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.

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.


Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

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.

Skills and concepts

As an English teacher, most curricular discussions in some way involve Common Core.  There is actually quite a bit that I like about Common Core. I like that it lays out pretty clear standards; I like that it emphasizes informational reading in all disciplines; I like that it demands students supply evidence for their thinking.  For all the political hay that is raised regarding Common Core, it has some pretty solid points.

But it’s very much a skill based list of standards as we are often reminded.  While I strongly disdain the idea that our purpose as high school educators is merely to give students the skills to be “college and career ready,” the skills are certainly important, but this is also where I approach the Common Core with some caution.  I like skills; I want my students to be able to read closely; I want them to be able to write clear argumentative, narrative, and informational texts; I want them to be able to speak clearly and appropriately.   These are all good things, but that is not all I want, and unfortunately, I worry that education is trending that way.

We have this habit in the American education system to swing the pendulum too thoroughly to one side, and I am all about balance in education.  With the implementation of Common Core, I am constantly hearing and reading about history classes that are becoming close reading classes or science classes that are becoming writing classes.  To me, this is a shame.  We can’t focus so heavily on these skills that we lose out on important concepts.  If we do, we really risk losing our students.

One of the common refrains regarding education is that it is boring and not engaging.  This will only get worse if we focus to heavily on skills over concepts.  My seniors are currently reading and analyzing The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.  Thinking back to your high school days, you may remember that Chaucer takes the time to describe each of his pilgrims on the journey, and he uses this as an opportunity for some biting social criticism of Medieval society.  To understand this criticism at all, students must do some pretty solid close reading.  But the close reading is not what engages my students or makes the story at all interesting.  If I focus too heavily on the skill of close reading, students will miss what makes Chaucer so great.  Taking this as an opportunity to discuss his humor and use of social criticism brings meaning to the work and brings the story to life, to use a trite cliche.

Prior to students reading The General Prologue, I give a brief history lesson of Sir Thomas Becket and what happened to him to give them some context as to why these pilgrims are going to Canterbury.  Basically I just tell them the story of how the king’s knights murdered Sir Thomas Becket due to a bit of a misunderstanding.  Often times I hear of history teachers being lambasted for simply being story tellers and not forcing students to learn skills under Common Core.  I did that for the better part of 1 period.  And my students enjoyed it.  They were all focused and listening.  People like stories; stories help people learn.  Let’s not throw all that out in the name of teaching skills.

So much in education is about finding the right balance.  While we have been using common core for a few years now, we are constantly trying new things and re-implementing ideas.  As we work to increase our students skills, I hope we don’t forgo everything that we’ve done before.

Are we using technology budgets wisely?

I’ve been thinking about technology in the classroom the last few days.  Every year schools spend tons and tons of money on technological initiatives.  Educational technology is a booming business.  Technology is part of our standards in the English department, and there are rallying cries all around to make students technologically savvy and appropriate digital citizens.  So in that sense, it makes sense that we would spend money and focus on technology.  Unfortunately, this seems in-congruent to how we actually use technology in schools.

I don’t have research or data to back this up-just observation and anecdotal evidence, but it seems as though most of the money we spend on technology is really use to benefit the teachers not the students.  Let’s take smart-boards for example.  About 5 years ago, my school built a brand new Freshman Academy and installed a smart-board in every room.  I’m just assuming that cost a fair amount of money.  I’m betting the large majority of interaction with that smart-board is being done by teachers.  I’m sure there are instances in which teachers are having students come to the smart-board and interact in some way, but I bet hard data would show that teachers interact with the white board more than students.

I think this is true of various programs that students use that is supposedly adaptive to their level.  We used one such program here in some classes in which students take a pre-test and then are exempt from various “learning activities” in the unit.  Then they take the post test after completing the proscribed learning activities.  Other tests asked questions and then the questions got progressively harder if the student was getting them right or vice versa.  In other words, the software adapts to each student’s level.  In theory this sounds great, but in actuality, we’re we just using this software to make decisions easier for us as teachers?  Isn’t the software just simply doing some formative assessment for us?  It certainly didn’t supplant us as teachers (thank God), but it also didn’t do anything to make students more technologically savvy or better digital citizens.  These tools simply make things simpler for teachers. (Most of the time; after all technology doesn’t always work).

Now to be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting this is a bad thing, but is it really worth the great deal of money school districts are spending?  Are smart-boards really worth it if all we are using them for is teachers to have a few extra tricks up their sleeves?  Are 1:1 devices really worth it if all we are doing is having students use Microsoft Word or Google Docs to send in assignments?  We need to stop pretending that we are spending all this money on technology to create digital citizens when we’re not using the technology for that means.  Before we get sold on the next new and exciting technological piece, let’s really ask ourselves how students will be using it.