Waiting to be torched. . .

Have you ever tried to have a conversation about grading and homework in a middle school? If so, you’re probably all too familiar with the sparks that fly when well-intentioned teachers try to come to consensus over what to do about late or missing assignments!

Seriously, some of the most passionate arguments that I’ve ever gotten into were with colleagues who disagreed with my late-work policies.

And who knows, you might find my late-work policies disagreeable too! You see, for about the past six years, I’ve accepted every assignment from every student without academic penalty regardless of when they turn it in.

Gone are the heavy-handed attempts to squeeze work out of kids that I used with impunity early during my teaching career. The “If-you-don’t-turn-this-in-you’re-going-to-fail- and-spend-your-life-digging-ditches” speeches that once defined my thinking haven’t happened in a good long while.

Why?

It’s simple: They just didn’t work.

For me, the “coercive accountability” model of punishing students who didn’t turn in their assignments had no positive outcomes at all. While I initially figured I was “teaching kids responsibility,” I realized the lesson wasn’t being learned. After all, the same kids continued to miss tasks regardless of the number of zeros that I slapped in my gradebook.

Heck, one of my students earned a 9 (out of 100) after a semester’s worth of lectures, consequences and punishment. He missed 20 out of 23 assignments. He willingly chose to take the zeros rather than complete the task and would simply shrug in the face of my spittle-laced, vein-throbbing harangues.

If my consequences were truly “teaching him responsibility,” wouldn’t he have started to turn work in at some point or another?

I also wondered what allowing a kid to miss 20 out of 23 assignments said about my own professionalism and the overall value of my assignments. Clearly, I had a student on my hands who had not demonstrated mastery (or misunderstandings) of content, right? Regardless of who was “at fault” for the missing tasks, I couldn’t possibly have had a complete understanding of his strengths and weaknesses because I never had a chance to evaluate any of his work.

But you can bet that I gave him grades every quarter! Usually big fat Fs based on nothing more than a sea of zeros.

Can we really claim to be professionals when we completely and knowingly fail to measure what it is our students are learning—-and then report an under-informed and potentially inaccurate mark to parents?

So I started to take what I think are more responsible actions:

  • Every child in my class is required to turn in every assignment. If it is not turned in when it is due, they are required to come to my classroom to finish it instead of going outside for recess. I call this “working lunch.” DuFour calls it teaching kids responsibility by forcing them to act responsibly (read: completing every assignment).
  • I regularly send students home with a “Work Behaviors Rubric” (see attached) I picked up at a Robert Canady conference that is designed to give parents feedback about the kinds of responsible (or irresponsible) actions that their child is demonstrating in class.   Download rubric_student_work_behaviors.doc
  • I ensure that the grades written on a child’s report card or grade sheet are accurate indicators of their actual academic performance. If a kid has shown mastery of content on every task that I assigned, they’ll get an A—even if the assignments were turned in late.

What am I most proud of?

That I’m giving parents clear feedback about their child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to work behaviors. Before, I’d complain about how unorganized, lazy, unprepared or irresponsible a kid was without making any effort to give parents direct feedback on areas where improvement was needed. Instead, they’d see a low grade on the report card and have to guess whether it represented academic ability, work behaviors or some (largely indistinguishable) mix of both.

I’m also pretty jazzed that I don’t have situations where a student makes an F in my room and then aces the end of grade exam! Had that happen to you before? Kind of awkward, huh?

Pretty non-traditional, right?

Yup—and it just plain irks parents and colleagues sometimes because it doesn’t match their perceptions of what grading is or should be. We’ve been permanently programmed to think that students should be “punished” when they struggle to turn work in, and my system just doesn’t seem to inflict enough pain.

So how can I mentally justify all of this crazy talk in my head?

By:

  • Remembering that the number of students who repeatedly miss work in most schools is really quite small. When you recognize that you’re arguing passionately about an issue that only involves 10-20% of your student population, it puts your passionate argument into perspective—and makes conversations about appropriate professional actions more approachable.
  • Understanding that the majority of my kids who miss a task are thankful for the opportunity to make it up and are willing to give up a recess period to complete their work. That act in and of itself is a demonstration of responsibility, isn’t it? (If you’d argue no, then you haven’t been in a middle school in awhile. Willingly giving up the social time that comes with lunch and recess is like willingly giving up air. It ain’t easy!)
  • Realizing that losing recess has actually been a more effective consequence than zeros ever were! I have fewer kids miss tasks now than ever before, primarily because zeros were an intangible consequence that didn’t “hit my kids in the pocketbook” until report cards were sent home. Missing recess today is a far more serious “punishment” for a twelve-year old…and therefore, a terrific motivator for my kids.
  • Recognizing that the students who are “repeat offenders” are actually the ones who need my support the most because they haven’t been successful in school or because they haven’t got the kinds of support at home that other kids take for granted. Rather than getting mad at them for being “failures,” I embrace the opportunity to prove to them that they aren’t.

It also helps that the principals of our school have eliminated all of the traditional “teacher duties” that used to consume my time. I no longer have to supervise the lunchroom, monitor the hallways, play potty-patrol, or stand on the fields at recess. Instead, those tasks are completed by other school professionals—freeing me up to instruct.

Now, I’ve got kids in my room almost every day at lunch and recess. There’s no such thing as “Duty Free Lunch” for me because I’m busy hovering over kids who are diligently working to complete tasks.  But the rest of my day is completely “Duty Free.” That makes up for the time that I spend working with kids during what had been a “break.”

So what do you think? Is my grading policy brilliant or bone-headed?

Whatever you answer, I hope you can back up your statements with fact! Don’t throw down the “I’m teaching responsibility” unless you can prove that your approach is resulting in lessons learned.

Waiting to be torched,
Bill