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.

Getting back on track

It’s Sunday. A day of reflection and looking forward – sure, it’s that. But it’s also time to get my butt in gear because I spent yesterday doing home and family things.

Today is getting back to work.

So I’ve been reflecting. I feel bad that the last couple weeks haven’t been as productive in my classes as I would have liked, and it’s easy to blame never having enough time. I’ve had a medium case of “meh,” and it’s time to get over it.

Particularly in my mind is the fact that my digital communications class isn’t going the direction I wanted it to. Today’s Twitter #sunchat was about learning from mistakes. Teachers talked about modeling for their students how to learn from mistakes, admit when something wasn’t going as well as they’d like, even tossing a plan and starting over. I feel I need to back up and clarify a few things for my students to get the learning in that class heading the right way again.

I knew I was onto something when I re-read a couple chapters of “Crafting Digital Writing” by Troy Hicks, and experienced an “aha” moment.

Here’s the deal: Digital Communications is a COMMUNICATIONS class. And it’s lost its way. I teach a lesson and give an assignment to be completed during that week. Students, by and large, tend to simply address the minimum requirements of the assignment. It’s a laid-back class, and I am not holding them accountable for developing their communications skills. They post their responses to assignments on their blogs, but I am not seeing the kind of development I would like to see. Whose fault is this?

As I reflect, I realize that originally I required that they draft in Google Docs and share with me so that I could provide narrative feedback to help them improve. They did this at first, but began somewhere along the way to simply post their responses directly to the blog. I will not critique their assignments where they will be shared by a world-wide audience. I reminded them a few times that they were supposed to draft in Google and share first, but they still mostly did not. I gave up. I settled for providing occasional short narrative feedback via verbal comment or sticky note. This is not adequate. I have to address this, either by going back and making them understand why we need to draft in Google, or by coming up with another platform for providing the narrative feedback about what they have posted to the blog.

I have also decided that this week’s lesson needs to be re-enforcing the differences between basic written work like they do in other classes and the digitally enhanced written work they should be trying to accomplish in my class.

If an English or history teacher is asking for an essay on a topic within the scope of a particular lesson and expects planning, some research, organization, good writing with well developed ideas, good sentence structure and word choice, proper usage and punctuation, then I certainly expect the same. However, I want them to explore possibilities granted by the digital world: links to more information (definitions, articles, biography pages, books), images, video, info-graphics and other things I’ve shown them or that they’ve gone out and discovered for themselves.

What I’m often getting is straight-forward answers to questions I’ve posed, with no “writing”, little research, very few links, unless I’ve specifically asked for them.

If they do not understand what it is that I’m wanting from them, it’s on me, and it’s time to make that clear. If my instructions are not clear, I need for them to let me know that. Although, each week, I provide written instructions, often with images and links and videos (I’m modeling what I want them to do), on the class blog, and I provide verbal instructions as well.

Ironically, this message was relayed to me by one of those students when she shared the following video on Facebook this afternoon (Thanks, Kenz.)

My goal this week is to make things more clear for them and to allow them an opportunity to let me know what they need from me. I will put this in the form of a written, digitally enhanced, assignment.

Wish us all luck and wisdom.

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.

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?

Instinctive practice, with a lack of terminology

Fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have an education degree. I have an English degree but am alternatively certified as a teacher in Oklahoma. I felt really inadequate at first, even though I had teacher after teacher tell me that they don’t really teach you anything in those classes anyway – you learn it by doing it.

I learned it by doing it – and by reading about it. And by networking with other teachers everywhere. And by talking with my students and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Educational lingo used to make me feel dumb, but I figured out I’m doing most of it, just not labeling it the same.

Collecting and analyzing data:

There was this one time, I stood before my class of intro to journalism students and had just gone over ten different types of feature stories. I had described each and given multiple examples and they could see these for reference in their textbook. They were to be brainstorming ideas – three of each type – AND NO ONE WAS WRITING ANYTHING DOWN. OK, a couple of the students had managed to write down an item or two, but by and large, these kids could not think of, or would not chance coming up with, ideas of their own for this feature story idea brainstorming task. Under 10 types, at three per, a real go-getter would have come up with close to 30 ideas. Some kids had four or five ideas; half had nothing at all. One or two had maybe a dozen.

We ran out of class time as I tried to encourage them to think of more ideas. I made it homework, but even the next day, no one had come up with anything more.

I mentally collected data: Kids cannot/will not create story ideas.

I mentally analyzed data: Kids are so used to bubbling scantrons, they do not know how to create ideas. Or, they are afraid of being shot down for having the “wrong” answer.

Possible solution: Provide more opportunities to practice creating. DO NOT shoot down ideas. Build confidence. Model, model, model.

This collecting and analyzing of data was not done with exams, scantrons, reports or meetings, but it was done.

Providing formative feedback:

OK, so in the beginning of my career, formative feedback was
1. verbal: “Yes! That’s right!” or “Close, it was …” or “Not the answer I was looking for, but you make a good point.” or “Tell me what you mean.”
2. Physical: pat on the back, high five, air knucks, thumbs up, pointy finger to lips in a “shhh..”, subtle shaking of the head in a “no”, standing beside a perpetrator so that my presence was felt.
3. Written: I loved writing notes in the margins! The first assignment for my English 1 freshmen was to tell me about themselves, and I could always find a connection to make note of in the margin. It wasn’t until later I realized most couldn’t read cursive. Ah, well. I did same with their formal paragraphs, essays, even tests, to explain what might have been misunderstood or ask a question of them that might clarify where they went wrong. In news and yearbook, this was the method we used for editing story drafts. After two or three editors had done the peer editing, I took a run through it, using proofreading marks and margin notes, noting things that worked well and ideas for improvement.

Then along came Google docs and our world was changed forever. For some reason, either because I am maturing as a teacher or because the commenting feature makes it easier to do so, I do not usually correct errors so much as point them out. Typing is so much easier than writing in margins, so I explain why it needs to be what it needs to be or why another option might be better. I get nearly as wordy there as I do in blog posts. I can be witty, too. But I can easily comment:
its=possessive; it’s=it is;
or another favorite: everyday=one word as adjective “my everyday shoes”; or every day= two words, as in “every single day”.
I’ve heard kids from across the room go, “Oooh, I get it.” I even go on lengthy descriptions about run-ons, trying to teach the concept in the comment feature.

Guidelines for peer feedback:

I had someone ask me in a chat this week about my guidelines for peer feedback. Guidelines? I’d never thought about it. The kids figure out how to give feedback to each other by how I model giving feedback. In publications classes, drafts must go through a few staffers/editors before I see it. And I tell them that I’m mainly there to keep us from getting sued. I want the editors to take on the responsibility of good editing. Of course, that has to be built, and some years are stronger than others. I start from scratch in my intro to journalism classes. In the intro classes, when they begin peer edits, the comments are inevitably “it’s good,” or “great job,” or “I like it.” It takes a little work from me, a little preaching about how anyone’s work – including mine – can be improved, and we’re all here to help each other get better.

As I provide feedback, “good lead”, “run-on”, “no first- or second-person”, “watch the editorializing – who’s opinion is this?” “read aloud – doesn’t make sense”, they begin to offer similar advice to each other. In Google docs, I can see the comments they’ve given each other, and when I see good edits, I praise the editor. When I see a story go through with a “good job” and it’s full of fragments and uncapitalized “i”, I look to see who commented and I ask her how she let that go. Doesn’t she want to help her classmate get better? Eventually, they catch on, and I hear the kids thanking each other. Thanking each other.

Once they are on yearbook or newspaper staff, I hear editors telling new staffers that they need more sources or asking where they got certain information. I see an editor leaning over the shoulder of someone laying out a page and explaining headline hierarchy and how he needs to align with the rails and my heart pitter-patters.

Guidelines for peer editing? Nah. I just model what I’d like them to be able to do. I praise when I hear it done right, and I talk to them privately if it’s not going right and offer suggestions for improvement.

Projected Outcomes:

Um, OK, again with the modeling. Even in the early days, I instinctively knew I needed to provide a model if I wanted students to produce something. I like models so I know what’s expected of me. Why wouldn’t they need the same? “This thing here? This is what I project you will come up with – or something similar …” If I want creativity, I show them several that are vastly different, so they know they have room to explore.

This year, though, experimenting with Standards Based Grading and then leaning toward Feedback Instead of Grading (known by some as TOG, or Throwing Out Grades), I developed what I’m calling Target Sheets. One thing that seems handy is for the kids to know, not only the product they are to come up with (feature story or seven photos that exemplify rules of composition), but the standards they are trying to meet or exceed. Whether I “grade” them or have them assess themselves, it’s fair to show them what we are all shooting for. So I developed these target sheets that describe the project, indicate essential questions the assignment should address and show the standards, with a 4-0 rubric, that the assignment will be assessed on. I provide the target sheet at the beginning of the assignment so kids can see what the requirements are. They are to hang on to that so they can refer to it throughout the project (doesn’t happen much yet), then turn it in with the finished product (rarely happened, and I found myself having to print additional copies). In some cases, we assessed some of the standard(s) together in a mini-conference. In some cases, due to time or the project, I assessed, but provided written feedback and the opportunity to rework the project. Some did; some didn’t. I do realize most didn’t because there was already a grade on it. I blame time constraints and the fact that I was under some pressure to put in so many grades within a certain time frame.

My main point here is that I worked to make the students aware of what the project outcome was as well as what their skill/standard outcome was. I believe that was an improvement over what I used to do.


I’ve always instinctively dwelt upon absolutely everything. Little did I know that we call this reflection, and that it’s good for you, like spinach. I’m always rethinking and reinventing wheels. Now I try to do it a bit more formally, and I encourage my students to reflect as well. In fact, I require it to the extent possible. In an effort to avoid the subjective and punitive nature of grading, but still meet most of the demands of my job, I had my publication students weekly 1. project outcomes (make goals on a daily log) 2. note on that log what they did daily. 3. reflect (did he do all he set out to do? what could have gone better? what was he proud of?) and assess (based on guidelines we set earlier in the year, what grade does she give herself for the week in productivity?).

Some really did reflect, and I was proud of what they discovered about themselves when they did that. They often set new goals or adjusted how they approached certain tasks. Some just jumped through the hoops and wrote something that might satisfy the teacher. I’m hoping they get it at some point. In my network of lead learners, I have resources for teaching reflecting that I will lean heavily upon for the coming year. It’s not instinctive for everyone. It must be taught, and I will spend more time teaching it, which will be worthwhile.

In my constant quest to get better at my job, I’ve lined up a good reading list for my summer, and I offer it to you:

Role Reversal by Mark Barnes

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Digital Student Portfolios: A whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment by Matt Renwick

I also recommend a couple of Twitter Chats and a Facebook page:

#sunchat, Sundays at 8 a.m. CT

#TTOG, Teachers Throwing Out Grades, ongoing slow chat (also Facebook page)

#DI4all, Differentiated Instruction for all, next chat July 6, 7 p.m. CT

Follow these Tweeps:





What are some of the wheels you would like to reinvent? What are some conversations you would like to join or start? Feel free to start here.

Birthday reflections


Happy birthday to me – No. 52, to be precise.

My first gift was an early waking – around 4 a.m., not being very precise. That much more of the day to enjoy, I suppose. At this point, the whole day lies before me with so many options, so much promise.

Will I be productive and do a little cleaning and clearing of clutter, which, in the end will be like an additional gift? Or will I finish my first semester grading and maybe balance the checkbook – pure drudgery on both counts, but a serious load lifted from my shoulders, which also qualifies as a gift given to myself? Or will I be indulgent as I’ve said I’d be and curl up in a blanket, reading all day and maybe take a break to watch a movie? Seems like the thing to do, but probably wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as the other options. However I spend the bulk of the day, it will end with family preparing dinner for me, always my favorite part.

Having my birthday so near the end of the year is a great set up for reflecting, and a year doesn’t go by that there isn’t a lot worth reflecting on. High points definitely had to do with family.

Family, so much to be thankful for

No. 1 son graduated from college last December and began his teaching career as a long-term substitute in our district’s middle school. Growing up, I never knew I was going to be a teacher (didn’t start this gig until mid-40s), but being a teacher and having my son teach in the same system and hearing such good things about him just makes me so very proud of him. When he got his science certification and got the real job in the fall, it was just validation that he is in the right place.

No. 2 son graduated in May, along with his lovely fiancée. They had both powered through their programs to finish on time and in that last semester had been planning a wedding and applying for grad programs, looking for one school that would be perfect for both their needs – a tough set of criteria for one establishment. Three weeks after graduation they had the best wedding I’ve ever been to, and on their college campus, the place that had been their home for the previous four years. Yeah, maybe I’m partial, but it was wonderful, and we all got married up. And, yes, after some soul searching and serious decision making tactics, they decided on school in south Texas, and though they’ve got a good gig going on there, the distance is a real downer.

Just after the wedding, my husband and I took a vacation. That may seem like a normal thing for most folks, but it isn’t normal for us. Years of three sons in baseball and never feeling like we could afford more than camping out at the lake kept us from real vacations for the most part. The last family vaca we had was in 2001, when we loaded up the Suburban and drove to California to visit family. That was an excellent vacation and lasted us until this year. The hubby and I rented a cabin in Colorado and planned each day as it came. We visited nearby small towns with casinos and little eccentric shops and traveled old mine trails on steep mountains, taking pictures and panning for gold. We drove up Pike’s Peak and picnicked. We hung around the cabin and cooked and read and watched movies. It was delightful, and I want to keep doing the vacation thing. Didn’t realize what I’d been missing.

While No. 3 son didn’t graduate or get married, he has continued to grow in his awesomeness and give us reasons to be proud of him. Though his school is two hours away, he comes home nearly every other week and helps his dad with outside chores like fencing in the property, and he likes cooking for us, too. He is such a caretaker and helpful, hopeful, encouraging person.

I don’t know what I have done to be so blessed times three. I remember many years ago, when we decided we needed to have three kids, telling people that I needed three in case anything went wrong. I’d seen too many instances of kids dying young, getting into trouble with drugs or the law or any number of other problems that descend on families, even when the families are doing all the right things. That’s a pretty morbid method for family planning, but seriously, that’s what I was thinking. And here we are, with three of the best kids in the world. How’d we get so lucky?

To top off this year, that No. 1 son just proposed to his girlfriend (our girlfriend?) of two? three? years. I dunno, she already feels like such a part of the family, we’ve been counting her for a while, and now wedding plans are in the works.

Work at doing something you love, and it will never seem like work – mostly

I can’t post a reflection on the year without talking about my work. My Twitter bio says that I’ve always been a teacher. Forced little brother to play school when we were kids. Taught my sons to be people. Went professional in 2007. All that’s true. Before 2007, I worked at a loan office, at Halliburton (like everyone else in Duncan, and like many, I was laid off), in a dress shop; I worked in a bank, in a middle school as attendance clerk, then I started a home day care business when my kids were small so I could stay home with them. Played a little teacher there, too. When I started feeling a little burnout in that profession, that’s when I decided to go to college. Working on the college newspaper while studying English and journalism, I found that I enjoyed teaching upcoming staff members. That’s really when the idea of teaching professionally first really took hold. After graduation and a nearly one-year stint at the local paper, I got my dream job teaching journalism at my own high school.

Never having had “teaching courses”, I can’t talk curriculum development, test design, or interpreting data to better inform lesson design, but I’m willing to bet that those who fling those and other hoity-toity educational terms of the moment around like they know what they are talking about, seldom look their students in the eye, and rarely pull back from the computer where they are trying to get grades put in, so they can listen to a student talk about parent problems or bully problems or the like. I don’t just teach Google Drive or complete sentences or subject/verb agreement or headline hierarchy, I teach kids how to talk to other people, how to speak up for themselves, how to talk in front of the class, how to respect each other (when sometimes the other person hasn’t deserved it yet). I try to teach them that what they have to offer the world is important and valuable and that learning more is even better – not for the grade (grades are stupid), but for the learning itself. And you know what? They respond to that stuff. I’ve had so many high points in that area. I’ve watched kids this year work on improving their writing BECAUSE I hadn’t put a grade on it yet. I’ve had kids THANK me for making comments on their work so they could improve it. I’ve had great conversations with students in person and on social media, and I love being a part of their lives. I regret when, occasionally, I realize I’ve said the wrong thing or not responded when I probably should have, and I hope I correct those situations as soon as I can, because they count so much sometimes.

