By Cheryl Poage
As an educator, I have always encouraged my students to go out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves—to reach out and stretch just enough to feel a little discomfort. Over the past 17 years, I became comfortable with my content, my school family and my students—quite honestly, I was perfectly happy in this comfort zone. So when my husband proposed moving back to his home state of Kansas, I heard myself telling my students to “challenge themselves and stretch a little”—and decided it was now my time to stretch!
As I began my job search, one position that stood out to me was a Blended Learning position teaching high school English at Andover eCademy. I had never taught high school English, I had never taught online, and seeing the faces of my students every day was extremely important to me! So why choose this? Because it made me stretch…it was a limb I had never reached out to before. What type of educator would I be if I challenged my students to explore the unknown, but wasn’t willing to do that myself?
I secured a position with eCademy and anxiously awaited my August 2019 start date. I knew there would be a learning curve on my end, but the challenge intrigued me; this opportunity would allow me to look at education through a new lens. I had so many questions about the Blended Learning Model and it seemed my list grow longer each day: How will I build solid relationships with students? How will I develop a learning community that will allow students to engage in discussion and share learning experiences? How will I give proper feedback when each student is working at his/her own pace?
As the year progressed, I was able to eliminate many of the questions I started the year with; however, each brainstorming session with colleagues posed a new challenge—adding to my evolving list. eCademy is fortunate to have an administrator who encourages his staff to be innovative and allots time for collaborative brainstorming sessions. This practice inspired me to refine my craft and become more flexible and open to a new way of teaching and reaching students.
The first day of school is always exciting! It is when I am able to put a face to each name on my roster and begin to build relationships. However, this isn’t necessarily the case when teaching virtually. Not every student begins class on the same day and many do not feel comfortable showing their face, so it is important to become creative with lessons and build trust. One modicication I made in order to “see” students in my reading class was to ask students to submit a “selfie” that incorporated a portion of their face with the cover of a novel they were reading. An adjustment I made in a writing lesson was to have students use audio to give a verbal reflection—allowing me to at least hear my students, if I could not see them. These were very small changes, but it allowed me a quick glimpse—it was a starting place.
As the year continued, relationships grew through daily feedback, emails and phone calls; however, the most significant difference I saw was when CoVid-19 changed our world! I used the time for reflection and self-growth and revised my teaching even further. I took trainings that were offered, solicited the help of colleagues a bit more and found ways to personalize my lessons to allow student’s choice, time to reflect, and share more of themselves with me through “Motivational Monday” lessons. I scheduled individual and group Zoom sessions for students to work on assignments with me or with peers. I held daily Zoom check-ins with students who were struggling with motivation during the Stay At Home order. I began to see more faces and the trust began to build! CoVid-19 may have taken some opportunities away from us, but it allowed me the time to grow as an educator and it brought many of my students out from behind the computer screen and into a Zoom session!
Although the road to building bonds looked different than it did in my previous years of teaching, I do believe the gradual growth was critical to form the foundation needed for solid relationships.
At eCademy homeroom is taken to a new level. Each teacher has his/her own group of approximately 20 students to support. Teachers contact their students on a weekly basis to discuss grades, celebrate successes, and discuss a plan of action for those who may be struggling. In addition to working with our homeroom students one on one, we also have bi-weekly meetings with administration and guidance counselors built into our schedules. During this time we discuss each student’s progress and prepare a personalized plan of action for any student who may be struggling. Our roundtable discussions allow us develop a clear understanding of the overall student. During these meetings, It was inspiring to see how well the teachers, administrators, and counselors knew ALL students—both academically and emotionally. So often, in a Brick and Mortar it is difficult to allot time to engage in these valuable whole group discussions due to scheduling, teaching, non-teaching duties, etc.
As a result of these meetings, we are able to focus on students who have consistent missing assignments and a lower than average GPA and create an engagement plan to help them succeed. Students, parents, and the homeroom teacher work together to develop this plan for success.
I saw the impact of these meetings firsthand as I worked with several students, via Zoom, during second semester. Not only did these students go from failing grades to passing all subjects, but they also developed a more positive mindset and sense of confidence as they watched their GPA and comprehension of each subject improve.
