Teachers are thieves. We talk with other teachers and steal what is working in their classrooms for our own. It’s a celebrated part of the culture and one of the reasons that I became a teacher. It’s important as teachers to collaborate with others and to hone our craft by using and adapting things that are proven to work.
What I’m writing about today is one of these stolen ideas.
Three years ago when I was just starting to put together a plan for standards based grading, I was talking to a colleague about my frustrations with students “taking assignments off,” or intentionally skipping assignments because they had enough points already accumulated to get the grade they wanted. This wonderful teacher told me that she had had the same problem, so she had made some assignments in her class “unmissable.” For her major projects, she told her students that they would fail her class if they didn’t do them because they were so important for their learning.
I really liked this idea, so I tried it with my sophomore English class who was getting ready to write a paper. I told them that they couldn’t miss it, or they wouldn’t pass the class. They groaned and complained, but I told them it wasn’t a negotiation (because I had to be tough like that, right?).
What happened is that my students that didn’t want to do the assignment, didn’t really do it, but they turned something in that was hastily and poorly done. None of them came close to the prescribed parameters of the assignment. I had told them to write a 750-word essay about the novel Tree Girl, and many of my didn’t-want-to-do-it-in-the-first-place students wrote fewer than 250 words only loosely related to the novel that they obviously hadn’t read.
I was massively frustrated.
I want back to my dear friend who had suggested the “unmissable” assignment and shared what had happened. She explained that I had missed a step: the must have. What I needed to do, she explained, was to make the parameters of the assignment unmissable as well. She told me to think of what constituted “complete” with regards to the assignment and write that as a list of “must haves” that the students need to complete before the assignment will count as complete.
My mind was blown by the simplicity of this concept and by its potential to increase student achievement by making project completion the goal, not “well some points are better than none.” At that point, I created a simple assignment template that I have used ever since and that has become a key in my standards based grading toolkit.
So, in my class, not only are all assignments required to be completed, but they are also required to be completed at a minimum level of completion that can give me meaningful data about how that student is performing on standards in my class. It has been such a powerful revelation to my students, who now can’t take the lazy way out. Once that option is removed, many students rise to the challenge and produce high quality, thoughtful work that showcases their learning, not their ability to game the system for the grade they want.