A Change of Focus for Second Semester

I just finished 1st semester and had the opportunity to take a breath and really think about these numbers I gave my students that somehow magically turns into a grade.  In high school especially, students and parents are concerned with letter grades and how to maintain a good grade.  By extenstion, I as a teacher become concerned about point values of different assignments and activities and the awarding of points based on these things.  Every grading period I feel like I’m playing a numbers game; that my class content all boils down to a percentage of a point total.  And it frustrates me because I didn’t become a teacher to give out numbers, percentages or letters.

Bottom line: I want to give my students knowledge and opportunities to learn, practice and master concepts and skills.  That needs to be my focus and not a gradebook.  There is a lot of buzz about standards based learning, which I think goes hand in hand with that feeling: assess students on his or her ability to master a standard or objective and don’t define things by arbitrary point values.  That’s a system change of great magnitude that requires a lot of philosophical shift and I’m not going to jump into that territory alone or at this time.  I think I can solve my frustrations in smaller, smarter changes in how I approach the set-up of my class.

Weighted Categories

I like weighted grades – – they give me the opportunity to say from the beginning of the semester that certain things are more important than (or equally important to) other things.  A few years ago, I went back to a points system and I just felt like things were messy and left too many “loopholes” that felt beyond my control.  This semester I will go back to a weighted graded scale with three categories.  I looked at what I’m teaching and asked myself some essential questions:  What do I want my students to master?  How will I know that they have been successful this semester?  What are my major areas of focus?  My three categories are: Culture, Collaboration and Comprehension.

2nd Semester GradingCulture is important in Spanish, but it isn’t a focal point.  Spanish is primarily a language class and culture most of the time will run independent from that.  Communication is an area I would like to closely assess my students, chart progress and see growth in.  Communication includes fluency in speaking and writing.  In order to do these things, a student also needs to show comprehension of concepts learned in class.  Comprehension will include all vocabulary quizzes, grammar topic quizzes and tests and any listening and reading comprehension activities.  Comprehension of concepts is very important in learning Spanish – – but comprehension without communication skills isn’t terribly useful so I find that both categories are of equal weight.


I’m willing to admit that this is a bit of gamble, but I’m easing off of assigned homework assignments.  I always felt that I assigned homework as an opportunity to give students practice with the skills and concepts we learned in class.  Then, after practicing for a time, we would take a quiz or test and do some kind of performance or product assessment in which I could see the application of what they learned.  That’s how I felt about homework.  But for students, homework is an assigned piece of the puzzle.  They do it because I assigned it and that’s primarily where the story ended.  Should you get points for practice?  If you practice something incorrectly, should be penalized in the grade book?

I explained this to the students today and the basketball analogy worked really well for them.  We don’t think that Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player because he does really well in practice.  He shows that he is a great player by what he’s able to do in a game.  I want to see and focus on what my students are able to do when they apply what we’ve learned on a test or project.  That’s what I care about: seeing how they can use what we’ve learned.  But Kobe does practice, and that is part of what makes him great.  I want to support student practice and give them opportunities to practice by doing “homework” type activities but don’t necessarily want to hold them to a grade with homework.  What I told the students today is to think of “homework” as optional.  I will have homework activities and practice things available, give a suggested date of completion but I will (for the most part) not be chasing down whether or not they completing it.  If they practice, they will be ready for the game.  If they practice, I will be able to give them feedback and suggestions for improvement.  While on the surface it appears that I am taking all accountability and responsibility away for the students, I’m actually giving them more.  They have to make the active choice to participate in their own learning by choosing to do “homework” because it will help their learning and not for any other external reason like a point or percentage.


And what about the Allen Iversons?

And what about those who do not take the initiative and choose not to practice?  They will not be forgotten.  When Dwight Howard only goes 6 for 15 from the free thrown line in a game, his coach doesn’t just let it go and assume that next time Dwight will just have to do better.  (At least I don’t think . . . with the season the Lakers are having, it’s possible, but stick with me)  This is when the coach steps in and says, “Dwight, you haven’t been showing up for practice.  You need to come in early tomorrow and work on your free throws.  I have some tips for you and you need to work on this”.  I told the students today that if ever they gave me cause for concern, they would find me intervening and requiring them to do practice “homework” activities.  They can’t opt of learning just because they are lazy and don’t want to put in the effort.  I will hold them to my standards and do whatever is necessary to make sure they get to a successful level.

And what about those Allen Iverson’s that are still great in the game even though they have a bad attitude about practice and don’t show up for it?  Well, my focus is on what they know and how they can show me they know it.  If they can demonstrate that understanding without having to do a select number of “homework” activities . . . I don’t care.  I want to take them from Point A to Point B.  Some will get there faster.  Some will need intervention and assistance.  They will all need my support and that’s the power of being a teacher.  But it doesn’t matter to me which route they take to get there as long as they each take the route that suits them best.

Education is a personal experience, not a numeric experience.  And that will be my focus this upcoming semester.  (Wish me luck!)

Edmodo Time Experiment

On an overcast Saturday in Iowa, I found it hard to stay interested in my school work.  I had plans to make, materials to develop and, every teacher’s favorite, papers to correct.  As I looked at some of the paper clipped, fringe ladened notebook papers in front of me, I had a thought.  I created a little game for myself to keep me interested in working for the next 3 hours.

Last week in school, I was running late with my first class of the day.  I quickly printed out homework for them to complete on paper.  However, with my later two classes, I had the time to upload the homework to Edmodo, an online classroom module where students can complete the homework online.  I asked myself: Is it faster for me to correct these assignments on paper or on Edmodo? And just like that I had a Saturday challenge to keep me occupied.

I set the timer and began to correct 18 of the paper copies in front of me.  It took me 23 minutes, 15 seconds to correct the sentences and write the grade on the paper.  It took an additional 1 minute 50 seconds to put the scores into my gradebook.  That is a total time 25 minutes, 5 seconds for one class of 18 students.  It’s approximately 1 minute, 40 seconds per student.

One student's Edmodo assignment.

I had more than 18 students complete the assignment on Edmodo, but to keep things equal, I only timed myself for 18 of the students.  In Edmodo, the students type their responses in a text box and the teacher has a comment box for comments.  I commented just as I would have on paper and graded the assignments.  I was done with that portion of my work in 16 minutes, 48 seconds.  I then had to transfer those grades over into my gradebook, but since the students are listed in Edmodo in alphabetical order, it took me only 40 seconds.  (The paper homework was in a random order.) The Edmodo grading took me a total of 17 minutes, 28 seconds.  That breaks down to only 58 seconds per student.

Concluding Reflection:

Pros: Edmodo looks like a clear winner in the department of time saving.  The difference between grading the paper copies and the online assignments was about 42 seconds per student.  I average about 65 students in my Spanish sections, which is about 45 minutes of time saved just grading the assignment and inputting the grades into the computer.  That is 45 minutes of “me time” that I can spend watching Bravo reality shows, painting my nails or chasing my dog.  And it’s 45 less minutes I have to spend in front of my computer or with nubby, fringy homework papers.  Also, the students get that feedback immediately.  They aren’t going to have to wait until Monday when I pass back the paper (which takes about 2 – 3 minutes of instructional time) to get their results.  These students can log-in anytime to see their score and their comments.

Cons: I like my Sharpie correcting pens because they make bright, dark marks on papers.  I like to draw in arrows or missing letters on the assignments so that the students see their mistakes and they pop.  In Edmodo, I am limited to making my comments inside of a text box, so my comments cannot be drawn directly onto one of their sentences.  In this particular assignment, students were writing sentences and I was assessing their sentence structure and grammar.  Being able to make visible corrections over top of their work is valuable and something that is lacking on the Edmodo side.  However, as a high school teacher, I usually carefully watch when my students receive these types of assignments back and most of them take a quick glance at the letter grade and start to crumple it up and practice their jump shot with the trash can.

Bottom Line: For future grammar assignments where I am particularly interested in word order, spelling and construction of the phrases, I would seriously have to think about sticking with the paper assignments.  The feedback options and the opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes should outweigh my basic need for more free time.  But I will not lie: the valuable of a teachable moment vs. 45 minutes of being able to kick back and relaxing creates an internal struggle.