ASSESSMENT · Community

Feeling Safe Enough To Learn

For the past week, my students’ word study has been centered around observing word parts. As part of our work, I’ve been challenging my 7th graders to notice word patterns to help them make sense of the words’ spelling. Yesterday, I wanted to check to see if they could transfer the work we had done into spelling more accurately. As a warm up, I had them number their papers 1-19 and I explained that I would be pronouncing each of the words. Their job was to try to spell at least 10 of them correctly.  

Yep. I gave a spelling test.

They began numbering their papers and then a couple of hands shot up:

Student 1: Is this for a grade?

Me: I haven’t decided yet. Let’s just try it and see how you do.

Student 2: So, even though there are 19 words, all I have to do is spell 10 right?

Me: That’s right!

Student 2: Huh. Okaaaay.

Student 3: Wait, what if I spell one wrong?

Me: It’s ok. All I’m looking for is 10 words spelled correctly. It’s like “flex points”. Which 10 you get right might be different from the 10 someone else gets right. It’s all good. We’re just trying to get better at spelling.

Student 3: What if we spell more than 10 right? Can we have candy?

Me: No, but you WILL have the satisfaction of knowing you learned some new spelling patterns this week! That’s awesome, isn’t it?

Student: Yea, I guess.

Student 4: What if we spell all 19 right? Can we have candy then?

Me: No, I am not prepared with candy today. You’ll have to be happy with internal satisfaction.

Student 5: What if we can think of other words that use the bases we studied? Can we try to spell those too? Can we get extra credit for that?

Me: [stunned to silence]

Wait, What?! They were all over this. Who knew an old-fashioned spelling test would spark this much enthusiasm on a Tuesday morning? I think they sensed that they could do this–especially when there was room built into this assessment for mistakes. That cushion helped them relax and they were excited about showing me all the words they knew how to spell and even try to spell some new words that came to mind.

After all was said and done, I found moderate spelling growth; all but 4 students could spell at least 10 words from our list correctly. More importantly, though, was that I had found a motivational strategy, providing flexibility and ample room for mistakes in assessment.

A Shift In My Mindset

I realize what I did today wasn’t really that profound. For years, many teachers have been offering students the choice in what questions they will answer on assessments. I have done it myself-many times. But I had a mindshift about this practice today. Is offering more choice and flexibility, even in assessment situations, what it is going to take to make this generation of students feel safe enough to learn?

The world is full of dangers and kids today are being raised in a more protective environment than in generations past. Parents are very present in every aspect of their children’s lives: their extracurricular activities, their play time, their decision making, even in their social lives. Good or bad, this is reality. We have raised kids to know “safety first” and we have worked hard in making them feel safe. The problem is, learning is risky–and students know it.

It is clear that my students feel safe asking questions, they feel safe (and somewhat compelled) asking for clarification; they even feel safe asking for help. What they don’t feel safe enough to do is make mistakes. No matter how big or small the task, they crumble at the thought of making a mistake. They feel their safety is jeopardized if they cannot depend on the outcome. I think they feel this way because they don’t know if they can bounce back on their own.

Like with any generational gap, teachers have to figure out how to respond. We know our kids are afraid to fail, and as adults, we work hard to teach “growth mindset”. Still, my students are genuinely afraid. How can I help them feel safe enough to learn? I try to build their confidence. I tell them there is nothing they can’t do or can’t figure out or can’t work toward improving. This is my mantra, but it takes them a long time to really buy what I sell as the truth about learning.

Today, however, was a step in the right direction. My true purpose was to build awareness and confidence with understanding how language works. Aren’t my students’ reactions to the spelling test the epitome of the growth mindset? FINALLY, they weren’t worried about making a mistake. They were feeling confident and wanted to try more.

Happy Birthday, Dear Flex Points!

I could feel a change in the energy when I allowed a cushion for them to make mistakes. Most didn’t need the cushion, but they thought they did. The revelation I had today was that this generation of students might actually NEED this flexibility in order to feel safe enough to learn.

I wish students were less afraid to learn, but until they get there, I need to act in their best interest and provide appropriate scaffolds. That’s what teachers do. I feel like Flex Points might catch on in my classroom. As I get better at differentiating and move closer and closer toward personalizing my students’ learning experiences, I am finding that I can offer quite a bit of choice and flexibility without compromising my assessment of growth or student learning. If I am willing to “flex” how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, they feel more empowered to make mistakes, and ultimately they will learn more.

ASSESSMENT · Goal Setting · Reflection · Students

Alternate Exams: Turning Assessments Into Opportunities

Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.

With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.

The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

We made this decision for many reasons. Very few  English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.

While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:

  • We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
  • We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
  • We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
  • We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
  • “We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
  • We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer  

Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.

For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:

  • To reflect and practice metacognition
  • To revisit old work
  • To set future learning goals
  • To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
  • To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
  • To review why we do what we do in English class  
  • “Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
  • “Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski

Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)

One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”

At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:

COPY OF BLANK EXAM

And here are some student responses:

img_9449img_9453img_9454img_9452img_9455

Surprising Findings:

  • What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
  • What students are most proud of
  • Students fessing up to being lazy
  • Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
  • Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
  • Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
  • Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)

Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?