I’ll be giving a short presentation later this week at the Denver Regional NSTA meeting about how (and why) to use portfolios for assessment and evaluation in science classrooms. For those of you who like to mark up slides during a talk, here’s the set of slides (pdf link) that I plan to use. They’ll make a little more sense with some dialogue to accompany them, but even if you aren’t attending, you can get most of the main points that I’ll try to make. Be sure to come find me there, or drop me a note in the comments if you have questions.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. All photos and screenshots (except the textbook figure on chemical bonding) are from my physical and digital classroom.

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This post is about the “points” game that schools play and how to avoid it. By points I mean those numbers we award to students for performances of learning in our classes. Such numbers must have something to do with measuring student learning, but how points-based grading is being used and abused is worth a deeper look.

Why do teachers use points to quantify student learning?

I suspect this answer varies from person to person, but probably for most of us it comes down to tradition. Its “always” been done this way: the teacher sets a maximum number of points possible on an assignment or test, kids do the task and turn it in, then the teacher rates the work as some percentage of the maximum value possible.

These numbers are collected, processed, massaged, and ultimately used to determine an “objective” numerical score that measures learning. Its easy. Any of the popular gradebook software programs will take whatever numbers you throw at them and crunch them into something seemingly meaningful. For example, one student is an 87%. Another is a 57%. Parents, students, and teachers “know” what this number tells us about the student. We use this type of grading system because it provides us the illusion of scientific observation of a student’s achievement.

We train students to want more points (or give up entirely when they fail to get them)

Another use of points is as a reward system. “Oh, you completed that worksheet? Here’s 10 points. You did well on my test? Here’s 89 points. You didn’t annoy me in class today? Here’s 5 points. Didn’t turn that in on time? Oops, that’s 5 points off for late work. Gotcha! That will teach you some responsibility.”

Students love points. They are like coins in Temple Run, gold in WoW, and experience points in Fallout/Skyrim/etc. Gotta rack ‘em up if you want to succeed. Our message with points-based grading systems is that students are in our rooms to collect points towards a grade, to get that great level-up rush (to extend the gaming metaphor). Sadly, students don’t automatically get new skills and abilities in real life just because they’ve racked up points.

Earning and withholding points is a game we play at school

Since we’re talking about games, I think that we can game a points-based system in so many ways that the entire enterprise has to be questioned. Do you give extra credit points for extra effort or bringing in a box of tissues? Gaming. Do you give points when lab safety agreements are turned in? Gaming. Do you give a student who is at 89.4% an A even though 90% is the cutoff? Gaming.

Do you slap a kid with zero points for missed assignments? Most thinking people agree that zeros devastate a student’s overall grade if you are summing all points earned as a fraction of the total possible. At least give the kid 50/100, but again you’re gaming the system to get closer to a number that you know the kid “deserves.”

Did your students not do as well on a test as you hoped? Guess what? We’ve got a game for you too. Its called curving the results. Just tack on 15 points for everybody! We all win when we play that game.

Do you average all assignments together into one score? This is everyone’s favorite game to play while trying to observe and document student learning. Unfortunately, averaging all points into a final grade loses any information that the original scores may have had about exactly what a student did and did not know. By the end of a grading period we’ve reduced our information about learning down to our One Number to Rule Them All and no one can tell which topics and skills a student is good at, just whether or not they’ve been playing your points-collecting game.

Changing the game

If you want to abandon a points-gaming system, you’ll need to find a replacement, perhaps something with a bit more narrative component to it. The requirements of such a system are these:

      1. Provide content area and skill goals for students and use these in your grade book instead of columns of point totals for individual assignments.  Some people call this kind of system standards-based grading. Others just ask “what do you want students to know and be able to do?” and “what will you be looking for in their performances of learning?”
      2. Provide actionable feedback to students so that they can understand what they know and don’t know and can and can’t do. This replaces points. Instead of telling a student that their project is worth 67 points out of 100, tell them what was wrong and what to do about it. Don’t even give them a number, just feedback on how to make it better.
      3. Let them make it better. If you give feedback, you really should let students respond to your feedback by fixing what needs fixed or digging deeper into whatever it is you are trying to get them to learn or demonstrate.
      4. Keep records of student learning without resorting to using number scores. If you are giving students narrative feedback in a system like BlueHarvestFeedback or using your own spreadsheets that students can access, you’ve already done this step.  As soon as you post student feedback it is recorded somewhere where you and your students can get at it again to check for improvement and plan next steps and future learning activities.
      5. Connect your grading system to whatever system you are working within or convince your school to change its grading system along with you. Out of necessity, most of us find ourselves, especially at the high school level, bowing to the demons of class rank GPA battles and scholarship applications and need to produce letter grades “because colleges need them.” Just do it honestly and consistently and stick to a set of published guidelines for how you are going to arrive at the letter grade. It will be subjective. But so is everything about teaching if you are doing it right and responding to different student needs and abilities.

Student ownership of learning

I always had the sense that when I was giving a numerical score (1-4 scale) along with feedback that I was doing all the work of judging the quality of their work and that students would ignore the feedback as long as the number was something they found pleasing. If narrative feedback is the only thing happening (and I’m still learning how to do it well) then students are more likely to read it and respond by improving their work.

Weekly Progress in BlueHarvestFeedback

This year I’ve started using student-generated weekly progress updates in BlueHarvest Feedback. Every Friday students log in to BlueHarvest and post a comment on the Weekly Progress standard that I created for their course. Students suggest what letter grade I should put in to our Eligibility grade in Infinite Campus and they have to justify why they think they deserve that grade for the week. This does two things: 1. it forces most students to actually log in to BlueHarvest where they have an opportunity to see the feedback that I’ve left them on their work and 2. it lets students practice self-analysis and argument from evidence.

Thus far in the school year I’ve found that most students are quite good at determining and defending their own weekly progress grade and usually land pretty close to what I would have assigned from a teacher’s perspective. There are many who still need some practice with arguing from evidence for their grade (“I think I deserve an A because I got all my work done”) but that’s not a bad thing in a system that aims to show student improvement.

Its a new game, to be sure, but hopefully its one in which each student is more active in determining their overall grade rather than letting the teacher or an algorithm in a software program calculate how much they’ve learned.

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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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