Thursday, January 24, 2019

Group Grading Conundrum: Contracts May Be the Answer!

"How do you guys grade for group projects?"

Have ran into that question probably 3 times within my PLN just this week alone. I totally get it. This is hard. How do you make it fair,  how do you teach kids valuable skills, how do you justify it with parents?

As someone who does a lot of projects in class, both individual and group, I have played with many different options. My recent favorite is to have my students create a Team Contract.

This is not a new topic. I got the idea while dipping my toes in the PBL world and reading Ginger Lewman's book; Lessons for LifePractice Learning. That book is a MUST for anyone who does projects in class. Even if you don't go "full-on" PBL there are tips in that book that will make you a better educator period. Read it. You'll be glad you did.

Click HERE for a link to purchase the book.
Anyway... Here's how I set up a group project. The more time and effort you put into the set up of this, the better results you'll get out of your kids.

I always start by explaining that in team projects there is always more to learn than just the content or topic. We learn life lessons and skills that will be used in our work life in the future. One of those is contracts. Most places require employees to sign a contract agreeing to things like salary, benefits, work schedule, among other things. Why would we not want to incorporate that into our work in the classroom?

I take this suggestion straight from Ginger's book... Do's and Don'ts. What do we like about group work? What don't we like? Why? How can we solve those "problems" that tend to come up in group work? My teams in class brainstorm answers to the questions.

Next, I ask more questions... What is our goal? What do we want to accomplish? How are we going to be successful? Do we have specific talents that can help the group? Where do I struggle and need help? How can my group help me in my weak areas? How can I help my team members?

Now... I have my teams open up a Google Document and share it with everyone in the team AND ME! They spend some time talking about these questions...specifically outlining what they need to do to be successful, what do they need to avoid to be successful?

Once they have their lists... I have them start to tackle the difficult topics.

How do we want to be graded?
What is fair?
How do we handle absent team members?
How do we handle team members who aren't pulling their weight?
How do we handle team members who are controlling and won't allow for others to have a voice?

I do stop and talk a little about contracts in the workforce and how employees are expected to "hold up" their end of the deal. I explain...if I don't show up to work, I don't get paid. (This is a great example to show this year as I'll be going on maternity leave and can explain how that works... and that after I exceed my allowed "sick days" I'll start receiving a smaller pay check.)

As a team...THEY need to decide how they're going to handle teammates absences. Are you all going to get the same grade regardless of attendance? If you miss class, do you have to make it up? How? Who communicates what needs to be done?

Teams discuss and write in their contracts how they want absences to be handled "grade wise."

This takes it completely out of my hands and puts it in theirs.

Talk about taking ownership over their learning.

Here is an example of an absence policy created in a contract for my 8th grade class. This was for a project that would take a total of 5 work days (I'm on a block schedule, so each work day is 75 minutes over a two-week period)
10% of the grade will be taken off if a person misses school for each day they miss. Unless they make up the work missed outside of class. It will be the job of the team members at school to email the person what they need to do. If they don't do it, they lose 10%. 
See...pretty cool right! I do suggest that all teams have an "unless" option. Because kids get it. They're not always in control of their attendance at school. Everyone needs the chance to "make up" for being gone. Most groups are good with this.

The next topic the kids tackle in their contract is "strikes." Strikes can be given out for specific things team members do (or in this case, don't do). Usually so many "strikes" is equal to a % loss in points on the final grade. All reasons for strikes and the penalties are detailed and documented in the team contract. An example...

Strikes will be given for the following reasons:

  • Off-task for more than 5 minutes
  • Going to the bathroom more than one time during class
  • Goofing off with other teams
  • Playing games instead of researching
  • Not listening to other opinions. 
1 strike = -5% of the grade
3 strikes and a person can be fired.

Yep. You read that right. A team member can be fired. This is real life. If you repeatedly don't do your work, you won't last long at a job. The same can happen for this project.

