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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I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

Okay, MAYBE I have the solution to education’s problems.  More likely I’m just going to open up a big debate and more problems.  If you haven’t been to my blog before, please scroll to the bottom and read my disclaimer.  I think I may need it for this post.  (I saw a question on Twitter the other day questioning whether or not those disclaimers are still necessary:  I’m thinking they are.)

I spent about 2 hours this evening talking to my principal about education:  where we are headed as a school, a district, a system overall.  I appreciate my principal’s willingness and encouragement to have these conversations with me, and this one was quite accidental. (It took place in our school hallway after she came in because myself and a colleague each locked our keys in the room we were working in.)  Near the end of the conversation she commented, off-handedly, that we pretty much covered the entirety of education and had begun over again.  That was our informal cue for closing arguments, and when we finally wrapped up we noticed two hours had flown by.  It wasn’t until my short walk home from the school that I thought a bit more about that off-hand remark.  We really had talked our way around a lot of issues.  Yet, we kept coming back to just a couple main points.  I truly value these types of conversations, with her and with others, not because they are necessarily accurate representations of what we each truly believe (because speaking in off-the-cuff conversations often don’t allow for deeply considered remarks), but because of the thoughts they inspire afterwards.  So please, leave some comments and help me consider new perspectives.

This post is about one of those thoughts I had on my way home. I was playing back some of the comments I made to see where I truly stand.  I thought about some of the challenges to my perspectives.  I stood for a bit on my porch to considered the points I conceded to the other side.  One point I kept coming back to was the idea of differentiation.  At one point my principal commented something along the lines of “but that’s just my experience.”  Several times through the conversation I recall thinking that about my own experiences and trying to keep an open mind.  But that comment struck me as important.  That’s just me.  That’s just me.  That’s just me. 

THIS IS NOT A RESPONSE TO MY PRINCIPAL.  THIS IS A DEEPER REFLECTION THAT GOES BEYOND THE OPINIONS WE SHARED WITH EACH OTHER. THE STATEMENTS I SEEM TO VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE WITH DID NOT COME FROM HER.

What if the answer to all of education’s problems lies solely with students?  I don’t just mean students as an overall group of participants in the grand scheme of education.  And I don’t mean one set of students, at one point in time, in one place.  I mean, what if every single student provided the answer to education’s problems in a way that resonated with her and himself?  Of course, that means the answer may change even for that student from year to year (or more frequently) and by subject to subject and from teacher to teacher.  But what if every single aspect of a child’s education was focused on what was best for that child?  Not a group of children who happened to be born into the same age-cohort and reside in the same geographical location.  Not statistics who live in the same province or country.  Not peers who are part of generation x or y or whatever letter of the alphabet we may generalize them into next.  What would happen if we gave education back to those it actually affects?

Some benefits to giving education to the students: 

  • Students could learn in a style that best suits their needs:  tests, right/wrong answers, m/c, project-based learning, authentic learning tasks, etc.  
  • Students could receive the type of feedback they want:  grades, rubrics, written feedback, oral discussions, etc.
  • Students could seek motivation to learn in the manner they prefer:  grades, awards, rankings, scholarships, competition, proud moments of success, the satisfaction of perseverance despite no external rewards, teamwork, sheer thrill of learning.
  • Students could study the content areas they are interested in: math, science, English, social studies, physical education, drama, dance, art, computer programming, health, foods, music, hunting, race car driving, etc. (This list could go on forever.)
  • Students could learn at the rate they wanted/needed:  outcome by outcome learning, life-long learning, fully comprehending the content because there is no one to belittle them by telling them a “normal” student would have been done by now.

Some of the criticism to giving education to students:

Kids don’t know what’s best for themselves.

To some degree, I understand this argument.  I have my own kids.  Do I let them do whatever they want?  No, of course not.  Their desire for immediate gratification and lack of awareness of consequences comes without thought to their own safety or well-being.  But is all of this childhood innocence or am I partially to blame for not letting my children make their own mistakes and face the consequences?  Is our incessant need to caudal children stifling their true capabilities.  I’m not talking about asking children to grow up too fast and make wise decisions.  In fact, I might be saying the opposite; a child’s desire to play should not be frowned upon because they have homework to do.  I believe children are capable of so much more and of being so much wiser than we give them credit for.

Kids don’t know what they need for their future.

Again, I’d have to agree with this to some lengths.  What happens if a child attempts math at a “grade 3 level (when it starts to get hard), hates it, and wants to quit?  It’s a valid concern.  To what extent will children need this knowledge later in life?  My rebuttal is this:  A student will only get so far in the study of what they want before realizing they need other knowledge in other areas to progress further.  At that point, the child who may dislike a certain subject will realize they need it to be happy.  This need will provide the motivation to acquire the knowledge they need.  If that point never comes, then what harm is it really to the child/adult to have never learned that particular content?

Kids won’t receive a well-rounded education.

In the grand scheme of things, who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?  There is so much I don’t know, about so many topics, that I can’t even begin to fathom what it is I don’t know.  Yet I am living the life I want to live.  It’s just plain wrong to tell someone that if they’ve never read “this classic” then they haven’t truly lived.  I’m not going to go on and on about all the different things we have the audacity to judge other people for not having done, or for not knowing.  People know what they need to know to have the life they want.  And if we fix our education system to provide ongoing learning opportunities no matter what age an individual is, then I don’t see why everyone needs the same shape of education.

