Part 3 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 2
What did it all mean? What is my biggest takeaway? How will I put what I’ve learned to use? These are some of the questions on my mind as I reflect on the Final Meetings with my students and re-imagine my course for a new group and a new semester.
Evidence is important to me. The beginning of learning is the ability to empirically observe a phenomenon, analyze it, and apply that knowledge to our lives. As an artist, of course I’m interested in the subjective and the objective. The artistic endeavor is transforming the subjective, like a thought or a feeling, into something objective, like a painting. Art lives on that edge between ways of knowing. At the heart of creativity is both the qualitative and the quantitative. As a teacher and a researcher, I’m interested in both kinds of evidence as well. The tricky part is that two reasonable people can look at the same evidence and draw two different conclusions. So why not include our students in the grading process?
This class was not the first time I had met with students at the end of the semester. However this was the first time that I had not decided their grade ahead of time. In retrospect, what was important to me in those past meetings was making sure my students understood how I had determined their grade. I wanted them to know what I was looking for. Above all, I think I wanted to be perceived as fair. But everything else was worked backwards from what grade I had decided the student deserved in advance. Was it just an elaborate way to make sure they didn’t disregard my comments? Was I just making sure they heard me? Was I failing to give them a chance to be heard?
For this round of meetings, I found it was helpful to provide students with an introductory framework that explained how we would proceed and what the student might expect. Of course I had discussed the meetings in class but I found that performing this ritual individually helped light the path forward for each new participant. After some small talk and taking our seats at table in the archive room, I gained permission to audio record of each meeting. My ritual shpiel went something like this:
Thanks for being here. This meeting is probably different from what you’ve experienced in most other classes so it may seem strange at first. Our goal today is to determine together what grade you’ve earned in this course. Nothing is decided until you walk out the door.
Many students expressed fear and discomfort with the process. I found that the vast majority graded themselves fairly. Generally speaking, we were on the same page. Despite my de-emphasis of grading, fears that students would just give themselves A’s like kids in a candy store turned out to be untrue. In fact, several students graded themselves more harshly than I did, reducing their grades for things that weren’t criteria such as lateness. Many wanted to give themselves some wiggle room, often saying they probably ended up somewhere between an “A or A-,” or “B to A-,” which I found interesting. They wanted to resist pinning themselves down. I feel like a part of them might be more comfortable with me just telling them their grade. But I want actors, not receivers. And their future students wouldn’t have that option a nice big window. They had to be exact. A big part of the course is embracing uncertainty and stepping into discomfort and that’s what I expected them to do here - turn the subjective into the objective. Is there something artistic about assessment? Somewhere out there past me is barfing.
The meetings gave me the opportunity to gauge student understandings that might not have come across otherwise in their writing or submissions. At times I was listening for certain clues that would demonstrate learning they had not yet demonstrated in their portfolio. In some of those cases my evaluation was changed on the spot. In other cases, I was pleasantly surprised by how our conversation gave my assessment more clarity. In a few cases, as this was the first semester, I gave students the opportunity to revise and resubmit. I will try to avoid this in the future, stressing instead the finality of the decision we reach in the meeting together. But in this first go-around, it seemed fair to offer a mulligan. Permissive would be a fair accusation. Was I subject to confirmation bias, since I wanted them to be successful and therefore prove my own effectiveness as a teacher? I wouldn’t doubt it. I don’t think a confirmation bias is avoidable regardless of what tool we use. So why not err on behalf of the student?
I imagine our students are water. We often only see them in one state. One context. But they are much much more than most of us can ever see at once. How can we reduce all of this life and experience down to a letter or number? Take that letter to the store - what will it get you? Take it to the interview - what will it do for you? You are not a letter or a number. Little that we do can be represented adequately using a letter or a number - why pretend that it does? Better artificial control than natural growth? Grades are for meats and slopes. I want students who are open to change or simply able their minds when presented with new information so I must at least try to be that type of person. Teaching, for many reasons, helps me be the best version of myself. Either way, I feel like it’s important that students don’t feel like grades are something done TO them. I have no desire to sit and pass judgment on my students. I’m only interested in helping people become more creative, collaborative, and critical healthy human beings.
Because I had not conducted portfolios outside of studio art courses and did not have examples of the kind of authentic assessment I was attempting, I did not have examples to show my students beforehand. This could be a positive and negative thing, as I heard a desire for more clarity as to what I was looking for, even though I honestly wasn’t even completely sure what I was looking for either until it was in front of me. In two cases, students discovered ways of presenting evidence that will become examples for students in the future. One student had gone through their documents with highlighters to find specific examples of the objectives which was very helpful for both of us. Another student used the portfolio form I provided to self-evaluate her portfolio. In the future I will require that to help us get on the same page.
In looking back, a few things stand out to me about the Final Meetings overall. First, I loved conversing with my students and getting to hear things from their perspective. Whatever I had to say I had to say to their faces. I didn’t get a single email the day grades came out. That peace is priceless. But I got so much out of hearing their sides of the story and I learned things that I wouldn’t have known if I had only looked at their portfolios so I would encourage folks thinking about using portfolios and authentic assessment to include individual meetings to make sure you’re both on the same page. All of that richness would have been lost without these meetings! We chatted about future plans and the class overall following our official business in some cases. It was important to me that I got to know my students and I achieved that.
