SBG Reflections

All you awesome teachers in my blog reader keep writing amazing posts that remind me of things I wanted to reflect on or write about.  Fawn Nyugen wrote a great post about her first year of SBG and it caused me to reflect on my four years of using SBG and how I will apply it to Geometry next year, which I’ve never taught. So, without the elegant writing that Fawn has and copying her headings, here is my reflection! In order to make it easy to read, I am linking to documents rather than embedding them.

What worked

  • Incorporating a Google Form for retakes. I created mine from a mix of those I saw online and even though I waited until 4th Quarter to do so, it helped SO much.  Mainly because I found a script that emails me the form responses when students hit submit…there is NO need for me to check the form daily! It even comes through the email nice and neat.  I then created a folder in my email with a rule that all emails with the Request to Reassess in the subject (set up in the google form), get sent to this specific folder. I liked this because it removed the requests for passes during class time and asked the students to reflect.  And they reflected pretty well seeing as though I added this 4th quarter.
  • Only allowing lunch retakes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This allowed me to have Wednesdays to meet with students who needed help and Fridays because we have treat Friday’s in the 8th grade office and I like spending that time with those awesome teachers.
  • Color coding my PAPER gradebook. Students who earned a 2-1-0 on a skill were highlighted in pink once I posted a note in their online gradebook. The note in the gradebook mentioned that I wanted to see them during lunch to review their missed skill…this was the same thing I wrote on their quiz. I highlighted the students who mastered the skill in green. This allowed me to easily view which skills I needed to reteach and which skills most of the class had mastered.
  • Requiring two 4’s (two mastery scores) in order to fully master (or be completed with) a skill.  I liked this because the questions on the second quiz were a little more difficult in nature, really challenging students to prove their knowledge. I have no idea how I can do this with Geometry when it is all so new to me.
  • Skills Checklist.  It’s amazing how much 8th grade students LOVE stickers! They get a sticker when they master a skill.  This allowed them to know AT ANY TIME, which skills they still needed help with.  I like this because they kept all of their skill quizzes in a folder along with the checklist and they didn’t need technology to log into the gradebook to see what they needed to skill master.  I find the stickers at the dollar store or Target’s $1 section and even got quite  a few packs for Christmas this past year from students.
  • Short Skill quizzes. Most had 1-4 skills being assessed through 4-10 questions, with 2-4 questions per skill. This meant they didn’t take students they entire 45 minute period to take the quiz and they didn’t take me that long to grade. By not losing an entire period to a quiz, I was able to use the time before or the time after for a lesson or activity or review.

What didn’t work (and I won’t reinstate them)

  • Color coded excel gradebook. I found a PDF example online of a SBG excel gradebook that color coded the scores and would automatically tabulate when students had passed a skill twice.  I thought it was the coolest thing, took a good deal of time to make it. Yet I didn’t like having to write the scores down and transfer them to that document and then to the online gradebook.  This didn’t even make it past a few weeks.  Great concept, but too time consuming.
  • Allowing students to take more than two skills during a before school, during lunch or after school reassessment.  Since most come to reassess during lunch anyways, there isn’t enough time for students to take more than two skills.  I tried 1st and 2nd quarter with no limit, but then the end of lunch would come and I would hear “I didn’t finish, can I finish during class?” UGH…no way.

What I know I can improve on

  • Keeping track of which reassessments a student has taken. I have multiple reassessments for each skill, but when a student comes to reassess, I usually ask them if they’ve reassessed before and which skills.  I was *usually* able to provide them with the right skill quiz, but sometimes students did reassess the same skill quiz more than once.  Either I need to try Fawn’s Mailing labels for reassessments or something else.
  • Going over the quizzes when I hand them back.  Students sit in groups, so they learn at the beginning of the year that they need to dialog with each other, but when it comes to quizzes I find that they don’t like to say they didn’t understand a certain problem. I need to find a better way to make sure I am going over the questions on the skill quizzes when they are handed back.
  • Provided more written feedback on their quizzes.  I did a decent job during first quarter, but slowly, slowly it disappeared as the year went on.  I KNOW that it is important, but it was one of the easier things to let slide. No more! I plan to provide helpful, meaningful feedback on skill quizzes this year!
  • Explaining the system better to parents at the start of the year. I am the only one who grades this way in my building, so it is all new to parents whose “child has always gotten A’s in math”. I need to find a better way to explain. I’ve used Angry Birds as an example to help, but I need to improve it a lot.

What I’m still thinking about

  • Allowing those students that mastered ALL skills for the quarter to be exempt from taking my Quarter Skills Final. I allowed this during 3rd and 4th quarters this past year.  I thought there would be more students mastering, but it wasn’t as many students as I thought it would be (maybe 4 per class of 32) and why not reward them for working hard through the quarter and above and beyond class time? But I wonder if it defeats the purpose of the Quarter final to work on retention of material?
  • Do I even do a quarter final this year? (see below as well) The district curriculum committee has written unit tests for each unit, if I have to give those, I don’t see a huge quarter final being able to fit in.  Since this is a sophomore level course, the 8th grade students will take semester finals during 2nd and 4th quarter as it is.
  • Reassessment deadline. It’s usually the last Monday of the quarter for any skills during that quarter, but this sometimes causes students to wait until the last minute to master a skill from the beginning of the quarter.  If I have to give the district created Unit tests, maybe the deadline would be by the next unit test? Or two weeks after a unit test?  Just thinking aloud here…
  • Incorporating the Math Practices and 21st Century Skills into SBG, specifically the gradebook. I want to, I just don’t know how.  I tried 21st Century skills last year and those didn’t make it past the first quarter. What if the students graded themselves on the Math Practices and 21st Century Skills?  That would make it easier to keep track of AND allow discussion between the student and myself. Hmmmmm….
  • Meeting with each student at mid-quarter and end of the quarter to discuss together what grade they think they earned. I have read this in a few different places and I think it would open to some great discussions.  But will they be honest? And is this really preparing them for the rigors of high school? And where will I find the time?

What I’m at a loss on

  • Starting SBG over after 4 years of using it in Algebra and trying to apply it to Geometry.
  • Writing questions for Geometry. Writing the questions for Algebra and Pre-Algebra over the years was easy because I’ve been teaching it for so long I knew the types of questions I wanted them to know.  I want SBG to work in Geometry, but I am scared to mess it up because I don’t know the content well enough to be able to level questions and know what is really important enough to quiz on.
  • Creating a Skill Checklist for Geometry. Same reasons as above.  I have a bunch from online, but I also have to keep up with my district’s curriculum and common core.
  • The district curriculum committee that just finished the Geometry curriculum and rewriting it to Common Core has also created Unit tests.  How do I implement those tests with SBG? I haven’t given a unit or chapter test in years.  Do I give it and grade it as a test in the gradebook? Do I give it and grade it as separate skills?
  • Homework. I haven’t graded it in years, but I also haven’t checked it frequent enough to keep students doing it.  Just like a new post I read from An Old Math Dog Learning New Tricks, I don’t think practice should be a part of their grade, but I am starting to feel as though middle school students need a little more of a push in regards to the importance of practicing their math. Some students get that if they practice they will pass the skill quizzes, but others think they don’t have to do the practice to be successful. And the high school has mentioned that many new freshman struggle with getting assignments in on time (they come from 7 different middle schools).  Do I create a responsibility standard in the gradebook and use that for homework where a percentage done during the quarter equals a 2-1-0? Or like a comment on that same blog post, will my gradebook allow me to continue using weights when grading and make HW a 0% weight, so it doesn’t affect the grade, BUT it is visible in the gradebook for parents, students and myself to see their HW completion?

I really enjoyed putting this reflection together, especially since I will be essentially starting over with SBG next year with Geometry as my new teaching assignment.  This is really going to help me remember what I liked and what I want to change as I forge ahead into new territory!

Thanks again to Fawn for reflecting on her year of SBG and inspiring me to do the same!


#MSSunFun: Teaching Students How to Study for Assessments

#msSunFunYeah! It’s #MSSunFun and I am actually participating! 🙂 It’s been a while since I’ve joined in the weekly blogging, but I wanted to share what I do with my students to teach them how to study AND I am procrastinating doing a few others things right now, so it fits perfectly! And it ties to my earlier post on Failure, read that here.

