What does this "A" really mean? What's the purpose of a grade? What meaning do we want grades to convey? These were questions we asked ourselves as we, the teachers at Vernon Malone College and Career Academy, started to write our new grading policy.
I have to be honest, it was the first time I had ever considered the purpose of a grade. As a staff we research, discussed, and after a several working sessions established that "a grade is a fair and consistent measurement that gauges student mastery of learning objectives." (VM Grading Policy) As I reflected on this definition I realized, along with everyone else, that we needed to establish a new norm for a secondary grading policy in our district.
In one of our staff meetings we discussed the elementary report card. In our district elementary kids are graded using a 4 point rubric. Each standard is listed for the year and a point system communicates with parents their child's mastery. Additional comments are added that describe behavior and other anecdotal information. On the contrary, at the secondary level we use a grading scale that is interpreted with A-F grades. In essence, everything a student does is wrapped up in one grade. So, in this case, how can a single grade represent the content mastery of the student? In my opinion it can't, not when we also include things like behavior grades and extra credit.
So is there a natural consequence for including behavior in grades if the purpose is to show mastery of a standard? I think so. I think it promotes grade inflation. Think about it. Think about that kid in your class that can't do.....hmmm...let's say Math II. You look at his previous grades and see he passed Math I with a B. You're shocked and wonder how did that happen? It happens because we include behavior measures like participation, homework completion grades (5 point for completing the homework 0 if it's not done), and extra credit. So if we establish that grades are to communicate mastery of the content, we should be asking what doesn't belong in the current content grade? How can we separate content grades from behavior? What could this look like at the secondary level?
At VM we quickly recognized the same grading dilemma and decided "that achievement should be communicated separately from information about student's effort and behavior." (VM Grading Policy) We worked as a staff and defined summative & formative assessments and agreed that only summative grades would "count toward a student’s grade in order for the grade to reflect only the academic achievement.” We than established that “formative assessments are designed to provide the student with direction for improvement and to provide the teacher with direction for instruction. Performance on formative assessment will be reflected in the student effort and behavior grade." (VM Grading Policy) The rubric for "Student Effort and Behavior Grade" includes meeting deadlines, preparedness, participation, and respect. We also established policies for homework, missed work, classwork, extra credit, missed work, & grade calculations. The grading policy at VM is still a work in progress. We committed to revisiting our policies at the end of the year reflect and make adjustments. We don't claim that the policy is perfect, but if you are curious feel free to take a look.
Changing grading policies can be an arduous process and requires an expert facilitator to guide the conversation. Regardless, I also think it’s a conversation schools need to have. So, if this notion of grading challenges your perspective take a moment to reflect, pose a question or leave a comment.
Truth or dare? Remember the truth or dare game you played as a kid? It's been years since I've played, but a few weeks ago I was dared by a student to participate in a PBL project. The project was to read "The Crucible" and write an essay. How hard could it be, right?
Although this student thought he was being witty, the beauty of this arrangement was that I got to see an experienced PBL teacher manage a project, as well as take on the role of a student. So, for three weeks I attended classes, did the assigned readings, took the quizzes, completed the project, and presented it in front of a panel of judges.
I've kept a journal of my experience and have taken pictures along the way. The following is a sequential log of how the project rolled out and was managed. I hope you'll stick around to see what happened.
Note 1: Ms. Horton had done a bit of pre-teaching before I joined the class. She taught Puritan Law and had done activities to identify individual student strengths, both of which helped establish purpose for her project.
Note 2: This class is taught on an A/B schedule.
Day 1: The Entry Event. Ms. Horton asked us to read the entry document and write on a piece of paper everything we already knew about this assignment (based on the entry document) and then write down all the things we needed to know to complete the project. After giving us a few minutes to think about both, she opened the floor for discussion. "What do you already know?" she asked. We replied with statements like, "We have to write an essay," "It's a contest," and "We have to answer the driving question." Then she switched gears and asked, "Ok, what do you need to know to be successful for this project?" We asked questions like, "What is the correct format?" "How long does it need to be?" "What are the Scarlet Letter Laws?" (SLL) and "What is 'The Crucible'?" As you can see in this video Ms. Horton didn't answer the questions, but instead explained how the question would drive her project.
I left class that day with a study guide and an assignment: to read Act I.
Day 2: Instant Anxiety & Guidelines I came prepared. I read Act 1, kept notes on my study guide, and... Oh crap we're going to have a quiz?! Instant anxiety. Here's what I wrote in my journal that day, "I am quickly transported into the role of a student. I feel the pressure of being evaluated, the stress of wondering if I can answer the questions. I read for homework, but will I recall everything? Will I pass? Can I remember what I read? Oh, man I am not a good test taker. Breathe deep and relax." The quiz was multiple choice, with a short essay at the end.
Guidelines: After the quiz we received the project guidelines. Up until this point we didn't know the details of the project for group work, the firing process, writing expectations, or presentation requirements.
Once we were given the guidelines we revisited the "Need to Knows" and added any additional questions. Here are just a few questions that were added: "Where can we find the Scarlet Letter Laws?" "What is additional relevant evidence?" "Will we have to do the project and keep doing other things in class?"
It was obvious by the questions and comments that students were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the inquiry process. Later, in a feedback session, Ms. Horton told her students, " You're not supposed to like it. The inquiry process slows down your learning process and forces you to spend time digging at the content. You need to be comfortable in not knowing, it's where the magic happens."
Day 3: Project Management On day 3 a few things happened.
1. We had a class discussion on Act II (no quiz this time)
2. We received the rubric
3. We established groups and roles
4. We signed a Team Contract
5. We began our Project Management Log
The rubric: Finally on day 3 we received the rubric. None of us had started writing yet because we still needed information on the Scarlet Letter Laws. In the meantime, the rubric defined what the essay expectations were and answered many of our need to knows.
Being Accepted: Let's just say that no one wanted to work with me. We were given the option of working with 1-3 people, but I was a bit surprised when I was left to work individually. Come on, I am a pretty likeable person. It felt like high school all over again... Wait, I was in high school taking on the role of a high school student. Ugh, the pressure to be accepted by a group... Not cool.
Group Contracts: The team contract is a must for any PBL project. Here are two reasons why:
Have you even been fired from a job? Well, you can be "fired" from this job too. Yup, that's right folks: if a group feels another student isn't working to the contract expectations the group has a right to fire the member. To do this the teacher establishes a firing process explained in the project guidelines. If the behavior continues the member will be fired and required to complete the project on their own. Since the group has intellectual property rights, the member is not allowed to use any of the group's work. Instead he/she can only keep what they have created. The process of firing works, and is crucial to group management.
Project Management: The project management document is used so the group members can outline the tasks and dates needed to complete the project. Some teachers use a paper document while I've seen other teachers use Trello, a free project management tool.
Day 4: Scarlet Letter Laws (instruction) So if you're wondering where the direct instruction happens, don't worry: it's embedded in the process. On day 4 after taking our second quiz on Act 3, Ms. Horton led an activity on the Scarlet Letter Laws. She explained the origin of the Scarlet Letter and we were each given an article that gave a real life example of a Scarlet Letter Law. In our activity we needed to individually answer "Why was it considered a SLL? What civil right was violated? What was the greater good? Did I agree or disagree with the use of the SLL?" We were required, based on the rubric, to use an example of a SLL in our essay, so we did quick 3 minute presentations to the class. This gave us a repertoire of examples that we could use in our paper.
Day 5: Small group instruction After discussing Act IV and the implications of the greater good, we had project work time. While we were working, Ms. Horton had a workshop on MLA formatting. She gave the entire class a handout, but if there were those that needed more in-depth assistance she met with them in a small group during class.
Day 6: Presentation Rubric & Study Guide By day 6 we were winding down our project. We had passed the deadline to fire anyone (no one was fired), we had class work time, and we were approaching our deadlines. With our project due in just a few days, we were given a presentation rubric and a test study guide. That's right, even though we had a group project due we still would have to take an individual summative assessment on "The Crucible." Yikes!
Writing & Frustration: I have to admit, writing the essay was tough. There were several times I felt frustrated and wanted to quit. Part of this was because I didn't manage my notes or annotations of the reading well. Ms. Horton told us to keep track of contextual evidence, but I didn't. There were other times I wanted to quit, and had to wonder if other students felt this way.
"How does a teacher deal with student frustration and learn to manage it?" This was a question I asked Ms. Horton. She told me that frustration is a natural part of PBL. In order to deal with it, teachers have to be observant and look for the clues students give when they're frustrated. Once a teacher sees or anticipates this they can conference with the student and assist them in overcoming the frustration. This often times leads to small workshops during project time where teachers can address issues of frustration and reteach skills or provide information.
Day 6: Essay Due Date & The Presentation I only had 10 minutes until class and I was still finishing my essay and presentation. Just in time I got it done and presented it to the panel of judges.
Should the greater good of society supersede the rights of the individual?
In my opinion, the answer cannot be exclusively yes or no. Instead, in order to determine if the greater good of society should supersede the rights of an individual, one has to determine if the positive outcome from the good is worthy of the sacrifice.
Day 8 Day of Reflection: So I chickened out and didn't take the cumulative test, but I did sit in on the "Day of Reflection." Another key component of PBL is feedback, and on this day I participated as Ms. Horton gathered plus/deltas on the class's first PBL project. Ms. Horton has been teaching for 15 years, and watching her scaffold this reflection was nothing short of amazing. She approached it like she did her need-to-knows and listed all the positive things we encountered with the project. We said things like:
After the plus/deltas Ms. Horton gave a class breakdown of the grades. This included all 4 of her classes and how they scored on the final test. After she asked us to reflect on the following questions:
After the students reflected, she gave them back their tests. After seeing their test grade Ms. Horton added a few more questions to reflect on.
Some of the goals students wrote after seeing their test scores and reflecting on the process are listed below:
Ms. Horton is still busy grading 120 essays. It might be a while before I get mine back, but that's understandable and I am in no hurry. What I learned from this project can't be graded anyway. What I saw was a teacher – a cultivator – who was planting seeds that will grow to form new mindsets, stronger work ethics, and deeper engagement. We are a PBL school. We're in our infancy, but the seeds that are being planted are beginning to take root in both teachers and students and it's exciting to watch them grow.
Thanks again Ms. Horton for letting me participate and be your student.
What other lessons have teachers or coaches learned regarding the PBL managing process? I am curious, so feel free to share and be a part of the conversation.
Teacher, leader, curious observer, explorer of the world and everything in it, passionate about new experiences, and making connections with people.