Category Archives: Teaching

Things related to the practice and experience of teaching and being a teacher. More personal than the “Education” category.

Is This Trip Really Necessary? – Back to School Night

I grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons. One bit I always loved was when Bugs Bunny was in a plane, nose-diving to the ground, and he’s screaming and trying to get the plane to pull up. He’s hauling back on the stick, punching buttons, all to no avail. Suddenly, a little sign pops up, “Is this trip really necessary?”

It always cracked me up. And, that thought popped into my head tonight. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have fun at Back to School Night. I love meeting the parents and getting to show off the class. But, why are we still doing this?

Back to School Night at an elementary school is straight up, tripping hard, psychotic nightmares of parents totally into the whole thing. If you go to B2SN at an elementary school, you better get there early or you will park a half mile away. And, wear comfortable clothes because it will be crowded and hot. And, don’t go if you can’t deal with crowds.

But, B2SN at a high school, that’s a much more laid back affair. You can totally show up late. You’ll still get a good seat and parking spot. Don’t worry. At this point, high school parents barely care. They’re like, “Hey, my kid’s been in school for ten years. We got this. Handle your business, teach. It’s all good.”

So, why do we still hold a traditional B2SN? I agree with having an opportunity to meet the parents but it seems like it’s time for a new format.

Anyway, before I go to sleep here, I have to say I totally enjoyed yapping with the parents and telling them about my classes. One more time, as I described what I do, how I do it, and my philosophy of teaching I got those looks back of, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense!”

Speaking of, this is the second day of truly turning the kids loose on the learning and letting them choose. I think it might be working. Now, granted, there are a few kids making poor choices and wasting time. But, there are also kids choosing to work and learn. My favorite story today came in 6th period. I have student, let’s call him Bob (for you, NG), and Bob has shown up tardy three times. And when he does he just slinks to the back of the room. So, I’ve mentioned a couple times to him that he needs to show up on time. But, I know this kid already, in a way. He’s failed before and he just knows he’s going to fail my class too. And, he doesn’t care. Or thinks he doesn’t.

So, today, he was tardy again. I got the class working and headed over to see what he was working on. He quickly slid his paper under his notebook but not before I saw that he was diligently crafting his name in tagging script. Sigh. So, I said to Bob that this was not going to work. I told him he need to show up on time and he needed to work. I pointed out to him that he may choose to blow off the work but that I, as a teacher, would hassle and annoy him until it was just easier to do the work.

I said to him, how about we avoid all of that unpleasantness and he do some work instead? I asked him if he needed any help and he said he didn’t. But, I knew that wasn’t true. So, I told him just think about it and I would check back.

I know that if I come at him and get crazy that he will have no choice but to get crazy, too. And, I will lose him, if not for good, then for a long time. So, I’m laying back a little. I want to win him for the year, not the day.

About ten minutes later, I can see he was doing actual work. So, I cruised back again and checked. This time, he had a question. So, we talked about the work. Then, I moved off again. Later, I came back and he showed me a couple sentences he’d written.

I know, a couple sentence, right? Hold me back! But, you know what? I think he was testing me. I think he wanted to see if I would ridicule him or make him feel dumb. I didn’t. I took it seriously and gave him some feed back. And, he took it and went back to work. As he left, I called his name and he looked over and I said, “Thank you,” and he nodded.

It’s only one day. But, today I won him. Today, student directed learning won. He chose to learn. We still have many days to go and Bob will probably have some bad days, too. But, not today.

Yesssss!

Days Four and Five

I am really enjoying my classes. It’s funny because I already feel as if I’m behind. But, we’re okay. See, since I’m really focusing on being standards based, I felt like the kids really needed to understand the standards, at least the major ones, that they’re being graded on. I chose five to use, for now. I may add others. But, those are the biggies. I think my heart’s in the right place, but I think I could have just boiled the standards down into kid friendly language and moved on. Which, I think I will do next time, incidentally. I feel like I just spent too long breaking the standards down with them. For example:

Reading 1.3: “Discern the meaning of analogies encountered analyzing specific comparisons as well as the relationships and inferences.”

We first looked at the standard as written. I want them to learn to decipher academic language. So, we talk about what discern means, and what it means to analyze. What specific looks like and what inferences are. Then, we rewrite the standard thusly:

“Find and identify the meaning of analogies we find in written text while reading, explaining the specific comparisons as well as the relationships between the two things in the comparison and the meanings we can get from them being compared to each other.”

It’s a dense standard. What can I say?

So, were I to boil that down, I guess I would say, “Okay, kids, you have to be able to identify an analogy when you read it, explain exactly what is being compared and then how those two things are related and what the comparison tells you.”

Is that better? Probably. Now, I could have just done that in the beginning and moved on. But, then they wouldn’t learn to figure out what standards mean on their own. Then again, that’s not one of the standards. So, that’s why I’m thinking maybe I’m wasting time going that deeply.

