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Vision Statement (Part 2 of 7?) – Standards-Based Grading

2 Oct

Let me start out by saying that I LOVE standards-based grading. LOVE. I bought a ring, popped the question, she said, “Yes!” and we are going to be together for a very long time. (At least as long as I keep teaching and as soon as gay marriage is legalized). In order to explain why I love SBG so much, let me tell you about my high school experience.

I was a good student in high school. I took almost every AP class that my school offered, I got good grades, and I graduated at the top of my class. Here’s me at my high school graduation…Oh the places you'll go!

They gave me lots of medals to put on. The medals were supposed to be for being a good student. I felt like a fake. I rarely felt like I was smart in high school. Some of it was standard teen angst, but some of it was because of the nature of my classes. Even in my AP and honors classes, homework, classwork, and participation made up a large chunk of my grade. I was fond of saying that if I just showed up to class and was breathing, I would pass. Many of my teachers offered extra credit and if I did poorly on a test or quiz, I would just make up the points with extra credit. I got really, really good at accumulating points. I had one teacher give extra credit if you brought your own pencil for a test. My average in his class was over 100%.

Did my grades in my classes reflect my knowledge and understanding of the subject? Sometimes, coincidentally, they did. In some classes though, I skated by on my good test-taking abilities and impeccable homework average. If learning occurred, it was just a byproduct of  my quest to accumulate the maximum amount of points possible. I didn’t feel like getting a good grade meant that I had really learned anything and in many cases, I was right.

This is not how it should be. Grades should reflect actual knowledge. Grades should reflect learning.

Going into my first year teaching, I set up my grading policy as an afterthought and based it on grading policies that I remembered from my time in school. For the first half of the year, I used a grading policy that gave significant credit to classwork and homework. Students got a nebulous “participation” grade that was really a behavior grade. I labeled my tests and quizzes sequentially and the numbers didn’t really mean anything to me or my students. When students did poorly on an assessment, the percentage that I gave them for the assessment didn’t tell me anything about what they did or didn’t know.

Besides being detrimental to student learning, my grading policy also made me feel extremely guilty. Students who didn’t know anything were passing. Students who had learned a lot but refused to do homework weren’t. There were some days when I thought that throwing darts at a wall would have been a better way to assign grades.

For the second semester of the year, I switched to standards-based grading. The system that I implemented (and still use) was adapted from Dan Meyer. It transformed my classroom. Grades reflected learning. Students could reassess skills and have their current level of mastery reflected in their grade and not have their hard work ruined by averaging. I knew what students needed more work on. I am not going waste time defending standards-based grading or describing exactly how it works because I don’t think I could do half as good a job as Dan and Shawn and many others have already done. It was the first grading system that made perfect sense to me and helped me to start feeling good about being a teacher for the first time.

I am going to write much more about my experiences with Standards-Based Grading in the future. For now, I will end with some concerns about my implementation of Standards-Based Grading for this school year:


  • Not enough time to give opportunities to reassess now that I have twice as many students as last year
  • I am still not confident in my ability to write rigorous, standards-based questions in my Geometry class.
  • It takes me hours and hours to grade non-MC assessments every weekend.
  • Not as much student investment as last year. How can I increase by-in?
  • Not enough time to incorporate visual tracking in the classroom.

Vision Statement (Part 1 of 7?) – Authentic Problems and Inquiry-Based Instruction

28 Sep

I am hoping to use this blog to talk about the teacher that I aspire to be and not the teacher I am now. I have gotten so much from the blogs of other Math teachers and I want to be a contributing member of that community.

This is going to be part I of my Vision Statement. Teach for America is pushing its corps members to articulate their visions for their classrooms. I feel like I have many ideas and goals and not enough of this actually happening in my classroom right now. Since this is my second year it feels like I should have my shit together, but transitioning to a new school, a new age group, and new content has been hard. This Vision Statement is in no particular order. I am just going to post throughout the week when I have time.

Why I want to use authentic problems and inquiry-based instruction in my Math class:

(Many thanks to Dan Meyer, Shawn Cornally, and the many other bloggers in my feed reader for these ideas.)

Too often, problems in Math class are given without context or with “pseudo-context” that tries to pass itself off as a real-world application.

Audrey and Sara are making jewelry. Audrey buys 2 bags of beads and 1 package of clasps for a total of $13. Sara buys 5 bags of beads and 2 packages of clasps for a total of $27.50.

Do you see where this is going? Audrey and Sara know how much money they spent in total and how many of each item they bought, but somehow they don’t know how much each individual item cost and they need us to graph some equations to figure it out for them. Funny, they must have lost their receipt. This problem sends the message that math only applies to contrived situations and has nothing to do with real life. Not only is this problem a poor example of the real world applicability of systems of equations, but it is also extremely boring. Who cares how much beads and clasps cost? I don’t and I can hardly expect my students to, especially students who are struggling with Math. Maybe some of my students do know how much beads cost. Maybe they make jewelry just like Audrey and Sara. If they use that background knowledge to answer this problem, they will almost definitely get it wrong. We teach our students that their background knowledge isn’t worth much in Math class. Math is this separate world that they just visit for an hour at a time in class.

I want to use problems and examples in class that either place Math in a legitimate real world context or, at the very least, provide contrived problems that students actually want to know the answer to. There are great examples of both types of problems all over the web. Once they are curious about the problem, they are hooked. I know that I am not going to be able to do this on a large scale everyday, but I want to integrate elements of this into my class on a daily basis.

I shouldn’t be giving students formulas, we should be discovering them together. I want them to see for themselves that the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. This hasn’t been the kind of teacher that I am now, but it is the kind of teacher that I desperately want and need to be for my students. They deserve to be challenged like that everyday. I don’t want to sacrifice understanding of how to manipulate numbers and equations, but when conceptual understanding is not there, that knowledge is tenuous and fleeting anyway.

Some teachers that I have talked to worry that doing an inquiry-based activity in class isn’t the best use of time and the objective for the day could be accomplished more efficiently using traditional methods of teaching Math (direct instruction). I think based solely on achievement data from students in my charter network, a different approach is needed to boost student achievement.

I will leave you with some concerns I have about my ability to pull this off in my classroom…

  • I won’t do a good enough job connecting authentic problem or inquiry activity back to the Math involved.
  • My classroom management will limit the types or activities I can do.
  • Conceptual understanding won’t translate back to achievement on assessments.