I am a dual language (English is my L1, Spanish my L2) middle school science teacher, mom of five boys and one girl, wife of one wonderful man since 1991. We live in Forest Grove, Oregon and I teach in Hillsboro at South Meadows Middle School. I am an enthusiastic integrator of blended classroom learning, with aspirations to go as gradeless as possible, connect my students globally through blogging, and implement project based learning to maximize student engagement.
Here’s a funny thing that is happening as I am progressing through my learning this summer. I am seeing parallels across things that I am reading, videos I am watching, and podcasts I am listening to.
I am taking the Student Motivation Course by Dave Stuart Jr. who is taking us through the implementation of 5 key student beliefs for maximized engagement and motivation in our classes. The chapter I am working on right now is all about student belief in belonging and the final lesson speaks about helping students make ‘small, little wins’ to give them confidence as they take on the identity of a successful learner in our classes.
This idea of small little wins is being reiterated by the interviews with and writings of Jordan Peterson, who I have been following. He has this phrase, ”aim low”, and in his interview with Joe Rogan from yesterday, Joe asked him to explain why he keeps saying this. Dr. Peterson explained that you can’t start lifting weights with 300 lbs, you have to start with the smallest you’re capable of and adding just a little more each week. This also integrates with the idea of the ZPD (zone of proximal development) of Vygotzky. You aim low but aim up and you’ll get there with those small little wins so that you can show yourself that you indeed CAN do it. Dave pointed us to this article by James Clear that reinforces the fact that students and people in general, need to settle in with an identity that will help them decide to work on the habits needed for them to be able to see themselves in that role, which for me is for them to identify as persistent learners.
I think that’s why portfolios are such a great idea. They should be implemented from the time a student starts kindergarten with short videos, pictures of the work they produce each quarter and self reflections that get students looking at who they are, who they want to be and who they are becoming along the way. With the proper guidance, they can make those little adjustments that are necessary to stay on track to the identity of being a persistent learner.
I applied this idea in a very small way this year at the beginning when I had students do a lesson about the worst presentation ever (borrowed from Jon Corripo). It taught them about what not to do in a slide presentation. I then had them revisit the previous years’ slide presentations in their Google drive and critique their own work, identifying the things they did most often that were not advised and then laying out what they needed to improve upon for their next slide presentations. As we went through the year I reminded them of the fact that I now expected these principles to be applied in their next Google slides that would be presented to the class and we had much better results by the end of the year.
Making sure to build our lessons in such a way that students are given the guidance to realize that they are taking those small, little steps to achieve those small, little wins, will help them to reinforce their core identities as persistent learners for ‘their future flourishing’, as Dave always makes sure to emphasize is our goal for our students.
So I went grade-less for a short time during the first three grading periods of the second semester of this past school year, but, unfortunately, during the last half of the final quarter I succumbed to the overwhelming pressure to provide students with a view of what their letter grade would be if they continued on the path they had chosen to follow from that point on.
What I did was as follows: in the online grade book we use, there is a capacity for the teacher to set up a personalized marking scale with numerical values attached to the marks. What this resulted in on the student end was a mark showing up in the grade book and then a percentage being calculated in the background by the system’s algorithm so that a letter grade would show up when the students logged in to the student side of it.
I marked their work with the same marks along with feedback for the expected improvements I wanted to see if they desired to move to the next higher mark. Despite the fact that I published my marking system clearly to parents via my mass communication system with email and Remind texts, there were still questions about what a mark meant and there was no way that the system, in the comments of the assignment could include an explanation individually for each students’ results.
All in all, I feel that this exploration over the last semester of what can happen in the classroom of a teacher who forgoes assigning letter grades, was an excellent learning experience for me. I was made so much more aware of the dependency of the students on knowing exactly where they stand. It made me work to incorporate more expedient and clear feedback. The students seemed to appreciate more the need to show me their learning and strive to improve their work as advised. Through the mini-conferences in which they were asked to provide evidence of why they should get a specific letter grade, I think that they came to appreciate more the process of what it takes for a teacher to decide on a grade for the final report.
Whether I chose to continue to be a grade-less teacher really depends on whether I am willing to continue the strenuous effort it takes to go against the tide with all of the stress and push back it entails, or, taking into account all of the other stresses on my life as a wife, mother, daughter, friend and teacher, I decide to turn my grading boat around and go with the flow. Of course my boat now has new paint and more elaborate sails that will definitely take it in a better direction even if I do choose to go back to the status quo of allowing a letter grade to show up in the grade book.
I’m cursed with an overactive brain. The more I learn about learning, the more I want to change the way things are going in my classroom. The more I want to change things, the more overwhelmed I become with the changes that need to be made.
As I look ahead to the new year and going back to the classroom, when ever I start to think about what I will be teaching students, I can’t stop the spiral of thoughts. It starts like this, “Ok, I know that I will be using the online program that the district bought this year with my English only science kids. Therefore, I have to read through the next lessons and figure out what is happening each day. While I do this, I will see if the teacher who is ahead of me has begun a Google slides presentation and adjust or add what I need for my classes as I go. If they haven’t made anything, then I need to take the time to do this. When is this going to happen?”
Then I think, “Now for my dual language science kids. They need the same content and they will do the same hands-on activities, however, I have to provide the content in Spanish and also figure out how to give them practice with that content. How will I do this?”
I delivered the last bout of information by some Google slides and a Nearpod that I had made two years ago with Cornell note templates that they filled in and added their summary and questions to. I gave them daily formative mini-quizzes which drove them crazy. I ended up the unit with an engineering project for them to apply the basics of force and motion to their design. I originally planned for the summative grade to come from their analysis and conclusion about how the building went and how they could improve if they were allowed too try it again from scratch. But as I look through these papers I see a ton of copying going on because all of the papers are the exact same thing. So the teams just took the information from each other and copied the reflection and analysis answers from each other. Who knows if they actually understand the principles of science that I planned for them to learn? Which student wrote it or if it was all of them together, I have no clue.
So now I begin to rethink what I need to do to find out what each individual has learned. Maybe a short online Google form quiz to get a quick reading of what really stuck about force, motion, mass and speed. Or, as I just watched in a #DitchSummit interview with Eric Curtis, a shared slides with students making their own representation of what happens and then commenting on each others’ responses.
“This time for the next bit of content”, I muse, “I would be really happy if I could give them some sort of lesson where they find the information themselves and then teach each other what they need to know, like in a jigsaw.”
I don’t really know how to do this properly, though. Last year I had this brainstorm idea that I thought would be quite awesome. I split the earth science that they needed to learn into expert groups. One was in charge of the earth’s layers, one plate tectonics and plate boundaries, one had to learn about continental drift, one had to learn about convection currents and it’s connection to the movements of the crust. Each group had a scientist to learn about who discovered something about their main subject. Their task was to answer some specific questions that were given to them, make a Google slides presentation with the information, make a note frame for their learners to fill in and find a lab or hands on activity that would help their learners understand their content and finally make a quiz in Google forms for their learners to take after they got the content. Well, it was too much for most of the students to wrap their minds around and I wasn’t able to give the support that they needed to do their tasks well enough to be ready to teach when they were divided into their teaching groups. It felt like a lost cause for several of the groups and I had to end up giving them the information in the end anyway. It would have been much better if I had realized that they needed to learn about how to prepare each part of lessons like this before being given the monumental task of teachers.
Maybe for this unit, I could make a hyperdoc lesson for the expert groups to follow along in and I could have them make videos of the content they have to present instead of Google slides. They could post them to the comment feed in the Google classroom assignment and then watch each other’s products, comment on them and use the feedback to improve their learning.
Next I think, “Ok, so since I have to teach them this content in Spanish, I need to make sure to have a bridge lesson that will wrap things up by teaching them some aspects of grammar and language that are either exclusive to Spanish or English or are similar, like cognates.”
This worked well for the short unit I did at the beginning of the year for the carbon cycle. I made a drawing of the cycle and then projected it onto butcher paper and added the labels for the processes along the way in both languages and then posted it in the classroom for the students to use for making a process paragraph and a mini poster of the cycle. They also had a list of process sequencing words in Spanish to use as they did their writing. It even helped my second language learners in my English only science class to get the content easier to have that poster up in bilingual format.
Well, I have been writing this post over the last 5 days or so and tomorrow is the day I have to go back into the classroom with 4 lessons ready, (or actually 8 since I have the two different languages to contend with). I still haven’t a clue as to what to do. I have been watching Matt Miller’s Ditch Summit videos and want so badly a do-over with this vacation. Juggling family and work has never been harder for me. I HATE having to go back and not have something new and better for my students. Something that will inspire them to want to learn. Something exciting that draws them in and makes them not want to let go. I’m afraid that I will be going back to the same old thing because I haven’t been able to take the ideas I’ve gleaned this break and flesh out a new system of engaging learning and assessment. Read and answer chapter questions. Watch a YouTube video and respond to some prompts. Create a Google slides presentation to show to another group. Less than 18 hours to go. What to do…
So far nothing has come from my last blog post besides a short response from admin stating that elementary schools seem to be farther along in this gradeless system of evaluation of students. It did not seem that there was much enthusiasm to lend support for this much-needed change. This does not mean that I won’t be trying to shift to more self-assessment and student reflection on how they are doing.
Last night and tonight are student conferences and I am sitting here watching my students come with parents and tell them about how they are doing in my class. There is a table set up in front of my main table with a sign at the end that tells students to find the reflection they did in class the day before and to sit down with a chrome book and show their parents what it is like to work out of the Google classroom and Amplify online science.
They start out a little confused about what to do since I am the only teacher who is doing this, but before long they have sat down and begun to show their parents what we are doing. I can see the questions coming and the parents getting interested as the students share. Once they come to me most of the questions have been answered and we can focus on inquiry about behaviors or other concerns.
I really am enjoying this style of conferencing and it seems that parents are too.
So, I believe that I have been modeling my learning for my students since I began teaching. I am always trying new things and allow myself to fail right in front of them.