Anyway, tomorrow, we will be reading through the text and beginning to analyze it. On Friday we had a good time because we looked at commercials and tried to identify the rhetorical devices being used. The unit is focussing on Aristotle’s ideas of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. I showed the commercials on the screen and the kids all had little signs to hold up that said one of the three devices on them. When they thought they knew which device was dominant, they would hold up the sign. It was a little formative assessment for me. It worked. They enjoyed themselves, got practice identifying rhetoric, and I got to see that about half of the class gets it pretty good.

We also got to talk about how you have to explain the device and how it’s being used. The standard says that the student has to be able identify the rhetorical device being used and how the author uses it. So, they can’t just say that the author is using pathos. They have to say how the pathos is achieved and what effect it should be having on the audience, or at least what the author seems to have intended.

So, that was cool.

Honeymoon Period

I mentioned to My Sun and Stars how the kids have been well behaved and things were going smoothly. She said it was the honeymoon period and I should enjoy it. Well. Okay.

But, it has been good. We have, as a class, looked closely at the five standards for this first unit and I translated the academic language into more kid friendly language with them. I think this is important because they need to get used to seeing academic language that says things like, “Discern the meaning of analogies encountered, analyzing the specific comparisons as well as relationships and inferences.” Not only do they get to build some vocabulary, but they also learn a good test-taking skill in breaking instructions like this apart.

This is an important step, I think, because the kids now know what we are working toward in this unit. For them to take ownership of their learning, I think they need to know what their specific objectives are. We also began talking about rhetoric.

Good times.

I always enjoy the first week or two of school where you mark two kids per period absent for two weeks straight until they are finally dropped from your roll. Meanwhile, one of the students tells you, each day, “She doesn’t go here. She moved.” Too bad the attendance office can’t take her word for it.

Day One is Done

It was a good day. I stood at my door during passing periods. I greeted each student, albeit with “Last name?” more often than not. Honestly, high school is its own beast and not everything Harry Wong says carries over exactly. I just couldn’t bring myself to welcome every student by name with a handshake and all of that. But, I think that tone of voice can carry a lot.

I numbered my seats so I could just tell a kid which number seat to sit in and that worked very well. I told them, generally about how the class will work. So interesting. When I tell some teachers about this I might get alarmed looks, quizzical stares, and even a couple outraged glares. But, kids? They smiled, they nodded, they shared looks with each other that said, “This sounds good!”. I heard a few things like:

“Amen!”

“Why don’t other teachers do this?”

“I got behind in my work last year and I never could bring my grade back up.”

“That makes a lot of sense.”

I think they got it. Not a single kid said that a “no zeroes” policy was bad. When I pointed out that my classroom was NOT the real world and I was not hired to teach them responsibility, one kid said, “Thank you!”

Now, I have taught high school for ten years. Teens are notorious con artists. But, they also often possess a keen sense of justice. I have many times trusted students with responsibility and “put the ball in their court”, frequently to be rewarded with kids rising to the occasion. I am not naive. I know that this could go wrong. I know they will try to game the system.

But, I saw something as I looked into their eyes today. I looked at kids that understood that I was there to teach, not torture, them. They understood that my goal was their learning first and foremost. Why? Because every thing I told them about my policies was consistent. I said we would focus on standards and proved it by showing there were no assignments in my gradebook, only standards. I told them they could reasses to show greater mastery and the fear drained away.

I looked at their grades. I would say that three quarters of them failed at least one full year of high school Language Arts.

Seventy-five percent!

I saw kids that had hope. Not hope to get a passing grade. They had hope that they could learn. See, I got some “F’s” in high school. Its demoralizing. My math teacher called me, and many others in the class, a “dumb bunny.” But, when you’re failing the class, that name feels like truth. This year, I will teach them Language Arts. This year, I will teach them reading, writing, and thinking. But most of all, this year I will teach them that they are not dumb bunnies.

Is Rigor Really Too Tough To Understand?

Obviously, my rhetorical question makes clear that I think it is not. I got into a conversation via Twitter with a fellow teacher about rigor. She had said that she prefers “vigor” in the classroom to “rigor.” Reasons given were that “rigor” was just an academic buzzword, that it is meaningless and and that it implies stiffness.

I disagree with this. I think rigor is quite easy to define and understand as well as identify. Here is a blog post about rigor and an AP Class that I think perfectly illustrates what rigor looks like. Having kids in an AP class read current event articles and then summarize them is not rigorous, at least not in and of itself. But, herein lies the difficulty with rigor for some people. If you have a group of students who had very low reading comprehension skills then this would be a very rigorous activity. I can think of some students for whom this would be extremely challenging. We would need to work on identifying the main point and how to put the important details in the summary without getting bogged down with less important details.

So, rigor varies by student. Here is another blog post, by the same author as previous link, which further clarifies. I think that one reason some teachers (not all, certainly) don’t like talking about rigor is because it isn’t a very concrete idea. It shifts and it requires you to think about the student and the content and it requires you to differentiate. A lot of teachers want to say, “Okay, so this activity is rigorous? Good, we’ll do this then.”

An administrator at my school recently said, “Rigor is built into the standards. If you’re teaching to the standards then you don’t need to worry about rigor.” I agree with this, generally speaking. However, I was dismayed to hear many teachers in my department say that they disagreed. There might be some standards that are less rigorous than others, but, in general, the standards that I see connected to my lessons are pretty rigorous. Example, Reading 2.6 “Critique the power, validity, and truthfulness of arguments set forth in public documents; their appeal to both friendly and hostile audiences; and the extent to which the arguments anticipate and address reader concerns and counterclaims (e.g., appeal to reason, to authority, to pathos and emotion).” This is a tough standard! I know that I will need to walk many, if not all, of my students through it many times to get them to approach it. Some will get it more quickly than others, I suppose. But, in general, I believe that if I am working to get students to critique arguements and break down the ways that the author makes that argument then it’s pretty certain I have a rigorous classroom.

Another way to look at rigor is through Bloom’s Taxonomy. In general, if you have students engaged in analysis, synthesis, or evaluation then I believe that they are working in a rigorous environment.

So, my Twitter friend said that she preferred vigor to rigor. I think that it should be vigor AND rigor. I don’t agree with setting them up as opposites or casting rigor in a negative light. She said that rigor is an academic buzzword and meaningless. It may be a buzzword, but that doesn’t make it bad. And, it is most certainly not meaningless.

One lesson I usually give to any of my English classes involves denotative and connotative meanings of words. Denotation is the literal meaning of the word. A snake is a legless reptile. Connotation is the figurative meaning of the word. A snake is someone you can’t trust, likely a thief for con artist. So, if I say, “Watch out! There’s a snake in the living room!” then some confusion is generated. Am I saying there is a dangerous reptile or a dangerous human?

In terms of rigor, it’s true that it means inflexible, harsh, stiff. That’s the denotation of the word. And, admittedly, this is not a term I want describing any of my teaching, lessons, or classroom. However, the connotation of rigor in an academic sense is different. Rigor can also mean demanding, challenging, and difficult. Navy SEALS engage in a rigorous six week training program that usually results in many people quitting or failing out of it. The path to the summit of the mountain was rigorous for everyone in the expedition and nearly killed a few of them. I submitted the candidate to a rigorous series of questions during that interview because I just had to be sure she was the right choice. In those sentences, it is the connotation of rigor as something that is challenging and tough. People are pushed to their limits by rigor, usually. Rigor will defeat you, sometimes.

For a few years, I was an avid cyclist and mountain biker. I loved mountain biking, especially. But, it is a very challenging hobby. Mountain bikers have to use much more of their body to stay upright. The core and arm muscles are used to navigate the bike over obstacles and stay balanced much more than on a road bike. In addition, you have to possess a lot of power in your legs to get uphill. Sometimes only momentum will carry you over the top of an incline. Losing momentum means you fall over or your back tire loses traction. So, you have be able to sustain climbing power for a long stretch of time and even be able to push out maximum effort over short distances. Off road trails can be unforgiving and very dangerous. The penalty for falling can be a long drop or an intimate encounter with sharp plants or rocks.

My point is that this is a rigorous activity. I had to train and exercise a lot to be able to endure some trails we went on. In my opinion, mountain biking is so rigorous that every mile on dirt equals roughly three on the road. In other words, a 10 mile mountain bike ride requires the amount of energy it takes to ride 30 miles on the road. The only people that disagree with this, I have found, are non-mountain bikers.

This does not mean that road biking is not rigorous! It is just a different kind of rigor. Biking on a flat road is not very rigorous, but it might be for a new rider. Going up one hilly street is rigorous, but for some people, it will barely get their heart rate over 100 bpm. It all depends on the ability of the rider.

So, back to the classroom. Rigor varies by student. And, I believe that another reason a few teachers dislike talking about rigor is because it requires work on the part of the teacher. You need to assess the students, determine their level, evaluate the lesson and determine if it is appropriately rigorous for the learner. I wouldn’t take a beginning mountain biker on a 10 mile dirt trail of steep single track switchbacks! So, I would have to find out how much experience the rider has, think about the trails and choose an appropriate one for us to ride. For teachers, a few of them want to have a single lesson that all students engage in that can be graded all the same way. But, it rarely would work out that way if you wanted to make sure that all students were engaged in rigorous study.

So, I think that rigor, for some people, is confusing and vague. But, it has to be since rigor changes depending on the person. But, for others, rigor is too much work. I think this applies to maybe 1 in 10 teachers, possibly 2 in 10. But, in any case, they are there. Combine these two groups, though, and I’m guessing you’re looking at anywhere from 5 to 7 in 10 teachers.

I think, further, that we all would agree that our lessons should challenge students. A good lesson makes a student think, not just recall. Reproducing dates, definitions, and so on, is not rigorous. Thinking about the dates and definitions probably is. A good lesson makes students use information to create new information. It forces them to use what they have learned and acquire a skill. I think every teacher wants their lessons to make their students grow and change. This is my definition of rigor: a lesson that challenges students to think new thoughts that cause them to acquire new skills and become better, more capable people. To evaluate a lesson for rigor, see if it does this. Will they have a new skill after the lesson? Or, at least, should they have a new skill? Will the lesson change them? Will it force them to do things they haven’t done before?

Put another way, consider video games. Some video games are very rigorous. I played a game called “Demon’s Souls” a lot last year. In one sense, it was simply difficult because, if you died, you lost any points you had accumulated. The points could be turned into new abilities. So, this was, sometimes, very frustrating. Also, all the monsters you killed came back to life and you were returned to the start of the level. Very, very frustrating. But, the rigor came in because you could avoid being killed if you played carefully. I recall that every single time I died, I thought, “Oops, yeah, I shouldn’t have done that. I deserved to die.” If I played carefully and intelligently, if I learned the moves of the enemies and remembered the layout of the level, I could get through. If I learned to use my abilities and moves well, I could dominate. However, I was playing several other games this year. They were not as rigorous. One reason was because death really didn’t matter in the game. You didn’t lose points, equipment, money, nothing. Heck, sometimes you even started basically where you died. I didn’t have to think about my strategy. I could just wade into conflict and see what happened. Die? Start again. No worries.

Rigor makes you think. Rigor makes you plan. Rigor makes you learn and grow. Is that really tough to understand?

Thoughts on First Days of School

If you’re a teacher then you probably know the book The First Days of School by Harry Wong. For some, it is a tradition to read it before each school year. This is the first year I have done it, though, and I’m glad I am. I skimmed/read the first 100 pages today. It’s cool because there’s a lot I do right and, the stuff I don’t do, or forgot, I can start.

First, I am resolved that I will always wear, at least, a pair of non-casual shoes. I can’t say dress shoes because right now I’m into my Dr. Marten’s boots. But, those look nice. Also, I will at least wear a polo or button-down shirt. I can’t see myself going to the tie. I think that, with teens, you can dress too formally and it puts a barrier up. I want to stick with business casual. It makes a difference. I don’t mean to be hurtful, but when I see teachers wearing totally casual clothes ALL the time, I just lose some respect for them. There are times to wear t-shirts, for example. Last year, I wore a t-shirt almost every day. But, I was the ASB Advisor. I was wearing school shirts for spirit, not my shirt I got on vacation last year. At very least, teachers should wear clean clothes in good repair.

I also am thinking a lot about my expectations for students. And for myself. I am very cognizant of the fact that I haven’t had a full slate of regular classes like this in four years. Don’t get me wrong, I can handle it. But, I don’t want that. I want to be great. I want every one of my kids to learn. I want every one of them to enjoy the class, to be inspired to think and communicate their thoughts. I want them to consider something new. I want to believe that I can do this even when they don’t, when they give up and when they fight back.

I know they will, too, many of my kids will come from homes that are less than ideal. Some will have absent parents. Some will have parents at home who ignore them. Some will have parents they they wish would leave them alone (and not in that teen drama way). Some will come to school having missed breakfast, and some will have missed dinner as well. Some won’t have a computer or Internet at home. Some will have had to work after school and into the night to help the family make rent. Some will be facing eviction. Some will be wondering if Dad will ever get a job again. Some will be in gangs. Some will act like they’re in gangs. Some will desperately need attention and some won’t know how to deal with me because their Dad left years ago.

So, I’m not naive. I know that chances are, many of my students will struggle. But, I hope fervently that the plans I have made for running classes will work. If it does, it means my kids will focus on learning. It will mean that they will choose to learn because they want to learn. It means that high achievers will be challenged to extend and push themselves and low achievers will get attention and assistance.

I’m doing this because, at worst, I will have to go back to the normal way I used to do it; the whole class working on the same assignment at the same time and, basically, in the same way. That’s not so bad. But, I think I won’t have to do that.

See, I have this weird feeling that it will work. It just feels right. My experience has been that children rise to the expectations we set for them. When you treat them with respect and push them to be their best then great things happen. This is not a wild-eyed theory, but my experience. My students in drama and in ASB did amazing things, in part because I didn’t allow them to settle for less or to believe that they couldn’t do it. And, I feel like everything I learned so far is pointing in this direction. I can put the kids in control of their own learning and give them choices. In the past, when I let kids critique themselves they were far tougher on themselves than I would have been. In their hearts, they know they can it, that they can be better than we think they can. But, first, I need to believe for them because many of them have had the world tell them differently. I will have to show them that they can learn, and, more importantly that there are things they want to learn.

I realize that I may fall short. But, right now, for the first days of school, I am going to believe all my students are going to learn, that they will like learning, that they will find something they love and be inspired to do more and be more.

Nuts and Bolts Standards Based Gradebook

I am going to be grading based on the standards this year in my Language Arts classes. I did some reading at this great blog called Think, Thank, Thunk . It got me really excited because some of the things I’m thinking of are things he wrote about. I really feel this will be cool!

But, the question I keep getting is, “But how are you going to put that in your gradebook?”

I think this is a great question and it’s the one that stopped me from doing this in the past. So, I’m going to try to answer that right now.

I’m not really sure.

I know it’s possible and I know others are doing it, but I haven’t found a concrete example of how to do it yet. Part of the problem is that our district mandates that we use the online Zangle gradebook. Well, it’s not really a problem, exactly. But, Zangle isn’t that flexible.

Let’s start with some basic ideas. First, grades are a representation of student progress toward mastery. An “A” says that the student has achieved an Advanced level of mastery. For a whole class, it would say that the student is proficient on all standards, at least and Advanced on many. A “B” says the student is Proficient, at least, on most, if not all standards. Some might be Advanced and some even Basic. But, overall the student is proficient.

And, so on. I think you get the idea. If not, post a question in the comments below.

So, a grade is not an average of points. We have to use points. Further, my department decided that 70% of the overall grade will be from summative assessments and 30% from formative assessments. I’m not happy about that but I’m going along with it (because I’m not a free agent, I’m paid to work as they tell me to and I don’t think this is particularly awful).

Looking at the Zangle gradebook, I notice that under Class Options setup (under Gradebook setup), there is a choice to calculate using points or percentages. I’m going to try percentages so I can weight the standards separately. The only reason I’m doing this is so I can put homework and quizzes in the formative category and give kids a score on those and thereby follow my district/PLC policy. Most of the homework in my class will be student postings in their blogs. I will allow them to revise their blogs and get better grades, if they want. Same thing with quizzes and informal tests. Students can try again to get better.

(A lot of teachers think this means students will all get A’s since they will all, naturally, re-assess until that happens. Not so, says Think, Thank, Thunk.)

Then, my plan is to put standards in where “assignments” would go. I will assign most to the summative category. Some of the “smaller” or more basic standards will go into formative along with homework.

Now, the rubber meets the road. Follow me for a bit on this one.

The first three weeks of my class are working on a unit on Rhetoric. We have to teach the students to identify rhetorical devices, specifically ethos, pathos, and logos. We have to teach students to identify figurative speech, like analogies. They need to be able to make reasonable assertions about the author’s viewpoint using elements of the text as evidence. They need to know how to critique the power, validity and truthfulness of arguments. Also, there’s some grammar, using knowledge of root words, and so on. So, I am going to take those standards and make them assignments.

When a student turns in a piece of work, I am going to have them write their name, the date, and their class period on the paper. Plus, they will need to put the standard they are submitting their work under and the unit number or name. That would look like:

Johnny Little
August 8, 2011
Period 1
Rhetoric Unit 1
Identifying Figurative Speech

I will “grade” the work and decide if it represents Advanced Mastery, Proficiency, Basic understanding, Below Basic, for Far Below Basic. Having done so, I will put a mark representing such in the gradebook under that standard.

Now, going back to the gradebook, I have some problems/questions. Right now, I’m leaning toward selecting “Assignment Results Displayed and Entered As Grade Values” and “Calculate Student Grades Using Point Calculation Method.” I’m not sure if this is right. I need to check with a math person to find out.

I added Assignment Categories, Formative and Summative. I assigned a weight of 70 to Summative and Formative got 30. I have no idea if this is right. I clicked submit and the percent of grade popped up 70 and 30! Success? Maybe. (If you don’t know, I have a pretty severe problem with numbers. It’s kind of a dyslexia with math. Not kidding. Those that know me will attest that numbers do stupid things when they get between my ears.)

Well, I Facebooked briefly with a math teacher from my school (thanks, Sean!) and he said calculating grades based on percentages was not a good idea, that I should use points instead. So, I switched it back to that.

Basically, I’m going to have to keep an eye on my grades and see that they come out right. Like I said, the goal is to have a grade on the report card that accurately reflects the progress toward the standards in the class. It kinda sucks that we have to boil it all down to a single grade on the report card, but that’s how it is right now. I think that this will, ultimately, be more fair in the long run, though.

Makin’ It Up: Retakes

I am not the originator of this idea. But, I firmly believe that a good teacher knows a good idea and promptly rips it the hell off and implements it ASAP. So, I believe in the idea of unmerited opportunities for students. I believe that students should be allowed to turn in late work. I believe that students should be allowed to retake tests and redo assignments and that if they do better then their grade should improve.

