Monday, December 13, 2010

The Weekly Portfolio

I'll admit something. I've never liked the portfolio system of grading. As it was explained to me, and as I've seen it implemented, students gathered their work throughout a grading period. At the end of it, they submitted a portfolio. In better systems, students would sit with teachers and explain each piece that was submitted. The teacher and student would talk about it, like an artist talking about his/her work. It sounds wonderful. In practice though, I never got it.

Two big issues. The first is that it seemed to represent what a student knew, not what they currently know. I'd have issues with someone's best work being done in October. Second, it didn't seem to guarantee any sustained performance. Throw enough crap at the wall, eventually something will stick (this blog is a good example of that).

Toss in the fact that almost nobody has time for the critical interview portion—unless it's a schoolwide thing like a student-led conference—and you have a system that's assessing Young MC on Bust a Move and not the rest of Stone Cold Rhymin'. Or only using Sixth Sense when considering M. Night Shyamalan for a lifetime achievement award for film making.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago I realized that I had been using a portfolio system. It was just weekly.1

I've already mentioned my students keep track of their quiz scores in a folder. In the prongs they keep the tracking sheets and any other thing I need them to keep handy, like their benchmark scores and their periodic table. On the left side pocket they just keep stuff. Usually current quizzes. I don't really look at that side. On the right side they put anything they definitely want me to look at. Usually these are the quizzes, worksheets, or whatever that they think represent their current best efforts.

Additionally, in their science notebooks, they're supposed to put a sticky note if they want to draw my attention to anything they think I should look at. In practice, I've been bad about keeping up with the sticky notes because I suck about going to office depot and they're champs at turning all my post-it notes into flip books. My students are pretty good at drawing my attention though, either by folding a corner or drawing pink glitter hearts that say LOOK HERE.

A more organized version of me would also have them occasionally write justifications for why they want me to look at each piece of work. Maybe that me will arrive next year. As I'm typing this, I'm realizing that simply writing the standard number on anything submitted would be a good start and is so obvious I feel dumb for not thinking about it sooner. Hooray for blogging!

I still look at other things. I think it's important to take a look at the whole game. But the thing that's always appealed to me about the portfolio system is having students self-select what he or she perceives as quality. Developing the skills of self-evaluation is probably the most important thing I want a student to get out of standards-based grading.

1: And by weekly I mean, 3 out of every 5 weeks when none of my children are sick.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Edublog Awards

I wasn't going to do Edublog Awards, but it's Sunday night after Thanksgiving and I'm trying to procrastinate in every way I can. So here we go:

Best individual blog: Think Thank Thunk
Shawn has a special place in my heart. Most people around these cyber parts think I'm a math teacher. I actually teach science. I just hang out with the math folks. Mainly because when I first started looking for blogs to call home I found a ton of really good math blogs and....umm.... Michael Doyle and Ben Wildeboer for science. He came out and started blogging about the redunkulus things he was doing in his physics (and math and comp sci) class. Oh and standards-based grading. Lots of that.

Best individual tweeter: Sam Shah / @samjshah
Like his blog, his tweets are a nice mix of personal and professional. He created his own tshirts and a map of his twitter friends. I look forward to his favorite tweets every time he posts them. He also gave a great presentation on the joys of the blogotwitterversphere that I always send people towards when they ask me, "Why blog/twitter?" Basically, Sam has become his own meme.

Best group blog: InterACT
I generally stay away from education policy. It's just not a rabbit hole I want to fall into. However, the InterACT blog is a collection of California teachers (huge emphasis on teachers) that blog about the state of education both in California and in the rest of the nation. Always a good read.

Best new blog: Educating Grace
I could also have gone with two great new bloggers - Frank Noschese and John Burk. But like American Idol, these two physics bloggers are going to split the vote. I also don't double nominate, otherwise Cornally is a shoe-in. Instead I'm going with Grace Chen's blog. The best compliment I can give her is that I hardly every comment. Usually when I comment it's because I can quickly shoot off a response. With Grace, I need a few days to think it over. Then I realize I don't really have anything to add because she's so much smarter than me and has already thought things through. She technically had one post in 2009 but I'm not really counting that. It's like a redshirt year right?

Best resource sharing blog: Science For All
Obviously, this is a science resource site. I'm not big on the dozens of sites around that are just post after post of things like the Top Ten uses for Animoto. Kirk does a good job of finding and posting a balance of resources. I trend more towards the reports he finds but if you need to find cell animation videos he's got that too.

Most influential blog post: Without Geometry Life Is Pointless - Habits of Mind
It went viral and got picked up in random non-math and non-teaching places. Up until this post I felt like a super cool hipster guy who knew about this secretly awesome blog and if you guys new about it you'd be jealous of me. It turns out Avery and I are practically neighbors so you can continue to be jealous of me.

Best teacher blog: f(t)
I won't say too much about Kate's blog, mainly because there's close to zero chance that you haven't read it before. It wasn't the first blog I read, but it was the one that got me hooked. It's great. Kate's great. Her skin is great. Hugs all around.

Best educational wiki: SciDo
Perhaps technically it's more of a GDoc but there's a wiki for it so I'm counting it here. I've blogged about it already.

Best educational webinar series: Math 2.0
A lot of good stuff on math and math education. If they put the archives into a form I could download to an iPod it would be even better (hint hint). 

Best use of a PLN: Virtual Conference on Soft Skills
Riley put together a murderer's row of presenters and I still find myself going back and checking old posts. It also got many of us to blog outside of our comfort zone which was cool to see.

Best educational podcast: Math/Maths
This is an enjoyable weekly podcast about what's going on in the world of math.  It's a show about math current events rather than learning about math. Hosts Samuel Hansen and Peter Rowlett include a list of links to go with each show and you can find good resources to use in class.

Runner up: A History of the World in 100 Objects
I just wanted to link this because it's so awesome. I've never had occasion to use any info from this in class so I didn't feel I could nominate it. It's great though and currently takes up over half of my iPod space.

Lifetime achievement: The Science Goddess
Over 1500 posts is an achievement by any standard. The Science Goddess was the first blogger I read regularly. Her blog roll served as the source of all my initial Google Reader feeds and in her comment section I was first introduced to a newly National Board Certified Teacher named Frank Noschese.  She's been through controversy and career change and still manages to publish quality posts each time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Belated Blogoversary

Today is my birthday. Thinking about it I realized I must have missed my first blog birthday. It was back in September but I didn't really take this thing seriously until the spring and it didn't even occur to me that I'd been blogging that long.

I went back and read some earlier posts. Your first few posts are like looking at what people wrote in your high school yearbook. It's embarrassing and you're a little ashamed but you can't help but smile when you read it.

Blogging itself has been valuable. I recommend it even if you just want to keep it private.

But more than anything, blogging has brought me into a wonderful community of teachers. Through blogging and Twitter I've interacted with more good teachers in that last year than I thought I would in my entire career. My computer is full of saved conversations and blog posts I reference when I'm struggling through planning a unit or helping a particular student. Not only has it accelerated my own development, but I've had to knock down and rebuild (multiple times) my image of what being a great teacher looks like.

Originally, I went online to get help. I was, and still am, frustrated with my pace of professional growth. This community has certainly helped in that way. But there was another unexpected outcome.

At some point, these people who are miles and miles away, become your actual friends. I've had dinners with Sam Shah, the pseudonymous Sophie Germain, Dan MeyerAvery Pickford, and Bree Murray. I've joyously celebrated a few recent births.

This community has filled a need that I didn't know existed. I run a Lego League team, a MATHCOUNTS club, and an after school boxing program (sequentially, not simultaneously). I've got kids in my room before school, at lunch, and after school so I never have time to socialize with other teachers. When we actually are together, I'd rather talk about vocab strategies than go through the typical teacher chitchat. At staff meetings, I can be harsh and impatient with my colleagues. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes not. 

I spent my Veteran's day evening at a math circle. For my birthday? My family members all chipped in for a ticket to the ASCD conference. (If you're going, let me know.) Basically what I'm saying is that I'm crazy, but you guys get me. I'm not a people person by any stretch of the imagination. But teaching is lonely, even for me. And I didn't realize how lonely I was until I met you. Thank you. You've helped me more than you can imagine.

Facts that only interest me:
  • Frank Noschese was the third commenter ever, followed by Matt Townsley. Sarah rounds out the top five. Stacy Sidle was six and Shawn Cornally was seven.
  • Mrs. L and Nancy were the first two but unfortunately I don't have any information about them. If that's you, leave a link to your blog or Twitter if you've got one.
  • According to the blogger stats thing, the most popular posts were SBG Gala #2 and SBG Implementation: Topic Scales with over 1000 pageviews each.
  • Most posts will get something like 300-600 pageviews. The number of views is only moderately correlated with how good I think the post is.
  • I get the third most hits, by country, from South Korea. I can only assume that's spam or some kind of bot. That is, unless teachers in South Korea are super interested in standards-based grading.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Quick Math Teacher Survey

Sean Sweeney and Kate Nowak are collecting responses for a "Welcome to the internet" page for math teachers. The survey is fast and you'd be helping everyone who is new to this whole online community thing. Here's Sean's post and the direct link to the survey.

PS - It's my birthday on Sunday (my wife, the kindergarten teacher, constantly brings up that being a November baby explains my lack of maturity) so be prepared for a little self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Followup Post: SET

This one I enjoyed and it was surprisingly successful. I've had numerous occasions now where I've asked a kid to compare/contrast something and he/she has given me a blank look. Me or another student will saying, "You know, like in SET" and it'll click and they'll get going.

I was just looking for some sort of anchor and I got it. Also, a bunch of the kids really liked the game.

Notes for next time:
  1. They caught on pretty quick to the simpler version. I went home and made the full deck (keynote and pdf). The full deck was too hard for a few of the kids but most of them had more fun with it.
  2. I explained the rules but nobody got it. Like nobody. Then I showed a few "This is a SET" "This is not a SET" examples and they caught on pretty quick. The final example was a group of 12 cards on the screen and we found various SETs as a class. Easily creating sample slides was one of the nice things about having done it in Keynote.
  3. It turns out that the right margin is too big so the cards are uneven when printed. However, my cutting skills are actually the limiting factor so it didn't matter in the end.
  4. If you make multiple card sets, just scribble a different color crayon or marker on the back of each group. You'll find stray cards on the ground or mixed in and matching the color is much easier than numbering or having to count up the cards.
  5. I didn't get a chance to take up Sue Vanhattum's idea of generating their own cards, but put that one on the wishlist.
Other stuff that might interest you:

The blogger known as Sophie Germain uses the SET daily puzzle with her math kids at the end of class. She says they really dig it.

Bree also has an interesting post about looking at solved deductive puzzles and using those to figure out the rules of the game.1 SET can definitely be introduced in this manner.

1: This is a good time to point you towards a fun, and totally free, game called Zendo.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nobody Fails...Almost

For three, almost four, glorious weeks I had no Fs. And then life got in the way. Let me explain.

One of the nice things about the benchmark is that it gave me what Robyn Jackson referred to as a red flag early warning system. I had a simple cutoff and everyone below that cutoff had automatic actions to take. I could definitely have done that with my standard assessments but I'm pretty relaxed about their progress. For better or for worse, I'm not the type of teacher that's constantly pressing kids to maintain a certain pace. The benchmark forced a deadline.

Because of the common assessment plan, I'd been doing lunch time and after school tutorials. The groups were small, 3-8, so I'd still had time to eat. All I'd been missing was the lunchtime socialization with other teachers. To paraphrase Peter Gibbons, I wouldn't say I'd been "missing" it, but that's another story.

The kids were coming until they learned whatever it was they needed to learn. Some of the kids made it out in the first fifteen minutes. Others spent nearly every lunch with me for two weeks.

What I realized midway through the tutorial sessions was that if they had learned it now, I should have been updating their grades. For some reason it didn't really occur to me that learning stuff from the benchmark wasn't any different from learning stuff from my class. It's the same stuff. Ok. I had to sneak in a little bit extra that wasn't on the benchmark, but it was basically the same stuff. I had forgotten one of the fundamental tenets of standards-based grading. It doesn't matter when you get it and it doesn't matter how you get it as long as you get it in the end. Once they made it out of tutorials, I updated their score to passing (2.0 in my case).

What was nice was that I didn't plan to do this so it wasn't like, "Come to tutorial and you'll pass the class." They came because I told threatened politely asked them to come.

And then?

In a comment, Bill Ferriter mentioned the problems with sustainability if planned intervention isn't a schoolwide thing.

Shortly after that comment, a couple of off-campus gang incidents made their way onto campus. The members of the smaller-in-number gang started hanging out in my classroom during brunch and lunch. They act cool, play music off my computer and pretend like they're setting up shop in a teacher's classroom, but truthfully I'm protection.

Lunch tutorials have been canceled for awhile and so tutorials just aren't available anymore for a good amount of kids. Not coincidentally, the kids who just can't come after school (safety reasons, have to babysit siblings, have to work, secretly live out of district) are the kids who are most in danger of failing.

This might not be a specific problem at your school but it's a good example of "something always comes up."

Like Bill said....frustrating. Systems to prevent kids from failing need to be built into the school day. We need to allocate time, resources, and people - from bell to bell - that we can use to catch our kids before they fail. Failing kids is easy.  Guaranteeing learning is not.

Postscript: Today I checked out It's Being Done and How It's Being Done [Amazon links] by Karin Chenoweth from the library. It's really interesting to read about different schools and what they're doing to guarantee an education for all. She's picked a variety of schools that have differing approaches.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Followup Post: Common Formative Assessments

So we did it. Was it worth it?

Recap: Students were given a benchmark. The benchmark was broken into 4 topics—Matter, States of Matter, Atoms, and Chemical and Physical Changes. The following week they spent Monday through Thursday in leveled classes. Monday was Matter, Tuesday was States of Matter, etc. They retested on Friday.

For all the classes, 294 kids, 26% were proficient in the first go and 43% in the second. 35% of the kids were in the lowest range (scoring 35% or less) in the first round and that went down to 18% in the second.

On the downside, only 2/3 of the kids made any growth which means that 1/3 of them were flat or went backwards.

I made 60% proficient and 75% advanced for this benchmark. It was somewhat arbitrary but I figured all students should, at minimum, know the first three questions for each topic.

All students who scored less than 60% have another level of intervention. For students scoring less than 50% on their benchmark they signed up for an after school or lunch tutorial this week based on their lowest topic score. They also signed up for an additional tutorial for any topic that they got 0 or 1 correct.

I'm signing them up on a week by week basis. They can exit out of tutorial sessions with a half-sheet quiz taken sometime before the next session. It's just two or three questions that are representative of the middle level questions. They'll need to get 100% to exit.

Students who scored 50% or 55% were given the option to instead do the relevant section from a workbook. They showed me they had it completed on Friday and took the exit quiz. Maybe 70% of those students took that option.

This week I had Lego League meetings twice and a staff meeting so I met with them twice after school and every day at lunch. It's been fast. 15 minutes at lunch and maybe 20 minutes after school (larger crowd). I'd say there's a 90% attendance rate with a few extra kids that just come with their friends. Talking with the absentees I'm fairly sure they're just honestly forgetting (especially the kids who sign up for lunch but I don't see them normally until after lunch) so I need to start sending notes out 4th period and before school gets out.

I have no idea why they're coming. I've made it pretty clear that the benchmark doesn't directly affect their grade, although if they're behind right now it will get more and more difficult to keep up. That's not to say they're excited about coming, but I think we often underestimate how much our students really do want to learn.

Other observations:
  1. The test was noisier than I would have liked but I'm not too worried about it. I don't want to fall into the "must have more data" rabbit hole. It's super low stakes and the worst that happens is a student is placed in the wrong level for a single period or that they need to come for extra tutoring. I can live with that.

  2. Clearly the skill-based lower level stuff had more bang for the buck. The earlier questions, which mainly were vocab and simple skills, made huge growth. The latter questions which required more conceptual understanding barely budged. It makes sense given the time constraints but I'm not quite sure what the best approach is here. Do we acknowledge the limitations and just target high growth skill-based stuff? Or do we take another stab at higher-level concepts and hoping it clicks for whatever reason? My natural inclinations says to always go higher-level but then again, perhaps needing a stronger base is what's holding back the higher-level stuff. I don't know yet.

  3. The periods where we were able to have 3 teachers for 2 classes worth of students made a HUGE difference. Probably obvious, but the difference was big at every level of student for every topic. I'm putting out feelers to non-science teachers to come the next time we do this. I'll help in your class during my prep sometime in exchange for your help that week. Nobody has committed yet but a few have sounded interested.

  4. Greg suggested using 1, 2, 3, 4 for the MC answers instead of A, B, C, D. This was super clutch. Data entry was blazing and it took me less than 30 minutes to enter in the scores for all the kids. Another teacher has this 10-key USB keyboard he uses with his laptop and says he was able to get it all done in less than 20 minutes.

  5. I did pre/post class graphs and they're on the bulletin board. I don't know how I feel about it.

  6. To sort classes, we wrote all our students names on index cards with topic scores down the right side. We just sorted them into piles each day.

  7. Switch up what teacher takes the "high" kids. Students started thinking they were in the dumb class when they saw me every day. There was a fair amount of movement between levels though. I probably saw about 80% of the 8th graders at one point or another. I loved meeting new students. For me, that was one of the highlights.

  8. Our secretaries were not fans because our attendance kept getting messed up. By the end we had a system but the first two days I marked a few kids absent who just wandered off into the wrong group.

  9. We didn't get to collaborate beforehand at all. I was home with a sick kid on Thursday and Friday everyone is outtie as soon as the bell rings. I ended up doing the first day rosters myself over the weekend and emailing them. I'm pretty sure one of the teachers didn't think I was serious about this whole plan so it caught him off guard Monday morning. The first day we had some overlap in what had already been done in other classes. We sorted it out but next time I'm going to have us really talk it out.

  10. Letting them sign up for their own tutoring session has been helpful. They don't mind coming with friends and they've been good about reminding each other.

  11. I was the only one who looked at everyone's data. I'm not sure how to introduce the next stage of having us compare and figure out how to teach certain parts better. Seems touchy. Also, both teachers are probationary so I don't know how much me being their evaluator would be in the back of their heads.

  12. Certain students are kept in different classes on purpose (usually rival gang reasons) so we were worried about mixing them up. We mainly lucked out. We cheated and put one kid in the wrong level. He ended up being suspended for the week anyway but it's a bridge we'll have to cross next time.   

A story I have to share:
One of the frequent flyers to the office was 1 of 2 students in the school to score 95%. He first claimed he copied. When it was pointed out he couldn't copy and do better than the person he copied from he claimed to have just guessed. We told him it was nearly impossible for him to guess and get 19 out of 20 right. Finally, he told us to be quiet about it because he didn't want anyone to know he was smart. He got sent to the office later in the day and mentioned his high score to the vice-principal. Then he explained what we were learning about. Then he told her not to tell anyone. I've seen him twice since then and both times he's managed to mention his score.

I'm planning to keep this going for the year. The part-time teacher was really enthusiastic about her results (from 25% to 55% and the boy mentioned above) and so she's on board. The other teacher has been out sick this week so I didn't get a chance to talk with him about it. I'm not sure about his buy-in and, for better or worse, he's not the type to openly fight it.

There are some details we're going to change for next time but it's mainly procedural. We like the general format. The attendance issue was a big problem and we're going to try to keep better track of how we teach certain topics.

I'm also not sure what to do about the pre/post tests. I just gave the same one twice but gave zero feedback on their scores the first time. The dummy/smart kid class thing is something I've really tried to avoid so I was hoping by not letting them know their results they wouldn't be so focused on which class they were in. The SBG monster inside me is yelling to give them immediate feedback so they know what they need to actually focus on during that week. We framed each period as, "You're here because you probably need to work on...." or "You probably missed questions about...." but I'm not sure if that's enough. This is something I'll need to experiment with.

Overall I'd say it was worth the effort. Generally the results were positive and at least one teacher is enthusiastic about it. I tried some feedback forms from the kids but they were less than helpful. Their satisfaction basically tracked their improvement from pre/post. I should have seen that one coming and I should have given the feedback form to them before they got their results back.

If you've made it this far and have any advice or questions - comment, twitter, email.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Channeling David Cox

The Mr. Miyagi of questioning

"Mr. Buell, I don't get it."
"Get what?"

"I don't get the states of matter thing."
"Tell me what you do get."

"When things get hotter they usually expand."
"And why do you think that?"

"Well you showed us that ball-hoop thingie plus the balloon was getting bigger when we boiled water in the flask."
"What do you think that means?"

"I think it means the molecules are spreading out."
"And why do you think that?"

"We weighed the flask so I don't think heat is going in making it bigger......and then the dye spread faster in hotter water........" [we dropped dye in hot/cold water and watched it spread]
[...wait for it....]

"So when something melts it's really just the molecules moving around and not something different then?"
[...wait for it...]

"Nevermind Mr. Buell. I got it."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Massive Post on Common Formative Assessments

This one's long. Even by my wordy standards. Skip to the The Prep and The Intervention if you just want to see what we're doing.

I'd like to say a huge base of research has led me to wanting to start common formative assessments (also called benchmarks or interim assessments), but I think the results are mixed at best. "Works when it's done right" can be applied to almost every ed reform I've ever seen. Really there were two factors.

1. My kids.
Unless you're Steve Poizner, you don't look at East San Jose and think, "Isn't this where they filmed The Wire?"1 On the other hand, we've got our own issues. Many of my kids don't come in with a lot of background knowledge or outside support.2 Thus, their academic success is almost entirely dependent on my abilities as a teacher. If they don't get something at the end of the year, it's because I couldn't teach it in the right way for them to get it. I'm not the best teacher for every student. I don't want them to fail because I wasn't the right fit.

2. My teachers.
It's my 6th year. Here are the teachers I've worked with in 8th grade science:
Year 1: Mr B and Mrs. D
Year 2: Mr. S and long-term subs
Year 3: Mr. S and Mr. F
Year 4: Mr. S and we couldn't fill the spot so we dropped it and loaded our classes.
Year 5: Long-term subs, including a two month period where I taught every single 8th grader on a rotating schedule.
Year 6: Mr. L and a teacher who teaches a single section of 8th sci during my prep.
Stability hasn't been our strong suit. By my second year I was the most experienced teacher, so if you've ever wondered why I spend so much time reading blogs and twitter, now you know. You are all my mentors.

Common assessments are my response to those two factors. I needed to allow my students not to be limited by my teaching abilities and I needed to create some sort of stability in my department. Oh wait. I'm supposed to say something about test scores. Yeah. That too. If my principal is reading this (Hi Diane!) I did it to help us get to an 800 API.

Note: In California we use the terms Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic. I'm going to use those here because we have a reasonably shared definition of them, not because I agree with the terms.

Grace, Greg, Dan and David all helped me out on this directly or indirectly. Hooray again for twitter/blog mentors. If you've read any of the DuFour books it's obvious we borrowed heavily from the PLC model.

(Edit: I should also mention the book Building a Professional Learning Community at Work by Bill Ferriter and Parry Graham. I let my principal borrow it in the spring and never got it back and I can't remember what ideas I got from it)

The Prep:
We're giving them about every 6 weeks. We met the day before we started this cycle and will do so again at the beginning of the next one. We looked over the test, suggested some changes and agreed on specific scoring criteria for the two short answer questions.

We give the benchmark on a Tuesday. Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon we spend just punching in data into a spreadsheet that Greg sent me and then go home and take a look. On Thursday we meet and formulate a plan.  Share what worked. Share what didn't. Write out some lessons. All that good stuff.

Friday, kids get their results back broken down by standard.

The Intervention:
Monday the kids line up at our doors and are called into different rooms based on results. They get targeted instruction. Right now our current benchmark is on four standards (matter and its properties, states of matter, structure of atoms, chemical vs. physical changes). Only two of us are teaching at any one time so we are playing it by ear based on the results on how we want to separate the kids. As of now we anticipate four groups:

A very small group of kids who blow everything away. These kids we're planning to just set free during the week with whatever project they'd like. We figure some will want to perform their own investigations, some will want to serve as small group tutors, and some will want to create something (digital or something that goes boom or whoosh or boom then whoosh). Before you object, we're not ignoring them. They're going to be elbow deep in awesome.

Almost to just barely proficient kids will get their own teacher.

Basic and Below Basic will get their own teacher.

Far Below Basic will get the third teacher who normally would be on prep. We're all going to be working for free through our prep this week, the part-time teacher is going 4 unpaid periods per day. Yeah, she's a champ. If you're in the Bay Area, offer her a full-time job.

Tuesday, line them up and call names based on the next standard. Wednesday repeat. Thursday repeat. Friday, same benchmark a second time. We keep a graph of the class results on the bulletin board.

Kids who don't score at a proficient level on the second one come after school for small group help until they are caught up.3

Monday, back in our normal classes to start the cycle all over again.

The Discussion:
Pretty much everyone I know hates their benchmarks. I get it. The math teachers and English teachers (district-mandated) hate theirs too.

Here's the key: The three of us have 100% control over our common assessment. Our district and our admins don't touch it.

We wrote our assessments. Yours suck because you bought them from Pearson and they don't align to the standards in your classroom or your state. I mean, they say they align to the state standards. But they don't ask the questions in the same way or at the same depth as your state test and there's just no way your class standards are in there so the information you get is pretty meaningless.

We all have hard and soft copies of the assessments we can refer to. How in the name of Zeus's butthole am I supposed to get any meaningful information if I'm just randomly guessing at what actually will be on the benchmark? Crazy idea: How about instead of guessing and surprises, I look at what's being assessed and target that. That way I can see if my methods were actually effective instead of seeing whether I guessed right.

No stakes. I'm not worried teachers will just give out answers or "teach to the test" because we own it. There's no admin looking at our test scores and hinting that we need to step it up because—even though you've got all the English language learners and we stick the trouble kids in your class because you're good with those kids—your test scores are 3% lower than the school average.

Fast turnaround. Our math and ELA department get their benchmark results anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks after taking it. Useless. We're going from test to plan in 48 hours.

Focusing on a few key ideas. Our math department benchmarks sometimes have 1 or 2 questions per standard. You can't get any useful information from that, especially on a multiple choice test. We went with four key standards tested with 20 multiple choice questions. Five for each standard with the level getting increasingly more difficult (i.e. The first question on states of matter is the easiest. The fifth question is the hardest). We added two short answer questions focusing on the two thinking skills we're emphasizing right now. Benchmark #2 will be about 80% current unit and 20% review. We're sticking with 5 questions per standard so some of our benchmarks are slightly longer or shorter depending on how many standards we've been working on for that cycle.

We can respond to conditions on the ground. One of the science teachers had some personal things come up and had to miss some time. He won't be able to teach what's in the benchmark by the date we had scheduled it. We moved the date back. 

Without admin or district support, we're putting in a whole lot of extra time. No early release or paid subs. We have zero collaborative time built in to our school year. No fancy electronic scoring so it's all hand coded. I might need to just take a sick day and spend it entering in scores and looking at the data.

I'm not sure how sustainable this will be. On the other hand, if we can get all of our students across the stage at the end of the school year, it'll be worth it.

My required plug for standards-based grading.
With department-wide standards-based grading, the benchmark test itself is unnecessary. We would already have the necessary data in our gradebook and would be able to team up as needed. I get excited just thinking about how great it would be to have an ongoing stream of data to compare with other teachers. I don't have that right now. 

However, SBG still lends its own brand of awesome. Take a look at the three steps a student might go through. First, the student has an opportunity to learn in class. Second, in a targeted and leveled remediation. Third, after school. Three different levels. In standards-based grading, it doesn't matter when you learn it, as long as you learn it. Carlos drops major knowledge on the first benchmark and has an A in the class already. Brenda has some issues with states of matter, goes through the week of intervention and learns what she needs to learn. Brenda now has an A too. Mikey sleeps through both step 1 and step 2. Now, he's coming after school. Every week. With me. Special time. Mikey finally learns something because he's sick and tired of seeing my striped polo shirts every day. Mikey knows that it's not acceptable NOT to learn. Mikey also knows that I believe he can learn and that I won't give up on him. And yes, he's got his A. Mikey likey.

Am I making every kid come after school until they've got an A? Nope. No Ds or Fs would make me plenty happy. But you know what? If you've gone from an F to a C, all of a sudden, it's not too far to an A.

In case you're wondering how benchmark fits into the actual gradebook we've decided on two things:
  1. The benchmark score will be reported but not computed into the grade. We're just going to manually input it into the comments section of the report card.
  2. We all have our own system of grading (don't get me started) but we've agreed on a policy that if you pass the benchmark, you can't fail the class. I admit this one wasn't my idea and I worried that once you attach a grade you start worrying about cheating and I always hate using a single-assessment for anything permanent. However, it was pointed out that a student who can pass the benchmark demonstrates a minimum level of understanding and a few basic precautions can minimize cheating.
Here's a copy of the first benchmark in case you're curious. As an aside, writing the benchmark helped me empathize with the writers of the state tests. You kind of have to make it boring and vanilla. Whenever you introduce anything interesting, you have to worry about kids being freaked out by the strangeness and screwing with your data. It has to be straightforward and cut right to the point. Not to say that this is a good thing, but it was interesting for me to experience that.

Let me know if you have anything you think I should change/add/remove. What works for your school's benchmarks? What doesn't work? What would you change to make it work?

1: If you're not in California, Poizner ran in the GOP primary for governor. He wrote a book called Mount Pleasant which is the high school my kids feed into. It was his reflection on teaching (a single period, one semester) in the school. It was less than glowing. Our neighborhood does not smell like garbage and high school seniors aren't menacing anyone. On the flipside, everyone really does call the school Mount Pregnant. He's an outsider though so....not cool.
2: Just to be clear, the parents are supportive. They just often lack the ability, resources, or time to help their child at this point in their schooling. We often confuse unable with unwilling.
3: To answer Matt's question, reassessment is optional. Learning is not.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


A group of science teachers on Twitter have created #SciDo. In its current form, it's a shared Google Docs folder where science teachers upload lessons to share with others. Mike Ritzius has been the primary force here but I don't know the history behind it. It's like BetterLesson but with actual lessons in it.

There's a Flickr group for science pics. It looks like they're also forming a student blogging network. There's also talk of setting up mentoring programs for new teachers on Twitter and creating a video tutorial library. Sounds cool and definitely the more the merrier. 

If you're interested, go to to request GDoc access.

EngDo has also sprung up for the English teachers. My GDoc folder shows something called MathDo as well but it's currently empty. If I find out the status of that I'll update this post. I'm interested in seeing how this evolves.

Aside: I have often lamented the fact that many science teacher bloggers are actually covert edtech bloggers. They don't blog about science teaching. Every post is "101 ways to use WallWisher" and how PollAnywhere revolutionized their lectures. It's not my bag of chips so I rarely follow those blogs or the developments in the world of SMS response systems. And yes, I'm fully aware that I'm a science teacher and I have never actually blogged a science lesson.

However, SciDo was started by a group of teachers so I'm totally supportive of that.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Compare and Contrast with SET

As a department we've decided to focus this trimester on two thinking skills: Classifying and Compare/Contrast. All this really means is 1) It's going on our common assessment and 2) We're planning to throw those two things at the kids whenever possible. My kids are fresh off 7th grade life science, which is all about classifying (angiosperm or gymnosperm? eukaryote or prokaryote?) so they're pretty strong on that. Asking them to actually create their own criteria usually throws them off for awhile but they get the hang of it pretty fast.

Compare and contrast is a different beast. I'm not sure why, but it's something we've always struggled through. This year, I'm using the game SET to introduce it.

SET is pretty common in math classrooms, they even have a resources for teachers page. I'm sure Sue VanHattum has a few extra decks around her living room.

In the interest of not spending $96 on 8 decks of SET I used Keynote '08 to make a version. I'm just going to color print and laminate them. I'm not a designer in any way so if you're interested in making a better version I fully support that and will post yours.

I was too lazy to figure out how to make the squiggly character so I made rectangles instead. I also changed the colors.

Edit: Scribd is pretty much the worst thing ever so if it's not showing just click through and it'll work. I had to zip the keynote file because I can't figure out how to get or dropbox to share them. Here it is if you want to edit.

Mine prints out in landscape automatically.

Here are the rules for the uninitiated. It's the simplified version. Normally there are different shadings (striped, solid, outlined).

  1. Nine cards are placed face up on the table.
  2. The students take a look and yell out "Set" when they see a set. 
  3. The student who yells set has a few seconds to pick up his/her three cards.
  4. That player gets 1 point. 
  5. Three more cards are laid face up on the table.
  6. If everyone agrees there are no sets on the table (really rare, but students have a hard time seeing them at first) then three more cards are put out. These are not replaced when depleted.
  7. Play ends when the deck is depleted. Most points wins.
If you're playing the full version, 12 cards are on the table.

What's a set? Each card has three features: Shape, Color, and Number. In order to make a set, each feature must be the same on every card or different on every card. If you go try out the Daily Puzzle it makes a lot more sense.

I had written out a whole tutorial but found these screens here, which are much better. These are a set:

These are NOT sets:

Remember, I'm not using shadings.

It helps if students go through three questions:
  1. Are they all the same shape or are all different shapes?
  2. Are they all the same color or all different colors?
  3. Are they all the same number or all different numbers?
So here's the flow.

First day I introduce the rules and just let them play. Although the box says it's suitable for ages 6 and over, the thinking behind this is difficult at first so it'll take awhile for kids to get it.

Second day we play a little more. Then I formalize it. I like to use a comparison matrix for compare/contrast. Venns don't really do it for me although bubble maps are alright.1  After a little play I put this on each of their tables:

Mid-game they stop and take one set (3 cards). They put one card over each spot on the top then fill in the boxes for each attribute. The far right box they write a sentence, "Card 1 has a squiggle, Card 2 has a........All of the cards have different shapes."

After the game is finished I ask them to shuffle the deck and pull out three random cards. They fill out the comparison matrix again and use it to decide if it's a set or not.

I'll update this post when I actually do it. I'm looking forward to it. I really just want something I can point at. When I want a kid to compare/contrast something I want to be able to just point to the SET deck or say, "Remember that card game we played?" and have that memory do the work. It turns out "something I can point at" drives a lot of my instructional decisions.

Update: Here's a full version in pdf and keynote. I wrote a followup post too.

1: The problem with Venns is they're not forced to compare specific attributes. I get things like, "Dogs bark. Cats like tuna." umm...ok.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Standards-Based Grading Gala #2

Welcome to the September 6, 2010 edition of standards-based grading gala. This time we have 25 posts. We've got some veterans from last time and a few new faces. We'll start off with some words from Lorna Earl:
Assessment as learning requires the involvement of both students and parents. It is not a private activity for teachers, and certainly not a process that governments can control. It is a personal, iterative, and evolving conversation....(Assessment as Learning, p. 45)
To continue our conversation we're starting off with Dan Goldner who presents Inquiry standards for math posted at Work in Pencil. He figures science shouldn't get to have all the fun.

Surani Joshua presents Standards-Based Grading: Year 2 posted at Sines of Learning, saying, "The who, what, when, where, how and why of my second year teaching - and first year implementing SBG."

Cliff Pate presents My First Shot at Standards Based Grading posted at Eight where he describes his steps for implementation of standards-based grading.

Lisa Henry presents Grading Explanations posted at An "Old Math Dog" Learning New Tricks, saying, "This is a copy of my student/parent explanation of how I am implementing SBG in my classroom."

Ms. Miller presents My SBG Pitch posted at Take It To The Limit, saying, "This post summarizes the problems I have with standard grading and what I hope to achieve with SBG."

Raymond Johnson presents 2004-2006: My Adventures in Standards-Based Grading (And Why I Stopped) posted at His story of having to work in isolation (and why that's not as true anymore) applies to all of us.

Stephen Lazar presents Bump and Space: Reporting Letter Grades from Standards Based Assessments posted at Outside the Cave.

Geoff Schmit presents I Like Reading Lab Reports posted at Pedagogue Padawan describing his shift away from grading lab reports and towards reading them.

Ashli Black presents "A tale of my dog, cars, sbg, and how I use assessment to help my students recover from mathematical hit-and-runs." in How My Dog Learned Fear and How I'm Driving It Back posted at Learning to Fold

Jerrid Kruse presents Grading homework-a waste of time? « Teaching as a dynamic activity posted at Teaching as a dynamic activity, saying, "Not directly tied to SBG, but when we ask critical questions about homework, we raise questions about what exactly we want students to get out of school...leading to a stronger rationale for SBG."

Jami Danielle presents Why Bother? My SBG Manifesto posted at Undefined.

Barbara Gajda presents The straw that broke the camel's back posted at Large Q Quality.

Sam Shah tells us about getting over one of his big fears in transitioning to a standards-based system in Something I Realized About Myself and SBG at Continuous Everywhere But Differentiable Nowhere.

Stephen Davis presents Students Get to Their Destinations posted at Rush the Iceberg, saying, "The purpose of my post is to remind educators that our students will get to their destination no matter what form of assessment a teacher uses..."

No SBG discussion would be complete without Shawn Cornally who presents Standards-Based Grading: Shifts posted at Think Thank Thunk, saying, "What philosophical shifts must predate and implementation of SBG?"

Colin Graham presents Irrational numbers posted at Sine of the Times: Dividing the Universe by Zero, saying, "This is a reflection on the meaning (or lack of it) of applying grades which have been based on normalized percentages - without any indication of what students can or cannot do." You should also click through if you're curious about the UK system of grading.

park_star gives us Sometimes You Can Change Everything by Changing Nothing at Between Me and the Door where she tells us that if you're overwhelmed with overhauling your assessment system there's one thing you can do tomorrow—Stop marking exams, in fact, stop marking altogether.

Amanda Dean presents her reflections after two weeks of standards-based grading with Two Weeks In: SBG Thoughts on Praxis of Reflection.

Tyler Rice presents how he hopes to rid his class entirely of grades this year with a Grading moratorium posted at Wisdom Begins with Wonder

John Burk presents a few thoughts about how to change how students approach assessment with Assessment Prep posted at Quantum Progress.

Matt Townsley presents Standards-based grading in a non-math classroom posted at MeTA musings, asking, "What does standards-based grading look like in a non-math classroom?"

Ellena Bethea presents My Grading Policy v 2.0 at TEACHING | Chemistry describing her attempt to remove unhelpful grading practices from her assessment policy.

Frank Noschese presents SBG Free and Clear on Action-Reaction, a post about the freedoms that SBG provides.

Dan Anderson works through his sticking points with Standards Based Grading posted at A Recursive Process.

Finally, we present Ken Kozar. He doesn't have a blog but has shared his LHS 2.0 Grading Summary posted at LHS 2.0, saying, "We are a group of high school teachers (math, English, social studies, and science) who have the same students and are working collaboratively to incorportate SBG, PBL, Moodle, and 21st century tech tools to change the way teaching and learning occur at the high school level." Click "login as guest" to view the many resources he has shared.

I'm going to share an older post on using choice points in your class. I'd like to add a couple of updates. First, I'm still addicted to using the index cards. My kids tore through my first set so I got smarter and laminated, single-hole punched, and tied a string through them. Second, the index cards are excellent for starting a discussion. Just put up a series of choices and ask different people to defend their choices. Third, simply designing in choice points has been powerful. It's forced me to anticipate the errors students will have and actually take action.

Thanks for everything. Continue the conversation by passing these posts on to your friends and colleagues. Then submit a future post to the next edition of standards-based grading gala using our submission form.

I know there's some great assessment going on in the English, Social Studies, and primary grades. We need you for the next carnival!

Ellena Bethea has agreed to host the next SBG gala. Check her blog at a future date for more information. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The First Days

Sorry I've been on radio silence for a little bit. Our school year started and I'm about a week in at this point. I just wanted to dash off a quick list of things I did. This is one of those posts that is for me so I can check back next August and remember what happened.

Here's my first day. To get a mental picture, all of my tables are in groups of 4 but pushed to the sides of the class. The chairs are in a circle in the middle. It stays like this until the teacher that teaches during my prep gets sick of it.

1. We start off with the Cohen writing assignment on stereotype threat. I'm doing housekeeping stuff during this time and walking the middle of the circle trying to memorize their names. (5 min)

2. I spend a few minutes introducing myself, but start off with defining "active listening." I show some pics of last year's students in group and whole class situations. What are some signs that someone is listening? This year we came up with Sitting up,  Looking at the Speaker and Being Able to Paraphrase (they said "repeat", I amended it) as signs you're listening. That's pretty standard.  The AVID kids are taught SLANT so usually they can also come up with Asking Questions and Nodding. I didn't get that this year so I'm thinking the 7th grade AVID teacher let that one go. (3 min)

3.  I give them a quick bio of me. This year I made a Keynote using a countdown as a gimmick. I let them know they'll be asked questions about it when it's done.
5 = number of years I've been at the school (I showed pics of my first group graduating from high school in June and gave a brief "You want to be there" pep talk)
4 = age of my oldest daughter
3 = my main hobbies (rock climbing, surfing, doing backyard science stuff—I showed a clip of a potato cannon I built and launched)
2 = room number of my wife who teaches kindergarten at one of the feeder elementary schools
1 = age of my youngest daughter
100 = I left this one undefined until the next day where Surprise! that number is the percent of students in this class (because even though that's never happened before this is the special class and we can do it together) that is going to cross the stage in June. (maybe 10 minutes)

4. The signs of an active listener are reviewed.  Because they listed paraphrasing as a sign of active listening, I let them know that I'm going to ask them to paraphrase what others said. I give them a sentence frame to help them out. I also ask them to name the student because I really want all my students to know each other by name. This is a BIG thing for me.

"_______ said ________. One more thing I remember about Mr. Buell is _______"

If they didn't hear what the person before them said, they're supposed to ask them to repeat. If they can't remember a name, ask the person directly. Then I just go through and cold call like crazy. I let them pass on adding something but not on the paraphrasing. If they pass I let them know I'll come back to them. I introduce the quiet signal and again, cold call/paraphrase1 to see if they've got it. (10 minutes)

5. Next we launch into a handcuff activity I also picked up from AVID. I let them know that everything they need to know to succeed in this class is in this puzzle. The gist is that each student has a rope that's tied into handcuffs. They link together in partners with the handcuffs on their wrists. They need to try to get out. I do this crazy contortion thing to demonstrate, which of course sets them off on the wrong path. (8 or so minutes)

6. I stop them using the quiet signal to practice. Then I ask for a really brave volunteer to show us something that didn't work. They demonstrate and I thank them for helping move us forward because now we know one thing that definitely doesn't work (this is a recurring theme). I let them go for a little while longer and then again take a volunteer. (10 minutes)

7. Last we get seated again in our circle. The first key to success they'll need: Their failures are valuable. We learned not to "insert whatever crazy move the kids demonstrated." Now tomorrow, when we try again, we know not to do that.

Days 2 and 3 look similar. I tell them a little more about myself. I showed a slideshow of last year's promotion ceremony. I introduce a routine. I reinforce the paraphrasing and knowing student's names. We go back into the ropes. On day 2 I emphasize persistence, because inevitably someone will solve it. I ask them how they figured it out and they always say something like, "I went home and worked on it for an hour with my sister."

On day 3 again, more about me. I did a 9 truths and a lie thing. They voted and a few justified (cold call/paraphrase). They made 4 truths and 1 lie then did a Mix Pair Share.2 Back to the ropes again. I emphasize that it's never over. They can come up to me at anytime and tell me they've solved it and I'll pull out the ropes and let the class have a go. For some reason, this always happens around November. I never tell them the answer. They say they want it. But I tell them it's like training all year for a big game. They show up to the game and they win by forfeit. Sure it counts as a win, but it's not the same. The joy isn't in knowing the answer, it's in figuring it out (or not figuring it out, which isn't as fun but can be just as valuable).

This week I've been emphasizing the growth mindset stuff. We watched the first 12 or so minutes of Common Miracles: The New Revolution in Learning which was the video shown in a Joshua Aronson study also regarding stereotype threat. We read and discuss the fake magazine article [pdf] from Dweck on how the brain grows when you learn new things. I've introduced the whiteboards. I've mainly used it for summaries to help them get used to discussion in the circle. I've got a BBC show on reading that also emphasizes how the brain changes but I'm not sure if I'm going to show a clip from that yet.

Last year we did a Don't Eat the Marshmallow bit but I think I'm skipping it this year. I don't spend enough time on strategies for delaying gratification for this to be helpful.

Oh and somewhere in there we created our Don't Break the Chain list. We haven't started creating the chain yet. I'm not officially supposed to do anything for a few more days while the rosters get settled. I'll blog it when I get the thing actually started but so far it's been a positive experience. The kids really got into it when I asked them to drill down further than "Be organized" or "Pay attention." I saw quite a few light bulbs go off. For me it was a real eye-opener to see how hard it was for kids to figure out what "Paying attention" or "Working together" looks like. 

At this point you're probably looking at what I did and you're saying to yourself that I'm planting the seeds for when I introduce standards-based grading. This is wrong.

This is wrong because I haven't aligned my philosophies with SBG, SBG fit my existing philosophy. That's why I'm such an advocate. I no longer have a huge disconnect between what I say (your mistakes are valuable, we) and what I do (I'm going to average in all of your previous failures even though you get it now).

If you've made it all the way down here, you should reward yourself for your persistence by submitting a post to the carnival. Good assessment posts of all kinds are welcomed.

1: The paraphrasing thing is new but I'm loving it. There's the obvious bonus of preventing a kid from zoning out when another student is talking but I think as a speaker it makes the students feel more valued when they know someone else is listening besides the teacher. Eventually I hope to transition paraphrasing into asking questions or elaborating. I have no idea how to do that.
2: Mix Pair Share - I play music. Students wander around the room. Music stops and they pair up with whomever they are closest. They then do the truths/lie thing. Music starts and the cycle repeats.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Accepting Submissions for Standards-Based Grading Gala 2

The first SBG gala was hosted by Matt and he has very graciously passed it on to me.
What: Submit your assesment-related posts. Obviously I'm biased for the SBG Borg but any good assessment posts will be considered. It can be a brand new post or an oldie but goodie.

Who: Anyone can submit, even if you were in it last time.

Why: Because my Google Reader is overstuffed as it is and it'd just make it easier if everyone emailed me their assessment-related posts directly. Oh, and it's the best collection of standards-based grading and assessment-related posts you'll find anywhere.

When: Submissions are due on Aug 31. Go to this link here.

How: Instructions on how to submit.

It'll go up on Labor Day (September 6 for my non-US friends).

Here's the link one more time.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

SBG Implementation: Power User Tips

School starts in a couple weeks and right now I'm wrestling with interim (benchmark) assessments. I'll let you know how that works out later. Until then, I've noticed a bunch of bloggers have been hashing out their standards-based grading plans.

Here are some quick tips that really helped me in the setup phase.

Topics and scales:

Cut breadth, not depth. At some point you'll find you have a ton of standards to teach. You will then realize that you can't teach that many standards. It is really tempting to try to lower your expectations so you can cover all your standards. Don't. Cut the content. Never cut depth.

Take a whole bunch of those standards and put them into the "I'm just gonna mention these" pile. When I say mention, I don't actually mean, just-say-it-and-move-on. You can spend the whole day (or more than that if you want) in your preferred method of instruction.

Usually, that means I tell my kids that they're going to need these for the state tests, but it's not going to be important for my class. I'll spend a day here or there loading some vocab, boring them with a Powerpoint, or doing an isolated lab and then just move on.1 You could certainly skip it entirely, but I'd like to give them a sporting chance at guessing on a 4-option multiple choice test.

Anchor your scale with the hardest assessments/expectations on your students. It's not uncommon for your students to need to take a common department final, a state-mandated end of course test, and an AP or AP-like test. Choose the hardest one, analyze the depth, and use that as your anchor. I didn't buy into this one until very recently, but I believe it now. It's a real problem if I'm setting my criteria based on my district benchmark, which is asking kids to read a passage and summarize what happened. Meanwhile their state test is asking them to make inferences.

Ask to see other teacher's tests in other districts. One of the things that keeps me up at night is the depth issue. I really worry that I am setting my level of expectation at a 5, while schools in Cupertino, Palo Alto, and Los Altos (insert your local high SES cities here) are asking their students to perform at a 10. I emailed about 20 teachers in other districts for copies of finals, benchmarks, whatever. Six emailed back. Since then I've seen three or four more. Mainly I learned that most teachers just use the exams provided by textbooks, but it did help me adjust a few topics and I also saw some really cool problems.

Start with the 3: I'm putting this here because MizT mentioned she didn't really get this until she read this book. I know your scoring system might be different, but you've got to start with the goal. Whatever it is you want your kids to learn, start there. Then work backwards to build the learning progression, which turns into your scale. Take a full or a half step forward to extend your scale. If it looks like backwards planning, or UbD, it's because it is. If you're going to teach that way, you should assess that way too right?

Your scales and rubrics are actually kind of useless by themselves. Sorry. I know you worked really hard on them. Your standards are meaningless until you define them with assessments and exemplars. There's a good example of that here, but it's gated. No matter how detailed and well thought out your scales are, you and your kids aren't going to really get them until they see some exemplars or they know how they'll be assessed. So don't sweat it if you don't have the wording perfect and you're not really sure if "Classify" or "Group" is a better verb. Spend less time working on your scales and more time working on the assessments.

Tests are for self-assessment.... I give tests. But I give them mainly for students to self-assess themselves so they can figure out their strengths—so they can replicate them—and their weaknesses—so they can work on them.

....and for you.
I need to have some info to play with to figure out what to teach next.

Most of your assessment will be invisible. You'll spend a lot of time asking questions as they're doing something, listening in to convos, or just peaking over shoulders. The more you need to interrupt the process, the less valid the assessment becomes.2 Your grades will rarely be attached to a specific "thing" which is why inputting grades by time, rather than assignment, is so useful.

Use your scales to help you give feedback. Leaving feedback was and still is one of my big weaknesses. I'm ok with written stuff but I've always been awful with oral feedback. My kids either do a "Great job" or need to "Work harder." Bleh. Your scales help. Leave feedback that specifically references the skills in your scales. "Looks like you're at a 2 right now, to move forward you're going to want to practice calculating density and using the correct SI units." And yes, you're going to want to teach them to be able to do this themselves.

Grades for the Whole Game, feedback for everything else. That's what the last post was about. I'm just reminding you. But think about it when you feel you need to grade every single thing. If it's not the whole game (which it usually isn't) feedback only.

Good luck new members of the SBG Borg.

1: More on mentioning from Grant Wiggins. This came via Twitter but I've lost the source.
2: I made that up as I was typing. I have no evidence for that statement.
3: If you're on twitter, follow the #sbarbook tag and jump in. On Monday Aug 9, they're starting How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students. Most helpful book I've read in a long time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Playing the Whole Game

I've mentioned this book before, but Making Learning Whole by David Perkins really helped clarify my thinking on assessment. The key idea of the book is to Play The Whole Game.

The need to play the whole game is something that we intuitively understand. In basketball, we don't spend all day just working on dribbling or shooting, eventually, we go out and play an actual game. When painting, we don't just work on our shading, we paint pictures. We don't just work certain chords on a guitar, we play full songs.

Rhett Allain over at Dot Physics argues that grades are a shadow of the real thing. Very true and in fact, I plan to steal that analogy between 10 and 32,000 times over the next year. However, he doesn't go far enough.

School is a shadow of the real thing.

We spend our time working on skills in isolation under idealized conditions. There are exceptions, but most of the time, students are just doing shadows of the real thing.

And that's ok. Our students aren't going to get LHC access or write a novel or create new historical knowledge.

Instead, we focus on creating mini-games. I think Perkins might call them scrimmages, but I could be making that up. Sometimes you don't have uniforms and a ref so you go and play 3 on 3 in the park. That's a mini-game.1

This is an assessment blog though so I'm not going to focus on creating mini-games (sorry).

