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.

Defending the whole class read

Like most everyone we are in the constant process of rewriting and refining our curriculum.  Just this past week we were reminded that the skills and enduring understandings are the most important aspects of the curriculum and that, in our English classrooms, the texts we read are vehicles to help students obtain the skills.  For example, if the enduring understanding is about understanding the hero’s journey, students don’t necessarily have to read The Odyssey; they can read any texts relating to the hero’s journey.  This allows students more choice and thus more ownership in their own learning.

This is all true, but there is something to be said for assigning an entire class a novel.  I’m all for student choice and giving options, but that doesn’t mean students need options on everything all the time.  My juniors have 3 assigned novels that the whole class reads: The Scarlet Letter, Player Piano or The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.  My seniors have 2 assigned novels: 1984 and On the Beach.  Assigning these novels offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond the classroom.

In a lot of ways, I think it is good to have students read something that is not in their wheel house.  When I assign 1984, many students aren’t interested in a futuristic totalitarian society, which is exactly why they need to read it.  If we only expect students to work within their own passion and comfort zones, we are greatly limiting their growth and thinking.  Are there are other dystopian, totalitarian novels?  sure.  Do they present the same opportunities for shared and meaningful discussion?  I’m not so convinced.  When I teach these novels as a class, and see success both in terms of the standards and in terms of student engagement, I’m not so ready to simply throw it all out the window.

The shared experiences and conversations that can ensue from a whole class read are also extremely important.  For one thing, I like that by the time my students are seniors they have all read, for example, The Odyssey.  This allows me as the teacher to make references and comparisons to it when I talk about heroism while teaching Beowulf.  I do this throughout my course too.  We read 1984 to start the semester, and I reference it over and over again as we read Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales, etc.  If they hadn’t all had these shared reading experience, these references would be lost.  More importantly, the shared discussion of a novel as a class is an important learning tool.  I routinely watch my students discuss and question each other about a novel offering insight and interpretations to each other.  While this can happen in lit circles, that unnecessarily limits the number of people involved.

Student choice is great and can be a powerful motivating tool, but it isn’t everything.  Sometimes as the teacher, I know what is best.  Students don’t need choices for everything.

A cool inquiry based activity

I realize I haven’t posted much recently.  This year it has been harder to keep up with the blog because of the way my schedule is set up.  I used to have a study right smack in the middle of the day when I would do most of my posting.  Now my free period and study are at the beginning and end of the day.  For some reason, this complicates my writing schedule.  I come rushing in in the morning and have to use my first free period to make copies and get ready for the day, and then my end of the day duty gets taken over by various end of the day tasks.

So on that note, I want to take a few minutes on this Friday morning to describe a nice inquiry based activity that I learned this year and have implemented a couple of times.  All credit for this activity goes to my ever great colleague, T. Kerman (who, I think, stole it from someone else, but she is the one who told me all about it.)

The activity is called an inner-outer circle discussion.  Essentially students are in 2 circles.  half the class is in the inner circle (facing into each other) and the other half is on the outer circle (facing into the inner circle).  The outer  circle question asks discussion questions and then the inner circle discusses those questions amongst themselves.

So how does this work exactly?  Beforehand, students have to prepare 5-6 questions on the topic/readings. This would be a huge component of the inquiry based portion.  I found that they require instruction on how to do that.  I give them three levels of questions: level 1 are factual based questions.  If it is a level one question, you can literally put your finger on the answer in the text.  Level 2 are interpretive or inferential questions.  If it is a level two question, you can put your finger on the evidence to support your answer.  Level 3 questions are experiential questions.  If it is a level 3 question, you don’t have to have read the piece to answer it, but it helps.  I instruct my students that their questions must be include both level 2 or 3, but no level 1 questions.

On the day of the discussion, students are seated in either the inner or outer circle.  I have let them choose (first come, first served), but then they switch, so every one is in both the inner and outer circles.  I could certainly see benefits of assigning students to inner or outer circle groups to mix it up though.  Once seated, someone in the outer circle asks one of their questions.  The inner circle then discusses the question using textual evidence.  Again, I found this requires a bit of training to get them to actually search for evidence before answering.  They don’t like the silence while everyone checks their books.  While they are discussing the question, the outer circle cannot talk or add to the discussion at all, but needs to merely take notes on what is said.  Once the inner circle decides they have sufficiently answered the question, they throw it back to the outer circle for another discussion question.  Eventually, the inner and outer circle switch spots–either the following day or perhaps half way through the class.

