Comments NOT Grades: A Practical Story

There are a few very important topics to me at this point in my career and this post will expand on anther one.  My blog has been dedicated to my exploration of my teaching practices and beliefs.  As I attempt to teach ethically, I also want to ensure I adhere and consider the Teaching Quality Standard set out by Alberta Education.  To this end, most of what I’ve written here has been focusing on how my understanding of the 21st century competencies are changing my beliefs and practices while the categories I use for my posts highlight my commitment to my profession.  Today’s post, while titled in such a way as to take on a hot topic in education, is more of a practical story rather than an argument.

At the end of last year I changed up how I was reporting grades to students.  Instead of providing students with their percentage for an assignment up front, I required them to grade themselves on the rubric and then have a conversation with me about my rubric for them.  We compared the two, talked about how to improve, then I gave them their mark.  This worked wonders for morale and increased the willingness of students to make improvements and learn from their mistakes.  This year I decided to take this a step further.

This year, students don’t receive a percentage at all (though I still need to arrive at one for my report cards).  In fact, assignments do not even receive an overall percentage.  I’ve decided to take a bit of a standards-based approach to my high school ELA courses (though I’m very much alone in this, at least in my district).  I have taken the curriculum and narrowed it down to what I believe are the 3 main overall standards in which students need to be proficient, plus a fourth as a catchall for the outcomes that don’t fit the other three standards.

  1. Decoding the ideas of others (ideas and support, etc from texts of all kinds)  30%
  2. Having powerful personal ideas of their own  30%
  3. Presentation  30%
  4. “Other”  10%

I’m not sure these are the best or only criteria my curriculum could be broken down into, but this is me being a ship at sea and taking a risk to move my teaching practice closer to my teaching beliefs.  With this grading practice, each criterion in my rubrics fall into one of these categories; therefore, students are given a “star” on the rubric for each criterion, which is then recorded into my marking program.  This means that each assignment is entered anywhere from two to six times, depending on how many criterion are used.

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A portion of one of my rubrics for the next authentic assessment task for ELA 10. Suggestions?

(I have a gold star stamp I use.  They love it!  BTW, this is based off Angry Birds:  1-Star is a pass.  Fail is Angry Bird terminology.  Students are okay with the harshness of it.  They recognize it as “try again!”  Like Angry Birds, assignments can be redone until you’re happy with your star-ranking.)

The practical side of this is that I/students/parents can clearly see what aspects of the curriculum students are doing well with, and which need focused improvement.  It also allows me to focus my comments for students and seek to provide feedback on problem areas.  Towards the end of the term, individualization can happen as students prove proficiency in certain areas, but still struggle in others.  Comments are becoming our focus rather than our grades, and learning is becoming the most important thing in our classroom.

On Monday of this week, I walked into my grade 10 class with a few pieces of work to return to students.  Two were “for” marks while the third was not.  (Formative and summative assessment have all but ceased to exist in my classroom:  with the criteria-based reporting, each “summative assessment” rubric criterion becomes formative to the next assignment; and students ALWAYS have the opportunity to take feedback and improve their work).  As I was commenting on the work, I realized that a few mistakes kept popping up over and over again.  Sure, this means I have a problem that I need to address on my end, but I have an important decision to make about how I do that.  In the past, I would address the issues via lecture.  Lately I’ve tried to put the learning back on the student via comments and redoing the work.  However, it struck me that I had a third option (and likely more than that).  With my focus on critical thinking and collaboration I find myself attentive to opportunities to reinforce these vital 21st century competencies.  The rest of this post will quickly explain what I did and what students thought of the learning activity.

The Learning Activity

As I was assessing their work, I decided I wouldn’t write the same feedback for improvement on more than one or two students’ work (I’d suggest three or four students for larger class sizes).  Then, on subsequent work that required the same improvements, I referred students to my comment on the other work.  For example, “I left some tips to improve introductions on Sandra’s paper.  You should go ask her if you can copy down my tips. Then compare your work and discuss how to incorporate some of the tips.”

I also began to identify students who had particularly positive aspects and began to refer students to look at these positive examples.  “At some point, go and see Frank; he has a well-written introduction and I’m sure he’d be happy to let you take a look.”  I made a point of ensuring every student had others referred to them for something positive in their work.  Those who need more improvement had more comments referring them to others, while those with better work had more peers referred to them.  ALL, though, had both types of referrals.

My original thought was to expect students to do this on their own time.  I arrogantly thought that all my teaching about collaboration would make them responsible enough to do this.   While this may or may not be true for my grade 10’s, I decided it wasn’t fair to ask this of them.  I also realized the collaboration and critical thinking aspect would be significantly stronger if we did this as a class.  So I set about planning the 84 minute period.

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When students walked into class they looked at the board (as routine is) and asked, “Do we need to read all that?”  Too funny.  My response:  “I wrote it all.  The least you can do is read it.”  Little did they know this was just a portion of the reading they’d be doing.  But you know what?  I didn’t hear a single complaint after that.  Before handing back any work, I asked several students to reiterate what the board was instructing them to do today:

  • read all the comments on their work
  • jot down anyone they are suppose to talk to (they had no idea what that meant)
  • reflect in their thought journal what they need to improve:  critical thinking through the comments and rubrics to see trends in their work
  • talk with others they were referred to, and to those who have been referred to them:  collaboration and critical thinking as they assess what their peers did compared what they themselves did
  • reflect in thought journal about how their conversations would help them improve their own work

It was about to be sheer and utter chaos for 80 minutes.  Organized chaos I hoped.  I’d never done anything like this before.  I had invited several others to witness the upheaval (and get some video), but because the idea was last minute no one could come. I knew this was going to be either spectacular or tragic.  Either way I had wanted witnesses to tell my tale.  I managed to get some video, but FOIP is up in the air at the moment, so I’ll just highlight a couple interesting moments.  At first, the room was silent for 15 minutes as students poured over their written feedback NOT grades.  They jotted down names and areas to improve upon.  Then there was movement. Slowly at first, mostly turning to their neighbours, then true mingling began and students turned to peers rather than friends.  It was wondrous.  Students were talking (mostly on task, but not 100%) and jotting notes, and reading more work than just theirs.  Desks were moved, couches utilized, groups formed and leadership occurred.  I couldn’t be happier.  Learning was happening.  Student-led, teacher-designed learning.  I got to record a few conversations with students that were inspiring and affirming.  One student (the cool boy) actually said that the purpose of his learning was to improve and grow from his errors rather than to get a better mark.  I teared up right in front of him.  We had a 5-minute conversation, some of it on tape about the role of education in his life.

Student Reactions (via Thought Journal responses)

The following are direct quotes, in some cases entire responses, from thought journal entries the next day.  Remember, these are grade 10 students (an even split of boys and girls).

“I know that I have to read more carefully to understand everything and maybe read it 3 or 4 times if I need to. . . I think it was good what we did yesterday because we could see what others did wrong or did right and why.  And what you did wrong or right and why.”

“I agree with 95% of the comments because most of them were on finding support and examples which I was just to lazy to do. . . As long as I use the comments as they are meant to my writing should improve.”

“To be honest, I believe that this excerise or activity didn’t actually help to the extent that I or Mr. Groff wanted it to.  I noticed that I needed to improve on my quality of support but the one person I was recommended to was overwhelmed with others work.  The result of this ended up forcing me to get the teacher to bring us together and start a conversation which left the other to have a free 20 min at the end of class.  As well as I don’t feel that I learnt about giving better support.  I’m not saying this was a bad idea though, I believe if we were taught how to teach and were given time to go in depth with the other person that would’ve accomplished more.  So I would like to try this again but maybe a different way.”

(It wasn’t 20 minutes of “free time,” but he’s right, a few students took advantage of me not paying close attention to them; however, the majority kept right on sharing.  After 60 minutes of hardcore learning, I wasn’t about to interrupt a great conversation regarding the need for schools to offer students more personalized education, just to harass a few others after such an empowering activity.)

“Along with this [the work we got back] we had gained additional feedback and comments along our text.  This information told us what we were doing wrong, what could be improved, and what we were doing right.  I had many comments, along all pieces of my work.  As I took the time to read and learn from this feedback, I understood what needed the most improving in my work: 1. Using better work choices  2. Going more in depth, maybe using more examples  3. Preparing a proper conclusion.  I tended to agree with almost every single comment and point.  And even when I didn’t, I learned and understood what could’ve been better and what was wrong.  And going off of that note, that was a major way other had aided me yesterday.  I glanced at there work and mine as well, and analyzed the pros and cons of both writing.  This way I could help others as well as myself.  The learning from yesterday gave me better insight and analogy for my work.  It made me realize and understand what can be done better in my text.  It was a good way to better my work.”

“I would like to do this activity again.  I learned lots from it and it was more interesting than listening to Mr. Groff talk.”

“After talking to “Joe,” and being able to read his conclusion, I found that I see where I went wrong.  I still have old habits to kill, but now at least I know what I should be doing. . . I can make my writing sound good.  That’s not good enough though.  I want it to be good. . . I agree with the feedback I got yesterday, know it needs work and I know I have strong points and also my weak points. . . I can fix it.”

“What we are learning is great.  I enjoy how you are considering both what we need in school and after school.  What I think I need to improve on my work is my spelling, eliminating I and you from my work, and most definitely my personal reflection.  I feel the class discussion are going very well.  I enjoy them much more than just writing and pear work because it keeps me entertained through the whole class.  The help I received from others yesterday was great.  they truly helped me in areas where I am struggling.  Looking into the future I feel if we continue a similar path as we have lately I think the class will be fun and interesting which is making me want to learn more.”

My Takeaway

  • I was so impressed with the critical thinking that occurred as a result of this activity.  Students were able to consider the activity, their conversations, and their work in a way that would benefit their learning.
  • This would work so much better with just one assignment being handed back rather than three (my fault for not keeping up).  Though, with a class of only 13 students, I’d be concerned with not finding enough from each student to refer them evenly to others.  The three assignments certainly gave me some wiggle room to ensure all students had peers referred to them, and them to peers.
  • Some structural changes may need to occur.  Organized chaos did occur.  And I liked it.  But as the one student pointed out, it was tough for everyone to get the most out of this activity.  I’m not sure exactly what the answer might be, or if simply having a single assignment might be enough to lessen the craziness.  I’ll be talking with this student and the class as a whole in order to have them solve this problem for me.
  • For the vast majority of students this was an extremely beneficial learning activity.  I know many teachers offer extensive feedback, and some even require their students to do extensive work with that feedback.  I think this was different though in a couple ways.  First, I didn’t force students to actually change their work.  As the one student pointed out in conversation, for him it was more about the learning for his future than it was to improve his grade.  The comments were what he needed.  The video of the conversation is quite moving, and if I can get permission to post it, I will.  Second, while I pointed students in the right direction, the activity was far from structured.  It was up to students to take ownership of their learning, to be a leader, to be a learner.  Third, this task emphasized the 21st century skills of collaboration (community) and critical thinking over the content knowledge.  Students could see the benefit of the task as applicable after they leave formal education behind.
  • Offering students grades on their work would not allow this activity to run anywhere near as smoothly.  Written feedback was the key.  One of the assignments they got back didn’t even have a marking guide with it.  It was simply a pre-evaluation of their formal academic writing skills.  This did not detract from their learning though.  Even the rubric, because the criterion are categorized into curricular standards, allowed students to begin to identify where their errors are occurring most.  With no overall grade on the work, students were able to look at the positives and negatives without feeling “overly satisfied” or “overly disheartened.”  One student, at the start of the explanation for the activity, stated that there was no way anyone would come to him for improvement.  I guaranteed him they would because he had a least one positive attribute that some of his peers did not.  It was amazing to see this student engaged for 80 minutes with his classmates, sharing his work with them, and learning from theirs.  A grade at the top of his work, with his barely passing percentage, would have ruined what little confidence he had that allowed him to at least be open to this learning activity. (***3 days later (today), this same student expressed his interest in sharing with the entire school, via the next assembly, his upcoming authentic assessment task.  That’s how confident he’s become that he can do great work.)

Comments, NOT grades, have the ability to empower students.  Comments, not grades, have the ability to say both, “This is fantastic!” and “This could be better.”  Comments, not grades, have the ability to transform schools into a community of learners rather than a competition between rivals!

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Attempt to Differentiate Projects

Just a quick one tonight as I prepare to offer my students the opportunity to differentiate their proof of learning for the first time.  I’d love some feedback on this project.  The project has been crafted to meet the learning outcomes for both ELA 10-1 and 10-2 and will be completed during class time.  It’s also been designed to be (more) authentic with the possibility of being truly authentic depending on student choices, to allow for critical thinking, student choice, and collaboration (by being completed in class where students can ask and answer each other’s questions).

The project comes after quite a bit of background learning, textual study, and personal reflection on achievement thus far.  Since my mistakes with the “Theme Song” project, we have been focusing more on purpose and the students are well aware that they will be “fixing” that project based on the content knowledge we have discussed from a proposal from Obama after the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting.  You can read a bit of what we’ve done here.  Since then we have done some work with applying the text to our own lives/context and found it interesting that Obama is willing to give schools/boards/states the decisions about how to make their own students safer rather than believing there is a one-size-fits-all solution (sounds like my plea for the structure of education).  While his purpose is to keep schools and communities safer, he recognizes that there are some issues where control needs to be given to other organizations and some issues that need to be nation-wide.  My students went through Obama’s suggestions for school safety measures as though they were the superintendent of our school board who had to decide which options to accept and which to decline.  They worked in groups, had to focus on the given purpose and defend their choices with evidence from what currently happens in our school.  Students are learning more about purpose while continuing to see how critical thinking and collaboration can aid the learning and application of content knowledge.

Today I reviewed a draft of the project with students and asked for their input.  This wasn’t the plan.  the plan was for me to finish the project and give it to their sub tomorrow for them to begin.  Then I’d come back and answer questions the next day and get them refocused to continue working.  However, a comment on Twitter made me immediately consider my plans for the day.  @shellterrell said, “Each Day we walk in the classrm we can tell Ss what is planned & ask how they’d change it up then go fr there” (April 16, 2013).  While I was already planning on offering a great deal of choice in the project, I thought I’d offer my students some say in it, and in the marking rubric.

I’m so glad I did!  Students had a couple questions; one good one involved ignoring Obama’s text (that we’ve studied) in order to focus on the bombing in Boston yesterday (a series of texts that would need to be studied and analyzed before completing the project).  I revised the project to allow students the choice of text(s) to select info from for their project.  The caveat was that the marking guide would not change.  The marking guide was the learning they were to prove.  How they did that could be open for discussion in order for them to be more engaged in the learning that would take place as they completed the project.  This project will be used to assess their skills and make further suggestions for improvement before they go back to the Theme Song project, so it’s important they are fully committed to it.

Perhaps the best thing that came from offering this project to students for their opinions before assigning it was the final decision on group work.  I figured from the initial write-up (the italicized bit here was added afterward) that students would recognize the importance of completing their own project.  As I figured, students questioned the rationale of the drawbacks of group work.  I explained that they are all responsible for the entire curriculum and I therefore need to know that they complete the project themselves rather than letting a classmate do it.  We discussed the possibility of each member of the group completing a write up of their contributions and ideas, whether the project went a different way in the end or not.  Then they asked why they couldn’t use the “specialist” tactic.   I explained that if they did that, they wouldn’t learn anything.  All they would do is prove to me that they are already competent in that area.  I explained that projects were not just about showing learning, but learning more. They wouldn’t have much motivation to learn more if they do what they are already good at.

