When I started teaching I thought back to all of those teachers who made me write meaningless papers into which I put little effort and received stellar grades, and I vowed not to be that teacher. I promised myself and my future students that we – as equals – would discuss the literature as relevant historical artifacts that are still being read because the authors still have something to comment on in today’s society.
But then I stepped into the classroom and faced opposition from my colleagues who thought my methods would not provide students with the opportunities to master the knowledge of the standards. Worst of all, some teachers actually punished students who came from my class because they “knew” the students had not learned how to write or analyze since I did not give traditional tests or grade in a traditional way.
And I started to doubt myself. I faced that giant stack of essays and thought, “Maybe I should give in.” And I tried it. I tried grading the essays with a strict traditional rubric instead of talking through the papers and the thought processes that went into writing them. I tried giving a final grade instead of encouraging rewrites and reflections on rewrites. And it totally failed. I wasn’t happy, the students were miserable, and most importantly, no one was learning anything but how to write to a rubric. So I went back to following my gut. Students wrote and revised and reflected on their papers. They posted to discussion forums about the relevance of Huck Finn in the 21st century and how Romantic paintings made them feel. This opened up so much conversation and reflection, and allowed me to have students practice an abstract and difficult concept like literary analysis over and over again in meaningful, relevant ways in many different contexts.
When I began my work with Daniel Hickey and his research team designing curricula and refining models of curriculum development at IU, I ran – and am still running into the same roadblocks. It is difficult to ask an English teacher not to grade the essay because, in the end, a graded essay is what teachers, students, and parents are comfortable with. They like seeing the 78% score in red on the paper and in the gradebook because it is concrete. And there is certainly merit in receiving direct feedback on something one has created, even if that may encourage only a shallow engagement with the directions of the assignment rather than deeper thinking about how the creator of the artifact engaged in a practice with a concept. So when I approach a teacher with whom I am designing a curricular unit and tell them that we are only going to grade the reflection, not the artifact at all, I am not really surprised at the resistance I face.
Karen Jeffrey, in her blog post ePortfolios as Badges – A Badge System Design for Learning by Creating (a response to Dan Hickey’s blog post Some Things about Assessment that Badge Developers Might Find Helpful), suggests creating badges both for the artifact and for the reflection. Brilliant. In addition to designing curricula with teachers, our team is gearing up to host a HackJam this summer, and we have been thinking about how to use badges in this context. We want to award a badge for deeper reflection, but realize the importance of acknowledging the accomplishment of completing the hactivity. Awarding two types of badges may be just the ticket. Perhaps the levels of badges could range from an automatic badge for completing the activity, a mentor-awarded badge for reflection, and a highly coveted badge awarded by the community.
By awarding separate badges for the reflection and the artifact, students are encouraged to engage in deep reflective thinking upon their use of a concept within a particular context, thereby learning to reflect on their own thinking and practices. And at the same time, students receive meaningful, direct feedback on their artifact, and students, teachers, parents, and all those involved feel the satisfaction that feedback on the artifact itself brings.