Critic vs. audience: which teacher is best?

Kids ask three questions when they do work in our class:

What did I do?

What should I do?


How did I do?

Two of those questions lead to dependence. They lead to grade-chasing. The other question creates self-directed learners. Do these questions sound vague? If so, here’s another look:


The pyramid of student response. Like the food pyramid, a source of much controversy.

What did I do?

This is the question that students don’t ask enough. They might start asking it, though, if we teach self-assessment. When we answer this question, we give feedback. Giving feedback involves this process:

  1. We look at our instructional goals.
  2. Then, we look at the work that the students have done. Does the work meet the goals? To what extent? Were all parts completed? Were some parts missing?
  3. We report this information back to students.

It’s so simple. It feels trivial. But in this case, our gut reaction might be wrong. Feedback is important.

Feedback looks something like this:

“You used three of the five required quotes in your essay. You did not include a works cited page.”

“You spoke without a single ‘um’ during your presentation. You also used relevant images to support your ideas.”

“After you published your review of Ender’s Game, four students checked out the book!”

Notice that the students get a report on their actions and nothing more. The goal is to be a mirror, reflecting back the way that students meet goals.

Just think, feedback is the common, useful response that real writers get. If we publish writing, we see feedback based on its effectiveness. This comes from likes, shares, replies, purchases, or another action by readers. If we speak in a presentation, conversation, discussion, or meeting, we get feedback too. Listeners laugh, nod, fall asleep, ask questions, take notes, or reach out afterwards. This is feedback.

And usually, the audience doesn’t tell us how to improve. That’s up to us. We might overhear or read an opinion about our work, but we don’t have people saying: “Thank you for your cover letter. It probably gets a C-. Make your closing a bit more persuasive.” No. Instead, we don’t get the job. So, we look at that feedback and try to figure out what we did wrong.

Or… in some cases, we ask a trusted mentor this question:

What should I do?

This is advice. Advice is OK, but it should come sparingly. Lead with feedback, then a little advice. The problem is that many teachers (me) often lead with advice. In fact, it might be the only thing students here.  This creates learned helplessness. It promotes a place where the students are trying to figure out what the teacher wants so they can score more points.  That’s not learning. That’s a game.

Again, some advice = good, just advice = bad.

Advice looks like this:

“Try to pause more often in your next speech. Imagine that the audience wants you to speak very slowly. Even if you feel uncomfortable, you’ll be speaking at the right speed.”

“Check out the Purdue OWL site for more information on how to create in-text citations.”

“Next time, you might want to include hyperlinks to the author’s other books.”

These are instructions to help students meet goals.  Of course, teachers are experts, so we guide students toward goals. But, feedback comes first so students know where advice is leading. Then, teachers can practice reducing advice, so students learn to make their own corrections.

Now, I teach in a real school, which requires these pesky things called grades. Our shared love of grades is why students ask one question more than any other:

How did I do?

When we answer this question, we give judgement.  Judgement is like feedback because it describes a performance. But judgement is less specific and less useful. It is the work of a critic.

Judgement looks like this:


“Good work”


“Needs improvement”

No matter how much we tweak rubrics, this stuff is subjective.  It’s important to accept that. Teachers can fall in love with a grading system. It might be well-organized, I’ll give you that. It doesn’t promote learning, though.

If a student writes a “B+” paper, she has no idea how to get better. And, even if I give her feedback: “your analysis partially explained the evolution of Odysseus,” she will ignore the feedback and ask “so how can I get an A?” She is back to requesting advice. Back to dependence.

If, instead, I had responded like an audience: “your analysis of the evidence about Odysseus’s evolution did not quite convince me of your thesis,” then the focus is on the task. The student is compelled to examine her work, reflect, and look for the place to fix.

A creator loves his audience (did you know I love you, dear reader?). Through an objective report, the audience validates the creator’s work and implicitly guides him. But a creator does not love his critics. It’s no mistake that critics get a bad rap in our culture. They are the ones that do not make, but simply judge. I’d like to be less of a critic for my students and more of an audience. I think it’ll help them grow.

Are you more of an audience or a critic? What actions do you do that show this? Let me know in the comments.

How to go from relaxed to relentless

There are areas of my work life where I choose to be OK. Not even good. Just passable. Wardrobe is one of those areas.  And my class handouts–I’m scraping by. If a kid requests an extension, I’m a pushover. This stuff is hard to change. In theory it’s easy, but it’s actually related to our values. Sometimes, it takes an outside force to make us go from average to awesome. Or, as you’ll see with Jori below, from relaxed to relentless.

