Friday, December 30, 2011

Make-up work and grading systems

As I think about things that I want to improve at school in the new year, I have a bunch of ideas about things to try that might improve student participation or make group work better or let me do more productive formative assessments.

The thing that remains a puzzle is make-up work.  Poor attendance is an issue for a lot of students and my expectation that kids should take the initiative to find out what they missed when they return from being absent has not been met.  I have been slowly improving my own systems to let kids find out what they missed - this year I have hanging folders on the wall for the past week's classwork and homework, and about a month ago I reserved a small area on the board for the overview of the week's activities, including quizzes and labs and the titles of notes so that kids can see what happened in their absence and hopefully use that as a trigger to remind them what they need to make up.

A few of my students do actually find out what they missed and make it up in a reasonable amount of time.  But the majority of students don't.  It seems like part of a general pattern among my students where they say they care about their grades (and get upset when they are failing), but they don't take action to do what it takes to earn a good grade.

I have been thinking about my grading system, partly because it seems like the other teachers at my school have systems where it is much easier for kids to stay after school once or twice, or take home a packet of work, and raise themselves up to not just a passing grade, but often an A or a B.  In some ways I wish my class's grades were that easy to raise - particularly since I have over 50% of my kids failing right now, and that's not good for anyone.  But on the other hand, I don't think it's right to be able to slack for weeks and then do one burst of work and earn an A, partly because I don't believe that allows true learning that will stick with the students.

I have been reading about standards based grading (SBG) on various blogs for awhile now, and in some ways it sounds like the answer to my problems, and a clearer and fairer way to grade.  Maybe the daily homeworks and Do Now points and everything else shouldn't even be part of grades; if kids can show consistent mastery of the physics concepts in my class, shouldn't that be enough for an A?  But I wonder if I can make the retesting aspect of SBG work in my classes, where there are 30 kids at all different levels and many of them lack the motivation to come before or after school for a retest.  I also wonder about how to combine SBG with the project-based learning I've been trying to implement.  If only quizzes count in true SBG, does that mean I have to scrap the projects?  Are kids actually getting anything out of doing the projects anyway?  Even if I dump the projects I still want to have labs, so if I do SBG does that mean the labs don't count towards grades?  I kind of hate grading lab notebooks, so a system where I stop doing that sounds pretty appealing.  I don't think I have the energy or clarity of ideas to change my grading system midyear, so this is mostly a question for next year.  Although if I keep having half my students with Fs, I'm going to have to do something to get a few more kids to pass this year.

Friday, December 23, 2011


This past week my students did a project that's basically straight out of our physics curriculum that I never had the guts to try last year.  It goes with our waves unit, with an emphasis on sound (the curriculum specifies it as sound and light, but I left out the light part).  The project involves making a musical instrument and performing for the class, and also writing about how the instrument makes sound and how the sound gets to the listener.

Some of my fears about this project were well-founded.  The vast majority of the instruments were basically paper plate maracas filled with beans.  Some groups just got up and shook their maracas without any particular rhythm for the required 1 minute.  A few people refused to perform entirely.  Most of the performances were unrehearsed.

But I am glad I tried the project, and would probably do it again.  It was nice to have the kids present something for the class (although I probably should have had some form of public speaking or presenting of solutions or something before this to make it more normal and less of an ordeal).  Some of the performances were hilarious, and though they were not what I would call ideal, respectful audience members, the kids seemed to enjoy watching the performances and many said they had fun performing.  For next year I need to think about how to make kids make a better variety of instruments, and how to make sure the presenting takes less time.  I might make it an optional performance next year, so kids who are outgoing and/or creative enough to want to do it can, and the other kids can do a different set of project requirements.  I thought more kids would go with the write-physics-song-lyrics option, but I think a combination of stage fright and laziness prevented it for more groups, so I might make that mandatory next year.  The one student who did sing an actual song (Bruno Mars's Lazy Song adapted with physics lyrics, which he found on the internet) totally brought down the house in his class and won the "most creative" voting by a landslide.

Other highlights included the kid who made his own awesome-looking cardboard guitar (which unfortunately had plain old string for strings and barely made a sound at all) and asked my permission in advance to smash the guitar like a rock star at the end of his performance, the kid who made a really cool-sounding rain stick at home using a fabric bolt tube, nails, and rice, and used it as his group's grand finale, and the girls who made a beat with their maracas and had two enthusiastic (and rather provocative) dancers.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More innocent than I expected

After school today in my classroom:

D: I'm so happy!
Ms. P: Why?
D: I don't know if I should tell you. 
G: It's perverted.
Ms. P: Well, then maybe I don't want to know.
D: I don't think you will think it's perverted.  You will probably think it's sweet.
Ms. P: Huh.  Is it about a girl?
G: (nods) Keep guessing.
G: It's really perverted.
D: She is married.  She probably does it every day.  Every day!
Ms. P: Umm, OK.  You know what, some things are personal.  We don't need to talk about it.

It turns out that D kissed a girl.  On the lips.  But he is still too scared to sit with her at lunch.

D was right.  In the end I found the whole thing really sweet.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Good and Bad

L is quickly becoming my favorite homeroom student.  He's hardworking and smart and goodnatured and he gets along with everybody.  And every now and then he gives me a look that makes me think he actually realizes that I am a human being, which is pretty rare among high school freshmen, even the ones who like me.  I let him leave his jacket under my front desk during the school day, which is a privilege that no one else has asked for, which is lucky because I am not sure I would say yes to anyone else and then I'd have to confront my favoritism.

Anyway, yesterday I was covering for another teacher last period and the kids weren't really working, and I didn't feel obligated or able to force them to, so I was watching and listening to their social interactions.

First I fell in love with L all over again: a group of kids was gossiping about a fight and S, a goody-two-shoes who lacks social graces and social standing, butted into the conversation to say that she didn't see the point of fighting anyway.  The other kids turned and looked at her like she had two heads, and had just opened their mouths to mock her when L basically saved her, saying matter-of-factly, "She's a pacifist.  That means she doesn't believe in fighting."  Then as kids were mulling that over, he followed up with, "I actually agree with her."  And I don't know what happened next, because I had to walk away so I wouldn't grin at him and reveal my schoolgirl crush.  Love.  That.  Kid.  So impressed by his maturity and kindness.  And vocabulary.

Then, not five minutes later, one of the girls said something I've already forgotten and L replied with a lame macho comment about how big his dick is.  I perceived it as a not-very-funny joke, but the girls saw me hear him so I had to make a big show of walking away and pretending not to hear it (which is favoritism again... if it had been another boy I would have likely started a mini-lecture about being appropriate).  So I had to scale back my impressions of L's angelic nature and incredible maturity.

He's still my favorite, though.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Magic Cupcakes

Lots of ups and downs this past week.  More downs than ups, actually, and the major up was that a bunch of my kids cut class on Friday, mostly kids who normally stir up behavior problems, and then Friday was a relatively calm day.  But cutting class en masse is hardly something to celebrate.

Anyway, one highlight of the week was my second period artists, the ones who draw cute pictures for me on the backs of their quizzes.  One girl was trying to get me to tell her my favorite kind of cupcake during the quiz (NO TALKING, ya know?) but I wouldn't talk to her and she got frustrated so I thought she drew me an angry picture.  Turns out she drew me a "magic cupcake," complete with a little note about how it is magic and will be any flavor I wish for.

Unfortunately I handed the quiz back without even photocopying the picture, which is a shame because I ought to make a folder of kid things that make me smile so I have something on reserve for the days when I really want to quit.  Maybe I can get her to give it back.