This year I am doing it, I am ditching the points. After years of pretending that giving points for assignments was an objective way of giving grades, I am finally admitting that all those points really do is keep track of how many assignments a student does. Points do not measure what a student knows or can do. They measure what the teacher wants measured, which is too often not the standards the class is supposed to be focused on. They measure compliance, not competence, and certainly not mastery. And don’t get me started about “Extra Credit.”
So no points this year. Students get a ‘P’ or an ‘N’ for each project. ‘P’ means the student did a proficient job at what they were asked to do. An ‘N’ means the work needs more attention. So far students have a lot of ‘N’s. And they keep redoing things, and the work keeps getting better. Eventually the project gets the ‘P’. And no one is complaining, it is amazing. The students share work with me, I give feedback, they consider the feedback and make a decision as to what to do about it, and keep going. We are only a month into the year and everyone is at a different level, doing different work. Every student has an individual learning goal for each day. And best of all, as I walk around the room I see more actual engagement than I have ever seen. I know it is only a month into the year, but I am really liking what I see so far.
I have long been a believer in students making their work public. When I started teaching my school was working with some of Ted Sizer’s ideas, and “public exhibition of mastery” was an important one of those ideas. I came to believe that when students control their learning and are expected to show the results of their learning in public they do amazing things. So I have tried over the years to create just such an environment. I have learned that it isn’t an easy environment to create. Sure we can have students write blogs or create web sites. These are not too difficult to create, assuming the web filters aren’t overly restrictive. But my experience is these digital public venues, for all their strengths, just don’t pack the same punch as a student standing in front of a perfect stranger, looking them in the eye, and explaining some piece of work the student has done. Something really magical happens when these are the expectations.
This year we decided to create a new public exhibition event at our school. We participate in SkillsUSA, and we decided that students who go to the state competition would participate in our own event before the state event. Our local Chamber of Commerce recruited a couple dozen volunteers who have some expertise in the projects the students are doing. We bought the volunteers breakfast, invited the school board and top administrators, and suddenly we had our first annual Merlo Expo! Our school secretary said it went from a backyard bbq to a full blown Quencieta! It got complicated quickly. But our school community stepped up and made it a really special event. Our leadership class and their teacher really did an outstanding job with the details. The whole office staff did a great job with the logistics. The support from the whole school really made it a fantastic event.
The results were simply amazing. We have a couple dozen new industry supporters who think highly of the school. We heard nothing but fantastic comments about our students and their work. Our students were really excited about the feedback they were getting on their projects. Many of the students have already begun adjusting their projects in preparation for next weeks SkillsUSA event. That is something that has never happened before; in the past the state event was the first, and often last, public viewing of the projects. The students are considering feedback from a variety of real people, and making adjustments based on that feedback. One student called me over in the afternoon and told me one of the industry people told him his project would be better if there was an app for it. So he started sketching out plans for an app. That is simply awesome.
I think of equal importance is that the district administrators were able to come and interact with the students and see what the students are actually doing and learning. I don’t think we let them do that enough. We like to complain that district admins only care about the numbers. But when do we give them something else to consider? They see the numbers; they see the test scores and graduation rates and attendance and all the rest of the data. We complain that there is more to learning than that, and there really is. But when do we invite them to come and see the learning? I, for one, intend to invite them more often.
I go to a lot of conferences. Maybe not as many as some people I know, but certainly more than most teachers. It is important to me that I get out of my school and district and see what other people are doing. I need to talk to other teachers to understand the challenges they are facing and how they are overcoming those challenges. It helps me in identifying and overcoming the challenges I face in my own classroom. I do try to manage the conferences so that I am not out of the classroom more than I really need to be. This means a lot of workshops and conferences on weekends and breaks, on my own time.
Some of the conferences are paid for by my district, some I pay for, and still others are paid for in trade for my services presenting at the conference. My biggest expenditure for this PD is my time. I invest a lot of time, and I want that time to be used effectively. I often wonder after attending a conference if my time would have been better spent not presenting, but by paying for my conference registration and attending all of the sessions in which I was interested. I usually am left wondering if my presentation was effective. I sometimes receive feedback from session evaluations. The feedback occasionally is timely, but it is rarely useful.
