Ravaged. Snarling. Hungry. The beast is on the prowl. Can you feel it approaching? Students sense it. So do teachers. I know what lies ahead. No one can escape. Anxiety levels rising. The end is near. The semester is coming to a close.
A dark cloud of reality disrupts the sunny skies of the fairy tale world in the secure, carefree (gradeless, gamified, personalized, fill-in-the edublank) classroom. All the talk about learning and growth, feedback and revision, fades into the past, like a story from our childhood. Once upon a time there was hope—exciting new worlds to explore, characters to encounter, paths to choose. With challenges and adventures at every turn, lessons were learned, progress made, and artifacts collected.
But now, with one turn of the page, the fable reaches a resolution. The moral of the story speaks truth. There is no more practice. No opportunity to reassess. Time has expired. Despite months of training, the report card reduces an entire body of work to a single letter grade with room for several prefabricated comments. Although learning will continue into the next term, the calendar says it’s time to report a grade. How can one letter grade narrate an entire story? No wonder the end of a mark period is as daunting as the evil figure from a child’s bedtime story.
As an educator, the semester grade haunts me as well, but I refuse to let it become the symbol of evil in this tale. However, in a predictable plot twist, I somehow become the bad guy, holding the fate of each student in my hands and delivering a final judgment. Why is the teacher always perceived as the Big Bad Wolf?
Fortunately for the learner, the final grade is not about how long it took to get to Grandmother’s house, nor how many points were collected on the way. Rather, each student, with my guidance, will do a thorough house inspection to provide an honest, accurate assessment of the structures they’ve built. Then, we will reread the learner’s story to determine a final grade together.
Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation.
It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.
All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.
Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading
Non-educators discuss education by using the language of an economics lesson—analyzing the material impact of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Public decision-makers assess a school’s value and teacher performance on ratings attached to standardized test scores. The political community seeks to reform education in terms of funding, privatization, policy, vouchers, and budget cuts. While recognizing these concepts have no connection to kids, educators also use business-related diction when referring to educational trends, college and career readiness, stakeholders, ownership, investment, portfolios, risk-taking, and assessment. Educators must be intentional and learner-focused, understanding how words and actions communicate core values.
Despite positive intentions, we have created a competitive, high stakes culture of success or failure. When we rank by grade point average or add merit to weighted grades, we assess students’ educational “worth.” Transcripts keep score but fail to identify what students know and can do. Online gradebooks turn reporting into nauseating stock market games.
We live in an ‘A Culture.’
In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. Reassessing our culture of learning is serious business… Continue reading
Back to School
Stores taunt shoppers with Back-to-School savings in early July. By mid-August, denial transforms into anticipation. Hallways are waxed. New classroom designs are configured. Bulletin boards become thematic works of art. Pencils are sharpened. School is ready for students.
Educators focus their vision on the master plan for student learning. What worked last year? What adjustments need to be made? And why? Always know the WHY to move forward with purpose. After addressing the WHY, it is time to figure out HOW to set the plan into action. Every day, students should ask and be able to answer: What am I learning today? Why am I learning this? and How will I know I have learned it?
We know from the research of experts and from personal experience—in its simplest form—learning must be visible to maximize educational effectiveness. John Hattie reminds us, “Know thy impact.” So, we proceed thoughtfully…
Course curricular units. Planned.
Department standards. Identified.
Visible learning targets. Posted.
Student-friendly language? Yep.
If we can get to this point, we are in great shape; but a new conflict emerges. How do we know students are learning according to expectations? Is there a transparent means of assessing and organizing evidence of learning? This becomes a gap in what well-intended educators want to do versus what takes place in the classroom. Here is a simple plan to align standards, learning targets, and assessment. Continue reading
The question resonates across the battlefield (Room A15) and echos throughout the high school hallways: Will the Greeks win honor, or will the Trojans rewrite history? Forget about Friday night’s upcoming game or what so-and-so said about whomever on social media. There is glory to be won in World Literature this week…
Upon completion of reading The Iliad, juniors in my English classes know a war is about to be waged, with reputations and lasting fame on the line. Here is the prompt to The Epic Paper, an engaging, versatile writing strategy that could be adapted to any content area:
The Epic Paper
“How does Homer portray the concept of HONOR in The Iliad?”
You, the epic hero, have received the call to adventure. After years of training for this moment, your mission is simple–accept the call and prepare for battle. With national pride and individual honor at stake, you must win everlasting glory and fame; your name will be remembered amongst the gods and your words immortalized upon Mount Olympus.
Enter battle armed with a formal essay loaded with critical thought about the concept of HONOR in The Iliad. Simply refer to your concept map to guide your writing, and, if necessary, seek inspiration from the Muse.
