Teaching students without actually being there

On Thursday, I, along with the rest of our district team, attended an Iowa Core Leadership Series meeting at Grant Wood AEA.  Becaue it was an all-day event, so a substitute teacher oversaw my class for the first time this semester.  Typically, I try to schedule an assessment or time for students to work on an ongoing project.  I'll be real honest in saying I don't have very high expectations for substitute teachers when it comes to teaching Geometry or Statistics.  It's a better use of my students' time if the substitute can take attendance and read a few directions before letting the students work on a task for an extended period of time rather than diving into new content.

Thursday presented a unique problem for me.  We are only a little over a week into the semester and students are not yet ready to start a new project or take a written assessment.  I decided to try "teaching" asynchronously by creating a website for my students to navigate in lieu of my usual lesson on measures of central tendency.  Here's the link to the online lesson I created in about 60 minutes late Wednesday night.  The videos, except for the first one, were taken directly from our textbook publisher's website.  I checked out some head phones and one of our laptop carts so that each student could work at their own pace.  I asked students to provide feedback at the end of the lesson as well.  Data from the google form is below.

Three take-aways from this experience are worth sharing:

  1. I shared the results with students the next day and thanked them for going out on a limb and learning online in this format.  Questions such as "Why can't we find the mean of question 3?" and "Which measure of central tendency should I report for question #1?" encouraged a great discussion about measures of central tendency.
  2. In the same discussion about the feedback results, it became apparent to students what quality feedback looks like.  The "keep it real dog" student response to the last question was humorous, but did not provide meaningful feedback to improve the online learning process while the "The lady that narrates the videos has a very boring voice, it made me rather read the book. Maybe if you showed us yourself, instead of having us watch the text-book ones, it would help a lot more" response was detailed and has the potential to improve the process in the future.
  3. Overall, the feedback/data tells me that students are willing to engage in this type of learning again in the future with a few small modifications.  
What type of activities do your students engage in while you are out of the classroom?  Have you ever tried this type of online learning?  If so, what suggestions can you share? 

...but I want to give them credit for doing it!

On the great homework grading debate, a teacher says:

"But I want to give them credit for doing it.  They did it, so they deserve something for it.  I don't think I would do it if I didn't get credit!"
How do you respond? 

It's not ALL about standards-based reporting...(take 2)

I wrote about this topic once before.  As I read though Marzano's Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading, I am becoming even more convinced that standards-based grading is merely a tool to improve teaching and learning. 

"Indeed, at the writing of this book, no major study (that we are aware of) has demonstrated that simply grading in a standards-based manner enhances student achievement.  However,...a fairly strong case can be made that student achievement will be positively affected if standards-based reporting is rooted in a clear-cut system of formative assessments." (18)
A grading system that does not allow new evidence of learning to replace the old, standards-based or otherwise, is not giving our students the learning opportunities they need and deserve.  A feedback starved classroom fails to meet the mark, too.   I like the Brookhart and Nitko quote in Marzano's book that nails the definition of formative assessment:
"...formative assessment is a loop: Students and teachers focus on a learning target, evaluate current student work against the target, act to move the work closer to the target and repeat." (10)
From my own experience discussing formative assessment with secondary teaching colleagues, a major hurdle to embracing/using the formative assessment loop in the classroom is grades.  Marzano agrees,
"At the classroom level, any discussion of assessment ultimately ends up in a discussion of grading." (15)
It just so happens that some of us are choosing to use standards-based reporting as a medium for reaching this ideal.  Personally, I can't imagine a grading system in my own secondary math classroom that would philosophically fit other than standards-based reporting.  I'm guessing someone has figured out another way to make their classroom feedback-friendly in the spirit of formative assessment while simultaneously embracing the idea that grades should communicate learning only.  I look forward to reading about it so that I can share with my colleagues.  I find myself preaching standards-based grading too often when I should be evangelizing the formative assessment loop instead.  
If you've figured out a way to embrace these ideals without standards-based reporting (particularly in a secondary classroom context), please post a link and/or your thoughts in the comments below.  

For regular readers of MeTA musings, is this even possible?

Critical conversations with students

"Can you believe Johnny cheated on his math homework for the second day in a row?  You'd think he would stop copying answers from his friends after I gave him a zero!  He's not learning anything and will surely fail the test."
Have you been in on one of those conversations?  Perhaps you've even been the one issuing the zeros.

Been there.  Done that.  Still working on it.

It hit me one day.  It wasn't rocket science though.  I need to talk to these students and ask them to change their behavior.  A few students actually admitted that they were lost.  My words to describe their situation - these students were too lost to even consider asking for help.  At the time, my classroom was run as if I was administering a test each and every day: points were awarded based on correct answers on homework.  Students want points.  Copying was worth the risk to them.  Things had to change.  I began what I now call "critical conversations" with these students.  When I sense a student is extremely lost, I will write a note on his/her paper asking if there is a way I can help and/or if he/she is willing to come in outside of class for remedial work.  If this does not solicit a response from the student, I will usually talk to him/her one-on-one during or right after class.  Finally, if the situation warrants, I will contact the student's parents to make them aware of the situation.  Most recently, I have seen a student every day after school for almost one week as a result of the parent communication.  Don't get me wrong, this is not a magic bullet solution to helping struggling students.  Some students never respond.  Some parents aren't as willing to help.  Creating this culture of caring is the piece of the puzzle I believe will yield the biggest results in the long haul.

I try to have these "critical conversations" with my entire class from time to time.  Speaking in transparent and direct terms to students is the biggest component of a critical conversation.  Sometimes they come in the form of a warm-up problem at the beginning of class:

Other times I make reference to the sign on the wall in my room that says...
"The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning!" (Harry Wong)
...rather than condemning those students who choose not to complete their homework problem or play Mr. or Ms. Xerox during our group learning activities. 

The most important conversations I've had with my students help them focus on learning rather than points.  My thoughts on grading homework would have failed miserably if it weren't for being transparent with parents and students.  These philosophical and eventually logistical changes can't happen if we don't engage in critical conversations with our students.  The most frequent question I'm asked revolves around putting many of the ideas on this blog into practice.   Good luck implementing standards-based grading without critical conversations with students, parents and your administration.

If you are even remotely interested in making a change in your classroom, my advice for you is to begin with engaging in critical conversations with your students as well.  Probe their minds.  Tell them what you're thinking of changing, how it will positively impact them and ask for their feedback.  Do it again a few days later.  Keep doing it until the students finally ask, "so when are you going to do this?!"  You'll know you have buy-in when that happens. 

Change in the classroom begins at the student level.  Without changing the way students view "points" and "learning," even the greatest intentions of making progress typically result in resistance and less-than-ideal results. 

How to help when students(sort of) want help

In my class, students have access to all of the answers in the problem sets.  I post them in the front of the room every day.

Students no longer have an incentive to copy answers from their neighbor or from the back of the book.  These answers are available the same day the assignment is given and stay posted for 24-48 hours.  I believe that providing answers free of charge eliminates any incentive to copy them from a friend or the back of the book as well as provides instant right/wrong feedback.  I always thought it was strange when math teachers would hide (it took me four years to work up the guts and break "tradition" in this area of my professional career) the answers until the next day - if I was doing something wrong, I would want to know sooner rather than later, so why wouldn't my students desire the same timely feedback?  I regularly encourage students to check their answers during and outside of class and come in for extra help if they have more than three unrelated and unresolved questions.  I'll go ahead and admit that students don't regularly come in outside of class for extra help, but that may be a direct result of the support they're provided between bells.  Here's the way it works:

At the beginning of class each day, students check any remaining answers and write the numbers of the problems they still do not understand on the board (just to the right of the posted problems).  I like this system for two reasons.
  1. It gives me a quick idea of the ideas students are still struggling to understand.
  2. Anonymous marks are the norm.  No single student stands out in the crowd for being the "dumb" one.
It did not take long to realize this is an imperfect system.  Time does not allow to go over every single problem students don't understand.  If only a few students wish to go over #15, is it worth the entire class' time to discuss it?  Time is a realistic factor that comes into play each and every day.  Students don't always have time to come in outside of class for help and we don't legitimately have time during class to answer all of their questions either.  What is the solution?

At the beginning of the year, I amended the process described above by adding one more step.  After I've finished answering several of the questions from the board and before students hand their papers in, I ask them to write one of the following words that best describes their current understanding of the problems: green, yellow or red.  Green means the student has a good idea of what's going on. Yellow means the student is a bit shaky on one or more ideas/problems.  Red means the student is really lost and hopefully plans on coming in outside of class to get extra help.  I also encourage students to write specific questions and/or problem numbers that they still do not understand on their papers.  I regularly vow to them that I will provide written feedback to their questions.  I feel like it's a natural extension of the question answering session at the beginning of class and at least in my mind, makes up for the fact that I can't answer all of the questions students are still unsure about.  A typical yellow paper looks like this:

Student A

Note at the top of the paper that Student A had questions about #s 3, 12, and 20.   Notice also that Student A did not attempt or give me any inclination of his/her misconception.  My notes are in red.  A few questions are running through my head...

Because Student A did not even attempt the problem, am I working harder than him/her by providing the first steps to each of the problems?  Am I encouraging this type of cop out behavior via the green, yellow, red and written feedback system?  Sometimes the system yields great questions with practical feedback as seen in Student B's paper below.

Student B

Is there a better system I could be piloting?  I have tried peer feedback in the place of my all-class remediation at the beginning of class based on the questions students ask.  It usually looks something like, "Who understands #5?  Okay, if you were one of the students that wrote #5 on the board, please see Suzie in a few moments.  Who understands #12? Okay, if you..." It usually works the first time or two, but eventually morphs into social time very quickly because so many high school students aren't mature enough get help from one friend for one problem and then move to another friend who can help with a second or third problem.  Is there an alternative I'm missing?

Does Student A REALLY want help or is he/she just going through the motions to please Mr. Townsley?  After all, if he/she had a strong desire to learn about these concepts, wouldn't he/she have put in more effort intially (a la Student B) and/or come in outside of class to virtually guarantee one-on-one instruction to remedy any misconceptions?  That's admittedly the old school teacher side of me coming out. 

Last, if Rick DuFour is right in saying that learning should be the constant while time and support are the variables, how does this play out in a high school classroom?   How much responsibility for taking the initiative to learn lies on me, the teacher and how much of it lies on the student?  Is it realistic to encourage students to come in outside of class or should my remediation take place solely between bells?
    I'm just not sure how to help students who (sort of) want help.  Tweaks? Overhauling the system?  I'm willing to learn from your experience in the comments section.

    Thoughts on teacher pay

    Deron Durflinger is a secondary principal here in the great state of Iowa. Even though we only live a few hours away from each other, I've never had a chance to meet him or visit his district.  Perhaps some of his ideas about teacher pay and teacher quality will be closer to reality by the time we actually cross paths.  In his recent post, he brings up many good points.  Here is the one that hit home with me:

    "We also know that teachers are not paid at the level they should be, especially our best teachers. The factory model we currently use supports mediocrity and encourages teachers to be paid for their experience or their level of degree, not for their ability to help kids learn."
    I've been interested in merit pay ever since I went into education, but not because I ever felt that I was being under-compensated.  Instead, I've always felt like the salary scale is setup to promote mediocrity.   To summarize Deron, the system encourages teachers to do the wrong things...stay in the profession longer and take more classes.  When neither of these factors directly improves a teacher's practice, the compensation system, from my perspective is just as flawed as many of our classroom assessment practices.  In a nutshell, here's what I mean:

    In the typical classroom, teachers create a currency of "point accumulation" rather than learning. Students learn to merely turn in work to earn points (just put in your time...), complete and take seriously assignments with large point values and ask for extra credit assigments when they desire a better grade even when we know the extra credit doesn't usually enhance their level of understanding. In the same way our compensation system in education is flawed...we encourage mediocre teachers to stay longer so that they can get paid more (just put in your time...).  Even worse yet, we've created incentives for them to take graduate courses and seminars  so that they can get even more money, even if these seminars don't directly improve their practice (sounds like extra credit!).  The parallel here seems pretty obvious to me.  How silly is our system?

    Before the flames begin, I have no idea what the solution to this problem might be.  Using test scores to reward teachers doesn't make sense, but neither does our current system.  That's my thoughts on teacher pay.  Feel free to post your own thoughts, solutions and rebuttal in the comments.