Going Gradeless is not for the weak

After 30 years of teaching, something I never intended to do but absolutely fell in love with, the past 6 months have been a real adventure. At the beginning of this school year I decided to go Gradeless. Gradelessness is a movement that allows students to regain ownership of their education by literally removing the manipulation or forced compliance create by grades. You can read more on their blog, Teachers Going Gradeless (TG2). (https://medium.com/teachers-going-gradeless/teachers-going-gradeless-50d621c14cad)

Recently I assigned a task that required students to identify an issue in our Watershed and create a proposal to address it. For me it was an exercise in patience, coaxing and frustration. For them it was seemingly worse. There were missed deadlines, poor effort, excuses, complaints…Arghhh! So I posted my woes on this fantastic blog site. The responses were insightful, helpful and in their own way validating. You mean other teachers are facing his too? Really? All sarcasm aside, I needed this at that moment. But there was one post that really helped me to understand how this entire experience is merely another step along what I identified above as an adventure. It was a podcast from Aaron Blackwell on the Teachers Going Gradeless Blog.

The podcast was created for TG2 and moderated/presented by Aaron Blackwelder. In the podcast, he interviews author, Alfie Kohn, a respected antagonist of education’s obsession with grades and standardized testing. I’ll let you listen for yourself, but for me it was another “aha moment!” as I travel this path toward better student learning and student driven teaching. Here is the link: https://teachersgoinggradeless.com/2018/01/29/tg2cast-ep-6/

The podcast he did with Kohn focused on Student Motivation. It was enlightening in a couple of ways. First, as is usually the case in situations such as this, I wondered about “their motivations”. In reality, I should be looking at mine. To paraphrase Kohn, lack of student interest suggests that it is likely, the curriculum, the lesson or the relationships not the students. My second insight was Kohn’s recommendations of ways to change the classroom. In my classrooms, the relationships are good. I get the feedback to validate my belief here. But, Kohn suggests that their ‘motivations’ quickly change, for the better, when they have a stake in both the curriculum and the lesson. He further suggested that I ask them questions to help me and them understand their interest in the topic…though it might be questions I might not want to hear the answers to. In any case they should no more be expected to perform for my lessons anymore than they should simply perform for a grade.

As I get further into this journey, each old experience forces me to ask old questions with a new perspective. It’s very surprising to me that 30 years into this vocation, I still have so much to discover. If you aren’t ready to look inside your own motivations and practices, Gradelessness probably won’t work for you. But, if after 30 years you still want to do better by your students, this is the way to go. What an adventure. Thanks Aaron B.

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The Hard Reality of Racism – My Personal Wake up Call

“Anarchist!”

“You are such a rebel!”

“Why can’t you just jump through the hoops?”

“Why do you always have to create waves?”

“You are such a sh$# disturber!”

To each of these observations by loved ones and peers I have had to accept that they were true reflections of who I am. Who I have always been. I suppose I can’t really help myself. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I enjoy stirring things up. I enjoy helping others to be uncomfortable; to live outside of that proverbial comfort zone. But, this past week I got a taste of my own medicine.

On the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday I purposely chose to attend the Black Lives Matter March in Sacramento. I decided late Friday night and felt a bit uncomfortable with my decision. I instinctively knew that my dis-ease revolved around media reports from previous BLM events: the counter protests, the violence and the anger on both sides. I even dreamed about it that night, knowing full well that any potential negative was in the back of my mind. Even as I parked and headed toward the march’s meeting spot, I wondered what the day would hold for me.

Upon reaching the Safeway parking lot, I heard that the march was not permitted and that there would be no police escorts. That said, I understood that failure to secure a permit is its own protest about having to “get permission” to exercise the First Amendment Right to peacefully protest. And from the very agencies that are viewed as the root of racism and bigotry against people of color. Anyway, I felt comfortable that the march was well organized as we headed down Capitol Avenue on our way to the steps of the state Capitol. Imagine my surprise when we began the march north on Alhambra and then west on J Street…a one way street! And we were going to march against traffic. My anxiety was up and I was a bit wary about what I had gotten myself into. Once we started I got my mojo and fully embraced the march, the rationale and the actions that were taken. I allowed myself to trust the organizers, trust the participants and trust the process. In other words, to trust what Black people, specifically what Black women can do!

I tell this story only to highlight the inherent prejudice that someone, as liberal as me, can harbor inside, and not even recognize it.

A friend, Maureen Wanket, addressed such ingrained prejudice in a post.(http://maureenolearyauthor.com/2017/09/07/to-my-white-sisters-so-the-tina-fey-thing/ ) And as I re-read her post and aligned it with my thinking before the BLM march, I recognized just how little any non-Black person actually gets it. How a brown/biracial/feminist/pro LGBTQ man can still harbor insecurities about Black people. What I actually recognized was that I have my own personal work to do.

I suppose that I can feel some satisfaction in knowing that recognizing my faults is the first step in addressing and changing them. Now comes the tough part: fixing them.

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It’s Time We Hold Accountability Accountable

Teaching will never be measurable in the sense of “accounting”. It is an art as much as a science and the more we attempt to quantify it, the less likely we are to allow teachers to practice the art of it.

Teachers Going Gradeless

The maxim “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (oftenmisattributed to Peter Drucker) sums up the continued belief in the necessity and power of accountability. A lack of accountability is seen as a sure path to lawlessness, indolence, and corruption. We don’t trust people who are unwilling, unprepared, or otherwise unable to render an account.

As a high school language arts teacher who is increasingly “going gradeless” in his teaching practice, I find that I am often left with few “measures” of student learning and growth. In its place, we have a lot of feedback — mostly verbal — and not the kind that fits easily (or at all, really) within the neat grids of a traditional gradebook. Although I still give the occasional quiz (always with the option to retake), this approach has largely disrupted the traditional economy of completing assignments in exchange for points. Since I…

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Post Weinstein America

In a post-Weinstein America, it is amazing the speed at which prominent and powerful men are falling to accusations of abuse, harassment and other misogynistic behaviors.  But, it is not only the men that will fall.

This recent story about Andrea Ramsey actually caused me to pause and remember a situation that occurred to me back in 2001.  It forced me to think about a time when I was harassed by a superior, who by the way was a woman. It did not move me to report or retaliate or even open up any more than I did above. Which is exactly my point: inappropriate behavior is, well, inappropriate,  no matter which gender, race or age the offender. What inspired me to blog was the realization that I would not take my claim any further than I already have.  The reminder came when I recently received word that the individual was retiring after a long and illustrious career. I never felt physically threatened, but I did worry that my repeated brush offs would result in professional consequences.

Thankfully I was able to move on without any ramifications to my reputation or professional aspirations.  Which I suppose is the REAL point here. Women don’t have that luxury.  If and when they report, their reputations, qualifications and motives are always questioned. Women will always have to validate, source and otherwise prove their accusations.  I am in no way advocating that men should be deemed guilty simply by accusation, although that is what it seems to be at this juncture.  But, after eons of women having to accept as ‘normal’ this boorish, disrespectful and often violent behavior, the pendulum has to swing back.

One other thought…although with less frequency and in most cases less effect, women can also be the abuser, the harasser, the perpetrator.  It is no less traumatizing to the victim be they female or male.  The issue is power and influence.  As such, it needs to be called out whether the perpetrator is male, female, Black, White, young or old.  The entire system needs an overhaul.

#METOO Harassment

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Not All Men

I needed this reminder. I needed to know that wondering about past behaviors, worrying about past behaviors, knowing that there were times being male was excuse enough and now…soul searching. Being harassed made me more aware but did it actually change me? Thanks for the food for thought Ms. Maureen.

Maureen O'Leary

This is not about workplace harassment.

This is not about the who man felt up my bare knee under the table during a meeting at work. This is not about the time he sat on me at another meeting, giggling as he crushed me with his body.

Neither is this about the time I blocked a colleague I hardly knew on social media after he sent me suggestive messages and a picture. I ignored his dozens of notifications until finally he flipped out and sent a series of vicious emails berating me for, among other things, my bad online etiquette.

I have more stories about these and other men who interrupted my right to earn in peace. We all do. Almost every woman I know has dealt with weird men who have crossed one basic common sense and decency boundary after another.

But this post is not about the creeps…

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Test Anxiety in the Age of Gradelessness

As we move closer to semester finals, I find myself doubting my ability to assess each student fairly based on a semester final.  Our school mandates a semester final and after having dived into the world of Gradelessness I find myself getting more and more anxious; more and more unsure that what I am doing is the right path. Continue reading

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Another Week in the Life of the iPad Pilot

So,  I’ve finished my second full week of integration and it’s going…well, it’s going. There are definitely unexpected challenges that have crept up.  Although I am doing more with my students, I am beginning to feel that that the iPad is better as a learning tool rather than as a teaching tool.  Sites I am attempting to use aren’t fully integrated or compatible with the iOS or with the iPad platform.  The kids have been great, but I am finding that they are not really that tech savvy.  It truly been been a learning process for me.

