The Teaching Hive

Volume 1 Issue 2

In this issue: Exploring Feedback, the value of failure on assessments, great openings from our last issue, an interview with Gretchen Hurtt, and upcoming highlights in our classes.

Opening Quote

“Psychologically, praise within the classroom can become problematic in that it fails to convey any genuine feedback information. Even worse, it can shift the students’ attention onto irrelevant, even destructive, factors, such as excessive attention to the self or one’s ability, thus discouraging further effort or listening to feedback about the task.”

— John Hattie and Gregory Yates “Using Feedback to Promote Learning” Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, American Psychological Association, 2014 (p 45–58).

Question of the week: Exploring Feedback

What is your personal approach to feedback? How do you give feedback to students in class? On assignments? What strategies do you use to get students to carefully consider and act on your feedback? Can you share some good feedback moments from your own teaching? Share something in the comments — just click on the plus icon to the right of this paragraph.

Guest post: Exploring new Educational technology

Reprinted From Middletown to the Middle East, by Terence Gilheany

or the first time in several years I have added two technological tools that so far are benefiting my teaching.

The first, and simpler one to discuss is plickers. It’s a polling system. I love polling. Two days ago I polled my Abrahamic Traditions class on the question “Should we be tolerant of all religious beliefs?” Today I asked my ethics class a variant on the Buridan’s ass paradox.

For the last seven years or so, I have been laminating 3 x 5 index cards and handing out them and whiteboard markers. Kids would register their votes on the cards, and a student would gather the cards, tally the results and another student would write them on the board. I’ve been looking at clicker systems, but they are designed for larger classrooms and are expensive. We don’t allow students to carry cell phones around school, so voting by text likepollanywhere doesn’t work for me. Plickers are just the right combination of low and high tech for my situation. I downloaded an app onto my smartphone, and printed out a set of cards with computer readable symbols on them. When I want them to vote I pass out the cards (I laminated them). I go around the table scanning the students’ cards and depending on how the student holds the card, the system will register one of four vote choices. The vote is tallied automatically and represented on a private webpage as a bar graph. It’s not as fast as a clicker system or pollanywhere, but it is faster than writing, handing in and counting, it is free, and it works without kids needing to have their phones with them. So far it is a useful addition to my classroom, speeding things up a bit.

A plicker card – “A” side up to vote “A”, etc.

The second, much larger change is a learning management system, in this case Canvas. I’d been messing with LMS options for years, and never quite getting over the hurdle to actually use one. Last spring I used Canvas for paper grading, and this year I put two of my three courses completely online. Grading papers is faster – I used to have kids email me their papers, but now when the students upload their papers to Canvas I can move from one to the next in the same window, and I don’t need to download, reupload, and send an email back. It also records the grade in a gradebook. Similarly with short written responses to readings – no hassles collecting them, I can quickly glance through them and give them a small grade (0 for not handed in, 1 for lame, 2 for complete – thanks to my colleague Nate Crimmins for the simple update to check, check plus, check minus!) I have also put video links in their syllabus, links to electronic versions of their readings, etc. Finally (for me at the moment – I know it includes a lot more tools) it is automatically capturing a portfolio of each student’s work.

It has been a great start to the year, and these tools are helping.

The Value of Pre-Tests and Failure

Maybe you saw the article “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing” in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. In it, the author details new research in learning that shows the value of pre-tests that help students to recognize the things they don’t know which gives them guidance as they go about learning. “Prefinals” are actually becoming a thing in many college courses, and the results are dramatic:

A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.

Researchers are calling testing the “key to studying” and the very best way to avoid “fluency illusions” where a student things he has mastered something because he heard or read it recently. Pretesting “primes the brain” allowing it to better comprehend new ideas.

If you’d like to try your own had at a pretest from one of your colleagues, I recommend Terence Gilheany’s Middle East History “Fun Starter Quiz”.

Compare your responses to the History of the Middle East Students.

In what ways do you pre-assess student understanding in your classes? How have you found this practice to be helpful?

Great openings from last issue

The meaning of Sacred in Religious Studies IV

In our call for great first day activities, Nate Crimmins responded with an activity he does with his IV Form Religious Studies class where he asks students to select a “sacred song” that is played for the class. Here’s the prompt:

After reading part 1 of Karen Armstrong’s chapter Homo Religiosus, please submit the URL of one song that you would characterize as sacred, using whatever definition of “sacred” you see fit. The song needn’t be religious in nature, but fit the understanding you have of the word sacred at the point in the course, the understanding you’ve aquired at this point in your life in light of previous experiences, class discussion, and/or Karen Armstrong’s chapter Homo Religiosus.

