By Craig McKinney, AVID Staff Developer
Alternative Title: How My Valentine’s Day Craft Project Helped Me Clarify My Thinking About How Students Learn and How We Assess
This time last year, two of my new coworkers placed Valentine’s Day cards and candies on my desk. Generally oblivious to holiday gift-giving occasions at work, I had given little (actually, no) thought to providing any red-and-pink merriment for my teammates, so this took me by surprise. In the ensuing discussion with my officemates about how awful I am at this sort of thing, one of the bunch threw down the challenge that I make something for them. “We want a handmade card,” is what I believe she actually said.
The challenge of handmade Valentine cards seemed so unchallenging. A more miraculous feat, I thought, would be to learn to crochet tiny Valentine hearts. Wouldn’t that be a fun new skill to teach myself...and a delightful gift for my team!
That night, I sat on the sofa and tried to learn to crochet. Six days later, I delivered three mostly-heart-shaped crocheted creations to my teammates.
Between the time I began and completed my task, I had the chance to hear an interesting and challenging presentation by Tom Schimmer, who spoke to many of our secondary teachers about assessment during a professional development day.
As I was working on my craft project, I couldn’t help but think about how my own learning effort related to what I’d gleaned from Schimmer. By the time I had finished the final stitch, I had answered a few questions and raised some new ones about learning and assessment.
First of all, my heart-making drove home the point that not everyone starts off on an equal playing field. I quickly realized that the maker of the YouTube video claiming to teach “beginners” like me how to crochet a simple heart had failed to pre-assess her learners and had presupposed that I already knew things like how to tie a slip knot, how to hold the yarn, how to make a chain, single crochet, double crochet, triple crochet, and more. Try as I might, this beginner couldn’t keep up with her nimble finger work during the 15-minute video.
To catch up, I embarked on the adult equivalent of remedial tutorials by watching a 30-minute video that taught me the basics of crochet. I appreciated that the instructor on that video tried his best to provide me with mnemonics and plenty of practice so that I could– after pausing it frequently and rewinding dozens of times– complete all the basic stitches with semi-confidence. (Sadly, students can't typically pause and rewind our classes as easily.) It was time for me to rejoin the “class,” and I was already at least two hours late.
Adding to my difficulty was the fact that I have a learning difference. I am left handed. This wouldn’t be an issue if almost all the videos available for the heart-making tutorial weren’t made by right-handed crocheters for right-handed students. As I watched the videos of unfamiliar moves and tried to mimic them, I had to concentrate extra hard to transpose each move by flipping it from right to left. This must be what it feels like to be a student who struggles with the very act of seeing text as most of us see it. Concentration was difficult yet mandatory if I hoped to succeed.
I went to bed that first night without a satisfactory final product. In fact, the result of my efforts was a lumpy tangle of yarn that resembled the shape of an actual human heart more than the familiar Valentine’s version.
If a teacher had graded the outcome of my homework that night, I would have received an F (or perhaps a low C if the teacher were feeling generous). What my teacher would not have known is that at the beginning of the evening, I didn’t even know how to hold a crochet hook and that four hours of hard effort later, I had created something that showed (to me) some promise that I might one day conquer this task. I felt hopeful about my progress; I’m not sure that I would have remained motivated at this point, though, if a grade had been entered in the gradebook to remind me that I still had far to go.
The next night, life got in the way of my progress. I had other, more pressing, work to do for a presentation I was giving later in the week, so I didn’t return to my handicraft. If there’d been a homework grade for that night’s work, I’d have a zero in the gradebook.
Things went from bad to worse the next evening when I turned on YouTube to learn more about how to proceed. I determined that perhaps I should view a different video on the same subject and was shocked to learn that there are multiple ways to crochet a tiny heart. Some began with an elusive contraption called a “magic circle” while others wanted me to create a chain and join it to itself. There’s lots of talk of crocheting into holes, but it was never clear to me which of the many holes in my sloppy creation should be the home for the stitches. So many mixed messages! So many teachers delivering instruction at breakneck speed! Each of my attempts turned out different from the previous, and not in a good way.
Fortunately, I knew that the next day I would be riding in a car on a road trip with my friend Elaine, who happens to be an expert at all things yarn-related. I sent a quick message (along with a pitiful photo of my attempt) asking for an in-person tutorial, and she gladly agreed. Even better, she complimented my efforts and reassured me that hope was not lost.
We spent about an hour of next-day’s journey working on my hearts. Elaine was a patient teacher, but my disability threw her for a loop. Teaching someone to crochet is hard; teaching someone who crochets with the opposite hand is even more of a challenge. Because my stitches were backward and because I had to work around the circle in the other direction, Elaine had a tough time analyzing the source of my mistakes and figuring out how to redirect my efforts. At several points, she took the emerging heart away from me and, in attempting to diagnose what was wrong, finished the project itself. This resulted in a pretty heart--much prettier than the ones I made on my own– but didn’t help me learn to do it myself. How often as a teacher have I been guilty of doing all the work for my students and assuming they understood because they witnessed it?
What I found most useful was when Elaine took me on a tour of a completed sample and showed me the “why” behind its construction. Once I understood the philosophy behind each section and how they fit together, I felt much better equipped to tackle the rest of the project on my own.
My crocheted hearts weren’t perfect; I would have given them a B+ if I’d been grading them because I clearly demonstrated understanding of the objective, produced a product that fit the criteria, but didn’t exhibit advanced understanding. If I had had more time, I certainly would have attempted to create an A+ heart, but I’m happy with my B+.
There’s just one problem. I delivered my hearts two days late. Would I receive a late grade penalty? How many points off? 15? 25? Ouch! I am going to have a failing grade on my report card.
My grade gets even lower if you average in my near-failing first attempt and the zero I received for not having time to do my homework the next night. So, what is my grade in the gradebook communicating about my learning?
If we agree that the purpose of grades is to provide an accurate report of what students have learned, shouldn’t my final grade for this project be a B+ since I can make a B+ heart? If my report card says something different, how is the grade useful to me or to anyone else who sees it and wants to know about my mastery of the performance objective?
These were the kinds of questions Schimmer brought up in his presentation. And, like most challenging questions, these raised more questions than answers. I’m completely on board with beginning discussions on how to make our grades meaningful and useful in directing and motivating further learning. Making this happen, however, means that teachers and campuses are going to have to wade into some murky waters, turn a critical eye on time-honored and comfortable practices, and completely rethink what teaching and assessment look like.
I envision gradebooks with a few essential grades each six-weeks, grades that can be entered and adjusted throughout the grading period as students evolve in their mastery. Maybe there will be some unweighted grades recorded to show parents about students’ practice attempts along the way. These could help guide students to know where they need to improve on each individual skill that is part of the final assessment but wouldn’t penalize the students who took a little longer to catch on or took an unsuccessful risk. The time teachers used to spend grading and recording a multitude of assignments can be reallocated to helping students in their various paths on the road to mastery. All of this sounds great to me, but it’s not going to look like any classroom I attended or have taught in. For one thing, the gradebook is going to be less full and more meaningful. More important, though, students should be doing the work to demonstrate what they've learned, but it will be happening in different ways and at different paces. Things might get a bit messy.
The outcomes of this transformation might not be perfect at first– like my early attempts at crocheting a heart–but with enough introspection, troubleshooting, study, and vision, schools can transform to have a culture of learning that empowers all students to continue to strive to be the best they can be. I’m ready to wade into these waters. Who’s coming with me?
Craig McKinney is an English Language Arts Instructional Specialist for Plano ISD. A Dallas-area native, Craig attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he received degrees in English and Sociology. He earned his master’s degree at the University of North Texas. During his 22-year teaching career at Shepton High School, Craig taught English, Humanities, Latin, and the AVID Elective. He also bakes a mean loaf of sourdough bread, serves as an officer of his university’s local alumni association, and loves herb gardening, attending cultural events, and playing board games.
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