When is failure okay?

Is failure even okay anymore?  Does it teach a lesson? Or does the non-failure teach a better lesson? Whose fault is failure…student? teacher? other outside forces? I have these questions and more swirling around in my head.  It’s Friday, it’s been a very long day and I am attempting to put together something that effectively gets my thoughts, questions and feelings across.  I won’t get into the nitty gritty behind why these questions are at the forefront of my mind, but I will just say it’s not a good reason and made me very sad this morning.  Bullies do still exist in the adult world and it’s not cool.

Background: I use SBG and have been doing it in Algebra for 4 years. I’ve used it in Pre-Algebra for 2 years, but with Common Core this year I’ve only been doing it here and there this year because I’ve been spending too much time figuring out new curriculum design.  With that being said, all of my students are comfortable with SBG and what it means.  I am the only one using it in my building, though an ELA teacher uses it for one aspect of her class.  While explaining the grading at the start of each year can be rough on parents and students, eventually they do understand the grading and why I do it this way.  I have used the Angry Birds comparison that I found online from one of you. (post link to that here).

I truly believe that SBG is the way to grade and will not go back.  I love the conversations that I can have with students about their understanding of a specific topic.  We can address that they understand the concept but are making small algebraic errors or we can discuss their lack of understanding of the concept and identify the areas of confusion to put together a way to reteach/practice the concept.  They know what they know and what they don’t.  They reflect on their learning and know the steps they need to do to more forward.  They get frustrated when they make those small errors, but push themselves to practice and reassess.  The students feel supported and know that I will do whatever it takes to support them.

What I do: Students are allowed to reassess any skills throughout the quarter as often as they want in order to show mastery.  However, they do have to sign-up to reassess and bring proof of further practice of the skill they want to reassess.  I have learned (the hard way) that this is the way to go.  I had students in the past reassess and reassess without any practice thinking that the continual retakes would help them learn and eventually they would pass.  Kind of like the book under the pillow to study. 🙂  It didn’t work (go figure), but was a huge strain on both students and myself. Having them bring the practice is great because I can look over it before they reassess to make sure they are on the right track.

In my class, students must master each skill twice (or two 4’s) in order to master the skill.  At that point the grade in the gradebook will equal a 100% for that skill.  I offer 6 assessments on each skill throughout the quarter in class; there are 10-12 skills per quarter.  Anything they want to reassess above and beyond that comes from them and will be before school, during lunch or after school.  Doing it this way I feel helps to promote student responsibility in two ways…either they will work to master it in class by practicing and studying for the skill quizzes or they will work to master it on their own time because they want to get a skill “done” or needed a little extra help.  I do not view the help or reassessments outside of the school day as being bad, I see it as a way for students to realize when they need additional help and find ways to get it.  I do, every once in a while, require students to meet with me during lunch because they fell into my Red Zone on a skill.

Homework is not a grade.  I always struggled with what to do with homework as a beginning teacher and now that it is not graded I love it.  And guess what? The students still do their homework! I do check it daily (or have a student check it daily)to keep track of who is doing it, but that is for my information to help stay on top of a student who is on the verge of struggling.  If a student misses 3 homework assignments in a week or in a short time span, I will talk to them about it and make a note in the gradebook notes section that students and parents can see.  If they continue to miss their homework, they have to meet with me during lunch to work on it.  I do this in advance of the skill quizzes in order to help them before they may struggle.  Keeping track of homework completion is also helpful when talking with students about their skills mastery and when talking to parents about their student.

My Frustrations: I wish my gradebook system didn’t require my skills to be graded numerically.  That is the most confusing part to students and parents because we don’t have a normal grading scale (it’s higher than most), so when students haven’t mastered a skill, their “grade” in the gradebook looks pretty bad until they improve.  If I could grade without numbers and with proficiency levels, it would be fantastic.  Every year I work to teach my students that grades don’t matter, it’s their understanding of the skills that do.  Typically the students understand and it takes the parents a little longer…see my blog post earlier about a parent email related to this.

What do I do with the student who doesn’t care? Who doesn’t do the homework, doesn’t prepare for skill quizzes, doesn’t take advantage of reassessments, doesn’t take me up on my offer for help during lunch? I feel that it is HARD to fail my class with all of things I have in place, so what do I do when a student does fail? Obviously there is parental communication, but what else can I do?  When does the responsibility fall back to the student? When is it the student’s choice that is causing their failure?

