Monthly Archives: May 2014

Crushing Steel Drums with Chemistry

Each year in Chemistry I do a little demo with a soda can where air pressure crushes the can. We also watch a video of it happening and the students always say “ooh, can we do that!!” I tell them, “Sure, if you can bring me a 55-gallon oil drum!”

Well, the past 2 years students took me up on that challenge, and this year it was more exciting. I brought my video camera to school and everything, but totally forgot to hand it to a student to run! Oops. Fortunately a student had pulled out a phone & taped the important part. Here’s the video for your viewing pleasure.


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RE: Ability Grouping

Having just read Fawn Nguyen’s post on tracking/ability grouping, I wanted to imitate her (you’re supposed to imitate the best, right?) and (1) write down my own educational experiences with tracking and (2) write down my thoughts and where I am now on the issue (still an evolving process).

Elementary School

My school had one pull-out class named just “AG class” (Academically Gifted). I think I enjoyed it, although when it came to writing assignments I felt that most people, if not everyone else in there was way beyond me, especially when it came to creativity. I remember my teacher would play this association game where you wrote down as many ideas as you could connected to something and whoever had the most got a piece of candy. In 3rd (or was it 4th?) grade, I won because I cheated & looked off a really sharp kid’s paper. I told my mom about it later that day. She scared me by being spontaneously furious about it “You didn’t do that, did you?!?!?” after which I lied and told her what she wanted to hear: “No, I didn’t.” I don’t know if I ever ate that candy.

I found out that I had a talent for multiplication facts in 4th grade. Our teachers would post how every student did on their weekly quiz outside of the classroom to have a “fun” competition between classes. One time I didn’t get a 100% and the whole class turned to me and gave one of those “what, Jonathan didn’t get 100%?” looks. I don’t think I actually cried, but I was close.

Middle School

I started middle school in “honors” classes except for math. My MS was the one in the county that had “AG level 3”–one step above honors, and I guess I was still testing well in math at that point. After 1 quarter, my dear sweet mother pushed all the way up to the top of the school bureaucracy to get me into all AG level 3 classes.

Now socially, for the first time I felt accepted. Elementary school wasn’t the best for me: I was bullied in cub scouts by other boys who were also in my class because I wasn’t allowed to watch the R-rated movies. It didn’t help that I had always been introverted and shy.  Now I was surrounded by others who actually cared about school (most of them).

High School: Part 1

Since my MS was a magnet school, only a few of my treasured classmates moved up to my districted HS. I wanted to go to the IB Magnet HS (partly to follow a girl, but that’s neither here nor there) to stay with the majority of my friends, but my parents decided they wanted all 3 of us to go to the same school[1].

I remember being so bored in “Honors” Alg II freshman year. I was in a class with mostly sophomores and some juniors. I think there might have been 2 of us freshmen. The teacher sat at the front 100% of the class and I had already seen all this material  before in Alg I (except for i–that was the one new concept all year).

High School: Part 2

When I became a junior, I applied & attended NCSSM (the North Carolina School of Science and Math). Part of the reason I attended is because of the incredible time I had in MS which I missed: being surrounded by like-minded peers who care about their education. Part of the reason I attended was because if the incredibly arrogant view I had of my own math & education abilities.


Like Fawn, I had/have very similar beliefs about ability grouping. I’d like to add a few more:

When students who care about school are surrounded by students who also care about school, they get to experience friends their age.[2] [3]

What about AP classes?


This year in Chemistry, I sat down with a student to focus on Acids & Bases because he wasn’t getting it. I gave him the following equation:

2.3 + x = 14

I asked him “do you know how to do this?” and he just sorta shook his head. I felt guilty since this was the end of the year, but this isn’t the sort of thing I look out for in my incoming Juniors. Perhaps I should start looking out for it.

I remember one teacher who had been in the field for 2 years before coming to grad school, whereas most of us were fresh out of undergrad. She had some very strong opinions, one of which was that tracking absolutely shouldn’t happen. Having never been in the classroom myself, I thought “how naive of her”. She was in the science teacher program. Having taught science now for a few years, I completely agree with her: students of differing abilities can help one another grow in the right classroom environment (our school is too small to track in anything but math). But I still stuck to my guns on math because I hadn’t seen any other way.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so bored in Alg II in HS if I hadn’t been on the “fast track” the years before. Or perhaps we need to weed out all the unchangeable & ineffective teachers (ha). In one sense, math tracking makes up for the fact that most math teachers (1) don’t differentiate and (2) don’t teach problem solving. Or is this a case of “bringing down smart kids so that we can all have a level playing field”. Probably not. Although many parents/teachers/administrations probably would see it like that.

