Red light, green light

Traffic Light by Grendelkhan via Flicker  CC BY-SA 2.0

Traffic Light by Grendelkhan via Flicker CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week I posted about my plan to use narrative feedback in my classroom instead of grades. I also confessed that even though I’d planned and planned – and had the lengthy blog post with details to prove it – I was afraid to approach my principal about actually putting it into action.

Looking back, I see the slow, methodical process of all that reading and diving into Twitter chats, and even emailing those I felt had it down, to figure out what parts of everyone’s strategies would work best for me and mine as a kind of a slow, yellow light sort of a deal, minus the slapping the steering wheel in frustration.

Or was there a metaphorical slapping of the steering wheel? I had my ideas. I liked my ideas. I envisioned my ideas mostly working. But I slapped that steering wheel out of frustration at hitting a red light.

Funny thing is, it was me red-lighting myself. I lacked the confidence to ask my principal if I could try this new-fangled way of getting kids to want to learn for learning’s sake. They are so accustomed to racking up points or keeping that GPA in the spectrum that won’t lose them their phone for a month. Any time I’ve had a “what if we didn’t do grades?” conversation with a co-worker, it’s been met with skepticism. But I have had to remind myself that they haven’t read and joined conversations on the subject like I have. I had no faith that my principal was in the loop on the subject, either. For years, even before this principal, we were under a mandate of a particular number of grades per week. We were training students to rack up points. Thus, we were frustrated – but not surprised – when students would ask, “How many points is this worth?” or “Is this for a grade?”

There had to be a better way.

And there is.

After red-lighting myself for a week, I decided it was time to look both ways and prepare to go forward. I told him that students do better when they are empowered, when they have some control and choice about what they are doing. He agreed. I told him I planned to involve them in adjusting the standards, putting them into more familiar language so that they could use them in reflection about their own work. He nodded. I went on about providing narrative feedback, allowing students to continue improving work, learning as they go, improving skills as they go. He was still positive. Then I put it more clearly. I felt it was possible to put this narrative feedback into the online gradebook instead of grades. I inwardly winced, waiting for the hesitation and backpedaling. It didn’t happen. He told me this was the direction he had been wanting to go, but that HE expected opposition from many teachers who were used to doing things the other way. Wow.

He provided his version of the example I’d been using: It doesn’t seem fair that while Junior is learning something new, he makes a 60 the first time, works more at it, scoring an 80 next, but at test time, he’s got it – scores 100. Shouldn’t he get 100, instead of an average of the entire time he was learning it? Eureka! Yes! The light was about to change to green.

I told him students and I would conference together; they would provide evidence for the grade they thought they deserved, looking at the standards as guides, and he was OK with that. I didn’t even get to the part about the eportfolios.

He was somewhat concerned about pushback from parents. I assured him that I would make contact and receive responses from all parents.

His next concern was eligibility. In order to be eligible for sports or other extracurricular activities, students have to keep grades up. With no grades, there’d be no way to tell if a student should, perhaps, be pulled from participation. And, while I’m optimistic about this plan increasing student involvement, I don’t think it will necessarily save everyone. There may still be students resistant to doing anything. He was OK with my agreeing to simply watch for these, conference with any students who really are not working at a level they should be and eventually contacting parents and those in charge of the ineligibility list, if necessary.

With those items settled, he and I are both looking forward to seeing how this works out, so that next year other teachers may be ready to try something similar.

I’ve got a green light, and now it’s time to get my details in order. I have a week and a half before I meet my students and blow their minds.


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?

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?