Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Grief, Not Grades!

I hate grades.  Even before my teaching career began, I had an aversion to grades.  When I applied to colleges, my first choice was Reed College in Portland, OR, a decision largely influenced by their practice of not distributing grades to students, but instead, a narrative of the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated regarding the expected learning of the course.  This type of personal feedback attracted me as a student; even though my grades had always been high (maybe because they had always been high), I felt that a single letter was not an accurate depiction of the level of my learning.

Now, on the other side of the red pen, I have even more difficulty reconciling the grading process.  For the last thirteen years, each grading cycle has produced anxiety in me.  Each time, I have wrestled with whether or not I am a fair grader, if the grade I assign to a student is the most honest evaluation, if there was any way I might be wrong and if so, how would that mistake impact the student's life.  Assigning each piece of paper a point value and then equating the amassing of points to a particular letter grade has never felt right to me.  It is simply how my grades had always been determined as a student and how I was expected to determine grades for my own students.  It was unquestioned, accepted, even made a certain type of sense, but what seemed to be missing was a real sense of what the student actually knew.

But this week, things have changed.  This week determining quarter grades has been a pleasure. In fact, it has been more than a pleasure.  The grading practice I am implementing allows me to have a conversation with my students about their growth toward the learning goals of the course.  In the course evaluations I had my students complete this week, one actually included the comment: "I would like even more opportunities to show my progress toward our course standards."  Doesn't that blow you away?  A students asking for more work  -- and not extra credit or to get more points, but to show how he is progressing as a learner in the class. 

This summer, I worked with many other teachers from my district on developing learning scales on the essential standards for our courses.  Our district school reform is being guided by Robert Marzano, both his research and his actual physical self.  I spent much of my poolside reading time annotating Marzano's books, rethinking my teaching and reorganizing my assessment practices.  Tossing out a points-based, percentage-producing grading system was liberating and exciting, but I still worried about how things would come together once grades had to be reported.

I won't go so far as to claim every student is ecstatic about this or that all of them even fully grasp how the new grading practices work, but honestly, the transition has been smoother than I ever could have imagined.  Now, the students' grades are based on what specific skills and knowledge they have demonstrated.  Points and percentages really have nothing to with it.  As each student conferenced with me, we agreed on their level of proficiency on eight standards for the quarter.  Then we determined an overall score for three categories (Reading, Writing and Academic Skills) and put those together to ascertain the level of proficiency in the course as a whole at this time. 

Basically, what I really feel this all comes down to is that I have finally found a way to evaluate my students that treats them with respect -- as if they are valuable and important regardless of what the grade they earn happens to be.  I hope as each of them sat with me and we talked about their progress, that they felt like they mattered.  Because they do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Has Anyone Seen My Pom-Poms?

This year, our boys have made their first forays into the world of organized sports. What will come as probably no surprise is that I have absolutely no experience in this world other than being an enthusiastic and sometimes knowledgeable fan.  Michael started us off with baseball in the spring and Nicholas is now well into his first season of flag football.  He had to sign up way back in May, so waiting all the way until September to begin felt like forever to him.  He was literally counting the days until his first practice.  And now, each day begins by determining how many more days until the next practice or the next game.  He practically has his game schedule memorized!

Of course, I worry a bit.  Will he get hurt?  Will he keep up with the other boys?  Will the coach give him a fair shot at the high profile positions?  He is only six and, like any momma, I want to protect him.  But it is easy to put those worries aside when I see him with that football in his hand.  When he says to me, "Mom, I am going to warm up with my teammates."  When he re-enacts his best moments from practice for the rest of the family.  It is easier to let go of those concerns pulling at the edges of my heart when those moments happen, when the joy on his face cuts those weights loose and lets my heart fly.

What is so exciting about being a mom and a wife is watching my husband and sons discover what they love.  And while we may influence each other, ultimately, each finds his own passion.  For Nicholas right now, it is football.  For Michael, it is books and video games.  Lucas is a bit young, but I see that sparkle in his eye when Zoboomafoo comes on TV.  And for my husband, the passion of the moment is his Disneyland blog.  He asks if I think it is silly for him to be working on a venture like this, and I reassure him that pursuing our interests, using our gifts and finding happiness in the experience of learning and growing, isn't silly at all.  In fact, those are exactly the most wonderful parts of teaching, which I have long known is what I love.

Since school began in August, I have received email or a personal visit from no less than 20 former students.  Hearing about how they are moving forward, about the experiences shaping them and about the opportunities coming their way fills me with even more motivation to be the best teacher I can for the students I currently have.  They need as many voices as possible on their own personal sidelines encouraging them, and I want to be one of those voices.  (I never made cheerleader in high school, but I always suspected it was more due to my lack of athletic skill than the need for a more encouraging spirit!)

In my home, the voice on the sidelines that needs to be loudest is mine. I want others to join me as we cheer them on, but I want my husband and my boys to know that seeing them do what they love brings me the most incredible pleasure and I will always support their pursuits. I am eager to see what new discoveries my family will experience and which will capture their hearts.  They have certainly captured mine and I look forward to being, if not their most nimble, certainly their most ardent cheerleader!
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