A return to student portfolios using the New Google Sites

Alas, necessity is the mother/father of invention. With a return to school in the middle of a pandemic, with so much uncertainty about how much in-person time we are going to get together this year, with people coming and going and panicking and chilling, the time seems right to return to using portfolios of student work. But why?

Maybe a better question to answer is: why did I stop using them? I stopped using portfolios because they were more work for less return than I would have liked. Google Sites were clunky and I had to ship out a template portfolio that by nature was pretty generic and I found that since students were doing mostly the same work in each class, every portfolio turned out pretty generic too. Boring to read and tedious to keep up and assess.

But now.

Now we’ve got students staying home. We have students coming into the building. We have students at home and in the building. We are everywhere. We need a place to show off our work that goes everywhere with us. Will Classroom alone work? Of course it will. I can assign, collect, and grade assignments with the best of them and I will. But maybe this year parents and teachers can maybe add a little soul into the experience of online education.

That’s why this summer I’ve been inspired by portfolio users such as Scott Brunner who emailed me based on some of my previous ramblings on this blog (another reason to keep your blog up, folks!). More recently I’ve stumbled across the work of Mike Mohammed, especially this post that I reference in my how-to video linked below.

I’d been looking for a way to replace my lab notebooks that I started using last year, the standard composition-style physical notebook that I really don’t want to touch and have students touch much this year. Portfolios seemed like the way to do it and seeing the work of these gentlemen provided the spark to check things out. The final straw was finding this article by Kasey Bell at Shake Up Learning who invited Mike over for a great guest post. I recommend you read Mike’s original blog and the piece he wrote with Kasey.

The end result was that I stole Mike’s idea for a “Passions” page combined with the Student Portfolio template offered by new Google Sites. I detail the process of making the beginnings of a student portfolio in this vid I shot for my students to use in the next weeks.

We will see how it goes. I know that things will need to change drastically this year, and maybe having one more set of communication tools at our disposal will make a difference. Check back in this space later for updates on our progress and to share your own experiences.

Responding to “Scientific Evidence That Disproves Evolution”

Simpsons Jesus Fish

When I teach my students about the evidence for species change I am often confronted by parents (and students, teachers, and school board members) who want to influence what students will learn. I know that there are people in my community that view the teaching of species change as a threat to their particular brand of Christianity. They may not always confront me face to face, but recently a certain letter was shared with my wife, the local Presbyterian minister. As a geology minor and physical anthropology major in college, she is well qualified to rebut this letter, but she handed it to me and said something like “Why don’t you deal with this?” The letter begins “As far as scientific evidence that disproves evolution, here are a few science absolutes to consider.” As a science teacher who has a solid faith in the Word of God, I have many questions about this document and what it aims to achieve.

What is the purpose of a letter presenting “scientific evidence” against species change?

Before I discuss the specific arguments in this letter, we should first think about why such a letter exists. The letter is addressed to local ministers and youth pastors and aims to provide scientific evidence that these leaders can use to help defend their members against “the claims of naturalistic Darwinian evolution.” The main goal of the letter is to provide “evidence for the existence and activity of our Creator God.” Furthermore, the author of the letter believes that we should defend the Bible against claims that it is “outdated, inaccurate, unscientific, and out of touch with reality.” The writer ends their letter by offering their services to any congregations or individuals who are interested in “nurturing solid faith in the Word of God.” In short, the letter appears to be an attempt to portray belief in the Bible and perhaps God Himself as completely at odds with current scientific theories of biological evolution.

What is “naturalistic Darwinian evolution” according to the author of this letter?

We should also consider the writer of the letter and their use of the phrase “naturalistic Darwinian evolution.” Clearly this phrase is used to represent a belief system that is contrary to that of the author. Knowing what I know of the author, I’m going to assume that “naturalistic” means “without God” or perhaps even “against God.” “Naturalistic” could also mean “random” or “unguided.” “Darwinian” usually refers to Charles Darwin (not Erasmus) in a way that presents his ideas as some sort of alternative theology that replaces God’s central role in Creation (even though Darwin (both of them) credits a Creator). “Evolution” is probably the stickiest word in this phrase. Does the author refer to the fact that species can change over time? Does the author mean to discuss the Big Bang or the origins of life? Unfortunately, the author’s use of the term “evolution” is used as a stand-in for many separate scientific concepts including biological evolution, the origins of life, and the origins of the universe.

What do biologists really mean by the term “evolution?”

Species can change over time. In Charles Darwin’s famous words evolution is “descent with modification.” This is really the only acceptable answer to the question “what do biologists mean by ‘evolution’?” We are not talking about the origin of life or the origin of the universe. Biologists focus on whether or not species can change and adapt to new environments over time. To say that an organism “evolves” is to say that it may have very different features multiple generations from now than it does in the present time. Those features are defined by the particular genetic makeup of individual organisms and how likely those features are to aid or hinder the survival and reproduction each individual. Collectively, those features (traits) that are successful in certain individuals will be increased in frequency within an entire population of that organism. Over time, accumulated changes may allow one population of organisms to become significantly different from a separate population of that organism, giving rise to an event known as speciation. In short, biologists have observed that species can change over time and give rise to new, distinct species.

What evidence is presented against species change?

The letter that was delivered to local churches presents 8 lines of evidence that are said to disprove evolution. Only 4 of these lines of evidence pertain to biological evolution. Three other arguments are aimed at explaining the act of creating the universe and so do not directly address species change. A fourth argument argues against current hypotheses of the origins of life and also does not address species change.

There is considerable overlap between the 4 arguments against species change so that all the arguments can be summarized in the following two statements:

  1. Species change is so complicated that you could never understand it, therefore it does not happen the way they say it does.
  2. New information is required to create new species. There is no new information, therefore no new species can arise.

This letter does not describe any evidence for the hypothesis that species of living organisms cannot change and have not changed since they first appeared upon the Earth, i.e. that species have not evolved. While the arguments presented are therefore only in the negative, they are still worth refuting.

The argument from complexity

One common argument that is often used against modern scientific understandings of phenomena is that Nature is so complex that we could not possibly understand it. The argument from complexity used in this letter appeals to the individual and their experience, knowledge, and their sense of “rightness” of a particular belief. This relies upon the perception that if I don’t experience it or understand how it works, then it does not happen the way that other people describe it. Capital S “Science” in this mindset refers to all the “experts” who have tried to explain the world but have failed or have been wrong multiple times. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

Professing to be wise, they became fools

Romans 1:22

Global climate change is thought by some to be so amazingly complex that we could never understand how humans are affecting the planet. Likewise, there are so many complex biological systems of interacting atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems that some believe that we could not begin to understand how living things work.

But the argument from complexity runs into an unfortunate reality: just because I don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean that no one understands how that system works. In many cases several people have joined together to bounce ideas off of each other through thought and experimentation and have collectively reached conclusions about the most likely mechanisms behind a certain phenomena, for example that diseases are caused by infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. Just because an individual has not personally observed bacteria doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The existence of bacteria as pathogens is not a matter of faith, but it may have seemed that way at first to the general population when their role in disease was first discovered. The argument that Nature is too complex and that we will never understand whether species change or not does not take into account the fact that many thousands of people have made this study their life’s pursuit for the glory of God through understanding His Creation.

Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them.

Psalm 111:2

The argument about biological information

Let’s be clear from the start that this argument is based on incomplete or false understandings of what DNA is, how it can be changed, and what the results of those changes are. DNA studies in the last few decades provide perhaps the strongest proofs of species change and so have been rightly targeted for dismissal by those who would argue against biological evolution. But do their claims stand up to the evidence?

The most erroneous claim made by the author of this letter is that mutations are “part of the entropy we observe in the genome” and that “mutations are always negative.” The letter goes so far as to say “positive mutations are a myth.” Before fixing those misconceptions, let me first try to understand the views of the author of this letter. I believe that a summary of their ideas might go something like this:

  1. DNA does exist and it provides information to cells and organisms in a total package called a genome.
  2. Mutations exist and are changes to the original DNA information.
  3. DNA is “ridiculously complex” (see the discussion above) and existing genomes could only have come about through Intelligent Design.
  4. Therefore, any change to the DNA (mutation) is a deviation from the Design and therefore mutations “only mess up already existing information.”

First of all, there is no proof one way or another that God designed each and every genome of every individual creature on the planet. Proof of such intervention is impossible because issues of causation by God are in the realm of belief and not open to scientific investigation. It is possible, however, to believe that God uses mutation of DNA as a mechanism of Creation of new species, but again, this is a belief, not a statement of scientific fact.

It is a scientific fact, however, that DNA can easily be changed, even over the lifetime of an individual organism or indeed individual cells. Our modern understanding of cancer biology is built upon the foundation that environmental damage to DNA can cause changes in the information found in certain cells that cause them to divide inappropriately. Cancer biology is certainly an area where the author of the letter and I will agree that DNA information can be “messed up.”

But what about DNA changes from generation to generation? Does the author of the letter mean to say that since we are different from our parents we therefore are less human, as we have inherited some slight differences in our DNA from that of their parents (although most differences are the result of recombination of the parental genes)? Are Adam and Eve the only true humans and everyone since has somehow polluted the original DNA? What about people of different races? Whose DNA is the stuff that God designed? I’m pretty sure I don’t like where that line of argument will end up.

Let’s instead look at a case where mutations have been documented in humans, and beneficial ones at that. Can you drink milk? Or are you lactose-intolerant? Technically, the term should be lactase-persistent because nearly every human can drink milk as an infant. So why can some people drink milk as an adult and others can’t? A mutation. Studies have shown that multiple human populations who live in close proximity to dairy animals have independently developed mutations that allow milk to be digested as a major source of nutrition. Current estimates are that only about 35% of adult humans on the planet carry this type of mutation. Is this ability to drink milk “new information?” Are these 35% of humans a new species or are they a polluted offshoot of the true human line? The author of the letter makes a bizarre statement that relates to beneficial mutations like these that reads as follows:

“There are a small percentage of mutations that are admittingly “beneficial”, but not “positive”. Beneficial in that loosing, an enzyme, or trait occasionally adds to the fitness of the organism, but it is technically a loss of information, not a gain, therefore not a “positive” mutation (one that adds new information to the code). Positive mutations are a myth. Mutations are always negative.”

-from the letter to pastors

It will help the conversation at this point if we examine what the DNA code is and what might constitute “new information.” As the letter reminds us, DNA is made of 4 digits, called bases, that come in the flavors of A, T, G, and C, to use their symbolic abbreviations. These 4 bases are joined together in a linear sequence of bases that run up and down the middle of a molecule that looks like a twisted staircase, the famous double-helix. It is the order, or sequence, of bases in DNA that provides the information to each cell as to how to build correct proteins for each job that needs to be done. Each three bases in a row create what is known as a codon that codes for which amino acid needs to be inserted into a new protein. For example, the DNA sequence that reads CACGTGAAATGT might look like so much nonsense to us, but a cell at work will use it to build a protein that begins with Histidine-Valine-Lysine-Cysteine amino acids in that order.

What then constitutes “new information?” Since the sequence of bases in DNA directly determines the order of amino acids in the resulting protein, a change (mutation) in the sequence of bases results in a change in the information used to build a protein. Therefore, every mutation is new information. Does every mutation change the DNA information in a meaningful way? No. Some mutations are silent due to the fact that some changes (like CCT to CCG) result in no difference to the protein produced (both code for Proline). Some mutations are quite noticeable however, especially if the chemistry of the protein produced causes it to take on a wildly different shape in its finished form. Such changes have been observed in regulatory proteins that control when lactase enzyme is produced and also in diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

This discussion hasn’t even scratched the surface of how the information in DNA can be changed via massive interventions from viruses and chromosomal rearrangements and duplication. Single base changes (point mutations) are not the only major changes happening to the information stored in DNA. And what if all of these changes occur in cells of the germ line that are used to make new babies? Those babies will be different than their parents. Through multiple generations over time with accumulating changes to the information in DNA eventually there will come a point at which the resulting proteins function so differently in vastly different combinations than before that the resulting organism is different enough from its original ancestors as to be considered a member of a new species.