At the end, I grade students on their participation in the inner circle (speaking clearly, respecting opinions, responding to peers appropriately, providing appropriate evidence, etc.).  I also grade them on the questions they brought to the outer circle (were the appropriate, thoughtful questions?), as well as their listening while in the outer circle (I generally ask them to answer some questions regarding the discussion and /or the questions that were asked).

So what do I like about this activity?  It touches upon so many important skills and ideas. By having students develop the question and police themselves while in the discussion, it is a fully student centered and student driven activity.  The topic I give them is specific enough that it relates to the big ideas and concepts of the course at that moment, but they decide exactly what to ask and how to answer.  I also like that it requires students to find evidence to support their answer-an important close reading and arguing skill.  Finally, I find it to be a great way to increase students speaking and listening skills.  Generally, those students who are quiet in a full class discussion are more talkative when discussing in a smaller group, but it is also an important lesson in having the more dominant students draw responses from the less talkative ones.  And it is a great moment to help those more dominant students learn to not take over the entire conversation.

Obviously, there are management concerns that everyone needs to figure out on their own, and determine what works best for you and your class.  Obviously, everyone needs to figure out their own method to track the conversation and such.  And while this activity works well in an English classroom, I could certainly see it working effectively in all different disciplines where students are tasked with finding evidence to support their answers.  In short, I highly recommend giving this activity a try; I’m quite glad I did.


introverts are people too

In light of the Common Core state standards there has been a push to increase the speaking and listening skills of our students.  The argument being that being able to present information and engage in meaningful conversations is necessary to being college and career ready.  The push to build QPA’s in schools often includes a push to include some sort of presentation piece.  This I all agree with.  We do our students a disservice when we don’t expect them to participate meaningful in discussion; when we don’t force them to present their findings (if for no other reason than to expand their audience and gain more feedback.)

That being said, we have to be judicious in how we go about implementing these changes.  If we say that it is important that students are able to engage in discussions, then we have to hold them to three distinct criteria:

  1.  speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
  2. contributing meaningfully
  3. listening to one another by not speaking over each other, texting, having side conversations, etc.

This is where I am finding (based on talking to other teachers) we are tripping up.  In order to do this well, we have to lay these  expectations out clearly beforehand and then sticking to it.  In conversations as colleagues, we often have trouble with these criteria (how many times have you seen number 3 at a faculty meeting?)  This requires diligence and teaching and reteaching on our part; it doesn’t happen on its own.

More importantly, we need to be respectful of our introverted students.  In our zeal to promote speaking, we often gloss over these students and force them to speak.  Sitting on the sides of a discussion and listening is not a flaw.  In fact for many of our students, they are  gaining more from the discussion by listening and not stressing about when they will be speaking.

So how can we force these students to speak while respecting their introversion?  It’s rather simple.  Speaking and listening should be scaffolded just as we scaffold other skills.  I inform my students early on that they will all be expected to speak throughout the course, and then I remind them often of this expectation.  I then prime them for this, by offering them opportunities to share in smaller settings (think/pair/share or group work-groups are usually chosen by me).  On the first day that I truly expect everyone to speak, students must first write out a claim.  This way, if they are called on to speak and have nothing to add (as is often the case with introverted students), they can simply read their claim.  This limits their stress of thinking of what to say.  As the discussion comes to a close, if I realize that some people haven’t spoken yet, I simply call on them to speak.  I do this in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.  This teaches them that I will hold them to this expectation, and more importantly, that their opinion/thoughts matter and they can contribute it safely.

After the first discussion in which everyone is required to speak, students reflect on the discussion as a whole and their own participation.  From their reflections, I ask how to improve for next time, and I can increase my expectations from there.  For the record, this first discussion just happened today in one my classes-a full three weeks into the school year.  I built up to this moment throughout the previous weeks.

Expecting students to just get over it (whether you say that or not, that is the implication when students are forced up to speak too quickly) quite simply doesn’t work.  Instead, lay out expectations and build up to the main event.  It’s worth the extra effort.

What’s in a meme (part II)


Yesterday I began my breakdown of the points laid out in this meme  (for part 1 click here).  Today I’ll tackle point number 2: Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat.

About 7 or 8 years ago, we had a guest speaker come and talk tot he department.  The first thing she asked us to do was write down the three most important things we want our students to be able to do.  Almost universally, we wrote down “to think independently” or something in that vain.  While the session was not very helpful over all, this stands out to me because I think it still holds true across not just my department, but the educational system as a whole.  As teachers, we want students who can think independently and critically (though we don’t always agree on what it means to think critically).

That being said, thinking and intelligence aren’t the same thing.  But I’m interpreting the statement to suggest that those who do best in school (i.e. the most intelligent) are those who can remember and repeat.  Quite frankly, that’s hogwash.  One of the first things any one learns in teacher school is Bloom’s taxonomy and pushing students to higher level reasoning through analysis and synthesis.  Bloom’s has given way to the cognitive rigor matrix lately, but that still stresses higher level skills.  There may have been a time in education when the top students were those who could remember and repeat, but that ship has sailed.  As educators we recognize the importance of asking students to do so much more, and we hold them to that.  Could we move further up the cognitive rigor matrix?  Absolutely.  But I am sure that classes everywhere have moved beyond simply remember and repeat.

As a quick caveat before I go on, remembering and repeating does have its place.  Teachers just need to remember to move beyond it.  Certainly students need to be able to remember and repeat things before moving on though.  I am still grateful that I was forced to memorize my multiplication tables years ago.  Could I take out a calculator every time I need to multiply something?  Sure, but by having memorized my multiplication tables, I am able to do far more in-depth math far more efficiently.  The same can be said for foreign language teachers forcing their students to memorize vocab and verb conjugations.  Memorization is a worthwhile skill and still has its place in schools.

Every time I ask students to write essays (which is often), read and analyze a text (again, often)  or conduct research, I am asking them to do much more than simply remember and repeat.  Yes, they must remember what a symbol is, for example, in order to analyze it, but they’re tasked with much more than just find the symbol and label it.  They must prod deeper into whatever they are given.  Some of the questions I ask my students include: Is Rev. Dimmesdale (from The Scarlet Letter) a good man?  Who is Death of a Salesman really about-Willy or Biff?  Explain the title The Great Gatsby.  None of these questions are simply remember and repeat sort of questions, and they are indicative of the types of questions students are asked throughout the country.  I know this because I routinely find these types of questions and assignments on the internet and through connecting with other teachers on twitter.

I imagine that many people who believe this statement though will point to standardized testing as their evidence.  Standardized testing is an entirely different subject, but bear in mind most people who rail against the remember and repeat fashion of standardized testing haven’t actually participated in any sort of standardized testing and are basing their opinion on outrageous examples spread through the media.  While I have plenty of issues with standardized testing, I am actually relatively impressed with how much the questions (even the multiple choice questions) ask students to do more than just remember and repeat.  For example, when the question asks about the writer’s purpose, the student must do more than just remember and repeat.  He has to be able to pull from the text.  The latest round of standardize tests that are aligned with the Common Core go even further and ask for evidence from the text to support the answer.

Remember and repeat may have been the way of doing things back in the day, but schools have evolved beyond this today.

We’re having the wrong conversation about Homework

My senior writing course is all about argument and persuasion, so on their final exam they need to write an argumentative essay in response to an article.  One of the articles that many of them chose to use as the basis for their argument suggests that homework is a vital part of the educational process and it is necessary for learning.  Those who chose this prompt universally agreed with it this year as they generally have in the past couple of years.  These are not honors students; this is a class full of mid-level students; many of them are college bound, but not all of them.  These are not students who always get great grades and consider school a top priority.  In fact this level of student is notorious for not completing all their homework, and yet they are generally all suggesting that teachers should continue assigning homework or even assign more homework.

