Shifty Paradigms

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Last Wednesday I spent a few hours at my ISD with other 3-5 teachers listening to Jane E. Pollack, author of, most recently, One Teacher at a Time.  I thought I was just going to hear a little about standards-based report cards.  Instead, I had my entire practice challenged.  Yes, it was one of those sorts of presentations.  Jane didn’t want to just tell me about a possiblity–she wanted me to shift how I teach and assess, basing my practice on criterion-based scoring, where every student is made to focus on their proficiency in each benchmark of the subjects I teach.  She walked in with what to her seemed the unshakable assertion that this paradigm is clearly the one in which I as a teacher can really push the learning curve of my students. 

I held my ground, but have always known it was shaky at best.  It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to know that the traditional grading system is not a framework that promotes learning, or even reflects learning.  The grades in my book tell a lot of stories, many of which aren’t really useful.  I often explain to my students and their parents that grades do not necessarily reflect ability or even learning–they reflect performance on assignments.  Have I always been assiduous in my choice of assignments to be sure they strongly reflect the precise benchmarks my students are responsible for gaining proficiency in?  Heck no.  And I’m not alone by a long-shot.  So Ms. Jane comes along and causes tectonic plate movement under my shaky ground. 

I want to cry, partly in frustration over yet another BIG IDEA I have to grapple with in my practice.  But partly in some relief–I knew this grade stuff was kind of bogus all along, but didn’t know what my alternatives were.  So now I’m reading her book, which reflects some of what I heard her say in person.  I just read something Jane mentioned during her talk–that in the 50’s, maybe half of the school-aged children were graduating high school.  Jane talked about what that meant for teachers and education–many classrooms were populated by students who “got it”–the wheat had already been separated from the chaff.  Those students that tear us up with frustration and grief were largely not in the room anymore, and teachers were instructing the motivated, resourced kids.  I’m not saying I’d want that, but it does re-frame the idea that kids were smarter “in the old days” and that somehow today’s teachers and students are falling short of their predecessors.  They weren’t counting all the kids–cheaters.

Back to criterion-based assessment–so I see myself with this gradebook in which each benchmark is listed with a number of activities attached and the students get scored on their level of proficiency (or lack thereof) in each activity/reflection of the benchmark.  And the students are aware of the precise benchmarks we are striving toward, self-assessing as well as being assessed by me as we move through various and sundry compelling opportunities to learn and grow (that part doesn’t change, thank God), and the students focus is on the proficiency goal as opposed to the grade stuff.  At the end of a unit, they (and I) know exactly where they stand in relation to each benchmark of learning.  And this magical online gradebook helps me spit out subject grades using all these criterion-based assessments at the end of each marking period (don’t ask about the magic grading program, I don’t know enough to speak to that as of yet).

And the way I find time to do all that business?  By throwing away some of the stuff I was doing before that was not as geared toward benchmark-y proficiency.  I am teacher-enough to admit this stuff exists, and scared enough to admit I don’t want to let go.  But I can’t have it both ways, of this much I am convinced.  More deliberate pedagogical choices must be made for this brave new classroom.  That queasy feeling could be dread or excitement at the prospect.  I’ll let you know.

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Becoming one-teacher-at-a-time-ish… « Teachery

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