Friday, November 29, 2013

1:1 Student Conversations

I find that moments of "asynchronosity" are becoming more and more common in my classes this year as I continue to weave in mastery learning and student-centered learning. During these moments, when students are working on various assignments and activities, based on their current needs in the classroom, I've been able to actually sit down and TALK with individual students for an extended length of time! It has amazed me how powerful these two to five-minute conversations can be. Here are some examples of how I've used this time:

1) Verbal Assessment. Students in my Biology classes take and retake small quizzes on content until they reach 100% (with remediation and reteaching in-between). I was astonished to find that there are students who occasionally struggle with multiple choice questions, but can verbally explain their thinking just fine. So I've started giving verbal assessments to students who haven't reached 100% on a quiz after two tries. Out of my 50 Biology students, about 5 or so usually need this type of assessment, so it doesn't take a terribly long time to accomplish.

2) Project Evaluation. After the Biology students' Food Webs project rough drafts were due, I scheduled some class time to sit down with each student and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their projects thus far. I asked the students to complete a self-reflection before meeting with me, and then during each conference, we were able to start by discussing their thoughts on their project. This took about three class periods, and I had to be creative in designing something else that was engaging enough for the class to work on independently while these conferences were happening.  In the future, I'd like to record the conferences, however, because when the project deadline approached it turned out many students had forgotten the details of our discussion!

3) Notebook Conversations. Students in each of my classes complete all of their classwork in their science notebooks. Although I love the organization this provides for the students, it is a pain for me to take home 50 notebooks to look over every weekend. Last weekend I was just too busy to finish all of the notebooks I wanted to read through, so I decided to look through the notebooks WITH the students while they were working on other things for class. What started out as a time-saver for me ended up being a really great way to have a conversation with each of my students. I talked over each their entries, gave them feedback on their work, and had them make corrections right then and there (usually they go back and make corrections on their own, and I look them over when I collect notebooks again). Being able to talk through some of the misconceptions with students in the moment was so valuable for me because there is often a disconnect between what they're thinking and what they actually write down on paper.

Even though some of these techniques took quite a bit of class time, I feel like the investment will pay off in the long run. I'd love to hear ideas from you about how you "meet" with individual students and create time in your classes for these types of interactions.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Backchannel Bonus

I've been experimenting with backchanneling in my classes this year.  I use Schoology for my LMS, so its Discussion feature has been perfect for this.  Up until today, I'd tried backchanneling twice in class.  Once, I asked my Biology students to answer some questions about a few video clips they watched about human impacts on the carbon and nitrogen cycles.  This worked okay, but did't produce a lot of student interaction, which was what I was looking for.

The second time, I had students ask questions through the backchannel while they were watching presentations given by their peers.  When each presentation was finished, I randomly chose a handful of the questions for the presenters to answer.  This was a little closer to what I envisioned: every student had a voice, and some of the voices were heard.  Still not enough student interaction, though.

Today, I showed a great movie, "What Darwin Never Knew," to my College Biology students.  I set up a backchannel discussion on Schoology again.  Here's how I described it for the students.

While watching the movie, record your questions, "I wonder-s," and "That's Cool-s!" here. Respond to your classmates as they post their thoughts as well.

Comments should be on-topic and school-appropriate.
Each student should record at least 2 comments of their own.
Each student should reply to at least 2 of their classmates' comments.

Then I let the movie roll and watched the magic unfold.  Students were engaged.  Students were "talking" to each other.  Students were excited.  And guess what...BONUS! turns out that backchanneling in this way is a great formative assessment!  Here's how:

As you maybe guessed by the movie choice, the students are at the end of an evolution unit.  The questions and ideas they posted in the backchannel gave me insight into pockets of confusion that exist in the class right now.  Check out some of these questions and responses (student typos/word usage/grammar and spelling errors are unchanged!):

Comment A
Student 1: Did they just say we evolved from fish? So when people say your a fish when your swimming it's actually true in a way....

Student 2: That is an interesting thought, but no i don't think that would be the "truth" about people swimming very well.

Student 1: If you think about it theoretically it could be, why do u think some people are better swimmers then others maybe they evolved from better fish...

My thoughts:  Definitely reveals some misconceptions about common ancestors.

Comment B
Student:  If we developed from other animals why cant they mix these animals again and make humans?

My thoughts:  We need to revisit phylogenetic trees.  Students are forgetting ancestral forms are no longer living.  Humans didn't evolve from present-day organisms.

Comment C
Student 1: So does this mean we are related to everything in the world besides plants or any other vegetation? Or are we related to plants too?

Student 2: That's a really good question. Because do common ancestors apply to just animals or plants as well?

Student 3: It wouldn't surprise me if we were related to plants because it seems like we are related to everything living organism.

Student 4: I don't think so because even though plants are living things they aren't actually like us or animals.. like they don't have thoughts or feelings like animals and humans do

Student 5: put most animals don't have thoughts either they just have natural instinct.

My thoughts:  Students still struggle with the fact that humans are animals, which makes it difficult for them to understand our connection to other organisms.

I find all of these student thoughts just fascinating!  I could go on with further examples, but let's get to the point:  This method of backchanneling was a great formative assessment.  I got a peak into the minds of my students that I wouldn't otherwise have seen.  Now I have a list of topics we need to revisit in class.  And it doesn't hurt that my students really enjoyed it.  When the end of class rolled around and we had to pause for the day, one student spontaneously said, "Aw, do we have to?  This is so much fun!" 

Enough said.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Low-Tech Learning

I love using technology to enhance student learning and make my life easier whenever possible.  But it's always a pleasant surprise when I stumble across a low-tech way of helping my students grapple with a topic that produces positive results as well.  It's like meeting up with an old friend that you haven't seen for awhile and thinking to yourself, "Now I remember why I like this friend so much - why is it that we don't spend more time together?"  Here are some methods I've been using in my classes lately, mostly on the fly as I adjust to student learning on a day-to-day basis.

Students needed a way to understand the connection between the results of their flame test investigation (different salt solutions will give off different colors of light when heated in a flame), excitement of electrons, and the quantum mechanical model of an atom.  Working together, the other Chemistry teacher and I came up with a model in which we drew out three levels of concentric circles in sidewalk chalk outside our building (no photos of this, but you can see my drawing below).  Students represented the electrons in the various levels.  Different elements had different numbers and locations of electrons.  The electrons were given Monopoly money, which allowed them to move up to a higher energy level, grab a colored dodge ball that was waiting for them, throw it in the air, and then return to their original level.  Students observing the process reported on what color dodge balls they saw, which represented the flame color for that salt.  This was a short, simple simulation, but it stuck with the students and helped to facilitate a later discussion about what it means for an electron to become "energized."

Not all electrons were energized in every simulation, and not all electrons moved to the same energy level.
As I've written about before, my group of Sophomores this year is really struggling with the Carbon Cycle and the Nitrogen Cycle.  I decided to make some manipulatives for them and have the students practice the cycles using these manipulatives (this was after various investigations and other activities that just weren't quite doing enough to "make it stick").  So I printed off the steps and vocabulary words associated with each cycle on small rectangles.  The students color-coded some of the steps based on if they added or removed the element from the atmosphere.  They then cut out each of the rectangles and kept them all in a plastic bag for review.  I posted videos (Carbon Cycle video sample here.) showing the use of the manipulatives on the Schoology class page.  Students are expected to be able to use them to show and discuss the cycles for their summative assessment for this topic.  They have unlimited attempts to get this correct.  I do something similar to this for mitosis later in the year, and I love that every student will be able to explain these concepts to me verbally, one-on-one, at their own pace.  Students started these about two weeks ago, and just this week while they were reviewing some of the topics for a new project, it was easy to recognize that the content had stuck with them

I have gotten lots of great ideas for formative assessment from Page Keeley's book,
Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning.  I highly recommend purchasing it - even if you're not a science teacher.  One of the methods I have used with success is an activity called "Justified True/False."  For my College Biology students to review phylogenetics, I created 10 challenging statements for which they needed to determine if they were true or false, and then explain why.  This year, I wanted a quick, simple, and interactive way to get an overview of the class answers so that I could review the questions that many students were struggling with.  So I tore 10 sheets of paper off a large desk calendar, put a large number on the back of each one (1-10), and spread them around the room.  Students and their partner (they worked on the Justified T/F in groups) traveled from paper to paper recording their answer to that question - True or False - and an explanation.  If their answer was already on the paper, but their explanation was different, they only needed to write their explanation.  If both their answer and explanation were already on the paper, they would move on to another paper.  Once all groups had circulated to all the papers, I quickly scanned them all to find which ones had the most contrasting answers (3 of the 10 papers), and spent the rest of the class period reviewing those topics.  It was a great, simple formative assessment that got the students up and moving and helped me to focus on what they really needed.

Although you can't read the student writing on this very well, it shows the answers and explanations for question #3.  I believe three groups thought it was true and two groups thought it was false.  From these results, I knew right away that the class needed some review on the topic of this question.  
I think the lesson learned in the last week is that we as teachers need to be able to discern what is the right tool for the right situation.  Technology tools are wonderful, but sometimes there are low-tech ways to accomplish the same goal that are easier and more effective.  To put this in more concrete terms, I might have an electric screwdriver in my toolbox, but there are some jobs that are better-suited to the old-fashioned manual screwdriver.  Teachers are constantly sorting through that toolbox to find what is best for our students at any given moment.