Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part III


source: cse.buffalo.edu

What usually happens when a student fails an assessment?

Does he

a) come to see the teacher to find out what he did not understand

b) get reprimanded by his parents and try to do better next time on a different assessment

c) roll his eyes and forget it about it

In my experience, the answer is usually C. A and B do occur, occasionally. A, of course, is the best option and the one for which all good teachers hope. After all, grades should be about learning  and if a student fails an assessment that means he has not learned what he was supposed to learn.

Perhaps this failure to learn is the teacher’s fault. Perhaps it is the student’s fault. Perhaps it is nobody’s fault. But it happens. And what we hope is that a student can gain some helpful information from an assessment, such as: “Oh. I have not actually mastered Parallelism. I should go talk to Ms. Shea to find out what I did not understand for the sake of learning itself.”


Under normal circumstances, and under most grading systems, option A rarely occurs because the student, the teacher – nay, the class itself – has already moved on to a new objective or concept. Why waste time laboring over an exam you failed when you have another one looming on the horizon? If a final exam is coming up, then perhaps you will ask the teacher to help you so that you do not make the same errors on the final exam. But this points-based motivation is hardly ideal.

What we really want is for kids to be intrinsically motivated. To care not about grades for grades’ sake, but to care about grades only insofar as they reflect learning.

This sort of virtuous motivation may be 90% grace, 5% parent-influence, 4% peer influence and only 1% teacher influence, but we must do what we can with that 1%.

Assessments can be a learning experience. And if the assessment says, “you did not master this concept,” then, ideally, the student should go back, try again, and then retake (an altered version of) the assessment so that we can measure whether or not he has mastered the concept the second time.

Therefore, I have decided to offer retakes this semester – something I NEVER thought I would do. I used to think that if a student had not mastered the objective by the time of the assessment, then his grade should reflect that. If I schedule the test for Februrary 19th and the student did not study, or studied incorrectly, or thought he paid attention in class but did not… then for any of the those reasons he deserves to earn a low grade.

This, as far as it goes, is true. But the real question is this: what happens after failure? Do we want our kids to fail (or perform poorly) and merely move onto the next topic, hoping for a better outcome next time? (Experience shows all teachers that the kids who fail one assessment are far more likely to fail the next one, even if it is on a completely different objective unrelated to the first.)


Do we want them to go back to that failed assessment, analyze it, think about it, talk to us about it, and learn from their mistakes? Of course we want the latter. Because grades should not be about punishment, they should be about what a student has learned. And if he can show us he has achieved the objective after all, even on a second (or third!) try, shouldn’t his grade reflect that learning and progress?

Yes? Are you with me?

So how do we make this happen? By allowing retakes for assessments.

This is my new retake policy in a letter I wrote to my kids:

Dear Sophomores, Based on the research we have been discussing in class and that has been presented by [Principal], I believe it is in your best interest to adjust our grading policy for second semester so that your grades will more accurately reflect your learning. However, I also believe it would be best to introduce a gradual change based upon some of the feedback I received in your grading proposals instead of the full assessment-only model. The changes are:

  1. Re-takes for assessments will be introduced

After certain major assessments, and at my discretion after looking at your performance, I will be offering re-takes on certain assessments so that you can learn from your mistakes and show me that you have met the learning objective. The retakes I offer will be available to all students, regardless of your original grade. If you chose to retake the assessment, I will not average your scores: the higher grade will go into the grade book to reflect your mastery.

  1. In order to retake an assessment, you must complete the following:
  • Two days of NHS study hall with me or with the student mentors to review concepts you missed on the assessment.
  • A full-page typed letter explaining how you prepared for the first assessment, the mistakes made on the previous assessment, how you prepared for this retake, what your plan of action is from this point to avoid making these mistakes again.

These requirements are in place to ensure that you try your best on all your assessments, and that you only retake an assessment to show me your growth in learning.

  1. Homework will make up a smaller percentage of your overall grade

You will still receive credit for homework, bell work, and other completion grades on a random basis. This will be worth 15% of your overall grade in this class. Late work will be accepted for a reduced grade (70%) until the end of the unit. After this time, late work will not be accepted. The goal in this adjusted policy is to ensure more clearly that your grades reflect your learning of the Archdiocesan standards and objectives. If you or your parents have any questions, please email me. I will be happy to meet with you to discuss the policy. Sincerely, Ms. Maura Shea [email]

Ideally, I would allow retakes on ALL assessments. But since I am still grading some non-assessment work (homework, bell work, class work, etc.) my principal suggested I take a partial approach. Basically, I am trying to offer retakes on as many assessments as I can. Keep in mind that this means creating NEW assessments and grading a LOT more of them. Ahem.

Later, I gave each student a simplified version they put in their binders for easy reference:


  1. Sign up for two spots [on the schedule posted by the door] – one so that we can go over your previous assessment, and another so that you can retake a new assessment.
  1. Check in with me to make sure these times are okay.
  1. Prepare your typed letter.
  • How did you prepare for your first assessment?
  • What are the mistakes you made on the first assessment – why did they happen?
  • How did you prepare for this retake?
  • What is your plan of action to avoid making the same mistakes?
  1. Come see me on the scheduled days!

