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How to grade class participation?

September 21, 2015

Here in Alaska, we just wrapped up an incredible conference. Bill VanPatten of MSU and Scott Benedict of Teach for June were our Keynote speakers, and they joined with World Language teachers from across the state to inspire and challenge my ideas on language teaching and acquisition. I tweeted like a maniac, so check out #afla15 on Twitter for my notes on the conference and get just a taste of professional development that we received this weekend! I'll put together a few posts over the next two weeks, and today I want to give you a speedy quick idea to make your teacher life just a little bit happier this week.

If you have been reading my blog for any length of time and/or following my curriculum, you know a few things about how I structure my classes:

  1. I use a standards based grading system. I made the switch in 2010 after "attending" several of Scott Benedict's Webinars. My gradebook categories are Listening, Writing, Speaking, Reading, and Work Habits. More on Work Habits later.
  2. ONLY summative grades are entered in the first four categories. That means NO homework and NO classwork: only formal assessments that are given at the end of a learning period (unit, quarter, semester, etc.).
  3. ALL formative grades are entered in the Work Habits category, which accounts for just 5 percent of students' overall grade (virtually, it has no affect on their grade).
  4. Participation fits into the Work Habits category, but I don't really have a formal way of assessing it. I prefer to use classroom management systems to manage behavior so that their grade in the course remains [95 percent] purely an academic grade that gives a clear representation of students' current state of proficiency.
  5. I have tried a lot of different classroom management systems. While I have yet to find "the one", I have had success with different systems in different classes and by combining different components of different systems. Some things that I've tried are Preferred Activity Time, Marble Jars; Chiles, Quesos, and Superstars; and The Lunchbox. (Read all archived classroom management posts from my blog here.)

Scott shared an idea today that almost made me jump out of my seat in excitement! He has a very comprehensive participation system (that does not affect students' academic grade). Here is a post from 2007 in which he describes it, but since the post is from 8 years ago, it's not quite the same as what it is today. Here's what I love and will definitely incorporate when I finally get back to the classroom...a long time from now...well, Scott gives out points during class to students that are participating actively. I do the same thing using my Chiles: I keep them in my pocket or nearby, and students receive a Chile whenever they jump out of their comfort zone in Spanish and/or say something quantitatively or qualitatively impressive. This could be during class discussion, when reviewing the Campanada, gesturing for a song, during a communicative activity...anything. So this isn't different. What Scott has figured out is a WAY better answer to the question, "What can students do with their points?"

Since extra credit is obviously out (giving extra credit distorts grades so that they are no longer an accurate picture of students' current level of proficiency), my students put their Chiles back into a jar at the end of a period (with their names written on them--their responsibility). Once a day, I draw a student's name from the Chile jar to earn the honor of being the Singing Ninja. Every other week on Friday, I draw out five names to win really, really lame prizes from my prize box.

What Scott does is way, way better. Students are responsible for keeping their own points, and they can save them up to purchase prizes and privileges from him. They can purchase things like candy bars or whatever other prizes he gets, but the PRIVILEGES are the best part. Students can save their points to purchase things like the ability to eat in class or to wear a hat in class, or TO HAVE SCOTT MAKE A POSITIVE PHONE CALL TO THEIR PARENTS. Oh my word. Best. Idea. Ever. For 25 points, Scott will call whomever the students want to say whatever true thing the student wants him to share with that person on a date of the student's choosing. So the students get strategic and save up points for Scott to call their parents before big events that they want to attend or when they're planning to ask their parents for special permission for something. And because students choose what they want him to say (remember, it must be true), it is an awesome opportunity for self reflection. Scott shared a story about a time that he had one particularly challenging student that asked him to call his parents and say that "his hair was on point". Hilarious! I am sure that a quick survey of your students will glean all kinds of privileges that they would like to have in class and for which they would be willing to pay participation points if you need more ideas.

Again, remember that his system involves a lot more than I am explaining here, so all students are given points at the beginning of the quarter and can lose them for things like negative behavior or going to the bathroom during class. If you want to know all the nitty gritty details, sign up for some of his webinars or his Webversity courses or hire him to come speak to your organization in person. At the end of the month (or marking period? not sure), Scott tallies up points and awards Student of the [time period] to the Top 3 students with the most points. This reminded me of my Calculus class in high school with awesome Mr. Clancy: the student of the month was given the privilege of sitting in an ARMCHAIR that was off to one side of the room for the entire month. You'd better believe that that was the best month of my senior year. I wasn't allowed to bring furniture into the school that I worked at most recently, but believe you me that the instant that I get back to the classroom, I will be asking my principal if I can haul an armchair into the building!

There you go. Just one fantastic idea from a weekend jam-packed full of them. Stay tuned for more!

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