Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Quest to Separate Timeliness and Competence

We took the plunge. This year my school eliminated a grade penalty for late work. The high school faculty had been reading about the role of homework and grades, and discussing this step for a year or two. We maybe took the plunge without thoroughly thinking through all the implications of what structures would support the change, and it has been a headache of galactic proportions for those in charge of taking attendance at the after-school study hall mandatory for all students with missing assignments, and for those in charge of chasing down those who choose not to attend. Kudos to them—their pain has supported better learning in my class. 

The good effects in my 10th grade English class include holding students accountable and motivating them to be proactive about getting late work in. They also include holding me accountable to more actively monitor students with late work (my colleagues will know I have 20 students with late work…what kind of a teacher will they think I am?), and has motivated me to rethink why timely work is important, and how to teach them about and assess them on not timeliness, but how excellent preparation drives their own and others’ learning by creating vital academic conversation. 

Here’s what those effects have looked like in my class.

One student had to go to the after-school study hall one time during the first week of school. He seemed a little startled that he actually had to go, but I met him there and made sure he understood the journal entry he was supposed to have completed. Fifteen minutes later the entry was done, he was free to leave, and he hasn’t had a late assignment since. And only one other student has had to attend.

Two different students initiated conversations with me about an assignment that wasn’t done, with an alternate proposal from the student about how she could complete it without having to attend the after-school study hall. I figured that kind of taking of responsibility was the goal of the policy.

One student fell behind on the first draft of an essay and stayed behind through the entire process, having to attend the study hall every day for several weeks. I met her there a couple of times to talk through questions, I touched base with her occasionally about her essay when I saw her in class, and as we begin the next essay, I will be very aware of her progress in order to identify whether this was a one-time slip-up or an indicator of an underlying pattern that needs to be dealt with.

Finally, I’ve had to reconsider some of my grading practices. Without the “power” of taking off points for undone reading-response journals, I realized I had to assess the assignment in the context of the reason students were doing it: the following day’s small-group discussion. In an earlier blog I wrote about developing a rubric for these discussions collaboratively with the students. 

I continue to look for more effective and valid ways to use that rubric to assess the discussions, but the results in what the students are learning in collaborative skills and in content from focusing on vibrant academic discussions seems far more important than how I’m grading. I mean, simply that I’m assessing is significant—it focuses both the students and me on defining, observing, and practicing the skills, on actually experiencing the learning that comes from a productive academic discussion, and on setting goals about how to do it even better.

When I returned the student rubrics on the first novel study’s discussions, I asked students to respond to 3 questions:

  1. What is something you saw someone in your group do that really helped the discussion go better?
  2. What is something you want to continue to do or do better in your next small group to help the discussion go well?
  3. If there is a line on the rubric that you think you should have scored higher on, which one is it and what did you do well that I didn’t see?

It was a delight to see students name other students in their groups and specific things they had done well. Often it was the same students that I observed as good discussion drivers. Sometimes it was a student that I had missed, but when I started paying attention, I noticed his comments weren’t verbose, but when made, were concise and insightful. 

Another student made an appeal about how curious she had been about the book and how she had related parts of the book “with the current society.” I gave her the higher mark because (1) maybe she had been and I had just missed it, and because (2) if she could articulate positive inquiry that clearly, then at least she knew what it looks like and would be more likely to do it next time. 

Now it’s next time, and whether she is more talkative because she articulated it, or I am more aware because she told me, I’m noticing that her group of 4 is having good discussions—always on task, making good connections, asking good questions of each other.

On the other hand, I was also able to correct misconceptions for a couple of students who thought that excellent listening was only nonverbal behaviors and asking their own questions—not the verbal active listening skills of paraphrasing others’ input, asking clarifying questions related to others’ input, and offering and requesting feedback. 

Finally, there was the window into a developing servant-leader: every member in his group mentioned him by name, and he was the only student who mentioned not one other person in his group, but each one, and something each had done well in the discussion.

So, many thanks to all of my high school colleagues for passing this new policy, and especially to those who have taken on the responsibility for making it work. It is working in my class.

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