I’ll get to the point of this post in a bit, but first, if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing this summer, here are some pics from my deck construction project in my backyard:

Deck construction site

Before

Back Deck

After

Back Deck 2

After

Aside from bragging about my deck, there’s a point about learning to be made here. How did I “know” how to build this deck? Was I born a carpenter? Certainly not. It was something I wanted to know how to do so I learned how to do it.

Let’s think about how we learn, for a second. And by we, I mean everyone, including educators. Do you read about what you are trying to learn? Do you watch videos? Do you look for pictures of what you are trying to understand? I would argue that we do all these, but often the most powerful modes of learning involve visuals. Even textbooks are not just text. They’ve got lots of helpful pictures and diagrams to help explain the concepts in the text.

When I wanted to learn how to build a bench on my deck, I did an image search and came up with this:

Deck Bench Plans

I didn’t really pay attention to the text of the article, at least at first. The picture pretty much does the explaining: tie in framing members to your joists, cut the back support at a certain angle, make each piece so long, etc. I could adapt this basic design to my deck by changing the dimensions of the bench and the hardware that I had on hand to attach it. The point is that I could get about 90% of the important details of how to build a bench just from this image alone.

You could certainly argue that this is a special case of learning that only applies to construction, but I’m going to suggest that our classrooms could operate along similar principles, especially as related to our use of lecture software tools such as Powerpoint.

Powerpoint lectures are often the whipping boy of the #edchat crowd, and rightfully so. On the teacher side, canned Powerpoint lectures, often partially or entirely prepared by textbook companies, seem to deliver content, but really don’t teach content to students. On the student side, we are often happy to have students create Powerpoint presentations to show what they’ve “learned” even when we know that often the vast majority of what shows up in those slide shows is mostly copy/paste from their sources.

From a more #edtech perspective, I read all the time about “alternatives to Powerpoint” like Prezi, Keynote, or Google Presentations (all of which my students and I use and love, by the way). There’s also a lot of tips out there about how to make your Powerpoint slide shows better, if you must use them. Most of those hints seem to be along the lines of getting rid of text and bullet points and simplifying your slides down to just a few important images that you can talk about as you “deliver” the slide show.

If we are talking about removing the text from our Powerpoints and just including images for discussion, why do we need Powerpoint? I’ll argue here that you can run an entire lecture (ahem, discussion) just using image search results projected for the class. Sure its a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but we have another phrase for that these days: its called just-in-time learning and its fun.

To see how this works, try out this scenario taken directly from my AP Bio class: you are discussing the topic of photosynthesis with the class, maybe some specific aspect of it like the light reactions. Do an image search and see what pops up:

Photosynthesis image search

Project the search results to the class. Discuss with students which images they like the best and use those to get the discussion rolling. You’ll notice that lots of related ideas pop up so be prepared for conversations to travel in directions that you didn’t plan. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?

If you think about it, putting a slideshow presentation together automatically assumes that you have a flow that you want the conversation with your students to follow: we’ll talk about this, then this, then this. If you’ve made a “path” in prezi, you know what I’m talking about. There are times that paths work well, to be sure, but if you want to allow for student interests while still exploring your topic, then a canned, preplanned set of lecture slides is a hindrance to exploration. An image search, on the other hand, has a lot of potential to replace your lecture slides but still creates a focal point from which to start a whole class or small group discussion. Not only can teachers use this simple technique (no more building slide shows for hours) but so can students. When students want to explore an idea with you or other students, they can pull up image search results and project them to the class to start or support discussions as well.

I’ve done several of these image search discussions now and have found the conversations to be much richer than anything that I’ve managed to stimulate using lecture slides. Many students reported really enjoying the format and documented our modified lectures using cell phone or iPad cameras (see here). Sometimes students used the images that we discussed in class as the focal points for later blog posts about the topic (see here). Either way, the images that we found quite adequately replaced both expensive prepared Powerpoints and the tediously hand-made slide shows that I used to spend time creating.

I’ll definitely try to work in more of these image search discussions this coming school year, but I know they aren’t for everyone. It takes a fair bit of confidence in your subject matter in order to feel comfortable with discussing the unknown results that come up with any given set of search terms. You can get around this by narrowing your search down to a more specific topic so that there are fewer surprises. But I happen to like surprises, particularly if they get students interested in what I’m trying to teach.

Surprises. Free scientific illustrations. Conversations with students about science. No more slaving away formatting lecture slides to get them “just right.” Yep, I’ll be doing more of these kinds of discussions.

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This quote from Dean Shareski came across my Twitter feed yesterday just as I was archiving some of my favorite examples of student portfolios:

shareskionachievementChallenge accepted.

First off, I’ll state that even portfolios are a weak form of proving “achievement.” The real kind of achievement that we should be aiming for as teachers will be only evident in the lives of our students once they’ve left our buildings. But that sort of thing is about as immeasurable as it gets and is unlikely to be used by anyone other than teachers to prove that we’re doing our jobs.

How do we demonstrate that kids are learning in our classes? One route is obvious: give your kids a test that everyone takes and see how they do in comparison to everyone else. This seems to be the go-to choice for most educators these days, willing or not, given the corporate takeover of student assessment. The problem with a lot of these tests, though, is that they are usually one-time, shot-in-the-dark maybe-you-were-feeling-bad-that-day assessments that really don’t capture what a kid was able to learn and create over the 9 months that they were in your classroom.

That’s where portfolios can demonstrate achievement far better than tests, no matter how rigorous or authentic we try to make our exams. With a well-built student portfolio, educators can look for evidence of what they think is important by requiring students to provide evidence of those outcomes. Do you value collaboration in your classes? Then make a spot in your student portfolios where kids provide evidence of being able to collaborate. Do you value good communication skills? Include a portfolio page about communication. The structure of the portfolio defines what you hope kids will achieve while in your classes. It can include test scores, but a good portfolio is much more than test scores.

It might be clear by now that I’m in favor of creating the structure of the portfolio for the student. There are arguments against that, I’m sure, but if I am going to be held accountable for what my kids are learning, then I’m at least going to provide them some standards against which to measure themselves. For me that means using standards-based grading and portfolio templates for students to fill with evidence for each standard.

As for the portfolios themselves, there are plenty of tools out there for creating digital portfolios, but some have too much reliance upon the teacher (they upload everything, student does nothing) and some have no structure to them (“Here’s this thing I did in March”). I think a good portfolio tool or platform should have the following functionality:

    1. A blank portfolio can be delivered to the student with a built-in, standards-based structure designed by the teacher.
    2. Each portfolio should be continually updated and upgraded by the student as the school year progresses and they learn new content and skills.
    3. Students should be doing all the work of collecting their best work into the portfolio and defending why their work meets or exceeds the standards for the course.
    4. The portfolio should be easily accessible by both teacher and student from school and from home.
    5. The portfolio needs to have a variety of options for sharing with other students, educators, and community members who have a stake in particular students’ performances.
    6. Students should be able to customize the appearance of their portfolio to suit their tastes in graphics, design, and layout.

I’ve been having my students create Google Site portfolios for two years now, primarily because I can create template Google Sites that are populated with web pages for each standard that I want students to provide evidence for. At the beginning of each school year, students log into their school Google accounts, find my template site for their course in Google Sites, and then make a copy of it as their new portfolio. They then spend some time learning the ropes of Google Sites, if they don’t know them already, and customize their sites a bit with new graphics, fonts, and color schemes as they see fit.

The rest of the school year is spent engaging in learning activities that probably could be found in most any science classroom. The major difference is that in the back of students’ minds is always the question: how will I document this in my portfolio? Students are allowed to make decisions about how best to communicate learning. Will they just post a Google Doc copy of an activity or will they write a longer blog post about it? Will they do a certain lab report in Google Docs, Glogster, or Prezi? Will they do the lab report on their own or collaborate with their lab group? What goes into the portfolio is up to the student, so although the class as a whole might do a similar set of labs and activities, each portfolio comes out relatively unique due to the choices students make about how they document activities and which ones they choose to include in their portfolio.

One downside of using Google Sites is that, of course, the portfolio is tied to the student’s account. This means that these awesome showcases of student achievement might get deleted once students graduate and our IT department deactivates their accounts. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’ve recently been archiving some of the most impressive portfolios to use as exemplars for next year’s classes. Our IT department was nice enough to make me a super boss in our Google Apps domain at least long enough to copy over some of the sites to my account.

Here are some students’ finished portfolios that I’ve archived, sorted by course:

Anatomy:

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/4acresanatomyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/katrinasanatomyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/stevenssanatomyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/tiffanysanatomyportfolio/

AP Biology:

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/mandiapbiologyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/michaelsapbiologyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/steven-sapbiologyportfolio/

Biology:

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/ashleysbiologyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/stevensbiologyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/taylorsbiologyportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/tiffanysbiologyportfolio/

Chemistry:

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/sierrachemistryportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/stevenschemistryportfolio/

https://sites.google.com/a/lajunta.k12.co.us/nikkischemistryportfolio/

These are just a sampling of some of the better portfolios from the last couple of years. I’m sure there’ll be issues with permissions and such that pop up with some of the students’ artifacts, particularly for those that have used their school Blogger accounts, but these should at least give you a taste of the organizational schemes that I try to use for each course’s portfolio.

What makes these portfolios stand out from those of other students is not necessarily the quality of the artifacts that are linked in the portfolio, but that each of these students really understood the purpose of the portfolio, namely that of showing that they truly did meet the standards for the course. Not only did they do the required work, but they were also able to explain what they learned and why it met the course requirements.

A majority of the student portfolios shared above were already made public by their authors, although the default sharing setting is private within our school’s Google Apps domain. What does that say about the whole point of the portfolio process? Is it for me, the report card, or the junior college that might give them concurrent credit? Maybe all these things, but by choosing to make their portfolios public, these students have made a statement about what they believe the portfolio is all about.

