Friday, October 27, 2017

Student Voice in Science

I have been thinking about ways I can invite student voice into my Science classroom. Here are a things I have found valuable so far this year.

Revisiting Lab Notebooks
Many years ago, I asked that my Chemistry students keep a lab notebook to use for lab work. The purpose of the notebooks, at that time, was for students to record their data during the lab activity, then to write their 'lab report' in the notebook when the activity was over. I abandoned this practice at some point, finding the stack of lab notebooks made a formidable marking pile that I dreaded tackling. I think now that it may have been the monotony of marking 30 or 60 identical labs that I was actually dreading.

This year, my grade 12 students are using lab notebooks for some of their lab activities. Their first use of their notebooks was during our first learning cycle when they were asked to design and perform an experiment to electroplate a metal object. I made it clear to my students that their lab notebook was a place to record their questions, summarize research findings, create (and modify) a plan for their experiment, record and analyze data, and answer a few questions about their experiment, results, and process. I asked that they make their thinking clear and organized in the notebook, with headings to help guide the reader through their thinking process.

It was wonderful to have so much student thinking visible during and after the lab activity. These photos were taken when I was assessing the lab activity, and aren't great quality, but illustrate a couple of things I really liked. This first image shows some great student thinking. This student actually labeled some of their 'Questions:' (right side of page) and based on their questions and preliminary research came up with an 'IDEA,' I love the science thinking that is visible in the left margin as the student wonders about experimental variables. The diagrams make the planning process more visible, as I can see the student's revisions along the way.

This second example shows some very detailed notes a student made during their experiment. Rather than create a formal observation table (there will be a time for that; this lab was not that time!) this lab activity involved a great deal of tweaking and experimentation, and students made good use of the freedom to record and report results in whatever manner worked best for them. Notice that this example is 'Attempt#1,' followed by 'Attempt #2,' and that 'Attempt #3' is referenced near the lower right side of the page. Great example of iteration and attention to detail.

Marking these labs was a pleasure, as I could learn a great deal about how a student's thinking evolved throughout the process. Usually, this evolution in thinking has been invisible to me, hidden behind a shiny, polished lab report. Another advantage is that the notebook lets me into the thinking of all students, not just the ones who ask the most questions during class time. I am definitely looking forward to revisiting the lab notebooks throughout the course to get a taste of student thinking.

Feedback for Me
This year I have been trying to make sure I give students opportunities to give me feedback. I already shared some survey answers from my 12U classes in a previous post, and thought I'd share some of my grade 9 students' comments from a round of feedback they gave me last week. As with my grade 12 students, there are some mixed feelings about the lack of number grades, but the comments made me smile. I'd like to make this a regular thing; I like that all students have a voice when I invite written feedback rather than verbal feedback. Students seem much less shy about sharing their opinions.

Students Mapping the Curriculum
Last week as we started our study of Space, I asked my grade 9 class to consider the benefits and drawbacks of space exploration and share questions they had about the possibility of humans colonizing Mars. We compiled a list of questions, and students then worked in groups to identify curriculum connections that related to the questions they had generated. The most exciting part of this process was that we were not only mapping expectations from the Space strand; I included expectations from Ecology and Electricity as well, so as students investigate questions about Mars colonization we will be uncovering curriculum for three different strands of Science.

Most students didn't have too much difficulty identifying connections between questions and the curriculum expectations; the expectations were in the original language, so there were many words they needed to unpack through discussion with each other. The following day, the students' questions went up on the wall with the related curriculum expectations. The expectations are colour coded by unit so we can see how the topics relate to each of the strands.

OK, that's it for now. :) More on gradeless classroom next time!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

First Unit Gradeless in 12U Chem, Part 2

OK, so it has been about a week since the last brain dump...time for another. Lots of turkey between then and now. :) I hope everyone had a restful weekend.

