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.

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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.

Introduction

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.

Rationale

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.

Co-Teaching

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.

Curriculum

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.

Humanities

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.

PEAKS Class

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.

Homework

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.

Conclusion

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.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part IV

If school is all about the process of learning in order to help students grow and develop into meaningful global citizens, then isn’t it our job as their teachers and guides on their learning journeys to help support and challenge them in any way possible?  So then, why do so many teachers refuse to retest or alternatively assess students?  Some students, like me for example, are not good at taking tests.  I get confused by the tricky multiple choice options and the short answer questions overwhelm me with the critical thinking involved on the spot.  But, when I was in school, that was my only option for demonstrating my learning.  How is that a process?  If I did poorly on the test, I received a low grade and thus did not showcase my understanding of the content covered.  Yet, I continued to matriculate onto the next grade each year.  How?  In retrospect, I wonder how effective my learning process was based on the teacher guides I had and grading systems with which I was faced.

Chapter 4 of Myron Dueck’s book entitled Grade Smarter Not Harder is all about the idea and philosophy around retesting or re-assessing students.  Most traditional schools and educators take the low road and refuse to retest students.  They view a test as a final game with no opportunity for a rematch.  Is life like that?  When my friend failed his driver’s education test, he was able to retake it a few weeks later and passed.  When I was once late to a class because of a meeting, I wasn’t fired.  I was given another chance to prove myself.  So then, why do we not provide our students with second chances to demonstrate their learning?  Dueck suggests just that in this chapter.  Students should be allowed to retake a test, part of a test, or redo an assessment as long as the redo process is more rigorous than the first time through.  Plus, the students need to somehow show that they have genuinely learned the concepts or skills involved.  If a student did not showcase his understanding of rates and ratios on a math exam, he should have to attend study sessions, create vocabulary cards, or make and take his own self-created exam to prepare for a test redo or retake.  This way, the students will really learn what they should have grasped the first time through.  Sometimes, tests prove challenging for students and don’t really allow them to demonstrate their learning of the content because they were so caught up in the format of the test or section.  Retesting allows for the teacher to change up the format of the test and questions, thus allowing students to demonstrate their true understanding of the concepts covered.

Some key points that Dueck brought up in Chapter 4 regarding retesting that I found intriguing…

  • Rick Stiggins, an educator, preaches the idea that all students should be able to answer three questions throughout the learning process: Where am I going?  Where am I now?  How can I close the gap?  This would be a great way to formatively assess students throughout a unit.  How might I incorporate this into my class?  I would have to reword the questions and use more student-friendly language.  I would also have to help students understand how to know what the end result of a unit is.  Using unit plans in the classroom might help the students see the entire process for each unit, and thus, allow them to know what the end result should look like for them.  I want to keep this idea of reflection in mind as I plan my units for next year.  I feel as though this process could be beneficial for my students.
  • The author utilizes Tracking Sheets in his class for the students.  When he hands back exams or projects, the students fill out a Tracking Sheet which lists the individual learning targets or graded objectives.  The students then denote their progress and outcomes on the sheet.  If they need to redo a section, they then explain what they will do to prepare before completing the re-testing phase.  Great idea.  This would help the students own their learning process.  It would also be a great entrance ticket to a redo.
  • Changing educational norms as they pertain to grading and assessment will require huge shifts in the culture of the school.  So many students who come from families that have always had great access to education, generally tend to have been exposed to traditional sorts of teaching and grading.  They feel as though this is how the game of school is played.  Listen to a teacher provide you with information on a new skill, topic, or concept, study, take a test, and repeat.  Getting students and families that come from this kind of world and society on board with objectives-based grading and assessment redos is no easy task.  It will take many conversations for some students and their families to understand the hows and whys of the changes happening in the classroom.  I dealt with a family like this during this past school year.  They didn’t understand why we didn’t have numerous tests on a weekly basis.  They also didn’t understand why we didn’t mark up student work with grades.  They come from an educational background that is based in the industrialization of education: School is like a big factory where every student graduates having learned the same stuff in the same manner.  That no longer works in our world.  If we want students to be effective global citizens, they need to be creative problem solvers and innovators.  Retesting is one way we can help bring about change in the classroom for our students.
  • The only problematic idea Dueck brought up in this chapter pertained to how he grades retests.  He blends or averages the scores together.  This seems to go against the concept of grading just what the students should have learned: The graded objectives.  Shouldn’t tests or assessments be graded on individual learning targets or objectives and not given an overall score?  How would one flat score tell students how they are progressing regarding the individual learning targets covered for a unit?  Tests or assessments should only be graded on the objectives covered.  For example, if the students have to create a forest field guidebook that lists and describes various flora and fauna samples found in their assigned plot in the forest, the final product should only be graded on the two objectives covered throughout the unit: Identify accurately, by common name using a guidebook, various flora and fauna samples in Cardigan’s ecosystem and construct a diagram that describes and illustrates the cycling of matter and flow of energy among the living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.  The final projects should not be graded on neatness or organization if it is not a graded objective.  Therefore, they are not going to earn an overall score on the project as it is all about the process of learning.

I hope that as a school we are able to have open discussions and conversations about our grading, homework, and testing policies throughout this next year.  While I would love to have change come about right away and make all teachers utilize the objectives-based grading system, no longer grade or assess homework based on the letter grade, and allow for redos of tests and assessments, I know that I can’t expect monumental change in one year.  I do hope that my school administrative team will help educate teachers to see the value in moving away from a traditional way of teaching and grading students so that change will happen within three to five years across the board at my school.  Fingers crossed.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part III

When I hear the words Unit Plans, I get a bit queasy because they are yet one more hoop my school makes teachers jump through.  While I do feel as though all teachers must have a written curriculum that outlines their course for the year, do all teachers need to then complete a separate file that lists the same information over again in a different format?  That seems repetitive and unnecessary to me.  Shouldn’t teachers be spending their time helping their students grow and develop and not having to complete a bunch of busy work.  Filling out Unit Plans is the equivalent to Homework for students.  Great, effective teachers already have a road map for their class.  Why not just allow teachers to submit that in place of separate Unit Plans?  If we know that offering students choice and freedom in the classroom helps better engage them in their learning process, shouldn’t we take the same approach with teachers?  Why must I spend an extra 2-3 hours creating a Unit Plan for a unit I already have detailed for the students?  I’m sure my school’s administrators might answer that question with, “Accountability and integration.  We want all teachers to be held accountable and see how units fit together.”  Okay, I get that.  Why not then meet with each teacher and have them show you their curriculum or units?  That way you are creating a culture of caring and support rather than uniform accountability.  I would much rather have an open dialogue with my administrators than just click the Share button on a Google Document I created because I have to.

So, going into Chapter 3 of Myron Dueck’s book Grade Smarter Not Harder did give me pause.  What else could he possibly tell me about Unit Plans that my school’s administrative team has not already shoved down my throat 10,000 times?  But then, I was surprised and elated when I realized that he was not talking about the mandated Unit Plans I have to draft.  Instead, his third chapter outlined how to create unit plans that can be used in the classroom for the students.  At the start of every unit, provide the students with a unit plan that outlines the graded objectives or learning targets in student-friendly language.  Beyond that, there is much flexibility in what a unit plan for students should or could contain, he suggests.  Teachers could include due dates, places for students to enter grades, or room for students to make comments or note areas in need of improvement.  What a great idea!  Instead of spending hours crafting unit plans that not more than one or two people will ever see, create useful documents that will help make the process of learning for the students, transparent.  What a concept!  I love it.  Although I do utilize, in the classroom, a very modified and watered-down version of what Dueck’s suggesting, making it clear and easy for the students to reference and understand makes so much more sense.  And I thought I wasn’t going to learn anything from this book.  Wow, was a I wrong.  Even if the rest of the chapters are filled with fluff or concepts I already know, this one chapter will make the book worth it.

Some highlights regarding his idea of crafting unit plans for the students to use:

  • Break the learning targets or graded objectives into four categories: Knowledge Targets (What do students need to know?), Reasoning Targets (What can students do with what they know?), Skill Targets (What can students demonstrate?), and Product Targets (What can students make to show their learning?).  While this follows Bloom’s Taxonomy as it pertains to the learning process, I’ve never thought of chunking my graded objectives in such a way.  Cool idea.  I like it.  I think I will try this for my first STEM unit of the year.
  • State the learning targets or graded objectives as “I can” statements for the students on the unit plans.  This will make the learning more accessible for the students.  It will also provide them with ownership in a meaningful way.  When they read statements like, “I can list the four causes of weather on Earth,” they feel as though what they need to do is attainable rather than listing its as a vague and broad objective, “Students will be able to explain the causes of weather on Earth.”  Using student-friendly language in an active manner that speaks to them directly will make for more relevant unit plans.
  • Research shows that students and teachers benefit when the learning targets or graded objectives are made clear to the students at the start of a unit.  On page 75 of Dueck’s book, he cites some examples and research to prove this.  When students understand what is expected of them in and out of the classroom, they can easily track their learning progress and grow and develop meaningfully and appropriately.  When confusion or unknown variables enter the classroom, such as “Where did this letter grade come from?” or “Why do I need to write an essay on WWII?” learning becomes more like a convoluted puzzle for students.  While I’m sure we all loved the David Bowie movie Labyrinth very much, it would not make for an appropriate classroom environment.
  • Is using student examples of work helpful or harmful to students?  I’ve always been on the fence regarding this issue.  I tried to use more student examples this year than ever before and found that sometimes this helped the students fully comprehend what was being asked of them.  In years past, I avoided using examples because I felt like they would have prevented the students from creatively interpreting the assignment or task.  However, Dueck makes the case that if students have no clue what the project or assignment should look like when they are finished, how will they be able to employ creativity?  Confusion leads to more confusion and not answers or creativity.  Perhaps using student examples of work when introducing a new project or learning task will help students be and feel more successful in their learning journey.
  • One area of projects and learning tasks that I have always wrestled with is the planning stage.  How can I help students effectively map out or plan a project or task before they begin working on crafting it?  I usually tell students to plan out their idea before hand and check-in with a teacher to be sure they are on the right track.  Conversations, I find, are more beneficial than just having the students complete a mind map or planning worksheet.  Dueck suggests using Student Planning Stations.  Have the students map out or plan how they hope to meet the graded objectives for the assignment.  Then, have the students partner up and pitch their idea to their partner as though they are securing a deal for a television show and their partner is the “producer.”  Allow the “agent” a set amount of time to share his idea with the “producer” before the “producer” provides feedback on the idea and how it addresses the graded objectives.  The students will then switch roles so that each person has a chance to share his or her idea and receive feedback on it.  This way, the students have a chance to revise their idea before they even begin working.  I love this idea.  I can’t wait to try it in the classroom.

