# Are you a 1, 2, 3, or a 4? What’s numbers got to do with it?!?

I, along with a couple of other teachers, are piloting a grading strategy that is generating some interesting conversations on a DAILY basis with our students!

We’ve all read that grades do not improve or motivate learning. In fact, once a grade is given, the student assumes that idea is ‘done’ and drops it, moving on to acquire the next grade.

What I am about to share with you has MY KIDS talking about how THEY can improve their learning…

First, I have to give credit for the base of this idea to an amazing educator that I work with every day: Rebecca K. She, of course, credits it to an idea she learned in a workshop some years back. Anyway, she started the year off with a cool bulletin board, that looks something like the image above, which I used to create a powerful way to motivate my babies to take more responsibility for their own learning!

The students I am talking about are your average 9th grade (yes, FRESHMAN!!) students, that run the gamut of every freshman stereotype you’ve ever met. Really. (This includes students with personal learning plans and students whose first language is not English!) AND  we’ve got them talking about growth – THEIR growth – as learners. When we hand back a paper, instead of the ‘crumple it up and put it in the bookbag or the trash’ mentality, the comments are varying forms of, “..tell me what these results mean!”

Here’s how it works:

Four numbers, four learner identities:  1. Novice, 2. Apprentice, 3. Practitioner, 4. Expert

Novice: I’m just starting to learn this and I don’t really understand it yet.

I explain to the students that this is where everybody in class starts out. Algebra I will have lots of things that are new to them, and we expect that they won’t be familiar with the material! We don’t expect them to know it all before we teach it. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes you have to be explicit with Freshmen. I think that’s where the name originates!

Apprentice:  I’m starting to get it, but I still need someone to coach me through it.

The apprentice is the beginning of the learning phase. When a student gets a 2 on a problem or a whole assignment, they are in the initial learning stages. As a teacher, I’ve just told them (by marking it a 2) that I know they still need help with the concept, and that I will be supporting their learning. This also tells them that they are not there YET – and that they have room to continue learning. Sometimes we have to give kids permission to not know things YET!

Practitioner: I can mostly do it myself, but I sometimes mess up or get stuck.

This is a proud moment for most of my students. That little 3 next to a problem or on a paper, tells them so much more than a traditional grade. This sends them the message that I get it that they’ve got it! This affirms their learning. This affirms their work. This is personal. Better than that, this motivates them to keep going, to keep learning. They ALL want to be….

Expert: I understand it well, and I could thoroughly teach it to someone else.

Isn’t this where we want our babies to be? You know that if they know it well enough to teach it – THEY KNOW IT!! That peer tutoring thing is for real! Please notice that there are TWO parts of this level: knowing and teaching.

How does this work?

My (totally awesome) co-teacher, Stephanie W.,  and I, use the following grading process. Feel free to modify it to fit your students, and what is happening in your classroom. We know that what we are doing is working for our kids – you may want to start with this, and then modify as you see what is working for you.

We give an assignment or quiz. We grade each problem with a 1, 2, 3, or 4. We add up all the grades and divide by the number of items. That gives us a number between 1 and 4. Many times that will generate a decimal, say 1.8 or 2.5, or even 3.8. Here is an important point: we DON’T ROUND UP! We DO EXPLAIN the process to our students. It is important for them to understand that this is not arbitrary. They must own the process for this to work. These conversations happen EVERY time we return an assignment. That’s a GOOD thing!

Our goal for our students is mastery, so unless the resulting average is an actual 2 for example, the child is still a NOVICE (1, 1.2, 1.8, 1.9 – doesn’t matter. They are still a 1). Same with 2 point anything – they are still a 2, same with 3 point whatever – still a 3. The ONLY exception is 3.8 and above. If the student has one or more 4+ answers, with clear justification statements, then, and only then, will we round up to a 4. See below for the PLUS explanation!

Our evaluation goes something like this:

a) Answer that is incorrect, No work shown, or No answer at all: give it a 1.

b) Answer with some work shown (they attempted a solution) but it is incorrect in major ways and answer is incorrect or incomplete; give it a 2 (remember they are still learning and need more help!)

c) Answer given is incorrect, but work is also shown. (OR answer is correct, but NO work shown to support the answer). Student did pretty good, but minor errors and/or mistakes caused the incorrect answer; give it a 3. This student is obviously getting it, but he/she is letting errors get in the way. Maybe they are lazy, maybe in a hurry. The 3 tells them that they are getting it – but they NEED TO BE MORE CAREFUL! (The 3 for NO work shown is to allow us to ensure students are not ‘borrowing’ answers from another student! We are giving them the benefit of the doubt until further notice.)

d) Answer and work is shown and is completely correct. This baby gets the 4!  The student can feel the glow of being an expert. But wait, there’s more! This only satisfies HALF of the description. What about the ‘teaching’ part?

Four “+”? What is Four Plus???

‘Four +’ is that special designation for the child who not only knows the material, but can prove to us that they are able to teach the material to another student. Time dictates that we don’t have the opportunity for EVERY student to demonstrate teaching ability (although we do try to build in those opportunities!). We have explained to our students that the way to demonstrate this ability is to justify the work they’ve shown, with brief written explanations.

Written Justification sets the student up for PROOFS in Geometry

Algebra I is a class of foundations. It is important to teach with an eye to the future courses our kids will encounter, and proofs are some of the most difficult lessons for students. One of the Algebra I standards is to be able to justify the steps taken to solve simple one step equations. This is an important step to understanding that there is a mathematical reason for being ABLE to take that step – and not just because the teacher said so! By building this into the idea of EXPERT, we are modeling the concept that understanding – that is, the realization that there are solid REASONS for why math ‘works’ – is a valuable part of the learning process.

What WORDS do you use to tell a parent how their child is doing in your class?

I know this is just a brief overview of this process, but I wanted to share because I feel it is the first solid step in moving towards talking about GROWTH and LEARNING, instead of grades. I believe it is important that we take the focus off of grades, for students and parents. To do that, we, as teachers, have to stop using GRADES as the unit of measure in communicating with our students and parents. Unfortunately, our grading systems, and I’m talking the actual computer systems we have to use, are not set up to show mastery – they are set up to show GRADES!

I already changed my conversations, my wording, my language,  with my students. It will happen with my conversations with parents in my next phone call/email home, as well. Will YOU?

What’s the downside?

My school still uses a grading system built on averaging traditional grading numbers. That means I can’t just put in 1, 2, 3, 4, or 4+. I have to turn these numbers into a grade between 0 and 100 that will accurately translate and describe my students’ mastery of the curriculum.

My solution is two-fold. The grades in my gradebook are tied to one of the required standards, and each of the above levels is tied to a number that has already been given meaning by how it is used as a grade. While the first is fairly easy to accomplish, the second is based on how parents and students interpret grades. A 100, for example is the ideal. That sends the message that the student has mastery of the assignment, or the course. In fact, anything above 93, in my County school system, is an A, and as such, denotes pretty much the same thing as a 100. Same for a B, or a grade in the 80 range. Those two grades are obviously acceptable to most parents and students. The grade of C is a little more ambiguous. The C denotes that the student is somehow less than perfect, but still passing.  While a student may be GLAD to have a C – it does denote that the student is doing the work and IS mastering the concept – it doesn’t have the same cache’ as the A and B grades.

So how do I reconcile the grades with the numbers?

A novice receives a grade of 65. The Apprentice receives a 70. The Practitioner has earned an 80, and the Expert, a 90. The 4+ student will earn a 100, as long as all problems on the assignment or quiz show justification, evidence that they have not only mastered the concepts, but have gone above and beyond to be able to communicate their knowledge with others.

The final issue I will address here: What happens when a student makes no effort at all. Our students never do that, do they??? In that instance, the student has given us no information on which to base a grade. Effectively, they have NOT TURNED ANYTHING IN. The grade in the book becomes an NTI, and we are made aware that we need to step up our efforts with that student. An NTI is a zero, until the student completes an assignment on that material, and we can assess mastery. From there, the averaging work of the gradebook takes over, and the grade reflects the whole course mastery. Grades in this context are fluid, and can be changed by future mastery as evidenced by quizzes or testing situations.

The system is not perfect, but the teachers with whom this is working believe that we have created a system that truly tells us where our kids are with the curriculum, and allows us to modify our teaching darn near immediately, so that we can address the areas in which they need further help – which is the actual point of all this grading, isn’t it?

Here is the poster we use in our classroom to explain the levels. Our students get their own mini copy for their notebooks. We utilize a small chart of “I can” statements for each unit – no more than 3 – 5 statements – that allow the students to chart their progress. Here is the chart for our Unit 1 standards. The kids get this, too. You can use any “I can” statements you need for your particular units.

At the beginning of each unit, the STUDENTS determine their pre-assess level, the quizzes give them the mid-assess levels, and then the unit tests are the post-assess level. The students keep track of these themselves. We incorporate a running conversation DAILY of what their goals are, where they think they are with these goals, and how they are going to get to the 3 and 4 levels. I have personally found this is a great way to have the students tell me where they are at the end of instructional and practice periods throughout class. I simply ask them where they think they are – 1, 2, 3 or 4. The majority of students are incredibly honest, because we are all speaking the same language. The ability to quickly assess and modify my teaching is been made incredibly easy! Grading has become a process of assessing growth, not despairing over what they don’t know. I LOOK FORWARD to grading the work, knowing most of my students WANT to have a conversation about where they are, and what they need to do to get to the next level. Let me know if you would like the rest of the “I can” levels we are using with this course. I’ll be glad to share!

# As teachers, we have authority…

As teachers, we have the authority to hold our students accountable for their learning. We do these children no favors by feeding them the answers or rewarding them for less than stellar work.

As someone with authority, we are charged also to show our students how to take on that authority in their own life and toward their own learning. Giving students choice and voice is part of that transference of authority. But:

Only those with authority can convey authority to others.

We must first model that which we wish to convey.

How do you handle your authority? Do you give it away by allowing students to misbehave? Do you hold students accountable for missed work? For making up the work missed when they are absent? Do you hold them responsible for deadlines?

Children know instinctively who is in charge. They see our weaknesses and exploit them. They respect authority– well used, not that which is authoritarian!

Over time, after days and days of class and expectation, they will begin to reflect that which you give them. You may not see it, but others will.

My son was always rebelling against my authority, at home. But when speaking with others, I was told of his joy, his politeness, his willingness to help other adults and friends with the chores he did not willingly do at home.

Model authority. Pass this torch onto your students by expecting them to respect your authority, and you will help the next generation to understand what it means, and how to take up its mantle responsibly.

I know that giving students choices in learning works precisely because we are passing on authority!

# A Lesson in Co-planning (or just planning!)

Let’s bake a cake. You start.
What kind of a cake are we making today? A chocolate cake? Good! I love chocolate!

We need a recipe.

How can we possibly choose! Which recipe will make the cake that we need? Which ones have the ingredients and flavorings we want to use? Which recipe is simple enough for our skill level?) I don’t know about you, but I am not ready for chocolate angel food!) Have any of us ever baked a cake before – any cake?

Is there a recipe that will push us and our students a little beyond what we already know; what we are comfortable with? And let them build on previous knowledge?

Do we set all of the ingredients out for them, or do we let them go to the cabinet and explore what is there to use? Do they have to follow the recipe exactly? Do we hover as they measure, or do we let them experience the trial and error that can be found in cake baking (or math sense making, or working as a group to design, build, or solve a problem together)? Will we need to premeasure for some students, but not for others? Do we know who will need more guidance than others? Or who will need the ingredients for a flourless cake because of food allergies? To pull this off, we will need to settle on a recipe, or two, or three (or maybe let our students find the recipes that they are most interested in).

Decide together how you will each handle supporting each step in the process.

The key word is together. I am a co-teacher with three wonderful, brilliant teachers. Who have already planned their lessons for the current unit. Without me.

I have to go find them to ask about the lessons, and ask about my role in the class, usually the day before, or morning of, the class. I don’t see the materials without asking for them. By not including me in the materials selection and planning process, they have created double work for themselves.  This is not how co-teaching becomes its effective best. It also shortchanges the very students it has been created to help.

A co-taught class is a regular education class with students who need extra support in class.

A co-taught class is a regular education class with special education students – who need extra support in class. In this environment, students with special needs have the opportunity to interact with other students in what is called a “least restrictive environment” or LRE. The key to making the LRE work is having two fully certified teachers, one of whom knows what needs to be done to help the students who need their lessons delivered with a little more support.

When one person handles ALL the planning, no provision will be made for the alternative forms of presentation/activities that may be needed to support ALL students in the class with opportunities to learn.

I don’t think this getting left out is being done on purpose.

Each of us has our own teaching style. We may plan our lessons informally, away from school, over the weekend, perhaps. Some teachers plan obsessively (in a good way-getting copies made ahead of time, or planning from the test backward – all excellent strategies). Letting someone else in on the process may feel like leaving oneself open to criticism.

Sticking with the baking analogy, some of us always make a chocolate cake. It’s the cake that everybody eats. It always has chocolate frosting. Everybody gets it, even if not everybody can eat chocolate. And there’s the rub. Regular Ed teachers are not aware of different needs/ limitations/ legal issues of special education. There is a misconception that the way they teach their lessons will work just fine (perhaps they have been successful in this way, and have test scores to prove it) for any student. And if the student isn’t “getting it” the fault is the student’s behavior, or that the student needs to listen more closely or take better notes.

Along comes the special education student.

This is a child who is perfectly capable, mentally, of keeping up with, or even surpassing the other students in the class, except for one thing – they need more processing time, or they don’t compute numbers the way others do, or they have problems focusing, or they learn by doing, instead of hearing, or they need larger print, or they don’t write fast (for notes – so they need pre-printed materials). Because of these reasons, or others like them, this child has been placed in a room with two teachers: the general Ed teacher and Me.

Here’s where I come in. I know the best ways to help these students learn, to get past whatever wall is causing them to need these extra services. I can build these supports into a lesson. I can make sure that there are activities to support these needs, but they have to be designed into the lessons during planning – with both of us buying in to what is going to be done in the classroom.

It does no good for me to walk into the room on the day the lesson is delivered and find out Marie (not her real name) can’t read the lesson worksheet because the teacher has printed multiple copies on a page to save paper and the print is so tiny we can’t tell whether that’s a division sign or a plus sign without checking what the answer is supposed to be! I will have no file on hand with which to print her a larger copy, because I was not involved or copied in on the materials for the class. The larger copy, by the way, is required for her by law, because it has been written into her individual education program document, or IEP. The reg Ed teacher should know this because she has a copy of the accommodations. I would have said something while the copies were being planned- and we would have been prepared.

The regular Ed teacher needs my knowledge for her classroom to be successful. She (or he) needs me to ensure each child is getting information about the lesson in the most optimal way. When a co-teacher is left out of the planning, the unfunny thing is that all children in the classroom suffer, because multiple learning styles are not being represented. All children benefit when lessons are learned in multiple formats. Not everybody likes chocolate cake every day, all the time.

Another benefit of the co-teacher model is that the reg Ed teacher isn’t carrying all the load, teaching the class, grading papers, and struggling with disruptive behaviors.

Is it hard to let another teacher in your space? A recent Education Week article on good co-teacher practices compared it to a marriage. I think it is more like two horses in harness. One cannot lead without tipping the wagon. We must pull together, in step, to get where we are going without upsetting the cargo. There is no room for personalities, and yet, we need to play to each other’s strengths.

Co-teaching takes communication.

Co-teaching requires a learning curve, and it requires both teachers putting all of the students in the room first. It requires letting go of pre-conceived notions about what special Ed students can and cannot do. These students are ours, not those are yours and these are mine. That diminishes our expectation that all students can learn the material. It causes us to view students who require support as being troublemakers. Did you know the statistics? The bottom line is that more special education students get written up for behavior problems in regular classrooms than other students! A well-run and executed team teaching plan can help, both in educating regular Ed teachers on what’s really going on when a student appears to be misbehaving AND reducing the amount of learning being interrupted for all the students in the class.

Co-taught classes often look and feel different than regular classes, for both teachers!

The reg Ed teacher has no experience of students that have a learning disability. For example, they have no knowledge of what teaching strategies are directly helpful for a student who is dyslexic (colored backgrounds for worksheets or PowerPoint displays reduce cognitive workload for these students, and do not negatively affect the regular students either – the different look is often welcomed by all). I have to make my co-teachers aware of the difficulties a child will face before we present the lesson. My responsibility is first the child, but also being a partner to my co-teacher: not withholding valuable information, or not impeding classroom discipline by making unnecessary exceptions, or undermining my partner’s authority.

Planning together allows the process of differentiation to happen without bringing undue attention to the disability.

This is a critical point: we cannot single out the special education student in these mixed classes. While privacy is the main issue, I believe we have a moral obligation to our children, as well. We are charged with creating a safe learning environment. Children do not learn when they are stressing over being or feeling “different.”

Planning together can go a long way towards eliminating stress – for students AND teachers. Like any good teaching strategy, the process takes work and practice! Cut your co-teacher some slack and treat him/her the way you would want them to treat you if you came into their classroom. Hey! That’s not a bad idea. Can we meet in my classroom tomorrow? I’ll need to get in some extra desks….