Grading update

Quick post tonight, because my eyes are bugging me and my head is full of The Mandalorian but I don’t want to talk about it yet– I did, in the end, refuse to fail any of my students, at least for the semester. I decided any missing work would go in at 40% rather than a 0– 40% because it puts a little bit of a buffer between that and the 50% floor grade I’ve always used for work that was attempted but done poorly. After that, any student between 51 and 59% got bumped up to a D-, and then I did give the higher of the two quarter grades as a semester grade rather than an average. For most of my students that didn’t end up being much of a change; a B+ sliding up to an A- or maybe a D+ going to a C, but there were a few where it was a pretty staggering jump, and I don’t care. If you were an A student one grading period and an F student another grading period, it’s because something happened, not because you suddenly forgot how to add. That actually did happen with two students, and I gave both of them the A.

There were maybe twenty kids who still failed both quarters even with those changes, and those kids got an N, which is effectively a “no grade.” Basically every kid who did something over the course of the semester passed. I don’t know that I’m willing to go to quite these lengths to keep kids from failing in a non-pandemic sort of situation, but that’s the situation we’re in right now, so I’m going to adapt to it.

Thinking through my grades

My final grades for the quarter and for the semester are due … well, actually, I don’t have any idea when they’re due, but they’re going to be finished on Friday before noon. I’ve talked before about how much it rubs me wrong to fail any of my kids this quarter, and I’m currently thinking about what I want to do about my grades right now. Represented above are the actual current grades for my first hour students. The Q1 grade is what they actually received (you can see a couple, like Marge Simpson and Riri Williams, whose grades I nudged up a bit already) and the Q2 grade is their current grade with my current policies on grading– ie, nothing turned in and genuinely attempted receives less than a 50%, but work that is not turned in at all receives a 0.

(There are one or two kids whose grades go down slightly; this is an artifact of me doing this quick and sloppy and a couple of extra credit assignments causing weirdness. Ignore those.)

Ignore the third column of numbers, as it’s just their total number of points. The fourth column is their grade in the 2nd quarter if I change every zero to a 50%. The ones highlighted in yellow are the kids who would still fail the quarter under that arrangement. Highlighted in green are the kids whose grades would have been Fs for the 2nd quarter but move into passing range if I bring up zeroes to 50s. Homey DeClown should also be green; I missed him.

A couple of things stand out. First, note Bruce Wayne, who had a D+ during the first quarter and is pulling a hundred percent during the second quarter. Bruce has not suddenly become a good math student, and interestingly, Bruce’s sister’s grade also shot up. I am attributing this to issues at home during the first quarter. Notice also the grade of Montgomery Burns, who was a stellar student first quarter and who fell apart during second– also not, I presume, because all of his math ability suddenly leaked out of his ear.

I have no reason to believe that this class is any different from the rest of mine. We have been given the option of giving an N grade to kids who simply haven’t shown up; N effectively means No Grade. There is talk about high school students having to retake any grade they got an N on and it will not change a GPA. I am fully expecting them to back off on that requirement and I don’t actually know whether it applies to middle school.

At any rate, of the six kids who would still be failing: Flash Gordon has been in touch all year, and I am absolutely certain that the reason he’s not been in school is that he’s been raising his siblings. He’s passing. I should have passed him first quarter, honestly. Peter Parker, as far as I know (and I’m cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot I don’t know) is the kid you’re thinking of when you talk about the kids who don’t deserve the bump they’d get from me fiddling with their grades, because they made their beds and they should sleep in them. Last year he was a smart kid who chose to fail and frankly e-learning hasn’t noticeably changed his grades. The rest of them have more or less been no-shows and would be good candidates for the N grade.

Also, I’m not averaging semester grades. The semester grade is going to be the higher of the two quarter grades, period. I’m doing that even if I don’t end up bumping the zeroes to 50s. The office can fight me on it if they want to; I don’t think they will and frankly it’s a fight that I think I’m well-positioned to win.

In which I’ve done 1/3 of my job, maybe

I love the visual shorthand that has evolved for pictures of teachers; there are literally dozens of variants on this picture of a teacher rubbing her temples at a desk piled with books with vaguely math-looking chalk notes on an obsolete blackboard behind her.

I received some small amount of evidence today that I have, indeed, been teaching at least seventh grade math for the last, oh, five weeks or so; my kids had a test today on adding and subtracting positive and negative integers and they did, on the whole, a bit better than I thought they were going to. I apparently have not been teaching eighth grade math, which makes me wonder just what the hell I’ve been doing with my time four class periods out of every day for that same five weeks. My students certainly do not appear to have learned anything, or at least they have not learned anything about classifying numbers, which is what I’ve been trying to teach them, and spending yesterday telling them exactly what was going to be on the test as well as providing them with an extensive supply of notes, presentations and videos on the subject (in addition to my own actual instruction) appears to have gotten me absolutely nowhere.

I’m blaming them, mostly.

Okay, that’s probably unfair, but I note that the kids who I can generally count on to give a shit appear to have actually learned something; the problem is that in 8th grade the supply of available Give a Shit is somewhat lower than it is in other grades, and, well, my kids have a bit of a shortage situation going on at the moment. This is, it should also be noted, not the most interesting or immediately useful of mathematics, either; even laying my usual cynicism about the world to the side I can’t really pretend that knowing how to distinguish a rational number from an irrational one is a skill that any of them are ever going to actually need. And while I usually bare my teeth and snarl at the when are we gonna use this school of avoiding acquiring new knowledge, there’s still a spectrum to these things, and this isn’t all that high on that spectrum.

Ah well. This was actually a pretty good week once it got started, and don’t tell anyone I said this but it’s possible that I’m starting to make some headway with the gang of hellions in my seventh hour class. I discovered to my bewilderment earlier this week that despite them being my most behavior-impaired class by a wide margin they are also getting the best grades and have the smallest amount of missing work. This fact rendered me unable to even for nearly a full hour. I was curious to see if it would also lead to them getting the highest grades on the test today; they … did not. I made the mistake of praising them and it went to their heads, I think; I’ll not make that mistake in the future.

I really like my seventh grade classes, by the way. They’re both fun groups even when they’re being more buttheady than usual. I like nearly all of my 8th graders as individuals; as classes … well, we’re still working on about half of them. But we’re only a month in. Plenty of time. I’m sure I’ll have everybody beaten into shape by June.

On teaching (and grading) writing

santababyI found this article on Slate the other day.  All you really need is the title, and maybe an understanding of how Slate works; the article is called “The End of the College Essay” and the page header itself says “College papers: Students hate writing them.  Professors hate grading them.  Let’s stop assigning them.”

In other words, pure Slate-style contrarianism and click bait.  Naturally, I posted it, with the heading “I’ll just leave this here…”  Why did I do that?  Well, mostly just because I’m a jackass, but I enjoy a shitstorm once in a while, and between what was going on in the comments on the article and on the author’s Twitter feed and the higher-than-most-folk number of college professors and middle school/high school teachers I have on my Facebook friends I figured I might be up for something interesting.

And then I got stupid and started thinking about it.

Here is how to learn to read:  put words in front of your face constantly, until you can read.    Babies can do it in a few years.  Most American humans have managed it on some level or another by third or fourth grade; everything else after that is just refinement and leveling up and sooner or later you’re wondering if Finnegan’s Wake is really crap like you think it is or of there are just that many people who are that much smarter than you.(*)

A competent adult can teach himself to read in a foreign language (note that in this case I mean “read” simply as “decoding,” and yes, I’m aware how much I’m oversimplifying) in a couple of days of sustained effort.  It took one class period for my college Hebrew professor to get a roomful of kids reading Genesis out loud, and most of us hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed.

Here is how to learn to write:  Do everything in “learn to read,” then write constantly until you get it.  Reading is easy; writing well is enormously complicated.  No one can do it well before adulthood regardless of how much practice you’ve had; if you’re told you’re a “good writer” before you are in your mid-twenties at the earliest what the speaker actually means is “…for your age.”  Furthermore, however good you may think you are as a writer now, you almost certainly think that anything you wrote more than a year ago sucks, which means that what you’re writing now sucks too.

You will never, never, never reach a point where your own writing is good enough, if you actually want to be a good writer.  You will never reach a point where that urge to revise and tinker just goes away.  Being a writer is learning to live with good enough, because otherwise you’d never finish anything.

One can easily imagine, I hope, that this makes teaching writing an incredibly difficult challenge, and teaching writing well an even greater one.  Teaching writing well to people who do not want to learn to write?  Just kill me.

So I’m sympathetic to college professors who throw up their hands and say “Fuck it; they’re never going to learn how to do this right; we should just stop trying.”  Because, believe me, I get it.  And I get those essays when they’re twelve, when all I can do is marvel at the fact that the child who has just supposedly tried to write something has been in school— I’ve been there!  I watched!– for several years at the least and can write an entire page of prose without one single comma or period.

Teaching writing is really goddamn hard.  There’s a reason I’m a math teacher, folks.  Grading writing is even harder than teaching it!  Because here’s the thing– if you’re not willing to put in the time with that red pen, painstakingly pulling apart all the mistakes and– and this is so, so tremendously important– showing the writer how to fix them— and preferably with at least one face-to-face actual by-God conference about the piece– you are probably wasting your time and theirs.  The best writing teacher I ever had was a guy named Scott Alexander.  He would write more on our essays than we wrote in the essays.  But I’ll be damned if he didn’t get me thinking preemptively while I was writing for him– and eventually when I was writing for anyone– about what he might have to say, and I found myself fixing issues with my papers before I even gave them to him– which is, of course, exactly what he wanted.  I took at least three different classes with the guy at IU– none, I should point out, that were strictly composition courses– and all of them involved multiple essays, all written in multiple drafts.  I cannot even imagine how much time Dr. Alexander put into grading essays.  But, at least for me, it worked.  The guy beat good writing into my head.

(Was I a good writer when I left his class?  Nope.  But I was better.  Much, much better.  It took a while to get out of the habit of constant parenthetical footnotes that he got me into– by accident, I’m sure– but I was still much better.)

If you don’t have time to do that, you don’t have the time to teach writing.  Which is fine; not everyone does, and it’s not like there aren’t a million different ways to come up with grades for a class.  But I feel like if you’re giving writing work to undergraduates (or high school students, or middle school students, or whatever) then you need to keep in mind that they are not going to be good writers yet, because it is impossible for them to be good writers yet.  So you need to keep that in mind when assigning your work.

If you don’t want to take the time to grade essays properly, then yes, you might think about not assigning essays.

Comp classes have their place, but they’re limited; they teach you basic writing skills precisely so that you can write for a reason when you need to.  They aren’t a substitute, on their own, for writing in the humanities/arts/sciences/technical fields/whatever; we need both.

(Left as an exercise to the reader, or you can just scroll through the archives, is why the hell anyone thinks there’s much of a point to standardized testing of writing, where the writer doesn’t have time to write and the grader sure as shit doesn’t have time to grade.  It’s artificial and broken from the start and it should die.)

(* Both.)

Story problem time!

image028Have a math problem:

A boat travels 60 kilometers upstream against the current in 5 hours.  The boat travels the same distance downstream in 3 hours.  What is the rate of the boat in still water?  What is the rate of the current?

If you are a reasonably educated person, you should be able to make headway with this fairly quickly:  the boat travels 12 km/h upstream (60/5) and 20 km/h downstream (60/3), which means that the boat’s speed in still water is the average of the upstream/downstream speeds, (20 + 12)/2 km/h, or 16 kilometers per hour, and the current is 4 km/h, which is the difference between either of the measured speeds and the average.

I spent about half an hour last night texting back and forth with a former student trying to work her through this problem and becoming more and more bewildered about what it was she didn’t get about it as the conversation went on.  She got the math– the math isn’t really that complicated, right?  Just division and an average.

What she didn’t get?  Rivers.  As it turns out, “downstream” and “upstream” are not terribly salient terms to kids who have lived in cities all their lives– and while, granted, the town I currently live in is actually called South Bend because the river bends south while wending through it, the terms “downstream” and “upstream” hadn’t managed to really ensconce themselves in her vocabulary as of yet.

This young lady is generally one of my brightest kids, mind you.  I’m not mocking her at all here, although maybe she deserves it a little bit– but the entire conversation got me thinking about how incredibly easy it is to write standardized test questions that you think are questions about math but turn out to hinge on some other kind of non-mathematical knowledge.  She could not wrap her head around the idea that the boat wasn’t going at its full speed “downstream” and that the current wasn’t slowing it down by (20-12) 8 km/h going upstream.  Which, of course, was one of the answers, because whenever anyone with half an ounce of sense writes a multiple choice test, one of the horrible tricks you do is thinking “Now, how might the students screw this up?” and then writing answers that match what they might have gotten if they did something predictable wrong.

The math?  She’s got it.  The geography lesson that the writer of the question no doubt didn’t realize was embedded into being able to get the question right?  Not so much.

I’ll talk more about this later; just wanted to get the thought down before it fell out of my head.  This is part of the longer series of posts I alluded to the other day before hell fell on my face and knocked me out for a couple of days, I think; I’ll get back to it soon.