How Can We Help Students Learn to Grow and Improve?

Have you ever tried something new and realized you made a huge mistake?  I’m sure we’ve all been down that road before.  I was completely convinced, due to their fantastic marketing campaign, that the new ice cream brand with the chocolate shell around the outside was going to be my new go-to dessert treat.  Unfortunately, it was a bust.  The ice cream lacked genuine flavor and the shell was super difficult to scrape away from the walls of the container.  I went out on a limb, only to have it crack and fall away from me.  That’s life though, right.  We take risks every day when we leave our dwellings.  Roof tiles could fly off and hit us.  We could be in a car accident.  We could trip and fall down a hole leading to Narnia.  Good things can also come our way on a daily basis.  We could buy a scratch ticket and win thousands of dollars.  We could rescue a puppy.  The sun could shine and remind us of how lucky we are to be alive.  Life is a gamble.  We just try our best to get by and do what we believe is right for us and the world.  We never really know what’s going to happen tomorrow.  We should live our lives to the fullest each and every day.  We should take risks and try new things whenever possible.  Sure, some of those risks will not pay off and in turn be mistakes, but that’s how we learn.  We learn by making mistakes, by failing.  I learned how to ride my bike by falling off of it 17,000 times.  I still have the scars on my left knee to prove it.  We need to break free of our comfort zone and embrace life.  Some days will be hard, really hard.  Some choices we make may result in tears or loss, but the best things in life are only the best because the journey to acquire them is long and arduous.  If I had learned to ride my bike on the first try, I would not have spent every waking moment each summer on it.  Because learning to ride a bike was challenging, when I finally did learn, it so amazing.  My perseverance and quest were what made it so sweet.  So, even if that one new thing you try doesn’t work out as expected, don’t give up, just, as Joe Dirt once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”

As a teacher, I have to embrace new ideas and risks on a daily basis if I want to be the best teacher for my students.  I need to try new approaches and practices in the classroom to best support and help all of my students.  What works with one student may not work with another.  How I teach a unit one year may be really effective, but it might not work the next year due to the students in my class.  I need to be flexible, adaptive, and open to trying new things.  Talk about a Growth Mindset.  Great teachers must always possess that “I can” attitude.  We can’t crumble under the mountain of work we have to do each and every day.  We can’t walk away when things become difficult in the classroom or during a parent conference.  We keep going and going like the Energizer bunny, until we have helped all of our students taste and feel success.  Yes, some days are tough.  The emotional scars our students have would shock most ordinary folk who do not work with children.  As teachers and caregivers, we need to face this baggage head on.  We need to help our students learn and grow in the face of adversity.  We need to fight the good fight no matter how hard it may be.  But isn’t that why we became teachers?  To help students?  To help them see the light at the end of the struggle?  Indeed it is.  We didn’t get into education because we thought it was going to be easy.  We got into the teaching profession to make a difference, to struggle, to be uncomfortable, to try new things, to fail, and to have fun.  When our students smile because they finally understand a challenging concept or realize that they can do something they thought impossible, it makes the journey totally worthwhile.

To help my students gauge their progress in the fifth grade, I provide them with feedback on their effort, focus, and attitude in the classroom on a daily basis.  I want my students to know what they do well and what they still need to work on to improve.  Life and learning are non-stop adventures.  We can always grow and improve.  I want my students to know and understand how they are progressing in school.  I want them to see that their choices impact themselves and others.  I want them to know the great things they do.  I also want them to understand that mistakes are opportunities for learning.  So, I enter a grade and much specific feedback on Google Classroom for the students to see each and every day.  This process takes about 15 to 20 minutes each afternoon or evening.  I have found that it really helps the students know the expectations as well as ways they can improve, especially during the first few weeks of the year.

While most of the students read this feedback quite regularly during the start of the school year, they stop checking their daily effort grade and feedback after a few months.  Despite the great advice that lives in these comments they receive each day, the students only find them useful for a short period of time.  Does that mean they no longer need the feedback?  Do they know themselves as learners in two months and can draw their own conclusions about how they are doing in school?  Why do some of the students stop checking their grades and feedback?  So, I began thinking of new ways to provide my students with feedback on their progress, and that’s when it hit me like a sack of Honey Crisp apples.  At our school, we empower our students to own their learning.  Our goal for students who graduate from the Beech Hill School is that they will know themselves as learners.  They will understand their strengths and weaknesses, and have strategies to address challenges faced in and out of the classroom.  They will be self-reliant and independent young people who are reflective and thoughtful.  But, does that happen by having teachers tell them how they are doing in their classes?  No, they learn to advocate for themselves and truly understand how to continue to learn and grow.  They ask questions and seek guidance on their own.  That’s when I realized that if I want my students to get to that point by the time they graduate the eighth grade, I need to change my practice of giving them feedback.  I can’t steal their thinking.  I need to help them learn how to think for themselves and self-assess.  I need my students to learn how to know themselves as students and learners.  I need them to see their strengths and weaknesses.  By providing them feedback on all of these things, I’m preventing them from being able to do so on their own.  Perhaps that’s why they stop reading them, because they see no value in the empty feedback I am giving them.  So, what if I turn the tables and have my students provide themselves with feedback on their progress?  Ownership is something we value at our school.  Do fifth graders really have the metacognition needed to genuinely know how they are doing in school?  Perhaps some of them might.  How do they learn to be aware of themselves as students if we don’t allow them to practice?  What if I scaffold the process in the fifth grade?  And that is just what I did last week.  I moved away from me providing them with feedback and transformed it into a dialogue.

Throughout the day, the students self-assessed themselves on their effort, focus, and progress in each class or activity last week.  They made notes on paper they kept on their desks or in their pockets.  At the close of each day, the students checked in with me to review their progress.  They shared their self-reflection and self-assessment with me.  In most cases they were spot on.  They were able to see what I saw.  They really do understand themselves as students and learners.  These conversations were very quick and short.  I agreed with the student and asked them what they need to work on for the following day.  Once or twice though, a student’s perspective was slightly askew and so they needed guidance in how to accurately understand their strengths and weaknesses.  These were the fun conferences because they forced me to brainstorm specific and meaningful ways to help them understand their struggles or successes in the classroom.  I have one student who doubts her abilities in Math.  She doesn’t believe that she is a strong Math student, when in reality she is quite strong.  Because she had negative experiences in Math at her past school, her self-esteem in regards to Math is very low.  I’m working to help her believe in herself and see the strength she has within to do great things in Math.  Even these longer conversations took no more than two minutes to conduct.  I would share my insight with the student and ask them what they need to work on for the next day.  That was that.

While it’s only been one week, I feel as though turning the process over to the students has made a difference.  They are now owning their learning and choices, as they have to summarize and discuss their daily progress with me.  They have to admit their struggles and areas of success to me each afternoon.  The students seemed to be more thoughtful in the classroom towards the end of the week, I believe, because of this new feedback method.  Who wants to admit, aloud to their teacher, that they were completely rude and disrespectful in class or unfocused?  The students want to share positive things and so they are working towards being more focused, thoughtful, and mindful in the classroom so that the conferences are short, concise, and positive.  Will they always be that way?  Of course not, because life happens.  No one is perfect and students will have bad days, as will their teachers.  Some conferences may be difficult for the students, but they will most definitely be useful and helpful for them to learn how to be self-aware of themselves as students.  I’m really liking that I took a risk and tried something new to better support and help my students continue to learn and grow.

Grading Rubrics Not Required

Picture this… It’s Christmas morning.  You wake up super early, filled with excitement and glee.  What did Santa bring you this year, you wonder as you leap from your bed.  You run downstairs to check out all of the awesome gifts the jolly man in red left waiting for you under the tree.  It’s that remote-control car you asked for.  Yes!  You tear into the box and attempt to extract it.  Unfortunately, it is screwed down.  So, you ask your parents for help.  After hours of trying to find the only screwdriver in the house, they finally manage to pull the car and remote from the box for you.  Your eyes sparkle like waves in the blue ocean.  You can’t wait to play with your fancy new car.  You try to turn it on when realize that it requires batteries.  You scream to your parents that you need 16 AA batteries for the car and remote.  Sadly, they respond, “We only have four AA batteries.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”  Tomorrow?!  You can’t wait until tomorrow to take your new car out for a test ride.  You need to do it today.  So, you scavenge the house for batteries.  You take two from the television remote, two from the VCR remote, and two from each of the four smoke detectors in your place.  You now have enough batteries.  Let’s just hope that nothing catches on fire in the next few days.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of needing an excessive amount of batteries for everything.  While you always seemed to have batteries when you didn’t need them, you never had them when you did need them.  Although times have changed, many other things haven’t.  We still need batteries for almost everything, you still shouldn’t walk home alone, and remote-control cars are still super fun to play with, no matter how old you are.

Like remote control-cars need batteries, teachers have always thought that every graded assignment or project should include a grading rubric to guide students through the task.  “How will the students know what to do unless we tell them exactly what is expected of them?  We need to force feed them everything.  Students can’t think for themselves.  We need to take thinking out of the equation.”  And this line of thinking is exactly what has led to such a decline in American students going onto become engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.  If we want students to think critically, creatively, and learn to become problem solvers, we need to empower them to do the thinking.  Rather than explain in great detail what they need to do to meet an objective, we should provide the students with a very brief outline of a task or project and allow them to figure out the specifics on their own.  This way, they will learn to ask questions and think outside the box when working toward mastery in a particular area.  Unlike how the world still needs batteries, schools and learning don’t still need grading rubrics.

In my Humanities class today, I introduced the final project for our foray into poetry.  I made no rubric for this project, but instead created a simple outline of the requirements.

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I introduced the project to the students by going over this outline.  I then fielded the numerous questions the students had, which I had hoped they would.  By not providing them exact parameters on how to meet or exceed the three graded objectives, they have to think about what they will need to do to solve the problem.  This contemplation leads to questions, which I love because then I know they are the ones doing the learning.  They asked lots of clarifying questions, which I joyfully answered.  They even asked questions that I didn’t even think they would ask.  I love how my students continue to surprise me daily.

By not having a detailed rubric for this project, I’ve put the ownership and learning on the students.  Am I worried about the outcome?  No, because I’ve created an atmosphere of compassion, learning, and challenge in my classroom.  My students put great effort into meeting and exceeding every objective because they know it’s the right thing to do.  They work hard because they want to and see the benefit in doing so.  They are motivated because of the family spirit I’ve worked very hard to create in the classroom.  They don’t need me to explain and spell out every aspect of how to meet or exceed each of the three graded objectives, because they want to do well to exceed them, and will, therefore, do whatever it takes to solve problems encountered or address questions that arise, on their own.  Students who want to do well, will do well with or without a grading rubric.  Why waste my precious time as a teacher and steal their creativity and thinking by crafting a rubric for every project?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.

After this short preview of the project, I let them get to work on editing and revising their Haiku and Sonnet poems.  This is the point when I saw, firsthand, how unnecessary grading rubrics are when you foster a sense of challenge and can-do-ness in the classroom.  Some of the students revised their poems on their own, while others worked with a table partner to edit and revise their work.  They coexisted in such meaningful ways, helping to make their partner an even stronger and better poet.  It was amazing.  Those students who worked independently, took the time to carefully comb through every word and line of their poems to make sure that they included figurative language and really painted the perfect image in the mind of their readers.  I was so impressed.  One student who had quickly thrown together the sloppy copy of his Haikus a few weeks ago, took the time to make them meaningful, relevant, and brilliant.  He changed words and added new meaning and dimension.  Wow!  Other students wanted to challenge themselves one step further by crafting all new poems.  They wanted to be sure that they displayed their growth as a poet over the course of this unit, and utilized all of the tricks, tips, and strategies learned to craft new, better poems.  It was so much fun to watch and observe the students working.  The positive energy in the room was palpable.  The boys were having fun revising their work and growing, right in front of my eyes, as writers and poets.  And, they didn’t need a grading rubric to tell them to do this.  They just did so because that’s what we do in my classroom.  The bar of excellence is set high so that they are constantly able to grow and challenge themselves as learners.

I’ve realized, throughout my research into grading rubrics this year, that they are an old technology.  Teachers no longer need to provide their students with grading rubrics.  Instead, great teachers inspire their students to ask questions, think creatively, and solve their own problems so that they learn to become critical thinkers who can tackle any problem encountered.  So, my advice to you all is to ditch the grading rubrics and turn the learning over to your students.

The Power of Being a Role Model for my Students

Staring at the computer screen, my mind wandered…  I thought about thoughts unrelated to my day.  Why is this screen so bright?  Who made this computer?  How did someone come up with the idea to make computers?  Why do we rely on computers so much as a society?  Then I started to think about other innovations and inventions, like the light bulb and sliced bread.  How did they come about as inventions?  Was it one person or many people who pondered those problems?  Were they successful on the first try or did it take multiple attempts?  As we know, the greatest inventions did not come about on the first try.  Great inventors and scientists spent much time trying out ideas, failing, revising their work, and trying again.  The best things in life take lots of practice, hard work, and failure.  Just imagine, though, if people didn’t take risks and try new things, I might be typing this blog entry on a typewriter and submitting it to my local newspaper for publication.  Risks, hard work, failure, and perseverance lead to innovation and change.

As a teacher, I see the value in this problem-solving formula.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, then I need to help them see how important risk taking, hard work, and perseverance are to creativity and innovation.  I need my students to know how to solve problems they encounter in new and unique ways.  I want my students to fail so that they learn how to rise up and overcome adversity.  So, I teach my students this process day in and day out.  I constantly challenge my students to think big and ask why.  I want them to always be looking for how they can make this world a better, safer, and more effective place for all to live.  I empower them to question everything.  I want my students to find problems in their world and then devise and create viable solutions for them.  I train my students to be change makers and innovators, because, as I’m always telling them, “One of you could find the cure for cancer or the solution to poverty around the world some day.”  I teach my students to be self-aware so that they can change things and make the world a better place for all people.

One easy way for me to help my students learn these valuable risk-taking skills is by modelling the desired behavior.  If I want my students to take risks and try new things, then I need to do the same.  So today, I unveiled a new grading procedure, with the caveat that it’s something new and it might fail.  It might not work out the way I have intended, but I want to try and see what happens.

