For those of you who have secretly been giving dirty looks to me, because you’ve been in school forever, and I’ve been on summer vacation forever: hey, I’d do the same. But lucky for me, those looks can stop, because we officially have started classes. Today. Of course we have tomorrow (Thursday) off because of Rosh Hashana. But then we have classes again on Friday.
I’d like to talk about how I introduced the new grading system in calculus. Basically, the answer is: I took a little from each of you. Not only in the development of the system, but how I talked about it. We had a meaningful back and forth a few times, where I asked them some key questions, and got them to reflect about the system.
Here’s the general setup – in words. I’ll include my slides at the end if you want to go through them.
Students come to the classroom, see the seating chart projected on the smartboard, and sit down. They have at their desks large index cards which they make a little “name tent” so I can learn their names. I talk with them as they arrive, and I get them in a boisterous and joking mood. I’m already in a giddy mood anyway, so this isn’t hard. I’ve taught a bunch of them before, and I know others from this thing or that.
Then we go into the course. I talk about historically the problems students have had with calculus — from all teachers I’ve talked with. The big thing separating kids from calculus is a giant mountain of ALGEBRAIC SKILLS. I talk to them about how we’ll work around this by doing algebra bootcamps for the first semester. (I’ve written about this before, I hope, right? I can’t seem to find it in the archives… hm…) I talk about how calculus is actually quite simple — just a few basic conceptual ideas — but the thing that bogs students down is not being super solid with the algebraic undergirdings. So we’ll just get the relevant algebraic skills out of the way beforehand so we can focus on the calculus in each unit.
I then polish off a few logistical things (e.g. no eating and drinking in the classroom, since it is a designated lab classroom), and then I intentionally lie to my kids.
Here’s where the magic comes in, I believe. I have to lie to my kids, for the new grading system to make sense. I had to raise their anxiety about the course, to mimic the anxiety they’ve had for all their other courses. I want to play on their emotions. It’s a little cruel, I know.
So I made up a fake grading system: 90% assessments, 10% homework. 3 tests per quarter, so each test is worth 30% of their final grade. I make it a point to tell everyone that there are no retests.
I talk about how “THIS IS CALCULUS” and “IT’S SERIOUS BUSINESS” and “IT’S HIGH STAKES.” I also talk about how I don’t want to make it high stakes because I’m a meanie, but rather, I feel obligated to get them prepared for college.
I actually am super convincing, if I do say so myself.
I really emphasize that this is a do or die class, but I do so with some humor. They all laugh at the right places (see the slides below for full effect), but I can tell some of them are freaking out.
I tell them the date of their first assessment is in two weeks.
And then I ask for thoughts.
Then, when the pause is pregnant enough, when the tension is just about at its height, I say “JUST KIDDING.”
They don’t know what I mean, so I explain to them that everything I told them was a lie. I tell them that we’re not going to be grading that way, and that I just wanted to make a point — which they’ll see later. Then I asked Shawn Cornally’s question:
“What do you do if you bomb a small quiz?”
I also got some priceless, heart-breaking, answers, like Shawn did:
“Crumple it up and shove it in my bag, hoping to never see it again”
“Forget about it.”
Of course, I got some non-depressing answers too, like “Meet with the teacher” and “Go over the material again at home.” Some kids know what they think I want to hear — so these responses could be that. But I know some of these kids, and some genuinely have a lot of these learning skills down already — about being proactive and on top of their learning continuously.
So I talk about how them not learning material they missed hurts me, because I am a math lover, and I want them to know everything! And I want them to have the opportunities to learn things and be recognized for that.
Then I introduce the grading system. Pretty much how I outlined in the handout. I explained how it worked, I explained the wonders of it, I explained how it’s about them learning how to learn effectively, not just getting a zillion second chances.
I talk about my own concerns with it: the amount of work it’s going to be for me, the fact that I’ve never done it before. And then I get them to talk about their thoughts about the system. What they like about it. That goes easily. We also talk about the meaning of grades.
Then I ask them: what might make this system hard for you.
They come up with some great things: retention, grades going down, no classroom engagement grade to “buffer” their grades, etc.
I then introduce the idea of how their quarter grade is calculated: it’s all skills. And how homework isn’t included in their grades (though it is required). I ask them again: what difficulties or situations do you think might arise with this?
They again are really thoughtful and realistic in their responses: all variations on “I might not do homework.”
I then pace around the room, saying histrionically “I’ve told you my big concern for me — the work involved. Now I’m going to tell you my concern for you…” I lay out a story about it being 10 or 11 at night, and they have two or three unfinished assignments. They decide to forego the homework in calculus because “well, Mr. Shah might give me a disappointed look, but he isn’t grading me on homework.” And how there is a chain effect, with how things can quickly build up. Procrastinators beware. And how I’m here to help, but “WITH GREAT FREEDOM COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.” Yadda yadda yadda.
Three comments, of quite a few, that were said by students that stood out for me, were:
“Mr. Shah, I want you to know: this is the best first day presentation yet!”
“Wow, this just makes so much sense.”
“Did you come up with this idea on your own?” (No.) “Where the heck did you find this thing?” [I said on math teacher blogs. I saw some snickering.]
Then I pretty much dove into, verbatim, David Cox’s spiel about knowledge, community, and sharing. I even stole the pictures. And this quotation from his blog:
I love my kids, but I also love the fact that I think this form of grading makes sense to them, philosophically and emotionally. I don’t know what will happen as this gets implemented. But I suspect I have gotten the buy in because of this first day presentation.
Full presentation here: