Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Beautiful Idea: from blank to brilliant (okay, well, acceptable) papers

By this time of year, most of my students are doing very, very well. The raggedy papers I collected in the beginning of the year bear little resemblance to the beautiful work I routinely pick up now.

I should say a word about these papers. My primary responsibility with regard to writing is to teach students to write responses to prompts about a reading selection. Papers are evaluated for organization, inclusion of relevant supporting evidence from the text, and clear discussion/explanation of the issue raised by the prompt. I use the rubric from our state’s high-stakes test to assess student work.

For the most part, these are the papers that must be completed well.

In the beginning, I collect an alarming number of unacceptable papers. Students scratch a few lines and consider their work done. Students offer an opinion on the title, without reading the text. Students copy large (often irrelevant) passages, without discussion or comment. Students read and summarize the text, without regard to the prompt. Students leave the paper blank.

I offer lots of support. I will post “sentence starters” on the board for students to refer to in creating their own work. I will lead the class in writing an exemplar response and leave it in the room for struggling students to use as a model. In AR or AD, I will read the selection aloud with the student, pausing to highlight and make margin notes for use in writing the paper. I offer my most intimidated students scaffolded response papers, where the first lines are completed, the central point is partially done, and the final point is left for the student to complete on his/her own. You get the idea.

Is this too much? I don’t think so. Even if I am sharing the burden of reading, s/he is reading. Even though I am holding the student’s hand as s/he writes, s/he is writing. Even if I am doing half the work, s/he is doing half the work as well.

One benefit is simply the building of motor skill stamina – they become accustomed to writing papers of respectable length. Another benefit comes from the repetition. After writing a number of these papers, even the most reluctant student has begun to internalize the organization of the responses and the rhythm of the writing. The most important benefit is self-confidence. After a dozen or more such experiences I can remind a student s/he has written many successful papers during the year, and therefore can do it again. There is no argument; s/he believes me … and in her/himself.

What of all the support? I reduce what I offer as the year progresses. I tell them, “The training wheels are off now, kiddos; you can do it!” And they can.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bad Idea? ABI = TIME

I've been asked, "Does ABI save time?" No way. At best, it is a trade-off. Grading papers and entering grades is painless. There is no haggling over points on grades. Soooo -- that saves time and trouble.

However --

It absolutely takes more time to chase kids into staying with me after school. It absolutely takes more time to review work multiple times. Entering failing marks would be a lot easier than keeping track of who needs remedial homework and who needs a to submit a rewrite. The paperwork is a pain, no doubt about it. Not hard, but endless.

For me, the question is – do the students learn more with ABI grading, or with failing grades? That’s a no-brainer. The ABI paper-chase is worth the effort for me.

What about multiple choice?

Ordinarily, I pass back papers with the number wrong -- just a small “3x” in the corner, for example. I do not indicate which are wrong. I leave it to the students to check all their answers, find the one(s) they know they guessed on or were not sure about, and puzzle it out.

I must confess that results on the multiple choice section of the last test were abysmal. These were various questions about a non-fiction article. This time, there was such carnage – only five perfect papers out of 75 – that I knew my usual approach would be fruitless.

Instead, I passed back the reading only, plus new blank question sheets. I did *not* return their original work. I then put the kids in groups of three or four and offered a “Chocolate Challenge.” Each group that answered all correctly won chocolate (a Hershey’s kiss) – extra for the first done.

In circulating, I could both listen in on their reasoning and identify the real stumpers.

I’d planned to divulge the correct answers same day, but the kids were engaged to the last, and I found I really needed time for meaningful discussions. So, next day, I passed back their original individual efforts, then discussed the problem spots.


  • One question asked, “According to the article, what was the most important contribution …” The kids did not take time to find the contribution the author cited as most important, instead choosing their top pick from a list of valid choices.
  • Another asked why someone was “profoundly tolerant.” Students most often answered with achievements, because they did not understand the phrase “profoundly tolerant.” This question was aligned with our state’s Style and Language strand, but for my students, it truly was a test of their vocabulary. As soon as I made clear the meaning of “tolerant,” all identified the correct answer. I took advantage of this opportunity to highlight the importance of our vocabulary work.
  • One question asked about mood. Yes, the kids needed a refresher on the ELA meaning of mood. Beyond that, many were reluctant to choose the correct answer (“lighthearted”), as they were not familiar with the word. Another vocabulary issue. However, most realized the other choices did not fit well. They need the courage to choose the word they don’t know when other options cannot be right.
  • A final question asked about how certain punctuation was used in this piece. This was disappointing, as many answered without checking instances in the text. Most disturbing was that some misidentified the punctuation, checking usage of another punctuation mark altogether!

The extra time spent evaluating the questions and the text in small groups lead to much improved understanding of accessible questions. Further, the challenge invested kids in the outcome; they were attentive and engaged in the subsequent class discussing pitfalls and techniques.

All in all, this painful test did result in excellent learning opportunities. I plan to offer similar types of questions on the next assessment, to determine the level of skill retention.

Academic Recovery, Academic Detention

So, what happens when the work is not done well?

After returning papers with Rs (Revise and Return), I will typically dedicate a portion of class to discussing most common mistakes. We might write a sample open response together, or perhaps I'll have students analyze exemplar work done by their peers. The goal is to help students who fell short understand how to rework or rewrite their papers. I expect the R papers to be handed in within a day or two. Essentially, R papers become an extra homework assignments.

If this - or any - work is not passed in within a reasonable amount of time, students must attend an Academic Recovery (AR) session. This is extra-help time after school. This year, I established Thursdays as mandatory AR days. Some students just need to sit and work, some need help one-on-one or in small groups. As soon as they are caught up, they may leave.

Those who are behind and choose not to attend AR on Thursday are automatically assigned Academic Detention (AD) on Friday. They must both complete their work and stay a minimum of half an hour. The time requirement and the Friday designation itself are designed to be deterrants.

Those who choose not to attend AD on Friday are written up as having cut detention, and as referred to our saintly assistant principal. She will typically assign Office Detention, which is an hour in duration. I have the option of pulling students from Office Detention to work with me after school.

In extreme cases, I have pulled students from an Enrichment class, or worked with them as they serve In-house Suspension.

Yes, the chasing is a bother. And, yes, I believe it is worth it.

Grading papers: sticker, check, R

The papers I grade and return have one of three marks. A sticker on a test means the paper was perfect. A check mark means there were a few minor mistakes; the work is acceptable. An “R” means re-do, re-work, revise, and return it to me.

At the beginning of the year, I mark many papers “R” simply because they are incomplete. Have you ever had a student answer only multiple choice questions and skip the rest? Or write two sentences and declare an essay finished? Or write an entire page … on something only tangentially related to the topic? Not acceptable.

At first, students are aghast. “But, Miss, I did this already!” “Nah, no way, I am not doing this again!” “But, Miss, I don’t care! This is good enough!”

“Well, I do care. It is not good enough. Not good enough for me, and not good enough for you.” This argument crops up repeatedly in the first quarter. I use humor and hyperbole to make my point. “Look, let’s pretend I asked you to solve ‘2+2.’ And let’s pretend you wrote ‘5.’ Would you expect me to pat you on the head and move on? Of course not! It’s the same here. I expect you to learn this stuff. It is important. You can do it; I will help. You will do quality work. I will not let you give up. I will not let you fail.”

It takes a little time, but students do learn to complete work, making their best effort the first time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why this, why now?

In the beginning, I spent untold hours agonizing over grading policies, weighted categories, point values on tests, quizzes, homework. I was unhappy when students refused to work. I was unhappy when students would not take advantage of generous test re-take opportunities. I was unhappy when they failed. Wretch that I am, I was even unhappy when they succeeded! I resented it when students who “played school” well earned excellent grades .. when, in reality, they had not learned nearly enough.

After reading about “the rules” at Granite Middle School in Corbett, Wilson, and Williams’ book, Effort and Excellence in Urban Classrooms: Expecting – and Getting – Success with all Students (2002), I had my aha! moment. I knew this policy was something I needed to try. With permission from my gracious principal and stellar support from my inspiring assistant principal, I launched ABI grading in my classroom.

I am now half-way through my second year using ABI as teaching framework. I still love it. A little article summarizing my experience was published in Middle Ground, October 2008. (view with member access at: www.nmsa.org/Publications/MiddleGround/Articles/October2008/Article3/tabid/1757/Default.aspx) Since then, I have received a number of inquiries about this practice. In an effort to share my experiences further, as well as document for myself what works and what doesn’t, I am endeavoring to create my first blog.