Grading an Ungraded Course

Each course taken for credit requires a grade.  That’s the system we work in.  There is very little direction, in higher ed at least, about how to come to the determination of a grade but a final grade is always required.  And grades matter a lot.  So much that suicide attempts and completions surge during finals and/or end of quarter reporting.  Do we really feel so confident in capturing learning in a letter grade?

I’ve developed a nimble and ever-evolving  process for determining a final grade for my face-to-face courses.  In this post, I’ll talk about that process and answer the pervasive question, “What about the students who take advantage?”

Ungrading begins on (before) the first day of classes.  I’m constantly working to refine my syllabi language and my orientation for students on the first day.  I use Jesse Stommel’s language in my syllabus.

This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions. 

I also really like this language from Chelsea Morris @ecrising_ga about revise/resubmit procedures. I include peer review in this process as well as our knowledge is socially constructed in an active learning community.

Writing is a personal process that is ever evolving. I want you to know that I strongly believe that we all (and by all, I mean myself, too) can improve our writing. Therefore, on specific assignments in this class that involve submission of a written product, I will allow you to revise and resubmit your paper in order to develop the best final version that meets the goal of mastering course objectives. For each assignment, I will provide specific suggestions on how to improve your submission that you should implement with each new submission.

I build as much self and peer reflection and assessment into the semester as possible.  As the semester nears an end, I compile all of the work for the course (e.g., commitment logs, passion projects, book club, peer feedback) and ask students to complete a final feedback form.  This form asks for a proposed final grade for the course and then student rationale for that grade based on each of the tasks in the course.  This fall was the first time I completed the form – in the past, I have conferenced face to face.  The form provided students with a more targeted opportunity to consider their learning and their growth prior to our conferences.  It also provides tangible evidence of the process for my annual evaluation documentation.  I will move that form to google forms this spring and put it in their online commitment logs.  See?  Always evolving and, I think, improving.

The minute I begin speaking about ungrading, someone ALWAYS says, “yeah I agree mostly but what about for the student who does the minimum, who takes advantage, who doesn’t take it seriously because you’ve already told them they have an A?”  So, let’s unpack that.

Grades should be communication about progress toward mastery and mastery is the expectation.  So, just below the surface of this question, is the belief that grades are reflective of behavior and/or compliance, not learning.  And I get it.  We have all had learning experiences where the grade we were given was contingent on factors other than our demonstration of content mastery.  I got an A in a course because I did a book review in addition to the required course content (completing the required course content guaranteed a B).  I got a C in Movies of the 30s because I missed two classes, each resulting in a dropped letter grade.  I could go on.  So could you.  So, first we have to uncouple grading with policies around attendance, participation, effort, due dates, etc.  This is the hardest step for many.  Trust your students.  Invest in them.  Be trustworthy and safe so that they know they can be honest about what they need to be successful in mastering the content of your course.

Next, I would ask, “who cares?”  I know that sounds a little flippant but grades are made up.  If a student does not submit any work, does not attend class, does not engage or participate in any way, I have to assume there is something much more important going on in their lives.  I reach out, I try to build understanding, and I accept the difficult decisions many college students have to make about where to direct their resources.  Focusing on the points or the tasks or the deadlines does not promote trust and our shared priority of the student’s mastery.  And they are not that important in the bigger picture of what is preventing the student from being present in the work.

Finally, I have only had one instance in 9 years of this process where a student and I disagreed about the proposed final grade.  We both presented evidence and we came to the consensus that the student’s assessment would prevail.  The student felt strongly that they presented their best work and demonstrated an alignment with their product and mastery of course objectives.  I don’t give students grades, they do.

I’m always going to err on the side of students.  I don’t use grades to manipulate, coerce, or “gotcha” students.  The relationships I establish with students and the growth I see in their ability to talk about and reflect on their own learning is enough for me.  If one or two students leaves my course with a grade they didn’t “earn,” I’m okay with that.  The door remains open for us to continue the dialogue, continue learning together, continuing pushing each other.

Supporting preservice teachers to become lifelong learners must involve teaching them to identify their learning gaps and evaluate their own learning.  Traditional grading practices work in opposition with my teaching and learning goals.

Making Our Work Visible

The work of teacher educators and higher education faculty has long been quantified by number of published peer-reviewed articles.  That’s really the only metric by which we are evaluated.  And we do that work because it’s our job security and because it’s critical that the evidence base in education, specifically inclusive education, continues to grow.  We have always felt that that work is relatively meaningless, though, if our intentions are to influence teachers and kids’ experiences at school.  Published articles are paywalled, for starters.  Access to the research is costly in both money and time, both precious commodities for teachers.

Enter social media.

In a group text exactly two years ago, in expressing our frustrations about practices that persist despite all the piles of evidence (i.e. clip charts), we began to brainstorm ways of making the evidence visible.  Teachers do not have direct access to the research, to the leading experts, to the conferences, but we do.  So let’s take that privilege and package it so it is accessible.  We built a website, created a Facebook page, and started spreading the word.

We didn’t know what we were doing.

We are not graphic designers, marketers, communications people, influencers in any way.  We are assistant professors, teacher educators, teachers, researchers, writers and we do not have any training at all on building a social media presence.  So, we fumbled a lot.  We learned a lot.  And now, in celebration of two years of Teaching Is Intellectual, I share with you what little I know about making our work visible using social media.

  1.  There is a whole world of #teachergram on Instagram.  This was brand new to me.  There are major teacher influencers there, a robust community with all the inner workings of community, friendships, bullying, leaders, organizing, agendas, movements.  It’s all there.
    1. If you want to get started, set up a new, public Instagram account.  I recommend making it separate from your personal account.
    2. Start with hashtags.  #teachersofinstagram #teachersfollowteachers #teachergram will provide a good introduction.
    3. Follow a ton of accounts and then curate your feed.  Find your people, the ones who speak to you, who resonate with you.  Pay less attention to the number of followers and more attention to the content provided.  Not all big accounts will speak to you.
    4. Listen first.  One mistake I made was jumping in without understanding all the dynamics at work there.  I learned the hard way.  Scroll around and get a feel for the place over time.
    5. Determine how you can contribute, what your expertise and knowledge can bring.  Everyone brings something unique so know your voice is needed!
  2. Instagram and Facebook have very different styles and audiences.  We curate both in different ways but you can select just one platform to get started.  Twitter has a huge teacher community as well!
  3. Captions are everything.  Spend time developing your thoughts so your caption can stand alone.  This took practice for me.
  4. It’s not easy.  I regularly get messages asking me about how to set up a social media presence and as soon as I start talking, people are like whoa whoa whoa that’s a lot.  It is.  It’s a huge commitment and really does require consistent attention.  Followers do not just come, you have to build that community and nurture it.  I can get very bummed about the fact that we “only” have about 3500 followers on Instagram and 1700 on Facebook in two years time. That’s not great.  But then I remind myself that that’s a LOT of people we wouldn’t otherwise get to interact with!
  5. People will come and go.  You cannot live and die by your follower count.
  6. Know what you want to do with your little space on social media.  Stay true to what brought you there.  It can be easy to get distracted but know who you are and what you know.

And, yes, we’re writing about this work for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.  Because I need tenure and because bridging the “research to practice gap” means researchers need to change too.  We cannot keep doing the same things and wondering why we’re mostly irrelevant to teachers doing the work every day.  We are committed to teachers and kids and families so we want to be where they are, seeking answers to the questions they’re asking, providing access in whatever ways we can.  We haven’t cracked the code, by any means – we are trying, though.  We are learning.  We are visible.

 

 

Reframing Grading

Learning tends to stop when grades are assigned.  Part of learning how to navigate school effectively is to master the art of learning what will be on the test or what the teacher wants from you and then clearing that brain space for the next assessment.  I’ve always been pretty good at that and it’s served me well in the short term.

Yet, I’m hopeless at helping my 9th grader with her math or science homework.

When I look at my college transcripts now, it’s clear to me that the grades recorded do not correlate at all with my own learning, my ownership over the knowledge I demonstrated in exchange for those letter grades.  I did what I had to do to get the A.  But my B in biology doesn’t mean the same thing as yours and that is inherently the problem.  We have no consensus, no way to compare.  We just assume that all Bs are created the same and they absolutely are not.

In my doctoral program, I took a course where the standard was you could do all the coursework for a B and add a book review for an A.  So, an A = willingness or ability to do an additional task.  An A did not = mastery of content.

So, if we agree that traditional grading lacks reliability and validity, what do we do instead?  I’ve been working to reframe grading for myself and my students the last few years and am continuing to grow in the process.  I firmly believe in meaningful feedback, self and peer assessment, and conferencing as the basis for course grades.  (We live in a graded system, we have to assign a grade so we need to determine a mechanism for doing so.) I’ve incorporated more and more self and peer assessment into my courses, in class group work, and then my own assessment of progress toward mastery.  Ideally, at least twice in the semester, we meet individually for conferencing.  This allows for us to share our perceptions of progress toward mastery and what supports or feedback I can offer to support the student’s growth.

Different students need different things to move toward mastery and individualizing my feedback helps me support their processes.  It is a time commitment though and I will admit that this semester, I thought we had one more week in the semester than we did, so our meetings didn’t happen.  I was able to connect individually with the students whose self assessment differed from my assessment so that we could talk it through and come to consensus.

Yes, consensus.  Because I do not give grades, students earn them as a result of engaging in the messiness of learning.  But, for me, they are a requirement, an afterthought, they are not at all important to me and I try to diminish their value for my students in the context of my course.

In my final feedback form this semester, one student noted that taking grades out of the equation allowed them to open their headspace for learning.  Which feels like a win to me.

 

Unlearning Grading

I’m not even sure that title is appropriate.  I never actually learned to grade.  Assess, yes.  I have been taught pretty extensively on assessment in both my masters and doctoral programs but not any formal training or reading or support in learning how to grade.  But, I know how I have been graded.  I have loads of experience being graded with 24 years of formal education under my belt!  That should be enough, right?

When it was my turn to develop assessments, I had a long list of things I did not want to do.  I did not want to answer questions like “do I have to know this?” and “is this what you want?”  I did not want to track student progress by docking arbitrary points (who decides this section is worth 10 points?  Oh, me?  So, I can make it 10,000 points?  I CAN?  Wait, so there are actually no rules to this at all and no one actually knows what they’re doing?  Cool cool.)  I didn’t want to talk about due dates and points and format and page length and font size and all things that distract from what I DO want to talk about which is teaching, learning, strategies for supporting kids with disabilities, the role of teacher bias, the school to prison pipeline, systemic poverty, white supremacy, trauma both in and out of school, so many things other than grades.

So I started pushing back against traditional grading.  I think this journey began for me in my second year in a tenure track faculty position.  I think that was by far my worst year as an instructor, my students hated me, my pedagogy was all over the place, and my confidence was low.  I knew I wanted to forge a new path but I hadn’t found Dr. Blum’s book I Love Learning, I Hate School:  An Anthology of College yet and I hadn’t found Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris on Twitter yet.  So, my first year of ungrading, is a blur of failure but this part of my work has improved steadily since.

What I Know Now

  1.  Students must be involved.  This semester, for the first time, my students helped to co create an assignment description and the rubric for their final Passion Project presentations.  We codeveloped a timeline for the course and determined flexible deadlines together.  I have extended the offer of flexible deadlines for several years but this helped us to organize together.  As a result, we all stayed much more in sync throughout the semester without a huge end of the semester stress.
  2. I must be trustworthy.  This has been difficult.  I know I’m trustworthy but the students don’t.  They’ve learned from all of their years of experience that anything can happen, grading really can be unfair and arbitrary, and they don’t know me at all.  I’m much more transparent now about my approach, the details of how they will be assessed, and how I will engage them in their own assessment as much as my own.
  3. Self and peer assessment must be taught.  I’m still working on this.  Students don’t know how to give constructive, meaningful feedback to their peers and they’re hesitant to evaluate themselves.  This is something I’m going to focus heavily on this spring.  Learning how to be teachers means learning how to give meaningful feedback so I’m going to make this an outcome goal for all my students.

Beginning Ungrading

Take it slow.  Determine one area or one learning objective (since they should each be measured for mastery, right?) that you will shift from quantitatively assessing to a qualitative measure.  I believe I started by shifting from reading check ins to commitment logs.  Reading check ins at the beginning of class consisted of a few questions about the readings or an open ended free write.  I replaced that with our commitment logs which may have an entrance question but was not assessed for right/wrong.

Get over yourself.  This is a pretty critical component of ungrading.  We have to be willing to participate side by side with our learners, allow them to exceed our understanding or imagination, and relinquish our beliefs that it’s our role to give students knowledge.  We are co creators of knowledge, meaning makers, and in partnering with our students, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to grow, to learn.  Exchange power for trust.  You’ll be surprised.

Involve students.  They know grades are problematic and they have been conditioned to crave them like a drug.  Once they kick that craving, they are able to engage in the work of learning, they can free themselves of all the energy it takes seeking out that grade high to create, think, apply, question, seek, wonder, and more.  Teaching is not black and white.  It’s a mess of beautiful grays that students can explore without fear of noncompliance with a predetermined task that couldn’t have possibly anticipated the questions they would raise.

Have you any interest in ungrading or the ungrading movement?  Tell me about your experiences!

 

 

Ambitious Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide

Are you preparing the next generation of early childhood educators and leaders? How long has it been since you critically examined your syllabi and teaching practices? Did you know you may be widening the research to practice gap by making higher education – a place of evidence-based professional development – a hostile and unwelcoming environment?

Existing literature suggests that power relations and issues of expertise limit the extent to which faculty engage students in the design of their own learning and listen or respond to their needs (e.g. Mihans, Long, & Felton, 2008). In your work, examine and challenge the culture of higher education and the role of student-faculty interactions within and beyond the classroom. These interactions are crucial to the development of higher education students’ self-concept, motivation, and achievement (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010).

You can engage in critical conversations about the expectations placed upon pre-service practitioners. Through ambitious teaching, taking risks pedagogically and reconceptualizing teaching and learning for teachers and learners, you can facilitate dialogue around the extent to which the traditional “status-quo” of educator preparation truly teaches the behaviors we want to see.

Presume competence, rethink relationships, and trust the students you are preparing for the workforce.

Let’s Get Started

  1.  Evaluate your beliefs.  I’m talking, back to the basics.   What do you believe about your learners themselves?  Do you believe they are generally committed and hard working or do you believe they are aloof, uncaring, lazy?  What do you know and believe about how people learn?  About how learning is assessed?  About how we can make learning visible?  This step takes work and time and reflection!  You can use this to get started.

If attendance and compliance count toward their grade, ask yourself what your grades reflect.  Do they reflect progress toward content mastery?  If students can demonstrate mastery on your assessments without attending class, what does that tell you about your course content, your assessments, your pedagogy?  These are just a few thoughts to get you started in unpacking your pedagogy

2.  Deconstruct your syllabus.  Take a good look at your policies, procedures,expectations, and language.  Does your syllabus invite and welcome learning?  Does it provide choice and flexibility?  What values does it communicate?  We compiled some tired and wired syllabus language for a poster presentation at the Division of Early Childhood conference.  The “wired” language prioritizes feedback and social learning theory.  Ask yourself if the beliefs you identified in Step 1 are reflected in your syllabus and if not, how can they be?  Jesse Stommel (jessestommel.com) has provided so much thought provoking content and syllabi language that helped us get started.  Also, we understand many universities and programs have required syllabus language.  We have both created an “official” syllabus for those purposes while providing a infographic syllabus to guide our work with students.