Thoughts? Suggestions? In my next post, I’ll explain how this new policy (implemented in January) has been working so far.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

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On Teaching Poetry


“I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” 1-3). Picture source: genius.com

More thoughts coming soon on my dramatic change in grading policy! (I sound like an advertisement…)

In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.

The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.

What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:

I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.

As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.

I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.

Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.

Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.

Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.

What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.

Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.

After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.

I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”

But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how.

How can we help our kids get inside a poem?

How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language?

How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it?

Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?

I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (1996)

via poetryfoundation.org

More to come.

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Poetry Study Guide

My kids are taking their poetry test on Friday and I thought I’d share the study guide I created for them with you, especially for any teachers out there who teach poetry.

The “basic concepts” are all things we discussed in class and they took notes on. But the “critical thinking” sections are meant to push them – we talked about these questions a little bit, but they are open-ended and I want them to consider them as a part of their preparation for the test.

Unit 4 Poetry Study Guide

 Overall Test Goal: ___________________________________________

(Find this in your Table of Contents Unit Goal)


4.1 SWBAT explain the differences between poetry vs. prose.

Basic concepts:

Explain three differences between poetry and prose

What is compressed language? What is expanded language?

What is the difference between writing in lines/stanzas and writing in paragraphs?

What is rhythm? (Do not confuse it with rhyme!)

The three people ALWAYS involved in a poem are….

How are the author and the speaker different from each other?

How to cite a poem the first time and subsequent times.

Critical Thinking: How would you define poetry?

Why is poetry often so difficult to understand at first?

Do poets make their poems difficult on purpose? Why?

4.2 SWBAT apply tone, mood and shifts to poetry.

Basic concepts:

What is tone? What is mood? How are they different?

What is a shift? How do you find one?

How do you create a tone and mood map?

How do you use quote sandwiches to explain tone and/or mood?

Critical Thinking: How can tone and mood help you understand a poem better?

How does tone create mood?

How are tone and mood relevant in everyday conversation?

Ongoing: SWBAT identify and explain literary and poetic devices.

Be able to define and find:

Metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, assonance, alliteration, apostrophe, hyperbole, understatement, onomatopoeia

4.3 SWBAT apply poetic form and meter to poetry.

Basic concepts:

What is poetic form? What are some examples?

What is meter?

What is a foot?

Identify and define: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee

Be able to scan poetry for stressed and unstressed syllables

Critical Thinking: Why do poets sometimes restrict themselves to a poetic form?

What does writing in a particular form (like the villanelle) teach you about poetry?

What are some advantages and disadvantages of free verse?

Why do poets use iambs, trochees, spondees, etc? How do these feet contribute to rhythm?

How is poetry similar to and different from music?

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Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part II


48.94 % of the people who took my poll on grades said that the primary purpose of grades is to “give feedback to students on their learning.”

Most teachers at my school agree. When I was presented with this question by my principal, I said the same thing.

Strangely, however, the grading policies of many teachers do not reflect that purpose. I came to realize that my own grading policy–teacher approved and administration approved for 4 years–was just as unclear.

I weighted my grades according to category:

30% = Homework, Bell Work, Class work… basically completion grades for practicing concepts. These are not evaluative of learning.

55% = Quizzes, Essays, Tests: Assessment grades. These do attempt to evaluate learning.

15% = Final Exam grade. Also an assessment, and also an attempt to evaluate learning.

So basically I had a 30% non-assessment and 70% assessment breakdown, which is what I learned was appropriate for high school. When I taught in Louisiana, I was advised to adjust this to 35% / 65% or even 40%/60%. In middle school, the assessment value is usually about 40% non-assessment and 60% assessment. In grade school, the weighting is even more even.

Some teachers do not weight grades at all, but work according to a point system where all assignments, assessment and non-assessment, are equally weighted. Usually assessments are assigned a higher point value. If you can calculate ahead of time the number of assignments of any kind you plan to give, you can still maintain control over the assessment / non-assessment percentage breakdown, but that takes a lot of foresight that I don’t usually have.

Following in the footsteps of my own high school experience, if you did not turn in homework, you did not earn any credit for it. Some teachers (the nice ones) accepted late homework for partial credit, and some (the hardcore ones) did not. I am one of the hardcore ones. I mean, in the real world, deadlines matter.

But notice what happens. A student’s grade is now 30% about compliance and turning stuff in on-time — not necessarily about the concepts he learned or did not learn.

So a student who dutifully turns in his homework every day — no matter how riddled with mistakes, or with cheating (I can’t always catch it) — can pass a high school class, even if he fails a majority of his assessments. He may not know the first thing about Algebra, but he did his homework, so he can pass the class and move on to Geometry.

On the other hand, a student who does not do her homework but can pass all the assessments with B’s can end up with a D as an overall grade.

Does that D really reflect her learning? Or just her irresponsible bad habits?

It was really scary to bring all this up to my kids, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. Most of them don’t really understand how their grades work, or how much certain behaviors affect their grades. I can tell you they were very interested in all this, because it was the first time most of them had ever really thought about it.

Should grades be partially about behavior and good working habits? Even though these things do not really measure mastery of the skills and concepts of a class?

Many teachers, students and parents say yes. After all it’s “fair.” A kid who never does his homework should be punished for that. And a kid who always does his homework should be rewarded.

I agree, it is “fair” in a certain sense. But I was starting to think that using grades as punishment for non-compliance was not really reflecting their true purpose.

More to come!

Why I’m Changing My Mind About Grades – Part I


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Why I’m Changing my mind about Grades, Part I

In my previous post, I asked any of you who have ever been involved in school to take a brief survey. What do you think is the primary purpose of grades?

This is, in fact, the same survey that my principal sent out to his entire staff. And after reading and mulling over some of the research he presented to us, I realized that a lot of my grading policies were not reflecting the primary purpose of grades. In fact, I found myself really rethinking some of the grading practices I have always taken for granted.

It’s kind of a scary thing when you realize you might have to admit you were wrong about some things — especially if those things are integral to your profession.

Nevertheless I am really grateful to my principal for challenging me and my colleagues to rethink grading practices and to try to better align our individual classroom policies with the true purpose of grades.

Most of you said — correctly — that the primary purpose of grades is “to give feedback to students on their learning.”

The other options are important, but they are secondary.

Take this report card sample I showed my kids, for example:


Many of the kids began by answering, “The college would know this is a hardworking student.” Or “the college would know this student is good at theology, geometry, and computer programming, but is not quite as good as English or Biology.” Or “the college would see this student is really smart.”


“Good at subject, less good at subject”



So I pushed them on their answers. “How many of you have taken a class where it is easy to get an A? Where you basically had to just be a nice person and the teacher would reward you? How many of you have taken a class where you had to work really hard even to earn a C? Or a class where you earned a grade that you don’t think you deserved — whether it was too high or too low?”

They all had had these experiences.

“How do you know that the A+ in Old Testament on this student’s report card was the result of his hard work? Or because the teacher was easy? Or because the teacher was really hard but the student is a genius? Or because the student turned in all the assignments? Or because he turned in a lot of tissues and markers for extra credit?”

The students acknowledged that, from the report card alone, it is impossible to tell which factors influenced the grades.

Then we began a discussion of what grades should show. The most frequent answer I got, from my kids, was “how hard you worked.”

Interestingly, both struggling and strong students gave this answer.

“But what if you are really talented in Math, and you don’t have to work very hard to learn the concepts? Should I give you a C because you don’t need to work hard?”

They acknowledged this would not be fair.

“What about the student who always tries her best in English, but by the time of the test still doesn’t know what a thesis statement is or how to write one? Should she earn an A or a B just because she works hard — even though she doesn’t know the main idea?”

Some of them looked uncomfortable here, but again they agreed this would not be fair, either.

“So,” I said. “What should grades be about?”

“Grades should show you what you have learned,” someone ventured.

There were murmurs of agreement.

“Okay,” I said. “I agree with you. Now, we’re going to be spending the next few days exploring this question — and I really need your help and input on this. If grades should be about showing what you have learned, what grading practices should we change in our class to help your grades better reflect that?”

And so the real discussion began.


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Grades Mean…?

If you have ever been to school, please take this poll.

Thoughts forthcoming…


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Back to School Again!


source: pintrest

I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas!

School starts again tomorrow, and for the last few days I have been thinking about what went well last semester and what things I can improve upon.

I’m going to be reteaching key procedures from last semester and introducing some new ones for the next two days.

Procedures to Re-Teach:

1. Strong Start / Entry Procedure – I’ll be having them line up outside the classroom. I will give them a seating chart since they have all new seats and I will remind them that they enter my classroom silently without talking and get started on the bell work right away. Then I will let them in a couple of kids at a time so I can make sure they are following directions. If not (e.g.: if they whisper or giggle etc) I will ask them to come back to the door and try it again.

2. Attention Procedure – “I need your attention in 3, 2, 1. Thank you.” We need to practice this a couple of times because they tend to forget a lot of things over break.

3. Talking in pairs procedure

4. Getting into groups procedure

New Procedures to Introduce:

1. I’m going to try an implement my own version of “Participation Protocol” for my high school kids – but I got the idea here at TeachingChannel:


2. I have changed my seating arrangement from desks being in single rows to being in double rows, since it frees up more space for me to move around the room and makes Pair Shares more fluid.


Single rows! (not my room) eatwriteteach.com


double rows! (mrtylerslessons.com)


I have to teach them what to do when we need to separate the desks for quizzes and tests. The even rows will move their desks away from their partners to the left, the odd rows will stay put. Even at the high school level this might take a little practice, believe it or not.

3. I need to work on improving student engagement. One great idea, also from Teaching Channel, is to make a silent signal with the kids so that they can indicate when they agree or disagree with the speaker. This 5th grade teacher explains her “Talk Moves” strategy and I’m going to adapt it for the high school level, probably with a lot of my students’ input because it will be more meaningful to them that way:



And here is a PDF of the bell work assignment I created for tomorrow. It’s a survey that hopefully will help my kids reflect on their first semester and think about specific ways they can improve:


Feel free to use it!

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