Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Over the Top?

I used to work in radio in an era where ratings were determined by diaries filled out by a random sample of people.  The results of those diaries translated into "cume" and "time spent listening."  These days they use portable people meters instead of diaries.  But I am digressing a bit.

My point is this: we had to be memorable.  Because very few diary holders actually carried it around faithfully and noted with care the time and station, we needed to make an impression.  When the diary holder thinks back to what they listened to earlier that day, they may or may not get it completely right.  The more memorable we were, the more likely they were to write our station down.  Done right, we could actually have our ratings overestimated, which means big bucks in the radio biz.

I have found this quest to be memorable manifesting itself in my current career.  Here's the latest manifestation:

OK, maybe a little over-the-top.  But will it help students remember not to make this oh-so-common error?  I hope so.  If they make this mistake, I hope they realize that it's actually Satan whispering in their ear tempting them to do the wrong thing.  DON'T LISTEN TO THAT SERPENT and his devious tongue!  Avoid the flames of Hell and do not make this mistake!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Transparency in Transition

I've been thinking a lot about this slide right here:

The real question that I am grappling with is this: as we weave our way from the perplexity to the standard, how transparent should/can we be?

Inherent in this conversation is a recognition that by moving from the perplexity to the standard we are also necessarily moving from pictures, movies, and objects to paper.  Eventually we all need to move these kids to paper (or its computerized equivalent) because we are judged as teachers by how well those kids do on the paper tests.

Is this how it should go?
  1. Create perplexity.
  2. Weave through the perplexity, resolving what we can (navigate through what Dan calls acts 1-3).
  3. Introduce tools to further resolve the perplexity or make the process of resolution more efficient.
  4. Revisit the perplexity with the new tools in mind.
  5. Intertwine extension questions regarding the perplexity (what Dan calls the sequel) and paper practice without context.
  6. Move kids into paper representations of real-life situations.  At least at this point they have some justification of why the tool may help them.
  7. Continue to avoid forced/improper/irrelevant context.
And at what point do we say, "OK now that you can see some real-world need for the tool I just introduced, let's prepare you for what the state wants to see on their graduation tests."  Is that just too transparent?  Or will kids appreciate what they have seen and learn the tool with more conviction because now there are multiple reasons to learn it?

I really need to grow a following to this blog if I ever want any of these questions answered.

Monday, May 21, 2012

School Board, Part 2

A somewhat one-sided report from Fox9 regarding the SBG listening session. You can see the back of my head.

(Here's a link if the video doesn't show up.)

  • Maybe I'm naive, but I give the Board the benefit of the doubt and I'm sure we made persuasive arguments.  Some have contacted me to see if they could probe further.
  • Parents are correct that it has been implemented inconsistently.
  • It's a shame that parents are having trouble coming to terms with their children's inflated grades.
  • It's a shame that teachers inflate the grades to avoid conflict with these parents.
  • It's really admirable that the Board and teachers and parents are courageous enough to have this conversation.
  • Edu-speak is severely hampering the communication with parents and students.  We need a moratorium on words and acronyms like formative, SMART goals, PLC's, UBD, even assessments.  Just say this: The state tells us what students should know.  We are testing kids on those standards.  I can tell you specifically how students are doing on EACH standard.  We as teachers look for ways to increase learning for each one of the standards using the test scores.  Leaders in our district need to recognize the communication gap.
  • Teachers are cowardly in many situations.  Let's have the tough conversations to reach agreement across the district, instead of sabotaging the process to maintain our autonomy. 
By the way, the report is wrong.  We are still giving letter grades.  They are just based on something real and tangible now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Speaking to School Board

Tomorrow I need to speak to the school board.  I was invited because I have been an advocate of SBG (Standards-Based Grading) in my classroom since before it was cool.  I get three minutes to talk.  I have warned those that asked me that I will be honest in all respects about my feelings toward standards-based grading.  Here is my charge:
Board Members will learn about implementation progress and challenges from multiple perspectives. Please feel free to share how you have implemented the benchmarks and how this work is benefiting our students.
Three minutes to talk about what has been a long process of implementation and reflection!  Considering that there is an organized group of parents from the more affluent side of our district trying to kill this initiative, I better not screw it up!  Here is an articulation of what I plan to say:

  • I always know what a student knows.  If someone were to ask me, "Does Student A know how to use a scale drawing?" I know immediately.  And I can use that information to remediate or adjust as appropriate.
  • The student always knows what the student knows.  They track their progress and always know where they stand without the camouflage of "points."  Instead of, "How many points do I need to get an A?" I get the question, "Can you help me learn this better so I can figure out the higher-level problem?"
  • Student learning is no longer bound by time.  Who cares WHEN they learn it?  As long as they learn it sometime, right?
  • It's easier to anchor my teaching in the standards.  Although we have cut or deemphasized some things we really love, the focus we have on those things that will be tested should increase our school's scores.
  • It makes it easier to collaborate.  Having valid data for specific learning targets makes it easier to talk about strategies for improvement with other teachers.
  • Time.  This change has taken its toll on teachers and the focus on assessment has taken away from the student learning experience.  Teachers don't have as much time to plan and implement great lessons when they are preoccupied with this major assessment shift.
  • Grades.  Grades have traditionally been inflated by homework, projects, and other things.  Although it IS possible to argue that projects, group work, or whatever could be a valid measure of what the student has learned, that argument is abstract at best.  There is a shift in student and parent thinking that needs to occur and that hasn't happened yet for most.  Grades are dropping and the parents are ticked.
  • Poorly defined/undefined/unwieldy standards.  We began this process without clear articulation of most standards, and we still haven't articulated them as well as we could.
That should take up about 3 minutes, right?  I hope they ask me some questions.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Perplexed but not Engaged

In my quest to restore some semblance of interest, engagement, curiosity, or perplexity into my classroom, I created a lesson plan based on a problem in my textbook, the result of which is here.

I anticipated the toughest challenge to be connecting the ideas in the activity to the content that I need to teach (properties of kites & trapezoids).  Turns out that was the easy part.  It was a surprisingly natural transition to page 23 in our study guide.  I'll be able to refer back to the bridge again and again and it will feel and be natural.

The surprisingly difficult part was engagement, actually.  The students were perplexed.  They DID wonder how long the bridge was and were curious about why and how it was able to do that (the diagonal of the kite expands & contracts).  And sure about half of them attempted to solve the problem in good faith.  But the others thought about it for a minute or two and decided that it wasn't worth their effort or time to figure it out.

So the question is...why?  Possibilities:
  • Flawed activity.  Unlikely.  I ask myself would this have happened with the pyramid of pennies?  I think yes.  I doubt it was the activity.
  • Poor groupings.  Possible contributor.  There was an element of self-selection in my groupings because I wanted the kids to collaborate with those they were comfortable with.  This led to side conversations that were unhelpful.  It also in many cases led to better collaboration.
  • Untrained students. Possible contributor.  There is no doubt that my students are not used to this type of thing.  Although I emphasize critical thinking at the higher levels (3/B, 4/A levels), about half of my students are 2/C level students not used to using the problem solving skills required to complete this activity.  And even so, there is a difference between problem solving your way through this versus this.
  • Beginning bar too high.  Possible contributor.  They learned trig two months ago (and all students passed that learning target, else they wouldn't be in my class) and we did scale drawings and similar polygons two weeks ago.  Is it too much to think they'd be able to apply one or both of those skills in this context?
Overall I am happy with the result, but I need to be vigilant about addressing these challenges.  Perhaps doing this kind of thing beginning the day after Labor Day next year will make a difference.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Descriptors

I alluded to the grade descriptors in my last post.  I was part of the committee that put this together:

The Mark
Indicate levels of proficiency for individual assignments or assessments
On a single task/assessment within the trimester, the student:
*Note: Not all bullets need to apply for the assigned mark.
The Grade
Single summary grade of student learning reported on report card and transcript
Overall this trimester, the student’s independent work on the course standards has been:
4 •extended the expected learning to new areas
•applied the learning in complex ways
•displayed exceptional quality
•performed with exceptional accuracy
A exemplary, exceptional,extended
3 •met expectations
•applied the learning
•displayed high quality
•performed with solid accuracy
B proficient, consistent, solidly aligned with expectations
2 •partially met expectations
•demonstrated understanding on the task elements
•displayed acceptable quality
•performed with acceptable accuracy
C basic, inconsistent, partially acceptable
1 •did not meet expectations
•demonstrated limited understanding of standard elements
•displayed acceptable quality on some of the elements
•required significant scaffolding or direct support
D D below expectations, of limited quality
0 •provided insufficient evidence to evaluate task
•provided evidence unrelated to task expectations
•showed little evidence of understanding
•had unacceptable errors or flaws
F unacceptable, incomplete, deeply flawed