3.  Be transparent.  When I began on my journey toward a more ambitious and authentic pedagogy, I failed to include my students in my process.  Because I wasn’t as transparent with them about the how and the why of my approach, it was an unnecessarily difficult code switch for them.  I now introduce my expectations for participating in your own learning, for engaging in self and peer reflection, in revision and resubmission, etc on the first day of class.  We talk about it every course meeting.  I acknowledge it can be very uncomfortable as they’ve become so accustomed to working for points and providing work directly aligned with rubrics.  This kind of engagement requires trust and transparency.

4.  Trust your students.  Which leads us back to number 1.  We have to trust our students.  We have to encourage them to trust themselves.  They often feel so insecure in their own learning and their own knowledge, asking “is this what you want?”  We must consistently remind them that their work, their learning, isn’t for us, it’s for them!  And we trust them to learn it, know it, own it.

5.  Find your people.  This work is isolating, pushed back on, and quite honestly, harder.  Meaningful, intentional feedback, coming up with an individualized response including behavior and academic specific praise and constructive critique is exhausting.  So, find your people.  The ones that let you say, “I tried this new thing, here’s how it made me/my students feel, help me process this” and “I’m trying this and I’m getting this push back.”  It’s such deeply vulnerable work and we don’t know if it’s the right or best way.  But we do know that the traditional approaches do not work for us so we have to trust our gut and start here.  We have to talk about it, keep tabs on the evidence of what is effective, contribute to the research, and grow our practice.  That takes everyone working on it together.

This is a pedagogical journey.  We are on this journey together.  Each semester, we learn from our students and from each other.  We get just a little bit better, a little bit clearer, a little bit more trustworthy, a little bit more confident that what we’re doing is creating a community of lifelong learners, nurturing curiosity, and valuing knowing.

 

Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

When Chrissy (@buzzingwithmsb) approached us to contribute to this blog series we didn’t hesitate. We are continuously looking for ways to contribute to, engage in, and learn from conversations around bias, racism, and social justice. As white females in higher education, we recognize our privilege and believe that it is our duty to contribute to these conversations and encourage our students, our colleagues, and our friends to do the same. Engaging in these conversations and learning spaces are what enables all of us to gain a greater awareness of our own biases and understand how they impact the students, children, and families whom we work with daily. 

This post is in memory of Ivan Filiberto Manzano.   Ivan was one of eight Mexican citizens killed in the mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart.  Ivan had a wife and two preteen children.  He was a devoted husband, father, and son, an entrepreneur, and a business owner. 

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Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

The school to prison pipeline is a term used for the militarization of schools funneling kids from classrooms into the criminal justice system.  Discretionary violations – those where punishment is not mandated – disproportionality impact Black students overwhelmingly leading to persistent involvement with law enforcement.  

What is disproportionality?

Disproportionality refers to the “overrepresentation” or “underrepresentation” of a particular demographic group relative to the presence of this group in the overall student population.  In education, there is disproportionality in special education (Cruz & Rodl, 2018), in gifted programs (List & Dykeman, 2019), and in suspension and expulsion data (Mizel, Miles, Pederson, Tucker, Ewing, & D’Amico, 2016).  While there is much controversy around how we define under and over representation, the data are clear that teacher bias, both explicit and implicit, influences recommendations of suspensions and expulsions as early as preschool (Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016) and that Black boys are three times more likely to receive those suspensions and expulsions than white students.  That’s just one way disproportionality shows up in schools and it has dire, life altering consequences for far too many.

Explicit Bias.  These are the biases that we generally think of as racism (a belief that members of specific ethnic and/or racial groups are inherently inferior).  These biases are consciously held and slow to change. People with explicit biases toward specific ethnicities, races, or gender norms tend to support punitive punishment structures such as zero tolerance (McIntosh, Girvan, Horner, & Smoklowski, 2014).

Implicit Bias.  These biases are unconscious, deeply held, and often do not align with our declared beliefs (Kirwan Institute, 2018).  These are the biases that are activated involuntarily. Everyone has implicit biases! We come to them from our upbringing, our lived experiences, and our professional training.  We must work to bring our implicit biases into our consciousness in order to diminish the negative impacts on our learners, our colleagues, and our communities.  

The Obama administration passed a regulation designed to ensure children of color were not disproportionality suspended, expelled, or identified for special education.  However, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, delayed implementation of this regulation until just now when a federal court ruled it must be put into effect immediately.  This is a consistent and documented reality for kids and families in our educational system.

What does this look like in our schools?

First, let’s consider what the (pre)school to prison pipeline looks like in our schools.  The pipeline can be seen in the School Resource Officers flanking the front doors and walking the halls of schools.  It can be seen in zero tolerance policies and mandatory suspension/expulsion guidelines. It looks like moving kids to self contained classrooms with labels of emotional behavior disability without then providing them with access to the general curriculum and meaningful, intentional supports for self regulation. It can be found in calling families to come pick up their child early from school or telling preschool families their child “isn’t a good fit” for the program. It is evident in statistics showing that 70% of the students involved in school-related arrests or who were referred to law enforcement were Latinx or Black or that Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers (Lewin, 2012).School-to-Prison Pipeline: School disciplinary policies disproportionately affect Black students

 How can educators interrupt this school to prison pipeline?

