Sunday, December 30, 2012

Should Quizzes Count?

As I passed back our most recent chapter assessment, I struck up a conversation with one of my Algebra 1 students.  When she looked at her scores (I give each problem a score which is tied to a standard rather than one overall score), she noted that she had never received such high scores in math.  This student has said that after every chapter test usually in amazement at her success.  This last time I decided to sit down and have a chat with her about two things: my confusion of her lack of confidence and her continued disbelief in her math ability.  She has passed every essential standard on every test with a proficient or advanced score, usually an advanced score (based on our department expectations). 
I took a seat next to her and we looked through her assessment.  I asked her some questions about how she solved some of the problems, how she chose strategies to use, why she solved problems the way she did.  These  questions proved what I already knew, this is a strong math student who knows what she is doing and why she is doing it.  In my eyes math makes sense to her. 
So then I asked the burning question I was really wondering: "How is math different for you this year?"  She sat and thought for a minute or two.  While she contemplated the question, I considered why I asked this and what I was expecting to gain from her response.  Since I am in my second year of implementing standards based grading, I am conducting action research in my classroom constantly.  I was hoping to gain some insight on how/if standards based grading had anything to do with the improvement of her math grade.  As it turns out, the implementation has had an indirect effect on her improved grade.
She told me that the biggest thing for her was our weekly formative assessments (quizzes) and the immediate feedback on classwork that had enabled her to practice, learn, make mistakes, identify her misconceptions, and then allow her to re-learn the things she struggled with without being punished by a failing grade.
"Mrs. Beck, you record our standard scores in the practice phase so that we can track our progess, understanding, and misunderstanding but those scores do not count against our grade AT ALL.  When it is time for the chapter test, the scores I receive on that are the scores I have in the class.  So, this year I am not stressed if I do not know how to do something, I just know that I need to get help and practice more.  I am able to focus on learning rather than focusing on not making mistakes.  The mistakes I make while practicing allow me to adjust and build a lasting understanding of algebra 1.  Last year I was so stressed about not making mistakes that I couldn't focus on learning the math standards."
When my winter break ends in a week, I know that I need to bring this issue up with my department to discuss if/how quizzes should be counted.  The most common comment I hear from my colleagues is that if they do not "count" the quiz, then the students will not take it seriously.  So, when I hear that comment my first question will be: what is the purpose of your quiz.  For me, the purpose of a quiz is to see where my students are with their understanding.  There has been more than one occaision that I thought my students had a concept down up until I gave them a formative assessment on the standard and was proven wrong.  Thankfully, my students will write me notes and let me know they have no idea what/how to do something because there is not the punishment of a grade looming over them.  They readily admit their lack of understanding knowing that there will be help and support to get them where they need to be.
I only hope I can convince the math departement that fear of a failing grade will not motivate students to learn and be successful math students.  It will be a conversation that will continue for many months with many uncomfortable moments.  But it is a conversation that I will start.  There will be many challenging questions asked from both sides and the parody will enable all involved to grow. 
I apprreciate any suggestions and/or advice you have to share!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Grading Irony

This past week, as I graded the first chapter assessment in my pre-algebra classes, I had a realization.  The last page was filled with problems on mean, median, mode and the best measure of central tendency (I will remind you soon about these) using a set of "test scores" from a social science class.  Some form of these questions have been on the chapter test for the past 6 years and I am embarrassed to say that I failed to see the negative impacts of averaging grades that were explicitly pointed out on these assessment questions.  Part of my ignorance can be attributed to the fact that I have been using a 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 grading system that equalizes the A to F grading range.  I learned many years ago that a 100 point grading range can be devastating to a student's grade.  But it took my student teacher and her discussions with students to really hit the point home.

The test scores that were given in the data set were:

92, 82, 88, 90, 82, 0, 98, 100

mean: 79
median: 89 (the middle number after putting the data in order from smallest to largest)
mode: 82 (the number that occurs the most)
mean (without the outlier): 90.3
outlier: 0

The mean or average of this data is 79 which is a C+ in most grade book programs.  When you look at this data, do you think the mean is an accurate evaluation of this student?  If we look carefully, there are four scores 90 or above, three scores in the 80's and then that ZERO.  Wow, can you believe the impact that one little zero has on the other scores when using the mean to calculate the grade?  What about the other measures?   Now it is story time...

As we went over this assessment question in class, an amazing thing happened.  Before discussing this question, I asked students which measure of central tendency was the best for "grading".  Overwhelmingly my students voted for mean.  I asked them why and they stated that the mean had been used in every one of their classes from fourth grade until now.  After the informal poll and the discussion, I posted the last page of their chapters 1 and 2 assessment.   I asked the students to get their phones or a calculator out and find the mean of the data since on the test they only had to describe/define how to calculate the mean of a set of data.  As each student saw the result appear on the screen of whatever device they were using there was a collective sigh of disbelief.  They were absolutely shocked at the result.  When they saw that the mean was 79, they began formulating arguments and questions as did I.

My first question was: Do you still think the mean is the best measure of what this student knows?  My next question was: Is there a measure that you would rather have your teacher use?  My last question was what are you wondering?
Here are some of my student responses to the data and my questions:

First, overwhelmingly, the students felt that the mean was the worst measure to use with this data.  They argued that the student obviously understood the material and that he/she had one bad day which had a huge impact on his/her overall grade (something that could be proven by using standards based grading).   If they had to choose, they preferred that their teacher use the median to "calculate the grade.  The interesting part came when we discussed the things my students were wondering.

They wondered why grades are calculated the way they are.  They wondered how grading can be more informative and meaningful.  The most insightful question came when a student asked, "Mrs. Beck, why didn't the teacher ask the student what happened or have a talk with the student to get to the bottom of the zero."  Many of the students stated that if this had happened to them, they would feel defeated.  And because we are in a middle school and there is no consequence for failing, they would no longer put much effort into a class that pays more attention to the one bad grade instead of acknowledging the many outstanding grades.  This question and discussion opened the door for a new look at the standards based grading system I use with these students.

I shared this problem and the discussion with the teachers at my school.  I am the lone wolf of standards based grading and this was not about converting others.  It was about awareness and having my colleagues consider the effects of their grading system on student learning and motivation.  Unfortunately, the message fell upon deaf ears.  I shared this information with the teachers because I promised my students I would.  I am sharing on this blog because I know there are many folks out there that will think about this and consider it.

Needless to say, my students have a new appreciation of standards based grading.  I will be sharing more about all of this soon.  I ask that you pause and consider your grading and what it actually measures.  Then join the #sbar group on twitter to join the journey to make grading more meaningful to all!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

When Life Happens...

The beginning of this school year has been an eye opener for me.  I have been slammed with a lot of "LIFE" lately.  Without going into too many gory details I am dealing with some major stuff:

  • My family is in the middle of selling, buying, moving, and trying to make it all work with only one move... slightly stressful for a couple of control freaks (my hubby and I).
  • Parental health issues that will/are having a major impact on me and my family.
You are thinking, what does this have to do with education... well it has a lot to do with the students who walk through our doors everyday in many ways and I will be happy to make the connections for you!

Moving is stressful and it is something my husband and I despise, however we have done it 8 times in the 20 years we have been together (the past 9 years we have been in the same house).  We feel totally out of control because our house has sold and we are waiting for a short sale house we are trying to buy to close by the end of the month so we can avoid a double move.  My husband and I have had to remind ourselves that this short term stress is worth the result of having 3 acres of land to play on and a place that we will consider a vacation from our work lives.  It hit "home" today when we watched our 6 year old son run around the property.  The short term nightmare will lead to many incredible years of love and fun.  However, I know that our stress is transferring to our son in indirect ways and that makes me think of my students.

Have you ever had a student who tells you they are moving or have just moved and that they cannot find their "school stuff" because it has been "packed"?  There are tears in their eyes for a variety of reasons.  Maybe their parents are splitting up, or perhaps their family has lost their home due to the economy.  Or they could be moving for good reasons.  No matter the situation, moving is stressful and it can turn a household upside down which can have a huge impact on our students.  

Now onto the parental health issues.  Both of my parents are up there in age which creates an interesting dynamic for me, I had my son when I was 40 and so I am the mother of a young boy who has parents who now need help and care.  Again, what does this have to do with our students?
I want to make a plea of patience with our students.  Right now I am dealing with a bit of added stress, but I am so thankful in so many ways.  However, I worry about our kiddos in our classroom who are experiencing stress because of the "life" that is happening.  Guess what, some of your students have daily stresses that they deal with.
I ask you to please consider the following in your students lives:
  • Listen to them and not judge what they share with you about what is going on in their lives
  • Work to make a connection with the student(s) who seems to be a "problem"
  • Provide a safe learning environment for your students, which includes giving them more time, or lending an ear, or finding a way to make them successful everyday.
  • Look for the good in each student every day
  • Know that sometimes the reason for their actions or lack their of are due to  something that is out of their control.
  • Remember that NO student comes to school thinking "I want to fail"
Apparently, I have a lot of external issues that are impacting my daily life.  What I do not want is to impact is my students learning experiences in a negative way.  I have been thinking about how I can share my "life happens" moments with my students as a teaching/learning experience.  I want to model for them a variety of things:
  • It is healthy to show emotion.
  • It is normal to be stressed and confused about what is going on in your life.
  • Please ask for help, support and/or advise when you need it.
  • Know that there are many people who care about you.
  • Know that you are an incredible individual with many gifts to share.
Yes, I know there are those students that make things difficult in our classrooms.  They are the ones who need to know that we as educators believe the above applies to them.

Most importantly, I am asking that when you are checking homework or looking at student work and you walk up to that student you are almost sure does not have it, STOP.  There are two paths you can take at this point.  The first is giving the student a zero for whatever work is missing this time.  Or you can take the second path and have a chat with the student to find out why they consistently don't do their homework or classwork.  Find out about this kid and make changes to help him/her succeed instead of continuing the cycle of failure.  You just might be the person who changes the student's learning experiences into positive ones.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Make Sure You Include Your Students in the #sbar Process

A few weeks ago I shared my "vision" of what I imagine my classroom to look like and how standards based grading would drive that vision Check it out here!  I wanted to share what I have done so far this year to establish the atmosphere I so long for, and how standards based grading has driven what I have done.

