This was a really cool project I did for health class. I got to be the teacher for a class period and make a presentation about a topic of my choosing (in relation to health). I used PearDeck, an application for Google Drive that allowed students to respond to the slides when prompted anonymously on their computers. This was my first time speaking in front of a class for this long and having to answer so many unexpected questions so it's a little shaky but I think I did pretty well. Tell me what you think!
So imagine you’re my 9th grade world studies teacher and you’re just casually standing in front of the classroom talking about World War I and the Russian Revolution or something and you get sidetracked and now you’re talking about group work and collaboration in a classroom environment. This reminds you of the new “teams” system that has been implemented in all of the math classes and you bring that up to your class, you know, casually. Everyone groans. Don’t bring that up. Ugh. It’s so stupid. I hate it.
So you get inquisitive and you ask the class if they like the new system and everyone yells “no!” Literally, everyone. This consensus totally throws you off-guard and you get a little more curious. But, of course, you don’t want everyone yelling at you again so you say “raise your hand if you don’t think you’re learning anything in math because of the groups.” Hands shoot up like rockets. All of them.
What does this mean, in the scheme of things? Is group collaboration a bad idea? Should all students be left to fend for themselves? Well, no. Obviously not. The ability to rely on your peers is very valuable in a place of learning and that’s not something that teachers should yank away. But maybe they’re doing it all wrong.
The way things work is as such: you work with whomever you’re assigned whether you like it or not. Whether you like them or not. Whether you work well together or not. So you (you’re no longer my social studies teacher) sit at your table and shut up for a while as your teacher does her teacher thing and everyone listens. That’s all great; that’s how it always is. But then you have to work with your group. It doesn’t matter if you work better alone or if you’re faster or slower than everyone else. It doesn’t matter if the girl to your right is asleep and the boy across from you is making paper airplanes and the boy to your left is chatting with someone all the way across the room. You work together or you do all the work for them, and you don’t want to do that.
So the girl next to you wakes up and you have to explain the entire lesson to her and the boy who was making paper airplanes has so many questions that you have to answer and suddenly you’re being bombarded and all you wanted to do was get your work done. The bell rings and you’re halfway done with your group’s work and you didn’t get answers to your questions because you were answering everyone else’s questions. The group test is tomorrow and you don’t know how to use the law of cosines and you’re not sure that anyone in your group knows what a cosine is. Guess you’re stuck with all the work tomorrow. Hopefully your test is the one she grades, because otherwise you’re screwed. Good luck.
Fortunately, this has never happened to me. Being in honors geometry, most of the students in my class can keep up and luckily so can I. But in the College Prep classes (not honors), students have a wider range of understanding and pace. I have many friends that can’t really get anything done because everyone else is too slow or too fast. Even in Honors classes, everyone works at a different speed and it’s not fair to clump them together and make them rely on each other for help.
I’m not ragging on my teacher at all. She teaches and she helps as well as any other teacher. That’s not the point. The point is, half of my grade depends on everyone else in my group, and that’s not fair.
And yeah, yeah. I get that in life we’ll have to learn to work with people we don’t like. But the difference between high school and life is that you don’t get graded on life. You don’t have to take a timed test and you don’t have to finish your work before 2:45.
Working in groups is an important aspect of education, but it has its time and place. Its time is not always, and its place is not on tests.
"Squirrels. That is what they remind me of. We were all that age once and we were all just like squirrels! Have you ever watched a squirrel? Zoom, freeze for two seconds, flick tail, and repeat. The trick for being a successful middle school teacher is holding their attention for more than just those few seconds. Believing that that is possible requires a huge leap of faith and trust," (Ben Johnson, The Art of Managing Middle School Students)
I don't mean to rag on the author of this article, but I think it is important to bring to attention the condescending nature of this quote. And, on a grander scale, this entire state of mind that is prevalent in many teachers. I responded to this blog post in a comment. I said:
"I'm not a squirrel. I might have only been around for fourteen years but that doesn't that doesn't guarantee me to be any less human or any less capable of trust than you are.When did school become about "managing" students? Dehumanizing students as "squirrels" who are incapable of paying attention is no way to get them to pay attention. They're capable I promise. They're not being engaged so they're not engaging. We were all that age once, like you said. I was that age 2 years ago. I've grown since, I know, and I might still be just a teenager ... but I didn't go to middle school for the last 3 years to be managed, I went to be taught."
