being me, discussion

Can We Discuss the Title “Lead Learners” for A Moment?

Those who know me may know how long I have been mulling over this post.  How long these thoughts have been percolating, simply based on how many times I have brought it up in conversation.  You see, it’s been bugging me for a while, yet I know so many amazing principals that call themselves “Lead learner” that I have been afraid to say anything because I am not here to hurt, nor here to make others feel bad.  But the whole lead learner title, can we discuss it for a moment?  And perhaps rethink the use of it?

Before people get upset or chalk it up to me not understanding, hear me out.  I know what the title “lead learner” is supposed to signify, I have had many conversations with people who have explained their intent, and for that I am grateful, because those conversations have helped me understand the title more.    What I have found is that most who use the title use it to show that they are role models of learning within their community.  They use the title to show staff that they are still learning, that their job is to lead the learning, that the learning doesn’t stop just because someone becomes a principal.  They call themselves the lead learner so that others can see how serious they take the position and the enormous task it is to be an incredible principal.  There, though, lies my problem.

You see when we give ourselves titles, and let’s be honest, the title of “lead learner” is usually bestowed upon a person by themselves, we shut others out.  When we say that we are in the lead, whether it be in learning or other ventures, then others can never lead for more than a short period of time  When we say that we are the ones that lead the learning, then we have fully cemented the power structure within a school; the principal is completely in the lead and everyone else follows behind.  Teachers will never be leaders within their learning, because that position has already been taken.  Yet that power structure is what so many of us are hoping to change so that we can have empowered schools; learning community where everyone’s voice matters and it doesn’t matter what title someone holds, their words still hold power.

So when someone calls themselves a lead learner that message of wanting an empowered staff gets muddled, and I don’t think that is the intent.  In fact, I would ask anyone who uses this title to ask their staff and anyone else what that title signifies to them.  I asked my husband tonight, who is not in education, and his response was eye opening; a lead learner is someone who makes the final decision and brings the learning back for others to then pursue.  His interpretation is not what I think most principals want to be viewed as.  So although, I may know why someone has chosen to call themselves the “Lead learner”  I wonder if others that haven’t asked the meaning behind it do?  I don’t see an asterisk next to the title nor an explanation every time it is used.  So those deeper intentions of a symbolic title do not come across as meaningful, they seem to come across as limiting or in the very least unnecessary, which I know is not the intention.

As always though, don’t take my word for it.  I am, after all, just one teacher with one opinion.  Ask your staff; ask them how they feel about the title.  Ask them what it means to them that you are the lead learner.  I told you what it means to me, but I may be wrong, that has happened many times before. Know though, that when an email signature states someone as the lead learner within a school, a Twitter profile, or whichever public platform being used, that it may say things about that person that are not intentional and not always for the better.  We live within a society that thrives on titles and their meanings, so when we give ourselves titles that cannot be shared with others, then we are in fact creating ranks within our schools and telling the world about it.

While I don’t have a better title that would symbolize what it means to be a principal,  I am not so sure we even need one.  I think that title “principal”, within itself, holds so many connotations of what it means to be a great leader that I don’t think more are needed. Or perhaps just drop the “lead,” just be a learner, just like the rest of us.  Doesn’t being a learner mean that you know when to take the lead and when to let others?  What do you think?

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

assessment, being a teacher, discussion, word choice

Let’s Discuss Your Weaknesses and Watch You Soar

As someone who doesn’t hand out grades but rather assesses and has feedback discussions with students, I shudder at the word “weakness.”  I shudder at the thought of sharing a child’s weaknesses with them based on a test.  I shudder at the thought of pointing anything out as a weakness.  Now, don’t call me sentimental or foolhardy, but hear me out.  I know that all of us have weaknesses, I know that we all have things that need work and time and dedication.  And yet, how many of us soar to the challenge of overcoming a weakness when we are told those words exactly; this is a weakness for you?

Weakness tends to connotate something set in stone, a character trait that cannot be manipulated or changed.  Weakness means that a child fails in an area, that this is their achilles heel that can slay the rest of their results.  Weakness is everything opposite of strength.  You tell a cild multiple times that math is their weakness and yes they will believe you.  They will leave your classroom having resigned themselves to the fact that math is something they will never master, that it is a weakness, and totally out of their hands.

Why not flip the word on its head and tell them it is a challenge?  Why not discuss with students how they are still developing in some areas and they should focus on conquering those?  Why not be realistic but not demolish their learning?  We all have things we need to focus on.  We all have things/ideas/concepts that are not our strengths.  And yet, when we choose to call them weaknesses we accept them as such.  We are done fighting to change them and instead can hold up our badge of weakness and shrug, oh well, it is just my weakness.

Words have power, we know that, and the word “weakness” has so much power it can effectively slay a person.  Let’s use our words to build, to challenge, to be realistic but make it attainable.  Let’s not stop a child in their tracks.

assessment, being a teacher, discussion, No grades

Throwing Out Grades Doesn’t Mean Throwing Out Expectations

I used to be the queen of the “F.”  If a student wasn’t handing in their homework, I whipped out the calculator and quickly showed them what would happen to their percentage if they kept getting zeroes.  If a student wasn’t paying attention, I would show them how they would probably not do well on the test and boy that would lead to an F as well.  And what if they didn’t behave, well somehow, the threat of an F could be used even then because I couldn’t have a child who was being disrespectful get a good grade.  They simply didn’t deserve the good grades if they couldn’t sit down, listen and be good students.  So that 60% nipped them in their heels, waiting to swallow them up if they ever slowed down in our academic race.  We had things to do, papers to complete, and projects to hand in.  Get on it or that F is coming for you.

Now I don’t worry about the F because in my 5th grade room a child cannot get it as a grade.  And before you throw me in the fires of being an unrealistic teacher who isn’t teaching their students what the “real” world is like, let me explain.  The students I get to teach are all learning.  Some faster than others, some more deeply than others, but even a child that hands in a mediocre project at best has learned something.  They have garnered some sort of knowledge and that to me means they have not failed.  That F is removed from the equation because it ends up being meaningless when grades are not used throughout the year.  It loses its strength, its threat, and frankly I don’t miss it.

Instead we discuss strengths and goals.  We conference on where the child wants to go with their learning and then hatch up a plan.  I don’t talk about their weaknesses but rather what they still need to focus on, where they need to go, and then the students set their goals.  I don’t.  Because it is not my goal to own.  I am there to participate in the conversation, to hopefully ask the right questions, but I am not there to make the final decision of which path they need to travel.  I am not there to talk as much as I am there to listen.  

So as I get ready to write the year end report card that I have to write, I am also getting ready to have the conversations with my kids.  I am ready to ask them if 5th grade was what they hoped it would be, if they feel they have learned as much as they wanted to, if they feel ready for the next year.  I even ask them if they are smart.  Why?  Because their answers reveal more about their coming learning journey than a grade ever could.  Because to a kid being “smart” is something an adult tells you whether you are or not, and that ties directly to self-confidence and how they will tackle challenges.  And when the last kid leaves on the last day of school I take all of their answers with me, wanting to become a better teacher for the next group.  Wanting to serve the next set of kids even more, help them take control of their learning as much as a 5th grader can, help them set goals and then attain them.  I want them to come in as learners and stay that way.  Not because I threatened them into it, but because they took ownership.  No F’s in this room, there simply isn’t the need for them

discussion, no homework

We Don’t Need Any More" How To Cope With Homework Lists" – What We Need Is a Debate!

Summer is coming and with that an onslaught of parenting magazines on how we can help our children cope with homework.  Cope – what an interesting word when combined with homework.  I know when I assigned homework regularly I thought I was adding to my students’ educational experience.  I thought I was deepening their thinking, to perhaps help them, teach them, deepen their knowledge.  Instead, it appears, I was merely helping them develop coping with a necessary evil. I was setting them up for whatever adult job that requires homework, I am still looking for this one,.

So, parenting magazine, how about an article on why homework should be revisited, why the whole merit of homework is diminishing and why homework really doesn’t need to be assigned.  How about giving parents a resource to start the conversation, the discussion that should be happening at all schools, particularly primary ones, about why homework can be outlawed.  How we can still teach students time management, perseverance, and study skills without homework?  Who will publish that article?

alfie kohn, classroom management, discussion, no homework

But How Do You Really Get Rid of Homework and Still Know Where Students Are At?

Image from here

One great thing about blogging about what happens in our classroom and to me as a teacher is that I am often asked to clarify how all of this works.  So after my latest post “My Kid iS Drowning in Homework” I received an email from Mr. Feltman asking me some questions.  I figured my answer back might be helpful to others as well, so with his permission here is our communication.

Mr. Feltman wrote;
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a few questions, that would assist us in this endeavor.

Do you have research or articles backing this up?

What percentage of tests and other activities make up the students grades? (another way to ask is when you switched to “no homework” how was your class grading scale affected?)

How do you assess their mastery of learning (especially poor test takers)?

And here is my answer (emphasis added by me);
I do have research and articles!  A big push for me came from Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth” in which he collects a lot of research about it, and other sources which I have some of here
http://www.diigo.com/list/pgreens/nohomework

I did want to do my research as well so that my principal would back me.

Along with the no homework I am opposed to letter grades, however, my district is not.  So the compromise I have figured out in my room is that students only get letter grades on their trimester report cards, and those  are decided through discussion with me after we have decided as a class what each letter grade means.  The limited homework that does go home is therefore not used to determine grades but rather to determine instruction needs.  So my grading scale was affected in a positive way since students know that if they do work in class and hand it in, we discuss and dissect it and then figure out their needs from there.  There is no final letter-grade assigned to it but rather a common conclusion is given and we determine the path from there.

Tests are part of my formative assessment and students are mostly given a chance to revise and rethink their answers.  I do not want a snapshot of that kid at that time, I want to gauge their overall understanding.  Because the pressure of letter grades (and the finality aspect of a test) has been removed, students also tend to work through assessments much more calmly because they know I am looking for their depth of understanding rather than the pressure to perform right then and there.  This has provided me with a much more comprehensive view of the child’s abilities, which in turn I communicate to parents through feedback and observations.

Mastery of learning is shown in many ways.  I always think of what the large goal is or the skill and through conversation or even in-class work I can figure out if they have mastered that skill.  Math tends to be the only area where there is daily work (class time is given for this) but other than that most students are involved in longer projects covering a range of goals from the common core and district standards.

I know giving up homework can seem daunting but once you take the plunge it really isn’t that scary.  Sure you will have some parents that do not understand it but if you communicate your intentions clearly; mine are to keep school at school as long as the students work hard, then parents seem to come on board.  Getting rid of homework means I have to be much more on top of class time and what we need to get done with a focus on the larger goals rather than small worksheets where the students just regurgitate information or daily work that could be covered in a long-term project.  

Thank you for the email Mr. Feltman and good luck!

discussion, homework, no homework, parents, questions

My Kid Is Drowning in Homework – Why Parents Should Be Speaking Up and How

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thea is only 3 and is nowhere near the homework assigning level, thank goodness. And yet, already it is an issue I come back to frequently in my mind, particularly as I get my fabulous 5th graders ready for middle school.  Speaking to some middle school teachers and hearing to expect at least 1 1/2 hours of homework every night and that no regard is taking for homework assigned by other teachers.  Yikes.  From a teacher perspective I have made my stance clear on how I feel about homework and how over-assigned it is, but what about for parents?  What can you truly do as a parent when sending your child to school to help them handle the insanity of homework as well as to maybe, just maybe, start a dialogue with their teachers?  Here a few things to start you out.

  • Get clarification on general statements.  If a teacher throws out an arbitrary number for homework minutes like I used to do on orientation day, ask them what it looks like.  When they say 50 minutes of homework, which child are they referring to?  Are they referring to a well-adjusted, high-level learner, or to a more sluggish paced child?  Which child will spend 50 minutes? Is that the maximum any child will spend?  At the very least it may make the teacher think about the 10 minutes X grade level rule so many of us have used as our standard.
  • Ask whether there will be punishment involved.  What happens to the child that does not do their homework?  Different teachers have different policies.  Some take away recess, something I shy away from because I don’t think I have the right to, others give them a chance to make up for it.  Some, like me, simply ask them to bring it the following day or try to not assign much.  This is going to directly effect your child and their view of homework, so do ask what will happen if they don’t hand something in.
  • Figure out your parental level of involvement.  Are you supposed to help or is this homework only for the child?  How are you allowed to help?  Would the teacher rather know if the child cannot complete a task by themselves (one would hope so!).  These are all important questions to ask as well and leads directly to the next point.
  • Ask what the purpose of homework is.  Is it used for grading?  Is it used for assessment?  Why does their homework look like it does and what is the end result of that homework?  This discussion goes way beyond just a general statement but it is vital.  Too often we assume that whatever a teacher assigns must have value otherwise it wouldn’t be assigned.  Having been that teacher I can tell you that is not the case!  So find out what the purpose is.
  • Search your soul.  Many of us think homework should be something certain because of what we experienced but even for this youngish teacher, school has changed drastically since I graduated.  Make sure that your homework expectations are not based on what you feel helped you as a learner, figure out instead what will help your child, after all you do know them better than the teacher but they are not you, no matter how much we see the resemblance.
  • Ask questions.  I am never bothered when parents ask me questions, in fact, I cherish their feedback and often wisdom about their child.  I differentiate assignments, I give class time and I try to not involve parents much simply because it is not them that need to learn a concept.  Yet I still fail sometimes, I still learn from my mistakes and I don’t always have the answer to something.  So start a dialogue and start it early, it can be something as simple as a line or two in an email and does not need to be often.  It will benefit all parties involved all year.
  • And finally, stand your ground.  As a parent I will expect Thea to apply herself in school and to give school her best in the hours she is there.  Once she is home, homework should not take up the majority of her afternoon and evening.  As she gets older, sure, there will be projects, papers, reading etc.  But she should not be having to give up most of her free time for worksheets or other repetitive tasks, and I will discuss this with her future teachers.  You can do this nicely and it may lead to a very interesting conversation.  Simply said; it is ok for parents to question a teacher’s homework philosophy.