There are conversations about homework happening all over the educational landscape.  Cathy Vattertot’s book Rethinking Homework is an interesting read on the subject.  Many schools are suggesting a “Homework Bill of Rights” for students; other schools are limiting the amount of time students should be spending doing homework.  All the research about the effectiveness of homework seems inconsistent–some studies suggest that homework increases achievement; others suggest it has no effect.  The homework debate really is a minefield right now.

I think ultimately, we are focusing on the wrong conversations about homework though.  Let’s stop talking about how long students spend doing homework and the undue stress it may cause.  These are just the symptoms of a real problem.  When I go to the doctor, I don’t want him to simply treat the pain; I want him to find out what is wrong with me and solve that problem.  Otherwise the pain will just keep resurfacing or eventually intensify and require stronger medication.  If the doctor figures out what is causing the pain and stops that, then the problem is truly solved.

That’s how I feel about the state of the homework debate.  We’re talking about mitigating the symptoms of the problem rather than actually solving the problem.  The conversation shouldn’t be about how much time should students spend on homework each night.  The conversation should be about whether or not the homework we are assigning is meaningful and purposeful.

School leaders need to not make homework mandates that just anger teachers.  Instead, they need to be leading conversations about the purpose of homework with individual teachers and PLC’s.  Is the study guide that students answer as they read the book really a meaningful piece of homework?  Should we be asking students to draft their essays outside of class?  Do they really need to complete 25 Algebra problems for homework?  Is the worksheet on verb conjugations appropriate practice?  We can’t say definitively whether these are or are not appropriate without knowing the situation, which is why the teaches involved need to be having these discussions with their PLC’s and school leaders.

Sometimes when I suggest things like this, people react by suggesting that we don’t have the time for this.  That’s malarkey.   If we can find the time to discuss how many minutes each night students should spend on homework, then we have the time to discuss whether the homework we are giving each night is meaningful.  It’s not time to start a brand new conversation; it’s time to change the conversation we are already having.

Top Chef and Education

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

Over this winter break, I spent most of one day binge watching Top Chef, the reality cooking competition, and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of schools and teaching.  The episode that really led me down this path was Restaurant Wars.  For those of you who don’t know the show, a variety of chefs are competing for the title of Top Chef and during one episode each season, the chefs split into two teams and have to conceptualize and open a restaurant in 1 day.

This competition lead me to think about assessment and rubrics.  At the end of the episode, the judges choose one winning restaurant.  They don’t do this with a specific rubric (at least none that we as TV viewers see).  Judges comments focus on the taste and presentation of the food, the service at the front of the house, the decor and atmosphere, overall teamwork amongst other things.  Obviously these elements essentially make up a rubric for each restaurant.  The thing that the judges ask each other at the end is: “which restaurant delivered a better experience?”  And that’s the question that led me to think about rubrics and judgements.

In education, we are continually rewriting rubrics to recatergorize and reweight.  We drive ourselves crazy as educators trying to write these perfectly detailed rubrics breaking down each potential element into categories in order to better assess our students to make fair and valid judgements.  But we never ask: “Did this piece of work (essay, speech, project, etc.) deliver the experience it is supposed to?  Did it achieve its desired impact?

I just finished grading a stack of argumentative essays.  I used the rubric to assess the essay’s claim, its development, coherence, etc., but I never really assessed whether or not the essay was actually convincing.  The rubric doesn’t have an area for this.   In Top Chef the judges can sit there and tell the chefs that their food wasn’t good or the service at the restaurant was exemplary, but that doesn’t really tell the chefs if their restaurant overall was any good.

I teach public speaking as well and two of the assigned speeches are a sales pitch and a persuasive speech.  After everyone delivers their sales pitch, I always ask the class if anyone went out to buy a product that their classmate was selling.  If you convinced your classmate to purchase something, then it was surely an effective sales pitch.  If I were the student, I would think of that as much better feedback than the rubric from the teacher.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing this, but it seems to me that discussing impact and intended results might be worth the conversation and help make rubrics more meaningful.  I certainly don’t believe we should scrap rubrics altogether–in fact, I am a huge supporter of rubrics, but rubrics shouldn’t be just about justifying a grade; instead we should be focused on how we can improve feedback to our students.  We can make better rubrics.