Meditations on a Cogen (No. 20) • Thursday, March 17, 2022

During the 2021-22 school year, I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the 20th post in the series.

New members
I’m starting to get used to the cyclical nature of my cogens. It’s been a privilege to have had this so many sessions with so many willing students this year. Today I welcome my 5th cohort and four new members. Four kids from my outgoing cohort join us for their last official session. Another cogen student from the fall also shows up and brings a friend with her from period 1. That makes nine students. The table — meant for six — bulges. The chairs sprawl outwards in all directions.

As the snacks start disappearing from the table and into the hands and mouths of hungry teenagers, I eye the newcomers and give them an overview of the space and formally reveal its name: “cogenerative dialogue” or simply “cogen.” At this point, my introductory speel seems routine for me. I find this comforting.

Infinite Levels debrief
We played our board game, Infinite Levels, for two days this week. We reflect on it for about 10 minutes, hearing from my coteachers and students who were players. I wrote a separate post about the experience and our debrief today.

Seeking variety
I had a few talking points for the crew today, but they were all thrown out the window when — out of nowhere — a student remarked, “Mister, exams and quizzes make up most of our grade. I think we should have more variety to our grade than just those two things.” She says this politely, but still catches me off guard. What’s even wilder is that she says it smack in the middle of our discussion of Infinite Levels. Talk about a curveball.

To be fair, there are other assignments that contribute to students’ grades in our class. I would also like to add that, despite the thoughtfulness and honesty of the remark, context matters. The student who made it — someone who was part of a previous cohort — hasn’t done much of what I’ve asked of her recently and is struggling to pass. That said, it’s clear that it’s been on her mind for a while and I want to honor that. I ask her to elaborate and listen with open ears. Her status in class notwithstanding, she makes a good point; I sense a worthwhile conversation looming and advance towards it. I ask the rest of the cogen what they think.

Groupthink could be at play — especially at such a large cogen — but every student agrees. They would appreciate more diversity in the grade book. I explain the purpose of exams and quizzes being weighted so heavily: their grade must be reflective of their knowledge of Algebra 2, and not biased judgments of abstract things like participation or “classwork.”

As our dialogue matures, we start transitioning to possible solutions. One student’s suggestion makes me think of the “Turn In” assignments I did last year during remote learning. These weekly assignments were distributed on Monday, due Friday, and were formally graded like an exam. They could also be edited and resubmitted throughout the week after receiving feedback from me. The students think this is a good idea.

Another idea that’s brought up is to allow retakes for quizzes. Right now, retakes are available only for exams. Quizzes are only one question and are based on what we learn on the day it’s administered. If retakes are allowed for quizzes, I share a concern about students bombing their initial attempt because they know they can retake it for a higher grade. The students quickly shoot this down. Why would someone voluntarily mess up on a quiz only to sacrifice time and energy to come after school and attend tutoring to fix it? My crew also points out that if students wanted to do this, I would have witnessed it on our exams already (which I haven’t).

As we reach time, I go around and ask, as of now, which of the two options students prefer. Retake quizzes earn about 70% of the vote. In the end, perhaps students don’t want another assignment; they just want another avenue to improve their grades. We don’t reach a final answer on the issue, but I vow to take action on it in the coming weeks. I make eye contact with my new cogen members; this will probably be the first issue we address together.

One last option — which never reaches the ears of the students because I think about it after the cogen — is to take a mastery-based (or standards-based) grading approach to the quizzes. Quizzes usually show up in batches of 3-4 in the days leading up to an exam. Each quiz is based on a single concept, matches that of the exam, and helps assess where students are on the unit objectives. Here’s my idea: What if, after the unit exam, I retroactively adjust students’ quiz grades to reflect their understanding of the concepts based on their performance on the exam? This way, if a student demonstrates a higher level of understanding of a concept on the exam (i.e. they learn after they take a quiz), their grade doesn’t suffer as a result of a low quiz grade on that same concept. I’ve been meaning to test drive this idea for months now. This cogen and our conversation today might be the push I need to finally make it happen. It would be especially good to try it this spring in preparation for next year.

A colleague
On my out of the building today, I run into the English 9 teacher at the copy machine. We’ve spoken on and off about my cogen work. She even attended a couple of my cogens last year during remote learning. She’s been telling me for awhile that she’s been wanting to do one with her students.

Well, today she did! She met with her students for 45 minutes after school and was thrilled about how it went. We hang around for a few minutes talking about how her students were selected, how the cogen aided her planning, and what’s next for them as a group.

Little did I know it, but our respective cogens were running in parallel today. I’m so happy for her and her kids. And, if I’m being honest, I’m happy for me too: now I have someone to talk to about all my cogening!


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