Why “easy” doesn’t bother me

Okay, so there’s been some talk amongst my friends, online and real life colleagues, and on twitter recently, and here we go, it’s #confessiontime:

I think that we should stop being so quick to label our class or other classes as “easy.”

There. I said it. Recently, I’ve heard a lot of chatter about how if lots of students get an “A” on something, there are two gut reactions: either the assignment was “too easy,” or “word got out about what was on it/they cheated.”

This really makes me think. Sometimes I hear feedback that doing “x, y, or z” makes a class easy, and sometimes I panic, thinking, “what if my class is easy?” “What if I’m not pushing students?” But then I get into conversations where colleagues ask me “how many failures I have” that I remember: I would rather my class be perceived as easy than lament about how many students are failing. I rather have 80-100% of my students learning, acquiring, and doing well than worry about if I’m “covering enough material.” And I don’t think that should be the #unpopularopinion.

I do not believe that homework, trickery, or “unknown” components of assessments are necessary or make my class challenging. I do believe there is a case for “grit” or “stretch” or “challenge” in the classroom.

I am here to say that I am 100% for transparency as far as assessments go. Students should know what they’re expected to do on each assessment. It should not be a secret. Students shouldn’t wonder just seconds before the assessment, “what will the format be?” “Is it going to be x kind of assessment, or y?” “are we speaking this or writing it?” I think that’s unfair. If my students are expected to do an interpersonal assessment, they’ve had practice. If they’re expected to write what they need to say, then goodness knows we’ve written something similar before. If they’re reading or listening, I expect them to recognize well-known key words and then get the comprehension based off of those key words. There is also place for stretch and for “grit” on my assessments.

So, on the day of the assessment, I expect that students do well. I expect that they know the vocab, can express what I wanted them to say, and/or write a beautiful composition that is comprehensible, even if there are errors. When my students receive a score in the 3-4 (90%-100%) range of my standards-based rubric, I do not question the validity of my assessment or my grading practice. I do not wonder if my students cheated. I smile, jump for joy, and get excited about what students can do (actually, sometimes I cry.) When students don’t reach my expectations, I’m sad, ponder what I could have done or can do better for them, and thank the heavens that retakes exist. I do not blame the students for being unmotivated or for being “lower” than their peers or previous students. I do not think that retakes make my class easier, or that they “inflate” students’ grades. I think a rolling grade book shows progress, and what students CAN DO.

I, personally, do not think that this makes my class easier. I think that I grade fairly, and that I recognize when my students are being all-stars. I do not wonder, even for a second, if students told each other what’s on the test and that’s why class period X did better than Y. I’ve given them the information that they need to do well; the rest is up to them.

I am saddened by the thought that other teachers out there go into grading looking for mistakes. That is not my mindset. If it is yours, I urge you to ask yourself, “is grading is miserable for me? If yes, is that because I hate grading, or because my mindset may need an adjustment?”

I know that this will raise questions and/or comments. “But what about grit?” “You must not value accuracy!” “You’re still so young, you have a lot to learn.” “You don’t teach level 1 Spanish, it’s different than your class.” “What’s ‘easy’ for you is clearly different than what I perceive as ‘easy.'”

Case in point: Today I gave a random, 6 question, cumulative interpersonal assessment that I could not give students explicit practice for. Due to student growth measures in the state of Ohio, I couldn’t even hint at what would topics would “be on the test.” Against my normal assessment procedures, I just told students we’d be having a conversation. This made them more nervous than usual. Against proficiency procedures, I didn’t attempt to negotiate the meaning of the questions (I’m not sure if I’m allowed to negotiate because of the nature of growth measures.)

But I will tell you that around 90% of my level 1, novice mid-to-high/bordering intermediate low students answered all of those questions wonderfully, expected grammar errors aside. They answered in complete sentences. They pulled out vocabulary that I thought they’d long forgotten. They added detail that wasn’t necessary to answer the question. They impressed me with every word, phrase, self-selected vocabulary addition, and “light-bulb-I-finally-understand-this-question-and-I-can-answer-it-beautifully” moment. There was a question that we hadn’t gotten to in the curriculum and for most of my students, it didn’t even phase them. And this wasn’t an assessment that they studied for. 

A few of my highest-scoring students told me after that it was really bad. They asked me if they failed it, or if they could redo it because it was “terrible.” Do you know why? Because they’re so used to focusing on what they get wrong, on what they can’t do, on what they’re missing, that they don’t know how to celebrate what they CAN DO.

I do not think that focusing on what my students can do makes my class easy. I do not think that it makes me an “easy grader,” a “grade inflater” or a “softie.” I would rather celebrate successes than cultivate failure.

If somehow my beliefs make my class easy, than so be it.

As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback in the comments.