Friday, April 12, 2013

High School Fears

After my post yesterday on the way that I've made a lot of changes in the past few years after being a pretty good teacher for a decade or so, I had some really awesome comments.

The ones that hit me the most were by Jasper Fox (@jsprfox) and Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli).  (Side note, really geeked out a little to see that Rick Wormeli even noticed something I did, is book Fair Isn't Always Equal was one of the shoves that changed my thinking)

Their comments were that they were most excited to see a high school teacher doing retakes.  At first I thought that was a little odd, because both myself and the teacher in the attached room to me both give retakes.  But then I thought about how that is just not the case at all.  Most high school teachers I think are of the opinion that you have to be hard on the students to "prepare them for college".  I know I was that way for a long time, hard deadlines, no makeups, you just get a zero for whatever you missed.  What I realized though is that I ended up giving a lot of extra credit for kids to "patch up" their grades.

What eventually made more sense to me, and certainly SBG helps with this, is to just say, no, you get graded on how well you know things, regardless of when you know them.  The only real deadline, the only actual summative time is at the end of the year.  That's when final grades go in.  That sounds crazy, and it sort of is...I do have deadlines and due dates.  But they are never the end of the story.

My goal as a Chemistry teacher is to help them learn Chemistry....

Do I try to teach other life skills and study habits?  Sure, but that is a side business, and I'm not qualified to teach them really as I have always been a notoriously bad studier and really never studied for anything in high school.  I think sometimes we forget that these are still kids we are talking about, even if they are in high school, driving cars and working part time jobs.  They are kids, still figuring it out. Heck, I'm 40 and don't have it all figured out and I've had plenty of second chances (and third, and fourth).  How many teachers have had an admin in for a drop in evaluation and begged for a different day for whatever reason.

Ironically, those same teachers are hardcases about deadlines for their students.  Goose, gander....etc.

Anyway, back to the title, why don't more high school teachers do this:

1.  Time
Seriously, allowing retakes takes a lot of time and effort, as most things in teaching do.  You have to make multiple versions to really do it right, make different keys. I have some ways to deal with that to minimize some of it, but I'd be lying to say it was easy, its not.

2.  Aggravation
Holy crap, is it aggravating to allow retakes, even if you have  system in place.  You have to have sign ups, you have to have separate folders (digital or otherwise), you have to have special policies, do you grade different, how late is too late, can they take the stuff all year or in a certain timeframe, do they have to do special work before hand or just come in, when do they come in, before school, after, during lunch....????!!!!

Seriously, that is just a few of the crazy things that makes it just too much trouble for most folks. It is not easy...if I had hair, I'd probably pull it out some days.

3.  Grades matter in high school
I'm probably going to get some flack for this, so don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that elementary and middle school don't matter, I'm saying that grades aren't as big of a deal there.

This is not true in high school.  Systems and teachers get sued over who is valedictorian, arguments are had over the weighting of regular vs honors vs AP.  GPA is calculated over and over again.  And no matter what colleges say publicly, GPA matters a lot when applying for admissions and scholarships.  Someone might not graduate because of one assignment in one class.

What this means for the teachers that want to do something out of the box is that you better have your ducks in a row and make sure you have administrative support, because if student A ends up as valedictorian over student B because you allowed 15 retakes, it is going to come up.  You might get some sweet letters from a lawyer or calls downtown calling for your head.

All of which is somewhat hilarious when you see how subjective and sometimes arbitrary grades are anyway. And yes, I know that is why folks want to standardize, but that just means that some committee or company makes the questions instead.  That may be less arbitrary (may) but doesn't deal with the needs of my students, so I don't like that idea.

4.  Philosophy
This is probably where I would have fell a few years ago really.  Deadlines matter, and if I allow retakes, then they won't take the first test seriously, right.

Happens occasionally, I will grant you, but not often.  I'd say my overall retake percentage is around 10%.  The kids who do retakes are a.  learning material they didn't know or b.  shoring up their grade.
Obviously I prefer a, but b is ok too, and I'd rather they did that than just took a zero or a low grade (I don't enter zeros for anything that was completed honestly, but that is a different post).

Don't get me wrong, I get it, I don't want kids to think they can just put my work off.  It annoys me to no end when they work their butt off every night for notes for someone else's much easier class than mine because they are graded on it, and then bomb my assessment and have to retake it.  I'm aggravated when a student has to retake something because they were more worried about restoring a guitar they were working on (true story from this year).

But ultimately what matters is that the students learned Chemistry.  If it takes them all year to learn how to do mole conversions (I have one just doing it now, we taught it in September) I can be disgusted with what a slacker they are or I can celebrate with them and keep encouraging.  At the end of the day (year), that student learned something, whereas that kid with a perma zero or perma F did not.  That's he lessons I want to teach.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Changes

So I sent out a tweet to my #flipclass folks last night asking if doing flipclass has caused some major changes in the way they teach.  I sort of meant it especially for folks who have been teaching longer than 5 or so years, not because I think the opinions of those with less experience is not valid, but I was sort of thinking of the contrast in my own teaching.

I've mentioned a bit about my teaching career in other posts, so I won't belabor that, but as I consider some big changes for next year, I was comparing to my old style of teaching.  Much like John Tague noted in a response to my tweet , I considered myself a successful teacher, loved by students, inspiring some to go into teaching, some to attempt to major in Chemistry or other subjects I taught, so I like to think I played a role.  I was a lecture teacher, but I don't think traditional entirely....I'm a storyteller at heart, so there was a lot of that, and I was very actively involved for most of that time (before I had my own kids).

Then I flipped...

Here is a brief run-down of the dramatic changes:

1.  Grades
As I briefly twitter ranted today, and probably to the despair of my #flipclass cohorts, I don't believe that grades should be banned, that they hurt the soul, etc.  What I do believe though now is that a final grade should be a representation of the whole year of learning.  If a student bombed stuff early in the year, but figured it out, that should be taken into account.

I've switched to SBG, which I still have some issues with, but I like the idea of being responsible for knowing the material, not for doing work.  More on that in a minute...  But what has really changed is that I do accept latework and I allow retakes.  In fact, I'm a little shocked now when I'm in a meeting and a teacher doesn't.  Not that I think they are wrong or bad for doing that, it just seems odd to me in my present frame of mind.  Here is how my grades work now:

  • Assessment on a specific standard (or two), usually 2-8 problems/questions long, sometimes MC, but typically problems or free response.  If a student isn't ready when I give these out to the class, they can take it the next day or two.  No point in them taking something they don't know yet.  That's just painful for me and not helpful for them,=.
  • They can retake any assessment twice.  It isn't the same assessment of course, but over the same standards.  If my goal is for them to learn the material, what is wrong with retakes?

2.  Tutoring
I hate tutoring. Not because of one on one time with students, that's the best.  But I hate it because it tends to be a student throwing up their hands and saying "I don't get any of this!"  I still do a lot of tutoring, but it tends to be a lot more focused now and students have notes or at least screenshots of my videos saying "this is what I don't understand".  That leads to a much more productive conversation.  Plus, I'm not talking terminology now with them, we're solving problems, talking concepts.

3.  Teaching (class time)
This the the most dramatic change of course because I do very little full class lecture of any kind.  In fact, I don't do a massive amount of full class discussion, usually it is in a group of 2-4 students at a time, or 1:1.  Where I might have helped 5-6 students before, and those were usually the ones with their hands up, now I help them all, or at least get to speak to them all, everyday.

I'll additionally say that the flavor of the discussions tends to be much better, not always about how we solve a problem, but a lot more in depth talk about the implications of the things we are doing.

4.  Questioning
I've always been a little bit of a hardcase when it comes to questioning, just because I'm a contrary, argue the other side sort of guy.  But what has opened up in the past couple of years is that as my students say "you never answer any question straight", meaning of course that I never just give an answer, I guide them to it through their own brain.  It is painful for both of us sometimes, it takes a looooot longer this way, but it pays off in a couple of ways:
  • They have to think about what they already know and tie it into the new topic.
  • It sticks in their brain better when they think it through than when I just give the answer.
5.  Creativity (by the students)
By far the biggest change is in the type of assignments I give.  Yes, I still give some practice problem worksheets, so to the pure constructivists I am still the enemy of the students.  But my students this year have created hot air balloons, rockets, spinny can contraptions, skits enacting kinetic theory and that was all just in our gases unit.  They've made stop motion videos, biome travelogues, infographic posters, videos working problems, minecraft explanations for topics, etc. We've thrown flour darts at targets, done cat's cradle type activities and basically had a lot of fun.  And to be honest, very little of it has been me doing demos as a traditional chem teacher would do.  It has been them, which of course takes the burden off of me to be the master of creativity all of the time.  

6.  Students first
Hopefully I've always been a teacher with students at the forefront, but I'm not afraid to admit that I have an ego and a chip on my shoulder.  I want to be the best teacher and to get accolades for it.  That was especially true for me 5 or 10 years ago.  Now, I want my students to learn, to enjoy my class and not dread it, either for me or the material.  I teach Chemistry for the most part and had a parent earlier this year tell me that their daughter loved my class and was amazed at her friends at another school that hated Chemistry.  And this isn't a typically science loving kid. A big part of that is the ability to be flexible, allowing students to learn at their own pace.

My classes stay mostly on the same topic, but I have kids who are a couple of weeks behind and some that are a week or two ahead.  They don't all have to be working on the same thing at the same time.  What matters is that they learn the material.  I don't make every kid work every single problem I assign, and I don't think I've handed out problems with more than 10 on a sheet at any point this year.  It is very clear in our classroom that what matters isn't getting enough work in to impress me with their dedication, but simply understanding the things they should understand, and often being able to use that knowledge to do something creative.

My classroom is not the best, it isn't the most creative and free flowing place ever.  But we are headed there, week by week, year by year, and the #flipclass has been the underlying impetus behind these changes.  I suspect in a year or two I won't even be calling my classroom flipped, but I'll always have a debt of gratitude to it for the shove it gave me to being a more student centered teacher.