Doing Something About It

It’s been a month since I’ve written. (If I had a nickel for every resolution I failed to follow through on…)

The month has been challenging in many different respects. Time management. Not feeling like my teaching is the best. Getting used to “leading” a department. Family. Holidays.

I’m looking back at this moment – as we race from Thanksgiving to Christmas in mere weeks – and feeling like something is failing. If not failing, at its least, it not meeting my expectations and challenging me in ways I expected but wasn’t necessarily prepared for.

My students are writing wonderful reflections of their work. For the most part, these reflections are honest and authentic and meaningful. But only in the rarest of cases are these reflections critical in any way. Rarely are my students willing or able to put themselves out there and identify their own shortcomings.

My first attempt at correcting this has been to try and focus on feedback – students are receiving feedback both on their assignments directly and also via a standards-based recording system in our LMS. I was hopeful that these bits of correction and encouragement from me would be enough to nudge students towards a more critical self-appraisal of their achievement and accomplishment. But mostly, it hasn’t.

Students write wonderful reflections … that ignore negative feedback, or glaze over it with generalities about “needing some improvement” in a given area. Or sometimes more disappointing, students honestly report their failings but cannot bring themselves to admit that their work might not be deserving of the ever-needed “A.” Continue reading

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Not Just New Words for the Same Old

As we approach the end of the first marking period, I’ve found myself more and more stressed and anxious with my (un)grading experience and its future.

I worry students aren’t learning as much, aren’t trying as hard, aren’t as interested, are more willing to blow off my course for others… I worry it’s not working.

The biggest of my worries, though, has been about how students have been self-evaluating their work and progress. We have been working since their first reflection emails to deepen and refine their reflections. I want them to cite evidence, not just feelings or effort, to justify their achievements. It’s taking time.

I have realized recently that part of my biggest worry is that students aren’t coming up with the same grades I would if they asked me.  Continue reading

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Reflecting on the Retake

For most of my time as a teacher, and before even, I bought into the narrative that assessments are moments of evaluation of student work – and final evaluation at that. Assessments were used to tell me what you know, tell you what you know, and then judge you against the other 20 students in the room (or 1300 in the school).

There’s a half-truth in there and also an insidious logical flaw.

The truth: assessment should be used to evaluate student progress. Let them know what they know. Let me know what they know.

The flaw: if the goal of the course is to, you know, actually help students “know” the things being tested… then the judgement side of the assessment really puts a damper on that.

Simply put, in most classrooms assessment is compartmentalized. Students complete assessments. Teachers grade assessments. And then we all move on. Experience over.

As a teacher, I enter a grade and move on. At some point I’ll have a conversation with a parent or other teacher about how a student “never really got concept x” as if it were some grand explainer of their progress. ….Well, duh, man… after they didn’t learn concept x, you moved on and never went back!…

As a student, once an assignment is in, there’s no point in further effort. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it and the grade says so. You don’t know x. No reason to worry, though, the last assignment is completely unrelated to the next assignment. Forget the past, onward to some other task that will have meaning only for the moment it’s evaluated.

How worthless such a system is. How worthless it makes the entire experience of teaching and learning. How worthless it must make students feel – or at least their effort must feel like it lacks worth.  Continue reading

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Catching Up

It’s been two weeks since an update here. Sorry. I’ve been fighting some kind of cold for at least that long… no excuse, except that it’s been hard to keep up with almost anything beyond the ‘necessary’ over that time.

Such an illness, however, has made for some good perspective-building: what I have been able to bring into my classes, in the classroom and in preparation, has been severely limited by how I’ve been feeling. My students have been overwhelmingly understanding – when my voice gives out or cracks or barely makes it above a whisper, or when I have to excuse myself into the hall for a moment and catch my breath.

And their work, all the while, has persisted. Their growth and questioning has persisted. Their engagement and learning has continued.

Pausing here as we round the final turn into the end of the quarter has led me to two thoughts…

First, as Nick Covington – inspiration to challenge the norms extraordinaire – has consistently brought up: students certainly learn without grades. Perhaps they learn more. If you walked into my room and wanted to know if students were learning, you’d see it. The grades don’t foster or further learning. The students are learning because they are inclined to learn (as most students are).

Perhaps it’s a failure on my part in some way – maybe the difference should be more obvious – but you might not know my classroom was (un)graded if someone didn’t tell you. Continue reading

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Positive Spin

It’s been a long week. Three children – sick. Nanny – sick. Myself – sick and getting worse.

Missing two of three days to close out the week didn’t feel good. Thinking that Monday is in the balance doesn’t feel good.

So, mini pep-talk… What’s going right?

First – my classes survived. They always do, but it felt bigger this time. They worked on their own, pretty brilliantly. I was able on Friday to be e-available for some time to students working on a current events analysis for economics and the work they were putting in was way past where I expected them to be.

Something is right there. Continue reading

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Getting in the Way of Ourselves

One part of moving my classrooms more towards mastery and (un)grading has been moving far more towards using summative assessments only.

That, though, has presented a new set of challenges and questions… specifically, what makes for a good and valid assessment anyway?

Recent ed movements have rightly criticized so much about assessment. I’ve been especially affected by discussions that remind us that our students bring so much more into our classrooms than we can anticipate.

On top of these, though, are the most basic faults of the assessments we choose and use ourselves. Even the ever-popular in-class writing or essay assignment – sacred to me and my teaching in many ways – has become glaringly problematic.

The time limit. The multitude of tasks – content, written development, research analysis. The faultiness of the question(s) itself.

How valid can this little snapshot of student learning actually be?

Can I differentiate between a student who knows but can’t write and a student who writes but doesn’t know? Can I draw a line between a student whose care and deliberation slowed them down and the student who just didn’t have much to say?

I’m more and more doubtful I can do any of those things with much accuracy.

So, today I did something in a writing assignment that I haven’t done in a long time. Continue reading

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Why Would You Ever…

 It’s always seemed silly to me to have my students write more, or in a different fashion, than they are expected to do on the AP exam.

So wrote a fellow teacher on a group posting among AP Econ teachers recently when asked for help creating some writing assignments for their students. A few others replied that they purposefully and willfully disregard school or district policies that mandate writing instruction as part of their courses.

I am going to withhold from too much commentary and try to turn the overwhelming urge I have to offer a sarcasm-filled diatribe into something more positive…

Why might I bother to ask my students to write more than required on the AP exam?

Well, first, and most importantly, because the AP exam is only a “check” on my students knowledge – and, in my opinion, a pretty poor one. AP exams are designed, both in their questions and their rubrics, to be quick and easy to grade. They are not about teachingContinue reading

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