My year is almost over. I’m not complaining, but I felt the strain of teaching too many different courses (Honors Physics, AP Calculus, 2 Robotics & Engineering classes, and Algebra 2). Every day was a scramble to prep for class, make copies, and grade papers; it took away from the time I got to spend interacting with the students. Despite my insanity, I had a few notable successes. Here are just two:
I recently got two emails from the mother of a student. Let’s call him Pete (no, it’s not his real name). If you had asked me the first quarter of the year, I would have told you Pete was going to fail Algebra 2. In fact, I was certain he was going to fail. The first email came about a month ago:
Good morning. Just wanted to thank you for helping Pete with tutoring. He has come home excited about getting better grades in yourclass. It is nice to see him working towards getting those “4′s”, and really wanting to keep his grade up. Thank you again for your time and encouragement.
And then just this week:
Good Morning, once again just want to thank you for helping Pete realize that with hard work he can “Master” things in math and life.I was proud to hear that even though he was not feeling well he found a way to make it to the school to take a quiz, he didn’t want youto think he was slacking.
Pete started staying after school for help one or two days a week for the last several months. Sometimes he would just work out problems on the board for an hour. Some days he took a quiz. I never forced him to stay, I didn’t do anything except set expectations and keep the bar high. Pete’s motivation developed as he starting mastering a single concept. Little by little he started to have some success. It was new to him, and he liked it. The final is two days from now, but Pete will pass the course.
Let’s call this guy Paul. Paul was a royal pain-in-the-ass for the first half of the year. I don’t think Paul had ever had any success in math. He was a victim of “learned helplessness” and was often a belligerent student. Paul is planning on going into the union and didn’t see much need to do anything beyond basic math. It was pretty clear that if he was going to pass my class, it wasn’t going to be by much.
I didn’t give up on Paul, I made him work every class. It took a while, but he mastered a single concept. A little success made a huge difference in his outlook and after a short time, he mastered another concept. Then something truly amazing happened. Paul’s friends started asking him for help and his confidence started to grow. With only a few weeks of school remaining, the students in the National Honor Society were asking Paul for help. Whenever Paul was asked for help by his peers, I would make it a point of asking him how it felt. I’ll take some of the credit for Paul’s turnaround, but I know for a fact that if I used traditional grading methods, he would have never mastered anything this year and would possibly be doing it all again in summer school.
I think if there is a moral to these stories it’s that students will rise to meet expectations. Set the bar low and they will easily reach it. Set the bar high and they will struggle, learn from their failures, and gain confidence in themselves. But consistency is important. If you start down the path to SBG and wavier or back down, you’ve permanently lowered the bar in the students’ eyes. Don’t do it.
I had been wanting to add a lab where the students determine friction on an inclined plane. Students seem to struggle with the complexity of the problem and I thought a good lab would help. I wasn’t really happy with any of the labs I found on the internet, but I also wasn’t really up for creating one of my own. (Having four preps really sucks the life out of your creativity.) What I decided to do was to put the kids into groups, give each group a variable inclined plane (exactly the one in the picture), a couple of blocks, and lab weights. On the board I drew the force diagram of the block on a plane being pulled upward along with the appropriate formulas. The goal of the lab is for the students to be able to calculate the coefficient of friction between the incline and the block.
I gave the class the following instructions:
“You are creating a lab for next year’s students. You are going to need to decide on the lab procedure, required data and graphs, and the analysis questions. You need to write up the procedure and the lab results, but I only want one per group. I am going to take the best parts of each of your labs and use it next year.”
I asked them to start with only a single block, but they could add another if they think it will improve the lab. We discussed setting the incline from 0 to 40 degrees in 10 degree increments. They are using their phone to take pictures to include in their instructions and write-ups. They have one more day and then the paperwork is all due at the end of the week. I’m hoping for work that is a step above their usual lab write-ups.
I’m thinking maybe I lied to them. I originally did want the students to create a lab for next years’ students, but I might just give next years’ students the same assignment.
I started teaching yet another course a my high school this year, actually two other courses if you count teaching at the community college. In addition to Physics, AP Calculus, and Robotics & Engineering, I’m also teaching a section of Algebra 2. My fellow math teachers have been using Kuta Software for the past couple of years, but it didn’t have a Calculus module, so I never got to play. When I was assigned Algebra 2, I was given the license codes and found they now have a calculus module as well.
I’ve used other software in the past, but Kuta is just fantastic. I can create a custom worksheet for homework, quizzes, and tutoring in under a minute. Each section of problems has different options. For example, multi-step equations let you decide if there are variables on one or two sides, if they have to distribute once or twice or not at all. Each concept has lots of other specific controls, but you can also just use their Easy, Medium, and Hard problem selection button.
If you have a worksheet or quiz already made, just select a problem, hit the space bar, and the problem changes, but stays within the parameters you set. This is perfect for Standard-Based Grading where you need another quiz. Just open an old one, select each problem and space bar, and you have a brand new quiz. Of course it can also generate multiple versions at once.
I can go on and on. Visit their site at http://www.kutasoftware.com and look at the free worksheets. Then download the 14 day trial and play. I can’t say enough good things about this software. We purchased unlimited 3 or 5 year licenses for Pre-Algebra through Algebra 2, and a single license for Calculus. I wasn’t part of the purchasing, but it seems like there are more purchase options than are shown on the web page.
Our school has added a number of iPad and Mac carts. The technology push is on and I’m not generally excited about it. You have to understand, I am the technology guy. I sold top of the line engineering software to the defense and manufacturing industry. I’ve presented technology solutions to the Secretary of Defense’s office, Senators, Congressmen, Admirals, Generals, and heads of fortune 500 companies. I am not afraid of technology, I love technology. I have an engineering degree; I can program in half a dozen computer languages, and I’m competent in 3-D CAD. But handing me an iPad and telling me to use it in class is like buying a 12-piece screwdriver set and hoping screws will suddenly get loose. It’s a solution in search of a problem.
It took a brain-storming session with my department head to realize I do have a screw loose, I have a problem that technology might just solve.
I have been really unhappy with lab reports. I’ve gone full circle with what I want from the kids. Here is a brief history:
- Year 1-2 – The students were required to have hard-bound composition notebooks. Students were required to type the report (3-4 pages) and the notebooks were graded. I had about 100 students – grading was a nightmare and the work was poor when it was even done. Many of my students didn’t have a computer or a printer a home.
- Year 3-4 – I changed over to one-page labs where the students would fill in responses as they went. They were much easier to grade, but the rigor was gone.
- Year 5-7 – Students purchased Carbonless Lab Notebooks. They were to record observations and show their work as they went through the lab. This never worked as planned. It was a constant battle to get them to only write in the lab notebook; they wanted their report to be neater, so they took notes on the handout. Reports were hard to read because I was reading a copy of unreadable students’ handwriting. Students didn’t like that they couldn’t edit, mistakes were to be crossed out.
It is time for a change, again. Maybe technology will by my answer this time.
Here is the plan as it currently stands (in my head). Students will be given a basic report layout on the Mac using iBook Author. They will build on the layout to construct a full lab report. Having the Mac in their hands during the lab will allow them to take pictures of the set-up and the results. Ideally, they will be able to record data directly into tables and turn it into graphs, charts, and anything they feel is appropriate. Reports will be turned in electronically. What they turn in will be a unique, well-documented report, hopefully of a much higher quality than I received in the past.
The down-side is quite significant. First, there is going to be a learning curve for iBook Author. Second, the students don’t have their own Macs, so the entire lab report will have to be created during class time. What was a one-day lab will probably turn into two or three days of class time. Third, I’ll have to figure out how to transfer data from the Vernier to the Mac. I’m hoping the quality the iBook reports will make up for the lost teaching time.
If you are a follower of this blog, you may have noticed I posted this entry and then promptly unposted it. I thought the software I saw demonstrated was called iBook, but I couldn’t find the application for the iPad. I spoke with my principal today and she confirmed that I had it right. However, the authoring app does not exist on the iPad, only on the Mac. When I went to download the app for my Mac, it said it needed to be running OSX 10.7.4 and I’m running 10.6.8. I tried to update my Mac but it says no update is available. I admit, I’m a bit confused. The tech guy from school is the one pushing the app, so I’m sure he will get everything taken care of once we are back. I was just hoping to spend some time this summer exploring this idea.
If this works out, I should have some really nice files to post here in about two months. I’ll let you know either way.
I have over 300 Physics quizzes, 200 AP Calculus quizzes, and various spreadsheets and other files. If I dumped all of those files on you without a detailed explanation, you would probably be overwhelmed and get nowhere. So what I ask is that anyone requesting my hard work do a few simple things:
- Go back and read over all of my SBG posts from the beginning. I spent hours on research and reading before being convinced SBG would work for me. I documented the how and why pretty thoroughly here.
- Ask me questions, as many as you want. I promise to answer promptly and thoroughly. Only with some discussion will SBG really start to make sense. You can’t buy in part way. As Yoda might say, “SBG – do or do not.” Sort-of doing SBG doesn’t work.
- Don’t make changes to the system without discussing it with me. After research and discussions with other teachers, I was able to avoid a lot of mistakes. I have tried many tweaks and made a number of incremental improvements each year. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
- As you implement this and come up with your own tweaks, add to the dialog here. I want to learn from your successes and failures.
- Once I provide you with my files, do not publish any of the questions. They came from textbooks, I do not own the rights to most of the questions, so I can’t give you permission to publish them.
That’s really it. I’ve done all the work for two courses, now it looks like I’m picking up Algebra 2 Honors next year. Time to start work on a third course.
I did this engineering challenge last year, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I provided the kids with a stick, about 25″ long as the basis of a reach device. My mistake was allowing them to split the stick in half. As a result, they all made a big scissor and then made some small modification to make it grip.
This year, I have added a whole new level to the challenge. The stick can not be cut, only drilled for brass fasteners. They are given a budget and each item has a cost. I made sure they can only purchase a single stick with their budget. Purchasing two of them will put them immediately over budget and cost them lots of points.
The challenge came from pbs.org/designsquad, they have a few things there worth looking at if you are into engineering challenges. I downloaded the information a while ago. Here is the link for the activity: http://pbskids.org/designsquad/parentseducators/resources/helping_hand.html
Here is how I modified the activity for use in my classroom: Helping Hand Challenge. If you use this, let me know what you add or change. I will be using this tomorrow. The scoring rubric is at the bottom.
Update: I’m still angry over how some of the kids approached this. A couple of the really lazy ones did nothing but complain for two days. At the last second, they purchased a foot of tape, wrapped it around the stick and then tried picking up the objects with the sticky tape. Naturally, I changed the rules so that can’t happen next year. Tape got very expensive. I also changed the grading to downplay the points earned for moving the object and increasing points for the design. Essentially, I changed the grading to reflect effort and creativity. With the change in focus, I will need to watch for students copying ideas.
Hey, this would be a good time to assess the pro’s and con’s of standards-based grading (SBG) in my physics and calculus classes.
My spreadsheets are working great. It may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t. A well designed spreadsheet is the key to keeping SBG running smoothly.
It’s nice to have a bank of questions and quizzes at the ready. My first year of SBG was non-stop quiz creation. Now I need to make maybe one or two new physics questions a week. I probably have 300 individual physics questions divided among the C, B, and A-level quizzes. The hard work is done, weekly quizzes cause me no stress at all.
The kids all love standards-based grading. One of my students told me she couldn’t imagine taking calculus using a traditional grading system. The kids are all on board.
Probably the biggest problem with SBG is determining who is in danger of failing at the interim report. Half way through the quarter, the class average is in the 50′s or 60′s. One of my students emailed me over Christmas break asking me to call her mom. She is an A student, but her 60 average at the interim was going to get her grounded for the break. This is after I sent home letters at the start of the year and at the interim explaining why the averages are low. The kids who plan on failing just don’t come in to take quizzes or get help.
I’ve noticed that the lack of testing pressure has caused the kids to put off studying for the weekly quizzes. Now they look over the problems right before class. It’s hard to determine if this would be any different with traditional grading; this year’s class is academically quite lazy. They have been warned, there is no curve. They can all get A’s and they can all get F’s. Amazingly, it will be a normal distribution curve.
I’ve been thinking about what changes I would like to make. I’m considering a small change to the calculus grading system. Right now it takes two correct problems to master a concept. The first perfect quiz gives them 40/50 points. The second moves that to 50/50. I’m thinking of scoring the second 45/50 and the third 50/50. My concern is that they are earning the label of “mastery” before they really get there. On the other hand, the kids probably understand the material so much better than they would through traditional grading. Any thoughts?
One little thing I would like to do is color code the physics quizzes. I’d like to copy all the C-level quizzes onto a pale yellow or pink paper. Maybe a light blue for the B-level, and leave the A-level quizzes white. The colors would give the student and me a quick visual check of everyone’s progress.
If you are, I am willing to share everything I’ve created; my spreadsheets, quizzes, experiences and ideas. Just ask.