Posted in Teaching, Education, Students, Learning

Are Rubrics Effective Assessment Tools?

Rubrics, smubricks.  I feel like that’s all I’ve been blogging about lately as I’m trying to determine their effectiveness.  I feel like a broken record.  I’m getting to the point now where I’m not even sure what a rubric is?  Is it a chart?  A procedure?  What makes a rubric a rubric?  Why do I have to keep typing the word rubric?  Ahhh, I’ve had enough of these rubrics.  I’m throwing them out the window.  Oh, wait a minute.  I don’t actually have a window that opens to the outside in my classroom.  I guess I’ll just have to throw them away instead.  Well, I don’t want to fill our landfill with more useless stuff.  I should probably recycle them so that somewhere, sometime soon someone will be reading or writing on something that is made up of particles from an old, ridiculous, and overused, rubric.  Uh oh, but then rubrics will literally be everywhere, and so I’m not actually going to be able to escape them, ever.  I’m going to start having nightmares about killer rubrics from outer space.  Oh, this is horrible.  Just say no to rubrics!

After that rant, I sort of lost my train of thought.  Oh yes, I know what I wanted to focus on for today’s blog.  Rubrics!  There’s that pesky word again.  It’s like a giant wart that just won’t go away.  Anyway, back to rubrics.  So, today in my study skills class, the students completed work on the final project for our brain unit.  They had to create a Learning Goals Plan that included one SMART goal for each of their major courses along with a plan detailing what they will do to meet their goals.  The plan needed to reference ideas discussed during the unit.  After collecting their plans, we discussed the whole unit.  I asked the boys what they liked and what they found challenging.  They provided my co-teacher and I with some useful feedback.  They loved learning about the brain and found our unit very useful.  They feel as though they’ve never learned about the brain before even though it’s one of the most important parts of their body.  This is all great feedback that we can use as we revise this unit for next year.

I closed our discussion today by asking them about the Learning Goals Plan project.  I explained to the students how we had put them into two groups on PowerSchool: Half the class had a detailed rubric outlining the Learning Goals Plan project and requirements, while the other group simply had the procedure with the graded objectives listed.  I did this as a way to gather data on the effectiveness of rubrics.  I asked the group that didn’t have the rubric, “Did you notice a difference?  Was it harder to complete the project without a rubric?  Were you ever lost or confused?”  I was a bit surprised by the responses.  All but one student said they didn’t even realize they weren’t provided with a rubric.  They followed the directions and reviewed the graded objectives as they worked.  This group felt very comfortable with the project and requirements without a rubric.  The one student who felt a bit lost without a rubric is an ELL.  He said, “I felt like I didn’t know exactly what was expected for each part of the project.  A rubric would have helped me feel like I knew what I was doing.”  This makes sense.  As our ESL students struggle to understand and comprehend English, having a rubric does help to clarify and make sense of the directions.  It simplifies the language for them.  The other students in that group without the rubric were native English speakers.  As they have a strong grasp of the language, they didn’t feel the need for clarification.  They felt confident without a rubric.  The group without the rubric was composed of four ELLs and one native English speaker.  The ESL students in that group all felt as though having the rubric was helpful.  They used it to guide them through the project.  It was their beacon in the snowstorm of work.  One of the students said, “The rubric helped us ESL students be on the same level as the native speakers since the rubric explained stuff in a way that makes sense to us.”  Rubrics give the ELLs a step up in the learning process.  This information definitely lines up with my thinking on rubrics and their effectiveness.  Rubrics are useful and almost necessary for ELLs to meaningfully and appropriately complete projects and tasks.  Our native English speakers, on the other hand, don’t really need one, according to the feedback I received from my students today in class.  For a future project, I’m thinking I will provide my ESL students with a detailed rubric and then make them available to the other native English speakers who feel that they need one.  They’ll be optional for the domestic students but required for the ELLs in my class.  I think this approach might work best…

BUT.  Of course, there’s always a but.  When I graded their Learning Goals Plan, I noticed that more of the students in the group that was provided with a rubric met or exceeded the graded objective.  Only one student in the group that was not provided a rubric met the objective.  So, does this mean that the students in the group that feel like they don’t need a rubric actually do need a rubric to be successful?  If not, then why did the group with the rubric have more success in meeting the graded objective?  Was it the rubric?  Was it the students themselves?  Work ethic definitely plays a role in all of this.  The students who want to do well will do well no matter what, and the students who just do the least amount of work to get by will do that regardless of having a rubric.  I do find that the ESL students in my class work harder because they need to and want to.  They know that in order to gain acceptance into independent secondary schools, they need to do well and earn high grades.  This motivation means that they typically work harder than the average domestic student in my class.  So, that makes a difference too.  Would this ESL group have done as well without a rubric?  Perhaps, because they would have asked questions and sought help to achieve the graded they were working towards.  So, should I make rubrics optional for all students or mandate them for all students?  What approach makes the most sense?  For the group of students I’m working with this year, I feel as though rubrics are necessary.  For those students who use them, they will make great use of them and feel very prepared for the task or project, while those students who don’t use them, can just ignore them.  If I provide everyone with a rubric, the likelihood is that even those students who say they don’t use a rubric may actually reference it once or twice during the working phase of the assignment.  I like it.  So, that’s what I’ll do for our next graded project or task: Everyone gets a rubric.  Who knows, maybe it will help everyone to meet or exceed the graded objectives?

Posted in Boy Writers, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Writing

Awesome Sauce: When Learning Happens in the Classroom

Being a teacher has its many perks and rewards:

  • Observing students really “get” stuff and have A-Ha moments in the classroom.
  • Being able to decorate your classroom anyway you want with no one telling you, “Those drapes clash with that carpet.”
  • Helping students grow and develop.
  • Challenging students to change their perspective on life.
  • Halloween.  Need I say more?
  • Celebrating a furry brown creature who lives in the ground with songs, poems, and fun.
  • Meeting new students on the first day of school.
  • Running into past students in strange places and taking a stroll down memory lane.

I bet that some of you thought snow days and summer vacation were going to be at the top of my list.  While we, as teachers, do love our time off, we’d much rather be in the classroom with our students molding minds and helping create the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Another thing teachers really love about their lifestyle choice is seeing that their students are actually learning.  Yes, it’s great to see the moment when they understand something like a lightbulb going off in their brain, but seeing students apply that new knowledge they learn is even cooler.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to help students see the power of the peer editing process.  How do I help students understand the value in providing their peers with meaningful feedback that will help them effectively revise their written work?  How can I best teach students to be effective peer editors?  Each year I feel as though teaching students to be great peer editors is like what early American settlers went through when they journeyed west in search of land, an arduous and long journey.  It takes many students the entire year to really be able to master the skill of providing their peers with useful feedback.  I get it.  Having a careful eye and providing constructive feedback to others is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard to effectively help others to make their writing better.  I sometimes struggle with this skill myself, and I’m an adult.  I understand that this journey to becoming an effective peer editor can be bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns, which is why I don’t expect my students to be able to meaningfully help others revise their written work until later in the academic year.

Now, while I’ve heard that miracles do happen, I have yet to see any in my short life.  Wait a minute, I take that back: My teenaged son once woke up in a pleasant mood.  That was definitely a miracle.  Inside my classroom, I was fortunate enough today to see another miracle: My students effectively peer editing each other’s written work.

Today’s class began much like any other.  The boys wrote down the homework and completed a Brain Puzzle activity altogether as a class.  Nothing special or miraculous happened.  The boys did what was expected of them.  Then, I introduced the peer editing activity that the students would be completing in class.  I reviewed the difference between editing and revising and made a list on the board of the various writing features they should be looking to comment on regarding their partner’s Learning Goals Plan.  I went over the steps of the process and made sure they understood what was expected of them.  As I was definitely employing a fixed mindset going into today’s class, I was certain that they would have time to peer edit with at least three different students since they usually only provide their partner with superficial feedback on how they can improve their work.  Then came the miracle.

The students got right to work.  No, that wasn’t the miracle.  While I have had previous classes struggle with this skill, this year’s group is great at getting right to work.  The miracle came when they started to work.  The students were asking each other questions like, “How will you use a growth mindset?  What do you mean here?  Could you explain more here?”  I was amazed.  They were really trying to provide their partner with constructive feedback.  They were focusing on the big features of their written work and not the little, nit picky stuff like spelling or grammar.  They were trying to help their partner become a better, more effective writer.  They posed great questions and provided each other with effective and meaningful feedback.  It was awesome.  They were completing the peer editing process in a real and genuine manner.  They weren’t just going through the motions like classes in the past have done, oh no.  They were taking the time to really dissect their partner’s work so that he could put it back together in a more effective way.  I was amazed.  They spent so long working with one partner, that they only had time to provide feedback to one student prior to the end of class.  Wow!

How were they able to accomplish this task so early in the year?  No other group has demonstrated mastery of this skill so soon in the school year.  What allowed or helped my students to be successful during today’s activity?   Was it because we’ve been focusing on helping our students utilize a growth mindset while working?   Was that it?  Or was it that I explained what they needed to do in a way that made sense to them?  Perhaps it was because I reminded them that I will be grading them on their ability to provide their partner with effective feedback.  Maybe the sunny weather motivated them to buckle down and really work in class today.  Who knows what it was, as there were so many variables at play.  I don’t feel as though I taught the skill of peer editing any differently this year than I did in past years, and so I’m not sure what it was that helped them all showcase their ability to peer edit their partner’s work in a meaningful way.  I do know that something special happened in the classroom today.  If my students apply the feedback with which they were provided today, they will all certainly be able to exceed the two graded objectives for this task.  I can’t wait to read the final draft of their Learning Goals Plan on Friday as they are sure to be “legen- wait for it- dary.”

Posted in Education, Group Projects, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

Teaching Students How to Manage Large Projects

I’m a list guy.  When I need to make sure that I remember to do something, I write it down.  Well, actually, I type it into a Stickies note on my laptop.  At points during a week, my To Do list will be quite lengthy.  While seeing a formidably long list might put some people on edge, it gives me a purpose.  I always know what I need to be doing to accomplish my work and goals for the week.  When I complete a task or item on my list, I delete it from my laptop.  Now that’s a satisfying feeling.  I love removing items from my list.  It feels good, like therapy or ice cream.  Lists keep me organized regarding work I need to complete.  I manage my life through lists.  Without them, I’d probably be living a very disorganized, chaotic, and stress-filled life, never knowing what is going on or what I need to do.  Lists allow me to live in the moment and enjoy life as I don’t need to stay focused on remembering what I need to do next since I have it recorded somewhere.  Lists are my safety vest as I navigate my way through the tumultuous waters of life.

As a teacher, I try hard to be sure that I’m teaching my students effective organizational skills and strategies.  If I want to effectively prepare my students for meaningful lives in a global society, I need to know that they can manage themselves.  Being organized mentally and physically are crucial to one’s success in life.  Organized students are more able to excel in life and meet their goals as their daily lives are free of stress and clutter.  Teaching students how to be organized is no easy task.  It requires much guidance, practice, and repetition.  I train my students to see the value and purpose in being organized.  This starts at the very beginning of the year as I explain to the boys how and why we do things a certain way in the sixth grade.  So far this year, we’ve covered the following organizational techniques and skills in the sixth grade:

  • Maintain a neatly organized binder with separate tabs for each class.  All papers are properly placed into the correct section.  Every paper or item in the binder has a specific place and purpose.
  • Maintain an updated planbook in which they record daily homework assignments.  This should always be filled out a week ahead so that they are prepared to write in long term assignments.
  • Maintain a clutter free and neatly organized work space at their desk in the classroom.  All materials should be neatly stacked at the top of the table so that the students have plenty of free workspace directly in front of them.
  • Chunk large tasks into smaller pieces so that long term projects don’t seem so daunting.
  • Use a growth mindset to be able to tackle and persevere through any problem encountered.
  • Know that multitasking is a myth.  The students all know that listening to music with words while working is ineffective.  Trying to do more than one mentally demanding task well is impossible because our brains are wired to focus and survive, not split brain power.

Today in Humanities class, I was able to help the students understand the importance in delegating tasks when working with others.  As this is a difficult skill to teach students because they are so self-absorbed in sixth grade, I make sure to introduce it slowly and methodically.  I don’t cover it at the start of the school year because I want the students to learn how to coexist with others before they learn how to work effectively with their peers.  Before the students began working on the Create the Perfect State final project in class today, I reviewed the project requirements and procedure they will utilize to complete this task.  I briefly mentioned how they should talk to their partner about breaking up the task into smaller parts so that they are not both doing the same thing at the same time.  I didn’t say more than this as it is really the first time I’ve discussed this skill with the students.  I wanted to see what they could do on their own first, without assistance or direct teaching.

As the students worked in class today, I observed their behaviors.  How were they working with their partner?  Were they communicating effectively?  Were they delegating tasks?  Were they thinking critically and collaborating effectively?  I noticed many awesome things my students were doing.  They were using creativity to complete the task as they tried out different computer applications and created unique names for their states.  They were sharing ideas with their partner in meaningful ways.  They were actively listening to each other’s ideas as they spoke.  Many of the groups were also delegating tasks well.  This was my favorite part of today’s class as it means that my students are experimenting with the power of relying on and trusting others.  This is no easy feat.  While one person worked on learning about how to use Google Sites, the other student worked on creating a map of their island state.  It was great to see the boys breaking the tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks.  I love it.

At the close of class today, I shared, with the boys, my observations.  I mentioned how I saw lots of delegating happening in the classroom today.  I mentioned specific examples of how one student was working on one part of the website while the other student worked on a different part.  They were breaking the large project down into small parts.  I explained how useful that can be when working in a group or with a partner.  I think many of the students seem to understand the value in delegating tasks.  Tomorrow, the boys will have another chance to practice this important skill as they continue working on the Create the Perfect State project in class.

Helping students to see the importance in organizing how groups work together is something I value highly.  I want the students to see that in the real world, people have to work together.  People work in groups, and the skills those individuals bring to the group will determine the group’s effectiveness.  People who know how to delegate tasks and effectively lead a group, will be much more successful in life than people who don’t understand the value in breaking large tasks down into smaller parts.  Delegation is truly a life skill.  being able to teach students the importance of it now, will help them progress forward in life at a rapid pace.  Large, big tasks can seem scary, unless, you find a way to break them down into smaller pieces and make use of others to get the job done.

Posted in Education, Learning, Students, Teaching

How Do Teachers Create Effective Rubrics?

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing much research and work on determining the effectiveness of rubrics.  Are rubrics useful tools for assessment?  Do prescriptive and detailed rubrics help students accomplish learning tasks or steal their creativity and critical thinking?  What’s the best way to engage students in their learning?  I’ve come to all sorts of conclusions so far on my journey: Rubrics are useless, Prescriptive rubrics are more effective than simple, broadly stated rubrics, and Feedback on graded assessments leads to genuine learning and growth.  In all of my conversations with teachers and from all of the feedback I received from students, there seems to be no consensus.  For some teachers, prescriptive rubrics seem to be more effective than simple rubrics while some students like rubrics and others don’t find them useful.  No salient points are floating to the top of my research-gathering adventure.  I’m not sure exactly how best to introduce or explain tasks and projects to students in a meaningful and engaging way that promotes creativity and critical thinking.  Geez, learning and solving problems is difficult work.  Now I know how our students feel.

Today, I had another fruitful discussion with a colleague on the topic of rubrics.  She provided me with much insight on the topic as she recently created a grading rubric that her and her students find very useful and effective.  The following big ideas came out of our chat:

  • Words tend to overwhelm students in print form.  Create rubrics that simply state the grading requirements.  Less is more.  Students will use a rubric that is neatly organized and makes use of very few words.
  • Those students who utilize rubrics when completing graded work, use them as checklists.  Detailed rubrics spoon-feed the students everything they need to know about a task and how to complete it.  There is no critical thinking involved when students make use of wordy rubrics.
  • Repetition of the same rubric or style of rubric helps students practice and better learn the essential skills they will need to be successful in their academic lives.  If students are writing several essays over the course of the year, using the same, simply stated rubric every time helps make the learning process more tangible and real for the students.
  • Rubrics tend to prevent genuine learning from taking place in the classroom.  Instead, teachers should simply explain the project procedure and graded objectives to the students without going over the ins and outs of what they will need to do, specifically, to meet or exceed the objectives.  This experience will prompt the students to ask questions regarding points of confusion, thus helping them practice using their critical thinking skills.

I am feeling perplexed now.  Is there any answer to my guiding question?  Is there a most effective way to explain a graded project or task to students?  Could there possibly be a one-size fits all solution to this problem?  Are all students the same?  What works for one student may not work for another, which is why effective teachers differentiate their instruction.  So then, shouldn’t we differentiate our rubrics too?  One rubric may not work best for all of our students.  We need to provide prescriptive and detailed rubrics to those students who desire or need one while also making sure that those students who need a more simply stated rubric have access to one as well.  For those students who don’t want a rubric, we don’t need to provide them with one.  Once we know our students as learners, we can then create rubrics that will work for each of them.  As we should no longer be using the assembly line factory model of education for our students, we need to think about individualizing our teaching.  How can we best support and challenge ALL of our students?  One type of rubric will not work for everyone.  Teachers can create effective rubrics for each of their students once they know how they learn best.

