Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Academic Habits at Hazen: Adopting a School-Wide Rubric

As part of our 3-year implementation plan for Proficiency-based Learning, our supervisory union has outlined the initial step in separating grades for acquisition of content/skills and work habits. Below is a post from Matt Dickstein, an English teacher and department leader; Matt discusses the process of developing a school-wide Academic Habits Rubric:

As Associate Principal John Craig reported on October 16, separating our reporting of students’ learning from our reporting of their work habits is a key element of Hazen’s ongoing transition toward more meaningful grading practices.  

Currently, grades in every class are calculated on the same 60/20/20 basis.  Sixty percent of a student’s quarter grade is derived from summative assessments, which is evidence that they have acquired the targeted knowledge or skills.  Twenty percent reflects process and formative assessments -- that is, completion of the work that should result in the learning, and/or the checkpoints along the way that let a teacher know what the students have learned, and what needs to be taught or retaught.  A final 20% is based on academic habits.  

Academic habits?  At the outset, we defined those loosely as “participation, preparation, collaboration, perseverance, and adherence to the social contract.”  This did not feel like a long leap from our previous grading practices.  Nearly every teacher already included a grading component based on things like effort, participation, reliability and productivity.  Being a good student: we know it when we see it.  Right?  

Maybe.  By late September, the faculty was in wide agreement that it would help everybody, students especially, if we all defined good academic habits the same way, used common language to describe them, and used a common tool to assess and report them.  So, Global Studies teacher Corey Maskell and I were charged with pulling together a working group to generate a Hazen Union Academic Habits Rubric.

We are not the first school to try this, and existing rubrics circulated among the faculty all autumn.  We gathered a group of four high school students to examine seven such rubrics.  Two had been developed in-house by Hazen teachers Shannon Kittell and Jay Modry; others came from Vermont schools like CVU, or from as far afield as the Taft School in Connecticut or Casco Bay High in Portland, Maine.  In addition to the rubrics, we examined other documents describing what productive academic habits look like in practice.  

From these examples, we parsed the broad notion of “academic habits” into four related but distinct areas:  
  • Engagement & Participation  
  • Persistence & Focus
  • Self Awareness & Responsibility
  • Preparation & Organization        
Then, we gave ourselves an assignment.  Two high school students, Mr. Maskell, and I each chose a single one of these traits, and we committed to come back the following week with concise descriptors of what meeting the standard in that area looks like.  We also agreed to describe distinguished performance (how might a student exceed the standard?) and behaviors we might recognize as approaching the standard, but not quite there.  We were unanimous in not wanting negative descriptions of bad habits on our rubric: anything short of “approaches” we simply call “not yet” -- and view it as the occasion for teacher, student, and parents or guardians to have a meaningful conversation.  

We met a week later to compile and vet our work, and we shared this draft with the faculty for comments and questions at our meeting on November 4.   One piece of feedback that came through loud and clear was that the language needs to be accessible to middle school students.  So, middle school teachers Teal Church and Dylan Bertolini gathered a focus group of 11 seventh and eighth graders, who told us honestly and directly which phrasings worked for them, and which seemed needlessly complex.  We made revisions on the spot, and they approved substitutions and edits that produced a more streamlined and user-friendly rubric.  

The Leadership Team reviewed the final draft on November 9, and we feel ready for teachers to “go live” with it in the classrooms, and for the students of the Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together partnership (YATST) to roll it out to the student body at large.  
We expect some growing pains as we work out the details of how teachers and students use the rubric together, how its descriptions translate into grades in our present system, and how we will record, track, and share the data it provides us.  It will require teaching; words like revise, collaborate, anticipate, persist, ambition, consistency, curiosity, or enthusiasm might not sound like everyday conversation to some students -- not yet.  We are a learning institution, though, and they will.

We will find areas that need further adjustment, but I have seen that we can collaborate deeply and respond quickly. We will persist in the effort until our grading and reporting system makes it possible for all stakeholders to meaningfully track both what our students have learned and how each of them goes about the business of being a student -- and to tell each of these kinds of information from the other.