Thursday, January 26, 2012

managing redos

I'm going to return to grading again this week, but focus on managing redos in your classroom. I read the article "Redos and Retakes Done Right" in the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, a well-respected journal published by ASCD, and it made me think about my current policies about redoing assignments. [on a side note, this is a great journal that you should subscribe to if you don't already!] Though I do now, I haven't always allowed redos. When I was first teaching, the policy on our sixth grade team was not to allow redos. But over time, we realized, as Rick Wormeli states in the article's headline, "Allowing students to redo assignments and assessments is the best way to prepare them for adult life" (p. 22). He outlines this philosophy with this story:

"Consider the Olympic runner poised to begin the race for the gold medal in the final heat. the pistol goes off, and the runners push their bodies to the breaking point, all of them dashing across the finish line within seconds of one another. Our runner comes in fourth, however, so there's no medal for him. Does he get a 'do-over' of that race? No - and that's proper at this level of competition. Remember, he's not in the learning-to-run stage of development; he's in the proficient-runner phase."

Wormeli goes on to discuss how sensible it is to expect different things of students at different points in their learning development, and that applying expectations of high levels of competency to students just learning new skills can be counterproductive.  That is not to say that we shouldn't hold students to high expectations - but we need to make sure they've had enough scaffolded support to reach those expectations. 

To think that by disallowing redos we are preparing students for the 'real world' just isn't accurate in thinking about how adults work and learn together. All jobs require practicing certain skills, whether it is for surgery, take-offs and landings, designing a new office building, or teaching algebra. We all get better with careful practice. And Wormeli points out that even high-stakes tests such as LSAT, MCAT, SAT, Praxis, driver's licensure can be retaken for full credit.

So if you decide to allow redos, how can you put that policy in place without making yourself crazy? Wormeli outlines some helpful tips for managing redos in your classroom. Here are a few of them:
  1. Ask students who redo assignments to also submit an explanation comparing the two - what is different and what did they learn as a result of the redo?
  2. Reserve the right to give alternate assessments/assignments if you think students might just memorize responses.
  3. You can also make clear to students and parents that redos are permitted at teacher discretion.
  4. After 2 or 3 unsuccessful redos, reconsider whether the student is ready for that content and/or if we haven't been able to come up with the right way to teach it. Return to it later.
  5. If the same student is always asking for redos, investigate what might be going on - with their readiness for the content or issues at home. Something else might be going on.
  6. Allow redos throughout the semester, but it's perfectly ok not to allow them the final week of the term. You'll be crazy getting grades sorted out, you don't need the added stress of dozens of redos to grade and recalculate.
I hope this is helpful in your thinking about grading policies and redoing assignments. How have you handled redos so far?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

reflections on grading

Grades. Such a point of tension and anxiety for new teachers. Especially as many of you are now finalizing first semester grades for your students.

Grades can serve many purposes: evaluation of student learning, feedback to students and families, instructional planning for teachers, incentive for progress, and administrative purposes - matriculation, retention, transfers etc. And not all educators share the same philosophy on grades - some educators grade on effort while others see grades as evaluation of academic achievement only. These varied purposes and perspectives makes grading within a team/grade level and/or school difficult - when an A carries different meanings in one class from another.

Regardless of our philosophies on grades, students often think of grades as a mystery, not really understanding what a grade is communicating, if anything! I remember my first year of teaching, I was surprised to hear how varied my teammates' grading policies and philosophies were, and I hadn't really done a lot of reflecting on how I was grading and what purpose grades served in my own classroom. No wonder my students were stymied!

As you finalize semester grades, if you haven't already, talk with students about how their grades are determined. If you haven't had a chance, let them know specifically what they can do to maintain or improve their grades next time. This will vary depending on whether you include effort, growth, or completion of assignments or projects. And whether you allow redos (something I'll talk more about soon).

