Friday, March 6, 2015

Transforming Our Parent Teacher Conferences into Something Parents Want to Attend

Many of us at the high school level know that parent teacher conferences are an exercise in futility. We have them. The doors are open. We even have cookies. But the parents are few and far between. And those few parents that do venture in are typically the ones that we really don't need to see.

A few years ago, my school made a series of decisions that changed that.*****

1. It all started with our seminar. Ours is 30 minutes every day. It is used for activity meetings, study hall, down time, college visits and getting help with class. We have transformed that time period to include an advisory portion for students.When students come in as a freshman, they are assigned to a seminar with other freshman. They will stay with that seminar teacher for the next four years. Depending on class size and how many teachers are available, this group ends up somewhere around 15 students.

2. In the fall, a couple weeks after we settle into school I make my first call home. This call is an introduction of who I am and to explain that I am your child's official school contact point. If you have any questions and need to talk to someone at school, that is me. That is not to say that you cannot contact another teacher/nurse/counselor/principal directly, but if you don't really know where to start, I can help you with that. One thing we had discovered was that parents tend to be extremely intimidated by the high school building. All those teachers, all those rooms. It was just a scary, mysterious place to try and navigate if you hadn't already experienced it. Or, in the case of some parents, they HAD already experienced it and it was a terrible place to be. We are trying to remedy that version for them and make them feel welcome in our building.

3. A couple weeks later, we are into the midterm of our trimester. Our second call home is to update parents on grades and see if there are any concerns. We talk about homecoming and remind parents that there are a lot of things that their kids could be involved in. Are there concerns?

4. Parent-Teacher Conferences are held a few weeks later. We call home the week or so before and personally invite each parent to come in and meet their child's seminar teacher. If they would like to talk to any of the other teachers, we can arrange that. If the scheduled time is inconvenient, we can absolutely find a time that works. I have also been known to have this conversation in the grocery store, so we are pretty flexible about how this can go down.

5. Just before winter break, is another mid-term. Call home and keep parents updated on progress.

6. Our elementary and middle schools have PT conferences in the middle of February. This coincides exactly with the end of our second trimester, so we do not hold conferences at this time. We schedule ours a few weeks later. It is not so much a PT conference (although, of course, we can talk about grades) as it is a pre-enrollment discussion for next year. Students are asked to request their classes for next year and bring their parent in to talk about it. We go through the kid's post secondary goals and what they think they want to do when they grow up. Then we talk about how we can get them there. We discuss Kansas Scholar, Board of Regents, ACT, AP ASVAB, SAT, you name it. Are dual credit college course for you? Would AP classes be better? Or do you think you should attend VoTech classes your junior year? This discussion has been HUGE for students and parents alike, because now, kids aren't just filling out some random classes to take next year, but really put some thought into how this gets them where they want to be.

7. This is the spring trimester midterm. Another checkup on grades and answer any lingering enrollment questions.

That's it. It ends up being a situation where a parent is contacted a minimum of seven times over the course of the school year. Sometimes more, depending on whether or not the student is struggling.

This one little experiment has completely transformed our communication with parents and had such a positive impact on our home-school relationships. And it gets parents into the building. Our last PT conference boasted a 75% attendance rate. No, that is not a typo. We had three quarters of our parents visiting with teachers.



*****Disclaimer: None of this was my idea. I have had several twitter chats lately where I have mentioned how we have transformed our conferences and it has been requested that I provide more information. Twitter is the least friendly platform to try to explain all the changes we made, so I am making a post to refer to. If you would like more information, you can talk to the man who designed it, but probably not on twitter. His name is Kelly McDiffett and he is the principal at Council Grove High School. He absolutely LOVES to talk about good things in education, so plan accordingly. kmcdif@cgrove417.org .

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Mistake Game in Reverse

As of late, my Chemistry class has been in kind of a whiteboarding rut. We are moving through Stoichiometry, so there is a lot of working of problems which results in a lot of whiteboarding of problems. This combined with the dreary winter weather makes us kind of complacent and we tend to zone out a little bit as our friends are up there going through the motions.

Today we went through eight problems. I noticed that not many of the kids had completed the entire worksheet and I wasn't sure if it was out of boredom or lack of understanding. But even as we were going through the whiteboards, not many of them were even copying down what was being presented.

So when we got to number five and there was a glaring mistake in the balancing of an equation, I didn't say anything. No one noticed. No one asked. So neither did I.

Three problems later, three more mistakes, but not three questions.

So at the end, I had kids get out a piece of paper. I told them that on the eight whiteboards at the front of the room, there were four mistakes. Their quiz was to find and correct these mistakes.

Kids perked up. Kids panicked. Kids got to work and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. The best part was that those kids that had not finished their homework got it out and worked through the problems from the beginning.

This is probably not something I am going to hope for very often, mostly because whiteboarding is supposed to be about checking your thinking against someone else's. I just seemed to luck out in that it came to me on a day where we really needed some variety and a little change of pace.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What the Ice Bucket Means to Me

In case you didn't know, the Ice Bucket Challenge is all about raising awareness of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). When I asked some of my kids at school if they knew why they were participating, they mumbled something along the lines of "doing it for that cancer thingy."
I nearly cried. If you have ever known someone who has been afflicted, you know that this disease is one of the most horrible fates you could ever imagine. Your body shuts down. You are trapped inside knowing that you are unable to do anything about it.
Mr. Griffin was one of those teachers who could reach out and pull you in without you even realizing it. I had him for freshman PE and A&P my junior year. I vividly remember his tests; blank pages with a subject at the top. "Tell me everything you know about this" he would say. I also remember specific days in his class more than any other I have ever taken. He just had that way about him. Brandon Evans was his aide that year and they both spent the majority of their down time pranking Mrs. Potts.
Mr. Griffin started to die our freshman year. I can remember walking between buildings to go outside for PE and he would just be sort of shuffling along. At that point, a lot of us didn't really know what was wrong, just that he was having trouble walking. It became more apparent the next year when he came to school in his scooter. The next year, he couldn't use his hands and he was having trouble talking. Mr. Griffin left us over spring break my senior year. A group of us were loitering downtown when the ambulance went by and we all kind of knew when we saw which way it was headed.
I know I am just one of many who was affected by his life and death. He is always one I cite when asked why I became a teacher. To this day, I donate blood because he told me it was important. Even after all this time, he is still remembered.
So I am taking the other option in this challenge. The check is in the mail.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A New Path to Reassessment

One of my big hurdles for the last few years has been how to go about getting kids to be able to really show that they understand a topic. There are a lot of ways to do that, but usually, what it comes down to is the kid having to show that knowledge on a quiz or a test. One reason is that this is something concrete. You can point to a question and say, you got this (or not) based on the quality of the answer. Being able to prove a kid knows something based on what they are doing in a particular lab, however, seems to be more of a gray area and open to a lot more subjectivity.

When I started SBG and introduced the idea of reassessment, it quickly escalated into a mad rush of points collecting. So much so that in my chemistry classes, the targets are now written so that they are covered over and over on future assessments. Basically, reassessment is required and a student cannot come in and just retake a quiz on his own. I love this, but most of my chemistry targets are skills based and it didn't work so well with some of my other classes. It could be that my targets need rewritten (again), but I really like them right now so I am reluctant to do much adjustment there.

So I am trying something.

Every student in our district has a Google account and so my Ocean Science class is doing a lot of blogging this year. Lab analysis and critical thinking assignments are all written up. Pictures are good. If we draw on a map, we upload a picture to help describe it. Kids are taking pictures during labs so they have evidence of what went on. It is still in beta testing, so they aren't as polished as I would like. We also haven't made it quite as interactive or public as I am envisioning, but I think that might come later. Either way, this gives kids a way to talk about what they have learned in labs. These are not recorded for a score, but are commented on and kids are encouraged to edit in response to suggestions.

We still take tests. This is Phase I and actually, the path of least resistance for kids to show what they know is to really study for a test and do well there. I still give 0, 1, 2 as a score based on the covered targets and these get recorded into the grade book.

Phase II is sort of a reflection on those scores. Each student has also created a site on their Google account specifically for this class. This is modeled after what Chris does in his classroom. In my case, each unit has a page, so for example after we take the test on Waves, students create a new Waves page and add each target to that page. Then they take their test and talk about what it was that went well and what it was that did not go so well. What did you get correct and why do you think you understand it? Link to your blog. Which labs tie into that target and show how you really get the ideas? Why were you able to understand it in the lab but couldn't apply that knowledge to the questions on the test?

As you might imagine, some kids do really well and some do really not well. We are really getting into that whole idea of metacognition here and that is not an easy thing for a lot of them to do. I get a lot of "I could have studied more" as a way to explain why they didn't do well. We are working on that. If students do an amazing job reflecting and can tell me exactly why something was misunderstood and how those ideas have changed, the scores can go up to reflect that. If not, there is one more thing they can do.

Phase III is essentially a mini capstone. Design, carry out and present an activity that demonstrates your understanding of the target. This is also written up on their blog, but they also have to present it to the class. So far, I haven't had many takers on this one, mostly because I think it is a lot of work. I am okay with that. The ones that have gone through the process have been extremely creative and done a great job of showing that they do in fact know what is going on.

