Category Archives: Being a better teacher

Grades gone wild…

The Keys

Cult of Pedagogy turned my attention to this fantastic post by Arthur Chiaravalli, “Teachers Going Gradeless.” 

Gratitude for my PLN for helping me stay fresh, excited and wise: things have been tricky at my school recently, and while we’re on spring break I am determined to relax, dangit. Refresh, Renew. All that good stuff. People are worried about me (turns out middle school girls and boys think I’m crying when I am having a hot flash–thanks, menopause). I was beginning to get a little worried about myself: have I taught them enough? Is testing going to be okay? Will the boy who won’t allow me to help him be a better reader be okay? Will that girl who has given up on herself understand that we won’t give up on her?

Perhaps this may be the simple answer to those complex, emotional questions: as we strive to allow for our students to be independent, the most obvious path is the timeless practice of self-assessment. Their emotional responses to learned helplessness and inner-dialogue of shame may be cooled by simply allowing them the space that they are in more control than they believe. 

Things on teachers’ minds must be washed and dried before break ends–otherwise, it’s not a break. So just in the nick of time here are some ideas about having students self-assess. Chiaravelli draws from the great minds of pedagogy:

Drawing on the research of Ruth Butler, Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck, Alfie Kohn, Linda McNeil, Linda Mabry, Maja Wilson and countless others, we are teachers who are convinced that teaching and learning can be better when we grade less.

For some of us, the word gradeless means to grade less, that is, limiting the impact of grades within the context of current constraints. Some are just trying to get away from toxic assessment and grading practices, like assessments with no opportunity to redo or retake or zeroes on the mathematically disproportionate 100-point scale.

Okay, cool. I have always allowed for redos, and never marked things down for being late, etc. Okay. Instincts without research don’t mean anything – so he provides the research.

What my grading practices are now:
  1. Non-negotiable assignments:
    • Weekly Vocabulary worth 50 points
      • If they don’t turn it in, it goes in zero and missing in Skyward.
      • They have one to two weeks to turn it in and receive full points. I never mark down work simply for being late, and never have.
      • Positive: Once they see they are in control of their non-negotiables and have choice and flexibility,  they get in a routine of learning and diving into new words.
      • Negative: Students still don’t understand that the zero, which is horrible but the only way they and their parents pay attention or get a notification, can be easily remedied by doing the work. I will ask other students in the class who have turned things in late and subsequently turn them in, and their grade changes, to share that with the class. In addition, I still need to track students down.
  2. Grading every two weeks as required.
  3. Grading assessments (especially the Common Formative Assessments created by our ELA PLC 8th grade as ‘no count.’
How are they evolving:
  1. I created a unit/module in Canvas called “Top Ten Things” for ELA. Its intended purpose allows for student flexibility: if they are done with something, they can explore ten lessons in a ‘flipped’ way.
    • Positive: Students who seek them out enjoy doing them as “extra credit.”
    • Allows for self-exploration and questions– great opportunity for metacognition and independent work.
    • Negative: Students have been confused — understandable. These absolutely require my guidance, and that’s fine. Another issue is students requiring more guidance than time allows. After the break this is something I will address.
  2. Provided a ‘create your own rubric lesson’ in the fall: this is a concept I plan on bringing back this spring after the break.
  3. Allowing students to assess student work—now that there is student work to share based on current projects!
Next level:
  1. Paraphrasing and crafting metrics and rubrics based on CCSS, standardized assessments (from the OSPI/SBA)
  2. Crafting choice projects/burning questions metrics based on CCSS
  3. Crafting and self-assessing on both low stakes and high stakes assignments they create and produce.
  4. Continuing to provide curriculum maps to students — visible checklists to help guide them.
Clarifying goals:

The second finding comes from John Hattie (2012) whose synthesis of 800 meta-studies showed that student self-assessment/self-grading topped the list of educational interventions with the highest effect size. By teaching students how to accurately self-assess based on clear criteria, teachers empower them to become “self-regulated learners” able to monitor, regulate, and guide their own learning. The reason students never develop these traits is that our monopoly on assessment, feedback, and grading has trained students to adopt an attitude of total passivity in the learning process.


Let us all “grade less” so students can learn more. Just like in any creative pursuit, the linear qualities of rubrics do not have to constrain, but to guide.

PS Not sure where I found this:

This could be a good approach to student-created rubrics.
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On my shoulders:



The patterns of a year include the breaks: the winter break, we have a mid-winter one, and now the spring one is on its way. There is a change of energy, and moreover, stress, that comes with the change of seasons and the realization we may not be as far along as we’d hope. We adults, by and large, are mature enough to know what we need to do to regain inspiration, motivation, and determination, but many of our students do not. Take a moment and think about how your year is going right now — take a look at the landscape–what is working, and what is not?

