Yes. Unfortunately, the verdict about my new grading policy is that it definitely creates more work for me. And, hopefully, more productive work for my kids. But it has been a lot and I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Still, I think the extra effort on my part has been worth it — I just need to find a way to make this system more sustainable in the long run.
For instance, because my school has a stacked schedule (the same seven 50 minute periods every day), the only time kids can meet with me for help or to retake something is before school, during lunch, or after school. So I don’t really get any kind of break from them during the day now, which is okay, but kind of hard for an introvert like me. I always have someone signed up (usually four or five kids) during lunch time and a bunch of kids after school. (Fewer of them seem to want to get up earlier and meet with me in the mornings, so that’s good).
Next year if I continue to teach sophomores, it may be easier because I will already have created multiple versions of the same assessments. Right now, though, if I make a test and offer a retake on it, then I have to create at LEAST one more test and usually more versions to help prevent cheating.
However, all of this work is just part of the job. I think that’s the thing I really need to accept. I love teaching, but part of teaching involves devoting a lot of time to grading. That’s true of most jobs — in order to do what you love, you have to sacrifice a lot of time.
Here’s a summary of the results of this new policy for my kids:
For my strong students: The grading policy makes a small difference for them, but not a big one. Many of them learn the stuff the first time around and do not need to do retakes. A few of them have retaken their Poetry Essays and benefited from meeting with me about them.
For my struggling students: The grading policy has made a HUGE difference for the kids who just don’t get it the first time but want to improve and get better. It’s really helped some of my kids get motivated and not give up on themselves. It’s for these kids that the retake policy really matters, and seeing them improve has made me a big believer in it.
But then there are a few struggling students who do not benefit at all from the retake policy because… well… they never retake anything. It’s too much work to meet with me and get extra help and then write a letter explaining their mistakes. Or perhaps they have already given up on themselves. Or maybe…
In my previous post, I asked any of you who have ever been involved in school to take a brief survey. What do you think is the primary purpose of grades?
This is, in fact, the same survey that my principal sent out to his entire staff. And after reading and mulling over some of the research he presented to us, I realized that a lot of my grading policies were not reflecting the primary purpose of grades. In fact, I found myself really rethinking some of the grading practices I have always taken for granted.
It’s kind of a scary thing when you realize you might have to admit you were wrong about some things — especially if those things are integral to your profession.
Nevertheless I am really grateful to my principal for challenging me and my colleagues to rethink grading practices and to try to better align our individual classroom policies with the true purpose of grades.
Most of you said — correctly — that the primary purpose of grades is “to give feedback to students on their learning.”
The other options are important, but they are secondary.
Take this report card sample I showed my kids, for example:
Many of the kids began by answering, “The college would know this is a hardworking student.” Or “the college would know this student is good at theology, geometry, and computer programming, but is not quite as good as English or Biology.” Or “the college would see this student is really smart.”
“Good at x subject, less good at y subject”
So I pushed them on their answers. “How many of you have taken a class where it is easy to get an A? Where you basically had to just be a nice person and the teacher would reward you? How many of you have taken a class where you had to work really hard even to earn a C? Or a class where you earned a grade that you don’t think you deserved — whether it was too high or too low?”
They all had had these experiences.
“How do you know that the A+ in Old Testament on this student’s report card was the result of his hard work? Or because the teacher was easy? Or because the teacher was really hard but the student is a genius? Or because the student turned in all the assignments? Or because he turned in a lot of tissues and markers for extra credit?”
The students acknowledged that, from the report card alone, it is impossible to tell which factors influenced the grades.
Then we began a discussion of what grades should show. The most frequent answer I got, from my kids, was “how hard you worked.”
Interestingly, both struggling and strong students gave this answer.
“But what if you are really talented in Math, and you don’t have to work very hard to learn the concepts? Should I give you a C because you don’t need to work hard?”
They acknowledged this would not be fair.
“What about the student who always tries her best in English, but by the time of the test still doesn’t know what a thesis statement is or how to write one? Should she earn an A or a B just because she works hard — even though she doesn’t know the main idea?”
Some of them looked uncomfortable here, but again they agreed this would not be fair, either.
“So,” I said. “What should grades be about?”
“Grades should show you what you have learned,” someone ventured.
There were murmurs of agreement.
“Okay,” I said. “I agree with you. Now, we’re going to be spending the next few days exploring this question — and I really need your help and input on this. If grades should be about showing what you have learned, what grading practices should we change in our class to help your grades better reflect that?”
“Eliminating the D” by Tracey Severns in Principal, March/April 2012 (Vol. 91, #4, p. 44-45), http://www.naesp.org
Now our principal has not fully endorsed the ideas expressed in this article, but he thought they would give us all some things to think about.
I think he is right, and I am very glad he sent it. In fact, although I support most of what the article is claiming, I am now re-thinking some ideas I had previously taken for granted.
But since, while drowning, one has little time to come up with more than desperate fleeting thoughts, I’ll give you my unformed impressions of key parts of the article:
I LOVED this:
My first challenge was to dispel the notion that students had the “right to fail.” Previously, teachers believed that it was their job to teach and the students’ responsibility to learn. This belief needed to be replaced by an uncompromising commitment to student success. (Sevens)
I could relate to this. Any teacher can:
My research suggested that students seemed to fail due to one or a combination of three factors— attitude (students who were able but not willing), ability (students who were willing but unable), and attendance (students who didn’t come to school). We created a plan specifically designed to address each contributing factor and communicated it to parents, students, and teachers by posting it on the website and distributing it to all constituencies. (Ibid)
I wasn’t so sure about this one:
[…] all students have an opportunity to submit missed homework assignments the next day for partial credit and receive up to three days to retake a failed assessment for a maximum score of 70 percent. Teachers initially did not like this idea, but they came to see the benefit of providing students with multiple opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their achievement. They accepted the philosophy that because we want students to learn and the assignments are worthy, then we shouldn’t accept zeros or walk away from students who didn’t learn. (Ibid, emphasis added)
So you have to create even more assessments than usual? Like, at least twice as many so that the kids who fail the first one can take the second one?
Because taking the SAME English test after failing it the first time would not really demonstrate any real learning. It would only demonstrate that the kid is smart enough to ask his friend for the answers.
Moreover, it’s unclear to me whether or not the article is advocating that “zeros” be never given (read: earned) on an assignment that is not an assessment. What does it mean that “we never accept zeros”? Surely, they ought not to be ‘acceptable’ to the students or the teacher in the ethical sense, but sometimes students really do earn them. As in, that is the only just grade to give.
So, at this school, do students have until the end of the semester? So teachers have to accept work that was due back in August in November and December and grade it then? Uh… no way.
Recently, a parent of one of my students became enraged when she realized that her son had earned a zero because I do not accept late minor homework assignments (like, the little 10 point ones I give almost every day). “My son is not a zero!”
No, but a late minor homework assignment is, as I made abundantly clear in the beginning of the year on page two of the syllabus.
Well, anyway. Please read the whole article and tell me what you think. I’m running out of air and I need to save it for grading papers.
I was thinking about Flannery O’Connor’s advice: “Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.”
It takes a lot of courage to write like that. To be really truthful – especially when you’re in over your head.
And then a friend of mine who teaches 5th graders sent me a paragraph, composed by one of his students, that shows so perfectly what I was trying to express about good writing I was absolutely amazed.
Here is the poem this student was writing about:
A Patch of Old Snow
by Robert Frost
There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.
It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.
One is tempted in all sorts of literature to over-analyze, to impose, to project–but most of all to do such things (to) poetry, because it’s so elusive. So many high school students (I was one myself) dislike poetry because of its difficulty. As my favorite UD professor says, poetry demands you to develop “the skill of life” which is “the capability of always acknowledging that condition of dereliction out of which alone we can know the preciousness of what we love” (Gregory, “Lyric and the Skill of Life”).
Good writing always comes from humility before what is true.
What would you say if you had to write a paragraph about Frost’s poem?
This is what my friend’s 5th grade student said:
I think (I don’t know) that Robert Frost is trying to remember a day in the past. The simile “It is speckled in grime as if small print overspread it” doesn’t mean a lot until it said “the news of a day I’ve forgotten if I ever read it.” It gave me the idea he’s trying to remember the past. It’s almost as if he has lost his mind and can’t remember anything from that day. It’s really baffling though. That’s what I think about the poem.
I think that is so beautiful. Flannery would be proud. So would Frost.
Okay, that title might be a little overly dramatic.
But it definitely captures my feelings about cliches.
One of the biggest struggles my students have in writing is succumbing to cliches and / or what I like to call “universal truths.”
A cliche is
a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox. (Dictionary.com)
A “universal truth” is the same thing really, only it applies more to ideas than to particular words or phrases. The way in which the idea is expressed may or may not be cliche, but the idea itself is. For example: “Family is important” “Love helps you overcome difficulties” “Perseverance leads you to success” etc.
So, a typical high school student’s thesis statement begin something like this:
“In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows how love can overcome great evils through his use of…”
Hold it right there. Everybody already knows “love can overcome great evils” and nobody would disagree that this idea is present in the play. Therefore, there is no point in writing an essay about it. As I taught my kids, the heart of an essay has to be an opinion that can be argued for and against, not a universal truththat everybody believes already.
