Category Archives: Assessment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Digital Storytelling Final Projects

I struggled with whether to write this post or not because digital stories are personal, or they can be personal, but I really believe my students have done good work that is worthy of the world, so I am plunging in.

As I have mentioned before, I went to a digital storytelling workshop last summer. It was life-changing. I decided I had to do a digital storytelling project with my students, but the concept of narrative needed to be woven through the year in order to make the project work. I asked my students to listen to podcast episodes of This American Life to learn more about storytelling in general. Students chose to examine the stories or the production values or related the stories to a story of  their own in a written reflection each month. Students really came to enjoy these assignments. Often after a due date, they came to class talking about the episode they chose to listen to and recommending it to others. I still recall one student writing in his reflection that he thought all his classmates should listen to the episode he chose, even if it was not for an assignment (that’s how I knew the kids were really getting the point). I also wove narrative writing into the curriculum, particularly in the second semester. We wrote narrative essays and discussed elements of storytelling. Next year, I want to do a better job with shorter narratives that will help my students learn to show more instead of tell.

When the time came to begin the project, I started with some good digital story models. We brainstormed ideas for topics and had a topics workshop that the students really liked. We shared ideas for stories and gave each other feedback on the ideas as well as thoughts about how to proceed with the stories. This stage of the process was absolutely critical, and the students agreed that it needed to remain a part of the project next year. I myself found this part of the process to be the most valuable when I went through the workshop.

Next, we wrote drafts of the digital story scripts. And we workshopped the drafts. And we wrote second drafts. And we workshopped second drafts. I limited students to 300 words, but I think I will raise the ceiling next year to 400-500 words. I am worried that in doing so that the videos will get too long, but I think students will find it easier to cut than add details. One important thing I learned in my own workshop is that five minutes is really a good upper limit. Longer, and the viewer loses interest. Three minutes seems to be a sweet spot.

After that, I gave students a tutorial in using iMovie and GarageBand to put together their movies and record voiceovers. One issue I noticed is that students recorded their voiceovers in one single chunk. Next year, I will give them more guidance on pacing and cutting up their voiceovers into segments so there is judicious use of silence when viewers can take in the images and music. One student commented that more of a tutorial would be helpful, but the best way to really learn how to use the software is to use it. I think we can show people how to use technology, but until they actually use it, it’s hard to learn. Another student suggested I could collect a playlist of helpful tutorial videos for iMovie and GarageBand, which was a helpful (and obvious) suggestion that I will will definitely implement next year.

Students felt they did have enough time to complete the project. Keeping in mind we did a process of revision and were also doing other things in class, such as reading literature, writing, etc., we spent about a month on the project from start to finish. That is not a month of working on it every day, but we did have class time to work on it, particularly with scripts and with iMovie drafts. I checked with students at various stages of project completion.

About a week and half ago, I was really worried about the projects. Right before a performance or a game, practices look terrible, and teachers and coaches often despair of students pulling out a performance at the concert, play, or game. Learning is messy, and it never looks messier than with a project that both the teacher and the students are trying for the first time. In the end, I think the students made some quality videos. I am proud of what they did. You can view their work here, and cycle through the videos using the fast-forward and reverse buttons if you want to skip around.

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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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F is for Failure

A light bulb but no (good) ideas... (17/365)No one expects a batter to hit a home run on the first try. In fact, even experienced hitters rarely accomplish this feat. Batters strike out more often than they hit, especially at the professional level. We expect it, and we don’t consider it failure because at that level, hitting the ball is difficult.

How often do we give students one chance to learn, though? Lately, I’ve heard educators beginning to say we need to reassess failure. Some even say it should stand for “first attempt in learning.” One of the things I have come to value as a student myself, both in my master’s program and in online courses I’ve taken through Coursera, is the opportunity to retake quizzes and revise work. Whether or not you want to allow revisions largely depends on your purpose for assessment. If you just want to gauge whether or not students did a reading assignment, perhaps not, but if you want to see what students have learned, then why wouldn’t you?

One of our math teachers allows students to revise their tests. Students grade their own tests and know how they have done before he does. He explains the process in this presentation:

Instead of crumpling their tests and shoving them into the deepest recesses of their backpacks, or worse—throwing them away—students are actually learning from tests. What a concept! Using assessments to learn instead of playing gotcha!

In an English class, this sort of revision can be fairly common—the writing process is designed to teach students that one-and-done drafts don’t really exist. However, grading all these drafts takes time, so not all teachers truly teach the process. I found some success in placing the emphasis on the process through writing workshop this year, and what I found is that students revised even after work had been graded, sometimes continuing to revise for weeks or months (no, not every student). Student writing also improved.

We have created a school culture in which students must do well on their first attempt or risk bad grades, but we complain that students only care about grades and not about their learning. The only way to help students care more about their learning is to allow them to fail. If their first attempt in learning isn’t successful, they need to try again. Otherwise, they receive the message that only the first try counts, and they absolutely must not fail on the first attempt.

I struggle with this idea myself. It’s not easy to make the kind of time we need to make in order to help students truly learn. But if that is the goal, then we need to design lessons that will help students learn, and we need to allow students to struggle a bit with the learning. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right about the time when grades start really mattering, students seem to lose their curiosity. They are not interested in exploring; they want to know the answer. The stakes are too high. There isn’t time to try and try again.

Perhaps there isn’t time on every single assignment, but teachers need to give students opportunities to revise, to try again… to learn. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re all doing in school.

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