30 September 2007

Constructing Written Responses in Science

It's been a bit since I've done some show and tell around here. One of the nice things about having an outside host is the ability to upload various documents and then link them to my blog posts. It's a better way to share things, rather than just trying to describe them here.

Since I mentioned "teaching to the test" yesterday, I thought I would talk about a tool I've used with kids that has helped a lot. I struggled for years with trying to teach kids to "write to the prompt" (another perilous phrase). The thing is, if kids don't understand what they are being asked to do, how can we expect them to be able to do it...and do it well?

With the help of one of our literacy coaches, I put together a how-to for myself and colleagues on Constructing Written Responses in Science. The first seven pages are notes for the teacher---an inquiry style lesson plan, complete with foldable for kids and keys for looking at student work. The rest of the packet is to use with kids. The examples are released items from our state science test.

After using this with students, I have found that skills do transfer to regular classroom assignments and assessments. There are a lot of kids who are grateful to have some guidelines about how to dissect a prompt. I've seen them circling, boxing, and underlining all manner of things as a way to organize their reading and thinking. I have not used this tool with my current group of kids, but I will make plans to do so in the near future. As always, suggestions for improvements are welcome. Enjoy!

29 September 2007

Teaching to the Test

I have a love-hate relationship with the phrase "teaching to the test." On one hand, I don't see a problem. If I'm teaching kids things which are different from what they will be tested on, what the heck am I doing? Shouldn't I be using class time to help kids learn the concepts I expect them to know when we get to the test?

It's the use of the phrase within the context of state-level exams that gets my goat. I can't speak for other states, but here in Washington, we don't know what's going to be on the test from year to year. We can only "teach to the standards," meaning that we help kids learn all the concepts...knowing that they won't be asked to demonstrate mastery of every single one. Teaching to the test gets a bad rap much of the time in this case. It conjures up visions of "drill and kill" in the classroom---something which can and does happen, but not in my classroom. When I work with kids on their expository writing skills (they are in love with But-Man this year), I am teaching to the test, in a sense. When they take the science WASL, they will need to be able write a thorough scientific conclusion. They aren't marked on their writing skills (there is a writing test for that), but the ideas they communicate. The "trick" is to help kids learn what information is important in a conclusion. This is the standard. Yes, I'm training them to demonstrate something for a test, but it is not drilled into them over and over out of context.

My students are about to take the first test of the year in my class. I use various summative forms of assessment---exams are just one piece of the puzzle. Several years ago, I started making my tests resemble the format kids would see on the science WASL. There is a scenario, consisting of a few sentences; a diagram or picture which relates to the scenario; and then some multiple-choice, short answer, and or extended response items which ask kids to use their knowledge within the context of the scenario. Am I "teaching to the test" by using this format? I suppose I am; however, I think it's unfair to expect students to be successful with the state test if the format is completely alien to them.

In the grand scheme of things, I am still learning (after 16+ years in the classroom) how to design good tests. The ones which come with the ancillary materials are often poor in quality---either because of the cognitive demand (only knowledge and basic comprehension questions) or because the items don't target the most important concepts. In building tests, I am getting better at organizing the items in terms of difficulty, balancing the points among selected response and short answer (to avoid gender bias), and targeting higher levels of thinking. I'm not just teaching to the test anymore---I'm using the test to teach me how to better prepare my kids.

28 September 2007

Learning to Let Go

Even though I have made some drastic changes to my grading practices this year, I am not immune to stacks of papers. I listened to a teacher complain at length yesterday about grading---and how hated of an activity it is. I understand why a teacher might feel that way (and certainly have myself), but not anymore. I have made a mental shift from the mechanics of grading (marking answers wrong) to thinking about two things as I look at student work: (1) Does the kid get it? and (2) Does the class get it---and what will I do if they don't? To put it another way, I'm more focused on the forest than the trees.

On Tuesday, I played a game with my kids to illustrate how energy flows in an ecosystem. At the end, I asked them some questions. In the past, I would have just marked the papers, totaled up the number of right answers, calculated the percentage, and put a grade at the top. This time, I read through all of the responses on a student's paper. I looked at them within the context of the learning target. If the kid grasped the majority of the concept, I marked a "3" (at standard) on my record sheet for formative data. As I did this, the larger part of the picture started to emerge. I saw two major misconceptions kids consistently had about food webs. I marked a "2" on my record sheet. Being formative, it won't count toward the final report card grade, but it is a signal to me as to which kids I need to pay particular attention to the next time we do something with this concept. More importantly, it gives me some direction in planning for the next few class sessions.

This "gestalt" approach saves me a lot of time and ink as I grade (kids can correct papers in class when we talk about the work---I don't need to spend my evenings and weekends on most of that) and it is good guidance for the next class session. It means, of course, that I have to let go of a lot of the nitpicky stuff I used to do.