We’ve come up with a place to start, a set of teacher guidelines. We recognize that this is only a beginning but we also know that change has to start somewhere. Change is gradual and pushing back against injustices is work that takes time and brings great challenges. We are here for the marathon, not a sprint. 

Teacher Guidelines for Interrupting 

Recognize, Reflect and Reframe Biases.

Recognizing your own biases and viewing experiences/interactions with students as opportunities, rather than challenges, can help shift or reframe your mindset (Hill, Newton, Williams, 2018). When you shift your mindset and seek out opportunities for learning and growth alongside your students, you will find it easier to build stronger and more effective relationships with your students and their families.

Teach!

You may have heard the phrase “education not incarceration.”  We have to teach academics, but we also must teach behavior, emotional regulation, self care, and boundary setting. Zero-tolerance policies do NOT teach. Instead we must recognize that students need to be explicitly taught the expectations and retaught with consistency. Instead of punishment consider providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly seems to disrupt learning and engagement. Determine the function of the behavior.  The key to interrupting the behavior cycle is replacing the undesired behavior with an acceptable alternative that still meets the learner’s needs.  We have to teach the behaviors we want to see.

Stand Up, Don’t Be a Bystander. 

If you hear or witness an act or micro-aggression (think back to explicit or implicit bias) interrupt the comment, action, or incident. Help the victim of the micro-aggression by making sure they are safe (physically and emotionally) and then be sure to address the other person(s). Remember, these are teachable moments. Be willing to learn.  Your colleagues may call you in on your language too!  That’s good – take the opportunity to grow!

Advocate. 

Build trusting relationships with your students. Advocate for them and help them learn to advocate for themselves. Honoring the humanity in each of our students is evidenced in our advocating for them.  Let them know relentlessly that they are worthy of being taught.

Focus on Strengths.

Every child. Every family…has strengths. Find them, embrace their strengths and build upon them. By recognizing your own biases, you are better able to reframe, find strengths, and stay clear of “cultural deficit thinking.”  Remember just because your own experiences are DIFFERENT,  doesn’t mean they are better or worse. 

The school to prison pipeline is ours to dismantle.  We must actively question punitive policies, our own implicit biases, and our deficit framings of kids and families. Here are some resources to learn more.

https://www.tolerance.org/learning-plan/school-to-prison-pipeline-20

http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/racial-disproportionality-in-school-discipline-implicit-bias-is-heavily-implicated/

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/responding-to-microaggressions-in-the-classroom/

https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/test-yourself-for-hidden-bias

https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/2017-06/TT_Social_Justice_Standards_0.pdf

Mental Health Awareness

We are consistently advocating for the mental health needs of our students.  We attempt to be as supportive as possible to the complex lived experiences of our students and to acknowledge that they have full lives outside of our course/program.  That’s not to diminish the value of the learning experiences we are providing but to develop self care skills in our learners now that they can carry with them into their work as educators.

We’re also often met with resistance.  “You can’t just call in sick over a break up when you’re an employed teacher.”  But, the thing is, you can.  And you should if that’s what you need to get yourself together.  This burnout culture is unhealthy and we all perpetuate it in one way or another.  Glorifying busy.  Shaming absence.  Self care isn’t always convenient or well scheduled.  Sometimes it must be addressed regardless of other obligations.

Which leads me to question why or how we came to dismiss the traumas invoked or perpetuated at school.  Why do we persist the myth that “middle school is the worst” instead of implementing the many evidence-based practices (intentional social skills curriculum, active preventative teaching, for example) with consistency and fidelity.  Middle school does not HAVE to be “the worst” – we allow it to be.

Tropes like “mean girls” persist because we allow them to persist.  Intervene.  Teach.  Relentlessly.  Kids need our guidance in learning how to navigate the world – socially, online, in all spaces.  We must take responsibility for teaching.

If kids are experiencing trauma at school or their trauma is exacerbated at school, that is on us. If we believe in self care for ourselves, we must model it and teach it to our learners.  Self care is for everyone.

Ambitious Teaching

Dr. Chelsea T. Morris and I presented a (what we thought was) cool poster at the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood’s annual conference.

The first panel asked the participants to indicate how they evaluate student learning, if participation should be included for a grade, if attendance should be included in a grade, if and which social media accounts they use in their teaching, and how they handle late work.  Overwhelmingly, participants indicated they do include “participation” in grades.  There was more variability in if the participants include attendance in student grades although the majority indicated that yes they do include attendance for a grade.

There was interesting conversation around the “How do you evaluate student learning” boxes as many said they’re required to use letter grades but they incorporate a lot of ongoing, formative feedback.

Our second panel was the first one layered over the next one with the doors cut open to show the examples of “tired” and “wired” syllabus language underneath.  The literature provided in the middle provides some evidence for instructors moving toward learner-centered syllabi and more humanized course design.  Many participants reflected on the “tired” syllabus language as similar to the language in their own syllabus and noted that they had not really considered what their syllabi were communicating to their learners.  Which makes sense!  We also heard from many faculty and instructors who said their syllabi are inflexible due to requirements by their department, college, and university.  We, of course, considered a syllabus with all the required components (aligned professional preparations standards, state standards, university policies, etc) posted to the learning management system and then a learner-centered and/or co-created learning plan to direct the specific content for the course itself.  It also raises questions of academic freedom – particularly for tenured faculty but that’s for another post.

