Being Okay with Throwing a Firecracker out Your Window

You know when you plan for something to go a certain way and it goes in a completely different direction?  It doesn’t feel very good, but it teaches us a lesson.  We can learn from our experiences, just like my friend did many years ago…

It was a very warm summer night in western Massachusetts.  My best friend from college and I were driving around in my parents car.  We had the metal music blasting and were having the time of our lives.  As the breeze from outside the car felt good against our warm skin, we would occasionally put the windows down until the humidity became unbearable.  Summers in New England can be quite unpleasant.  When the moist air became too much for us to handle, we’d close the windows and put on the air conditioning.  That felt great.

So, there we are, two crazy college kids driving on some road in Massachusetts in the middle of the night, when Tom pulls out a firecracker.  He said, “We should totally light this and throw it out the window.”

My response was uninformed and ignorant.  If only I knew then what I know now.  Hindsight is 20/20.  I said, “That sounds like a marvelous idea.  Do it!”

So, as I drove, he lit the firecracker.  As it started to spark and make that noise that firecrackers do, I felt a bit uneasy.  An open flame was really close to me and a whole lot of gasoline.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea I thought.  And that’s when everything went wrong.

My friend quickly chucked it out the window.  Well, he tried to throw it out the window anyway, but as we had just recently shut the windows to turn on the AC, when he went to flick the firecracker out the window, his hand slammed against the glass window, causing the lit firecracker to fall into his lap, on the seat of my parent’s car.  We both freaked out and didn’t know what to do.  We froze and waited for the inevitable explosion.  If you’ve ever been within a foot of a firecracker when it explodes, you know how loud the noise can be.  It was horrifying.  The firecracker exploded, inches from my friend’s thighs.  We both screamed, loudly, as I tried to steer the car straight.  Luckily, other than our ears and the small black hole burned into the seat of my parent’s car, there were no serious injuries.  Although, in the moment, we were scared still, after, we laughed about it and learned a valuable lesson: Make sure your window is down if you are going to throw a lit firecracker out of it.

Like my friend learned on that fateful night in July, even the best laid plans can go awry.  As a teacher, I love trying new things and taking risks in the classroom.  I enjoy tackling new projects and lessons to help inspire and engage my students in the process of learning.  So, when I had the brilliant idea of assessing my students on their current understanding of grammar based on the several mini-lessons I’ve covered so far this year, I felt very good about it.  I spent much time last week putting the explanation sheet and rubric together for my students.  I even told the students about it last week so that if they had any questions about dialogue, commas, or complete sentences, they would have plenty of time to ask for help and seek support from me.  So, going into today’s grammar assessment, I felt quite good.  I had a plan: Explain the purpose of the assessment, have the students review the expectations of the assessment with their table partner, noting any questions they had on their whiteboard tables, and then have the students complete the assessment on their own.  Sadly, like my friend Tom, I forgot a step in the process.

While I had the students review the assessment, writing any questions they had upon their whiteboard tables,  I provided them plenty of time in which to complete this phase of the task.  I wanted to give them a chance to talk to a peer in order to process the assessment and information presented to them in written form.  I then had the students pose their questions to me in front of the class.  I fielded all of their questions flawlessly.  I felt as though they were totally prepared for the assessment.  I then let them get right to work.  As they worked, I observed their effort.  All of the students got right to work in a very focused manner.  They seemed almost excited to be crafting an original story about any topic at all.  The boys began feverishly typing.  It was pretty tubular to watch.  And that’s when it hit me.  Wait a minute, I thought, I never introduced the assessment or explained its purpose.  Do the boys even know why they are completing this task?  Oh no, I totally messed up.  But, as the boys worked, none of them seemed confused or bent out of shape with what I asked of them.  They diligently worked on typing creative stories that highlighted their ability to utilize complete sentences, properly formatted dialogue, and accurately use commas in written form.  I was impressed.  At the close of the period, I did review the purpose of the assessment by asking the students, “Why did I have you complete this assessment today in class?”  I was so amazed by their responses, as they all seemed to understand exactly why they were doing this in class today.  What, I thought, how could they know if I never told them about it.  Well, actually, I realize that I had back on Saturday when I previewed the week ahead.  I mentioned it and briefly explained the purpose of the assessment.  So, even though I didn’t go over the assessment in class today before I had the students begin looking over the handout and expectations, they knew what to expect and why we were doing it in class.  Huh, maybe not introducing the task at the start of class today was okay.  Even though things didn’t go as planned, they went very well.  Most of the students nicely demonstrated their strong understanding of the grammar concepts covered so far this year on today’s assessment.  Amazing!

