Sunday, November 28, 2010

Grades: Understanding, not Obedience

The New York Times got me thinking, in its November 28, 2010 article "No More A's for Good Behavior."  The Potsdam, NY Public Schools, led by Superintendent Patrick Brady, are right on.  As I concluded in a previous blog post, "Extra Credit: The Downfall of America?", grades must be a reflection of knowledge learned, information synthesized, skills demonstrated, not a reflection of behavior.

I have opened up the following conversation individually with teachers, but have not yet taken it on with the staff of the whole school in which I work - yet.  Grades must not be a reflection of behavior, but of understanding.  This includes the a big piece of student responsibility: homework.  The excuse that "if students do not homework and are not penalized for not completing it, then won't ever learn to do it!" is simply hogwash.  We should be creating homework assignments that are essential, and if it uncomfortably illuminates our own homework policies, then guess what: maybe it's time to change!  To the nay-sayers of no-zero homework policies, creating a clear system in one's classroom begins with ensuring that homework assignments are essential and worthwhile to learning and understanding.  Next, follow this If --> Then Equation:

If Then
No Homework Complete HW + Reflection*
Still no HW Complete HW during lunch + Reflection*
Still No HW, again Complete HW before/after school + Reflection*
* Reflection should be age appropriate and in lieu of deducting points from homework grade; teaching responsibility and follow-through may come in ways beyond just subtracting points.


Creating a no-zero homework policy and minimizing the amount that homework counts in one's grade really does allow the conversation to shift from behavior to understanding.  Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, though: conduct, effort and responsibility all still count, and are important to be teaching, especially in the middle school level.  These important values and academic characteristics may still be taught in a plethora of ways, but should be absent from grading and homework practices.  Values should still be taught in classes on a daily basis, as well as advisory, reflection, extension time, lunch, clubs and classroom management, to name a few. 

We must shift the focus of our classrooms from obedience to understanding.  Yes, we should teach students important values, but not at the expense of content understanding.  Making sure that students are provided with every opportunity to understand is essential.  I'm all for democracy, but let's not forget that children are still children: they should not get to decide when and if they want to complete homework (assuming it is worthwhile and essential).  Grades should be a reflection of understanding, not obedience, and it is simply not an excuse to claim that "students need to learn responsibility."  While this is true, it cannot be at the expense of understanding.

The New York Times is right: grades should not reflect behavior.  I believe our schools should do the difficult work of making sure that our grades (and subsequently, our homework assignments) are a reflection of understanding, not obedience.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Extra Credit: The Downfall of America?

I feel dizzy from the number of times I have flip-flopped on the topic of extra credit in schools.  As a middle school educator, I am flooded with requests from students, "Please, Mr. G.  Is there any way I can do extra credit?  Pleeeeeeease?"  Some years, heart strings were tugged in September, and my policy was made for me.  Other years, however, I stood strong and tall, feeling a bit like an ogre, saying "So sorry, I don't do extra credit," but unsure about the WHY behind this statement.  Once I thought long and hard about extra credit, and its potential damaging effect on my classroom, and exponentially my school, my state, and beyond, I decided that extra credit was a dirty little secret, and simply had to go.


Why?  Extra credit, sitting innocently enough by itself, doesn't sound so sinister, right?  I found that more often than not, extra credit was being requested by students who wanted to raise their grade.  What a fantastic situation: eager students who were requesting to learn more?  How could I go wrong!?  Often, I found, the extra credit I assigned was for the student to investigate, learn or understand more knowledge, and it often was extension material.  If I'm being totally honest with myself, more times than not, students were using Wikipedia to look up information that someone else had researched, wrote a few paragraphs, and hope that Mr. Guditus was feeling generous and hadn't forgotten his coffee that day (there was no rubric, of course).

After being totally honest (and vulnerable) with myself, I realized the purpose of extra credit was flawed: I was taking students who were struggling with mastery of a topic, and piled on what amounted to additional busy work, and raised their grade as a result.  WHAT?!  This couldn't be: I was a thoughtful teacher: how had I let myself get away with this?  Teachers are human, and I let emotions drive my decisions, not thinking about the students.  I had forgotten that kids don't always get to make the decisions in the classroom, and that as the teacher, it was my responsibility to determine mastery, and (here's the punchline) what to do when students do not master the material.  I think it was ignorant bliss.  I hadn't realized I had stumbled upon a big question: how do I handle students who struggle?  And seemingly, I wasn't.  Those who were motivated got a boost in their grade, but those who were embarrassed, unable or unwilling to approach me simply got diddly-squat.  This is unacceptable.

Now, here I was facing a bigger issue: how do ensure that students are learning?  It appeared that just giving additional research projects willy-nilly was not the solution.  Not to mention, what about those high-achieving students who had demonstrated mastery?  Extra credit may or may not have motivated them, but was it fair to only offer extra credit to struggling learners?  Would they stop when their grade reached a 100%?  Am I teaching them to be learners for the sake of learning?  I had opened Pandora's Box.  But I'm so glad I did.  Because ultimately, extra credit isn't about ensuring learning, it's about superficiality: raising grades to make students, parents and teachers feel good about themselves, without actually demonstrating mastery of the concepts from class.  Shouldn't a grade be a reflection of understanding of the curriculum?  It simply must be so.

My next year of teaching, I confidently listed "No extra credit is offered in my classroom" in my classroom policies, as well as "assessments under 70 are required to be retaken."  I expected the worst: posters, riots, protests.  Nothing.  After the first assessment, one reflection of student understanding of the material, I contacted students who had scored below a 70, letting them know they must have:
  • Parent signature.
  • After-school/before-school conference with me.
  • Written reflection of why you got the grade you did, and what you will do differently to prepare for the next assessment.
  • Personalized additional study work, due in one week (this looked differently, depending on the assessment and the preparation that was done or not done) to ensure missing concepts were covered
  • Retake the test or quiz, following this cycle, until a 70 or better was achieved.
In this fashion, I could confidently provide students an avenue to increase their understanding, learning and comprehension, of the material I/school/town/state decided was important.  Extension of high-achievers still happened, but I was able to inform students and parents that extension was for students who had mastered the material, not for those to wanted to improve their grade.  To do that, there was a process.


Light Bulb Clip ArtFastforward to this year: I'm an assistant principal, and in the last few weeks, as I've walked the classrooms of my middle school, I have found extra credit to be rampant.  I wonder: how often are students offered extension of curriculum, when they haven't yet mastered the fundamentals?  Is extra credit ruining our students by sending them the message that "more is better," and "complete what you want to complete, not what's important"?  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for student choice and constructivism in classrooms, but extra credit could potentially be damaging our nation.  Extra credit allows students to opt-out of the curriculum they need to master, in lieu of something else (which may or may not be important), but still go on record as having achieved the standard.  This allows us all to be living in a sea of smiles and happiness, but not in reality.  If students are struggling, we must take on the hard work to help them learn and find mastery, not allow them to work independently on material that is not essential.  If we do, our nation will wake up to find students who have become adults that lack essential knowledge and skills, but no one knew...all because of extra credit.  (That may be a bit dramatic, but you get my point, right?)  Extra credit has the potential to send students the message that more is better, and learning just for learning's sake isn't good enough (see Daniel Pink's book Drive for more about motivation).  Our nation simply can not be sustained on these values.  More is not better: creativity, drive for excellence, innovation - these are the values that will help our students be the best in the world.

Teaching is hard work.  As educators (and as an administrator), we must not allow ourselves to take the easy way out, but closely follow our students' mastery, and teach them that learning for learning's sake is important, and that understanding and success is not an option: it's mandatory, and the basis for ensuring that all our children learn.

Image credits:
http://dclips.fundraw.com/zobo500dir/thongs_01.jpg
http://www.clker.com/clipart-6937.html

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#masscue reflections...a bit late!

I attended the Massachusetts Computer Using Educators (#MassCue) Conference in October at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  Besides being able to simultaneously watch outstanding workshops and progress my own learning, I also was able to watch the Patriots practice from the luxury box in which I was sitting...pretty awesome!  (But: no pictures allowed!)

I collected lots of links, attended several workshops, and gathered resources from presenters and colleagues alike.  Below you'll find a plethora of disorganized links, essentially in chronological order of when I learned of them at MassCue.

http://blog.newsarama.com/gallery/albums/userpics/10003/meanwhile.gifBack at school, my goal: deeply explore one resource per day, considering ways to incorporate into the classroom.  I've also decided that in lieu of a traditional grade level meeting, we'll have a knock-down, drag-out, down-and-dirty Exploration Party of the links, giving staff members some time to work with their "content buddies" to discover, explore and create, bringing more instruction, differentiation, and scaffolding to the classroom.  These grade level meetings will require:

  1. Teachers must sit next to content buddies.
  2. Start by exploring several websites individually, noting instructional implications/ideas/interest for your specific class(es).
  3. Share out best ideas with content buddies.
  4. Create a 3-2-1:
3 websites you are personally interested in "mucking around with" by the next grade level meeting in two weeks.

2 ideas you and your content buddies can incorporate into your classes by the next grade level meeting...do this together (many hands make for light work!).

1 idea you can try from today's work, by the end of this week.

  • http://www.polleverywhere.com
  • http://tadalist.com
  • http://www.wallwisher.com
  • http://www.smartmoves.com
  • http://www.vimeo.com
  • http://www.skitch.com
  • http://www.spellingcity.com
  • http://www.storybird.com
  • http://www.tickatock.com
  • http://www.storyjumper.com
  • http://animoto.com/education
  • http://tweentribune.com
  • http://teentribune.com
  • http://www.openoffice.org/
  • http://www.voicethread.com
  • http://edu.glogster.com
  • http://www.flocabulary.com
  • http://myavatareditor.com
  • http://www.voki.com/
  • http://www.fodey.com
  • http://www.comiclife.com
  • http://www.xtranormal.com
  • http://web.archive.org/collections/web.html
  • http://www.ted.com
  • http://arted20.ning.com
  • http://ali.apple.com/cbl/
  • http://www.weebly.com/
  • http://voicethread.com
  • http://www.nicenet.org
  • http://mysterytheaterpodcasts.blogspot.com/
  • http://keepvid.com/
  • http://school.goanimate.com/
  • http://wordle.net
  • http://www.titanpad.com
  • http://www.spaaze.com/
  • http://en.linoit.com/
  • http://www.pindax.com/
  • http://crocodoc.com/
  • http://www.twiddla.com/
  • http://mywebspiration.com/
  • http://www.stykz.com/
  • http://www.xtranormal.com/

Friday, November 12, 2010

Middle School Homework Tips for Parents

  1. Prioritize homework assignments.  Based on difficulty levels and due dates, created a numbered to-do list each afternoon/evening to help your child efficiently complete their homework. 
  2. Learn to advocate for themselves.  If an assignment is confusing to your child, they need clarificaiton, or additional support from their teacher, discuss with your child to whom they should speak and about what, including specific questions to get the help they need. 
  3. Create a calendar for long-term assignments.  It is helpful for students to use a blank monthly calendar to plan time they will need, backwards, from the due date of assignments.  Try color-coding for various classes; this will help students better chart out their after-school time. 
  4. Have a consistent work time.  Everyone deserves some down time, especially after a long day at school!  Allow your child some time to relax and unwind, encourage them to stay hydrated, and have a consistent start time for homework.  There's nothing worse than trying to start a difficult homework assignment at 8:00pm! 
  5. Stay positive.  Homework can be difficult, but modeling a positive attitude, especially when work gets difficult will help teach your child develop problem-solving and self-advocacy skills.  Encourage and support your child by providing guidance as to how to solve a problem and/or seek help. 
  6. Take a break.  If your child is focused and down to work, keep an eye open for frustration.  It is ok to take a break!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Middle School Teaming

Two researchers from Northern Kentucky University, Christopher Cook and Shawn Faulkner, conducted a study of two middle schools in Kentucky that had effective teaming at the middle grades level.  This study clearly listed the benefits of having common planning and meeting time at the middle school level, a crucial time for students in their educational career.  In order to support students at the middle school level, it is important for common planning time and meetings to occur.  Although this model can be costly, when properly implemented with tight-loose leadership from the administration, the benefit to student learning and support is nearly endless.

Cook and Faulkner make the argument for three types of meetings at the middle school level:
  1. Interdisciplinary Teams: these teams, made up of adults that teach different subjects but the same students, should meet regularly, to address:
    • Scheduling changes
    • Student concerns
    • Students receiving services
    • Behavior issues in classrooms
    • Team activity prep work
    • Team field trip
    • Student growth and progress
    • Scheduling/coordinating assessment schedules for students
    • Discuss transferable skills across content areas (e.g. reading comprehension, study skills).
    According to the researchers, "Daily or regular common planning time is essential so that teams can plan ways to integrate the curriculum, analyze test data, review student work, discuss current research, and reflect on the effectiveness of instructional approaches."
  2. Grade Level Teams: these teams are also interdisciplinary, but are larger than the Interdisciplinary Teams, and met less frequently, and often on "as-needed" basis. These teams should focus on:
    • Housekeeping tasks
    • Grade-level field trips
      • Awards programs
        • Assemblies
        • Special programs and schedules
        • School policy implementation at the grade level
        • Assessment demands of the grade
        • Grade-level or school homework policies
        • Grading policies, at a grade-appropriate level.
        1. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs): these teams are made up of teachers who typically teach the same content in the same grade level. These PLCs have the potential to most directly impact student learning and progress. These PLC groups should be meeting regularly, to:
          • Discuss curriculum alignment
          • Develop ommon assessments
          • Analyze student data
          • Share best practices
          • Share ideas and resources
          • Share what works and does not work
          • Planning daily lessons, assessments and scope and sequence calendars
          • Share different teaching strategies
          • Outline units
          • Compare assessments
          • Have a outlet for teachers to discuss delivering the most appropriate instruction.
          PLCs should remain focused on curriculum and assessment functions, whereas Interdisciplinary Teams and Grade Level Teams are a more appropriate forum for student-specific behavioral/academic issues and housekeeping functions.
        Cook and Faulkner go on to describe a few other signs of successful middle-level teams:
        • Printed agendas
        • Recorded minutes, forwarded to building level administrators
        • Commitment from building-level administrators and central office administrators
        • Administrative trust that teachers will use their times wisely to focus on students
        • Culture of high expectations, trust, and professionalism
        • The view that planning/meeting time is "sacred"
        • PLCs should meet at least once a week, and more if possible; flexibility should be key with scheduling Interdisciplinary Team and Grade Level team meetings
        • All team meetings should have clearly defined purposes and expectations (by agenda use)
        • Reasonable goals, able to be accomplished during meeting time frame
        • An unwavering focus on students
        This study provided affirmation that many middle schools are doing good work already, and that there is always room for improvement, as we work to "tighten up" the purpose of meetings, to focus on student learning and supporting one another.