Moving forward, this is what I will focus on trying.  I will create different rubrics for each project or task, and then provide my students with the one I feel will best suit their needs as learners.  Now I’m starting to feel better, like I know something more now than I did when I started.  This whole professional development process feels like panning for gold.  I need to sift through millions of pounds of rock and debris to find the tiny gold nuggets of knowledge and understanding, which makes finding the solution, that much more exciting and fun.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How to Create Just the Right Project for Your Students

Creating an engaging project that promotes critical thinking while also allowing students to showcase their learning regarding various objectives covered throughout a unit is quite the challenging task.  It can feel like planning a wedding in two weeks or finding out two days before Thanksgiving that you’re hosting the holiday for 25 people.  Ahhh!  It’s overwhelming and a bit scary, but after you take a few deep breaths, realize that you can do anything, solutions will come.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to engage and excite our students.  We want them to love coming to our class.  We want them to love learning because it’s fun.  While not every unit we cover can make use of a project or activity that excites our students, we are always looking for some feature to our units that will help bring the learning to life.  We want our students to want to learn and accomplish tasks because they are having fun.  Competitions of all types can do this, but sometimes, at the cost of compassion and integrity.  So then, how can we create the perfect project for our students?

  1. Pour over the content and objectives you are looking to cover in a unit.  What are the big ideas and essential questions?  How can you turn those essential questions into an exploration or project for the students?  Extracting the big ideas from an upcoming unit will help inspire you to create that one perfect project.
  2. Know your students.  What excites them?  Do they like hands-on projects?  Do they like group projects?  Do they like to talk and discuss?  Knowing what your students enjoy, will help you to design and construct a meaningful project for them.
  3. Begin laying out your unit.  Map it out using whatever information systems management software your school uses.  My school makes use of PowerSchool.  Put everything together and map out your daily lessons.  As you start to see it all come together, a project idea may smack you right in the frontal lobe.
  4. Create the best project or final assessment that you are able to at the time.  You may not like your first few ideas, and that’s okay.  As you process the information and your ideas, a better, more fun idea is bound to come into your mind.  In order to get something new, you must start with something old first.
  5. If you’ve created your entire unit and still have no ideas for the perfect project, don’t stress or worry.  Talk to colleagues.  What projects or activities do they use in their classroom that engage their students?  How can you tweak those ideas to fit your unit?  Go online and see what other teachers are doing.  Imitation is the best form of flattery, someone very wise once said.
  6. If you’ve come to the end of your unit and your students completed the original project or assessment you created, don’t fret and feel like a failure.  Use the experience as a learning opportunity.  Ask the students what they thought.  Have them complete a reflection on the unit and final project.  Ask them for ideas.  Our students are often like untapped sugar maple trees, full of syrupy goodness.  They may have ideas and suggestions for us.  Some of my best ideas have come from feedback I received from my students.
  7. Revise your unit for next year, based on all of the feedback and ideas you’ve gathered during the implementation phase.  By this point, you should have created a very perfect, engaging project for next year, and already been thinking about future projects you can do with this year’s class.  Reflective teaching allows for growth and development to happen at a swift pace.

As I was putting together a recent unit on the foundations of government, I felt the pressure of creating the perfect project.  I wanted to engage my students in the learning process.  Nothing I brainstormed seemed appropriate or fun.  So, I designed my unit with what I felt was the best possible final assessment idea, and then just let it be.  After a few days of processing all of the thoughts and ideas swirling about my head, the perfect idea finally came to me.  So, I revised my unit before I began utilizing it in the classroom.  It felt good to put together something that I was excited about it.  Positive energy is contagious, much like common colds are in the classroom.  If we are excited about something as teachers, we will present it to our students in a way that will hopefully energize them as well.

Yesterday, I introduced the final project to the students, with much fanfare.  They were excited to get started.  Not only did they love the idea that it was a partner project, but they seemed super jazzed about the fact that they had total creative license over almost every aspect of the project.  They had very few questions after I explained the project and went over the digital version of the project that I had put together on PowerSchool.  Was that a bad thing?  No, because I’m sure questions will come up as they work, and I will field them then.  They couldn’t wait to get started.  The creative and positive energy flowing around the classroom was palpable.  The boys had smiles on their faces as they designed flags for their utopian state.  The students had deep and meaningful conversations about where in the world their state should be located based on natural disasters, closeness to the equator, and other factors.  They were thinking critically and creatively about the task at hand.  I could not have been more proud or excited than I was yesterday.  When I informed the students that it was time to pick up and prepare for their next class, you could feel, the energy level change.  They were disappointed that they could no longer work on this project.  Then, after class had ended, a few students were in the hallway discussing their plan for working on the project this weekend, outside of the classroom.  They are so excited about completing this learning task and doing well on it that they are creating a plan to work during their only chunk of free time.  Wow!  I think that says it all right there.  I created the perfect project for my students and the unit.  It took time, energy, and much thinking and searching, but I was able to do it.  Sometimes it comes down to perseverance and growth mindset.  As we teach our students the value of utilizing a growth mindset, it’s important that we remember to employ one ourselves as we are working and teaching.  Anyone can create the perfect project for their students and the unit being covered.

Below is the project description for the perfect project I introduced to my students in class yesterday:

Creating the Perfect State Project

Once you have learned all about the purpose of government, the roles of government, the features of a state, and the types of government, you will have a chance to apply that knowledge and create your own, perfect state and government.  What will your state’s territory look like on a map?  What will be the features of your population?  What form of government will your country utilize?  Be creative and have fun as you create a utopian place for all to live in harmony.


  1. Choose a partner that you feel you will be able to work with effectively, and report your selection to Mr. Holt.
  2. Create a unique, fictional island state, complete with government and population.
  3. Complete the Sovereign State worksheet with your partner.
  4. Watch Google Sites Video Tutorial to Learn how to use the Google Sites application.
  5. Create a Google Sites website to promote your country and inform others about its features.
  6. Share your website with at least two faculty members in order to receive meaningful and useful feedback that you can use to revise and improve your website.
  7. Finalize website and share it with the world.

