Episode 96 – Jeffery Frieden

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Meet Jeffery Frieden

JEFFERY FRIEDEN is a teacher, blogger, presenter, and podcaster. He enjoys connecting teachers and building professional relationships in order to intensify impact on learning. He is also the author of Make Them Process It: Uncovering New Value in the Writer’s Notebook, published in 2017.

Jeff teaches at Hillcrest High School in Riverside, CA, home of Aaron Blackwelder. The school community mirrors that of this area of California, with a mix of socioeconomic statuses and cultures represented.

From Called Out to Cultural Understanding

Jeffery recalls a time when he was a teaching assistant at a school with students coming from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and varying stages of emotional development. One day, he poked his head into another classroom to tell the students inside to quiet down and stop the racket, missing the fact that the students inside were celebrating the achievement of a class goal and behaving in culturally normative ways.

Later, the teacher of that classroom told him quite bluntly that his actions had made all kinds of cultural assumptions and that he needed to educate himself on other cultural backgrounds and expectations. Although this correction floored him at first, he eventually settled his thoughts and determined to do more reading about cultures outside of his realm of experience. It’s been a rewarding journey ever since.

Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up

Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up is a podcast born out of professional development that sets near-perfect bars without showing the struggles and failures that accompany the journeys of growth required to get there.

Leaders in professional development often appear so well-polished that a sense of anxiety can creep in regarding the deficits that such presentations expose in our own professional practice. It can be demoralizing and can create burnout as educators work feverishly to close the gap between their current practice and the ideals – the Grecian Urns that they’re presented with. Just like Instagram culture, education communities tend to shout the victories and good stuff but downplay the difficult moments.

To speak to this, Doris Santoro wrote Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can StayThis word (demoralized) summarizes the condition that educators experience when they start to lose their moral center, the moral purpose that once formed the core purpose (or WHY) of their work in the classroom.

We hear the term ‘burnout‘ a lot, but it’s not enough — it doesn’t capture many of the difficulties and tensions that drive some educators to leave the profession. We need to speak in the broader terms of demoralization, this idea of losing morale or the moral center of our work due to a wide variety of issues.

On his podcast, Dear Teacher Don’t Give Up, Jeffery is interested in taking guests to points in their career where they’ve seriously considered quitting the profession. What was that like, and what lessons did they learn that they can share with other educators experiencing tough times? These are the questions that Jeffery enjoys asking on his show.

We all love transformation stories, as shows like The Biggest Loser illustrate. Let’s try to bring more of that into education by telling the stories of educators who quit – or almost quit – and then come back to the profession with more hope and passion than ever. 

Am I Sharing Too Much With Colleagues?

In episode 7 of the Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up podcast, Jeffery tackles the question of “How much is too much to share with colleagues?” For teachers who are filled with passion, brimming with optimism, and bursting with exciting new ideas, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that not all colleagues will share that enthusiasm.

One solution to this problem, as Jeffery recounts, is to find your tribe by building your professional learning network on social media platforms. As Jeffery started to build his own presence on Twitter, he connected with people like Starr Sackstein, Aaron Blackwelder, Arthur Chiaravalli, Marisa Thompson, Deanna Hess, Jennifer Gonzales, and others, and he started to realize his true moral center as an educator because he could connect with like-minded professionals beyond the walls of his own building.

As these external connections brought him closer to self-actualization, he actually became a better colleague and person because he was able to realize his true moral center. Today, when it comes to sharing with his own colleagues, Jeffery lives by the rule of answering questions that people are actually asking. People generally aren’t interested in answers to questions they aren’t asking.

What’s Setting Jeffery on 🔥 in Education Today

What sets Jeffery on fire in education today is the idea of removing points from his classroom. That’s right – his class is now pointless! Although he doesn’t use the terms ‘pointless’ or ‘gradeless’ with his students, he frames his assessment as ‘an alternative path to grades.’

His students receive final assessment from him based on purposeful effort, revision, reflection, feedback, and conferences. At conferences, grades are negotiated in the course of conversations. Although he occasionally needs to impose his own professional judgment, he gives the student’s perspective great weight and tries to express disagreement in the form of thoughtful questions.

Looking back, Jeff realizes now that the massive spreadsheet of assignments and points that he used to assess his students for so many years told too much of the narrative about the learning of his students. To some extent, it was dehumanizing his learners and taking away the power of their personal story. Now, as he puts more emphasis on conferences, feedback, and negotiation, he hears his students’ stories and understands their journeys more holistically.

A Professional Goal

In addition to continued blogging and podcasting, Jeffery plans to make progress on his next book, Make Them Interact – about how to help students have authentic, academically centered interactions in the classroom that also builds social skills and community. Jeffery is also starting to offer professional development opportunities and workshops, so please contact him if you’d like to bring his expertise to your school or district.

Personal Passions Away From Education

Outside of education, Jeffery’s chief passion centers on learning how to better parent four kids who are ten, eight, five, and eight months old. This summer, they’ve spent a lot of time playing together and visiting the pool, and everyone’s been safe. He’s also enjoyed the challenge of learning the ropes of sound engineering at his local church.

His Most Important Productivity Hack

“You can be selfish at five in the morning,” says Jon Acuff. Accordingly, Jeffery tries to go to bed early and then wakes up around four o’clock, accompanied by strong doses of coffee. This is really his window to do the creative work that he enjoys.

Voices & Influences That Shape His Thinking & Inspire His Practice

Over on Twitter, Jeffery recommends following @DMQualls, who organized a game-changing fundraising drive at his school. He also points to @DauseClause and @CathleenBeachbd, who are about to release a book about problem-based learning titled 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Child.

In terms of educational technology, Jeffery still prefers two classic low-tech tools: whiteboards and post-it notes. These tools continue to support visible thinking and collaborative creativity in the classroom.

Jeffery’s book pick is Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay by Doris A. Santoro. Follow the author on Twitter @DorisASantoro. He also recommends a good business book called From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers by Chris Jones.

A fun podcast to subscribe to is Dropping the Gloves by John Scott, a former professional hockey player with a wealth of amusing stories to share about the game.

If you’re looking for an interesting YouTube channel to subscribe to, check out The Bible Project. The creators craft beautiful animations and share profound insights about the characters, context, and messages found in the Bible. Even if you’re not a Christian or religious, you’ll find their content interesting. Follow the producers on Twitter @TheBibleProject.

On Netflix, Jeff’s family has been watching some of Sophia the First, but he’s more interested in playing a classic video game from his childhood: The Legend of Zelda

We sign off on this great conversation, and Jeffery gives us the best ways to get in touch with him online. See below for details!

Connect with Jeffery:

Sponsoring This Episode: Classtime

This episode is brought to you by Classtime.com, an assessment platform that delivers learning insights, giving you more time to teach.

Classtime.com helps you gain immediate visibility of your students’ learning progress, build engaging lessons, share with other teachers, and create your own tech-enabled questions to complement your lesson plans. Classtime.com also helps you engage all students with collaborative challenges & puzzles that make fun an integral part of the learning experience.

See what Classtime can do for your learners, and start your free trial at Classtime.com today!

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel.

Episode 78 – Aaron Blackwelder

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Meet Our Guest

AARON BLACKWELDER is a high school English teacher and golf coach at Woodland Public Schools in Woodland, Washington, a rapidly growing community about 35 miles north of Portland, OR. The school has about 700 students and Aaron has been teaching freshman and senior English there for about 13 years.

Aaron is also the founder of the Teachers Going Gradeless website and Twitter chat @TG2Chat and #TG2Chat. He’s a father, husband, autism advocate, Google Certified Educator, and he’s loving life!

Disillusioned by Traditional Assessment and Curriculum

Aaron describes the professional journey that led from disillusionment with traditional grading practices and instruction to a thoughtful exploration and eventual embrace of gradeless practices. It’s been an evolution, he says.

Fundamentally, he’s trying to pour more energy into feedback and pay less attention to grades, because it’s the instructive nature of feedback that really helps kids learn. He’s been gradeless for about four years now, and he’s enjoying strong support from administrators and his department.

Gradeless assessment has also affected his course content, curriculum, and culture, and he’s leveraging project-based learning and problem-based learning to leverage his students’ own passions, interests, and needs around their learning activities.

He’s also become passionate about helping students become agents of change, creating world-changing products for authentic audiences. His seniors are tackling real-life problems, and it’s been exciting to see their work unfold and skills develop in the process.

Aaron loves the process of tailoring feedback to the learning and needs of each student – that’s another important feature of the gradeless paradigm. Are we preparing students for the test on Friday, or are we preparing them for challenges beyond school?

Answering the Critics

To high school teachers in the maths and sciences who say that gradeless practices can’t be applied to their specialized courses, Aaron points to the abundance of high-level project plans and resources available for exactly those subject areas.

For schools and educators who look at gradeless practices with skepticism, Aaron makes a strong case. Schools and educators don’t like being placed on a scale of assessment, he observes, and the same is true of students.

Scores tend to label and encourage fixed mindsets (“I suck at Math,” etc.), while feedback tends to inform and direct next steps for growth. Scores also reinforce a fear of judgment, which crushes creativity and risk-taking.

The Work of TG2

TG2 (Teachers Going Gradeless) promotes the idea that teaching and learning are better without grades, and from the outset, Aaron wanted to put the focus on teachers. Coming from that perspective, it only made sense to open the TG2 site to educators and contributors from all over the world, and as a result the blog features a rich diversity of voices.

Digging Deeper Into Aaron’s Reporting Practices

Aaron explains how his reporting practices and system translate into student report cards (he was actually busy filling them out at the time of this interview). Just about all of his students earn a ‘P’ for passing, and he writes lengthy narrative comments about the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated by each student throughout the term.

His philosophy is that if he expects high quality writing from his students, the least they can expect from him is the same quality of writing in their feedback. At the end of the course, he also conferences with students to determine their letter grade, but generally speaking, he accepts whatever students suggest as their grade. After all, grades aren’t really the point!

Once again, it’s really the feedback that will inform and motivate further growth – not the grade.

Personal Passion

Aaron’s chief passion is his family. His wife is an amazing source of support and inspiration, and he relies on her heavily. He also has two boys with autism, and he takes pleasure in his ongoing learning from and contributions to the local autism community.

Favorite Productivity Tool

Google Forms has been an incredible resource for Aaron as he completes report cards, solicits self-evaluations and progress reports from students, and communicates with parents. He also recommends an Add-on called Forms Publisher, which allows him to do even more with Forms.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Aaron’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Aaron recommends following @HumResPro, @MakeThemMastrIt, and @LeeAnnJung.

Aaron’s got two book picks to share. The first is Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. The second is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Each title is mind-blowing in its own right, Aaron says, and will enlarge your understanding of issues that we hear about often.

Two podcasts to subscribe to are Teaching While White and The Human Restoration Project.

On Netflix, Aaron has been enjoying Abducted in Plain Sight. He’s not sure if he was more entertained or enraged while watching, but it’s a series that is sure to engage.

We sign off on this conversation, and Aaron reminds us of the best places to connect with him and his work at Teachers Going Gradeless. See below for details and links!

See more from Aaron:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device.

iTunes | Google Podcasts | Spotify

Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel.