Re-establishing my voice

When I first started this blog, I struggled to find my voice. My writing was awkward and alternated between self-consciously verbose and too slangy.

After a while, I got a good flow going and really found my voice. I mostly did this by writing for myself and writing about whatever came to mind. I wrote about what excited me, what I found interesting, what I was thinking about or wrestling with.

Then, as I began to work through my Master’s degree, I had to do a lot more writing – for my classes. This took time away from my blogging; this space became less of a priority.

Now I’m done with my Master’s but I’ve been part of blogging and engaging in social media promotion for Success at the Core at their Core Connections blog. Somehow the sheer act of being told I have to blog has made me less likely to want to do just that.

However, my writing for that blog is a different form of writing than what I typically have done here.

Bear with me while I rediscover that voice. I have a bunch of stuff rattling around in my head that needs an outlet!

Group Quiz Results!


So, here’s what went down…

My students took this quiz individually, for a grade:

Then they took it as a small group, not for a grade:

These pictures are fairly indicative of the engagement level as the students discussed the quiz and haggled over the correct answers. The observed level of engagement alone tells me that this is a learning experience worth repeating.


  • Class mean for individual quiz = 2.7 (on 4 point #SBAR rubric scale; approximately letter grade = B)
  • Class mean for group quiz (same quiz, same kids, same class period immediately after taking individual quiz) = 3.33 (approximately = A-)


Much of the increased mean score is due to the fact that no group scored below a 2.5, while 5 individual students did. However, there were no individuals that scored a 4 individually, while 2 groups did so. Only 2 of 6 groups improved above the highest score in their group. One actually declined, although that was because the high scorer left during the group portion of the quiz.


Based on the high engagement level that I observed during the group quiz and the level of discourse I heard in nearly all groups, this was a worthwhile learning experience. I think I will make the group quiz a regular practice in my classes going forward.

Next steps:

I need to add an individual reflection step at the end of the group quiz. This should be brief but impactful. Something like this:

  1. What mistakes or misconceptions did you have on your individual quiz that were changed by the group quiz?
  2. What questions do you still need help with after the group quiz?
  3. How did the group quiz help you learn more about this standard?
  4. What are your next steps? (study, re-assess, get help, etc.)

I think this would really help to link the group quiz to the re-learning & re-assessment cycle.

Another next step would be to assign specific roles for the students to play during the group quiz (leader, recorder, questioner, etc.) and give them some discussion prompts, especially in my non-honors classes.

Unanswered Questions:

How did the group quiz impact re-assessment scores? Did the group quiz help students improve their understanding of the content? Is this better than me just going over the correct answers?

Doin’ time

The longer I teach, the more important I perceive each day to be. This puts me at direct odds with my students, most of whom spend their entire school day trying to kill the clock in any remotely amusing way possible. An hour to them is an eternity, while to me, every minute wasted is a crime against the gods of opportunity cost.

There are times where I’m able to transcend this barrier in my classroom; when the kids and I get into the “flow” and time flies. These are the days when the bell rings and kids say, “class is over already? I don’t want to go to next period!” Unfortunately, I can’t make this magic happen every day. Sometimes we hit a “hot” streak and have several good days like this in a row. Other times we hit a slump and every day feels like a battle – them wanting to be off task and me wanting them to accomplish some learning experience and to do so faster.

Sometimes this dance wears on me. I get tired of the negotiation – how much time on task is enough? how much off task conversation is too much? how do I reign in the social chatter without turning my classroom into a mausoleum?

The ultimate irony of this conundrum is that the more I crack down to force compliance, the less productive the students become. Groups refuse to collaborate, class discussions attract chirping crickets, and all joy seems to leave the room.

On the flip side, if I leave students to be self-directed, fires erupt in all corners. A few dedicated individuals block out the noise to forge ahead. Groups fade in and out of productivity interspersed with length periods of social chatter.

Tasks to which I want to allot 10 minutes take some groups 10 minutes and others 20.

The sad thing is that I see two types of tasks where students are most compliant: individual work and lecture. These two types of tasks are ones which I use sparingly and yet with which students seem the most comfortable.

Conversely, the tasks with which students most seem to struggle to focus on are complex group tasks which require higher-order thinking skills. These are the tasks during which productive social discourse becomes most critical. These are also the tasks with which I struggle most to keep student conversations on topic. I hustle from group to group facilitating discussion. A group will make progress while I am there, so I leave to check in with other groups. When I return to the same group 5-10 minutes later, I often find them at the same point where I left them.

To be clear, this is not an every day problem. Unfortunately, it happens enough to be a concern. I realize that my expectations are high but I know my students are capable of much more than they are often giving.

I have dabbled with group roles and this does help – but only when the roles are clearly defined and closely match the task. In the past I worked really hard to push a consistent set of group roles but often found that 2 or 3 of them didn’t fit the given task. Because I like to have my students do a variety of activities, often with multiple transitions within one class period, it is incredibly inefficient to create and introduce new group roles for every single task.

So, my questions to you, dear readers:

  • What strategies do you use to keep students on task, especially during group tasks?
  • If you assign group roles, what roles do you use?
  • If you have specific group roles you use, how do you help students to effectively play those roles?

