We Must Pay Close Attention to the Forks

I hate doing dishes.  


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.

Grading is my Achilles Heel

I admit it.

I hate grading and I’ve never had a system that I felt was what I needed it to be.

Since I started teaching in the Fall of 2007, grading is something I’ve struggled with, spent time mulling different incantations of grading systems, read how others graded, looked at how I was graded as a high school student, undergraduate and graduate student.  Looking back, I can honestly state that while I consider myself a voracious, diligent and dedicated student, more than 80% of my courses grading was a game.  Once I figured out how to get my “A,”  I did what was required to get the grade.

As a student, when I deciphered what the teacher wanted from me in terms of getting an “A,”  all exploratory, real learning was now secondary for me.  Unless my work and product lent itself towards the “A,” as a student I didn’t deviate from that path.  I was stuck in the cyclical and ingrained grade grubbing pattern that has been my life for 19 years in education.  An “A” is the only acceptable grade, the most desirable and therefore must be achieved.

The grade game become a glaring problem when I was designing my syllabus for my First-Year College Composition course.  I have been the Graduate Assistant for the National Writing Project in New Hampshire so I was well grounded in the principles of teaching writing and I knew, that in my heart, I value the process of writing more than the end product of writing. I didn’t want my students to be able to play the grade game with me.

I stuggled with determining not what I was going to teach, nor how I was going to teach but how I was going to transfer the student learning, partcipation and classroom activities into a letter grade that my students, parents and administration so dearly desire.  It is college after all.  If students aren’t there for the grades, why does college matter or school for that matter? (Perhaps that’s another post and please not the sarcasm).

My first syllabus (Fall 2009).  I did the best with what I thought I knew at the time.  (Damn that hindsight and its 20/20 vision.)  I thoughtfully structured my course off a points system(2400 points!) where the two drafts (vomit and revision) were worth more together than the final product.  I also used structured rubrics (4 pages long with detailed categories and examples).  Assessing those essays and projects were horrendous, not the product but assigning the “grade” was unbearable.  What separates an A from a B? Or a C from a D?  Is a D even, really worth it?

As I read the papers and circled the numbers on the rubric, I found myself “tweaking and fudging” the numbers?  I struggled all semester.  I silently stewed in my mind that what I had structured wasn’t working.  At the end of the semester, my grade-book was almost meaningless as grades were gently manipulated so that the students had the grade that they I and the students felt was more representative of where the students actually were.  Plus there were so many columns in my grade-book it was out of control.

I didn’t teach the Spring of 2010 (I had my second baby two weeks before the start of classes and even I am not that crazy.)

In the Fall of 2010 and Spring of 2011 I dropped rubrics altogether after reading Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessments and Linda Christensen’s article My Dirty Little Secret-I Don’t Grade Writing.  I migrated towards percentage-based grading with a heavy emphasis on a final, reflective portfolio.  I still wasn’t happy.  I experienced the same difficulties with this system as I did the year prior.  I was left with my same core belief…

I value the process of writing more than the end product of writing.

…and I need an assessment system that will result in grades that accurately reflect this.

Two months ago while I was on the English Companion Ning I found a discussion on grading , or ungrading, of student essays.  This matched what I thought I was looking for at the time.  Before tonight’s #edchat on Twitter I was feeling okay about my grading system for the Fall of 2011:

  • Portfolio: 50%
  • In-Class Work: 15%
  • Reading Response Blog 10%
  • Process Pieces: 10%
  • Un-Conference Final: 15%

I wasn’t thrilled with the above grade breakout, but it was a little better.  I knew I was headed in the right direction, but I wasn’t near my final grading destination.

The last 15 minutes of #edchat tonight was simply invaluable.  While I participate in #engchat regularly, #edchat moves too fast for me still (I’ve only been on Twitter a few months and still getting acclimated).  However, tonight’s chat, I am fortunate to have stumbled upon.  The topic was on grading.  As I was skimming my twitter stream, @gmfunk mentioned the 3P System of Grading and a duo of blog posts on her use of it in her classroom.

A cursory glance at her posts geared me to find the source material of the 3P System.  Further researching, I found @CoachAllam blog and his post about why he doesn’t grade.  After an evening of tweeting with @CoachAllam, I am geared up that the 3P model of grading, might meld with my own personal philosophy of writing, teaching of writing and grading/assessing.

My goals are to thoughtfully read and review these blogs and the 3P article and meld it into my course structure for the fall.

I am hopeful that this Fall I may finally be happy with assessing and grading my students.