June 30, 2011

Can students grade themselves?

While presenting at ISTE 2011, I was demonstrating the effectiveness of using technology to provide narrative feedback to students. I explained the power of such feedback, in terms of learning, and I told the audience that I never place a letter or number grade on anything.

When the time for Q&A arrived, a curious attendee asked, "When it comes time for a report card grade, how do you do it?" He appeared stunned by my response.

"I let the kids decide the grade," I said. I could tell that he and most others in the audience were perplexed, so I elaborated. "I meet with each student," I continued, "I ask them to review their production for the quarter, along with all feedback. I ask them to evaluate the work. Then I say, 'So, what's your grade?' It's amazing how honest they are. Some even give themselves F's."

Can this system work in your class? If so, what's keeping you from doing it?"

June 13, 2011

Feedback Toolkit: performance reviews

If you dedicate yourself to providing narrative feedback throughout the year, over grades, it's important to consider adding a final performance review.

How it works
The performance review is a complete summary of each student's production for the entire school year. As you may have guessed, these are somewhat lengthy, usually one typed page, consisting of 250-350 words. The performance review should be an extension of the kind of feedback you've provided throughout the year. It should clearly outline each student's subject-related skills, collaboration, project work and work ethic.

Rather than placing negative comments on the performance review, include recommendations for improvement heading into the next school year. Although it's important to remain positive, these should also be direct. If a student has struggled in an important area, it's critical that she know this in the performance review, as it will give her something to consider over the summer.

Finally, a good performance review should include a few sentences at the end that remind the student of important summer activities, such as summer reading, skills camps or other school-related activities.

For a better understanding of year-end performance reviews, see the sample performance review on the top menu and linked here.

Don't miss other articles in this series.

June 11, 2011

Year-long projects

The year-long project is a key piece of the Results Only Learning Environment TM. Obviously, project-based assessment is not new. Year-long projects in the ROLE, though, differ in the way they help fan students' intrinsic motivation, leading them to embrace learning rather than grades.

A year-long project is one in which students set a long-term goal and work backwards, creating checkpoints that the teacher can set. A smart year-long project will foster autonomy, collaboration and mastery of learning outcomes.

A model project

I have a variety of year-long activities, one being our Reading All Year project. We set a "Barnes Class" goal of 2,500 books read by June. This averages to roughly 25 per student. Of course, some will read 50 while a few will read 15. Along the way, we learn genre, book structure, literary elements and the fundamentals of writing.

As the year moves forward, students become engaged in the project and all of its parts, mainly because they are interested in reaching the final goal. They value the narrative feedback I provide and never ask, "What's this worth?"

I'll have more on year-long projects later. Meanwhile, consider how a project like this can change how you teach and how your students learn.

June 8, 2011

Dear Colleagues please think about this

Dear Colleagues,

After nearly 20 years of teaching, I made a remarkable change in my teaching this past year, and I'm hoping you'll consider this for your own class for next year.

Tired of blaming students for their poor grades and bad returns on standardized tests, I took a long, hard look in the mirror last summer and wondered if it was possible that my students' failures were actually mine. After reading the work of popular researchers and educators like Daniel Pink, Stephen Krashen and Alfie Kohn, I realized that things had to change, both in my own classroom and in education, in general.

ROLE Reversal
I created what I call a Results Only Learning Environment. A results-only class discards traditional methods, in favor of a more progressive way of teaching and learning. A ROLE gives the students freedom to choose how they learn. It makes learning fun by putting students in a workshop environment, giving them year-long projects and eliminating boring traditional teaching tools, such as homework, worksheets and tests and quizzes.

No rules and no grades
Perhaps the best part of the results-only classroom is the fact that rules and consequences are no longer needed, because students become so engaged in their own learning that they are not interested in being disruptive. In past years, I was constantly handing out ridiculous punishments like detentions, writing assignments and, worst of all, the ever-popular timeout (moving a student to an isolated spot away from peers). When I couldn't handle disruption, I simply sent the student away to our Student Management Room or to the principal. When I converted my room to a Results Only Learning Environment, all of these archaic consequences vanished. Imagine never disciplining a student again.

Also gone are grades. I never put a letter or a number on a student's activity or project. Instead, I supply narrative feedback -- detailed oral or written feedback about what skills were mastered and which need more work. In less than one grading period, my students stopped asking, "What's this worth?" or "Is this for points?" Instead, students started working for the value of learning. They valued my feedback and enthusiastically made changes to activities, when I asked for it.

