Standards-Based Grading, Pt. 4: from standards to grades

Here is another page in my attempt to record what I have learned from a semester and a half of playing around with standards-based grading in my 9th-grade history class, this one focused on how standards change the nitty-gritty of my grading practices. You can see what I’ve already said on the matter here, here, and here.Egipat2

Like many high school teachers, I teach in a setting that requires a hybrid between a standards-based approach and a calculated letter grade. My school reports progress on standards but also a letter grade for each quarter. Moving between the two makes things more complicated and requires some careful thought. Here is my list of things that proved unexpectedly challenging in this process, along with where I’ve come out on them for now. I’m not sure I’ve answered any of these questions to my complete satisfaction yet, but that’s part of what makes this all so interesting.

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Standards-Based Grading, Pt. 3: What to do about homework

One of the aspects of standards-based grading that seems to engender the most resistance from teachers is the idea of not grading homework. I get both sides of this debate, and, honestly, I’m splitting the difference, at least for now.board-928381_960_720

The case for not grading day-to-day homework is that, when we do, we end up rewarding diligence and direction-following rather than measuring achievement. If one student bombs every test but turns in all the homework, participates in class, and is generally a good student and another student does beautifully on assessments but never turns in any homework, they might both get a C (or a B, depending on what sort of school you teach in!), but that grade means very different things. The assessments, a standards-based grader would argue, tell you more about what the student can actually do. Continue reading

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Standards-Based Grading in History, Pt. 2: What standards?

This is the second in a series of posts about testing a standards-based approach in my 9th-grade classroom. I’ve described the project here.

Any thinking about standards-based grading has to start with the standards themselves. My basic assumption in putting together mine was that they should be based on high level skills or habits of mind that can reasonably be expected to develop over the course of a whole year. This ruled out standards based on unit-specific content. Instead, I tried to capture that knowledge in one broad standard I called “historical understanding.”

I’ve been using skills-based rubrics and talking a lot about skills sequences over the last few years, so it wasn’t hard to know, in broad strokes, what categories I wanted to include. Here are the standards I used for the first semester: Continue reading

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A Few of My Favorite Things

One of the things I sometimes think I’d like this blog to be is a sort of crib sheet for new teachers. I spent a lot of time flailing around when I first got serious about my education as a teacher. It was hard to cut through the sheer volume of material out there to find what was useful to me. Now, I still have a ridiculous number of books on mStamp Reward Prize Best Winner Awardy shelves and bookmarks in my “teaching” folder, but the truth is that there are a handful of each to which I return over and over, to which I find myself referring other people, and which consistently inspire me. So this is the post I wanted and couldn’t find as a young teacher:  a deliberately short list of my “best” websites about teaching. (Best books will have to wait for another day and another post;  it’s harder to make up my mind about them). This list is unabashedly idiosyncratic, and it leaves out a lot of really good sites. Your list would, and should be different (share in the comments, please?), but this is mine. Continue reading

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Who Owns Your Assessments?

I had the privilege of spending a whole day last week with a room full of smart, creative teachers thanks to Common Sense Ed’s 2017 Teacher Instituheaderte, “Assessment Beyond the Gradebook.” This conference covered a lot of ground, but at the heart, it was a conversation about how to help students take more ownership of the work of measuring their own progress. In other words, how can we frame assessments as something we do for students rather than something we do to them?

In my opinion, a good conference first and foremost should leave me with new questions to chew over, so here’s a list of some questions I came away with: Continue reading

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What Can History Teachers Do in the Face of Trumpism?


I’ve been thinking all week about justice. Over and over, I keep having one conversation in the faculty room:  as teachers who believe deeply in respecting every student’s individual beliefs, as teachers with students in our classrooms who come from many different backgrounds and who are hearing many different things from the adults they love, as teachers committed to academic objectivity and fairness, what do we do when things are happening in the world about which we cannot, in good conscience be neutral? When does balance start to look like collaboration? Where is the space between giving students the room they deserve to draw their own conclusions and keeping silent in the face of injustice? And–this is the form the question usually takes in reality–what are we supposed to do now?

I think, though, that this is a false dichotomy. Objectivity is not the same as passivity. Trusting our students is not the same as taking no action. And taking a stand is not necessarily a top-down process.

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Making space


My major New Year’s resolution is to teach less.

And no, not because grading is interfering with my precious sleep.

It’s like this. When I first started as a young teacher, I led long, unstructured discussions of readings. We had a lot of fun. We had some great arguments. We explored some fascinating by-ways. It was good. But after a while, I began to realize that some of my students were learning more about debating tactics than about history. I found that we could spend a lot of time on whether Hammurabi was evil and mean and never really quite get around to nailing down much about the ways in which his code reflected broader Babylonian society, let alone the ways in which it may have been an improvement on previous conditions.


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My Standards-Based Grading Experiment

1182px-rubricI try to pick one central thing to think about every year, outside the day-to-day questions of what the reading is going to be or what we’re doing in class next Thursday. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, feedback, and grades–three things that are almost but not quite the same and whose interaction continually tangles my thinking and my students’.

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Working with facts in a history class

Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back to thinking about how to manage the content side of the perpetual tug of war between “coverage” and skills in history classes.

Representation of high precision and low accuracy.

“High precision and low accuracy”

I said in an earlier post that, while I am not a big fan of memorization, I am all in favor of throwing lots of facts at students. The key, I think, is that the facts be a point from which to start work, the medium, rather than the desired output. I wanted to think out loud a little more about that.

You can’t “do” history without facts; they are our evidence. Events and sources are to historians as clay is to a sculptor. They are fundamental to what we do, but one never hears a sculptor say, “Here, let me show you how much clay I have.” Far too often, when I talk about history with students and adults alike, their first inclination is to rattle off a list of facts without doing anything with them. To me as a historian, the date of George Washington’s inauguration, without context, is as uninteresting as a lump of clay. It isn’t history until you do something with it: tell a story, make an argument, explain its significance or compare it to something else. So how do we get from history as a thing you know to history as a thing you do?

Here are my ideas. So far. Continue reading

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The perils of generalizing

My favorite writers about teaching share a holy zeal for change. I’ve been noticing lately that they tend to share something else, as well–a tendency to make sweepingly negative statements about the current state of teaching in the U.S.

Whether it’s James Leowen’s cogent arguments about what gets left out of history textbooks (Most famously in Lies My Teacher Told Me) or Grant Wiggins’s recent post “Dereliction of Duty by HS Teachers” or the impassioned, if problematic, documentary “Waiting for Superman,” reforming teachers tend to give the impression that they alone have understood the problem they are pointing out and, further, that the reason for this is that the teaching establishment is otherwise populated with burnt out idiots.

Wiggins’s Understanding By Design is on my bookshelf of all-time great teaching books. I have given Leowen’s Teaching What Really Happened to more than one new teacher. These guys are my heroes. Nonetheless, I think we need a change in tone.

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