Free speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to bear arms. Free access to your school’s WiFi network. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

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Until the tech department changes the passwords, that is.

At my school, students had grown used to a very generous Bring Your Own Device atmosphere that had built up over several years. I suppose most students had their phones on the school network and I was starting to see a sprinkling of individually-owned iPad minis, other tablets, and the occasional PC laptop appear in class. This was accomplished by having a Guest network available through the school and most if not all students had the user name and password that the technology department had freely circulated for their use.

But how were they using this access? According to a recent conversation with our tech department folks, the vast majority of traffic on the school-provided WiFi was to YouTube and Facebook. The assumption, and probably an accurate one, is that most of the bandwidth being slurped up by the BYOD crowd was for non-academic purposes. So the tech department decided to do something about it. Their first step was to change the Guest network login username and password and to not give it out to students.

But those crazy kids knew a couple of the other WiFi network passwords too, either through divine intervention or the fact that they were friends with the student tech interns over the past few years. The technology staff report walking into classrooms and seeing some of the not-so-secure network passwords scribbled on teacher whiteboards. See where this is going? If you are a network admin, you do.

If you are a network admin or keep an eye on such things, you know that network (IP) addresses for computers consist of 4 numbers (ex: 192.255.11.3) where the last two numbers are the subnet (11) and the individual device (3). It turns out that each subnet can only dish out 255 addresses, for some arcane reason. This limits the number of devices that can be on one subnet to no more than 255, and usually less.

Now when all of our BYOD devices, which was pretty much every cell phone in the building, hopped on the same WiFi network, what do you suppose happened? Thats right, we ran out of addresses. Now it was personal because the network that everyone had hopped on was one that all my Macs and iPads were on, because Apple stuff like AirPlay and Bonjour loves to be on the same subnet. But having one subnet means only 250 or so devices, and now every kid in the building was snagging those IP addresses. Major network crash, right in the middle of some test prep that my students were trying to do on the Macs. Not pretty.

Our response? Change all the passwords. Quite logical, actually. Now only school-owned devices can connect to the school’s WiFi network. There seem to be no more connection problems and the speed of the network seems faster, but that could be my imagination.

Was this the right call, kicking every BYOD off of the school network? I’m not sure.

I totally understand why it happened the way it did and I get the argument about network connectivity as a limited resource. But if your students are like mine, and like the individual who drew the image above, access to WiFi ranks way up there on the list of basic needs. Lots of the YouTube traffic that I saw from my students was happening in the background as music that played while they worked on school-related stuff. Many teachers in the building report multiple instances of cell phones being used on a routine basis for academic purposes. Is it fair to now force students to use up their data plans for learning activities while school-provided WiFi lurks just out of reach? Is the local coffee shop now a more welcoming place to learn because they provide WiFi?

I think there are some positive aspects of BYOD, but right now we’re clunking around our implementation of it. How’s it work in your school? What solutions have you seen work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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My wondering for the week is this: should I start grading students on their assessment portfolios from the very beginning of the year rather than wait for the 1st quarter marking period? But if assessment by portfolio starts from day one, is it fair to enter an F grade for everyone at the beginning of the year because their portfolio would be empty? Since I strongly suspect that it is not fair to grade an empty portfolio for the first few weeks of school, when is a good time to switch from purely formative assessment of blogs to the more summative assessment of the portfolio?

Currently my students start off the year with a basic technology boot camp and the establishment of their own individual blogs. We spend a good chunk of the first few weeks learning to blog (most haven’t before) and getting used to the new normal that is the blended mashup of learning that is my classroom. I give a speech or two about how we don’t use numerical points towards earning letter grades, but instead will provide evidence of our learning in other ways.

At some point, usually around four weeks into the school year, students finally create their Google Sites assessment portfolio from the template that I’ve given them. They share the portfolio address with me, but that’s usually all that happens with the portfolio for several weeks.

But as the end of the quarter approaches, there is a need to begin to fill the portfolio with artifacts of learning, as that is the assessment tool by which quarter (and semester) grades will be determined. In theory, the portfolio should not be a lot of extra work for students because it involves very little new writing and creating, simply sorting and linking assignments and evidence that have already been completed. Therefore this task should be greeted with joy and happiness.

Hmmm. What I see instead is that a small minority of students grab onto the portfolio concept early on and fill it up as they go along through the class: blog post gets published, blog post gets sorted into the portfolio. But the other 80-90% of students do not touch it. Call it avoidance of failure, call it unfamiliarity, maybe throw in some technophobia, and portfolio building does not happen spontaneously for most students until the portfolio becomes the basis for the course grade.

