Category Archives: Assessment

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

Creating space for failure

In the twitterverse I feel like I often hear that the path to growth is through failure. While I always liked the sentiment because it fit with how I tend to learn things in the “real world,” it never quite squared with my experience in the classroom. There really isn’t that much room to fail–a bad grade on a summative assessment wrecks a grade. Especially with the recent trend to not grade formative work. 

This post is just an attempt to reflect on how the ideas of Sarah Zerwin and Maja Wilson, whose books I got to read with a cohort of my department members, helped create space for failure, specifically in our writing work. 

Point-Less: shifting self-reflection into the summative role 

When I read Point-Less by Sarah Zerwin I started to see that shifting what the summative assessment was could open up the room needed to experiment, take risks, and sometimes fail. (Side note: Sarah Krajewski reviewed here in June 2020, and revisited her attempts at implementing Zerwin’s ideas here this spring; I highly recommend checking out her posts for more context.)

Zerwin utilizes grading category weights to emphasize an end of semester self-reflection letter where students make the case for their grade. I haven’t made that full of a shift yet, but I decided to try that within a writing cycle. In the past I would collect three pieces, score and average them. This year I gave feedback on all three, focusing on our 4 writing goals (specificity, complexity, structure, style), but no grade. Then students had a chance to find the best examples of their work toward each goal in a reflection document (or evidence collection). 

This allowed them to share their best work and to do some self-evaluation about where their writing is in relationship to the goal (or standard–Hattie kind of calls this “self-reported grading”).

An evidence collection de-emphasizes the one writing piece that they bombed or the prompt they just couldn’t get into. In my old systems the C or D would harm their average and chance to earn an A. Now, they can reflect on what went poorly and demonstrate their understanding and growth into the next task.

This basically boils down to a shift in what evidence I’m looking for–from mastery of the specific standard (which is often kind of deficit-based) to showing how you are growing in relation to the goal (more asset-based). 

Now, the pressure to make each piece perfect is replaced by noble attempts to experiment with structure or evidence types, whatever the focus might be for the writing challenge. I think they know that they have room to try something and that taking a risk won’t harm their grade. I hope that it’s one more point for the good guys in the lifelong battle against boring writing. 

This is my feeble attempt to show how reflections can add layer of space that encourages risk-taking.

Reimagining Writing Assessment: shifting growth into the grade book 

The other challenge I always faced in finding ways to fail is that a letter grade like a C or D, which might accurately reflect your writing skill, does not always allow for or reflect your growth as a writer. 

In Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment, she explores the value of moving beyond standards and mastery to focus on the writing choices that students make. This is hard when you’ve lived with scales and rubrics and the need to accurately sort student essays (norming and scoring). And while that may have value in some settings, if the goal is to help our students grow as writers she makes a good case that a non-standardized approach is needed. 

I tried this in our first writing cycle. Instead of giving students a letter grade (or an AP number, or a Standards-Based descriptor like Sophisticated), I noted in the gradebook that it was complete. Then I added feedback about their work (strengths and goals that surface from the choices they made). 

What this did more than anything was help the students see that I cared about their thinking and their voices. It gave us freedom to talk about their writing outside of the context of a grade.

In the reflection doc, I’m not looking for mastery of each goal. I’m looking for good evidence of growth toward each goal. So an A no longer means that each writer has reached a certain level. An A means that each writer who earns one has demonstrated good evidence of their work toward each goal. There is room for us to discuss the quality of the evidence, but that occurs in my feedback throughout the writing challenges as well.

Takeaways

  • It’s possible to allow the kind of failure that encourages risk-taking and experimentation if I shift the focus of my summative assessments from performance to reflection.
  • It’s possible to create space for opportunities to fail if I shift from using on grades as a way to sort achievement level and move to seeing grades as a way to reflect individual growth.
  • Students are willing to focus on learning instead of gathering points if I reorganize the incentives (grades, points, rules, focus). 
  • When I find ways to take a more asset-based approach (v. deducting points or labeling them with an achievement level) to my students’ writing, it builds their confidence and willingness to grow.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s embarking upon teaching his second teenager how to drive, so thoughts and prayers.

Expanding the writing workshop feedback loop

In my previous post one of the questions that was guiding my thinking about writing instruction this year was how to personalize it more, how to open up more choice during workshop time in similar ways that we have with reading. One of the things I’m hoping to experiment more with this year is pacing. All students doing the same paper (even if they choices of prompts) at the same time with the same deadline is efficient for the process but not for the feedback. Especially this year as it’s the first time I’ve ever had one prep–6 sections of English III, 169 students. Collecting anything sounds and feels overwhelming, let alone a longer piece of writing that I can get meaningful feedback on in a timely manner. 

My longer term vision is that students would have individual writing goals and plans that they work on that include a variety types of pieces in varied numbers with genuinely staggered deadlines within the class. I’m not nearly there yet and may not get there this year. But my first step has been a good one so far. I’ve set up a feedback rotation system for our first three “laps” (as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher call them in 180 days) so that on one lap students self-assess, on one lap they get peer feedback, and on one lap they get my feedback. This enables me to closely read two sets of papers on each lap instead of 6, still getting to each class by the final lap. I will still give a quick read to the other four sets to look for any significant issues (partial completion, red flags in structure or minimum basics) or significant praises (amazing efforts, great sentences, or surprise improvements). I will also do some reading and feedback during class and amid the writing process (as we always do) via conferencing.

my ugly plan

In all three scenarios the feedback is framed with essentially the same questions:

  • What’s one strength of the piece? (or, for those doing self-reflection: What’s one thing you’re proud of in this piece?)
  • What’s one idea for the piece? It could be an improvement that’s needed or an addition to make.

I have students and peers make these comments on the bottom of the doc they submit, and my gradebook allows me to include (via copy/paste) those comments/feedback. So a student’s “grade” in writing from each bell set looks like this right now:

Eventually students will see each type of feedback for their writing feedback in my gradebook. This makes a more narrative-based grade and helps tell a more accurate story of the writer’s progress.

The next step will be some reflection on those first three pieces where students will identify some of their best work toward our 4 writing targets (specificity, complexity, structure, style) and do some inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, which the feedback should prime them to consider. That will enable us to set some more targeted, personalized goals for the next round of writing.

The main challenge I had to confront to take this baby step is guilt. I feel guilty not interacting more on every doc they submit, so it has taken a lot for me to turn over some of the responsibility for feedback. But hopefully this will enable us to write more, to acknowledge the value of other readers, and empower more self-assessment.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s excited to finally have some meaningful Reds baseball in September.

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

How to deal with missing & late-work: one teacher’s approach

Hey readers! It’s been a while since you’ve seen anything from us at Three Teachers Talk. We, like all of you, feel like we’ve been trudging through this year. Between the zooms, the Nearpods, the screencasts, the quarantines, the cleaning protocols, the bandwith issues…well, you get the picture. It’s been a lot.

Now we’re at the half-point of this year and so many are struggling with engagement. How do we “hold kids accountable” in the midst of all this? And what can we learn that might go beyond the crisis teaching we’re doing now? I’ve been loving following Tyler Rabin’s (@tylerrabin) journey around these issues and invited him to share his thinking with all of you.

We hope you’re safe. We hope you’re well. We hope this helps.

I’ve gone through this cycle more often than I’d like:

  1. Realize that grade penalties on late work are bad.
  2. Eliminate all grade penalties.
  3. Immediately get overwhelmed by late work and a lack of organization.
  4. Rush to reimpose late penalties.

I would argue that in most classrooms, grade penalties don’t exist because the teacher likes them; grade penalties exist because we don’t feel like we have an alternative.

On top of that, they work. For some things. The things they work for are the easily visible pieces. Do students hand more things in with grade penalties than without? Typically, yes. 

