education, grades, grading, high school, learners, scoring, students, teachers, teaching

Amending My Late Work Policy…Because Learning Rules

Since my first year of teaching I have not had a late work policy. I have allowed students to turn in work up until the last day of the marking period without penalty. (The goal with this philosophy is as follows: It takes some students longer to learn material and therefore if they do the work eventually, it should be counted. Also, in the real world, deadlines can be negotiable. And don’t pretend like that’s not true. How many times have you said to your boss “I need more time” and he or she has acquiesced to your request?) I liked this philosophy because it felt very “real world”-esque and isn’t that what I’m preparing my students for? (Well, back to this idea in a minute…)

Ultimately, I have decided that my late work policy needs some serious amending–for a few reasons. First, some students copy their work from a classmate after I have handed it back, which, in the end, doesn’t give me an accurate picture of what they know and are able to do. Second, some students forget about the work and don’t care until they see their (usually very low) grade and THEN they decide they need to do something about it (instead of learning the material in the moment, when the learning is needed). This forces them to care about their grade as opposed to their learning. Third, I get a slew of papers handed to me at the end of the marking period and I become inundated with work to grade that should have been handed in–and handed back–a month earlier and my other responsibilities (such as planning and prepping upcoming lessons) suffer.

Here’s my new idea. My students’ assignments will all have a due date and a deadline date. If students hand in their work on the due date, they will receive all the credit they earned on the assignment–usually determined by an answer key or rubric. Then, those who did not hand it in when it was due, will have a 3-day grace period in which they can still hand in their work–although for reduced (earned) credit. After the deadline date passes, the work will no longer be accepted and will result in the score of a zero. There are, of course, amendments to this policy for students who are absent or have extenuating circumstances.

Here’s the goal concerning this new philosophy: First, please understand that I don’t have students complete assignments for no reason. If there is something that has to be done, it has a purpose and it is relevant, which means I need the students to complete it in a timely manner so I can offer them feedback and determine if they need help. Second, it reduces copying answers from a classmate for credit. By the time I hand back the papers, the grace period is over and the deadline date has arrived. Third, it eliminates the end-of-the-marking-period burden of speed grading for no other reason than to help students recover credit–as opposed to truly offering pointed feedback for learning. Fourth, it emphasizes timeliness and responsibility.

Here are my difficulties with it: It’s not very realistic and it doesn’t give me–or those looking at the student’s performance in class–an accurate depiction of that student’s academic capabilities.

Here is how I justify these things: First, I (and most teachers around the country) work within a system that supports amalgamated grades. If we graded based on separate standards or academic and behavioral skills, I’d reconsider the policy. But until that day comes, I can’t wish we had disaggregated grades because we don’t. (And I can’t work within a wishful philosophy, because it’s actually an injustice to my students and to myself.) The other issue I have with the new late work policy is that it is not realistic (within the post-high school world). There have been many times I have asked a superior for more time to complete a project or to compile data. More often than not I am granted that extension without penalty. And think about it, so many people miss deadlines without penalties as well: new iPhone software creators, mortgage commitment brokers, and real estate closing attorneys. How many times have you missed the deadline for renewing your car registration or driver’s license? Heck, even your mail arrives late some days! But high school is not the real world. It is high school. It’s a different animal that is confined by timelines and due dates. The days go on and so does the curriculum, and there’s not a lot of flexibility when it comes to deadlines and timeliness.

I do my best to prepare my students for what they will encounter after high school, but I realized I’m actually hurting them by allowing them to hand in work weeks–and even months–late. I’m showing them that the assignments and their timeliness are irrelevant, when in fact, the opposite is true. I want a clear picture of what my students know and are able to do at a particular moment in time, and I want to be able to give them feedback on that work that is relevant and helpful. If I allow them to hand in work after deadline and only “grade” it for credit, I send the message that “grades rule”, when in fact, learning does.  

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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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education, engagement, high school, learners, students

UDL: Differentiation at Its Best

UDL. Another acronym, I know. But this one I think you’ll like.

Universal Design for Learning has been around since the 90s and at its core, it is really about flexibility, differentiation, and helping students find their “flow”. (I’m a big believer in flow. Basically it’s about being so motivated by something that you don’t even realize the time or space you’re in. You’re essentially locked into what you’re doing and you enjoy this true engagement.)  If you want more info about UDL in general check out this video.

Although purist supporters of UDL believe in creating curricula using the techniques outlined in the philosophy, I find that using it in my classroom regardless of the curriculum for the course is highly effective. (Please note that my district uses a very open design for curricula which allows for such flexibility. It’s really a beautiful thing.) Allow me to offer an example:

We are reading Hamlet. (I know, it’s so exciting!!) This is by far one of my favorite units to teach because it allows for great use of the Multiple Intelligences and UDL theories. For instance, not only do we read important scenes together in class, but we also listen to them and watch them. I want students to see the language, hear it, and see how it is applied on stage or screen with actions. We also watch different interpretations of the play so students can see how the language is used and understood in different ways. (Shakespeare is the perfect vehicle for exploring multiple interpretations of complex language….but, I digress.)

Also, as a grade level team, my colleagues and I came up with various creative projects for students to complete to prove their understanding of the text and more specifically their understandings of the functions of the language, characters, and settings. Students can rewrite the script and create a movie, choose songs that characters might listen to that describe their relationships with others, create a comic book that details scenes and soliloquies, or create a scrapbook of character relationships and how those relationships relate to and function within the various settings of the play.

Now, these projects are nothing new. Teachers have been using them for decades, but what I find to be so great about them is their ability to appeal to all different types of learners. For instance, there are several students in my classes who participate in our school’s morning news show. They are interested in visual media and its construction, so the movie project is perfect for them. It serves their interests and they have access to the proper equipment in order to do justice to such a project. When they feel they can properly complete the assignment, make it their own, and enjoy working on it, they are achieving “flow”. And that type of motivation is what we want for our students in school. Learning has to be engaging, or students will lack the buy-in needed to make learning happen in the first place. (And please don’t get me wrong, not every assignment is like this, but I work in the fun where I can!)

In everyday classroom life–whether we are working on Hamlet or not–I use UDL to appeal to students’ interests. I will present to them the goal of the class (I call it “The End Game”) and I will allow them multiple pathways in order to achieve that goal. (Note: I teach seniors and they have enough independence and know-how to complete a task in whatever way they please. This does not always work as well with freshmen and sophomores unless you spend time “training” them.) I give students hard copies of things, I post assignments on Google Classroom, I offer helpful websites, allow them access to multimedia, and various texts, etc. I also allow them to work at their own pace, yet within a time constraint. For example, during the research paper unit, I will teach a mini lesson and then allow students time to write; I call it “workshop”. Some students will keep up with the pace and work on what they learned in the mini lesson, and others may be behind or ahead. Either way, students can sign up for writing conferences with me during their workshop time and I will help guide them through the process. In the end though, the due date stands–so they must find ways to finish on time–and I am there to help during lunch and after school.

Ultimately, I truly enjoy using UDL. It allows for differentiation, emphasizes that we all learn differently and are motivated by different things, and allows for reaching goals in multifaceted ways. It’s not always easy, and it is a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it in order to help kids see that learning is fun and worthwhile. And that’s what I want for them. I want them to see that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. And when they walk into my classroom, I want them to know that I will do whatever it takes to help them see that.

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My Back to School Pledge

Every year around this time I start to get excited. Excited for the possibility of the upcoming school year. Excited to meet my new charges. Excited to learn and try something new. Excited to buy all the supplies I will need to be successful during the upcoming year (I admit this unashamedly). Excited to catch up with my colleagues. The charge is almost electric.

This year, I am taking this electricity and channeling it into a pledge to my students, to my colleagues, and to myself before I even walk over the threshold of the building. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

To my students:

I pledge to be tough with you. My goal is not to be your favorite teacher, my goal is to make sure you learn. Some days it may upset you, but in the end, I care more about your success than about your feelings toward me as a person. Your future is linked with mine, too and I’m invested in your success.

I pledge to listen to you. I understand that we are coming from different perspectives, and I will consider your needs, but I will also push you past your comfort zone.

I pledge to smile long before Thanksgiving. My classroom is not a scary place, it’s a safe place where you are free to make mistakes and learn from them. Such an environment requires strictness, but it also requires a sense of humor.

To my colleagues:

I pledge not to complain. It feels so good sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t get us anywhere. I’m going to try to be more positive and find solutions to our frustrations. If I can’t, I can offer you a drink and an ear at the end of a tough day.

I pledge to help you when I can with whatever I can. Last year, I was so swamped with work that I was stressing about making it to my morning and afternoon duties. Two colleagues were willing to cover them for me and I was so very grateful. I want to pay it forward.

I pledge to laugh with you. No explanation needed. A smile always makes us feel better.

To myself:

I pledge to revamp the successful lessons I’ve already taught. I don’t want to get stagnant. I want to keep improving and I can’t wait to make good lessons great ones.

I pledge not to stress about things that are out of my control. There is so much that is out of my hands and I can’t waste valuable time worrying about things over which I have no influence.

I pledge to enjoy even the tough moments. This year I want to embrace my (past and present) mistakes and learn from them. I want my students to learn from their mistakes and I want to be more open to learning from my own as well. It’s tough sometimes, but worth it.

What are your pledges for this school year?

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education, engagement, teachers

Reso-and Revo-lutions for 2015

In my classroom:

  1. Create more buy in.  I recently read the transcript of a speech given by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action.  He repeats this very impactful phrase: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. So I vow to share more of my love and passion for my profession with my students.  They don’t have to love English class, but they have to try hard, work hard, and be successful. I am the variable–and catalyst–in that equation.
  2. Create real engagement. I want my students to take my class seriously.  I work hard to make lessons for them that are not only valid and worthwhile, but engaging. But what is real engagement? Silent students working at their desks?  Loud groups debating important content? For me, it’s making my kids forget they have a cell phone.  When they are so engaged in something that they do not need to check their latest text or play a round of Trivia Crack, I know I’ve got them.
  3. Offer real feedback instead of praise.  I’ve written about feedback before, and I truly try to follow my own rules concerning it, but at times it’s so easy for me to walk around my classroom and say “nice!” or “good job!”–sometimes I give in. I want to focus my feedback to students in order to help them reach the lesson’s goal instead of making them feel “good”. So I vow to incorporate more questions that lead my students to truly reaching the goal set forth for them. No more shallow praise!  Everything that comes out of my mouth needs to be worthy of being said and have a purpose for my students.  Praise can be saved for more 1:1 experiences if necessary.
  4. Let go and trust…myself and my kids. If I truly want to teach my students about persevering through difficult content and learning challenging skills, I need to let them struggle.  Sometimes I think, “Oh no! I made this too difficult. Now they are never going to get to where I need them to be.” This almost always turns out to be false.  By the end of a difficult lesson I have heard “I can’t” more times than I can count, but 99% of the time, the kids are successful and accomplish the goal of the lesson.  I have been teaching for 7 years.  I’m no newbie and I need to trust that my skills and understandings of my students are on par. And I need to trust that they will make it to the goal without my constant watch.

 

In my career:

 

  1. Stop questioning my own decisions.  I make professional decisions every day.  Not only about content, teaching and learning strategies, and lessons, but also about how to interact with my students, how to tackle a particularly difficult situation, and how to combat (and comply with…) the constant barrage of mandates from the state, county, and district. I make professional decisions because I am a professional. I can back them up with valid evidence and reasoning. There is no need for me to question my own thinking every step of the way.  So I vow to trust myself.
  2. Not get pushed around. I will not let politicians–or anyone else who knows nothing about educating students–tell me how to do my job.  I am going to do what is right for my students (within the boundaries of my position) because, well, I DO love my job, and I AM passionate about what I do. And I am not about to let someone who is not invested in my students’ success tell me what is best for them.


What are your Reso-and Revo-lutions?

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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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education, scoring, teachers, teaching

Reporting Outcomes: What is an “A”?

Several blogs have been popping up lately about doing away with grades (see Parents React to a Classroom Without Grades and Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades) and it seems a worthwhile topic to explore. Let’s take a serious look at a world devoid of our traditional grading system.

 

The Common Core has certainly pushed–some say forced–us (teachers, students, parents, administrators) to make some serious changes at the national level all the way down to our individual classrooms.  Some of those changes have been effortless and smooth while others have been laborious and frustrating. One impending reform is a transition to standards-based reporting as opposed to the traditional “report card”. This transformation will require doing away with our popular and widespread grading system. There are some benefits to this major shift that could become a way of life in our near future.

 

Learning Becomes the Focus in the Classroom

Passing. GPA. Class rank. Exemption status. Students concentrate more on these factors than they do on learning. Worse, grades become a motivational factor for students. (Grades should not be the reason why students work hard. Unfortunately, the reality is that grades are one of the only reasons students work hard and this is a problem.)  Numbers have become the point of obsession when learning the skills should be paramount. And the students are not the only guilty culprits who give in to number obsessions, districts do it too. They prepare the students for the NJASK, and the HSPA, and now everything being done in our classrooms relates directly to our new standardized test mandate: PARCC. Will our students be proficient?  Advanced proficient? We hope for those two labels to dominate our paperwork, but what do those labels–and their corresponding numbers–actually mean?  Can you tell me?

 

All Stakeholders Have an Accurate Understanding of What Students Know and Are Able to Do

Grades should be indicators of what students know and are able to do.  But sometimes teachers’ personal biases, test curving, extra credit policies, etc. infiltrate the scoring process and grades become skewed. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students). So, how are grades really relaying reliable information if they are influenced by factors other than student performance? It’s not to say that standards-based grading will completely rid the system of this misrepresentation of scores, but it will help level the playing field.

 

Regulation of the Reporting Process

At some educational institutions an “A” can fall within the range of a 100% to a 90%.  In others, an “A” may equate to a 100% to a 92% (I have worked at districts with both of these grading systems–these numbers are not arbitrary). With standards-based grading, letters and their corresponding numbers no longer exist when it comes to reporting student achievement and outcomes. Instead, each standard has its own label that indicates a level of mastery which shows what students know and are able to do.  For example a report card may look like the same ones you and I received in grammar school.  A skill is listed and various columns appear next to it with “S” for satisfactory, or “N” for needs improvement.  The column that is checked shows the student’s level of achievement for that skill at that moment in time. A standards-based report card is reminiscent of this.

 

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RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

 

Beyond Mastery

Mastery

Approaching Mastery   ✓

No Mastery Yet

 

Comments: Formative assessments showed steady growth toward mastery, but ultimately the summative assessment(s) proved that the standard has not yet been mastered.

 

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Of course the 4 levels of mastery must be outlined.  Those schools implementing the CCSS should make sure that each piece of criteria has its own indicators of mastery.  Those indicators should be uniform as well.

 

Meaningful Learning

With standards-based grading, the goal is no longer to get an “A” but instead, to master standards.  This may sound the same, but it’s not.  An “A” is nebulous when you really think about it. What do you need to do in order to get that “A”? (Answer most multiple choice questions correctly? What does that show?) What does the “A” really mean? (The student turned in a project on time?) With standards, the outcomes are clear.  For instance, let’s go back to our report card example: RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. The skill is to analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience. Either students cannot analyze a point of view or cultural experience (No Mastery Yet), or they recognize that there are different point of view and they know how to analyze, but students cannot fully apply the skill to a point of view or cultural experience (Approaching Mastery), or they can analyze a point of view or cultural experience (Mastery), or maybe they can even go beyond analyzing a point of view and cultural experience, by evaluating others’ answers (Beyond Mastery). It is clear what is expected of students in order to master each standard.  I suppose you could connect a grade to each level of mastery, D, C, B, and A, respective to the above example, but without the indicators those letters mean nothing.

 

We may be nervous about the ever-mounting changes in education, but remember, not all reform is negative.  Some ideas have a lot of validity.  As for doing away with grades, it doesn’t mean we are getting rid of assessments, it just means we are genuinely examining evaluation and how to represent it through a different lens.  And that lens has the potential to make the way we view reporting student outcomes much more coherent and transparent.

 

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