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Now, keep in mind that students have been getting an “eligibility” grade from me from the first weeks of school, so being given a letter grade is nothing new for my classes. At the beginning of the year I tend to grade in a pass/fail manner as I have not yet gathered enough information from just a few assignments to really tell an overall picture about a student’s performance. After a time, probably by the 3rd or 4th week of school, I do start guessing at letter grades besides P and F based on the quality and quantity of work that I am seeing published to their blog.

A more accurate letter grade doesn’t get assigned, however, until I feel that I have provided students with enough chances to be successful in each of the major course standards, and that may not occur until right before the 1st quarter grade (or if we are talking AP Biology, until AFTER the 1st quarter is over). At that point I begin to start looking at what students are putting into their portfolios.

But now we have a perfect storm of factors come together: grades are due in a week or two, many students are behind in their blogging, most students have not bothered to figure out how to operate Google Sites because there has been no need to until now, the portfolio is empty, and I feel the need to (finally) show students what their grades will be like once I apply the published guidelines for assessing the portfolio for midterm and final grades. Ready or not, its portfolio time.

So I devoted around a week of class time for students to work on very clearly specified pages of the portfolio and provided what I thought was very specific and often one-on-one instruction on how to post links to the portfolio in Google Sites. But when I went to grade the portfolios last weekend, a week before grades were due, many were still very incomplete or even empty of evidence.

To say that by grading these empty portfolios I filled up the entire eligibility list would be incorrect, but not far from it. I gave a lot of F’s to a lot of good students.

Then, and only then, with a failing grade in hand, did I have students come to me for help in upgrading their portfolio. It was a very busy, but incredibly productive week after grades based on the portfolio were published.

Now back to my original question: when during the first quarter should I make the transition to summative grading based on the portfolio? Is this the only way to do it, with a week of panic right before the end of the quarter? Should I try picking up a grade from the portfolios somewhere in the middle of the quarter even though many of the lab standards might only have a lab or two as possible proof? How about at the beginning of the quarter even though there have been no chances to publish any work? Yikes. Try explaining initial grades of F to parents and coaches. But I bet I’d see students understand the portfolio concept better if we were using it from Day 1.

I suppose I might try evaluating the portfolio (U, PP, P, A ratings per standard) from the first build onwards without grading the portfolio (A, B, C, etc). I might at least get a few more students interested in working on the portfolio as we go, since parents can see those evaluation ratings on Infinte Campus. The eligibility grade could still be pass/fail for a while at the beginning of the year and then move into a real letter grade based on the portfolio once students have had enough chances to fill it. There might be some questions towards the beginning of the year about how a kid is passing but has all U’s, but that is probably easier to deal with than failing the kid for work they haven’t even been assigned yet.

TL; DR: Kids will procrastinate until a grade is assigned. Start assessment based on portfolios earlier so that students have a better chance of being successful on the first midterm grade.

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This is a cautionary tale about what happens when educational technology fails. Of course, tech breaking down is nothing new, but reliance on technology in a 1:1 learning environment introduces some complications that you might not have thought about.

Not so long ago, I would have ranked myself up there on the list of folks who knew how to do educational technology pretty well. I had managed to score a cart of MacBooks so that each student could be guaranteed 1:1 access during class time at least, and I went about implementing some fancy new strategies like student blogging. I even got tagged to write an article in Edutopia about it in 2010, so I was doing something at least marginally interesting with technology at the time.

A year later I was able to convince my tech coordinator and principal that I could really use a class set of iPads since my hardcopy Anatomy textbooks were falling apart and there were some new apps appearing that would let my students get their textbooks electronically. When the district bought some new iPad2’s, I snagged a class set and went on to check them out to students in my own mini version of a 1:1 program for about 40 students at a time. We used the Inkling app to buy 30 copies of Hole’s Anatomy on the iPads and shelved the old textbooks, definitely a win in most #edtech circles.

Fast forward to this school year, 2014-15, in which I’ll need to use the same laptops that’ve been around in my room since 2008, but now add in the fact that our technology coordinator spent the summer closing up shop as he left for a new (less stressful and well deserved) job so no new technology hardware purchases were made nor any older units repaired. This means that several macs that I sent in for a missing key or sticky mousepad are now completely AWOL, as are several iPads that needed minor repairs, as are multiple batteries from the Macs (the removable variety) since I pulled several for disposal at the beginning of the summer.

I should also mention that I have 46 Anatomy students but only 38 working iPads and only 30 Inkling textbook licenses, so the tradition of loaning an iPad to every Anatomy student ended this year.

This is when I realize how spoiled I’ve been. I have always been able to get all the technology that I felt that students needed to learn in a “modern” classroom. But now that a lot of that technology is powerless (literally) to help my students, what’s a tech-nerd to do without technology? How does a very functional 1:1 implementation carry on when it is no longer 1:1?

We’re going old-school, of course. My Juniors and Seniors in the Anatomy class are coloring. ON PAPER (using study guide packets, and, yes, I see some irony in that after slamming packets in a previous post). We’re using a hardcopy textbook again. Its from 2004 and most are falling apart in some way.

But here’s the fun part: I think coloring diagrams of the human body has a place in an anatomy course, and I forgot that in my quest for the latest gadgets. I think students poring over a list of terms and deciding their locations in a particular type of tissue, organ, or system has a lot of merit as a learning tool. Its not that the iPad can’t do that, but I honestly rarely saw my students using the iPads that way. If you give a student a handout to help them learn about the human body, there is pretty much only one use for that handout, but if you give them an iPad, it gets a little more complicated. If you were a student with an iPad, would you choose to read an anatomy text on it instead of using one of the other thousands of apps that it could run? Maybe, if the teacher forced you to, but I never did think that forcing kids into certain apps was the best use of iPads, which meant that our fancy Inkling app textbooks went largely unused, I’m sorry to say.

This year represents a chance to take a much lower-tech approach to teaching Anatomy, a return to how I used to teach it in some ways. Oh, I’ll still use technology for the class. In fact, we’ve already got our blogs set up and will eventually set up our assessment portfolios online too, as we’ve done for the past few years. The only difference might be in the kinds of artifacts we post there. Expect to see some more coloring, and, who knows, maybe some better test scores as well.

 

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This post about my Physics/Phunsics class has been rattling around in my head for more than half a year now, and its a tough one. The reason it is tough is that it involves failure, and I don’t really enjoy writing about failures. Semi-clever ideas and things that work, yes. Failure, no.

Let me come right out and say it: the Phunsics class just didn’t work well this year. Or did it?

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I’ve described this class before but it is one where students have free reign to use my class time and resources to learn and pursue whatever projects they desire. I’ve been pretty intentional in keeping a maker-space approach to this class and most likely it should be labeled an engineering class in terms of what students get to do, but I’ve kept the Physics label for various reasons. If Google has the 80-20 approach, this class is more like 10-90, where 90% of the time is unstructured creative time.

Total freedom is an amazing thing. Except when its not. I received a lot of feedback on my first experiment with this kind of class from other teachers that basically said “that would never work with my students” and “mine need more structure than that.” Well guess what, this year I was the one making these comments. The class started off fine, with our brainstorming sessions and creation of a structure for the course in terms of how we would report what we were doing, but soon I found myself much more in the role of policeman than I would have liked. Many students had a lot of trouble staying dedicated to any kind of project for very long because, and this is painfully obvious to me now, unstructured creative time is self-motivated, self-disciplined time. The nature of this class demands that multiple projects are happening at the same time, often in different locations around the school building (classroom, physics lab, shop, outside) and there is only one of me to be there looking over shoulders at what is happening. If a student doesn’t feel like doing anything on a particular day they don’t have to, but, in all honesty, the occasional day spent goofing around doesn’t bother me. However, when entire weeks, quarters, and even semesters go by with nothing to show for it, that’s when unstructured creative time is clearly not working for that student.

So did I put on the brakes and change the nature of the class? Nope, because not everyone was screwing around.

Some students built a successful duct tape boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mUo4eWEiRk

Another group got very far into building a quadcopter drone before technical challenges got the better of them.

But even with our successes, there were many, MANY, times that I was ready to walk into class with “official” lesson plans. At one point during the second semester I had even gone so far as to dig through my folders of physics worksheets to decide where to begin again with me in total control of what happened in class. But something always held me back. There were just enough students who were thriving with the course format that I felt that I couldn’t yank the rug out from under them.

And that’s how we got the Arduino/Pi Piano project finished, the chemistry mobile built, and the epic Rube Goldberg machine fully operational.

Piano demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8fbXNU01HM
Kool Aid Machine walkthrough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUKQi7Nn5cw

So was it worth it? Does having a few successful projects mean that a student designed course was successful? Did everyone learn something, even through failures and in some cases failure to launch?

These are not just rhetorical questions, as I am teaching the Physics class again this coming school year. I have a couple months this summer to decide whether or not to scrap the student-designed class in favor of a more traditional teacher-led setup. Should my experience with a few unmotivated students be allowed to alter how I run this class? Therein lies my quandary: Physics or Phunsics?

