Friday, April 12, 2013

High School Fears

After my post yesterday on the way that I've made a lot of changes in the past few years after being a pretty good teacher for a decade or so, I had some really awesome comments.

The ones that hit me the most were by Jasper Fox (@jsprfox) and Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli).  (Side note, really geeked out a little to see that Rick Wormeli even noticed something I did, is book Fair Isn't Always Equal was one of the shoves that changed my thinking)

Their comments were that they were most excited to see a high school teacher doing retakes.  At first I thought that was a little odd, because both myself and the teacher in the attached room to me both give retakes.  But then I thought about how that is just not the case at all.  Most high school teachers I think are of the opinion that you have to be hard on the students to "prepare them for college".  I know I was that way for a long time, hard deadlines, no makeups, you just get a zero for whatever you missed.  What I realized though is that I ended up giving a lot of extra credit for kids to "patch up" their grades.

What eventually made more sense to me, and certainly SBG helps with this, is to just say, no, you get graded on how well you know things, regardless of when you know them.  The only real deadline, the only actual summative time is at the end of the year.  That's when final grades go in.  That sounds crazy, and it sort of is...I do have deadlines and due dates.  But they are never the end of the story.

My goal as a Chemistry teacher is to help them learn Chemistry....

Do I try to teach other life skills and study habits?  Sure, but that is a side business, and I'm not qualified to teach them really as I have always been a notoriously bad studier and really never studied for anything in high school.  I think sometimes we forget that these are still kids we are talking about, even if they are in high school, driving cars and working part time jobs.  They are kids, still figuring it out. Heck, I'm 40 and don't have it all figured out and I've had plenty of second chances (and third, and fourth).  How many teachers have had an admin in for a drop in evaluation and begged for a different day for whatever reason.

Ironically, those same teachers are hardcases about deadlines for their students.  Goose, gander....etc.

Anyway, back to the title, why don't more high school teachers do this:

1.  Time
Seriously, allowing retakes takes a lot of time and effort, as most things in teaching do.  You have to make multiple versions to really do it right, make different keys. I have some ways to deal with that to minimize some of it, but I'd be lying to say it was easy, its not.

2.  Aggravation
Holy crap, is it aggravating to allow retakes, even if you have  system in place.  You have to have sign ups, you have to have separate folders (digital or otherwise), you have to have special policies, do you grade different, how late is too late, can they take the stuff all year or in a certain timeframe, do they have to do special work before hand or just come in, when do they come in, before school, after, during lunch....????!!!!

Seriously, that is just a few of the crazy things that makes it just too much trouble for most folks. It is not easy...if I had hair, I'd probably pull it out some days.

3.  Grades matter in high school
I'm probably going to get some flack for this, so don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that elementary and middle school don't matter, I'm saying that grades aren't as big of a deal there.

This is not true in high school.  Systems and teachers get sued over who is valedictorian, arguments are had over the weighting of regular vs honors vs AP.  GPA is calculated over and over again.  And no matter what colleges say publicly, GPA matters a lot when applying for admissions and scholarships.  Someone might not graduate because of one assignment in one class.

What this means for the teachers that want to do something out of the box is that you better have your ducks in a row and make sure you have administrative support, because if student A ends up as valedictorian over student B because you allowed 15 retakes, it is going to come up.  You might get some sweet letters from a lawyer or calls downtown calling for your head.

All of which is somewhat hilarious when you see how subjective and sometimes arbitrary grades are anyway. And yes, I know that is why folks want to standardize, but that just means that some committee or company makes the questions instead.  That may be less arbitrary (may) but doesn't deal with the needs of my students, so I don't like that idea.

4.  Philosophy
This is probably where I would have fell a few years ago really.  Deadlines matter, and if I allow retakes, then they won't take the first test seriously, right.

Happens occasionally, I will grant you, but not often.  I'd say my overall retake percentage is around 10%.  The kids who do retakes are a.  learning material they didn't know or b.  shoring up their grade.
Obviously I prefer a, but b is ok too, and I'd rather they did that than just took a zero or a low grade (I don't enter zeros for anything that was completed honestly, but that is a different post).

Don't get me wrong, I get it, I don't want kids to think they can just put my work off.  It annoys me to no end when they work their butt off every night for notes for someone else's much easier class than mine because they are graded on it, and then bomb my assessment and have to retake it.  I'm aggravated when a student has to retake something because they were more worried about restoring a guitar they were working on (true story from this year).

But ultimately what matters is that the students learned Chemistry.  If it takes them all year to learn how to do mole conversions (I have one just doing it now, we taught it in September) I can be disgusted with what a slacker they are or I can celebrate with them and keep encouraging.  At the end of the day (year), that student learned something, whereas that kid with a perma zero or perma F did not.  That's he lessons I want to teach.

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