Science, Education, and Science Education

classroom applications
February 10th, 2009

Anyone? Anyone?

A few students took advantage of the extra time to squeeze in work at the last moment before grades closed. Most did not. Either way, I sent a huge list of grade changes, mostly semester grade incompletes,  to the secretary, who got some of them recorded incorrectly. Moral of the story is that life would be easier if we had the ability to do our own incompletes. We don’t, although a few of us have asked.

Read the rest of this entry »

December 28th, 2008

Thoughts as we revise assessment in our building

My current plan for implementing Grading for Learning follows.  It is a blending of many things I heard at the December conference in ways that I can see working in my own classroom.

My solutions:

1.  All assignments not submitted on time automatically revert to an alternate assignment.  This is either something less palatable for the student but simpler for me to assess, or a textbook worksheet packet that the student completes, then comes in after school and corrects himself.  Little or no time on my part. The idea here is to show students that it’s just easier to follow a planned path through their learning. Assignment “due dates” are given well in advance.

2.  We will take photos of all labs in progress and keep a sample set of reasonable data.  The student doing tha lab as a very late make-up can then do the normal write-up, look at the pictures, and use the given data to do an analysis.  As I see it, the standard for lab technique would not have been met, so there would need to be some kind of grade penalty for not meeting that standard.  (Science investigations usually have several components, or standards, that are assessed in one lab investigation.  Since I grade on total points because Skyward is not set up for standards, that just means that the points for that standard will be low or missing. The final grade would then reflect the percentage of standards not met.) The assessment-for-learning purists would argue that this is a performance or behavior thing and should not be assessed at all, but I will disagree.  Perhaps they would be pleased with a dental hygenist who’s never actually worked on a live person, but who’s watched lots of movies about cleaning teeth.

3.  No summative assessment (test or quiz) will be given until a student has completed sufficient “formative,” or practice work to demonstrate that he is ready to be assessed.  On test day, a student who is not ready for the assessment will work on becoming ready while the others take the test.  He can then take the test on his own time, later.  Whenever is fine.  It will be an alternative test, possibly essay.

4.  A student scoring below 80% (70%?) on any test must retake the test, at least the parts on which he did poorly. Any other student could also retake, but the second grade stands. The retake would be a different document, and would ideally consist of only the parts of the test on which the student did poorly. As of the last test I gave, it was not possible to give a partial test to most students as they did equally poorly across the board.  I suck as a teacher, apparently.  I see this changing when students are not permitted to take a test “cold” but must actually do some learning first. I’ll even give them the tools they need to learn – imagine that – explanations, opportunities to explore a concept, have their hands and minds on models, discuss topics with their peers, etc.  Perhaps I just don’t write appropriate tests.  An area of improvement here……

Formative work would be the assignments relating to the test topic – reading journals, labs, projects, class notes ( this will be tricky to implement appropriately), index card graphic organizers, concept maps, projects, research, or whatever has been used in class to build knowledge about the topic. Formative assessments allow students to describe their learning targets, assess where they are in the progression of learning to reach their target, plan what they still need to do to reach the target, and describe the resources they will use and how they will use the resources to reach their target.

The snag is the same as I’ve had for the past year, and would be the same issue we need to discuss as a building.  What is the fate of an Incomplete?  Can we let a student make up the work for an Incomplete any time up until graduation?  How long before the I turns to an F?  Does the I on an individual assignment turn to a (shudder) zero, or must we allow a student to have 50% of the assignment’s value for doing absolutely nothing?  I’m currently looking at the mathematical implications of a 0 in my grading system.  I didn’t see any grading systems quite like it at the conference.


Update on June 8, 2010: None of this worked. Grades were at least a bit inflated, and students didn’t seem to benefit by attempting to complete an entire semester’s work and take 5 tests during the last 3 weeks before grades closed.

December 19th, 2008

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.

August 19th, 2008

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.

%d bloggers like this: