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I hate grading.  No, not the actually giving of feedback on student work. I hate those numerical distortions of what that work actually means. The reasons we are stuck with grading are myriad.

  • Parents expect them (is there any way my child can get this high enough to at least be a B?).
  • Kids obsess over them (how much late work do I need to turn in to get at least to a 70?)
  • The press obsesses over them (this year’s valedictorian beat out the rest of the pack by less than 0.1 point)
  • Colleges look at them (what was your overall GPA?)
  • Grading is easier because of them (you got a 75 out of 100 on this assignment)

But what do they mean exactly?  Take a look at this chart:

This is a list of 10 grades for a teacher grade book. They are totally arbitrary in that they don’t represent any particular grade book.  On the left, the teacher decides that every missing assignment deserves a zero. On the right, the teacher feels that is too harsh and gives missing assignments a 50 in order to keep the kid from giving up.

In one class, the student receives a 45 average.  In the other, a 70.  The kid did exactly the same work. Even extra credit for the teacher on the left (don’t get me started on extra credit) won’t bring this grade up to passing. Both teachers gave a significant failing grade to missing work.

Or, take the tale of the teacher who gives 10 grades per grading period compared to the one who gives 25. Averages begin to change quickly. Poor work is penalized less when surrounded by more helpful grades.

Even emojis work better as feedback than arbitrary numbers on a page.

The Thumbs Up – I really like what you did here. It met the basic requirements of what we were looking for and is considered along the line of average work.  Good job!

The Heart – You went above and beyond on this assignment. You not only covered all the basics as required, but you added a lot of things that really made your work stand out. Keep it up!

The Laughing Face – I am absolutely giddy with delight over this work. It is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t give out laughing faces lightly.  Well done!

The Surprised Face – Your work was really good. I’m happy to see that you included some elements I hadn’t thought about while reading it. I liked it so much, I’m going to change the way I look at this assignment in the future. I’m going to add some of your elements to my expectations. Way to go!

The Sad Face – I truly wish you had worked just a little harder on this one. It was close, but it did not meet all the expectations we laid out in the rubric for this work. I’d love it if you would try again. After we go over some exemplary work product in class, see if you can figure out where you went wrong and submit it again after you edit it. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask me. Stay on it!

The Angry Face – This didn’t even come close to our expectations. In fact, you didn’t cover the material expected at all. I cannot accept this in it’s current state. Please do a complete re-working of your submission. Editing won’t help it. Stay Focused!

What do you think? What are you using that’s better than grades?


How Personalized Can We Get?

Posted by Tim under Personalized Learning

There is a big push across the country to personalize learning. As educators, we just shake our heads. Of course learning is personal. We’ve known that for decade upon decade.

And yet…

  • We standardize curriculum
  • We standardize classroom spaces
  • We standardize teacher preparation
  • We standardize testing
  • We standardize teacher evaluations
  • We standardize lesson plans
  • We standardize technology purchases
  • We standardize professional development
  • We standardize report cards
  • We standardize PBL
  • We standardize online learning programs
  • We standardize graduation requirements
  • We standardize maker spaces
  • We standardize libraries
  • We standardize textbook adoptions
  • We standardize IEPs
  • We standardize Response to Intervention
  • We standardize staff sizes
  • We standardize school lunches

I could go on, but I think you see my point. I get it. Standardization is scalable. It’s quick. It’s easy. You can budget for it. It fits nicely into a Google Sheet or a standardized PowerPoint file.

But let’s not kid ourselves. It isn’t personal.

And now it appears we are attempting to standardize personalization.

How personalized can we get in that environment?






Rethinking Questions

Posted by Tim under Assessment, Personalized Learning

This past week I was struck with an idea about questions in the classroom.  It isn’t new. I’ve come across it before. But for some reason it resonated with me.

One of the ways teachers evaluate learning is by asking questions. It is important enough that it is even one our teacher evaluation rubric. Asking questions that require deeper and deeper understanding of the subject to answer adequately is the goal. As a teacher evaluator, questioning is something that jumps out at me during a lesson. I want to see how kids respond.  All kids.  Not just the select few that are eager to please.

And so, this idea of questioning began to swirl around a bit.  I’ll use math as an example because it is probably easiest to make my point, but the idea can be applied to all subjects.

In math, one of the first things we do is easy types of problems.  We need kids to understand how numbers work. Like sight words for reading, some of the simplest problems are the place to start.

Sally, what is 2+2?

In this case, there is one answer. I remember tons of worksheets like this when I was a kid. Those timed 1-minute and 2-minute math drills were fun (although I don’t know what they assessed exactly). I was always competing to be the first one done.  Missing 3 or 10 out of 100 wasn’t of any concern for me. Being second was.

But this is the typical standardized test question that can easily be graded by bubbling something in, or choosing a number on a website. While handy, it is a very weak question. The answer is 4. The answer is always 4 (when working in base 10 anyway). Anything other than 4 is wrong. Try it again.

But what if we asked the question in a way that allows for an infinitude of answers?

Sally, what is 4?

Now the answer could be 2+2, or 10-6, or (2×10)-16. Kids now have the freedom to express themselves in ways much larger than 4. Just asking this question isn’t enough, however. We need to go deeper.

We need to personalize the questions.

Sally, why did you choose that way to express 4?

This is where we can truly begin to understand a child’s mathematical thinking. We can see if they are thinking in more complex math thoughts. And we can get an understanding of where to take them next.

Hint: It will be different for every child.

Have you considered the way you ask the questions in your classroom? What would happen if you started rethinking questions?


What We See Matters

Posted by Tim under Personalized Learning

Last night, after our school’s very successful Open House, I went to the Preservation Pub on Market Square.  A friend of mine had mentioned it was open mic night.  I hadn’t been to an open mic night in years, so it seemed like a good way to relax after a very long day.

Open Mic at Preservation Pub

My first impressions of the four acts I saw went something like this:

  • The first guy had a nice Amos Lee feel with a Harry Chapin tone to his lyrics.  But his three songs all sounded very much alike, and one impression I got was that he wrote 8 minute songs in order to stay on the stage longer.
  • The second guy was a song writer that couldn’t sing.  There are plenty of them.  Willie Nelson. Kris Kristofferson. The lyrics were nice.  They told sad stories.  But the feel was overshadowed by the vocal.
  • The third guy seemed to sling his guitar really low, like Slash for instance, for the sole purpose of looking cool.  It seemed like it made it harder for him to play.  He had what looked like a blanket on his shoulder where the guitar strap was located.  It looked silly. His songs were bluesy. Not much vocals. A lot of guitar riffs. Not bad. But very unpolished.
  • The fourth guy didn’t play anything. He sang a cappella.  Not a good choice for him. His man bun, rolled up capri pants, scruffy Millennial beard, and a 3 foot walking cane that wasn’t really long enough to use as a walking cane so it looked like a really silly accessory, made me cringe from the outset. But when he sang, it only got worse.

Somewhere in the middle of the second act, that guy who wrote good songs but really couldn’t sing, made me realize that I was being horribly unfair.  After all, they all were on stage. I wasn’t. It was about then I decided to look at the performances through an educational lens rather than the “I’m attending a concert” lens.

The first thing that came to mind looking through my educational lens was that I had an entirely wrong rubric. My rubric was based on the scale of: plays guitar (how well), sings (how well), writes songs (how well), performs to the audience (how well).  Do you see the common denominator?  Nearly all our rubrics gauge our students on the “how well” aspect of what they are doing.

I tried to think of other ways to judge these men (no women when I was there, but there was at least one waiting to perform) and their performances.  I started thinking about these:

  • How much courage did it take this individual to get up in front of his peers and perform?
  • What kind of story do the lyrics tell me? Do they engage me on a personal level? Are they about real life?
  • How much of the performer’s life is wrapped up in these songs? Do they appear to be intentional? Do the feel “real” to me?
  • What has this person sacrificed to be on this stage?  What is his personal investment in his art?
  • Is he a one-and-done performer, or does he have the grit, determination, and drive to get back up here again tomorrow?  And the next day?  And the days after that?
  • What does this performance reveal about the performer?

If I rated these guys on the “how well” scale and asked myself, “Would I pay money to see them perform?” the answer is a resounding no. But if I look through my educational lens and ask, “Would I come back to open mic night to hear them again?” the answer is most definitely yes.

And that leads me to assessing the work of our students.  At our school, we expect our kids to get up in front of their peers and give oral presentations from nearly the first day.  We know they may not have a natural talent for it. They may be brand new at it. We don’t expect as much from our freshmen as we might from our seniors. And yet, we are still using a “how well” rubric.

And I’m not saying we need to abandon it.  But perhaps, just perhaps, we need to expand it.

  • Do we know enough about this student to assess the courage it took to do this presentation?
  • Do we know enough about this student’s home life to understand what obstacles have been overcome to do this presentation?
  • Did the personal investment of the student in the topic seem “real” to me? Or was it just rote memorization of facts regurgitated on all his classmates?
  • Did the student know enough about this material that she did not have to read her bulleted slides to the class? Was she able to create meaningful slides that included no words, but help tell her story?
  • What was my level of engagement with this presentation?   Did it win me over? Did I walk away wanting to learn more?

If we are going to emphasize personalized learning, we also need to emphasize personalized assessment.  No two students share the same path to their work. What are we looking for when we assess student performance?

Like open mic nights at a local pub, when it comes to assessing the work of our students, what we see matters.


I have a routine.  I follow it pretty closely 5 days a week. I get up around 4:50 and shower. I get dressed and catch up on things like email, Twitter, Facebook, and my Feedly feed.  Around 5:30 or 5:45 I make breakfast.  Then I leave the house at 6 and go to the Starbucks just 3 minutes from my house.  I sometimes write blog posts (like today), or just troll Facebook, but I drink coffee and let my soul be still for a while before I head to work.

It’s great.

imageMy routine is routine enough that the baristas at Starbucks, although they don’t know me by name, anticipate my arrival.  It isn’t busy at 6 AM.  When they see my car in the parking lot, they go ahead and pour a Tall Pike Place and have it ready for me to place my Strabucks app in front of their infra red scanner.  We exchange good mornings, and I find a place by the window at a small table to work.

It’s great. Until it Isn’t.

Occasionally, I’ve been trying some of their Reserve Roast.  It’s a little more expensive, so I often wait until the weekend for a treat, or until I’ve earned a star reward to get it free.  On a few routine mornings, I’ve stepped out of the car thinking I’ll splurge on a Reserve East Timor Peaberry (a favorite) only to find my Tall Pike Place sitting on the counter in front of a smiling, well-meaning barista who has just helped me out by anticipating my desire. Out of respect for their generosity and kindness, I settle back with my Tall Pike and enjoy my quiet time. But I am slightly dissatisfied with the morning.

And then there are the total disasters.  I came in Sunday and decided to use my reward points to get a Grande Reserve coffee.  A flavor I had not yet tried.  I gave my order to a new girl behind the counter, and before she could ring it up, one of my regulars stepped in front of her and rang up my order, including charging it to my reward stars.  What did I get? A Tall Pike Place.

Personalized service is great, until it become rote standardization.

And this is the trap we risk in personalizing learning.  To personalize means to allow the student the autonomy to choose for every single assignment.  The moment we limit the choices a student has, we take personalization away.

Billy Bob, here are three ways you can show me what you know.  You can write a paper.  You can create a video. You can make a podcast.  You get to choose!

Compare that to the following:

Billy Bob, here are the things I need to see in order to know that you fully understand this material. If you could choose any way in the world to demonstrate that knowledge to me, what you choose?  Why that? Can you show me a plan on how you could get that finished by the due date? Can you do this alone, or would you like to work on it with a partner or small group? What will you need from me in order to help you? What technology do you need? Would it help if I gave you a couple of extra days?

In the first scenario, we are still concentrating on making things easiest for the teacher.  We’ve given some choices, but limited it enough to make grading as simple and easy as possible.

In the second, the concentration is on the student.  She gets to figure it out.  He gets to struggle.  They both get to take ownership.  True ownership.

Standardizing personal choice is great.  Until it isn’t.