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!

Why Do We Make Our Students Write Essays?

My blog post is a response to this blog post by the same title, written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, an educational leader, researcher, author, and professional speaker.

The question at hand:  Why do we make students write essays?

Dr. Eaton’s response:  Because writing essays teaches students the skills needed to write and argue effectively.

My response: We shouldn’t!

I’m a little nervous disagreeing with someone who is so accomplished; however, this is a subject that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I relish this opportunity to organize my thoughts.

When I saw the Twitter link for Dr. Eaton’s post, I must admit that I thought I’d find confirmation for my newfound disgruntlement with essays. . . Instead I found a defence for why we should make students write essays, a defence I have some concerns about.

If you still haven’t clicked the link above to read Dr. Eaton’s article, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing.

It’s important to me that you know a little bit about where I’m coming from.  I have been teaching junior/senior high school ELA in Alberta for 6 years.  I attended junior and senior high school in Alberta.  I attended university in Alberta.  And I have always loved essays.  Coming to understand that the essay was my opportunity to explore a text and offer my own opinion was exhilarating   It was my only solace in an educational system I had come to abhor from early elementary school.  Through university, I continued to love researching and forming unique, convincing arguments.  As a new teacher, I was excited to read my students’ essays, but when my first class failed to meet my expectations, I stopped to consider how to actually teach essay writing.  I guess I should have done this before assigning an essay, but I honestly can’t remember ever being formally taught how to write an essay and therefore assumed it came naturally.  This setback did not dampen my passion, though.  I promptly set out to create a document I entitled Essay Writing Laws.  This document contains the 6 “Laws” I (still) believe are the basics necessary to produce a well-written essay.  Determining these laws was as simple as reflecting on the process I took through university to write pretty outstanding essays (I’m sorry for bragging, but they were, according to professors who asked me to read my work for the class, and even scrawled “brilliant” across the top of a particularly brilliant paper I wrote on the first Harry Potter novel for my Children’s Lit class.)  After a couple years, I made the effort to video record The Laws instead of reading through them all as a class–students were getting bored with that.  I figured if I created a video, they could chunk the reading over a weekend.

I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that I’m not opposed to essays because I hate them.  Even as I write this post I find myself nostalgically thinking back to the first real essay I remember writing in grade 11 on “The Great Gatsby.”  Man, was I ever proud of that piece.  No, my newfound opposition to making students write essays is not based on anything to do with the essay form itself or their purpose of persuading a target audience or the excellent skills in research and sentence construction they allows students to build.  All of these features and benefits are excellent.  If you took the time to read Dr. Eaton’s article (maybe you should go do that now), you’ll notice that these are also a few of her arguments for why we should have students write essays:

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

So, if the above quote seems to be Dr. Eaton’s main point, and I seem to agree with her reasoning, then what could I possibly have an issue with?  My disagreement comes from Dr. Eaton’s statement that “We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write.”  My initial response to this is to echo another one of her own declarations: “But really, that’s not good enough.”

There are many different forms of writing that students can create in order to learn how to write and argue effectively.  In fact, Dr. Eaton continues her own article by listing several of these forms:  “[W]hen you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever.”

The reason I do not believe teachers should be making students write essays is because essays are a highly inauthentic form of writing.  Before teaching my students how to write an essay, I often share with them some of my own experiences.  I tell them how essay writing knowledge has helped me to write a letter to my boss to justify a raise, to craft a cover letter when applying for teaching positions, and to verbally defend an extended curfew request to my parents.  But I also share my disappointment that, since being out of university, I haven’t written a single essay.  Until this year, the true impact of that realization escaped me.  If I, an individual who loves writing essays, and a teacher who teaches kids to write essays, haven’t found a reason to actually write an essay in the last 6 years while living in “the real world,” then why the heck am I teaching students to write an essay?  How important can it really be?  Of course, I already stated why they’re important.  Or did I?  I did state that they have benefits. But really, that’s not good enough!

Our students won’t grow up and write essays.  As Dr. Eaton pointed out, they’ll grow up and write reports, and letters, and policies.  They’ll grow up and write proposals, engage in debates–both formal and informal, deliver speeches, and write newspaper articles, magazine articles, and even blog posts!  But they won’t write essays.  For a more humorous example of this, check out the video I added to this other post.  It’s this video that pushed me over the edge, led me to cancel the essay I recently had planned for my ELA 10 class, and instead forced me to begin an in-depth examination of proposal writing through the study of one by President Obama a mere 3 months ago.