My mantra this year is: TAKE YOUR TIME which is so difficult for me!  Last year I implemented standards based grading swiftly and even though it was better, if I had taken a bit more time, it would have been much better.  So, this year, I went back to the good old days when I was an elementary teacher and concentrated on taking time to establish procedures.  Not that I had not done that with my middle schoolers, but I had become a bit complacent since I only had my kiddos for 47 minutes.  What I realized is that procedures are as important or even more so because of my limited time.  I want to utilize each and every minute and make sure I provide meaningful learning experiences for my students.  I also want to make sure that I am gleaning valuable information on student understanding or lack there of during this time.

The overall instructional goal for my math classroom this year is: Authentic Literacy - purposeful reading, writing, and discussion as the primary modes of learning content, thinking, and problem solving skills.  This is driven by the fact that my district uses College Prepatory Mathematics as our Algebra 1 - Calculus math programs.  CPM as we call it is extremely reading intensive, there are many pages in the book that have fewer numbers than words.  So, I began my year using Marcy Cook's book - Numbers Please! Questions Please! and  Lane County 7th Grade Problem Solving and Lane County 8th Grade Problem Solving.  All three of these resources provide an opportunity for me to introduce reading to understand mathematics and to begin the process of teaching students to translate words into mathematical representations.  It also allows me to establish a thinking environment that allows students to take chances and make mistakes.  Thanks for hanging in so far... Now for some nuts and bolts!

  • Head Problems - My quiet signal
    • When I want students to focus on me, I use a head problem to pull them out of whatever they are doing.  "Start with the number 10, double it, divide by 5, triple it, add the digits, show me on your fingers...  This is a mental math activity that makes the students stop what they are doing and focus on what I am saying.  At the end when they show me the answer, I tel just so the students who werew so focused on tl the students who got lost to copy what they see the other students showing.  We go over the problem quickly.  I can use these problems to introduce upcoming skills or reinforce mental calculations.  
  • Standards Tracking Sheets - The tool that I wish I had used last year
    • Pre-Algebra Standard Tracking Sheet Chapters 1 and 2 this tool has taken standards based grading to a new level in my classroom.  It has the standards listed (gotta love California - God I wish I could move to Canada) then the concepts, and then the variety of assessment columns.
    • I give the students a pre-test at the beginning of each unit.  The student record their scores I have given them according to Kristen Beck's Grading Rubric
    • The students know that they have to prove understanding and this sheet allows them to track where they are in their understanding of each standard.
    • The beautiful part of this process is in the formative assessments.  Any time there is some sort of formative assessment in class, the students record the skill/standard that was assessed.  I included many columns because not everything is assessed each time...
What has resulted is so incredible.  The combination of the grading rubric and the standards tracking sheet has produced a shift in the dialogue in my classroom that I would not believe could happen in the first six weeks of school.  Here is what has happened:

  • The students are actively using the grading rubric to understand their standard scores on the pre-test and weekly formative assessments.  
  • Instead of "trashing" their quizzes, they are voluntarily correcting them and writing explanations about where they messed up.
  • They are taking responsibility for their understanding or lack there of and telling me "I know how I messed up, or where I messed up, or I don't understand this standard" knowing that they will not be punished for not knowing and that I will be there to provide the guidance they need to learn and prove they understand the math standards. 
There is still much to do in this process, but I feel much better about the start of my year. For those of you who are on year one of standards based grading, be patient with yourself and your students.  We have an incredible group of teachers at #sbar to help and support, however, learning from your own mistakes will be just as rewarding.  It is such a difficult path to take #sbar on, but it will be the most positive shift in the learning of your students and you owe it to them!

Will be writing more about the purposeful writing and discussions very soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

According to the state of California, I Suck as a Teacher

Warning:  This is a total venting post, read with caution! (It is more for me than an audience)

On Tuesday I began my 22nd year of teaching.  The fact that I have been in the classroom this long is ironic.  I had a different path picked out, even though I had been encouraged to become an educator by friends and people in the profession.  When I finally caved to the idea, it was because I wanted a job in my major out of college.  The other driving force was the fact that I could work anywhere (I have, and that is a whole post in itself).  When I started teaching, I gave myself 7 - 10 years in the classroom.  After that, I saw myself in some sort of "official leadership" role.  So, here I am still in the classroom, not because I couldn't move upward, but because I chose to stay.  After this week, my first week of school, my heart and head know my place is in the classroom, yet according to how some of my students did on our state tests, I should not be.  Okay, I am being a bit dramatic, but I was in my principal's office crying after the test scores came out.  Thankfully, my principal is a very centered, understanding man who can calmly and effectively deal with his emotional female staff members.  So, what happened?
  • for the first time in the 9 years I had been at my school, my test scores dropped significantly (every other year, my students showed improvement).
  • I had 2 Algebra 1 classes for the first time in four years and they were the ones whose scores had dropped from advanced or proficient to basic or below basic.
  • Apparently teaching students how to problem-solve and think does not translate to improved test scores in mathematics
Okay, let's calm down for a second.  I teach in a state that is over-obsessed with test scores.  They factor into real-estate transactions!?  I have to consider the following facts:
  • I implemented standards based grading for the first time
  • I had not taught the algebra 1 curriculum in a number of years
  • I challenged myself by trying new strategies... too many to write
None of any of this matters, I am broken-hearted because I let my algebra students down.
Stop. Take a breath. Lets think about who I am as an educator.
  • I am someone who does not pull out last year's lesson plans and adjusts the dates.
  • I am someone who takes time to build relationships with her students.
  • I am someone who even after 21 years believes in the good of my students and will work to make learning meaningful for them
I could go on and on, but as I think about my list I realize that there is a higher power at work.  When I question what the heck I am still doing in the classroom, it comes down to this...

