Are we giving good feedback?

I think the title presents a clear question.  I’ve been reading a lot of student writing and drafting lately and providing feedback.  Feedback is one of the elements on our evaluation rubric.  We expect feedback from our school leaders regarding our teaching performance.  Feedback is one of those terms we throw around so much that I’m not so sure we are all using the same definition.

One of my favorite places to turn for educational readings is Grant Wiggins’ blog, and one of my favorite posts of his regards feedback: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/what-feedback-is-and-isnt/

in this article he begins by asking which of these 4 examples is actual feedback:

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

2. “Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

3. “The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

4. “You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

And then promptly points out that none of the 4 is feedback.  This has always stood out to me because I think we often believe we are providing feedback when in reality we are not.  Feedback should indicate to a student where he stands in relation to a goal.  While praise and advice are both worthwhile things in their own right, neither of them is true feedback.  I worry that we are so hung up on providing feedback that we don’t actually focus on whether or not we are providing good feedback.  I would bet in most schools, leaders would view advice as feedback, so teachers provide lots of advice.

The moments that always stand out to me regarding feedback are from my public speaking classes.  In Public Speaking students are required to deliver a sales pitch.  shortly thereafter, I always ask the class who was actually convinced to purchase a product based on the sales pitch.  That is the clearest feedback these students can get regarding the effectiveness of their speech.  If the intended goal is to sell something and people are buying it or not buying, you have all sorts of useful information to determine how well you did.  This is much stronger feedback than anything I could write or say about the speech after the fact.

Feedback is, perhaps surprisingly, a tricky piece of the educational lexicon.  Perhaps it is worth analyzing our own feedback to determine if we are giving good feedback or not.

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Stop saying a C is “average”

Today is a day of grading for me.  All of my classes today are taking assessments which affords me the opportunity to get a lot of grading done.  In fact, I have one set of essays down for the day!  Of course, since they are assessing I’ll be grading more in the future.  I, like most teachers, grade A LOT.  We talk about grades and assessments all the time in schools among teachers and with students.  Like it or not, grades are a tremendously influential piece of the educational system for us.  And as we talk about grades, I constantly hear teachers saying that C is “average.”  It is well past time to change that mindset.  We need to stop saying that to ourselves, among our colleagues and to our students.

I teach upper level students who are used to getting good grades.  In fact many of them are upset at even getting a B.  A C is unfathomable to many, if not most, of them.  I am constantly trying to get them to stop worrying so much about their grades and recognize that the B on their essay is not a bad grade.  It is an uphill battle, but I am very conscientious to make sure that I don’t tell them that a B is “Above average” because that solidifies the idea that C is average.

You see, a C is not the average anymore. I just did some data checking of my grades-and remember I have a reputation for being a hard grader-and both the mean and mode in almost all my classes for the last few years is a B.  And I am willing to bet the same is true for most teachers.  The stereotypical bell curve no longer peaks at a C; the peak is at a B.  There is an argument to be made about grade inflation here, sure, but a C isn’t average anymore.

Secondly, society’s attitude towards grades have changed.  A C was once acceptable for many.  Now it’s not; and it’s not because of this shift.  Ask just about any parent (and there is research available for this): B’s are OK; C’s are not.

Finally, the term average doesn’t belong in our grading vocabulary if we want to call ourselves standards based.  Average is, by definition, a term to be used in a norm referenced model.  Average is about comparing one student to the rest of the class.  If we are attempting to grade based on level of proficiency towards a standard, then average is irrelevant.

Let’s shift our mindset and our vocabulary.  A C isn’t average.

What does “exceeds standard” means

Grades are one area of education that has always intrigued me.  I’ve always felt that grades were about much more than just what a student knows or is able to do.  The latest research in education continues to confirm this.  But even with the push into standards based grading, there is room for a great deal of inaccuracies and subjectivity, and grades are still, at least partially, related to how well the student can “play school.”

I preface this all by saying I am a strong supporter of standards based grading; I believe it is more accurate by far and a better means of communication to the student.  I also strongly believe that grading is not something that can be changed quickly and overnight.  Ideas about grades are simply too deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.  That being said, I come to today’s post from two distinctly different pieces of information.  One is a grading directive here at my school with which I vehemently disagree; the other is an article I read about a school in Maryland reverting back to an A-F scale from what they call “standards based.”  (I question their use of the term standards based here).

In short I am bothered by how we are defining (or not defining) the highest grade.  In the Maryland school district it was called “ES” for “Exceptional.”   (Why ES is beyond me).  In my school a 4 is our top grade and is defined as “exceeding expectations.”  In some way many schools are defining their top grade as such.  But what does exceeding expectations mean?  If meeting our expectations isn’t the top grade, shouldn’t we change what our expectations are?

And there are some standards that are impossible to exceed.  I like Tom Guskey’s analogy about archery.  If the standard is to hit the target from 20 feet, that cannot be exceed.  Moving the archer further away is changing the standard all told.

What makes it even worse is when we can’t even define exceeding expectations on our rubrics.  How am I, as a teacher, supposed to accurately grade a student when the best definition I can give for a grade is, “I’ll know it when I see it”?

“Exceeding expectations” or anything similar is a nonsense term that should be removed from our educational lexicon.

Don’t waste the first few weeks

Here I am sitting on the couch at 5:40 on a Sunday morning.  For some reason I have been wide awake since just after 4:00.  As I get ready for my second cup of coffee, I’ve been reflecting back on the start of the school year.  Tomorrow starts week number 3-the first full, 5 day week of the school year for my students.

Things have started off quite well.  I am adjusting to a new schedule that includes day care drop off which means getting to school with only about 15 minutes before class starts then teaching 3 straight classes before I finally get a break.  My classes so far have been a joy as each class presents its own, different personality.  We have only had 2 weeks of classes, and yet we are in full swing.  In fact, my juniors had their first quiz this past week.

You see, I am a huge believer in establish a positive culture in the first few weeks of school.  In fact, I chair our school culture committee because I believe so strongly in this.  I have developed a presentation for our new teachers built on the idea that a positive culture in your classroom will prevent many management issues.  I read vociferously anything I come across in relation to classroom culture.  I take pride in the fact that I can name almost all my students on the second day and then force them to learn and use each other’s names.  I feel very strongly that students need to feel welcomed in the class to learn.

Establishing a positive, student centered, learning focused community is a big deal to me.  But I don’t play name games.  I don’t do ice breakers.  I teach content on day 1.

In fact, it bothers me greatly that many teachers spend the first few days or even weeks doing nothing but what have been dubbed “culture building activities.”  Doing this does your students a great disservice as far as I am concerned.  Students attend school for 180 days; it quickly becomes monotonous.  The start of the school year is the rare moment in which students haven’t been jaded by the monotony of the school year.  For a week or two we have a captive audience.  It is such a short amount of time before students fall into a lull of complacency.  I refuse to waste this time.

Culture and community are hugely important, but don’t sacrifice the first few weeks of content to it.  Build your classroom culture and set expectations as you teach your content.  For example, I build a number of opportunities for group work into the start of the school year.  Then I choose the groups, mixing it up each time, and their first instruction is to make sure they know the names of everyone in their group.  As discussions ensue, I stop students and tell them that they need to respond to each other by name.  My wife the Spanish teacher forces students to use the target language in their getting to know you games.  There are so many ways to build the culture you want beyond so called “culture building activities.”

Yes, please focus on your classroom culture, but also focus on your content.

Our students aren’t open for experimentation

One of the first things drilled into me in my psychology class in High School was experimental ethics.  Ethics is one of those concepts that has always intrigued me and experimental ethics is part of that.  The reality is that it is wrong to experiment on people unwillingly (a sole example).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of educational shifts.  As educators we should be trying new approaches to our curriculum, our pedagogy, and our practices.  I am all for trying out new ideas and have been constantly revising things throughout my career.  But we have to be thoughtful and judicious as we do so.  We must remember that our students are not open for experimentation.

When we are experimenting with new ideas, we have to remember that we are potentially sabotaging our students learning and grades.   Like it or not, we live in a society in which grades still matter.  They matter not just because they determine credit for a class or because parents say so.  They matter for college acceptance.  They matter for students perception of their own self-worth (unfortunately).  They matter for teachers and peers preconceived notions.  I’d love to get rid of grades all together, but as of right now, grades matter.  A lot.  And this matters to us as educators because when we are talking about experimenting with our students’ grades, we have to be very wary and very thoughtful.  Our experimentation (piloting, testing it out, or whatever you want to call it) has potential for serious consequences.  I have both both the #1 student and #2 student in the junior class this year.  If I experiment and fail with their grades and drop them from those spots, that’s a big deal.  Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.  I have an ethical responsibility to my students here.

I’m talking grades now, but this is also about their learning.  I have been entrusted to help my students learn.  If my experimentation fails, am I consequentially harming my students?  Again, I have an ethical responsibility here.

This is a short post today, just to get some thoughts down.  I believe in moderation in most areas of my life including education.  Yes, let’s try out new things, but let’s remember the potential ramifications.  Our students are not willing subjects in our educational experiments.

Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

A reflection on 2016-2017

I’ve been out of school for a couple of weeks now and am currently immersed in teaching summer school.  I’ve had a few nice relaxing weeks away before coming back for summer school, and I feel pretty refreshed.  I took a break from all school related matters including this blog because I think that break is important.  But now that I’ve had that break I want to take a moment to reflect a bit on this past school year.

I’m not going to lie-this was a rough year.  I walked into the school year with a goal of remaining positive and optimistic, but that proved difficult for me.  I came into the year fresh off of a couple of difficult rejections for jobs that I thought I had a really good chance at.  The reality was that I was demoralized to start the year, and as the year progressed I faced more rejection over and over again as I went to interviews, got close to getting the job, only to be told they chose the other guy.

This is of course on top of the regular day to day stress of teaching, which seemed heavier to me this year.  I tried new approaches and didn’t see the results I was hoping for.  I felt I was constantly at odds with my supervisors.  I felt I was spinning my wheels for much of the year with little to show for it.

Needless to say, I needed a win.  The end of the school year gave that to me, and I walked away feeling good.  Still needing a break, but feeling good.

I got that win in the form of T-shirts.  Let me explain.  I have a reputation as a demanding teacher.  I assign quite a bit of work, and have high expectations as to what earns an A.  Naturally this stresses out some of my students.  As one of my senior classes was taking their final, as the end of the period approached, they all stood up, took off their jackets/sweatshirts and revealed the same T-shirt:

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That absolutely made my day!  The fact that the entire class would come together to make matching T-shirts is incredible.

Even better is that the following week on the last day of class for my juniors, in one class, when the bell rang none of my students were there.  Then they came parading in all wearing a shirt that they had designed.  Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, but it was a big picture of my face (yikes!) and it read “Stress. Free. Zone.” underneath as the ongoing joke in the class is that my class is a “stress free zone.”  It is impossible for me to do it justice in such few words.

Two separate classes came together to commemorate our class through T-shirts for the whole class.  I needed a win this year, and I got it right at the end.