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  • Sara Needleman

Things That Sparkle

As the cool weather turns to colder weather and as the shortish days here in Maine become very short, I’ve spent some time looking carefully at some things worth celebrating. We are, after all, in the midst of/approaching the celebrations of light, birth, and unity. Stay with me as I offer some examples of the light, birth, and unity I’ve seen this season.

I left teaching in my own 8th grade classroom just nine short years ago. The last year I spent there, my teaching partner and I effectively replaced our (somewhat) traditional curriculum with a standards-based curriculum. It was certainly not the highly evolved model of proficiency I have seen over and over again in some of our partner schools and districts, but it was a big step, a big step we took mostly by ourselves. Our administrators stood behind us and, at times, with us, but seldom in front of us, as we took that step. My partner and I figured out which standards to use; we designed our long range and short range instructional plans and assessments; we created the crosswalk between the SB grades we used in our classrooms and the traditional grades used on report cards; and we explained it all to our students and parent community. Our administrators gave us permission to do these things, but it was very clear that we were in the lead.

I think I learned more about teaching and learning in that one year than any other I have spent in public education. I took what I learned to my position at the University of Southern Maine (USM) where I continue to teach pre-service teachers pursuing certification across the K-12 spectrum. My university classroom has always been informed by the work I did my last year in the 8th grade. The rub for me and, moreover, for my interns, especially in my first few years of teaching at USM, was that very little of what I was teaching (things like starting with clear targets and exemplars, planning backwards, distinguishing between habits and academics, etc.) was commonplace or even present in their internship classrooms. It is now.

I know my interns, and a lot of you pioneering teachers, feel frustrated at the gains we have yet to make and the confusion still swirling around us. The march to light, unity, and birth is a long one, my friends. Nine years ago I saw very few teachers and even fewer administrators marching with me. Just the other night, one of my interns was relieved to say “many of the discussions and ‘arguments’ we are having in [my district] are also occurring in other districts outside of [mine].” Yes, the conversations are happening! Nine years ago, it sometimes felt like I was talking into the wind. Now, without prompting from me, and in forums that don’t include me, interns say things like what you will read below. The origin of each of these excerpted quotations is their internship classroom or school, not my classroom. In response to school-based professional development, one intern shared,

The largest point that I walked away with was that assessments are above all else a means for students to demonstrate their mastery of the standards. We as teachers are not trying to trick students or see what facts they can memorize but instead are providing them an opportunity to show that they have an understanding of these concepts around which we have built our courses.

In response to my questioning the use of the verb “understands” in a set of district standards that another one of my interns is working with, I read this:

The big question here is, What does it mean to "understand"? How far up the rigor level does one need to go to sufficiently "understand" the material at hand? What IS the best language to use? If we were to say "demonstrates mastery" of the subject, then we would need to further define what "demonstrates mastery" means.

Another intern, who is at the high school level - where the debate around accountability and even the occasional need to keep zeroes in the mix or blend academics and habits of work into a single grade - had this to say: “I like what [one of our JumpRope partner districts] does by making the Habits of Work score determine their eligibility [for extracurriculars including sports]. I think this sends a much more positive message to students, and it will help them in life after they leave the school system.”

In my last blog post, I mentioned one of the definitions of the Latin “educere.” That definition is “to be present at the birth of.” In this month of celebrating light, searching for unity, and wondering at new births, I see all the sparkle the season can bring through the strides we have made in only nine years and through the profound shift in thinking our rising educators demonstrate as they are just months away from being our next set of classroom teachers. I’ll leave you with the words from one of those shining stars.

PBL is good teaching. It requires teachers to change from ‘“ taught it” to “Did they learn it?” This requires not only students to be more invested in their education but also teachers. Don’t we all want every one of our students to do their absolute best and not accept failure? Yes. The multiple attempts aspect of PBL would require more effort and time out of teachers, but isn’t the core of teaching to make sure every students succeeds?...PBL makes students active participants in their education. They become “players,” not “spectators.” Performance indicators give students multiple chances to learn something and ample time for feedback from their teachers on their progress.

May your December and the turn to a new year be filled with hope, joy, and all things that sparkle.

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