Do You Even Test?

do you even test?

While many might, and should, argue the political aspects of Common Core development and implementation, I’d venture to say that there are very few who would disagree with the actual standards viewed as a list of things kids should learn in school. I haven’t heard a raging debate about whether or not students should be able to identify verbs, write a paragraph, plot an equation on a graph, and determine the length of a hypotenuse. Any list of learning standards ever devised and that will ever be devised has to include some thing that has to be learned. We should continue to add and subtract things from the list over time, but the list as written, even in the Common Core, is usually agreeable on the whole.

Testing, however, is a whole different ball game. If it is good to have a list of things kids should know and be able to do, it is terrible to take the ability to assess learning out of the hands of both the student and teacher. The PARCC and SBAC tests represent a colossal misstep in the assessment of learning. and pervert it into something that is used as a tool of accountability instead of the growth and development of both the learner and the teacher. If we entrusted assessment to those participating in the learning, and if we documented growth on the acquisition of mastery of the standards using all of the digital tools and community resources we have available, we might find both the learning and accountability we are misguidedly looking for in these standardized tests.

The PARCC and SBAC claim to be valid assessments of standards acquisition. Not only do they fail to represent the learning experience and growth of a student, they are not even equipped to assess several of the more significant Common Core standards in the slightest. While I should know better than to announce a series of blog posts on one topic, I’m interested in finding more examples like the one below.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.6:  Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

This isn’t tested on these tests.  There is no such thing as a “shared writing product” on the PARCC or SBAC tests. Students are not afforded the opportunity to link other information or flexibly dynamic information displays via a browser during these tests.  The closest they come is that they’ve often got a kid sitting at a keyboard typing in a text box or manipulating a cookie-cutter polygon creator.

This seems like a pretty important standard. I hope my kids are learning how to do all of this, even though it isn’t on the test.  And that’s the danger. I fear that things that aren’t on the test aren’t getting the attention they deserve within our school districts. We’ve gone data mad and numbers happy, pushing always for a better local report card score when the big tests get graded, and we’ve done so to the detriment of learning for too long already. If we are going to implement the Common Core, that’s fine by me. But let’s not buy into the idea that these massive tests that are sucking up all of our time and money are in any way capable of measuring all of the learning that could be taking place in our schools.

From Empathy to Engagement

There’s the people talking about the potential of digitally connected project-based education, and then there’s the people actively exploring it. Nevin Jenkins and his team of teachers, students, community partners, parents, and family are doing great work. Every day they are moving the possible a little bit further in Warrensville Heights, Ohio. I can’t wait to visit the planetarium, but even more than that, I can’t wait to follow along and eventually join in.

The joining in part is what’s missing in this stage of the education groupthink on social media right now. While we prattle on about empathy in design thinking we all too often stop short of the actual engagement stages of the design process. It’s not enough to hear about a project like this and feel empathy for what Nevin and his team are trying to do. It’s not enough to click “like” and scroll on down the feed.The planetarium in Warrensville Heights is a prototype for a kind of learning: project based and digitally connected.

What is most needed at the prototype phase is assessment, questioning, praise-giving, and probing. My mentors, Barb Israel and Melanie Wightman, called it “coming together over the work”. I’d invite more educators to engage with Nevin and his team. Share the video with people in your personal learning network and ask them what they think about it. Ask how possible it would be to do something like this in your school or district. Perhaps use it as a conversation point around the idea of positive community partnerships. Maybe show it at the start of a staff meeting and have a discussion about this kind of learning. What if you could help connect his students with mentors in the field, donate supplies, or provide this project with a wider audience? The point is that this video isn’t only there for us to watch, it’s an invitation to join in at the frontier of a new kind of learning.

It’s fitting that the team in Warrensville Heights has kids and adults thinking more about outer-space. In a sense, they are all astronauts, exploring the potential of the vast new frontiers in learning afforded them by new tools and a network of support.


There shouldn’t be two maths, one for school and one for the real world, but there are.  As Conrad Wolfram posits above, our schools aren’t teaching the real kind of math. And if we’re not teaching it authentically, we’re surely not testing it correctly.

Which leads me to this question…

What would happen if our students could clearly do applied math, using the full technological potential that exists in the real world, but couldn’t pass the state or federal task because they’d never focussed on manual calculation? If evidence of student ability in math is openly and clearly presented, would we still accept the results of the high stakes test?


School Is Not Designed for the Internet Yet

I want to move past looking at technology as some vague pronoun affiliated with tools and encompassing laptops, tablets, phones, 3d printers, and software and most of the other stuff we’re always on about.  We seem to be so fascinated by the tools that we’re forgetting what we can do with them.  The revolution in the potential for learning that we’re witnessing and participating in has less to do with technology and everything to do with the internet.  And the internet begins and ends, for most of us, with the browser.

Is there a career or college on earth that doesn’t have browsers?

Humanity hadn’t had the internet until we had the internet. We’re alive in what will be remembered as the first seconds of the world wide web. Already it has shifted commerce, connected millions socially, become the largest repository of human knowledge, toppled governments, and changed the entirety of how we live our lives as individuals and in a global community.  And the ability to connect to all of that potential lies in the web browser and in having the ability to search, connect, and synthesize instantaneously on the internet.

Yet, there’s not a single state or federal test in America that allows students to use a web browser during any mandated assessment that is allegedly testing for career and college readiness.

There are those who might say that giving students access to the internet during high stakes tests gives them an unfair advantage when finding the answers to the questions being asked on the test.  Surely this is true. Because the questions suck. The questions and tests are not designed for a world in which a student actually has instant access to a browser, apps, cloud drives, and socials networks, creative suites, and video sites. If tests were designed for the capabilities our students actually have we might begin to understand how well we’re preparing them for a world that actually exists, and not the already gone world when endless testing, data crunching, scoring and sorting could ever, if ever, tell us anything useful.

Human Development As Professionals


(tl;dr Show up to the soulcraft cohort open house on Saturday, December 20th at 9am. Awesomeness will ensue.)

I often wonder what is being “developed” in the traditional professional development served up to educators. My experience has been that most of these courses mainly seek to encourage and develop skills. Experience has also shown that it’s not my skills that necessarily need developed. In fact, I often find most rewarding those experience which develop me as a person, towards my own human growth path. I appreciate sessions that somehow get through to my soul as a teacher, that strike to the heart of my decision to live a life as a mentor and teacher to others.

A couple of months ago I put out a call very similar to this one.  In it, I asked my PLN to consider joining me in what then seemed to be a crazy experiment in professional development.  I asked whoever would be willing to enroll in a furniture design course at soulcraft Woodshop, and promised that something magical would come out of our shared learning experience as petrified novices. None of us had ever built anything made of wood before. Few, if any of us, even understood how to work the machines and tools.  But we did it.

There were six of us in the first #soulco cohort.  We were asked to show up with a small-to-medium sized project to work on . Julie, Tom, and Karen each chose to make a table.  I made a boombox. Morgan somehow wound up with a beautiful wall shelf from her original shoe organizer design.  Vicki made a beautiful headboard. Jeremy took the long road, and chose to slowly master a smaller project using complex joinery, and we all can’t wait until he gets good enough to make the standing desk he envisions for his office.

We learned so much about woodworking, but even more about teaching.  In learning design via our projects, we found new insights on lesson planning.  In our efforts to share both thoughts and progress, we took to social media and became bloggers, tweeters, and facebook friends.  We sat around coffee before, after, and during the time in the shop swapping ideas about how best to serve students, how hard it is to do what we do,  and how inspiring it is to work with other people as driven as we are to do all we can to move the ball forward in education.  Lastly, and most importantly, we became friends and better people because of our work together.

Now we’re excited to invite more people to join our cohort.  We would love to get 6-8 teachers together on either Saturday mornings or Tuesday evenings to design, learn, and grow together.  This Saturday, December 20th at 9 am, we would like to hold an open house at soulcraft Woodshop for anyone interested in becoming a better professional by tapping into our natural tendencies to create, design, and reflect as a learning process. On Saturday we’ll give a tour of the shop and provide a host of specifics regarding the work we’ll begin on January 3 and January 6th.

Show up. It’ll be awesome. 

Learning To Save Time

This video documents an important step in my growth as a novice in this Soulcraft Cohort work, but the step isn’t shown in the video.  It happened about an hour before we ever hit record.

I had built three walls of the boombox, and had done all the acoustic panelling with the woodblocks, and I had arrived at the shop ready to work on the front piece. I knew it was going to be tough work and that I was going to be pushed to try things that I hadn’t tried. Volume sliders, a speaker panel, and some kind of lid mechanism were all called for, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to do any of it. They were just ideas, drawings in my head, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get my hands to carry it all out.

Peter was in the shop working on a new lamp, and he looked pretty engrossed in it. I didn’t want to bother him, but my project had hit a brick wall and I needed help. Having just felt something similar when the whole team was working the previous Saturday, I was very mindful to take the least amount of time from Peter that I could possibly take. My question had to be succinct, and lead him into a very quick and easy answer.

“Hey Peter.”


“I don’t know how to cut holes in wood when I have to start in the middle of the board.”

In order to cut the speaker hole, and the holes for the volume sliders, I knew I couldn’t use a band saw, chop saw, or table saw, but those were the only tools I knew how to work aside from the jointer and planer. Peter quickly showed me the drill press machine, and taught me that I could drill holes in wood with a special bit. After I drilled the holes, I could take a handheld jigsaw and finish the cuts I needed.

Easy-Peasy. Peter went back to work and I got started. Next thing I knew, I was ready to make the video.

