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?

Advertisements

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.

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 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 I

Last week, the parent of one of my sixth graders called me to share her son’s feelings on a grade he had received recently.  Of course, as teachers, we all know that phone calls like this are about far more than what they appear.  She didn’t want to tell me how her son was feeling, she wanted to argue with me about his grade.  His free verse poem had met the two graded objectives and thus he had received a 3/4 on each of them.  I said, “This is great.  He is doing what we expect.  Sure, I do wish he had better incorporated the feedback his writing group and I provided, but he is clearly working at grade level and meeting our expectations.”  Her response, “What do you mean he didn’t utilize the feedback?  Did you look at the bottom of his poem?  He had listed the feedback provided and explained how he had incorporated it.  I don’t understand why he wasn’t able to exceed the objectives.”  At this point in the conversation, I reminded her that I am not about to debate her son’s grades.  This caused her to change her tune a bit, but then of course allowed her the opportunity to bring up more grades and assignments.  “My son spends every weekend doing work and he doesn’t understand why he’s not earning As,” she said.  I reminded her that we focus on the learning process and the graded objectives and not the letter grade.  Still confused despite the numerous conversations I’ve had with her throughout the year on our grading philosophy in the sixth grade, she continued, “My son said that many other students didn’t have their work done on time and needed to finish it during their free time.  How is that fair?”

I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with parents like the one I had recently.  They don’t want to understand why we are trying to change the grading system to help support the learning process.  They wonder why their child’s grades are lower than they had been in the past.  They want to blame everything or everyone else but their child.  While families like these tend to be a rarity, we will still encounter them in the classroom, on the playing fields, on the phone, in the grocery store, etc.  So, why does this mindset of letter grades and timeliness still exist in our country?  Why are some families and students stuck in thinking that if they turn in a beautiful poster with a plagiarized map, they should still earn an A because it is pretty?

It’s all about the grading systems used in schools around the country, and in many cases around the world.  Schools and teachers are still arbitrarily giving students As and Cs at the top of their paper or on the side of a project with no conversation or explanation.  How do we expect students to be able to reflect on their learning process and understand what they need to do to grow and improve as a student if they have no idea where a grade came from?  We need to change from what was acceptable 100 years ago and realize that we are preparing very different students for life in a vastly different world.  Students need to be equipped with different skills now than they did even 20 years ago.  To help students learn and grow, we need to be clear and specific in our grading.  Students need to understand what skills or objectives an assignment or task is being graded on.  For example, the free verse poem that the parent referenced in the phone call I mentioned at the start of today’s entry was graded on two objectives: Students will be able to craft a unique free verse poem and Students will be able to craft a poem that accurately utilizes flow, rhythm, at least two examples of figurative language, and stanzas.  We didn’t grade their poem on spelling or topic.  We focused solely on those two objectives that we had spent our entire poetry unit focusing on.  We then had conversations with the students on their poem and the two graded objectives.  Almost every student understood where they grades came from.  They got it.  Sure, it took the whole year for them to understand why we grade them on the learning process, but they finally got there.  Many of our students, at the close of the academic year, understood that learning is a journey and not a game with a set time limit.

My first summer reading professional development text Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck totally aligns with our sixth grade grading philosophy.  He explains the whys and hows at the start and then digs into the big ideas chapter by chapter.  I’ve been grading and assessing my students in this manner for four years now and I’ve noticed a huge difference in their growth over the course of the year as well as their long term progress.  The students own their learning and realize that it is a process that must be continually refined.  No student is born being able to exceed every objective just like no person is born being able to run a marathon in record time.  Everything he’s preaching about, I can support and advocate for because I’ve seen it work first hand.  However, for someone who has been using an objectives-based grading system for a few years, this book is repetitive and hyperbolic.  He spends the first chapter or 35 pages explaining why teachers should not award students zeros or take off points for late work.  I’ve thought this for years.  This book, while completely necessary for schools and teachers around the world who do still use the broken and innaccurate grading system of letters and random numbers, is not for me.  I want to learn about how to take my objectives-based grading to the next level.  How can I improve upon what I already have?  This book would be great for the teachers at my school who still insist on docking students for turning in an assignment late.  What does that prove?  I think it’s all about power.  Some teachers want to control everything in the name of teaching ownership and responsibility.  Those teachers need to step back and really assess their grading system and how it affects students.  Students with whom I’ve spoken to who have teachers who use defunct grading systems are unhappy, unmotivated, or scared.  They don’t want to do the work or feel as though they have to so that they don’t fail.  How is fear or apathy going to help inspire students to change the world?