The conversation that I had with my Admin today was one of having too many D’s or F’s.  Mind you I don’t have any F’s and had 5 D’s total from my 4 math classes (2 Algebra and 2 Pre-Algebra).  The conversation was one of what can you do differently to reach these students because clearly what you are doing isn’t working.  FIVE D’s???? I think my head almost popped off my body.  Here was my admin telling me I wasn’t doing enough to reach all students.  Really? Besides what I listed above, in my short 42 minute class, I do a lot of small remediation groups, 1-1 work with students, video chats on the weekends and review of topics with those that need it.  I was made to feel that my offering before school, after school and during lunch help and reassessments was implying that I wasn’t doing something in the classroom correctly. That it was bad for me to offer these things.  I was asked what I was going to do to change those grades from D’s to something higher.  WHAT? What about asking the students what they are going to do?  What about asking the students if they took advantage of any of the hundreds of options they have available to them?  Why was I made to feel that a D was an unacceptable grade and I shouldn’t allow it?  I was told that I should really be reflecting on myself and my teaching to make improvements because I must be doing something wrong.  I have thought long and hard about it…I think I am going to talk to my admin on Monday and ask what else they would like me to do (after listing everything I am doing) because I am at a loss as to what else I can be doing. I teach topics in multiple ways with different examples, the students have ISN’s filled with notes, examples and reflections to fall back on.  My students and I have a great rapport, we have fun, we talk about the ups and downs of life, we challenge ourselves with the math we do and we like it. And guess what? They learn in my class, they ask questions in my class, they want to know more about what we are doing and they help each other.  It’s been a great year and has allowed me to reflect and learn about what it truly means to be a teacher in this day and age.

The Irony: On Wednesday of this week I found out that instead of teaching 8th grade Algebra (Accelerated class) and Pre-Algebra (Regular class) next year (like I have for the past 11 years), I will be moving up to 8th grade Geometry, which is the best of the best…the gifted team.  It’s supposed to be a compliment to be teaching those students because they require so much and so much different than what I am use to.  However after leaving my meeting this morning with my admin, I was questioning why they would place me there if I had “SO” many students struggling in my classes; if I clearly didn’t know what to do to reach my students, why was I being moved? I felt as though I wasn’t good enough to be moved to teach those students. I don’t think that a teacher should ever leave a meeting feeling as though they aren’t good enough.

So what is the answer?  What does failure mean today? I am getting the feeling that it means that the teacher didn’t work hard enough and let the student slip through the cracks…at least that’s the impression my admin gave.  I don’t agree with that answer, but I am now not sure what the answer is.  I agree with SBG and students showing mastery, but I also believe there needs to be a deadline at some point, in order to hold them accountable, to work on responsibility, to allow them to move on.

Does your school allow students to fail? What things do you have in place to help them if they are struggling? Is there a lesson to be learned from failing and struggling?  I posed the question on Twitter on Friday because I needed to vent and see what other teachers and schools do.  The responses were great and now I just need to figure out how to move forward. How to move past how my admin made me feel, reflect on it and make sure I never make anyone student, parent or teacher ever feel that way. And to think about what else I can do in the classroom to reach all students.

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4 thoughts on “When is failure okay?

  1. Pingback: #MSSunFun: Teaching Students How to Study for Assessments | Algebrainiac

  2. Great post. Usually if a student is missing their work and has not reviewed, they will not be able to sit the final exam. We give them ample opportunities to work toward mastery, and if they don’t, their work is considered “incomplete”.

    We have staff meeting times to meet with team members to suggest interventions, and follow protocols for contacting parents.

    I think that an “F” should not be bumped up to a “C” to give the impression that everything is “OK”. I think it’s better to be honest with the parents and students early on then to let the rigors of high school beat them down.

    Thanks for your reflection. It really made my day.

    • Thanks. I like that you consider their work incomplete and they can’t take the final exam. That’s a great way to hold students accountable. We do a lot of meeting about interventions as well, I just wonder when we look towards the student to be held accountable? I am not sure there is a right or wrong answer, maybe it’s just what is right in the moment?

  3. I know this is late, but perhaps this is the link you wanted to insert about Angry Birds SBG?
    http://bowmandickson.com/2011/09/07/what-if-angry-birds-didnt-grade-with-sbg/

    My school removed “D’s” from the grading scale entirely (this was done before I arrived), with the theory that “Let’s raise our standards because if students aren’t at least a C, then they shouldn’t be passing…” Of course, now “C-” is the new “D”, so whatever.

    Your admin sounds like they’ve never taught a day in their lives. I’ve been at two schools so far in my teaching (short) career and have been very thankful that both times the admin just above me was recently teaching, and totally understands the effort many teachers put into their work, as you obviously do. (You’re part of the twitter-blog-o-sphere, so you’ve GOT to be a good teacher!) I hope that the admin comes around and admits to your face that you’re doing a good job–instead of behind-your-back by making you a Geo teacher next year 🙂

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