Tuesday, November 29, 2005

This Is NOT a Blog About Grading

I just need a little break from thinking and writing and talking about our grading system, so instead I'll write about an activity my classes did this week that combined the blog and constructivism. I asked half of my class to post discussion questions regarding a short story by Edgar Allan Poe; I specified that they needed to read the other questions before posting theirs to avoid repeating others' questions. After they posted their questions, I made copies of the questions for everyone in the class. I had all students read through the entire list of questions and highlight the ones that intrigued them the most; they then spent three minutes brainstorming/writing on each of the questions they liked. After they finished brainstorming, I asked them to share any conclusions or questions that came to mind as they did this activity, and their comments were outstanding. Usually my students are somewhat shy to talk about "The Fall of the House of Usher" because it's such a challenging text, but they seemed genuinely interested in attacking each other's questions. I think part of the interest came from the fact that I included their names by the questions they posed. This way, when students shared their responses, they could say, "I chose Caitlin's question because..." I think the activity also validated the importance of asking questions instead of passively accepting confusion. It's also rewarding to see your own name on something that the teacher handed out and to know that every student in the class is thinking about your question. I'm going to do the same activity for "The Minister's Black Veil" so that the other half of the class has a chance to ask questions as well. It's nice to have my students do the hard work instead of just watching me do it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Inside My Students' Brains

In my first hour English 10 class today, I asked my students to take ten minutes to reflect upon the class. I asked them to write down what they liked, what they wanted to see more of, and what they wanted to reduce. I gave them no additional prompts. Even though we've only used the blog twice in this class, so it's still relatively new to them, many students commented that they loved the blog and wanted more homework assignments to revolve around the blog. Unfortunately, I failed to push them to explain why, but I'll come back to this after Thanksgiving. I also asked my students how they viewed grades, learning, and motivation. I haven't had time to read their responses yet, but I'll be sure to share them with the blog. Until then, we'll wait anxiously in suspense! You may have noticed that one of my Honors students discovered the Fischbowl on her own and shared her views on grades; I find her perspective quite helpful and revealing.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Is for Assonine?

After our November 16th class, I feel confused but validated in my confusion. I can't even count how many times I've encouraged students to ignore the grade and read my feedback instead, or how many times I've made statements like, "I don't care about your grades. I only care about your improvement as a writer." In my higher level graduate courses, grades were nonexistant, and I flourished in this setting. I used to worry about grades so much in high school and college that I developed stomach problems and chronically walked in my sleep; grades took a front seat to higher learning more times than I'd like to admit. Now I see this in many of students--particularly in some of my female honors students--and I don't know how to convince them that grades aren't worth their stress.

However, I still fail to see how dividing our grades into new groups really addresses the problem. After all, we're still assigning a grade and posting a grade and giving students and parents alike something to obsess over. So I come back to the question I posed in class that no one wanted to address: why do we post grades? If we want to remove the emphasis from our grading system, why do we post them and encourage students to check them all the time? And for some students, I really do mean ALL THE TIME. I understand that it's not in our power to do away with the American system of grading, but I wish there were something else I could do besides weighting grades differently. I don't mean to sound disrespectful at all; I think Tony Winger's idea is a good start, and I'd like to know if it's making a difference in our classrooms.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Student Reflections

My students have unexpectedly started commenting on my personal blog entries, but I'm very much enjoying it. It's helpful to have responses from their persepectives as well, as most of my blog entries are questions and comments regarding the success of constructivism and technology in their classes. Also, two of my students have started their own blogspot in which they hold theological debates. As always, my teaching life is somewhat out of control, but at least there's always something new.

As an aside, the article on grading somewhat offended me. I agree with its overall message (I always differentiate between grades and feedback, and I encourage my students to value the latter), but some of the word choices were insulting. I don't use grades to "threaten" my students, and I find no "relief" in assigning grades. I agonize over assessing my students work until I'm physically sick with stress. Who is the author of this article, anyway?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Will Blogs Take Over the World?

I think the blog has officially taken on a life of its own. I don't know if this is good or bad; I keep thinking of how the machines become self-aware in The Terminator 2 and imagine myself, buff like Linda Hamilton, packing heat to defend the human race against giant metamorphosing blogs. This may be an exaggeration, but twice already members of the outside world have commented on our class blog (though one was actually helpful), and some of my students have used the blog to passive aggressively attack each other. I've addressed these situations, and I think use of the blog will continue to improve, but I think that so many students are accustomed to blog sites like "My Space" that the line between the personal and the academic blogs can be fuzzy, especially in a course like English. But for the most part, I am blown away both by my students' perceptive comments and by their honesty. I feel a little closer to them now, and I look forward to reading their entries. At times, I think I, too, become obsessive with the blog. As I mentioned in my last entry, I just have to maintain a philosophical focus.

As a postscript, I have seen some early drafts of my students' philosophy books, and I'm intrigued and somewhat humbled. Looking forward to the final products...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fill in the blanks to create a perfect essay!

Several of my classes are in the early stages of writing major essays, and I find myself struggling philosophically. While I believe that they will write best about topics they create and pursue independently, many of them are in constant need of more and more structure. In my regular English 10 class, I have students who are unfamiliar with outlining or using an outline to write a well-structured essay. I find myself giving suggestions that are more like fill-in-the-blank thesis statements...the more structure I give, the more appreciative my students are. Or perhaps they're just relieved because I'm doing the hard work for them. I'm wondering where other teachers who teach writing draw the line between passion and organization. I realize that structure is not the enemy of constructivism, but my zillions of handouts, mini-lessons, and rubrics are beginning to take on a life of their own.

Friday, November 04, 2005

What Just Happened?

Yesterday I brought both of my Honors American Literature classes into the computer lab to set up their blogs. I had two prompts ready--one to do in class to work out any problems or questions, and one to respond to as homework for reinforecement. The responses were outstanding! My students' eloquence impressed me, and I noticed that many took risks that they would have circumvented in a large class discussion. I also felt as though their blog entries freed up some class time by exploring in depth many of the issues I would ordinarily spend a class period discussing. In class today I developed a powerpoint to highlight some of the blog entries, and we used them to clarify certain points. Overall, my students were engaged and excited about blogging. Several of them went far beyond the basic expectations and blogged multiple times last night. Class feels a little more intimate now, and the blog has offered us a way to extend those conversations that somehow always get shortened in class due to time constraints. Between the blogging and powerpoint, I feel a little like I just shoved my classes into a time machine and jumped into the 21st century classroom (next week I will implement rocket backpacks to expedite their speed down the hallway!). Except, of course, for the fact that most of students were already light years ahead of me in the technological universe. As a final note to myself--I need to remember that as seductive as the technology is, my focus is on constructivism. No blogging for the sake of blogging.