Welcome Mark Overmeyer!

On tour through the blog--world.

On tour through the blog--world.

Mark Overmeyer, author of When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working (Stenhouse, 2005) and What Student Writing Teaches Us (Stenhouse, 2009) has been on tour through the blog world.  Mark, who wrote both books in small 15 – 30 minutes chunks of time over many months, joins us today for his last stop.  I’m sure he has picked up many “groupies” as he’s traveled through cyberspace.  If you’ve not read his latest book on assessment, click here for a FREE preview of What Student Writing Teaches Us, as well as a writing contest where you could win a signed copy of the book.

A powerful message Mark highlights is:

I believe the more we think of writing as practice, the more we will help our students to grow. I do not know if I was as clear with this point when I wrote the book as I could have been.

When I was a Title I Reading teacher, I saw my job as helping students to practice every day, and I looked for steady progress as they improved in their abilities to become stronger, more confident readers. I celebrated small successes, and I didn’t view miscues as “errors”, but as opportunities to learn.  But when I taught these same students writing, I often resorted to error hunting, and I became frustrated.

Writers deserve time to apprentice, and to practice. The goal is not perfection, but improvement, and this improvement can come in so many forms. We must always remember that when we ask students to write, we are asking them to generate ideas and to communicate in a way that carries both meaning and intention.

I learn so much from just talking with my students, and learning alongside them as we all seek to become stronger writers.

Writing is truly a journey, not a destination…

Thanks to Mrs. V for her question about getting young writers used to grades, as well as the issue of missing assignments (click here for the question).  Following is Mark’s response:

This is such an excellent question. I taught sixth grade for many years, and the tension many students and parents feel about grades definitely impacted my work.

I want to first of all clarify my stance on missing assignments, and also point you in the direction of some very interesting, current resources about grading practices. This is a tricky topic, by the way, so please know that these are my views, and they are in no way meant to judge any practices used by teachers as they consider how to grade students.

Most of my missing assignment issues came with homework. Some years, I literally spent hours each week tracking down students who did not turn in homework, calling parents (most of these years were in the “dark ages” before e mail), keeping students in at lunch or after school, and determining fair percentages to dock students if their assignments were not turned in on time.

Some of these issues were less difficult to deal with when I implemented the following strategies:

1.) Assign homework as practice only. For example, I may ask students to write down a few ideas for the personal essays to bring to class, but much of the drafting might take place in school. I often assign a few points for the idea assignment, but if a student does not complete the assignment, it will not impact their grade so negatively that they give up.

2.) Set up your grade book by standard rather than by assignment. Then, if a student is missing an assignment, he or she can still provide proof at a later time that a standard has been met. In a true, standards-based system, if you build in enough time prior to the end of a grading period, this can help you determine who is missing the standard vs. who is missing an assignment.

3.) Try to avoid the trap of assigning so much homework that students develop a pattern of missing assignments. The longer I teach, the less homework I assign, but the more meaningful the homework (I hope) and the more connected to standards (at least that is my goal). Many parents have spoken to me about not assigning enough homework. They worry because I do not have 30 or 40 or 50 grades per semester. I try to tell them that I want each assignment to be meaningful, and I feel very strongly that my job is to help each student achieve to his/her greatest potential. More homework is not necessarily the way to get there. Right now, when I work with a group of students over time, I may actually grade only 10 – 16 assignments per semester. Then, each assignment has  meaning, and each assignment has multiple parts that must be completed along the way. I have had less missing assignments using this method.

3.) When you read this suggestion, please know that this is based on some ideas I heard in a powerful workshop with Robert Marzano about grades. The suggestion is to never give students a “0” for a missing assignment. The issue with a grade of “zero” is that it is nearly impossible to “dig out” of the hole if a student receives a zero. If we scale grades, the largest scale is the “F” range in most schools – from 0 – 59%. This unfairly weights the “F”. The other grade ranges are only 10 points each: 60 – 69, 70-79, 80-89, and 90-100 (I guess that is an 11 point range).

So, when a student receives a “0”, it is so difficult to make this up, and they know this, and many don’t try. Some schools I know give what is called a “50 F”. If an assignment is not turned in, then a student can still make up for the missing assignment by (hopefully) turning it in, or by doing better the next time. The philosophy behind this, for me, is that we all make mistakes. If our role as teachers is to help students learn from mistakes, then the “50 F” certainly seems to be a logical compromise. Having discussed this idea with many, many teachers, I know already what some may be thinking: “This will encourage laziness” and “Students have to learn sometime” and “Why would I give them something they have not earned?” I respect these points, but I am also suggesting that we must consider how we can use grades to support student achievement, and not just as a system of  rewards and punishments. Remember that if a student receives an “F” in an academic subject in middle school, this student is very, very likely to become disengaged in school and drop out before finishing high school. There are articles about this phenomenon – I apologize for not recalling where I have read these studies.

Is the student responsible for missing assignments? Of course.

But, teachers are responsible for creating fair grading systems, and my honest opinion is to agree with Marzano: a 59 point spread for an “F” and a 10 point spread for a “C” or a “B” does not seem fair. Just because it has been that way for more than a century does not mean we should continue with this method of grading.

For much, much more on fair grading systems, see the excellent book Fair Isn’t Always Equal by Rick Wormeli.

A final suggestion, and one that I am sure you employ already:
4.) Establish positive, problem-solving relationships up front with parents regarding missing assignments. Try to prevent a large problem by meeting face to face as soon as an issue arises. In other words, meet before it really is a difficult issue. I know this takes time (I often met with one third of my parents prior to conference time), but the payoff was huge.

I honestly hope this helps, and at least provides a place for you to start. Grades, and missing assignments, are huge issues.

(all emphasis mine)

If Mark’s ideas impact you, please take a moment to leave a comment on this post for Mark.  Feedback fuels writers and I’m sure Mark would appreciate it.

Now that his “tour” is over, we could probably find Mark in Colorado, eating his favorite food, Xiaolong bao, a type of pork dumpling he ate nearly every day while living in China.  You can find Mark in the blog-o-sphere at: Mark Overmeyer’s Blog:  For Teachers Who Write and Writers Who Teach.