Thinking about oral exams

The best assessment I ever gave was an oral exam. It was a small AP Art History class, and I needed to come up with a creative solution to the fact that our assigned 3-hour final slot was after the date of the AP exam:  I wanted our exam to come first, so it would serve as preparation for the AP and not feel anticlimactic, but that meant I had to fit it into a regular 45-minute period.


This is what Google gave me when I searched for oral exams in schools. Hm.

For each student, I projected a work of art that was typical of its era but not likely to be familiar to the students and gave her five minutes to talk about it, starting with as full an identification as possible (time, place, style–a guess at the artist if warranted). By and large, I simply listened without interrupting, but if a student made a significant error in identification (placing a Renaissance work in the Classical period, for example), I would let her talk long enough to understand her thinking and then redirect her (“If I told you the date of this work was 1510, how would that change your analysis?”). I also reserved the right to ask follow up questions, usually to press for more specificity, but it was rarely necessary. Students worried beforehand about how they could fill the five minutes, but, in fact, all were still going strong when I called time. With this particular small class of senior girls who had grown very close, I felt comfortable holding the conversations with everyone in the room together, which made it a much more useful review. Some students were, inevitably, much crisper and more sophisticated than others, but everyone rose to  high level for her own ability. The result was that we all walked out uplifted by a keen sense of just how much they had all learned. I have never seen students feel as energized or positive about an assessment. Continue reading

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Why doesn’t she just do the work?

It’s a conversation that I’ve had a million times with colleagues in the break room: “It’s not even the hard stuff that’s bringing her grade down. She’s just not doing the work.” We are full of sympathy when students are stumped on concepts that we recognize as tricky, like the causes of the agricultural revolution or how to write a good thesis statement, because we remember learning them ourselves. When students can’t figure out how to do “the basics,” however–don’t budget their time, study for tests, make it to class on time, turn in their homework, do the right homework, stay on topic in class, ask enough questions, ask appropriate questions, answer questions thoughtfully–we throw up our hands and say, “she’s just not trying.” These we see as issues of effort, not skill, and issues of effort easily become moral issues. Nothing makes us madder as teachers than to work our hearts out preparing something, only to have half the class seem to blow it off. Continue reading

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Assessing student discussions

A couple of years ago, a thoughtful colleague challenged our faculty to think more systematically about how we assess class discussions. (Thanks, Jeff!) I’ve been puzzling over it ever since, and this is where I’ve gotten so far.

For most history classes, discussion is a central part of the experience, whether it’s formal socratic seminars or something more free flowing:  when you’re trying to figure out whether students have understood the complexities of a historical situation, there’s no substitute for hearing them talk about it. Academic discussion lets students practice making meaning of facts on their own, digging beyond the textbook narrative to actually do something with what they know. It lets them hear ideas they may not have had themselves and practice talking about disagreements. At its best, academic discussion is thinking out loud, collectively, each member of the conversation adjusting and intensifying the insights of the others until the group reaches an understanding no one would have reached on their own. We all know, though, that student academic discussion is not always at its best. Participating in a discussion is a high level skill, and if we want the results, we have to teach the skill. Part of that is valuing it, assessing it, and giving students feedback.4541933450_a367072f83_b

For all its importance in our classes, fairly few teachers I know assess discussion in any systematic way. Discussions get rolled into a generalized “participation” grade at the end of the term (which helps perpetuate the student conviction that what we’re measuring in discussions is quantity, not quality), or they become the fudge factor that lets us discreetly adjust a grade to fit our subjective sense of where a student should be. Many of us seem to feel uncomfortable actually putting a hard grade on students’ discussion performance. It can be hard to do:  actively leading a discussion is much like conducting an orchestra–doing it well requires all one’s attention. And discussions happen in real time, so you can’t go back and reconsider details later. Still, I think it’s important:  assessment is one way we tell students what we value, and it’s clear that we do value discussions. Assessment is also how we make them better.

So here are some things I’ve tried, and a few thoughts on what has worked for me so far. Continue reading

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Standards-based grading, pt. 5: the words we use matter

As we introduce a standards-based system, we have an opportunity to change the mental language our school uses for grades. One of the most important differences between a standards-based approach and traditional letter grades is that we are naming the stages of student progress rather than using abstract signifiers (A, B,board-1106649_960_720 C, etc.) which may mean very different things to our students than they do to us. To take advantage of that, we need to think very carefully about the words we choose.
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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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