SOAPS: A Critical Reading Strategy for All Students

Given the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on students’ analysis of nonfiction text, it is imperative that all teachers, not just English teachers, are conversant with some basic, effective and clear strategies to help move students toward deeper analysis of their reading material.  The SOAPS acronym, which is widely used in AP Language and Composition circles, is one tool that all teachers should have in their toolbox in this era of informational reading focus.

Valerie Mattessich

Valerie Mattessich

I began teaching the AP Language and Composition course about seven years ago, first online through Virtual High School and then face-to-face in my own district.  While the two courses’ content varied wildly, one consistent aspect of both of these courses was the use of the SOAPS acronym to teach students to read more critically.  Having used this tool repeatedly for multiple sections of students per day for the past few years, expanding its use from my AP classes into courses with students in other grade levels and of a range of abilities, I am convinced of its simple power to help students read texts better than they have before they learned the acronym.

First, let’s start with the basics.  SOAPS stands for the following:

S—speaker
O—occasion
A—audience
P—purpose
S—subject

When staring down a dense New York Times, Newsweek or Rolling Stone article, a student begins with this acronym, usually in a graphic note-taking organizer that I have provided, to make sense of some of the piece prior to reading the first sentence.  The student locates the ‘speaker’ of the piece on pre-read by naming the author, but must go beyond that to examine this author’s bio, very briefly.  This is my first teaching point with students.  Why are there degrees listed, or professional books by this same author, listed after his/her name? What do these degrees and titles say about him/her, educationally, politically, etc.? Seeing where the author may be ‘coming from’ before reading her work can activate much-needed schema in the reader’s mind prior to attacking the text.

Other pre-reading aspects of SOAPS that students must investigate are subject, occasion, and audience.  Once we know who wrote a piece, it logically follows that we would want to know what the text will be about—subject; we can find this out by observing the title, subtitles and photos/images that accompany the piece.  We can try to ascertain the audience—anticipated readers of the piece—by first determining the occasion of the text’s initial publication/delivery.  Is the speaker writing to a very specific audience—e.g. females, teens, Hispanics, Ph.D. candidates?   Simply looking at the date, time, and/or location of the piece’s publication speaks volumes—e.g. at a civil rights rally (past=racial equality, present= gay rights), for a Catholic publication, in the year 1845.  A text published in The New Republic versus in The National Review will have quite a different bias inherent, and students need to understand that all of these components are what make a text speak to its readers in ways subtle and explicit.  At this point in the SOAPS process, students should now be feeling very confident in their abilities to attack the text through a first-draft and second-draft read.

Thus, SOAPS allows me to address many aspects of students’ prior knowledge before they begin to read the piece, which serves several purposes:

  • find any gaps in cultural literacy or word knowledge prior to reading
  • show students that a text is inherently audience- and speaker-dependent, not just content-dependent
  • get them excited, angry or interested in the text because they already have formulated questions about the subject, or the author, or the occasion

The overall goal of using SOAPS is of course to arrive at students’ understanding of the piece—specifically, what is the author’s purpose in writing this text? This is a different question than ‘what was the article about?’ Rather, students being asked to discern the purpose of a text forces not only a summary of it, but one with intent and focus—why the text was written, by whom and for whom, and what is it trying to accomplish?

These SOAPS investigations of the text, both pre- and post-reading, can be applied to historical documents, scientific journal articles, and many more genres of nonfiction text across the curriculum.  I constantly have students tell me how they find themselves subconsciously doing a SOAPS analysis while they read for their other classes, and how much such reading helps their comprehension.  If that isn’t critical reading, I don’t know what is.

Valerie Mattessich
English Teacher
Pascack Valley High School, NJ

Does the Common Core Change the World?

PARCC and Smarter Balanced are hitting a rough patch these days.  States are dropping the lengthy, expensive assessments for reasons political, ethical, financial, and personal.  In Illinois, where I am an administrator, we learned just last week that only juniors will be tested beginning in March of 2015.  The Common Core has literacy standards for grades 9-10 and 11-12, so we will be testing students in the middle of a two-year cycle.  Very little of this testing drama has made sense, and although I am not a fan of testing, I have become a fan of Common Core.  Before you go dipping your torches in kerosene and leading me down to the crypt to taste the rare Amontillado, hear me out.  Despite all the furor over testing, teaching has gotten so much better.

