Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How Transparent Are You? Creating Student Advocates

As people, we do not like being told "no" or ordered to do something without understanding the "why" behind it. In fact, one sure fire to kill any initiative, program, or procedure is to mandate it. When we are told we are required to do something, no matter what it is, we push back, drag our feet, become apathetic, complain, or throw up as many obstacles as possible to prevent success of the mandated practice.

As teachers, we know this about ourselves, yet so often we do this to our students. We assign a project, centers, or activities. We explain/demonstrate/model all of the instructions and then send students on their way. Our students exhibit different levels of engagement and motivation. Often behavior problems arise. We've designed amazing things for our students' learning. Why aren't students actively engaged and thrilled to be learning? Because we left out the most important element, we didn't share the "why." They need to understand why we make the choices that we make our classrooms. They need to understand the complexity that is involved in all of the choices that we make for them. Learners must understand that although a particular activity may not be their favorite, there is a legitimate reason why they are dedicating time in that endeavor.

Last year, I had an intern for the second semester. Having her join our learning community helped me to see our practices with new eyes. After a week in our classroom, my intern was having a conversation with one of her professors. As they talked during our prep time, I was working on providing students with feedback on some of their writing. My ears perked up when she told her professor that she was in amazement at the terminology that the students had when talking about their learning. She explained that my learners use terms like schema, cognition, mastery, standard, learning style, in addition to explaining how the brain learns. The professor commented that she had never thought of sharing the "why" behind all of the choices made in the classroom with the students, but she could see how powerful it was for them.

This result only happens when we become transparent for our students; sometimes it can even be scary. Being transparent makes you re-think every choice you make because you are going to have to justify it with your students. They come to expect it...which they should. If we can't justify or defend the choices we are making with our students, we probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place. Our learners need to see us critically analyze challenges, draw from our knowledge, reach out to others to deepen our understanding, and apply what we know/what we've learned to solve problems. Our example is more powerful than just our words.

The fact is that our students will not be with us forever. We will not always be there to advocate for them. Learners need this knowledge because they need to become their own advocates for their learning. They need the tools to successfully communicate with educators and other adults how they learn best. They need to be equipped with the terminology and research to argue for the types of learning experiences that they need to get the most out of their education. Are we only equipping for success in our classrooms, or for a lifetime of learning? Like the old proverb, if we give a child a fish, he will eat for a day, but if we teach him how to fish. he will eat for a lifetime. It's time to hand our students that fishing line send them out well-equipped for a lifetime.

photo credit: Avatarmin via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All Rubrics Are Not Created Equal

Over the last several years, I have been contemplating the role of assessment in our classroom. In Let Them Assess, I shared where our journey began. I shared one of our first student-created rubrics. It's simple, but (at the time) effective. However, one thing that bothered me with the rubric was how subjective they would be. Yes, I would have my students score one another, justifying any score they would give their peers. However, my students became so adept at justifying (and debating) their choices, they could argue two sides of any one claim. That's when I realized that we needed to take the time to re-evaluate our rubrics. Were they truly and deeply measuring what my students were mastering? Or, were they so vague that they were open to the scorer's personal opinion? Were students being scored accurately in a way that showed mastery of standards? Or, were entities that are not standards being thrown into a grade?

With these questions mulling around,  I knew I needed to rethink how we made rubrics. I knew that I still wanted the students to have a voice in designing, creating, publishing and assessing their own writing. I began collecting rubrics from many other teachers in different grade levels, content areas, and geographic locations. I noticed that some teachers, like us, were including elements on the rubric that had nothing to do with mastery of standards. Previously, we always included a category that included the digital aspect of the project. By that, I mean things like balancing music and voice in an audio recording or including visuals to support the writing.  As I engaged with these other educators, I realized that these elements (plus things like neatness or putting a heading on your paper) fell under a different category. Although those elements played a role in the effectiveness of a published project, they did not prove mastery of a standard (see Your learners are masters of...?).  Therefore, my students and I began creating a list of project expectations that accompany the rubric. These are elements that every student expects not only of themself, but also all of their peers in their projects. These expectations specify what the norms are for each project. From this point forward, we no longer included non-standard items in rubrics.

Another realization that I had when analyzing rubrics was that so many rubrics (even graduate level) included non-specified terms such as partially, good, few, some, generally, effectively, or clearly. What determines if something is effective or ineffective? What determines whether a student reaches partial mastery? These vague terms are what opens rubrics up to subjective scoring. Each person has a different idea of what those terms mean. Rubrics should not be scored against an ideal that one scorer may have. These items must include measurable determiners. There should be no question in one's mind as to whether a learner has proven a mastery at  a level of 3 or 4 because the rubric eliminates that personal judgment.

When my students and I started creating rubrics that were clear, specific, and measurable, my  students struggled. They kept wanting to revert to past practices. "It's easier the way we were doing it before," they said. So I asked them why a rubric needed to be measurable.  After a lot of probing questions (and almost an entire class period), one student quietly shared that having everything measurable seemed more fair because "you didn't have to worry whether or not you had done enough; you knew."

Then another challenge presented itself. The standards were so broad, it was extremely challenging to create measurable determiners and all of the variations that there could be at each level of mastery. We realized that we needed to break down the standards into clear measurable parts. Below is a rubric where we have broken down one standard.

This standards had three different elements. Therefore, we broke it down into three measurable pieces. The students decides what determines what constitutes a 4, 3, 2, or 1. This may vary from project to project depending on the project complexity and length. We now do this with each standard that the students are working on to reach mastery. Does it take time? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Immensely! These rubrics take the guess work out of scoring projects. The students created the rubric. They broke down the standards. They decided what each level on the rubric means. They set expectations for each project. There are no surprises anymore. They students know what is expected, they know what mastery looks like, and they know how to communicate that to others.

My work on assessment is an ever changing one. What we are doing today may very well change next month or next year as my students and I explore different ways of communicating learning to others. However, one thing that I stand firm on is the importance of giving students ownership over every aspect of the learning process. This is their learning journey, not ours. It is our obligation to guide and turn the responsibility of learning over to our students. We will only be with them for a short time; they need the tools to communicate and guide their own growth beyond the few months that they are in our classrooms. We not preparing them for a test or the next grade level. We are preparing them for a lifetime of learning, growing, and sharing with others.