After I read Fawn’s piece, I went looking online and found this article which helped me understand more why tracking is bad. Perhaps we shouldn’t teach “math class”. Perhaps we should teach “problem solving class” where math is but a tool for that. Sorta how you’ve never heard of “screwdriver class” or “hammer class”–it’s just “woodshop”.

My view (and understanding) is still evolving and I hope that this is something that I can continue to learn about. And I hope to get better at teaching problem solving.

Thank you, Fawn.


[1] Joke’s on them: when my younger brother got to my HS, I opted to go to a boarding school. When my younger sister go to HS age, she opted to go to the local magnet arts school. So none of us ever were in the same HS at the same time.

[2] Are schools responsible for this? Depends on your view of schools. If “social knowledge” is part of an education, along with athletic knowledge or moral knowledge, then yes. If we only care about academic knowledge, then no.

[3] One summer I attended Duke TIP (“Talent Identification Program”) at the end of MS. Again, I was surrounded by like-minded peers. This may have been a more novel experience for me had I not had a similar experience in MS. Should this be the outlet for students who care about school to find peers? Perhaps. Ironically, I taught a class one summer while in grad school, which is what prompted me to consider & pursue teaching for the first time ever. The name of the class? “Math Problem Solving”. (Have we come full circle yet?)


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First Year into SBG: a Summary

This past year was my first year fully immersed in SBG (Standards Based Grading), and I notice that I do the most thinking/reflecting near the end of the year, but before the year is quite over (aka NOW). Since I’m motivated, I’m going to cement some of my thoughts by posting them here, especially by looking at what went wrong.

Problem: Bad/Ugly Standards

I was extremely inconsistent in my creation of standards/learning targets. Yes, I sat down before the year started and created a document for each of my classes (well, okay, I stole nearly all my physics ones from Kelly O’Shea) but I also wanted the standards to be “dynamic” and adaptive to my students’ needs. Because of this, I created some really crappy standards.

Some standards were just stupid. I wanted to draw students’ attention to the fact that they need to be careful about how they approach the Gas Law problems in Chemistry, so I made a separate standard for just selecting the right way to start the problem. Seriously. I called it “8.4 Identifying the Correct Law”.

Solution: Better Standards (?)

This summer I’m planning on sitting down and studying some states’ standards (CCSS doesn’t really go all the way up to Precalculus, and it doesn’t get specific with Chemistry and Physics). This has already led to me initiating conversations with the Calculus teacher, which is good.

For another thing, I’m not going to separate a standard from “application of a standard”. That just increases the segmentation of math which is already a problem. All “application” will be included in the standard, perhaps sometimes defined at a “Mastery” level, though I need to be careful about that and consider standard by standard.

Problem: Students Unsure of their “Grade”

Yes, yes, I know that part of the beauty of SBG is that students shouldn’t be fixated on a single big (absurdly averaged) grade, and believe me, I said “no” to every student who walked in wanting to know what their parents would see when the progress report came out. (“Do you have a Mastery in every standard? No? Then go study!”)

But this came back to bite me in the butt when one student, just before a sport-eligibility-changing Quarter, asked if he was passing. At just a quick glance, the grades looked “good enough” to me, but I found out later that, according to the calculations I had setup, he was not. I felt bad having told him he was passing so after I explained the situation, I gave him the minimum passing grade, but told him he wasn’t going to be so fortunate at the end of the semester.

Solution: “Essential” and “Secondary” Standards

I actually stole this idea from Kelly as well, so go there and read that for a much better explanation. Basically, all standards are either “Essential” or “Secondary”. In order to be passing, they must be passing 100% of the “Essential” standards (easy for them to check, right?).

This also creates a way for me to limit my assessments and focus students on getting the basics first. Students who haven’t passed a basic standard (if I’m on top of my game) won’t be allowed to take the next quiz with everyone else. They’ll be re-taking their previous assessment (after much intervention and communication to parents to assure me they’re studying/practicing).

After this, I’ll make some simple calculation & actually share it with students so if they really care to know exactly what they have, they can figure it out themselves. Maybe.

Problem: Students Didn’t See HW as Important/Essential Practice

I especially failed them in Physics. The curriculum dragged on in that class much, much longer than it should have (almost 1.5 times as long!) and I ran out of time in Precalculus as a result of the same problem.

Solution: Fewer Standards & More “non-counting” Assessments

I’ve already explained how I’ve combined (removed) many of my more ridiculous standards. True, there’s not less material to cover, but if I can hone my assessments to be more specific, then I can

I know, I know: more assessments seems like it would take more time, but I think if I can give immediate feedback assessments (I plan on using GradeCam for preassessments and mid-week 5-minute checkups), students would see where they are and whether they’re prepared for an assessments.

After much internal strife, I’ve also decided to remove Participation Points from my classes. Even though Participation points let students choose how to achieve their grade in one sense, it also allowed them to get credit for things that didn’t necessarily improve their understanding. I’m worried (and students have voiced this to me) that they may be less motivated to accomplish intangibles, such as going to tutoring, or blogging about a particularly helpful class. It’ll be up to me to show & convince them that these intangibles are so helpful when it comes to taking the assessments.

In addition to that, I’ll be motivating them through parent/guardians.[1] If a student doesn’t pass an essential standard, I’ll give them one of these:

Please let me know what you think, as this is just a rough draft right now. I must give credit to Rick Wormeli for giving me the idea at his SBG conference a few weeks ago.  Prior to giving them this sheet, I will need to give them ways of studying, something I assume (incorrectly) that they know how to do before coming to my class.


[1] Each year I promise myself I’ll get better at contacting parents, and each year I get a little better. But this’ll be the year. I promise. I think.

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Survey Results: Student Responses to SBG

This was my first year using standards based grading (SBG) so I was really interested what the students had to say about SBG.

I asked the question: “If I told you that I was getting rid of the standards grading for next year and started grading like a “normal” teacher[1], what would you say?”

I’ve tried to categorize the responses a bit, but I didn’t get every response, just a sampling of as many types of responses as I could. [2]

The Negative & Thoughtless


Not to do that. It wouldn’t be fair.

These Students are a Product of The Current Grading System in our Schools [3]

I would like it because I would know my grade like A,B,C,or F I like percent grades on test or quizzes

Yeah! I can know my letter grade now!

I would be okay with it. Only if retakes are still there. I constantly freak out about what my grade is in a class at a specific point in the year but I don’t like it that I have to wait until a quarter or half quarter comes up.

The Resigned

it wouldn’t be as good but since we’ve done it all through school we wouldn’t mind.

It kind of helped I just sucked at physics

The Silly

Doesn’t matter, I graduate! 🙂

Good for them.


Aw duck yeah let’s go!

The Positive

I prefer the standard grading. It eases my understanding of my level.

I would say that would be cool, but I’ve learned to liked the standards grading.

The Positive & Thought-provoking

You would have to teach a lot slower than what you are doing and make sure that everyone knows what is happening. Right now you teach really fast And most of the time I don’t fully understand what is going on so the standards help because I can retake it.

That would be fine. I did fine, better than Pre-Calculus, but I can’t use the “multiple chances” to take quizzes as well due to my extra-curriculars I take throughout the year.

I would totally not like it…. because the way you grade makes student get a perfect score because if you miss just one question you get down to 70. And the fact that we get to retake our quizzes and correct the wrong answers help me understand the topic even more. [4]

The SBG Poster-child Quotes

Noooooooooo! I really like the system you have set up since it gave me numerous of chances to make my grade better. I also like how you made everything a standard that all builds on each other.

I say keep the grading scale it may be hard to get use to but I think it really helps us learn the material better.

The standards were good because it allowed students to go back and fix their grades. It would let them see what they would need to fix and they can go back to fix it if they had wanted to

It would be like a “normal” class. The way your grading standards are set, really helped me.

I’ve come to really like the 1,2,3,4 grading system. It’s really helpful so you can see exactly what you need to improve on. It’s also a lot easier to improve your grade because you can take as many quizes as you want every week.

At the beginning of the yr I did not like the system but as the end of the year started to come around I began to like it. I am glad that I have the opportunity to retake stuff that I did not understand because we learned it super fast and did spend time on it. This grading system also puts students grades their responsibility….it is their job to work at their grades

I love the standard system and it makes it very easy to keep track of what I need to work on and I’m able to look at my grades instead of asking you all the time. Please don’t get rid of standards!

Like I said, I tried to keep the ratios honest, but I don’t know whether I did that completely. Some students are still stuck in “A-B-C-F” mode, but many (most?) recognized the benefits of SBG and came to appreciate this grading system. This was pleasantly surprising, and a big mark in SBG’s favor.

So I managed to convince my students, despite my bumbling, first-year attempt at this. Now I just need to convince my colleagues of the advantages of SBG. Or at least make them aware of the system and the potential it possesses.


[1] Students don’t have a solid grasp of what “SBG” is, hence my attempt to clarify the question. Despite this (or because of it), they saw it as “all the stuff that I do differently than most other teachers at our school” which includes things like re-taking quizzes or allowing them to do quiz-corrections. These are results of my flavor of SBG, but students aren’t professional educators, so they don’t recognize the difference.

[2] I didn’t want edit these responses, so I apologize for terrible grammar/spelling. To their defense, many of them had to do this on an iPad, and my hands start to shake if I have to type too much on an iPad.

[3] They were frustrated that they didn’t know/couldn’t find out their letter grade unless it was a report card. I was frustrated that I had to change my grades into an “A, B, C, F” letter grade.

[4] I think this is a product of my grading scale being 1 to 4. Rick Wormeli pointed out that students will associate 1 with D/F, 2 with C, 3 with B, and 4 with A. OR they’ll think in terms of percentage as this student is: 4 is 100%, 3 is 75%, 2 is 50%, etc. The student also has the misconception that a 4 is “perfect” rather than “mastery”. I worked some to clarify that, but apparently not enough.

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Survey Results: Pace of Class

I just did anonymous student surveys via Google Forms today and, among other things, I found this little nugget of info:

The pace of the class was…

Way too fast (I was constantly behind) 1 2%
A little too fast (I was behind a good bit) 24 41%
Just right. 27 46%
A little too slow (I wanted a little more challenge) 5 8%
Way too slow (I wanted a much bigger challenge) 2 3%


I’m pleasantly surprised by these results (not all of my students were present today, but this represents a majority of them).

What do you think we should be shooting for as teachers?

I believe that, if possible, all students should feel a little “pressed” and “stretched”. I’m actually shocked more students didn’t feel completely overwhelmed[1]. I think it depends on the student whether they should feel “just right”. The student who can really identify when they’re learning knows that being just a little “pressed” or “stretched” is “just right”, although I don’t know how many of my students have that acute an understanding of their own learning.

If I had to pick any two categories to get 87% of the votes in, it would be those two, so I am definitely pleasantly surprised by these results. I definitely have SBG to thank for helping me identify whether the class, as a whole, is able to “move on”.

Now time to see if I can push just a little faster next year (I was “behind” where I was last year, when I didn’t do SBG).


[1] Perhaps those are the same students who would not come to class on the last day of school? Or not feel like providing any feedback and just pretend to take the survey?

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A Standards-Based Class Website

I made the switch to SBG (Standards Based Grading) this year, and one thing I discovered about my course is that I do not provide nearly enough scaffolding support for students to study the material in the way that they can best learn it. I saw this across the entire course, but I also saw this on a standard-by-standard basis. Often a student needed to study for a quiz they did poorly on and the best advice I could give was “Study the quiz I gave back to you!”. [2]

So I decided to edit my class website around the standards and create a page on my website for each standard.

Here’s where I am 7 standards in:

Drop-down Menu Drop-down Menu-zoom

Each webpage looks something like this:



So on it, I (try to) clearly explain what each standard means in terms of “I can” statements. I also have resources for learning and practicing the standard [3], as well as vocabulary.

Notice that I have both online material and worksheets that students can print off for those who have no internet at home (they have access to computers & a printer throughout the school day while at school). Notice also that (nearly) all of those worksheets have the answers with them.

This summer I intend to continue adding resources, and I have some questions of the MTBoS:

  1. If you had a website/webpage like this, what else would you provide for your students?
  2. Are there other good resources for practice or learning that you would include?
  3. How would you encourage students to use this?

I described my idea to one particularly motivated student of mine and she exclaimed “OMG, why didn’t you do that this year?!?”, to which I had to explain how teachers become better every year. I told her to be thankful she didn’t have me 3 years ago. 🙂

Here are some links to the standards I’ve made so far for my Precalculus class[4]:

I plan on working on this tool over the summer. It will do several things for me:

  1. Organize my materials as a teacher for other teachers to use.
  2. Focus on what “Proficiency” and “Mastery” means on each topic I teach (by working out the “I can” statements) [5].
  3. Help me learn the textbook that was new this year to my class, and which I used very little.

