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It's Not About a Pen, It's About the Bigger Issue

Surprised by the outrage of some of my colleagues, I reflected about the pen issue and other associated miscommunications of learning.

Being a teacher is hard and the best way to impact a student's learning isn't always clear; so we adopt practices that we hope will help teach a lesson, with the best of intentions.

In my earlier career, I did many things that I would scoff at now. I took points off for kids turning assignments in late, or not doing assignments the exact way I told them to. I gave extra credit for activities that had nothing to do with assessment for learning either, like helping me out in the classroom or coming for extra help. (Of course extra help promotes deeper learning and clears up confusions, but it should be used to enrich or advocate for learning rather than garner points.)

Having no idea that what I was doing wasn't helping my students actually learn, I continued to do them as they had been done to me as a student. The practices rewarded or punished behaviors that have more to do with compliance than learning, and this is what gets problematic. Extra credit like point deductions doesn't support an accurate conveyance of learning.

Schools as well as families have a responsibility to teach students about appropriate behaviors and following directions to be able to better function in society, but these life skills should not intermingle with curriculum and learning skills when communicating the level of mastery of a student.

If we can agree that "grades" are supposed to communicate a student's level of understanding in our subject areas, we must ensure that the "grade" or feedback or assessment aligns with the standards that we are checking for mastery in.

Behaviors like being prepared, following directions, and following rules should be monitored and addressed as needed in a narrative form, separate from the assessment of learning because the two don't have anything to do with each other.

Teachers (and I was one of them) often confuse what is being assessed and start wielding grades like a weapon meant to control students and get them to do what they perceive is needed.

But we have to loosen the reins.

If we want students to grow and become more accountable for that learning, we need to put systems in place that first teach them how and then empower them to do it.

For example, if a school adopts a portfolio practices that allows students to collect work over time and then provides time for them to review work, reflect on it, and self-assess, they are better able to see progress as it happens throughout the process.

Rather than only using tests or quizzes as the mode of assessment, we can open up to other options like projects that allow students to learn as they do. Engaging students in the design aspect of these projects or assignments is also fruitful because it's building in the buy-in.

So the "zero" issue for students who turn in work is alleviated. We shouldn't be giving students zeroes for not turning in work; we should be figuring out why it isn't getting done by engaging in dialogues and offering multiple opportunities for success. We should support students along the journey in a way that makes sense to them. If they don't want to do an assignment we provided, why not ask them to create one of equal challenge, demonstrating the same skills/content mastery and let them do that?

By personalizing the learning our students do, they get more out of it.

The world is changing, and so too must the way we educate our youth. Just because something worked moderately well decades ago doesn't mean the practice should continue to be employed. It also doesn't mean we should throw it all out. Keep what works and adjust for the students we are working with now, in this era so we truly can prepare our students for the world they are going into when they leave us.

I challenge you to really consider your practices. How do they impact the students in your room? How do you know? Are you talking to students about their learning and then listening when they answer?

Granted there is a lot of content to cover, especially if your course culminates in a state assessment, but that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to the learning experiences we are constructing for our students. They must go deeper and they must force students to do the heavy lifting.

Here are some practices we need to reflect on:

  • Grading policies that promote point reduction/inflation
  • Homework policies that don't account for equity of all students
  • Giving zeros for missing work
  • Taking points off for late work
  • Deducting points for not following directions
  • Providing extra credit to help "boost" grades
  • The amount of testing we do vs. the amount of reflecting we expect
  • How much student voice and choice factors into our curriculum decisions?
  • Who controls the learning in our learning spaces?
  • What do we value in our spaces and is that what is coming across to all students? How do you know?

School leaders are responsible for ensuring that all students have multiple opportunities to learn, practice, and master the skills we teach in our schools. It's our job to ensure that our teams are on the same page and promoting the same messages across classrooms and content. The more unified we are in how we present our messages, the clearer they will come across to the students—and they are the folks who matter the most.

Every day is a learning experience, not just for the kids but for the adults too. The more transparently we examine our practices and make essential changes that support student growth, the better off our future change agents will be.

What practices do you struggle with most and how do you ultimately determine what's best for kids? Please share.

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