[Your basic thesis would look something like: “Homer portrays honor through ___________, __________ , and ___________.” You fill in the blanks and develop paragraphs supporting each aspect of honor.]
Anonymously type [double space, size 12, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins] your paper and hand it to Grade-Slaying Durst by __________. Do not allow hubris, foolish pride, or cowardice to blind you—this ignorance will lead to your demise, and ultimately be the cause of your team’s downfall.
This is war! May the strong survive!
Here are the major stages in the process once all of the papers are collected and randomly coded with a number and color so I will be able to identify the paper and its writer–but fate determines the teams. Anonymity provides a level of comfort for everyone, particularly the insecure writers. Let it also be noted that a Greek paper will remain on the Greek side but never cross paths with its writer.
Phase 1: Preparation for Battle
*Papers have been collected and divided into armies
3 Greek Armies = Blue, Green, and Purple
3 Trojan Armies = Orange, Yellow, and Red
*Each army must select the top two papers in their camp (defend your selections based on the writing rubric standards)
*Write comments on each paper
*Then have discussions to determine the top 2 papers
1) Complete a rubric for papers not advancing–these will enter 1 on 1 combat
2) In pairs, become the experts on the paper you want to take into battle!
Phase 2: 1 vs 1 Combat–Each pair of students per camp take the leftover papers (those which did not place in to top two) into direct combat around the classroom, Greek vs. Trojan. In these battles, even the weakest papers get defended for their positive qualities.
*Determine a winner of each WRITING STANDARD on our rubric
1) Content & Critical Thinking
4) Language, Voice, & Tone
#/5 = WINNER!
Phase 3: Championship Rounds of Battle–The top six papers from both sides of the classroom now enter a round-robin tournament in which each Greek paper battles each Trojan paper. Every battle is organized according to the criteria of different writing standards.
BATTLE #1: INTRODUCTION AND THESIS
Which paper has a more engaging introduction ending with a highly developed thesis?
BATTLE #2: CONCLUSION
Which conclusion leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and closure?
BATTLE #3: LANGUAGE AND WORD CHOICE
What paper uses exceptionally rich, lively, and precise language to enhance meaning?
BATTLE #4: CONVENTIONS AND USAGE
1) complete sentences 2) 3rd person point of view 3) present tense 4) pronoun agreement 5) punctuation and capitalization
DAY 3–BATTLE #5: FLUENCY
1) Seamless and purposeful quote integration
2) Sentence variety
3) Creative, varied, and smooth transitions within and between sentences
BATTLE #6: CONTENT AND CRITICAL THINKING
1) Excellent understanding of subject matter
2) Appropriate evidence and examples to support the thesis
3) Answers the question expertly
And there you have it…the 4th hour Trojans rewrote history, while the 5th hour Greeks did not even need a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans this year.
Phase 4: Written Reflection–In addition to the formative feedback I receive while walking around the battlefield, at the end of the epic paper war I have students write a reflection to verbalize their learning and provide me with more valuable feedback.
1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?
2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?
Their responses recognize the benefits of our epic approach to a typical English class writing assignment. A majority of responses mention the intensity of competition and the challenge of defending someone else’s writing. What they are really saying is that because everyone is engaged in a class activity, they must be on their game–preparation, quick thinking, and strategy are necessary to defend a logical argument referencing specific examples (sounds Common Core friendly). Other comments highlight thinking deeper about the content of The Iliad and finding a new level of respect for some of their classmates’ talents.
The immediate impact on their writing includes such responses as learning new strategies for analyzing literary themes, effective (yet simple) changes to make throughout the writing (and thought) process, the significance of vocabulary on the delivery of content, and the importance of supporting a solid thesis with credible evidence. I read several thoughts about spending more time on analysis, less on summary (thank you!). One student concluded, “I have to write as if I am the reader. I have to make the reader enthusiastic about reading my essay, and understand my thoughts better.” One boy called the craft of writing, “…a powerful tool,” while another articulated, “The craft of writing is like art–everyone has different styles and some people are stronger than others, but in different areas.” Wow. Whose students are these?
As proud as those responses make me, I am most impressed with my students’ new respect for the efforts of their teachers. Many reflections mentioned the time-consuming challenge and “strenuous process” of assessing writing. Yes, minions…yes. Because readers were forced to evaluate standards separately, they gained a greater understanding of our writing rubric–that multiple factors must be considered in assessing the quality of a work. This should provide a clearer appreciation of my standards-based approach to grading, as I attempt to guide their learning toward a growth mindset (material for a future post!).
Organizing such an activity takes plenty of time and effort on the front end, but celebrating our writing in a competitive game–especially early in the school year–transforms attitudes and builds confidence for future assessments. My juniors are epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest.
“I now understand how papers are graded and I can make future papers better in multiple ways. I feel that my own writing will benefit because of this activity.”
That is honorable.