Perhaps all of the effort I put into helping the students see the whys and hows of everything we do in the sixth grade classroom earlier this year, paid off.  Maybe the students are just so self-aware of everything that they figured out, on their own, the purpose and role of today’s grammar assessment.  Perhaps they have developed such great growth mindsets that I don’t need to say a thing and they will still be successful students, exceeding the objectives covered.  Maybe, or maybe I just need to change my perspective and realize that the reality doesn’t always agree with what I think should or will happen.  I need to be more open-minded when thinking about new tasks or lessons in the classroom so that I don’t get so stuck or fixed on seeing only one possible solution or approach to these new things.  Life rarely goes as planned, and I need to be okay with that.  In fact, I need to embrace the unknown and just jump right in to whatever will be, even if it means allowing a firecracker to explode in your friend’s lap.

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Transforming Daily Reading Quizzes into Meaningful Assessments

As a young, inexperienced English teacher, I was often confused as to my role in the classroom.  Am I the content enforcer or the guide from the side?  I struggled to understand how to be an effective English teacher back then.  While in the midst of reading class novels, I thought I needed to assess my students, daily, on their nightly reading assignments.  Aren’t I supposed to make sure that they are doing the reading outside of class, I often thought.  So, I crafted daily reading quizzes that included questions regarding specific parts of the assigned reading.  In fact, I made some of the questions tricky and difficult on purpose, to ensure that my students were indeed keeping up with the reading.  It’s my responsibility to hold my students accountable, I thought, to maintain control in the classroom.  This need for control caused me to do some crazy things.  Even though my students were completing the reading outside of class, they were unable to successfully complete the daily reading quizzes, as they couldn’t remember the minute details I questioned them on.  The grades my students received in my English class many eons ago were not reflective of their progress or ability, but instead highlighted their inability to pay attention to useless information in the books we read in class.  Many of my students became so frustrated and angered with these daily reading quizzes, that they just stopped reading the class novels altogether.  They saw no reason in keeping up with the reading when it didn’t help them do well on the daily reading checks.  This dischord in the classroom created an atmosphere of spite that prevented genuine learning and assessment from taking place.  Because I had created these challenging reading quizzes, my students had become disengaged in class.  They no longer cared about English or reading.  My need for control and accountability caused my students to become angry and apathetic.  I had changed from a teacher into a dictator.

After a few horrendous years in the classroom, I took a step back and finally realized the injustice that was happening.  I was an ineffective teacher.  After much reflection, learning, practice, and growth, I changed my evil ways.  I discovered that great teachers empower their students by engaging them in the content and curriculum.  Effective English teachers help students learn how to be great readers, thinkers, writers, and problem solvers by asking meaningful and relevant questions that create healthy discourse in the classroom.  My goal as a teacher is to ensure that my students master the foundational skills needed to be successful students and people.  Knowing the color of a character’s shirt is not going to help my students be prepared for seventh grade English.  Instead, I need to allow my students opportunities to practice utilizing the effective reading strategies that will enable them to become strong, thoughtful readers and thinkers.

And so, I no longer make use of daily reading quizzes to trick and confuse my students.  You’re probably wondering how I make sure my students are reading outside of class.  That’s easy.  I allow my students to choose books that interest them.  When students are reading novels and books that they enjoy reading, they will read outside of class because they want to and not because they have to.  I work to instill a love of reading within my students.  To do this, I make use of the Reader’s Workshop model of reading instruction.  Now, this doesn’t mean that my students and I don’t have a book or novel in common.  In fact, the weekly mini-lessons for Reader’s Workshop make use of class read-aloud novels.  I use the read-aloud novels as vehicles for teaching the reading strategies my students will need to become great readers.  Periodically throughout the year, I assess students on their use of the reading strategies covered to ensure that they are properly and effectively prepared for the seventh grade.  To do this, I have the students complete a reading assessment based on our current read-aloud novel.  These assessments include a wide variety of questions, allowing me to know if my students have mastered the reading strategies covered.  The questions are not tricky in any way.  In fact, my students can use any form of notes they’ve taken during our read-aloud discussions and I address any questions they have regarding the assessment itself before they complete it.  I want my students to feel confident and comfortable.  I don’t want them to be stressed in any way while completing these reading assessments, as I want my students to see these assessments as opportunities.  If they struggle to demonstrate their ability to use any of the reading strategies assessed, I work with them outside of class to help them master the reading skills needed to be successful readers in seventh grade and beyond.  These assessments are about creating an atmosphere of care in the classroom.  I want my students to know that I care about them and  want to be sure they are properly prepared for their future English classes.  My method of teaching has changed from dictator to caregiver.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed a reading assessment on our current read-aloud novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  Not only does this novel directly tie into our unit on Africa, but it is also a fabulous book for covering important reading strategies the students will need to grow into successful readers.  Before having the students begin the assessment, I reviewed each of the questions with the class, allowing them to ask any clarifying questions.  Today’s assessment had the students answer three basic comprehension questions regarding the major plot events that we’ve covered in the novel thus far, draw a picture of a scene from the novel that they were able to visualize very well, and make a prediction based on what they think will happen next for our two characters Nya and Salve.  One student asked, “So the prediction question doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, right Mr. Holt?”  I then explained how he was correct and that it’s about the support you use in making your claim.  I love it when my students realize that assessments don’t have to be big and scary tests that often confuse or trick students.  Effective assessments empower students to strut their stuff and show what they know.  All of my students exquisitely demonstrated their ability to utilize the reading strategies practiced so far this year.  More than anything though, they felt safe and cared for during the assessment.  No one was ever overly stressed or anxious about it.  They took their time and showed me what they know about how to be great readers.  It was awesome!

Thankfully, for my students sake, I’ve grown and developed a lot as an educator in the last 15 years.  I know what it takes to engage students in the curriculum while challenging and supporting them to grow into effective global citizens.  While assessments are a vital part of the educational process, creating meaningful assessments that allow our students to showcase what they truly know is crucial.  Daily reading quizzes that cause frustration and confusion amongst students are ineffective tools in checking for understanding within our students.  Reading assessments that focus on the big ideas within a text or allow students to demonstrate their ability to utilize various reading strategies covered throughout the year are effective assessment tools.  English teachers need to find ways to transform convoluted reading quizzes into meaningful reading assessments to best support and help their students, because no one wants to make their students feel the way my students did when I first started teaching.

Are Rubrics Effective Assessment Tools?

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

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

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

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

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.

Does Study and Preparation Impact the Outcome of an Assessment?

In my previous blog entry from yesterday, I examined the most effective way to help prepare students for a math assessment.  I hypothesized that because we provided the students with lots of extra time to review, practice, seek help, and prepare for the exam, that they would all fare quite well and not need to complete the test redo process.  Following Saturday’s final preparation period, I felt as though each and every student was prepared and ready for the assessment.

Then came the assessment, today in STEM class.  While many of the students did do quite well and felt successful, two of the students in my math groups do need to complete the redo process for one objective.  Now, this isn’t at all a negative outcome.  In fact, today’s result is actually an improvement from past assessments.  Usually, at least three to five students need to complete the redo process for one or more of the objectives.  This time, only two students need to redo one objective.  That’s a huge change from earlier in the year.  So, in my mind, the extra preparation and review time we allowed, helped the students better meet, and in many cases, exceed the graded objectives.  The boys seemed to feel prepared and felt confident, for the most part, when they turned in their completed assessment.  In my mind, today’s outcome was successful and positive in every way, and proved that students do need extra time to process information to prepare for a math assessment.

