Grades are killing student perplexity & creativity

I just started teaching a semester long programming class. Since I’m new to it, I had an idea of how I would grade this, but I thought I’d see how students progressed for a week before I committed to anything specific. So, I didn’t mention grades. I established class routines, showed students how to interact with the self paced programming curriculum, and off they went. They work hard all period & I run around the room trying to support students when they didn’t understand something. They all worked. All class period. All week. I didn’t assign homework.

A few of the students came in  and asked if they were “allowed” to continue working on programming from home, and they were excited when I told them that they could. I’ve never seen such motivation. I teach at an alternative school, where most students have gotten into trouble at their previous school, many have drug abuse history…they were excited to be allowed to work from home?!?

One of these students came into my room during lunch & I asked them how they would like their grade determined. We talked about setting individual goals, and creating a separate criteria for each student. Then he said this:

“If I had know that before, I wouldn’t have worked as hard.”

Then another student said the same thing in a different conversion.

Later, outside of class, I spoke to a quiet, thoughtful girl about grades. Here’s what she said:

“Grades just make me feel dumb.”

She explained that no matter what, when someone ranks her work she feels hurt that it didn’t get a better score. She is right. I feel that way too. When I get observed as a teacher and my administrator ranks a variety of things on a 1-5 scale, if i’m not a 5, I feel like a crappy teacher.

I like standards based grading. Its an improvement over traditional grading, but it is still applying a number to student effort & creativity. It still creates a ranking. For students who have struggled with school, which is a far greater number then students who have been very successful, grades are a de-motivator. They jump in full force if they are perplexed & curious and just instinctively want to figure something out. When they know its for a grade they hesitate, they get nervous, they over think, panic, sit quietly & wait for someone else to do it.

So now what? I still teach in a traditional system where a specific traditional grade book is required for all teachers to document student progress.  I spent years tweaking my standards based grading system to work within a traditional grade book. It is possible. So, my new challenge: how can I document student progress while supporting their creativity, eliminating the constant concern & focus on grades?

Jumping in

It is our Holiday break & I should be planning for the Intro to Computer Programming class that I’ll be teaching starting in 2 weeks. Problem is, I don’t really know how to code. I can write simple programs in a TI-84, and I wrote some C++ & Matlab programs back in college.

I think programming is important & I teach in a very small alternative high school (about 100 students). I have supportive administration. I noticed a significant proportion of students who expressed interest in programming, especially after completing the Hour of Code. Being an alternative school, there are a lot of students who need additional math credits in addition to students who need elective credits & I want them to choose math! Last semester I taught Financial Literacy, which supplies beneficial life skills, but I can’t teach it twice since students need a variety of math elective options. So, programming it is! I asked for it & I got it. IT filled to capacity within a week of scheduling next semester.

So here its what I’m currently thinking about the structure of the class:

The class meets for 90 minutes Tuesdays, Thursdays & every other Friday.

  • I’m going to be heavily dependent on CodeHS’s curriculum. At least this first time. I’m not going to drive myself crazy developing everything from scratch. This is effective when I know what I am doing, but I don’t. I’ll gradually develop this class as I learn more about Javascript & HTML.
  • Since this is for a math credit, I’m going to start every class using Fawn’s Math talks. If I plan to learn a lot by teaching this class, why not try something new for warm-ups too?
  • Since this class will be largely student paced, I need a way to hold them accountable and to stay motivated. I am going to create a student form for daily reflection in the last 5 minutes of each class. This will include: What they learned today, Where they struggled, if they helped or got help form any peers, what activities they completed, room for their comments, and room for a reply from me. I’ll post it here when I make it. hopefully that will be soon.
  • I wish I could think of a fair way to encourage collaboration, but I haven’t been able to figure that out. Maybe we will have discussion time on the every other Fridays where students present where they are stuck and we work together to fix it?
  • I plan to do a hybrid standards based grading (SBG):
  1. 50% of their grade being the standards: all of the programming skills students should demonstrate: for loops, indentation, commenting, while loops, if/else loops, debugging….
  2. 30% Successful Completion of the Challenge projects within each CodeHS unit – I am considering a grading scale where students can choose their grade based on how many of the projects they complete. I don’t know. I may just assign all of the challenge projects because this is their chance to use the 8 Standard of Mathematical Practice and what is cooler than that?!
  3. 20% successful completion of the learning activities.

This all may change as I work through it with students & I’d really like to make more of it my own. I can;t remember the last time I was so dependent on a pre-designed curriculum. I get a little nauseous thinking about it!

[update 1/7 I made a progress log. I’m not sure what I’m missing, so Im only going to make copies for 1 or two weeks, and then I’ll see how they are used & what I should change ]

Modified Standards Based Grading: Thinking Out Loud

I like Standards Based Grading, but I want to improve upon my system. SBG has completely affected the culture in my classes and how I plan and teach and even how I interact with my students. This is my 4th year using some form of SBG. My dilemma is that all standards are weighted equally, but in reality they are not. I don’t want a student passing algebra 1 if they cannot solve multi-step equations or graph a line, even if they are proficient at other standards. To me, these are non negotiable basic algebra skills and the student would be set up for failure if they did not demonstrate proficiency at these. Currently, students still play the points game, albeit not as much as under a traditional grading system, but they learn that they can score below proficient at a skill or two every grading period and still pass.

My first thought was to switch from a 1-4 scale to the binary system, but this wouldn’t change, and may even encourage the “its ok to not be proficient in everything” game.

I want to set up a system where I can tell students that to score a C (minimum passing at my school) you must be really know these learning targets, If you want a B, then you need these too…etc… Scoring on a binary scale. I would assess the “C” targets most frequently, the B a little less often, and the A targets on occasion.

I am not clear in my mind on how this would play out with students, or how I would manipulate my district mandated traditional online gradebook, but I would love thoughts at this point so that I can keep developing a better grading system.

No students today (Friday staff development)

I have to say my students did AWESOME on their Quiz yesterday! WOO HOO! Midpoints mastered by 95% of them!

Today, I am presenting examples of how Standards Based Grading looks in a classroom. Our staff has been subjected to many professional development days of SBG theory and research from Admin, but they don’t see how to put it into action and what it would look like in a classroom. My main goal today is to convince them that they have to jump in because it affects every aspect of your teaching. It will never be perfect, but constantly changing, and that it can look different depending on your style.

If you know of any non-math teacher blogs discussing SBG set up in other content areas please share with me. If you do it yourself, please blog about it and send me a link.


On another note, I really want to select a good math task and implement it concurrently with other teachers from all over the MTBoS, and then, the best part: Grade them together. Talk about the variety of student responses & approached and then the style of teaching that lead to that response. Sometimes I think I grade too easy, or too hard…I’d love to have these conversations with the best-est math teachers in the country!  My goal is to make this happen by the end of the school year. We would all get to learn so much. this is the extent of my thought right now, more to come…