 The final panel invited participants to make note of what Ambitious Teaching means to them.  The words on the left say:

Dear faculty,

Are you preparing the next generation of early childhood educators and leaders? How long has it been since you critically examined your syllabi and teaching practices? Did you know, in contradiction to DEC leadership recommendations (L1, L4, L6, L8, L11), you may be widening the research to practice gap by making higher education – a place of evidence-based professional development – a hostile and unwelcoming environment?

Existing literature suggests that power relations and issues of expertise limit the extent to which faculty engage students in the design of their own learning and listen or respond to their needs (e.g. Mihans, Long, & Felton, 2008). In your work, examine and challenge the culture of higher education and the role of student-faculty interactions within and beyond the classroom. These interactions are crucial to the development of higher education students’ self-concept, motivation, and achievement (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010).

You can engage in critical conversations about the expectations placed upon pre-service practitioners. Through ambitious teaching, taking risks pedagogically and reconceptualizing teaching and learning for teachers and learners, you can facilitate dialogue around the extent to which the traditional “status-quo” of educator preparation truly teaches the behaviors we want to see.

Presume competence, rethink relationships, and trust the students you are preparing for the workforce.

Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey

Can a Learner-Centered Syllabus Change Students’ Perceptions of Student–Professor Rapport and Master Teacher Behaviors?

How are making your teaching ambitious?  We want Teaching Is Intellectual to be a space for ambitious teacher education.  For rethinking, reimagining, and redoing traditional (and largely ineffective) teaching and learning paradigms.  Tell us.  Let’s revolutionize teacher education together.

Determining Eligibility for Special Education

Here is a brief overview of the process of determining if a child is eligible to receive special education.

CHILD STUDY

If a parent/guardian requests a Child Study Team meeting, the school has 10 business days to meet to discuss any academic and/or behavioral concerns regarding the child.  The people required to be present at the meeting would be: parent/legal guardian, general classroom teacher, a special education teacher, and an administrator.  Additional participants could include the school psychologist and school social worker.  Intervention teachers the child is working with (i.e., ESL, reading specialist, gifted, etc.) are encouraged to be present as well.

Note: A business day occurs Monday through Friday (no weekends) when the school board office is open (excluding holidays).  If you have the day off from school due to inclement weather, but the school board office is declared open for administrators, this still counts as a business day.

Note: The Child Study Team can go by many different names (i.e., Student Study Team, etc.), so consult your individual school district on what terminology is utilized.

Three outcomes can come from the Child Study Team meeting:

  1. The team feels there is not sufficient evidence to suspect a disability is present; thus, the process stops.

If Option 1 is chosen, and the child begins to struggle later, the process restarts from the beginning.

  1. The team monitors (or continues to monitor) progress and meets back (usually within six weeks) to see if improvements have been made.  Interventions are implemented at this time.

If a child has never received any interventions, the team will likely choose Option 2.  This may be particularly true if this is a child’s first school placement (i.e., preschool or kindergarten) or is a recent transfer to the school.  The Child Study Team may not be willing to perform an evaluation yet as they have not had time to see the child in action.

If academic and/or behavioral concerns are present, the school will most likely implement targeted interventions.  The reason for this is to collect data.  In order for schools to justify referring for a full evaluation to determine special education services, they have to show documentation that they have tried multiple interventions first.  This becomes important later when determining eligibility to prove that specialized instruction is necessary, because other specific strategies have already been attempted.

Children may continue in Option 2 for some time assuming they are making progress with the interventions being implemented.  After meeting a few times to provide data on the interventions’ effectiveness, the Child Study Team may decide to dismiss the child from the special education process if progress is continuous.  If the child is dismissed, and the child begins to struggle later, then the process restarts from the beginning.  If the child makes minimal to no progress after multiple interventions, then the team may go to Option 3.

Note: Option 2 does not necessarily have to occur prior to Option 3; however, with the implementation of multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS)/response to intervention (RtI) in schools, this seems to be the path most schools are taking prior to referring for a full evaluation.

  1. The team suspects a disability, and refers for a full evaluation.

If the team chooses Option 3, the school has 65 business days to complete an evaluation and to meet as the Eligibility Committee to go over the results and determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services.  In addition to the original members of the Child Study Team, the school psychologist and school social worker are required members who will be present for these results.  Other individuals present may include related specialists (i.e. speech/language, occupational therapist, etc.) depending on the concerns being addressed during the evaluation.

During the meeting, all teachers will report updated data on the child, and each individual who conducted assessments with the child will report their results.  The Eligibility Committee will then consider all of the information presented to come to a decision.  They have to also consider exclusionary factors.  This means considering external factors that could be contributing to the child’s needs, but protects the child from being discriminated against due to personal situations (i.e. low socio-economic status, non-native English speaker, etc.).

Note: A special education evaluation cannot be administered until the parent/legal guardian provides written consent.  This is important, because if the parent/legal guardian is not present at the Child Study Team meeting (or participates by phone), and the child is referred for a full evaluation, the 65 business day timeline begins regardless.  Tests cannot be administered until written consent is obtained from the parent/legal guardian, even though the timeline has started.

ELIGIBILITY

After all tests have been administered (multiple means of assessment are required), the parent/legal guardian has a right to a written copy of all tests results 2 business days prior to the Eligibility Committee meeting.

Three outcomes can come from the Eligibility Committee meeting:

  1. A child is found eligible to receive special education services.

If the Eligibility Committee finds a child is eligible to receive special education services, then two different types of services are discussed:

Section 504 Plan = This is a plan outlying environmental accommodations that a child’s general classroom teacher can implement to help them better access the general curriculum.  It does not involve the child receiving specialized instruction from a special education teacher.

Note: Section 504 Plans can be developed for students without a full school evaluation being completed, if proper medical documentation is provided by the parent/legal guardian.  Consult with your local school district on their specific regulations.

Individualized Education Program (IEP) = This is a plan with the same accommodations a Section 504 Plan provides PLUS the child receives specialized instruction from a special education teacher.  This specialized instruction can taken place inside the general education classroom (i.e. inclusion) or outside the general education classroom (i.e. resource).

The school has 30 calendar days to write up the legal document (either Section 504 Plan or IEP) outlining what will be provided to the child at school.  An administrator, special education teacher, general education teacher, and parent/legal guardian must all be present for this meeting.  A child cannot begin to receive services through either document without parent/legal guardian written consent.

After a Section 504 Plan or IEP is created and agreed upon by all stakeholders, these documents are updated at least once a calendar year.  However, the school or parent/legal guardian can request a meeting at any point to update either document as necessary (i.e., a change of educational setting or a new accommodation needs to be added).

Note: A calendar day is any day of the week on the calendar, regardless of weekends, holidays or if the school board office is open.

Note: A Section 504 Plan can still provide related services (i.e. speech/language, physical therapy, occupational therapy).  Check with your individual school district’s policies.

  1. A child is found not eligible and all stakeholders agree with the results.

If this occurs, then the child is likely referred back to the Child Study Team for Option 2, which would be to continue to implement interventions and meet regularly to monitor progress.

Note: A stakeholder other than the parent/legal guardian (i.e., school psychologist, administrator, etc.) may disagree with the child being found eligible.  If this occurs, the dissenting stakeholder(s) is encouraged to write up a summary as to why they disagree with the Eligibility Committee’s decision.  However, the child would still receive special education services once written consent is provided by the parent/legal guardian.

  1. A child is found not eligible and the parent/legal guardian disagrees with the results.

Assuming an outside evaluation (more on this below) was not already provided by the parent/legal guardian, then they have the right to disagree with the results and request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).  This is the right for a parent/legal guardian to seek out an outside evaluation by an objective provider (i.e. doctor, psychologist, clinic, etc.), but it is paid for by the school district.  The school may provide a list of possible outside evaluation providers.  The parent/legal guardian may choose any provider they wish, even if they are not present on the list, as long as they are licensed to perform cognitive and achievement assessments.  Once the results of the IEE are available, the Eligibility Committee will meet at the school and determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services in the form of a Section 504 Plan or IEP.

Note: Although the school district’s pays for the IEE, it is the parent/legal guardian’s responsibility to contact the outsider provider and complete the evaluation themselves in a timely manner.  Discuss with your individual school district about what constitutes a “timely manner.”

Note: If a child is found eligible, and a parent/legal guardian initially signs that they agree with the results, this does not eliminate the possibility of an IEE.  The parent/legal guardian could come back later to the school, disagree, and request the IEE, if it has occurred within a reasonable timeframe.  Check with your local school district about what constitutes a “reasonable timeframe.”

PRIVATE EVALUATIONS

There are thirteen different disability categories.  Some are more straight-forward in terms of criteria (i.e., deaf, blind), while others are more subjective (i.e., specific learning disability, other health impairment).  With other health impairment (OHI), school districts will most likely require an outside medical diagnosis from a doctor or clinic (such as ADHD, Epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc.).

A parent/legal guardian can have the child privately evaluated outside of the school without the school completing their own evaluation.  If a parent/legal guardian chooses to do this, they would request a Child Study Team meeting, who would then refer them to the Eligibility Committee to determine eligibility for special education services.

Note: In my professional opinion, it would be beneficial for a parent/legal guardian to provide a copy of the results from the outside evaluation to the school at least one week prior to meeting with the Eligibility Committee.  This gives time for the school personnel who will be present at the meeting to review the information.

Three outcomes can come from a parent/legal guardian providing an outside evaluation to the school:

  1. The school accepts the outside results and uses it to determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services.

At this point, the Eligibility Committee will meet to discuss the results of the evaluation.  If the child is found eligible, then the process of creating a Section 504 Plan or IEP will commence.  If the child is found not eligible, then the child will likely return to the Child Study Team for further interventions to be implemented and progress monitoring to continue.

  1. They can reject the results, stating they disagree. 

I have never personally seen this ever happen as most schools are willing to at least consider the results of the outside evaluation, particularly as it saves them time and money from having to complete their own evaluation.

  1. They can choose to do further testing on their own (assuming they have not yet).

If a school chooses to do further testing on their own, they would have 65 business days to conduct their own evaluation and then reconvene the Eligibility Committee to discuss all of the results of both evaluations and determine eligibility for special education services.

TRIENNALS

The Eligibility Committee is required to reconvene at least once every three years since the previous eligibility meeting.  This is called a triennial eligibility review.  However, the school or parent/legal guardian can request an eligibility review prior to the three year mark.

Note: Meeting prior to the three year mark, does not necessarily restart the timeline for the three year triennial review.  For example, if a child is receiving services under a specific learning disability (SLD) and speech/language impairment (SLI), and the speech/language pathologist requests an eligibility review at the year two mark to dismiss the child from SLI services, the school would still need to meet the following year at the year three mark to discuss eligibility about SLD.

HOWEVER, if during the eligibility meeting when SLI services were dismissed, and SLD services were continued with no testing update, then the three year timeline restarts again.  So in theory (if this were to occur), it would be five years from the initial eligibility before a child would get reevaluated if the school or parent/legal guardian never requested an updated evaluation before then.  Look at my example below:

2010 = Initial Eligibility = Child is found eligible for SLD and SLI.

2012 = Speech/language pathologist dismisses SLI and the Eligibility Committee continues SLD services without an updated evaluation.

2013 = This would have been the original triennial eligibility had the 2012 meeting never occurred.

2015 = This is the new triennial eligibility date based on the 2012 meeting; thus, five years since the initial eligibility before an updated evaluation occurs.

Realize this example is more likely an anomaly than the norm that would occur in most school districts.

Three outcomes can come from the Triennial:

  1.  The Eligibility Committee determines the child is still eligible to receive special education services, and no updated assessments are necessary.
  2. The Eligibility Committee performs an updated evaluation and determines the child continues to be eligible to receive special education services.
  3. The Eligibility Committee performs an updated evaluation and determines the child is no longer eligible to receive special education services.

Although schools are not legally required to update assessments every three years, the parent/legal guardian is encouraged to request them.  This is particularly true for students being served under the category of specific learning disability (SLD).

If assessments are not updated at the three year mark, best practice dictates an updated assessment should occur at six years and/or when a child is transitioning school buildings (i.e., elementary to middle or middle to high).

If updated assessments are administered, the school district is allowed 65 business days to complete the updated evaluation and reconvene to discuss the results; however, this must be completed prior to the three year mark.

If the child is being served under more than one disability category (i.e., OHI & SLI), and Option 3 occurs, the Eligibility Committee could dismiss the child from just SLI (i.e., speech services), but continue services under OHI or dismiss the child from all services.

Note: A child should NEVER be dismissed from all special education services without an updated evaluation being administered!

THINGS TO REMEMBER

  1. Schools have legal “red tape” they must follow in order to identify a child eligible for special education services. Just because they decline an evaluation, the school does want to help the child to succeed.
    1. If the Child Study Team decides to continue to monitor, then the parent/legal guardian is encouraged to request a copy of what interventions are being administered by the school, how often they are being administered, how they are progress monitoring data for the child, and if progress is being made.

 

  1. The special education timeline is long, but thorough. If all timelines are exhausted, it can take up to 105 days from start to finish.  This is a lot considering schools are only in session for approximately 180 days per year.
    1. No single test may be used by itself to determine a child’s eligibility for special education services. Multiple measures must be administered.

 

  1. A school CANNOT tell you they are no longer accepting referrals to Child Study or allowing evaluations for the rest of the school year. This tends to happen around mid-March/early April, because the 65 business day timeline would push the Eligibility Committee meeting to the summer when school is not in session.
    1. Be aware that if an evaluation is completed during the summer months, then the people who know the child best, may not necessarily be a part of the Eligibility Committee if schools have already been released for summer vacation.
    2. Schools are required to have a school psychologist, school social worker, general education teacher, special education teacher, school administrator, and the parent/legal guardian present at eligibility.
    3. However, anyone employed by the school district who has this license can be asked to participate. This means that any individual holding general education teacher licensure can sit in as the “general education teacher” (i.e., a fifth grade teacher from school A could sit in for a meeting on a first grade child who attends school B).  The same goes for any of the other individuals necessary.  Realize that the people determining eligibility may not have done the testing or have ever met the child, and are making decisions solely based on written documentation of the evaluation data.  (This is why schools try to prevent referrals after mid-March/early April, because if they get to 65 business days, the above scenario could occur.)

 

  1. If a child is not found eligible to receive special education services:
    1. A parent/legal guardian should never be pressured or coerced to sign any document.
    2. They have the right to disagree with the results and request an IEE.

 

  1. If a child is found eligible to receive special education services:
    1. Section 504 Plans and IEPs are required to be updated at least once a year.
    2. The Eligibility Committee must meet every three years to determine if a child is still eligible to receive special education services.
    3. A school CANNOT evaluate for special education services or implement a Section 504 Plan or IEP without written consent from the parent/legal guardian.
    4. A child should never be dismissed from special education services without an updated evaluation being administered!
  2. Parents/legal guardians are contributing members to all meetings, and should be respected and valued for their knowledge and input.

The following links may also be helpful:

The first explains what I stated above in more depth to provide an understanding of what steps the schools are required to perform when determining eligibility for special education services:

http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/parents/parents_guide.pdf

2. The second explains the rights of parents/guardians of a child with a disability:

http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/regulations/state/procedural_safeguards/english_procedural_safeguards.pdf

(Note that these two resources are specific to the state of Virginia.  Contact your individual state’s department of education for relevant information.)