“But, that’s not fair to the students who did the work on time or were prepared for the test!”

Oh? So, school is a competition? Look, if you believe that the purpose of school is to separate the students into groups according to either their intellect or ability to do work on demand then I can see why you would say that. But, I don’t believe that. I believe that is why school as we know it was created. I believe that, especially high school, was designed to put kids into groups so we could groom them for their appropriate classes. Smart kids go to college. Average kids go vocational school. Kids with issues go work retail or go to jail. It’s an assembly line perfectly designed to categorize people and move them into their roles.

I am not down with that. My momma taught me that if I know better then I should do better. I know better today. I know that all kids can learn and that we are a better country when more people are educated.

Not only do I believe that any kid can learn. I believe that they do it at different times and in different ways. So, if Little Johnny takes a little longer to figure out how to write that essay correctly then I think he should get the grade.

“So, he can get as much time as he wants? He can’t get the same grade as some other kid that worked harder?”

Short answer: yes.

School is not a short answer deal, though. So, lemme ‘splain. One thing I, and most teachers that resist change, do is to make up extreme situations to illustrate why whatever is being suggested is a bad idea. I try not to do it, but I used to get a bad case of the whatifs. What if this? What if that?

Yes, let’s play “What If?” Let’s say that Little Johnny struggles in English. He gets to me in high school and is convinced that he can’t write. But, I have to fix that because writing is thinking and I need citizens of this great country who can think. So, Johnny goes ahead and writes the essay I assign. And, he’s right. It sucks. So, I reteach it. He rewrites it. It’s better, but still not very good.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class is moving on. Anyone who has taught for any significant length of time will tell you that the curriculum is full and we have precious few instructional minutes to deliver it. So, now we’re analyzing poetry. But, Little Johnny wants to nail this sucker. So, he takes it home again with my feedback and further instruction and brings in a pretty good essay. It’s quite serviceable. It’s not a piece of art but it tells me he understand and can perform the skill indicated by the standard.

Did he learn? I think so. In that case, should he have a lower grade to punish him? I believe his grade should be a representation of what he learned, not what he did. I think that’s pretty important and something teachers forget. Many teachers use bad grades to punish bad decisions, poor choices, or misbehavior. But, I think this is not fair. Unless you’re helping to separate the wheat from the chaff for industry. Because, that’s all that practice does.

But, Johnny learned. And, I’m sorry, did you just say the other kid worked harder than him? WTF? Johnny rewrote that essay twice. I think he earned a “B.”

“Fine but what about that kid who just blew it off. He could do it, but he’s taking advantage of the situation.”

So? Don’t you do that too? Do you ever prioritize and do things now that you just have to but put off others? Yes, yes you do. We all do. It’s actually a pretty darn good strategy. So, if that smart kid puts off writing the essay because she had some other stuff due in another class, so what?

I went and checked the standards. I don’t have any in Language Arts about teaching time management.

I will give her full credit. But, I might tell her that I’m going to be grading her essay with a sharp eye and less forgiving attitude. I may ask her to rewrite it and polish it further to get the grade. And, besides, that, as I said, the rest of the class continues.

Have you ever been short on cash one month and blown off a credit card payment? Or phone payment? I have and it sucks. Now I have a double payment to make. I think that putting work off has natural consequences that students have to work that much harder for procrastinating.

But, besides all of that, I am an English teacher. I am not a time management teacher. I’m not a responsibility teacher. When they write those standards, then I will grade on those.

For me, what matters is if they student learned the skill. If they demonstrated it, then I feel I should give them credit.

Let’s be reasonable for a moment. Most of these things should be taken on a case by case basis. The problem with making rules is that you have to stick with them. So, for me, I am going to take it case by case. If I can tell a kid is truly gaming the system then we will have a talk. I need to contact home. Maybe we need to have a parent conference to find out why the student is procrastinating. Generally, I won’t accept work after a grading period (the quarter) passes. It makes sense because that grade represents their learning to that date. I can’t go back and change that. There are, obviously, times when it’s too late. The ship has sailed.

But, if that kid is just trying to learn, then I should teach and assess his learning, not his work.

I Hate Zeroes

We probably all had it happen at least one. We forgot to turn in an assignment. Or, we just didn’t understand it and we blew bubbles on it.

“I’m giving you a zero on that.”

Dude, that sucks. Am I right?

On an intellectual level it makes sense. You get nothing for nothing if that’s what you do. (Great, now I have “It’s So Easy” by Guns N’ Roses stuck in my head!). If you don’t turn in an assignment or it is an utter failure then why should you get any points at all for it? So, teachers, me included, would put a zero in the grade book.

Today, I think that’s wrong.

Zeroes kill grades. Zeroes are death to averages. Zeroes will weigh a grade down and, if you accumulate enough of them, destroy any hope of ever passing the class.