Like the students, I love having the iPad.  It has helped me to be more organized, it’s helped me to be more mobile and it’s helped me to be a lot more efficient in terms of finding resources for the students and me to use. MentorMob, a collaboration website was my first true foray into collaboration and while it was useful as an exercise, it also showed the difficulty with collaboration, open source and relying too heavily on the technology.  Although I instinctively knew this going in, use of technology has to be a blend of the old and the new.  I am finding that while I can really teach students a lot about smart use of the web, it’s not a great tool for actually DOING chemistry. Chemistry is best done in the lab with the iPad supporting the learning through on-line support activities like tutorial websites, or playlists such as those created by students on the MentorMob website. Computational programs are good and helpful, but for first-year chemistry students nothing can replace the hands-on labs that we do during each week.

Other ‘findings’ suggest that the students can and will check email, blogs or web pages IF and only IF they know that failure to do so will result in a lower grade.  Calendar Alerts have helped dramatically since the alerts are sent directly to the iPad.  The chimes and physical alerts work.  But, the real truth is that students are still enamored with and excited about having an iPad and are thus “showing” off their new toys.  I’m okay with that, but also wondering what will happen over the long haul when the ‘newness’ wears off and they don’t feel special any longer?

Another positive seems to be that the students like to take notes on the iPad both during class and while doing homework.  They are also requesting to load apps that they believe will assist them with their productivity and/or organization.  In most cases, I have allowed them to do this after checking the app myself. It seems that they are being thoughtful and discreet as they seek ways to help themselves as learners.

My final observation is that the students enjoy the social part of using the iPad.  This is good in as much as it taps a strength that we all know that they have.  In some cases, the socializing has been through FaceTime or chatting.  But they are also chatting about assignments and class-related stuff.  This is good.  FB, along with other social media and social tools can be helpful and at least in early phases of this pilot, are proving to be helpful as students contact me and each other about class-related stuff.

Last words…in the early discussions, Jesse, our Tech Guru shared his insights comparing iPads and Google Chrombooks.  He suggested that the iPads were better for learning input while the Chromeboks were seemingly better for learning output.  After two weeks and a few days I am beginning to see the wisdom of his insights.  We’ve got a ways to go and I look forward to the continued challenges as well as to the new things that we will learn.

Until next week…

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And we’re off…

Although I am posting this after the fact, I want  to share a few words about that first day…

Wow!

Christmas!

Hectic!

Finally, thank God for Jesse and IT.

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IPad pilot – A new way of thinking and a new way of teaching

Unlike my colleagues, I had only three days to trial the iPad with my students before they left for break. Having rolled out the pilot with my chemistry students I left on a four day senior retreat. Although I left an iPad-based assignment in my absence, the project was not totally successful. There were too many tech issues that needed to be addressed before downloading could begin. Issues such as apple ids and variations in tech ability, newness and excitement were all obstacles in my absence.

That said, when I returned, the students gave me honest assessment and together and with Jesse, we overcame the login issue and on the second day we were able to load iTunes U and get started.

On day three I worked with my students to load all of the necessary apps that would allow them to work, experiment and play during our Easter break. I jumped the gun a bit and I allowed them to take the devices home one day earlier to do an assignment and to make sure that they could affectively use them at home.

When they returned on Thursday, several came to ‘check in’ and to ask if they “needed to turn them in or keep them for the day?”

With only a few days under my belt, I have to agree with Michael that it has changed my way of thinking about and doing my planning. I find it difficult to let go of my old ways, but I keep searching for new things that will help me reach the students. Some of the videos I asked them to watch seem to have helped in their understanding. While other activities have flopped. I guess that one of the cool things is that students are actually coming to me to let me know what is good and not so good, helpful and not so helpful. They are offering suggestions for activities and apps and communicating…messaging….with each other.

I like that they are engaged, but like Michael I wonder if the distraction will be too much.

Mostly, I am excited because it has given me a new tool in my arsenal of teaching tools. Will it be a Panacea? I doubt it, but if it reengages at least one underachieving student in this class, then it will have been worth it.

One last thought about the pilot…it is a lot of work to form new plans that integrate the technology into the one class while having to prep others. Like any new method or practice it takes time and effort. While I am glad I was given the opportunity, it has been a lot of work and it has taken a lot of personal time. My sincere hope is that the time we spent organizing and testing will pay off for our colleagues in terms of shorter learning curves and easier implementation when and if we go full school implementation.

Peace.

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Americans: a steep,learning curve when dealing with the rest of the world

Americans: a steep,learning curve when dealing with the rest of the world.

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