What sets eCademy apart from many other online schools is that we follow a Blended Learning model. This is what truly interested me about eCademy and what, I believe, brings in such interest from families across the state. Blended Learning allows students the opportunity to be a part of a school community, while learning at his/her own pace.
Andover eCademy offers students numerous opportunities to be a part of a learning community at all grade levels. Students participate in Live Lessons with their teachers and classmates, attend field trips, and participate in clubs or in-house days offered at our Andover campus. In-house days may include group activities, team building, study sessions, guest speakers, or collaborative work. This time allows for students to build community and gain a sense of belonging.
High school students have their own special spot nestled inside the eCademy building called the eCafe. The eCafe is situated similar to a coffee shop where students are able to study, collaborate, socialize, and develop friendships. It is monitored by a different high school teacher each hour, allowing students to work personally with the teacher on call. High school students also have the opportunity to plan socials, participate in Science Labs, attend field trips, and a select group also serve as mentors to our middle school students.
In an effort to give out of town students the opportunity to build community, we also offer a Mobile eCafe. Once a week a teacher travels to a different library in the surrounding areas and students are invite to come in for a study session. This allows us to meet students who might not be able to travel to Andover, but would like to build relationships with their teachers and peers.
Giving student feedback is a big portion of each day at eCademy. All lessons are loaded at the beginning of the semester and the courses are self-paced, so we receive various assignments from numerous students in several different classes at any given time. Although the amount of assignments coming in can sometimes seem overwhelming, there are a variety of assignments being turned in which keeps the grading fresh and interesting.
Detailed feedback is critical when teaching in an online environment. Since we do not hold daily face to face lessons, feedback is a dedicated time to give each student the guidance needed to master a concept and communicate clear guidelines for students to reference when revising assignments. We offer feedback in several formats: verbal, written and face to face.
I have found that since students in a Blended Learning environment are self-paced, they do not experience time constraints that are sometimes found in the classroom. This results in resubmissions and revisions that demonstrate improved execution, comprehension and overall grades.
As year two begins, I feel reignited as an educator. The past year allowed me to experience one of the greatest learning adventures of my career. I learned it is okay to start small and grow gradually. I learned that even if a student isn’t right by your side, remarkable relationships can still develop. Most importantly, I learned that education isn’t about being comfortable…it is about change, challenge, and having the confidence to climb out of our comfort zone and STRETCH!
About the Author
Cheryl is beginning her 19th year of teaching. In addition to English, Cheryl has taught AVID and served as an AVID Coordinator for eight years in Florida. She is currently a College and Career Elective teacher at Andover eCademy. Her passion is building relationships with her students and changing “I can’t” mindsets into “I can.”
By Michaela Liebst
While reading Randy Watson’s comments last week regarding the new ELA competencies found in Navigating Change, I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt in a long time. After a summer filled with anxiety over the looming school year, I finally had a jolt of…excitement.
Now I don’t pretend to claim that this excitement cured all of my angst about what educators are about to embark upon, but I do know that the competencies resemble an outline. And an outline can lead to a plan. And a plan is exactly the thing that my type-A brain wants more than anything in this world.
I don’t have plans for a lot of what will be coming up in the months ahead, but by being handed the ELA competencies, I can now start to visualize what my students will be expected to learn, regardless of being in-person, on-line, or a little bit of both. I can also start to understand that if the world reverts back to how it was in March, and I can only hold my students and myself accountable for a few key standards, I know exactly which standards those are going to be.
While gaining this structure and ability to place some guide posts in lesson plans is comforting, I also love that the competencies provide room for creativity and grace. Not once do the competencies come coupled with a script and mandatory way of teaching them. They may come with suggestions and sample lesson plans, but teachers are free to practice their creative freedoms to make the competencies come alive as they see fit. In my opinion, this document will be helpful, not just for the upcoming school year, but for years to come.
Because our emphasis this year will be on a few, condensed competencies, I wanted to take the time to emphasize that with the freedom surrounding implementation of these competencies also comes the freedom of assessment. With this being a year where less is more, it may be helpful to incorporate a Standards-Referenced Grading approach when evaluating student work. However, instead of calling it Standards-Referenced Grading, we can call it “Competency Based.” To make this type of grading even more appealing, Navigating Change has already provided you with the rubrics and “I Can…” statements necessary to utilize this type of grading system!
