Humanizing The Pivot Online

Let’s do a little Dos and Don’ts for finishing the semester in a global pandemic.

Do: Ask your students how they are, what they need, what their challenges are, then listen and adapt accordingly.

Don’t: Set inflexible deadlines.

Do: Lighten the load. Yes, there is so much we WANT to get accomplished and it’s imperative that we let go of our wants to focus on our needs. What are program/professional requirements that are inflexible? Reduce the course to those things only.

Don’t: Add anything. Nothing, not a check in, an assignment, a test, a synchronous class session, nothing. Less is more right now.

Do: Revise your grading criteria. Account for the limitations of the circumstances.

Don’t: Allow the demands of the time (e.g. caring for ill family members, being ill themselves, limited access to technology/reliable internet) have a lasting effect on students in the way of GPA or having to retake a class.

Do: Communicate. Students are anxious too! They’re not feeling trusting of faculty to be understanding of their circumstances so let’s stay in communication about our expectations.

Don’t: Expect business as usual. It’s a global pandemic and we’re really just getting started. This is not business as usual.

Do: Finish as soon as you can. If you can finish the course early, do. This will allow students to complete the must-do experiences as soon as possible in the event that they are personally affected by Covid-19.

Don’t: Make this any harder than it is. Yes, our work is so important and our time with students is so important. And, in a global pandemic, health and safety are all that matter.

Now, go wash your hands.

Keep It Simple

It’s overwhelming, the resources, the links, the technology, the acronyms, the expectations, this is all very overwhelming. I am one small voice but hear my whisper into the tsunami, “keep it simple.”

This is not the moment to “redesign education” as the memes and tweets say. This is not the moment to learn MOOCs and LMSs and lecture capture software.

This is our moment to pause. To reflect. To consider what’s important and just focus on that. To keep it simple. Determine first what you need to do – what absolutely must be in done in a global pandemic in order for your students to pass (consider your course pass/fail even if your university does not and do not grade/set inflexible due dates).

Have that in your mind? The most important outcome(s)?

Now, what tools do you need to achieve that outcome? Let’s take an Occam’s razor approach to teaching in a pandemic and say the very most simple, obvious answer is the right answer.

  • Use email! Really – it can be that easy.
  • You likely already have an LMS – upload materials there and open some dropboxes for students to submit work.
  • Add lecture notes to the slides you were already planning to use and upload those/send them out.
  • Keep your tools/tech to three or fewer. For instance, I’m using Slack for nearly everything we will do for the remainder of the course and maintaining our use of email and Google Docs. That’s it – no other tools needed.

Be flexible and responsive and solutions oriented. It’s been said but it’s important to remember – students may have unreliable internet, be in other time zones, taking on additional familial responsibilities, ill themselves or caring for someone who is sick. This is not an extended weather event – this is a global pandemic. Let’s treat each other with care and grace and low expectations. And please please please just keep it simple.

The “Pivot” Online

Like everyone else in higher education, I’m preparing to shift my face to face course to a distance learning model. I’m not calling it an online course because it takes me months to prepare an online course. This will happen in a week and it will be imperfect.

This course is required for future early childhood teachers and it focuses on inclusion. There is a CAEP required assessment in it that is dependent on their field experiences (two full days each week in. K-3 classrooms). The additional assessment activities I include are our Learning Logs (already housed in Google Docs) and our book club (Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby). That’s it – we’ve already established that I am an ungrader and you can go here, here, and here to read more about that.

Teacher preparation is relatively unique because we have multiple accountability structures. We are required to collect data on student mastery of key concepts. This will be my focus for the remainder of this big adventure. So here is how I am approaching the pivot online, maybe it will be helpful for you as well.

  1. I created a Slack channel #surviving-lockdown and invited all 62 students across two sections to join.
  2. I am pushing back book club two weeks so everyone can get their books from dorms and sorority houses they can not yet access (we’re currently still on Spring Break so I have a little wiggle room). When we’re ready, I will create channels in Slack for the book clubs to meet (synchronously or asynchronously, the groups will decide).
  3. We have covered the first three sections of the key assessment already so I am creating mini-lessons with a short podcast and guided PPT to walk them through the how to of writing good goals and objectives.
  4. We will continue to work in our Learning Logs to document our learning and to communicate privately.
  5. I have a fictional case study ready to go for the set of students who have had complications in identifying a student in their placement. This allows them to still get the practice even if they are unable to get back to their classrooms any time soon (our public schools are closed until April 3, as of now).
  6. Those who have enough data already will push those forward. We will focus on giving each other peer and Jen feedback consistently from a distance.
  7. We will communicate. Regularly. Slack has already been amazing for this. We are in communication and we all feel better knowing we have the tools to connect.

We won’t be meeting synchronously. I will be reassuring them that we can figure absolutely anything out together. I’m grateful we had 8 weeks to build trust in each other and establish our relationships. I truly believe we can accomplish what we NEED to accomplish – is it all I would LIKE to accomplish? No. It’s modified. And that’s okay. I’ll be posting resources here, sending them tools, TED talks, documentaries, book titles, trying to give them as many resources as I can while I can.

But I am with them for the duration. Our learning doesn’t stop when the semester ends or the quarantine lifts. They know I have their back and they know where to find me. At least I know I’ve taught them that.

Implicit Bias in Early Intervention

I had such a fun time at the Illinois Early Intervention Empowering Professionals conference last week. We had really thought provoking discussion around our biases about home visiting and families show up in our work with infants and toddlers. Here are the slides (click the Download button above) we used and a few of the biases we discussed. There are so many more but, thanks to Kate Marchese, these were really prevalent and provocative ones for our work together.

All Are Welcome

All are welcome PDF

In response to requests, I have posted this in pdf and png.  I can have 16×20 prints printed on Canva for $6 or you can download the file and order it from your favorite printing site/place.


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!



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