Thus far, I've been blogging solely about going gradeless. However, right now, I want to talk about another topic: Assigned Reading
Many teachers from various subject areas have grappled with managing student reading, mostly making sure they are reading. Some have chosen to read entire works aloud in class, which I have done. However, that takes up class time that could be used for discussion and other enriching activities. Other teachers assign the reading for homework and give their students reading quizzes. I've done that as well. However, grading these (and keeping track of the inevitable make-ups) take up my precious time.
I wanted to find a way to hold students accountable but do it as efficiently as possible. My interest was piqued when fellow AP English teachers on an online forum brought up "fishbowl" discussions. Thanks to their discussion, I was inspired to take this idea, modify it for my needs, re-name it "Hot Seats," and try it out.
How it works:
1. I create a list of about 40 questions about reading. These questions must be broad enough for any book, but specific enough to ensure the student read.
Some "9th grade level" questions
2. I go around the classroom with my "Hot Seat Jar" (pictured above), and I let students pull a random question out to ask their classmate. At this point, no one knows who will get the question.
3. Students discuss their novels in small group Socratic Seminars about 1-2 times a week. After each seminar, I have a hot seat session. I do this after the seminars because I want to make sure students had a chance to discuss and clarify any misunderstandings. This also eases anxiety for students, especially my English Learners and those with an IEP. I also want students to have an incentive to engage in a thoughtful discussion (just in case they are called).
4. I call on 2-3 random groups. Each student within that group will get at least one question (teachers can do as many as they have time for--I usually stick to one or two).
5. I will say, " Amanda, please read your question to Jack." Then Jack will have to listen to Amanda's question and answer as quickly as possible.
6. As Jack speaks, I will quickly assess his answer. Because these are not "level one" questions (on Bloom's Taxonomy), students will have to apply more critical thinking and offer specific examples to support their ideas. Teachers will have to discern what constitutes a "specific" or "detailed" response.
7. As I call on other students to answer questions presented by their peers, I continue assessing the quality of their answers on my rubric (pictured below). Each group takes about 5-7 minutes, and it is usually at the end of the period so that I can increase or decrease the number of groups called as needed.
Why I Love This
How My Students Felt
During 1:1 conversations and conferences, I informally asked students how they felt about this activity. While many said they were "shook" by the thought of being called out by their peers and having to speak in front of the class, over time, many grew to appreciate the experience. I asked if students would prefer a traditional reading quiz instead, and most said no: although the hot seat questions were challenging, they enjoyed having to think fast and articulate their response. My EL and Sped Ed. students were a little anxious about this activity, but I adapted it by allowing them to have a do-over if they struggled, which means I'd ask them a few random questions during break or lunch. I could also inconspicuously give my student a heads up just a few minutes before we start about which question they will get.
Feeling like you want to give it a try? Let me know, and I'd be happy to send you my materials. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to comment below. I appreciate any feedback other teachers are willing to provide!
As we wrapped up our last day of the semester and finished our 1:1 conferences, I had my 9th graders complete a quick class evaluation on Google Forms. I am a big believer in class evaluations, as they have informed my teaching and helped me refine my approach. While I normally save evaluations for the end of the year, I felt that a mid-year survey was in order. After all, why should I wait until the end of the year to find out what is working and what is not?
I asked the following questions:
The question I want to focus on for this post is #3 since this is the "center of gravity" of my class this year. Below is the breakdown of my students' responses.
I was very excited to see that 83.6% of my 9th graders agreed that this was beneficial. Even so, that left me wondering: how can I address the needs and concerns of that 16.4%?
Here are samples of both the positive and critical explanations for my students' responses to question #3:
"I like it because I get a second chance on things."
"It gives me opportunities to bring my grades and score up so when we meet, my grade can be better."
"You had to work hard to get a good grade."
"I find it hard to keep track and see what I'm doing without a grade on aeries and know what I'm doing wrong."
"I like being graded from teachers, not myself."
"It gave me a chance to improve my grade and learn from my errors."
"I think it's hard to tell what you need to make up when you don't have an actual grade at that moment."
"Letting me retry on something ..... helped me fix my mistakes on writing assignments in particular, which helped me learn from these mistakes."
"It was a somewhat confusing process."
"Usually I could never make up or correct a bad grade, but now I can."
"I like how we have to work hard to get the grade we deserve, it helps us learn good habits to get into."
"I always want to know what my grade is throughout the semester."
Here is how I will address the concerns of the 16.4% of students who are not quite sold on the gradeless system.
The semester is quickly coming to an end, and I have been SO BUSY.
Part of my hectic work situation is that I am trying a lot of new strategies at once. Remember: I did not just "tweak" my freshman class; I completely overhauled it. All teachers, even the most experienced ones, must be flexible, especially when implementing new ideas. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel like I bit off more than I could chew at times.......acutally many, many times. My busy work days are also compounded by the fact that I am venturing alone in this endeavor. This system, which can feel like a forest, can be overwhleming and intimidating. I have no one with whom I can brainstorm, ask for advice, or share the workload. As the only AP Literature teacher on campus for the last five years, I have long ago realized how challenging it is to be a lone wolf.
But it is also liberating.
This lone wolf status has given me greater flexibility and emboldened me to change. It has also forced me to reflect more deeply and often about my practices, which is an important part of this process.
There have been moments when I felt like a new teacher all over again-engineering a new curriclum and learning from inevitable mistakes. I admit to having pangs of doubt and feeling a momentary desire to return to the familiar territory of using a points system to calculate grades, yet I have resisted because I understand that the first year is usually the hardest. I will power through this, but in the meantime, here are insights, based on my experiences so far, about going gradeless.
Fellow teachers, please do not hesitate to comment below to share what you do, provide feedback, or ask questions. I greatly appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to read.
I made it through an entire quarter, and I only gave ONE official grade.
Although I read about this idea in the books I had discovered last spring and summer (cited in my first blog post), I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. How would I carve out the precious time needed to meet individually with each person in a classes of 38 students? Will this shake my students' faith in the process? Would my students rise to the occasion of providing an honest reflection and not just ask for an easy A?
Thankfully, none of my fears were validated. With some deep breaths and planning, I figured out a way to make this work. While I did experience some hiccups, I reminded myself that-like anything we try for the first time-this is a baseline, a chance to learn what works best and what I can fix. So I embraced this as an opportunity, and more importantly, I learned some valuable lessons in the process--about me, my students, and the essential elements for a successful grading conference.
1. Give yourself enough time-You will have to do a little bit of math here. First, estimate how much time--on average--each meeting will take. For me, it was between 5-10 minutes, around an average of 7 minutes. In my 55-minute classes, I figured that I'd be able to speak to 5-7 students. Those who demonstrated mastery and excellence consistently and clearly earned an "A" in the class were the fastest, usually meeting with me for about five minutes. We still reflected on how they were doing and discussed goals, but it was more clear-cut. The students working at the "C" range or lower took a little longer since there was more to untangle about what was hindering their progress. I have included a sample of my conference schedule below. Each day I met with a mix of students (highs-mediums-lows). The days I met with seven students were a little more rushed--I barely finished before the bell. One thing I didn't consider: absences and holidays (whoopsie). Some students were absent, which added more names to the later dates since I had to do make-up conferences before grades were due. Trying to conference on Halloween was also not ideal just because students tend to be more easily distracted with the candy, costumes, and events, but I still made it work.
2. Ensure students are on task and productive-When figuring this out, I had to address the obvious issue: what will the other 37 students do while I meet with each person? I envisioned a "workshop," where students would have something to work on while I met with each one. Luckily, I was able to re-arrange lessons and have students do their research, peer-editing, and drafting in the library and in my classroom (using Chromebooks) while I held conferences. To make this work, I guided them ahead of time on each step of the research, going over examples, answering questions-basically front-loading them with the skills they would need. If the timing hadn't worked out this way, I would have had students work on another activity that they could complete on their own, such as a long-term goal or project. The key here is to make the work meaningful, intellectually stimulating, and within students' ability to complete independently. I understand that is a tall order; nevertheless, if you guide them on essential skills before the conferences, the foundation you provide can help them manage the independent activity on their own.
3. Pre-conference student self-evaluations-This was a HUGE help. Prior to our conferences (about a week before), students filled out a self-evaluation form. On it, they noted the work they completed, the books they read, the scores I gave them using my class a 1-4 scale (which are not points; rather, these scores indicate their mastery ), and the "mode" of their quiz scores. On the back, students indicated what grade they felt they earned based on the evidence, articulated why they felt it was fair, explained their weaknesses, and identified their strengths. Receiving these in advance allowed me to look at how they graded themselves, anticipate any issues without being caught by surprise, and better prepare for our meetings.
Self-Evaluation Form (front):
Self Evaluation Form (back):
4. Trim the "curriculum fat"-Considering that you will have to sacrifice about a week of instruction, you will need to re-evaluate your curriculum and-inevitably-cut some activities out. I understand that we all want to believe everything we do in class is essential; however, the reality is that we can afford to remove some tasks and tighten up the belt, so to speak. I loved this very timely podcast by Jennifer Gonzalez about ridding our curriculum of what she calls "grecian urns": these are time-consuming tasks that lack the intellectual challenge, complexity, and critical thinking needed to deepen students' understanding about concepts. Once you find activities to cut out or improve, you will not only have some time for conferences, but you will also have time to integrate other meaningful tasks to increase students' mastery.
5. The grade must come from the students-When meeting with students, I would begin with the question, "How was language arts this quarter?" Then I would simply listen to what they had to say, following up with other questions: What are you most proud of? Which activity did you enjoy? What was the biggest challenge for you? How did you manage your time in and out of class? How did you study? We looked at the form they turned in (pictured above), discussed whether or not they attempted re-taking any tests or tried revising their writing and turn in a "re-submit ticket" (above) for an improved score. As a side note, I do allow re-takes for tests/quizzes (I do not pass them back once corrected), and students can revise their writing based on my and their classmates' feedback and have it re-scored based on my 1-4 rubric scale, a scale I use and adapt for all writing assignments.
After going over their progress in each task, I'd say something like: "So you wrote that you have earned a 88%, which is a B+. Can you explain why-in light of what we just discussed and the evidence you've provided-this is a fair and accurate measure of your progress?" This was a very interesting moment, more of a reality check, especially for those who may have "inflated" their grade a little bit (a a small number attempted to). With the evidence before them, these students changed their minds and chose a more accurate percentage. Regardless of the grade, I made sure this final decision came from the student; otherwise, this purported system of "autonomy" and "control" I had set up for this class would lose credibility and fall apart. After meeting with nearly 80 students, I can confidently say that the grades we negotiated together were fair.
6. Students need to articulate their plan for improvement-After we negotiated a grade, I would ask students, "What is your plan for next quarter? Can you list the steps you will take to improve as a student?" I wanted them to realize that their role in learning was just as important as mine, even more important, actually. Furthermore, my goal in even pursuing this whole process was to shift the top-down paradigm of my classes, to illustrate to my students that we are working on their academic growth together as a team. Their ability to reflect on their learning, set goals, and engage in a real discussion is essential for that growth to take place.
7. Last, but definitely not least, enjoy and maximize this one-on-one opportunity-It is so hard to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with each of our students, but this connection is so important! Each year, I definitely give my best effort, but I always wonder if there is something more I could have done for my struggling students, the quiet ones who may fly under the radar or fall through the cracks of our system, the ones who feel we didn't notice the challenges they faced. I met with students during a very hectic and demanding week, but each day, I felt invigorated by my ability to check in on every single person and give them my full attention, even if for a short amount of time. These conferences enabled me to get to know each person just a little better, allowed me to reinforce my desire to help students, and reminded me why I chose this profession in the first place.
It's nearly been one month since school has begun, and I cannot believe how FAST the time has gone by. In so many ways, I feel like that brand new teacher I was 11 years ago--building a plane while flying it. I knew that I was walking into some major risks going into this school year, that I'd experience growing pains and the anxiety of traversing unfamiliar territory. Nevertheless, I entered the "battleground" of this year as rested and rejuvenated as possible (for a mother of two, anyway), ready to do my best. Fortunately, I am not as terrified and naive as I was back in 2005: I am armed with much more experience, and that is exactly what I needed to bolster my courage as I entered the front lines.
When I told my freshmen about the class that first week and my system of...well....NOT grading (except for the one quarter grade we'd negotiate), they stared back, mouth agape and wide-eyed. They didn't erupt in cheers. They didn't high-five me. I maintained my enthusiasm as I pitched this idea, but inside, I thought, "Uh oh. They're not into this!" Luckily, my first impressions were wrong, for the most part.
