Operationalizing the Variable

While at Johns Hopkins, I had to take several research methods courses to ensure that I knew not only how to conduct research, but how to define, collect, and analyze data. One of my professors (I took two of the three research methods courses with her because she’s nothing short of amazing but that’s a story for another time) always reminded us to operationalize the variable. Now, I realize that if you’re not in the research world that phrase may not mean anything to you, but for those of us who are studying change and program effectiveness in schools…this phrase means everything.

To operationalize the variable means to define it in clear terms–preferably in terms that can be measured.

By operationalizing the variable, it should be clear to everyone exactly what you mean.

If the variable is clearly defined, then it makes it easier to determine if change occurred.

To be clear, just because you operationalized the variable doesn’t mean that the program or change initiative worked. A lot of factors can and do influence change. However, to determine what changed, to what extent change occurred, and what possibly contributed to the change, one needs to start with clearly defined variables.

For example, if one wanted to measure the effectiveness of a program change, then one needs to:

  • Identify a problem of practice (what it the gap? what are potential drivers to the problem?)
  • Design and conduct a needs assessment (how do you know it’s a problem? what does the literature reveal?)
  • Operationalize the variables (what is it that you want to see changed?)
  • Clearly define the instruments (what is going to measure the change? how will data be collected? when will data be collected? how will the data be analyzed? who will analyze the data?)
  • Clearly define the program or intervention (what is change initiative? foundational theory of change? program details? duration? who is the target of the program initiative? what are the proposed proximal, short, and long-term outcomes?)

All of that is the bare minimum. I didn’t include all of the steps, but I’m sure by now you get the gist that conducting a program evaluation is not a simple or quick task.

For the evaluation to mean anything, however, it is imperative that all of the variables are defined–that is, operationalized.

I bring this up because I’ve been doing research on social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching. And, although these two can certainly work in tandem to build a warm and supportive classroom community, they can (and in my opinion should) be implemented separately if one wants to truly measure change.

Definition: social-emotional learning is the “process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, n.d.).

Definition: culturally responsive teaching uses “cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (Gay, 2002, 106).

One of the biggest problems I see in education is the morphing of definitions. We’ve all been privy to buzzwords in education–most of these which likely started with the best of intentions, but because many of the terms were not clearly defined–operationalized–educators, parents, community, general public, and the media have put their own spin on it. They’ve redefined the terms according to their understanding or they’ve taken similarities in terminology and made the assumption that the terms basically mean the same.

And therein rests the problem.

So, what initially appeared to be something that might actually effect change, instead became watered-down, redefined, or morphed into something quite different or less effective than what was intended.

Now, I’m not saying that teachers and schools cannot implement two different frameworks, pedagogies, theories, etc. at the same time. Heck, we’ve been doing that (and more) for years. But doing so makes it impossible to know what exactly changed, to what extent it changed, and even what caused the change.

And if the end result isn’t what one expected, what happens? The theory, pedagogy, framework, or strategy is scrapped and something new is put into place.

And what a shame since many of these theories, pedagogies, frameworks, and strategies are backed by research. Evidence that it can work. But we’re hard pressed to know if it could work in certain situations since educators were juggling multiple and competing initiatives–so it’s hard to tell what changed, what caused the change, or even why didn’t the expected change occur.

So, if you truly want to see if a (new) program is effective, then it’s critical to (1) operationalize the variable and (2) remove competing initiatives.

I would love to not see social-emotional learning or culturally responsive teaching reduced to buzzwords. Each of these has its merits, and I truly believe that they can effect positive change in the classroom. However, these need to be implemented with fidelity but more importantly, clearly defined for everyone at the outset so that there’s no confusion as to what the terminology means.

References

CASEL. (2022). Fundamentals of SEL. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106 – 116. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.294.1431&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Passion Projects

It’s been awhile since I posted, but time has completely flown by this year! And, I am FINALLY getting a chance to enjoy this new chapter in my professional career as a learning consultant.

Finally.

Although the start of 2022 was a continuation of challenges from 2020 and 2021, it also afforded me the opportunity to make some rather large changes professionally. This was not a bad thing.

Leaving the classroom (and my kids) behind at the end of the semester in January was hard. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I missed being with them. Because my good friends are still holding down the fort at my old school, I was privy to the activities and other things that were happening on campus. And I was also able to see some of the end-of-the-year pictures which brought tears to my eyes as I saw my 8th graders (some of whom I taught as 7th graders, too) smiling as they enjoyed the last dance of the school year and wearing the biggest grins as they walked across the stage at Commencement. It made my heart happy to know that they (that we) survived the last two years with a shifting school schedule and policy/mandates. And, I loved the sweet messages from my 7th and 8th graders in the send-off video my dear friend and Journalism advisor put together for me. =)

After I made the decision to leave the classroom, it gave me time to really think about what it is that I wanted to do . . . next. I was fortunate find two different companies who offered me projects that kept me busy. I’ve done a bit of curriculum writing, research, and tons of professional development workshops. (And I’ve had the chance to work with people from a variety of organizations whose goal is to make learning fun, engaging, and meaningful for students. Yay!) Most of these projects were within my comfort zone–with a few that were solidly at the edge of my zone of proximal development. Luckily for me, I have mentors who provided guidance and encouragement throughout this journey thus far.

Surround yourself with a village. You will not regret it. =)

Now, as the summer draws to a close and the new school year gets underway . . . I have had to readjust my mindset because for the past 27 years, I’ve only known the rush, the craziness, and the exhaustion of the start of the school year. But to be honest, I don’t miss that part at all.

One of the benefits of consulting is that I get to choose my schedule. The projects to some extent dictate deadlines, but I love that I can sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, and walk the puppy before settling in to work. This new adventure has been a bit scary because there are so many unknowns, but I have to say that having a supportive husband and an awesome circle of friends has made this transition easier to manage.

I am truly blessed.

The start of a new school year still feels like the start of something new to me. And, I am really looking forward to finding more passion projects. =)

Instilling a Sense of Belonging

My awesome Period 5 World History class

This society is broken. I mean, just look around…many people (adults and children) are feeling isolated and alone. Why is that? I don’t think we can solely blame the pandemic on this. Social media was already influencing how users perceived themselves as they compared their lives with others. As adults, you’d think that we have the skills to be able to separate fact from fiction–but not everyone has these skills. But this post isn’t about adults…it’s about children.

Having taught middle schoolers for the past 27 years, I can attest that the pressure to be perfect has only increased for these impressionable kids. They are looking at snapshots of a person’s life…comparing their reality with the fantasy. And no amount of talking is going to convince these kids that they need to only be concerned about their personal growth and achievements and not others’.

What is needed is a concerted effort by everyone to provide these impressionable kids with the skills necessary to look beyond the fiction and focus on what’s important–being a better version of themselves today than yesterday.

The first two administrators that I had as a young teacher pointed out that I was able to build a good rapport with my students. I used to think “thanks for the kudos!” but over time I gained a better understanding of why it’s so important to build rapport and relationships with my students.

Having taught in Title I schools for my entire career, I came across too many kids who:

  • Came from broken homes
  • Were being raised by a grandparent
  • Lived below the poverty line
  • Slept on a couch because they didn’t have bed
  • Shared a living space with their family in a garage-conversion
  • Did not have a warm breakfast
  • Lacked proper shoes or clothing for the weather
  • And the list goes on and on…

Yet, these kids showed up to school day in and day out.

So, what I made a goal for myself to greet each and every student who came through my door. Sometimes I stood at my door during the passing period so that I could chat with my kids outside; other times, I would walk around the room as the kids got settled in their desks and I would offer a compliment or ask them how they were doing. If I didn’t get a chance to touch base with a student before class started, I made a concerted effort during class to talk with them–sometimes it was class-related and other times I simply gave them a compliment or positive praise.

I can’t remember where I heard this…it was probably a TED Talk, but I recall an educator saying that it’s so important for teachers to greet their students because sometimes that’s the only positive interaction that child may have for the entire day.

And that thought makes me so sad.

But I can’t change their home life, and I cannot control what happens outside of my classroom. But I can control what happens inside my class–regardless if that’s a physical classroom or a virtual learning space.

One of the means that I used to build community was through the creation of a class photo in Pixton. In middle school, we don’t have class pictures–and it’s so easy for students to feel lost or alone in a school of 800 – 1200 kids. But being the competitive person that I am, I always try to instill in my students that our class period is THE BEST and that we’re a little family who takes care of each other. We begin with a class identity and then we work on a world history “family” identity that transcends class periods. I want kids to feel like they belong somewhere.

We begin developing our family identity through the creation of avatars that can be put together in a class photo. This is where Pixton is amazing. Students can choose different options to create an avatar that is personalized to how they are in reality or even their alter-ego. Then all I have to do is go through Pixton to create a class photo of all those avatars.

Take a look another look at a Pixton class photo of my incredible Period 1 World History class–notice how their individual personalities shine through the simple creation of an avatar.

My incredible Period 1 World History class

I used these class photos in our LMS and it served as the banner image in our Google Classroom as well. This way, students always saw that they were apart of something bigger than themselves.

If you haven’t tried Pixton yet, I encourage you to do so! It free (yay!) and it’s so easy to use. There are other features in Pixton that you and your students can use to support their learning, but for me, Pixton was the means to begin building a sense of belonging for my middle schoolers.

If you’re interested in learning more about how I build a sense of belonging with my students, please check out a workshop I am hosting through EdTechTeacher: Building Community in Your Classroom – SEL in Action. This three-day virtual workshop is July 11, 12, and 14. I hope to see you there!

And if you cannot make it, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am happy to share the various things I used to help build a sense of belonging for my students.