Why I Scale (and Curve) My Grades

I was fortunate enough to work in my district’s assessment office for over two years. I worked with teachers and other district administrators to create all of the district-wide exams for English, their electives, and some CTE (Career and Technical Education) courses. As I work for one of the ten largest districts in the country, this was a major undertaking.

In this position, I was privy to some unique perspective on how the scaling process works not only at a district level, but also for large testing companies like College Board and ACT. It changed my perspective regarding curves and scales for individual assessments and overall course grades as a whole.

This experience came after a more negative experience early in my teaching career, where I wound up losing a position because of, among other issues, my course grades. I find that the teachers I work with face a major obstacle with grades. A large number of students don’t do what they’re expected to do. They don’t do homework. They don’t do class work. They don’t turn in work they actually take the time to do. They don’t study for tests. Or, they study for tests but because they didn’t do the other important work, they fail anyway. If you take a look at many teachers’ raw grade book scores for any individual assignments, there are an alarming number of failing grades.

scales oops

Now, teachers can lament and rend their garments all they like about how lazy students (and/or parents, etc.) are and how, “If (insert name here) would just do what s/he’s supposed to, they would be passing!” But at some point, there is a reality game to play. The reality is that in any given class, there is a spectrum of students. There always has been, and there always will be. Even in honors or AP classes, there is a spectrum. Some of it has to do with student effort, but some of it is related to innate ability/talent/intellect, what-have-you. Let me tell you, I worked my behind off in my college computer programming class (why I had to take it to get certified for middle school math is beyond me, but that is neither here nor there). I did every assignment. I went to every class. I went to office hours. I asked questions. I worked HARD. And I barely – BARELY – made a “C.” There were assignments and assessments I failed. Not because I was lazy, but because my brain just did not work that way. It wasn’t something for which I had a natural affinity. Anyway, the point is that in any class, there is a spectrum of students. And I can’t (nor should I, in my opinion) make ten different ability versions of a quiz or test so that I can accurately assess every single student where they are in that moment. Every student takes the same test. Maybe I have 2 or 3 versions, but it’s of the same test – same level, rigor, etc. And I know – heck, I’ll even use the word “expect” – there to be failures. Because my tests are well-made. I follow a 30/40/30 or 25/50/25 rule for my tests in terms of easy/medium/difficult questions. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “D” students from my “F” students. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “B” students from my “A” students. I know student Q over there isn’t going to get an “A.” I know that because he’s on the lower end of my spectrum. But I’m not entirely sure if he’s a “D” or an “F” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of easy questions come in. I know student S is going to ace the easy and medium questions, but I’m not sure if student S is an “A” or a “B” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of hard questions come in.

scales question distribution

The problem is, when you have a class that has a really wide, and heavily skewed spectrum, you end up doing a lot of “D”/”F” differentiation and not a lot of “A”/”B” differentiation. Which makes your test scores look like crap. And if that’s the case for all of your assignments and assessments, then your class averages look like crap.

So instead of grading in a CRT (criterion-referenced test) system, which looks at raw scores as the basis for grades, I went to a more NRT (norm-referenced test) system, which scales – or in some cases curves – scores to assign grades. This is what large districts like my own do, as well as major national testing companies like the College Board and ACT. There’s a reason they convert raw scores to scale scores. There’s a reason their national averages work out to a bell curve. They recognize and base their scoring on the fact that there is a spectrum of students who take their tests.

scales bell curve

Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t let students fail. I’m not suggesting what some schools or even entire districts mandate (not mine, thankfully…yet), which are things like having minimum grades of 50% or even 55% rather than zero’s in a gradebook. I see the argument behind that, but…frankly, that’s a topic for a different entry. I’m not suggesting that a student who answers 2 questions right out of 25 end up with an A or a B. However, I am saying that scaling scores is a reasonable way to norm assessment, assignment, and entire class grades so that a teacher doesn’t find him/herself at the end of the quarter with 15 F’s and 10 B’s and C’s and no A’s. I’ve been on the receiving end of that discussion with admin and believe me, it wasn’t pretty. Scaling grades isn’t grade inflation, when it’s done appropriately. Here is how a scaling process might work.

Let’s say, for time’s sake, that my class has 10 students. I know, right? Heaven. But again, this is for time’s purpose, not reality. I give a test to a low-performing class and this is my raw score data:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade
A 15 F
B 20 F
C 30 F
D 60 D
E 75 C
F 25 F
G 80 B
H 45 F
I 55 F
J 35 F

Something really important to remember in the scaling process is that I do NOT discard my raw data. This class needs a LOT of remediation and further instruction on this topic. I would NOT want to move on to the next concept before doing some serious re-teaching. The average for this assessment is only a 44%. That is TERRIBLE. Something went horribly wrong.

scales terribly wrong

Here is where I have a decision to make. I can choose to curve my scores OR I can choose to scale them. Curving is different from scaling. Curving is adding points to raw scores, which results in a change to the overall average score. This is probably more common than scaling because lots of teachers already do it. “Oh, man, everyone missed question 7. Gee, now that I look at it, I can see that question 7 really was kind of vague. It really wasn’t a great question. I’m going to throw it out.” When you throw out/don’t count a question, you’re simply adding the same number of points to everyone’s raw score. That’s a curve. Or, when you say, “Hey, this average was only a 44% I want the average to be 70%. That means I have to add 26 percentage points to everyone’s score.” Or, you look at the highest score and if it isn’t an A, you add however many points that person needs to move up to an A to everyone’s score. That’s a curve. That’s how we get the expression “blow the curve.” When everyone else does terribly but one person scores an A, it can negate the need for a curve. Using curves is pretty easy and accomplishes something similar to a scale, which is it saves your grade book and students’ overall averages.

Now, if I wanted to scale these scores, what I would do is decide what I wanted my normed curve to look like, do I want a bell curve? Do I want a skewed curve? If so, do I want to skew low or high? I am pretty anal about this and really love the beauty and symmetry of the bell curve, so I usually scale my scores to resemble a bell curve. You can also choose to scale the scores to some other norm. For example, in my district, the semester exam scales were created to match the norm curve of student course grades. If 15% of students earned an A, 20% earned a B, 45% earned a C, 5% of students earned a D, and 15% of students earned an F, then that is what the scale would reflect. Or try to come close to, anyway.

So let’s scale my quiz scores to match a bell curve. Without going into some higher-level statistics, the basic breakdown of the bell curve says the majority of scores fall in the middle (C), some of the scores fall on either side of that – an equal amount – as B’s and D’s, and the smallest amount of scores fall outside of those – again, an equal amount – as A’s and F’s.

With only 10 students, our bell curve might look something like this:

scales bell curve 2

This is what the scale scores look like from the original table:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade Scale score
A 15 F F
B 20 F D
C 30 F C
D 60 D B
E 75 C B
F 25 F D
G 80 B A
H 45 F C
I 55 F C
J 35 F C

Their scale score has nothing (or very little) to do with their raw score and everything to do with the normed curve and their performance compared to their peers. This preserves the spectrum of students in the class without inflating grades or hurting teachers’ grade books.

When scaling is used in conjunction with curving, it can be effective in maintaining a “normed” or “balanced” grade book. If teachers discount raw score information, though, or curve blindly just to get to a “nice average” for an assessment, this isn’t best practice. Without looking at the assessments, teachers aren’t able to become aware of flaws or bias in individual items or student weaknesses and areas in need of intervention. Again, I wouldn’t intend to just move on from this assessment. I would intend to reteach and reassess it until those raw “F” students were able to score raw “C’s”. Am I going to move Student A? Maybe from a raw “F” to a raw “D,” but probably not much more than that. Could I get my raw “C” to a raw “B” and/or my raw “B” to a raw “A”? Probably. I would hope so. But, I don’t want the original assessment to kill my grade book or students’ overall averages, so using a scale is helpful and appropriate. Am I going to achieve my goals every time? Nope. That’s not reality. But the point is that would be my intention, and that’s what matters. I could throw the whole assessment out, but what message am I sending to students then? Did it even matter in their eyes if the grade doesn’t count? Students struggle (often, at least in my experience) to see the value in an assignment that doesn’t get a grade, and then you run into motivation issues. But again, another topic for another entry.

Once I started using curves and scales responsibly, my grade book looked great. I don’t have tons of A’s and I don’t have kids who clearly either didn’t understand a concept or were ridiculously lazy getting A’s, both of which would indicate indiscriminate grade inflation. What I do have, however, is evidence for my administrators that I reflect thoroughly on my grading process and the assessments themselves.

Why I Decided to Teach Certain Math Skills in My English Classes

As the third quarter comes to an end for many schools, I wanted to take the time to share why I, as an English teacher, spent time showing my students a very specific math skill: calculating GPA. I did this when I was teaching 9th & 10th grade English, although I also did a modified version of it this year with my 7th grade math students. However, middle school transcripts aren’t as focused on GPA – at least not in my district – so it depends on your circumstances whether or not you’d want to do this as a middle school teacher.


As a non-math content area teacher, I had to really weigh the pros and cons of taking an entire class period to go over a math skill. All our curriculums are over-packed. We don’t have days to “waste.” Was I ready to give up a day of curriculum to teach a skill that wasn’t directly related to my own curriculum and standards? Well, honestly, the first time I did this, I hadn’t intended to take an entire class period. My goal was to put up the grade calculation chart to show my students how their 3 grades (quarter 3, quarter 4, and final exam) worked together to get their final semester grade. That was only supposed to take maybe 10-15 minutes. I knew I could spare that. I knew I had to. But, as the conversation took a turn to GPA and how that is calculated and how “bad” one grade can be for a GPA, it didn’t take long to figure out that my students had zero idea how to calculate their own GPA.

deer in headlights

This was a serious problem since I worked with freshman. Those of you who work with underclassmen are well aware of the thought process these students have. So many of them don’t think their grades matter. They don’t realize the damage a bad grade in 9th or 10th grade can do to a GPA. They don’t understand that they will spend the rest of their high school career fighting to repair a GPA that has been devastated by a “C” or, heaven forbid, a “D.” Let’s not even talk about the “F”s. When I tried to quickly explain the GPA calculations, my students immediately took an interest. They demanded I slow down so they could take notes. Seriously, I had students who rarely paid any attention to a single word I said and when I started talking about their GPA they were like, “Woah, woah, woah, Miss! Slow down!” They cared about this. What shocked me was not so much that my students didn’t know how a GPA was calculated – after all, it would be unlikely that they would have learned that in middle school, given the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on GPAs in middle school – it was that their math teachers hadn’t taught them this when they started high school.


I realize now that I shouldn’t have been surprised. As teachers, we assume a heck of a lot of knowledge for our students. We assume they just know things because we know them. We forget how we learned. It doesn’t occur to us to teach things we ourselves know and/or expect our students to know. And I’m not talking about curriculum concepts, I’m talking about this type of stuff: GPA calculation, test-taking techniques , how to bubble a freaking Scantron sheet correctly. So I taught them how to calculate their GPA. The first time, I had to fly by the seat of my pants. I had to guess how much our district weighted honors and AP classes. I let them know that my assumptions could be wrong and they should do their own research to figure out how their specific class load would work out. But the next time, I was prepared. I did my research and found the district’s weighting system and how GPA was calculated. I budgeted a full class period for it, and it paid off. And my students were enthralled and thankful. It honestly changed a lot of perspectives. I know a lot of my students changed their attitudes towards their effort in classes because of this lesson. I know because they told me themselves. I saw some students improve their efforts in my class, and I know other teachers saw improvements in theirs. They might not have known why, but the improvements were there.


You might think that the kids who cared were only the college-bound ones. The kids who knew they had no shot might not care about anything except graduating. Why bother with trying to get “A”s and “B”s when all you need is a 2.0 to graduate? Or maybe they were planning to drop out; why should they care about a GPA as a freshman when they knew in just 2 years they’d be out of school anyway? Well, what I’ve noticed is that students who think they can’t control something often become apathetic towards it. If a student thinks a GPA is some sort of magical number over which they have no control and no influence, they have no reason to devote any time or energy towards caring about it. But, if you show a student – any student – that THEY control this GPA, it changes a lot. Really, this is true about many things for students. They don’t have a lot of control over things. Give them a little bit of control and it empowers them. It engages them. And that’s what this lesson did for my students – all of them, even the low-performing, unmotivated ones. It gave them the knowledge that THEY controlled their GPA. And that changed everything.


How I Use Gains (or Growth) Grading to Foster Confidence in Low-Performing Students

I don’t know about you, but every year I’ve taught, I have students who come to me so defeated that they think the year’s over before it even starts. They’re so far behind in whatever subject it is (Math, English, whatever) that they don’t even want to try because they are convinced they’ll fail. I can’t blame them. If I knew that no matter what I did I was going to see “F” after “F” on every paper I got back, I wouldn’t want to put forth much effort, either. These were the grades they were getting (and would continue to get) on assignments if I graded on accuracy. The problem was that I was teaching and assessing on grade level, even though so many students were woefully below it. My hands were tied somewhat in terms of curriculum. I could do some remediation, but there just wasn’t ever going to be enough time in the day (or year) to make up for year upon year of missing skills. But I had to find a way to motivate them, so I came up with (okay, I’m sure I didn’t come up with it, but I decided to use) growth grading. I gave my students benchmark tests throughout the year (usually once a quarter – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending) and explained how they would be graded.

Baseline test: Graded on effort. I would watch the students as they worked and they would earn an “A” if they were working at 100% the entire time. Grades would go down if they weren’t trying. I would record the raw score of each student, but that wouldn’t factor into the grade itself.

Benchmark test #1: This test was graded on growth. I compared the student’s baseline raw score to this benchmark test’s raw score, and if they improved they would earn an “A” or “B” – the amount of improvement would determine which grade they earned. If their raw scores stayed the same (or within a certain percentage of each other) they would earn a “C”. If their score went down or it was obvious they just weren’t trying, they would earn a “D” or “F,” depending on the severity of the decrease/lack of effort.

Subsequent benchmark tests: These were graded the same way. However, if I had students who were earning raw scores in the “A” range, then if they stayed there, they continued to earn an “A”. I wasn’t going to penalize a student for going from a 95% to a 92%.

Students were so motivated once they learned this! The excitement in their eyes and body language when they saw an “A” on their test was inspiring. Even if they went from a 10% to a 20%, they had earned an “A” because they were making progress. It changed their outlook on their work and education.

Of course, I couldn’t grade every assignment like this, but because of this I also began writing raw scores on student work instead of percentages or letter grades. I found that students who were habitually getting “F” grades would get less discouraged if they saw 3/6 instead of “F” or 50%. For some reason, knowing they got half right was less discouraging than seeing that “F” or percentage. Sometimes, if I noticed a student was making progress, I would note it on their test. Just the other day, I had a student who had worked harder than he had the whole year for a full week. He took his notes, did his class work, paid attention…really tried. On his quiz, he only got 2.5/6, but I went back through his other scores for the year and it was the highest grade he’d earned the entire school year. So rather than put “F” on his paper, I wrote him a note: “This is the highest quiz grade you’ve earned all year! Why? Because you did your work and put in the effort! So impressed!” During the next quiz, he seemed discouraged, so I reminded him how much his hard work had paid off and that perhaps his goal this time should just be to get a 3/6 to show improvement. I could tell that changed his attitude and he worked harder on it than he had been.

Give growth grading a try and see if it changes your students’ motivation and self-concept.

How I Use a Calendar and Long-Term Planning to Improve Student Achievement

My first year of teaching I taught from the book. Every day I’d move on to the next page and at the end of the unit I’d give the test and then move on. I felt like I was living by the seat of my pants. It didn’t go that well.

My second year I realized I had to do a little more planning to be more successful. I started writing my lesson plans out for the week. This was better than the first year, but still not enough to make me feel calm about walking into class every day. My mother used a program called Calendar Creator to plan family stuff and write down important dates, etc. I decided to give it a try. I began planning a month at a time. Lessons, quizzes, tests, homework…everything. I loved it so much I actually began planning out entire quarters – and even semesters at a time.

Other teachers didn’t understand why I did it. They assumed I wasn’t open to shifting the plan if my students demonstrated a need. This wasn’t the case. If something happened, I’d rework things to accommodate my students’ needs. The thing was, that hardly ever happened. The more I planned, the more in tune I was with my students. Because I was planning so far in advance, I was forced to take the time to actually go through the lessons and look at the material, decide on classwork assignments, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests. I began to anticipate where students would struggle and where they would excel. Of course it was a learning curve, but now, a decade into my teaching career, I am to the point where I only have to revise a calendar once or twice a year.

Now I plan by breaks: summer is my time to plan from August through December. Winter break is time for me to plan January through Spring break. Spring break is the time for me to plan through the end of the year. I give students calendars at the start of every month. I email that calendar to parents every month as well, and I post it on my class website. On the calendar is the unit we’re on, the bell work for each day (sometimes very specific, sometimes generic), the class work for the day, and any homework for the day. The quizzes and tests for the month are on there as well.

Jan 2016 calendar

In addition to making me feel more prepared and a like I was a better teacher, it also had some unexpected benefits for my students. It increased their achievement in a few different ways. First of all, they had access to quiz and test dates, so they were more prepared for them and did better on them. Additionally, students who were missing school had access to the work we were doing so they didn’t fall behind. This worked very well for students who had absences planned in advance, too. I would get requests from parents like, “We’re going out of town next week, can you give my student work?” and I would respond that they could just follow the calendar and be pretty much caught up by the time they got back. Parents LOVED that. It also helped with missing work because students could go back and look at what they were supposed to do and turn it in if they were missing it.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Does it pay off? Yes.

Why I Assign Seats in My Secondary Classroom

I began my teaching career in 7th and 8th grade math. I taught that for a few years and then switched to 7th grade English. Then, I moved up to high school English and Reading. After a 2.5 year break working in administration, I’m back in a 7th grade math classroom. I’ve found, through the years, that in the secondary (and most especially, high school) world, I am among the minority of teachers who assign seats.

I’m sure any teacher who doesn’t assign seats has a good reason for it, but I’ve found that for me, assigning seats helps my classes run more smoothly and more effectively. Here are some reasons I assign seats in my secondary classroom (the only grade I did NOT assign seats was 12th, because I felt like as adults, assigning seats was a bit much for them):

Housekeeping: Attendance is quick and easy with a seating chart. I don’t have to call out names or waste time trying to figure out who isn’t present. I look at the empty seats and match them to the names on the chart and attendance is done in 10 seconds.

Variety: I get bored easily and changing seats allows me to stay interested. Kids also get bored with who they sit next to (or get too chummy and chatty), so changing seats prevents social issues.

Scaffolding: One of the seating arrangements I employ is to seat a struggling student with a successful student (if my desks are in pairs – if they’re in rows, I seat every other student high-low by grade). This provides good modeling for the struggling student and someone to help them if I can’t.

Behavior management: Figuring out who can’t sit next to who in order for class to go smoothly is important. By assigning seats I can make sure troublemakers don’t sit next to each other and I stop problems before they start.

Life skills: Assigning seats teaches the life skill of working with someone you may not like. Students learn quickly not to complain about or ask to change their seat. I tell them, “It’s not a marriage. You don’t have to be next to him/her forever. I’m not asking you to be best friends, I’m asking you to sit next to him/her. You’ll move again in a few weeks. Deal with it.” And they do – for the most part.

Structure: Students like structure. It helps them be efficient. They feel secure. They don’t have to choose where to sit when they come into the room. Instead, they get right to work and it saves a lot of time (and trouble with seat fighting).

Not sure how to seat your students? Here are some of the ways I order them (and I change seats every 2 weeks in my room, so I rotate through this list several times a year):

By last name, by first name, by gender (alternating boy-girl or boys on one side, girls on the other), by grade/average (low-high alternating or low in front and high in back), by behavior/participation (I use the corners to seat behavior problems and make sure focused, quiet students surround them to keep them from drawing others in).

How do you seat your students? Do you assign seats? Why or why not?

On the Secret Use of Sticky Notes for Classroom Management

I often find that if I tell a student to stop doing something (or to do something), it can turn into a power struggle. I work with secondary students, and they are primarily concerned with looking good in front of their friends. If they sense that they look weak or have lost control, they will battle against whoever put them in that situation. It can get ugly.

teacher student fight

I also hate escalation and disruption while I teach. If I have to ask a kid 3 or 4 times to do something, that’s taking away from my lesson and probably getting the kid all worked up as well. Everything from eating to wearing the hoodie – my verbally asking a kid to stop is a disruption. Sometimes I just ignore things, but I don’t like that option, either, because it undermines my authority and shows other students that rules don’t have to be followed. I’ve also learned about the value of wait time – not just for question/answer sessions, but for directions as well. If I tell a kid to take off his hat, it’s unlikely he’ll do it immediately. But instead of telling him over and over and risking an escalation, I’ve found that if I just give him a few minutes, he’ll comply. I guess it’s a way of exercising some sort of control over the situation – he’ll do it, but he’ll do it when he feels like it.

student in hoodie

But there are some kids that even that won’t work for, so I use sticky notes. I’m not sure where I picked up this little method. All I know is I didn’t come up with it on my own. I carry around a clipboard with me throughout classes for various reasons – attendance, behavior documentation, participation tracking, etc. and on this clipboard, I carry a stack of sticky notes. If I notice a student doing something they shouldn’t be, I write them a note and make my way to their desk. I casually stick it right in front of them and keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t make any sort of fuss or draw attention to it. The majority of the time, no one else even notices what I’ve done. The kid reads my note, (9 times out of 10 s/he crumples it up) and then a minute or two later stops whatever behavior I’ve asked them to stop.

sticky note note

I used to just use this to manage misbehavior, but I eventually realized I could use this for positive reinforcement or even just basic directions. I have students who don’t like to be singled out for any reason – good or bad. But I still want to recognize when they’ve done something well, so I use sticky notes to write them a positive note when I’m impressed with their work or thankful they’re making good choices. I also use this when I have something I need done but I don’t want to disrupt the class asking for a volunteer. Most of the time I use my errand captain for stuff like this, but sometimes I’ll get a sticky note, write down what I need done, and give it to a kid without skipping a beat in my lesson. I also do this when someone’s been called to the office. When I hang up the phone, I continue teaching, write my note to the student who’s been called, and give it to them. Zero disruption.

I hope this teaching tip has been helpful for you. I’d love to hear what you use in your classroom to minimize power struggles and manage behavior effectively!

How Not to Argue with Students

I often encounter teachers who (usually without realizing it) argue with their students. I’ll even admit – I was one of them. And, okay, I’ll admit it again, every once in a while, I fall back into old habits and argue with a kid. But when I do, I pull out (mentally, of course) this “How-to” guide to prevent myself from arguing with my students.

Why don’t I argue with my students? Simple: they’re kids. It’s unproductive. It’s disruptive. It undermines my authority. It gives into negative, attention-seeking behavior. It has no discernable, positive results. Most importantly, though, I’m the adult in the situation. I have to have control of myself and my classroom, and when I argue with a student, I lose that control.

There are only 2 simple rules in this “How-to” guide:

  1. Agree with the student.

Now, hold on – I can hear you shouting at me through your computer. I can imagine your eyebrows disappearing into your hairline. Let me explain.

I don’t mean tell the student they’re right and let it go. There’s an art to agreeing without losing ground or control. Let me give you some examples.


Student says:

Teacher arguing: Teacher agreeing:
“This is stupid!” “Don’t say that about my class!”

“No, it’s not!”

“Be quiet!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I hate this class!” “Why would you say that?”

“Stop being disruptive!”

“I don’t like you much, either!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“You can’t make me do that!” “Watch me!”

“Yes I can!”

“Stop being so rude!”

“No, I can’t. But I hope you’re prepared for the consequences if you choose not to do it.”
“I don’t feel like doing that.” “Do what I say!”

“Do it!”

“Get it out and start doing it now!”

“That’s too bad. I hope you change your mind later.”
“I can’t do ___ because I don’t have my ___.” “Why are you always unprepared?”

“Why can’t you just bring your materials?”

“That’s a zero, then.”

“That’s unfortunate. Perhaps you could borrow one from a neighbor.”

This takes a LOT of practice to become comfortable using responses like this. It is difficult at first because it feels like you’re letting the student walk all over you and be disrespectful. However, once you say your statement, the student diffuses and you can have a conversation about their words and actions later, when it won’t derail your class.

The second rule is

  1. Be a broken record.

This eliminates arguing entirely and students who thrive off of arguing quickly learn they will not get anywhere with you. Let me give you some examples:

Argument with student Broken record
S: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

T: “Not right now.”

S: “But I really have to go!”

T: “I told you no!”

S: “How come I can’t go?”

T: “We’re in the middle of the lesson.”

S: “I’ll get the notes from R.”

T: “You’ve gone to the bathroom at the same time 3 days in a row.”

S: “’Cause I really have to pee!”

T: “You’re disrupting the class.”

S: “Please let me go!”

T: “Stop asking me if you can go!”

S: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

T: “No.”

S: “But I really have to go!”

T: “No.”

S: “How come I can’t go?”

T: “No.”

S: “Can I please go?”

T: “No.”

S: “I’m gonna pee my pants.”

T: “No.”

S: “Jeez! So stupid.”

T: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” (employing rule #1)

T: “Everyone sit down!”

S: “I gotta throw this away.”

T: “No you don’t. Go sit down.”

S: “But I gotta sharpen my pencil.”

T: “I said sit down.”

S: “It’ll only take a second.”

T: “No! I told you to sit down!”

S: “But I gotta give P a piece of paper.”

T: “Why can’t you just do what I’m asking you to?”

T: “I need everyone seated, please.”

S: “I gotta throw this away.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “But I gotta sharpen my pencil.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “It’ll only take a second.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “But I gotta give P a piece of paper.”

T: “Please sit down.”

S: “Jeez! So stupid.”

T: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” (employing rule #1)


You can see that the teacher who does not engage will create an environment where students choose not to argue. They may not be happy about it, but when they learn that you do not engage or argue with them, they will stop trying to argue with you. You will have to be consistent with this method, but after the first several times, your students will learn you have stopped arguing with them and they will cease and desist after about your second or third response.

How I Encouraged Productive Participation (aka, How I Made Grade Inflation Defensible)

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.

long road

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).

deer in headlights

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.

Game. Changer.game changer

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

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.

wait time

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.

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.

eager beaver

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.

making progress

How I used the First Week of School to Ensure a Well-Managed Classroom for the Entire Year

My first year of teaching I made a horrible mistake. Okay, well, I made a LOT of mistakes, but the worst mistake I made was on the very first day. I told my students I didn’t really have any rules. Yes. Yes, I said it. They even asked me what my rules were, and I honest-to-God told them, “I don’t really have any rules.” I think I might have said something after that about wanting them to be respectful and do their work or something, but there’s no shot that they heard it. There are only a handful of things I wish I could go back in time and undo, and that is one of them. Most of the mistakes I made turned out to be great learning experiences. This one was, too, but I could have learned a LOT of the same things without saying that, and my year would have been a LOT easier.

Frustrated businessman, with sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, screaming and pulling his hair. Taken with a Panasonic FZ30 Lumix.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and the next year I implemented rules. I don’t remember exactly what they were, so I know I didn’t do it right that second year, either. But the second year was better than the first. My third year I still didn’t have it quite figured out, and I had more problems (but who wouldn’t with over 40 kids in a class?). But then, somewhere, I read about a student “handbook” for the classroom. Some teacher I talked to or read their blog (honestly, it was almost ten years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where I saw the idea) explained that s/he gave their students a document at the beginning of the year every year. This document had all the rules and expectations for the classroom for the year. The students even signed it like a real contract.

student contract 4

So I did what any good teacher would do (or one who was trying to be better) and made my own! I had three years’ worth of behavior issues to work with, and each year I had kept a list of all the things that had gone wrong and that I wanted to change. I also wrote down things I wish I had rules or procedures for but didn’t know how to implement in the middle of the year when I thought about them. I spent some time (like, weeks) putting together every issue I could think of. Everything that had ever gone wrong in my room, everything any student had ever asked me about procedures/behavior/etc., all these things went into the document. I decided to call it the “what if” student contract. This is because every single rule or expectation was addressed as a student asking me a question.

“What do I need for this class?” “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” “What if I am late to class?” “What if I forget my homework?” “What if I feel sick?” “What if the person next to me is bothering me?” “What if I forgot a pencil?” “What if I’m hungry?” “What if I’m tired?” “What if I want a ‘free day’?”

student contract 3

Literally, every possible question I could imagine a student needing or wanting to know on the first day, I answered in my document. I also included my discipline plan (rules and consequences) so students knew what to expect. The document was long. I mean, really, really long – like 10 pages (5 front & back). And I didn’t know if it would work, but I was willing to try. I was nervous. I’d never really done anything that first week of school except start teaching. Of course, the second and third year I spent a little time that first day going over my rules and the consequences, but not more than half the period. I jumped into instruction right away. I didn’t know any better.

student contract 6

Year four, though, I decided to do things differently. I printed my rules and procedures student contract. I copied enough for every student to have his/her own (and I made extras, too, for students who came in later in the year). They were ready for the first day. When the students came in, I had three things for them: a student information page (What do you like to be called? Who do you live with? What’s your email? What’s your parents’ email(s)? What do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite subject? Etc.), a supply list, and my rules and expectations packet. After they filled out the information sheet, I passed out the packets, had students put their name on them, and began to read through page by page. I answered questions as they arose. I even had students model some of the behaviors I expected (coming in tardy, asking to borrow supplies from a neighbor, disliking the lesson, being angry with me, etc.). I had them model incorrect behavior (they loved that part) and then correct behavior. By the end of the first class I realized we’d only gotten through about a page and a half. We certainly hadn’t gone past page two. The next day, we picked up where we left off. It took the entire first week to get through the packet. Some kids got a little antsy that we hadn’t started instruction. Heck, I got a little antsy when I realized how long this thing was taking. But I was going to do my experiment right, so I plowed through to the end. Once we finished, I asked for any final questions and then had students sign their name. I put the packets in their student folders (I’ll have another post on how I organized student work later on), and the following Monday, we began instruction.

When a student asked me a question covered in the document, I referred them to the document. It kept me from having to answer the same questions over and over. Eventually kids either asked a neighbor or looked through the document themselves. If I had a new student enroll, the first thing they would get would be the same stack of papers students got on the first day of school. I would have students spend the entire day reading through their paperwork, ask me any questions they had, sign it, and then put it in their file. Every student who came through my door promised they would abide by my rules and do their best to meet my expectations.

My fourth year of teaching was UH-MAZING. It was like teaching was meant to be. I enjoyed myself. The kids enjoyed themselves. I taught. Students learned. It was magical.

student contract 7

I had problems, yes. I had issues, but they were manageable and quickly remedied. I continued the first week routine every year after that. I even did it in high school. Once I began teaching high school, I did streamline it a bit so that I could discuss the document in 3-4 days instead of a full 5, but we did NOT begin instruction until I was sure every student understood my expectations and what would happen if they were not met. Every year I would add to it when a student did/asked something I hadn’t thought of.

student contract 8

I also re-visited the document at the beginning of the second semester after kids returned from break. I didn’t spend a whole week on it then, but highlighted the major issues that had been weakening towards the end of semester one. One year, I even made it into a PowerPoint presentation, but I found that to be slightly less effective, so I went back to reading through the physical document the next year.

If you think this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It was. However, it was LESS work than dealing with behavior and management issues the entire year. I went from daily or weekly referrals and multiple administrators in my room for behavior issues in my first 3 years to a handful of referrals a year and 1 visit from an administrator for behavior issues in the next 6 years. To say it was successful would be a gross understatement.

student contract 9

Maybe you’re a first-year teacher anxious about classroom management. Maybe you’re a veteran teacher looking for a new way to improve student behavior and achievement. I encourage you to make your own rules and expectations student contract. If you think this idea would work for you but you don’t want to or don’t have enough time to make your own, you can use mine as a starting point and then add to in order to meet your specific needs. I know it will work for you as well as it did for me – as long as you put the work in on the front end during that first week and then are CONSISTENT in enforcing rules, expectations, and consequences throughout the year.

student contract 1 student contract 2

Have a great school year!

student contract

Testing Season!

It’s that time of year – testing season is upon us. I know that in Florida, the season starts with the Writing assessment and then moves on to the state Reading and Math assessments, and then finally the End of Course assessments and semester exams. With so many states (Florida included) tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests, it’s to every teacher’s advantage to make sure their students perform at the highest level on these spring assessments.

I happen to be an exceptionally good test taker. I’m not sure how that came about – I don’t remember anyone sitting down and teaching me about test-taking. I know I bought the common AP study guides and ACT/SAT prep materials, so I suppose I learned lots of it there, but even as a young child in elementary and middle school, I just seemed to have a knack for test-taking. I guess that’s why I like my current job so much (testing coordinator for a large school district – I work on all the district exams). Anyway, if I’m a GOOD test taker and I don’t know how I got there, then it should come as little surprise that POOR test takers don’t have any idea how to improve. And I would say that more students than not are in the category of at least “not good,” if not “poor” test takers. There are many reasons that students do not perform to their highest ability on standardized tests. Among these are test anxiety and just not understanding basic test-taking strategies. Basic test-taking strategies are not instinctual. In fact, many basic test-taking strategies go against instinct. The point is, they must be TAUGHT. This is why companies make millions of dollars offering test-prep courses and publishing test-prep materials. But why not make these basic strategies available to ALL your students, especially those who cannot afford professional prep?

Enter my standardized testing preparation kit. This kit has 12 printable classroom mini-posters of basic multiple choice/standardized test-taking strategies, along with how to instruct students in these strategies. It also includes a study guide for students, applicable for all types of assessments! I used this every year as part of what I termed my “bubble boot camp” and had incredible success. I had students (multiple ones, every year) jump up 2 achievement levels simply by implementing these basic test-taking strategies. This kit will not only benefit students in your classes, but will help them in other areas, too. It is applicable for students at ANY level and in ANY subject. I know February may seem like a bit early to be talking about the state tests, but they are right around the corner, and if you start now, you can get through all 12 tips in time for students to internalize them and apply them on all the tests they will be taking this spring.

This kit will be MOST beneficial to your low-achieving or under-achieving students – those “bottom quartile” kids who shut down after the first question and “Christmas tree” the entire test. However, this will also benefit your high-achieving students by giving them tools to slow down and check their work, increasing their performance as well. This truly is a must-have resource for every teacher. You owe it to your students to give them a basic crash-course in test prep. And I know – I KNOW – what you’re thinking! My students already know this stuff, I teach juniors (or seniors!) and they’ve been testing since they were in first grade! Surely they know this stuff! But they don’t. THEY DON’T. I’m telling you, I had seniors who couldn’t bubble correctly to save their lives. I had secondary students who honestly – HONESTLY – did not know they had to put their answers on the Scantron answer sheet and just marked them in their booklet. I swear to you, the tips and strategies in this kit are things that you THINK students know – that they SHOULD know – but they don’t. Not all of them. I promise you that if you have never done a basic test-taking strategies instruction workshop with your students, they will benefit from this. My students did.

test prep kit

Give your students their best chance!