As always, thank you for reading and providing feedback, MTBoS!


[1] When I hear scaffolding, this is what I think of. Besides, that’s an edu-jargon term.

[2] This isn’t bad advice, but it also shouldn’t be the best I can do.

[3] Yes, that’s Khan Academy that you see there because I believe that KA can be a good resource. No, it don’t in any way replace good teaching, but for some students and some topics, it can be extremely helpful.

[4] These standards are subject to change, so please give advice to me if you see something funny about them as well.

[5] I hope to look at standards that other states provide, as well as “breakdowns of the standards”. Those things never interested me before SBG.


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Assessments: How to use them?

Ever since I attended a conference led by Rick Wormeli, I’ve been re-thinking several of my practices, especially my grading practices. One practice I can’t figure out, however, is what to do with assessments: especially formative assessments.

As I was thinking about this, I came across this post by Michael Persham. In it, he explains how SBG (Standards Based Grading) over-emphasizes grades by constantly reminding students of their grades.

What is interesting is how Rick Wormeli, in the conference advocating SBG, talked about how “grades should not be attached to formative assessment”. Instead, Rick Wormeli only put summative assessments into the grade-book, although this is done frequently.

This is actually the opposite of how I initially viewed SBG. I pictured SBG as a way to free students from the weight of any one assessment. My goal was to assess, and assess so frequently that students realized that any one assessment won’t make or break their grade. In fact, often it doesn’t even count because there are enough assessments afterwards. And if there’s not enough built-in assessments, students can request more on their own. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere around all of my assessments so that students are comfortable demonstrating what they know. I give out the top score to non-perfect papers (provided they show their work and demonstrate full understanding). I’ll sometimes hand out assessments and point out that “this won’t even count because we have 2 other assessments later  this semester on the same topic”. I grade it and put it the grade-book, knowing that it won’t affect their grade at the end of the year.

Summary of My Dilemma

I guess I’m trying to decide between these two approaches to the issue of grades: do I (1) grade so frequently that students “think nothing of any individual assessment” and really see grades as a snapshot of a student’s knowledge at a given time, or (2) make most assessments non-graded, giving non-graded feedback, and reserving grades for those select (albeit frequent) summative (re-takable) assessments?

I think part of the problem on my end is I don’t fully understand or appreciate the problem of the summative assessment. I recognize that students can focus too much on “what they got” vs “how they can approve”, but if you drastically simplify the grading system[1], does it do as much damage to a student’s learning?

“But Jonathan, why don’t you just do a lot of non-graded formative AND a lot of summative assessment?” Well, this year I’m behind in all three of my classes (Physics, Precalculus, and Chemistry), and all those assessments take a lot of time. Perhaps I could work it out that I collect and mark up students’ homework (non-graded) more frequently, but that takes time that I didn’t have this past year.

I definitely have some more thinking to do when it comes to this, and these blog posts are becoming more and more jumbled as I just ramble.

Let’s make something coherent in this post, shall we?

Let me finish by summarizing/bullet-pointing what I see wrong with my current flavor of SBG as my grading system:

  • A given grade on a standard doesn’t necessarily cover all aspects of that standard (this is complex and deserves a post of it’s own).
  • I don’t have a good bearing of what “proficient” vs “mastery” means/looks like.  I need to study this over the summer… and as long as I’m still teaching.
  • I need to be more intentional about helping students retake assessments. Scaffold for them by providing a study plan and strategies for studying.
  • I need to determine what the role of the formative assessment is in my classroom and how they impact grades (if at all).
  • Students don’t have nearly enough practice opportunities for the assessments I’m throwing at them.
  • Oh yeah, I want to do pre-assessments next year.

Okay, that’s the short-list. One downside to reflecting before the year is over is, now I see what’s wrong with my current grading system and I feel a little sick continuing to grade my students the same way I have been for the past year, because I can’t change the grading scheme on them with 1.5 weeks of school left. Oh well, at least I feel much better now than I did this time last year[2].


[1] I’m considering going to a 3-level scale next year: 0=”Not Yet”, 1=”Proficient/Passing”, 2=”Mastered”. Thoughts?

[2] This time last year I saw the beauty of SBG, but was using a traditional grading system in my class and couldn’t change it for the whole 2nd semester.


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