Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thoughts on Grading as a measure of Learning

Here are some thoughts about the future of grading as a measure of learning. As I see it, there are two hindrances that are preventing grading from accurately reflecting learning at the present time. 1) Our school system is tied to A-B-C-D-F grading. 2) We have to give course grades every quarter. (I’m actually going to expound on these in reverse order.) Ideally, we would give one grade per course--at the end of the semester for semester courses, at the end of the year for year courses. This would create numerous problems, however. It would be difficult to adjust for students who move in mid-year (or mid-term, or whenever they feel like it; I’m certain I will get at least two more new students before the year is out). It destroys the sense of progress that students now have with their ability to know their standing at every minute (even though at the beginning of the term that standing is woefully inaccurate). It eliminates mid-term grading, which seems to be the breaking point when most parents finally start worrying that their child is behind (and was, admittedly, a wake-up call for me in the eighth grade). It would also upset the system of quarter credit we have in place, so changing this would require a top-to-bottom overhaul of the entire secondary system. A-B-C-D-F grading has two advantages: it mimics the college grading system, and it enables both high schools and colleges to “sort” and “rank” students. It does, however, fail in numerous regards. I had a student my first year at South Davis--still one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught--who should have been the Valedictorian when he graduated, and all his classmates knew it as well, but he struggled with completing homework, so he scraped by with Cs. A++++ understanding, A++++ learning, F work completion. At the other end, I graduated as one of sixteen Valedictorians at my high school. It hardly seems that big of an honor at that point. Instead of having sixteen speeches at graduation, the senior class elected two speakers (one of whom, we all knew, was the real Valedictorian and went on to get a PhD in physics from Stanford). And as we all know, the greatest complaints we have from kids and their parents is wanting to know what needs to be DONE in order to get an A (or in order to avoid an F). However, changing the A-B-C-D-F system would hamper our students’ ability to get into college or anything similar. Any way that they would need to use their school grades in the future would become fairly meaningless. Our ideas about learning are so deeply tied to that grading system that change would be nearly impossible, and completely impractical unless it was done in every school in the country. The solution would have to address not only these two problems, but the extra problems that each could create in absence. Here is my initial thought: One of the rumors I have heard about the new SBAC tests that will be piloted in 2014 and in place in 2015 is that they will be adaptive, and therefore they will be able to measure the students’ grade level understanding of the content. In an ideal world, teachers would be able to create similar assessments to monitor student progress toward those goals. If I ever become smart enough to figure out how to do that then the lion’s share of a student’s grade in my class will be based on their progress toward the goal of grade level proficiency. In a mainstream English class like mine, I would set it up something like this: with 8th grade proficiency set as the initial base, an A in 9th grade English would be awarded to a student who reaches 9th grade end-of-year proficiency. A B would be given to a student who gets about 80% there, so is maybe two months behind in proficiency. A C to a student who is three months behind in proficiency, a D to a student who is four months behind, and an F to a student who has learned less than half the year’s content. These levels could be scaled for term and mid-term grades as well. (In fact, in a perfect world, I would want them to have some kind of assessment once every month.) I could also make an adjustment for students who did not achieve proficiency in the 8th grade, so an A would be a full year past where they were at the end of 8th grade, a B seven months past, etc. (Or we could stop the nonsense of social promotion, but that would require a bigger act-of-congress sort of step than changing from A-B-C-D-F would.) I think general education teachers like myself have a lot to learn from the special education teachers. Are their grades tied specifically to the student’s IEP goals? I don’t know, but goal-based grading would probably go a long way to getting grading tied more directly to learning. If we could guide students to set goals for their progress in specific areas (easy in language arts, since our core is now broken into five areas), their grade could be based in a similar way on their progress toward goals. However, meeting with students to set goals takes time. I have 230 students now, so if each goal meeting takes ten minutes (plus an hour of advanced prep time, which is a pretty conservative estimate) I would need nearly forty hours of time near the beginning of each school year, and about six weeks of time devoted to preparing for those goal meetings in advance (and doing nothing else). But surely there is a way to do something of the kind for students. Well, I think I’ve degenerated into rambling now, so it’s probably time to sign off. Thoughts?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Welcome one and all! We celebrated Pretty’s fifth birthday this week. That means she will start school in the fall, which is kind of weird. (Then again, in a few months’ time I will be writing about how weird it is that Mighty is getting baptized. Or did I already do that?) We had a lot of family here to celebrate, and it was pretty fun. In particular I have to be proud of the horse cake Charity made for her.
Not that our Pretty is losing any of her charm with age. Just as we returned home in a rainstorm from our community band concert on Thursday, she expounded to us a piece of profound wisdom (and my three Twitter followers, sorry about the repeat): "You know mom, when you see white clouds up in the sky, I know they're not flying sheep." Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Mighty got exciting news this week. He was accepted into the Spectrum program, a kind of accelerated class. He has been clamoring to know news of this placement since he was tested for it in January. We think it will be good for him in a number of ways. He will find school challenging again (second grade was not his biggest obstacle) and there will be someone in the class smarter than him. I’ll be in the back, fitting a halo for that poor third grade teacher. (Yes, there are reasons I don’t teach honors classes, not smallest being that I took them, so I know what I would have to deal with—namely me.) And to conclude a short letter full of “Hey, that’s weird,” Charity and I celebrated our ninth anniversary this week. In some ways it hardly seems like any time at all, and in some ways it seems like we have always been together. I do want to let you know, however, that I did NOT give her nine rings as a gift. It has great pun potential, I know, but I would be saying either “You will be corrupted into a minion of the supreme evil bad guy” or “you are doomed to die” or “you are a man,” and I don’t know which of those would get me fired faster. Anyway, nine down, ∞ to go. I can’t wait. Thanks for reading this brief missive, The Handys

Monday, April 23, 2012

When Everything Seems Triple

This post is a month late, but I think it’s appropriate that I put it up on April 23, Shakespeare’s acknowledged birthday. So join me and all the bloggers at www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com in wishing the old guy a happy birthday. Then read my old review.
About a month ago I took my students to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Utah Shakespeare Festival company on tour. This was a little bit of a risk for me, since a third of the students who would be at the production had read the play, none of them my own students, but all of them at my instigation. (Their teachers had asked me if there was another good play to read with ninth graders than Romeo and Juliet, and I gave them that suggestion. And teaching materials. And ideas. And copies of the play. So you see, I bear a good bit of blame here.) Instead, I gave my students hints about the play for months, then read them a picture book edition the day before—a “Shakespeare Can Be Fun” adaptation I had picked up at the Folger Library last summer.
And they loved it.
There is something magical about seeing Shakespeare performed live. Nothing can make you “get” the bard like the stage. That’s appropriate, I suppose, since he never wrote intending to be read, but to be seen on stage. My students connected with it instantly, and it held them like no amount of in-class work with Shakespeare could have done.
So let me give you a few bits about this production that worked well for me:
The first thing I noticed was the tripling of roles. It’s pretty common for Midsummer to include a significant amount of doubling, where many actors play one fairy and one non-fairy. This production, however, did the whole show with seven actors, so it was a sight to be seen. Here are the roles, if you can follow them:
Hippolyta-Titania-Peter Quince
Demetrius-Nick Bottom
Helena-Snout-Mustardseed (In a way she also covered Starveling)
This didn’t make for a lot of off-stage time for the cast, but it made for some rollicking good fun for the audience. One of my students even asked them after the show how hard it was to learn all those parts. Their response? “It’s like school—it just takes work.”
Since Peter Quince was also playing a pair of queens, his character was made into a woman so that she could wear for her costume an overcoat over the dress of the moment. The most playful adaptation this choice brought out was the fawning affection that the new character (let’s call her Petronella Quince) lavished over Bottom. In this production Quince gives Bottom the lead role because she admires him so openly. That affection makes a whole new dimension of comedy when the same actress, as Titania, fawns again over Bottom in a lower state of ridiculousness.
Another unusual choice—one I had never seen before, and which will mark this production for me forever—they made Snug blind. When he asks for his script to read and practice, the other players give him a stupid look—not only is his part just roaring, but he couldn’t read it anyway. And the blind lion creates magnificent stage business for the rehearsal scene and the play-within-the-play, especially when he knocks the wall down while facing the wrong audience. I’ll probably always remember this production as the “Blind Lion” Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Once again, Bravo to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. It is not exaggeration when I regularly brag of this festival as the best Shakespeare on our side of the Atlantic.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Occasionally Handy Easter Edition

Every year a little before this time (as of this writing, nine days ago) a colleague of mine walks into my classroom and recites to me a favorite line from The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (I don’t have the text with me to check my accuracy, so please forgive me if I misquote):
“Spring Break. Is there anywhere in the English language two words combined so perfectly?”
Yes, this week was spring break, and we have celebrated it the way we usually do: house projects, dipping chocolate Easter eggs (Charity does that part—I handle quality control), and hosting 37,485 children at our house. One of those house projects, as many of you know, kind of dominated the week. We redid our roof.
Now some of you may put roofing in that category of things to be avoided desperately, like alternators, chicken pox, and nuclear war. (Archivists, if you still have that letter, please send it back to me! I have spent nine years trying to recreate that level of brilliance, and I confess I don’t even have a copy of the letter in the first place.) However, I was not nearly as nervous about this as some other homeowners may have been. I’ve done this. Regularly. It was odd on the first day of the project when I realized that the person in charge should be the homeowner or the most experienced roofer on the deck, and those were both me. (That day—more to follow.) So I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I’m also terrified of heights, so that may have offset some of it. Either way, there is a new roof on my house and no leaks in between.
Monday of this week I went shopping with my friend Scott, who is a much more experienced roofer than I. We picked up all the materials that were not going to be part of the rooftop delivery I had already ordered (see below). The roof waited in anticipation. We attached some plywood to the carport to make a slide for the shingles we were tearing off. Then it became Tuesday. Tuesday we waited. (I, in the interim, watched a bunch of children while the girls went to lunch. Most of them went to see The Hunger Games first. Some of those told me how much they liked it. They are still confused by how little their arguments influenced me to see the movie, and certainly how little they influenced me to trade $8 for a chance to see the movie. It’s a paradigm thing, you see. They don’t understand what I value in a film. Of course, the only known individual on the planet who does understand that met up with her friends for lunch later.) (Oh, I also fixed a couple of other things in the house. Irrelevant, but nice.)
Wednesday morning saw the arrival of a dumpster that was supposed to come Tuesday. Wednesday slightly-later-morning saw me up on my roof with scraping shovels, as well as with Rick, my neighbor Mark, and Mighty. I discovered how small my roof really is. We started pulling shingles off a little after eight, maybe eight thirty. We all got down from the roof a little after two, and the work was pretty well done. I had to clean up a lot of misses, but in large measure it was all taken care of. Thank you, Rick, and thank you, Mark. (It was during this time that Charity and her friends made the chocolate eggs, while a gaggle—no, a rabble—make that a murder of children ran around her friend’s back yard.)
Thursday morning I got up on the roof to do the last part of cleanup I had saved—the gutters. Scott joined me that day, and we did as many pieces of prep work as we could before the shingles were delivered. We had the drip edge nailed on and were about to put on the ice shield—the last thing we could do without more materials—when the truck arrived. Charity was already gone to the library at that point, so the five little boys who were down in the yard watched the astounding process as a truck with a conveyor belt brought 1500 square feet of brown three-tab shingles to my roof (which measures 1300 square feet; on a related note, would anyone like some brown three-tab shingles?). They were all very impressed, but what they thought was the coolest was not the machine that can put shingles on the roof, but the fact that the worker rode the machine up to the roof and then back down. Well, the rest of the day Scott and I, with Mighty’s help, shingled the front half of the roof and prepped the back, getting the shingles part way up that side as well. We ran out of gas, and we knew we had a lot of help coming on Saturday. We then laid tarps over the exposed parts of the roof (well, exposed except for tar paper) and set a time to start again on Saturday.
It snowed Friday. A lot. But the roof did not leak. Charity and I took the afternoon to join Paul and his fiancé Kelly in the temple. That was wonderful. Then Robbie and Mary Lou beat us back home. Oh well.
In the meantime that snow melted, thankfully. We got right to work on Saturday, and it turned out that almost every adult in John Merrill’s family who lives in Utah or Wyoming (and isn’t currently pregnant) was on my roof. With that much help and two nail guns we knocked out the rest of the roof by noon. Literally—when we finished Scott checked his phone, and the time was 12:00. Thank you so much to all the help we received. I love the new roof, but I still think my favorite part was Mighty’s repeated response to me. His friends were all down below playing (even his cousins on Saturday), and I kept asking if he wanted to join them. He declined every time, however, saying this: “It’s not every day you get to do a roof!” What a boy.
With the family all coming for Saturday, Charity and I planned to do an Easter egg hunt with whoever was there. We didn’t realize, of course, that eventually that would be pretty much everybody. So the great Handy-Merrill-Tang-Stirling-Jeffery-Peterson (yep, the neighbor kids too) Easter egg hunt ended up being pretty big. Naturally, since John was there to help on the last stages of the roof on Saturday, we assigned him his preferred task of hiding eggs. We released the kids in stages to get eggs. One of the best moments early on was when Tang[3], who had a few eggs in his basket, decided to open one and found that it contained candy. He was done hunting eggs at that point. Eventually we had two back yards full of ten children seeking their glorious jelly-bean-filled eggs, and a little trading so that those who found eggs with bracelets but wanted eggs filled with snakes could get their wish.
I have set up a Google site where I have posted some of the pictures and video from that day. If you want to see them, let me know and I’ll add you as a user. You can then post yours, if you have any.
I want to give you an Easter thought, and I can think of nothing more eloquent nor more poetic than what the Apostle Paul already put down:
For if the dead rise not, then Christ is not raised.
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
It is sown in a natural body; it is raised in a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.
And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Happy Easter,
The Handy Family

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Occasionally Handy--Grammar Day!

Dear family, friends, and fodder,
I decided to mainly write today so that I could share a glorious joke with you. (Those of you who follow me on Google +, or on Twitter, have probably already seen this. Margaret and Christine, I’m so sorry. (They follow me on both.))
March 4th, National Grammar Day, is also my grandmother’s birthday. There’s an excellent pun in there somewhere.
OK, so it wasn’t that great of a joke, but it made me giggle.
Several of you are now saying “I didn’t know there was a National Grammar day.” (The rest are saying, “You’re kidding. There’s a National Grammar Day? What next, a National Root Canal Day? National Scrape Your Fingernails On A Chalkboard Day?” (For the younger generation—a “Chalkboard” is an antique technology that we once used to didactically write, often to larger groups. When you scratch your fingernails on it there issues forth a torturous sound. I think it was a malfunctioning app.))
But yes, March Forth is National Grammar Day. Why did grammarians and other such language-loving nerds choose this particular day, out of all in the calendar?
Because it’s a sentence.
Aha! Now you all gasp with recognition as your brain forces you to quickly recognize the brilliance of the assignment of that day. (Also a pun.) You may also connect that many other nerd holidays fall in March: World Book Day (1), π day (14), the Ides of March (beware the 15), the spring equinox (dates vary—I think it depends on the Iowa Caucuses that year), and let’s not forget Theodor Geisel’s birthday (2). (Don’t recognize the name? His middle name was Seuss.)
So in honor of National Grammar Day, I have decided to cannily split all the infinitives in this letter. (Did I just go back to merrily put in more infinitives, only to mischievously split them? You will have to dazedly wonder.)
News of the actual family goes as follows: Pretty just registered for Kindergarten, Mighty moved up to the beginner class in Tae Kwon Do, and Charity and I tutor a lot of local teenagers.
Thursday of this week (World Book Day) we went to the elementary school to thoughtfully register Pretty for next year’s kindergarten class. She (and most of her friends—Angels and ministers of grace defend those two teachers) got to giddily try some activities with one kindergarten teacher while the parents sat to attentively listen to the other explain what their child should know before the first day. The list is fairly simple—write her name, recognize the letters in her name, and know the numbers 1-10. It was reminiscent of Mighty’s kindergarten roundup: I thought to myself then, too, “So, what if he was ready for that eight months ago?” She is ready, too, though I think she’ll be a different challenge for the teachers than her brother was. (She does, however, have one moment in her past reminiscent of the Hamlet-Point the Leaf controversy. Charity has one hairstyle that they call “Juliet hair” because it resembles the style worn by Amanda Seyfried in Letters to Juliet. The first time she did it in Pretty’s hair, she declared, “I’m the Princess of Shakespeare!” I need to carefully do less to literarily corrupt my children.) Anyway, this is an exciting time for her as she gets ready for school.
Don’t worry, though. She’s still our Pretty. Right now as she is sleeping (read “singing and pretending to quietly be asleep”) a line of riderless cavalry, largest to smallest, crosses her dresser.
Mighty has moved up in his Tae Kwon Do class, as I mentioned. I think I have mentioned before that he has been taking that class since September. He has enjoyed some remarkable success with it, including breaking his first board a couple of weeks back. (The board is on display at the house, if you want to bodily see it. So, Uncle Brian, just hop that plane from Guam so you can visually inspect an object whose picture I could just as easily post on my blog and let you see at your inconvenience.) He likes to diligently practice his form in the mornings (it’s a series of movements that he needs to exactly master in order to proudly earn his yellow belt), and he enjoys the workout of participating in class. Now that he is beyond the super-little-kids class, he goes twice a week. I can easily see now where the burnout of soccer moms can creep in; imagine having three or four kids who are actively involved in three or four different activities. (That’s right, Mark, and you too, teeny—imagine that very carefully.)
Don’t worry, though. He’s still our Mighty. Yesterday when his Lego Club magazine arrived he found the contest page and commenced immediately to creatively build a model of a garbage truck with an extremely long crane arm, though he tells us it’s for separating recyclables.
(I should invent a National Parallelism Day. We would spend it reading King Lear, Isaiah, and Nothing but the Truth.)
Charity and I, as I mentioned, have found ourselves tutoring a lot of teenagers in the neighborhood. (OK, “a lot” is deceptive. No more than seven have ever come, one of those is actually twenty, and two others have only come once. But I might also point out the number of teenagers currently in our posterity: 0.) Most of them come for math, though several come (or call in, readers of this letter) about chemistry, and two of them have Charity help them with history. Only rarely am I called upon to deftly employ my actual job-related skills and help students with essays. (If we expand the pool to our adult friends who are taking college classes, that frequency rises dramatically, from “once per dynasty” to “once per essay.”) Don’t get us wrong—we like helping these kids (and adults, for that matter). It gives Charity someone to shepherdessly feed after our kids’ friends all have to lamentably go home for the afternoon. It gives me a fresh sarcasm vent. (I understand summers are very hard on my family, because I have to inadvertently let out all that snark on the ones I love. Maybe I should just write more family letters in the summer to skillfully solve that.)
So, as you see, life at the Handy house continues to moss-ungatheringly roll along.
Mike, Charity, Mighty, and Pretty
P. S. Did I just work to CTRL-F-ly proofread this letter to ratifyingly certify that I had split each infinitive? You will have to continually wonder. Or, alternatively, to wonderingly count.

Super Tuesday

I was planning to write a post with my own musings about the upcoming primaries on Super Tuesday, but the fivethirtyeight post about it pretty much stole what thunder I don't have.
Summary: Mitt Romney is probably going to top 400 delegates after Tuesday. Not only does he survive the onslaught of the "anybody-but-Romney" candidates, but he gains on them further still.