Category Archives: Assessment

Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

Photo by Chris Wormhoudt on Unsplash

One of the many reasons I haven’t had much time to blog lately is the fact that I went back to grad school in September. I’m working on my doctorate at Northeastern University. Working full time and going to school has meant all the writing I’ve had time to do has mostly been for school, but it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. I have learned so much from the reading and writing I have done. I can’t even compare my experience with earning my master’s degree to my experience working on my doctorate, and I’m only sorry I wasted so much tuition money and time on the master’s. Here I’m showing my ignorance, but I didn’t realize one could go right into a doctoral degree program with a bachelor’s degree.

My dissertation in practice is an action research investigation on grading and assessment practices. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s perhaps not a surprise, as assessment has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that grading impedes not only motivation but also learning, as students tend to focus on the grade at the expense of the learning. It’s true that some students don’t find grades to be a motivator, and those students tend to view them more as a stick than a carrot. Whether grades motivate students or not, however, they do encourage students to focus on the wrong thing, and even students who truly want to learn find grades demotivating. Students have told me they are afraid to take risks. They select “easier” options. They try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear and parrot it back rather than think for themselves. All of this is anecdotal—I’ve seen it many times over the years; however, I see no reason why students would be dishonest about their feelings regarding grades.

Going back to school has put me in the same position as my students. The anxiety I have experienced over my grades has been difficult to manage at times. Of course I want to learn, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to please my professors. Even though I’m actually studying the effects of grading and know exactly what is happening to me, I find myself unable to focus only on the learning. I want to earn good grades too badly. It’s utterly ironic on a few levels. I’m actually doing very well, for one thing, and for another, the research is quite clear that grades are subjective, demotivating, and even contribute to poor performance (Cvencek, et. al., 2018; Klapp, 2015; Brackett, et. al., 2013; and Bloxham, et. al., 2016). My hunch is it has to do with mindset. I noticed my students relaxed quite a bit once I instituted a liberal revision policy.

One of my classmates mentioned that a professor I will have for a summer course is a hard grader. So naturally, I’ve already started worrying about a class I won’t start for nearly a month. It made me reflect a little bit on reputation. I don’t think I have a reputation for being a hard grader. One person told me my reputation was my expectations are “reasonable,” and I’ll take it. My students this year seemed to be happy in my classes, and my course surveys revealed they felt cared a for and that the choice and agency they had was important for their growth. I relaxed a lot on my own grading practices as a result of the research I have done and because of my own experiences as a student. I truly do not understand the need for a graduate program to use grades.

We know what to do about grading and assessment. I think one reason I was not accepted to another graduate program to which I applied is that my research does not examine a gap in the research. On the contrary, there is plenty of research on grading and assessment, and going all the way back to the 1800s, the research has been fairly clear. And yet, we keep reporting learning by using grades. So even though there is no gap in the research, it’s clear to me that classroom practices haven’t changed as a result of the research, and that’s what I’m interested in: change. We need to do right by our students and fix this problem that has plagued education for far too long.

References

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024607

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. doi:10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self‐concepts, self‐esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. doi:10.1111/cdev.12802

Klapp, A. (2015). Does grading affect educational attainment? A longitudinal study. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(3), 302-323. doi:10.1080/0969594X.2014.988121

What Can Educators Learn from the Great British Bake Off?

gbbo
©BBC, Fair Use for Educational Purposes

I know I am really late to this party, but I just discovered The Great British Bake Off. I have been catching up on each of the seasons available on Netflix. It’s rare for me to actually be able to binge-watch something, but I can watch The Great British Bake Off all day. I find it helps me destress a bit. I love seeing what the contestants come up with. I admit I haven’t watched the American versions. If you have, feel free to chime in here, but my feeling is that it couldn’t quite work the same way with American contestants because one of the best things about The Great British Bake Off is the fact that even though contestants are competing against one another, they support each other, show each other kindness, and even seem happy for others when they are named Star Baker or win the competition and sad to see contestants go. I’m not sure Americans are like that in a competition.

I don’t have this idea fully formed in my head yet, but for the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what educators can take away from this show. I don’t mean the competition aspect, necessarily, but the structure of the show intrigues me as a learning model.

If you haven’t seen it, each week has a different focus: Bread Week, Pastry Week, French Week, etc. Some of these themes repeat each season, while others don’t necessarily. For example, the most recent season available on Netflix included a Vegan Week. Bakers have to display a wide variety of skills and apply what they know about baking to several challenges.

The first challenge in each episode (or week) is the Showcase Challenge. This challenge sets a goal, such as making 24 identical buns, that allows contestants to demonstrate their skills. They know the Showcase Challenge in advance and are allowed to practice recipes at home. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge. For this challenge, contestants do not know the recipe, and often, the judges set really difficult baking tasks for the contestants. They must apply what they know about baking to the challenge because in some cases, they are not given full, precise directions. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the baking directions to just say “bake” without offering baking time or temperature. The final challenge each week is the Showstopper Challenge. For this challenge, contestants must impress by going all out to create something truly amazing that fits the theme. For example, if it’s Cake Week, the judges might ask for a landscape cake with a whole scene in edibles.

I am a bread baker, somewhat new to baking bread as I had always thought it too intimidating. I’ve been baking bread about a year and a half or so. Not too long. I love baking bread. It tastes good, and it provides just the right amount of challenge coupled with simplicity—after all, it’s mostly just flour, water, salt, and yeast. I have had a sourdough starter going for about 15 months.  I started watching The Great British Bake Off thinking I would find it entertaining since I like to bake. I didn’t really expect to learn anything from the show, and not because I’m an expert or anything, but mainly because I don’t usually learn much from television or video. I generally have to read books. I actually will read cookbooks cover to cover. However, aside from learning a few things about baking that I didn’t expect to learn, I also noticed the show teaches a few important skills and competencies that it would be good for all students to learn.

First, the show asks contestants to apply their knowledge about a variety of baking skills, from cookies (or biscuits) to cakes to bread to pastries. All aspects of baking are important: the appearance, the flavors, the ability to follow instructions and deliver what is asked. Each week’s three challenges offer an opportunity to demonstrate different skills:

  • What can you produce within the confines of certain expectations with time to practice?
  • What can you produce bringing to bear what you know about baking when you are giving a challenging task?
  • What can you make that will really impress?

These skills could be applied to other kinds of learning. What if an art class tried these three different challenges? A Showcase with a chance to paint something you know well? A Technical that challenges you to apply a skill, such as stippling, to create a painting? A Technical that challenges you to apply an array of painting skills to create something.

What if a writing class gave students a Showcase challenge that allowed them to write in a genre of their choice about a topic? A Technical that gave a topic and challenged students to write in a specified genre? A Showstopper that asked students to write in several different genres on a topic?

These ideas are obviously not fully formed, but I must admit when I watch this show, several things impress me. The contestants take feedback really well and learn from it. They demonstrate a great deal of resilience and dedication to learning. They have to display a wide array of baking skills, probably far more than the average home baker usually knows. As I mentioned before, they are really supportive of each other. I have actually seen several contestants help others when they’re struggling.

I can’t help but wonder what might happen in a classroom that looked a little bit like The Great British Bake Off.

Reflection on Grades: A Student’s Perspective

stress photo

Tomorrow I start the second quarter of my doctoral program, and I’m reflecting on last quarter. I am studying assessment, particularly grades and why they are not effective. I believe they reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and don’t actually tell us what students have learned. We can absolutely assess student learning without grades. I know many schools have gone gradeless, and I am hoping my research will help me explore the best ways to assess students.

My experience as a student being graded myself for the first time in a while was interesting. Though I was studying assessment and grading and knew what was happening intellectually with my anxiety and motivation, I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on my grades. I will not go so far as to say I was motivated by my grades. Quite the opposite: I was terrified of my grades. For me, they weren’t a carrot, but a stick. And the strange thing is that I did very well last quarter. I did as well as I possibly could do. And the better I did, the more anxious I became because I felt like I had to maintain it. At a certain point, I was incredibly anxious just a single point would be taken off. That’s just ridiculous.

One night, I dreamed that one of my professors told me she would need to give me a bad grade on an assignment, and she also said I wouldn’t be able to revise. I remember feeling frustrated because each assignment seemed important for my learning, and if I really hadn’t done well, I needed to revise. Otherwise, what was the point of the assessment?

My dream never came true. I really enjoyed what I learned in my courses. I was able to have rich discussions with peers, and the assignments were really helpful in focusing my research and teaching me what I needed to know in order to move forward. I received good feedback from my professors and peers. I enjoyed the readings.

I’m writing this reflection for a couple of reasons. The first is that I need to be kind to myself and not focus as much on my grades from now on because the stress I put on myself was harmful. My back stayed clenched just about all quarter. I just need to remember the grades are not as important as the learning. I know they are not. They are meant to be feedback, even I believe they are imperfect feedback at best and incredibly harmful at worst.

The second reason I’m writing this is I might be just like a student in your class. When one of my students expressed anxiety over a small grade drop, I was much more empathetic with her than I might have been in the past because I was anxious about the same issues. I understood it wasn’t about a couple of points. The problem is deeper than that. And yet we call students “grade grubbers” and tell them not to focus on the minutiae, but at the same time, we tell them over and over how important grades are. And some of us, and you know who you are, insist the learning is important, but make no provision for revision.

I feel much more empathy for my students in general after going back to school. I would never characterize myself as lacking empathy, but the quality of my empathy has changed. One day my students came in stressed out over grades, college applications, graduation projects, and I don’t know what all. I asked them if they wanted to do a meditation exercise, so we used my iPhone app and did one. One of them gave me a shout out in morning meeting for “taking care of” them.

My goal is to prevent, as much as possible, causing undue stress. For the first time this year, I added a section to my course outline, which I adapted from my colleague Matt Miller:

Taking Care of Yourself

As a student, you may experience challenges that interfere with your learning—strained relationships, increased anxiety, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may diminish your academic performance and/or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities.

It is important that you take time to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If this class is the result of undue amounts of stress on you, please come discuss your concerns with me so that we can work on a solution to help you better manage your stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences serious academic stress, difficult life events or feelings of anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek support from a parent, teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. Please let me know if I can assist you with this any way.

Be kind to your kids. And if you’re not being kind to yourself, fix that, too.

The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

socratic seminar photo
Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

On My Mind

cobwebs photo
Photo by randihausken

I’ve let the cobwebs collect around here again! All I can say is the same old thing everyone says: time. I always say people make time for things they feel are important, so for one reason or another, blogging has had to retreat to the background for me. I am always thinking about things I want to write about, but making time to do it has been a challenge. That’s not to say that I don’t feel the urge. Obviously, if I’m writing at the moment, I feel like I need to be writing.

I have several things on my mind, any number of which might make an interesting blog post:

  • I discovered in August that I have an underactive thyroid. I’ve been on medication for it, and I feel almost like a different person.
  • I have my first New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) conference coming up in a couple of weeks. I am actually presenting at my first one—on my digital storytelling project. Speaking of which, I have an article in English Journal coming out in January on the same subject.
  • I am visiting Atlanta for the first time in over four years, when I moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, when I go to NCTE. I’m really, really excited.
  • But I’m also concerned about NCTE. It’s becoming an echo chamber, and, honestly, cliquish. I don’t like to see it.
  • I am having a blast with my AP Literature class, and I’m doing a much better job the second time around. Plus, I have some cool tools to share. I haven’t participated in #aplitchat in some time. I need to make time for that.
  • I’m teaching 9th grade for the first time in a while, and it’s been interesting in some ways. My freshmen are a lot of fun. I also have a new advisory group of freshmen as well, so I feel like a part of that class.
  • I have an office. This is a very interesting development. My previous school gave me an office, but I elected to use the common desk space in the computer lab with my colleagues instead because I felt lonely. My new office is not cut off from the rest of the people in my building, so I don’t feel lonely. Plus I am super-productive. I can’t even compare the difference. Part of is a new organization scheme (plus a place of my own to put things).
  • I went to Know your School Night, and just about all of my daughter’s classes have 30-ish students. That’s too many, but it’s not just her school. It’s the norm. That’s wrong when we know what we know about class sizes and effective instruction. I heard over and over (listening between the lines) about classroom management challenges my daughter’s teachers face because of the size of their classes.
  • Also, I am noticing another issue with my daughter’s school that I have encountered before: grading behaviors instead of student work. That’s a whole blog post, for sure, but folks, we can’t hand out a list of rules and give a quiz over the rules. It shows students right off the bat that what you value is compliance and not learning. Come on. Do better.

All of these thoughts probably merit a post on their own. If you want to have some fun, you can vote below. Which one do you want to read about the most? The poll will stay open until midnight on October 9, 2016.

What do you want to read about first?

  • How much better I feel (25%)
  • My concerns about NCTE (25%)
  • AP Lit (25%)
  • Class size concerns (25%)
  • My NEATE presentation (0%)
  • Returning to 9th grade (0%)
  • My office and new organization scheme (0%)
  • Concerns about grading behavior instead of work (0%)

Total Votes: 4

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Fun fact: I have tried to spell “behavior” the British way twice while writing this post, and I have no idea why my brain did that.

Digital Stories: Feedback from Students

feedback photo
Photo by Skley

After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).

Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.

I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.

In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.

I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.

I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.

The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).

I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.

I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.

You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.

The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!

This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.

I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.

I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.

I like the project and we have enough time to do it.

A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:

  1. Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
  2. Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
  3. Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
  4. Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:

I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.

I had a lot of good pictures.

I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.

I liked the pictures.

I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.

I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.

I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.

I did well with the pictures as well as the story.

This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.

I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.

All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).

This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.

Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Slice of Life #14: Corrections

Slice of LifeI didn’t write a Slice last week because I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, and I spent last Tuesday writing all evening. I did want to share a quick Slice this week because I have a few things on my mind—the first two just housekeeping items.

First of all, I’m prepping for attending NCTE at the end of next week, and I’m hoping to see you all there. If we run into each other, please say hi. Also, if you want to connect while we’re there, let me know that, too.

Second, for those of you who wondered, my AP Audit was accepted. I have written before about how much work went into it. I was relieved and gratified when it passed without any suggested revisions or edits, and I sincerely thanked my instructor, who emphasized the importance of including clear revision policies on the syllabus.

The revision policy leads me to my next point. I have been assigning AP-style multiple choice practice to my students and counting it as a quiz grade. I give students a passage and ten questions at a time. I use total points, so I just count the quizzes ten points. I decided after the first such quiz to allow students who earned 7/10 or less an opportunity to do corrections. I mentioned this policy to my class, and one of my students pointed out he wasn’t sure it was fair for those who earned an 8/10 or better not to have a shot as well. I wasn’t sure if earning back one or two points would make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, but I acknowledged he was right and said anybody could do corrections. Not all of my students opt to do so. Many of them do, however, and after a couple of rounds of quizzes, I’m really pleased that I decided to allow students to do corrections and also that I listened to my student’s feedback about broadening the policy. Analyzing where they went wrong and determining why the correct answer is indeed correct will help them build their analysis skills so that they will perform better on the exam. Even if they opt not to take the exam, it will serve them well in terms of helping them analyze the questions more critically.

Just as an example of the thinking that students do on these quizzes, I offer the following examples. Students were quizzed over the passage near the end of King Lear (5.3) when Edgar is filling in the others on where he has been and what he’s been doing. He says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst!”

One question on the quiz asked

“The word “list” in line 2 means”

  1. Tell.

  2. Enumerate.

  3. Count.

  4. Listen.

  5. Cunning.

Many students missed this question because “list” is used today more like “B. Enumerate.” However, in the context of the quote, that answer doesn’t make sense, and that particular answer did not prove to be the distractor, as I assumed it would be. Students seemed able to eliminate both “C. Count” and “E. Cunning” with no trouble. They had a little more trouble with the one I thought they would NOT be confused by because Edgar tells his story, so why would he be asking Albany to “A. Tell” a story?

From one student who gave the answer “A. Tell,” his reasoning:

The answer should be D—listen—because it makes more sense for Edgar to be instructing Albany to hear a tale rather than having him tell one, especially when Edgar goes on to tell his story. It caught me off guard a little because I thought that “tell” fit best grammatically, but the idea was wrong.

I thought his reasoning was really interesting and showed a lot of insight into why it might have tripped the students up. He is right: “tell” does fit best grammatically. It might be better to say “listen to” for D to work grammatically, but the answer is, indeed, D, as the student reasoned, and for the reasons he describes.

Another student who missed the same question and provided the same incorrect answer said the following in her correction:

In line 2 it says “List a brief tale, And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst.” Here list means to listen, because then it continues on to say when I am done telling my story my heart will burst. It does not make sense for list to mean tell because within the same sentence it says when its [sic] done being told, therefore it wouldn’t make sense to “tell” a story when it is being “told.”

I see what she’s saying, and I think she understands how she went wrong based on what she says in the first part, though it might be more accurate for her to say it doesn’t make sense for Edgar to ask Albany to “tell” him a tale when he then goes on to tell one himself.

A third example from a student who also chose the same answer, “A. Tell”:

Although I initially chose A., the correct answer is D. Although “Listing” and “telling” are both highly synonymous words, the context makes it clear that Edgar is not ordering that the story is being told: “List a brief tale / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst (Lines 1-2). If Edgar was ordering that the story be told, then he would speak in the 2nd person, i. e. “And when thou tells it.” The term “tell” and “enumerate” are also soullessly [sic] synonymous that there would not be now a clear answer if either A. or B. had been chosen.

This student clearly reasons through why he was confused, and it has more to do with the answer I thought would be the distractor: “B. Enumerate.”

One last example:

The reason I put “A. Tell” for this one is because at the end of the sentence Edgar says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told” when I saw “told” I figured “List” was another way of saying “tell.” Before I went and second guessed myself I thought the correct answer was “D. Listen,” evident on my quiz because it was the only other answer I didn’t cross off. “Listen” makes more sense in the context of the statement.

This last student gets to one of the most common reasons students make errors with multiple choice questions: they second-guess themselves and think their first hunches are wrong.

I am learning some really interesting things about my students’ thinking by reading through their quiz corrections. Ultimately, I think it’s great for them to think through why they answered incorrectly and explain why the correct answer is the best answer. It will help them approach these questions with more confidence in the future. I am not concerned about any sort of artificial inflation. I asked myself if I was more concerned about grades or whether or not students learned the material. Since the answer for me is obviously the latter, then I’m happy to give them points back for thinking through their mistakes.