Month: April 2017

Why Don’t I Take “Late Marks” Off?

This teacher is angry cos a student dared to show up late at his class, and have the audacity to tell him I know it’s due today, but I’ll hand it in tomorrow.

Image result for teacher angry with student


A recent discussion had people asking, what do you do about kids handing work in late– do you take marks off?

My answer to this question: no, never.

Why? Well, for many of the same reasons I don’t mark behaviour, plus one more: when I am marking student work, and telling them/Admins/their parents etc their mark, that mark must reflect the curriculum and map onto criteria.

So here’s today’s though experiment about two students, Chris and Enid.

Chris looooooves Mr Hardass’s Spanish class. LOOOOOOOOVES it. He likes Spanish class soooooo much he wants to be a Spanish teacher just like Mr Hardass when he grows up. But Chris, sadly, is an idiot. He is s.l.o.w. and, well, not very good at Spanish. His mark is 75% despite extended Duolingo sessions, tutors his parents have hired, and even a crew of Latino kids in high school.

Then we have Enid, who is a major badass. She starts with a late-morning blunt sesh to a. take the edge off her Tuesday hangover, generated by partying with her 23 year old coke-dealing boyfriend until Falstavian hours, and b. make Math class less tedious.  Even if she could be bothered to go to Mr Hardass’s Spanish, she sure wouldn’t do/bring any homework cos omfg I have way funner things to do.  However– and this irritates the crap out of both Mr Hardass and Chris– Enid is really good at Spanish. Her drug dealer’s best friend is Latino, and she’s acquired a bunch (of Spanish) from him over bong hits. She also works with a crew of Latinos. She also, well, likes a lot of salsa music, and has a thing for Mexican reggaeton, and has been secretly following Corazon Salvaje for a few years.

So at the end of Term 1, poor dunderheaded Chris scrapes by with a B, because Mr Hardass mercy-ups him to 75% from 71. Enid, meanwhile, crushes on everything and gets an A, 95%…but then the penalties kick in. Mr Hardass, who fancies himself a teacher of “soft skills” and “rigor” and “reality preparation,” and who wants his students to “respect” him and the system, deducts late marks, missed homework marks, attitude and participation marks, bla bla bla, until Enid is down to a 75%.

Enid and Chris, both disappointed, go to see Mr Hardass about their marks.  Chris’s question is what can I do to get a higher mark? and Mr Hardass knows, not much, everybody is different and hems and haws and prays that Chris’ helicopter parents don’t email the principal.

Enid meanwhile struts in, reeking of cigarette smoke.

Enid: ¿por qué me diste una B si hablo español, y lo entiendo?

Mr Hardass: Well, you don’t hand work in, or pay attention, and your attitude is terrible. This means marks come off, so your mark is low, as explained in my fascinating course outline, which I know you read, because I gave you a 5-mark test to ensure that you’d read it, because in my experience if marks aren’t attached to something, students don’t do it.

Enid: But I can speak, read and understand everything in Spanish.  Every test I do I get 90% or over on, and I can answer any question I hear.

Mr Hardass:

Riddle me this, my brothers and sisters:  how does a mark of 75% accurately reflect both Chris’ and Enid’s skills?

Anyway, here are some comments about this and my responses:

That’s great. Does the Spanish (or whatever) curriculum specify that marks should partly be based on attendance? No? Hmm… And sure, “soft skills” like punctuality matter…but shouldn’t a student’s Spanish mark be based on Spanish skills? Does the curriculum say,  students will hand things in on teacher-decided due dates?


Sounds like a power tip to me: do it my way– which is correct– or be penalised.  Who cares if a kid “blows off” one’s class?  If they aren’t in class, or doing homework (and the class and homework provide useful and meaningful input and activities), their language skills will drop, as will their mark.

False analogy.  You have to be ready to effectively teach for Friday.  If your Adminz require lesson plans, they are missing the point, and wasting your and their time.  I don’t follow or even have lesson plans, but I show up and get my job done.  In a language class, a student’s job is to acquire language.  Being on time, or handing work in on time, matter, but they aren’t the point.


This assumes, falsely, that obvious work habits = acquisition.  This is simply not the case.  JGR is not a valid assessment tool.  As I noted in an earlier post, my best-ever student would have lost about 20% of his grade had I used JGR for his mark.

Now, here is my own policy.

  1. We have work to do which builds mental representation of language.  This work includes PQA, storyasking, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, etc.
  2. We will try to do as much of this as possible in class.  If it doesn’t get done in class, it’s homework.  Students in my class can generally expect about 30 min. of Spanish hwk per week, and it’s easy: it is all basically read and translate, either on paper or through Textivate.
  3. If the homework is late, I put an INC in the spreadsheet where the mark should be.  The computer does not generate a mark if there is an INC.  The kids all see the marks they have for various assignments.  However, if they have not handed something in, the computer generates an INC for their overall grade. This is motivation for most kids to do and hand in their work:  they always ask what am I getting in Spanish?  When work is done and marked, I add the mark and the kids know what they are getting.
  4. If the homework they have not done can be copiedand I have handed it back to those who did it on time, the kids who have not done it agree on one after-school day or lunch where they can come in and do it, supervised by me, so there is no copying.  If they miss this, they get a zero.
    Why do I use zeros?  Because I don’t have infinite time and patience, and because…
  5. …when the next story cycle starts, all previous marks now don’t count.  My students’ marks are always their most recent scores.  At any given time, their mark is combination of one or two listening tests, one or two reading assignments, and a writing score based on a five-minute write and a story write.
    So if Johnny blows off homework, he gets an INC until he hands work in or comes to after-school make-up session.  If he doesn’t, his mark drops…until the next “story cycle” starts.

And some final reasons not to “take off late marks”

Grades, as Alfie Kohn and many others have argued, should not be used for motivation. We want work to be intrinsically interesting, and not a “payment” for “work” done.

If a kid isn’t doing work, we also have to ask ourselves the teacher’s difficult question: is there something I need to change? Is the homework too difficult?  Does it take too much time, or time away from things that kids would get more out of?  Is the homework stupid? (by which we mean not teaching students anything useful)  Does it reflect what is happening in class?


The Great Wooden Satellite

A few years ago the American Space Society was going to build its first satellite.  It was back when America had to start competing with dogs in space, etc.  They had this crew of engineers there debating, “what material shall we build the satellite out of?”  The satellite’s mission: to take killer photos of everything from stars to America The Beautiful.

There were two schools of thought.  The first thought, you know what, space is like the sea, and ships were traditionally made of wood, and people 1,000 years ago sailed around the world in wooden ships, so let’s make this satellite out of wood.  These were the Woodsmen.

The second school of thought had only two engineers in it.  One was this madcap Jewish intellectual cum weightlifter named Kreve Stashen, a man who literally could not function without coffee.  He would shake and vibrate without it and had joked about having an intravenous caffeine drip installed in his arm, and was actively looking into a Barstucks sponsorship.  Stashen had had a remarkable insight one day, when, overcaffeinated even by his own high standards, and driving down a Pomona freeway, looking at old buildings, he  noticed that wooden structures– old farm shacks and barns– warped and twisted in the dry California heat, while metal buildings looked a bit worn but were otherwise 100% serviceable.

Stashen wrote up his insight into a book called “Principles and Practices in Satellite Photo Acquisition,” which argued that satellites should be made of metal, not wood, and which received some accolades but was otherwise either mocked or ignored.  This book was read by a Mormon engineer named Laine Bray who,  for religious reasons, had literally never tried even a single cup of coffee.  The coffee irony was probably not lost on someone, somewhere.  Bray, who had built many wooden satellites, all of which had crashed, decided to make all of his subsequent satellites out of metal.

Stashen and Bray called themselves Thinking Pragmatically with Research about Space.

At the materials design meeting, the TPRSers proposed a totally radical idea.  “Let’s build the satellite out of metal,” said Bray.  “Research shows that metal does fine in dry, cold space-like conditions,” said Stashen, reaching for the day’s 27th espresso as Bray wrinkled his nose.

“You guys,” said Chief Woodsman Ace Tofl, who moonlighted as president of the American Space Society, “are nuts.  Wood has always worked fine for ships.  OK sure, it will be harder to seal.  Take a lot more wood than metal.  Need a bigger rocketship.  But it will be fine.”

Seeing no support from the A.S.S., Bray went to his workbench and started fiddling.  $300 later he had a metal box big enough to hold a radio, a basic telescope and camera, and a crude solar panel.  He strapped an old Army parachute to it, added some heat-resistant tiles, and presto! satellite.

The A.S.S. meanwhile had crews of engineers from companies like McHill-Graw and Moughton-Hifflin beavering away, and finally built a wooden satellite.  Like schooners and clippers of yore, it had sails and keels and even a rum barrel so that errant Martians could grab a nice drink should they run into the A.S.S.’s masterpiece out in the aether.  But it turned out that there was an unanticipated problem.  The wooden satellite needed an enormous set of never-before-built boosters to get it off the ground, bigger than expected.

Luckily, the U.S. and Canadian forestry industries were right there egging the A.S.S. on, ready to cut down a few million trees should the wooden satellite program get off the ground, and so Tofl sent A.S.S.’s crew of diligent private contractors back to work building the boosters.

Meanwhile, Bray used an old rocket that he found out behind a garden shed at Cape Canaveral to launch his crude, ridiculous metal satellite.  The satellite went into orbit, took lovely photos of Earth and the Milky Way (and a few selfies, because Instagram!), then returned in one piece to Earth.  Bray’s mission, Stashen calculated, cost $26,300: $20,000 for an old booster rocket, $300 for the satellite, and $3,000 for fuel. It generated 3,141 excellent photos (and got 100 Instagram followers) at a cost of about 13 cents/photo. Also $3,000 for Stashen’s coffee habit.

The A.S.S. then launched its wooden satellite into orbit.  When it came time to do satellite work, numerous problems came up…but thankfully these had been anticipated by the cunning engineers. Because it was wood, and wood shrinks and warps, the wood had to be enormously thick, and covered in many layers of insulation. This meant that the camera housed inside the wooden satellite was deep inside the satellite– it had to be, as wood, unlike metal, was a poor shield against cosmic radiation– basically peering through a tunnel of wood, and had limited range to take photos, and so the Great Wooden Satellite took only 173 photos.  And no selfies.  (However, NASA knew that it was important to keep the American Pubic up to speed, so they had cleverly launched a public-relations campaign on twenty-seven social media platforms which boasted amazing shots of the satellite sitting in the hangar, magnificent in its wooden artistry.)

Another GWS problem was reentry. The GWS was so big that it needed an enormous parachute to get back, and it then needed a couple of battleships to find it in the ocean and bring it back.

But Tofl, the forestry industry, the satellite design contractors, and a few dozen other hangers-on were undeterred, and finally when the GWS had been towed back to Cape Canaveral, its designers pronounced its mission a success.

However, Kreve Stashen, who never saw a data set he couldn’t grok out over, drank another cuppa Joe, and did a bit of number crunching.  The GWS program– by A.S.S.’s calculations– cost $3,289,000.  It had taken 171 photos.  Stashen then calculated the arithmetic mean, standard deviation, chi-squared function, theta-z correlation and the independent variability function, and concluded that each photo cost $19,233.

In terms of photo quality, Bray’s satellite crushed the A.S.S.’s, as the camera– mounted close to the edge of the satellite housing, and therefore capable of rotating and zooming at will– proved a much more flexible and accurate photographic instrument than the identical camera buried in the bowels of the GWS.

At the American Space Society’s convention, Stashen laid the facts out: Bray’s simple, improvised satellite was demonstrably cheaper and more effective than the A.S.S.’s G.W.S.

Following Stashen, Tofl appeared onstage, and delivered a paper entitled “Building A Better Beautiful Limitless Experience,” wherein he suggested that

  • engineers keep a portfolio detailing the GWS’s successes as a way to authentically reflect on their growth as engineers
  • iPads be used to track the GWS’s future launches and touchdowns
  • the GWS itself reflect on its own progress, and identify further areas for growth
  • the GWS be exposed to culturally rich stories about space travel, aliens, etc, so that its motivation to take good photos increase, motivation logically being a key factor in the GWS’s ability to take photos.

The American lumber industry, the Navy, an army of contractors, tech giants MicroApple and Soft, and a zillion wannabe amateur space engineers applauded.  Then came question time.

“Isn’t a satellite’s computer system intrinsically unable to self-reflect?” asked a diva named Vill BanPatten, “I mean, is it even alive? Can a computer do that?”

“How exactly is using an iPad to document the GWS’s launch going to help it?”

Tofl kindly responded with “a scaffolded, peer assessed authentically self-reflective process which leverages genius hour accountability into personalised evaluation.”

“Umm, I’m a blogger,” said this one total idiot, “and I am wondering why we are even talking about this GWS project.  The other one is cheaper and better, totally scaleable, simpler, you know?”

“We must respect ALL perspectives,” said the A.S.S.’s Tofl. “Everyone has something valuable to contribute. We need unity in the space community.  We must have respectful dialogue.”

Another audience member then said “well, we know that the Moon is made of green cheese, so could maybe GWS take some photos of it next mission?”

“The Moon,” said BanPatten, “is not made of green cheese.  We have spectroscopic data that disproves this absurd–”

Mr BanPatten!growled Tofl, “we must respect and value all A.S.S. members’ views. Everyone has something to contribute, and every view has merit.”

This meeting broke up acrimoniously.  For some odd reason, the fact that Bray’s dirt-cheap and very effective satellite massively outperformed the A.S.S.’s cumbersome wooden antique made no impression on Ace Tofl or on A.S.S.

Then suddenly it was 2015 and President Obama announced that, by golly, 1,000,000 American satellites needed to be launched into space to keep up with the Chinese (that would be one satellite per Chinese citizen, just keeping tabs, you know).

It was crisis time.  How would 1,000,000 satellites be launched?

Enter Werry Taltz, a Hawaiian engineer who had successfully used and tweaked Bray’s designs.  Taltz, addicted to both satellite design and drawing, sent the White House a message, stating that “if we want to make 1,000,000 satellites, they’ll have to be of modern design, efficient, and with actual tested results.  Given what Bray has accomplished, we should be able to do it for about $250 per satellite, or $250,000,000.”  A.S.S. was also asked for its views, and, instead of responding to Taltz, stated that “good old American derring-do and the forces of industry can launch 1,000,000 satellites at a cost of only $348,987,881,888,000.”

We all know what happened next: Donald Trump got elected.  And so our story awaits an ending:  will Taltz’s proposals win?  Will Stashen’s statistics and design ideas trump A.S.S.’s?  Will Bray’s dead-simple design become de rigeur?  Stay tuned.  On this day in 2018, we’ll check in and see and, as always, bring you alternative facts and truthiness.