Group Work That Works: Agile for Authentic Learning

The traditional, and widely-accepted, model of group work in the classroom encourages teachers to group students in teams of three to five, and to assign a role to each student. The reality is that, without fail, there’s always one student who ends up shouldering much of the work and there’s always at least one student who does very little. The former is viewed as an overachiever, and the latter a slacker, when in reality, the constant ineffectiveness of the model is a flaw of the model itself, and not necessarily its participants. 

True collaboration is an incredibly valuable skill, and when we give students the opportunity to practice it, we give them the tools to do meaningful work right now. Isn’t it time that the way we teach group work mirrors how students will be expected to collaborate within the workplace? 

Agile is a way of doing work that values flexibility, efficiency, and responding to change. It is used in software development and start-ups all over the world to help teams collaborate effectively in order to deliver the best product possible in the shortest amount of time. 

In Scrum, students begin by creating a product backlog, where they break down their long-term project into smaller deliverable products that could be considered complete on their own. From there, students prioritize these products and build their first sprint by breaking down the highest priority items into actionable tasks that comprise their sprint backlog. From there, students get to work. 

During a sprint (typically lasting from three to five class periods), students tackle the actionable tasks in their sprint backlog. Each student selects one task at a time and pursues completion of that task with laser focus until it is done. Upon completion, they move the task to Review, where it will be signed off by another team member before being deemed “Done.” The student then chooses another task, and the process continues throughout the course of the sprint. 

There are many reasons to use Scrum or another Agile methodology in your classroom. Here are my top five reasons:

 Agile is real-world. Both the CSTA standards and current research support the addition of authentic, large scale projects that allow students to develop computational artifacts for society. When we teach students agile, we allow them to experience industry-specific processes, preparing them to seamlessly transition into the workplace. 

Students have authentic buy-in to the work they are doing. In Scrum, members of the development team (in this case, our students) have a say in which tasks they own, instead of the teacher assigning static roles. They have the flexibility to try out different tasks, and because they have a voice in what they’re doing, the team manages itself. 

The Scrum framework makes project management a breeze. With the use of a Scrum board, students create a visual artifact to manage their tasks. This serves many purposes; it helps the team to manage their work, of course, but it also aids in classroom management and assessment. If a student is off task, a quick glance at their board gives insight into what they’re supposed to be working on. If a group is falling behind, it’s easy to pull a small group meeting to troubleshoot. For assessment, the Scrum board provides a record of exactly what each student contributed to the final product, allowing assessment of their individual work instead of just giving every student the same grade. 

With multiple feedback loops, students learn that continuous improvement is the gold standard. I constantly hear “I’m done” from my students. I like to remind them that in software, we’re never truly “done.” After all, if Apple decided they were “done” with the first iPhone, we would have missed out on a lot! Because Scrum operates in sprints in which students are constantly producing deliverable products, they are challenged to continually reflect on both their process and product. Through Daily Scrum Meetings and Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives, reflection plays a key role in meeting the client’s needs while fine-tuning the process to yield higher efficiency. 

Skills learned through Scrum are transferrable. By this point, we’ve all conceded that not every student in our classroom will become a software engineer. Regardless, all students benefit from learning how to prioritize that which is most important and to work intently on only one thing until it is completed. Learning how to prioritize and developing laser focus are skills that will serve our students well no matter what career path they choose. And, you’re sure to change the way they look at group projects forever.

This article originally appeared in the CSTA Voice.

Halfway Point!

Running is one of my favorite things to do. I’m not particularly good at it (my motto used to be “not fast, not last”), but it makes for a wonderful way to destress and get some much needed alone time all while prioritizing my fitness. I’ve run seven marathons and a handful of half marathons, and I genuinely enjoy the community and sense of accomplishment I feel while long distance running.

My major running goal this year is to complete two half marathons and a full marathon while completing training plans for each. And while, yes, a training plan is typically a prerequisite to run a race of that magnitude, I’ve developed a nasty habit of running long distances under- (and occasionally even un-) trained.