But what about those two students who need to complete the redo process for one objective?  What happened there?  Why did they struggle to display their ability to meet one graded objective?  Did they not effectively study and review the skills covered outside of class?  Each of the two students struggled with the same objective involving word problems.  They were unable to transform a word problem into an algebraic expression in simplest form.  Was this because the problems were too tricky?  The two problems came directly from previous lesson check-in assessments, and had been reviewed and discussed in class on a few separate occasions.  While they were challenging problems, they were not impossible or meant to fool the students in any way.  So then, why did these two students get both word problems wrong on their chapter assessment?  What happened?  Although their answers were, in some cases, somewhat close and showed an understanding of the skill, they did not simplify their response or properly execute the needed computations.  In this particular case, more review did not help these students understand how to turn written descriptions into algebraic expressions.  Would anything have helped them?  Some students just struggle with word problems, which is why we completed a whole unit on how to tackle word problems earlier in the year.  I even reviewed the four steps involved in the problem solving process when the students worked on this skill of turning words into algebraic expressions.  Nothing seemed to help these two students with this one objective.  While I would have loved to have seen all of my students master every objective covered on today’s assessment, these two students still have a chance to master the skill with which they struggled by completing the redo process.  Some students just struggle with word problems and how to decipher them.

Overall though, I was very pleased with today’s outcome and realized how important giving the students time to review major concepts prior to completing an assessment is to the learning process.  We can’t expect our students to master skills in just a day or two before completing an assessment; they need time to ask questions, complete practice problems, and review the concepts covered before demonstrating their mastery of the skills or topics covered.

How Do You Motivate Students to do their Best Without Focusing on their Grades?

I was really good at the game I called school once I hit the seventh grade.  I figured out what my teachers wanted and so I gave it to them.  It wasn’t about learning for me, it was about jumping through hoops and meeting the expectations my teachers set.  My English teacher, for example, liked it when students used lots of adjectives and descriptive words in their writing and so I made sure to do just that in each and every written assignment.  For me, the focus was on grades.  My parents bribed me to get good grades by paying me for every A and B I received.  So, I made sure to complete work that would earn me high marks in all of my classes.  It worked.  I earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society and spent every term on the Honor Roll.  I kicked butt at school because I focused on the grades.  Unfortunately though, if you asked me what I learned back in those days, I would have very little to say as I didn’t retain much.  I was a passive learner.  I regurgitated facts and information and then erased them from my mind.  I wasn’t actively looking to learn as I was so focused on earning high grades.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more interested in the information and skills my teachers were trying to teach me as I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of my school experience.

Learning from my mistakes as a student, I make sure that as a teacher, my students don’t just go through the motions to complete work and earn high marks.  I want my students to see school as a journey and an adventure, not a game they are trying to win.  To do this, I craft meaningful and relevant assignments that allow the students to think critically about the content and skills learned to answer questions, reflect, make or construct something, or simply write.  These engaging, hands-on, and creative assignments force students to think about information learned in new and unique ways that prevent them from simply restating what was discussed in class or learned on a website.  The next big piece that helps me be sure my students see school as an exploration is grading and assessment.  Students don’t earn letter grades or percentages for assignments as we utilize the objectives/standards-based grading system in the sixth grade.  Each assignment may be graded on more than one objective and so they are earning more than one grade for most every assignment.  Our grades are as follows:

  • 4: Exceeds the Objective
  • 3: Meets the Objective
  • 2: Working Towards the Objective
  • 1: Insufficient Data to Assess Ability to Meet or Work Towards Meeting the Objective

The students learn, early on in the academic year, how our system works.  We don’t talk about As and Bs in the sixth grade, we talk about objectives and skills.  This puts the focus on school as a journey towards understanding rather than a game to win.  We also make use of the redo process in the sixth grade.  When a student earns an objective grade that he feels does not display his best effort and work, he can redo it in a timely manner to be reassessed.  This allows the students to strive for success and their best effort in the class at all times.  This restructuring of school by using the objectives-based grading system and making assignments meaningful and challenging for the students helps us change the perception our students have of school.  School then is no longer about jumping through hoops and completing busy work; school becomes a learning process for the students.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in a writing activity in which they had to write about a picture that showed a woman or women from the Middle East region wearing some sort of head scarf.  The writing task was very open ended: They could write a story explaining what they believed to be the woman’s story; they could write a poem explaining the picture or their thoughts about the picture; they could describe what the image shows; or they could explain their thoughts and feelings about the picture and what it depicts.  The paper on which they were using to record their writing included questions to inspire them as they reflected on the picture.  The students had ten minutes to complete this activity in class.  We want our students to learn to be able to sustain their writing stamina for a long period of time while writing about one topic or idea.  This activity is yet another way for them to practice this skill.  My co-teacher and I had no expectations for what would come from this activity as we just wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write and reflect on their prior knowledge and perception of women who wear a headscarf.  We didn’t know what would come from this activity.

The result was inline with what we’ve observed from our students during the past few months, and so we were not surprised by the outcome.  Those students who put forth their best effort in everything they do in the classroom, did just that again for this assignment.  They filled at least one page with meaningful and reflective words.  They stayed focused for the entire ten minutes and worked diligently to write as much as possible so that they could showcase their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective.  For these students, doing their best work is just how they live their lives.  They like to be challenged in order to demonstrate their strengths.  We don’t need to discuss the importance of working hard in and out of class with these students.  They get it.

Those students who struggle to process information, had the same trouble with this task.  They wrote nothing on their paper despite helpful hints, ideas, and reminders.  They were so stuck in one way of thinking or processing the information, that they couldn’t write anything at all.  While we have seen much progress from these students since September, tasks like the one we did today in Humanities class do still challenge them.  To help motivate these students, we work with them independently, ask them questions, provide them extra support outside of the class day, and remind them of the graded objectives they need to meet or exceed.  In some instances, these strategies we employ work and the students are able to showcase their best effort and work.  On some tasks though, like the one we did today in class, the two students who had nothing written on their paper aren’t motivated by the typical strategies we use.  The only way to motivate these two students to work and display their best effort on assignments that challenge them is to focus on the grade they will receive.  “If you don’t complete this task, you will earn a 1/4 for this graded objective.  This low score will cause your overall Humanities grade to go down quite a bit,” are the the lines we are forced to use from time to time with these two students.  As my co-teacher and I don’t like to focus on grades in our classroom, we don’t like having to stoop to this level.  However, it seems to be the only way to inspire them to work.

Are there other strategies we could be using that would not focus on grades and help motivate these two students to accomplish a task they find quite difficult?  Are we missing something?  We know that they can write and be creative as we’ve seen it in the other courses and on many other assignments they’ve completed this year.  So, what’s the issue?  Should we just let them fail at the task if it means we have to focus on grades to motivate them?  I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me wonder how I can inspire and motivate students to do their best work and put forth their best effort without focusing on grades.  Is it possible?  In a world driven by grades, money, and success, the way we have organized our class to not focus on these big ideas seems as though we are creating a counterculture within the classroom.  Is that okay?  Should we be trying to break free from the constraints society places on people or fall in line like every other school or classroom around the world?  As I have always strived to be a bit different from the mainstream, I’m completely okay going against the norm if it means I can help my students grow and develop into free-thinking adults who see life as a journey.

Math Assessment Update

Walking on the sidewalks of Manchester, NH littered with newly fallen autumn leaves, I was feeling a bit anxious yesterday.  Although I was super stoked to attend a teacher’s conference, I was a bit nervous for my students back in the classroom.  How would they do on today’s big math assessment?  As my incredibly capable co-teacher was running the show in my absence, I knew that everything would go smoothly, but still butterflies filled my tummy.  I felt like a little kid up to bat at his very first tee-ball game.  However, I resigned myself to thinking that I had properly prepared them for this big assessment at the end of last week.  But, had I?  Were they prepared?  Nervous, I still learned a lot of cool new ideas from some great teachers at the NH Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester, NH.  Upon returning to campus from the wonderful conference, I quickly ran to my classroom like a bunny in search of carrots.  I then spent my off-duty evening grading their assessments, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  My accelerated group did quite well.  One student even received a perfect score, mastering every objective covered.  I was impressed.  Only a few students have two objectives they struggled to demonstrate proficiency in on the assessment.  Most of the students only had trouble with one objective.  When I met with a few of the boys this morning regarding their assessment, they seemed to do that smack-the-forehead-a-ha-moment kind of thing as they saw the error of their ways before I even pointed anything out.  That is pretty awesome.  The boys I met with were all very happy with their results.  Excellent.

Tomorrow is host to the the gruelling Math Assessment Redo Process in STEM class.  I’m hopeful that after my students go through this laborious activity to showcase their learning and understanding of the graded objectives, they will prepare even better for our next large assessment.  My redo process is based upon ideas from Rick Wormeli.  The redo process, he suggests, should be arduous and time consuming so that the students will be able to showcase their ability to meet the objectives, but also help remind them of the importance of preparation prior to an assessment.  Below is an explanation of my redo process.

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Although I was hoping that all of my students would have demonstrated their ability to meet every graded objective on Tuesday’s assessment, I realize now that that was an unrealistic and almost impossible outcome.  My boys did very well and I’m pleased with their progress.  I do feel that my guided preparation helped them fare better on this first assessment than groups from years past.  Last year, every student had at least two objectives they failed to showcase their learning of on the assessment.  They did very poorly on the first big assessment because I did not properly and effectively prepare them. The changes I made this year in deliberately helping ready my students for the assessment made a huge difference.  It’s nice to know that making specific changes based on past experiences and data does provide new and exciting outcomes.  I love when the the pinball of life bounces on just the right bumper to score the most points.  Yah for my students, and pinball machines!

What’s the Most Effective Way to Help Students Feel Prepared for an Assessment?

Ughhh, tests.  I hate them.  In fact, I hate everything about them.  I was never a good test-taker in school and so my grades were never perfect since I usually flopped on major tests and quizzes.  I felt like my teachers created test questions just to trick us, the students.  Why?  What purpose does that serve other than asserting one’s authority?  Students are not going to respect a teacher who purposefully creates difficult and tricky tests and quizzes.  And don’t even get me started on standardized testing.  A monkey could complete a standardized test and score better than me.  What does that prove?  That I’m dumber than monkey?  Although that may be true regarding some topics, it simply proves that any mammal with fingers can fill in a bubble.  Standardized tests do not showcase an individual’s knowledge of concepts or subjects, but rather are a waste of valuable time.  Just talking about testing makes me angry.  I detest everything about it.  However, I do also realize that my students are going to face the unnecessary pressure of testing throughout their academic futures, and so I must prepare them for what is to come.

B-wait for it-UT, I can definitely make the testing experience for my students much better than my past horror stories.  I don’t have to create difficult tests.  I don’t have to try to fool my students.  I don’t have to foster unending pressure within my students regarding testing.  I can actually make the testing experience for my students enjoyable and non-threatening.  It starts with the actual name: Test.  I do not test my students as if they are rats in a cage.  This is not Salem and I do not need to find out if my students are witches.  I do assess my students.  How are they progressing towards meeting and/or exceeding the objectives?  What else can I do to help support them on their journey of learning and understanding?  I don’t test my students, I assess them.  The “tests” I give them are called assessments.  An effective assessment should allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, skill, or concept in a simple, straightforward manner.  They are also not the end-all-be-all of the learning process.  Students can be assessed multiple times in multiple different ways.  If a student does not do well on a written assessment, I will assess him orally to determine his understanding of the content.  I want my students to be successful and so I will do whatever it takes to help them be and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the learning process.  I also allow redos on written assessments for those interested students.  While the redo process is cumbersome and challenging, it truly showcases a student’s learning and allows me to know if they have mastered the concept or not.  It also helps teach the students the valuable lesson of preparation: Redos are not necessary if you are prepared going into a written assessment.  Assessing students is a process and not a singular event.  I want my students to see learning as a journey and not a destination.

Today in STEM class, I helped my students prepare for their first written math chapter assessment that will take place in class on Tuesday.  I met with each of my two math groups in class and discussed the assessment.  I shared the document they will see on Tuesday with them.  I went through the format and problems involved.  I answered questions they had and made sure they felt completely ready and prepared.  I don’t want them to be nervous between now and Tuesday.  I want them knowing exactly what the test will look and feel like.  There should be no surprises.  During the remainder of class, the students worked on completing the chapter review exercises in their textbook.  They worked with their peers when questions arose and I helped guide those struggling students to a place of comfort and understanding.  It was great.  I feel very confident in my students.  I feel as though they are prepared and ready to go for Tuesday’s assessment.  Throughout the unit, my co-teacher and I have formatively assessed the students on the objectives we will be summatively assessing them on in Tuesday’s chapter assessment.  We have both worked with those students in our group who struggled to display their ability to meet one or more of the objectives.  Through the reteaching and reassessment process, they demonstrated their ability to master the skills they once were challenged by.  Now, I wait until Tuesday to find out how they do.  Do they really know their stuff?  Have they genuinely learned the math content?  Can they still meet and exceed the objectives covered?  After Tuesday’s assessment, I will have a much better idea if the process my co-teacher and I used to help prepare our students for this first chapter assessment was effective or not.  If not, we will discuss how we can change the preparation process to better, more effectively prepare our students for the next chapter assessment in STEM class.

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.

How Can I Be Certain that Genuine Learning Took Place in Class Today?

As a student in high school, I tried with all of my might to hide in the classroom and not be seen.  I was very shy back then and didn’t like to speak in class.  I went out of my way to sit behind the taller students in class so that the teacher might not see me as easily.  I rarely raised my hand in class to answer or ask questions.  I hid behind my shyness.  When my teachers provided time in class to work on a project or activity, I would always pretend to look busy when the teacher walked around and observed what we were doing.  I would scribble on the paper or make it look like I was engaged in reading the text.  Instead of putting effort into doing work and learning more, I put an extreme amount of effort into purposely not working and getting out of actually learning anything.

As a teacher, I go out of my way to create a caring and supportive environment for my students in the classroom.  I make learning engaging and fun so that every student wants to be involved in discussions and activities.  I don’t want students to feel like I did in school.  I want them to care about learning and growing.  I want them to see the benefits in learning and participating.  I praise my students for asking questions.  I work hard to be sure that every student feels and is successful.  No one will slip through the cracks like I did.  Well, that’s my goal anyway.  So far, I feel as though I’ve helped challenge and support all of my students.

Today in STEM class though, I wondered if the freedom and choice I provide students allowed for some of them to appear busy when in fact they were trying hard not to do anything.  While two of the students completed the geology assessment, the rest of the boys “worked” on reading, highlighting, and recording margin notes regarding the geology packet, in class.  A few of the students were actually working on their geology packet during class.  They were highlighting the important facts and vocabulary terms and taking margin notes on questions and the other important details regarding Earth’s geology.  However, four of the boys seemed to have completed their packet but chose not to complete the assessment in class.  What were they doing then: Reviewing the key concepts, studying, or revising their margin notes and highlights?  When I asked them what they were doing in class, their responses were very similar, “I’m looking over my packet to be sure I understand everything.”  What does that even mean?  Were they flipping the pages of their packet?  Yes, but were they reading and reviewing anything while turning the pages?  Who knows.  Sure, several of the students did ask clarifying questions about the major concepts, demonstrating the fact that they were indeed reviewing the major geology concepts covered in the packet.  What about the others who did not ask questions?  What were they doing?  Were they faking it like I did?  Were they actually doing nothing at all because they just didn’t want to take the geology assessment in class?  I did wonder if one or two of my students did nothing in class.  If so, does it matter?  If they chose to waste their time and learning opportunities, does it matter?

As I pondered these questions following class today, I realized that tomorrow I will be able to determine the answers to many of my questions.  In class tomorrow, the students who didn’t already complete the geology assessment in class, will complete it then.  When I review the assessments, I will figure out if any of those four students who seemed to be doing nothing today in class, actually learned the material.  If they demonstrate an understanding of the content covered and can meet the objectives, then perhaps they were really working in class today.  Sure, of course, they could have previously learned the material and were indeed doing “nothing” in class today, but I like to see things through positive glasses and so I’d like to think that if they showcased their learning on the assessment, they must have been productive in class today.  However, if any of those four students do not meet the objectives covered, it might indicate that very little learning took place for them in STEM class today.  While this sounds great in theory, there, of course, are always exceptions to every absolute.  Perhaps because those four students are English Language Learners, they were focused in class today but struggled to understand the concepts covered in English.  Or maybe some students have difficulty demonstrating their learning in written form.  With so many variables at play, no matter what data I collect tomorrow, I may never truly know what happened in class for a few of my students.

What I do know, though, is that I might need to rethink STEM work periods so that I can be a bit more certain if genuine learning is taking place or not.  What that looks like in practice, I don’t know, but I want to ensure that all of my students work to their full potential.  So, for now, I will collect data and then reassess tomorrow afternoon.  Who knows, maybe all will be clear tomorrow.