I have had a problem with letters grades for a few years now. I used to write about it all of the time, and then stopped because I felt like all of the words had been written. But now, I am back facing having to give letter grades for the semester as my district transitions from them to standards based grades. All of those old thoughts of why letter grades say so little about a students knowledge, effort, and accomplishment have been hounding me throughout my days as the deadline for giving them nears. But then I remembered; I need to ask the students what grades they should get.
It is rather simple process. As a class we discuss what makes an “A?” What should a child be able to do in class and out of it to get that elusive top grade? What does “A” thinking, writing, reading, discussion, and doing overall look and sound like? We go through each letter grade this way as a class and determine our definitions. We publish them to our website so parents can see. The standards based scores they have received are also part of it but they are not averaged and they are not the only component.
Once the students have created a group definition, they evaluate themselves. On a small sheet of paper they are asked which grade they feel they deserve and why. The why is important here as I need to see their thinking.
Once they have completed the sheet, we meet. We have to have a face to face discussion of what grade they think they should receive, what my thoughts are, as well as the path forward. Often I find I agree with a child, but if there is disagreement whether the grade should be lower or higher, it is of utmost importance to have a face to face discussion.
For too long students have felt they have little say over how they are assessed. They feel that grades are done to them, rather than something they determine. While we as teachers may think that students understand that their grade is a reflection of their effort, time and time again students have told me they don’t understand the relationship.
So if you have to give letter grades, or even just scores, I implore you to please involve your students. Don’t just rely on an average. Don’t just rely on your gut feeling. Don’t just rely on tests, homework, or whatever other assignment that you have given. Bring the students in. Give them power over their learning, give them voice in how they are assessed. They will thank you for it, or at the very least start to understand how they ended up with that B….
I didn’t know I was doing personalized learning when I first changed the way I taught. It wasn’t until I wrote about it in a blog post and someone gave me the name and description that it clicked. It made sense really; I wanted students to have a voice, have choice, and to be re-ignited passionate learners within my classroom, all tenets of the personalized learning philosophy. For me it was a no brainer; why not teach in a such a way that students would want to be part of the learning? Why not teach in such a way that students became experts and have a place alongside the teacher? Yet, wherever I go resistance remains for personalized learning. In fact, some educators or districts are quite against it, but for many different reasons. I cannot be alone in seeing this resistance, so I thought a discussion of what those barriers may be and how you can approach a discussion to work around them would be in order.
Barrier: It’s one more thing to do. We are faced with seemingly more tasks every single year as teachers, from major ones forced upon us to the little ones we cannot wait to do because we were inspired. When will we ever find the time to do personalized learning as well?
Discussion Point: Personalized Learning should not be an add-on but a replacement. So if you are already doing something, change it with a lens of personalized learning. Can you add choice into a pre-existing project? Can students show mastery in a multitude of ways? Embrace personalized learning as a way to become a better educator by sharing more control with the students, keep it manageable for you and integrate in a natural way to alleviate the feeling of one more thing being added to the to-do list.
Barrier: It is overwhelming. It is easy to see why personalized learning can be viewed as overwhelming. Often those who discuss its merits have been doing it for years and has framed their whole classroom around it. Their personalized learning initiatives is a long list of to-done’s.
Discussion Point: One small step at a time. When discussing personalized learning focus on how to start, what to do in the beginning, and the small changes that can make a big difference. Certainly keep the end-point in mind, but don’t worry about it yet. Worry about where you are right now and how you will start your journey, not when you are going to get to the end.
Barrier: It will be chaotic. We often envision chaos when we stop doing a one path to the learning format for students and that when students are given choice they will not know what to do.
Discussion Point: Personalized learning does not mean giving up control, but rather that control is shared with the students. It also means multiple paths to mastery, but these are planned out either by yourself or in conjunction with your students. Yet, you know yourself best; what can you give up control of and what can you not. You are also a member of this learning community so if there are certain things that need to stay in order, such as an assignment being done a certain way, or students sitting in a particular way, it is okay to hold onto that. Find the things that you can let go of, invite student input into the process, and grow together.
Barrier: My subject matter won’t work. Personalized learning means hands-on and project based; how do you do that in English, Spanish or any other class?
Discussion Point: Personalized learning can be implemented into any classroom, the lens just has to switch. I had a lot easier time giving choice in social studies and science because a lot of our learning was hands-on, project based. So when I switched to just teaching English, I had to change my way of thinking. Personalized Learning in my English class means students have choice in how they show mastery (different project choices), when they show mastery (timeline), and often how they work within the classroom (classroom setup/management).
Barrier: It will be replaced with another idea soon. Education is a long list of new ideas and change is the one constant we have.
Discussion Point:Personalized Learning really just means great teaching and great teaching will not be replaced with a new idea. So while new initiatives are bound to come, the ideas of personalized learning helping you be a better teacher remain because it speaks to student autonomy and re-igniting a passion for learning.
Barrier: I don’t want to integrate more technology or don’t have access. Technology inequity is a real problem. So is technology fear. Some teachers want to feel comfortable with the technology they bring in before students use it, and others will never be able to get the things they wish they could.
Discussion Point: Personalized learning is not about the technology. Personalized learning is about creating an education process that takes into account the needs and desires of each child, while still working through the set curriculum. Technology is a tool that can be used in this process but not a central tenet. I started out with 4 computers in my room for 26 students. We naturally did not incorporate a lot of technology and we didn’t need to. Choices involved the things we did have and students bringing in things from home if they wanted to. We made it work with what we had.
Barrier: I won’t be a good teacher. It is hard to change the way we teach because we may already be teaching really well.
Discussion Point: Change is hard for all of us, but modeling risks for students is instrumental in their learning journey. I am uncomfortable every time I make a big decision about the way I teach or something we will do, but I think the discomfort makes me a more thoughtful practitioner. By sharing and modeling this for students, I am showing them that I take risks and that sometimes those risks pay off and other times they don’t. We have to grow to evolve and sometimes that means even leaving behind things that were just fine. Besides, our students change every year, so should we.
Barrier: I have to do the same as all the other teachers in my subject or grade level. We don’t want students to be a part of an educational lottery where the quality of their education hinges on which teacher they get, so sometimes uniformity and in turn, conformity, is preached above all else.
Discussion Point: Have what other teachers do as one of the choices for students. This brilliant idea was shared at the task force meeting I was a part of in my district. Instead of dismissing what other teachers are doing, simply make it on e of the paths that students can take. That way you are also catering to the myriad of ways that students learn. You may learn best in a hands-on project based environment, whereas others may learn best with a read/reflect/discuss with a test at the end pathway. make room for all of your learners and include the ways of other teachers in your room.
Barrier: Parents/administrators/community will be upset. When we are faced with unknowns our first instinct may be to revolt.
Discussion Point: School should look different than when we were students. Yet communication, understanding and examples are vital when integrating more personalized learning into your classroom our school. Any change is hard for parents who want to try to help their children, so make sure you are communicating the why and the how behind your changes whatever they may be. If administration is wary bring them in to see the change, show them other classrooms, and explain your motivation. Tell them you will do a trial period and you can discuss and evaluate. Just like you are asking others to be open to change, be open to frank discussion yourself.
Moving toward personalized learning has been one of the most significant changes I ever did in my educational journey, but it wasn’t always smooth. I have faced many of these barrier myself but now love being in a district that has it as part of its vision. Wherever you are in your journey, or even if you haven’t started, don’t be discouraged by the barriers that may face you. Reach out, connect with others who are on the same journey, and find the support you need to be successful. I am here to help if you need it.
If you want to see 6 things you can change to start your personalized learning journey, read this.