Vocabulary List Ruminations

I just finished putting together and posting almost all of my US History unit vocabulary lists here in the early summer. For some years now, I have started my annual planning by putting together these lists. The lists allow me to focus each unit’s planning, to make sure I put the right concepts in the right units, and to set up a bunch of routine assignments before the year starts.

I’ve been teaching for 22 or so years by now, so I already have a clear sense of what units I want to teach in which order. I also have a fairly massive set of workable primary and secondary source readings I can line up. The unit vocab lists are the third layer of structural planning. They serve as concept maps. What concepts do I want to teach in each unit?

Occasionally in the past I would find myself teaching a concept in a later unit that I should have hit earlier. Alternately, I taught something twice because it was crucial in a later unit, but I had taught it earlier as well. The better students got that frustrated “why are we doing this again?” look that scratches on the classroom vibe like a needle across old vinyl grooves. So having the lists set up ahead of time is the detail level of concept presentation organization.

The final reason for setting up the words before the school year even starts is so that I can set up my vocab practice tests in the summer when I’m not under the gun. I use Schoology, our current web-based academic web-tools suite, to set up practice vocabulary tests. I put all the definitions into a quiz and let the students match to the words. They can practice this vocab test as many times as they want before the test. I try to get the students to take the practice tests at the beginning of the unit with a small “organizational skills” categorized assignment that is optional. Basically, I hope they’ll be at least familiar with the words before I use them. Having them able to study again and again just makes my life and theirs easier. For students who don’t bother to study, it makes that really obvious for parents and administrators.

Since we do really heavy mainstreaming of students with individual education plans (very low-level Special Education students in common language), I have also had to consider how to map out which concepts I am teaching to which students in the class. Since I am teaching effectively two classes in the same period, I have to have a fairly rigorous conceptual load for the “regular” students and a lighter load for students with IEPs. So in my lists, I set it up such that about a third of the words are not required for the students with IEPs. I note this in blue. Because I have the words separated out, I can much more easily set up two different sets of Schoology vocab quizzes.

If you look at any of the vocabulary lists, you’ll see that the definitions are not always entirely standard. Partially, I have put the definitions into words that I can then put into a quiz verbatim without telegraphing the answer. But more importantly, I want the students to understand the word exactly as I will be using it in the unit’s context. I used to have them make their own vocab lists by defining the word using the dictionary. This was both labor-intensive and also occasionally counterproductive because some words had so many definitions that the students would know one version of the word, but not the definition as made sense for the unit at hand.

Putting these words on the web gives the parents some idea what each unit is about. As a teacher, one always runs the risk of that combative ideological parent, but I find that radical openness is a lot safer than any other approach. Parents can also quiz their own students on the vocab if they like. I find that parents and guardians like to have some way they can plug-in and help support their students.

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Late policy ruminations

Another teacher asked me for my late policy a few days ago. I’d been trying to recruit teachers from my building to work with something like my late policy. Everyone in the building has different standards and processes, so the students don’t have any coherent expectation of what a late policy should be. Mostly they are used to being able to turn in a ton of late work or re-taken tests in the last couple of weeks of the semester to save their grade. My own stepson pulled this off at his high school, so I knew how irritating it looked from a parent point of view. Still, it was quixotic of me to expect other teachers to change their personal proclivities that they have built up over the years.

I see 6 main reasons for having a late policy.

  1. Lessons in a class come in an intended order if the teacher is competent. Assignments build on each other. It makes a lot more sense when a student completes an assignment before they move on to the next topic. Students need to be prodded to do things at the proper time so that they can actually learn as much as the teacher has organized for them to learn.
  2. Students procrastinate and they often let work pile up until they have an daunting pile. They then shut down, flail, and fail. A late policy is a prod to avoid this.
  3. Some students, and it is not a small percentage, know that if they turn in work late they can take advantage of other students’ graded and turned-back work. Or the intentionally late students know that they teacher is going to discuss the work the day or the day after it is turned in. In this case, the late penalty removes the incentive for students to effectively cheat by stalling.
  4. Being organized is a key part of what a teacher is modeling and teaching. So a late policy prods students to learn to be organized.
  5. Getting one’s work done on time is a job skill, and teachers should teach that skill.
  6. As a step-parent, I found it maddening that my stepson could let giant piles of work accumulate and then turn it all in at the end of the semester. I had trouble explaining to my stepson why to do work on time when most of his teachers made no policy decision to require him to work in a timely fashion.

