Thursday, March 21, 2019

How to use student's questions in AP Biology to drive learning

By Mark Heintz, Krista Glosson, Avi Patel, and Alexa Fontanetta

I had the pleasure of going into Krista Glosson's AP Biology class.  In the class I came to visit, she used the Question Formulation Technique to foster students connections between topics.  The students were into it.  They worked collaboratively, were inspired, and wanted to learn more.  Krista was able to walk around and see the learning taking place.  The students knew what they learned and they knew that their teacher did too.  What follows is a reflection of a post-visit discussion I had with Krista and what her students felt about the process.

Teacher: Krista Glosson

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how are you putting your beliefs into practice?  

I am giving students an opportunity to determine their own beliefs about my statement, then to branch out in a direction that interests them while they construct their knowledge around their belief.  It was refreshing for all of us to give them a challenge that did not have a right or wrong answer.

What were the students learning?  

The students were researching specific examples of cell signaling pathways to apply the information we had previously covered in class.  The process allowed them flexibility and an opportunity to stretch themselves to answer a challenging question while we worked on asking good scientific questions.

How do you know they learned? 

I talked with each group and they were excited to share their new information with the class the next day.

How do they know they learned?  

They were able to make a connection between the material we learned in class and the information they chose to learn.  They were confident in sharing their interpretation with the class.

Student: Avi Patel

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how is your teacher putting the beliefs into practice?  

She beats the knowledge into us! Just kidding! For real though, she connects with us on a level further than just academic. She understands and communicates with us, and that I think is the best values a teacher can have; Connection, Communication, and Understanding

What were you learning?

We were learning whether or not a fault in signaling pathways causes diseases or not.

How do you know you learned?

I walked out of class knowing more than what I knew walking in.

How does your teacher know you learned?

By noticing my responses and answers to questions she asks, and also me asking her questions.

Student: Alexa Fontanetta

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how is your teacher putting the beliefs into practice?  

Mrs. Glosson understands that though we chose to take this class, we are all taking biology for different reasons. She has taken the time to get to know us on a personal level. By incorporating relatable examples into the lessons based on the things that interest us, she has conveyed the “integration of values, or importance to the individual.” Therefore, because of the connections she's formulated, the curriculum has become more valuable for all of her students.

What were you learning?

If faulty pathways always cause disease.

How do you know you learned?

I know I learned because I left the room with more knowledge than I had before. I also felt challenged throughout the lesson and accomplished at the end.

How does your teacher know you learned?

Mrs. Glosson knows I learned because she allowed time for us to brainstorm before fully understanding the topic. After brainstorming, she encouraged us to have meaningful conversations on the topic to gather any additional ideas from our peers. The questions we couldn't answer as a group was researched. Mrs. Glosson also gave her attention to each individual group to clear up any further confusion. Consequently, due to the structure of the lesson, Mrs. Glosson knows we learned.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Professional Learning Time and Most Likely To Succeed

By Mark Heintz

Every school day, teachers start with about forty-five minutes of professional time.  The time is great for staff to learn, connect with peers, share with each other, and overall grow as professionals.  The Collab Lab structures a few things each week for the morning time and creates conditions where teachers can use that time purposefully.  Last May, I purchased Most Likely to Succeed through our professional reimbursement fund in hopes of showing the documentary to the rest of the staff this year during the morning time. Ted Dintersmith’s documentary is powerful; it instantly gets teachers thinking about making their classrooms better. In my district, there is support for changes to take place. District 214’s school board and superintendents support efforts of innovative practices that put learning in the hands of the students.  In many parts of school that exists. Our electives offer authentic, hands-on learning.   However, some of us struggle to offer the same experience and need an inspiration to make larger changes in our classrooms.

I was hoping the film would offer that inspiration for teachers to try new things.  I love that “the film poses questions rather than attempts to shove a point of view down the throats of the audience. As a result, we find people across a wide range of audiences engaged and inspired by the film, with lots of energy and commitment to a future of possibility.” It’s a great way to get people thinking about school could be without feeling like they are doing something wrong.  That is why I wanted to show the film.  I need the inspiration just as much as others and I don’t want to feel like someone is shaming me into making those changes.

The Process

The film was shown for three weeks in January on Friday mornings.  I broke up the film into three parts due to time restrictions in the morning. Over twenty-five staff members came, watched the movie, and discussed it at the end.  At the end of each segment, the staff discussed what they felt, what they were inspired by, and what they wanted to try.  There was an energy in the room after showing the movie.  Staff members left talking about what they could try in the classroom or what they could do. It was exciting to see staff members energized about school in the middle of the year. I had the same feelings and wanted to keep that energy going. 

This movie has pushed staff to what they think is possible in a traditional classroom.  This movie was just one step in a larger goal of shifting instructional practices. The Collab Lab used this movie to get staff to think about what the purpose of their course and what they wanted students to know and be able to do at the completion of the course. I’ll detail more about that process in a later post. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Changing the culture of traditional grading practices

By Mark Heintz

Last week, I celebrated my attempts to minimize the value placed on grades in order to focus on learning. In my previous post, I triumphed over my progress and stated, “So far, I have never felt better about finalized grades.  Some student anxiety has been alleviated and I don’t feel that I have as many students point-grubbing.  I feel that students are learning. The grade is an afterthought.  They know they can argue to make a change.  They know they have a voice in the process other than just the assessments I use.  It has become a partnership.  Something it should always be.”

I wish it was always this easy.

Minimizing grades is a process, and what I hope to do in writing these blog posts is to be as transparent as possible in hopes others see what I do and are willing to try it as well. I hope to not just present a perfect picture of the process of going to gradeless.  I have encountered many bumps in the road because it’s hard to move away from relying on coercive grading methods, which, if we were to be honest with ourselves, grades are.  It is even harder for students not to feel under the thumb of those practices. I firmly believe in order for me to make larger shifts in going gradeless it will require more people making the effort.  Joy Kirr has curated a lot of educators attempts and practices in going gradeless, and I hope to continue to contribute to that resource hub.

The day I posted that blog, I asked my students some additional questions.  As a class, writing is a focus, and I wanted more descriptive feedback.  In another Google form, I asked them how they felt they're doing and what they needed more help/time on in each of the following areas: making claims, using evidence, explaining that evidence, making connections between arguments, using prior knowledge to set the stage, and again what grade would they give themselves.

I am still incredibly happy with how this is going.  The feedback from the students was overall positive.  Their feedback was constructive and helpful for them and me.  However, I did receive a comment that is troubling me.  One of my students gave themselves an F and was very critical of themselves. I was confused by this reflection because the student has a clear voice, and they actively can do all of the things required of them.  They are a strong reader, and they naturally make connections between topics and disciplines.  If I were using traditional assessment metrics, this student would have an A.

When I conferenced with her, she said she needed the validation from me.  She wanted me to give her the grade.  She has been so accustomed to a teacher being the authority that without my grading her, she simply can’t do it.  I expressed my hope that she should know what she needs/wants, that “grading” yourself would lead to me helping where she need it.  I told her to go back and reevaluate what she put and why.  I got an email later that day asking me to give her a grade.  I again expressed my wishes, but I caved and said I would give her an A.  This was her response:

“You're the teacher. Ultimately, I have no say in what you do. Even with the illusion of us having a voice in anything, we don't. I'm sorry for challenging your beliefs about how you run your classroom, but it's justified by your control over the grade book”

This comment is hitting me in the reflection stomach.  Comments like these demonstrate just how much power a teacher has in determining grades.  Even as I am pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a school, I ultimately hold all of the power. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, using grades leads to a lack of motivation.  The kids are stripped of the agency that I want them to have--partially because I do have the authority, but also because these students are experiencing traditional grading practices throughout the rest of their day and have experienced this practice for most of their schooling.  I have spent this entire year minimizing grades, and I still get comments that reinforce traditional grading views.  Next year, this student will most likely go to classes that reinforce their beliefs.

The ultimate problem of having all of the authority is that students will learn less.  Grading causes a loss of intrinsic motivation.  Giving a grade lends to a mentality that there is an end to learning; The grade is more meaningful than the process and the outcome.  We use grades to get kids to be compliant, but we also see that they don’t take risks and often do required work to memorize what we are asking for the test and then forget it.  However, that is not what I want school to be.  I want them to have agency over their learning, and to do that, they need to have conditions that allow them to take risks, see that learning doesn’t have an end, and not feel threatened nor shamed to learn what we are asking them to learn.

I will continue to make shifts and share my journey in hopes that others do the same.

A special thanks to Kim Miklusak for feedback and edits on this post.  She continues to be the best English teacher I never had.