These students have decided that their achievements are worth noticing. By everyone. In all the Internet. I doubt we’ll see that same kind of passion about their state test scores.

 

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In the interest of being more constructive than my last post, here are some questions that any team of teachers should ask themselves in order to make a district-wide library of curriculum documents be truly viable:

Why go through the trouble of creating curriculum documents?

A new teacher coming into a school building needs to have some sort of clue as to what to teach. Can they get that from a textbook company? Sure, but a good hand-crafted, professionally selected set of resources complete with suggested learning targets, activities, labs, and assessment items is a better foundation than just a prepackaged set of worksheets and virtual labs.

Students and parents need to know what they are going to be learning about in a particular course or grade level. A good curriculum project should result in documents that teachers can share with students and parents. There should be transparency to all stakeholders as to what is happening in the classroom. Are teachers showing videos every day? Is what students are learning about important and relevant? Published curriculum documents are one way to show parents and administrators what we hope to achieve in our classrooms.

Who are we writing our curriculum for?

Sadly, the student audience is often overlooked when we’re writing curriculum. Think about the last time you wrote a course or grade level curriculum. Did you use student friendly language? I strongly suspect that you were writing it (at best) for your supervisor, or (at worst) you assumed that no one, including yourself, would ever look at it again.

If we choose to create curriculum to appeal to some mythical state inspector or RTTT grant committee, then we are going to be crafting it with that audience in mind. If we are primarily concerned with communicating our goals with parents and students, then it will look very different.

What should our curriculum focus on?

I (rather snarkily) mentioned this in my last post. What does our curriculum emphasize? When parents and students see our finished curricula posted online, do they get the sense that we care more about our students than meeting state or national testing corporation requirements?

If our curriculum is written as a series of facts to be learned, then we declare to parents and students that our most important audience is the testing companies. Why? Facts are easily tested. Its simpler to write test questions about facts. But anyone can google facts, that’s why they should be emphasized less in a modern educational system.

We should instead build curriculum for all grade levels that builds skills a la Wiggins and McTighe:

“So then, what is a curriculum? In research for our book, Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1997), we uncovered 83 different definitions or connotations for the word, curriculum, in the educational literature! Such a variety of meanings confer an unhelpful ambiguity on the challenge of moving from standards to curriculum. Worse, most definitions focus on inputs, not outputs — what will be “covered” rather than a plan for what learners should be able to accomplish with learned content. This is a core misunderstanding in our field. Marching through a list of topics or skills cannot be a “guaranteed and viable” way to ever yield the sophisticated outcomes that the CCSS envision.”

We should instead focus on “…complex abilities and performances that students should master for college and workplace readiness.”

Basically, our curriculum should consist of a series of opportunities for students to practice skills that we believe are important to their future success. The first step of any curriculum project in a district therefore should be to agree on what those skills are and how to foster them in a developmentally appropriate way at each grade level. I’m excited that in our building the science and social studies departments are considering ways to track student progress from year to year not using standardized trivia-based test data, but by using more performance based assessments of student skills. We’ll be working over the summer to hammer out which skills we want to be sure to address and perhaps designing some of the assessments.

How can we guarantee that teachers will follow the curriculum guide provided to them?

We can’t, especially if that curriculum includes specific timetables of when kids will learn and master each topic. I mentioned previously that I dislike the term “guaranteed and viable” pretty intensely when attached to the word “curriculum.” The main reason is that a curriculum guide is just that, a guide, not a guarantee.

Teachers cannot control which students walk into their classroom in the fall. Would it be great if all students came to us with the same set of skills, one that matches nicely with the skills needed to be successful with our curriculum? Of course, but that rarely happens. Life is messy, especially the home lives of many of our students so they come to us with various deficiencies and strengths. Every group of students is different, so to pretend that we know exactly how long it will take for everyone to learn a particular topic or skill, without knowing each student’s capabilities, is ridiculous.

Holding a teacher accountable to an inflexible set of learning deadlines spelled out in a “guaranteed” document is one of the worst kinds of educational malpractice I can think of. This practice leads to teachers merely “covering” the material to cover their asses and denies kids the help they need if their particular skill set doesn’t integrate well with the established curricular time table.

Some conclusions from the above questions:

    1. Work together with your grade level or department to create your own personalized, meaningful curriculum guides to use in your classroom.
    2. Write your curriculum documents using student- and parent- friendly language and layout. Post them in an easily accessible public location online.
    3. Focus on supporting the growth of important skills and don’t simply “cover” trivial facts when writing your curriculum guides. Begin by identifying which skills you believe are key to student success at your grade level and beyond.
    4. Treat your documents as a guide, not a rigid timetable, and do not use them as a evaluative ruler by which to measure teacher success. Teachers need to be able to adapt their curriculum to help the students that they received rather than those they planned for.

guarantee

I don’t know if this is happening in your school district, but around here we’ve been talking a lot about our Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) project. Teachers have been working very hard under the tutelage of curriculum specialists to develop a GVC that spans all grade levels in our district using a common format. We’ve been told that without GVC teachers don’t know what to teach and students can end up with big gaps in their knowledge when they move between teachers, grade levels, or schools. Sounds great! But…

First, let’s agree on some definitions (lifted from http://www.thefreedictionary.com):

Guaranteed
1. Something that assures a particular outcome or condition: Lack of interest is a guarantee of failure.
2. a. A promise or an assurance, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service. b. A pledge that something will be performed in a specified manner.
 
Viable
1. Capable of living, developing, or germinating under favorable conditions.
2. Capable of living outside the uterus. Used of a fetus or newborn.
3. Capable of success or continuing effectiveness; practicable.
 
Curriculum
1. All the courses of study offered by an educational institution.
2. A group of related courses, often in a special field of study.
 

If we explain what GVC means to parents using these definitions we might get the following statement:

“We, the staff of (insert your school district name here), pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, (insert curriculum project/vendor name here), to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child (insert the purpose of education here). You will be able to view these curriculum documents at (insert hyperlink here) to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Perfect! We’ve just created something to put on the district’s webpage that will tell parents all about what their students will be learning. Or have we?

We can easily fill in most of the blanks in this statement, district name, fancy curriculum project name, and website where all the goodies are posted, but how about that one in the middle: insert the purpose of education here. How are we going to express that?

Let me throw out some options for what to write there:

“These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child

…can help America compete in the global economy.”

…can score proficient or advanced on the state exam.”

…gains entry into the college of their choice.”

…becomes a productive member of society.”

…gets the same education as everyone else.”

…learns critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Discuss among yourselves (or add a comment to this post): Which option (and I’m sure there are others) appeals to you? Why do we send kids to school? What is the purpose of our curriculum documents in light of this goal? Which of the above choices would the leadership of your district emphasize?

I recently saw this email from our curriculum consultant about the timing and placement of our curriculum units:

“I noticed in the 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map that all of the Earth Systems Science standards are located in 4th Quarter.  Please note that on the Colorado 8th Grade Science Assessment Frameworks, 34% of the total score points will be awarded from the Earth Systems Science Standards (see attached frameworks).

Please have your science teachers take another look at the La Junta 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map.  It appears, from what I can gather from the timing of the assessment, that all of the 8th Grade Science Standards will need to be taught by the end-of-third-quarter in order to be fully prepared for the 8th Grade Science Assessment. That will leave 4th quarter available for more extensive application or cross-content integration and/or preparation for 9th grade science.

There is a similar concern with mapping the 7th Grade Social Studies Standards in order to be prepared for the Colorado 7th Grade Social Studies Assessment.”

Just in case you missed it, the email says that our 7th and 8th grade teachers, and by extension everyone else in the district, have to cover all their required course content in the first three quarters of the school year.  The fourth quarter can be used for “more extensive application or cross-content integration” or preparation for the next level. An extreme interpretation of this email would be that 4th quarter curriculum doesn’t matter, since its after the test. The unavoidable conclusion from this email is that the curriculum should be designed to create the greatest possible chance of success on the state test.

Thanks to this set of instructions about my department’s curriculum, I can now accurately craft the message that our curriculum sends to parents. Here we go:

“We, the staff of East Otero School District, pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, the La Junta Public Schools Curriculum, to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child can score proficient or advanced on the state exam. You will be able to view these curriculum documents at lajuntaschools.org to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Bummer. Talk about a missed opportunity. We could have made our curriculum about teaching kids skills that they’ll need when they leave our classrooms. We could have focused on making sure that we teach kids how to think for themselves and make informed decisions later in life.

Maybe we’ll work on that during 4th quarter.

TCAPStopSignHave you ever witnessed students doing amazing things? If you’ve been in a classroom, I suspect you have, but I doubt that you associate amazing things with those soul-sucking days devoted to giving standardized tests.

I’ve been inflicting our state’s standardized test on my students this week. If you aren’t from Colorado, its helpful to know that our current state-mandated test is called the TCAP, where T is for Transitional. Transitional as in “we don’t really have a good idea about what the next test will look like but we know that the old test, the CSAP, has expired.”  I could go on about how useless it is to give a “transitional” test, knowing that it tests a set of standards and skills that the state disposed of a while ago, but I won’t.

What I’ll share instead is the story of one young lady, whom I had never met before she walked into my classroom the day of the first testing session.

Different schools do testing differently, but at our school we block out (wipe out) four days of instructional time to administer the TCAP to students.  We do three test sessions during the course of a day, with a few breaks thrown in so students can snack and take care of bodily functions before they get back to testing. Throw in some extra testing time just in case students run over the allowed time for testing, lets say a half-hour per test, and now you are asking students to come to school from 7:45 to 1:35, call it 6 hours a day, for 4 days, for a total of 24 hours.

The students are, perhaps sadly, used to this chunk of their lives being thrown away. They file in to my room on the first day of testing with resignation written on their faces. They sit in their proper places with their number two pencils at the ready and wait for test booklets to appear. Appear they do, and, after some standardized directions read by yours truly, they dive into their tests and whatever mysterious tasks await them.

Except one doesn’t. This young lady was right with me during the directions and the slightly useless “sample” problems but now she has closed her test booklet and is sitting quietly staring at its cover. I’m not allowed to “interact with the students in any way” so I don’t say anything, and, as it turns out, neither does she. She just sits there for an hour as the rest of the tested go about their mysterious tasks.

At first I think to myself that perhaps she is not fond of writing. That would explain why she skips the essay part of the reading and writing test. But then she proceeds to do the same exact thing for the math test, then the science test, and so on. She is an equal opportunity non-test-taker, apparently. Hour after hour, day after day goes by with the same pattern repeating itself: I read the directions, she smiles, and then she calmly closes her test book without completing a single test item.

For 24 hours. Twenty-four-hours of sitting quietly while others around her scribble away at mysterious tasks. When was the last time you spent 24 hours in silence? This is a 10th grader we’re talking about. A teenager. The age group where self-control is thrown out the window by hormones and disconnected frontal lobes. To sit quietly while the world goes about its tasks is something a lot of us wanna-be adults struggle to pull off. She must have a pretty good reason for choosing to behave this way.

But why? What drives a student to such outlandish behavior? I wish I knew. Is she sticking it to the man by refusing to test? Was she inspired by the recent Denver student protests and is following their example? Or is she so low ability that she feels that she will fail the test anyway so why even try? Does she hate all of her teachers so much that she wants to nail them with poor test scores so they look bad and get fired? All these reasons are possible and valid.

Why did she come to school at all? There happens to be an interesting bit of state legislation (C.R.S. 22-7-409) that “requires every student enrolled in a public school to take the assessments in the grade level in which the student is enrolled.” Various people (usually school administrators and TCAP testing coordinators) have made it clear that this statement means that state law says that you have to take TCAP. I’m not here to argue the legality of opting out of TCAP, the Coalition for Better Education and the United Opt Out National Movement do a much better job of that, but I am here to say that the message is broadcast to students and parents that refusing to show up for TCAP testing is illegal. I suspect that’s why this student came to school for her 24 hour marathon of non-compliance.

As I watch this student sit (or nap) through these “legally required” tests I wonder, regardless of their motivation, what would happen if more students followed her example?  Could enough passive resistance like this change how we do testing to students? What would happen if all of our students smile, nod, and close their test booklets without completing a single item on our standardized tests?

That would definitely be an interesting 24 hours.

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SMACKDOWN: a confrontation between rivals or competitors

I try not to take sides in student disputes, which is why I’ll let you, dear reader, help sort out this situation:

Two of my best student bloggers have starteBoxing matchd getting scrappy with each other in class about how many blog views they have. These students have been with me for a couple years now and both have blogs related to biology, anatomy, and AP Biology courses. Their blogs seem to attract a fair bit of traffic around certain science topics at certain times of the year, so we assume that other students across the country (and world) are looking at their stuff. They’ve been arguing lately about who has the better blog and I, of course, have stated that they both have equally excellent blogs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They, of course, don’t want to hear that from me and want a winner declared (all in good fun and the spirit of collaboration).

Here’s where you come in. I’ll post links to their blogs and you can go see for yourself the great work they’ve been doing. You can even leave them some comments if you feel so inspired. At the very least you can “vote” with your views as to who might have the better blog. Be sure to click on individual blog posts that you feel are the best they’ve done. That’ll give them some feedback even if you don’t want to write a comment.

Ready? Here we go:

Mandi’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog, and her Biology blog

Steven’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog and his Biology blog

I’ll have them report how it turns out and I’ll get back to you with the results soon.

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A colleague of mine recently described what it was like growing up as the youngest kid in the family. His main point was that the youngest child sometimes learns a lot from watching the older kids fail horribly. Hopefully this post gives you a chance to benefit from being the little brother/sister learning from us older kids so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. Administrators, this one’s for you.

Fad: A practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal – Merriam-Webster 

As someone who has been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things that don’t seem to work when implementing SBG. The following is my list of ways to make sure that no one in your school district ever wants to use standards-based grading again.

1. Don’t get teacher input about the process of implementing standards-based grades.

One way that I’ve seen SBG get implemented occurs when administrators or superintendents attend a conference or read a neat blog post about how wonderful SBG is and how it rocked the world etc. etc. They proceed to get their school board on their side with arguments about how a standards-based education guarantees that all students will succeed and that the best way to guarantee this is to make teachers report their students’ progress not as points and percentages but as discrete standards.

Great! But how? Who will develop the standards? Who will decide the format of the standards-based report card? Will you turn the standards-based report into a letter grade? If so, how? So many choices to make, but who will make them?

If administrators go this alone, you’ll run the risk of making this just another educational fad. Fads seem to make teachers mad and reactionary. The more experienced among us shrug and smile at professional development sessions about the next new best thing and most of the time we take the resulting packet or binder back to our rooms and nothing comes of it but another surface for collecting dust. But when you mess with the fundamental structure of their classroom flow and their gradebook? Wow, do people freak out, especially if that directive comes purely from a top-down direction without teacher input. The fad then becomes something truly evil, more than a binder to be shelved, but an actual invader into the sacred space between a teacher and their students, a fundamental warping of the fabric of classroom space-time. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it does piss people off.

Exhibit A: Hundreds of Teachers Rally Against Standards-Based Grading

Don’t do this. If teachers beg you to allow them to implement SBG, let them. When they are ready they’ll make it work. Otherwise its a fad.

2. Require teachers to use state or national standards for their course/classroom standards.

There are a bajillion things out there masquerading as “standards.” Any group of people with sufficient money and political capital can put together a list of things that they think “everyone” should know. My state, your state, and some so-called national groups have certainly done this, recruiting committees of experts to sit in conference rooms for hours on end, word-smithing and getting these beauties just right for public consumption.

So there you are, in your quest to provide a standards-based education, staring at these lists of what kids should know and be able to do. Should you go with national (CommonCore, NGSS), state, AP, IB, college concurrent, or heck, even someone’s grandma’s chemistry syllabus from 1922?

Nope. Allow teachers to create their own standards.

Teachers can certainly borrow bits and pieces from all of these lovely committees who have spent hours consulting one another on the best bits of knowledge for a particular grade level or discipline, but to limit them to one interpretation of what kids ought to know is sort of the opposite of enabling good educators. Furthermore, most of these standards being published recently are written so poorly and so esoterically that teachers need to be trained for hours just to make sense of them. Is this the sort of language that you want to put on a standards-based report card that parents and students will see? They’ll just crumple up/delete it if we don’t write our standards in language that they’ll understand.

And that’s the real reason that teachers should create their own standards for their classes: only they know who their students are, the community context within which they work, and the kind of language (word-smithing) that needs to be used with their particular group(s) of students.

Take all those fancy-pants standards and make them your own. Otherwise, parents won’t understand them, kids will ignore them, and we’ll all hope that they’ll go away like all fads do.

Justin in overalls with the prime minister of Canada

 

3. Don’t train your teachers before you roll out SBG.

It might happen like this: You’ve done your research and have decided to use standards-based assessment and reporting in your school. You have at least a few teachers interested in using it. As for those other not-so-interested teachers, well, they’ll recognize the benefits, too, once they start using it. You go for it! At your first staff meeting in August you greet your returning staff with your vision of how they will run their classes this new school year. You have them start the new school year by writing their standards and assessments for the new grading system. Aren’t they excited?

Well, no, they’re not. If you haven’t done a lot of groundwork over two, three, or even four years, teachers are going to have a lot of reservations about your new initiative and a steep hill to climb to meet your sudden shift in paradigm.

Think about what you are asking teachers to do:

    • Wade through pages of local, state, and national standards to figure out what other people say they are supposed to be teaching
    • Select from that bloated body of standards the ones that students really need to know
    • Rewrite the clunky language of these standards into words that students will understand
    • Organize the new set of standards into an instructional plan in a way that makes sense thematically and chronologically
    • Learn to work with new or modified electronic gradebooks to collect and display grades using standards instead of points/percentages
    • Write and/or modify activities and assessments that align to the new standards
    • Write rubrics and/or set performance criteria for A/P/PP/U performance levels
    • Determine if and how students’ standards-based grades will be converted to a letter grade

If you want teachers to do all of these things on the fly during their first year of implementation of standards-based grading, be my guest, but don’t expect really stellar results and you should expect to lose the support of much of your overworked staff.

Instead, try implementing some of the steps that this district took before they went whole hog. Solon Community School District, you’re doing it right. Otherwise its a fad and its gonna die for lack of support.

4. Use SBG to provide even less information to parents than your traditional grading system.

One of the big benefits of standards-based grading is its potential to replace the nonsense of numerical points and averaging and zeros with a system that pinpoints a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses in order to help them get better in those areas. This works if students and parents can see which areas are deficient and if they can use the teacher’s observations of student performance to help plan ways to improve.

What often happens, though, is that poorly-implemented standards-based reporting kills any meaningful data that a teacher might have gained from their new system of assessing by standards. If all a parent sees is something like this, the system is in trouble. I can picture a kid getting this report card and the parent asking “Larry, why do you have a PP in Math Content 2? What is Math Content 2? And why is your ORC knowledge a U?” I doubt the kid could answer.

Unless there is an easily accessible, DETAILED collection of student assessments and performance data available for parents to see, the switch to a standards-based report card tells parents even less about their kid than your current rack-up-the-points system. At least in that sort of points system most parents can go to an online grade book and see that their kid didn’t turn in Math Content Sheet 91.1d or that they got a 78% on their last science quiz. Telling parents that their kid is partially proficient in Numeracy doesn’t really mean squat, especially if the parent only sees this judgement of their child at the end of the quarter or semester.

Try out ActiveGrade, BlueHarvest, Three-Ring, JumpRope, or have teachers make their own Google Spreadsheets to record feedback to students and parents. Get your current implementations of Infinite Campus or Powerschool to play nice with reporting standards-based data online. Make the evidence that your teachers collect visible to both parents and students. Otherwise its just a fad and nobody figures out how to improve.

 

So what does work? How do I start using SBG in a really meaningful way?

Teachers, this one’s for you: start with this article by Frank Noschese. All the fancy stuff will come later. You’ll figure out a system that works for you.

Best of luck to you all!

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Three years ago, a blogging n00b started writing about a few random ideas regarding his science classes. Yep, that’d be me. I’d like to think that I’ve improved my teaching during those three years. I’ve certainly changed how my class operates, for better or worse. My top five most-viewed posts give a pretty good idea of what has changed about my classroom over the last three years:  implementing AirServer, standards-based grading, online student portfolios, 1:1 iPads, and BlueHarvestFeedback. Basically, I’ve ditched paper, abandoned worksheets and exams, embraced online portfolios, and tried to turn over control of learning to my students.

With all these topics popping up on my blog, I’m not sure whether I’m an edtech blogger, a SBG/SBAR blogger, or whether I even deserve the title “blogger.” I break most of the rules for being really good at any of those. I don’t sit around reviewing the newest tech goodies and apps or trends in “educational technology.” I have my days where I want to rail against standards and SBG (more about that in a bit). And I certainly don’t write blog posts with the frequency associated with anyone who labels themselves a “blogger.”

So what is this online space that I’ve created? Who cares! Its mine. And yours too, if you’ve been reading my notes and/or leaving comments. Thanks, and keep on reading!

I normally would automatically vote for Edmodo in a “best-of” web tools list, or maybe Prezi or Evernote, but lots of other people have written about these, and they have become uber-popular the last year or so and most educators have at least heard of them. Chances are that you use them, or at least have tried them once or twice.

My vote for a much more transformative tool goes to BlueHarvest, brainchild of Vic and Shawn over at ThinkThankThunk Industries.  And before you open another tab and search for BlueHarvest, here’s the link: http://main.blueharvestfeedback.com. If you jumped the gun and did the search already, you’ll find what my students did at the beginning of the semester: Star Wars references. Actually, even if you did click on the link, you’ll still find Star Wars references. Shawn’s kind of a fanboy, apparently. Regardless of his fanboy status, he and Vic put their collective nerd powers to work to create a very powerful service for communicating about learning with students and parents.

Since you likely haven’t seen BlueHarvest before, I’ll play tour guide here for a bit, from a teacher’s point of view. I’m going to skip the initial sign-up process which you can figure out for yourself. Its free to try, and apparently free for the first year and some dinky yearly charge after that. They’re not doing this for the money.

Groups and Standards

The first thing you’ll want to do is create groups either by course or by class period (My Students > Modify Groups). I found it easier to make groups by course topic so I currently use the groups Anatomy, AP Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. You’ll then want to enter your standards for each course (My Curriculum > Add/Modify Standards). These are the essential questions or targets that you want each student to be able to do by the end of that particular course. Creating these, of course, is the hard part. Entering them into BlueHarvest is easy. There’s even a mass-upload option, although I didn’t use that.

You’ll want to assign standards to each group so that when you add a student to the group (course), they automatically get that course’s set of standards. The easiest way that I found to do this was to go through My Students > Modify Groups.

When you are done entering standards and assigning them to groups, you should have a setup that looks something like this:

Some science process standards in BH

Science process standards in BlueHarvest

Tip: When creating standards, I found it better to create different standards for each course, even if some of the standards are the same between your courses. That way if you have a student that takes several classes from you, BH can keep track of that student’s performance separately for each class. For example, a student that takes both biology and chemistry from me has both Lab Skills (BioStd3) and Lab Skills (ChemStd3) assigned to them since they are going to be learning very different lab skills in the two courses.

Add Students

The next task in getting BH ready for use is adding in your students. This is accomplished either one at a time or using mass upload from spreadsheet or Powerschool files (My Students>Add/Modify Students). The big benefit of setting up groups first is that adding students to the right course is easy, just select which group they belong to as you set up each account.

Tip: BH can share students between teachers if more than one teacher in a school is using BH. If you are sharing students between two or more teachers, only have one of the teachers input the students into BH. I share several students with our Spanish teacher and at first we both input all of our students. This led to some of the students getting two different sets of login information, one for each class. Its best to only create one account for each student and then use the My Curriculum>Share window to pass those students on to the other teacher(s).

At this point you’ll have lots of student accounts in place and they should even be populated with your course standards. Student passwords are auto-generated by BH, although they can change them later. Most of my students didn’t change passwords, the auto-generated ones are too cool. I used Edmodo to share account names and passwords, but if you can get your kids’ emails in to the system (I didn’t) BH can send login info out.

Providing Feedback

Once you get past the setup phase you now have a way to write specific feedback to students about products that they create for your classes. When you select a student, a list of standards that that student is trying to meet will appear. You can click on one of these to open a dialog box like so:

From the screenshot you can see that you can add text, links, and even audio and video feedback. I’ll admit I haven’t used the audio and video much, but I’ll get there soon. You can leave a numerical score if you like, but I often don’t. Once you click “Leave Comment” the feedback is posted and both you and the student will receive a notification that there is a new comment ready on BlueHarvest. BH supports both email and text (SMS) notifications.

After you’ve done this enough and your kids have gotten the hang of it, some of the discussions start to look like this:

 

feedbackinBHmembranes

Part of a discussion with a student (name hidden) who is learning about cell membranes 

 

Once students have had chances to master several different standards, each with a conversation happening about it like the one above, a glance at their standards lets you know about where they stand, especially if you have chosen to use the option to mark some standards proficient, as in this example:

A list of all standards for a student

A list of all standards for a student

These features are great for keeping track of what a single student is doing, but BlueHarvest also has the ability to let you view the activity of all students in BH at once in the form of proficient, recent activity, and convo length reports (in Analytics). Here’s an example recent activity graph where each row is a different student (names hidden) and the brightness of the red color represents how recently any comments have been posted:

Recent Activity Report

Recent Activity Report

This graph reflects the fact that the second student recently asked me to review her online portfolio so there are new comments on several standards. You can also tell from this graph that I need to check in with the last two students on the report since there was a black row almost all the way across which usually means they aren’t producing anything for me to comment on.

These are the main features of BlueHarvest that students and I are using. There’s a lot more it can do that I haven’t touched on, such as numerical grades, which it can track too if that’s your way of operating.

While it might seem to some like just more work and another grade book to keep track of and update, in my experience, this is the grade book that matters most and it really is pretty easy to maintain. But then again, this is coming from a teacher who was managing student comments and grades in 120+ individual spreadsheets last year.

The Point: If you are interested at all in making learning targets or standards the focus of your class, BlueHarvest lets you keep track of student progress towards those standards and streamlines the process of providing timely feedback to students. This sort of tool can be transformative for your classroom if you can train yourself and your students to rely less on number scores and more on detailed, actionable feedback when discussing how much they’ve learned.

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I’ll share a “wondering” of mine that I’ve been chewing on for a while and see what you can throw my way in the comments. It revolves around the title of a course, in this case “Physics.” What does the course title Physics mean? Does it matter? Who notices and who cares?

Some background: I’m mostly a biologist by training and a chemistry teacher of some ability, but I occasionally get called on to teach high school physics. The last time I was called upon to offer physics resulted in some very interesting things indeed. If you are a new reader here, you might want to catch up on some of the Phunsics shenanigans here (or here if you prefer video). Basically, the students and I set about learning physics through a series of projects that they designed and carried out. Most anything was fair game, since, after all, everything is physics. Projects ranged from wind tunnels and hot air balloons to trebuchets and potato cannons.

I’ve fielded many questions about how this class operated: Did we follow a syllabus? No, it would have rapidly become obsolete since students were designing the class. Did I know more than one or two weeks out what projects we would be working on? No, students determined what we would work on. Did we have a set of standards that we based our work on? Yes, I created a standards document from Colorado and New York physics standards that students used in planning projects and students created their own wiki based on AP Physics standards. As I look forward to doing this course again in 2013, after this year’s “break” to teach AP Biology, my main question is this: can I still call this course Physics knowing now how it will likely operate?

Let me complicate matters more. It turns out that the Physics course at our high school has always (in recent memory) been a weighted course, weighted 5.0 (the highest) in fact, so that a B in the course averages in at a 4.0 (an A) for GPA calculations. So now I have the situation of a powerhouse of a science class, a weighted 5.0 class, that has no preordained syllabus, students can follow pretty much whatever lines of inquiry they desire, and it only has a list of “suggested standards” rather than requirements. Uneasy yet?

I am uneasy with the idea of continuing to call this class Physics, which is why I’m wondering whether I should try to rename this course something like Advanced Science Research (like this teacher) or Applied Science Practicum of Awesome. But then the little voice speaks: but colleges won’t know what that is, will they?

Ah. Here it comes: the role of colleges and universities in deciding how we do science down at the high school level. I’ve been asked to provide syllabi before for a student or two, so I know colleges are looking at them. Are they looking at the course name on a transcript or at what we do in that class to help students learn? I’m guessing usually door number 1, the name. And just like that, I’m back to keeping the name as Physics because that most closely matches the content and skills that my students are going to acquire during that course.

See my lovely logic loop? The old-school science teacher in me says I’m no longer teaching a Physics class but the practical considerations of calling the course anything else are maybe too much to fight for, especially once the diverse student/parent/counselor/college audience is factored in.

Now its your turn: would you call a project-based, student-designed course in which we tried to tackle a variety of physical principles and design challenges Physics or not? Weigh in in the comments.

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