Perhaps your grading policies need revision based on your experience the first half of the year. And if you change something, be sure to communicate the changes to your students (and why the change). Parents are sometimes left out of these conversations, so let them in on the policies and any changes. The more clear you are with students and parents, the greater the chance that students will be able to attain the high standards you set for them.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

getting through disillusionment

Before break, I wrote about the frustrating and challenging phase that many new teachers experience: disillusionment. I wanted to return to this topic, because despite the challenge of this phase, there are things you can do to help you through it.

Some of the actions you can take I’ve already written about, such as observing a mentor or other experienced teacher. You could also observe and meet with an effective and motivated fairly new teacher, such as a second-year teacher, who is close enough to their first year of teaching to be relatable, but have some additional perspective and growth since then to share. A principal, curriculum director, or instructional coach can usually help set something like this up.

Speaking of instructional coaches, if you are fortunate to have one or more in your building, they can be a tremendous resource. Are you nervous about an upcoming unit? Work with the coach and perhaps see if they can teach a lesson or two within that unit. Working with your students in your content can provide you an even more purposeful model than even observing someone else in your department, school, or district.

At the end of the week, make a promise to yourself to think about one success (however small) from the week, and write it down, perhaps in your lesson plan book, a reflective journal, or on a bulletin board at school and home. Something will have gone well every week, improving your math lesson from first to last hour, having a positive interaction with a particular student, you got those papers graded, or you had an effective team meeting. If you feel comfortable, share this success with a trusted colleague and make it a habit.

Something else you can do to work through disillusionment is to set a short-term goal – something manageable that you can accomplish in the next month or two. Find someone to help you set and check in about your goal – an administrator, a teacher, an instructional coach, or a friend from your preparation program.

Some people in this phase like to read inspirational books, such as The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, Why I Teach by Ester Wright, or Teaching from the Heart by Sharon Draper. Others don’t find that particularly helpful. And that’s ok.

All that aside, it is still important to honor what you are experiencing. You don’t need to go through this alone, though, and in all of these ideas is the suggestion that you build a community around working through this challenge.

Anyone else out there have ideas for getting through this difficult phase in teaching?


Friday, January 6, 2012

student reflections on assessments

Welcome back! I'm sure you're fully back in the swing of things, but I do hope you had a lovely winter break full of family, friends, fun, and food.

I was at an elementary and a middle school on Tuesday, and even though it was only the first day back from winter break, the M word hung heavily in the air. What's the M word, you ask? Oh, you know it: MCA. Still months away, but once winter break is over, the pressure begins to mount as the date looms in the future. I am not an advocate of abandoning good instruction to "prepare for the test." Most of the research out there says that though kids need some refreshers and a small amount of time to practice good test-taking strategies, they don't need weeks and weeks of practice tests. That doesn't help.

But what can you do now to get kids thinking about the MCAs and their progress in your courses? Ask them to do some reflection.

Have students take a look at their recent assessments or assignments - recent MAP scores, a test, a paper they wrote, a lab report they worked on - and share the standards and objectives the assignment was designed to assess. Have students evaluate themselves on their work. Have them think about:

  • What are my strengths relative to the standards?
  • In what have I seen myself improve?
  • Where are my areas of weakness?
  • Where didn't I perform as I wanted, and how might I make those answers/areas better?
  • What does this result mean for the next steps in my learning, and how should I prepare for that improvement?
This type of reflection can help you prepare for what you may need to review to make sure students are proficient and/or where you can go deeper. Also, it can inform upcoming conferences, end of semester report cards, or simply in your regular communication with students and parents.

One thing new teachers are often afraid of doing is being honest with students about their scores on assessments. But in order for students to feel some ownership and responsibility for their assessment scores, they need to understand them and know what to do to improve. Part of that improvement can be uncovered in their self-reflections and students will appreciate frank discussions of their progress. Instead of focusing on test-prep, focus on assessment for learning through formative assessments and reflections.

Reference: Chappuis, S. & Chappuis, J. (2007/2008). The best value in formative assessment. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 14-18.