Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class

The fourth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

Student progress in a language is a very individual thing. Different kids who have had the same amount of comprehensible input might have significantly different levels of proficiency. This is just a part of language acquisition. As language teachers (and as teachers, in general), we must be willing to explain things differently for different students or to give alternate assessments that will allow students to show their individual proficiency. Kids who have not mastered all of the things we have discussed in class are not going to fail because they are on a different mental time-table than my course pacing.

If you checked my online grade book and saw all my grades for all my classes-kindergarten through eighth grade-you’d see that the grades are almost all As and Bs and maybe some Cs. You might be tempted to think something along the lines of, “well, this guy must not be grading everything;” “this guy’s class must be a joke–all songs and games and no actual rigorous content;” “this guy must just give everyone good grades to avoid painful meetings with angry parents;” or something else along similar lines.

But there is a really good reason that almost all of my students have great grades and it is none of the things listed above. It is simply this: I won’t let them do poorly. If they make an effort and can improve their level of proficiency, then they are doing the best that they can and their grade should reflect their individual progress. My goal this year, as I’ve stated before, is to avoid things that set students up to fail. My students have good grades because they will work with me until they understand the concept and are ready to move on. I also grade their progress instead of their products. Rather than an unbending set of criteria for grades, I try to use a portfolio-style grading method that shows the students’ progress from assignment to assignment and not relate their grades to some unattainable standard of progress.

Some of my students are in the Novice Mid range, others are in Novice High, and still others are in Intermediate Low. These kids are all in the same classroom at the same time. It would not be fair of me to grade them all on the standard set by the highest nor would it be fair to slow everything down to teach only to the lowest. TPRS allows for me to be able to provide lots of comprehensible input that will help students at all levels. Additionally, I have a(n informal) sliding scale of grades for writing assignments. I started the year with a timed writing for all the students in my middle school TPRS classes. I use this first assignment as a base line for each student. I have one student who wrote 75 words in the first 5 minute timed writing assignment. They weren’t perfect, but she was able to get her point across in great detail. In that same class, though, there was a student who wrote 18 words on the same topic in the same amount of time.

The subsequent timed writings need to show progress in both grammar use and in number of words. This is how I determine the students’ grades. Would it be fair for me to give the advanced student an A and the lower student and F, just because the advanced student walked into my classroom knowing more Spanish than the other? In my opinion, it would not be fair at all.

If a student is only able to write 25 words in 6 minutes in the first timed writing, then the next assignment will need to have more than that; the same goes for the student who writes 100 words in the same amount of time. I use goals for the amount of words in the amount of time, but they are not rigid; I base the students’ scores on the way that they are able to express themselves, not by an arbitrary number of words a student “should” be able to write after a certain amount of time.

Language isn’t a list of words and rules, it’s a skill that takes time and practice. Learning a language is more like learning how to play an instrument than learning a list of facts—that’s why we can’t just memorize a foreign language dictionary and then know how to speak. The students need to be able to do all of the things that we ask of them so that they can progress in their skill with the language.

The reason that everyone does well in my class is not that they are all able to get high scores on grammar worksheets or fill in the blank type activities. It is not because I just give them grades to avoid confrontation. The reason is that they are able to improve their proficiency level and be at a higher place than where they started.

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