Category Archives: MFE

Assessing How I Assess

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This week my students and I started on our first Charger Apps (google apps for Education branded for Providence Day) quiz. It was a fairly straight forward opportunity for students to demonstrate how well they can identify independent and subordinate clauses. My goals in using Charger Apps were related to archiving student work and tracking corrections.

Here is how it worked. The quiz was distributed to the students by sharing the documents via Charger Apps (google docs). Each student open the shared document, made a copy, renamed the filed, and shared it back with me. Students then had to highlight in green the independent clauses, yellow for the subordinate clauses, and underline subordinating words. The fifth question was a short answer question that asked them to explain how knowing about clauses could improve their writing. I was abled to track who was finished by watching their shared docs show in my queue. I was also able to watch students finish up by opening their shared document while they were working. It worked pretty well.

Things got better when I started providing feedback. Instead of giving scores, I simply marked answers right or wrong, asked a few clarifying questions, and for the short answer question asked student to give an example. Students went back to previous writing pieces to find sentences that were confusing or unclear. These sentences were pasted into their quizzes where they then modified them to show how they knowledge of clauses could improve the sentences. Some of the students were so jazzed about their revised sentences that were sharing them without prompting.

The ambiguity of not immediately having a score combined with asking questions instead of giving comments led my students and I to explore clauses in a way that directly connected to their writing. While using Charger Apps gave us an easy way to share feedback, it was the change in process that led to assessment that provided opportunities for learning. Breaking down the artificial compartments of teaching and assessment have really opened my eyes to new options for assessment. I would love to hear your thoughts and ways you have change your assessment techniques.

Prove It

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Often as we strive to create new instructional models, methods, and practices we are asked to prove that our new methods have merit. The answer is often not spending the time to find the support outside of ourselves, but to share our experiences and classroom results. One of the tools that every agent of change needs is Action Research. Action Research is the tool needed to move forward with new ideas and collecting data to provide feedback that both supports the merit of your idea and valuable feedback to adjust, modify, and re-craft your idea.

Learn more about Action Research:

Derrick Willard, Upper School Science teacher using Action Research


Action Reseach by Eileen Ferrance at Brown University

Teachers & Action Research – George Mason University

Elementary Education Wiki

Guide for the Teacher Researcher by Geoffrey Mills

If you find other good resources or more importantly know about other teachers sharing their models of action research, please share.

Using Scaffolding to Define Love

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Below is my recipe for my new (new to me but not new to many of you) classroom model which builds on the idea of the classroom as a learning studio.

Take one part Vygotsky, two parts Dan Pink’s Drive and mix gently. Fold in Shirky, Richardson, Ted McCain – you can substitute Ian Jukes if you don’t have any McCain. Wrap mixture firmly around your curriculum. I prefer some Shakespeare especially Romeo and Juliet. Sprinkle a liberal amount patience and exploratory spirit on top. Serve warm to Middle Schoolers. Be prepared this is a messy meal best eaten with your hands.

The reality is that students are passive in many learning environments. They are told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, when to switch topics; not to mention when to eat. When we’re done with them they move on to coaches, parents, tutors who lovingly continue to them what to do, when to do it,  and how to do it. We all mean well. We all want what’s best for the students in our care. Part of the problem is that we are products of similar learning environments. All of that to say I felt it was worth a try to let them have some control, some choices by building a space where they can explore.

Now despite the rumors, I am not a complete idiot. Our classroom is not a modern version ofThe Lord of the Flies. My students are now collaborators but not equal partners. The goals of the units – content and skills –  are still determined by me. The methods of reaching our goals are where most of the collaboration happens.

For example, we are working our way through Romeo and Juliet. The final project is a paper – written in google documents or posted to their blog- that either argues that Romeo and Juliet are a shining example of true love or merely an example of infatuation gone wrong. I created this final assessment to measure their ability to use several sources including the original text to support an argument. The idea is that you cannot complete this assignment without knowing Romeo and Juliet. We quickly realized you also need to know what true love is and this is where things got messy.

My 8th graders had some interesting theories on true love. Some pretty good and some really bad. As a class we struggled to define true love. So at our weekly board meeting – a meeting where students and I discuss activities and goals for the week – I said “How are we going to determine the definition of true love?” Below is a list of the activities the students designed and are implementing.

  • Look for examples in movies.
  • Examine the lyrics of Love songs for common themes.
  • Invite guest speakers to share their definitions – everyone from the Head of School, Biology Teacher, History Teacher, Coaches, Manager of the Cafeteria, Head of the Visual Arts Department, Upper School Counselor, my Wife, and more.
  • Compare examples in books that they have already read.
  • Use definitions from dictionary.com, wikipedia, and other sources to build and online survey to be sent out to the entire school.

Students are videotaping the speakers to be able to review their answers and we are taking notes using the smartboard. Both the video and the notes are posted on our wiki.

Student also decided that they would rather watch scenes from the play in class and read for homework. They were cautioned that this sounded like the easy way out so they said that the reading at home had to be active reading – highlighting where love was discussed, taking notes in the margins, posting questions on the wiki that could be used a reading quizzes, searching for literary devices. Despite my misgivings, I agreed. So far, the level of engagement has been extraordinary. Students are making connections between guest speakers and events in the play. The level of discussion in class has been of a higher quality exhibited by students supporting their comments with evidence which is one of the desire outcomes of this unit.

So what’s next? I really don’t know. At least, I am not aware of the details. I do know that I won’t be spending any class time lecturing on what I know about Romeo and Juliet. Instead, I answer questions posed by individual students or the groups working to define love. There are some activities that I will steer the students toward including:

  • building a rubric to assess the quality of the final projects
  • sharing information about the definition of love collected by the groups
  • class time spent peer reviewing final projects before they are final

Beyond these activities, I have no specific plans, but my lack of detailed planning seems to be in direct relation to the increase in student engagement, student productivity, and student excitement about learning. I will post more as I learn more about the successes and failures on this “new to me” classroom model.

Intrinsic Motivation

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Close your eyes. Imagine a classroom where every student comes through the door wanting to be there and wanting to learn. What does it look like? What is happening? Now for the more important question… Could you create this classroom? I am willing to bet that many of us immediately jump to listing the obstacles that would prevent us from creating this type of learning space. The students would have to change. The administration would need to be more supportive. I don’t have enough time in the class period, prep time, etc.

Wait… slow down. Ignore the obstacles for a few minutes and consider what we can do. Most of us are after all the Supreme Ruler in our classroom and can do most anything in that space. So if we start by asking what motivates our students and then start changing the things that fall within our scope of influence… maybe we could build a different learning environment that engages our students to do more than collect points and score well on quizzes.

So what motivates our students? Consider for a minute that our students are typically being acted upon instead of being decision makers. Most of the time there is some adult who is laying out for them what to do and how to do it. What if they could exercise some control? Being in control even in a heavily scaffolded environment could provide the students with an internal drive. Control could be shared by setting the final outcomes of the unit and letting the students explore how to obtain the skills and content necessary to successfully complete the final outcome/assessment. You could also create opportunities for students to build the assessments. They could write the quiz questions, build the rubric, design the project, etc. Weekly or biweekly class meetings where as a class decisions are made about the schedule, homework, etc. could be a powerful tool for sharing control and in turn creating intrinsic motivation for learning.

Sharing control is just one way to get students more engaged in our classrooms. Motivation is a tricky thing. What motivates us often depends on the type of task so maybe it is so not much about what we could do but more about what we shouldn’t do. For example, providing extrinsic rewards like extra credit points, no homework nights, class treats, etc. can actually have the opposite effect. *see Daniel Pink’s Drive So the goal would be to create activities that have their own inherent reward. This is where the zone for proximal developement (Vygotsky) and flow (Csikszentmihalyi) apply. Students can find intrinsic reward in completing an activity is there is the right balance between challenge and ability.

So I propose that we bring together Lev Vygotsky’s ideas about scaffolding and the zone of proximal development, Daniel Pink’s study on motivation in his book Drive, and Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational to better understand our students needs and motivations. If you are interested in examining these ideas further and looking at one model of these ideas in practice, come to NCAIS Innovate on March 11th and 12th at Cary Academy in Cary, NC.