In a whole game, you are rarely ever told what skill to use. Most often, the opportunity arises, you identify the need to use a certain skill, and perform the skill.

This is all a roundabout way of saying I like topics over skill lists.2

Skill lists fall short here and we are in danger of falling into the trap of reductionism. In a skills list, you are usually asked to just use the tool, not to pick the right one and definitely not asked to modify it to fit our needs.

Yes, I break down the game into separate skills. Yes, I individually assess those skills. But eventually, I'd like to see those skills in action. My topic scores tell me how they do at playing the whole game. I fully admit that Motion is a vague name for a topic score. But what I really want them to be able to do is measure the motion of something. So they need some vocab and some measuring skills and some formulas and they definitely spend a lot of time practicing the math (Perkins says to work on the hard parts without getting stuck in "elementitis.") In the end though, I want to be able to tell them, "Figure out how much faster you'd get to the mall if you skateboarded instead of walked" and see that they know how to put all those pieces together.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kate's modeling project. Yes, Kate wants her students to be able to do all sorts of different mathy stuff. But really what she wants her students to do is gather some data, pick a function, justify why they picked it, explain what they're looking at qualitatively and quantitatively, and draw some conclusions (or something like that).

It seems if you include a water tank, you're golden. What's happening here? What skills do I need to pull out of the hat? How is this different from the frictionless, no air resistance, problems we usually deal with?

Note: Even though I'm using "real world" examples, they don't have to be.

Can you create a skills lists for the whole game? Sure. But not nearly as well. You end up in this troubling pattern of having some skills being worth more than others and you'll probably do some strange weighting system that nobody gets. You lose the mental picture a topic creates that "this skill" will help me in "this game." You're also far more likely to include the one-offs with skill lists.3

Anticipated objections:

I can't assess every standard during a single mini-game. 
Well yeah. Chris Sharma doesn't need to dyno (30 seconds in) every hold, but should the need arise, he uses it appropriately. That's what's important; not that students are forcing the round skill into the square test because they know they need to to use that skill and are being directly tested on it.

If it's a crucial skill, most of us are deft enough at creating the conditions that the need for that skill will present itself. If it doesn't ever, that should tell you something about the skill itself.

Topics don't give me detailed information for remediation.
I think that's a legitimate argument. There's an extra step involved in drilling down to the standard. I've tried to fix that by adding traffic lighting of my individual standards to my tracking sheets. But look at the other way around. Doing and assessing the whole game gives information that's meaningful and beyond basic regurgitation. It's good to perform the skill, but now you can see if they know when to use it and if they can break from the algorithm if the situation demands it.

It gives information to the student as well. He or she can see how this fits into the bigger picture and how this skill is used in the whole game. Anyone can move their hand up and down and dribble a basketball. It's not until you're actually playing a game when you realize that there's more to it than that.

Everyone who's played a sport knows this. You practice what you can. You go out and play. You watch film to break down your jump shot. Or more likely, while playing you realized your left hand is still weak and you need to practice.You practice. Then you play again.

My state has the most random set of standards.
It's really hard to find the whole game in the state standards miasma. The state of California gives me a list of slightly less than 60 things to teach. Some of the standards, like this one
Students know the appearance, general composition, relative position and size, and motion of objects in the solar system, including planets, planetary satellites, comets, and asteroids. 
end up lumping a few standards together. Once unpacked I end up with 80ish.  Some of you have more than 100.

This is stupid.

You've got two choices. Race through and spend 1.8 days on each standard. Or focus on playing the whole game. Pick 3-5 Whole Games a quarter. Do something with those isolated skills. Assess it. Remediate the hard parts. Replicate the successes. Repeat.4

Play the whole game. Assess the whole game.

1:If you click on the Amazon link, the first review gives a quick rundown of the seven points David Perkins gives. If you're a UbD or PBL/PBL fan, you are likely doing a pretty good job with the mini-games.
2: It also creates a learning progression.
3: Standards that don't go anywhere should be mentioned, not assessed, but that's a different issue.
4: It doesn't have to be a project. You can get at the whole game with a standard written test. It'll just be a lot more open-ended than any skill test you're used to making.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dieting and other endeavors doomed to fail

This is my attempt to clarify my last post with a story.

About two years ago I was having dinner with my mom and one of her friends. Her friend, Sarah, was on the Atkins diet while my mom was on a diet of her own.

Fast forward to now and my mom is on her third different diet (now a vegan) while Sarah is still on the Atkins. 

I'm going to ignore the relative health merits of different diets and just focus on one thing:

Why was Sarah able to stick with her diet?

Notice that both of these diets had the same goal: LOSE WEIGHT. But Sarah stuck with her diet while my mom moved on. It could be a personality issue (perhaps) or it could have something to do with the results each one was seeing (not in this case).

However, I think there's a larger issue that relates to my last post.

Sample of my mom's diet instructions:
1400 calories per day. No more than 15% daily fat intake. No more than 6 oz of (non-fish) meat per week. No added sodium. No more than 5 ingredients in a packaged food. All grains must be whole. Start every meal with a salad. Drink a full glass of water at every meal.

Sample of Sarah's instructions:
Don't eat carbs.

I think the implications are clear and feel free to stop here. I'm going to go on because I'm a chronic over-explainer. (mansplainer?)

Clear goals are not enough. Lose weight. Quit smoking. Start exercising. Be a good student. Pay attention. Those all are clear goals.

Motivation is not enough. Although I didn't actually ask my mom, I'm going to go ahead and assume that she wanted to lose weight.1 Also, despite what they might tell you, every student wants to feel successful.

Too much instruction is as bad as too little. I am in hate with goals given without any direction on how to achieve them. However, it's just as bad to legislate every step. Look at what my mom had to do. That is not sustainable. Your brain gets tired of dealing with all of that.

Successful completion of each step is ambiguous. Short of carrying around a scale, you're eyeballing weights all the time. Is that a full serving? How many calories are in there? How many ingredients do you think that has? You're basically guessing most of the time.

Imagine my mom seeing an appetizer spread at a party.2 She's got to figure out the nutrition content and the ingredients. She's got to figure out the weight of the meat. She has to do some mental calculations to figure out how that fits into her daily caloric intake. She does this for everything that's going on her plate.

Sarah, on the other hand, walks up the appetizer spread. She asks, "Is this a carb?" and grabs whatever is appropriate.

Now imagine that both my mom and Sarah had to factor a quadratic while doing all that.

If you want to change, having a goal is not enough.  Motivation is not enough. You need a few, specific steps to take and it should be clear if you're doing it right.3

If you need to think your way through every meal, your diet is going to fail. You'll revert back to your old eating habits because your brain simply gets tired of dealing with it all the time.

If your student needs to do the equivalent of calculating calories for every action they take in class, they're going to fail and revert for the same reason.

Next time you're planning on creating change, just remember: No carbs.

Extension question:
What does this have to do with standards-based grading, err, whatever Cornally and Cox want to call it?

1. That would have been a good convo. "So..Mom...Did you even WANT to lose weight?"
2. Hopefully that's the last time I ever type the words "Imagine my mom."
3. Some of the best moments occur while negotiating gray areas. You just can't spend your entire day in the gray areas and expect to sustain your momentum. Usually, gray areas should be targeted, not stumbled into. 

Final note: I STILL haven't finished Switch yet but there's a definite possibility they may use this as an example later on. I did a Kindle search and couldn't find "Atkins" anywhere, but if this example pops up I'll be sure to credit it later. Either way, most of the ideas here can be found in that book. I can't give a full recommendation until I finish it but it has at least given me some food for thought and a really nice study on radishes and cookies which I hope to blog about later.