Website Requirements

Your finished and neatly organized Google Sites website must answer and address the following questions about your unique and fictional but effective state:

  • Where in the world is your state located and what are its borders?
  • What form of government will your fictional state utilize and why?
  • What are the features of your population, including level of wealth, level of education, cultural traditions, and where people live, and why did you decide upon them?
  • How are the leaders of government and assembly selected and voted upon, and why?
  • How do elections happen in your state, and why?
  • How is your state protected, and why?
  • How are laws made in your state, and why?
  • What are the roles citizens and how are citizens protected in your state, and why?
  • What is the process by which someone who is not born in your state can become a citizen of your state, and why?
  • Why should and would outsiders want to live in or visit your state?

Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the four features of a state.
  • Students will be able to explain how the four roles of government impact a place and its people.
  • Students will be able to synthesize and apply knowledge learned regarding the roles of government and the four features of a state to create a fictional but effective country.
  • Students will be able to utilize the program Google Sites appropriately to create a working web site.

Due Date

Your finished website must be posted and made live for others to view by the end of class on Friday, November 17.

Posted in Education, Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching

Learning from Colleagues

While I wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the Crayola box when I was in school, I managed to achieve Honor Roll level grades and become a member of the National Junior Honor Society.  Because of this status and the fact that I was in mid-level courses, I was considered to be the smartest student in my classes.  Therefore, everyone wanted to sit next to me so that they could try to copy off my paper or ask for help; and when it came time to complete a group project, everyone in the class wanted to work with me.  You see, not only was I seen as one of the most intelligent students in my classes, but I was also a perfectionist, which meant that everything I turned in had to be perfect, and I never trusted anyone else to complete work that met my standards of perfection.  Students liked working with me because I did all of the work for group projects.  Interestingly enough, it seemed as though I was teaching my peers more in our classes than they were learning from the teachers.  I guess it makes sense then that I became a teacher.  I enjoy helping others through their learning journey.

As a teacher, I seek help from others, much like my peers in high school did from me.  I look to my colleagues for advice, guidance, suggestions, and ideas.  As learning is a journey with no finish line, I’m always looking to progress forward.  There is always more that I can to learn to become a better educator.  My Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan journey is helping motivate me to become an even more effective educator.  I’m learning a lot about rubrics, project and/or activity introductions, and assessments as I delve into what makes an effective rubric.  Are prescriptive rubrics the most effective way to help students understand and know what they have to do in order to meet or exceed the objectives for the task?  Would less be more in this instance?  If a rubric utilized simply stated language for each graded objective, would that better help students understand what they need to do while also allowing them to think critically about the assignment and use creativity to complete it?  What’s the best way to explain graded activities or assignments to students?  To help me answer and address the many questions that I’ve been raising regarding my ITIP topic, I’ve spoken to my fellow teachers.  I’ve had two conversations already with teachers on how they use rubrics in their classrooms, and have learned much from our conversations.

Today provided me yet another opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher.  I spoke with a history teacher about how she used and currently uses rubrics in the classroom.  What I gleaned from our conversation today was that the rubric itself doesn’t matter too much.  Students who enjoy learning and school will complete quality work with or without a rubric.  They will ask effective questions that show they are thinking critically about the task at hand.  They put forth great effort in and out of the classroom to showcase their fine understanding of the content and skills covered.  These students, if provided with a rubric, will use it as a guide to be sure they are doing what is expected of them.  If these same students are not provided with a rubric, they will still use a growth mindset to accomplish the task in a meaningful manner that highlights their great ability to think critically and creatively about what they are being asked to do to demonstrate their learning.  Rubrics don’t seem to make a difference to these students, no matter how specific the rubric may or may not be.  Then there are those students who are either apathetic or unable to show their learning in an appropriate manner.  Those students struggle to accomplish any task with or without a rubric.  This group of students can be divided into two subgroups: Students with learning difficulties and students who choose not to do well even though they could.  If provided with a rubric, the students with learning difficulties will use it as it guides them through the learning task.  They crave specificity and detail with regards to projects and assignments.  They need to know exactly what is expected of them so that they can do it.  Those students who seem not to care about completing quality work will not use a rubric as they don’t care and feel as though they already know everything.  If only they knew how detrimental to their learning journey that having a fixed mindset can be.  The moral of this story is that it doesn’t matter if we use rubrics or not when explaining graded assignments in the classroom, as 75% of our students will not make use of them anyway.  Using rubrics, according to the fantastic discussion I had today with a fellow history teacher made me realize what I’ve thought all along: Grading rubrics are unnecessary tools for students.  They confuse students, steal their thinking, and rob them of their creativity.  Overly prescriptive rubrics prevent students from needing to use critical thinking skills while broadly worded rubrics generally go unused by students.

After today’s fruitful discussion with a colleague, I’m now beginning to wonder if I should even use grading rubrics at all when introducing or explaining tasks.  What if I create rubrics for those interested students?  Make them optional.  Students can choose to see me for a rubric that they could use to guide them through the learning journey.  That might be an interesting approach to my rubric dilemma.  Perhaps I will try this method on a future task or graded assessment to determine its effectiveness.  Maybe making the rubric an optional piece that they can choose to use or not will help the 25% of my students who do make use of rubrics when completing tasks.  I like it.  What a clever idea I crafted.  If I didn’t have the conversation I did with a fellow teacher today, I doubt I would have even realized this point: Most students don’t even use rubrics when completing their work.  Talking with others has helped me grow and develop as an educator in the 17 years I’ve been working in schools.  Using the resources available to me has allowed me to become a more effective educator.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Fixing a Broken State: Having Students Apply Knowledge Learned about Government

One of my most favorite memories from history class when I was in school was the stock market game.  To teach us all about the stock market crash that happened prior to the start of WWII in our country, my teacher had us invest fictional money in the current stock market.  Each day, we spent time tabulating how much money was lost or gained.  It was so much fun competing against my classmates.  This engaging and relevant activity taught me more than any lecture or worksheet ever did in school.  As a teacher, I try to make sure that every lesson or activity I complete in the classroom leaves my students feeling the same way I did in my eighth grade history class.

For the past week, I’ve been introducing my students to the foundation of government.  We discussed the purpose of government based on the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  I then explained to them the roles of government and the requirements of a state.  While we discussed these ideas in length and I fielded many questions from the students about what it all meant, I wondered if they truly understood what effective government looks like in action.  So, to assess my students’ understanding of the big ideas we’ve been covering in Humanities class for the past week, I had them create an action plan to fix a fictional broken government.  I had a list of problems facing this fictional country on the whiteboard and then reviewed what it all meant.  I added some details for the sake of clarity and understanding.  I then had the students ask any questions they had about the state.  They asked some great questions to glean understanding from my explanation.  They were very curious.  They wanted to know if this state was a real state or something I made up.  While I made it all up, it could easily be based on a number of states from around the world, and so I shared that with them.  I was impressed with the critical thinking the students put into analyzing and assessing the information with which I provided them.  Then, working with a partner of their choosing, they had to create a written plan that showcases the action they would suggest the UN take to help this country protect the natural rights of its citizens.

The students got right to work on the task at hand.  They utilized a growth mindset as they generated unique solutions to the numerous problems facing this fictional state.  I was amazed by the innovative but realistic ideas they generated.  One group suggested that they would arm the tribes and encourage them to rebel against their dictator.  While this rebellion is going on, they would then send materials and supplies to the country to help them rebuild their shattered state.  What an interesting idea.  I pointed out how this idea can sometimes work in the real-world by sharing how Afghan soldiers were armed by outside sources to rebel against their government, which led to terrorist groups being armed and angry at America and its allies for interfering with their country’s affairs.  Another group explained how they would build schools, hospitals, and toilets in the state after assassinating the dictator.  They would then train the citizens to take care of themselves, create a government, and protect themselves against other countries.  This group, like many of the groups today, were all about empowering the citizens to solve their own problems rather than trying to inflict our control over the defunct state.  Another group explained how they would train the citizens to farm and help them create farms and grow their own food.  How creative, yet simple.  They would also ensure that the citizens had a fair and just election to choose a new, and good leader for the country.  They also shared how they would remedy the dirty water supply.  So cool.  Another group wrote about using a spy to infiltrate the dictator’s government as way of overthrowing him and removing him from power.    How James Bond.  Every group had unique and realistic ideas to help this struggling nation return to a place in which all of its citizens feel and are safe and respected.  I was amazed by the level of critical thinking they put into their action plans.

Today’s activity clearly shows how well my students understand the basic ideas of government.  It also helped make this abstract learning more real and tangible.  They had to think about how to solve problems using the information they’ve been learning over the past week.  They had fun doing it.  They were engaged in the learning as they tried to create effective solutions to the problems plaguing this broken state.  I believe this project allowed my students to feel like I did in my eighth grade history class, excited to participate in a fun and engaging project while learning about history.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Students, Teaching

Embracing Failure as Part of the Learning Process

“To fail, is to lose.  There are no second chances in life.  If you fail, you won’t make the team.  Failure is weakness.”  These are all phrases I grew up hearing on television, in school, and on the basketball court.  I was taught that failure is bad.  It was ingrained within me from an early age.  I became a perfectionist because I didn’t want to mess up and fail.  Changing my thinking and mindset on this idea took me many years.  It wasn’t until I completed a course on the neuroscience of education that I really started to see failure as a positive word and concept.  Failing is part of the learning process.  For genuine learning to take place within the minds of our students, they need to see the relevance of what we are covering.  If they try a new task or skill and fail, they are likely to learn from their mistakes and find another solution to the problem.  Failure is essential to learning.  I tell my students all the time, “I want you to fail so that you will learn.”  While many of my students look at me like I just cursed at them everytime I say this, I’m hopeful that by the end of the academic year, they will see the value and importance in taking risks, trying new things, failing, and trying again.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I took our sixth grade students outside to the new ropes course our school just built on our lovely campus.  It is amazing.  There are several elements we can use with the students.  As my co-teacher was formally trained on how to use the course, she walked the boys through a challenge entitled the Island.  The students have to work together to get all of the students to cross over three blocks of wood that are spread apart.  They can’t move the wood, they can’t touch the ground, and they can only use two wooden planks to assist them in their quest for success.  We were so excited to bring the boys outside to allow the students to apply the teamwork and community skills we’ve been working on all term.

Then came the failure.  The students were unable to complete the task after 25 minutes of trying.  They did not effectively communicate with each other, they didn’t appropriately use their bodies, they didn’t follow the rules of the challenge, and they weren’t compassionate or respectful to their peers.  It was a bit of a disaster.  My co-teacher and I never stepped in to solve these problems for the boys.  We let them fail on their own.  Then, we returned to the classroom where we had them do some self-reflection on the experience in writing.  While this ropes course activity didn’t go the way my co-teacher would have liked, I reminded her that the class needed to fail today.  If they had succeeded, then we could move them onto seventh grade right now.  We still have much to teach them.  This failure will allow us to help them learn how to effectively communicate with one another.  The boys needed to not be unsuccessful in order to learn from their mistakes.

Today during our Team Time block, I spoke with the students about effective communication.  I had them brainstorm a definition that made sense to us as a class, and I then wrote it on the board.  I then had each student share one thing the class or individual students could do to more effectively interact with their peers in meaningful and compassionate ways.  The boys had some great ideas that we talked about.  They mentioned body language, tone, word choice, and so much more.  It seemed like a productive conversation.

This discussion is a springboard into Friday when we will have the students try this same challenge once more, hopefully applying some of the strategies we spoke about today regarding effective communication.  We will begin Friday’s ropes course challenge with some debriefing in the classroom before heading outside.  We want the students to understand what they need to do to be successful at accomplishing the task.  I’m hopeful that the boys will take this opportunity to learn from Tuesday’s failure.  At this point in the year, our students are beginning to see that they need to make mistakes and fail at something in order to really learn how to do it well.  I can’t wait to see what happens on Friday.  Will they learn from their failure and complete the challenge, or will we have to revisit this challenge again later in the year?

Posted in Education, Grading, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

When Does Assessment Become Too Much?

I hated tests and quizzes when I was in school.  While I never had the battery of educational tests done to prove that I have processing issues related to test-taking, I do feel as though my stress levels go through the roof and cause my cortisol levels to force me to think and react from my amygdala during tests and quizzes.  Unfortunately for me, when I was in school, tests and quizzes were the only forms of assessment used by many of my teachers.  Since I generally did poorly on them, I struggled to maintain honor-roll level grades.  As a teacher, I learned from my experiences and rarely have students complete tests and quizzes as a form of assessment.  I try to use more holistic and creative approaches to assessment.  For example, to assess students’ understanding of forms of government, the purpose of government, and the role of government, the students have to create a website that describes and explains the perfect sovereign state.  This open-ended and creative assessment will allow the students to discuss and reflect on what was learned as they synthesize the main ideas into a utopian society.  This sort of assessment lowers the amount of stress placed on students, puts the ownership for demonstrating their learning on the students, and allows all different types of learners to be and feel successful as they showcase what they know and can do.  This is the sort of assessment I typically use for larger projects or units.  If my teachers had used this method of assessment when I was in school, I would have been much more successful and happier.

While I do make use of this type of assessment at the end of units, I also make use of all different types of assessments as a way of determining if my students can meet the objectives needed to matriculate into seventh grade.  I do use the traditional reading comprehension quizzes when checking for understanding regarding our class read-aloud novel.  I also have students draw visualization images regarding what they see in their mind as they read their self-selected reader’s workshop book to assess my students’ ability to visualize while reading.  The students are also expected to have their planbook filled out for the following week every Saturday, and so my co-teacher and I assess their ability to do this during our study skills class.  I also assess students regarding their ability to participate in class discussions during our weekly current events discussions.  My goal is to keep the assessment focused on the skill or objective itself.  A multiple-choice exam would not allow me to truly know if my students can participate in a class discussion despite which bubble they fill in that shows they know what they should do.  Varying the type of assessment so that it fits the objective being assessed is the most effective form of assessment for students.  Now, in a perfect world, I would do what some prominent neuroscientists and educational gurus suggest great teachers should do: Assess students two to three years after the information was covered.  This is almost impossible in the confinement of traditional schools.  How do we know if students are prepared for what’s to come if we don’t assess them on the skills needed to move onto the next grade?  So, we assess students during the year on the objectives being covered.

In this world of assessment and testing, I wonder how much assessing becomes too much assessment?  Students are required to complete state exams every few years and national exams frequently throughout their high school career.  Then, they also are assessed in each of their classes on a weekly or daily basis.  When does it become too much?  I’m starting to wonder if I am over-assessing my students this year.

As I reviewed current grades with my students today during their Reader’s Workshop conference, I noticed that I have far more grades entered into my gradebook than any previous year.  While at first glance it seems like a good thing, as I can easily chart and explain the progress my students are making, I wonder if I’m putting too much pressure on my students.  Does everything need to be assessed?  Why am I assessing students more frequently than ever before?

As I utilize the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade, I’m not assessing every little piece of work the students complete.  I only assess the students on the skills I need them to master so that I know they are properly prepared for seventh grade.  While I do reassess students on the same objective throughout the year, I do so as a way to be sure they have truly mastered the skills needed.  Sometimes, assessments in the moment showcase what a student knows or can do at that particular point in time, but if I want to make sure my students have genuinely mastered a skill, I need to recheck them later in the year, after we’ve moved onto new skills and content.  So, although it seems as though I have assessed the students more this year than ever before, many of those assessments are on the same objective.  This reassessment also allows me to highlight the progress the students are making towards meeting or exceeding an objective.  While some of the students struggled with certain objectives earlier in the year, many of those boys have been able to meet or exceed those same objectives at this point in the academic year.  These assessment grades are more marks of their growth as students.

However, I do still feel that I am assessing skills and objectives that I didn’t assess in previous years.  Why is that?  Why am I assessing students on objectives I never used in the past?  Well, effective teachers make the best students; therefore, each year, I change my curriculum based on new learning and effective teaching practices.  As I completed a unit on the American Election Process last year in Humanities class, I assessed students on objectives that I’m not using this year; and this year, as I’m covering the Foundations of Government, I’m assessing students on objectives I didn’t cover last year.  As I alter my course and the corresponding curriculum, my objectives will also change.  I just happen to be completing a unit now that covers more material than the civics unit I utilized last year.

On the flip-side of this issue, I have found that more assessment on my part this year has led to stronger ownership and self-awareness by my students.  They seem much more reflective and able to grow and develop because of the assessment grades and feedback I provide to them orally and via the Information Reporting System my school uses.  This is a very good outcome of what I question might be over-assessment, which goes to show that maybe because of the assessment methods I’m employing this year, my students are using these assessment grades as guideposts or benchmarks to chart their learning journey and growth as students.   The students don’t seem stressed out or nervous about these assessments as they are worked into class seamlessly.  In fact, they have gotten to the point where they are asking for assessments.  One student said to me today, “When will we be assessed on our read-aloud book again?”  They want to prove to themselves and me, their teacher, that they are making progress and learning what it takes to be an effective student.  That is awesome.

