Differentiated “Extra Credit” for Performance Levels

extra-credit-catExtra credit is a thing of the past.

In my class, there is nothing “extra.” There are opportunities, there are consequences, and admittedly, since we live in a world where grades count, there is credit. But nothing extra.

In my early years of teaching, after an assessment,  students were tempted to see what they got, jubilate or lament, and forget the whole thing. Students who succeeded came to class the next day, buoyant. Students who stumbled were demoralized.


This is not how it should be. With the possible exception of the final exam, every student should have the opportunity to see what they did wrong and learn from it.

The problem is that the same students who get As are often the same students who bother to recover credit. Some would come in to recover a single point. And as their teacher, you know this isn’t a good use of their limited time. Meanwhile, the students who stumble can avoid facing their growth areas.

How do you incentivize students who earn Bs and Cs to spend the time revising, while giving students who earned an A an informal nod to save their time and energy for other things?

Differentiated “Extra” Credit

37707671Students who wish to recover points make an appointment do a series of exercises (or answer questions, or read models of excellence) to get their minds in gear. Then we go over the principles they need to express on the assessment.

Students who earned a C or below on the assessment the first time around can earn up to 15% back. A student who earned a B can earn up to 10% back. A student who earned an A  can earn up to 5%.

The actual amount they learn is a function of how much they actually learn in the session(s) with me, factored by how much of it was their initiative.

Students who show initiative will earn the full amount. A student who wheedles for point might only get half the maximum amount.

Sure, not every student is absolutely thrilled, and not every student can go from a C to an A after a half hour meeting. But every student knows that I see growth as being more important that success, and that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

And more than anything else on an exam, that’s what I want to teach.

 

Easy Hack For Letters of Recommendation

letterofrecSometimes, students ask you for letters of recommendation. This is great! They are going on to do amazing things in their lives and you get to be part of that process! It shows that they trust you, that they feel seen by you, and they want you to share your thoughts!

Amazing.

There are a few times, however, when this honor presents a tricky challenge.

Scenario 1: The student knows you well enough to hope for a letter from you. But… you don’t know the student very well. You don’t want to say, “I haven’t had Madison in a class since she was a sophomore and I have no idea what she’d bring to your institute of higher learning.”

Scenario 2: Maybe he or she was a fine student, not a great student, and you don’t want to say, in a college recommendation letter, “Maximillian mostly did his homework, rarely raised his hand in class, turned in so-so papers, and squeaked by with a B.”

Scenario 3: Eight students have asked for letters of recommendation, you’ve done most of them throughout the past month, and one night — you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if one of their deadlines is approaching! Back in October, the college recommendation deadline seemed so far away…you didn’t bother recording when it was due!


 

letter of recThe Solution: A Letter of Recommendation Questionnaire (click here)

I created a survey on Google Docs which asks students their name and the deadline. Then, it asks a series of questions which you might find on an application to college:

  • What are some important things you’ve learned about life in the past two years?
  • What is one accomplishment you’re proud of in the past two years?
  • What is one challenge you’ve overcome in the past two years?

letter of rec 2And so on. With this information, I can craft a letter which gives great insight into who the student is – in the same way that a journalist might interview a subject in order to write a thoughtful, positive, editorial piece. And since I don’t need to scrape my memories for something worth saying, the writing process is quicker and more efficient, while the content is deeper. WIN, WIN!

 

done

Put an X next to completed letters.

(Oh, and, since the answers are routed into a spreadsheet, I can put an X next to students whose letter I’ve completed.)

 

Now, when I student says, “Wolk, can I have a letter of recommendation?” my response is, “Sure! I’m sending you a link to a questionairre. Fill it in, and I’ll get right on it!”

And if you’re wondering what students reactions are – they seem unphased. They aren’t offended that I want them to articulate some of their strengths, and frankly, I think they’re glad to know a little bit about what I’ll be writing!
So basically, the letter of recommendation questionnaire?

I recommend it.

Grading Time: The Wakeup Call

 

wakeup1Many students can self-correct. That is to say, they receive a bad grade on a test and know they need to “study harder.” Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that many students have no idea how to study. Let’s focus on the fact that somehow, these students seem to improve.

Then, there are students who don’t improve. They don’t turn in work, they score poorly on quizzes, they score poorly on tests. You fill in progress reports, you write home, you give them their semester grade, and there’s no improvement.

Once in a while, you will have a student who truly does not care. But this is rare. Most do care. They care a great deal, but they are paralyzed by their own failure, and by a deficit of hope for anything can change.

You say, “If you try, you will succeed.”

They think, “If I try and fail, then truly I am a loser.”

What tool do you have to work with a student who is going down the drain?wakeup2


 

The Wakeup Call.

  • Schedule a “check in” at your desk. A “wakeup call” shouldn’t happen in front of the class or in the hallway.
  • Ask the student how she or he is, and how life is. Don’t expect much in response, but give space for a response, anyhow. This is setting the table for showing you care. And you might be surprised by what you learn.
  • Ask questions: “Tell me how class is going for you. At times it seems like it’s a bit rough, based on scores, but I’d love to hear what your experience is.”
  • Ask permission: “Would you be open to hearing some of my thoughts?”
  • “Lock-in” – meaning, let the student know that the relationship is more important than the grade: “I want you to know that I’m not here to judge you. Even when you struggle. Especially when it’s difficult. I’m here to support your learning.”
  • Ask permission to be frank: “Can I tell you what I see happening down the road? If we keep using the strategy you’ve been using, it’s not going to go well in terms of the grade or your learning. It’ll be more of the same type of grades. Or worse. And I’m not sure you’re getting much for all this time you’re spending in class without completing the work necessary to help the skills sink in.”
  • Clarify: “I’m assuming you’re not happy with that. I don’t know, maybe you’re fine with it. I’m not here to judge you, like a said. I’d love to know where you’re at on all this”
  • Make plan: “So, let’s try this. This is the roadmap to success.”
  • Thank in advance and make a deal: “If you stumble on the next quiz, I thank you in advance that you will not disappear – you’ll come to the very next review session. And I will be so happy to see you, I will give you 5 Starburst. I’m not bribing you. It’ll be an expression of how happy I am you’re coming in for help!”

You’re not “confused,” you’re a teenager.

wut v2Some words are used, almost exclusively by certain demographics, and the words, as used, don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean.

Example 1:

“The Gmail.”

Demographic: retirees in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Usage: “I can’t find the file in the Gmail.”

 

Example 2:

“Random”

Demographic: people under 20.

Usage: “We hung out all day and did random things.”

 

Example 3:

“I’m confused.”

Usage: one student, after reading the instructions, blurts out: “I’m so confused!”

Have you heard this? I hear it all the time. In fact, after telling a friend about how much this utterance makes me cringe, she reported back that after a day of teaching, she’d heard it no fewer than a dozen times. Is there that much confusion in the classroom? And why can it be so upsetting to hear the phrase, “I’m so confused?”

Top 5 troubling things about this phrase, as commonly used:

  1. It’s too vague to empower you to help. Confused about what?
  2. It’s not directly addressed to you, so any intervention is a form of interruption.
  3. It’s not really true. “To confuse” either  to swap one thing for another, erroneously (that’s probably not what’s going on), or to be utterly perplexed (also, not exactly the case).

confusedcatAnalysis:

Here’s what “I’m so confused means.”