As we utilize the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade, we are often entering grades with meaningful feedback into our grading portal.  The students always know how they stand in terms of meeting the standards in preparation for the seventh grade.  They can check their grades via our online grading system at any time and know how they are progressing towards the graded objectives.  As my school requires that we also grade our students on their effort in class, we also need to assess their effort on a daily basis.  Although I take mental notes on their daily effort in class, I don’t necessarily make note of this anywhere.  I don’t enter their daily effort into our grading system.  I wait until the end of each marking period to enter their effort grades.  For many of our students, this is frustrating.  While they always know their achievement grades, they are always wondering about their effort grades.  “What is my effort grade in Humanities?” my students will often ask.  Sure, I can answer them with a ballpark number and some trite feedback, but I feel as though I can’t provide them with meaningful and relevant feedback that will promote growth and development.  So, this got me thinking…  How can I help my students know the reality of their effort on a daily basis, so that they can make the necessary changes to become the best students possible?

So, I decided to pilot something for the final term of our academic year.  Every day, I will enter an effort grade for each of their major classes, based on their daily effort.  Are they focused and on task during the period?  Are they prepared for class?  Did they complete the homework?  Are they being a good classmate?  Along with the effort grade, I will include specific feedback on their performance.  If they need to improve in certain areas, I will include that in the feedback.  If they do well in other areas, I will also cite that in the feedback.  I want my students to know exactly how they are performing in all areas of academic life so that they know their areas of strength and weakness.  These daily effort marks and feedback comments will help my students see what they do well and what they still need to work on.  I’m hoping that this change will better support my students as they grow into the best versions of themselves.

Now, I don’t know if this change to how I grade and assess the students will work with our grading system.  Perhaps it will mess things up.  Maybe the average won’t work right or explain the reality of their effort to the students.  Maybe the students will be confused by the data that appears in their grading portal.  What if I don’t have time to enter these grades daily?  What if this change doesn’t make a difference for my students?  What if they still keep asking me for more feedback or help in interpreting their grades?  What if this change ends up being a failure?  What if Einstein said, “Oh, this Theory of Relativity stuff is too hard.  I’m just going to give up.”  What if Thomas Jefferson gave up on making the light bulb?  We’d be in the dark right now.  I can’t let the possibility of failure prevent me from trying new things.  If this effort grading trial fails, then I will make some changes and try something else.  I will not let setbacks and failure prevent me from trying things.  Like my students, I will learn from my mistakes and find a new way to solve my problem.  I won’t give up, no matter what.  I’m hopeful that by me modelling this idea of trying new things, taking risks, and persevering, my students will see the value in the problem-solving process.

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.

Do Grading Rubrics Hurt or Help Students?

Many eons ago, back when I was just a young lad in school, I felt as though word of grading rubrics hadn’t reached my school district in the small state of New Hampshire; therefore, my teachers only ever told us about assignments with very few details on what to include and how to receive the grade we wanted to work towards earning.  “You will need to write a 3-page essay, due on Friday, explaining the impact of WWII on the world,” was similar to how many of my teachers informed us of graded assignments or projects.  They provided very little detail on what was expected of us as students.  Did I need to use complete sentences?  Was I required to include a bibliography?  Did I need to include support from my sources?  How was I supposed to earn an A on this essay if my teachers never told me what was expected?

I am a very concrete thinker who craves feedback and specific instructions.  Just tell me exactly what to do and how to do it, and I will get it done as soon as possible.  I don’t like gray area or instructions that are open to interpretation.  “Attach piece A to piece B” kind of instructions frustrate me because I don’t know how they want me to do what is being asked of me.  I like things clearly spelled out for me. “Using two of the 1/4″ screws, attach piece A to piece B as displayed in the image below.”  Now those are my kind of directions, as I know exactly what is being asked of me.

In school, I was the very same way.  I hated that my teachers never clearly or specifically explained assignments to me.  Even when I asked for clarification on what was being asked of me, my teachers provided me with very little explanation.  Why?  What purpose does confusion serve?  If they want me to do something in a specific manner, then they need to tell me, I often thought.  And, it was clear that my teachers had a specific set of expectations in mind when assigning tasks to us because not everyone received the same grade, which meant that they wanted us to include support from our sources, include a bibliography, and use complete paragraphs and sentences.  So, if they had in mind what they wanted us to do, why did they not tell us?  Why keep us in the dark?  Ohh how frustrating that was for me.

When I first became a teacher, I employed grading tactics that I wished my teachers had utilized.  I provided my students with specific details and rubrics regarding assignments, as I wanted them to know exactly what was being asked of them.  I detailed every last expectation in these grading rubrics including font size, number of paragraphs, and everything else in between.  I wanted my students to be informed and not confused.  I feel like this method of grading worked.  My students knew what to do, and they either chose to do it or not do it.  Those who didn’t do what was expected of them chose not to do it rather than being unaware of what was expected.  My students knew how their grades were calculated and had very few questions about grading and assignments.  Rubrics allowed my students to know exactly what they needed to do for every graded assignment, and there was no room for interpretation or confusion.  I liked that, at first.

But what about creativity and problem solving?  If I always told my students exactly what was expected of them for various assignments, how did I know if they could think critically or solve problems on their own?  In this day and age, people need to know how to think for themselves in creative and innovative ways.  If teachers are always spelling out exactly what students need to know and show, then how will they ever learn how to create and solve problems on their own?

It was then that I began to realize why my teachers did what they did when I was in school.  They wanted me to be creative, interpret directions, and solve problems.  They didn’t want me to simply regurgitate what I had learned in class.  They wanted me to think critically about facts and information learned in order to analyze and interpret them.  While I used a fixed mindset in school, I now realize what my teachers were trying to get me to do.  They wanted me to utilize a growth mindset so that I could become the best student possible, which is why they didn’t use grading rubrics or specifically detail assignments for me.  Regardless of their goals and hopes for me, I was still a very frustrated student.

So, I realized, that as a teacher, I needed to strike a balance between explaining assignments and preventing creativity from happening.  That’s when I began to do away with grading rubrics and instead explained assignments to students and answered any questions my students had about the task or what was being asked of them.  Rather than detail every part of the objective and assignment, I allowed the students to think for themselves and ask questions regarding what they wanted to know about the expectations.  This way, I hoped, to inspire more creativity and individual problem solving within my students.  While I believe that over the past few years since I’ve been using this model of introducing graded assignments, I’ve also helped my students learn how to think creatively and critically in order to solve problems on their own, I don’t have any data to support this claim.

As I crafted my Individualized Teacher Action Plan (ITIP) for this coming academic year, I began to realize what I wanted to focus on: Grading and rubrics.  Do detailed and specific rubrics hurt or help students?  If teachers provide too much information on grading rubrics, will students be unable to be creative in completing the task or assignment?  Should teachers use grading rubrics to introduce assignments to students?  What works and what doesn’t?  I want to know, unequivocally, if my current thought on grading rubrics is actually the best and most effective way to approach the introduction of assignments.

I spent several days researching this topic online to find out what was already written on the topic.  I can’t possibly be the first teacher to have this thought or question.  While I did find much information on grading and rubrics in general, I did not find an exact answer to my question.  Therefore, I’m going to spend time this year collecting and gathering data on rubrics and grading.  What is the best and most effective way to introduce assignments to students so as to inform them of the expectations, but not curtail their creativity?

I have already created two graded assignments, with two different explanations for my students.  Half of my students will receive a specific and detailed grading rubric for a task, while the other half will receive a brief explanation of the assignment.  Once the students have completed the task, I will assess, without grading, the quality of creativity and problem solving the two groups of students used when completing the task.  Did one group demonstrate more creativity than the other group?  I will then seek feedback from the students to find out how the assignment went for them.  Did they understand what was being asked of them?  Did the rubric provide too much information for them?  Did one group feel better equipped to tackle the task than the other group?  After doing this a few times over the first half of the year, I will reflect on the data gathered and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students.  I will then create task introductions based on what seems to be working best for my students, and hopefully, find the perfect balance between too much and not enough information regarding the expectations for assignments.

I also created a survey that I sent out to my students to complete prior to the start of the school year.  I want to find out how they were graded at their previous schools.  I also want to know what their experience with grading rubrics is and how they feel about them.  In collecting this data, I hope to be able to introduce and explain assignments and tasks to my students in meaningful and personalized ways so as to support and challenge my students accordingly.  I can’t wait to begin receiving the results of this survey.  What do my students think about grading and rubrics?

Once I begin to gather data and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students, I will update you all on my progress and the results of this study.  Do grading rubrics hurt or help students?

Offering Second Chances in the Classroom

I’ve made many mistakes in my short life.  I’ve forgotten to put the toilet seat down, leave a tip at a restaurant, and put money in the parking meter.  I’m far from perfect.  Luckily though, I was given second chances to prove my true worth as a person.  I make sure to tip at least 20% when I go out to eat with my family, put more money than is necessary in parking meters, and almost always put the seat down after using the toilet.  Because I had other chances to make my mistakes right, I learned much from these experiences.  I wonder if I would have learned from those indiscretions had I not been given the opportunity to make better choices and fix my mistakes.