The thing I learned is that it’s important to know when to ask a question, and how best to ask the right one.  I didn’t get Peter involved in my whole problem, which would have taken more time in discussion. Instead, I identified exactly what I needed to learn for the immediate next step, and then stated it to Peter directly. I think it’s also important that I didn’t quite ask a question, I simply stated my problem. In a relationship in which a design framework is understood with depth, I could rely on Peter’s facility with problem solving as a starting point to finding a solution, and I could trust that he’d take the next steps to design the best answer, in this case, showing me the drill press and handheld jigsaw.

Applied to teaching in a problem-based classroom, I think my takeaway is that it might be interesting to have students learn how to maximize time by leading not with a question, but a specific problem statement.  I’m not exactly sure what I mean yet, but there’s something to having students be mindful of the teacher’s time, especially as PBL work is quite a bit more time intensive especially during feedback conversations.

Soulcraft Cohort: Data Analysis

For the past few Saturday mornings a group of teachers here in the Cleveland area have been meeting to learn at Soulcraft Woodshop. Our cohort is an experiment in professional learning. We believe that by putting ourselves in the unfamiliar world of woodworking, and in the hands of skilled and passionate artisans as mentors, we can grow through the experience of working on a furniture project and use what we learn to help us in our day jobs as educators. So far it’s been a bunch of fun mixed with a bit of healing and a ton of nervous excitement. We talk alot. We joke with one another. And now we’re starting to build stuff.

The video below is a thirty-five second look at the first time our team was set loose in the shop to start building. I’d like to dissect the video and highlight the learning I see.  While only a brief look into our work, I think it illuminates why we’re so excited to experience and share our time together.

0:00-0:06 – This is Peter and Christie. Peter is one of our mentors. He was helping Christie (actually his educator-genius-sister) mill her first pieces of wood for the project. Christie had never operated a saw like this before, had been shown how to work the tool and what to expect, and was very nervous about the whole deal. Check out Peter’s attention to the process, and his perfect role as a guide-on-the-side.

0:09-0:12 – This is Morgan and Julie. Morgan is planing her lumber on a super loud industrial machine. Julie has planed lumber before, and has offered to help Morgan during her first couple goes at it. We’ll come back to them in a few seconds.

0:15-0:20 – This is Tom and Jeremy.  Jeremy is wearing blue jeans for the first time in over a decade (don’t ask).  He also has designer safety gear.  Joking aside, the two of them were in deep discussions about how to build a great standing desk.

0:21-0:32 – Back to Morgan and Julie for my favorite bit. This is a great example of formative assessment. Morgan’s goal is to wind up with planks of wood that are planed to the exact same thickness. I won’t get into the whole process, but the gist is that each piece of wood must be incrementally thinned in succession until all planks match the thickness of the thinnest piece. In these nine seconds, we see Julie and Morgan spot-check their progress and determine how to proceed. I wish I would have kept the camera on Julie for a few more seconds. At :33 we see Julie begin to give feedback to Morgan.

0:33-0:35 – Back to Christie and Peter as she finishes her first successful cut.

In project-based learning, the data looks different. Numbers and letter grades could never capture what this thirty-five second snapshot can tell us about the learning going on in this “classroom”.

(Follow along with our cohort on twitter via the #soulco hashtag. We’re sharing posts, photos, insights, and laughs.)

The Starfish Story and Why It’s The Worst Motivational Story Ever

If you’ve ever been a teacher in a professional development session anywhere in the past ten years you’ve heard this one. If not, go ahead and watch it right quick.

Touching, no?

I hope every teacher gets the chance to “make a difference” in a kid’s life.  Any teacher in this world will tell you that these are the moments we live for, these moments in which we impact lives for ever. “The Starfish Story” is a favorite of teachers because the metaphor is perfect: As teachers we are so often starfish throwers, and it’s wonderful to be that person in life, especially when everyone else thinks it’s such a small difference we make.

But what about why all of the starfish are washed ashore so far from the natural habitat they should be thriving in to begin with? How did the problem become so large that the only answer is to sort amongst the dead and dying? Are we supposed to be motivated by the small, but personally meaningful, impact we are having on a much bigger, and more dire, problem?

I never want to see “The Star Fish Story” again. I don’t want to watch it in a staff meeting, opening day convocation, or professional conference. Instead, I’d like to watch something that asks how we can all work together to tackle the starfish problem. I’d like to hear the story cast with The Wise Old Man from the story as the protagonist as he decides to join in with the young girl in the throwing of starfish. A story about how he got others to join him in helping the girl, until one glorious day, there weren’t starfish washing up on the shores anymore.

We’re not going to solve any problems in education by condescendingly telling people they should feel good about making the best of a bad situation.  Instead, we should be honest about the scope of our problems, and as professionals get inspired to do what’s difficult together.

Let’s replace “The Starfish Story” with something more like this. Let’s motivate one another to solve a great problem.

Because it's time