Monthly Archives: April 2011

An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

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An English Teacher Does The Math

Teaching is like this:  I can never get it right.  I will never feel like I’ve mastered the craft;  I am always learning it.  If I think for a moment I’ve mastered it, I’m a fool.  There will always be days when I feel unstoppable and totally effective followed by days when I am sure I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  There are more days like the latter than the former.  What I learn if I am paying any attention at all is that there are smart things to do in a classroom and dumb things to do in a classroom.  I try to avoid doing the dumb ones but for some reason I do a certain number of them over and over again.  I believe the following statement:  teaching is one of the most complex social interactions ever undertaken by a human being.  Think about the sheer mathematics of it, and thus, come to understand the profound opportunities that exist for making mistakes.

At home, you have a relationship with your roommate or your spouse and your units of children.  In your job you have a relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your clientele, which, for the most part, you deal with one at a time.  These are all complex social interactions, don’t get me wrong about that, and I know, these are gross simplifications.  But consider this:  I have interactive relationships with my teaching colleagues, a close relationship with my two teaching partners who share students or curriculum with me, and with the department of English which number about 10 more individuals, say.  For ten of the twenty-two years of my tenure in my high school, I was a member of a committee called a Site Council, an elected but voluntary position which put me on a panel of about 18 individuals made up of an equal number of teachers and parents, an administrator or two, a few classified staff (secretaries, assistants and the like), and a couple of students, whose charge it was to meet a couple of times a month, a few hours at a stretch, and to facilitate staff development and school improvement for a facility serving about 1400 students and staffing about 50-some teachers.  Working closely with this group over a three year commitment, our job was to make the school a better place and to make everyone in the building happy.  In short, considering only my peers and colleagues, already the job is chock full of extremely complex social interaction.

Okay, then there is the issue of these 200 students of mine, which, truth be told, has always really hovered for me between 150 and 170 (the day has passed when contractually English teachers were limited to 125 students—that language that was dropped from the contract altogether).

All of these kids have parents or guardians, sometimes multiple sets of them.  This potentially creates another 300 to 400 relationships to negotiate over the course of my work year.

But when I walk into a classroom, 6 times over the course of my teaching schedule over two days, I am faced with about 30 warm bodies and the expectation on both my part and theirs, not to mention the administrators who hire me or the taxpayer who pays me, that I will make something happen.  Now this is where the real complexity begins.

I have a body of knowledge with which I am supposedly conversant.  Let’s see, we’ll call it the literary survey of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, from, say, about 800 a.d. forward, all major periods and movements, current trends in contemporary literature, the new research in that field to include oppressed and suppressed literature (from women and people of color) throughout history, and a general knowledge of the ever mutating multicultural cannon from around the world.  I should also be conversant in the current trends in educational theory and practice and be able to incorporate those into my classroom work.  Oh, and then there’s this simple matter of teaching young people to write well, or, at least, competently, which, after 22 years in the profession, I’m still not convinced is even possible.   So the first part of my relationship with these 30 kids (x6) is to communicate to them somehow something of what I know and what I believe they need to know in a way that is engaging and meaningful.  If that were it, teaching would be a piece of cake.  But every kid in that classroom has his own agenda.  Much of that agenda is usually counter to mine.  Additionally, every kid in that classroom has a unique perception of who I am and what I’m about, as I have of her, as she has of the kid sitting next to her, and that kid has of her and of me, as all kids have of each other and the group as a whole and of me, and as I have of the group as a whole, with all of its various and sometimes contradictory needs and desires and levels of skill and academic readiness.  It boggles the mind.

Ultimately, as I believe I am teaching the whole student and not just that part of him that writes or decodes symbols on a page, something of a relationship is an important part of the mix.  But what happens in a room of 30 (x6) students is that I end up getting to know only a few of them well and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I get to know the names of the trouble-makers and clowns first by necessity. And then I continue to devote far more than a fair share of my time and energy to their shenanigans.  There are two or three of these in any given class in a good year, but it’s important to note that just ONE of them can cause monumental disruption in a classroom.

I get to know the ones that are socially really needy, who want to talk to me or have my attention as much as they possibly can and tell me things I don’t want hear about their mothers and their aunts and the boil on their grand daddy’s ass.  I get maybe two of these in every class.

I get to know the ones that are precocious and sharp and outgoing, the ones I can always count on to speak when no one else will speak or who are just highly motivated and play the game of school very well and turn in all of their work.  There might be four or five of these in a group of 30.

I’ve counted 10 students there in a class, generously, that I will potentially get to know much better than the other 20 in the room.  Of course, there are skills that we pick up or intuit to prevent these 10 kids from totally derailing our attention and hi-jacking or dominating our classrooms, tools for drawing out or getting to know the silent majority.  But they are subtle skills that require a masterful handle on the management of large numbers of adolescents in a single room that I wager not very many human beings and not a large number of teaching professionals ever get a handle on.  So it is a constant battle to avoid ignoring the vast majority of the students in my room, let alone get to know them all in any significant and meaningful way, let alone allowing them to know me in any significant and meaningful way.

It’s not very sophisticated math, I’ll admit, but the most difficult things about teaching in a public school setting have to do with sheer numbers—numbers of relationships, numbers and various kinds of interactions, the complexity and unreliability of human behavior times 200, numbers of preparations, numbers of names to learn, numbers of minds and lives to access.  And next, in another blog entry, I think, because it has its own set of mathematical and pedagogical and philosophical problems, I’ll try to deal with the most difficult number of all: the number of papers to grade.

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