Telling students not to procrastinate solves the wrong problem.

In seeing my students working to prepare for semester exams over the last week, I have spent some time thinking about the advice I give students about how to manage the stress associated with this time of year. The reality for them (and for me, for that matter) is that there is a lot going on right now. A quick rundown of my obligations: exams have to be written, assessments marked, comments graded, recommendations written, assignments double-checked for accuracy in the grade-book...this doesn't even mention the non-school related tasks on my plate. Some tasks I spread out over a few days usually in order to avoid the non-linear way that unpleasantness increases as a deadline approaches. Some tasks have to be done last minute, and there's no way around them.

When I see students cramming and working feverishly to get things done, part of me wants to channel the oft repeated (and nonsense) advice that 'if you had started earlier, you wouldn't have this problem.' And then I stop. Grand scheme of things, this is not really helpful. You don't tell someone that just cut off his finger that doing so was a dumb idea. The important part is managing the situation in a way that balances all of the relevant costs and benefits to maximize the overall outcome. The biggest problems my students have is not (only) that they put things off. It's that they think they can effectively manage the stress that comes with it by following some common, but misdirected principles. Here are my categories of guiding principles:

Ways students foolhardily trick themselves into doing what they do:

  • Principle of Work-Equivalence: As long as I am working on something I need to be working on, I am using my time effectively. After all, it all needs to get done, so why not just pick something and work on it?
  • Principle of Longevity: I've been doing this school thing for long enough - I know this has worked for me in the past, so I'm going to keep doing it. This comes from a major trend that I see with my students at the moment. Even more frightening is that the older they are, the better they think they are at managing things during stressful times. The way I see it, the opposite is true.
  • Principle of Education through Suffering: If I am not suffering as I get things done, I am not working hard enough. Carrying around stacks of papers, losing sleep, having unproductive (but fun) study parties seems to be par for the course. It certainly isn't something that disappears after high school graduation.
  • Principle of Poor Prioritization: I know what I really should be spending my time doing, but this other mindless task seems like a much better use of my time. This is not about online distractions, though that is a big factor for all of us. This is when a student decides to white out all of the mistakes in his/her notebook from throughout the semester because he or she thinks this will make studying easier. Rewriting notes can be a useful exercise if it involves some sort of processing/summarizing/grouping of ideas. Simply copying them over is a passive activity that feels like it should help, but probably is less productive than other tasks.
  • Principle of Confidence: I'm going to work on the things I am already good at doing to boost my confidence. This will better make me able to tackle the things I don't understand. I've had conversations with students that do know what they need to work on, but avoid those things like the plague because learning new things is difficult. Revisiting strengths is occasionally a good idea, but again, it is not truly productive.

Figuring out how to shake students of following these guidelines is really what we need to work on. We need to not just just lecture them about getting organized, planning out stressful times, taking effective breaks, and being deliberate about all of these processes, but model how to do these things. My question is one of practicality though - what are the best ways to do this? Is the best way integrated as part of existing courses? (My gut says yes.) Is it about going back to pencil and paper planners? Is it about using technology to help with reminders, calendars, etc?

The thing that I find most difficult about discussing this is that it always turns into a conversation about avoiding procrastination. I agree that this would help...if our students weren't already told this hundreds of times per year. The design problem that needs to be solved is: given that our students are stressed, how do we help them work through it? Furthermore, how do we make the most of our own experience as adults working through stress, but deliver that experience in a way that doesn't start by telling students what they believe is wrong?

A tale of two gradebooks - my SBG journey continues

I realized this morning that I could look back at the assignments from my PowerSchool gradebook from a year ago and see the distribution of assignments I had by the end of the semester:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.32.14 AM

My grades were category based - 5% class-work, 10% homework completion, 10% portfolio, 60% unit tests, and 15% quizzes. This comprised 80% of the semester grade, and was the grade that students saw for the majority of the semester. A semester exam at the end made up the remaining 20%.

While I did enter some information about the homework assignments, my grade was just a reflection of how they completed it relative to the effort I expected them to make while working on it. No penalty for being wrong on problems, but a cumulative penalty developed over time for students tending not to turn it in. This, however, was essentially a behavior grade, and not an indication of what they were actually learning. The homework was the most frequent way for students to get feedback, and it did help students improve in what they were learning, but the completion grade was definitely not a measure of what they were learning at all. There were six quizzes that fit into my reassessment system. Not important enough to matter, I realize now with 20/20 hindsight.

The entire Standards-based-grading community shoots me a look saying 'we told you so', but only momentarily and without even a hint of snark. They know I am on their side now.

Here is a screen shot of the assignments in my grade-book as of this morning:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.35.40 AM

There is a clear indication of what my students have been working on here. With the exception of the portfolio, a student can look at this (and the descriptions I've included for each standard) and have a pretty good idea of what they did and didn't understand over the course of the semester. They know what they should be working on before the semester exam next week. The parents can get a pretty good idea of what they are looking at as well. I knew making the change to standards based grading (SBG) made sense, but there have been so many additional reasons I am happy to have made the change that I really don't want to go back to the old system.

I'll do more of a post-game analysis of my SBG implementation in PowerSchool soon. I will be making changes and enhancing parts that I like about what I have done so far. I have to first make it through the busy time ahead of marking exams, submitting comments, and getting my life ready for the extended winter break that is peeking its beautiful head over the piles of reassessments on my desk. It is really satisfying to see that my students have weathered the transition to SBG beautifully. Their grades really do emphasize the positive aspects of learning that a pure assignments & points system blurs without thinking twice.

Crowdsourcing a learning-to-teach framework

After a good conversation with a friend that is getting started with teaching, I was thinking a bit about the process of learning to teach. Things that I obsessed about as a first year teacher come much more naturally now, but if you asked me what I needed to learn in the beginning, I would have babbled on like an idiot. Knowing what to focus on when everything is so new, not to mention feeling you aren't good at any of it, you understand why it is so easy for students to shut down when we ask them to 'be responsible' without helping them understand what we mean. Our job as teachers is to provide students with a framework that will help them be successful in learning what we teach them.

You would hope that guidance in this would be an essential component of teacher preparation programs, but it often doesn't, particularly in cases where observation is a box to be checked, not a pathway to improvement. There are many frameworks for observation, but I haven't seen one that specifically gives guidance (or even a curriculum?) for what new teachers should be looking for when in a mentor teacher's classroom. Most of the observation forms I've seen are in evaluating teachers for teacher quality. When I go to watch a colleague, I'm thinking about how I'm going to use what I see to improve what I do, not how to make them a better teacher. I know what I am looking for because I've had the keys to my classroom for a little while.

C'mon internet, let's work together to create this and help our newbies. We were all new to this once, and there's a lot that we may not realize we are thinking about after pulling out our hair and having teaching nightmares for so long. (Do they ever stop?)

To be clear, the goal is to start conversations between new teachers and their mentors, not put new teachers in a position to evaluate those who are being observed. We want to make the most of this time that is probably the most valuable teacher preparation tool outside of standing in front of a class yourself.

I've put a document designed to compile these ideas here:

So you're a new teacher. What should you focus on this week?

Please add to the list and snarky-up the title. There may even be a better way to organize this so that it isn't a big list that again serves only to intimidate. Maybe along the lines of Emergency Compliments?