Portage High School English teacher changes assessment style, gives more grace, this school year

Portage High School English teacher Nicole Giessel is busy this year with teaching both in person and online
Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:00 PM CDT
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PORTAGE, Wis. (WMTV) - The way students learn looks different this year at Portage High School, and subsequently, so does the way English teacher Nicole Giessel measures student understanding through interactions with students and assessments.

Portage High School has a combination of in person and virtual learning. One cohort of students learns in person the first two days of the week, then virtually the last three. The other cohort learns online the first three days of the week, then in person the last two. There are also students who have elected to learn entirely online for the year.

The combination of in person and online has kept Giessel busy.

“We’re organizing three different cohorts of kids, lessons are all recorded ahead of time, we’re teaching the lessons in front of the kids when they’re here, and then it’s a lot of answering emails, it’s a lot of nights, it’s a lot of emails, more so then even before,” she said.

Because of the mix of in person and online learning, Giessel said she and other teachers have had discussions about how to give assessments, as well as equity.

“When everybody’s in a different place, there’s kind of an equity piece there, that students at home maybe have a benefit that students in person don’t have, or students in person have the benefit of the teacher is right there that students at home don’t,” she said. “There has to be a little more flexibility in when we offer the assessments, but also I think assessments have to be changed to allow for a little more flexibility of how students demonstrate what they’ve learned, how we can check progress.”

Giessel said multiple choice assessments, for instance, aren’t as effective this year because students can more easily guess to fill in their answer. Instead, she said she’s been using more essays, short answers, outlines, and reflections in her AP Language class.

Giessel said that with students learning virtually logging in at different times, and students in person wearing masks, it can be harder to use students' facial expressions to gauge understanding or participation. Now, she said she’s also been using techniques like asking for verbal yes/no and thumbs up/thumbs down throughout lessons, and also uses exit tickets to know what to clarify.

“I think there’s some forgiveness in terms of late work or just totally neglecting to do something right away,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s is much just ‘A for effort.’”

Giessel said with the smaller class sizes, there are opportunities this year for quieter students to make their voices heard.

“There are some students who certainly, maybe in a class of 25 or 30 kids were quieter, were a little more reserved, were a little more hesitant to ask questions,” she said. “So maybe they didn’t perform as well as they maybe could have if they would have felt a little more confident. Now when we have classes of 10, 12, I think my biggest class is 13 kids, there’s a lot more one on one, or there’s certainly more opportunity to ask questions and to get help.”

Two of Giessel’s AP students, Brynna Malone and Grace Rabl, are giving the class their all as they face new challenges this school year.

“It takes more time to understand concepts than it would before just because you’re learning in a different way,” Malone said. “We’re learning it through videos – prerecorded videos - and you can’t ask a video a question.”

Rabl said this school year, students have to be ready for more changes.

“Every day of the week is different,” Rabl said. “I adjust my expectations for myself kind of on the daily, because you sort of have to, because things come up really unexpectedly.”

Despite those challenges, both Malone and Rabl stressed the importance they put on their academic performance and being in the classroom to learn.

“Everyone’s really doing their best,” Rabl said. “People who care about their academics are really doing their best and teachers are providing every possible opportunity for us. There’s no really right answer, there’s no right way to deal with this, but they’re definitely doing the best that they can, and it’s very helpful.”

The students and Giessel said there’s a bit more grace to be given this school year.

“We have to kind of forgive ourselves and be patient with ourselves, and kind of know ourselves and know our students, because we’re two months in, so we’re getting used to it. We’re here, but there’s still a lot going on, this is the first time we’re doing this,” Giessel said. “It is patience with ourselves and with each other.”

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