Today, I am here to talk about the scariest part of personalizing learning - allowing kids to create their own assessments.
I say "scariest" because to give up control of how students how mastery is REALLY hard. For a long time, I told myself I was the best person to assess their work because I knew every facet of the test and standards, but let's face it: They're the expert on themselves. Not me. I had to let go of that little ego trip.
Now, I anticipate the argument that - as the teacher - you have the training and content knowledge to support the kids. That's fair. However, that same training and content knowledge can be used to guide them to the desired outcome. Guiding them to their own discovery is always going to produce more meaningful results. Period.
But it is scary. Terrifying, in fact, for a Type A person like myself. Before I jump into how I do this, I want to clearly something. In my previous series posts, I have talked about the many reinventions of personalization in my classroom. From ugly to bad to alright. It wasn't until my most recent iteration that I was courageous enough to attempt student designed assessment (and, as I mentioned in my last post, I am still assessing them on my terms in the "I Check").
As I've said. Personalization is a spectrum and a process. Start small (choice boards, options, reflection) and then jump into the really scary stuff.
So, if you're ready, let's jump in...
For starters, simpler is better. The first step needs to be prioritizing standards. I have talked about this previously when writing about standards based grading, but I cannot express how essential it is for student designed assessment.
I say this because... I did it wrong. (#oops). As I mentioned in my primary post about personalization, I paired standards so that students needed to analyze and develop. In my head, they would use this as a way to analyze a mentor text and then compose their own. In reality, they ended up just creating two products for each unit. In hindsight, I'd narrow to one standard. Lesson leared.
So Step 1: Prioritize Standards and Content.
The next step is to facilitate the design process. I created a template for students which they fill in and submit for approval. I check them off - either approving the initial submission or adding feedback.
As we've navigated this process, I feel that it is 100% more successful if I just sit and talk with the kids. Therefore, I plan to use an "elevator pitch" in the future where students give me a short proposal for their assessment and we have a discussion after. Without this discussion, I felt they were just choosing the first assessment that came to mind whereas when I talked with them, we were much more intentional about choosing something that interested them.
More fodder for the next go-around.
Step 3 is to consider assessment. This is something I have a lot of room to grow with. As you'll notice, the template has a place for students to create a rubric of their own - which was great in theory, but failed in practice. They needed more examples of proficiency levels to really do this step. Let's be honest: They needed a lot more everything to successful with this step.
Having dropped the ball in a very obvious way, I am brainstorming ideas for the next iteration. Here are some ideas bubbling around in my crazy mind:
I am excited about tackling this on the next time around. For now, we live with what we got. Ha ha.
I am creating this post purely to avoid scoring my AP Literature mock exams. (I'm sure you can relate).
I don't know what it is about AP Literature versus AP Language, but I struggle so much more trying to wrap my head around the content. The abstraction of literature is something that has never truly enticed me, so navigating that prep is a challenge to say the least. (More on that eventually...)
For today's part of the series, I wanted to talk about the concept of the "I Check." In my past post, I talked about the "I Learn" which is the first stage in the personalized process. In that stage, students explore the content and provide evidence of their learning.
If that makes sense...
One of the biggest fears people have with personalizing learning is that students are going to be handing things in at all different times. While on the surface, this might seem frustrating or hard to organize, I feel it makes my feedback better. I score without the fatigue of reading 50 of a single assignment. Instead, I look at a variety of things all the time.
Also, and this is HUGE, I grade RIGHT. IN. CLASS. That means, I try to avoid grading outside of class. Why? Because if the student is in the room when I am scoring I can either A) score with them sitting beside me or B) pose questions to clarify meaning and help them correct.
I promise you. Personalizing - though admittedly a lot of work upfront - is a dream once you get going. These conversations about feedback (instead of notes on a paper) have been so much more impactful in getting students moving in the right direction.
In fact... My goal next year is to grade EVERYthing in class, all the time. If it's worth doing, it's worth taking the time to sit with the kids and score. Fortunately, using a personalized flexible format, gives me the time to make that happen!
- Guiding Students Through Performance Task Design ("I Show")
- Teaching Reflection (...if I even figure it out).
(And if you are wondering, I did finish those mock exams... Until I got the makeup ones today).
What I call the "I Learn" phase is my best effort to achieve that self-directed learning experience. It is also... the most daunting part of the entire process, in my humble opinion.
I'll explain by showing an example of how students might learn a standard, such as Style and Sophistication in my class at the moment.
Learning Options: Style & Sophistication
When they open their unit template, their learning options are laid out...
A) Read and take notes from a textbook.
B) Participate in a small group.
C) Watch videos.
Each of these are like designing a lesson on its own, so as you might imagine, creating options takes a lot of time and a lot of materials. This is what makes this - for me - the most daunting. That said, it helps that there are so many great resources out in the world. Here are the materials we are using for this unit.
Style & Sophistication Resources
I have two go-to textbooks which I have class sets of. For different units, I refer students to different books - depending on what is provided in each. I would highly recommend these two texts as a reference for students in their learning:
The Language of Composition, if you don't know, is kind of the standard for AP Language. It is the most often used text, from what I have seen.
The initial part of the book offers a host of fundamental information about writing and rhetoric. From there, it breaks into thematic units with provided texts and activities.
How I Use It:
This is a newer text by veteran AP Language teachers Lauren Peterson and Timm Freitas, as well as Brandon Abdon.
My affection for this text lies in how everything is directly aligned to standards. I can easily pull passages for kids to fit various skills.
Also, this text provides a great number of practice assignments!
How I Use It:
B) SMALL GROUP
This is as simple as students sitting down to talk about the content with me. Starting this portion of the year - where students are exploring 6 different units - my colleague and I created short PowerPoints that we could use to guide these discussions.
Here is our Style & Sophistication one...
Now, I don't wanna brag, but I have some good video content on my YouTube channel. That said, I don't have nearly enough to cover an entire year of AP Language. Fortunately for me, College Board started the incredible task of creating videos (and MULTIPLE videos) for every skill. #blessed
Because we used my videos for the first part of the year, now I am directing them to the College Board videos. My expectation is that students take notes during videos so they have something to prove they put in the time.
Here are a few of my more popular videos:
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Ok... So I didn't mention that there was an option D before. That's because I haven't implemented it yet! As I've mentioned, this is a process that I've been adapting and changing each time. In the next manifestation, I am focused on providing activities (worksheets, graphic organizers, projects) that students can also learn through.
The good news is that after teaching the course for 6 years, I have tons of these activities already to go. I just need to search the catacombs of my many, many folders to find all the gems.
Evidence of Learning
Most of the time, these are notes they took from reading or watching videos, but it might also be summaries, annotations, marked up PowerPoints, etc. Using Schoology, I set these up so they MUST submit their evidence before they can move on.
Personalizing the learning process is scary - even after seeing it be successful. As teachers, we away want to be in control of the information they are getting. That's why we preview videos before we assign them or make our own version of other people's PowerPoints. This need to construct the narrative is well-intentioned but exhausting. As someone who used to obsess about recreating everything myself - it was a big leap to point students in a direction and hope they land on the right information.
That said, the same is accomplished with the next step for students, the "I Check." At that point, I can redirect or provide feedback to clarify what I want. For me, the surprise was that I rarely had to do this. If kids watched videos or read, they seemed to catch on just the same to what I covered in small groups. In other words, I didn't need to dress anything up for them; they got it on their own!
Even so... the "I Check" is hugely important. Stay tuned for my post on designing these assessments and for sample material!
What can I say? I get so excited thinking about how we can personalize learning that I could talk for day. (Which is also why I have started this series... I just can't shut up).
But as I sat in conferences, I couldn't help but think about my first round of conferences as an AP teacher. Every other conference eventually came to some version of... "He/She has never had a B before." Usually followed by my explanation of weighted grades and the rigor of AP classes... until I'd give up and say something like "It'll get better."
Grades were honestly running my classroom. Kids were so desperate for points one year that they literally brought thousands of canned items when I offered to drop an FRQ for the class that brought the most. They spent (or, their parents spent) HUNDREDS of dollars to drop one 50 point assignment. The pressure to keep an A and that influence on my classes was more exhausting than any number of pages I had to grade.
Something had to change. And significantly.