A while back there was a conversation on Twitter about stamps we want so we  could use them on student work, obviously they were tongue in cheek, but I still had fun creating the graphics for all of them.  This one below was one of the main ones we discussed.  It is SO obvious to us teachers when students study and when they don’t. Our frustration with this comes because we are always looking for our  students to succeed and we also know all of the work we have done in class to practice and help solidify their understanding.  Since I use SBG, reassessments are a real part of my classroom and grading, I dislike grading retakes when they clearly didn’t prepare.  This is why I have added some additional requirements this year in order for them to reassess.Didn't Study

Due to using SBG, I have a lot of small skill quizzes rather than long tests, however I start the beginning of the year teaching my students that the word “quiz” does not mean they don’t have to study because it will be easier.  The math department has used the following handout to help students with studying for math tests.  It provides a list of helpful study strategies.

Additionally, I share the App/website StudyBlue with my students. ( It is a tech way to create flashcards, study guides, etc.  Students can even share with their school and classmates.  It remembers which ones you get correct and incorrect and will continue to build study from there.  It’s pretty cool and my students LOVE it.  Check it out!

I have created two documents that I have used since 2010-ish, I have used each at different times and for different reasons.

This document below is what I hand to my students in preparation for their end of quarter final. While we take skill quizzes throughout the quarter, I also want to focus on retention and they take a quarter final that covers all of the skills from that quarter.  They take out their skill folder and skill checklist and use that to help fill out the top part.  They also use their ISN and/or textbook to complete the middle part and they can use old examples from their ISN in the third part.  I do reference a textbook, while they don’t get one to use during the year, they can access it online as necessary. I reference a lot of the online practice quizzes and tests as good study tools because they check automatically while the students take them.

I have used this study plan document a lot with my US History classes, but my math students like it as well.  I make it available on my class website and they can use it as necessary.  At the start of the year we do a study skills unit in Advisory that I put together and this document is part of that unit, which means that all students are familiar with it.

I remember coming across Julie’s Study Guide Kit for Math Tests at the start of this year,  I made a note to try and incorporate that into my ISN’s this year because I liked that there would be a study guide for each Unit/Chapter within their ISN.  I felt that would be useful for the students when it came to studying for the quarter final.  Unfortunately I forgot about it and did not start it this year, but I will be doing something similar next year.  I could see the right side of the ISN page being the folded study guide and the left side of the page being a modified (shortened to fit) study plan….but these are just thoughts right now.  I really like Mary’s Evidence of Study worksheet that she shared for this week’s #MSSunFun,  I will probably try and work that into my ISN somehow as well.  I like the parent signature for my middle school students.  I was also thinking about adding a Time Spent section so students could note how long they spent studying each night.

I love the sharing of great ideas and I am happy to participate!! Have a great week!

When is failure okay?

Is failure even okay anymore?  Does it teach a lesson? Or does the non-failure teach a better lesson? Whose fault is failure…student? teacher? other outside forces? I have these questions and more swirling around in my head.  It’s Friday, it’s been a very long day and I am attempting to put together something that effectively gets my thoughts, questions and feelings across.  I won’t get into the nitty gritty behind why these questions are at the forefront of my mind, but I will just say it’s not a good reason and made me very sad this morning.  Bullies do still exist in the adult world and it’s not cool.

Background: I use SBG and have been doing it in Algebra for 4 years. I’ve used it in Pre-Algebra for 2 years, but with Common Core this year I’ve only been doing it here and there this year because I’ve been spending too much time figuring out new curriculum design.  With that being said, all of my students are comfortable with SBG and what it means.  I am the only one using it in my building, though an ELA teacher uses it for one aspect of her class.  While explaining the grading at the start of each year can be rough on parents and students, eventually they do understand the grading and why I do it this way.  I have used the Angry Birds comparison that I found online from one of you. (post link to that here).

I truly believe that SBG is the way to grade and will not go back.  I love the conversations that I can have with students about their understanding of a specific topic.  We can address that they understand the concept but are making small algebraic errors or we can discuss their lack of understanding of the concept and identify the areas of confusion to put together a way to reteach/practice the concept.  They know what they know and what they don’t.  They reflect on their learning and know the steps they need to do to more forward.  They get frustrated when they make those small errors, but push themselves to practice and reassess.  The students feel supported and know that I will do whatever it takes to support them.

What I do: Students are allowed to reassess any skills throughout the quarter as often as they want in order to show mastery.  However, they do have to sign-up to reassess and bring proof of further practice of the skill they want to reassess.  I have learned (the hard way) that this is the way to go.  I had students in the past reassess and reassess without any practice thinking that the continual retakes would help them learn and eventually they would pass.  Kind of like the book under the pillow to study. 🙂  It didn’t work (go figure), but was a huge strain on both students and myself. Having them bring the practice is great because I can look over it before they reassess to make sure they are on the right track.

In my class, students must master each skill twice (or two 4’s) in order to master the skill.  At that point the grade in the gradebook will equal a 100% for that skill.  I offer 6 assessments on each skill throughout the quarter in class; there are 10-12 skills per quarter.  Anything they want to reassess above and beyond that comes from them and will be before school, during lunch or after school.  Doing it this way I feel helps to promote student responsibility in two ways…either they will work to master it in class by practicing and studying for the skill quizzes or they will work to master it on their own time because they want to get a skill “done” or needed a little extra help.  I do not view the help or reassessments outside of the school day as being bad, I see it as a way for students to realize when they need additional help and find ways to get it.  I do, every once in a while, require students to meet with me during lunch because they fell into my Red Zone on a skill.

Homework is not a grade.  I always struggled with what to do with homework as a beginning teacher and now that it is not graded I love it.  And guess what? The students still do their homework! I do check it daily (or have a student check it daily)to keep track of who is doing it, but that is for my information to help stay on top of a student who is on the verge of struggling.  If a student misses 3 homework assignments in a week or in a short time span, I will talk to them about it and make a note in the gradebook notes section that students and parents can see.  If they continue to miss their homework, they have to meet with me during lunch to work on it.  I do this in advance of the skill quizzes in order to help them before they may struggle.  Keeping track of homework completion is also helpful when talking with students about their skills mastery and when talking to parents about their student.

My Frustrations: I wish my gradebook system didn’t require my skills to be graded numerically.  That is the most confusing part to students and parents because we don’t have a normal grading scale (it’s higher than most), so when students haven’t mastered a skill, their “grade” in the gradebook looks pretty bad until they improve.  If I could grade without numbers and with proficiency levels, it would be fantastic.  Every year I work to teach my students that grades don’t matter, it’s their understanding of the skills that do.  Typically the students understand and it takes the parents a little longer…see my blog post earlier about a parent email related to this.

What do I do with the student who doesn’t care? Who doesn’t do the homework, doesn’t prepare for skill quizzes, doesn’t take advantage of reassessments, doesn’t take me up on my offer for help during lunch? I feel that it is HARD to fail my class with all of things I have in place, so what do I do when a student does fail? Obviously there is parental communication, but what else can I do?  When does the responsibility fall back to the student? When is it the student’s choice that is causing their failure?

The conversation that I had with my Admin today was one of having too many D’s or F’s.  Mind you I don’t have any F’s and had 5 D’s total from my 4 math classes (2 Algebra and 2 Pre-Algebra).  The conversation was one of what can you do differently to reach these students because clearly what you are doing isn’t working.  FIVE D’s???? I think my head almost popped off my body.  Here was my admin telling me I wasn’t doing enough to reach all students.  Really? Besides what I listed above, in my short 42 minute class, I do a lot of small remediation groups, 1-1 work with students, video chats on the weekends and review of topics with those that need it.  I was made to feel that my offering before school, after school and during lunch help and reassessments was implying that I wasn’t doing something in the classroom correctly. That it was bad for me to offer these things.  I was asked what I was going to do to change those grades from D’s to something higher.  WHAT? What about asking the students what they are going to do?  What about asking the students if they took advantage of any of the hundreds of options they have available to them?  Why was I made to feel that a D was an unacceptable grade and I shouldn’t allow it?  I was told that I should really be reflecting on myself and my teaching to make improvements because I must be doing something wrong.  I have thought long and hard about it…I think I am going to talk to my admin on Monday and ask what else they would like me to do (after listing everything I am doing) because I am at a loss as to what else I can be doing. I teach topics in multiple ways with different examples, the students have ISN’s filled with notes, examples and reflections to fall back on.  My students and I have a great rapport, we have fun, we talk about the ups and downs of life, we challenge ourselves with the math we do and we like it. And guess what? They learn in my class, they ask questions in my class, they want to know more about what we are doing and they help each other.  It’s been a great year and has allowed me to reflect and learn about what it truly means to be a teacher in this day and age.

The Irony: On Wednesday of this week I found out that instead of teaching 8th grade Algebra (Accelerated class) and Pre-Algebra (Regular class) next year (like I have for the past 11 years), I will be moving up to 8th grade Geometry, which is the best of the best…the gifted team.  It’s supposed to be a compliment to be teaching those students because they require so much and so much different than what I am use to.  However after leaving my meeting this morning with my admin, I was questioning why they would place me there if I had “SO” many students struggling in my classes; if I clearly didn’t know what to do to reach my students, why was I being moved? I felt as though I wasn’t good enough to be moved to teach those students. I don’t think that a teacher should ever leave a meeting feeling as though they aren’t good enough.

So what is the answer?  What does failure mean today? I am getting the feeling that it means that the teacher didn’t work hard enough and let the student slip through the cracks…at least that’s the impression my admin gave.  I don’t agree with that answer, but I am now not sure what the answer is.  I agree with SBG and students showing mastery, but I also believe there needs to be a deadline at some point, in order to hold them accountable, to work on responsibility, to allow them to move on.

Does your school allow students to fail? What things do you have in place to help them if they are struggling? Is there a lesson to be learned from failing and struggling?  I posed the question on Twitter on Friday because I needed to vent and see what other teachers and schools do.  The responses were great and now I just need to figure out how to move forward. How to move past how my admin made me feel, reflect on it and make sure I never make anyone student, parent or teacher ever feel that way. And to think about what else I can do in the classroom to reach all students.

The value of homework

Homework has always been the thorn in my side as a teacher.  I understood it’s importance, but have struggled to get the students to understand the importance. From the beginning of my career, homework was a completion grade, quite often I would “check” it through homework quizzes that had questions from that week’s homework that we had specifically gone over in class. Then I wasn’t happy with that and switched it up to points 2-1-0. I would walk around and check for completion while they were checking with their neighbor. Switching to Standards Based Grading 3-4 years ago has helped my Algebra students understand a little better the importance of practice not points, but it hasn’t helped my Pre-Algebra students. It sounds like I run my homework similar to Andrew Stadel; I don’t collect homework. I don’t check it off that they did it.  I don’t keep track. They do spend the first 5 minutes checking with their table, while I go around and stamp their homework (if it is done) & take attendance, but I just stamp for completion and don’t keep track. Then I will go over any questions they couldn’t agree on at their table or questions they had good discussions about. Recently I have noticed a strong decline in the amount of homework that is being completed and discussed, either that or I am getting more annoyed with the whining “I didn’t understand it”, “It was too hard” or “I forgot” that comes from a multitude of students on a daily basis. I know it isn’t entirely the time of the year because I know I’ve been kind of ignoring the issue for a month or so now, hoping they would turn it around.  Andrew StadelChris Robinson, Hedge, and Fawn Nguyen were discussing the lack of homework completion the other day on Twitter and I shoved jumped right into the conversation.  I need a better focus on my views on homework and how to make it worthwhile in my classroom.  Since I jumped into the conversation a little late, they had already done a decent amount of leg work and came up with a few warm-up questions to pose to the students on Monday.

1. Briefly explain what reason cause you to regularly complete or regularly NOT complete the homework assignments.
2. What incentives would motivate you to complete more homework assignments?

I had students complete the questions on a note card and attempted to give very little direction or any examples. Unfortunately one of my Pre-Algebra classes didn’t understand the word incentive so I tried to explain it with an absurd example, “An incentive…like if having a pony would get you to complete your homework.” Somehow that helped them understand, but as you will see below also prompted them to tell me that a class pet would be a great incentive.  As they were leaving class, students were offering cages and toys for some class pet (I think someone said hamster), while I was mumbling something about it being too hard to have class pets these days due to all the allergies students have.  Just to be clear, we will NOT be getting a class pet.

I was going to tally up all of the results from all four periods together, but as I read through them (Middle School students are the best entertainment.), I realized very quickly that there was a distinct difference between my Pre-Algebra student responses and my Algebra student responses. Algebra for my students is an accelerated class at the 8th grade level, so they do tend to be more studious and responsible.  I wanted to then tally the results by course. Here are the results: (Someone needs to explain to me how to put tables in a blog)

FYI: I do teach about 120 students, I did not record responses that were off topic which is why they don’t add up to the right amount of students. 🙂

My Thoughts: (Reminder I do teach 8th Grade)
Reasons for not doing homework – I wasn’t surprised with Pre-Algebra having more students say they don’t understand or they forgot. Years of teaching have proved that to be the case. The 3 responses for distractions are home were from the students I know take care of siblings many of the hours they aren’t at school. Algebra responses were strongly not having time to do it, outside activities and they were busy, which I probably should have combined.  A lot of students in those classes are heavily involved in multiple sports, music, dance, etc. I am just fine with the response that if they understand it, they don’t do it.  I was happy only two students said they hated math; my goal is to change that.

Reasons for doing homework – I feel as though a lot of the responses from Pre-Algebra stemmed around getting good grades and it will help them, which did surprise me because I don’t feel as though that is what I see in the classroom. The parents would kill me response while morbid, was a little refreshing, I wish more parents were on their students to complete homework or to at least work on school work at home. I LOVE that so many Algebra students said it helps them to understand and to practice the skills, YEAH! They get it.  Why them and not all my students?  I also enjoyed so many of them saying that doing the HW helps them know if they understand the material. I wanted to do a cartwheel, they get it, they really do.  And to be honest, they don’t have the missing homework issue as bad as my Pre-Algebra students…the students that do are the ones who are struggling on skill quizzes.

Incentives – I love middle school students.  They really came up with some good incentives. Just to hit on a few…
Incentive Card Signature – We do have a grade level incentive program that ALWAYS gets tossed to the side as the year goes on. It’s similar to a Caught Ya Being Good system, where we give signatures on a card and full cards get them food, candy and other incentives a few times throughout the year.  It is such a pain to have them take out their cards and then I sign them.  I want to create a stamp, maybe then I would do it more.  It seems like they want me to.
Fun worksheets: Really? I thought the homework was fun or at least interesting.  There are comics and jokes and the homework is almost always self checking with answers provided.  Apparently my version of fun is not their version of fun, the “punny” jokes must need to go.
Extra Credit: I don’t offer it, they know this because THEY ASK ALL THE TIME. Why write it down? Do middle school students ever listen?
Less HW/Less problems: Really? The max is 20 and that is very very rare.  It’s usually 6-10.
STAR Card: My personal incentive system. STAR stands for Students Thinking & Acting Responsibly. I made them through VistaPrint. But again, I just don’t use them enough. I like to hand them out to students when they are on task and so many other students aren’t. It is a little overkill with the grade level system.  I am only still using them because I have so many left. But I do need to find a way to use one incentive or the other.
Stickers: The students love getting stickers when they master a skill. They keep begging me to buy scratch and sniff stickers, but they are expensive to give daily for homework.
Candy: I dislike eating in my classroom and try to avoid it at all costs. I also am not made of money and don’t want to buy candy all of the time.

I loved the student who said if you don’t do homework you need a punishment of some type, like a name on the board or something.  I do like the idea of if they have it all week, maybe they get something.  I have no idea what though. A lot of the Algebra students talked about high school placement, that’s only because we’ve been talking about it and we discussed what an Honors student looked like.  It’s on their minds I guess.

Overall – They really aren’t completely motivated by points, which is good, but I do need to find a way to work something in.  Years ago I did a chart for each class and they would put an sticker (again with the stickers) on the days they had their homework. It was a great visual to see who had it and who didn’t. I have also tried if everyone has their homework the class earns a tally mark, the period with the most tallies at end of week, month, etc. would win a popcorn party. I keep trying things and they don’t stick, I think because everything is too hard to keep up as the year goes on. Plus with the 42 or so minutes I have for class, I dislike spending too much time checking homework.

I guess I have a lot to think about.  Suggestions are welcome.  I want to figure this out so I can come back in January with a solid plan and actually carry it out.