Don't get me wrong---there's definitely a time and place for being anal retentive about grading. There are just some concepts that kids have to nail. And as far as extended response items, they are always going to be time consuming. The difference here is that I'm continually forcing myself to consider the goal and ask myself "So what?" about the work. In class, I get to tell kids "Here is what I learned from looking at your papers..." I don't care so much that a particular kid missed item #2---does the rest of the work show that the kid seems to know what s/he's talking about?

All of this also helps me spend my time looking in detail at the papers of kids who weren't able to hit the target the first few times out. I know who to provide even more detailed feedback to---and who just needs a suggestion.

Grading is a subjective process. We are human beings evaluating other human beings. No matter how many "objective" items you use on assessments---there will always be questions as to item quality and match to a target. But I'm gradually learning to set aside some of those worries and embrace the messiness of it all. So far, the kids are okay with the idea that we are all going to take the plunge together and learn.

26 September 2007

Wondrous Wednesday

Head on over to this week's Carnival of Education. It'll make that slide into the end of the work week all the more fun!

25 September 2007

I Don't Get It

There is a teacher at school who insists on describing kids by their grades. "Jane is a strong B student...Geraldo is a C student, but could do better."

I smile, nod, and say nothing. My internal monologue runs something like this, however: "WTF are you talking about?!"

I don't know what this means. Am I supposed to take this information to mean that students' performance in my class is predetermined? Do I automatically give up on the "F" kids? There's no explanation of how the grades were earned. Should I assume it reflects what they learned or just that they followed his rules? More importantly, isn't there better information to share about a student than a letter grade?

24 September 2007

The Courage to Question

I share an office with another science teacher. I've been having fun tweaking him by getting the students who stop by after hours to ask him questions. "Mr. So-and-So, is this a formative or summative assessment?" or "What are the learning targets for this assignment?" Mr. So-and-So is a good natured soul and has been a good sport about the questions kids have asked...even though neither the teacher nor the students have been entirely certain what the conversation was about. All of this has led to some interesting questions on his part---and we are having an ongoing dialog about grading practices.

Today, he asked if I thought the high school would ever have a standards-based report card like the elementary schools. I told him I didn't, even though I wish we would. When he asked why we wouldn't move that direction, I didn't tell him the real reason (Boss Lady 2.0 doesn't have the balls to start the conversation with secondary schools), but rather we moved into talking about why it was more difficult to develop for junior and senior level offerings. Our state standards only go through 10th grade (although there are some draft "college readiness" standards now available for math, language arts, and science which are meant to target 11th and 12th grades). The real crux, however, is that there would need to be some agreement among the teachers of those classes (such as chemistry and physics) about what content was most important.

These conversations should happen, regardless of what format the report card takes. Does it not seem odd that every chemistry teacher in the district makes a decision about what constitutes "chemistry," let alone what a passing grade means? My hunch is that most would agree about the basics: structure of an atom, chemical bonding and reactions, properties of matter. However, what about acids and bases? equilibrium? Is stoichiometry really that important---or it is the concepts that are meaningful? I would expect some fights here, but all with good purpose.

It's unlikely that any of this will happen within the district. There's not enough interest---people are very comfortable in doing the same old same old without having to think about why they've made the choices they have. While I doubt that very many babies would be tossed with the bathwater, I still believe that as professionals we should engage in this kind of thinking. If we can't explain to one another the value of what is taught, how will we ever convince students of the value of learning it?

23 September 2007

Teacher Leadership

There are some admins in my district who I think are doing an excellent job. What I like about these professionals is that they have a need to know what is happening inside of classrooms and how best to support the good stuff. They haven't forgotten that sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity that can be nurtured within a classroom---forsaking it for the comforts to be found behind their office doors. These teachers saw a role as administrators as a position to be in to help more children than those in their classrooms.

I know that admins make for easy targets. The fact is, the role has far outgrown what one person should be expected to take on. It is not simply "administrative" any longer: it includes a hefty dose of instructional leadership. Many of the admins who have been in the position since before the shift occurred are either not prepared to play this role in the school...or have no interest in it. Meanwhile, as more teachers see the increasing demands of the admin's job, fewer may see it as an appealing career choice---even if they do wish to increase their influence in supporting students.

Although the concept of teacher leadership is not new, perhaps it is one whose time has come. If it is unrealistic to expect a single administrator to fulfill all of the needs for a school, then why not use the collective staff resources? This month's edition of Educational Leadership is devoted to teacher leaders. It's a great collection of articles about the struggles and rewards of tapping human resources within the school in order to effect change.

Teacher leadership is, of course, also the area of my EdD. It's something I've officially been thinking about and working with for nearly two years. The most common question I am asked is "What are you going to do with your degree?" I don't have a pat answer in mind. The fact is, there appear to be new opportunities all of the time...and I'm trying to be open to them. Should I work at a college or university to better prepare teachers for the rigors of the classroom? Should I work within the context of one of the educational research labs to fine tune what we know (or think we know) about best practices? Work as an instructional/curriculum specialist for a district or school? Do I hit the road as a consultant? Or teach in a public school classroom and work with teachers in my school? What other opportunities might be available to me in a year or five years? For me, the bottom line is the same as it is for many admins, I'll be looking for where I will be able to do the most good for kids.

22 September 2007

Familiarity Breeds Isolation

A teacher asked me an interesting question this week. He wondered if the willingness to collaborate with peers decreases with years of experience in the classroom. Those first few years, you need all the help you can get. You reach out to others, grab onto any piece of quality curriculum you can steal as if it were a life raft, and do what you can to keep growing in your profession. At some point, however, you have the basics under your belt and have a certain amount of comfort in doing what you do. It grows into an attitude of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Shutting your classroom door to the outside world becomes the norm.

It's an interesting point to ponder. In my experience, I would say that secondary teachers are more prone to becoming independent contractors than their elementary peers. I admit that it's easy enough to do. There's quite the wolfpack baying at the doors of the classroom: concerns from admin, parent issues, community needs, legislative mandates, and more. Why not give in to the temptation to just close one's door and stick with what you know?

I see a couple of problems with this. First of all, the teachers I know who strike this particular attitude also have a good number of unsuccessful students. It doesn't mean that what happens in their classrooms is bad teaching, but it also isn't reaching every kid who needs to learn. I would think that they'd want to expand their repertoire a bit to support children. The second impact is far more problematic in my mind: there are always some teachers who crave a collaborative environment and are being stifled or driven from the profession due to the frustrating lack of community.

I think that those teachers who do maintain that sense of intellectual curiosity for the classroom over the span of their careers are also those who look for opportunities outside of the classroom at one point or another. Some move to administration. Others find different types of leadership opportunities. I believe that their goals are to find ways to make positive change happen and to build the kinds of places where familiarity breeds neither contempt, nor isolation, but real learning for teachers and students.

20 September 2007

So Now What?

I'm trying to think ahead...pondering the next move in the evolution of grading in my classroom. It's all well and good to provide feedback to students about how well they're meeting the targets and how to improve, but we are talking about 15-year olds here. Planning is not always their strong suit. So, if I'm depending upon them to figure out how to alter the course of their learning...well, I don't know if that will always be the best approach for every kid. This brings up the question: "So, Now What?"

Do I create some sort of goals template that the students and I fill out together? I'm not envisioning this as a whole class activity. After all, each kid is going to have slightly different needs, depending on which standards they haven't reached. Because science is a mix of both content and skills, this poses a bit of a problem. Skills might be practiced throughout the year---plenty of opportunities for kids to meet standards. Content? We tend to move through different units throughout the year. I know that there will be different opportunities to review throughout the year, but mastery? Do I find ways to work with small groups of kids on particular content strands?

I know that this is not an uncommon problem. The easiest answer to the "So, Now What?" question is to say "I taught it and too bad for those who didn't get it." This answer certainly applies to kids who choose not to engage in the classroom. But what about the ones who just weren't ready---for developmental or other reasons? The kid who would have gotten it the fifth time around, only I presented the material just three times? How do I give them their fair shot at things?

I am liking the informal individual conferences I am having with each student at least once during the week. Maybe I just need to find a way to better track this information and then look at it with the student. I'd like to think that by putting our heads together, we'd figure out how to meaningfully answer the question of "So? Now what?"

19 September 2007

Never Too Busy to Carnival

I have a very busy day at hand---so if you've come here looking for insight...come back tomorrow. :) If you're looking for inspiration, however, just click on over to this week's Carnival of Education. There are lots of wonderful posts to peruse!

18 September 2007

Not Anymore

I recently heard a snippet of a conversation that I'll never have to have again...and it made me feel good. A student was in a panic over her grade. A low score on a test had decimated her average and the teacher was valiantly trying to reassure her that when there were some more grades in the gradebook, the score wouldn't make such a difference. The student wasn't pacified by this. It was as if she thought by rewording the question or asking something again would yield a different answer---one she wanted to hear.

I have had countless conversations exactly like this during my career. Now I think back and wonder how many kids I crushed with them. Mind you, I was always positive...gave the kids a pep talk...tried to help them understand that there would be other grades. I didn't do such a great job with listening to what kids really wanted: they wanted to make something happen for the grade that day.

I handed back my first summative assessment late last week. Some students didn't perform as well as either they or I hoped; but with my new policy in place, our conversations were very different. My students are no longer powerless to do something about a particular assignment that they struggled on. They can work with me and then do it again. They can ask to show what they know another way. And they realized that by using the median to determine things at the end, an unsatisfactory mark can disappear.

We as teachers like to think that students determine their own destinies in the classroom. And they do---to the extent that they choose whether or not to engage in learning. Until now, however, I don't think my students ever felt that they really were in charge of their destiny when it came to the final grades. I set up the rules, after all. I have this time, too, but believe I have done so in a way that makes things fair for students (and not just "equal"). They have said as much about this and so far, we're all doing just fine. It's a relief not to have those harried conversations about averages anymore.

17 September 2007

That's Edutainment

I admit it. I'm one of those teachers who doesn't believe that a teacher's purpose in the classroom is to entertain. And when I look around the edusphere, I get the impression that most teachers there feel the same way.

What is the difference, if any, in an engaging classroom?

Is it that the term entertainment implies more work on the part of the teacher and less effort on the part of students? Does it conjure up images of teachers singing and dancing on the desktops or throwing candy and homework passes from a parade float? When you think of an entertaining classroom, does that mean that very little learning is going on? Is that why we teachers are so adamant that we are not (and never will be) entertainers?

I don't think we can get away from being performers, at least.

Even if it is only semantics, teachers are much more comfortable picturing themselves as orchestrating an engaging environment. In my own mind, I see the difference being that in this kind of classroom, students make the choice to take advantage of the learning offered to them...while entertaining appears to be just a glorified form of babysitting: learning is very much optional.

As I look around my school, I see a lot of classrooms which aren't (in my opinion) very engaging...and yet, I can't claim that there isn't any learning occurring. Why should other teachers worry so much about creating an engaging environment then? Do we care more about the quality of learning and the number of students we reach? Is our philosophy about the classroom so different that we can't picture working with kids any other way---why we can't be entertainers in the way those others may see themselves?

16 September 2007

The Goddess Can't Help It

Although a major shift in my grading practices is my focus this year, for the day-to-day work in the classroom I'm wanting to do a far better job teaching kids to use informational text and develop their vocabulary.

We've been reading small chunk at a time, spending most of that looking at the pictures and diagrams. I know that sounds a little odd, but kids aren't trained to pay attention to the graphics in most textbooks. In science, those pictures really are worth a thousand words. I need kids to spend time interpreting them. I had a kid remark this week that "I like how we look at the pictures in this class." It's a habit I hope to develop in them so they can be more independent about it. Our reading sessions last no more than 15 minutes, so about the time the kids are getting bored/antsy, we move on to another activity.

As for vocabulary, I'm trying a variety of things. I used a Frayer model for the term system, as this term is how our science standards are organized. We did a think-pair-share with the model. I was disheartened, at first, with the "think" portion. I thought that system would be a general enough term that even if kids didn't know how to place it in the context of science, they would at least have something come to mind. Few did. As we continued to process the word, I perked up. We ended up with a great discussion.

I placed the term system up on our word wall, another strategy I'm being more purposeful about this year. I realize that word walls are typically associated with elementary classrooms, but the benefit at secondary is that kids already have some training in how to use them. They just need to know where to look in my classroom in order to "use their words." My main problem at this point is paring down the mass of vocabulary terms in science to just the most important to place on the wall. I really don't want to put up more than 5 or 6 in a given week (and from what I've read, even that could be too many). I'm using one colour of paper for content terms (system, ecology, biotic...), another for process terms (variables, hypothesis...), and another for word parts (Greek and Latin prefixes, roots, and suffixes).

Finally, I had a bit of fun with my kids on Friday. We had just started reading a passage on ecosystems. The first paragraph contained the word species. It wasn't boldfaced and it wasn't a term we had seen before. I stopped reading and asked the class if there were any terms in that paragraph which were unfamiliar. Blank stares. I directly asked about species. Students volunteered some ideas for a definition and through collective wisdom, most classes had a fairly good concept. We didn't draw the Frayer model, but we did talk about some examples (e.g. horse, donkey) and non-examples (e.g. mule). I wondered aloud if kids could think of any other non-examples---and they were able to supply a few, naming the cross of animals involved (lion + tiger = liger).

It was the end of a long week, and I was feeling punchy. I just couldn't help but ask them: What do you get if you cross an elephant and a rhino? They thought I was dead serious. You could see the look of wonder on some of their faces that such an animal might exist. You can imagine the looks of surprise and shy smiles when I delivered the punchline: 'Elephino. :) (Did she just say what we thought she said?!)

Who says vocabulary has to make for dull learning?

UPDATE: A reader was kind enough to send me the link to the video below. It's the Muppet version of the "Elephino" joke.

15 September 2007

Staying On Top of Things

There's a burst of energy and enthusiasm at the beginning of each school year. Perhaps you've finally cleaned up that messy classroom closet or tackled your file cabinet. Maybe there's a new seating arrangement you're trying out. In September, there's plenty of hope that all of your new organization will take root and this will be the year (at last!) that it all runs smoothly.

