Tag Archives: SBG

SBG and Free-Choice Time: Round Two

This past week I rolled out free-choice time in a more formal way to my fifth graders.  On Thursday I handed out a list of different ways that they might spend their time after quizzing on Friday.  Telling them about this was kind of slow going, as both of my classes seemed sort of scattered and unfocused that day.  I described some of the activities that were more unfamiliar—including a brief demo of Khan Academy—pointed out some of the things on the list that I had made available to them more informally after quizzes last week, and answered a few questions.

Aside from the scatteriness, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the different activities and the prospect of trying them out.  One kid said that he wanted to do them all the next day, and I pointed out that while that probably wasn’t feasible to take on in a single day, he could definitely make that happen for himself over the course of the year.

I also gave them the “present” of a math journal.  Many of them were excited about the prospect of journaling about math.  They dove into putting the nameplates on the fronts and decorating them.  I expected to get maybe a little more skepticism or push-back about journaling in math class as too artsy-fartsy.  There was just one question from a girl who asked if they were supposed to write about their “feelings” in their journal.  She made it clear that she was anxious about talking about her weakness on paper.  She also expressed concern about privacy and whether other kids would see what she had written.

I told this student that in her journal she could write about her goals, her progress, her feelings, her excitements, and her plans.  Then I said that she should think of her journal as a safe and private place to record her thinking and that I would be asking her to share her journaling with me only—so that I could better help her to define and reach her goals.  She seemed satisfied and comforted by this answer.

The homework on Thursday night was to prepare for quizzes using the packet of practice problems that I’d previously distributed, as well as to write a journal entry.  I asked them to write about both their quizzing for the next day and the way there were planning to use their free-choice time.  The entries that they made ranged from a few words to a solid paragraph.  They all have room to grow in this regard, and I’m really excited to see how their thinking and their writing evolve over the year.

Quizzes on Friday went smoothly enough.  Overall, the amount of time spent quizzing went down, as could be expected, what with the prospect of their free-choice plans.  Only a couple of students really sped through quizzing.  I figure that with some direction, this will even out in time.  But letting them go and blow and weigh the importance of different tasks for themselves is what this whole adventure is about, after all.

The range of free-choice activities on Friday included a chunk of students trying out Light-Bot; some using the Geofix shapes again; a few doing logic puzzles; a couple playing Hex; and some metal puzzles here and there.  A couple of kids looked into the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge.

This week is a short week—we don’t have school on Thursday or Friday—so the next quiz and free-choice day is a little ways off.  I’m putting together a second practice packet to distribute—by student request.  I think the idea of having resources that help you to prepare for quizzes is starting to sink in!


SBG and Free-Choice Time: Round One

Last Friday was the first quiz-buffet of the year in each of my classes.  Some of my fifth graders really took this metaphor to heart and rhapsodized over whether they would be picking up some of the “chicken wings” or “roast beef” and deciding that they would come back later for “dessert.”  In all of my classes the quizzes went really smoothly.  I feel much more adept at putting together quizzes and practice packets and keys than I did a year ago.  It’s also nice being able to dip into the materials I made over the course of last year.

In my high school classes—Geometry and Calculus—most of my students quizzed for almost the whole period.  (Our periods are forty-five minutes.)  Those who finished before the period was over continued working on their first Investigation about defining geometrical objects (Geometry) or a new sheet about limits of sequences and series (Calculus).  I’ve only had a brief conversation with my Calculus students about what Fridays might look like in the future (free-choice time to work on problem sets and projects, with quizzing as an option) and haven’t had a chance yet to discuss this with my Geometry students.  For now I’m just happy to get my high schoolers into an assessment rhythm that feels comfortable to them.  I figure that opportunities for self-direction will open up as the material of these courses unfolds.  Also, there’s a whole lot of self-directed, choice-but-not-free-choice time in my Geometry class throughout the week already—more on that another time.  Still, for my high schoolers I’m currently in a place where I view free-choice time as purposeful but in a supporting role.  It’s an important opportunity for students to direct their own learning of course content and to personalize it, but it’s something that while good in itself is also a means to an end—getting at the content of a field of study.

With my fifth graders, it’s easier for me to see free-choice time as an essential component of the course that can stand on its own.  It’s an opportunity for kids to explore a huge variety of mathematical activities, to help them find some that they love, and to help them build identities as mathematicians and as individuals.  It’s an end in itself that has its own set of goals built in.  I wouldn’t let a high schooler investigate a mathematical game that she was into during calculus class—at least not for any significant duration—no matter how excited she was about it.  Because it’s calculus class.  But for my fifth graders, it doesn’t matter to me whether strategizing about that game is in any way related to the other content that we’re exploring in the course.  It doesn’t need to be laying groundwork for making factor trees or subtracting integers.  Having a kid build up her own relationship with math is at least as important as anything I could teach her.

Writing this makes me want to make high school more like middle school.  Think, think, think…

I decided that introducing the quiz structures and the free-choice structures in the same week would be too much to dump on fifth graders all at once.  (At the very least, it would mean way too much of me over-explaining all at once.)  So I had several activities available for kids to choose from in an informal way once they were done with their quizzes.  These are some of the activities that I’ll “announce” for this coming Friday in a more formal way, and this time around my kids will have the chance to journal about what they’d like to pursue ahead of time.  (They’ll also journal about what quizzes they’re preparing to take.)  I reasoned last week that having some prior experience with the activities in question would make that first planning/reflection this week more grounded and thoughtful.

Anyway, the activities I had for last Friday were: some books to peruse, a collection of metal puzzles, some pattern blocks, Geofix shapes, Hex boards, chess boards, and a logic puzzle—one of those grid ones.  In one class, the first few students to be done with their quizzes quickly took up the Geofix shapes.  (These are so fabulous, fun, and mathematically rich!)  As other students finished with quizzes, they one by one joined the Geofix festivities.  As they built I was able to entice, with minimal prompting—“Hey, could you get this off of here for me?”—several students to become obsessed with some of the metal puzzles.

In the other class, the choices were more varied.  The first wave of students that finished their quizzes also went for the Geofix shapes and grabbed some metal puzzles as well.  A pair of students got to a point in quizzing where they felt stuck, so I told them that they could work on this quiz together as practice.  They promptly plopped themselves down over by the door and dove into the quiz together.  I thought that this was a great use of time for them.  It arose so naturally and reinforced the low-pressure atmosphere that I’m trying to cultivate around quizzing.  They ended up doing a second quiz together as well.  Some other kids played Hex, and the last two to finish quizzing asked me if I had any origami books, which I did.  They had started in on some folding as the bell rang to end the period.

Free-choice lasted between twenty and ten minutes, depending on the fifth grader.  How long each student quizzed was entirely up to them, although I had asked ahead of time that they come prepared to take at least two of the eight that would be on offer.  Most of them took at least four; several were determined to take all eight, and did.  If you’re interested, you can look at their first list of skills here.

Last Friday was a lot of fun, and I got a lot of positive feedback from the kids about both the quizzes and the activities afterwards.  They’re already looking forward to this Friday, and so am I.

That Itchy Feeling, or, Asynchronous Quizzing

Never am I more passionate about giving students choices and helping them to find their own learning groove than when I find myself sitting in a PD session.  There I am, waiting to find out what the presenter has in store, suddenly thrust back into student-mode.  From deep inside, up arises this wily and irreverent and pushy punk who is so used to being in charge of his own learning and time.

I’ve been to plenty of great PD and am so thankful for the amazing learning opportunities that my colleagues-from-afar often put together for me to experience.  But boy am I uber-ready to be a critic when walking into a PD session.  I mean, they had months to plan this one lesson and they’re seriously going to show me a video I could have seen on my couch in my pj’s?  Or read me a Powerpoint that I could have skimmed or dug into at my leisure?

These kinds of experiences have sowed in me the conviction that the time and effort spent to bring people together to learn—be it hundreds of miles or just a subway ride—makes that gathering at least a little sacred.  It should be social and interactive, and it had damn sure be aiming to meet the needs of the individuals who have hauled themselves there.

That’s the introductory bluster.  Maybe I’ve got your dander up a little.  What I want to analyze in this post is a thought related to this emotion, and it has to do with trying to avoid misusing my students’ time.

Thesis: Students taking solo-and-silent assessments is a poor use of classtime.

Looking at that statement now, it strikes me as more radical than it seemed in my head.  It runs contrary to a lot of classroom practice, including my own.  Still, I think I have convincing arguments to support it.  What it would imply on a practical level is encouraging students to quiz outside of class, as they often do for requizzes.

Before I start, I should say that this thesis is contingent on a couple conditions being present in a school.  All are present in my own case.  First, there have to be at least some open periods in students’ schedules for them to quiz during non-class time.  At my school, middle school students have study halls and high schoolers usually have free periods in their weekly schedules; both often have discretionary time during lunch.  Second, I’m taking for granted an SBG-like assessment system that admits of modularity—where there are several versions of quizzes for a given standard.  I can certainly see serious obstacles to allowing student to asynchronously take a unique quiz.

What is required for a student to take a quiz?  The student, the quiz, and probably some amount of monitoring to keep things on the up-and-up.  Possibly access to a teacher to ask clarifying questions, but one could argue that—especially SBG-style—quiz questions should be clear, low-stakes, and non-surprises anyway.

For a student to take a quiz, the following are not needed—interaction with peers; a teacher giving instruction or even much attention; nuanced human intervention to change the course of proceedings.  A student certainly has no need of having other students around them who are also taking quizzes.

Most of the time I aim to have an interactive, social, and personal classroom that is an occasion for sharing, collaboration, and spontaneity.  Somehow, though, I drop these values completely every time I give a solo-and-silent assessment in class.

Why do I do it, then?  I’m really curious to hear your own reflections on the question; here is what I’ve come up with:

  • Classtime is the time that my students have for my class; to ask them for some of their “outside of class” time break a tacit agreement.  (This concern somehow completely evaporates when it comes to assigning homework.)
  • Duh, class is when things happen?  (i.e. inertia)
  • I don’t know.

Not particularly compelling.  So I’m going to try to this out.  I’ll work out a master schedule with my students for when and where they can take quizzes outside of class.  We’ll see what they do with it.

In the past, I’ve had a day in class each week where quizzes were taken for the first part of the period and free-choice time happened for the second part.  What I’m planning on doing this year is making that whole day free-choice.  If some students choose to use that time for taking solo-and-silent assessments, that’s fine by me—I’ll have the quizzes ready and on offer.  If they calculate that quizzing is a good use their in-class time on a particular day, then it’s the right move for them.  Super.  But I have to imagine that many students will find it more choice-worthy to use classtime in other ways to further their learning and cultivate their experiences—and to find time outside of class to quiz, at least on occasion.

These thoughts have arisen for me as I’ve slipped deeper and deeper into a combination of the SBG Borg and SteveMiranda/PaulSalomon-esque personalization.  There may be other influences, and I don’t claim that these ideas are original.  They were perhaps first instigated in my head last year when I had seventh graders showing up in my room for the last fifteen minutes of lunch on Fridays.  They wanted to start working on their quizzes early so that they could have more free-choice time with their friends.  They were giving up the freedom of recess in exchange for more free-choice time in class.  I think that’s a huge testimony to how much value and fun can be created by the combination of choice and a rich classroom environment.

I’ve read about others’ efforts at arranging times outside of class for requizzing, and I appreciate how difficult and time-consuming it can be.  I have no illusions that it will be easy to encourage outside-of-class quizzing and recognize both logistical and hearts-and-minds obstacles.  But I really want to push this in my classes, plant the seed in my students’ heads, and see what happens.  Maybe you’ve tried something similar; if so, I’d love to hear.  I’ll certainly be posting about what comes of my attempts.  Maybe—just maybe—this will help my students to become more wily, irreverent, and pushy, and used to being in charge of their own learning and time.

PS  Speaking of that itchy feeling, classes started today!  Ahhhhhhhhh…

SBG: Affective Quizzing

When has a student mastered a skill?  Part of the purpose of Standards-Based Grading is to help us answer this question.  (I’d even say it helps us to articulate the question in the first place.)  Different teachers establish skills mastery in their versions of SBG in different ways–for instance, getting everything right on a skill quiz, or getting everything right on two skill quizzes in a row.  In these versions, once a student achieves a certain outcome, she is exempt from further quizzes on that skill.  For other teachers, a kid is never “done” with a skill until the year is over; skills continue to come up on new assessments, and the student’s grade for that skill is his most recent one.  On top of these, I’m sure there are many other awesome variations and hybrids that people have devised that work well for their classrooms.  I’d love to hear about your own twist.

This past year I was in the “one-and-done” camp, and I’m planning on staying there.  That said, I think I will be keeping a better eye out for occasions when a student is struggling with the mechanics of a skill that he has previously quizzed well on.  That may be a good time for a conversation and perhaps reviewing and requizzing.  (Without grades in the picture, there won’t be anything punitive about this–just an opportunity to learn.)  But I’m looking forward to including a new facet to my skills quizzes themselves this year.  Like so:

"How did that go for you?"

It’s that last bit.  I’m curious to see how asking students about their quizzing experiences affects the whole assessment process.  I can’t say exactly where the idea to do this came from, but I think it was at least partially inspired by a student of mine from last year.  She would often write notes to me on her quizzes explaining what she still felt fuzzy on.  This was on quizzes she was choosing to take, buffet-style.   I found that her notes both gave me a better sense for her understanding and provided a really natural way for us to start conversations about remediation.  While there were times that she struggled with our course material, her ability to self-evaluate helped to make her year a successful one.

I’m sure you’ve taught both over-confident and under-confident students.  I feel that by asking “How did that go for you?” on quizzes I may sometimes hear anxiety and doubts from under-confident students even when they get everything right.  In the past, I’ve just checked off their correct responses, said “good job” and moved on.  They were “done” with that skill, despite not feeling at home with it.  No doubt they were in the short-term relieved, but perhaps they were left feeling uneasy about this skill in the long run.  That isn’t what mastery should look like.  By putting that quick gut check at the bottom of each quiz, I’m trying to give my students a safe and immediate place to tell me about their relationship with the skill, right after they’ve shown me their attempts to apply it.  And if they’re telling me they don’t feel like they’ve mastered it yet–even with a perfect paper–then they haven’t.  More steps need to be taken.

I’m sure you can fill in the corresponding things that could transpire with an over-confident student.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that a kid will pose as more confident than he really is, or decide not to respond to the question at all.  To me, it’s not important that all of my students share their feelings toward their skills with me in this way.  If providing the occasion helps even a few of them to do so, the fruits of that will make me feel like it’s well worth asking.

To sum up, I’ve come to think that any answer to the question “When has a student mastered a skill?” needs to include, “when she feels like a master of it.”
I hope that finding room in my classroom for the affective aspect of learning skills will make for more effective assessment and feedback.

(Ah, there’s the punchline.  It turns out I’m not a spelling dummy after all.)

SBG: Skills Mastery as the Beginning, Not the End

Ah, the interminable design cycles that we as teachers put ourselves through! Something that I often find challenging is how lengthy these cycles can be–I mean, if the day after you’ve shared a lesson with kids you have a great idea about how it could have been way better, it could be up to a year or more before you get a chance to try it out.  And that’s if you remember your idea.

The cycle that has thrown me for the biggest loop is the one I’ve been in about SBG (or Standards-Based Grading).  When I first got into this mathedtweetblogiverse two years ago, I was excited by the work Dan Meyer and others had done to make their expectations about skills clear to their students.  Until that point, my own assessment arc had not been going well.  From the start, it had been really hard to match up my previous experiences with assessment with Saint Ann’s culture and ideals.  Giving quizzes and tests in arbitrary and knee-jerky fashion after we had covered “enough” material fizzled in the face of not giving grades.  Also, neither the tests themselves nor the feedback and corrections I labored over seemed to improve anyone’s understanding.

When I pulled back from those traditional assessment methods, however, I found myself in something of a vacuum.  The fact that I’m in charge of my own curricula and evaluations with little to no constraint–coupled with the fact that I tend to spontaneity and disorganization–often meant that I did few formal assessments whatsoever.  I knew that my students were learning things from the work they were doing for my class.  I could make records about my observations of their activities to include in my anecdotal reports.  Still, I couldn’t help but to think something was missing–my students just weren’t being best served by the lack of clear expectations, a systematic way of pursuing them, and a feedback cycle.

Enter SBG.

Trying to bring Standards-Based Grading into a no-grades school was an interesting adventure.  Suffice it to say that after trying out several different formulations over the past two years, I’m really excited to try out my new approach very soon.  I’ve decided to go binary with respect to my skills quizzes, since trying to measure progress toward understanding numerically never felt fruitful to me in practice, and there’s no need for me to establish a final “average” for each kid.  (Shawn Cornally’s thoughts here also helped to get me there.)  I’ll continue to have skills lists for my kids and weekly quizzes for them to choose from in order to demonstrate their mastery.  I’ll be giving them copious feedback and letting them know if they nailed it or still have work to do, and we’ll both keep track of the skills they’ve mastered.

Still, I really wanted to find a way to encourage students to see that skills mastery is the beginning of the story, rather than the end.  Skills are tools that let you do new things, that empower you, that even give you a new bit of social capital.  With these thoughts in mind, I designed the following sheet to help kids to track their progress toward skills mastery and to inspire them to use their knowledge in fruitful ways.  I’ll be using the same document to track their progress.

That first column gets checked off once a kid aces a weekly skills quiz–that’s the binary got-it-or-don’t.  The space below is for me and students to keep track of feedback that I give them and reminders they might make for themselves.  The other three columns are by no means sequential and don’t represent “stages” past mastery.  Rather, they are suggested asperations and goals for the newly-minted master geometric-series-summer.  Would you like to try a non-routine problem that involves geometric series?  Just ask me for one.  Does someone you know–in our class or out of it–need help with this topic, or just curious about learning some new math?  Share your new knowledge and document it by journaling, snapping a photo, or making a video.  Did you recognize three months later that knowing how to sum geometric series opened up a route to solving a problem as you worked on a project?  Sweet!  Include it in your project write-up.

The point is that those other columns are an ever-present alert: You know things!  You can seek out ways to use your knowledge!  All three of the “choice prongs” are here–the suggested tasks are big and open-ended, the timeframe is as long as needed, and students can choose these for themselves as goals and record and reflect on their successes as they happen.

A final thought: it seems to me that something like this could be easily adapted to a grades environment.  I’m not well-practiced at designing grading schemes, but I’m thinking:

  • non-mastery of a skill in isolation is a high F
  • mastery of a skill in isolation is a high B or low A
  • mastery of a skill in isolation plus a further use of the skill is a high A

And then average them up.

Thoughts on the practicality of such a grading scheme?  Comments on the set-up I’m going to try out?  Ideas for other ways of building and sharing skills mastery beyond use in isolation?