Schools, Grading, & Frozen Thought

I love schools.  But my friends and colleagues know they can easily get me on a rant about how broken the education system is: over-emphasizing standardized tests and grades, providing unequal education based on socioeconomic status, not thinking about what students really need long-term, letting decisions be made by politicians or based on tradition.

anti education eraAfter reading the first half of James Paul Gee’s book “The Anti-Education Era”, I am sure he would join in on my rants.  But he would also agree with me that even though they are flawed, schools are valuable institutions.  I found his insights into human thought and action very helpful as I considered the struggle my school is facing as we re-evaluate our grading practices.

Gee explains that when a group of people form an institution, they have to create policies that “freeze thought” about certain issues in order to make the institution function properly and to make it easier for the people involved to function.  For a long time, schools have followed a “frozen” grading structure based on the 0-100% and A to F scales.

But as schools and society have changed, and as we have learned about what really motivates learners, it seems that grading practices might need to be changed.

How can a school overcome frozen thinking about grading and rally individuals around the institutional goal of assessing student learning consistently and effectively?  I don’t have the definitive answer, but in this white paper, I examine how Gee’s claims can shed light on the grading problems in my school.  If you read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Supporting Literacy Skills for ELL Students with Newsela

Reading: An Ill-Defined Problem

Teaching reading is no longer just within the purview of English teachers.  The Common Core standards place a great emphasis on literacy across the content areas, so teachers of science, social studies, and other disciplines find themselves looking for ways to help students develop literacy skills.  Many middle school and high school teachers feel ill-equipped for teaching literacy skills, assessing reading comprehension, and selecting appropriate readings for their students.  

English Language Learners

At the same time, schools across America are increasingly seeing a need to support students who are identified as English Language Learners (ELLs).  In my district, the percentage of students identified as ELL has almost doubled since I started working here 8 years ago. As more students who need ELL support start taking general education classes at my school, many teachers feel a need to find new strategies to meet the unique challenges these students face.

One of the greatest challenges is the diversity of backgrounds of ELLs.  Not only is there variation in their English language proficiency, but also in their educational backgrounds, native languages, life situations, and academic skills (Spinelli, 2008).  Even a high school student who has met the criteria for exiting out of ELL support can still struggle with reading because of the intense academic and content-specific vocabulary used in articles, textbooks, and historical documents.  Studies show that it can take 7 to 10 years for students to master the skills needed to be fully academically proficient in a new language (Bowman-Perrott, 2010).  


At my school, many teachers are looking to technology to meet the deman
ds of teaching reading and meeting the needs of ELL students.  One of my favorite technology tools is called


Newsela curates a collection of current events articles on a variety of topics, including science, war, money, law, and health.  Teachers can assign a specific article to students, or have students search for an article that interests them.  Students who find reading to be a challenge often benefit from having a choice in what they read (Bowman-Perrott, 2010).  Bringing individual interests into the classroom enriches the experiences of all learners, not just ELL students.

Perhaps the best feature for ELL students is that the reading level of every article can be modified to fit the needs of the students.  Articles can be adjusted from a 2nd grade reading level up to a 12th grade reading level.  A teacher could assign the same article to all students, but could differentiate the reading level.  Students have the option to toggle between the 5 reading levels for each article, so they can find a version that is understandable.  This is particularly helpful for ELL students who struggle to comprehend complex sentences and content-specific vocabulary (Bowman-Perrott, 2010).  By adjusting the reading level, teachers can appropriately scaffold all of their students, including their ELL students, without drawing attention to the fact that students are at different levels.  

Additionally, many articles are available in Spanish as well as English, so students who are literate in Spanish can read in their native language.  A student can toggle between the English and Spanish versions of the article to facilitate their comprehension.  As Bowman-Perrott acknowledges, it is important to assess students’ language and literacy skills in both languages as they work toward comprehensive literacy (2010).  Spanish is the most commonly spoken language among ELL students at my school, but we also have 53 other languages spoken in the homes of our students.  Hopefully over time, Newsela will offer articles in other languages as well.  

