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 had the opportunity to spend the last week in Redlands, California, at the headquarters of ESRI learning about spatial thinking. In the last several weeks ESRI announced, as part of the ConnectedED initiative, a billion dollar donation of software to k-12 education. I spent the week better learning how to use that software in the classroom. It is pretty amazing stuff. For those of you that are into maps, I strongly suggest you look into this stuff. For those of you that are into things other than maps, I offer the same advise. It is not about just what is where, like many people think of maps. It is so much more than that. It is the why. It is big question, higher order stuff. And if you have any geek in you at all you will love it. And face it, if you know about this blog, you have at least some geek in you! And best of all the software is free, all you have to do is ask. But that’s not the point of this post.
One afternoon this week I was working in the auditorium completely immersed in figuring out how to show a correlation between my data points when I heard someone on the stage say “My name is Jack, and I’d like to talk to you all for a little while.” Looking up I saw it was Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI, the guy who just gave a billion dollars to education. He gave a little talk and then asked us, the eighty or so educators in the room, what we thought he should do to change the world. It was a fascinating conversation, but one part stood out. One member of the audience offered his thoughts, and finished with “…so that’s what I am trying to do.” Mr. Dangermond responded, “Yea, the thing about trying is trying never works. I need people who will, people who do.” That really hit home with me.
Many times my students say “Ima try my hardest.” Or “Next time I’ll try harder.” How many things do I say I am trying to do? I am trying to build a better grade book. I am trying to make more engaging projects. I am trying to provide better feedback. I see that Jack is right. Trying never works. So this year I am making a better gradebook. I am building more engaging projects. I am providing better feedback. Because trying never works.
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 had a couple administrators walk through my classroom the other day. It was no big deal, the principal was just showing her new boss around. We chatted. It was nice. Then I was asked why my daily objectives were not posted anywhere. I gave my standard answer; after about a month into the school year most kids are in totally different places in the curriculum. How can I have one objective when I have a room full of people all doing different things? In the past visitors would accept this answer and move on to something else.
But this time there was a followup question. “Does that mean that all of the students develop their own daily objectives?” I never had a follow up question before. I think I actually stammered in my response. I said something about the advanced kids are supposed to make weekly objectives and if I was better at what I do they would do a better job of it.
I have never really given a lot of thought to each student having a different daily objective. I think it would be a really, really good thing to do, but I don’t have any idea how to make it actually make it work. I can’t talk with each student each day to develop an objective; by the time I got half way around the room the period would be over. But I am thinking I could do a Google form, or a Doctopus page, where each day at the start of the day the student writes down, first thing, what the objective is for the week and the day. That way each student is working on a clear measurable objective. And they know what it is.
I would love to hear other ideas on how I can do this.
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.
I was working on an assignment today for the school culture class I am taking as part of the Admin Credential program at Teachers College of San Joaquin. I was supposed to be writing a vision statement. Researching that brought me to the web site of Minarets High School in O’neals, California. Minarets is one of those schools that appears to be doing it right. I see them doing amazing things in amazing ways. I thought I would find their vision statement and “borrow” it. You know, use it for inspiration. I was disappointed. I couldn’t find their vision statement. I did find this though. A grading policy that really got me thinking about my own grading policy. I really struggle with my grading policy. I change it every year. I want to to measure and reflect what my students are able to do, not how well they sit in their chairs for an hour, or find the right answers in the text book. I also want them to be able to see where they are at, grade wise, all the time. I hope to someday have this figured out, but I know I am not there yet. One of the things that stood out to me in the Minarets policy was the way they reward quality work that is done early:
“One of the most important lessons for life: Being done ahead of time.You can’t be good at something if it’s always last minute.”
My students need this lesson. So I decided I need to adopt “Pro Points.” My new Pro Points policy is here. I will be springing this on the students on Monday. Now I need to get back to that vision statement I was doing.