Against the Grain
September 20, 2014 12 Comments
As much as we recognize that there are folks out there who think teachers work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and have that long stretch of summer to play in the sun and sand, we know that most of them realize that teaching is a challenging profession. I may be naïve, but I think most people understand that corralling, entertaining and instilling useful knowledge into the minds of a classroom of young students or multiple periods of 20-35 teenagers requires creativity, judgment, organization, stamina and time – lots of time.
Other underlying challenges play into our day-to-day functionality as well. I think most teachers want to be good at what they do. They want their students to be successful. However, I also believe many have seen year after year of “brand new ideas” coming down the pike, and they’ve learned to hold on till the tide rolls through and keep doing what they do, knowing the good old ways are the best ways. After all, it’s worked for them so far. Or has it?
Failure is the best instructor
I work constantly at trying to get better at what I do, and, as in most things, sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing. When I try to teach my students that failing is part of learning and growing, I have to really force myself to know it personally, too.
The more I’ve read from sources in my personal learning network, the more convinced I am that I am doing the right thing by providing more feedback and doing less grading. If my goal is to teach, to help my students learn and enable them to become more confident in the skills I am teaching, isn’t feedback and revision the way to go? And doesn’t slapping a grade label on that work effectively put an end to the development process? How can we convince the kids not to allow themselves to be defined by their grades if we keep defining them by their grades?
My venture into standards-based grading
I decided this year to use standards based grading. It wasn’t a simple decision with a simple solution. Lots of work had to be done. I teach journalism and advise newspaper and yearbook. Oklahoma does not have state journalism standards. Few states do. So I found other state standards and did a mashup. I now have Snider’s Journalism Standards. For my only non-journalism class, Digital Communications, I use CCSS ELA standards and ISTE standards, and the work we do with blogs and web-based applications and reflective writing work well with those.
I picked the brains of nearly everyone on Twitter who tweeted about standards-based grading. I needed to know how they did it, not just the theory behind it; I was already on board. Some very devoted educators, Garnet Hillman, Mark Peterson, Brad Lewis, and Ron Ippolito went out of their way to email back and forth with me in detail about how they used standards, created assignments, provided formative feedback and summative assessment, and how they set up their district’s digital grade book to work for sbg – no easy task. What I found out was that they all did things differently, but it all worked for them and their students. I felt more comfortable deciding on one way, knowing I could make changes as I needed to.
Going against that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it culture
Then reality stepped in. The culture on my campus requires regular grades to be posted, and I can see that perspective in the situations presented. But my situation is not those situations. If we differentiate for students, I believe differentiation for classes and grading with justification should be provided. A blanket minimum-grade mandate for all classes simply will not work for all classes any more than a blanket timed, multiple choice test will work for all students.
Eligibility for students to participate in activities like athletics, band, music, even journalism, in addition to other academic competitions and field trips is based on grades and staying out of trouble. The logic is that if a student lands on the ineligibility list, s/he should have plenty of opportunity to bring his/her grade up via new grades being posted. My view is that students shouldn’t be graded on work that hasn’t reached its highest potential. If it takes us another couple days because I want them to revise based on peer and teacher feedback and learn the value of improving with multiple drafts, well, that’s going to take more time, so I may not get the minimum number of grades posted this week. Likewise, some students will take longer to accomplish a task than others. If I’m throwing out late penalties and allowing students to work on an assignment until it’s finished, which might be a few days past when the rest of the class finished, that grade will be later, too. I am also allowing for re-dos. Students can try an assignment in a standard again with different content. That way they are not just rearranging based on my feedback, but trying again while applying what they learned.
Data collecting (feedback) works for the teacher, too
In one instance this past week, an assignment that I thought had an essence of fun and challenge turned out to be too challenging as most students really had a hard time, and did not do well. I really did not want to post those grades at all. But I scribbled all over margins, pointing out what worked, what didn’t, marked the rubric truthfully and posted the grades. Then I created a similar assignment, hitting the same standard, but with more scaffolding. The classes are taking another stab at it, and the new grade, if it’s higher, which I expect, will replace the other because they will have improved in that standard. So in the end, I won’t have more grades posted, but I’ll have better grades posted. The goal is learning and applying that learning, right?
This system, this attitude from a teacher is new to these students. I know this because I haven’t heard any other teachers speak of managing assignments and grades this way. I also know this because of comments I heard from the students. Sometimes it was just facial expressions, but they seemed a little dumbfounded that a teacher would let them take multiple tries at something. However, when I handed the first graded assignments back, complete with written feedback and the rubric, written in “I can” language, several were shocked. Those accustomed to getting As questioned why they got Bs or Cs. Some wanted to know how they could fix it, in nearly a panic. I assured them that it wasn’t anywhere near grade reporting time – this isn’t a permanent grade. Address the problems, and try again. If it was a small matter of missing information, I allowed them to turn it back in with the missing info, and I reassessed and changed the grade. If they hadn’t done the assignment correctly or hadn’t done it well, I made it clear that they could do it again with different content. In most cases, students did what they needed to improve their work. In the following assignments, I saw an increase in quality. It worked! Instead of point chasing, these kids were working to increase the quality of their work. In only a couple cases did I see what looked like exasperation with Snider’s little system that was going to require more work to get the kind of grades they’d always gotten before with less effort. I have hope for these kids. After all, they don’t all learn at the same pace.
Weekend for tweaking
After a couple of weeks of sbg and trying to figure out how to compromise between what I see as best for students and what my administration needs from me at this time, I have decided that sbg the way I have it set up (standards as categories in the grade book) will continue to work best for my classroom style classes, intro to journalism and digital communications, where everyone has the same assignments. However, for my project-based classes, my publications classes, newspaper and yearbook, I believe I’m going to have to revert my grade book back to a points system. In a perfect world, I would give them their real-world experience of creating their publications, the content, the pages, the submission, the troubleshooting, the selling of ads to pay their own expenses – all of it, and I would keep notes on what each does. I’d have them meet with me for conferences periodically, maybe twice per semester, and come up with their grade between the two of us, based on evidence they provide in our conference that meets the standards I’ve provided for them.
But it’s not a perfect world. Their parents and my administration need more of a day-to-day assessment of what they are doing, which is hard since they are all doing different things all the time. I checked in with each during newspaper on Friday with a blank roster/spreadsheet, asking them what they’d done all week, to account for their time. Some had conducted several interviews, while some had chased people for interviews but failed to make contact. Some had done lots of editing for others, while some had been so busy writing their own stories, they’d only edited one other story. Some had taken lots of photos, while some had just learned how to use the camera. Some had been successful at ad sales, while some without drivers licenses had had to resort to phone calls, which aren’t usually as productive. No two people did the same thing or really finished something I could put a rubric to.
I could create an assignment that addresses one or two particular standards. I could interrupt the work they are doing and make them do this assignment so I can meet my mandate. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think they are getting the most value possible by operating their own business, the business of running a news publication.
Back to participation points I will go. It’s a compromise. I know they are learning, and they know they are learning. I will assess projects (three per month) on standards, but in order to meet minimums, I do what I gotta do.
Do you ever find yourself in a conflict with what you feel is right with your students and what is expected of you as an employee?