Friday, January 17, 2014

Busted Pipes and Grades....

You know that moment when confidence takes over and you feel you can do anything… and then it all comes crashing down on you. It typically happens right in the middle of a project or after a few small victories. You have conditioned yourself to succeed and then someone or something pops your balloon. I've lived that out over the last couple days. My wife and I came up with a "Honey Do" list of items that needed my attention around the house. I successfully completed about 2 days worth of work on the list and was feeling pretty confident about my accomplishments.  I decided to tackle the leaky spigot outside right before dark. You see, it's supposed to get cold again, frigid actually, thank you Arctic Vortex. So, I knew I could get it fixed in minutes allowing us not to worry about freezing pipes.  As soon as I turned the wrench I heard a pop and was instantly sprayed with water on the back of my head. The line running to the spigot snapped inside an elbow in our basement. I spent the next 3.5 hours in a whirlwind trying to fix the busted pipe including three trips to the hardware store and at least 20 confused looks from the employees as I explained the problem. Back home, water was steadily leaking out so I had to enlist my 6 yr. old son to bucket patrol because I couldn't find the main shut-off valve to the house. I even became desperate and gave an emergency call to the local plumber (who has still not returned my call). Luckily my neighbor came over and found the main shut-off (literally right in front of me the whole time) and offered and easy solution that only cost me and extra trip to the hardware store and .71 cents in cpvc. The day was saved but my handyman ego took a hit—however, I learned something new and gained a better understanding about house plumbing.

I tell you this story because I failed. I got an "F" in plumbing repairs but I accepted my failure as a learning moment. Next time.....hire a plumber :) You see, to me, this is how grading should be and how learning works best. Grading is a touchy subject for some and you may completely disagree with my philosophy, but hear me out and take some time to share your ideas in the comments.

I was the teacher that graded everything and it all counted. Not one point went unnoticed and if you didn't turn something in, you got a zero. If you turned it in late, I deducted points because you were terrible at your job.....being a student. If you didn't put your name on the paper, I took points off! Let's face it, you knew the deadline and I couldn’t bend, because as the teacher, I have policies on a syllabus that dictate my very being! Now, fast forward to the new, more informed me. I have had numerous conversations over the last couple of weeks that have really challenged my traditional grading procedures and have pushed me to consider how I pursue grades in the future. Maybe you think there is nothing wrong with our grading system but I would challenge you to consider the following points:

1.     We are setting kids up for failure and in today's society failure is not accepted. Well, unless you believe as I do—that failure is perfectly OK. We tell students that on a scale of 0-100%, 0-59% is failing while the only way to pass is to score in the top 41%. I don't know about you but the fact that the "F" grade carries a majority of the load seems unfair. Why don't we take the 5 grades and divide them evenly across the scale? Each grade would then carry 20% of the load. Is that fair? Why don't we scrap grading all together? That in itself is whole other conversation I will save for later.
2.     Punishing kids for late work or effort should not affect their grade on an assignment or overall course grade. Nor should attendance be taken into account when grading. We can't control what is occurring outside of school and we shouldn't allow those factors to flow into our grading policies. Assessment and attendance/effort are separate entities. As teachers shouldn't we be more concerned about why the work is late and why kids are missing class? Think of this scenario: a high school student is living out of his car and making it to class daily. He can only access a computer while at school and has trouble completing assignments by the deadlines. But when he completes the assignments he demonstrates a high level of understanding of the material. As a teacher, should we impact his grades by enforcing our syllabus policy? If you get a moment checkout the book A Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O'Connor. He argues that in reality people constantly negotiate deadlines. If you have built or bought a home you know how true this is. Ken shares 15 fixes for broken grades and truly challenges you to restructure the process. 

3.     Current mindset says that at the High School level we are preparing students for College and at the College level we are preparing them for the real world. So, in the real world we all get graded on a Letter Grade Scale, right? I teach both High School and College courses and as a teaching professional I never get a letter grade during my evaluations. As a matter of fact I get graded through an evaluation system that is based off a series of benchmarks. My administrator works with and mentors me along the way so that I am reflecting and improving on my skills as the year progresses. Even in the workforce most are evaluated over a year long period and may have quarterly reviews that reflect on their performance overall. Sir Ken Robinson has a great RSA video on changing the way we view our education system:

So, how do we fix this? Like the busted pipe, you have to try first! You will mess will get frustrated! But you must take the first step. Start in your individual classroom and challenge the system we have all been a part of. Change is hard but living in the uncomfortable can be rewarding as you reach breakthroughs. Get buy-in from your students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. Share with others your success but more importantly what you've learned when things fell apart. Look into a standards based grading system that allows you to measure student knowledge on the subject rather than whether or not they can complete assignments. Click this link for a great read on SBG. I have merely touched the surface in my new way thinking on grades and it is my hope to incorporate this into the remainder of the year. Who knows, next year I may not grade at all and just focus on teaching my students the art of failure, reflection and modification!