Category Archives: Mostly Technology

iPads in the classroom: a review of my 1:1 deployment so far

iPads as sketchpads

Group drawing of a neuron using iPads

I’m going to return to my roots as an edtech blogger for a moment and recap this past semester’s iPad deployment project, so those of you used to reading my notes about SBG will have to wait for the next post.

Let me begin by saying that this project would not have been possible without Erik, my district’s technology guru and grant writer. He was open to the purchase of iPads, found the money to do so, and has provided advice along the way. An additional word of thanks goes to our student tech interns Kiel and Michael for the initial unboxing and setup of the iPads this past summer. It really has been a group effort to get to the point we are at now.

Begin with the laptop
I’ve been lucky enough to run my classroom with 1:1 laptops for the last couple of years through the use of a dedicated cart of MacBooks. While students normally don’t take the laptops home, every student has an assigned MacBook so that they always logged into the same one every time and so were able to customize their tech setup to their liking. This is a huge point that I’ll be coming back to: students (and teachers too) love to customize their devices. This allows for local and cloud saved files, bookmarks, passwords, and user interface tweaks that collectively define a student’s workflow using the laptops in my class.

Enter the iPad
I had been an iPod Touch user for a while and knew the ins and outs of Apple’s iOS but really hadn’t played with an iPad much outside of an Apple store. Several students had their own iPod or iPhone in class and we managed to do some productive things with them such as web access, calculations, and the occasional reference app like wikipanion. So when Erik mentioned that he might have some funds available to buy a small number of iPads, I was of course interested in trying them out to see what students would be able to do with them. We ended up purchasing several iPad2’s over the summer and I managed to snag one for myself to play with.

Preparing for 1:1 deployment
After tinkering with the iPad for a while over the summer, I saw that the best use of the iPad in a pilot trial would be as a vehicle for sharing resources for my anatomy and physiology class. In particular, I wanted to replace our old mangled anatomy textbooks with an iPad-based text such as that offered through the Inkling app. There were a number of anatomy apps such as Visible Body and VueMe that I wanted to use with students as well, so I pitched the idea to Erik of a pilot iPad trial with my anatomy class, since that seemed the best audience for a limited number of iPads. That’s indeed what we agreed on and later we added a few more iPads to the project by also distributing them to my physics class, for a total of 42 students with iPads, since there was a lot of overlap with students taking both classes.

Setting up the iPads
As I mentioned above, our awesome student interns did the unboxing and initial prep of the iPads, which consisted only of loading a profile that allowed access to the school’s wifi. The rest was up to me. I set up my school MacBookPro as the sync station by creating an iTunes library in a different user account than my normal login with a unique Apple ID. I bombarded Erik with requests for apps from Apple’s Volume Licensing Program and got those installed. I begged our principal to allow the purchase of the anatomy textbook on Inkling and, after some discussion about whether this was a technology or a textbook purchase, he was able to find the money in the budget to buy the texts. The folks at Inkling were really helpful and got me set up with a class set (30) of anatomy texts, each tied to an Inkling account that I manage so that I can reissue the textbooks even after I wipe the iPads at the end of this year.

Distributing the iPads
My philosophy from the beginning of this pilot project was that students should have their own iPad to use at school and at home and that they should be able to take full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities by having full control over their own device. So after preloading the iPads with a set of apps that I thought they might find handy, I had students sign the required paperwork, did a brief orientation session, then turned them loose with their new iPads to see what they could do with them. Most students immediately set up their own Apple accounts on the devices and added new apps and music to their iPads. This started the process of having the students customize the device for their own use, a process that is still ongoing.

iPads as cell nuclei
iPads as cell nuclei in human models of tissue types

What do students do with the iPads?

We’ve been using the iPads for a semester now, and they are just there, quietly a part of what we do, now that the rush of a new toy has faded. Sometimes they replace the MacBook. Sometimes they get replaced by the MacBook.  I wanted to get a better sense of what the iPads were being used for, so I gave students a survey last week about their use of the iPads and here’s what I found:

    1. With few exceptions, students claim that they use their iPad a lot, both at school and at home.
    2. Students claim to spend about equal time on school and non-school related activities on the iPads.
    3. Students’ most used app varies widely among survey participants. Top apps listed were Safari, Pandora, Facebook, Pages, Calculator, Mail, and FaceTime.
    4. Similarly, students favorite app varied widely among survey participants. Some of the favorite apps listed were Safari, Camera, Shakespeare, GarageBand, SimplePhysics, GoodReader, YouTube, The Elements, Angry Birds, Opera Mini, Osmos, and Evernote.
    5. The most interesting responses were to the question of whether the iPad was worth it and would they use one again next year:

I would because I can continually do my school work and do multiple assignments without finding a laptop.

YES IT IS. They’re fun and useful.

yes greatly for the fact of accessibility and learning about tech.

Yes I would because it helps with more than one subject and it is much more convenient  than carrying around a lap top.

yes i would, Sometimes when assignments are due that need to be done the next day, the iPad come in handy to get those done.

DEFINITELY. The iPad has been extremely useful in completing various types of schoolwork.

Yes I would. I would use it because it works fast and is easy to take everywhere.

Yes! i use it all the time! Even though i do mess around on my iPad its still get a lot of work done.

Yes I would use it for school-related work next year. When I do use it for school-related work such as notes and projects it is extremely helpful. Also if I ever have a question that needs to be answered, I can easily get on the iPad and find the answer.

I think the iPad is worth it however a laptop may be more convenient because it allows more programs to be used. For example I don’t have a computer at home at the moment and Most of my school work requires some sort of technology and thats when the iPad comes in handy however I can’t do everything on the iPad.

I am not a technology based person although I was born in the tech-boom era. I appreciate technology to an extent with its resources, but I believe that some things should not be “turned into an app”. For me, I would stick to using the laptops. iPads are higher quality, and more notorious, but I find their powers to be limited. They are difficult to keep clean as well. It is a great idea though, for saving space. That’s coming from a traditionalist. I’d say keep the iPads for future use, just not for me.

Not any more than I do now.  I don’t like Apple products, they’re overpriced and overhyped.  Not to mention the nonsensical programs you have to download just to use an Apple product.  They aren’t worth the trouble.

YES!  I use Pages all the time to take notes for all of my classes and to type up reports.  I also use it to connect to things like Edmodo and GoogleDocs whenever i need. The IPads come in handy many times during the day!

Some takeaways from the survey

Given their own personal iPad and the freedom to modify it, high school students use the iPad in a variety of different ways and for multiple courses throughout the school day. Nearly every student had their own beliefs as to which apps were the best or the ones they used most. Games are on the iPads, but so are a variety of tools for school-related tasks and the students who took this survey believe that they can find a balance between the two. The overwhelming majority of students would use them in coursework again next year if given the chance, which was an interesting result given that most students taking the survey were seniors who are unlikely to get an iPad from me next year since they’ll have graduated.

In conclusion, after a semester with 1:1 iPads, the reviews from students are very positive on the whole, although not every student chooses the iPad as their primary learning tool. iPads seem to allow students to personalize the technology that they use to navigate the requirements of their different courses. Furthermore, by allowing students to take the iPads home, both students and their families have been able to use the devices for a variety of tasks that they might not otherwise have been able to accomplish. Efforts are underway at our school to integrate the iPad into other disciplines besides science and to increase the number of iPads that we can put into the hands of students.

Student ePortfolios in the High School Science Classroom: Q & A

Q: What’s an ePortfolio?
A: Let me start by saying that, like most of what I use in my teaching, I didn’t invent ePortfolios and I can’t answer for everyone since ePortfolios mean different things to different people. But I will define an ePortfolio as an online space that gets used to collect and showcase evidence of individual student learning.

Q: You mean its like a blog?
A: Sorta. Blogs certainly can be used to show what a student has learned. In fact, thats how my classes operated last year, with student work nearly exclusively being posted to personal blogs. But an ePortfolio is different from a student’s blog. A blog is organized chronologically by date of publication, but an ePortfolio is organized by skill and content area standards and represents an attempt to prove that those standards have been met.

Q: Why add another site for students to manage? Isn’t a blog enough work?
A: What I found with the blogs was that students worked incredibly hard and produced amazing pieces of work but often couldn’t tell me which standards their posts met. As long as I was the only one evaluating their work, the standards for the class mattered only to me. Self-reflection of learning was really missing.

Q: So how does creating an ePortfolio lead to more self-reflection?
A: For starters, students have to look through all the blog posts that they have written so far and select which ones will go into their portfolio and on which pages to include them. This leads naturally to a discovery of which standards have a lot of evidence of mastery and which have less. Furthermore, there is a page within the portfolio that is for evidence of self-reflection, either in blog posts or as demonstrated while completing the portfolio. Many students used this page to assess the current status of their learning as shown by the portfolio.

Q: You mention pages in the ePortfolio and have many references to “standards.” How are the two related?
A: Each skill and content area standard gets its own page in the portfolio, which will vary with the content of each course.

Q: How did you decide which skill and content area standards to use for the pages in the portfolios?
A: The short answer is that those are the standards that I piloted last year as I implemented standards-based grading in each of my anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses. All of my science courses share the same set of 9 major skill standards, the first of which is broken down into specific content areas for each course. The common skill standards are those things that usually get called science process skills: graph interpretation, experimental design, lab and research skills, to name a few. The content-specific standards were derived from the Colorado Community College standard competencies for each individual course.

Q: These portfolio pages you keep referring to, where are they, exactly?
A: In a student-owned Google Site.

Q: ?
A: Early in the school year, I built a template site for each subject area course in Google Sites and then shared those templates to our district’s GoogleApps domain. Students could then go into Google Sites and create their own portfolio site from the template that I had created. Since the template had pages set up for each skill and content area standard, each student portfolio site also had these pages set up automatically as well. All students have to do is edit each page of the portfolio to include their blog posts, reflections, and other artifacts such as test scores that demonstrate mastery of that particular standard.

Q: So when do I get to see one of these ePortfolios?
A: The ePortfolios live within our schools’ GoogleApps domain and are mostly set to be visible only within our district at the moment. However, a few seniors have hit on the idea that colleges and scholarship providers might be interested in their work, and so have made their portfolios publicly visible. Here are a few links that I think will work:
Steven’s A&P ePortfolio
Audie’s A&P ePortfolio
Katrina’s A&P ePortfolio
Steven’s Chemistry ePortfolio
I hope to convince more students to make their portfolios public and will add links as they do so.

Q: Ok, I’m interested enough to want to know more. Got any references for me?
A: Here are a couple links to get you started:
Levels of eportfolio development in k-12 schools
Creating student portfolios with Google Sites

Managing student websites with Pearltrees

Pearltrees screenshot-anatomy class portfolios

This is just a quick post to share a neat tool for keeping track of student websites called Pearltrees. I ran across this article recently and thought this might be useful for organizing all of my student sites that I need to keep track of. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I keep track of individual student blogs using RSS feeds. But there are many times that I want a simple way to pull up a student website to show to a student, administrator, or parent, and an RSS feed reader is ok, but clunky for that purpose. I’ve bookmarked my student blogs, too, of course, which works but lacks any style or graphic organization.

Perhaps all the iOS and app downloading frenzy that went on this week and the resulting extra time spent on the iPad had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the fact that our 1st quarter grading period ends next week and I’ll need to be evaluating all of my students portfolios. Either way, the thought of a graphical interface that could easily locate student websites seemed really appealing to me so when I saw the article on Pearltrees and it’s new iPad app, I checked it out.

Their app is simple to use and makes use of a bookmarklet to capture any site you choose. As you might see in the screenshot above, I now have each class in its own “pearl” and can easily find individual student portfolios in each class. It’s also amazingly easy to flip from one student site to the next within a class so that should speed up the evaluation process. At least it will make it a little more aesthetically pleasing. Eye candy ain’t all bad.

How I manage lots of students’ blogs: RSS feeds and Google Reader

This was written a while ago for a fellow teacher over at Classroom 2.0 but I thought I’d repost it here because I’m not sure it’s public in its original form and some folks have been asking about managing student blogs:


Thanks for the kind comments about my blog! I’m glad its given you some ideas to try.

Forgive me if you know some of this stuff already, but I’ll try to start at a basic level. Also, know that there are lots of resources out there to check out, and I’m sure that other folks do a much better job of explaining this stuff than I do, but here goes.

First off, most any blog has within it the capability to be subscribed to using an RSS (really simple syndication) protocol. RSS “feeds” basically send out a message to “subscribers” whenever the author posts something new to the blog. It is not too terribly hard then to find your favorite blog, subscribe to it, and then be notified of new additions to the blog. These are the three steps that you will want to do with your students’ blogs.

The way I did it went like this:

1. At the beginning of the year, students set up Google accounts and sign up for their own blog at (I think the name will change to just Google Blogs in a while). Optionally, some students chose to create their blog at
2. Using Edmodo, students post links to their new blog so everyone in the class (and I) could have an easy link to click on to find their blog.
3. Using my own Google account, I signed in to Google Reader, which is simply a web service that subscribes to the RSS feeds for blogs. Some browsers, like Safari, can act as RSS readers, too, but I never was really impressed by the experience of using the built-in RSS reader in Safari and instead used Safari to access Google Reader.
4. I visited each blog and looked for the link to subscribe to the blog. In Blogger this is sometimes called the Atom feed, but it does the same thing as RSS. (There also are some plugins for browsers that will put an RSS icon next to the blog’s address that you just click on to subscribe.)
5. Once you click on a blog’s link to subscribe, it should pull up a dialog confirming that you want to subscribe to the blog’s feed. You might need to tweak a setting in your browser to make sure RSS feeds are handled by Google Reader if the feed doesn’t get put there.
6. After you confirm the subscription, the blog should show up in your Reader. You can organize Reader by using folders. My organization was to have a folder for each class period and organize each folder by student first names, but you can do whatever seems best for you.
7. As students write in their blogs and hit the publish button when finished, you will see the name of their blog in Reader change to a bold font to show that there is an unread post detected. Click on their blog to see which posts that you have not read yet. If you click on the title of the post in Reader it will take you to a simplified version of the post that is mostly text. There is also usually a link to the actual post if there are some graphics missing or you want to see more of the eye-candy that students put on their blog.
8. Generally, I kept a window of Google Reader open continuously all year to keep an eye on when students published to their blogs.
9. I also use the iPod/iPad app “Reeder” to keep track of my blog subscriptions, including student blogs, although I still do most of my reading on my Mac in Google Reader. There’s a Mac version of Reeder now too, although I haven’t felt the need to buy it.
10. Lastly, you can make your experience of Reeder a little more interesting with some simple browser extensions. I know Safari has several like “Better Google Reader” and Firefox and Chrome probably do too. These add some bells and whistles like inline previews (so you don’t have to leave Reader to see the “real” post) or colorized lists.
I would start off by using Reader to subscribe to some of your favorite blogs by educators and get a feel for how to use it that way, before you launch into using it with students.  That way you can later teach them how to set it up to subscribe to their favorite blogs too!

Good luck! Let me know if you have any more questions.


Blogs, portfolios, and feedback (oh my!)

This is a work in progress, as most of my stuff is, but here is my Assessment Philosophy for the 2011-2012 school year that I’ll be sharing with students and their parents.

Some key new features I’m trying:

  • student blog posts will receive only feedback, not grades
  • the spreadsheets I used last year will be editable by both myself and the student for each to add comments
  • students will create portfolios of their work by selecting and analyzing their best evidence of learning
  • portfolios will be organized and assessed using standards-based criteria
  • the only letter grades used will be assigned when portfolios are assessed at the ends of grading periods

Some things still to work out:

Feel free to leave suggestions for improvements/implementation in the comments and please snag a copy for yourself if you want to borrow any of it.

Blogging in the Science Classroom: The Worksheet is Dead

One of the major changes that I made this year was to switch to using individual student blogs as the centerpiece of student assessment (the other major change was to implement standards-based grading). I started using student blogs for a number of reasons including:

  1. I was tired of grading worksheets with the same copied answers on them.
  2. I realized that these worksheets weren’t always helpful in learning content, and in fact, much of the time they got in the way of learning.
  3. Student in my classes have access to a MacBook cart whenever they are in my classroom and we have fantastically dependable wireless internet connectivity for these laptops (yay tech support!).
  4. Blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are free.
  5. I’m increasingly wary of multiple choice anything as real assessment and wanted students to write more.
  6. I wanted students to have a permanent, online record of their achievement throughout the year, not some pile of papers shoved in a binder (or trash can).
  7. I wanted students to have an audience for their work that would include each other, their families, the community, and the world.

With all these highfalutin ideals in mind, we launched our blogs at the beginning of this school year, with some fear and trembling.  Very few students had done any blogging before, although a couple had existing blogs from their English classes. The first challenge was to get everyone signed on to one of the blogging services. Most students chose Blogger, probably because we thought that that would be easier initially since we all had Google accounts. The only problem was that, at that time, at least, Google Apps accounts like my students had did not work with Blogger very well. Students ended up having to create their own Google accounts just so they could use Blogger. This wasn’t a big deal, just not as smooth as if Blogger were integrated into Google Apps.

So how did we use the blogs? They became the go-to location to post assignments for me to read and grade. For a week or two, though, I operated a lot like I did last year, posting assignments on Edmodo and using its great assignment features to have students turn things in online, as well as posting them to their blogs. I realized that this was a duplication of effort and soon instead of sending out “assignments” in Edmodo, I just sent files and links as “notes.” This meant that these resources no longer came with a due date and that I was not using Edmodo to see who turned in which assignments.

Instead, I figured out how to work Google Reader to monitor my students’ blogs. After subscribing to each students RSS or Atom feed, I organized all of their feeds into folders in Google Reader:

Reader allowed me to keep track of when students published new posts and to quickly find a particular student’s blog if we wanted to discuss something that they had posted. We still used Edmodo extensively for communication, just not for assessment. For example, if students made changes to their blogs, the changes would not always be highlighted in Reader so I asked students to message me on Edmodo if they made changes to a blog post that I had commented on already.

Speaking of comments, I did not personally comment directly on each student blog post. I figured that other readers of their blogs could do that. Instead, I gave feedback about each post as part of the student’s gradesheet entry. Some comments were pretty general (nice job! or something similarly lame) but I got better (I think) at commenting and left specific advice for ways to change the posts to better meet the standards.

