First Grading Period data

So here in Texas my first grading period is over (six weeks long). I took a little time to put some data together just to see what came up. Here is a heat map (of sorts) of the average grades of the people that sit in particular seats in my room.

heat map

You’ll notice that there are only 12 desks. This is correct. I’m sorry to those of you that have way more students than this. I have 30 total students this year. I feel your pain, though. Where I taught last year my smallest class was 25 students and I had a single class of 30. There are trade-offs, believe me. The way I came up with this is by looking at everyone’s average for the first six weeks and placing it over their chair. I then took the average of all of those averages and based my heat map off of those numbers. So some seats only have two students sit in them all day while others have five students sit there. Other knowledge that might be beneficial is that I let the students pick where they wanted to sit for the most part, and students have sat in the same place for those six weeks.

I use both whiteboards but primarily the one behind the teacher desk from the students. That whiteboard is also where my projector is projected. My one student that failed the six weeks slightly skews the data for the lowest average here, the greenest seat in the middle row on the left side.


“But what’s my grade?!”

This is my first year of teaching that I’ve had the ability to try some grading practices that I have been reading about for years. The standards based grading (SBG) scheme is quite appealing to me. There are many other people that have blogged about this before. Start with Shawn Cornally if you haven’t read his work on the subject. His site will also lead you to others that use the system regularly to great effect. In my own classroom I have not had great effect yet, but I really like the main points of SBG and want to use it.

I keep talking about SBG being a “system,” something to be “used,” but really practicing SBG is more of a mind-set I think. The basic premise is that the curriculum you teach is broken down into different standards that are neither too broad so as to incorporate weeks of learning nor too narrow that you end up having 100 of them for the year. You then assess each standard individually. All throughout this process, you, the teacher, provides as much personal feedback as you are humanly possible able to give. Ideally, your grade book would just have these standards in it and a simple representation of how each student has done so far on that standard. The grades should never really be final until the end of the year, a luxury that no one I have ever actually talked to has. For a grade some people simply use a binary system: “yes this student can do this” or “no, this student does not yet have the ability to do this.” Others have implemented a four point scale that goes something like this:

4/4 – I am rocking this standard; I did this perfectly today. I can help teach struggling students.

3/4 – I have a small conceptual error that leads me to make a mistake but mostly show that I know how to do this.

2/4 – I have major conceptual errors that lead me to make several mistakes but at times show that I know how to do this.

1/4 – I have no idea what I am doing.

0/4 – I have not been assessed on this standard yet.

This year I am teaching chemistry for the first time in four years, and I have tried to incorporate a 4-point scale much like the one shown above for my classes. I have given a couple of quizzes/tests now where I actually do want to record a grade in the grade book. I have two or three questions over a particular standard, I read over all the responses, and then I put a grade on it. I hand back the papers to the students emphasizing the grading scale, and reminding students they can come in and reassess if they show me they have made some effort to improve their understanding.

The thing that has been most deflating to me, though, is the first question I get from the students: “But what’s my grade?” The school I currently work at (and every other school I have worked at) has a requirement that we put at least 10 grades in the grade book for each grading period. Here in Texas most schools work on a 6-week grading period; my current school follows this same protocol. So I do have to make some concessions to the way I want to grade. I can’t simply grade on the standards I have come up with, the stuff I really want the students to know. This six-week grading period we got through four standards. This means I also have to come up with 6 other grades. This is what I am struggling with right now. What do I give 6 other grades on? The whole point of SBG is to make the grade a student receives mean something more about their abilities than what grading without SBG would mean.

It will take some more time and research on my part to come up with ways to make these two ideas come to some sort of agreement, but I plan on trying to do it, because I think my students deserve to have a meaningful grade.

Safe schools

Recently I’ve been reading a book that got me thinking about what it means to have a safe school. I decided to go and look at different school websites from around the state of Texas (where I live) and see how many of them mention the word “safe” in their mission statement or vision. Each and every one of them I read included the word “safe” to some degree:

“…create a safe, nurturing community…”

“…children learn best in a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment.”

“…provide a safe and secure, supportive…”

Disclaimer: I’m not wanting to discuss physical safety here where kids can be sure they will not be physically harmed when attending school.

The book I’ve been reading is called Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning. It is written by Cathy Vatterott. In the second chapter: Why We Need a New Grading Paradigm, she compares the Standards-Based Grading (SBG) paradigm with that of the traditional grading paradigm. There is some great stuff in here and I suggest reading it if you haven’t. As I’m reading along I come to a line that makes me stop and say “ouch” out loud:

“Within the traditional grading paradigm, it’s not safe to make mistakes.”

What she is talking about here is that students are penalized for making mistakes while they are learning in the traditional grading paradigm. If you don’t know something at a particular time on a particular day, well then, “too bad, so sad” as we use to say on the school playground. Generally, we move on and whatever grade you got is what you got, there’s no changing it. I immediately thought about all the vision statements and mission statements I’ve seen in schools in my time teaching and how they almost always include a term of safety. We hurt kids in a non-physical but real way when we tell them we are moving on with or without them. We hurt their motivation, hurt their psyche, hurt their ability to have a growth mindset.

I wanted to change to SBG before starting to read this book, and now I truly feel convicted. If schools are going to say they want to and will provide a safe school, they should really think about their grading practices as well as providing a place where kids can feel physically secure.

New Year, New Place, It’s Time

I tried to start this blog two years ago and it never got off the ground. I could make lots of excuses, but the fact is I just didn’t make it a priority. I’m now teaching at a much smaller school and not teaching Physics anymore but now teaching Chemistry and a couple of Earth and Space classes as well. I have recently purchased a membership to the AMTA, and although I haven’t been to a training I’m going to try to teach Chemistry through Modeling this year. I would also like to be an SBG teacher, but for now I think I’ll be doing an SBG hybrid. I know that irks some, but I just haven’t been able to get my head around how to do it 100% yet. To that end, I will try to make my grades mean more than they have in the past. I will also try to make the entries in my grade book more meaningful. I will also try to not make all of my sentences start with “I” in my next post.

Here we go!

First steps…

Sitting here reflecting on the job I’ve done this first semester of the 2013-2014 school year, and seeing how blogging by others seems to be good for them and realizing how their blogs have impacted me, I’ve finally decided I should start my own blog. I’m not planning on this being a blog that thousands or even hundreds of people read. There may not be ten people see this for a long time, but I believe it will truly help me become a better teacher, colleague, and learner. Welcome to my blog; welcome to me.