Monthly Archives: September 2010

Parent Responses to SBG

We had Parent Night last night. The parents get a copy of their child’s schedule and go through it, spending about 10 minutes in each class.

I spent the majority of the time talking about my grading system. I’d sent home a description of it at the start of the year, but as we all know, those handouts don’t usually get a careful reading from parents. Plus, it’s much easier to explain something like that verbally; the written version is an overview.

So I told them that I’m using standards-based grading, and I explained what that means in my classroom – I told them that scores are based on Learning Targets, showed them my 4-point scoring scale, talked about reassessments, and showed them a sample gradebook with made-up students and scores.

They LOVED it, across the board. I got reactions and comments like these:

  • “I wish my teachers had graded like this!”
  • “I love that the focus is on making sure they learn!”
  • “So anybody can get an A in the class, as long as they’re tenacious about learning.”
  • “So when you give them a reassessment, you can show them where they have weaknesses so that they KNOW what they need to work on in order to understand it.”
  • (after I pointed out that my goal is for them to learn, even if it takes them longer than someone else) “Hallelujah!” :)

Some of the parents already had an idea of how my grading system works, and some didn’t but said they would be talking with their kids about coming in for help and then scheduling reassessments.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the response really blew me away. I mean, *I* think SBG is a fabulous idea with a philosophy that makes sense, but I’ve been reading about it for months and practicing it for several weeks now. For some of these parents, this was really their first time to hear anything about it. So the fact that they were so completely on board with it after my brief spiel was pretty amazing to me…and makes me think I did all right explaining it. :)

Water Tower Exploration

There’s a water tower right next to the building I teach in. Naturally, I had my trig students figure out how tall it is.

They were lying on the ground and measuring angles.

They were borrowing tools from other teachers (the science teacher has something she uses to see how high her 7th graders’ rockets go; the PE coach has a long tape measure for when he makes lines on the field).

They were mad that I wouldn’t let them climb the fence so they could get to the base of the water tower. (Dude, that’s not our property!)

They were making estimates before they took measurements.

They were recognizing when an answer they came up with wasn’t reasonable, working to figure out what went wrong, then trying again to correct it.

They were enjoying the nice weather.

They were noting that the ground isn’t completely level and trying to compensate for that in their measurements.

They were drawing pictures to represent their work.

After they’d gathered measurements and performed their calculations, I let a student call the city to find out the actual height of the water tower. Most of the students were within 8 feet of the right answer (which was 216 ft). One group was way off, but they realized that they hadn’t done a good job of determining the angles of elevation, so we got to see how much accuracy matters.

I love doing things like this. It seems to me like the students really feel like they own the mathematics when they tackle a problem like this and reach a solution.

However, I’m thinking about Dan Meyer’s recent post on pseudocontext. If we can just call the city to find out how tall the water tower is, what’s the point?

Well, it’s fun. It’s a chance to go outside. I think it’s significantly more engaging than the example in the textbook where you have to figure out how long the rope is that’s holding the tent up (the example is labeled as “Real World Application: Entertainment” – really? entertainment, because it’s a tent? yeesh).

But is the water tower activity flawed because there was an easier way to get the answer? My gut tells me no, but I’m still working on why.

Cool Stuff!

E was confused about marginal distribution on her quiz. She came in for a reassessment a couple of days ago…and was still confused, so her score didn’t change. I explained the concept to her again, and she seemed to get it.

We have homeroom at the end of the day. As soon as homeroom was over today, E came running into my classroom.

“Mrs. Dean!” she said. “I made a contingency table in homeroom!”

I said, “Great! Is it on the board in Mr. C’s room, then?”

“Yes – come see!” I was supposed to be going to a meeting, but I figured it could wait a minute or two, so I walked down to Mr. C’s room with her. As we walked, she continued: “Mr. C took a poll – somebody had this toy thing, and we were trying to decide whether it’s an evil fairy or an alien. So I said that we could break down the results by girls and boys. And I got the marginal distribution part and everything!”

We got to the classroom where, sure enough, she’d drawn this:

She pointed out that while there were some votes for alien, ALL of the girls voted for evil fairy. She also pointed out the marginal distribution that she’d written at the bottom. I asked her what percent of the people who voted for evil fairy were boys, and although she couldn’t calculate the percentage in her head, she knew that it was 2/12.

So I changed her score. Because she knows it, and I know she knows it. This wasn’t a scheduled reassessment that I generated for her; she saw an opportunity to use what she’d learned, and then she drew my attention to it because she knew it was a demonstration of her understanding. And that? Is awesome.

Edited because apparently writing a post quickly makes me leave verbs out of my sentences…sorry ’bout that.

Wait, what?

I hate it when kids seem to really get something, it works great for them, they can do the problems…and then they ask me a question that shows me they missed the point of the whole thing.

My calc kids are taking a quiz over the precalc review stuff. One of the questions asks them to find a natural logarithm regression equation for a set of data. Should be no problem – they’ve been doing great with that.

But one of them just came up and said, “I found the equation, but when I look back at the x-values from the data we were given, it doesn’t have the right y-values.”

Now, I know it’s not the stats class, but still, I didn’t realize that they didn’t know what a regression equation is all about. I’m glad to realize it now, but I hate that I was just having them find regression equations without understanding what they were doing. Sigh.

So, what to do about it? I think I need to be more careful, more deliberate, about making sure they understand concepts that I think should be prior knowledge for them. I need to stop assuming that they know something because they can execute an algorithm; that doesn’t help them learn, and it will end up causing me frustration down the line when I want them to build on a concept they never had to start with.

Two Weeks In: SBG Thoughts

I’m liking this whole SBG thing. Here are a couple of reasons why I like how it’s working so far.

1. I feel like I can expect clarity from my students.
When grading in the past, I often found myself interpreting students’ answers. “Well,” I would say to myself when reading a response that could have been clearer, “he’s saying this, but I’m pretty sure he means this, so I’ll give him credit, or only take off one point.” That was something I didn’t like about myself as a teacher…but at the same time, if the question was worth 5 points, marking it completely wrong would hurt their grade. What if they really did get it, and they just didn’t make that clear? Not good for me to take points away, necessarily. But on the other side, what if I decided they got it, but they really didn’t? I hated those times when a kid would say, “Really? I got some points on this question? How’d THAT happen? I just put down a random guess!”

Now, though, I don’t have to worry about the points. A geometry student wrote down that the pattern for a sequence of numbers was “divide the number and its quotient by two, then two again.” I was pretty sure he understood that the pattern was to divide a term by two in order to get the next term, but that wasn’t quite what he communicated. So I gave him a score of 3 on that Learning Target (there were other aspects of the problem wherein he demonstrated better understanding, but he wasn’t all the way there). He came back for a reassessment and showed me that he did understand it clearly. He wasn’t stuck with a bad grade, and I wasn’t stuck having to guess whether he got it or not. Taking the focus away from the points lets me demand excellence in their communication skills, and so far, they’re rising to the occasion.

2. I can see clear relationships between students’ homework effort and their understanding.
I am keeping track of homework completion as a gradebook category that I’ve set to 0%, and I just mark each assignment as 0 (less than 25% done), 1 (25-75% done), or 2 (more than 75% done). With the scores on quizzes separated into Learning Targets, it is so clear that there’s a connection between doing the homework and understanding the material. I love how this system lets me see that the kids who scored low on Concept X are the same kids who got 0’s or 1’s on the homework for Concept X. Much clearer than a score on Test #3.

3. Students are taking charge of their grades.
They aren’t asking for extra credit or how they can bring their grade up. They’re coming to me and saying, “I want to have a reassessment for Learning Target 2, the one about domain and range.” Some of my high achievers are shocked to realize that they got a 75% on something (if they scored 3 on my 4-point scale), but I just say, “You know what to do if you’re not satisfied with that,” and they say, “Right. Reassess. Can I come in at lunch on Tuesday?”


So, yeah, I think the SBG kool-aid tastes better and better. Some things I need to work on:

A. Broader Learning Targets.
I knew when I was writing them that I was probably focusing too narrowly, but now that I’m walking it out I’m seeing how I can make LTs that are more broadly defined. This may be something I just make notes to myself about and then change next year, since I already made up all the LTs for the year. I have decided at assessment time to skip a Learning Target here and there, but I think the overall restructuring is something I’ll just do next year.

B. More frequent assessments.
I have never been good at remembering to give frequent quizzes. I’ll plan them, and then forget to announce them, and then it ends up being too close to the test over the whole unit, so…yeah. With SBG, though, I really want to give more frequent but shorter assessments. The biggest thing really is remembering to announce it to the students. I don’t know why that’s always been such a challenge for me. Right now it isn’t helped by the fact that I’m still figuring out how to pace things with math.

Those aren’t the only things I need to work on, but they’re the most glaring in my mind right now.

Quilt problem: My solution

I finally got my solution for yesterday’s quilt problem typed up and published as a pdf. It’s here. I used both composition and multiplication of functions. Would you do it differently?

I had to go and ask another teacher a question right before that class came in today, so they were already in the room when I got back. And they were at the board, putting up what they’d done on the problem last night, or looking over each other’s work. I hadn’t instructed them to do that; they just did. YAY! :)

I think they probably could have continued working on it all period today, but I did have other things to teach them as well. So first I let them share their thoughts, but I gave more telling feedback. “Hmm…I think I’d run out of fabric if I only got that much. Can you figure out why?” (That kid was very close; he just didn’t think about how I need to cut rectangles of a particular size, so I can’t just divide the area of all the rectangles by the width of the fabric – in other words, the necessity of the greatest integer function for this problem.) “So for a quilt that’ll only be 48 by 64 inches–” (she was giving me an example of a specific block size rather than a function for any block size) “–you want me to get thirty-four YARDS of fabric? It’ll probably cost $3.99 a yard…do I need to spend THAT much money?” (I think she was trying to make me cut one super-long strip of fabric, leaving about 37.5 inches of the 40-inch fabric width untouched.)

So I took a few of their ideas, and really, most of them were focusing on figuring it out for a particular size block. One pair of girls who tried to make it a function didn’t recognize that the width and the length of a fabric strip in a block can both be expressed in terms of the same variable, so they were working with x and y. But you know what? When I was organizing my thinking to start off, *I* was going through a specific example in my mind. So I don’t think there’s a problem with using a specific example to help orient yourself to a problem.

I think the key is that in my mind, I always knew that I’d identified x and was working to figure out what I wanted to do to it by rehearsing what I do when x=6. I’m not sure whether they did that or not; in fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of them were just planning to figure out what x should be after they’d solved the problem with their particular example, or else that they forgot they were supposed to be looking for a function and would just consider themselves done when they reached the solution for their example. So the next time I use this activity, I need to make that point more clear at the outset, and I need to emphasize it over and over while they’re working as well.

I just realized that I’m going to be late for our church supper tonight if I don’t get out of here, but I think that was pretty much what I wanted to say. Oh, and after letting them share, I walked them through my solution, asking them questions to get them to come up with the functions I had. I don’t know if any of them drew out the fabric with rectangles cut out of it…importance of drawing a picture to help you solve something!