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She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction.  Here it comes.  You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up.  In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high.  Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string.   There’s no missing that hand.  The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room.  They know it’s coming too.  The question.  The big question.  The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.

“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point?  Does this even matter?”

[You Freeze]

OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:

  1. Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
  2. Tell the kid it will help them in college.
  3. Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Tell them it is part of the curriculum.

You’ve got one shot to get this right.  Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing.  Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.

Correct answer?  E: None of the above.

“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?”  Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly.  The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.

None of the answers above will satisfy this student.  She wants a real answer.  The first two may work for a lot of students.  These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance.  That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement.  These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards.  These are relying on extrinsic motivation.  Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class.  Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn.  The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.

Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning.  It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate.  Students are conscripts in public education.  In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely.  We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant.  We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.

Answer D is the weakest of the four.  By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom.  With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment.  The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?”  The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered.  This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility.  Not helpful.

Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer.  You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school.  The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own.  You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.

The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.”  This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning.  It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)

“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question.  Quite the opposite.  This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing.  This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes.  If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning.  After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.

Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching.  If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.

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My students came back from the AP Exam gushing about how easy it felt, how well-prepared they were, and asking me why I made such a big deal out of this easy test.  My first reaction was fear that they were so woefully under-prepared they couldn’t even grok the difficulty of the exam.  As more students corroborated this story of general ease, I decided to reflect on how that happened.

This was my first year teaching AP World History.  Point of order:  I’ve never taught the same class twice.  In four years I’ve taught everything from 6th grade to 12th grade; always with different courses.  This gives me incredible flexibility, and makes it easy for me to design new lessons within a short time frame.  This diversity also keeps me excited since I’m continually working to learn new content and curriculum.  At the same time, however, I’ve become skilled at creating first drafts of lessons, and it can be frustrating to feel like I never have a strong piece of curriculum that I’ve been able to design, deliver, evaluate, and refine.

Overall I think I had a strong year.  The externally assessed and designed exam was freeing as it removed the ego from my teaching.  I did not feel forced to justify the content and skill expectations of my teaching, and when students challenged the relevance or worth of any of our work I felt free to agree or disagree with them without doing damage to my credibility as a teacher.  The College Board sets the standards, and we have to work to meet them.  The extent to which we agree with said standards is (somewhat) irrelevant.

The idea of a clearly defined final exam also enabled me to be more flexible and open with my assessment and grading throughout the year.  The exam date was May 17th and we all knew that from the beginning of the course.  As a result I could take the approach that it did not matter if a student learned a skill on September first, or on May 16th, as long as they were able to demonstrate mastery before the exam.  To make this work I used a significant array of learning targets following a standards-based-assessment approach.  This allowed me to be very flexible on due dates, and allow students multiple chances to re-attempt a skill and demonstrate mastery of that skill.

This worked extremely well with essay skills, but I am not satisfied with how it played out regarding pure historical content and tests and quizzes.  I think a number of students took advantage of the opportunity to re-take a quiz and did not study for the first one, knowing that they had another chance.  This reminds me of a gamer-like attitude of having multiple lives.  The students don’t feel a strong need to prepare for their quiz because they have another life left and they don’t need to take it seriously until they’re on their last life.  The students are used to having multiple chances to be successful, and so there is no incentive to get it right the first time.  They have little to no fear of failure.

The essays function differently though because multiple revisions are authentic to the writing process.  The content tests are supposed to be an assessment of what has been learned by a given point.  By offering the opportunity to re-take the test I am measuring what they have learned at a different time.  That can still be useful, but if my intent is to check progress I need to keep the measure appropriate to that intent.  In order to have students take the tests and quizzes more seriously I will remove the opportunity for re-taking them.  I want to use the quizzes to assess the students’ ability to read their text, and the quiz serves as an external incentive to read.  By offering too many second chances the incentive was removed.

I predict that this change will have an initial negative impact on students’ grades, but by increasing the stakes for the quizzes students should take them more seriously and should also develop the skills of close reading and content retention in order to be successful.  I also predict that this will increase the value of students’ notes as a resource for studying and could create a correlated improvement in note taking.  In order to help off-set the increased difficulty of quizzes I plan on spending a bit more time at the beginning of next year working on test taking skills and proper methods for using notes to study for a test.

Here’s to next year.

