Monday, March 10, 2014

Crisis of Faith

So herein is the post where I admit that my fancy philosophies and attempt to do things as student centered have not been terribly successful.  I suspect that most of my twitter friends who have much the same philosophies as me will just tell me it is a rough year and to "tweak" what I've been doing.  Those who hate one of the many new things I've tried this year, flipped, SBG, self-paced, etc. will probably say it is my own doing that I should have stuck to the tried and true molds.  I'm open to criticism, but would much rather have some positive ideas.

A quick outline of how I've been running the bulk of my classes this year.  I run a full flipped classroom, meaning that I deliver little direct instruction in class, rather I pre-record my "lectures" for the students to watch.  Sometimes that happens at the beginning of the cycle, sometimes in the middle, depending on the inquiry (or Explore) phase.

I use what I think of as a modified Standards-Based Grading model, where I still give 100 point grades (as this is what parents and students most readily understand), but I don't count practice problems, etc for a grade, I just grade something like 50 standards based assessments and the occasional bigger cumulative test.
For most of this year, I've also been allowing self paced in my classroom.  What this means is that students have an outline of things they need to get done, some optional, some not, and target dates.  There are also some other deadlines that are a little stronger, but those are typically weeks past the target dates to accommodate for students who need a bit more time. It also allowed students to work ahead if they chose to, or to take an extra day or two as needed to get the material.

I also have a pretty generous retake policy (I think) as I allow students to take any of the SBG assessments over twice, for a total of three attempts.  It is not the same assessment each time, I have multiple versions of each of these.

My goal behind all of this is manifold, but to shorten this I'll bullet point my reasons for making these big changes (gradually over the past 3 years):

  • As a parent of 3 young boys, I believe that as much as possible, home time should be home time.  While the videos are supposed to be watched at home, this 20 or so minutes two, maybe three times a week doesn't seem too excessive to me.
  • Chemistry is hard, and if students have to struggle at home, they often don't get past the first problem.
  • I am much more concerned that they learn the material at all than they get it right the first time.  If a student bombs a test the first time and there is no chance for redemption why learn that material other than for the final?
  • I want students to learn to manage their time and learn at a pace that is comfortable to them.  From the very beginning of my first forays into "flipping" or "21st Century Ed" or whatever buzzword we're calling it this week, I wanted it to be about the students taking charge of their own learning, being as student centered as possible, while still under the umbrella of my state and county standards.
I suspect that all of this sounds like the party line to both those in the party and out.  And I'll be honest, I really believe it.  I want my students to be able to acquire knowledge and to be able to apply it.  I didn't switch over from being a largely lecture based teacher to a constructivist (still not sure I'm that) or 21st century teacher or whatever.  I was a very successful lecture based teacher for years, with a lot of students that tell me I inspired them to go on to careers in engineering, science, and medicine.  I suspect I could have remained that way and still influence a lot of students in a positive way.  A fear has nagged me all along that folks who want to try out "new" (not sure that they are all new) methods of teaching have a tendency to run down teachers who still teach the old way.  That's ludicrous as I had a lot of amazing teachers and there was no SBG, videos, workshop model or any of that.  

Back to my current crisis of faith.  I sort of want to go back to the old way, because the new way is driving me nuts.  A lot of my kids love it and rave about it to visitors to our school, which are frequent.  I talk to prospective parents, community leaders and educators about my methods fairly often.  But I look at my gradebook and see a lot of my friends who don't believe in grades, I have a lot of students who don't know the material either, who don't produce amazing projects, who just want to work while I'm standing over them and then go back to watching videos on their ipads (not chem videos!).  I spend hours upon hours grading retakes, mostly for the students wanting to go from a C to a B or a B to an A, rarely from the students failing.

Here's the kicker, it is largely my fault.  I teach at a pretty high flying school.  I love this place with everything that screams teacher in me, I love the kids, the staff, the gosh-darn buildings.  We have some amazing rockstar teachers that really get a lot out of a lot of the kids.  Almost none of them do retakes, I know maybe 2 or 3 that do SBG. One flips in a manner somewhat similar to me.  

So if you are a 14 year old kid, and you have a 10 point assignment due for French class the next day and an assessment for Chemistry that you could take the next day if you weren't ready, which would you do.  Never mind that as an adult you know that the assessment in Chem is worth 100 points and the 10 point assignment might be meaningless busywork.  Never mind that you want to be an engineer when you go to college.  What matters is that the French teacher doesn't take late work and the Chem teacher just wants to check your work personally to see if you did it right.  And if you did, then you can take the assessment, but you don't want to take it anyway, so you put it off.

I'm totally a victim of my own policies taken to their logical extension, do what you have to for now, put off what you can put off.  

Yes, I put in deadlines, but if you've put off 4 assessments and try to cram them in, what bomb them all, because you don't know squat.  No big deal, because you can do retakes....only you forgot to do the retakes, or never studied to prepare for them, so you do worse the 2nd time.  You'd like to do it the 3rd time, but you have an English project due, so it falls by the wayside.

To forestall some of the obvious, yes, I have good relationships with my kids.  I make every effort to speak to every student every day about their progress, to nudge them, admonish them, to pull them into my sort of office and let them know this can't work.  They assure me they will do better, then don't.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't my first rodeo...this year marks I believe the 13th year I've taught Chemistry I, and the 3rd year I've been in full flip mode.  I know that even the best teacher doesn't reach every kid in every class every day, despite all contrary intentions.  As a friend of mine says, sometimes it is hard to get between a student and their F, even when you love them and work hard for them.

I'm really just so frustrated and I don't want to wait til next year to change things up.  I love the kids I have now, and don't want them to miss out on a single thing because I was beholden to a philosophy, as right as I might think it is.


  1. I knew from the start I didn't want to do a full flip with SBG and "passion hour" or whatever it is. I know my kids and myself. I simply put my lectures into video to save myself and students grief during class. That much about flipping I love and is enough for now. I'm definitely not going back to the old lecture method. More time for labs and activities. As far as assessments, I need to test all kids at the same time. I test online and get immediate feedback. I even go over tests with students the same day. They all have to take the same state test the same day later in the year. I need to know where they are all are what is going well, what worked, and what didn't. I think one model of flipping won't fit everyone. Find one that works for you. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree whole heartedly that there is not one true way to do flip or do any style of teaching. I just really thought it would work with these kids at this school. I seem to be wrong and have to retool fast!

  3. I had similar issues arise with retakes. As students would hand in a test they would as when they could retake it. It seemed like they took the assessment less seriously. So I revised my retake policy to require students do the following to be eligible to retake a test:
    1) complete 2 hours of after school tutoring
    2) complete a test retake review
    3) make corrections to mistakes on the original test

    This seemed to work quite well and I am further refining the policy third trimester to require students to also do the following to retake a test:
    1) have passed all quizzes

    To retake a quiz students must do the following:
    1) make corrections to the original
    2) complete a short review

    You are doing right by your students by continually searching for how to best support their success. Do right by your sanity and cut yourself some slack! (Disclaimer: I need to also do this myself!) Some things will work. Some won't. The important thing is you keep trying. Isn't that what we want our students to do?

  4. I like the advice, and some of it I have done in various forms Lisa. I can't do after school due to family issues, but I generally offer before school tutoring. The problem of course is that the students that most need it don't do it.

    I think what I'd like to see is some proof that this newer model of teaching is actually effective in reaching more students. I am almost at the point that I'd be more effective going back to being a lecture style teacher with no flex deadlines and just my old unit tests.

    I don't want to be new and cutting edge just to be that and get the praise for being that. I want to have students that learn and know chemistry and I don't feel I'm accomplishing that this year.

  5. I hear you on each of these, and I think Lisa and Scott are both right. You have to know your kids, and structure from here to the moon. That being said, I've experienced both. Two years ago, a system of structured retakes (rather than open ended), where they had to show effort towards improvement before retaking worked well. Last year, not so much, so I didn't allow it.

    The big point - which you've already made - is that you're trying to do better by them. Some groups of kids (even between class hours) handle change differently. If having content on video is helpful, and they can't handle bigger shifts, then don't force them. They're only 14 :-)

    I'm not saying give up, because you have a passion for what you're trying to do. Be sure to find that balance, which may mean cutting back on one or two things to make sure you all stay healthy.

  6. "I'm totally a victim of my own policies taken to their logical extension" I think you summed up your dilemma with this statement. Arnold, I have no profound wisdom for you - I know you as an accomplished professional. The only advise I would offer is to do what your gut tells you.
    This may seem heretical, but I don't think it's possible to save everyone - I know I can't. I get down also because I have students that make me nuts. It's hard to see the good you do. Dial things back a little; do what WORKS. I see so much about flipping that is great, but I also have inquiry and projects. I also still lapse back into lectures occasionally; I just don't stay there.
    You cannot be wrong whatever you do if you do it in response to what the students need. Taking care of yourself is part of that as well. Your students need a healthy passionate teacher.
    I see it this way: We tell newbies that videos that are "good enough" are good enough. The same is true with whatever model of instruction you choose. I'm not saying be mediocre; I'm saying you don't have to be perfect. Your students will remember YOU more than anything. Lead with your heart and adjust as necessary. Vent to your PLN when you need us. Hang in there.