Sometimes, I think teachers must be those people who thrive on stress. There should be some official category for this in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. How else do you explain the existence of an estimated 3.2 million teachers who stand in front of classrooms with coffee in hand, a plan, and a smile? Maybe it’s hitting me harder this year because I am lacking the conference period and I find it a struggle to keep smiling for six periods and then once the last student leaves, find time to do THE REST OF MY JOB. Admittedly, unless a child is proving to be a behavior problem in class, parents are generally not high on my list of must-dos for the day. However, as a special education teacher, I know that the parents are critical in the success of my students. Therefore, I have found the only way to keep parents involved is to PLAN for parent communication.
Schedule Email Time
The only way I will communicate with parents is to write it into my weekly plans. Even with this, I am only contacting parents about every six weeks, but in doing this, I open the door so that parents know they can also contact me. My plan is fairly simple:
Every week, focus on one class
Email the parents of any student receiving a D or lower
Send out POSITIVE emails
Use canned responses
At first, I debated about whether or not this was worth sharing on a public forum. But if I were to tell the truth, my first years as a teacher involved very little parent input. Perhaps most teachers find parent communication a natural part of the profession–however, I struggled with this responsibility for years.
Canned Email Responses
This year, my school enabled Gmail and canned responses is an amazing option that saves me time each week. Before this, I simply had canned responses saved in Docs and I cut-and-paste my responses fairly quickly.
Enabling Canned Responses in Gmail
Creating a Canned Response
In following this simple plan, I have increased parent engagement throughout the past year and I’ve been able to utilize an enormous resource (parents) for my students.
“The professor never explained that was how she wanted the assignment done; therefore, we all got low grades. I wish she’d just tell us what she wants.”
I’ve heard collegues voice this complaint too many times to count. These are adult, graduate students attending universities from Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, California State University, Northridge, amongst others. The gap between what the professor expects in her mind, and what she receives from graduate-level, or shall we say professional learners, is reflected in the grades. Does the grade reflect my colleagues’ understandings and capabilities? Of course not. Should they be afforded the chance to redo the assignment to meet the unexplained criteria of the professor? Should they have to redo the work?
My answer to that question is with my own question: Do you allow your high school students the chance to redo assignments and assessments in your classes?
High school students experience the same frustrations after receiving a low grade for their work, and they are still developing the critical thinking skills required to articulate statements beyond, “The teacher sucks. . .the class is stupid anyway. . .or, next time I just won’t do the assignment.” Without the support of an involved parent, students often defend themselves by becoming angry at the class or the teacher and eventually completely shut down and stop attempting to do the classwork. The problem with the typical grading systems have long been discussed by teachers, and I wrote a lengthy blog post about the issue in Part One.
Feedback vs. Grading
As most assignments are practice for what will eventually be on a summative assessment, then it follows that most assignments are at least partially, formative assessments. The purpose of formative assessments is to guide the teacher in planning which lessons the students still need in order to achieve the learning outcomes on the final assessment. Obviously, nobody practices perfectly. Teacher feedback should then be followed by student reflection. In this moment, the teacher helps students build their critical thinking skills in analyzing the space between what they turned in and what skills they still need to learn to gain mastery of a learning objective. Equally, this is a moment for the student to voice why s/he completed an assignment in a particular format and also point to places where s/he disagrees with teacher feedback.
Student Input on Grades
While I’ve heard amazing educators speak about how their schools are gradeless, I think many of us work in schools or districts where this would not be possible (at least not in the foreseeable future). Therefore, I’m attempting to find ways to work within the grading system so that I may better serve students who struggle to achieve learning – without them becoming frustrated by the grading parameters. What if part of the reflective process incorporated students assigning their own grade on larger projects and essays and then providing justification for the grade? Whenever there is a huge discrepancy in the student’s self-grade and what the teacher believes the grade should be, this would require a personal conversation where the student and teacher get to explain their thought process and ask each other questions.
I am guilty of every possible grading mistake a teacher can possibly make in their career! During last semester, I particularly focused on how day-to-day assignments are graded and what specific impact that has on the student. In the upcoming school year, I will experiment with incorporating student input into the grades and teaching the critical skills necessary to be self-reflective learners.
I am super curious to hear how other teachers struggle with the grading system and how they are addressing the issues in their classrooms.
Last year, a student emailed me during the final week of school:
Dear Mrs. Lee,
I see you’ve given me a D. I want you to know I really tried in your class. I think I deserve a better grade than a D. If you don’t, well then I guess I don’t.
I checked the grades and her point average, a 62%, clearly point to a D. I’ve done my job, right? She earned a D, she gets a D. But something doesn’t feel right about simply boiling everything down to a number in a grading app to represent a three-dimensional student. I do further research:
Reviewing her essays, she writes tons of interesting details about the text; however, there is not any structure, or any of the component parts of an essay.
Her attendance is near perfect
In her other classes, she has all Fails, and one D
The previous year, she had all Fails and one D.
I reflect on how many insightful comments and questions she asked throughout the year.
Is it possible that something is being overlooked? Is there a part of student performance and engagement in the classroom that can’t be captured by grades? As a teacher of students with special needs, I am almost numb to the amount of Ds and Fs my students receive from the collection of their classes. The lesson my student learned last year, as evidenced in the email, is the lesson I want all students to learn: self-advocacy. She definitely has a voice and a healthy perspective on her worth as a student.
There is a quote arguably attributed on the internet to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This same sentiment has been made into cartoon sketches, videos, and it is often used for Special Education professional development. Despite this focus in schools on Universal Design, alternative assessments, choices in expression of knowledge, many students in special education programs continue to have multiple Fails because they don’t measure up to the rubric, the standards, the points.
I haven’t figured out how to articulate this thought clearly, but I will attempt to get the gist of it here. If students can do something, they get an A or B or C. If they can’t do it, they are graded and punished for what they do not know how to do on demand, in a certain format, under specific time constraints. While discussing this at a table with colleagues, a teacher voiced her opposition:
Obviously this is not my position. However, for students that consistently earn Ds and Fs, the effort to show-up is immeasurable. MindShift published an article, “The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or for Worse,” that discusses the impact of ‘bad’ grades on students’ mental health. Additionally, one professor of neuroscience and psychology is quoted several times explaining that students assess their own knowledge of a subject based on the grade they receive, and also, students are emotionally attached to the grades, which can dictate if they like or dislike the subject. Therefore, if a student Fails a class, s/he will feel that s/he does not know anything pertaining to the topic, and the student will develop an aversion to the subject because s/he received a negative grade in the class. Considering I work with teens with special needs who often have difficulties acknowledging, naming, and expressing their emotions, it is difficult to comprehend how damaging receiving 3-4 Ds and Fs on every report card is to their general feelings about education and self-worth.
While the emotional needs of a student cannot be a basis for assigning a grade, it is equally inappropriate to state that students who receive Ds and Fs aren’t trying hard enough in class. My teaching philosophy is that every kid wants to learn. There are multiple reasons why it can appear to a teacher that a student isn’t ‘trying hard enough.’ When a student struggles to understand a concept or subject, often, the student doesn’t understand how to ‘try.’ Sometimes teachers say, “All I want is for him to try,”-and when he attempts to–the result is the same D or F as he earned before this assignment.
At my table of colleagues, I told the story of a student who joined my English class in the middle of the year. He’s an 11th grader who has never attended a school for more than 10-20 days in a row. Many grade levels he did not even experience. He tells me about helping his grandmother set out products on the street in downtown LA to sell at 4 in the morning. The first writing assignment he completed in my class consisted of one sentence. Each assignment afterwards, I had someone helping him, even if it was an assessment–so that he could learn how to write a formal response to a text. We just completed a comparison essay on The Crucible and “Half-Hanged Mary” and he wrote the entire paper by himself. He wrote three full paragraphs that showed his position and used evidence from the two texts to support his position. I was thrilled beyond belief for his accomplishment; however, if I graded him on a rubric, he would receive a D or an F. He did not have any of the three components of an introduction paragraph, he did not write using transitions, and he did not have an in-depth analysis of each text. Despite this, while reading his paper, I felt like I was on a bicycle for the first time, riding without my hands, with a cool breeze guiding me to the next destination–and I know he had to have a similar feeling about his work and effort.
In the planning stages, I thought I could get all of my ideas in to one blog post. However, after writing everything, I will add a part two to discuss how I plan to approach grading for the next school year.
