Definitely, definitely try this

A few weeks ago I gave a test and asked the students not to write their names on their paper.  And I highly recommend it if you know your students at all.  Here is what I noticed when I graded their work while not knowing who it was I was grading:

I was more demanding of my stronger students.  I didn’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt because I knew they knew the content and just forgot to complete the square.  Nor did I figure that they meant what I thought they knew.  Each person really had to write in a way that demonstrated they knew the content exactly.

I was more demanding of my weaker students.  I didn’t think, “oh, this guy is having such a hard time with his folks,” or “I already gave her such a hard time this week about missed homeworks.”

I spent a lot of my grading time wondering whose paper I was grading.  This was worrying to me.  It was as if I wanted that information to make judgement calls or decide how to phrase something.  But why is that?  Shouldn’t I have a similar “teacher” voice for each student?  Shouldn’t my judgement be the same for each test that I grade?  It made me glad I didn’t know.  I had to go back to just the work – just the words that the student had used to answer the question.

Now, I did re-read my comments for each one to temper them and made small changes in tone.  I wish I’d kept track of how I did edit them but that ship has sailed.

And when I returned the tests and my comments, I had one bright student say, “but you know I know this!” – and I could say to him that I didn’t know whose paper I was grading.  And that the paper he handed in didn’t demonstrate that he knew it. Then I knew I had done right.

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Where the tests have no name . . .

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(because I’m not paying to post this blog, I can’t have the song suggested by my title playing . . .sob!)

So months ago a dear friend mentioned that her son recommended a book where the author discusses teacher bias and recommends grading without knowing the author of the test or paper.  This idea has stuck with me because I believe I am guilty of this bias.  And it’s not good, this bias.  It means that I end up grading the student and not the student’s work.  It means that I automatically assume clever Katherine meant to write the correct answer and give her the benefit of the doubt.  It means I assume that distracted David probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about here.  It means I penalize or forgive based on what I know about Stephen’s weekend schedule.  And I don’t need to explain that what I really want to “grade” (without grades, of course!) is the work, always the work.  And never the individual, right?

So I’m testing tomorrow and my plan is to first pass around a class list and ask the students to assign themselves a number and then to write that number on their test in place of their name.  It does add some work for me, but only because I will have to write the narrative for this test on a separate sheet, and then transfer it to the narrative sheet after I have done all the grading and know who wrote what.

Will the excitement of the name reveal and the unbiased read of the test be worth this extra step?  Let’s see!

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Sharing my comments with students

Throughout each quarter, I have kept a narrative of how the student has performed on each assessment and on other important assignments.  During quarter 2 (last quarter), I let them read it midway through the quarter, and I handed them a hard copy of it at the end of the quarter.  I thought this was effective for a couple of reasons.

First, it seemed to reiterate my feedback on each assignment to them.  The narrative gives my overall take on how they did, in a way that individual comments on a test might now.  On the test, I might write: “You forgot to mention why this is” or “Not enough proof.” But the patterns of not completing answers may not be so obvious to them until they see in the narrative: “In three out of the five answers, you didn’t give adequate examples.”  And they can see this pattern across several assignments more clearly when all their feedback is collated in one place.

Second, I think this kind of ongoing openness is respectful of them as learners.  I expect them to take responsibility for their work and I hold them accountable for what they still need to work on.  Having this kind of feedback lets them see how their work as a whole represents (or doesn’t) their effort and understanding.  When they have this information organized and spelled out, the responsibility for their academic growth is placed even more firmly on their shoulders.

So my thought for this quarter as I work on their narratives: What if I make this narrative a shared google document the student could reference throughout the quarter?

Here is a sample narrative from quarter 2:

Summary of daily rubric – satisfactory completion of all work, some lateness, sometimes too much play in class, need to work on examples

Test 1 – Content mastered, writing of SEE is non-existant. No examples. For both SEE question and for the citizenship questions, mis-read the directions. Memorization of map perfect, citizenship incomplete because of mis-reading.

SEE paragraph first draft – Well done, but no examples.

Thematic Map – Two maps. Clear, easy to read, information accessible. One title is a little confusing – should be Military Expenditure as a percentage of GDP, I think. Both missing compass roses and East-West gridlines. Bibliography looks great.

SEE paragraph final draft – Well done. Topic sentence needs to refer to the three topics of the SEEs – it refers to three topics but they don’t match the three SEEs. Also good examples, but they all come from Salva’s story.

Test 2 – Content is accurate and mostly complete. About half the answers are lacking in examples.

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Current Events

Wow, there is so much to talk about and seventh graders love to talk about it.  They are old enough to be familiar with the vocabulary, but rarely are informed enough to understand the news.

We often watch CNN Student News and they always are eager for more. Even though the daily episodes are just ten minutes long, we can (and Friday we did) spend the entire hour of class time explaining, dissecting and discussing.  On Friday the topics were globalization (the effects of lowered crude oil prices – which led to fracking, OPEC and the XL Keystone pipeline), the massacre in Nigeria and the violence in Paris (which led us back to The Danger of a Single Story -right where we started the year.)

Frankly, I read the paper every day and listen to NPR non-stop and it’s all I can do to stay informed enough to help them understand.  Luckily I’m old enough to know the background for most of it!

Today I’m trying to decide between playing Obama’s entire State of the Union, and Joni Ernst’s response; or just the analysis; or what about the fact-checking?  How great would that be? For them to see how politicians manhandle the truth?

My original plan was to play some of MLK Jr.’s speeches for them: “But I’m not worried about that now. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of The Lord!”

I’m so lucky that my topic is Social Studies and that we are approaching a global issues project.  It would be a lot harder to fit this all into an introductory Chinese class!

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Fruits of Labor

Grades are due on Tuesday and so for only the second time this school year, I’m assigning letter grades to my students’ work.  Letter grades are easier this time mostly because of the narrative I have been adding to throughout the quarter. I didn’t use the narrative that effectively in the first quarter, but basically it’s a summary of my comments on the assignment and gives me a good snapshot of strengths and weaknesses over the span of the quarter. During this quarter, I wrote these comments with the idea in mind that the students would see them – so they were a little edited by me.  “Did not get this at all!” in quarter 1 became “Seems not to understand Lesson 8 vocabulary” in quarter 2.

I have shared these with the students twice over the course of this quarter and am thinking of sharing it continually as a google doc.  I wonder how that would work.  As Maria says in The Sound of Music, “I’ll have to think about that one.” (How great it would be if I could insert the video clip of Julie Andrews saying that! I might have to waste some time on that tonight.)

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So for all the major assignments, the high- and low-lights of the student’s work are written in black and white.  And it’s amazing the patterns that emerge – “not enough examples” or “unclear arguments” or “details incorrect.”  These patterns have made adding a comment to the report card (something we typically don’t do at the end of quarters 2 and 4) very easy.

Here is an example of my narrative for one student:

Test 1 – Content mastered, writing of SEE is non-existant. No examples. For both SEE question and for the citizenship questions, he mis-read the directions. Memorization of map perfect, citizenship [information} incomplete because of mis-reading.        

SEE paragraph first draft – Well done, but no examples.                                                                                                

Thematic Map – Two maps. Clear, easy to read, information accessible. One title is a little confusing – should be Military Expenditure as a percentage of GDP, I think. Both missing compass roses and East-West gridlines. Bibliography looks great.

SEE paragraph final draft – Well done. Topic sentence needs to refer to the three topics of the SEEs – it refers to three topics but they don’t match the three SEEs. Also good examples, but they all come from Salva’s story.                                          

Test 2 – Content is accurate and mostly complete. About half the answers are lacking in examples.

For his comment, I wrote:

________has a strong grasp of all the material we have covered, and is always a pleasure to have in class.  In his written work, however, he needs to provide examples to back up his statements.

I think it’ll be good for the students and parents to have something to think about in addition to the letter grade.  By the way, this kid’s grade is an B+.

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I love to hear myself talk

Let’s face it, this is probably true for most teachers.  I know it’s true for me.  And now I’m getting older and really do know best, so isn’t it justified?

Here is a quote from Alexis Wiggens’ blog post that I have had in my head since I read it: “If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately: . . . set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.”

(And by the way, do you think I could learn to write so effectively as she does?  In an interview I heard this morning, the late Kent Haruf said that good writing takes more practice than talent.  I don’t need to be as good as him, but I would like to hold people’s interest.  Or maybe even prompt a reader to respond in the comments.  I’ll keep practicing.)

One thing I have done for the last half of my teaching career is to take myself out of the front of the classroom.  Ideally my classroom has no front and I sit at a student desk among the students.  My goal is for us to learn together, not for me to give information and for them to receive it.

I’m not exactly sure how to work on limiting my talking.  I think that is code for: I don’t really think I have a problem with this.  Maybe I should do a wall sit every time I start speaking, then I’ll quickly know when I’ve gone on too long.

Still thinking about this one.

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Sitting in my class

So, after reading the blog re-posted to the Washington Post and titled, “Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns,” I decided to make some small changes to my classroom.

The students are always maneuvering (how do you spell that word? – I could have sworn there was an “OE” in there somewhere.  Ah! It seems I was thinking of the original French, “manoeuvre,” which comes from the Latin “manu operari.”  No wonder the English spelling is so tricky for me.)

As I said, the students are always maneuvering into favorite seats, putting their feet up, angling for a padded “teacher” chair, sneaking into Katie Crowley’s easy chair, etc.  I have always kind of rolled my eyes at this, and never have allowed them to sit in the teacher chairs (because . . . because . . . I can’t explain why).  Now after reading about how exhausting Alexis Wiggens found sitting all day, and after using the student desks myself, I can see their point.  So, now I let them sit where they like, and encourage them to get comfortable if we’ll be reading or listening or watching.  Like this:FullSizeRender

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