I’m sharing her story from Hacking Literacy because it inspires me. We all “check the box” somtimes, and no one faults us. Were busy, right? For Jori, a high school teacher from Cali, independent reading with her kids was  just “okay.” Then, she had a change of heart, and her students grew. I think you’ll find her story worth your time.

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Better Reading Assessments

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I think assessment matters but grades matter much less.  The following excerpt from Hacking Literacy outlines a problem with literacy assessment (it can kill the love of reading) and a solution (design assessments that build community).

Reading assessment becomes a strictly extrinsic motivator in many classrooms. Teachers reward kids with grades to push them to read or they threaten failure for not reading enough. Conflating assessment with rewards causes student motivation to suffer. It’s human nature to take the shortest route to get the reward. When grades are the goal, assessment backfires, resulting in students reading SparkNotes, watching the movie version, asking friends to summarize a book, or simply lying about reading (see: fake reading). The last thing educators intend is to endorse lying and cheating, but an assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages these behaviors.

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Cancel your participation plan. Create speaking events instead.

Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

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Tool for shame or path to growth? How teachers can do “cold calling” right

First: Students with medical accommodations must be respected.  If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Second: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Third: let’s define the term. Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it has a bad image. Fear, anxiety, embarrassment. This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 

If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

There are two situations when teachers often cold call. Both of these situations make class discussions worse.

First, calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Second, the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.  If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer. But, with care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise. You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might here in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call.

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something. This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.


Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

So, in summary:

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques gives students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class.  Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students towards speaking with confidence.

Do you cold call on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get us started:


How to give students better feedback without working nights and weekends

Teachers make feedback too hard. I’m convinced it can be easier. Over this four-part post, I’ll outline a process in-progress for easier feedback.

Step 1: Set clear objective for each class | Step 2: Use daily self-assessments | Step 3 Teach students how to give each other feedback (two methods that actually work) | Step 4: Find your *imperfect* system for teacher feedback

To get this process right, we have to know what feedback is and what it is not.  This concept confused me when I first thought about it.

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How to design a no opt-out reading assessment

The assessment, the test, is one of the quintessential aspects of American schooling. The experience of testing reminds me of these quotes:

“Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
“High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”

Both of these come from Alexis Wiggins, daughter of the late, great Grant Wiggins, and high school learning coach.  She shared these two observations in a post she wrote after shadowing two students during a typical school day.

In her post, she says that her realizations were not a critique of any teachers but of our shared system of schooling. It is a system in which many students watch teachers or classmates do all the work. They may informally opt-out of their education yet still pass through their classes.

The literature classroom may be suspect number one in this discussion.

Do we allow students to intellectually “opt-out” during activities, discussions, or assessments of reading? Can students earn good grades even if they have not read? This is the culture of fake reading.

To address this problem, we can focus on the book, the reading, and the reader.  In this post, I’ll share a case from my sophomore honors English class as an example of an instance where I’ve tried to design an assessment that encourages opting into deeper reading instead of trying to avoid it.

The book for the unit was Lord of the Flies, selected because I thought all of the students could read it with little scaffolding, its content related to a curricular unit on geography and season in literature, and it begs some interesting questions about human nature.

The reading was based on Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels approach. This means that:

  1. I introduced the novel, gave students a suggested reading schedule, and set a deadline for finishing the book.
  2. Students made responses throughout the book in the form of asking and proposing answers to their own questions. The topic of these questions was open-ended; they asked questions about topics of interest or connections to our work in class.
  3. We held off on discussing the book formally until students had read all of it. Which means that…
  4. During class, instead of stopping to dissect each chapter, we read supplemental nonfiction and poetry, and students did mini-projects to address literary elements from the book. One example was the character map, pictured below.

A character map created by four of my sophomore English students.

The readers had mixed reactions to the book but became more engaged for the final assessment. This was a mock trial in which William Golding was tried for libel against humanity. This activity that has been written about by other educators, including Jim Burke.

The assessment allowed students to practice these academic and social skills:

  • Collaborating with team members to solve a problem
  • Speaking like an expert in front of peers
  • Writing authentically

How this prevented “opt-out”

Students took roles as lawyers, the author, characters, or Enlightenment philosophers.  They prepared to ask or answer questions during the trial, so they had to anticipate the important moments in the book that lawyers might discuss.

