Accounting for 2009

On TLN, we have a tradition of posting our New Year’s resolutions. Usually I am pouring with ideas and professional goals, but this year I found it difficult.  Then, as I was reading other people’s goals, I remembered…I am in the midst of carrying out a big goal I set for myself in August before the school year started.  What I need to do now is check in on them and regroup for 2010.

The most tangible goal I set for myself this school year was to improve my assessments.  I wanted to make sure I could clearly track the learning of my students.  Why? Partly, for my own piece of mind–in this age of “accountability,” I wanted to be sure of what my students were learning and be able to say say clearly what each student knew how to do and what each student needed to work on.  I wanted to be able to answer to people who say, “How can you prove what your students are learning, if not using standardized tests?”

Obviously, I’ve always had to grade students, and I’ve used a combination of rubrics, simply assigning grades, just giving comments, etc.  This year, I have put many more hours than ever before into grading everything stringently using rubrics I created and keeping track of the trends and where individual students need help.  At first it was interesting and somewhat motivating for me, but soon I felt myself b-u-r-n-i-n-g  o..u…t…….. I kept going, though.

My conclusion at the close of 2009 is that I have not learned anything ground-breaking from this extremely time-consuming (left-brain heavy) process of “accounting” of my students’ learning.  I realize that I was always using student data (though not always in numerical form) to inform my instructional decisions.  I always had a pretty good grasp of what my students understood and didn’t understand because I looked at their work.

In fact, this assessment process has made my vision of my classroom somewhat more myopic than usual.   For example, if you ask me what a particular student knows or doesn’t know about, say, point of view in literature, I have to consult the numbers in my grade book, whereas before I could probably tell you off the top of my head.  This is because I’ve forced myself to focus on the empirical side of assessment (the numbers) and less on the actual student! I am less tuned in to the “soft” aspects of teaching, such as how I am motivating my students, and how much joy and creativity there is or isn’t in my classroom.  I *count* that as a loss for both my students and me.

I did discover a few good things about this practice.  The rubrics were often helpful as a tool to communicate clearly to students what they needed to work on. When I’ve given students opportunities to revise or redo the work, many of them have done voluntarily, which is a big success. I notice this form of feedback is most helpful with students who are already at least somewhat achievement-oriented. Students who generally struggle with academic skills and engagement, however, seemed to disengage more than usual when they found everything was graded strictly based on the 8th grade standards.  This raises some questions for me that I will share below.

2010: As a result of my learning this fall, I will use rubrics when I want to communicate to students about their progress on a specific objective, especially when I will be giving them new opportunities to achieve greater mastery the concept or skill.  Ideally, though, I want to structure my class so that my students get to a point where they can assess their own work, where I do not always have the final word about what’s best.  

In 2010, I will not continue to keep track of student learning using rubrics to create numerical data just for the sake of it, or to answer to some higher power.  If I am the single most important factor in the learning of my students, then need to do what enables me to be the best teacher I can be, which means NOT getting burnt out in the process. Moreover, I need to approach teaching in a way that feeds my spirit. I need to use my intuition to stay in tune with the pulse of the class as a whole and build relationships with all my students.  I resolve to welcome formal and informal occasions for joy, humor, and creativity in my classroom. I am fairly certain that these are no less important than mastery of standards.

Questions: I’m still torn about whether actual grades and rankings are ultimately helpful.  In From Degrading to De-GradingAlfie Kohn explains the well-researched fact that grades take the child’s attention away from the learning itself, which is detrimental to all learners, from struggling to gifted. Written or verbal feedback, he says, is very helpful, but grades–which rank the work, whether we use letters or points, or percentages–make students focus on the grades, not the work. What would happen if I stopped giving grades and only gave written feedback?  What if I gave and scored quizzes, but at the end of the term asked kids to look at their work and feedback and assign themselves a grade and explain their rationale for it.  How would they fare?

In the use of rubrics, I question the practice of deciding beforehand what every student should learn from each assignment.  For certain objectives and certain assignments, yes.  But everything? For every student? Isn’t that an attempt to standardize the learning that takes place in our classrooms?  What about play? Innovation?  What’s the right balance between accountability for student mastery of pre-determined standards and the need for students to explore, discover, and learn in a way that is authentic and honors their individuality?

[image credits: www.readingpl.org/eduspaces.net, www.flickr.com/photos/ bingramos/126661740/]