Monday, March 30, 2015

What are Grades Good For?

People think grades show a student has learned. Perhaps in some cases that is true. Grades are a measurement system. And just like any other system there are benefits and rules. They are good to show that a student has completed work and performed sufficiently on exams. It is rare that grades show the whole picture of a student. I have three different students, each has skills and challenges, I have taught or coached each one of these students and know how they think and learn. Mark, Jessie and Danny are great kids. Mark is in the top 20 out of 1500 students. Jessie graduated in the top 25% of her class and Danny is currently hovering right above dead last.

Mark is brilliant, he has an eidetic memory and his ability to reason is impressive. He excels at standardized tests and makes difficult subjects look easy. He is not the top of his class because he does not really know how to make himself learn. It just happens. If he is interested in the topic, he puts more effort into thinking and dissecting the ideas. In those instances he learns and learns well. If the topic is not to his liking he will use his skill and hope for the best. He does get A’s on most everything, even things he has long forgotten.

Jessie is similar to Mark in that much of her learning comes easy. She has a difficult time reading and processing writing, and struggles to communicate. She did tutor most of the top 10 students in physics and calculus. She knows when a teacher is not covering material she needs to learn. Conversations with her show she has learned a great deal, but when she sits down to fill in a bubble response, she jumbles her answers. If answers are similar (like choices on APUSH exam) she only sees 4 of the same choices. She does not do well in the grading system that has been set up for high school, but she understands learning.

Danny is a work in progress. He does not like to do work that does not mean something to him. Most teachers think he is just lazy. I got to see him go from lazy to inspired one day in class. All it took was a hands-on building project to make him shine. It was obvious that he knew what to do, could communicate it to his classmates and even went home and brought back information and better ideas. Unfortunately, getting him to pass by turning in work is not going to get him to graduation. He is starting to see that life has hoops to jump through to make it to certain milestones. He is even adapting to the idea.

Three different students who I expect will be successful in the future. They are all very different learners being measured by the same system. Is Mark better than Jessie who is better than Danny? Grades and class rank say so. I doubt it. As I focus on the importance of showing learning in ways that meet the needs of the student, instead of completing papers, grades have become secondary. These three students can all do well or do nothing in the same class. Their grade will show what they have learned not when they have complied. It is a slow evolution, but I believe I am on the right track.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Adventures in Presenting - Wallflower to Evangelist (#flipclass flashblog)

The great folks you meet at conferences make all of the difference.
 (Bingo from Kate Baker)
Flipping my classroom not only changed my class, but it actually changed me. Before flipping I would die if asked to present information to peers or administrators. Now, I am quite outspoken when it comes to innovating classrooms to improve learning. If you stand still long enough I’ll be happy to share.

The first presentation I had to make was with 5 other colleagues who had also flipped their classes in our district to over 150 administrators from around the north Texas region. Even with a minimal portion of the presentation, I was intimidated to the point of panic and perhaps a call to 911. Fun fact, it didn't kill me.

Since that experience I found that I have something to say. Not everyone will want to hear it, but there are some that find it helpful. Now I plan professional development and present to many folks within and outside my district. Summers are full of professional developments on flipped class, 20% project and integrating technology into the classrooms.  So here is a quick list of what I try to incorporate in any presentation.

                Story – Tell stories about what you are talking about, why it matters, who it benefits.

                Interact – Find out what is important to the people taking the time to listen to you. Respond to their questions and comments. Adjust to their needs. (yep, sounds like a class J )

                Time – give time to the attendees to digest the information and make it their own. The best workshops I have given have been long enough to let teachers work with what they have learned.

Yes, the list is short, but so often the time we have to convey information is short. I’m sure there are more things to include but it is always hard to fight the information overload. There is always so much more to tell than time. Choose carefully and give the attendees a taste and something to work with. As an attendee who loves to learn, I appreciate those times when I can do something real with the information presented rather than file it away in the “good idea” file.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

What Can You Do?

As we approach the end of the year, the crush of content, testing, grades and other pressures can become overwhelming for teachers. It is important to step back and ask what I really control. States and districts set curriculum and standards and have seemingly endless testing requirements. In the next twelve or so weeks I have to help my students meet the objectives of the courses. So, this is my answer, I control how we get there. I control the timing, the amount of pressure, and the methods that I use to get us to graduation in June.

While my tool box does not seem like much, the ace up my sleeve is I know my students will make it. They will make it because we are on this journey together. At this point in the year my students know that I want them to learn and I will give them time and assistance to be successful. They trust me to be fair and listen to them. They know that I value what they think and will adjust or explain why things must remain as they are.  

Here’s the key, hold them to high standards, expect great things and help them get there. They may need more than one attempt. Be patient with explanations and make sure they really understand. If they miss the mark, explain again and give them the opportunity to be a success. Sorry this isn't the “big answer” you were hoping to get, but I guarantee if you build relationships with your students, the difficult times will be easier and stress will be less for everyone involved. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's All Up to the Students - Yay or Yikes!

One of the great things about the senior science course I teach is that the state curriculum standards are primarily science process standards. Understand problem solving methods, create a hypothesis, design an investigation, perform the investigation, and communicate the results. Intertwined are skills such as data analysis, research, and error analysis. One of the most difficult things about the class is that it is so wide open. This could actually describe any course where students are trying, failing, trying again and communicating their efforts.  

In past years I have incorporated art, comics, building, music and engineering into the applied physics class. The results have always varied from the bare minimum to knock-your-socks-off amazing.  This year the class has been focused on the Eagle Squadron project where they research, select, propose, build and fly a quad copter. We are now at the ready to purchase stage of the project and hope to have it soon for building and flying. Yes, this is project-based learning. No, I did not have the luxury of creating a detailed plan before starting. It has been a little bumpy, but the results of the experience are starting to show in the students.

The students presented a proposal to the class on their chosen quad copter. The two best from each class presented to a Shark Tank panel of administrators, including our superintendent, to show they could do this project and how it would benefit the school and their education. They researched laws and safety issues to create a presentation for our risk management director who responded appreciatively to our attention to the real-world issue. Now they are setting up flight training, building plans, communication plans as well as an obstacle course to conquer when it is all said and done. All of these have been driven by the project needs as well as what the students need to learn to be successful.

I could have given concrete rules for each of the steps, but the reality is if I give a minimum expectation and guide the students they usually arrive at something so much better than I could have described. This also gives the interested and gifted students room to do their thing while others still participate and succeed during times when the work is not to their personal liking. 

Some days take some pushing to get through the work, they so want to get the quad copter in a build. Of course if no one gives me a list of tools, building is going to be a little tough. We have embarked on a journey that I am not the expert, I can’t even pretend. I can guide, I can anticipate needs so they don’t get frustrated and we can all celebrate together when the copters arrive and we build and fly them. Wish us luck!

Monday, March 2, 2015

What's a Weird Lesson? (#flipclass flash blog)

Ever since I flipped my physics and Scientific Research and Design (SRD) class it has become increasingly difficult to find a day where the lessons are “normal”. Over the years, my SRD students have launched marshmallows to study projectiles, build a Rube Goldberg Machine and build roller coasters to examine energy transforms, dissolved M&M’s to learn how to observe scientifically, design and perform a lab at Six Flags with a movie trailer report, build a mobile to study torque and every Friday they get class time to learn something new to them in their 20% project. Not necessarily your usual science class, but it works for my high school seniors.

I am quite partial to all of them including our current journey is to build quad copters and obstacle courses to fly through, my favorite is the first activity every year, the big bubble build. In a professional development we were shown a bubble to use a classroom activity, a cell, a planetarium, etc. I decided to let my senior high students to design and build one for elementary classes. They are told to build an inflatable bubble that will fit 20 5th graders from 500 sq ft of plastic, zipper, duct tape and a standard box fan. Create a design and a model, prove that it meets the requirements and redesign if needed. The class chooses the winning design. Winners become the project lead and must make everything and everyone work to create the bubble.

They don’t believe it will work and are always amazed when it goes up! They learn to work together, plan, trouble shoot, communicate, fail and succeed together. They also experience the engineering process from beginning to end. This year they will deliver our bubbles to an elementary and explain the process to the students who will get the gift. They ask to blow up the bubble and work inside it and are proud of their work. Who would have imagined so much learning with students building big bubble from plastic.

Who would have imagined so much learning with students building big bubble from plastic. We talk air pressure, geometry, structure as well as proposals, models and specifications. My students declare themselves “The real Breakfast Club” after working together. After this project they are ready to work with any of the students in the class. Considering some of them have never met, not unusual in a high school with 6000 students, this is a huge achievement.