Like me, my students need to be provided second chances when they make mistakes as failure is a crucial part of the learning process.  If I don’t provide my students chances to learn from their mistakes, how will they ever learn the value in trying and failing?  I don’t expect perfection and so I want my students to feel supported and cared for; therefore, I need to allow my students to redo work that does not meet the objectives so that they learn, now, while they are still in school, how to make the right choices.  If students do not meet the graded objectives when their work is assessed, they need to redo the assignment until it at least meets the objectives.  This usually starts with a conversation.  “Why did you not meet the objectives?” I might ask the student.  I will then refer to the assignment rubric or instructions, asking them to read the assignment requirements aloud to me.  During this process, they are usually able to notice what they did not do correctly or accurately.  I then ask them if they understand what it is they need to do.  I want to be sure they comprehend what is being asked of them.  If a student fails to include an opening sentence in his paragraph and that is one of the requirements, I might ask the student if they know what a topic sentence is before I let them work on their own.  The students are then on their own to redo the assignment by the close of the term or unit.  When they turn in their work, I meet with them to conference about the work and process involved.  I want to be able to praise them for putting in the extra effort to redo their work while also reminding them of the importance of following instructions and completing work ahead of time so that they can receive feedback before the assignment is due.  I want my students to value the importance of effort and focus on the skills rather than the final grade.  Providing students with a second chance to meet graded objectives allows this ethos to be developed within the students.

This afternoon, I met with a student who had to redo a major STEM project that was due back in early February.  Because he failed to meet the four objectives on which the assignment was being assessed, he needed to redo the project.  While he had redone it two weeks ago, he had left it with his mother who had flown back to Korea.  So, she needed to send it to the school.  When I reviewed the math storybook that he had crafted, I realized he was missing one crucial requirement.  He did not include a sample problem that showed he understood how to apply the four steps of the problem solving process.  Rather than have him redo his book again just to include this page, I had him orally walk me through one of his problems using the four-step problem solving process.  As I had thought, he understood the process and was able to correctly apply the four steps when solving a math word problem.  Had I not met with him and simply had him turn the assignment in, I would not have been able to ask him follow-up questions or check for understanding in an informal manner.  I would have only been able to grade him on what I had in front of me.  Although he did not meet the original deadline, I am much more concerned with this particular student’s ability to follow and interpret directions.  He has struggled with this issue all year.  So, I wanted to give him a chance to really look at the requirements and redo the work in a way that allowed him to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives.  Giving him this second chance and having a conversation with him this afternoon, helped him understand why following directions and completing work prior to the due dates in order to receive feedback are such crucial skills he needs to focus on moving forward.  School should never be about grades or deadlines, it’s about progress, growth, and character development.

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.


Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.


Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.


While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.


Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.


In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.


At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.


Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.


At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Are Grades Motivators or Destructive Forces?

Ahh, grades.  Can I get an A?  Give me a B!  What does that spell?  Nothing, because grades are useless.  Right?  Well, as a teacher I’ve always been torn when it comes time to assess students.  Rather than “give” a student an A, B, C, D, or any other random letter grade, I’d rather have a conversation with the student about their progress in working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives being assessed through the assignment.  Jotting down a letter at the top of a student’s paper seems futile and destructive to me.  What does an A really mean?  Does it mean the student is awesome or awful?  Grading in the traditional sense seems confining and feeds our society’s need to clarify and classify everything.

“How is my son doing in school?” a parent might ask.

“Well, he’s got an A right now,” a teacher might respond.

“Oh great.  Thanks so much.  Now I know exactly how my son is doing in school and so I can be happy,” the parent might come back with.

“Well, no actually.  He’s quite the bully and not very nice to his classmates,” the teacher might add.

“But you said he’s got an A.  I don’t understand,” the parent might say.

See how confusing grades can be in a society driven to label everything.  Parents and students see grades as labels.  Don’t we already label our students enough?  Must we add grade labels too?  Can’t we document a student’s progress in class based on how they are working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives?  Wouldn’t that paint more of a complete picture of the student?  While I do write comments like this at each midterm, I also have to grade the students at the end of the term with a single letter.  I dislike that part of my job very much.  I feel as though grades alone show nothing more than a random letter that people have attached labels to over time.  I worry that grades make students anxious or nervous and cause them to complete work that is not authentic because they are worried about the grade they might receive.  Heck, I used to do that in school.  If I knew that a particular teacher gave me As when I wrote about a certain topic or in a specific voice, I would do that for every assignment.  I didn’t try to be honest with myself and grow as a student.  Instead, I worked for the grade.  I felt like a seal in a zoo working for a fish.  I don’t wish this for my students in the least.  I want them to be free thinkers, creators, engineers, designers, and fun makers.  How can I promote this while also “giving” students grades?  I wrestle with this on a daily basis.  Perhaps one day my school will change to objectives or standards based assessment and grades will become a thing of the past.  That day can’t come soon enough.