I have asked my PLN for advice; how can I become a better presenter? I have even asked if it is important for teachers to present at conferences. The answers I got were not overly helpful. Yes, it seems, it is important to present at conferences, because that is what teaching is, presenting. To get better you keep doing it, and watch others, and you will get better. I call poppycock on that last one. Practice, without effective feedback, does not make perfect.
I think I need a peer presentation team. I need to team up with someone and team teach these conferences. We would submit a proposal as co presenters. Each team member would review the other’s proposal, and provide timely, effective feedback. Each would review the other’s presentation, again providing feedback. And they would sit in on each others sessions, not to co-present, but to be a critical friend, to watch what is happening, and to provide areas to improve. By submitting as co-presenters we would not be scheduled against each other and be available to watch the actual presentation. If I am going to improve my presentation skills, this is what I need to do.
So the deadline for Fall Cue is right around the corner. Does any one want to be on my team?
Yesterday we held our annual SkillsUSA Regional Competition. For those that don’t know, SkillsUSA is a national student led career and technical organization. Students compete in career or leadership related events. Welding students, for example, are presented with materials and drawings and asked to produce the piece depicted in the drawing. Leadership students might present their student designed and implemented community service project. It is, I believe, a fantastic way to assess what students are learning in the classroom. Which brings me to the point of my blogpost this morning.
The Washington Post this morning ran a story by Valerie Strauss called “How we teach kids to cheat on tests.” The story does a pretty good job of summarizing what happens when we put too much importance on the test score, or the quiz score.
This morning Daniel Ching @danielpching published a blog post “The importance of process” in which he talks about the importance of providing feedback throughout the process of learning, and grading that process. Too often we educators put all of the grade on the final test, and the students loose out as a result.
So lets go back to the SkillsUSA event yesterday. I was asked to run the Quiz Bowl event. This is sort of a “Jeopardy” type event where students, working in teams of 5, are asked a variety of questions. Questions include basic math, geometry, science, world and national politics, current events, and career related questions. It was fascinating for me to watch how students solved problems. Yea there were obscure questions where everyone in the room threw up there hands and said “whats a minority whip?” They were 10th and 11th graders after all. But for other questions it was interesting to me to watch the students break off into twos and threes and come up with their own answers, talk their way through the questions, and come to an agreement on the answer. I could easily see strengths and weaknesses for each student. More importantly the students could see their own strengths and weaknesses. They were arguing for their answers, and providing evidence to support those answers.
I learned much more about what these students knew by standing in the room and listening to them talk to each other than I ever would learn from the results of a test. Just as I learn more about what my students know by listening to them as they prepare for their presentations.
My students typically participate in the Career Pathways Showcase. In this event they prepare a presentation where they demonstrate what they have learned. On Friday a group of students was preparing their presentation and one of them said “We should bring the books we read as evidence of our learning. We could talk about the books.” Another group decided to bring a stack of their mistakes, and talk about what they learned from them. I didn’t tell them to do these things, they decided it was the best way to demonstrate their learning.
I think these SkillsUSA events are much better assessments of student learning than any test. So no, there is not going to be a quiz on this on Friday.
I have committed this year to do a better job of providing timely feedback for my students. I know that timely feedback is what makes or breaks a learning experience. When I was a child learning to ride a bike, I knew immediately when I made a mistake. I knew because I crashed and it hurt. I knew when I was doing it right because I didn’t crash, and it was fun. When I read about using games in the classroom I find that they are valuable because the feedback is immediate; the student doesn’t need to wait to get their paper back to see how they did. They know right away; they got points, they lost points, or they got game over. And that, so the theory goes, is why games are so engaging.
The problem is the classes I have are not games. Or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to make them games. (Maybe I should learn to code…hmm.) I still am having kids “do things” and turn them in. And that is where the catch is. Right now there are 76 “things” in my cue awaiting feedback, or as my kids prefer, waiting to be graded. Some of those things are videos, some images, some websites, some short essays. To make the problem worse, I don’t penalize for late work (why I do this is another post) and students can redo work as many times as they like to get the grade they want. All this makes my inbox a mess. Some of the work is new and timely, other pieces are things that a student didn’t turn in a couple weeks ago, and still others are things I have already seen a time or two before.
So my challenge today is to figure out a way to tame the inbox so that kids get their feedback no later than the next day. They need to know when they are doing well and when they fall off the bike.