"Can you believe Johnny cheated on his math homework for the second day in a row? You'd think he would stop copying answers from his friends after I gave him a zero! He's not learning anything and will surely fail the test."Have you been in on one of those conversations? Perhaps you've even been the one issuing the zeros.
Been there. Done that. Still working on it.
It hit me one day. It wasn't rocket science though. I need to talk to these students and ask them to change their behavior. A few students actually admitted that they were lost. My words to describe their situation - these students were too lost to even consider asking for help. At the time, my classroom was run as if I was administering a test each and every day: points were awarded based on correct answers on homework. Students want points. Copying was worth the risk to them. Things had to change. I began what I now call "critical conversations" with these students. When I sense a student is extremely lost, I will write a note on his/her paper asking if there is a way I can help and/or if he/she is willing to come in outside of class for remedial work. If this does not solicit a response from the student, I will usually talk to him/her one-on-one during or right after class. Finally, if the situation warrants, I will contact the student's parents to make them aware of the situation. Most recently, I have seen a student every day after school for almost one week as a result of the parent communication. Don't get me wrong, this is not a magic bullet solution to helping struggling students. Some students never respond. Some parents aren't as willing to help. Creating this culture of caring is the piece of the puzzle I believe will yield the biggest results in the long haul.
I try to have these "critical conversations" with my entire class from time to time. Speaking in transparent and direct terms to students is the biggest component of a critical conversation. Sometimes they come in the form of a warm-up problem at the beginning of class:
Other times I make reference to the sign on the wall in my room that says...
"The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning!" (Harry Wong)
...rather than condemning those students who choose not to complete their homework problem or play Mr. or Ms. Xerox during our group learning activities.
The most important conversations I've had with my students help them focus on learning rather than points. My thoughts on grading homework would have failed miserably if it weren't for being transparent with parents and students. These philosophical and eventually logistical changes can't happen if we don't engage in critical conversations with our students. The most frequent question I'm asked revolves around putting many of the ideas on this blog into practice. Good luck implementing standards-based grading without critical conversations with students, parents and your administration.
If you are even remotely interested in making a change in your classroom, my advice for you is to begin with engaging in critical conversations with your students as well. Probe their minds. Tell them what you're thinking of changing, how it will positively impact them and ask for their feedback. Do it again a few days later. Keep doing it until the students finally ask, "so when are you going to do this?!" You'll know you have buy-in when that happens.
Change in the classroom begins at the student level. Without changing the way students view "points" and "learning," even the greatest intentions of making progress typically result in resistance and less-than-ideal results.