Scott Eggerding

Scott Eggerding

In 1999, our reading specialists came to me with an idea to incorporate reading skills 9-12th grade across the disciplines.  Brilliant! But I soon found that only a few of my fellow English teachers felt it was important and nobody wanted to branch out into other departments—too risky.  Yet this summer, 54 teachers in my district representing English, science, social studies, health and consumer education got together to learn how to teach close reading and literacy skills.  We hired a consultant, expanded our roster of reading coaches, and convinced teachers that we have to accept that not all high school students come to us able to read.  Even more, we can’t keep passing them along without meeting them where they are.  I feel like we have taken WAY too long to get here, but we are moving in a decidedly positive direction.

As someone who has been in education for 22 years now, I can’t believe how good our teachers have gotten.  We don’t have teachers standing in the front of the classroom interpreting a novel for drowsy students followed by a few 5 point quizzes and a reductive 5 paragraph essay.  We talk about depth of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, close reading, and authorial intent.  We have moved away from teaching a book because kids should read it and, instead, instilled the skills of reading while having students apply what they have learned to something they have chosen. Educators have read their Atwood, Frey, Fischer, Robb, Beers, Probst, Schmoker, Kittle, Gallagher, Burke, Daniels, and even newcomers Lehman and Roberts.  We are blogging and tweeting and instagramming to get better and better.  While little good can be said of the experiment that was NCLB, it did cause us all to put student learning first.

It is a terrifying and exciting time to be in education. Does Common Core change the world?  It does for the teachers at my school who work with 4000+ students a year in multiple subjects.  Without the push of Common Core and the utter failure of NCLB, we couldn’t be having these discussions. We are educating so many more kids so much better than we ever have.  But it is difficult and different for many teachers.  And many do not like it.  They would prefer to be standing and delivering their latest lesson designed to engage an entire class with every allusion and inference in Tale of Two Cities. They liked being the sage on the stage.  But once they take the leap and become the guide on the side, the conversations are so much richer, deeper, and fruitful.  That conversation they had such a hard time coaxing out of the whole class flows in small groups.

The data shows (because English teachers are finally collecting it!) that more students are learning more and better and deeper.  Sadly, we can’t get the word out about our achievements.  If we promote our growth we are seen as jumping on the common core bandwagon.  If we celebrate our student success, we have to explain that we did it by getting to know the needs of individual students rather than teaching to the middle.  If the press asks why, now, we have ten times more students taking AP classes than ten years ago, we can’t in good conscience say we didn’t believe they could do it back then.

Will the new tests show any of this?  Not at first.  Scores will be low the first time out.  Teachers will get blamed.  Newspapers will talk about failing American schools.  But in the classrooms across the country where the politics are left by the door and leaders are bringing the latest and greatest methods, all students are learning more because teachers are learning more.  Better yet, teachers are learning how to empower their students which prepares them for their futures.  Someday, maybe the assessments will learn how to measure that.  Or the powers that be may just have to ask the teachers.

Scott Eggerding
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Lyons Township High School, IL

Score One (or many) Points for Rubrics

I was excited to write this blog; I woke up early, cozied into the writing spot in my new house with endless energy, and then, like so often happens, I gazed endlessly at the blank screen for what seemed to be an eternity.  It wasn’t that I was searching for a topic. In fact, I knew exactly what it was I wanted to share, but I struggled to find the words to do it.  Then, like a jackhammer feverishly breaking up concrete (like what is happening on my street as I write this), it hit me: that is the point that I want to share.  My struggle to share here what I have learned about the value inherent in the process of writing and revising rubrics is the exact struggle that lies within the process of actually trying to write and revise rubrics: learning from our language and the process.