When the grading period ended, and report card grades were mandated, my students evaluated their own performance and graded themselves. Numerous times, students graded themselves with "F's" and 90 percent of the time, students assigned the exact grade I would have.

Think about the unbelievable transformation that took place in my classroom.

Isn't at least some of it worth a try?

June 5, 2011

Please take this challenge: it can change everything

If you are a regular reader of this blog and my tweets, you know by now that I am in the midst of major reform in my classroom. I have transformed my class into what I call a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM. A ROLE is a place that replaces all traditional teaching with progressive methods and narrative feedback over grades.

Accept this challenge
I am working on a book called, ROLE ReversalTM. The book is based on my own experience, and I'm looking for evidence of success of ROLE strategies in other classrooms. I need you to take this challenge, and transform your class into a ROLETM.

All you have to do is change your methods for one grading period. What this means is eliminating all, or at least some, of the traditional methods you may be using: homework, worksheets, rules and consequences, number and letter grades on activities and projects.

How is it done?
Start your school year by explaining to students that things will be different in your class from what they are used to. Tell them there's no homework (at least for the first grading period) and no grades. Explain that you want a class built on narrative feedback from you and from them. Tell students that they will have a chance to make changes to every activity, project or test, based on feedback they receive. End by really shocking them and telling them that at the end of the grading period you will either allow them to grade themselves (if you're really bold) or you will listen to their feedback about what their grade should be.

Need more info?
If you are interested in taking this challenge but need to learn more about how a ROLE works, either post a question in the comment section or contact me with specific questions here.

Feedback toolkit: the sidebar

The sidebar is not a revolutionary creation; it’s just a simple name I use for a practice many good teachers have been using for decades. A sidebar is a one-to-one teacher-student chat that may or may not be related to a class activity. The sidebar, however, is critical to the success of the ROLETM.

The classroom setting helps with sidebars
The workshop setting that the results-only classroom embraces lends itself to plenty of interaction between the students and the teacher. While my students work, I’m constantly on the move, joining small groups and individuals, a perfect time for the sidebar. Not only do these individual chats provide two-way feedback, they are excellent rapport builders.

Many of my students come from single-parent homes, where the student is responsible for household chores and, in many cases, babysitting a younger sibling, so remaining after school for help is not possible. One-to-one conversations, though, are still necessary. So, rather than invite a student in after school to discuss a project, I handle these chats with sidebars, which can take place in the classroom, in a cafeteria, at a student’s locker or strolling down the hallway. Sometimes, I even pull a student from another class for a three-minute sidebar. Witness the value of the two-way feedback that a sidebar provides in this example:

Shonda’s story
At the beginning of our Reading All Year unit, I deal with numerous reluctant readers; Shonda was one. We were reading books, selected by individual students one day, and Shonda had her head down and was not reading. She was sitting in the back of the room, separate from her group (I allow students to move around during reading time). I knelt beside her desk and whispered, “What’s wrong? Do you feel okay?” Not so long ago, when I used traditional discipline measures, I would have snapped, “Sit up; sleep on your own time.” It may not be a ROLE-only technique, but I’ve learned that kindness goes a lot further than anger, when dealing with students.

“I’m okay,” Shonda responded. “I just don’t like reading.” When promoting individual reading to students who have read very little in their lives, the beginning of a year-long reading project is a delicate matter. “You know what?” I began, “When I was your age, I didn’t like to read either.” I didn’t become an avid reader until I got to college. Shonda sat up, curious about a language arts teacher who wasn’t born with a book in his hands. “It’s true,” I continued. “I was too busy playing with friends and watching TV to be bothered with books. Plus, no one explained the amazing world that books would reveal to me.” This sidebar continued quietly, while others read or whispered about their books. I convinced Shonda to brows our classroom library for something she was interested in. Eventually she settled on a short novel, Monkey Island, and labored to read it over the next three weeks.

When Shonda finished that book, she was eager to tell me she had done so. She wrote the title in our “Celebrating Reading” journal, and I later added it to our web-based slide show, which is played on a large TV outside of our media center for all students to see. Shonda later became one of my class librarians and her interest in reading exploded.

