I’m Writing a Book

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I made an announcement on Twitter the other day that I believe I have figured out how to translate the work I did on grading and assessment for my dissertation into a book. I will definitely be doing more research because I want this book to be practical. I want it to be the book I wish I’d had when I started teaching and knew nothing about grading and assessment aside from my own experiences of it. I perpetuated a lot of the bad grading and assessment practices I experienced as a student until I knew better. I know I still have room to learn and grow, but I’m really excited to start this journey, and I hope it helps teachers.

My approach will not be how to eliminate grading. We already know grading is problematic. It’s an extrinsic motivator at best, and it’s soul-crushing at worst. I also think a lot of teachers do not have the option to just eliminate grades. While many schools have established better systems for evaluating student work, most teachers have to work within the system. I am hoping my book will offer advice for how to do that.

I’m still taking notes at this stage, and if you have any thoughts about topics you’d like to see addressed in the book, feel free to chime in with a comment.

Let’s get started.

Class Discussion Strategies

My AP Lit Class
My AP Literature class in 2018 engaged in a discussion

After introducing my AP Lit students to literary analysis tools and critical theory, I teach a unit called “Identity and Culture” with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon at the center. In the past, I have turned this unit into a bit of a slog, as I want to discuss everything that happens. As a result, the discussions have tended to be teacher-led, and we never seemed to get through everything I wanted to talk about. You see the problem, don’t you? It was about me and not the students‘ needs. I can be especially guilty of this pedagogical crime when I’m teaching a book I really love—like Song of Solomon. This year, I decided to change my approach. Obviously, I needed to do something more student-centered.

I attended the Mosaic AP Slow Conference this summer, and in one session presented by Roy Smith and Brian Sztabnik, I learned how to create a digital notebook (see link; their materials are near the top of the page as of this writing). I replicated the notebook that Roy shared in the presentation using this free template at Slidesmania. The notebook allowed students to wrestle with the novel’s characters and themes and analyze the text deeply. We could pull back a bit on the class discussion because I was asking students to do more of the work of analysis on their own. The side benefit is that doing this analysis better prepared the students for the class discussions.

The second change to my approach involved the discussions themselves. I knew I didn’t want to lead full-class discussions each day. I decided to try different discussion techniques that included a mix of small group discussions in which all students could participate and larger group discussions that engaged the class as a whole. I tried each of the following strategies successfully in the unit.

TQE: Thoughts, Questions, Epiphanies

I learned about this technique through Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy blog. Marisa Thompson developed this discussion strategy in which students discuss their thoughts, questions, and epiphanies about a text in small groups for 15 minutes. Then they identify their top two TQEs and write them on the board. The student-generated TQEs become the basis for the full-class discussion that follows. I like this strategy because it engages students in both small group discussions and full-class discussions. It gives them a focus. In Gonzalez’s blog post, you can see the stems Thompson uses to help students generate topics for discussion. As students are working in small groups, I circulate and listen. I have also tried this strategy in my Social Justice course with great results.

Small Group Scene Studies

Because the notebooks the students used as they read the text included a section for scene studies, I decided I would ask students to do a mix of independent scene studies and group scene studies. The goal of a scene study is to analyze the events in a scene. What happens? On a deeper level, what does it mean? Do you notice any symbols? How does the scene connect to larger themes in the text? How do characters develop in the scene? Scene studies are great for those pivotal moments in a text, such as when a character has an epiphany or when a major event happens, and you want students to think about the details. We had done a scene study together as a class in which we compared and contrasted Robert Smith’s leap to Henry Porter’s standoff in the first chapter of the novel, so they had a model for the process. Sometimes I asked students to select a scene and do a scene study in their notebooks for homework, but on other occasions, I asked them to work in a small group to conduct a scene study. Groups then shared out their findings about a scene with the whole class. I could easily see this working as a “jigsaw” discussion, too. In that case, each group might analyze a different scene and the sharing would take on additional import as they taught their peers about the scene.

Conversation Stations

Also known as “converstations,” this strategy engages students in small group discussions about characters, scenes, events, themes… whatever you like! I teach AP Lit with a colleague, and she identified several quotes from one of the chapters and asked one or two questions about each quote. These quotes were posted in different areas around the room where students could write responses. Students start at one quote station and move through each station, commenting on the questions and adding to their peers’ comments as well. After rotating through each station as a group, students navigate to the quote that speaks to them the most, and they unpack that station’s commentary for the whole class. They don’t have to move as a group to identify the quote they want to unpack. This method incorporates some movement, so it’s a good way to get students on their feet and thinking. The danger is that some quotes may not attract as many students. I had that happen to one station, and I decided to unpack that station’s commentary. I also did not have the whiteboard space in the classroom where I teach (as my colleague did), so I used large sticky posters.

A twist on this strategy involves creating a slide deck with a slide for each student group where they can write their responses to each station. Each station is a different slide in the deck. The stations can have quotes, questions, or some mix of both. I also borrowed this idea from my AP Lit teaching colleague. It works especially well when you have a hybrid or Zoom class, and you want to engage students in group work.

Protocols

Discussion protocols are also a great way to engage students in small group discussions. The School Reform Initiative has many discussion protocols that not only work well for professional meetings but can also be adapted for the classroom, including many text-based protocols. I tried two text-based protocols developed by SRI: Save the Last Word for ME and the Four “A”s Text Discussion. The only real changes I needed to make were adapting some of the timed portions to fit my 70-minute class periods and changing terms like “article” to “text.”

I used an adaptation of the Four “A”s Text Protocol that asks students to discuss a character’s “assumptions,” what they want to “agree with,” what they want to “argue” with, and what they want to “ask” the character. We used this protocol after we learned about Guitar’s involvement in the Seven Days, which helped the students go beneath the surface and beyond their first reaction to the Seven Days and think more critically about Guitar and his involvement in this organization. This protocol allowed students to explore the nuances and angles in the text.

We used the “Save the Last Word for ME” protocol after reading chapter 9, which rounds out First Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena’s characters and delves more deeply into their stories. This protocol is especially good for engaging every voice, as each participant must speak. Each participant shares a passage, and the other group members discuss the passage before circling back to the presenter, who then explains why they chose the passage. This protocol is also great for driving students into the text, as it is passage-based.

Notebook-Led Discussions

Notebook-led discussions might not be the best term for this strategy, but I called them notebook-led discussions because I asked students to share some detail from their notebooks as a frame for the discussion. Rather than generate questions I would ask them in a full-class discussion, asked them which scene they focused on for a scene study, and they shared what they captured in their notes. Other students added on as they generated questions or ideas about the scenes. This strategy also worked for focusing on characters. I might ask what details they captured about a character’s development in a reading. This strategy is a twist on the typical teacher-led discussion as it asks students to share the details from their notebooks that they want to focus on for discussion.

Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussion

I use Socratic Seminar discussion often but decided to try a Fishbowl Discussion after Part I of the novel to allow students to discuss the text in smaller groups, practice listening and note-taking skills, and analyze the text up until that point. Fishbowl Discussions divide the class into small groups. My class sizes are just right for dividing into two groups. The inner circle discusses the text, while the outer circle takes notes. The groups swap places and repeat the procedure. Students don’t like that those conversations can be repetitive and sometimes want to address a point that came up in the other group’s discussion, but there are ways you can mitigate these problems by allowing time to debrief or creating different questions for each group. My students generate their own questions for Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussions using the Question Formulation Technique from the Right Question Institute. I ask students to do a reflection that includes the following elements:

  • A summary of the discussion
  • Identify a comment made by a peer and explain why you responded to it (agree, disagree, made me think, etc.)
  • Explain how the seminar contributed to your learning
  • Connect the discussion to something else (a personal experience, learning in another class, another book, etc).
  • Assess yourself and set goals for next time

I have been using this reflection template for years. I initially discovered it through Greece Central School District’s (New York) website for their ELA programs, but they have since taken down all of these resources. You can easily create a reflection template that works for you.

If you’ve tried discussion techniques that work well for you, please feel free to share in the comments.

Envisioning Units

One of the ways I try to keep my teaching fresh is to revise units and try new things. I am not one of those teachers who can do the same thing year after year. While I understand the pandemic has been a huge challenge, some of the units I teach didn’t feel successful last year, even on top of pandemic concerns. I discovered the unit makeover challenge through Brave New Teaching. The unit I started with is my Home and Family unit with the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi at the center. I decided to revise that unit because I love that book so much that I actually over-teach it to the point that it’s a slog for the students by the end. If you know the book, it might make sense to explain that they generally stay with me up until the chapters on Akua and Willie, after which, they just can’t do it anymore. I knew I needed to freshen this unit up, and I decided this unit challenge would help. I enjoyed the first step, creating a vision board, so much that I’ve decided to tackle my other units in the same way. Here is an image of my vision board for Homegoing. I created this vision board using a Google Slide. Unfortunately, my school’s Google Drive settings no longer allow me to share outside the organization, so I cannot share the actual Google Slide.

Homegoing Vision Board
Homegoing vision board

I was not only happy with how it turned out but also was able to zero in on what I think is important in the novel. I have just started the vision board for the unit that includes Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours, and I can already tell that this unit really needs a lot of work. The essential questions I’ve been using don’t work, for one. I’m excited to tackle revising that unit along with my AP Lit teaching colleague.

I created the following vision board for the LGBTQIA+ history and literature unit in the Social Justice course I co-teach.

LGBTQIA+ History and Literature vision board

Again, I found it helped me focus and figure out what was important. The vision board concept has opened up a whole new way for me to think about units. I could also see it being a form of assessment for students following a unit. What if we asked students to create a vision board exploring their learning takeaways from the unit?

What to Assess? Ask.

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I had a great discussion with my students today. A couple of them asked me why I don’t grade participation in Socratic seminars. I used to. I stopped because I find that grading participation is slippery. If you quantify it, you run the risk of encouraging shallow participation for points. In their reflections, students share what they have learned as a result of the seminar. I think part of the concern the students shared is that their reflection must include a summary of ideas discussed in the seminar, and the students who raised the concern did not earn full points for their summaries. They argued that if they are trying to capture the discussion in their notes, they will not be as present in the discussion.

What I told the students is that grading is a means of communicating their learning, and if they would prefer to be assessed on participation because it helps them learn, then I will do what helps them learn. I asked that we have a discussion about it as a class. We had that discussion this morning, and I was really impressed with how the students were able to articulate what works for them in assessing seminars and why. They have a strong sense of what kind of assessment feels equitable and what does not. They were able to articulate why setting goals and assessing progress toward the goals was helpful, and why grading participation didn’t work for most of them.

I pointed out that the skills of note-taking and listening are important for success. Students need to listen to their teachers and peers—now and later in college—and be able to take notes on what they hear, so my rationale for assessing these skills is that they are skills that are important to practice. Yet, I understand their arguments as well. We cannot have a good seminar if students do not participate. On the other hand, their classmates insisted that participation was not a problem in our first seminar. At one point, they asked me to display our discussion map from last time (thanks, Equity Maps!). Did we actually have a problem that needed solving, or was our discussion working without grading participation?

The class consensus was to leave the assessment as is, particularly as they have only experienced one seminar so far and judgment based on one experience would not tell the whole story. I don’t think everyone was happy, and frankly, the discussion did become a bit heated. I don’t think that made the students feel comfortable. I asked them if they felt heard—not agreed with, because that’s not the same thing—but heard. I think the net result is that students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas. I was super impressed with them, and I shared that feedback with them.

We have our second seminar tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how this debate informs the discussion. In the end, the compromise/consensus seemed to be that students want to be assessed on making progress on their goals. Part of their reflection is to identify their goals for the next seminar. This means I need to go back into their last reflections and refresh my memory about what their individual goals are and ensure I give them feedback on their progress toward meeting their goals. They also asked for feedback on their contributions, though they recognized that one person’s idea of an insightful comment may differ from another’s.

The bottom line is that it’s important to engage students in the assessment of their learning. Some of the best discussions I have had with my students have centered on grading and assessment. They have a lot to say about assessment, but they are not always a part of the conversation about how they’ll be assessed. It was a good exercise for my students today to hear others’ perspectives on this topic and take those perspectives into consideration.

5 Myths About Grading

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In June I successfully defended my dissertation at Northeastern University. My research focused on grading and assessment, which will likely not surprise anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, as I have written about grading and assessment frequently.

My dissertation was qualitative action research, a dissertation in practice grounded in the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. Grading and assessment are ripe for qualitative action research because we have over a century of quantitative research in grading and assessment, and not as much positive change, at least with grading, as we might like to see. I might argue we are seeing more authentic assessment in schools, but grading remains, well, stuck. One of the reasons I think we’re stuck is that we believe persistent myths about grading.

Grades Communicate Students’ Proficiency

One of the most persistent myths about grading is that we agree on what grades mean. As long ago as 1888, researchers were raising questions about inter-rater reliability (Edgeworth, 1888). Study after study indicates that grades are highly inconsistent measures of students’ learning. Starch & Elliott (1912) conducted a study that examined consistency among graders and found that scores on student writing varied by 30-40 points out of 100, or a probable error of 4.5. You might be thinking, “yes, but isn’t writing a little subjective anyway? I’m sure that doesn’t happen in, say, math.” Well, the following year, Starch & Elliott (1913) found that scores on a geometry exam varied even more widely—as much as a probable error of 7.5. They ascribed the difference to several factors: the possibility that graders differently evaluate the students’ methods for reaching the solution, that they assess quality of the students’ drawings, and that they assign different values to problems.

Naturally, things have changed in a hundred years. What do more recent studies say? Brimi (2011) sought to answer that very question. Brimi (2011) engaged 73 participants working for the same school district trained to use the 6+1 Traits of Writing Rubric developed by Education Northwest to score the same argumentative essay using the rubric. The participants’ grades ranged from an A to an F on the traditional grading scale; furthermore, the range of scores assigned to the essay spanned 46 points (Brimi, 2011).

Grading is inconsistent for many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is that teachers evaluate different things when they grade. Some teachers offer extra credit or give students points for bringing supplies (Townsley & Varga, 2018). Teachers can be highly individualistic in selecting criteria for students’ performance (Bloxham et al., 2016). Other factors also impact how teachers evaluate students’ performance. For example, Brackett, et al. (2013) found that a teacher’s mood while grading can impact students’ scores—teachers in a bad mood tend to rate students’ performance lower. This holds true even when grading more objective criteria such as correct spelling (Brackett, et al. 2013). Think what this means as we are teaching in the midst of a pandemic and during a time when it feels as though teachers are being attacked from all sides.

One of the reasons traditional letter or number grades emerged is due to perceived inconsistency, inefficiency, and complication involved in narrative grade reports (Feldman, 2019). It was thought that letter grades could communicate learning both efficiently and plainly (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). By the 1940s, the A-F letter grade system had become the most popular grading system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

Traditional grades tend to be derived by averaging the performance on all assessments during a grading period; this average may not capture students’ eventual proficiency in learning and can place undue emphasis on performance anomalies rather than tendencies (Feldman, 2019). In addition, traditional grading sometimes incorporates assessment of student behaviors, such as participation, engagement, and effort (Feldman, 2019).

We might think that grades communicate students’ proficiency in learning, but there are simply too many variables to say this definitively.

