Friday, February 24, 2017

The Great Grading Dilemma

For the last 10-ish years, I have used Standards Based Grading in my classroom. What this looks like has evolved over time, but overall, the same basic principle was at work. My classes are broken down into overarching ideas that span the entire grading period. Those ideas are each marked separately and repeatedly. Students are able to see the ideas in which they perform strongly and which ideas they need work on. The targets I have written for my classes are ones that we circle back to over and over throughout the trimester. We don't stop talking about conservation of mass because we had a test over that unit. We come back to it and apply it to new situations and explain why it is such a big deal. I have tweaked and perfected over the years, and I love how this system lays out my curriculum and my classroom.

But I'm tired. I am still the only teacher in my 7-12 building that uses this type of system. I have gotten an impressive amount of push back from a lot of people. Interestingly, that has only come about in the last few years since I have been teaching chemistry and now physics. It comes mostly from parents of "A" students who don't want to understand the differences. And those are only the parents I hear from. I know my principal (bless him) acts as a firewall for me and I do not hear most of what is said.*

He does a good job of communicating the concerns with me. The biggest criticism has been that a grade at any point in time before the end of the semester does not reflect the student's understanding of the material. In other words, if a particular target is going to be reassessed and that grade might change down the line, then why should their grade be so low right now? Why can't little Susie just have an A all trimester if I think she will end up with one at the end.** This has been tweaked so that there is less variation in the grading than I had before, but grades are typically still lower than what most parents find acceptable.

My grading philosophy has not changed. I still believe that a student's grade in my class should only reflect what they know. I'm not bending on that point. I won't grade homework and I won't give participation grades. I hate how a percentage averages out so it's okay to not fully understand some topics. I have, however, given a bit on that one this year in a tweak I made to how scores factor into the final grade.

The irony*** here is that I have had so many students and parents place the blame for lower than desired scores on the system. This is not the reason. The reason is that I expect my kids to have a high level of understanding of the subject. But, of course, it is easier to put the blame on something they can't control. This argument is the main reason I am thinking about going back to a traditional system. Of course then I would just have to deal with all the complaining about the class being too difficult.

Today, my chemistry class had their first quiz of the trimester. So today or tomorrow, I am going to have to decide which grading road I am going to travel down. I know which one will make my life easier.



*This in itself is especially frustrating. Parents are always welcome to visit with me directly, but a few of the most outspoken won't and instead seem to want to apply pressure indirectly.

**Actual question from a parent...

***In other news, today in chemistry, we were discussing average atomic mass and how it was figured based on weighted averages. We do this by comparing it to weighted grades that some teachers use. Not a single one of my students knew how to figure their final grade using weighted averages. Some of them couldn't even explain a straight average. I just wanted to ask if you don't understand the traditional system, what difference does it make if I'm not using it???

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Change in the Wind

The last year or so have brought about a lot of changes for me. But the biggest one is coming up next year.

Next year we are using the retirement of our other science teacher to completely restructure our science department. Our new motto is "all standards for all students". There are arguments for and against that philosophy, but we decided at this point it is the direction we wanted to go. In order to align more easily with NGSS standards, we are moving towards a Physics First sequence.

Freshmen coming in will take physics. Sophomores will follow with chemistry and biology will be a junior level class. There are other elective science courses that will be offered, including an advanced physics, engineering, anatomy and physiology, and a rotation of individual earth sciences. (Yes, all of this with just two teachers!)

I'm nervous. This is a big deal. The more I am put in front of people to talk about it, the more I realize how big of a deal it really is. You see, I sort of live in my isolated little bubble. When I leave my bubble, it tends to be when I go out to meet and learn with other science teachers. And the ones I hang out with tend to have the same philosophy that I do about rigor. To an awful lot of people "rigorous" when referring to a science class simply means "higher level math." While to some extent that is true, I do believe kids can learn and understand physics concepts without having had trig. (Or maybe I'm delusional and this is all going to go down in flames.)

I am also under no illusions that the success of this endeavor is all on me. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of support in place. I know my administration has my back and will do everything they can to act as a firewall so I can do my thing, but I know that this will be watched very closely by a lot of people, some of whom who will look for any little chink in the armor to find a way to bring it down for no other reason than because it is different.

But I'm ready for it. And I am excited for it. And I truly think it's going to be a great thing for our kids.

I Haven't Got It Right Yet...

My boy is a fourth grader who hates school. He's good at it, but at this point in time, he wants to "be a youtuber" when he grows up, so he doesn't really see how long division fits into his plans.

In yet another conference with his teacher, she was scolding him about how if he doesn't show his work she can't know whether or not he understands the concepts. She ended with a question,

"How am I supposed to know if you understand it or not?"

He looked at her, blinked, and said,

"Well, I haven't gotten it right yet."

As a teacher, this hit me hard. I have students in my class right now that I KNOW aren't getting it. Sometimes I forget that part of my job is to make sure they are getting it right.


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?

My Menu