Teaching is not an easy job.  No teacher I’ve met would refute this, regardless of their situation.  Tony Danza lasted one school year, with significant trouble, and he only had one class and a bigger paycheck than most teachers.  First year teachers constantly report being overwhelmed, underprepared, and roughly a third of all teachers leave the profession within three years.

“But you get all that time off!”  Yes.  I do get substantial breaks for the holidays and summers, but these breaks are unpaid time off.  On top of that a very significant number of teachers spend time on these unpaid breaks planning their next lessons or catching up on grading.  Add to that the fact the not a single teacher I know works only their contracted time (40hours a week) and you have teachers doing considerably more work than they are paid for.  Personally I work in the neighborhood of 65 hours a week and never fewer than 50. (50 would assume I do zero work at home, which simply does not happen.)

Growing class size, cuts in special education budgets, reduced English Language Learning (ELL) support, and the ever rising stakes of standardized testing all serve to exacerbate the already difficult job.  When I assign an essay in my AP World History class I can expect to grade 133 of them.  At 6 minutes per essay (a reasonable estimate) I can expect over 13 hours of grading for this one assignment.  If I want to get essays returned in anything resembling a prompt timeframe I can expect to grade in the evening and on weekends.

OK.  So teaching is tough.  It’s in the newspaper all the time.  The point has been made.  So what?

The difficulty of teaching is not sufficient reason for teachers to abdicate their responsibility to their students.  The students did not create the difficult situation.  The students did not vote down taxes that help provide funding for reduced class size and arts education.  The students are the ones for whom the stakes are greatest.  They get a very limited window for their educational opportunity and it is the responsibility of teachers to make sure their pedagogy is not another barrier placed in a student’s path.

I’ve worked with a wide variety of teachers across four schools.  I’ve taught 6th grade, 12th grade, and most levels in between.  Across the board I’ve seen great teachers doing their absolute best for students, and I’ve seen teachers who could be great making excuses for why they’re not great.  The excuses range from “I don’t offer re-writes or revisions on essays because it becomes too much work,” to “there’s no way we can do a research paper, think of how long it would take to grade,” and “the English department teaches writing.”

I’ve heard variations of these multiple times from multiple sources.  My personal favorite is: “Some days you just need a frozen-waffles lesson.”  I get it.  Life gets in the way of perfection, and our lives should not be completely dominated by our jobs.  At the same time though we need to maintain high standards and integrity.  There is substantial data that when properly motivated, students will rise to meet high standards, and when given the opportunity they will also sink to our low standards.  When we bring out the “frozen-waffles lesson” the students realize and they react accordingly.

If (as per part one of this series) we’re going to expect our students to take responsibility for their education, teachers have to take responsibility for making school worth our students’ time.  I don’t believe that every day should be “fun” but every day in class should definitely be worthwhile.

Teachers should always make sure that students understand why they’re doing a particular assignment or task.  It is of the utmost importance that students understand why their work has value beyond their grade.  (Fred Newmann is great on this subject.)  If we can consistently contextualize assignments in terms of their value beyond school we will go a long way to improving instruction, and it’s frankly not that hard.  Just start every lesson imaging a student asking you “so why do I have to learn this?”  If you cannot answer that question with something better than “it will be on the test,” you need to rethink your lesson.  I assure you that your students have other things they think are more important.

As a teacher it is your responsibility to show students the value of the work you do.  Telling is not enough.  You must show.  Students bear great responsibility for their education.  I’ve never seen a student fail as long as they put in their best effort; however students are not the only ones who bear responsibility for their education.  Teachers are equally responsible for creating a safe and effective learning environment while simultaneously delivering lessons that are of the highest quality.

Every time a student struggles to meet the high standards in my class I feel a bit like a jerk, but every time a notoriously difficult student tells me they can’t skip my class because it’s meaningful to them, I know I’m doing something right.

We ask our students to work hard all the time.  We ask them to balance seven classes, sports, music, and being a well-adjusted human being.  We tell them that they should work hard in school so they can work hard in life.  It’s time for teachers to take some of our own medicine and live what we teach, and it’s time for someone to stand up and support this effort.

A student today asked me to raise their semester grade from a B+ to an A.

Before we all get fired up about entitlement, grade inflation, and lowering academic standards in American public education let me say that I did not raise the grade.  This student will be ending first semester with a B+.  The grade she earned.   I believe that a grade of 89.5 (or .6 or .7) should be rounded up.  I was fully convinced when a colleague of mine explained it in terms of significant digits.

To paraphrase him:  if my syllabus says that an A is 90% then I need to stick to that.  If I want to be more precise in my grading I should be more precise in my syllabus and specify 90.0% or 90.00% to earn a grade of A.  Additionally there is significant subjectivity in grading and there is no way that I can be so confident in my application of standards and rubrics that I can be confident to a hundredth of a percent.  As such I take other factors into account and if appropriate I am definitely willing to adjust a student’s grade.

This student definitely works hard and her request was very polite.  She also included rationale to support her request of a grade change.  I’m including her entire email below (direct copy, spelling and grammar issues retained, name changed):

Hi Mr. McCormick,

 I wanted to talk to you about my 1st semester grade. After putting the final in, I have an 88%. I would sincerely appreciate it if you could round it up to a 90%. I know that is rounding up 2% but I have put a lot of hard work into this class and have been trying my best. This class is the only class that is bringing my gpa down and I would be really happy if this got up becuase I have been struggling to keep my grades up a lot. This grade is really important for me to stay in Honor Society as well.  I have tennis outside of school every tuesday and thursday. I also have AP Bio class which is really tough too. I promise to keep my schedule neat this semester so I can get an A in this class. I can come and talk to you tommorow after school about this if that is more convinient to you as well. Again, I would sincerely appreciate it, Mr. McCormick, if you could possibly raise my grade up.

Thanks,  Kid McStudent

 There’s a lot to unpack in there.

I’m not offended that she asked, but I am a bit surprised at her logic.  She worked hard and has a busy schedule with other tough classes, can’t I just give her a break?  Given many classes I might agree that her hard work is valuable and she should be rewarded for putting in substantial effort.  My class however, has some different structures in place that change the definition of “trying my best.”

Every single assignment, essay, test, and quiz in my class can be revised, rewritten, or reattempted barring the final exam.  Assignments and essays in particular can be reattempted multiple times in order to show mastery.  At the end of the day what’s most important to me is that students learn the skills and content I’m teaching.  If it takes a couple tries, no problem.   Thus in my class trying your best would include taking the opportunity to revise or rewrite assignments that were below standard.  This student has not made good use of her option to retake and rewrite assignments.  She’s been riding the edges of an A and a B all semester, and she didn’t do particularly well on the final which took her grade from the “probably going to round up” range to just outside of it.

The second piece of her rationale that’s interesting to me is the issue about Honor Society and her GPA.  The value for her is clearly the numbers aspect of the grade as opposed to any sort of learning the grade represents.  From the constitution of the National Honor Sciety the groups’ purpose is “to create enthusiasm for scholarship,… in the students of secondary schools. ”  I think she’s missing the point a bit.  Enthusiasm for a high GPA and enthusiasm for scholarship are different things.  To me an enthusiasm for scholarship would include the interest in improving your learning for the sake of learning as opposed to trying to negotiate up a grade for the numerical value of an A over a B.

This students’ issues further convince me that a standards based assessment approach is the only reasonable course of action for solving issues of assessment.  Throw out the compliance grades.  Throw out the points for effort.  Get rid of the idea that everyone gets a blue ribbon just for showing up.  If you’ve made the choice to take more challenging classes (like AP Biology and AP World History) you should not expect to simply receive an A without demonstrating that you’ve learned the appropriate skills and content.  Doing poorly on the final exam indicates that you still have something to learn.

I need to be honest with myself and my students on the purpose of my grades, and what I am measuring.  If I want students to improve their writing I need to assess their skill at writing.  If I’m giving students points for turning an assignment in on time I’m assessing their ability to meet a deadline.  As a profession teachers are guilty of assessing many things other than learning be it attitude, effort, or prompt compliance just to name a few.

Make a rigorous, yet attainable standard.  Provide the students with opportunities to master the content and skills necessary to meet those standards and assess based on those standards.  As much as I may not like it, the grades my students earn have a very real impact on their college prospects.  I think my policies of allowing students to repeat assignments is a good first step in improving my assessment model.  If you give students opportunities to learn the skills and content, then give them opportunities to show their mastery of said skills and content there should be very little room for discussion.  “I worked really hard,” doesn’t work when there are no grades for working hard.  Proof of working hard should show in learning through revising, and taking advantage of those second chances.

I don’t blame my student for trying.  She’s playing the game that’s been put in front of her.  For motivated students, earning high grades are a very real pressure.  I think there are teachers who would adjust this grade for her, and this is where I take issue.  As teachers it’s our responsibility to help change the game.

Can’t Knock the Hustle (Watch the swears, don’t bump it a work.)