Uncanny success
Nearly four months after our brief sidebar, she lingered after class, waiting for everyone else to leave. She came to me with a broad smile and eagerly announced that she had just finished reading her 17th book. I asked her how many books she had read in a single year prior to that one. “Maybe three,” she said. I certainly can’t take credit for Shonda’s finding the avid reader that was buried inside of her, but a simple chat, in which I shared a personal reading story, may have been just enough to nudge her toward the books.

How do you think you might use sidebars to improve two-way feedback in your own class?

Don't miss other articles in this series.

June 4, 2011

Feedback toolkit: web-based grade book

So, how does someone who never puts points or a letter on any activity and who never assigns homework use a web-based grade book -- a program designed explicitly for these purposes? The single-word answer is a familiar one by not, I hope – feedback.

When I created the results-only classroom, I knew I’d have to show students something tangible, upon which they could base their progress. Parents, accustomed to seeing assignments, points and grades on our online grade book, would not be satisfied if their children’s language arts page was blank. No problem. Instead of points, grades, or the word “missing” for incomplete assignments, I would use the comment field, which is available for every student, adjacent to any activity that the teacher creates.

Online comments improve learning
So, instead of seeing a grade, students and parents could click the Language Arts link on our web-based grade book, and they would see a categorized list of activities, diagnostics and projects. Next to a single activity, I provide the type of narrative feedback that specifies what was done right and what needs to be changed or improved. It took some time to get students and parents used to the idea that there was no grade, but by our Open House (roughly one month into the school year), students understood and most parents were quickly on board.

Does your online grade book allow for this type of narrative feedback?

Don't miss the rest of the articles in this series.

June 3, 2011

Feedback toolkit: the message board

The message board can be used in a variety of ways, including class discussions on many topics. I've even used a student forum -- a place students can use as a sort of safe Facebook.
The best use for the message board, though, is for feedback. I have a "Write-to-Mr.-Barnes-only" board, where students can post messages that only I can see. This is a powerful way for students to provide meaningful feedback for me. They can share problems, tell me they've updated an activity or project, after reading my feedback, or they can complete a self-evaluation and tell me what they believe their final report card grade should be.

Eliminate anxiety
Asking students to supply feedback on a private message board takes away the pressure some may feel in a face-to-face discussion with the teacher. While many students do very well in these interviews, others are often shy with authority figures and will not complete a fair evaluation due to the anxiety that the situation presents. The message board eliminates this.

Promote integrity
I have found my students to be remarkably honest in completing a self-evaluation on our private message board. Numerous students have "given" themselves "F's." Some have posted statements like, "I need to work harder," and "I let you and myself down."

There are many creative uses for a message board. It is a wonderful communication tool that provides valuable feedback between teacher and student.

What are the possibilities of using a message board in your class?

Be sure to catch all of this series here.

June 2, 2011

Feedback toolkit: student web sites

I use a classroom web site, which hosts presentation materials (mainly videos I create to augment mini lessons, so I don’t talk too much), my instructional blog, our interactive syllabus, message board, student blog and, most important, private student web sites. The student sites are an integral piece of our Results Only Learning Environment, as they house student projects, and they are one of our largest platforms for two-way feedback.

The students love their web sites, because they have freedom to develop them any way they wish, while maintaining other activities and year-long projects in a safe place. The web sites create a paperless project environment that allows students to work at their own pace, while collecting ongoing feedback from me. They can set up e-mail alerts, so they’ll know when I’ve left feedback. As the school year progresses, though, they become accustomed to going to their private sites to look for my feedback. Best of all, unlike producing activities on paper, the web sites encourage students to make immediate change to their work.

The power of web-based feedback
Sometimes, I link feedback to a mini-lesson from class, so students can click over to it, review it and click back to their own web site and make the necessary change to indicate that they’ve mastered the objective. These student web sites create a new version of all saved pages, too, automatically creating a web-based portfolio that can be reflected on later in the school year. Student web sites are perfect examples of learning in the results-only classroom.

Don't miss the next part in this series -- message boards.

June 1, 2011

Do you have a feedback toolkit?

There are many formal and informal ways to provide narrative feedback to students, as well as to get feedback in return. Student feedback drives instruction and project creation, as it helps teachers distinguish gaps in learning.

All feedback, no matter what form, helps with evaluation of learning. This brief series provides examples of amazing tools for your "feedback toolkit."

 Don't miss any of these informative posts: