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29 December 2017

Responding to parent complaints about grades

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

Hope you are having a happy holiday. We just got Johnny's grades. While we are pleased that he tries so hard and cares so much about your class, Bunny and I are disappointed that his exam didn't push his grade up from a B+ to an A-. Junior year is especially important for college, and Johnny's goal is a 3.6.  We are hoping you will reevaluate some of the more subjective portions of the course grade, or perhaps allow him to do some extra credit to bring him up to an A-.  We know you want the best for those you teach, and you wouldn't want to see a diligent student denied his future because of just a few points here and there.  When is a good time for you to meet with us to discuss his grade?  Sincerely, Mr. Smith.

No, reader, I didn't hack your email account - this is just an amalgam of all the similar notes and conversations I and my colleagues have dealt with over the years.

How to respond?

Not with aggressive complaints, not with scathing wit and sick burns.  Yes, Mr. Smith's note is full of passive-aggressive assumptions of bad faith.  So what.  Bring it down, bring it down.*  You are in charge here.

* Han Solo, in The Force Awakens, as Finn delights too much in his dominance over Captain Phasma.

Part of what gets your dander up as a teacher in this situation is fear.  Fear that you'll be trapped in repeated unproductive meetings defending your grading procedures to ever higher-level and physics-clueless administrators. Fear that Johnny will begin spreading discontent and despondence throughout his class.  Fear that if you don't emphatically shut down Mr. and Mrs. Smith then Mr. and Mrs. Jones will start canoodling to change Brittany's grade, too.

Yes, all these things could happen.  But the fact remains - you are in charge. You assigned the grade; a nasty email from a parent puts you under no obligation to reevaluate the grade.  A batter may give the umpire a Look and the manager may scream "where the $&*# was that pitch?"... yet the umpire should not timidly change the call from "strike" to "ball."

However, neither should the umpire get sucked into a heated discussion of his or her strike-calling philosophy.

Let's calmly consider the most politically practical and appropriate response to the Smiths - the response that's least likely to cause all the teacher's fears to be realized.

Dear Mr. Smith (copy to science chairperson, principal, and college counseling director),

Thank you for your note.  Johnny has indeed been a diligent, positive contributor to our class this semester. I'm pleased with how hard he's worked at developing his physics skills. The semester grades are final.  I'm confident that Johnny can continue to perform well in the second semester. 


Have a wonderful break.

Now, I just wrote this response off the top of my head.  I'm sure readers can improve upon it - please post in the comments.  And I'm sure others have different approaches to dealing with disappointed parents, so please read comments to hear from them, too.  I'm not the only teacher with good answers for the Smiths.  Above is merely my personal approach to such a conflict.

The important components of my reply:

1. I've said nothing negative about Johnny - instead I've acknowledged and validated the Smiths' view of their son as diligent and positive.  Even if Johnny were evidently not a diligent student, I wouldn't point that out, I'd just find something else to compliment.

2. I've said nothing about the grade.  The point here is that no grade is a reflection on the character of a student; no grade, even if "bad" in the parents' minds, should be nitpicked.  My refusal to engage in discussion of grades means the parents have no room to advance a counterargument - the next email can only regurgitate the same points already made, which will look even more whine-y and arrogant the second time 'round.

3. I have responded directly to Mr. Smith's inquiry, with a polite, neutral, but unambiguous "The semester grades are final."  Mr. Smith can't complain that I ignored or talked around his request to reevaluate his son's grade.  I would not hedge here - sure, there are exceedingly rare circumstances under which grades may be revisited, like... like who cares.  None of those circumstances applies right now.  So I won't bring up their existence, or the Smiths will spend an enormous amount of energy convincing themselves and others that they do apply.

4. The final sentence is positive in tone, subtly reminding Mr. and Mrs. Smith that in fact I do care about Johnny, I root for his success, I'm proud of him so far and will continue to be... and that we still have another semester in which Johnny and I have to work together.  No need for an umpire to threaten the batter with "You argue with me again and the strike zone will reach to the moon."  Better to just remind him or her, "Here we go, batter, we've got seven innings to go.  Let's play ball."  The actual effect of each of these two sentences is about the same; so use the gentler words that will obtain the desired result.

What about the Smiths' next move?

You as a teacher worry perpetually that parents will complain to an administrator, which in the best case sucks your time away from teaching, and in the worst case leads to hostile conversations and actions involving Your Boss.  We all know that the Smiths will likely carry their fight for a revised grade past you to your administration.

By visibly, intentionally, and unambiguously copying your response (which, of course, includes the text of the original email) to those bosses, you've preempted the potential appeal.  You've put your administrators in the best possible position to support you.

See, even a good, supportive administrator has an obligation to reply to polite inquiries from parents.  If that administrator is unaware of your initial conversation before hearing Mr. Smith's further complaint, (s)he will reasonably come to you to hear your view.  While that's 100% responsible behavior on the administrator's part, it sets up an unfortunate false equivalence between your position and Mr. Smith's - the administrator seems to be adjudicating a dispute between two litigants, each of whom has equal standing.

By copying the administrator on your reply, you've indicated to everyone (including Mr. Smith) that Mr. Smith's concern has been resolved to your satisfaction.  When Mr. Smith tries to go over your head, the administrator would have to directly and publicly contradict your decision in order to take Mr. Smith's side.  Good administrators won't do that; even bad administrators don't like to be seen publicly undermining their teachers.

So if you don't trust the competence or goodwill of your bosses... still copy them on the response, but openly include a copy to an administrator you do trust.

How do you respond to the follow-up note from Mr. Smith, which is copied to all, making further arguments about how much you have hurt Johnny, pleading with even more emotionally charged language?


You don't.  See, you're in charge.  You don't need to win an argument with Mr. Smith.  You don't need to convince him that he shouldn't challenge your authority as teacher, or that Johnnie will do just fine at college whether he gets an A- or a B+ this semester.  Your job isn't to bring forth righteous justice, it's to bring forth peace.  Let Mr. Smith have the last word.  Let him look petty.  Carry on in the next semester as if nothing has happened.


17 December 2017

Do I enjoy giving exams? Yes.

The question was once asked of me, in a most appropriate manner, whether teachers enjoy giving exams.  The asker seemed brain-dead from his first night of studying, knowing that he had a full week of hard academic work in front of him.

Though he was too polite to verbalize the expression in his face, I suspect his deeper thought was: “Why do teachers put us through this heck of cramming?  Do they get sadistic pleasure out of it?  Do they enjoy tormenting their students?  Weren’t they students once?  WHY DO THEY DO THIS TO US?”

Since the questioner was so polite, since he truly seemed curious about the answer, and since I’m sure much of the student body asks themselves the same question three times* each year, I think the question deserves an answer.  I can’t speak for teachers in general, nor even for teachers at my school.  But I’ll answer for myself:

* my school is on trimesters, not semesters

Yes, I enjoy giving exams, despite the enormous amount of work they create for me and for my students.  But probably not for the reasons you might think.  Put yourself in a teacher’s loafers for a moment…

When exam day arrives, I have dedicated the previous eleven weeks of my life to teaching physics.  I am “on duty” virtually nonstop when school is in session, especially in the fall when learning physics is most difficult for my classes.  When I’m not actually in class teaching, I’m grading assignments, preparing lectures and demonstrations, writing problems and assignments, helping students… You can ask my wife – all trimester I am thoroughly, monkishly, devoted to helping my students learn physics to the best of their ability.

The exam is an opportunity to find out how well I’ve done teaching, and how well my students have done learning.  I want to know – did those long hours, those occasional interminable days and early mornings, did they pay off?  Did I really succeed in develop every student's physics skills?  What can I do better?  What can THEY do better?  What did we do well? 

I think of my teaching job much like a coach’s job.  Did Mr. Hale enjoy the state cross-country meet?  Well, of course he did.  Even though it was the runners who performed, not the coach, Mr. Hale still saw the fruits of his team’s months-long labor in the “final exam”  of the year’s last race.  As in every season, he rejoiced not only for the runners who placed near the top of the league, but also for those who showed dramatic improvement under his tutelage. 

In my class, then, the trimester exam is equivalent to the biggest game of the season.  I am cheering for everyone to do well.  I know from experience that most students, in fact, will do well.  I'm ready to use the exam as a learning tool for those who don't do well - as a learning tool for that student, and as a learning tool for me as I figure out how to help that student do better next time.  

Do I enjoy a student's poor performance?  No.  Yet I thoroughly enjoy the successes, which vastly outnumber the failures; and even when students don't do well, I enjoy the process of finding out how good I and my students have been.

Now let me throw this question back at the student who asked it.  Do you enjoy the state cross country meet?  Because if you don't work really, really hard during the season, you're not likely to win the race.  Even if you do practice well, a freak trip-and-fall could wreck the performance that you've worked all season to produce.  And you could lose not because you didn't work hard, but just because another runner has more natural, raw talent than you do.  YOU COULD FAIL.

So, grasshopper: 

When you feel the same nervous, excited anticipation for your final exam as for the state championship... 

When you develop the same discipline in academics and in sport to prepare every day throughout the season, not just the night before...

When your hope for success overwhelms your fear of failure... 

...then you, too, will enjoy exams.



15 December 2017

A guide for useful and successful semester exams

A school community too often anticipates semester exams as they would an auto-da-fé.  We teachers know that the purpose of exams is not to torture, but to provide a touchstone in the learning process.  When the semester exam process is executed* well, students derive confidence from the skills they demonstrate, providing a foundation for an increased pace and difficulty in the second half of the year. 

*hah!

It’s part of our job, though, to help the students develop an exam-positive view of the learning process.  Our attitude going in, as well as the specific things we ask our students to do in preparation for the exam, must be in line with the true purpose of exams.

Here, then, are four ideas for setting the right tone so that you get the most out of your semester exam.

(1) Insist on serious attention to every assignment throughout the year, so that the exam doesn’t seem like the teacher playing “gotcha”.

Your goal should be to have your students ready for the exam without any extra studying.  Hold every student accountable for not just doing each assignment to get it done, but for doing it right.  When students miss something important on a homework problem, give a similar question on an upcoming quiz.  Require the student who bombs this follow-up quiz to attend an extra-help session to do the problem right.  Make it more trouble to do assigned problems wrong than to do them right.

Why? Ask yourself, what does effective studying for an exam look like?  Very much like the process above.

(2) Be careful not to study-shame

How does this sound from the director of the school play with opening night imminent: “Make sure you practice your scenes 100 times each tonight; those of you who do might hit all your cues, but if you don’t spend that time tonight, your performance will suffer and you’ll trip and fall during the dance number in act 1.”

Even if you don’t intend to shame or threaten your students, that’s what they hear when a teacher explicitly invokes the consequences of unpreparedness.  

Recognize that students - especially juniors and seniors - will not change their exam preparation habits based on entreaties from you.  You think that the student who hasn’t done serious preparation for an exam in any of five classes and two semesters per year for four years will suddenly say “Oh, Mrs. Lipshutz says it’s extra-important to study for physics, I’d better do that.”?!?  If our mere words have that much influence over recalcitrant teenagers, we should be in politics or marketing, not teaching.

More likely, we lose political capital and put emotional distance between us and our students.  Teenagers don’t like to be told what to do, even if what they’re being told is undoubtedly in their self-interest.  They tend to rebel.  There’s no point in complaining about this aspect of teen psychology; we might as well kvetch about how the Bengals always punt on 4th and short.  We’re right, but powerless in the face of human irrationality.  


(3) Use positive rather than negative incentive to promote exam preparation.

Fear of failure is a serious obstacle to success, whether on this particular exam or in physics generally.  

If you give students no direction for exam prep, they will default to study modes that have been successful for them in the past* in math and history courses -- memorize as many facts from the textbook as possible, practice and memorize algorithms that they’ve used in class before.  Such approaches to preparing to do physics are not even wrong - they are actively detrimental to a student’s progress, and to the progress of the class as a whole.  Diligent students who already struggle with difficult concepts undertake their not-even-wrong study regime, bomb the exam, then have ammunition when they tell parents and administrators how your course is too hard and unfair - they studied so much, and still didn’t do well.

