This is the third of five blog posts I ended up writing when I was reviewing the exam wrappers from our first Module Assessment of this school year. For more details, please see the blog post on Partnering with Students for background information if interested.
The Power of Exam Wrappers: Part Three
Calling Students Out on Their Choices
The Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning ask us to challenge students to “Optimize individual choice and autonomy” (7.1). They also tell us to “Increase mastery-oriented feedback” (8.4) and to help students “Develop self-assessment and reflection” (9.3). This is quite the challenge, especially since it all needs to be done in a way that maneuvers through the twelve-year-old hormone-laced reality where half a side-ways look from a teacher can send a child home in tears, intended or otherwise. With that said, sometimes, reading the feedback on the Wrappers gives me an opportunity to be explicit with students about the ways in which their choices brought them to a place where they don’t like the results.
Going over these sorts of responses on Wrappers is where I lean heavily on the data. On the one hand, it protects me. At the same time, it gives both students and teacher some emotional distance from the feedback, which allows all parties to better hear and process it.
For example, I had two students in one class, who sit together and work together, write the same thing on their Wrappers, basically that I needed to run more small groups. Okay. I pulled out my data sheets and noticed that these two students had not come to any of the optional groups, neither in the middle of the module nor on the day before the Module Assessment, although they had attended all required groups where I give the same small group instruction to all students. So, I called the two girls together to talk to me, showed them the Wrappers, and also showed them my data sheets, highlighting their absence during the opportunities they had had to get teacher feedback. I’m sure they were uncomfortable, but this was also a learning opportunity to connect choices to outcome:
- You chose not to come to optional groups.
- You chose not to write any questions on the board.
- You chose not to use the answer key to determine where you were confused.
These were your choices.
When I talked this through with the two girls, one of them explained that she didn’t feel like she had questions or needed to come more often, but that she wished we did more than one or two short sample problems in small-group instruction. That was very helpful for me and that’s something I can take action on. Moving forward, I asked the girls, after they come to small-group instruction, to write on the board for me to do another problem from that Lesson, preferably that same day. With the loss of 9 minutes per class (a full class each week), we teachers are struggling with how to get through the material without the routines we used to have. I explained that to the two girls and asked them to try this out as a compromise, as a way for them to let me know that they need more time with me but without me running out of time for all students to have small-group instruction on the same day. So far, they haven’t followed through on their end, but we’ll see if that changes; if nothing else, we at least have a plan for how they can get more of what they need (more small group instruction) and I can get what I need (getting all students through required groups).
Holding Students to the Truth
Last year, I often didn’t do a great job of requiring my Extended (above grade-level) students to attend group with me. One of my personal goals for the 2019-2020 school year was to make sure that I established the expectation from the start that all students, Extended or Standard, need to ask questions and attend small group instruction. Imagine, then, my shock to read this on a Wrapper:
What? When did this happen??? Before I met with the student who wrote this, I went back through my data sheets (his is the top row of the data):
I noticed that he had been with me for direct (small-group) instruction every time it was required and on all the major topics of the Module. I also noticed that he had NOT come to the one optional group and, on the review day, only came with one question. I shared all of this data with the student when I asked him what his comment meant. As I went through the data, asking him to tell me when he had been told to “learn from a video” rather than from direct instruction from me, he eventually said that he “thought it probably hadn’t happened.” I didn’t “yell” at him, but I did let him know that I read every Wrapper and take them seriously. As I pointed out him, saying that I had told him to learn from a video is basically the same as refusing to do my job, so it felt like a pretty serious accusation to me as the teacher.
There were some take-aways from this conversation for me. One is a reminder of how easy it is for us, all of us, to attempt to deflect responsibility to others; I see it in many adults and I know it’s an automatic default of mine as well. The same week I was reading these Wrappers, another teacher told me about how she had to talk with a student who said she was “struggling” but who was then observed sitting in the same class chatting rather than engaging with the class material. Do you think there might be a connection?
If we don’t ask students to speak the truth and to learn to sit with the discomfort of the truth of a poor choice, they grow into adults who deflect responsibility over and over and over again. This serves no one. It’s not that I sit and “yell” at students–the data speaks pretty clearly without me ever raising my voice. Instead of yelling, I like to follow up with questions to get at what might be the core of the issue, the actual issue (anxiety about taking a test, comfort with a former format, etc.), that allows us to then identify strategies for dealing with the true cause (i.e., I get stressed about the time, so I’m going to try using a light-up timer on the next assessment) rather than the exterior blame game (you never taught me). This is where what looks like just a job teaching numbers becomes a job about life realities and how to be your best self as an adult.