The School That Time Forgot

A strange artefact from the future arrived at my classroom door this week. Since technology is rarely seen in my district, I had to ask what it was. Answer: an LCD projector, a sort of super overhead projector that hooks up to the computer they put in last year. Potentially, I should say. First we have to find a cord long enough to stretch across the room to the computer.

That object has been plugged into the ‘drop’ on my east wall (a ‘drop’ is a sort of magic watering hole for computer thingies) since early 2010. So far it has proved good for little. It takes 15-20 minutes to get it up and running in the morning. (Sort of like my students.) Last year I took attendance on it, believing that somehow parents would figure out how to sign in and see that their child was tardy 57 times. The goal was for  us to post grades there as well.

This year, it doesn’t do attendance, grades, or much of anything. Useful websites like Google docs and Quia are blocked, but students always seem to be able to play games when we go to the lab. I mostly ignore it, since I am a MacSnob.

In addition to the unexpected technology, we received new textbooks this year. The English books are so huge that I cannot reasonably expect students to cart them around. In the real world, people carry Kindles, not books. I keep a class set of these weighty tomes, thinking that when it’s winter and my room is 55 degrees, we can build a sort of igloo out of them and stay warm.

Meanwhile, we can all try to electrocute ourselves with the exposed outlets in my room. I spoke to the custodian, who told me that he had ordered more outlet covers, but there was some sort of problem so he didn’t know when they would be in. Maybe our outlets are all so old that they have to go to hunting through the antique mall for covers.

My outlet cover has been broken for four years. I taped it over after boys started sticking paper clips into it just to feel the current running through their bodies. I didn’t notice what they were up to until they all started holding hands, trying to see how far the current would reach. I am not a scientist, but I know that paperclips don’t belong in sockets and that boys shouldn’t hold hands.

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De-Grading, part 5: Gordian Knot

I have had a lot of “A-ha” moments in my teaching career, when I suddenly realized what was wrong and how it could be fixed:

I remember my son’s sixth grade science teacher telling me that he had a D in her class, even though he was getting A’s and B’s on the tests, because he hadn’t handed in some homework.

I recall a teacher who took off points for every spelling, punctuation or grammar error, with the result that some students got negative points for papers they handed in.

I once had a conversation with a math teacher who graded student homework for correctness, even though homework is practice, not assessment. He didn’t understand why his students stopped trying.

    All of these things have shaped me into the teacher I am now.

    • Grading should be about learning, not effort.
    • Grades should not be a punishment or a reward.

    In an ideal classroom with ideal students, these principles work.

    In my room, tomorrow morning, the one hundred and twenty sleep-deprived, text-addicted students who sit before me already have many ideas about school, learning, and grades. More

    no words

    On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m., I was giving a test to my Latin 2 class. I was teaching at a college preparatory magnet school then. My students were quiet, bending over their papers, trying to translate the story I had given them.

    Shortly before nine o’clock, another teacher came to my door and told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At that moment, none of us was thinking of terrorists. It was just a terrible accident.

    About ten minutes later, the same teacher returned to tell me that a second plane had hit the other tower. My mind could not wrap itself around this information. I returned to monitoring my class, but my face must have given away my confusion, because a student asked me if I was upset. I don’t remember what I answered.

    By the time they had finished their test, another plane had hit the Pentagon. As my students handed in their exams, I pulled the television out of the closet and asked a couple of students to help me get it tuned to a news station. Once we were able to see the towers burning, no one could take their eyes off of the scene in Manhattan. We watched the first tower collapse, and I thought, “How can this happen?” I remembered the World Trade Center being built when I was growing up outside of the city. They were twin Atlases, supposedly indestructible, holding up the sky over New York.

    My husband called me. He was on the road, as he frequently is, and was phoning from a motel along I-70. He said that he had gotten in the shower, thinking that the scene on television was a movie, but when he got out and began getting dressed, he realized that it was real. He needed to call, More

    De-Grading, part 4: Curving Grades

    “Curving” grades is supposed to be a no-no, but many of us have ways to adjust grades, particularly on tests. Because teachers have many things to do, we often choose the simplest method of adjusting grades, even though (if we had time to think about it) it isn’t the fairest or most logical method.

    Here are some examples:

    Watch for Hidden Curves

    Scenario: I give a test to my class. When I start grading, I realize that the test was much harder than I intended. The class average works out to 48%, the high score 88%.

    I don’t want this one test to skew their grades for the quarter. Some teachers would call the high score an A and raise the rest by the same number of points. Not exactly a curve, but it’s a common way to adjust scores. To make a true curve, I’d have to make 48 a C and spread the rest of the scores above and below with most of the scores in the middle range.

    But I’m opposed to curving grades, so I decide that instead I’ll make the next test much easier, and the scores will all even out. That way, nobody’s grade will be hurt by the one ‘bad’ test. The next test is much easier; the average is 88%, the low score 74.

    But my decision has the opposite effect from my intention. The ‘bad’ test ends up being the determining factor for every student’s grade. Using a curve would have been fairer.

    Ninety percent of what?

    Why is 90% an A, anyway? Where does the idea that a certain percentage is ‘passing’ come from, while one percentage point lower is ‘failing’? Does this reflect some innate organization in the human mind? Obviously not.

    Grading practices in other countries vary, but few use a rigid percentage scale. American teachers are obsessed with percentages, though. More

    De-Grading, Part 3: Zero

    Less than Zero

    I weigh myself every day so I can catch myself if I gain a pound or two. Here are my numbers for the week: 120, 121, 120, 0, 119, 0, 120. My average weight over seven days is 85.71 pounds.

    Zero? How did I manage to weigh in at zero pounds on Wednesday and Friday? Well, I forgot to weigh myself on those days. No number = Zero. Right?

    Giving kids a zero for missing assignments makes about as much sense. Teachers argue that if kids don’t do the work, they should get no points, which makes sense if you’re talking about money. Assuming I have no sick days left, if I don’t go to work for 2 days, I get zero dollars for those days. That’s fair.

    But grades are supposed to represent skills and knowledge, not work. A student who averages 45% because he didn’t hand in a couple assignments and forgot to make up the quiz might actually know a lot. He might have A’s on all the quizzes he took, and handed in all but those two assignments. His grade doesn’t reflect what he knows. It reflects his poor organizational skills or forgetfulness.

    Say I’m giving a quiz. Ralph hasn’t been keeping up with the class; he’s missed a lot of days and hasn’t mastered the material, but he’s filling in an answer for each question as well as he can. Renee is a B student, but is having a bad day. Her best friend has revealed her innermost secrets on Facebook and everybody at lunch made fun of her. She puts her head down and refuses to do the quiz. If I tell her to get her head off the desk, she will get up and walk out. Both students get an F: Ralph gets 59%, Renee gets 0%. If I average them as letter grades, both have a zero. If I average them as percentages, there is a 59% difference in their scores. What is fair? More

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