Snippets of conversations I’ve had, in person and digitally, with students over the past seven days:
“Mrs. Lee, can I turn in my classwork handwritten because I’ve been sleeping in my car and I don’t have internet access.”
A comment on Google Classroom over the weekend:
A senior dropping out of high school with only three weeks remaining, “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do because I have no motivation.”
The Call for Help
While working as a teacher in the Special Education department is extremely rewarding, it can alternately be devastating and depressing. There are nights that I can’t sleep because I’m worried for my students. Not the typical English teacher concerns: Johny-Didn’t-Turn-In-His-Homework, but will my students have a safe, healthy and happy life?
A friend of mine recently blogged about sexual assaults on female students called “But Did We Teach Them to Self Advocate?” This provides me with two reminders. First, every teacher in every classroom USA deals with student tragedy. Secondly, many of my students, even at the high school level, cannot self-advocate. In fact, more than half of the IEPs I’ve read in my lifetime in this profession have some sort of goal related to self-advocacy.
Two weeks ago, a student with autism came to school early to talk to me about an argument he had with his mom. The student said, “She said I’d go to Hell if I don’t get over my anger.” This is an example of an 11th grade student with autism, who is struggling to pass English, Geometry, US History, etc., who is simultaneously walking around the school maintaining the belief that he can go to Hell which, in his mind, is probably a fiery pit full of of demons. While this example is not comparable to the student who sleeps in a car, this belief is debilitating for him and he is unable to emotionally handle this situation.
How to Respond
Over the years, I have learned that there are two basic, but vital steps involved in helping students who are in trouble. If you do both of these steps, you will help the student, and sometimes be able to sleep at night.
The first step is to truly hear the specific student when s/he is revealing a problem to you. For most kids, if they reported a family member said they might go to hell, I would acknowledge their emotional resilience and know this was not a true crisis. For a student with autism, when words are taken literally, and when the student repeats the words over and over, this can cause a breakdown.
The most important part of this step is just that –listen and hear the student in front of you. Oftentimes, we want to give advice and suggestions. Don’t. You are not an expert in handling student crisis, nor the student’s parent.
Connect the Student with an Expert
You have to know who the experts at your school are, so that you can connect the student with qualified assistance. Does your school have DIS counseling? Does your school have a social worker, or someone who can connect the student with a social worker? All too often, we as teachers don’t know about a program or contact at our school until a situation arises and we need to find out that information. If you are not sure what to do or whom to contact, speak to other teachers; speak to a special education teacher because we have resources and contacts on speed dial; speak to your supervisor. Investigate what programs and contacts your school has available to you and your students.
At the same time, each school has what I call ‘hidden’ resources- the person in the attendance office who collects backpacks and clothes for kids who need them, the person in the nurse’s office who collects funds to buy food for families going through a rough patch, etc. We are so lucky to work in schools where there are always an abundance of caring people who help out in ways we sometimes never know about until we need to know.
I love working as a Special Education teacher because I work to develop relationships of trust with students. Due to this, many students will come and share their problems. While I can’t solve their problems, or make them go away, I can always listen and connect them with someone that can truly help them. By doing this, most nights anyway, I can go to sleep.
Believe it or not, I once had an administrator say that SDC teachers should focus 80% of their energy on being a case manager and 20% of their time on being a content teacher. If you’ve ever stood in front of a high school English class and said, “Today you’ll be rewriting scenes from Hamlet in a different dialect,” then you are fully aware of the enthusiasm, preparation, and humor that you need to bring each day. In all honesty, the statement did make me realize a new goal: As a case carrier, I should spend 20% of my energy on my caseload kiddos.
Finding the balance between creating amazing content and experiences for my students, providing meaningful, timely feedback AND managing IEPs with due diligence is an SDC teacher’s constant tug-of-war with the next-to-impossible. However, over the last four years, I’ve used Google Forms to help me gain some traction in the field of IEP feedback from other teachers. It’s always been a struggle to get the specific feedback I need for my students from general education teachers. I’m always amazed at the amount of work Gen Ed teachers have on their plates; how do they do it? By creating a Google form for IEP feedback, the Gen Ed teacher can answer your specific questions via a drop-down menu and both of your lives will be easier!Continue reading Google Forms: A Dream Tool For Case Carriers→
Defining, embracing, and sharing SDC culture for high school teachers.