Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Pizza Story

The Pizza Story, A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time, in a pizza shop far, far away, pizza makers made pizzas. Not just ordinary pizzas, but extra-deluxe pizzas with tons of toppings, including chocolate sprinkles.

Each pizza shop made a different type of extra-deluxe pizza, depending on the tastes and experiences of the pizza maker.

Then came state pizza standards, and the pizza expectations changed. 
“Extra-deluxe pizza is way too much — no extras like chocolate sprinkles! Making deluxe pizza is OK, but you should all try to make the same deluxe pizza.”  
“Hmm…” thought the pizza makers, “Chocolate sprinkles probably don’t belong on a pizza anyway, but why does our pizza have to be the same as another shop’s pizza?” 
Soon, though, the pizza makers adjusted to making deluxe pizzas according to the same recipe. It wasn’t too bad — there was still a lot of pizza variety and creativity.

Then came district pizza essentials, and the pizza expectations changed again. 
“Deluxe pizza is too much — all those toppings are non-essential (too fancy, too expensive, non-standardized, not very SMART…). Get rid of the toppings and focus on the essential pizza.”  
“That seems kinda harsh,” thought the pizza makers, but eventually they learned to focus on just the essential, no-frills pizza: crust, sauce, and cheese. 
Occasionally, the pizza makers still had enough time to dust the surface of the pizza with a few chopped herbs or red pepper flakes to make the pizza more tasty. 

Then came competition from other industries demanding time and space inside the pizza shop, and the pizza expectations changed again. 
  • “What about something to drink? You can’t serve pizza without a drink. Make sure that you serve some water with the pizza (essential, no-frills water, of course).”
  • “What about some fruits and vegetables to go with that pizza?”
  • “What about events before and after the pizza?”
  • “What about dessert?”
  • “What about a nap?”
  • “What about non-pizza announcements and presentations?”
The list of pizza competitors grew and grew, adding tremendous pressure to the pizza makers’ daily expectations and routines. How would all of this affect the customers?

With myriad demands from different stakeholders both inside and outside the pizza shop, making quality pizzas has become an extraordinary challenge, requiring pizza makers to cut into the very essence of pizza itself. The choices pizza makers face today are limited and often paradoxical — ultimately they make no one (except maybe the crust, sauce, and cheese corporations and their lobbyists) happy…
“I guess I’ll just have to take away something from the essential pizza,” says the pizza maker. But if you take away the crust, sauce, or cheese, it’s no longer a pizza. What happens when a pizza is no longer a pizza? 
“I’ll serve smaller pizzas,” says the pizza maker. But then customers only get a small bite, and leave feeling hungry. It’s better than nothing, right? What happens when customers are deprived of their recommended daily serving of pizza? 
“I’ll hand out the essential pizza ingredients in the pizza shop, then have my customers bake the pizza at home. We’ll call it the Homework Pizza,” says the pizza maker. But it takes hours to bake pizzas at home, some customers don’t have pizza ovens, and some customers prefer going out to other restaurants rather than staying home and baking pizza. What happens when customers balk at having too much pizza homework? 
“I’ll ask my customers to gather the essential ingredients, bake, and eat the pizza at home, then we can discuss the pizza in the pizza shop tomorrow. We’ll call it the Flipped Pizza,” says the pizza maker. But then the pizza shop is no longer necessary. What happens when no one makes pizza and just wants dessert? 
“My customers didn’t show up today, so I’ll excuse them from their daily pizza,” says the pizza maker. But then we starve our customers. What do we do for customers who frequently miss their essential pizza shop visits?
It’s really tough being a pizza maker these days. I feel sad for the pizza makers and their customers. I hope stuff like this doesn’t happen in schools…

Saturday, August 23, 2014

One Word

Inspired by a post on Edutopia's Twitter feed:
"What's your ONE WORD for the 2014-2015 school year?"

I asked 8th graders this simple question on the first day of school, and they each wrote their word on a sticky note. Here are the results:

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I'm Not a Scientist

Image courtesy of: Wikipedia
Recently a group of national-level politicians has recklessly embraced a “I’m not a scientist” mantra in order to avoid any meaningful dialogue about global climate change, its impacts, and steps we should be taking to mitigate its effects. Hiding behind a shield of “I’m not a scientist” is cowardly, incurious, and irresponsible.

Dear "Leaders" — We’ve entrusted you to represent the best interests of "We the People" in a mature and honorable manner. Your ignorance (real or feigned) should not be an excuse for inaction on global climate change (or any other issue you may find distasteful to your privileged status). Avoiding the consensus of thousands of scientific experts and the overwhelming abundance of climate data collected from around the world is criminally negligent and morally bankrupt.

Sadly, we elected you, so a portion of the blame lies with us. We deserve better, but it appears we’re willing to settle for mediocre charlatans who force us to fiddle while the planet burns.

“At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past.” — Maurice Maeterlinck, Author

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” —Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US Senator

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

Saturday, April 5, 2014


This week, I heard teachers described as "self-aggrandizing whiners." That's quite the turn of phrase. During times of anger and frustration, it's easy to attack semi-anonymous, semi-faceless groups of people—but words matter, and words hurt.

Self-aggrandizing whiners. These three words were used to vilify a dedicated team of professionals who struggle to motivate, nurture, and teach children. We're not perfect, we're not superheroes, but we are trying our best under often-trying circumstances.

Are we going to fail occasionally? Certainly.
Are we going to agonize and punish ourselves over our mistakes? Definitely.
Are we going to try to make things better and do things differently? Absolutely!

This is as much a reminder to myself as it is to others: Even during the most challenging times, we need to show patience, empathy, and respect. We're all in this struggle together.

A mentor once told me that teaching requires you to develop a thick skin. I originally thought that meant wearing invisible armor to protect oneself from attacks, but now I realize the thick skin is scar tissue built up over time from repeated wounds and injuries—painful memories that fade ever-so-slowly, but which never completely disappear.

I'll stop whining now...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cosmos Redux

"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."
—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

His eloquence capturing my curiosity and imagination, Carl Sagan is one of my all-time favorite scientists. His cosmic journeys stirred my sense of wonder about the universe and solidified my lifelong passion for science. How fitting that one of my other all-time favorite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, should revisit and revise this cosmic journey that Sagan began 30+ years ago. The newly-launched Cosmos is once again stirring my imagination and reviving that sense of wonder I first felt decades ago. Cosmos, both the original series and the new series, should be required reading and viewing for "every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner."*

*Excerpted from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech (with apologies)

Our cosmic journey just got more interesting this week with the announcement of confirmatory experimental evidence for a key piece of the Big Bang Theory, the scientific explanation for the origin and evolution of our universe. Scientists used careful telescopic observations to detect faint ripples that emanated from the inflationary expansion of our universe in its nascent micro-moments. While behind most humans' everyday experience, this new knowledge is a triumph and celebration for astrophysicists who have sought to understand the very beginnings of this universe in which we exist. Carl Sagan would smile with this astonishing discovery.

Thank you to all scientists who dare ask bold, audacious questions about our universe and who courageously seek the truth amidst the mystery of the unknown—despite the charlatans who would endeavor to discredit you. You inspire us!

Excellent explanations about this week's discovery about cosmic inflation have been produced by:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Science?

Having endured (survived?) two weeks of state testing—with an additional week yet to go—I feel starved for nourishing, hopeful science.

For 15 years now, I've seen firsthand the damage wrought by standardized testing. These tests stifle creativity, curiosity, and the human desire to understand and discover—in both students and teachers. Learning is reduced to its lowest forms: to the memorization and regurgitation of bland facts; to mindless reading and writing and bubbling with wooden, graphite-based, number 2 pencils; to the measurement of socioeconomic wealth and privilege disguised as "assessment." Is it any wonder that our educational system continues to suffer under this "Race to the Top" where "No Child's Left Behind"?

So then... Why does science matter: to me, to our students, to our economy, to our society, to our planet? Where is the purpose and hope for science in our schools and in our lives?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once again eloquently explains why science and science literacy matter in both a democratic society and our human quest to understand the universe:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Existential Questions

Existential questions for a K-8 school pondering its vision and identity:

Who Are We?
  • as a school
  • as a level (middle, elementary)
  • as a department
  • as a team
  • as a community

Who Am I?
  • within the school
  • within my level (middle, elementary)
  • within my department
  • within my team
  • as an individual

What does it say about ourselves and our culture if I/we struggle to answer these fundamental questions? (confidence, trust, self esteem, efficacy, consciousness, interdependence, etc.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Long Standards-Based Journey

Our school has undertaken many journeys over the years. One particularly long and turbulent journey has centered on standards-based grading (SBG). Here are some of my thoughts about this ongoing journey—what SBG and its expectations are, what a transition to a new grade reporting system might entail, and best hopes vs. worst fears for our continuing SBG saga.

Our SBG Philosophy

We strive to use a standards-based grading system to provide feedback to students and parents about a child’s learning progress. A child’s learning is assessed in two ways: his or her progress toward meeting national, state, and/or district content standards (formative assessments), and his or her mastery of national, state, and/or district content standards (summative assessments). Teachers use a variety of formal and informal assessments to provide children with timely, effective, and ongoing feedback to guide them on their lifelong learning journeys.

Formal and informal assessments can include reading and writing tasks, inquiry-based investigations, short- and long-term projects, discussions, conversations, performances, homework tasks, quizzes, tests, observations, peer- and self-evaluations, etc.

Traditional grading systems use A, B, C, D, F to quantify a student’s progress. While our online grading system stills uses A, B, C, D, F to report end-of-trimester progress, the underlying meaning behind these letter grades has shifted. In a standards-based system, teachers are focused on how proficient students are at meeting standards, rather than degree of effort or accumulation of points. In general, letter grades can be interpreted in the following standards-based ways (notice that “B” is equivalent to “proficient”):

  • A: above proficient, exceeds standards
  • B: proficient, meets standards
  • C: partially proficient, shows progress toward meeting standards
  • D: unsatisfactory, struggling to meet standards, little data to evaluate
  • F: failing, not meeting standards, no data to evaluate

In a standards-based system, extra credit is not available to boost grades, since grades are based on learning mastery.

Basic SBG Expectations

1. Each middle level department creates their formative, summative, PPQ (practice/preparation/quality) percentages and expectations for the online grading system.
  • Each content area and teacher may have slightly different grading expectations, which are usually provided to each student and discussed at the beginning of the course. Information about expectations can also be found in online weekly notes and on teacher websites.

2. At our school, we allow students to “redo” their assignments to ensure that students are learning the concepts, skills, and knowledge.
  • Redos are offered at teacher discretion (see individual classroom expectations and redo policies).
  • Redos are not automatic for every assignment.
  • Redos can only be offered when honest effort has been made on the original assignment (encourages honesty and integrity; discourages procrastination and laziness).
  • Redos occur under logical conditions and within reasonable time frames (avoids end-of-trimester panics).
  • Redo opportunities may differ from the original assignment: a different assessment, a different format, etc.

3. No “zeros” policy.
  • Reference: Reeves, D., “The Case Against the Zero,” Phi Delta Kappan, 2004.
  • On a 10-point (or 100-point) scale, zeros skew grades disproportionately downward when averaged among other assignments.
  • Zeros reinforce the concept of grades as punishment—they de-motivate students, and probably exacerbate missing assignments (“Why bother?”).
  • Zeros could be used on a 4-point (0, 1, 2, 3) or a 5-point scale (0, 1, 2, 3, 4).

4. Other.
  • In a standards-based system, extra credit is not available.

Grade Reporting vs. Feedback

Our biggest struggle as a teaching staff has been grappling with our grade reporting system. We are caught between  maintaining the current, traditional grading system (A, B, C, D, F) and moving toward one that is wholly standards based with detailed feedback about student learning. This has led to some difficult conversations—overall, there is a reluctance to fully embrace a standards-based reporting system at our school despite many years of trying to move in this direction.

What tasks/training/timeline are necessary to either maintain our current grading system or transition to a new system?

Current System
  • streamline and clarify language to minimize student/parent confusion
  • be clear about the impacts of missing assignments
  • use common language around “learning” vs. “grading”
  • continue professional development around effective feedback

4, 3, 2, 1, 0 System
  • create standard definitions for each point on the scale
  • set up new grading scale for our school in our online grading system
  • set up new gradebooks in our online grading system
  • rewrite course syllabi
  • rewrite student/parent handbook

Feedback-Only System
  • define a feedback-only system
  • train teachers on providing effective feedback in a non-grade environment
  • set up new grading scale for our school in our online grading system
  • set up new gradebooks in our online grading system
  • create/maintain student portfolios
  • rewrite course syllabi
  • rewrite student/parent handbook

What are the best hopes and worst fears as we continue our SBG journey?

Best Hopes
  • conversations/conferences will center around learning, not grades
  • motivation for learning will shift from extrinsic (rewards-based and competition-based) to intrinsic (curiosity, hunger to learn)
  • grades will no longer be used as carrots and sticks, instruments of control and compliance, reward and punishment
  • reporting systems will shift from Ds/Fs and missing assignments to feedback about a child’s strengths and opportunities for growth

Worst Fears
  • students won’t be prepared for high school’s A, B, C system, and high school won’t take the time to explain their system
  • “Is that an ‘A’?” (students/parents retaining a traditional grading mindset)
  • creating community confusion, anger, and backlash
  • making our school less attractive to prospective families
  • polarized beliefs about grades will damage relationships among teaching staff
  • status quo continues
  • district, administrators, parents, students won’t support a new system