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.

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