Tuesday, April 30, 2013

If I Don't Grade It, The Students Won't Do It!

Three years ago as I began my crude implementation of standards based grading, I made the decision to NEVER say, "this is for a grade..."  I put the dots because there is a plethora of continuing statements that are inevitably attached to those 5 words depending on the situation.  I would love to say that I have completely eradicated that statement.  Unfortunately for my students sake, that has not happened.  In fact, I caught myself saying it last week as I introduced an end of the year project my students will be completing.  "I caught myself" is an important statement.  When I started this quest I began by building an awareness of how often I "threatened" my students by saying it.  I see the statement as a threat where others might see it as "motivation".  I was shocked by how often the words would come out of my mouth.  Slowly, it has been three years, it rarely rears it's ugly head and when it does (LAST WEEK) I get a sick feeling in my stomach and the students give me perplexed looks as if to say, "Really?"

 I have worked hard to remove the "threat" of grades for my math courses in two ways:
  •  Not punishing students for what they do not know (by grading and putting scores on quizzes and homework and classwork into my grade book) 
  • Working to provide feedback on levels of achievement on individual essential standards rather than one overall grade
Most weeks, I have a quiz that enables me to see where students are in their proof and understanding of our essential math standards.  I get a picture of where each student is and they get feedback on their strengths and struggles.  This process has evolved into a non-threatening, non-cheating experience which the students know provides vital information to all involved.  Non-threatening because students look forward to the feedback they gain and they willingly write in big letters: "I don't understand this" on their quizzes knowing they will not be punished, but instead helped, encouraged, and expected to understand.  I love how the non-threatening environment has created a non-cheating environment.  The students know that I need to have a complete picture of what they understand and that if they copy from their neighbor during an assessment, I will not get that picture and they may not get help.  I find myself saying, "I need to know what you know and what you don't know, so I can help you!"

This school year one of my math periods is an "enrichment" class that is ungraded, filled with struggling students, and has a three week rotation (the logistics of the program are detailed and will not be addressed in this post).  Every three weeks, I get a new batch of students from all the math teachers on campus needing specific "enrichment" (remediation) on specific essential math standards.  This class is un-graded and has surprised me.  In anticipation of this class I thought it was going to be extremely difficult to motivate struggling students grouped together.  It has become the best part of my school day!  There are so many cool things about this class but I want to focus on the environment that exists because of it's non-gradedness.

  • The students enter the room with a sigh of relief rather than anxiety, they can relax knowing it is a place to make mistakes, get help and learn from them.
  • The students are focused on improving their understanding of the math standards without the threat of punishment for lack of performance.
  • The students received meaningful feedback on their understanding which motivated them to continue their quest for understanding.
  • We have built relationships that go beyond the classroom - most of the students are not in my math classes, yet these students go out of their way to speak to me when I see them on campus, they even come to me after school to serve their detentions.
  • I am still their teacher, not their friend but by concentrating on establishing a safe trusting environment, the students are learning and improving their math understanding
  • I need to figure out a way to use this information with other teachers to help them understand and consider how to change the learning environment in their classes.

I have been thinking about the"If I don't grade it, the students won't do it!" statement often lately.  Every time I hear an educator use this argument, it makes me cringe.  The snarky remark I would love to say is, "If a grade is the only motivation for a student to complete your assignment, then it is a crappy assignment."  As an educator who is working through the implementation of standards based grading, I want to bring more teachers on board not drive them away and have them thinking I've lost my mind.

The statement expresses resistance as educators struggle with evolving grading practices shared by such experts as Rick Wormeli, Robert Marzano, Richard Stiggins, Thomas Guskey, and many others.  I completely understand where the resistance is coming from.  In my school district we have created common assessments based on essential learning standards for all of our "core" classes - language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.  This summer I am going to use my experiences to create some baby steps for implementation of standards based grading (sbg) and guide teachers as they consider the shift from grading as "motivation" to grading as "feedback" starting with this great blog post: Assessments: The Collateral Damage of SBG by Daniel Schneider a very insightful and reflective SECOND year teacher.  I will also use my "classroom experts" who are working on sbg implementation everyday and sharing on twitter: #sbar #sbgchat
Thanks to all for your support and inspiration!

I would LOVE any feedback, advice, help, ideas, anything you can share!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tater's Spring Break Re-Takes and Re-Dos

This past week my 7 year old son and I have been on spring break.  On Wednesday 3/27 the #sbgchat discussed redos and re-takes.  Here is the Storify archive of the chat which I had to read because I was driving home from a day of skiing with my family.  My teaching life requires me to think about redos and re-takes everyday as I try to effectively implement standards based grading.  This week while at home with my son, I witnessed some real-life redos and re-takes I'd like to share here.   Watching Tater  reminded me that I am only scratching the surface with redo and re-takes in my classroom.  This post will serve as a reminder to me that I need to keep revising my process for the sake of my students.

Tater the Spy

One morning as I was working on a project for my math students (will be shared on my classroom blog), my son and his buddy were pretending to be spies.  Tater is a bit obsessed with James Bond at this time (yes, he is only 7 and yes, we watch James Bond movies with him - shame on me!).  Anyway, Tater and his buddy were trying to sneak up on me and surprise/SCARE me as I worked on my computer.  It was great because the first time they barely made it down the stairs before I heard them.  At that time I had no idea what they were doing until they informed me that they were spies trying to sneak up on me.  Upon hearing this I told them they needed a "redo" and sent them back upstairs to try again.  On their second try they got closer before I heard them.  Once I "caught" them, I complimented them on getting closer and then gave them another redo.  Tater stated that he wanted me to pretend I did not hear them so that they could sneak up on me.  I informed him that if he wants to be a spy, then he has to learn to sneak up on me using stealth - no sound, banging, or bringing attention to.  They continued to practice and each time they got closer and closer experimenting, revising, and problem-solving.  They were not punished for having to try multiple times.  I did not tell them they had only one attempt and then they were done.  Although they became frustrated during the process, they never gave up and found it fun to keep trying.

I immediately put myself into my classroom and the learning process my students go through to prove their understanding.  Why is it I can patiently guide my son through the revision/re-take process, yet  I struggle with my students.  I find it interesting that my students also would like me to pretend that they know something, similar to Tater's request for me to "pretend" I couldn't hear him.  In my classroom I drift in and out of "old school" and "new school".  When I am in "new school" mode I am embracing the standards based research and listening to the incredible educators in my professional learning network.  I am patient with the students, I encourage them to try again and give them hints and instruction that will help them revise their thinking and understanding.  I differentiate between silly mistakes and true misconceptions to help each individual student.  I push and do not give them an option to quit.  I work hard to stay in this mode, but every once in a while I revert back to "old school" mode.  My regressions are due to peer pressure from my colleagues, parents, and students who don't want to work hard to prove their understanding.  Those of you trying to implement standards based grading know how challenging it is for every stake holder involved.

Tater the Skier

I think I mentioned that my son is seven.  He has taken two full days of lessons and has a nice foundation of the skiing fundamentals.  During spring break we took our first family ski trip.  The night before we left, Tater was anxious about riding the chair lift and even got a bit teary.  Skip and I assured him that we would not put him into any situation that he would not be able to handle and that we would be there to support and help him.  All went well with the first chair lift ride.  We took Tater on beginner runs which were easy for him, however, he did not need to turn to get down the hill.  After lunch Skip and I decided that for Tater to learn how to turn, we needed to challenge him a bit, sort of force the issue.  We took him to an intermediate run which pushed Tater to the edge.  At the top of the run, Tater completely melted down and threw a fit.  He gave up, quit and according to him was not going to ski down the hill.  Unfortunately for him, I was not going to be hiking back up to the top so we could ski down the beginner hill, so we were at an impasse.  Skip and I let Tater throw his fit which took about 10 minutes.  We calmly waited and when he was calm enough to listen we explained the situation to him.  He was going to have to figure out how to get down this run by making turns and we would be guiding him the entire way.  Skip was downhill from Tater guiding his turns.  I was uphill ready to pick up skis and poles as they dispersed when he fell.  I yelled "pizza turn" (the new terminology replacing "snow plow") when it was time to turn.  It was extremely painful at the beginning with lots of tears and declarations of quitting from both Tater and Skip.  I told both of my boys that quitting was not an option, we were going to get down this hill and if we all worked together we would be successful.  Tater's turned improved each time.  As we made our way down the hill, we glanced up and saw the ground we had just covered.   When Tater looked up and saw what he had skied down it gave him confidence and the will to continue.  In the moment, it was a struggle and at times extremely unpleasant, however when we got to the bottom the three of us collectively felt a sense of accomplishment.  On the chair ride up we complimented Tater on  his effort and perseverance and we continued to point out the steepness of the hill he had just skied down.  The rest of the day, Tater had no problems making turns.  That hill we took him down was all about re-dos and re-takes.  Every turn he made was a re-do/re-take and it taught him how to turn his skies.  We had to challenge him on this hill because he would not turn on the easier hills.

This experience translates to my classroom in many ways.  Again, it interesting that I found the strength to push my son yet I sometimes have a hard time pushing my students.  I have learned a lot about "cognitive dissonance", that place where learners are extremely uncomfortable and struggle.  Our educational system does not allow for students to spend time in this place, we are to rescue them and make them comfortable.  I purposely put my son into a situation where he was uncomfortable and struggling and he learned - he was kicking and screaming, but he learned.  Because of the "pacing guide" I am forced to follow, I cannot put my students into this state often enough, nor do I know how to do it properly in an educational setting.  I feel I am doing a disservice to my students by not allowing them to have this experience of discomfort while learning mathematics.  I need to explore how I can create these experiences with the confidence I had with my son as he tackled skiing.