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Thursday, March 26, 2020

NTI Resources, Virtual Field Trips, and a Deep Breath

Despite the title, I want to start with the deep breath first. 

Every year, I look forward to KySTE's three day spring conference at the Galt House in March.  While there was a bit of a rumble over the slowly accelerating COVID-19 situation in the United States ("pandemic" was not quite the commonly used phrase, much less "crisis"), KySTE reassured everyone that the conference was still happening, albeit with advice to replace hearty handshakes with waves and wash your hands often.  I assembled like hundreds of others to the conference's first day on Wednesday, March 11.  There was talk about non-traditional instruction days (NTI) and students learning from home possibly happening as early as the following week, so I attended sessions with a focus on content-specific digital learning tools.  By the morning of March 12, KySTE organizers were putting down rumors of an early end and still reassuring that the conference was continuing.  By that same afternoon, in the second to last session of the day, they broadcasted a message: the conference was cancelled.  We met for a hastily convened closing session, where door prizes were given out in 15 minutes, and promises were made to announce award and grant winners at a later date.  A few hours later, I checked out of the hotel and on a whim, stopped by a grocery store on the way home, where I purchased the last packages of paper towels and toilet paper sitting on the shelf.  The next day -- aptly enough, Friday the 13th -- I went to my Shelby office for final meetings and planning as we launched, along with so many other districts (and states!), the longest and most ambitious educational NTI plan in modern American times.  I have not been back to my office, or seen my colleagues in person, since.

That was just two weeks ago, and yet it seems like a lifetime.

We are still very much in the beginning of a long term, once in a generation struggle that affects every aspect of our human life.  It is overwhelming to think of the potential loss of life and the what-if's to come.   So in this entry, I will try to only narrow my focus on the educational road ahead.  I myself have overused the words "unprecedented" and "uncharted waters" these last few weeks, so I'm loathe to repeat them.  But this is an unprecedented time to be a teacher.  It is uncharted educational waters.  What can we do?


It is clear that despite anyone's best efforts, the school year 2019-2020 will be disrupted.  We have to allow ourselves grace.  We will not hit all of our objectives.  NWEA MAP tests, if we could even give them, might not reflect much "academic growth."  And that is okay.   It will become evident that we cannot maintain virtual schools for millions of students for weeks on end without consequence -- and that's not only okay, it's affirming!  Of course we are facilitators of learning, but we are also relationship managers, inspirational guides, growers of human potential.  We analyze body language, listen to stomachs growl, feel the energy of students as they connect to content.  In short, teaching is a complex art, and difficult to do at a distance.  If teaching was as simple as pushing a worksheet across a table -- well then, anyone could do it.  Ask any parent who is social distancing at home right now with their children if teaching is easy.

So breathe.  Students are still learning, in authentic ways we could not begin to fathom or calculate.  Let your students know you are there, that you were always were there, that you will be there after all of this is over and all that remains will be the remembrances of the kindness and sympathies you gave to them in a time of uncertainty and sacrifice and tragedy.  That is a lesson they will remember.   They will remember you.  The rest will work itself out in the months to come.

The very real tragedies and sacrifices aside, there are some positive "truths" to emerge out of this disruption to the status quo of education:
  • Necessity is the mother of invention, and teachers are being more innovative with digital tools than ever before because they have to be.  If even a small portion of that blended learning experience (and other innovative pedagogies that challenge traditional instruction) comes back to the brick and mortal classroom, education will be better for it.
  • We need to stop talking about digital inequity and start solving it.  In other countries, Internet access is just another utility that all citizens have, like water and electricity.  This crisis clearly reveals that high speed Internet in every household is not a luxury but a necessity.
  • Public education needs to be fully funded and supported.  If there was ever a question about the enormity of services that public school provides as a social safety net, it should be easily answered now.  What organization besides public school systems could so quickly have marshaled resources like technology, educational materials and food for the general good?  (This is not to disparage the efforts of our private, charter and parochial educational colleagues, but it's merely reporting the facts about the enormous power, effort, and reach of public schools.)
  • Last but not least, technology is best when it serves the objective of personal human connection.   I am astounded and inspired from social media posts at all the ways teachers are using tech to foster continuity, engender hope, ignite excitement, and share a smile.  Learning should always be engaging, but not in absence of addressing the individual passions and needs of each student.
As I wrap things up, I want to offer two NTI resources for educators in these (here I go) unprecedented times.

#KyGoDigital invited me to lead an online session as part of their #MyNTIKy series.  I discussed virtual field trip resources and strategies on how to use them.  The video is here (38:16):

Several people have asked for our Shelby NTI resources.  While I've curated them (quality over quantity was my mantra), I have to thank many district staff members for their input and submissions, and I hope to have put the tools and sites in some sense of context rather than just reproduce a list of links.  Here is our Doc.

