Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lab Skills 8...What to Do with It...

I have never understood how someone could teach science without including labs as a part of that teaching. I mean, really, isn't that the whole point???

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not always done my kids justice when it comes to the labs. Like so many others, I "did labs" without clear goals in mind. With any luck, kids could get some decent results and probably be able to decode the conclusion questions at the end. The lab didn't really mean much other than they would maybe get a better visual of the book description and I wouldn't have to talk all day.

In the last couple years, my focus on labs has shifted. A large part of that shift is a direct result of the Modeling. Here, labs are vital. This is where we get our information. We don't read out of a textbook that density is mass per unit of volume, we actually measure that relationship and define it later on. So if Group 4 doesn't get a graph that is at least somewhat linear, we can't see that relationship, and therefore, can't define it. 

Taking good data has become important

The problem is, my kids have virtually no lab skills. They just don't do labs in middle school.* What few labs they did do were more of a "hands on" let's take a break from reading kind of thing. You know, what I used to do...

The lab skills didn't matter. 

So what if I should have gotten 7.8 grams of salt and I ended up with 23.4 g???** This was okay because the teacher is going to summarize what we should have gotten and if I pay close enough attention, I will get the answer right on the test.

This has always bothered me. A lot. I just wasn't sure what to do about it. So this has turned into my year to really focus on what I need to teach my kids about precision, accuracy and basic lab skills. This has not always gone smoothly, but taking a few minutes during a lab to teach some of those things has made all the difference.

So enter Lab Skills 8. Originally, I wrote this skill to assess whether or not kids were rounding correctly. We would discuss significant figures and what accuracy and precision were appropriate to record. I ended the summer with it written as: 8.  I can recognize accuracy and precision of data depends on instruments used. (ΔHS.1.3.3d)

I never liked that wording, mostly because I had to explain it to every single person who read it. Before school even started, Bryna suggested this: I can use significant figures to appropriately communicate the precision of data and calculations.

I liked this wording so much better, so I changed it to begin the year.

Now, I like significant figures just as much as the next science teacher, but with all the upheaval I had going on in my room, I didn't focus on them very much. And really, do those rules REALLY make any sense?? Not, at least, to a teenager. They tend to focus so much on the rules that they miss understanding why those rules exist. So basically, I told my kids to round to least precise decimal place and be done with it. Even with that we were still struggling, but for the most part, my kids are rounding to a reasonable place and I am okay with that.

Then I actually started assessing with it. The more I got into it, the more I realized I wanted this target to assess more than what it was. The original idea was to assess only on the recording of the data, but as I mentioned, I wanted kids to be held accountable for the accuracy of their data. 

I debated quite awhile about how I wanted to handle this change. I thought about leaving this skill alone and adding in a separate skill specifically for data collection. I didn't like this for a number of reasons***, but I really thought those skills should go hand in hand.

We started a new trimester last Monday, so I took the opportunity to yet again rewrite that skill. I think I like this one, but I guess we will see how it plays out.

So here it is...the new and improved....

Lab Skills 8.  I can report data and calculations in a precise and accurate manner.

*I KNOW!!! I have issues with this and have made them known...I am working on that.
**Actual results.
***Not the least of which is that then I would have 11 lab skills instead of 10 and my OCD would not allow that to happen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

This Year's Great Grading Experience

So I am sitting in the back of a freezing cold gymnasium waiting for parents to come visit with me about their* children's progress in my classes. My time this year has actually been punctuated by actual conferences, so this is a pretty new experience for me.

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more parents, as was my principal. A child in my class has some major adjusting to do learning-wise and some of them do not take it well. So far, I have weathered the storms that came with Modeling and Standards Based Grading and have come out the other side all the better.

But this year, I took away percentages.

Turns out this was the biggest adjustment yet. And the most difficult to deal with. Now, I didn't really think my whole set up was all that difficult to understand and the truth is, it really isn't, but it is something different and some kids are having trouble getting past that. The good news is that of all the parents I have discussed this with, not one of them has had any complaints. I have even had one parent thank me for making it more difficult for students to get an A. While this wasn't exactly my end goal, I really think this system more accurately reflects a student's level of knowledge.

The Good
I love it. My scores are recorded as 0, 1, 2 or ND (no data). In the past, I went with a 4 point system. That basically turned into estimating a percent correct and there was such a big decision between 2 and 3 that it was really starting to stress me out. I found myself making out a rubric for every single target and finally decided that was ridiculously too difficult. I still find myself leaning towards a 1 when it should probably be a 0**, but I think that will get better with time. Either that or I will get rid of the 2 and simply go to a 0/1 system.

I also ended up with a huge shift in philosophy when it comes to how to actually assign the scores. All of my targets are assessed multiple times with three seeming to be my minimum right now. The score that is recorded in the grade book is the most recent assessment. Mostly. This year, it occurred to me that sometimes, kids just have a bad day. So I am looking at how to make the call on someone who has scored all 2s up until today when she scored a 0. Did she just not understand the question? Had she been copying off her neighbor? Did her allergy medicine kick in last hour? This has been a tough one for me to reconcile, so I will see where it gets me. Today, I opened it up for discussion with my kids. They have all of their scores available to them. If they want to come in and argue for a certain score, I will let them. This announcement was met with deafening silence and more than a little bit of suspicion. One student finally asked me if it was a trap, so that might just be a little too much for them to deal with at this point.

Another part of this is making up assessments that were missed because of absence. Do they need to? If I have four other data points to work with, does that ND in the grade book matter? This came about from a student that was going to make up a test if I had to drag him in by his ears. He has been a pain all year and I wasn't going to let him get away with skipping my class again.*** His argument (when I calmed down) was a good one. He had already shown me that he could do that skill. What difference did it make if he didn't show me one more time? I finally admitted he had a point. A few days later, he came in when he wanted to retake a target that had been on his missing test. He just wanted to test over the one target. Smiling my evil smile, I told him he couldn't just do a retake on a target if it was available on a missing assignment. So my new and improved (?) policy is just that. I don't require them to make up quizzes if they don't want to, but if they want to retake a target that is on that quiz, that is how it must be done.

The Bad
Using PowerSchool has been a challenge for me with this system. First and foremost, I haven't figured out a way to turn off the grades for the individual assignments (targets). This looks really, really bad if you have anything but 2s, because PowerSchool still records the percentage and letter grade.

When a student or parent looks at this, they automatically zoom in on the column of As and Fs. This student isn't doing too badly, but when the focus is on that letter, people don't tend to look at the overall picture.

PowerSchool also doesn't show what each specific target means. So when you see Lab Skills 9 (which for some reason is NOT in alphabetical order), you don't automatically know what skill is assessed there. You have to click on the link to go see what is actually means.

I started putting in each individual score every time that target was assessed. I like that a lot, but I also want to start adding in comments. I'm not sure if this will just get too messy. All of our students have a Google account through our school, so I have thought about doing something with a spreadsheet. I really haven't decided on this yet. At the beginning of the year, I was going to have a Blue Harvest or Active Grade account for each student, but that just seemed like one more thing to have to access. I am still up in the air about that. I want that feedback available, I'm just not sure of the best way to make it so.

Retakes became a nightmare. I expected the race for points to be so ingrained as to be inescapable and should have been more prepared for it. I require students to come in and "study" before getting a new quiz, usually in the form of correcting a test or quiz. I had a week or so in there where there was just such a rush that I didn't do a good job of checking that work and ended up with scores that I know do not in any way reflect that student's level of understanding. This next trimester, I am going to make it a little more difficult to earn a retake. Joss and Mylene have developed an amazing quiz reflection tool that I am totally going to steal and modify into an application for reassessment.

The Capstones
The capstones are what really caused the panic. My policy right now is that in order to get an A in the class, you must do three capstones. Students can do a lab investigation or a research paper over any of the targets. I am also considering letting them create a tutorial that would go up on the class website. These are not meant to be major research projects, but an extension of a chosen target.

I am completely aware that this is a new frontier, but it really hasn't worked out in the way that I wanted. (I wanted it to work, you know, perfectly.) The physics community pioneered the idea and I love it. Chemistry, I am finding, however, is a little more difficult to work with. One big issue I have is the safety factor and how to make sure kids aren't doing something that could get them hurt.**** Also, physics you can literally see everywhere. We are dealing with a bit more abstraction in chemistry and my kids and I are struggling with how to go about it. Even things that should be more straightforward have issues like how much and what concentration of acid they should use.

I am not happy with these as they stand. A lot of this (oh, alright, all of it) is my fault. I gave them a pretty vague idea of what I wanted, so I am getting pretty vague attempts.

So right now, pretty much any attempt has been counted as a successful as long a the student writes it up in a way that convinces me he or she truly understands that target. Again, soooo not happy with this, but it is getting better. That is not to say that I haven't had some amazing attempts. One girl wrote research paper about exploding ketchup packets in Pennsylvania. Another tied in gas laws to the Red Bull space jump last fall. One student created the most beautiful density column I have ever seen. So there is hope and I am sure it will get better with time.

All in all, even though it has significantly upped my stress level, I am happy with this shift. And once kids get past the "this is stupid and if I complain enough, she will change her mind" stage, the feedback I am getting is mostly positive. Now, there are some students who are used to getting A's that are not too happy about the "extra credit" they have to do, but overall, anyone who gets an A here, I truly feel has earned it. They like knowing exactly what they need to work on. They like being able to show that knowledge multiple times. Some of them even like the challenge.

*Sooooo just typed "my children" there. Maybe I need a vacation.

**What bothers me most about these decisions is that I find a little voice in my head saying "but he tried so hard on this question."

*** I realize I was on a power trip and I really don't like that version of me, but it is what it is.

 ****In chemistry, everyone wants to blow something up. I tell that that's fine as long as they can tie it into one of our targets.

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