Yesterday I had the privilege of observing a veteran physics teaching at a different school.  My school was on a “brain break” and I decided the best way to spend my time off was in a physics classroom.  The experience was very useful and there were several techniques and structures that I think I can implement for immediate changes, as well as some longer term ideas that will require more planning and organization to implement next year.  I was really great to see another teaching in action and follow all of his classes throughout the day.

In his class, the students have interactive notebooks, which contain everything they work on.  They also have grade sheets for the notebook checks, calendars, equation sheets, and other organizers to help keep everything together.  When I visited, they started with a notebook check, where students add up stamps that they get as they complete assignments in class/at home.  They then write their total and the teacher does a quick average for the class and that becomes what their notebook is out of.  Some students can get extra credit by being ahead of the average.  This stamp system takes a lot of time out of grading and makes it very clear to the students why they get the grades that they do.  Stamps are given in class as students work so they gain some motivation and don’t get surprised by grades in the end.  

One great thing about the stamping process is it gives the teacher a way to quickly interact with each student a few times during class.  Students usually have a task to do and his moves around, checks for understand, and gives encouragement while they work and he stamps.  It can be a great way to see if students are on task and the stamps can be a sort of carrot to get them back on task if their effort wanes.  Sometimes, a student may think he or she is finished and then receives less than the total amount of stamps and guidance towards what he or she is missing.  This process also serves as an approximate 2 minute timer for Think Pair Share activities.

I was happy to observe Cornell Notes in action since that is something I’ve been using in my class and would like to gain better level of proficiency with.  The teacher takes notes in his own notebook with a document camera and they copy down what he writes.  He used lots of color, and provides markers and colored pencils, along with guidance, to help the students take better notes.  The largest improvement I think I will take from watching his Cornell Notes is the use of a “Note to Self” (NTS) in the left column.  Instead of just doing questions, which I have had trouble getting students to do effectively, they can write a note to self that explains the more structured notes on the right side.  As I was taking notes on the class, I found this extremely useful because I always have little thoughts that I want recorded and this keeps it organized in a separate spot.  The teacher will break up the lecture by having students write a note to self and then go around and stamp their complete notes while they write.  He once again gets to check in with each student, while they summarize (an important skill and useful for understanding) and then can have them share their note to self’s with a partner (more structured Think Pair Share as part of the note taking process).  The notes that he and his students were producing were phenomenal and I’m sure this process really helps them understand material and provides a great reference.  

I also observed him begin giving lab instructions, where he once again used the document camera and the students copied down the lab instructions, with diagrams so that they didn’t need a handout.  I think I might start doing this to not only save copy paper, but also ensure that all students read the complete instructions and write them down.  I think it will help make sure the students know what they are doing.  He also did a lot of questions to the class as he did these instructions and I believe the act of students thinking about and saying what pictures represented as far as lab materials helped add a vital non-linguistic element that diagrams alone do not provide.

As far as teaching techniques, there was a lot of repetition and a lot of questioning the students.  When going over anything, he would say, “What was this again?”, or “Remind me what this stands for” many many times.  Not all students would respond, but at least they would hear it more.  He also asked a lot of very simple questions that students could easily answer as he guided them towards more difficult ones.  I think he did a great job to build momentum for student success.

For my own immediate success, I plan to introduce the “Note to Self” idea for Cornell Notes and work on adding color to notes, with a lot of guidance to help the students adopt coloring and highlighting.  I also plan to use his processing tasks, which I may go over in another blog post after I get some more experience with them.  I’m also going to try to emulate the frequency that he checks for understanding to not only inform myself, but also add a lot more repetition to help the students retain what I’m saying/writing.  I think I will adopt the interactive notebook next year, after much planning to make sure it is organized and successful.  At the end, he gave me lots of supplies to help allow more labs in my classroom with much more accurate data.  Some were simple toys that can lead to great labs, while others were precise measuring tools to help my students gain experience using technology in science and improve the quality of our data.  I hope to have the opportunity to observe this teacher again after I make these changes and have more experience and questions.


Music During Class

I started playing music during the first few minutes of class while students work on their “Do Now.”  During this time, students work silently on a question that either draws on previous material or leads into new material (often both).  This helps get students in the right mental space to start class, it maintains work from the second the bell rings, and it provides some continuity between classes (everyone does this).  Playing music was suggested by admin as a way to provide some background noise to help focus students so they don’t talk.  It can help get some of that energy out and provides additional cues to the students.  During music, they work quietly.  When it ends, I’m about to speak.   So far I think there has been a nice effect and I think this will grow as students get used to it as part of their routine.

On Friday, we had a lab where students measured the temperature of cold water every minute for 15 minutes while it warmed up to room temperature.  There wasn’t a lot that the students had to do while they waited each minute, so they were able to talk and I decided to play music during this time.  I think the music and simple hands on lab provided a very relaxed atmosphere in the classroom and was a perfect end to the first week of the semester.  The time between measurements wasn’t a complete waste either.  I had many students call me over because the temperature wasn’t changing (it did change over the 15 minutes, just slowly).  We had good conversations about trusting and recording data and trying not to let our assumptions interfere with the experiment. 

I really enjoyed the result of playing music.  The classroom atmosphere was different in a very positive way, and I really enjoyed those classes.  I felt better as I went from group to group and students were quieter and more attentive the few times I had to interrupt everyone and make an announcement.  I hope to continue to put music into my lessons while students are working and I play the role of the guide.

Standards Based Grading


Introduction (feel free to skip if you just want to learn about the grading system)My school has been talking a lot about grading practices lately to really make sure that we are grading based on content mastery (with maybe some percentage on organization, turning things in on time, etc).  It was a common problem (that definitely appeared in my class) that a larger than necessary “chunk” of a students grade was based on organization and the ability to turn things in.  Of course, both of these are important, but if a student fails physics is should be because they don’t know physics, not they can’t keep a binder straight.  If an assignment isn’t turned in, that results in zero points (usually) even if the student understands the content.  This takes a drastic toll on the students because getting a “0” on an assignment really pulls the whole grade down and can be hard to recover from.  This system can be a trap that prevents student success in the first few weeks of a semester, before they realize how important assignments are.

My school had an open discussion about how to fix these problems, which was awesome.  While I don’t have experience with how many open discussions other schools have, it seems like this practice is rare (I think I’m getting spoiled).  It was really interesting to hear ideas from different departments about possibly having a content grade that is separate from a promptness grade, along with many other ideas.  In all this grading discussion, I thought back about the idea of standards based grading, which I had read about, experienced in high school, and attended a workshop session on.

Standards Based Grading Explained

The basic idea is that students are assessed based on the curriculum standards.  This should be true in normal systems, but often standards tend to blur and students are assessed on their percentage “correct” regardless of what standards are involved.  A given question may ask you to multiply, divide, add vectors, solve a system of equations, know the definition of three different key terms, interpret a word problem, etc.  In a normal system, you need to be able to do all of these to get the correct answer, and may get partial credit for getting some of them.  Typically, a student doesn’t see which skills they got right.  They simply see “7/10” or whatever grade they received. 

Standards based grading looks at mastery of one particular standard.  If we are assessing a student’s ability to multiply, we don’t care if they can’t add (obviously we care, but not as far as grading).  The gradebook is just a list of standards, and students get to check them off once they have achieved mastery.  Once a standard is mastered, that “check” doesn’t go away.  Here, mastery is an A level understanding.  Standards are assessed on quizzes and tests.  All other work is practice to help achieve mastery on the quiz/test.  Students work to master certain content, and standards that are not mastered are then focused on more and additional opportunities to master those standards are provided.  In the end, a student’s grade follow the following formula:

Semester grade = 50 + 50*(# mastered/total #)

For those who don’t like formulas:  If a student masters half of the standards, they receive a 75% in the class, which is a “C.”

My System with Differentiation

I built on this idea of standards based grading and added some of my own ideas to help students succeed.  I broke my second semester content down into 7 units of 5 standards each.  Since I have found that slowing down is necessary to avoid loosing everyone, I anticipate only being able to get through 6 of the 7 units with the quickest of students.  In case my students rise above that pace, there is another unit waiting for them.  In my system, students will stay within a unit until they master all 5 standards within that unit.  This is a big change because it means some students will not access some of the units.  I think this built in differentiation will help students achieve greater understanding of the content, while allowing the vanguard students to move on and not get bored.

At first, I worried that this might do some disservice to the students that don’t get to work with all content standards.  After all, classes build on each other and if some students never learn some material, they may be doomed in future classes.  To compensate for this, I designed my units into foundation level concepts, and advanced concepts.  Students who master standards quickly will move from a foundation level to the advanced level of a single unit in that order (ie, heat 1 -> heat 2).  Students who move more slowly will skip the advanced units and move straight through to the next foundation unit in a different content domain (ie, heat 1 -> waves 1).  This allows students to access all domains of the physics standards and master them on a foundational level, even if they never get to attempt much of the advanced problems/topics.  I believe this will be more beneficial down the road because they will have a strong foundation that other classes can build on.  Also, I think having mastery of some material will help students see that they can learn and do well and master something if they keep working at it. 

Overall, this is quite a paradigm shift.  Students grades are based on percentage mastered, rather than percentage correct.  It can be hard to see the difference when written out, but a “C” student now has an “A” level understanding of half the content, rather than a “C” level understanding of all of the content.  They actually have to learn something, and master it, rather than just be pushed along with a weak understanding.  Students are able to move at their pace and are not punished for having a pace that is different from what the teacher (somewhat arbitrarily) sets at the beginning of the semester/year.  Quizzes and tests are not something to be feared, and could even be put off if a student knows that he/she is not ready, because they are just opportunities to move on to the next unit or assess what areas to focus on.  Now, getting a “0” on a quiz, then working hard and getting a “100” the next week results in an “A”, rather than an “F.”  That sounds fair to me.

There will be some difficulties.  Students will work on different material, based on their pace.  In a given classroom, there may be different activities going on.  My overall plan, is to come up with many activities for each standards that draw on different learning styles.  Students work through as many as they can in class.  Paces may differ, but if a student finishes something, they get another assignment so that they are always working.  Getting through more assignments (as long as they are done well, not rushed through) will tend to lead towards better performance on a quiz.  Since classwork isn’t graded, there is no incentive to rush through and finish something, so students can work on one assignment in the whole period if they need to.  Student’s not doing work will get after school detention and do work then.  I am very optimistic about this policy and I think it will make it easier to get higher grades, without lowering the standards for content mastery.  Students can’t get trapped in the beginning of the semester/year.  As long as they have time, they can continue to work towards mastery and every standard checked off is one step closer to their desired grade.