Even if students had not fully engaged in their first draft reading of the book, they were compelled to revisit important parts of the text during their preparation.  Literacy teachers know that re-reading is a valuable strategy for a difficult text, so seeing this re-reading suggested to me that this assessment had value.

The results, teacher perspective

On the day of the trial, students were palpably nervous and excited.  We arranged the room to resemble a court, students read opening statements, and then the lawyers began calling witnesses to the stand.

As students answered unfamiliar questions, asked by their peers, about the novel, it became very clear to me which students had read the book and which hadn’t.

One of my main gripes with the focus on literary analysis in the high school ELA classrooms is that students are masters of completing the assignments without reading. For this assignment, though, students’ reading and comprehension of the text were both much more clear to me.

It’s harder to pretend that you’ve read a book when you are questioning every character about their motivations, asking a philosopher about his perspective on the plot, or acting as one of those aforementioned roles and interpreting the events of the novel.

The results, student perspective

I asked students to share the strengths and weaknesses of this assessment and to compare it to a typical project or test. Here is a selection of their responses:

One of the strengths in this type of assessment is that it allows a student to fully demonstrate their understanding of a book even if they lack knowing some parts.
we were not forced to stare at a paper for 55 minutes or a screen for 1 to 2 hours so it created a memorable experience where everyone was given an equal chance to speak and present their case and ideas. The strengths of a mock trial is that it is a different way of learning that is interactive which enhances an overall learning experience.
I feel like I prepared a lot more for the debate and was a lot more enthusiastic about the trial than I would be about a normal test or quiz.
For tests, many people memorize information but during the mock trial you had to understand the information to do well.
I feel that writing a paper on this topic would have been more effective because this would give each student a chance to share their ideas that they felt strongly about, but did not have a chance to express them when being asked questions right on the spot.
I feel that I learned more through the trial than if I would have written or paper or taken a test because the trial was not about merely restating what happened the book and analyzing its meaning, but rather about getting a full, deep understanding of the novel, and how there could be different interpretations of the text.

So, some students rightfully argued that they did not have as much of an open-ended opportunity to share their thinking about the text as they might have had if we wrote a paper on the novel. Other students suggested that the quality of the discussion of the book led to deeper learning than might have occurred otherwise.

The Takeaways

It was both a whole class reading of a novel and a whole class project, which doesn’t happen too often. Part of the benefits of a whole class text is the classroom community that it can help to build, and this project helped to further emphasize the community aspect of teaching the novel. It might be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this kind of whole class project if the students had not all read the same novel.

With that said, next time I’d like to integrate a choice reading aspect to this unit. Students could’ve researched and read articles that demonstrate both the good and bad of human nature. That could’ve been an ongoing task throughout the unit for non-fiction independent reading. This would provide more of a balanced literacy experience for the students.

In the closing of her article, Alexis Wiggins says the following:

“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.”

This experience reminds me that I should design student-centered assessments. Many students are working hard, so let’s have them work hard on things that matter.

The Three Part Lesson That Works with Every Text

Some of the best teaching is DRY.

“Dry” teaching? No, not your economics teachers with a hot overhead projector, blurry transparency, and squeaky vis-a-vis markers. Not that kind of dry.

DRY is an acronym in computer programming that stands for “don’t repeat yourself.” It is a reminder for programmers to write their code so that they do not type the same thing multiple times, but instead use variables and other abstractions to have the computer do more work for the programmer.  Think of making a photocopy as opposed to re-typing the same document from scratch every time you needed a new copy.

For teachers, the DRY concept can apply to the set of instructional strategies, lessons, or frameworks that work in a variety of contexts, with multiple texts, and for various objectives.

This post will share a DRY framework that has worked for me this year, with a narration of a lesson that actually happened, and another lesson that is hypothetical.

Three Levels of Thinking

One DRY lesson that works for me it is to lead students through a three-level reading of a text:

  • Literal (Summarizing key ideas)
  • Evaluative (Making observations and inferences)
  • Analytical (Making arguments and connections)


These levels of thinking seem to work with most texts, in most genres, with most students, as long as I’ve selected a text at an appropriate complexity level and of an engaging topic for students.

Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey offer three text-dependent questions that fit into these three levels of thinking. The questions are:

  • What does the text say? (Summarize it.)
  • How does the text work? (Discuss structure, style, word choice)
  • What does the text mean? (Analyze the argument, discuss the theme, make deep inferences)

[I often change the last question to “Why does the text matter?” to get students thinking about the “so what?” significance of our reading.]

These questions are simple but versatile, so I recommend giving them a try. Whether students are reading an independently chosen novel as part of your classroom culture of readers or if students are close reading a teacher-chosen excerpt for a timed writing, students can consider these questions and gain deeper understanding of their reading.

Fischer and Frey discuss this framework in an article on formative assessment, explaining the inextricable link between solid instructional frameworks and formative assessment plans:

“A formative assessment system is only as good as the instructional framework on which it rests. No formative assessment system can compensate for poor instruction. Neither does simply having an instructional framework ensure that students will learn; both a framework and a system are required.”

One of my favorite things about Fischer’s & Frey’s questions is that, with careful planning and practice, they are both a formative assessment system and an instructional plan. The possibilities for modeling, collaboration, independent practice and assessment are endless when applying the questions to specific texts and objectives.

Here’s a reading lesson from my academic (college prep) English class of 24 sophomore students.

A sample lesson

The students had come to a long aside in Act I of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller explores a character’s background and comments on the moral and political reasons for writing the play in these excerpts. These are dense readings, and often inaccessible for students. But, they are essential for making meaning of the play. So, I applied Fischer and Frey’s three levels of questioning to a lesson on an aside about Reverend Hale and the role of the devil in society.

1. Begin with the three questions displayed on the board.

What does the text say?

How does the text work?

Why does the text matter?

Me: Please copy each of these questions in your notebook. To the right of each question, explain, in 5 words or less, what the question is asking you to do. What mental task is required for you to answer the question?

Ask students to turn and talk to a partner, then generate possibilities as a whole class. Lastly, I reveal my ideas about the purpose of each question to help the class come to a consensus.

2. Me: So, in yesterday’s read aloud, we stopped right at a big, scary-looking set of paragraphs that interrupt the dialogue. This is, as we’ve discussed before, called an aside. Today we’re going to apply those three questions to this excerpt as means of understanding why Arthur Miller would interrupt our reading of the dialogue between characters with this huge chunk of information.

I distribute copies of the excerpt. On our initial read aloud, I ask students to mark any place in the text that catches their attention. No annotations, no underlines, just a check. Students turn and talk to a partner, then share as a whole class.

Me: So, ladies and gentleman, what did you notice?

[As students share, I’m thinking: Are they literal-level responses or are they more inferential and analytical level responses? This determines the pace of the lesson.]

Me: Ok, thank you to everyone who shared their reactions.

3. Me: So, before I can really discuss this passage, or make an argument about why Arthur Miller includes it, I have to understand it at a literal level. Take your colored pencil and follow along with me as I think aloud. I’m going to start by circling words and phrases that appear meaningful as I re-read the text.

I circle three to four phrases, explaining my choices aloud.  Choices include: “ascertain witchcraft,” “pondering the invisible world,” and “Lucifer’s many-faced lieutenants.” I paraphrase these statements in the margins, making comments like “he’s trying to find the witches,” “he spends time thinking about spirits and religion,” “he believes that the Devil has helpers.”

Students do the same with a partner, then share their choices with the whole class. Students pick out phrases including “view of cosmology,” “man’s worthlessness until redeemed,” and “God’s beard and the devil’s horns.” Students use their circled phrases to make some literal level annotations.

4. For this level of the lesson, we never get to the “you do it independently” level of gradual release, because I’d like to keep things more structured as students are gaining an understanding of the text.

With that said, this was the check for understanding:

Me:  So, you have 5-10 phrases circled. I’d like to check to see how well you can work together to make some meaning out of our annotations. Work with a partner, or at most two people, to write a one paragraph summary of the aside about Reverend Hale. Use at least 5 keywords and phrases in your summary.

5. To close, a few students share their summaries, and we compile a “master summary” together, using the ELMO.

In subsequent class periods, I reduced the teacher modeling and increased the collaborative and independent portions. Students analyzed Miller’s word choice and tone, and his use of plural first person to speak to the audience. Eventually, the class conducted short discussions about Miller’s reasoning for including this excerpt in the play. While not all students were precisely accurate, the depth of thinking, I’d argue, was possible because students gained a strong foundational understanding of the text through answering “What does the text say?” and working up from there.

It’s a framework, not a formula

In other situations, a complete reversal of the lesson above might make more sense. Let’s say, for example, that students read a poem that initially appears simple, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which I’ll reproduce below because it is in the public domain:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


For a close reading lesson on this poem, a more appropriate series of events might be to begin with the “you do” portion and gradually work towards the whole-class, teacher-led portion:

  1. Have students answer “What does the text say?” entirely independently, circling key words and writing a short summary.
  2. Ask students to collaborate with a partner and answer “How does the text work?” as they revisit the poem, perhaps with a new colored pencil, using brackets, arrows, circles and lines to make visible their thinking about the style and structure of the poem.
  3. Lastly I might pass out copies of these analyses of the poem, doing the “Why does the text matter?” question for the students, but allowing them to see models of the deeper thinking that a reader can do about a text.
  4. To bring the work back to a personal response to students, I might ask students to rank the interpretations on the photo copy on a scale based on how much they agree with the literary critics, then have the students justify their choice in writing or discussion.

The next step: Student-generated questions

The best questions in our classes are those asked by students, not the teacher. Jim Burke shares a “Types of Questions” handout in his book What’s the big idea?  And the three types of questions he suggests having students ask closely align with Fischer and Frey’s three levels of thinking for text-dependent questions.

Burke’s three questions are:

  • Factual questions: these are the questions that we can answer by pointing to a specific line in the text. (“What was Reverend Hale’s past experience with witchcraft?”)
  • Inductive questions: these require making inferences, and often rely on multiple pieces of evidence. (“What are Abigail’s motivations for her actions on page 46?”)
  • Analytical questions: these asks students to have a deep understand of a text, and connect ideas in the text to other texts or concepts. (“How is The Crucible timeless? How is it dated?”)

Notice that these are three very similar levels of thinking, but now students are doing a bit more of work, as they are required to ask and answer the questions.

The power in these lessons for me is in their elegance, in the scientific sense. They are simple solutions to the complex problem of how do we get kids to read a complex text?

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Holding students accountable in the way that works

As a high school freshman, I was woefully unprepared to meet the demands of my classes.  I think I had the intellectual abilities, but I did not have the necessary time management or organization strategies. School had been easy for me up to grade eight, and I entered grade nine with no thoughts about devoting more time, effort or planning to my work. A typical day involved me coming home from school and going out to a friend’s house, or staying up too late playing the guitar.  This left me finishing long papers and other projects late at night, which meant I was doing sub-par work.  My grades dropped from As to Cs.

The next year, I dropped out of two of my four honors classes, thinking that the course load was to blame. Fortunately, my English teacher Miss Kelly had a plan of her own to help me succeed: she asked my friend Nora, a student who was organized, forward thinking and is successful today because of it,  to help keep me on track. Nora talked to me about my school work, reminded me to finish assignments, and reviewed upcoming due dates.  I didn’t have a miraculous turn around, but this accountability system worked.  I’m grateful to Nora and Miss Kelly for their help, and I keep that story in mind when working with a student who seems to have the ability, but lacks the other skills required for academic success.

The ability to maintain focus, consistency and deliberate practice  is one of the Super Powers of the 21st Century (along with listening and mindfulness, in my opinion) that students must learn in order to be successful adults in our modern world.

If you read any of the bloggers who write about habits, like Leo Baubauta of Zen Habits or James Clear, you’ll know that they don’t just tout one common system for every person and every habit. If you want to lose weight, start meditating, read more, or improve a relationship, you have to find the accountability and motivation system that works best for your personality, history and environment.

Why, then, when trying to build a lifelong habit of reading with my students, should I expect every student to respond to the same accountability system? And are traditional grades the best accountability system for encouraging a habit in students? I argue that external motivators like grades are a temporary motivator at best, and that teachers must differentiate their accountability systems for students, just as we differentiate learning activities and assessments.

Why not just use grades?

Punitively grading students who don’t read is one option, but this external motivator is not likely to promote a long-term love of reading. It’s more likely to promote students lying, cheating or pretending to read, in order to get the grade. That’s not their fault, it’s ours. If we set extrinsic goals for reading, the students will use whatever methods they can to meet those goals. Intrinsic motivation is what I want for student readers, but it is much more difficult to cultivate. Not every approach will work for every kid.

What’s a potential solution?

