We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part II

And now for the dramatic conclusion.

So you don’t grade you say?

Well, I do but not in the typical fashion. Lets begin with AP courses and summer homework. I’m still not sold on the overall value of these but I agree to it primarily because I know many of my peers teaching AP World History across the nation (especially those with high passing rates) have two years and/or see their students every day. Being on a block schedule, I have about 60 days to get my students ready for a competitive test where the competition has had double or more of the time to prepare.

So what I assign for the summer is material that will help bring them up to speed on content, like an online condensed world history textbook. I also assign a writing sample, just to see where they are at, and I assign a geography assignment so they can become familiar with this world. However, I grade none of this. The first assignment is for their own good and it’s value or completion will be evident throughout the year when they either struggle with the amount of knowledge they are learning or if some of the text is familiar from the reading. I do not grade the essay because how can I grade them on an assignment I never taught them how to complete. Either they did it or they didn’t. 100% or nothing. Simple. The last assignment I give a timed quiz on but I never tell them that it will never enter the grade book as an assignment. I just want them to become familiar with the stress of a timed, high pressure test. Again, what do I grade by handing out failing grades from the beginning?

As for first quarter. Still no “grading”. Either they did the assignment or they didn’t. For instance, my students take notes and make note cards (both AP and Honors). As for their notes, I never read the actual work. Why would I? The notes have to be useful to the student, not myself so as long as they can read and understand it, I’m happy. I only grade them on if they have questions (I teach them Cornell), do they use the right formats and editing, are they attempting abbreviations, did they put summaries and are the notes selective and paraphrased. Otherwise, I could care less about them. When they do begin to turn them in, I never mark them down for being done incorrectly, I just tell them what they need to focus and improve on.

However, as we move through the material, my bar begins to raise and the level of acceptability goes up. If something falls below it, I just make it unacceptable and have them fix it. Soon, the work load alone is motivation for them to get better. My goal though, is to get them to take risks, try things and attempt everything without the fear that going outside of the box is somehow going to hurt them in their grade. I try to remove the pressure of the grade from the goals of my classroom. I don’t want them to just follow a recipe. They need to think for themselves.

The same with essays. I have always tried to give out full credit for completed essays at the start of the year. I would also just focus on grading one aspect of the essays like thesis or structure. I would have them fix the mistakes from the one part to focus their efforts. The idea was to not overwhelm them with a multitude of errors which could cause them to become deflated and defeated. While in the beginning I wouldn’t ask for a rewrite. I was more concerned with quantity because I feel that writing is a process that needs to be completed repeatedly to get better. However, by the middle of the year I felt they had written enough to now begin improving on their abilities.

Recently I was introduced to a new way of grading essays which has begun to replace the previous system. I still give full credit during the first quarter for attempt but now I only give full credit during the second quarter if they fix the errors, otherwise I give them a 75%. By third quarter it will be to the scale. The scale though is set up on a 25 point system (easily changed to 100 points by simple multiplication). It gives 16 points just for a good faith effort (64%) and the other 9 follow the AP World History rubric for their essays. While the rigor is lowered for honors, I still use it.

What this does though is it gives a C to getting just 3 points (16+3=19=76% or a C as each point is worth 4%). The average paper I get had between 3-5 points so the average grade is 76% to 84%. A paper that does all that is required gets 7 points or a 92%. The final 2 points are reserved for those papers that go above and beyond on some or all of the basic 7, just like the AP Test. However, that is my end of the year goal so how can I grade them in November for something I expect mastery on in May? Until that time, I have decided that I will begin with full credit for trying and over the course of the year, slowly raise the bar.

So the issue then is how am I getting them to think outside the box when I am building them towards fitting into the box by May and their grade is reflective of that? Well, my answer are that there are some limits to everything but it is also that essays aren’t my only grades. An essay needs some structure for clarity and organization but there are still great opportunities for creative thinking and I take those into account if my students can defend their reasoning for the risk. Also for just attempting these they still get a D and when factored in to a grading system where I categorize and essays are only 20% of the grade, a D only moves a grade 6% overall.

