Education Learning Life Teaching Uncategorized

Alternative Assignments and Assessments during the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond…

Bike Monologue 2 – July 22, 2020

The first four miles of today’s bike ride was devoted to discussing alternative assignments and assessments; helping students learn how to question themselves, each other, and the world around them; and some flowery comments about how we can protect our nation’s precious First Amendment.

If you don’t want to watch the video, see the following paragraphs for the highlights.

We Need Alternative Assignments and Assessments Now and in the Future

I said before that if necessity is the mother of invention, then it is going to reinvent the nature of assignments and the notion of assessment during this crisis because we need, desperately, to redefine what good assignments are and what good assessment is. I mentioned in the video that cheating is already a big problem, but with virtual learning it can become more common (if that is possible). Therefore, we need to eliminate the opportunities to cheat as much as possible.

Yesterday’s post delineated the suggestions I am posing. They included portfolios, projects, essays, design-your-own products, research papers, seminar development, and quiz design. I discussed them briefly in today’s monologue, but veered off onto another topic: the importance of questions.

Help Students Learn How to Ask Good and Great Questions

Think back to high school. Did you learn more about how to find “the answers” or did you learn more about how to ask the right questions of the text in front of you? It was a mix for me, but I learned more about questioning from rigorous electives like “Contemporary World Conflicts,” in which we wrote our hands off every day, than I did in U.S. History II, in which we took Scantron test after Scantron test. In English class, we spent most of our time finding answers in the text or copying the answer down that our teacher gave us. Research papers afforded us the opportunity to expand our thinking, but they were assigned once a year. In the late ‘80s, education looked dramatically different from what it does now.

In the core courses, there were few discussions, no Socratic seminars, little differentiation, no personalized learning… You get the picture, I’m sure. Today, these teaching techniques are used regularly to help students deconstruct what they knew, integrate new knowledge, and build a new knowledge base. Constructivist principles are more prevalent today, for which I am thankful.

We need to spend more time helping students learn how to ask good questions, and the techniques mentioned above DO help. Yes, it takes longer to “grade” the work product that results, or the “grade” might be more subjective than the results of a multiple choice and short answer test, but that forces me to question what the purpose of education is. Is it data collection or student development? Data collection is important, but student development is more important.

Help Students Have Difficult, Yet Constructive, Conversations

When students are able to create good questions, they can engage in conversations with others that might become difficult but can remain constructive. We need to be able to do this today, in this polarized, politicized, environment, or we will continue to see videos of Karens who have lost their grip on reality. We will continue to see protests devolve into something decidedly NOT peaceful. We will see more Federal officers descend on cities to “maintain law and order.”

We will see this happen because people cannot control themselves.

They cannot control themselves because they do not have the confidence and the tools to support their position.

They cannot engage in nondestructive confrontations because they do not have the confidence and tools to be restorative.

When people have the tools: questioning expertise, restorative practices principles, deescalation techniques, and confidence girded by deep thought about their values, then we will no longer need “officials” to manage our behavior. We can manage it ourselves. We can protect our First Amendment rights.

Teachers can help students learn how to protect their First Amendment rights and the First Amendment itself. Teach them how to ask good questions and have constructive conversations. Teach them to check their impulses to lash out at those who disagree with them and instead engage in peaceful dialogue. Teachers can partner with other adults in this effort too: parents and other older family members, clergy, community leaders, and behavioral health professionals.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We NEED help.

Education Essays Learning Teaching

Curriculum and Instruction During the COVID-19 Crisis

Bike Monologue 1

Today, I used 5 miles of my 20-mile bike ride to record a video of my thoughts about curriculum and instruction at this time. I’m calling it the first “bike monologue.” It’s an experiment, which is an aspect of learning to teach and teaching to learn I wholeheartedly embrace.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the highlights.

We Don’t Need to Do What We Did March – June

…and We Shouldn’t.

Instead of doing what we did before, which was akin to flipping the light switch on a bunch of gremlins, we teachers and students should take the lessons we have learned and apply them to virtual teaching and learning this upcoming quarter. For example, when we are in “class” – either virtual or brick-and-mortar – we should be doing something as often as possible.

  • Flip the classroom so they come to school prepared to work in class and we are prepared to help them.
  • Engage the students right away with activity.
  • Avoid passive learning as much as possible.
  • Encourage active learning as much as possible.

The COVID-19 Slide Exacerbated the Summer Slide

Since it is true that students may have regressed during the last quarter of 19-20, it is also true that it was a mistake to cancel summer reading and other enrichment activities this year. All we can do now is try to help students rediscover the love of learning we are all born with. Now is not the time for drills that kill that love of learning. Now is the time to help students explore their world and interests and develop their confidence as self-directed learners.

