Monday, September 6, 2010

Grade Postings - My First Mini-Roadblock

So, I realize that my approach to this SBG thing has been very different than others. I read posts from @druinok and @misscalcul8 and others as they are trying to get their minds around the assessment/reassessment routine with a certain level of detachment because I haven't made that piece a big part of my classroom dynamic. I knew there were downsides to that series of choices and I've been waiting for them to rear their ugly heads. No horrifying beast has emerged just yet, but I'm getting a sense of the nature of the monster when it does choose to make his appearance. So, let me pull back the curtains for you all on what awaits me:

The Background: Our school operates on a Block Schedule. My classes run for 90 minutes each day and the semester marks the end of the course. The class I am doing SBG in is actually two separate consecutive courses that incorporate the full body of Algebra 1 Content Standards in two distinct terms. The grade in one term has no impact on the other, with the exception that a failing grade in the first term will remove you from the course for the second term. Official Progress Reports are issued every 4 1/2 weeks but are grades are cumulative in nature throughout the term. Our administration requires that we assign two grades per week (on average) and grades are uploaded from Edline for Parent viewing once per week.

Our Approach to Grading: Our first unit of study runs approximately one full month. It includes a total of 9 specific content Target Skills. We are also starting to look at an additional 2 overarching Target Skills (Writing; Cooperative Work). We have no plans for mini-quizzes or assessments throughout the month. The kids are working on a group project that utilizes all 11 skills. On or around Sept. 28, they will also take a cumulative assessment that covers the 9 Target Skills plus some Writing. Their grades on the skills then will be based on their group project (which culminates with an individual written component) and the cumulative assessment. Opportunities for reassessment after that will exist throughout the semester and will be more targetted to specific objectives.

The Problem: I like the overall approach we are taking because I like the necessity of integration of the unit into a whole for assessment. It means, however, that we are left with a couple of equally unpleasant grading options as we are working our way through the unit:
  1. Leave the gradebook empty until the project and assessment are complete at the end of September. This will likely lead to parent complaints, and ultimately admin heat.
  2. Grade the students fairly low at this juncture (i.e. an A means to me a consistent 4, so it would be pretty much precluded at this stage because of the consistency ideal). Kids are demonstrating somewhat emergent abilities in some areas at this point. For example, the writing is extremely weak and not at all where we hope it to be. If we grade the students on what they are capable of demonstrating RIGHT NOW on these 11 objectives (i.e. using work samples, observations, and our pretest), we would be recording a lot of D's and C's which would likely lead to parent alarm.
  3. Grade them based on an observation from a given lesson. For example, after we taught Histograms on Friday, most of them demonstrated a level 3 understanding. The ability to regurgitate back what was just taught, however, without truly mastering the material is fairly common with all learners... particularly true with students with Learning Disabilities. If we record a bunch of B-type grades at this point, we will likely be lowering many of them when they attempt to apply the skills on their project and/or assessment. Lowering grades is something we want to do only in extreme cases because it is here that we fear the most backlash. We have aimed to grade conservative, with the room to raise grades in an effort to avoid too many scenarios such as this.

A Possible Solution: My mind has been toying with this all weekend. I logged on to our Edline to play around with the grades and see what options exist. We generally record letter grades, but I realized that it will take a 0-4 set of numerical data and convert it to the corresponding letter grade (4-A, 3-B, etc.). This doesn't necessarily eliminate the problem, but it does allow the parents to see a set of numerical grades alongside the "traditional grade." We can also assign each grade (Target Skill, in our case) a value of 0 points. This would, I believe, cause the parents to see a set of numerical grades without a corresponding letter grade. It would at least provide parents with some concrete feedback, thus mitigating the intensity of parent reaction to approach #1 (above), but there would still be the "So, what is his/her grade?!?" question to contend with.

Perhaps I should just take it as it comes but I'm trying to avoid a situation that leads to a parent calling one of our principals, or worse, the Board Office to complain...leading to the ole' other foot dropping down and killing our SBG initiative before we are really under way.

Any thoughts? What seems to the lesser of the evils here? Or do any of you have a better suggestion?

What If?

What if the students that sit before me held within each of them the kernel of greatness?
What if they all desperately long to make a difference and matter in this world?
What if they want so much to be inspired? Believed in? Seen for their true unique gifts?
What if their future depends on the choices they make today ~ to step out and risk or to remain complacent?
What if all their potential is sitting there dormant, waiting for that spark to ignite it?
What if? What would I do differently…

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Week One in Algebra - Introducing Stats Unit

So, I have my plans in place with a little bit of detail for our first full week of school. We gave our class pretest on Friday. I looked at an overall grade (i.e. percentage) so I’d have something to compare it with when we give Posttest (which will require a single holistic grade), but then I also disaggregated the data from the first unit we will cover (statistics) into SBG type scores. The scores were drastically low (highest score was 26 points out of 105) but that means our posttests should look fabulous. ;)

Anyway, we are heading into this new week with a few overall objectives in mind:
· Help them understand our expectations for Weekly Blogs and Collaboration.
· Introduce our first unit of study.
· Get them started on their major group project.
· Give them a fairly thorough understanding of how to avoid (or detect) bias in statistics samples

So here is the plan:

We have a brand new math lab at our school. In fact, I believe we will be the first to use it. So we are going to start class by going over the Computer Rules.
Then we will head over to the lab for the first half of class. Once we head over to the lab, we are going to help any students who don’t already have an email account sign up at gmail or yahoo. Then we will all head over to our class website (which we showed them briefly last week). We are going to show them again where to access the Writing Rubric on our website and then direct them all to respond to the first blog post. Anyone who finishes early can just spend some time surfing the links we have on there (the videos will be primarily blocked because of YouTube links).
After that, we will head back to the classroom where we have placed them into groups of four based on their performance on the Statistics portion of our pretest. Each group is heterogeneously grouped by prior knowledge. They are going to work on a TeamBuilding Activity that we have modified. Basically, each team will have 25 popsicle sticks, an empty toilet paper roll, half of a paper plate, two mini-cups, a Styrofoam bowl, and a roll of masking tape. They have to work in complete silence for approximately 10 minutes (depends on our time at this point) to build the tallest free-standing tower they can. We are then going to debrief. If we have time, we will work as a class to develop a collaboration rubric. If not, we will use the one I’ve already put together (Collaboration Rubric). I’m also going to encourage them to obtain contact information for their group members at this point, and have a discussion about group accountability and attendance.
Hopefully, we will still have time at this point to distribute the Study Guide for Unit (formatting problems on GoogleDocs) so that we can talk a little bit about the Learning Targets we will be focusing on for the month ahead. I have considered writing on the cover of each Study Guide how they did on the pretest on certain targets (only if I saw some evidence of background knowledge) but I’m not entirely sure.
After class, I plan to add links to the Collaboration Rubric and Study Guide on to the class website.

We are going to have our “TRUST NO ONE” Powerpoint on the board as the students arrive. We are then going to open class with a mini-lecture/discussion about the way statistics are often misused in media for the purposes of advertising and propaganda. We will then detail that a bit more with ways a Discussion Introducing Statistics about the ways that Bias can show up in surveys.
We are then going to have them work in groups on a sheet from the textbook that has them critique a planned survey by a travel agency and look for bias. We are only giving out one sheet per group and so we are going to have a discussion at that point about finding out who in your group are the strong readers, the neat writers, etc. to encourage them to assume roles and tasks within the group dynamics.
We will then discuss the group project a bit and have them discuss the options from the Topic List with the group to choose what they will be investigating. They will then work together to complete and submit a Planning Sheet. I am really afraid I’m going to forget to emphasize to them that they need to record the exact age of each person they survive. I’m writing that in bold so that it will help to remind me if I look back at this throughout the week. We are going to need that second variable in a few weeks when we get to Scatter Plots.
After class, I plan to add links on our website to the 1968 Trident commercial that we discuss in class, the Powerpoint Notes, a Video from Khan Academy on Samples/ Surveys, and a link to some data on Media usage where I obtained a lot of the info on their Topic List sheet.

We are going to start class with some statistics on the board from Opener Stats from Kids Count for discussion. We want to start introducing a theme we will be using as we look at stats this month: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” in an effort to make them think more critically about what they see.
We will then have them work with their groups to see what data has been returned for their project and what still needs done. I may make up a guiding sheet for this but haven’t decided for sure yet. They will discuss and plan how to ensure that they have all of the required data by Thursday for our the project.
We are going to then talk a bit more in depth about sampling methods (cluster, systematic, etc.) and they will work with their groups on the Running Down a River lesson from @druinok (whose name, I think, will show up in my lesson plans a lot this year).
After class, I will add a link on our website to the site which was the source for today’s opening data.

During our opening day discussion, we garnered a bit of information about our students; personalities and interests. Several expressed interest in art, several in the military, and several in the health care field. We are hoping to tap into those as much as possible throughout the year. We talked briefly that day about a colleague whose son is on the front lines for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan right now. I mentioned that we could gather some stuff to send over from our class. In line of that thinking, we will use our “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” discussion approach with today’s Opener Stats from Military. We are then going to discuss things that my colleague’s son needs and make a plan to gather supplies to donate.
We are then going to head over to the lab to begin Phase One of our project reports. We are going to discuss with them how to access their Personal Drive on our network, as well as how to create subfolders for their classes or subjects. We are then going to have them open a Word Document and go over the creation of Headers and tables. We are going to have them write a few introductory comments about the topic of their project and embed a table with all the raw data. We are going to then have them explain how their group when about obtaining the data (sampling method used) and discuss what bias may exist in the approach they used.
The planning for this day is a bit light because we are always surprised at how little they seem to know when it comes to using Word. We also wanted a little bit of a catchup day in case we are behind on parts of the lesson that were integral. This document that they are starting is something we will be adding to after each mini-section of this unit until they have a full report including a histogram, box plot, etc.
After class, I’m going to add reminder and supplies list for Jack under notes in left margin of our class website.

OK, so I still have no freakin clue of the details of what we are doing here. I’m going to meet to plan more details with my partner before Friday. I know that we are going to start discussing methods of displaying data and begin with an introduction of Histograms. I’d like to do a Venn Diagram of sorts by showing them a series of bar graphs and a series of histograms and having them note or report out the similarities and differences. The determination of intervals was the biggest difficulty with our students last year, so that’s what we will need to practice the most. Also, we have TI-NSpires so we may want to do a little bit with that. I think we have three days planned with Histograms before we head back to the lab to add more to their project reports.

So, those are my plans. I have to find a way to spend a bit less time on all the details. I hope this gets easier/smoother as we go. As for assessment and SBG and all that stuff…I’m thinking of making a checklist to observe their collaboration, and I’m going to give them some feedback on their first Blog Writing…but nothing to be formally graded/assessed at this stage.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Class Website

OK, so here is my thinking on our class website. We have named it Success Site for obvious reasons. This is the first year we are attempting to integrate it, and I know to those of you who are more proficient with technology the efforts may seem quite infantile...but you have to venture forth at some point. Here is the plan:

Writing Component: We are being asked to require more written expression across the curriculum. In fact, all classes (PE, art, whatever...) must include one written assignment per week to be graded for spelling and mechanics. Even on our block schedule, I find that we use every spare second in class on activities and instruction so the idea of cutting a portion of time a way for writing, especially when there is such variance in writing abilities and speed isn't something I was thrilled with. Additionally, we don't give a lot of math homework in our class because many of our students' parents are unable to help them with Algebra. So, our thinking was that we would outsource the writing part. So, we plan to assign a journaling type of question each Monday with the requirement that students complete it by Friday, but allow no class time. Assessment is a bit trickier. We included a "Writing About Mathematics" component in our SBG target skills. Then we took our state's Writing Rubric and whittled it down a bit. The idea is that during the first nine weeks, we would focus exclusively on assessing the Mechanics. Then we plan to add another criteria each nine weeks. We put access to this abridged rubric on the website. Now, I'm leery about actually reading and providing discrete feedback to each and every post. And I'm also terrified that I will log in and find that only one or two students complete the blog. I will just venture forth and see how it goes. I have considered allowing them to privately inbox me their blog post for those who feel uneasy about their writing being public, but I am hesitant because I'm eager for them to learn from one another's examples. We shall see.

Resource for Parents: Well, we are sending home a letter the first day to parents that discusses the site. We have posted that letter on the site itself because it also explains the grading process a bit. In addition, we have posted the Learning Targets list on the site and plan to use the Notes section on the page to list current units of study, upcoming assessment dates, major projects, etc. I think we probably need to link our Edline grading system to the site and vice versa but I need to run that by my partner first. I want students to be responsible for their own learning but I would like parents to be more aware and engaged in discussions with their children about what we are doing. I'm hoping this might help.

Resource for Students: In addition to everything mentioned above (Learning Targets list, Writing Rubric, etc.), we are linking to some websites that might provide additional assistance (Khan Academy, TutorVista, WolframAlpha, Virtual Manipulatives) and just general interest (TED, WorldoMeter, etc). Some of those we will be adding as we move through various units of study, simply to keep the site changing and interesting. We have links to a scientific calculator and a graphing calculator. I also wanted to try to make the site a bit adolescent-friendly so we've linked to some Facebook quizzes like "Which branch of Mathematics would you be?" and such which they can only access from home and if they have a Facebook account. We are planning to post videos up as we go through the lessons that serve as reteach options for those who need additional practice...stuff from Khan, or United Streaming. I'm not sure if they will use it, but at least the resources are available at their finger tips. Perhaps halfway through the year we will start pushing them to seek out resources of their own, even assigning them to find a video and discuss its strengths and weaknesses in their weekly journal or something. I avoided the chat feature because I'm a little leery of monitoring it at this point, but perhaps in the future.

I don't know. I have high hopes but I could be hitting this in all the wrong way. Do you guys have any thoughts, suggestions, ideas for improvement?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My 109th Bead

I was thinking a bit on the road today about the words that echo through my mind and help to form the kind of educator I hope to be. These are voices of some of those who I've learned from (obviously paraphrased from memory):

"This too shall pass." - Carla Bensie

"I've heard teachers say, 'If you can only reach one.' I didn't want that. I wanted to reach all of them." - Angelo Cicolella, at his retirement luncheon

"I want to be able to look back on my career and know that I got better every single year." - Brian Cerullo

"Jami, you have to remember that you are planting seeds. You may not always see the harvest, but that doesn't make what you are doing any less important." - Shirley Cuomo

But most of all, Dr. Lori Anne Ferrell and Dr. Donald Vance, who taught me that intellectual pursuits and academic scholarship can be tempered with humanity and a sense of humor. It is from them that I learned that knowledge is not only desirable but pretty freakin' cool!

Much thanks, my teachers!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Bother? My SBG Manifesto

So, in some of the blogs regarding the burgeoning enthusiasm for SBG, there have been calls for caution. Maybe not caution so much as a reality check. Blogs at Questions and ThinkThankThunk, among others, are reminding those of us who are new converts that SBG is not a panacea for all that ails our classrooms. There is also a fear that the rapid proliferation of the SBG practice will result in a watering down or bastardization of the philosophy, ultimately causing more harm than good to what has the potential to be a very useful tool in changing classroom culture. These are definitely well-founded and legimate concerns in an educational climate that is replete with fads and buzzwords which shift with the changing winds of our political and social context. So, I want to start by thanking them for speaking up about something that had the potential to offend those of who are a bit more new to this environment.

So, in that vein, let me offer my ultra-defensive reaction to their posts. Just kidding. This will have the potential to be read as defensiveness, but it is really meant as my touchstone. Why am I stirring the waters in my own classroom? Why even bother? So, when I have those moments of, “Ugghhh, things were working okay before. Why did I do this?” I can reflect on this. Even more important, when I find myself getting caught up in the minutiae of the implementation details, I can keep from losing sight of the ultimate purpose for this whole adventure. [Sidenote: On a totally personal level, the adventure is part of the thrill. I like pushing myself in new directions and down new avenues in my teaching. This is gonna be fun. :) ]

OK, but I digress. What then are my reasons for attempting to shift my grading philosophy:

Reason #1 – Why do we learn?
Be it a little bit of overdosing on Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, and the like, but I truly believe human beings have a natural drive to learn, grow, and achieve. This runs counter to the experience in my classroom every day where I am supposed to prod and push students who play their appointed role as apathetic adolescent perfectly. How do I reconcile what I believe philosophically about our innate motives and the conflicting reality of what I see? Well, there is research out there that has shown that the use of extrinsic rewards can ultimately have an undermining affect on motivation toward the task itself. If you haven't seen the RSAnimate video, definitely worth the eleven minutes.

This is precisely the affect that I see of our current grading/points system. It is one of the reasons that I think the young children who enter Kindergarten so full of curiousity and eager to learn digress into the almost catatonic beings that often sit before me. The “best” we hope for our Honors students who have simply learned to play the point game well, yet they often still show little appetite for actual learning. Curiousity has been replaced by grade achievement.

Reason #2 – Fight the Man
I also had the fortune/misfortune of dealing with a school climate this year that created a lot of us vs. them mentality between faculty and staff. Obviously this wasn’t a good thing for our school, but it made me really look and think differently about my students. What was it in the administration’s approach that was elicited such a strong negative reaction from the staff? Was it really that different than what passes for our typical classroom behavior plans? They were essentially treating us just like we treat our students. It was a carrots-and-sticks attempt at behavior modification. And we were ticked. I mean, the reaction was profound and angry. [Disclaimer: If you one of my administrators are reading this, go easy on me. I’m trying to make a point here about what we can all learn from each other.] The point is, they were acting just like us. And we didn’t like it! Not one bit. There was a lot of “We aren’t being respected.” And “They don’t trust us to be professionals.” And then sometimes, it got even worse….with a “I’ll show them. I’m not going to do one iota beyond what is absolutely necessary and required.” Whoa! Intensely negative. And not at all unlike what I see from students often. So, what was it we were wanting from our bosses? Why weren’t we giving that to our students? If we were wanting a context where we were given the benefit of the doubt, trusted to be self-driven, encouraged as we pursued our own paths of growth, why weren’t we attempting to create the same kind of culture in our classrooms that we were demanding in our workplace? And I know that adults are allegedly more likely to be driven internally and that kids need to be taught to be intrinsically motivated or whatever. But yea, not really. That’s kinda bullshit. I didn’t have to promise my son an ice cream cone if he learned to ride his bike. There wasn’t candy waiting when he took his first steps. Achievement and the desire to master skills is innate to us (See Reason #1). We just have to make the “skill” something meaningful enough that they want to achieve it (whether our current curriculum does that is another blog entirely), and then stop pounding that curiousity out of them with all these crazy reward systems that undermine the beauty of learning.

Reason #3 – A Perfect Marriage
The last reason is a bit more personal and more suited to my actual job situation. I am blessed to work with partners who have extremely varied techniques, approaches, and philosophies to teaching. I love that. It forces me to work and grow in new directions all the time. I am a chameleon and I adapt to the individual classroom culture and then push it forward. This SBG thing isn’t something I would try with each of my partners. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t fit in their classroom philosophy or their approach to teaching. Am I hoping that success in the one class where I am attempting it will ultimately lead to a bit of a contagion? Well, yes, I kinda am…but that’s beside the point. I am attempting it in the particular class I am in because it is with a partner who would throw away grades completely if he could. He and I work hard at what we consider the more important aspects of teaching the particular students we have in that class (low performing Freshmen)
- help them to overcome their learned helplessness and be willing to attempt and risk failure
- motivate them to think math is something to be enjoyed and to empower them
- give them a sense of confidence in their own abilities to learn and master difficult stuff
These metagoals are something that we kinda hold as supreme over the content of the math itself. That’s why creating our skills list wasn’t much of a stress to me. I used what we already taught and didn’t worry too much about the details of it. That will work itself out. Some of the grading component, admittedly, has me stressed because I am trying to figure how to fit this approach into our district mandates and the current CYA culture in my school, but that’s another issue entirely. When they leave our class, we want them to have a different attitude about math, about the process of learning, and ultimately about themselves as learners. That trumps whether or not they can successfully factor a quadratic function…although, kinda hope they can do that too…y’know, for the ole’ teacher ego [insert thump chest here] SBG seems like it fits better in this perspective than in the classrooms I have created with my other partners that have a slightly different (although in many ways equally valid) focus and approach.

So, there is my declaration of commitment – my SBG manifesto. I think that the philosophical shift absolutely must precede the implementation or David and Shawn have reason to be leary. We should all ask ourselves why. Not just once, but periodically…every day…so that our focus becomes on the idea of changed classroom culture and a truly formative feedback experience, rather than getting too caught up in a system that starts to revert back to the status quo which is probably our default mode.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

SBG: Working out the Details

I love standards-based grade.

Love it, love it, love it!

Let me start with that.

In theory, I absolutely love it!

But trying to tweak what the system will look like in my classroom is making me crazy. Insane. Absolutely bonkers.

I am drawn to SBG because I have such philosophical issues with our traditional grading practices. I hate the idea that it is all about the grades and not about the learning.
But then when I try to flesh out the details of how I’m going to make it work in my class, I end up with a grading leviathan where there used to be a somewhat yucky little asp. [You should be picturing the snake at the climax of the second Harry Potter film here…]

So, essentially I have two different problems I’m trying to negotiate here:

  • How do I fit the philosophy and objectives of a standards-based grading classroom into the structure and context mandated by my school and district?

  • How do I effectively communicate with students and parents in a way that doesn’t become horrendously tedious and ├╝berfocused on the grading system itself?

My fear is that the more time I spend focused on the details of the execution of the plan, the more I get sidetracked from the environmental change I am hoping to effect with all of this in the first place. So, now envision me walking a tightrope above a chasm with the snake from Harry Potter lurking beneath.

So, my current system is this:

  • We have a computerized gradebook that requires letter grades and automatically calculates the means of those grades on a 4.0 scale (A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, etc.)

  • Our district has a mandated percentage scale that is in our student handbook (A=93-100%, B=85-92%, etc.).

  • Our state uses language in both our state standards (which most parents aren’t exposed to) and our state mandated annual testing that distinguishes between various levels of understanding (Advanced, Above Mastery, Mastery, Partial Mastery, Novice) where the goal is for all students to achieve Mastery or above.

When I read what others who’ve already implemented SBG are doing, the big debate seems to be between a 4-point system and a 5-point system. I am less concerned with 4 vs. 5 than I am with how I align it seamlessly with the systems we currently have in place.
The obvious answer would be:

So, some thoughts/questions (brainstorming here) about the problems inherent in this simple alignment:

  • Should I just relinquish the SBG 4-point scale entirely and use the language of our state as indicators to students instead since they’ve been exposed to it through state testing anyway?

  • Do I want to tell students they’ve achieved “Mastery” and then report that as a C when report cards are issued?

  • How do I give students the feedback of “Mastery” and then still elicit further effort and initiative on their part to reassess and grow in their understanding?

  • What unforeseen problems does this alignment have lurking for me that I am simply not anticipating? [OK, now you should see me – tightrope – chasm – snake from Harry Potter – and blindfolded.]

Part of the reason for implementing SBG is shifting ownership of learning back to the students. I want them to be aware of the goals we are working toward and how they are progressing toward achieving them. I considered setting up some sort of list for each unit where the kids could know the target skills at the outset. I tried putting together a sample one for our first unit and it came out looking a bit like this (three separate tables on the sheet because of the nature of the artifacts):

But then what? Who fills it out? Me, when I assess? Them as we progress? How much time do I want to spend in class focused on this record keeping sort of system? Aren’t I starting to create a worse, more convoluted system than the one I am attempting replace? My goal was to get away from an emphasis on “grades” or “scores” and a checklist like this seems to put a spotlight of focus on them instead. Yet, I do want the ownership to be more theirs than mine, so how do I accomplish that?

Well, my goal was to try to figure out some direction, but I think I’ve at least succeeded in clarifying what my questions are. Step one, I guess.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Unit 1 - Stats (Help Wanted!)

OK, so last year we opened our year-long course with Statistics and I think we are going to do that again. It was a great way to start the year because it lends itself to real-world connections, group-work, and class discussions. It also lays a foundation for us to talk about how we observe patterns and then predict from them…which leads to our patterns unit…which leads to our function stuff. Then we kind of bring it all back full circle by ending our year with probability where we start to talk about “given a certain pattern or approximate pattern or even just random data, what is the probability that…”

Our approach last year, however, was a bit haphazard. We hit all of our objectives but I’m not sure we effectively connected them. I woke a few weeks ago with some ideas on how to make it a more connected unit of study, but I am going to need some feedback on actual research questions that will work in the context. So, let me lay out our goals and the plan I’m considering and then I will throw my questions at ya.

State Standards
The standards we cover in this unit are:
M.O.A1.2.19 – Students will gather data to create histograms, box plots, scatter plots and normal distribution curves and use them to draw and support conclusion
M.O.A1.2.17 – Students will perform a linear regression (with and without technology),
· compare and evaluate methods of fitting lines to data.
· identify the equation for the line of regression,
· examine the correlation coefficient to determine how well the line fits the data
· use the equation to predict specific values of a variable.

We basically introduce the concept of linear regression but revisit it when we cover linear functions in the winter months.

SBG Target Skills
So, given this set of objectives for the unit of study, these are the target skills I’ve broken down (including skills that touch on our state’s 21st Century Skill Objectives) that we intend to address:
1. Communicating about mathematics
2. Working in cooperative groups
3. Gather data using appropriate sampling methods (CSO 19)
4. Create histograms (CSO 19)
5. Create box plots (CSO 19)
6. Create scatter plots (CSO 19)
7. Find line of best fit without technology (CSO 17)
8. Find line of best fit with technology (CSO 17)
9. Determine correlation coefficient (CSO 17)
10. Create normal curve distributions (CSO 19)
11. Draw conclusions from graphs (CSO 19)

Scope/Sequence for the Unit with Class Activities
My mindset here was that I wanted to work through the idea of collecting data first, and then allow the students to work in teams to do some data collection of their own. Then I wanted to introduce display method #1 (Histograms), practice creating them a bit, and then have the students use the data they collected to create Histograms. Then I wanted to repeat this process with the other data display methods mandated (and thus, assessed) in our state. I can imagine a certain amount of objection here to my “blindly” following my state standards. Let me defend my choice here by stating that while I believe there are certainly other equally (or more) significant methods of data display that I will be completely disregarding through this approach, I presume that others have followed the objectives in previous years exposing students to those other methods so I’m going to focus on successfully teaching what is designated for this course with the assumption that it fits well into the scope of previous and subsequent courses.
My idea here is that for each concept we teach, there will be a sort of repetitive cycle of: Learn New Concept, Practice New Concept, Work with your Team to Apply it to Your Group Project. Ultimately, I’d like them to each write individual reports on their group projects. Perhaps a graphic will explain my thinking better.
You’ll notice a lot of little notes to myself in there about tasks to teach them in the computer lab and such. This is clearly my working document. But my problem comes in the nature of the topic for the big project. Here’s where I am desperately hoping that the blogosphere and twitterverse comes in rescue me.

OK, so I am giving teams some flexibility to create their own topics, but I need to have some samples (in fact, enough for every group if necessary) to help with brainstorming. The problem comes in finding topics that fit the criteria I am going for:
· A topic that they could easily poll an accessible population (i.e. student body)
· A topic that would appeal to adolescents
· A topic that would involve numerical data that would work well with a histogram and a box plot
· A topic that could have a second variable (i.e.age) easily attached to look for correlation

I’m not sure what I’m hoping for…kind of a “I’ll know it when I see it” thing. I thought about “How many contacts do you have in your cell phone?” or something similar. Then we could look for a correlation in that one might assume seniors have more contacts than freshmen, but perhaps not. I don’t know. Help!

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Next Steps - The hiking trails ahead...

So, a colleague recently said to me, "I want to look back on my career and know that each year I was a little bit better than I was the year before." I love that! That defines my professional vision. So, each year, I attempt to explore a new trail in this journey. I wanted to spend a minute articulating which trails I've been considering this year...just to wrap my mind around 'em. Forgive the cheesy hiking analogy, I did just return from a trip downstate and am thinking of a little Appalachian trail jaunt next summer...

I teach on a block schedule, which means three 90-minute classes and a planning period. I also teach in collaborative classes which means I have a partner teacher in each of my courses. While my schedule is still not set in stone, it appears that I will be teaching with three different teachers for my three different periods this year. I have taught with all of them before and am keeping my fingers crossed that the schedule doesn't change. But teaching with different people means the trails I take differ dependent on the individual strengths, passions, interests of my partners. I kinda like lets me explore more of the forest that way. But it does tend to get jumbled in my mind so for clarity's sake:

YearLong Algebra with Partner 1 - So, this is two consecutive courses aligned to cover the Algebra standards over a full year. I taught this class with this partner last year and we really focused on developing a curriculum with a strong scope and sequence that emphasized as many hands on activities and cooperative learning tasks as possible. I know the curriculum has some ways to go, but I was generally happy with it. I particularly think we did a good job on emphasizing multiple representations of functions. I am eager to see how that group of kids does in the ensuing years because I think that gained a lot of big picture knowledge in our class. But for this year, what are the next steps?
  1. SBG or SBA or whatever hashtag makes you happy. This is the big one because I think our focus will be consumed by it. I have created a skills list for both terms which aligns with both our state standards and the curriculum scope/sequence from last year. I have major unit assessments already created, most of which are disaggregated nicely into target skills. I have thrown the idea at my admins who have not yet put the veto down, so I plan to lay low for a while so as not to garner too much attention. I have written a parent letter which is ready to go. WooHoo! All aboard the train! But I am trying to work on some mini-reassessments to draw from quickly when needed. I'll get to those soon. I swear.
  2. Class website. I created a website at the end of last year but we really didn't introduce it to the kids formally. I am hoping that we can do that this year on the first or second day of class. The website will be a place to post videos related to our current topic, foster class discussions, link to resources that might be helpful to students, important calendar dates, etc. I am hoping since these kids are freshmen, I'll really be able to sell them on the idea. :)
  3. Writing. Uggh. I believe in this theoretically. Wholeheartedly. Passionately. I don't believe in artificial distinctions between the disciplines. But! It doesn't mean I'm eager to take on this beast. Our admin is pushing minimal once a week writing in every class, graded for mechanics as well as content. My students uniformly hate to write...learning disabilities and all that. So, figuring out how to balance all this will be a challenge.
  4. I'd like to do a bit more graph interpretation this year. We dipped our toes into some resources from Visualizing Algebra, which I really love...but we need to do a bit more. They seem to go into math mode too quickly and forget the real-life stuff we are talking about.

YearLong Algebra with Partner 2 - Same type of class as above but with a different partner. Makes it interesting. Completely different teaching style and philosophy from Partner 1 which means it is an entirely different prep for me. Which I don't mind. The focus here will be very different though.

  1. I am mostly just working on better collaboration. When I've taught this with this partner before, he was teaching the same class later in the day so I was really hands-off on the planning side of things because I didn't want to impact his other classes. I want to be more engaged with what we plan and execute this year.
  2. New textbook. My other partner and I rarely use the textbook in Algebra, but this class is more heavily textbook-laden. Getting comfortable with the new text and its supplementals will be part of what I focus on here.
  3. More vocabulary instruction. I think this is an area ripe for development in this class. And I think this is a partner who would be open to some vocabulary type activities. My background in literacy studies is getting a little rusty so I am thinking this might be the time to break out a lot of innovative vocabulary lessons...or try to anyway.

Two Geometry Courses/One per Term - This is only my second year working with this partner but I am so completely excited. We had a great first experience together and I am eager to build on it and become more involved now that I've gotten comfortable with his style and approach. I am always pretty tiptoeish the first time I work with a new partner...I don't want to shake things up too much. I wait til they like me and then I become obnoxious and annoying. ;) So, here is where I think we are wanting to focus this year:

  1. A bit more technology. Due to some computer lab troubles last year, we didn't end up using Sketchpad or Geogebra at all last year. I want to work on develop 4-5 tight lessons that we can embed into our scope/sequence.
  2. More hands-on. We have several really great hands-on stuff (OK, my partner has them...I was just along for the ride). Anyway, we did several origami lessons, and a few other activity-oriented things. Hoping to develop 2 more to include.
  3. DIFFERENTIATION!! This is a big focus for me in this class this year. The Algebra course I mentioned is full of lower-achieving students. Our Calc courses are full of higher achieving. In fact, when I think of it, the Geometry class is the most heterogenous class in our entire department. It definitely showed in last year's evals: 1/3 said we went too fast, 1/3 said we went too slow, and 1/3 were content with pacing. We really need to develop more ideas for ways to differentiate - remediate our lower students, challenge our higher.

OK, so there we go...lots to focus on, but lots to be excited about. Now, where do I begin preparing for all of this????

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Intrinsic Motivation and SBG: Soulmates or Heading for Divorce Court?

So I was reading a ThinkThankThunk blog the other day, when a comment Shawn made really defined something I’ve been struggling with of late: “When you make things worth points, it becomes about the points, not the learning, for some kids.” I read Dan Pink’s Drive this spring. No one has been able to knock me off of my soapbox since. I talk about intrisinic motivation at every opportunity and have picked up every Alfie Kohn book I can find. If you aren’t familiar with the book, watch this video or Dan’s TED talk to get a brief overview. The basic assertion is that an over-emphasis on extrinsic motivation is counterproductive to drive, actually undermining the innate motivation all humans have toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
As a result of my new found religious zeal, I find myself often in conflict with the direction I see my school and local educational community pursuing. Behavior modification strategies that rely constantly on carrots and sticks seems to be the norm, and the icing on this proverbially unhealthy cake are the constant rewards and prizes that my school gives students showing improvement on benchmark tests (Ipods, Nintendos, flat-screen TVs). There has been much in the popular media of late (i.e. this recent Time magazine article) about research into the effectiveness of this tactic. I try to keep an open-mind when I read this stuff, but really fear we are heading in the wrong direction with regard to long-term motivation.
I want to create a classroom environment that elicits what I believe to be the more powerful effect of intrinsic motivation. Allow students autonomy in pursuit of academic goals. Create an environment where they can achieve and feel a sense of mastery. Connect our learning activities to a larger purpose. This is where I believe education should be heading. This is why I believe in educational experiences that are grounded in some larger context: application, interdisciplinary, real-world, and whatever other edu-buzz word comes to mind. It’s also why I believe a certain level of differentiation is a must for students to be appropriately met at their zone of proximal development to help achieve. It is often difficult to create a classroom like this in an educational environment that is so artificially constructed, but that is my mission.
Which brings me to SBG…the buzz word which probably elicited you clicking on this blog in the first place, right? I drank the sbg kool-aid because I think it is the best means for me to bridge the gap between where we are now in education and where I believe we should be going. I do see this approach as creating a situation where students are empowered and given autonomy to pursue educational goals (although, admittedly, they don’t have autonomy over the learning targets at this point). I also believe it provides a profound opportunity for mastery achievement when skills are laid out so clearly and assessments are formative in nature. I’m excited to see how this practice aligns with my values and allows me to minimize a bit of the cognitive dissonance I feel each time I attempt to my job description with my personal philosophical zeal. BUT…here comes my new conflict…
When I was discussing implementation of SBG with my partner teacher and thinking about creating a bunch of mini-assessments to have already on hand as a resource for kids wanting to reassess, he expressed concern that we were shifting to an overemphasis on grades. He said, “Is our class only about grades? “Kids come in just to get the grade, cram to reassess, etc.” That conversation has been eating at me ever since. Philosophically, I am not even sure I believe in grades at all – being the epitome of a meaningless extrinsic reward. And yet, in an effort to abandon the traditional grading system that I abhor, am I inadvertently creating a system that overemphasizes grades. Sure, the grades are different…they look different…they are about mastery rather than points and all that…but is the effect going to be a class that has this new grading system as its central defining character. If so, won’t that undermine the very purpose I am aiming for.
So, this blog has no answers. Just a rambling attempt to put some words to this conflict: Does SBG result in an overemphasis on external feedback that will ultimately undermine intrinsic motivation? Or does it align perfectly with our innate needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Your thoughts…

Friday, July 9, 2010

Teaching as a Solitary Pursuit

We all have a general sense of who amongst are colleagues are the good teachers and who are the bad. How we really know this is unclear since we seldom have the opportunity to actually see them in action (and the judgments of adolescents is often a bit skewed where this is concerned). Nevertheless, we usually have a sense about this and are probably pretty accurate in our assessment. But the bigger question is, “Where do I fit in the continuum?” This is the question that often nags at us.

We work in isolation. We receive very little feedback on our job performance and when we do, it is often based on brief snippets of observation. So, we wait for the end of course evaluations that we give once or twice a year. We hope for those unsolicited bits of praise from students – current and former. We look somewhat anxiously (albeit often disdainfully) for those standardized test results, knowing we are but one variable in a child’s academic success or failure. And we wonder… Am I good? Am I making a difference? All while wearing an air of pseudo-confidence with our colleagues in an effort to mask the fear. What if we aren’t good? What if we are one of the bad ones? Of course, I tend to be a bit insecure by nature so perhaps it’s just me…

I have been blessed to have companions on my journey. As a special education teacher, I was a bit dismayed when the movement toward full inclusion redefined the nature of my job. Where was my autonomy? Would I have the opportunity to creatively design my instruction? What would my classroom look like now that I didn’t even have a classroom of which to speak? It felt, at the time, like a demotion to a teacher’s aide. I could not have been more wrong. Instead, what I found was the opportunity to pursue my passion alongside others who shared my enthusiasm. And I found a measuring stick by which to evaluate myself. Occasionally my partners have set the bar low enough for me to feel validated. More frequently, they humble me with their gifts and skills. But most of the time, it’s an ebb and flow…a sharing…a growing…an iron sharpening iron. Ideas building off of idea. And the constant feeling of being just a little bit better than I was yesterday.

And then I discovered my virtual professional learning network….the world of Twitter and the blogs…a collegial community better than any I could have envisioned. When I walk into my classroom and close the door, I am no longer alone. I have a network of support that goes with me, to encourage, guide, prod, even comfort me when needed. I am enormously grateful for that. I am still humbled daily by the talent around me. I still worry from time to time that perhaps I’m not good enough. But I feel like I am walking through the trenches with a team who is there to pull me up when I stumble and shine the flashlight for me when the places seem dark.

And I realize that perhaps teaching isn’t such a solitary pursuit after all.