Teaching Opinion

A Shift for Our Kids in the Way They Think About Learning

By Starr Sackstein — August 19, 2018 14 min read
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Guest post by Mark Erlenwein

In 2013 I became the newly appointed fourth principal of my alma mater after 16 years as a STEM teacher and assistant principal in the same building I practically grew up in. My time as a student at Staten Island Technical High School, although 25 years ago, are vivid and happy memories of a child growing up in the bliss of the 80’s and 90’s on the cusp of an emerging technology revolution.

My Commodore 64, Sega Genesis, 5.25" Floppy Disk Drive, Yamaha DX-7 musical keyboard, dial-up modem and a primitive version of the internet-to-be were the common thread in my life as a young teenager. I was enamored by the emerging “geek” culture and power of technology I was being exposed to in this young STEM-focused high school whose principal, Mr. Bilotti, in our earliest years prophesized we’d eventually be among the best high schools in the country.

As our school community is entering our 30th year, the latest national ranking (Niche.com) has Staten Island Technical High School as the #2 school in New York State and #5 in America. At a time leading up to the apex of our school’s history, I found myself at a crossroads which required a deep look at what contributed to our school’s success. More importantly, I also found myself leading the faculty through a journey of inquiry and change to address and fix the concerning trends which were a byproduct of our school and students’ success. As with any school, it always begins and ends with our students.

I often walk the halls leaving my 44-year-old self in the office, while getting lost in my 17-year-old mind and wonder to myself, “how do these kids do it?” This generation of students is known as Generation Z. The experts say that Generation Z’s attention span is 8-seconds on average, meaning that students are making snap decisions about whether “any” content is worth their time. This has left we, the education community, with the reality that not only do we have to adopt new technologies and approaches toward engagement but also understand that social and the mass media is changing everything else we do.

Classroom presentations need to contain more visuals and less text. Generation Z needs kinetic environments, where they can move around, think critically, collaborate, create, analyze, have access to the internet, mobile computers, and have access to their cell phones to do research and acquire content in many cases. It’s their lives as we know it, and to ignore it might leave us behind if we don’t move quick enough to understand and embrace this reality.

Like Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.” So ... we did it.

When I look at our students’ entire picture encompassing school life, home life, and social life ... I’m in awe as to how our students do any of this. There are times I imagine that if I could peek inside their minds it would probably look like the static white-noise channel on an old-fashioned television set.

Our students are operating within a world of absolute information overload. They’re challenged by the complexities of real life blended with virtual reality, augmented reality, likes, follows, hearts, emojis, shares, commentary and figure into all of that with the fact that access to information is only going to become more accessible, in an instant and in abundance in just a matter of time. They call this the era of hyper-change and disruption. Albeit a school of gifted and talented learners, we were not exempt from the impact of this hyper change and disruption. We realized that as a school community we had to be resourceful in gaining insight into the mindset of our students, taking academic and social-emotional data to quantify the source of the challenges and make honest, real and impactful changes in our academic setting and practices.

Seeing and feeling the collision and aftershock of the hyper-change and its disruption on the lifestyle and culture of our students, along with the added rigor and workload of a top nationally ranked high school, was concerning. The tools to tackle this challenge required an innovative solution that identified and hep quantify the cause and effect relationships behind the pros and cons of the academic numbers game, with a focus on the social-emotional dynamic.

Our school’s learning management system, IO Education / Skedula, has an anecdotal system which allows for the entire faculty to enter, record and share text-based anecdotal information about student behavior, with customizable categories for grouping these behaviors, allowing for deeper analysis and the option to include parent correspondences as necessary. The anecdotal system has become a major tool that drives much of our school’s decision-making process with regards to academics and student life.

With IO Education’s anecdotal system, the ability to assign subscriptions to key people when an anecdotal is generated was pivotal. When a dean’s referral is generated, the deans and AP of security automatically receive alerts via email with the pertinent information and the ability to document progress and follow up conversations with faculty, administration, students and parents instantly. Guidance Counselors share a similar ability with their respective referrals. All of the administration and other assigned key staff, including myself as the principal, get blind carbon copied on every anecdotal created.

Creating a live, on-demand, shared and searchable web of information centered around student social-emotional behaviors dramatically minimized the amount of time communicating on the who, what, when and why of the details and empowered us to create solutions almost instantaneously. More importantly, this innovative means of data sharing and communication allowed us to begin to put preventative measures in place as trends were identified.

An alarming trend we identified during the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years centered around “student stress” based upon feedback we collected and analyzed via the anecdotal and data analysis systems. A combination of many contributing factors that accompany the academic culture of a competitive and rigorous high school put our school community at a perplexing crossroads. The anecdotal and other numerical-based data showed increasing rates of lateness, absenteeism, grade obsession, fatigue, missing homework, academic dishonesty and stress-related health concerns.

Among the data, we identified “quality home time vs. quality school time” to also be a kernel issue.

  • Where was the “new” balance among the two lives?
  • How much was too little, enough and too much of each?
  • How could we tackle the students’ over-emphasis on numerical grades and perfectionism?

Although some of these stressors are commonplace for the modern day student, this was the very first time we were able to correlate anecdotal, social-emotional and traditional academic data together. Some solutions were obvious and the expediency of implementing change was achievable in a relatively short period of time. Some solutions would take more research, work and time to implement.

For starters, we targeted what appeared to be the most common and prevalent stressors: assessment, homework, and grades. We utilized the ability to query reports in IO Education to evaluate the regularity that teachers gave assessments and how closely aligned these assessments were to the schoolwide testing schedule. The challenge was that there was the potential for multiple full-period exams and quizzes on any given day. We began to resolve this issue by limiting the total number of full period exams to two-per-day, based on a daily schedule which assigned each academic department two full-period testing days per week. The student feedback was very positive and there was a noticeable positive reverberation throughout the school after this simple but effective change. Next to tackle were grades and progress reports.

All New York City public schools have a myriad of cycles in which progress reports are shared with parents and guardians for the purpose of keeping all constituents within the school community “in-the-know.” For the 28 years our school has been in existence, we have always had two academic terms (Fall and Spring), with three marking periods per term for a total of six marking periods per school year, where teachers create what are termed, “marking period grades,” that are reported to our students and their families via a printed report card.

What we learned through the data analysis was that with six terms in a ten-month time period, a checkpoint was created every 1.5 months, where there was a surge in assignments, assessments and the stress connected to each. We asked ourselves a very simple but important question, “Was it still necessary to have six marking periods when we have fully invested in a 24/7 digital Learning Management System (IO Education) that could provide on-demand, in-the-moment feedback via a home, mobile computer or phone?” It was another small, but major revelation.

We debated on whether to go from six to two marking periods within the school year and settled for four marking periods in total. The decision created longer marking periods (2.5 months per marking period) for teachers to properly evaluate and report the progress of students without the rush and added stress our old practices created. However, there was still the challenge of the homework that a rigorous and robust curriculum accrued on a daily basis.

The data reports and analysis features of IO Education allowed us to analyze the frequency and trends of homework assignments on a per grade-level basis. The 11th-grade workload emerged among the four grade levels as the most challenging to juggle for our student population. The data analysis led to many discussions centered around alternative homework assignment practices and exploring innovative means for assessing student understanding using technology via our 1:1 BYOD tablet program. Three years later, more and more faculty are experimenting with voluntary homework assignments and alternative assessment practices in the interest of making the learning experience qualitative versus quantitative.

Along the way during this journey, although we were making great strides and accruing a large sum of small victories, we still felt that we could better assess students progress and wanted to evolve our grading policy. I had the pleasure of meeting Starr Sackstein at an IO Education (Formerly Datacation) Expo and was significantly impacted by her presentation on going gradeless and her standards/mastery-based grading approach to teaching and assessment.

Call it whatever you want, but her presentation, her book Hacking Assessment, her message and her passion for this mindset and practice was a turning point for me beginning to understand what we needed to do to change the conversation between our teachers, students, and their parents. This was the impetus for the next phase of our journey, which saw the greater part of 2016-2017 conducting a major schoolwide inquiry followed by the 2017-2018 school year implementing these changes.

During the 2017-2018 school year, great strides were made in transitioning to letter grades, piloting Mastery-Based Learning practices and instituting a universal grading policy (as opposed to the departmental and individual course policies). Starting with the 2017-2018 school year and onward, SITHS implemented a Letter Grade System, similar to how colleges communicate and track academic progress, thus ceasing to use the standard numeric grading scale of 0-100.

All grades on student assessments and measures of academic progress will be communicated using a letter grade system. A students final grade in a course is the sum of the cumulative work and average of 85% Learning Progress (Mastery Based Measures: Qualitative Grades from Formative & Summative Assessments, Classwork, Homework, Projects, Essays & Papers, Lab Reports, etc.) and 15% Habits of Success (No-Mastery Based Measures: Timeliness & Proactivity, Participation & Teamwork, Character and Oracy), based upon the “Everything Counts” rubric. A student’s progress in a course is based on how well they demonstrate their mastery of the content (Learning Progress) and skills (Habits of Success) required in that subject. Work is submitted and graded accordingly based upon the syllabus and established deadlines, with a system for students to ask for extensions and resubmit their work based upon the previous teacher, self and peer-to-peer feedback cycles throughout each term.

With regards to the SITHS Universal Grading Policy, the “Learning Progress” category (Worth 85% of Class Grade) was designed to track a student’s progress towards achieving content mastery. Measures and indicators of “qualitative” progress is the focus of this category, not quantitative credit awarded for completed work. We are shifting our practice away from measuring student progress categorically, towards a means that emphasizes the “process” of learning. Students will have multiple opportunities to “showcase” understanding (Mastery) via “qualitative” measures.

The “Habits of Success” category (Worth 15% of Class Grade) marks a unified approach as a school towards building a set of 5 skills that have been identified as integral for successful Academic Performance: Timeliness & Proactivity, Participation, and Teamwork, Character, and Oracy. Our collaboration with the New York City Department of Education’s “Mastery Collaborative” group has also been very impactful in helping us create a hybrid approach towards implementing Mastery-Based Learning practices while using letter grades and a mix of traditional and non-traditional assessment practices.

As a preliminary reflection on the 2017-2018 school year and knowing that true impact with a higher fidelity of action and change will take several years, overall, the feedback was very positive and insightful. Students overwhelmingly appreciated the uniformity in grading policy, which leveled the playing field as to “which work” was “most important” to do ... it all was ... everything counted equally.

With such variety of “worth” among the grading previous grading policies, decisions were certainly being made based upon “how much” something counted. Letter grades helped dull the sharp edges that pointed numerical grades facilitated. Students found themselves in more broader groupings of academic success, where it mattered less how “specifically well they were doing” in points among one another, versus the importance of what they were learning. Students proclaimed that receiving an A- or B+ “stung” a lot less than receiving a score in the high eighties or low nineties.

Teachers too noticed the initial positive impact of our collective changes and shift in practice with instances of academic dishonesty and stress-related health issues decreasing by 60% and 90% respectively in the first year alone. Interestingly, with “oracy” being among the Habits of Success that were evaluated throughout the school year, students responded with more quality verbal engagement in the classroom setting more than ever before. Seemingly, by the very influence of our assessment of their oracy practices, it encouraged a bit of an awakening among some of our more reticent and reluctant to speak students.

To further support the positive impact our overall changes had on students concerning stress, Staten Island Technical High School, was among the first schools to institute the Comfort Dog program with the arrival of our very own comfort dog, Sheldon. Students had access to visit Sheldon for part of the day in the general office and the balance of the day he worked in the guidance offices to support our pupil personnel services. Our “Ruff Day” protocol gave teachers the opportunity to send students in distress to visit their guidance counselor and Sheldon when most needed as another of our many tools implemented over the year in the spirit of improving the quality of life of our students and making their day-to-day in school doable, fun and rewarding!

Altogether, in a school community and environment where we were succeeding by all academic statistical measures, I’m in awe and proud of our faculty and school community for coming together to make changes that benefit the quality of life of our students, their families and the faculty themselves. There is so much more to look into with respect to the short and long-term impact that these changes will have an even further refinement we will make to improve upon our initial steps.

Looking forward to the 2018 - 2019 school year, we will continue to enhance the new Universal Grading Policy system that introduced Mastery-Based Learning practices and introduced the Habits of Success as a school-wide component of every teacher’s grading policy, by placing a unified effort focusing on important (life-essential) skills and establishing a growth mindset.

Specifically, their will be a focus on 21st Century Global Skills (or NexGen Global Skills as I like to refer to them) via four overarching outcomes centering around Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking and Creativity along with a continued effort and action to add to our collection of stress management tools including mindfulness, yoga and no-technology days. Instruction and the student experience will be more rigorous and more relevant, with Real-World, Career, and Work-Based Learning connections taking a center stage in the learning process.

More than ever we as a school community will look to innovate and continue to stay ahead of the curve in providing students with the life and career skills they will need beyond these very influential high school years. More than ever, I’m so proud to be our school’s leader and look forward to continuing to effectively look “forward” to our children’s future.

Mark Erlenwein is the principal and an alumnus of Staten Island Technical High School, since 2013. Mr. Erlenwein is a dynamic education administrator who uses enthusiasm, creativity, innovation, collaboration and technology, to lead his school in serving as "the bridge between High School, College and Career," the school's core goal and philosophy. Mr. Erlenwein, started at Staten Island Tech in 1997, as a STEM teacher, and in 2005 transitioned to the role as an Assistant Principal of STEM, Pupil Personnel Services and College Admissions. Staten Island Tech is one of NYC's nine Specialized High Schools for gifted and talented learners. Mr. Erlenwein, is a 2018 Cahn Fellow at Teachers College and the recipient of the 2018 United Activities Unlimited - Louis DeSario, Educator of the Year Award. Mr. Erlenwein earned his bachelor's and master's degree in English Rhetoric from CUNY - The College of Staten Island, and his School Building Leader certificate from the College of St. Rose.

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