Teaching from Anywhere

I use my phone as a document camera, which is nothing new. AirDrop is an option since my school computer is now running OS X Yosemite. I was using my own Python web application to upload these to the computer last year, but that was limited to one file at a time. Now I can send a whole stack of photos of student work at once, which makes it the obvious choice.

The laptop is parked to be plugged into the projector in a spot that doesn't sacrifice student real estate, but is accessible if I need to get to it:

IMG_1409

The thing that has always bugged me is having to be in one place in the room to do, well, anything. I like sitting with students. I have interesting and useful conversations with students when I'm among them, not while standing at the front of the room. My solution in the past has been to bring the laptop around the classroom with me and sit down next to students. Two things bother me about this:

  • When move to join a table next to students, I always take up more room than any other person. This is because I'm there with a laptop, Wacom tablet, and some notes if I need them for the lesson. My students are too polite to actually object when I move in and they always consolidate their things to make room. I know the whole time, however, that they are wishing I wouldn't. This whole process repeats if I want to move during the lesson, which I always do.
  • I have an Apple TV that I've used in the past to wirelessly display my screen in this situation, but the lag between my movement and the display is enough to be uncomfortable for me, and render my handwriting into the illegible range if I'm not extremely careful. I can stream student work to the Apple TV from my phone directly, but without the ability to zoom in on what's actually important or annotate, the capability limits more than it offers.

I have had the wireless kit for my Wacom tablet since last year, so that doesn't need to be connected to the projector laptop anymore. To switch applications (which I do frequently), write more than a couple words on the screen (which is more efficiently done through typing), or upload student work, I've always needed to go back to the laptop. This additional step during class is a moment of dead time - a moment during which students have no choice but to wait and do nothing, or do worse. This moment of dead time has been an unavoidable consequence of my classroom design and configuration.

The arrangement that has minimized (if not eliminated) all of these issues for this new year is this set of devices:

IMG_1407

I already mentioned the wireless Wacom tablet for handwritten work. The wireless keyboard (picked up during RadioShack's sale of excess inventory this summer) lets me type from anywhere in the room. The Magic Trackpad lets me do the rest.

I can take all three of these anywhere in the classroom if I need to, though often one at a time will suffice. I can switch applications, write on the wall, and type from pretty much anywhere. For sharing, viewing, and cropping student work, I can use the trackpad to manage the stream of photos that I (or my students) send to the computer through Airdrop.

This freedom to run my class untethered from the computer and centered wherever student thinking is happening is worth every ounce of aluminum, glass, and plastic. This freedom makes a difference.

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Rethinking Class Notes with OneNote

tl;dr

Rather than being the source of all of the notes for each class, I'm having students contribute to a OneNote Class Notebook. Two students per class are responsible for making sure that the class warm-up, practice problems, content and discussions, and questions are all updated on a page within a notebook. Since the pages are all editable by all students, this will lead to a collaborative document that represents all of the work we will have done by the end of the year.


I had an interactive whiteboard in my various classrooms for eight years straight. Three years ago, I gave mine up for a number of reasons. In its place, I chose a projector, tablet, and stylus, which let me move around the room. The goal was the same - create electronic versions of the written work I (and students) did in class beyond the duration of a single class period.

Electronic class notes, at least in theory, solved a number of problems. Students that were absent didn't need to borrow notebooks from a friend to know what they missed. Students that might not be quick at writing down notes from the board could copy those notes later. This also served as a record of what actually transpired in class, which I have found useful for planning purposes later on the year, as well as in future years.

Unfortunately, students rarely take advantage of these capabilities. Students nowadays don't tend to copy notes from class that they miss since they are available otherwise - the benefit of muscle memory that comes from writing down the important parts is one of the obvious losses. Problems that get written down are not connected to each other because I don't necessarily do this in what I write in the notes. The handouts I make are small enough to be taped/glued into their notebooks, which means students shouldn't have to copy over the problems. When I tell them to do these problems in their notebooks, some students try to do them on the small sheet, even though there is limited space. Students do try the problems from the class on their own by looking at the class handout, which is important, but they don't tend to take the time to write down the definitions or concepts that they will need to remember for later. Much of this we develop as a class after doing problems, so the benefit of that social capital in the room does not pass to those that miss class.

I also admit there is an inconsistency in what I ask students to do with those notes. Students ask me to wait for them to copy solutions to problems during class before moving on. My response is to ask them to do that outside of class since I want to spend time during class doing problems, not copying. I see this as a reasonable goal, but given that students don't tend to correct their notes outside of class, I doubt that students actually do so after I suggest it.

I've also thought about looking into interactive notebooks, but am nudged away from them for two reasons. One is the initial time investment required. I understand the idea that once the notebooks have been created, they can be used in future periods or iterations of the class with minor tweaking. I've only taught the same course in a row a few times, however, and never with multiple sections. This has never seemed like a worthy investment in the quality of learning it enables.

The bigger reason - and the reason that wants me to get away from creating notebooks all together, not just interactive - is that interactive notebooks consist of me being the source of virtually everything students record in their notebook. Yes, they fill in the blanks and provide examples, but they can't move forward unless I provide them the structure. To some extent I provide that structure with anything I do in the classroom, but this seems to be a step backwards in helping my students understand how to structure learning on their own.

By the end of second semester last year, I pledged to come up with an alternative to the class notes I had been creating for students. I had sworn off Google Drive and Google Docs due to China blockage issues and a lack of a viable VPN solution or all of my students. I have seen a lot of creative use of student crowd-sourced resources that got away from a single source of teacher-created notes. When I first met Darren Kuropatwa a few years ago at the Learning 2.011 conference, he described creating a structure like this through class blogs. While we had a WordPress server at our school, I never liked the interface as a way to easily get the sort of interaction that I wanted about the class, so I didn't move forward on making it happen then, or for the past, um, four years.

When our school made the move to Office 365 last year, however, I found that OneNote, and specifically, their Class Notebooks option, made a pretty clear path toward what I pictured for this resource. I've based my redesign of how class notes fit in to my instruction through this structure.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 2.36.32 PM

For those that don't know, a OneNote notebook can consist of multiple sections (which I'm labeling Unit 1, Unit 2, etc), and each section consists of multiple pages (which I'm labeling Day 1, Day 2, and so on.) In addition, the Class Notebook (which is specifically offered to school that adopt Office 365) offers three distinct sections:

  • A content library, in which teachers can read, edit, and view pages, and students can view, but not edit.
  • A collaboration space, in which both teachers and students have read/write/view access to pages and sections.
  • An individual section for each student, visible and editable by both the teacher and the individual student, but students can't view each other's individual sections.

Through either the browser or a native application, students get real time view and edit capability of any notebook that is shared with the class. This means we have the potential for a truly class authored resource for each group of students, which is ridiculously cool.

To be clear, we're been working on the roll out of some new computer policies at our school, so I've had to figure out what students do and don't have access to before creating expectations that can be assessed. Now that students have figured out how to get to the notebooks, here is my plan for students taking charge of the class notebook.

Each class will have two students selected to manage the day's notebook page. By the next class, the page for that day's class should contain:

  • Warm-Up and solutions
  • definitions and explanations of concepts discussed during class
  • 4 – 6 practice problems and solutions
  • class handouts
  • questions or ideas that we didn’t get to during class

Grading for this element of the course is binary (Meets/Does Not Meet Expectations) but is also ongoing throughout the semester, so I can give students feedback on their day's notes and ask for it to be updated/improved.

Since we've had a few days of class before students are getting control of the notebook, I've made the notes at the beginning so students can see what I'm looking for. Students have also suggested that they could add links to resources they find online that they find helpful, and I'm all for this. I'm sure that we will come up with more features as time goes by.

I'm just at the beginning of this, but the comments from students make it sound like they are, at least somewhat, into giving this a try. I know I'm going to be sharing things that the class puts together at the front of the room - that's why I have a projector and the resources to do so, and those will continue to be in the notes. I'm hoping that by giving students more ownership of this entity by having all of us create it together. This doesn't necessarily change how students are using their notebooks in class, but I think that might be something that happens as a direct consequence of shifting emphasis to an online notebook.

I'm giving this a try, and as with anything I try, I'll do my best to share how it develops here. I'm pretty excited to see what it becomes over time.

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A New Year, A New Formula Sheet

I wrote earlier this year about my difficulties with equation reference sheets. Students fall into the habit of using them like a menu rather than a set of tools.

Yesterday I had the great experience of trying a revised approach. The idea is to rely more on memorization, but only so far as keeping close definitions that are crucial to understanding.

A student asked during a quiz for a formula for electric field. I said I wasn't going to provide one, so I pushed further to find out why this student needed it.

