When I entered my teacher education program, I had a lot of big ideas about school reform and social justice from the likes of Ted Sizer and Paulo Freire, but very few on how to actually teach. Reading Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design was one of the great epiphanies of my life. It gave me the perfect practical guide to planning units and lessons that melded with my larger ideas and commitments to teaching in a manner that empowers students, allowing them to critically engage with important and open ended questions, rather than just memorizing facts. UbD has been my Bible for the past seven years, and is my starting point for everything I do in the classroom. My courses are centered around essential questions. I plan using the principles of backwards design, starting with key understandings and skills students need, then moving to planning performance assessments that allow students to demonstrate these skills and understandings, and finally planning how to get students ready for these tasks. Grading students based on these core understandings and skills was how I ended up with a system that resembles SBG.
I’ve also been highly influenced by Ted Sizer and the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I went through the Brown Education Program, which Sizer designed, and was blessed to be mentored by a brilliant founding Coalition teacher, Bil Johnson. The Coalition’s Common Principles are also always in the back of my mind. I’ve been struggling for the past six years with how to be a Coalition teacher in a non-coalition school, and my grading system is one of the things I’ve developed to manage.
Nearly all my ideas on assessment and grading are rooted in Bil’s classes. I went to a K-8 school where we did not have grades; only narrative comments. When I moved to a traditional high school and then later in college, the arbitrariness of grading really bothered me. One of my core commitments when I started teaching was that my grades would mean something, and that I would be transparent with students about what they needed to do to earn any grade. Bil trained us to use rubrics that describe the various levels of performance on a given task, and I have used rubrics for all major assessments throughout my career. This was another thing leading me towards SBG.
Finally, when I came to the Bronx Lab School in its second year, one of the shared practices across all classes is the use of Performance Task Assessment Lists, or PTAL’s. (I have never found anything published that explains these – has anyone else?). Most teachers at our school created a PTAL by converting an assignments directions into a chart, and then arbitrarily assigning point values to each part. It took me a year to figure out how I could use PTAL’s along with a rubric, and eventually I just dropped the whole direction part of the PTAL, and made a list of the qualifications of the excellent section of my rubric. Here are examples of an old style bad PTAL, and a rubric based PTAL I used in my US class last year. PTAL’s have encouraged me to think about what I’m grading in any given assignment, which is a foundation of my use of SBG.