It was around this time that my school adopted Schoology - which offered a host of options under the Mastery tab to let me see students' achievement levels. Looking at the new feature, I was drawn to the fact that I could attach learning objectives to assignments, and Schoology would calculate not just the numeric grade, but also the proficiency.
Quickly - as they often do - my wheels started turning, and fast! I think it was just a few days before a new school year when I decided to jump onboard. I drafted some learning objectives (based on nothing really... they weren't great) and asked my colleague (God bless her) to jump down the standards based grading rabbit hole with me.
And as with everything, the process went through multiple transformations and deviations. From bad to okay to maybe alright? Let me walk you through it.
What was that flaw, you ask? I used the proficiency calculation instead of a decaying average.
Now these words might mean nothing to you, so let me explain:
- Proficiency Calculation: In this format, students grade was based on their highest level of proficiency. It didn't matter which order the grades came in, as long as they demonstrated proficiency at some point they were good (a.k.a. "Got the A").
- Decaying Average: This format is slightly more complicated, but essentially, all scores contribute to a score, but the last assessment of a standard is weighted at 75% of the grade.
Any teacher with half a brain could anticipate what problem I ran into with the proficiency calculation:
As soon as kids got a proficient score on something, they started blowing off subsequent assignments, saying "I already have the A so it doesn't really matter."
In a writing class, practice is key, so this apathy towards repeat assessment immediately caused problems. I'm not saying this method can't work. I just didn't have the refined curriculur design that would have been needed to make it work. So, at semester time, I gave the proficiency calculation the ol' heave ho. (Not admitting my own ignorance - of course - but rather, telling the kids we had to step it up for second semester and focus on consistency. Like a real pro...ha!)
We carried on with the decaying average model for the rest of the year.
- The Kids Didn't Really "Get" It
- My Learning Objectives Suuuucked
In all honesty, I still don't think I have resolved #1 (but I'll share some changes that helped), and #2 is something I am working on every year. I grabbed a screenshot of my Resources page to show you how many variations of the standards I have been through. Like I said... MANY variations.
SIDE NOTE: This process is something that can't be overlooked. It would be easy to say you just plug in all the Common Core standards and start assessing your class, but for me, a huge process has been learning to prioritize and organize standards. And even more importantly, having the freedom to do so. One of the main reasons my adaptation of SBG has been pleasant is because I am not on a core English team and I have a little flexibility with my learning targets. Any system that expects full representation of every standard is delusional. Standards based grading must rely on multiple assessments of each standard, so expecting FORTY TWO standards - even over the course of two years - is unrealistic. (I'm looking at you, Common Core!).
In all honesty, last year I OVER simplified. (It's like I knew something everyone else didn't). I never had a good way of labeling multiple choice so previously, I had just said "Critical Reading" and called it good. So with the new standards in place, I decided to just break that into the four core categories in the CED (Course and Exam Description): Rhetorical Situation, Claims and Evidence, Reasoning and Organization, and Style.
I pretty much had a mix of old standards and new, but I did differentiate between what proficiency was in the first semester versus the second semester. It's not something I would recommend in hindsight. The more I learn about competency based learning, the more I realize that the target shouldn't move just because time passes.
But - another lesson learned!
However, I do feel our work has been more intentional and focused this year. Really narrowing down those reading standards to the subpoints and specific targets has allowed me to 1) use AP classroom to its full potential and 2) zero in on student weaknesses.
This spring, in order to move one step closer to a personalized format, I actually have them narrowed down to six units, pairing the analysis standard with the writing one.
So for this spring, I have made these pairs for 5B/6B, 7A/8A, 1B/2B(kind of), 5C/6C, and 3C/4C. Students are designing assessments that show me both sides of the skill.
Like I said, the learning objectives (or Roadblock #1) have always kind of been in a state of flux while I adjust and adapt to kids. The other hurdle, or Roadblock #2 mentioned above, has been a similar slow march.
Helping Students "Get" It
We did take more intentional steps this year to be transparent, but as you can imagine, switching to this style of grading is a pretty big jump. While my district is moving in this direction, I frankly wasn't willing to wait, so educating students, parents, and other teachers on my system has been a learning process of its own.
That said, here is my advice. (Well... what I have so far. We're still taking steps).
- Take time to explicitly walk students through the gradebook.
- When students ask about an "assignment" in the gradebook, remind them that the gradebook is standards, not tasks.
- Explicitly announce which standards you are working on at every step.
- Create resources to help them understand. (For instance, I created a syllabus video this fall and linked it in my gradebook for parents to see).
- Find a way to be comfortable defending standards based grading.
My last piece of advice can be the hardest. I have spent years explaining and re-explaining my gradebook, rationale, and process to all stakeholders, but it has become easier and easier every time. And, even better, I have the data to support why it's working now. It's one of those times where you have to dig your heels in a bit at the start and persevere, but it'll pay off!
That said, I do know my next evolution involves upgrading my learning objectives to proficiency scales - more to come on those - and continuing to reform my personalized methods.
There aren't simple answers when it comes to this process. (But I'll sure try to help!) It takes time and patience. It takes trial and error. It takes a lot of reflection. In other words, it takes resilience - something we've all mastered in the last year, I think.
But I will say this... Now that I am working in my most personalized model, I have never seen stronger relationships with my students or greater conversations about learning in my classroom. It honestly makes me so excited for our next attempt. (And excited to keep sharing what I learn with you!)
- "I Learn" Resources
- "I Check" Samples and Design
- Guiding Students Through Performance Task Design ("I Show")
- Teaching Reflection (...if I even figure it out).
This has been an unbelievable year - one that seems to magnify every bad day and make even the smallest request seem insurmountable.
But we're still going, guys. Somehow... we are still making it work. We always do, but if we've ever had the right to brag. It's now.
Amidst all of this year's tumult, I returned to last year's mission - to personalize learning as much as possible for my students. It probably seems crazy to complete throw out the rule book right now, but in my mind, I can't think of a better time to completely flip learning. The kids have been adapting and re-adapting all year. They've never been better able to mix up the format.
I should also mention that my school has created a PD cohort that is focused on PCBL, or personalized competency-based learning. Joining this group reinvigorated by dedication to personalizing my classes, and luckily for me, I get PAID to do it! (What a dream).
This group met this week to start talking about our first set of goals. As I met with a few people just starting out this journey, I realized that this is truly a process that has to be done in multiple steps. Talking through some of their grand ideas, I worried that too big a leap would make the experience miserable.
That said, I thought it would be helpful to share the complicated process of personalizing with other people. As I mentioned, I have been working on this process for YEARS. Over my next few posts, I thought I would walk through the steps I've taken to get to the level of personalization I am at now.
Currently, students are self-pacing, self-designing performance tasks, and reflecting on their own learning for five different sets of standards. Essentially, I paired the related reading and writing standards. (For instance, 7A and 8A in the Course and Exam Description are both about stylistic choices).
Kids start each unit by looking at a unit template that they will later complete. The first page, however, sets out how they can learn the content. I haven't created much here (Yay!). Thanks College Board and textbook authors!
An "I Check" is essentially a more traditional assessment. This is the part that I have created for each unit, and for AP Language, I try to keep these focused on the exam. (Thanks AP Classroom Question Bank!).
This was a big mental shift for me. As a teacher, I feel we are taught that our assessment is the end-all of the unit. Instead, it took me time to realize that my assessment should be a guide for an original assessment that students create for themselves ("I Show"). If you end with the teacher designed test, how will kids really express what they know authentically? Most of the time, we give them a choice project, but they still have to finish a test at the end. I had to change my way of thinking to flip those around. My test is formative. Their assessment, the more authentic task, is weighted most.
The idea of allowing kids to design their own performance task raises a totally fair amount of anxiety. Being incredibly Type-A myself, my chest actually tightens at the level of control I am giving up in letting them design an assessment, but I know that one of our constant complaints about students is that they don't have agency. You can't maintain complete control and expect kids to learn responsibility and agency.
BUT. I'm still Type-A. I'm willing to let the kids take control, but I wanted to see the evidence that they thought it through. Below is the unit template I mentioned earlier. Basically, I ask students to sit down and think through how they would like to be assessed and approve their ideas.
Basically, I am checking that they are completing tasks that will demonstrate the standards and that will demonstrate a career-ready disposition. (My district compiled these dispositions in something called a Profile of a Graduate).
