Archive | April, 2014

Measurements Gone Wild–How Assessment Can Send You Down the Path of Darkness

30 Apr
Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Math Fact Test, by Judy Baxter, from Flickr

Pardon me for the dramatic title, but I don’t think it’s overstated.  In America, we love data.  We love to track what we eat, count how many people visit our website, and test our kids endlessly.  We make important decisions from these numbers.  The scale is up?  Cut back on carbs for a while.  Did you see a spike in traffic?  Iterate on that last post.  Kids are doing poorly in math?  Time to shorten recess and add in weekly times-tests.

What happens the next week/month/year?  Too often it’s…nothing.  The scale is still up, the website hasn’t taken off, our kids are still stagnating in the bottom half of the world in math achievement.  Our response?  Cut out more carbs, eliminate recess altogether, etc, etc.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, America is one crazy country.  We’ve been railing against the achievement gap and low reading proficiency rates for decades, and our response has been to do more of the same.  No Child Left Behind brought in a surge of standardized testing and accountability, some of which was enlightening.  Disaggregating data by income level, English level, and racial group highlighted the disparity in achievement, especially in schools that were considered “high performing” and then were revealed to be failing their neediest children.  Data and accountability  are important for any program.

But are we looking at the right data?  Eduardo Briceno, the cofounder of Mindset Works, began a recent post on assessment with this quote: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.  That quote encapsulates the current data crisis neatly–we are counting what can be easily counted, not what really matters.

Briceno’s article goes on to discuss the idea that important elements of success–creativity, collaboration and communication skills, mindset–cannot be easily assessed, and thus aren’t.  It’s easy to know if a student can answer, “what’s 5 x 7” or “Henry the XIII led which church reform?” but it’s much harder to know if a child will persevere after hitting a setback.  It’s easy to tell if a child can correctly tell you what’s wrong with the sentence, “Elizabeth runned for the ball.” but harder to know if she could write a complex paragraph on her own.  The result?  We test what’s easy–multiplication facts, punctuation–but not what’s difficult.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to know how to multiply and punctuate.  Those are important skills.  But they’re low level skills, and if we stop there, we’re in real trouble once we leave the cocooned confines of the classroom.

Finland, long held up as a model of educational success, does things totally differently.  Finland engages a number of positive educational practices, like lengthy teacher preparation programs, small classes sizes, and equitable funding, but Finland also assesses totally differently.  While America has been ratcheting up the testing, Finland has been pulling back.  The results?  Finland leads achievement on the PISA, an international assessment of math, reading and science, whereas the US is stagnating below the mean.

top-ten-pisa-scores1Linda Darling-Hammond, a Professor of Education at Stanford University, shares how,

There are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland, and most teacher feedback to students is in narrative form, emphasizing descriptions of their learning progress and areas for growth. …samples of students are evaluated on open-ended assessments at the end of the second and ninth grades to inform curriculum and school investments. The focus is on using information to drive learning and problem-solving, rather than punishment. NEAToday, October, 2010.

By using open-ended assessment and teacher feedback in narrative form, Finland is able to assess a much broader scope of skills than our standardized tests can handle.  The result?  Their teaching focuses on a broader, more complex set of skills.

In America, assessment is the tail that wags the dog.  Whatever we test, we teach.  We have to, with curriculum, school rankings, and salaries all tied to those assessments.  Testing what’s easy is cheap in the short term, but expensive in the long term as we emphasize low-level skills.  So let’s use those tests for good.  Let’s test what we really care about–discrete skills, like multiplication, but also complex thinking, problem solving, collaboration.  Let’s put our minds to work to come up with solutions for how tests can be comprehensive, but also economical, rather than coming up with more carrot and stick measures for schools.  Let’s measure what’s really important so that we can teach what matters.

Learn Like a Toddler

28 Apr

Two weeks ago, I watched a toddler climb to the top of my stairs, and immediately begin to climb back down.  She was quick and full of enthusiasm to conquer the stair mountain.

But the steps were a little too large for her tiny legs, and she tripped on one and fell headfirst.  Luckily, her mom was right beneath to catch her.

What did she do next?  She ran right back up the stairs to climb down again.  In fact, she climbed up and down those stairs more than ten additional times.

Adults are programmed to avoid failure, but we don’t start out that way.  My wonderful school psychologist used to tell the staff, “think about how many times children fall while learning to walk.  Have we ever seen a child who gave up and decided walking just wasn’t for him?”  No, of course not (children may give up momentarily, but not permanently).  Walking is an incredibly difficult task for someone whose leg muscles are still developing and whose head is disproportionately large (compared to adults), but children try, try, and try again until they get it right.

How do they get that resilience?  Children are very motivated, and they do usually have a lot of support, but small children are also buffeted by failure on a daily basis.  For a 2 year old, failure is a part of life–not something shameful or hurtful.  They are protected from the negative psychological aspects of failure by its sheer frequency, and are free to reap the ultimate rewards of failing at something repeatedly–learning and succeeding.

There are a lot of examples of famous individuals failing their way to success nowadays, from Michael Jordan, to Oprah, to Einstein.

J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard was on the importance of failure.

But all failure is not created equal.  There are some important differences between people who fail well, and those who just…fail.

1. Those who fail well…try again.

Sir James Dyson had 5,126 failed versions of his vacuum cleaner before he found success on the 5,127th try.  Randy Nelson, of Pixar University, talks about how the core of innovation is not failure-avoidance, it’s error recovery.  

There’s little benefit to failing if you then give up.  The benefit comes from getting up and trying again.

2.  Those who fail well…redefine failure as information-gathering or a challenge.  

When asked how he endured such a string of failures without giving up, Dyson said, “We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.”  

There’s no such thing as failure in the scientific process–instead you “disprove a hypothesis” which provides you with more information so you can move forward.

3. Those who fail well…reflect and iterate.

Failing well doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over until you succeed.  That toddler I mentioned in the beginning?  The second time she tried to go down the stairs, she asked her mother to hold one hand for balance.  She practiced with this new support multiple times before she attempted (and succeeded!) at descending solo again.

Iteration is a core principal of design thinking, an increasingly popular approach to solving problems and fostering creativity.

The language of design thinking, “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test,” imply that a solution is almost never “perfect” or “complete.”  Everything is a work in progress–a much different way of framing a task than the binary “failure” or “success.”

What happens that takes away children’s resilience to failure, they’re innate tendency to see a roadblock as something temporary on their road to success?  Maybe it’s the adults.  When we start putting an emphasis on the “final score,” or “grade,” children receive the message that failure is bad.  Rather than spurring creativity, or being part of the learning process, failure becomes a signal that they are intellectually, physically, or sometimes even morally deficit.

Failure is inevitable in a lifetime.  Repeated failure.  The question becomes, how are we going to react to it?  When that two-year-old fell down the stairs, the adults’ reaction was encouragement and support.  It was more impressive that she had failed and tried again than if she’d effortlessly run down the first time.  No one really cared if she got down these stairs this time–it was her enthusiasm and the process that mattered.

So in the future, I’ll try to keep her in mind.  I’ll try to learn like a toddler.  


Teach Like a New Mom

26 Apr


Smiling_baby, from Flickr

Smiling_baby, from Flickr

Today I found myself once again praising my infant daughter for something she hadn’t actually accomplished:

“Look at that smile!  It’s almost there!  It’s 50% there, can you try for 60%?  Is it a little bigger?  You can do it!  Show me that smile!”  The day is filled with exclamations over her attempts and approximations.

Can you imagine doing that with a teenager, or an adult?  Probably not.

When children are very small, we observe them closely for every developmental milestone, and we praise every effort they make effusively.  That switches at some point, probably around the time they enter school.  Then, buffeted by external expectations, state standards, and peer-to-peer comparisons, it becomes more about what children can’t do than what they can do or are close to doing.  “She doesn’t know all of her letters,”  “He can’t keep his hands to himself,”  “They don’t comprehend what they read.”

What if we returned to “new mom” status in the way we teach?  New parents automatically engage highly effective techniques to teach their small children.

1) New parents observe their children closely.

New parents watch their babies for every tiny developmental growth.  Is she holding her head up for a few moments longer?  Is his gaze more directly focused on people?  Is she grasping objects deliberately now?  Teaching is most effective when it’s targeted at a child’s zone of proximal development–or aimed exactly at a level just above what he or she is doing independently.  To be that targeted, you have to closely observe children to know what they’re doing on their own, and what they could accomplish with just a little push.

2) New parents are strengths-based.

New parents look for what their son or daughter is accomplishing or attempting.  Instead of saying, “She’s not crawling,”  a new parent says, “look at you, pushing up on your arms and rocking back and forth!  You can do it baby, you can come forward!”  Instead of telling a student or older child, “Your essay is choppy,” we might try, “You have a lot of information and facts in your essay!  Now you can add in some transition words to help it flow.”

3) New parents allow children to practice.

I’ve yet to meet the parent of a baby who would say, “I showed her how to roll over once and she’s still not doing it.  I already taught that!”  Parents know small children need to see and practice new skills over and over again until they become automatic.  If a child can’t do something, it’s not because he was lazy or not paying attention, it’s because he needs more time and help.  That doesn’t change as children grow older.  Teaching a student how to paragraph an essay just once is like trying to show a baby how to walk in an hour–unlikely to be successful!

