Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Let's Talk About Rubrics

One thing I love about the teaching profession is that we are always constantly learning, growing, trying new things...all in the process of becoming better. This is true whether it's your first year and you're improving from the first month of school to the second and it's true if you're a veteran teacher who decides to try something different to "shake things up." There is always an opportunity to learn and improve.

One thing I am learning more and more as I keep going is how important it is to have clear expectations. Now, it's not that I didn't know that I needed that when I started, but I keep learning that what I think is "clear" doesn't necessarily translate that way to my 7th and 8th grade students. I find that they ALWAYS do better when I am as simply specific as possible with my expectations.

Don't let that fool you. I didn't say I lower my expectations.

I simplify my explanation of the expectations so that it is as clear as possible.

I am constantly getting better at this.

And one of my favorite examples is with my rubrics.

I am a FIRM believer in having rubrics to score students on. Nothing is more frustrating for a student to receive a score on a project or assignment and not have a clear picture as to why they were given that score. So when I'm making and using rubrics in my classroom, I'm always keeping in mind this #1 major rule...

As the teacher...the person setting the expectation...I will NOT take off points if it's not listed on the rubric.

I just don't feel like it's ethical for me to hand out a lower grade to a student for something that wasn't mentioned in the expectations. This means at times, when I'm doing a brand new project or assignment, I have left off something that I should have graded on. Opps. My bad. I don't just "make it up on the spot." I write it down for something to add to the rubric next year. This year's kids get a pass on that issue.

Having this #1 rule has also lead me to having a variety of rubrics in the past. I started with using something sort of a scale (one of my favorite versions from my college methods class). It looks like this.

Then after about 5 years of teaching, our curriculum director challenged me to paint a truer picture of what the students would get by using the traditional 5-3-1 chart rubric. This would give clear expectations as to what a "5" score would get, what a "3" score and below. I liked it. It allowed me to give VERY DETAILED lists of what I expected and what the students needed to do to achieve a specific score. Here is an example...

BUT... I discovered something. A problem that many teachers seem to face. The kids DON'T USE THE RUBRIC. If I'm lucky...they glance at it right before turning in the project. Only a handful of the students actually spend the time using the rubric to guide themselves through the project. I found that those detailed 5-3-1 charts were almost TOO DETAILED.

Too detailed? How can something have too much detail. Well...if you're 12-14 years old (or older or younger) you get overwhelmed with having to look at too much.

I do still use the 5-3-1 rubric with my students, primary with their written responses. I try to make it as specfic as possible with little clutter. This is an example of my writing rubric (from a non-ELA teacher trying to score content primarily.

I've been on a recent mission to give kids a rubric that tells them the requirements, gives them the information they need to know with as few words as possible. This next example is one of my recent favorites and I've found myself using this as a template more and more.

And finally, sometimes I want a rubric that is as generic as possible, but allows me the freedom to provide comments and feedback for the reasoning of the score. I stole this idea on Twitter (I can't remember the original poster...so if it was you, thank you!)

Sometimes creating the perfect rubric for a project takes a lot of research about rubrics and what you're trying to achieve, and what you want your students to achieve. These are just examples of some of my favorites. I still use all of these types of rubrics depending on the assignment or project. Don't hesitate to steal anything from this blog post or contact me to talk more about it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Projects: Mid-Point Status Check

Confession. Once upon a time, in the early days of my teaching, I use to assign a project when I need time to "catch up."

I would create some kind of project, usually that involved drawing/illustrating something, that could take 2-3 days, just so the kids would leave me alone and I could sit at my desk and grade papers, send emails, and take care of other "things" that always seem to pop up.

I am now older and wiser...

Today I proved just that.

My 8th graders are in full swing of their archaeology dig project. This is a long-term project that ends with the students presenting their findings to a team of judges. With this project there are LOTS of "real life" lessons to be learned. Teams create a working contract, use resources provided to them, make daily goals, keep track of the work they do, and are tasked with trying to develop self-management skills.

Self-management skills are H-A-R-D for 14 year old students to develop. There are so many things that can distract them from accomplishing their goals. But it is a skill that we must develop. So I sort of "leave them alone" so they can figure it out. For a bit...