However, to play devil’s advocate, I do wonder, sometimes, in some situations, if grades motivate students.  Over the recent Thanksgiving Break, my school sent term grades to the students and their families.  I received a few emails from parents about the grades during this time.  Luckily, they were supportive and curious emails and not accusatory and punitive messages.  Clearly, some parents reviewed the grades with their sons over the vacation.  For many of my students, these messages seemed to have resonated with the boys as I saw a huge change from many of the students in class today.  Today was the first day of classes since break.  The students who seemed to struggle the most at the end of the fall term were the most attentive and focused in the classroom today.  They asked for help and put forth effort I hadn’t seen from them all year.  Now, I do realize that this is only day one following break and perhaps the honeymoon phase is once again upon us, but, I do like what I saw today in class.  The students seem ready to make more positive choices and put forth greater effort to show their true potential as students and thinkers.  I was impressed.  Prior to grades being released, these students didn’t show this same kind of effort despite the numerous conversations I had with them about their performance in and out of class.  Nothing seemed to motivate them.  So, did the grades light the fire underneath them that I saw today in the classroom?  Were they so moved by their perceived “low” grades that they decided to come back with a vengeance?  Did the grades really motivate the students or was it something else entirely?  Perhaps their parents bribed them over vacation to get better grades.  “If you get an A, we’ll buy you a Playstation 4.”  Could that be the cause that brought about the change I saw today?  Who knows.  What I do know, though, is that grades may not be all bad.  Perhaps grades can help motivate or convince students to put forth more effort in the classroom.  Wouldn’t it be nice if students could be intrinsically motivated rather than needing some sort of external motivation like grades?  In a perfect world, I would eliminate grades from schools and focus on progress, effort, and the objectives.  In the meantime, I might need to adjust my perspective on grades and the grading process.  Maybe grades aren’t all purely evil like I once thought.

Personal Summer Reading Part II

Grading has always been a sore spot for me as a student and a teacher.  What does an A really mean?  How do I know what skills I’ve mastered if all I see is a big, fat red A at the top of my paper?  How can I help my students learn to focus on the skills and process of learning instead of the grades?  Why is our society so focused on grading and assessing everything?  This hotel received 3/4 stars.  So what?  What does that really mean?  The problem with grading is that despite using the best objectives, grading is almost always subjective.  So, then why do we grade our students?  If grading only negatively impacts students, why do we continue to do it?

In Sir Ken Robinson’s book Creative Schools, he devotes several chapters to talking about grading and assessment.  He tells the story of a teacher who struggled with grading and so got rid of it in his classroom.  However, at the end of every marking period, his school makes him report grades out to parents.  So, at that point, he asks the students to give themselves a grade based on their progress towards the learning targets.  He reported that they were almost always spot on or even a little too tough on themselves.  When we help students focus on the process of learning and growing instead of grading, students are more able to focus on what really matters: Learning and growing as students.  With the vast amount of research available that shows how standardized testing and formalized assessments destroy the educational process and negatively impact teachers, students, families, and schools, it’s baffling to me why our world is still implementing them.  The old adage, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply to grading and assessment in our country because our current model is indeed very broken.  We need to rethink how we assess our students.

In Robinson’s book he goes into detail about how some schools and teachers are doing away with grades to focus on the entire learning process.  They start by answering this question: What skills do students really need to be equipped with in order to be successful global citizens?  Then, they work with the students to help guide them towards understanding.  They utilize project based learning and real-world problems for the students to solve.  Following each project, the teacher meets with each student and debriefs the process.  What skills did you learn and how?  What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  What skills do you still need to work towards meeting?  How can I help you meet your learning goals moving forward?  Grading and assessment then becomes a learning process deeply rooted in self-reflection and conversations.  Through this paradigm shift, strong relationships are formed between the teacher and the students that will allow for more genuine learning and growth to take place in and out of the classroom.

While I would love to see my school move in this direction, I know that we can’t because of the secondary schools that many of our students attend.  They still utilize the traditional grading system and, in the words of my school’s administration, “Wouldn’t understand what our new grading system tells them about our students.”  They worry that our students wouldn’t get into the schools that we are currently sending our students onto.  So, for that reason alone, I’m forever going to be on an island.  Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to send out an SOS and move back to the dark side of letter grades.  Oh no.  I’m still going to fight the good fight and continue to rethink how I grade and assess my sixth graders.

I currently use the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade.  We don’t talk about letter grades even though the school makes us report letter grades out at the end of every marking period.  We talk about the four-point scale we use to measure the progress our students make towards the learning objectives.  We have conversations with the students throughout the year to debrief their learning process.  We provide them with clear and specific feedback on their progress and what they still need to work on.  The students are continuously self-evaluating themselves and reflecting upon their progress.  By the close of the academic year, the students have a good handle on their learning process.  However, I do feel that some students struggle to see outside of the realm of letter grades.  They have been taught their whole lives to strive for As even though they have no idea what that really means.  When we try to help them see beyond grades and look at the skills needed to be successful students, some of them struggle to see the light.  So, as a teacher, I need to work on helping students see the value in our grading system.

