Better late than early: A different approach to grading

The phrase "No More Grades" is repeated numerous times in red letters on a white background.

Everyone in education hates grading.

Students hate being graded.

Teachers hate grading papers.

Administrator hate the hours spent recording grades, reporting grades to watchdog agencies, wading through reams of paperwork showing how poorly their students’ grades compare to others.

An article I read today in The Guardian profiles a school in Germany that has gotten rid of grades for students below age 15.

Although other features of The Evangelical School Berlin Centre (ESBC) program are worth consideration, the idea of making about three-quarters of students’ time in public school grade free interests me.

Don’t let the no-grades policy fool you: ESBC is no Summerhill.

Maths, German, English and social studies are required subjects.

There are tests.

Students are expected to stay on task.

They have to come into school on Saturday morning to catch up if they waste time during class.

But the whole ESBC program is geared toward developing students who can motivate themselves to learn to adapt to change.

I’ve seen in my own teaching how freedom from the threat of a bad grade motivates students to persist at learning to write long after they would normally have given up.

In my college writing classes, I set as  my goal having every student writing competently by the end of the course. Most of my college students are like me: They arrived in college having never had any instruction in writing.  So while competent writing is not a very high standard, but it’s not easy for most student achieve.

I do put grades on all formal papers. My students are old enough to want to have some way of tracking their progress and a grade gives them one way to measure that.

But I also guarantee students that as soon as they’ve turned in two papers in a row that display competent writing I’ll drop all their prior grades and they can have a C for the course even if they never darken the classroom door after that.

The amazing thing is that once students achieve competence, they don’t disappear from class. They keep on writing, and their work keeps getting better and better. Occasionally someone ends up with a C, but mostly students earn Bs and As.

I suspect a grade-free program would be hard to implement: The learning content would have to be highly relevant, and teachers would have to be allergic to lecturing.

But wouldn’t it be fun to try it?


Thanks to Doug Peterson (@dougpete on Twitter) whose The Best of Ontario-Educators Daily brought the article to my attention.
 

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Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.


Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two  if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.

I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.

Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds.

[Students write.]

Step 3. Give correct answers.  Students grade themselves.

Step 4.  In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader.  You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.

I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.

One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.

The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.

FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk.  A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.


Comments? questions?

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Writing for work-readiness

If you’ve been out of the universe for a while, you may have missed the cries for students to be “college and career ready.”

Since writing and teaching writing are particular interests of mine, I’ve been checking out a few scholarly reports about where writing fits into getting students ready for life beyond high school.

Two themes stood out to me: The reports assume that (1) college attendance is required for entrance into the world of work and (2) the world of work means offices occupied by salaried professionals.

College is an assumed prerequisite

Here are four excerpts from the opening pages of reports issued between 2003 and 2013.

The Neglected “R” (subtitled The Need for a Writing Revolution), published by the College Board in April 2003, says:

More than 90 percent of midcareer professionals recently cited the “need to write effectively” as a skill “of great importance” in their day-to-day
work.  The world in general, and advanced societies in particular, now demonstrates a nearly voracious appetite for highly educated people. (Underscores added.)

Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out published by the College Board in September 2004, had these observations:

A survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today’s workplace writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death.

Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees. (Underscores added.)

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing developed by Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project, published January 2011, says:

This Framework describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success. (Underscore added.)

What Does It Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? an NCEE English report, published in May 2013:

… addresses a simple question: what kind and level of literacy is required of a high school graduate if that student is going to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program? (Underscores added.)

Suppose the assumptions are wrong?

Suppose college isn’t the only gateway into the workplace.

Suppose there are good-paying jobs outside of offices.

Suppose high schools turned out graduates with skills necessary for entry-level jobs in businesses in their areas.

Suppose MOOCs and coding academies and apprenticeships allow students to go from high school to good-paying jobs.

Suppose Makerspaces allow inventive, entrepreneurial students places to become business owners.

If those and other alternatives to college-going (other than unemployment) were widely available, what then?

Would how we teach writing change?

When I realized the majority of my college students either didn’t want to be in college or shouldn’t have been there, I changed how I taught freshman composition.

What’s been your experience?

 

 

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Getting back in the saddle

When I closed my “you can teach writing” website, I thought I would take some time off before picking up the pieces and trying again.

I didn’t think it would take this long.

Once I got away from working on the site every day, I didn’t have a reason to keep up with the technology needed for website work.

But the tech world didn’t wait for me.

When I was ready to get back in the saddle, I couldn’t reach the stirrups any more.

The software problem: directions

I’m struggling to learn new software and encountering the usual difficulty that accompanies technology: its directions.

Sometimes the directions are vague.

Sometimes they’re so detailed they make the head spin.

Sometimes they don’t exist at all.

The student problem: teachers

The wonderful thing about bad directions is that they force teachers to recognize that someone who isn’t learning is not necessarily lazy, stupid, or unmotivated.

That’s not an earth-shaking revelation, but it’s a fact every teacher needs to remember.

The problem of the kid in the fourth seat in the third row just might be the teacher at the front of the room.


New websites in development

I’m going to split content from my old website into three smaller sites.

Currently, I’m working on a slimmed down version of my original  you-can-teach-writing site. I’ve even slimmed down its URL to yctwriting.com. It will focus on the least teachers need to know to teach nonfiction writing, and the 10 strategies teens and adult students need to know to write nonfiction texts competently.

grampuss.com will be a site about how to help students master essential writing mechanics (grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and style) without worksheets and drills.

penprompts.com will focus use of formal and informal writing prompts as teaching materials, not just as “writing tests.”

Keep an eye on this blog for details about when yctwriting.com launches. You can get posts by email or RSS if you sign up below the search box in the right hand column.

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Writers require hands-on learning

I read a short post this morning at Mindshift about visual learning. It’s gist is that, although people may prefer visual presentations, having information presented in multiple ways is best for learning, especially if one of the multiple ways is visual.

For teachers of writing, keeping that fact in mind is important.

To develop a skill,  people have to do more than see someone else use the skill.  Knowing what to do is just the beginning.

To acquire a skill, people need to actually use it.   (If people could learn skills by watching experts, there would be thousands of NFL fans who developed skills to rival Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas just by watching television.)

Ideally, people make their initial attempts to learn a skill under controlled settings where mistakes aren’t catastrophic.

Once they have enough skill not to be dangerous, they need to practice in situations that mimic the actual setting in which they will use the skill.

As writing teachers, it’s well worth remembering that writing  is only learned hands-on and it’s learned best in practice settings that mimic real settings.

Writing teachers, unfortunately, often overlook the need for practice in simulated writing situation.

Writing nearly always involves both visual and kinesthetic activities. Sometimes writers use auditory or oral activities as well, reciting a mnemonic to themselves, for example, or discussing a planned piece of writing with a peer.

Most people, including English teachers, do the bulk of their writing in what journalists call “clean first draft” situations. That means that while we run spell check and try to allow at least a few hours between drafting and editing our draft, most of our writing is not rewritten even once: The edited first draft is the final draft.

I know that makes teachers of the process approach to writing shudder, but it makes typical students happy: They just want to get the assignment done.

The more times students get the assignment done—assuming they practice writing correctly—the sooner they develop skill at writing.

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Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

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Informal education can transform lives

quote from Seth Godin set against cement block foundation: "Formal education is a foundation but lifelong, informal education can transform our lives."

Education is the answer

It almost doesn’t matter what the question is, really.

Everyone is an independent actor, now more than ever, with access to information, to tools, to the leverage to make a difference.

Instead of being a cog merely waiting for instructions, we get to make decisions and take action based on what we know and what we believe.

Read the rest of this Seth Godin post.

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Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel

Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

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Thinking backwards

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to think backward from a goal.

For the last three months, I’ve been working at building a new website with content from my old “You Can Teach Writing” site.

That has necessitated learning a new software program to replace my antique Dreamweaver (purchased in 2000!), learning how to create responsive sites that will display properly on mobile devices, and figuring out how to organize all the website elements—photographs, illustrations, icons, call-out boxes, text, headlines—so I can find information when I need it and format it consistently across the site.

Finding all the information I need to learn requires a lot of research. All too often something I’m sure I will need to have later is discussed at the point where it is deployed, rather than at the point at which I ought to start collecting it.

I’ve not reached any earth-shaking conclusions from these three projects, but I’ve made a few observations that I want to remember when I teach.

Goals hold emotions

Goals always have an emotional component, either actual or potential.

I’ve seen that emotional component several times in software user forums where company employees were annoyed by users’ desire for step-by-step directions.

Users felt successful when they could complete a simple task quickly with the software, while the employees felt unsuccessful if users only wanted to do simple tasks quickly.

As a teacher, I’m tempted (and often succumb) to set goals whose achievement I would find satisfying. I’ve learned that if I set writing goals at a level that students think they can achieve and that they would be satisfied to achieve (I call it “C-level” for competence level), students are much more likely do the assigned work and achieve that level or higher.

Save information for use

People doing an information task for the first time waste a great deal of time and endure a great deal of frustration because they don’t know how to record the information they gather.

By contrast, experienced knowledge workers doing an information task develop strategies and templates for gathering, sorting, labeling, and saving the information they gather.

As a teacher, I try to give my students the benefit of my experience by providing strategies and templates that I and colleagues have found helpful.

Even though the materials I provide might not be useful to every student or in every situation, it’s generally easier for them to modify a prepared structure than to develop one from scratch.

Sequencing precedes skill

To an uninformed observer, skills look like an automatic response to a particular type of stimuli. Actually, skills are sets of tasks performed in such rapid sequence that the tasks seem to melt into one fluid action.

Before people are skilled, they learn to go through component tasks in sequence. Because tasks have both mental and physical components, the learners must:

  1. Remember the next action required.
  2. Physically position themselves to perform the action.
  3. Perform the action.
  4. Verify that the action was performed successfully or backup to #2.
  5. Remember the next action required and go through steps 2-5.

When my writing students “get it” they will behave—and feel—as if they were born knowing how to write.

I need to remember that getting to that point will require many repetitions of the underlying process to get their eyes, brains, and bodies to perform the necessary actions automatically.

 

 

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Teaching future-ready students: What skills should we teach?

In a previous post, I sketched how skill at learning to use digital tools for re-purposing information outlasts both the tools and the information. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here.

Today I’d like to look at what we should be teaching so that our students exit high school with skills that will last them for more than a decade.

Background of stone wall with overlaid words "Teachers aren't expected to teach everything;they're expected to teach the most important things.

Future-readiness is a historical problem

I’m a baby-boomer. Born and raised in a rural New York community not far from the site of the Woodstock Festival, I was the first in my family to go to college. My college roommate was from a rural Ohio community, the first in her family to go to college. Both of us toggled together scholarships, loans, and jobs to pay our way through college.

In the 1960’s our college said it was preparing us for the year 2000.

My roommate became a chemist whose work took her all over the Americas not only doing lab work, but helping cogeneration facilities maintain environmentally friendly practices. I became a writer/editor/teacher in the gig economy before the term was invented.

Although neither of us always had work we loved, each of us was able to move from job to job within different economic sectors with relative ease.

Our college delivered on its promise to prepare us for the year 2000.

Knowledge obsolescence overblown

Granted the speed of technological change from 1966 to 2016 was pokey compared to the speed of change in the last 25 years, but does that mean we can’t make any reasonable predictions about what skills students are going to need in 10-15 years?

Is world really changing so rapidly that anything we teach students today will be obsolete before they get to the workplace?

That suggestion prompts a pit-of-the-stomach reaction from anyone who has ever gotten a notice from a vendor saying the DuzAll software program they purchased for $29 the week before is being discontinued and replaced with DuzAllBetter (for an additional $110).

However, such visceral reactions to change don’t prove that we can’t make any predictions about tomorrow’s workplace.  If anything, they suggest there’s an ongoing need for a tool that solves the problem the original DuzAll set out to solve.

In the business world, if a problem persists, companies will continue making products to solve the problem.

Persistent problems show needed skills

We can make some reasonable guesses about the skills students are going to need in 10, 20, or 30 years by

  • looking at the problems today’s workplace tools attempt to solve
  • examining what skills enable today’s workers to use those tools efficiently and effectively

If we do that, I believe we’ll be able to identify within the general education program a fairly small set of teachable skills that we can be fairly confident will enable students to function well in their workplaces, including:

  • data storage
  • data analysis
  • process/systems analysis
  • identifying a problem that needs a solution (which may entail finding the root problem among a cluster of derivative problems)
  • communicating a nonfiction message clearly and concisely

(For Career Technical Education students, an additional set of teachable skills would need to be identified, probably on a per-program basis.)

Once we have our list, we can look at our curricula and identify obvious and not-so-obvious places where instruction and practice in our work-readiness skills fit well.

Desirable acquired workplace traits

While we’re doing our analysis of the workplace tools and skills, we will probably notice that certain attitudes, abilities, and competencies are typically associated with top performing workers, such as

  • self-management
  • time management
  • grit and determination
  • cooperating and getting along with others
  • reliability

Such competencies aren’t learned well, if at all, from instruction.

Students can, however, acquire attitudes and abilities while engaged in activities designed to help them master some more readily teachable skills in their courses. Teachers just need to make sure they regularly assign work that helps students hone desirable “soft skills” while mastering more concrete material.

Who is responsible?

Whose job is it to figure out what the essentials skills to teach are?

If nobody else in your school is doing it, it’s yours.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

And even if you miss something or include something that turns out not to have been essential, your students are still going to be better off than if everybody hoped somebody else would take responsibility.

 

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