What if species really do change?

What happens when my students study biology and find that the massive weight of evidence from astronomy, geology, fossils, comparative anatomy, vestigial structures, embryology, DNA, and biochemistry indicates that the earth has changed in measurable ways and that all life has changed over billions of years along with the changing surface of the planet?

The author of this letter and I have the same goal: to bring people to begin to know and understand Jesus Christ and the God of all Creation. I have an additional goal as a science teacher, and that is to encourage students to develop scientific habits of mind. In particular I want students be able to collect and analyze data and, most importantly, I want them to be able to change their minds when presented with new evidence. However, a student’s faith journey and their acquisition of a scientific mindset are usually very disconnected.

A trivial fix would be to never teach “controversial” topics in a biology class, and therefore never expose students to these ideas. That would shield them for the moment from observations that show that species do change over time. This is the approach often taken by home-schooling parents and some teachers at both private and public schools. However, willful, planned ignorance regarding certain scientific observations is contrary to the mission of a science teacher and so that is not an option in my biology courses.

I could do as some suggest and “teach the controversy” or “teach both sides.” Certainly this approach has appealed to some school systems around the country who have tried to legislate the teaching of “Creationist” ideas alongside those of the “Darwinists.” But this is a false equivalence. Only one of these two supposedly antagonistic schools of thought has any scientific data to support its claims, namely that species have changed and continue to change in response to environmental variables. A science classroom should be a place where data is collected and analyzed. Philosophical topics that are not testable such as God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and True Love belong in philosophy or religion classes that are equally valid educational experiences for our students.

When my biology students investigate these issues, they are faced with two scientifically testable possibilities that are mutually exclusive: either species of living organisms can change and have changed over time in response to changing environmental conditions OR species of living organisms cannot change and have not changed since they first appeared upon the Earth. Any other discussion of Who created them or how is outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

How to lose a Christian

The way to destroy belief in Christ and in God the Creator is to convince someone that if they accept that species of living organisms can change and have changed over time then they cannot believe in God, the authority of the Bible, and in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. The most obvious goal of the letter that my wife received is to refute every scientific argument that might support species change. But what if a student sees through some of the fallacies and outright inaccuracies present in these so-called scientific arguments? What if they learn that species do change?

Christians who rely upon anti-evolution arguments to help people believe run the risk of alienating all future students if their arguments are not based in actual science. Anyone who learns the basic facts about how mutations and chromosomal rearrangements occur will raise their eyebrows about an argument that says that all mutations will have negative consequences. If a student studies about the rise of lactase persistence in certain populations they will learn that drinking milk in adulthood is “new information” in terms of human DNA sequences. How many scientific facts will it take to break their faith? Consider the following quote from conservative writer Michael Gerson

“…they (Evangelicals) made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.”

Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation”

It would be better by far to encourage students to engage with the scientific community, read peer-reviewed research, analyze data for themselves, and to treat that scientific knowledge gained as a way of understanding God’s Creation. What is taught in Bible Study, Church, Sunday School, and Youth Group should not set students up to have to choose between their faith and an understanding of how God’s Creation works as experienced through their science classes at school.


For a much more thorough discussion of some of the arguments presented above and for inspiration for how to integrate the teaching of science and the practice of faith I will direct you to these texts:

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Assessment Portfolios: A Retrospective

Looking back, or is it forward?

In commenting on another post on this blog, Abigail Pierson asks an excellent question:

It’s been almost three years now. Are you still using this (portfolio) format? Can you comment on what you have learned since this original post?

Sure! And thanks for helping me dust off the keyboard to do some writing after a long break.

The short answer: no

I am currently not using the student blog and portfolio system for a number of reasons that I will detail in a moment. Before hitting the bad news, however, I would first like to comment on what worked well while using student blogs and assessment portfolios.

+Student blogs express identity

One positive side of using individual student blog sites such as WordPress or Blogger (and perhaps especially Tumblr) for posting daily work was that some students were able to let their personalities shine out in their own online space. The way in which their site was decorated, formatted, and in some cases animated were all pretty unique, at least if the student cared enough about their site to put in the time to make it so. I learned about student interests and passions just from the way they decorated their portfolios and especially their blogs.

+Student blogs and portfolios are a portable record of learning

Another positive was that the online blogs and portfolios provided continuity from year to year as long as the blog and/or portfolio site remained alive on the Internet. Some students reported going off to college and accessing their blogs there as notes for a similar class that they were taking at the next level. Some blog posts became source material for learning in future iterations of a class where I could send students to a particularly well-written student blog post on a difficult topic. Several student artifacts from those years still show up in Google searches for certain course topics. Also, some students were able to link their blogs/portfolios in various scholarship and college applications and I included blog links in several letters of recommendation.

+Student blogs and portfolios reach a wide audience

With our blogs and assessment portfolios being online, students usually understood that somebody “out there” could be reading their work. Granted, this freaked some kids out, but in general it was a positive motivator and contributed to some uptick in quality of writing when I could remind students that I wasn’t the only one watching. We were even able to coordinate a blog exchange or two with other classrooms which lead to the certainty that other people were interested in our work. One of the biggest motivators for students was me reminding them that their portfolio might be used by the local junior college to help determine whether they deserved concurrent college credit or not (which turned out to not be true, but more about that in a bit).

+Student blogs allow students to practice writing

On several occasions in the time period during which I was using student blogs, I was complimented by my administrators for the degree to which I was supporting the mission of the school by having students practice their writing in a class other than Language Arts. Some blog posts could be the equivalent of a short essay, and students were doing at least one or two per week.

Why did I stop using assessment portfolios?

I mentioned that I stopped doing things in this way. What follows is a discussion of the reasons that I stopped using my system of online assessment portfolios and returned to a much more traditional form of grading.

-Blog content was nearly exactly the same from student to student

The individuality and creativity possible with blogs was only skin (theme?) deep. Sure, students decorated their sites to their liking, but the work posted to their blogs was very uniform and almost entirely directed by the instructor. This is, of course, due to the nature of the assignments that I was asking them to post to their blogs, most of which were delivered via Google Doc and involved short explorations, webquests, or lab reports. This led to uniformity across blogs where students were really not using their blog to follow their own interests, but instead were using the blog as a place to turn in their latest Google Doc. Most teachers would agree that Google Classroom and Schoology can manage student assignments much easier than blogs if you are generally giving the same assignment to everyone at once. The whole idea of blogs as a place for students to share their personalized learning journey simply turned out to be not so personalized.

-Easy access to student blogs led to rampant copying of student work

The strength of online blogs is also its weakness: everyone can see your work. The student who publishes first usually has thought about the assignment and “done the work” but what about the kid who wants to just be done and turn it in? It’s all too easy to find the first student’s blog and “borrow” what they need. I even had a few painful conversations with students (and their families) after they plagiarized entire portfolio pages of other students. The combo of having the same assignments across course sections and publicly available blog posts was a real pain to police for plagiarism.


Unsurprisingly, blogs and portfolios take a longer time to write and grade than simply collecting assignments into a gradebook. Students had to produce a piece of work, say a lab report, then they had to link and describe the report on their blog followed by the additional step of linking the resulting blog post on multiple standards-based pages of the portfolio. This eats up a ton of class time, especially when you have to assume that your students have only spotty Internet access at home. On the teacher side of things, evaluating the portfolios added another layer of complexity that went far beyond what a simple online gradebook calculation could do. Powerful perhaps, but time-consuming.

-Lack of buy-in from outside the classroom

I’ve written about this issue before (as have others), but the ultimate demise of this assessment system was its failure to be supported outside of my classroom. I presented this system at a national level (NSTA) to a great crowd and many hundreds of other educators have stumbled across this blog and some of my ramblings on Twitter back when that was a thing. But the two audiences that matter, my administration and the local junior college concurrent credit gurus, never really cared for the portfolio system. It was too complex and too different from their normal way of determining grades. It could be that my particular way of going about it was garbage, but I was never encouraged to pursue the use of portfolios and in some cases I believe I was actively discouraged from doing so. Couple that with the problems of duplicate (often boring) blog content, plagiarism, and the time commitment mentioned above and I was getting a pretty clear message that the benefits did not outweigh the cost of doing assessment differently than others at my school.

The future?

It is entirely possible that I may someday pick up where I left off with my experiments with portfolios. I still believe that they are one of the best ways to document and share performances of the science practices. Some of the plagiarism problems might be handled by sending part or all of the portfolio through TurnItIn.com or another plagiarism checker. Maybe I could find ways to help students make the blogs more reflective rather than simply act as a digital locker. I think that there may one day be an initiative by a state entity or school district that might require at least a few student artifacts be turned in for analysis. It’s worth continuing to think about what that kind of assessment portfolio system would look like at a scale much larger than a single classroom.

Exciting times

The title of this post is quite literal, I assure you. A lot has transpired since the last post here. You can go back and read it if you like but it comes across as kind of whiny. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I’m doing a Harrison Ford with that post in that I wrote it but I don’t necessarily want to see it again.

The important bits that you need to know about what has gone before involve a rather tense meeting of most of our school leaders including department chairs, principal, and superintendent. At said meeting about this years’ Master Schedule of course offerings I was roundly criticized for being unwilling to teach an unspecified junior high elective (which, for the record, turned out to be Plants and Animals of Colorado, with “teacher developed curriculum” and no I’m not teaching it). I was also dragged across the coals for daring to suggest that AP Biology has precedence over lower level course offerings, since students plan their 4 yrs of coursework to get to that pinnacle point of difficulty and achievement.

I had to explain to everyone what AP stood for and why they should care. It was rough. Most people in the meeting got on board and said that AP Bio is cool, but the numbers of students requesting it (10 at the time, which is an excellent size for my small school) nearly doomed it in some people’s minds. So we compromised.

I am teaching AP Bio this year, fortunately. Unfortunately it’s during the same time as my Anatomy and Physiology class. Yep, I have my two most lecture-heavy lab-heavy preps the same hour.

Why, you ask? It was either that or no APBio. Brutal choice, but that’s the corner I was backed into over the summer. Exciting, yes?

Those of you that have taught for a while will recognize the tone of frustration that arises from having your own personal bubble of who you thought you were as a teacher suddenly popped. Mostly that’s because I am now an earth science teacher in addition to my former life of biology, anatomy, APBio, and engineering teacher. That was the compromise. Teach earth science=save APBio.

So far it’s going about as well as you might expect for someone managing 6 different preps, 2 the same hour, with one completely new prep outside his area of expertise.

In other words, I have to change what I do. New learning. Scrambling for lesson plans. I forgot what this feels like. Interesting?


The Numbers

There are two words that chap my hide this time of year: Master Schedule. At least around my neighborhood, this is the time of year that we teachers wait with bated breath to see what sort of teaching assignments we will pull for next year. In a big school I imagine that this is a pretty boring process when teachers teach roughly the same preps from year to year. But in my little science department it can get quite interesting. We happy few are called upon to cater to the shifting demands of students, parents, and administrators as to which courses we should offer from year to year.

<rant>Unfortunately, hardly anyone else in the building outside my 3-person department has any clue what good science education looks like. To me good science education in a rural school like ours means spiraling curriculum that teaches basic science literacy in Earth, Physical, and Biological sciences. On top of this bare minimum graduation requirement we should add pathways into deep study of Chemistry and Biology for students whose interests will take them into science- and health-related careers.

