Learning Environments

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

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

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

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

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

-Sigh-

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

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

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

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

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

I’m happy to announce the return of my student-designed Phunsics class for the 2013-2014 school year. If you’ve followed our previous work, you might want to skip ahead to phunsics2013.wordpress.com or the pics below to see what we’re doing at the moment. For some discussion of how I set up the class this year, read on.

As in my experiment a couple years ago, I’m running my physics class as a student-organized maker-space where the teacher’s main role is to check for safety and procure supplies as needed. The projects and course topics are mostly up to what students are interested in building, making, and learning about in the field of physics and engineering.

I added a bit more structure this year compared to the last time I ran this class. We once again started off with the marshmallow challenge on the first day. This was awesome for having students experience failure and the need for prototypes in their projects. We then spent a day or two brainstorming three areas:

    1. What content knowledge and skills should we expect to learn/want to learn as part of this physics class?
    2. What tools will we use to communicate what we are doing with our families, friends, school, and world?
    3. How will our work be assessed and graded for the school’s online gradebook?

The class of 26 students broke themselves up into teams to tackle these three areas. One group dove into our physics textbooks and the AP Physics guidelines to begin to search for big ideas for the class. A second group started brainstorming what sort of online sites they wanted to use for sharing their work. The third and surprisingly large group (I was sure no one would want to talk about grading policies) had some great conversations about how they wanted the course grade to be determined.

Initial tasks for setting up the course: content, communication, and grading policies

The results from our initial discussions about how to run this year’s course

After a few days of research and discussion, students came up with these guidelines for the course:

    • We will use a class blog at phunsics2013.wordpress.com and a shared YouTube channel to display our work
    • Each project group will have at least one author with a WordPress account who can publish to the class blog
    • Groups may create their own separate blogs/sites but will post links to these on the class blog
    • A reference list of major course topics will be published to the class blog by the team investigating our list of content knowledge and skill standards
    • Each project group will publish a weekly update to the class blog for the purposes of communicating and documenting their progress
    • At the end of each week, each group will either email or have a conversation with Mr. Ludwig about what progress grade they have earned for the week as supported by the evidence in their blog posts
    • All projects will be shared with the community both in online spaces and in at least one public event similar to our Phunsics Day 2012

What’s really fun is that their policy about weekly progress checks to determine their grade is very close to what I’d already implemented in my other classes using a weekly student entry in BlueHarvestFeedback. Either my students have caught on to how I like to grade or I’ve stumbled upon how they like to be graded, but either way we’re on the same page with our progress grades. I think we’ll need to have some more conversations later about how to derive their semester grade, but for now the progress checks are working nicely.

And now for the best part->

Here are the projects that my students are currently working on:

  • designing and building a quadrotor flying machine
  • a raspberry pi-powered robot of some sort (battle bot would be ideal, but we’re just learning how to program the pi)
  • the physics of weightlifting using Vernier Video Physics motion analysis
  • designing and building a spinning magnet and ferrofluid apparatus
  • building a flame tube for visualizing different wavelengths/frequencies of sounds
  • designing and building a two-seater powered go cart
  • designing and building a two-person cardboard boat destined to row across the swimming pool
  • restoring and improving the class hovercraft

Its early in the year, but many groups have already had some important successes. It’ll be interesting to watch as the year unfolds. Stay tuned and follow their blog for updates!

 

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In my last post I described how I might try to conduct my AP Biology class a lot like I conducted the (in)famous Phunsics Class of 2011-2012. (Phunsics side note: I saw one of the graduated seniors from that class recently. He told me the story of how over the summer he and another member of the phunsics class were at the local grocery store when a little kid that they didn’t even know walked up to them and said “Hey, you’re the guys who built the catapult-thingy, right? Yeah, I was at your Physics Day.” Instant celebs, just add physics awesomeness)

Since that post was written (wow, is it October already?) we’ve had a great time and discovered a few things along the way. So far we’ve learned that:

Documenting Black Widow BehaviorYep, its a wormGreen stuff needs light

  • ants make terrible pets, but they do have awesome battles when ants from different nests are combined together
  • the ends of our grow-light enclosure have far less illumination than the middle (sorry Michael)
  • worms need to be kept moist, but do seem to prefer outside dirt to wet potting soil
  • a mating population of 7 students violates the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equillibrium (as well as other school policies)
  • Black Widow spiders are awesome pets (if they don’t get out)
  • the old saying may be true: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • a ZPA is not something on the front of your pants, but it might have something to do with genes
  • really pretty green caterpillars sometimes turn into really ugly moths

How much of this was my doing? Just the fast plants, ma’am. That and I’m making them read “Your Inner Fish.” I tried to foist my usual pillbug behavior lab on them as well but they were too distracted by worms, dogs, and Black Widows. I suppose my critters weren’t as cool as theirs. They do like watching the parade of roly-poly’s come out when we water their soil, but the sheer carnage of a spider capturing and slurping down a grasshopper is in a completely different dimension of awesomeness.

So what is my role in this type of class, where students are driving a lot of the day to day activities? Besides being head of the spider containment team and he-who-finds-dead-worms-on-floor, I suppose one of my jobs is to give these kids grades that communicate how well they are doing in my class. Yet I consistently find, year after year and especially this year with the new and improved inquiry-based curriculum, that, out of all my courses, my AP Bio kids always have the fewest assessments listed in my gradebook. What is that about and should I (or their parents) be concerned? Isn’t AP Biology supposed to be a tough class, a Test-o-Rama? What about the piles and piles of learning objectives that are supposed to be assessed by the AP Biology Exam?

Its like this: sometimes stopping for formal assessments can feel like hitting a brick wall. Instead, we just go. We do science. Not in an unplanned and chaotic way, although there are certainly elements of randomness that come from being responsive to student interests. We do labs, hopefully mostly student-driven ones, because labs are way more likely to get students to learn how to think scientifically, not some vocabulary exercise followed by a quiz. Is there assessment of student learning? Yep. Assessment of learning is something that happens with every conversation about the lab procedure or results or omglookatthat and often doesn’t find it’s way into the grade book in the same way that a chapter test or a fancy blog post will. We’ll do those things, too, just not as often. For example, right now the students are working on a big writeup for their population genetics lab as well as a writeup of their observations of different animal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: it’s taken us over a month to even begin to get major assessments into the grade book and I’m starting to get twitchy over the massive scope of material that these kids are supposed to know. I’m already having to restrain myself from launching into a powerpoint-fueled frenzy of content-spewing vocabulary-laden gibberish in the name of “Getting them ready for the test,” and its not even March or April yet.

If you haven’t heard, the AP Biology course got a major overhaul this year with a focus on, you guessed it, inquiry. I’m down with that and love the emphasis on the seven science process skills outlined in the course description. But there’s a ton of plain ol’ biology factoids still inherent in the system, some of which are going to be pretty ugly to inquirify, if that’s a word. I suspect at some point that as a class we’ll need to start striking a balance between the wild carefree days of inquiry past and the rote memorization of tomorrow. AP Biology is a college-level course, you know ; )

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I’ve been asked a few questions lately about what my classes look like: Are your classes “flipped?” What kind of assignments do you give? How much lecturing do you do?

I thought about writing a post answering these, but then today I was evaluating this portfolio and thought that I would just post a link to it instead.

If you spend some time with this portfolio you’ll see:

  • Assessment by skill and content-area standards
  • Extensive use of various web-based tools
  • Reflection on one’s own learning
  • Cooperative group projects
  • Content-area writing
  • Student-designed experiments
  • Use of multiple devices and apps

This is what my classes look like.

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Scott McLeod recently asked this question in his post Reconciling Convergence and Divergence:

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas

with…

project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

My answer: I don’t reconcile the two, nor am I sure that I should. I do both. Separately.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I’ve been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a couple of years now and am to the point that I feel reasonably expert in structuring my classroom around standards. I typically start off each course in the fall by discussing the specific standards that students will meet during the year and explaining how they might go about proving that they’ve met those standards. We then proceed to work together as a class to do a variety of activities and labs designed to help students meet the standards that I have laid out. This works well in my biology, anatomy, and chemistry classes, all of which are concurrent college credit and so are matched to my state’s community college system guidelines for each particular course. Very, very convergent stuff. All students focus their learning on mostly the same set of ideas, even going so far as to complete electronic portfolios based on a common template that I provide for them. This system works nicely and the portfolios that students are producing are excellent, with lots of evidence that they’ve learned particular skill and content standards.

But what about physics? This year I had the opportunity to take over the job of physics teacher because: a) no one else wanted to teach it, and b) I had a lot of proto-engineers begging me to teach anything besides biology or anatomy.  This class turned out to be radically different from anything else that I’ve ever taught. It was radically different because I didn’t go into the class with a defined set of standards. The class was not concurrent college credit so I didn’t have to concern myself with matching a college syllabus. The state of Colorado does have physical science standards for students, but they had mostly fulfilled those in their freshman and sophomore level courses, and the kids taking physics were Juniors and Seniors.

With nothing to prove to anyone about whether I had correctly learnified my students, I was free to structure the class as I saw fit. I decided to let the students run it. On the first day of school I explained that they would be designing the class, not me. We spent the next few days brainstorming what sorts of things normally go on in a physics class, which topics they ought to leave physics knowing about, and how to do assessments of said goals. In other words, the students and I were still in a very standards-based frame of mind.

But then we diverged. Big time. Our brainstorming sessions had revealed a lot of different student interests: What about building that hovercraft you were telling us about and just how much power does a shop vac produce? Can we build some sort of catapult?  How about a potato gun? By the third week of school, we had all carried out a couple of the standard labs on measuring motion using video analysis and motion sensors but that was the last time we did anything as a whole group. The rest of the year was project based. Completely student designed and initiated to the point they started calling the class “phunsics.” My lesson plan book for the class was a mess. Usually it just said “Projects” until after class when I could actually fill in what students worked on that day, and when I did fill it in, I often had to summarize four or five different projects for the same class period. And so it went all year, sometimes in great bursts of activity, sometimes in lulls of senioritis and apathy, but always there were one or two major projects underway and several on the back burners.

To try to explain the course to future generations of phunsics students (and anyone else curious about what the class looked like), students created several videos about their experience.  A playlist of some of their videos is worth watching for some different perspectives on the class. Also, here’s my tribute video for the Phunsics team.

 

How then do we decide which type of course is better for learning, the convergent “let’s meet the standards” kind of class or the divergent “follow your interests” kind of class?  That all depends on how you measure learning, I suppose. On the one hand, students in anatomy, biology, and chemistry have portfolios of the work they accomplished during the year and anyone curious enough could see exactly what sorts of standards they had met. On the other hand, the phunsics students exhibited self-direction, organizational skills, coping with failure, teamwork, and creativity. Our current set of standardized assessments would completely overlook the achievements of these students, should we choose to assess them that way.

Would I teach the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses the same way that I did physics this year? I’m not so sure I would. Some subjects lend themselves to true inquiry and self-direction better than others. Disciplines like physics and engineering will always have an advantage over subjects like biology and anatomy where real inquiry involves very specialized equipment and a ton of background knowledge that students may not yet possess. Likewise inquiry in chemistry has to be bounded both by safety considerations and the background knowledge of students. Don’t get me wrong, I work in as many open-ended and inquiry labs as possible in these disciplines but these labs or “problems” are still often defined by the teacher and not the learner. Probably I still suck at PBL and just need to get better at it, but for now any sort of PBL short of giving full control to students seems kind of artificial to me.

In conclusion, I’m going to try to offer the physics course as often as I can, which at this point is every other year in rotation with AP Biology. I think a student-designed course like that is vital to help students understand what real scientific inquiry is like, with teams working together to solve problems and meet design challenges they meet along the way. And, at least for now, I’ll keep the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses as standards-based courses, but attempt to move them in a direction of more student control about how and when they meet the particular standards.

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kazoo testing

What do you do with a physics class full of bright, independent, high school kids? Well of course you march through the physics textbook so they can learn how to plug and chug all the right equations turn the class over to them so they can do the experiments that they want to do. At least that’s the way I thought we’d try it this year in my admittedly experimental foray into teaching a full-year physics course again. We had an awesome first semester, with lots of small student groups that self-organized around a number of major projects such as the trebuchet, hovercraft, hot air balloon, potato “accelerator,” wind tunnel, Road Runner/Coyote video analysis, and multi-stage rocket (and Barbie launcher) design. We capped off the semester with a traveling physics hover-tree built by the students that was decorated with mementos of all their projects for the year so far and lit with whatever light bulbs we could find, including a car head light.

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The tree was quite the conversation piece once we parked it in our school’s common area/cafeteria, but more importantly it let the whole school community get a glimpse of what the students had been up to in our physics “workshop.”

On the first day back from Christmas break, with the hover-tree mysteriously removed back to our workshop, I challenged the physics kids to make a switch for the new semester. I explained, and they agreed, that the first semester had been “about us.” We had done all the fun, dangerous, and occasionally goofy projects that were at the top of our to-do lists, or in some cases our as-seen-on-You-Tube lists. It was time now, I said, to change the focus to become “about them” (insert image of me pointing outside the classroom) meaning that we should take on projects that would be either educational for younger students or benefit the entire community in some way.

And so Physics Day was born. Physics Day will be happening on March 31st from 10:00 to noon in our gym and the nearby parking lot. We’re going to demonstrate the trebuchet, rockets, potato accelerator, and the hovercraft. Inside the gym we’ll have several stations with hands-on experiments such as wind tunnel testing of objects, slime creation, electromagnet building, an alternative energy showcase, and maybe our Rube Goldberg machine if we get it done in time. We plan to distribute promotional fliers around town, especially to students at our Intermediate and Jr/Sr High schools. We’ll publicize it in our local paper, too, as the day gets closer so that all the great folks at the local hardware stores can come see what all their lumber and pipe get used for.

Student designed, planned, and performed. Completely. I can’t wait to see what sort of turnout we get. I can’t wait to see how the trebuchet team manages to move the trebuchet halfway across the school grounds. I can’t wait to see if we can inspire students to enjoy science again.

P.S. —The student brains behind the trebuchet are at work on a plan to provide free Internet access to students at home throughout town by bouncing the school’s WiFi signal off of some strategically placed reflectors. This may be the “about them” message taken to the extreme, but if we pull it off, it’s going to be a big deal for the whole town. I’ll share more on that as it progresses past the ugliness of setting up the backend RADIUS server.

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It’s been another phenomenal week in my physics class. We’ve got a definite groove going on in there that is about as student-centered as I can make it. We’ve got several different projects going on at once, still, but this week saw the successful completion and testing of our potato launcher (“its not a potato gun, its a potato accelerator”). Let’s just say that at this point it launches so far we’re moving it to a more appropriate firing range. Yay for living in a rural area with an empty lot behind the school.

Here’s my continuing dilemma, though: I’m constantly struggling not to over-teach these kids by jumping in to analyze what they are doing in terms of the physical principles involved. I regularly find myself almost launching into lecture mode once some major concept is demonstrated in one of their projects. Mostly, I think a hands-off approach on my part will pay off in the end with greater student ownership of their education. On the other hand, part of me feels like I’m somehow doing them a disservice if I don’t prepare them for the kind of physics class that they’ll encounter in college, with problem sets and various levels of plug-and-chug formulas.

I’ve been reading several posts lately with the message of “stop teaching so much, already!” and I tend to agree. I spoke with several parents at our recent parent night (reported on here with pics of one of our hovercrafts) and they didn’t seem to have any issues with the project-intensive class format, so I think I’m teaching enough as far as they are concerned. There’s just this little old science teacher voice in my head that says we’re having too much fun at this for it to really be a physics class.

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I’ve been putting off this post for a while, even though some of these ideas have been kicking around in my head all summer. I suppose I haven’t wanted to have one of my pet ideas shot down by wiser heads. But now that the school year is almost upon us, and I’m looking over yet another Edge, it feels like time to throw this one out there.

At the rural high school I teach at, we have often offered an upper level physics course, one that goes beyond what students do in their freshman level Physical Science, but it rarely happens due to lack of student interest. That appears to have changed this year and, yes, yours truly has been tagged as the Physics teacher.

I’ve taught physics before, both as a one semester introductory course and as a full-year elective, so I’ve got some ideas about how to run the course. I could trot out one of my old syllabi, change the dates, maybe update an URL or two, and go about the business of surviving yet another new(ish) prep. But I’m not going to do it that way.

I’m going to go in the first day of class without a syllabus, pacing guide, or even a web page to tell students about the class. Its going to be their class and they’ll help decide what the course looks like.

This means that after an introductory activity or two, we’ll sit down together and decide what we want to do this year as a physics class. We’ll throw around our favorite topics in physics and get a sense of where our interests lie. We’ll brainstorm some major projects that we want to build (community WiFi, catapults, and a hovercraft for starters). And then we will crack open the physics textbook and see what other topics we missed that we think we ought to know before the year is over. Only then will we break out some shared Docs and write our syllabus for the year, complete with topics, projects, and how we’ll determine final grades.

For the SBG’ers out there who are interested in my list of physics standards that I’m going to assess, sorry, my students haven’t written them yet. But we will. Together.

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What follows is my submission to the Virtual Conference on Core Values. I write this in the hope that it will lead to thoughtful discussions with my colleagues, wherever they may be.

How do I help transform our school from a collection of glassy-eyed, bored teenagers to a community of learners?

This is the question I’ve asked myself lately, and it shouts out my core values pretty well. I want our school to be a place where students support each other rather than engaging in the petty social posturing so common in the rest of their lives. I want them to be so engaged in learning that they forget to be students. I need them to show the world that there are brilliant, creative minds at work in our school.

If you poke around the archives of my blog you will see that I have experimented with technology, assessment, and blogging in my high school science classroom. I’m at a point where I have revamped my instructional strategies (mostly web-based via laptops), my grading system (now standards-based), and my assessments (now using blog-based portfolios). All these changes have been made with the goal of having students take charge of their learning. I want kids to know how to find the information they want to learn about, collaborate with people everywhere, and share what they’ve learned with their family, community, and each other. I want them to have the freedom to explore what they are interested in, but to also simultaneously encounter core concepts so that they are grounded in a shared body of knowledge with learners around the world.

What I need now is to extend my experimentation to the rest of the school day, and for that I’m going to need the help of my school community, particularly that of my fellow teachers and administrators. I’m increasingly convinced that a community of learners will never develop and thrive within our current 7 period, 50 minutes per class, regimented and controlled school day. A traditional schedule such as ours works if our focus is on the need to control and corral students through a prescribed set of learning activities. It works well for babysitting and making sure students are exactly where we want them to be.  If, on the other hand, we become convinced that student ownership of their educational experience is necessary for creating a community of learners, then we need to re-imagine the structure of our school day to allow for student independence and choice.

I know that there are many of you who will push back against altering the schedule of the school day as we know it. I get that. One of the things I love about teaching is the routine. Summer screws me up sometimes, since my routine is thrown off-kilter until I return to school in August. But we can’t let our favorite routines stand in the way of what may be best for our students.

Why would a different schedule be best for our students? Let me first describe an option that I’ve been thinking about, an alternative to the traditional 7-period day: Open Door Core Courses.

Imagine for a moment that we block out a chunk of time, say from 8 to noon in which students would be “attending” their core classes. On paper (or the electronic equivalent) each students’ schedule might not look too different from what it does now, maybe 1st period language arts, 2nd period science, 3rd period math, and 4th period social studies. The specific subject-area content would change by grade level, of course (Am. History for Juniors or Government for Seniors, Biology or Physical Science, etc.). What would be different, however, is WHERE students would be at any given moment. Rather than force “seat time” in each classroom, we could allow students to float between the four core disciplines based on their needs for that particular day. If they know they need help with a project in math, they go see the math teacher for a block of time. If they need to catch a lecture in science, they go to their science classroom. If they need help with a web tool or publishing to their blog, they go to someone that they know can help them. If they need to just sit down and read an article or write a paper, they can do it wherever they feel most comfortable.  Such a schedule would allow students access to the experts that they need WHEN they need them and give them choices about which learning spaces they want to be in for particular tasks.

What would this look like in practice? Chaos? Maybe, but it might look like students hanging out in our library couches and common spaces but still getting their coursework done. It might look like classrooms empty at one moment and full of activity the next. It might look like teachers reexamining their need to lecture students in order to “teach” content. It could lead to content-area teachers  functioning as a team to decide together when to meet face to face with students in certain classrooms for whole-group discussions and collaboration. It could lead to more creative uses of “class time”, particularly during those afternoon hours of the school day that could be left less structured for independent projects and electives.

Why would changing the school schedule to an open door format be best for students? Simply put, students do not learn efficiently when plugged into a desk for an entire day. Don’t believe me? Just think about your last class period of the day. Is it your most well-behaved class? Are those the students who perform the best on your tests and/or are the most creative? If you give students a choice of where to work in your classroom, do they choose the desk, the couch, or the floor? Mine prefer the floor, but I bet if I bought some beanbags and game chairs they would be fighting over them. The point is, the more choices we can give to students about where, when, how, and from whom they learn, the more individualized and engaging their educational experience will be.

I’ll leave you with a challenge. Check out some of the resources that led me to this point in my thinking about classroom schedules and learning spaces and post a comment or two about what you find there in relation to what I’ve discussed. First, read about some of the necessary characteristics of The Third Teacher, the space in which students study and interact with each other. Next, check out some of the talks that Shawn Cornally has been giving lately. In particular, I recommend his TEDx talk and his podcast with Dr. Tae on American Reason. Lastly, I’ll point you to this article (.pdf) that analyzes why Apple Stores may have the design elements needed to create the best learning spaces in our schools. EDIT: One more excellent bit of reading is “When we stop teaching, they start learning” by Robert Pepper.

Building a true community of learners will not be successful with just one teacher holed up in their classroom doing neat things. All staff, administration, and, most importantly, students need to be involved in the planning and implementation of the deliberate steps that we need to take together to change how our school operates. Let’s get to work!

 

 

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Since I teach several science courses that are concurrent with similar courses at our local community college, I have the chance to be formally evaluated by students each semester as do all “regular” college faculty. The most recent batch of evaluation results turned up in my box a few days ago, and I was eager to see what students were saying about my classes. I’d given a survey a few weeks into the school year, but the results of these evaluations would be another chance for me to gauge student reactions to this year’s implementation of skills-based grading. As soon as I could, I cracked the envelope containing the summary of student responses and read what my students had to say.

I’ll skip over the numerical averages for my “performance” (this is a mostly standards-based blog after all) and cut right to my favorite part: actual student comments. Overall, the written comments were very well thought out and were pretty positive about my class (Anatomy and Physiology in this case). One comment in particular stuck with me and I’ve been trying to figure it out. Its the one I used for the title of this post: “I do not think the grading system was appropriate for the course. I felt like I was teaching myself!”

Are students really “teaching themselves” in my skills-based grading system? Does this comment mean that I run the sort of classroom where the teacher sits at their desk while students run amok? Does it mean that students feel there is no direction to the class? Those issues would certainly be worth fixing, if that is indeed what my class is like.

This comment came right after a couple others in which students claimed to be disappointed that we weren’t using worksheets very much and were using too much technology. Taken together, these comments highlight the fact that at least a few students are uncomfortable with how they are being assessed in my classes. In fact, there were a couple of low votes in the “fairness of grading” category that I can only assume came from the students who wrote the comments mentioned above.

I’m left with some confusion, though, as to how to help students who are not taking advantage of the structure of my classroom. What to some is “teaching themselves” and a lack of worksheets and lectures has been a very different experience for many others who have embraced different ways to learn and to show that they are learning in my class. Some students treat me as their coach for learning the course content and skills, but many students are still wrapped up in getting a good grade, passing the class, or simply not failing it. I’ve taught too long the way some students expected, with worksheets turned in for points, often copied from neighbors and not true products of learning. Some students were clearly expecting more of the same and are still parsing out how to achieve a “good grade” without doing much learning.

I’ve got some work to do, obviously. My first step will be to look carefully at my instructional practice to make sure that I am supporting students as fully as I can for them to be successful. If that is in place, then I’m going to move on to the bigger job ahead of me, that of tackling “the system” that makes completion of assignments equal to measuring learning. Part of that work is happening right now, as I write this post to proselytize for a careful reassessment of what we do in our classrooms. If I can convince some or all of my colleagues to stop giving grades for completion and maybe even get them to try some sort of standards-based assessment and reporting system, then students should arrive in my classes already expecting to be held accountable for their actual learning.

In some ways, “I felt like I was teaching myself!” is the most complimentary comment of all. If they are learning to teach themselves, then I’m on the right track. If students can leave my classroom knowing how to learn, I’ve done my job, because I won’t be part of their lives forever. They’ll have to be able to do it on their own, and they might as well learn how to learn now before it really matters in college or their careers.

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