Monthly Archives: November 2014

Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 1

I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (O’Connor, 2011) with my colleagues over the next few months. We are transitioning to standards based grading next year which will be a powerful change to ensure the focus of our school is on learning. My charge is to share the story of how various fixes manifested in my classroom over the years. Before I begin the series of posts, readers should know that this book prompted monumental transformation in my practice. If you have not read it, I would highly recommend it.

Fix 1 – Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.

This fix was a game changer in my career as it was the first shift I made toward healthier grading practices. After reading this chapter, removing behavioral grading made complete sense; it would improve accuracy in reporting academic achievement to students and parents. Fix number one forced me to honestly reflect on my methods. Behaviors such as class participation were embedded in my grading system. I was a Spanish teacher after all, and they needed to participate! At that time, awarding points for a quick student response seemed like a good motivator. This was false, although I didn’t realize it until I incorporated the fix. I was willing to try something new, but met the challenge with skepticism. Once implemented, this uncommon approach made a positive impact in my classroom. Participation happened organically and student stress levels decreased.

I hadn’t recognized that academic achievement was not assessed by using a participation grade. I recorded classroom behavior and included it in a letter grade at the end of the marking period. Encouraging students to participate in classroom discussions and instruction is important, but here are a few considerations. Do we instill fear or anxiety in students when their willingness to volunteer becomes part of their grade? Are quieter students who are quite capable of showing proficiency being punished? Do our grades communicate proficiency with regard to standards when behaviors are included?

And effort? How do we assess effort, or is it even possible? There are students who seem to display the copious amounts of this day in and day out. But are they just the outspoken ones? Have they been playing the game of school so well that they are conditioned to show ‘good effort’ in an endeavor to gather points? What about the kids who are overly bored by assignments that are too easy, or the ones that are utterly frustrated by something that is too difficult? Should these kids be punitively graded for not displaying the appropriate amount of effort? No. Respectful, meaningful tasks will elicit great effort from students.

Determining which behaviors are included for reporting (separately of course!) at the end of the term is an essential process of collegial conversations among staff members. Making decisions about which are truly valued should guide a common language throughout the school or district that will unify students, parents, and staff alike.

The crux of the issue is this: as educators we want students to develop into good citizens and productive adults. This can be accomplished in a proactive, supportive manner even when students know behaviors aren’t graded. Forming relationships with students and modeling appropriate comportment are significantly more productive to evoke positive student behaviors. We can communicate strengths and weaknesses in a meaningful way when they are separated. Clarity in reporting is critical for student growth. Don’t cloud accuracy in grading with behavior, break it down for students and parents so plans for ongoing improvement can be put into place.

A little better than yesterday

The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.                   -Unknown

Being of a growth mindset, I am always looking for new ways to improve myself and my practice. I scour social media, blog posts, and scholarly articles among other things not only to fuel my fire as a learner but also to make sure I don’t fall into the abyss of stagnation. The drive to grow and better myself is very strong. I am lucky to be surrounded with people of a similar mindset that push and challenge my thinking.

This being said, it is easy to fall into a trap. The trap that makes you feel not quite good enough. The trap that makes you second guess yourself and sometimes question whether you are doing the very best for the kids you see everyday. As I have mentioned before, I am a recovering perfectionist. I have a hard time remembering that as long as I am moving forward and continuously learning, it is enough. As long as I model the behavior I seek from students and colleagues, it is enough. As long as I am willing to move out of my comfort zone and take a risk, it is enough. Because at the end of the day I need maintain my composure. I need to be a wife and mom. I need to drive to soccer practice and read a book for pleasure (How long has it been?). I need to be content with the hard work I put in and the learning students are demonstrating.

This struggle to be happy with what we are doing as educators compounded with the desire to keep moving forward is a difficult balance for me. I manage it the best that I can, but there are moments when I feel inadequate. Deep down I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. When I look at those around me, I want to use every wonderful idea that crosses my path.

The quote that appears above has helped me when I have felt I could be giving more. As long as I am working to be better than yesterday, how could I expect anything else? When put so simply, the answer is plain. But we all know that it is not black and white, not so easy to quiet the brain for a bit and feel satisfied. Being realistic yet growth minded about accomplishments and future goals is a skill we teach to our students, but do we practice it ourselves? Or do we set the bar so high that ‘good enough’ is unattainable?

I know my growth mindset is essential to my career, but I can’t allow it to get out of hand because…

The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.                   -Unknown

And it’s good enough.

 

Searching for camaraderie

It is better to walk alone, than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.  – Diane Grant

I wanted to share a story in this post about a journey with grading reform. Too many educators feel like they are on an island in this push and look anywhere possible for support and guidance. If that’s you, hopefully this will support your mission!

Jason’s story begins several years ago. As a mid-career educator he was fed up with traditional grading practices that took his students’ focus away from the learning that was going on in his classroom. He was sick and tired of the time lost discussing points, grades, and weighting of assignments and assessments. There had to be another answer…

Here arrives standards based learning and grading. After researching the practice throughout a school year, the following summer was spent talking about standards, behavioral grading, motivation and in turn making decisions about implementation – implementation in a traditional setting with limited support. Implementation with one other colleague on board, with the remainder of the 200 staff members maintaining traditional grading practices. It was not necessarily that the majority of co-workers disagreed with the shift (although some continue that mindset to this day), rather most had never reflected on their approach to grading in this manner and didn’t know anything different. To them, the change seemed too daunting to undertake.

This was and continues to be a tough journey. Going it alone takes courage, perseverance, and grit. Jason has transformed his environment into a culture of learning where all students know they can succeed, understand that learning is a messy process, and aren’t afraid to fail along their journey to proficiency. It was an honor to work with him and together we continue to envision how reforming grading practices positively impacts student learning. As he continues to refine his methods, students will benefit for years to come.

Jason is currently a high school social studies teacher. You can connect with him via Twitter, @j_ozbolt.

 

The status quo worked for me

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost

Early in my teaching career I was very traditional. This was how I experienced education growing up, what I was taught throughout my teacher preparation program in college, and what I observed educators practicing in their classrooms. My evaluations went well, with very little advice given to me as to how to improve my teaching. Students were to show up to my classroom, receive the information I covered, and learn. The process was sterile and the same almost every day. This was (and still is in many places) the status quo of teaching. It worked for me as it does for many teachers…or does it?

Were my students doing more than playing the game of school? No. Was I growing as a professional? No. Eventually I saw this, but because of what I had been taught, the environment and culture of school systems, and the praise of colleagues and administrators I didn’t find reason to change for some time. I was stuck in the box of traditional teaching. The status quo had sucked me in and the grip was tight.

All it takes is one moment in time, one person, one bit of research, or one student to show the way out of this box. I was lucky that a few of these came together at the same moment to point me in a different direction. I was able to make significant change once I admitted to myself that there was a better way. This idea that something works ‘so well’ makes it difficult for many educators to reach outside the status quo and search for something better. When we are pushed and reinforced to head one direction, it takes a lot of bravery to follow another path.

The status quo in teaching would have us make everyday the same. Homework and assignments would be blanket assigned without regard to student readiness levels. Tests would be the primary, if not only, sources of summative assessment. Classes would consistently be driven by textbooks, lecture, direct instruction, and quiet seat work. The file folder would come out each year with the previous lesson plans and activities to be used over and over again.

I realized the status quo didn’t work for me or my students, and I am thankful. I faced challenges with breaking the mold of teaching, but it was worth it every time. There have been bumps and bruises, paths that deviated from my colleagues, and so many questions along the way. All the while, my students benefited and continue to benefit with the changes. They are recognized as individuals and I am seen as a person, not an unapproachable character with a robotic presence…and it makes all the difference.

What was the moment in time that changed you as an educator? How did you break the mold of the status quo? Please leave your story in the comments.

