Monday, January 05, 2009

Evaluations that Matter

Welcome back to classes to all of you who must returned to your classes today. We do not return until Wednesday in honor of Three Kings Day. After asking twenty questions in my previous post, I continued to dwel on what matters most in evaluations; which is another way to ask "what exactly should evaluators evaluate?"
If we are going to receive the best feedback possible, evaluations ought to be created to address the varying tasks of each content area. The best science classes should not look the same as the best english classes. The two subjects are too different to receive the same treatment.
Whenever I get to teach an English class again, instead of being banished to the monotony of the Corrective Reading classes, I want to be evaluated, especially in a formative assessment way, in three areas. Though I am not a strong supporter of students choosing what they want to learn, I do support teachers, professionals, having the chance to receive specific feedback in the areas of greatest concern to them.
Never in my six years of teaching has an administrator or department leader examined the way in which I assess an essay. When I taught Pre-College English at my previous school, my greatest fear was that I was not preparing my students for college level writing. Perhaps my feedback was not focused on the areas that mattered most. Perhaps my critiques lacked depth. Now, more than ever, written feedback needs evaluation.
Because many observation protocols focus on lesson sequence, objectives, and other subtly important criteria, many teachers avoid teaching lessons which have even a hint of meandering.
I have always taught that understanding literature is a selfish task. What matters most is not how someone fifty years interpreted the characters but how the individual creates meaning from the story. Therefore discussions are essential to my classroom. I intend these discussions to provoke thought, to encourage dialogue, and to generate more questions. Yet, to this day, I have no understanding of my success in these areas.
True, I should have had the courage in the previous years to risk such a lesson plan during an observation. And it is a risk. Anyone who has tried to lead a discussion with a class has experienced the devastating silence because no one read the selection. You've listened to students say the most absurd remarks because they confused characters or events. It is a risk, but one that we need to take. Questioning that provokes great class discussions should be evaluated.
Thirdly, I feel like I lack effective long-term planning. As last year concluded, and before I knew I would only be reading a script, I began to focus on my long-term planning on two levels. The first is sequencing an entire semester's worth of curriculum. Back in the Pacific Northwest, I finally felt comfortable with my year's sequence after the third year. Should it take that long? The second is the unit plan. I felt I needed to improve at coordinating each lesson to build towards the next so that, at the end of the unit, students could clearly articulate the "Big Ideas" or "Essential Questions."
The 50 minute observation with strict protocol does not allow for these areas to be fully observed. Of course, this makes merit pay even more difficult than ever.


At 2:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Mr. M.

Congratulations on being asked to join the teacher evaluation committee--I guess. Quite a responsibility to take on. Both your twenty questions and your musings on how you would like to be "evaluated" are interesting and thought-provoking. I would like to suggest, however, that although they may make good pre-committee activities for you, they are not going to be much help in creating a committee policy because they are not arising from discussion within the committee. I have had some experience with these things and have discovered that although you may assume that everyone understands the job of an evaluation committee, in reality the understandings are as different as the individual members. It is usually a good idea to begin your work with an examination of your assumptions. "What assumptions are you/I/we bringing to this committee--about our responsibilities, about the word evaluation, about what the administration wants, about the benefits for student learning and for teacher working conditions?" The discussion that follows some writing in response to such questions, can help bring the group into harmony and to construct a more complex but workable version of the job.

It can also be valuable to recognize that attitudes the evaluators bring to the task can greatly influence their evaluation of the teacher. In preparing teachers to grade the NY State ELA Regents exam, I have done an exercise where I divide my colleagues into two groups and give each group the same paper to read and evaluate. The first group is instructed to find all the problems the student has with writing, list them and then assign a grade based on the rubric. The second group is asked to find all the things the student knows how to do in writing, list them and assign a grade. Over the years, the two groups have consistently been two grades apart on a 6 point grading rubric. This generally leads to a very productive discussion of what we value in the student writing we will e-valu-ate.

What I am saying is that you should be working as a committee to examine your assumptions and expose your biases. From there you should seek input from the interested parties (administration, parents, teachers, students) before you work together to craft an assessment vehicle that accomplishes the concensus goals. and finally, you should practice together before bringing you approach to the big game.

As I said, congratulations--I guess.


At 5:36 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Joe, all excellent points. Our first meeting seemed to lean heavily towards principals and very veteran teachers.


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