Yesterday they reviewed the work they’ve done thus far in the term and reflected on what they were doing okay with and where they still needed to improve. (More on this in my next blog post.)  I’ve taken the over 135 specific outcomes from our ELA curriculum and categorized them into 4 main outcomes:  Decoding the Ideas of others, Presenting Our Own Personal Ideas, Presentation, and “Other.”  I try to categorize each rubric criteria into one of these 4 categories.  I know sometimes I look back on a choice and wonder if it may have better fit a different category, but I’m trying to make my courses more outcome based and I’m still learning (and doing it all by myself at the high school ELA level in my district).  Because of this, students have a pretty good idea where they are at and what they really need to focus on.  So, when we got to talking about this specialist idea, we realized that perhaps we could take a reverse specialist approach.

You see, if students are at an 80% right now in Personal Ideas and chose to specialize there while others took their strong categories, then the student will likely continue to do well.  This could easily mean another 80%.  Thus, they simply reinforced their current assessment, their mark hasn’t improved, and neither have they.  However, if students chose their weakest category or two to work on, they could save time by not having to complete the work in the categories they are capable of and instead focus on the categories they need to improve.  This way they learn more and improve their grade.  It’s differentiated learning designed to help a student learn in the area they most need it.

As I reflect on this now, I can see some potential issues that arise (plus a fallacy in logic–assuming students can’t improve in areas they are already doing well in–My main argument AGAINST grades just snuck up and bit me in the butt–of course they can continue to improve; even if they are already at 100% at a grade 10 level they can improve beyond that.  But our recent focus is improving weak areas, so that was my focus.)  There are going to be some issues here, but I’m willing to work out the kinks after they have a day to recognize the kinks.  In the meantime, there’s no harm in having them work on a project they’ve had a say in.  If anything, it could benefit them:  Thursday we can critically think through the process and see what kinks did appear.  Then we can solve them together.

This is an example of how, even in a grades focused learning system, teachers can still differentiate learning, allow learning to be engaging and meaningful to students, offer more or less choice to students depending on their needs, work to improve 21st century competencies, AND STILL cover the government curriculum.

I’ll see how it goes, reflect and blog about it, and grow from the experience.  Feel free to take a look at the project and let me know what you think.  Agree?  Disagree?  See some flaws that need fixed?  Let me know!

The Value of Zero

As a classroom teacher I have mixed feelings about a no-zero-policy being implemented in schools.  I want to begin by saying that I am very thankful neither my school board nor my principal have dictated a policy about giving or not giving zeros to students for work that was assigned but never received.  I appreciate my professional opinion being valued and trusted.  Next, I will willingly admit to not being a “math guy.”  I fully admit to failing math 20 when I was in high school, to taking no physics, and to still not knowing my multiplication tables from 1-12.  That’s what calculators are for.  Thankfully, this isn’t a math debate; I just wanted to put that out there in case I say something that happens to go against the principles of math logic.  This is about grading policies.  I also promise to try to stay focused on this issue without wandering into related subjects about whether it’s even necessary to grade students, how we categorize grades, or why we have multiple levels of grades (satisfactory vs proficient vs excellence, etc.).  I’ll try to save those for future posts.

What is the value of a zero?  I like the idea of zero as a placeholder, the idea that zero has no true value.  The idea that it’s not actually a number that represents what a student is capable of doing, except in the odd cases where the student actually completed the work but does it so poorly as to earn a zero.  Even in these cases, I’d like to argue that this grade should be a placeholder with the expectation that the work will be redone after additional learning.  Zeros should be viewed this way:  They are a grade that has been given as a placeholder until the student completes the work.  Zeros symbolize the fact that a student still needs to do the assigned work.

Of course, other symbols could be used.  The “incomplete,” for example, is one candidate that many educators favour.  Others symbols may include “F,” “D,” or “Insufficient.”  I’m sure there are other symbols as well that could represent work that students have not done or not handed in or have done incorrectly or extremely poorly.  The reality of the situation though is that the work has not been appropriately completed.  When it comes right down to it, there are only a few options available for teachers when they are faced with this situation.

The first option is to acknowledge the fact that the work has not been completed appropriately and to ascertain the reason for this.  We need to understand that the students in our class are actual people with all the flaws we ourselves have.  They are busy, they are self-conscious, they are forgetful, they are preoccupied, they are prioritizing their lives.  For all of these reasons, most students would see no value in a zero; all they see is that they have a reason for not doing their work.  Most would even be willing to get it done if given the chance.  For some, that means bringing it in the next day because they left it on their bed.  For others, it might mean needing an extra week because they are going through some rough times at home.  Others may need to be retaught the content before they can complete the work.  The point is, we need to recognize that a zero is a placeholder until the child is capable of completing the work.  We need to provide them the opportunity to reschedule the due date for a date that meets their needs.  In these cases, the zero will be erased and replaced with the mark that represents their ability (Let’s assume a percentage can do this).  The value of a zero is the opportunity to get the work done appropriately.  This is the option I advocate for.   This is the option that allows children to save their dignity in our classrooms. (I won’t get started into the fact that I believe grades as we know them should be eliminated from the education system; for now, I am stuck having to assign a percentage grade to my students.)

The second option involves refusing to use zeros as placeholders, instead choosing to allow them to stand as a final grade.  Unfortunately, I know there are teachers out there who do this.  For these teachers, a deadline is a deadline and if you don’t meet the deadline then you receive an irrevocable zero.  These teachers, I think, view this as an attempt to motivate students to do the work because if they don’t do it, their grade is permanently marred.  These teachers would rather a kid fail or drop their class and “learn a lesson” about deadlines rather than take the time to ascertain the reason for the missing work.  But this is not an indicator of what the student is capable of, especially if their work is sitting, completed at home on their bed.  I am not a supporter of this option; however, I can understand the sentiment behind it.  I believe there are better ways to teach responsibility to students with chronic lapses in self-management.  In these cases, the value of a zero is the measurement of a social value rather than of the curriculum.

The third option, one that I’ve heard from many educators, is to replace the zero with an IC or an incomplete.  I know our Alberta Standardized Tests use an INS for insufficient.  There is a logical fallacy to this option, though.  Let’s say, for instance, that a student doesn’t complete their first assignment for your class.  You assign an IC because you have been forbidden to assign a zero.  Then, for the next assignment, the student scores 100%.  Let’s assume the two assignments are weighted the same and are the only two assignments of the year (I told you I was bad with math, so this makes the calculations simple).  As you complete the final marks for this student, what do you do?  Logically, if the IC isn’t a zero or any other percent, then it can’t be calculated into the final mark.  Therefore, the student receives 100% in your course.  If this is the case, and I am the student, and you have 40 assignments in the year rather than two, why don’t I simply do one assignment well, then not do anymore?  On the other hand, if, like the Alberta Government, you take the IC and turn it into a zero for the purpose of calculating a final mark, then why not just call it a zero all along?  What other options are there?  Either it counts as a zero or it doesn’t count as anything. Right?  Wrong.  One other option I’ve heard is that an IC could represent a failure to complete the course.  This would require a student with an IC to retake the course.  Problem solved?  Not even close.  If I’m that student, I’ll do just enough to force you to give me 1%.  Surely any student can provide enough to earn 1%, whether they’d prefer not to do the work, have other more important things to deal with, or actually don’t understand the concepts.  What if a student didn’t do this though?  Is it really fair to force a student to repeat a grade level if they have one IC?  If we turned that into a zero, they’d still pass.  What about two or three IC’s?  How many do they need to say they didn’t complete the course?  And really, what’s the difference between an IC and a 49%?  Don’t both symbolically represent failing to successfully complete the course?  In this case, the value of a zero is no different than 100% or 49%.

In my current education system, I have to report in percentages for my junior and senior high school classes.  I am quite certain I do not have the ability to force a student to repeat my course because they have an IC.  I am quite certain I would fight any policy that forced me to do so, unless that policy rightly forced any student with a below passing grade on any single assignment to also repeat the course.  Ultimately that would result in a pass/fail system, and that is one that I think I am fully on board with.  But I’ll save that for another post coming soon to this blog near you.

As I wrap up, I’d like to offer a couple last ideas that I’ve been struggling with as a response to this issue.  I don’t like giving zeros.  I know they do not represent what a student can actually do.  The only value they have is to simply inform me that for whatever reason work  was not acceptably done.  They are not an accurate portrayal of what I am suppose to be measuring.  When I first began teaching 6 years ago, the school I still teach in had a high rate of incomplete work from students in all subject areas.  This missing work was assigned a zero by teachers at some point in the year (some earlier than others).  A couple years ago I suggested a homework room, where students who had missing work would spend their lunch “hour” sitting and theoretically working on their overdue work.  I had good intentions with this idea and truly believed in it.  I even volunteered to sit in every day at lunch for two years to supervise The Room.  The program did work, though it had its flaws. Zeros were fewer and farther between.  Students were provided time to work on assignments that they didn’t find time to work on outside of class.  Teachers were more understanding about seeing students as human beings with lives outside of school.  But we also had a headache trying to police those who did not show up to The Room.  We had difficulty deciding on appropriate discipline for those who didn’t show up and needed to be tracked down.  We had fights with students who didn’t know why they were in The Room.  We had teachers who didn’t use the room or forgot to add their students to the list.  I now believe The Room, while it addressed some of our immediate issues, did not address the problem.  Students still weren’t handing in work or doing it properly.  More of them simply eventually got it done.  I think there are a couple things we can do as teachers to address this issue, even in our current education system, and I will even dare to say that we can eliminate zeros altogether.  I want to address these further in another post, but in order to get the discussion started, I’ll toss a couple strategies out here.  As teachers we MUST:

  • Stop assigning homework
  • Learn and care about students’ needs
  • Create a more appealing learning atmosphere

For now, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this issue.  Can we eliminate zeros?  Should we be giving zeros?  Is our current system for awarding grades really the best we can do?  I’m still trying to get things figured out for myself; perhaps together we can figure out what’s best for our students.

(More) Authentic Assessment Tasks

I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks.  I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement.  I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be.  I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.

Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs:  My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice.  We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic).  The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online.  My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep.  They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.)  My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice.  They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.

But that’s junior high.  When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks.  Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level.    That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between.  Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???).  The time frame has also been an issue.  My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily.  However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year.  In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts.  I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.

This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students.  We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure.  I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live.  And things were great.  Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them.  It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades.  I no longer believe this to be true.  (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.)  Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments.  I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help.  What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.”  I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits.  So why do we expect these things from our students?  The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better.  For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students.  My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences.  Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.

If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class.  They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!

See No Evil:  A Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.

Teaching for 21st Century but Assessing in the Past

I learned about 21st century competencies nearly two years ago, and from that moment my teaching practices began to transform.  These competencies provided answers to many of the questions that I was asking regarding the disconnect between what I was currently doing and what I believed I should be doing in my classroom. I had been questioning my practice of copious note-taking, or rather note-giving, of how I was handling the assessment of group work, of providing answers to students and thus creating dependance, and of the use of technology in my classroom (and more).  I was unsettled, discouraged, and desperately wanted answers but didn’t know where to turn.  I felt trapped teaching in a style that I didn’t believe in.  And I continued this way for a long time, clinging to the teaching methods I grew up with in school, and must admit was never really told not to use throughout my university education courses.

Then I learned about Twitter.  I remember the edtech for my district offering an online crash course for any interested teachers, and I thought, “Why not?”  It was a bit of a risk for me at the time; those who know me now often think of me as a “tech guy,” but prior to this moment a couple years ago, I wasn’t.  I was actually scared to participate in this session.  I’d never participated in an online learning session before, and although I’d signed up for Twitter some time prior to this, it was so confusing that I never went back to the site.  But Jen Clevette, Peace Wapiti School Division 76’s edtech at the time, was extremely helpful.  She made Twitter easy to understand.  Deciding to take this risk changed the course of my teaching.

