Recently, on a day in the computer lab with my Humanities 8 students, I went about delivering my usual shtick as to what they could do when they were finished their work. But on this day, I had something a bit more special in mind for those kids who were done early. They could read their novels, work on annotations, and if they still required busy work, they could use the time to go back to old work and consider some of the recent feedback from summative assessments. In my thoughtful planning, this opportunity was not just any opportunity, but a WONDERFUL opportunity for growth and development of the curricular competencies. I was excited to receive revamps and redoes. I expected a copious number of students to beg me to run to their lockers to grab their textbooks, or head to the library for extra time to do research. I was so pumped! What a great teacher I was.
Several students finished all their work and had plenty of free time. I figure there was anywhere between five to eight kids in each class. Of those students, can you imagine how many went for the redoes and revamps?
Zero. Zilch. No one.
I was flabbergasted. I was floored.
So, I stopped the class and explained to them that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I added, how they use feedback would ultimately help determine their final letter grade in June…
What was I thinking? I felt sick as the words left my lips. What had I done? I just dangled the grade carrot in a gradeless classroom. I’m gradeless for heaven’s sake! It was a tragic moment in every sense of the word. Not only did it go against my assessment pedagogy, it also didn’t sell it to those kids with the time on their hands (because grades aren’t good motivators). They asked if they could go get their Science. They asked if they could read ahead. Not a single student wanted to revamp or redo old work. Well, well, well. That did not go as planned.
There was a major flaw in my argument. I knew it. The kids knew it. But, I let it go. I let it evaporate into the air around me.
The following weekend, while I was assessing some new assignments, I put my assessment for learning, descriptive feedback finesse into action as I normally would. I explained how they met the target. I added stretches and challenges, even for the folks who were at Extending. Just as I was about to tuck it into my handout folder and plan my next lesson, I took pause at the feedback on that assignment, and thought to myself, who is this feedback for?
Assessment for learning is for the teacher and the learner. Feedback, as in feedback without numbers or percentages or letter grades or deleterious rubrics, gives teachers information and next steps. This same feedback gives students the drive and encouragement to trudge onward and upward. So, then, why would I tuck this lovely feedback into a file folder or portfolio for safe keeping, when it belongs back in the hands of the students to use that feedback? It was Tom Schimmer who recently remarked on Twitter that, “Reassessment doesn’t have to mean duplicating every assessment. When assessments are examined through the lens of standards (vs. tasks) reassessment often naturally occurs thru the learning progression; we just need to reconcile the new evidence vs the old.”
Feedback must be clear and descriptive. It must be timely, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must burn the midnight oil to get it back into students’ hands the next day. It must involve giving students time to level up on the learning scale, to move forward on the learning progression.
The next day, I set aside an entire block for students to refocus, relearn, and revamp their assignments. It wasn’t on my agenda to add this time in, but I did it anyways. We returned to the competency and re-examined how the students and I unpacked it (yup, I get the kids to break down the competency…it’s how they understand it.) Every single student took the time and made sense of the feedback. They asked questions about the feedback. They collaborated with their peers. They acknowledged their flaws and worked on rebuilding this learning piece. They needed another day, so I set aside the next day as well. They worked hard in class in that time. Not a single student questioned my methods. Not a single student asked for their mark. Not a single student asked if they could do Science or read ahead instead. I felt I had redeemed myself and my grade book hummed with learning scale gains.
The allotment of time is not a novel or modern concept. I had given that time many times before, but I got caught up in my firm timeline. I was in a hurry to get to the new learning when I really wasn’t satisfied with the previous learning.
The flaw in my argument, back in the computer lab, was not just about letter grades (that was a pretty pathetic blunder on my part), it was about time. And I won’t make that same mistake again.
If we want students to move forward and become successful on their learning paths, we must be prepared to sacrifice the time to do so. We cannot expect to complete lesson 21 that is usually done in the first week of December just because we’ve always done lesson 21 in the first week of December, when students are still struggling with the skills from lesson 15. Learning is a continuum. Chuck out the calendar! The new curriculum isn’t about trying to wrestle with as many of the curricular competencies as we can, it’s about moving kids through them with the goal of mastery or proficiency in mind. I would rather skip a novel or a unit of history if it means that students will develop their skills in a fluid, unconfined way. It should be about quality, not quantity.
Also, I’ve learned that students cannot be expected to jump at further learning opportunities of their own free will. It takes training. It takes guidance. It takes practice to learn perseverance, personal responsibility, and diligence. We should give students time, in class, to improve. Don’t just expect students to suddenly develop the desire to improve. Then, we need to allow that improvement to count, right then and there, in the moment. Too often teachers give kids the opportunities to correct errors and then force them back into a high stakes test situation to prove they got it. Why? Students should be allowed to show their learning when they’ve learned it.
Time can be a challenge for teachers. We can get caught up in the rhythm and security of a reliable timeline and strategically focused and planned binder of lessons and assignments. This is old school thinking. We are in the 21st century. Kids need variety. They need opportunities to try and fail. We need to start properly unpacking the curricular competencies, focus on the skills the depict, use backwards design (Check out Shelley Moore’s Five Moore Minutes segment, “Napoleon Schmoleon – What is the GOAL!?”), and give multiple opportunities for growth. We need to accept that there are many ways and modalities to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. Our new teachers have known no other curriculum but the new one. When we started out, we had to collaborate with fellow teachers and develop a repertoire of bits and pieces. A new curriculum doesn’t mean that we can try to retrofit our old methods into the new. Some of our great ones will fit because we have been doing so much amazing work, but for many competencies, we need to head back to the old drawing board and rethink how we use time.
I’m best friends with my old drawing board. It’s a good thing. I’m at it a lot.