Other than checking in with a simple...how are things going as I make "rounds" around the room, I try to give them some space to figure out their roles, a timeline for progress, and using the resources I provide them. Some teams and students are good at this. Most aren't. I let them try to figure it out, I let them struggle a bit...but I'm not going to let them fail the project because they were going off in the wrong direction. Most groups need a redirect, and they got that today.

Today we had a mid-point "status check." I went around and had a little meeting with each group. In this meeting we discussed their progress so far. If they were behind, I gave them tips on how to divide the work to make up for some of that loss time. If they were missing key requirements, I shed light on that. If they need some formatting tips, I show them some things they can do to help the "look" of their presentation.

The most impressive group of the day! TWO THUMBS UP!

Talk about VALUABLE time spent! So much progress was made today by each group. Some realized they hadn't been following the instructions at all, some saw simple things they could do to improve, others asked questions they've been "thinking" but felt silly coming to me to ask.

Now that I am older and wiser, my projects are much more in-depth and require higher thinking skills. This means that I can no longer just sit at my desk and catch up on paper-work. I have to be moving around, involved with their progress, observing, guiding...but still allowing them to develop. It's a process, and one I'm still improving on everyday.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflection: A Skill Worth Teaching

I have talked in previous posts, how important it is for teachers to reflect on their teaching in order to grow and become better. I have talked about how hard it can be to take a really good honest look at ourselves and where we might need to improve. I have become passionate about reflecting on what I do and helping spread the message to others. 

But I've been leaving out a very important group of people. 

My students. 

It's the first day with my 8th graders since I entered their project grades they completed last week. They decorated and then dedicated ceiling tiles to my classroom. The grades were low. Overall the kids didn't come close to the expectations I had set. I set high expectations. I kept telling them, that in order to get an A they were going to have to go above and beyond. It was going to have to knock my socks off for what I would expect an 8th grader to do. And for the most part, they didn't.

They were coming in today, and I felt like I couldn't just continue with class as normal. I have kids who are straight A students getting C's and D's on this project. They needed to debrief. They needed to be taught how to reflect so they can learn and GROW from this first misstep.

I have been reading a book by Jimmy Casas, Culturize, as part of a faculty book study. Yesterday I was reading  when it was talking about how important it is to have high expectations of kids. I felt like this part of the book was talking directly to me and this project with my 8th graders. I'm NOT going to lower my expectations because they fell short the first time out...but I can't just let them flounder.

Here's what I did. 

I wrote a paraphrased version of the quote from the book that "spoke" to me on the board. 

When the kids came in and got their rubrics, with comments, I gave them some time to read over their scores. (I did NOT sit them with their original teams from this project...I didn't want this to turn into a blame game. I wanted individual reflection). We discussed the phrase I put on the board and why it's important for me to have high expectations of them. I told them, in no way would I lower my expectations. We talked about how important it is to reflect, how future employers will want to hire someone who can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. And then I had them grab a piece of paper and create this T-Chart on the paper. 

I told them to think about this last project and what they did well and where they needed to improve as a teammate. I had to be specific. I didn't want to know what they needed to do to improve their ceiling tiles, I wanted to know what they, personally, can do to be a better teammate the next time around. What are they good at, what value do they bring to a group? I gave them some time to write this down.

And then they were instructed think about the areas they need to improve on, what they need to do to be more successful the next time around. 

And then we went into writing our contracts for the next project with new team members. 

The hope is that they take the information they reflected on, their strengths and weaknesses, and they use that to help guide them in what their new team needs to do to to be successful in their next project. 

As I read through their T-Charts of positives and improvements, I was impressed with many of their ability to honestly reflect. These are definitely not perfect, but its the first step in self-identification and improvement. In order to grow, we must first understand where we struggle and what steps to take. 

My plan is to do this exercise after each project, and see if there's improvement as we go. If someone is continuing to write down "stay on task" on their paper...we need to have a conversation about strategies to help stay on task. This helps me know where they need assistance and what I can look out for.

We do so many things as an adult, as part of our job, that we know are important skills these students need to develop. I wonder how many other things I do, as a teacher, that would be good skills to teach my middle school students... 

Definitely something to reflect on.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Let's Talk About Grades...

Grading is always a difficult topic to discuss. Teachers tend to be very passionate about how we grade and our philosophy behind it. It can also be one of the more difficult things to reflect accurately on...because we are passionate about it, confident in our method, and generally don't view it as a weakness.

Here's the thing...

It is easy to reflect and change in areas that we know we are weak...It is much more difficult to accurately reflect and be willing to make changes in areas that we feel we are strong. It is important to do both

I will come right out and say that I don't know the best way to grade students. What I know is what happened in my own classroom, how I recognized a problem (when I previously didn't believe there was one), and what I did to change it. I am in no way saying that my method is better, or even that much different than the next person... I'm just here to share the changes I have made in the last few years. I am sure there will be more change to come, as grading is and always will be a "hot-button" issue.

At least five years ago...

We were holding conferences in the gym. Each teacher had a table and parents rotated from content teacher to content teacher listening about their child's performance in those classes. I have always had positive conferences with parents, striving to always present them with strengths of their child, and adding helpful suggestions for any areas of improvement. I enjoyed meeting parents face-to-face and I liked it even more when the students came.

BUT...I was frustrated. I kept finding myself saying "your son/daughter's score in my class is a C, but their knowledge of social studies really is at a B or A level." Or...there were grades of A's or B's of students who didn't really exceed expectations in the content of social studies. That means that there was a good portion of my grading based on something other than my content level. Students losing points (or getting zeros) for late work, points based on participation and citizenship, and lots and lots of daily work grades...daily work that was very low-level thinking and/or completion assignments. I felt that there was too much "stuff" hiding the true results of the students abilities in social studies.

So...I started changing things up.  Slowly at first. I started with the 0's in the grade book. Those were the ones that bothered me the most. If papers were over a certain time limit, I would no longer accept them. Seemed typical. BUT...sometimes students would bring me work that was completed, just too late. Hmmm...is there a way to still hold them accountable, but let it be reflected in the grade book that he or she actually did something?  So I started offering 50% credit to any completed work that was turned in before the end of the grading period. Look...the students are still getting "penalized" for not having their stuff in on time, they're still getting an F...but there's a HUGE difference in a child's grade between a 0 and 50% credit. I wanted it to show that they actually DID SOMETHING.

Today...if a student has a 0 in my class, it means one of two things; either the student missed every, single, question OR there literally was nothing ever turned in or completed for me to see. I have very few 0's because very few times to kids do NOTHING on an assignment. Many times that have at least something they can show me, something I know they've done. I will always give credit for work, when work is done.

The next thing I looked at was my categories. I had probably 15 different categories. Daily Work, Completion, Extra Credit, Writing, Vocabulary, Tests, Projects, Quizzes, Performance Assessment, Bell Work...you name it. I operated under the idea that if you want students to do the work you have to give a grade for it.

I'm here to tell you...it's NOT TRUE!

Stop with all the grading y'all!

I now have three categories. Knowledge - Application - Assessment

These three things describe everything we do in my classroom and what level of thinking it requires. Knowledge based assignments are very simple things we do in class to gather new concepts. This could be vocabulary activities, discussions, reading activities, stations, etc... Anything in the Knowledge category is a small grade (5-10 points) and I rarely grade it. It is either completion, participation, or I just flat out ignore it and don't grade it. Yup...I said it. I don't grade everything my kids do in class. And yes...they know I don't grade everything. They just don't know WHAT I grade and what I don't. I never tell them.

You see...knowledge information (in my classroom) is many times done as a class or small group. On the off chance that it ends up as homework, I am fully aware of the fact that many middle school students copy. Do I care...nope. Cause it's basic information.

Why do I need to read through 60 copies of a vocabulary sheet and see if each student copied the definition down correctly???

I don't have time for that.

Application assignments are always worth more, and always graded. You see...application always follows knowledge. While I don't really care if a student copied the vocab definition correctly, I DO CARE if he or she can use that word correctly in the context of my content. THAT'S what I grade.