One criticism that I’ve heard about my grading system is that it doesn’t spell out for students exactly what they need to do to meet a standard. I think that would be a concern, except for the fact that I tried to provide constructive comments on most everything students did and I let them respond to the comments by fixing their posts for a higher grade. Students did have to make the first effort at a blog post to try to show what they have learned about a particular topic or skill. I worked with them from there to improve their understanding by providing comments and discussing their posts with them. I had a number of students say that this was their favorite part of my class this year: the fact that they could try out a post, get some feedback, and go back and fix it as needed.

What did students blog about? Everything, really. Most of it was even related to the class ; )   As students and I discussed topics or performed labs in class, those topics and labs found their way in some form into students’ blogs. Some posts were simple text-based blog posts but at other times, students used a variety of web2.0 tools to put “learning artifacts” on their blogs. These learning artifacts included the use of Prezi, Glogster, Quizlet, Google Docs, Photobucket, DomoNation, Xtranormal,, and other tools.

If you’ve viewed the example posts linked above, you may have noticed that different students used different tools to discuss the same topic. That’s because I did not require that a particular tool be used with each assignment. Students were free to use the tool that they thought would work best for that particular post. If you are interested in exploring the wide range of content and quality that was produced this year, here are the links to all the student blogs.

Here are some of the awesome things about student blogging, in my experience:


Since students used many different tools to create artifacts for their blogs, I was never bored grading their posts, and in fact, was usually incredibly entertained and impressed by what students can create given the freedom to do so.

Portfolios of learning

The blogs became a record of student achievement that we can look back on for proof of learning. Along with their color-coded gradesheet, a student’s blog is a powerful indicator of the level of understanding for any given topic or skill that we learned throughout the year.

Wide audience of readers

Many people ended up looking at the students’ blogs, not just me. For example, parent conferences will never be the same again, since it was so easy to pull up a student’s blog in order to view and discuss the student’s level of performance. Parents have access to the entire list of student blogs, too, so it was easy at conferences to point parents there if they wanted to compare how their student was doing to how others were. The kid who has three blog posts starts squirming in conferences when their parents see other students blogs that have 10 or more posts.

Student blogs were also publicized via Twitter or my blog, which led some traffic their way. At least one student and future teacher made lots of connections with the edublogging community this year.

Resources for each other

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. This is one of those things about teaching that is easy to say, but hard to do something about. However, the blogs let kids work at their own speed and with tools of their own choosing.  Inevitably, some student posts were finished before others and became learning tools for those students who were behind the rest of the class. Towards the end of the year, when they were a bit more mature in the whole process, some students even started giving credit for their peers’ work that helped them write their own posts. It was very cool to see them learning from each other via the blogs.

There were some challenges along the way, of course, as we tried blogging our way through the year:

Blog writing is time intensive

If you want students to do a good job writing their own blogs, be prepared to give them plenty of class time to write, revise, and experiment with new tools.  Every year it seems I get to discuss less and less content with students, but this year saw a big jump in the time I had to allow students to have workdays on the computer so that they could stay current with their blogs. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it will force me to look very carefully at what I have planned for next year’s classes.

Fair access to blogs

Part of the reason for spending time blogging in class is concern over the issue of fair access to the Internet in order to complete the blogging activities. Many students do not have easy computer access at home, although some do. I wanted to try to rule out any unfair advantage that students might have over others, but was only partly successful.  Of course a kid with his own computer and Internet access is going to have more chances to blog and make amazing products than another kid who has to rely on computer access during the 50 minutes I see them in class. I’m not sure that’s a reason, though, to not blog. Its more of a reason to agitate for more equitable Internet access in my community.

The Mac blogging platform is not as useful

There were some students, fortunately few in number, that for one reason or another, kept forgetting their Blogger account passwords and would get locked out of the system. For these few (maybe 5 students in all my classes) I set them up with blog accounts through our local MacServer. That let them use the same password as they used to log on to their laptop, but the advantages stopped there. We found that with the Mac-hosted blogs, there was no separate publish option, so as soon as a kid saved their blog, finished or not, it posted to my Reader. Also, we never figured out how to allow embedding within the Mac blogs so those students had to post simple hypertext links to the artifacts that they created rather than having them appear right in the blog page.


There was some plagiarism of blog posts, but it was usually incredibly easy to detect. The most obvious ones occurred when students simply lifted another student’s blog post and pasted it in as their own. I had one student, famous among teachers at our school for this sort of behavior, try this stunt about 5 times in a row trying to meet one particular standard. I simply refused to put any grade in her gradesheet until I was convinced it was her own work. Google searches and Plagium worked great for me in providing evidence that someone had copied material from a source or another student blog. I probably didn’t catch everything, and might jump in with our English teachers and somehow use Turnitin with the blogs to try to avoid problems next year.

Are blogs a rigorous assessment strategy?

One of the concerns that I had during the year was whether or not the new blogging paradigm is rigorous enough compared to the old model of lecture-worksheet-quiz-test-rinse-lather-repeat. This is a concern, of course, since I almost completely abandoned the traditional testing that I used to do (my Moodle site was very lonely this year).  Could I tell whether students were learning? Aren’t they just goofing around with web tools and having fun instead of suffering through the lectures that they need?

It was this article (via @mrsebiology) that convinced me that blogging can be just a rigorous as the tests that I used to give:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous,
provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

Blogging in many ways is an incredibly difficult task for students. Not only do they have to research background information about a topic, they have to synthesize a variety of ideas together in a coherent piece of writing or media. They encounter interesting ideas about the course content and write about how these concepts effect their lives and society in general. In many ways, that’s much more rigorous than any test I could give about stuff that I lectured on.

The worksheet is dead. Long live the blog.

This blog used to be about technology: what happened?

To celebrate my (belated) 1 year blogoversary, I went back over the year’s worth of posts just for kicks. The biggest trend I saw over time was more blogging about assessment and less blogging about 1:1 and edtech issues. Why the switch?

I think that the technology became so ingrained in what I do in my classroom that it is essentially invisible right in front of me. Of course we use blogs. Of course we have Edmodo, Moodle, and our Wikis. Why do I need to write about them? They are simply a routine part of what I do. I’d much rather be thinking of ways to improve assessment and instruction in my classes, now that the infrastructure is set.

Students, too, have made some comments lately to show they take our nearly paperless setup for granted. We made drawings of pedigrees in biology the other day and students, who have been in my class for over a semester now, didn’t know where to put their papers for me to review. When directed to place their pedigrees into the box, most students said “We have a box?” Some even made sure to do their pedigrees using drawing programs, just because that’s what they are used to.

So when did this shift happen? When did this blog stop being about technology? It stopped being about technology once I started teaching with 1:1 MacBooks and rock-solid wireless network. It stopped being about technology when I didn’t have to have my students leave the room to “go use the computers.” It stopped being about technology when access to the technology was no longer the pressing issue.  It feels like some sort of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs situation here, and I’ve somehow finally fulfilled one of the basic needs so that I can now pay attention to the other levels of need in my classroom.

Some people say they don’t “need” technology in their classroom, but I do.  It allows me to let students go off in multiple directions at once as they are pursuing their interests. It gives students multiple ways to show that they have acquired knowledge about our class topics. It gives students ways to communicate and stay organized. Access to technology allows my classroom to be student-centered.

That’s why you haven’t heard much from me lately about what technology we are using in class: it is so routine that it is ordinary and boring to consider as a separate issue. Of course we are using technology, why wouldn’t we?

On why standards-based grading isn’t enough to transform a classroom

Mediocre Physics Teacher has an interesting question for the SBG crowd:

The worst epithet an SBG teacher can hurl at another teacher seems to be “Your grading is nothing but a game for points.” I don’t understand how replacing 70s, 80s, and 90’s with collections of 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s changes the motivation of college-bound students from achievement toward learning. I don’t understand how it’s not points.

There are two issues to address here: the grading system itself and the level of motivation of students.

Is it possible to do SBG where its still just about points? Sure, if your assessments of learning suck like mine often do (did?). For me, implementing an SBG grading system isn’t what transforms what I do. It’s mostly a new structure to my gradebook.  I could theoretically take every assignment that I gave last year and shove it into a standards-based category in my gradebook to spit it back to kids this year. This wouldn’t be a shift in how I teach at all. Kids would still complete the same worksheets and study guides that I used to give out,  but they would just find weird subscores written on each one for each standard that the worksheet met in the gradebook.  They would play the same games of copying their neighbors work without putting much thought into the assignments, because no real thought was needed for some of the stuff I used to grade for points.  Its not about points, its about crappy, weak assessments.

What  needs to happen to transform your classroom is a very careful weeding out of what finds its way into your gradebook.  If you are still giving out worksheets and study guides like I do, recognize that they are practice activities and shouldn’t be in the gradebook at all.  If a kid doesn’t complete it, that’s their missed chance to learn the material, or perhaps they’ve found another way to learn about it through some other resource. There’s this thing called the Internet these days that has way better learning activities than half of the stuff I throw at my kids. These sorts of practice activities, like homework, webquests, and study guides don’t need to be graded.

Next, kids need to be doing lots of formative assessment before they hit anything that is going to become a permanent fixture in their gradebook. For me, this takes the form of student blogs. After the practice activities are over and they have some new learning to show off, my kids head to their blogs to tell each other about it.  Posts on each student’s blog reflect their current understanding of a topic. If that understanding changes, then another post is in order or corrections can be made to the original post. Its not set in stone: everything is editable. If a student wants to “reassess,” they write another post. We do a few quizzes and tests, but since the best test questions are of the free response variety anyway, why not let students write all the time whenever they want? Throw in some spicy, fun web 2.0 tools and some students will produce artifacts for you like crazy. I keep tabs on students’ blogs and write comments and a “grade” that I think represents their current level of understanding of the different standards. This “grade” is very fluid and represents formative assessment. I put it into our school’s online gradebook for parents and students to see, but they know that it can fluctuate a lot before the end of a marking period.