Final thoughts

I know I’m sounding a little naive right now.  I do know there are many many more concerns with handing education over to the students, and none of the concerns, even the ones I addressed above are easy to solve.  But I also know there are far more benefits than those listed above.  And those benefits are also farther reaching than I’ve done justice to.  I don’t know exactly what the answer to education’s problems are, but I have a gut feeling that it must lay in the fact that we are all individuals.  Education has begun to emphasize differentiated learning and I think this is a step in the right direction, but this needs to apply to every student in our classrooms, not just those who excel and those who struggle.  It also needs to go that extra step to give students a voice in their own education.  Teachers can’t keep doing “things” because those things are easiest for them.  We can’t even keep doing things because the standardized tests say “these things” are working–who are they working for? (governments, universities, teachers, society’s expectations?)  We need to do the things that will allow success for every student in our classroom, as success is defined by each individual student in our classroom.  After all, isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place?

***I know the blurb at the bottom says I’d love to hear your feedback and opinions, but I wanted to personally challenge you to leave a comment.  If you’ve made it this far, you must have something to say.  A question, a challenge, a disagreement to voice, an Amen!  You’re thinking something right now, and I truly would love to know what it is.***

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.

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.

Validation

I’m not typically one of those people who needs to be validated by others in order to feel confident in who I am and what I’m doing; however, over the past couple weeks, I’ll admit to being a little downhearted.  I don’t know about you, but I get like that sometimes.  My marking begins to collect faster than I can get it back to students; I get bogged down in the paperwork; I put too much stock in the politics and standardized tests; I get depressed that the technology I want is inaccessible; I lose sight of the reason I wanted to teach in the first place–to make a difference in the lives of my students–and focus on all the reasons why I feel I can’t make a difference.  These dark times don’t often last very long, and all it takes is a day like today to snap me out of my funk and remind me that teachers really do make a difference in the lives of their students.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly share my day with you. I began the day at Sexsmith Secondary School in Alberta.  As part of my ELA coaching position, I was asked to judge the school’s first poetry recitation competition.  There were two levels, one for jr high and one for sr high.  I was blown away.  Memorization isn’t something I’ve required of my students before, though I offer it as an option in a couple of units.  Watching these students today was inspiring and made me want to push my own students out of their comfort zone a bit.  It was easy to see that the teachers at SSS are pushing their kids and the kids are thriving.  It was validating for me to see that other teachers are continuing to sail out of the harbour and take some risks, and their kids are right out there beside them.

Next up was my own ELA 10-1 and 10-2 combined class.  I didn’t know if I’d make it back for the beginning of this class after the poetry competition, so I lined up another teacher to cover my class during her prep.  (That cooperation was validation of its own–I love my school, colleagues, and students!)  However, I did make it back in time, only to have this teacher offer to sit in with my class anyways.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and set aside my plans for the day in order to talk one-on-one with each of my students.  It was a great experience.  I let the students know upfront that the conversation was not because I had any particular issues to discuss, but rather that I wanted to give them each a private forum to voice their concerns and opinions about the course so far.  These conversations reminded me that each of my students is an individual:  I had varying comments on different issues, ranging across the spectrum of possibilities.  For instance, workload was a hot topic for some, feeling that I expected too much, while others were content with the expectations, and some felt like they could certainly handle more.  This was a great reminder of one of my goals for this term, which was to bring a deeper individualization to my courses.  It was also validating to hear that my students were unanimously appreciating the “book club” feel that I am attempting to bring to the course, where we are much more conversation oriented as we study texts.  They enjoy the critical thinking inherent in this framework, and many of the students mentioned they were much more engage despite harbouring a distinct disliking of ELA in general.  It also deeply moved me that each student willingly shared their ideas and opinions with me, something I was a little wary about when I decided to hijack these 84 minutes today.  (By the way, when they weren’t talking with me, students appreciated the time to work on a couple of the tasks we have on the go.)

Finally, I had my junior high drama option for the last two periods of the day.  I’ve decided to take a different approach to this course this year, bringing a “short film” focus to the term.  I’ve done this for a variety of reasons and have heard a variety of opinions from students and parents about the decision to do so.  But this isn’t the point.  Suffice it to say, the goal is that each student will create a short film on a topic of their choice, in a genre of their choice, by the end of the term, and we will present these in our own film festival.  Over the past couple of classes students have been creating the plot and point of their short film.  Last class we began to peer review the stories they’ve written.  Today I wanted to introduce them to the notion of critique.  We talked about the differences between critique and criticize.  We talked about the life applications of learning how to provide critique to others, as well as accept the critique of others.  I began the critiquing session by sharing my own ideas for my own short film.  And the students amazed me.  They asked smart questions for clarification, mentioned positives in my ideas, but more importantly they offered polite suggestions for how I might go about improving my idea.  It was validating to hear them interacting as I had hoped, but feared to expect.  This continued beautifully through student volunteers who shared their project ideas with the class, faltering only slightly as a grade 7 boy decided to persistently question his older sister.  All in all it was a great end to a great day.

Sometimes we teachers can get so caught up in all the responsibilities of teaching that we forget our number one priority needs to be our students.  Luckily, we can’t ever escape these same students, and it won’t be long before they  remind us that we do make a difference in their lives.  At that point it’s up to us to decide whether we will have a negative or a positive difference.  That’s certainly an easy decision to make; we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we weren’t always striving to better the lives of the kids we love.