I hope I create a place where my students can pleasantly surprise me, like Craig Roland used to tell me. My students impressed me this past semester. I really asked them to do way way too much and in retrospect I’m lucky not to have had a mutiny on my hands. I’m thrilled by how they all stepped up to the challenge with barely any griping. That group of (mostly) future teachers was not messing around. I’m glad everyone had the opportunity to embrace uncertainty while achieving overall high grades through our meetings.
I would be misleading you however if I failed to mention that the approach of determining grades during a final meeting worked for all of my students. It was clear from their written comments that at least one or two students weren’t convinced. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in future groups as well. Below is one comment I want to speak back to before I approach a new semester:
I liked the layout of the course with the responses, feedback, class, content, and activities. I liked the responses and feedback because it was different then the normal discussion board post ideas. You really took the time to read what we had to say and responded. I liked the content and activities because they were interesting and fun and things I may use in the future. What I did not like is the gradeless approach and feeling the need to defend my grade with the work I have already worked so hard on, peer reviews, and organization. Also, I would have liked the modules to be posted at least two in advance so I can anticipate or work ahead. I do not like the gradeless approach because it gives me anxiety that even though I have worked so hard in the course, I still have to talk about what grade I deserve. I do not like peer reviews because it took my focus away from other work that was more beneficial. Lastly, as previously mentioned I would have liked more access to content material ahead of time.”
This is an unfortunate view in my opinion. It suggests an unrealistic view of the word - that hard work always pays off. Now, I’m not saying that hard work is not important. But hard work never has and never will guarantee success. Effort is not the same thing as learning and chance is always involved. One can perform a task quite tirelessly, to the point of near exhaustion, and still not make much progress. A person can work hard and still fail. Another can make great progress relatively effortlessly. Do we judge these two the same? What I was evaluating this semester were growth and mastery. Hard work, ideally, is involved in both. It’s disappointing that the student above felt that they were defending their grade. If I led my students to believe this was a courtroom drama, this was unintentional. This was a search for “truth.” This was an examination of evidence. This was the building of a case. BUT this was meant to be a mutual decision. A sharing of power, not an attack. I wasn’t trying to steal their high grade. This I fear is the product of a grade-based mentality. Is it a deficit view? I understand why people are averse to chance. It sucks when things don’t work out. Believe me, I know. But anyone who has tried to grow vegetables for the first time knows that hard work doesn’t always pay off. But we’ll give it a shot again this year. Live and learn. Hopefully the next time we’ll work smarter and not just harder.
Life is not a simple formula and students shouldn’t be lead to believe it is. It’s never as simple as ‘do good things and good things will happen to you.’ Job learned that the hard way, yet no one seems to remember his example. You hear this when people talk about karma. Put good into the world and good will return to you. As if the universe is keeping score. There is no supernatural incentive program to get humans to do the right thing. My mother, for example, did nothing to deserve the schizophrenia that ravaged her mind, body, and soul. She did nothing to deserve the cervical cancer that took her life. She didn’t deserve to die at the age of 46. I did nothing to deserve losing my mother that summer I was 17 (technically 9 years earlier due to her mental illness). Her birthday is this month. She would have been 67.
While it may seem out of place to bring such dramatic and personal life experience to bear on curriculum design, our teaching is inextricably shaped by our life experiences. In this case, as Forrest Gump taught us - shit happens. This is one of the few certainties in life. We don’t know what to expect. In response, I prefer a diverse portfolio of practices to improve my chances at success, like hard work of course, but also self-discipline, creativity, curiosity, flexibility, problem-solving, critical thinking, and comfort with uncertainty. We can’t just construct an imaginary snow globe around ourselves to protect ourselves from reality. That only distorts our view of the world around us. Perhaps it would be better to seek strategies to manage our inevitable anxiety, rather than seeking to avoid anxiety all together. Anxiety proceeds any new experience, any solution, any moment of growth. Anxiety is not our enemy. An inability to confront it is.
As I look ahead to a new semester with a new group, I don’t know what to expect. The only certainty is that it will be different. While I begin to plan, I’m reminded of three things from my meetings: How important our words are; How important my relationships with my students are; and Less is almost always more. As you read in a previous post, I am a chronic over-planner. And while I would much rather have too much planned than too little, I failed to kill enough of my darlings. As I revisit material and assignments from last semester, I’m even more impressed at how hard my students works and how much they achieved in such a short amount of time. But I’m lucky I didn’t inspire a mutiny. Oops. I knew I was asking a lot, but it was really way too much. Drastic cuts must be made if I want my students to thrive. Goal #1 - I am NOT falling behind on Day 1. No way, no how! That threw a monkey wrench into my whole semester last time. Less is more (not that you could tell from the length of these posts).
I would estimate that you have to teach a course three times (or three years for most classroom teachers) before you really start to figure out what you’re doing. This will only be my second go. So I know that there will be dramatic improvements this semester but also new challenges. Live and learn. Fortunately, as you’ve seen in my previous two posts, I have plenty of information and feedback to guide my revisions. So here is to an exciting new semester! Success will depend on a great number of variables, including my choices, attitudes, and beliefs; the choices, attitudes, and beliefs of 28 other people all interacting, the content, the weather, and a laundry list of things foreseeable and unforeseeable. This is teaching. This is art. This is creativity.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers for undergrads planning on becoming classroom teachers. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while experimenting with more effective approaches to teaching visual art integration.