While I'm thanking SCPS people, I want to give a personal shout out to all of our Shelby admin, teachers, food service workers, custodians, technicians, counselors, and other support staff for their heroic efforts to keep our children fed, educated, and safe these last two weeks and in the weeks to come.  

Last but not least, I want to thank all of my Edtech Elixirs readers over the years, not only for reading this particularly long post, but for reading any of my past ones!  This entry marks my 150th blog post since I began nearly six years ago.  To put it mildly, in the summer of 2014 I could never have predicted the state of education in spring 2020.

And speaking of spring!  Next week, spring break begins for our district and for many others.   I promise you I will try to breathe a bit.  Promise me you will do the same.   

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Competency-Based Education: A Reading Journey

As Shelby County's journey toward competency-based education (CBE) has become regionally and nationally known, educators often ask about resources we have discovered along the way.  In particular, what books have we read?

This entry is an attempt to compile a useful -- but by no means exhaustive -- list of CBE related books that I personally feel have been either extremely illuminating in pragmatic ways (detailed models, insightful anecdotes, clear "how to's") or it inspired me to stay the course.  Often the same book did both!  Instead of ranking them in order of importance, or even in the order I actually read them, I have put them in what I think would be the most useful reading sequence that would best grow one's CBE knowledge as well as help you strategically plan for implementation in your own classroom, school or district. 

One very important point here: as with all of my Edtech Elixirs entries and my personal social media posts, this is only Adam Watson's ideal list as of this posting.  While my CBE knowledge would not nearly be as robust without my work in Shelby, and although many of these books were part of our leadership reading, this list is not meant to imply any district endorsement of these texts or of the sequence I have described.

1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (2018)

Before getting too deep into CBE terminology and logistics, teachers and admin should be given the chance to ideate for an "outside the box" transformative classroom experience.  This book's title succinctly states its purpose: we need to dream up a different way of doing school.  Dintersmith was the executive producer of the engaging documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which mainly focused on High Tech High in San Diego and how that school challenges how education achievement can be done.  This book is basically Dintersmith's road trip covering all 50 states in a single school year as he searches for inspirational models of educational transformation.  What School Could Be is both a wakeup call to rally against the status quo as well as a potential map of locations to visit.

2. Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: the Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond by Jonathan E. Martin (2010)

Don't let the slim nature of this book (151 pages!) fool you.  As Martin describes examples of what a competency-based report card/transcript may look like (in particular, the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium), you realize how crucial it is to have an effective reporting tool of learning, especially for high school.  Beginning your CBE planning with such an end in mind is highly recommended, as we in Shelby can speak from experience that communicating and creating a new reporting tool was an area of challenge in our journey, especially for some of our high school teachers, students and parents.

3.  How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards by Ken O'Connor (4th edition, 2019)

O'Connor has been challenging the idea of what grading should be for many years; in fact, the first edition of How to Grade for Learning came out two decades ago.  This book is likely the most "dense" and longest on this list, but it is chock full of very useful examples, anecdotes, and templates. I would argue that the principles laid out in the book are critical for moving to competency-based learning, as you need strong, clear, and consistent standards-based grading (SBG) practices to get there.  As I discussed in a previous entry, you need teachers and admin to understand the limits of traditional points / percentage / letter based grading and how SBG is more effective for learning.  O'Connor expertly leads you through that shift.  I especially appreciate how he devotes whole chapters to looking at how to calculate grades beyond merely averaging numbers (for example, Chapter 5: Emphasizing More Recent Evidence).  Make sure classroom teachers have a chance to discuss key excerpts!

4. Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards by Bob Lenz with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston (2015)

Transforming Schools was one of the earliest books I read on my CBE journey, as I was learning how instructional classroom models like project-based learning fit into a bigger transformative educational system.  (This is something not to be glossed over; through communication and strategic planning, your journey to a CBE system should make clear how competency-based learning is not "one more thing on your plate" but instead becomes the plate where personalized learning, PBL, blended learning and other initiatives smoothly "sit" and build toward.)   Lenz and his contributors do an excellent job of sharing their narrative of how they changed learning at one school, which then evolved into a system of transformative schools (Envision Learning).   The book also helped me think more deeply about the importance of advisory scheduling, graduate profiles, and students doing defenses of learning.  Bonus: it includes a DVD with video clips!