At this point, many readers may already be screaming at me through their computer screen:  WHAT ABOUT THE DIPLOMA EXAMS!?! (or whatever standardized tests their students may be forced to write) HOW DARE YOU RUIN A STUDENT’S CHANCES OF GETTING INTO OR THROUGH UNIVERSITY!

Oh my. . . I think it’s clear by now that I dislike the inauthenticity of essays, but that’s nothing compared to the abhorrence I harbour toward the inauthenticity and unfairness of standardized tests.  For an inkling, you can take a look here. Hopefully you’re still reading as I attempt to explain my position.  First, individuals who are going to scream the statements above are focused primarily on marks.  I’ll address that a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that students who do well on whatever you do in-class will still walk away from the course with a decent mark (and much better prepared for life) even if they do “poorly” on the diploma exam.  Second, if we are going to argue that teaching an inauthentic essay format will prepare students for writing more authentic letters, reports, policies, etc. then the reverse should also be true–teaching those forms should result in students who can produce a great essay.  Which would you rather your students be better practiced in:  The type of writing they’ll need long-term or the type of writing that will temporarily benefit them?  I choose the life-long skills.  Third, many of our students aren’t even headed off to university and, consequentially, their need for amazing diploma exam marks is virtually non-existent.  For those students who are headed to university and will need essay writing skills for four to eight more years, that’s where differentiation comes in and we teach the minor formatting differences after they are well-grounded in more authentic writing styles.  This should satisfy those teachers who believe that the government and society as a whole have the right idea about education being about marks more than it is about students actually being involved in relevant learning.  I do fully intend to ensure this happens, but not because I’ll make students do it; it’ll be because they recognize the need to learn essay writing in order to jump through the hoops of an inauthentic and broken education system.  Even with my grade 10’s, I’ve been diligent in pointing out the similarities and differences between proposals and essays to help prepare the ones who will need to know them.

The fourth and final reason I’ll expound upon as to why I’m not doing a diservice to students by not making them write essays* is that even the diploma exam refuses to demand that students write one.  I find this curious.  I’ve been to mark the diploma exams four times, twice for the -1 stream and twice for the -2 stream, and every student writes a formal academic essay for the -1 Critical/Analytical Response To Literature, and the vast majority of -2s for their Literary Exploration.  It seems that every teacher in the province knows what the diploma exam creators expect, even if those creators are not bold enough to demand it themselves.  It even seems obvious that the creators do in fact expect an essay to be written:  The omission of a question in the planning section, the question seeking to know what prose form the student plans on using, speaks loud and clear.  This question is asked for the personal reflection, where students can choose any prose form including narrative, but not for the critical analysis assignment.  I can’t help but wonder why this is the case.  Is an essay the only form possible to critically and analytically explore a text?  If so, wouldn’t that mean that “in the real world,” where essays are rarely written, texts are never explored critically?  Anyone holding to that position better be able to explain why we need to teach kids to think critically about texts at all then.  However, if we agree that this notion is ludicrous, and “the real world” does in fact demand critical exploration of texts, then is it true that essays are the only way to do so, or even a primary way, heck, are essays even used at all in the real world as a means of stating an opinion?  If not, then why expect students to write one?  Why force them to learn a skill they don’t actually need when more authentic forms of text creation can accomplish the same task?

Towards the end of her article, Dr. Eaton makes a statement that I agree with 100% and have begun to implement in my own teaching practice.  She introduces the following quote by stating that we shouldn’t have students write essays just so they can get a grade, which, by the way, supports my comments above about grade-focused teachers.  Instead, Dr. Eaton argues that school is about learning:

What would happen if we said to our students, ‘OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.’

I must admit, when I reached this part of the article, I was optimistic that perhaps I had misunderstood Dr. Eaton’s point and that she truly was advocating for the abolishment of the essay.  I read this quote and thought, “this is exactly what school should be.”  I told my ELA 10 class this very thing a couple days ago:  “School is about learning, not about marks.”  As soon as I finished the statement one of the boys in the class scoffed.  I asked him if he disagreed.  He asked me why teachers give marks then if my statement is true.  He forced me to revise my statement to “School SHOULD be about learning, not about marks.” I’ve been on a quest since then to learn more about how to abolish marks from my practice right alongside the abolishment of essays.  It was something that I’d already been wondering about, and we set aside the rest of the lesson that day and, as a class, figured out a fairer assessment strategy for this term, with the promise that I would continue learning more about this topic for next year (I’ll teach the same group again from grade 10-12).