Now...I have only had to "fire" a person one time, and the team really did try everything they could to get this person to work. This was a unique case in which the student ended up doing a completely alternate project and other factors were involved. It is my job as the teacher to try to make sure things don't escalate to the need to fire anyone. BUT just having the option there, tends to put a "spark" in some of those lesser-motivated team members.

Lastly...this is the really important part of the contract. I meet personally with each team and go through their contract. We did this for two reasons. I know what MY expectations are as the teacher and grading. Some teams are really strict with their policies and some are more lax... it's my job to understand what they mean. 2...this allows me to add in helpful tips to make their wording more clear. By the time the meeting is all done everyone in the team, including me, understands the "terms" of the agreement.

I am also able to remind them that THEY are responsible for DOCUMENTING what happens with absences and strikes on the contract. I know who has missed class, there is a record of that, but I don't know if the person has "made up" their part. That has to be documented. Teams are not allowed to say "Billy = 2 strikes" without detailing WHY and HOW Billy received the strikes. Billy also must be aware...we're not here to purposely sabotage anyone.

In the end the contracts are SO HELPFUL to me throughout the project process. I can pull up a teams contract at any time and see how things are going. When it's time to grade, I just open up the document and make adjustments to the grades as specified in the contract.

A couple things to note...

This is a LEARNING process. It takes time for kids to learn how to do this, and even longer for them to actually hold their peers accountable to the contract. For example... I had a two 8th grade girls come up to me the day a project was due and tell me about how their third teammate ended up not doing much of the work.

I simply said...Ok, that's fine. As long as you've documented the strikes in the contract, I'll make sure the grade is taken care of. - - They looked at me sheepishly and then said that really they never said anything to her and there aren't strikes. They didn't realize that she wasn't working.

Ohhh. Now, there's more of a problem. I cannot and will not just lower this team member's grade without documentation. That's not right. I explained that this is a good learning moment for them to hold their teammates accountable throughout the project and not on the last day at the last minute. Hopefully next time they would do a better job... without documentation I won't lower the grade.

One of the hardest things for kids to learn is to hold their peers accountable to the work. Contracts in group projects make for so many GREAT learning moments, and by the end of the year, these middle school kids have learned some very valuable lessons that have nothing to do with content.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

When Less is More

Sometimes we have a tendency to forget. We forget how things really and truly are. We forget our audience and end up being disappointed with the results. When in reality, it's our fault.

I want to share with you today a moment where I realize how far I have come. How much I have improved over the years as a teacher. This week, I decided to resurrect an old assignment. It's probably been 6-8 years since I did it last (I know this because the last modified date was 2013). I'm surprised it even opened up on my computer.

I was reading it, cringing the entire time.

Good idea.

Poor execution.

I had a HUGE paragraph as the instructions on the page. How stupid of me. For a two main reasons...

First. I forgot who I was teaching. 13-14 year old kids. They don't want to read paragraphs. In reality, non of us want to fuddle through an entire paragraph filled with detailed instructions. I'm sure the kids NEVER actually read it.

And I'm sure I was frustrated when they would ask me questions that were "hidden" in that paragraph. I'm sure I responded with... "Didn't you read the instructions?"

Second. It wasn't CLEAR. Yes, I had included all that they needed to do, but it read more like a blog post instead of getting right to the point. Kids need clear expectations on what to do. They are capable of doing great things, following directions, and being independent... if we, the adults, are crystal clear on what we are asking.

In the case of teaching middle school students... LESS IS MORE.

The last few years, I have almost lived by that phrase... I try to see how much can I tell my students in the fewest words possible. My directions on worksheets now consist of one sentence if that and bullets or steps if a larger project requires multiple steps.

And when you really sit down and think about it... we are the same way.

No adult wants to read three paragraphs of information to be told to do one thing. Why would we think kids want to? We are who we teach.

Less is more people.

Try it out. Cut your directions down to the exact NEED TO KNOWS and I bet you get just as good or better results.

Be clear. Be short. Don't ramble.