The job got a little tougher, and many of my students showed me their devotion toward the end of the semester when it became clear that, no matter how deeply I’d stuck my head in the sand, we were going to have to change classrooms. It’s another complete post (or two) to talk about that classroom and how much it means to me – to us, and how difficult it has been mentally and physically to move, but trust me: It’s been difficult. Several members of yearbook and newspaper staffs, though, have helped with tossing stuff and packing the rest and preparing for the move. And as of yesterday, they have also helped with unpacking and arranging our new space. Some of that help included a grad from 2011. One of my favorite things about my work is that I stay in contact with several newsies and yearbookers long after they have moved on into adulthood, to the degree that they come back to visit and even help me move. And bring me Christmas presents (Thanks, Hayden).

What’s next?

My husband and No. 1 and No. 3 sons have also helped out in my moving process. I love that my family knows how important my work is to me. Balancing family and work has always been a struggle. As I began putting my new, tiny, room together yesterday, I vowed to put photographs of family where I can see them. I feel I need a reminder that I should put my family first more often than I have in the past. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but if there is an area of my life that I’d work to improve on (and, really, there are many), I want to simplify my work life so it’s not so overwhelming, and make family more of a priority.

But first, I really need to unpack some more boxes.

I need to do something to make the new room feel more homey, like the old room was.

Should I repaint that bookshelf before I fill it?

What to toss and what to keep? There isn’t enough room for all of it.

I need to write up a purchase order request for some containers for all this stuff.

Oh, my – I need lesson plans for the first week.

Don’t we have a deadline coming up?

I’ll be home soon, honey. I just need to get these files in some kind of order first.

Are you starting dinner?


Let’s try again


I started a post twice earlier today.  I took part in one of my favorite Twitter chats, #sunchat, always inspiring and uplifting. Today’s topic was reinventing yourself as a teacher.

I began my earlier attempt at a post reflecting on that chat like this:

My introductory tweet included that I reinvent myself all the time, but by the time we finished the chat, I realized that’s not really true. It’s my nature to reflect and go back to the drawing board over and over, so the fact that I continue to do so is not so much reinvention as continuing to do my best for students and myself. My best isn’t always best, though.

But both of my earlier attempts melted into a simmering pot of feeling sorry for myself and listing attempts throughout the year to try new things that often (but not always) failed. I thought I was leading up to something good, but I got so mired in the failures and the apathy and why things might not be working that I just struck through all of it (I never delete anything) and decided to try again later.

Well, it’s later.

I accomplished a few things on my to do list today.

Those included gathering info for taxes (I know, it’s after April 15), completing #3 son’s FAFSA, gathering ideas for the rehearsal dinner my husband and I will be hosting for #2 son who graduates from college the beginning of May and gets married at the end of May, laundry, lesson plans (OK, I did some of that), grading (oops) and, believe it or not, I ended that list, which I wrote in a DM to my #jerdchat buddy Starr Sackstein, “ridicule myself.” She congratulated me on the good stuff, but was sure to make it clear that didn’t include the ridiculing.

I share that so that I can share this.

Within the #sunchat this morning, I favorited several things to go back and read later. One of those was Jon Harper’s blog post entitled “You’re Not as Good as You Think You Should Be.”

It was as if he’d been with me all morning watching me struggle to find something positive to blog about, wondering why all these #sunchat teachers have so many positive things to say about teaching, about engaging students, when I keep seeing a number of students pop up in my mind that I have not been able to engage, that I have not been able to make a connection with. I replay the days that make me feel like a terrible teacher because students won’t turn in work or tell me they hate reading or don’t care. Those moments weigh me down.

But Jon’s post made me see, though I already knew it in some part of my mind, that we have awesome moments, too, but those awesome moments do not make up 80 percent of anyone’s day. The awesome moments are just that. They are moments, and they do mean something. But just because much of the other time feels like I’m not making headway doesn’t mean that I’m not. I have to stop – we have to stop – comparing ourselves the ideal of what we’d like to be, what we are in our grandest moments, what our PLN is when they blog about their grandest moments.

And with that, I believe that I can face another week. After all, I just watched “Shakespeare in Love,” and that has me pumped to tackle Act 5 of “Romeo & Juliet” with my freshmen.