Unfortunately, Dr. Eaton concluded her article with these words:

We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process. If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

This conclusion almost had me screaming to her through my computer screen the title of her article:  BUT WHY DO WE HAVE TO MAKE OUR STUDENTS WRITE ESSAYS?  Why do students have to write an essay to “learn about learning”?   Why do students have to write an essay to show what they learned and how they learned it?  Why do students have to write an essay to learn about themselves as students and human beings?  Can they truly prove the relevance between what they’ve learned and the real world through such an inauthentic form of writing?  I don’t think they can.  Or, at least it’s not the only way.  And it doesn’t justify making students write essays.  I strongly believe that every teacher needs to carefully consider what they teach, how they teach it, and how they assess it in order to ensure that school is relevant and meaningful and not a huge waste of time.

*The Alberta High School ELA curriculum, in a very understated manner (through the use of an asterisk, as I’ve utilized here), requires students to create an essay.  Because I love teaching, I will comply with this requirement in the most minimal, yet acceptable manner I can.  As I clearly argue in my post, I do not believe I do my students a diservice by refusing to focus on or inflate the importance of essay writing.  The authentic text creations my students will complete will more than make up for this.  Complying certainly does not mean I agree with the demand.

Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity

Is my blog post title impolitically correct?  I reside in Redneck, Alberta where killing birds is pretty common-place.  You’ll live (Even if the birds don’t!)

I went “old school” today, which is odd for me, as anyone who knows me knows.  I used to push tech; now I’m open to students preferences. But today I forced pen to paper in order to make my point about the need for critical thinking and collaboration in our “learning community.”

I’ve taken to calling my ELA 10 class a community.  The students laugh at me but are slowly beginning to mimic me, even if it’s facetious for now.  I want students to believe that a community of learners will benefit them so much more than a class of students.  My goal for the class from the start of the term has been to build their critical thinking skills (see here), and now I want them to begin on collaboration as a critical thinking strategy.

My lesson today was designed around having students believe that collaborating together can actually benefit them by aiding them in their critical thinking.  For a bit more background into the current assignment, see this post and the end of this post.  Essentially, I want to move away from “essay” writing and replace it with more authentic “proposal” writing.  There are some major similarities, but there are also many significant differences. In order to do this, I am using a real life proposal straight from the desk of President Obama a mere 3 months ago.  The proposal deals with reducing gun violence in order to keep kids and communities safer.  The stated context of the proposal was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting this past December.  My students watched a powerful 15 minute news video produced by ABC to gain the needed context.  We discussed the tragic event, vented our outrage, and they brainstormed a list of 6 proposals individuals or groups might make in light of this event.

Today’s lesson introduced them to the proposal from Obama.  All we focused on for 80 minutes was the ~250 word introduction that contained a fantastic title, 3 paragraphs, a numbered list (the ideas), and a clear statement of purpose (the thesis).  I read the intro to them complete with appropriate emphasis and emotion (stopping to add some humour to the class with a photo to “explain” the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution (We are Canadian, so it’s not common knowledge):

Bear Arms

Then the real learning began.  I slowly and carefully explained (and reexplained then drew a picture to visualize the explanation) what I wanted students to do:

  • Take out 2 blank, lined sheets of paper (What if I use a notebook?  Then tear one out and leave the other in.  Can I use my iPad?  No, this needs to be paper today. Can it have other stuff on it?  No, blank sheets, please.)
  • Today you will be completing a critical thinking activity and should come to understand that asking questions is encouraged rather than criticized.  Hence, I don’t mind your questions at all . . . but they should be thoughtful questions!
  • When I tell you to, you will skim back through the introduction.  As you skim through, think of two questions you would want to ask The President if he was here right now.  Keep in mind these questions should make you sound smart and thoughtful rather than, you know . . . (. . . like we actually are Mr. Groff?  No, no.  You are all smart and thoughtful and you’ll prove it today.)
  • You will write down your two questions on both sheets of paper, at the top, nicely, not all huge and stupid like, like the grade 11’s insist on constantly doing.  (laugh laugh laugh) [but they all got it right].
  • Again, once you have your two questions, you’ll put them both on both sheets of paper. (So both my questions go on both sheets?  Or question one on one sheet and question two on the other?  Both on both.)
  • Here, let me show you.

2 paper example

  • Okay.  Do that now.  [It took a while.  I warned them to keep their work covered and private because if their neighbour has the same questions as them their lives will soon get very difficult.  Students struggled to think critically and come up with two thoughtful/insightful questions to ask The President.  BUT they refused help.  They understood the task and insisted that I do NOT offer them a suggestion.  [Of course, I wandered the room looking over shoulders.] After most had their questions down, on both sheets, I let them get a drink and relax while the others finished.]
  • Now, listen carefully.  When I say “go” I want you to pass ONE of your sheets to the person on your left. [They are in a semi-circle, all community-like.] (Which way is left? That way [picture me pointing left].  Which sheet?  I don’t care, choose one.  Maybe the neatest one. If you have one in your notebook, pass it and keep the loose page.  But then people will look through my notebook.  I want to pass the other one. No you don’t.  Trust me.  And they won’t have time to look through your notebook.  Do I need to put my name on it?  No, you don’t.  What?  Just trust me.
  • When I say “go” I want you to pass one sheet to the left, the neatest, or the one in your notebook.  Left.  That way. [picture me pointing left . . . again.]
  • Then, read the two questions on the page you get.  So Jimmy is going to get up and take his paper across the gap in our circle (I have to get up?  Fine, I’ll take your sheet over) and he’ll get a sheet from Sarah.  Jimmy is going to read Sarah’s two questions.  Then he’s going to reread his own two questions–the ones on the extra sheet of paper he kept (Oh, that’s why we wrote it out twice.  Yes.  Wow! You really thought of everything.  Yes. Yes, I did.)  Then he’s going to determine whether Sarah’s questions are different than his, or the same.  If they are different, he’s going to write his two questions out on Sarah’s paper.  He’s. Going. To. Write. HIS. Questions. On. HER. Paper.  IF, they are different.  (What if they are the same?  [Ignore and continue]) If Sarah has one, or both questions the same as Jimmy’s then Jimmy gets to think up one or two more questions to add to Sarah’s sheet. (Oh, no.  It took me forever to think up the first two.  This is why I told you not to copy your neighbour’s questions.  I didn’t.  Then likely you’ll be okay.)  When you’re done, do nothing.  Sit back and relax.
  • Ready? (Yes) Any more questions? (No)  Gopher! [students begin to pass papers until some laugh and chide their friends because I didn’t actually say “Go.”  [They get their papers back] Goal! [same] Goat! [groans and no movement] Go!!! [And they do.]
  • [Sit back and watch the work happen.  Critical thinking and collaboration everywhere.  First they thought critically about the introduction of the proposal, getting to know it better without realizing it. [Not the real point at all.  I couldn’t care less how well they understand this text–but understanding will happen regardless]  Then, they are considering whether or not their neighbour’s questions are the same as theirs. (Mr. Groff, I think this question is the same, but one of the words is different.  Let’s take a look, but I bet you’ll be writing a new question.  Oh, nope, okay.  The word that is different actually changes the meaning of the question.  “Reduce” and “Eliminate” are not the same.) [A couple more close calls happen but in every circumstance the questions are slightly different in their meaning.  Stop the class and mention that they are now understanding the importance of word choices.  It is critical that you use the best word to get your message across accurately.  [unintended learning] Write a draft, then go back and rethink your word choices.  You often won’t be there to explain that you meant one thing but mistakenly wrote another.]
  • Now, pass the paper you received to the left again.  Keep yours, but pass the one that isn’t yours.  (Why don’t you just say “get ours back again?”  Because Rick, you need to learn your left from your right.  You don’t want yours back. [this one didn’t really happen, thank goodness!]
  • Repeat what you just did.  Read the four questions on the page you just got, the last two should be the same two you just read but not necessarily if your neighbour had to write a new question.  If any of the questions are the same as yours, you need to write a new question.  If all four are different from your two, add your two to the list to make six questions.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat
  • [Before the end of class, have students collect their original paper, which now has 10 or more questions on it.  They will know which is theirs because the first two questions on it will be the two questions they have on the other sheet in front of them.]
  • So, how many of you had to write new questions at some point. [Very few hands]  Isn’t it interesting how you struggled to come up with two questions from a 250 word introduction, yet most of you came up with different questions?  Were any of the questions terrible? [No, they weren’t.  They were all acceptable questions, many were thoughtful, and a few were insightful.]  Sharing your work with others, and getting to see theirs, can truly help you see a text or a situation from a different perspective.
  • As you walk out the door today, you’re going to throw one of your sheets in the recycling bin.  I don’t care which one.  That choice is yours. [Stand by door and recycling bin and watch students throw out the sheet with only two questions on it.  Nod in agreement and save their rationale for tomorrow’s class.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(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”