Alternative Assignments and Assessments

Now is also the time to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and assessments. We could even consider letting students design their own assessments. How will they demonstrate mastery of key skills they need? With our help, they can learn how to design their own assessments (and assignments) that will prove they understand the material, have mastered the skills, and are ready to take on the next challenge. Here are just a few alternative assignments and assessments.

  • Portfolios
  • Projects
  • Essays
  • Research Papers
  • Quiz Design
  • Seminar Design and Delivery
  • Presentations
  • Infographics / Posters
  • Videos (Documentaries!)

I want to thank you for reading this. Being able to write out my thoughts has helped me put words to my perspective and my fears. It is my hope that my words help others as well.

Education Learning Teaching

The 2020-2021 School Year Will Be One for the Books

School districts across the country are scrambling to define what school is going to look like this year. Meanwhile, teachers seem to be exhausted, confused, and – in some cases – angry. All the stakeholders in education are on edge: students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and school boards. Powder kegs, also known as school board meetings, are blowing up, lit by the tension in the virtual meeting. Everyone has an opinion. In any other year, under any other circumstances, that would be fine.

This year and under these circumstances, however, we need to be more united than ever in our approach. This is truly a life or death conundrum, not a philosophical debate. People have genuine concerns that need to be addressed.

Health and Safety

The concern that draws that most comment is that masks are not mandatory in schools. If a student or parent of a student says that the child cannot wear a mask for health reasons, that student is exempt and we cannot ask for documentation as to the student’s condition. While I appreciate the regulation, as it protects a person’s privacy, it puts everyone at risk, including that student.

There are students who cannot wear masks for legitimate reasons. Those are not the students of whom I am speaking.

In addition to masks, we have questions about sanitation/disinfection procedures. For example: What are they? (That was not meant to get a chuckle.) Who does what? Will we have enough time to clean surfaces between bells?

Social distancing issues are also a high priority. How are we going to maintain social distancing? There simply isn’t enough room in most school hallways, for example, to maintain social distancing and get students to their classes in a timely manner. The solutions include uni-directional hallways, prohibitions against locker use, extra lunch periods, staggered start and stop times, keeping students in “cohorts,” and teachers traveling from room to room instead of students, among others. Because it seems like it could quickly get “messy,” many school districts are providing an online-only option because there isn’t enough room and because people are genuinely terrified.

The Online-Only Option

Schools had to pivot to virtual (remote/online… just please don’t say distance or e-learning) teaching and learning, starting in March. We learned many lessons during that time about how to teach and learn entirely online. It makes sense to make those lessons learned work for us in the future to keep our students safe.

Asynchronous learning created a feeling of isolation amongst many students. It’s difficult to keep oneself engaged, interested, and resilient if you don’t feel like anyone cares or if you cannot navigate the content and activities well. That has led numerous school districts to embrace synchronous learning.

As an online learner for many years, I immediately thought of us all on the same platform, but not in the same place. In this case, many students would be in the classroom with the teacher and others would watch a broadcast to feel more included in what is happening at school while they are working from home.

That sounds like fun at first. However, there are privacy concerns.

Privacy Concerns

Because necessity is the mother of invention, schools are reinventing public education in real-time. Some schools feel they are competing with the cyber schools and need to provide similar options to their student population to retain those students in their district. Solutions such as robotic cameras have been proposed; online students could then have a view into the classroom, thereby mitigating some of the social isolation that is part of online learning. (I have three degrees from online programs and can say that the feeling of social isolation is difficult. I understand.)

Parents and teachers immediately asked about privacy concerns related to the robotic cameras. Both groups say that they don’t want the kids on video, broadcast into someone’s home. This is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. Having this technology in the classroom also creates cyberbullying opportunities. We all have cameras that can capture broadcasts well, and editing software on those phones that can, potentially, ruin someone’s life. Now, take a look at the picture I added to the top of this post. Suppose I were to make a face like that in the classroom? That’s an instant meme. It still could be, but I contributed the picture and it’s not that bad, so I am inclined to shrug off that possibility.

One thing I noticed during crisis teaching is that my students did not want to be on video. Teens are often keen on taking selfies and creating videos, but on their terms. I would say most humans are. We don’t notice the cameras in stores anymore, but I’m old enough to remember being uncomfortable around them when I was younger. For those who say that the kids will get used to it and no one likes change, I agree, but need to ask: Do the kids really need yet one more thing to adapt to at this time?

