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Today we are joined by two fantastic educators. First, I will be speaking with Peter Verdin, who is a "movement engineer" at Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho, which is a tuition free, progressively minded lottery-based school. Essentially, Peter is redoing the way we look at physical education with elementary students, and designing curriculum as these students grow older and the school expands.
Then, we have Bruce Mansfield, is an instructional coach in the Bellingham School District in Bellingham, Washington. Bruce has operated a gradeless system in a traditional environment, and showcases the structure of his course, as well as how he has used portfolios and student letters to obtain evidence of learning. It's a great look at how we can spread the practice of gradeless learning to even more educators.
Peter Verdin, the Movement Engineer at Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho, who incorporates place-based and environmentally-focused learning into physical education; host of The Other Literacies; founder of Movement Engineering Project.
Bruce Mansfield, an instructional coach in the Bellingham School District in Bellingham, Washington; former US history teacher of 14 years; a pusher for radical change in assessment via portfolio and student letters.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, is available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Matt Walker, Jenny Lucas, and Dan Kearney. Thank you so much for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 22 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, we are joined by two fantastic educators. First, I will be talking with Peter Verdin, who is a movement engineer at Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho, which is a tuition-free, progressively-minded, lottery-based school. Essentially, Peter is redoing the way that we look at physical education with elementary school students, and he's designing a curriculum that these students can grow into and older as the system expands. Essentially, Peter is redoing the way that we look at physical education, specifically right now with elementary school students, and he's designing a curriculum that will help them as they grow older. Then, we have Bruce Mansfield, who is an instructional coach in the Bellingham School District in Bellingham, Washington. Bruce has operated a grade-less system in a traditional environment as a U.S. history teacher, and he showcases the structure of his course, how he used portfolios to grade, how he used portfolios to track evidence, as well as student letters to document everything that his students were doing. It's a great look at how we can spread and mirror progressive education with a traditional educational environment. Start off, here's Peter Verdin.
Peter Verdin: My journey to being a physical education teacher is interesting. I have a non-traditional route into teaching. My undergrad is in sports management, and that was at the University of Georgia, where I played baseball, was drafted professionally by the Washington Nationals, but really fell out of love with baseball and was like, I really, what I love is being in the weight room, and I enjoy working out and enjoy pursuing physical growth and kind of the challenges with that. So, I went back, got my master's in sports performance at the University of Georgia, and out of that master's program, was looking for jobs, and the sports performance world is this really, I mean, it's packed with people willing to work for less and work more hours, and so, it's really hard to find a job, even with experience as an athlete and in a weight room. So, I found this job at a school in San Antonio, Texas that was intriguing because they were hiring both physical educators as well as sports performance coaches. It was a K-12 school, and they were looking to partner those two disciplines to further physical education. I was like, that's awesome. That sounds cool. So, I got on board, moved down there with my then girlfriend, my now wife, and we got engaged while we were there, and after moving there, the principal's like, we need a lead. You want a lead? I never taught. I'm straight out of my master's, and I'm leading a staff of seven other physical educators or sports performance coaches, some PE teachers who have like 20 years experience. So, really trying to shift the mindset of what physical education can be as a new teacher with some people who have some experience was really interesting. Fast forward a little bit. I had a stint in a private sports performance facility and then went on board to an educational service provider here in Boise, Idaho, where I am now, where I was developing physical education curriculum, developed a curriculum that was about 750 lessons vertically aligned, progressed from kindergarten to eighth grade, along with a learning management system that went with that, and then I would train physical educators all over the country on that curriculum for a variety of reasons, left that organization to where I am now, which is what I'm most excited to talk about, and that is at Future Public School, which is in Garden City, Idaho, which is adjacent to Boise, and Future is currently a kindergarten through fourth grade school because we're only a second year school. It's a public charter school, and our mission is to develop engineers of the community and of the future, and I'd say one of the biggest things that I think is really cool about Future is our value of equity and diversity in a city that's like 90% white, that really doesn't value diversity and equity. That's something that our school does a really good job of thinking about, and really that's the student body that we want to serve, both socially, racially, economically diverse student population. So it's a pretty cool school in that respect. So yeah, my title at Future is a movement engineer, which is, I'm sure, dive into what that means and what that looks like here.
CM: That's awesome. It sounds like you basically went through zero-based thinking. I don't mean this in a mean way, but if you don't know what you're doing, you start from square one, and as a result, you develop some really cool things because you can think very creatively about it. constrained by what everyone assumes that program should look like. And with that being said, when you first started making these lessons and you didn't really have anything to go off of because you didn't necessarily have an educational background, were you looking back to phys ed when you were in high school and middle school, and was that a positive or negative experience?
PV: Yeah, that's an interesting one. I was actually talking about that with somebody yesterday or on Friday about my experience in elementary school, and I really vividly remember my physical education teacher who was from Texas and had this really country accent, and when we were in health, specifically sex ed, some of the things he said, we would just be giggling under our breath. But that for some reason is the main experience that sticks with me from physical education. I wouldn't say I had a bad experience, but I didn't have this amazing experience either. So I did look back to that, but I think I agree what you were saying about that starting from scratch. Adam Grant talks a lot about that in his book Originals, about even when you think you have a good idea, scrap it and start over and see what comes of it. And that's really what I did coming into this new role. I had an opportunity to take the curriculum that I had created with me as part of a contract that I was going to continue working with that organization. And I was like, no, I'm good. I'm going to just start over and see what happens. And it's been really cool just kind of reimagining what it can be.
CM: I was almost expecting you to say that it was a bad experience, because I don't know anyone that had a good experience with physical education at school, but I could be wrong. But maybe it's because you were athletic when you were in high school. I know me and my friends, we were not pretty much the opposite. So I grew up super nerdy, a little overweight, especially in high school. And I remember phys ed being the only place ever in school that I was ever bullied. And the only place where I felt like physical embarrassment or just embarrassment in general was commonplace. So like everything from the outfit to just like the type of activities, because they tend to be very competitive activities, where if you're not physically inclined is a place that you're going to struggle. It was just a really bad experience for me. And most people I know just because of the way it's set up. And I think that kind of builds into then what it means to be a movement engineer, because I think that your focus is less so on playing dodgeball every day, I don't know what what it might be and more focused on the health and wellness side of things.
PV: I've used the words like reimagination, redefining physical education, like a physical education renaissance of sorts, because I think there are times and there are places where physical education has been quality. But if you look back at the history of physical education, it does have a sports focus back to the 1820s, when physical education was getting started, it was because of sport. And the NCAA's creation of sport, whenever that was, I forget, 1800s, early 1900s, that really drove the physical education programs in higher ed. But coming into future, I really wanted to think about engagement specifically, because where I was at before the curriculum had a heavy sports performance influence, which was good in a lot of ways, looking at a real systematic way of teaching skills, these movement skills within physical education. But there was still a heavy sport emphasis in a lot of ways, especially in later grades. And this curriculum that I had created, it had all of the perfect progressions of teaching these skills, but it often because it was a scripted curriculum, it didn't have the individual in mind when I was writing it, because I was writing it to be implemented at a variety of different schools. And so I really wanted to take those concepts of teaching skill, which I think are missing currently in physical education, and figure out a way to do it in a really engaging way, and a way that met the needs, especially the interests of students that I was going to be working with here at Future. And so I think in a lot of ways, I've accomplished that, but I think there's still room for growth. Sure.
CM: So let's talk a little bit about what it is that you do, like, so like, what would be a typical day for the movement engineers classroom?
PV: Yeah, so I think, you know, some people probably from the outside looking in would would look at it and be like, Oh, yeah, that's PE. But if you were to, like, pull back the layers of what I do, there's a lot more depth to it, I think, but yeah, you know, I mean, I teach kindergarten through fourth grade. So I get everybody twice a week, kindergarten, I actually get three times a week, because your classes are a little shorter. So I get half the class on Mondays and Wednesday, or half the school on Mondays and Wednesdays, half the school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. And I think what differentiates myself from traditional PE is the content and how I organize it, kind of my alignment towards a more long term goal. I was actually drawing, I know, listeners can't see this, but I was drawing like all of the influences on the content and it's just like a really messy map. And it's been influenced by everything from gymnastics, which if you look back at the history of physical education, that's what the root of it is, is in gymnastics, especially from this like European influence. But then things like risky play are probably I mean, if you were to come in, you would see like, tomorrow we're going we have these woods that are adjacent to the school, a green belt, because there's the river, the Boise River right here. And we go out into the woods, and it's this semi structured because like I'm kind of driving where we are and what we're doing while we're there, but it's a lot of less structured play that's happening. Risky play, like you'll come out and you'll see like our focus these next couple days because I don't have anything in the gym to hang or climb on is hanging and climbing. So like kids are going to be climbing trees, doing stuff like that. So real and risky play is really played an influence in it natural movement. So like move NAT is an organization that's really popularized that but just natural movement in the sense of like, these fundamental human movements that we do and and that's everything from wrestling and rough and tumble play, which is part of risky play to like balancing and hanging and climbing, like I just mentioned some parkour influences. There is still some of that youth sport in there because that is what some kids like and enjoy jujitsu Brazilian jujitsu did karate growing up, and that was awesome. I have good experiences there but really I'm not an expert in it but see a lot of benefits and some of the rough and tumble play games that are within jujitsu. Long term athletic development and all the social emotional learning stuff that can be embedded within this pursuit of physical literacy. All of that comes into the content going back to your question. Sorry, I'm on a little bit of a bird walk. But yeah, and so you walk in and it can be a range of any of those things happening or we could not even be in the gym with the outside climbing trees.
CM: What's the parent and student reception to that? Like are they worried because that I mean, at least like the common American like journalist perspective would have you think that parents are freaking out that kids are doing anything that might be risky. Is it accepted or people going along with it?
PV: Yeah, that's a great question. I'd say I can count on one hand on like three fingers the parents that are not okay with it and specifically just because of the river, worried about water safety, Idaho's top five for drownings in the country so but most parents love it. I have parents who frequently send me pictures, text me pictures of their kids climbing trees out by the river where we go. We just had a share the love event and we did some stuff in the gym parents are coming up to me and like thanking me for taking the kids out there and how important it is for them to be outside and the kids are showing them some of the wrestling games that we do and within our movement class. So yeah, the parent reception but that's also something I've been really intentional about is informing parents about what we're doing and why we're doing it and why it's important and engaging them.
CM: Let's kind of shift over to students that maybe might struggle more in physical education with the obesity epidemic but also just maybe are not prone to physical activity in some way shape or form. How do you then work with those students and do you find that then just taking them outside or doing kind of like these alternative things like jujitsu help them learn in different ways?
PV: Yeah, totally. I mean the outside especially like the majority of students not more than the majority like almost all students really thrive out there. Every day kids are coming up to me being like are we going outside into the woods today? Like it's this natural environment where I think there's just like some innate human desire to be in the woods and in doing stuff. But yeah, I mean there's still some of the struggle especially when we do some traditional sports stuff that interests some students but not others. But I think really it's about creating a culture and creating an inclusive culture where people aren't shamed or made to feel uncomfortable because they're not good at something and that's something that I've been really intentional about is building those relationships with students and I'd say is one of my strengths is building really meaningful relationships with students so that they know that they're accepted, they're loved when they come into the gym. It's not about how good you are now and whether you can do something or not. It's really just about finding a joy for movement and this pursuit of skill and getting better at it and learning and that everybody is respected and accepted within our movement class. But that to be said, you'll come in at any point in time and there are still students who aren't 100% engaged for a variety of reasons and a lot of times it has nothing to do with movement. It has to do with we have some challenging home lives or they didn't eat dinner or breakfast, stuff like that. So I still am up against some of the same challenges of a traditional PE teacher but I think just creating a culture of acceptance and building that relationship as the foundation is kind of what I see as most important as a teacher, better yet just a physical educator.
CM: Of course. Yeah, I mean that lack of food is obviously a huge hurdle to overcome and it's something that requires resources really beyond what the school can offer in most cases. But something that I would imagine you might cover, they might be a little bit too young, but I guess it could affect K4 would be like food choice, like nutrition. Do you get into like the health side of things beyond just moving around so like how they choose to feed themselves or how they think about food?
PV: That's a great question. I would say, I mean, this is my first year at the school, second year as a school. That's not something that we've gotten into yet. I also have the role of wellness director as part of the federal school lunch program. And so we're thinking about what does that look like year two. So yeah, within a primary ed setting, usually you don't have health. It's embedded within the classroom setting, science or whatnot. So yeah, I'm thinking about what does that look like? How do we do that? And how do we do that? Well, I think one thing that does really impact, especially with our student population is the social emotional side of things. And so when you do get into some sort of competitive thing and somebody's frustrated, like how do you deal with that without just getting upset and wanting to go sit out? So I'd say that is the biggest hurdle is when it comes to engagement and building that culture is building also those social emotional skills to deal with failure when it comes and deal with competitiveness. So yeah.
CM: So I started coaching esports this semester, which has been honestly awesome. We're the largest esports organization in Ohio at this like little tiny small school. Part of our curriculum that they hand down to us from this league is calorie counting, food choice, exercise, step counting, like all that kind of stuff. It's really intense. Like it's about health and wellness, not about competitiveness or sports.
PV: Yeah. Well, I think I mean, that whole idea of food choice and calories and steps and fitness is an interesting one because that is a trend in physical education. In a lot of ways, I see it as like a harmful trend because we see this obesity epidemic within the United States, especially within children. And our solution for it has been fitness and calorie counting and in a lot of ways trying to push down adult ideals on how to be healthy and it doesn't work. So this shift to moderate to vigorous physical activity, which is what the society of health and physical education promotes, a 50% MVPA per class. Most of the research doesn't support that as an intervention for obesity within children. And it really comes from, I think, a lot of the adult ideals. Like you look around, if adults want to lose weight, what do they do? Like they go run on a treadmill or they go outside and they start counting their calories and then they want to try and calories in versus calories out. And so we've started to try to impose that on children rather than just saying, okay, we're going to live a healthy life by making really good food choices and we're going to live a healthy life by finding a joy in being physically active, whatever that means for you. Because most people, you look at gym dropout rates within adults and it's pretty high. Go in January and then go back in June and see the difference of a gym. So yeah, I think that's one of the interesting trends in physical education.
CM: Huh. Now you got my mind racing. I got to reconfigure our own program because I don't know any better. Let me ask the expert, if you have students then that are older, let's say you're like a high school physical education teacher and you have students that are struggling with their weight and want to lose it, what advice would you then tell those educators to provide to their students to help them kind of realize their goals of losing weight?
PV: That's a great question and that's something I get goosebumps talking about because I'm super passionate about. We've tied food and physical activity together because they're related, but a lot of times what we do is we're like, we use one as a punishment for the other or one as a reward for the other. Like, oh, I just ran six miles. I'm going to go reward myself with a cheeseburger or I just ate a cheeseburger, so I'm going to go punish myself with running six miles because I need to burn that off and in a lot of ways it creates this push and pull of an unhealthy relationship with physical activity and food rather than saying like, I'm going to make good choices and if I decide to indulge on a cheeseburger once every so often, like I'm not going to go and punish myself with physical activity, like I'm going to be physically active because I enjoy it. And so that doesn't really like, that's not like a prescription of like, this is what a program should look like, but it's like, how do we inspire this passion and joy just like any other subject? If you think about reading, like we can either say you need to learn how to read and you need to learn these topics, so we're going to read X number of books every single week or like how do we inspire a love and joy of reading so that they want to keep reading into the future? I think that's the difference in mindset of, is I guess what I'm trying to explain. I don't know if that makes any sense.
CM: Yeah, no, no, I think that makes perfect sense is that the same as that concept of if you give extrinsic rewards for reading, you're going to have a lot of kids that really like pizza as in because they always get pizza rewards for reading X number of books and over time you just start taking shortcuts because it's easier to seek out that reward instead of focus on the thing that is that you're doing. I'm kind of like gears are turning here trying to figure out what that would look like in a program outside of, I guess, just exposing students to a lot of different types of activities that they could do and then hoping that one sticks outside of the school day.
PV: Yeah, and that's kind of that's a part of this program and a key element is this exposure to a variety of activities. So there's a trend in the long term athletic development kind of discipline of this approach is multi-sport sampling and so I've kind of re-termed it to multi-activity sampling within our movement class and my hope is that every trimester kind of grade level bands so like K1 and then 2-4 is how I'm separating it right now but it eventually it'll just be two grade level bands are experiencing different activities every trimester so not next week but the week after we're launching a skateboarding sampling of activity and like you want to talk about engaging kids that normally wouldn't be engaged we did a skateboarding club in the fall as kind of so I've partnered with an organization a school a high school which I think fits really well with the Human Restoration Project's mission One Stone. So I partnered with their project which is like how they started was through this philanthropic arm of their organization of doing good in the community and we've partnered with them and the project is inspiring a joy of movement and we're doing it through skateboarding. So we're using the design thinking process to launch this project and we kind of started the iteration through a skateboarding club. And it's funny because I was recruiting students into the skateboarding club and I had this waiting list that was like triple what I could support. But the students who are in it, like one is like your gamer, like he doesn't ever do anything physically active. Half the time he was laying on his stomach on the skateboard riding around, but he was out being active, enjoying being with friends, which was really cool. And then we had a lot of our students who are special education students who were like, man, you have a lot of these challenging behavior students in this club, do you think you'll be all right? And I was like, oh, they'll be fine. And they're just so engaged in what they're doing or had any issues, but anyways. So we're launching this skateboard sampling in the fall we did, or in the winter we did some snowshoeing with third and fourth grade, we went up to Bogus Basin. We did golf with everybody in the fall as well, younger kids, I'm working on jujitsu and parkour. So sampling trimesterly activities to expose them to a variety of things is kind of a key component to this movement program, long story short.
CM: What is your thought process on another trend that at least I've seen in physical education, which is a movement towards entirely individualized phys ed. So kind of nixing the gym, like as in the like NBA style gym, like the old school gym in lieu of the adult gym, like having like exercise equipment, Pilates, you know, like all the different things that you could do and then you just kind of log what you did. Like there isn't really an emphasis on any team sport whatsoever.
PV: Yeah, I would say I would be fully against like putting, you know, a bunch of machines in the gym and saying, log your minutes on a treadmill. I think that's kind of the opposite of what I would promote. But I think at the high school level specifically, there is a huge benefit to like a project based learning approach to physical education where students are designing their experience in physical education because that's what our goal is, is to set those students up for success once they leave high school and being physically active. Now what that looks like, I, you know, the whole American movement to and really world movement of structured physical activity to again burn calories, I think is not what I would point kids to. But you know, designing a experience where they're learning a specific skill that they would want to pursue, like, you know, I chose two years ago to start learning how to river surf on our standing wave here in Boise, something I had never done. So I started researching it and you know, understanding the equipment and I think that's where you can then integrate some of the other subjects in a project based learning approach like this skateboarding project is going to be integrated within our computer science, which is really like a design class where they're going to design a cardboard skate park and do stop motion video to teach the skills that they're learning in movement. So then integrating, you know, some of these other disciplines, but yeah, I think that individualized approach in older grades is something that's intriguing. High school, I taught that one year in San Antonio, ninth grade, but that was a while ago and in my mindset has shifted a lot since then. So high school is definitely not my expertise, but it is an interesting concept for sure.
CM: I like the idea too of multimodal learning phys ed through different forms of literature that maybe don't kids don't normally associate with phys ed. So like when I can think off the top of my head, I teach photography and we do a lot of photography outings where we walk downtown or walking downtown or even like walking through like the park and getting into like the hiking side of things. That's, I mean, it's grueling. That's like a five to 10 mile endeavor.
PV: Get like some of like the free solo videography, you know, like that specialized in rock climbing video. I mean, there's a lot of ways to integrate movement into everything and that's really my end goal and vision for what this program could be is like we're doing these projects in the classroom that integrate movement in some sort of way rather than it being this like standalone class. But going back to your question about like the design of the gym, right, right now at our school, we're actually partnered with the Boys and Girls Club in Garden City. So it is a very traditional looking gym, but if I could do it, I'd probably have like an open space that's, you know, some sort of rubber flooring as half the gym and then the other half of the gym, you'd see like a parkour type gym where you can do all kinds of different stuff of jumping and balancing and kids love that. All kids love that regardless of ability level, there's something that they can-
CM: I imagine like first graders doing like Assassin's Creed like jumping off the buildings and stuff exactly
PV: Yeah exactly
CM: So Peter, what resources would you want people to go to? What would you want to share with them? What would kind of be your final statement? Well, I'm in the process of just launching a resource, a kind of a curriculum, and some resources to go with it. It's Movement Engineering Project (movementengineeringproject.com), and on there I have like suggested resources which are some things that have really heavily influenced me. And so that's a great place to look. But again, long-term athletic development, youth physical development models are some things that have really influenced me. The constraints-a-lot approach and ecological dynamics, something we haven't we didn't really talk about today, is another thing that really has influenced me with regards to skill development and how to teach skill to kids and to do it in a really engaging way. Digging into risky play, Mariana Bersony is somebody who does a lot of research on that. There's the Real Play Coalition, Move Nat is an organization that talks about natural movement, really great resource. All those things are linked on that Movement Engineering Project website. So, I hope to be launching some stuff this summer.
CM: Thank you so much for listening to the podcast so far. If you are interested in diving deeper into progressive education or you want to just support the Human Restoration Project in some way, I encourage you to visit humanrestorationproject.org to learn more about our Patreon, which is the way that you can support us, as well as see all of our fantastic resources, materials, and other podcasts to share. Now, back to our discussion. Next up is Bruce Mansfield, an instructional coach and former US history teacher in the Bellingham School District.
Bruce Mansfield: I spent 14 years as a classroom teacher and I spent the last two and a half years, well I'm in my third year now as an instructional coach, at an alternative high school and a comprehensive high school. So I'm split between two buildings this year for the first time in my career.
CM: Basically the whole prompt for you becoming an instructional coach was based around kind of like this move towards a, almost a progressive style system for assessment?
BM You know, people said that if you leave the classroom, it gives you a really unique opportunity to think back on your own practice and get a new perspective and something I didn't quite understand until I started working with teachers who were interested in shifting their own assessment and grading practices, that grading in many ways, for high school classroom at least, is a linchpin. And I could see that as I was pushing on grading practices with the folks, they were telling me, well I have to change my conception of tasks and how we run the classroom and how we engage with each other and how students interact with me and with their peers. And I think really grading is, my colleagues kind of make fun of me here because they still talk about grading anytime with anybody and I will and I think it's because it's such a perfect avenue for getting into other aspects of instruction that are, I don't know, I love the whole process.
CM: Yeah, yeah, because I mean if you change how assessment works, you have to change the rest of your classroom, which I'm sure is something that comes up as an instructional coach. You can't just say, oh we're just not going to give any traditional letter grades anymore than expect the whole classroom to flourish. There's going to be many other changes that need to take place in order to ensure that intrinsic motivation actually drives the classroom. And I want to talk about how you have your portfolio system set up because I myself use a portfolio system and a few of my colleagues do as well, but they all kind of differ from each other based off the teacher's preference. What kind of portfolio system are you utilizing?
