Sunday, July 5, 2015

Learn Like a PIRATE: Focus on Improvements NOT Grades!

Today, I continue my reflections on my reading of Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz.  This section on grades hit home with me for many reasons.  Grades and report cards have always been something that I struggled with.  With an emphasis on standards-based learning, active learning, performance assessment, rubric scoring tools, and student-led learning, traditional grading practices seem to conflict.  It is often very difficult to translate progress and performance into a percentage grade or letter grade.  In the primary grades, it is a little easier than the intermediate and secondary levels, as many districts have made the change to standards-based report cards.  Plus, many times, grade reporting in K-2 uses a system of O,S,U, I  (outstanding, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, needs improvement).  If your classroom relies heavily on tests, quizzes, and grading mountains of papers, this section will challenge you and really grow you as a teacher!

The gist of this section is summed up by Solarz:

Start by downplaying grades and placing priority on personal improvement- shift the focus from external motivation to internal improvement.    (p.80)

This is easier said than done, yet it is something that I completely agree with!  When students focus on improvement instead of grades, they are being pushed toward growth in an intrinsic manner.  When using portfolio assessment, performance assessment, and active learning, feedback from the teacher is crucial.  When students are put in charge of their learning, the teacher has the freedom to observe students and to provide timely, on-the spot feedback.  This feedback is much more effective in the learning process than a letter grade.  I can get "inside" a student's head and gain valuable insight into their thinking processes.

Whether I am in the classroom or leading an intervention group, keeping anecdotal records from my student observations  (i.e., "kid-watching") is a big part of my routine.  This allows me to give specific feedback to the student and to their teacher if they are in an intervention group.  An "A" or a 75% on a reading comprehension test does not communicate much to the student or to the teacher.  If instead, I can report that a student had an easy time retelling the story, but struggled with identifying the theme and did not reread, that is more specific feedback. After talking with this student, I can offer suggestions and active reading strategies that they can use to help them dig a little deeper into the story.  I can identify misconceptions and help them clarify their thinking.

Solarz comments that he does not give many tests or quizzes in his fifth grade classroom.  They don't receive grades on any of their work or projects.  He does give constant feedback to students as they are working.  Again, this is similar to my language arts classroom, as I do not give many tests either.  Grammar tests?  No! Spelling tests?  No!  These can be assessed more effectively and authentically through the child's writing.  However, I do use rubrics, "spec. sheets" (specification sheets) checklists, written and verbal feedback.  I conference with students, both formally and informally, and use my anecdotal notes to communicate progress, strengths, and areas for improvement to students and parents.  But, the report card is always there, looming in the distance. I have to give a grade. So, many times, my rubric scores are correlated with a letter or percentage grade.  But, this reporting system has always seemed contrived, inflated, and just a plain, old inaccurate picture of student learning.

One big question that I had as I read and reflected on this chapter is how the author determines grades for the report card if he rarely grades student work.  Again, I agree with the philosophy that my time is better spent conferring, observing, and providing feedback to students rather than grading mountains of paperwork.  However, figuring out how to do this when required to give a grade is the tricky part.

Solarz spends a good amount of time discussing how he uses ePortfolios in his classroom. Much like a "hard copy" portfolio, this learning and assessment tool allows for student goal setting, reflection, and a peek into student growth and improvement, Couple this with Blended Learning or Quasi-Blended Learning, and you have a recipe for effective synthesis of learning.  The portfolio showcases student work and contains "evidence" of growth over time, "snapshots" of student learning.  Although his classroom is pretty much paperless, I have yet to make the move to digital portfolios.  I still prefer to have a hard copy of the work my students do that is kept in a file or folder.  I still see great worth in having students physically leaf through their writings, graphic organizers, and notes, sorting papers by subject area, their "best" work from the marking period, or sorting by standard. Plus, primary students would greatly struggle with typing all their work on the computer.  In any case, I agree with the author that portfolios are "...more effective than worksheets or quizzes for getting children to synthesize the information they learned"  (p.90).

In the primary classroom, portfolios, anecdotal records, feedback, and focusing on constant improvement is one way to create life-long learners without the frustration that traditional grades often bring.

"In our class, we don't care much about grades.  We don't care much about who's better than whom.  We care about working together to become the strongest "Me" we can each become"  (p.97)

Yes!  This is what it is all about in the student-led classroom! Grades are confining and many times do not accurately represent a child's learning. 

 Now more than ever we need a report card that allows teachers to communicate student learning, improvement, and growth.  

What do you think?  Does your reporting system mesh with your classroom practices?  Do you have an alternate suggestion for replacing the report card?

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