Thursday, February 26, 2015

No grades, but lots of data

I'm really interested in the concept of the "no grades classroom" that people like Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) and Mark Barnes are advocating. My students and I have been trying out Starr's goal-setting and self-assessment conference approach lately in biology, and though I'm still giving grades, I'd love to get rid of them.

I think replacing grades with formative feedback could go a long way toward causing a paradigm shift in our students (and teachers)--from a focus on grades and points to learning and growth.

Right now, for some students, the coursework is mostly about getting a good grade so they can get into a good college, while for others, it's just about passing. Either way, it's not about learning. It's not about autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So getting rid of grades altogether should help. But that can't mean getting rid of data. It seems to me we need regular, quantitative performance measurements in order to assess their progress (and our instruction) objectively and improve it.

At first I thought these two goals were incompatible (no grades but lots of data). But that doesn't have to be the case at all. What I'm envisioning these days is something like this:

The students don't get grades, but they get lots of rich feedback, and I record as much data as possible.

But what about report cards and GPAs?

Well, we'll have to tackle that next.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fact, story, feeling.

*Hypothetical* Scenario:

I'm trying to deliver a mini-lecture in chemistry biology--droning on about exciting things like chemical weights or the molecular structure of DNA.

Two students are having a conversation between themselves while I talk.

I get upset and reprimand them (mildly) in front of the whole class.

Or maybe it wasn't in class. Maybe it was the other night when my wife made an off hand comment that offended me and I got upset and kicked in the silent treatment.

In both cases I thought that what was upsetting me were the things I observed--the facts of the case: the talking in class or the offhand comment. But that's not true. What upset me was the story I told myself about the facts.
I really just upset myself.

According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, an awesome audio program I've been listening to, it works like this: We observe something. We interpret it--we tell a story to explain it. Then we feel something, based on our story.

Facts don't lead directly to emotions.

Facts lead to stories in our heads, and those stories lead to emotions.

When I saw the students talking, that was a fact. Then the story kicked in: They are being rude. They are disrespectful. There are just challenging my authority, trying to make me look like a fool in front of the other students. Then the emotions kick in: I feel threatened, irritated, angry even. And then I act... and cause damage.

Instead, what I need to do is follow my emotions backwards down that path and notice the story I'm telling myself, and question it, and then make up a different, kinder story. And then watch my feelings soften.

What if I found out one of their mothers was deathly ill? Or what if I could put myself in their shoes and feel again just how difficult it is to be a teenager (or just how exciting it is to be a teenager), or just how excruciatingly boring my lectures are?

And maybe my wife just had a really rough day? Or maybe she simply wanted to spend time with me and I was glued to the computer (not that that happens...).

Funny thing is, these kinder stories are much more likely to be true.

And the result is more positive climates and stronger relationships.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A day in the life of a chem teacher at E. O. Smith

I don't write as much about my #chemistry classes.

But that's just because I haven't been doing as much experimenting with them: The flipped model I'm using this year in chem is essentially unchanged from last year.

But that doesn't excuse my neglect of writing them up, because every day with them is just as cool as with my biology kids, though I have no doubt it'd be even cooler if I tried out the project- and mastery-based approach with them as well.

Today is a case in point.

Our lab: Flinn's Micro-Mole Rockets lab. Students make mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen gas in plastic pipette bulbs, light them with a match, and rate the loudness of the pop. Then we launch them like rockets with a Tesla coil. (I'll have to get some photos tomorrow.)

And they'll use the data to confirm the ratio at which hydrogen and oxygen react to form water (2:1, H2O).

It's an elegant method they use, involving a constant total amount of gas while only varying the ratio of gases. it's called the method of continuous variation.

And they have been progressing beautifully this year in their attention to detail and controlling their variables, and they never cease to amaze me with their inquisitiveness ("What makes the hydrogen react with the oxygen?") and their energy for life.

As I walked around the room, hydrogen and oxygen popping together like firecrackers, my student teacher (a Ph.D. biochemist and veteran pharmaceutical researcher) helping them launch their rockets, and a steady chorus of "Dr. Green?" requests for assistance keeping me moving, I was distracted by one student telling stories of mermaids and Jason the Argonaut, and another accusing Thomas Edison of being the greatest villain of history, and I was laughing.

Laughing because of the intellectual and creative energy that burned in there like a fire inside and between them all.


Maybe. But I don't think so.

Some see teens as narcissistic, annoying and who knows what else. I prefer to see them for what they are: The most creative and energetic stage of the most amazing species on the planet in a most amazing universe.

Our intertwined lives

So how about a little balance to that last post about being who I am?

Because who I am has a lot to do with the relationships I've been a part of for the past few decades. And those relationships have put down roots into my own life, my own mind, and my personality.

So to imagine that who I am is somehow separate from them is a big mistake.

We are, after all, eminently social beings, perhaps only out-socialized by the ants, bees, wasps, and termites. According to Christopher Ryan, it's possible that our big brains, which many seem to think our most distiguishing characteristic, are only a consequence of our hypersociality. He goes so far as to say that our closest relative, in terms of behavior, is the bonobo, an ape known for its intensely interwoven, egalitarian communities.

And I think I've often overlooked the implications of this. While I've often seen how an individual ant or bee doesn't have much identity apart from the hive, I miss the extent to which our lives are interwoven with those we interact with.

And I doubt we can really be happy with an overly individualistic approach to the pursuit of happiness.

In short, while I'll stand by the goal of integrity, transparency, and being true to myself, I prefer my earlier approach: 
THIS is a goal worth striving for. A better match, a better fit between the world and us.
In other words, our goal has to be to help move us all forward towards greater integrity as humans, not trying to be someone entirely self-defined. I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to say, but that's OK. Suffice it to say, we is at least as important than I, because they're intertwined.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making the school bigger than the building

The two teens stood in front of a small crowd at the senior center, explaining their project to help feed the hungry in the local area, how they'd already raised $6,000, and how they'd be working with Feeding Children Everywhere to assemble 40,000 meal packs at the high school, and how they'd like the seniors to join them. They said there would be lots of fun and music, and that they wanted it to be a whole-community event.

The teens were energized, eloquent, and sincere. The seniors began firing off questions, "Will this be a regular event?," "Will we be able to do it while sitting down?," "Do you have a website?," "Can we donate if we can't make it that day?," "Can we sign up now?," and "Can we choose the music?"

Laughter followed the last one.

The young man replied, "It will be all big band hits."

More laughter.

The organizer of the senior center closed the session saying how excited she was that the high school was excited about intergenerational activites.

And this, I thought, is how you build community through the school.