Laura Post #1 – Participation and Grading

The following two questions come from Laura in the form of two blog posts. They are lengthy discussions, so be forewarned on that. I am just putting our email discussion into two big blog posts for the group. There are no great answers here – it’s just a discussion we had. Laura’s questions address participation and grading (blog post #1), as well as circling at the higher levels (blog post #2). My comments, and they are only that, only my opinions, are in italics. Here’s Laura:
Hello Ben,
I finally had the time to read through the discussions that have been taking place since June. Many very helpful points are there to be taken in and processed slowly. There are two topics that I have conflict with, that I don’t see have been thoroughly addressed (or maybe it’s just me).
Participation: I don’t know if I understand correctly, but it seems that most people active on your blog agree that participation should not be tied to the student’s grade. The suggestion has been made of giving a self-evaluation at the end of each day together with the quick quiz, but not entering it into the grade book. I understand the philosophical reasons for doing so. However, I am confused about how to grade my students.
I would like grades to reflect more the effort they have made during class time, than how much they understand. The quick quiz is primarily letting me know how I did, who did I reach, a way of knowing if I went slowly enough.
But if I truly believe what Krashen is saying about language being acquired unconsciously (and I do), then a grade cannot be based mostly on content. The quick quiz holds them accountable for the day’s work, but doesn’t (in my opinion) show true acquisition.
Me: This ties in with Robert’s many postings in June about the three skills from ACTFL and our initiative (mainly his and Frank’s) to move into a way of grading based on how much the kid “shows up” in class. But think about it. We are supposed to look into 35 faces and tell who got it. It is a flaw in the system, not in our ability to assess. So I still mainly grade from the quick quizzes. I can always, and I always do, augment a grade if I feel that a kid has tried harder than their earned grade reflects.This I consider honorable, and I reject all suggestions that in a TPRS classroom the grade should reflect measurable gains. What the hell does measurable mean? Has someone come up with some way to measure what is contained in the unconscious mind? Nope. What we do is not a math class and cannot be assessed that way.
Laura: The reality is that part of my job is giving grades, that it is a game students, parents and teachers all have to play.
Me: Yes, so make is a simple game so you don’t have to get burnt out trying to orchestrate an elaborate grading approach because in the end grades are subjective and we all know that. NO teachers give accurate grades, ever, because we are not dealing with widgets, but people. I was talking to an AP teacher in Los Alamitos who said that she always tweaks grades significantly at the end of each grading period. Those teacher who don’t are at the front of the burn out lines, in my opinion. Why are they candidates for the real phenomenom of teac her burnout? Because they are trying to measure something that can’t be measured – language acquisition.
Laura: So the everyday effort of truly showing up for class: having a positive attitude, listening with intent to understand, using the imagination, not using English, etc. should be reflected in that grade.
Me: I totally agree and I give away extra points here and there whenever I need to help a kid who deserves it to rectify the failings of the essentially point based approach that we are forced to use. I have no reservations about that.
Laura: Last year my gradebook had 60% for Comprehension quizzes, 30 for participation and 10 for occasional homework. This hasn’t made me happy. In several classes there were a few of the fast processors with a bad attitude.
Me: Yes they are a fly in the ointment. Again, it is the system of placing all those kids in one classroom and not a reflection on us or even the rude kids.
Laura: All year I tried working with those students, parents and administrators in the many ways you and others have suggested. Still these students got their credit even when they never changed their negative attitude. I think they shouldn’t have received their passing grade. But, they managed to do well enough on their quick quizzes to pass.
Me: Now this is a good topic to get into. I have actually thought about how I am going to address that problem of easy A’s, especially the EARLY easy A’s, that result from the predominant use of the quick quizzes early on and throughout the year. One thing to do is take the grades from the Thematic Unit tests and make them weigh a lot. This brings down all the A’s to C’s and B’s, because the negative kids – who, to say it honestly, are there to play you like a violin for a grade, and never to atually study for those tests as they can only be prepared for outside of class, which is not how those kids roll. Those tests are described somewhere on my posters site, if you haven’t yet heard about how I use the Thematic Unit tests. Another thing I can do is grade them more heavily on the participation rubrics, also on my site. I have to update and change those – they are not up to date and I am dropping the idea of self evaluation myself, not because it isn’t a good idea but because it creates too much extra work for lazy me. I will change those participation evaluations from self assessments to I am the one who assesses them. And guess what? Since I am the teacher, I may choose