But where did students learn this fallacious approach to writing?
From English teachers, of course.
In middle school and often the early years of high school, most English teachers do a unit on “theme.” Students learn how to pick the “theme” out of a story, and to support their choice by using evidence.
And what is theme, you may ask?
The underlying message or lesson that the author is trying to convey to the reader. These often include universal values dealing with life, society or human nature. (www.readworks.org/lessons/concepts/theme)
In other words, theme = universal truth / cliche / overused idea.
So, students learn to approach literature as a process of theme-hunting. What’s the underlying message? Or, a favorite among my students–the “deeper meaning”?
In other words:
What is the over-used, boring, universally known idea that I can find in this work of literature and slap into my thesis statement so I can say something half-way true and uncontroversial about this book so I don’t have to do any real thinking?
Flannery O’Connor puts it this way:
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)
I have heard people say things like, “Oh, I loved my high school English class. We learned all about symbolism and deeper meanings, like how water represents cleansing and purification and how the color red is usually a symbol of passion.”
To which I can only respond:
You think you’re feeding the chickens with talk like that, but actually you are choking them to death with boredom.
Today I was helping out with the English Content ACE class at Notre Dame, full of second-year high school and middle school teachers. We were talking about establishing a writing vocabulary with your students, among other things, and this whole idea of cliches and universal truths came up.
One of the middle school teachers had a really insightful question about whether or not we should teach theme at all, since it does encourage students to think in cliches. But she added that for her kids, coming up with “friendship involves being loyal in tough situations” in Harry Potter is actually a big discovery for them a lot of the time. Kids need to learn these messages.
Here’s my thought: in middle school, go ahead and teach theme, even if it means teaching your kids to think in cliches. Push and challenge the stronger students on it if you can (“well, that’s what lots of people would believe about this story, but how could you go deeper?”) but don’t worry too much. Developmentally, universal truths might be age-appropriate for middle schoolers.
But they are not age-appropriate for high schoolers. Or anyone older than that.
For me, cliches are the death of real thought. Where cliches begin, thinking ends. When a high school student says, “Well, I guess that story just really shows us how important it is to be loyal to your friends,” they have, in effect, stopped thinking. They have stopped the conversation. They have resorted to safe and hackneyed ideas that nobody can possibly disagree with. They have closed the book. Even Worse, they have closed their minds.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)
Now try to wrestle with that, and you’ve got an essay.
I know I just wrote a post about love in which I talked about teaching as my answer to Reverend Mother’s challenge to “climb every mountain” until I “find [my] dream.”
And, if you’re a teacher, and you read that post, and you were thinking does this girl actually teach real high school students or is she just making this up???? … Well, I have an answer for you.
I teach real high school students, and I had a bad day at school today.
A really bad day.
There. I said it.
I won’t go into all the gory details, but suffice it to say that, among other things, a severe lack of classroom management was suddenly involved. I felt like I had stepped back into my first year of teaching. When I turned off the lights in my classroom at the end of the day to quiet the kids, or at LEAST get their attention (sometimes this makes them calm down and feel sleepy… no really, it does), I had unfortunately forgotten that it was raining outside. And when it rains outside in Louisiana, it can get really dark.
So, of course, when the kids in my last hour class suddenly found themselves in eerie twilight, they did not quiet down as I had hoped.
And kept screaming.
For a long time.
The office called my classroom, and within moments the principal was at the door (rightly) demanding to know what was going on.
After impending doom had been announced, and after the principal left, and after a brief silence in which I looked at them and they looked at me, I was barraged with angry comments. “Ms. Shea why did you do that? Why’d you get us in trouble? You was the one who turned off the lights! Hey you’d better make sure [insert student name] gets in trouble too, cuz she was here even if she’s not in our class!”
After the day was over I sat at my desk and cried. I haven’t done that in a long time. And then I thought about how angry I was that the kids were treating me this way when I was really trying to help them with this project and all the grading I’ve done lately and how giving them an inch of freedom was a big mistake and WHY did I decide they didn’t need bell work today and how dumb I was to trust them and… blah blah blah.
I mean, I’m upset because I love them. I wouldn’t feel this horrible otherwise.
But I’m also disgusted and exhausted.
So, basically, I’m just trying to say that this is the other side of love. Love Part II. And I feel a little bit like Maria when she finally comes back to be with the children only to discover that the Captain is engaged to someone else. And that’s the moment when she probably thinks to herself, “Well, Reverend Mother, I guess I climbed the wrong mountain.”
Actually, I think I feel more as if the children had turned on me and screamed “WE LIKE BARONESS SHRAEDER BETTER.”