Sadly, we are currently being attacked with “the numbers.” The numbers of student requests for courses are being used to say that we can’t offer College Chemistry, our capstone of Chemistry education. 7 students wont be able to take it now. The numbers say we can’t offer AP Biology, our capstone of Biology education. 8 students won’t be able to take it now.

The numbers say that one of our high school teachers has to teach a made-up junior high class with no title, no curriculum, and no supplies. A teacher with a Masters degree will be babysitting instead. </rant>

I meet with admin today to try to fix this mess.

Wish me luck friends.

Back to Basics


It’s not easy to admit, but I’ve made things too complicated.

I hit this difficult realization over the summer and I have been trying to deal with it during this school year. First I pared down the number of websites that students needed to manage by ditching the separate student portfolio site and blog and combined those by using Seesaw. That made our workflow a lot more streamlined and students and I are benefiting from having fewer sites to manage.

I also turned my attention to streamlining my grading and reporting system. What aspects of my standards-based system was I using well?  What was useful for parents and students?

I came to this depressing startling conclusion: no one in my school really cared about standards-based grades except me. One of the only other teachers in my building to use standards-based grading had the same exact realization: standards-based grading was way more work for us and no one expected us to do the level of work we were doing, so why were we? Both of us are currently in the process of ditching standards-based grades.

In part, I blame my use of Seesaw for bringing attention to the fact that no one was using my standards-based grades in any meaningful way. Seesaw has a great skills-based grading module for keeping track of whatever you want to keep track of, but students do not see teachers’ ratings. Therefore the SBG in Seesaw does not function as student feedback. At best the color-coded standards-based scores are something to share at parent conferences or for teacher-only use in determining student progress and final grades. After a few months of using Seesaw and no one asking me about their standards-based grade, I stopped using the standards module.

Through this and other channels, I got a clear message that students and parents didn’t want to see standards-based grades, at least as I was presenting them. Parents (including me) are happy with simply knowing if their kid is doing what they need to be doing, and right now in my District that expectation is met by letter grades and assignment completion tallies in an online gradebook. A separate, novel grading system sorted by learning targets was definitely outside of District norms and therefore was confusing, no matter how well thought-out or documented it was.

l was also under some serious pressure to be “normal” in my concurrent credit courses. I teach college-level biology and anatomy courses for college credit and I need to have my syllabus reviewed by the local junior college to see that I’m teaching the same topics as the college professors teaching the same course. This syllabus vetting also includes the section on grading procedures and there we were at a serious disconnect as long as I was using SBG. I think that for the past few years the science department chair at the college humored my system, perhaps in part because the portfolios we were using showed exactly what we were doing and he could judge their quality. In the last two years, though, the college has been under review by the Higher Learning Commission and their concurrent credit courses have been under a lot of scrutiny. Recently, I was more or less told by the college folks that my grading system had a lot of padding from standards like Experimental Design and Arguing from Evidence and that I should have far more weight on tests and quizzes to match the college courses. It’s certainly true that most college classes bounce from chapter test to chapter test, including my own Pathophysiology class that I’ve taught there in the past.

Almost every major group of people to which I am answerable as a teacher was displeased with or at least indifferent to my use of standards-based grades.  Admin didn’t really care as long as I could explain my system to parents and as long as I posted a weekly letter grade for sports eligibility. Parents were largely ambivalent about SBG but I did hear rumors of and participated in a few nasty conversations. I think students experienced my SBG as an overly-complicated system that made them do more work than other classes. Some staff of the college that certifies my classes as concurrent-credit were not fans of SBG. Probably the only constituency that was supporting me in using SBG was the far more distant Edu-Twitter and Edu-blogger intellectual community that had inspired me in the first place.

In some ways it is very liberating to go back to a simple grading system that involves accumulating points towards a letter grade. These days I tend to grade formative learning activities for completion and let summative assessments like tests and essays carry the weight of the points towards the final grade. But yeah, I’m back to using points to calculate a grade like most everyone else.

I haven’t abandoned all my ideals. I still leave comments on student work and allow for corrections to be made based on those comments. I still have very flexible due dates and believe that students learn at different rates. I still try to allow student choice in their work products and I still hate rubrics for grading those products.

To those fans of SBG who stop by this blog for hints and inspiration: sorry y’all, but I’m going to be a lot more traditional for a while at least.

To those of you in teacher-prep programs or new to teaching I’ll say this: you should use a standards-based mindset in all that you do. Learn about (or write) the standards that your students are expected to be able to know and to do. Design activities and assessments to teach and measure those standards. Just because you work like I do in a system of points and oh-so-important letter grades doesn’t mean there isn’t some way to sneak assessment of your standards into how that final grade is determined.



Seeing Seesaw Journals in Action

As I mentioned in my last post, I’d grown dissatisfied with my Google Sites portfolio system for documenting student learning and was looking to try out something new. That new thing is Seesaw and so far I’m pretty happy with the switch. This post will try to set out some of my current thinking around why I switched and what is working better (or worse) with the new system.

In past years, my high school science students would create personal blogs at free sites like WordPress and Google Blogger, publish the results of their learning activities in blog posts, then collect links to their work into a standards-based assessment portfolio in Google Sites. Everything students did was visible online and families could subscribe to their blog feed to follow what students were producing for class. On the teacher side of things, I would subscribe to every student blog using an RSS feed reader, read and evaluate blog posts, and respond to students with (hopefully constructive) comments using a grading spreadsheet that I developed.

At some point in time last school year, I decided that maintaining the portfolio Sites felt like an extra chore on top of the work that students were already doing by posting to their blogs. In fact, many students said exactly that, sometimes even to my face. Also, the self-reflection that I thought the portfolios would bring was not really happening, at least not for most students. My intention was for students to review their blog posts to see which work met certain standards, but far too often I found myself merely commanding students as to which blog posts needed to be on certain portfolio pages.

