Assessing the Assessed

State testing. There are no words.

Week two of six is halfway done. Meanwhile, I keep teaching and I keep assessing. Most of it is formative, informing the learning process and my instructional cycle. Looping back to rehash ideas that are still elusive; being transparent about why we’re doing what.

Yes, there is still a need for demonstration of learning.

_Yes, you have to take this test today. Show me what you know._

There comes a point where I feel like I’m just chasing shadows to justify my own work.

I know that’s not true, but it sure feels like it some days.

Question Mark Answers

We played Jeopardy today in class (with some major upsets coming during final Jeopardy…quite exciting) to review atoms and the periodic table organization. It’s a super-short chapter that sets up a foundation for bonding, naming, and chemical reactions. It’s also nice because it’s mostly review (or should be) of 8th grade physical science.

There’s still new stuff I throw at them, like valence electron location and Bohr model electron shells.

During Jeopardy, I try to give thought-provoking questions to get students to see patterns and interconnections between ideas. A favorite line of mine is, “There are only so many ways I can ask these questions.” This is painfully obvious as we go through more games and skill building activities.

I started to see a lot of:



2 shells and 3 valence?

on the whiteboards.

I love the question mark. Sure, I’d love it if they were confident and could just spout some of this stuff (because it makes the rest of the year much, much easier to digest). But, I’m more happy that we’re finally approaching a point of being willing to venture logical responses rather than, “I don’t know.”

It was also super fun to see the excitement when a ventured answer was, believe it or not, correct.

And it only took until April 25th. Maybe next year, we can hit this on April 24th. I’ll call that a win.

Why Are Questions So Scary?

I remind my students constantly that I can’t help if they don’t do one of two things: 1) Ask me a question when they’re confused, or 2) get something wrong on an assignment. I need to see their thinking, and those two methods – along with my questioning – are the best indicators of strengths and weaknesses.

Lately, it’s spiraled into something much more confounding. Students are stuck, but they refuse to ask _any_thing. Even when I give a freebie, anything-goes offer. When I come by to prompt, they admit to being stuck, but then don’t do the small task to get _un_stuck. So there they remain. And nothing gets done.

And so we spiral.

It’s hyperbole, but I think they feel like kids in the car in Jurassic Park when I come by.

The fear of being wrong – searching for the right answer every time – is something I’ve tried to combat all year long, but it’s still got hold of most of my students. So many are afraid to be wrong, that they’re paralyzed and can’t take the help, even when offered outright. It’s a safety thing…I don’t know if they don’t feel safe because of my teaching style or because of peers…but it’s something that needs to be worked out somehow.

How do you help students get over the initial hump of just asking a question? Even if it’s something as simple as, “What’s the charge of a proton?” A small door like that would allow me to build their confidence and point to small, accomplishable tasks which will help them progress on their own.

The Remodel

Three years ago, my wife and I bought our first home. I can’t believe I haven’t written more on this before (which is partially true. I mention the remodel, along with some photos in an old post.) Time for a mega update – with pictures!

We rushed during the first summer to get the major work done before Meredith was born, which we were able to do.

We’d found carpenter ants and some serious water damage on the plate for the wall, so the whole thing had to come out and be rebuilt. That was day 1.

Part of the process involved removing a wall from the dining room, which meant a major ceiling repair as well as refinishing hardwood floors after patching in an old exterior door.

The floors were finished the week M was born.

The summer of 2014 was mostly hired out for siding work from tearing the kitchen wall out the previous year. There were some other structural repairs that needed to be done – new soffits, window moulding, a new window put into the living room…things I don’t have photos for. We finally settled on what the kitchen backsplash needed to look like in the spring, and I got those put in during spring break.

The best part about the backsplash is that the tile we chose was on clearance at Lowe’s, and according to their own policy, they’ll price match. So, a tile that was originally $0.90 each only cost us $0.20 at every store. I bought out northern Indiana and southern Michigan. It was awesome.

Now, a year later, we’re finally pushing hard to finish the rest of the kitchen. The fridge and some old floor cabinets we owned from our first place in the states are getting a facelift with custom shelves, a new butcher block countertop, and some floating oak wall shelves. We started the butcher block last week by milling down some oak we bought from a neighbor.

Today, I spent a snowy April morning building the new custom shelves.

This week is the week to get it all finished. In addition to the shelves, I’m going to be milling the face frames from some maple (from the neighbor again) and then putting a wall cabinet over the fridge. Everything will be topped with crown moulding along the ceiling when we’re done.

And who says home projects tend to linger…

All photos in this post are mine shared via Flickr CC-BY-NC

Making Seen the Unseen

My grading practices have improved this year. I’m keeping better track of information, I’m using it more often, and I’m showing students – constantly – their progress in their learning. The notion that grades only report ability is buried deep and digging it out has taken a lot – a lot – of work.

Case in point: I’ve already written about keeping better track of quizzes given on standards in class. That spreadsheet, at the end of the chapter, looks like this:


This shows some interesting things:

  1. I can pinpoint sticking points on specific students much more accurately.

  2. Blank spots – missing quizzes – really hurts my ability to help. Same idea as GIGO…if I don’t have consistent information from students, I can’t help them as effectively.

  3. These quiz scores typically improve over time because older ideas set the foundation for new ideas. Yes, there is a dip in some cases, but I chalk that up to complexity rather than ability.

We just took the test and I found myself much less surprised than I used to be. (It pains me to even admit that I used to be surprised…growth…) I can also whip that tracking chart back out and pair it up with test scores.


Yellow is a set of questions related to a specific learning objective for the chapter. For the most part, the yellow boxes correlate with the tracking page. The conversation now centers on, “What mistakes am I still making?” rather than, “What do I have to do to get my grade up?”

It’s also great to ask a student if their test grade is a surprise and have them – even the most reluctant or disengaged – admit that no, it looks about right. Again, we can then focus on closing gaps in understanding and not point grubbing.