Wednesday, 31 October 2012


I just learned about Taxgedo through an online forum. Basically, it takes the tag cloud from a blog or other website and turns them into a visual display. I took the tags from my blog, uploaded my compressed picture, and got this:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Engaging Parents with a Classroom Blog

Studies are finding a close correlation between parental involvement in their child's learning and their child's academic achievement. Some are here, here and here. Although an effective teacher is foremost, all veteran teachers notice that students who are high achievers have parents that push them and value a good education. How can we get more parents involved in this process?

I wrote a post back in August about how to foster better relationships with parents, but found that I've really gotten things going this year with use of a classroom blog. Some of the things that I've done are that have been extremely useful:
  1. Having a page for parents on a classroom blog for tips to support their child's learning. Other topics might be on the curriculum or teaching pedagogy.
  2. Creating an email list of all my parents. Although it wasn't easy with 200 email addresses, with this list, I've been able to write letters to parents informing them about major events in our classroom. After a major project or learning activity, I've written a little summary and then looped it back to the URL post.
 My parents have been ecstatic to see the things that their children are doing. It's helped deprivatize learning and provides families with topics of discussion at the dinner table. Some of parent comments:

This is Hayeon’s mom.
I think she had a useful experience and a choice. Obviously she seemed to enjoy the time. When she observed the cell through the microscope, she must have excited the wonder and mystery of the cells. Also, she must have learned how to use the microscope exactly.
Most of all, I felt impressed by science teacher’s kind and detailed explanation for the students. Thank you for letting my daughter have the wonderful, useful and memorable time.

Your post was neat and thank you for your kind description, and because of the translation, it helped me more to understand. Once again thank you and I think this lesson will be useful in the future one day for Jackie.
From Jackie’s Father

Hello. This is Lily’s mom, and I have read the microscope post with her. She explained some facts, I thought she did a great job, I can tell she listens in class and that’s alway is good. I think that this is useful for the students, and this is a good equipment for science. It’s neat.

This is Liam’s mum, Michelle. I found reading this entry very exciting, it is great to see the students at the forefront of the various methods to gain information, and your approach to balancing those, to make the most of each, will certainly inspire – as it has done for Liam already. I’m looking forward to seeing more… iPad apps next???

Related Posts
10 Ways to Foster better Parent Relationships for Student Achievement

Formative Assessment Ideas for the Math Classroom

I'm feeling good about using formative assessments in math class. I'm experimenting with a number of exit interviews and entrance interviews that all have a sort of "gradation" that allow for remediation and grouping strategies which help identify trends in my learners. Some are digital if you're a techie, but some are old school. 

Formative Assessment and Why It's Important
Formative assessments are those little day to day things that you use to make sure students are learning. There are many forms of this learning, but it should be often, tie to curricular standards and be as accurate as possible. There needs to be some periodic check ins that show how students are working towards mastery and that's where this is so important. It becomes very obvious when formative assessments have been given a rubber stamp of "perfect" and then a quiz or summative final assessment shows otherwise. I have found that when teachers grade homework on mere completion, they're setting themselves up for failure. When used properly, good formative assessments can be signposts on the way to understanding and help identify patterns in student achievement. Time to use these is obviously important, so I'd like to share a number of strategies that you might consider using in your class that don't take much time to do.

1.) Self Assessment on a three point rubric. I have a wall on the back of the class with a three point rubric. It's a little numeric obviously, but with flipping instruction (front end loading of content prior to a lesson) it leaves class time for students to practice and grade their work. At the end of class, students evaluate their work based on completion and numbers correct. Although their self appraisal is included in their grade book, it's given a "0" rating and marked as 'practice'.

2.) Self, Teacher and Anonymous Peer Evaluation on a standards based "learning target" Instead of grading an assignment, a learning target is a quick formative assessment based on skills learned in class. Say, after a lesson on multiplying rational numbers, you give one question for students to write and explain that can be evaluated by the teacher, a peer or themselves. The quality of their response and the thouroughness of their thinking is then grouped into either novice, practicioner, apprentice and finally, expert. A sample rubric looks like this below:

I recently gave my math students the exit interview question about rational numbers and after evaluating their answer, put it on the learning target poster below. When they come into class, they see how their answer was grouped and read responses in the other categories to see how they "fit" and why their response was put where it was. Students are given the opportunity to assess themselves and also each other. like #1 above, all groupings are recorded, but not graded.

