Originally Published December 2011
I still struggle how to use subject/percentage grading-system to communicate learning needs effectively. I struggle even more with how to make it make better sense to parents. On one hand, we grade standards proficiency in each subject. But on the other hand, the key to success in any field is in learning responsibly skills: to be organized, to remember to turn in assignments, to write down homework, and time management. Students are also learning self-management skills: focus, productivity, delayed gratification, self-assessment, self-correction, and follow through.
Ninety percent of every parent/teacher conference I have is about responsibility and self-management skills, but the conference is almost always called to discuss a grade in a specific discipline. We need to help parents and students distinguish and monitor progress in specific academic skills, and self-management skills.
Another clear gap between my vision for a successful year and my students’ was an understanding of the stakes; students didn’t seem to recognize that they had to demonstrate proficiency for promotion. The other more adult concern was our school’s fragile AYP (annual yearly progress) status. To students, my differentiated activities were just another inconsequential exercise to them. They didn’t see the line between practice and achievement. So I set about filling these gaps.
I built self-assessments and rubrics for all of our assignments. We used a matrix of standards correlated to assignments as a daily checklist tool. I held data team meetings with my students to talk about their self-management skills academic skills. We strategized together and built game plans. Students began to set goals and compete with themselves. They set out to master standards one at a time and they did it. Not because it was another homework assignment, but because they now understood how that was their gap to fill, and that in the big picture, it mattered. I finally had a team full of players that were playing to win.
I realize education isn’t a sport, but the coaching analogy pointed out my students and I weren’t on the same page. I still notice at the beginning of every year students’ motivation correlates with how fun an activity is rather how it will help them achieve the end goal. Slowly, I introduce goal-setting mechanisms and measures. I ask them to be reflective about who they are as learners, to understand learning is a process and not a pass/ fail event. We set goals, talk strategies to confront weakness, and look for resources and personal strength they can depend on. Students all have a checklist of standards for each unit. I explain to student what they need to demonstrate for me sign off that they are proficient. Students grade their papers and do the math to find out their scores. I require students to evaluate their progress on meeting long-term goals like achieving a certain grade their report card. Students reflect on their scores, their work ethic, and study habits. The goal helps students understand their responsibility as learners and to provide them a picture of their learning as a journey in progress.
All of these practices invite my students to be self-managers and the captain of their learning. Even though my job is to deliver content, assess, and give feedback, without the students’ participation, these activities are virtually useless. As an unknown source said, “Every achievement starts with the decision to try.” I’m well aware that decision is my students, not mine.