Thursday, March 20, 2008

Grading, Online Reporting, and Good Enough

I've been experiencing the same sort of thing Traci Gardner mentions in her blog post for NCTE "What's My Grade?" My school started using an online grade reporting program. It's stable if terribly clunky--6 clicks and two sign-ins to post each class. Just as Traci notes, students rarely ask how they are doing in class. Instead they want to know why they have a zero for a homework. "Well, let's take a look." Most often it is because the assignment was turned in after the "all call" and though it's in my gradebook, it hasn't been entered into GradeQuick, or it's made it that far but not uploaded to EdLine. Teachers are to upload to EdLine every two weeks. That's a good thing.

I think Traci would agree. Her school's system is more instantaneous. By now, students (and parents) at my disctrict are getting used to the two-week schedule. And I have some time to grade the assignment, record it in my book, and enter it into GradeQuick, before I upload it to EdLine. All this takes time.

We have a seven-and-a-half-hour grading day every quarter. Every time contract talks come along, it is a bone of contention. "Do teachers really need this time?" school directors ask. I don't know about my colleagues but as an English teacher I can do the math: If it takes 10 minutes to grade an essay and I have 120 essays, I need 20 hours. And if I have 5 hours of prep time per week, then if I did nothing else (like parent contact, wrestle with the copier, check-in with a guideance counselor, give makeup exam, ad infinitum) I could have the essays graded (not recorded, just graded) in 4 weeks. So the seven hours of grading days is used for catching up with the makeups, figuring in participation, recording, and double-checking.

Time is time, and teachers never have enough. What is more troubling to me is, for all its efficiency of reporting grades, online reporting systems are nudging the emphasis from learning to earning. The customer service feel of online reporting seems to suggest that students (and parents) have more to demand from their scores. Scores become something to micro-manage from home and interrupt the learning process. And in some ways the very reporting of every point takes the effect of professional judgment out of the teacher's power. How can I give an C to a struggling, but deserving student who knows he has an 69 (one point away) because he's been watching his record?

There's a trickle down effect to this. As the students realize every hundredths of a point matter, every homework assignment and its score matters. Again, the focus is not on the learning, it's on a number. Grades become a fixed timeline of scores instead of a representative process of progress.

I was fortunate to grow up in the days of hand-written report cards. A time when students trusted their teachers to assess them. And parents who backed the teachers. Though I might have wondered a little a couple of times, I never had to question a teacher about a grade. If the teacher said I got deserved a "C" and I had given it my all, then I got a "C." And my parents only question was "Did you do your best?" regardless of whether of the grade. That was good enough.

And what I learned in the process: what was my best. To this day I know whether I've done my best or not. My best on some things is an A+. Sometimes I can eek out a B-. Other things I fail. But I never have to ask why I got a zero.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Give It Up For, Not On Technology

Teachers are control freaks. It's true. It comes with the territory. Everytime we walk into a classroom we know someone is going to set the agenda. And it better be me. It's all we know.

Enter technology. Ever have a projector that wouldn't sync with a DVD player? How about an online video presentation scheduled for a day the school server goes down? Or your blog site is 404?

Just the idea that we are outsourcing our content to a third-party makes us squeamish. And there are concerns about copyright, propriety of documents uploaded to Google, sites that link, remixed media, ad nauseum. Control?

If we are going to be moving (with our students) to the 21st Century we've got to give it up. I have found that my students understand completely. Whereas in years past, if something didn't go quite right, they'd panic and look at me like it was some kind of crime, nowadays they are cool with it. They know what it's like to be out of control with technology. It's a temporary setback. In a few minutes or the next day, the power will come up, the site will be online, the bug will be patched, and all will be good. Learning will go on.