Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Assessing Fairly - Weighting Test Grades

One of the hardest aspects of teaching a course in the Humanities is grading, specifically essays and projects. No matter how many rubrics I create, there is still going to be some subjectivity.

Our school has been discussing weighting assessments based on a cumulative practice. Although the practice cannot cure issues of subjectivity, weighting as the semester progresses can make the final grade fairer. To be clear, this idea is not mine, however, I am currently implementing it.

In World Literature, there are only two tests during the semester and the final exam. The first test is worth 100 points, but the second test will be worth 150 points. Although the novels are different, the skills that I am assessing are the same. They have received repetitive instruction and practice, and thus their understanding should have increased since the beginning of the semester.

This is also true in ELL Ancient History. This course is geared for 9th graders or 10th and 11th graders who are completely new to studying in English. In addition to the language deficit, the students have to adjust to high school and the expectations. Therefore, their first major assessment is only out of 50 points, then 75, 100, 150, and so on.

I am not increasing the points value so drastically for every course. For example, in Middle East History, the first test is worth 75 points and the rest are worth 100 points. The semester exam is worth 20 percent of the grade. I am not increasing the numerical value for each test, because the material and methods vary so much from chapter to chapter. and the students are in 12th grade  However, the first test is worth less because even though they are seniors, they still need to get used to my style of teaching and testing.

Grading will never be a perfect science. However, I am always looking for ways to improve how I assess to better reflect student learning and achievement.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Don't 'Tech' it for Granted.

I remember my seventh grade computer class consisted mostly of playing "The Oregon Trail."  I did learn a lot about dysentery and typhoid, but I didn't learn much about computers, per say. Fast forward almost two and a half decades when education has moved away from instructional computer courses. The assumption is that at least by high school a student's computer literacy surpasses most of his/her teachers. For teenagers who are especially adept, there are computer programming classes.

The investment has shifted from instruction to hardware. Every student should have an iPad! Every student should have a laptop! Great! You won't hear any arguments from me.

But what can happen when we focus on the hardware and not the kids is that we forget that not every student knows how to use the software or apps. While I'm not suggesting moving back to the days of mandatory computer classes, teachers must consider when assigning projects that some instruction is needed for many of the students in the classroom beyond asking kids to perform tasks that presumes skills that they don't have.

I know because I've done it myself. Once.

True, students can learn any program that you teach them 10 times faster than their teachers who were born in the 20th century, but  to be successful with the content, they still need our help with the technology.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Teaching Students Study Skills

When I completed my teaching certification in 2001 and was hired by a school to teach history, I was excited to try out all that I learned from the amazing professors at my university. However, what I found is that although many of their techniques and philosophies could be employed successfully in the classroom, some basic skills still needed to be taught in a rudimentary, perhaps old-fashioned manner.

One of the skills most lacking is how to prepare for a test. Many students simply do not know how to study, and while my role is to engage them in the material, I also embrace teaching student study skills that they can use across the curriculum. This is especially true teaching ELL students.

During the first semester of the course, I model different ways to prepare for quizzes and tests. Second semester, I ask them to choose among the models I've demonstrated and use the one that works for them.

One skills that students needed to be taught is how to use both their notes and class and textbook to study. Even with all of the technology we employ, including posting lessons and notes online, often times the students don't remember or bother to look at them. Or if we are using many different types of resources, they don't know how to organize them to prepare for a test.

Here are two techniques I have used thus far in ELL History.

The first is to create a chart and take the terms that the students learned from two sections and contextualize them (not just define) using their textbook and what we covered in class. The last column is a place for them to ask clarifying questions.

Using Google Docs, after they have completed most of the review sheet, I can then get them feedback as to what they are still missing. For example, if they didn't include anything about pyramids, I would write, "Remember the pyramid game that we played? What were the lessons that we learned from that?"

For the test that will be given next week, I've created a chart for them to fill out that compares empires.

In summary, while we can't learn the information for them, we can teach them how to study so that they can succeed to the best of their abilities.

Renee Zellweger and The Picture of Dorian Gray

“If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There's nothing in the world I wouldn't give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it.” Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray.

While reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, students can relate to many of the timeless themes of the novel, however, much instruction is still needed to contextualize the Victorian period so that students understand exactly from what the Aesthetics were rebelling.

However, nothing is more relevant to teenagers today than the notion of eternal youth, even though, if one was to believe Hollywood, which I don't, they are right now reaching the peak of their own beauty.

Today in class a student balked at the novel's premise, "Why does Dorian care so much about aging, anyways?"

Her question will lead us into our next class which will explore aging and beauty in contemporary society beginning with Renee Zellweger. Ironically, as I googled how to spell her name, there appeared an article comparing her to Dorian Gray that was recently published by Huffington Post. I can, however, stick by the originality of my lesson plan without fear of plagiarism because Zellweger is just an addendum to what I did last year.

The students will learn about plastic surgery, the costs associated, and how it's a growing practice for both men and women. Zellweger will be the hook, as I show students the Twitter feeds and ask them what they have heard about the controversy surrounding her "makeover." We will discuss why she felt the need to reconstruct her face, and if there is a double standard for men and women when it comes to aging and plastic surgery.

Then we will talk about other factors that accelerate aging. Dorian Gray's portrait ages due to his sins. However, why do others age? One answer is stress and we will look at a Washington Post feature on how President Obama has aged since he took office.

Class will end with them aging a portrait of themselves, at which time we will return to the question: "Why does Dorian care so much about aging, anyways?" The goal will be for them to answer not just from the text, but also from their own perspectives.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Not a Luddite, just a Pedagogical Pragmatist

I've always been a teacher to embrace technology. I was in the first masters class to earn an "online journalism" degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. At my first teaching job in 2001 at a small, private school, I was in charge of the school's technology. My most important role was helping other teachers use the tools available to them. I was the first teacher in my school to have a Smart Board and use it to its capacity. My students were publishing on blogs in 2006 and responding to prompts online and in instant messages. I am proficient on almost every educational program out there. In addition, if I'm not, give me a day with it, and I will be.

Last year, though, was my first time teaching in a total lap-top environment. I had concerns from the start. "How could students possibly pay attention with so many distractions?" The answers I received were that kids can multitask and that a laptop environment was just another factor in classroom management. 

So, I dove in. I told my students that they didn't need notebooks or paper: everything would be paperless. Awesome, they said. 

"Can we use the books online?"  

"Sure," I said. "You don't even need to check out a book if you'd prefer to use an e-text."

Every classroom activity contained a Google Doc, spreadsheet, Powerpoint, a Chat, a Forum, or a Tweet. So, especially if you are in my classroom now, you might wonder, what happened? 

The students were not learning. They were too distracted. They were constantly on Facebook, Youtube, you name it. We would argue about computer usage and attentiveness. The classroom became more of a battleground scene from a teenage household than a place of education. 

One might argue an effective teacher could have combatted these obstacles to allow for the use of technology in the classroom. Or, if a students want to be on Facebook, that is their problem. They won't learn the material and then earn a poor grade. 

When a students don't do well in a course, I don't look at it in terms of fault; I look at it in terms of, what can we do together so that they can achieve? One of the answers is to limit the use of software and internet to specific activities in which the goals are best achieved by technology. 

For example, this year students must use a notebook in class. Every day, I ask them to write the date and the material in which we will cove, so that they can refer to it when studying for their test and finals. Students use notecards instead of Quizzlet so that they are interacting with the words, not just reading them as they flash by on the screen.  Short homework assignments and quizzes are hand written. Students must use the actual novel to read and annotate. 

The use of the novel has been met the most resistance, especially when I ask them to find quotes to answer a specific question. "It would be so much easier to Control F."  I know it would be easier, but I want them to master the novel. By searching for quotes, they must reread parts which improves their overall comprehension.   

I've also been influenced by the growing literature that is uncovering how students learn, and when it comes to reading specifically, the computer screen, even without distractions, is not the optimal place to grow as readers. 

I have not rejected technology altogether. In fact, although I wouldn't say that I'm on the cutting edge, I am one of the first teachers to explore and implement a new technology when introduced.

But before we turn over our classrooms to the robots, remember the role of the teacher is not just to use technology, but to discern what is best for student learning. Sometimes the answer is pen and paper. 

Here are some of the articles that have influenced me on this topic:

Why a top new media professor banned tech use in class:wapo.st/1qKbj9d

Debate about use of computers in classroom ow.ly/xOVgA & nyti.ms/nZyDNn

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren't the same thing ow.ly/C93Qx

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Honoring the Notetaker

As much as we encourage our students to take notes during class, some students just will not, no matter how many times you suggest it.  I do believe that although we should never stop trying to teach study skills, in the end, there is value in honoring personal choice and emphasizing personal responsibility.

However, often times we are focused on what our students don't do and don't take the time to recognize those who are employing techniques in a productive manner. This is one of the reasons why, occasionally, I will publish a student's notes on Moodle and Tweet the publication.

I also do this to demonstrate "model" note taking to other students and emphasize the importance of a particular lesson.

There is also something more populist and authentic about reading your classmate's notes rather than the teacher's lesson plan.

I'm including two examples. One is from after they received the results from a test with an in-class essay. Click here to see how it looked after Tweeting it. The other is from studying the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray. There are some misspellings, but I didn't correct them, because I want students to see you don't need to write perfectly to take high quality notes.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Was Oscar Wilde Antisemitic?

In my high school AP English class we read Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale.  I read it expecting the teacher to discuss the clear antisemitism (a blood libel) detailed in the plot.

When I came to school the next day, my teacher never mentioned it in her lecture. When I approached her after class, she discouraged any further discussion.

"That's how it was back then," she said. "Do you think we shouldn't read it because of that. It is great literature."

It wasn't that I thought we shouldn't read it. However, it bothered me that she wouldn't challenge the validity of the blood libel and explain how it lead to pogroms and persecution throughout European history to my classmates who already carried some mild prejudice about Jewish people.

I dropped it, but addressed the issue on a test essay.


In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a character called Mr. Isaacs. Oscar Wilde portrays him in a classically antisemitic light. I researched the meaning of this character and found an article by American University at Beirut Professor Emeritus  Stephen S. Nassaar titled, "The Problem of the Jewish Manager in The Picture of Dorian Gray."

He states that it is unlikely that Oscar Wilde was antisemitic because his two more supportive friends, before, during, and after his trial were a Jewish couple and no other plays or writings include antisemitism. His theory is that Mr. Isaacs is a parody of a character in another novel:
The most prominent and towering example of the portrayal of the Jewish community in the final decades of the century was Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876). In Daniel Deronda she displayed a warmly sympathetic attitude towards the Jewish community and used it to criticise non-Jewish English society. Wilde disliked Eliot considerably. (Nassaar)
Nassaar explains that just like the entire novel is anti-Victorian, Mr. Isaacs is anti-Eliot. He does accuse Wilde of insensitivity, just not antisemitism. 

Whether or not they agreed with the theory, discussing it in class put the students at ease about the Jewish manager's portrayal. Not because the article exonerated Oscar Wilde on the charge of antisemitism, but rather the topic was important enough to spend 30 minutes talking about in class.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reading Quizzes after Every Reading

A teacher can tell pretty quickly who did and did not complete the assigned reading. However, bringing the issue to the forefront can invite a lot of negativity and conflict into the classroom, and in the end is not very productive. Also, confronting students when they haven't completed their homework  doesn't change the fact that they are not prepared to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion or activity that involves the text.

What is a teacher to do?

It is rare today to find a teacher who lectures for an entire class period. We have been trained in multiple intelligences, different learning styles, differentiation, and introversion vs. extroversion, and try to incorporate the needs of our students into every single lesson. In addition, those of us who work in schools with 85-minute-class periods know that any activity of that length is an exercise in futility. 

Yet, how can a teacher engage her students in an activity if they have never read the material? 

The answer will not surprise you, as it is the headline of this post. 

I give students reading quizzes every time I assign a reading. This practice has changed my classroom by both increasing  the pace and enthusiasm for the course. Students who didn't read before now do; the students who have always read no longer have to sit through a watered-down discussion. The quizzes aren't impossible or terribly hard. I don't expect that students have mastered the material on their own. However, to succeed, students must achieve a basic understanding of the text. 

Before you balk, please remember, the goal isn't to put undue pressure on teenagers by adding high stakes assessment. But like it or not, students are motivated by grades. Perhaps I can inspire them to develop a love of literature, but first they need to read it to fall in love. 

I must give credit to an article by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel that inspired me titled, "Tests Make Kids Smarter. Let's Give Them More."  While I don't agree with everything that he says, it did propel me in this direction.

Teaching Potentially Controversial Subjects in Literature

Teaching can be nerve wracking. We want our students to succeed, so we don't want to offend them; yet, we don't want to compromise the intellectual integrity of the subject matter and foster banal classrooms

Two of the courses I currently teach especially lend themselves to controversy: Middle East History and World Literature. For this blog post, I will just focus on my literature course, specifically the topics of Christianity and homosexuality.

I have found that many teacher companions to novels ignore Christian themes in novels. Whatever the reason, I disagree with this profoundly. As I teach my students, our identities shape who we are and thus what we write. If an author grew up in a home or a country and was raised with Christianity, it is likely that the influence will show up in his/her writing. Our hope as teachers is that students will leave our classroom and apply the lessons learned to their future endeavors. When students read other novels or are exposed to art and culture, they may need to understand Christian theology to extract meaning.

I will admit that my first attempt at this needed improvement, and I made those improvements and have been successful. For example, after reflecting and revision, my lesson on Christian themes now only applies to exactly what is covered in the novel. I limited the scope and also provided a slideshow presentation, so that what I presented was codified, with no room for misinterpretation. I also presented the lesson with and emphasis on intentionality. I explained exactly why I was teaching the material, asked for immediate feedback from students to see if I violated any sensitivities, and also asked them to limit their own questions to the beliefs, not the validity of the beliefs. (If anyone teaches Chronicle of A Death Foretold,  let me know, and I'll send you the slideshow.) Many of my students had no background in Christian theology and appreciated the lesson.

The second challenging topic is homosexuality. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, has homosexual themes. While I don't think it's necessary to dwell on that (just like I wouldn't dwell on the heterosexual nature of a character), it is important to raise the issue because adolescent speak can sometimes be unkind or derogatory. The classroom is a safe space for all learners, and therefore bringing this to the forefront before teaching the novel is critical to its success. I use the http://www.thinkb4youspeak.com/ commercials to cover this topic. The students like them and understand the message fairly quickly. It is also important because Oscar Wilde was jailed for because of his sexual orientation, and that conversation is also compelling to the students.

I'm curious to hear from other teachers. What other controversial subjects do you broach when teaching literature? How do you mitigate or even embrace the controversy? What is the tipping point when controversy just cannot be addressed, because it will cause too much public or personal strife and detract from student learning?

Student Self Evaluation

Our school is using "Leaders of their Own Learning" by Ron Berger for its professional development program. One concept the author promotes is student self evaluation. While I've always used rubrics as a self-evaluation tool, I've never had a student holistically evaluate themselves in terms of their overall performance in a course.

I decided to pilot this method with my 10th grade World Literature students in preparation for parent-teacher conferences. Students don't typically attend parent-teacher conferences, and I'm hoping it will allow their voices to be heard. In addition, it allows them to reflect (and practice their writing!)

This process take significant class time to be successful. I will have to analyze the costs and benefits of adding "something else" into the mix. I probably won't have those answers until the second set of parent-teacher conferences in March when I have students complete the process again.

Feel free to create your own based on my sample. Some of it is specific to my course, but much of it could be used or tweaked for any high school program.

Not Just Red Tape: Bureaucracy

As an adult, the word bureaucracy makes most people shudder with some painful memory of trying to accomplish a task that involves waiting in line and being transferred from department to department, filling out form after form, until your goal is accomplished or isn't, and you just give up.

Interestingly enough, bureaucracy does not typically have negative connotations for students, because lucky them, they've never had to encounter the dysfunction and inconvenience the word provokes in their parents and teachers.

However, even though the word doesn't bring up negative images, it also isn't necessary an obvious concept to students.

When studying Ancient Egypt, bureaucracy is introduced as a concept to explain how Pharaoh's ruled ancient Egypt.  I teach the concept in three parts:

1. Students interview someone they know about their experience in a bureaucracy.
2. Students embark on mission to obtain cookies for the class. They have to get signatures from all of the necessary administrators (viziers) and assistants (scribes) at the school, culminating in a trip to the cafeteria to get their cookies.
3. After reflecting on the activity, students have to think about their own personal interaction or potential interaction with a bureaucracy and report back to the class.

This lesson takes quite a bit of set up. I sent an email to all of staff that I needed to participate with the complete lesson plan. I followed up with a Google Calendar invitation and a reminder. Even so, one person wasn't available to sign the form, and the students almost didn't get their cookies.

They were pretty shocked when the Vizier of the Cafeteria said no, but it was a great tool for debriefing. We also talked about why the connotation int he textbook is positive, but often times it's viewed negatively.

"Well, Ms. Marcus," one student said. "If you are expecting cookies and don't get them, you aren't going to be happy."


Then I taught themperhaps not a historical lesson, but a useful one.

"If something doesn't work out, you should be persistent," I said.

 They plead their case again to the Vizier of the Cafeteria and in the end he gave them their cookies.

In case you were wondering, they were chocolate flavored. They disappeared before you could say the word....

Click here for the assignment. If you would like a copy of the lesson plan (I used it for a formal observation. It went very well!), email me (sharnamarcus at gmail) or on Twitter @mssmarcus.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Help Wanted in Mesopotamia

As I wrote in a previous post, connecting students to ancient history can be challenging. When first teaching about how city states and empires functioned comparatively to hunter gatherer communities in ancient civilizations, the notion of job specialization can be a tricky concept to teach, perhaps because it is too obvious in some ways.

However, job specialization is critical to understanding ancient history as the emphasis of pedagogy in the field has evolved to a more popular approach to studying ancient cultures, not emphasizing every battle but rather the evaluating the lives of the ordinary people who lived during the time period.

To accomplish this, I used a lesson plan from "The History of Our History" website produced by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.  Titled Jobs in Ancient Mesopotamia, I created a job application from a Microsoft Word template. Students applied for the positions in writing and presented to the class why they would be the best candidate.

One of the best parts of this lesson was increasing the students' vocabulary. Many of the job specializations featured words they had never heard before. For example, they had never heard the word "confectioner," although clearly they had all eaten candy at some point! As you can imagine, there was a lot of competition for this job.

This lesson was for my ELL class, and it worked really well. To increase the level for a standard or honors level course, I would introduce students to primary sources about the job specializations and ask them to compare them to current sources about those same jobs today.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Connecting with Early Humans

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching history is helping students connect to people who lived so long ago. This is acutely true of prehistory, when what we know comes only from archaeology and anthropology.

When teaching prehistory, I use a web site hosted by the Science Museum of Minnesota based on archaeological finds from Çatalhöyük. However, as I repeatedly emphasize with newer teachers and will reiterate on this blog over and over, most students cannot achieve learning outcomes by just browsing a web site or even reflecting on it. Also, given that the one of the goals of history is to build vocabulary, students need direction on how to scaffold the information.

Feel free to use this worksheet that I developed to help students make the most of the website.