Chris Bronke

Chris Bronke

You see, I started my summer by leading two teams in my district  that were charged with revising our current, locally created CCSS Speaking and Listening rubrics and creating our own CCSS argument rubric.  While in mid-June and early July, most teachers might rather be sitting on the beach, sipping bottomless refreshments, trying to flush away the chaos of this past school year, I was actually very excited to dive into this work because I enjoy assessment and team work; however, what I didn’t realize was just how much this process of working with a team to revise and write rubrics would teach me about assessment, leadership, professional development, and my own instructional practices.  So, I hope that the reflections I share below (in no specific order) might help you learn something about the value of this time-consuming, rather frustrating, and often-times expensive endeavor of writing and revising rubrics for your own department, school, or district.  Ultimately, even if we had not walked away from our over 20 hours of work with a finished product, our time would have been hugely beneficial and something that I now believe all teachers should be part of, in some fashion, on a regular basis.  So here is what I learned in this process:

  1. Rubric Writing Actually = PD:

Let me start by asking you when the last time was that you spent over 20 hours in the same room with a small group of teachers, the majority of whom teach a different subject than you, and did nothing but talk about standards, pedagogy, and assessment?  If you are like me, probably never; however, these past few weeks gave me this opportunity, and to say it was enlightening would be like saying that Einstein is smart.  Hearing the science teacher explain how she asks students to give presentations about lab findings, or the social studies teacher unpack how he gets his students to understand bias within the context of historical writing was a true game changer for me.  It would be easy for those who do not see the value in writing rubrics to say, “sure, but how does what they are doing in SS and science really make be a better English teacher; I teach literature?”, and to that I would say, “tell me how it doesn’t.”  Honestly, knowing how my students are being taught to think in their other disciplines only helps me better make connections, tap into their way of thinking, reach students who might favor another discipline over English, and just help promote the idea that great learning = great thinking, regardless of the content.  So, thank you all other subject areas, you have helped make me a better teacher.

  1. Annotate Your Rubrics:

I don’t know about you, but I have used a lot of district common rubrics and, regardless of how well they were written, I still had confusion over language within the rubric.  Having worked on this project recently, I have learned  that not only do the writers of these rubrics not have confusion over the language, but, if they really did their job well in writing them, they can explain all of the differences between levels of performance as outlined by the rubric criteria.  If that is the case, why not annotate the rubrics?  As we hashed out language for each performance descriptor, we noted our thinking on a separate document, complete with examples for teachers.  This document will then be distributed to teachers along with the rubric.  Then, when teacher X is looking over the rubric in the fall and is unsure what the difference between a claim that is “effective” and a claim that is “convincing”, he or she can look at this annotation, read an explanation of this difference, and even see an example.  If you have any common rubrics in your department, school, or district, I highly encourage you to consider doing this for them: the product is beyond valuable and the process is another form of great PD: teachers working together to explain these differences and create examples.

  1. Make Rubric Work Fun by Talking About Students:

I have learned one thing over my short ten years: great teachers never get tired of talking about students.  Teachers love to share the story about that time when that one student did that one thing (we ALL have that story), or that time when that one student stayed after school for three weeks straight just to turn that paper from good to great.  We love to laugh, learn and cry–all about our students.  So, when working on this rather frustrating work (rubrics), don’t forget to talk about students.  Over the last few weeks working with my team, I heard some of the most fun, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and otherwise amazing stories of students.  So, when you have gone around and round for over an hour about one single word in one single descriptor for one single criteria, remember, this is for the students–so talk about your students!

Christopher Bronke
English and Communications Department Chair
Downers Grove North High School, IL

#LitLead Chat Preview 7.10.14 w/ Dorothy Barnhouse (@dorobarn)

Dorothy Barnhouse

Dorothy Barnhouse

Making Thinking Visible in Reading Instruction

When I first started teaching reading after years of teaching writing I was shocked at how invisible it seemed. My students sat there with a book open in front of them and I couldn’t SEE anything. It was so different from teaching writing, where I could examine drafts and notebook entries  — actual words that students had written down. But with reading? There was the book and there was the brain. How did I know what was going on between the two?  And how did I know what to teach?

I’m thrilled to be chatting about this, as making invisible thinking visible is an on-going challenge in reading instruction. We’ll consider some of the following questions:

Why is it important to make thinking visible in reading instruction? How has it helped you and your students?

  1. What kinds of thinking do you try to make visible for your students?
  2. How do you use whole class, small group and one-on-one instruction to make thinking visible?
  3. How can we help students make their thinking visible?
  4. What are some challenges you’ve faced in making thinking visible with your students?
  5. What tools or resources have you used that help you make thinking visible?

