One Word That Inspires Me in My Classroom – “Grace”

When I teach I strive to do it with grace. No, I’m certainly not a ballerina floating about the classroom. When I think of grace I think of a deeper meaning – one that goes with words like favor, good will, mercy, and honor.

Do I have a favorite student? Honestly, I believe that if I’ve done things right they all think they’re a favorite. My goal is to be a safe spot for the kids – a place where they can check in and feel connected. Middle school kids move all day and crave a place where they are unconditionally welcome. I truly believe that if I can make that connection, then I have a chance at growing a passionate learner – which is even more important than any curriculum or content.

Competition in the classroom that makes learning fun and supports healthy motivation is one thing – but I draw the line when it starts looking like sorting students. Good will for me means that I am going to do my best to ensure that all my students learn at high levels, and I will hold myself accountable to that. When the kids know that’s the goal, then the collaboration and support grows as well. We become a community of learners.

Mercy. My own kids are the same age as my students and I can attest that they really don’t have a ton of control over their own lives. Things go wrong– they run out of time – organizational skills fall apart – there is a game or extra practice that they didn’t expect– or even worse I ask them to babysit or insist they actually practice that instrument—there are rarely enough hours in the day. Mercy, for me is recognizing when a student is not there yet – and the reason for the “yet” may or may not sound valid to my ears – it doesn’t really matter. I’m trying to get over the need to judge or snap back with a “got-cha” and instead help them to make a new plan.

Kids learn differently. They occasionally sweat the small stuff and overlook the big stuff. Each comes to my classroom with their own story to tell, their own baggage, their own disappointments, and their own dreams. When I honor them as individuals and their work as precious pieces of learning evidence the tone of my day changes. There is an investment that we are willing to make in each other and the work we will do together. I feel and act more like a coach than a boss and I’m more willing to celebrate their individuality even if it does make record keeping and lesson planning a greater challenge.

This is where I am right now as a teacher. It’s a reflection on my vocation in this moment – a snap shot of my thinking. I have not always been here and I hope that a year from now I am further along on the journey. For me in 2015, I’m feeling the gifts of grace.

Why Do I Grade?

“A grade represents a clear and accurate indicator of what a student knows and is able to do – mastery. With grades, we document the progress of students and our teaching, we provide feedback to students and their parents, and we make instructional decisions regarding the students.”

-Rick Wormeli (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 103)

I attended a two-day conference with Rick Wormeli this week. When I have an amazing growth opportunity, all by myself – it can be really annoying for my peers who are not on the same vibration. So instead of driving them crazy I rushed home on Friday night to try to make sense of it all through writing… Why do I grade?

It’s easy right – I grade because that’s what I am paid to do – it’s in the teacher job description. However, I’m thinking deeper than that, looking at what I hope to accomplish with my grades, and from the perspective of my students determining if am I successful.

At the conference Wormeli identified six things teachers try to accomplish with grades, which he then separated into two categories (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 102):

  • To document student and teacher progress
  • To provide feedback to the student and family, and
  • To inform instructional decisions

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  • To motivate students
  • To punish students
  • To sort students

He suggests that the top three are useful, but the bottom three are questionable. I totally agree—after all this was my second Wormeli conference and honestly I drank the Kool-Aid the first time. However, I don’t think I always get it right, so I decided to ask my 8th grade students a few questions to find out how I am doing.

In an impromptu Friday afternoon discussion they easily identified documenting progress and providing feedback as reasons to grade. However, the majority pointed to “motivating students” as being the third most significant reason that teacher’s grade.

After thinking on this I began questioning… Do I want students to have intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation? Our mission says “life long learning…” Research says the will to learn (or lifelong learning) is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its rewards in its own exercises. Grades are by definition – if used to motivate – extrinsic motivation. Am I meeting my personal and / or school mission as a teacher if I’m motivating through my grade book?

