If We Build It, Who Will Come? – An Online Algebra 1 “Textbook”

I just finished Karl Fisch’s post about approaching homework differently. It is a much more detailed and cogent explanation to what I was saying here.

My plan is to deliver the traditional lecture portion of an Algebra class as the homework, thus freeing up class time to explore the mathematics and pursue some interesting problems, as well as provide time for guided practice and collaborative work.

Since Algebra is very much skill based, my hope is to provide short (less than 10 minutes), targeted instructional videos that students can watch (and rewatch if necessary) that focus solely on the skills, one skill at a time. Now I want to be clear that these videos typically will come after inquiry and exploration in class.

As I said in the comment of Karl’s post, I think this is a brilliant idea. I can’t think of one downside to this plan, other than it will challenge people’s existing beliefs of what education looks like. (That by itself is not a bad thing; the fallout of that challenge might cause some headaches though.)

Watching Karl’s ‘Proof of Concept‘ video, it’s pretty obvious that this is going to be a time-consuming effort. As is mentioned, there are tons of online resources already but they tend to have been created by individuals for their own use. I could use them in my classroom but they aren’t always at the right level or don’t always have enough practice or aren’t the right length.

So here’s my question: Is it possible for us, as  a community, to create an online open-source Algebra 1 skills-based video textbook? What would we need to do so? Here are some initial thoughts:

  • We would need to come up with an agreed-upon structure for each video. (I like Karl’s Five Part Plan: Learning Goal, Explanation/Examples, Guided Practice, Self-Check, and Closing.)
  • We would need to come up with a generic list of skills that are applicable to all, regardless of state or national standards.
  • We would need people to volunteer to create a video for each skill on our list. If two or three people create a video for the same skill, that’s not a bad thing: more choice for our students.
  • We would need to come up with a structure for displaying or publishing our textbook. I’m thinking create a YouTube channel and use a wiki as some sort of Table of Contents.

Can we work together to share the time-consuming aspects of this idea so that we all spend more time focused on the ‘heavy lifting’ aspect: supporting our students effectively with our time?

Anybody interested in trying?

Image: ‘soccer practice

A Criterion Based Gradebook

The Problem

I’ve searched everywhere for a digital gradebook solution that can handle the rigors of criterion-based assessment. The MYP isn’t predicated on percentages (how can you give an 84% for an English essay anyway? How does it differ from an 86%?) but rather descriptors of performance. A mark of 4 out of 8 doesn’t mean the student got half of the things correct; it corresponds to a description of the work. A good description of the nuances of MYP assessment can be found here (.pdf).

Since I couldn’t find a decent ready-made solution I decided to create one. I’ve tailored it to the needs of my school: we are a tablet PC school so I thought it would be nice to use the stylus to input the marks. I’ve also created several iterations for different MYP subjects to fit with their specific criteria and grade boundaries. The Math version is linked below. It’s nothing fancy; just an Excel document with a few macros (nothing malicious, I promise!). It gets the job done, though.

The Walkthrough

Summative Grades – This is for the major summative tasks. Each task may be assessed on more than one criterion so it is important that you input date and title for each criterion used.

Formative Grades – This is where homework can be recorded. You can also assess classwork on specific criteria or record results from quizzes. I was thining of the old +, √, – method here and used a numerical equivalent.

ATL Skills – Approaches to Learning, for the un-MYP among us, are specific study skills that are explained in detail through the program. I found it useful to track these ATL skills to better provide reporting data.

The Macros

At the end of each reporting period the teacher is required to determine at what level each student is performing for each criterion. To aid this, I’ve set up a simple sort macro which groups all of the same criterion grades together in chronological order. You can then return it to its original order by using the date sort. It’s probably a good idea to put in the reporting period headers and date first before sorting by criteria so that you have a place to put your final assessment.

The Disclaimer

Like all work on this site, these gradebooks are shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 Non-Commerical Share Alike license. If you find ways of improving upon this, I would love to know!

MYP Gradebook Math;
MYP Gradebook Language A
MYP Gradebook Language B
MYP Gradebook Humanities
MYP Gradebook Science

Sandra Page – Differentiation Guru

At our in-house PD conference this weekend, I spent the entirety of my time in sessions with Sandra Page from ASCD. A fantastic decision. Her four sessions on differentiated instruction were on point, relevant, and full of actual examples for me to sink my teeth into.
  • Starting with Learning Styles – An introduction to Sternberg’s Three Intelligences: Analytic, Practical, Creative (turns out I’m a mix of analytic and practical). We then looked at differentiating assignments by giving students a choice between three possibilities corresponding with these learning styles. It was an interesting alternative to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.
  • Tiering Lessons – Differentiating lessons by readiness.
  • RAFTs: A Differentiated Writing Across the Curriculum Strategy – This was the session I was least excited about going into the conference. However, there was some good stuff that came out of this. I like the RAFT format and am curious to see how I can use it in my classes. This is what I want to try to do before the end of the year in at least one of my classes.
  • Applying Readiness Differentiation with Common Strategies – More hands-on example of readiness strategies. A bit repetitive of the second workshop, but good reinforcement of what I’d already learned.

Sandra also showed a graphic (of which I could not get a copy!) in her plenary from Grant Wiggins. It depicted the 3 Ps of assessment – Performance, Progress and Process – in equal proportions. If anybody knows where I can read more about this, I would appreciate a little Link-Love. I am thoroughly intrigued…

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical when this showed up on our school calendar. I certainly didn’t enjoy coming in on a Saturday, especially after a two day mid-week holiday. That said, I learned quite a bit and I hope to utilize some of these strategies into my class in the last 6 weeks of the year. And, as an added bonus, I’m in the process of setting up a school-based wiki to help share differentiation best practices.

Photo – “Be Different” by Vermin Inc

Assessing Assessment

There has been a fantastic free-for-all going on over at Beyond School. I won’t get into the specifics – check it out for yourself;the real excitement is in the 75+ comments – but it has focused on, among other things, assessing students in an English Language Arts classroom. In this age, how much weight should be given to “traditional” writing assignments and what is the place for

At the same time, the Faculty Room has been giving assessment a closer look. Dan Meyer expounds on his system, which is well-suited for mathematics (I should know: I’ve adapted his strategy to implement an on-going revision of algebraic concepts in my Grade 8 class). Simon Cheatle gives his perspective from an international school in the Phillipines.

The American Paradigm

The vast majority of commentators present a very American slant on assessment. After spending the last 6 years overseas in truly international schools (my first two years were in a school that could have been situated in the middle of Iowa or California or North Carolina) I wonder why this American paradigm persists? Only in the arguments put forward by Grant Wiggins do I see any reference to criterion-based assessment. Being a mathematics teacher, I wonder how English teachers or History teachers go about grading an essay. How do you tell a B+ from an A-? Do you apply some sort of percentage? What do you do with the student who has a clear grasp of the language but a poor working knowledge of spelling? What do you do with the student who knows all of the grammar and structure protocols, but can’t present a reasoned argument? (For those who didn’t check it out, this is the initial focus of Clay Burell’s post.)

Enter Criteria

The answer, in my mind, is criterion-based grading. Why not separate the necessary skills of your course and grade each one appropriately? As an IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) school, we do exactly that. For example, in mathematics we assess four separate criteria: Knowledge and Understanding, Investigation of Patterns, Communication, and Reflection in Mathematics. If a student obviously knows the material but cannot present her information clearly, I can grade her higher in Knowledge and Understanding and lower in Communication. I don’t need to find a middle ground and she can know exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.

A Step Further

At the end of the term, I look into my gradebook and find the highest sustained level of achievement for each criteria. I do not find the mean. If a student starts the year poorly but shows improvement, I reward that. If a student does poorly on one assessment task, it does not come back to hurt him.

Not Perfect

I will be the first person to admit that this system is not perfect. There is no room for formative assessments to influence the final grade, except as practice for the summative assessments. In my subject, life would be simpler to assign grades based on percentages. The assessment criteria, in my experience, lend themselves to major assessment tasks which are difficult to write, time consuming for students, and bloody hard to mark. Oh, and it’s a difficult system to get your head around, especially coming from The American Paradigm. Ask any other MYP teacher and they will probably have their own list of grievances.

The debate surrounding assessment is one that is necessary. There is no “right” answer as each teacher, school, and district is in a different situation. However, that doesn’t mean we should not strive to find that perfect way of assessing student performance. On the contrary, only by looking critically at our own practices and our motivations behind those practices can we, as professionals, ever hope to evolve.

 MYP Criteria