“What’s wrong with that? Maybe it will teach them some responsibility.”

Well, maybe. But I went through the Language Arts standards and I didn’t see one that that indicated that I should be grading students based on their responsibility. Grammar? Sure. Ability to write an essay? Yes. Analyzing figurative language? You betcha. Responsibility? Nope.

“When I was in school, that’s how it was done.”

And, did you like it? Did it make you a better learner? I think one of my least favorite reasons for doing something. “We have always done it this way.” Just because it has been done that way doesn’t make it right, good, or useful. The reason for doing something should be because it is the best way, not tradition. Whenever someone says that, I almost always know that whatever they are trying to justify is a horrible idea.

Grades should be a measure of what a student learns in a given class. Do zeroes help that? In a traditional grade book, a teacher records points for the assignments. Homework, quizzes, tests, essays, reports, participation and so on. Then, usually, keeping the example simple, they add up all the points then divide that by the total points possible. That gives them a percentage that is then translated into a grade.

I’m not going to do a bunch of math right here. It’s a pain to type out. But, grab yourself a calculator and enter in 10 scores. Pretend all of the assignments are of equal weight and worth 100 points each. Give the kids some B’s, an A, and some C’s. Make one score a zero. Divide by 1,000 (in this hypothetical example, the total points possible is 1,0000) Guess what? I bet you that kid gets, say, a 73% (that’s what happened when I just did it.) But, add 50 points and that score becomes 78%. That kid went from a low C to a C+. Not a super big deal, if you ask me. He’s not getting into an Ivy League school with C’s. Right?

Now, do the same thing, but instead of any A’s, give more C’s and one B. Give him a couple D’s as well. But, only give him five scores. The rest are zeros. Now, take that number and divide by 1,000. That’s a low score. When I did it, that kid got 34%. Ouch. Massive failure. Let’s say that’s the progress report. Little Johnny got an “F” on his report card. Parents get crazy, ground him, take away his cell phone. So, he’s got 5 missing assignments and, let’s say, he can’t make them up, either. It’s too late, he’s told. But, the semester’s not over.

So, Johnny starts studying. He does his work. He starts turning in work. It’s pretty amazing, actually. He’s the problem, though. Add five more scores. Give him 3 C’s and 2 B’s. Let’s say it brings his total up to 811. He’s feeling pretty good about his grade. He’s been working hard to do what he’s supposed to. Problem is, though, that 811 is out of 1500. That’s 54%. He still has an “F.”

Now, if I’m Johnny, I feel pretty bad about that. I’ve been doing good but I’m still failing? How can that be?

Give him five more scores. Since he’s not very happy and his parents are still pissed at him so he still didn’t get his phone back and he’s still on restriction and his girl broke up with him when he stopped texting her, then he’s probably not doing as well. Give him four C’s and a D. That’s still not bad work, right?

He’s still got an “F.” That’s 58%. You see, those five missing assignments sitting there represented by zeroes are absolutely murdering his grade average. Ask yourself, what lesson is Johnny learning? Is he learning responsibility? Or, is he learning that no matter how hard you work, you can never escape your past?

“Well, sometimes in life, that’s the way it works in the real world.”

School is NOT the real world. Kids should be rewarded when they do well. And, kids that make improvement should be rewarded as well. In reality, little Johnny is being punished over and over for missing those five assignments. And, if you have taught for more than a couple years, you know that having a kid go from being a knucklehead to turning in work and applying themselves is pretty remarkable. Only, in this case, Johnny gives up. Why should he bother? His grade says he’s stupid. It says he has failed to learn anything in the class. Is that true? Obviously not. His assignments actually show that he’s learning basically what the average kid would learn in the class. Mostly “C’s.”

Now, here’s the magic. Add 250 points to his score, 50 points for each missing assignment (50%). What does he get now? A “C” freaking minus!!!

Johnny is off restriction. He gets his cell phone back. His parents hug him and mom, with tears shining in her eyes, tells him she always believed he could pass that English class!

All because instead of giving him zeroes, I gave him F’s. Yes, 50% of the points is an F. Does Johnny deserve to fail my class or pass with a C- ? I think you and I both know that the C- is the fair grade.

That’s why I never give zeroes any more.

Assessments and Grades

Today our district had a professional development day for all high school and middle school. The focus was on developing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Basically, a PLC is a group of professionals who work together to get better at what they do. In this case, it’s a group of teachers, who are, ideally teaching the same subject and meeting to develop tests in common so they can compare their results and help each other teach better.

It sounds simple but it’s actually kind of a lot of work, at least at first. But, there’s a lot of research to show that once a PLC gets going, it can make a big difference in student achievement. And, I think it gets easier as you go along. So, you would think that everyone would be all for it.

If you do, then you don’t know teachers.

Now, I’m going to say that the vast majority of teachers, in my experience, want to do a good job and help students learn; at least 75 percent, I would say. There is, like in every profession, a percentage of people that are happy just doing what it takes to get by. Then, there’s a small percentage that are burnt, jaded, and, sick of it all but they can’t quit because it’s the only thing they know, they’re older and not likely to find a new job that can support them at this point in life, and/or they need the benefits or pension or both. Say what you like, but every profession has people like this, too. Now, if you take all of that and figure that, even for people that want to improve or do what’s right for students, there are those who have been hurt by the system.

The education system can be brutal to educators at times. First, you have administrators who go to a conference over the summer and come back with a “new thing” that is going to totally make the teachers all better. And, they make a big deal of it and implement it half way and months later wonder what’s wrong and why it’s not working. Then, that gets dumped sometime around Winter Break and we go back to what we were doing. Or, that administrator keeps after it, but the “new thing” actually isn’t good or useful and then they move on and we go back to what we were doing.

Then, you have politicians passing laws that are supposed to improve education. But, they don’t. Fads come and go. Teachers that have been around a while know this and they know they can wait it out because teachers almost always last longer than administrators, especially those bad enough to introduce bad policies since those administrators also are bad at managing teachers.

Therefore, there is a fair contingent of teachers that view PLCs as a “new thing” to wait out. I am not one of those. I like the PLC model and am wholeheartedly embracing it. I got to meet with one member of my PLC today and we had a substantial, professional conversation about grading that was enervating and exciting.

Speaking of enervating, our district also unveiled a new grading policy. I like it. But, as you can expect, there was a fair degree of wailing and gnashing of teeth among some. I think they are misunderstanding it, personally, but maybe not. Basically, we are supposed to base the majority of the grade on Summative Assessments. These are tests that are supposed to measure the totality of what a student has learned at any given time on a subject. This is different from a Formative Assessment that is supposed to measure how a student is doing in terms of learning what you’re teaching. Formative assessments can be as simple as a pop quiz or even just saying, “Thumbs up if you understand this.”

Anyway, here’s my take. The policy asks us to do a couple things. One is that they want us grade specifically on standards and less on stuff like homework or formative assessments. There was outcry over the percentages mentioned, saying that a minimum of 70% of the grade should be on portfolios, summative assessments, essays, and so on and a maximum of 30% can be from homework and other similar. But, to me, I read that and say, “Hey, I don’t have to grade homework at all!” That is, I can use it to give feedback to the kids and get an idea for how they’re progressing, but I shouldn’t include it in the academic grade.

Some teachers got upset because the new policy mandates that we give students multiple chances to demonstrate mastery of the standards. In other words, you have to let kids take tests over if they want to try for a better grade. The policy also says we have to accept late work.

I have no problem with this. None.

Some teachers will say we need to teach kids responsibility… but that’s not one of the state Standards. My grades should not be based on the amount of work a kid does, nor how hard they work. The grade should be strictly based on how they have progressed toward mastery of the standards. Here’s how I’m planning to grade. I am happy to hear comments on it. Honestly.

All students begin the class with an “F” in each standard, essentially. This sounds harsh, but bear with me a second. See, an “F” to me means that the student has not demonstrated mastery of the standard. Now, as they go through the class, they will turn in work that shows their progress. I will grade that and put those grades in the book. But, I’m not putting grades for assignments in my book. I used to have a grade book with student names running down one side and the assignments across the top. No more. I’m putting Standards only in the grade book. So, when a student turns in work that addresses a standard, I record the grade for their progress. Students can retake assessments to improve their grade. Students will also have a choice of how to prove their mastery. In other words, if they can come up with a reasonable piece of work that would prove they have attained the skills identified by the standard, I will accept it. That being said, I realize some kids won’t come up with reasonable pieces, so each standard will have a suggested activity or assignment associated with it that they can do to allow me to measure their progress.

If a student does poorly on a standard, ie. gets a “D” or “F”, either because the work was poor or because it was nonexistent, then those students will get calls home, or maybe emails to parents, and will receive a notice to attend after-school retention. It’s like detention but it’s not, it’s retention. It’s not punishment, per se, but a way for me to make sure I can reteach them. First time would be 20 minutes, second time 30 minutes and so on.

If possible, I will check during class time to see if I can help them then. I need to make sure kids don’t just blow off the work in class since they can do it over for a better grade. Some will game the system so I have to make it annoying or even painful to do so without just giving them zeroes. I am steadfastly against giving zeroes because they are not fair. They destroy grades. I will just have to pester them until they do the work. Also, I will cut it off at the quarters. That is, I will not accept retesting or late work after the quarter is over. The new policy says we can make reasonable judgments like that.

Overall, I really like the new district grading policy. And, I like the PLCs. I just wish all of the district’s ideas were this good. Too bad they don’t think that having 38 million dollars in the bank justifies spending 5 million to bring back the counselors.