Grades Motivate Students

One fear many educators express is that if students are not graded, they will not be motivated to do the work. At best, grades serve as extrinsic motivation for learning. When students care more about the grades than the learning, they are more likely to resort to academic dishonesty. In fact, pressure to earn high grades contributes to academic dishonesty and mental health problems (Rinn et al., 2014; Villeneuve et al., 2019). Grades affect students’ achievement, self-concept, and motivation (Casillas et al., 2012; Pulfrey et al., 2011). Students who earn low grades tend to achieve less and feel lower self-esteem over time (Klapp, 2018).

Fear of earning low grades or focus on earning high grades both serve as extrinsic motivators for learning rather than intrinsic motivators, which demonstrate more effectiveness in supporting learning (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Intrinsic motivation is positively associated with both engagement and achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Helping students develop their intrinsic motivation to learn may increase students’ achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016). Extrinsic motivation to earn good grades or avoid the negative consequences of poor grades drives many students rather than the desire to learn, and over time, extrinsic motivation decreases students’ achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). In addition, the reward of good grades tends to decrease motivation for otherwise engaging learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

It’s worth noting that motivation appears to change depending on the grading system used. When students are graded using a 100-point system in which the sum of all student work is worth a total of 100 points, students tend to view each point deducted as a loss (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies-Hernandez (2012) describes such grading systems as “loss-framed grading” (p. 179). However, when students are graded using a total points system tallying all points earned, they tend to view grades as opportunities to improve and build toward a desired grade (Smith & Smith, 2009). Students who are graded with a system weighting assignment categories by percentage fell in between students in the other grading groups (Smith & Smith, 2009). Even if controls ensure that the resulting grade is the same regardless of the calculation system, students’ responses on a Likert scale questionnaire indicate they still perceive greater risk in 100-point systems and were less motivated and self-assured (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies- Hernandez (2012) replicated these findings and further found that students’ performances in courses with a loss-framed grading system also decreased. Thus, the framing of the grading system not only has an impact on students’ perceptions of their performance but also on their actual performance (Bies- Hernandez, 2012). The implication is that teachers’ approaches to grading may affect students’ academic achievement (Brookhart et al., 2016).

However, proficiency-based grading (sometimes known as competency-based grading, standards-based grading, or mastery-based grading) has the potential to make grades more meaningful and purposeful (Buckmiller et al., 2017; Guskey, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also lead to greater academic achievement, particularly if the grades are paired with formative feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also foster more cooperation and less competition (Burleigh & Meegan, 2018). Taking academic risks, weighing differing conclusions, and considering varied points of view are all necessary for developing critical thinking skills, but if students must risk failing grades in order to do so, they are much more likely to take the safer route to earning a higher grade (Hayek et al., 2014; McMorran et al., 2017). Knowing that they could continue to learn, revise, and reflect on their work may increase students’ motivation to learn (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; McMorran et al., 2017).

100-point Grading Scales are More Precise than A-F or 4-Point Grading Scales

Do you know why we use the 100-point scale? It’s not because it’s more precise. It’s because it’s the scale in the gradebook software (Guskey, 2013; Guskey & Jung, 2016). The 100-point scale is terrible, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. The 100-point grading scale has become one of the most common scales for reporting students’ grades, but it is one of the most unreliable scales in use (Guskey, 2013).

The 100-point scale is inaccurate and inequitable because the scale is skewed toward failing grades (Feldman, 2019). Passing grades comprise only 40 points of the grading scale, spanning typically from 60 points to 100 points (or from 70-100 points in some systems!), while failing grades comprise the remaining points possible spanning from 0 to 59 (or even 0-69). Serious mathematical errors arise when teachers input zeros in the gradebook when students are missing work (Feldman, 2019). While this practice ostensibly holds students accountable for handing in work, it can make it impossible for students to recover academically (Feldman, 2019). The literature suggests that teachers may compensate for the 100-point scale’s mathematical errors by artificially raising grades in a number of ways (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), including grading formative assessments and executive function skills (Bowers, 2011; Brookhart et al., 2016; Townsley & Varga, 2018).

Unfortunately, a lot of educators perceive the 100-point grading scale to be more accurate (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019; Feldman, 2019). While using 100 points as opposed to four or five points may seem more accurate, it results in a probable error of five or six points; teachers find it difficult to distinguish levels of performance on a 100-point scale (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019). Some grading reformers advocate for the use of minimum grading, or inputting a minimum grade such as 50 percent, rather than inputting zeros for missing work; this practice reduces mathematical error (Carifio & Carey, 2013; Carifio & Carey, 2015; Feldman, 2019). Essentially what educators are doing when they use minimum grading, however, is compensating for the deficiencies of the 100-point scale by converting it to a rough approximation of the 4-point scale. In a four-point scale, failing grades span from 0-0.99 of a point, while passing grades span from 1-4 points (or 2-4 points in a system without a “D”).