5.  Breaking with Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work by Brian M. Stack and Jonathan G. Vander Els (2018)

Stack and Vender Els write from the perspective of principals "doing the work" in New Hampshire, a state well known for its CBE leadership.  (In fact, Stack is still principal at Sanborn Regional High School.)  As the subtitle suggests, it is important to invest wisely and deeply in the professional development of your staff as you shift away from traditional practices, and Stack and Vander Els insightfully outline a successful way to navigate that process.   Helpful examples of competency frameworks, as well as how they were created, are shared in detail.  I also appreciated the book's discussion of what intervention and enrichment looks like in a CBE system, so students can truly "move when ready."  Lastly, both Transforming Schools and Breaking with Tradition explain the need for change in performance assessment practices, and the urgency for creating new performance assessments that better match competency-based learning. 

Bonus: Learning Supercharged: Digital Age Strategies and Insights from the Edtech Frontier by Lynne Schrum with Sandi Sumerfield (2018).

I briefly discussed this book in a previous entry.  While technically not a "CBE book," I found Learning Supercharged to be highly useful when connecting CBE related pedagogies with best practices in blended learning.  Chapters on makerspaces, project-based learning, personalized learning and more allow you to see how crucial digital tools will be when creating an effective "transfer task" culture of mastery learning.

Honorary Mentions of other CBE authors and websites:
  • Rose Colby.  Colby has been talking about CBE for at least a decade and she is often quoted, including in many of the books above.   Her 2017 book Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling is a recent example of her work.
  • Chris Sturgis.  Besides writing the forward to Breaking with Tradition, Sturgis is an author of many influential white papers on CBE; she also helped launch CompetencyWorks, itself an important online resource.
  • Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL).  The site, and its related conferences, continues to be a leader in sharing and discussing the work of CBE and the educators behind it.   As a starting point, read its updated definition of CBE published in November 2019. 

What are some significant CBE books you have read?  Please share in the Comments below!

Full disclosure:  Over the last few years, Shelby County has nurtured both one-time consultancies as well as ongoing partnerships with several of the authors and organizations mentioned above.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Share Fair 2020

Our sixth annual Share Fair is now in the rearview mirror.  Thanks to our teachers, students, librarians and building tech who led fantastic presentations!

While I must give special thanks to all of our attendees, I feel it necessary to point out a group of educators who likely win the contest for "longest distance traveled to come to Share Fair."  Principal Shannon Treece and her team from Babcock Neighborhood School traveled a thousand miles from Babcock Ranch, Florida in order to attend our sessions.  ( full disclosure, they also visited several Shelby schools earlier in the day!)  Not only did they appreciate what our presenters discussed, but they were also so inspired by the Share Fair format that they have already started work on hosting a Share Fair of their own this fall.  It is beyond flattering to think that the first (known!) Share Fair outside of Kentucky will soon be happening.

Speaking of firsts: This year, I used Wakelet for the first time to create a Collection for Share Fair 2020, capturing the story of the event -- in particular, the #SCsharefair tweets.  It is embedded below or available directly here.

Thanks again, and we can't wait to see you next school year!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020


For several years, Storify was one of my favorite free "go to" edtech tools.  You could use it to collect digital artifacts -- URLs, pictures, YouTube videos, social media posts -- and you could sequence these items to create a narrative in order to share with others.    However, like other online tools that come and go, it unfortunately shut down in May 2018.

When one edtech door closes, another one often opens.   Last year, I was excited to be introduced to Wakelet.   In the months since, I've not only seen how Wakelet is more than able to fill the void that Storify left, but I have also been impressed with how it continues to mature and improve with new features.

How does it work?
Making a "Collection" in Wakelet is quick and easy; the interface is very user friendly.  First, you need to create a free account.  You can use Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or just use your email address.   When you create an account, you will choose a name that will determine your profile's URL.   (Here's mine as an example.)   Once your account is created, you can follow other Wakelet users, and they can follow you.  Your followers will be notified when you publish a public Collection, as you will be notified when the people you follow do the same.

As you create a new Collection, you begin to make choices such as the title and whether it will be public or private.   Once you start a new Collection, what can you add?  You can insert text, websites via their URLs, YouTube videos, tweets (you can search by username or hashtag), pictures, PDFs, and even include files straight from your OneDrive or Google Drive.

As you add certain content, Wakelet remembers them as "Bookmarks."  This makes it easier to insert that content in future Collections.
One of the newest features of Wakelet is inserting "Flipgrid Shorts."  This is an opportunity for the person making the Collection to record a webcam video up to three minutes long; as with standard Flipgrid videos, you can use fun filters or insert graphics and text. The 49 second video below shows how this works.   Note that this Wakelet option is not really the full Flipgrid experience; you cannot log into your separate Flipgrid account to natively insert what you've already created, nor are viewers of the Collection able to respond to your "Flipgrid Short" with comments or video replies of their own while within the Wakelet site.   (Tip: if you're wanting to create an opportunity for an interactive Flipgrid experience, simply insert your grid's URL into your Collection like you would any other website.)

There are other Wakelet features that affect the viewing experience.  The creator of the Collection can choose various ways of presenting the materials, including a "Mood Board" option.  Another new feature utilizes Microsoft's "Immersive Reader" in order to read aloud your Collection!   Lastly, if viewers are logged into their own Wakelet profile, they can copy a Collection to their account to edit and publish their own version as they see fit, assuming that the creator of the Collection permits this to happen.

Wakelet makes sharing a published Collection very simple, with built in tools for several social media platforms, as well as options like a shortened URL and a QR code.

Recently, Wakelet now allows multiple ways for users to collaborate on the same Collection.  In theory, collaborators do not even need Wakelet accounts to interact in a Collection.   Collaborators can be given access directly via their Wakelet profile name or email, or indirectly via URLs and QR codes.   (Keep in mind that collaboration tools are in beta as of February 2020.)

Last but not least, Wakelet offers iOS and Android apps.   This allows users to be able to create Collections from their mobile device, albeit the options are more limited than the full website version of Wakelet.  I've created a Collection that demonstrates how the mobile app works, which is also embedded below:

How could you use it?  
Teachers could use Wakelet to capture resources while at a conference -- the key tweets sent out from a hashtag, the Google Docs shared by presenters, and so on.  You could also create narratives consisting of text, websites, and social media posts that chronicle a current event to share with students.  Students could use Collections as a way of saving research, composing mini-"hyperdoc" essays, creating an online portfolio of learning artifacts, or collaborating with team members on resources while working through a PBL.

Storify allowed you to natively find and embed Facebook and other social media posts; I would like Wakelet to easily do the same beyond just Twitter.  For now, the workaround would be to find the social media post's public URL and add it to your Collection as you would any other website.

As I mentioned above, I first discovered Wakelet last year at KySTE 2019 thanks to Stella Pollard, a wonderful educator and frequent presenter!   Because Stella is an experienced user of Wakelet -- be sure to check out her Wakelet profile -- what better time to interview her, as well as share her thoughts on other edtech tools?

Stella, welcome to Edtech Elixirs!  Please share your educator story.
I have been an educator since 2013. My journey began in Perry County Schools as a para-educator for a first-grade classroom. My husband and I moved to central Kentucky in 2014 where I was offered my first official teaching position as a middle school math and science teacher at Williamstown Jr. High School. I was offered a job closer to home in 2015 as a 6th-grade science teacher at Bondurant Middle School in Franklin County. I am currently an Instructional Technology Coordinator (Digital Learning Coach) for Franklin County Schools and I work with each of our 13 schools on effective implementation of instructional technology. 
How do you personally use Wakelet?
I started using Wakelet back in early 2018. I jumped onto the #WakeletWave because I was #NotAtISTE18 and needed a way to store all of the resources I found so I could come back to them at a later date. Since then, I have made Wakelet Collections for recipes to resources, lesson materials to videos, and everything in between. I love how easy it is to use on every platform (iPhone, Chrome browser, Chromebook, etc). 
Have you seen students and teachers use Wakelet?
I have! I have seen teachers use Wakelet as a collaborative workspace for students to digitally share and explore the work of their peers. 
What is one of your favorite features of Wakelet? 
I love the ability to automatically store your Screencastify videos directly to a Wakelet. It's quick and effective and in my role as a Digital Learning Coach, I am always making videos for our teachers. Since you can easily access your Google Drive inside of a Collection, this gives me the ability to share those videos quickly. 
Besides Wakelet, what are some other new edtech tools you are currently using?
One of my newest edtech tools that I have found recently is Actively Learn - it's similar to Newsela but has features that include: asking questions in the text, including specific notes for sections for your students while they're reading, the ability to embed a video or link to a different website, and more. In addition, it speaks directly to Google Classroom so there's minimal set-up for teachers to begin. Finally, one of my favorite things about it is that the free version is pretty solid.

What's your advice to teachers just starting to integrate edtech into their classrooms?
It's okay to not know everything about a tool. Students can and will figure it out long before we ever will. Don't be afraid to have your students try new things and give them the chance to input their voice in the assignments.
I want to thank Stella for taking the time to share her wisdom.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter, Wakelet and beyond! And be sure to share your creative ways for using Wakelet in the Comments below.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

How SBG Led Us to Empower: The Power of Evidence (Part 2 of 2)

This is part two of a two-part blog series.  When our district began a move to standards based grading (SBG), we realized that we needed a different digital tool.  In the previous blog entry, I discussed how the limitations of a traditional grading system led us to SBG, and ultimately, Empower Learning.  In this entry, I give an overview on the grading features of Empower and how it integrates with our standards based learning philosophy.

While Empower is a fully functioning learning management system, its core capability of capturing student evidence and calculating this for overall standard scores is really the "crown jewel" of the tool.

But first, what do you see when you log into Empower?  There are three main interface tabs.  The Instruction Tab is where you can see classes (either fed from your student information system or custom created groups), as well as create and assign instructional materials like Activities and Quizzes.  The Reporting Tab is where you can output progress reports and export other data.  The Scoring Tab is where "gradebooks" are located, and the place where evidence and standards are scored.  (Remember, as is necessary in SBG, these scores are based on established Mastery Scales -- for Shelby, these range in whole numbers from 0 to 4.)

Example of a test class/group (with a single student) and a sample gradebook with one standard shown.

Empower has two types of gradebooks.  The first is a class's default gradebook (also called the "master course playlist" by Empower), designed and managed at the district level, that designates the prioritized standards for the course.  This master gradebook determines many important reporting and analytical aspects of Empower, such as progress reporting and the final course grade calculation.  (In a knowing nod to a traditional system needing a final "number" grade at the end of the year for secondary classes, Empower can take the end of year scores of all the prioritized standards and average them together.)   The second type are gradebooks custom created by the user, in order to help teachers focus on a smaller lens of standards (perhaps just a few standards addressed in your Unit One) or to make cross-content project assessment much easier (think of PBL possibilities!).

Under the Scoring Tab, you can toggle between "Score Standards" and "Score Evidences," which show the interrelationship between the two -- they are truly two sides of the same coin.  Under "Score Evidences," you can see tasks that have been targeted to various standards and score these individual evidences accordingly.  These may have been created in the Instructional area, such as Activities and Quizzes, but one of my favorite Empower features is the ability to make "Quick Evidence" -- within a button push and a few clicks, you can quickly create and score evidence. (Many learning management systems only allow grading of digital activities created inside its system, but Empower allows you to score and assess virtually anything in seconds -- analog activities, observation of classroom discussions, and so on.)   Under "Score Standards," a teacher can score an overall standard if they wish.   However, one of Empower's most powerful tools is the Marzano True Score Estimator (MTSE), which is accessible within a gradebook's "Standards" toggle side.  You can use it to look behind a particular standard, and not only examine the body of evidence each student has demonstrated, but see how Empower calculates and projects an overall standard score based on the evidence score numbers and when the evidence occurred.  To do this, Empower actually runs the evidence scores through three different formulas -- average, Linear, and Power Law -- then recommends one or more as the most reliable for the given set.  This creates a completely different nuance to grading (which constantly updates as new evidence is entered), and a very necessary one when deciding and defending a student's mastery of a standard.

Let's briefly walk through these formulas.  We are very used to averaging, but I will highlight here that it is the only one of the formulas that is indifferent to when the evidence scores happened -- in other words, whether the scores were from two years ago, last September, or yesterday.    Linear is looking for a trend line; if we graphed these scores, are we trending upwards or downwards?  Therefore, more recent evidence is important when determining the direction of the trend.  Lastly, Power Law is based on an intuitively typical human learner.  When most of us encounter a new concept, we struggle to understand it, and if we were "scored" on our skill or knowledge, would likely score low with 1's and 2's.  As time and experience went on, we would get better, likely scoring 2's and 3's, and in time would achieve mastery with 4's.   Power Law takes that progression into account by mathematically counting earliest scores with considerable less "weight," and mathematically counting most recent scores with considerably more weight.  In short: for Power Law, how you just performed is much more important than your potential low scores in the early part of your learning.

Take a moment to compare these multiple, nuanced levels of assessing learning to Part One's story of Timmy and his traditional grading conundrum, who like many students struggled with such a low test score early in a unit that it didn't matter that he aced the final test; in a traditional system of averages and percentages, only a student who is freakishly perfect from the start would maintain a high grade, and a student who starts off poorly cannot avoid the demotivating academic hole they can't statistically crawl out of.   Empower changes the entire approach to looking at what grading is communicating, and at least as importantly, gives students specific guidance on how to improve their learning -- they not only know their overall standard strengths and challenges, but how their evidence behind a standard has an accumulating history, and the importance of today's performance is actually calculated as more important than whatever struggles the student may have had earlier.   (There is an additional positive side effect of this as well: students that perform exceptionally well at the beginning of an academic year cannot rest on their good laurels and coast into a passing grade when "spring senioritis" sets in and their present performance significantly drops.)

I admit that when I first began learning and teaching others about how Empower calculates scores, I struggled to understand and explain this well to others.  As the school year began, I created a Scoring Calculations Doc to help explain how this worked to our district staff.  For the sake of this blog entry, I'm only bringing the Doc up to point out one common concern that parents, students and even some teachers have: in a system of mastery scales and standards based grading, will final course grades, GPA's, etc. go down for most students?  In the Doc, I attack this head on by using a fictional set of four students and examining their evidence scores under a single hypothetical standard.  Luke is the Marzano ideal student of human learning, who starts with scores of 1's, then 2's and 3's, and finally 4's.  Han is the opposite: he started at all 4's and wound down to 1's in several recent scores.  Lando is all over the place scorewise for a while, but settles out and eventually scores consistent 4's by the end of his scoring timeline.  Lastly, Leia has mid-level scores fairly consistently, although she tends to score 3's (including recently). 

When comparing the simple average of the scores versus their Linear/Power Law projected calculations, the above table shows how the idea of averaging conflates the academic "stories" of these four students as equal, when we can see this is limiting at best and strongly inaccurate at worst.  Interestingly, in a mastery SBG system that goes beyond merely averaging, three of these students do as good or better than they would in a traditional grading system.  With SBG, there is not only more of a chance for a student to score a higher GPA, but such a GPA may actually reflect a true accomplishment of (mastery) learning instead of just an accumulation of points.  Out of our four fictional friends, the only student that does worse in SBG -- Han -- is the one student we can clearly see is "bottoming out" or having a bad case of the senioritis we mentioned earlier, but instead of facing an academic penalty for this in traditional grading, Han would unfairly coast into the same grade as his peers.

Empower is a powerful digital tool and a potential game changer for assessing student learning.  Of course, a learning management system is merely a holder of digital data entered by humans -- it cannot replace a teacher's professional judgment and relationship building necessary for student learning and growth to occur.   Empower can calculate scores quantitatively, but has no ability to determine the qualitative nature of the assessments themselves; this is where "the art of teaching" and a teacher's discernment come into play.  (This is one reason why Empower always allows a teacher to determine an overall standard score, even if that means overriding what Empower suggests based on evidence scores.) Empower does not magically make teachers effective in standards based grading practices, or make their assessments automatically any deeper, more rigorous, or authentic.  Excellence in SBG requires dedication, professional learning, and time.   Empower does not short cut this or offer a silver edtech bullet.  However, I do have to say that in the six years I have been a part of education technology in Shelby County, there have been few if any digital tools that have pushed and challenged our teachers to teach transformatively as much as Empower.  It is impossible to use it fully and faithfully and still maintain a traditional grading mindset.   In that same vein, as we continue to support and fulfill our current Strategic Leadership Plan, tools like Empower are the only way we will be able to enrich and enlarge our capacity to personalize our students' learning with a mastery of standards philosophy, and leave behind the idea of school as a game of compliance and points.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Share Fair 2020 Tickets Now Available!

Our sixth annual Share Fair (#SCsharefair) will be on Thursday, February 20, 2020!  This FREE professional development, open to educators outside of Shelby County, will have sessions on edtech as well as competency-based education successes and strategies.

Last year, I launched a new website for Share Fair that is chock full of resources.   The site has pages for Frequently Asked Questions (recommended for first-timers in order to understand the conference structure), Multimedia (pictures and video from previous Share Fairs), and an Archive for press clippings and past presenters/sessions.  In order to register for your free tickets, check out the site's Event page

We have some "firsts" to celebrate!

  • Gi Boylan is our building tech at Heritage Elementary who will be discussing robots and coding.  While this is the second time we've had a building tech present at Share Fair, this is the first time a tech is leading a session alone!
  • We have not just one, but TWO sessions with students presenting!  Rachel Kinsey and her Marnel C. Moorman K-8 students will talk about how they are using single-point rubrics to self-assess their competencies.  Kelly Hudson will be facilitating some East Middle students, discussing how Empower and their advisory schedule structure is helping them become self-advocates for their learning. 
  • And speaking of Empower . . . we have a Physical Education teacher presenting for the first time!  Billy Smith from West Middle will discuss how he's using Empower to provide feedback to students on their mastery of P.E. and health standards.
Our sessions span multiple contents and include presenters from elementary, middle and high school. For a complete list of sessions and presenters, go to the Share Fair site's Event page or click here.

Mark your calendars, get your tickets, and see you in there in February!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

How SBG Led Us to Empower: The Tyranny of 82% (Part 1 of 2)

Happy holidays and welcome to 2020!  Hope you enjoyed some well deserved time off during winter break.  I have often talked in Edtech Elixirs how digital tools should help us serve an academic objective.  For our district, the need for effective standards based grading (SBG) began a search for a transformative digital tool.  In this blog entry -- the first of a two part series -- I discuss how the limitations of a traditional grading system led us to SBG, and ultimately, Empower Learning.

I'd like to start this entry with what I like to call "the tyranny of 82%."  While it's fictionalized, it's based on the reality I have faced in the past as a classroom teacher in a traditional grading system.

A parent walks into a classroom to discuss her son's current grade with his English teacher.  "I'm worried," the parent frets.  "Timmy currently has a 82%.  That's a B.  A low B.  What can he do to raise it to an A?"

"I'd be happy to help," the teacher smiles.   "I have some practical advice for him.  He should work 8% harder."

"" the parent asks.

"Well, let's say right now he studies 50 minutes a week.  Timmy should start studying 54 minutes a week. That's eight percent more effort."

"Oh yes.  I get it now.  Anything else?"

"Yes.  He should always get a high grade on every assignment, right from the start.  Let me give you an example.  Last week we started a new unit on a concept he had never done before.  He got a 20 out of 100 points on the first big assessment.  At the end of the unit, he aced a final assessment with 100 out of 100 points.  But it was too little too late.  All that effort at the end and he only got an average of 60 percent in summative assessments.  Of course, if it makes you feel any better, Timmy could have gotten a 100 on the first assessment and 20 on the last one and would have gotten the same grade overall.  He should have scored high all along, you see?  The math of averaging doesn't lie.  And I average all students, all the time.  It's only fair!"

"Ahhh!  Very fair. Thank you for the practical advice!"

Of course, the above is farcical.   But as a classroom teacher analyzing an overall course average in a traditional grading system, I wish I could have given feedback to a student or parent as confidently as the fictional teacher above.  On a good day, I could have pointed to a well-designed rubric for a particular assignment to show how you could improve from good to great, but therein lies the problem -- a rubric helps explain the score on a particular assignment, and not really an overall course grade.  For a typical student that wants to increase their class grade by a level or two, I would usually fluster through a conversation on points -- if only they had gotten a bit higher on this quiz or that project, or would get full points on an assignment next week, their grade would go up.  For failing students, it would be a much easier conversation, since it was often a problem of zeroes, and therefore the talk was about completion and compliance.  If Timmy had just turned in a few more of his homework assignments and that big paper from last week, he might not have a F!

If all this talk of points makes school with traditional grading sound like a game to either win or lose, it often is, and therefore no teacher should be surprised when students try to manipulate such a high-stakes and highly subjective system.   (Don't even get me started on how "extra credit" skews the validity of academic data even further, or how enough zeroes can create a statistical hole that even the most motivated student would not be able to climb out.)  However, the problem in all of this talk of points and completion and compliance is the absence of what should be the true question to consider: how does 82% reflect what Timmy actually knows in English?

The answer: it doesn't.

Percentages aren't always impractical, of course.  If I have a 82% approval rating, there was a poll result that revealed 82 out of 100 people like me.  If a medical procedure has a 82% success rate, I can take comfort in the fact that there are "only" 18 out of 100 case studies when the procedure fails.  But if someone said that I am 82% in my husband skills, or a podiatrist is 82% in his medical knowledge, we would laugh at the absurdity of how non-informative those percentages are for such broad concepts.  Yet no eyelids are blinked when a percentage is applied to an entire course and we say a student is 82% in English, or Geometry, or Physics, or U.S. History.

We should note something about letter grades before we move on.  An A-B-C-D-F system is not in and of itself necessarily bad -- I would rather deal with a five point range system than the hundred point range system of percentages -- but what is troubling is often the vague understanding and frequent inconsistency of what a letter grade means.   For most traditional grading systems, the letter grade is simply the mask that a school or district's percentage wears at the ballroom school dance of public opinion, in an attempt to feign academic consistency and conformity. To take the simplest example of how this mask conceals more than it reveals, consider that even the scale used to translate a percentage into a letter grade can vary district to district in the same state, or even school to school in the same district.   An 80-89.9% could be a B in one location and 86-92.9% could be a B in another. So, again: How does a B reflect what Timmy actually knows in English?

If we take it as a given that a game of percentages is not the best system of grading -- and many of you were likely nodding your head about that way before this point in the blog entry! -- what could replace it?   First, we need to start with the question that Ken O'Connor poses in the short video (2:36) below: "How confident are you that the grades you students receive are consistent, accurate,  meaningful, and supportive of learning?" If we are not confident in what we have, let's find a better one.  To paraphrase from O'Connor's video, if students are "playing the game of school," let us at least make sure it is a learning game and not a grading game.

It was the pursuit of a more effective grading system that led Shelby several years ago to begin a transition to Standards Based Grading (SBG).  While all teachers have theoretically planned instruction around their state standards for many years, SBG looks at measuring student academic progress through the lens of how they are doing in each standard that is pertinent to a particular class. As we explained in a recent handout to parents,  "Course standards should answer the question: What is it we want our students to know and be able to do?" In order to articulate where a student is currently in their standards in as clear and consistent way as possible, we have created mastery scales (whole numbers from zero to 4) to go with these standards.  These scales work macro and micro: not only are they used to assess a specific task or evidence of learning with a score of 0 to 4 in that standard, the same scale applies to the overall standard when assessing the student's body of evidence.  Effective SBG practice is an important step on the journey to mastery learning -- when students can clearly and meaningfully apply their knowledge in new contexts -- and, eventually, a true competency-based education (CBE) system.  Our current Shelby Strategic Leadership Plan 2.0 has a goal of a CBE system by 2022.  (For a good starting place on learning more about competency-based education -- in particular, a new updated definition of CBE -- I highly recommend checking out Aurora Institute's new paper released in November 2019.)

When a teacher does SBG well (after support, experience and practice),  SBG is clearly much better at meeting O'Connor's four characteristics of effective grading.  Let's look back at the 82% conundrum.  If the reporting instead indicated how well Timmy was doing in his English standards, areas of strength and challenge would be much more clear.  We can not only see Timmy's success in standards with a 3 or 4 overall score, but we can quickly focus on Timmy's potential struggles in standards with a 0, 1 or 2 score.  By reviewing mastery scale language, we can determine what it would take to improve in those struggle areas.  The common mastery scales keep us accurate and consistent across teachers and schools; discussing overall standard scores is a much more meaningful way of answering "How is Timmy doing?" than a vague overall course percentage or letter can achieve; student learning is supported when the scores on standards can lead to clear action steps of improvement.

The philosophy of SBG is not the stumbling block for most educators.  When explained like I did above, who would argue that the traditional grading system is more fair than SBG?  The issue is in the application -- how to track and monitor SBG, especially over time.   While teachers have done this without digital help, it is time consuming and difficult.  You can "hack" traditional online student information systems (SIS) to attempt SBG, but such tools are often teacher-centered and optimized for linear assignment record-keeping.   A few years ago in Shelby, our teachers asked for something better -- not only in an online gradebook, but in a learning management system (LMS) that had SBG as its centerpiece.   After a committee of teachers and admin reviewed several platforms, Empower Learning emerged as the most comprehensive digital tool for several reasons:
  • It is student-centered.  Not only does it allow for better student advocacy of seeing their academic performance in all classes over years of their academic journey, it allows all of the student's teachers to see all of his/her academic performance in all areas.   (Imagine trying to make an advisory system without such a transparent system of support!)   Compare this to a teacher-centered SIS that is built to record assignment completion and is silo'd to begin and end information for mainly just that teacher, for just that class, for just that school year.
  • Personalized learning can be done well and help a teacher use their time more effectively.  Without academic information to keep it rigorous, personalized learning could potentially become all voice and choice without rigor and equitable need.  Personalized learning is best when both the teacher and the student can easily see areas of mastery (if you have mastered all fourth grade standards, why not begin on the fifth grade ones?) as well as standards with low scores requiring intervention.  Personalized learning can also be time consuming to plan and facilitate for a teacher, so digital tools to help streamline this is important.
  • Behind an overall standard score, you can see the historical body of evidence that led to that score.  I've seen prior gradebooks where the standard score may have changed from 2 to 4 to 3 over several school weeks, yet it is not clear why or how the score changed -- instead of a real-time story, you can only see what the standard score is right now (or at best, 3 or 4 "snapshots" at the end of quarterly terms).  As a classroom teacher, I patted myself on the back when I made assignments that were standards-referenced (i.e. merely tagged to a standard) but I did a poor job of analyzing how those assignments could lead to a determination of mastery of any particular standard.  In both of these cases, it is extremely difficult to do any better without a digital tool like Empower.
  • It is a "one stop shop" of LMS needs.  While we found some tools that were decent digital gradebooks, few were able to offer the ability to do what a typical learning management system like Schoology, Google Classroom, Edmodo, etc. can do, such as creating quizzes, assigning work for student submission, and housing a collection of resources.  Empower organizes both instruction and scoring under one roof.

For more information about the Scoring part of the Empower LMS, visit here.

As we wrap up this entry, I want to return to Ken O'Conner's video from earlier.  He points out that in a truly effective grading system, a student should not ask "What can I do to improve my grade?" but rather "What can I do to improve my learning?"  In Part Two, my next entry will go a bit deeper into how Empower integrates standards based grading and is an important tool to help us shift our Shelby students from the former to the latter.

Author's note: Shelby County Public Schools has invited Ken O'Connor to come to the district in January 2020 to talk to our teachers and community about grading practices and, in particular, the power of SBG.

Part Two of this series is available here.