Lifting the Curtain

I lifted the Gradebook Curtain a little bit with a student today. He handed in a piece of homework late, and I asked him what he learned from doing the homework in study hall. He told me — gave great answers. He was on track, contributed a number of important insights.

I asked him what he would have said in class. He started to give a more condensed version of what he’d learned from the homework. I stopped him. “You were in class, but you didn’t say any of those things. Why not?”

“I hadn’t done the homework yet.”

“DId our conversation mention those things?”

“Well, yes. In general, anyway…”

“Let me show you this new sheet I’m working with…” I showed him the sheet. “It’s got everyone’s name on it. I can track what you say in class with a quick X, or a check mark, or an H if you hand in homework on time, or a series of marks like this — IIIII — for what you say in class, or a quick “?” if you ask a good question. What’s next to your name?”

“A check mark.”

“So you were in class. Did you say anything bad?”

“No… but you’re saying that I didn’t say anything particularly noticeable, either.”

“Yes. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?”

“Probably. Because I hadn’t done the homework yet, and I hadn’t heard what people said about it yet.”

“I’ve got to say… I’ve read about these sheets, like this one, for years. I don’t know how to incorporate these hash marks into my gradebook yet. But I got a host of data today about what people are doing, and saying in class, without having to take a lot of notes. Sooner or later, though, this will be part of your grade, once I’m familiar with using it. Today, not so much. What this tells me, though, is that you were in class today, but you weren’t present. Will you be present tomorrow?”

6 comments

  1. Hi Andrew-
    This post raised a lot of questions in my mind…

    Do you have any fears that this system may be similar to the things we dislike about testing in that it simply teaches some students how to pick up on what your definition of participation is or what you value in participation? Some people are very adept at picking up on those kinds of things and then playing to them.

    Also I am not sure that I believe that preparedness is always linked to participation. By way of examples –

    Some people are adept at picking up on key things and “participating” in almost any conversation without having a clue, or caring, what they are saying. Maybe they are good enough at quickly compiling other people’s comments to get a fairly good surface level gist of what’s happening. Again, that is a skill unto itself, and has some value in the world. But it is not one that demonstrates depth. The question is are we, as teachers, or people in general, smart enough to know the difference?

    On the other hand some people say nothing for a good long time about anything until they have had time (and more time, and more time) to think, hear, listen to discussion, consider all possible angles, weed through what is being said, follow all comments to their logical conclusion in their mind… For this person a long period of time has gone by – perhaps even months depending on the topic and the seriousness of its nature – before they find they have something to say. Sadly, for these people their opportunity is long gone and the world around them may have missed out on great contributions.

    As for staying “on topic”, that is also a difficult one for me. Sometimes you may have to go pretty far afield in your thinking in order to come full circle to where you need to be. And this takes a great deal of time. It is also looked upon quite unfavorably in the classroom as a general rule. I am not, of course, talking about the individual that is looking to waste time or throw a monkey wrench in the wheels of progress just to be ornery. I’m talking about the person who we usually look at and say “where on earth is that going” until we finally see – who knows how much later – exactly where that was going. And for those who had the patience (and wisdom) to stick around for the ride, they are better off for it. But again, this type of reasoning does not fit well into our text message culture, and as a general rule is not valued in the classroom (or anywhere else for that matter).

    This again raises the question as to whether or not we as teachers can tell the difference. It also raises the question as to whether or not we want the participation style of our students to be like our own. And when it is not, do we have the patience or the desire to bear with it?

    Carolyn

    • Do you have any fears that this system may be similar to the things we dislike about testing in that it simply teaches some students how to pick up on what your definition of participation is or what you value in participation?

      I do share that fear. On the other hand, children learn what they have a chance to speak aloud, what they write, what they talk about and discuss, what they hear their classmates say, and what I say. So I think that part of it is taking a chance, and asking them to build a larger sense of the world by speaking it aloud.

      Also I am not sure that I believe that preparedness is always linked to participation.

      I agree. Preparedness is not always participation. Participation is not always preparedness. Yet there is value in letting kids say what they think, and giving them a chance to think out loud. Whether what they say is useful or germane, or not — giving them a chance to speak ideas out loud, to defend them, to develop them, all requires opportunities to practice. Letting students know that I am tracking their practice with notes helps encourage them to practice these skills.

      <The question is are we, as teachers, or people in general, smart enough to know the difference?

      No, I don’t think we are. Most of us aren’t, anyway. When I parallel my little videos on good writing with good class discussion, though, I’m giving students an opportunity to process their ideas and mull them over, verbally and in their own hand.

      Sadly, for these people their opportunity is long gone and the world around them may have missed out on great contributions.

      Again, I agree with you. I can’t help the kid who won’t speak up. I can only say to them, outside of class, “I notice you don’t speak up much… why is that?” and ask them to explain themselves. Not ideal… but better than me relying on memory at the end of the term who has and hasn’t spoken up enough.

      My biggest difficulty in many ways is in shutting down off-topic digressions. I’m three and a half weeks behind where I’d like to be in American history, and two weeks behind in world history, because I don’t shut down long and unprofitable digressions quickly enough. It’s not to say they don’t have value — sometimes they do. When they risk eating whole periods of class time, though, for days on end, we who operate on a schedule have to be prepared to shut things down by dictat, or by a glance at the clipboard and a couple of pencilled notes.

      It also raises the question as to whether or not we want the participation style of our students to be like our own. And when it is not, do we have the patience or the desire to bear with it?

      I find that allowing discussion to flourish within a specific limited realm actually allows me to bow out and become more of a secretary to the class, and give them a chance to talk face to face. Instead of addressing me, I want them to address each other and claim ownership of the material we’re studying on a different day. I don’t think I can claim this system is perfect — it’s not. It does give me one more metric by which to measure student success, though. It turns out the verbal kids who can speak their thoughts out loud are not the same kids who write good homework papers. The kids who argue in class about relationships between historical events and current events are not the good map-makers or timeline-writers. For the first time, I have a way of noticing and celebrating that, and I think in the long run it will make me a better teacher.

  2. Different shapes of this system have been around for a long time and have carried into the online world. The online class I’m taking now requires a response to one of the questions and then 2-3 responses to other participants. I’ve never seen so many “I agree” and “you’re absolutely right” comments.

    What I have noticed when I’ve tried grading participation is this: Kids get better at contributing intelligently if this system becomes the norm. Also, and this applies in the online world as well, the questions need to have room for conversation rather than total agreement.

    • Dear Joann,

      It’s certainly not my system to begin with; I’ve cobbled it together from other systems I’ve seen out there.

      On online forums, of course, I agree with you: I agreecomments drive me crazy. Maybe I should add a special symbol to my lists that represents — “courage to disagree” and “offered contrasting opinion”. I hope I’ll never need a negative symbol that means, “offers irrelevant arguments, takes discussion points personally and unhappily”, but you never know.

  3. I like this! I feel the same way about discussion in my classroom. I feel like sometimes I talk with the same 5-8 students everyday. The other students respond when I question, but it’s like a visit to the dentist office most of the time. I know that students are motivated by grades, but it feels so much like the carrot and the stick…which I don’t want. I don’t want students talking just to get a check mark. How do you avoid collecting data of the dialogue that happens in your class and keeping it from being a competition to talk instead of a contribution to the dialogue that moves it in a way.

    What I like about this dialogue is that it helps the student see how important contributions are, and that not all contributions are equal. In addition, I like how the student saw how being prepared for class made a difference.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I think that I’m honing in on a system that works for me. A “?” on my daily data-gathering page represents a good question; a “I” represents an on-topic comment, a “!” represents an especially good comment, a check-mark is participating in a non-verbal but constructive way like taking notes or following speakers with their eyes, an “x” is being distracting and not helpful, a “#” means they used hard data in their comment. I’ve tried other systems, like trying to draw the four signs of a deck of cards, but it’s too cumbersome.

      I think that what’s happening is that I’m using the sheet to create measurement. I can’t necessarily control actions, but I can say… “I’m trying to notice when you ask questions, when you contribute to discussion, when you try to pull us off-topic, when you show that you’ve read the material.” It’s definitely not perfect, but it seems to be better than nothing.

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