Grades Reduce Bias

Variable and unreliable grading practices also introduce equity problems. Black students have less access to AP courses all over the United States (Francis & Darity, 2021). Schools that use gatekeeping methods (Francis & Darity, 2021), such as teacher recommendations and prerequisite grades, may be basing their decisions about students’ fitness for advanced coursework on subjective measures common in traditional grading (Feldman, 2019). Students of color are most impacted by teachers’ implicit bias (Feldman, 2019), especially if subjective, non-academic factors are included in assessment (Cvencek et al., 2018). Implicit bias may especially play a role in lower grades assigned to students of color when the criteria for proficiency are unclear or undefined (Quinn, 2020). Traditional grading’s subjectivity can harm all students, but students of color may be most impacted due to implicit bias (Feldman, 2019; Quinn, 2020).

However, proficiency-based grading can make grades more equitable and more reflective of students’ actual learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Proficiency-based grading may include using practices such as rubrics for evaluating student work and student-generated portfolios; however, it may also include traditional assessments such as tests (Baete & Hochbein, 2014; Buckmiller et al., 2017; Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Students’ grades are tied to their mastery of content, such as standards, knowledge, and skills, as opposed to an average of all the grades earned during a grading period or course (Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Teachers using proficiency-based grading typically provide students with feedback on formative assessments (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Students may revise and resubmit work in order to demonstrate their proficiency in learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Through revision, students demonstrate their learning of the content and skills. As a result, proficiency-based grades may more accurately reflect what students have learned rather than a snapshot of their performance on a single assessment.

We Have to Use Grades

Grades have actually not existed, at least not in the form we’re familiar with, for a very long period of time (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). One of the worst reasons to perpetuate any system is the notion that we’ve always done it that way, especially when it’s not even true that we have always done it this way. The A-F grading system gained popularity as late as the 1940s—as I mentioned before—as educators saw a need to establish more uniform methods for determining students’ proficiency (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). For many years preceding the establishment of “traditional grading,” we used all sorts of other systems (good and bad) for measuring learning. This system is entrenched, but it’s not as old as people might think, and if we decided, collectively, that it no longer worked for us, we could find a better system. The problem is, well, that it’s a system, and systems are notoriously hard to change.

I have heard many educators express anxiety that students will either not be prepared for college or will not get into college unless they are graded. Many schools, however, have successfully eliminated traditional grades. Colleges understand the transcripts these students send them, and these students are able to go to college. For example, the Watershed School, a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, does not issue traditional letter grades or test students through final exams and has a 100% college acceptance rate (Plaskov, 2019). A college counselor I worked with told me anecdotally that “colleges are fine with grading that’s ‘non-traditional.’ Parents usually get very concerned about going off the A-F standard, but college admissions folks are experts on grading scales, and what I’ve consistently heard from them is that the most-accurate/least-translated reporting is what they like.”

My own personal experience is that some schools’ grading practices are more entrenched, and while another system of evaluation would work, it wouldn’t be politically feasible. Proficiency-based grading shows additional promise here. Attaching grades to standards or competencies can make grades more accurate reflections of students’ proficiency in learning. Proficiency-based report cards have the potential to be more useful in understanding students’ learning than traditional report cards including only a letter grade (Blauth & Hajdian, 2016; Swan et al., 2014). Swan et al. (2014) found that parents and teachers generally find proficiency-based reports more helpful and easier to understand, in addition to having more and better information about students’ progress.

It’s worth noting that one study I examined indicated parents reported feeling less confidence in the standards-based grade reports because they were unfamiliar and felt the school had not taken their feelings as stakeholders into account before implementing standards-based grade reports (Franklin et al., 2016). These parents also reported finding the grade reports unclear (Franklin et al., 2016). Importantly, Franklin et al. (2016) indicate the parents in their study were all dissatisfied with standards-based report cards; these parents also described themselves as strong students who enjoyed school. Their study did not include parents who expressed satisfaction with the reports. (Franklin et al., 2016).

The Bottom Line?

I think it’s important for teachers to open dialogue with students and parents, read the research on grading and assessment, and work within the system they’re in to make grades more accurate and meaningful. I highly recommend the works referenced in this post, which is derived largely from my dissertation. For a good deep dive, Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity is excellent.

References

Baete, G. S. & Hochbein, C. (2014). Project proficiency: Assessing the independent effects of high school reform in an urban district. The Journal of Educational Research, 107(6), 493-511. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2013.823371

Bies-Hernandez, N. J. (2012). The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 176-180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450429

Blauth, E. & Hadjian, S. (2016). How selective colleges and universities evaluate proficiency-based high school transcripts: Insights for students and schools. New England Board of Higher Education. https://www.nebhe.org/info/pdf/policy/Policy_Spotlight_How_Colleges_Evaluate_PB_HS_Trans cripts_April_2016.pdf

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. https://doi.org/10.1080/020602938.2015.1024607

Bowers, A. J. (2011). What’s in a grade? The multidimensional nature of what teacher-assigned grades assess in high school. Educational Research and Evaluation, 17(3), 151-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2011.597112

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

Brimi, H. M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in English. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 16(7). http://pareonline.net/getvnasp?=16&n=17

Brookhart, S. M., & Guskey, T. R. (2019). Reliability in grading and grading scales. In T. R. Guskey & S. M. Brookhart (Eds.), What we know about grading: What works, what doesn’t, and what’s next (pp. 13-31). ASCD.

Brookhart, S., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316672069

Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading (SBG) in higher education. College Teaching, 65(4), 151-157. https://doi.org/10.1080.87567555.2017.1302919

Burleigh, T. J. & Meegan, D. V. (2018). Risky prospects and risk aversion tendencies: does competition in the classroom depend on grading practices and knowledge of peer-status? Social Psychology of Education, 21(2), 323-335. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s11218-017-9414-x

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2013). The arguments and data in favor of minimum grading. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 25(4), 19-30.

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2015). Further findings on the positive effects of minimum grading. Journal of Education and Social Policy, 2(4), 130-136.

Casillas, A., Robbins, S., Allen, J., Kuo, Y. L., Hanson, M. A., & Shmeiser, C. (2012). Predicting early academy failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 407-420. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027180

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

Edgeworth, F. Y. (1888). The statistics of examinations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 51(3), 599-635.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

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Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-11.

Klapp, A., (2018). Does academic and social self-concept and motivation explain the effect of grading on students’ achievement? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 33(2), 355-376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-017-0331-3

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Rumination Essays

A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be able to attend Kenyon College’s Writing Workshop for Teachers. My instructor was Dr. Emily Moore, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She shared a writing assignment with us that Stuyvesant English teachers use. It’s a form of writing that marries the literary analysis with the personal narrative, and she referred to it as a “Rumination Essay.”

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

The instructions are as follows (very much adapted from those shared by Dr. Emily Moore):

  1. Choose a single quotation from the text—about 1-3 consecutive lines [note: this is negotiable, but the point is to choose a short passage rather than a really long passage]. You might choose a passage that captured your attention, moved you, or felt connected to an experience or emotion in your own life. You might reflect on a key message or theme, conflict, or character from the play as a starting point, and look for a quote based on that.
  2. Begin your rumination by discussing the context of the quote clearly, but avoid unnecessary plot summary. Instead, simply give the reader enough information so the quote will make sense. What situation has led up to the quote? Who is speaking?
  3. Introduce the quote smoothly with a strong transition, so that it is incorporated into your own writing. Make sure you format the quote correctly and cite it properly. Don’t forget a Works Cited page.
  4. Analyze the quote. What is its significance in the play up until this point? How does it help us understand a message or theme emerging in the play? What does it suggest about the character’s experience, or the conflicts and characters that drive this story?
  5. Next, transition into personal writing. In this section, you will write in the first person about an experience of your own that relates to the quote you’ve chosen. The experience doesn’t have to be exactly the same—these characters have their lives; you’ve had yours—but there should be a connection. Your personal experience will reflect something about the quote you’ve chosen, and it will echo an idea that stayed with you from your reading.

Note: In this section, you’ll write in the first person. Work like a storyteller, and think about the techniques storytellers use. In particular, you’ll want to do more than just tell us what happened.Use details (concrete imagery, dialogue, character, etc.) to show us something about your experience, and reflect on it as well.

  1. Now that you’ve considered how the message or themes suggested by your chosen quote connect to your own life, reconnect to the literary work in your last paragraph. How does the experience you had help you understand the work? Your understanding of the quote and key message or theme you’re discussing will be deeper now, because you’ve enriched it with a story from your own experience. Use that to conclude your rumination.

This assignment can be used with a variety of texts. I have previously used it with teaching King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also allowed students to select a work of their choosing.

Students generally enjoy this assignment and find it engaging because it asks them to make a direct connection to a work of literature. However, they also find it challenging to use first person, mainly because somewhere along the line, someone told them never to do that. The structure is a bit different from what they’re accustomed to.

I usually save the exemplars from each year and share them with students so they can get the idea. I am embedding an example of the instructions I share with students. You can use the instructions and modify them for your own texts and needs.

Walking

Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

Last November, what with the pandemic and all, my weight reached a point that made me pretty unhappy. I could usually get a little bit of exercise by walking back and forth from my office to my classroom, but when we moved entirely online, there were days when I hardly moved at all. Truthfully, however, I’ve been fairly sedentary most of my life. I’ve never exercised very much, and I typically gave up when I tried an exercise regime and didn’t see any results. After I had my third child, I developed hypthyroidism, but I didn’t know I had it until a physician ordered routine bloodwork and immediately called me to tell me she had prescribed medication for it. A host of issues I didn’t know were related suddenly improved.

About a year and a half ago, I wondered if I needed a higher dosage of the medication because I couldn’t seem to lose any weight, and I had heard that the medication I was taking was supposed to help with that. However, my thyroid levels were fine, according to my doctor. She suggested I check out Noom, and I was pretty skeptical, but I finally signed up in November 2020. I honestly don’t use many of Noom’s features. The accountability of the coach and the group don’t help me much, but I can see how they might help others. I find logging my meals and water intake extremely helpful, and I also discovered walking because of the app. Noom encourages users to meet a step goal, gradually increasing the number of steps each time you meet your goal. By January, I was up to 10,000 steps a day, which I have maintained so far every day this year. I use another app called Pacer to track my steps because it gives me badges for completing challenges, and that kind of thing is weirdly motivating for me. For the record, I’ve lost about 40 pounds, but more importantly, I’m actually fit for maybe the first time in my life—fitter even than when I weighed less than I do now. I’m happier with my health and body now than I have ever been, even when I was thinner than I am now.

