What’s in a grade?

I have this conversation with students all the time when the come to me and ask what it is going to take to “get an A.” The conversation usually goes something like this…

Student: I know the quarter is over tomorrow, but what can I do to get my grade from a B to an A?

Me: Why do you want an A?

Student: Because I worked hard.

Me: But that isn’t what an A means…

Student: Yes it is! I did all my work, turned it in and I deserve a grade that shows that.

What does a grade actually mean?

I’ve been struggling with this. Grades should, in my mind, reflect mastery of a concept but that has been convoluted over time and students conflate grades with effort. Parents have also started to believe that grades are a reflection of a student’s effort not their understanding. Then, they get confused when a child has low test grade because their other grades were all based on compliance.

Stay with me here…I’m working through all of this in my head as I type.

In the past, I’ve assigned a student a 50% if they do not complete or turn in an assignment. (I don’t believe in zeros ever. Too punitive and nearly impossible to recover from). This lead to students grades reflecting whether they had done the work, not whether they had mastered the concept. It is no wonder that students get so upset when they do all the work, but their grades don’t reflect this.

Another problem is that teachers will often grade work on completion. This perpetuates the myth of grades as evidence of hard work instead of concept or skill mastery.

This quarter, I chose to NOT grade on compliance. I stopped giving students any grade when work was not turned in or complete. I simply noted in the gradebook an INC (incomplete), but it was not punitive. The less they did, the less grades they had averaged into their final grade.

I have a student who only completed 4 of the 18 assignments for the quarter. None of these four are completion grades. Her grade for the quarter is a very low B. Is that a fair grade? This is where I am struggling. If the goal is mastery – she has clearly shown mastery on the assessments.

The arguments that came up from teachers were based around accountability. How can we hold the students accountable for their work if we don’t attach punitive consequences to it? Doesn’t that devalue the focus on understanding and mastery? Doesn’t that send the message that the work should be done, not for the love of learning, but for the grade? And doesn’t it reinforce the idea that the grade is based on doing not understanding?

What I’m finding – anecdotally at this time, as I haven’t been able to dig in the data, is that grades are NOT inflated. It appears students are faring no better than they were before. But, the grades actually reflect what they know instead of what they did. And isn’t that the point?


Courageous Conversations

2014_health_equity_SHR_health_equity.pngCourageous conversations are those which we have about difficult topics that can make one or both parties uncomfortable. These conversations are respectful, thoughtful and deeply analytical, and based on active listening, when done correctly. At least, this is how I define them. There is no winner or loser. There is only thinking and talking.

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Review: Whiteboard Contact Paper

A few months ago, I posted about dry erase contact paper that I had purchased and put on my tables. My intent was to use these in the classroom for students to complete practice activities on or work through problems.

My final vote on these is DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY.

Overall, the idea is great. In another content area, they may have been more useful, such as math.

  1. English just doesn’t teach the kind of skills that are conducive to using tabletop white boards for practice. We are annotating, reading, and writing. All things that we want to have in a more permanent format. We can’t annotate a story on our tables or writing our drafts there. I had originally thought brainstorming, but even that didn’t really work out too well.
  2. They aren’t all that sticky. I could never get them to stay on the tables. Kids started picking at them and the edges started rolling up. I used white duck tape to hold down the edges, but the kids picked at those as well. They were ripped and had air bubbles in them.
  3. They just look dirty. When the kids did write on them, they didn’t erase all that well. I had to use spray to get the brown and black smudges off. For someone who likes a clean room, these were like having white couches with pets and kids.

Overall, maybe there is a way to make these more useful, but they were an epic fail in my classroom.


If we don’t ask, we won’t know.

Every year, I start with an activity that will allow me to get to know my students on a personal level. It introduces me to their interests and the ways in which they define themselves. In addition to the in class activity, I ask parents to write me “In a Million Words or Less…” a letter describing their children: their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. Anything they think will help me teach their child. I learn lots of amazing and beautiful things about their children. I also learn about some heartbreaking and devastating things they have experienced, things no child should ever have to deal with. Those letters are kept in the strictest of confidence, but they help me better understand what weighs on them when they walk through the door. It helps me build and show empathy and understanding in way that their in class activities don’t. Their parents often bare their darkest secrets and greatest triumphs, because these are the things that will help me really know their children. With this knowledge comes great responsibility, to acknowledge and act in a way that shows compassion to every single child. Yet, this time, the letters aren’t what got me.

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I want to talk about me for a minute


Okay, besides that part. I had a big interview looming before I started writing this up two months ago. I wanted to feel out some of my thoughts before I was faced with a panel of 15-20 people all staring at me. I couldn’t reveal anything at that time. I typed all of this up based on some possible questions that may be asked. A friend had shared with me what he was asked during his interview the year before so I started brainstorming my answers. Now that the interview is long over, I can share that none of these are what I was asked. But there is still some valuable thought and reflection in my answers…because I never finished this blog post before the interview, my answers may be incomplete.

So who am I? How do I explain my teaching? My passion? Why did I enter teacher? Why did I want to become a teacher?

I left my AmeriCorp time working in a non-profit knowing I had to work more closely with kids. They are our future, the ones with the power to guide us, and we need to value them. I knew that the changes I could make working for a place like the Women’s Center were small compared to the changes I could make in a classroom. Was that naive? I still don’t know. I knew that in a year with the Women’s Center I had only interacted for one day with about 100 kids. In one school year, I would have the chance to interact with 130-160 kids for nearly 180 days. That comes to 26000 plus individual interactions (can I get a math teacher to check that please?).  I had a background in Women’s Studies and African American studies. I knew I wanted to work in an inner city school. So, I went back to school to finish a third undergraduate degree in English in order to earn the necessary endorsement for teaching. I was hired at my first interview and spent my first four years teaching there. I loved every single tumultuous second of it.  It has been pivotal in shaping me as a person and my beliefs about education.

What do I believe? I believe that every single child is capable of greatness. I know that all children are born with innate curiosity, that as teachers, we have the delicate task of nurturing. I know that in an environment of high stakes testing, too many teachers have fallen victim to fear. They have abandoned their reasons for educating in the first place. They replace best practice, with mandated fear practices in hopes of bumping scores and saving jobs. Or worse, they hold on to antiquated beliefs about what education should be. I also know that I will stand in my door way to protect my kids from any oncoming mandate that tries to harm them and shout down any person who tells me I can’t do what I know to be right for my children based on the research available.

I believe that teaching has to connect to their world. And their world is more than Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes or sports. Their worlds are full of hunger, divorce, cancer, and death. They are happy. They are hurting. They want to know they are not alone. They want to be treated with respect and they wanted to be treated like adults. They don’t want to be shielded from what life has to offer or the pain that it brings. They want us, as teachers, to know where they are and meet them there. They want us to take their hands, and take them along for the ride. They want to grow and learn. And they want structure. These things aren’t anymore true for the children in Short Pump than they are for the kids growing up in Highland Park.

In my classroom, I’m the facilitator of understandings. I want to lead the classroom to explore, to dig, to express, to rationalize and problem solve. I tell my students that English isn’t a content area. It is a skills class. I’m teaching you to think, to analyze, to create. I’m teaching you to chase knowledge. We don’t “learn English.” We explore the world and while we are doing it, I teach you some skills that will help you explore more deeply while you read or write. In my class, we look at literature through the lens of historical context and modern importance. We place the author and his writing in their time period and explore the possible connections between the themes and the events to what was happening in the author’s life. Yet, this isn’t enough. We must then examine what makes it timeless. How does the story sustain? Why is it still relevant? And then we look at how it is still relevant today in our lives. How does this theme continue to reappear? What universal understanding has mankind internalized in regards to the story? How do we learn something about the human experience by reading fiction? And lastly, I want my kids to feel they have a voice. There is always an opportunity for them to be heard, far beyond the reaches of our school or building. For instance, I wanted to give them opportunities last year to speak to a real congressman, to find out how they can petition for laws, how they can reach out to school boards and education departments to change the way they see experience education. I gave them these opportunities and it made their learning real. Not something they just did to fulfill a course requirement or receive a grade. They were able to see how their learning transferred outside the classroom and their potential for making a difference.

How do I impact student learning in my building, not just my classroom? 

I love reaching out to other teachers in my building. I love collaborating across curriculum areas. But even more, I love staff development. I love being an ambassador of staff development and working on the Staff Dev committee to bring relevant, high quality and sustained staff dev to my school. I love reading about strategies, sharing resources and working with other teachers. I want kids to enjoy their time in my classroom, so I like to talk to other teachers about what they are doing and share my ideas as well. People aren’t always receptive to the new. They get comfortable with the status quo. I struggle with how to effectively have these discussions when so many people seem checked out. Recently, I’ve asked a small cohort of teachers to join a reflective practice PLC…a teacher book club of sorts. We will discuss topics of interest, read articles and meet to chat about best practice and how we can improve student learning in our building.

How do I handle controversial topics in my classroom?

With respect and empathy.We talk about a lot of controversial things in my classroom. We look at them from all sides. Therefore, we have to spend a lot of time in my class talking about respect and empathy. We talk about how it is okay to have different positions and that we must learn to communicate rationally, with evidence and with respect, whether we agree or not. I try to instill in them that sometimes the best way to better understand your own position is to actually explore thoughtfully all sides of a topic. Many times, I will ask my students to debate the opposite of their beliefs, just so they are forced to fully understand all sides and develop the empathy that comes with considering other’s perspectives.  I always try to stay open. I leave myself open to learn from them. They know that what ever side they take, I’m going to take the other. It gets confusing some times! They try to figure me out. But I also think that sometimes, we have to take a stand on the issues we know are wrong. For instance slavery. We, as a society, have no problem admitting that the holocaust was wrong, but for some reason, discussion of slavery and racism in this country always lead to feelings of uneasiness. I don’t think that many would argue that slavery was right, but many will still argue that racism isn’t real. And this is once place I don’t let much debate occur. We work from a premise in my class that there are in fact structures in place that privilege certain groups. We do not deny these things. We can debate whether Michael Brown’s murder was an appropriate use of force based on the facts, but we will not deny that racism is alive and that race played a part in what unfolded that day.


The hidden sentiment

I’ve seen these signs all around, and I vehemently disagree with the implicit totalitarianism.

12193464_1643049679297974_4105863403744691973_nTeachers repost the signs to communicate that their job is to inspire young minds to grow but teachers want their students to know that they have responsibility in this journey as well. It mirrors the “you can lead a horse to water…” argument, which in and of itself is a bit disappointing. After an attempt at sentiment, these signs normally make some reference to not being a democracy. While this is the linchpin, it is not central to my disagreement.


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GATE: Student and Parent Perspectives

In the qualitative study “Gifted and Talented Education (GATE): ,” Young and Balli (2014) used Renzulli’s three-ring model of giftedness to explore student and parent perspectives on gifted education comparing experiences in both neighborhood schools and GATE magnet schools. They interviewed 52 participants from ten California elementary schools, two of which were designated Title I schools.

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