Build Out Excuses

How much information is too much?

That’s a question that has been flying around not only my own head over the last few weeks, but also the departments with which I work.  We are moving toward an open gradebook whereby students and parents will have access to grades online.  Yes, I know, for many of you this is old hat; however, as many of you also may remember, it didn’t occur without significant conversation around how it was going to be done (or maybe not).  We are in the beginning stages of getting our teachers ready for it, and in speaking with teachers about the process, there is considerable trepidation about how much information parents should have, and whose responsibility is it to make sure they have that information.

For better or for worse, we rely on our students to act as portals to their parents when it comes to giving updates on their progress, and when that system fails, we then access parents directly either via the phone or now through email.  In past years, I may have included the traditional handwritten note in that group, but we are talking mainly middle and high school students here, and it is a well-researched fact that there is a cut-off point for when students cease bringing home paper documents from school in their weekly folders.  That cut-off point is sometime around October of their 5th grade year.  Does the use of web-based grading systems step in at this point and provide that solution for the failed communication between school and home?

Not entirely.  Just as I feel that we can never have a completely virtual schooling systems in which there is no personal contact, there can never be a portal that parents and teachers can rely on all of the time, regardless of the information displayed there.  However, I truly feel that making student grades and student attendance available 24/7 does much more harm than good for relationships between schools and communities.

The pushback we are receiving is coming in the form of increased pressure on teachers to get grading done in a timely manner.  In most math classes, it’s not such a big deal, but in AP Literature and other writing-based classes, the issue of how long a teacher has to grade a major paper becomes a thorny issue.  How long does it take to grade two sections worth of five-page essays?  How long does it take to grade a senior research project?  Two weeks?  a month?  In addition, the conversations around personal grading styles is now put in the spotlight.  If a parent can now see exactly how “teacher A ” grades compared to “teacher B,” they may begin to wonder why they are so different.  Why was Johnny weighted so heavily in participation as a sophomore in US History, but not at all as a junior in US History II?

When we moved to providing every teacher with a web page, it made it possible to post everything you handed out in class, effectively building out the excuse made by students that they didn’t have the “handout” or the notes.  Not every teacher did this, but it certainly was possible.  Philosophically, some disagreed with it, saying that it fostered no accountability by students to pay attention in class.  That’s flawed thinking, in my book.  Build out the excuses: if they have access to the documents from school or home, their reasoning is not plausible.  The same is true, I feel, for gradebooks.  By eliminating the unknown, as in how their child is doing, you are removing that from the table when discussing a child’s progress with parents.  Instead of “I was shocked to see that he is failing,” the conversation can begin with other terms, such as “how do we get him to do the work?”

I understand that opening up your processes to public scrutiny may feel like an attack on autonomy, but that is not where we are going with this.  Getting a group of intelligent, well-educated individuals who care about the success of kids to talk about their instructional practices, especially assessment, will move mountains.  It will begin to change the culture of a building.

If you have done this in your district, what input did teachers have on determining the policies behind the implementation and what parents see?  I’d like to have a few ideas so that when I begin working with teachers, I can offer suggestions as to how they should proceed.

Cross posted at


Great Pushback, From a Local Source

This comment appeared in my email inbox the other day, submitted by a teacher I work with in regards to my Attention, Engagement, Learning post from ASCD :

I really liked your “transfer of responsibility” model. But to a degree I disagree with the idea that students speaking/ interacting is a panacea for learning. I remember in my teaching classes we were drilled with the mantra “leanring is social”. But I think that’s just a new myth. I think instruction has to be differentiated. SOME kids are social learners and some are not. I frequently do partner assignments in Russian at the high school, and one of the consistent comments I got back on my survey was “less partner work”. My other class there ( I have two sections) seems to love it. I’ve also seen partner/ group work devolve into BS sessions or one person giving the answers to the other and the other kid not learning a thing.
So: not a panacea, just another tool to use appropriately.
I was blown away that anyone in my district actually reads this, but psyched to have some push-back from a local level where, to me, it matters most.  Here was my quick reply:
Thanks for checking it out; it was a great weekend where I was able to really get into excellent discussions about things that matter.  Here’s my take on your reaction.

