Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Are You Grading Understanding or Artistic Ability? #PBL

Last week, I was teaching a 7th grade Language Arts Class. I was covering for a teacher gone on the 6th grade camping trip, so I was given the freedom to do whatever I wanted with the students. I took this as an opportunity to introduce the students to different tools of the makerspace after reading and discussing one of my favorite short stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper".

The purpose of the project was to create an artifact that they viewed as an important symbol found in the story. They would then write one paragraph describing the importance of the symbol to the story as a whole. I told students the could draw or design whatever they wanted. I could see some students' faces at the thought of having to design something, then I told them the one thing that changed everything for them, "You are not being graded on your artistic ability. Only on your ability to convey the symbol to the best of your ability through the creation of the artifact and the paragraph explaining it." Faces brightened up when I said this and they hurried away to start thinking of designs. I wasn't always like this, my rubrics used to grade artistic talent more than the understanding of content. 

I can look back now and see how rubrics I had created that inflated the value of "neatness" or "drawing images to match the poem" and other art based guidelines really students in terms of grades and motivation. If you viewed yourself as a "terrible drawer" would you get excited for a project that required you to draw? It wasn't until I took the time to review all of my lessons and assessments and asked a simple question, "What is it I want to know from the student?"

That question is the guiding force behind the assessment. If I want to know if they understand what the power behind the symbol of the bed in the story, should I care about the fact that the bed looks uneven and disproportionate? Should it matter that the colors clash? Should I mark them down for ever so slightly coloring outside the lines? Or do I focus on the fact that she was able to identify the symbol, talk about, and write about? Too many times, I gave students more of an art assignment than a Literature assignment. That hurt students and I feel terrible about it. 

As a way to improve my practice, I moved away from the projects that detailed every aspect the students needed to create (The Recipe Project), and allowed students to explore projects that were meaningful to them and would still allow me to assess what I needed for that lesson. 

Do not be swayed by the glitter glue. Assessments need to be about understanding, not flair. 

Here is an example of the bed a student designed for their project. They will be creating the rest of the best this week.