How to make a deadline

“Early is on-time,” they tell me. “On-time is late.”

I have a lot of band students on my yearbook and news staffs, and I think it’s time to take a page from the band director’s doctrine.

The band students know his theory is, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

True to form, band, as a class, starts 30 minutes before first hour for the rest of the school. As teachers and students pull into the parking lot to begin the day, band is already practicing their marching program, and they’ve been doing so since 7:15 a.m. They didn’t arrive at 7:15. They started marching at 7:15.

I tell you that to tell you this:

We need to be early to be on-time with our yearbook and news deadlines. The simple reason is that there are always unexpected obstacles – always.


This year, we are switching from a fall delivery yearbook to a spring delivery yearbook. Previous staffs have all preferred to have the entire year in the book so we’ve worked two or three (or more) weeks into the summer to create one complete book delivered in the fall. This year, we’re trying a spring book, but the last deadline is just before spring activities. We’ll create a summer supplement to cover those.

Spring books mean earlier deadlines with more pages, and they have to be met or we won’t get the book in time to deliver before graduation.

Yesterday was the first day of our Fall Break, which extends through Tuesday. Our first deadline is Monday. That meant we showed up yesterday to finish pages for the first submission. I was thinking this qualified for “early”.

Granted, this first few weeks has been full of learning how to yearbook. And there have been dozens of decisions to make – big and small – regarding design. Deciding the theme itself was a big one, but few realize the number of tiny decisions that have to be made and then implemented throughout for consistency. Will the number for the caption AND the lead-in be demi-bold? Will we use a period after the photo credit? Are non-staff members “Photo by …” or “Courtesy of …” and how do we credit news staff when it’s their photo? So. Many. Decisions.

So a little more than half the staff was able to make it to workday yesterday, and while many were finishing spreads, many were editing for all that tiny stuff.

One obstacle after another got in our way.

The morning started right off with a corrupted InDesign spread that wouldn’t open.

We spent half an hour or so trying to troubleshoot that one. I used Mac’s Time Machine option, going back to an earlier, saved version, but it still wouldn’t open. I called Herff Jones’s tech support, and the specialist had me email the file to her. She couldn’t open it either. Just when it looked like the staffer was going to have to design from scratch (I actually felt tears welling up behind my eyes), I tried Time Machine again, going back an hour earlier in the previous day’s files, and we got a version that would open – minus a couple of steps that hadn’t saved.

That was the big one, but we had photos that wouldn’t place for mysterious reasons, links that went missing for mysterious reasons, and the regular stuff that comes by learning. Photos needed lightening because they print darker than the screen shows. Stories had been placed without being edited because it was someone’s first time. Captions needed more information. Name spellings hadn’t been double-checked. We had to make a decision to add periods after photo credits that didn’t have them or remove the ones that did have them.

You just have to plan to need more time.

You have to plan for the people you need to interview to be unavailable.

You have to plan for photos to need to be retaken sometimes.

You have to plan for InDesign to crash.

You have to plan for a photo to not be where you thought it was.

You have to plan for links to be broken.

You have to plan for people in photos to defy being identified.

You have to plan for a power outage and the fact that you hadn’t saved since you created that last mod.

You have to plan to finish early or you’ll be late.

We’re meeting again Sunday afternoon to finish, and we’ll meet that Monday deadline. Then we’ll celebrate being awesome.


Thanks for the EdCamp


It starts with markers and butcher paper. And curiousity. And willingness to share.

I participated in EdCampSWOK (Southwest Oklahoma, for those who do not recognize SWOK) yesterday. After donuts and visiting with folks we don’t see often enough and meeting a few people we hadn’t met yet, the organizers described what we would be doing. I was pretty familiar with the un-conference style of an EdCamp, having finally attending one in Moore last spring, but this was the first in our area that I am aware of. Many of these educators, both current and future, were new to the concept.

Big butcher paper squares were hung around the walls of the conference room in the CETES building at Cameron University, with markers on the floor beneath. Each sheet represented a room in Nance-Boyer, just next to CETES. The sheets were divided into four time slots with room to scribble in a topic. Our duty as un-conference attendees was to write in either what we were interested in hearing about or what we were capable of sharing about.

It was a rather slow start as folks were unsure about what kinds of things to put in. Twitter was added – a popular topic – as was Google Classroom, ELL strategies, MakerSpaces and both ELA and math standards conversations. My English teacher friend and I made our way to some empty sheets and added things we wanted to talk about: reluctant readers, teaching writing, and then I added blogging. The pages were never completely filled, but there were enough offerings that each time slot had 4-9 sessions going.

Attending the sessions was at first a little awkward in some cases. This is mostly because so many were unsure of the format. There isn’t really a leader; it’s just a conversation. However, once conversation did get started, it generally took off and good ideas were shared and jotted down. I picked up something new from each session I attended.

Another cool thing about EdCamps is that you are never expected to stay in a session if you find it’s not what you need or if, as in my case, you need something from another session at the same time. Twice I needed to divide my time because I couldn’t clone myself. It’s cool. That’s the way it operates.

At the end of the day, we gathered again in CETES. The organizers shared some more words of wisdom and they drew for prizes. Many folks are happy to donate to teacher gatherings such as EdCamps. If teachers cannot be recognized in pay and benefits for the hard work they do, this is one good opportunity for individuals and businesses to show they care. Prizes included books and certificates and gift cards.

But wait. How did those books, certificates and gift cards happen to be donated for giveaways? And, come to think, where did the donuts, water bottles and cookies come from? And how did those rooms at Cameron just happen to be available on Feb 6? And how did people from Duncan, Lawton, Clinton, Cache and scores of other places know to come on the appointed day?

Organizers, that’s how. Volunteers.

EdCamp is such a wonderful concept, and one of the wonders of it is that it’s FREE. I once had a college instructor who told us at the beginning of the semester, “Ain’t nothing free. The best you can do is get someone else to pay.” And that’s the truth.

People who love EdCamps and love their areas and the teachers they work with wanted to bring this un-conference to our southwest Oklahoma, so they got together and made it happen. They’d been to several, knew what was involved, divided tasks and conquered, and we owe them a lot of thanks.

My friend Derrick Miller, my journalism counterpart at the middle school, did a lot of work on it, but the main organizer was Vanessa Perez, who I’d met through Twitter when she worked at Lawton Eisenhower. She now works for Clinton Public Schools. And she’s a fireball. In the introduction, she shared that EdCamps came around when teachers would gather at the bars after REAL professional development (I actually use the term ‘real’ rather loosely, as anyone who’s had to endure professional development that doesn’t fit knows that ‘real’ is relative). As they critiqued their PD of the day, they got around to discussing things they REALLY wanted to discuss. Thus the un-conference was born.

Perez and Miller were two among several, and I didn’t catch all their names, but I added a couple to follow on Twitter or by blog yesterday: Sarah Bruehl and Shanna Mellott. For the ones I didn’t catch names for, I apologize.

These people set up the event on Eventbrite and promoted it through social media and word of mouth. They scheduled and reserved spaces. They contacted people and businesses to sponsor. The created and printed materials for the event and setup with tables, chairs, that butcher paper and markers, downloaded software to ‘read’ the tickets as educators checked in, established a hashtag to use – there is probably no end to the little things done that we, as attendees take for granted. I really appreciate the work they went to to make it a successful event.

And I’m looking forward to our district’s imitation of Edcamp coming up next week. Though I don’t believe they’ve opened it up to people outside our district, for our own professional development day, our leaders have decided to model our PD on EdCamp. It’s true they’ve already penciled in most of the sessions, but we’re going 1:1 with Chromebooks next year and they really want our faculty to focus on the particular learning that they’ll need to make this successful with the students. There are, I understand, a few open slots for us to add session ideas. I’m looking forward to the day, and I think it will be successful as it gives us much more flexibility than we usually have on such days.

Again, kudos to organizers for all that they do!

If you were in charge of a PD day in your district, how would you design it?

News from the pathway to student self-assessment

Students must take ownership of their learning. That’s what it all boils down to.

That concept is new and challenging to many, if not most, of them.

I began this school year on a new path to implement a no-grades school year. Students would receive continuous feedback from me, both verbal and written, the written occurring on Google docs, on hard copies of their work, even on sticky-notes, as it turned out. This feedback – with no letter or number attached – would provide them the real information they needed to improve their work, continue to develop their skills, to shoot for the target again. Isn’t that how we learn most things, from riding our bikes to manipulating our parents? When something doesn’t work, we apply the feedback (skinned knees or lectures), and we go back to the drawing board (or back on the bike), and we try again … and again. Soon we’re flying down the street with a trick or two to show, and we have Mom thinking it was Dad’s idea and vice versa. Feedback helps us grow and develop much more than does a number like 72, and that’s how I explained it to students and the (very) few parents who inquired.

And so it began.

Working with the students

Yes, students did the work – at least the students who would have done the work anyway. So grades are not the driving force behind getting kids to work. There were a few, as there always are, who didn’t do the work for one reason or another, and grade or no grade, they did not complete assignments. Some loved the opportunity to re-do content until they got it better and better, learning from feedback how to construct better sentences, what to capitalize and where description can improve a piece. Some simply appreciated it on a simpler level. Some followed procedure (or not) and mostly did what the teacher wanted. For those few, it was hard for me to tell whether they preferred this do-over at no cost over one-and-done with a grade.

Knowing reflection was a big part of what I wanted to implement, I “assigned” reflections, showing them by example what I expected. To say some got it and some didn’t is pointless, because that’s how everything is in the classroom. The real problem here, was that I was still providing feedback on the assignment itself and didn’t follow-up well on the reflection portion, so not everyone did it. Since I didn’t follow-up, I lost credibility.

Posting to the gradebook for transparency

When I posed my plan to my principal, I described how I could create the assignments in our digital grade book (we use Infinite Campus) as I always had, using standards as tasks (instead of homework, daily work, tests, etc). But then, instead of posting a grade, I would make the assignment worth zero points and mark it as either “Incomplete”, if they were revising from feedback, or “turned in” when they were finished. In the comment section, I would compose a tweet-sized remark based on Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback system, with a more complete explanation on their document. That all actually worked for the most part. I did fall behind in posting what I had planned, just like many of us fall behind on grading. For some classes with more specific assignments, it was easier. For some, creating the “assignment” is what held me up, as three of my classes are very differentiated.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment

Though reflection had been an issue earlier, I did require it at the end of the semester. Taking an idea from Sarah Donovan, I had them write it in the form of a letter to me, reflecting on the main standards our work related to, describing that work, their experience and how it did meet, did almost meet or did exceed the standards, and assessing themselves for a grade. I provided a guideline for what constitutes an A (over and above), a B (on target, basically), C (might not have finished everything or done all revisions), D (did some work, but too little to assess well and little revision) and F (no evidence). Then I began meeting individually with them. I have six classes, five preps, but relatively small class sizes, so I was able to get through all in about three days. My classes are Reading for Fun, two sections of Intro to Journalism, Newspaper production, Yearbook production and Digital Communication.

Conferencing with students

In the conferences, I would pull up their reflection from Google Drive (had usually already read through them and offered feedback) and we discussed it. This gave me a chance to talk to them about what assignments they enjoyed, what they found tough, why some were never finished (I had a list on a clipboard showing what assignments were finished or not for each student. For DigiComm students, I just had to pull up their blog as evidence of what was/was not done; for Reading, I used their Gdrive reading log). I even asked some of them what they thought I should add or drop to make the class better. In most cases, they were pretty spot-on with their grade. The fact that they had to cite evidence from their work to back up their grade request is where owning their work comes in.

When my old grading self wanted to creep in and make me second guess my strategies or how accurately the students had assessed themselves, I reminded myself that, learning cannot be measured. If I’ve been arguing that grades and grade-point averages do not reflect real learning, then why would I now worry that the grade the student and I have settled on isn’t accurate? Everyone is different, so their learning will be different. What’s important, I believe, is how they approach learning. That’s where I want to make an impact.


Though we went through the entire semester with feedback instead of grades, and each student either took advantage of learning and progressing or didn’t, at the end of the semester, they had to be the judge of how they did, and I think that was the right way to do it. They saw that they had had control of their learning, their grade, the entire time. Some realized it early on; some not until that conference. If they did have to give themselves a C or even a D, I asked what they could do differently next semester to learn more, improve skills, complete work, meet deadlines. The answers usually came from them, but I could make some suggestions when it seemed they didn’t know how to improve, how to use resources to their advantage. They have control, and that’s what I wanted them to see. One told me he wanted a B, but figured he deserved a C. We talked about his work, what he had and hadn’t done, what others had helped him with or taken over for him, what he could have done differently. It was a good discussion. Then we looked at the grade guidelines again, and the difference between a B and a C was unmistakable. So I asked what he could do differently next semester to earn that B or even an A – he’s perfectly capable. He made suggestions that were all pretty good. With that, it was resolved that, though he accurately assessed himself at a C this time, he could easily do better. I know he wanted me to “give” him a B, but then he’d have had little motivation to do differently next semester. He gave himself the grade he knew he’d earned. And he gave himself a plan to do better. #owning.

A few students who had not taken responsibility for producing their content, also did not take responsibility for writing the reflection or assessing themselves. These were not at school for their conference. I am left with no choice but to assess for them, and this displeases me. I want them to own their experience like everyone else has.

Making improvements to the plan

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I do believe feedback instead of grades is the better way to go. I believe self-assessment is a good eye-opener. But as I reflect on my part in all of this, I, too, have goals for the coming semester:

  • Talk up front about owning, about controlling their own learning experience. Make expectations more clear.
  • Plan ahead better. Avoid flying by seat of pants from time to time on lessons or about when the deadline is expected.
  • As I plan lessons, post assignments in Infinite Campus so I can more easily post feedback when it’s time.
  • Get feedback to students sooner. It’s more effective if received right away.
  • Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.
  • Set aside time every week to post to the gradebook. This will mean that I have to tell students who have dropped by to ‘hang out’ and visit that I have work to do, but I have to do it. Students hang out in my room at lunch, before and after school and even during my plan period. I want my journalism lab to be open for my journalists and for students who need to catch up, and I want to be a listening ear for students who need one, but I have to draw a line. I have a commitment to the students in my classes for timely feedback and a proper learning environment.
  • Finish some critical reading:
    • Finish Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. This is an all-in-one, simplified version of what I’m trying to do. Much of it, I already have implemented, thanks in no small part to my friendship with Starr and her openness to sharing what she has learned, but I haven’t had a chance to finish reading.
    • Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Students to Self-Assess. I got it late in the semester, too late to get a good plan for teaching reflection in place.
    • Finish Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken. We’re at crisis level getting students to present or even speak within small groups. Too much cram and test. We’re not teaching life skills like communication, and I want my students to have this advantage. I want to implement more, early, easier opportunities to speak before presentations.
    • Finish Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius. In another post, I discussed my disillusionment with Passion Projects in my digital communications class this semester. It’s too valuable to scrap, so I need to fine tune. I need my own passion back.
    • Read George Couros’s The Innovator Mindset. Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me in trouble, but I think this one will be valuable. Just need to find the time to read so I can improve my capacity to motivate my students to create and innovate!

Do you have experiences to share, advice to offer or questions to ask? Let’s get a conversation going.

Free speech, free speech, free speech …


I feel like I’m in permanent PMS. But rather than this state of exaggerated frustration being brought on by hormones, it’s brought on by others practicing their right to free speech – no matter how mean, uneducated or bigoted.

I teach First Amendment, and I feel I understand it enough to do so, but with all the different opinions and misinformation floating about, it’s easy to forget that we ALL have this right, even the people many of us wish didn’t have the right:

The people who are cheering the Planned Parenthood shooting because babies lives will be saved – though three adult lives were taken and others were injured – have the right to do that, disgusting as it may be.

Wyatt Tilton, a former Newcastle police officer can, indeed, make a joke about Adacia Chambers doing Oklahoma State fans a favor. Of course, he is referencing her driving into their homecoming parade and killing people, so they didn’t have to experience the Bedlam loss. But he’s a real loser for doing so. I have a First Amendment right to call him a loser.

People who believe every Facebook meme they see and use them to judge and insult others have a right to do that, even though most of the time, those memes represent half-truths or even non-truths.

All I ask is this:

  1. Be nice to each other. Recognize that everyone has the right to free speech, and if you don’t want to hear what someone else is “speeching” about, unfollow them, leave the room, put in your earbuds. If your disagreement is REALLY strong, do some research and formulate a rebuttal that is free of insults and grammar and spelling errors (you want to be credible, right?). Then post that thing in your own space. Continue to recognize, though, that they had the right to say what they said.
  2. Educate yourself. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Understand how to tell the  difference between biased and unbiased sources, and how to identify those that are not remotely credible. Know who “they” is. I don’t know how many times I hear, “They said …” Well, who the heck is “they”? Know who and what you are talking about.
    When you hear that Trump wants Muslims to wear ID badges or that young, male, muscled Syrian refugees are arriving on U.S. beaches, go check it out, because both seem improbable. Try or
    Turns out Trump answered some reporters’ questions in a rather ambiguous way and his responses were taken out of context and plunked into a more specific context in the article. Yes, he’s in favor of a database, but he never said anything about or agreed to anything about ID badges.
    And those muscled refugees? That pic was taken in Australia in 2013. Syrian refugees would not come to the U.S. by sea. Took me less than 10 minutes to find this information.
    But still, what if some refugees DO have muscles? If a man is in pretty good shape, but his home is bombed or his life and the life of his family is threatened and he finds himself suddenly in refugee status, do those muscles melt away? Does he look like he’s starving the next day? Week? Even month or longer? You could just as easily suddenly find yourself in a bad way here and you can’t make your muscles go away so you’re a credible homeless person.
  3. Have some empathy. Understand that no one has control over what family they are born into or what nation they are born in. We fear what we do not understand (see No. 2). Most Christians do not understand Islam; and most Muslims do not understand Christianity, but both are quick to condemn the other, and quite often based on extremist behavior. Muslims judge the Christian west based on what they see on American TV. Think about that for a minute. What would YOU think of us?
    We do the same. Christians judge Muslims on what they see ISIS doing. ISIS is a small (but horribly violent) segment of Islam, not the general population of Muslims. Philip Yancy wrote a post that I found interesting, and it helped me understand some of the differences, even among Muslim countries.

    It’s not so different between various cultures that thrive here in the U.S. The average individual doesn’t really understand that someone else’s experience in the same country, in the same city, in the same school, can be vastly different from their own. Open your eyes and try to understand others. Not everyone has electronic devices, a nice car, plenty of clothing for all the seasons, or shoes that fit, the opportunity to go to the doctor when needed. Not everyone has a home with furniture, with heat and water, with food in the cabinets. Not everyone has a mom and a dad in the same house. Some live with one or the other. Some live with a grandparent or two. Some live with other relatives or even foster parents. There are those who live with two moms or two dads or with friends because they have no one else. There are lonely kids out there who don’t live anywhere. Not everyone’s experience is the same, but each experience is valid and real. Accept other people’s reality. Help if they need help, but don’t condemn someone for not having the same experience as you, whether because of an economic, racial, religious or other artificial divide.

Freedom of speech is powerful, but it is wielded much too carelessly, especially here in the digital age.

I wish I could give everyone who posts or speaks thoughtlessly that long, uncomfortable teacher/mom stare that makes you (quickly) reflect on what you’ve done, what was right or wrong about it, how it will affect others, how you can make it up to someone you’ve hurt and how you’ll consider all of that before you post/speak next time. Honest.

But that’s not the way it is, and the problem is much too vast. All I can ask is that you, who are reading this, join me in trying to use the power of the freedom of speech responsibly and set a good example for others to follow.

Be nice.

Educate yourself.

Have some empathy.

Who to Follow on Friday, #FF


I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, I often do what I assign to my students. If I don’t like the assignment, why would they?

I introduced Twitter to my digital communications students yesterday. You may be asking (while belly-laughing) why I, as a stodgy old teacher, would think I could INTRODUCE students to a social media platform that is supposed to be their own territory to begin with. Well, I’ll tell you.

  1. They don’t all use it. The most cited reason for not using Twitter is that they’ve seen how it’s used by their peers, and they don’t like it.
  2. I want to show them effective ways to use Twitter, ways that could help them collect and curate information or begin a personal learning network that could result in acquiring knowledge they didn’t know was there.

Their assignment, thus my assignment, was to start an account, if they didn’t already have one, and find five accounts to follow. These five accounts should NOT be peers. They should be entities that could provide them with information that would be helpful. I suggested colleges, specialist magazines, news media. They are to tweet a #FF (Follow Friday) post and write a blog post to tell the world about the five accounts they found, what they are about and why they followed them.

Here are mine:

@geniushour – I’ve been doing Passion Projects, also known as Genius Hour or 20% Time projects in my DigiComm classes the past several semesters (coming up soon, kiddies!). This seems a valuable account to follow and a valuable chat to participate in to make our projects even more meaningful. I’m pretty excited, too, because they followed me right back.

@theskimm – Suggested by my daughter-in-law, The Skimm is a news service. Well, it is to me. For those of us with little time to read all the news every day, but who still want to be on top of things, well, The Skimm is there to fill us in at whatever level we want and in a conversational tone. It’s like I’m having a morning cup of coffee with someone like me – only better informed. It’s just plain embarrassing to be a journalism teacher and have people bring up big news stories that I know nothing about.

@Time – I thought I was following all the news magazines, but I guess I somehow missed Time. No idea how that happened. Again, I’m embarrassed. Breaking news and current events.

@WSJ – The Wall Street Journal is another news outlet I should have been following all along, and I’m surprised I’m not already. I used to think WSJ was too sophistocated for me; however, I think I’m up for it. Breaking news and features. I love me some good feature material.

@oklahomacontemprary – I was excited to find this one. It popped up in my sidebar, and I’d just been talking to a student about arts, and, well, this one hits the spot. Oklahoma Contemporary “encourages artistic expression in all its forms through education and exhibitions.” Can’t wait to see what they have to offer.

So there are my five. I’m sure I’m going to benefit from each one.

Who do you follow for the value they bring?

Introducing … a class meant to be fun

Barely more than a week before we reported back to school for professional development, I learned that I had had a class added to my varied schedule. I already teach two sections of Intro to Journalism, Digital Communications, advise newspaper and yearbook. But with Oklahoma’s education system in the shambles it’s in, budgets have been cut, which means two things: cutting teachers and cutting electives (OK, probably means reducing supplies, cutting field trips, and a number of other things, as well, but let’s focus on the class thing, here.)

Some of the electives that students pre-enrolled in in the spring simply no longer existed after lots of careful consideration this summer, classes like driver education and family and consumer sciences. Others, like psychology and sociology, were merely reduced in section offerings. But kids had to be put somewhere. We needed an elective that could be added to existing teachers schedules.

Reading for Fun. Yep. Reading for Fun. Sounds like I’m making fun, but I’m not. I’d actually already run across the concept from a fellow adviser across the state who’s been teaching Reading for Pleasure. But my principal found the idea from yet another district, so I guess it’s a thing. I think it has the potential to be a good thing.

Three of us are teaching a section or three, and we’re pretty much free to interpret the way we want as long as there is reading, some accountability and fewer demands so that reading has the potential to be fun.

It didn’t take me long to come up with ideas for a class like this. Students will have freedom to choose their reading material, but they are expected to spend the majority of the time, you know, reading. There needs to be accountability, so they will use a reading journal without too many demands. Note something about your book a couple times a week that helps me see that you are advancing through it. I’m a tech teacher and happen to think tech is fun and adds variety and another skill, so the journals are in Google Drive. For more accountability, more tech, continued choice, and the addition of fun, students will prepare some sort of “response” upon completion of each book. I’m putting together quite a list of options.

My Twitter PLN community was very helpful during a recent #sunchat (8 a.m. CT, Sunday). Besides my own ideas of reviews or reflections posted to personal blogs, or mini-reviews tweeted out or posted on Instagram with shoutouts to the authors, book trailers, and a few other ideas, my tweeps shared with me links to long lists of options like writing alternate endings, scenes from another character’s point of view, character analyses, drawings or posters that can be scanned and posted to the blogs, and more. I will create a post for the lists on my class reading blog this weekend.

Here at the end of the first full week, out of my 17 students, three have already finished a book and are well on their way to finishing another. I want to provide that resource for them to choose what they want to do to celebrate that book.

I spent most of this week having individual conferences with each of them to learn their genre preferences, what they were reading currently, what goals they had for the 9-week period and so forth. I was able to make good connections with almost everyone. If I hadn’t read a book they mentioned, I’d seen the movie, or I knew the author, or if I didn’t, I was interested in having them tell me about it. One showed me some very skilled drawings on his phone that he had done as he told me he’d probably draw a scene or two for the book he’d just finished. A couple of them rolled with me in our rolling chairs to the collection of books I’d brought in from home to see if there was something there they might like. One asked to use Photoshop to work on his project for the book one day out of the week while he read for four, since he reads at home, too. You wanna learn a newer version of Photoshop AND read? And put them together? And this makes reading this book more exciting for you? You bet. Do it. (Lucky me, having a journalism lab). Since I’d mentioned blogs the first day, two asked if I’d show them how next week. Yep. We’ll find time for that.

With everyone doing something different (it’s this way in all my classes – kids are different, right?), how do I grade this? I don’t. They’ve each chosen something to focus on for growth in some area: build vocabulary, increase reading speed or comprehension of increasingly more difficult material, try another genre, or classics of favorite genre, or even try to like reading. They will choose from the set of standards we are using, reflect on their work, referring to specific areas that show their learning, and they will assess themselves. We will conference and come to an agreement.

With no one standing over them judging them and collecting points, with them having control of what they read and how they respond to it, the environment is relaxed and conducive to, well, fun with reading.

The Plan: NFIG?

My first try at Google Draw

My first try at Google Draw

I’m not a risk-taker. I plan. I envision. Before I set anything in motion, I learn all I can, and I imagine, play out all the possible scenarios in my head. I want it right before I begin. That’s not to say I don’t handle failure well. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, actually. Failure can be part of the planning process if you look at it in a bigger picture kind of way. It didn’t work that way; let’s try it another way.

In that way, last school year was planning and trying out small changes in order to transition to “The Plan.” I want to use narrative feedback instead of grades. But I’m afraid to ask.

The directive at my high school for the past several years has been “two grades per week.” I did express to my principal two years ago that I did not like that rule and explained that it didn’t work with my classes. And I’ve learned so much more since then.

Last year I implemented a few things I knew I could:

  • No zeros. A 50 is an F, and that only happened when no work was turned in.
  • No reduction in points for late work.
  • I quit making students feel guilty for needing to go to the bathroom. If you gotta go, you gotta go. Just let me know. Guess what? It was not abused.
  • I had my publications students (newspaper & yearbook) grade their own production weekly. This involved setting goals, keeping a log, reflecting and assessing. Frankly, they didn’t like it much.
  • I provided written, narrative feedback (and taught students to peer edit), so that they had multiple chances to improve work before they turned it in. I had kids thank me for this service.
  • In some cases, I mini-conferenced with students to arrive at a grade on part of an assignment. I need to build my confidence on conferencing.

These changes did make some improvement, but where I really wanted to see improvement – more student participation and assignment completion – well, these changes weren’t enough to effect the kind of improvement I’d hoped for. They weren’t enough because the biggest change I needed to make was still a glaring problem. There were still grades. Kids were still labeled “D”, “F” (I can’t win. I don’t know what to do.), even “A” (I don’t need to work very hard; I’m already there).

Now I need to go full throttle: No grades. Well, I’m calling it “Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades.” NFIG? Not as pretty as TOG, but I think Throwing Out Grades gives the wrong impression, and I have to worry about that as I pursue The Plan.

I spent a huge chunk of yesterday writing up, in narrative form with lovely bullets and bolded parts, my proposal as I plan to present it to my principal – soon as I gather the courage and he has a chunk of time in his schedule. School starts in three weeks. What I produced yesterday was five pages, but I included links to reading material with summaries and a page or so of FAQs so I’m prepared for what he/they might ask me.

For you, dear readers, I will try to be brief (but it’s hard. You see how I wordy I am?)

The Plan

  • I will use narrative feedback instead of grades. On assignments, this will look like Mark Barnes’s SE2R formula (Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit). This feedback will be on their Google Doc in most cases. In cases where there is a hard copy, I’ll (egad!) handwrite it, being careful to remember that students now have little training in cursive (omg). In the online gradebook (we use Infinite Campus), I will check the “Incomplete” box and write a brief (I swear I can) version of the SE2R in the comments section. When the student turns in his/her final version, I will check the “Turned In” box and make a new note (leaving the first in place, each with dates), that the goals were met or exceeded. I think this can work. An administrator or parent should be able to see this through the online portal, and wouldn’t this bit of information be more informative than a 72?
  • I will “unpack standards” with the students, an idea borrowed from Starr Sackstein. I do have to decide WHICH standards. Oklahoma repealed Common Core and is in the process of finalizing new standards, so we are one more year with what we used before, PASS. I “invented” journalism standards to use last year by doing a mashup of what I saw from other states. So my options are: CCSS ELA + ISTE or the new Oklahoma standards in draft form + ISTE. My journalism standards were too tedious, I decided, and they don’t apply to digital communications. Either way, the “unpacking process”, as I will apply it, means the students and I will learn them, simplify them, tossing what we don’t need, combining some, and putting what’s left in their language. Through all this, they should have an understanding and ownership of them. How to do that with five classes of four preps (2X intro to journalism; newspaper; yearbook; digital communications) still puzzles me. Input? What we come up with will be the categories I use in the online gradebook where my peers use “daily work”, “quizzes”, “homework”, and “tests” or something along those lines. As I create an assignment in InfCamp, I will note which standard it applies to. When it hits two or more, it’s entered that many times so that we focus on each standard; i.e. a writing one and a tech one. Whew, I gotta work on brevity.
  • I will teach reflective writing. I learned last year (and, really, before that) that it isn’t common sense. Few “get it.” Reflective writing, especially as it has to do with self-assessment, standards and evidence, has to be explained, modeled and feedback given, just like other work. Hopefully by grade reporting time, they’ll be used to it and will be able to manage reflective self-assessment with evidence for the grading period. I plan to use Starr’s book on reflection as my Bible for this. It will be published in October. She has also written about reflection quite a bit on her blog.
  • Students will create digital portfolios to curate their work, track their progress and do their reflection writing. Intro to J and DigiComm have always had blogs on WordPress, and I’ve encouraged newspaper to have blogs also, but the whole thing needs fine-tuning. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Choice. I love that idea. All my students use Google Drive. It’s the one thing they all have in common. So – eportfolios can be as simple as a folder in their Drive marked “eportfolio” with obvious organization within. Or, students may choose to create a Google site. I’ve only dabbled in this myself, but I don’t mind learning alongside my students. Absolutely love it when one of them teaches me something and you can visibly see their pride swell as they get up to show the others. Students could also opt for using their WordPress blog, though to me, that may be too public to be reflecting on their progress and grade, but it’s up to them. And if they come in telling me they have experience with Weebly, that’s cool too. Gimme the link. If one starts with a Google folder but after a few weeks gets brave and decides to create a site, well, we probably have a tech standard he can tie to for some reflection on progress. The goal is to curate work and track progress so that they can be ready for self-assessment at grade-reporting time. And that reflective self-assessment? I’ll probably go the “choice” route again: written in a Google doc; screencast; video; Voxer; whatever; but a conference will happen too.
  • In each class, I’ll have One Big Ongoing Assignment, handy for when some finish a project early and others are still working or reworking. Also great for sub days or THOSE days when I just don’t have my stuff together. For newspaper and yearbook, it’s obvi: their publications and anything extra they want to put into them. For DigiComm, I’ve had them do Passion Projects (just bought Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius and can’t wait to dig in), but I had a tough time figuring out how to do this for Intro. In Mark Barnes’s ROLE Reversal, he talks about having his 7th grade ELA students do a Read All Year (RAY) project with lots of novels and big team goals. There’s no grade attached, but there are different activities kids can do when they complete a book. So I borrowed and tweaked this idea with a little help from Mark. I want my kids to read long-form narrative journalism. That could be feature articles in magazines (think TIME or The Week) or book-length journalism (think All the President’s Men, All the Right Stuff, Into the Wild). Collections of essays and journalist biographies could work, too. Time to go to some used book stores. I’ll contract with each student, just outside his/her comfort zone, but quantifying will be tough. At Mark’s suggestion, we’ll count pages instead of books. So for the first grade-reporting period (9-weeks or semester, I haven’t decided), a student might contract for 150 pages (small book or multiple longish articles) up to 300. I’ll set up some sort of celebration board where kids can post accomplishments, but I also want to encourage them to do something for each piece they read, though I won’t be keeping tabs (they will, in their portfolio). They could write a review, a reflective blog post, a mini review on Instagram or Twitter with a shoutout to the author, discuss the item with classmates in a small group “book talk”, create a book trailer or just Vox about it. I’ll pose it as collecting info for our library of potential reads. Classmates and students who come after will appreciate having another student’s take on a piece to help them make a decision about reading it. One thing I envision is a tab on the class website that functions as our “library” with the book and article lists. Some articles could be linked to their sources online, but in all cases, student responses could be linked beneath each title as a reference to future readers.

So there you go, too many pages, but that’s my plan. Now I just need confidence to ask for permission and to get it all in motion. How can you help me? Can you poke any holes in this? Offer any suggestions for improvement? Suggestions for proposing? Did I help you with anything?