Winding Down

Two weeks til the end of school. Today I spent part of my day taking my old lists of rules off my classroom wall. We have to start cleaning out early, because during the last 2 weeks of school the Dumpsters are completely full.

We had a minimum day today because the 8th grade teachers had grades due and needed the time to get them in. I’m teaching 7th grade this year, so I still have a bit of time.

I had my first end-of-the-year grade conference yesterday. I have a SpEd student who just left for church camp. His grandmother says he’ll be back for the last week of school, but he thinks this is it for him. So our conversation revolved around the possibility of either.

He’s doing good work, given his disability. In the old days I would probably have given him a C because despite all his effort and stick-toitiveness he isn’t at the same level as the other kids. Specifically, he’s still learning how to write grammatically-correct sentences. But in our grade conference, which happened after school, we looked at the work in his portfolio and went over each assignment. For the writing ones he was able to dictate to me what he wanted to say and I typed it in. His speech isn’t exactly grammatically correct, either, but it’s much better than his writing. I was able to see that he did understand the material. I’d also been paying much more attention to my kids as they worked and I saw that he worked very hard and routinely asked my para-instructor for assistance, which we encourage. We looked at what he’d done and agreed that he was in good shape for a B, considering the growth he’d exhibited and how hard he’d worked. So during our discussion I assembled the work he hadn’t finished (revising his paragraphs), and I told him that if he finished that work and submitted it to me, I would agree that he deserved an A, but if this was it and I didn’t see him again, he was content with the B. He left happy.

I wasn’t quite ready to begin our truncated Japan unit yet (we’ve only got time to cover the samurai, but I’m going to cover the heck out of them). Plus many of my kids were on an end-of-the-year field trip and it was a minimum day, so we had a general work day. My students used the charts on the cupboards to determine what work they had that was incomplete, or what they just needed to make a few small changes on to hit ‘proficient,’ and they worked on their computers. I jotted down everyone who didn’t work, and I used Blocksi to monitor their computer use. (We’re making a school-wide blacklist of sites to use with Blocksi, so I left alone the kids who played games and just wrote down the URLs of the sites they used, plus made a note in my behavior tracker for evidence of work habits.) This allowed me to help individual students and gave them a little breathing room. I also told my students that, it being a minimum day, I would keep my room open after school for any student who wanted to work on anything for any class.

I had four students show up after school. One stayed for 20 minutes and completed two assignments for me. One stayed for an hour. The other two stayed for two hours. They worked on social studies stuff, then we chatted for 15 minutes, then they worked together on their essays on Beowulf for their ELA class. I enjoyed listening to them talk to each other about Beowulf while I worked at my own computer. One of the two is very smart and motivated. The other is one of those kids with every strike against him. He and I get along very well and he works very hard in my class, but most days he can’t stay after school because he has to get his sister from elementary school as soon as she’s out, and then they take the long bus ride back home. She didn’t have a minimum day, so today he could stay. When I initially got him I wasn’t impressed with his work ethic, but he came around. Once he figured out that I really would help him when he asked, he started asking for help. Plus I make it a priority to help him in the classroom because I know he can’t see me any other time. He’s one of those kids who needs an extreme amount of help, but once he gets it he applies everything he learns. He’s gone from having an F or D in the old system to being proficient in six assignments and almost proficient in two more, which means he can easily argue for the B he wants in my class. He has evidence. Not to mention, they all know that asking for help and working hard on revisions counts as evidence toward the grade they want. And he’s much happier now. My new system has made a big difference in his life, and since this is one of the kids who typically slides through cracks I’m very pleased to be both providing him an education and making my class a happy place for him to be.

I did two other things of note: 1) I had my kids fill out a reflection worksheet, and 2) I had them provide feedback on each other’s paragraphs.

I made them the reflection worksheet so they could have some small amount of practice reflecting on their work habits, figuring out what they needed to complete in order to get the grade they wanted, and to help them put their thinking into words in preparation for the “live” reflection they’ll write me at the end of next week in preparation for their grade conferences. About half of them turned it in, so I had all the kids who didn’t turn it in when I assigned it complete it today. I found out some interesting things, too, like that one of my students has some severe anxiety. I had no idea. Since I also suffer from anxiety, I may write her an encouraging note and suggest some coping strategies.

The feedback rubric was a good idea. I told all my students they had to use all six assigned vocabulary words in their paragraphs, but I did not want to have to scan through each paragraph looking for the words. I stuck that on my single point rubric. Then I broke down their China paragraph assignment and made each bit a point on the rubric. I printed out each of the paragraphs I received, slapped a unique student ID on each one (basically, I numbered them from 1-42 in order of period, then last name), and gave each student two paragraphs and two rubrics. I had trouble explaining to them why they needed to return the rubrics in a timely manner, but I did manage to get a stack of rubrics back to them today. Some kids ended up with five rubrics’ worth of feedback. Others got none. It depended on who turned them in. But some are still trickling in, and the kids have until June 9 to revise the paragraphs, so the feedback will still be useful–even if it’s 3 days late. And the kids learned what vocabulary words they needed to add to their paragraphs without me tearing my hair out or working to the point of exhaustion.

Generally they liked the rubrics, though they had trouble filling them out. I think by the end of next year they’ll be masters and the trouble was a beginners thing.

They had some interesting reactions to the rubrics. First, some of them complained because the feedback they got was junk. Since no one knew whose paragraphs they were reading, but all the feedback recipients knew who wrote the feedback, some of them were planning on visiting their friends to ask them why all they got on their rubrics was the word “nice.” They saw how maddening it is to receive useless feedback, which will motivate them to leave useful feedback in the future. And they got a lot of compliments. Many of my students wrote vague compliments, but many others wrote specific compliments that made my students feel good about their writing. I never have time to point out what the kids are doing right. The comments (criticisms) they left were quite good. I spot-checked before I handed anything back so I could pull any mean criticisms, but there weren’t any. Most of it was along the lines of “forgot to do this part.” My kids who wrote the paragraphs were able to improve their paragraphs because they knew exactly what they missed–and only a few times had writers included something that critiquers thought the writers missed. Some of my students who hadn’t written the paragraph yet picked up a blank copy of the rubric to use while developing their paragraphs.

There’s just no way I could have done as much targeted feedback on their writing in such a short amount of time. I will be spending the summer developing the heck out of this and using it all next year.

Because the kids badgered me to, and because I needed to start thinking about starting points for grade conversations, I put up a “guidelines” list for letter grades. I explained very carefully to my students that the list was only a starting point, and not a definitive “if you have this, you will get an A” set of criteria. The file’s on my desktop at work, unfortunately,┬ábut my cut-off point will be this: No “missing” assignments or “incomplete” assignments if you want a grade of C or better. I think that’s fair, since missing and incomplete were both worth 50% under my old system, and because I gave them literally hours of time in class to complete and revise their assignments.

After I teach my samurai sub-unit we’ll start the grade conferencing. I’ll begin with the highest achievers first, because that will give my students who are still getting work in time to slip it under the radar. (And for my SpEd students, the extra time they get due to their IEPs.) I should hopefully be finished in four days because I’d like to have a class party on the last day of school.

I’ll close with this awesome article on giving feedback on student writing. Thank you for reading.

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