I decided to only let students turn in 3 late assignments per quarter. That would be about 10-15%  of all the assignments I give. Most students have no problem with keeping within this number, though they do tend to burn their late assignment quota on essays.

Furthermore, I set a three-week moratorium on late work. This is intended to keep students from turning in preposterously late work that is entirely decontextualized from what they are learning. I rarely bother to enforce this, but occasionally I do go through my web-based grade book and mark assignments as “too late to turn in.”

The final thing, and the the key part for my purposes, is that I won’t give an assignment more than 75% of the points if it is late. That deals with the cheating-by-stalling issue I described above and it keeps students pressured to stay caught up with their work. For a long time I subtracted 25% of the possible points from late work, but that practice was too punitive. Students would turn in honestly done average work and fail. Just capping the possible earned points hurts the lazy skilled students and it limits the success of cheating, all without doing too much damage to student’s grades, especially those of middle or low-skilled students.

Honestly, I find this late policy way too easy. I’d be irritated if I was a parent of a student in my class. That said, a lot of students have a lot of issues. This loose late policy might give them a bit too much rope, but it doesn’t accidentally strangle the grade of a student who needs some slack. Importantly, this late policy doesn’t lead me to catch much flack at all from parents and administrators. The last thing I need is a bevy of end-of-semester parent-teacher conferences or angry email exchanges. The slack saves my energy for where it needs to be: teaching.

The final issue, and one that I have no idea how to address, is the question of work that becomes late due to excused or unexcused absence. At public high schools, in my experience, attendance is awful. Kids miss, skip, have in-school counseling or nurse appointments, participate in sports, etc. so often that it is rare to have a regular class with more than 85% attendance on any given day. Some parents excuse everything and some excuse nothing. Some students don’t have parents who bother with excuses or are in a position to excuse absences. When I distinguished about excused absences, I often felt I was grading parenting more than students work. So do I count work that comes in late only because of an unexcused absence as “late?” With so many missing students on any given day, it would be a real waste of time to try to keep track of whose absence was excused and whose was unexcused. I know kids skip to get another day to work and the parents often excuse those absences. So basically I just don’t pay attention to excused versus unexcused absences anymore.

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The look, the feel – day 2

So I just spent 2 hours messing around with the look and feel of the site. It’s pretty entertaining. Figuring out how parents and students will see and navigate the site is obviously step one. Putting this together on WordPress has the awesome advantage of allowing me to see how the site actually looks on a smartphone. The smartphone issue was one of the things that made me abandon site version 2.5. Most of my students will use this site on their phones, so most of the layout design involved me starting at my phone after each update. If you do build a student/parent facing site, thinking phone-first is the way to go.

The new site also allowed a number of cool little changes that I hadn’t considered before I restarted.

The Google Translate widget was awesome. That should make for some entertaining mistranslations, but it will also open the page up to a bunch of parents and students learning English. The only hassle I’ve found with Google Translate is that the pop-up window doesn’t show the language list well, so languages at the high part of the alpha list, including Spanish crucially, are not clickable. But it does work fine on computers and tablets.

The search box was also something I didn’t consider heading into this rebuild. I’m sort of leery about it. The whole idea of my site is to create a hierarchical structure of information so that my students don’t just use the “omnibox” search methodology. I want them to know how to drill down through a file structure to get information, but that search box short circuits that. On the other hand, the box will let students and parents actually find what they need. So I won’t fight that battle.

The other little widgets, “Top Posts & Pages” and “Tags” also might turn out to be useful. I have to have a bunch of students and parents clicking before I see how handy those get.

Setting up my background using a repeating toothpick took an hour all by itself. I had an old version from the last website, but I wanted a better mix of people this time. All the standard (and appropriate) inclusionary considerations came into play in choosing the people. Then I had to refresh my Photoshop skills to put the thing together and color and shade it the way I wanted. I do remember from building my last site versions that getting these little things just so at the beginning of the business really helped later, but that advice is of course true of everything.

But generally, I have the look and the structure down how I want it and I can start populating the pages now.

The site as of day 2:

Home page 20170711

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Rebuilding fashionzombie.net

For a couple of years now, fashionzombie.net has lain dormant. I moved most of its functionality onto Google Drive. However, I did miss having a public version of the website for parents and in general. Most importantly, I needed a way to categorize my youtube videos that worked better than a Youtube channel. Plus, I have the summer off and tinkering with the web is always entertaining. So here we have it.

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