Tag Archives: grading


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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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

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Crowdsourcing Grades

5 November 2007Karen LaBonte tweeted a link to Cathy Davidson’s post How to Crowdsource Grading. It’s an interesting approach, and something I think could work well in college setting. My grad school program allows students to resubmit work based on feedback, and I have definitely taken advantage of this perk several times.

The trouble I have with it in high school or even younger is the idea of peers being responsible for evaluation. I do peer editing in my classes all the time, but students are not graded on it (aside from simply a check for doing it). I think students should have some choices and some say about their work, but I’m not sure they’re always the best judges (at least high school and younger) of what to assess and how to assess it, so I wouldn’t put the grades in the hands of my own students.

I hate grades. I would do away with them if I could, but my school has them, so the fairest thing I can do is give students various types of assessments that measure what they have learned against my goals for their learning. My feelings about grades are complicated because as a student, I stress out about them. I actually get nervous when I check my grades online. I would do all the work my instructors asked me to do even without grades, and I think I’d be happier just learning rather than stressing about my grades (which I do even though they are good). On the other hand, I know that I am definitely not normal. Would the students do the work if they weren’t graded on it? Depends. I think you can structure an learning experience for students that isn’t graded and still get most students to buy in. The ones that don’t are usually the ones that don’t even with grades.

We recently had a lot of discussions about summer reading with other members of our department and our media specialist. Students must read three (four for AP) books over the summer. One (two for AP) is required. One is chosen from a list. The last is selected from among books the faculty members have chosen to sponsor. Book sponsors lead a discussion about their choices with the students who signed up for their book. Essentially, a fear was expressed that should we not quiz or otherwise formally assess students’ faculty selections aside from the discussion, the students would not read the book. I liked my department chair’s unorthodox response: so they miss a great learning experience. Too bad for them. The person who expressed the fear about students not reading wasn’t satisfied with this response. I added in, “Can’t they just read a book for fun?” It was very clear that this person was worried students would not do anything if a grade was not tied to it.

With college students, you’re working with adults, and while I’m not sure I’d want my grades in the hands of my peers, I could see some type of agreement about what constitutes “A” work being made among students. In my Multimedia Authoring course, one of my peers gave me really poor marks on my project (a difference of at least 9 points out of 50 when compared to the other two evaluators). I think she did it out of spite because when I evaluated her project, I pointed out that nothing in her PowerPoint worked. Wouldn’t you want to know that before it was graded? Or would you be petty because it was pointed out? I digress, but the point is that my instructor evaluated us on our evaluations of others. He docked me a percentage of a point because I gave a criticism in my comments in one area of the rubric, but still gave full points. His reasoning—if there was a problem, it shouldn’t have received full points. Probably true, but he was also a tough (some would say nit-picky) grader. I wouldn’t say nit-picky because I learned a lot from his class, his feedback, and his tough grading. And yes, I have wondered what kind of feedback my peer received for her evaluation of me.

A side note: I am receiving no grades for the major project I’m creating this semester. I’ve worked harder on it than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it won’t be graded hasn’t lessened my motivation. It has freed it. I don’t have to fret about what I might earn on it, so I can just do my best and create a project that I’m proud of.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ccarlstead

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GCTE Conference 2010

I had a great time and went to so many great sessions at this year’s GCTE Conference at Callaway Gardens.

This first session I attended explored the use of Plasq’s Comic Life software in school projects (Kristen Kallaher, Stone Mountain High School). I have Comic Life on my Mac, and I use it to make cool handouts for my classroom, but I hadn’t thought about getting it installed in our computer lab so students could create projects. I find there is a bit of a learning curve with Comic Life. Still, it’s an idea worth exploring.

Long-time readers of this blog know about my struggles with grading as a form of assessment. If I have to use grades, I want them to reflect what students have truly learned. Sisters Laura Cook (South Effingham High School) and Elizabeth Self presented a session on Grading What Matters that I found intriguing. One thing Laura Cook does is she doesn’t penalize students’ points for late work. Instead, she assigns them lunch detention until the work is completed. In her words, it’s a behavior issue and should therefore be addressed with consequences for the behavior. I like that idea and would like to talk about it further with my department and other faculty at my school. Update: I forgot to include a link to Laura and Liz’s blog, where you can find materials shared at their session.

Lawrence Scanlon presented Integrating Nonfiction into the Curriculum: An Introduction to Rhetoric. My department chair and I have been discussing changes in the curriculum along these lines. What is funny is that she e-mailed me prior to the conference and asked me to go to this session if I could, but if there was something else I preferred, she said that was OK. Well, I went through the descriptions, settled on this session, and went. Then I realized it was the one she wanted me to go to. We are so in tune with each other that it’s spooky. This session was great. One thing I took away from it was solid tools to help students to craft an argument that I can use immediately.

I am interested in multigenre research papers and attended a session last year presented by Buffy Hamilton (who has since become an online friend). This year, Robert Montgomery and his students at Kennesaw State University presented their multigenre research papers, and I learned some new ways to incorporate this valuable writing experience into my classroom. I also really need to finish Tom Romano’s book.

My last session on Friday was presented by a teacher candidate from UGA (Eric Slauson) on incorporating science fiction into the classroom. I chose to go to this session because of my Joseph Campbell class. Slauson did a particularly good job pairing science fiction offerings with canon books.

The final session of the conference took place on Saturday, and I chose to attend Ike Thompson’s (Houston County High School) presentation of Literature Circles. I am very interested in doing more with literature circles, and Thompson’s presentation gave me lots of good ideas. He applied for a mini-grant from GCTE in order to populate his classroom library. I have been researching grant opportunities aside from this mini-grant, and I find that many grant opportunities are limited to public school teachers. I understand why. It makes complete sense to me. But I need to find a way to get a solid classroom library, too. I guess my department chair and I will just need to put our heads together and think.

Saturday night I had dinner and excellent conversations with colleagues from across the state. We moved on to trivia after dinner, and our team won. I absolutely love trivia. My favorite board game is Trivial Pursuit. I need to get in on some local trivia deal so I can keep sharp.

The best part of the conference for me, at least personally, was this:

Dana Huff GCTE High School Teacher of the Year

Nothing beats being recognized by your own colleagues.

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Should We Have D’s?

Georgia did away with the D in its public schools a long time ago.  The reason I know this is that when I moved to Georgia as a junior in high school, which was almost exactly twenty years ago, I had a D in biology on my transcript, and my counselor explained that because it was a passing grade where I came from, the Georgia school to which I was transferring would consider it a passing grade; however, he let me know that grades below 70 were failing grades in Georgia.  I guess that means if you go by the old dictum that A’s are excellent, B’s are above average, C’s are average, and F’s are failing, then in Georgia, you drop from average work to failing work if you find yourself on the other side of that 70.

Private schools, however, are free to retain the D, and my school uses the A-F +/- grading scale.  I have to say that having worked with both scales, I believe the D has merit.  There is a gap between average performance and failing performance, and I think the D serves that gap well.  Below average.  The warning before you fail.  The impetus to do better.  It’s a nice cushion for the students, and I think it might prevent grade inflation.  I am almost sure a chemistry teacher in high school gave me a 70 I didn’t earn because I worked hard, was generally quiet, and turned in all my assignments.  I just had a very hard time with the subject.  I can’t really say my knowledge of chemistry was average as high school student.  It was probably below average.  Maybe it’s just me, but I see a difference between doing average work and doing failing work.

What do you think, though?  Do D’s serve a purpose?  Is Georgia wrong to delete the D?

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Is a Flower Worth More than a Frog?

Via this week’s NCTE Inbox, I read an article about an experiment in assessment that English teacher John O’Connor tried.

After spending 15 hours carefully crafting comments on a class set of papers, there’s nothing more depressing than to see those papers parachute, unread,  into the recycling bin at the end of class.

This past school year, I swore, would be different: I would give no grades.  I figured this would force students to read, absorb, and appreciate all the attention I had given their work, rather than just rely on a grade at the end of the paper.

O’Connor left cute stamps instead of grades on student work.  Of course, they still tried to see what the value of each stamp was — “Is a flower worth more than a frog?”  Parents worried.  “[T]his was cute and all, but try explaining to a college that her son has a ‘raccoon’ in senior English.”  Indeed.

Ultimately, such a system is very hard, if not impossible to defend, particularly in a school that does assign grades to students. I cannot imagine how an administrator could back up a teacher who tried such a system and then (as is likely) was challenged by a parent or student.

I wish there was a way we could eliminate grades as a means of communicating progress and rely instead on narrative and comments, but grades are very entrenched in our schools, and O’Connor’s system would only work if the entire school was behind the idea of eliminating grades.  Many schools who use other means of assessment exist, and colleges do indeed accept these students.

Like O’Connor, I wish students would read the comments.  I am frustrated when I spend a long time with a student’s work, giving what I feel is copious feedback, only to have the student turn to the grade and ask “Why’d I get a B?”  At least students understand letter grades, and even if, as O’Connor insists, he and the student generally knew what the student’s letter grade was, I can’t imagine how I’d address the question “Why’d I get a frog?  What is a frog, anyway?”

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