I’m about five weeks into my first training plan in preparation for the Charlottesville Half Marathon, and I’m right on track with my Nike Run Club app. Their training programs are free, customized (using an algorithm – isn’t computer science cool?!), and adjust as you progress through the program to make pace and distance suggestions.

Anytime you run with Nike Run Club, there’s an excited, nice voice that alerts you when you’re halfway done with the run you set out to do. The cheerful “Halfway Point!” serves several purposes, and I always look forward to it. Not only do I learn my pace up until that point, but it’s a reminder to reflect on the work done so far and to adjust if necessary to reach my goal.

For me, the “Halfway Point!” of the school year comes this week. As my classes are semester courses, I’ll be getting a whole new group of students and starting my courses from the beginning. Just like a run, the semester change is a great time to reflect on the first half of the school year, adjust as necessary, and ensure that the second half of the school year is even better than the first.

But you don’t need to teach a semester class to make adjustments. A fresh semester gives every educator the opportunity to reflect, identify, and adjust to finish the school year off strong.

Reflect. Once the grade book is closed, grab a cup of coffee and a notebook, and write down your wins and lessons learned from the past semester. What went exceptionally well? What did you try that didn’t go as planned? What new ideas did you mean to implement, but just fell to the back burner? Take a few minutes to brain dump whatever comes to mind for each of these categories.

Identify. After you have your initial list, spend a few minutes writing down the “why” behind each of your identified wins, lessons learned, and things you didn’t get to. If a lesson didn’t work out, could a small tweak make it shine? Did you leave a new tool in your “to do” list for the entire semester because you never made time to implement or because you need additional training to make it happen? Identifying the why is critical to choosing which areas you’ll take on for growth in the coming months.

Adjust. Finally, choose up to three items you identified to take action on. I like to take a highlighter to my reflection list. Once you have up to three lessons or new ideas selected, write down three small actions you could take this week to start making those changes a reality. 

Finally — DO SOMETHING! Give yourself a deadline on those action steps you just listed, and start to make moves. If you take the time to reflect without actually using it to change your practice, then you’ve wasted valuable time… and as teachers, we know that time is one resource that is too precious to waste.

The 21st century educator

So often in education, we talk about “21st century skills.” We want our children to have access to learning that best prepares them for the career landscape that they are destined to enter. Very little is said, however, about the 21st century educator. While identifying key skills is critical, it’s equally important that educators adapt to be able to best deliver a meaningful education experience for every child.

The purpose of education is to foster growth and development of the whole child. To ensure that they’re challenged academically, but to also meet their needs socially, emotionally, and morally. Education should involve creation, innovation, safety, failure, growth, and character. Our students inherently love to learn; the role of an educator is to create a space where students are inspired to pursue that love for learning while fostering their passions.

As educators, we must value curiosity, collaboration, tenacity, and fun. School should be challenging, applicable to the real world, and student-centered. As our students’ needs change, educators must be curators of information rather than be-all-end-all deliverers of information. Our students deserve to do meaningful work that they can be proud of. Project-based learning offers the best opportunity for students to draw real-world connections to what they are learning, and must be included within a well-rounded curriculum.

Relationships and class culture are central to our work. Students are people first and learners second; without building a relationship of mutual trust and respect it is nearly impossible to foster a community of learners. For this reason, time must be taken each school year to foster community through class building and character building activities. All students should enter their classroom feeling safe to learn, fail, succeed, and grow.

Rigorous, challenging work is crucial. Tenacity is a muscle that students must build, and we must place emphasis on challenging work that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Because tenacity has been found to be the number one predictor of success in every area of life, it should be a central focus within every classroom. Tenacity is built through challenging, meaningful assignments that students can redo/upgrade as many times as necessary to grasp the concepts/standards.

All children learn at a different pace, and strictly adhering to an assessment schedule that does not allow for different paces of learning stifles growth mindset. As educators, we must recognize that just because a student does not grasp a concept by test time does not mean that they should move on and give up on attaining mastery of that concept. Mastery does not have a deadline, and grades should be updated to reflect current understanding of material.