At the start of the year, I need to get the students talking about grading.  What does grading and assessment mean?  Are they good or bad and why?  Why do teachers grade students?  What do grades mean?  How do grades make you feel?  How do grades impact you?  Then, once we have started the students talking and thinking, we need to change the dialect.  Assessment is a vital part of the learning process for every student.  Teachers need to know where students are on the path to learning enlightenment so that they can best support and help them continue to grow and develop.  In the sixth grade, we will be assessing you on a series of learning objectives that you will need to demonstrate proficiency in.  We want to help each of you understand where you fall along this learning continuum and so we will be meeting with you throughout the year following assessments to help you understand your strengths and challenges.  We use a four-point scale on which to do this.  I would then use a mountain as a metaphor for the entire learning process.  Life is like a series of peaks in a mountain range.  Each peak gets progressively taller and more difficult.  At the start of each new learning adventure or grade, you begin at the bottom of the new peak and have to work your way upwards.  Sure, you will stumble and fall, but your teachers and families will be there to belay and support you along the way.  Hopefully this metaphor will help the students see why and how we utilize a different method of grading in the sixth grade.  I want to try something new to better help the students see their year in the sixth grade as a learning process and not another boring year in a classroom filled with desks.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part V

I worked with a student a few years ago in my science class who quickly grew bored of the traditional kind of education that included reading a text, taking notes, and answering questions.  He demonstrated his understanding of the content very easily and finished far ahead of the other students.  At the time, I hadn’t created any sort of Extend Your Learning sort of activities that I have in place in the classroom now.  I didn’t know what to do.  I feared that I was losing him to the sad game of repetition.  And that’s when I got a bolt of creativity.  I constructed some extension activities that he and other students who showcased their learning ahead of schedule could work on.  One of the projects involved using the game Minecraft to create a usable model of the layers of Earth, highlighting important facts about each of the major layers.  As he loved Minecraft, I knew that this option would pique his interest.  Well, to say the least, he and the rest of the class, went bonkers for this project and worked outside of class to finish their Knowledge Phase to get to this extension activity.  They also spent much time working on their Minecraft model outside of class.  The screencast videos they made of the models were amazing.  My students are so creative and always have been.  I just didn’t always create opportunities for them to showcase it.

Chapter 5 of Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck was all about the importance and benefit of being creative when crafting assessments, tests, and projects to assess students on their understanding of the content, learning targets, or graded objectives.  Creativity is a crucial life skill for our students.  He cited educational gurus Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson to help him make his point.  Creativity allows for a variety of ideas and a unique way of thinking, he states on page 120 of his book.  He then goes onto mention how creativity will be necessary for problems to be solved by future generations.  Teachers need to allow students options and choice when showcasing their learning.  Empowering students to utilize their strengths to demonstrate learning of a particular concept leads to engagement and focus in and out of the classroom.

  • Dueck suggests using Test Feedback Sheets to allow students to examine and reflect upon their work on a test or final assessment.  While I use a more simplistic form of this type of reflection in the classroom, the specificity of his example would better allow my students to reflect and grow as test takers and learners.  He asks questions such as, “Are there parts or sections where you felt more confident than others?  Explain.”  I like this idea.  I might not use it after every assessment, but for unit assessments it could be a useful reflective tool for the students.
  • Although I am not a fan of multiple guess tests, the author asserts a new approach to multiple choice exams.  He calls it the “I Know I am Close” Multiple Choice Response Format.  It allows students to choose more than one letter or answer to a question when they feel as though they have a specific reason for not being able to select just one answer.  The students would select more than one letter or answer and then explain, using support, why they have chosen more than one answer to the question.  Cool idea, if multiple choice tests must be used in the classroom as an assessment tool.  I try to steer clear of them for many obvious reasons.
  • Dueck suggested using a Twitter Format as an assessment tool.  Students would create a Twitter conversation between two or more parties or items pertaining to a topic and have to meet one of the learning targets through the conversation.  The example he provides on page 150 is to create a Twitter conversation between two of Earth’s spheres.  They must discuss the effects of deforestation on their sphere.  Each sphere needs to have a handle and a relevant hashtag.   Only four tweets can be used.  Keep it simple.  I love it.  It allows for brevity and succinctness in a creative manner.  While this task could be difficult for some students, it may allow other students to feel successful when attempting to meet a learning target or graded objective.  The idea is about providing students with options and choices in how they can showcase their learning process.

As I have only the Conclusion chapter remaining, I’m feeling a bit let down by the book.  I longed for more.  Sure, the chapter on Unit Plans was fabulous and has provided me with much fodder in crafting my new units for the next academic year; however, the other chapters were not what I was hoping for.  It would make a great text for new teachers or teachers who are stuck in the traditional ways of grading and teaching, but for someone who has been utilizing the methods discussed in this book for several years now, it is a bit basic.  I’m not putting the book down by any means because the author does a fantastic job outlining some of the components of great and effective teaching.  It’s just not the professional development text I was hoping it would be.  It’s more of a primer on great teaching practices.  With that said, it has been a fun ride this week digging into Dueck’s ideas and thoughts.  The prose was interesting and captivating.  He used personal stories to help state his case, which added depth and humanity to the points he was trying to make.  I liked it, but I didn’t love it.