One example would be when I created videos of labs for them to observe and follow the steps to do it themselves. I made one for the extraction of DNA from crushed strawberries and I came to a step where the directions I had gotten from the internet said to put a paper towel in the strainer to collect the juices and I realized that this would probably take more than an hour for a good enough amount of liquid to make it’s way through the paper. So I changed course in the middle of the video and told them that the paper towel step wasn’t going to be necessary and just dumped the crushed berries right in the strainer. Within seconds there was plenty of clear juice to use for the next steps. Because I had made the video during my prep period, there was no time to edit so it was posted as -is to YouTube.
Another, more recent example is when I listened to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast by Danny Sunshine Bauer. I listened to him explain how he used the five love languages to connect to his teachers and staff. I got the inspiration to get to know my students in a different way by using the five love languages. I went online and found a playlist of videos that only had music without words and and cute little generic animated characters that acted out each of the love languages, each in a separate video. In case you don’t know, the love languages are: quality time, acts of service, physical contact, words of affirmation, and gifts. So I also found on the love languages website from Gary Chapman, a questionnaire that was for teenagers to use with their parents. Because I have Spanish language classes in English language classes, I had to translate the questions for my Spanish classes and adjusted some of the wording, but I printed directly the English language PDF from Gary Chapman.
When I implemented the lesson several of the English-only students seemed to be uncomfortable with the fact that a teacher would be finding out how they felt loved. One student even wrote on the questionnaire, “I don’t need to tell you what my love language is, you are my teacher.” This implied that he was feeling quite awkward with his science teacher asking for this sort of personal information.
From the very beginning of the lesson, I told the students that this was the very first time I was doing this and why I was doing it. I told them that I had learned about the languages, told them what mine are, and that I was curious to know what theirs’ might be so that I could build a better relationship with them. After seeing their level of discomfort at some of the questions; for example, one of the questions asked if they felt loved when their parent touched their face, I realized that I needed to make some adjustments if I wanted to use this lesson again next year as part of the beginning of the year get-to-know you type activities.
My classroom looks like this most of the time. With my dual language students I am able to be very creative and innovative. I learn new things all the time along with my students and I am very transparent with my successes and failures. I hope that they are seeing that it is something that everyone needs to do to be able to have a fun and interesting life.
So here is the text of the email I just composed and hit send to my principal:
Since this summer I have been learning about how to do assessment differently. I have read the book: by Starr Sackstein and have subscribed to the author’s Youtube channel (Watch her TEDxYouth talk here: https://youtu.be/_61kL5jeKqM ) with her video reflections about implementing a classroom without traditional points or letter grades for her assignments.
One of the keys to a successful student-centered, Results Only Learning Environment is the use of narrative feedback over grades. Although feedback isn’t …
She used projects with clear guidelines aligned with the standards they had to focus on and she interspersed mini lessons and discussions for concepts that needed to get demonstrated in the project. She conferenced on a weekly schedule about the learning, and sent them back to re-do and improve until the grading period came. By the end of the year she had students talking about their learning and not the points they had earned.
How One Weird Finding Changed My Perspective on Grades Now that I know, there’s no going back
At the grading period she would give the students a reflection assignment in which they had to provide evidence of their learning according to the standards they had been working on and together they decided on the grade that they should have recorded in the grade book. All of this is also supported by the characteristics of growth mindset as well.
Here is a podcast with Mark Barnes speaking on his book Assessment 3.0 (which I have yet to get and read myself). He is speaking with the hosts of the podcast, a superintendent and his assistant from Pennsylvania.
I would very much like to embark on this journey of downplaying grades and up-playing enjoyment of and awareness of learning to reduce the number of D’s and F’s in my DL classes. If you give me the go-ahead, I will be making a series of YouTube videos myself to document what I am doing, keeping data, and teaching students about how to take and give feedback. I will make my experience public to share with the parents and kids.
Let me know what you think and if you are ok with this, I will make a more deliberate, detailed plan of what I will do.
I am trying to find time to read the Innovator’s Mindset by George Cuoros but my home life and job are getting in the way! Or at least that is what it feels like right now. I am normally a very organized person – when I am living alone, that is. Add a husband, 4 children living at home who have yet to be trained to do their chores without me standing over them, 160 students who need me to figure out how to engage them in lessons that they enjoy learning from, let alone having to ‘grade’ them and I often feel like I am going crazy.
Of the 8 characteristics of an innovator, I believe that I still need to really work on networking. I have Twitter and Facebook accounts. I also have a Voxer. During the summer I spent a lot of time (relatively) diving into the education groups that I have found out about through listening to various podcasts.
What I think that I need to do is make sure to schedule in time to do the networking. My mind is full of so many creative and reflective thoughts but I don’t block out the time that I need to get things out so then I feel overwhelmed. If I could spend full time reading, reflecting and writing, I’m not sure I would be able to get it all out and into a cohesive plan, but it sure would be best if I at least knew what days and what time I will work on posting my ideas and reading others’.
So my conclusion is that I need to take the time to sit down and schedule out my week so I can be more deliberate about networking and, in this way take better care of myself so I don’t get so stressed about not doing it like I know I should.