Last time, I left off explaining that my grade 12 students and I were going to come to a consensus about a grade that represents their learning in the first chemistry unit. For this to happen, the students and I each had some homework to do first:

  • Students completed a self-assessment based on the overall learning goals for the unit, assigning themselves a level (1-4) for each item. After that, they had the option of assigning themselves a grade or grade range) that they felt represented their learning so far.
  • Using my data (from product, conversation, and observation) I assigned each student a grade range based on their progress (75-80, 80-85, etc.) 

Students submitted their self-assessments to me so that I had time to read their comments. The majority of students in my two classes have submitted their self-assessments for the first unit. I will say that I was relieved that about 80% of the self-assessments were in agreement with my grade assessment. I had been nervous about this process, anticipating that I might have some debates on my hands. It turns out there was little need to worry about this.

I have chosen a couple of examples from the student self-assessments to share to illustrate points of interest.

This student (a high achiever) knows that they made an uncharacteristic (small) error on their test, and used their self assessment to tell me that they felt it did not represent what they had learned and advocate for another opportunity to show what they know. I liked the self-advocacy here. I am open to providing more opportunities for students, but need to make sure things remain manageable for me (time wise) and them (with each passing day we are more removed from this content, and I don't like the thought of them spending time preparing for another opportunity when they have new content in all of their classes every day).

This student is a good example of someone who has truly reflected on each of the learning goals. If you can read the text (I know you're all pros at deciphering students' writing!) you will see that she knows her strengths and needs. I agreed completely with her assessment of progress.

In this example, the student and I were much less in agreement. We had a longer conversation about each of these items - you can see that the student both over- and under-estimated their demonstration of learning. This student estimated their grade at about 65% while I had determined that they were in a range of about 70-75%. Certainly a more interesting case than the previous examples. This tells me that this student needs more support using the feedback and success criteria to self-evaluate.

This next example was the best one to illustrate student over-estimation; we were 10% off in our suggested grades in this case. I will say that this student does a much better job expressing themselves orally than on paper, and the levels I recorded reflect some conversations we had during lab activities. I agree with the student that their understanding is probably better represented by a higher grade, and am open to adjusting the evaluation if I have more evidence to support the adjustment. The issue we are running into is that we are in the thick of our next unit, and most of my conversations with students are about new ideas and concepts rather than things we worked on two weeks ago. I've been thinking about how to best address this; if this student wants to demonstrate their understanding again/differently we most likely need to be able to find time together outside of class time. Not a big issue, but if I imagine 50 students wanting to do so, the idea feels overwhelming. Something to think about.

And, finally, evidence that some students are taking this VERY seriously. Check out this detailed analysis...I had 3 - 5 with this level of depth - students telling me the whole story of their learning. I had a conversation with this student and got the sense that this level of depth was what they felt was required to justify the levels they assigned. I can understand their motivation to make a strong case for themselves, but if you read this one you'll see that the student has regurgitated some of their understanding here, rather than simply focus on their specific strengths and needs. Another indication that more guidance may be required to stay focused in the self-evaluation process.

OK, that's it for now. Next I plan to write about the next cycle and the adjustments I can make to improve the process.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

First Unit Gradeless in 12U Chem, Part 1

I would love to write a very long blog post right now, but just don't have the time, so I'm going to try to share what's been happening in a few 'shorter' posts (they won't actually be short, because I don't have time this week to edit them down to their I hope you don't mind if it feels more like a train of thought).

Student Point of View so Far

At the end of last week my grade 12 students had come to the 'end' of their electrochemistry unit having not received a single grade. I used single point rubrics to give feedback on their lab reports and written & verbal feedback for our quick quizzes and the unit test. On Friday my students were asked to complete a very brief survey with a single question.

What are your reflections about our gradeless classroom so far? Be honest and open. This survey is anonymous.

I currently have about 50 students in this course, and the responses from students varied. Here are some of the responses, categorized by me.

These comments expressed some of the negative feelings I expected. I was intrigued by the high level of uncertainty students are experiencing; the feedback they are getting doesn't seem to have had much meaning for them (either that, or by 'progressing' they mean 'numerically progressing'). They were also very honest about their anxiety and fear:
  • I do not like the graceless classroom because I like to know how I am progressing in the class
  • I like it because it’s different but I would also like to see marks on my tests so that I know where I’m at
  • I think a gradeless classroom has benefits that I fail to see, because I'm having trouble knowing if my study habits are producing the mark I want. I would rather be graded.
  • Terrible idea because grades are everything for university
  • I dislike it. I like to know where I am in the class and know what areas I need to improve on so I can work on them out of school
  • I want to know some grades that are put in for my final grade so I know what to work on more. Knowing grades would make some things less stressful.

And, some more positive reactions; I was surprised and pleased by some of these reflections, particularly that students are appreciating that assessment has become more of a dialogue:
  • I like it because it prepares us for university. As well it doesn’t discourage you when you don’t necessarily do as well as you hoped because instead of seeing a 89% on your test/assignments all you see is what you did wrong and what you need to work on
  • I believe it makes people feel better when they get their tests back. It makes me better to not see a mark rather just see how i did by myself
  • i like it that way i'm not always freakin out about a test or lab i can just focus on me and what i think i know and how i think i'm doing instead of being told what i know and what i don't
  • It's definitely different from what I'm used to but I'm honestly open to something new in the terms of how we're are graded. I'm very open minded to a gradeless classroom
  • Grades are an easy way to gauge the effectiveness and quality of answers on tests and quizzes, however taking some of the stress off of grades seems to be beneficial. As long as there is open communication between teacher and student, I see it as an effective way to refocus ourselves on process and not just results.
  • I like knowing how I am doing in the course, marks wise. But I like how you are not basing our grades strictly on tests. i like how you mark on the improvement more than just how you did on one task.
  • I like it. It provides more dialogue and allows myself and other students to prove we know the content.

These fall under the category of 'good idea, but please not us!!':
  • I think it is a good idea, and I see how developing this skill would be beneficial for university, but it is also our grade 12 year and these marks are very important for getting accepted into universities. Knowing where you stand in terms of a mark tells you if you need to continue what you’re doing or push yourself harder.
  • I think it's a good idea, but I certainly don't think it should be applied in a 12 U science classroom. It's important to know how you're doing in a class this year before university to see if you should be working a lot harder, or not in order to maintain your desired average.

And, one of my favourite comments:
  • It’s weird but if I can negotiate my way to a good grade I don’t mind.  

My Point of View so Far

In the background, I have been recording levels of achievement based on all of the evidence I have for student learning, including the products I mentioned above, conversations with students, and observations made during the lab activities. All of the information is being recorded in a spreadsheet with individual assessment 'items' coded by overall expectation. A snapshot of the spreadsheet looks like this:

I can easily see patterns here, and sort the data by expectation for each student to see if they have made improvements over time.

I haven't yet found an ideal way to record conversation information data on the fly, since conversations are often on multiple topics for any number of students in a short period of time. I know I don't have to record all of them, but I am still looking for a way of systematizing this process. There are times that I recorded levels for conversations, and other times that, based on a conversation, I changed a students' level of achievement for a written assessment (counting the conversation as an opportunity to improve upon the written work rather than as an assessment in itself). Getting there.

Our First Assessment Cycle: Assigning Numeric Grades

This week, students are completing self evaluations for the first unit of study. I have taken a look at the data I have collected and determined what I think to be a fair mark range (70-75, 75-80, etc.). The next step is to compare the student self assessments to my notes to see if they agree with each other. I know I won't have time for a long conference with each student, and plan to have short conversations with those students whose self-assessments agree with my assessment and longer conversations with those students whose self assessments don't line up with mine.

Students received feedback on their lab reports yesterday, so only a few of them have handed in their self-assessment (all high achievers!), but here is one (sorry for the bad quality; I just used my webcam & my shaky hand to take it!):

I can see that this student actually looked at and considered the feedback they received, because they have mentioned specific detail about what they know needs improvement. The mark range I had personally determined as appropriate for this student was 85-90, so I am very pleased that our assessments overlap.

It is unbelievable how easy it has been for me to separate myself from grading culture. I mentioned in a previous post (or maybe in a Twitter conversation?) that my decision to determine a grade unit-by-unit with my students is for two reasons: 
  1. I know that university applications are coming and that I have turned these kids' world completely upside down by not giving them grades. I don't want my decision to shift my pedagogy to have negative influences on my students' mental health, and I think it is fair that we assess conceptual understanding as we cycle through each major topic. There are other aspects of my students' learning that will be assessed over the course of the entire semester (communication, scientific investigation skills, etc.) a subject I have not yet broached with them but that they are now ready for, I think.
  2. Determining marks unit-by-unit will give the students and I five attempts at the self-assessment and grade negotiation cycle. I appreciate the opportunity to refine this process over time, and am looking forward to having the ability to tweak it each time.

OK, that was a good brain dump. More to come soon.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Knowing my students and focusing on feedback

Getting to know my students

Three weeks in and I am feeling at home in my classroom. I have had one-on-one conversations with most of my students to find out about their expectations and concerns related to Science class. I asked students to provide me with a range of numeric report card grades that would make them feel successful at the end of the semester. I plan to use these ranges as a reference for me throughout the semester so that I can let students know if they are on track since they will not be getting grades on their assignments. 

I had a few difficult moments during these discussions. A handful of students (in grade 9 and 12) expressed concerns about being in the 'right place,' in some cases questioning whether they were 'smart enough' to be there. I asked questions to find out the reasons for their concerns, and tried to push back as much as possible without discounting their concerns completely. I always struggle a bit with this early in the semester, when we have yet to develop the kind of trusting relationship that is necessary to effectively tackle important issues. The best I could do was to assure them that they were in the right place.

There were some lovely highlights in these conversations, too; one of my grade 9 students, when asked what their goals were for their final mark, told me that they thought marks were pretty meaningless and that they would feel successful if they had learned new ideas and skills. Imagine the grin on my face. :) 

Finishing up our first 'no grades' unit in 12U Chemistry

Considering the fact that the students' grades are extremely important this year for admission to post-secondary, there have not been any issues related to the fact that I haven't yet given them any numeric feedback. The two remaining pieces of evidence of their achievement in this unit will be the unit test (fairly traditional!) and their lab notebooks. The lab notebooks are a record of their process during our electroplating lab last week. (Students had three class periods to research, plan, and perform an experiment and used the notebooks to record their thinking, observations, and results.) Evidence from observations and conversations (Wed-Fri last week) will be used along with the lab notebook to assess their ability to apply their electrochemistry understanding in this new context. 
On test day, I plan to give students a template they can use to self-assess their progress in electrochemistry. We will use this in conjunction with my notes to come up with a numeric grade for this unit of study. Students will also be made aware that they have a chance to improve this electrochemistry 'grade' between now and the end of the semester. I'll share examples of the templates next week. On a personal note, I need to figure out a better way of tracking assessment during observation/conversation. I'll share something in a blog when I find what works for me.

Here are some of my tweets from this week...

The daily grind

Although my return to the classroom has been pretty smooth in most respects, I have been struggling with the number of interruptions to my classes these first three weeks. In the first 14 days of class with my homeroom grade 9s, I lost 4 full periods to assemblies, evacuation drills, guidance appointments, and picture day. Losing 4 out of 14 classes has been difficult for me as we try to develop classroom routines and find some 'academic momentum.' I don't intend this to be a complaint, but rather an acknowledgement of a common barrier teachers face in their classrooms. Each individual interruption is important, but having so many in quick succession is something I think schools should do their best to avoid. I'm looking forward to a much quieter week this week!

Monday, September 11, 2017

First Week Back

So, I've been back in the classroom for a full week after 3 years away from the classroom. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections in no particular order...

Who are all these people?
I am teaching at the same school that I had previously taught at for about 10 years. It is wonderful to have the comforts of 'home' (I can find things I need, lots of familiar teacher faces, routines are similar) but it is disorienting that I don't know any students. At all. With my grade 9's this doesn't make a difference, but my grade 12's have their 'stranger danger' radar on, wondering who I am and whether they can trust me. This means more work for me when it comes to building relationships. The silver lining is that my students and I are all starting out with a clean slate. A fresh start like this is worth the skeptical glances and skill-testing questions being thrown my way.

Changing how I do business
"Less me, more them" is one of the general themes I am trying to carry with me throughout each day. Every teacher loves a captive audience, and our voices have a time and place, but my students' voices need to be more important. Last week when we had a minor tech failure (first week back...maybe a little too ambitious!?!) it was easy to switch plans on the fly, but the default fallback plan involves more 'me' than I would like. I look forward to finding a new teaching rhythm where the 'default' lesson is more student-centred.

Started the 'gradeless' conversation
On the first day of classes, I told my grade 12 students my thoughts about numeric grades. I acknowledged the importance of grades this year as they apply to post-secondary programs, but made it clear that I would not be focusing on marks with them. I asked for their trust, but I know that trust takes time. I plan to conference with my students in the next week or so to learn about their goals for the course and address their questions. This year might not be completely gradeless, but it will be feedback focused as much as possible. Saying the words out loud to my students will help me stay accountable to myself.

Students know more than we think
For anyone who has ever doubted students' ability to generate quality success criteria entirely on their own, please give it a try! In my prior teaching life I had never had students generate criteria for anything critical. This year, on the first day of school, my Chemistry students generated success criteria for writing scientific explanations that were more specific and thorough than anything I would have come up with on my own. My students have high standards and have already shown me that they can identify quality work and give effective feedback to one another. We spoke about the power of a team, and about how all of us can push one another to improve.

Fresh air
I spent time outside with all of my classes last week. We didn't spend a whole period outside (yet!) but took advantage of the sunshine and had a little bit of fun getting to know one another. While outside, one of my classes blew me away when they found a solution to an icebraker activity that I never anticipated. A challenge that had always taken a minute or two with other groups (adults!) was over in the blink of an eye, with only me left asking 'how did you...?' I love surprises. :)

I hope to blog more often this year. See you soon. :)

Monday, September 04, 2017

Braiding Sweetgrass and Bridging Cultures

This summer, as is usually the case, the list of books I had planned to read was too long to be practical. Two education-related books took priority for me this year, both recommended to me by Science educators I have had the privilege to work with these last three years. Both books examine the relationship between Science (the Science I learned and have taught in school) and Indigenous knowledge about nature. The books complimented one another really well, and I wanted to share my reflections.

First, I would like to acknowledge that I am at the start of a quest to better understand my role in the reconciliation process between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. I have to thank the authors of these books for the role they played in helping me better understand who I am. Understanding the Eurocentric nature of 'my' Science and Science education is, for me, an important first step in knowing where I fit in the reconciliation story. I find myself wondering if there are others in the same position I am, struggling to find out where they fit in this complex process.

The first book I read this summer was Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdon, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist by training. Her book, carefully-selected stories from her life and from Indigenous oral tradition, is full of hope and wonder. She writes about the importance of creating positive experiences with nature for students of all ages, emphasizing that a strong relationship with nature promotes respectful practices such as the 'Honourable Harvest,' which she summarizes with these words:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you (plants), so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have take.
Give thanks for what you have been give.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

Dr. Kimmerer distinguishes between Eurocentric Science ('What is it? How does it work?') and Indigenous ways of knowing nature ('Who are you? What can you tell us?'). I was particularly intrigued by the inherent differences in western and Indigenous language; I grew up with (and teach) a Science that is full of impersonal nouns. The author recounts her journey in learning to speak her ancestral tongue, and her initial frustration upon realizing that there were far fewer nouns and far more verbs. She uses the example 'wiikwegamaa,' which translates as 'to be a bay.' Rather than relegate a bay to being a noun, the Ojibwe language imbues a bay with life:

" ...the verb wiikwegamaa - to be a bay - releases the water from bondage 
and lets it live. 'To be a bay' holds the wonder that, for this moment, the 
living water was decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing 
with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers."

As I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I yearned to be among Dr. Kimmerer's students, covered in soil, carefully harvesting watap (roots of white spruce) to help them build a shelter in the forest. I found myself recalling professors of mine who made biology come alive for me, using imagery, humour, and storytelling to capture our intellectual and emotional interest. The picture Kimmerer paints of Nanabozho and Linnaeus going for a walk in the woods and discussing the names and relationships of plants and animals will stay with me always. The book ends with a message of hope that our earthly relationships (human-human, human-nature) can be restored to a healthier state with thoughtful, intentional action and cooperation.

A great interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, 'Two Ways of Knowing,' can be read here. She also has several lectures available to view online, including 'Reclaiming the Honourable Harvest' and 'The Teachings of Grass.' 

The second book I read this summer was Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature by Glen Aikenhead and Herman Michell. It was the perfect contrast to Braiding Sweetgrass. Much more technical than poetic, this book provided a detailed analysis of Eurocentric Sciences and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature, taking great care to define the origins and qualities of each. The authors resist setting up a dichotomy, insisting that these two world views are complimentary to one another and share many fundamental qualities.

Bridging Cultures laid out explicitly what Braiding Sweetgrass taught me through stories and analogies. Eurocentric Science and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature are both rational, logical, systematic, communal, and dynamic. The differences between these two ways of knowing are relevant to how we interact with Indigenous and Neo-Indigenous students in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to understand that some aspects of Science may be difficult for these students because of some inherent differences in world view, which may include the following:
  • nature has an inherent spirituality
  • humans are not superior to other living things
  • learning about nature involves thinking, but also reflecting, living and being
  • relationships among living things create mutual responsibility
  • knowing nature cannot be separated from sustainability, generosity, wisdom, and collaboration
Aikenhead and Michell provide something that teachers are often looking for: advice on how to bring Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature into our classrooms to better support our Indigenous students. They recommend that teachers learn about the local community and, when possible, involve local elders in a respectful way when looking for ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in their teaching. General recommendations for supporting Indigenous students include many things that teachers recognize as good practice, including: a holistic approach, visual aides, oral communication, practical experience, time for reflection, and rich storytelling. 

To read more about learning models for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, you can look at the 'Holistic Lifelong Learning Models' created by the Canadian Council on Learning.

The things I learned while reading these two books stayed with me all summer as I spent time in nature alone and with my family. I noticed more sounds, smells, and plants when hiking in the woods. I considered the effects of a gravel road on an ecosystem during long runs on that road. I appreciated how much my senses and my understanding of angles helped me interpret the wind as I learned to sail. I listened for the differences in the sounds of the wind and rain interacting with different species of trees. I thanked - really thanked - trees for oxygen, plants and animals for food, trees for shade, and the sun for warmth. I shared every possible delight with my kids: the discovery of a luna moth caterpillar, the magical movements of a hummingbird, the glory of a starry night sky, the reflection of sunlight shimmering on the trees, the tiny perfection of an orange mushroom on a trail. 

These books changed the way I think about myself as a Science teacher, and has helped me start a journey towards a wider world view. Many thanks to the authors, and to the teachers who recommended these books to me. 


I can't believe it has been over a year since I blogged. I didn't know it had been that long - it's funny how time flies. I'm hoping to visit this space more often as a place to share my journey and reflect on my teaching practice as I return to the classroom tomorrow. Tomorrow! Wow.

Best wishes to everyone starting school tomorrow!