Parents help children learn social skills, academic skills, and physical skills.  They do it by teaching children in a way that comes naturally, without the pressure of high-stakes testing or pay-for-performance.  And they do it well.

Is a Cardboard Box the Greatest Tool for Creativity Ever?

16 Apr

Cardboard boxes, usually reserved for camp building materials or the recycle bin, have experienced a resurgence in popularity as a tool for sparking creativity.  Two years ago, “Caine’s Arcade” – a video about how a nine year old named Caine created a cardboard arcade in his dad’s automotive shop, went viral.

That sparked the creation of the “Global Cardboard Challenge” where kids of all ages use cardboard boxes to create whatever they want–the only limit is their imagination.  Check out this functioning cardboard piano, made by Hannah Jenkins at the Denver challenge:

And it’s not just kids getting in on the cardboard fun.  Cardboardboxoffice, a blog now up for a 2014 Webby award, is a series of photos recreating famous scenes from movies using just cardboard and common household items.  Some of my favorites are:

back to the cute-ture, from

back to the cute-ture, from

Castababy, from

Castababy, from

wah wars, from

wah wars, from

Lilly and Leon, the creators of say the project came about because they had just moved (hence a lot of cardboard boxes) and had a new baby (somewhat housebound.)  Creativity does often spring from necessity!

There are even Pinterest boards devoted to cardboard creativity, like 101 things to do with a cardboard box, and, for the really advanced, cardboard.

I love cardboard projects because they grow a lot of skills that we often teach separately in school and at home.  Just think about Lilly and Leon’s cardboard movie scenes, or Caine’s arcade.  To accomplish those projects, they needed to:

1. Think flexibly – use the materials available to them.

2. Make a plan

3. Persevere over many hours or days

4. Develop construction skills (sizing, cutting, combining, etc.)

5. Think about the user or viewer (develop perspective)

6. Troubleshoot their designs.

and for parents out there…when children play with cardboard they develop ways to entertain themselves.

Cardboard is the exact opposite of many of the toys and tools for children (and adults) that are marketed nowadays.  It’s non-specific–it doesn’t have a set purpose or application.  It’s not particularly technical.  And it’s cheap. These three qualities–adaptability, simplicity, and economy, allow people to tinker and play with cardboard in a way that’s not possible with a lot of current educational or recreational products.

Of course, cardboard’s not the only material you can do this with.  Anything that is adaptable, simple and cheap will do.  I have a friend who said his greatest toy as a child was a stick.  That stick could do anything–be a wand, a support structure for a tent, or a tool to terrorize his younger brother.  Endless possibilities.  And check out the amazing things one child (and her mother) accomplished with cardboard’s cousin–paper.

@2sisters_angie, from

@2sisters_angie, from


We have more and more gadgets and super-duper-fancy toys today than ever before.  Looking at what all of these kids and adults have done makes me wonder if we need less of that stuff and more of the good-old-fashioned cardboard + imagination.

Gender Stereotypes and Disney’s Frozen

13 Apr

Teachers are used to using touchstone texts to teach children–books they go back to over and over again to teach reading skills and strategies.  The benefit is that once children know a story very well, they can stop reading (or listening) just for plot, and start to do some deeper thinking work.  The same can be true of films.  Once a child has seen a film once (or 10 times, since kids like repetition) they can start to go beyond their first impressions.

Previously I talked about using Frozen to introduce children to the idea that characters are complicated–how they are on the inside doesn’t necessarily match what they do, say, or look like.  We can also use Frozen to introduce children to the idea of gender stereotypes.

Much has been made of the role of the two main characters, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna.  Some laud Disney for finally breaking out of the traditional helpless-princess-waiting-for-her-prince stereotype, whereas others blast the film for teaching children (girls in particular) that heroines are always beautiful, helpless without a man, and mostly just out to find their prince.

The controversy makes this a great film to both look at how women are stereotyped (or not) and for children to form and defend their own opinions based on evidence.  Both are important skills for students in the new Common Core State Standards.

How can we help children begin to think about the role of women using Frozen? We might start by using a story they know very well with a clear gender disparity–say, Cinderella.  Cinderella suggests some pretty crazy ideas about women, such as:

  • women’s role is domestic–cleaning, cooking, caring for the house
  • the goal of a woman is to marry well (a prince if you can!)
  • it takes an enchanted dress to catch said prince
  • ugly on the outside = ugly on the inside (stepsisters and stepmother) and vice versa

Cinderella is about as anti-feminist a fairy tale as you can get.  Then we look at a film that is one of the most feminist of the cartoons Disney has made–Mulan.  Here we have a heroine who:

  • fights a war in disguise to save her father
  • saves the hero, and leads the fight to take back the palace and save the emperor
  • rejects the traditional role of subservient daughter whose main goal is to make a match

(Some will disagree with me that Mulan is a feminist film, which is fine.  If you don’t like Mulan as an example, you can always go with The Paperbag Princess, where the prince needs rescuing from a dragon and the plucky princess saves the day, turning the traditional princess tale on its head).

After using these two tales as models, we could then look at Frozen.  We could show some clips from the film and have the children discuss if they promoted gender stereotypes or subverted them.

Clips that  promote stereotypes could be:

  • where Elsa sings “Let it Go and changes from a buttoned up, repressed princess to a sexy siren.  Seriously–why does “letting go” involved sashaying hips, whipping free your long blond hair, and a slit up to the thigh on a sexy sparkling dress?

  • Anna and Kristoff’s meeting and first song about true love.  Sure, this is ultimately sort of a parody on Disney princess and love at first sight, but it doesn’t negate the fact that one of Anna’s main goals in life is to meet a man and get married.

Clips that might support the idea that Frozen is a feminist film:

  • when Anna goes in search of her sister alone, leaving the male (Hans) to watch the castle
  • When Anna chooses to save her sister rather than run to her man (Kristoff) ultimately saving herself.
  •  Elsa saves Anna with true love’s kiss-the love of a sister, not a man, being the important distinction.

Students could also discuss elements that run through the whole movie–how this is a film where the two main characters are both female (pro-feminist) or how those female characters are both drawn in exaggerated proportions, where there eyes are bigger than their wrists and the fact that they’re tiny compared to the men (pro-stereotype.)

by Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Anna in Frozen: Her Eyes are Bigger Than Her Wrists,

Whole class discussion, complete with t-charts and partner conversation, could lead to class debates and finally individual essays where students argue and support their opinion about the film.  The important idea isn’t whether or not Frozen is actually a feminist movie or promoting stereotypes, it’s the idea that children can be noticing how the sexes are portrayed in films and then forming (and defending) their opinion.


Teaching Character Analysis Through Disney’s “Frozen”

10 Apr

I finally watched Frozen last week.  After having my fourth grade students repeatedly sing and dance to Let it Go at every lunch, I had to see if it lived up to its hype.

It was pretty cute, I enjoyed it.  My husband, who usually hates musicals, won’t stop imitating Olaf (should I be worried that he identifies most with the talking snowman?) and he actually watched the Youtube version of Let it Go where singers from different countries are dubbing the song in their own language.

So it really has a broad appeal.   But enough of the free Disney advertising–how can we capitalize on Frozen‘s popularity to teach kids some complex literary analysis skills?

Frozen is practically shouting for us to do some character analysis.  So many of the character’s outsides (looks and actions) contradict their insides (thoughts and feelings).  Just read the character descriptions from Disney

  • Elsa – From the outside, Elsa looks poised, regal, and reserved, but in reality, she lives in fear as she wrestles with a mighty secret.
  • The Duke of Weselton – What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in arrogance and boasting.

Queen looks confident and mature, but she’s actually lonely and frightened.  The Duke of Weselton acts like he has power and influence, but there’s not much evidence he actually does in the film.  Plus his small physical presence makes his oversized ego all the more ridiculous. Not to mention Prince Hans, whose good looks and Prince Charming manners hide an inner villainy.

Students in upper elementary reading levels need to start recognizing that what a character says doesn’t always match what he or she is really thinking or feeling.  They need to be on the lookout for inconsistencies in what they know about a character, and then evaluate what they think the real truth is.  Frozen is a perfect opportunity to do some of this analysis using exaggerated characters and events, before students move on to more subtle literature.

How can we help them see the contrast? We could do a simple three column chart, with character appearance, actions, and thoughts/feelings in each column.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.10.50 PM

If your students need something more visually concrete, you can create “inside/outside” pictures, which contrast what a character looks like on the outside, with what they might look like if it reflected their inside.  Disney actually has the perfect model with Elsa.  Contrast her appearance in the beginning, when she’s feeling isolated and repressed

Elsa’s coronation [Frozen] by DarikaArt from Flickr

to how she’s portrayed when she decides to revel in her abilities. from Flickr from Flickr

I can imagine students coming up with amazing posters, like this (with adjectives at the bottom to help them use more specific, true words in their discussions and writing):


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.29.40 PM

It could be a lot of fun, and it’s an accessible way to introduce students to some of the more complex character work we want them to dive into.

Using Love That Dog to Inspire Young Poets

8 Apr

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April is poetry month–you can check out my guest post on the “All Things Upper Elementary” blog to read how you can use Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog to help your students learn how to mentor off of great poets!


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