BM: I call it from grades to growth and it initially started as an opportunity or really an interest of mine to make class as authentic and meaningful as possible and to get away from the game of school at really any cost. And I had been, I think, thinking about, I actually know I went back and I was looking at some of my teacher college materials from 20 years ago and I could see that even when I started teaching, I wanted a classroom where I had students first, student voices and interests and passions were elevated and were part of the classroom and I think I struggled a long time. I think the why of shifting in a portfolio was there early. It took me a long time to figure out the how and the what. I tried different elements of standards-based grading. I had a very, how should I say, I try to emphasize revision and mistake making and students sort of selecting the best examples of their work and it really culminated in this ungrading practice. So for me, what it eventually evolved into, and this was probably, it was a three-year process of just jumping into replacing numbers and points on assignments for more meaningful feedback for students and what I ended up having coming up with was a category system where I'd have categories of growth goals, students would be collecting evidence of their growth in those categories and then four times a month at each quarter where I was doing midterm and then semester grade reports, students would meet for a set amount of time and we would go over their portfolio and we really would have a pretty frank discussion about where their growth was and what goals they would have for the upcoming term. And then that culminated in a letter that students wrote to me where they talked about their growth in detail and made specific reference to their assignments and that ended up culminating in a grade and we would just negotiate on a letter grade, the students and I, and that's what I would put on a grade book.
CM: Yeah, I mean, I think that system works. Did you find that when you initially transferred over to standards-based grading, because I did the same exact thing, that it just kind of like was another way of saying the exact same thing? I don't know if your standards-based grading initiatives were similar to ours, but we still used numbers to associate with standards-based grading, like as in like you're a four and the standard. Do you feel like the transition to being completely gradeless is necessary in order to get the goals that you're looking for in the classroom, the goal being extrinsic motivation?
BM: Oh, absolutely. And I think my experience bears this out and working with teachers and the research I've done. I think the best way, I think Daley to William might have said this first, but the best way to stop students from learning is to assign points to them. And sometimes with my coaching, I remind teachers, like there are moments when we're doing several of the assessments, like we need a final on this particular date, we need to accurately assess student performance and achievement. And it's not a learning situation in that case, but for myself and my coaching, I try to push that off as long as possible. And that anytime we've got kids in front of us and we have time to work together, it should be in a more of a formative learning process. And so I jumped right in and just got rid of all the grades mid-year when I started doing this. And what led me to it was looking over my grade reports for, I was in winter break, so I had two weeks to kind of think about and reflect on the year so far. And I thought I would see our online recording systems called Skyward, which is our grade book. They had some features where you could look at students' progress over time and come up as a graph. And so I pulled up some students and I thought I will see this upward trend because I thought I had a system that would be reflecting student growth and improvement in ability over time. And I was kind of shocked to see that student after student after student had flatlined their grade, just settled in on the percentage and it stayed there for months on end. And so I went to my students and I had this idea of a winter break that something that, I don't know where it came from, but it sort of, it planted itself as a seed in my brain of why don't we just get rid of the points? We'll keep everything else the same, we'll just get rid of the points. And I went to my students and I said, you know, we're going to be ending the semester in about three weeks and what would you think about not having points for next semester? And they were a little hesitant. Their first question was what would you instead? And so we're going to, we're still going to do the same assignments, we're going to have conversations and seminars and we'll work together, we'll keep learning. We just, we'll talk about your growth and your learning using a language that's a little more meaningful than seven points, eight points, 27 points. And it took a while for them to get used to it. I think it took about eight weeks for them to retrain themselves because they, I was really asking them not to play the game of school anymore and a lot of students had a lot of interest in that game.
CM: I think that's a huge part of it too that I think sometimes gets lost in the conversation, which is the equity side of things, which is, you know, grades are really just a ranking and filing system and all teachers know that it's very rare for a student who's not doing very well academically to all of a sudden start doing very well academically as a result of achieving a low grade. And there's a lot of research that supports that concept. And did you find that when you transitioned and kind of like, I like calling it deprogramming, you deprogrammed your students from this language of grades. Did you see them doing better across their assignments? Like were they submitting more or doing more?
BM: Oh, that was the most surprising aspect of it. I think I had bought into some shibboleth of education that upon a really close reflection and looking more deeply into this, I don't have any basis. So I hear this from colleagues a lot when they hear about what I'm doing and I say, well, students won't do work unless you grade them, unless you give them points. And I didn't want to believe that was true. I think I kind of was inculcated in the traditional system when I started teaching, but it sounds that actually students did more. They did more work. They did harder work. They did more. They were willing to alter or even give themselves assignments. And part of this was shifting for me and being really clear about what my focus was on student growth. That was it. We wanted to focus on student growth more than anything. And so for students who traditionally struggle in a classroom, I was kind of flipping the narrative and where we were moving from a system where let's record how good you are to let's record how you're getting better over time and let's take that progress or achievement assessment and let's make that simply a marker for where did you start in September and where are you getting in October, November. We tried to, I tried to use a two week gap that seemed to be a good amount of time for students to assess their ability. So for kids to struggle, it was really great because I was able to say like this on grade level text that you struggle with in August or September at the beginning of the year, that's okay. Well, I want to see your mistakes. I want to see where you're not fitting expectations because that's going to be our base level. But we'll look at your work in two, four, six, eight week agreements out. And if we see improvement, it's that growth that we're going to measure. So I use standards-based methodology as a way to assess where students were in over time. But what I was measuring and reporting out to stakeholders, like what ended up in the grade system was the measure of that growth. And I think that opened up a door for a lot of kids.
CM: There's no reason to like fail a student who's trying, especially since that's going to have so many negative consequences on them in the future. And let's kind of get into the nitty gritty of how exactly this is being implemented and certain strategies that you might use. So let's talk about the student letter component because I find that kind of unique. What is the student letter? How is it set up? What are students doing? All that kind of stuff.