13 things I would do with more work time

I work about as much as is humanly possible while still maintaining a personal life and time for my family. I have read about innovative schools where teachers have a lighter class load and more time during the day to do the complicated job of teaching more effectively.
I often wonder what I could do if I had more time during my work day. Here is a list of 13 things I would do with more time:
  1. Reflect daily on the effectiveness of my lessons and plan better ones for tomorrow
  2. Plan more creative ways to integrate technology effectively in my classroom
  3. Keep detailed records of the learning evidence shown by each of my students
  4. Contact parents regularly with detailed reports about their students
  5. Maintain a classroom website that would be updated daily with information about what happened in each class, both for students and their families
  6. Give students more detailed feedback about their work, their learning, and their potential
  7. Plan more individualized and differentiated activities based on specific student needs and interests
  8. Do a lot more inquiry-based activities
  9. Do more professional reading
  10. Meet with my colleagues to learn together
  11. Meet with my colleagues to plan together
  12. Blog professionally more consistently
  13. Meet with students individually outside of class time to discuss their learning and set goals
What would you do with more time during the work day?

Group quiz question follow-up

Here is where edu-blogging +Twitter really shines, folks. To bring you all up to speed, here is a brief summary of events:

1. I read a post by Joss Ives about 2-stage quizzes (stage 1= solo, stage 2=group)

2. I said, “cool idea, how can I make that work with standards-based grading?” and made a blog post about my quandary

4. I sent it to a few Twitter users whom I know are #SBG veterans

5. I received a great comment from Matt Townsley that helped me to see the problem more clearly

So, to tackle Matt’s questions one by one, here goes:

Matt: What instructional or classroom management concern are you trying to address by introducing this idea into your class?

I see the idea of immediately following an individual quiz with a group quiz as a chance for students to, (1) get immediate feedback from their peers about the quiz and where their knowledge level is, and (2) improve their understanding of the content/concept at a time when they should be most receptive to correcting misconceptions and filling knowledge gaps.

The main problem I think the group quiz may address is the problem of students generally sucking at diagnosing their knowledge gaps and taking intentional steps to repair those gaps. I’m hoping the group quiz will help those who bombed the quiz be more successful upon re-assessment.

Matt: Another idea – could you add a third stage? After students receive feedback (no letter grade…or a fictitious grade based on the75% + 25% formula) from the second stage, could you add a third stage where students completed it only individually?

The decision: What I ended up doing falls somewhere in between. We did a small-group whiteboard session yesterday where I circulated to ask questions and provide feedback. This served as a formative assessment for me and as a culminating learning experience for them. Today, they took the quiz individually for a grade. After all of the individual quizzes were complete, I had them complete the same quiz in small groups NOT for a grade.

In my next post, I’ll share the results and my reflection on the process!

Teaching “honors” students

Teaching in a new school comes with many new experiences. This year has been my “second first year” of teaching and it has been exhausting and challenging but also rewarding.

One thing that I’m experiencing this year for the first time is having a group of “honors” students.


  • School size = ~1,800
  • % free and reduced lunch = 90+%
  • % minority students = 90+%
  • # of 9th grade science students = ~500
  • # of 9th grade honors students = ~50
  • How honors students are selected = IHaveNoIdea

I have worked in two places and both were high poverty schools identified by our state as needing improvement. Similar schools, similar context. The big exception to the similarity is that my previous school had a graduation rate hovering around 50% and my current school has gone from 40% graduation to 80% in the last 5 years.

  • Effort - So, I have these “honors” kids and they like to learn. The compliance level is ridiculous, which scares me. The difference in innate desire to learn is dramatic – even when it’s not for points. Standards-based grading is rolling with these guys becuase they will go study and come back and re-assess when they aren’t happy with their initial grade on an assessment.
  • Computer access - Another key difference is that all but one of these kids has an internet connected computer at home. This obviously indicates a higher level of familial income than I have typically worked with. Most of the previous times I’ve polled classes about computer access at home, the percentage has been more like 50%.
  • Much greater parental involvement/ pressure - Many of these parents come to conferences. Several will call/ email me when they have questions. Kids report losing privileges at home for B grades.
  • Work gets done outside of class time - When I give homework, it gets done. Kids redo assignments that they didn’t do well the first time (and actually use my feedback!). My students are currently doing science fair. I gave the option to my non-honors classes and none took me up on it. In my honors class, 11 of 23 are participating in science fair. Nearly all of this work has happened outside of class time and yet they have made incredible progress, many of whom with complex projects (homemade motors, underwater robots, testing electrolytes in beverages).

The flipside of all of this is what keeps me up at night. What would my “regular” classes look like if each had another 2 or 3 “honors” kids returned to them? Does a rising tide lift all ships? Or would the “honors” kids just be bored/frustrated by the slower pace?

Working group assessments in with #SBG

Yesterday, I read a few posts from physics professor Joss Ives at his blog, Science Learnification. One of the posts that really got me thinking was about weekly two-stage quizzes in his physics classes.

A two-stage group exam is form of assessment where students learn as part of the assessment. The idea is that the students write an exam individually, hand in their individual exams, and then re-write the same or similar exam in groups, where learning, volume and even fun are all had.

I really like the idea of having students take a quiz individually, then take it again immediately afterward in a group. I’m going to give this a try next time a give a quiz. If nothing else, instant feedback mixed with collaborative problem solving is a powerful combination.

What I’m trying to wrap my brain around right now is how to work this in with standards-based grading.

Since I don’t give points, I can’t do the 75% individual score + 25% group score = quiz grade split that Joss uses. If I could sit with all groups at once, I could observe and listen for individual involvement in the discussion & problem solving.

It may be that we could just do the group quiz portion as a learning experience and leave it at that. Since my students are always allowed to re-assess, there is value in learning after the assessment.

What I think would be lacking for me is the level of engagement that Joss reports in the group problem solving portion of the quiz. His kids are engaged in no small part because everyone’s grade is on the line. I’m not sure where the immediate motivation would be for many of my students.

Any ideas?