Deep down in the core of my being, I am doing what I love to do... Spending 5+ hours a day with the most incredible people - my students - and working my rear off to make learning meaningful for them. 

I promise:
  • To  believe in the good of my students and teachers I work with
  • To find ways to make mathematics meaningful 
  • To include "Authentic Literacy" (Schmoker) and promote purposeful reading, writing, and discussions.
So, what the heck am I going to do?
  • Use standards based grading to drive learning
  • Use Authentic Literacy - purposeful reading, writing, and discussion as the primary learning of content and skills
  • Integrate technology to support learning standards
Stay tuned, I have some good stuff coming up on how my first two weeks of school went! 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Standards Based Grading: The Foundation for Learning in my Classroom

The other morning I got up early to journal before my first PAID day back to school.  I emphasize the word paid because if any of you are like me, I had already spent a handful of unpaid days in my classroom knowing I would need the extra time to get myself ready for a new school year.  Before I wrote, I closed my eyes to visualize how I wanted our (students and educator(s)) classroom to look:

When I close my eyes and picture walking into my classroom, I see students busy or should I say INTENT on being mathematicians.  Some are working in pairs, others individually.  I am sitting at a table with a small group providing instruction or intervention or enrichment.  There are students on the computers, sitting on the floor, working with tools, writing, sharing, creating and they are all engaged, self-directed, and self-monitoring so that I can focus on working with my small group.  Everyone is involved in meaningful math activities all with the same goal of proving their understanding of the math standards.   The students are focused on the standards individually rather than everyone doing the same thing at the same time.  It is calming for me to think about my classroom operating the way and also daunting - it takes a lot of work, preparation, and foundation building to have a middle school classroom that actually works this way!  I've always had this vision and when I taught elementary students, I took the needed time to establish this vision.  So, this year, I am going to do the work to create a classroom that is as close to my vision as possible.

The foundation for building a classroom environment described above is Standards Based Grading.  I will be using what I learned from reading the book: The Daily 5 which is a book about elementary literacy.  The reason I bought and read the book is because they go through and describe exactly how to create a classroom of self-directed, self-monitoring students who are focused on learning.  The authors describe some "Core Foundations" one of which is "Creating a Sense of Urgency".  They also state that
"Purpose + Choice = Motivation".  As I thought of these two ideas, I realized that the driving force for my classroom would be my use of Standards Based Grading.

So, as I begin my second year of working to implement standards based grading and having it drive my vision, I decided to re-visit an invaluable resource that I found November 2011:

Educational Leadership:Effective Grading Practices

For those of you interested in implementing standards based grading or changing your grading practices to support student leaning and achievement, you need to read these articles!

Here are some highlights:

  • Susan M. Brookhart:  "Standards-based grading is based on the principle that grades are not about what students earn; they are about what students learn."
  • Thomas Guskey : "No research supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder.  More often, low grades prompt students to withdraw from learning."  
  • Rick Wormeli:  "Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays."  
  •  Alfie Kohn: "Grades don't prepare students for the "real world"- unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant."
  • Robert J. Marzano and Tammy Heflebower: "Demonstrating knowledge gain can be intrinsically motivating to students." and "Teachers should allow students to upgrade their scores from previous grading periods."
  • Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian: "When practice work is part of the overall grade, students don't take risks, and teachers don't get valuable glimpses into their understanding."
  • Carol Ann Tomlinson: "An A that doesn't represent personal struggle and growth is a lie."  
There are other great articles from inspiring educators.  The final quote I want to leave you with is from Susan M. Brookhart: Teachers who are skeptical about standards-based grading need safe honest conversations about their beliefs."  Keep this quote in mind as you take the next step in sharing your successes in using standards-based grading with your colleagues.

I did not mean to be this wordy, however, I felt I needed to share my re-focus process at the beginning of the new school year and this ASCD issue helped me.  If my vision is to work, and my grading is to be motivating, then I need to keep these articles close!  At my school, I am still a salmon swimming upstream against an incredibly strong current, as are some of you out there who are taking on standards based grading in your classrooms.  

Thank you all of the #sbar folks!  You keep me going and fighting the good fight!  There is no way I would have persevered with this one if I did not have your resources and support!  I look forward to a great school year of learning and sharing with all of you!

Let the fun begin...  Happy New School Year!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My New Job

In August, I will be beginning a new job as a middle school math teacher in room 62 at Spring View Middle School.  Wait a minute, that is where I have been teaching for the past nine years.  Confused?  I, for the first time in a long time, am not.  For the past several years I have been looking for greener pastures, seeking and considering a variety of different positions and/or titles in education.  This spring/summer I read Linchpin, Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin and my perspective on many things has been permanently altered, especially the way I view my career in education.  And so I am announcing that I will be "getting a new job without leaving".  I will be doing my job in a new way by looking for opportunity and refusing to hide from blame.  I have decided to do my job BETTER and transfer my passion to my job and in the process guide my students in doing this also.  Here is what I have so far as my job description:

Looking for a Middle School Math Educator:
General Description:

