New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 5: How do I gauge student learning with 100 kids?

To do this, you will need to employ an edu-darling term, “formative assessment,” which is a fancy way of saying figure out where your kids are, either two inches or two miles away, from the standard, then give them clear feedback on how to take the next step toward it.

The first lesson of formative assessment: it’s not a thing; it’s a state of mind.  Formative assessment is not a grade in the gradebook or an activity to pass the time until the test comes around. It is the sum of all knowledge you own about the students. It is the collected and analyzed product of bell ringers, exit slips, writing notebooks, open ended responses, lab reports, quizlets, classroom observations, student interviews, homework, and portfolios.   It’s the answer to the question: where do my kids stand in relation to  where they need to be?

No one method of formative assessment is better than the next because, like a piece of exercise equipment, the best form of formative assessment is one you actually use.  Sometimes administrators force teachers to track student growth goals, but assessing kids just for the purpose of data collection doesn’t move them closer to the goals. It’s analyzing that data and modifying your teaching to move the kids up, back, right or left toward the goal that’s important.

Standards are static; kids are dynamic. Figure out where your shifting, ranging, all-over-the-map kids are in relation to those immovable standards. Think of a ladder as you map out the small steps that leads toward mastery of the standard. The correct edu-term for this is a “learning progression.”

Let’s say you have Standard A, which is a giant standard.  You break it down into 10 smaller learning goals, or ten rungs on the ladder, and design ten clear lessons to address those smaller chunks.  Each lesson should allow for multiple attempts, lots of feedback, and practice, practice, practice. Better yet, get your kids in on the action, and let them map out the ladder, wrestle with the smaller steps, connect to the ladder through their own interests.

Early in the process, design a formative assessment tool that asks questions about all ten smaller goals.  You could use a quick Google form, which provides you with immediate and collated feedback, or you could use a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down method too, as long as you get the data you need.  You analyze it and discover 25% of your class has only mastered two of the ten rungs required to climb the ladder while 50% of your class has mastered six of the ten and the last 25% have mastered eight rungs on the ladder.

Of course, it will never be exactly this easy because standards don’t necessarily distribute themselves into ten clean, small goals. Nor is the ladder always straight or OSHA certified.  And students’ abilities aren’t divided neatly into three categories (although it’s surprising how often they do.)

However, enlisting these three steps – breaking down the standard in smaller pieces, assessing the kidlets, then analyzing that data- will established a great starting place to meet their needs.   By matching an appropriate lesson to the students’ readiness, you have created differentiation.  You can also create more student ownership and investment by asking students to

  • set goals in relation to their progress and their own interests,
  • create their own rubric for meeting proficiency,
  • develop their own questions for the final exam based on the standard,
  • maintain their own spreadsheet or other visual representation of growth, and
  • analyze their own progress.

Give students many, many opportunities to apply the skills and concepts in your class to gain proficiency. Learning is not one and done.  Learning is trying, failing, re-adjustment, trying again.  Your job is to encourage, evaluate, modify, and assist. (Book recommendation: Read Robyn Jackson’s great book Never Work Harder Than Your Students about motivating kids to own their learning experience in order to create independence and autonomy.)

To assess learning, you don’t have to give a formal quiz or test.  It could be as simple as a day-to-day student reflection that you collect at the end of class.  Get tech savvy, which will save you time. Use a classroom response system, like a clicker system, that records and prints out numerical data easily. Use online Google forms that collect and display data in linear scales, pie charts, and graphs.  Check out Alice Keeler’s website. She is the master of the Google classroom and has written two books and produced numerous videos to help you figure out how to use the Google suite of utilities to gather, analyze, and reflect on your growing, but manageable data of student wants and needs.

Remember, data is not the enemy.  Unanalyzed, empty data, whose production is washed in the tears of over-tested youth, is the enemy.  Data that builds the ladders for your students to make gains is your absolute BFF.

 

 

The No Grade Experiment: The Final Huzzah

Just to recap for those of you new to my romance with no grades:  In 1996, I decided, with a GPA-addicted senior AP Lit class, to abandon grades for a six week period, give everybody an A, and learn for the sake of curiosity and engagement.  The experiment failed miserably, but it did lead my students to reflect on their intellectual and academic motivation, and I was convinced even more of the power of a measured “end product” to shape student learning. (My thoughts on this original experiment can be found in “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation,” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28:31.)

In October 2014, I decided to do the same thing, but under much different circumstances: my students were younger, less jaded, less bought-in to the factory-grading system. And unlike the former class ( an AP content class), this class was an elective creative writing course.  During the unit, students read several craft articles plus a technique book on plotting, and they wrote every day toward an end product: the first 50,000 words of a novel   Mid-way through the experiment, I discovered some interesting things which I noted in an update.

However, the No Grade Experiment was over January 5, and I’ve had some time to decompress and think about our shenanigans and mull over some of my students’ reflections. The class of 20 was split almost exactly into thirds – those who hated it, those who loved it, those who didn’t care. Here, in their own words, are some of my students’ feedback:

I Hated It: Give Me Grades!

  • This “no grade” system would absolutely, positively NOT work in a long term period for me. I have no personal initiative or discipline, for that matter. I need the initial push to get my work done. – JW
  • The moral of the story is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever give me a choice to get a free ‘A’ in any class because I do not care about integrity. -AL
  • I have learned that once I have something I can hold, I won’t do another thing to advance that journey. Once I’ve won the trophy, I won’t run another meter. And I know, for a fact, I failed this experiment; it engulfed me and spat me out. – TG
  • I wish that the “no grade” climate could work for me, but unfortunately I am simply too unorganized and at times even too lazy to perform at levels necessary for sustainability in school. -NP
  • I would be cool with the no grades thing if everybody in the entire whole wide world were not giving out grades, but that seems like a hairy mess just waiting to happen. -BT

I Loved It: The Revolution Starts Here

  • With the no grade system, I felt relaxed and as worry-free as possible, which allowed me to truly learn and create something with confidence. By setting my own goal of finishing my novel, and achieving it, I feel much more accomplished than I would for getting an A on something I didn’t even try hard for. – RT
  • The only reason I stayed on track in this class is because I like to write. It’s not a chore to me, and to be honest, I never really thought about the grades in this class before they were taken away. But if you put something like this in my English class, it wouldn’t work. You have to be motivated in what you’re doing for this will work. -CB
  • I did find the experience to be a good one. I performed well due to my enthusiasm for this writing program. I would enjoy actually keeping this system because it shows a difference between students who work hard and those who don’t. While there are no real grades to prove this, it is more of a personal loss. –MH

This Experiment Didn’t Even Phase Me

  • The “no grades” system, in this class, never felt like a burden to me. It showed me that I didn’t need grades to drive my overall motivation. It gave me freedom from deadlines and the stress of them. I love this class, and what we do, and I don’t need grades for that. -CB
  • I am a nerd. A complete nerd. I love learning. I love doing everything to the best of my abilities. If I’m not giving all my effort in a class than what’s the point? The state has stuck me here, so I might as well make the best of my time. – HT
  • Before we started this experiment I expressed my concern that I would be too consumed with what fabulous work Julianna Margulies was doing on The Good Wife to pay attention to my writing, but I have found that the class really didn’t feel any different than it did when we started the experiment. -DC
  • My motivation to write probably comes from authors who’ve preceded myself, the ravenous need to reach the ridiculously high standard I’ve (sometimes regretfully) set myself to reach for and stay up writing into the wee hours of the night for, and/or to make real the stories and fantasies inside my head. I wouldn’t trade that motivation for any grade in the world. – KF

And for a final observation, I was struck by this lovely explanation from a student who captures all the nuances and cross-purposes of learning and assessment.

