Follow-Up: Whiteboarding and the student

Earlier this week, I posted up a lesson where students worked in groups to design a method and collect data. The project started through a company request to test a scaled-down version of a zip line. (I forgot to mention that the majority of students in the class experienced a zip line on a class trip.) My goal was to find individual thoughts among the group processing. Students finished data collection and emailed me images of their whiteboards which I have printed out. These will form the basis of an assessment.

Students will have time to meet and verify the printed images and review what happened during the planning and data collection phases. They will then be asked to individually write a report to the company (“Zippy Fun”). Here is the memo outline that students will complete. There are two portions – processing data and a self-reflection.


Whiteboarding and the student

Whiteboarding has been a great change in my classroom. Students fully adopted working on the whiteboards and I often find them independently gravitating towards their use. However, I am still a whiteboarding newbie. Discussions have increased and I’ve peered into the toolkit by trying out the Mistake Game but I’m struggling a little with finding the individual student. While students work, I roam around the class. Sometimes I simply listen, other times I ask for explanations or give pointed questions.

Yesterday, a zip-line company – Zippy Fun – requested their input on a proposed course. Their scaled down version ran 6 m with a vertical drop of 0.4 m. Groups were asked to report back to Zippy Fun with the velocity and acceleration at meter intervals over the course. The class buzzed as zip lines were strung across the room. My goal was to find the voices of the silent student. Each group of four typically had two students who often sit back and let others do the talking. I therefore specified the students who could explain the group’s process and answer questions regarding their actions. If those students could not, I left to return later after the group discussed the topic.

It was challenging for many students. The talkative ones squirmed to avoid blurting out. Some students had difficulty explaining and we worked through language. Other students really did not know what their group was doing. Requiring them to be the spokes-people caused conversations that might not have happened. Were more students engaged? I think so. Did more students walk away understanding the what their group was doing as data was collected? I hope so.

As with any class, time expired and students were left with a lot of work on their whiteboard. At least one member of each group possessed a phone to take photos and email me the whiteboards.


What now? I want to find out what each student can do with the data collected during the group phase. I want to find out which students are unsure these ideas.

So, here’s what I’m trying and any feedback is greatly appreciated. I have images of each whiteboard. I plan to print out an image for each person in the group and give them some time to check for legibility. Then, students will individually process the data by writing up what the group did, creating position vs time and velocity vs time graphs, etc. Students left class knowing that they would be expected to do this next class.


Intersection of PBL & SBG

Disclaimer: I’m not completely sure of my thoughts at the moment. This post is an attempt to provide some mental order but I’m searching for a balance. Thoughts are truly appreciated. 

I shifted to a standards-based grading/reporting system two years ago and fully appreciate the way that conversations have opened up. Students may still be focused on the grade but we talk about what they have learned and what steps they need to take in order to improve in an area. My lessons are more focused with the feedback I now collect by reporting on specific strands instead of facing class averages. At the same time, I’ve seen my assessment types narrow to traditional-styled assessments (a la pencil and paper variety). Why? It’s an easy and efficient way to collect data on student learning. Students take an assessment, they self-grade to get immediate feedback, I provide additional comments and a current level of achievement against a standard, and lessons are adjusted as needed.

The problem? Students are taking more assessments in my class than before and I don’t feel as if a variety of assessment types are offered. In the past, the vast majority of my assessment came from student projects. I’m searching for that sweet spot that pushes me back into a project-based/portfolio atmosphere while maintaining the data regarding student learning.

Some of my sticking points:

  • Student-initiated assessments have been a success for many students. They continue working and questioning until they reach a better understanding. But, is the scope of this understanding limited by the types of assessments I provide? I attempt to give questions that provide ample opportunity for thought processing but the context is still within the confines of an assessment question.
  • I’ve chased a project-based unit with an assessment for fairly dismal results. Students created models to build analogies for cell organelles. Projects were quite good but when I asked students about organelle functions, many did not seem to have transferred understanding. Did the project prepare them for discussing the function of a cell organelle?
  • Where does a storyline unit mesh with SBG? I see storyline as a vehicle for an integrated project-based learning unit. A framework is cast around students and they operate within the story. Students create. This could be in the form of a guide to a park, a book about dragons, a museum of Ancient Culture, the grand reopening of Camp Halfblood after mythical monsters destroyed the former camp, quilt squares used for a memorial…During these units, students are expected to be constantly working on some aspect of the project. Conversations take place between groups and with me. At the end a celebration showcases student work and is a culminating event of the story.