Passion for learning must be a core value of each educator. Curiosity and excitement surrounding learning is critical in communicating to our students that learning never stops. Educators should be lifelong learners, and commitment to continuous growth through professional development opportunities should be celebrated.

Finally, school should be fun. Our classrooms should include jokes, lessons that inspire a sense of wonder, and make our kids want to run to class so they don’t miss anything. Joy should be something we strive to inspire, whether it be through good music, a welcoming space, dressing up as a character for a lesson, playing games, or bringing snacks.

At their core, the 21st century educator is flexible, curious, and, most importantly, forever a student of their craft.

Kickstart their love of coding: Two free resources and a gift idea!

As a middle school computer science teacher, I am often asked to recommend resources for kids who want to get their feet wet with coding. While it is my hope that one day, all students will have access to computer science as part of their everyday curriculum, the reality is that coding in the classroom before high school is not yet standard (although we’re certainly making progress!).

So, here are two of my favorite (free!) places to start your kid who wants to learn to code. And because we’re so close to the holidays, I’ve also shared my favorite starter robotics option. It costs money, because hardware isn’t often free, but it is well worth your consideration.

CodeCombat: As a teacher, I have used CodeCombat in many ways. In lower grades, it’s an extension activity, sometimes it’s a substitute activity, and a few times, it’s even been used as a reward for students in other classes. Users choose a language to learn (Python, Javascript, or Coffeescript) and a character. They then work through a series of game levels, acquiring different skills and equipment pieces as they progress.
My students love it because: It feels like a videogame! Plus, they get to use text to code, which is rare for entry level coding resources.
You’ll love it because: Even though it feels like a game, they’re learning a programming language. Both Python and Javascript are widely used, and because they’re using text, they’ll internalize the syntax. Bonus: because the levels include tips and hints, you can help them even if you’re not a programmer yourself.
Pro-Tip: Start with Python, and make sure to create an account so your student can save their progress!

Scratch: Scratch is a wonderful first foray into programming for all ages. A block-based coding language, different colors and shapes helps kids instinctively learn different programming components. Developed by MIT, Scratch not only provides a free way to start to learn to code, but also a worldwide community of students and educators sharing what they’ve created on the platform. The web-based platform includes a variety of pre-loaded characters, backdrops, and sounds, but it’s really easy to create and upload your own, as well.
My students love it because: Scratch is really the king of creative computing for kids. While block based languages sometimes come across as simple, kids can build a variety of animations and low- or high-level games within the platform. If they can dream it, they can build it!
You’ll love it because: Because it was created and managed by MIT, Scratch is a safe community for kids to join to be able to connect academically with other creative, coding kids around the globe. If you’d rather not have your child share their work, you can set their account with sharing off. Additionally, there are a variety of MIT and user created tutorials to help students learn how to build their dreams, meaning that even if you’re not a coding wizard yourself, you can still facilitate your child’s learning.
Pro-Tip: Before your child starts creating, be sure to click “Join Scratch” in the top right corner to create an account so they can save their work.

Sphero ($49.99-$149.99): Sphero is the most magical little ball robot, and it’s wildly affordable for a robot that will grow with your child. All models communicate via Bluetooth with either a phone or tablet, which kids will use to program the robot to change color, play sound, roll, and more. Using the free app, kids can choose to write code through drawing, blocks, or text, making it suitable for programmers of all ages and experience levels.
My students love it because: Honestly, it’s just really fun to race little color changing balls around the classroom. Because they have so many different programming capabilities, there’s always a new challenge to tackle, meaning every session with the Sphero is new.
You’ll love it because: It’s virtually indestructible (and even waterproof!), meaning that it’s a toy that will last for a while. And because the free app includes a variety of ways to code, it’s a toy that easily grows with your child. There’s also a variety of activities and engineering/creative challenges to facilitate learning available for free via Sphero’s site. If they’ve tried all of those, YouTube is full of videos showcasing Sphero’s abilities and what other users have built.
Pro-Tip: The Bolt is the most recent iteration of the bot and includes added function like being able to communicate with other Spheros (very cool), but the original Sprk+ still provides all of the fun and much of the coding capability at a reduced price.