Another great feature is the built-in assessment feature that Newsela offers.  Each article comes with a set of 5 multiple choice questions and a writing prompt.  The questions are specifically written to match the reading level selected on the article, and they are aligned with the Common Core standards.  With a subscription to Newsela Pro, which my district has purchased, teachers can view a dashboard of student data.  This allows them to see data for individual articles, individual students, and longitudinal data over the course of the year.  Teachers can use these features to track the progress of each student, including ELL students, and adjust their instruction in response to the growth they see.  

Newsela provides many additional tools such as annotations, customizable questions, and suggestions for classroom activities and literacy strategies that teachers may find useful in their own classrooms.  

Check out this video if you want to get a glimpse of the features offered by Newsela:

(This video was created with WeVideo)

Works Cited:

Bowman-Perrott., L.J, Herrera, S. & Murry, K. (2010) Reading Difficulties and Grade Retention: What’s the Connection for English Language Learners?, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 26:1, 91-107.

Spinelli, C. G. (2008). Addressing the issue of cultural and linguistic diversity and assessment: Informal evaluation measures for English language learners. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 24(1), 101-118.

Problem-Solving for Teachers (Differentiated Coaching: Chapter 3)

Chapter 3: What Problems Do Teachers Want to Solve?

This chapter of Differentiated Coaching addresses the importance of helping teachers clearly define the problems they have in their classrooms.  Properly defining the problem allows teachers to implement the right changes, motivates them to start the change process, and helps them evaluate their success accurately.  


Teachers feel like more and more demands are being placed on them:  Get trained in this.  Give your students this test.  Collect this data.  Use this new strategy.  They feel like there isn’t enough time to do these new things AND do the planning, grading, and work with students they have always done.  

Yes, student data is important and informative, but just telling teachers to improve student test scores isn’t going to create change.  Teachers’ beliefs about why students struggle and fail have a HUGE impact on what teachers are willing to try.  

The power in the coaching model is that the “professional development” is closely coupled with the teacher’s day-to-day reality.  A coach can take advantage of that by starting with a teacher’s immediate concerns, using those as an opportunity to talk about other things, and creating positive results that foster the teacher’s desire to continue to work together.

Learned Helplessness

In this chapter, Kise applies the idea of “learned helplessness” to teachers.  I’ve heard students labeled with this, but never teachers.  But I think it can be helpful to reflect on how even we as adults can get stuck in a “learned helplessness” or hopeless posture.  

We fall into despair when we feel like our failure is universal. Having hope requires you to see that your failures are temporary and limited to specific situations.

When teachers hit wall after wall and get used to failure, they feel like they have no control over student behavior, no ability to meet expectations placed on them by administrators or parents, and no power to change.  They give up.

A study by Peterson, Maier, and Seligman (1993) found that dogs who had given up trying to escape from electric shocks had to be dragged to safety by researchers 30-50 times before they began to respond on their own.  And other research indicates that humans take even more interventions than animals.  Do we intervene with failing students this many times before giving up on them?  What about with the adults we work with?  

Generating Alternatives & Evidence

We all have preferences, biases and blind spots based on our strengths, experiences, and beliefs (such as learned helplessness).  A coach can provide alternate perspectives and solutions to a teacher who feels stuck.  

After defining the problem accurately and implementing change, it’s important to help a teacher quickly generate evidence to determine if the change was effective.  A quick success can energize a teacher to keep trying, and can even start to chip away at their learned helplessness or erroneous beliefs.  

It’s important to note that evidence doesn’t just have to be student test scores.  You can look at quarter grades, student time on-task, or percentage of work completion, among other things.

Last Thought: High Expectations

“The teachers thought they had high expectations, but what they really had was high standards.  High expectations mean expecting that all students will succeed.”  When it comes to grades, teachers need to see failing grades as a problem to be solved rather than as an inevitability they can’t change.  (p. 48)