Below is a blog-post I wrote a year ago for my personal blog, highlighting Mary Harrison, a Wichita high school teacher, and her execution of Standards-Based Grading in her class. Mary has presented at KATE conferences several times regarding Standards-Based Grading and provides much expertise on the topic. Her experience can offer a lot of insight into a way of grading that may lessen the already heavy workload of teachers this year. Overall, combining the ELA competencies and Standards-Referenced Grading can come to the rescue this year by ensuring that our assignments are meaningful and that we are measuring the mastery of a student, not their effort.
Last year, Mary began using Standards-Referenced Grading as a way to fix the struggles and moral issues she was having with her grade book.
She was inspired to do this by two different types of students: The "Good-Citizen" Student and the "Absent-Minded Professor."
The Good Citizen is the student who always follows the rules and turns assignments in. He/she tends to get A’s and B’s even if they have a shallow understanding of the standards and content, but get rewarded because they play school.
On the flip side, the Absent-Minded Professor is the student who is a disorganized, hot mess. He/she never turns anything in, but they actually know their stuff and can carry out a conversation, making their intelligence obvious. However, they don’t turn assignments in, so they fail.
"I was so disillusioned by my grade book – what does what I’m doing as a teacher even mean if this kid with a deep knowledge of content is failing, but this one with a shallow understanding is not," Mary stated. In addition to fairness of students, Mary also realized that her grade book was random. She found herself asking "What do I feel like grading? If I didn't feel like grading it, it became a participation grade." Thankfully, her colleague stumbled across Standards - Referenced Grading which seemed to resolve a lot of Mary's grade book issues, and they decided to pursue its implementation together.
At first, both teachers had reservations about tackling such a task. A lot of colleagues at their school were against the idea and would frequently question their motives. In addition to the nay-sayers from co-workers, Mary and her teaching partner also had to find the courage to work their way up the chain of command within their district in order to receive permission to implement the initiative, due to it's novelty to both parents and administration. However, despite the work and the risks, they both felt that they "knew too much and there was no turning back."
One of my favorite quotes from Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, is that currently in education, the amount of time given to learn a skill is fixed, while the level of mastery for each student varies, when really, it should be the other way around. As teachers we should demand mastery from every student, but allow them the varied amount of time they need in order to demonstrate complete understanding. Thankfully, Standards-Referenced Grading is slowly guiding us in that direction. As stated by Mary, "Grades tend to ebb and flow especially when they are first learning a skill, but because they can re-try the grades tend to go up."
While Standards-Referenced Grading may feel impossible and confusing, it revolves around a pretty simplistic framework. Standards-Referenced Grading identifies specific learning targets for each grade level and within in each content. Learning targets are written as "I can..." statements for the students, so that it is clear to students what "mastery" of a skill should allow them to do. For examples of some of Mary's learning targets, see the files below.
Each learning target is then paired with a proficiency scale (see the files below). A proficiency scale is a continuum to show the progression of learning, and is what is used to assign student's their level of mastery for the learning target. Wichita's proficiency scales will range from the scores 0-4: 0 means student did nothing at all; 1 – even with teacher assistance student does not show any of the fundamental skills being measured; 2 – shows some mastery of fundamental skills that support the learning target; 3 - student is the meeting the learning target; and 4 - student is exceeding the learning target. The beauty of Standards-Referenced Grading is that if a student is earning a 1 or 2 on the proficiency scale for a specific learning target, they are able to retry as many times as they would like in order to improve their score. Therefore, mastery can happen at any time, allowing true learning and understanding to happen at the rate most suitable for the child. (See the files below to investigate the proficiency scales and “I Can…” Statements provided by Navigating Change).
Some readers may have read up to this point and thought to themselves, "Oh heck no. That sounds way too complex, and there's no way that this would work for my class."
To that, I would like to mention that Mary feels like this method of grading is more simple - it takes out all of the subjectivity and allows students to know before they ever start learning exactly how she’s going to grade them. "Since the proficiency scale says it all, I just have to say “you’re here and this is why” when providing students with feedback," Mary shared.
That's not to say that Mary hasn't had her fair share of struggles while trying to get students on board. Several students who are used to playing the game of school and getting compensated through good grades sometimes struggle with the adjustment.
"I had one student become very frustrated on her first grade for a learning target. She felt that since she worked hard, she deserved a good grade. My response was 'I’m not measuring how hard you worked, I’m measuring your understanding'. Because that student was able to try again and continue to improve her performance on that particular skill, I have seen so much growth in that student and her mindset. She now understands that this grade is just a communication of what I know at this moment in time, and if I keep at it I can raise the grade and my understanding."
Thankfully, Mary's courageous effort to integrate Standards-Referenced Grading into her classroom has paid off nicely. She is now a much more intentional teacher who feels as if her teaching and grades are connected and cohesive. "I am always thinking back to the learning target and am using that to guide my lessons," Mary states.
In addition, she feels like students have learned to take ownership of their learning. Because they are able to re-do assessments as many times as they would like, students are starting to see that they are in control of their learning and how they perform. Thus, student buy-in is increasing, which also leads to parent buy-in. "When I sit down with parents at conferences and explain my system, they all say 'This makes sense to me.'”
I asked Mary if she had any advice for someone who was apprehensive or skeptical.
The first thing she shared was that you have to be very intentional about which learning targets and standards you emphasize throughout the course of a school year. Mary's motto is "Depth over breadth." You can't have too many learning targets clumped together because "mastery is a strong word and so we're really going to have to dig deep and work on the learning targets that I've chosen." She shares that in schools with a transient population, this is especially important. If you have a student who has moved in half-way through a quarter/semester, you really have to narrow down what it is you want that student to focus on.
Second, Mary shared that she understands there is a lot of apprehension surrounding Standards-Referenced Grading and how it will impact Special Education students. While she does use the same proficiency scale for both her SpEd students and honors students, she assured me that there is still an element of subjectivity when it comes to using the scales to assign grades. "I sometimes use other considerations to evaluate – equity vs. equality is how I account for different skill levels, and I'm always taking into consideration what I know a student is capable of before I assign them their final rating."
It is my hope that by reading about Mary's journey with Standards-Referenced Grading, you will see how it could be worthwhile to incorporate this into your teaching practices this year. “Depth over Breadth” is truly the mentality to have as we begin the upcoming school year. With Dr. Watson’s urging to dig deep within the ELA standards, I would encourage you to ensure that your assessments are assessing mastery of these competencies. Whether it be utilizing proficiency scales, student “I Can…” statements, or more rubric-based feedback, this hyperfocus on the competencies will lead to a simplified grading system.
I want to wish everyone good luck with the year ahead, and I hope that this post provided you with some guidance for how to structure a school year that may feel a little unstructured at the moment! Finally, see the files below for examples of learning targets and proficiency scales from Mary Harrison, as well as “I Can…” statements provided by Navigating Change.
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is a K-5 Gifted Facilitator who has a passion for education and a soft-spot for English teachers. She believes that Standards-Referenced Grading is an exciting concept and hopes that grading for mastery instead of effort becomes the norm. She is also exceptionally excited about the Navigating Change document and where it may lead in the future. Finally, she is the editor of this blog and would love for other people to submit posts about their educational passions. You can find her on Instagram (@mliebst) and on Twitter (@michaela_liebst).
By Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education
I’ve had the good fortune of working with and knowing some outstanding language arts teachers over the many years I have been involved in Kansas education. To just name a few there were Sharon Nelson - Tescott High School, Carol Williams - Andover High School, Barb Wentz – Concordia High School, Bev Nigh – McPherson Middle School, and Carole Ferguson – McPherson High School. These are just a few whom I had the pleasure of working with over the years. In addition, I have had the good fortune of getting to know another outstanding language arts teacher, Jeff Baxter. When I first met Jeff, he was teaching at Leavenworth High School, but now graces the halls of Blue Valley West. Jeff was not only a Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2014, but was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame in 2018.
What these outstanding language arts teachers all have in common is a combination of a love for their content and craft. They love literature, the written English language, the flow of prose that speaks in wonderful ways and analysis of great works of story. However, love of their content alone would not have made any of them wonderful teachers. Each coupled his or her outstanding knowledge and passion of language arts with a deep commitment and dedication to the students they taught daily.
Each of these world-class educators embodies a special gift – to help their students love and see the value of literature, language, poetry and moving oration. As one of their students told me, “You have to love that piece of literature because she loves it so much. She wills you to love it and soon I fell in love with it also.”
During this school year, the challenges of COVID-19 will stretch any educator, even the outstanding, seasoned ones I have mentioned. Challenges of hybrid schedules, of on-site learning coupled with remote learning, possibly changing every day to meet the needs of students and families convey the ever-changing nature of the virus that impacts our state.
This year will challenge the way all great language arts teachers go about teaching and learning. The need to establish deep relationships will be deeply contested as they will have to navigate teaching students who may not physically be present in the classroom.
And it is in this environment of challenges, that I am excited to see what teachers of language arts do this year to inspire their students. It is in that background that another group of fantastic language arts teachers helped craft a document, titled Navigating Change, for all Kansas’ teachers. Those teachers include: Monica Diaz - Garden City USD 457, Whitney Linenberger - Dighton USD 482, Amanda Buethe - Ness City USD 303, Daniel Dawson - Lyons USD 405, Wayne Greenlee - Caldwell USD 360, Megan Kohlman - Hesston USD 460, Peggy Neufeld - Buhler USD 313, Angie Powers - Olathe USD 233, Kendra Preston - DeSoto USD 232, Lori Stratton - Gardner-Edgerton USD 231, and Heather Sazama - Buhler USD 313.
The document they helped produce encapsulated nearly 30 years of work from the Kansas Language Arts Standards and within 60 days they transformed the standards into a competency-based model by grade bands. They also organized these new competencies into a broader theme of Humanities. The work this amazing group of language arts teachers produced has the potential to dramatically change the way we meet student needs this year and well into the future. This work will enable students to demonstrate mastery of language arts competencies in a variety of methods.
In a competency-based model, students move through the curriculum in a personalized way, at their own pace. This pace is aligned to their individual plan of study. Students earn credit and grades based on demonstrating mastery, not based on simply sitting in a class for a defined period of time.
In examining the work completed this summer by these phenomenal teachers, I can only imagine being back in the classroom. I would have been excited to have walked down the hall at Andover High School and begged Carol Williams to co-teach Humanities with me. She would have pushed me to be a far better teacher than I had been in the past. We could have taken Navigating Change and crafted new project-based lessons that brought her love of literature and my love of history into focus for our students. We could have experienced the joy of planning and learning together, instead of teaching far across the school from each other. I’m sure that we would have recruited some other teachers – teachers of music, art, drama -- to help us in this new venture. It not only could have been some of our best time teaching, it would have transformed learning for our students.
This is the opportunity presented to every language arts teacher this school term. The resource language arts teachers created took the work of those great educators I have known over the years and brought teaching and learning forward into a new era. We will see a heightened focus on rigor, accountability and an unwavering commitment to personalizing learning for students.
This year, we have the opportunity to experience what Carol Williams and I never grew to realize – an opportunity to craft new learning experiences for our students. I look forward to what new opportunities language arts teachers will bring to their school and classrooms this fall.
Navigating Change Competencies by Grade Levels
About the Author
Known for his visionary leadership, Dr. Randy Watson’s roots run deep in public education. As a former history teacher, school principal and superintendent, Dr. Watson has dedicated more than 35 years of his life working in public education settings across the state and ensuring every child receives a world class education. That dedication continues in his current role as Kansas Commissioner of Education.
The Kansas State Board of Education named Watson Kansas Education Commissioner in November 2014. In his role as the state’s chief education officer, Dr. Watson provides leadership to the Kansas State Department of Education in carrying out the policies and programs set by the State Board of Education. Currently, Commissioner Watson is leading the agency in the redesign of Kansas public education. Fueled by the state board’s vision for education crafted in partnership with the citizens of Kansas, Watson is leading statewide initiatives designed to achieve this new vision that Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
A native of Coffeyville Kansas, Dr. Watson attended Kansas State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in science in secondary administration, staff supervision and staff development, building level certification. Additionally, he received his doctorate of education in secondary administration, school law, curriculum development and instructional leadership, and district level certification.
The recipient of many awards, Dr. Watson was named an Alumni Fellow at Kansas State and in 2015, was honored by being named the Kansas Superintendent of the Year.
By Melissa Buteyn
Grace. Patience. Maslow. Pivot. These words were on repeat in my head as I stared at my principal’s presentation explaining changes that will take place at school this year due to COVID-19. The only thing anyone seems to know for sure is this year is shaping up to be a lot of stress for everyone.
No one has answers that will quell my anxiety about facing 100 kids per day. No one has answers that will allow my students to learn in an equitable way. No one has answers about how parents can work and deal with the changing needs of the school situation. No one has answers that will ensure I’ll be able to do simple things like take a restroom break between classes, either. The potential solutions and potential scenarios seem to bring up more questions. I just want to scream into the universe, “It’s just so complicated and my brain is so tired!” I keep scheduling therapy appointments with Dr. Pasta and Dr. Cookies, and sometimes Dr. Chardonnay if I watch the news, but much to my chagrin, they do not seem to be helping. Now, I need new pants. (Thanks, @erinhmoon for the therapist recs!)
USD 259’s superintendent, Dr. Alicia Thompson, made a comment that really resonates with me. She said, “This is a time to be agile, flexible, practice patience, and have grace.” Despite my internal turmoil, after the virtual conversations today with my colleagues, I’ve started to see a way forward by keeping Dr. Thompson’s words in mind.
I can offer grace to all of the people who are making difficult decisions about school, but especially those who are using medical science to guide them. I can be patient as I wait for the district to struggle through all of the aspects of addressing the complex needs of our educational community. I can remember that Maslow has much to say about how we behave and respond during times of crisis. And Maslow’s ideas apply to far more than just my students. They apply to my bosses, my coworkers, the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers, and my students’ parents.
Dr. Thompson’s words remind me that while I am afraid of horrible consequences from in-person school, I am allowed to find a way forward while facing that fear. I can be brave. I can be creative. I can be patient. I can be kind. I can be strong.
Truthfully, though, I’m really tired of being strong. Actually, it’s not just me. Teachers are tired of being strong. We already carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. How can we possibly do this, too?
I am exhausted from living in the tension of unanswered, complex questions. But I can keep going. I don’t have to like it, but I can do it.
Here’s where pivoting comes in. Honestly, I’m not great at pivoting. I love the routine of school. It’s so comforting to know that the bell will ring and then I start over. Repeat for 180 days. So to hear that I need to be ready to pivot to online or remote teaching at a moment’s notice is unnerving, yet it’s possible. After all, during the KATE summer book club for Untamed Glennon Doyle taught me that I can do hard things.
Here at the KATE Blog, we’ve realized we need to pivot, too. Best laid plans for 2020 are pretty much out the window. And that’s ok. Because we can do hard things. So, we want to hear from YOU! What can we do to support you through this year?
The purpose of the KATE blog is to provide a forum for dialogue and collegiality among Kansas teachers of English Language Arts, pre-kindergarten through post-secondary. Help us make sure we are effectively fulfilling our promise to you.
What do you want or need? Resource lists? Lesson plan ideas? Celebrations of good things happening in Kansas education? More narratives that help us cope with the tension of being a teacher in this crazy world? Let us know.
You can give us feedback in the comments below, on the Kansas Association of Teachers of English Facebook Group, the Kansas English Blog Instagram, or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Melissa Buteyn teaches English 1, AP Literature, and Early College Academy English at Wichita Northwest High School. This will be her 21st year teaching in USD 259. She uses the KATE blog committee to justify her addiction to Instagram. Melissa has been on the KATE Executive board for four years and she loves, loves, loves KATE because of the amazing teachers she’s met. She is the 2019-20 KATE Outstanding High School English Educator. You can find her on Twitter @MelB_reads.
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