Syllabus Redesign (Eighth Version)

I swear, it will be the death of me.

Just when I say, that’s it.  I’m done.  Fall 2011 syllabus can be uploaded to the blog.  I have a new brainstorm or I read an article online, or I participate in #engchat or #FYCchat and my entire thought-process is demolished (in a good way).  With three weeks to go to the start of the semester, I know I need to just fine-tune and polish them and call them good.  I always deviate from them anyways.

Here are a few of my most recent struggles with syllabus course revision:

1.  The Balance between Reading and Writing

My First Year Composition course has a lot of writing.  I know that.  My students know that.  At first, they are overwhelmed, then it just becomes second nature.  Every semester, my evaluations state that the level and amount of writing is what helped them to become better writers (the overall purpose of this course).  Last term, I realized that we only discussed reading 10-15% of the time.  The rest was dedicated to writing.  I firmly believe that to write well, you must read well.  With this in mind, I have assigned a reader for this semester as a tester.  Ideally, I’d like to try a thematic approach and have readings all within that theme.  Perhaps in the Spring (as I just thought of this over the last week and three weeks is not enough time to pull it all together).

2.  Role of Technology

Students today must be able to not only navigate the online world, they must be comfortable claiming their own and leaving their digital footprint behind (and no, not those weekend party pictures on Facebook do not count).  With this in mind, my students this year will be using a blog (platform their choice) for reflective writings about their learning as well as a platform to share their writing with the world and each other.  This semester, my courses are also paperless.  I will restrict the papers I handout out (none planned at the moment, except for a QR business card) and students will not be handing in hard copies.  I will be using JotForm uploaded from our class blog.  The files is saved into my Dropbox and then I will annotate and provide narrative feedback on the iPad2 and email the PDF back to the student.  Toting around 70 student essays of 7-10 pages was a bit crazy.

From the #FYCchat Twitter chat on August 3rd, I was happily encouraged to see another professor using Twitter in her course.  I like this idea and plan on using it as well.  I will create a hash-tag for each course and students will be able to reach out to me and others.  In addition, students will have to tweet in questions for our reading discussions using the hash-tag that I can then pull up in class so we can guide our discussions.  I’m excited for this.

3.  Writing Assignments

While I have the big assignments that stay the same in theory from semester to semester, I am constantly adding new frames around them or redirecting their focus.  My research paper is a prime example of this.  When I first started teaching it, I used the standard I-Search format (hybrid of the 3-Search paper).  My second semester, I moved it to a Multi-Genre Research Project (MGRP).  I was okay with the student products, but still, not quite what I had imagined.  My third semester, I combined my argument paper with the MGRP.  The results were better, but it was still missing something.  This year, my fourth semester, students will be creating the MGRP digitally.  This will be a great first step to the online collection of work that is due at the end of the semester that they will be using to help validate their grades for the term.  I think this evolution make logical sense for me.  I just wonder what the students will think.  Will this next step in the MGRP-Digital be too much?

4.  Assessment/Grading

I have struggled with this aspect of teaching the most (and I’ve only been teaching for two years!)  I started with points–2,260 points a student could accrue during the course of the semester.  This was ghastly and placing a grade on a paper and then converting it to points… I’m a writing instructor.  Math is not my forte.  I spent most of my grading time on calculations.  Even then, grades were “adjusted.”  After that, I moved to a percentage-based system.  Still, most of my time was spent on an Excel spreadsheet calculating percentages instead of points.  This semester… I am tossing grades out the proverbial window.  Students will grade themselves on criteria that we establish in class: together.  And I am relieved.  Off all my revisions, additions and subtractions to my syllabus I feel the most confident with this change.  Yes, I know students will be ambivalent and unsure of what to expect.  I know, that after the are knee-deep in it, once they experience the freedom of writing and learning without the competitive grades; they will excel.

Now… to tackle my”Outsiders in Literature” course syllabus.  I still have three weeks.. plenty of time… (I hope…)

Grades are a Crutch

Living in Northern New Hampshire, I often feel as though my teaching philosophy leaves me stranded on an island.

I am the only educator I know that uses an iPad to teach.  I am the only educator I know locally that not only believes that grades are punitive and as such am abolishing grades.  I am also the only educator I know that will not be using traditional 3-5 question “reading checks” in my literature course.

In my twitter PLN and conversations I’ve been having with a few people in my PLN (Mark Barnes and Joe Bower) they have helped to guide me that this way of thinking is what’s not only right for me, but right for my students.

My History with Grading

The way my courses are structured are that at least three (3) drafts of each larger paper is created, discussed, revised, edited.  I have 70+ students,  and six larger papers a semester for each student.  Along with these larger papers, my students have weekly writings.  My first semester of teaching, i quickly discovered that the traditional grading scheme was not going to work for me and my students.  I had too many arguments with myself over just what to assign for a grade.  I spent more time over the letter grade than I did reading and writing narrative feedback.  I did this for the first year.

The second year of teaching, I did away with points, percentages and just graded the “final” product.  My dissonance with grading still existed, now it was just more focused.  I hated grading.  Hated placing a B or C on a paper and watching students flip past comments for the grade, look at it and shove their paper in their bags.  It felt as if all my hard work, effort and struggle was negated by that silly letter at the end.

How can I change the motivation of the students?

I don’t think students should “earn” a grade.  I don’t believe grades should be used, as they are often done, TO students without their input.  Grades are punitive and fester competition.  If students are competing with each other, their parents and the system, then when does that leave time for actual learning?  When I take the competitive nature out of the classroom by removing the grades I also take away the external motivation of the students. I no longer am saying to them, complete all areas of this checklist/rubric/etc., tally them up and there is your grade.  Grades are no longer done “to” them.

The motivation is now intrinsic.  I ask my students, “What would you do with more time?” and then give it to them.  This switch in approach triggers the students to want to make their writing better.   This leads to more collaboration between students and teacher and more student ownership.  This student ownership also fosters the change in motivation from outward to intrinsic.

Don’t we all want our students to want to do better because they know they can without being motivated by grades?

Think of how we are “graded” in real world.  Through narrative feedback and conversation with our bosses and peers.  The bank manager doesn’t give their tellers a “C”, why should we in education? Authentic and meaningful feedback is the prefered method of grading post schooling, why not match it in school?

I like to state that education today uses the act of grading as a crutch.  

Teachers, school districts and even the Federal Government assign grades because it looks nice and neat.  Oh, this school is a C school, this one fails.  Teachers manipulate grades in an effort to extort some power and control.  We hear teachers talk about not being able to “do” that activity as their students would go crazy.  The teachers are afraid to lose control or better yet, to transfer that control to the students.  Teachers who stress upon “classroom management” and expect students to sit in the desks, listen attentively and absorb all the education the teachers are pouring into the brains are often frustrated with the structure of school (even though many may not see anything inherently wrong with it).  Teachers rely on the act of grading as their last push for ultimate control of their class.  Hardly ever are students allowed any feedback for the grades they receive or are they allowed to offer their own feedback into what they feel their grades should be.

Losing the Crutch

I have looked at my grading scheme that I thought I had settled on a mere month ago; however, after attending #RSCON3 I am ready (and more than willing) to relinquish full control of my class.  I will not be assigning grades to my students come this fall.  Students will be grading themselves (I predict that they will be harder than I would have been anyways).  My plan to implement this is as follows:

  1. Discuss with students on Day 1 my expectations and what I want them to learn for the course.
  2. Create the courses essential questions together.
  3. Brainstorm a list of ways throughout the semester and with our books on how we can demonstrate not only learning, but mastery too.
  4. Sign students up for days when they lead the classroom discussion.
  5. Conference with the students at least every 2-3 weeks (or as needed) on their progress.
  6. Offer narrative feedback on all assignments and stay away from empty praise.  Note what works, what intrigued me, and question students next steps with the piece.
  7. Sit with the students and watch their work come rolling in.
Okay with Living on an Island…For Now…
I will not mind being an educational island of one come this fall.  I have my PLN that will support me.  I am looking forward to finally being able to teach without the crutch that has slowed me down for the last two years.  I am already imagining what I could do without the stress and the time of grading.
My hope is that one by one I can start to show my fellow educators that they are relying on a crutch while teaching and hope that they can then lose it.  One at a time.

We Need A Trust Revolution

In the chat box of one of the multitude of sessions at  the Reform Symposium 3  (#RSCON3) a participant posted that we needed a teacher revolution.

I would like to refute that.

I say we don’t need a teacher or learning revolution; we need to take it a step further.

We need a trust revolution.