Here are a few submissions:


Here is the aim of the assignment, according to Nate:

The aim is to reveal that we’re all coming from different places in terms of how we understand the sacred—for some it’s very much predicated in a transcendent reality, others simply a set or series of values that are rooted in the material world. For some it reflects and draws upon the self, for others it moves their gaze to focus on others. For some it’s a notion that offers a hoped for future of what life should/could be like, for others the sacred comes from a particular experience or memory of the past.

First day poem in Creative Writing

Katherine Crowley began her class by playing the game Exquisite Corpsewhere the class created collaborative poems by writing one line and passing the paper on. Each poet wrote her line based on the previous line of poetry, and after she has wrote her line, she folded the paper over to make make her line the only one visible to the next poet.

Here is one poem from the class:

First day of Problem Solving

Here are the problems students took on in the first day of Problem Solving in Geometry and Algebra:

How I work: Gretchen Hurtt

How do you start your day?

I don’t really have a very peaceful start to my day because — I guess I could could blame it on my 2 children dog and husband — I’m not the greatest morning person. I tend to stretch the sleeping time as long as possible and race through everything else before my first obligation. And that hasn’t changed; I thought as I got older I would become a morning person, but that’s not in my DNA. That’s how I was as a student at St. Andrew’s, too.

I find that once I’m in the building and rolling I’m excited and ready to go, but getting my body there is the biggest challenge.

How do you plan lessons?

I toggle back and forth between thinking about key questions or activities I’m really excited about and keeping that big grid of planning in mind. I think in terms of the year’s goals, the goals for each text, and the goals for each quarter or semester— those are my backdrop. I’m constantly going back and forth between the specifics and new ideas I want to play with and put in conversation with the writing goals I have for the students at that point. I’m always trying to meet up with where the students are on their learning continuum in terms of thinking about literature, and in terms of being able to share their ideas in writing and craft an argument. I was struck in Eric’s interview that he imagines conversations with students. For me conversation is more descriptive of how I generate lesson plans in conversation with colleagues and even with students. I’m often sitting in class, hearing something, and a plan or an idea for a next class comes to me and I have to write it down. This happens in department meetings too — talking about a rubric gives me an idea. I value and rely on conversation.

I keep an idea book —I started it this summer because my ideas get too scattered —it’s part journal, part idea list, part to-do list.

Gretchen’s Idea Book — here’s a page where I was listening in a team meeting, hearing a list of books in class students read over the summer, and here in a team meeting we were looking at a former student’s paper and how we might give feedback on it.

Here is a specific example — just yesterday we were talking about how to give feedback on personal writing. This often feels sensitive, and we are reluctant to grade it. Anna was sharing an approach from Taft, Neemu was asking great questions, Seraphine was pushing us to maybe come up with a rubric and I thought, let’s get the students to help us define those rubrics — that could be an entire class activity. You could take a collection of published authors’ essays and develop a rubric for an excellent essay, and then students could agree on the things they were striving for in the next assignment.

Someone else built on that idea —what if we did this throughout the year? As we gave kids more examples of exemplary work, we add to the rubric — it would be a work in progress, and students have a role in its construction. The students have to be a part of that process of defining what we are looking for.

To me, that was a great example of the incubation or cultivation of ideas that comes out of being part of this community, in classes, in my department with brilliant students who are always giving me new ideas.

What is a concept in English? How do you teach it? Is it like the act of confronting misconceptions that some science teachers talk about?

This idea of confronting misconceptions is interesting. Especially when we talk about writing, a lot of students have misconceptions on what their writing should sound or look like.

A concept for English might be the notion of making an assertion. For a student, hearing what that sounds like and seeing examples is crucial, especially for 9th or 10th grade students who might be more used to book report type work, where they are not used to making their own assertions about the text.

Some concepts that literature deals with are human or psychological concepts that sometimes take a certain maturity to understand. We choose literature that might match up better with where students are in their own development.