During this semester, there was no external motivation.  There were no grades, no nagging parents or teachers, there was nothing.  We were surrounded by a sort of carefree atmosphere.  There was no reward for doing the work.  There was no penalty for failing to complete it.  But I didn’t give up this semester because I wanted to do this for myself.  With all of the pressure of competing against other kids to be the valedictorian, to get into college, to get a perfect GPA, grades make the classes about everyone else.  They make the classes about competing for the perfect score, for the attention of the teacher.  They don’t encourage learning.  Grades make it so that your intelligence in that area is measured by a letter.  But how can we even do that?  Everyone starts off at different levels—not everyone enters the class knowing the same information.  So, to compare these kids right off the bat simply isn’t fair.  With this competitive atmosphere, school becomes more about skimming by on an assignment as opposed to actually learning the material.  That’s why when the grades were taken away in this class, I felt like I could finally make it about me.  Where am I with my writing? How do I want to improve?  Those where the kinds of questions I could ask myself, not do I have an A?  I am in this class to learn something, to improve who I am.  And that’s something that a grade can’t measure.

-LA

 

Teachers Who Plant the Forest

During my second year of teaching, I taught across the hall from Jenny, a firecracker speech-drama teacher whose energy was rivaled only by her laughter and unruly curls.   She was a fantastic teacher, popular with students, and she directed a spectacular musical every spring and coached an award-winning speech and drama team.

One day I was standing in the hall outside her classroom, and I overheard a conversation between Jenny and a student. I’ll call the student April.  I knew April because she was failing my junior English class. A child of severe poverty and parental dysfunction, April read at a second-grade level and was the victim of a host of behavioral and cognitive disabilities.

“I want to be a lawyer someday,” she said to Jenny, who, in return, was effusive with encouragement, citing several examples when April had exhibited some lawyer-like quality.

I stood in the hall and rolled my eyes.  When April left, I walked into Jenny’s room.

“Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to her?” I said.

“In what way?” She was truly puzzled.

“Why would you tell a kid who can barely read that she might be a lawyer?  She doesn’t even have a good chance of getting out of high school,” I said.

“We don’t know that.  Who says?”

“Her ACT scores?”

“Well, if she does become a lawyer, I don’t want to be that one old crone English teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. I want to be the one person who thought she could do it, the one person she thanks when she passes her bar exam at the top of her class,” Jenny said.

 

That was 1994, and I’ve thought about this piece of advice for 20 years now. Teachers can be positive even in the face of vast deficiencies or they can be in the business of harsh reality in the guise of doing students a favor. It’s a pedagogical and philosophical choice.  You can deliver the big bad news to kids about their future, a future you don’t really know, or you can just allow the world to unfold as it does, but always be standing on the side of encouragement, even when you know the outlook is bleak.

And maybe the outlook isn’t as bleak as you think.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to April. Perhaps she didn’t graduate high school. Maybe she dropped out and got a job as a janitor. At a law firm. And maybe one of the attorneys needed some help on the weekends and asked April to file papers, and while filing those papers, she started picking up on the language of the law, and she expressed an interest in getting her GED, then she got an associate’s degree as a paralegal, and then she decided to finish an undergraduate degree, then was accepted to law school, and viola, here we are, a dozen years later, and there’s April walking across the stage to accept her degree of jurisprudence with the image of Jenny firmly in her mind saying, “I think you would make a great lawyer some day.”

Stranger things have happened.  The data gatherers haven’t invented the measuring stick that can calculate those returns. As Kentucky poet Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work. The thing about teaching is that you never know. Are you changing the world or just moving beans around?  Because regardless of what the bottom-line guys and the quantifiers say, good teaching can’t be measured, the outcomes can’t be predicted, and the true result isn’t known for decades.

But good teachers plant the seeds anyway, no matter the soil they are handed, and hope that the wonder and curiosity and passion they feed their students will be enough for alifetime of water and light.   We invest in the millennium.

 

 

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”

Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.

However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something.  After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system:  what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?

“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.

“Not at all,” I said.  “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”

Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert.  But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.

That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.

 

I have put this theory to the test before.  Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.

I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score.  They already had an A.  With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.

The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire.  We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol.  But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.

By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation.  They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades.  Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.

At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.

 

I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons.  Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level.  My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.

This time, I let the students vote on this experiment.  In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not.   The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.

This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—

instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other.  Their norms are:

  • Participate in workshop and feedback
  • Best effort always
  • Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
  • Productivity
  • Hold each other accountable
  • We are All Leaders
  • Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
  • Be mature human beings.
  • Keep on keeping on.
  • Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.

 

And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!