BM: Yeah, I initially set it up so I would have something to share with parents and with folks that are outside the classroom. And I was pretty nervous jumping into this and I didn't know how it would be received. I was kind of surprised that even within a few months of going gradeless, I didn't really receive any negative feedback at all. An initial trepidation from students that faded as they got to know the system. But from parents, I was getting emails every couple of weeks that would say things like, thank you so much for giving my kid breathing space, they're really excited to be in control of their learning. I wish I had a class like this. I did hear through the grapevine after the fact in some cases that parents, because I wasn't putting a lot of points online, were kind of unsure about how things were doing. So I replaced that with a weekly letter home. Just a quick email to all my parents explaining, here's what we did in class, here's some of the... And I really wanted to focus on, let's support students' growth around thinking. So it wasn't, here are the assignments, here's one of the due dates, it's here are the topics we covered this week, here's some interesting questions you can talk with your kids about, here's where you could press a little bit on some of the thinking skills that we're developing or some of the content areas, and I think trying to shift that conversation a bit. At the same time I was doing this, I was also a parent of a high schooler, my stepson is 19 and he graduated last year, so I was able to kind of see a little bit of the shift from elementary, very connected as a parent, we knew just what was going on in all those classes. Middle school, we had a bit of information, it dropped off as he got into eighth grade. High school, we had no idea. High school teachers were not communicating with us, so wanted to kind of cross that gap. And then I wasn't sure about admin, I wasn't sure about district admin, and after the facts found out, very supportive, I did talk to my principal before I jumped in and said, this is what I'm going to do, I'm not asking permission, so I'm going to go, here's my research, here's my reasoning, here's what I'm going to support, here's how I'm going to be meeting the expectations that he had for me as a teacher, and I felt pretty supportive. So that's kind of where I started with the letter, what I found out as I started getting into them is, oh my God, kids were so expressive and were so, just so mature and responsible and engaged with the process of their own learning and development that the letters blew me away. And I got a number of letters from students who would not be able to verbalize to me in person, even when we would do our end of term, 20, 30 minute conference, and we would sit on the hallway and it would be kind of private so kids could talk with me. Sometimes they have a hard time, right, with adults talking, saying what they're really thinking, so I would get letters that would be very, like they were just, I think so honest and open in ways that 15, 16, 17 year olds are thinking and feeling, and it was, I treasure the letters, I kept every one over the last three years that I did this work, and when I talk to teachers now, they're like, oh, we'd like to do conferring, we'd like to do, and I'm not sure about the letter piece, and I really say you should jump into the letter piece, it is really, it's just mind boggling what kids are capable of that we often miss if we just talk to them face to face.
CM: Yeah, I think that's a really solid point, I think that too often students' voices are marginalized in the classroom, like we really need curriculum, people, instructional coaches, et cetera, really pushing for the fact that students are a lot more intelligent and mature than many give them credit for, and placing learning in the hands of students has usually like way better results than anything that you might plan, because students tend to come up with some really cool ideas on their own. Did you find that when you switched to grade-less learning that there was less pressure on you, like as in did you find that your job was easier? To kind of give some backstory for that, like I know when I switched to grade-less learning, I found myself doing most of the quote unquote assessment at school, like I used to take home like all this stuff and I'd have to go through like all the numbers and it was just a lot of pressure because you have to get those done at a certain point or else someone complains and they want to know what their grade is, whereas when you switch to grade-less learning, a lot of those conversations have to happen face to face, so even though there's certainly a lot of discussions that need to happen at school, that work isn't coming home.
BM: It shifted it dramatically, and again, I find it, it's a struggle as a coach to try to convince my colleagues that you actually can, you can work less, you can work more effectively, you can increase student learning, and you can do it all with less stress. It seems like it's too good to be true, and what I think what it was was really being clear with myself and my students that shift the goal and the purpose of the activities that we do, whereas as a younger teacher, and I was, I taught in a fairly traditional system that's assignments for points and homework and we're going to average and sum and come up with a score at the end, but the purpose of giving a kid a task was to get the points out of it and to record, really what I was recording was compliance effectively from students, and when I went grade-less, really shifted into, I saw myself as not a content expert where I'm transmitting information to kids' heads or I can manage, you know, focusing on management where I'm here to control students or something, I really shifted it into, I think my job as a teacher was to better understand the thinking of the students in my classroom, and the best way to do that is to have them do lots of different kinds of tasks, some written, some out loud, some small groups, some individual, some whole group, lots of different opportunities for kids to make their thinking visible, and that my job was to take in that information and then to give appropriate feedback for students so that they could move forward and make the next appropriate stuff, so that, and doing that on paper is really, really difficult. The traditional taking assignments in, taking them home, marking them up, sending them back, it's an inefficient process, and I think it's very difficult to get kids the kind of prompts, just the right time, feedback to move them forward, so even before I started doing grading completely, I'd already shifted my grading process or my feedback process so that I would only interact with students when they're right in front of me. I didn't really collect a lot of work. I eventually did, and I had to turn a box, but students had to demonstrate what kind of feedback you're looking for, show me that you've tried a couple different avenues. First, you've gone to peers, you've gone to your classroom resources, that there's some reason why at this moment I need to get involved, and why can't we do this face-to-face. I had to put some barriers in front of kids explicitly so that they wouldn't just throw me work and say, here's something to put in the grade book. It was, why do I need to look at this right now? Explain to me what it is that you need, and that was part of a larger conversation in the classroom of shifting toward the purpose of classes for students to make evidence of growth, and we don't know, looking forward, what the best evidence might be, so let's just make a bunch of stuff. We're going to collect everything we make. We'll go through a sorting, sifting, organizing process later, and we'll look back and we'll see the emerging story of your growth, but right now, just go do stuff, and because I shifted away from, well, you have to do the assignment because otherwise you're going to have a zero and that zero is going to impact your homework category, it's, you need to do this assignment because it helps me get a better insight into your thinking right now, and we need something for this week because you're going to do something different next week, and we can't track growth unless we've got evidence scattered over time, which, by the way, when I tell teachers about, oh, do you have a due date, I said, oh, take work from kids in any form at any time. Like, I don't have due dates. Well, how do you keep kids from turning in a whole pile of stuff at the end of the term? Well, if the kid does that, I would say, this is amazing evidence for the last week that you did work. I'm missing evidence for the previous 17 weeks when you weren't doing the work, so that's great. That's one week's worth of evidence, and that would help take care of that, but I almost never had to have that conversation because kids got it pretty quickly, but really anything they did, and I even had situations where students would say, I don't really, this assignment says I'm clicking or I don't get what's going on, and I would say, well, look, if this text this week isn't a really good opportunity for you to show evidence of growth, then we'll do it again next week. I didn't lose any sleep over individual students not doing individual assignments, and there was a trend of students not doing work. We had a conversation, but it wasn't framed around, hey, you're not doing stuff. I'm going to have to give you zeros that it's really hard for me to see where you need help if I can't see work that you're doing, and it was amazing how many kids stepped up and got that piece of it.
