Friday Night Quickwrite 5/28

Many of us are enjoying the beginning of summer, while others still have a few weeks of school left. No matter where you are in the end-of-the-school-year process, I hope you take some time to write. Writing and journaling have so many health benefits, which is why I extend this writing invitation to you each week.

Although it is titled Friday Night Quickwrite, you can join us and share anytime during the week. I will provide a spark or prompt with some kind of inspiration to get your mind going, and when you are ready, just write and share.

This week I am sharing a text from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This book is full of short entries organized from A to Z that captures moments, observations, and emotions from her life. This book is full of writing ideas and inspiration. The one I used tonight is filed under “Childhood Memories” and includes a table with the heading of “What My Childhood Tasted Like.”

In my notebook I made a table similar to AKR’s with food items and a little snippet of what they remind me about my childhood. It was fun to recall these special memories. I even texted my siblings and asked them about foods, and we share many of the same memories.

I am always intrigued how foods, smells, and songs attach themsleves to memories. Many of these food items on my list could be written as a memoir, a poem, or even a short story. Full of writing possibilities!

Please join me and writing about your childhood tastes and share it with us below. Happy writing and enjoy your long weekend!

Leigh Anne is currently on summer break and is waiting for the water temperature to warm up so she can read while relaxing with her sister and daughter (both teachers!) in the pool. When not on summer break, she teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana.

I’m About to Get Bossy

It’s been a year.

Now, just to be clear, when I say year I mean about a decade’s worth of exhaustion, emotion, and uncertainty rolled into 180ish days of tough.

And as this crazy school year comes to a close, I reflect on everything we’ve accomplished as educators, not least of which has been literally surviving and I’m happy to report I hear the distant rumble of a slow clap. The steady drumbeat of solidarity, growing ever louder as more and more educators join the chorus of almost disbelieving hands clapping…for each other and for ourselves. We. Did. It.

Let’s be real a moment. Not our usual humble selves, but really, real.

You deserve a standing ovation. You deserve pots banging in the streets. You deserve sweet cards, and smiles, and thank you’s, and sincere gratitude from communities overwhelmed by your sacrifice for their children.

Most of all though? You deserve a break.

Photo by James Wheeler on

I know our realities are as varied as our geographic location and preferred book genre, but our difficulties are often the same. Many have to work more than one job to make ends meet. Some continue to work through vacations to make up for lack of preparation time just to be ready to start all over again next year. We see our own kids less than the children of other people. We watch weekends fly by from behind our computer screens and buried under piles of papers. Stack on top of this the fact that the impossibilities of modern education are often met with either toxic positivity or a “this is what you signed up for” attitude, and we can all be left feeling like we apparently deserve to run on empty.

This isn’t true.

You deserve a break.

Please go back and read that one more time. You deserve to unplug from all things school. You deserve to feed the parts of you that get neglected in the service of others. You deserve so much, but a break you can actually take. Lengthy, short, in snippets here and there, with a good book, a favorite beverage, those you love, or completely on your own, step back. Disable the notifications on your phone (I’ve actually contemplated chucking mine out of a moving vehicle lately) and nap. Often. Stare into the summer sky and know you likely did more this year than you ever would have thought to be possible in this profession…and you made it. Your students are so blessed that you did. Now is the time to ensure you can return to them next year, a more complete and mentally rested person.

So this summer, as we step away from our classrooms or computers, please know that we here at Three Teachers Talk see you.

We see the commitment.

We see the work.

We see the struggles.

And we want you to know you are not alone. Take as many steps back this summer as you responsibility can. Whether it be moments to read fluff or planning work put off until fall, slide your attention back to yourself. We do what we do for our students, but we will in fact be better for them if we work to heal what this year has done to and taken from all of us.

Take a break, dear friends. You deserve it.

And if you hear strange banging noises this summer, it’s me, banging like a loon on a pot to herald all your hard work, because you deserve that too.

How are you taking time for yourself this summer? What message of solidarity do you have for fellow weary educators? Comment below!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language, English 9, and Virtual Film as Literature while also leading the fearless English Department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her –
Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Friday Quickwrite 5/21

Welcome to the weekend and another Friday Quickwrite. Remember you can come back and write any time with us. It doesn’t have to be Friday night (it just rhymes with quickwrite!)

I saw this post by Tera Jean Elness on Instagram last week and it got me thinking, and of course, it got me writing, too.

To honor is to revere and to revere is to regard with respect tinged with awe.
(and big thanks to dictionary dot com cuz I really LOVE that definition)
Tinged with awe.
Pretty awesome, amen?
Honor your brave Beloved.
Hold it in high regard and give it the weight it deserves.
Honor your brave.
Your brave in staying.
Your brave in going.
Your brave in trying despite the risk.
Your brave in holding on.
Your brave in letting go.
Your brave in finally – FINALLY – living fully and freely as YOU.
Honor your brave Beloved.
Your brave in the heartache.
Your brave in the tears.
Your brave you’ve been hiding all of these years because you believed that your voice was simply one of many and not one that needs to be heard.
What a lie amen.
Honor your brave Beloved.
Honor it.
It deserves it.

The words “honor your brave” really spoke to me, and I began to think about the times when I didn’t think of myself as brave. The brave in holding on and letting go and living fully.

I made a list in my notebook and was led by an item on that list. An item that is too private to share but one that needed to be written. I hope you find some inspiration in Tera’s words this weekend, and I would love to hear what path these words led you.

Happy Writing!

Leigh Anne finished up her 14th year of teaching today. It was a wild and wacky one but amazing nevertheless. She is looking forward to some summer reading and writing time by the pool.

Legacy Speeches: Sharing Our Stories

Savannah, Mallory, Shaun and Tristan turn seventeen today…a new chapter in their stories and mine.

“You must read and write as if your life depended on it. Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.” Adrienne Rich

In my last post for Three Teachers Talk, I shared an excerpt from a poem written about my quadruplets’ birth. Today, they turn seventeen. Those four babies indelibly marked my life. They are part of my story, as I am part of theirs. Wondrous new pages are written every day in our stories and our students’ stories.

As an eighth grade teacher in a K-8 building, I understand that eighth graders wear the mantle of a particular nobility by the time they “graduate”from our building. As our school year draws to a close, one of the eighth graders’ rites of passage is to compose Legacy Speeches in our writing workshop.

It’s a privilege to walk on the holy ground of transition beside my students, as they traverse the territory between their elementary and middle school years, and high school. What do I love best about Legacy Speeches?

  1. They allow students to be wildflowers. Legacy Speech is an opportunity for each student to reflect on his or her unique journey. It is the idea behind George Ella Lyons’ well-known poem, “Where I’m From” expanded.
  2. Legacy Speech invites students to recognize and thank people who have mentored them during their formative years.
  3. Legacy Speeches encourage metaphorical thinking.
  4. Legacy Speeches express deep hopes in uncertain times. 
  5. Legacy Speeches allow students to share favorite pieces of writing that they’ve composed in our writing workshop, OR favorite mentor texts.
  6. Legacy Speeches invite students to speak for a live audience.
Let’s take a closer look at the elements of a Legacy Speech!

So, what is a Legacy Speech? It is an address that each eighth grader writes as a reflection on his or her life journey. We begin the speeches by doing preliminary thinking and writing about the four “pillars” of the speech. The Legacy Speech Pillars are:

  1. Life Cast List: The first pillar begins with this question: If you had to compose a cast list for your life, who would “make the cut,” and what has each person contributed to your story?
  2. Life Artifact: What object would you use to represent your life? Why?
  3. Deep Hope: Write a hope statement for yourself, your family, or your class as you leave middle school.
  4. Favorite Composition or Mentor Text: Eighth graders are asked to use their speeches as a “platform” for sharing part of a favorite composition they’ve written OR a favorite mentor text from this year with a larger audience. What difference has that piece made?

This year, to make the process as easy as possible for students, I shared my pillars on Google slides, and many of them chose to do their prewriting using Google slides as well. An example of one of my cast list slides is linked here.

After drafting their pillars using Google slides or docs, the students and I transitioned to rough drafting, and enjoyed a First Page Review Day when we had the opportunity to share our drafts with at least one other writer in our workshop. 

Every year, I write a new Legacy Speech beside my students rather than pulling the same speech out again and again. This keeps the process authentic for me and reinforces the sense of community in our classroom. An excerpt from my draft featuring some hopes for my current eighth graders is linked here. The end of the year is challenging, whether your students are eighth graders on the brink of high school, or seniors starting new chapters.  I’ve found that Legacy Speech’s offering of autonomy helps to keep students engaged in learning more than they would be  if I were mapping out every step of the adventure for them.

What’s next in our workshop? Students are presenting their speeches this week, and then they will conclude the year by sharing final portfolios. Eighth graders design portfolios consisting of FOUR favorite compositions from their year in workshop (plus their Legacy Speeches). Once again, they choose the pieces and write rationales reflecting what they learned from composing each piece.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing at the end of the year?

Friday Night Quickwrite 5/14

Welcome to Friday Night Quickwrite, a time to sit back, relax, and get a few words on the page. My orignal intention was to post this once a month. However, I received positve feedback from teacher-writers, and they enjoyed writing last weekend. They found that it was a good way to wind down from the week and take some time just for them.

So, here we go for week two.

This year I have been particpating in a Teacher Leader Bootcamp for Indiana teachers. Thursday was our wrap-up, and our former State Superintendent made a surprise visit. She talk about how important teacher leaders were right now and how as teacher leaders, “we never totally arrive.”

I took to my notebook to write about this quote. It lead me to begin thinking about my summer plans to grow as a teacher – I know I have not totally arrived!

What does this quote make you think about? Have you totally arrived as a teacher? As a parent? As a partner? Take a few minutes this weekend and jot in your notebook. Come back and let me know where this quote took you? I would love to have a conversation.

Leigh Anne is a mom to Megan, who is a third grade teacher and Ethan, who is a behavior coach for elementary children. She enjoys being a parent to “adult children” but knows she has not “totally arrived” in this area either.

Getting Uncomfortable and ‘Writing Beside Them’

When we were starting our Transcendentalist unit this year, we did a “nature walk” to try to get our students to experience some of the tenets of the concept. We were inspired by this teacher’s blog. My whole team took our students outside (and told online students to set a timer for about 15 minutes and sit outside as well). We left all electronics in the classroom and simply took in the nature outside of our school with all five of our senses. It wasn’t perfect since we were right by a traffic-filled main road and the students really wanted to talk instead of being quiet, but a lot of students got the hang of it by the end. One student reflected that they had not spent any quiet time outside to just take it in in years, if ever. Many were inspired to write like I am at the beach- more on that later.

The 2020-2021 school year has been one of tremendous growth for us all, whether we wanted to grow or not. I spent my year learning how to be even more flexible than ever before, becoming more clear on what is a priority and what can be left for later, and finding myself in a team leadership position when I was the only certified teacher present on my team for over two weeks. However, I do not feel I have grown in my teaching practice as much as I have in my character growth. For that reason, I am seeking situations to put myself in where I am uncomfortable to grow in that area; becoming a contributing writer on this blog is one of them. I am terrified!

Through my four years of teaching, I have mostly mastered the art of independent reading in class and using that to help students master/demonstrate mastery on most essential standards. I have become a pro at book talks and first chapter Fridays and reading conferences and recommending books. Now that I feel like I have my feet firmly planted underneath me with reading, it is time to become a better writing teacher. Writing is not usually a practice I partake in myself outside of school as I do reading. To be honest, it scares me! Will I have interesting things to say? Am I using a diverse enough vocabulary? Am I creative enough? I prefer my comfortable, familiar cocoon of reading, but I am forcing myself to Write Beside Them like Penny Kittle encourages. I will be re-reading that book over the summer as I make that the focus of my growth for the year.

Two people on the beach watching stars above the sea | Flickr

When thinking about improving the writing part of my teaching practice, I reflected on where I felt most inspired to write. Without a doubt, it is when I am in nature like my students above. My friends will tell you that I wax poetic and create all sorts of metaphors when we are at the beach. For example, there is nothing like staring up at a starry sky while laying in the cooling sand of the beach and hearing the salty water lapping up. The more you look up at the sky, the longer you take it all in, the more stars appear. It gets more beautiful, more bright the longer you take the time to look at it. That always stands as a metaphor for many things in life for me. When we slow down and just stay present, the more beauty we see. 

Taking both my experiences in nature and my students’ experiences, I have made a commitment to spend my summer outdoors with my notebook and pen in hand as much as possible to just be present and write as I feel led. How will you get uncomfortable this summer/next school year to grow?

Rebecca Riggs is a reluctant writer like many of her students, but she is working on it. She is in her 4th year of teaching at Klein Cain High School. She is looking forward to a summer of snoballs and walks at her favorite park. She is currently reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys and highly recommends it! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or on Instagram @riggsreaders

Shifting the Narrative

Before the pandemic, a friend and I decided to learn to play pickle ball. Since neither one of us is the athletic type, we knew we needed lessons from someone who was patient and supportive. So slowly Tom, our teacher, taught us how to serve — not that those serves always made it in the right court — and how to return that ball — not that we were able to do so consistently. But when the pandemic caused gyms to close down and outdoor courts to be locked and covered in yellow tape, our learning abruptly ended.

Just recently we returned to the game. That first day I was nervous. Would I remember how to serve? Keep my eye on the ball? Remember when to hit a ball into the “kitchen”? Was my former learning lost? Had I fallen behind? 

As you might guess, the first couple of serves were awful, but then both of us regained those skills that we had practiced. A good share of the time we could lob the ball into the right court and on occasion return the ball. We were back to where we left off except for remembering the rules.

No, we hadn’t fallen behind. 

No, we hadn’t lost our learning.

And what if I had fallen behind (but behind what? Who I was as a pickle ball player before the pandemic?) and what if I had lost some learning? Would that mean that I’d never learn to serve as well as I did when our lessons abruptly ended? Because I can’t recall how to score, does that mean I won’t be able to figure it out when I need it?

As you can probably guess, this brings me to the focus on students falling behind because of the crazy year and a half we’ve all lived through.  I want to holler out, “Stop! What exactly do we mean by loss? By falling behind?”  As Tom Shimmer asks in his podcast about the learning loss illusion: Who are students falling behind? Last year’s students? Those students in some mythological school somewhere in the world where everyone was on track? 

My fear is that the falling behind/learning loss narrative is harmful to our kids. Anytime we see them through the lens of their deficits and not through the lens of their potential, I worry. Remember the Pygmalion Effect that we studied in Ed. Psych 101 back in teacher-school?  That experiment that shined the light on the self-fulfilling prophecy?  As a refresher, teachers were told that one group of students were high fliers while another group were late bloomers. Even though there was no difference between the two groups, the high fliers outperformed the late bloomers: the self-fulfilling prophecy in action.

Might we be enacting that same prophecy if we thought of those students who walk through our doors as having fallen behind? As having lost a substantial amount of learning? What if, on the other hand, we went on a serious search of their strengths and figured out what they had learned last year? What if we focused on their potential? What if we committed to finding hidden gems in their work? 

After all, think about all that our students have learned during the last year and a half: how to navigate the cyberspace world of Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams; how to turn their cameras on and, yes, off even when it drives us batty; how to mute and unmute; how to hide backgrounds they don’t want others to see; how to welcome a teacher and their classmates into their homes; how to use the chat and jamboard; how to use platforms like FlipGrid or Kahoot.  Our students have navigated this virtual world matched only by what their teachers have learned. 

And that’s not counting the other things students have explored. In an interview with middle and high school students, I learned what these students had worked on during the pandemic:  baking bread, tying flies with Dad, training the family’s new puppy. Another student talked about Black Lives Matter. “I didn’t understand it so I read everything that I could find.”

But that’s not all that they learned. Some students shared the big lesson from the last year and a half:  responsibility. “I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. I had to figure it out and take responsibility for my learning.” In separate interviews several students talked about the pride they felt as a result of being serious about being responsible for their school work.

One student commented that she was grateful for the reprieve that the pandemic brought. Curious, I probed. “What do you mean?” She explained that the pressure to keep her grades up and to still be active in all of her extracurricular activities had become exceedingly stressful before the pandemic hit, and she just plain needed a break. Moving to online learning actually provided that break. She’s not unique. According to a New York Times article, students in high achievement cultures found the start of the pandemic provided a much needed break. The sad thing though is that the reprieve did not continue into this year. Instead depression and anxiety have once again soared. And what if these students faced that narrative of falling behind or of having lost important learning as they started the new school year? Would that narrative feed them? Would it serve them well? Sadly, we know the answer to these questions: no!

Now don’t take me as naive. I’m in classes and lots of them and see dark screens punctuated with cute icons representing the student but few actual student faces. I hear the silence as teachers work hard to get students to speak up, turn on their cameras, or participate in the chat. But one student cautioned me to be careful about misinterpreting that apparent lack of engagement: “Teachers think we’re not there. But we are. I just feel shy turning on my camera. In class, I might answer a teacher’s question, but it’s different talking to the computer or writing in the chat where my friends can see me. What if I’m wrong? What if I sound stupid?”

And, of course, there are those students who fake attention. While seeming to attend to what’s happening in their Google Classroom, they’re texting on their phones. But how is that different from students who fake engagement in the brick and mortar classroom?

My point is simple. What serves our students well? Viewing them through the deficit lens where we see them as defective? As falling behind? Or viewing them through the assets that they bring to class? To probe what they’ve learned in this whacky year and a half and to build from there? After all, isn’t that what teachers do? Find out where students are at this point in time, celebrate their potential, and design instruction that moves them closer and closer to their potential?

Stevi Quate is a lover of everything connected to literacy education. She is passionate about student engagement as can be seen in her books Clock Watchers and The Just Right Challenge, both co-written with John McDermott. When she isn’t immersed in education, she can be found on the pickle ball court, playing with her rowdy dogs, or figuring out what place in the world she wants to visit next.

The Hits Will Come

My 11-year-old son is a ball player. Baseball is in his blood. He loves everything about it–playing third base, staring down the pitcher at the plate, the camaraderie.

But game days are a different story.

Last week, Game One finally arrived. He woke up nervous, fearful of what was to come and already feeling the pressure. The pressure he puts on himself.

That first game was just like the others. The closer we got to the field, the quieter he became in the car. When we parked, he got out, grabbed his bag from the trunk, and hurried off to the dugout without a word to any of us. My husband and I were lucky to get a head nod. He was already inside his head, and he stayed there the entire game.

Now, I’ve seen my son practice. He is an impressive third baseman, and makes contact with the ball often. Last year, however, he had only one hit, and that was in his first game. After that, it was either a walk or strike out. His level swings I’d see at practice disappeared during the game. The more often this happened, the more he thought he was a failure. He saw his ability in all the games played, not the practice he did during the week. He didn’t see the growth and progress his coaches saw.

As we drove home from Game One in tense silence, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my student writers.

My students are all writers. Some, however, don’t believe it. They’ve heard, year after year, words like “struggling” or “weak” and they begin to think just that. By the time they get to my class in 9th or even 12th grade, it can takes months to change those negative thoughts.

Last September, they came into class nervous, fearful of what I would ask of them. The classroom was a playing field with an audience–a teacher–that could judge them.

To students, the first bit of writing they did felt no different from years past. As I walked the room, I watched hands cover papers and eyes look down. They were inside their heads, remembering times when their work was deemed subpar.

But with time, there were bits of progress. Writing volume began to increase on each page. More voices spoke up during sharing time. But when words like “essay” or “story” were mentioned, old memories returned. Blank screens stayed empty as minds whirled. That may have been due to previous years of seeing low grades, or red pen that focused more on what was wrong than right. With patience and persistence, we eventually all got started, for there is nothing without trying.

This past Sunday was Game Two. My son was ready again, for he loves the sport and aims to keep trying. Not only did he connect with the ball, but he did so multiple times. He made a double-play at second base and helped get another out at first. He earned a game ball, but, more importantly, he saw his own hard work pay off. He made progress.

We must show our students that, with time and practice, they can do the same.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is almost finished with her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

What do Grades Measure?

As the sun sets on my ninth year of teaching high school seniors, I still find myself simultaneously surprised and nonplussed when class ranks are published. Some of my students who are the most well-rounded, analytical and creative, and who truly show mastery of content are lower on the GPA-ranked list than I would have imagined, while others who have not exhibited these traits as much but who consistently turn in work on time are ranked higher. Of course, following directions, completing assignments thoroughly and accurately, and meeting deadlines are important skills that they’ll need throughout their lives. However, I spend a lot of time thinking about those skills despite their absence in our TEKS (Texas’ standards).

Grades have become an increasingly poor indicator of a student’s actual understanding due to a host of factors – all of which have been influenced by Covid-19. At some point, we must ask ourselves: are we grading according to a scale of mastery, or are we grading a set of behaviors?

When students practice skills, it makes sense to collect their work and assess their progress in order to inform instruction. It also makes sense to offer summative assessments at a specific point when students should be ready to show mastery of those skills. However, at some point along the way, the focus shifted from informal and formal assessment of growth and teaching efficacy to grades. Of course, even those teachers who would go gradeless if they could are often held to a district standard of grading. Most districts require a set number of formative and summative assessment grades. Like it or not, colleges still look at those GPAs to assess student performance, so the grades matter here, too. However, this has led to grade inflation and kids focusing on their grades much more than on the feedback they receive, their growth, or their opportunities for improvement. Many look at that grade number, and then they’re done.

In high school, it is not uncommon the hear teachers say that we need to prepare students for the deadlines they’ll face “in the real world.” Thus, late work is either not accepted, or it incurs a penalty up to as much as 40 points for the first day. While it’s true that we have a responsibility to prepare students for life after school, we must rethink what that looks like and ask ourselves if our old patterns of behavior still work. For example, we know when our grades are due, but teachers have some freedom before those deadlines. We can enter our grades days before they’re due, or we can enter them just before the deadline. So while, yes, deadlines matter, we need to think about which deadlines can be shifted. We know that students learn at different paces. I know that many of my virtual students work full-time and/or take care of younger siblings. Do I really need to make assignments due on a specific day of the week and penalize anyone who completes it a bit later? It’s just something to think about.

This year, I have tried being more flexible with due dates, and I have deducted many fewer points for late-work. I reiterate to my students that I am far more concerned with their learning than with the grades, and I want them to retain what they learn from my course rather than rush through assignments and lessons or skip them altogether. Is this realistic for the adult workforce? Perhaps not entirely. But I am confident that I have supported them as they learn those skills in the TEKS and that they completed far more of the learning than they would have done if I stuck to my previous, more rigid grading policy.

I would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on grading? What are your thoughts on late work?

a small section of my current gradebook

Amber Counts is writing again after a Covid-induced dry spell. She never understood ennui until this year. She mourned the loss of working with her students in-person but has adapted, like humans (and especially teachers) do, and has learned some cool new strategies that she’ll use even when her students are in her classroom once again.

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