But, let’s also point out some of the things we know about how extrinsic motivators, especially punishments, impact student learning. This blog captures some of the key points from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation well, and the first point that we have to be aware of is that, while extrinsic motivation does increase short-term motivation, it actually hurts it long-term. This means that we can use it once or twice to convince someone to do something, but eventually that ends up no longer being motivating. Sound like any students you’ve had? 

The second piece is the more concerning piece. Extrinsic motivation increases someone’s drive to complete basic tasks, but it hinders their ability to engage in complex process. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe learning falls under the latter category. While I wish I could put this softly, I don’t know a way around the harshness of this fact: an emphasis on late penalties values compliantly completing a task more than it does the student’s ability to learn. 

Now, here’s where we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Late penalties are, in essence, a barrier to learning, but in most cases, there doesn’t appear to be a sustainable alternative for teachers. We don’t want to have to use grade penalties, but we are human. We need to have lives, and the constantly ebb and flow of late work is exhausting and time-consuming. 

This concept was weighing heavily on me a few months back. I too often criticize the act of using grade penalties without acknowledging the reality of our context or providing possible solutions. As I wrestled through this in an attempt to provide a solution, I recorded the most helpful info I could into the longest thread I’ve ever posted on Twitter. However, as it always goes on Twitter, it lacked the depth the conversation needs. 

As such, I’ve broken the thread into segments so that I can provide additional details about how to address the late work issue in meaningful ways without using grade penalties and without losing your sanity. 

Part 1: Organizing Assignments into Essential vs. Non-essential

Tweets:

This Tweet probably needs the most explanation. If you remove grade penalties and allow students to turn in ALL their work whenever they want, you will lose every ounce of free time you have. The key is to really identify the assignments that carry the most value. This isn’t to say that the non-essential assignments aren’t valuable, but the non-essential assignments should mean that their function is to allow students to practice specific skills and demonstrate their current level of understanding. They should have more than just that one opportunity to do that for each skill. But…I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Part 2: Non-essential Assignments – Multiple Attempts for Learning

Tweets:

The key with these assignments is that the student will have further opportunities to demonstrate their learning, but these missed assignments demonstrate a need for a different type of support, a support that grade penalties just frankly don’t offer. For your sake, don’t take late work that falls into this category. Tell the student that they missed this opportunity, but they will get another shot at it later. However, if you end there, kids will receive the message that every educator fears: deadlines and completing assignments aren’t important. 

This is why there must be a system or process set up to hold students accountable in a way that actually focuses on building those skills. Like I mentioned, my favorite is to have them stay after class and schedule their week with me. I can also put them on my list of students who receive my Remind messages about upcoming assignments. Somehow there has to be a clear next step for students who miss these assignments so that they know (a) you’re paying attention, (b) it’s important, and (c) you want them to get better at self-management and executive functioning. 

Part 3: Final Evaluation

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All of this comes down to the fact that we should be averaging scores over time to determine a final score. Not only does that result in an inaccurate report of student learning, but it means that missing assignments will almost inevitably factor into the final grade (unless you drop scores, which I’m always a proponent of). 

At the end of a term, the goal is that you are doing a summative evaluation (preferably with the student) where you are looking through their data to determine their final scores. If this step isn’t happening, missing and late work usually ends up being a significant factor in a student’s grade. 

Now, I know a lot of people are thinking, “What about the student who doesn’t turn in ANY work?!” At some point, a lack of evidence is a lack of evidence, and that student hasn’t given you enough to demonstrate proficiency in the skill. I have found that this happens WAY less often than we think it does, though. 

Part 4: Authentic Consequences for Authentic Assessments

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While I probably don’t need to elaborate here, I want to make sure one word shines through: authentic. How are we creating experiences where students get to apply their learning in authentic ways so that the cost of not doing something is actually meaningful for the student? Is this a one-size-fits-all thing? Absolutely not. For a consequence to be meaningful, there must be an element of choice in it. The student has to have had some control and ability to bring in their full self – their passions, interests, goals, etc – to the project. That is when the consequences become powerful. 

