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, 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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Offering Students Effective Feedback

BRACE YOURSELVES. TEACHER MISTAKE LEARNING EXPERIENCE IN 5…4…3…2…

A few years ago, one of my policies was that everything my students did in class “would be handed in for a grade”. Well, as you can imagine that got overwhelming pretty fast. By the end of October I was ready to give up. (I stuck it out for the rest of the semester for the sake of consistency, but it wasn’t pretty–for me. If I learned anything from that year it was how to be an efficient grader.) I see now that such a policy was a response to students’ “laziness” instead of a viable teaching/learning strategy. So I never did it again. Instead, I started giving feedback.

The importance of feedback (and formative assessment) cannot be denied. I find that I prefer to offer my students feedback as opposed to grading everything they do, and, in turn, I find that my students really appreciate it. Throughout this year, I have “given out” less grades and more feedback, and my students have benefited from it. At first they all wanted to know, “what is my grade?”.  I told them that their work on such formative assignments were practice for the summative assessment and that practice isn’t graded.  They didn’t buy it at first, but once they realized that I was giving them information that could help them improve, they warmed up to the idea. It’s still a work in progress–the first marking period I didn’t have many grades in the book and our mandatory school assessments made their grades plummet–I spent an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty that my best student didn’t make the honor roll because of my class–but I worked it out as the year progressed. I also learned some important rules about feedback.  I have condensed them into an acronym (because that is what we do in education) to make it a bit easier to remember.

Think CUTS for Clear, Useful, Timely, and Specific:

Clear

  • Choose the best mode possible according to the student
    • written or oral
    • Avoid using vocabulary and syntax at a student’s frustration level
  • Focus: what is the content of your feedback?
    • Task-focused: includes correct v. incorrect, quality of the work, criteria referenced, need for information, neatness, format.
    • Process-focused: includes information about how student approaches the task, the relationship between what a student did and the quality of their performance, offering alternative strategies
  • Use a rubric or scale and make connections distinct
  • Be objective
    • Reduce “I” statements
    • Offer suggestions and considerations

 

Useful

  • Feedback should be info that connects to what students already know and takes them from that point to the next level and so on.
  • Decide on Type: individual or small/large/whole group
  • Give feedback on the most important targets
    • Constructive and helpful
    • Identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Ask questions to help students synthesize info

 

Timely

  • Return assignments with feedback ASAP
    • Students must still be mindful of the topic
    • Students must still feel the drive to work toward the learning objective or goal
  • Offer immediate oral responses if you can.

 

Specific

  • To the task, process, assignment, individual
    • Suggest how to improve the task and process
  • Use details when describing why something is effective or why something needs improvement
    • Always consider “because”
  • Use specific language that relates to the learning target.


Remember, there are many ways to give feedback, and I am talking about one specific way: through practice assignments such as rough drafts, or skills practice.  You need to find what works for you, but I think (and hope) this is a good starting point.  Happy Feedback-ing!   

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Feedback Trumps Grades

Think about your latest app on your smartphone.  I am sure it has asked you more than once to “rate it”. In fact, some of my favorite apps continue to ask me for my feedback about their services.  How about when iOS7 came out?  My students were so excited!  Some of them spent hours updating their phones to get the latest and greatest software.  But a few days later they saw they needed to update to 7.1, and then 7.2, and of course we can’t stop there, so we downloaded 7.3.  One student asked me, “why did they do this?  Wasn’t the update to 7.0 good enough?”  My answer was, “obviously not.  They got feedback from users and improved upon what they already had.”

So, think about it.  Feedback comes in many shapes and forms–and not only on your smart phone apps. Growing up I did a lot of theatre and endured long hours of listening to directors give the actors notes about their performances.  “Make sure to cross on that beat”, “Remember that the lines are to be more rapid at this point”, etc. We see feedback occurring every night on TV with the advent of singing and performing competitions and cooking competitions. People post pictures of themselves hoping for positive feedback from their friends and even strangers.  If feedback isn’t important why are we able to comment on You Tube videos? Facebook posts?  Instagram and Twitter feeds?  Why do Beta versions of software exist?  Why do author’s have editors?  Athletes have coaches? Teachers have mentors? Business men and women have superiors? Why do we allow letters to the editor in newspapers?  Because as a society we truly value feedback.

Think of the last time you took a survey.  It doesn’t need to be a formal survey, but any sort of survey.  “What did you think of that movie?” is a simple survey that requires your feedback.  Feedback is all around us.  Whether we know it or not, we are giving feedback to others in different ways.  Our body language offers feedback.  Our facial expressions; our tone of voice–everything.

So, this brings me to an even bigger question…if feedback is all around us, and we are all giving feedback to each other, why are our students afraid of it?  I recently had a student who asked for help on a paper.  I was walking around the room with a purple pen and wrote some notes on his paper–a correction, a few questions to think about, etc.  His response to my help was “Oh, man!! I didn’t want purple pen on my paper!” I was stunned.  I just told him it was okay and to think about some of the questions I had written.  But at that moment I had an epiphany.  Students don’t appreciate feedback. But why?  Have we created monsters who don’t care about what we have to say?  Do they not see us as helpful experts who want to teach them? No, I don’t think so.  I think we have never taught them that feedback is valuable.  Inherently we know this. We are giving feedback all the time and getting it from our students, but we have never taught them the value of feedback or how to appreciate it and use it.

My first year of teaching I would spend hours grading papers.  I would fix every minute grammar mistake and write an endless amount of comments on students’ papers.  I would hand them back, the students would look at their grades, and then they would put the writing into a school-mandated portfolio.  I would receive the next assignment and go through the same process.  Hours and hours would be spent trying to “teach” my students through my comments. Finally, after banging my head against a wall and realizing that all it did was give me a headache, I realized I needed to teach my students how to appreciate the feedback I was giving them so that they could use it on their future assignments. I created an assignment that had them look at their writing pieces in their portfolios and make judgements about their writing and skills.  I had them write down comments that came up over and over again.  I had them re-write sentences in order to improve them, and I had them change their diction and grammar where necessary. And you know what?  After they realized that they were making the same mistakes over and over again, they took my feedback and stopped making those mistakes.  And eventually their grades went up because they were paying attention to their weak areas and improving upon them.  (Which is what I wanted them to do from the beginning.)  I was obviously going about teaching how to use feedback in the wrong way.  I expected my students to know what to be able to do with the feedback they were given, but they didn’t know.  They were so focused on their grades, that what I had to say was secondary.

The point is this.  We need to teach students to appreciate feedback rather than worry about a grade. Grades are a part of life (I don’t like it, but I get it) and the improved grade will come when the student understands that the feedback they receive from their teacher is valuable.  We need to teach that to our students, not assume that they already appreciate feedback and know what to do with it.

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