Many teachers I’ve talked to would agree that differentiating instruction and varying the type of learning activities that take place in the classroom are generally good teaching practices, because different things work for different students. During this past year, I started to look more at my own practices for reminding myself to take certain actions and how I tried to maintain habits, and match those practices to students who would benefit.

A few options:

  • Some students like to set their own goals for pages or books that they’ll read in a week, month or marking period. Those students enjoy tracking their progress, monitoring themselves to get feedback, and honestly reflecting on how and if they met their goals.  The reading ladders system, often discussed by Teri Lessesne in Reading Ladders and Penny Kittle in Book Love, works well as an end of term assessment for students who use this approach.
  • Other students need consistent reminders and motivation, either from adult or else where. Daily conferencing might help these students stay on track.  I’ve also encouraged some students use the reminders on their phones as an alarm to remind them to read or bring their books to school.
  • Other students benefit from a social accountability measure–they need to know that others depending on them or will see the results of their work. Challenge these students to give a book talk by a specific date in order to reach these kids.

Teachers can helps students make consistent progress in the long term by explicitly teaching a variety of accountability methods, and when the assessment happens, some students will be more prepared because they’ve been putting in the effort thanks to their new way of staying on track. When I think about the times that individual students have succeeded in moving from non-readers to readers, it’s been the individualized approaches that have made the difference.

What implications does this have?

There’s a lot of buzz around personalized learning right now, and it’s often a tech-based conversation. But, if we ignore apps and devices, this is the original personalized learning: finding out what works for each individual student in front of me, and creating conditions where they can do hard work and succeed.

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Everything I learned while teaching English without grades

This post is brought to you, quite literally, by Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. The ideas in Hacking Assessment inspired me to try a feedback instead of grades policy in my freshmen English classes. If you read Starr’s book, you might not make a radical shift, but you’ll definitely learn A LOT about assessment. You can Get 50% off on Hacking Assessment here.

Why did I do this?

Here’s a story that’s embarrassing to tell. But, as Neil Gaiman says about writing, “the moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.” So, it’s a story I’ll tell:

The grading period was just about to end, and I had a stack of student essays about the play Inherit the Wind. After a quick pass through them, one thing became apparent to me: none of the students’ work surprised me. The students who typically did well in my class did well on this assignment. The students who had struggled all year long struggled on this assignment, too.

So, I looked at each student’s current average, and placed that grade on the top of the paper. For students who were on the threshold of two grades (the ol’ 89.9) I gave the student the grade that he or she needed in order to be bumped up. My face is getting red with embarrassment as I type this.

Now, there are two things that come out of this story for me:

  1. That was wrong to do.  That being said…
  2. The assignment, and my assessment practices, did not lead me to feel motivated to read the papers and see the student progress that has occurred. 

This leads us to where I am today. In three of my classes, which are three sections of freshmen academic English (think College Prep), I did not put a grade on a single assignment this year. No grades on pieces of writing, no grades on presentations, no graded homework and no graded formative assessments (that is something I will never go back to, as it is clear to me now that putting a number on a formative assessment removes any right that the assignment has to be called formative). Anyway, no grades.

The exception to this was the interim report and end of marking period times, when students receive a grade. I’ll get to how they get those grades later in this post.

How did I hear about this idea?

One day, scanning the Interwebs, I encountered a hashtag, #TTOG. It led me to scroll through more tweets, until a man named Mark Barnes mentioned something about a Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades.” Hmm, I thought. Interesting. Grading is my least favorite part of teaching, and it never feels meaningful to the learning process. So, in my effort to explore further, I checked it out.

Immediately, I knew I had found an important community. In this group were teachers committed to  student learning instead of numbers. The basic ethos of the group was that learning was difficult or impossible to measure, and that traditional grading systems hinder learning by putting the emphasis on symbols like letters, numbers and percentages instead of meaningful feedback loops. In theory, I think this is something that lots of teachers would agree with: Everyone seems to care more about grades than whatever it is they are getting grade on.

The deep realizationI came to after perusing posts in this group was that this required a radical change. This was not something you just do, like trying a new website or printing out an article for your students to read. This was a commitment, and one that that required deep planning, preparation and communication with everyone involved in the learning process of your classroom.

How did it start out?

The most important part of this process happened before I ever began it with my students. That was the conversations I had with administrators before the school year started. In order to make what some consider a radical shift in my classroom, it was important to communicate my plans and rationale with the administrators in my school, and to make sure that they understood that I had a plan, and I wasn’t simply trying to shirk on my responsibilities.

To prepare for this, I gathered all the research and planning I could and developed a proposal to share with my supervisor and building principal. Much of the ideas and structure of this proposal was inspired by a similar document that Starr Sackstein wrote for her school.  Here’s the document:

What did I do to prepare?

I was nervous about starting the year with this new policy. Of course, there were visions in my head of total parent and student mutiny. Teachers sometimes have a tendency to envision the worst case scenario when they are trying something new in the classroom. So, partially motivated by the fear of starting this new program, I set out to prepare myself.

The personal learning network (PLN) is an acronym that is often thrown around on social media. When I decided to make this change, my PLN became the go to resource for transforming the assessment policy of my classroom. Specifically, I’d like to thank a few people who shared their time and experiences with me:

  • Steve Fergusson, an English teacher in New Jersey and fellow TCNJ alum, who shared his experienced with a hybrid of traditional and standards-based grading. Talking to a teacher I already knew made this whole process feel doable.
  • Joy Kirr, who curates one of the most valuable educational resources on the Internet, her Live Binders, helped me both through her reflective blog posts (like this one) and through many interactions on Twitter.
  • Starr Sackstein talked to me on the phone about how to use a traditional online grading portal to implement a feedback instead of grades system. Again, I recommend reading her book, Hacking Assessment
  • Mark Barnes and the entire Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group answered many of my preliminary questions about how to go set up and sustain an English class without using traditional grades.
  • Farrah Krovoza, a middle-grades teacher in Hawaii, shared her experience with standards-based grading with me.

Sometimes, just following the ideas in a book and implementing them is good for personalized PD. But in this case, with so many questions to ask, being able to reach out to these people was so valuable. Thank you all.

How did it work?

I refined the process throughout the year until I came to three main components of the no grades classroom:

  • Portfolios

These were digital, and they allowed students to reflect on and gather their best work from the marking period and the end of the year. We used Google Drive and Google Classroom, so students could easily go back through the previous work they did and drag and drop their best work into a portfolio folder. For written work, students used the built in camera on their chromebooks to take a snapshot and add the photo to a Google Doc. That looked like the photo below. It wasn’t always the easiest text to read, but it provided a record that the students had done the work, and allowed me to follow up by reading the students paper work and talking to them about it in person.

  • Self-Assessments and reflections

At the end of each marking period, and often at the interim report time, students completed a self-assessment checklist based on the skills we had practiced during the recent quarter. Students reflected on questions about their best work and wrote about the areas that still needed improvement.

  • Conferences

While conferences happened nearly daily in the classroom as students read and wrote, the end of marking period conferences were focused specifically on students’ accomplishments during the marking period, and where they thought their work left them in terms of a final grade.

What were some of the struggles?

  1. The number one struggle of this system was having students complete assignments on time. I try to leverage intrinsic motivation and student choice as much as possible in my classroom by allowing students to read, write, research and speak about the topics that they care about in life. Still, at times I found students openly describing to me that they would do work for other classes first because they knew that those assignments would be graded the next day, and they were concerned with their numerical averages falling in those classes. Each teacher does what is best for his or her students, so I place no fault on other teachers. I need to  work on making this system function better within a school that, by and large, uses traditional assessment methods of points and averages.
  2. Another struggle was getting students to fully understand how the system changes the nature of the class. Primarily, it was difficult to get students to lose the fear of punitive grading. Even later in the year, some students would still ask if they would lose points for making a certain error in a writing assignment, or not demonstrating a certain public speaking skill during a pop-up debate (thanks, Dave Stuart Jr.)
  3. A practical, day-to-day challenge was figuring out what to put in the online gradebook. My students completed plenty of reading and writing activities, and I aligned these activities with the specific skills (standards) that we focused on in each marking period. So, I wrestled with the idea of putting the assignments in the gradebook and leaving feedback comments next to those assignments, or putting the standards/skills in the gradebook and leaving comments about how students were progress on those skills. This is something I’m still wrestling with.

What did students think?

I asked students to give feedback on the feedback instead of grades system on their final self-assessment survey. They answered these questions:

What do you think about the grading system used this year? Why? Be honest and specific.

Looking back, the question could’ve been posed better. I did use the word “grading” right in the question, because the students still view classes in terms of grades, and so asking them about the assessments or feedback in the class would’ve been less direct. Students understand that there are no grades on their assignments in this class. Their responses were predictably wide-ranging, and they were very valuable for how I might modify my plans moving forward. Here are some highlights (I focused on the extremes, both for and against the system:

This grading system was great. – -allowed me to worry about the work rather then the grade -less stress -gave me an end goal to strive for

I don’t like not physically seeing my grades. It makes me slack a lot. When I dont [sic] see a grade in I think that I have time to do the work later and then eventually all my work piles up and I don’t do most of it.

Honestly I loved it. I felt much more comfortable being graded on effort than being graded on completion. As a young writer who writes based off of feeling its so hard to write with rules. Its stressful knowing I’ll get a bad grade because I didn’t complete a 5 paragraph essay. Its not that I was procrastinating and didn’t get a chance to finish, but its because I put all my creative energy into writing 3 paragraphs and rather not have two crappy paragraphs chucked in there. This grading system was comforting and actually made me want to improve for myself rather than for a grade.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like not having individual grades for assignments because I couldn’t see my progress throughout the marking period. Seeing my progress helps me know how much I need to work on to improve my grade, but I couldn’t see that with this grading system.

At first, I absolutely hated it. But then after getting to know it. I realized it was a smart idea. It gives students abilities to grow and learn when they don’t understand something rather than doing poorly on it would give them at bad grade. I really wished all my other teachers used it.

The grade system was a new way to get grades. I thought it was a good way of going it. If we made a mistake we could just go back and fix it rather the teacher just giving us the first grade. It will help us learn from the mistakes and learn.

I felt that because of the grading not being directly on the grading form, this class didn’t seem that urgent. One, if u go on to grade portal, you don’t see a grade however, if you went on grade portal and saw an F (45%) instead, you would want to try harder in class. But I also understand the main goal of this system, its not so much about a straight forward grade, but its based on what each of us can do and how much we can improve ourselves.

What did this student feedback help me realize?

Some students never made the connection between feedback, improvement and learning. They still tie their progress only to a number. And, when there are other seven classes and all of the classes before this year have relied on numerical grades, this is understandable. Still, I take ownership of not explaining the system clearly enough to those students who thought that they couldn’t track their progress unless their work was numerically graded.

Some students fully realized the benefits of the system as I intended. They were able to “grow and learn” without focusing on grades and made them “want to improve for [themselves] rather than for a grade.”  When students mentioned that they had clear goals to strive for, were able to focus on reading and writing instead of stressing on grades, and were able to make mistakes without worrying about the punishment of a bad grade, it makes me think that the impact that this system had on those students makes it worth it.

What did parents think?

Overall, parent response was positive. I attribute this to the fact that I thoroughly explained my reasoning during back to school night, I shared my proposal letter with parents via email and I maintained opened communication with all parents who had questions about the system.

For the parents who were deeply involved in their children’s educations, my hope was that this system would allow parents to get a more clear sense of the actions their son or daughter could take to improve. Theoretically, it removes one step in the conversation about school work. So, instead of:

Mom: What’s your grade?

Kid: 75

Mom: Why?

Kid: I got a bad grade on a quiz.

Mom: What was the quiz about?

Kid: Angles.

Mom: How can you bring up your grade?

Kid: We have another quiz coming up next week.

Mom: What do you need to work on.

Kid: I’m not sure.

Ideally, it would go more like this:

Mom: I saw in the grade portal that your introductions are strong but you need better evidence in your essays, have you worked on revising?

Kid: Uhh, no… I guess I better get to work.

And of course, that is a utopian ideal, but the principle is hopefully clear: by putting feedback directly about student performance in the grade portal, it tells parents and students exactly how the student is doing, instead of using a symbol (letter or number) that must be interpreted.

What will I change for next time?

More in class conferencing and keeping records of in class conferencing. Record conferences notes in the grade portal as feedback, make audio comments of conferences.

Collect even more of what students create, so it can be used to demonstrate learning and be used as meaningful assessments for me and the students (record small-group discussions, have students capture their writing with cameras, take pictures of their independent reading books, etc.)

Use posters around the room to remind students of the skills that we are learning, refer to them more in conversation.

Make end of the year portfolios a bigger deal, follow more of the sage advice from Mr. Jim Mahoney and my colleeague, Mr. Erik Petrushun.

Overall, using a feedback instead of grades policy was the most informative, reflective  and yes, stressful, process I’ve undergone as a teacher. It was extremely rewarding, and I look forward to building on the system for next year.

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