Monday, March 21, 2011

A short conversation with...Alfonso Gonzalez @educatoral

Alfonso Gonzalez

How long have you been teaching?

This is my 20th year as a classroom teacher. I started my career teaching 4th and 5th grade bilingual classes in South Central Los Angeles. Back when I was considering becoming a teacher I tried the traditional college route at Cal State University at Northridge (CSUN) but was disappointed by their teacher certification program. Luckily I found out about a new program the Los Angeles Unified School District was offering to get Spanish speaking teachers into the classroom. They called it an Intern Program. What that meant was that I was put into a classroom after a weekend orientation training with follow up classes every Thursday and Saturday! Now THAT was a learning experience! Currently I teach middle school, mainly 6th and 8th grade, and mainly Science, and in a school that with predominately Caucasian. Quite a change!

Has your educational philosophy changed since you began teaching?

Oh yeah, when I started teaching my goal was to teach kids. That’s it. I thought that all I needed to do was teach them and they would learn. I tried different things, I incorporated lessons I learned through the Los Angeles Unified School District Intern Program. It was a great program and I used everything I learned as soon as I learned it because it was all I had! The trainings were taught by classroom teachers so the courses were low on pedagogy and heavy on how to work with kids! Very helpful.

Every single year since I started teaching back in 1991 I have taken any opportunity that came my way to learn. I attended every training and conference that I could and I was lucky enough to find great ones that were not only free, but they paid me! I appreciated that :)

When I moved to Washington State I began working in middle school. I like that age group. It was in WA where I got my Masters in Teaching. One thing that I had to do was develop my mission as a teacher. Every now and then I read it again and much of it is still true today! Here’s what I wrote years ago. I crossed out the parts that I would change today and added some of my newest philosophies in italics:

“My mission is to help my students become independent, self-directed learners and lifelong learners. I plan to facilitate this process by helping my students enjoy learning. I want my students to feel safe enough to take risks and to be able to use and learn in all four learning styles and using all seven or eight intelligences. My students will be involved in constructivist activities in the form of long-term, research projects where they will have access to the latest technologies. Students will learn how to effectively work in cooperative groups and will be taught strategies for problem solving and getting along. Students will learn to use technology to work on their performance tasks and students will be assessed according to rubrics that they help create often. I will also use other forms of assessment such as paper and pencil tests, essays, and portfolios to help students understand how they are performing, and to show them their growth. My use of assessments will be mostly formative while only summative when necessary. I will not use summative assessments to reduce student learning to a score or letter grade. By using different forms of assessment and learning, all students, including special needs students and highly capable students will be able to learn and succeed. To help students in all these endeavors, parents will be included in all aspects of their child's education. Parent involvement is essential in helping students become self-directed and lifelong learners. I will help educate parents about all that we are doing.

In order to keep myself up to date and effective to fulfill my mission, I will continue to read the current research and to conduct my own research to improve my program. I will collaborate with my colleagues and I will continue to write grants to keep my classroom equipped. I plan to participate in curriculum development in my building so that I can ensure that my classroom remains a 21st century classroom.”

Pretty cool, I think. So it looks like I’ve made my original teaching philosophy more complicated! Maybe so, but those are the things I think I need to keep in my awareness to best meet the needs of all my students. And I’m still learning! I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of how to do my job.

Could you share a few thoughts about how you handle grading in your class?

After 19 and a half years of struggling with grades I learned that there was another way. I mean a way different than all the tweaks I had tried throughout the years. See I was trying to tweak a flawed and useless system. I don’t even know if it ever occurred to me to just do away with the whole thing. Nothing else I did worked and I didn’t know not grading was even possible. But then I started using Twitter. Through Twitter I followed teachers who were doing things that blew my mind. There were teachers who were doing things like going grade-less or using standards-based grading! I didn’t even know that was possible. I started reading Alfie Kohn and knew the change I was looking for was to abolish grades completely. I am fortunate to work for a principal who is progressive enough that when I approached her with my idea, backed with the research I had read and samples of teachers who had paved the way for those of us making the change, her response was, “Sure, sounds like you’re doing something great for our kids.” So on a day to day basis, I do not grade my students at all. I assess them formally and informally but without any grading. No marks, no numbers, no percentages, no letters, no stars, no rewards. I give them feedback about how they are doing. I give them feedback about how they can get to their next step. Sometimes my feedback is verbal as I help different students and sometimes I write their feedback on their blog or a paper. When it comes to reporting for my school I tell students that for learning they will each get a pass for Science. If they want a letter grade I give them a form where they can choose what letter they want and explain to me what they learned to get that grade. I do this for the families who still want a letter grade. A pass does nothing for a GPA and since I’m the only teacher at my school who doesn’t grade I still have students who are obsessed with grades and their GPA.

At my school we are also required to send home progress reports for midterm and end of term. To provide progress reports I have been working with standards-based grading. The grading software Easy Grade Pro is awesome and has a standards-based grading section that makes this a piece of cake. While I list the standards addressed by what my students are learning I don’t use numbers or letters to reduce the information students and parents need. If a student shows understanding of a standard, that it exactly what it says on the progress report. If I don’t have enough evidence of a student’s understanding of a particular standard, that is what it says on the progress report. I’m trying to get my students and parents to see that such information is not as valuable as looking at samples of the child’s work and the child’s explanation of the work and what he or she learned but I still provide the progress report with standards. Anything we look at is just a snap shot of one moment in that kid’s learning and my point of view is only one view. I’d rather the parents see their child’s work and hear their child describe it and what he or she learned from it. In our school all students keep portfolios of their work and every March they do a student-led conference for their families. I love watching those because I have just about no part in it aside from hosting them for my advisory students and observing them. What a great experience. This year most of the work my students have done is available on all of their blogs so we are almost completely paperless. Their blogs are the electronic component of their portfolios at

It’s all still a work in progress and changes depending on the group of students I am working with at the time.

What's the best advice you have received as a teacher (or can give to a new teacher)?

Never stop learning and always be willing to change and try something new. And remember, you can’t, shouldn't and don’t have to do this alone! One other thing I’ve found useful is, “don’t ask permission, apologize later.”
Alfonso blogs here.

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