Finding Connections: Sometimes it Takes a While

#INFO233 PLN Post 1

For a lot of my teaching career, I was the kind of team member who listened to other peoples’ good ideas and supported them. I just wasn’t really coming up with anything new to add to the pedagogical conversation. My colleagues were already sharing such great ideas, that I had plenty to do to help make their ideas a success. Ideas like:

  • English learners should be developing their cognitive academic language proficiency
  • Let’s share our ideas on a website that we build together
  • Let’s read research to inform our instruction
  • Let’s ask local colleges for advice for how to prepare our students for their courses

Again, there were plenty of high quality ideas to support–and it took work to implement these ideas! It wasn’t until I was finishing up my masters in education that I came across an idea I hadn’t heard my colleagues talking about. I completed my action research project on formative assessments (specifically, how we can use weekly formative assessments to improve writing among English learners). I read from Reeves and DuFour (2 of them!) and Ainsworth and Marzano, and along the way I got the impression that the way I did grades was not ideal for learning. In fact, based on what I was reading, the way a lot of my colleagues did grades was not ideal for learning. I finished my research project/presentation on formative assessments, but what stuck with me was the issue of grading.

So, I read more and I watched videos. I found some great blog posts by Shawn Cornally and I was inspired by the ideas shared by Rick Wormeli on YouTube. Point after point I found myself agreeing with sources I found in books and online. I now had this idea that I thought was GREAT, and I wanted to bring it to my fellow English teachers. I presented this Prezi at a department meeting (I even made it into an exhilarating 22 minute video) with the aim to revolutionize how we grade in order to promote more learning. The reception to this idea was lukewarm. I was able to get the department to agree to some changes to our collective grading practices, but not others. It was clear that no one in my immediate professional learning network (the teachers in my department) was very passionate about this idea that was influencing me and my practice so significantly.

I made some pretty big changes to how I grade, but in the spirit of developing common practices, I didn’t fully run with standards based grading because I felt like I didn’t have many other teachers in my department willing to go along for the ride.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was at a Google Apps for Education conference, and I was stopped in the hall by Natalie Priester. She said something to the effect of: “You’re Anthony Devine. You posted some stuff online about standards based grading, right?” Now, this made quite an impression on me because I hardly expect anyone to remember or remark upon anything I post online (except that my mom is always sure to “like” the pictures I post of my kids to Facebook). But Natalie basically ran with the idea of standards based grading (I think she went well beyond what I’ve done with it). She mentioned coming across my video (linked above) early on in her development of standards based grading practices. She sent me some rubrics that she developed and other materials she made based (in part) on the explanation of standards based grading that I cobbled together from my research.

This interest got me to start thinking again about advocating openly for some changes to the way teachers produce student grades. It took a while, but after experimenting with my grading practices, I wrote this little post to help explain my grading practices to students and parents. And based on that post, I presented earlier this year at a local conference on using our a 4 point grade scale in our electronic grade book (Infinite Campus). In attendance at that session were staff members from an experimental high school within my own district where EVERYONE was giving proficiency grading a try. I loved talking with them about the ins and outs of implementing proficiency/standards based grading in a “traditional” grading world.

One of the outcomes from that presentation was that a colleague of mine who teaches math at that experimental high school, Melanie Ruiz, approached me to co-present on proficiency grading practices this summer. We’re finishing up this website as our presentation tool and our plan is to get teachers to reexamine their grading practices and to adopt some practices that will encourage and value learning more than “traditional” grading practices do.

That’s where I am with this journey with this one idea. And while it’s definitely a story about sticking to an idea that I think is good, it’s also about the fact that finding the people who will connect to an idea with you can take time. My personal learning network did not necessarily gravitate toward supporting this idea at first. That doesn’t mean I abandoned that network! It also doesn’t mean I abandoned the idea. Slowly, over time, I was fortunate enough to add to my network other educators I admire who agree that this idea is a good idea.

In summary, lessons learned from this situation:

  • If you have a good idea, but not many in your immediate PLN agree, stick with it! You may find people later who appreciate your crazy, innovative ideas.
  • Go to conferences! Whether attending sessions or presenting sessions, conferences give you the chance to make personal connections to educators in other schools and districts (and they probably have some great ideas to share).
  • Share your ideas. You may think what you have to say won’t add anything all that great to the conversation, but you’re just wrong! You never know who will latch on to the ideas you have to share. And you never know when you may decide to revisit your old ideas to share again or modify. Just look at this post. The things I’ve linked here go back to 2012 (and that action research project I mentioned was from 2009). Share–join the conversation!
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