My third year teaching I encountered something new. I had multiple classes of honors students and, being honors students, many of them thought they could just skate by doing the bare minimum and get straight A’s in my class. Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen, so when they didn’t do what I asked (homework, whatever), they didn’t get good grades. At the end of the semester, I was called into the principal’s office and asked about my grades. I had (what I believe to remember) a relatively normal grade distribution, but I did have students making C’s, D’s, and F’s. My administrators asked me what I was going to do to have more A’s and B’s. I told them I’d give the students many opportunities, but they simply hadn’t done their work and so their grades reflected that. I was told I needed to do something to have more A’s and B’s in my honors classes. You can read between the lines about what went down in that office.
I actually ended up losing my job over the incident. Well, that probably wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely one of them. It turns out it was a good thing, though, because it really made me think about my grading. As the years went on, I began to realize that no matter what the students did (or, in most cases, did NOT do), I was always being asked what I was doing to improve their grades. So I started giving participation grades. This worked well with the new wave of teacher evaluations that required all students to be engaged in the lesson. I mean, I’ve never had a lesson where every single student participated meaningfully and engaged in higher order thinking, but…hey, I’ve only been in the classroom 10 years. I’ve got a ways to go.
First, let me say that my personal philosophy is to try, at all costs, to not put students on the spot. I have found that I get more out of my students (especially ones with behavior issues and such) if I let them come to me, so to speak, rather than drag them kicking and screaming. If I just call on a student because I don’t think they’ve been paying attention, for me, that just creates all sorts of problems. I’m all about using public shaming, but it has to be artful. It can’t be for the sole purpose of embarrassing a kid who I know already struggles with something. And having been both a math and English teacher, there are kids who just struggle with some stuff. So anyway, my plan of attack was predicated on the philosophy that I don’t call kids out (99% of the time).
I am a clipboard fanatic. I carry mine around with me everywhere. It gives me a huge advantage. Have you ever seen the look on a student’s face when he has done something he isn’t supposed to do and you just look at him and hold your clipboard and pretend to jot something down and then look right back at him? That’s a day-maker right there. You’ve got that kid in line for the rest of the class. I also carry around a list of positive phrases to help me with my classroom management. I can get pretty frustrated with my students when they act like…well…teenagers. So I have to work hard to stay even-keel and not let my emotions get the better of me. Point being, I carry a clipboard. I actually have 2 in case I set one down on one side of the room and go to the other and realize I need it.
What I decided to do was give out participation grades. I decided (after lots of trial and error and tweaking) to give 4 participation grades every quarter. This worked out to about 1 participation grade every 2 weeks or so. I would print out a roster and track student participation during whole-class discussions and even small-group or partner work. I decided I would give students credit for wanting to participate. This was a key ingredient to the success of this system. I had 2 groups of students I worried about. The first were the overachievers. They raised their hands for everything. Hands up even before the question was finished. Every time. Clockwork. If I didn’t give these students credit – or the opportunity to earn credit – for being eager beavers, it would crush their spirit and they would probably take it personally and think that they’d done something wrong and I was mad at them. Then I had the stones. The kids that sat there and never wanted to say anything. Ever. Sometimes I wondered if they were even alive. There was no way they were actually going to answer a question. And even if I called on them (without their volunteering, of course), it would be hit or miss as to whether or not they would know the answer. So I had a dilemma with these students. What to do? What if I gave students credit just for raising their hands? Seriously. I ask a question (or another student asks a question) and I give points just for being willing to contribute. Obviously, I’m not able to call on every single student every single time, so sure, I would only call on 1 or 2, but the rest would get credit.
First of all, the type-A’s were okay with it because they knew they were earning points to pad their 110% grade even when I didn’t call on them. Second, the students who normally sat like a bump on a log would wait until I asked a question that a ton of people knew the answer to and then they would raise their hand and hope to God I didn’t actually call on them. Which I often didn’t, because I knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t want to jeopardize the baby steps I was making with them. Plus, I also hit a 3rd group I didn’t realize existed. The fragiles. I have students every year who are high maintenance. They require finesse. They are the “I was just gonna say that” kid. They have a need to be recognized but not singled out. They are the “this is too hard! I can’t do this!” just because it doesn’t come easily right away or takes more than a single step to complete. When this kid raises a hand, you MUST call on him. Because if you don’t, you will a) hear from him that “I was just gonna say that!” after you call on the kid you do call on, and b) this kid will think you purposefully did not call on him because you don’t like him, think he’s stupid, or some other laundry list of teenager logic that makes little sense to the rest of us. But if I told everyone that they were getting credit for just raising their hands because I KNEW I wouldn’t be able to call on everyone every time, and that it was important to me that I hear from as many different people in a period as possible, that kid was managed. No longer did he feel slighted, because he knew I was paying attention to him. He saw that I saw his hand. He knew I knew that he “was gonna say that.”
But how did I manage this new method of participation grading? Ticks.
Tick marks. This system had an added benefit that I didn’t expect: increased wait time. In order for me to stay true to my word and give students points for raising their hands and participating, I had to keep track of it somehow. So I printed off a roster and slapped it on my clipboard. Whenever we were having a discussion, I would mark down tick marks every time a student raised his/her hand. Depending on the situation, I might even make a secondary mark after I actually called on a student. But the point was I was physically tracking student participation. And they knew it. They saw it. So they raised their hands. And I would mark a tick down for every single student. And when you have 22+ kids in a class, that can take some time. It feels like it takes forever, but it doesn’t really. What it does do is give you the wait time students so desperately need to process the question, find the answer, and decide to participate. By the time I was halfway through the tick marks, nearly every student’s hand would be raised. It was amazing.
To assign grades, I would give the student with the most tick marks for the time period (again, about 2 weeks) a 100% – in most cases it was out of 25 points, so a 25/25. Then, grades were calculated on a sliding scale. The next highest person (or persons, if there was a tie) would get 24/25, and so on and so forth. Everyone sort of bottomed out at about a “C”. I also would subtract points if a student was habitually disruptive or lethargic (sleeping, etc.).
If I knew certain students needed a teeny grade boost, I would reiterate the system before a class discussion. It would prompt participation. My students began to learn when I would get lazy, too. If I didn’t have my clipboard, participation dropped dramatically. The second I picked it up and started marking…boom. Sea of hands.
I like this system better than the popsicle sticks because even though students know they have to be prepared with that system, it still feels to me like a “gotcha.” I really like the idea of giving students the motivation to want to participate on their own. I mean, grades, by definition, are extrinsic motivation, but…I’m trying to build some sort of initiative and self-motive here. I have used this system with my 7th graders and also with my 9th graders and it has worked beautifully. And it’s a great tool to pull out when the administration walks through because you can show how engaged your students are in the lesson – and not just doing what you tell them to do; not just compliant, but really engaged and wanting to be a part of the discussion. On their own.
Once I started using this system, I found I had a lot more leeway to nudge students who might fall into that “yes, but what are you doing, as the teacher, to raise his/her grade” category. And I was able to sleep at night because it wasn’t really grade inflation, it was students earning points in a legitimate way. And it gave me ammunition. If parents or administration questioned my grades, I had one more intervention to throw at them: I give students points just for raising their hands. Let me tell you how many parents that shut up. It worked great in tandem with my “yes, and all the quizzes and tests are open notes.” There’ll be another post about why I give open-notes assessments in the future. And I used it to work the kids, too. I would tell them if they weren’t participating that they were essentially throwing points down the drain. There would always be a few who would rather die than raise their hand, but…to them, I would say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can here to help you out. I’m tempted to give you points just for breathing, but some of you are so intent on failing my class that I’m afraid you might actually stop.” Which would earn some laughs and maybe get a hand or two from those kids. Not always, but maybe.