We’ve been seeing the increase in poverty for years.

In How to Teach Resilience by Paul Tough, he explores the paradox of “teaching” noncognitive skills–they can’t be taught, at least not in a traditional, rote manner. “Grit” does not, nor should it, be assessed in any way, either. Many educators have misused the concept of grit, and as an unintended consequence add more stress. I know I’ve done this, and stop myself short when my “motivational” talks become “lectures.”

Remember: You are safe.

So what are some concrete means to teach the abstract, the unassessable? Here are some steps I take and will take again, along this journey:

  1. Renew the bond: start off the class with the greeting in a more formal, intentional way, as I did at the beginning of the year.
  2. Start the class with a minute of mindfulness: just breathe.
  3. Bring back our First Fifteen minutes of reading–not sure how that got in the ditch, but time to tow it out again.
  4. Construct/personalize progress: I’ve been starting a new approach about grades: there are some assignments that are non-negotiable, but others that students can choose to complete a set amount of points: for example, a choice of ten articles to read to complete 70 points for an annotated bibliography. I’ll report back on how this worked, or what could improve.

What sorts of routines do you start the year with, and then sometimes get off track? How do you renew safety and consistency in your classrooms? Any suggestions or ideas are more than welcome.

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Series: Elements of Structure XI: The Video Personality

Note: Some strong language is used in this video, and may be offensive.

This may be the current medium of choice among young adults, and it’s one I thoroughly endorse in format. However, examining the draw of listening/watching, the speed of discourse, and the power of convincing others of a point of view when packaged visually can be dangerous.

In a recent opinion piece by Gretchen Kelly, This Is How White Supremacy Comes to Your Neighborhood, the advent of the video link recommendations and the toxic rabbit holes children, and adults, fall into, may be cause for alarm. It’s up to us to be mindful that most of what students are receiving are not from straight, constricted text, and the act of teaching and learning contextual information is more critical than ever. Videos are visual: Tomi Lahren is visually appealing to her viewers, but even that didn’t protect her from her base turning against her when they disagreed with her stance on one issue.

Ask your second students which videos offend them, and why. We’re in the midst of embroiled discussions about gender and race (and zombies) currently, and you may find out some very interesting things. Be prepared to keep an open mind.

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It’s not you. It’s not me, either. Let’s figure this out.

When we step away from the big, unknowable, terrifying forest of our day, fearing to tread into another emotional imbroglio, collegial drama, or poisonous-tipped toxic gossip, sometimes the right words come at the right time. At this time of the year especially: the testing season is about to begin, teachers are fatigued, repetitive and micro-managed meetings begin to dispirit versus inspire, it’s time to take a close look at the relationships we have and carry with our students and colleagues, and most importantly ourselves. How do we begin anew and maintain the positive energy and hope we and our students desperately seek?

The Unreachable Student:

Written by Ramy Mahmoud, Five Epiphanies for Reaching the Unreachable Student, his honest and humble approach to students’ needs gets about as authentic as one can be:

He’s not mad at me.

I honestly could not begin to list the multiple, highly disrespectful acts this learner has directed towards me in the few months we’ve known each other. He’s insulted the way I look, the way I dress, and even my family who’s pictures are on my desk. He’s screamed obscenities, called me names, and constantly walked away as I was trying to talk to him. In my early years, these actions would have absolutely crushed me. I would have either reacted by kicking him out of my class or breaking down in tears. I would have asked myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”

But I know that none of these outbursts are truly directed towards me. I simply represent every adult that has ever failed him in the past. His frustrations are simply a manifestation of everything he cannot control. The hand that he’s been so unfairly dealt brings with it a level of stress and frustration that, again, I cannot relate to. The need for confrontation has little to nothing to do with his opinion of me, but instead is a biological necessity to relieve the pressure that’s been building within the depths of his soul. As an adult who holds him to a certain level of standards, I place myself directly in the line of fire to this barrage every single day.

So, I’ve learned to forgive and forget. Depending on the severity of the outburst, whether it’s directed towards me or another student, or whether it places anyone’s safety in jeopardy, I’ve responded accordingly with required disciplinary measures. But, when I see him again, I treat him as if the incident didn’t happen. I make sure he understands that his past will never define him in my eyes- even the very recent past.

Brains, silly.

Most of our students have emotional trauma of one sort or another: it’s not to be dismissed, but nor is it to become fetishized.

Tapping into empathy is difficult, and takes profound emotional effort, and it can’t be a one-way relational direction. That may sound obvious, but consider the oxygen mask idea – in order to save others, you must first save yourself.

Brain research and demonstration provided by my amazing friend and colleague, Sharon Clarke.

Understanding how our brains work may be the first order of business for an adolescent brain.

Odd? Or ODD?

4 Tips for Teaching Students With ODD

The student who seems intent on the power struggle may have ODD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I am not a licensed mental health care provider, but we encounter many students suffering from trauma and other mental health care needs.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder, otherwise known as ODD, is a condition in which children regularly demonstrate anger, opposition, and defiance, especially toward those in authority.

These four tips will help any teacher, rookie or veteran, stay calm when encountering a child with ODD. Some students who’ve displayed this have had severe abuse/trauma events, and are doing everything they can to maintain control of their surroundings.

Be mindful with tip #2 about choices: choices can sometimes overwhelm, and when providing choice give agency and direction, but not overstimulate.

I feel you.

Though our staff has shared some of these, this one inspired me to think of a project:

16 children – 16 photos: Click the black background and switch on their reality

Idea: Have students use selfies, etc. and black out the background: have another background of their feelings, etc. or an I Am poem.

Thanks to @shfarnsworth for these ideas!

5 Videos to Cultivate Empathy in Students

Between our intent, our hearts, and our minds I am feeling rejuvenated with these amazing resources. When all else fails, I take off my ‘teacher’ mindset and just meditate and remember what it’s like to be in 8th grade. It can suck. Cringe-worthy awkward moments, others telling you to think about the world outside your own perspective, and fighting cognitive dissonance between what we know we need and want to do, and finding more emotional obstacles than climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks: it’s tougher on them than it is on me. I don’t want to make it worse.

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A study of power.

The term “power play/struggle” in education translates to: “teacher has a petty request that the student won’t comply with until she either gets irritated to the point of raising her voice and/or stops an escalation of an event to the point of no return.”

Did you ever get involved in a power play? I sure have, not many, but a few here and there. But since I came into teaching in my forties, and had two sons of my own about the same age as my students when I started, most of the power plays or struggles came with small costs, a lot of reflection, and many apologies on my part. They were handled between me, the student, other teammates and sometimes the parent. Most power struggles are headed off at the pass by prevention measures:

  1. Have a routine. (Get composition book, something to write with or borrow a pencil from me, read the board, read the learning targets: when I am standing in the ‘teacher spot’ time to listen, and then get going!)
  2. State expectations clearly, and rationale why.
    • Example: No food in the classroom. Our building is old and in the heart of a city. There are vermin. I don’t want vermin in my class, or the building.
    • Example: food. Your red Gatorade and Hot Cheetos can potentially stain the carpet, or get micro crumbs in your laptop keyboard. Oh, and it’s killing you.
    • Example: You need a charged laptop every day. Not charged? You can bring your charger to my class. Don’t have it? Sit next to mine and use it.
  3. Know your quirks. Mine? No music while reading. Side conversations. Removing all oxygen from the room with your constant shouting and talking out.
  4. Understand emotional states: Explain that yes, sometimes they will be bored. And that’s okay. And it’s okay to be confused. And to not know everything…and to know things, too.
  5. Know your cool spots. Mine? Allowing music sometimes. Allowing random discussions about what is on their minds. Reading books they recommend to me. Asking permission to share their work. Telling them how much I love them. Apologizing if necessary. Knowing they are somebody’s baby. (My personal teaching motto/creed/mantra.)

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post posted a letter by educator Amy Murray, Teacher to parents: About THAT kid (the one who hits, disrupts and influences YOUR kid). I could have written it. This afternoon I was having an imaginary conversation with a parent of a student. (Note: anecdotally this is about many students–we all have students who seek attention.) This student is so smart, and…so bored in my class. He blurts out the endings of stories, talks over instructions, and when challenged to offer alternatives or choice, has nothing further to offer. I want to be this student’s, well, if I can’t be his favorite, then at least someone he can respect and do well. I don’t need to be any student’s favorite, I just need them to know I’m there for them, and maybe in ways they don’t recognize yet. That may not happen, and that’s okay. As long as he knows he will find that place, that person, in and out of his own family, circle of friends, etc. I just have 29 other little ‘someone’s baby’ to take care of, too, in that class.

Relationship building is an interesting situation. Conflicts happen. I may not be able to adjust for bias, assumptions, and backward-facing trauma, but I do have a proven record of relationship building, and can’t let others make me doubt this skill or who I am at my core.

So let’s add #6: Self-respect. Let students know respect can’t thrive without self-respect first. Be confident, be yourself, and be better.




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