The biggest battle was over the 4. My original idea was that in order to get a 4 (A) a student should make inferences beyond the material that was explicitly taught. This was contested by those who teach in our district's more affluent area - more helicopters - more high stakes - more inflated grades. They maintained that a student who simply meets the standard should receive a 4 (A). Overall though, this is open-ended enough to appease most. Is that good? Do these seem like reasonable descriptors?  Will they ensure consistent grading practices across our relatively large district?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Powerful Tool

I considered being more demonstrative with the title.  The Most Powerful Tool?  The Most Powerful Tool I've Found this Year?  When it comes down to it though, there are a ton of great tools out there.  This is one that students use to track their progress and grades.

Admittedly, I took this idea from Robert Marzano.  In fact, he has a sheet much like it on his website.  My version looks like this (click for full version):

First of all, I LOVE the squares.  I love it that they can count squares to know their grade.  And it basically works out like this: if you're closer to a 4 than a 3, then you get an A.  If you're closer to 3 (between 2.5 and 3.5 average), you get a B.  And you must get a 2 on everything to pass the course.

If you clicked above, you noticed the grade descriptors.  I'll probably comment on those in a future post since the discussion of those within our district was pretty robust.  We've since adopted language that applies to each of the achievement levels (0-4) district-wide.

And I better mention the grade adjustments on the bottom of the page.  We had a pretty long discussion in our school about the fairness of these adjustments.  I like them because it's very tangible, but it's still debated within our department.  A third of a grade works out to about 7.7% of their grade each for homework and retention.  Seems fair to me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Rolling Bridge

In my quest to find natural questions that will connect to the standards I must teach, I stumbled across this problem in my textbook (McDougal Littell):

Part (a) asks, "what kinds of quadrilaterals are these?"  Not the first question that comes to mind when looking at such a strange bridge.

Part (b) indirectly hits on what COULD be a very natural question, "How the heck is it doing that?"

Part (c) connects the quadrilaterals to the standard students will be tested on.  I suppose that's the goal, but does anyone really care what those angle measures are?

So I did some research on this "Rolling Bridge," found a video, and put the video in front of students to see what they'd ask and what kinds of questions came naturally.

The result is a lesson that I will teach Friday, in the style of Dan Meyer, my new favorite person in the field of math teaching.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Maybe the takeaway here is that although textbooks are very clumsy in the way they provide context, they can also point us in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Of Forced Context

Following the MCTM conference there has been a profound shift in the way I view my classroom, specifically the types of questions that are asked.  I almost vomited when I was sloshing through my parallelograms lesson yesterday and I saw this gem:

Headlights of a car?  Really?  Dan Meyer suggests that asking natural seeming questions should be a top goal.  Contrived questions are undercutting our ability to put value on the mathematics.  Never saw this before; goodness, I'm a smart guy too.  Just never saw it.  I've taught this lesson for years and never batted an eye.  Maybe deep inside there was a whimper of squirminess, but the patterns and routines have quieted that voice.

So what to do?  Trapezoids and kites are coming up, so I am trying to come up with/anticipate some natural questions regarding the rolling bridge in London:


Today I'll bring in a focus group of students (really love that idea) and see what I get.  Then the challenge will be to relate it to the content.  I think it can be done.  And I'm really excited about it.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Sounds very self serving, but blogs start with an audience of one. I am using this blog to see if it can contribute to the salvation of my career.

Some background. Been teaching for 8 years. Over time patience has worn thin. It has very difficult for me to cope with unmotivated students, so much so that I've disconnected from the passion to motivate. That may have saved my sanity, but I may have killed my career in the process. I am not sure if I have the will to do this much longer.

Over the past few years, I've hitched my wagon to assessment. I created a Standards Based Grading model in my classroom before Ken O'Connor, Robert Marzano, Tom Guskey et al were household names for educators. The SBG wave validated my thoughts and I became an assessment leader within my school and district. The waves are now crashing over and our district is becoming a SBG leader within our state.

Lost, though, has been a zeal for teaching and mentoring students into great people. I am gasping to find a better path, either within education or without. Can this career be salvaged?

After the MCTM conference this weekend, I am a little re-energized. Dan Meyer, keynote, introduced me to google reader (welcome to planet earth) and the ideas of perplexity along with other design principles. Reading about others' ideas on the blogs has been boosting me. I wonder how long it will continue?

Update: As I have been teaching today, I am writhing a bit at the forced context. A good start!