I'll be honest. This didn't work. The same document included my rubric for the "I Check" step, so when I saw students struggling to create a rubric, I started telling them to refer to that other rubric as a guide. My plan for the future is to create a rubric template for them, but for now, I just refer them to the one I created. (#lazy)
This stage I feel is my current weakness. For now, I just gave them a prompt to respond to. I think in the future, I want to teach them more explicitly about reflection. For now, I'm just happy if they remember to do it at the end of the unit. Ha!
As I go through this series, please comment or message me with any questions you have! I can share from my experience, but also those of others working in my professional development cohort. I am really passionate about authentic learning, so anything I can do to help others embrace it is work I am happy to do!
I LOVE true crime.
I've shared my materials for The Murder of Allan Ripley and my virtual CSI: AP Language. Now, I have an entire unit. (In my defense, it's what the kiddos wanted... Like over 75% of them.)
Introducing.... my version of Unsolved Mysteries.
[NOTE: The full unit will be for sale on my Teachers Pay Teachers site shortly.]
You'll notice that the rubric (scroll to the bottom of the inserted page) uses AP Language standards, including: Thesis, Commentary, Intro/Conclusions, Assertions and Evidence, but it also uses some of my own (Revision and Presenting Information).
Because everything in 2020/2021 must be flexible - that's how I allowed the students pace themselves. I gave them the checklist below and the suggested pacing calendar, but ultimately, everything was given a hard deadline at the end.
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We have student iPads, so I directed them to Anchor, an app that makes podcasts really simple. (It is pretty limited, but at the end of the semester, that isn't necessarily a bad thing).
If you will be using desktops or laptops, I would recommend Audacity. I've used it in the past with students and they caught on pretty quickly.
As of now, students have (or at least they are pretending to have) completed their research and are putting together scripts. Because they are in groups, they have been pretty self reliant - with me just popping in to suggested resources and remind them about rubric criteria.
If you're looking for something to end the semester or a break from test prep monotony next semester, I hope you find this helpful.
Sorry for the radio silence. I have been a busy bee - along with pretty much every teach in America. My seniors have wrapped up our introduction to poetry and are now deep into Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward. The juniors - AP Language - have finished their survey of the three essays on the exam and are now jumping in to a unit they helped me design - true crime podcasts! (As you might have inferred, they LOVED our True Crime week awhile back).
Regardless, today was one of those days where I just put all of that on the back burner. Moments such as yesterday are (fortunately) rare in our history as a nation, but they deserve dedicated time in class. For kids to process. To have big conversations. And - in AP Lang - to look at what role language has to play in the "real world."
Cue: Me, frantically texting my AP Language counterpart yesterday, rewriting the entire plan for this week.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I am a PLANNER when it comes to school. I plan months of material at a time. Struggling with anxiety, it is one of the things I can control, so I DO. (I'm the fool who has semester 1 planned out by the time school starts).
That said, one of the hardest lessons for me as a teacher has been knowing when things can wait. Obsessively watching the news last night and the stream of congressional debate, I found myself in one of those important moments. I immediately thought, "If there was ever a moment for kids to 'get' a rhetorical situation, this is it!"
We were going to revisit rhetorical analysis next week anyways, so I cut that stuff out. Pushed back today's work. Then, threw together a quick graphic organizer for them to practice identifying rhetorical choices:
I started class with a brief overview of yesterday's events. (A DIFFICULT task when you are trying to appear objective and unbiased).
Then, we walked through the graphic organizer before I shared the YouTube playlist. In small groups, they watched videos together and picked out one rhetorical choice in each video - which they then explained as well.
Some of my proudest moments of today were when ...
1. I got to tell a kid that she can write like Tammy Duckworth too, if she just keeps writing.
2. Another student marveled that they put these speeches together under so much pressure, allowing me to tell them that there is a reason behind timed writes and healthy pressure. (That it brings out our best at times!)
3. Two girls who have struggled all year FINALLY picked out a rhetorical choice on their own! And beamed with pride that they did it!
To put it simply, it was a really great day in AP Lang, and I actually think the kids will remember it.
What else can you ask for mid-pandemic? Am I right?
And I got nothing.
It's like I told my brother tonight: "2020 isn't about inspiration. It's about survival." (He made the woeful mistake of allowing me to talk about school).
Therefore, no bells and whistles.
