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?

Wait ’till next year

Why put off for next year what you can do today (or at least tomorrow)?


In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ rallying cry was, “wait ’til next year!”  The team would come close to a championship only to lose the World Series (usually to the hated Yankees).  This fan attitude showed undying loyalty to the status quo and may have enable team management to not ‘go for broke, knowing the fans would keep coming back.


Why is it in education that when we recognize a problem, we say, “wait ’till next year?”

We’ll revise the student handbook next year…

I’ll try project based learning (or standards based grading, inquiry, etc). next year…

We’ll change the way we to professional development next year…

Why not today?

It goes beyond procrastination and into fear. Yes, I know a new school year is a fresh start and a clean slate and a great time to implement new things. That being said, if a change can be made now, today, why wait?

This mentality is why many teachers repeat their first year of teaching every year. They wait until the new school year to make a change. Over the summer, the urgency for change dims. They forget the frustration of the previous year. They blame the group of kids they had or their circumstances. Then it happens again and they decide that next year is REALLY going to be the year. And the cycle repeats.

If you see a problem in your classroom, do something about it today.

If you see a problem in your school, put a fix in motion today.

Get students and/ or staff involved.  Brainstom solutions. Pick one. Try it. Monitor the results.

Tweak, revise, rethink, scrap, try again. Maybe this year will be crazy but you’ll learn alot that you can implement next year from a position of experience.

Today is too important; not to mention tomorrow and all of the tomorrows before next year!

an unwanted side dish…

boy from niger

boy from niger

Thanksgiving used to be a pure holiday for me.

No gifts exchanged; no commercialism. Just 100% of the focus on food and family (and football, naturally).

Now it comes with an unwanted side dish – guilt.

Sure, I’m going to enjoy it and be supremely thankful for the ridiculous mountain of blessings that I’ve received.

I have a beautiful, loving wife, 4 healthy and wonderful children (including the newest addition – Asher, born 11/18/10), a comfortable home and a phenomenal family.

I have a job that I love WAY too much. A job that fills me with meaning and purpose. A job that challenges me every day. A job that allows me to touch the future, one amazing student at a time. A job that is not a job.

I love to teach!

So, why the helping of guilt on the side?

I will feast while many people in this country have no job.

I will feast while children in Africa are starving (I heard a story yesterday about a 6 month old in Niger, Africa that weighed 3 lbs. My newborn son weighed 9.5 lbs.).

I will feast while 30% of my students are categorized as homeless.

Don’t get me wrong, I will enjoy this holiday. I will enjoy the time with my family, the football and the mouth watering turkey goodness. I will be extra thankful for what I have.

Yet, I won’t forget those who have none of what I do.

Photo used under creative commons license from the Flickr photostream of foto_morgana

Are you experienced (at giving feedback)?

Jimi Hendrix was the original master of effective feedback.  He could use feedback to enhance his music, not just to make your skin crawl.  Think – the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

are you experienced... at using feedback for good, rather than evil?

are you experienced... at using feedback for good, rather than evil?

I want to be the Jimi Hendrix of classroom feedback.  I want my students to bounce their learning off of me and I want to send it back to them in a way that helps them to see it differently; to see how they can make it even better.  I want to give them feedback that takes their learning to a whole new level.

Giving students effective feedback is a skill, one that must be practiced and honed.  There is a delicate balance there.  Get it right and it enhances the music of the classroom, like Jimi making his guitar basically sing.  Get it wrong and it sounds to students like a mic getting too close to a live speaker; they want to cringe and cover their ears.

Yesterday, I was rereading Susan M. Brookhart’s “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students” (ASCD, 2008).  A few things jumped out at me that I missed before – maybe I just wasn’t ready for them:

  1. Studies have shown that achievement is higher for students receiving free comments (written by the teacher) instead of letter grades
  2. What is important is not how the teacher intends the comment but how the student experiences it – “as information or as judgment”
  3. Studies have found that feedback improves motivation and performance on divergent thinking tasks, while grades harm both motivation and performance

By the way, this book was published by the notoriously radical Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, in case you were wondering… (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

After reading this, I immediately jumped on my students’ blogs and gave them feedback.  I’m using a pretty simple format, adapted from Joe Bower and some of my past PD from Expeditionary Learning.

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • What if…/ I suggest…

I’m working hard on hitting the right notes with respect to amount, tone, and focus for my feedback.  One of my goals for this year is to stay on top of the feedback, even when I feel like other things are piling up on me.  Sometimes feedback is more important than tomorrow’s lesson!

and so castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually…

Jimi Hendrix experience album cover used under cc license from Jeff on Picasa Web Albums

UNgrading – the early returns

This is the third in a series of posts about UNgrading.  The previous two posts were: Why I’m UNgrading my students and How I’m UNgrading my students.

a new day has dawned in my classroom

a new day has dawned in my classroom

We are about to begin week 6 of the school year and I’ve not given my students a grade.  Sometimes I feel a little like I’m neglecting part of my job.  Most of the time I feel like a huge burden has been lifted.

The early results of UNgrading are observational and subjective, so take with a grain of salt.

Brief Background:

What my students have been doing:

I’m a project based learning adherent, so each class (biology, chemistry, physics) has completed one long-term project this year.

In biology, the project was integrated with social studies and English and was focused on the driving question, “What determines who I become?”  This project integrated studies of genetics and heredity (biology) with elements of culture and famous world leaders (social studies).  English focused on writing and speech skills.  At the culmination of the project, students created a poster to answer the driving question.  This poster integrated various pieces from each class.  The posters were presented at a poster session prior to Open House.

In physics, students took on the challenge of the egg drop.  Our school gym has a roof that is about 40 feet high and I climb up there to drop their egg protection devices.  They were given a very limited list of materials with minimal quantities of each allowed.  They made and tested prototypes, completed a scale diagram of their plan for their final device, built their device, and presented their product to their peers with an explanation of the physics behind their design.  The final result, of course, was the egg drop itself.  We had about 100 students and staff in attendance at the event (our school has ~250 students).

In chemistry, we dove headlong into Whole Class Inquiry.  The students explored the particle model of matter with a couple of brief labs, followed by modeling-style whiteboard sessions.  We then went through an inquiry involving baking soda and vinegar and various apparatus that eventually forced water into a graduated cylinder.  The students determined which variables to manipulate about the system and then designed and carried out their experiments.  Finally, they had to bring all of their separate group data together to complete a whole class inquiry assessment.  In this challenge I set the parameters and they had to use their experimental data to complete a single trial experiment.

What I’ve seen so far without grades:

  • This is purely substantial evidence but I feel like I’ve seen a much greater level of curiosity and question asking.  I strongly believe that I’ve never seen so much genuine wonder and inquiry in my classroom.
  • Kids are grading themselves right about where I would have probably done it anyway.  Yeah, a few here and there are a little high or a little low.  Only a handful have been off by more than a grade (i.e. – A vs. C).  Those I just had a brief, gentle conversation with and asked them why they gave that grade.  The ones who undergraded were all too happy to bring it up.  Those who overgraded were quick (maybe too quick) to say that they thought they went too high.
  • The focus on quality work in projects has been at least as good as before, if not better.  Maybe that’s more because the projects were rigorous and engaging and had an audience at the end.  Still, I had to (gently) kick kids out of my room on consecutive Fridays (my day to go home early) at 4 because I wanted to head out.  High schoolers!  On a Friday!  I wouldn’t have been caught dead near a classroom on a Friday afternoon in high school!
  • The focus on content learning during projects has been at least as good if not better than in past years.  Counterintuitively, instead of focusing on really “pretty” products (which I think they equate to “better”), they are doing more functional work focused on learning the necessary content.  Scores on conventional quizzes (not graded) have been at least as good as in past years as well.
  • The relationships in the classroom are better than ever.  My relationship with my students has been very positive.  I feel like I’m acting as more of a mentor or facilitator than ever before.  I feel like we’re on the same side.  My students are also getting along very well with each other.  I do think that grades foster competition among peers, even when there is no curving of the grades.
  • I’ve had no complaints.  No student has complained about UNgrading (not a big surprise).  As yet, no parent has either.  As long as the students and parents are happy, so are my administrators!

The Bottom Line:

  • Students are working at least as hard as before, if not harder, and doing quality work.
  • Students are focusing on learning and being curious more than ever.
  • Relationships are better than ever.

Having seen these positive results so far this year, it’s hard to imagine ever going back to giving grades.  I’m really curious to see what happens when we hit that time of the year when student motivation really starts to wane.  How will the absence of the carrot and the stick affect their willingness to work and to learn when they want to be nowhere near school?

My next step is to keep sharing my learning about UNgrading with my colleagues.  Hopefully I can steal some more converts away from the Dark Side!

Why I’m UNgrading my students

I couldn’t call it DE-grading, now could I…

I never felt right about grades before...

I never felt right about grades before...

It couldn’t really be this easy, could it?

  • Increased motivation to learn for the sake of learning
  • More time on task
  • A rise in creativity and critical thinking
  • Improved work completion
  • A much more positive classroom culture
  • No angry calls from parents

I’ve seen all of these things in my classes in the first month of school.

What did I do?  More importantly, what DIDN’T I do?  You’re thinking, “here comes the sales pitch…”

I haven’t given my students a single grade.

I’m calling in UNgrading.  I want to thank Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the inspiration and courage to dive in and do it!

First, some context, so you can see how your system and mine are similar and different:

  • I teach high school science at a public school (not a charter)
  • 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities
  • We have a traditional school structure (standard course offerings, 6 period days, 55 minutes per class, etc.)
  • I am required to report athletic eligibility grades every Friday
  • I am required to give students progress reports every 2 weeks
  • I must report grades at the end of each quarter
  • My electronic gradebook is viewable by any parent at any time

Pretty standard stuff, really.

For years, I’ve wanted to do away with grades but never was sure how.  Somewhere in my mind, I was still caught up in the fallacy of needing grades to motivate students.  I also felt a strong need to have a defensible position for my grades.  I wandered through the woods of various point systems my first 3 years.  I gave standards-based grading (SBG) the old college try the last 2 years.  Retakes and no late penalties; all that stuff was part of my system.  No matter what I did, it never felt right.

I always said, “I love teaching but I hate grading!”

Now I know why: I was evaluating student work and passing judgement on it.  No matter how clear and detailed my rubrics were, it was still my subjective evaluation of their work.  In fact, the more clear and detailed my rubrics, the more boring their work became – both for them to do and for me to assess.

Next post: How I’m doing UNgrading!

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of amboo who?

Endorphins – the natural Ritalin

I saw John Medina (author of the fascinating book Brain Rules) speak at a state teacher’s conference a few year ago.  He said something then that has remained with me to this day.  There are 4 questions that motivate us to pay attention:

  1. Can it eat me?
  2. Can I eat it?
  3. Can I mate with it?
  4. Have I seen it before?

We need to activate these’ basic motivators in order to harness people’s full attention.  We have to do this every 10 minutes or we’ve lost them.  If we aren’t getting their pulse racing a little bit, we’re not getting their full engagement.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear, though.  Fear inhibits learning.  If your students fear you – if they fear the consequences of being wrong, of making a mistake, you and your ego are getting in the way of their learning.

“There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle” – John Medina, Brain Rules


wallowing in endorphins...

wallowing in endorphins...

About 15 – 20 minutes into period of vigorous exercise, one experiences an intoxicating sensation of bliss and clarity.  Wikipedia explains this phenomenon as well or better than I can:

Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters.[1] They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during exercise,[2] excitementpainconsumption of spicy food and orgasm,[3][4] and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being.

Sign me up!

Brain Rules also says:

Exercise improves cognition for two reasons:

Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.

Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress

While I’m sitting at a computer screen writing this, I’m wishing I was outside right now.  Running.  Wallowing in endorphins and oxygen.

I’m considering keeping a bowl of chips and some salsa handy in my classroom.  Every 10 minutes – “ok, salsa break!”.  Billy, you’re bored? Have a habanero!”

The least I could do is to take my students out for a vigorous hike to explore nature.  When I’ve done this, I can almost see the endorphins dancing in their eyes.  They don’t understand this but they do understand that they like the way they feel and they enjoy the learning that follows.

Wanna get the kids off ritalin?  Maybe we just need a few treadmill desks in the classroom.  Or maybe, just maybe, we need to build adventure and exercise into the school day.

Photo used under cc license courtesy of aarmono’s flickr stream