So, in conclusion, academic grading systems around the world are broken and in need of repair.  The objectives-based or standards-based assessment method is one that works well.  Dueck’s book details this grading system very well for new or inexperienced teachers unfamiliar with this grading format.  While I will finish this book, it’s a bit basic for me.  But, like I try to encourage my students to do, I will go into the rest of the book with a growth mindset because who knows, I might learn something new or change my perspective.

Global Society’s Infatuation with Grades

As the sun rose over Mount Cardigan this morning, my school’s Science Department met for its bimonthly department meeting.  A recent article about Carol Dweck’s work with Growth Mindset was the focus for our meeting.  As Growth Mindset is one of our school’s Habits of Learning, we wondered, how is what we are doing in the classroom, helping students develop and utilize a growth mindset?  Are we over-praising our students so much that they feel as though just doing an assignment or work is exceeding or meeting the objectives covered?  Are we negatively impacting how our students work in and out of the classroom?  What can we do to help our students effectively use a growth mindset when faced with a problem or challenge?

Our discussion got me thinking: Why does it seem as though society, and our students in general, seem so focused on grades?  Instead of asking, what is my grade, how do we help our students see that it’s about the learning and skill acquisition?  Is it possible to transition from a grade-driven educational system to one that is focused on objectives and skills?  If so, how?

Filled with many more questions than answers this morning, I entered the classroom, excited to try and change the global educational system, on a micro level.  In the sixth grade, our focus has always been on the objectives and skills.  While many of our students enter our class in September coming from a school where the focus was on grades, we retrain them over the course of the year.  By June, our students talk about objectives and scores out of four instead of percentages and letter grades.  It’s no easy task, and we have to constantly remind the students that it’s all about the process of learning and the skills needed to be successful.  The effort and work involved seems totally worth it to us in the sixth grade.  The benefits far outweigh everything else.  The students leave our classroom at the end of the academic year equipped with the skills needed to be successful global students.  They know how to think for themselves, read engaging books and tackle the text in meaningful ways, reflect on their work in order to learn and grow, solve problems using critical thinking skills, and effectively coexist with their peers.  But, then what?  If other grades and schools use the letter grading system and focus on grades as the goal of education, then this new outlook we have provided our students with becomes useless.  What do we do then?

That’s the billion dollar question.  How can we change the system?  President Obama’s new education directive, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), seems as if it will remove emphasis off of grades and content knowledge, but is that enough?  Is the idea of earning perfect grades already so ingrained within our society that change can never possibly come?  I’m a dreamer and so I think anything is possible with hard work, dedication, and collaboration.  Teachers at all levels around the globe need to unite and send a common message to their students: The Habits of Learning and skills involved are what truly matter.  A grade is just a letter or number that can be altered or deleted with the push of a button while the skill of problem solving can never be taken away.  This won’t be easy and it will take everybody working together towards a common goal.  I know that my idea is utopian in nature, but it’s better to dream big than to do nothing and complain about the issue, which is why I started working towards this goal in the classroom today.

I met with students today during Humanities class to review their recent work regarding the skill of participating in a Socratic Discussion.  As I met with each student, I explained what this skill truly enveloped.  “It’s more than just participating in a class discussion.  A Socratic Discussion is about support, facts, and connections.  You need to be able to understand the question and topic being discussed so that you can actively grow the conversation with your words.  You need to effectively prepare for a Socratic Discussion in order to demonstrate your ability to meet the objective.”  I then provided each student with feedback regarding their individual performance and offered suggestions for improvement.  The boys seemed to process what I was telling them.  I felt pretty good about the conversations I was having, until the final chat.  This one conversation allowed for a deep discussion regarding the sixth grade program and it’s purpose.

This particular student struggles to utilize a growth mindset.  He is very fixed in his thinking.  We’ve worked with him throughout the year on this very skill.  We’ve offered him strategies and feedback at every possible moment to help him understand how to be open to new ideas, challenges, problems, and feedback.  He’s made great progress but still has much work to do in this area.  When I met with him today, he didn’t seem to hear any of the feedback I was offering.  Instead, he focused on the grade.  He was so worried that a 2.5/4 would keep him off of Honor Roll that he couldn’t “listen” when I provided him suggestions on what to do to improve next time.  That’s when I stopped and reminded him of our focus in the sixth grade.  “We wish we could just tell you how you are progressing towards meeting the objectives needed to be successful global citizens, but our school mandates that we report grades to you and your parents.  While we do occasionally tell you your grade, we want you to focus on the skills and how you are working towards them.  For us in the sixth grade, it’s about empowering you to see beyond the grades.”

Although this student probably only really processed about 10% of what I said as he was so focused on the grade, I’m hopeful that if we continue having conversations like this with our students, we will eventually be able to break the cycle.  Let’s talk about skills, whether they are soft, social, or content specific, and let’s say, “Goodbye,” to grades and, “hello,” to what really matters.