I had to figure out a way to be a better, more efficient teacher, which means putting more responsibility on students.
Once my students were able to digest all of the information, their shock melted away. They now come to class well before the tardy bell rings, ready to work instead of milking social time during passing periods and running in at the last second to avoid being marked late, a first with my 9th grade classes. They ask, "am I going to be able to read my book today?" Music to my English teacher ears. The conversation with students has shifted from "How many points is this worth?" as they decide how much effort to give (or not give) a task to "How can I do this better?" I've also noticed students working together instead of competing with each other. Don't get me wrong, I still have a few students who have a hard time focusing and struggle with completing tasks, which is an issue regardless of how I grade. Those students will clearly need more support, and this time, I can actually give them more individualized instruction instead of my one-size-fits-all approach from the past. I certainly have a few students who chafe at the idea of revising their writing and providing evidence of their learning to me for a grade. They'd much rather jump through the hoops of collecting points as they've grown accustomed to, letting me bear the weight of their learning. I hope that--in time--these students will see the benefits of this newfound autonomy and control I am providing. This "gradeless" system is by no means a panacea for all of the issues teachers face; however, I am definitely seeing a positive change overall, and I welcome it with open arms.
Another goal I have, however naive as it may seem, is to find balance. I love teaching, but the paper-load, grading on weekends and weeknights, preparing lessons, figuring out tech issues, responding to emails, etc. that demand our attention well beyond the school day is exhausting. As one who teaches writing, I know that I must provide consistent and meaningful feedback to all students in order for them to improve. So what could I change? I had to figure out a way to be a better, more efficient teacher, which means putting more responsibility on students.
This responsibility has already manifested itself in different ways:
After this first month, I've realized that I'm not the only one entering the front lines. My students are bravely and enthusiastically joining me on this journey. They trust me to guide them, soldiering on through their own personal and academic trials and errors, pursuing their own goals and dreams, and I am determined not to let them down.
So here it is! As much as many people--and part of me, really--lament that the sun is setting on summer, I am full of excitement, nerves, ambivalence, and intrigue.
I've decided to change things in my LA1 class. I'm not just talking about tweaking here and there. I mean OVERHAUL. I had already changed much of my AP Lit class, and I am much happier with it, but I've realized that my LA1 classes needed some TLC.
The seeds of change (yes, I'm full of metaphors here) were planted last year, when I realized that the way my class was being taught was NOT working for me...and the students, really.
I mean, it was adequate. I dutifully updated my grade book, diligently graded essays, justifying each score with an exhaustive amount of comments and corrections. I did a good job, and no one could argue I was "lazy".....but something felt off. After over a decade (!!) of teaching, I began to take a really hard look at my practices, asking WHY and-more difficult-if students were as engaged as they could be. After the 2015-2016 year with my LA1 classes, I realized that many practices, such as nightly homework, worksheets, packets, etc. were maintained just because that was the norm. It was tradition. That was the way I was taught, and that is the way lots of teachers-many of whom I respect and admire-operate their classrooms. However, as I began researching and questioning, I discovered that these "traditional" practices had little or no impact on student achievement. Worse, they could turn students off to having an interest in learning for the sake of it.
... I knew-deep down-that the change had to start with me.
This discovery goes beyond the famous Alfie Kohn article. I also realized--after looking at grades and my having to constantly give the same comments on essays-that no, many were not as engaged and invested as I wanted them to be. Sure, students "dialed it in," so to speak, and earned the points to pass. But there was little intrinsic motivation to truly improve. I could have easily deflected and shifted the blame on the students ("kids don't care about their future..."..."all they care about is their friends and social media.."...."this is just a lazy group.."), but I knew--deep down--that the change had to start with me.
So I stumbled across an amazing "online magazine" by Jennifer Gonzalez, which led me to my first book by Starr Sackstein.
Mind thoroughly BLOWN to bits, I scooped up the pieces and searched for more books, and I found this one:
And then fell into a frenzy of reading, taking in all that I could.
Here are the biggest takeaways (and what will guide my teaching this year):
Armed with the knowledge bestowed upon me from these educators, equipped with many ideas and strategies, and inspired by their courage, I welcome the challenge of transforming myself, enduring the inevitable obstacles and embracing every opportunity to learn.
English teacher-9th grade and AP Lit. Writer. Muggle. Adventurer.