In the next post, I will address curriculum and instruction concerns. This post addressed what is most important at this time – the health and safety of all stakeholders in education.
Education Essays Learning Teaching

Why Reexamine What Education Is Right Now? Why Not?

During this crisis, we need to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education.

Some aspects of this post might be unpopular. I apologize in advance.

Why Do Schools Close for So Long?

Please, teachers everywhere, do not wince. It’s a good question. According to PBS, there is a really good answer as to why schools close for so long: It’s hot during the summer. There are still MANY school buildings that do not have airconditioning. (It is 2020, right?) That begs the quesiton: Why isn’t it a priority to make sure that school buildings are modernized? Why is it that 36,000 schools have air system problems, according to the GAO? Since this is the case, why is our President tweeting this?

Mr. President, screaming at us will not help.

Should we not fix the problems, make the buildings safe, and then return the students, faculty, and staff to them? It’s possible that just makes too much sense.

Oh, lest I forget: Betsy DeVos, I have a special message for you. Feel free to find me on Twitter.

Why Did We Close in June?

Well, Heather, you just answered that question in the last section, you are thinking. Keep reading, though.

Before discussing summer teaching in a virtual learning environment, it is important to note that educational equity and fair technology access is a serious problem. For example, in Prince George County in Maryland, virtual learning was impossible and so teachers sent home copies of learning packets. It’s 2020 and we still can’t get tech in the hands of students. That is heartbreaking. Furthermore, it’s a situation that can be fixed if districts can get the funds needed to purchase the technology that all stakeholders in education truly need.

There are other districts that have implemented a one-to-one initiative whereby every student receives either a tablet or a laptop to use during the school year. Some districts were able to get tech to their students during the crisis. Some were able to offer WiFi hotspots to their students at no cost to them. Internet companies worked hard to bring access to those who did not have it before. For those who were able to offer such technology, my suggestion below could have worked. For those who were not, more packets could have worked.

If we had continued “virtual learning” (further developing the skills we learned through “crisis teaching”) through the summer, would we still be having this national meltdown about re-opening in the fall? Perhaps we could have helped students stop their learning regression and restart their progress if we had just “soldiered on” for a little while longer. There was an opportunity to support educational experiences, and we did not take advantage of it. These hypothetical “experiences” would not need to look like “traditional learning.” Kids would not need to sit in front of their computer for hours a day. We could have crafted highly-engaging activities using project-based learning principles and portfolios that could have helped students rediscover what education is: The process of acquiring freedom.

Instead, many districts did not even assign summer reading this year. We were and are burned out, for sure, but that was a mistake. What better time to climb a tree and read? (For those who are not that adventurous, perhaps curling up on the couch or somewhere outside is preferable. Wear sunscreen! Take your mask with you!)

Everyone needed a break; that’s obvious. However, it is important to wonder if all of us would have benefited from some more time with the technology and the chance to develop the online community and its norms we are certainly going to need this year. Perhaps we will reopen in August and September, but trends suggest that we will be virtual again by Thanksgiving. Some colleges are already preparing for that, for example, and sending their students home at Thanksgiving break to complete the semester.

It’s all about money, which is – again – heartbreaking. I know that local entities are supposed to be in charge of education and that leads to a disparity in opportunities because of property-tax revenues. Still, it is not fair. Every child should have the same chance to receive a quality education, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status.

None of this is fair. None of it.

What Is the Purpose of Education?

After listening to several arguments about reopening schools, my first thought was an angry one. Why are we being asked to sacrifice ourselves and the children so that the economy can reopen? What role do they think teachers and staff play in a child’s life? If we are opening schools ONLY because people need to go back to work, then we are not valuing the needs of the children over the economy. We are definitely not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, that’s for sure. When did we become such a crass country?

What happens if someone gets sick? Oh, the chances of that are rare, we are told. The likelihood of children regressing socially is higher than the chances they get sick. The number of behavioral health issues has increased since schools were closed too. Considering the number of videos online in which parents beg teachers to take their kids back, I believe that. While these videos make us chuckle a bit, they also make us realize just how important school is for monitoring and mitigating behavioral issues. Still, is there not another way to socialize?

What about the teachers? The likelihood that teachers will get sick IS high, considering that many of us are older.

It is time for us to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education. I’m not talking about the factory model of education, the one that is supposed to “produce” excellent citizens who can make a contribution to our society. I’m talking Socrates here. Education should be about freedom; through our acquisition of knowledge and our development of critical thinking skills, we realize we are free. By storing and using learning techniques, we can function as independent people within a society of interdependence. We know what we are capable of and no one can take that away from us. We can reveal truth to ourselves and others, citing evidence along the way that is concrete and verifiable. We prove that we are not sheep; we are the shepherd.

As we become more educated, we also realize that we are in charge of our education, we are self-directed learners, and will always be self-redirected learners. Teachers gradually release responsibility to their learners as they master the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Teachers guide on the side, always ready to have the difficult conversation with a student. Get this: We are all students, too. We might have the title of “teacher,” but it is the wise teacher who realizes that we learn from everyone we encounter. Not that I am that wise (yet), but if I didn’t realize that truth, I would not have been as moved by receiving this quote from a student of mine.

“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about `and’. ” – Arthur Eddington


Just take a moment to consider that quote and how it is such a powerful use of language. In martial-arts terms, it’s the cross followed by the hook. Boom! It knocked me out. It came from a student who has realized he is a self-directed learner. If he wants to achieve his dreams, he has to make them happen. He’s a voracious reader, adept thinker, and avid “tinkerer” with all things technological. We need to help more students achieve this level of development, and we can. If we have to do it online, so be it. If we can get back into the classroom safely, that is preferable. The key word is SAFELY.

Anyone who has studied Maslow knows that if physical and safety needs are not met, then there is little motivation to move onto the other aspects of the hierarchy. That just makes sense. Question: How much real learning is going to happen if everyone in the classroom is worried about whether today is the day he or she gets sick?

Until we are convinced that the “experts” know what they are doing, we need to consider all the options for reopening school, in my opinion.

Thank you for reading.

Education Teaching Writing

The Thought Piece

The Thought Piece (TP) can be used with any work of literature. It is an informal writing assignment that asks students to reflect on the work they read and annotated, and then write about those thoughts coupled with the text itself. It is through this informal writing process that students can learn about what they read and how their minds are processing what they read. TPs should be formative assessments, grouped together for later reflection on metacognitive strategies and processes along with content learning. They should not be used for a grade, although perhaps a rubric could be used to evaluate the assignment. I first heard about this type of assignment as I was combing through materials for the AP® Literature course. For more information, look at the College Board site: I have expanded this assignment to include some rules that help students with their writing-to-learn skills.

The Rules

  • Read the text.
  • Use Cornell Notes or another method to annotate the text. The text should be referenced by paragraph, stanza, page number, or Act/Scene/Line. Quotations, in full or in part, are recommended highly. Then, you should indicate whether that part of the text generated a question, commentary, or other type of reaction.
  • Look at your notes. Do you see thoughts that have things in common? Do you see thoughts that build on one another? Do you see any trends? What are they? Use the summary area of your notes pages to point out those trends to yourself.
  • Get ready to write! Using your notes, just start writing out your thoughts about the work you read.
  • When you write your piece, use complete sentences and try to use expanded sentences as much as possible. Try starting out a sentence, then add because, but, or so. Although this is informal, you should not create fragments or run-ons. One point of this assignment is to learn how to create complete thoughts.
  • You do not need a thesis statement for this informal writing assignment, but you might want to celebrate if you write into one.
  • Read your piece after you have finished writing it and then edit it for grammar and style.

Six Facets of Understanding (UbD) and AP® Lit Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge

According to Wiggins and McTighe, the six facets of understanding include “the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess” (UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf, 2012). These can be aligned to Bloom and DoK, but I like UbD because it seems simpler to me. Frankly, I guess I’m getting a little tired of this being so complicated, but that is something I will get over. That said, let’s look at how this assignment could be applied to the Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge of AP® Literature and the six facets of understanding, which will require a bit of alignment. The spreadsheet below is a work-in-progress.

One reason curriculum development and alignment is so important is that during the process the teacher realizes adjustments should be made to suit one’s teaching style and one’s students.

For example, while reviewing the Big Ideas/Essential Knowledge, I noticed there isn’t much there to apply the higher levels of understanding to (empathize and self-assess). If the purpose of studying literature is to better understand the human condition and to understand our role within the human community (that’s my idea, anyway), then shouldn’t we provide more opportunities within the course to do just that? Some of the line items to which I applied “empathize” are actually a stretch and I would need to expand on the statement to actually make that classification work. That is something I will need to work on while I continue to tweak my syllabus.

Speaking of syllabi, I would love it if someone would be willing to look at the massive mess I have right now. One reason I am doing this post is because this will be part of an example assignment I need to include in the syllabus that I submit to the College Board.


UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf. (2012). ASCD.