Part 5: Final Thought

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This is why I get so worked up about grade penalties. I know we do them because it feels like we don’t have an alternative, but so often these grade penalties are just kicking a horse who’s already down. These are students who often have already been told they’re bad at school, maybe not explicitly, but the message has been sent over and over. They don’t need another reminder that they can’t do it. We teach them nothing when we add penalties on top of self-doubt. What they need is someone who notices they are struggling, but instead of blaming the student and calling it good, that person goes, “Here’s how we’re going to do better next time. Let’s let this one go and move forward together.”

This is why we have to stop depending on grade penalties. They are a way of washing our hands of the responsibility of educating our kids, of helping them see their best selves. We can do better. It’s not easy, but we can do it, one small change at a time.

Bio:

Tyler Rablin is a current instructional coach and National Board certified high school language arts teacher in Sunnyside School District in Sunnyside, WA. On the side, he is a consultant with Shifting Schools, contributing writer for Edutopia, and a Google for Education certified trainer. His educational passion is focused on the ways that meaningful technology integration, modernized assessment strategies, and strong cultures of learning can allow us to provide meaningful, powerful, and personal learning experiences for each of our students. In his personal life, he enjoys reading, running, and spending time hiking and camping with his wife and two dogs.

Experimenting with reading portfolios

Fake reading and readicide have been well documented as the enemies of English teachers everywhere. The workshop model does a nice job of thwarting each by offering students choice and ownership over their reading lives. In a previous post Shana suggested that if the reading is authentic and student-centered that it can even be independent from grades. Finding the balance of autonomy and accountability is still a challenge, though–how do we turn students loose to explore books while still gathering evidence of their mastery of the reading standards?

This year I resolved to rely less on quizzes or study guides that are averaged into a grade as a way to solve this dilemma. The last few years I’ve been moving more toward a combination of one-on-one conferencing and informal reading check-ins that gave students space to respond to what they’re reading while also demonstrating some skill mastery. This year I decided that I would experiment with reading portfolios in my junior English classes and ask students to gather evidence of their reading in one place that would comprise a quarterly reading grade. It is a more holistic approach to considering their reading work. This is the rough progression we’ve followed:

Goalsetting

At the top of our collection doc I asked students to consider their reading lives and to set a goal for that quarter. You can see a quick example here:

A student’s reading goals from Bell 1
A student’s reading goals from Bell 1

Delineate the types of reading

  • Volume (independent reading, pleasure reading) skill focus: development of ideas and themes
  • Speed (for ACT-type scenarios) skill focus: comprehension
  • Depth (close reading, annotations, classroom discussions, etc.) skill focus: comprehension, style analysis

Each type of reading requires something different from readers. The task was to find good evidence of each type from each unit. This allowed students to choose our reading check-ins, pieces we annotated or discussed together, or to build other ways to interact with their independent reading. The goal was to learn what strategies make sense for each type of reading that we do and to develop strategies for annotating short works versus tracking information in longer works versus reading to find test answers. 

Gather artifacts and experiences

Once we understood the different types, I was able to better organize classtime to meet those goals. Our reading workshop time was mainly spent on volume, but occasionally we’d do a check-in that asked students to reflect on their books that they could use as evidence of depth. 

For speed we would periodically test our comprehension using ACT or AP Comp/AP Lit practice passages. We simulated the pressure of time and discussed test-taking strategies, test-making strategies, and what it means to read a short text with rigor. I never counted these as actual scores, only as experiences they needed to complete. This took some pressure off and enabled them to engage with learning how to learn.

Finally, when we read poems, articles, or other short texts together as a class I always point out that if they choose to annotate or reflect on the piece that they can use it as a piece of evidence for depth. Most will take me up on it. This gives some choice and ownership over the annotation tasks instead of me requiring post-it notes on every chapter of Gatsby. In reality I can tell from one or two artifacts whether or not a student is actively engaging the text in effective ways. You can see a few images below of how one student collected the artifacts:

Discuss quality of the artifacts

Because I didn’t want the portfolio to simply be a completion grade we tried to attach some traits to strong reading responses, specifically for depth. I essentially trusted what I saw in daily reading workshop times and some informal check-ins for volume, counted the practice tests as completion for speed, and then used depth as the category to focus on assessing. I used an informal rubric that focused on the specificity and complexity of their interactions since those are the two words/skills we’d been focusing on, but you could adapt to the specific traits you’re hoping to capture in their reading work.

The end products are not pretty (Student example from Q1; Student example from Q2)–I’m sure there are better technology solutions to explore–but they do offer me a decent picture of what each individual student is up to as a reader in a way that I wasn’t able to see when I collected and averaged quizzes and study guide questions. It’s improved the vocabulary of our discussion about tasks. And ultimately it has helped continue the shift of ownership over their reading life from me to them, which is the end goal of workshop. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He is excited to start reading the final installment of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Building Reflection through One-Pagers in AP Lang (and letting kids be kids)

The end of the semester is stressful for teachers and students alike. Students have essays, projects, presentations, and other summative assessments due, and teachers have to assign and grade them.

This semester in AP Lang, I decided to assign an assessment that wasn’t overly-stressful. These are eleventh graders, after all. This is the toughest year of school they’ve had: their semester was full of PSAT, SAT tests, more AP classes than they’ve taken before, and generally harder classes than they’ve seen before. Plus, the stress of growing up is looming. Their senior friends are applying and hopefully getting into college. They can’t deny it anymore. They will be adults so soon.

Meanwhile, they are still kids. They are kids who are taking AP Lang and learning about structure and rhetorical devices; it’s no longer about what they think the message of the text is, like when they were in the lower grades. It’s somehow different. Their brains are full and sometimes fried.

That’s not to say that we don’t have fun in our class. We laugh, we discuss issues, and we learn. We also independently read together.

Our focus on independent reading gives them some autonomy that they don’t necessarily get in other classes. It also means they have a responsibility to pick books, drop books, and read books. A lot of them.

Which brings me back to the last assessment of the first semester. I assigned a one-pager which included reflection, facts, rhetorical analysis, and art. Eleventh grade students don’t usually create art in an AP level assessment (unless it’s an art class, yes), and they loved it. LOVED IT.

I know some AP teachers are all about teaching their students about the “real world” and I get it. Yes, the world is big and tough and sometimes mean. When they are adults, deadlines will matter a lot and sometimes no one will care about an individual’s opinion, and certainly crayons and colored pencils likely won’t be part of their college career or actual career.

But you know what? My students are still in high school. They aren’t adults. They still like to color and draw. (And don’t many adults in the real world like to do this, too?)

I sometimes allow my students soft deadlines – because let’s be “real” – the adult world has soft deadlines, too. For example, this post was supposed to be ready back in December! But real life happened, and the wonderful women who are in charge of this blog gave me a pass, which was necessary and for which I am grateful. I’m okay with teaching my students that the “real world” is like that, too.

Back to the summative assessment: My students brought their semester reading to class: actual copies of books, readers/writers notebooks with lists of what they had read, dropped, and loved. They brought their markers and colored pencils. And they brought their positive energy. It was one of the most fun days of a summative assessment I’ve ever experienced.

We posted our one-pagers in the hall so all of our secondary students can browse them when it’s convenient.

The final one-pagers were fun to make, fun to read, fun to grade, and now that they are publicly posted, they are a great way for students to talk about who reads what and how much. It helps with the development of our reading community, not just with our eleventh grade students, but with all of our secondary students.

I’ve posted about this topic before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a nice wrap-up to the semester and it encourages students to celebrate their reading successes, which leads right into deliberate and informed semester two reading goal-setting, which we are working on now. (Stay tuned!)

Please don’t misunderstand. My students write essays and take tests and do research. But I don’t believe that all of those types of assessments are necessary at the end of a semester or school year (there are other times for that). This individualized reflection coupled with the group “going public” by posting in the hallway is powerful. Students see their growth and can celebrate it, but they can also see where others are and maybe set their sights even higher than if they’d stayed private with their goals.

