Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making Marking Meaningful

I haven't been a classroom teacher for a number of years, but there is one thing that is burned into my memory from my years of teaching Biology and Science--I hated marking.  I remember late nights in my living room with mounds of paper on one side of me and cups of coffee and red markers on the other, wading through virtually identical student responses to the stacks of assignments, quizzes, tests, and labs that I had given to each of my classes.  Tattooed into my brain are the steps in DNA replication, synthesis and decomposition reactions, terms like 'carbaminohemoglobin' (I still love that word) and a myriad of other trivial scientific factoids as a result of my marking thousands of assignments that asked for rote answers from students on topics that I had just taught them. Marking was dreadfully tedious.

But what if we approached marking in a way that made it much more enjoyable and meaningful for us?  More specifically, what if the assignments that we gave to kids highlighted the content through topics that we as teachers didn't know everything (or dare I say 'anything'?) about?  What if we used students as our researchers, as a team that was going to find out new and unique things that they would share with us and their peers that made all of us more knowledgeable?

At Sa-Hali, we have a large proportion of international students: we are a hub for the International Education Program here in the district.  Each year, we get students from every corner of the world coming to us, and not surprisingly, we have found that this can be quite stressful for those students and their parents, especially in the weeks leading up to their arrival at the school.   So bearing this issue in mind, and after a few informal conversations about our online presence for our international students and parents, our amazing language teacher Susanne Blohm decided to do her problem-based learning unit around the driving question of

"How can we use our website to make our international students feel comfortable coming to our school even before they get here?"

As adults, we often assume that we know what our students need, be they our local students or students from abroad.  And when presented with a question such as this, many of us would jump to a number of conclusions based on our own needs and biases, and more 'fixed' mindset in terms of what we have experienced in the past.  However, when kids are confronted with such a task, they have some distinct advantages over adults:  they have a student perspective, they don't have some of the experiences that adults have, and they are truly interested in finding out what other kids think, especially those from other countries.  In other words, they tend to be more curious researchers who are going to find out all sorts of things that we likely never would have considered.

So the students looked at our website and a variety of others through a student lens, and then interviewed our international students to understand what would have helped them and their parents feel more comfortable coming to our school.  They collected incredibly rich data.  Data that Ms. Blohm didn't know.  And data that, as Principal, I was keenly interested in discovering so that we can make our website speak for our school.

Oh, and by the way...
  • the students had to create and present their project in Spanish, as the PBL unit was for Ms. Blohm's Introductory Spanish class.  
  • by the very nature of the class, the students had little experience in Spanish, so they would need to find the relevant content of the course that would help them discover the best ways to communicate their ideas to a face-to-face audience in their Presentations of Learning and online international audience
  • the students had zero experience in web design
Ms. Blohm could have had her students do worksheets.  She could have used the textbook questions. She could have done grammar and spelling tests.  She could have done the same style of activities that I did in my science classes to 'cover content' that kids might never actually use.  And she too could have brewed up a pot of java to help her mark stacks of paper with identical answers until her eyes crossed late into the evening, learning absolutely nothing in the process other than how little she enjoyed marking.  And we aren't even talking about what the students would have (or have not) learned by a more traditional approach.

Instead, Ms. Blohm got to see a variety of different projects and methods of presentation, and she got to LEARN from her students:  the students gave her all sorts of different things that the international students would have liked to have seen, and then they created websites with all of these different elements.  Suddenly, Ms. Blohm was not having to do mundane marking, she was assessing something that was truly interesting:  she was getting a new perspective from her students and students from around the world.  The marking becomes so much more meaningful when the marker is learning something new.

As for the students, they developed skills as interviewers and researchers, as contributors to a group, as web designers, as content editors, as peer assessors, and as presenters to a live audience of other students, teachers, and parents, as well as real international students and parents when we link their work to our website in a "A day in the life of a Sa-Hali Student" section of our website this summer. Oh, and I almost forgot: the students also learned the Spanish content to best communicate their ideas on their websites.  And in reflecting with Susanne afterward, she said that without question, because the students were interested and had an authentic purpose for learning the Spanish content, they went light years farther than she would have expected an Intro Spanish student to go with a more traditional classroom approach.  In speaking to the students, the biggest issue they found was time--they wished they had MORE time to spend on it so they could have made their projects even better for the international students.

When is the last time you heard students wishing they could spend more time on worksheets?

In the last few months, I know that I have been extolling the virtues of designing lessons that require divergent thinking and outputs through PBL with our staff from the perspective of student learning. However, I believe if we want to make our assessment of students more meaningful and interesting from an educator's perspective, creating tasks for students that allow us to learn from their work is just one more reason why I believe PBL is an effective tool in engaging students and educators alike.

And if there is any way to make marking meaningful, I know our teachers would be all in for that.

*cross-posted at "The Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox"


  1. A website from students to students seems like a great way to help make incoming students feel more welcome and more comfortable in a new environment. I teach ESL and having spoken to my students about their feelings when coming to a new country and starting school when they weren't able to communicate with their teachers and peers I feel a website in their native language from students to students could help alleviate some of their stress. I realize this blog was focused on creating meaningful assignments but the assignment she created for her students was what connected to me. This would be a project I would like to attempt in cooperation with a high school ESL teacher.

  2. Thanks for the great post! This drive to making marking papers more meaningful and less about a simple "score" is what pushed me to start using portfolios in my 10th grade ELA class. I wrote about this system here: I would love to hear more about the grading systems that are set up in your school!


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