Thursday, November 16, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Testing Trials

I am a big believer in closely matching my assessment vehicles to what I want students to know, understand, and do. I think that they way we assess students matter, and I try to use a variety of different kinds of assessments to help me understand what my students understand. This means I use some very informal in-class assessments like quick-writes, Padlet boards to capture their questions, and even monitoring the conversations in small group discussions. But this also means I use a variety of formal, summative assessments that require students to synthesize their learning.

In other words, yes, I give tests.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Semper Reformanda

I've had people ask me sometimes where the inspiration for blogging comes from. Most of the time, it's something that recently happened, or that I recently read, or a recent conversation that sparks a post. Most of what I'm writing here on the ol' blog is just my way of thinking things through, honestly. But once in a while, I have a post that I've been ruminating on for a long, long time. This is one of those posts.

About a year and a half ago, I was in Iowa City at a conference, and my friends and I stopped in to a coffee shop to grab a cup. It was one of those wonderfully hipster places--definitely catering to the university crowd, you know? But I was surprised and struck by the artwork on the walls. In particular, there was a fantastic update to the classic portrait of Martin Luther that I'm sure you've seen before. But in this piece, Luther is decked out in fashion not that different from the barista who served my pour-over that evening. I pulled out my phone to snap a pic:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Teaching Controversy

I don't generally think of myself as a rabble-rouser, but I wonder sometimes if my students perceive me this way. I know that I do sometimes speak passionately about topics I care a lot about, but I also try to listen at least as much as I speak. The challenge: sometimes the curriculum involves content that is (or could be) controversial, particularly if there are a variety of viewpoints present among the learners.

I had a bit of that feeling in my geography class today. We are examining Latin America right now, and today we were focusing on Mexico. In particular, we were thinking about contemporary issues in Mexico--and, since we are here in the U.S., about Mexico's relationship with the United States. On the docket were things like NAFTA, drugs, and migration. Migration, in particular, has the potential to be politicized very rapidly, so I wanted to handle with care.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Quizzing Basic Knowledge

Over the past 20 years I've served as a professional educator, my thoughts on basic knowledge and skills have fluctuated.

Early in my career, I know I focused a lot on "just the facts." Students in my math classes learned algorithms for solving particular kinds of problems. Students in my science classes memorized a lot of definitions for vocabulary. The idea for me: they have to know the facts! And...perhaps's easier to assess their factual knowledge than the deeper understanding that I hope they will also develop.

Looking back, I now realize that about five years in to my teaching career, a shift began to happen. As I matured as a teacher, I began to de-emphasize basic factual knowledge and instead began to focus more attention on ensuring that students could actually do something with that knowledge. Eventually this meant I embraced standards-based assessment practices for my science classroom, focusing on giving students multiple opportunities to both learn concepts as well as demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I remember having a (somewhat heated) conversation with a colleague during this time in which I said something like, "If they can find the answer on Wikipedia in under 30 seconds, they don't need to memorize it!"

Friday, October 13, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Daring Acts of Pedagogy

Last week I enjoyed attending the Heartland Christian Teachers' Convention held here at Dordt College. They keynote speaker was someone I deeply respect (and...let's be honest...I'm kind of a fanboy) and have followed on Twitter for years: Rick Wormeli. Rick is a gifted presenter, a passionate educator, and an intellectual pot-stirrer. He is unafraid to challenge teachers to rethink their classroom practices, and to not do things just because "we've always done it that way." (Not to say we need to crave novelty...but that we need to be reflective, introspective, and willing to adapt.)

It was great to have Rick here on campus, and I confess, I attended every session he presented. (And live tweeted them...) It wasn't necessarily "new" material for me--I've been reading things he wrote since the mid 2000s when I was doing my Masters degree. But it was good reminders of the things I believe to be true about assessment, about differentiated instruction, about meeting the needs of students, and about teaching for understanding.

As an added bonus, I got to help out with a tech issue, and then took this awesome selfie with Rick:

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Readiness to Learn: A Reflection on the Silage Pile

Last night I had a new experience: I helped cover a silage pile.

You should know that I'm a city kid through-and-through, and even though I've lived in the midwest for quite a few years now, I know next to nothing about farming. But when I had the opportunity to help out with a church fundraiser that involved heading out into the country, I was up for it.

My view from the bottom of the pile, where I was holding down the tarp.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Writing Tests

It's time for our first test of the semester in World Regional Geography. I've spent quite a bit of time over the past few days working on writing it. This perhaps something the non-teachers out there don't realize: writing a (good) test is actually a lot of work!

Yes, I know there are lots of pre-fab tests that come with curriculum materials. In my experience, these vary in quality quite a lot. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are pretty awful. Most are somewhere in between, perhaps with some great questions and some...less great questions.

I generally prefer to write my own tests though, and in this course in particular--while I do have a great text that we're using--I don't have a teacher's manual the way I did when I taught in K-12. And, honestly, I really prefer to write my own test questions anyway.

I've shared my strategies for writing test questions before on this blog, and I'm putting them into practice as I've been working on this test. It's been a timely reminder for me about the challenges of writing good questions: questions that get at what I most highly value, and not just what is easy to measure.

Image by Alberto G. [CC BY 2.0]
(Funny, because I never use Scantron sheets for tests I write...)