Posts Tagged ‘Bill Zima’

Core Practice 2 in a Performance-based, Student-Centered School

October 22, 2011

The following post was written by Bill Zima, principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill started at Mt. Ararat after working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill has contributed earlier to the Bright Futures blog. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.

It is still dark as the students begin to enter the school following their long, insipid ride on the bus. It is November in Maine. Our students get up before the sun and head to school. As they enter the team hallway, there is a sense of excitement similar to one seen just before a marathon, or an Olympic swimming heat. Although, with far less jiggling of the quadriceps. Students are ready, with visible signs of excitement, to begin the final week of their current project. They are working to design a consumer product based on an adaptation of their chosen animal. They have spent the last few weeks working in their English-Language Arts class on persuasive techniques they will use to sell convince others to fund the production of their invention. In math, they have been studying graphs. In the final project, they will be asked to use and interpret graphs that would support the question, why buy my product? In science they have been studying animal adaptations and how they support an animal’s ability to survive in a given biome. When completed, they will create a display, to include a model of the product, either digitally or real, and reasons as to why their product should be manufactured. Their audience will include students, parents, business and community members and the media who are all invited to The Invention Fair. This is a great example of a performance-based, student-centered project. It is also how teachers can meet Core Practice 2: Teachers use research-based instructional practices in their classrooms that are effective in increasing the learning and achievement of young adolescents.

As middle level educators, we know once the young adolescent becomes engaged, there is little that can stop them, for better or for worse. Research has shown that students are more likely to engage if an activity centers on their interests, is at their level of challenge readiness and involves some level of choice on how the outcome can be demonstrated. As educators we are often worried about how the material will be understood. Spending upwards of 90 % of our planning time making sure the students comprehend the material. A factor receiving far less time, but shown to increase student engagement, is the relevance of the material. What does it mean for them. How does it connect to what they already believe and find interesting? We need to locate the hook and then bring them in. In many cases, hands-on experiences, group discussions, workshops and project-based learning can be that hook.

For students to take academic risks, researchers have shown that the environment needs to be supportive and safe. It takes time to establish such a culture with students. But to feel safe, one must feel valued. Giving students voice on how the classroom operates and choice in how to best demonstrate their learning, are steps that can go a long way to appreciating and accepting your students as individuals. In the words of a student who appeared recently on the NBC program Education Nation. “Tell me something good that I’m doing so that I can keep growing in that.” Students want to feel accepted. Respect what they value and their desire to learn will increase.

Designing a project in a performance-based system requires that the teachers begin with the end in mind. The end, in this case, is not the invention fair. Instead, the end is the specific learning targets, that when grouped together, build an effective unit. Once it is clear what the students need to know or be able to do, the teacher can begin to identify the steps to get to the targets associated with their discipline. Theses steps will be assessed in a formative way, helping the students prepare for the final, or summative assessment, which, in this case, will be judged when applied during the Invention Fair.

Instruction in a student-centered, performance-based classroom, if done correctly, is deeply rooted in best practices. Once we give our students more voice and choice and we redesign our system to reflect a model that supports the statement all students learn in different rates and in different ways, our teachers will be free to create units that will increase the learning and achievement of young adolescents.

Customized Learning and Bright Futures

July 31, 2011

The following post was written by Bill Zima who has been working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill recently started a new job as principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill has contributed earlier to and you can access his other posts. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.

When I reflect on what is meant by student-centered, performance-based classrooms, “voice and choice” often comes to mind. This then prompts three questions; (1) Are students given the choice to use their special gifts, interests and desires to demonstrate understanding of a concept or skill? (2) Are students given the voice to help shape the curriculum and the learning path? (3) Do we actively engage the students in a conversation about what is working and not working in their schools? I know there are bright spots throughout Maine, but as a system, yes is a rare answer. The curriculum is often set, placed in binders and stored on shelves. Learning outcomes are defined by grade levels and are not easily adjusted. If we want to answer yes to the above questions, students must become active owners of the curriculum and their learning. They will not be able to do so until we develop systems of instruction that are transparent allowing them to see the path of learning required to become proficient in a concept or a skill.

The first of the Bright Futures Core Practices calls for a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory while being accessible to all students. Does this mean all students need to do the same activities and pass the same assessments in order to demonstrate understanding? In recent years, some have suggested uniformity is the only way to ensure all students learn the same curriculum. This approach however conflicts with the findings of neuroscience. Studies of the adolescent brain confirm what educators have long thought, students learn in different ways and at different times. So why do we continue to make statements like “all 7th graders should be able to…” We need to move away from the traditional approach of grade-level defined curriculum and look to true learning progressions. The challenge lies within our outdated instructional system. That system makes or even forces students to move to the next grade-level whether they are ready to or not. “Sorry we finished 6th grade curriculum. You need to go to seventh grade. You passed with an 80 percent, which is good for you. The missing 20 percent, well, that may not matter.” I ask students, “Have you ever felt left behind in the classroom, because the teacher had to move on?” All the students I have spoken with have said yes, they are frustrated when things move too quickly and they miss concepts. Teachers often talk about the impediment of students coming to their classrooms without the necessary skills to be successful. Yet, we have a hard time identifying which specific skills those are. Why do we continue to do this?

We need to work with parents, teachers, community members and students to get at what we want our students to know and be able to do. Once we recognize the learning outcomes, we can create progressions of learning that will lead from the introduction of the concept or skill through to being proficient or advanced. Once these progressions are created, it will be clear to student, parent and teacher which skills or concepts are prerequisites. This will make the curriculum appropriately challenging. To make it engaging and meaningful, teachers can provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency using their gifts and interests. This in fact makes the curriculum uniform but but the details varied. That is mass customization.

The Red Cross Aquatics Safety Program is a wonderful example of this approach. They have made their curriculum completely transparent by defining what it means to be proficient at swimming and then designed a program to help students get from water exploration to being a safe and efficient swimmer. The skills associated with each level are clear and must be demonstrated before one is allowed to move to the next level.

Some swimmers will inevitably move faster through the program. Yet we do not think less of those students who need more time to demonstrate nor do we tell them they have been here for 175 days and must now move into the deep end regardless of skill or readiness. We recognize that different swimmers have different personalities, experiences and body types that all affect how they first meet the water and develop a comfort level for success. Why is this not possible for our students? Do they not come to us with different experiences, personalities and gifts? The Aquatics program can be applied to anyone, the masses but tailored for the individual needs, customization. Hence, a system of mass customization.

The Common Core attempts to build learning progressions for language arts and math but then places them back into arbitrarily defined grade levels. As long as we continue to allow grade levels to dictate the curriculum (oh that is taught in 7th grade, you will have to wait) we will never make it accessible to all students. We must not “teach” the Common Core but instead use the Common Core to guide what we teach. In my conversations with students, they have described curriculum as a “big, secret book” the teacher looks at, teaches a concept and then flips the page to the next unit. Students see the concepts or skills as unrelated chunks of learning. Never truly grasping the relationship. Learning progressions, however, show students that once you finish this skill or concept, we will move on to this skill or concept. The curriculum becomes clear. And then when they choose how they will demonstrate understanding using their interests, it becomes real and they will engage. I believe we should be able to ask any student 3 questions that help to see the accessibility of our curriculum; (1) What are you working on, (2) how do you know when you are done, and (3) what do you do next. We need to open the curriculum to our students and let them in on our secret. They have asked me for it. Have you asked them?

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

November 24, 2010

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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