3.) Google Forms. Google has some great tools and a simple form can be drafted up with such ease. If your school has a 1:1 program, simple make it up and send it to kids to complete by the end of class. What I love about it is that it collates responses into a spreadsheet for data tracking. 

4.) Socrative Teacher. I learned about Socrative Teacher in a recent workshop and one of my coworkers uses this as an "entry" interview used in conjuction with a warm up. After front loading a lesson by "flipping" you use it as a means to diagnose who needs more help with the subject matter in class. For example, you list a few questions and if everyone passed question #2, you won't have to waste time going over it. If Suzy missed questions 1-3, you'll have to spend time with her especially or assign station activites that help her with those content standards. 

Personally, I find socrative teacher a bit clunky, as the interface is not very smooth. However, it is a nice alternative if you don't have Google Apps (Forms) in your school. 

5.) White Boards. They're old school. However, they're cheap and effective. In this example below I wanted students to show that they could cross cancel factors when multiplying fractions and I wanted to see that each student could do it. Obviously, I could walk around the class and check but with a whiteboard, each student can hold up and demonstrate their understanding. 

Related Posts

Friday, 19 October 2012


I just used "Equate" for the first time. It's like scrabble but with operations, numbers and equal signs. We ordered a few class sets and I felt it was a great activity while the students were finishing and debriefing a project and I was following up with a few students on a test. It could be used as a fun game between units as well!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Using Student Blogs for Authentic Science Assessments

We've come to the end of our unit on Biology in grade 6 science. In addition to learning about diversity of life, students have been discussing and debating moral ethics in science, such as why some forms of life seem to have precedence over others to live. For example, why do we abhor when a Panda bear population is pushed to the brink of extinction and we don't give second thoughts to stepping on insects? Students have debated the ethics of zoos as a tool of preservation and entrapment. Such essential questions make for fun discussions.

Our final investigation is an experiment centered around living things. Students design an investigation around a question and ultimately develop their scientific laboratory skills in preparation for their individual summative lab. Here is the outline:
Culminating Project Investigating Amphibians

I developed this rubric around the scientific method which I apply to all my end of unit summative labs. I think the language is pretty middle school friendly and hits the benchmarks well within the scientific method:

Investigating Amphibians Rubric-Diversity of Life

This is the second year that we've been 1:1 in the middle school. As our teaching staff learns how to best use student netbooks as learning tools, we are also looking for ways to incorporate them into authentic assessments that students will have in their digital portfolios. Such uses allow for keeping these artifacts rather than tossing them away after grading and sharing research with the greater world. Instead of giving a paper copy to the students, the students simply make a copy of the prompts and paste it in their blog for less paper output. See some examples below:

  1. Does being in groups affect tadpole behavior?
  2. Do tadpoles react differently to dirty or clear water?
  3. Do dark or bright environments affect tadpole behavior?
  4. How does population size affect tadpole respiration?

I think this connects "learning to life" which is in fact one of our mission statements. We cannot resign to having students produce work that is done in isolation. Scientists share their work with the world, invite peer review and know that the process of science is a collaborative one. There are so many collaborative projects that have developed online wherein students can share data from their home environment and laboratory with others on the side of the planet. If we want to develop scientists of the future, shouldn't this be a goal?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Lunch in the Park with Rational Numbers

The seventh graders have just had lunch in the park. This was our culminating project in our rational numbers unit in math. Math has so many practical applications and it's great when students have the opportunity to practice their skills in real world settings. I love it when students ask me: "What will we use this for? " and "Why do we have to learn this?" This is the hardest question that a teacher gets asked, but I like it, as it is important to always have relevance in mind when undertaking all educational objectives. As we have come to the end of our unit on "rational numbers" I designed an investigation with Ms. Cuthbertson and Mr. Elshoff to integrate some strands from health class into ones with math class to develop a rational numbers project involving shopping, the food pyramid, and of course, rational numbers. Students have to plan a meal around a healthy eating %, shop for a meal and stay within their budget and calculate differences involving rational numbers. See a project overview below:   Rational Numbers Project Rubric

We took all 66 seventh graders over to "Citimart" during "D Block" on Monday. The students planned a meal around the food pyramid and tried to proportionally build this meal around a group budget of 300,00 dong. Afterwards, students put their creation together and had lunch in the park.  

The kids had such a great time and the experience really brings learning to life. Where do we use math in our daily lives? Every time we go shopping! Some testimonials: Noah: "It was fun to learn and see how our budget added up."

MK: "It was inspiring to share and work with other people."

David: "It was fun discussing what we had to buy with our friends."

Doanh: "It was fun because our class got our and experienced a different style of learning."

Adam: "It was good to have a budget and it taught me how to use money and a budget better."

Seo Yoon: "It was fun, but the food was not that tasty. I will appreciate my mother so much more when she makes me lunch in the morning."

Soo Mi: "It was fun. It was fun shopping with others around."

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Authentic Assessment: Graphing Functions

As "21st Century Skills" has entered the education sphere, we have been exploring ways to make students content creators. Such opportunities give students the chance to teach their peers and a digital record gives them content which to use in their portfolios.

The following is a project based authentic assessment which takes place of a traditional assessment but does measure and include all learning benchmarks:
  1. Which best represents the graph of y = 2x − 5? Standard 3.3
  2. Students solve simple linear equations and inequalities over the rational numbers Standard 4.2
  3. Graph linear functions, noting that the vertical change (change in y-value) per unit of horizontal change (change in x-value) is always the same and know that the ratio (“rise over run”) is called the slope of a graph. Standard 3.3
  4. Plot the values of quantities whose ratios are always the same (e.g., cost to the number of an item, feet to inches, circumference to diameter of a circle). Fit a line to the plot and understand that the slope of the line equals the ratio of the quantities. Standard 3.4 
  5. Solve two-step linear equations and inequalities in one variable over the rational numbers, interpret the solution or solutions in the context from which they arose, and verify the reasonableness of the results. Standard 4.1
  6. Graph functions of the form y = nx 2 and y = nx 3 and use in solving problems. Standard 3.1 
  7. Graph linear functions, noting that the vertical change (change in y-value) per unit of horizontal change (change in x-value) is always the same and know that the ratio (“rise over run”) is called the slope of a graph. Standard 3.3

 What I did was turn the solving of a function into the final assessment as I felt that the project targeted them well, and I could debrief some of the minor points of slope afterwards. (Some project only hit a minor swath of standards so this is why I still favor traditional tests in some regards)

In this case though, students recorded themselves using the document camera while solving a function. The project rubric was at their side for reference which included some target vocabulary and some of the things I wanted them to do while working with functions. The document was in a quiet section of the room where students could "rotate through" over a period of two weeks. Here is an example of a student recording:

After the recording, I met with the student to discuss how well they met the objectives, and if they wanted to, could resubmit their work. The video was great content for their digital portfolios which they worked on at the end of the year.

Graphing Linear Functions Rubric

I'm tinkering with the rubric a bit before we start this year's projects, but the students said that they quite liked the experience. I don't always use projects as summative assessment, but through good design principles, an authentic summative assessment can bring applications to life. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Gap Minder

I first saw "Gap Minder" in a TED talk and thought that the presenter had created the animation simply for his talk.

"Gap Minder" shows statistics in a fun flow chart that takes variables and shows how they move over time. See the picture example below.

We've been talking about how societies and nations change over time in the sixth grade. We're also examining the wide divide of rich and poor nations from statistics such as income per person and life expectancy. Such data makes the comparison much more identifiable. One can see the effects of the cultural revolution in the 1950's and the wide income disparity that has resulted in the last 200 years. Such a great lesson for societal change!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Turning Student Failure into Information

I've been thinking a lot about the process of failure as a method of learning. A few articles posted in the last few days all question failure as a learning and motivating tool. Valerie Strauss writes about it here. Alfie Kohn writes about it here. Joanne Jacobs reblogs about it here.

Kohn quotes Jerome Bruner's thought: "We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information,”  Ideally, we want students to walk away with this experience- "My experiment, or my essay, didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow."

Often they don't. Often they shut down. Often they give up. The authors above finish by asking: "How can schools teach students to learn from failure?" Good question.

I know some teachers that have their gradebooks "rigged" to ensure grade inflation. In other words, no matter how poorly a student does, this rigging provides the "illusion" of learning, which keeps the students and parents spirits high. This is only to be second guessed when standardized test scores reveal that Johnny, who is getting an "A or B" is in Language Arts class, is in the 50th percentile on standardized tests.

Marking students work and handing it back to them does not ensure learning. In fact, I will agree, a low mark will lower self esteem, so we cannot resign to telling students, "learn from your mistakes." What assurances do we have that they will?

To turn failure into constructive reflection, we must use assessment as a learning tool, not a destination. Marking how well students did on formative or summative assessment cannot be the end, but the signposts to helping re mediate misconceptions that individual students have. Here are some tips:

Use formative assessments often. These are entry level investigations that we might think of as homework or quizzes. However, we must provide time to meet with struggling students which every mixed ability heterogenous classroom has. Using 10-15 minutes of time to debrief and work with students can help, by walking them through problems they they may have missed. Eventually they say "Ah Ha! Now I get it!" and this time may provide insights as to why they were mistaken. Was it a simple mistake or was this a major conceptual misunderstanding? I have uncovered a treasure trove of insights about individual students in my classes as a result of small group conferences.   

Offer practice tests. We're have a discussion as a team about whether or not a retest should be offered. We as a math department have offered a "practice test" before a final test or alternative assessment to help students identify gaps in their learning as outlined by our Google doc curriculum maps. The data has shown to support this practice overwhelmingly. See it here.

Get parents involved. Emailing or contacting parents can be a big wake up call. We all want our children to be successful, and sometimes, their children are not very forthcoming about sharing their failures. Sometimes, my students get on "edge" when they hear that I'm contacting their parents but I always make a point to say "This is meant to help you improve as a learner, not to get you in trouble." Consider a classroom blog to keep parents informed about the happenings in your classroom and also consider putting together a parent mailing list to notify them of major events in your classroom.

Offer differentiated challenges for learning. There are many different ways that students can show their understanding, so it's good to vary it up with learning benchmarks in mind. One thing that we have done is to offer "challenge by choice" by David Suarez which offers the curriculum in different levels of challenge. This is not to be confused with "streamming" where students are put into groups by the teacher. Challenge by choice has been a big boon to my gifted learners and whereas Kohn argues that kids will always try for the "easiest track", I have found a high % of my class are advanced and highly advanced level learners have been excited by the challenge. Furthermore, students that actively engaged in higher level applications found greater gains in standardized tests.

There is a lot of grey area around the multitude of different assessment practices in education today. Some educators do a better job than others of using it truly effectively as a teaching and learning tool. Designing quality assessments around learning standards is the first step, reteaching struggling learners until they feel empowered and able is the second.

We cannot allow the fear of failure to not be honest and forthcoming about student abilities. I have had too many students transfer into my math class from outside schools who told them that they were an "A" student only to do dismal in my classroom. If we are to truly prepare students for the rigors of high school and college, we must turn the malleable middle school years into a time to develop good student skills, reflective practice and study habits. That, is how to turn student failure into information.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Tackling the Problem of Bullying-Part 1

Our grade 7 team has made a goal of reducing bullying in our middle school. There have been a few instances of students bullying each other, but it pretty much stays verbal and never has resulted in anyone going fisticuffs. Our school has a reputation as the most caring school in town and our students have reputations as generally well-behaved people.

Up until now, the staff have tried to minimize bullying opportunities by making ourselves visible in hallways and community places during passing periods and breaks, but still, it seems to happen from time to time. Perhaps no school can be completely "bully free" but with a unified approach we believe that we can minimize it from happening.

We unanimously decided that our approach cannot be limited to merely being visible and disciplinarians. If we are to succeed with this, we need to create a culture of appreciation and tolerance for one another, despite our differences. We made a list of strategies for implementations and hope to collect data before and after our initiative to determine it's effectiveness and thus "tweak" our strategies for the following school year. They are:
  1. Collecting data about bullying from the student body now and near the end of the school year. Using "Google Forms" and/or "Survey Monkey" can we determine patterns and whether or not our ideas have been effective or not.
  2. Initiating a "Stand Up" campaign in our advisory/pastoral program wherein we encourage students to stand up for one another and share testimonials in advisory. We have already undertaken this with posters, but hope to have some laminated reminders for student lockers. We have just started using advisory time to share stories about when students stand up for one another.
  3. Encourage more camaraderie in classes and sports practices by recognizing students for their accomplishments. I learned "appreciations" as a summer camp director that I hope to use in my classes and sports teams (see examples in the video below). I'm piloting a "rock star" of the week wall wherein every week I have news kids up and will give them "appreciations" for a broad range of positive intra or inter personal behavior. In time, students start to do their own appreciations of one another. 

I hope to collect data on these activities and do a follow up as "Part 2" in the spring time. If any other readers have ideas for how to reduce bullying in the classroom or school, feel free to share or comment!


I learned about instaGrok at a workshop a few weeks ago and finally I had the chance to sit down and explore it as a learning tool. InstaGrok is a web tool that makes connections, spits out visual images videos, quizzes, books and a host of other resources related to a querie of a search topic.

I typed in "plants" and instantly had a visual display with a number of topics related to plants. Clicking on each related topic brings up more topics, etc.

In addition to this, instaGrok produced an immediate quiz that students can do. If their answer is incorrect "red" it indicates the correct answer in "green"

There is also a host of "key facts".

If students sign up, they can make some notes in an online journal which they can then link up to any learning platform that your school might be using:

InstaGrok is a great tool for formative assessment, brainstorming, activating prior knowledge or group think.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Using Data to Support Instructional Practice

We're taking a hard look at data at our school. We have stockpiled so many different sources of data, internal and external, formative and summative and we're all trying to come to grips with it. At our team meeting yesterday, we started to share our assessment practices and whether we allowed a retest, and I realized that no one had collected any data to support whether or not retests were helping student acheivement or merely a method of grade inflation, shielding student's poor study skills from their parents.

I had a skype chat yesterday with a data and curriculum coordinator from the biggest international school in southeast asia and she assures me that every teacher can collect data to help support instructional practices. We need to do it. Seldom teachers do. However, she made a good comparison: "There are lucky schools whose students acheive highly but the teachers don't know why, and leading schools which are schools that know exactly why their students achieve what they do."

Something I do in math is offer a practice test before a final test or project based assessment. Is this effective? I took a look at the data of practice test score and wondered how many students increased from the practice test to their final test, how many stayed the same, and how many decreased. This was the data:

Pretty overwhelming. Of my 47 math students, 39 had shown improvement. Some had flat lined and some had decreased. Does the data support the hypothesis that this is a good practice? I think so.

I asked my students last year in an end of the year survey to say which method of instruction helped them learn the most. This was the result:

Related Posts
Should students be allowed a retest?
Is it OK to fail a student?
How to improve student skills

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Cooperative Learning Activity: Jigsaw

We’re in the middle of rational numbers in Math class. For our lesson on “dividing rational numbers” I decided to use an old school cooperative learning activity called ‘jigsaw’ wherein students are put into groups. Each group has a specific job which is later presented or shared with the class. Some jigsaw activities can last the whole class period. For today’s lesson, I decided to have it be pretty short and sweet to allow for independent practice.

Silk Slides

I just finished piloting 'silk slides'. Silk slides takes a slide show and turns it into a more collaborative experience online. I usually use "slideshare" to upload powerpoints for embedding like below, but taking in the information is a little "passive learning".

 With Silk Slides, you upload a slideshow and it gives you a URL. The students don't even need a username and account. They go to the URL that is spit out after an upload. You can pepper a slideshow with questions that students can comment on with each other and read each others comments.

The sample was a discussion prompt that I had at the end of my lesson on comparing plant and animal cells.

With "Silk Slides" students get to comment around the prompts, images and there is immediate feedback from every student.

The only real downside I see with silk slides are that there are some formatting issues that don't align perfectly after an upload. Other than that, it's worth a whirl.

Related Posts