• Michelle Fongemie and Garett MacCurtain

Coaching Our Team

We currently co-coach heterogeneous 9th grade humanities classes as part of the Core program at Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) just outside of Burlington, VT. All 9th graders are assigned to the Core program, with students assigned to teams of five teachers. Each team of teachers has prided themselves on building relationships and knowing students well, as one of the five essential goals of Core is to develop close relationships with students and family. But, yes, even the best intentions meet with adversity, and as we began to move towards standards-based learning (SBL), we were faced with our own version of “deflate-gate.” Both parents and students were anxious about what standards-based grading might mean for the omnipresent and mighty cumulative GPA.

We’ve all heard the phrase “inflated grades.” They’re often the result of extra credit or perhaps a helicopter parent with whom a taxed teacher does not want to deal. Fortunately, these terms and the negative connotations associated with them are no longer part of CVU’s pedagogical reality. Gone are grade perks for attending plays outside of school hours, bringing in canned goods for a food drive, or answering non-school related bonus questions on an exam. We don’t do that anymore; not only does it not make sense but it’s also not right. Doing so makes the teacher a cheater; this type of grade inflation is, simply put, professional malpractice. Inflating grades using these extras gives the student an inaccurate depiction of her strengths as a student, and we all know that in the real world, one’s college professor is not likely to give you an A because you raise your hand all the time. Your boss is not going to give you a bonus because you brought in ten cans of soup.

With this extra credit nonsense thrown out the window, we focused on working towards getting to really know students as learners and convey their learning to parents in a clear and consistent fashion. At the year’s start, students will practice, practice, practice, getting better with each formative assessment, and our system of assessing and reporting perseveres to give clear feedback to students and their parents, connecting back to that essential goal: To develop close relationships with students and family. We work to ensure our feedback gives a clear picture of what the student can do and understand, based on specific standards and learning targets. SBL is an approach that involves providing specific, concrete feedback on a student’s progress towards mastering a set of specific skills.

However, despite our best efforts to develop these relationships and to be as transparent as possible, it was clear to us that the concerns around grades, especially presumed “deflated” ones, were not going away.

When we took to the field with a standards-based game plan and a roster of 80+ players six years ago, it was relatively easy as new coaches to make mistakes and learn from them, as we were not under a microscope at that time. We had the full support of our administration to give it our best shot. We were transparent with our students and families that this “whole standards thing” was in its infancy and, as expected, there were bumps along the way. Specifically, we noticed some rumblings of discontent when Q1 grades were posted and students who used to get As in middle school were now getting 3s.

We heard from concerned students and parents that students’ grades were going down from what they’d been in 8th grade and they did not understand why. Well, the fact of the matter is, with SBL, students are being introduced to new skill sets and are practicing skills associated with targets for the very first time. In this respect, how many 9th grade students are Exemplary or a 4 at something that they’ve just been introduced to?

However, as our instructional delivery evolved, so did our frustrations about students and parents being concerned about Q1 or Q2 grades; after years of refining and improving our coaching techniques, we had proof - data - that showed just how much more our students were getting out of the time spent with them, when we acted as coaches who taught and modeled new skills, not just teachers who told them “stuff.” For example, we keep copies of the first writing pre-assessment we do with our students and then hand it back after they finish the end-of-year writing summative; while we might have had grumblings about deflated grades at the year’s beginning, not one parent or student has questioned the grades earned at the year’s end.

Think about it this way: The word “cumulative” means (1) increasing or enlarging by successive addition and (2) acquired by or resulting from accumulation. This is what SBL is all about: What you know, understand, and can do at the course’s end.

The more we were willing to embrace the efficacy of SBL (even if it meant defending it to friends, parents and colleagues), the more we saw how it was exponentially beneficial to our students. While we were impressed by the specificity and concision of feedback we persevered to give our students, what really jazzed us was how much the students took our feedback to heart. As we de-emphasized grades and homework, we got more from them. Ninety percent of what we did became practice for a handful of performanced-based summatives, and most students did the work even though it didn’t technically count, as students were not receiving grades on all work handed in. For the few students not working, we set different levels of intervention, and we have decreased the number of students not earning credits while simultaneously increasing our academic expectations.

When comparing football to learning, practice isn’t graded and we don’t keep score; we just learn from our mistakes, learn from each other, and suit up again for the next opportunity to practice. Our summatives are the game, with practice the learning that needs to happen in order to be ready for it. Our responsibility is to prepare students with the necessary skills to be contributing members of society, and we believe that this model - practice, practice, practice, play (and play hard!), and then review - is a teaching model that works just as well in the classroom as it does on the sports field.

As one of the 9th grade humanities coaching teams at CVU, we begin each school year excited to jump into practice with our new players, all drafted from CVU’s four feeder schools. We know the power of practice without a ref observing every move, waiting to call out a penalty. We know that when the time comes, our students will know exactly what plays to make and how to execute them for a “win.” Rumblings about “deflated grades” aside, we smile and nod and bask in the after-game glory when the outstanding performance by our students speaks for itself.

And what coach doesn’t like to see the glow of victory on their students’ faces? Best. Job. Ever.

(Thanks to Michelle, Garett, and the rest of the CVU team for the above pic!)

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