Scott Schmidt, M.Ed.
Business Education Teacher
St. Francis High School, St. Francis, MN
Views expressed here are my own
Scott Schmidt, M.Ed.
Business Education Teacher
St. Francis High School, St. Francis, MN
Views expressed here are my own
The idea that middle and high schools are like prisons is not a new one. I remember reading an article about how prisons and many of these schools (especially public schools) have similar architectural designs. Shockingly, this is so true. If you are an educator or have spent time in a variety of middle or high schools, it’s likely most have essentially the same basic design, regardless of how shiny and new they are. That basic design includes:
Beyond the physical design of the building, the school day is often very similar to what many of us may assume a day in prison is like:
The big difference between teenage school kids and prisoners is that prisoners have already demonstrated an inability to follow commonly accepted behavioral norms.
Further, let’s think about all of the strict rules and regulations at most public middle and high schools (prisons). Just about every facet of a student’s movement, behavior, and interactions with others is monitored and regulated, and often strict punishments are handed down for seemingly minor infractions that outside of school would be considered normal and expected behavior (how dare you use the restroom without permission!).
If you attend or know of a school that does not match these descriptions, I am very happy for you. Unfortunately, I imagine this is all too true for most public middle and high school students in the United States.
Of course, some (maybe many) people would argue that such regulations are necessary in these schools in order to maintain a sense of order. After all, teenagers are unpredictable and completely incapable of managing their behavior, acting like normal human beings, and making good decisions, right?
But the big difference between teenage school kids and prisoners is that prisoners have already demonstrated an inability to follow commonly accepted behavioral norms. Why do people in power at public schools automatically assume that so many students will make such poor decisions that it will completely disrupt the learning environment and safety of others? It seems that rules and regulations are made by the decision makers under the assumption that such terrible things WILL happen if not regulated. This is sad and often soul-crushing to the students, especially the wonderful young men and women I have contact with on a daily basis at the school where I teach.
If you ask 10 high school students of various personalities, academic drive, and academic performance what they think of a typical school day, I imagine at least 8 of them will say they don’t appreciate being treated like prisoners before they have even committed a crime. I know this because I’ve asked many students that very question.
Of course, not every school is the same, and I understand that some schools DO have a history of violence and insubordination from many of the students. Certainly it might make sense for those schools to have stricter policies regarding student movement and behavior throughout the day. Although I would argue that thought should be put into the root of such problems and practices be put in place to eliminate those behaviors before they happen, rather than imposing punitive measures after the behaviors surface.
I’m also not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for inappropriate behavior. Without consequences, the message is that inappropriate behavior is acceptable. What I’m saying is that I believe school decision makers over regulate behavior and try to eliminate problems that don’t necessarily even exist. Why is it assumed a majority of the students will act like wild, uncivilized humans without regulating their every move? Has anybody thought about not regulating student behavior so much to see what would happen? Yes, teenagers will make bad decisions now and then. I would propose that those bad decisions should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than regulating every student because of the actions of a relatively small number of students.
Students crave autonomy, not only regarding their movement and behaviors within the school as a whole but also in their classes. And they will do great things when given that autonomy. Many high school students will say school is boring. When you ask them why, generally they will say something related to being forced to do things that don’t interest them and that they feel are not worth their time. Why not give them options, give them choice? Doesn’t it make sense that when somebody is allowed to create what they want that they will put much more effort and passion into it?
My challenge to any school decision makers (administrators and teachers) is to really think carefully about your reasons for micro-managing student behavior. Is it in response to poor behaviors, or is it to make your life easier by creating compliant students that won’t ruffle your feathers? Does the thought of not controlling the behavior of each student make you nervous because of the unexpected? Does it make you feel like your job will be harder because you will have to monitor behavior more closely?
I did this self-examination, and realized I was ultimately just trying to make my life easier in the classroom. I decided to relax some of my policies for behavior in the classroom. And guess what? The students didn’t turn into wild animals. They behaved like normal human beings. They were less tense and uptight because they knew their every move wasn’t being scrutinized. And the best part was that I actually spent less time dealing with behavior issues than when I regulated so much of the students’ behavior. And it became a lot more fun. I got to know the students better. There was more of a mutual respect than before. The students didn’t think of me as a dictator. They thought of me as their teacher. I believe they appreciated that I treated them like normal people, not like prisoners.
There might be little we can do about changing the physical spaces students spend so much of their time in each day. But all of us who help direct student behavior can do more to help the kids feel like students and not prisoners.
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars
A couple of weeks ago, our first trimester ended. It was the first time I had implemented a Standards-Based system in one of my classes, my Sports & Entertainment Marketing class. After taking some time to analyze how it went, I decided it’s time to put those thoughts in print for future reference.
Because I love Star Wars, and Star Wars seems to be all the rage right now, I’m going to use a Star Wars theme for my reflection.
LIKE THE FORCE, STANDARDS-BASED LEARNING AND GRADING IS HARD.
Just as young Luke Skywalker when learning the force, I discovered early on that trying to implement this system is very difficult to do well. I didn’t get the results I had hoped for, and I attribute that to the difficulty of taking this on. It certainly is much easier to be teacher-focused, developing lessons from a content perspective and not a student learning perspective: lecture, do some activities (some of which probably don’t really contribute to learning), review, take a quiz, take a test. Such a method is much easier to implement, but likely does not result in actual learning for many students, or in evidence of the SPECIFIC SKILLS OR CONCEPTS that students are supposed to now know.
SO WHAT IS SO HARD? MOSTLY, I AM NOT AS GOOD AS YODA.
Finding ways for students to TRULY demonstrate a FULLY DEVELOPED UNDERSTANDING of the standards is very difficult. Yoda knew all the right techniques and strategies (physical and mental) to help Luke learn the force. I have discovered that I am not nearly on Yoda’s level with my implementation of Standards-Based Grading and Learning. Along the way, I found that there just wasn’t enough time for students to really show me a well-developed understanding of the course concepts, and that was even after eliminating a significant amount of content from previous years in hopes of avoiding that very problem. The course format was basically like this:
Here’s where it went wrong:
YODA FULLY TRAINED LUKE IN TIME FOR HIM TO DESTROY THE DEATH STAR. IN MY TIME WITH THE STUDENTS, THEY ONLY REALLY KNEW ENOUGH TO DISTRACT DARTH VADER AND BUY SOME MORE TIME.
Once again, I was not on Yoda’s level of teaching prowess. Even though I recognized early on that the students were really struggling to show me even a basic understanding of the course concepts, I had to keep moving or they would not have been exposed to nearly enough of the important concepts of Sports & Entertainment Marketing. It would be like if Luke only learned how to fight with his lightsaber but did not master the art of controlling his mind and those of others. Sure he’d be able to hang with Vader in a lightsaber battle, but he never would have been able to use the force to shoot the lasers just at the right time to blow up the death star.
So what would happen if Luke had only a mediocre understanding of using his lightsaber and mind control? He probably would do poorly at both, and the Rebel Alliance would have been defeated. So what am I to do? I know I need to do better, but I am struggling to figure out how.
A NEW HOPE
Image Credit: http://lucasfilm.com/star-wars-episode-4-a-new-hope
In case it’s not obvious, I’m hard on myself. I demand excellence from myself so that my students can be excellent. But I can also recognize the positives in my transition. The top 3 positive things I experienced in this first iteration of Standards-Based Grading and Learning are:
Image Credit: https://www.tumblr.com/search/r:%20there%20is%20no%20try
FINDING MY PERSONAL OBI-WAN AND YODA
Image Credit: http://www.moviefone.com/2015/12/21/obi-wan-yoda-the-force-awakens/
I won’t be attempting to implement a full Standards-Based system again this year. It will just be too stressful. I will continue to use some Standards-Based principles, however (lots of descriptive feedback, unlimited resubmissions, more task-based grading). When the summer hits, I will be using Twitter to find my own personal Yodas and Obi-Wans that can help me get better. Luke continued to seek guidance from his mentors. I will as well.
My 5 year-old daughter loves to watch Doc McStuffins. My wife and I are glad she has graduated from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Doc which is a bit more intellectually stimulating and also features a black female lead, something we like to see as parents of a girl. So when we noticed new episodes were available, we all got excited – our daughter because of the new story, and Mom and Dad so we at least have a new episode to put into the rotation of old episodes that we have seen a seemingly infinite number of times.
The new episode is titled “Nurse’s Office” which is a bit misleading because the main plotline is that Chili, Doc’s stuffed snowman, is nervous about attending the new school Doc has setup for her toys. He’s so nervous that he keeps asking to go see the school nurse (also one of Doc’s stuffed toys) so that he can avoid class.
Why is Chili so nervous? Because he doesn’t want to be wrong. And that makes me sad.
“It’s a great day to be wrong!”
I’ve recently started implementing Standards-Based Learning and Grading in one of my classes, and one of the foundations of the SBL/SBG system is that students are free to make mistakes, because that means there is learning happening. If students are afraid to be wrong and fail once in a while, they will never stretch themselves to the point where they can learn as deeply as we want them to. I’ve heard Ken Mattingly (@kenmattingly) say something that I absolutely love regarding failure: “It’s a great day to be wrong!”
Clearly the message of the episode is that there is no reason to fear being wrong, and of course by the end of the episode Doc and her other toys have reassured Chili that he has no reason to fear being wrong, that he should be confident in his abilities. What bothers me is that this episode even needed to be created. The fear of being wrong and being scrutinized by teachers and peers is still so strong that we continue to have to find creative ways to convince our young children that they should not fear failure. Further, this message is clearly not reaching the kids it should. Doc McStuffins is geared toward kids from about 3-6. Which age group NEVER has a problem with trying new things and fearing failure? Exactly the age range that Doc McStuffins targets.
Maybe we need a cute little animated show to teach this message to our school-age children. Better yet, maybe we need a cute little animated show to teach this message to their teachers.
As week 2 of our school year comes to a close, it’s time to start reflecting on the beginning of my SBG/SBL journey. I decided late last school year after reading and watching some of the great stuff from Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli2) that it is time to start putting the emphasis on student learning and not on point chasing. I had put some SBG/SBL practices in place already (multiple attempts allowed, no due dates and therefore no penalties for late work), but it was time to dive in completely instead of just getting my feet wet.
First, a little background on my implementation of SBG/SBL. Here are the basics:
Below is the skills rubric I’m using for my Sports & Entertainment Marketing class
I’ve read about the experiences of other teachers who had students who were skeptical of such a drastically different system of evaluation, but I was pleasantly surprised that my students just rolled with it. After explaining how it would work and the reasons for the change, many students were visibly intrigued, and it appears that, so far, most are happy with this different setup. I have high standards for their work, especially since they are allowed to resubmit as often as they need to, and some students have gotten frustrated with all the zeroes they get on the first try. But they are getting more familiar with my expectations for their answers, and I’m already starting to see less zeroes on that first attempt.
“In here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.”
I am a strong advocate for the 2 level rubric system. I know many teachers use a rubric with 4 levels, but I dislike that setup for 2 main reasons. First, it gets messy, and becomes hard to decide what rating to give, and, I think, starts to become as arbitrary as assigning percentages. Second, it gives students the choice to not be proficient. Why even list the requirements for being mediocre? I tell my students regularly “in here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.” If I want them to be proficient, why validate mediocrity with a description for achieving at that level? I provide plenty of feedback that lets the students know what they need to do to get to that 1 rating.
I am so pleased with the level of engagement and dedication my students have demonstrated so far. They have been accepting of such a “strange” system that they are not used to, and I think that is because they realize they are free to make mistakes along the way, and that it really is about their learning and not collecting points.
I’ve also noticed that because the students work independently, I am able to meet the needs of individual students when they need it, and I am having some wonderful discussions with students about the course topics. They are revealing ways of thinking that I never would have imagined, and I would not have had this same opportunity if I was the one leading class each day and ensuring the kids are all working on the same task.
I also have a great success story to share. I have noticed the last few days that a girl in my class (we’ll call her Susie) has not really been working much and her body language has suggested she isn’t sure how to move forward. I noticed in my records that one one assignment she had received a 0 rating on all 4 of the skills. So today I made a point to meet with her to get her back on track. All this girl needed was to be able to talk it out. We had a great discussion about her answers and where she went wrong. After some prompting from me and rephrasing the questions, she was able to successfully earn that 1 rating on all 4 of the skills. Her body language had suddenly changed to that of someone experiencing success rather than failure. She told me she isn’t very good with writing, especially on the computer. She said she prefers pencil and paper. When I told her she is welcome to hand write all assignments or give me her answers verbally, her relief was apparent. She now has a renewed confidence, and her attentiveness and focus were much better after that point. She was even quite excited to share with me an idea she had later in the class. It felt really good.
I was so thrilled yesterday when I was reviewing some answers with a group of 3 students. Eventually one of them said “you should tell all the teachers in the school to do this.” When I asked him why, he said, “because it’s not about doing good on a test. I feel like in here I’m actually supposed to learn.” Then one of other boys added, “yeah, we get to keep trying even if we do bad the first time.”
Such empowering words to hear from students. I can’t wait to see where we’re at in another 2 weeks.
On Twitter I keep seeing posts from edu-people I follow that deal with the topics of grit, growth mindset, and resilience, among other topics that pop up in the summer when we can’t share our battle stories and lessons learned from the trenches once the school year starts.
Resilience was the topic of this blog post by Tom James that I recently read, and the author asked for others to share their thoughts on resilience (and grading). I left a fairly lengthy comment with my reply, and because I started my blog as a way to reflect on such issues, I thought I should turn my comment into my own blog post. Here it is, with a couple of additional nuggets added on:
I don’t have any formal research on this, but I m a high school teacher who has provided opportunities for retakes and redos for a few years I certainly have some anecdotal evidence to share.
Resilience literally means to recover quickly from difficulty, so a critical practice for developing resilience in students is to provide quality feedback on what went wrong. How can we expect students to recover quickly from the difficulty of failing at a task if they are unsure where they went wrong? After all, if they knew where they went wrong, wouldn’t they have fixed it before submitting for review?
Another key practice that I have found to be important is to let the students know what they did right. Rarely have I had students consistently miss the mark so badly that they did nothing correctly on their assignments. But I found that my time-saving grading practice of only pointing out what needed to be fixed led to students feeling only like failures. Students became less resilient, because what students want to be resilient when they know they will only be told how wrong they were the next time? Once I started pointing out what the students did well they were noticeably more likely to have a desire to fix the things that needed fixing.
Finally, a strategy that I will be implementing this school year is one that is a vital component of standards based grading: ditching the letter grades and, more importantly I think, the percentages. Letter grades and percentages give students an out. They give them the choice of accepting inadequate performance. They do this because they are considered a final evaluation of performance because that’s how they have been used for so long. Once students see a letter grade or percentage, they believe that’s it, that’s the end of the learning of that topic, that’s the end of my opportunity to master the topic. Some teachers use rubrics to show students exactly what they need to do to earn high marks, but the standard 3-5 point rubric still gives the students the opportunity to choose a poor, but “passing” level of performance. If we want students to reach a certain level of proficiency, why not make that the only choice? The 1 point rubric helps develop resilience by not letting students choose otherwise – they either get 0 or they are proficient, with unlimited attempts to get to proficient. I personally prefer the 2 point rubric. This allows for a proficient level of understanding and a mastery level. Every student should be expected to reach the proficient level, but students who go above and beyond the proficient level and demonstrate an unusually deep understanding of the topic should be rewarded for doing so.
I’m nervous about implementing this new grading system. I find the same questions running through my mind:
Though I’m nervous, I know that such a system will really force the students to show me that they know the material at an acceptable level of understanding.
I was perusing my twitter feed and came across this post from @Jason_appel:
— Jason Appel (@Jason_appel) August 2, 2015
Because I’ve been studying Standards-Based Learning and Grading heavily since late spring, I thought I would share my thoughts on these questions that Jason raised about allowing re-do’s and retakes. If you already viewed the Google Doc linked in this tweet:
— Scott Schmidt (@bizedteach) August 2, 2015
feel free to disregard the following text, which is exactly what appeared in the Google Doc. However, I would really appreciate your thoughts about my responses to Jason in the form of a comment at the end of this post. That’s one of my main goals for this blog – to get feedback from others.
If you did not see the Google Doc, read on, and please share your thoughts in a comment at the end of this post.
“I want to hold students accountable for preparing ahead of time.”
There is only one problem with this statement, and that is the word “accountable.” We should only hold students accountable for demonstrating of learning, not soft skills. Are soft skills important? Absolutely, but that is not what we are assessing. Things like preparation, attendance, and staying on task are all behaviors that LEAD to successful learning, but are not things for which we need to hold students “accountable.” What if I don’t even need to prepare ahead of time? What if I can successfully demonstrate mastery without preparing ahead of time? Should there be an asterisk next to my performance indicator because I didn’t effectively prepare ahead of time? Students who NEED to prepare ahead of time will see the VALUE in doing so when they perform better after better preparation on subsequent assessments.
“Will students take a test to see questions, then prepare to retake for a better grade? (Answer is yes)”
Actually, the answer is only ‘yes’ if the retake is the exact same test and only requires them to regurgitate facts or processes they have been ‘programmed’ to do. If students can simply memorize answers for the retake, maybe the problem is that the assessment is not an effective demonstration of LEARNING but is rather a demonstration of MEMORIZING. Consider making the assessment questions more authentic, ones that require real understanding of the concepts and putting the concepts into real situations. Is this more work for the teacher? Absolutely. Is creating multiple versions of the assessment for retake purposes more work for the teacher? Absolutely. But as teachers, we are to serve students, not necessarily make our lives more convenient or less stressful. Work with your department to share the load of creating these authentic assessments so that each teacher does not bear the burden alone.
“How does grading factor in? Should a student who shows mastery only after multiple attempts be able to get the same grade as a student who shows mastery on first attempt? My students and parents will see this as unfair.”
Yes, they should get the same grade, because they have both reached the goal set for all students: mastery of the content. Why does the path make a difference? Why should students who show mastery after only one attempt be made to do it over and over again? Or, if you want to consider fairness, how fair is it to only let students attempt mastery one time? Remember that the goal is to show mastery, not to show mastery in one try. Rick Wormeli, who you responded to in your tweet has used this example many times…think of all the professional tests required to gain certification: the bar exam, the driver’s license exam, grad school entrance exams, CPA exams, heck, even the Praxis exams to become a teacher. All of these allow the test takers to take them more than once, and only their most recent score is considered for certification. Why do we hold teenage high school students to a much stricter standard? I would also recommend that you check out Rick’s “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.”
“What is a student’s mindset if they go into an assessment expecting to retake it? This happens all the time in my class. 10 minutes in: ‘Can I retake this?’”
It seems like you are assuming each student’s mindset who is expecting to retake it is one of ‘I’m totally gaming this system – I don’t really need to know anything, I’ll just eventually memorize all the answers and get a 100%.’
Maybe a student would treat the initial attempt as a trial run, so they know exactly what they are expected to know and be able to do. Maybe when that student asks ‘Can I retake this?’ they want to know that, even if they fail, they will get to try again, to persevere and eventually show you that they can do it. Is that unacceptable? How less intimidating would it be if students could go into a test of some sort and not have to really worry about scoring well, but be able to just focus on actually knowing the test material? Wouldn’t that be a better reflection of what the student learned? The bottom line is that in standards-based grading, you must show mastery or you don’t get credit, so being allowed to retake a test or other type of assessment is crucial. Students are no longer allowed to accept a 60% (which tells the student what, exactly, anyway?) – they will master the content or be given an incomplete. When you shift to such a philosophy, students will generally not approach retakes as ‘gaming the system’ but rather as another chance to show they’ve learned the material and can demonstrate mastery. And regardless, if students want to put themselves in a position to do EXTRA work by putting in EXTRA time to do a retake, doesn’t that tell you that they are interested in performing well? Why should they be denied that chance?
“Does allowing retakes of assessments prepare students for college? I don’t think colleges are allowing retakes at all.”
My personal response to this is that we are not preparing all students for college. Not all will go to college, and not all will go to the same types of colleges – some may go to colleges that do allow retakes and some might go to colleges that don’t. Unless we analyze the retake policies of every college available we won’t know that, but yes, I would agree that generally colleges do not allow retakes. However, by allowing students in high school to retake assessments, we are putting emphasis on the LEARNING rather than the assessment, which is just the vehicle for demonstrating learning. By allowing retakes in high school, students are free to explore the best way for them to learn, to try different methods or strategies, because they will be allowed to test out those strategies without fear of failure because they know they will be able to try again. By doing so, they will figure out their personal best methods for preparing for exams in college, putting themselves in a much better position to succeed on the first try.
I would also point out that in college, students have MUCH more time during the day to focus on their studies and prepare, and have many more resources for getting help than they do in high school. I would imagine you would be hard-pressed to find an undergraduate student who goes from one class to the next, with maybe 5-10 minutes in between, from 8:00-3:00, Monday through Friday, like most high school students generally do. That alone makes it much more feasible for students to be able to prepare for their one attempt at college exams.
To conclude, the point of retakes is to allow our students to actually LEARN, not prepare for some test. By relieving the stress of having to perform on one attempt at an assessment, students are free to learn without risk of failure. Failure becomes a natural part of the process, not a shameful conclusion.
There are thousands, maybe even millions of blogs posted on the Internet. I imagine you could find a blog on just about any topic if you tried hard enough. I have always thought ‘What are these people thinking? What makes them think anybody cares what they have to say?’
I’ve had the same thoughts about myself. If I publish my thoughts on an particular topic, why should I think anybody will care to read about them? I’m certainly not an expert on anything – why would people care what I have to say when they could find thoughts from experts?
Maybe these thoughts have come become I tend to be hard on myself. I think I have plenty to offer the world, especially those I come in contact with, but I’ve always felt that nobody would or should really care what I have to say unless I was asked to share.
Until maybe a year and a half ago, I thought the same thing about Twitter. I had briefly glanced at some twitter feeds, and most of what I saw was random, scattered thoughts and statements that I found to be very boring, mundane, and vapid. Did these people really think anybody cared about the minute details of their daily lives? How vain!
But then I started to ask my wife (mathybeagle.com), a high school math teacher and Twitter veteran at that point (@veganmathbeagle) about why she uses Twitter. She is certainly the opposite of boring, mundane, and vapid, so why would we she delve into the musings of the people who are? She then showed me how she was starting to LEARN from people on Twitter about real, stimulating topics. Twitter makes it very easy to connect with others because you can see who everybody else is following. She was starting to build her own personal learning network on Twitter, connecting with great math teaching minds. As I saw the extreme growth in her teaching practice as a result of these connections, I started to become sold on this whole Twitter thing. Then, as she started her own blog about teaching and was getting fantastic responses from many of those same Twitter connections, I became a believer.
Now, I have decided to take the plunge myself. What changed? Do I suddenly think everybody wants to know what I have to say about teaching? Of course not. But I realized the point of MY blog is for reflection and for feedback from other educators. As I saw the positive impact reflection through blogging had on my wife, I knew I could benefit too. But even more importantly for me, I want to learn from everybody else.
If you are still reading, please consider subscribing to my blog so you will know when I post something new. Don’t worry – I don’t plan to overload your inbox with new post notifications, though these first couple might come very quickly. I want to learn from YOU, just as much as I want to reflect on my own practices.
With that, I step to the front of the platform, toes curled over the edge. Time for the plunge. Here goes…