I'm not trying to imply that discipline isn't important in a learning environment. That is definitely not the case. I'm compelled to take the adult position in this situation by saying that students need structure and authority to keep on task in class. Or, whatever. However, teachers tend to spend more time punishing students for getting off task than they do trying to encourage students to be on task. Key word: "encourage."
As a student who has spent plenty of time in classes doodling and daydreaming,* I understand the reasoning for doing so. Sometimes, I just don't care. Lectures are sometimes just impossible to pay attention to because they just seem so irrelevant. This doesn't make me a squirrel.
The way to making kids pay attention isn't discipline; it's inspiration. It's motivation. And it might just be a change in the way you teach. In the same way that grounding kids doesn't stop them from sneaking out (or at least not on TV), detention and punishment doesn't stop kids from being distraction. They won't sneak out if you let them leave, and they won't get distracted if you let their minds wander. Give them something to think about other than celebrity news or whatever regular children think about. Squirrels can't ask and answer complex questions. Your students can. Let them.
This brings me to the concept of condescension. It just seems to me like teachers tend to confuse authority with superiority. You're older, I get it. I guess it's fair to think this way. I mean, you do have authority over us and that does give you certain privileges that we don't have. You could argue that this feeling of superiority is inevitable, but I don't think that's very fair. This condescension is exemplified in cases in which teachers speak sarcastically about students or imply that our generation is inferior because our attention spans are weakened by technology. But what teachers don't ever mention are the times when they passed notes to their friends in class or doodled on the papers that were meant to contain notes. Distractions aren't a new thing. I've had teachers who imitate students who respond to questions with "uh" or "I don't know." Sometimes people don't know. So teach them.
Maybe "the art of managing middle school students" isn't what we should concern ourselves with. Maybe it's the art of inspiring and involving them that matters.
*I pay attention in class like 97% of the time, mom.
It is sadly but surely becoming apparent to me that my peers (and sometimes I as well) are generally apathetic about what their teachers say. They might be invested in a certain subject to some extent (whether by a wide or narrow margin) but some of the stuff teachers tell us is important goes in one ear and out the other, being regarded as useless or irrelevant. Rarely does a teacher ask what concepts the students find important. And, quite frankly, what the students find important might just be the most important thing. Remember that the children of today are the adults of the future.
These adults of the future are never really regarded as the most capable of human beings, which could not possibly be further from the truth. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe what's going on in your student's mind might be Einstein material that even you can't grasp? That a twelve-year-old can have wisdom beyond her years bouncing around in that head that you've regarded as useless? Now of course I'm not saying that the students are smarter than the teachers, but young thoughts might just be the most innovative of them all. Which is why I've decided to share one of the innovative young thoughts that are bouncing around in my head.
A LOT of Tests.
Take a second to appreciate the play on words. I am definitely not encouraging any sort of plethora of exams and quizzes. I'm proposing a literal LOTTERY of questions. The procedure might go something like this:
This type of student-centered test will allow students to control their own learning.
If you happen to like this idea and choose to apply this method in your classroom, please comment with how it went. I've been thinking about ways to experiment with this but without a class or control group to see if anyone actually sees a positive change.
‘“Homework is all pain and no gain,” - Alfie Kohn
I've been meaning to touch on the subject of homework for a long time, but frankly, I've been too busy. Too busy to do anything, really. There's just too much homework to do!
Homework is supposed to improve study skills, encourage effective time management, teach students to work independently, and expand a student's thinking about the lessons he or she learned in school that day. After-school work was designed to keep a pupil thinking even after she leaves the designated "learning environment." However, homework hasn't really proven itself to affect study skills at all, and if anything, it's only wasting our time more than it is helping us to manage it. Yes, it might teach us to organize time for work and time for play, but at the same time it is taking away the free time that students value to a point where there's nothing left to organize. The seven hour days students spend trapped in classrooms and hallways combined with the 4 hours of homework a night can add up to fifty-five hour weeks spent doing jobs for which they surely did not apply.
Studies have shown that there is little to no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in students, and that there may not even be any reason to have it at all. It is possible that the only thing homework effects is student behavior and a student's diminishing interest in completing assignments. According to William Crain, Ph.D. "Kids are developing more school-related stomachaches, headaches, sleep problems, and depression than ever before." Students are being pushed to or even past their breaking points for what appears to be no reason.
Not only is the homework outrageously copious, it's also very dull and generally ineffective. Teachers seem to assign homework for no reason other than to just get it assigned.
Despite all of its obvious flaws, homework doesn't seem to be going anywhere. anytime soon. The amount of time spent in a high school classroom is usually short and never really to the point, so there's normally a lot more left to learn before you come to school the next day. So instead of making homework disappear, maybe we should be making homework just more useful and more meaningful. Don't assign homework and check it for completion without providing any feedback or any way to learn from it. And definitely don't assign homework to make students learn for themselves. In fact, just don't assign homework.
At least, think before you assign homework. Ask yourself, "why am I assigning this?" and "what will my student learn from this?" Only after you know that will you know whether or not your student is getting anything from it.
Think after you assign it as well. Don't just check homework for completion. Check for accuracy. You don't need to grade for accuracy, but just make sure your students are on the right track. Provide insight and feedback. Your students need YOU, not a textbook.
There are said to be three general types of learners in education. There's visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. Visual learners learn by seeing, auditory learners learn by hearing, and kinesthetic learners learn by doing. But what about learners that can't be defined by these monkey-see, monkey-hear, monkey-do categories? And how does a teacher accommodate for EVERYBODY?
I made the above diagram to show different ways to communicate with different types of learners. The middle section, the connection between ALL types of learners, was hard to complete. Of course, most teachers just seem to skip over it. Some teachers will center their courses around lectures that only provide for auditory learners, or perhaps projects that only provide for kinesthetic learners. Teachers rarely seem to cover all of the bases for all of their students.
Some of the sections provide rather unconventional recommendations for ways to spread information such as making music and videos. These project mediums, while possibly uncommon, can be very effective. I know, from experience, that I've learned a lot from being given the opportunity to expand my horizons with audio and video-centric projects.
For example, in seventh grade, I was given the opportunity to use what I'd learned about the Middle Ages to create a video project. I wrote a song about knighthood to the tune of "Tik Tok" by Kesha and I learned a lot while having fun and creating something of which I was genuinely proud. Since then, I formed a YouTube channel with my friend and we wrote songs about the Middle Ages just for fun (example below).
While it was hard to find one specific medium of teaching to fit into the middle of the Venn diagram, it isn't very hard to find a solution that works for every type of learner. The answer is, as always, there is no one answer. You must expand YOUR horizons as a teacher and use ALL different types of teaching for all different types of learning.
For those "monkey see" learners, be sure to incorporate visual material including diagrams, illustration, and video.
For your "monkey hear" learners, provide your students with opportunities to listen as well as to speak with teacher-to-student lectures as well as student-to-student conversation. Try conducting Socratic Seminars, so students can learn not only from you, but from each other.
For your "monkey do" learners, assign projects that assess knowledge through words AND actions. Let your students be creative as well as thoughtful with projects that arouse in-depth and divergent thinking.
Finally, understand that learning is not restricted by categories like auditory, kinesthetic, and visual. Some students have their own specific way of thinking, or are a mixture of two or more types. The best way to make sure you are providing for everyone is to make sure that you are doing a little bit of everything. Don't stick to the same every day lecture that could very well be going in one of a student's ears and out the other.
Diversify your classroom. Keep your monkeys seeing, hearing, and doing things that will help them grow as students.
Someone has got to seriously define the line between learning and memorizing. I've heard many complaints from teachers that students study for a test and forget the information months or even weeks later. Maybe that's not their fault. Maybe the brain can't keep up with all the knowledge being stuffed down its throat, those regretted tattoos that you remove because you don't want them anymore, you don't need them anymore. The only difference I can see between writing and erasing those facts on your brain and writing and erasing those facts on the back of your hand is that one will get you a 0 for cheating. Facts are being written or tattooed or memorized but they aren't permanent. The tests we give only give students an outlet to vomit up those stupid facts, sick of them bouncing around in their uninterested brains.
Tests with provided answer choices restrict in-depth and out-of-bounds thinking. Never give a student a 25% chance of getting an answer right. Give them unlimited choices and unlimited opportunities That's the way students learn.
Then again, tests that aren't multiple choice or matching or fill-in-the-blank are super stressful on students. So, if you can, make sure your students actually understand the content before you shove a quiz into their face.
As a student, I know how hard it is to remember EVERYTHING you learn in a year, and then summer happens and you forget it all. You remove those tattoos your teachers drew into your brains and you look back on all of that wasted time. So don't test a student's memorization skills. Test her learning.
"There's only one thing worse than requiring students to reduce all learning to a single "correct" answer, and that is reducing assessment and accountability to a single standardized test," (from an article by Bob Peterson and Monty Neill).
Before we can dive into the pros and cons of Standardized Testing, it is important to know what that even means. We’ve all taken multiple choice tests, of course, they’ve been around since the year 1914! But what is the definition of standardized? Heck, what even is testing?
past tense: standardized
1.) to cause (something) to conform to a standard.
2.)systematize, make consistent, make uniform, make comparable, regulate, normalize, bring into line, equalize, homogenize, regiment
gerund or present participle: testing
1.) take measures to check the quality, performance, or reliability of something
2.) try out, put to the test, put through its paces, experiment with
That word, “standardized” is totally acceptable… if we’re talking about the military. But (contrary to popular belief) a class of students is not the same thing as a military regiment. You can’t systematize learning. There is no logical “norm” to the way a student learns.
And then there’s that word that makes every student cringe… testing.
Testing is defined above as taking measures to check the quality, performance, or reliability of something. Is a student’s quality of work, performance in class (and in general), and/or sense of reliability and responsibility being measured while answering a true/false question? What about multiple choice?
No. The answer is no.
Arguments for standardized testing describe that they focus specifically on essential content and skills. However, arguments against it question the meaning of “essential.” Choosing between A, B, C, D, and E cannot accurately measure a student’s critical thinking, creativity, or in-depth understanding, let alone curiosity, leadership, motivation, or any real skills that are applicable to adult life. Instead, these tests focus specifically on those pesky little insignificant facts that escape your mind the day after the test. While people who advocate for standardized testing might say that tests eliminate wasted time in the classroom by focusing entirely on the prescribed content, others see focusing entirely on this content as wasting time. Classroom time is meant to be spent on learning, not on preparing for tests.
Another argument is that many teachers and school administrators advocate for standardized tests, but, newsflash, they’re not the ones taking the tests (source).
As one of those totally insignificant people who are taking the tests, I do not advocate for these tests. Setting aside the fact that they are in no way intellectually stimulating, they are also extremely ineffective.
Apparently, these tests are designed to compare the performance of students in an efficient way. Whether or not we should be comparing the students to one another is a whole other subject that deserves its own post. In short, though, no. We shouldn’t be.
If, however, schools decide that we should be comparing students, one specific test spread out over a few days at the end of the semester or school year cannot serve as the primary source for these comparisons. No one test can do this. Especially not these tests.
These tests are scored by human beings. Real, living, breathing, and naturally subjective human beings. How are subjective scores at all “efficient?”
All in all, there are many problems with our testing and sorting systems today. But, unfortunately, there is no magical hat that sorts you into honors, AP, or regular level classes. Something needs to evaluate us. And, as it always is, that’s the hardest part. Change is always the hardest part.
An alternative that I found online is "Performance Based Assessment Tasks" or "PBATs", which are used in Consortium Schools. Basically, there is a specific task to assess abilities in each subject. These involve written and oral examinations relative to the content taught in the class. The tasks involve thought-provoking questions and the actual application of your knowledge, rather than simply stating facts that you've studied to know off of the back of your hand. The tasks may be developed by the teachers or the students, therefore eliminating that dreadful aspect of uniform learning. Testing is not a standardized assessment, but rather a serious evaluation of a student's acquired skill. As shown in the PDF (linked above), the PBATs are graded by a specific rubric, rather than guided by one specific answer. This encourages what I have previously referred to as "Divergent Thinking"
An article from "Rethinking Schools" suggests a "portfolio based assessment." The work of a student is kept in a portfolio and accumulates over time to be assessed at the end of a given period. This gives the student time to grow and shows progress, rather than stuffing all of the work into a couple hours' time. This encourages the student's growth and the teacher's consistent vigilance concerning it.
Alternatives such as the PBATs and Portfolio Based Assessment are very effective and efficient methods of testing. But, as always, these things are hard to change. It is important to think of ways to replace these "Standardized Pests" and to encourage different ways to think about learning and testing. While students might advocate for ridding of testing completely, we know that's not going to happen. Developing realistic and achievable replacements such as Performance Based Assessment Tasks and Portfolio Based Assessments are the first step to real change. Communicate ideas, encourage in-depth thinking, and mostly, don't allow your learning to be standardized.
“Give a student an F, she's learned nothing. Give her an A, and what has she learned? Still nothing. Grades are subjective crutches, used by teachers because they either do not know any better, or because they are forced to give them by an archaic system.” - Mark Barnes.
The Pass/Fail System
In an article discussing whether or not a pass/fail grading system can reflect a student’s progress, Bonnie M. Miller, MD advocates for criteria based learning. She accurately points out that “A pass/fail grade indicates simply that a student has achieved an expected level of competence” and that this information is critical to understand if this student has fulfilled his or her obligations. She says that “students should be evaluated on their initiative, engagement with and concern for their own learning, interpersonal skills, [and] teamwork skills,” and that a student who meets this criteria qualifies for an A.
Another commentary by Adrina Kalet, says that “both faculty and students should enthusiastically engage in an evaluation system that facilitates our fulfilling this responsibility.” She advocates for a pass/fail system, but one that provides enough feedback for a student to be able to identify his or her strengths and weaknesses. She describes that the lack of letter grades, accompanied by the lack of reliable assessment, places too much unnecessary pressure on students as well as too much emphasis on the reputation of the school. She summarizes, “I don’t care as much as many students do about whether we use pass/fail or other systems. I care that we measure what is important and act on those measures to ensure excellence in our graduates.”
In another article, Patricia L. Scrifinny proposes a “standards-based” system, based on specific objectives that a student needs to meet. She describes the way that students sometimes succeed based solely on homework, quizzes, and extra-credit, rather than complete mastery of a subject. Students who are legitimately learning might do poorly because of missing assignments, and students who are not understanding might do well because of those 10 points they might get every night for completing their homework. Using this system, “Gifted and talented students can be truly challenged in a standards-based classroom because if they show early mastery of fundamental skills and concepts, they can then concentrate on more challenging work that is at higher levels” and “Students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time.” this way, every student gets his or her needs completely filled.
Letter grading is a simple as grading can be. Simply put, a student who takes a 10 point test and receives 8 points out of 10 earns an 80% mark. Period. This is, by far, the easiest way to grade when there is one definitive answer to every question. So maybe it works for Math and Science, but when you get into questions that involve symbolism, tone, mood, comparison, effects, causes, and much more, the answer is not always black or white. How can you tell me that I understood 85% of what theme means? You can’t. “This is a ranking system which gives no clue to the actual level of course content mastery,”
It is possible that letter grades even encourage dishonesty in learning. Excuses are made, homework is copied, and many methods of cheating are implemented, all because a student would “rather cheat than repeat.” Students, in general, would much prefer compromising their learning over failing a course. That’s the horrific truth. No one wants to fail.
Grades have proven themselves to reduce a student’s work ethic as well as her interest in the subject and the quality of her work. They’re not trustworthy, they’re not effective, and they’re beginning to draw a line between academics and actual learning. (source).
In theory, developing a rubric of objectives and deciding whether or not they’ve been met would be a great alternative to our current letter grading system. However, these changes may be extremely hard to implement. A given teacher might have 100+ students, and going through each and every one of them could prove itself to be an impossible task. It’s much easier to say that a student has received 8 points out of 10 than to, essentially, read her mind to find out if she knows something or not. In reality, this letter system is likely to stick around. In the future, though, if there is a way to increase 1 on 1 attention and to decrease class sizes, these changes could (and should) be made.
It is commonly acknowledged that our flawed education needs to change. There seems to be no purpose, as students are becoming alienated from their own minds. Creativity is stifled, and different ways of thinking are discouraged. Students are grouped by age, held back and pushed too hard. They’re putting kids to sleep when they should be waking us up. These faults and many more only grow stronger as we perpetuate them, encourage them, and pretend that they’re making us stronger. (I encourage you to watch this video by RSA Animate)
It was brought to my attention in World Studies class today that changes should be made. Students agreed, but there was a strong sense of doubt that any changes would be implemented. Who would be the one to start this revolution? How does one go about changing education? How do you change anything at all?
After an intense Google search session, I stumbled upon an article entitled A New Way of Teaching by Professor Peter Taylor. He encourages independent learning, peer collaboration and development of learning communities, and a simpler system with a greater sense of integrity.
I genuinely believe in the benefits of independent learning. As I’ve mentioned publicly before, I have learned more from researching for this blog than I have learned in some classes all week. If I set my mind to it, I could search and dive into topics that no teacher has ever taught me, WITHOUT waking up at six in the morning and lugging my book bag onto a crowded bus to school.
Peer collaboration, however, is quite a touchy subject to me. Is working in a group with a partner that works slower or faster than you do really beneficial to either party? Community, though, might be the greatest tool a student can use. It will be, anyway, once we can differentiate between the two concepts.
As for a simpler system, maybe it will be good to eliminate those unnecessary topics and arbitrary grading systems. But who is to say what unnecessary even means? Which topics are or aren’t necessary?
It is possible that very little of your high school education will matter when you grow up. I probably don’t need to be able to graph a parabola to be a psychologist when I’m older, or a Social Studies teacher, or a novelist, and I don’t think I’ll need it to leave a legacy. But someone might. Someone might grow up to be a professional parabolist or major in the field parabology, and who am I to stop them? So I sit in that classroom, graphing my parabolas, because someone might need that someday.
I can’t tell you how to teach, but I can tell you what I think from a student’s perspective.
Engage your students with lessons that provide for every type of learner. Hands-on projects, guided note-taking, in-depth discussion, Socratic seminars, visuals, videos, songs, any medium you can think of that gets your point across. Experiment.
Connect your lessons to something students know about already. Compare and contrast. Make your lessons mean something.
Encourage “Divergent Thinking.” Open your mind to new ideas. Accept that students aren’t always wrong. You might be looking at the next Albert Einstein.
Learn from your students. You might find that they have plenty to teach you.
Build a community in your classroom. Encourage collaboration, without stuffing children into groups that only restrict your student’s growth.
Don’t categorize your students. Don’t decide that one student is “bad at learning” and another is good. Everyone is a good learner. You just might need to push them a little farther.
Push your students to grow on their own, as well as with your help. They’ll thank you someday.
Accept that your students aren’t stupid. They are inexperienced. So give them experience. Help them grow.
Teach your children well.
This page is retired as of Fall 2017. Future posts will fall under "The College Years" tab on this site. Thank you to everyone who made this blog as successful as it was. I invite you to continue to follow me on my journey to becoming an educator.
I'm Cameron Godfrey and I'm here to leave a legacy.