The second dot is my research into “Standard-Based Grading” and what I am going to call, teach like a coach. I am fascinated by the fundamental changes that standards-based grading (SBG) way of teaching and learning can bring to the classroom, effectively changing the game for the better and ending so many of the small soul crushing scenes of the current paradigm (essays left on the floor, requests for extra credit to make grades, cheating, despair in September). I have devoured texts on the subject, bled highlighter over articles, and reveled in visions of my classroom next school year after I have prepared this shift for them and for me.
Going back a step, I have some coaching experience, but I have never been a head coach. Being an assistant allowed me to spend equal time implementing the plan and observing both the players and my boss. The first concept that coaches get right is having a worthy goal. This goal can be the obvious, a trophy, banner, or title. Who wouldn’t want that? Think about how appealing the abstract concept of “glory” is to the young. So often they want something to be “epic” or “legendary” (teen pandering complete), that is they want something that is both timeless in their every-changing lives and something that rises above the mundane routine that they perceive dominates their lives. Sounds reasonable. The worthy goal for an athlete or a team can be more than the obvious. Making the team is a triumph, let alone making varsity, so is breaking a record, having a winning season, making family proud, getting praise from a role model, getting a scholarship that brings college closer. Athletes do not hit the gym before I wake up because they are indifferent. They do it because they have a personal goal to attain.
As teachers, we have often wrongly assumed that students share our goals. Surely making pithy connections between Shakespearean tragedies fires me up, but that is just me, not the bleary-eyed kiddo in front of me. So, if they don’t love literature, surely they value the semester grade. Why should they? I have given them no goal. I have assumed their goal and run class accordingly. We can skip the first example of loving literature, but what of the second: the semester grade. The grade is not a worthy goal because it is created in the dark, is highly subjective, and is built upon a series exercises that don’t accurately measure skill or growth. Here are a few of my former lesser assignments: vocabulary flashcards, create a skit, make a poster, bring in some Kleenex for bonus points, and my most insidious transgression: write the paper on the novel you neither read nor comprehended. Was I testing your comprehension of Gatsby, your command of conventions or of evidence? Maybe I has just using a six-trait rubric, but you had nothing to offer because you didn’t read the book, so now your lack of measurable reading skill has become a lack of measurable writing skill and the means to practice…and I factor that into your semester grade? How often has this played out in class? Often. I have mis-coached students time and again because I tried to motivate them with a looming grade.
To create a worthy while goal for a student is to create one with a student. What do you want out of this class? Maybe the kid does not know. Show him.
Me: Do you want to go to college?
Kiddo: Not too far away?
Me: Great. Here is what you need to get into (insert college here) in terms of SATs and GPA. But once you are there, this is the level of writing you need to be able to do in order to survive there. Here is what a “B” in this class does for you on that path. In addition, here is how this one paper will affect your grade, and lastly, here are the two skills in this paper that I need you to work on and show. These two skills that look this (insert handy model paper) will earn you a “B” which will then…
By reverse engineering a goal on the student’s level, he can see the validity in what I am asking. Think about how a coach does this. Good coaches, even marginal ones, adroitly make the connections for the players between the specific skills (e.g. a single-leg takedown, a pitch-out, following blockers) and victory. Athletes get it: the skill is important. The skills are a series of small, concerted moves, that when performed properly result in a fluid and effective motion, and when enough of those are performed by enough athletes at the rights times and better executed than the other team, victory is attained.
The second element, shared effort and responsibility, is easier to discuss. Athletes and coaches know quickly if their preparatory efforts paid off. If the batter took a called-third strike after that had been worked on, then that is on the player. If a player or the team was not ready to handle a zone-defense, that is on the coach. Each party quickly acknowledges their own culpability and there is rarely disagreement. This is not often the case in the classroom. I know how defensive I have been when looking at student failure in my class. Well, the kid did not do the work, so the kid fails. Quick and clear…and wrong. Take my Gatsby example a step further. If I want the paper to assess use of evidence and conventions, as we have practiced quoting, paraphrasing, and citation, as well as comma usage and parallelism, why do I need him to use Gatsby to show me that? I don’t. He could write a paper on two editorials and show me the same skills. I am responsible for creating opportunities that allow the student to show me his ability to master standards. My way is not sacred, the standard is. What is more, I will build a bridge to him by giving him agency over the assignment? Now the kid has a paper, can engage in the process, and all I lost was one more chance to read about Nick and Daisy. In short, I am responsible for the student’s options, and, more important, him seeing that he has a voice in this process.
The third element is practice. I was a wrestler, better than mediocre, less than great. Over the years, my coaches had me practice various takedowns literally thousands of times. I got good at them because of it. I would win or lose matches because of my ability to execute the small moves, positions of hands, locations of my hips. Then I would go back to practice and renew the process. That is the bedrock of athletics. Think about how absent that is from the classroom. You do poorly on the paper you wrote on The Crucible in October. You did poorly because you did not really understand the conflicts between the reverends when we read it aloud, so your “ideas and content” took a hit. You did poorly because you really struggle with sentence structure, specifically run-ons and fragments. I don’t let you revise it after getting it back and, ironically, after you have read my feedback in the margins. Now is it December. The “D” you earned on that paper is dragging your grade down. On later papers, I see that you have improved your command of sentence structure, so I know you have that skill.
If I were teaching like a coach, I would have passed back your paper in October, “scaffolded” your break in plot-character comprehension until I got an “Oh, I totally get that now.” Then I would have had you take two nights to research and teach yourself about run-ons and fragments using YouTube and the people around you. Then for five minutes I would have you sit down and you explain what they are to me. You would prove this by fixing a few broken sentences I wrote on the back of your essay. Last, I would give you a week to write the paper for me to rescore. That is how a coach would have done it, and I am kicking myself for not doing this sooner.