Clearly this is a big “To Be Continued…”

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This rant about learning the facts of evolution will make a lot more sense if you realize that I’m a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian, a member of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I also have degrees in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience and have studied Philosophy of the Biological Sciences at the University of Arizona. You should probably also know that my wife, recently the Moderator of the Presbytery of the West in ECO, graduated with her degree in Physical Anthropology with a minor in Geology before becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament.

Why start off with a pedigree like this? Because I want my readers to know that I can wholeheartedly share information about the fact of evolution in my science classroom without casting one shred of doubt upon my life of faith. I want you to know that my wife has an equally easy time reconciling her job and her faith with the facts of changed and changing species and a changeable Earth. Its possible to “believe” in both religion and science.

Now to the rant: here’s an observation from 15 years of high school science teaching:

The science teachers that I’ve known seem to fall into three general categories (with apologies for pigeonholing people on a very complex issue):

  1. Classroom Evolutionists: Regardless of/in spite of/because of their personal beliefs about God and science, these folks jump in and teach the facts and theories of evolution with the understanding that evolution is a capital-T Theory and as such that means that there is a massive amount of evidence and philosophy of thought that students should engage with when learning about evolution. These are the teachers who routinely point out that there are state and national standards that support, if not require, that students learn about evolution in school.
  2. Equal Timers: These folks think that science teachers should somehow present “both” sides of the “evolution debate” in their classrooms. These teachers show the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in class to prove that there is indeed a debate, and that there are exactly two sides to this issue. These teachers often share alternative sources of information that usually paint the scientific community as “Darwinists” that follow “Darwinism” (which does seem to be a real religion, judging by those bumper stickers of fish with legs).
  3. Conflict Avoiders: These folks recognize that evolution is a central idea in biology, but they just don’t feel that they can accurately teach about evolution without betraying their faith or the faith of their students. For these teachers, evolution is recognized as a state standard, it is listed in the curriculum, but at the end of the year, and often the evolution unit simply does not happen as the school year runs out of time.

I’m not going to argue with the Classroom Evolutionist approach, because that’s my style. I’ve been working on the “Argue from Evidence” skill with my classes even before the NGSS appeared. If students don’t leave my biology class with at least a basic understanding of the multiple lines of evidence that the earth has changed, species have changed, and will continue to change, then I haven’t done my job very well.

I’m not even going to argue with the Equal Timers, because I can’t change their minds. Their religious beliefs are so important to them that any challenge to their perceived precepts is met with denial of the facts. I value and share their faith, but I can’t shut out the results from thousands of years of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe and our place in it.

I am going to take issue with the Conflict Avoiders, however.

Please take the time to get educated about what evolution is and isn’t so you can feel comfortable discussing it with students from a variety of religious (or not) backgrounds. To help you out, here is your summer assignment:

  • Go check out BioLogos to help your students learn that this isn’t a two sided brawl between atheists and Christians.
  • Go read The Language of God by the nearly godlike Francis Collins, Human Genome stud and Director of the NIH.
  • For a little fiber, read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker to get a sense of why atheists love evolution too.

Conflict Avoiders, it is a terrible thing to let time run out on your biology class without having helped students learn the science behind species change, the “descent with modification” that continues in our lives and in all of God’s creatures. You might as well let time run out on your Earth Science class without having discussed the merits of the evidence for the human impact on global climate change.

Science deniers arise when we deny them the chance to learn about these and other core scientific principles. Let’s please not make any more science deniers. There are plenty in the world already.

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I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
 
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

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Last semester I had to say goodbye to a student who had to move out of town with his family. It happens, but its never fun when a student has to pick up and leave in the middle of a school year. This kid, we’ll call him Beathan, was pretty upset about the whole move and not terribly happy about going to a new school in another state. He’d been moved around already before he came to me.

Beathan really liked science. We’re talking about a kid who spent three hours of his school day in my science classroom, so if ever there was a student who liked science, it would be this guy. He was really thriving in my science classes, too, the kind of student who was earning B’s not because he wasn’t super smart, but because he was too busy exploring different aspects of programming or whatnot and couldn’t always be bothered with the more mundane aspects of turning in every assignment. So, a good kid. The kind of student that drives you crazy because they want to know more than you know and push your limits. The kind of student you want to clone because you know they are going to rule the world someday.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, a group of his friends kept in very close touch with Beathan over the past few months and orchestrated a way to get him back to us during his Spring Break. They pooled their money and bought him a plane ticket to Denver, picked him up, and brought him to school with them for the greater part of a week. He mostly followed his old daily schedule, which meant that he spent most of the day bumming around in my classroom.

One day between classes I asked Beathan how his science classes were going at the new school. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:

  • Mr. L: So what are your science classes like?
  • B: Packets. Lots of packets.
  • Mr. L: Packets?
  • B: Packets, as in a reading, then 40 chemistry problems to solve. Then another packet the next day. And the next.
  • Mr L: What about labs?
  • B: Those have packets too.
  • Mr. L: And how about Biology?
  • B: More packets. Except these are about photosynthesis.

-Sigh-

Kids need to learn science concepts. Packets are used to teach science concepts. But when I do a completely unscientific Google Search for “science school work” I don’t see a lot of packet completion going on:

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If I posted my photo library from my classes it would look something like this random collage as well. Is that just because no one wants to photograph kids working on science packets? Are packets just not sexy enough? Of course they aren’t, but, simply put, pictures of kids staring intently at packets is just not what we want to use to represent our science education programs. I can see the advertising campaign slogans now: “Come learn with us at West Terrence Field High School: our packets are the best way to learn science!” Hopefully this Packet Land scenario is not going to happen, except it apparently is, and Beathan is one of its victims.

I wish I could say that packets are a generational thing, and that its only old science teachers like me that use them, and that they’ll eventually go away as the next generation of younger, more flexible teachers arrives on the scene with fresh new ideas. But, then again, judging by the number of hits for the word “packet” on Teachers-Pay-Teachers, the packet is alive and well amongst the digital generation as well.

My hope for students like Beathan is that we science teachers realize that when we only allow students to learn science practices and concepts from us through a narrow window of packets and simulations, we deny them the real nature of science which, as everyone knows, is to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy (via Mrs. Frizzle, as if I need to remind you).

P.S.— Beathan, although I cannot offer you asylum from your Packet Land, I do fervently hope your teachers let you make as much of a mess at your new school as you’ve made here. BTW, we’ve “repurposed” your claymation kit.

On a previous post here at SEE, Aaron Bieniek posted a great series of questions:

“How do you know if the work you are seeing on the blogs actually reflects what that student knows? How do you know the ideas expressed there are not borrowed from someone else? The implication is that unless a student works alone in a controlled “testing” environment – we can’t be sure what that student knows on his/her own. How would you answer that? How much of a role do typical tests play under your system?”

Here are a few thoughts on these questions:

 

How does any teacher know that a student completed their assessments on their own?

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I got interested in having students blog, in part, because I wanted to get away from the piles of worksheets and study guides that I used to assign. I found that with many students, the worksheets (when scored for points in the gradebook) became things to do, and not tools for learning. Many students would copy from their friends and neighbors and the determination of individual learning was difficult without other assessments like tests and quizzes. Nevertheless, I still hear of many teachers who collect homework or other daily assignments and enter those “grades” into the point total for students’ final grade as if they were measurements of individual learning. Maybe they are, maybe not. This issue of “ownership” of learning is not unique to blogs or other online forms of assessment.

 

Aren’t the ideas in a student’s blog post borrowed from someone else?

Yep. Everything is a remix. We should encourage students to take what is known about a topic and remix it in a way that is their own. However, we do want to make sure that students are doing their own work. I try to assign assessments that can be completed using multiple creative tools that allow students to show what they know in a unique way. If everyone is filling in the same GoogleDoc worksheet (which I still do, for some entry level activities) then its less clear who was doing the work. Make those assignments worth less, if you score them at all. If, on the other hand, a student creates a video or other quality online artifact explaining a topic or tackling a problem, then usually you’ve got a pretty good idea of their understanding of that topic. And, more importantly, your discussions with the student as they are producing that complex learning artifact will clue you in as to their level of understanding. Surely we don’t expect novice learners to synthesize brand new complex ideas that no one has ever thought of before? Its a remix of reasonably correct ideas and a demonstration of engagement with a topic that we’re aiming for in our blogs.

 

Since student blogs and portfolios are online, isn’t it easier to copy from another student or other sources?

Maybe, but its also easier to detect plagiarism online. In the same way that a kid can copy/paste from someone else’s work, a teacher can copy/paste a student’s work right back into Google or another plagiarism checker and see if it is their own work. Also, as mentioned above, as an active participant in creating these learning artifacts, the teacher knows which students are engaging the material on their own and who is waiting until the last minute to borrow work from someone else. When in doubt check the blog post dates. Since they have a date and time stamp, blogs have an advantage over paper copies in that the student who posts an assignment to their blog first wins the originality argument in cases of student to student copying. My (thankfully few) students who insist on copying often have several blog posts appear on the same day, usually right before a major deadline or marking period. Painfully obvious. I simply send them a note to remove the offending blog posts and have them redo the assignment(s) on their own.

 

What about traditional forms of testing? Aren’t tests the best way to measure individual students?

It depends on what you are trying to measure. Tests and quizzes are fine for assessing specific content knowledge facts. I still use them to some extent in all of my classes. I found, however, that I often want to make tests that consist of mostly essay questions because I am increasingly convinced that my multiple choice tests were missing a large part of the story of what my students had actually learned. If a student gets a question wrong on a MC test, it doesn’t tell me anything about why they got it wrong or what they did actually know about the topic. I can’t give partial credit for understanding on a MC question. Therefore, logically, if you find yourself giving lots of essay tests, blogs are an obvious outgrowth of that philosophy because you are having students continually write about what they are learning. This is especially true in the more narrative science courses like biology and anatomy. The more math-intensive subjects like chemistry and physics should have more tests since a student has to show their work (and therefore their thought processes) for full credit. Plus, problem solving (math) is way easier to work out on paper compared to a blog post.

 

Why do we want to be sure what a student knows on their own?

I’ll argue that its the second half of that question that matters: on their own. Students do need to understand some basic concepts in order to be able to operate in the more complex and creative areas of my class, I get that. What I want to see, though, is a rich classroom and assessment environment in which students are not on their own but are instead supported in their learning and creating by their peers and by the teacher. I worked in academic science labs long enough to know that real science is done in groups where the experts in an area or a technique will teach others their specialty because of a love of teaching and learning. I would far rather try to figure out what students have learned in a group because that models real life and real scientific exploration.

I do use tests and quizzes, but only rarely, and often as practice or quick check-in quizzes. However, in my best moments, assessment of student learning comes from seeing what they can do in a lab situation or what they can create to show mastery of a topic. Will I be able to be 100% sure of what each student knows? Of course not. I bet no one else can get inside a student’s head either. But by using student blogs and student-curated portfolios of learning, I can see what kind of tasks they attempted as part of my class, what they believe they have learned, and I can attempt to judge their level of performance on those tasks by looking at both the artifact they produced and their reflection on their performance.

Moving away from tests is a conscious choice. I don’t use tests very often, not because they are useless, but because they can’t recreate the kind of performance tasks that I want students to be able to do.

 

-for another take on the role of tests see Joe Bower’s post “How will I know what my students know if I don’t test them?

Like a straight-laced teetotaler at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I am a horrible ambassador for grading reform.  I am possibly the worst person to try to explain how to change someone else’s classroom into a standards-based learning environment because it was never much of a struggle for me. I saw a need to reform my grading practices and I did it. Most of what I read leading up to the changes I’ve made said that it would be a tough and nasty fight, mistakes would be made, and that I should expect resistance from all the different stakeholders in the system. Mistakes have been made, for sure, but I’d call that “learning what works.” The fights and nastiness have never really materialized, save for a few parents of “A students” who were less than thrilled to suddenly have “B students.”

With that said, I now find myself advocating for SBL/SBG and am being mentioned/linked occasionally here and there, including at my own little high school. My principal has asked me, along with 3 other teachers trying various implementations of SBL, to present the topic at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Here’s my problem: how do I go back and put myself in the mindset of someone who is just now hearing about this “new” standards-based learning/grading stuff and make the case that teachers should make sweeping changes to how they assess and grade students? How do I show how awesome standards-based learning can be for them and their students without seeming to preach that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and adopt it now, now, now!?

Its probably going to sound preachy no matter what I do, that’s in the eye of the beholder and can’t really be changed on my end, but I think the message will be better received if I focus on describing my journey rather than telling people how to do SBL in their classroom. After all, a science teacher like me sure isn’t going to know much about what standards an English teacher wants to use in their classroom. Best to stick to the why, and not so much the how.

To my mind there are three “why” questions that keep popping up about SBL that teachers will want to hear about. They are interrelated “whys,” but are indeed separate aspects of the reasons lots of people, myself included, are trying out standards-based learning systems.

Q #1: Why use standards-based learning instead of a points-based system?

A1: Because assessment of learning and Assignment of Grades Should be completely separate.

Assessment of learning lets both you and the student know whether they understand the content knowledge and skills that are needed to master a particular course. Grading, however, is a teacher’s judgement call about the relative location of a student’s performance on some scale of “gradations” that has been established for the purposes of comparison.

If we start from a mindset of assessment of learning, then we have to start from an exploration of the standards and performance indicators for students: What is it that I need to assess? What content and performance standards do students need to demonstrate? How will everyone know that they’ve been successful at meeting these learning targets? The observation of performances of specific learning targets helps focus such a system on assessment of student learning and does not necessarily have to lead to a letter grade.

However, if I start from a mindset of assigning points for each assignment, and those points always go into the gradebook to help me determine a student’s grade, then I am not assessing learning, I am grading, right from the start. There is only one measurement that happens when everything students do is worth points, and it is not measurement of learning. Accumulated points measure assignment completion; they measure compliance. Which is fine, if you believe that teaching compliance is the goal your classroom. However, if you are one of the thousands of teachers struggling to write lesson plans that claim to assess the CCSS and NGSS or CAS or whoever’s “S”, just so you know, “S” is for Standards, and “C” is never for compliance. It should be about the learning.

I tackled this issue a while back by reducing point values to almost nothing, a simple binary grading system of 1’s and 0’s for most assignments. It worked to some extent, in that it minimized the point values given to formative assessments that really had no business being included in a final evaluation of a student’s learning. Most points came from tests and quizzes, which were more appropriate assessments of student learning, but still, the signal to noise ratio was pretty terrible for everyone concerned. If you were getting a 78% in my class back then, you only knew that you had to work “harder” or turn in more stuff to move up to a B. That 78% rating didn’t tell students what they were good at, only that they had turned in or “earned” 78% of the points possible. They might not even have to change a thing about their performance in the class if I curved the grades to make them more “realistic.”

Even with points minimized, my students were still at the mercy of the numbers game, portrayed so well in this pic taken from this awesome resource by Thomas Guskey (via Scott McLeod):

GradingNumbersGame

Short answer to the question: None of these mathematical tweaks is best. No single one is any more fair than the others. They are all horrible at showing exactly what a student did or did not do to earn those numbers. Does your gradebook look like this? Mine did. It annoyed me, so I ditched it completely (and no, you don’t have to–see the first paragraph of this post).

Q #2: Why allow for multiple chances to prove mastery of a standard?

A2: You don’t have to.

Admit it. You hate the idea of retests, reassessments, and grading the same assignment over and over forever and ever until the end of the semester.

But there is no set rule in the (non-existent) SBL playbook that says that you have to give students every chance in the world to pass a test about one of your standards. Nor is there a rule that says you have to give different assessments for the same standard. In fact, there are no rules about the “right” or “wrong” way to do reassessments in SBL.

A rational person will, however, recognize that the goal of a teacher-student relationship should be to demonstrate learning, and if we are talking about a standards-based classroom, then the learning should correlate to particular learning targets. If a student happens to miss the target or fail to provide evidence for learning that standard, wouldn’t the kind thing to do be to give them another shot at it?

Normal (i.e. non-SBL) teachers have a word for this: its called differentiation. Differentiation happens easily in an SBL system, but too often I hear people bashing SBL for its mushy deadlines and hippy-dippy approach to letting students have one more chance to prove themselves. Honestly, if you are really into training students to be compliant with your one-shot tests and strict deadlines, then maybe this whole differentiation thing isn’t exactly for you anyway. (I’d start working on your grading curve now)

Q #3: Why use standards-based portfolios of student learning?

A3: Because communicating standards-based learning in a report card is awful.

One of the noted failings of SBL is how ironically terrible the communication of student achievement can get. Standards-based report cards are notoriously cryptic if short enough for human consumption (STD3.1.1a = P) and horrendously long if written so that anyone other than a curriculum specialist can understand it (Learn and Understand Biology-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models: Biomolecules: Understand the structure and function of important biomolecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins). Furthermore, SBL-based grade reporting usually requires tweaks of existing online gradebook programs and parent info portals, often with confusing and inconsistent results. I’ve seen those kinds of report cards. They are not helpful.

Instead, why not give parents something to see that demonstrates their kids’ achievements in your class. Show them the actual work that demonstrates that their child can analyze data, communicate well, or work in collaborative groups for the betterment of all. Show off your student’s work, sorted by standard. This communicates both your standards and the efforts that students have put in to meet those standards.

Also, portfolios give students a guide to what they need to accomplish while in your classroom. A blank portfolio delivered to them at the beginning of the year is the gauntlet that you throw down to challenge them: “I dare you to fill this in with proof that you can learn how to do all these things.” Its one more tool that helps hand off the burden of learning to the student.

Alt A3: You don’t have to.

Standards-based learning is just that: a system of activities and assessments centered around defined learning goals rather than accumulation of points for a grade. Each and every way that teachers use to keep track of learning by standards will work, even without portfolios. Make a spreadsheet. Use your existing grade book, just change the headers on your columns. Even if you use (gasp) numerical representations of learning, a.k.a points, to keep track of achievement in individual standards, you’re still ahead of where you and your students were back when they were counting up how many points they needed for an A and you were wondering how far to curve the latest exam to make the class average a 75%.

sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

I’ve been tinkering around with the Next Generation Science Standards a lot lately, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about how they line up with my current practice. 15 years of teaching biology has made me rather opinionated about what’s important for students to learn, so its always a good reality check to see where my practice lands in comparison to the “latest research,” which in this case is the NGSS. This post will discuss what I’ve found so far (at least in HS biology), and what we as science teachers can do to make the NGSS useful to ourselves and our students.

First, a warning of sorts. I teach in Colorado, which doesn’t subscribe to the NGSS, at least not yet. The science gurus at the Colorado Department of Education are seemingly content to stick with their latest revision of their science standards, which is relatively new. They are currently busy snuggling up with Pearson to develop online science tests for next year’s senior class, so I doubt there’s much pressure to switch to the NGSS at this point in time. Unfortunately, this means I’ve got two masters to serve, assuming I pay any attention to the NGSS. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this proposal.

NGSS HS Biology overview

Regardless of my state’s stance on the NGSS, I’ve bought into them just enough to give them a good look-through to see what’s new, what’s the same, and what’s missing compared to what I do at the moment.

-New: The NGSS nicely integrates the Science and Engineering Practices into the teaching and learning of biology. If you’ve worked on upgrading your AP Biology curriculum to the latest version, you’re already pretty familiar with what the NGSS is aiming for in terms of science performances by your students. Also “new”: there are several places where “computer simulations” are mentioned along with the emphasis on modeling (the Colorado standards love computer simulations too). What these simulations are and who will sell them to me remains to be seen.

-Same: Most of the key content area knowledge domains are still there in the NGSS (with a few notable exceptions).

-Missing: Enzymes, cell structure, and membrane transport. I know that the writers of NGSS wanted to pare down the amount of stuff we have to teach in order to allow for deeper experiences, but wow, those are topics that have amazing labs that I think are perfect for the kind of science performances that the Practices are aiming at.

In short, the NGSS are a great step forward, but have some gaps that I think we can fill.

Who are the NGSS for?

Here’s the key question going forward with adopting any new set of standards like the NGSS: Who are the standards for? There’s been a lot of discussion of who wrote the NGSS and for what purpose, which are pretty darn good questions. Unlike the Colorado standards, the NGSS don’t appear to be written with specific test items in mind. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be used to develop tests, but the greater potential of the NGSS lies in how teachers will use them to focus more on the practice of science and less on the lame “testable” stuff. As in all thing education-related, its going to be how the NGSS change actual classroom practice that matters. So how will we make use of the NGSS in a valuable way as science educators? First, we need to know what they recommend that we should be teaching and how we should approach that material.

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

In the spirit of thumbing my nose at those companies that want to make money by selling us “NGSS-ready” materials, I propose that we crowdsource a freely-available collection of documents that are aligned to the NGSS and link to resources that we can use in our classrooms. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the niceties of curriculum design and generally hate being pigeonholed into someone else’s formatting, so the stuff I’m proposing as a starting point isn’t going to win any awards with your administrators. Adapt it as you see fit. Its just a beginning.

I had recently developed curriculum docs for the Colorado standards so I did some cross-walking to see where the NGSS matched up to my existing unit structure. This was the result (in public GoogleDocs):

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

    • A checklist for the 8 Science and Engineering Practices for each unit. This could be improved and made more detailed, but for now the simple checklist is a survey of which practices will be demonstrated (often its all 8, but not always).
    • A list of NGSS and Colorado standards for each unit.
    • Essential Questions and Big Ideas for each unit, primarily based on the NAP Frameworks for disciplinary core ideas, but also drawing on my teaching experiences.
    • Activities for each unit, based on what I do now with students, which could certainly be expanded and improved upon.
    • A Correlation Matrix that shows roughly in which units the different standards are encountered, both for NGSS and Colorado standards.
    • A guide for adapting the NGSS practices and topic areas for standards-based learning in biology.

Next steps

Right now the whole folder of goodies is shared publicly so you can at least view what’s there. Feel free to copy anything into your Drive and adapt it as needed. It’d be more fun, of course, if you are willing to share activities and help edit the documents to make them more useful “NGSS-ready” tools for teachers. If you want to help edit the docs, leave a comment here or drop me a note on Twitter and I’ll set your google account as an editor. Or, if you prefer, you can send me links to good activities and labs and I’ll add them to the appropriate units. Thanks in advance for joining me in the strange hobby of curriculum writing!

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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