Conferences

It’s been a week. A long, long week.

Our 2nd week testing block schedule looked something like this:

Monday – Periods 3, 5, 7
Tuesday – Periods 2, 6
Wednesday – Regular minimum day
Thursday – Period 3, field day
Friday: periods 4, 5, 7

Each period was 2 hours long, except Wednesday, when I had all my students for their traditional 6 period long minimum day schedule (37 minutes per period).

Typically our periods are 54 minutes long. I think I’d like block days if they were the standard schedule. But they’re not, and you can’t just cram two 54 minute lessons into a period and call it a successful block. Plus, the kids are taking the CAASPP this week, in their math and English classes, so sometimes I get my students right before or after they’ve spent 2 hours testing. Their brains are zonked.

Progress reports were due Friday at 8 AM sharp. For our progress reports, we are required to give a letter grade to any kid who is earning a C- or less. That meant I had to figure out who was likely to earn a C- by looking through their portfolios, and then grade conference with them. That was the theory.

So this is how it ended up working in practice.

I went through their portfolios and left feedback on pretty much everything. If the student had done everything in the assignment, the student got a Heart on their upload. If not, the student got a comment. I learned: One comment per correction. I’ll explain why further down.

I needed some way to track all of this and report it out. Schoolloop isn’t working. I can’t get Schoolloop to display anything other than their 3rd quarter grades unless I enter something that corresponds with a number into the system. So I decided to use Excel. This was not a reasoned-out decision. Imagine the harried teacher, at 9 PM, trying to figure out a band-aid solution to a pressing problem.

grades

The spread sheet.

It should be pretty self-explanatory. (Note: if you don’t know how to enter things like -3 into Excel and not have it show up as an error in a formula, you enter ‘-3. The single quote tells it to display everything that follows.) For the quiz scores, the negative number is the number of questions they missed out of 5 questions.

I took the spread sheets to school and taped them to my rear cabinets. Then I printed second copies of them and explained them under the document cameras.

We were still a few days away from progress reports (I thought) so I gave my students time to look through their portfolios and address comments. They did their work in a very desultory fashion with a lot of chatter. I let them chatter. I let them goof off. It was irritating beyond belief, but I let them do it because you don’t learn work habits by being yelled at. You learn them by falling on your face and figuring it out the hard way. I’d already told them they had less time than they thought and to stay on-task. I wasn’t going to ride them about anything.

I spent my time instead helping individual students with their work, and going over corrections with kids on their reading notes (a double-sided worksheet from the textbook publisher TCI History Alive!).

Long about Tuesday evening I remembered that I was only seeing 4th period on Wednesday and Friday this week. And Wednesday was a 37 minute day. Friday was after progress reports were due. They had no chance to look at their portfolio scores, update their work, and grade conference with me. Furthermore, I’d never held a grade conference before and I needed to get my butt in gear. So I spazzed about that for a while.

Wednesday happened and I realized, looking at my 2nd period spreadsheet, a truth that I’d long known but which whacks me in the eyes about once a week. My second period is really low-performing. I attribute this to the fact that they’re adolescents and still asleep, because I know they’re a lot more talkative and rowdy (and productive) in other classes, and the rest of my periods tend to be awake, rowdy, and productive. (First is a 20 minute non-academic advisory class.) But because 2nd period is low-performing, I was probably going to need to do a lot of conferences. In 37 minutes. Having never done one before.

I looked for the lowest numbers on the spread sheet, attached it to a clipboard, and approached one of my students. I sat next to him.

“So, Johnny,” I said. “Here are the scores in your portfolio. What grade do you think you should get on your progress report?”

He looked at me like I had sprouted horns. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s your job.”

I was unprepared for that answer. “Okay,” I said. “Were you absent the day I explained how all this works?” He might have been. I didn’t remember, and neither did he. But he was unwilling to talk to me about his work.

I moved to the second kid. “Jamie, based on your portfolio, what do you think you should get on your progress report?”

Jamie never talks in class. Never. He looked at me and he didn’t say a word. I sat with him for two whole minutes and he never spoke. “I think you need some time to think,” I said, aware of the handful of minutes I had left. “I’ll come back to you.”

I then addressed the class. I told them again about what we were doing and why. I sat across from Johnny and had a conversation with Sally about her portfolio and we concluded that she should get a C-. Then I looked over at Johnny. “You want to try again?”

He nodded and we had a semi-productive conversation.

And that’s how it went. I had “conferences” with about half of the students I needed to talk to. Some were absent. Some I just didn’t get to.

To further complicate matters, someone pulled the fire alarm 2 minutes into 7th period and we all had to evacuate to the field. Mass chaos. Half the school had subs, PE hadn’t taken roll yet, and no one knew whether they should report to their 6th or 7th period teachers. I was about to lose it because I needed that 37 minutes for grade conferencing, and I realized I’d be lucky if I had 15. But we muddled through, and I’ve learned to leave an extra week before grades are due just in case something like this happens.

I went home Thursday night and entered C- and lower grades into Aeries, our report card program.