I can usually meet my step goal if I walk for at least an hour every day. I can break it up into shorter chunks of time, but dedicating that hour has become an important part of my self-care routine. When I walk, I listen to audio books, podcasts, music, or whatever is moving me at the moment. I don’t let weather get in my way. If I can’t walk outside, which is my strong preference, I walk on the treadmill at the gym, but I’ve walked in snow and rain on occasion. The cold doesn’t bother me, but the heat does, so if it’s too hot, I tend to go to the gym instead. I find the treadmill extremely boring, but it’s better than not walking at all. 

It seems like a really strange thing to have found this outlet so late in life. I remembered my grandmother loved to take short walks, and there was a period in her life when she lost a good deal of weight doing so. I’m not sure if she ever found it meditative the way I do, but when I walk, I just walk. I don’t check emails. I try not to read anything at all off my phone—maybe just an urgent text message. That hour of time is my time to be alone. Sometimes my husband walks with me, too, and we talk about all kinds of things. On a few rare occasions, my son has also asked to go. It’s best when I can go outside. Even though I live in an urban environment that’s not the best for walking, I still enjoy getting outside in that environment. I check out everyone’s flowers. I observe the trees and the sky. I feel the breeze. It makes me feel grounded and alive and perfectly happy.

I had a moment last week, ironically on the treadmill rather than outside, where I was listening to some music I love, and I was struck by how happy I felt to be moving and enjoying living in that moment. That’s what mindfulness is—taking the time to appreciate the present moment entirely rather than thinking about the past or the future. and pulling yourself entirely into the current moment.

In spring 2020, when the pandemic started raging, I collaborated with our other AP Lit teacher to give students an outlet to talk about how they were feeling. We read Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” and discussed the “best laid plans” the pandemic had ruined and how they were coping. Time and again, students mentioned taking walks. Students are wise. I wish I could say they inspired me, but it probably took another six months and change before I started walking myself.

It’s been a hard year and a half living with this virus. I caught it myself in January of this year, and I was so afraid. I think the main reason I managed to get through it relatively easily was the walking. I had become healthier just in time. 

Teachers get very busy, and it’s important that we make time for our health. Walking works for me, but you may find something else works for you. In any case, find an activity that works for you to have some meditiative time and take care of yourself. It’s important to find a way to move that brings you joy. Teacher friends: find a way to take care of yourself. This year looks like it might be a challenge, too, and whatever can help ground you and give you some happiness and peace is critical for your wellbeing.

How I Start the Year

It seems strange to me that we’re talking about returning to school, but some of my friends in far-flung places are already back. 😳

I’ve seen a few tweets about ideas for starting the school year, and I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing the last couple of years to kick off the school year. I currently teach AP English Literature and Composition and an elective called What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History.

At the Multicultural Teaching Institute, I learned about a fun icebreaker assignment called the Top 25. The idea behind it is to list 25 facts about yourself (the more random, the more interesting). As a model, I share my own Top 25. Sometimes I learn some really interesting and important things about my students because thinking of 25 things can be hard.

  1. I am a member of the Beyhive.
  2. I am always losing my phone and my keys. Tile is a game-changer.
  3. I earned a Doctorate in Education at Northeastern University. My dissertation focused on grading and assessment.
  4. I have a black cat named Bellatrix.
  5. My favorite color is light teal (close to Tiffany blue, but a bit greener).
  6. I am notoriously bad at taking care of plants. If you know of an impossible to kill plant, I’ve probably killed it.
  7. I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and three different high schools.
  8. My all-time favorite musicians are U2, and I get really sensitive about how much people criticize them. I actually subscribed to Sirius XM Radio just for their channel.
  9. You’d think I’d be in Hufflepuff, but no, Ravenclaw.
  10. I love traveling and going to concerts, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be waning, I really want to do both more often.
  11. I do not like football, but I am a huge fan of the Red Sox, and my favorite player was Mookie Betts. I’m going to stay salty about the Sox trading him.
  12. I love Polar Seltzer, especially flavored seltzer. I swap out my favorites all the time.
  13. I love a nice cup of hot black tea, but I’m not much of a green tea fan. However, I really love coffee. I drink two cups every morning.
  14. I buy way too many books, so I’m trying to use the library more.
  15. I played flute when I was younger and have very basic guitar skills.
  16. I have a sister who currently lives in Texas.
  17. I don’t have a single favorite book. I have many favorite books. My reading interests are wide.
  18. I am not scared of spiders or most bugs, but rodents and roaches terrify me.
  19. Pumpkin spice season is my favorite.
  20. My favorite TV show is Doctor Who, but I haven’t been able to watch the most recent seasons. David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.
  21. The first time I ever visited Massachusetts was because I won a trip to Salem. My husband said we would move to Massachusetts one day, but I didn’t believe him. About two years later, we did.
  22. I love baking bread, canning and preserving, and making soap. It’s 2021.
  23. I love history and sometimes think I would like to teach it as much as I like teaching English.
  24. Please call me Dr. Huff. I worked so hard to earn it. I know it’s hard for folks who knew me as Ms. Huff.
  25. I knew all four of my great grandparents on my mom’s side, but I never even saw my grandfather or step-grandmother on my dad’s side before they died.

In my AP Lit class, students read Clint Smith’s poetry collection Counting Descent over the summer. We begin our discussions of his work by watching this video of “The Danger of Silence.”

We re-read together the poem “Something You Should Know” from Counting Descent. I ask students three questions. Students can be given time to write, or the questions can be used purely for discussion. I do a mix of both. Hint: if you’re virtual, you can do these questions with Mentimeter.

  1. What did you notice? What resonated?
  2. What connections do you see to the all-school summer read (this year it will be Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram)?
  3. What questions do you have? / What do you want to know more about?

A great activity for “Something You Should Know” is to use it as a mentor text for students to write their own poems about themselves.

The first homework assignment is to read over all the policies, course outlines, and other stuff that many teachers spend the first day of class going over. I used to do that, too, but I’ve come to realize that class time is too precious and relationship-building is too critical to spend it going over policies. Some folks might argue that the students won’t read that stuff if we don’t go over it in class.

The Social Justice class is a cross-curricular class that I team-teach with a wonderful colleague from my school’s History/Social Science Department. (He’s truly one of my favorite people.) His idea was to frame the beginning of the year around understanding what social justice is. We use some of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Students in this class also create a Top 25. However, on the very first day, we ask students to think (do a chalk talk) on the question “What is justice?” For their first homework assignment, they read “Jorje” by Jorje Chica, and students write a reflection on the reading using the following prompt: “Why is Chica’s name so important to him? What connections does Chica make between his name and his identity?”

What sorts of activities do you recommend for the first day? Feel free to share in the comments.

Is Frankenstein Good?

Obscure Podcast Image

If you haven’t checked out Michael Ian Black’s Obscure podcast (see bottom of the post for subscription links), you really should. Michael models exactly what I try to teach my students to do when they read: he talks back to the text, he looks up information that he doesn’t know, he reads the footnotes or endnotes, and he thinks about how the book connects to other books, life, the universe, and everything else. 

My husband and I support Michael’s Obscure podcast on Patreon. As part of the deal, we participate in regular book club discussions about the  book with other folks, and I have had a lot of fun in our discussions. The book club group is funny, smart, and engaged. One thing that came up in our most recent book club discussion last night is just why Frankenstein, the book Michael is currently reading on the podcast, is considered a classic. Why do people think it’s good? Michael admits he’s struggling a bit with the book, and some of the rest of us chimed in with our thoughts about it. For example, the framing device of the letter seems confusing and unnecessary. There is a lot of build-up to something big which then happens offstage, where the reader can’t see it; the two examples that came up in discussion were actually creating the Monster and Frankenstein being jailed for suspicion of Clerval’s murder in Scotland. I don’t know why, but I didn’t notice these things when I first read the book, and I didn’t think much about them when I taught the book in the past either. 

I told Michael he’s making me wonder why we consider it a good book, too. I mean, I feel a bit sheepish admitting I didn’t think about these things before, but I think that’s one reason why discussing books with others is so great. In this case, it’s making me aware of Mary Shelley’s writing quirks in a way I hadn’t considered before. We had a bit of a lively conversation in the Zoom chat about how sometimes books are required reading when we’re not interested or ready for them (Jane Eyre came up as a summer reading book for high school). I think there are a lot of reasons why we might cling to books in the classroom, but it’s important that we consider whether they are serving the purpose we hope. When I select a text, I think about the following things:

  • How does it fit with the themes and skills I am teaching?
  • How do I think students will engage with it?
  • What sorts of things can students learn from it (writing moves, history, or human nature and character—among other things)?

Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. In addition, it’s one of the earliest popular novels, written in a time when novels as we conceive of them were, well, new (hence, “novels”). Depending on what you’re teaching, Frankenstein could be a good fit. For example, if the focus is on the development of science fiction.

But I’m increasingly wondering as I listen to the podcast if it’s good. I am also recalling a class I had some years back who were struggling with the novel when I taught it, and it occurs to me that maybe they were not really into it, and I wasn’t engaging them in a way that worked. As Michael points out things that bother him in the book, I can’t help but feel he has a valid point. 

I might argue what’s really happening in the book is more of a philosophical argument: what does the creator owe their creation? Perhaps the plot itself is not why we might teach the book. Maybe not character development either. But I could see a case for the novel’s philosophical questions being a good rationale for teaching it.

That doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not it’s good. 

You might want to check out Dr. Kat’s video about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. She makes some really valid points about the novel’s philosophy.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend, but I’d recommend his podcast in any case. It’s excellent.

Sixteen Years Ago

Sixteen years ago today, I started this blog. My hope was that I could share my thinking about educational issues and perhaps share some of the curricular and teaching resources I created. I haven’t done much writing about either of these topics in some time, but I long ago decided that rather than feel pressured to blog consistently that I would blog when I was moved to blog. 

I have some recent good news to share with anyone who might not follow me on social media. I’m now Dr. Huff. 

Me and my dissertation committee

I successfully defended my dissertation on June 1. My topic is assessment, which will probably surprise no one who has been following this blog for a long time. In fact, I concluded my dissertation with reflections on how much my exchange with a student changed my thinking about assessment and grading.

I’m excited to see what is next for both me and this blog. Thanks to those of you who have stuck around over the years.

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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