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.

Reflections, first round

Harbor seal by skeeze via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Harbor seal by skeeze via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

The kids are varying in their first round of written reflections. Most are treading water, looking for where they need to go. Some are swimming a few strokes, pretty sure of the direction they are headed. Some feel the water closing in over their heads as they are overwhelmed with either how to evaluate themselves critically or understanding what it is I’m asking them to do.

Some appear to have simply left the beach.

Some backstory

I asked for and received permission to provide narrative feedback on assignments this year instead of grades, with the exception of grade reporting time at the end of each semester. At that time, I will conference with each student who will have had a chance to write a reflection regarding the assignments and how well they met the standards.

My process, figuring it out as I go

So here we are, working on the first set of reflections, which should address the assignments we’ve had so far and the standards each falls under. Times five different classes.

Early in the semester, we “unboxed” the standards. I gave them copies of ISTE and Oklahoma ELA standards and asked them, in small groups, to read and summarize the standards, rewriting into “I can” language.

In order to scaffold the reflection-writing process, I created grids in Google sheets with the standards across the top and the assignments down the side. Where an assignment and its appropriate standard intersect, I marked a bullet. In those cells, I asked the students to comment briefly about what they did on the assignment with regard to the standard, showing how close they came to meeting the standard with the tasks involved in the assignment. After taking these “notes” on the spreadsheet, they should have a pretty good idea of where they stand with each standard.

Next, I described writing reflections and showed an example. I posted reflection expectations around the room and answered questions, and soon the first few attempts were shared with me through Google folders. On a couple, I added comments asking them to describe the assignments more, or to be sure to say what the standard was or discuss their process. With the example I provided and the verbal and written comments, the narratives in my Introduction to Journalism classes began to look a bit more like I had hoped, and I was encouraged.

In the Reading for Fun and Digital Communications class, I soon realized I hadn’t been specific enough, so I re-addressed the process. This is where I saw the widest variation of how students were following the directions. Some were really trying on both the spreadsheet and the narrative, looking for the right direction. Some did one or the other, not quite understanding how they related, treading that water. Some were doing other work, and some appeared to be surfing other sites, hence, my “left the beach” comment.

Getting to the conferences and feedback in gradebook

In the reading class and the intro to journalism classes, I began the conferences though students weren’t as prepared as I’d have liked regarding their reflection narratives, and they went well. They went too long, but the conversations were valuable to the students and to me, I felt.

With a few conferences under my belt, I have a better understanding and now have an idea what to anticipate so that we can accomplish things a little more quickly.

I also posted some narrative feedback in our online gradebook. I’m getting better and reducing all I want to convey into a message the size of a tweet. I leave the option open for improving all but the very best work. It felt good to be able to comment on these very individual assignments, what was good, what could be made better, without having to compare them to each other to come up with a value in the form of a percentage, a set value of points or a letter – just feedback for the individual so he or she knows where the growth is and what else they can work on. And I did see growth.

Earlier in the week, I’d given out Post-it notes to students who needed to make corrections to an assignment or update to include a missing element or even catch up on a missing assignment all together. I pleasantly surprised to see, as I looked over the online work today, that most everything had been improved upon and updated since I looked last. Feedback works whether it’s verbal, comments on a Google Doc, hand-written on a Post-it note or recorded in a brief comment in the online gradebook.

Parent-teacher conferences are coming up next week, and I’d like to be able to show parents what we are doing and that there really is value in this more individualized method of assessment.

Against the Grain

ROWLAND TURNER [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

ROWLAND TURNER [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The myth versus the reality

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?

Seeing results

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?

To blog with abandon or purpose?

My teaching strategies have changed so much in the past year. I credit my Twitter PLN for so much of that. I find myself teaching more critical thinking than ever, giving student choice wherever possible and inviting technology where it would enhance the lesson,  further engage my students or help prepare them for college and the work world.

Enter blogging for almost all of my students. Have I taken on too much? Maybe. Have I discovered things I’ll do differently next time around? Definitely.

It all started last year, my first with the intro to journalism class I requested. Previously I had been teaching newspaper, yearbook and English I. I did lots of research before I started the blogging project, and I had been blogging myself for a while. I found Pernille Ripp‘s post about paper blogging with all of its links to other resources. Though she blogs with elementary kids, I still thought the idea had merit for my mostly 9th graders. It went over well, and soon we transferred what we learned over to Kidblog. On that platform, the students’ posts automatically came to me for approval before going live, something my principal appreciated.

This year, I asked for and got permission to create another class: Digital Communications. I pitched this for students, not necessarily journalism students, to develop their online communication skills, preparing them for college and the real world. We would look at Internet protocol, safety, privacy, and ethics as well as plagiarism and learning about copyright law and how fair use works. Most of their work would be based on blogs that would serve as portfolios. After learning basics of posting, linking, inserting images and sharpening their writing skills with an audience in mind, we would learn some research skills using social media. Then would come curation apps and learning some audio and video skills and web-based presentation software. We’ve stalled out a bit as their motivation has caused the earlier lessons to take much longer than I had planned. I had this largely senior class using WordPress, feeling Kidblog was a little too limiting. After all, most were near or already 18.

The more I read online and heard from my tweeps, the more excited I got about everybody blogging, so I made plans to get my English class blogging this year as well. That’s when I discovered that Kidblog had changed how they do things and in order for students to have more than one option of theme, I’d have to pay. In Oklahoma, schools are receiving less per student than they were in 2008. I’m not even going to ask for money. I already pay for pencils, paper, Germ-X and tissues from my own pocket. I am not going to shell out a monthly amount so my students can have different themes like they did last year. I compromised by using WordPress for these youngsters as well, the caveat being that they give me editor user privileges and the password in case I need to intervene for any real reason.

I got the new intro to journalism class started blogging on this same system as soon as we’d gone through an opinion writing unit.

My real dilemma, and the reason for this post is that though I’ve explained over and over that much of their credibility depends on correctness of their writing, I still have some students for whom spelling, correct capitalization and punctuation, sentence structure and usage are less than secondary to their content. I’ve tried to tell them that their readers will not stick around if they have to work at understanding what they are trying to read – to no avail. Their process is supposed to be drafting in GoogleDocs, sharing for editing, which works great in my newspaper and yearbook classes, even sharing with me for feedback – maybe they don’t like my feedback? I think it’s pretty darn helpful – before they post.

Do I grade those posts on correctness of writing? I don’t want to decrease their excitement for blogging, but they have to know that in real life, these kinds of errors may cost them jobs. Did I just answer my own question? I love how writing helps me work through processes and develop ideas, and yet hate that I cannot convince many students that this magic exists. I would love to hear suggestions on how to assess correctness of writing in their posts when I had truly planned on only giving credit for completion, leaving them to explore the process and their own ideas for the joy it should bring.

In DigiComm, assignments might be a post with a link to another page, or a post with a copyright-free image, etc., so completion was all I had planned, until I realized that some posts were only a few sentences long with no craft and several writing errors, as compared to another student, passionate about his topic who wrote on about something with great sentence structure, good vocabulary, etc. They shouldn’t both get the same grade. Learning as I go …

The English class is doing group blogs, with groups ranging from 2-4 people in each. They will rotate with each assignment, which I tie to whatever we are doing. They’ve chosen topics for their blogs, so they will tie my assignment in with their topic. For instance, after reading two short stories that both dealt with suspense, my assignment was to write a post that deals somehow with suspense, but tied to their own topic. For a pair of students writing about music, they could talk about scoring a movie based on either story and what type of music would best create the suspenseful mood. Within their group they are to discuss the assignment, so everyone has some input, but one of them writes in Gdocs, shares with others who get to comment/edit, then it goes live. Next assignment, someone else is in charge.

The intro class each has their own blog and most of them have been great. Consider though, that these kids chose a journalism elective. They knew there was writing involved, so for the most part, these have no problems. However, there are a few who have issues as mentioned above: lots of grammatical and mechanical mistakes and no desire for making the posts better. In one case, the student doesn’t see the point, thinking it won’t matter to the reader like it doesn’t matter to him. In another case, the student is disappointed that I’m making something fun, like a blog, into something like an assignment. His two posts have been one sentence each, nothing that would make anyone come back for more, as I explained to him.

While I feel I’m doing dozens of things right, like I tell my students, there are always ways to improve. I’m looking for methods to improve my students’ online writing through my teaching and assessment, and I welcome suggestions.