Yes, some kids are social learners, some are not.  Some kids draw pictures, some are like me and cannot even begin to attempt that.  What the GRR model advocates is not “all social all the time,” but rather a mix of various types of collaborative and cooperative work.  Some of that will involve talking, some may not.

Plus, when you take a close look at what Kagan believes about the brain and what he believes about how we learn, the structures make a ton of sense.  In the model you gave me for your classes, how do you hold each student responsible for what goes on in the discussion?  If, as you say, it devolves into a BS session, what can be done to deter that?  The structures Kagan created all are built with a combination of group and individual accountability whereby, if done right, there is equal responsibility on the part of all cooperative partners.

From my perspective, we as teachers work very hard.  Can we begin to look at what we do not from the standpoint of teachers, but from the standpoint of learners?  If we did, I think we would agree that there is a lot of responsibility that can be transferred to the learner.  This is not just a tweak here or there I am talking about, but a whole paradigm shift in practice.

And, that was not all.  He came back today with another great insight:
My observations and criticism were directed more toward the PET scan and the concept that “the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning”. For me to buy into that model I would need to see more context for what specific events were occurring during the PET scan. For example, I”m sure that parts of the brain involved in registering the facial expressions and emotional reactions of the person one is speaking to are lighting up in that scan. But does that necessarily mean that that person is “learning” more of a particular content? What if we took two individuals and asked one to write a summary of  Romeo and Juliet and asked the other to retell it? Which brain would light up more? And what needs to be lighting up to demonstrate learning? To be mildly flip: I bet my brain would light up pretty brightly if I was about to be in a car accident. What am I learning (except that I”m screwed …:)
My point simply is this: I need more evidence to buy the notion that the “one doing the talking” is the one who is learning. This may be true for some social learners in some contexts but not necessarily in others (again, returning to what we both agree is the need for differentiating instruction).
I like and accept in principle the GRR model, especially in the broad principal/ thesis of moving the student from dependency to independence. I think that some of the failures I’ve seen of cooperative learning was that it kept students stuck in being dependent on other students for the answer/ learning, rather than using it as a means to wean them to a level where they can demonstrate/ perform a skill independently. So I think the concept if I do it-we do it-you (plural) do it-you (singular) do it is a good one. (Although not all kids will need to do the you plural one all the time in all situations…
These are the kinds of discussions that we should be having, and whether or not they are in person, at this point, I don’t care.  Eventually I would love that, but we have to start somewhere.
What do you think?

Reflecting on the Fly

J. Clark Evans posted a piece at her blog, My Continuing Education, today called “Worst Class…Best Class” in which she recounts a recent day where the discussion in her 10th grade British Literature class did not go as she wanted to.  We’ve all been there on that day where you’ve hatched out these ground-breaking discussion questions about the novel you are reading or the era you are studying, and then when you unleash them on your students in the hopes of them coming to a new great American understanding, they look back at you as if you weren’t even there.  What do you do then?  Well, Evans did this:

I literally threw my hands up in the air and ended the lesson. I asked students to reflect on their lack of participation and offer ideas for ways to improve in an email to me.

My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect. I spent the rest of the day reviewing their comments, taking to another grade level teacher, and agonizing over how I could help them to be more successful.

I learned a new word today via the Open Dictionary: Andragogy.  Andragogy means the practice of teaching adults with emphasis on participation of students in the planning and evaluation.  Due to the nature of the Open Dictionary, I can’t be 100% sure it’s an official word, but I like it’s meaning nonetheless.  Evan’s example of andragogy is on that I feel we are lacking more of.  While she is teaching “almost adults,” the point is the same.  Can we teach our students to be part of the planning process?  Look closely at the way in which she implemented it too:

My second class British literature class also has problems with participation during general class discussions. A couple of students will attempt answers only after awkward silences. But the majority of students won’t speak, maybe if called on, but it’s so painful for both them and me that I hate to do that and put someone on the spot.

I started class by asking if they wanted to go with “regularly scheduled programming” or try something radically different. I would give them a task and when they accomplished it they would be dismissed, even if that was in ten minutes. They were a little reluctant but then encouraged each other to give it a try. They encouraged each other to get energized about a challenge in English class.

My favorite part of this was the conclusion she came to from the morning’s failure.  It wasn’t to let the students design the learning completely on their own, but rather to design something teacher-driven, but aimed at the students’ expressed desires from the morning class.  We are really beginning to look at assessment-driven instruction–using what our students know and don’t know to drive what we teach–in our district, and I like this example.  Here is the comment I left for her:

Here’s where you had me, and them, I believe:
“My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect.”

If one thing came through for your students it was that you listened to them. You took a failure, a rather public one, and pivoted in front of them. The student quote at the end of the post demonstrates what several of them were most likely feeling, even if they didn’t intimate it the same way.

In a new way, you showed what the use of assessment should look like. It wasn’t a book test, an essay, or anything pscyhometric, but you used it to inform your instruction. This is what we need everyone to be doing: look at your practice, look at what the students “tell” you, and make adjustments. The added bonus for us is that you wrote about it here and we can share it with more people.

And I hear you about the grading of papers. Feedback on graded material was always my downfall.

Using assessment doesn’t mean that you give pre-tests or previous examination grades; it can mean that you make an informed decision based on information you gathered through observation, much like Evans did.  This, I feel, is sometimes lost when we talk about using assessment to drive instruction.

Recognizing Cognitive Leaps

Over the course of Thursday and Friday, I am working with a group of 75 teachers, 9 at a time, to evaluate the first year of our tablet PC pilot program for our high school.  We asked them to sign up for some time slots to discuss how the tablet has helped them instructionally this year.  On several levels, it’s teaching me quite a few things.

Traditional Assessment

Firstly, the teachers were not eager to come together, especially this close to finals, to discuss how they use the tablet instructionally.  That initially gave me pause, but then I thought about it from their perspective: these sessions are evaluative, and regardless of how we try to spin it, they feel like they are being evaluated.  Over the course of this year, this group has received over ten hours of professional development directed at using the tablet instructionally and on creating a 24/7 learning environment, and in the session before these, they generated a list of characteristics that they would expect to see from teachers who use the tablet effectively to create “on-demand” learning environments for their students. So, at least they were responsible for planning the evaluation criteria, and that went a long way towards easing their trepidation.

Secondly, I am discovering that if we don’t have these types of share sessions more, we are doing a major disservice to our teachers and ultimately our students.  On many different occasions within the sessions today, teachers who had always wanted to try something with their students heard from teachers who had done it.  We heard about pitfalls and successes, ideas for next year, and modifications to ideas on the fly.  In some cases, presentations turned into group thinkalouds for the presenter.  Yes, there were pats on the back, but also some serious questions about practice and application.  What I love most about some of the presenters was that they gave us great feedback about the viability of using tablets instead of laptops.  We asked for unfiltered feedback, and we got it.

Perhaps the thing that has most stood out, and we are only halfway through the presentations, is one given by a high school English teacher in which she elaborated on all of the things she did this year, including blogging and digital storytelling, that did not work for her or her students.  She finished her presentation with a demonstration of how Google Groups fit her needs exactly and how her students became so much more prolific in discussing novels when they were responding to each other on the group page.  For me, she exemplifies the type of teacher and students we need to see more of: those that try and fail, try again and fail again, and continue to try until they find the solution that works for their problem.  I made a point of telling her as she left how amazed I was at her willingness to take risks and that she should be proud of giving that model to her students.

Image Credit: “G. Traditional Assessment” from teachandlearn’s photostream