Friday I addressed all my classes. “Look,” I said. “The District says I am required to give you a letter grade on your progress reports if you are in danger of failing the class. So I conferenced with some of you. I couldn’t get to some of you, but I put a C- on your progress report because I have to comply with the district. It was the highest grade I could give you, but it’s not your actual grade because you and I haven’t talked about your grade. So let it be a warning that you need to move more toward proficiency if you want to be able to argue for a good grade on your 4th quarter report card.”

I got no push-back from that, probably because most of the kids who got C- on their report cards should have gotten a lower grade.

It was not the best solution, but it was the one I had.

All this probably won’t happen to me again. The problems I saw were this:

  1. I had never done a grade conference before and had no idea what to say or do.
  2. The testing schedule threw absolutely everything off and I didn’t realize at a gut level that some kids, like 3rd period, would have much more time to prepare their portfolio than other kids, like 4th period.
  3. The kids still haven’t quite figured out what’s going on and they had never gone through a grade conference before.
  4. I hadn’t done any work at all in preparing them for conferencing. Next time I will have them do a written reflection first at a minimum.
  5. I told the kids I had to give them a progress report if they were earning a C- or lower. I had kids argue that they should get Cs simply because they didn’t want their parents to get the progress report.

An unrelated problem: a student came up to me and said, “Ms. Caldwell, I’m proficient at all the assignments. That means I can argue for an A, right?” This kid is smart and does his work but doesn’t do anything past what he thinks is the bare minimum. So I need to find some way of indicating that doing the bare minimum isn’t A-worthy, and that As are for people who excel as measured against themselves. My diligent students are going to be pretty resistant to the idea that they might only qualify for Bs or Cs where they used to get easy As. I will need to do a lot of work with all of my students surrounding self-reflection.

Back to grade conferencing. Next time I do this, it will be in mid-June. I’m planning on taking the entire last week of school to grade conference, and I’ll be starting with the kids who have demonstrated proficiency on most of their assignments. I’ll be doing this because their portfolios won’t change that much. Because last week I noticed this:

I gave my students time to look through and update their portfolios and I got a hailstorm of work turned in as a result. If I give my lower-performing kids an extra day or two to do their work while I’m conferencing with the kids who got it done earlier, it’ll be to the lower-performing kids’ advantage.

One thing I noticed about the feedback I give them: they treat it like the workbook page questions. They do about half of the work and say they’re done. So I’ll get workbook pages where students write the first half of the answer and then stop in the middle, or who don’t answer 2-3 of the questions but think it’s done. When I was assessing their workbook pages I wrote comments all over them. The kids went back and addressed the comments and typically resolved about half of them. Then I would have to point out to the kids that they still hadn’t addressed this and they still needed to work on that. So it usually took about 2-3 rounds of feedback per assignment to get them done.

In their portfolios? Same thing. They’d address half the comments per assignment per round. I’m hoping to train them to be a little more aware and to check their work before they turn it in. But the reason why you leave one discrete bit of feedback per comment is this: You (the teacher) have to leave them a new comment when they’ve corrected the bit with the feedback. So I would edit my comment to write “(Corrected)” when they’d corrected something. This is how you see growth.

“This is good! Now add some examples.” (Corrected)
“Please caption the assignment correctly.”

There’s an example of two comments on the same item. They did add the examples, but they didn’t caption the assignment correctly. I am noting that one got done but the other didn’t, so now my student can see what she did properly and what still needs to be addressed. Deleting the comment doesn’t work because then you can’t see the growth. And if you don’t write “Corrected,” you have to reassess the point every time AND the kids don’t know that they corrected it properly. I forgot to put “(Corrected)” after my comment “Put this in the correct folder” and I had kids who cycled through several rounds of feedback, switching folders with every round because they had no feedback that they’d put it in the right folder. (Next year we’re doing a new lesson on them figuring out the right folder.)

A good part of grade conferencing was this: I specifically, deliberately, openly told each student I conferenced with that the progress reports weren’t the end of their chances to work on their assignments, and that we would be revisiting the assignments to see if they’d reached proficiency even after progress reports so they could still keep trying.

And in terms of successes, two kids who have historically been deeply unsuccessful in my class and in school in general made it through three rounds of workbook feedback and reached proficiency in one assignment (the longest and hardest). They have never been proficient in any assignments in my class before. Under the old system, all they’d ever gotten was Fs. And they’re willing to keep working even though they both agreed that they were earning a C or lower in the class. Two other kids who were borderline both told me they thought they deserved Bs in the new system. Personally, I would have rated one a B and the other a C, but they’d been getting Ds and Fs in the past so I’m just thrilled they’re doing better.

So, for progress reports I will try to leave myself at least one period more than I think I need in order to give the kids time to catch up and to give myself a buffer in case some kid pulls the fire alarm. For report card grades I need to have grade conferences the week after the quarter ends (we have 2 weeks to report grades) for the same reasons.

Note for people using Seesaw: Encourage kids with smartphones to download the app. Smartphones take much clearer and less blurry images than Chromebook cameras do. It’s less frustrating for everyone if the kids use their smartphones to take their photos.

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