My school and every other public high school in my state is undergoing a process to move to a proficiency based graduation and therefore grading system over the next handful of years.
The major conversation of my district’s Proficiency Based Steering Committee last year (as I understand it because I’ve stepped away from this group), has been around grading. I know that I’ve struggled with the idea of grades for a long time and have been thinking about grading as we transition to PB over the next few years.
As we are in the process of transitioning to a PB system, I think we can make some subtle changes in grading that would make the transition go more smoothly. I’ve been really thinking about using a smaller set of scores in grading this year.  As I look at student assessments, there really is not a difference between a 76.4% and a 78.8% or a 19.1/25 and a 19.7/25  Yet I often grade to this level of detail in assessments. But does this level of difference really help move my students learning further along..? Do I really know that much more about how much my students know by scoring in this way..? Why do I grade to this level of detail..?
How many different “levels” of scores should we give..?  I feel like 101 (0%-100%), with 61 levels of failure, is really way  too many and skewed towards failure. I feel like 5 (0, 1, 2, 3, 4) is really not enough to provide the necessary feedback to kids about where they stand in relation to a learning objective/target/standard.  It seems like 8 or 9 (0.0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 or 0.0, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0) gives a good level of detail and an adequate amount of difference between the scores. I’m not sure that there is really much to be gained about a 0.5. Would be the equivalent of putting your name on an assessment and passing it in..? Is that worth reporting..?  I’ve also toyed around with the idea of a 2.5- and 2.5+, with the 2.5+ being really close to the standard, but not quite being there yet. The student can meet the standard, but they need just a little amount of help from me. So 8-10 different levels seems to make sense to me.  If we use -/letter grade/+ (F, D-, D, D+, etc…) that my school currently employs, that is 13 different categories, which is really close to 9-10.  I see no real difference between F and D-, either way your performance is pretty terrible; which gets it down to 12 different categories; and that is getting even closer to 9-10.
The goal that I’ll be hoping to work toward by the end of the first semester this year is using a set of scores that attempts to mimic the spirit of standards based grading, while still adhering to the percentage based scores that our students are familiar with. I’m also going to try to set the expectation that if you give me what I gave you, the best you can possibly do is get an A- (90). If you are striving for the solid “A” or “A+” (3.5 or 4.0), than you will need to give me more than I gave you. This will require me to build these opportunities into my assessments, which I will need to do as I sit here running off my first test where I did not do this. I’m definitely not there yet!
My first attempt at the development of a score set is (in my school <60% is a failing score, D = 60%-69%, C = 70%-79%, B= 80-89%, A= 90-100%)
0, 55, 68, 73, 78, 83, 88, 90, 95, 100+
As I sit here writing this, I wonder about the need of the 55, maybe I would eventually move to a 63, but then students would pass class without attaining even a basic level of performance. I think that is a symptom of what is currently wrong with our grading system.
What do you think? What are your thoughts or suggestions?
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Week 2 – Modeling Biology Year 2

We started to actually get into it this week. After completing The Game of Science and discussing our WhiteBoard Meeting expectations we had our first WhiteBoard Meeting. One if my classes struggled with participation in the board with only about 50% of the class participating. My other class had more student involvement which was a plus, but a few students definitely contributed much more than the rest of the class.

After the WhiteBoard Meeting, the students took a few minutes and reflected on the prompt: “How was playing the game of science similar to solving a problem with the scientific method?”. We discussed their responses and came up with ideas such as; having an idea how game was played and testing it, revising ideas about play after looking at sample moves, and communicating ideas with group members.

Next my students all took the Biological Concept Inventory (BCI). The BCI is a 30 multiple choice test with questions that address the scope of the Modeling Biology Curriculum. The test is constructed in a way that draws out student misconceptions about concepts. It was very common for 25%-50% of my almost 40 kids to pick the same incorrect answer(s). I’ll need to make sure that I address these misconceptions during the year.

We had a Socratic discussion about experimental design vocabulary. We took the Flinn safety quiz.  The past two years I have scored the safety quiz, but utilized a zero weight for the assignment so it does not affect my students’ grades.  If I really want my grades to represent how my students are progressing towards learning targets, then I can not in good faith count the safety quiz towards their grade.

Next we transitioned to an experimental design lab. I provided my students with three different organisms and some observations that I made about the organisms. The choices were: (1) goldfish from the pond at school and their response to temperature, (2) Isopods and their response to the environment, and (3) peas and germination. Each group choose/were assigned an organism and they observed the organism, making a colored, labeled drawing and writing qualitative observations. Each group was then asked to develop a question to investigate, generate a hypothesis, and design an experiment to test their hypothesis.  My classes began designing experiments and we will conduct the experiments next week.

