Classic Middle Link: Bring a Donut; I Have an Idea!


Here’s the second installment about Outcomes Based Learning and RISC from Bill Zima, Assistant Principal at Massabesic Middle School and MAMLE board member It was originally published in Middle Link, the MAMLE quarterly newsletter.  Bill’s first installment can be accessed here.

It was one of those dark, bitter cold January mornings in Maine. I had challenged our middle school teachers earlier in the week that if anyone could help me understand why some of our students fail, I would buy them a donut and we could talk. The usual explanation I hear is that students are not completing their homework, or that they have a difficult home situation, but I was interested in hearing something different. A teacher came to me that morning and said, “Bring in a donut; I have an idea!” During our conversation over hot coffee and Boston Cream donuts, it came out that, as a system, we were not able to help students understand why they were failing. We could not point to specific knowledge they missed or skills they needed to work on to improve their thinking and deepen their learning. That cold morning, I became aware of the importance of creating learning targets for all students.

Richard Dufour advocates that professional learning communities specifically state what we want our students to know and be able to do. Bob Marzano concludes that an effective strategy teachers can use to improve student learning is to give feedback around specific learning targets. Cris Tovani writes about the importance of explicitly modeling specific literacy skills to the students. RISC has standards-based design as one of the four tenants of their model. I have read these authors and countless others, but it was not until that cold, dark morning that a light brightened the forest of ambiguity that surrounds education reform and I realized that our middle school had not gone through the process of creating a document and a system to specifically state what we expect of all our students. The work began immediately.

We produced a schedule for PLC meetings by that afternoon. Each grade level, content area group, for example seventh-grade science, would have a chance to meet and begin the process of identifying enduring understandings for their curriculum. At the first meeting we read an article by Marzano and discussed the importance of creating learning targets. We were going to move away from the textbook driving the instruction and create a viable curriculum based on learning targets. It was important for all teachers to understand why we were taking the time to create a framework of skills. Once the purpose was established, we could move into the work.
The middle school had made a decision to move to a standards-centered instructional model from an activities-centered model before becoming associated with the RISC cohort so we spent a great deal of time discussing the why behind the shift. I believe our task would have been easier and completed in a more timely fashion if we had begun with the RISC model and focused on creating a shared vision and defining a moral purpose for change.

Using the Maine Learning Results, examples of other school’s work and ideas from national organizations, we began unpacking the standards to get at what we wanted our students to know and be able to do by the time they left our middle school. It was important for the teachers, the experts in the classroom, to have a voice in how the curriculum is structured. Our goal was to get to a single, measureable target that encouraged higher level processing. A review of thinking models aimed at explaining how people learn is typically represented by three distinct parts; input, process and output. As we created our frameworks, we noticed it was easy to create targets that had students go straight from the input to the output. An example of this type of target is a ‘defines words’ or ‘lists the major components of a story’. While knowing the vocabulary is important, it requires little to any neural processing. Having the background information is the input into the thinking process and should not be considered the final step. We began using Marzano’s and Bloom’s taxonomies to assure our students were processing the new information at the appropriate cognitive level.

In creating our scoring guides or rubrics, we used the learning target as the proficient, or score 3 mark. Once that was established we began to identify the simpler pieces that made up the learning target. These included vocabulary words and sub-steps. These simpler pieces became the emerging or score 2 marks. For a score 1 and a score 4, we used the same phrase on each scale for the appropriate score. Now the teachers had documents that contained what the target is, and what the simpler pieces are that make up the target. This year will be dedicated to producing assessments that aim specifically at the target and creating capacity matrices so the students will be able to track their learning progress.

In the next quarter, I will continue to look at how Massabesic Middle School is addressing the third pillar, student-centered, standards-based classrooms by reviewing some of the tools RISC uses to give students voice and choice.
If you have questions or comments, please email or call me. or 207-247-6121

Grade 7
Score 4.0 In addition to score 3.0 performance, the student demonstrates in-depth inferences and applications that go beyond what was taught.
Score 3.0 While engaged in grade-appropriate reading tasks, the student demonstrates an understanding of Persuasive writing by…
• Employing a variety of persuasive techniques to support an idea using facts, supported inferences, and/or opinions appropriate to the audience or purpose.
Score 2.0 The student exhibits no major errors or omissions regarding the simpler details and processes, such as…
• Having a single argument supported with opinions and minimal facts.
• Recognizing and recalling specific terminology.
Score 1.0 With help, the student demonstrates partial understanding of some of the score 2.0 elements and some of the score 3.0 elements.


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