Something’s missing…

Something’s missing…do you ever get that feeling? You can’t put your finger on it right away, but something is just not quite right. When I think about some classrooms, I get this feeling. The student hands are up as a teacher explains an assignment. Kids are persistently asking whether it will be collected or graded, how many points it is worth, how they can ‘earn’ a grade, is there an opportunity for extra credit…

Something’s missing…

Do these students know what they are learning and how it is relevant? What skills they are working to develop? What key understandings they must take forward to demonstrate proficiency? With all the time spent on those other questions and discussions, the focus on learning gets lost in the mix.

Something’s missing…

In traditional classrooms with traditional grading practices, students rely on compliance, assignment completion, and point collection to ‘achieve’ and/or ‘prove’ learning. Because so many of us (students, parents, and educators alike) have been immersed in this type of culture for so long, it may feel as though all the puzzle pieces are in place, the classroom is running well, and learning is happening because of this.

But something’s missing…

In standards based classrooms and culture, something is missing as well, actually several things. Percentages are missing, points are missing, frequent grades in general are missing.  Averaging is a practice of the past. Behavioral grading has been replaced with relationships based on trust that garner positive behaviors and intrinsic motivation. Students and parents may miss the percentages and points, especially at the beginning of the move toward standards based grading. Students who play the game of school well will also miss these and need reassurance along the way that when the learning happens, the grades will follow.

The missing pieces in standards based culture don’t need to return for our students to learn. They don’t carry a meaningful place in the journey of learning. Instead of missing pieces to the puzzle, they can become roadblocks that are at the very best cumbersome for our students and at the worst insurmountable. Even without them, the feeling of something lacking disappears and all the pieces fit together. Students are developing skills and understandings to be lifelong learners.

This newly constructed puzzle will transform education for our students. It will remove obstacles to learning that eat up those all important instructional minutes and opportunities to practice crucial skills and understandings.

At last, nothing is missing.

The ‘Oops Card’

Sometimes you search and search for inspiration to write…other times it simply arrives home in your son’s pencil bag.

 

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The Oops Card

Hmmm…this was a hard one for me to swallow. I agree that kids make mistakes, and have ‘oops’ moments. Actually, we all do and perfection is just not possible or desirable for that matter. If we are perfect, what’s left to learn? In my opinion, communication is everywhere and in everything. Let’s take a closer look at what this card says to students.

This card considers a late homework assignment. Homework is obviously graded, yet formative work should not be scored. Why create a high stakes learning environment by grading everything? Why make a judgement about proficiency when this is a check point during the journey? Do we want kids to be concerned with points and perfection or with learning? Learning is risk taking which has the potential for failure. How do we want students to view this process?

According to the card, the late homework must turned in the following day to receive any credit. A zero is stated as the punishment or repercussion if the procedure is not carried out. Tardiness with work is a behavior (although not a preferred one). Including this in the grading process makes students nervous and fearful of making a mistake. Do we care when students learn or that they learn? Afford students the opportunity to make mistakes. Talk with them about how to make a better decision in the future. Help them get there.

Is a student responsible if they don’t use the card? My son did not use his card last quarter even though he missed one assignment. Does this say that he is irresponsible or simply that he is a child who can forget things at times? Let’s face it, middle school students forget sometimes. As long as it is not a consistent problem there is no need to worry or penalize a student. Did I want my son to use the card? No, but the choice was his. I was proud of his decision.

Oh, the monster of extra credit. Awarding students extra credit at the end of a marking period for not using the card has absolutely nothing to do with their academic achievement. Even so, what would 15 points do for a student who has been very compliant with homework throughout the quarter? My guess is not much. Would it help with a student who consistently struggles to turn in work on time? Nope. I adamantly disagree with extra credit for so many reasons that it most likely warrants an additional blog post.

Cards like this do not communicate the importance of learning to students. They switch the focus to compliance, points, scores, and grades. According to the card, it is acceptable to make one mistake per quarter, and it must be resolved in one day. After that, perfection is the expectation. This is not realistic. This is not learning.

What are your thoughts? Leave your comments and continue the discussion.