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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I’ve been reasonably(?) skeptical of the Next Generation Science Standards: how they were developed, the kind of people writing them, the kind of students they are targeted to, and how they will be used in the future. I decided to get over (around?) all my NGSS angst and just dive in to see if they are useful for how I structure my Standards for my science classes.

keep-calm-and-get-over-it

Like most lists of standards, the NGSS are too bloated with content knowledge factoids for my taste, so I focused instead on the list of Science and Engineering Practices, which turns out to be a list of practices that I think a lot of science educators can get behind. In fact, they already have. There are a lot of parallels between the NGSS Practices and the AP Biology Process Skills from the recent course revision. There is even a lot of overlap with the list of 9 major Skill Standards (based on Colorado Community College Course Student Learning Outcomes) that my students have been working on for the last few years.

Long story short, since there was so much overlap between NGSS, AP Biology, and my standards, I thought that a mashup of all three (or four, if you count ISTE NETS, or five with ACT thrown in) was in order. This ended up generating the Standards that we’ll use this year for my students’ portfolios in Anatomy, Biology, and Chemistry:

 

1. Learn and Understand Content-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models. (Varies by Content Area)

2. Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations: Ask scientific questions and define problems, implement data collection strategies, and demonstrate laboratory skills appropriate to a particular scientific question.

3. Analyze and Interpret Experimental Data: Manipulate and interpret data in a variety of formats, such as tables, charts, and graphs, to analyze results, construct explanations, and defend conclusions.

4. Use Technology to Explore, Learn, Analyze, and Communicate Information: Demonstrate the ability to select and apply contemporary forms of technology to compile information, solve problems, and communicate with a global audience.

5. Engage in Argument from Evidence: Justify claims with evidence and evaluate alternative scientific explanations.

6. Demonstrate Self-Analysis/Metacognition: Demonstrate the ability to evaluate your own learning, recognizing areas of strength and weakness, and be able to describe the next steps for improvement.

7. Contribute to the Learning Community: Demonstrate the ability to contribute to the learning environment of the community through effective participation in group work, modeling of good work habits, putting forth your best effort, and helping others learn.

 

In the process of this mashup, my list of Skill Standards dropped down from 9 to 7, which suits my increasingly minimalist approach to standards pretty well. I think the standards are tighter now, having combined several and mashed others. Only one brand new one makes an appearance (#5), and it really needed to be there since every reputable set of standards (NGSS, AP/College Board, and ACT) recognizes the need to intentionally train kids to argue from evidence. In other words, critical thinking, or scientific thinking, if you prefer, now gets its rightful place in my list of standards.

There you have it, the 7 standards that become the 7 entries per student in my gradebook: no more, no less. BlueHarvest will still do the heavy lifting of formative assessment for me and I’ll still be using assessment portfolios with students, but they might just have an easier time of it with fewer portfolio pages to update.

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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!

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