And then reality hits...and boy, does that suck. There are stacks of papers to mark and record. New kids show up and need to get caught up. The office wants you to hand out information. All your good intentions are quickly paving a path to you-know-where.

So, here are some ideas to stay true to your New School Year's Resolutions.

  • Are you a teacher who just can't say "No."? Online Organizing has 20 different ways to say it...and I'm not talking about world languages. I would also like to suggest that in using some of these, you add one piece to the conversation. Tell the asking person, "Gosh, I don't think I'm the right person for this, but I bet Teacher X would be perfect for that project." I know this looks like passing the buck. What happens too often is that the same teachers in the school are asked over and over again to participate on committees, chaperone, etc. Help others in the school get involved through recommending an invitation for them.
  • Rule the Web is a fantastic new blog which has 60 second podcasts for getting the most out of the internet. If you're looking ahead to Classroom 2.0, this is a nifty resource for the information age.
  • Is e-mail starting to be the boss of you? Stand up to your inbox by using these helpful tips.
The school year is always a rollercoaster of highs and lows. If you can keep your organizational scheme in place throughout the year, there will be a lot less suffering on your part. Hang in there!

13 September 2007


I was trying to help my students this week with their writing. Most of them like to take the easy way out and treats words like they're on a budget. (Maybe the result text messaging?) I'm not a flowery writer, myself. I'm not complaining about the lack of adjectives. The lack of explanation or support for the statements they make? Oh, yeah. I'm on them about that.

One thing I learned about during the expository writing classes in Seattle is that the words "because" and "but" become something akin to characters in their written pieces. The word "because" prompts thinking. It is a window into the minds of students. When I'm talking with students, I often respond to their statements with "Because..." Some of them are starting to spontaneously include it with what they share in class. This is a good thing and makes formative assessment even simpler.

As for "but," this word is important because it sets up contrasts. We use it for a variety of reasons in science, especially our concluding statements. I wrote but on the board and then drew (in my own inimitably painful style) a superhero form around it...cape and all. I used the phrase I had heard to so often in Seattle: The Power of But. As you can imagine, this all went over rather well with the teens. (I'm sure it is even more amusing with elementary kids.) But-Man was born.

We haven't had to call upon the powers of But-Man too much yet. Students have an experiment in progress which will run over the weekend. Come Monday, however, we're going to put him to the test as we summarize the results of the investigation. Hooray for But-Man!

12 September 2007

Short List Wednesday

I recently listened to a parent describe one particular frustration with a teen. When it came time to get ready to go somewhere, the parent would tell the kid that they needed to leave in ten minutes...and before then, would the teen take out the trash, put the dog out, and get the laundry out of the dryer. Five minutes later, the teen was still sitting around playing video games. The parent was fit to be tied.

Teen brains are still growing. Frontal lobes don't always do what they should, which means that things like planning, remembering lists, and concepts of time don't fire on all cylinders. Giving a young teen a verbal to do list and a time limit is a recipe for disaster. (Meanwhile, other parts of the brain haven't developed enough to interpret the emotions shown on others' faces...so the kids can't even see that you're pissed off.)

In the classroom, when I have a "to do" list for kids, I keep it short, always visible, and try to smile in spite of gritted teeth every time I'm asked "What do I do next?"

The list for Wednesday is very short. There is only one item and it's easy to do because I'll include the link: go to the Carnival of Education. It is hosted this week by History Is Elementary and is the finest collection of posts to be found in the edusphere. Enjoy! (Okay, it's a two-item list.)

11 September 2007

You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

I had a short conference with every single one of my biology students yesterday. This is something that I would like to do at least once a week, although I'm not sure at this time if I can make it happen. I don't want this to be a year where there are kids who can "hide," either by not speaking up during class...or just by doing okay - good work and behavior, therefore calling no attention to themselves.

Our conversations were brief, as you might imagine. But even 20 - 30 seconds of eye contact and some personal attention is a start. Every kid got a bit of an "atta boy/girl" about something good that they'd written. Some kids who had questions, but didn't want to ask in front of the class were able to receive some one-on-one guidance. It felt really good.

Why haven't I done much of this before? I think part of it was not being clear in my own mind about what I wanted to see kids do in terms of a targeted standard, and another part has just been learning a few protocols and questioning techniques to make those brief conferences more meaningful for both parties. It isn't that in the past that I didn't help kids or generally circulate while students were working; it's just a simple change in priorities. I won't wait until they raise their hands. It's all out in the open: they need to see that I'm learning from them, too.

10 September 2007

Throw Off the Crutches and Walk

As teachers move through various career stages, do they also vary the number of rules and procedures instituted in their classrooms?

I recently heard a teacher spend five minutes talking to students about her expectations for chewing gum: when you can ask for some, what kind there should be (not too smelly), where you should stand if you want to ask for a piece...and so on. I thought this was slightly excessive, until I remembered that when I was about her age (career-wise) I had a kerjillion rules, too.

When I started my career, I had a nice tidy set of rules---maybe 10 in total. And then when I began to learn all of the difficult lessons The First Year of Teaching tossed my direction, I somehow channeled that into legislating my classroom. I had all manner of rules and procedures, although I don't think I went quite so far as devising a whole set of chewing gum expectations.

There were two problems with my response. One: it's too many damned rules. Good teachers know that you shouldn't make any rule that you're unwilling to enforce every time it's broken. I was freakin' exhausted trying to do this when there were so many rules. The second issue with having a legal code style syllabus is that the kids have six different sets to remember. Classroom management feels more like a "gotcha" system because each teacher wants something different.

And now...in my seasoned veteranhood? Hey, there's a student handbook with expectations and a discipline code. I don't repeat anything in there on my syllabus. Frankly, there's not much left for me to write about. It's a weight lifted from everyone's shoulders. I am a firm believer in teaching and reinforcing procedures: where to turn in assignments, how to get make-up work from absences, and so on. These are not so much disciplinary in nature as just helping everyone function within the general culture of the classroom.

I know it's not my place to say anything to the chewing gum rule-maker. I see my younger teacher self in her rules. I know that they feel like a security blanket for now; but I also look forward to seeing her throwing off those crutches and walking.

09 September 2007

Grades and Feedback

One of the myriad of adjustments I'm making to my grading this year is providing feedback to students. It isn't that I haven't ever written comments to students; but now that I've done some reading and research on what's effective, I'm changing what I do.

Black, et al. suggest in their 2004 Phi Delta Kappan article, Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom that "feedback should cause thinking to take place." In addition, feedback needs to be clearly communicated. It's not enough to jot a question mark in the margins by something the student has written...or a smiley face beside something done well. Research by Robert Marzano and others supports that feedback need not be rich in quantity, but quality. In particular, a teacher should aim to do the following:

  • Feedback from classroom assessments should give students a clear picture of their progress on learning goals.
  • Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement as well as provide guidance on how to make that improvement. Phrase the guidance in the form of questions about the work.
  • Opportunities for students to respond to comments should be planned as part of the overall learning process.
And finally, feedback should be focused on the work---not the students. Several pieces of research out there indicate that comments oriented toward the person ("You are a good drawer.") vs. the product ("This is a good drawing because...") can have long-lasting negative effects on a student's perception of himself as a learner.

One thing which isn't in the research, but is an idea I like, is to make remarks on sticky notes and attach them to student work. The point here is to show respect for the students' efforts by not scribbling all over their items. I know that there will be times that this can't be avoided. Sometimes you need to circle or mark a specific word or phrase in order to call attention to it.

I did this with my students this week. They all had one assignment---just a simple formative assessment that was handed in---that I looked at and commented upon. For every student, I wrote one positive thing that I saw in their work and provided the example. Instead of "Good job!," which I might have written in the past, I wrote things like "This is good work because you provide examples to illustrate your answers (e.g. #7: bold red and blue subheadings)." Then, for any student who struggled with the assignment, I made a suggestion for improvement. Formative assessments do not count in the students' final grades. When I returned the papers and we talked about the comments, we also talked about the idea of how to use the feedback in order to earn a score of 3 or 4 (at or above standard) on the upcoming summative assessment. In other words, there are no secrets as to what kinds of answers I am looking for and what each student can do to create those.

Will I do this for every piece of student work? It's not likely. I may spot check certain items, rotate my focus on students throughout a unit, and provide oral feedback as much as possible. Why bother at all? Educational research is showing that good feedback is more effective at raising student achievement than grades. This makes sense to me. A simple score on a piece of paper, along with X's marking missed items, does not do much to communicate to the student. If we want to support students in their efforts to improve, then we have to explain to them how to do that. They aren't mind-readers any more than we are. I am also hopeful that engaging in this kind of dialogue will make students value their assignments more---and that fewer things will be returned and immediately be used to practice making shots into the wastebasket.

As with my other changes I'm implementing with my grading this year, I'll try to post some updates now and then about how this is working in the classroom and what I'm learning along the way. If you have any feedback to share, I'm always grateful. :)

08 September 2007

There Is Nothing Like the Brain

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to Seattle to see the musical version of "Young Frankenstein." (It did not take place at the Space Needle, as shown above.) For those of you familiar with film version, you'll remember the scene where we first meet Frederick. He's giving a lesson to students on brain impulses. This has been transformed to include the song "There Is Nothing Like the Brain!" True to that.

I have had my own ups and downs in understanding or buying into brain-based learning. The term is definitely a misnomer, but I suppose it is shorthand of a way as we're going to get to "applying knowledge of cognitive science to the classroom." This is a somewhat interactive post. Take your hands off the keyboard and make fists. Now, place your fists together, matching knuckles, in front of you. You have a nice model of the brain. It's about the same size as your own. There's a left and right hemisphere for you to look at. Your thumbs? Frontal lobes. Middle fingers? (No, don't wave them at me.) Where the sensory-motor cortex is.

During a brief "downtime" between work sessions this week, I had my kids do this activity with me. We talked about the growth their brains are undergoing right now (especially the frontal lobes and the impact this will have). We talked about the need to break up the class into some different segments in order to help them stay engaged. Some of them giggled when I mentioned that 15 minutes was the maximum a brain their age could stay focused on a task without too much effort. I had stopped them after 10 minutes of work---and it was obvious that some of their minds had already started to wander and daydream.

One of my goals this year is to make students aware of how it is that they best learn. Certainly a variety of activities and ways of presenting information will help all students. None of us are purely auditory or visual or kinesthetic learners. We are combinations, each way reinforcing another. But somewhere in all of that is the individual brain's sweet spot. There is nothing like it and I am going to commit to helping each kid find theirs---and communicate that. I want them to feel confident that as they move to other stages in their educational careers that they can help themselves, especially in classrooms where the teacher is all about "sit and get." Learning how to learn shouldn't be akin to brain surgery. I think we can build better monsters. :)

07 September 2007

One Is the Loneliest Number

I dropped my grading policy on the kids today. I am surprised at how well things went over.

I started off the discussion by having them talk about the terms fair and equal. I had been concerned about this aspect. Through their talking and my probing, kids seemed able to distinguish between the two. We then looked at my philosophy of grading. I have high school aged students---and they are well aware that they can "buy" things with their grades, like lower car insurance, college admissions, and athletic eligibility.

Then we moved into the specifics. We looked at some examples of using the mean, median, and mode and how these can tell different stories about a grade. (Kids caught on darned quickly how "unfair" an average can be.) We talked about no zeros or other grading penalties for missing or late assignments...and the need to respect everyone's learning needs in creating a grade which truly represents what each student knows. Although we spent some time on the terms formative and summative, I can tell that I'm going to have to reinforce those more.

My informal "check-in" with students following this discussion elicited a lot of positive feedback. For the most part, they seem to get it. They are graded on their learning and that I care more about whether or not they do learn than when they learn (or how many times they don't understand at the beginning). This made me feel good.

What didn't make me feel so good was the question about "How come you're the only teacher who grades like this?" because when I suggested that they open a dialogue with their other teachers, they said "They won't listen to us." I'm not entirely sure how true this is, but considering that sophomores (who are brand new to the school and therefore still figuring out what high school is) were the ones feeling that way, I'm not too surprised. The difficult part is that I'm not sure where to direct them. I can understand why they might feel uncomfortable rocking the grading boat with other teachers. Grades are very much about power in many classrooms. So then what is the appropriate route for their concerns? I can certainly advocate for students at staff meetings from the standpoint that we teachers need to talk about our grading practices---I'm just not sure how to empower the kids to advocate for themselves and help them feel less lonely in their assessment needs.

06 September 2007

Youthful Exhuberance and the Old Fart

I have been reminded during the past two days about how long it's been since I was 15 years old. I have effectively navigated the sea of energy generated by the ~125 of them I've worked with and lived to smile at the end of the day. But damn, I feel old. :)

Part of this is my own fault---not Mother Nature's and Father Time's doing. I can't be the kind of teacher who asks kids to just read the book and answer questions on a worksheet while I read the newspaper or surf the internet. I don't have the five-day plan I see so many teachers implement: Monday for notes, Tuesday for worksheets, Wednesday for films, Thursday for answering questions out of the book, and tests on Fridays. I understand that I get paid the same either way...but it doesn't feel like teaching and learning if I'm not in the thick of it all with the kids. So, I have no one to blame but myself if I'm tired because I didn't sit on my fanny all day.

I do practice what I preach. I use my Holy Grail Lesson Plan. The great thing about it is that it makes the class period manageable for teenage attention spans. There is no time to be bored. While not everyone's learning needs are addressed every day, within a few days I've managed to have time for kids to work individually, in pairs, in groups, and participate in whole class discussion. We write, we draw, we read, we do. (If you're curious, here's my outline for the first eight days of class. Should any specific activities pique your interest, e-mail me for a copy.) The bad thing about using this kind of plan is that it sometimes feel like you're planning twice as many classes.

Discussions about grades have been minimal so far. I have started kids thinking about equal vs. fair and formative vs. summative assessment. We'll get knee deep into my grading policy soon. I think the sophomores will cotton rather well to the ideas. (Juniors and seniors are another story for another day.) I am anxious to put the lesson plan, assessment ideas, and the grading policy into simultaneous practice. My hunch is that it will be very motivating for kids and will help generate a lot more energy in the classroom.

For now, this old fart is off to grab a beer and camp out on the sofa. :)

05 September 2007

Back to School Carnival

What better way to relax after a return to the classroom than by strolling the midway of this week's Education Carnival? Grab a beer (if that's your thing), a colleague (safe touch areas only), and/or other accompaniment and see what edubloggers the world over have to share this week. You'll be glad you did!

04 September 2007

The Calm Before the Storm

'Twas the night before school year,
And all through the room...

A teacher was working,
And wishing for June.

The bulletin boards done, papered with care,
Knowing that children soon would be there.

The admins long gone, snug in their beds,
With visions of PowerPoints dancing in their heads...

Okay, so the day before the first day of school really has more of a New Year's Eve sense to it than Christmas Eve. It's the time for new beginnings, resolutions, and the promise of hope that a new year contains.

It is the last bit of fantasy before reality starts slapping you around in the morning.

To the edublogger community, best wishes for a smooth start to the school year. I know that many of you are already navigating the waters. Thanks for assuring us that it's still fun and can be done. Happy School Year to all...and to all a good night.

03 September 2007

Labour Day Levity

I was sorting through some clippings recently and rediscovered one from the Austin American-Statesman. It's a column by Mike Kelley (I think from 1989) about some misquotes Richard Lederer had collected from students. Below are some of the better ones. My two favourites are at the end.

  • The pyramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain. The Egyptians built the pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube.
  • David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Finkelsteins, a race of people who lived in Biblical times. Solomon, one of David's sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.
  • Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock. After his death, his career suffered a dramatic decline.
  • In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java.
  • There were no wars in Greece, as the mountains were so high that they couldn't climb over to see what their neighbours were doing.
  • Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul. The Ides of March murdered him. Dying, he gasped out the words, "Tee hee, Brutus."
  • King Alfred conquered the Dames. Joan of Arc was cannonized by Bernard Shaw. And victims of the bluebonnet plague grew boobs on their necks. Finally, Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.
  • The government of England was a limited mockery. From the womb of Henry VIII Protestantism was born. He found walking difficult because he had an abbess on his knee.
  • Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen." When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted "Hurrah!"
  • The greatest writer of the futile ages was Chaucer. During this time, people put on morality plays about ghosts, goblins, virgins, and other mythical creatures. Another story was about William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son's head.
  • Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between, he practiced on an old spinster which he kept up in the attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present.
Have your students shared any insightful comments like these with you? In biology, I often hear about the testicles of an octopus (instead of "tentacles") and how all orgasms have cells (er, organisms).

01 September 2007

Run Away! Run Away!

I think I frightened a bouncing baby admin this week. Since then, I have had visions of him reacting in a Monty Pythonesque "Run away!" mode.

Out of the umpty dozen PowerPoint presentations tossed our way this week was one that was supposed to be about cyberbullying. The admin started off by talking about how "freaky" MySpace is and how if you've never visited it, you would be shocked at how weird everything is and all of the terrible things found there.

This set my teeth on edge. To be sure, I do not have a MySpace page, but I immediately recalled one of the beginning teachers I mentored last year who did. How would she have felt, sitting there in one of the first faculty meetings of her brand new career, only to be told that what she did in her personal life was "freaky" and see so many nodding heads? I know that there are lots of MySpace pages out there that have posted features that are in no way appropriate for the school setting. But I can also say that I know grandparents who have pages just as a means for keeping up with their children and grandchildren who live far away. How many people sitting in that meeting might be harboring a MySpace or Facebook page, a blog, or maintain some other form of on-line presence?

Then the PowerPoint started---full of the most frightening (and likely overblown, considering this more recent study) statistics about on-line predators and so forth. He clicked through the some of the slides and stopped the presentation about halfway through. There was quite the buzz in the room, but no discussion was allowed. The end result was a group of stunned faculty, the majority of whom are now convinced that the internet is no good whatsoever. And none of it actually had any connection to cyberbullying...which was supposed to be the topic at hand. It really made me sad.

I sent the admin a note later. I rambled about my frustration. I told him that I hoped that as someone just entering that role, he would consider being more forward thinking about the future...and reaching kids where they live (which for most of them includes MySpace). Happy Chyck had a marvelous post not all that long ago about a similar discussion in her school. I think that we can all agree that cyberbullying is a serious issue---and one schools need to effectively deal with. We can also agree that not everything that is available on the internet needs to be seen at school...and that kids should be engaged during class time (and not hanging out on MySpace). But to be blanket in our agreement that social networking is for "freaks" is not okay. We need to be supportive of our students as they learn to navigate the real and virtual worlds---not stick our heads in the sand. We also need to be conscious of one another and what might be included with the cultures we bring to our workplaces---and make everyone welcome. I hate to think about how many teachers are going to want to "Run away!" from the profession when they hear others consider their on-line behaviour to be deviant.