Tag Archives: assessment

School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

rock-em-sock-em

Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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#41: On the Very Last Work Day of the School Year

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On the Very Last Work Day of the School Year

It began with a breakfast
during which we said tearful
goodbyes to beloved colleagues
retiring or moving on,
a difficult, but joyful thing,
wanting them to stay but
wishing them well and happy returns
for all they’ve done for our school
and our kids.
We were out of practice;
for the longest time in our building
hardly a soul has come or gone,
at least, not willingly and not publicly
like this.
And then I was buried in my room,
sitting in front of a computer for hours,
racing against time to finish
this activity that passes for grading sometimes
and that, while it practically kills my remaining
sanity, likely makes very little difference
in the long haul.
My wife came in to help me
pick up my room and I was thankful
for that little comfort.
And when I was finally finished
hours after she had gone home,
I realized I was perhaps the last teacher
out of the building on this very last
work day of the school year,
one year closer to retirement
and nowhere closer to having the answers
about how to best balance my work,
about how to maximize the meaningful
and jettison the nonsense,
about how best to spend my time
so that there is no question at the end of the day
or at the end of the year that I have indeed done
the very best work I can do.
Before that day comes for me that
some of my colleagues experienced today,
I want to have figured this much out.
I want to walk out those doors
on the very last work day of the school year
doing the most joyful of victory dances,
not because it’s over,
but because I rocked it like a mother.

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Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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Of School Reform and The Common Core

So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement.  Here’s a funny thing.  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.

Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious):  Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.

Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.

Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time.  Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult.  Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new.  I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do.  Can all students learn?  Can all students improve?  Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.

All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions.  We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school.  I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test.  I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community.  They don’t trust principals to hire effective people.  Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true:  We’re not trusted at the school level.  And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous.  Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing.  That would be too hard.

Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured.  In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.

What’s “new” about these standards?  Well, in English education, not a whole lot.  They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening.  None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year.  And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level.  They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same.  Here’s more work.  Here’s more difficult work.  And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads?  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.

On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland.  It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.

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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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