Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Drumroll.....It's tip #2

Listen up people. Tip #2 is for those of you that teach classes that are "regular" or "standard" or "below level" or whatever your district calls them. I don't use these strategies as much with Gifted and Talented kids because what GT really means these days is motivated, and today's tip deals with unmotivated students.

Still with me?

I learned the hard way while student teaching that assessment and grading can play a significant role in classroom management. While teaching, I was so overwhelmed with everything (my mentor teacher was actually on maternity leave, so I was completely on my own from day 1) that grading was usually the last thing I got to on the to-do list. I was too concerned with learning the material, organizing lesson plans, attending the required intern courses at night, etc. As a result, things piled up. When I actually sat down to grade papers I had all sorts of stacks. Some, I thought, were kids that turned things in late, or were absent, but I wasn't sure. Also, there were plenty of kids that had not turned in an assignment or two. When I gave them an updated grade at the quarter and half-quarter mark, they were often shocked (or pretended to be shocked) at their grades. "How could I have a D??!! There's no way!" When I explained they were missing an assignment they would claim they didn't know about it or give some other lame excuse that we've all heard before.

Additionally, because I was usually so far behind in grading, I often didn't collect assignments at all. I'd just let the kids "hang on to them for now." The students picked up on that pretty quickly and their first question on any assignment became "Are you collecting this?" They stopped doing their work because they didn't think I would collect it, or if I did they knew they could turn it in late and I would never notice because by the time I got to grading it I couldn't remember if they were legitimately absent or what.

And, as you know, when kids stop doing their work, nothing else goes right either. And that's what happened. Teenagers think in the here and now. They must have immediate consequences for their behavior or they don't see the connection. They needed to see that the work they did was impacting them right away.

When I started my own classroom, I started fresh with these rules.

1. I keep the papers organized. I set up a plastic crate to keep all papers in. Their is a hanging divider for each class period. Any time a class turns in an assignment, I put it in a file folder and put it in the tub. I also have one file folder labeled "old" for each class. Assignments that are turned in after the others have already been graded go in that file.

2. I collect everything. I tell the students on the first day of class not to even bother asking. I will collect ALL of it. Here's the catch: some of it I just collect to see if they did it or not. I simply give a check, check-minus, or no grade at all. These are papers that we usually end up going over at some point. Then, they can make sure all of their answers are correct. But at least I know they attempted it. Sometimes, if I want to go over the answers on the same day, I walk around the room and check them off. Other assignments I collect and grade word-for-word. Those are given a number grade. And actually, I have to admit, by the end of the year I might occasionally not collect something, but the kids don't notice. They've gotten into the habit of doing the work and knowing they'll be held accountable.

3. I grade just about everything the same day that I collect it. Now, I'll be the first to admit that doesn't always happen. And obviously, with essays or other involved projects the kids might have to wait one or two weeks, even. But anything that can be graded in the short-term is. When I record it, I put a tiny dot in the gradebook if the person was absent from class. Since I am doing this on the same day, I can actually REMEMBER whether the kid was absent or just didn't hand it in. If they didn't hand something in, I mark it as a 0 right then. I make the 0 really big though, so that I can enter a grade later if the assignment is handed in. Then it looks like a number with a circle around it, indicating that the assignment was handed in late. (This helps during conferences when a parents asks how many assignments their child has turned in late.

4. I return the graded work the next day while students are working on their drill. This way, they see the immediate consequences of what they did the day before. It also usually ends with a student who was previously absent saying "oh, did you collect that yesterday? I need to turn mine in." I would never remember to ask for it on my own.

5. I have rules about turning in work and I stick with them. All absent work must be turned in within 3 days of an absence or it becomes a 0. Obviously, I make exceptions for kids that are out for a week with mono. I take late work only one day late and for half credit. This is a pretty harsh rule and I would definitely relax it for younger kids, but my students are a year away from college or the real world and they should learn now. When I first told my department head that I was instigating this policy, he told me I was crazy, that the kids would fail, and that if parents complained he wouldn't back me up. Well, I've been using the policy for 1 and 1/3 years and no one has filed a complaint yet. The policy is made clear to students AND parents at the beginning of the course.

6. I give students grade updates almost every week. When I started teaching, I investigated lots of gradebook programs and eventually invested my money in FirstClass. One reason I like it is that it will print out little grade summaries for each student, about 8 students to a page. Every Saturday morning, I enter the grades for the week and print out new slips. (This is also usually when I go through the 'old' file for each class and grade late/absent work.) The kids get the slips on Monday morning. I think this has helped immensely. Once again, the kids see immediate consequences. They also see how their grade fluctuates from week to week. ("Whoa! I didn't turn in that one assignment and now I have a D!") Also, no surprises means no arguing at the end of the quarter, and it means I can alert parents to negative trends before it is too late.

7. Eleventh graders are not too old for positive reinforcement. A's on tests result in stickers on papers. Also, I use their work to decorate my bulletin board. Any time we do something creative, I put the best work on the bulletin board. If you make it to the board, you get extra credit. This rewards the kids who do well and shows the other students what "creativity" looks like. I find it very hard to explain that to them, but when they see the work they understand what they could have done to make their paper better. Before and after class, students hover around the board to see "who made it" and brag about their accomplishments.

I hope some of these tips help people out there. Different things work for different people, and it's probably most important that you design something that works for you and stick with it. Please feel free to share comments or questions.