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Week 1 – Modeling Biology Year 2

I’m really hoping to be more active here this year. I’d love to do a project for, but I just do see it happening. I’m aiming for a weekly summary instead.

Day 1 – Unfortunately boring stuff on day 1 (course syllabus, safety contract, Habits of Work Rubric, fire drill/lockdown procedures). It is difficult to get into much with a 30 minute period after attendance is taken.

Day 2- I started with a variation of the Subversive Laboratory Grouping Activity from Frank Noschese. I have the kids write down 3 things on the back that they would like me to know about them. Then we transitioned to looking at some sample scientist notebook pages and discussed the qualities of a good science notebook. I distributed grid-ruled composition notebooks and gave the kids time to number the pages. It appears that Staples is using a softer style cover this year compared to last year. I already had my rubber band pull through the cover. It looks like we’ll be reinforcing with duct tape. After going over how to glue pages into our notebooks we started in on The Game of Science.

Day 3 – Safety tour around our “wonderful” open concept space. We finished The Game of Science activities. Four of the six groups got through two different games. Two of the groups struggled with Theta and Psi. Before our board meeting, I discussed my guidelines for conducting board meetings and I also shared a handout of Socratic question stems. We only had about 10 minutes left and we had not built our boards for the meeting so I showed the Veritasium Video – Can You Solve This? and had the students answer a few questions for homework about the video and the process of science.

Next week we will tackle the Biological Concepts Inventory (BCI), take our safety quiz and start some experimental design laboratories using goldfish, pill bugs, and pea seeds.

All in all, I think it was a good start to the year. Although I find the first day difficult with the 30-minus classes instead of 78-minutes. I’d like to start the year with a normal day instead, but the kids need to get pictures taken for IDs. It was more stressful for many of the teachers because only one of the four photocopiers in the school was working (the one in the Main Office of course), but it does not appear that we let the frustration transfer to our kids. I’m really excited to have my advisory kids as Seniors. I think it will be a great year and I’m impressed with how far they have come.

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Grading Presentation

My Principal asked me to share my practices around grading at our Staff Development day on Friday March 14. The focus of the day was on assessment and grading. As a district we will be making the shift to Proficiency-Based Grading. It is mandated by the State of Maine that students graduating in 2018 will need to have a proficiency-based diploma. My grading philosophy has been heavily influenced by standards-based practices. Over the last several years I’ve experienced tremendous mental dissonance as my classroom practice has not jives with my philosophy.
This year I made a some progress in reconciling that dissonance. I was inspired by Frank Noschese’s post The Spirit of SBG last June. In my Human Anatomy & Physiology course I’ve started organizing my units around 2-4 major learning objectives. I quiz my students on one learning objective at a time. I’ve developed a system for students requesting retakes using a Google Form and a script within the Google Spreadsheet to email me every time there is a new response. In the last couple years I’ve started writing my tests a that all the questions about the same learning objective are grouped together, rather than grouping by question type (multiple choice, matching, labeling, short answer, and essay). I also report out sub-scores by learning objective. Eventually I’d like to make the quizzes purely formative, but I’m not there yet.
I received positive feedback and thank you’d from my colleagues. I think the next few years are going to generate great dialogue around the school because I work with a fantastic group of educators. I would like to see my school reinstitute cross subject area professional learning groups with distinct purpose if discussing assessment and grading. It was beneficial to talk with my colleagues from other content areas in previous. Over the last five years, the previous principal slowly cut the numbers of these meeting during our Wednesday morning professional development time from one meeting monthly to 0. My slideshow is embedded below.


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DNA Extraction

I’m in the middle of the Cell Unit now. We’ve already established the structure and function of the cell membrane and are now working on the structure and function of the nucleus. The Cheek Cell Lab went off without a hitch and the post-lab discussion revealed that my kids remembered that the nucleus was the “control center” of the cell and it contained DNA. One class remembered that the letters for DNA were A,T,C,G. At this point we transitioned to the Activity about DNA structure. Next year I think I will add in a DNA Extraction Lab in between the Cheek Cell Lab and the Activity. I find that students “get” DNA better after they have seen actual DNA. In the past I’ve used a strawberry DNA Extraction from the Exploring Life Textbook by Campbell, Williamson et. al. One of the other teachers in the department does an extraction using cheek cells and a “mouthwash” solution. I think I’ll try to combine these two labs together. I really like the idea of extracting DNA from cheek cells after the kids observed their own cheek cells under the microscope. The kids will get a macro view of DNA from the abstraction and we can then transition to a micro view of DNA with the Activity. Later this Spring or in the Summer I’ll purchase the DNA model kits depending on when the district frees up some money.

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Teaching Socratic Questioning Strategies with Hedbanz

I was walking by the classroom of a colleague when one of my students who happened to be in that class called out to me, “Am I alive?”.  The students were playing the game Hedbanz, and she happen to have a tomato on her forehead.  If you are not familiar with game Hedbanz, it is a game were students ask questions of each other in an attempt to determine the picture on the card that is held by a headband on their forehead.  I asked my colleague if he was using the game to teaching questioning to his students.  He replied no, he was using it to teach the concept of capitalism.  The kids were playing a number of different quick games to determine which one most closely matched the concept of capitalism that is exemplified by Monopoly.  Playing Monopoly would just take way too long.  I talked with him about how I’ve been working with my students to get them to ask each other questions.  Students asking questions of each other is a huge part of Modeling Instruction, and my students and I have been really struggling with question asking this year.  He suggested making my own cards and playing a variation of the game.  I think there is a great deal of merit to this idea.  Now I need to think of pictures to place on the cards to get my students asking the right questions.  Any thoughts or suggestions?

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#ModBio Workshop Day 11


  1. WB Discussion Cellular Respiration Laboratory
  2. Simulating Cellular Respiration with MolyMods
  3. Exercise 2 – WB & Discuss
  4. What Do Plants Eat?
  5. Simulating Photosynthesis with MolyMods
  6. Do Plants Photosynthesize all the Time?

The whiteboard discussion of our Cellular Respiration Laboratory was fairly straight forward.  I really struggled with this laboratory because I really wasn’t sure my students were confused about where the CO2 comes from.  But than again, I guess I never really asked them.  Eventually we agreed that the living yeast exposed to the air generated more CO2 than the living yeast under the mineral oil.  This might be a good time to then discuss generally how aerobic cellular respiration is more efficient that anaerobic cellular respiration.
Next we Simulated the process of Cellular Respiration with MolyMods.  I really like the MolyMods.  I’ve used the rubber tube bonding type before.  My students sometimes struggle with the 3-D representations of this type.  The MolyMods use a space-filling model instead of a stick-model.  I think this would make more sense to my kids because they have not taken a chemistry course yet.  We started with a glucose molecule and 6 O2 molecules.  We were directed to breakdown the glucose model and build the products of cellular respiration.  We discussed how we measured CO2 production so that was one product, then Angela used the breathing on a mirror analogy to get at water vapor.  Bring from Maine, I’d use the seeing your breathe in the winter route myself.  After building the CO2 and H2O molecules, we created a balanced equation.  We then researched the organelle where cellular respiration take place, drew a labeled diagram and whiteboarded.  This activity would be followed by some direct instruction on the details of cellular respiration as necessary for our own courses.

The model development phase began with an exercise.  In this exercise we created several different representations for the process of cellular respiration.  I really like that the kids would need to provide an equation, a verbal, a graphical, and an energy LOL chart representation for both aerobic and anaerobic cellular respiration.  Next we drew pictorial representations for several levels of complexity; multicellular organism, cellular, molecular.  Yet another multi-prong approach.  Next was a simple compare and contrast for aerobic and anaerobic.  We finished with a storyboard portion for two different environmental conditions; no oxygen and lots of oxygen.  We whiteboarded a selection of answers and discussed.

Next we used the MolyMods again to simulate photosynthesis.  We already had the CO2 and H2O built from the previous simulation of cellular respiration.  We briefly discussed what plants need to make sugar and were on our way.  I think it is cool that the MolyMod bags will be all set up for next year with the glucose and O2 built.  This lead to the question of “Do plants make their food all the time?”.

To answer that question we used the CO2 and O2 probes and spinach leaves in light and dark environments.  I really like the BioChamber 2000.  At my school we’ve used the BioChamber 250, and I don’t find that we get very consistant data because you can only fit a few leaves in 250-mL chamber.  We were able to create a single layer of many leaves in the 2000-mL chamber.  We also used a circular fluorescent light that wrapped around the entire chamber rather than one single light shining down.  Our homework for the evening was to create a visual, diagrammatic  and graphical representation of our results that we will be whiteboarding tomorrow morning.

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