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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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Almost every tech blogger I run across publishes some sort of Top Ten list of iOS apps at some point in their blog. Not to be outdone, I present my own list here, but whether it has ten apps and whether it manages to sell stuff to anyone remains to be seen. With any luck this post will let you see how we’re using iPads as creative devices, not as content delivery devices.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember that at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year I managed to get around 40 iPad 2′s for my students to use. These were given out primarily to my Anatomy students but some found their way into Physics students’ hands as well. If you’re interested in some notes on the deployment check here.

The deployment this year was similar, but was aided greatly by the addition of a Mac Mini as a sync station that students can use to update the apps on their iPads (Last year I had a dedicated local user account on my own Mac laptop to manage the iPads and, well, that sucked).

On to the apps! Here are some apps that we use and some sample learning artifacts from students that should give you a sense of how we are actually using the iPads:

Explain Everything: The iPad is great for drawing on with your fingers and it has a microphone, so why not talk and draw at the same time! That’s the premise behind Explain Everything. Here are some examples from Tiffany and Bethany in my Anatomy class.

WordPress and BlogPress: Since I run a paperless classroom based on student blogs, these apps see a lot of heavy use. Besides the obvious benefits of being able to create and edit blogs on the iPad (I’m using the WordPress app to write this), a secondary benefit is that students without Internet access at home can work on drafts that can be saved on the iPad at home and published once they’re back on the school’s WiFi.

Evernote: If you are familiar with Evernote at all, you know that it can do a lot. It should be no surprise, then, that different students use Evernote in many different ways. Several AP Biology students (including Steven and Mandi) are using it to keep track of some of their long-term experiments, taking both notes and pictures that they then use later in blog posts. Another student and I use a shared Notebook in Evernote to make sure he doesn’t lose his work, which for most of the first quarter seemed to never make it onto his blog. Using Evernote on both of our iPads lets me see his writing, even if it never makes it to his public blog.

Camera: No App Store link is necessary for this one, as long as you’ve got an iPad 2 or later model. The camera allows students to capture both still pictures and video. Some of the uses of pictures taken with the iPad can be seen on Evan’s Chemistry blog where he captures a periodic table scavenger hunt sheet he did and at Ashley’s Anatomy blog where she captures drawings from a histology lab. An example video is this one that Henry shot on his iPad in AP Biology to introduce the class to his viewers.

Skitch: Once students have pictures on the iPad, Skitch can be used to draw and annotate on top of those pictures for artistic and academic purposes. Some examples can be found on Leeanne’s blog and Stephen’s blog.

AirPlay and screen sharing: While not technically an App, one of the built-in features of the newer iPads is the ability to share the iPad screen over an AirPlay connection. In my room we use AirServer on my Mac to project student iPads onto the screen for the whole class to see. This has come in handy several times when those “google moments” happen in the middle of a discussion when a student wants to contribute something they just pulled up on their iPad. Much more about the technical side of AirPlay sharing can be found here.

Vernier Video Physics: I’ve mentioned this app before, but its awesomeness begs for it to be mentioned again. Students take videos of anything in motion and can create motion maps and graphs simply by marking where the object of interest is over time. Here’s an example from a constant velocity buggy lab.

Prezi: If you’ve been a Prezi user as long as I have, you’ll know that it has come a long way from its early days as a spinning, sometimes nausea-inducing replacement for powerpoint. These days there’s a Prezi app, and, while it can’t do everything that the web version can do, it does have some editing capabilities. I have several students currently working on Prezis, and some even prefer working on them on the iPad.

That’s the wrap up of the apps we use most. Sure, there are several science apps on the iPads, too, like our Inkling Hole’s Anatomy textbook, Visible Body, Frog Dissection, and Molecules, but these apps and books are content-specific tools that get used for a special purpose only every now and then. The real workhorse apps seem to be the ones that allow for manipulation of text, images, and video into new forms. These kinds of tools can be applied regardless of the content being discussed and give students creative new ways to show what they know.

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This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,

Larry

Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

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I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ‘em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resumés full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

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Q: What’s an ePortfolio?
A: Let me start by saying that, like most of what I use in my teaching, I didn’t invent ePortfolios and I can’t answer for everyone since ePortfolios mean different things to different people. But I will define an ePortfolio as an online space that gets used to collect and showcase evidence of individual student learning.

Q: You mean its like a blog?
A: Sorta. Blogs certainly can be used to show what a student has learned. In fact, thats how my classes operated last year, with student work nearly exclusively being posted to personal blogs. But an ePortfolio is different from a student’s blog. A blog is organized chronologically by date of publication, but an ePortfolio is organized by skill and content area standards and represents an attempt to prove that those standards have been met.

Q: Why add another site for students to manage? Isn’t a blog enough work?
A: What I found with the blogs was that students worked incredibly hard and produced amazing pieces of work but often couldn’t tell me which standards their posts met. As long as I was the only one evaluating their work, the standards for the class mattered only to me. Self-reflection of learning was really missing.

Q: So how does creating an ePortfolio lead to more self-reflection?
A: For starters, students have to look through all the blog posts that they have written so far and select which ones will go into their portfolio and on which pages to include them. This leads naturally to a discovery of which standards have a lot of evidence of mastery and which have less. Furthermore, there is a page within the portfolio that is for evidence of self-reflection, either in blog posts or as demonstrated while completing the portfolio. Many students used this page to assess the current status of their learning as shown by the portfolio.

Q: You mention pages in the ePortfolio and have many references to “standards.” How are the two related?
A: Each skill and content area standard gets its own page in the portfolio, which will vary with the content of each course.

Q: How did you decide which skill and content area standards to use for the pages in the portfolios?
A: The short answer is that those are the standards that I piloted last year as I implemented standards-based grading in each of my anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses. All of my science courses share the same set of 9 major skill standards, the first of which is broken down into specific content areas for each course. The common skill standards are those things that usually get called science process skills: graph interpretation, experimental design, lab and research skills, to name a few. The content-specific standards were derived from the Colorado Community College standard competencies for each individual course.

Q: These portfolio pages you keep referring to, where are they, exactly?
A: In a student-owned Google Site.

Q: ?
A: Early in the school year, I built a template site for each subject area course in Google Sites and then shared those templates to our district’s GoogleApps domain. Students could then go into Google Sites and create their own portfolio site from the template that I had created. Since the template had pages set up for each skill and content area standard, each student portfolio site also had these pages set up automatically as well. All students have to do is edit each page of the portfolio to include their blog posts, reflections, and other artifacts such as test scores that demonstrate mastery of that particular standard.

Q: So when do I get to see one of these ePortfolios?
A: The ePortfolios live within our schools’ GoogleApps domain and are mostly set to be visible only within our district at the moment. However, a few seniors have hit on the idea that colleges and scholarship providers might be interested in their work, and so have made their portfolios publicly visible. Here are a few links that I think will work:
Steven’s A&P ePortfolio
Audie’s A&P ePortfolio
Katrina’s A&P ePortfolio
Steven’s Chemistry ePortfolio
I hope to convince more students to make their portfolios public and will add links as they do so.

Q: Ok, I’m interested enough to want to know more. Got any references for me?
A: Here are a couple links to get you started:
Levels of eportfolio development in k-12 schools
Creating student portfolios with Google Sites

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Pearltrees screenshot-anatomy class portfolios

This is just a quick post to share a neat tool for keeping track of student websites called Pearltrees. I ran across this article recently and thought this might be useful for organizing all of my student sites that I need to keep track of. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I keep track of individual student blogs using RSS feeds. But there are many times that I want a simple way to pull up a student website to show to a student, administrator, or parent, and an RSS feed reader is ok, but clunky for that purpose. I’ve bookmarked my student blogs, too, of course, which works but lacks any style or graphic organization.

Perhaps all the iOS and app downloading frenzy that went on this week and the resulting extra time spent on the iPad had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the fact that our 1st quarter grading period ends next week and I’ll need to be evaluating all of my students portfolios. Either way, the thought of a graphical interface that could easily locate student websites seemed really appealing to me so when I saw the article on Pearltrees and it’s new iPad app, I checked it out.

Their app is simple to use and makes use of a bookmarklet to capture any site you choose. As you might see in the screenshot above, I now have each class in its own “pearl” and can easily find individual student portfolios in each class. It’s also amazingly easy to flip from one student site to the next within a class so that should speed up the evaluation process. At least it will make it a little more aesthetically pleasing. Eye candy ain’t all bad.

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This was written a while ago for a fellow teacher over at Classroom 2.0 but I thought I’d repost it here because I’m not sure it’s public in its original form and some folks have been asking about managing student blogs:

________

Thanks for the kind comments about my blog! I’m glad its given you some ideas to try.

Forgive me if you know some of this stuff already, but I’ll try to start at a basic level. Also, know that there are lots of resources out there to check out, and I’m sure that other folks do a much better job of explaining this stuff than I do, but here goes.

First off, most any blog has within it the capability to be subscribed to using an RSS (really simple syndication) protocol. RSS “feeds” basically send out a message to “subscribers” whenever the author posts something new to the blog. It is not too terribly hard then to find your favorite blog, subscribe to it, and then be notified of new additions to the blog. These are the three steps that you will want to do with your students’ blogs.

The way I did it went like this:

1. At the beginning of the year, students set up Google accounts and sign up for their own blog at Blogger.com (I think the name will change to just Google Blogs in a while). Optionally, some students chose to create their blog at WordPress.com
2. Using Edmodo, students post links to their new blog so everyone in the class (and I) could have an easy link to click on to find their blog.
3. Using my own Google account, I signed in to Google Reader, which is simply a web service that subscribes to the RSS feeds for blogs. Some browsers, like Safari, can act as RSS readers, too, but I never was really impressed by the experience of using the built-in RSS reader in Safari and instead used Safari to access Google Reader.
4. I visited each blog and looked for the link to subscribe to the blog. In Blogger this is sometimes called the Atom feed, but it does the same thing as RSS. (There also are some plugins for browsers that will put an RSS icon next to the blog’s address that you just click on to subscribe.)
5. Once you click on a blog’s link to subscribe, it should pull up a dialog confirming that you want to subscribe to the blog’s feed. You might need to tweak a setting in your browser to make sure RSS feeds are handled by Google Reader if the feed doesn’t get put there.
6. After you confirm the subscription, the blog should show up in your Reader. You can organize Reader by using folders. My organization was to have a folder for each class period and organize each folder by student first names, but you can do whatever seems best for you.
7. As students write in their blogs and hit the publish button when finished, you will see the name of their blog in Reader change to a bold font to show that there is an unread post detected. Click on their blog to see which posts that you have not read yet. If you click on the title of the post in Reader it will take you to a simplified version of the post that is mostly text. There is also usually a link to the actual post if there are some graphics missing or you want to see more of the eye-candy that students put on their blog.
8. Generally, I kept a window of Google Reader open continuously all year to keep an eye on when students published to their blogs.
9. I also use the iPod/iPad app “Reeder” to keep track of my blog subscriptions, including student blogs, although I still do most of my reading on my Mac in Google Reader. There’s a Mac version of Reeder now too, although I haven’t felt the need to buy it.
10. Lastly, you can make your experience of Reeder a little more interesting with some simple browser extensions. I know Safari has several like “Better Google Reader” and Firefox and Chrome probably do too. These add some bells and whistles like inline previews (so you don’t have to leave Reader to see the “real” post) or colorized lists.
I would start off by using Reader to subscribe to some of your favorite blogs by educators and get a feel for how to use it that way, before you launch into using it with students.  That way you can later teach them how to set it up to subscribe to their favorite blogs too!

Good luck! Let me know if you have any more questions.

-Chris

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This is a work in progress, as most of my stuff is, but here is my Assessment Philosophy for the 2011-2012 school year that I’ll be sharing with students and their parents.

Some key new features I’m trying:

  • student blog posts will receive only feedback, not grades
  • the spreadsheets I used last year will be editable by both myself and the student for each to add comments
  • students will create portfolios of their work by selecting and analyzing their best evidence of learning
  • portfolios will be organized and assessed using standards-based criteria
  • the only letter grades used will be assigned when portfolios are assessed at the ends of grading periods

Some things still to work out:

Feel free to leave suggestions for improvements/implementation in the comments and please snag a copy for yourself if you want to borrow any of it.

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One of the major changes that I made this year was to switch to using individual student blogs as the centerpiece of student assessment (the other major change was to implement standards-based grading). I started using student blogs for a number of reasons including:

  1. I was tired of grading worksheets with the same copied answers on them.
  2. I realized that these worksheets weren’t always helpful in learning content, and in fact, much of the time they got in the way of learning.
  3. Student in my classes have access to a MacBook cart whenever they are in my classroom and we have fantastically dependable wireless internet connectivity for these laptops (yay tech support!).
  4. Blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are free.
  5. I’m increasingly wary of multiple choice anything as real assessment and wanted students to write more.
  6. I wanted students to have a permanent, online record of their achievement throughout the year, not some pile of papers shoved in a binder (or trash can).
  7. I wanted students to have an audience for their work that would include each other, their families, the community, and the world.

With all these highfalutin ideals in mind, we launched our blogs at the beginning of this school year, with some fear and trembling.  Very few students had done any blogging before, although a couple had existing blogs from their English classes. The first challenge was to get everyone signed on to one of the blogging services. Most students chose Blogger, probably because we thought that that would be easier initially since we all had Google accounts. The only problem was that, at that time, at least, Google Apps accounts like my students had did not work with Blogger very well. Students ended up having to create their own Google accounts just so they could use Blogger. This wasn’t a big deal, just not as smooth as if Blogger were integrated into Google Apps.

So how did we use the blogs? They became the go-to location to post assignments for me to read and grade. For a week or two, though, I operated a lot like I did last year, posting assignments on Edmodo and using its great assignment features to have students turn things in online, as well as posting them to their blogs. I realized that this was a duplication of effort and soon instead of sending out “assignments” in Edmodo, I just sent files and links as “notes.” This meant that these resources no longer came with a due date and that I was not using Edmodo to see who turned in which assignments.

Instead, I figured out how to work Google Reader to monitor my students’ blogs. After subscribing to each students RSS or Atom feed, I organized all of their feeds into folders in Google Reader:

Reader allowed me to keep track of when students published new posts and to quickly find a particular student’s blog if we wanted to discuss something that they had posted. We still used Edmodo extensively for communication, just not for assessment. For example, if students made changes to their blogs, the changes would not always be highlighted in Reader so I asked students to message me on Edmodo if they made changes to a blog post that I had commented on already.

Speaking of comments, I did not personally comment directly on each student blog post. I figured that other readers of their blogs could do that. Instead, I gave feedback about each post as part of the student’s gradesheet entry. Some comments were pretty general (nice job! or something similarly lame) but I got better (I think) at commenting and left specific advice for ways to change the posts to better meet the standards.

One criticism that I’ve heard about my grading system is that it doesn’t spell out for students exactly what they need to do to meet a standard. I think that would be a concern, except for the fact that I tried to provide constructive comments on most everything students did and I let them respond to the comments by fixing their posts for a higher grade. Students did have to make the first effort at a blog post to try to show what they have learned about a particular topic or skill. I worked with them from there to improve their understanding by providing comments and discussing their posts with them. I had a number of students say that this was their favorite part of my class this year: the fact that they could try out a post, get some feedback, and go back and fix it as needed.

What did students blog about? Everything, really. Most of it was even related to the class ; )   As students and I discussed topics or performed labs in class, those topics and labs found their way in some form into students’ blogs. Some posts were simple text-based blog posts but at other times, students used a variety of web2.0 tools to put “learning artifacts” on their blogs. These learning artifacts included the use of Prezi, Glogster, Quizlet, Google Docs, Photobucket, DomoNation, Xtranormal, bubbl.us, and other tools.

If you’ve viewed the example posts linked above, you may have noticed that different students used different tools to discuss the same topic. That’s because I did not require that a particular tool be used with each assignment. Students were free to use the tool that they thought would work best for that particular post. If you are interested in exploring the wide range of content and quality that was produced this year, here are the links to all the student blogs.

Here are some of the awesome things about student blogging, in my experience:

Variety

Since students used many different tools to create artifacts for their blogs, I was never bored grading their posts, and in fact, was usually incredibly entertained and impressed by what students can create given the freedom to do so.

Portfolios of learning

The blogs became a record of student achievement that we can look back on for proof of learning. Along with their color-coded gradesheet, a student’s blog is a powerful indicator of the level of understanding for any given topic or skill that we learned throughout the year.

Wide audience of readers

Many people ended up looking at the students’ blogs, not just me. For example, parent conferences will never be the same again, since it was so easy to pull up a student’s blog in order to view and discuss the student’s level of performance. Parents have access to the entire list of student blogs, too, so it was easy at conferences to point parents there if they wanted to compare how their student was doing to how others were. The kid who has three blog posts starts squirming in conferences when their parents see other students blogs that have 10 or more posts.

Student blogs were also publicized via Twitter or my blog, which led some traffic their way. At least one student and future teacher made lots of connections with the edublogging community this year.

Resources for each other

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. This is one of those things about teaching that is easy to say, but hard to do something about. However, the blogs let kids work at their own speed and with tools of their own choosing.  Inevitably, some student posts were finished before others and became learning tools for those students who were behind the rest of the class. Towards the end of the year, when they were a bit more mature in the whole process, some students even started giving credit for their peers’ work that helped them write their own posts. It was very cool to see them learning from each other via the blogs.

There were some challenges along the way, of course, as we tried blogging our way through the year:

Blog writing is time intensive

If you want students to do a good job writing their own blogs, be prepared to give them plenty of class time to write, revise, and experiment with new tools.  Every year it seems I get to discuss less and less content with students, but this year saw a big jump in the time I had to allow students to have workdays on the computer so that they could stay current with their blogs. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it will force me to look very carefully at what I have planned for next year’s classes.

Fair access to blogs

Part of the reason for spending time blogging in class is concern over the issue of fair access to the Internet in order to complete the blogging activities. Many students do not have easy computer access at home, although some do. I wanted to try to rule out any unfair advantage that students might have over others, but was only partly successful.  Of course a kid with his own computer and Internet access is going to have more chances to blog and make amazing products than another kid who has to rely on computer access during the 50 minutes I see them in class. I’m not sure that’s a reason, though, to not blog. Its more of a reason to agitate for more equitable Internet access in my community.

The Mac blogging platform is not as useful

There were some students, fortunately few in number, that for one reason or another, kept forgetting their Blogger account passwords and would get locked out of the system. For these few (maybe 5 students in all my classes) I set them up with blog accounts through our local MacServer. That let them use the same password as they used to log on to their laptop, but the advantages stopped there. We found that with the Mac-hosted blogs, there was no separate publish option, so as soon as a kid saved their blog, finished or not, it posted to my Reader. Also, we never figured out how to allow embedding within the Mac blogs so those students had to post simple hypertext links to the artifacts that they created rather than having them appear right in the blog page.

Plagiarism

There was some plagiarism of blog posts, but it was usually incredibly easy to detect. The most obvious ones occurred when students simply lifted another student’s blog post and pasted it in as their own. I had one student, famous among teachers at our school for this sort of behavior, try this stunt about 5 times in a row trying to meet one particular standard. I simply refused to put any grade in her gradesheet until I was convinced it was her own work. Google searches and Plagium worked great for me in providing evidence that someone had copied material from a source or another student blog. I probably didn’t catch everything, and might jump in with our English teachers and somehow use Turnitin with the blogs to try to avoid problems next year.

Are blogs a rigorous assessment strategy?

One of the concerns that I had during the year was whether or not the new blogging paradigm is rigorous enough compared to the old model of lecture-worksheet-quiz-test-rinse-lather-repeat. This is a concern, of course, since I almost completely abandoned the traditional testing that I used to do (my Moodle site was very lonely this year).  Could I tell whether students were learning? Aren’t they just goofing around with web tools and having fun instead of suffering through the lectures that they need?

It was this article (via @mrsebiology) that convinced me that blogging can be just a rigorous as the tests that I used to give:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous,
provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

Blogging in many ways is an incredibly difficult task for students. Not only do they have to research background information about a topic, they have to synthesize a variety of ideas together in a coherent piece of writing or media. They encounter interesting ideas about the course content and write about how these concepts effect their lives and society in general. In many ways, that’s much more rigorous than any test I could give about stuff that I lectured on.

The worksheet is dead. Long live the blog.

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Mediocre Physics Teacher has an interesting question for the SBG crowd:

The worst epithet an SBG teacher can hurl at another teacher seems to be “Your grading is nothing but a game for points.” I don’t understand how replacing 70s, 80s, and 90′s with collections of 2′s, 3′s, and 4′s changes the motivation of college-bound students from achievement toward learning. I don’t understand how it’s not points.

There are two issues to address here: the grading system itself and the level of motivation of students.

Is it possible to do SBG where its still just about points? Sure, if your assessments of learning suck like mine often do (did?). For me, implementing an SBG grading system isn’t what transforms what I do. It’s mostly a new structure to my gradebook.  I could theoretically take every assignment that I gave last year and shove it into a standards-based category in my gradebook to spit it back to kids this year. This wouldn’t be a shift in how I teach at all. Kids would still complete the same worksheets and study guides that I used to give out,  but they would just find weird subscores written on each one for each standard that the worksheet met in the gradebook.  They would play the same games of copying their neighbors work without putting much thought into the assignments, because no real thought was needed for some of the stuff I used to grade for points.  Its not about points, its about crappy, weak assessments.

What  needs to happen to transform your classroom is a very careful weeding out of what finds its way into your gradebook.  If you are still giving out worksheets and study guides like I do, recognize that they are practice activities and shouldn’t be in the gradebook at all.  If a kid doesn’t complete it, that’s their missed chance to learn the material, or perhaps they’ve found another way to learn about it through some other resource. There’s this thing called the Internet these days that has way better learning activities than half of the stuff I throw at my kids. These sorts of practice activities, like homework, webquests, and study guides don’t need to be graded.

Next, kids need to be doing lots of formative assessment before they hit anything that is going to become a permanent fixture in their gradebook. For me, this takes the form of student blogs. After the practice activities are over and they have some new learning to show off, my kids head to their blogs to tell each other about it.  Posts on each student’s blog reflect their current understanding of a topic. If that understanding changes, then another post is in order or corrections can be made to the original post. Its not set in stone: everything is editable. If a student wants to “reassess,” they write another post. We do a few quizzes and tests, but since the best test questions are of the free response variety anyway, why not let students write all the time whenever they want? Throw in some spicy, fun web 2.0 tools and some students will produce artifacts for you like crazy. I keep tabs on students’ blogs and write comments and a “grade” that I think represents their current level of understanding of the different standards. This “grade” is very fluid and represents formative assessment. I put it into our school’s online gradebook for parents and students to see, but they know that it can fluctuate a lot before the end of a marking period.

There is some summative assessment (a.k.a. big tests) that happens towards the end of each quarter in the form of a midterm or final exam, but those are not nearly as important to the students’ final grades as are their efforts to explain their learning in their own words.

Back now to the second issue raised in the quote above: motivation. If a student’s grade is the sum of all their points, they will try for more points to add to the total. If a students grade is the sum of all standards where each and every content and skill standard matters for the final grade, they will try to provide evidence that they have learned each skill.  I highly recommend abandoning (or subverting) grading programs that average a student’s numerical scores. Each and every standard should be considered separately.  That way the goal of each student is to demonstrate mastery of each standard so that no unmet standard pulls down their grade due to lack of effort to understand that topic.  It works that way about 80% of the time with my students, with an unfortunate few unwilling to put forth the effort (samjshah has a great rant about that here).

In summary, get your kids used to the terms “practice,” “formative assessment,” and “summative assessment.” Do lots of the first, keep track of the second in a flexible sort of system, and only sprinkle in the last when you feel its really needed. If you want to do this in an SBG system, so much the better, because then you can more easily keep track of where students are at on specific learning standards and learn what you need to do as an instructor to help them grasp the important ideas of your discipline.

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