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We have just finished a unit on the Presidency.  
A.  Draft a question that would require a student to demonstrate a deep and reasonably complete understanding of the functioning of the Presidency in the modern world, with respect to separation of powers and checks and balances.  It should be answerable with real world examples that we may have covered in the unit or of which the student may have independent knowledge.

B.  Now answer that question.

C.  Now, having answered the question, evaluate how well it required you to demonstrate your understanding, what skills it required you to apply, and what it did not require you to do.

D.  Now evaluate your response in part C.

That was a real-world assignment for my Advanced Placement students, which I just finished reading and "grading."  

This was something of an experiment.  In my diary yesterday, Teaching 2030: an important book on teaching by teachers, I mentioned that having participated in the online discussions that led up to the book, I appeared in it three times.  Once was as a result of a discussion of alternative ways of assessing other than the traditional tests, including teacher-prepared essays.  This was, in a very slightly different form, my contribution to that discussion, and it appeared in the book.   I decided to take the risk of using it for my 112 AP students.

They were given the assignment a week ago Wednesday, and it was due this Friday.  That gave them a chance to ponder the assignment, and then ask me questions about it.  They needed the dialog.

The intent of the assignment was far from simple.  First, I wanted them to experience the difficulty of properly framing a question that could both be answerable in a 45 minute period, and yet reasonably assess the knowledge and understanding a student should have of the material.  Next, I wanted them to begin to experience metacognition - thinking about their own thinking.  You will note the exercise has two levels of reflection.  The first level of reflection is to examine their own response to the question, and consider the experience of answering it.  That was actually not that difficult.

The heart of the assignment is part D, the reflection on the reflection, in which they were allowed to reflect on the entire process.

I told them if they did it seriously I was not concerned with how well or accurately they answered the question in part B, and that since this was the first time I had asked them to do something like this, they would have an A - this was a learning experience.  Not all got As.  About 15% of the students formed questions that did not stay within the bounds of Part A -  some phrased questions comparing presidential power to that of a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System - that could work, provided one still addressed the issues of separation of powers and checks and balances.  All but one of those that did that particular comparison failed on that point, and thus lowered themselves to a B.  So did the student whose paper focused on the functioning of the electoral college.  

Some students asked what the modern world meant, and I said that any of the last four presidents would qualify.  Two students wrote about Nixon, one in terms of the development of the War Powers Act and how it has functioned since - that was within the bounds of the question.  The other wrote about the impeachment process, and only partially stayed within the bounds, addressing checks and balances but not separation of powers.  However, that students recognized that in the two reflections.

These are largely sophomores, ranging in age from 14 to 16, with two juniors and two seniors out of the 112 currently on my roles.   This required them to move very much out of their comfort zones.  Many are not used to critiquing their own work, and struggled some on Part C.  Very few have had the experience of the kind of metacognition required for Part D.  

And yet, a strong majority were reasonably honest about Part C.  Some who were not as blunt as they should have been, recognized that in Part D, and talked about why.

This was the exciting part of reading/grading -  seeing what students produced when asked to reflect upon their own reflection.  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

One student talked about the fear of being wrong, so that s/he deliberately constructed a question in A that s/he knew she could answer in B.   S/he suggested that in the future we might try having each student make up a question, but then answer a question prepared by another student.   That's an interesting suggestion, although I have some concerns about the inequity that might be experienced by the quality of question one might receive through such a process.   I am thinking instead of having each student make up a question as a homework assignment, have the assignment answered in class by another student, who would then reflect on the quality of the question as a homework assignment, then the original student would have to take the answer and reflection and do the equivalent of Part D.   There are some mechanical issues, but it is doable.  The problem is, we have already lost 3 days to snow, so I do not know if I can do that before the AP exam, but I might well do it in the 6 weeks of school afterward.

Several students were quite honest about how they approach their work.  One brilliant student who tends to depend upon quickness and quantity of words to address questions acknowledged that s/he is very disorganized and that as a result s/he sometimes does not focus thinking -  recognition is the first step to addressing the problem.  Another commented on how this may have been the most challenging assignment s/he has done in any course this year - s/he discussed in detail the ways s/he had been stretched by the process.

A number of students acknowledged how hard it was to craft an appropriate question. Many commented in C that in answering the question they discovered how much it did NOT ask them, or that it did not require them to go beyond merely recapitulating facts.

I take risks as a teacher.  One reason I decided to do this exercise is that I saw too many students unwilling themselves to take intellectual risks.  It is only through challenging themselves to the point where they don't already know and understand that they begin to both deepen and broaden understanding, insight, knowledge, and skill.  It is far more important that I help them learn how to do that on their own than that I assess for a grade how well they can give back the content of any particular unit.

I will have a debrief on the exercise in class, for perhaps 15 minutes of a period, albeit not on Monday -  I still have several students who were out who need to turn in their work without being affected by the debrief.  

My own sense is that I need to find ways of working on metacognition and awareness for all my students, beginning far earlier in the year, and not just as a one-time exercise.  That will require me to rethinking completely my AP syllabus, not as to content, but as to delivery, both in what I do and in what I require them to do.  

This is a major part of teaching.  It is not just opening up skulls and pouring in knowledge, as the image from "Waiting for Superman" would have you believe.  It is in reaching out to students, challenging them, the teacher modifying what s/he does according to what the students demonstrate that they can do.

One thing very satisfying for me was the performance of one young lady, R__.   She has struggled all year.  She does not do well with multiple choice questions because she tends to overthink them.  The kind of writing she needs to do for the AP exam is painful for her, because she wants to write a proper essay, and spends too much time trying to craft a proper topic sentence.  The task here was to create an essay question.  In the process of doing this assignment R__ was, in her reflection, able to identify why she struggles on the other written test questions.  In her answers I could see not only a self-recognition, but a growth in confidence - now that she understands she feels it is within her power to make adjustments.

She was not the only one to comment about the implications of the recognitions coming from this experience.  For those students, the experience can potentially make them far more confident in challenging themselves, and far more effective in how they work.

It was not a great week in school, although we finally persuaded our administration of the need to do hall sweeps, and we finally have the vast majority of kids making sure they get to class on time.   There were things I tried that did not work as well as I wanted.  

Overall, I am pleased.  I took a risk, and asked my students to take a risk.  Most of them trusted me enough to do so.  As a result, we all learned from the experience.   With what they shared, particularly in Part D, I have some important information that can help make me a better teacher for them.   That is where the focus has to be for me:  where are they, how do I reach them, how do I help them move to a place that will enable them to grow in confidence, knowledge and skill?

By the way, only one student got a grade of less than B.  He rushed through the exercise with no care and no effort.   I could have failed him.  I think his realizing that out of more than 100 students he was the only one who got less than a B is sufficient, and I do not want to crush him -  but he is on notice that he must take responsibility for his work.  I may not be successful in reaching him, but then, students have to take some responsibility for themselves.

The exciting thing is how many did, which is why the five hours it took to read through and respond to the papers was time well spent.  

Welcome to my world, welcome to part of what it means to be a teacher.  

Peace.

Originally posted to teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 03:58 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I don't ask of my students what I don't ask of me (25+ / 0-)

    I want them to be reflective upon their work, and to take ownership thereof.

    I reflect constantly.

    Occasionally I share here those reflections.  In writing them I am required to consider them again.

    The process makes me a better teacher.

    I hope it is of some value for others, perhaps in helping them understand some of the complexities and challenges of meaningful teaching.

    btw - I know the last word on the subject line s/be "myself" but it wouldn't fit   :-)

    Peace.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 03:57:56 AM PST

  •  Thanks, Ken. Tipped and recommended (8+ / 0-)

    Did most of the students express appreciation of what you were trying to help them do? Or does that come in the debrief?

    I'm guessing that if you tell them there will be another such assignment, that when it comes there will be a lot of improvement. Please keep us posted.

    "Lash those traitors and conservatives with the pen of gall and wormwood. Let them feel -- no temporising!" - Andrew Jackson to Francis Preston Blair, 1835

    by Ivan on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 04:19:38 AM PST

  •  I did something similar (6+ / 0-)

    For my honors Government midterm, I had the students write an extensive essay detailing what problems they saw in the American election system and what solutions they would offer to solve those problems.  After grading them, I asked a series of follow up questions that students had to answer for homework.  The follow up questions all dealt with how they arrived at their solutions -- i.e. what they were thinking.  

    I like your assignment though -- mind if I steal it?  

    A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.

    by Guy Fawkes on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 04:24:05 AM PST

  •  my teaching/learning epiphany (5+ / 0-)

    (and I'm not a teacher by trade)
    came as an ESL peer tutor in high school.
    I was helping a recently arrived Chinese student read Elie Wiesel's "Night".

    I realized how much of what I got out of the reading was what I knew before I opened the book.  

    It seems to me that thinking about what we know and how we learn it is as huge a life skill as any...  
    and while you, teacherken, gave  an example from the AP classoom,  it's something that can and should be part of every classroom.

    Thanks, as always for keeping our minds in sync with our hearts.

    It's not a fake orgasm; it's a real yawn.

    by sayitaintso on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 04:36:42 AM PST

  •  So this is what "fair and balanced-you decide" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Pandoras Box, Oh Mary Oh, Mostel26

    really looks like.
    I'd love to see some Fox news personalities take the test.

    If cats could blog, they wouldn't.

    by crystal eyes on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 05:06:47 AM PST

    •  well, many might have a problem (4+ / 0-)

      since it requires two things I fail to see in many of them

      first, a knowledge of the Constitutional structure of our government

      second, an ability to be honest in their self-awareness.  They lack both characteristics on this.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 05:11:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The more interesting experiment, I would think, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Pandoras Box, mamamedusa

    would be to try the same thing in a non-AP class.

    Your AP kids are already recognized to among the best and brightest, and it's great to challenge them in this way, but...

    I wonder how many surprising minds might be out there among the "left behind".  This seems like a much better way to find them than the assortment of standardized test schools tend to rely on to identify "the smart ones".

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 05:42:37 AM PST

    •  would not be very successful (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      celdd, mamamedusa, Mostel26

      in 2 of three non-AP classes.   The other the kids are almost at what is called an honors level, and most of them would take it seriously.

      For the two lower level classes, totally just about 60 kids, there are maybe 15 who would take this seriously.  About half would not even attempt it.

      I have worked very hard on getting them to try anything beyond just copying something word for word from the book without even considering whether it is relevant.  They resent that I won't just give them multiple choice tests where they can guess the answer -  they think that is the only thing that matters because they have been having it drilled into them since 3rd grade -  they have lived their entire lives under NCLB.  

      Believe me, I push them, but one cannot push too far beyond where they already are or too many will shut down.

      I might be able to do a 2-part exercise with them, but nothing this complicated for most of them.

      Of the 15 that would take it seriously, the only way I could have them do it is as extra credit, and most of them do not need extra credit.

      The reality is that by the time I get kids in 10th grade, some of them have had their learning processes totally distorted by what we have been doing in educational policy.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 05:49:13 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I agree 100% (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        celdd, mamamedusa

        My analogy with the problem you're bringing up is limbo artists vs. high jumpers. My AP/Honors kids will usually high jump a task. No matter where I put the bar they'll jump over it. Too many of my lowest achieving kids in my non-AP/honors classes will limbo every task  by seeing if they can slide under the bar of expectations.

      •  15 out of 60 isn't bad. (0+ / 0-)

        Think about it: You are extolling this exercise for the benefits it provides to your AP students, not for your ability to assign a grade.

        You also believe that 15 of the others could handle the assignment and, presumably benefit from the exercise. They, however, will not get that chance because they are lumped together with the sluggards.

        As to NCLB -- that is just too damned easy a copout.  I know it's not your doing as a high school teacher, but

        a) NCLB does not forbid teachers from teaching, and

        b) there was a reason for NCLB in the first place.  In case you've forgotten, the act was a bi-partisan measure (though originally tended only as a first step) because American schools had --  and have -- a ton of problems.

        NCLB does, however, make one hulluva fine excuse so long as nobody asks too many questions.

        LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

        by dinotrac on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:10:37 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  actually, it is, and it is not a productive use (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mamamedusa

          of time for me -  I have to address where my students are, only then try to move them to where they can be.  

          I think you ought to reread what Mostel has to say - it is unfortunately far too true for far too many, although as I said previously I think that is a result of what they have been experiencing so far in their education.

          "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

          by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:13:10 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  You have to address where some of your students (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mamamedusa

            are.

            I understand that you have to make the most productive use of your time. It is not your fault and I am not blaming you.

            I still feel bad for the 15.

            LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

            by dinotrac on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:16:49 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  don't - they get challenged in other ways n/t (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              mamamedusa

              "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

              by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:20:40 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  I should admit to my own bias in this matter. (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mamamedusa

                I had a very difficult time in public schools 40-50 years ago.  I was expelled from school in the second grade -- which I don't think happens any more.  I was re-admitted after sessions with a psychologist and a battery of tests (all done on the government dime as I was a military dependent) evaluated me as being gifted.

                My 3 daughters have had varying struggles.
                My youngest has it easy.  She tested out in the 98th percentile on the standardized tests, so she will be regarded as one of the "smart ones".

                My middle daughter didn't do that well on the tests, partly, I believe, because she is a year younger than her classmates whereas my youngest is a bit older than hers.

                She, however, has fought, clawed, yelled, screamed, bugged guidance counselors, etc so that she takes mostly AP and honors classes.

                My guess is that she is about like those 15 kids.  

                She has to work damned hard now, and she no longer gets nearly straight As.  It's a funny thing though: her GPA has gone up because the advanced classes are weighted differently on the scale.  I'll bet the challenge also means that she will do better when it comes time take ACT/SAT and to write essays for college entrance.

                I'm glad that she's a fighter and chose not to settle where the professional educators judged most appropriate for her.

                LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

                by dinotrac on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:32:20 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  good of you to explain your point of view (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  mamamedusa

                  several of those 15 have been asked to take honors classes next year instead of regular, and I have suggested to 5 that they sign up for AP, because they can handle it.  4 of those 5 were new to our school so we had no way of evaluating them.

                  I always challenge kids to go beyond where they are.  I am not going to put a kid in jeopardy when s/he is not yet ready to perform at a higher level and failing might be crushing.

                  "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

                  by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:45:36 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  And interesting statement that one -- (0+ / 0-)

                    I am not going to put a kid in jeopardy when s/he is not yet ready to perform at a higher level and failing might be crushing.

                    Perfectly reasonable and completely defensible so long as the kids and the parents get an opportunity to take the risk, should they choose to do so.

                    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

                    by dinotrac on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:56:22 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

  •  If I had to pick one quotation (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mamamedusa, Mostel26

    for what good teaching is, I'd go all the way back to Plutarch:

    A mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled

    although I think, if we start early, the fire is already burning and just needs to be kept going.  By the time you get the kids, I think the fire is out in far too many.

    Your question kindled some fires.  Including one in you.  Kudos to you for that

    But I'm amazed that it took so little as five hours to read through these - perhaps I am misunderstanding something.  Five hours = 300 minutes.  If you had 112 essays, that's 3 minutes each.  Can that be right?  I know you read fast!  

    •  yes, I read very quickly (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plf515, mamamedusa

      but here is the important part -  I am less concerned with their answer to the question than I am parts C and D.  Some did not write that much on either one, which saved a fair amount of time.

      Also, I have 10 students who were out, and one who failed to turn in the paper on time, so it was only 101 -  small difference, perhaps.

      Most are typed, which makes reading them far more efficient.

      I am also not making that many individual comments on papers, since - as I expected - I am encountering some of the same things over and over.  I have taken some general notes to discuss in the debrief, which will probably be on Tuesday.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:05:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  When I was teaching statistics (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, sayitaintso, mamamedusa

    to undergraduates at Fordham, one student went to the chair of the department, complaining that I was asking him to think.

    How dare I do such a thing!?!???!

  •  I almost took the assignment myself (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tardis10

    and then decided I was not competent enough to pass.

    Damn good assignment.

    Practice tolerance, kindness and charity.

    by LWelsch on Sun Feb 06, 2011 at 06:59:17 AM PST

  •  When I read Part D (0+ / 0-)

    I thought that if I had been one of your students my first reaction would have been "Oh, give me a break!"

    Because, of course, at that age, I wasn't used to evaluating my own thinking, and it may have been uncomfortable, and I would have wanted to get the thing done. Also, after doing Parts C and D, I might have wanted to go back and redo Part A, and I assume that the students would not have had the time to do that.  

    I've got a high school sophomore and a junior.  I think it's good for the kids to do exercises like this.  But I do have to say that I question your plans to include more metacognition exercises in your syllabus.  I think that a few of these exercises would open up that metacognition channel, and having to do it too often would, with all due respect to you as a teacher become tedious and not particularly useful if that type of thinking has already been "turned on."  I'm sure it's interesting to read, as a teacher, and is useful in getting to know students too, and in developing some ways of communicating with different individuals.  

    I'm also of the mind that, having talked to my kids so many times about different experiences they had in the classroom on particular days, and hearing them talking to their friends and siblings about school, they already engage in this metacognition outside of the classroom.  My oldest son does this the most because that's just the way he is, and because he's the one who is most into learning, and who has the advanced honors and AP classes.  But even my middle son, who largely wants to just get through the schoolwork so he can work on his music has these kinds of metacognition conversations too.  And my youngest definitely does, and as a middle schooler, is always listening to whatever he can learn about how things are in high school.  

    I do have to say that I think they do it more than I did at the same age.  They have had a much better education than I had, and I think I had a pretty decent education considering that I came from a big family and went to parochial schools.  I think that the Montessori early ed may have made a difference for them too.

    Just a few thoughts, with respect, and gratitude for your writing here about a subject near and dear to my heart but from a different perspective.

  •  examining our own thought processes (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks for showing how examining our own thought processes can be useful. I appreciate how you're focusing our attention, as readers.

    I find myself tempted to connect the learning process you describe to other sorts of interactions. But ... that's probably best left to another diary, another day.

    Thanks again for this.

    Cheers

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