Now, I’m getting closer to the crux of my dilemma.

  • What is the student does not fully participate in the project?
  • What if the student does not submit any of the work?
  • What if the work submitted is not up to minimum requirements?

Student example: Imagine that student in your class who prides him/herself on being a walking encyclopedia. They are like a sponge and immediately absorb information through listening, reading, etc. This student thrives on traditional-type tests, though may have difficulty on questions asking for connections. However, when given a project to work on, this student is going to do relatively little. The bare minimum will be submitted. Should this student be given the opportunity to take a “reassessment” that is a series of questions instead of working through the project and interacting with peers? I think not. In six years of work as an engineer, I never saw the possibility of taking a test instead of completing a project. Wow, clients would not have returned to the consulting company if I decided to not meet a submittal on time.

In the past, I’ve given less traditional tests in a school year than I have fingers. Recently, my test rate has increased. I’m fully sold on the principles of standards-based grading/reporting yet want a return to a higher variation of assessment types that mesh more with a project-based classroom. Am I the only one hitting the wall on this?

PhET + Speeding in Compton

Ever get that feeling that you’re squeezing every part out of a class (aka I’m likely trying to cram to much in…)? Teaching a 90 minute block gives me a lot of time and we can sign up for a computer lab in 45 minute segments. Class started off in the lab looking at a motion simulation from PhET.

The Moving Man

My students have experimented with a few of the PhET simulations through the year and have enjoyed moving at their own pace and being able to go back whenever they want. In this case, students could move the man and see the correlation between position vs time and velocity vs time graphs. If you haven’t visited the PhET site, check it out as there is a variety of simulations.

Returning to class, students were given this video clip and the question of “Should this person be given a speeding ticket?”

Yep, it’s an oldie from Dan Meyer. Groups had a few moments to put together questions. A few include…

  • What happens when the blue dot stops?
  • What is the speeding limit? (Dan has an image of a speed limit sign.)
  • How long is the dot moving? (A second video includes a timer.)
  • What is the distance?

With the last question, I decided to  give them intersection information – West Slauson Avenue @ Crenshaw , Los Angeles. I’ve done this problem before with giving students a block length but I wanted to see if students would check out a map. As it turned out, this part of the problem was the stumbling point. Even with hints to use the laptops carried by many students, the address information stayed unused.

As another hint, I posted this image:

Many students ran to the board with a meter stick to get data off while one yelped “Ooh” and quickly opened her laptop. The clock was ticking to the end of the class and the room was quite a-buzz with students trying to determine how fast the little blue dot was moving across the screen. At the same time, many still did not have a good handle on the distance traveled. The final image –

The groups still wondering about a distance could find the information they needed and as the class wound up we went around to groups to decide whether or not a speeding ticket was necessary. The first group – “No”. The next few groups decided that the driver should get a ticket and go to jail with speeds over 100 mph.

It seems as if many students are still OK with whatever number comes out of their calculation cruncher. I realize that they are not drivers but the big number did not raise many alarms. Could someone be driving that fast? Ambulances, police car chases and crazy drivers came up as possibilities. Another student, trying to be funny, said that maybe it is just an airplane. Hmmm……

Enter the Dragon

Students were a bit surprised to arrive at class and see their entrance transformed into the mouth of a dragon. Whoa! The dragon arches up over the doorway and onto the ceiling. The small squares in the photo are tokens that the students recently completed. These tokens were used to announce the return of dragons (yep, that what the end of 2012 really meant – dragons will again fly the sky)


and the selection of dragon riders.

A new unit integrating Geometry, Genetics and Informational Text writing has begun. I’m working on the math/science section and enjoying the start to the unit. At the moment, students are preparing for the arrival of parent dragons. Through research, they determined the habitat requirements of the dragons and are creating the lay-out of the dragon lair. This will be our access point to working with area and volume. At the same time, students have identified key traits of the dragons and just transposed phenotypes into genotypes. We will soon attempt to breed these magical creatures and hope for the arrival of baby dragons.

Texting while Driving


How far does your car travel while you drive and one-handedly text “LOL” to your friend?

question from Frank Noschese’s 180 blog

Students came in to the cartoon and question about texting and driving. Their tables had a hand-out that also contained problem expectations.

“You are sitting with your group. Please ask me any questions that come up.” With these statements, the class was up and running. I’ve been experimenting a bit with the amount of instruction given before students begin work and it seems as if only a few truly listen to these instructions while others space out. On the opposite end, a few students seemed helpless without the instruction even though they had enough information to get going. Requiring specific questions that built an initial level of thought input seemed to make the groups process information and talk with each other before asking questions. I was happy to see a few groups quickly gathering data and moving forward. I limited one group to a limited number of questions because they simply were not reading.

My students are not drivers and as a few whipped out texting times less than a second, I asked if they were holding on to a “steering wheel”. Oops.

A few groups gathered around a spreadsheet but most gravitated towards whiteboards and put the problem into context. Some even set possible speeds according to mountain, town and freeway driving.

I’m trying to develop a model of constant speed with the students and today’s start was an exploration into relationships between position, time and speed. We will continue with walking graphs next. I really liked the targeted question that quickly engaged students and provided an easy access point to get started.

A Teaching Team

The past several months have been an absolute whirlwind that reached its peak over the winter break. Krista and I decided that it was time for us to move on from our current school and get back on the roller-coaster of international recruiting. The goal of this post is to reflect back on the process we went through to land us our future position.

loop-de-loop in our future city

We are a teaching team, which means that a school needs to have positions that fit both of our skill sets. By chance, we’ve both taught almost all subjects at the middle school level but I currently teach math/science where she teaches humanities. (For some reason current work defines us the most.) OK, so we needed to find a school with two middle school openings that also met our own criteria. A few key points:

  • Chinese program / culture (It’s absolutely important for us that our girls keep learning Chinese so our ideal location was China)
  • A large school with lots of teaming opportunities – we’ve dipped our toes into the waters of being the lone rangers and are just not keen on closing our doors and running the show. We want to plan curriculum with others, talk about learning, discuss students and be energized by the ideas of others.
  • A focus on project based learning and integrated curriculum.

I know that part of the “adventure” of being an international teacher is winding up in unfamiliar places, but this time we wanted more direction. We researched schools and began reaching out. Skype was the vehicle for conversations as we talked to principals though there were some bloopers along the way. The connection is not always that good and video can really bog down a conversation. More than once, we had to cut off the video and talk to the computer. Talk about being thrown off of your game! I was surprised as to the extra challenge posed when you cannot see the person you are talking with. The “best” Skype discussion happened while we were on vacation. (Side note: vacation with two 1-year olds does not count as vacation. Where is the break for Mom and Dad?) The first question we were asked in this interview was, “Are you in the bathroom?”

“Umm, no. We’re on the patio.” Well, our hotel space – located in southern Thailand – consisted of a room with an outside, open-air bathroom/patio type area. So, I guess we were in the bathroom.

As the conversation continued, one of our girls who was quite sick began having sleep issues. She screamed. We soothed – one at a time so the interview could continue. Then, our other daughter fell off of a mattress and was rescued, screaming loudly of course, with her feet dangling in the air and her head on the ground. Yikes! To top it off, a thunder storm started rolling in. In the end, the conversation was still a good one.

I enjoyed the overwhelming majority of the “interviews” that took place. For the most part, the interviews were rich conversations about education that were quite enjoyable. How do you define success for yourself? For your students? I’ll continue working on this one for a while. Assessment also appeared to be a hot topic as we were queried regarding our practices in assessing students throughout a unit, reporting results and using the assessment as a means to improve lessons. The schools we talked with are at a 1:1 technology platform and we had lots of discussions about the integration of technology and how students are actually using it in our classes.

One of the best things that I did was the creation of this blog – and I didn’t do it for recruiting. Krista also has an online presence and we found that recruiters wound up spending time looking over the materials we’ve laid out. Conversations were prefaced with references to our ideas presented here and I believe allowed for better discussions. (Thanks again to all those who encouraged blogging – it’s paid off in yet another way!)

We’ve heard from many that being a teaching team is helpful  as many schools look to save costs by hiring a couple and there is (maybe?) more potential for longevity. I don’t know…but we found ourselves encouraged by possible openings to find out that there was only one position. Recruiters are faced with a puzzle of filling openings with candidates that they think are the best match while also having to juggle what is available. At one point, we were told that strong candidates have been passed over if a hard-to-get position such as a school psychologist has a teaching partner that needs to fill a position that we want.

Where are we? Absolutely excited, energized, ecstatic (all the e’s!) and exhausted. At the end of this school year, we will pack our bags and more to Beijing to begin work at the International School of Beijing. Did I say we are excited?