There is some summative assessment (a.k.a. big tests) that happens towards the end of each quarter in the form of a midterm or final exam, but those are not nearly as important to the students’ final grades as are their efforts to explain their learning in their own words.

Back now to the second issue raised in the quote above: motivation. If a student’s grade is the sum of all their points, they will try for more points to add to the total. If a students grade is the sum of all standards where each and every content and skill standard matters for the final grade, they will try to provide evidence that they have learned each skill.  I highly recommend abandoning (or subverting) grading programs that average a student’s numerical scores. Each and every standard should be considered separately.  That way the goal of each student is to demonstrate mastery of each standard so that no unmet standard pulls down their grade due to lack of effort to understand that topic.  It works that way about 80% of the time with my students, with an unfortunate few unwilling to put forth the effort (samjshah has a great rant about that here).

In summary, get your kids used to the terms “practice,” “formative assessment,” and “summative assessment.” Do lots of the first, keep track of the second in a flexible sort of system, and only sprinkle in the last when you feel its really needed. If you want to do this in an SBG system, so much the better, because then you can more easily keep track of where students are at on specific learning standards and learn what you need to do as an instructor to help them grasp the important ideas of your discipline.

How little it takes to be “technologically proficient”

Have you ever run into resources produced by your state board of education that made you scratch your head and say “hmmm….?” I had that experience today as I took a technology survey that the Colorado Department of Education created to determine the level of “technological proficiency” that teachers had attained. The “hmmm…” part came right at the beginning with this list of definitions of terms. My first giggle was at the instructions to print the page of terms. It kinda reminded me of a time a few years ago when administrators and secretaries would print out emails and put them in our staff mailboxes. So early 2000’s.

My second hmmm…. was their definition of digital tools: computers and internet connections. Yup, just those. Forget about cell phones, iPods, iPads, and whatever others have popped up lately. No need to discuss those in this survey, apparently. Again, early 2000’s technology is being discussed.

The major snicker I had came with the discussion of  “technology-rich learning environments” which has this lovely quote: “Examples of this are the Blackboard online classroom system, encouraging PowerPoint presentations, or encouraging the use of internet search engines (such as Google).” Ick. If that’s all it takes to create “technology-rich learning environments” then many teachers had them established years ago, maybe during the reign of Office ’97.

As I see it, there are two possible explanations for this bizarre retro list of technology terms that appears in a supposedly modern survey of technological proficiency. Either A) the writers of the survey wanted their terms to be non-threatening to teachers and so chose vocabulary that most teachers might recognize and understand or B) the writers of the survey are themselves not as technologically proficient as I might hope. If A is true, then the writers already have a low opinion of the technological proficiency that they expect to see exhibited in their survey. If B is true, I might be a bit worried about moving our state’s educational technology leadership into the current web2.0, open source, cloud, social media, and cross-platform reality.

One last note: the survey says that I am technologically proficient. Do I get a prize? Maybe they’ll throw in a 33.6K modem or a dot-matrix printer.

Some observations on SBAR in my science classes

Although I haven’t yet given it a catchy name like my previous Binary Grading grading system, my new standards-based system of assessment and reporting is working well. We are midway through the second quarter of school and I have enough experience with the system to step back and make a few observations about it. As with everything involving high school students, these observations could change tomorrow, but here’s what jumps out at me so far:

Volatility of grades: Students and I were surprised at some of the major grade swings that are possible in an SBAR system. I’ve had a few swing wildly between B’s and D’s and back, which usually doesn’t happen under a point-hoarding system in which assignments contribute to an average value that is hard to swing once enough points are built up. In my system, though, the nine major standards are reported independently of each other and all count so that poor performance in one can negate good performance in another. I like it, though, because it keeps kids on their toes. Some had begun to be complacent about their grades but a few forced reassessments woke them up to the reality that they may be called upon to continue to demonstrate mastery of each standard.

The role of the course content standard (Standard 1): When I was choosing my standards for this year’s pilot SBAR project, I chose to have 9 standards that were identical for each of my 4 preps because there are some skills that I wanted all my students to learn and demonstrate in every science class that they take. The only major difference between the biology, anatomy, chemistry, and AP Biology standards is in Standard 1, which is subdivided into specific topic areas unique to each course.  The intent was to 1) make a system that didn’t drive my students and I bonkers with 4 separate sets of standards and 2) deemphasize the content-related grade in favor of the skill-related grade. It is working quite nicely, in my opinion. Skills like analyzing research articles, experimental design, and interpreting experimental data are much more important in determining the overall grade than whether a student knows the difference between osmosis and diffusion. I’m happy with that.

The role of the 8 skill-related standards: The skill-based standards were really written for me, and not the students. I recognized some deficiencies in my instruction and basically tried to force myself to make changes by creating a grading system that demands that I give students the opportunity to assess skills as well as content. So far I am doing okay with this, but I am still more content-driven than I would like. More student-designed labs are needed in most of my classes, for example.

Death of death by testing: My tests and quizzes can be tough, given the subject matter I teach and I often see low percentage scores on some of the harder topics’ assessments. Regardless of whose fault it is, in a points system a low test score needs to be “fixed” by curving, throwing it out, or by some other fudging method so that the kid’s grade isn’t completely hosed. I used to curve or tweak point values so that some tests were not worth as many points, but that always bugged me, especially when I thought that I’d done a fine job teaching that particular topic. Now though, my tests and quizzes are just additional pieces of evidence to add to the mix. I integrate percentage scores from content-specific tests into the 4 point scale in a way that rewards the high achievers but doesn’t completely destroy the low-scoring kids. Its has worked well for me to have kids who score in the 90-100% range get 4’s, 80-90% get 3.5’s, 70-80% get 3’s, 60-70% get 2.5’s, 50-60% get 2’s, and below 50% get 1.5’s. I’m pretty satisfied with this part of the system as well, since the only students who are really nailed by tests are those who don’t show up to take them.

GoogleDocs rock the SBAR: All my record keeping is Google-ified. Student blogs are collected into my Reader, in which they are organized by class period. Evaluation of their blogs and other assessments is recorded in their own private Google spreadsheet with conditional formatting to show 4’s (blue), 3’s (green), 2’s (orange), and 1’s (red). Loving it! Its truly the best part of the whole grade system switch. The spreadsheet is shared with the student (view only, of course) and with parents as needed. I leave comments along with each assessment so that students have some guidance should they choose to reassess a particular standard. Sure it was a pain to set up over a hundred spreadsheets at the beginning of the year, but its paid off.

The gradebook shows what they know: Yeah, that was kind of the whole point. But it works. Students and I can glance at their Standard 1 sheet and point out which content areas they struggle with. We can look at their main gradesheet and point out which skills they need to spend more time on. As a communication tool, the SBAR gradesheet is vastly superior to the school’s online gradebook. Even though I report similar numerical data in both places, the constraints of the online gradebook and the freedom of expression (color coding, written feedback, smileys ; )  in the Google gradesheet combine to make the gradesheet much more useful and fun to use.

Future tweaks: I need to look closely at how the system is being implemented in the 4 different preps and make sure I’m providing enough chances at assessments for the different standards. Looking at student gradesheets is really assessing myself in a lot of ways because if there are major gaps in the standards that are being addressed, that’s really my problem, not theirs. Biology is working wonderfully, as is Anatomy, probably because I spend the most mental energy trying to reform those classes. Chemistry has a lot fewer assessments than I would like to see in the gradesheets and hasn’t met as many different standards as I think they should.  Mostly we’ve hammered the lab principles and procedures standard (Standard 3) really well since we do a lot of textbook labs in chem.  AP Biology is another beast altogether, because in some ways I think that everything we do in that class is formative assessment and rarely finds its way into the gradesheet.  My tendency with AP Bio is to use a lot of informal assessment (discussions with students) so we don’t stop and take quizzes and tests very often. This makes for a very empty gradesheet, and I’m not sure whether that is a bad thing or not. In a sense, the real summative assessment for that class doesn’t happen until May when the AP Exam rolls around. Also, having only 3 students in that class this year lends itself to a lot of one-on-one discussion, so this may not be the best year to judge the implementation of SBAR in that class.

What really hasn’t worked: I’m not happy with the way that the midterm exam results are reported to students. All my classes took midterm exams right after 1st quarter as summative assessments of their learning to that point. Their scores do not show up in their color-coded gradesheets since they are not part of the standards-based grade but instead only show up in the school’s online gradebook in the semester test slot. That’s the only way I found to report the grade, but I have a very strong sense that students don’t really understand the role of that midterm grade because it is buried in a part of their online gradebook that they don’t usually look at until after they’ve taken semester final exams.  I’ve got a bad feeling that students won’t truly realize that the midterm has the weight it does (7.5% of their semester grade) until they see how it affects their final grade. If my experience so far proves true, you can tell students about your system all you want, but until they see how it affects their grade, they don’t really get it. I’m sure, however, that describing my SBAR system to students and parents will be so much better next year now that I’ve got some concrete examples of how it works to show students.