So, the moral of this story is that when assessment methods are varied and used as progress markers for the students, there can never be too much assessment.  It’s all about finding the right balance.  While I want to be sure that I prepare my students for the rigors of seventh grade and the different types of assessments they will see, I also want to be sure that my students have a meaningful year filled with progress, learning, and joy.  I want my students to see learning and school as a journey or adventure.  Some objectives or parts of their journey will prove challenging and difficult, while others may be easy.  Frequently assessing my students as a way of providing them with feedback and information on their learning progress, is an effective method of teaching and making use of assessments in the classroom.

Posted in Co-Teacher, Education, Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching

Free Professional Development: Talking with Teachers

Some of the best ideas for lessons and solutions to problems I’ve faced in the classroom over the years have come out of discussions I’ve had with my fellow teachers.  When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would often pick the brains of the kindergarten and first grade teachers for advice on how to deal with certain situations involving students.  I began using a discipline method suggested by the kindergarten teacher that really helped my students stay focused on the learning.  In my years of teaching sixth grade, I’ve had many chats with colleagues that led to trying new activities in the classroom.  Recently, I had a great talk with a fellow English teacher on how to best assess student writing and promote creativity and critical thinking throughout the writing process.  He suggested a very fun idea that I used as a learning extension project for the students in my class who had finished the revision process early.  All of this learning that I’ve done over my 17 years of teaching has helped me see that two minds are far better than one.  The best teaching ideas I’ve had came out of talks with my co-teachers.  I don’t know everything and I certainly don’t know what I don’t know.  Talking things through with others and listening to their suggestions has allowed me to grow and develop as a teacher.  While I have gained some useful tools from conferences I’ve attended and professional development texts I’ve read over the years as well, I have found talking to other teachers to be more helpful, and free.

As I’m in the beginning stages of the three-year Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan that all educators at my school continually work through, I’ve been having many conversations with colleagues about teaching.  I’m trying to understand how best to explain and introduce graded projects or activities to students so as to foster critical thinking and creativity skills.  I don’t want to spoon feed my students every last detail of a project so that I steal thinking opportunities from them, but I also don’t want them to be overly confused by an assignment.  So, what’s the best way to start a project?  I tried a differentiated grading rubric for a past writing assignment and felt like my students had very few questions.  They seemed to understand almost exactly what to do.  When I had them reflect on the usefulness of the rubric, almost every student seemed to feel as though the grading rubric helped them revise and make their work better since they used it as a guide post through their writing journey.  So, although the specificity of the grading rubric felt like overkill to me and made me wonder if I wasn’t allowing the students to struggle a bit and overcome challenges, the majority of my students felt like the rubric helped them create effective stories.  Almost every student crafted an amazing and creative story that explored an aspect of our town’s rich and diverse history.  This strange outcome then made me curious.  Was I wrong in my thinking that rubrics with much detail are ineffective ways to promote critical thinking and creativity?  To help me understand this, I began seeking guidance from other teachers at my school.

In the past week, I’ve talked to two teachers about how they introduce projects and use grading rubrics.  The math teacher I spoke with explained how when she used a grading rubric with simple explanations and no specific details, the students asked many clarifying questions on how to complete the task and meet the expectations for the assignment.  Great, I thought.  This is what I was hoping to hear.  We want our students to ask questions.  This gives me hope that my hypothesis is correct.  Then, yesterday I had a chance to speak with a seventh grade English teacher who recently had her students complete a project that utilized a very prescriptive rubric.  She said that the students asked very few questions because the rubric detailed every aspect of the writing process.  She did seem to have the same outcome that I had seen in my class.  The students all seemed to like the rubric because it served as a guide while they worked.  Her students all completed fine essays, perhaps because of the specific rubric with which she had provided them.  This data again goes against my original thought that specific rubrics are ineffective in the classroom.  While I’m okay with being wrong, I’m perplexed by what I’m learning.  I thought for sure that telling students information is a passive learning experience for the students.  In order to promote active learning, we need our students to ask questions and engage in the learning process, and detailed rubrics don’t do this; however, so far I’m finding that detailed rubrics do allow students to be and feel more successful when completing projects and graded assignments.  I wonder if students need specificity and much detail when completing a writing task or project, but need less information and telling from the teacher during the learning process.  Interesting.  I never thought about it like that before.

So, now that my learning journey as veered off the beaten path that I thought for sure it would stay on, I’m curious.  What next?  Well, I’m trying something completely different for the next two projects I’m completing in my study skills and Humanities classes in the coming weeks.  For the Humanities project, I’m not using a specific grading rubric at all.  Instead, I’m going to describe what they need to do with a series of steps.  I am only going to list the graded objectives without explaining what they need to do to meet or exceed them.  I’m hoping that this lack of detail will allow the students to ask many questions as they try to wrap their heads around the task.  I think that it will also inspire more creativity as I’m being less prescriptive in my explanation of the task.  For the study skills class project that my students will be completing next week, I’ve split the class into two groups.  One group will have a specific grading rubric with much detail on the requirements, while the other group will have just a basic list of steps and the graded objectives, much like I’m doing for the Humanities project.  I want to see which group is promoted to ask more questions and complete more creative, detailed work.  Now that my thinking is beginning to change on this topic of project introductions and assessments, I’m unsure of what the outcome might look like.  I think that the group with the grading rubric will be able to complete more creative projects while the group with the less detailed project explanation will make use of their critical thinking skills more to complete the assignment.

What I’m learning through this process is that if I didn’t talk to other teachers about this topic, I would be stuck in thinking that my way is the only way; and, therefore I would be doing no genuine learning.  In speaking with my colleagues on the subject of rubrics and assessment introductions, I’m realizing that perhaps I’m only partially accurate in how I think about rubrics.  As I gather more data and speak with more teachers, I’m hopeful that this murky pool of understanding will become more clear.  Free in-house professional development is far more useful than any conference or academic text teachers can read, or well, at least it has been for more.