Sunday, January 30, 2011

Five reasons why you should stop grading

As you know from my previous blog posts here and here, I am no longer grading my student's work. I have implemented the 3P Grading system this semester in my sophomore and senior English classes. I was scared to death to do it because I felt like I was giving up total control of the class.

After a month of trying out the 3P Grading System, it has honestly been the best thing I have implemented in my career.

Here are five reasons why you should stop grading your student's work:

1. The students take control of their own education.

In my old system where I graded everything, I felt like I often cared more than my students about their grades. I would literally lose sleep over the fact that my students didn't do an assignment or work very hard at something.

When you don't give grades, it is on the students to prove to you that they deserve the grade they want. If they want an "A" then they will have to show me that they went above and beyond to earn an A. In the last month, I have found that my students are now pushing themselves in everything they do. It is obvious the students who want to get an A, and I am seeing many students who are now pushing themselves more than they ever did before. It has been awesome to watch.

2. Improvement and learning becomes the focus

With this system of grading, you are looking at how a student improves from August until May.

I had an interesting conversation in December (before I went to this system) with a colleague about a student that we both have in class. The first few months of school, this student didn't do anything. He didn't turn in assignments, participate in class discussions or really do anything other than show up. Sometime around October, I saw a light bulb turn on with this student. He changed into a totally different person. He was engaged. He was working hard. He was trying. As a result, he was learning. 

I told my colleague, "Wow! Can you believe how much he has changed this semester? He is doing awesome work in class. I have been so impressed." My colleague said, "Right, he is doing better, but he dug himself in such a hole at the beginning of the year that he can't dig his grade out now. The best he can get is a D."

I can't stop thinking about this conversation. Isn't our job as teachers to help students learn and get a little bit better every day throughout the year? Should we penalize students for the work they do in August and September when we really haven't had a chance to work with them yet? I'm not saying this student deserved an "A", but I have a hard time giving a student who truly is making progress and getting better a low grade because of the work he did early on. This system rewards students who make improvements throughout the year.

3. Student's grades are more accurate

How many times have you had a student who gets an "A" in your class because they do all of the work asked of them, but is really more of a "B" or "C" student? How many times have you had a student who gets a "D" because they didn't do a major assignment, but probably really deserves a "B"? I have had many students who fit into this criteria. The math in the grade book showed me a grade that I really don't agree with. Students were able to get good grades just by doing the bare minimum. 

When you are just putting numbers into a grade book and averaging at the end, you really aren't giving an inaccurate representation of who that student is. Learning can't be computed by numbers.

With this system of grading, I believe the students will get a grade that accurately represents the grade they deserve. If they want an "A", then they will have to go above and beyond to make it happen. They can't just skate by with the bare minimum. I am finally looking at the entire body of work for my students, and not just the number that my grade book software spits out at the end.

4. No more late work!

I am a firm believer in meeting deadlines. I believe as educators, it is our responsibility to teach students about the importance of taking responsibility and getting work done on time. That is a life-lesson that is arguably more important than reading Shakespeare.

Over the years I have tried everything to get my students to turn in work on time:

One year I gave zeros for late work. I told my students, "Don't even try to turn something in if it is late. I won't take it!" Yeah, that lasted about two weeks until: 1. Half of my students were failing and 2. I couldn't keep track of who had extra time to turn in assignments because they were absent the day they were assigned.

One year I tried giving "late work" passes. They had two passes for late work, and if they didn't use them then they could cash them in for extra credit. That didn't last long either.

I never came up with a solution that worked. I was so frustrated because nothing that I tried changed their behavior. Late work was a huge problem that I could never solve.

Now that I don't take or grade individual assignments, I don't worry about late work. I know that life happens, and sometimes their printer really didn't work or they really did have to work until midnight. When students don't have things turned in or are late with work, I make a note of it, but that is it. I don't get hung up on trying to dock students or punish them for it. If they want an "A", then they should rarely have late work. If almost everything they do is late, then they are going to have a hard time arguing for a grade that is higher than a "C" or "D".

5. Not having to answer, "Is this going to be for a grade?"

How many times have you been asked that question? Or even better, "How much is this worth?" I know I have heard it hundreds of times over the years. Students have been conditioned for their entire lives to worry more about how much an assignment is worth and then accumulating those points, than the actual learning that is taking place. Doing an assignment just for the intrinsic value of learning? What a crazy concept!

