6 Weeks Done- Progressing Toward the Standards

With 6 weeks in the can, I think there are some very good things going on in my class. I feel like I have a new focus on teaching and that it is affecting the kids in a good way. There is hope in my classroom. It feels very different than what I remember.

In the past, I can remember inputing grades for kids who were trying to make up for their mistakes, trying to bring their grades up. But, because of “zeroes” for missing assignments and the “late penalties” taking off points, their grades would slowly push upward. They would be turning in work, maybe for the first time in weeks, proud that they had turned over a new leaf and made a change. Surely this was going to be okay. However, with a grade hovering around 30%, and assignments worth only 50% after I took off points for being late, it just wasn’t enough. That “F” wasn’t going anywhere.

And, my heart would sink as the light went out of their eyes. There was no hope. No point in trying. Why bother doing work if you can never get your grade back up? I would try to console them with words I knew were empty, trying to tell them that they should just keep trying.

But, that is not today. Today, students turn in those essays two weeks late and I grade them based on what the essay represents. I grade them according to their progress toward the standard. I input the grades at full strength, no penalty for lateness. The “F” becomes a “D+” and then, when they turn in the week late paragraph the grade becomes a “C-“. One girl even turned in the essay and, because it was a very well done essay, she went from failing to a “B-” in one fell swoop.

Some would cry “foul” at this, I know. “How can you justify that? They did nothing for weeks and now they’re passing? It’s not fair! That’s not how the real world works! In the real world, they would be fired!”

I realize I have written about this before, so pardon me if you’ve heard this. But, maybe someone is new to the party.

I’m okay with this because 1) my classroom is not the “real world,” and 2) it’s not my job to teach responsibility; it’s my job to teach Language Arts.

This is the focus I’m talking about. For the first time, I feel very clear about what I’m doing in the classroom. I have a “primary purpose” or “vision statement” against which I can test my decisions and see if my actions are consistent. The primary purpose is to help students become proficient in the skills that are described by the standards. And, the grades are not rewards. They are measurements that indicate the level of progress that the student has made toward that proficiency. That’s why I can’t take points off for lateness. Unless the standard says that the student will complete their work in a timely manner, I can’t measure their responsibility with an academic grade.

But, here’s the super-cool thing that I didn’t realize would happen. The kids get it. When they are sitting at my desk and we are looking at the standard and their work and I tell them the grade, they don’t protest. They might be disappointed, but I will often say something like, “Your work is okay, but it has some errors. Do you see that?” Affirmative answer from student. “I think you are ‘getting’ the standard but in a basic way. You still seem confused about the skill. Do you agree?” They have all agreed, often with a sheepish smile. Or, in one case, a look of relief. Why relief? I didn’t call her stupid and she knew that I knew she was struggling. I told her, “I see you’re struggling with this and I’m glad.” She looked at me quizzically. “I mean that you are fighting to understand this skill and learn it. I appreciate that.” And she smiled.

But, my favorite look from the students is that intense, thoughtful look they have when walking away, marshaling their intellectual resources to LEARN and do better next time. Why? Because I allow them unlimited attempts at demonstrating better proficiency.

A couple things I have learned. Some kids are fine with basic proficiency (a “C”). I mention this because some teachers worried that if kids could reassess over and over that they would simply just do it until they had an “A” in the class. To which I replied, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Um, wouldn’t you love a student to keep trying over and over to learn something until they exhibited advanced mastery? Good lord! I would dig that!!! But, the reality is that some kids are pretty happy to get that “C” and move on.

Another thing I learned, just today actually, is that some students don’t want to reassess because they are afraid of losing a better grade. Generally, I won’t lower a grade. I might if the newly produced evidence showed a marked and significant deterioration in the level of mastery. But, so far, I haven’t had that happen. I’ve seen a variation of a + or – on the grade. But, not a full grade, or more, difference. A girl in my class today told me that she didn’t want to rewrite her essay and make her grade worse. But, when I told her that I wouldn’t lower her grade, her face lit up. “I’ll think about it, then!” Nice. A kid is going to voluntarily rewrite their essay to try to get better at writing. Love it!

What about punishment? Well, I have been making calls home and using Teleparent to let parents know that their student is not doing their work. And, I have been issuing detentions to anyone missing work and getting less than a “C-” in the class. Early this week, that was about 75 to 100 kids. Nearly 20 per period. But, today, I counted 40. Much better. I’m not happy with it and those kids will get more detentions Monday and fresh calls home. But, I am spending my lunches in my class with kids on detention and about an hour and half after school doing the same. Instead of just sitting there for an hour (did I mention that these detentions are an hour?), they are doing their class work. If they start to complain I say, “You don’t want to do your work during class so you can come in and do it on your own time.” They clam right up. No more arguing. Because it’s fair and they know it.

That’s the thing about this year that’s way different. Teenagers love to complain. I think sometimes it keeps their lungs filled with air. But, there is very little complaining going on. I think it’s because they have so many choices and because they know that my actions are consistent with the goal of them learning. They see that I’m being fair and consistent. There are a few who are being straight-up defiant. I am keeping track and I will get to them when I have whittled down the numbers of kids doing poorly a little more.

The other thing I really like is that I know, positively, that my classroom has rigorous work going on. The standards that we are focusing on are high on Bloom’s Taxonomy. We are working on analyzing and evaluating. For example, the current standard says that students will be able to read a work of American Literature and evaluate the influence of culture, politics, philosophy, social, or ethical ideas that affected the plot, characters or setting. So, students are reading and making graphic organizers (T-charts), noting any details they find that indicate something about the way people thought, lived, or behaved during those times. Then, they try to explain what it means about the people or the time period. It’s a tough standard. Some are getting it, but many are not. Not yet and not entirely. But, they are working on it.

A colleague today told me that some of her students are mine as well and they complain to her about my class being hard and getting detentions for not doing their work. But, they aren’t complaining to me. This makes me smile. I want to have a hard class with happy kids in it. When kids like you AND say your class is hard, that’s when you’re doing a good job. I get nervous when kids say they like me or say I’m their favorite or a “cool” teacher. Why? Because sometimes they say that about teachers that let them get away stuff or don’t challenge them. A “cool” teacher lets them chill. Kids may be “chilling” in my class sometimes, I won’t lie. But, they are paying for it, too, or soon will be. I nag and guilt trip them. But, I don’t just let them chill. If they ask to go to the bathroom I decline and say the restroom is for kids who work. That makes me LOL. So, I don’t think those kids like my class because it’s chill or that I’m “cool” for letting the get away with stuff. Kids are not passing this class without doing work. And, they are not failing without a fight from me.

So, today, mostly, I feel like I’m doing a good job. I feel like I’m progressing toward the standards, too.

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