Friday, September 26, 2014

Understanding is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Why can't skill-based grades reveal achievement in an understanding-based subject?

This is the question I wish I'd been asking five years ago as I was making my first grading scale.  Over my teaching career, I've graded on such categories as writing, presentations, projects, participation, tests and general homework.  These are all important things to assess... the problem is, they are all primarily skill-based.  A good writer can occasionally mask a lack of understanding through their organization and eloquence--I speak from experience here--and even if is clear that they do not really understand, their high marks in the technical aspects of writing will offset weak understanding to at least some extent.  The same goes for eloquent speakers, artistic project-designers, and savvy test-takers.  On the flip side, students who may understand perfectly, but struggle with the skill-set necessary to complete the assessment are unlikely to be accurately represented either.  I was confronted with the fact that none of these categories purely get at what a student understands; not really.

This year, I decided to include Understanding as a category in my Humanities grade-book all on its own.  Each unit has between three and five enduring understandings: big takeaways based on the departmental objectives.

There will be at least one official assessment for each understanding, often two.  For example, in this first unit on "Conquest, Colonists and a City on a Hill", one of the enduring understandings revolved around the reciprocal relationship between trade and demand.  Demand leads to the establishment of trading relationships, which in turn lead to new and higher demands.  The first assessment on this was a test.  Most of the test consisted of different economic scenarios for the students to respond to.  When I graded the test, I entered the scores under the "Trade & Demands" heading of the "Understanding" category in my grade-book.
The second assessment required the students to select a contemporary nation and conduct basic research into the top imports, exports, and GDP, as well as the relationship between the nation's economy and culture/lifestyle.  I explained to the students that while everybody needed to complete the contemporary economics posting for a completion credit, they could opt to have me evaluate their posting more deeply if they felt it to be a better representation of their understanding of economics than the test revealed.  I told them that if they scored higher on the economics posting, I would replace their test score with the posting score.  Several students took me up on this offer right away and did a beautiful job of researching and sharing about the economies of such varied nations as India, Qatar, Russia, Hong Kong, Argentina and Japan.
We wrapped up our unit today with a journal reflection, in which I asked the students to respond to the big questions we'd covered over the past month.  This was another opportunity for the students to demonstrate their understanding--I told the students that I'd only assign a specific grade to their journal if they felt it was a better representation of their understanding than anything earlier in the unit.
Finally, I informed the students that if they were dissatisfied with any of their "Understanding" scores, they could schedule a time to meet and conference with me: either to discuss a better way to demonstrate their understanding, or to actually demonstrate to me verbally that they understand what I hoped they would.

I want to give as many chances as the students need to reveal their understanding, because I, myself, understand something now that I did not understand five years ago: understanding is not a zero-sum game.  If they don't "get" a concept on the test at the start of the year, I shouldn't etch that into the grade-book in stone; rather I should mark it in with pencil, with the hope and expectation that the student will correct their misunderstanding and come back to me later, ready to show that they've studied, thought, and grown in their understanding.  My desire is to see the students grow and gain understanding, and I want the grades to reflect this rather than reflect the errors that accompanied the earliest trials.  After all, understanding can be won.  Sometimes the battle is fierce and exhausting, but even a loss does not mean that the war is over.

I've already seen positive responses to my new system and I am looking forward to watching this play out over the course of the entire year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking Writing Down

It is that time of year again.  This week, the thermometer finally settled at a livable temperature, crispy yellow leaves began to fall from the cherry trees in our school plaza, parents gathered for our annual "Back-to-School Day", and the 11th graders set to work on their first major essay of the year.

In the past, I viewed essays as a largely independent endeavor: naturally, the students should be responsible for starting and making progress on their own time!  If I were merely teaching content, this might be true.  However, as I considered the skills I would be assessing this time (in particular, thesis and direction), I realized that I needed to give the students ample opportunity to practice.  After all, most of the students had not written a thesis statement, or an essay, for that matter, since their major 10th Grade "Who Am I" paper in the Spring.  What's more, students new to CAJ might never have written a thesis statement before, in which case this opportunity to learn is crucial!

With this in mind, I had my students engage in a thesis writing exercise in the 2nd week of school, following our discussion of labels, and how stories help us move beyond such assumptions.  Using an intuitive journalling tool on Moodle (the program we use for online classes), I had the students choose a prompt and write only an introductory paragraph, including a thesis.  Making my life easier, this particular Moodle function has a box for feedback under each student's submission.  I spent an hour reading through and commenting on each student's introduction.

Fast-forward to this week.  The rough draft of the first essay is due next week and remembering the panicked questions and emails that I would typically receive the day before an essay was due in past years, I decided to make use of the Moodle journal tool yet again.

Yesterday, I had my students write the introductory paragraph to their unit essay.  I found myself giving higher-level feedback than I had the first time around, and seeing (overall) a trend of improvement. For example, rather than finding myself needing to remind the students what a thesis was countless times (as has happened in previous years), I gave suggestions for how to make the main points develop more logically, or how to rephrase an idea to make it stronger.  Today, I asked the students to use their thesis to write up a brief outline of their body paragraphs, and to begin filling in possible support for each point.  While each student ended in a slightly different place, I no longer have to deal with the sneaking fear that students are putting off work for a big assignment in my class, as I put off work for so many of my own teachers' classes when I was in school.

For the first time ever, I caught myself thinking, "If only I'd had a teacher like me when I was in school!"  I mean this to be neither arrogant on my own part nor unduly disparaging to the English teachers I did have.  I just don't have any recollection that any of my English teachers ever walked us through writing as a process.  I'd find out only upon receiving a final grade that my thesis was either poor or completely absent, as though I should have been magically able to conjure up something I hadn't received direct, timely feedback on.  I cannot judge my teachers too harshly for this; after all, I failed to provide this kind of feedback to several years' worth of my own students.  On Tuesday, I will have my students workshop one of their body paragraphs in class, and then the essay itself is due on Wednesday.  I am excited--if these rough draft essays are the product of feedback and several days of effort, they will be leagues ahead of the rough draft essays I have received in the past, many of which were the product of a frenzied last-minute rush and quite likely a lot of caffeine.  I will have a clearer picture of what my students learned; what they are capable of; and what I can challenge them to work on for the final draft.

Grading is usually one of my least favorite parts of teaching, but this time, I genuinely cannot wait to sit down and read what the students come up with!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Teaching With Integrity... again

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-June, I slumped in the chair by my desk in my newly-empty classroom, exhausted and a bit discouraged.  I sorted through my thoughts in a blog-post in which I concluded that over the course of three years, I'd drifted from my true self in my teaching.  This summer, as I studied and applied various other crucial aspects of teaching to my curriculum design, I aslo mulled over what I could do to teach with integrity.

On the first day of class, I delivered an "inaugural address" to my students in which I promised I would give them my very best, if I was going to be asking them to give their very best.  I vowed that I would sing, tell stories, give speeches, do voices, play characters, and write, all in the name of teaching.  Of course, these things require both risk and effort, so in essence, I was vowing to pour myself into my teaching at every turn.  I told the students that they were my witnesses to this vow and issued them an invitation and a challenge to join me on the risky, joyful path of integrity.

Three weeks in, I now look back and reflect on how I am doing thus far:

Singing: I sang "Colors of the Wind" to illustrate the theme of the "Noble Savage"--completely a-capella, the whole darn thing.  I got thunderous applause and cheers both times, though I'm not sure if they were clapping for my performance or because the song had finally ended ;)  Either way, it was a show-stopper, man.

Story-telling: I tell stories often--probably daily--but likely the highlight was telling the story of one of my own teachers from high school, who responded to a student miss the garbage can by dumping the entire trash can onto the middle of the floor.  I used this story to teach how to use movement, gestures and tone to bring a scene to life while telling a story.

Giving speeches: Obviously, I opened the year with the inaugural address I mentioned earlier, but I also delivered a 5-minute speech on becoming people of justice, which is our major course theme.

Doing voices: This happens almost every day, but just yesterday as my students were divided into three groups researching the different regions of the colonies, I tried my best to talk to them in the accents from their respective regions.  My Georgia accent was the best.

Playing characters: After the students had finished their research on the colonial region they'd been assigned to, I asked them to represent their colony at a convention during the next class period.  I found a cardboard crown and a robe in my classroom closet and put on a pompous, affected accent to play the role of a generic King of England.  I then personally interrogated each group in character regarding the society, economy and challenges within their respective colonies.  This morning, I wore a long coat and played the role of a Puritan school-teacher as my English 11 students spent a class period in a Puritan school-house, studying the Puritan Primer, Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop.  I did my very best Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape impersonation to make the dour severity of this role come alive.

Writing: Aside from attempting to blog with greater regularity, I've also written along with the students several times.  When I assigned them to write a one-sided dialogue poem addressing stereotypes, I did so, too, with my computer hooked up to the projector so they could see me wrestle with the writing process.  This week, as we took a class period to work-shop introductory paragraph/thesis statement-writing, I wrote an introductory paragraph of my own (even walking away from my computer to manually mark up my writing, which was projected onto the white-board).

All in all, it's been a wonderful start to the year.  I'm putting a lot more work into my teaching than I can ever remember investing in the past, but the pay-off is incalculable.  I have a genuine sense of joy in each class I teach, and the students are responding very well to what I am doing.  Though the extra time I spend in preparation has come at the expense of activities that had been important to me in the past, the sacrifice has been completely worthwhile.  I recognize that these gifts are not native to me, but have been entrusted to me by God.  To not use them would be poor stewardship on my part.

For the first-time, I feel like my teaching matches where I am in life.  I am truly happy with the work I am doing, and will continue to strive to teach with integrity to who I am.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Community Through Story, Part II

The students closed this school-week by sharing their own stories in class on Thursday and Friday.  I'd intentionally made the prompt somewhat vague: the kids simply needed to relate one or several watershed moments in their lives that brought them to where they are today (whether that be an explanation of how they came to CAJ in a geographical sense, or talking about events that shaped them into the people they are).
What an incredible variety of stories we heard!  We listened to stories about moving across the country, we listened to stories about moving across the world.  We listened to stories about struggles fitting in, we listened to stories about the power of friendship.  We listened to stories about speech impediments, learning disabilities, torn ACLs, and the sting of not making Varsity basketball.  We heard stories that made us laugh and stories that made us cry.  Nobody was tuned out; nobody was sleeping; nobody was furtively working on something else.  Everyone was riveted.
We started school only ten days ago, but 1st period English 11 and 3rd-4th period Humanities 11 no longer feel like new and unfamiliar groups chaotically clustered by dint of fate and scheduling.  Instead, these groups have become communities.  When we hear another person's story, a piece of their experience becomes part of our story.  When we laugh with someone, we are invited into the joke.  When we cry with someone, their hurts become ours.  It can be terrifying to be so vulnerable, but the result is a connection nourished by empathy.
My students' newfound appreciation of their class community will be tested next week as we gain two new students, and another new student returns after nearly two weeks away.  Will my students apply what they've learned?  Will they seek out and listen to the stories of these new classmates?  Will they make the space for these students to tell their stories?

Perhaps not everyone will, but I am confident that many will.  I saw inclusion happening around me today after my classes were over: an invitation for a new student to sit with the Junior group in Study Hall; an ever-so-slight shuffling of seats in the cafeteria; conversations between classmates who usually do not talk to each other.  I am satisfied with how this year has started, and I firmly believe I've found my stride as a teacher after several years of trial and what sometimes felt like lots of error.  As I finish this blog-post at Tully's on Friday evening, I am exhausted on many levels and my eyelids are heavy.  I will cherish a weekend of rest at home with my wife.  Yet, I'm also excited to dive into the next week of school.  It's wonderful to look forward to each day!