Another one bites the dust

Dear readers (and I know you are few),

Today was the last day of school with students. I still have three days of finals and 4 days of teacher wrap-up next week, but I am done…in more ways than one.

I’ve regretted not posting at all since October, but things have slowly spiraled out of control since then.

I had parental difficulties with my grading system and was ultimately forced by my administrator to revert back to percentage grades (no more 1-5 levels). Then, I had to stop modifying scores that reflected student understanding (can’t have Johny or Sally feeling bad about themselves and hey, when students report their SAT scores, then only ever have to tell their highest score). I had scheduling conflicts that pulled students out of lab time so much so that I was constantly behind in material. I had parents upset that their up-until-now perfect child was doing poorly in my class must mean that I was doing something wrong (or was it that up until now no other teachers held them to any standard?…I’m confused). I struggled with the amount of time I was putting into teaching at the cost of my time with my family. And there were several other issues I was trying to deal with at the same time as all that.

All of which led me to check that I was unsure about my returning next year when asked in our annual letter of intent. So, I had a few meetings with administration over the course of the last few months to talk about those things. I explained again what I was attempting to do in order to change the culture of point hungry children bent on nothing but getting the best grade to get into college, how some daily scheduling changes would make things easier for students and myself, and a variety of other things – all with suggestions about how they could be remedied – not just complaints.

Well, I guess when you try to do an administrator’s job and put them against the wall to back you up when it comes to parents leads them to decide not to ask you back wether you want to or not.

So, it is with sadness that I taught my last class today. The teaching economy isn’t too bright with all of the budget cutbacks in this area so I am forced to look for another profession.

I have continued to read everyone’s blogs and wish to greatly thank those (Shawn Cornally, Frank Nochese, Jason Buell and others) who gave me advice early on this year and say to you all I’m still counting on you to change the American culture with the wonderful things you do in class each and every day. Some of you are down-right amazing.



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Was I wrong?

Okay, so I had a math student come to me to help them understand a concept. The student showed me several examples of work they had done to try and understand it (which I require in order for them to be able to be re-assessed). While I was helping them with that concept, I became aware that there were some shortcomings on another concept that this student had scored well on over several previous quizzes. After the help, the student asked if they could be re-assessed on the concept they had come in for help on. I told the student that I would make a re-assessment for them the next day. I decided to add the secondary concept to the re-assessment as a separate question but had all the things we went over during the help session. The next day, the student was too busy to take the new assessment and it happened again the next day. So the third day, the student was able to take the assessment. I wasn’t able to score it at that time and graded it that night. The student scored well on the concept that was the primary concern but not well at all on the secondary one. The next day, I showed the student the quiz and where they had made mistakes. The student felt I was out of line to have quizzed them on the secondary concept and lowered their current score on it. I spent the next 25 minutes explaining to the student that if the concept was truly learned, as seemed evident by the high scores over the several previous quizzes, that the concept shouldn’t have given them trouble. And, I explained that I had told them they all concepts would be re-assessed at various times throughout the marking period. I didn’t feel I was wrong to have asked a question on something we had discussed and pointed out to them during the help session that was a shortcoming. So, my question to any of you who happen to read this, was I wrong to have added that secondary concept without telling them I was going to do so?

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Woe is me

I don’t know how many of you are able to blog so often. I am struggling to stay on top of things because I’ve changed so many things from last year and I am still trying to iron things out.

Things I’m struggling with:

  1. After speaking with other teachers before classes started this year, we all felt that students showing up late to classes due to staying over in others was becoming an issue. I decided to do my part to get students out as soon as the class ends. But, I have several students in every class each time I assess who don’t finish and want to know why they can’t finish. I know the quiz should only take a student who knows what they are doing about 20 minutes. Obviously, these students have no clue and it shows on their scores. My struggle is: If it doesn’t matter how long it takes a student to learn something, why does it matter how long it takes them to show me what they know? And I know I’ve sort of already answered my own question, but I still feel guilty saying to them that they need to turn in what they have done and not worry about what they didn’t finish – they’ll have other opportunities to show me.
  2. I know that number 1 is a result of the same issue almost everyone else has blogged about recently: Students are just chasing scores like they’ve always chased points. I don’t know how to change that culture despite all the discussions we’ve had about what the point of this new system is meant to do for them. They’re still playing the system. Now, I’m not making it easy on them, but they are still just going through the motions because it is the mandate I’ve established. I actually had a student (a 10th grade male, btw) start crying in class the other day because he didn’t understand why his answer alone didn’t give him full credit for the skill. His work made no sense mathematically, but in the end, he ended up with the answer, by mistake. To him, that was all that mattered. And his argument was that they are just learning how to pass the SAT and all that matters on that is that you get the correct answer. I took the time to explain to all of them that I wasn’t teaching them how to pass a test, to only worry about the answer, or to only find a way to get a 4. I told them I was only concerned with them being able to apply the skills in various circumstances and prove to me that they really understand what the skills mean and when and where to use them. I see this as a long and hard road…
  3. I have way too many students who want me to grade their quizzes after each question (i.e. – tell me I’m doing it right). I often feel like I’m being too evasive in my answers to keep them from being able get the points due to my help rather than because of their own understanding. “I have a question. Wait, if you tell me the answer to that, are you going to take points off? Oh, never mind. I’ll just try it myself.” Part of this is because I know to a T that they are chasing points and I won’t give in. But, I also know that with some help, they could show me a little more of what they know than they are able to show without the help. I can’t make those decisions on the fly because too many of them are asking for help each assessment. So, I stick to clarifications.
  4. So, I’m obviously assessing too quickly or they don’t know how to self assess. I teach the lesson, show examples, and have them work on more examples while I go around and answer questions. Apparently getting that help and getting the answer means they know what they are doing. All done. Give me my points. Based on their responses and in-class work, I don’t feel like I’m assessing too quickly. Is this just more of number 2 rearing its ugly head? In fact, I feel like I am going way slower than last year just to make sure that they know what they are doing. Maybe too slow and they are loosing interest?
  5. I am required to give mid-term progress reports. But, I have tracking sheets that I have them fill in after I pass back each graded assessment. They know where they stand. But, they still want a grade. They want a grade on each assessment for that matter. Their grades are all that matter because that’s what colleges care about – is it? I decided to just ignore the progress reports this quarter since any grade I contrive to show how many skills they’ve mastered, or failed to master, doesn’t mean the same thing. A few parents, and many students, have called me out on it. I’ve responded with my reasons and further explanations. This despite having given an explanation when the year started and posting it online for them to see anytime they wish. Am I going to be able to continue fighting a fight they just don’t seem to care about or realize needs to be fought?
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Unfortunate Son

Just thought I’d share this since it made me realize how easy it is to do inquiry and how many teachers aren’t doing it.

My apologies to anyone directly involved in this that I may offend if they happen to read this.

I’ve mentioned before that I get emails from the NSTA physics and chemistry listserv. Here is an email snippet from an in-service teacher we got today:

I wanted to do a conservation of mass lab with my students.  Thought that vinegar and baking soda would do fine.  Mixed them in a flask on the balance and saw a difference of .4g with about 5 g of baking soda and 15 g of vinegar.  I thought that was fine since carbon dioxide was forming.  I did the exact same thing again except cover the flask with the balloon with the baking soda inside so it never let the gas out.  The balloon expanded but I saw that same change in mass again.  I checked the scale to make sure it didn’t waver and it didn’t.

Any ideas on what happened?  Do you have a conservation of mass lab that works where you can show it needs to be a closed system?

I know I replied to him privately before any list members replied to the group. I dislike all the inane comments that follow most of these questions and their responses, so I wanted to privately address his question.

I asked him a few questions rather than give him an answer (slightly edited here to make me look smarter than I am):

  1. How do you know it didn’t work the way it was “supposed” to? (I actually told him it did work, then asked my questions and now I realize I should have asked him in the form of a question)
  2. Does the gas in the balloon have mass?
  3. What is the gas in the balloon?
  4. Why does the balloon “float” as the balloon fills with gas?
  5. You’ve obviously collected a gas in the balloon, why do you think that its mass isn’t counting towards the mass you are reading?
  6. I also had to ask a clarifying question since he used both balance and scale in his question – they measure 2 different things and if I could elicit anything towards what I knew was the reason for the discrepancy, maybe the use of scale might seem a little more intuitive to him once he made a realization.

I was disappointed to see “answers” (those are double finger quotes since almost none of them were answers) to his question quickly start rolling in.

The first responder actually steamrolled the answer past him: here is a modification that you might use that minimizes gas leakage and allows you to ignore air buoyancy because the container is a constant volume…gave instructions for modification.

Next: I have done this experiment in the zipper baggie for years, and we rarely get the same mass. Remember, if you put an onion into a baggie you can often smell it without opening the bag. Plastic is permeable.

Third responder gave him the answer: This is a very common problem and it is due to buoyancy. And then went on to do a very good job explaining it.

Fourth told him to do almost exactly what he had already done: The two most popular methods often are placing a balloon on the flask and trying to collect the gas in the balloon. The other method is placing the whole experimental apparatus into a plastic zip top bag. Both methods have at times produced excellent results, and other times these methods have yielded very little if any improvement. It all seems to depend on how the bag or balloon is sealed to the glassware…It all has to do with procedure…and the care that the kids take to implement their procedure.

And on they went – 13 responses in 6 hours with only one correct answer (I don’t count the first since he glossed over it like that part wasn’t important), and they were all things to improve the experiment or to “fix” the problem.

Many of them even made it sound like the CO2 was escaping rather than air being displaced, as did the original poster (density of air is less and therefore gets pushed out).

How unfortunate that they all passed up on a teachable moment for the teacher becoming a learnable moment he could pass on to his students; instead, they gave him “easy outs.”

My questions to him probably weren’t the best ones to elicit buoyant force and changing volume, but they were at least questions that might make him think. So, if any of you have any better questions to add, I’ll probably be using this in either chemistry or physics.

It’s better to give than receive,” but I’m taking literary license and am going to go with, “It’s better to question than receive.”

Edit: I should also point out that simply asking questions isn’t inquiry (at least not in the way I meant it to be applied). The questions are meant to prompt the student to want to try and figure things out by doing different investigations. What could he have done to figure out why the mass seemed to have “left” the system?

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I hope my blog stats aren’t indicative of the end scores my students will get under my new grading system. I liked my “score” at week 3…not so much at week 10.

But, thanks to all who have visited and commented so far.

Won’t have anything real to post as far as SBG until another week passes since I’ve been doing a lot of explaining and taking care of logistical items in each class.

And, thanks to Shawn, I have a lot I want to live up to – not just all my SBG changes.

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Can I just say I hate, hate, hate TI calculators?

I dislike calculators in general because the students don’t know how to interpret the results it gives.

Ex: Student – “Mr. Bennage, can you help me? I’ve done this problem 5 times and my calculator gave me 5 different answers.”

Me – “Well, show me what you are trying to do.”

Student shows me a formula with numbers plugged in.

Me – “Okay. Now show me how you did that on your calculator.”

Student punches in some numbers and operators with lots of parentheses – gets a 6th answer.

Student – “I’m not sure what I did. Can you just tell me what I need to push?”

Even better example that I dislike:

Student needs to add simple fractions. Uses calculator. Why?

But, why I hate the TI calculators:

4 BIG reasons.

1) Orders of operation. Yes, they should need to know and be able to apply them to do calculations. But, I’ll admit myself that I overuse parentheses on a TI to make sure I enter it correctly. I (rightly so) get the correct answer when I do it. Students invariably get 6 answers like in my first example.

2) Negative signs. Goes along with number 1, but students don’t connect them. Student needs to do -3^2 They usually give the answer as -9. “I punched it in like it is written.” Ugh!

3 and 4 go hand-in-hand also

3) Reciprocals. The TI uses x1 notation. Students have no idea what it means or how to use it. Despite the fact that I went over it 20 times.

4) Inverse trig functions. Again, the TI uses sin1 notation. Looks the same. “Don’t I just use it when I want to flip it upside down?”  (cosecant -after they finally know what reciprocal does).

Obviously there is some teaching I’ve missed messed up. But, why can’t TI get it right like an HP?

I love my HP 48G. RPN is the only way to go as far as I’m concerned. And, for science class, I can use the stack to keep numbers from previous calculations without copying them down or putting them in memory for accuracy’s sake.

HP’s inverse/reciprocal notation, RPN, and text book orders of operation process make the 4 reasons go away. I don’t have any of those issues using an HP.

1/x makes more sense. asin can mean anti-sin (reverse the function). I can enter -3^2 and get 9. I never (almost) use parentheses and my calculation is correct.

Here are the screen shots of the 2 calculators:

Did I mention I hate TI calculators? Too bad every textbook publisher uses them with keystroke guides these days.

Just my soap box for the day. Anyone have advice?

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For those of you out there who don’t have the ability to change previous quarter/semester grades, how do you handle grades if a student masters a topic after the grades have been submitted? i.e. I have 4 topics I introduce and assess in Q1. Student A only has a 2.0 total score for those topics. But, in Q2 has a Whoa! moment and masters two of the previous quarters topics. I can’t change last quarter’s grade.

I guess it doesn’t matter if I’m not averaging topic scores but using a conjunctive scoring system like Jason uses. Does the student(s) just have one or two more topic scores the next quarter that affect their grade?

Any help?

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Semi-coherent ramblings (…I hope)

Ok, 2 weeks to go and I don’t feel any closer to being ready than I was at the end of last school year. I see so many bloggers with SBG topics, standards, and ideas and I’m still trying to catch up. I know that working my part time job all summer and my honey do list haven’t helped me with the planning phase, but I still feel overwhelmed.

But, I haven’t given up yet.

I was reading an email I got from the NSTA listserv and I think I had a bit of an epiphany.

It was related to a new set of standards “designed” to get K-12 students ready for college. And based on a the comments to that email, I think I answered some of my questions from my last post.

I don’t think it really matters (to some degree anyway) what standards I have or don’t have, how many there are, what level of “mastery” I set them at, or any of the other questions I think we may come up with when we set out to design these standards.

My goal has always been and will be to have my students leave my class being able to think. Yes, they need to show mastery of the curriculum content I put forth in order for me to say “they know subject X.” But, having this standard or that standard isn’t going to matter squat if I don’t teach them to learn for themselves. I am really inspired by Shawn and Dan (as well as others – Jason and Frank to mention a few) based on how they approach teaching their subjects. I know that how I teach them is more important than what I teach them.

I didn’t get a degree in a lot of things, but I know if I set myself to it, I could learn almost anything well enough to do it as a job. Much of that confidence comes from having learned how to think based on the questions asked of me in a particular few of my college physics courses. It wasn’t the material, but the process I went through in order to get there. If i can just get my students to go through that process and learn some content along the way, then I will have succeeded.

I have to give a shout out to Tracie Schroeder for posting about this student…this is the kind of student I want to produce.

Now, if I could just get a direct brain uplink for the SBG stuff on my blog roll, I’d be all set.

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The house on the rock stood firm.

This post is my thoughts on a post by Dan Meyer (and its comments – especially 3, 9, and 13) because I think it directly relates to my first post – “what constitutes Mastery?”.

Dan was lamenting the fact that a certain assessment question he created tied 2 skills together and therefore didn’t allow him the ability to determine which of the 2 skills the student would need to remediate because of a low score on that problem. I think Dan’s approach, keeping skills and their assessment separate, is analogous to building a house. What I see being built by keeping the skills separate is the foundation. You can’t build good and long lasting house without a good foundation. But is building the foundation all that the course is designed to do? I know that depends on the course. Pre-Algebra and Algebra I, maybe yes, the foundation is all that is and should be built and assessed. So, “Mastery” can be obtained by the student for building that foundation and only that foundation. But, for any higher math class (as well as physics and my still undecided chemistry), we are looking for the house, not the foundation. Higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy type questions need to be included. Sure, you can still assess each skill individually. Maybe you don’t move higher up the taxonomy until they get a 4, or 5, or whatever your highest possible score is, until they get that score 2 times. But my still big question is “How high does the house get built?” or, “How much finish work am I looking for on the house?” This is what I am having trouble deciding when it comes to these higher level courses.

I guess to put it another way: In high school, are we looking for finished houses? And when/if they take the same subject in college, are they building a new house from the same design but with more intricate details? Or, are they only adding on to a house that wasn’t finished in high school.

Is it possible to call an unfinished house “Mastery?”

I know until I answer that question I can’t determine what skills/concepts will make up the content of my courses and how I will asses them.

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The journey towards the dark (light?) side.

Okay. My first blog and entry. Sorry if I try to cram too much into this…

This journey started back in mid-May, 2010, due to an email I received from the NSTA  physics listserv:

Hi, I need your input.  For 23 years I have been teaching chemistry and physics quite successfully.  I have a no late  homework policy, and  I don’t over load the kids by any means.  There are enough assignments  so if a student does get a 0 here or there, it is not going to hurt him much.  My tests count about the same point value as all the homework for that chapter.  Now I am being told that I have to accept late homework up to maybe the end of the semester, if not the chapter, with a slight penalty.   I am having a hard time with this concept, though I know it is the current trend.  How do you go over homework if half the class hasn’t done it?  Do you end up with massive amounts of late work to grade?  What if they still want more time?  Do they truly learn by doing late work if we have assessed that topic and are on to another one?  Maybe I should just stop giving any homework, but how are they going to practice the problems on their own.  If I give class time for the practice, won’t I have to cut out a lot of topics? Your thoughts would be appreciated.
I was reflecting on the past year and my HW policy. I was accepting late homework with 5 points off the value of the assignment whether it was worth 10 points or 40 points. Sometimes it hurt a student a lot worse than others. I also had a color coding system in my physical grade book so that I knew when I had to go back in to my electronic grade book to update late homework scores – got pretty aggravating. If they didn’t turn it in by the end of the quarter, they got the all powerful  0 . But, my main concern was that I knew a good percentage of the students were just copying homework from each other – just to get the points. It certainly wasn’t helping them towards the goal of understanding. I knew I needed to change something.

And thanks goes to Frank Noschese (no blog?) who responded on the listserv and gave links to Sean Cornally‘s blog as well as several others.

I spent many multiple hours pouring over blogs, articles, you name it, to find out more.

Ok…so now I had a vision – SBG.

I took the plan to my administrator. He was on board but wanted to me to pilot test it in one of my classes instead of going full bore in all of them. I guess I need to work on my power’s of persuasion

Since I’m no Jedi, I planned on starting with the age old wisdom of Mr. Miyagi: “Either you karate do ‘yes’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so,’ [get squashed] just like grape.” At least that is how I felt knowing I would be a man divided in my teaching approaches in different classes and what he would be asking of me.

Luckily, he has since done some research of his own and is now wanting to meet with me to plan how this will be implemented in all of my classes. Hooray!

Okay, here are some of my plans:

1)Homework assignments will be given, but not graded. They are practice.
2)Since grades are still necessary, I have adapted a rubric from a few different people’s posts I have come across in my journey. This will be used to determine the score for each standard as it is assessed. An average of all standards’ scores will determine the student’s grade.
3)Grades will reflect a student’s current understanding – they can go up or down.
4)Students will have a log sheet to track their own understanding.

I still need to decide what standards I will use for each class.

My big concerns are:

1)If an average of each standards’ scores is used, it is possible that a student could still pass the course and not be at least proficient in every standard.

Question: Is it necessary that every standard I decide upon is met at a proficient level? Or, can they be 75% proficient at 75% of the standards and “pass”?

2)Am I asking too much of high school students to be able to perform at an “9.5 – 10” level in order to earn an A? I am NOT saying I want a non-quota (un-quota, de-quota?) of students earning an A, a B, etc. All I am saying is that I think we have devalued an A and what it implies. The people who call a 4 out of 4, mastery seem off target to me.

Question: Shouldn’t an A mean an A?
An “A” should mean mastery of a subject above and beyond what was expected, consistently, extensively, automatically, inventively, excellently, and profoundly; that the student is ready for advanced studies of the subject area.
A “B” should show partial mastery; that with more work, they could undertake advanced studies.
A “C” should indicate that the student learned the material, i.e. they met the standard, but are more than likely not suited for advanced studies of that subject area.
A “D” should show that improvement needs to be seen in order for the student to meet the standard – they have work to do in order to move on.
A failing grade should only be seen as a position further down that continuum; not that the student can’t improve or is really any worse off than the “D” student, but that the student has a bit more room for growth.
Neither the “D” nor “F” student should be allowed to “pass” the course. The “C” student will pass the course, but only to move on to different subject areas.

3)David Cox has a blog post that I think gets at what I am looking for in the 8.5 to 10 score range of my rubric.

Question: How do I assess/reassess students. Do they get only 8.0 and below type questions the first 2 attempts at a standard? Then they get progressively harder type questions in order to move higher up the ladder? How on earth will I keep that all organized?

Have I complicated this too much? Am I way off base in what a student should be able to do? Am I missing anything?

Well, that’s my opinion, and now I welcome yours.

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