to only evaluate a few kids each term with those. And which kids? The assholes. They don’t have to know that all kids aren’t being evaluated in this way. Then I can really tell them what I think about their negativity. The flow of this discussion can only go to where Robert and Frank have already pointed it back in June – to the fact that we must and actually are slowly figuring out a way of grading that rings true, reflects honestly, and mirrors what we really do in our CI classrooms, and that is ask the kid to be a human being in the class. When we get this worked out, we will be able to really take a negative kid and make them eat a bad grade for that attitude that they bring into our classroom. Laura this is a huge topic, one of two that appeared on the blog this summer, along with the thread about making our lesson plans and syllabi align with stated district mandates on teachers, which is a very messed up area, as we teach in a way that is not like the other areas, with so much formative and so little summative assessment. The main thing with those kids is that they rudely come in and ask us, without using words, what it is that they have to do to get the A or B without actually giving us the respect that we so clearly ask for in our CI classrooms. They are assholes and they will lose this battle. We don’t have to smile so much at them. In fact, why should we? Do we smile at people we mistrust? This is something I am going to do this year – reflect back a more mature, less ingratiating, energy to those kids. I’m not on the Just Love Them train. There is a blog entry on that but it was like three years ago. Last year I had one of those kids and could never get paid enough to put up with their garbage at the level I did last year. What is really sick is that it takes those first few weeks of lovey dovey for them, sitting there hiding in the crowd of good kids, to be ferreted out. By then they may have a string of A’s into September. We can’t let that happen. We have to stop them from getting an inflated grade early on. This year I plan to do what I can to limit their grade success early on, because I, like you, really believe that grades must be tied to effort and good will more than results. In the end, the best way to deal with the jerks, for me, is to really reward those kids who are bringing good energy to each class. ALL TEACHERS, at the end of the day, skew grades. Again, the SYSTEM, not us or even the kids, is flawed. I kind of like my idea of springing the participation grades on them early on and working those, along with the Thematic Unit tests, and anything else I can think of between now and then, to make sure that I don’t give a high grade to a kid who, because they are not doing what the ACTFL communication skills point to – which are human in nature – doesn’t even remotely deserve one. Of course, and this is how insanely complex this topic is, IF the kid really does understand it ALL, then they deserve the high grade. I am not saying above that they don’t. The trick for us is to not give a decent grade to a kid who DOESN’T get what is going on but hangs on, or cheats, on the quick quizzes. We can’t let that happen. This is all a work in progress. We MUST find a way to grade appropriately. If they GET IT, then they deserve the grade. But if they don’t and we miss that, then those negative kids will eat our lunch. A person who doesn’t read the grey areas well might see contradictions in the above, but I don’t. I think you have to be a teacher to get what I am saying above. Those who are in education but read things in black and white would not get this discussion and good riddance.
Laura: Others on the blog have talked about using rewards as being a negative behavioralist model. Don’t we all like to be rewarded for our efforts? It is true that there are types of rewards, some more directly pavlovian than others, but I don’t think it is wrong for the students that are making an effort day in and day out, to get a high grade, and the ones that sit there with a long face thinking the teacher, class, story or whatever is stupid, should not get a high grade even if they understands every word I say.
Me: I might disagree with that. Their face can go all the way to the ground but if they understand everything then they should be rewarded for making that effort. And that is NOT a contradiction with what I said above.
Laura: So grading is to me an unresolved issue: how to do it in a way consistent with the TPRS philosophy?
Me: Well there are literally hundreds of posts and comments on that single topic on this blog going back to 200, and a million more on the list but they just confuse me. The grading thing just keeps evolving. Perhaps we can use the excellent points you make herein to keep the topic front and center as we move into the year. I certainly would like to be able to tell you in a month how I am dealing with those certain few kids you describe. They deserve to be outed for being so negative. They really suck. In fact, one was so bad last year, so completely convinced by the parent that teachers are only there to be whined at and manipulated for their own purposes (the parents do the same in business, by the way), that I really started to cave under the very presence of the kid in the room, sitting there being so negative. The invisible world in that room was full of activity, I’ll tell you that. No small amount of angels had to dart in and dart out like they do just to keep my ass teaching. THAT is stuff that rarely gets discussed, right? And yet those kinds of kids have ended careers. It’s why all teachers are automatically canonized when they die. Officers… ready, draw…sabres!



6 thoughts on “Laura Post #1 – Participation and Grading”

  1. Thanks for saying what needs to be said on this issue, Ben. It really is a system flaw: even (or especially) in affluent schools, holding those 4%ers who despise us accountable for their lack of goodwill, in a way that won’t get a veiled threat on daddy’s lawfirm letterhead sent to your principal (this happened to me). No administrator will back us without “evidence,” so we need to be able to play the game too, plug the gaping holes in the system that these students are crawling through, as their parents did before them. Even if they aren’t 100% “authentic,” clear standards for conduct will help improve our and our students’ daily experience in the classroom.

  2. Ben, I so appreciate that you’re an opinionated teacher/writer.
    Jason Fritze explained his participation grading system last year (in San Rafael) and it really helped me simplify my participation grading. I could see right away that it would help up the accountability in my classroom, and it did. Some kids felt “controlled” (their word) but I was okay with that. I took away their tendency to slide through class with impunity, and they didn’t like it.
    Here is how I adapted Jason’s system: First, I went over my rubric with them in English, what a 4 would be (active, alive, eye-contact, etc) or 3 (relatvely silent) , 2 (disruptive), or 1 (sleeping). Not every day, but unannounced, I would mark during class only those kids earning a 3,2,1 in my grade book. (Students would see me making marks and wake up). Sometimes on off days I’d pretend to make marks, just to keep ’em honest. At then end of class I’d announce “Everyone got a 4 for participation, except for two students who got a 3 (or whatever). If you think it’s you and you want to discuss it, come see me.” End of class. At first lots of kids would come check in with me, mostly eager beavers who did fine. Then there would be a few clarifying discussions with those who got a 3. One student repeatedly insisted that she was actively participating, even though she was silent. I ended up showing all my documentation to her and her counselor (her quiz scores were very low) and eventually she dropped the class, which was better for me to get her black-hole energy out of there.
    Last year I made participation 50% (!) of their grade and occasionally reminded them. I think this year I’m going to lower it, maybe to 30%, not sure yet. I found the system easy, fast and honest. I’m going to continue using it, but I’m going to swing hard into playing with them and laughing together, build closeness and balance.

  3. The invisible world in that room was full of activity, I’ll tell you that. No small amount of angels had to dart in and dart out like they do just to keep my ass teaching. THAT is stuff that rarely gets discussed, right?
    One of the things that has suffered in our standardized, mechanized, consumerized, materialized world is the recognition that the invisible world even exists, let alone how powerful it is. If it can’t be “empirically” measured (touched, tasted, smelt, heard, seen) and “scientifically tested” it doesn’t exist. (This goes along with John’s recent post: Before classes begin each year I walk through my room, around the edges, through the rows, etc., and dedicate it to God and Good. Some of you have a different view of the invisible world, but at the very least you can see this as 1) claiming the territory for yourself and 2) infusing the room with good vibrations.
    Also, I will give updates throughout the year on how things are going with my attempt to bring the three modes of communication into play as far as grading is concerned. I still have a couple of weeks before school starts.

  4. I swear this happened in South Carolina years and years ago, Robert. There was a girl who was really a dark soul. It was one of those things like part of her was just evil is the only way I can say it. She sat in my class for months and months and I always felt pushed down when I looked at her. It was horrible. Who else has to work with such kids at the same time we have to work with others, in such a strange mix?
    So, relative to what we were saying above, we can say that there are those other kinds of kids who are not oppositional just because of ideas instilled in them by parents – there are those kids like the one kid above who no doubt are having a hard life anyway and so their darkness has little to nothing to do with our classes or our teaching. We just happen to be with them in those minutes.
    Those are the kids with long faces. That is a different story altogether. Those kids have been through so much in many cases that they can’t change, their pain can’t be loved away in a French class. Think how hard our classes must be for them when everyone in class around them, kids who were raised in homes where life gave them hope, are having fun.
    All we can do with those long faced kids, I guess, is to try to keep them from becoming black holes which suck energy from the class. We must do that, and I aggresively contact, early on, administrators and parents and the kid as well to be very clear that the child won’t get any kind of pass on following the rules.

  5. “People can change. We can’t change people. People can only make those changes themselves.”
    The best we can do is offer them the place, space, time and opportunity….WITHOUT SACRIFICING AN ATMOSPHERE OF GOOD.
    Anything less is not Love.
    Two students (real ones):
    A) A guy. Pain in the a#%. Always. Mean. Frustrating. A two-year old with a sailor’s vernacular and a football player’s body. I’m not even sure that he graduated…maybe went GED. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he wasn’t in the building. Ten years later, married and working, finishing college. Lives in the district, his wife works in the district. We see him at football games, social functions, you name it. He constantly, and honestly, apologizes for his behavior in high school. I don’t know how or why he ‘turned around” and unless he shares it, I’m not asking. What he does share is every memory he has of a time when an adult in the district showed faith in him, especially when he didn’t deserve it.
    Student B: a girl. Snottiest child I ever had the torture of teaching. She had a reputation for stuck up and snooty that preceded her to the high school. She was beautiful and impeccably dressed and coiffed at every moment. She made the most confident teachers buckle under her attitude. We wanted to strangle her. The word B&$ch was frequently used to describe her in the faculty room. People actually wished out loud to see her “comeuppance”. She went on to a highly prestigious Ivy League school. We were sure that there she would be “put in her place” No such luck. She fit right in. Her success was like the ultimate “f&*$ you I am so oooo much better than you” to many people. (yes….sometimes we do take things that personally…) Five years later she is at my church, showing slides about a recent trip to Rwanda where she is living in a hut with a hole for a toilet, pictures where she hasn’t showered in a month, speaking through tears about the Rwandan Cycling Team. She now, humbly, travels to Somalia, Tanzania, Rwanda working through various health NGOs while she finishes a Phd through Cornell so that she can help the poor and unfed on a world-wide scale. She cant believe the girl she used to be…but confided in me that hyper-anxiety and hyper-perfectionism kept her on the edge every minute of her younger life…and unable to connect with anyone. She spent several days back in the high school presenting her slides, and the story of the cycling team to any kid and any adult willing to listen. She talked not only about the team, but about herself in high school and how she had changed. She encouraged them all to look outside of themselves now because it would help them, and others, in the future.
    Just two stories…and yes…there are also stories of kids who ended up in jail or abusing others or cheating the system. But the point is…we are not in control of any of them….even when they are in our rooms. We are only in control of ourselves….and they of themselves. Not every salvation, or destruction, happens in our time and place.
    I know that I keep saying it….but Teaching is a Prayer. It is based on faith, and hope and love and well…you know the rest of that line. :o)
    Being fully present in the moment, fully directed toward Good, fully willing to share language, insight, humor, knowledge, and the reality of being human. Despite what the “system” may say, that is what teaching really is. The results reach so far and wide and deep that they are, truly, outside of our control. Only the present moment is within our grasp.
    with love,

  6. Laurie,
    How true. One of the foundations that my growth as a teacher over the past 6-7 has been built on is the idea of how important FAITH is to the teaching profession. A colleague shared with me how important it is to BELIEVE (act as if it is/will be so) that the student I see today is not the person s/he will be in the future and that something I do or say will help make that true. That makes your words ““People can change. We can’t change people. People can only make those changes themselves.”
    The best we can do is offer them the place, space, time and opportunity….WITHOUT SACRIFICING AN ATMOSPHERE OF GOOD.” even more vital.
    Thanks for your post….

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