The grading spreadsheets I built and maintained for every student certainly felt like an extra chore for myself as well. I would give reasonably detailed feedback on most every piece of work, yet sometimes even in our 3rd or 4th quarter of school I would have students be surprised that they had a grading document. In other words, many students never saw (or paid attention to) the shared grading doc with comments for improvement.

These minor and not-so-minor annoyances led me to look for some other system that could:

  • publish student work online for a wide audience, including the teacher (me) and parents/families
  • facilitate standards-based assessment and reporting
  • be compatible or native to mobile devices (have a suitable web version or app)
  • allow for improvement/editing of published work
  • minimize the number of different services and sites that each student has to manage

With these criteria in mind, I was essentially looking for a blog-like service with standards-based portfolio properties to it. I remembered reading about Seesaw portfolios a while back and thought that that service might match up pretty well.

Why hadn’t I tried Seesaw before now? Honestly, when I first encountered their service I was put off a bit by their strong focus on marketing to the elementary school level. My first impression was that the teacher was in charge of documenting stuff that students made and that wasn’t where I wanted to be with my very independent high school learners with their fancy personalized blogs.

I have tried it out this year, though. In fact, I went all-in with every class at once switching over to using Seesaw from the start of this school year. Common wisdom would be to try it with one class, but I figured if I liked it, I would be switching everyone over midyear, which would be annoying.

Here is the current workflow for students and I using Seesaw’s Journal:

  1. Students carry out experiments and other learning activities in class and online (the majority of lab guidelines and activities are shared with students via Schoology.com).
  2. Students create published versions of Google Docs, slideshows, online concept maps, etc. to document their labs and other learning.
  3. Links to the public version of their work are posted in their Seesaw Journal using either the web-based version or the mobile app.
  4. The Journal entry sits in Seesaw awaiting my “approval” (their words, not mine). I get notifications for these “in limbo” entries.
  5. When I find time to grade, I call up Seesaw’s list of unapproved Journal entries.
  6. I click on a student’s submitted work, which pops up in a separate tab.
  7. I review their work.
  8. I add comments on the work directly into our school’s online grade book (Infinite Campus) so they are visible to students and parents. I also assign Complete-Partial-Rework ratings as published by Paul Strode in https://mrdrscienceteacher.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/my-classes-are-pointless/
  9. I click back into the Seesaw tab in my browser and use their “tag skills” function to mark the major skill standards that I see in evidence in that particular Journal entry.
  10. I approve the work and it becomes a part of their Journal.

Here we hit one of the major differences between the student blogs and Seesaw: student work is not immediately shared to the entire Internet. Only that student’s teacher, families (via a special access code or teacher permission), and fellow students can see Journal posts. There is an option to add Journal posts to an open class-wide blog, but I haven’t set up the public blogs yet.

One other clear difference from using blogs is the degree of teacher control. As their advertising indicates, in Seesaw the teacher can do nearly all the work of adding items to the Journal and as such Journal posts live inside a space controlled primarily by the teacher. One of my philosophical reasons for choosing blogs initially was that the blog could travel with the student, especially a WordPress blog that they could keep with them even after graduation. I suspect that some students might miss that functionality, and indeed I have a few older students that are keeping a blog and posting their blog links into Seesaw.

There are a few minor annoyances that I’ve picked up on, but by no means are they deal-breakers. For example, Seesaw seems to expect me to nearly instantly approve student Journal entries and will send me a reminder email if I leave an entry unapproved for more than a day or two. The app sends out notifications and emails for a weekly review of each class that I find unnecessary, but there’s probably a toggle somewhere to turn that off.

My biggest complaint of Seesaw is that the Google Drive integration can sometimes get in the way. Usually we build Google stuff then make it public or “publish to the web” which gives us docs and slideshows that look pretty sexy online and as students edit them they automatically update.  Seesaw has an annoying habit of noticing that our links come from Google and offers to convert our links into pdf files, which are not nearly as friendly. I have to train students to click “continue” rather than the tempting blue button on the left.

I totally understand why this pdf publication setup works for younger kids who don’t know how to mess with sharing or publication settings in Google Drive, but it does get in the way. If a student uploads a Doc as a pdf then makes changes, they have to upload a new version to the Journal and then there could be at least two versions of the same assignment posted to their Journal, which complicates things if the teacher is trying to use the Skills standards-based grading module.

The Skills module is an optional service that also happens to be a paid add-on. I’m using the trial version so far, but I’m betting that I’ll want to keep it around, even at the price of $120 per year. I set up my 7 major performance skills across all my classes and can tag each Journal entry when I see each skill on display. I can rate a Journal entry from 1 to 4 stars per standard and Seesaw will give me a color-coded display of each student’s most current performance and how many times I’ve observed a certain skill.

The downside to this lovely system of color-coded standards-based feedback is that students do not see it. I might be able to share an individual student’s chart of standards for face-to-face conferences about final grades, but otherwise this is just a tool for teachers and not a means of feedback to students. It would also be nice to be able to change how the color-coding is determined, i.e. set it based on the last measurement or as an average of scores for the standard.

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with Seesaw and it certainly has streamlined my courses to some extent. We use just three major online services for instruction and feedback, namely Schoology, Google Apps, and Seesaw, all of which have mobile apps for those students without computers and/or wifi at home. Seesaw also features a Seesaw Family app so that parents and others can observe and comment on student work. We are in the very early days of implementation, but I’ve had several parents sign on and several more indicated interest at our parent conferences last week. I’m interested to see what happens going forward once more parents get involved.

The harsh reality of portfolio-based assessment

My use of portfolios for assessment and grading is not going well. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve implemented portfolios quite well, from a technological standpoint. Google Sites may not be pretty but I’ve managed to tweak them into an assessment portfolio system over the last several years and I’ve accumulated many examples of portfolios filled with excellent student work. But a separate Google Site portfolio in addition to a personal blog for each student is starting to feel like just another website to manage and the self-analysis that I thought portfolios would bring has not materialized, at least not for most students. I even went so far this past school year to discontinue using the portfolios in my “regular” biology sections although I continued to use them in my college-level courses like anatomy and college biology.

Before I deconstruct the failings of my current system, let me review what I hoped to achieve with building a standards-based system that uses blogs and portfolios to share, assess, and measure student learning:

Goals of my standards-based portfolio system:

  1. Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.
  2. Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.
  3. Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.
  4. Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.
  5. Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.
  6. A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.
  7. Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

Let’s see how these goals have panned out:

Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.

This is happening, or at least the possibility of it happening exists because everything is posted online. Certainly parent conferences are strengthened greatly by being able to easily get student work into parents hands. As for a wider audience, however, most students do just enough to get by and truly exceptional learning artifacts that explain a topic well enough to get lots of views are rare. We’ve had a few notable exceptions and a blog exchange or two, but largely the audience for student work seems to mostly just be me.

Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.

This is also happening, given the online nature of blogs. However, students don’t use very many tools. Google Docs/Slides are all over the place and we take a lot of pictures and video of labs and such, but I don’t see a lot of creative photo editing or captioning and video post-production is minimal. We’ve gotten Snapchat involved in some instances, but that’s about it. The non-tech side of things usually just involves taking pics of a study guide or drawing or perhaps the occasional model of a cell or muscle fiber. Its fair to say that students don’t generally seek out new creative tools that they are not already familiar with.

Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.


I like to think that this is true, since the portfolio comes to students pre-populated with a list of content and skill standards with a description of each. There are only 7 major standards, and the portfolio more or less puts them right in students’ faces, including the major subject area topics. As for figuring out how to achieve a high grade in the class, that’s far less obvious and much more experiential as each student and I have a dialogue about the quality of their work in the portfolio. There is a ton a flexibility in using portfolios, which is awesome from a philosophical standpoint, but explaining that flexibility to students in terms of concrete requirements for certain grade levels (A, B, C, etc.) is difficult. It is especially fun at the beginning of the school year when the body of work in the portfolio is tiny and grades usually are simply pass-fail or rarely go higher than a B. Students that consider themselves “A” students often freak out and ask what they can do to improve, when in reality they only have an artifact or two per standard to show off and I’m not ready to make a measurement based on so little data.

Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.

This is working well. Blogs are the meat and potatoes of the system and students around the school have come to expect to “do blogs in Ludwig’s class” even if they are not initially sure what that means. Blogs are relatively easy to set up and maintain, although I’ve seen some students struggle with remembering their logins. The time stamps are useful in parent conferences, especially where allegations of cheating have arisen. Its very easy to see who published content first if someone later borrows bits and pieces for themselves.

Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.

This is not working well in most cases. Although some students have rocked the portfolio as a tool for self-analysis of their work, many students struggle with how to characterize and sort their work based on the standards that I’ve posted. After a semester or sometimes even after 3rd Quarter I’ll still have some students who need to be told exactly where to put links to their different work samples. A large majority of students take a link to a piece of work and put it on lots of portfolio pages even if the work doesn’t demonstrate the standards on those pages. Blog posts without graphs will end up under Data Visualization and simple content-area worksheets will find their way to Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations. The Self-Analysis page of the portfolio invariably generates comments like “I need to not procrastinate” which is definitely true but is also a lower bar than describing exactly which content you don’t understand. I have the sense that the portfolio is an afterthought for most students who don’t work on it until final grades are due and so the reflection that goes into it suffers from the speed at which it is thrown together.

A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.

This is working well. It is very easy to look at a student’s portfolio page such as Data Collection and see every graph and data table that they’ve ever done for the class rather than combing through the chronological record of blog posts trying to identify which posts have graphs in them. From a purely quantitative standpoint, its obvious on a given portfolio page how many times the student has addressed a particular standard, assuming their self-assessment of each post isn’t too far off. Portfolios have made it easier to assess and to grade by standard. In the biology courses this past year that I did not use portfolios, I found it much harder to quantify some of the performance standards based solely on the blog posts.

Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.


Yes, portfolios can deliver a lot of information about how I run my classes, but who is looking at them? Probably only the student and I are viewing any given portfolio, and sometimes not even they are interested in what the portfolio can show. In many cases the portfolio is simply “one more thing” for a student to do that “duplicates” what goes on with the blog. Its this kind of feedback from students that the portfolio was just “one more site to manage” that led me to scale back which courses use portfolios. If no one is looking, why bust our butts to create and maintain a nearly duplicate site of student work samples?

Future directions:

The “harsh reality” of the state of assessment portfolios isn’t too dreadful, but I have a sense that portfolio-based assessment could be going a lot better than it is in my hands. The goal of assessment of individual skill and content standards still remains, but the medium in which the information is collected needs some tweaking.

Google Sites are relatively clunky but do the job of collecting work samples as long as you have a laptop in front of you. But as students go increasingly more mobile I’m thinking of trying out SeeSaw as a replacement for the portfolio, and perhaps the blogs as well. It looks like SeeSaw will let students collect a variety of work samples into their SeeSaw portfolio using mobile and laptop devices and, for a fee, it will let me tag and evaluate student work by standard.

Simplifying down to two major platforms (Schoology and SeeSaw) from three (Schoology, Blog, and Portfolio Site) is a step in the right direction, although I’m concerned about students losing access to their work at the end of a school year if they don’t control their own personal blog. SeeSaw looks to be primarily aimed at a younger generation of kids than my high school bunch and is appropriately more teacher-centered, but a lot of the fundamentals are there: collection of learning artifacts, assessment by topic and performance standard, and publication to parents and others for accountability purposes and sharing of created resources. I’ll be curious to see whether the lack of student control of their own individual sites is a real problem in SeeSaw or if it actually creates better structure and accountability for my students and myself.

Accept or Deny: A March for Science Story

Like many of my fellow educator-scientists, yesterday I had the honor and privilege of joining a March for Science. Since I live in a small town in the middle of “what mountains? they told me there would be mountains!” Colorado, I had to travel to Denver to join up with the big city folks and their March. 

Bright and early yesterday morning, I packed up my daughter and her friend (both currently my biology students) and we hit the road for the 2 1/2 hour drive through the moonscape that is eastern Colorado. We were rewarded for our efforts with a pretty steady sprinkle of rain the entire drive, which is a blessing in these parched high plains. 

We decided to take the RTD commuter train from near the airport, so I suppose we did our part in using public transportation on Earth Day, but mostly I didn’t want to try to fight thousands of people for parking downtown.  A smooth 1/2 hr later we pulled into Denver’s Union Station at which point we headed down the 16th Street Mall towards the Capitol. 

While on the ride in, I’d felt a little self-conscious about carrying a big sign on a stick, but once we hit the Mall we fell in with lots of other sign-carriers of all ages who were heading in the same direction. 

Our timing was spot on and we managed to cross paths with the March just as it got underway. 

We joined in the March and headed towards the Capitol plaza where the size of the crowd really became apparent. 

We stopped by several tents set up for the “teach-in” on the Capitol grounds and got to see some fun demos with Tesla coils, liquid nitrogen, and the classic crush-a-can with air pressure. We were surprised at the heavy presence of secular humanist organizations and wondered where the religious scientists’ tents were.

We wandered up the Capitol steps just in time for some of the major speeches of the day, most given by state reps. 

The crowd up at the top of the Capitol steps by the speakers seemed strangely sparse, but then I realized that we had beaten the crowd up the hill so they were behind us. 

One of my key takeaways from the speeches was that we collectively need to move the conversation away from belief vs nonbelief for the biggies like climate change and evolution. Instead, we should use the terms Accept or Deny, as several speakers did.  

Belief is something to be treasured, something to fight for because it’s important to how we view the world. But belief is inherently non-falsifiable. This is fundamentally different from how science operates. 

Science requires us to provide proof that certain phenomena operate as we think they do. Piles of evidence are put forward, sorted out by peer-review, and modified over time as new evidence arises. This results in a Theory built by consensus across multiple individuals, many of whom have competing beliefs about the issues at hand. But in this scientific consensus, the opinions don’t matter, the data does. Individuals, corporations, and elected officials can either accept the reality of the world as measurements indicate or they can deny the validity of that data.

Is the Earth warming up over time? I might wish that it were not but countless observational studies tell me it is.  Do species change over time to become different than their ancestors? Absolutely, even though we can hold different opinions about Who or what is behind the mysteries of why certain species exist today. 

As I wrap up another school year with a major Evolution unit in my biology classes, I’ll try to use this Accept or Deny language a lot more and try to help students do the same. 

If only we could do something for those folks who proudly deny every inconvenient truth…

A Most Disturbing Edge

As I approach my 7th blogoversary, I could take the easy way out by simply creating a “best of” collection here on the blog so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to wade through the morass of scribbles about my journey as a semi-pro science teacher.

But I won’t. Instead I’m going to tackle yet another Edge.

My current definition of an Edge is this: it is arriving at that place where your feet are pretty firmly grounded in an established reality and you find yourself needing to take the very next step, yet there is no obvious way forward except an uncomfortable drop into an unknown and unfamiliar place.

As I write this at the end of 2016 I find that the creepy unknown place I’m stepping off into is one where external forces have intruded even further into my day-to-day teaching. Poverty, ignorance, family crises, and other stumbling blocks for student learning have always existed but now I have a new problem:

Many prominent role models are teaching my students behaviors that are completely at odds with my vision for who I want my students to be.

Fake news abounds, denial of established facts is the new normal amongst presidential tweeters, and anti-intellectualism in the guise of populism is winning the minds of people everywhere.

How is a science teacher to respond?

I’ve worked very hard up to this point in my career to try to do right by my students by inspiring their innate creativity while teaching them a logical framework with which to test out ideas and support them with facts.  Good old Claims-Evidence-Reasoning. Science.

But we seem to be heading into a post-science world, one where it’s less acceptable to fact-check than it is to fire off a tweet or two to “prove” your point. When it simply does not matter to the Tweeter whether they have their facts straight or not, we have a problem. This is what we have to combat.

There will be multiple opportunities (sadly) over the next few months for us to apply the burden of proof to those who would ignore it. EPA controls aren’t necessary? Prove it. Global warming isn’t man-made? Prove it. We have to be willing to challenge the Tweeter himself in class by modeling a critical review of positions and policies adopted by those role models now in power.

I can easily picture using past and future tweets as a springboard for discussions about the use of reputable sources of information. I can have students do their own digging and fighting though the fake news to find the real facts. I will convince my students that scientific problem solving is a vital part of their lives even as others would seek to teach them otherwise.

In my biology classes we will soon be discussing the Eugenics Movement in America. This is a topic that I have students explore once we have a bit of Genetics under our hats. Students know enough about the basics of heredity to be able to apply their knowledge to issues of race, poverty, immigration, and how science was used and abused in the pursuit of social engineering.

The topic of Eugenics feels especially relevant this time around, though, what with the newly resurgent alt-supremacists and Wall-builders seemingly in charge. Students have often felt threatened or confused by this unit in past years, but I suspect that there will be an unfortunate immediacy to the discussion now.

But it’s a discussion that I need to have. If your classes look anything like mine (poor, rural, 50% minority), we certainly need to equip our students to stand up for themselves using whatever tools we can give them.

Idealistic? Of course it is. But if you or I want to claim to be science teachers then we’ve already waved a banner of idealism at anyone watching. That banner says

I will teach you to think for yourself.

For that, dear reader, is the best possible outcome of all. When the tweetstorm of the current social engineers is confronted by critical analysis from our own students and they push back in constructive ways, we will have done our jobs.

It’ll be a long road to get there, but for now it is enough to just take that one step off the Edge.