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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Make Mine an A

As green plants take to sunlight, high school students thrive when given the opportunity to participate in a partnership class.

Two years ago, in my 23rd year as an educator, I realized that my joy for teaching had vanished. I was frustrated by my students' lack of motivation. State testing was becoming a crucial issue. I was attending every training session that might help me get the kids to do better. And what were the students doing to improve their proficiency? Nothing. Test scores were just not high on their list of priorities. Students seemed to want "drive-thru, give-me-my-credit-and-let-me-go" classes.

Preface: The Need for a Change

Where had the good old work ethic gone? Why didn't students take pride in their work? Why were they satisfied with doing just enough to get by? I was using all the best-known strategies for creating and sustaining interest and motivation (from matching learning styles to positive reinforcement), and I was still doing 10 times more work and worry than the students. Except for a few fleeting moments now and then, most students seemed to be working by the implied motto "make mine mediocre," and it was contagious. I knew that I had to do something or quit teaching.
It was time to step back. For one semester, I served as a roving mentor to new teachers in several schools. I observed two key elements in classrooms where students appeared to be highly motivated: formative evaluation and student self-management. The combination of these elements enabled teachers to coach students to produce better work and empowered students to reach high academic and behavioral goals.

Chapter 1: A Plan Comes Together

Could high doses of formative evaluation and student self-management motivate my young adult learners? I threw caution to the wind and redesigned all my methods and procedures to emphasize student self-management. I delegated to students any classroom tasks that they could do as well as I could. I expected them to become the goal setters and producers; I became the facilitator and coach.
Perhaps I had been limiting my students' learning by setting arbitrary restrictions. Was one attempt at an essay the most reliable measure of a student's best writing? I had to examine everything in light of this new classroom focus.
I also needed to reach out to parents to help them understand my approach to learning and their role in supporting their children's goals. I had to define balanced roles for a parent-student-teacher learning triad, giving each of us specific responsibilities, if this renaissance of student motivation was to become a reality. The concept was now conceived and needed a name. The "partnership class" was born.

Chapter 2: The Partnership Grows

I designed the partnership in four phases. In phase 1, I outlined the roles for members of the learning triad so that each partner would know from the outset what to expect from the others, and no one would usurp another's responsibilities. Each partner agreed in writing to fulfill a distinct role in the triad. Even I had to define my role as the teacher. Next, I developed a list of course requirements designed to exhibit students' skills. For example, the 10th grade English requirements included ten tests, two seminars, four revised essays, two books read outside of class, and one research project. After signing the agreements, students and parents perused this list to set a mutually acceptable grade goal for the course.
Phase 2, student self-management, led to student-work portfolios. After I evaluated their completed work, students filed it in their portfolios and recorded it on their course requirement-goal sheets according to the type of work and its quality (A, B, C, or D). Any work that lacked acceptable quality (below D) was filed but not recorded as completed work and did not count toward satisfying the course requirements. Students did not need to worry that grades below 70 might mess up their averages; they could fail only by not producing the required work. Students could revise or redo any previous work to raise its quality, then add all reevaluated work to their portfolios and record their new scores.
Although students could not substitute extra work on one item for another required item, they could opt to do more than the minimum to add extra work points to the portfolio. Everything accumulated like deposits in a savings account. After meeting the minimum requirements, a student could choose to omit additional opportunities to produce a work item.
Phase 3, feedback and evaluation, was crucial to the partnership. Here I really started to earn my paycheck. I had to set up clear and exacting rubrics for the evaluation of each work item because students needed a lucid picture of how to improve. I had to return essays, for example, with enough constructive feedback to help students know how to raise the quality of their writing if they so chose.
Although I encouraged students to do their work in a timely fashion because it was more efficient and less stressful, I consistently evaluated work according to its quality, not its timing. Rigid due dates became a thing of the past. Students realized that it was all right to work at their own best pace as long as the work got done and had acceptable quality. They stopped asking, "I'm not finished with my essay yet, so is it OK if I turn it in tomorrow?" They knew that the most important thing was to do the best work that they could whenever they could.
To receive credit, students had to complete all requirements by the end of the course. For chronic procrastinators, I collaborated with parents and the students themselves to find creative solutions. To help one student who avoided independent reading, his mother and I worked with him to set up a specific daily reading time at home. Mom reminded him of his reading time, the student read, and I monitored his progress by getting him to fill me in on the plot sequence. As a partnership, we solved a problem without lowering a grade.
The final phase of the partnership, reporting, required all partners in the triad to play connecting roles. First, students checked their progress, both in quality and quantity, each time they filed evaluated work. Grades carried standard point values—an A was four points, a B was three, and so on. Students calculated their accumulated points by multiplying the item weight by the quality points. For example, an A in a Socratic seminar (valued at two points) yielded eight work points. Points were cumulative throughout the course, and each student knew what range of points would yield each final grade. On average, students monitored their progress in their work portfolios twice a week. "How are my grades?" became an infrequent question.
My role in reporting involved recording each successful item and its grade so that I could send home regular progress reports and report cards as specified in the teacher's and parents' signed agreements. Because I collected student work continually, these reports reflected cumulative work quality. I calibrated the point ranges to normal grade scores between 70 and 100 so that parents could compare these grades with those from other classes.
Once parents understood that reports were cumulative, they appreciated knowing how their child was doing "so far" as opposed to how he or she was doing during a six- or nine-week segment. The parents then played their supporter roles by signing and returning reports and by monitoring how well their children were meeting their chosen grade goals.

Chapter 3: Seeing Is Believing

What really made me believe that the partnership class was alive and well was the change in the quality of the students' work. Final grade results from 142 students showed only three Ds, a 24 percent decrease from the year before. Fifty students earned As, an increase of 29 percent. Differences in other grades were less dramatic. The number of Bs remained constant, and Cs decreased. Evidently, "partnership" students produced more excellent work than their predecessors did. However, Fs rose by 7 percent, a puzzling increase. I had to determine the cause.
Students in the partnership class have a list of minimum course requirements that, when completed satisfactorily, guarantee credit for the class. The school has a blanket failure policy based on attendance: more than six unexcused absences in a semester equals automatic failure of the class. Overall, 13 of the 21 failures resulted from such absences, not from lack of completed work.
Generally, student-work quality did improve, as seen in the decrease in Ds and the increase in As. The failure rate could be significantly reduced by more frequent parent-teacher contact for students in jeopardy and by a school policy that awards credit solely on the basis of work production and its quality rather than on attendance. These two areas need to be targeted for the partnership to yield better results.
  • Does having the opportunity to redo your work at any time to improve its quality help you? (Yes—100 percent)
  • Does having the opportunity to delete work over the required minimum or to add more for extra credit help you? (Yes—98 percent)
  • Do you like managing your work, that is, being in control of how much you do and how well you do? (Yes—97 percent)
  • Do you prefer planning and solving problems together in class meetings? (Yes—100 percent)
Without a doubt, students liked being able to make their work better. They accepted the invitation to excel. They liked having choices. They responded positively to being given more responsibility in the partnership triad.
As students became more pleased with their overall performance, their self-esteem rose. Students were just plain happier. This positive attitude spilled over at home. Parents noticed changes in their children. When surveyed about partnership classes, a majority of parents said that the teacher's expectations were high, their child's interest was high, their child was more motivated than in most other classes, their child was learning at a maximum rate and producing better work than in most other classes, and the frequency of parent-teacher contact was ideal.
Results from parent and student surveys proved to me that I was not imagining the changes I saw in student work and motivation. The students were responding to their new environment as green plants do to sunlight. The partnership was going to thrive.

Epilogue: Working Happily Ever After

Finally, 225 students and nine classes later, I have come to the end of this story about how partnership English classes came to be at my small, rural high school in eastern North Carolina. Students tell me what they think of their partnership classes: "It puts a lot more responsibility in your hands." "You have an unlimited opportunity to make all your work A quality." "As an individual, you feel like you can reach a higher potential; you know what you have to do. . . . Other teachers don't really allow you to be as productive as you could."
That says it all. Because the joy of learning is restored in my students, the joy of teaching is living again in me. I am convinced that this story is really just beginning.

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