07 April 2016

Thoughts on the Gradebook: Mastery Grading

I have to admit that grading is one of my least favorite things to do. It is often impersonal and doesn't move learning forward. There are infrequent opportunities for students to improve their work at the secondary level. A few years ago I started making some changes to the way I responded to assignments and entered them into the gradebook. This post will look at what I am calling Mastery Grading, where students have multiple opportunities to show their knowledge.

In my geography classes, I gave weekly map quizzes. These do not require high level thinking. Attempts at cheating were off the hook. Students usually view them as one-off assignments; they aren't worth a lot of points so why try all that hard?

To make changes, first I had to get to the REASON I gave the quizzes.

    • I knew my students didn't have a good mental map of the world in their heads and I wanted the quizzes to help them build that mental map.
    • A decent mental map of the world will help students be more successful in a geography (and later world history) class. 
    • I determined these map quizzes were an important enough tool that students should have multiple opportunities to use that tool to build that mental picture of the world. 
I wanted to be transparent about what I was doing and increase buy in with students, so I explained my thought process and the procedures for trying again. Mastery was set at 85% or more correct. Students did not receive a score until they reached that threshold (until they reached the end of the quarter when no score was converted to a zero...I know, I know...this is a work in progress).

What was the result? Scores skyrocketed. Most students achieved mastery on the first try and those who didn't usually reached mastery on the second try. I had one student who got stuck on one map and had to try at least six times. She persevered and got to mastery. I had only one or two students per grading period who did not achieve mastery on all of their map quizzes.

What would I do differently? Converting no score to zero always seemed contrary to what I was trying to accomplish. Carrying over scores through multiple grading periods gets tricky, but it might be a good option if students need additional time.

02 April 2016

Thoughts While Running: Grades and the Gradebook

I've been troubled for some time by the way we secondary teachers traditionally "do" grades. We typically have categories such as tests/quizzes, projects, homework, essays, etc. Sometimes those categories have varying weights so maybe tests/quizzes is worth 50% of the grade while homework is only worth 20%. Students, and sometimes parents, diligently watch their online grades to make sure that every assignment is categorized and "counted" correctly.

"Counting" assignments is another issue. Does the assignment get credit for completion? When does that happen? Is it points-based? Is is scored on a holistic rubric? Does the student have a copy of the rubric AND understand it? Is the assignment standards-based or is it something I give every year because "it's a good assignment"? You see my point.

I've been mulling over a change in the way I would set up a gradebook. These ideas have been coming to me as I run. What if:

  • Categories were aligned to standards? To account for literacy standards AND content in a history class it might look like this: Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Content 
  • Each assignment was tagged with the SPECIFIC standard being addressed? A multiple-choice quiz on the fall of the Roman Empire might be tagged with CAHSS7.1 for the California History/Social Studies standard 7.1 "Students analyze the causes and effects of the vast expansion and ultimate disintegration of the Roman Empire." So the assignment might be listed in the gradebook as Chapter 1 Test CAHSS7.1 and entered into the Content category. 
  • Assignments are placed into categories based on the skill or content knowledge they emphasize. For example, while learning about the Cold War, Modern World History students examine multiple accounts of events from different perspectives. Students write short responses comparing the different accounts "including which details they [authors] include and emphasize in their respective accounts." That assignment would be placed in Reading with the name Cold War Accounts RH6 (RH6 is the Reading Literacy standard in History/Social Studies) because the teacher is looking for student skill in comparing those accounts.
  • Students have, at their fingertips, all necessary rubrics for reading, writing, listening and speaking. If the class has specific expectations for particular activities such a Socratic Seminars, they have those expectations too.
  • Multiple opportunities are embedded for student success. This could mean chances for re-dos on some assignments or revisions of others to be included in an end of marking period portfolio.
The end result is a gradebook that should be more transparent and more authentic for students. This doesn't solve every problem with a gradebook and grading. It isn't a truly standards-based gradebook and won't lead to a standards-based report card. It WILL lift the literacy and content standards and should reduce emphasis some traditional gradebook categories that maybe aren't in the best interest of learning.

28 July 2015

Extreme Writing in Secondary Social Studies

Yesterday I read "The Power of Extreme Writing: How do I help my students become eager and fluent writers?" by Diana Cruchley. Two thoughts stuck with me. The first was that I did a variation of Extreme Writing with my fifth and sixth graders when I first started teaching. It was fun and addressed some of the early writing standards. The second was that with its emphasis on more creative styles of writing I couldn't see much opportunity for using Extreme Writing in secondary Social Studies.

This morning, as I was out walking, I had another thought. "WAIT! Extreme Writing WILL work in secondary Social Studies!"

First, here's a little bit about Extreme Writing. Cruchley explains that the purpose of Extreme Writing is to build fluency in writers. In other words, students have to get their thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. The way to do that is with practice. This can be accomplished with several cycles of 10 minutes of in-class time for 10 days (with follow up time at home).  Years ago, I read Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" where she recommended something similar for writers. In fact, Goldberg recommended setting a timer for five minutes and writing. If you don't know what to write about, write "I don't know what to write about" over and over and over until what's trapped inside comes out. Cruchley recommends providing prompts that will spark interest and engagement in students. Cruchley and others have gathering prompts and posted suggestions to the web.

So where does this fit into secondary Social Studies? My 9th and 10th grade geography and history students had a difficult time with essays. In class essays were the worst (and I'm sure my students would agree). Despite reviewing the prompt and thorough planning, they still struggled to put pen to paper and get the essay completed. My AP students also struggled with timed writings. I frequently heard "I don't know what to write" or "This is really hard." I always suspected that part of the issue was lack of confidence in their own ability to express themselves on paper.

Extreme Writing can address this struggle. Most of my students didn't come to me with a lot of in-class writing practice. In most of their other classes, these students were assigned take home essays to be completed over the course of a week or more. This gives students LOTS of time to revise and refine their writing. In a pinch though, some students are nearly paralyzed with fear of the in-class essay. Taking 10 minutes of class time a day for 10 days is worth the "lost" content time to build fluency and confidence in students.

Here are a few other questions to consider:

  • But what about my content? These prompts have nothing to do with my content! That's actually the point. Extreme Writing builds fluency and confidence in writing. It will start out as a pretty messy process, but over time as student fluency improves, you'll start to see more thoughtful pieces and new skill that will transfer to writing about the social studies.
  • I'm a History/Social Studies teacher! Why do I need to do this? Check with your colleagues in your students' other classes. Are they doing Extreme Writing or something similar? Perhaps you can share the task. The Common Core Literacy Standards clearly outline shared responsibility for reading and writing development. If writing is a challenge for your students and if no one else is doing it, it's on you. In the long run, Extreme Writing will help make your job easier because your students will be better prepared for the writing demands of social studies courses.
  • Clearly this is just for younger students, right? Cruchley recommends Extreme Writing for 4-9 grade students. However, in my own experience I was not a super-confident writer when I got to my senior year of high school. I had good teachers who emphasized writing, but getting the words down on paper still was anxiety-provoking. Mrs. Hanley, my senior English teacher, fixed that with her own version of Extreme Writing. We wrote in journals, we wrote essays, we wrote and wrote and wrote. By the beginning of second semester we could write a full essay in 20 minutes with a cold prompt.