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Lessons Learned On The Journey To High Quality Student Work (Part 2)

by Eric White, TeachThought PD Workshop Facilitator

*this blog is part 2 of 2

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In my previous post, I discussed three major lessons learned on my way to high quality student work. Let’s continue the conversation with three new lessons and a bonus tip that may be the most important of all.

Lesson #4: Create Rites of Passage

If we expect high quality work from students, we must have measures in place to ensure students do not just rush to the finish line. I referred to these measures as “rites of passage” with my students. To transition into the next phase of a project, students had to prove they were ready. This proof usually involved a draft of work and a teacher conference. Holding high standards for work required me to draw a line in the sand. No flinching allowed. However, if a student was not approved to move forward the first time, it did not mean she or he failed. It simply meant the student was not ready yet. “Yet” was critical to maintaining motivation. “Yet” meant an opportunity for students to revise and improve without fear of having their grade suffer. “Yet” also meant that I needed to scaffold, differentiate, and personalize my support to meet students where they were. To see “rites of passage” in action, check out the short video below of a former student passing through the process.

Critique and Revision in Action from Eric White on Vimeo.

I facilitated my first project without “rites of passage,” and it was a disaster. Being new to PBL, I instructed students to create a tri-fold on an ancient civilization. It was not a rigorous, creative, or well-designed project. In fact, it was not true PBL at all, but that’s another conversation. I gave students a week at home to complete the work and, to really raise the stakes, decided to count the final product as two test grades and invited the assistant principal to view the presentations. This completely backfired when presentation day came. Once the bell rang for 1st period, a procession of shoddy, careless, and plagiarized work entered the room. I knew then the rest of the day was going to miserable, and it was on full display for my superior. I left school angry and embarrassed. I even threw the tri-folds away in our dumpster. I figured I needed to get rid of the evidence before the rest of the staff became aware of my crime. Luckily, I had a thoughtful assistant principal who helped me understand the value of quality control and formative assessment. I never again facilitated a project without “rites of passage.”

The big takeaway here is to perform more routine check-ups and fewer autopsies. That approach will help you avoid those DOA (dead on arrival) student products that haunted me early in my teaching career.

Lesson #5: Put More Eyes on the Prize

Remember that you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to critique and feedback. Peer and self-assessment can be an effective and efficient way to leverage the collective wisdom of your classroom. As a colleague and friend of mine used to say, “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

In addition to your students, consider appealing to those in your community that may be able to move student work forward. Bringing in community stakeholders isn’t a new idea, but I often didn’t utilize their expertise in the best way possible. I often just asked them to come in and speak to the students about their expertise or to nod politely at presentations. These were missed opportunities, but a fellow teacher helped me discover a better path. Her geometry students were working on a design challenge, which involved creating architectural blueprints. To make the feedback as authentic as possible, she brought in local architects to provide feedback on the drafts. That real feedback resonated in a way that could not have occurred if she only brought in the architects with my approach.

Lesson #6: Let Students Own the Rubric

One of my biggest pet peeves occurred when I reviewed rubrics with my students. After spending hours agonizing over just the right language, we would read through the entire document together, line after excruciating line. Once the bell rang for dismissal, my frustration and disappointment quickly set in. Many of my students left class, leaving the rubrics on their desks or the floor. And there I stood, alone in my room with my masterpiece scattered like confetti. How would my students create great work if they didn’t care about the rubric? After having enough of this repeating scenario, I tried a few interventions that put my rubric back on their desks and in their minds.

My first strategy was shifting from students just reading the rubric to students applying the rubric. I had students use my rubric to assess a piece of anonymous student work before starting on their own. Low, medium, and high quality models helped calibrate students’ understanding, so I didn’t have to pick perfect artifacts. I also had an instance where I could not find any relevant models, so I created one myself. Students had fun using the rubric to point out all of my flaws, and I actually enjoyed the vulnerability I had to have in front of my students. Best of all, they had a firm understanding of the standards for success.

Another strategy to foster rubric ownership is to include students in creating them. A co-constructed rubric provides student voice with learning goals and assessment, which are areas that sometimes lack student involvement.

Bonus Tip: Stop Giving Trash Can Work

The most important lesson I’ve learned on the way to high quality student work is this: If I want students to invest in high quality work, I must give them work worth doing. The work I provide needs challenge them. It needs to tap into their interests. It needs to feel authentic and live beyond the classroom. In other words, it must pass the “Trash Can Test.”

I once conducted a survey with students at a former school with one simple question for them to answer: What happens to your work once it has been graded? Without exception, students said it ended up in the trash. These were honest and candid responses that caused a number of us to redesign the type of work we were giving students. High quality student work doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by design. And, that design starts with the quality of work we provide students in the first place.

What are some of your lessons learned on your journey to high quality student work? Comment below, and allow us to learn from your growth.

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