Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just How Many Points is Breathing Worth?

Up until last year Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I had the kids do a model during our cell unit. This involved making a model of a plant or animal cell out of any material the kid desired, doing a presentation, and getting a grade. For most students this was an easy 100 point assignment as they didn't have to memorize anything for a test, and they could display their creativity. We had some fantastic projects over the years and the kids, for the most part, looked forward to it.

However, there were some problems. Storage of the projects was an issue. There just isn't room in my room, or any other room, to store 100-plus projects. Kids who road the bus often had trouble getting projects to school (although I've had some creative kids actually use a tennis ball as the basis of their model and they simply tucked them into their backpacks). Many of my low-income kids used the lack of money as an excuse not to do the project since they couldn't buy supplies. I didn't consider this a valid excuse as I had such a student do his out of things he scrounged out of the wastepaper baskets at school - paper clips, a paper plate, and foil - and it was one of the best projects I ever saw. However, when we noticed that more and more parents were actually doing the projects, and not the kids, we decided we'd had enough.

It's amazing how annoyed parents get when they don't get an A on an assignment they obviously did for their kid. My favorite comment from a kid regarding this was "I told my mom the cell didn't have two nuclei, but she wouldn't listen to me." Mom didn't get an A, obviously.

We have since modified our out-of-class project assignment to an in-class project assignment. This way no one can use the "we don't have money" excuse to avoid it, the parents aren't doing it, and we can get a better idea of what our students actually know regarding cells. We feel that it's just a much better way to assess. We have them put together a four-part booklet on cells which includes a cover page and title, colored and labeled drawings of a plant cell and an animal cell, a vocabulary page which lists the organelles, their definition, their function, and an analogy for each organelle ("A mitochondria is like a power plant"), and then they go through magazines and find pictures of things that represent the organelles (a picture of a fireplace for the mitochondria, for example). We provide the construction paper, the drawing paper, the crayons, the glue, the magazines, the scissors. We also gave them three full class periods to complete their project and turn it in. Those that didn't finish in the three days had the option to finish at home and turn it in the next day.

Out of 110 kids, I had 28 that did not turn in a single thing.

Nothing. At. All.

According to the rubric, if they had turned in a scrap of paper with their name, class period, and date on it, they would have received points.

I didn't even get that from these 28 kids.

This absolutely freaking blows my mind. How in the world can you sit in a class for three solid days and have absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to show for it?

By the time I had finished grading the projects I was incensed. On Monday I printed out a progress report for a typical C student (removing all identifying information of course) and showed the kids the overall grade if this student had earned an 85 on the project. It was a respectable 82%. I then showed the same progress report if the student had turned in nothing and earned a zero. The grade dropped to a 62% which is quite a bit below our passing grade of 70%. They were silent. Some actually seemed surprised that choosing not to do a 100 point project would affect their grade. (What in the hell did they think it would do?) I told them that I could not believe that they sat in that room for three days and managed to do absolutely nothing. I had been in the room, as was Mr. T the student teacher, and witnessed them all working on their projects but obviously 28 of them didn't feel it was worth the effort to turn them in.

I asked them point blank (very quietly which scares the hell out of them because when I'm quiet, I'm usually pretty mad) what in the world they did for three days that they had nothing to show for it. At this point most of the students were staring intently at their desks to avoid eye contact. Only one student in five periods had the guts to raise his hand to answer my question.

"We were probably goofing off and not doing what we were supposed to do," he said.

Ya think?

I gave them until tomorrow to turn in their project for half credit. Grades are due and I'm cutting them off.

As of today, Thursday, not one has managed to turn in their project. If Santa brings these kids anything, let it be a work ethic.

Post script - Mrs. Eagle and I did a brief check of project turn-in percentages when we did the outside "do a model anyway you want" project, and the do it in class project. Despite the 28 that chose not to turn anything in, we have a higher turn in percentage than we did previously. Sad. On some of our other projects, where the kids get choices as some people mentioned, the turn in isn't any better. We do a lot of projects where kids get a chance to present the information in a format of their choice, and most of them chose to do a poster or, at the most, a PowerPoint. Despite giving them the option of doing a video or a website, none of us have ever had a student chose these options. Perhaps if we had video equipment at school (heck, I don't even own my own video camera) and a computer lab they could use on their own time, it might change. Hard to say. Regardless, even when given choices they are choosing not to do the work, perhaps because they know, in the end, it doesn't matter. They'll all get socially promoted anyway.


nbosch said...

I assume the point was to have the kiddos learn about cells. What if each kid could learn the material in different ways. What would have happened if the kids could show they knew the material in different ways? Wonder how many would have done nothing?

Get the material from the teacher; take the test--no project; learn and study whatever you want during the other 2 and a half days

Do a video
Develop a newcast
Make a model
Add content to a wiki on cells
Work with others (higher expectations)
interview a cell biologist or a botanist

In the whole scheme of things why did everybody have to demonstrate their understanding in the same way? Differentiation is not teaching different stuff to different kids; the learning outcomes are the same. The differentiation comes with how they process what they are learning and what they produce to show their understanding. Just a thought---

andbrooke said...

I have the same frustration. I've been calling students back to my computer to show them what happens to their grade when they turn work it. Little light bulbs pop up over their heads, "Hey- maybe I should turn in my work." It floors me to see that it had not yet occurred to them.

Some do turn in the work. Some don't. I don't why they don't. Laziness? Learned helplessness? Complete space-cadetedness? Someday the mysteries of the universe will be explained.

Hope still lingers. One of my students said today, "That was it? Why didn't I do this sooner?" I just nodded sagely, instead of saying what I really thought.

It sounds like you got their attention, though. I'm sure good will come of it.

HappyChyck said...

Boy, does this every sound like a rant from the foreign language language teachers on my team! They basically have 1 1/2 years to teach one year of content, so they give quite a bit of time for projects in class. Sure, there are students who have to be redirected, but they usually appear to be working. When it's time to hand things in...YIKES...there are several who do not turn anything in or turn in such poor quality work you'd think they did it on the bus to school. So my colleagues started to wonder if they gave too much time in class, which allowed for procrastination and play, and that more projects should be done at home (like they are for the rest of the team). You know, use class time for direct teaching and practice. And the pendulum swings for them!

Does this happen to me, too? Sure. And then I end up in a bizarre meeting with a parent who wanted to know why she wasn't told that her student wasn't going to turn in the project. Yea, as if I'm psychic and know when student is going to blow off a project and nearly fail the class...

nbosch said...

There is a discussion going on at CR2.0 on communication with parents and students. Kelly Irish, I thought, had a good plan for dealing with parents who claim to be out of the loop. She has a classroom wiki (could be a blog or webpage) where all assignments, dates, details etc are posted. From the beginning of the year students and parents are made aware of all expectations and know where to find the assignments and information about them. If students have access to the internet this seems like a good idea for avoiding the "I didn't know it was due" conversations with parents and students. It might not encourage them to actually do the work or turn it in, but at least it would aviod some conversations with parents and students on what the expectations were. You can read Kelly's reply here Just a thought...

Mrs. T said...

nbosch- I do agree with you to a point. Differentiated instruction provides students who are actually going to do a project with some options. However, there are not always going to be options in life. That's just the way it is. I don't really like my income tax forms and April 15 isn't going to work out for me. How bout I send a video of me working and writing checks and sending donations to charity to the IRS? Do you think they'd go for it? How bout I make my own form and send it to them- why should we all have to submit the same form? We should have differentiated assessment of our incomes, since we are all so different and earn different amounts of money. I don't think college professors are going to provide differentiated instruction. If they want a research paper with sources sited in MLA or APA style, that's what they want. Ok, in middle school, it's very nice, it's very touchy feely to allow the students some say in what they do to prove what they know, but at some point, they need to step up to the plate, play the game and do what's asked of them.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

We have something similar in our district,, where parents can see grades (we upload daily) as well as assignments, messages and more. I update it weekly with the assignments as well as messages about upcoming tests and the like. In addition, I have 80 or so parents on my email list that get a weekly email every Friday outlining what we are doing in class every day, what assignments are due, what the homework is, and when tests and quizzes are coming up. Both of these have dramatically cut down on the parent complaint of being out of the loop. What we hear now more often is, "I don't know what to do with my child".

nbosch said...

Yes, there are some things we have to do that we don't want to do (I just finished cleaning the toilets for the 7000th time--hate it, do it) but in real life we choose where we want to work and how we want to produce. You and I decided to be teachers, not homebuilders or artists or lawyers. Kids come in all different shapes and sizes and one size does not fit all. Why spend 3 days working on a project to teach a body of knowledge some kids could have learned in 15-20 minutes? Why force the non artsy guy to do a poster or a booklet? Things that I suggested are not non academic and fluffy they are just different. Why not encourage student differences rather than force every one into the same mold. Middle school is a perfect time to let kids explore and try things out--maybe you'd be surprised at what they learn and what they produce. Just a thought...N

PS Some of your students will NEVER play your game, why not see if you can help them find a game of their own.

Ms M. said...

I seem to have a similar problem...a whole chunk of kids who are just complacent and choose to do nothing on occasion. I just let them feel the consequences, and if it continues to happen with the same kids, we delve a little deeper into it to figure out what the problem really is.

nbosch - I also see your point, but not everyone gets to choose their job, (some people have to take a job because it's what they can get). I chose to be a teacher. I still have to do all kinds of stuff I don't want to do. I have to document in very specific ways the progress of all of my students. Most of the time I don't think the way I am required to do this is the best way, nor is it the way that I find the most interesting/effective etc. Yet I have to do it to keep the job I chose.

Kids need both sides of this. They need to learn to do what they are told because often that is the way things work, and they also sometimes need to be given the flexibility to choose their own way because that also happens sometimes in life.

I'm not sure how many students you teach, but when it's 100 or more, it's simply not always possible to give that kind of a choice for a project. I work in a department where we are required to have them same end product as the other teachers. We have to have the same papers, projects, tests etc. Is that the best way? No. Am I required to do it that way? Yes. I would love to have more room to design my own stuff sometimes, but that's just not the way it works where I am at the moment.

I think we all have at least a glimmer of an idea what will work best with the kids (and that is often using some sort of differentiation) but unfortunately it just can't be the reality as often as might be ideal.

nbosch said...

Ms M, I've been teaching for 25 years, sent three sons through public middle schools and high schools and am close to retirement so maybe I see things differently than you do, with your career ahead of you. So many things in the classroom aren't working for kids, but many teachers tend to do things they way they have always done it just because that's the way it is.

At lunch on Friday I was discussing the frustration of kids not turning in homework. My comment was that the kids who need it don't do it and the kids that don't need it do it. My cohort said in a perfect world the homework would be relevant for each student (duh) but it's hard enough to get them to turn in the same worksheet...the record keeping becomes uncontrollable. I just shut my mouth, I just think it's sad that every kid has to do the same thing for the convenience of the teacher (in that case) or to produce on a test.

You said “I also see your point, but not everyone gets to choose their job, (some people have to take a job because it's what they can get).” If someone is in a job because that’s all they can get (McDonald’s)—they are working in a job that doesn’t need the skills you are teaching or if they are educated and can’t find a job in their specialty they need the skills of flexibility, problem solving, collaboration, team work, etc. These are the skills we need to re-enforce along with a rigorous curriculum for students who may have several dozen jobs in their lifetime. I think it’s sad that you have to teach exactly what the others in your department teach—what if you could do it better?

Each kid is different; one size does not fit all. Just a thought. N

Brian said...

I taught for 20 years, and when I came across this kind of situation, I knew I had to change ways whether I liked it or not. Some kids could care less whether they got a zero or not. I'm thinking of one who was a Fulbright Scholar and turned down a free ride to a college because they were BORED! What was my solution (not 100% fail-safe, but very consistent with success)? "If you could be the teacher and you assigned a project about cells, what would you have assigned?" I also gave the parameters first so I didn't get an answer of something like, "Let the kids go home and forget about it." It was amazing what ideas they came up with and also felt like they had a part in the process. I could then eventually steer the conversation back to what I had originally wanted. In other words, I picked my battles. From experience, I learned that the calmer I was about it, the more they came around. Thus, when I gave a zero out, the principal KNEW I had tried everything imaginable, and thus I got better support when the parents were called in.

nbosch said...

Brian, Thanks for trying something different. If you reach one kid you wouldn't have otherwise it was worth it. Merry Christmas.

EHT said...

Well, enough has been sd here about providing choices, etc. so I won't beat that dead horse, but I do like the fact that you changed the project from a take home to an in this way you are getting the right data on the students who completed the project regarding what they know about cells and not their parents.