Category Archives: Grading

6 For 1: What a Deal!

A while back I wanted my students to write more, but I knew I didn’t have the time to assess more. So, like Miniver Cheevy, I “thought, and thought, and thought/ and thought about it…scratched [my] head and kept on thinking…/coughed, and called it fate,/ And kept on drinking.” Ok, not really, but that’s a great poem for allusions and the differences between Romanticism and Realism.

Anyway, I came up with a simple idea: each day in class the students compose a 1-2 paragraph mini-essay after choosing a prompt from a list I created based on what we are reading at the time. We do this for six days, numbering each essay one through six, and then on the seventh day I roll a die to determine which essay I collect. The students have 20 minutes in class to write, and then they are responsible for finalizing each draft that night or on the weekend.

Students who are absent the day I collect the work receive the same treatment; when they walk in the room, I roll the die and the result may not be the same as the rest of the class. That’s just the way chance works is what I tell the students when explaining the process.

The writings (on which the six essays are based) that the students are in the midst of composing are the following:

P.S. As an introduction to the period, I once again assigned the research displays I blogged about last year.

The Teacher as Savior Myth

Teachers, when showcased on film, seem to be viewed as saviors to the underprivileged children of the world and people to whom all other teachers should aspire. However, the reality surrounding these teachers of greatness is often left unsaid. Many of these teachers leave the profession soon after the events of depiction are shown while others become mainly speakers rather than teachers, and some are just unable to work within or change the system as a whole (more a problem of the system and administrators than the teachers themselves).

Despite even this, my biggest objection to teachers in film are the new stereotypes of the white woman (or man) saving the less fortunate and storytellers changing reality to make the film more palatable. This can most recently be seen in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

Freedom Writers is the story of Erin Gruwell’s successes in an inner-city high school, and this film–while inspring to many–is not free from criticism. Josh Tyler, Editor-in-Chief of, goes so far as to say Ms. Gruwell (in the film) is “a pampered, idealistic, white girl with grand ideas about how sheโ€™s going to save the ghetto.” He further states in his review that Ms. Gruwell’s detractors:

have a point. She was the right person, with the right class, at the right time. She doesnโ€™t discover a magic formula for getting gangbangers to stop shooting each other in the chest, she simply stumbles on a class full of downtrodden, violent kids who happen to be ready to listen. As portrayed in the film, the secret to her success was simply blind, stupid idealism.”

While I believe Mr. Tyler’s criticism may be a bit harsh, he does note that Ms. Gruwell’s successes with her methods are not repeatable, are not reproducable. This is, of course, not really spoken of when noting a teacher’s successes and failures.

An additional and maybe far more sad example of a myth filling social expectations rather than reality is in Dangerous Minds when LouAnne Johnson is shown using Dylan lyrics to inspire her students when she actually used rap lyrics. As Roger Ebert states in his movie review:

The real Miss Johnson used not Dylan but the lyrics of rap songs to get the class interested in poetry.

Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out.

Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.

What has happened in the book-to-movie transition of LouAnne Johnson’s book is revealing. The movie pretends to show poor black kids being bribed into literacy by Dylan and candy bars, but actually it is the crossover white audience that is being bribed with mind-candy in the form of safe words by the two Dylans.

The lack of reality in this film detracts from a vital piece of information about teaching kids, especially those who may be resistant to learning: using material relevant to the students can be a major hurdle to overcome. Simply using material the kids will accept can be a gateway to skillbuilding and possibly to other literature.

Even when the teacher in question is not white, the reality of the teacher is often ignored or eschewed in favor of a more palatable tale. Jaime Escalante’s successes, as seen in Stand and Deliver, are wondrous to behold. However, his headbutting with the union and administration is ignored as well as his inability to change the perceptions about inner-city students (even in his own school!). His teacher partner isn’t even shown or mentioned in the film.

I wish that it wasn’t necessary to show teachers working in isolation to achieve results, that they have to fight the system to succeed. Systems are always more successful in raising overall student achievement than an individual; systems can touch more students. I wonder where the stories are detailing how a school or school system rises to success, where teachers and administrators actually work together. It does happen from time to time. ๐Ÿ™‚

Still, these stories make me feel good. I guess I’m as suckered as the rest of society when it comes to these films. As a teacher I would like to think I can have even a fraction of the impact these teachers had. Maybe I have or maybe I might one day, and maybe that’s why I keep watching these films.

Side note #1: If you were to make a movie about teaching or a teacher, what would it be?

Side note #2: I remember that show Boston Public on TV about ten years ago, and it was one I really hoped would show some of the realities of teaching. However, it quickly devolved into a tawdry and weak soap opera.

I might have been appeased a little bit had they even had one teacher who graded papers for real. Every school has that one teacher who is buried in papers to grade; for me, grading papers is the most time-consuming part of the job. I thought I could have at least watched the show had there been a teacher in the background of scenes who never speaks but is constantly grading. During the staff meetings or in the staff lounge, that one teacher could have been present with that ever-large stack of papers.

Make a Deal?

I make deals with kids at the ends of semesters. Some of my colleagues don’t agree with my philosophy, but I think it makes perfect sense.

We have very precise course outlines for each of the classes we teach, so what students must learn to pass each course is spelled out (which is wonderful for new teachers learning to instruct the courses). This allows me to look very carefully at the students’ accomplishments and reasons for why they don’t pass a class.

When a student earns over 50% in the class, needs only a very few learnings (or redos), and agrees to a 2-3 week work window, I will pass a student if the essential learnings are met and the student redoes a couple assignments of my choice meeting an agreed upon minimum standard. I think that a student should be allowed a 2-3 week opportnity to pass a class rather than have the student lose an elective and spend 18 weeks repeating an entire course (especially when the student may need very little to pass).

Not only is this compassionate, but also it makes economic sense. If 10 teachers in a department can make 3 deals each (out of 125-150 kids each), that is one section of a course we don’t have to create and staff. Plus, we may be able to keep a student from losing hope. An ‘F’ grade can be very damaging to a student’s feelings of self-worth, in particular a student so close to passing.

I’m encouraging others to take on the small amount of extra work each semester to help these kids out. Maybe I am a bleeding heart. ๐Ÿ™‚

Shouldn’t Be In That Position

As I watched the highlights of the Sunday NFL games, one coach was asked about his team’s one-point loss. He replied, “We shouldn’t have been in that position” and said that the final drive of the game for the opponent did not decide the game. He noted that the team bungled numerous opportunities throughout the game and that no game should come down to the final play.

This is exactly how I feel about the end of each semester; one assignment (i.e. the final) should not determine a student’s success or failure.

I know, however, I will have 5-6 students whose passage in a course will be decided by the final. Of course, the odds would seem to indicate that at least one student won’t make it as well. The parents will beg for extra credit or something else, but I always hold firm; no extra assignments and no retakes on the final. After 18 weeks, a student is ready or is not. If a student can’t pass the final, I don’t want to hear anything.

This would seem to go against my allowing students to retake tests belief, but it really does not. Other tests are the first summative assessment after numerous practices. The final is all review material, so the students will see no surprises. All of the material has been seen before. Plus, my finals are always objective. No excuses, especially when (in reality) the final did not determine the student’s success.

Anyone else feel this way?

8. Grades Should Not Be Based On The Mean.

In my Standards-Based Grading post two weeks ago, Anon Y. Mous asked that I explain the rationale behind each of the core guidelines involved in the S.B.G. system. I think it’s a good suggestion and here is the eighth core guideline. Please comment with any corrections as I am still learning this new system. ๐Ÿ™‚

When recording student scores into a grade book, the teacher discovers that these are Johnny’s scores: 91, 91, 91, 91, 91, 70, 91, 91, 91, and 91. If the mean is used to calculate Johnny’s grade, the final grade would be 88.9% (B+). However, is this really an accurate representation of Johnny’s overall achievement? What caused the one abnormal score? Would not an A- be a more accurate reflection of Johnny’s grade?

I use categories when grading, and when I have more than ten assignments in a category I sometimes drop the lowest score. If a student just had a rough day or for whatever reason had one score outside of the normal range, I think it’s fair to drop one score. However, if I allow retakes of tests or other major assignments, I do not drop a low score.

I joked at our meeting the other day that maybe grading should use Olympic scoring where the top and bottom score is dropped with the middle scores measuring achievement. The extreme scores would not factor into the final average.

Regardless, is it acceptable to ignore the mean when grading? Should other factors determine final grades?