See you soon!

Dorothy

Do intrinsically motivated people accept every challenge?

For years I have been saying that I teach all my English classes the same way. What I think I have meant by this is that I play off of my students’ energy and challenge them to respond individually and personally to what they read, and to take interesting risks in their reading, writing, and thinking choices. When my students sit in a circle, with me silently outside it, they tend to read a selection or share prepared homework, elicit responses, then make a decision either to represent what they are learning through an art, drama, or writing activity or to continue, repeating the process with a new reading. They may also proceed to ongoing projects, free reading, or writing games; there is a chance that the conversation becomes quite involved, if students locate its controversy and everyone is engaged.
Gordon Hultberg

Gordon Hultberg

I am reexamining my claim, though, in light of the attempt to distinguish what would make an Honors class different from a non-Honors class. Both would have literature workshops, writing conferences, and some core major works to read. But my most clear mental picture of the divergence of these two roads occurs only at grades 11 or 12 when students who want greater challenges opt for AP English. Wait. Did I say that? Have I been dishonest with myself in thinking I teach all my classes–therefore students–the same way?

 

What biases may be inherently present in the concept of challenge, though? I want all students to be challenged, for each student to be in the class that challenges her or him appropriately. I’ll return to this later. First, I have noticed that descriptions of honors courses usually rely on terms such as “motivated, engaged, curious, and hard-working” – which profile a desired type of student, rather than set specific learning targets. The unwritten biases underlying such characterizations imply that non-honors students are unmotivated, lazy, disengaged, and lacking in curiosity. In my own observations within a heterogeneously grouped sophomore class, two small groups appear similarly self-directed, but students differ as to the type of questions I hear them ask each other. Those who will elect Advanced Placement in grade 11 are more often heard asking interpretive questions or wondering aloud, and their ideas are picked up by others, who carry them forward until a discovery is made; then they may determine to move on to other scheduled productive work (such as add to their reading-writing notebooks, write/revise papers, or read the next section); or someone may suggest an activity (“What if we designed a quilt that demonstrated connections between each of the symbols in Beloved?”).

In my upper division regular classes, I see more fragmentation: groups that don’t operate as a unit, or questions that peter out in minutes, because not enough students do the reading, display curiosity, or respond productively to others’ comments. Brief discussions tend to end with “What do you think will happen next?” There are outliers who try to get others excited about research, inquiry writing, creative writing, and book clubs. They are positive forces in the room, and do succeed in motivating people; they are effective leaders and decision makers, dabbling in the discovery that English class exists to serve their learning purposes. I have begun to make that discovery an explicit focus of my sophomore class, in hopes that, whether they choose an AP or regular English classes in the coming 2 years, they will feel they have a greater stake in their own learning. Students self-reported a high degree of satisfaction with the ability to have chosen their own book, set their own goals, and monitor their own progress; they saw my involvement not as intrusive, but as helpful when they invited me to observe and provide formative feedback on areas they chose to identify. Their increasing sense of independence relates directly to control over their own learning and heightened motivation; I am convinced.

Now back to the question of an appropriately challenging class. If I reason that every student capable of the challenge of an Honors or AP English course should take one, then I must be assuming there is a negative consequence associated with remaining in a regular class, at least for a gifted student. Yet have I been circumspect about this?  Is it actually my own intolerance of people who will not use their giftedness that makes me cranky? It is likely that students limit the number of elective AP or Honors classes they take, calculating the advantage of more wiggle room in their homework schedule, of freedom from a stressful or rigorous environment. I am left, as I so often am, perplexed that student and teacher expectations of thinking and learning are not aligned. How can I both rid myself of bias and offer students greater control over their learning choices?

One shift I initiated this spring could help me move forward in a new direction – toward student ownership of learning. It has also helped me to address my own bias. I began marketing next year’s British Lit course (senior English) alongside my AP Lit course, so students could see up front exactly how the two classes compared. I sheared the descriptions of anything that smacked purely of student behavior, such as “motivated students take AP” and made it about learning targets instead. I produced a side by side comparison of units both classes will do on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I created a Haiku slideshow to let students see that both classes would be both FUN and CHALLENGING. I deliberately showed the challenges not as harder in AP vs. easier in Brit Lit, but rather as unique to a theme in each course. The student electing Brit Lit might learn if “the fault is in our stars” indeed, and how Hardy’s work relates to contemporary novels such as those of John Green or Suzanne Collins; the AP student would be opting for a focus on how an author’s literary allusions bring depth and relevance to a work. My aim was to aid students in selecting the class that was right for them by offering them decison-making tools. I presented both courses as English electives, instead of offering Brit Lit as the default [formerly seen as less challenging]. Of course, they have to choose ONE, but it is important to me that they see it is an informed choice they need to make.

Imagine how you, in your leadership role, can invite discussions about differentiation, valuing the choices of all students, and offering students ownership over the challenges in all classes, whether heterogeneous or homogeneously grouped, at your campuses. Consider how exposing your own biases creates vulnerability that might enrich the dialogue among colleagues at your school. There is value in the dialogue.

Gordon Hultberg
Intermountain Christian School, UT
@pradlfan

What Have Your Learned This Year? Reflection and Projection

Anna Roseboro

Anna Roseboro

Are you a new literacy leader? A veteran in the classroom, administrative, or district office?  Or a student teacher just completing your first assignment in hopes of having to plan for and work with students on your own very soon?

Wondering how to get off to a better start in the next the school year?  Yes, the end of the current school year is a great time to reflect on what has gone well and to project on what you can do to be even more efficient and effective next year.  Whether a classroom teacher, literacy leader, or administrator or all three, you can readily adapt the ideas that follow to fit the position(s) you currently hold.

Why not take a summative assessment of what you’ve learned about your teaching/leadership this year?

 Before closing down your classroom or shutting off the school computer files for the summer, allot some focused time to conduct a brief, but honest, assessment on what they’ve learned this year about teaching, leading and learning.  Now is a good time to record what went well and to outline specifically what you can do over the summer to be better prepared for the Fall, even if you don’t have your new assignment yet. This shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, but time spent will be well invested.  Having written what’s on your mind and made a plan, you then can set aside your notes and concentrate on time with family and friends, and catch up on vital tasks that have been postponed till now.  You know that list is longer than you’d like to admit even to your dearest friend.

Consider the prompts that follow, or simply use your school’s standards for your course(s), the job description, or set of charges for your position. Taking time now, while your memory is fresh will give you a better idea  of what you have accomplished and what, realistically, you can aim to achieve next year.  If you’ve never completed one, consider also the S.M.A.R.T. exercise at this link. It’s an activity used in a workshop I incorporated at the National Council of Teachers of English Early Career Educators Leadership Institutes in 2008-2010.

Think about it. You’ve had several months with most of your students, department or team members and you now know more about them as individual learners, classroom teachers, or literacy supporters and also how they work in groups.  Take a little time now to think about what you’ve learned about your experience with them this past year.

  • Who were your three most challenging students/teachers/colleagues? Most satisfying?  (Could be the same.)
  • Are you satisfied with the way you addressed the challenging one and or acknowledged the work of  satisfying ones?  Why?  Why not?
  • What did you learn about individual students/teachers/colleagues and groups of learners/teachers/teams that will help you plan better for next year?
  • When have you find the best time for your personal rest and rejuvenation? Midweek, weekends, holiday breaks?  (Yes, this should be at the core of your planning each school year.)
  • Where did you go for dependable, reliable professional support? Colleagues, online, conferences, other?
  • Why was your most effective lesson/meeting/project successful?  Least effective, even a bomb?
  • How well did you implement the plans you made to meet Common Core State Standards or whatever curriculum goals you were charged to meet or help your teachers to meet by the end of the current  school year?

NOW SUMMARIZE: What do you know now that can help you with planning for next year?

  • How can your colleagues and or administrators help you achieve your goals for the next school year?
  • What professional development opportunities will you maximize this summer? Reading, on-line, conference, workshop, travel?  Attending the Conference on English Leadership Institute on Critical Issues, July 17-19 at Elmhurst College (near Chicago)?

There’s no need to use those open-ended questions. Instead, you can adapt a list of department grade level objectives or teacher evaluation criteria and simply rate yourself on a scale of 1-6 on how close you’ve come to reaching those objectives. Then, write a couple of realistic strategies for maintaining, raising those rating, or setting goals for reaching the remainder of the objectives in the upcoming school year.

Be encouraged; you have the summer to refine your practices and certainly will do a better job next year helping more students/teachers to reach those goals, improve their skills, and expand their learning in ways that will be engaging, inspiring and effective.

Below is a sample form you can adapt as you look back and plan forward.

Self-Reflection and Projection

Look through your lesson plans and observation notes, and then consider what you have learned this school about teaching or coaching teachers on the following skills.  Succinctly, record one thing you have learned to do better and one thing on which you will work this next school year. Record something specific you recall as evidence for yourself, to show what you have done well, what you plan to do better.

SKILLS TAUGHT OR COACHED Rate1-6(l-h) What can you do better now than you could at the start of the school year? On what will you work this summer to implement with your next set of students/teachers?  Be specific.
Reading: Consider efficiency and comprehension, ability to interpret, analyze, and evaluate what is read.  
Writing: Consider content – having something to write about, organization, development, and documentation.Communicating with families?
Speaking : Consider value of their contributions to class/meeting discussions.
Consider respect for others as they spoke.
Consider ease with which they learned to speak/consulted with you?
Consider frequency with which you invite students/staff/teachers to speak in class or at meetings.
Listening:  Consider how attentive you are to your students/staff/teachers.
Consider how well you taught them follow directions.
Consider how courteous you are to students/staff/teachers. Observe them listening to one another.
Study Skills:  Consider homework/tasks assigned – most complete on time? Tasks completed on time?
Consider how often students/teachers/staffed arrived with text, notebook/laptop/tablet, pen and pencil.
Other – What else shows how well you have taught/coached/learned this  school year?

 

Plan Professional Enrichment for Summer 2014

As you reflect on your past year, consider how useful it can be to attend a summer professional enrichment conference to help confirm what you’re doing well and inspire you to return better informed on ways to address challenges of coming school year.  Equally important, think about what you can share with co-attendees!

The Conference on English Leadership Summer Institute on Critical Issues may be just the right investment in your future.  Scheduled to meet Thursday to Saturday, July 17-19, 2014, at Elmhust College, Elmhurst, Illinois, this year’s institute will focus on issues of assessment.  According to the CEL website, in addition to hearing daily keynote speakers, Beverly Chin, Scott Eggerding, Scott Filkins, and Tamara  Maxwell, you have the option of collaborating in small group conversations on important aspects of assessment with literacy leaders from across the country. Bring your own individual plans and work closely with others in one of three Institute strands:

  • Using Formative and Summative Assessments to Improve Teaching
  • Assessment of Teachers
  • Assessment of Curricular Programs

Innovative technology mini-lessons will also take available throughout the Institute program. The fees are modest and lodging options include stays in air-conditioned dorm rooms. Registration Rates: CEL Members:  $300;
NCTE Members (not members of CEL); $325 Nonmembers:  $375.

Institute registration also includes Wi-Fi accessibility, on-campus parking, and the following meal events: Thursday: dinner, Friday: breakfast and lunch, Saturday: breakfast and lunch. The planners even organized a Popcorn and Movie option on Friday evening.  What could be better?

Seriously, education and professional development both are serious work.  So I encourage you to take a little time for reflection and projection before you forget key details. Looking back and planning forward can be the key to your continued success, significant improvement and long-term satisfaction as a teacher-leader in this second decade of the 21st Century.

Submited for CEL Blog for June, 2014

Anna J. Small Roseboro, Author
National Board Certified Teacher
Secondary Section Liaison to Conference on English Leadership
www.teachingenglishlanguagearts.com

#LitLead Chat June 12 – Teaching Complex Ideas with Creativity

Summer is here! Almost time for the June #LitLead Twitter chat. Join me on June 12 at 8:30 p.m. EST to talk about a hot topic: creativity. We’ll debunk a few myths about being creative and discuss ways to combat our instructional dilemmas with a creative spirit.

Tanny McGregor

Tanny McGregor

Complex text is full of complex ideas. Complex content is, too. We need to share and embrace creative approaches to lead our students to a deeper understanding of what they’re reading and learning.

If you think of yourself as a creative person, please join us. If you feel like you don’t have a creative bone in your body, please, please join us! The amalgamation of our ideas will make us all smarter…and more creative thinkers.

Consider the following questions. Let’s dig into these on June 12!

  • What is your definition of creativity?
  • How do you value creativity in your school? In your classroom? In your students?
  • When you’re planning to teach a complex concept that you anticipate will be tough to teach (and tough to learn), what creative approaches might you try? (music, art, movement, etc.)
  • How can we encourage a spirit of creativity in our colleagues and ourselves?
  • What resources inspire you to be a creative teacher?

See you online,

Tanny McGregor

Electronic Grade Books: A Battleground for Clashing Values about the Purposes of Schooling

As the supervisor of English and Communication at a large suburban high school, I was required to initial the electronic grade books of the 40 teachers in our program on the last day of school. In my cursory review, I was being the quintessential bureaucrat, simply ensuring that the school had a paper copy of all grades. I often wondered if I should do more. If I really looked at the grade books, could I learn something important about teachers and student performance?

Pat Monahan

Pat Monahan

I also wondered how teachers might feel if I examined their grade books? I realized that I had never discussed my grade book practices with a supervisor. For more than twenty years, I had made and sequenced assignments, established point values, and implemented grading policies, and no one had said a word to me. Indeed, I worried that teachers might be suspicious of me, fearing that I was questioning their judgment and treading on their territory.

I started with beginning teachers. My student-teaching supervisor had once showed me how to use a scatter gram to assign grades on a 60-point test, a really helpful skill, and I figured rookies might appreciate an opportunity to talk with a veteran. I had no protocol for these early meetings, but quickly found a pattern of questions. How many different types of assignments do you have? How do you assign points for these assignments? How many total points are linked to each type of assignment?

It seems a set of simple questions, but it’s really hard for new teachers, who rarely know the number of assignments in a quarter. After all, they are making them up on the fly, sometimes spontaneously as lessons unfold. One teacher had twenty-three grades in the first quarter, another twelve. Not knowing the total number of points in advance, teachers must guess at the point value for each assignment. Sometimes they logically assign point values based on the principle of size: major projects earn 50 points while minor projects earn 25. At other times, they count the number of questions: ten-question quizzes earn 10 points while fifty question-tests earn 50 points. I discovered that teachers were pretty honest in these conversations, explaining their thinking or lack of it, often admitting that they had just grabbed a number from mid-air.

One teacher assigned 75 points to an early project and then reduced point values on subsequent assessments. In effect, one assignment had taken on massive significance in his students’ overall grades, a problem compounded by the fact that the assignment focused on less important skills in the curriculum. Another teacher had given ten reading quizzes (100 points) and a major three-draft project (100 points). In her percentage-based system, the default on all electronic grade books, her quizzes of literal comprehension weighed as much as a multi-genre project measuring a wide range of literacy skills.

As I uncovered problems, I worked with teachers to reveal certain principles of grading. The previous examples demonstrate that teachers must establish a clear relationship between point totals assigned and critical learning skills. A simple system of weighting applies the major-minor project approach, and it is easy for students to understand. A more effective weighting system is available through electronic grade books. Here teachers categorize assignments and determine the weight of each curricular component. Reading quizzes, for example, might comprise five percent of the grade, and it does not matter whether the teacher assigns one quiz or twenty.

Another principle of grading is that teachers should establish some means to acknowledge learning and improvement over time. Do teachers see a difference between a student who earns scores of 90, 80, and 70 during a term and one who earns scores of 70, 80, and 90? In a percentage-based system, these students earn identical grades, yet one can imagine many scenarios where such a grade is unfair. Perhaps the student has a learning disability and needs extra time to acquire a particular skill. Perhaps the student is a recent transfer and needs a period of adjustment. Perhaps the student has benefitted from private tutoring or parent intervention? I showed teachers how to solve the problem by increasing the value of similar projects in succession and how to place additional weight on late-term work.

With developed confidence, I turned my attention to veterans. I met with freshman teachers to discover their policies for late work. One wrote, “When I started teaching, I gave an automatic F (59%) for late work. Now I use a one-letter-grade-deduction-per-day system, with a cap of five school days late.” Another wrote, “I think my practices are moderate. I have a three-day-late policy for all assignments. Additionally, I provide students with a homework coupon that acts as a get-out-of-jail-free card.” A third said, “I don’t ever want students to feel freed from the responsibility of submitting missing work, so I accept late work almost always, reducing its grade somewhat or not at all if the submitted work is of excellent quality.” I was shocked by the variability in teachers’ policies, and not surprisingly, teachers were also. Initially, those with harsh penalties defended their practices until someone asked if they had ever missed deadlines in their own lives. One admitted that she had submitted her grades a day late and another hadn’t completed a homework request for a homebound student. A third talked about the crazy pressure her daughter felt with three major projects due on the same day.

Ironically, our group settled on having no late-work policy. We agreed that teachers must sometimes apply a late penalty, especially if lateness is chronic, but we acknowledged that students have complex lives and schedules. We also rejected any policy that might discourage students from applying themselves to their studies. We affirmed that the quality of late work should matter.

While some of the problems in teachers’ grade book practices are caused by mathematical misunderstandings (How do we convert rubric scores to percentage scores?) and confusion about grade book software (Should we turn rounding on?), most issues come down to a teacher’s philosophy of grading. Why do we grade students? I always ask teachers to rank order the following purposes for grading in terms of their importance to them.

Rank Purposes of Grading
Provide an accurate measure of student performance
Characterize a student’s grasp of course content and skills
Hold students accountable for their learning
Offer expected feedback to students and parents
Motivate students to submit their best work
Reward and punish students for their efforts
Demonstrate student progress in learning
Sort students by achievement

Every teacher has a set of beliefs about grading, and these beliefs influence the mathematics of grading. Nowhere is this more evident than in the assignment of zero grades. If teachers believe that grades should reward and punish students, they will find no stronger punishment than a zero grade. It is the death sentence in a percentage-based system, having the power to announce failure on one assignment and turn other projects into failures as well. For example, a student earning 90-point A-grades on three projects will see his average drop to a 67 percent D grade if he does not complete the final project. Note how such an outcome would trouble teachers who believe that grades should provide an accurate measure of student performance. In this case, a D-grade vastly mischaracterizes the skills of the student.

Nor does a zero grade make much sense mathematically. If the interval between an A-grade and B-grade is 10 points and between a C-grade and a D-grade is 10 points, how can the interval between a D-grade and an F-grade be 60 points? If we adjust the zero grade to 50, a score we might give to a student who completely lacks the skills being measured, the student above now receives an 82.5%, a B-grade for the course, and surely a much more accurate depiction of his learning. Ironically, in the absence of a grade in an electronic grade book, the score always defaults to zero unless teachers instruct the program to do otherwise, and teachers who may not seek to punish students end up doing so anyway.

Indeed, one of the most startling discoveries of my work with teachers is that many do not see the conflict between their grading practices and their values. One teacher professed a deep commitment to minority education, having once taught in the Teach-for-America program, yet she applied grading practices that harmed the very students she wanted to help. Later, she added extra credit assignments, dropped the lowest grade in a term, and reduced the weight of homework assignments, all practices that helped her non-traditional learners.

I used to think that the demon in this story was electronic grade books. They forced teachers into mathematical processes that complicate communication with students and parents and undermine the teaching-learning process. Later, I decided that it was the lack of training in the use of these software programs, for every problem identified above can be avoided if teachers program the software carefully. Today, however, I think the demon in the story is the value of accountability itself. It’s a loaded word in education today, but those who believe it want to reward students (and teachers) for their successes and punish them for their failures. But truly, what does a failing student deserve? Surely he deserves a dedicated and skillful teacher who works hard on his behalf, and definitely one that understands the mechanics of grading. Surely he deserves a guidance counselor, who investigates his lack of achievement and seeks to coordinate the efforts of the professional staff on his behalf. And surely he deserves opportunities to pursue his interests through the curriculum and experience the curricular opportunities open to other students. Grading is one of things we can’t escape in schools, yet if we actually talk about it, examining small practices for their underlying beliefs, we can learn to do it fairly and with humanity.

Pat Monahan
Educational Consultant,
Interlochen, Michigan
CEL Past Chair