education, effort, engagement, motivation, students, teachers, teaching

Spinning into Motivation

It’s a rare treat when I can go to spin class on a weekday morning (thank you winter break!), and especially one with Gina. Gina is a great instructor. She pushes us to our limits but she also allows for our strengths to shine through. She encourages us to try things that are challenging–hello there simulation of the 20th leg of the Tour de France (I couldn’t walk for 2 days)–and it ends up being so worth it. I like taking her class because I feel motivated to work hard when I’m there. (It’s not that I ever walk into spin thinking, “I’m just going to give it 75% today…”) but Gina helps me go above and beyond during my workout.

Before class, Gina greets everyone by name and introduces herself to new spinners. She helps set up bikes and she even helped me into my new clips today. (A story for another day–what a challenge that was!) Throughout class she looks out into the sea of bikes and picks out someone by name and offers them a compliment–usually that they are kicking some serious butt–and I love it when she zeros in on me. It’s not that I need my fellow riders to know that I am doing well; it’s because once I hear that affirmation from her I begin to work even harder. I think, “if I can do that, I can push it even further,” and I do.

When it comes to assessing students (and teachers, too!) we tend to focus on the weaknesses that are present in the work we see. (Look here again…try it this way…this isn’t quite there yet…) After my students finish an assessment, I score it and automatically look to see which questions they got wrong.

So as I was going into a seated climb–ouch–about halfway through my class this morning, it hit me. Why am I not focusing on student’s strengths as much as I am focusing on their weaknesses?   Well, it makes sense to focus on the areas they need to improve upon because I can begin to help them strengthen those areas. But in the middle of the climb I decided that a better way to bring attention to my student’s weaknesses is to start with their strengths: “hey, I see that you rock at determining author’s choices, but have some trouble determining an author’s diction. It’s a very similar skill. Try applying what you do to determine author’s choices to determine an author’s diction.”

Now, I realize that this isn’t earth shattering people, but I know if Gina said to me, “engage the same muscles you would for a standing climb when you are in the seated climb. It may be a bit tougher at first, but you will work through it and condition your legs to handle it over time,” I would be more apt to follow her advice. First, it makes sense. Second, I’m already going in the right direction–since I have mastered standing climbs–and third, I’m motivated. I’m right in my Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky!) both physically and mentally.

Now my task is to find a way to connect each student’s strengths and weaknesses and motivate them through their strengths to fortify their areas of weakness.

So thanks for the inspiration today, Gina. I’m going to bring it with me when I get back into the classroom in 2016 and I can’t wait to try it out.

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college, education, effort, high school

An Open Letter to the Class of 2016

Dear Class of 2016 (and more specifically my lovely, kind, sarcastic, amiable, crazy, sweet, nutty, wonderful seniors),

It’s fall of 2015. An exciting time for you. And a scary one. Many of you are working hard at putting the finishing touches on your high school resumes and college essays. You are dreaming of acceptance letters, but having nightmares about standardized tests that require bubbling answers with #2 pencils. I know. I get it. I did it. I lived it. And it was rough. I’m with you.  

But I want to take a moment to make something very clear. If writing those essays, refining those resumes, and taking those bubble tests are not things you are worried about because you don’t need to be, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t let all this fall-time hype make you think that those things are the key to life. College is not the main route to success. Don’t feel ashamed–or let others shame you–because traditional post-secondary education is not your path. And certainly, very certainly, do not go to college if is not something you want for yourself.

Let’s talk about college. It was fun. Like, really, really fun. If I could go back, I would. But it was A LOT of work, too. I spent hours partying with my friends, but exponentially more time reading, writing, discussing, and presenting while I was in school. I stayed up all night laughing with my friends, but I worked the next two to make sure my psych project was worthy of a professor’s critique. I spent countless hours in the library looking for credible sources to round out my semester-long research projects. I took 4-hour exams, bombed papers I spent weeks writing, and cried over “bad” grades more than I care to remember. (Thank God my friends and frozen yogurt were accessible 24 hours a day.)

My point is: College is an academic institution. It’s for those who want to pursue careers that require (at least some sort of) scholarly prowess. You want to be a teacher? Go to college. Lawyer? Go to college. Rocket physicist engineer with a concentration in micro something-or-other? Go. To. College. But if your interests are more practical than academic, pursue something that fulfills your desire to use your hands or mind in different ways.

There is an important distinction that must be made concerning college educated people versus those who are not. Those with a degree from a post-secondary institution are not better, kinder, more helpful, more honest, or happier than those who don’t have one. And honestly, they are certainly not more successful merely because they went to college. (Success is an attitude; a way of life. It’s not represented by a piece of paper covered in soft plastic.) Yes, those with a degree spent years learning how to apply theory by writing about it in hypothetical situations, but that doesn’t make them any smarter or more successful than the young electricians, plumbers, entrepreneurs, military personnel, and mechanics out there who chose not to go to college.

In the end, my advice to you is this: Go to college if you want to go to college. Don’t go for your mom or dad. Or to make someone else proud. Do it because you want to do it. And if college isn’t your thing (whether it be now, or later, or never) don’t be ashamed. Be an apprentice. Travel the world. Join the military. Go to trade school. Make a plan and follow it by working hard. It’s your life. You are the only one who can live it. You are the only one who can shape it. You will succeed if you want to. College doesn’t make you a success. You do.

So enjoy the rest of this year before you step off the stage as a high school graduate. Your life is just beginning; and college or not, go forth with gusto, energy, sincerity, humility, and grace. Those qualities will help you find success more than college ever could.

I will always be here to support you, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. Work hard.

Sincerely,

MsG.

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education, effort, grades, grading, mastery, scoring, teachers, teaching

The Difference Between Right and Wrong

Last year an engineer received an important assignment. The project was to build a bridge.  He put in hours of time–even more than his boss required. He worked for months. He spent hours at the office viewing and reviewing plans. He spent 12-hour days on site telling the builders exactly what to do. He went home exhausted every night, but satisfied with his work.  When the bridge was finally finished, the day before it opened to traffic, it collapsed due to a design flaw. Such a flaw could have been potentially life threatening had the bridge crumbled while cars were whizzing across it.

 

Recently, I attended a presentation about the upcoming PARCC assessment and how to properly prepare our students for it. The presenter reiterated the fact that if a student answers a question incorrectly, s/he receives no credit for the answer. This idea is nothing new for multiple choice questions.  We all know there is one right answer, but the rule also applies to the writing portion of the assessment. It doesn’t matter how much time or effort the student puts into answering the question. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

 

This got me thinking about my grading practices.  I always offer partial credit on what I can. I think that a grade should reflect if a student is on their way to achieving a standard or approaching mastery of a skill, but this tidbit of “wrong is wrong” keeps nagging at me.  Consider our engineer, his bridge, and its design flaw. It doesn’t matter that he put hundreds of hours of time and copious amounts of effort into his project, all that matters is that the bridge that he designed was not successful.  His “mistake” could have cost people their lives. Now I’m not saying our students’ assessments are life or death situations, but I am proposing that we look into making sure our students “get it right” no matter what they are working on.

 

In English class there are times when there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and that same sentiment is felt throughout all disciplines at one time or another. So for the sake of defining right and wrong, I will explain a bit about how I run things.  For example, in my class I often have students work on making a claim and defending it with strong evidence and clear reasoning.  The combination of these two things–strong evidence and valid reasoning–make an answer “right”.

 

But there comes a time when the evidence given is not strong enough and the reasoning is not clear enough in order for a claim to be supported. This makes an answer “wrong”.  At this point it is my job to make sure my students know that weak evidence and incoherent reasoning are not acceptable. (Note: poor evidence and unclear reasoning may not result because of insincere effort or because students were lazy– unfortunately this happens–but it could be because students simply have not mastered the necessary skills in order to provide the proper evidence and reasoning needed to prove their claim.)

 

I have decided that because “wrong is wrong” (which you can’t dispute, especially if you believe that bridges should be well-made) I am going to have to hold my students more accountable for the work they turn in.  Sometimes, and yes, I admit it, if I know a student worked hard, I will let certain mistakes slide: “S/he worked really hard and deserves this grade.” But this needs to stop.  That student did not deserve that grade, because their work was not correct. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students for more insight on the topic of fair grading.) I’m doing nothing but an injustice to those students who hand in work that is “wrong”.  We can no longer allow “effort” to become a part of our evaluation system. There are students who walk into my class and master certain skills right away, while there are others who come in and need extra help with a skill.  The effort each student puts into their work differs, but ultimately, it’s the outcome that matters. Their bridge is either going to stand or collapse. It’s my job to help them make a strong one that holds traffic, stands in even the worst weather, and won’t cost any unnecessary funds or take innocent lives. I do that by helping them master all the work in between being introduced to a skill and showing mastery of it.

 

The point is this: The end product, or summative assessment, is not always directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort a person puts into their work. We need to keep this in mind when we are offering students feedback, when we are grading their work, asking them to redo work, and evaluating their levels of mastery concerning particular skills. Remember, effort does not equal correctness. (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying persistence and concentration are bad qualities, I value them very much!)  But we need to recognize the difference between dedication and diligence and true achievement. (They are mutually exclusive.)  Then, we need to establish a norm in our classrooms that supports students on their way to mastery through truly learning and using brain power as opposed to showing them that time and effort spent on something equals mastery.  Because even though time spent and hard work will get the project done, the bridge still has to stand.

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