Saturday, January 14, 2012

Status Change

I'm at the Creating Balance conference and have been thinking about status. I'll write more about the conference later.

I've got two things to share, one classroom and one schoolwide (neither are original to me) that I think help address issues of status.

Robyn Jackson had an article on ASCD where she describes a red flag system she used to immediately catch kids as soon as their grades fell to certain levels. I would like to think one day I'd be organized enough to pull something like this off but today is not that day. One thing I liked was that she would preview the lesson for some kids. I know I fall into the trap of just catching kids up and I liked this immediately.

The hard part for science was that so many times I couldn't really preview the content well. We'd be developing a concept in class and it was hard for me to figure out a regular schedule where I'd be able to preview content ahead of time without giving away what he or she was supposed to be figuring out.

Where I modified this to fit was with classroom behavior. If you're a science teacher you know that when you have a lab, there are some kids who you have to just sit on. As soon as you get a lab going they're mixing random chemicals together or wandering around to talk to friends or whatever.

For about 10 kids I started previewing our labs. The day before a lab I'd ask some kids to stay after school and then spend about 10 to 15 minutes showing them the equipment they'll be using and making sure they knew how to handle and use it. I'd show them what their eventual setup would probably look like and some common pitfalls. I'd let them know what they were trying to figure out and, depending on how much I could give away, preview/review some content.

Status change right? These 10 kids didn't start off lost and immediately could contribute something valuable. For half the kids it was magical. They were like new students. They were in there leading the way. I took secret pleasure in watching the low status kid instruct the future valedictorians on how to use the overflow canisters or admonishing someone for grabbing the beam on a triple beam balance. There were another three who would start off well (the parts they had previewed with me) and then start to lose it when they got into new territory. Two kids it didn't matter.

Overall, really good bang for the buck and, just as a teacher, I've had a nice mental shift from always looking for how to review to also looking for ways to preview.


A couple of years ago I went to visit a nearby school. They dedicated themselves first and foremost to principles of community and it showed. They do this sixth grade orientation that I shared with a teacher at my (former) school and she started it up. She, by the way, is a far better teacher than I am. I take zero credit for this other than sharing the idea.

The middle school first works to identify fifth grade students who are at risk of dropping out, mentally or physically. They invite those students, perhaps a dozen, to a three day orientation a week before any other 6th grader starts school. Those students are all assigned an adult mentor and they're shown around school and introduced to the quirks of middle school life. There's a bbq on the last day and the parents are invited.

Here's the part I love. On the first few days of school those students get a special (colored shirt? a giant button? I can't remember) that identifies them as someone that other students should ask for help. For example, a huge thing for sixth graders at that school is how to open their lockers. These students know because they've been practicing. Again, status change. At the old school, I was the dummy. Here, I'm someone who other kids ask for help. The adult mentors check in from time to time but the bulk of the work is accomplished in those first few days.

At my school, the teacher in charge also teaches the Leadership elective (they do rallies, dances, fundraisers, etc) and she monitors them as sixth graders and tracks them into the leadership elective as 7th graders.

When I first visited the school, the principal reported that since starting the orientation (perhaps 6 or 7 years at that point) every single kid involved had been able to participate in graduation ceremonies after their 8th grade year.

I can't tell you how much I love this.

Our default action for an incoming at-risk fifth grader would be to schedule an extra "intervention" class. In other words, a student comes to a new school and the first thing we do is confirm that his/her status has managed to follow along. And yes, I'm looking directly at you Ms. High School Counselor who gives our outgoing 8th graders math support, reading support and no electives as freshmen.

Addendum: Bree just wrote about a presentation she did at the same conference addressing issues of status.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Managing Feedback

(I'm going through the queue! Just imagine this all re-written in the past tense. Or the future tense. Either way.)

Good written feedback is hard. It takes time. A lot of time. Here are three things I've been trying to help make it manageable. Only one of them is slightly original.

I've already written about how I help students give each other feedback. That will go a long way but in the end it always comes down to us. As flat as some of us want to make the classroom, we're still the experts.

1. For the nuts and bolts I use Excel. I've got all my students exported into a spreadsheet. I type it out, print, cut strips and staple. Actually my student aide does the cutting and stapling. This is another place where tip #5 comes through. I can go through a pile and head straight down the sheet. When it comes time to staple, the excel sheets and the pile of student papers are in the same order so my aide doesn't have to do any paper shuffling.

I write messy so typing is always good for me. I like having a record. But the biggie? Copy and paste. Students make the same mistakes and need the same help. When it's a long assignment I number sections of the paper or problems and the students match those numbers to the comments.

2. Focus on one or two areas at a time and think long term. I'm going to use a lab writeup as an example here but it could be anything. I used to get these back and write all over them. There'd be so many marks students couldn't even see their original work. They were overwhelmed. Now we focus on just improving one area at a time. Perhaps we all focus on improving the description of the experiment. I want a few more details and better linking between how this experiment will address whatever question they have. They just work on improving one aspect and then we move on to something else later. By the end of the year, we've hit everything. What I didn't get was that a good lab writeup was my end of the year goal. I didn't need a perfect one in October. What I needed to do was improve a little at a time so that it was great at the end of the year. I wrote more targeted feedback and students weren't overwhelmed and knew what steps to take next. Win all around.

3. Delay feedback until the students are going to use it. This is the only piece of advice that goes against the grain. I know we're supposed to kill ourselves with 24-hour turnaround or get instant feedback or their work should be self-correcting. Yeah. That's fine sometimes. But I am very guilty of writing up feedback, giving it to students the next day and then....we just move on to something new.1 It is far better to wait until that feedback is going to be used. The lab writeups from above are good examples. If you're not having students revise what they wrote then why not wait until just before they do their next writeup?

Another common situation when delayed feedback is useful is when we work to continually revise a concept. Right now we're trying to figure out why things float or sink. I'll ask a student to predict if a certain object will float or sink and justify the answer. We'll work on figuring it out.2 Later we get the same prompt, because really that's the whole point of the unit. Before answering the student gets his or her feedback returned and can read it before answering the question. It's fresh and they can actually act on it. As an added bonus, students read what they used to think and see how much their thoughts have changed.

Oh and here's my obligatory BlueHarvest shoutout.

I'm definitely interested to hear if anyone has any good tips for keeping written feedback manageable.

Addendum: I forgot I totally stole Justin's idea to ask students what kind of feedback they want. At the end of a test or paper or whatever I put a little box asking some variation of What kind of feedback do you want? Or What would you like me to comment on? It turns out students respond well to feedback they want. It also turns out that I was often leaving feedback they just didn't care about. Who knew? You'll want to be specific in your questions at first. I found it helped to ask them for a specific area or question number. It will also depress you what students consider feedback. "I would like a gold star at the top of the page and an A."


1: The corollary to this is giving student work back and then getting all hot and bothered when it ends up crumpled up in the bottom of a backpack. If you give a test back and don't want it to end up on the ground, do something with it right away.

2: I usually go from weight to density to forces. Density we get from playing around with film canisters and then later by using different liquids. Forces we get from linking back to atoms. I direct teach Archimedes principles because I think its overrated and don't want to spend more than a day on it but feel free to disagree. If you've got something awesome for floating and sinking let me know so I can steal it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Survey Results

Sorry I've been incommunicado lately. I've been working hard establishing that a single person can in fact get the flu three times in a single month. Now that I've figured that out, you don't have to! I'm a full service blogger. Also, my seven day beard doesn't give me a "rugged outdoorsy" look. More like "slice of wheat bread left in the refrigerator for two months" look. So it was a learningful December.

An artist's rendition of my chin.

Here are the results of the survey I posted two months ago at this point.  I assumed 90+ = A, 80-89 = B, 70-79 = C, 60-69 = D, and 59 and below are Fs. (I should have clarified that ahead of time). If you entered in a letter grade I converted it using that scale and if you did a range I put the mean.

I don't know why I put F first on the graph. It's bothering me now to look at it. Plus I had to keep the next graph consistent. It's depressing me. Let's just proceed. The next graph is broken down a little more.

Scores ranged from 0 to 90. Both As were 90. There was a score of "butt" which I wasn't sure how to code and a certain blogger in the Rocky Mountain State left an answer down to the third decimal place.

What am I supposed to take from it? Well I'm interested in what you think. Comments are definitely wanted.

Take a second to think it over before I tell you a couple of my thoughts.

I've seen this done a few times and what I think it shows and what the presenters thought it showed were different.

You can't take this as an example of how a (10, 5, 4) point scale or Advanced/Proficient/etc is superior to a 100 point scale. That was the purpose the first time I saw this. Obviously we're going to agree on the results more if we're only given 4 choices. Hey you've got one choice now. We all agree! Moving on.

I also don't think this shows the "arbitrary nature of grading" quite in the way that this has been presented to me either. I'm supposed to look at these results and say, "Same test! Same knowledge shown! Different grades! If only we had a (rubric/checklist/Pearson sales representative)."  The whole point of the exercise was for you to make up your own scoring system. If you give us one, we'll agree more. If I had an actual test with actual student answers, then we could start that convo.

This, by the way, is something that's definitely worth doing with your department. Copy an actual test a kid has turned in. Don't mark it first, because it's also important to see what different people actually count as correct. Then talk about it.

What do I like about this? It's not so much the arbitrary nature of grades I think this gets at, but the very personal nature. I like that it helps you confront your own values. The very first time I did something similar (maybe 4 years ago so I'm going to fudge the numbers but the spirit is the same) and my thought process went like this:
Well it looks like this student mostly got it. I mean he got all the easy stuff. The super hard stuff he missed everything but I don't really expect him to always get stuff that I didn't directly teach. He maybe deserves about a B. So...hmm..I'll assign 10 points to the easy MCs, 5 points each to the short answers and like 5 points each to the hardest questions. That way they can get everything right except the hardest and still finish with a B. Plus I don't want the hard answers worth too much because those are kind of double jeopardy points. You miss a little of the easy and you're probably going to miss that part again on the hard part. So add it up and he gets an 85. Yeah that seems about right. I'll keep that.
I turned to the teacher at my table and shared my unassailable logic with him. His response:
I don't give a rat's ass if a kid can bubble in some memorized answers. If he can't think, he fails. 30 points each for the two hard answers. 1 point for the MCs and 5 points for the short answers. He got 35.
And you know what? We were both right. I was amazed at 1) How different our reasonings were 2) How little thought I had previously put into what a grade actually means to me and how it communicates your values.

Did you decide on a grade and go back and tweak points? Did you ignore the point totals entirely and just give a score? Did you assign totals, add them up, and just went with it? Did you add them up, decide you didn't like the final score, and go back and change things around until you did like it?

I am 100% guilty of having printed out a chapter test from whatever CD my textbook came with, giving it to my kids, started scoring them and thought, "Huh. I don't think that paper really deserved that score." ......and then doing absolutely nothing about it.  I enter the grade and move on.

Later, I'd think I was being "better" by reading into the answers and throwing them a few extra points when they need it.

I think I know what she meant. I mean, she contradicted herself three times but I guess I know where she was going. I can see how she'd think that. Plus, I know she probably could have got it, she just maybe ran out of time or was distracted by Jacob sitting next to her tapping his pencil the whole time. Jacob was driving me crazy with that. Plus she always works hard so I know she gets it. Maybe she just had an off day. hmm......  B+
Both of these are wrong. My problem with the first is that how I assessed and what I wanted grades to mean didn't align. The second was brutal for me to face up to. I've let her not learn something and told her she's learned it. Why was it so unthinkable for me to just ask for a clarification? Or to tell her she didn't get it and try again. Argh. This is giving me an eye twitch just thinking about it.

There's no right answer to the survey. The important thing is that there's a right answer for you. When you know why it's the right answer, you can go back into your classroom and make sure that everything aligns with that answer.