Episode III: Advent Darth Cornally

This marks the conclusion of my third year of teaching in a public school. This has been by far my most excruciatingly experimental year. I have done things that would have caused me to cold sweat lead during my first two years. I have given students a level of freedom that, at times, was borderline anarchy. Here are some of the highlights.

Standards-Based Grading Can Eat You Alive

and the it will spit you back out just to do it all over again, if you let it. This year I learned that letting students come in to reassess whenever they want only works in a small subset of the total set of courses for which SBG is appropriate (hint: the same set that includes all courses).

I took almost all of the students-coming-in-and-monopolizing-my-free-time-so-that-I-never-did-anything-but-write-test-questions-on-the-fly-omg-I-haven’t-peed-in-8-hours out, and it feels great and sacrifices nothing. I now have a very mature system of spiraling quiz questions and alternative assessments that ramp up dramatically towards the end of course (when people should actually be getting stuff and making connections worth assessing)

I try to keep the student-initiated assessment versus teacher-initiated assessment ratio to about 1:10, but edujargon makes me want to roast my own Boston butt (technically a shoulder cut, totes aprop!), so let’s just talk like normal people and…



I have identified my true mortal enemy: cramming. I hate it. Yo lo odio. Je le deteste. Ich hasse es. hasse, hasse, hasse. That’s really fun to say. If I drop out of teaching and spend my days hugging my own knees while talking to dolls I make out of corn cobs and shower-drain hairballs, it will be because of cramming. (Yes, I tried to find a picture to put here)


An actual picture of Greg from Sarcasymptote, and much better than the picture I was going to put here.

The message that cramming works is sent directly to the pleasure center of our students’ brains because, sadly, it does. It gets them good grades. So, I took the grades out of it. What are you getting away with when the rewards system you were gaming no longer exists? Nothing, Ha! Manic Haha!

Feedback is the key to killing cramming. I’ve been trying out a system where the first assessment of anything gets only written feedback; extensive written feedback centered on the standards at hand, acknowledging the student’s current effort, and road-mapping a direct path toward improvement. Often, on a second assessment, I won’t even mark an un-proficient grade, just more feedback. If by the end of the term the student hasn’t managed to demonstrate proficiency in that standard, well, then, too bad, I have new classes to teach, bro.

The next quiz is generally entered into the grade book, students can choose to take a score on the first assessment, which gives them some basal incentive to perform well on the first one, but they do anyway without the carrot, but this ends up being unnecessary.

It turns out, humans crave  interaction and feedback, especially personalized feedback. Why do you think all of us middling edubloggers get suckered so easily by the can-I-include-you-on-my-arbitrary-list-of-people-that-contribute-to-making-the-Internet-bigger-while-I-link-spam-my-own-soulless-website lists?

I owe the inventor of the hyphen royalties

I feel like there aren’t words to describe my disdain for what a forced curriculum does to students. Cramming is just a symptom. Why can’t school be awesome every day? Why can’t kids come super excited to make progress? I have seen this glimmer on rare occasion. We can do this.

Adults Fear Freedom

As an adult, I’ll admit it. I fear letting my students loose. I don’t anymore, but I really did during my first two years. I now generally have students all over the building, being called off campus, or generally in different places mentally, and that’s cool to see. The students respond to the freedom with responsibility and poise. They want to do things that are interesting, they’re people, after all.

I tried to inject a little of this freedom into our study hall period for the day. The other teachers on my team were reticent, but, like a green newb, I pushed for my idealism and won. The students were able to go wherever they wanted during study hall. Some chose friends, some chose gaming, some chose academics, but the important part was that they chose, and that choice changed daily (for some).

Towards the end of the year the other teachers on my team got antsy. “This isn’t working,” “We don’t know where they are,” and “I’m sure they’re just leaving campus to go out to eat, smoke drugs, and do nothing” were common worries.

After a week of nazi-esque attendance tracking we saw a pretty consistent daily 1% unaccounted for. Most were going to the art room to throw pots of a charity event. The scoundrels! Others were performing in our top-ranked jazz ensembles. The ruffians! Others were taking a break from the previous 170 ceaseless minutes of instruction before their 20-minute lunch sprint towards another 170 minutes. The rapscallion hood rats!

All that to say: teenagers aren’t evil, they just get a little chaffed by being treated like cattle for 7 hours every day.

Finally, Yet Another Grading Program:

This one won’t be about grades though. I plan to launch this teeny-tiny app when my TEDx talk drops. Let’s just say, it’s heavy on feedback, light on numbers (you can use ActiveGrade for that, anyway), and it will also tell you what kind of mid-sized shrubbery will go great with your present landscaping.

I got sick of fighting with students over letter grades. I want them to concentrate on a central canon of standards, and then feel empowered to expand on them, all the while creating a record that anyone can use to help understand the who this student is academically. Here’s a teaser:

I also really want people to show a little diversity beyond lilacs, honestly, they smell good, but what a cop-out.