Objective-based grading implemented

The first attempt at anything is usually inefficient, clunky, and unpolished.  That’s how I feel with my class at the moment.  I’m trying to polish and refine, but I need to be patient, because I will probably never be completely satisfied…but I think good teachers are never comfortable with everything they do.  We need to be finding ways to constantly improve our methodology and be refining our pedagogy.

The biggest challenge I’ve had thus far with mastery is the unbelievable volume of daily grading and checking I’ve been doing and the brainpower it is taking me to think about 10 different assignments all being shown to me at once.  Feeling fried out (after one unit, mind you) I queried Jonathan Bergmann, a mastery guru (he’s in his 4th year using the method right now).  A recent blog post of his had to do with how he and a colleague switched from grading every assignment to grading specific objectives they wanted students to accomplish.  Needless to say, I loved it.

I will be using this with my next unit, but I wanted to share his thoughts.  I am in no way responsible for coming up with the idea…I’m just borrowing from him to try and improve my class…thanks Jon!

Coming Up: Student Periodic Tables

Part of the mastery system is assessing students through their own, unique work.  For this next unit (beginning today) students have an opportunity to show me what they know through their own digital periodic tables based on…cereal.

While this isn’t true student-driven assessment, it’s a step in the right direction for my class.  I’m hoping to be able to do something like this for every unit…I’m just not there yet.  For this project, they have to do a lab in which they produce a periodic table based on different cereals.  They have the option to turn in a supplementary video to be used as their chapter assessment.  I’m really hoping I can get some of the more creative students to jump at this opportunity.  We’ll see in a week or two what I get.

Parent conferences…how to explain?

One of the challenges I’ve faced so far this year is explaining to parents how the class works and trying to convince some of them that this method is pedagogically sound.

The biggest question I get from parents is: “With instruction based on videos and podcasts, what do you actually do in class?  How is my son/daughter benefiting from this experience?”

This is a great question because then I get to explain that I’m not shirking their student.  What this is allowing me to do, essentially, is one-to-one tutor their student every single day.  Because I’m not standing up front and talking to some passive listeners, I can actively engage their student on a day to day basis and do some real engaging and focused work.

It really seems to get through when I give this example: in my largest class, I have 27 students.  In this class, maybe four of those students work at an advanced level, 20 of them work at the average level, and the last three may feel bogged down and lost.  In a traditional class, my time is focused on the instruction and then maybe some question and answering, trying to engage students.  Those students who feel left behind have no interaction and may feel scared to ask their questions.  In the mastery model, I spend no time on class instruction.  Those four advanced students work ahead on their own, because they get it.  I just make sure they’re on task.  The 20 average students get my time split between groups, but most of the time they can work collaboratively to learn the material.  Those other three struggling students can have the bulk of my time with focused instruction.  On average, face time with the teacher during the class has increased exponentially.

Some parents are still skeptical, but it gives me an opportunity to speak with them more than I normally would have, which is another great opportunity.  I’m all the more excited after open house last night because of the support I felt from most of the parents who came.  I’m looking forward to things to come.

Easy web conferencing options

Part of the challenge of teaching today is finding a good time to meet as a group.  And in a city as large as Seoul, meeting in person isn’t always an option.  I’ve had a lot of trouble finding time to meet outside of school with students, so I decided to do some research on web conference meetings where students and I could “meet” and discuss class topics or just do some one-on-one tutoring.

There are plenty of commercial-level options such as GoToMeeting.com and Webex that serve small businesses and corporations.  But, for a classroom teacher’s needs, these are very expensive (most starting at $50/month) and contain many features that just aren’t necessary.

What I was looking for were inexpensive options to meet with small groups…here is what I’ve found.

The best option for one-on-one meetings is Skype.  It is totally free and even includes a screen-sharing option if you’re working on a document (English/literature teachers) or if you have a whiteboard program installed (science, math, etc) to show students step-by-step processes.  Skype also offers VoIP conference calls (audio only) or small group video conferences (up to 4 people), but neither support screen sharing.  Overall, Skype is a great solution for one-on-one situations, but is limited for true group instruction capabilities.

Another free resource is an up-and-coming website called DimDim.  DimDim is a browser-based service that has a free option as well as payed upgrade options.  The free account works well for small group meetings (up to 10 people, including the presenter) as it has screen sharing capability (plugin download required) and built-in document sharing/editing and a whiteboard.  I tried this with a group of AP Chemistry students and it was fairly functional, but the only discussion option for attendees is a group chat, which tends to lag depending on student input.  The video and audio refresh rate for the presenter is slow, which led to many instances of “I think it froze again…” and the meeting productivity was limited.  The DimDim upgrades began at $10/month and only upgraded the number of attendees allowed and the capability to record your session.  This is tempting, but you can easily record your own screen with other free downloads.

The best option I’ve found so far is supported by Adobe Acrobat’s ConnectNow.  When you sign up for the free Acrobat account you automatically have a designated file-sharing platform (very similar to Google Docs, but not as large) as well as a web-meeting room (shown below).  Space in the meeting room is also limited (4 participants, including the presenter) but the functionality is far superior to other free services.  First of all, every participant has VoIP capability, so no cumbersome text-based chat window is necessary.  You just need to make sure that each participant has headphones on, or else you get a nasty echo effect.  Secondly, the refresh rate is on par with Skype, so video doesn’t freeze for the participants.  Acrobat also allows for true collaboration because you can had over presenter controls to an attendee, which allows students to show work or lead a discussion group.  The other great factor is that the teacher does NOT need to be present for the meeting room to work.  You can designate your meeting room as “always open” on the account dashboard.  Students go to your meeting room URL (for independent collaborative study groups) and then work from their home.

In a nutshell, there are few free web conferencing services that would allow for large groups to meet.  If budgeting isn’t an issue, there are many options out there that allow large-group meetings to take place.  But for small meetings, I would definitely go with Acrobat and just split students into small groups for each meeting.  Adobe also allows for paid upgrades, but they are at the same expense as Webex and GoToMeeting, targeting business options rather than education.

Mastering Chemistry

Mastering chemistry seems like it would be an oxymoron.  Who can master chemistry?  Is chemistry “master-able?”

I like to think so.

If we can teach students to think and make informed decisions, then we’re teaching them to be master learners.  We shouldn’t be teaching only a textbook…in fact, the textbook shouldn’t even be guiding curriculum.  Students today don’t connect with textbooks.  Students want interactivity and elasticity in their classes.  We need to be teaching students to think critically and decide what is important information and what isn’t, they can master any content on their own.

I am trying to provide my students with a curriculum and tools to become master learners.  In the process, I have discovered many new tools that have increased my capability to learn material.  Many of the tools are Web 2.0 oriented and some are traditional methods.  By blending “old-school” and “new-school” we can better serve students in schools today.

This blog is to archive some tools I have found and have been implementing in my chemistry classes.  Please feel free to comment on and share other tools you have found for you class.