CM: I know that a lot of teachers seem to be of the mindset that you should be kind of unfriendly or strict towards students in order to get them to do things, and it seems like it's actually the exact opposite, like as in if students trust you and feel like you're on their side, and even like adopting policies like this, when you start talking about like here's why grades don't work, here's why like we're doing it this way, it has this revolutionary tone to it that I think a lot of students buy into because they know it too, and it kind of brings them into the fold with you so they trust you and they actually feel like they want to contribute in your class just because you're on their side. You've been kind of alluding to it here. How is the portfolio system literally set up? So like are they turning in like one thing per week, one thing per month? Like how does that work?
BM: All right, so first I'll start big structure is I created categories of growth, and I needed to come up with, I needed to come up with a language for students and me to talk about growth over time, and one of the things that I really liked about the grade list system, you'd asked earlier is it less work, and the overall is because I'm doing less of the things that drive teachers crazy, taking work home and marking up the text, and I mean just talk to English teachers, right, they spend an hour on an essay and they give it back and the student looks at the score and tosses the rest of it, it's just wasted effort. So I wasn't doing that, but what I needed to do was I couldn't just say well this is five points, I had to be really clear like why are we doing this assignment? How does it connect into the larger goals and what are those goals? And so it really forced me to really plan the whole year backwards in a sense of I didn't know where I was going and how the pieces fit together. So the categories helped us think about how students were demonstrating growth in specific skills. So for my general ed classes, these became reading, writing, terms of history as a social studies teacher, and historical thinking skills. And then reading was really explicitly reading informational text in the social sciences and then writing in a social sciences format. So those are kind of my four categories. For my advanced placement classes, because I taught AP classes in the system also, I used the AP college board categories that were aligned for preparation for the exam. So a little bit slightly different, but the idea was that you're collecting evidence of growth in particular categories. And this is where the system, I think the flexibility of an ungraded system really, really helped me and helped my students because for say the reading category, well for each category I should back up, each category had a format that we used all year and that format didn't change. So for reading, I just said there's five types of thinking that social science readers do. And it was essentially annotation strategy. So things like we look for main ideas, we make connections to text and things outside the text. We ask questions, we identify areas that we don't know. I remember at the top of my head what the fifth one was, but it was a pretty standard annotation structure. This went up on an acre chart, went up on the wall, stayed there all year. Every time I give kids a text, it was how do we use this text and our annotation format to demonstrate improving ability to read over time? So the first text was probably a paragraph or two. It was at or just below grade level. I signed the kids and said, we're all going to do one of the annotation strategies. The second text, I might've assigned them two. I probably did a read aloud or a modeled annotation in front of them. And then as we went along, was able to differentiate with students where if I knew that they were able to do say main idea pretty well, then I would say, okay, everyone's going to do main idea. You pick the second one of the five, make your own key and go in and practice with it. So I was able to over time increase the rigor of that particular assignment. I did the same thing for the other element. So for writing, I had a seven part structure that seven elements of writing that all started with the letter C. So we called it the seven C's. It was things like commentary and concrete details, kind of like Lucy Culkin's kind of base writing structure. Patterns of history, I used historical, it was essentially collecting historical evidence. So we would talk about people and events and places and objects and maybe basically who, what, when, or why is what the structure was. So just collecting historical data. And then for historical thinking skills, I just used thinking maps. So we did a lot of analysis, a lot of comparison, a lot of change over time, a lot of cause and effect, a lot of sequence analysis were kind of the big ones that we did. So those all had structures, those all had to format. So I would give an assignment. I have a formalized assignment every week and it would include, it would kind of be centered on one or more of those categories. And I had a consistent assignment sheet that would go on top of the assignment. I used a single column rubric where I clearly defined what a meeting standard was, but left the below and above standard open for students to negotiate with me. And then would have the materials and all the, everything ready to go. But because we structured everything around these four categories and the category structure was consistent all year, I didn't have to say like, here's how I want you to do this writing assignment. It was to do a piece of writing. So the first couple were, I'm going to write a paragraph and I'm going to give you the prompts. I'm even going to give you some options for the thesis. And then collectively, we're going to find concrete detail of a text we read and your job is to put the commentary and to write the closure. And that might be very structured early, early in the year. By the end of the year, I was able to say things like, here's the prompt, here are five texts. You need to collect evidence of reading and writing from these. Go. And kids would have to negotiate through and they would know because at that point it would be eight months of conversation about how they're going to collect and make evidence. So we had those and that's what I would record in our grade book was just a marker of, again, I used a four point scale, sounds like pretty similar to what you were doing. So those formalized assignments, are you getting those done to the point where you have evidence so that when we get to the portfolio piece at the end of the term that you'll have things to talk about and put together. So it was a bit of a dance where with kids like you need to get stuff done and I know where this is going and you may not be able to see that. So just trust me that you need to do these assignments and collecting evidence if you're doing them or not, we'll have individualized conversations about how we can help you get more done. But the real weights and the needs of the conversation was going to happen when we did the portfolio collection and the letter writing, which happened four times a year.
CM: The systemic shifts that we can place into our classrooms are probably the most interesting ones as opposed to just like these like little workshops or like one thing that we do one random day that takes a lot of planning. When you plan it all up front and you just change how a whole system works, it really does radicalize how the classroom functions and operates. It's really cool to hear that the system works no matter kind of what context you're in. Like you said, use it in an AP class, which AP history is like probably one of the most content heavy classes you can potentially teach. And if it works there, it pretty much can work anywhere. You're an instructional coach and you mentioned that you bring up the portfolio system within that context. Do you find any hesitation or like a lot of pushback from teachers as opposed to students? It's one thing to say to students, hey, you know, you're in the system, we're going to counteract it. You know what it's like versus a teacher who may have been using grades and a huge proponent of grades for years that now you're saying, oh, no, you should actually do it this way or here's a different idea. How do you go about convincing them? What kind of feedback do you get?
BM: Yeah, it's been a lot of learning as a coach and trying to shift from being with the classroom of students. Right now, I know I have them for nine months and that's all. And I have to make some pretty quick moves to shift the system. And, you know, working with adolescents will pretty much do what I'll tell them to do because there's a lot of, I mean, just being the adult in the room, I've got a lot of inputs of power that I don't necessarily have when I'm working with adults. And I had to learn that, actually, I was kind of wondering when I first started coaching, it's like, how similar is this to working with students? And the good news for me, at least, it's almost entirely the same. The two big differences are it's all adult learning is opt-in. So the teachers say, I'm not going to do something. I don't have any power to make them do something. I'm not their administrator. I'm not their evaluator. So I can't, like, you have to. So that's been interesting. And then having a long-term multi-year timeframe as opposed to a nine month timeframe has really shifted things for me also. So I think my first semester coaching, it was a lot of, I felt like I could walk in, give teachers my system and that would be it. And it took me a while to realize that that's not what they are. It took me 13 years of practice to get to the point where I was ready to shift my own practice on my own and to give teachers a little bit of grace and leeway. So part of that is kind of shifting my own expectations about where teachers are really ready and willing to go. And then realizing that grading is probably the most personal part of, for high school teachers, that's where I work. That's my experience. I think I've found that for high school teachers, decisions they make about how they grade students, they're so wrapped up into their philosophy of education, the reasons for doing school, for becoming a teacher, for participating in the system. And I have had some experiences of teachers just essentially saying, I'm not going to do that because that's not what school is for. We're here to see which kids are able to do biology, not necessarily to grow every kid. And there's been some philosophical debates about that. I say, okay, I have an alternative perspective. I'd love to talk with you. Door's always open. Again, I'm not a program administrator, so I can't make that shift. Just by fiat. But what I have also found too is that a lot of these practices, the benefits seem almost too good to be true. And that I've had some interesting experiences where teachers are willing to shift the practice just a little bit. And they're kind of amazed at how much better students are responding to a more open-ended assignment structure where teachers are taking points away from the center. They're still there, but it's not the reason why students should be doing assignments anymore. And they're finding that their kids are much more willing to try things and to be flexible and to take risks and to do all the stuff that we know is necessary for growth. And that once they take that first taste, they ask for a little bit more, and then I can kind of lay it out and go through. But like any instructional situation, it's relationships first, getting the teachers to know me. I think I'm lucky I'm teaching in the same district, so I spent 14 years as a classroom teacher. So a lot of folks knew me as a teacher first and not as an outsider jumping in. But it's been hard to find teachers, I don't know, it's almost like giving them permission to try something new even when they know it may not work the first time. And teachers are so overloaded that having them be willing to take on something that they do extra work and it's extra thinking when they're so overloaded has also been a challenge.
CM: Yeah, for sure. I find that, at least in my context, that a lot of those conversations go better when it's framed as a way to lessen teacher workloads, which is why I mentioned that. To me, when you make your classroom more radically student-centered, you yourself have to work less because students are taking on more of the workload in a sense. But it's like a positive workload, not just like a stack of papers. It's like something that they're actually interested in and actually care about. It's not a silver bullet, there's certainly a lot of other things that have to change as well, but it's something that can work in multiple contexts that doesn't require as much of a radical shift as some other initiatives like purely self-directed education or something of that nature. So it's cool to hear that it's working and that it's supported by your school district because in many school districts that's still a very outlandish concept.
BM: Yeah, I think maybe just the big thing is it is quite a big shift. And it's interesting you talk about the district response. And sometimes I don't think the district really gets what I'm doing here because in some ways I'm kind of flipping the traditional norm of education upside down. And in my classroom, we had these, and I think students probably came up with them and then we just kind of adopted them. But these kind of slogans were how do you describe what's going on? And earlier we talked about how students are a little bit hesitant. And I remember my very first year doing this, I had about six really high-level students come to me after school. They're very polite and essentially said, we're good students. We have our A. We don't like that you're rocking the boat. It makes us super nervous. And I essentially said, me too. I think it's worth it. Give me six weeks. If you still don't like non-graded after six weeks, I'll go back and I'll give grades for you. I understand. Grades don't mean anything to me, but I know that as a future college student, they're extremely important. So I don't want to wreck that for these kids. So we did our bit. They came back after six weeks and they said, we want to keep the ungraded system. We don't think you can ever go back to giving grades. We think it's that important. And we'd like to come back and talk to next year's class at the beginning of the year and tell them how things function because they're going to freak out and we want to let them know it's going to be okay. And that kind of amazed me that students were willing to take that level of buy-in. But I think you have to be in that system and really see it work and see how the shift really goes from me as the center to the kids of the center. And we talk a lot about like student centered should be where we are. But I don't think we're really thinking of the system about how we make that work and how we actually make kids the center, which means letting kids make choices, even when those decisions are not the best decisions and letting them sit with the consequences of that, not in a punitive way, but in a, I learned from my mistakes, I'm going to share what I learned from others and I'm going to move forward. I'm not going to, we're not going to collect your best and worst moments of averaging together. We're going to tell a different kind of story. And so in the classroom, it allowed me to push on kids in ways that I didn't really see when I started it. So getting rid of points means we don't have points to risk. So I can give them things that are really hard to do, things I know they're not going to do successfully the first time. I can go to my kids and say, this is basically an impossible task and you've got 15 minutes and let's see what you come up with. Only thing we've got to gain is learning about ourselves as learners. And they were hesitant at first, but once they saw that, they jumped right in. Visitors would come in and they'd be like, oh my God, your kids are running in the classroom. And I'm like, yes, that took 12 weeks of effort to training to get to that point. So it was a lot of work that goes into it, but I find it was completely worth it. And I would plan to go back to the classroom eventually and I'm pretty excited to experience that again.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.