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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.

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Hi-Five Machine

 

How do we reconcile the freewheeling spirit of makerspaces with the traditional sit-and-get, control-freak management of most public schools?

Makerspaces are trendy at the moment as evidenced by articles like The ‘Maker’ Movement is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right? and The Nerdy Teacher’s new book. The Education Week article reminds us that many K-12 teachers are turning towards “making” and away from standardized curriculum and testing. I’ll be getting the book soon to see what Nick has to say as well.

But what exactly does “getting it right” look like in a K-12 setting? Should we enable student-driven learning and a “do-it-yourself, only-if-you-want-to ethos” like the Maker movement? I won’t claim to be doing it right, but I am trying out something. You can judge for yourself and perhaps take away some ideas to try.

Since 2011, I’ve been creating a makerspace in my high school that goes by the official course title “Physics” but sometimes gets referred to as “Phunsics.” Basically, I allow students to design and build whatever projects they want to, within some constraints of budget and safety. We’ve built everything from boats to rockets to Arduino-powered pianos. Students and I have had our fair share of successes and failures with the course, but it has grown immensely in popularity and I now run two sections of the course during the school day.

If you are thinking about getting onboard the Maker movement, here are the challenges that I’ve faced in building a DIY makerspace inside a traditional public high school physics course:

Lesson planning: A DIY philosophy does not co-exist with lesson plans that tell students what to make. I’ve started the year with some pre-planned projects like the Marshmallow Challenge or the Physics 500, but after the first week students are on their own and no lesson planning occurs. Instead, my role becomes that of coach and advisor and my primary job is to help with technical questions, keep students focused on their projects, provide materials, and maintain a safe construction environment for all. If your school requires you to turn in daily or weekly lesson plans, be prepared to explain why you don’t have any.

Multiple simultaneous projects: A DIY makerspace will allow students to follow their own interests. This means that with 18 or so students per class and two class sections, I’m looking at managing around 10 unique projects, and that assumes that students only work on one project at a time. Be prepared for a lot of mental gear-shifting as you help manage a diverse set of projects.

Lack of teacher expertise: I quickly found that student interests do not always line up with my strengths. This pushed me into uncomfortable territory at times. But I have had a huge opportunity to model real learning for my students as I tackled my lack of knowledge and skills along with them. A makerspace allows (forces?) you to model your skills as a lifelong learner for students. Several alumni of Phunsics have reported back that they appreciated the makerspace because they learned how to learn by taking the class.

Physical space: With 5-6 projects per class period, I have run into the lack of physical space in which to operate. This is especially true if students build a full-scale trebuchet or go-cart (been there). To solve space issues, I have had students working in no fewer than four different classrooms simultaneously (my room, chemistry/physics lab, outside, and shop). Be prepared to run around like a crazy person to keep track of where students are and what they are up to. You’ll need to think about the tools required, where they are located, and storage of the projects themselves. Chances are you’ll need to be very flexible in terms of what constitutes the makerspace “classroom.”

Behavioral issues: With great power comes great responsibility. Not all students will play nice with the departure from their normal classroom jail cell, especially if said jail cell is now spread out over two or three workspaces with one teacher. Typical teacher management strategies like busywork and pop quizzes don’t work when the content of the class is student generated. Instead, relationship-building and the occasional behavioral intervention are the tools of choice.  My general sense is that I have the greatest behavioral issues with those students who are either unwilling or unable to develop projects on their own and expect me to feed them projects. I usually deal with such situations by pointing students to Instructables and having them pick two or three interesting projects to mimic. Generally though, student groups form around one or two strong leaders that can usually pull the weight of project creation and implementation and keep everyone in the group busy. I also use the Google model of 80:20 time (80% work, 20% creative play) which works pretty well, especially when students are reminded that they are over their 20% goof off limit.

Supply shortages: A makerspace is student-driven, which means that student projects will be varied in their material needs in both consumables and in equipment and tools. From week to week, I don’t necessarily have a clue as to what materials we might need down the road for projects, because students have not communicated a need for them yet. We are in a constant cycle of brainstorming, materials purchasing, and production, and often times its the purchasing step that is the delay. If the project requires hardware and lumber then students or I can get to the local hardware store pretty quickly. But if we’re building an Arduino-powered weather station, then we are going to have to wait until parts arrive in the mail. This is especially problematic for schools like ours in a small rural town with few major stores and relatively limited budgets.

Non-traditional assessment for traditional grades: Given that my makerspace exists inside a traditional school, letter grades need to be issued to keep admin and parents happy. My grading scheme for Physics resembles an interview in that when end-of-term grades are due (and along the way for sports/activity eligibility) I ask students to defend what grade they think they deserve. They are required to explain which projects they have worked on and what their individual contribution to group projects has been. We also have a set of grade criteria that are negotiated at the beginning of the school year. This year’s grade level criteria can be found here.

Documentation of work completed:  I was challenged early on to keep everything that we do in the class as public as possible, and we’ve mostly succeeded in keeping up with our social media responsibilities. At first I kept a separate blog on the trebuchet project. Some years students have kept a class blog like https://phunsics2013.wordpress.com but lately we have moved away from blogs. We currently have a blog or two (here’s one) but the major posting of student work is happening at LJHS 3rd Hour Physics and Sausee Phyx on Facebook.

I’ve learned a lot over the years of running this makerspace and have become a much better Maker myself. While its frustrating sometimes that student motivation can be an issue even in the most student-powered course on campus, I’ll continue to keep on offering this space where students can learn how to learn. Keep an eye on our Facebook pages for details of our future shenanigans.

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I had the privilege of attending the recent Badge Summit in Aurora, Colorado which managed to pull in a bunch of badge geeks right before ISTE 2016. Why was I there? Curiosity about badges, I suppose, but also a sense that I need to change things up in my instructional design.

I’ve been doing the eportfolio thing for several years now and have come to realize that no one but me is seeing my students’ work, even though it is in an online space and can be made public. I’m looking for ways to have my students be recognized for their work in a way that transcends my silly grading scheme and the simple letter that can be seen on a report card or transcript.

Open Badges seem to be a way to accomplish that. As I understand badges at the moment, there are organizations out there that will help me to create and issue badges that are linked to evidence that the student provides. Most importantly, organizations such as the Common Application have recently begun collecting badges from students who want to show off particular skill sets to colleges and universities.

Adding badges on top of our existing portfolios could essentially create a new, more public layer of visibility for student learning. This means that I need to examine the language and standards that live in our portfolios and figure out how to issue badges that will be meaningful to students and to their audience, whoever that might be.

There is a great set of guidelines for badge creation to be found at Aurora Public Schools, who have run a pilot badge program in a large, urban public school system for a couple years now. As I got my thinking cap on about what my badges would look like, I went back to their guidelines:

  • Does this Badge provide rigor for our students?
  • Can the student demonstrate this skill independently?
  • Has the student had multiple opportunities to show this skill?
  • Is the Badge evidence based?
  • Is the Badge transferable?
  • Is the Badge based on a small/granular skill?

For me the sticking point was the requirement for badges to honor a small/granular skill. I’m generally a big picture guy and despise trivial details, but I realize that badges need to have some granularity to them in order to be meaningful. I set about digging into what students might earn badges for in my courses and came up with the following two lists, one for Biology and one for Anatomy:

Biology portfolio to badge map

Anatomy portfolio to badge map

The darker blue bubbles represent more granular topics or skills that might be more amenable to badging than the big 7 portfolio standards under which students currently collect their work. The challenge now will be to see if these lists of potential badges will be a workable framework from which to start designing and eventually issuing badges.

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Regular readers of this blog will have perhaps noticed the complete silence in this space since around January of this year. This particular post is an attempt to dissect why a reasonably regular, once-a-month edublogger would drop off the face of the blogosphere and Twittersphere.

Let me start by saying that I’m not the only one. I’ve seen a decent number of Tweets and posts that basically have the same message: where is everyone? By “everyone” we are referring to those educator friends that we’ve connected with online. We just don’t connect as much anymore. Twitter has become a place to promote your particular brand or organization or to sell your latest book. The rapid-fire exchange of ideas between educators is still there, but the signal-to-noise ratio is tipping in an unfavorable direction. Maybe it’s also because I found other things to do and other communities (looking at you XBox and Destiny) but I haven’t spent nearly as much time in meaningful Twitter chats as I used to.

But if I get honest with myself, I think the real reason that I’m not on Twitter or blogging about my life as an educator is that I don’t have anything new to promote. My use of student blogs and digital portfolios is a steady presence in my classroom, a comfortable and effective way to gather student work. My system of standards-based grading is quirky, but reasonably mature, having been tried and tested since 2010.  I’m feeling like my classroom MacBooks look these days: mostly functional, but old and grimy, with a few missing keys. Nothing special to see here, move along.

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So what is there to write about? What new wisdom do I have to pass on to you, dear reader? Is what I do as an educator worth writing any more about?

At this point, if you find this blog valuable at all, you (and I) need to thank a few folks for nudging me to pick up the proverbial pen once again, even if I don’t have any shiny new educational initiatives to sell you.

First, I noticed that people still read my blog, and even assign it as part of student projects. My blog stats led me to these teachers, who have assigned my internet famous SBG is (not) a Fad blog post as a resource for their students’ final Honors English project. It’s super rad to see teachers involve students in the debate around whether to switch to SBG. Great stuff, and I’m glad to continue to be a part of the discussion around grade reforms.

Next, just yesterday I got to build a robot with fellow teachers from some nearby school districts as part of a training for a robotics competition that I’ll be mentoring in the fall. Right at the start of the day, one my team members whom I had not met before mentioned that he reads my blog. Dang, an IRL person reads my stuff. I’d best get to updating the blog then. Thanks, Chip!

Finally, today I woke up to this amazing comment from a former student, Jeremy. Educators love to hear back from former students, which is especially true in this case since Jeremy spent a lot of time struggling to keep up with blogs and portfolios in my classes even though he is flipping brilliant. A short version of the comment would be something like this: keep doing what you are doing, it’s working. Or that’s my interpretation, anyway. But you should really read the comment for yourself, so click on it now.

I’ll leave you (for the moment) with a final thought: sometimes what we do as educators can feel trendy and hip and on the cutting edge, but that Edge will move away from us as new technologies and techniques arise. Deal with it. Take a close look at what is really working for your students and what isn’t. Wade through the shiny stuff to find that old, grimy core set of truths that got you into teaching in the first place, and see if you can carry those truths on to the next school year and the next.

-C

I have sat through many professional development sessions where I’ve been bored out of my skull. There was the one about gloves and writing a five-paragraph essay that gained me nothing more than a single gardening glove with some sharpie scribbles on it. There were the several sessions where I walked away with a giant binder that I never opened again. After several of these useless meetings, one of my colleagues and I started using the acronym “JJT,” which of course stands for Job Justification Theatre.

There is a little JJT in every PD session, to be sure, but sometimes the PD really did justify the job that was being done, especially when the training happened to be useful for all the staff in the building. Maybe it helped impart a shared vision of expectations or served as a sounding board for staff concerns.  Sometimes we even (gasp!) created the PD ourselves and had staff members run it.

Our building’s approach to PD this year has been wildly different, however. The emphasis, perhaps in reaction the the excess painful PD seat-time of previous years, has swung to individualized PD. Everyone gets what they need, as long as they find it themselves. Gone are the district-wide (insert edu-brand name here) trainings and other randomly generated PD topic sessions. This is the era of do-it-yourself PD.

Which is not a bad thing, unless we all travel our separate ways and never meet again.

And that’s why I’ve learned to love meetings. In meetings I get to chat with staff members from other departments to see what is working for them and what they are thinking about. Sometimes its like what I’m doing and we compare notes. Other times they are off on a radical new path that I need to know more about. But I wouldn’t have known about it by simply following my own interests.

I totally understand that the science department is going to have some different-looking PD from social studies and that those types of trainings will be department-specific to be really useful. I don’t necessarily want to learn about historical criticism.

But there is a place for creating and updating a vision for education that transcends individual topic area departments in a high school. How do we understand how kids learn and how can we adapt instruction accordingly? How do we provide quality feedback on student work? And my recent crusade: how do we assess and grade students in a way that is fair and doesn’t penalize them for the speed (or lack thereof) at which they learn?

These are topics that one person or department cannot simply address in a useful way without bouncing ideas off of the entire building. Believe me, I’ve been reforming grading practices in my classroom for years but those weird ideas have yet to gain much traction with many other faculty here. I’ve had more discussions with folks here on the blog and on Twitter than in my physical reality.

So please, take some time to meet with your faculty and brainstorm on topics that you all need to address as a staff. I’m going to make that my goal. Its time to schedule some meetings.

 

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Ever have one of those “mountaintop” experiences or events that at the time feel so important and life-changing that you wonder if you’ll be the same person on the other side of it? And then did you come down off the mountain and get back in your proverbial or literal car and return to your regular life? I think we’ve all been there a few times, perhaps at summer camp, a mission trip, or the tent revival at the local church.

For me, the latest such mountaintop experience was getting to attend and present at the national NSTA meeting in Chicago this past March. Seeing my name in the program just a few pages away from Neil Shubin and Bill Nye practically qualified me for rock-star status, at least on paper. The conference was amazing, as you’d expect, and I had a wonderful time giving my talk. The folks that came to see me (the mile walk!) were amazing and included a lot of great Twitter friends who stuck around to chat and make connections afterward.

I left NSTA15 feeling like I was on the right track. I’d presented at a national conference and didn’t make a fool of myself.  Many teachers seemed inspired by my ideas. Every talk I went to about the NGSS pointed towards needing new ways to assess student performances of science, which my portfolio-based assessment system clearly does. From all that I saw there, I was on the leading Edge of thinking about new ways to collect, analyze, and share meaningful data about what students know and can do.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen post-conference, but it basically didn’t play out as expected. I didn’t see the major leaders behind NGSS express any interest in portfolio assessments, nor did I hear any encouraging news on that front from Arne Duncan. My Twitter stream continued to be the flood of info that it used to be, but, aside from a few high quality interactions, it felt more stale and repetitive than usual. I was not really greeted as a local hero upon my return to my little town, save for a few close friends. In fact, I have yet to be invited to share my work with the district staff, most of whom know very little about what I do.

Now in all fairness, none of these things would ever realistically have happened. Much of the push for NGSS is linked to companies who want to sell us more tests, so change to new assessment types will be slow on that front. Twitter is a hot mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly even on a good day with amazing connections like I have. My local district was in the middle of incredible political turmoil with a witch hunt targeting the current (now former) superintendent, so a little side-show theater like mine would hardly draw an audience.

Bottom line, I came down off the mountain pretty hard. I did some consulting with a few folks who are trying out portfolios this coming school year (good luck y’all!) but mostly life went right back to normal. Or worse than normal, because I landed back in school during our post-Spring Break testing season, which felt even more onerous and depressing this year. It lasted forever and took instructional technologies out of the classroom for testing purposes. All the visions of classroom-based performance assessments died as I watched students suffer through lame computer-based tests for over a month of the school year. Ah, reality. Thou sucketh.

But as I turn my eyes to the new school year, I don’t plan on giving up on my ideas for replacing our current high-stakes tests, although large systems are hard to budge.  I’ve heard that being a pioneer is hard, lonely work, and there is some truth to that from what I’ve experienced. I can only hope that I’m scouting towards a future that benefits my students (and yours). Stay tuned and keep those ideas coming.

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Think of something new and innovative that you are trying out in your classroom, school, or district.

Prove to me that it works.

Yep, I want you to stop reading this and think about some fancy new way that you have of educating and/or assessing students and tell me what evidence you have to prove that your new technique works.

Twice recently I’ve been faced with this demand. In the first instance, a teacher who was very excited about using portfolios after hearing my talk at NSTA15 in Chicago contacted me for help in convincing her science department to let her pilot the use of portfolios. She sent me a list of their questions that looked something like this:

1) Have you seen an increase/decrease on standardized test scores?

2) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student motivation?

3) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student competency?

A similar question popped up in the application packet for the PAEMST:

Provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness as measured by student achievement on school, district or state assessments, or other external indicators of student learning or achievement.

Here’s the problem: portfolio-based assessments like those that I employ are meant to be a replacement for standardized test scores. Portfolios are not just some labor-intensive test prep system. That would be like spending months training for a triathlon but instead finding yourself riding a mechanical bull for ten minutes. You could probably ride the bull a little better than if you hadn’t trained, but the bulk of your training would be lost on anyone watching you ride the mechanical bull (badly).

What then do you say to the science department questionnaire about the effectiveness of portfolios? What proof could I possibly provide about external indicators of student learning that could match the depth and quality of the portfolio assessments themselves? ACT data might be the closest thing to useful testing data that I see, but correlating achievement on ACT with pre- and post-portfolio implementation would be fraught with any number of the usual data snarls that we find when trying to compare different test takers from multiple school years.

We are then at an impasse. Those educators like myself that want to use portfolios for assessment will tout all the amazing things that you can observe in portfolios that you could not otherwise. Those who want to keep using standardized tests as the measuring stick for student and educator performances will decry the lack of a link between portfolios and achievement test scores.

I think that pretty soon we are going to have two different systems pop up across the country to accommodate these two assessment camps. One wing will be led by the testing juggernaut that stands to make a lot of money by continuing the current testing regime, but the other will be led by…..Kentucky? New Hampshire? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect (hope?) that sooner or later we’ll see some states piloting portfolios (again) as much needed replacements for the broken assessments that we currently use.

In the meantime, I hope that teachers like the one I mention above are allowed or even encouraged to try new ways of teaching and learning and that the burden of proof of effectiveness does not grind progress to a halt. New assessment systems require new systems of measurement. To expect more comprehensive forms of assessment such as portfolios to generate the same simple, supposedly comparable data as has been generated in the past is blatantly unfair to those willing to try something new.

 

 

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This weekend at the NSTA national meeting in Chicago I’ll be hosting a discussion about the use of portfolios as the keystone of new NGSS-centered district and state science assessments. Here are the slides I’ll use to start the discussion:

Exemplar portfolios can be found here

Please join the discussion if you can make it to the conference or leave a comment here to continue the discussion online.

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This week I was asked by an administrator if I would like to go observe “some master Science teachers” in one of the big cities here in Colorado. I said yes. I’ll jump at any chance to see other science teachers in action, especially those that are in another school district.

But then I got to wondering about the phrasing of this offer, especially the bit about “master” teachers.

How does one earn the label of Master Teacher? Are these teachers self-identified experts at science teaching or is this a label granted by their administrators? Do their state science test scores blow my students’ scores away so that the state grants this title? What metric are we using here?

Of course, the obvious answer is that these may be National Board Certified folks. That seems to be the only metric that Colorado officially uses to determine if you are a master teacher. The NBCT site claims that “to date, 890 Colorado teachers have achieved National Board Certification.” I guess I find it kind of sad that out of all the teachers to ever teach in Colorado, only 890 of them are master teachers.

The subtext to the offer to visit another school is an interesting one, too. I teach in the only high school in a town of about 8000 people. The master teachers that I would be visiting work in schools in one of the big cities a few hours away. The folks at CDE who made us this offer clearly thought that teachers in the little school districts could benefit from seeing how its done in the cities. But is the teaching and learning that happens in big cities any more masterful than that happening out in the rural schools? Do we not have access to the same academic journals, blogs, and online networks of truly masterful teachers that they do? Shouldn’t they be visiting us instead?

I guess I am obsessing about titles and labels and the rural vs. urban socioeconomic dynamic here since I’ll be presenting at the National Science Teacher’s Association national meeting in Chicago in just a few weeks. I’ll attend sessions led by folks on the National Research Council and Achieve Inc. (the forces behind the NGSS) and surround myself with the high society of the nation’s science educators (and yes some functions at the conference require “evening attire”).

What sort of labels matter when science educators get together? I for one am sorely tempted to only seek out presenters with the label “current teacher” in their bio, because these are the folks who are most obviously trying to do right by their students on a daily basis. Likewise, I strongly suspect that there will be conference attendees who will look for certain credentials or affiliations after my name in the session listing and find them lacking.

In summary, I guess I would have been happier if this offer of a visitation simply asked if we wanted to meet and observe some fellow teachers in another school district. I still would have said yes, but without wondering whether someone was trying to compare my teaching skills with theirs. Who knows, maybe I will get to meet these master teachers and judge for myself. Maybe someday they’ll meet me and do likewise, but I probably still won’t be a Master Teacher, just a darn good one.

Image source: http://juliapopstar.deviantart.com/art/Martin-Freeman-s-Stamp-of-Approval-BADASS-ED-363964666

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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