Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What We Actively Value, Versus What We Tell Students We Value

Lately I've become acutely aware of what I actively value in my classroom, which has entailed an uncomfortable amount of noticing the conditioned habits of my teacher personality. I don't collect and stamp homework assignments. I don't have each day's agenda and objective for the day neatly written on the whiteboard by the time the first bell rings. My classroom is pretty messy most of the time. I don't have a good system for filing away those last three copies of every handout for future use. I took great permission from @mgolding's system of daily handouts using her Container Store hanging file system: basically, the handouts migrate downward one pocket until there are no pockets left, at which point they go into the recycling bin.

I've made my peace with these tradeoffs because I discovered early on that if I was allotting attention to those things, then that was attention I wasn't allotting to the things I actually do value.

I adopted an SBG assessment system because it aligns my grading/scoring system with the things I actually value: mastery, effort, and perseverance. And also presence — being fully present with the activity we are doing that I actually care about. And as I've noticed that, I have noticed something else I feel good about in my classroom: my kids know that those are the things I value. Which that means they don't waste valuable life-energy bullshitting me about the small stuff we all know I don't really care about.

This has led to a lot of interesting progress with students I didn't expect to make progress with. Less successful students who don't feel shamed stick around to ask questions and engage in meaningful academic inquiry. They come to my room during their study hall periods to follow up, get help on missed or misunderstood assignments, or ask for additional work they can do to improve their understanding.

Not their grade -- their understanding. Their performance.

I am not used to this, and it causes me a lot of inconvenience. 

Students who have a reputation for giving up and giving in ask me if they can write another draft, reassess their missed algebra skills/concepts questions, and take greater ownership of their learning in my classroom. My ego would like to think this is because I'm such a highly effective teacher, but in actuality, I think it's more that my walk is becoming more aligned with my talk. I care about mastery and effort and perseverance, which means that those are the things I respond to.

What I did not realize until this afternoon is that this also means that I don't respond to things that are NOT those things. Which means that my kids are not expending any effort pretending to care about things around me that they really don't care about either. There is a focus on the work, and there is not a focus on things that are not the work. This may sound obvious, but actually it's not -- or at least, it wasn't for me. It took me years to discover that I'd been walking around in a consensual trance all my life.

This kind of awareness is challenging, to be sure, but it is also incredibly freeing. Students spend a huge part of every school day pretending to care about things that don't actually matter to them. Fitting in, pleasing teachers, winning points. Some of it is necessary but much of it they know to be complete and utter crap.

Ten, fifteen, forty, or fifty minutes of being authentically engaged in something that matters to somebody is a huge thing. Ten, fifteen, forty, or fifty minutes of authentic interaction with someone who is trying to focus as sincerely as possible on what actually matters in this life is even bigger.

I learned this lesson from years of experience with my mentor and teacher, Dr. Fred Joseph Orr — mind to mind, and heart to heart, though it took years to digest, and quite frankly, I'm still digesting. I'll probably be digesting for the rest of my life. No one had ever paid that kind of focused, intensive, thoughtful, and bounded attention and awareness in my presence before. And it made me discover how it feels to feel alive. I only discovered how precious that kind of awareness was -- and still is -- once that chapter of my life ended and a new chapter had begun.

I was noticing all this today during a test in which some of my lowest-performing students were asking for "help" with certain problems. I noticed that each time I came over in response to their request, they were not so much asking for assistance as asking for a kind of authentic engagement and support that was neither judging nor doing for them but simply witnessing their effort with presence. What I noticed today inside myself — and what distinguished this from mere adolescent attention-seekig behavior — was my own felt sense of a embodied memory of seeking out this kind of authentic connection in my own work with Fred. And this felt sense gave me the motivation to allow that connection and that presence. I trusted something inside my own inherent, intelligent functioning that told me to allow the connection rather than to pull back and resist. It was a subtle and quiet movement inside me, and I'm still figuring out what exactly was going on.

How many times have I mistaken noise for the signal? Do discouraged students ask because they hang on to the sane and healthy hope that they can learn and connect and make progress? Fred always told me, "The organism moves toward health," and I grew to believe him. I wonder if this is what my discouraged students are really asking for when they ostensibly make a seemingly attention-seeking request for something called "help."


  1. I have read, and re-read this post and I keep asking myself the question - am I going through this same thing with my own students? So many things seem different this year and I keep attributing it to the difference in Algebra 1 teachers last year. Although this teacher did not use SBG, he cared about the students learning the material and they learned it much better than in years past. So, when they have come to me, they not only have the background knowledge that I expect them to have, but they are ready and willing to learn. Now, they are ready to learn and engage in activities to learn. Maybe what you are talking about is also going on my class because of the changes I have made in my classes. I will have to ponder further, and will probably re-read this post a few times. Thanks for sharing.

  2. So interesting! We should be grading our students on things such as mastery, effort, and perseverance. One thing I am wondering though, how does the SBG grading work with the Common Core Standards? We are in the process of trying to slowly switch things over to Common Core and I am not familiar with the grading yet. Does the SBG system align with Common Core at all?

    1. In my view, one of the greatest challenges in adopting the Common Core will be that it places mastery squarely at the center of what it tells us we are to value. In math especially, this means a shift away from a "coverage" model to a "competency" model. Rather than driving students past a huge number of topics, it will require us to go deeper into a smaller number of key skills and concepts. But the only way to do that will be to forego the "coverage" model of teaching.

      Measuring the achievement of competency is actually one place where SBG (aka SBAR) seems very well-suited to integration with the Common Core standards.

      But I think it will be psychologically and emotionally very hard for teachers and administrators to accept the changed underlying paradigm. I have heard people gripe about the SBG model of assessment as not being "fair."

      What does that even mean? Fair to whom? As opposed to what?

      I like the definition of fairness I have learned from Special Ed teachers over the years — namely, that fairness is not everybody getting exactly the same thing; fairness is everybody getting what they actually need to be successful.

      And isn't that the underlying assumption we ought to have when we are working with children?

      - Elizabeth (aka @cheesmonkeysf on Twitter)

  3. Wow. Thought-provoking post, Cheesy! I expect, like Lisa, to read the post over (and over?) to see if I can find the intersection between your ongoing epiphany and my own practice. I have been doing what I call modified-SBG for the last 3 1/2 years, and I feel like my grades better reflect the state of my students' knowledge. Also, I have set the bar higher for the high-flying students. Getting an A isn't just a matter of being sufficiently "dutiful" anymore. I feel like it has made passing a more obtainable goal for the less mathy students as well, but I wonder whether I am helping them to build greater intrinsic motivation to learn math? Much to consider here. Thanks for tweaking my brain!

    1. Thanks, Steve! I always appreciate your reflective comments (and good humor).

      - E.