“Are you afraid of failing”

Fear of Failure (1)

“Let me ask you something – are you afraid of failing?”

The question smacked me right in the face as I stood in the middle of the lobby of Movement Lab. After months of being intrigued about Nia (“a sensory based movement experience that blends 52 moves with 9 movement forms of the dance arts, martial arts and healing arts,” via the Movement Lab website), I finally got up the courage to sign up for a class.

I am not a very good dancer. Surprising, given that I took ballet for eight years and spent seven seasons on the Varsity cheerleading squad in high school. In all honesty, rhythm is hard for me. But I’ve always enjoyed dancing and I love a good dance class where I don’t feel judged. So on Saturday, I signed up for Nia.

When I arrived, I was told that in addition to checking in, I needed to sign the film release waiver because the class would be filmed. Wait, what?

“It’s my first time here, I’m not sure…” I sputtered. And that’s when the front desk assistant introduced me to Sinclair, who asked me about my fear of failing.

The truth is, no. I am not afraid of failing. I’m quite adept at failing. I love trying new things, and I’m totally cool with being bad at them. What I did realize on Sunday, though, was that I make sure that my “trying new things” happens in spaces where it is okay for me to fail. With the introduction of filming into the equation, I needed assurance that it was still safe for me to be bad – even terrible! – at Nia.

The question, of course, made me think of my students. Are our students afraid to fail? Are we creating spaces where it is safe for them to fail? Are we, as educators, regularly putting ourselves in situations where we might fail, too? Are we celebrating when they feel the fear of failure and try something hard anyways? And most importantly, how can what are some ways that we, as educators, can support them?

Try new things, and share our struggles (and successes!) with our students. As a teacher, when was the last time you tried something completely new that you were horribly, miserably bad at? Maybe it’s a dance class or attempting (and botching) a new recipe, going for a run for the first time in a really long time or taking a graduate level class that totally fries your brain. And if you can’t think of something, then you need to make it a priority to get outside of your comfort zone. Every day, our students are asked to spend nearly eight hours straight trying new things. Hopefully, they’re having fun while doing it, but regardless, we are asking kids to give us eight hours a day, five days a week, of vulnerability. The expectation is that they will balance their fear of failure and their desire to be successful and constantly be open to learning. And not just within our classrooms, but in their social lives too.To be honest, that’s a lot to expect of anyone – and especially kids whose brains aren’t even fully developed yet! As their teachers, we owe it to them to walk a few miles in their shoes so that we can empathize when they’re having a tough day.

Find ways to celebrate mistakes. In his bestselling books, Brian Tracy often references how top sales firms will hold contests in the morning to see which salespeople can reach 100 rejections first. The rationale is that somewhere along the way to 100 rejections, you come to recognize how normal – and non-scary! – rejection is. You lose the fear of failure, which in turn gives you the space to fearlessly pursue success. While we certainly don’t want our kids purposefully giving the wrong answer in order to “win,” finding ways to celebrate mistakes can create an atmosphere where all students feel safe to be vulnerable in their learning. One easy way to do this is to allow all students to make up any points they miss the first time around. Elevate it by putting the names of all students who earn back their points (fix their mistake) into a bowl and drawing a winner (or several!) every few weeks.

Reward risk taking. The mainstream school system rewards students following the rules. But let’s be honest – in real life, playing it safe doesn’t lead to promotions or raises. It’s the risk takers who ultimately succeed. Take “project based learning,” for example. If every student’s submission for an assignment looks exactly the same, grading is going to be miserable. And, I’d argue that your students haven’t begun to access the higher levels of Bloom’s — they’re not creating, but simply following the rules you set. Rewarding creativity, outside the box thinking, and biting off more than one can chew helps to give kids the green light to step outside their comfort zone and try something new. In my classroom, kids have to go outside the box to earn the last 10% of a grade (my rubrics only go to 90%), and risk-taking is celebrated with calls home and in class recognition.

For what it’s worth – I’m still not a totally coordinated dancer. But in letting go of my fear of failing, I found joy in the hour long dance party, and will definitely be back for more.

 

STEM? STEAM? Why the acronym doesn’t matter

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I teach at a STEM magnet middle school where approximately 1/3 of our students are participants in a lottery-based magnet program. We’re essentially a school-within-a-school, where 1/3 of our students have access to cohorted classes that include PBL (project based learning) approaches to curriculum as well as special electives like the computer science classes that I teach. While only a third of our students are formally in the program, our school is constantly exploring ways to provide more access to STEM opportunities for all students.

In a recent faculty meeting, while discussing ways to create more equity in access for all students, a teacher shared that we should consider that not all students are interested in STEM.

I understood what she meant on a personal level (this computer science teacher dreamt of being a lawyer — surprise!), and I agree that not every child is interested in pursuing a career in a STEM field. But we need to differentiate between STEM fields and STEM pedagogy. You see, the universally accepted definition of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (or STEAM, if you’re adding art) – is a restrictive understanding of what the pedagogy is.

STEM isn’t just about science and technology – it is a way of thinking and working that empowers students to be solution-oriented and to collaboratively persist in solving problems. STEM education at its best teaches students how to think logically – to break down every challenge, whether mathematical or societal, and to iterate until it is solved.

So if the definition of STEM is not “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” what is it? In addition to the Four C’s of 21st Century Learning (critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity and innovation), I’d offer that STEM pedagogy reflects the following beliefs and structures:

Fewer assignments, more problems: And I don’t mean problem sets. Instead of filling our students’ days with worksheets or PowerPoints, class time should be spent on solving actual problems that exist within our students’ worlds. We have to accept that in order to do work that is meaningful, we may have to devote more time to each assignment. I promise it’s worth it, and that students learn more from a two week long PSA project than they would completing three or four defined assignments in that same time.

Authentic, meaningful work: I don’t know about you, but I get frustrated when I’m given work that seems to take a lot of my time without giving me much in return. And yet, much of the time in the school day is spent on work that doesn’t matter to kids. A simple test? Give your students permission to ask why they’re doing any given assignment. If you can’t give them a good answer that matters to them, it’s probably time to move on to the next activity. Authentic, meaningful work is intrinsically motivating, and our kids should get to do more of it.

Focused on the process, not just the solution: I have a confession. Sometimes (typically, at the end of the year), I assign kids a project knowing that some – and maybe even many – of my students will not finish. Why? Because there is value in students doing high level work even if there isn’t enough time for them to see it to completion. And because sometimes, kids get really excited about a project and bite off way more than they can chew…and they don’t finish. Or, they do really high quality work, but they still get the wrong answer or their final project doesn’t do what it needs to. Students can’t only be graded on the final project – their process matters just as much, if not more.

So no, not every child wants to become a chemist or a doctor. Some children, like me, dream of becoming a lawyer or journalist. But being trained using STEM pedagogy facilitates the sharpening of skills that make all students better at whatever field they choose. All children deserve learning experiences focused on solving real world, authentic problems, allowing them to practice collaboration, communication, and creativity. In a world where more tasks and jobs are becoming automated, empowering our students to be collaborative problem solvers, creative innovators, and reflective, lifelong learners makes them indispensable… and they’ll even have fun while doing it.

Growth Mindset & Grading

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Grading is one of my least favorite parts of teaching. It’s funny, because growing up, I always loved when teachers let us grade each other’s papers. It was kind of fun, getting to wield a red pen and assign points to peers. Now on the other side, I find myself frustrated with a system in which we preach growth mindset to our students, yet often provide feedback in the form of points or circled rubrics, rather than in ways that help our children to improve.

Growth mindset, an idea first introduced by Dr. Carol Dweck, refers to a student’s belief that they can get smarter. Her research showed that when students believe that intelligence is a malleable quality, they recognize that effort drives them towards success, leading them to work harder, and ultimately, resulting in academic achievement. It’s the opposite of fixed mindset, in which a student views intelligence as a quality outside of their control, and therefore put in less effort to change it. Growth mindset has been found to help students overcome (though, importantly, not eliminate) even inherent gender and racial biases.

Growth mindset is, in effect, a reflection of tenacity. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to persist when they encounter challenges within their learning, and research tells us that tenacity is an incredibly important determining factor in a student’s long term success. As referenced in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, this is true in nearly every area of life — they are more likely to graduate from high school, stay out of jail, even get married — than their less tenacious peers.

If research tells us that tenacity and resilience are more predictive of long term success than, say, grades or standardized test scores, then shouldn’t our grading reflect that quality? Shouldn’t the core of our grading practices be working to build growth mindset and resilience, rather than simply working towards more widespread measures of academic performance?

And while our overall schooling system still operates within the schemes of standardized testing and letter grades, there are many ways that classroom teachers can work within the existing system while still creating an environment where student determination is practiced, rewarded, and allowed to grow.

As a classroom teacher, I believe that tenacity is the single most important quality I can build in my students. I believe this so deeply that I have worked to build a grading system within my classroom that encourages and rewards growth, while recognizing that every student is unique, and that each student progresses towards mastery at a different pace.

Here are three tenets that can be adapted and applied even within a traditional grading system:

Coaching first, grading later. Grading in the traditional sense looks a lot like a teacher assigning points to an assignment and handing back papers with minimal opportunities to earn points back. While this method does help a teacher identify which students are succeeding and which need additional help, it lacks a means for students to take ownership of their learning. On long term projects, adopting a coaching approach to grading helps students master the material prior to having the assignment “graded,” for grade book purposes. Much like a Language Arts teacher having multiple outlines and drafts due before the final paper, on long term assignments, teachers should have multiple check-in points where either the teacher or a peer review work done so far, give meaningful feedback, and allow the student to ask questions to gain additional insight into how they can improve.

Multiple opportunities for re-dos and displaying mastery. The ultimate goal of education should be to foster a deep love and appreciation for learning. Ultimately, very few students will go on to pursue careers that require them to be experts of every subject, but equipping a student with a passion for learning and growth will serve them well in whatever field they choose. As such, we must recognize that not every student achieves mastery of every concept at exactly the same time. And, when we only allow them one opportunity, at some pre-ordained (and, let’s face it, often arbitrary) time, to show mastery of a concept, we’re sending the message that learning is not important unless you can complete it in a set amount of time. We do students a huge disservice by not allowing continued work towards mastery on concepts that are more challenging because it does not fit within our curricular framework. Instead, students should be given ample opportunities to continue to work towards mastery of concepts in which they struggle, and should earn back points they miss whenever allowed within the grading system. This not only builds their subject matter understanding, but breeds that all important quality of tenacity.

A’s are for excellence, not completion. Okay, so, this guideline hinges largely on the successful implementation of the first two: IF students are coached to success on large scale projects AND given the opportunity to continue to work towards mastery on their own timeline, then it naturally follows that high grades should require work. In order for a student to be successful at the absolute highest level, as teachers, we must expect them to go above and beyond, outside of the box (and the rubric), and to employ creativity in their display of mastery. If this sounds abstract, it’s because it is, and because it has to be. It must be challenging for a student to earn an A for two major reasons: first, research supports the finding that heightened teacher expectations lead to student success and second, because requiring persistence in order to earn an A builds a child’s tenacity, which, as we’ve discussed earlier, largely impacts their success later in life.

Ultimately, even with the constraints of our education system, there’s still room for classroom teachers to implement grading policies that encourage student success and build tenacity by focusing on student-motivated growth, rather than points alone.

What ways do your grading practices build growth mindset? Share your ideas in the comments!