We are trying to help students understand what a character is going through or the implicit claims an author might be making — to understand what an author is asking them to grapple with. When I think of seniors reading beloved, I feel that Morrison is pushing us to think of concepts of Manhood, Motherhood, and what it means to be human, and we are asking students to think about and listen for.

I guess when you are dealing with literature, it’s like dealing with any kind of art — there many angles or concepts one might focus on. There’s not always a concrete outcome.

One other thing, I would add that for English students, it is challenging to understand how addressing multiple views, and accounting for other possible readings, actually strengthens their critical arguments. We ask students not to merely defend their view at all costs, but to show their openness and flexibility in challenging and pushing their arguments.

At St. Andrew’s in English, they build toward the moment in the senior exhibition where they are invited to push and challenge their thinking by responding to potential counterarguments and incorporating them into their arguments.

How do you keep that from becoming — “any idea is valid”?

I use the phrase off/on target. We ask them to tune into what the author is grappling with and try to use their theory or response to account for more of the text. If there is a particular image that might evoke something for a reader we ask “but how does your interpretation in this part account for the other things this author is doing?”

We often use the phrase “account for” — how do you account for the other things this author is doing? How could you incorporate this facet of the novel into your thinking?

What is your routine/process for grading?

I find that early in the year, I first have to scan through and get a sense of the entire class’s work, just so that as a teacher I know the broad spectrum of where they fall. I choose a few and try to think of some goals.

Grading each assessment is the hardest thing I do. There’s a lot to manage — I want to show that I’m wrestling with their ideas, and I am in conversation with them. I want to give them some concrete ideas that they can work on. Some of my feedback just responds to their ideas. A lot of my feedback gives pretty pointed comments on how to clarify their argument, work more carefully with text.

I’m often balancing big goals I have for the writer with the reality of the paper that’s in front of me, trying to figure out what is the most helpful next step for this student. Maybe they haven’t accomplished everything I’m hoping for for the year, but sometimes writing less can be more — I try to balance restraint with helpfulness. Papers, for me, are a chance to be in conversation with the student.

After grading 16 essays, I’m generating a class list of 3–4 things we want to work on for the next time, and also pointing out some things we’ve accomplished.

What do you hope students will do with the feedback?

I think about that a lot, because there is nothing worse that spending 30 min grading a paper and seeing a kid look at the grade and do nothing else. If I give thorough feedback I usually require or offer a rewrite. I often give more feedback on drafts than the final.

I have students keep each assessment in a folder, and they collect their work over a year. At a conference, I can pull out a visual of where a student is.

I have a chart I give back to every student “Things I did well, things I want to improve, and I have a column for grammar notes” so that if there is something like semicolons that they keep getting errors on I want them to record that.

The writing log Gretchen gives to her students. Here is an example of an extended reflection she also asks of her VI Form students.

How do you manage to-dos?

There’s a lot of swirling in my brain. I make to-do lists for the day on scraps of paper. Sometimes there are to-do lists in my kitchen, on my desk in my study and also there are random to-do lists in my planner. Even this year, I feel that there are lots of different sources of information — email, Google Framework, and I still feel like I’m looking at a lot of different places for where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do.

I use iCal on my phone to plan family and school events. Pen and paper usually for my more detailed to-do lists.

I think that’s the state of the boarding school teacher — always wondering where you should be next and what you should be preparing for at that moment. My dad was a career boarding school teacher and he noticed more when he retired that he would have hilarious conversations with faculty who were so excited to see him and after about 3 or 4 minutes they had this look in their eye of “I should be somewhere else now.” But that’s part of the fun — I like that I dart from the dining hall to my class to my house; I like the physical motion of our day on campus, and I enjoy the swirl a little bit, even though it wears me down.

What app/software/tool couldn’t you live without?

Email & iCal. Sharing a calendar with my husband has been super helpful in keeping us coordinated. It answers the daily questions of who’s picking up the kids, and helps us to keep up with the soccer schedule. I couldn’t live without Microsoft Word — I do everything as a word document. It’s an old habit. I organize by course, text, and assignment.

I’m starting to explore the world of Google Docs, and the merging of those two is something I’m thinking about. We email around a lot of Word Documents, and I’m thinking about how Google could help us to do that better.

I guess when I think about generating class materials, that’s often my mode — I do a lot of handouts, and I recognize that I need to think beyond Word and bring in some more kinds of modes of material — sometimes I’ll do a little film clips, a website, or a painting.

What are you listening to?

I listen to more NPR than music. I have a radio in my kitchen and in my car that’s the first programmed station. It’s hard to find time to even read the New York Times online. I can multitask with NPR in background — I can do laundry, cook dinner and get the news at the same time.

I miss having music be a bigger part of my life. My musical tastes fell behind sometime around when I had kids, who were the good musicians and good albums — there aren’t even albums to listen to anymore. I rely on my students and Noxontones to help me find good music.

What are you reading?

Now, I’m reading Wash, so that I’ll be ready for her visit.

This summer, I had a great list that I didn’t make my way all the way through them, so still to be read are:

One of my favorites this summer was Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys — it has really detailed psychological portraits of the characters, and some redemption at the end. I have a habit of reading sad books, and this was sad, but some redemption.

How do you read? One at a time? Or a stack?

I have a stack, but I really just read one at a time. I have a hard time reading without a pen in my hand. It’s a tactile habit that I have to underline something that’s good, or sticks out, or that I’m excited about. Even a summer beach read — there’s a pen there.

What is your sleep routine like?

I’m pretty good about getting to bed, so I try to get to bed by 11. I tell this to my students — my brain isn’t as sharp or as effective anyway. I rarely stay up late to get work done. I prioritize getting my rest. I’m not a late night person, nor am I a morning person — I’m a big sleeper. I like to read before I go to bed. Depending on my day, sometimes it just put me right to sleep. But that’s a nice way of calming down and not allowing myself to worry about the emails and other stuff piling up. I think the wost thing I do is check that email one more time — it just doesn’t ever end.

How do you manage email?

I try to make myself check 4–5 times a day. I organize by folders — emails that are in my inbox that I’m saving. I try to keep inbox from being huge. I don’t know if there’s any great solution for managing email. It does seem like every year I feel like I spend more hours of my day on email. It’s super handy for setting up meetings, repsonding to parents, etc. But I can get frustrated with it — it’s usually people who want an answer, decision or favor, like knocks at the door — it can get a little overwhelming.

What is your best time saving shortcut/hack?

I’d say multitasking — listening to the news while doing the laundry and making dinner.

Sometimes I save time by focusing better and changing my setting — I can get my work done in half the time in the library if I find a quiet space where no one knows where I am. By sectioning out my thinking time, I am more efficient.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Everything looks better in the morning” — I think this was from my mother. I’ve definitely passed it on, especially on dorm when stress and emotion seems much more intense late at night. Somehow a new day just gives us that perspective we need.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I definitely thrive in the energy and collaboration of this community. I see part of my role here as contributing to this energy as much as I gain from it. A lot of my learning happens because I’m on this campus, and in these rooms with my colleagues and students. And itt surprises me how much I keep learning, this many years into teaching. That’s what keeps me here.

I’d love to see how ____________ responds to these questions.

Lindsay Brown

Happening this week

  • In Tom Fritz’s Global Studies class, students will be making individual presentations on closely contested US Senate Races (Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire). Come learn about the midterm elections on 3rd Period Thursday and 3rd Period Saturday this week.
  • In Humanities, the seniors become the discussion leaders this week. This is a deliberate move that Emily and Elizabeth make at this point in the year during their study of Beloved. They want their students to think about how to identify the most central issues and questions in the reading they do for homework, and then create a line of questions that will help their classmates think about these issues. They are essentially playing the role of “teacher” — we have found in the past that they often jump too quickly to the BIG question, leaving their classmates in confused silence. We talk about why certain questions yield good discussion, while other questions are dead ends. Class meets 4th and 5th on Tuesday, 8th and 9th on Thursday, and 3rd and 4th on Saturday.
  • Dan O’Connell’s Biology class heads out on the Bio Barge this Thursday to explore the ecosystem of Noxontown Pond. The Barge departs 4th period on Thursday with room for up to 3 passengers.
  • In Diahann Johnson’s Advanced Topics Tutorial in French, Diahann and Ramsey are exploring exploring 20th century French theatre of the absurd. They have been reading Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Ramsey is beginning an independent project, putting on a scene from Anouilh’s play. The project will include a live performance in French. The lone student in the course will produce a bilingual playbill, a poster to advertise the performance and she will do a preview of the play during school meeting. This class meets this week on Thursday 2nd and Friday 7th periods.
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