Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

This year, I decided to give my students the full Thanksgiving vacation to finish up their research essays, which gives me the long weekend without “the stack.” I’ve made a number of changes to this assignment this semester, and I checked over all the resulting drafts yesterday. I’m proud to say—drum roll, please—the drafts did not leave me nauseous and depressed! Most significantly, I changed the topic of the assignment this semester. In the past, I’ve asked students to pick an ethical dilemma related to a field they might want to pursue. Generally, students wrote about medical and media issues. After some summer rumination, I made the topic “a problem facing public education today.” Students have chosen to write on a wide range of education issues, and it looks like they just have more of their own ideas on these topics. The drafts appeared to be less packed with block quotations to meet the page minimum. Okay, okay, so I haven’t actually read through their arguments carefully yet. Okay, okay, so no Turnitin.com reports yet reveal places where they lifted liberally from their sources. This holiday weekend, I’m emotionally banking some optimism before collecting the pile. Reality will arrive soon enough, right?

I know that once I start grading the stack, my enthusiasm for creating big changes to the assignment will be snuffed out by exhaustion and perhaps a nagging melancholy that even a perfect assignment would not reach everybody. So! Before that begins, I’ve been catching up on some professional reading. I really enjoyed Lorna Collier’s “The ‘C’s of Change:’ Students—and Teachers—Learn 21st Century Skills” from NCTE’s November 2008 Council Chronicle. According to Collier, the “C’s of Change” “include creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-control, and comprehension.” The article discusses different aspects of that list, but I found some commentary on social networking especially interesting: “Students still need teachers to show them how to navigate the digital age, how to mine the information overload for meaning, and how to make wise connections through social networks.”

In my research essay assignment, I feel like I accomplish the first two items in that list. However, I have not asked students to use their Facebook or blogging skills “to make wise connections.” The concept appeals to me. What if I asked students to use a social networking connection as one of the resources for their research essay? I imagine they could email a principal or participate in an education blog or find whomever they find on My Space. I’d have to come up with a series of vetting questions for them to use to determine if the source could be trusted, but I’m willing to bet I’ll be shocked with what they can find. Judging from how often students try to text in class, they’ve really honed this skill—why not harvest that skill for academic goals?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In My Head, It’s the Holidays Already…

In my family, we celebrate Christmas. When I was growing up, my mother had a strict rule about no Christmas songs, decorations, or the like before Thanksgiving; I still respect that rule. However, now that I’m both a parent and a teacher, I have to plan for the holiday before December is upon me.

My first year of teaching, our principal came on the PA system to scold teachers en masse and in front of our students for taking leave in December. “Teachers, please do not take personal leave in December!” he boomed. “We cannot find substitutes during this time. Besides, why would people about to get two weeks off need time off now?” (Suffice it to say, we were not managed well.) Even though at the time of that announcement I still flew home to my parents’ house for Christmas, and I certainly, as a twenty-three year old untenured teacher, had not used any personal leave, his query about why teachers would need leave ahead of the holidays made me shake my head. Obviously, he wasn’t the one responsible for the holiday magic in his house.

I currently work in a school calendar where my semester grades are due before Christmas. I will get research essays and final projects just after Thanksgiving, and by the time I lift my head, it will be December 20th. Even when I worked within calendars that ended in January, I tried to clear my desk of grading before the break. Big projects couldn’t withstand the two weeks of stasis, so I had a similar pre-holiday grading crunch. Besides the grading crunch, December brings with it numerous social gatherings, and they all seem to be two weeks earlier than years ago. Weekends will be full of fun that won’t include planning or shopping.

So that’s why you’ll find me humming along to Johnny Mathis’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in these weeks just after Halloween and before Thanksgiving. (The song is only in my head; I don’t actually start playing the CD’s until after Thanksgiving, Mom, I promise!) I’m happily drafting holiday menus for the company gracious enough to join us, and my son and I have a few craft projects underway. Sometimes I feel part of the Christmas sprawl that advertisers have thrust upon us, but mostly, I feel anticipation. Teaching may be part of why I can’t spend December preparing for the holidays, but teaching also has taught me how to plan ahead, so I can do both.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seeing My "Hole" in Holistic

So I’ve learned tons of stuff after organizing a cross-institutional grading session between our county high schools, our local community college, and our nearest four year university; we’re still sorting through the data, and I think most of what I’ve learned informs what we should have done constructing the exercise. I’ll report when we’ve figured enough out to share sensible insights.

