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Grading classwork: Just Say No!

As I begin a new school year, I look back at a very successful first year. I have grown and reinvented my class taking full advantage of the flipped model. This year, I am tackling grading and classwork. I am fully implementing Standards Based Grading and I did the thing that I thought I would never do. I’m no longer grading classwork and putting it in the gradebook.

Yes, that’s right. A math teacher that is not putting a single assignment into the gradebook. It sure sounds absurd and even when I type it sounds so weird. I was expecting a revolt when I was going to make this known to my students and parents. I envisioned my students taking this opportunity to never do classwork again. Since I’m not grading it, why would they want to do it? There would be no reward for them since they weren’t earning a grade for it. So earlier this week, I braced for the worst. I informed my parents and I told my students and so what happened!?  Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Students continued to do their work as if nothing had changed. There wasn’t even a slight bump in the road. When finished, they checked their own work and rather than turning it in they put it right back into their binder. They had no problem that I wasn’t collecting their work. Over the course of the last year, I worked hard at setting high expectations and letting students take control of their own learning in the flipped classroom. My students no longer needed that reward of getting a grade in the gradebook. They had put all of their focus on the learning and not the grade. They were intrinsically motivated to learn.

You may be asking how I know if they are understanding the material if I am not collecting and grading it. The truth is that I am actually assessing their work but it’s as I am walking around asking them questions. In addition, if they still have questions about a concept or still struggle after they’ve checked their work, they can turn in their work to me and I will now give them feedback. Feedback to help them get better. Feedback with no grade. Here is to another great year. A year ahead to engage, inspire and empower students.

10 Tips to Flipping your Classroom.

Flipping your classroom is no easy task. It requires dedication, hard work and a lot of trial and error. Here is a list of 10 ways that I have found to help flip your class.

1) Determine the purpose of your flip. Flipping your class is more than just making videos for students to watch at home. It changes what goes on in class as well. Determine what your end result is. Do you just want to make instructional videos so students can gather information before they step foot in class? Do you want to inform students of rules and procedures for an upcoming science lab?

2) It takes time. Do not underestimate the amount of time it will take to start flipping your class. If creating personalized videos to upload, it will take quite awhile before you get the hang of it. It will also take time for your students to adapt to the change in instruction.

3) Walk your students through the process. You are changing nearly every aspect of how a student receives information. Do not expect kids will know what to do. If they are pros at taking notes from your lectures, do not assume that this will transfer to notetaking at home. Show the kids how to start taking notes from a video. Set clear expectations what they should do at home.

4) Start small. Remember that this is a huge undertaking. You have to decide what app you plan on using to make your videos, how to upload them and where to upload them to (YouTube, Google Drive, etc.) If you start full steam ahead you may burn yourself out. Start with one class or one subject.

5) Use humor. Kids want to sit through a boring video just as much as they want to sit through a boring lecture. Add humor. Laugh in the video. If you make a mistake, leave it. The kids love it. I had the buzzer to my dryer go off in the video and told the kids to hold on because I was going to fold laundry. The next day they had a hay day telling me they heard my buzzer go off.

6) Have a backup plan. If the students didn’t understand the video or students didn’t watch the video, what are you going to do? As with any quality lesson planning, always plan for the unexpected.

7) Use your own content. Let me start by saying that students like to hear your own voice. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate other videos into your own. If you wanted to start out with using videos that others have made, that is a great way to start, but try to start making your own.

8) Give kids control. This might be the hardest thing to do. By giving kids control of your class, you are actually taking more control over what happens. This is much easier said than done but remember the purpose of your flip. You should be the guide on the side in the class. Ask yourself if you are talking more than the kids. Your kids should be delving in conversation with each other and you are merely the moderator. This takes quite a bit of modeling to implement but it can be done!

9) Make em’ short. Don’t bore the kids with long videos. I try and shoot for a 12 minute average for the junior high age. Some videos do take more time and some take less. If a video is more than 15 minutes I give them more than one day to watch it.

10) Check for understanding. Don’t forget to check the students’ understanding of the content in the videos. This could be done through a quick formative assessment that is not graded. I have my students go to the board and explain concepts from the video and let them work through the problems with the class. I don’t say a word. If they make a mistake, I don’t mention it. I let the others in the class correct it. This is very hard for myself and any teacher to let a student continue with a mistake. This could take 5 minutes or it could take 15 minutes. It is a powerful thing. I incorporate giving kids control with checks for understanding.
Good luck and always remember to have fun when flipping your class. Don’t give up!

“I’ve Never Been More Productive…”

Over the course of the year, I’ve been trying new things and always striving to give students more control over their learning. This semester I gave students a project that was open-ended yet had a clear SBG rubric. The projects are starting to come in and the work is impressive. This school year has been an incredible experience pushing my kids to new heights, giving them choice over their own learning but there has been one goal that that I had yet to achieve…that is until this week.

This week I no longer gave students a day-by-day schedule. I gave my students the videos and concepts I wanted them to learn and told them it must be achieved by May 29. No schedule, no specific timeline and they were to tell me when they were ready to assess. What happened next surprised me. One group of 6th grade boys pulled out their Chromebook, created a detailed calendar when they were all going to watch the videos do the classwork and the anticipated assessment date. They shared it with each other, their parents and myself. I was impressed.

The students were excited to create their own schedule. They wanted to achieve that end goal and they wanted to achieve it quickly. At the end of the class, a student exclaimed,

“I’ve never been more productive in a class period!”

Students came in today on day two and I had more kids farther ahead than I anticipated. Had I planned out the week, the assessment over last week’s material would have been given on Wednesday. Instead, I had half my class tell me today (Tuesday) that they were ready for the assessment. They were working so hard to understand the concepts and they were excited to be working faster. Why had I waited to do this? At the end of the day a student said to me, “Mr. Humphreys I want it to be like this next year.” Indeed it will be.

To extend student choice I asked my students to find a concept in math that they haven’t been taught, research it and make a second semester presentation on it. That was essentially all I told them. The projects are coming in and what I didn’t anticipate was how seamlessly these projects are impacting their everyday math work. Students are using the concepts learned in their project and applying it to their current math.

For example, my 7th graders are currently learning how to solve quadratic equations. In Algebra 1, students are taught that when they are solving equations they might receive “no real solution” as an answer as there is another realm of math that involves imaginary numbers but they don’t learn that concept until Algebra 2. Quite a few kids wanted to know more about imaginary numbers and after researching it, I am getting work and assessments in which students have catapulted their learning by no longer putting “no real solution” but actually solving the quadratic equations with imaginary numbers. They pushed themselves to understand how to delve deeper into the concept.

In addition students are now sharing their results with others and teaching it to their friends so they too can use these future concepts in their current work. By giving my students choice, they cater to their own needs and show a genuine interest in learning. Tonight I received an email back from a student after I had scored his project and he had done a phenomenal job. He replied,

“Thank you Mr. Humphreys.  I enjoyed making it!”

 They are learning and by their own choice, not mine. My students constantly impress me!

It’s all about the learning…

Today I had one of those, “A-ha” moments. I was talking to a colleague about standards-based grading and was thinking about how the grading would look in my math classroom. My colleague told me to look around at my class and said, “You’re already doing standards-based learning.” That’s when it hit me. I had already set the stage to make the conversion into standards-based grading. My class was already implementing standards-based learning and that’s when I had that “A-ha” moment. In order to make the change to standards-based grading, you must allow yourself to embrace standards-based learning. They are different in many ways but lead to the same end result –

Giving students the choice to improve their own learning while they assess themselves.

The focus of my school year was to give my students choice. I wanted them to take control of their learning by making decisions that would impact their own learning while also holding extremely high standards for them. I had already implemented the flipped classroom which was modified throughout the year. They rely on each other to work through problems rather than coming to me first. I love to sit back and watch them work through thoughtful problems while I am the one that asks them questions. Last week, I was on a conference call and was out of my classroom but in the school. My students asked if they could work in the conference room with me. I surely couldn’t pass that up! I watched as they worked diligently with each other. I rarely interrupted them and if I did, it was asking, “why?” or “how?” to give me that deeper understanding.

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At the beginning of the school year, it took a few weeks to train my students on what was expected. They didn’t know how to respond when I told them they had the entire period to work on what they needed to work on to understand the concept they were working on. I was persistent though. That is one characteristic I would tell any teacher – Don’t give up! Keep pushing the kids to work harder and smarter.

Something I did this year that was new for me was how students reviewed for an assessment. For many years, the day before a test, I would give a review assignment to help them study. This year I wondered why I was giving a review assignment since some kids didn’t need help on certain standards and others did. Why would I make one student do 4 problems on concepts they already mastered when they should be practicing other standards? Then it made sense! Let them choose what they should study. Fast forward to earlier this week and this is what I now see…. students who are creating problems for each other on the concepts that they choose to work on and practice. Again, I don’t tell them they have to do this, they just do.

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Once again, why should I be the one that mandates how they should review!? My entire mindset has changed on how I approach my classroom. My classroom is ever changing and still growing. How can I constantly put less emphasis on me and more emphasis on them?

I am so proud of my students that they simply amaze me. I decided to make my first SBG rubric for their second quarter project. Their project is to make a presentation on any math concept they chose that would be from a future course – something they know nothing about. What my students chose to do on their own amazes me. Here are some choices by 6th graders:

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Sixth graders are choosing trig ratios, quadratic equations…concepts that are clearly high school level standards. I am in awe and so proud of them. I am giving them complete control in their design. Here is the rubric they have and what they do with it is completely up to them.

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So after my conversation today, it made me realize that once you really embrace the standards-based learning in your classroom, then standards-based grading should be no big deal. I’m still nervous about it but much less so. Letting my students discover things on their own is the best gift that I can give them.

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“The Student Didn’t Study”

Since my last blogpost, I handed back my assessments with no grades. Students tried to decode the wonderful stamps at the top with no luck. What happened? The world didn’t end and students read the feedback. They corrected their mistakes and I scored them. It was great.

In my quest for constant improvement, the goal is to give kids complete control of their learning.  Students should feel empowered to want to learn, taking on the responsibility for self guidance. I gave an assessment to my 7th graders this week and something happened. I put a question on the assessment in which students were asked to identify an outlier of a set of data (if there was one) and then answer this:

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If you don’t know much about statistics, an outlier is a number that is set apart from the rest. In this particular set of data, there were numerous assessment scores and one score was 43%, a very low score compared to the rest of the scores.

I looked over all my student’s responses and nothing stuck out. That is until a colleague pointed something out to me. I then realized what I was looking at. Every student had written a variation of a similar response to the statement. Not a few, not most but all.  Here are two such examples:

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Why are those important? If students viewed their teacher as the way they learned, they could easily have said, “the teacher didn’t explain the material well enough” or “the class didn’t understand it.” The student could have put the blame on someone else but every one of these students put the responsibility on the individual. Some students said, “The student wasn’t responsible” or “The student …”

I was thrilled. Was it really that mindshift I was hoping of? Was this an indication that students looked at themselves as the pivotal aspect of their education? I sure hope this was an indication. You see, the students feel it is their responsibility. They have the ownership over their education. Not me. Why should I get in the way? I present the material and let them have it.

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.

~Elbert Hubbard

Frogs, Strawberries, and Bees. Oh My!

It was a strange day today. I can honestly say that never would I ever think I’d be putting the stamp of a strawberry or a cat at the top of a student’s assessment but today it happened. I left school with my student tests looking like this:

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Yes. You are seeing that correctly. There is no grade but only a snail and an owl. I can see it now. “Mom, look what I got on my math test!!! I got a snail-owl” Honestly , I am still quite uncomfortable with this idea of not putting a grade at the top of a paper but, to be honest, it was fun putting random stamps at the top. So how did the day transpire? Let me explain.

If you’ve read my other posts, you know that I am always trying to make my classroom a better place. I love trying new things. I am currently in the process of making the shift to standards-based grading. On all assessments, I give plenty of feedback. I ask questions, indicate points of improvement that can be made and often hope students read that feedback to improve their learning. I also grade using a rubric. All of my questions have different point values in which students earn points based on what they can show/prove to me. I’m a stickler when it comes to grading. I want quality work. I am definitely almost there with standards-based grading, however, when I grade a math assessment I do the same thing I’ve always done. I write the number of points a student misses next to the question. For example, if a student makes a minor error I put a “-1” next to the problem along with the feedback. In addition at the top of the page you will see the total number of points missed and the total points earned. A “-4” and a “26/30” would be at the top. This has been my largest obstacle. How will this look with standards-based grading (SBG)? What do I put at the top? How do I grade each question?

Last week, after a quiz, my colleague and I were talking about SBG and as class was over a student, who received an A on her quiz, was packing up. My colleague asked this student, “What you do think about the feedback Mr. Humphreys puts on your assessments.” The student replies, “What feedback?”  There you have it. Blatant as can be. She was so focused on the grades and point values that she never really saw the feedback. All of this time I spent putting feedback on assessments only to find out that it is completely ignored because of letter grade? What?

How can it be?

Today I was grading tests from another class and in walks another colleague. She teaches science and has fully implemented SBG. While I am grading, she plops down a jar of stamps. These aren’t teacher stamps that say, “Good job” or “A+.” Nope. Nothing like that. These are kindergarten stamps in the shapes of happy animals like a smiling turtle or a happy elephant. No joke. These are stamps made for kids that have a maximum age of 4. She says to me, “You can’t put any point values on your tests. None. Just feedback and only a stamp.” Of course I wined and pouted. I liked my point value system. I mean I WAS using a rubric. So off I go. I didn’t put a single number or point(s) missed and went through each test grading it like normal and leaving feedback as I always do. I finished “grading” them so now it was time for these stamps but I had a brilliant idea.

I was going to code these stamps. A strawberry was going to be an “A.” An owl was going to be a “B” and so on. I had a perfect system in place so I knew what the grade was. In walks my colleague and she says, “How’s it going?” I of course said, “Great!” to which she replies, “You aren’t coding them are you?” Darn it!? What?

” My plot has been foiled. “

So she spent the next few minutes putting multiple stamps at the top of each test so there would be no coding. Of course the students are going to try and figure out what these strange stamps mean by comparing to each other had I actually gotten away with my scheme.

So tomorrow I will hand back the tests only with feedback and the lovely stamps at the top so students can reassess and make corrections. No grades, no distractions…only feedback and students worrying about the standards, not the grade. Stay tuned on what happens after tomorrow (and I secretly have to admit I liked the stamps).

I can take my quiz when?

As my journey continues to make my classroom a room of student choice, I am now tackling the area of assessment. As a math teacher, I give quizzes and tests to assess mastery of content. Students are allowed to review, study and reassess to improve their skills. I have also given students choice at times to show mastery by choosing their own method of assessment. What I have never done, however, was give students the choice on when to take their assessment.

Last week changed all of that.

Students have been working for 3+ weeks on points of concurrency in geometry among many other topics all associated the major emphasis on points of concurrency. This chapter has proven to be a challenge for some students. As I have always done in the past, I told students the date of an upcoming quiz. As the quiz approached I could see the level of anxiety in a few students rise. They kept asking me questions to clarify the concepts (which is great!)

After class the next day, as a few students were packing up their things, a student approached me and asked about something on the quiz. She mentioned she was mixing up two concepts and what I said was completely unexpected on my part, “Why don’t you take another day to study and take the quiz when you’re ready.” She said, “really?” I responded, “Sure, spend another day reviewing the concepts and take the quiz the next day.” You could tell she was instantly relieved.

The emphasis was shifted from the date of the quiz to the importance of mastering the content.

The next day before I was to hand out the quiz, I announced to students that if they aren’t ready to take it then they could take another day to review the material and then take it. They looked at me in shock and awe not sure if I was kidding or not. A student raised his hand and said, “Can I spend 10 minutes now to just review and then start it?” Absolutely! Of my 22 students about 13 of them started the quiz right away. All but 4 students took the quiz that day. I had 3 students take it the next day and the remaining student took it two days later. The results were outstanding! Almost all students did incredibly well. They mastered the material AND they had a choice in when they did it. No student was behind and all kept up on the other work for the week. They became in charge of their learning and proving to me mastery.

To see a colleague’s blog regarding another student in my class and his thoughts about student choice, click here.

Grading Papers on Christmas Day

After the presents were opened on Christmas morning, I pondered the thought of taking a nap or watching a holiday movie. What I opted to do instead was to tackle some schoolwork. I opened my bookbag and pulled out a stack of papers that kids had turned in. I didn’t have a lot of class work to grade but as I move to understanding more about standards-based grading (SBG), I sat and looked at this stack and wondered, “Why in the world am I doing this?” Now you’re probably wondering why I would opt to do this on Christmas day but I was looking at a broader reason:

“Why am I doing this at all? “

Most of what was in this stack of papers was (home)work that students completed in class. It was work they checked themselves after they reworked problems. Most of these grades were A’s and students put a score at the top of the papers and then turn them in. I then record these scores in the gradebook. This process does take quite a bit of time to complete but I feel (or I did feel) that it is important to record these scores. Remember that these aren’t assignments that students do once and then turn in graded but it is classwork students have corrected. They have already fixed their errors. So really what was the purpose of recording the scores? Somehow in my mind I have this reoccurring thought that if I don’t record the scores my classroom is going to implode and my students will learn nothing.

“How do I determine what to record?”

I am determined to change. So I looked over the work turned in and simply looked over the papers and recorded nothing. I put the organized papers back into my file folder and back into my backpack. While I definitely haven’t graded or recorded everything students turned in, this was the first time where two or three consecutive days of work was not recorded. I felt like I was cheating. I felt lazy. I felt like I was failing the kids.

“Would parents think that we did nothing on those days?”

I was determined to change and this was the first step. What was my biggest enemy? Simply put it was me. We are so ingrained to follow the footsteps of how we learned and how we were graded. We follow what we are familiar with. I have always felt like I am an innovator and thinker but why is of all things I feel the most resistance within myself to change is grading/recording student work – which ironically is one of the more time-consuming, daunting procedures we as teachers dread. Why do we feel that we must do it?

As I stated earlier, in front of me was a stack of class work. What I didn’t tell you was the rest of the story. Also in front of me were assessments that students turned in over the material that the class work covered and like a ton of bricks it hit me (actually rather than bricks I saw my colleague, an SBG instructional coach, slap me across the face). Why, if I graded the assessments that covered mastery, does it even matter what they got on the classwork. SBG is all about an end goal or result in mastery so if students reached that goal, why am I wasting my time recording the grades leading up to that?

“What was I thinking?”

So at that moment, I made the decision that my goal for the rest of the year was to not record as much work. Let the work lead up to the end result of mastery and then assess that instead. It was a novel idea and one I honestly already knew in the back of my mind but I just couldn’t break the chain. Leading into the new year my underlying goal is determination. I am determined to change the things that are ingrained in me the most…all of which have to do with grading and recording.

To my readers, what are your biggest challenges regarding grading/recording and SBG? Any tips?

Jumping on the SBG train…

Standards-based grading. I love it. I agree with it. So what’s the problem? I don’t do it. My classroom environment is set up in a way that would perfectly lead into standards-based grading. Students are allowed to reassess, review and always improve mastery among standards. I have fostered an environment in which students feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. I don’t include anything in a child’s grade other than academics. You won’t find extra credit, participation or any other fluff that would make a student’s grade invalid but the truth is that I still put in grades for assignments and the computer program I use averages out all the grades of a student, however, I do feel that the end grade a student earns is a reflection of their mastery of the standards.

So it’s time for me to delve deeper into changing into standards-based grading. I’m unsure where to begin or how it will look for me. Teaching three grades of gifted math all of which have multi-grade standards makes me wonder how do I pick standards or, better yet, how do I adapt my computer grading program to meet the needs of SBG? I also worry it will become more work to assess each individual standard for each student, but I am ready.

I’m ready to make the move to SBG. I’m excited to see students care less about grades and more about learning the material. Grades will happen as a result of the learning. I’m excited to take this major shift in my classroom but I still have questions. Have any of my readers used SBG and what tips can you offer me in the switch?

“I can…”

The infamous, “I can” statement. So little, so powerful and so much fun. Throughout my teaching career I often thought of things I could do but talked myself out of it making excuses and eventually saying, “I can’t.” But over the last few months, the tides are changing and so are my discoveries. I have given my class to the kids. It is theirs and all theirs. I refuse to tell myself that I can’t do something because everything my students have achieved has come from an idea that I knew I could try out in the classroom.

Currently in my flipped classroom at the beginning of class, I call a student up to the board and with no direction I let them begin. I watch in silence as they take that pen and take what they learned from the previous night’s video and explain it. I watch as they call on each other. I watch as they fix their mistakes. I watch as they give guidance to their classmates. I watch as they teach and to emphasize the point, I watch as I say nothing. That’s right. I don’t get in the way. Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 10.36.31 PM

I watch as they take the concepts farther than I ever would have imagined if I was at the board reviewing concepts with them. To say that I am immensely proud of them is an understatement. So you think I would be content. But you thought wrong.

Just this week I had planned on giving a quiz over systems to my Algebra class. A quiz that would have been a good quiz. A few questions that applied to real-world examples in which I would ask them to solve systems but then I got another one of my ideas. It would have been a good assessment and it would have been challenging, however, rather than giving them problems I simply sent them a Google Doc that had the 8th and 9th grade Algebra standards and then I wrote this under the standards,

“Prove to me you have successfully mastered the standards of systems.”

That was all I said. One sentence. I had planned for one day for students to do this but ended up taking two. What once would have caused me to have a mild stroke by “wasting” a day and getting me off my pacing guide now didn’t bother me.  On Wednesday when they came in, this is what they turned in in response to what I sent them.

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The quality of work was amazing and far better than if I gave them a quiz. They went above and beyond. EVERY. SINGLE. KID. They created their own problems. They solved their own problems. They explained and critiqued their own work. Oh and there is this one too…

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An entire PREZI over systems. WHAT?! Excuse me as I pick my mouth up off the floor from shock and excitement. How dare I think about giving a quiz when THIS is what they turn in instead. I now realized that the biggest road block between a student and greatness in education can be the teacher but when you let students have freedom and you let them discover then the biggest encourager and instigator in a child’s education can be the teacher.

So now I am trying new things. I want my classroom to be amazing and that is why I continue to evolve. I continue change. I continue to learn. I continue to grow. So what’s next? I’m not sure but please join me on my journey because the only words in my vocabulary are now, “I CAN.”

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