Twitter led me to QR codes, Qr codes led to me taking initiative and posting them at Teacher Convention, which led to me being invited to Peace Wapiti’s Community of Practice, which led to me flying to Calgary with Jen Clevette, where, while sitting in the airport waiting for our flight, I was brought up to speed on this new concept of 21st century competencies (at least it was new to me). And this, as I’ve said, began to provide some answers to the apprehension I was feeling about my teaching.

Now, after 2 years of growing and changing and learning, I have noticed some of these feelings returning.  They are, in part, based again on my own teaching practices, but just as much they are because of broader practices in education.  One of the main sources of my current apprehension revolves around assessment.  It seems to me that we are teaching for the 21st century, yet we are still assessing students based on methods from the past.

This became staggeringly clear after reading a passage from Alberta Education Action Agenda 2011-14:  “Transformative change refers to changing the education system by re-examining student needs, how we teach students, what we teach them, how to better engage communities in educating students and how research can be harnessed to inform change.”  I quickly noted the absence of reexamining how we assess students.  Essentially we are being told that we should teach the curriculum through the 21st century competencies, but that we, and the government, should and will continue to use outdated and now inconsistent assessment methods.  From the same website as above comes this statement emphasizing that we should be teaching students the required competencies needed for life in the 21st century: “We need a curriculum that focuses on the competencies young people require in the 21st century.” So, we are to teach the competencies, but then we are to administer standardized tests that forbid collaboration, time to think critically and creatively, and utilization of digital literacy? Implicit to this then is the need to prepare students to write these types of tests and to provide ample practice, which for many teachers means midterm and final exams in the same format from grade 10 through grade 12.  I see the unsettling contradiction between how/what we teach and how we assess as an ethical dilemma as I strive to uphold the TQS for Alberta teachers.  On the one hand I’m obliged to “function within a policy-based and results oriented education system” (TQS standard b) and administer standardized tests (TQS standard i), but on the other hand I’m to “engage in ongoing, individualized professional development” (TQS standard b) and “use the results [of student assessments] for the ultimate benefit of students” (TQS standard i).  The results oriented education system demands that my students perform well on standardized tests; however, my professional learning is telling me that I am to teach students to learn in ways that the standardized test not only ignore, but oppose; consequently, I believe assessment consistent with what I teach will provide results I can use to the ultimate benefit of my students.  I’m left wondering how to ethically juggle these competing demands.

A final quote from near the end of the Alberta Action Agenda 2011-14 states that “curriculum, including assessment and education supports, will be comprehensively reviewed and modified as needed to incorporate holistic perspectives that allow for timely evolution to meet changing needs.” I’ve seen a lot of changes being discussed regarding curriculum and education supports: Government-funded AISI projects have been initiated (and now discontinued due to a new budget) that focus on research to support 21st century learning, and discussions for modifying curriculum are occurring, in addition to a restructuring of the competencies; PWSD brought a 21st century focus to district PD, as well as initiated a cohort of inclusion, AISI, and high school curriculum coaches (I’m the ELA coach for the district); and Mighty Peace Teachers’ Convention sessions also had a very strong focus on 21st century learning.  However, what I have not heard about is any proposed changes to standardized tests. So now what?  Do I just sit back and wait patiently, hoping change comes, hoping my students can somehow manage to walk the fine line between what they’re taught and how they’re assessed, hoping that things turn out the way I believe they should?  As we approach the midterm point for this semester, I am reflecting on where my grade 10 ELA class has been and where we are headed.  I am strongly considering the possibility of radically revising my final exam for this course from a diploma style structure to a more collaborative and critical thinking based model.  I’m not certain yet exactly what this will look like, but I do know that my students are thoroughly engaged in the collaboration and critical thinking opportunities I’ve presented them with so far this year.  They are building these skills and seeing how these 21st century competencies improve their understanding of texts and their text creations.  I shudder to think that after all of this I might revert back to the way I’ve always done things in order to prepare my students for government tests that have not yet been “modified as needed.”  At what point do we demand that assessment practices shift to match the changes in teaching and learning?