In the meantime, the actual experience of grading against the SAT rubric with teachers from different “walks of teaching life” left me rather breathless. I sat with a community college ESOL teacher, a four year state college adjunct, and within ear shot of the chair of the community college English department. Suffice it to say, the norming process exists because teachers vary greatly.

Norming effectively takes a long time, and I know it can get done properly. Essentially, the norming process requires each teacher to set aside his or her personal biases to share a standard of quality as measured by the rubric. In my English department, we norm for the state writing test (a very basic, minimal writing assessment), but we don’t norm with each other for on-level student writing. We have a rubric for on-level student writing, written who knows when by whomever, and we all use it variably.

Now since no test needed assessment, actual norming between teachers wasn’t even a goal. Instead, we used that paradigm to sit down together with the SAT rubric and look at essays written by community college students, written on the first day of Comp English 101, to study how differently we grade. As the choir I preach to knows, the idea of rubric grading is to grade “holistically,” with no single attribute truly outweighing any of the others. Yeah. Right. Sure. Of course. It can be a painful process.

Here’s my overall conclusion: Grading holistically isn’t easy because our teaching experiences create biases in the ways we grade. The more a teacher works with students struggling with grammar, the less likely that teacher is to deem grammar errors as “interfering with an essay’s meaning.” If a teacher spends her day mostly with AP or advanced English majors, she will see fewer fragments and less subject/verb agreement errors. It’s the nature of the tracking beast. For teachers who work with writers who do make those errors frequently, it’s like being accustomed to the dialect of a beloved multi-lingual friend—after a while, it’s hard to even notice the accent because the ear adjusts.

According to insights gleaned during our grading experiment, some teachers who mostly teach higher level writers also gave more credit for “figurative language,” especially if the essay used strong standard English, which I more often considered “tangential bologna.” Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my share of poetic language in an argument, but I don’t prefer a list of similes to a list of supportive examples clearly illustrating a sub-point of a thesis. For me, similes work best when used as part of the argument rather than instead of the argument; whereas, some of my fellow teachers who work with more filtered students, while agreeing that the similes in the writing sample took the place of the argument, felt that the use of visual imagery deserved recognition.

My own bias for a strong argument creates my struggle with remembering that a rubric list of attributes is not hierarchical; most rubrics start with a description of the argument and end with a description of the mechanics. I tend to think the argument counts more than the use of the comma anyway, so that list order reinforces this bias in my brain. I can shake that when I norm for state test grading, but in general in my classes, I recognize that I weigh the argument more than the punctuation. Some of my peers confessed their total abhorrence for shifting voice—half a discussion about “everyone” and half a discussion about “I.” I sheepishly hoped I even notice such a voice shift since the absence of pervasive second person makes me so giddy with joy, I suspect I fail to see beyond it.

What does any of this mean? Honestly, we’re still sorting that out. We all sat down together to see how everyone grades a paper, and we’ve statistically verified our different points of view. The next step requires data analysis and discussion; since almost everyone has end of semester grading coming in, I’m not exactly sure when we’ll draw our conclusions. Personally, the experience makes me glad I don’t have to grade holistically all the time. It makes sense for big exams, like SAT and AP, but without a norming session, I struggle to shake how accustomed I am to seeing “definitely” spelled “defiantly” (Yes, it used to bother me, but after thousands of exposures, I’m like a grammar cockroach…). Without a norming session, I retain my preference for a strong, logical response to the prompt peppered with comma splices as opposed to a punctuation-perfect song and dance. I’d argue we all put a “hole” somewhere in holistic, and I’d like to believe that identifying my bias and reflecting upon it will improve the way I grade.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher