Part 1 of Alexander Clarkson’s Guest Blog Post
As a teacher, I think of batting cages often. No, I don’t teach phys. ed., and I don’t coach sports, but the batting cage, a precious memory from both my childhood and fatherhood, rattles around my brain as the perfect metaphor for the kind of teacher I strive to be. Think about it. The cage is the perfect teaching and learning situation. In an artificial environment designed to replicate an authentic one, the learner is encouraged to try and try again, modifying each attempt under guidance from a mentor or personal observation. There are no high stakes because no one’s keeping score. The only purpose is refinement of a skill, and nothing distracts from that. Boys and girls for generations have received effective instruction in that simple cage as they refine their skill for the big game.
Over the past few years, I have endeavored to create batting cages for each of my students through techniques of formative assessment. My students would target a set of related skills and practice them once, twice, three times, and hopefully more before the summative assessment, or “big game.” The formative practice carried no grade, but it received a ton of feedback. For example, when I taught skills of argument writing, I would not ask students to write one big researched argument paper, but several short ones. Students would read news articles for controversial topics, choose one, conduct extra research, fashion a logic model of their argument and the opponent’s counter-argument, outline the paper, and write it. I’d read it, add comments, assign a rubric-based grade, and hold a workshop to discuss trends in strengths and weaknesses. So, a student could write a paper on an issue of their choice, say school uniform policies, and receive guidance both written and verbal. We would workshop the paper, and they’d try again.
Not a revision, mind you, but a new paper on a new topic with all the same steps repeated, but perhaps this time the student would choose living wages for fast food workers. Each new paper was a new pitch in the cage, different in space and time, but identical in structure and expectation. Just like the coach outside the cage, I was looking for skill refinement through repeated practice and guidance, and I tried to bring it to every skill I taught: creative writing, literary analysis, grammar revision, news article analysis, research, and more. Each series of assessments was a new session in the batting cage.
This practice helped me understand that assessment was not a threatening trial, or at least it should not be. Each assessment was an opportunity for feedback and help, not a dreadful exercise in humiliation. Assessment, not test. A way to check for progress and provide guidance to improve. Following that line of thinking, the more assessments, the better. Why step into the cage for two pitches? Where’s the use in that? The best practice comes from repeated assessment and repeated guidance. If executed properly, students should look forward to assessments as nonthreatening opportunities for help, and teachers should throw themselves excitedly into the role of individualized mentor.
Unfortunately, the excitement on my part was hard to come by for one simple reason: grading. Proper formative assessment should be frequent and feedback should be as close to immediate as possible. A teacher that returns an essay a month or more after submission should not have bothered to assign it. The feedback will be nearly meaningless at that point. I redesigned writing assignments to be shorter in order to grade them faster and more tightly focused so we could discuss feedback on a narrower range of skill standards. I challenged myself to turn back papers in no more than three class days, and I kept to that pretty well. Students wrote, we discussed, I graded and discussed my feedback, they wrote, and we repeated the process. Pitch after pitch. But, keeping up that pace for an average course load of 160 students was coming close to breaking me. Sure, I became a faster and better grader. I wrote precise and useful rubrics. I developed new digital means to speed up the process. I went paperless to improve organization and communication. This time was a flurry of innovation, student interaction, spontaneous class planning, and . . . utter exhaustion.
But, I could not abandon this approach. I believed in frequent formative feedback, even on major skills like essay composition and research, and the students benefited. Time on task in the classroom rose dramatically as revision tasks were clearly defined and manageable for students. Tension lessened because the workshops necessary to drive this instruction fostered collaboration, creating social, instead of isolated, effort.
I was better able to support students because their challenges were specific and had a history from previous efforts. But, the overload was still there. So, what to do?
Click here to read Part 2: “The Solution”
Alexander Clarkson is currently the digital instruction specialist for Sylvania Schools, where he helps teachers include innovative instructional strategies in their classrooms as they move to full 1:1 implementation. Just last year, though, Alex finished a sixteen-year tenure of teaching that included English language arts, philosophy, and film studies at the college, high school, and junior high school levels. When he’s not thinking about digital instruction, Alex marvels at his two-year-old’s abilities with a tablet and his fifteen year-old’s abilities with a drum kit.