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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