How have you wrapped up your first semester, AP or otherwise? I’d love to learn some new strategies and ideas.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

A New Look at Data

Data seems to be one of those educational buzz words that has been swinging on the pendulum just like many other educational topics.

When I first began teaching 12 years ago, we had data walls, data folders, data charts, and data talks. In those early years, I taught 4th-grade departmental math. It was easy to collect and analyze data and use that data to inform my instruction. It was easy to assess whether a student knew how to multiply two-digit numbers or find the area of a rectangle. And it was easy to use that instruction to plan additional days of reteaching the entire class or planning small group instruction for the few students who had not quite mastered the skill.

As an English language arts teacher, I found data much more difficult to collect. Data is necessary, but for many, it has become a dreaded four-letter word. Language arts standards, like my Indiana standard below, are so packed with skills, collecting data can be time-consuming, overwhelming, and many times irrelevant.

Standard TTT

For the past several years improving data collection has been a personal goal for me because I knew this was a weakness. I wanted data that was relevant, easy to collect, and could be used to make instructional decisions. I wanted to be able to show my administrator who was making progress, who was not, and what I was doing about it. But that goal has not been an easy one to reach.

It wasn’t until this past summer when I attended a workshop with Kate Roberts, that the data light bulb came on. Her presentation made so much sense, and I left wondering why I hadn’t used this approach to collecting data before now?

In Kate’s book about using whole-class novels, A Novel Approach, she advises teach37946464._SX318_ers to give students a reading assessment before diving into the unit to identify skills that need to be taught or improved upon during the unit. I gave a similar assessment at the beginning of the year as a baseline based on these questions from Kate’s book:

  1. What are the three most important moments in this story, and why?
  2. Analyze the main character.
  3. What theme does the author develop in this story?
  4. What craft moves do you notice the author using and what is their purpose?

After scoring the assessment, I completed a grid shown below. This quickly gave me a snapshot of the skill level of each class and let me know which students needed additional instruction or who could benefit from small group instruction. Kate scores them 1-3, but I changed it to 0-3, as I had many students who did not know how to do some of the skills. As you can see from the grid, my students did not know the term “writer’s craft,” and that skill will now become more of a focus in my instruction.

When analyzing characters, most students were able to give me a trait, but could not support that claim. Interpreting theme had similar results. They could give me a theme but had no idea of how it was developed through the story.

pres. 1

pres 2

After giving the baseline, I told my students these four skills needed to be mastered by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I won’t teach other skills; these are just the ones that I will assess and track throughout the year.

Students will work on these skills throughout the entire school year. I have a spreadsheet where I track each student’s progress, and they have one where they track their individual progress.

Reading Skills Assessment

I like this assessment for data collection for many reasons:

  • Simplicity – This assessment is quick and easy to administer, as it can be done in one class period. Scoring is easy when you sort student responses according to patterns that you see. Kate compares it to dealing out a deck of cards, each pile being beginning, intermediate, and advanced. These piles become a starting point and eventual guide for instruction.
  • Versatility – Students need to be able to demonstrate what they can do with these skills, so matching them to a text they can read independently is important. The four questions work well with almost any fiction text. I used the baseline with a read-aloud, thus making the text accessible to all students. I have also used the assessment with their independent books, and I plan to use it with their book club selections by the end of the semester.
  • Relevancy – Each Common Core Standard is packed with skills. The four questions in the assessment are general, yet can measure the standards as they are unpacked. The skills assessed are what we notice and do automatically as adult readers, so teaching students these skills is showing them the relevancy of learning them.

I don’t think data has quite the educational buzz that it used to, and I still think collecting reading and writing data is difficult. But after working with Kate and looking at data in a new way this year, I now know that data doesn’t have to be a dreaded four-letter word anymore.

Leigh Anne Eck is a 6th grade ELA teacher in southern Indiana and is anxiously awaiting the learning to be done at NCTE in Baltimore. She hopes to meet many of her online friends in person.

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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