  • I am a child / teenager. I am generally disempowered in my life. I am told where to go, when to sit, when I can leave, and I need to ask permission to use the bathroom. My mind is capable of learning what you’re teaching, but it hurts – like all stretching hurts a little.
  • As a teenager, I live in a world with only three categories: cool, sucks, and weird. And being lost – even temporarily – sucks. It makes me feel stupid and out of control. And since I am annoyed at you for putting me in this situation (not you, you, per se, but adults and the adult world), I’ll blurt it out in a slightly accusatory, passive aggressive way.
  • I have not learned about “hurts so good” yet. While you were explaining something, I got bored and stopped listening (you actually are a little boring, but only sometimes). I looked at the clock to see how long this torture would be going on and I got lost. The problem is that I don’t know how to ask for what I want to know. I am not familiar with terms like, “I could use a refresher on…” or “I followed you until you said…”
  • What I want is to feel heard and that my grievance is aired. I don’t have much hope in ever learning whatever it is you’re teaching, but if your pedagogical training and the kindness of your soul combined is able to help me out of this mire, I’d actually appreciate it. And I’ll try not to hold any of this against you.

Possible solutions:

  1. Indicate that you see and register the “confusion” and affirm that it’s okay to be confused.
  2. Remind students what the system is for getting “unconfused.” Do you have a “back-channel” or “help-desk” (I use https://todaysmeet.com/) – do you use flags or a list so students don’t have to sit there with their hand in the air?
  3. At the beginning of the year, teach students that productive discomfort is good, and that real learning is hard. Teach students to suspend frustration and try to solve a problem for themselves for a certain amount of time before verbally register frustration. Teach the difference between complaining vs. asking for help.
  4. Ask the student to recount for you everything s/he understood until the point of confusion. If s/he says, “everything,” say, “well, let’s start at the beginning.” Start to recount such incredibly basic stuff that s/he gets annoyed and vocalizes where the point of confusion is.

What to do when the Whole Class “Is Confused.”

  • Don’t allow a classroom of students to groan about being confused. Students need to learn how to be “grownups” about the challenging process of learning. Collective grumbling is not a good way to communicate. Quiet the room and instruct them in the appropriate way to handle “confusion.”
  • Say: “I’m hearing that some folks are confused. Use your flag / post a comment on my helpdesk / grab a red handkerchief from the box and put it at your workstation. I will come around and help you out. But this is pretty complicated stuff, so I appreciate your hanging in there.”
  • Appoint people to who understand to assist students who don’t understand. This works best when you have identified and appointed “helpy” types in advance when possible – for example: “tech guru” or “math whiz.”

10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year

  1. endofyearcatYou did not die.
  2. You did not kill any of your students.
  3. You are a better teacher now than you were at the beginning of the year.
  4. Your bad days are better than many other teachers’ good days.
  5. You care about your students – enough that you take your own time to read about teaching. And the students can feel that caring.
  6. Some of what you taught, the students will remember. Most of what you taught, the students will forget. But something you taught might have started a process – a journey – a new way of seeing the world — that stuff you may never know about. But trust that it happened.
  7. Next year will be better than this year.
  8. Nobody ever looked back on their life and regretted their time as a teacher.
  9. There was one student out there who needed you. And you were there for him or her.
  10. As a teacher, you spent the year working on the most important things a person can work on: being a better person, and making the world a better place.

Projects: make classwork like a little project, and projects like big classwork. But cooler.

kittenthornThere’s a saying: practice like you’ll play, and you’ll play like you’ve practiced. Generally, this is about the need for teams to take their practicing seriously – with discipline and intent – allowing game day to feel like a well-prepared-for challenge – and not a scramble headfirst off a cliff.

In class planning, too often I see (and have written) projects with high stakes based on skills that have never been practiced in class.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be planning awesome projects. One of the five things I remember from High School was a mythology project, wherein I created an epic radio drama. Did it contain computerized music, voices, hilarious non-sequiturs, and scraps of information from class? Yes.

Did I use it to bring learning I’d been doing all semester to the next level?

No.

Here are some guidelines to help your projects be, truly, scaffolded opportunities to “connect-the-dots” and stretch out, creatively – and not, well, hilarious non-sequiturs.


  • porkylolcatDeconstruct the various skills required to complete the suggested project. Can you guarantee that the students will know (or will have learned) how to do those things? If not, you need to build training time into class. Example: I’ve seen classes where a formative assessment is a mock courtroom scenario. I wonder: did the teacher teach how to cross-examine? Or classes where the final project is a website: did the teacher spend time in class on the basics of website design?
  • Notice some of the practices you are habitually working on in class. Is there a way to incorporate that into your project? Example: I teach reflective listening all year long. Only recently have I begun to include an interview project as part of the curriculum – but unlike most interviews where the interviewer is silent, In my class, the student reflects the main kernel of the subjects’ statements. (For more on teaching reflective listening, click here).
  • If you are having trouble composing a project that is truly aligned with the core skills of your class, not to worry. Consider this approach: use the project as a low-stakes (not graded or given a completion grade) venue for creating rich content. Students work together without fear of their project getting a “bad grade.” Students play with materials and content.  Then, after show-and-tell and critique and second drafts, teach a unit on how to interpret and evaluate other students’ work. Students get practice in comparing and contrasting, asking generative questions, and brainstorming improvements or “next steps.”
  • Finally, as a final assessment, in pairs or alone, students write an evaluation of other students’ work – using all the skills they have learned. In other words, the project is the content but the written evaluation is the assessment.

For a deeper dive into classwork as a “pooled resource,” see blog 23.

Morning Rituals for Teachers: Beyond Coffee

coffeecatEverybody has a morning ritual.

For some people, it’s elaborate. Drinking a pressed-kale smoothie, then Yoga, then seeing what’s new on the “cosplay” thread on Reddit.

For others, it’s more bare-bones: get up, fall out of bed, drag comb across head, find way downstairs and drink a cup, look up, notice it’s late. Then, grab coat and hat, make the bus in seconds flat, find way upstairs and have a smoke, etc.

Like that.

The question is not whether you have a ritual, it’s whether your current ritual is a good idea for you as someone with one of the hardest jobs on earth.

On mornings where I adhere to my sacred ritual, I set myself up for a great day.

Does it mean I will have a great day? No. But it might that if the day sucks, it’s partially because I didn’t do my best to get it off to the right start.


calendarcatMy ritual starts the night before:

  • Review tomorrow’s calendar. This will help you mentally step into the flow of the day. When will you rush around? When will you sit at your desk and space out? When are your meetings? Additionally, this will help you catch mistakes: “I thought that meeting was next week” is an excellent thought to have the night before. It’s a very bad thought to have when you realize you’re half an hour late.
  • Put out your outfit. Make sure you love what you wear and you wear what you love. Your outfit should match the intention of the day. For me, I like to wear a black or grey suit on monday with a fan-freakin-tastic tie. Why? Well, do you remember how fun it was to go to school when your mom had just taken you shopping and you had new British Knights and a new pair of Girbauds and couldn’t wait to show them off? Me neither! I shopped at Target. But you get the idea. (For more about the interplay of style and how you feel, visit StyleForDorks.Com)
  • Talk over any worries you have with your spouse, significant other, friend, roommate, or parrot. Tell him or her what’s on your mind. Feel free to share things you’re looking forward to, as well. And if you feel like your significant other is just parroting back to you whatever you’re saying, you might actually be married to a parrot. That’s cool.

boatcatIn the morning:

  • Bath or shower. Make sure you have yummy soap. You should love the way it smells. If you don’t love it, find one you do. I like this oddly shaped sandalwood soap I got from chinatown for 2 bucks.
  • If you drink tea or coffee or yerba mate, do it slowly. Carve out 10 minutes.
  • Listen to music. At least 2 songs.
  • If you can budget the time for a stop at a cafe for coffee and journaling and music, you’re really off to a great start. You need to feel like you have a life outside of your otherwise all-consuming job and your family. I do this little “morning-spa” twice a week.

cocktailAfter Work:

  • Don’t take your stress home with you. See if you can build in a trip to the gym, a cafe, or a pint at the pub. ONE pint.
  • If you’re an introvert, arrange some “hamster-ball time” – even five minutes – with important people waiting for you at home. A five minute buffer to change into comfortable clothes, to sip a cup of tea, to journal about something in your day will make you a better roommate, partner, spouse, or parent.