That's what I have time for.

Here is an example.

The knowledge part of this assignment involved reading and pulling information from various letters that talked about treatment of Native American Tribes on various reservations throughout Kansas. Students did this with a partner or team, we discussed it as a class. I didn't grade it.

The application piece was a short written response provided by the student. This is where I find out if he or she can apply the knowledge they learned, provide evidence to back up his or her answer, and use appropriate spelling and conventions. Students did this on their own, in class. I graded this.

You see... instead of grading 60 copies of both assignments and clogging up loads of my time, I am going to spend my time on the one that really shows me what the students know. Not what they can copy down from a discussion. Yes...the writing piece takes a little longer to grade than a simple vocab assignment...but at least I'm not stuck grading everything.

This also has an impact on their grades. Now instead of having the "fluff" assignment that doesn't truly represent what the child knows, I have a more concentrated grade composed of what the students show me they can do.

The results. 

After changing my grading, system to this I have noticed a few changes. Most of them are ones I'm happy with.

Less Grades: I have less grades in the grade book. Period. I don't put in every single daily activity/assignment that we do. I'm in week 2 of school and, right now, I don't have a single grade in the grade book. We are working on projects and gathering basic information. Grades will come...just not everyday.

Less A's: I don't mean this to be harsh...but this is good. When there's less "fluff" in the grade book, the grades are more reflective of what students really truly can do with my content. Not whether or not they're responsible enough to show up.

Less F's: Again...this is a good thing. An F in my class represents very little completed close to grade level. I shouldn't fail a student based on whether or not he/she turned in work, but based on the work done by that student. Don't get me wrong...this doesn't mean that no one fails...it just means that those F's are students who are in serious need of intervention and skill work.

Less Grading: Seriously! This should be a reason to start looking at your own grading system. How can you reduce your workload and show an accurate picture of what students are capable of?

Less Worksheets/Copies to make: The fact that I don't need to pick up and grade every-single-thing that we do in class, allows me the freedom to be creative with the knowledge-type information. We can do stations, sticky notes, white boards, technology activities...and it doesn't have to involve 60+ copies! This means I can spend more of my time doing the fun things, like creating cool activities, instead of in the workroom running copies!


Whew! That got a little long-winded...but I wanted to give a clear picture of some of my changes and how it effected my classroom. I will also mention, that my school district has been very supportive of these changes. I know at some schools teachers are required to have a certain number of grades in the book each week. I know I am completely blessed to be in a school in a state that truly allows for teachers to do what they feel is best for the students in their classroom.

Happy Grading!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Cave Drawings and Historical Thinking Skills

OK...if you're a social studies teacher and you've been following my blog, you'll know that I start out my 7th grade social studies with a Boot Camp (read about it here) where I train them on how to think historically. We learn what it means to source, contextualize, corroborate, and close read. By the end of their 7th grade year they are very familiar with the process and those words. Now I will have those same students their 8th grade year. They don't need to go through "boot camp" again, but they may need a refresher.

This year I came across a new activity that would allow me to review the process of thinking like a historian and let the students have a little fun too.

I stole borrowed the idea from a post on Facebook from Mr. Walke when he responded to a request for first day activities for social studies students. I loved it so much, I changed up my plans for the first day of school.

Cave Drawings

Introduction: I pass out a brown piece of construction paper and tell the students that I want them to think of an event in their life that has meaning. It can be good or bad, just something that sticks out in their memory.

The Task: Students must illustrate their event as if it was a cave drawing. We talk about what the first cave drawings were like and what they had (and didn't have). Students quickly realize that this means absolutely NO WORDS, LETTERS or NUMBERS! Pictures only!

The Time Limit: I don't want this activity to drawn out too much (pun intended!) so I give them a 15 minutes to complete this. Now I have some 8th grade students who will think...OK...I'll get my stick figures drawn and be done in 2 minutes and play games on my device for the rest of the time. I make sure to tell them I want them to use the entire time. If they finish their drawing before the time is up, they get to add color. This also gives those students who like to be very detailed a stopping point. **Also I make sure they know, they can't tell anyone what their picture is about**

The Activity: Once the time limit is done, I have the students place their drawings on the edge of the paper and stand up. Groups rotate from one table to the next and their task is to figure out what story is being told based on the illustration.

**Important** I make sure and reinforce again and again that I don't want the "topic" of the picture I want the entire STORY.  It's easy to tell that the topic is about a roller-coaster, but I want to know why there's a picture of the roller-coaster, how did the person feel, what caused them to go on the ride, did they like it after? I want the WHOLE STORY!

The Discussion: Once the groups have made the rounds, we sit back down and talk how difficult it was to gather the entire story based on the images. Throughout the discussion we talk about making an inference based on the evidence. The students placed the event in context...by "dating" it without even realizing it. They know that everyone in the room is 13-14 years old, meaning the event had to have taken place within that time period. They corroborate with who the author is and what they know about that person. And they make a claim with supporting evidence.

Look at all that great historical thinking goodness that occurred within a 30-40 minute activity! I just love the way it worked out. It was a great exercise in reviewing those skills, a fun way to start the year, and allowed for us to get to know each other a little better.

Win. Win. Win.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Drawing Skills...Who's Got 'Em?

As a student you probably fit into one of these three categories when it came to illustrations.
  1. AMAZING. Your drawings were envied by other classmates and you ROCKED the art world.
  2. OK...you were really good at stick figures and simple sketches. Basically you could make things look "neat."
  3. Uhhh...what exactly is that? Even your stick figures and houses were sloppy and you HATED any assignment that required illustrations. 
Our students today aren't much different. Most of the time, in my class, it doesn't matter which one of the three categories kids fall into. They can (and are) successful in my class whether or not they're the next Picasso.

But...sometimes there's a project or activity that does require some artistic ability. Many times these are done in teams. As a student I would hate to be a "category 3" in a group with other "category 3's." That just sets them up for failure from the beginning, judging them on something they don't have complete control over.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an idea from one of my amazing colleagues, Melodie Harris. Her method of differentiating teams based on illustration skills is one that I must share with you! It's genius! 

On the first day of school (or one of the days before a project requiring artistic ability) I have my students complete a different kind of bell work. They pick up a piece of paper that looks very much like this....

Then they get to work, drawing simple illustrations of the topics provided. Most of the time they're confused as to why I have them do this...but there's always a point. 

Once finished and turned in (I do not grade these), they are used for me as a tool to differentiate. I rank them from best to worst and keep them in a folder in my desk. Now anytime I want to group students for a project that is in need of some illustration skill...I start with my best ones and make sure each group gets at least ONE person who can handle a pencil and go from there. 

BONUS...many times the most artistic people in your classroom aren't the most academically successful ones or the most popular "first pick" teammates. BUT this is a great chance for you to brag on these kiddos a little by saying... "Wow, I hope your team realizes what a gift you have to have Mary in your team. Have your SEEN her artwork?!?!" This gives Mary a boost of confidence and stops any grumbling that may occur because she was assigned that group. 

Give it a try...I bet you'll find it useful! 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Tips on Time Management: Say NO to Being Overwhelmed!

I came back to my classroom this week. We are required to be here on Friday, but I started Monday. Why start early? Well...as most teachers work on updating their curriculum, classrooms, or just dive into professional development during the summer, I don't. I need the break...and I have three little kids at home ages 6, 4, and 1 1/2. I'm busy enough. I can barely keep up with laundry and dishes, let alone make time for school.  Plus...it's easier to start back with daycare on a Monday. And as you'll see in this post, I'm all about making life easier.

Seriously. My goal this year is to NOT become overwhelmed and stressed with things that aren't important right now. And it started yesterday when I walked into my classroom and started moving my tables.

I have a weird sense of calmness about this year, that I don't normally have. I think it's because I'm starting to do some small things that help me keep from getting in over my head. I thought I'd share some tips. Some are mine, some are from other teachers, and some are from friends in other industries that keep VERY busy schedules.

Make your list. What HAS to be done today, by then end of the week, and what can honestly wait until Christmas?

This is one that I have taken to heart and fully practice. You see. I have a cabinet that needs to be cleaned out and organized. It needed it back in May, but my "gotta get to summer break" brain just piled more things in there so I could check off my list and head out the door. Now that I'm back, it STILL needs to be organized. But ya know what? It's not walking through my door in a week ready to learn. I have lesson plans to get ready, copies to make, and projects to prepare for. Those come first. IF I get everything that HAS TO BE DONE by the first day of school done, then I'll tackle the cabinet. If not...it'll have to wait.

Do you have student aids? Do you have students who always finish early and need/want something to keep busy? What from your "to-do" list can students do for you?

This is where some teachers get stuck in the struggle of getting it all done. How picky are you about how things look? If you can "let go" of some of the perfection, your teacher-life will be much easier.

Have a Student Directed Classroom
This one is huge. Let your students do the work for you. How should your room be arranged this year? How about letting your kids decide? What posters need to go on the wall, anchor charts to make? Let your kids make them. Think about it. What better way to have them learn about the "rules of commas" than to have them make the informative poster that goes on the wall. Yeah, it probably won't be as pretty as yours...but it will be there's. The students will have a stake in the classroom. They'll feel like they're truly welcome.

What can you "Let go of" and pass on to students in order to keep some August sanity?!?!

Be Goggle Focused
I learned this one outside the world of education...but boy is it helpful. You know how we get sidetracked and end up working on five different things at one time? Well...that's actually a huge time-suck. You end up leaving the day with five things started and none of them finished.

Solution: Put your Goggles on. When a swimmer swims laps, he/she isn't very effective if they're not wearing their goggles. They eye-wear helps them reach their destination. Take that same logic with your classroom. Put your "goggles" on and focus on ONE task, ONE destination, ONE goal. Accomplish it and move on to the next. You'll be amazed at how fast you are able to get your list crossed off when you tackle it one at a time and not all at once.

Stick to Six
This one, I just recently learned about. I like the idea of it and I'm going to give it a shot. Pick six. Six things that you're going to put on your list. ONLY six. Prioritize those and go for it! Get that list all checked off. You'll feel accomplished and productive. But what if you have a lot to do? Pick six. Get those done...use your "Goggles" and just get those done. Tomorrow, make a new list.

Pick Your Battles:
This is sort of up there with prioritizing, but with a different mindset. My advice here is to not stress about the things that you don't have any control over. For example. I need to make classroom seating charts, but I can't do that until I have a class list. Now, I know I won't get a class list until at least Monday, at the earliest and that the seating chart is going to be probably one of the things I do on my last work-day before kids. No need to have it on my list yet. No need to stress about it.

Tech issues? This is where coming in early has it's benefits. Go seek out some tech help with printing, your smart board, or whatever before the entire staff is chasing after the tech support!

Don't Fix it if it Ain't Broke:
Year after year, I get caught up in the race of trying to make everything better than I did it last year. I end up filling my plate with new tasks, when the previous lessons were perfectly fine. This year, I'm attempting to do a better job of making small, but powerful adjustments when needed and focusing my energy in other places. I have some really great lessons and activities that will still be great this year. They don't need to change today. But my Constitution Unit needs some changes...that means I'll focus on the place where change is needed and not changing everything.

This holds true for bulletin boards. Unless you have a rule in your school that bulletin boards need to change every month and be theme based and Pinterest Pretty, don't. My bulletin boards stay the same every year because they are based on the learning in the classroom. They are tools for the students to use. I just cover them with paper before going off in the summer and rip it down when I get back. No need to hassle with the paper, cute boarders, or spending hours cutting out letters.

Stop Comparing Yourself with Other Teachers: 
Stop it. Just stop. Don't feel like you have to "keep up" with the teacher down the hall or that awesome teacher you follow on Social Media. Focus on you, your strengths and go from there. What's important to you and your classroom. Do you need to make improvements somewhere? Sure...we all do, but focus on how you can improve in those areas using your strengths to help you.

I hope that some of these suggestions help you with the start of your school year. Don't stress what doesn't need to be stressed and relax. It's going to be a great year! Let's do this!