Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
As the name of this post suggests, this is another step on a journey that started long before this post. It may be helpful to review the following posts before reading this one in order to contextualize what I'm about to write:
As I reflect on all that I've learned during our first trimester, I find myself compelled, yet again, to change the grading system. I was using an Interpersonal Mode rubric adapted from Ben Slavic which fit the needs of co-creating with the class (One Word Images, Ask A Story, Etc.) very well. However, with my recent transition to primarily Story Listening, the Interpersonal Mode rubric no longer fits the behaviors I expect of my students since they now have new roles for engagement. Moreover, there are things missing from that rubric that I want students to be doing, especially since so much of our class time is now spent reading.
The bottom line is that grades should be meaningful, and what I was doing no longer fits what I wish to communicate to parents and students. So, something has got to change.
What would be meaningful and fair to communicate?
Before I even begin to think about setting up my gradebook, assigning tasks, and grading them, I must be able to answer this question. The meaningful part concerns what I need to communicate to parents. How should they interpret the grades that their students receive? The fair part of this question concerns what students can control - and, as I've explained in the two posts linked at the beginning of this post, I do not view assessing what students can do in the language (i.e. proficiency or tasks) as fair and I have to honor that when assigning their grades (soap box moment: whether or not I agree with it, these grades do influence their quality of life based on how they and their parents feel about them! Not to mention that high school grades will affect college acceptances and scholarships. For those reasons, I take assigning them very, very seriously).
For my class, I've determined that Student Behaviors (Citizenship) and Completion of Assignments (Classwork/Assignments) are fair and meaningful to communicate:. To be honest, completion of assignments can be categorized under student behaviors, but there is some sort of satisfaction when students see a direct connection between the tasks the complete in class and what shows up in the gradebook. However, in honoring what is fair to assess, these daily tasks are formative assessments of my instruction and students receive an automatic 100% just for completing them. It feels great to them to get these regular 100% grades in the grade book, and it ensures that students can communicate openly with me about how well I am reaching them while only being graded on what they can control.
How does this look in the gradebook?
Although it may be somewhat arbitrary, I decided to give each of the categories (Classwork/Assignments and Citizenship) equal weight in the gradebook. The categories are broad enough that I can include everything we do. I've always preferred to use weights as I feel they give me more accurate control over my gradebook, but that is just a personal preference.
Because this approach is likely unfamiliar to parents and students, I plan to send a letter explaining how students are graded and how to interpret those grades. I also plan to review their proficiency assessments in their notebooks and touch base with the parents of students who are struggling in their proficiency so that they have a complete picture of their students' performance and how they can support them, while still maintaining fairness in the grade book. Once I write that email, I will link to it here.
This is a follow up to my post The New and Improved FVR Program.
Well that was interesting....
Give a kid assigned reading, and they do what they have to to get the assignment done (maybe).
Eliminate the homework and give a kid time in class to read with options and support, and they check out books to take home.
That about summarizes my experience this week. It was magic!
Context: These students have had approx. 70 minutes of Spanish every other class day for 2.5 months. I assigned reading as homework three weeks ago (30 minutes), but eliminated all homework this time and decided instead to give students structured free-reading time during class with options for various materials, levels, and scaffolding by working with partners, in groups, or individually (see below for more details). Then, I said "go".
Yesterday, a future Spanish teacher was subbing in the room across from mine. Her kids were at lunch, so I invited her over to see what was happening in my room. The reading time was well under way. I asked her the most important question in education, "How do you know they're learning?"
She looked at them for a moment, and then said, "Because they're doing it?"
YES! It seemed so simple, too obvious to be the right answer. But, glancing around my room, I could see students demonstrating sustained focused on a page to read it, and then turning the pages when appropriate. Students were reading the books out loud to their partners. Students were laughing and reacting to the information in the books. Some students were switching from materials that were too hard or not interesting to materials that better fit their needs. Everywhere, it was very obvious that the kids were DOING IT. They were READING. So then I asked, "If I know they're learning, then do I need to give them a quiz, test, or some other form of assessment to know that they're learning?" NO! I already know that they are learning. Their behavior IS the assessment, and it doesn't take a trained teacher to know that some awesome learning was happening in there.
Oh yeah, and no fewer than 7 students asked to check out items from me this week, even though they have access to all of them online. In fact, I had a sub on Thursday, and on Friday two girls approached me with books in their hands. They apologized because they "accidentally" took the books home with them, but I could tell from their body language that they didn't want to give them back. So, I asked if they'd like to check them out, and they were so excited! My library is getting smaller and smaller.....
Here is how I structure reading in my classroom:
First, I explained to students the intention of the structured reading activity: I want to help them feel successful reading and find something they enjoy reading, so much that it inspires them to keep reading on their own simply because they want to, not because anyone is forcing them to. I also explained that this might take a while for them, so don't expect it to happen today or even this trimester. As they learn more language, they'll find it easier and easier to read and I will keep working to find something they enjoy. I posted Bryce Hedstrom's poster "How to choose reading material" and briefly went over it with them. I plan on educating them about effective reading for 2-3 minutes each time we do Free Reading.
I assigned some Reader Leaders ahead of time and gave them instructions on how to conduct a reading group and model effective reading and troubleshooting. These were students that already have high reading ability (based on my formative benchmark assessments, which I've created by adapting Eric Herman's speed readings) AND who I felt would be good leaders. I assigned each of them a three-chapter segment of Eric Herman's "Ataques de Hambre" - I chose this book because the students already know the fairy tales and three chapters to a story is less intimidating than a whole book, so it was like a "gateway" to novel reading.
I gave students the options of reading alone or in the groups led by my Reader Leaders. Most students chose to join a group - I found it was best to limit the groups to only 4-5 students (including the leader), smaller for groups that might have trouble focusing (which included, not coincidentally, my lowest readers). There are some students who are on my private "must read with a group" list, but nearly all students chose to read with a group anyway so I didn't have to ask them to do so.
For students not reading in the groups I gave them access to my extensive class library of Fluency Fast and TPRS novels (I only put out my Nov-Low and Nov-Intermediate novels, and then personally invited my advanced students to select from my higher-level novels if they would like to), embedded readings of stories they've already heard in class (one group of three ladies chose these), the "benchmark assessment" readings (Some REALLY wanted to keep passing off stories all period), and access to a Google Drive folder (no one used these - they all preferred hard copies since they were available) where I have more short stories for novice readers, "Mundo en tus Manos" from Martina Bex, and some other resources. I also introduced my highest readers to Newsela. I've reserved the computer lab for all of our future reading days so that students don't have to use their devices to access these materials. I plan to continue observing what students choose to read (including what they put down and pick up throughout the period) and tailoring my library according to their decisions.
I've had a yet another transformative experience this weekend when I attended the COFLT-WAFLT Fall 2016 Conference this weekend. And while it would be easy to chew on the information for a while and continue class as normal in the meantime, for the sake of my students I feel obligated to march into class tomorrow and make significant changes that I feel are necessary NOW.
First, I realized at a fundamental level how not only our instruction needs to change, but the system itself needs to change. As the only teacher in a brand new program that I am laying the groundwork for, I have a high degree of autonomy within my middle school program. If I can shoot for the stars with my 7th and 8th grade students, why settle for anything less? And why wait? While I cannot control what happens to my students once they leave my classroom and move on to the high school (and therefore I have an obligation to ensure that they are ready for the different system there), there is still a lot I can do in my own classroom, and my grading needs to change. Right now, I am using standards-based grading and expecting my students to achieve a certain amount of proficiency by the end of the year. They are held accountable for reaching certain benchmarks by the end of the grading period. However, one of my first ah-hah moments of the conference came from Dr. Beniko Mason when she said
Wait, what? Shouldn't students be held accountable? Well, yes. Of course. But not for what I (and I suspect others) thought. I wanted to hold them accountable for the end result of language acquisition. But, there's one major problem with that:
STUDENTS CAN'T CONTROL THEIR RATE OF ACQUISITION.
Language acquisition is like physically growing children. For instance, let's take those strange little middle-schooler bodies. We know that they will get bigger, taller, stronger, and more adult-looking as long as they are provided the things they need. If we put the things in their bodies that they need and help them learn healthy habits, they will grow no matter what. Will they grow at the same rate? No. They can't. Those ladies shoot up in middle school and leave their male peers feeling like children. Well, except for the one or two star athletes that happen to be taller than even some of the teachers by 8th grade. But, we know that the boys will eventually grow as well. It can be awkward, and the students can worry about it, but as adults we know that it'll pretty much all work out eventually. We just have to be patient, because there's really not much else we can do about it. And if we want to know how tall someone is right now, we simply tell them their exact height along the established scale. If you're in the United States, it will probably be in feet and inches. If you're in the rest of the world, this information will likely come in meters. But even though that might cause temporary confusion, we can easily and reliably convert from one system to the other and re-establish understanding.
But, say we started grading them on height. The students who "achieve" a height of 5'6" get an A, the students who achieve a height of 5'0" get a B, and so-on. In this system, some of my students get an A+ while I, the "full grown" adult, would get an A-. My mom barely gets a B-, and many of my students would earn a C or lower (I wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd of fourth graders). Is this fair or even necessary? No? Why? Because students can't control how much they grow, we know they're going to keep growing as long as their needs are met, and we already have a clearer and more informative method of communicating their growth. The same is true about language acquisition. The nutrition comes in the form of comprehensible and compelling messages. The exercise is what students do to interact with those messages and ensure that they are comprehending (indicating to the teacher by various means when they do and don't understand). Under these conditions, they will grow.* We know this, but neither students nor teachers have any control over the rate at which they grow, and consequently whether they will reach a certain "benchmark" by an artificial and external deadline. And the measurement tool is proficiency level. Conversations about credits and grades must be replaced by conversations about proficiency and real-world application of skills in authentic and unpredictable settings. Already, high schools, colleges and universities, and jobs use proficiency levels to award credits and establish requirements. We want credits and grades because, in theory, they represent what we "learned." But, we all know that it's a flawed measure at best. In any case, we don't really want credits and grades - we want proficiency and real-world skills. So why are we using some nonsensical measurement tool when there is something better out there already?
It's worth stating again, though, that students cannot be held accountable for this proficiency. So, then, what should they be held accountable for? And what should teachers be held accountable, if not the achievements of their students? The answer is BEHAVIORS. Are teachers providing the nutrition in the form of comprehensible and compelling messages? Are students doing their exercise by listening and reading with the intent to understand, and letting the teacher know when that isn't happening? If so, everyone is doing their job and deserves a great grade or evaluation for performance. (Objectively measuring the answers to these questions can be quickly twisted into something it wasn't meant to be, but that is a topic for another post.
So what am I telling my students tomorrow that will make their day? I'm going to tell them that we will continue to do the mini-proficiency assessments that they're already doing, but they won't be going in the grade book. Instead, I'll be grading that they did them at all, that they measured their progress, and that they set goals for future growth. I will continue to collect the data in my classroom to see who needs what, but there is no accountability for mastery on my students' part - I'm just asking them to exercise, and I'm using this data to figure out the right nutrition to give them. Their grades will be based on whether or not they do their exercise (in the form of the Interpersonal Mode Self-Evaluation Rubric). I was also inspired by Dr. Mason's discussion of extensive reading to require it outside of class, although I am going to wait until we come back from Spring Break in order to ensure that my students have enough comprehension in order to ensure that all are able to read at a level that feels easy. I am also going to provide a plethora of scaffolded reading so that all students can find an appropriate text at the (i-1) comprehension level. Students should not held accountable for what they read in the form of comprehension quizzes or questions, but rather just that they are reading, likely via an online form for them to summarize in English about what they read, as Dr. Mason showed was more effective for language acquisition than completing cloze exercises or summarizing in the target language. I'm not going to tell them about the reading yet, but I WILL be talking to administration about adding appropriate Spanish readers to our school libraries.
To wrap this up, the only thing I have to say is that I'm going to school tomorrow with a happier heart than I did last time I walked through those doors - and that's saying something. I am relieved of holding myself to student achievement of proficiency standards that I know not everyone will reach. Some students will acquire at slower rates than others, and that is ok - for both myself and my students. They don't have to worry about how it will affect their grade anymore - I will be relieving them of that pressure and simply ask them to exercise. Have fun. Get lost in the story. Be yourself. And be happy with whoever that is as long as you're making an honest effort to read and listen with the intent to understand. Help me help you understand. And that is all that you will ever have to worry about - the rest will come.
*Of course, there are exceptions in extreme cases where students may have learning disabilities that impede their ability to acquire any language, including their first language
Dr. Beniko Mason
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