Saturday, December 17, 2011

Update: What Grades Mean in My Classroom

Last week I posted my beliefs about what grades mean in my classroom.  On Monday I made my beliefs public to the math department at my school.  As I shared each belief and explained how I was implementing it in my math classroom I was flooded with so many feelings.

My first feeling was fear.  Although I have been at my current school for 8 years and have a wonderful rapport with my fellow teachers, the grading debate in our school is a hot topic with many sides and emotions embedded.  I was fearful that after sharing my beliefs I would lose respect from my colleagues.  As I began to share my beliefs, the seven other math teachers listened intently and respectfully and the fear quickly turned to relief. 

The feeling of relief was a result of letting my colleagues in on what is going on in my classroom as far as implementing standards based grading.  I have been breaking agreements that our department made about grades and although my administrators were well aware of what I was doing I still felt like I was cheating and lying.  Part of the reason I had decided to "come clean" with my department was a result of parent comments to my fellow math teachers which caused them to wonder about what was going on in my classroom.  I was relieved to get my grading policy off my chest by sharing my beliefs.  I was also relieved at the response, my colleagues listened intently and we began a meaningful discussion about grading.  

The next feeling I felt was appreciation.  As we discussed and questioned, I realized we are all in very different places in our beliefs about grading.  However, as a department, we could appreciate where each individual was on the continuum of what grading meant in their classroom.  An example was a comment a fellow math teacher made to a parent about my grading based on standards and her grading based on completion.  Knowing that she is okay with where I am and also okay with where she is allows for appreciation.  It is also the foundation for the next step of moving more teachers towards standards based grading.

Again I am going to mention the  ASCD Article by Susan Brookhart.  She states,

"All opinions need to be heard, and people's right to hold them should be affirmed.  Educators will be much more receptive to new ideas - even those that challenge their own opinions - that come from colleagues who understand where they stand and why."

This is so key in the grading discussion!

The final feeling I am experiencing is acceptance.  The standards based grading conversation is so tough.  I admire my administrators for taking it on.  I accept the fact that it is a journey and it will be a long one.  I realize that as a staff we need to take baby steps.  As someone who is fully vested in helping facilitate the change, I need to be patient, listen to concerns and share resources.  I need to accept the fact that I am still learning and stumbling in my implementation and that I need to seek out help and advice.

For those of you working to implement standards based grading, JUMP and share with your colleagues.  Get a copy of the November issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership on Effective Grading Polices.

Stay the Course!  As difficult as it is to work to implement standards based grading, it has completely changed the conversations and attitudes and learning in my classroom.

I'll keep you updated with our ongoing conversations and the struggles I encounter as I learn to implement standards based grading.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What is the Purpose of Grades in my Classroom?

My first semester of the new school year will be over in eight days.  I have whole heartedly began my journey into using standards based grading this year.  At the halfway point, I want to share some beliefs, insights, and struggles that I have acquired the past few months.

First, I want to begin with my beliefs on the purpose of grades in my classroom:

  • I believe that grades are about what students learn not what they earn ASCD Article by Susan Brookhart
  • I believe grades do not motivate or provide incentives for students to do well
  • I believe one single grade given on a test with multiple learning standards is not an accurate measure of student knowledge and understanding.
  • I believe that students should not be punished for taking longer to learn essential skills or standards
  • I believe the students should be asking: "What does advanced look like on this standard?"
  • I believe students should get credit for showing thinking and understanding in any way that makes sense to them as long as they can explain their thinking and procedures
  • I believe students should get full credit even if they did not learn the standard "on time" 
  • I believe that Summative Assessments are also Formative because the students know anything they do not score proficient on, they still have to show proof of understanding.
  • I believe any work I assign to my students must be tied to a standard
How has my classroom environment changed based on my beliefs?
  • My classroom atmosphere encourages thinking and problem solving rather than rule following because students have to understand the process they are using to solve math problems
  • Students work and persevere on problems rather than giving up and waiting  for a fellow classmate or the teacher to give them the answer (#1 rule in my classroom - no one will give an answer, we agree to ask questions to guide thinking and learning).
  • The students know that proof of understanding requires deeper knowledge and the ability to explain their process/thinking.  So when they don't understand something, they tell me rather than hiding it
  • They do more work to show their understanding
  • My students know their strengths and weaknesses and  find relief in the fact that I will work with them to improve and show understanding

I feel like I am in my infancy in the standards based grading journey.  I am experimenting with grade book formats and a variety of resistance from my colleagues, parents, and the students who have become comfortable taking the F.  At this point I feel as though I have made a break through with the kiddos that are used to taking the F.  They have learned that failing is not an option and that they have to prove understanding.  I also love the conversations that occur around standards based grading:

"how is advanced different from proficient on this standard"
"what do I need to do to prove understanding of this standard"
"I don't understand this concept/standard"

I am struggling in a few areas:

  • providing timely feedback often is challenging
  • my grade book and how it informs students and parents
  • strong resistance from my colleagues (hence this post to share with them)
  • training middle school students who are entrenched in the "old way" of grading to work to prove understanding
What I know for sure:
  • my classes have changed for the better of all students
  • I have so much work and growth in this area
  • I will use my Twitter PLN and especially #sbar for resources, support and learning
I can't believe my school year is almost half over... YIKES!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Is My Classroom So Loud?:

The other day in the staff room during lunch I mentioned how chatty one of my students is during class.  His other three core teachers (science, social science, and language arts) all looked at me in shock. Are you kidding, that kid does not say a word in my class.  I was just as shocked at their response because he is a confident, and vocal member of my second period Algebra 1 class.  Now you are thinking he is a math geek if he is in 8th grade Algebra 1.  Not so fast, he is in my Algebra 1 support class that is 2 periods.  He is an at risk Algebra 1 student so he gets an extra period of support to make sure he is successful.  My colleagues comments gave me pause as I contemplated the atmosphere in my classroom, why are my students so loud and talkative in my classes?

While contemplating if the level of conversation in my classroom, I started observing my students to acquire insight as to what is going on and this is what I discovered:

  • I have worked hard to create a safe environment for my students and when they walk into our classroom  I sense a sigh of relief.  The students are not afraid of making mistakes, of being wrong, of not knowing.  So, when they enter, they want to tell me things about their day, what is going on in their lives and they are relaxed and relieved to be in our classroom.
  • They see me being myself (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and that is a model and invitation for them to do the same.  I want to know my kiddos and they have to feel comfortable and trust me.  We laugh at my weaknesses and celebrate my strengths which in turn allows them to do the same with each other.
  • I am implementing standards based grading (I am at the infancy level) which has given students a confidence level I have not seen in my 20 years of teaching.  They understand that they have to prove knowledge of standards and instead of asking what to do to get an A, they ask "what do I need to do to show advanced or proficient on a standard?"  What an incredible shift in conversation in the classroom!
  • The students are persevering on problems that they would have given up on and proudly stating: "I did it the long way because that is what made sense for me."  
  • The students freely admit, "I don't know what to do or understand what is going on", knowing that I will not tell them the answer, but will ask guiding questions to help them make meaning and build their understanding.  I love when a student comes to me and says: "I know you will not tell me anything, but could you ask me some questions to help me move forward?"
So, as I contemplate the loudness of my classroom, instead of thinking that I am failing at discipline, I need to look at the reasons for the increased level of conversation.  The students are comfortable, relaxed, and confident.  Isn't that what any teacher would want happening in their classroom?