October 31, 2010

Results only evaluation

At the end of our first quarter in a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM, the time came to assign a letter grade to my students, who had seen no points, percentages or grades on any activity or project for the first nine weeks of the school year.

It took only about two weeks for questions about grades to disappear. This was a truly transformative experience. For the first time in 18 years of teaching, my students were less interested in a grade and more enthusiastic about producing something and receiving meaningful feedback on the activity or project.

Sadly, I was forced by district policy to assign a grade, and this left me in a quandary. Of course, I could do it, based on the students' production and my feedback and how they handled the feedback. I was reluctant to grade them, though, because grading is so contrary to the environment that we had created -- one of self-pacing, production, feedback and change. The students had bought in, and now I was going to do what I had told them all quarter that I was so against -- assign a letter grade.

After much deliberation, I decided that it would be best for us to agree on the final mark. I emphasized that the report card grade was a product of school policy and that in the second quarter we would return to no grades and a system of results followed by teacher feedback. Then, I told the students that it was their grade and they should have a role in deciding it. Needless to say, they were shocked; this had never happened to them.

I instructed students to spend a night self-evaluating. "Go home and consider what you've produced during the first quarter," I said. "Look at ProgressBook (our online grade book), and review the comments I've left on every activity. Also, look at the feedback I've left about your performance in general." Several times weekly, I placed a comment on each student's online record that they and parents could see. For example, I might write, "Excellent small-group discussion, demonstrating understanding of the concept of flashback in a short story" or "You contributed very little today, and these small-group discussions are critical to my evaluation of your reading comprehension."

The following day, my classes met in our school learning commons -- the library and media center. While they did project work on laptops, I met with each student individually for 2-5 minutes and we looked at their results and my feedback. After several minutes of evaluative comments from me, I asked students for their feedback; then, I said, "Now, you assign a letter to your work for the first quarter."

There were roughly 80 of these meetings and, remarkably, there was not a single disagreement on the final grade. Several students, some on the brink of tears, admitted that they had produced very little and assigned themselves a grade of "D" or "F." Can you imagine a student saying I deserve an "F?"

Admittedly, there were more "A's" than I've had in recent years, but this was more a product of eliminating useless homework and jaded summative assessments, which serve only to damage grades, than it was students misrepresenting their work.

My students and I agreed on a final grade, based on overall results -- two major, month-long projects, much feedback from me and from peers and their handling of that feedback.

After one quarter, I believe my students are learning more than ever -- both about language arts and about how to be better life-long learners.

October 7, 2010

Answering questions about a ROLE

Over a month into the school year, the Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM is firmly entrenched in my seventh-grade classroom. Although I've fielded a few questions from students about grades, for the most part the students have figured out that there are not any grades, until final quarter report cards are mailed. Most students are already well-conditioned to look for feedback on their classroom web sites, instead of a score out of 100.

There have been a few parent e-mails wondering about grades, but so far, most parents have been very supportive of the program.

My colleagues, however, are very curious of this new approach.

"How will you justify the grade that goes on the report card?" one asked.

"What will you say to administrators who say you have to use the percentage grading scale mandated by the district?"

"Give me some examples of how it's done," another chimed in.

These are supportive people who are trying to help me look at things from all angles, so it seemed I had some explaining to do.

Some of this is quite simple, I said proudly. The bottom line is that when I am forced to assign a letter grade to my students for a quarterly report card, I will do so. It won't be based so much on a percentage, I told them; rather, it will be based on a cumulative evaluation of activity throughout the quarter.

"So, how does that work?" I'm asked.

Basically, I use the feedback that I provide on all activities, all of which is contained on my students' private web sites, along with scores from various diagnostics I've given throughout the quarter. I judge students on what they've done in class in terms of production and how much they've worked to take my feedback on projects and to improve their work, based on that feedback.

I tell them that they are being evaluated on everything from how often they contribute to a class discussion to how well they read the instructions I provide on a web-based activity to if they fold up the newspaper properly, when we are working on non-fiction. It's all about the results.

I constantly refer to this method as "Production, feedback, change." This is how we operate in my Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM. The ultimate result is in the change that occurs throughout a quarter, which de-emphasizes points typically awarded on a quiz or project.

Even if a student scores 50 percent on an initial diagnostic (a test or quiz), if the student reviews the lessons pertaining to this diagnostic, retakes it and scores higher, then the student has produced -- even if the retake result is still only passing at 70 percent. In my mind this is an A (in the grade world), not a C, because a 20 percent improvement in one attempt is a giant leap forward.

There are still many questions to be answered, but until report cards are printed, for now, my colleagues were satisfied with this.

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A ROLETM brings an educational shift

In the summer of 2010, after 17 years as a classroom teacher, everything changed for me. I read Dan Pink's bestselling book, Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, and although it sounds trite, this quickly became the most important book I'd ever read.

Although I wasn't one of those longtime teachers who was worn down by the system and needed to retire (I always tried to infuse fresh methods into my class), each school year ended with a renewed sense of failure. The things I tried, in order to improve my teaching and my students' learning never seemed to be enough.

I attended a cornucopia of seminars and classes to make teachers better, and I even presented at several conferences, on the subject of web-based instruction -- a specialty area of mine, which I'll address more later. So every august in those 17 years arrived with renewed vigor, but when the calendar turned to June, I couldn't get out quickly enough.

Something had to change

Finally, the summer I read Drive, nearly two decades of what I’d done in the classroom was re-evaluated, with special consideration given to rapport-building, cooperative learning and classroom management. I asked myself plenty of questions. What worked with kids? What didn’t work? Why was the prior year such a monumental failure for a veteran teacher who had seen everything in the classroom? Most important, how could things have been different, and how might I apply everything I’d recently studied to my own teaching? Could I re-invent my classroom? How could I truly impact my students?

Once my own research and evaluation period was complete, I started planning, and I redefined a teacher. Another school year began, and I entered the doors and strode toward my classroom with a fresh perspective. I even changed my wardrobe, replacing jeans and golf shirts with slacks and a blazer. Armed with solid research and a powerful need for change, I was ready to rebuild my broken classroom and turn it into a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM.