New Year’s Resolutions

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I know, it’s pretty strange to be posting about New Year’s Resolutions in February, but if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been mostly MIA over the past month. It’s all I can do to keep up with what others are writing and saying, and I never seem to have time to get my own thoughts down on the… screen?

Still, this is a topic that’s been brewing in my head for a couple of months now. Toward the end of last semester, I gave my students a teacher evaluation form. My school also gave one, but I frankly find that one pretty useless. For the most part, the answers are all multiple choice, “never-through-always” or “1-through-5” kinds of things. I’m not sure what to make of it when students give me an average of 3.92 for “The teacher is prepared for class.” Seems to me that I’m either prepared for class or I’m not.

In any event, the form I gave students was much more open-ended. I asked them to reflect on what they would and wouldn’t change about the course, as well as what they thought I did well and didn’t do well as a teacher. I got a lot of good feedback, and much of it has informed my New Year’s Resolutions. Despite the fact that I’m just getting around to posting them, I’m happy to say that I’ve been trying to uphold them for the past month, and so far, I think it’s going well.

Although they said plenty of good things as well, many of my students conveyed in their evaluations that my “expectations are too high.” Typically, this was in response to the question of what they would change or what I don’t do well. I actually take that as a compliment. I’m glad to hear that they think my expectations are high, because they are high. At least we’re on the same page there. On the other hand, several of them used words like “harsh” or “uncompromising” or “severe” to describe my grading. This stuck with me.

The longer I teach, the more I despair about grading. I’ve written about this before. One part of the problem (but certainly not the whole problem) is that my school is fairly lax about student enrollment in advanced courses, and every year, I end up with a number of students who probably shouldn’t be in my class. As a colleague of mine put it recently, there’s a clear tension between the need to teach the kids you’ve got and the need to teach the course you’ve got. The more I think about this, the more I realize that the kids are the ones that matter. That seems obvious, of course, but when you’re in the thick of things, that sometimes gets lost. I can honestly say that I sometimes lose sight of the forest because I’m so busy cursing the trees (whether those are tall administrative cedars or underachieving young saplings)–which brings me to my first resolution.

In the new year, I plan to be a more compassionate teacher. I don’t mean to say that I plan to relax my grading standards (OK, maybe the kids wore me down a little bit, but I still like my average to be in the B-/C+ range). Rather, I hope to be more thoughtful about the way that I present constructive criticism, to make sure that it truly comes across in the spirit in which it is intended. Especially for those kids who are underprepared for my course, I’ve increasingly come to realize something. They’re there because someone or something–be it their parents, their peers, or their perception of the college admissions process–is pushing them to be there. Those same forces teach them that Cs are unacceptable, that the only grade worth getting is an A.

In short, these kids are being told that they have to take the most advanced courses that they can possibly take, and that they have to get the highest grades they can possibly get. For many kids, these expectations are totally unrealistic. And so, even though she’s still struggling to comprehend the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, this sixteen year-old girl enrolls in an advanced history course. And when her teacher asks her to write an essay analyzing how race and religion contribute to change over time, supported both primary and secondary sources, she does her best. The grade at the top of the page is a C+. Although there’s clearly room for improvement, she should be pleased with herself. Instead, what she hears (or reads) is “You’re stupid.”

Those words will be found nowhere on the page, of course, but no matter. Our culture tells kids that a C+ is tantamount to failure. Now, I firmly believe that kids need to learn to fail. To be more accurate, they should be pushed to the edge of failure, because it is on the threshold of failure that true learning happens. But a C+ is not failure. Still, I think I could do a better job of putting grades in context for my students. A student who begins the year earning Cs and Ds needs to have at least some hope that by the end of the year, he can be earning Bs. And the student who earns a C on her first essay should be praised mightily for a B- on her next–as long as she’s working honestly toward her potential all along. And that brings me to my other resolution, which has little do with my students.

In the new year, I plan to be a more self-forgiving person. In much the same way that I set high expectations for my students, I put a lot of pressure on myself. When things in any aspect of life don’t go as I hoped, I fret about it. When students don’t learn as much as I thought they should, I take it personally and blame myself. But I have to realize that I can only do so much. It sounds corny, I know, but in 2011, I will try to take each day as an opportunity. If, at the end of the day, I can say that I gave it my all, I will try to be happy with that.

In that sense, I will try to live a more healthy and happy life–one in which neither the successes nor the failures of my career will define me. So maybe it has everything to do with my students.

New Approaches to Grading Writing

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As I noted in my previous post, grading has become the bane of my existence. At times, it’s bad enough that I worry about becoming an educational statistic—the new teacher who leaves the field within the first five years. Again, as I stated previously, there are many things I love about my job, but if there’s one thing that could push me over the edge, it would be grading.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my approach to grading—specifically, to grading writing assignments. These, I find, take the majority of my time, and the subjective nature of such a task creates undue stress, both on my students and myself. I find that many students are excessively grade-driven (in other words, they’re less concerned with how to become a better writer than with “why they didn’t receive an A”—even though those two things are often one and the same). With that in mind, my goals for any such change were as follows:

  1. The new approach would teach students that good writing is a process—a process of writing, revision, and lastly, engagement (and, quite possibly, criticism) in the “marketplace of ideas.”
  2. The new approach would reduce the stress—if not the workload—associated with grading written work, particularly the trouble of subjectively distinguishing between various letter grades as well as +/- grades.
  3. The new approach would place responsibility for any grade earned squarely on the shoulders of the student, minimizing or eliminating complaints about grades.

In pondering these goals extensively, I’ve come to realize that a “perfect” system probably doesn’t exist. I’m not sure there’s a way to achieve all four of those things, unless, of course, you are Superman. (And if that is the case, please show yourself, because everyone’s waiting for you.) I’m no Superman, but I’ve come up with four different ideas that might potentially solve my own problem, and I apologize if the different scenarios are confusing. I’m not sure which I might end up using, but either way, I probably won’t make a change until next school year in any case.In the meantime, I welcome any comments.

Idea 1
With Idea 1, I would grade essays in the traditional manner, but allow students to revise and re-submit a certain number of essays per grading period.

Pros: Simplicity—easy to explain, easy to follow; Would give students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and might reduce grade complaints; Would spread out the workload for grading of revisions (not all students would revise the same essays)

Cons: Might teach the “process” but students would likely remain focused on the grade, seeing the revision process only as the means to an end—not an end in itself; Would not solve the problem of subjectivity in grading

Idea 2
With Idea 2, I would grade all essays pass/fail, but with a fairly high standard for “pass” (likely in the neighborhood of what would traditionally be a B). Essays earning a “pass” on the first attempt would receive an A. Essays earning a pass on the second attempt receive a B. Essays earning a pass on the third attempt receive a C. Essays not passing after three attempts would receive an F.

Pros: Would certainly teach students that writing is a process and place the responsibility on their shoulders

Cons: Would likely create more work for me as many students would be forced to resubmit essays (as a result, I would likely need to reduce the number of writing assignments per grading period and not offer comments on grammar, etc.)

Idea 3
With Idea 3, I would assign essays a “grade” of check, check-plus, or check-minus. A check-plus would be roughly equivalent to a B (or better), a check would be roughly equivalent to a C, while a check-minus would be a D/F (needs significant improvement/failing). Students would be allowed to revise each essay once. Essays earning a check-plus on the first attempt receive an A, while essays earning a check-plus on the second attempt receive a B.

Pros: Accomplishes the three primary goals by emphasizing the process, placing the responsibility on student shoulders, and eliminating the distinctions between +/- grades

Cons: Still requires a clear delineation between B, C, and F (the third goal is not as thoroughly accomplished); Like the second idea, all the revisions might create a significant increase in grading workload

Idea 4
Inspired by Alfie Kohn’s article “From Degrading to De-Grading,” Idea 4 would eliminate assignment grades entirely. Instead of offering grades, I would provide only comments, but allow students to revise any essay as they see fit. At the end of each grading period, I would conduct individual meetings with students to discuss/decide a course grade based on quality of work.

Pros: Removes most—if not all—stress associated with grading, freeing up my time and energy to focus on constructive feedback; Reduces or eliminates ongoing tension within the teacher-student relationship and makes the grading process more democratic and conversational; Along those lines, would force students to reflect self-critically on their own performance

Cons: Might encounter significant resistance from multiple constituencies (students, parents, colleagues, administrators) because it would be a radical shift for my school culture; Students, in particular, might feel “lost” without the security of steady grade updates and the inability to ask “what is my average?”; Students may abuse the grade determination process to “negotiate” for grades higher than what they deserve

Career Envy

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Like many teachers, I think, I occasionally suffer from “career envy.” Around this time last year, I visited the state farmer’s market and the state fair in the same day, and I came away from that experience wanting to become–get this–a dairy/poultry/goat farmer. There is something about becoming intimately reacquainted with the land that really appeals to the romantic in me. And there is something about becoming more self-sufficient that really appeals to the cheapskate in me. (As a side note, I think both of these qualities do serve me well in my actual career.)

I’ve also thought at various times about going to law school or getting involved in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if any of the careers I find myself envying would actually make me happier. It seems that all of the “careers” I find myself drawn to are ones in which you must work long hours and take your work home with you, and this is exactly what I would be trying to escape in leaving the teaching profession. So perhaps what I really want is not a career at all, but rather, a job. And specifically a job that you can leave at the office and not think about between the hours of 5:00 pm and 9:00 am.

Honestly, there are times–usually when my grading “inbox” has gotten backed up–when I would kill for a 9-to-5. I know that this would leave me unfulfilled professionally, but I do wonder if it wouldn’t allow me to feel more fulfilled personally. Would I be happier day-to-day if I could come home and spend time with my wife rather than quarantining myself in another room, grading essay after essay after essay? Would I be happier week-to-week if I could go 48 hours without thinking about work, rather than spending most of Sunday a) grading, b) preparing for class, or c) both?

I’ve been told that, in this economy, I should just be thankful to have a job–and I am. Don’t get me wrong: there are many things I love about my job. I love that I start over with a clean slate every year (at least in theory). And I love the life of the mind–always thinking, questioning, reflecting. I also–most of the time, at least–love the kids, and I especially love the kids when they show an interest in the life of the mind. And, of course, I can’t lie: I love having the summers off. I know I would start to go crazy in a job that involved menial labor or simple repetition. But sometimes I start to go crazy now, usually around 9:00 or 10:00 on Sunday night, after putting in 6-8 hours of work before the week has even begun.

Most of my job-related stress centers on grading. In case you haven’t caught my drift yet, please allow me to be clear: I HATE GRADING. And I’m not talking about multiple choice tests here. If I could, in good conscience, give nothing but multiple choice tests, my life would be much more pleasant. But, as it turns out, I am that teacher who requires his students to write–a lot–and as much as they hate writing essays, I hate grading them.

I especially hate trying to figure out if an essay is a B or B- and worrying that a student may compare his grade with a classmate’s and have a legitimate complaint about fairness. I hate seeing the looks on students’ faces when they get another C, and then I hate myself for feeling guilty, because they’re the ones not putting in the effort to learn from their mistakes. And I especially hate when parents ask me if there’s “anything Susie can do to raise her grade” right before report cards come out (read: “anything you can do to artificially reward her for failing to meet expectations”), even though they know her essay was totally off-topic.

It seems to me that grading (especially meaningful grading of writing assignments that prompt critical thinking) requires a vast investment of time and energy, only to put unnecessary strain on teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in the end. And, as I mentioned, it’s also caused me to want to become a farmer. For all of these reasons, Alfie Kohn’s 1999 article “From Degrading to De-Grading” really speaks to me. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that “de-grading” (i.e., not giving grades) is an option for me given my school’s culture.

My wife tells me that I simply need to relax my standards. Don’t assign so many essays, she says, and don’t grade them so strictly. After all, there are a few teachers in my school who basically “hand out” A’s and B’s for mediocre work, and they seem to be well-liked by students and parents. To my knowledge, at least, they don’t receive any pushback from the administration either. But I find that this is easier said than done. For better or worse, I think that part of my identity as a teacher (and thus, as a person) is tied up in trying to show students that success requires hard work. It’s not something that’s handed out freely. I suppose I’m trying to teach them life lessons as well as history lessons. Maybe I’m trying too hard.

But given that I have no farming skills to speak of, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my grading process. Now that I’ve laid out the “problem,” if you will, my next post will start to address how I hope to solve it. Honestly, I expect the solution to come to me in fits and starts, but if there’s anyone out there reading this, I certainly welcome your input.

How do you manage the stress associated with honest, meaningful grading that accomplishes your pedagogical goals without sacrificing your personal sanity? I’d love to hear from you.