The Change is Here

The change that is happening in the middle grades right now continues to astound me.

Eighteen months ago, our sixth grade teachers asked that we get rid of the carts of computers in their classrooms and just assign devices to the kids. It’s a small shift, really. Instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, we now have a computer in each student’s hands. But what a difference it makes.

DSC_0854-aWhen we say that we want technology to be ubiquitous, this is what we’re talking about. When it’s needed, it’s there. It starts up quickly, it has a great battery life, and technology problems are minimal. The students have them in study hall and at home and on the bus. When it’s not needed, it’s turned off and moved out of the way.

So, yes, students use their devices to access online resources. Some of those are the curated materials selected for them by their teachers and textbook publishers. Some are the results of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. They’re learning how to evaluate the credibility of those sources. In most cases, they’re much better at it than their grandparents are.

But they’re also using the technology to take ownership of their learning. Teachers are giving more choice, but they’re also tailoring instruction to the needs of each learner. Quick formative assessments are used to assess the needs of the class, and plans are dynamically adjusted to best meet those needs. That’s the big challenge in the middle grades, and the biggest reason why middle school has traditionally been so awful for so many people.

Next, students are collaborating  on creative projects to show evidence of their learning. They’re not just writing essays and putting together PowerPoint presentations. They’re making videos and infographics and simulations using tools that I don’t understand. They’re discovering how to write for different audiences and how to use multimedia to best convey their message. They’re combining knowledge from different domains and applying it to real problems.

And while they’re doing all of this in their science social studies classes, they’re also improving their technology skills, working harder on schoolwork, and having fun in the process.

So when I asked 12-year-old students why they like the 1:1 program, they responded with things like this:

  • I can personalize my work they way I want it and it helps us become independent learners.
  • When I need assistance, my fellow students and teachers are there to assist me; whether it consists technology help, or homework help. The 1:1 program helped me with achieving my school goals.
  • It helps us learn about the digital world and helps us become independent learners.
  • It gives you a chance to learn more, and do what you can’t on paper at school, while with the 1:1 program, you can do both electronic learning and non-electronic learning
  • The learning is fit for me and I feel that I can learn more things in a shorter span of time than I could before.
  • I’m able to chat or video chat my friends to talk about homework problems that I’m confused on.

If you want to see all of the results, including responses from parents and many colorful and encouraging graphs, they’re here.

So this week, we’ll collect the Chromebooks for the summer. When the students come back in August, we’ll give them back. We’ve been working with the seventh grade teachers for most of the school year to get them ready for this. For the most part, I think they’re ready. Then, we’re going to start working with the eighth grade teachers.

But the high school has no idea what’s coming.

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Why Middle School Sucks

This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.

Slide1

My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.

Slide2

This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.

Slide3

Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.

Slide4

In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.

Slide5

The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.

Slide6

In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.

Slide7

Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.

Slide8

The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.

Slide9

As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.

Slide10

The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.

Slide11

Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.

Slide12

With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.

Slide13

I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.

Slide15

I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.

Slide16

What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.

Slide17

The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.

Slide18

We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.

Slide19

There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.

Slide20

This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.