Chapter 3 wowed me to the max.  I’m so excited to plan my first units for Humanities and STEM class using this format for the unit plan.  Isn’t it always about our students?  Couldn’t we then just use these plans as the ones our administrative team requires we complete?  Why jump through even more hoops?  As Dueck’s book is titled, shouldn’t the same be true for all aspects of teaching?  “Teach Smarter Not Harder.”

Professional Development Summer Reading Part II

Homework is repetitive and unnecessary.  If classes are relevant, engaging, and meaningful, extra practice is not necessary for every student.  Why make the students spend what little free time they have outside of the classroom doing busy work?  Who’s doing the homework anyway?  When the day students go home and complete their homework, who’s really doing the work?  The students or the parents?  What about their peers?  If homework is uniform like a worksheet and every student should be getting the same answer, how do we know students aren’t working together?  Isn’t that what we want?  Teamwork amongst our students?  But, who’s doing the learning if students work together to complete a homework assignment?  Can we appropriately and fairly assess students on their understanding of concepts covered or graded objectives through homework completion?  If students do the homework consistently but fare poorly on exams, tests, or quizzes, are they able to truly and genuinely showcase their learning?  Why do we as teachers grade and assess homework and count it towards their letter or achievement grade?  Isn’t homework practice?  Should we be grading practice?  Is the record of a football team negatively impacted if the team “loses” to themselves during practice?  So then, why are students rewarded or punished for not practicing a skill?  Not all students need extra practice and sometimes those students who do need extra practice, need a structured environment in which to practice.  Homework is not the best way to help challenge and/or support students if we are grading it.

In Chapter 2 of Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck, the author details and explains why homework should not be counted or assessed in the same way we grade objectives.  Homework should not be a factor in the overall grade a student receives in a course.  Homework is practice and will look different for each student.  Some students need more practice while others need less.  As teachers, we need to help students learn how much practice they will need to do for particular skills, concepts, or objectives.  We should not objectively grade the homework practice students do.  It should count as part of their effort grade only.

  • Uniform Homework: Assignments or homework used as practice or follow-up regarding an in-class lesson.  It is usually designed as a worksheet or series of problems for which every student should have the same assignment.  This means that each student would have the same answers.  How do we know who did the work if students collaborate to complete the homework?  Therefore, teachers should not grade uniform homework.  In fact, uniform homework should not be assigned.  Students should choose to do the extra practice or not based on how they want to prepare for in-class quizzes or exams.  Uniform homework should also come with an answer key so that students can check their work as it is just practice anyway.
  • “Grading Homework Confuses Completion with Understanding,” Myron Dueck states on page 45.  Just because students complete the practice work as homework regularly does not mean that they have mastered a concept or skill.  It simply means that they have figured out the school conundrum: If you do the work, you will get good grades.  We, as teachers, are trying to help our students learn new concepts, grasp new skills, and grow and develop as students, thinkers, collaborators, etc.  We should not be grading homework in any objective or standards-based manner because then students will become confused by the purpose of school and education.  Learning is a process and not a videogame in which points affect your outcome.

While I was already aware of the big ideas Dueck conveyed in this phenomenal chapter that every teacher who is unfamiliar with objectives-based grading should read, it did give me some food for thought.  Huh, having a growth mindset going into this second chapter of the book really helped me glean a cool idea that I will implement in the classroom next year.

  • I will create regular check-in assessments on Haiku that students will complete in class following the introduction and practice of a new skill.  Mostly this will apply to STEM class, but could also be useful in Humanities class as well.  I will input the answers so that it can be corrected as soon as the students complete it, providing the students with instant feedback.  They will know right away if they completed the appropriate amount of practice outside of class.  Apparently, there is data to support the idea that frequent quizzes help increase learning.  On page 56 of Dueck’s book, he cites a study done by Kent State University that found that “frequent testing that involves recall of information from memory improves learning.”  Who would have thunk that?  Not I.  I had always been under the impression that over testing is redundant and a waste of time.  Perhaps I was wrong or maybe this study is wrong.  Well, since I’ve tried my way for so long, it might be time to try an alternative method.  I like it.  Change is good.

Although this book is preaching to the choir as I read it, it is filled with valuable and useful information for all educators.  I can’t wait to read what Chapter 3 has in store on Unit Plans.