The student asked for the relationship between electric field, charge, and force. I provided this:
IMG_1381

The student subsequently nodded and told me what went where. I then stepped away, keeping the post-it note with me.

This was an application of the definition of electric field, not Coulomb's law, and the student either knew this, or guessed. In either case, it was enough to enable the student to then solve the problem completely.

I don't know yet what this means, but it seems like a step in the right direction. I wonder if providing a reference sheet with random elements erased might be enough of a skeleton to encourage the students to know how to fill in the blanks, but wouldn't allow the sort of hunting that students often do in a problem solving situation.

It has been a nice start to the year, folks. Here's to a great school year for all of you.

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2014-2015 Year in Review: Work & Life Balance

This is more of a comment on things I did outside of the classroom rather than in, but it was something that my wife and I made a focused effort to do during the second semester.

The idea was simple: buck the routine of the house (and classroom) during the week with something specific that didn't involve work. Make dinner with friends. Go for a walk to somewhere new in the neighborhood. Watch a movie. Work on a fun side project.

These scheduled, specific plans meant I had a reason to leave my classroom and end planning earlier than the usual, which often pushed well past 5:00 PM. If there was a need to do more before the next day, I'd take a look at it before going to bed. I took the time to ask myself whether the work left unfinished was actually going to make the learning better the next day. Sometimes it was, often it was not.

I realize now that Parkinson's Law is notoriously problematic for perfectionists like me:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:


Parkinson's law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion....

There is always more tweaking that can be done. The law of diminishing returns (and importance) is a major reason not to do so, particularly in light of the restorative energy that comes from spending time with good people.

These reasons for wrapping up work and being more efficient also made a big difference in my use of planning time throughout the day. I prioritized much more effectively knowing that I had a limited time to complete planning for the next day.

One important comment here: specificity was crucial. I couldn't just say I wanted to finish early to have more free time at home. It made a big difference to be able to picture the end goal of these time limitations. The goal is having a specific activity to look forward to rather than just a negative space formed by the absence of work.

I will be deliberate about continuing this throughout the coming year. This is too important.

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2014-2015 Year In Review: IB Physics SL/HL

This was my first year teaching IB Physics. The class consisted of a small group of SL students with one HL, and we met every other day according to the block schedule. I completed the first year of the sequence with the following topics, listed in order:

    Semester 1

  1. Unit 1 - Experimental Design, Uncertainty, Vectors (Topic 1)
  2. Unit 2 - Kinematics & Projectile Motion (Topic 2.1)
  3. Unit 3 - Newton's Laws (Topic 2.2)
  4. Unit 4 - Work, Energy, and Momentum (Topic 2.3)
  5. Semester 2

  6. Unit 5 - Circular Motion, Gravitation, and Orbits (Topics 6.1, 6.2)
  7. Unit 6 - Waves and *Oscillation(Topic 4, AHL Topic 9, *AHL Engineering Option Topic B3.1,3.2)
  8. Unit 7 - Thermal Physics (Topic 3, Engineering Option Topic B2)
  9. Unit 8 - *Fluid Dynamics (Engineering Option Topic B3)

For the second semester of the course, there was at least one block every two weeks that was devoted to the HL student and the HL only content - the SL students worked on practice problems or other work they had for their IB classes during this time. Units 7 and 8 were concurrent, so the HL student had to work on both the thermodynamics content and the fluid dynamics content together. This was similar to how I did it previously while teaching the AP physics B curriculum.

One other fact that is relevant - none of my students are native speakers of English. More on this later.

What worked:

  • The growth students made during the year was significant. I saw students improve in their problem solving skills and their organization in the process of doing textbook style assessment problems.
  • I learned to be honest about the IB expectations for answering questions on assessments.In the beginning, I tried to shield students from questions that combined conceptual understanding, computation, and complex language, often choosing two out of the three of them for any one question that I either wrote or selected from a bank. My motivation was to isolate assessment of the physics content from assessment of the language. I wanted answers to these separate questions:
    1. Does the student understand how the relevant physics applies here?
    2. Does the student understand how to apply the formulas from the reference table to calculate what the question is asking for?
    3. Can the student process the text of the question into a physics context?
    4. Can the student effectively communicate an answer to the question?

    On official IB assessment items, however, this graininess doesn't exist. The students need to be able to do all of these to earn the points. When I saw a significant difference between how my students did on my assessments versus those from IB, I knew I need to change. I think I need to acknowledge that this was a good move.

  • Concise chunks of direct instruction followed by longer problem solving sessions during class worked extremely well. The students made sense of the concepts and thought about them more while they were working on problems, than when I was giving them new information or guiding them through it. That time spent stating the definitions was crucial. The students did not have a strong intuition for the concepts, and while I did student centered conceptual development of formulas and concepts whenever possible, these just didn't end up being effective. It is very possible this is due to my own inexperience with the IB expectations, and my conversations with other teachers helped a lot to refine my balance of interactivity with an IB pace.
  • Students looked forward to performing lab experiments. I was really happy with the way this group of students got into finding relationships between variables in different situations. Part of this was the strong influence I've developed with the Modeling Instruction curriculum. As always, students love collecting data and getting their hands dirty because it's much more interesting than solving problems.

What needs work:

  • My careless use of the reference sheet in teaching directly caused students to rely excessively upon it. I wrote about this previously, so check that post out for more information. In short: students used the reference sheet as a list of recipes as if they provided a straight line path to solutions to questions. It should be used as a toolbox, a reminder of what the relationships between variables are for various physics concepts. I changed this partly at the end of the year, asking students to describe to me what they wanted to look for on the sheet. If their answer was 'an equation', I interrogated further, or said you aren't about to use the reference sheet for what it was designed to do. If their answer was that they couldn't remember if pressure was directly or inversely related to temperature, I asked them what equation describes that relationship, and they were usually able to tell me.
    Both of these are examples of how the reference sheet does more harm than good in my class. I fault myself here, not the IB, to be clear.
  • The language expectations of IB out of the gate are more of an obstacle than I expected at the beginning of the year. I previously wrote about my analysis of the language on IB physics exams. There tends to be a lot of verbal description in questions. Normally innocuous words get in the way of students simultaneously learning English and understanding assessment questions, and this makes all the difference. These questions are noticably more complex in their language use than that used on AP exams, though the physics content is not, in my opinion, more difficult. This is beyond physics vocabulary and question command terms, which students handled well.
  • Learning physics in the absence of others doesn't work for most students. Even the stronger students made missteps working while alone that could have been avoided by being with other students. I modified my class to involve a lot more time working problems during class and pushed students to at least start the assigned homework problems while I was around to make the time outside of class more productive. Students typically can figure out math homework with the various resources available online, but this just isn't the case for physics at this point. It is difficult for students to get good at physics without asking questions, getting help, and seeing the work of other students as it's generated, and this was a major obstacle this semester.
  • Automaticity in physics (or any subject) shouldn't be the goal, but experience with concepts should be. My students really didn't get enough practice solving problems so that they could recognize one situation versus another. I don't want students to memorize the conditions for energy being conserved, because a memorized fact doesn't mean anything. I do want them to recognize a situation in which energy is conserved, however. I gave them a number of situations, some involving conservation, others not, and hoped to have them see the differences and, over time, develop an awareness of what makes the two situations different. This didn't happen, partly because of the previous item about working physics problems alone, but also because they were too wrapped up in the mechanics of solving individual problems to do the big pciture thinking required for that intuition. Group discussions help on this, but this process is ultimately one that will happen on the individual level due to the nature of intuition. This will take some time to figure out.
  • Students hated the formal process of writing up any parts of the labs they performed. This was in spite of what I already said about the students' positive desire to do experiments. The expressions of terror on the students' faces when I told them what I wanted them to do with the experiment break my heart. I required them to do a write-up of just one of the criteria for the internal assessment, just so they could familiarize themselves with the expectations when we get to this next year. A big part of this fear is again related to the language issue. Another part of it is just inexperience with the reality of writing about the scientific process. This is another tough egg to crack.

There was limited interest in the rising junior class for physics, so we won't be offering year one to the new class. This means that the only physics class I will have this year will be with the same group of students moving on to the second year of IB physics. One thing I will change for physics is a set of memorization standards, as mentioned in my post about standards based grading this year. Students struggled remembering quick concepts that made problem solving more difficult (e.g. "What is the relationship between kinetic energy and speed?") so I'll be holding students responsible for that in a more concrete way.

The issues that need work here are big ones, so I'll need some more time to think about what else I will do to address them.

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Filed under IB, physics, year-in-review

#TeachersCoding: Building a VotingBooth with MeteorPad

I previously wrote about a game that I had students build as part of our Meteor app building unit.

Here's another video series that would be of much better use to teachers: Have students vote on an answer to a question. The example I gave in class was of students voting on which picture of my dog Mileaux was the best.

mileauxChoose

This is a fairly simple application of Meteor principles that could be useful in a classroom setting. Since it's all done on MeteorPad, you don't have to install anything on your computer. If you threw this together, and then wanted to actually give it to a class, you could give them the link highlighted in red in the image below. NOTE: This link will change whenever you reload the Meteorpad page, so make sure you share the one corresponding to your instance of the application.

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 10.49.18 PM

You can visit the fully functioning code and try it out at this link:
VoteForMileaux - MeteorPad

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2014-2015 Year In Review: Web Programming

This was the first year I've taught a computer programming course. The class was a broad survey of programming in HTML5. This was the overall sequence:

    Semester 1:

  1. Hacking a webpage from the browser console
  2. HTML tags, structures, and organization
  3. CSS - page design, classes and IDs, along with using Bootstrap
  4. Javascript - variables, structures, conditionals
  5. jQuery - manipulating the page using events and selectors, animations
  6. Semester 2:

  7. Mongo Databases & Queries
  8. HTML Templates using Blaze
  9. Writing Meteor Apps
  10. Meteor, Media, and the HTML5 Canvas
  11. HTML5 Games using Phaser

I have posted the files and projects I used with students at this repository on Github:
https://github.com/emwdx/webprogramming2014-2015

What did I do?

The class generally began with a warm-up activity that involved students analyzing, writing, or running code that I gave them. This always led into what we were going to explore on a given day's lesson. I would show the class a few lines of code, ask them to make a prediction of what they thought would happen. This might be a visual request - what will this look like? Will there be an error? Was this error intentional or not?

This was all done while students had their laptops closed and notebooks open. I usually designed a series of tasks for students to complete using some code snippets that were saved in the directory on the school server.

We didn't use any textbook, so I knew I needed to create a reference that students could refer back to whenever they got stuck. For each class, I took notes either in Microsoft OneNote or the SMART Notebook software and saved the notes in PDF form. I don't know if students used this or not.

I had three types of assessment:

  • Mini-projects, which were fairly straight forward and had unique answers. These were assessed by general completion (4.5/5) with a (5/5) given for effort to creatively make the code their own. I was fairly loose on that final half point, giving it whenever I saw students clearly engaged by the task. You can see an example of this assignment here.
  • Projects, which had clear guidelines and requirements to meet the minimum grade that ranged from 80 - 90 percent, and then a series of additional tasks that raised the grade up to 100%. The additional task points weren't awarded until the basic requirements were met, though that didn't stop students from trying (see below).
  • Blog posts, which were required for every class. The expectations required a summary of what we learned for each class, along with code snippets, questions about what we learned, or confusion about something they wanted to go over in the next class. As the students became more skilled, this turned into questions that started as "How can we.../Is it possible to...".

Once every two weeks, and usually on a Friday, I had a 20% day during which students could work on anything they wanted related to web programming. Some students worked on previous projects to resubmit them, others experimented with code from the previous class or week. In a couple of cases, students worked on their own pet projects, which included a chat application, a mathematical formula parser, and applying visual design principles to the pages we created in class. I often made suggestions for what students could do at the beginning of the class block, including providing some basic code they could use to experiment.

What worked:

  • Based on feedback from the end of the year, students enjoyed the course. They had a lot of positive comments on the ways I ran the class and that they always got help when they needed it.
  • Forcing students to write down code helped with retention and building a useful reference for later. I didn't require them to write down long blocks of code, but for things like HTML tags and Javascript, I wanted there to be some written reinforcement that things were important. I was pretty strict on deciding when I wanted students to write down code (to activate that part of the brain) and when I wanted them to copy it directly into a text editor and run it.
  • Forcing students to recreate code (and not copy and paste) led to higher activity and interaction between students while learning to code. I saved some code as images, not text, which required students to go line by line and see what they were doing. This was a decision I made early on because it helped me when learning to code. That extra step of needing to look at the code while I was typing it in led me to take a closer look at what it said, and I wanted to give a similar opportunity to my students.
  • The more open ended projects led to much richer questions and interaction between students. I really liked the range of responses I received when I gave open ended projects. Some students were exceptionally creative or went well beyond the requirements to make code that mattered to them.
  • Students were constantly helping each other with their code...when they eventually asked for this help. I was called over many times by students calling out the blanket statement "my code doesn't work" and then handing me their laptop, but over time they learned that I wasn't going to just fix their code for them. They became careful readers of each other's code, when they finally made the step to ask someone to help, though this took some time.
  • I succeeded in having students do more than listen. I never talked for more than 15 minutes before students were actually writing and experimenting with code. This was exactly what I wanted.
  • 20% days were a big hit. Some students wanted this time as extra processing time to complete the mini projects from the rest of the week. Others liked being able to ask me how to do anything, or to find tutorials for HTML elements that they wanted to learn to use. I really liked how well this worked with this group of students and looked forward to it, and not just because it was a reduction in the planning required for class.
  • Videos offered an effective and preferred method for learning to write code in this class. I put together a number of screencasts in which I spoke about the code, and in some cases coded it live. Students were able to pause, copy code to the editor, and then run it pretty easily. Some zipped through it, others took longer, but this is nothing new. The time required to do this, as is always a consideration for me, was often more than I could afford. Luckily, there is plenty of material available already out there, so I was able to step back and give another voice and face a chance to teach my students.

What needs work:

  • The bonus elements for projects were the first things most students wanted to figure out first. Many students did not put in the time to read and complete the basic requirements for projects, resulting in submitted projects that were sent right back as being incomplete. Some of this was a language issue, as there were many ESOL students in the class, but most of it was what we always encounter when working with adolescents: not reading the directions.
  • Students reused a lot of old (and unrelated) code. I emphasized creating simple code from scratch throughout the year, as my expectations were relatively simple. For many students, copying and pasting code was a crutch that led to many more problems than simply writing simple, clean code from the start. I get it - I copy and paste code myself - but I also know how to clean it up. They knew why not to do it (because they all tried it at some point) but some students continued doing it to the end. I need a better plan for helping students not fall into this trap.
  • Many students did not pick up on error messages in the console that said precisely where the problem with the code was located. At times, I expected too much from students, because the console is a scary place. That said, I think I could do a better job of emphasizing how to find the line numbers referenced in these errors messages, regardless of what the error message is.

I really enjoyed teaching this class, and not just because of the awesome group of students that took it. It helped me refine my knowledge and get better at some of the HTML, CSS, and Javascript coding skills that I had used, but often had to relearn every time I wanted to use them.

Feedback, as always, is welcome!

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2014-2015 Year-In-Review: Standards Based Grading

This was my third year using standards based grading with my classes. I wrote last year and the year before about my implementation.

What did I do differently?

  • I had my WeinbergCloud implementation working from the beginning of the year, so it was part of the expectations I introduced on day one.
  • I also adjusted this system a bit to make it easier to link the reassessments and the content of the standards. There seemed to be too much uncertainty about what each standard represented, which translated into more confusion when signing up for reassessments than I wanted. Creating a list of standards and resources associated with each standard shrank this gap.
  • I did not limit the number of reassessments per day explicitly. I expected that students would not sign up for a ridiculous number given the limitations on their credits, which students earned by doing homework or coming to tutoring.
  • I included time within at least one class a week per student during which students could do reassessments without having to come in outside of class time.
  • Unit exams continued to be assessed purely on course standards, not points. Semester final exams were percentage based.
  • I scaled all of my standards levels from 1 - 5 to be from 6 - 10 to make it easier to communicate the levels to parents and be consistent with our school grading policy of not giving numerical grades below 50%. No student actually received lower grades due to my system of adding a base grade to each standard, but the process of explaining to students and parents that a 1 was really a 60% (5 for the base grade + 1 for the standard level) was clearly more complex than it needed to be.
  • For my combined IB HL/SL class, the HL students had standards that only they were responsible for learning, while also being responsible for the SL standards. More on this later.

What worked:

  • Students seemed to have a better understanding from the beginning of the year of what standards based grading and assessment was all about. I did a bit more deliberate instruction on the ideas behind it at the beginning of the year. I also had smaller classes than before, so I was better able to have individual conversations about signing up for reassessments and talking about the process.
  • A small proportion of students were fully sold on the idea of reassessment as a learning tool. Some students reassessed at least twice a week throughout the semester, and these students had strong performances on the cumulative final exams.
  • By the second unit exam, students were generally not leaving questions blank on assessments. They were trying their best to do some amount of work on each question.
  • As with last year, I gave more challenging questions to assess the range of student ability. Most of these involved either multiple standards combined in one, more open ended responses, or questions requiring explanation. Assessing at the higher levels of mastery became strongly subjective, and students accepted this, though they occasionally advocated for themselves as to why they deserved to be marked higher. They generally felt that it was fair when arithmetic errors kept them in the 8/10 range.
  • Having students report their mastery level when signing up for a reassessment made it much easier for me to know what problem type or category to give them. Furthermore, this made it easier to justify changing the mastery level higher after a successful reassessment, but not making it the highest level on the scale. A student that was a 6 and answered a couple of questions correctly might move to an 8, whereas a student that was previously an 8 would be given more challenging questions and some conversation explaining their understanding in order to move to a 10.
  • It was my priority to get assessments back within the same period, and I estimate that I was able to do this more than 95% of the time. Simple, short, and carefully designed assessments can reveal quite a bit about what students do/don't understand.

What needs work:

  • Similar to previous semesters, I had high participation of a small group of students, with far too many students choosing not to reassess until the very end of each semester. Some students did not initiate their own reassessments at all.
  • Students again hoarded their credits to the end of the semester. I flirted with the idea of adding an expiration date to credits to discourage holding on to credits for long periods of time, but time constraints kept me from implementing this.
  • As a consequence of credit-hoarding, students near the end of the semester signed up for absurd numbers of reassessments in a day - I believe the largest quantity was nine. I shared with students that a good rule of thumb for planning purposes is 10 minutes per reassessment, so doing five reassessments before school isn't practical, but that didn't come across well. Students that couldn't do all of their reassessments in the morning simply pushed them to later in the day. This was a problem for me because I never knew if students were going to show up according to their scheduled time, or just do everything after school. Canceling after no-shows at the end fixed this problem pretty efficiently, however.
  • When a student would answer all questions correctly on an unannounced standards quiz, I generally assigned this a mastery level of 8 on a 6 - 10 scale. Students that had less than an 8 in this case usually had trouble with the same questions on a unit assessment or reassessment on the same standard later on. In other words, the students that had trouble initially learning a concept did not necessarily get the help they needed to make progress before the unit exam. This progress often happened after the exam, but this led to a lot of students falling behind pretty early on. I need to introduce interventions much earlier.

Under consideration for next year:

These are the ideas I am mulling over implementing before school gets started in a month, and I'd love to hear what you think.

  • Make credit expiration happen. This has been an issue for the year and a half of WeinbergCloud's existence. I threatened implementing this in speaking with students, and they were immediately asking me not to because it would prevent them from putting off reassessments as they preferred to do. This includes students that were doing the practice problems between classes anyway, so this wasn't just about losing the credits. Adding a "why not just give a reassessment a try" argument worked in face-to-face conversation with students that were hoarding credits, so forcing the process might be worth the effort. I understand that learning takes time, but many of the students putting off reassessment weren't actively reviewing the standards over time any way. I'd rather force the feedback cycle through more iterations since that is when students seem to learn the most.
  • Introduce submitting work into the process of reassessment. This could be electronic ("To complete your sign up, submit a scan/photo of the work you have done to prepare") or could just be shown before I give them a reassessment. This would reduce some of the sign-ups that happen only based on the mastery score rather than reviewing the concepts that come with it. Students earn credits by doing practice problems or coming to tutoring, and these let them sign up for reassessments - this won't change. To actually go the final step and take the reassessment, I need to see what students have done to prepare. In some cases (students that see me the day before, for example) I may waive this requirement.
  • Require X number of reassessments per two week cycle of the block schedule. This might be in lieu of the previous change, but I'm afraid this might encourage (rather than prevent) a rush of reassessments at the end of a two week period. On the other hand, if the goal is to increase opportunities for feedback, this might be more effective.
  • Make it possible for students to sign-up for an appointment to go over (but not be assessed) material on a given standard. Reassessments are great opportunities for feedback, but sometimes students want to come in to go over material. I get emails from students asking this, but it might be easier to just include this within WeinbergCloud.
  • Introduce skills/definition standards for each unit. This would be a standard for each unit that covers basic recall of information. I'll discuss why I want these (particularly in physics) in more detail within a later post. The short story is that I want to specifically assess certain concepts that are fundamental to all of the standards of a unit with a single binary standard.
  • Classify standards mastery levels in terms of 'likelihood of success'. This is a lower priority, and when I tried to explain this to a colleague, she wasn't convinced it would be worth the effort. If you have a 10, it means you have a 95% or higher likelihood of answering anything I give you correctly. The probabilities might not scale linearly - a 9 might mean between 90-95%, an 8 between 75% and 90, etc. I don't know. The reason I want to do this is to justify giving a 10 to students that have demonstrated solid proficiency without requiring perfection, and have a better reason for only raising a student from a 6 to an 8 after answering a couple questions on a single reassessment.

    Right now the difference between an 8, 9, and 10 are defined (in order) by answering questions correctly on a single standard quiz, a comprehensive unit exam, and correctly answering stretch questions correctly. A student that gets an 8 on a standards quiz before an exam might then answers related questions incorrectly on the multi-standards exam and remains an 8. If this student then takes a quiz on a single standard and answers that question correctly, does it make sense to then raise their mastery level above 8? This is what I often do. I can also control for this by giving a more challenging question, but I'm not sure I need to.

    In short, something is fishy here, and I need to think it out more in order to properly communicate it to students. In my head, I understand what I want to communicate: "yes, you answered these questions correctly, but I'm still not convinced that you understand well enough to apply the concepts correctly next time." This is not the highest priority out of the ones I've mentioned here.

As always, I appreciate your feedback. Thanks for reading!

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Filed under standards based grading, teaching philosophy

Social Interactions and Time

Social work is important but social work will require, by its nature, more wait time than automated work.
--p. 131, Functionary: Learning To Communicate Mathematically In Online Environments by Dan Meyer

This quote from Dan's dissertation gets to a theme of my lesson design this year. The time requirements of social interactions in the classroom are critical to honestly working them in to classroom routines. Dan is referring to the time required waiting for another students to refactor and resubmit a verbal description online. My takeaway from this point gets at a reality of making student socialization a tool for learning in the classroom.

Conversations about learning take time. 

Exit tickets at the end of the class are quick ways to assess specific skills presented during a class period, but they are essentially one way channels since they can't be acted upon until next class. Time in class for lightly structured conversation around a lesson reveals understanding (or a lack thereof) is not just interactive for students, but allows me to hear a range of responses and parse them for what my students have learned. This conversation can be limited to small chunks of one or two minutes, so the payoff to investment ratio is big if those conversations are carefully designed and motivated. 

Identifying what is and is not useful in those conversations is essential to working in an environment with peers. This is a valuable skill for students to develop. It's difficult impossible to plan for every possible response students will have to everything that is said, and there will always be unexpected or off topic elements. This 'noise' can be managed but shouldn't be eliminated. Doing so denies the ebb and flow of real conversations that students have outside our classrooms all the time. If we are to leverage socialization in our classrooms for learning, we have to acknowledge that the efficiency will never be perfect. This is especially the case as Dan's research suggests that students best learn to communicate mathematically through revision and feedback.

I could go much faster through material if all I used was direct instruction. My students would be forced to be compliant to such a structure, and probably wouldn't enjoy my class as much, which I've decided is important to me. It is satisfying as a teacher to see students working through their understandings without my help, and this can only happen if I provide time for it during class. Scheduling time for it is a way to show students that I value what comes out of these conversations.

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MeteorPad Tutorial: GoldMine

In a unit on Meteor applications for my web design class, I wrote a series of applications to help my students see the basic structure of a few Meteor applications so that they could eventually design their own. The students had seen applications that tallied votes from a survey, compiled links, and a simple blog. This one was about being competitive, and the students were understandably into it.

This tutorial was designed to use MeteorPad due to some challenges associated with installing Meteor on student computers. The first one involved permissions issues since students are not by default given access to the terminal. The second involved connectivity issues to the Meteor servers from China, which unfortunately, I never fully resolved. MeteorPad offered an awesome balance between ease of making an application and minimizing the need for Terminal. For anyone looking to get started with Meteor, I recommend trying out MeteorPad as it doesn't require any knowledge of working in the terminal or software installation.

I was able to take data on the students clicking away as I created new pieces of gold and put it out into the field. I've written previously about my enthusiasm for collecting data through clicks, so this was another fun source of data.

Code can be downloaded here from Github.

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Filed under programming, studentwork, Uncategorized