Archive | April, 2014

A typical Easter conversation about grading

25 Apr

Over the Easter break I ended up in an interesting conversation with some family members. My brother-in-law (Bil) is a recent college graduate currently looking for a social studies teaching position, his girlfriend (Gal) is a college student majoring in business, and my father-in-law (Fil) is a school board member. Quite the variety of opinions!

The connection here is education, and the topic of grading and late work came up. These conversations can be a lot of fun because it is important to see different perspectives and philosophies.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing is that the student does the work and learns what is necessary. I do not knock off points for late work, and if a student wants to redo something and improve their grade, more power to them! I do give due dates for assignments, but if a student needs more time to finish there is no penalty.

Bil’s questions were along the lines of responsibility and expectations for students. He had experience teaching in a high school where students could wait to turn their assignments in at the end of a quarter, and some took advantage of that. That left the teacher in the position of grading a whole bunch of work to meet his own deadline. The argument was that if we do not have firm deadlines with penalties, we are not preparing our students for their future.

Gal’s point of view was different. She was thinking of this discussion from the student’s perspective, and a good student at that. She is upset when a fellow student, or competitor as she sees them, turns in an assignment late and still receives full credit. It isn’t fair that she has to work as hard as she does while other students have a free pass to slack off and get it done later.

We didn’t hear a whole lot from Fil besides encouraging this friendly debate.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought deeply about the point of view of a student as a competitor for college scholarships, awards, and all of the things that go along with grades. But that is where the whole conversation led me in my thinking: grades. What are they used for? Why do we have them? And what is the most important thing about them?

In the simplest sense, grades should be a report of what a student has learned and can do. Unfortunately we turn them into so much more. They have become all-encompassing measures of a student from their behavior, responsibility, and intelligence.

If we deduct points for each late day, or knock off a certain random percentage, what are we saying about the value of that assignment? Even worse, if we do not allow the student to receive credit for that assignment, are we saying that that learning was only valuable if it was done on this certain specific day? A student who proves he has learned something should get credit for that accomplishment. Just like when you pass your driver’s test, you can drive, whether it took you one try or ten.

But how do we account for the responsibility, especially in our competitive society that demands we have valedictorians and scholarship winners? Should this be left for our SAT or ACT tests to determine?

If we continue to grade the same way that we always have, it is safe to say that we will continue to have these discussions. When we start to assess student learning as an accurate measure against the standards, we are less likely to have to worry about everything that goes into a number or letter assigned by the teacher. Standards-based grading allows teachers to avoid all of the extra stuff that gets factored into a grade and focus only on whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. And if mastery of the standards becomes the focus, the assessments will change as well.

Will this help students learn responsibility? If we show the students the goal and allow them to prove that they have mastered it, they will be more likely to want to display that mastery and accomplish the goal. My hope is that they do learn persistence when facing a challenging task and a value of the work that we do in class.

Bil is going to ask me if I think this will work for every student. Probably not, but that is the case with most things. The next step is student engagement and authenticity, but that is a whole new blog post!

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What Creating Innovators means for me

21 Apr

After finishing Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner for a book study, I was asked to write a reflection on ways I would apply the idea of teaching students to be innovative to my teaching practices. I also just read an interesting piece of advice about saving your keystrokes and posting to your blog instead of sending an email for things like this. So hcreating-innovatorsere is what stood out to me as I thought about teaching innovators in my English class:

First and foremost, I want to create even more authentic opportunities for my students. I currently blog with my students, but even that lacks authenticity because I am asking them to do it. They don’t feel like they have to have it in order to succeed or to accomplish something. There needs to be a problem or a question that they are trying to solve. “How can I make money with this blog?” or something like that. This is something that I’m going to keep working on to design a way for my students to possibly collaborate and create a blog with a purpose.

One thing that I already do in class is to create feature articles. These are research articles that follow models from magazines. For next year’s assignment I would like to create a class newsroom with students collaborating to create some type of magazine, either electronic or paper. The students would work as a team to create the content (stories, photographs, etc.), edit, assemble, and publish their work. If I want to add some friendly competition, there could be an ad to a link where students could vote for that group’s publication. This would give the students a chance to see what was most effective in communicating with their peers.

The idea that we have a certain amount of “whimsy” and fun in what we do is important. We are providing a place for students to play with a lot of different parts of their learning. I want to get students to collaborate more often in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal should be one that is created by students. “People who innovate care about what they do, care enough to take a chance, spend extra time, care about people they are working with. I also want them to feel that what they’re doing makes a difference” (p. 215). It is necessary to expose students to the various important things happening in the world if they are going to develop the empathy to want to change them.

Each year we do a Hero Project in my 7th grade classes. This is a fairly structured project where we choose five traits of their hero (someone in the student’s life) and write a paragraph on each of those in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. The project is then turned into a movie and is always successful and enjoyable for students as well as meaningful for parents, the most common recipients of the project as a gift. This year I am going to open it up a little more to my students. I am going to create an example using my grandmother where I interview her and use her voice and film of her to add to my project. It is usually the student reading over the picture of the hero, but the video would make the project go even more in depth.

Meaningful feedback for students is another part of the book that is important. I have played with some different forms of grading thanks to discussions with an English colleague, and using the standards as individual grades on a rubric has helped me to give better feedback to students. Instead of just receiving a letter grade or a percentage, students can see more of what actually made up the grade because I respond to them and point to evidence. This is in addition to the constant feedback during the writing and creating process.

And meaningful feedback should not just be for our students. I have done some videotaping of my teaching, but I want to continue and grow that habit. We do not always find time to reflect as teachers, and when we do it can be inaccurate. Using video is a way that I can analyze myself. It is also a way for teachers to share their successes and strategies. Instead of living in the bubble of our own classroom, let’s get out through the use of technology and see all of the wonderful things happening in our own districts.

Lastly, I truly want to be the educator that students see as passionate and worth being around. I want to push for continued improvement in all areas of teaching and learning. And I want students to feel that I truly cared about them as a person and gave them the tools to be successful in the world.

Plagiarism lessons with Vanilla Ice

15 Apr

Plagiarism is one of the toughest things to teach to a middle school student during a research paper or article. The words are there, right on the internet, and I can’t just copy them? No. You may not.

Here is my attempt to help students understand what they need to do in order to create their own work:

First, I want to blatantly give an example of plagiarism, so I copy and paste from Wikipedia.

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.[16][page needed] The question of whether gun control policies increase, decrease or have no effect on rates of gun violence turns out to be a difficult question.

Yes, this is plagiarism. You can see the citation still on there. I would never use some of those words!

Ok, good. We’re off to a good start. I then copy the first sentence and Google it to show that the exact website shows up, and that this cheating is easy to find. That, and it isn’t even creative!

So what if I change words?

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.

We’ll change that to:

High rates of gun deaths and injury are often seen as a main causes for gun control policies.

Is that OK?

Well, this is where things get a little tricky. Some students think that since we changed the words, we have avoided plagiarism. Some say that we didn’t change the format, and we’re basically saying the same thing, so yes, it would be plagiarism.

To help in this decision, it is time to turn to one of the great plagiaristic icons of our time, Vanilla Ice. We listen to the beginning of “Ice Ice Baby” to hear his version of the beloved beat.

 

And here is Queen’s version of the same beat in “Under Pressure”:

 

Was Mr. Ice plagiarizing? Another tough question for the students, but this real-world example gets them to really consider the issue. They want to know who was right and who was wrong in this lawsuit.

The best part about Vanilla is that he doesn’t sound too believable. And as it turns out, the courts say he wasn’t either. We discuss the penalties that he faced because of plagiarism as well as the penalties that students face in different situations.

So how do we avoid plagiarism?

I use the same two sentences that I copied and pasted. I read them in the document I found, and I write my version of what was said in front of the students as a model. My goal is to show the students how to take something and make it my own and say it in my own way. As writers, we need to sound consistently like ourselves.

The next step? A bibliography!

A real inspiration

8 Apr

IMG_0803One of the things that I have always struggled with when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with my classes is that the students look at the horrendous crimes and acts against humanity like they are a work of fiction. Although there is an initial shock at some of the memories of Wiesel, it seems like the real always needs to be reinforced.

We were lucky enough to have Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor and author of Four Perfect Pebbles, come to our school and speak to our middle school students along with eighth graders from two other middle schools. Now that makes things real.

She spoke of hope, courage, humanity, the importance of being kind to others, and valuing what we have while working for others to ensure equality for all. Her message was moving and inspirational.

But most importantly with Marion’s visit, she made history real for my students. She made the terror and hate a real event. She made the soldiers capturing Jews, ripping them from their own homes, and packing them into cattle cars a real story. When we read Night in the coming weeks, these students will be able to make connections with their growing background knowledge.

Connections to these times in history are disappearing. As Marion said, “This generation is the last that will hear the story of the Holocaust from a survivor.” If we are going to count on our students to fight against inequality and hate, to believe in the good in others, and to stand up for what is right, Marion’s lesson is a crucial one. I choose to read Night with my students because of this lesson, and there is no doubt that this year it will be more real than ever.