Collaboration with Students: Assessment

“Focus on the bright spots.” Great advice given by Chip Heath at ASCD Conference this March. It’s April and I am energized, not burned out. I have just finished grading 30 research paper rough drafts, and I am energized, not burned out. I have a stack of DBQ essays to read, and I am not dreading it.

Over my 20+ years of teaching, I have always seen grading as something to be tolerated and endured, so that I could do what I really love, which is teach. I am beginning to think that my approach has been wrong-headed. When I am grading and providing feedback for students to improve understanding, analysis, and communication of ideas, I am teaching. In fact, I am doing probably my most important teaching, if I do it well. Planning classes is definitely fun. Shaping the curriculum with my colleagues is exciting. That remains true. What is changing about my attitude is that I am discovering that working alongside students on projects and essays can be exciting, rewarding, and even fun.

Assessing student work needs to be an ongoing conversation that we have verbally and on paper, even electronically. It can’t come in fits and starts that mark our sense of their understanding at a given moment. Kids need to test ideas out on us, the same way we need to test our ideas on our colleagues and ultimately the students. We need to be open to see things their way, but also to point out misconceptions and oversimplification when applicable. It is time consuming, but it is essential.

To that end, I see the need for feedback as kids move through a unit; formative assessment is key. I also think that it’s fine to let kids try to find their way for a bit and struggle, so long as there is the opportunity for revision when they get things wrong. We need to encourage students to take risks and stretch themselves, but we cannot penalize them harshly when that leads them down the wrong path. Some answers are just wrong.

We need to be the grown ups and deal with it when kids (and even sometimes parents) are angry or upset. We need to be there when they calm down and decide that maybe our assessments are pretty accurate. I don’t want to let the one potentially unpleasant situation drive the way that I treat my whole class. Those other kids deserve my best thoughts so that they can strive to be the best they can.

Back to the beginning – I loved reading what my students had uncovered in their research papers. I hope that my comments about citations, topic sentences, transitions and context help them to move forward with their revisions and write great papers. I am looking forward to meeting with kids who want to go over my comments – so that I can celebrate what they got right, and help them think through where they need to go next. I am also in the beginning phases of a project that asks students to work in groups, trace a commodity through history and then present their findings in a technologically creative way. I loved hearing them discuss the sources they were finding and educate one another about things like podcasts, Prezi, and Comic Life. I will be honest – I still struggle sometimes with wanting to jump in and help them, even when they are not asking. I think there are two reasons – 1) I want to be part of the interesting conversations. 2) I feel a little guilty about sitting on the sidelines. I am one of the teachers who is most comfortable with student- centered learning, but there are times when I have to stop myself from jumping in and taking over.

The nature of teaching seems to be changing.

What does collaboration look like?

More and more people seem to be embracing the concept of collaboration, as valuable for students to learn and for teachers to practice. I thought I knew what it was, but I think I have more thinking to do. The convergence of a few things today have made me rethink some assumptions.

A colleague and I realized that we were accumulating a lot of links to resources we would like to share with our department and come back to later. In this case collaboration means pooling our resources in a relatively organized way. With a dizzying array of ever changing resources available, we need to be alert to new developments and willing to jettison those that no longer seem viable. This task is really only manageable if everyone is on board and contributing in some way. We created a departmental Moodle page and included all of the teachers in the department.

Collaboration can mean a shared vision, but it does not have to. After watching a TED talk on being wrong today, I came to think that it might be counterproductive and even dangerous to have too much agreement among team members. I am wondering if it is more important to share a general common vision – viewing the curriculum through the lens of what is best for students. That can mean different things to different people, but so long as we agree that is the vision, we can work together. The next step is a willingness not only to be wrong, but to allow others to be wrong as well. It might mean deferring to a colleague’s passion and being non-judgmental when a lesson or assignment does not seem to work well. It also means being willing to rethink our own ideas when that lesson or assignment is successful. We encourage our students to learn from their mistakes and to take risks in order to grow. Are we willing to do the same ourselves? It seems like we could really provide strong modeling on this issue.

In the end, maybe collaboration is about ongoing conversation, generosity with our colleagues, a willingness to take risks, make mistakes, be wrong, and learn from it. One thing I do still strongly believe is that in order to truly collaborate we need to leave our egos aside.

Structure v. Freedom

I have been thinking a lot about how we implement student-centered learning. It seems to me that a crucial part of the discussion needs to be about how much direction to give students as we ask them to take on more responsibility in the classroom. On the one hand, we do not necessarily want to provide an exact check-list of steps students need to take for each project. On the other hand, we cannot expect students to get the most out of a project if they do not know how to approach the task, or what the requirements are. In the “real” world, there may be instances where total autonomy is the case, but there will be many other times where people work within parameters and have some guidelines.

At ASCD in San Francisco, I was at a session where the presenter lamented the fact that Lego kits come with step by step instructions today, more than the big bucket of parts that was the norm for Lego kits in the past. The new kits specify what to make whereas the bucket allows for imagination. While there is definitely something to be said for creativity and imagination, isn’t there a place for the more sophisticated project that requires instruction? I wonder what the balance should be.

In my own teaching and in conversations with my colleagues we are often engaged in discussion about how much structure to provide students in assignments and projects. We want them to take ownership, but at the same time we recognize that they are not and should not be asked to be mind readers. We seem to be aiming simultaneously for greater responsibility on the part of the students and greater transparency on our part. While those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, there is a tension.

The other aspect I struggle with is a developmental one. Is there a need for more structure and direction for younger learners? How do we know what 9th graders can do, unless we give them freedom? At the same time, how do we know we are not setting them up for total frustration? A little struggle can be good, but too much can cause students to check out and give up.