  • Someone who sees herself as an artist who works for respect, connections, relationships and wants to cause change - Seth Godin
  • Someone who is smart, courageous, and bold
  • Someone who honors her calling and trusts her heart - Oprah
  • Someone who makes plans, takes small steps, revises, refines, improves and then moves forward again - Eric Ryan, Adam Lowry, and Lucas Conley
  • Someone who is committed, no more "yes" it better be "hell yes!" - Derek Sivers
  • Someone who is willing to be an "Ish" - Peter Reynolds
  • Someone willing to find what Drives herself and each of her students - Daniel Pink
  • Someone who will "take a moment to slow down to a more thoughtful pace, to ponder, reflect, imagine and envision.  Take time to believe in her dreams, to celebrate possibility" and continually ask herself "where is it you want to go..." To follow her North Star - Peter Reynolds
Obviously the above is a compilation of quotes and books I have been spending time with this summer.  I will  have this list posted in my classroom so I can see it and  remember while in the midst of the daily "have to's" we as educators encounter everyday.  I know, the above is great stuff in theory, how am I planning on using it to change the everyday workings of my classroom?!

That will be addressed in my next post!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

At the end of every school year I have my students complete some sort of written evaluation of their math/science class and of me as their instructor.  For the first time I used a Google form which allowed the students to respond anonymously to specific questions.  Remember, I teach middle school.  What I love about seventh and eighth grade students is that they are brutally honest.  They will tell you that they think your hair looks horrible, not intending to be mean, but to just spew the thought that is currently in their adolescent brain at the time.  I also have to honestly admit that although I appreciate my students no holds barred honesty, it is sometimes difficult to take in.  So, here are some insights into my students' responses.

Standards Based Grading:
The Good
Overall my students liked my implementation of standards based grading.  They liked the fact that it was based on their understanding of math standards and not on behaviors such as homework completion.  They also liked how they could easily track the standards and know their proficiency levels, which enabled them to take responsibility for their learning and prove understanding of the math standards.  They loved that they could improve their grade as their understanding increased.  They noted that I needed to provide more timely feedback and more frequent feedback which is something I know I need to improve!  They also noted a difficulty with my grade book not matching the rest of the schools which made checking grades difficult.  This is something I plan on working through this summer.

The Bad
It was interesting because many of the students who appreciated standards based grading were also extremely mad at me as an instructor.  They were mad because I did not spend class time lecturing and giving them a step by step process for solving math problems.  Class time was a time to struggle with difficult problems in groups rather than me spoon feeding them specific steps to follow.  They were appalled that I was forcing them to problem solve, think, and build understanding instead of giving them a "recipe".  They felt ripped off because I did not embrace the passive lecture style that other math teachers in my department utilized.  This students summed it up perfectly:

"My least favorite part of math this year was the inconsistent learning environment and curriculum.  I would have liked to go more in depth with each math concept rather than do real life math problems.  This is because on the CSTs (our standardized test in CA) I didn't understand the majority of the material, when my friends in other classes understood it with great ease.  I enjoy working with real life math problems because it is practice for how we will actually use math later in life.  But unfortunately that isn't how the Rocklin District and California State Tests view math.  I believe I would be better prepared for Geometry next year if we had learned more of what the district expects from us."

This student comment summarized the general feeling for most of my algebra 1 students.  They appreciated the fact that the real-life problem solving I did with them would relate to their future jobs.  However, they were concerned about their state test scores and the fact that I did not tell them how to do/think which in turn left them feeling inadequate. It is also interesting to note that we have common unit assessments so my students did learn the same exact standards and took the same tests as the other classes.

The Ugly
Even though the students appreciated my use of standards based grading, a few suggested I go back to letter grades.  These folks knew how to manipulate the letter grade system.  They did not like that they had to continuously prove their understanding of standards.  Again it was about me doing the work for them so that they could regurgitate and get the grade.

A Long Hard Look in the Mirror
I have to be honest, when I first started sifting through the student responses, I asked myself why in the heck I had the students fill out this evaluation.  Then after my ego got over itself, I stepped back and looked at myself as an educator and this is what I learned from my student responses:

  • I really appreciate my students honesty even if it is difficult to hear
  • I need to provide more frequent and effective feedback
  • I need to backward map my classes and create meaningful and useful formative assessments
  • I need to teach middle school students how to "practice" math and how to individualize their "practice"
  • I need to help students apply their mathematical understanding using real life problems and connect the application to district and state expectations
  • I need to teach my students to "find, filter, and apply" their mathematical understanding
The Amazing
As I reflect I have to acknowledge that with the implementation of standards based grades I no longer heard the sentence: "Is this for a grade?"  I also no longer heard the sentence: "can I have some extra credit?"  What I did hear on a daily basis was: "Can I prove to you my understanding of this standard?" and/or "What do I need to do to prove my understanding of this standard?"  It is easy for me to be hard on myself and feel defeated by the 140 honest responses by my students.  But instead I appreciate my students' candid responses and how they have forced me to look at myself and work to improve myself as an educator for my future students.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ending the Year on a High Note 2012

During a conversation with one of my close friends at the beginning of this school year,  we discussed how we would go "out" of teaching either by retiring or by making a career move.  We decided that we would approach each year as if it were our last and that we would make sure to make it our best year.  We made a sort of a pact that we would make sure to go out on a high note no matter what.
I am a huge Seinfeld fan so I have shared a video of George Costanza going out on a high note...
George Costanza Leaving on a High Note

Shortly after that conversation, we had to endure the daily countdown of days left in the school year recited from a teacher who was looking forward to retirement.  I can appreciate the anticipation, but hearing the count at lunch everyday got on my nerves a bit.  Being a math teacher, I figured a good way to quiet my colleague would be to give the count of days I have left which was quite large for a number of reasons one being my 6 year old son (5 at the time) and me having to send him to college and have the funds to do so.  The number I so boldly shared at lunch made everyone laugh and did not silence the countdown at all.

An educational blogger who has influenced me greatly this past year wrote a bit about cruising at the end of the school year: Josh Stumpenhorst - Cruise Control
Even though our state testing took place a month ago I decided to end my school year on a high note and not hit the cruise control button.

Last year I was inspired by Dan Meyer.  I combined what I learned from him with the need to prove to my husband that I could utilize a smart phone in my teaching and created "Real Life Mathematics Connections" for my students.  Connecting Math to My Life  I took pictures of the mundane activities my family and I did on the weekends and it morphed into the link above.  In the process, I was banned from taking pictures in our local supermarket until I had a chat with the manager and pleaded for my math students.  I now have permission to use my smart phone camera if I "check in" when I enter the store.

The link requires many more blog posts describing the process etc... it was also the impetus for the end of the year project  I assigned this year: What Does Math Have to do With It?  I made the decision to be vague in the description of what I wanted my students to do.  They created math blogs using blogger at the beginning of the year and I had them write about their passion.  My intent was to have students make periodic math connections to their passion.  It did not work out that way for a variety of reasons (again to be discussed in a future blog post).  I did get some interesting work from my students What Does Math Have to do With It?  I am not pretending that  this is stellar work.  This is a first attempt at students connecting math to their passion or interest and some of the examples I have included hit the mark and others are not close.  The important thing is that I have 120 or so student samples that will help me make this project more meaningful for my future students.

Check out the links and student work and let me know what you think!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Testing Week Down Time

Testing week is upon us.  From Tuesday through Friday we will have full school days and I will be spending over 7 non-testing hours with a rotating group of 130 students.  Three fourths of these students I have not had any class time with at all this year.  So, I sit and ponder how to provide quality activities that will make their testing week as positive as possible while they are spending time with me, a complete educational stranger in their lives.  I think I have come up with some low tech mathematics ideas and resources I would like to share for those of you who are in a similar boat or are just wondering what the heck I am planning on doing with these middle school kiddos for four days.

Last Monday April 23 - the day after Earth Day my students explored the Brita Water Filter 3 Act Math activity from Dan Meyer's Three Act Math Activities.  I showed the short video about plastic water bottles circling the Earth and it really hit home with the students.  Here are the questions my classes came up with: Brita Questions.  The reason I am bringing this up is because it is leading up to my first activity for testing week

A Year Is...  I will begin by showing all of the students the Brita Commercial (19 second version) to remind those students who got to play with the math what we did, and for those who did not, to introduce the idea of a year of their life.  Then I will share some of things that I am considering for "A Year Is... in my life.  I will be thinking of those this weekend.  Then the students will have some quiet time to list some thoughts, then share with their groups, then we will make a class list of ideas that will enable the students to steal from each other.  We should have some interesting ideas and discussions.  My goal for this activity is to give the students a mental break while connecting to their lives and integrating math that is meaningfully applied to a topic they are interested in.  The students will produce posters that can be displayed in their homeroom classes for our "Showcase Night" which is our schools version of Open House.

The other activity will be math art which will be some form of tessellations since that incorporates pre-algebra standards.  It again allows the students to explore math topics but gives their brains a break after testing and allows for cooperative interactions and a relaxed atmosphere.

Finally, I have one of my classes everyday because it corresponds to our lunch schedule.  For this class I am going to use the book, Creating NIM Games.  I am not sure how many of you are familiar with NIM games or the game of Poison, but it is something I love to do with my students EVERY year.  I begin by showing the students the basic NIM Game Rules, it is not a fair game and so it is a hoot watching the students play and discover strategies and collectively create moves and counter moves.  I let them practice and play each other and then we have a class "tournament".  Right when the kiddos feel confident in their ability to win, I introduce a new NIM game (the above book has a plethora of them).  If we have time the students will create their own NIM game which is the culminating activity in the book.

My goals for the week:

  • Give students a mental break while still providing learning opportunities
  • Creating an atmosphere that is relaxed, collaborative, and creative
  • Allow a brain break
  • Respecting the students' need for learning experiences that  are the opposite of the testing environment
  • Mix seriousness and fun
  • Lighten up the atmosphere during a stressful week for students
Thank you those I stole ideas from!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Favorite Time of the School Year, NOT!

I was not planning on blogging tonight but as I was cruising twitter, my awesome PLN shared this post by Lee Colbert and because of the events that transpired this past week, I felt compelled to write.

This past week was the worst week I have had as a teacher this year.  Teachers returned from spring break on Monday to district in-service and the students returned on Tuesday.  Our state testing starts the first week of May and so, like so many other teachers in my shoes, I am feeling the pinch of the material I have yet to "cover" before the testing begins.  I am a math teacher for those of you who did not know and I have spent this year implementing a standards based grading system that is new to me and my students.  I have also worked to make my math classes more about problem-solving and thinking rather than teaching rules for students to follow.  I work everyday to build student confidence in their ability to use their brains to think through problems.  

I fear that all of the time I have spent this year empowering students to create foundations for their mathematical thinking and understanding was demolished this week.  Even though I worked to provide discovery learning activities for the students, they were confused, frustrated, and questioning their math ability and understanding.  The culminating event was my last period of the day on Friday when one of my higher level math students was brought to tears as he struggled with the content he thought he understood and was feeling stupid and incompetent of which he is neither.  

As I consider my plan of action for the next two weeks, keeping the events of the past week in mind,  I have decided to change course.  Instead of cramming material down my students throats and causing an erosion of their confidence, I will take a different path.  

These next two weeks will consist of me reminding my students how smart they are, what great problem solvers they are, and working to build their confidence back up by reminding them that they already know so much about mathematics and mathematical thinking.  My only hope is that they still have faith in me and believe me when I tell them they can do this and anything they set their minds to.  I have to make sure my students understand 1) I trust in their ability and 2)I know and believe the last thing they as students want to do is fail.

I really HATE standardized testing because of the way it makes my students and me feel about ourselves.  Even though I will be re-planning this weekend, my heart feels lighter because my classroom will be one of celebrating and reinforcement  instead of cramming and discouragement.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Blessing and Curse of Using Standards Based Grading

Reflecting on my implementation of standards based grading, the blessing is the conversations with students about their understanding.  The curse is the lack of responsibility the students take in keeping track of the standards they do and do not understand.

At the end of class on Friday, one of my students approached me with a question: "Mrs. Beck, can you help me, I worked really hard on a project for one of my classes, I spent many hours outside of class, and put everything I had into it, and I failed.  What can I do to fix it?"  This student was desperate, he did not want to fail a major project.  He came to me because in my class this failure would be a learning opportunity that he would be able to fix.  As I searched for some encouragement and hope for this student, I knew that if I had not implemented standards based grading this conversation would not be taking place.  What words of wisdom could I give this student as he searched for advice as to how to advocate for himself?  I realized I had blessed and cursed this student with standards based grading.

As I was catching up with the #sbar (standards based grading) hashtag on twitter this morning I came across some great blog posts that really hit home with some areas I am struggling with in my process of implementing standards based grading.  

My biggest struggle is getting my students more involved in the process.  I am working towards the time when students will walk up to me and say something like, "Mrs. Beck, I need some help with these standards, and I need to prove I understand these standards."  Right now, many of my students are coming to me to ask what standards they have 1's or 2's in.  Although this is frustrating, I also know that this is part of my journey of implementing standards based grading.  Enter the first blog post I read today:

Brian Bennett - Changing Teaching by Changing Grading

After reading Brian's post, I have the following plan for increasing student participation in the standards based grading process.

  • I can statements for each of the essential math standards for our unit on quadratics for each student
  • Self assessment grades (similar to status of the class) three times a week from each student based on the I can statements
  • Opportunities for the students to show proof of understanding in multiple ways each week
  • Using Brian's 5 point scoring system for self assessment so that the students really consider where they are in the learning continuum.
One change I have made this year is to have students correct their own assessments.  In the past I would correct them and then after handing them back, have the students reflect and write about what they understood and what they need work on.  It was a struggle until this year when we began correcting the tests together.  When we go over the various ways to solve the problems together, the students see the errors of their ways and their reflection is more meaningful.  And because of standards based grading there is not a need to try and change their answers (or cheat), because the students know they can always show proof of understanding at a later time.  I am looking forward to using Brian's guide to increase my students' participation in the #sbar process.

My next area is that of communicating more effectively with parents.  I had a parent email me this week asking for help with her son and that she did not understand what the 2- for his grade meant.  I teach in a district that is known for the high test scores on standardized tests.  The parents are also very comfortable with the grading system and rankings that are in place.  Implementing standards based grading can be a challenge in this community.  So, I really appreciated Terie's blog post.  I will be working hard the rest of this year and each following year to communicate with my parents more effectively in regards to standards based grading.

Terie Engelbrecht - Communicating Standards Based Grading to Parents

Finally, Stacy's post hit home for me in many ways.  She reminded me that kids want to succeed and that as teachers we need to make sure we are teaching our grade level standards!  As a parent I can really relate to her post!

Stacy Piacentini - That's Someone's Child

When I started #sbar, I had blind faith, I closed my eyes and jumped because I believed it was what was best for my teaching and my students' learning.  I also knew that because I was trying something new it would be a learning process.  I have been making adjustments as I progress.  It has been a giant science experiment, lots of tweaking and tinkering and re-calculating.  Even though I am a beginner, I feel supported by the #sbar folks on twitter who are on the path with me.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Is It the Place or the Relationships?

This past week while on winter break, I visited a place that was significant in my formative years from infancy through college.  As I anticipated the visit, my heart changed, a calmness spread and I could not help but smile.  When my family and I arrived and stepped off the plane, I was overcome by the familiar even though I had not visited this place for fifteen years.  The smells, the sights, the streets, I remembered it all as I piloted the rental car without any maps (of course my phone with Google maps was there if needed).  As I navigated my way to drive by childhood landmarks my eyes teared up as memories showered down on me.  I suddenly realized that it was not the place that held the significance, it was the relationships I had built there that caused the feelings I was experiencing.  Some of the relationships were with people and some of the relationships were with the environment, but the relationship was the key.  As the week progressed my relationship with the place changed.  When I arrived my heart was melancholy thinking of the people who have passed and the fact that aging has occurred.  As the week progressed the calmness came back as did the smile on my face.  There were new relationships forged and when I left I wasn't longing for the past as I had when I arrived.

Of course this made me think of school and my classroom - even on vacation (I know, pathetic!)  I have written in other posts about the importance of building relationships with kids in our classes.  I began thinking about the kiddos that struggle and/or are willful non-performers.  Which caused me to immediately jump to these kiddos as adults.  When they become parents, how are their attitudes towards school going to affect their children?

A few weeks ago I attended a Classroom 2.0 Live Saturday webinar that featured Joe Mazza a principal who is known for parent involvement.  Since listening to him and following him on twitter, I have been thinking about parent participation and getting parents on my side.  This week made me think about the parents who avoid school as a place because of the relationships they had while in school.

I have complained about parents not showing up for conferences, yet did I stop to think about why these parents may be avoiding coming back to school.  Just as my place had extremely positive memories flooding in, school for some has very negative feelings tied to it.  If a parent has these negative memories, could those feelings be passed on to their child who is in your class and struggling?  How do we get these parents to not let the place of school interfere with building new, positive relationships with the adults who educate their children?  If I think about it, these parents are usually contacted by school in regards to their child getting in some sort of trouble which perpetuates the negative relationship with school as a place.  How do we change that?

Just as struggling students need an advocate, school phobic parents need advocates who can build a positive relationship and help them to see school as a partner rather than an adversary.  I know I need to change my interactions with these parents and look for positive interactions.  How do we pull these parents in when they are masters of avoidance?  I will be pondering all of this for a while!  I would love ideas and suggestions!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Softy the Discipline Queen

Recently I have been struggling with discipline with my 6 year old son who is in kindergarten.  It is interesting because I have been known as the teacher who has a highly functioning classroom with regards to discipline.  In fact I have often been "punished" for my ability to turn unruly students into working students.  I say that I have been "punished" because there have been times when students have been moved into my class mid-year for a behavior adjustment because their teacher was unable to "work" with the student.  I felt it was a punishment because I would be given students who were unsuccessful with other teachers half way through the school year which would turn my classroom upside down for a while.  However, I should see this turn of events as a blessing instead of a punishment because the students that were sent to me received a second chance at success.  My administrators told me it was a compliment.  I still do not quite see it that way.

Anyhow, as I reflect on my past practices, I am ashamed of my actions when it comes to disciplining my students.  Luckily for me, my philosophy has always been to build a relationship with my students.  This has enabled them to forgive my unforgivable discipline practices from the beginning of the school year.  So even though I  have used coercive tactics to supposedly "control" student behavior, the students still respected me because I made a point to respect them.  I have to admit that I am not proud of my behavior in the name of discipline.  Fortunately I have always been the type of teacher who has to problem solve and talk out situations with her students.  So when I went overboard, I would almost immediately have a pow wow with the student to problem solve the situation and come to an agreement together.

So how have things changed in my classroom, and what does it have to do with my 6 year old son's behavior?  Here are my discipline beliefs:
  • I believe that all students want to be successful and "behave" in class
  • I believe that "behave" means different things to different students
  • I believe that some students come into my classroom unable to "behave" for a variety of reasons
  • I believe it is my responsibility as an educator to collaboratively problem solve with my students if they are having a problem "behaving" in class.
  • I believe that behavior is not a grade and if a student struggles to conform it should not reflect on their grade if he/she can prove understanding in a content area.
  • I believe that a student not "behaving" in my classroom is not personal, it is something that is out of my control as an educator.  It is my job to take time to build relationships and respectfully understand that there is most likely a plethora of things that could be going on in my student's life outside of the classroom.
  • I believe that it takes effort and time to cooperatively problem solve to build relationships with students and that it is much easier to write a referral or "punish" a student
  • I believe that referrals and punishment do not in any way improve the behavior of a student.
  • I believe that natural consequences for a behavior do provide a teachable moment for students and have the ability to change the students behavior
  • I believe it is important to remove the behavior from the student
I could go on but you get the point.  I have struggled this year because it seems as though I have gone soft.  I like to think of myself as enlightened.  I look upon my students differently for a variety of reasons, one being I am the mother of a six year old who has decided to be a willful non-performer and classroom disrupter.  As my husband and I contemplate taking every Lego and Star Wars toy away, I realize we need to cooperatively problem solve with my son just as I do in my classroom. 

So, the softy (my new name for myself) gives lunch money to kids who forgot their lunch, so that when they come to my class 6th period they can concentrate on math and not the fact that they are hungry.  The softy also squats down when a student is acting up and asks the kiddo what is going on and allows him/her to take a walk around the field to clear his/her head.  The softy lets students listen to their iPods as they work on math in class.  It is difficult because when my colleagues walk in and question what they see in my class, I start to question my jellyfishness, but I recover quickly.  They notice that I am letting the students break the "school rules" without noticing the engagement of my students with the math activities they are working on.  

So, I need to lighten up on my son - he is a great kid who is testing the boundaries of his teacher which shows intelligence and gumption.  I will leave it up to his teacher to give him natural consequences and he will get the picture and make adjustments.  As for me, I have a very loud critic in my head who questions everything I do.  I have decided to put duct tape on her voice and continue to embrace my new friend Softy.

Below is a nice post by Josh Stumpenhorst @stumpteacher
School Fails Boys