“Everyone got it?”

One of the wonderful things about having a student teacher (and there are many wonderful things I’ve noticed so far) is that observing her allows me an opportunity to reflect on my own teaching practices.  One thing that struck me is how often we as teachers say to our students something along the lines of “everyone got it?” after explaining something and moving on.  I know I do this all the time.  This seems like a reasonable question to ask, but it certainly doesn’t elicit an actual response and only allows us to move on.  It does not give us information about who actually gets it and who doesn’t.

Think about it.  When we ask that question, does anyone every actually raise his hand and ask for clarification? pretty rarely.  And when a student does admit to not “getting it,” what is our response?  Usually it is nothing more than a quick re-explanation.  I know I am guilty of this.  Do we really expect teenagers to stop an entire class and admit that they don’t get something?  That seems unlikely based on what we all know about teenage psychology.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should stop asking questions like this.  It indicates a clear transition to students and does allow at least some opportunity for students to ask clarifying questions.  I think that it is important in any lesson to provide moments for students to ask for clarification and this is an easy way to build that into the conversation.  That being said, we need to be careful to ensure that we are asking targeted questions to check student understanding as well.  I know this something I plan on working on for the future.

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Some thoughts on group work

I’ve noticed recently that there has been a bigger emphasis on student group work in classrooms and schools.  Obviously good teachers have made group work part of their pedagogical bag of tricks for years, but suddenly it seems that every where I turn some new educational leader or speaker is touting the need for students to work in group and collaborate.  After all, project based learning (as opposed to just summative projects) requires collaboration.  What I find often happens with educational initiatives, though, is that they good intentions go awry, and I think the current emphasis on group work is missing the point.  As is often the case, group work is being pushed on us as the answer instead of thoughtful reflecting on when group work would be appropriate.

I say this as someone who has made group work a rather regular part of his classroom.  My juniors have been working in groups the last 2 days and my seniors were working in groups today.  The reason they were in groups though is because I wanted them to have thoughtful conversations about the activities at hand.  In other words, it wasn’t grouping for the sake of grouping nor was it grouping simply so I could say there is collaboration.  Instead, the depth of their answers could be enhanced by discussing, in the case of my seniors, the textual evidence in Beowulf, and, in the case of my juniors, their evaluation of various writings.  In each case I weighed the option of asking them to do it individually against them working with others.  This was not a quick decision.

I say this only because I think teachers and leaders need to be thoughtful about when and how they group students.  I have heard many teachers and school leaders suggest grouping and when I ask why, their answer is usually something about “collaboration.”  The real question here, though, is; are they really collaborating (ie grappling with a complex task/question that necessitates multiple perspectives) and does that collaboration provide a deeper, more thorough answer.  I would contend that often times it does not; rather the group dynamic simply allows for quicker answers–not necessarily deeper or better answers.

The other caveat that I always keep in mind about grouping is that group work allows some students to coast.  We’ve all seen groups in which one or two people dominate the group and the rest simply jot down their answers.  That is not collaboration.  I have actually over the years limited my group work for this reason and instituted more partner work as it’s harder to hide in a partnership.

Group work is great and can be meaningful.  I just urge all educators to be thoughtful about it and not to institute group work simply for the sake of using groups.

Educational Jargon and our students

Something I hear fairly often this year is kids saying things like: “hey, how’d you do on the formative in math?”  Or, “Wait, the summative in Chem is today?” or other such things throwing around educational jargon.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of most jargon to begin with, but there is something about students using it that makes me feel uneasy.

You might say that it is a good thing that kids use these terms because it suggests that students understand the purpose of their assignments.  Perhaps if we tell kids that there is a summative assessment coming up, they will know to take it seriously and understand that this assessment concludes the unit.  Yes, students should understand why we are giving assessments, and we have a responsibility to our students to explain our rationale in most scenarios (I do believe there are some scenarios where this is not the case).  But I do not use jargon with my students to explain this.  I often say to my students something like “tomorrow’s quiz (a term they are all familiar with) will help me to see where you are in this unit”  That express the purpose clearly without clouding the issue.

You see, my problem with the jargon is that it does not clarify much for our students and, quite frankly we are not all using the terms correctly.  The fact that we attempt to classify all types of assignments as either formative or summative in our grade book is really quite silly.  We say that quizzes are formative so instead of saying quiz we tell our students it’s “a formative.”  Except, in talking with teachers in all different departments, that quiz is not used formatively.  No  assessment is formative or summative in its nature.  It is what the teacher does with the information that makes the assessment formative or summative.  What may be formative in one class is summative in another (whether it was meant to be or not).

The result of this is that students have a faulty definition of these terms which change from one class period to the next.  I’ve asked my students what they think those terms mean.  “formatives” are shorter and count for less.  “Summatives” are longer and count for more.  That’s what I was told universally when I asked my class.  If we think that by using these terms were are clarifying things to our students, we are wrong.

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.

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.

Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.