Assessment AND Learning

So here I am at a workshop last week with my principal, AP, and 3 colleagues. They are all scrambling to fill out their clock hour forms and grumbling while I am sipping a nice cup of coffee and reading my email. “You know you need to do this clock hour form,” an administrator said to me.
“Thanks. I really don’t need them, ” I replied.
The administrator looked shocked. “How can you not need them?”
“I renewed my national board certificate so in Washington, I’m good until June 2019.”
“You mean all you had to do was sign something instead of doing clock hours?”

The administrator voiced disapproval that when I arrived in Washington from another state, I was immediately granted a professional certificate in Science. Only Science, mind you, even though my out-of state certificate has an old Comprehensive Science which was the equivalent of one major science field and an academic minor in 3 others (Earth and Space, Chemistry, Biology, Physics are the 4 fields) each individual cert endorsement, a separate individual endorsement for all math 7-12, and that I have countless hours in both education and the sciences, at the graduate level, 20 years in the high school classroom, a few years teaching at 2 state universities, and am completing a doctorate in science education in a program that required original research in both a science field and science education, and a dissertation with more rigor than I’ve seen completed by doc students at UW. I did go take the Praxis II in Chemistry ( I didn’t miss any questions) and Biology and Physics ( I got the overachiever certificate thingy.)

The conference was a great learning experience for us as we are beginning to implement standards-based grading. Of course I want to “grade” my students in the most fair way, a way that shows everyone’s alignment with standards, in the most accurate and reliable way possible. In reality, I’ve embraced many of the philosophies presented at the conference in a more informal way. I’ve not “graded” homework for many years, as such. Given a few token points for completing it, because this gives students confidence and a sense of accomplishment, but not ever demonstrated a technique on one day and expected students to hand me a perfectly completed problem set the next day. I’ve said to a kid, “No, you are not ready to take a test today. Let’s do yours tomorrow after we talk.” I’ve taken late assignments with no penalty because of some circumstance, like, “I just didn’t get this one – may I have a little longer to work on this?” I don’t give a rip about tardies or attendance so long as the kid can do what’s expected and doesn’t disrupt class by making a grand entrance (yes they have to come in on their own to make up labs.) I’ve marked different assignments “no count”when completing the assignment didn’t seem to impact the student’s real learning and mastery of a standard. I could go on …….

We can’t fix what’s going on in education right now just by changing our assessment methods. It takes a deeper approach, beginning with the engagement of students and holding them accountable for their learning. The learning certainly takes place at a different pace for different students, each student benefiting from different approaches to the standard to be mastered. Although I saw in almost every presentation at the conference that it was important for students to know their learning targets, where they are in the progression of that learning, and how to get to mastery level for each target standard, I don’t think my principal saw that. I think she truly believes that if we just allow late work into infinity and don’t include a mark of zero, ever, that grades will look good and students will be “successful.” I wholeheartedly disagree. Fair assessment is essential and as with my entire teaching practice, I am always looking for a better way – but if there is no learning, what is there to assess?

Apparently, although we as NBCTs attempt to educate our administrators about the certification process and how valuable it is in shaping our practices in ways that lead to above average gains in student learning, we still have work to do. We’ve talked and are not sure that we like the direction our administrators are taking – administrators who were not strong educators and who have no real clue what good teaching IS – and are going underground with our efforts; grassroots, if you will. My plan is to get together a group of NBCTs in my district for some discussion, and I have a few plans in mind. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Arranging a Classroom

It’s something no one ever teaches you in education classes, yet it’s usually the first thing you have to do when you get a job. Even in a science lab, there are always things the former resident did because they worked, but you think these things are stupid. So, you set about rearranging the furniture. Even in my last classroom, a lab that I no longer inhabit for various reasons of my own choosing, I could at least rotate the desk 90° and add a skinny Ikea shelf as a computer stand.

LouAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds fame advises that you create a little cubby for yourself that keeps your materials inaccessible to students. I don’t have the student issues that she did, but need all the right things around me when I have to sit down and do some serious desk work. I need student files close by, as well as my tickler file. I need my one drawer of frequently-used files at hand so that I can grab last year’s PO for protists and re-order without having to find a catalog and look up order numbers again. I need my faithful supply of post-its. Etc.

This year, because I felt the new chemistry teacher would do better in a lab setting so he could do more labs with the kids, I traded rooms with him. I was embarrassed once we started moving. We’d traded rooms last year when he needed to do a lab, but I never really looked around. We gave him a room with some scavenged cupboards just standing in the room but not fastened down, and computers on a table in a corner that he never used after I plugged them in. He pulled a moveable whiteboard in front of the cupboard mess and never really stored anything there. He had never used a LCD projector or a powerpoint and didn’t want to, so the technology guy checked out a lousy overhead projector for him. The bulb was so dim that the kids could not see whatever he put up, so he had to turn out the lights and pull the blinds. All the time, all day, every day. How dreary. When I went in, the first thing I would do was open the blinds. Geez. How had we left him to fend for himself in this mess?

He found the teacher desk in the front corner by the windows, opposite the door. He left the desk right there. Once I had returned the computers to the CTE department and had the cupboards rightly fastened to the walls, the next thing I did was to move the desk to the back corner. I hate sitting where everyone who walks past can watch me work, and I hate my desk taking up valuable space in the front of the room that can be used for better things (like my 50 gal aquarium). That left the room very open and for the first time in years, I had a classroom in which we could rearrange the desks.

Once I had the desk moved, I sat down in my chair and looked out the window. Here is my view:
Mt. Rainier from my desk
So hint #1 for new tachers is:
#1 You can, and should, rearrange the furniture.

If you respect the classroom as a space and treat it well, students will do the same. I might have chaos going on with students working on various scientific things, but they are always careful to pick up and put away when they are finished for the day. Why? Because I ask them to do so. I never find spitballs on my ceiling, not even after I return from having a sub. I had forgotten that kids do these things until I moved to the current room and had to scrape dessicated spitwads from its ceiling, an accumulation from several years past. Blech. I want a classroom that makes kids feel happy when they come in the door. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going off on a self-esteem tangent here. I just want kids that like to come to science classes and feel welcome to do so when they walk in the door. I want them to look around and think, “Hey!  There’s room for me in this classroom!” Building that feeling is an art worth developing.

So, my initial feelings that this classroom won’t work out as a makeshift lab are waning. It’s large and light and bright and happy. Biology can borrow New Guy’s room when we need microscopes. AP Bio will use his room every Tuesday morning from 6:30 til the end of 1st period. Science skills kids will go there as needed, as will marine biology. And Physics students have their own tables that I scrounged from the computer lab renovation. I’ve gotten over having to be the teacher who runs from classroom to classroom and has 5 preps. It’s okay; I am looking at this as an opportunity to be the one who can make the best of a less than ideal situation, that is, having more students and teachers than out 2 science labs can accommodate. I guess this is what leaders do.

When life gives you lemons, forget the lemonade. Make a margarita.

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