Making peace with the gradebook by Darcy Pippins

Making peace with the gradebook by Darcy Pippins

As I start my 19th year as a Spanish “meaning maker” I decided to do things a little differently.

First off, I’ve never been a big fan of grading. I used to call it a necessary evil, but now I’m wondering if it’s even necessary. For decades it’s been expected of us as teachers to assign a grade to students based on their ability to acquire another language. At the beginning of my career I just went along with the majority and set up my gradebook in the traditional way with categories like homework, quizzes, class participation, projects, exams, and the dreaded final exam (always worth 20% of the overall grade). This system seemed to give the very organized, and responsible students the advantage. Students could ace my class doing every assignment to perfection, but fail every test, and the students with jobs, no support at home, siblings to care for, or school activities, struggled with this system.

Several years ago I made the switch to proficiency-based grading to separate academic achievement from behaviors, and, to focus on what the student can do with the language instead of how organized their notebook is, I included categories like reading, listening, writing, and speaking, vocabulary, and culture/projects. So for any given task, if it involved listening and speaking, it was recorded as two grades. If an assessment had a speaking, writing, and reading task, it was recorded as three different grades. This was more time consuming for me, but it allowed me to see how many tasks the students were doing for each proficiency. It also let students and parents know what their strengths and weaknesses were. This year, I had an epiphany! After listening to a lot of Tea with BVP, attending iFLT and traveling this summer with Dr. Krashen, I don’t feel comfortable giving a letter grade for a student’s ability to acquire language.

How do I “grade” a student that is on the same path to proficiency that I’m on? I’m just the facilitator; the guide throughout the process. Now, I know that parents, students and administrators expect to see grades in the gradebook, especially now that everything is online. I have parents that will email me about their student’s grade seconds after I click the save button. So I “grade,” but it’s more like comprehension checks. My gradebook categories look like this: interpretive, interpersonal, presentational, and the district common assessment. In order to meet the district standard of two grades a week the students might answer a simple question about a story we told in class, or clarify meaning of a key phrase we are focusing on. Most of the time I pass out post-its for this and use it as an “exit slip.” These checks are never worth more than two points, and my goal is 100% accuracy. If I do not reach that goal, I make adjustments to my instruction.

Another thing I did this year with the students was to teach them a little language theory. To help them understand words like interpretive, interpersonal, presentational, proficiency, comprehensible input and second language acquisition, I prepared a presentation (very compelling, of course) to show them where they might be on the path to proficiency. We talked about specific examples of activities we had already done in class and what category the activity fell in. For example, we listened to the song Duele el corazón by Enrique Iglesias and the students decided that was an interpretive activity. We played human bingo in Spanish 3, 4 and AP Spanish Language and Culture to get to know our new friends in class and they decided that task was interpersonal. I saw so many light bulbs go on during this presentation. I even introduced them to Dr. Stephen Krashen, referring to him as “the LeBron James of second language acquisition” to bridge the gap. I concluded with the new Señor Wooly video “Ya está muerto” featuring Dr. Krashen as the patient. The students were excited to be able to identify him at the end!

To get parents excited about their students’ proficiency journey, I sent out an email (and postcards) inviting parents/guardians to a 15 minute TPRS demo encouraging them to come experience what a typical day in the classroom looks like for their student. I’ve done this sort of thing before, but it’s been a few years. I had a packed house! Parents were so impressed by their level of comprehension in just 15 minutes. Some even asked about adult Spanish classes. This is a great way to get buy in! Last spring I taught my first beginning Spanish adult class and 18 out of the 22 enrolled were parents of my current and former students! With this class I made a connection with a parent that often travels to Honduras to work in a boys home. This opened up new doors for my students to correspond with native speakers. Parents can be some of your best advocates.

img_3184-copyThe 2015 Oklahoma World Language Teacher of the Year, the 2016 SWCOLT Regional Teacher of the Year, and candidate for the 2017 ACTFL Teacher of the Year, Darcy Pippins, is a National Board Certified Teacher with a Masters degree in Education from the University of Oklahoma. In 19 years, she has taught all levels of Spanish, currently teaching Spanish III, IV and AP Spanish Language and Culture at Norman High School. She presents at the state, regional and national levels. She strongly believes that accomplished teachers should not work in isolation and could not imagine teaching without the support of her professional learning community.