* Or at least, modes that parents and teachers believe on faith to be successful       
                                                                                                                                                                   
I’ve found success giving students something straightforward and useful to do for exam preparation. 

“Here is a review exercise consisting of twenty multiple choice questions.  Please fill out the answer sheet on your own, without assistance from anyone - no questions at all, just like on the exam.”*

*(If you can’t trust students to answer these questions on their own, give time in class to do them.  It will be well worth the effort.)  

“Once you’ve answered all the questions, I’ll scan your form.  Extra credit will be awarded to anyone who writes out a thorough justification for all of the problems that they missed.  

"Collaboration with me and classmates on these justifications is encouraged.

“I’m offering a study session after school on Wednesday.  Pizza and nachos will be available.  Come on by – it’ll be fun, and I’ll help you with any questions that are still confusing you.”  

Look what’s accomplished by this approach.

Instead of requiring that students take a practice exam, instead of lecturing about how good an idea it’d be to take a practice exam, you’re couching the practice exam as an optional “extra credit” exercise.   Which approach do you think gets more willing cooperation?  Yeah, I don’t believe in extra credit, either, but I *do* believe in students undertaking exam preparation enthusiastically rather than reluctantly.  (And students who didn’t complete the practice have no standing for a post-exam complaint to parents and administrators - wait, you “studied for hours” but you didn’t do a small practice assignment for extra credit?  Not likely.)

You focus the students on what they really need to study, because they spend most of their time correcting the questions they missed.  Without such guidance, students may spend a couple of hours doing problem types they already are good at, while ignoring the topics or styles of problem on which they struggled. 

Some students will work themselves into a panic, thinking there’s always more that can and should be done to prepare for an exam.  These students are put at their ease: “Once you finish this exercise, you are ready.  There’s nothing more you should or can do to prepare.”

Some students will tend to do nothing at all in preparation for the exam, even though a review of some sort would be useful for them.  These folks will tend to do an extra credit exercise that all their classmates are doing, too - just to be social, if nothing else. And lo, your recalcitrant students have studied, without even a nanopascal of pressure from the teacher.

(4) Make the exam itself – and the follow-up to the exam – worthy of your class goals.

But that’s an article for a different time…







06 December 2017

Don't play cops and robbers with phones.

In a September post, I explained briefly how I deal with students who ask to go to the bathroom.  It's very simple: I say, please don't ask, just place your phone on your desk and go. 

The comment section of that post became active, and brought up an important piece of teaching philosophy.  First, here's my follow-up comment explaining the purpose behind the "just put your phone down and go" approach:

Note that I'm not in any way making the rule "no texting in the bathroom!" Uh-uh. That sounds condescending, it gives students ideas, and it worries the rule-followers. 
No rules here, in fact I'm giving students freedom from rules - in other classes, they feel oppressed that they have to ask permission to exercise a simple bodily function, and furthermore that the teacher is likely to nag them about their body's timing. Here, they are free to do as they need to. 
Yet, trust but verify. Since the phone goes on the desk as a matter routine (not rule), there won't be any texting in the bathroom. Then it's my job to hold activities interesting enough to minimize using the bathroom as an excuse to relieve the boredom of class.

Later on, Dean Baird brought up how students will, inevitably and frustratingly, escalate a battle with their teacher passive-aggressively:

Seems reasonable. Of course, students intent on "phoning out" while using the hall pass will equip themselves with "burners" to satisfy instructors who adopt such strategies. Hall pass use is a sticky wicket; a puzzle not so easily solved. In courses populated y highly academically challenged students, some find a daily need for hall pass usage. And any kind of restriction is virtually impossible to implement. Offering carrots for non-usage works only with students concerned with academic performance. "Pretty good" and "Good enough" solutions are the best we can realistically hope for.

Dean's right that some students will see bathroom texting as a game, to see how they can beat the system and "stick it to The Man." (True even when The Man is, in fact, The Woman.)

And my response - LET THEM. As soon as we engage as cop, the students engage as robber.

I say "please leave your phone" for the same reason the audience is asked "please turn off your phones" before a stage play begins. It's all too easy for anyone, adult or teenager, to fall to the temptation to real-quick check that important text, or to answer a buzzing phone from a number we recognize. Leaving the phone in the classroom, turning off the phone before the performance eliminates that temptation and helps the class/audience maintain an extended period of focus.

So what do we say about the audience member who smirks and pulls out a second, burner phone on which to text during the play, and then tells the usher "hey, but I did what you said, I turned off my phone, you can't kick me out, I'm gonna sue?" That's a problem that goes beyond techniques to manage people; such behavior is no different from extending a middle finger to everyone, including the performers and the other audience members. This dumbarse needs to be ushered away toot sweet without discussion.

But the existence of the willful fool doesn't mean that we should change our respectful approach to the rest of the audience. "Okay, folks, last night we had a guy texting in the middle of the performance and thumbing his nose at the house rules. I'm sick of you audience people not being able to keep away from your phones. So tonight, we're going to collect phones before the show, and anyone who sneaks out a second phone will face criminal charges. Here's Chief Wiggum at the front ready to enforce those rules. We're not playing around, got it?"

And that's what teachers sound like when they make draconian rules to deal with one or two uncooperative students. The guy using the burner phone in the bathroom thinks he scored a point against you. But we're not keeping score. Find a way to deal with the individual that doesn't involve class rules. Or just ignore him - the rest of the class may laugh with him, but if no one else is using burner phones, maybe it's not that important for Batman to defeat the Bathroom Texter. :-)

04 December 2017

Motion graphs - pay attention to subjects and verbs

The biggest mental block toward understanding motion graphs is the idea of a representation: that features of a graph indicate real motion of a cart.  It takes careful teaching on our part, and mental discipline on our students' parts, to connect the vertical axis value of a velocity-time graph (or the steepness of a position-time graph) to how a cart actually moves. 

The best tool I've discovered to help students make these connections is the written word.  I hand out the facts about motion graphs, and we do my version of a graph-matching exercise.  But students can't just get the answer right and call it a day... they must write their justifications using (a) a fact from the sheet written out word-for-word, and (b) how that fact connects to the graph their working on.

And in this way I can nip faulty reasoning in the bud.  I make them rewrite immediately when they tell me "the cart slows down because the graph says," because there's no fact of physics involved there - even if they're right that the cart slows down. 

More importantly, I pay careful attention to subjects and verbs.  The graph can change steepness; the graph's vertical axis value can change.  The steepness and vertical axis values represent how a cart in the classroom moves.  It's important that no one says "the graph moves" or "the cart's steepness changes."  When I see those statements, I ask the student to rewrite with the correct subject and verb.

Students at first find this nitpicky.  So what.  By now they should (and do) know that physics isn't about right answers, physics is about communicating an understanding of how the world works.  After a few classes, the class is really quite good at interpreting motion graphs, and they stop confusing the features of the representation with the real, live motion of a cart.

The following is a note I sent to my 9th grade class last night as a reminder of the care they must use in their written responses to motion graph questions.

Please consider carefully the subjects and verbs you use on your motion graph justifications.  

"The cart moves closer to zero on the vertical axis, and so slows down" makes no sense.  As you've seen, the cart moves on a track in the classroom; the cart cannot move anywhere "on the vertical axis."

"The graph moves upward on the vertical axis" similarly makes no sense - the graph does not move, the graph is still on the paper on your desk.*

* Unless you threw it upward or something.

The cart moves; the graph does not.  The vertical axis of the graph indicates how fast and which way the cart moves.  

You want to say, "The vertical axis values get closer to zero, so the cart's speed gets closer to zero."

(And you never, ever want to use the word "it."  Write "I didn't say it" on top of your problem set for an extra credit point.  Don't tell others this, keep it to yourself!  :-)  )