We need students to trust teachers, teachers to trust students, administrators to trust their teachers, parents to trust their schools, the United States Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan to trust schools.  Congressman, laypeople, professionals need to trust teachers.

We need to build that trust back.  Schools and teachers once had that trust.  I’m not sure where we lost it. No Child Left Behind and ESEA?  Race to the Top?  Standardized testing?  Further back?  I’m not sure…

So many of the sessions I attended during #RSCON3 were centered around trust.  The fantastic opening keynote with Timo Ilomäki and Aki Puustinen regarding the Finnish Educational system where their entire system is built upon the foundation of trust.  Teachers trusted students to put in the effort to work and learn. Students trusted that their teachers were not  placating them with busy work.  The students works and projects held intense meaning for the students.  The entire country trusts teachers.  They focus on education.  It’s a top priority.  Finland makes education the focal point.

It is nearly impossible to have  education be a focal point of a nation, when  you don’t have trust present.

Everyone who is involved in overseeing, regulating, mandating, assessing, evaluating, reforming, teaching and learning in an education needs to breathe and take a step back.

If we can’t trust the Secretary of Education to know what is truly in the best interests of education (and it’s not standardized testing linked to teacher effectiveness and school funding).  If we can’t trust our administrators to look beyond those same test results and at the learning (or the lack of learning).  If students can’t trust their teachers to provide them with opportunities for ownership in their learning; for opportunities for deeper learning that is personal and will stick with student far beyond the test and school year.  If teachers can’t trust their students to take the risks that will allow students to step outside of their boxes; outside of their comfort zones of worksheets and multiple choice tests.

Then we know how and why today’s educational system is broken.

This is why we are now in a educational system where education is now a competition and me, doing my best as a student is now compared with someone elses best.  Yet, our interests are diverse, our backgrounds are diverse, our starting points are diverse, our endings too will be diverse.

We have placed our trust in the educational system with scaled scores of one student that are normed against other students.  How is that trust?

You’re trusting a machine and bubbles.  You’re trusting the fact that students had breakfast the day of the test and restful sleep the night before.  You’re trusting that the student wasn’t up all night because of hunger pains or listening to their parents fighting.  You’re trusting the fact that they followed the directions, that they understood the directions.  That they understood what the questions were asking of them.  That they filled in the correct bubble for the corresponding question.  You’re trusting that their handwriting is legible and neat.  You’re trusting machines over people.  You’re trusting an evaluative tool that is a mere snapshot in time.  That is just the tiniest pixel of the smallest section in the whole picture of a students knowledge.

Instead of trusting teachers that know their students.  Teachers can help push the student  beyond test scores.  Teachers can guide the students to explore themselves, their families, their communities the world.

If only given the trust that teachers need to do their job to the best of their ability.

During #RSCON3 this past weekend, THOUSANDS of teachers marched on Washington DC and marched all over the country to stand up for education at the #SOSMarch.  One the the key speakers was actor Matt Damon.  Yes, Boston-Boy, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon.  Of all the presenters and speakers, Damon’s speech struck a lot of nerves for those in attendance and around the country.  Reading his speech and listening to it, I realized, he might not have used the word trust, but he too was call for a Trust Revolution.

 My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep— this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

~~Matt Damon, #SOSMarch, July30, 2011

We Must Pay Close Attention to the Forks

I hate doing dishes.  

No.

Let me rephrase: I loathe deeply washing silverware. Give me fifty plates and cups and pans, yes, pans encrusted with burnt dinner. Anything but silverware.

The deal in my house is this: I wash everything but the silverware.

This typically works; however, Husband was working out of town and, well, the clean silverware drawer was empty. I spent forty minutes soaking, wiping and inspecting each individual fork, spoon, knife and cooking tool to insure that all residual food junk was off the silverware.

As I was picking dried grilled onions and leftover omelets from the tines of forks, it occurred to me… dirty silverware was very much like the students I teach.

I know, crazy mental leap, right. Bear with me.

Students are unique individuals. They have varying backgrounds and good recognize this. Great teachers not only recognize this, they embrace it and base their classroom planning around it.

On Twitter and Facebook I have been seeing posts of how classroom teachers have their full-year lesson plans complete for the entire year.

Now, I know what you are thinking… You think I mean a year-long unit outline or a basic calendar outlining concepts. No, daily lesson plans in their plan books done.

How are these teachers accomplishing this?

I struggle before the start of every semester of just penciling in general topics of studies for a block of time. A pencil is a must. I never liked pencils before I started planning curriculum. I just erase, adapt, change and alter my plans every day. And those changes occur before my semester even starts.

Why so many changes?

I read an article on the teaching of writing in English Journal, or someone on Twitter posts a fantastic link on reading comprehension or my students take a detour that I could never have planned for. I also take into account my students–who they are, where they are coming from, what do they need, what interested them.

I am there, my entire purpose, is to teach students. How could I plan any curriculumn and not take my students into account. My students must be at the forefront of all of my instructional and curriculum planning needs. Otherwise, I am do them and myself a grave disservice.

Just like my annoying silverware. Yes, there is a lot of it. Yes, there are lots of nooks and crannies that demand individual attention and must be washed one-by one.  If I don’t give the silverware the attention it needs to be clean, sparkly and food-ready, then the next time I want to use it, I need to go back to the sink and re-wash it. Except this time, instead of it being rather easy to clean, the food bits are crusted on. Almost impossible to get clean.

If I had paid attention in the beginning and given the individual time necessary to the silverware (and students) time re-washing (and re-teaching) would not be necessary.  Instead, I could spend time on baking gluten free chocolate chip cookies with my boys or going more in depth with my students.

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– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Why 3P Grading?

UPDATE:  After attending #RSCON3 and talking to several ungraders… I have altered my grading plan.  Please see this post instead.  Thanks!

What a Grade Means to Me:

A grade, whether received for a math class or through a work assessment/review, is supposed to reflect how much you’ve learned since the last review/grade. A grade is, at its heart, a measure of progress and learning over a period of time in which you can compare your grade to others.

As a teacher, I have discovered what so many others are starting to discover that grading individual assignments does not work.

Educators are required to submit grades for our students.  However, I do not believe that a grade makes students more  interested, engaged, or a skilled learner, student, writer, reader, or thinker.  In fact, research indicates that grades work against learning and doing.

This semester, I am asking students to assess and their own learning, writing, reading, and thinking.  These will not be assessments created to generate a grade—like rubrics or scoring guides.  The best assessment involves observation, description, interpretation, and an insider’s awareness of what it is like to actually create the products or engage in the kind of thinking and writing we are assessing.

I will not grade individual assignments.  Not only do grades and point systems get in the way of learning, but they also just don’t make any sense, particularly in a course where the work and thinking we’ll do influences itself backwards and forwards.

I want all of the work my students complete throughout the semester integrated with them, the reader and each other.  If I’ve doled out grades, assignment by assignment, why would students want to go back and revise and edit their pieces.  Grades signify that the work is finished and writing, good writing, is never finished.  I want students to have a sense that our work together is  bigger and more important than any number or letter that I  could assign it.  And, indeed, it is.

I will ask students’ work be done on time, in good faith, a term used to describe work in which students have invested thought and time.  If students are thinking, working, and participating in good faith, then I will return your investment; I’ll give students response and feedback—assessment—to help them deepen their understandings and improve the quality of their work.

I needed to find/create/calculate the ideal grading system that would match my core beliefs on grading.  This is where the 3P system comes in.

My Interpretation of the 3P Grading System:  

Student are responsible for assessing themselves, just as I am responsible for assessing them.  Each of our assessments in Participation, Progress, and  Performance will count towards 50% of your final grade.

  • Participation (50%):  It’s worth half your grade.  That should tell you something.  Participation is how you conduct yourself in class.  Participation includes, but not limited to: Attendance (Don’t be late) in body and mind, Be Prepared, Assignments On-Time, Share in Class and Online, Be Respectful, Take Ownership, Be Accountable, Ask for Help.
  •  Progress (30%):  Progress takes into account new learning.  What didn’t you know at the beginning that you know now.  Simply “doing the work” will not cut it.  Two types of progress:  participation progress and academic/knowledge progress.
  • Performance (20%):  This part of grading is strictly in regards to the quality of the work produced. Most people are B/C people.  A vast majority of the population are B/C students and B/C workers.  And that is ok.

I then had to define what each grade “looks” like.  These are rough outlines.  The first day of class, we, as a class, will elaborate on these and agree… as a class.

  • A: Consistently Above and Beyond.  Completed more than asked/expected weekly. One of the very best.  Your work singles you out from the pack.  Perfect participation.
  • B: Occasionally performs above course requirements .  Exceeds expectations 75% of the time.
  • C: Just Enough. Does the bare minimum.  Nothing more, nothing less.
  • D: Didn’t Try.  Assignments do not match the requirements, assignments not complete, products have multiple grammar issues. No revision.
  • F:  Forget about it.  Assignments not passed in.  No effort, negative participation, missed classes.

I am, finally, at peace with grading my students.  I know that when my students see this system, they will experience some dissonance.  Students are so entrenched in the grade game this might come as challenging but I think once the students start working within the system, I really think it will open them and their writing up.

At least I hope so.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Teaching Writing: 5-Paragraph Essay is Not the Answer

“I just spent eight hours, bent over a table saw, cutting off the points of a picket fence. How ridiculous is that?”

The Husband is a high-end carpenter. For the last few months he has been working at our local theme park, Storyland, helping them complete their new ride. He was called into Storyland on Sunday for the final touches before the ride opened on Tuesday. What were those final, must-have final touches? De-picketing the picket fence that surrounds the new attraction and forms the queue. Of the hundreds of individual fence parts, none of them could have the pointy-top.

At one of the corporations other theme parks, a customer somehow fell onto one of the pickets and was seriously injured. The picket fence accident was simply that, an accident and it was a freak accident at that. To prevent this from happening again (and one can assume to limit future liability) Corporate Headquarters instituted a blanket, catch-all policy; no pointy picket fences at any of their theme parks.

Sound crazy? Insane? Unrealistic even?

It wasn’t the theme parks fault. It was an accident. Millions of homes around the world have picket fences. This accident could have happened anywhere. How is the decapitation of the picket fences going to prevent this from happening again in the future?

Educations version of the decapitated picket fence is the Five Paragraph essay. This form writing has become the schools savior when it comes to the teaching of writing and passing the high stakes standardized tests that are tied to No Child Left Behind and Federal and State funding dollars. The easy answer is the Five Paragraph essay. It has become the end-all, be-all answer.

As an Adjunct English Professor, I have fifty first-year composition students a semester. All fifty believe themselves to be horrible writers and enter the classroom thinking that this will be their most dreadful course in college. Great mindset to start off not only the course but their college career as well.

The first three-four weeks of my sixteen week semester is spent unteaching.

I need to unteach them that the five paragraph essay is equal to good writing. For most, if not all, of their education, the five paragraph essay has been drilled into their heads as the only way to write.

And why not? Five paragraph essays are easy to teach, quick to learn and even easier to grade. Oh, only four paragraphs minus 10 points. No thesis statement as the last sentence of the first paragraph and restated in the fifth paragraph, minus another 10 points. Five paragraph essay format matches up nicely to rubrics. Five paragraph essays are easy to create a checklist for completion.

Five paragraph essays sap the joy, pleasure and inherent (and positive) risk out of writing. In one high school English class I observed during my Masters program, every Freshman student had an entire six week unit devoted to the five paragraph essay form.

The Five Paragraph essay for does not address the underlying purpose that at the format is aimed to correct-how to teach writing. When writing is boiled down to a checklist, formulaic composition, why would students, writers and readers become invested in the piece.  That investment in the piece of writing it what demands the writer to bring the piece further; to spend more time and energy in the piece.  That investment makes the writer want the piece to be better; therefore, they work at it.  They struggle.  They draft.  They delete.  They start over.  The participate actively in the process of writing.  The ups and the downs.

When the Five Paragraph form is used, teachers are looking for the checklist components when they read, students are using the checklist as they write and they rarely, if ever, challenge the form and take a risk in their writing for fear of failure.

How can we ethically call this teaching of writing and the product quality writing?

The Five Paragraph essay is like that picket fence. Education has found and applied a quick fix that is supposed to solve all the problems with student writing. Just cut off the pointy parts of the fence, the challenging aspects of building student confidence in their writing, allowing the students to make choices and have ownership over their writing and helping when the students fail. Instead, use the Five Paragraph essay format complete with a can’t fail checklist. That will solve the problem of students not knowing how to write and teachers not knowing how to teach writing. Never mind those very most basic skills that go with writing (interest, ownership, confidence). Students don’t need those skills in the real world.

Just cut those points off. That way no one gets hurt. No one will take a risk or step outside of the conscripted guidelines.  Everyone will be protected and mediocre.