Okay – it was time to dig a little deeper. I threw together a survey and collected some quick very non-scientific data (wow – those iPad are cool!) Here’s what I found out –

  • 100% of my students understood that if I marked grades down because they are late I am miss-reporting their approximation to mastery.
  • They were split half and half when if asked if the purpose of school is either
    • to determine who is smart enough to go to college, or
    • to ensure that all students learn at high levels no matter what it takes.
  • The majority of students supported the idea that everyone who met the standard should receive credit for doing so. They were not hung up on how long it takes individuals or how many re-dos it would take.
  • When I asked if grades motivated them to want to learn the split was nearly 50 / 50, however after we talked about many students sited that the grades pushed them to do the work in class – they were not actually excited to learn the content.
  • Just for fun I asked them how long it would take them to learn to play the bagpipes. Again the majority answered that there was no way to know how long it would take. Within our discussion they were able to connect that with the idea that there was no way to know how long it would take them to learn how to do anything.
  • The last question was the one that broke my heart as a teacher. After seeing Wormeli the first time I continued to put in zeros but used a four-point scale. Thinking about motivation, I asked how they felt when they saw a zero in the grade book. Here is a list of their words:

Sick * Panicked * Upset * Ashamed * Bad * Stressed * “Shit” * Discouraged * Dumb * “Like I’m not going anywhere” * Discouraged * Depressed * Angry * Disappointed * Scared * Don’t Care * Worried * Exhausted * Grounded for life Frustrated * Like Quitting * Embarrassed * Desperate to get the grade up

Clearly I get a response, however I’m left wondering if it’s worth the cost. The words above hardly sound like that zero is inspiring passionate learning. Instead I can see how much it is actually manipulating the emotions of my students to get their work handed in. Typically a zero is in the grade book because of missing work – almost never because they really are showing no evidence toward mastery. If that was the case I would be quick to go back to my own teaching an figure out what I did wrong, or I would meet with them to set up a re-do before I published the grade.

Again, I go back to the goal of grading, the mission of my school, and my own personal mission as a teacher. I want my students to be passionate, inspired, life-long learners. I’m not willing to settle for anything less than that. If my grading practices promote the opposite feelings than it’s on me to make some changes. No blaming the students.

So where do I go from here? How do I get the data I need without the push of a zero? Thanks to Wormeli I’m on the path to figuring that out, but for now I’m so glad to have students who are patient with me while I continue to learn along side them.

Using Student Surveys for Professional Development and Goal Setting

The question of student evaluations came up recently at a school leadership meeting. They have been used before, but not embraced at all by the teachers. The goals, expressed by administration, would be to give teachers another tool or resource for curriculum development.

I was reminded of an assignment that I did for a graduate leadership class I am finishing at Cardinal Stritch University. We had to create 360 degree survey that was given to peers as a way of identifying  how we are viewed within the organization. I distributed and collected the surveys, tabulated the data, identified goals based on what I learned, and then created a plan to respond and improve based on what I learned. It was incredibly useful and inspired reflective, meaningful goals.

There is quite a bit of scholarly writing about the use of surveys at the college level. Some of the most interesting is written by Dr. Clayson including; Student Evaluations of Teaching: Are They Related to What Students Learn?: A Meta-Analysis and Review of the Literature, and Student Evaluations in Marketing, What is Actually Being Measured?  The gist of both articles is that students are often less than honest when filling out the evaluations. Also, it seems that the rigor of the class was negatively related to the evaluation. A reader might draw the conclusion that, based on this, there may actually be temptation to dumb down or simplify curriculum in order to keep the student reviewers happy.

Today we met again to discuss how student feedback could be gathered in a way that was useful to teachers. Reflecting on the discussion, I think we came up with three key points to consider moving forward:

  •  Teacher created questions could connect personal, professional development goals delivering useful information for each individual teacher
  • Teachers would be accountable for goal setting and progress towards improvement based on data gathered in the survey – not the survey results
  • The practice would need to start with a professional development meeting where the intent and process would be communicated and modeled

I think, based on this approach, that the surveys could be useful. I like the push to become more reflective and to use feedback in a meaningful way. I also think this process avoids the “Witch Hunt” that the old method implied to both the students and the faculty. I still wonder if the surveys should or should not be anonymous. Also, interested to see if this method improves “buy-in” from the faculty in relation to the value of the surveys in general.