Same with tests. I have begun to ban multiple choice tests. When I do give them, I just let them collaborate on them. I find the chaos that ensues to be hilarious as they form into camps over question 6’s answer being either C or D. But even my written, short answer, inquiry or any other kind of test is done to a different scale. I am not a fan of the idea that a kid gets an 92% on one test and then a 12% on the next so their grade averages out to a 52%. Is that truly reflective? Where as if the grade was a 92% and a 50% then it would average out to a 71%. If the child consistently scores low, it will show regardless but by not placing a floor on the grade at 50, it seems to only hurt those who score a C or above.

In the end, my tests and quizzes only count for 30% of their grade so even getting all 50% on tests only changes their grade by 15%, still in the B range.

In the end I have to ask myself, what is my end goal, what am I trying to accomplish. I have pushed back further and further on this idea that school is somehow a punishment and we need to reprimand students for making mistakes. I want them to take the chances and when it doesn’t work out, come and see me to find a solution. I want them to know that they always have a safety net to catch them when they take risks or have a bad day. I want them to challenge the system without feeling like that challenge will cost them the year.

Maybe I am on the wrong track but for me it just fits.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

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House Rules

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A couple weeks back while talking with a colleague about Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education, we found ourselves discussing the creative projects we had while in school. For me, one came up that I hadn’t thought of since high school. I remember never really caring for the teacher much so it wasn’t surprising that I had blocked out the memories of that class.

Unfortunately this has caused me to miss some great lesson ideas for my own class. The project in question was simple really. The teacher came in with about 6 different board games (one was more of a card game) that most of us had never seen before. They might have been long discontinued games, lost to history, or as some of us also believed, a Frankenstein collection of many games tossed together; the board of this game, the game pieces from another, the cards from a third. We were then put into small groups and told to come up with the name of the game, the background on the concept, create the rule book and demonstrate to the class how it would be played. This was a high school English class and we were making up games as if we were 6 again.

What I didn’t realize at the time, but have come to appreciate as a teacher now, was how deeply thought out this assignment was. We had to work as a team, present to a class, be creative, think outside of the box, and write out a story and rule book, testing our language skills. There were so many elements and layers to the assignment, especially for something that I think only took up three classes, or just under three hours.

What this memory really did for me was to get me to question many of my memories from my own education, I thought back to all those teachers I deemed “bad” teachers and forced myself to think of specifically what made them so bad. The surprising thing I discovered was that few actually exhibited any traits, outside of personality differences, that I would label as poor teaching qualities. Sure, some were controversial, but it was that controversy that drove the classes I was in to rise up, primarily because as a class we hated them so much that we wanted to shove it back in their face. In the end, the joke was on us because we would end up learning the most in those classes.

So to my current stint as a teacher and the national rhetoric over failing classrooms. Everyday I hear of this teacher or that teacher being a “bad” teacher. In my first two years, I made it a point to seek these teachers out to discover for myself if they were weak teachers. More often than not, they weren’t. They were just controversial or many times just socially awkward which gave the impression to other teachers that they were somehow flawed. This isn’t to argue that we don’t have weak teachers in schools. We do but I argue that many that we think are failing, might somehow be a quiet genius.

This came up as I began to question the running list in my head of teachers I knew that had been labeled as weak. Three shot to the top of the list so I began to do my own investigating. I would look at data, because that’s were we all turn to first, but I also asked current and former students their impressions, pressing them to see if they had learned anything, as well as taking into account the subject, grade and specific students they had, especially in relation to the data.

What I have begun to see is that while none of them, nor I for that matter, are great teachers, we are all good teachers. One of the general trends of them all is that they are all controversial, both in and out of the classroom. They will take unpopular sides of arguments to spur deep debate. When I would first ask the students if they were good teachers, one of the three was always a no and very unpopular but once I dug deeper, causing the student to evaluate what, if anything, they had learned, they all seemed to find out that they now knew both sides of the topic deeply.

While I am still not sold on the greater effectiveness of their methods or my own, I am reminded of a few platitudes, such as never judging a book by it’s cover and remembering that the rules and guides of teaching are are not written into stone. Sometimes we need to make our own house rules to fit our own personalities, classroom cultures and teaching styles. There is no one method to teaching. There is no golden playbook to mastery.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

The State of the Public Schools

Recently I have been trying to piece together my educational ideology. I remember doing a couple of these for education classes. Unfortunately they were all from before I had even set foot into a classroom.

Reflecting back on my education it still astounds me that the most important part of becoming a teacher, the class time, is reserved until the last semesters. Nevertheless, I came across one of my old educational philosophies the other day. Curious, I read the grade I received, a B, then proceeded to see what ideas I had come up with. After getting a third of the way through and reading far too many power words and popular theories that I was sprinkling throughout the paper, I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore and placed the document in the trash can.

My curiosity didn’t subside however. I sat back trying to think of what my educational ideology was and ended up in an argument with myself. What I found was a broad scattering of ideals and theories, but little in the way of a weaving pattern that complimented each other. I realized that I needed to nail down my own belief systems on education into something tangible. I needed to bring together all of the experts, research studies, books and theories that I had been collecting all these years and see what bigger narrative I had.

What I found was that there are four main influences to my educational ideology. These different aspects come from a variety of sources and in the future I hope to share them and their authors with all of you. But to begin with, next post I will mention yet again the greatest influence I have ever come across as a teacher: Linda Darling-Hammond.

If you comment the blog, please rate/share the blog. If you like the blog, please subscribe. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

To Union or Not To Union

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Well, I was planning on and have been researching much more into a different topic (and much more controversial, at least I think it is). I have been looking into the grade inflation debate, especially for high schools, but Jon Ralston, being the evil man he is, decided to write about unions. I knew as soon as I saw his column that not only would I share it with all my fellow Facebook teachers, but that most of them would find strong agreements with his views as do I.

This issue of a teachers union is a divisive issue that seems to bring more hate in today’s politics than does most. Even progressives and tea party supporters can find common ground with their disgust with the teachers union. I must disclose up front that I am a union member and don’t have any intention of leaving right now. This does not mean I agree with or particularly enjoy the union but I will get into this more later.

First I guess I should begin with my view of any union. I’m not going to get into a historical discussion of unions and their value. Bottom line, they were a necessity. But let’s look at the purpose of a union. Their only interest, as it should be for the most part, is to their members. When it comes to teachers unions, I always hear the vile that they don’t care about the students. Well, they shouldn’t. This isn’t to say that the individual members don’t care but the entity shouldn’t. To put this into perspective, are the other unions out there supposed to care about the customers interests or the members/employees? And why should they. I know the argument that customers can just take their business elsewhere while students technically can’t, at least not as easily. But the bottom line is that the unions job is to fight for the interest of the teacher, not the school, the administration, the public or the students. There are many other interest groups fighting for the rest of them.

On the same token, what is the interest of a corporation? It’s not technically to the customers or employees. When it is, it is only for their own self interest of profit. Bottom line is that their interest is with the investors and making them money. They will keep prices down only so far as to keep the business coming in the door but to do that, they must also keep costs down which isn’t in the best interest of the employees all the time but it is all for the purpose of finding the best economic balance to gain the greatest profit. That is where unions come in. They fight to keep a reasonable wage, benefits and safety for the employee, which can sometimes cost the customer in the price of goods and the investor in profit margins. Teachers unions handle the same role, fighting for class size, wages, benefits and working hours.

So, what of this union? A coworker and good friend said it best, this isn’t a professional organization but rather a trade organization. Teachers want to be treated like a doctor or lawyer but are represented like a laborer or operational engineer. This isn’t meant to be offensive as I have friends and family in both but the tactics employed by our union bear striking resemblance to those of other trade unions. The image of a construction worker or truck driver picketing in front of a business is sometimes enough to drive scabs away but that of Mrs. Johnson, our 3rd grade teacher, or Mr. Wilson, the lovable English teacher, doesn’t strike fear into our hearts. Unions have history in organized crime, they have had to employ violent techniques or aggressive means to meet demands, things teachers just are not built for.

Instead we want to be treated and respected for the service we employ just like a doctor or lawyer. We sacrifice our economic futures to a point to give back to the community as a teacher and all many ask for is a small level of respect and at least a salary that will cover the cost of our degrees, which everyone must get to become a teacher, and to live a decent lifestyle were we aren’t worried about if we will have enough to pay the power or if the car will continue to get us to work. No one is asking for the mansions and the yachts, we don’t expect to drive the BMWs and Benz but we expect that the years of education, the service and sacrifice we give to Americas children, will afford us a midsize Ford and a basic home to raise a family in. Is the American dream too much to ask for to those who help all of us reach that dream?

Now, is this union broke or broken? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. There is only so much I can care about so this is one of my sacrificial lambs. For those who feel it is time to get rid of the union, both teachers and public, I ask you, what would this past years budget cuts and reform movements been like without the speed bump that is the union? Class sizes? Schools were seriously discussions 4 day weeks and student numbers above 50. For a nation that claims our schools are failing and need to be reformed, how in any way would this help? How about cuts to wages and benefits? I ask any of you, with a 4 year degree or above, would you become a teacher at that price? Sure there are many people with no degree who would take the job but that isn’t the option and would you really want someone who skipped college to be the example of a path to college to students?

And frankly how many people want a job that requires them to stand in front of a class of 30-50 students for an hour to and hour and a half, 3-6 times a day, no running to the bathroom unless it is an emergency, no break for the most part as students are standing at the door when you walk in and you are pushing them out at night, then you get a whole hour to hour and a half to grade, plan and prepare for the 200-280 students you have (have you read the great works from out nations average and below average youth, then try grading it). That isn’t to mention the sports, clubs, meetings, paperwork for IEPS, behavior plans, parent emails, student emails, collaboration groups, department meetings, events, assemblies, awards nights, student orientations, parent nights, plays, music recitals and not to mention if you have your own children’s schools events as well. Let’s not get into the trainings, requirements for furthering our education, conferences and keeping up on the latest trends to keep the material fresh (watching Jersey Shore to make references to it should come with hazard pay alone).

And don’t give me the weekend, holiday, summers off argument. The 60-80 hour work weeks all year long more than make up for it. Bare minimal I arrive at 6:30 daily and stay until between 3 and 4:30 primarily trying to grade the students work or tutoring those who come in for the help and that’s not to mention the evenings where I might be grading or lesson planning, in trainings and professional development, at a club or sports event, running a club or sports event, or answering emails from parents, students and other staff.

No one complains when the accountant pulls massive hours during tax season then takes a month off or a lawyer takes a break after the big case or the game developers relax some once the game ships. But that’s not to say we are sitting around the house staring at a wall. At least I’m not. I’m evaluating my lessons from the previous year, traveling around locally to learn more history to add to my curriculum, attending summer institutes to become a better teacher and to learn the changes to my subject, beefing up on the latest research, or shockingly, helping out former students who are off into the “real world” now and are still looking for advice and guidance. I know that not all teachers do these things and many shouldn’t do nearly as much as I sometimes do but removing the union doesn’t solve this problem. In fact it can compound the issues. In my limited years of teaching, I have seen too many teachers leave just because they work twice as hard teaching and for half the money than they made in the private sector.

As for the ones actually caught in the middle of this, the students. Let’s be real, if the student is coming to school hungry, or worried if their brother is going to get shot by the local gang or while deployed in Iraq, or if their father will be able to keep his job, or if the family is going to have to move again because of the unemployment or any of a vast amount of reasons, then is it the teacher that has failed or the union for that matter. Maybe it is society, which teachers and everyone else is a part of, that has failed. To blame one group is to remove blame from the rest of us.

We are notorious as a people for deflecting our own misgivings on to others. Schools are messed up or unions have powerful contract, then it’s the unions and teachers fault? Why not the school districts and administrations fault for agreeing to the contract or the politicians and the voters who supported them for appointing and agreeing to the demands? Why do we blame the winners instead of going after the losers for not being good enough? Why do we blame others for our inadequacies? You don’t like the union contracts, renegotiate. If your a teacher and you don’t like the union, get more involved, change it.

And if the other side gets all they want, the society can deal with the continued exodus of teachers, some bad but many that are good, as this profession slowly gets turned into a peace corps where young idealistic college grads, many from top universities but wildly uninformed to the tragedy of the inner city, volunteer a couple years to rebuilding an inner city school instead of the African village or Haiti, then move on to allow the next group to come in but in the end doing little long term progress as they aren’t around to ever see it through. Make teaching more and more unattractive and let’s see the quality of teacher we get and with that, the quality of student they help shape that then gets sent into our work world to help secure and stabilize America’s future and prosperity and with that, our generations retirement. I’m sure it will all work out in the end.

In the end, teachers need a different type of organization to represent us but laws the way they are and society the way it is, this is the group we are stuck with. And the biggest problem that this brings is that society seems to associate the actions and views of the union with those of the common teacher. The news loves to bring on the union heads to debate the politicians, educrates, and fake reformers more interested in selling a product or book. What is lost is the classroom teacher. And bottom line is that most will never hear from that teacher because as I hopefully showed, they are too damn busy and concerned with your children to make the time to get that involved in the politics of the job. Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, stop teaching and find a way to bash it daily for a paycheck.

To end this and many more in the future, I’m taking a page from my favorite commentator, TryHardNinja.

If you comment the blog, please rate/share the blog. If you like the blog, please subscribe. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate

I have decided that I will be posting this next to my door this year, followed by “…Unless you’re in Honors, then welcome.” Just to set the tone right. For those who don’t know, I teach Advanced Placement World History and Honors World History. I figure this will give us a moment of relaxation.

However, as for the coming year, it will be an interesting one. As with every other year and with every other teacher across the nation, we head into the darkness to find light and raise it high for all to see. We will also all be dealing with many new changes just as we always do. Changes to curriculum, changes to administration and with that, changes to policies and procedures, changes to job descriptions, changes to laws, changes to evaluations. I could go on.

With these changes, my school is also reeling from the effects of the budget cuts. One of the issues we ran into was what to do with so many students when we have to start cutting electives. Our limited schedule left far too many students (as young as sophomores), with holes in their schedules. Prep buyouts for electives to dump kids in that may never have even wanted the class can only go so far. To help offset this, teachers are all planning for what to do with too many student aides. At some schools you almost have to bribe your counselors to get one while we are all looking at having 2 or more.

Unfortunately most people may not realize how enormously useless a student aide can be. We would like them to do more but as rules, regulations and laws are written, there is little they are allowed to do. I’ve found that most people, and far too many teachers, don’t realize that these are students and not the dreaded TA we all cringed to deal with in college. They are not allowed to grade papers, even a simple multiple choice test, they can’t take attendance, enter grades or deal in any way with the private information of other students. We don’t trust them to operate copy machines, especially alone where they could goof off. They aren’t experts in our fields so pulling resources becomes more of a sad endeavor for both of us. They aren’t even allowed to run and get us lunch anymore. What’s the point of them having cars then.

With all of these provisions (I know, most teachers ignore them all) I have already heard many teachers questioning what they are going to do with their aides. Many are searching others out to see if there is some long lost storage closet to be reorganized in our long 5 year history. Some have even started wagering them in illegal underground poker games that we hold during school in the gym storage closet.

This got me to thinking about how this can’t be just a local issue and we have this new invention called the internet that lets us “search” for news stories from all across the nation. In my journey to discover how other schools are dealing with this issue, I came across an article from 2007 in the St. Ignace News. The article goes on to explain that the state cancelled the student aide programs if the work is not academic. With that they came up with 5 new models for the student aides:  physical education aide, teaching assistant in the secondary classroom, cadet teaching assistant in the elementary classroom, computer and technology assistant, and elementary mentor.

Three of these caught my eye as applicable to our schools. To preface, my school is a career and technical school and two of the programs we offer are teacher education and early childhood education. With that all 5 are applicable but the last two are actually what our program area offers for the most part. As for the others, we have a couple of options.

First is this new healthy living movement our school is on. What would be better than a physical education aide to help push this. As the article explains, the physical education aide:

The physical education aide position includes descriptions for physical education assistants and athletic director assistants. The physical education assistant will be in locker rooms before and after class while students are dressing and showering, will officiate games, remove and replace equipment, assist special needs students, keep track of daily attendance, and correct inappropriate behavior or bring it to the teacher’s attention. Aides will be graded on rules for each sport played in class during a nine-week period.

This falls right in line with our movement and will help alleviate the overload of student aides we have. They could be the student leaders in this healthy living movement and set the example for others.

Next is the computer and technology assistant. With the budget cuts, we have had a major hit to our computer specialist. For a school like ours, highly technological, we were struggling with just one full time. Now we are down to only having her 4 out of 5 days. To offset that, this program could become a vital part of the budget cuts. The article explains the role as:

The technology assistant curriculum includes extensive handson computer work, including updating the district Web site to teach basic Web design and programming. Students will learn network maintenance basics such as connecting a computer and printer to the school’s network. Personal computer repair, system and application software maintenance, computer skills, and more than 20 other lessons are part of the course content. The technology assistant will also help other students perform tasks, print, and use e-mail. The assistant will help staff connect equipment, and install, update, and use software. Students will also be familiar with accessing the school network and teaching others how to access and use the network.

These are all the basic day-to-day issues that bog down our computer specialist, getting in her way of dealing with the bigger issues. To have a small army of technology students to take this off her plate while gaining real world experience would in invaluable.

Finally is the teaching assistant in the secondary classroom.

The secondary classroom teaching assistant course is designed to expose students to the teaching profession. Students will learn about classroom management and work individually with students, among several duties. Student teaching assistants are now required to write an essay on the challenges public education faces today, write a piece on what has inspired them to become an educator, and write a journal about their experiences. The assistant will also create a lesson and teach it to the class. The student must demonstrate interest in the education field, and will also research public education topics.

Not only could this be a great addition to our current Teaching Education Program, but it could help fill the issue of what to do with all our aides. Through this, the “teaching assistants” might also gain an appreciation for the profession. It would be an opportunity to see beyond the curtain. It would give them purpose and a sense of pride as they are given greater responsibilities by the adults. Instead of just sitting at a desk stapling papers, they could be pacing themselves in writing about educational issues with a distant deadline but class time reserved for this. Exit interviews could serve as finals and it would be more impactful than the token A we always end up giving them just for showing up.

These were all great ideas I read and immediately started brainstorming how I could incorporate them into my class this year with my 2 aides. I know them both and I can’t wait to see how it works. While we may fear the unknown, I am excited at the possibilities of a new future that has a great affect on our students and our profession.

So it begins…

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No fireworks, no red ribbon cutting, no parade. Everything needs a first step so here is mine.

I start of with what and who has made the most sense to me. Linda Darling-Hammond may have the most valid resume in the education debate and Edutopia took the time to try and summarize the meat of her extensive ideology into a 10 min clip. For most interested or invested into the success of education, she is a must watch. Find her video @ http://youtu.be/AQNUqVYJofE.