time I was thinking that, I'd passed downtown and exited on 22nd. I arrived at school with lots more unanswered questions - where does an institutional mindset come from? How long does it take to form? How can a fixed institutional mindset be changed and how long does that take? Maybe like attracts like and fixed mindset employees tend to find fixed mindset institutions while their growth mindset colleagues accumulate elsewhere - thus segregating themselves in institutions destined to either stagnate or grow.

I'm glad we're at the beginning of the school year because it's going to take a lot of driving to sort it all out.

Amethyst Hinton Sainz | Life in the Classroom | August 1, 2014

Travelling Teachers and Roomies


If you are a teacher at an attractive school, and the local charters and other forms of school choice haven’t siphoned off a large chunk of your student body each year, your school is probably growing.  In Arizona, and probably many places in the Southwest, we are used to growth in our communities and schools, though it doesn’t always happen.  Growth, combined with stagnated and depleted educational funding, combine to create cramped quarters on campus.  Administration and departmental leaders work hard to make sure that every student has a desk, and every teacher has a room.

However, there is often little choice but to share rooms, at least at the high school level where teachers have planning periods, and part-time instructors leave open classrooms for certain periods of the day.

This comes with savings in terms of buildings, but costs in terms of working conditions and time.  Uncounted hours are spent shuffling teaching supplies, textbooks, classroom decor, furniture and technology.  Most of this, I wager, is done off the clock over the summer.  Then, during the school year, instead of connecting with students or monitoring the hallways during passing periods, running items to the copy room, or even using the restroom, the travelling teacher schleps her materials and herself back and forth, sometimes between buildings. I feel a sense of grief when I think about those classrooms plastered with photos of students and knick-knacky postcards and paraphernalia from the summer adventures of the teacher, signed posters from clubs and athletics teams sponsored and coached, student gifts, magnets, and random bumper stickers, those types of classrooms which are a dying breed in this environment.  But perhaps this is just nostalgia.

However, despite the costs, perhaps there is a promise behind this sacrifice.  I find that when I am sharing rooms or travelling, which I have had to do many a time over 19 years, I feel more connected with my colleagues.  I have more adult conversations.  I see more of what they teach, how they organize their classrooms and materials, how they greet students.  This year at my school, by design many of the shared classrooms share a level in common-- for instance my classroom is sophomores all day.  7 periods.  There is a benefit to that.  I see the vocabulary lists, the assignments, get a sense of the daily flow of a teacher who has been at this school much longer than I have.  I see many possibilities developing.  

Down the hall is the room where I will hold my reading strategies class each morning.  We have organized it as a reading room, with posters designed to help inspire and reinforce basic skills, achievement charts, all our computers with headsets, a large table in the center for small group instruction, all the files that go along with our reading software, and fewer desks for the small classes that will be meeting there.  My reading students will be scattered throughout my daily classes, but this is the nest where we will begin our day together.  I look forward to them having that cozy home base.  

Although I sometimes chafe against standardization pressing in on my instruction, and love my freedom as a teacher, I feel that sharing spaces helps support that elusive sense of shared purpose that schools are trying to create in their faculties and staff.  Of course, I must admit I’m hesitant to write that, because I enjoy having my own little teacher-dom for all of my stuff.  I would love to be in the same classroom for enough years to plaster the walls with photos and memorabilia and student projects.  But that is not reality.

Many awkward compromises can come with unexpected benefits.  Perhaps in certain settings it would actually be beneficial to consider shared spaces for specific academic needs, as we have for technology labs, libraries and sports.  Perhaps middle and high school teachers need to loosen up their territorial boundaries a bit and see what lies beyond.