In putting this unit together, I wanted something that would allow me to get students to think about poetic form (sonnets, in particular) but tie the bigger meaning of structure in poetry. In preparation for creating their sonnets, students will think about the function of each quatrain as well as the final couplet. Then, I'm going to set them free to think about how to depict that meaning.
- Day 1: We are going to look at my sample and complete a storyboard, or planning sheet, for their sonnets.
- Day 2: Our tech integrationist (I know... we're very lucky) is coming in to teach them animation in Keynote.
- Day 3-4: Work time! My kids actually have 12 days to work on this, but they also have virtual work when I don't see them.
You'll notice my final product definitely ventured from the storyboard. (Animating is COMPLICATED. Ha ha).
I figured it would be a good time for an update, particularly because I haven't been getting much posted lately. I'm sure if anyone understands, it's other teachers!
As I have mentioned, we are in a hybrid format. That means I get half my kids Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday, Friday. Wednesdays, everyone is virtual. When I don't see the kids, they complete online work. Those of you in the same (or a similar) format would probably agree that the kids are struggling with their virtual work.
And frankly, I don't blame them. I feel like they are getting about a million videos to watch, materials to read, and disengaging activities. I mean, I am trying my best, and they are remarkably putting up with it, but the virtual days are very difficult to plan for me. How do you interest a kid in an activity that will glue them to a screen for hours?
My answer: True crime!
The kids may not feel the same way, but I LOVE true crime. Last year, when we adapted the Murder of Allan Ripley, I was so excited to bring my huge interest in forensics and detective work into the classroom, and then, I was even more excited that the kids seemed to love it! Why not do more of the same?
This week, we are focusing on argument structure (line of reasoning) and reviewing past concepts. We'll do the traditional Allan Ripley activity during the live days, but I created another virtual true crime activity to hopefully engage the students in these new concepts and review.
Introducing.... CSI: AP Language.
The premise is simple: Solve the crime! I created a series of tasks which review content and introduce structure. If students can get a perfect score on a task, they can get a clue. Their goal is to gather as much information as they can to solve the crime.
I began with what I know. I am the odd duck that falls asleep to Forensic Files every night. (Peter Thomas has to have the most soothing voice... even when he is talking about some pretty grizzly murders). I picked a case I am familiar with and picked out the clues.
My course is set up in Schoology, so I use completion folders to require a certain score on each task before they can open the clue. If you don't have that option, you could have students "unlock" clues by handing in their tasks. Also, I apologize that the format isn't the most adaptable. I made everything right in Schoology, so that's the only version I have.
Below is the step-by-step, as it appears on my Schoology page:
Task 1: Rhetoric of a Killer
Clue 1: Crime Scene
Task 2: Track the Argument
Clue 2: Map and Timeline
Task 3: Inductive and Deductive Claims
Clue 3: Suspects
Task 4: Complex Claims
Clue 4: Criminal Profile
Task 5: Make an Arrest
So that's what I got. If you want to watch the actual episode of Forensic Files, here it is:
I'll have to let you know how it goes, but already, I've had multiple kids ask me about this activity. (One even used the word "fun!")
Like I said, if you are feeling like me, you'll give anything to get the kids engaged again. Hopefully this helps!
Teaching in 2020 is getting to school only to realize it's "already" parent teacher conferences... even after you spent days scheduling them last week.
Teaching in 2020 is that moment when you think you are SO far ahead... only to realize you only have the next week figured out. After that, you're S.O.L.
Teaching in 2020 is staring at the wall in your office for a solid 10 minutes - trying to figure out where to even start.
Teaching in 2020 is hoping that the frozen meal you left in the freezer last spring is still ok because you DEFINITELY forgot to bring lunch.
Teaching in 2020 is screaming to your colleague across the hall instead of getting up from the couch in your classroom.
Teaching in 2020 is not actually knowing what your students look like. (Seriously. I didn't even realize one of my guys had a beard until virtual conferences).
Teaching in 2020 is hard.
This year, my school has a new head principal and one of the first things he told us is this year is about patience and grace. Granting grace to others, but also, to ourselves. It is hard on a group of perfectionists to constantly be treading in unknown waters, but we have to give ourselves a break. Pour a tall something and keep trying your best!