When you don't give grades, you focus on the learning and not the points associated with an assignment.

I was so scared that my students would flat out refuse to do work now that I am not giving grades. I will admit that I have heard some grumblings from students who are saying, "If he isn't going to grade it, then I am not going to do it." However, those students are very few and far between.

FAR MORE students are working harder and actually doing their work now without having a point value attached to it. It now feels like real learning is taking place for the sake of learning.

These are just a few of the benefits I have found in my first month implementing this grading system. I have been reinvigorated as an educator, and I am looking forward to seeing how this impacts my students the rest of the year.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Run Game: Counter-Trey

If Mesh is the most versatile passing concept in our offense, then Counter-Trey would probably be the equivalent in the running game. It is another variation of "Double-Down Kickout", but it is very effective from a spread set.

It is a very simple concept for the linemen to execute, and you can dress it up and give it multiple looks in the backfield. I am all for any play where the linemen have the same job to do up front, but the backfield action can change. Counter-Trey is a perfect example of that.

Offensive Line Rules:

To the playside we are working to build a wall. We like to double-team at the point of attack. Our rule for the playside TE, Tackle, Guard, and Center is ANGLE. They are on an angled path in the opposite direction of the play. Anyone who crosses their face, they take. If we can get a double-team, we want them to have four hands on the down linemen, and four eyes on the linebacker on their path. One of them will come off and take him.

The backside guard will pull and trap the last man on the line of scrimmage. If he is trapping right, he should hit with his right shoulder. If the end squeezes, the guard will "log" block him and set the wall by reaching him (a log blog).

The only exception to the backside guard and center's rule is if the guard has someone in his gap opposite the play.

Against. a 4-man front, you usually see a shade to one side and a 3-tech to the other. Ideally we would like to run it towards the 3-tech side. If we are running it to the shade's side, then the guard would have a man in his gap (the 3-tech) and he therefore can't pull to trap. We would then pull the center and have him trap, and the backside guard would angle block the man in his gap.

The backside tackle will pull and lead up on the playside backer. He should work to make sure his shoulders are square on the linebacker. It is very similar to ISO, just with the tackle leading instead of a fullback.

Backfield action:

There are over a dozen variations you can use with this scheme. You can use fakes and misdirection to get it to virtually any ball carrier within five yards of the center. We have had the RB, QB, FB, and Slot Receivers all carry the ball on this play. I like to figure out who our most explosive player is, and come up with a way to get him the ball on Counter-Trey. Here are some examples:

Here are some cut-ups from this year (powered by Hudl):

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Here are some more cut-ups from my previous school. We ran Counter-Trey from multiple looks and formations:

What coaching points do you have about the Counter-Trey? Do you have other variations that you like to use? Please feel free to comment below!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

3P Grading: Parent Questions

I have received several excellent questions and comments from parents about the 3P Grading System that I am using this semester. I am piloting this system this semester, so there are going to be bugs I need to work out. Instead of e-mailing each parent individually, I will address them all on this blog.

Click here if you would like to read Steve Peha's original article about the system. It is a long read, but definitely thought-provoking. This the letter I sent home to all parents.

Here are the questions I received, with my responses:

1. Why are you starting this mid-school year instead of implementing next school year?

I read an article last semester about the inherent problems with grading. The more I read about grading, the more problems I saw in how I was grading and evaluating students. I wrote about this in a post on my professional blog. 

In my opinion, grading is the least effective form of feedback we can provide. It only provides feedback AFTER the learning, when students have already moved on to something else. Instead, I am going to give feedback throughout the learning process.

Simply put, I had to do something. After reading about the problems with grading, I couldn't go on doing the same things I had been doing. Several of my colleagues encouraged me to try out the 3P Grading System this semester. All grades start over at semester, so it was a great time to try it out. If it works, I will implement it from the start next year.

2. Do you include "organization" in the "participation" evaluation?

I had not thought about this, but I would say that it is a part of all three categories. Their blog is acting as their portfolio. If they are not keeping their blog up-to-date and organized (participation), it will be difficult to conference with me to show their performance and demonstrate progress.

3. How may we find our student's blog so as to observe his/her performance in class?

I would encourage you to ask your student for their blog address. In fact, I encouraged my students to share their blog with you. One of the major advantages of maintaining a blog is to reach a bigger audience than just me or their classmates.

They set up blogs in class, and submitted their blog address to me. I can also e-mail you their blog address if you send me an e-mail.  

4. Will your evaluation be weighted compared to the child's self-evaluation in class?

Both of our evaluations are worth 50% of their final semester grade.

For each of our grades:
Participation is worth 50%
Progress is worth 30%
Performance is worth 20%

I will give them a grade for each component, and they will give themselves a grade. I will use a formula to calculate the final semester grade.

However, I don't expect that our grades will be too far off from each other. In other words, I don't expect that a student will give themselves all A's, while I give them all D's. For the most part, we will probably be off by only one or MAYBE two letter grades.

If so, that is why we will conference. They will need to prove to me why they deserve their grade. Perhaps they can demonstrate that they showed progress in one area, and I did not recognize it. I can be convinced to raise my grade from the initial one I assigned if they make a compelling case for it.

5. How will improvement from the beginning of the year be gauged since a different evaluation system was in use?

One philosophy that I try to live my life by is to, "Get a little better every day."

I believe that I can improve as a teacher every day. I also believe students can get a little better every day. What we get better at is unique to each person.

That is the great thing about this system. Student "A" might be really bad at writing thesis statements at the beginning of the year, but by the end they are pretty good. Student "B" might hate Shakespeare and not understand him at all, but by the end of the semester begin to appreciate and understand his writing.

We are all works in progress, and I believe we can continue to show progress and get a little better every day. 

6. By participation do you mean if someone answers a question or gives an idea? Seems it can be subjective if you have a particular student who doesn't LET others participate because they always want to respond.

Yes, that is one part of participation. Here are my expectations of participation:

  • Come to class every day.
  • Be prepared. Have work completed on time.
  • Share regularly. Give good feedback. Ask good questions.
  • Be respectful.
  • Take ownership of your results; be accountable; don’t blame.
  • Ask for help when you need it; use the advice I give you.

As you can see, there are other ways to show participation without speaking up in class.

At work, we are all expected to "participate" and contribute to our jobs. I make a concerted effort to call on each student at least once each day. Some students are much more outgoing and willing to participate. I also understand that some students are shy. I think that is something we can work to improve on (progress) throughout the semester.  

Every year I have students who are scared to speak out in class at the beginning of the year and then really come out of their shells by May. It is really amazing to watch.  This system will reward those students for the progress they make in participation. 

7. I don't see anything about tests. Will there be any?

I have worked hard to eliminate traditional tests from my class. When you think about it, how often do you take a multiple choice test in "the real-world"? The only time I can think of is when you get your driver's license renewed. I'm sure there are other examples, but they are few and far between.

If we aren't expected to take tests in our lives after school, why should we spend time taking them in school?

Therefore, I assess students through projects, real-life writing assignments, class discussions, etc... One exception to that is the Kansas Reading Assessment that our sophomores will take. That is a very important test we are mandated by law to give, so we will spend a great deal of time working on that. I also do ACT prep with my seniors in the fall, and sophomores in the spring.

With that in mind, one way that my sophomores can demonstrate "progress" is through their scores on the reading assessment. We took pre-tests in August and December, and the final test will be in February. Almost across the board, I have witnessed progress in their scores. That is awesome!

I hope this helped answer your questions. Students or parents, please feel free to add questions in the comments section at the bottom of this post. I am here to help you be successful!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Grading: A New (and Terrifying) Frontier

Image via
Several months ago, I read a couple of articles about grading practices. I didn't put much thought into it because I had the whole grading thing figured out. I graded my students the way that I always was, so it had to be the best way.

Then I started to come across more articles about new ideas of grading and assessing. And more. And more. Until one day I came across the 3P Grading System on the English Companion Ning.  After I read that article by Steve Peha, I knew I could never go back to the old way of grading.

I knew that my "system" of grading had three major flaws:

1. I had students in the past who figured out the "game" and would only come to class one day a week and would turn in all of their assignments. I post all of my assignments online for students to access when they are sick, so this was my own fault. I came to this realization: You could pass my class, and rarely come to class. I was not grading students on if they were truly engaged in learning, only if they could hand in work. 

2. Students could dig themselves in a huge hole at the start of the semester, and never be able to get out. My system expected students to know how to write great papers or fully understand Beowulf or Macbeth at the start of the unit or year, rather than looking at their education as a stair-step approach. I did not have a way of rewarding students who improved throughout the semester, getting a little better each day.

3. Finally, my method of grading papers, tests, homework and projects did little to increase student learning. I would spend a great deal of time creating and filling out rubrics, marking up papers, taking off points for silly mistakes, and tearing their work to shreds because "that is what a tough teacher does". After completely dismantling their work, I would hand it back to them with a grade on it. And that was it. I knew students hardly looked at the feedback I gave them, and I didn't have time to have them redo their work. We were moving on to the next unit or assignment. I was only providing feedback at the end of the learning process, after the work had taken place.

The "3P Grading System" address all three of those concerns. In this system, you don't grade ANYTHING.

Let that sink in for a minute...

Instead, you give lots of feedback. Lots and lots of feedback as students are working, not once they are finished. They keep this material in a portfolio (I am asking them to maintain a blog).

Image via
The three P's are:

1. Participation (Are the students engaged? Do they ask questions? Do they participate in class? Do they turn in work on time?)

2. Progress (How much improvement do students make from August until December, or whenever you decide to grade them. Are they getting better at skills they are weak at?)

3. Performance (How well do they do the things they do?)

At grading periods, the students give themselves a grade. I give them a grade. We average them together and we are done. No grading. No crunching numbers. It is as simple as that.

I would highly encourage you to read more about the 3P grading system here.

I was going to wait until the fall to implement this new system, but I knew I needed to change. As I said, I couldn't go back to the old way of doing things.

On Wednesday, I discussed the new grading procedures with my classes and sent home this letter to parents. I am curious to see how they will respond, because it is a total shift from how grades have been given since the beginning of time.

I am going to be blogging about this experience for the next several months. I believe it will allow students to take control of their education, and allow me to be a much more effective teacher.  I am scared to death of how it will go, but at the same time it has reinvigorated me as an educator.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

5 tips for starting a Photo 365 Project

On December 31st, 2009, I made a New Year's resolution to complete a Photo 365 Project. One year later, I have successfully documented (*almost) every day in 2010 with a picture. Here is the finished product.

*I missed three days all year. One day I was so sick I did not have the strength to pick up a camera. I think I simply forgot the other two. I don't think that is too bad.

Several people have asked me about starting a Photo 365 Project, so here are some tips to get started:

1. Choose the best way to document your project

This was something I went back-and-forth with for awhile before I finally settled on a method. I first tried using a Word Press blog or Flickr, but neither one really gave me what I wanted.

Then I discovered, and it was perfect. The website allows you to upload several pictures at once, and even e-mail them in to the website from your phone.

You also can add a title and a caption to each photograph, making your project much like an online journal. You can see the entire month at once, or scroll through day-by-day. This made it very easy to see what days I needed to upload pictures for. I would highly recommend that website.

2. Have a camera with you at all times.

You don't need to go out and buy an expensive digital camera. I used a Sony DSC-W290 Camera to take most of the pictures, but I also used my Blackberry Storm smart phone (not the best quality, especially in low light).

The key is to have a camera with you at all times. I always left the camera sitting on the kitchen table, or somewhere visible as a reminder to take a picture each day. You never know when something will happen that will make a great picture.

3. Pick a theme or subject

My son was born on January 11th, 2010, so this gave me a great subject to photograph the entire year. It is really cool to be able to go back and look at how much he grew day-to-day. If you pick a theme or subject, that will give you inspiration each day when you are struggling to find something to take a picture of.

January 15, 2010

December 29, 2010

Here is a similar project, where a father took a picture of his daughter every day for 10 years!

4. Make each picture memorable

This is something that I did a poor job of this year. Looking back at my pictures, I can only remember taking probably half of them. Many were not memorable moments. I wish I had included more of a caption to explain what was going on in each picture, but many were just of my son being cute!
Say "Cheese!"
5. Know the rule of thirds

If you don't know the rule of thirds, here is a quick explanation. Imagine your picture is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Where those lines intersect is where you should place your subject. It subconsciously makes your picture much more visually appealing.

My final piece of advice: Keep with it! There will be days where you don't feel like taking a picture, or you are lacking inspiration. Don't give up on it. If you make an effort to do it every day for several weeks, it will become a habit. Take a picture each day, but don't feel like you have to update your website each day.  

If you have any other questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below. Have fun!