So far, I like this. The feedback I have gotten has been mixed. I expected that. Everything from the predictable "it's too much work" to "can we just do the activity without taking the test?" I think I am doing a bit more work than usual, but then again, so are my kids. If kids are going to succeed in this type of activity, I really owe them thoughtful and constructive feedback.

My biggest problem has been to allow a reasonable amount of time in class. There is a delicate balance between kids that will use every second I give them and those that still don't want to do anything.

There are some kinks to work out, of course, but overall, I think this is something I am going to integrate at least to some degree into my other classes.

Is there something I am missing? What other options could I offer kids?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Making Sense of Assessment...My Grading Philosophy

As many of you know, I have struggled to find good and valid ways to assess the kids in my classes. And if you have any twitter presence at all, you know that there has been quite possibly the most epic discussion ever held on that platform about Standards Based Grading*. If nothing else good comes from this twitter discussion, it has been an opportunity for me (and several others) to really reflect on what it is that makes assessment in my classroom authentic and not just some random number that gets translated into a grade.

Warning: personal conjecture ahead...
The thing about the grading and assessment that occurs in your class is that it is extremely personal.** It truly ties into what your teaching philosophy really is. Think back on your teacher preparation classes for just a second. Did ANY of you have ANY kind of instruction or even guidance as to how to grade the kids in your classes?? I didn't. I'm not sure I know anyone who has. Essentially, we were set loose with the assumption that we would figure it out. Now if you were anything like me, I just graded how I had been graded in the past. I kind of started with 100% tests. Now you realize in high school pretty quickly that that is probably a bad idea.*** So I made it something like 20% homework. Then I added in some participation points. And for the love of everything holy, I gave extra credit for bringing in kleenex. Hey, everyone had a cold that year.

And so over the years, it just kind of morphed into something that really reflected what I believed as a teacher was important. My guess is that you have probably followed a similar path to end up with whatever type of assessment regime you currently work under. It has taken me quite awhile and a good bit of trial and error, but I have finally arrived at a place where I really feel like the final grade that I assign to any given student is one that I feel good about.

So in the spirit of waxing philosophical, here is my personal grading philosophy...

1. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that a grade a student receives in my chemistry class should be a reflection of what he knows about chemistry. Period. Done. That's it. You're acting up in class today? Fine. I will deal with that, but not by reducing your grade. You want to bring cookies in for my birthday? Aw...I love you even more. But not enough to give you extra credit. For me, grades are NOT a classroom management tool. I don't hold points over your head to make sure you don't cause me any problems. In turn, I don't reward you with points for sucking up.

2. I am going to be as clear and concise as I possibly can as to what it is you need to know. I use Standards Based Grading in my classroom for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost I use it as a tool to describe exactly what skills and ideas you need to master in order to navigate through a specific class.

3. I am not going to give you points for your homework. Probably the biggest argument I hear about this is that by not grading homework, we are not preparing kids for the "real world".**** I give homework about once a week. This is typically practice and an extension of what we have learned in class. Kids know they are expected to complete it (yes, I keep track) and they know that the next day we will whiteboard it in class. When I first started whiteboarding, I didn't realize what a powerful formative assessment tool this can be. As kids are preparing their boards, I wander around and answer questions and listen to the discussions. That right there gives me mountains of information about whether or not kids are getting it. Then those kids present their work. I have a group of kids this year who fight over who gets to present. Know why? Because it helps cement in their brains what it is we are doing. I have teachers who argue that this is a waste of class time. (Seriously.) They don't have time for kids to go over every single homework assignment. I just have to say that I do not agree. For me, if it is important enough to assign, it is important enough to go over with my kids. Amazingly enough, even though I am not bribing them with points, I have found that kids still do their homework. Can you guess why? Because they see the value in it. They understand that if I am going to give them the opportunity to practice those skills and give them feedback on their progress then they will be much more successful when it comes to test time.

4. I don't do averages. This is a big one. I don't have too many standards that kids are expected to master in any of my classes. How you score on each target counts individually towards your final overall grade, but one does not override the other. This means that one target is no more important than another. You have to know them all. You can't do horrible on Conservation of Mass and balance that out by totally rocking Stoichiometry.

5. There will be lots of opportunities to reassess on something you didn't understand the first time around. I more or less have my targets set up in a way that allows me to circle back to each one over and over again throughout the year. For me, if I haven't assessed that target more than three times in the trimester, it is worth a look at rewriting. I really don't believe education is a one time shot. Listening to some of my colleagues and a surprising number of parents, this goes against everything they believe education should be. There is also a big debate on the whole retake thing. That is an individual preference and can be handled in a lot of ways. In general, a student cannot walk through my door and just get a retake. I have allowed that in some cases, but there is a lot of work on the student's part that must be done before I will let that happen.

6. I care that you are understanding what I am teaching. How that translates into a letter grade is a side concern of mine. All that letter does is give you an idea of where you stand in your mastery of the standards. Notice that I did NOT say where you stand in relation to your peers. Grades are not a competition in my room. If what you know rewards you an A, awesome. If you "only" get a B, awesome. You're getting an F? Um, you really aren't getting it. Get in here and let's see where you have gone off track.

I think that pretty much sums it up! Now that I actually have it on paper and can look at each point individually, I really feel better about the decisions I have made to change my classroom assessment.

Our district has just started the conversation about how to move to a more transparent system of grading. I'm not sure how it is going to go. We spent nearly two hours debating the homework issue one day. This could get pretty interesting, so I will keep you posted on that one...


*This thing has raged on for weeks now, one THREAD has over 2,000 replies, and at this point is mostly at a point of last-worditis and not so veiled name-calling because Frank and Brian and lots and lots of others realized you can't have a decent discussion when the other side refuses to even pretend you might know what you are talking about...good luck @DataDiva :) And truly, this has morphed into something that isn't even really about grades any more.

**I am NOT saying that it should be, just that it is.

***Ironically, I am sort of back to that theory now...

****This. Right here. This is probably the worst argument I hear. Besides teaching, in what world are kids going to have three hours of homework every night to be turned in the next day??? In what job are kids going to get a reward for every. little. thing. they. do??

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I Started

Some of you know how this year has been a struggle for me. Just getting through all the new red tape this year is enough to crush anyone's spirit. Couple that with some health issues and I have been about as unmotivated as I can get.

A while back I got an email inviting me to apply for a research opportunity at Kansas University. Part of the application required me to write out my teaching philosophy in less than 250 words. Um, okay. To be honest, I haven't really thought much about my philosophy in recent years. It just seemed like something that was always kind of there at the periphery, but nothing really concrete.


So when I sat down to write this, I really wondered if my overall philosophy had changed much since I began. I can remember being incredibly naive and optimistic about what it took to inspire kids. Then, of course, reality set in and I began to really lose sight of why I was here. Mostly, I alternate between feeling like the greatest teacher ever to worrying that I am doing it all wrong.

But then again, the kids I have now are not the same kids I had a decade ago. Teaching is not the same. Society has changed. Education in general is not the same. So it stands to reason that I am not the same teacher.

Strangely enough, my philosophy hasn't shifted much from its original ideals. I still believe science is the greatest subject out there. I still believe that what I am doing is important. And I still believe in every kid. So here it is, my new and improved (and just under the 250 word limit) teaching philosophy.

I believe a good number of my students are inherently interested in science. Let’s face it, science is cool. On any given day I have at least one reference to the Discovery channel or some really cool item that was heard on the news. The trick is to get them to really look beyond the big picture and see the details; get them to see the how and the why and the what if that comes with true understanding.

I believe I have the power to either nurture or crush a child. I can take their interest and feed it or bore them to death with the mind-numbing details that I used to think were important. 
I believe in challenging my kids. My classroom has shifted over the years. I can now honestly say that my students are active learners. We do labs and the data matters. We draw conclusions and present them to our peers. We have to explain ideas in ways so others can understand them. This sounds so easy on paper, but in reality, this is way out of the comfort zone of so many of my students.

I believe in my kids as students, people and scientists. There is something that makes every student tick. If you can find that and tie into that passion, you've got them. I realize how jaded a teacher can become, so after 16 years teaching, I am glad I still hold on to that belief.


Happy New Year, everyone, I truly hope it is the best yet.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stop the Insanity...

Today I gave my chemistry class a fun page. There is an old Christmas story written by Bob Jacobs that has the names of elements scattered throughout. Some are obvious, some are not so obvious. The idea is to identify as many element names as you can. My kids jumped in and were having a great time highlighting and laughing about the play on words. Then it got hard. Someone found sixty three names and I told them that I know there are over one hundred and to keep looking. And the Googling began. Seriously? This is not for a grade, not for extra credit. This is simply meant to be a fun activity and a break from what we were doing.


NOTE: Because of the high demand for this particular activity, I am posting it here. The only thing I have changed is the name of the Ebneezers at the beginning. Have fun!


Christmas Story

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