March 24, 2008

Spring Fever?

It happens this time every year. No, I’m not talking about the exhausted crash and burn landing into spring break. I am talking about contract renewal time. That time of the year when teachers have to decide, “Do I really want to come back and do this again next year?” It’s easy to sign early in the years, especially before tenure kicks in. But as time goes on, and one year starts to blend into the next year, the signing of the contract becomes a symbolic milestone when I sit down and seriously reflect on what exactly it is that I am doing in education as a teacher? Am I still an effective educator? And is this really the place I want to be 12 months from today?

It usually starts for me much earlier then the moment I actually have to sign or waive my contract renewal. Generally by the start of second semester I have begun the process of actively looking around for a new job. Some years its in teaching, some years in other professions. I suppose it’s a healthy thing; questioning my purpose in the classroom and desire to continue. After 12 years in my current position at my current campus, you’d think I get it into my head that this is where I belong. But I can’t avoid the process, and in many ways I think going through the job hunt and interview procedure helps me to refocus my efforts back into my own classroom. Kinda like testing the waters and deciding its better to stay on the island.

Last year I found my “dream job.” One of my all-time favorite places in the world is the central coast of California. If you’ve never been, go soon. The people are friendly, the scenery is breathtaking, and the weather is amazing. My grandmother spent her last years in the area and I spent as many weekends as I could afford visiting with her and soaking up the environment. In January of last year I found a job post for a Drama teacher at one of the local central coast high schools. I started my career as a Drama teacher and I’ve never lost the desire to teach Drama full-time. So I applied. I got a call for an interview and with great excitement and anticipation I refreshed my resume and got all gussied up to go. I was sure that the job was mine before I even sat down with the Principal and interview panel. Although I felt very confident and shared by authentic enthusiasm for the position, I was turned down. I was disappointed to say the least. My dream of moving my family to paradise was gone. But after I got over the rejection I took a deep breath and refocused my efforts back into the job I was actually getting paid for at the moment. When contract renewal time came, I gladly signed my contract for another year.

And what a year it was! In the months that followed I got word that funding had finally been secured for my classroom to received a completely new set of computers. I had been working with machines that were at that time in their 7th year, and in desperate need of being replaced. New machines meant new software which meant new curriculum that I had to write. So my summer last year was filled with hours of research and writing to prepare for this school year. Things with the new machines didn’t start off so well. While the district was willing to provide funding for stuff, they were unable to find funding for technical support. So I was left on my own with the one-day-a-month support of an engineer from Apple. Thankfully, we worked out all the issues by the end of the first semester and now things are working great.

Then the fever hit again. This time it was a job in my second favorite state, New Mexico. I have a long family history in the area, although no immediate family history there. I’ve always want to live and work where my ancestors made their start in the United States. I was randomly looking around for job posts when I found one that fit me like a glove. An almost exact match to my current position. I went ahead and applied without a second thought. Again I got a call to interview, but this time I paused. (You could say I blinked.) I paused because I knew that if I was in fact the chosen candidate for this position at this new school far away from where I currently work and live I would not be able to follow through and take the job. I knew that deep down in my heart I was just pretending, and that the place that I really belong as a teacher and an educators is exactly where I am now. In other words, the fever broke. Before I left for spring break I signed my contract for one more year.

I suppose the saying, “The grass is always greener,” is true. As a young teacher I looked at the seasoned guard as being somehow weaker or less innovative or less successful if they were in the same assignment or in the same classroom for a long period of time or even a career. My very first year as a high school teacher my classroom neighbor was a gentleman who had been teaching the same subject in the same classroom for the past 30 years. “That will never be me!” I told myself. However, I no longer see teachers like this as failures. Teaching is a very difficult job to endure. Sometimes it helps to look over the school yard fence and think about what it might be like to play on someone else’s grassy field. But for now, I know who I am and where I belong, and that’s where I plan to stay for awhile longer.

March 16, 2008


Do your students understand your assignments? Do they know exactly how they are evaluated? Is your grading system clear and clean? Are you sick of students asking, “How much is this project worth?” Do you use a rubric for evaluation of student work? Do you give your pupils the evaluation grading rubric ahead of time? Do you issue regular progress reports on your own? Do more students pass your class then fail your class? How transparent is your evaluation process and your approach to grading your students?

In my first year of teaching high school I shared a group of remedial students with another teacher. When grading time came we sat down to assess our students’ progress. I brought my grade book, as did my partner. We went through the roster, student by student, sharing our individual semester scores. I offered my numerically calculated objective evaluation. My colleague also shared a number in the grade book, and then added comments like, “well, he didn’t work that hard, so instead of a B I’m going to give him a C+.” Shocked, I innocently asked, “Can we do that? Are we allowed to change a grade based on our subjective evaluation of the students’ effort in spite of the earned and recorded mark?” My collaborator told me, “sure.” While I DO NOT personally condone such grading practices I will not criticize those who do grade students in this manner. However, as an advocate for kids, I want to suggest that all teachers strive to be as transparent as possible in their approach to assessing their students.

In the school of education credential classes that I teach I recommend using rubrics to grade student work. When I started teaching teachers I used rubrics occasionally and never shared them with students. Since teaching rubrics to others and advocating their use in the classroom, I’ve made a more focused effort on using them more often. Now I experience clearer teacher/student communication and improved student performance. And my rubrics have gotten more detailed as well. In the past, I used a few general categories with arbitrary point values. Now I break every assignment down into multiple specific categories and line items assigning smaller values between 1 and 5 points to each area of evaluation. I give the students the appropriate rubric as soon as I give the assignment. Now as the kids work they can self-grade.

That’s only the half of it. As a result of using more detailed rubrics, my assignments have become clearer and cleaner. Once upon a time I might assign an essay and simply state, “Tell me about your summer vacation.” Now whenever I assign just about anything I include much more specific information like, “Your essay must include 5 paragraphs of at least 5 sentences each. You must use correct spelling and grammar. Be sure to put your name date and period number in the upper right hand corner. Write the heading ‘My Summer Vacation.’” I teach in a computer classroom, so I can also add, “Use a 12 point font, 1” margins, and double spaced lines.” This way I can take each one of these smaller instructions and evaluate students on whether or not they met the assignment criteria. By embedding these instructions clearly in the assignment, and in the rubric, students know exactly what is expected of them.

It gets better. By using this approach to the giving and evaluation of student work, the students can self-grade. I include a check-off list as one of the columns on the rubric. As students complete their work they literally check-off what they have completed. When all the checks are placed, the assignment may be turned in. At the very least the student can feel confident that they have fully completed what they were asked to produce, and I no longer have to return what I cannot assess because the child left their name off the paper or forgot a heading. Helping our pupils to develop this type of self-assessment is a great way to help them in many areas of their lives and their futures.

Many students today have a very difficult time with backwards planning or backward design. They are unable to see the goal and work in reverse to find a starting point that will help them reach their desired target. As teachers we do this instinctively all the time. I learned it from producing plays. First I decided what I wanted the production and the experience to look like in the end. Then I made choices that I believed would lead me to my ultimate vision. It doesn’t always work, but having the goal clearly in mind makes it easier to develop the steps required to get there. We teachers have the benefit of giving our assignments more than once, so each time we see the student make an attempt, and struggle in a specific area, we can make adjustments to help them along the way. By analyzing our assignments in this way we can strive to make them more understandable and as a result, offer students the opportunity to produce better results.

The regular grade reporting cycle asks most of us to total up points and turn in a letter or numerical grade about once a month with semester grades being issued twice a year. That’s good communication with students and parents, but we can do better. Many students at my high school carry around a “Friday Report” every Friday and ask their teachers to record a mark and to list any missing assignments. Sure, it’s a pain when you’ve got 4 or 5 or more to fill out each hour. However this type of regular communication with students simply adds to the clarity of the assessment process. Sadly, those who most need these weekly grade check-ins usually don’t ask for them. Anything that we can do to help all students to teach themselves to be attentive, productive, contributing members of our world is worth our time.

March 09, 2008

Swing Away?

I teach an advanced production course to high school students. It’s a brutally difficult class, and I don’t try to make it easy for my students. Two groups of ten students each have two weeks or 10 class sessions (less than 10 hours) to create their own 10 minute television program. Their work is viewed by the entire school of 3500 students, teachers and staff (Ok, not all of them tune in, but they could if they wanted to.) The “Friday Show” airs on Fridays and the advanced class watches and critiques the show immediately afterwards. The critique is aided by an evaluation sheet the students fill out while watching the finished show. The ensuing discussion is usually led by me or one of the students. The first question is “What did you like?” Students raise their hands and offer their positive reactions. The follow up question is “What will we do differently next time?” Again, the students raise their hands to offer their constructive opinions. Recently I’ve added, “What can we do to make the Friday Show better?” This question has enlisted some even more positive and constructive ideas from students who might not normally speak up. Asking students to evaluate their work in this manner forces them into higher-level thinking rarely experienced in the high school setting. It’s a very good thing. And each week the show improves because the STUDENTS identify their own weaknesses and collectively create an action plan for improvement. I know this model doesn’t work for many high school or even college courses, but I encourage you to look for opportunities for public presentation leading to real assessment of student work. It simply makes them work harder and strive to improve more.

On a Friday not long ago while critiquing the students’ work with them in this manner I was grasping for a relevant way of expressing my reaction to the quality of work the students had produced that week. My mind immediately went to the climatic scene of the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs when Mel Gibson’s character, Rev. Graham Hess, while confronted with an alien being about to kidnap his only son tells his former baseball playing brother while reflecting on the dying words of his wife that immortal line, “Swing away Merrill. Merrill… swing away.” For those of you who have never seen the film, I won’t reveal what happens next (but you can imagine). I thought to myself, that’s it. The kids had bunted, when they should have taken a full swing. (A bunt is a half-swing at the ball for you non-baseball fans.) So I told them, “Guys, you bunted. Next time, swing away.” That same group presented their Friday Show this week. Full swing, hit the back wall.

How often do you tell your students to “swing away?” As teachers we all have expectations for the students in our classrooms. Those expectations can be as diverse as our student populations. But how often do our expectations require our students to take a full swing at their assignments? What do we really expect from them? Do we really respect them and their potential? Think about it for a minute.

In the current day and age of NCLB education including standards, standardized testing, common assessments, API and AYP there is a huge push to teach to the test. I don’t have any problem with that approach so long as we don’t lose sight of our goal: building people. We need to do more in our classrooms then simply build great test-takers. However, the opportunities to strive for more then that are few and far between. It is easier for an elective teacher like me to talk and write about project-based learning and challenging students because I have no common assessments and my scope and sequence is somewhat more flexible. But elective courses are quickly being replaced by remedial courses for students struggling to pass the exit exams and as a result, more of the “thinking outside the lunchbox” load is being placed on the core subject area teacher. As a core subject area teachers with a heterogeneous grouping of learners and everything else piled on top of you, it simply may be impossible to create assignments like the one I described earlier. But then, that’s not my point. My point is, just how much do you really expect from your students not matter what the assignment? Do you expect a homerun every time? Do you ever expect a homerun?

For example: packets. I hate them. But, assigning packets for students to complete can be an effective and efficient method for getting the job done. I don’t like packet work because I see students in my classrooms sharing answers on a regular basis. Not much learning going on there. Packet work doesn’t require much of a swing but it will get you to first base. Another example: multiple choice tests. Sure you can write very effective multiple choice test and there is certainly nothing easier for a teacher to grade. But what kind of higher-level thinking do most multiple choice test require from the test taker? I’ve often heard them referred to as “multiple guess.” Hmm.

We want our students to be successful both in our classrooms and in their lives. If we teach them well in their youth they’ll be well prepared to take care of us in our old age. I want to encourage all teachers to design their curriculum in a way that not only authentically challenges their students to learn and grow, but that also includes opportunities for them to “swing away” at their assignments. Sure, they may strike out. Remember, the learning experience from a strike out can often be more beneficial them simply bunting to get on base. And just think of how amazing it will be when one of your students, your pupils, your prodigies actually knocks one over the fence! That can only happen if you, their teacher, gives them the chance.