Developing Standards for SBG II

As I mentioned in my last post, all of the chemistry teachers in our district recently got together to flesh out our standards as we move forward in our implementation of standards-based grading. Before we get to the goods, I want to clarify the specific terminology that we’ve been using, as defined by the district. Each class basically breaks down into three levels, starting with big ideas and narrowing down to more specific ideas.


Reporting Standards

Reporting standards will appear in the gradebooks, and reflect a combination of priority standards (big picture). We based these on the MN state standards.

Priority Standards

Priority standards are “absolutely essential for student success”. These are a bit more specific, but still general enough that they can be assessed in a variety of ways, and will cover a variety of learning objectives. I’m thinking I may put these into my gradebook as well (or at least have some method of tracking them/having students track them).

Learning Objectives

Specific nuggets of information, tailored to individual or sets of lessons. These are set by each individual teacher (although each level should have similar ones) so they were not included in our work, even though they are expected to be used to further clarify the priority standards.

Now that we’ve got that aired out, here’s what we came up with for our standards. These will be continuous for all levels of chemistry (conceptual, general, and HP/AP), with the thought that higher levels may add extras or go more in depth.


The first reporting standard (Nature of Science) will be a continuous thread throughout the entire year, and the others will be only in certain trimesters that we cover that particular standard (probably at least two others per tri). The district would also like us to map out exactly which standards (both reporting and priority) are being covered each trimester, so that theoretically a student could transfer from one HS to another within the district and be in basically the same area of the course… still not sure about that idea.


Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, critiques, etc. are more than welcome!


Developing Standards for SBG

One of the most difficult things that I’ve had to deal with this year is trying to figure out a set of standards to use for chemistry. As I was preparing last summer, I wrestled with our state standards (which, at the time, seemed too “big”) and the-slightly-less-daunting learning targets for each (series of) lessons that would be taught.

I spent quite a bit of time reading through lots of SBG tips and ideas, but I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around how it would look for my class. I tried grouping targets by topic (such as “atomic structure”, or “chemical reactions”) and used a lot of Jason Buell’s structure for designing rubrics (or topic scales, as he calls them) and set up checklists similar to what Mylene had done.  When all was said and done, I went about 3 weeks into the year before realizing that the grouping I had done and all of the rubrics I had created were not working the way I wanted them to – so I scrapped them and started over1.

My intentions were to fully use SBG this year, but the initial setback (without much time to gather the pieces) made it difficult to move forward. I have been utilizing learning goals (targets) for each section/unit and making the targets clear and assessments based on those targets. However, the big ideas (standards?2) are being loosely strung along while we plod through the year and not as clearly tied to the targets as I would like them to be. I’m hoping that by the start of our 3rd trimester in a few weeks, I will be able to have a bit more structure to end the year on a high note.

As our district moves forward with our SBG implementation plan, we are meeting with all of the other chemistry teachers tomorrow to finish developing our standards for next year. I’m hoping that this collaboration will give me a better sense of the “big idea”-“learning target” connection and make it a much easier transition to full SBG next year, and I will have a later post that details what we come up with.


[1] Although at first I felt as though I had wasted a ton of time by doing this, I’ve come to realize that I learned a lot about how to design useful rubrics through this process – even though I didn’t use the rubrics I created.

[2]  I haven’t settled on the preferred verbiage just yet (standards? targets? objectives? blah?) but I usually think of standards as being the “big ideas”.

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim

Call it a new-found interest in educational issues; I love reading, watching, discussing and thinking about them. I’m inclined to blame it on grad school. Regardless of where it comes from, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out this movie, with all of the (non-educator) buzz about how “amazing,” “eye-opening” and “shocking” it is. It had popped up on the Netflix instant-play list a couple of weeks ago, so a friend (who is also a teacher) and I decided to watch it. It was quite thought-provoking, so I figured I would share a few things that came up.

There were a number of issues that the movie examined, many of which involved our “broken” educational system. It mainly follows three students; all minorities living in urban areas and all showing a clear affinity for learning and a great deal of intrinsic motivation. Their story lines mostly involved their school and home life, and their struggles to find a (charter) school that would offer them more/better educational opportunities than their “under-performing” public schools. It also features a former high school teacher, Geoffrey Canada, who created and runs a charter school in an extremely impoverished area in Harlem. The film even highlights Michelle Rhee‘s controversial stint as Chancellor of Schools in Washington DC.

The Good

There is no question – our educational system is not perfect. Although the government “tried” to prevent it, students get “left behind” in our school system. But it’s not just the students that are getting left behind, it’s that some students are also being held back from achieving their full potential. There could be a variety of reasons for this, including (but not limited to) peer groups, school resources, motivation, and their classroom teacher. The movie focuses predominantly on the issues involving the school (resources & teachers), and doesn’t do much to consider the influence of other factors.

The Curious

One factor that arose only briefly was the “outdated” idea of teacher tenure, which is an increasingly contentious component of teacher contracts. It made sure to show samples of video taken by students in public high schools of teachers not doing their job while in class (reading the newspaper, etc.). While it certainly is curious that tenured teachers could “get away with it,” it certainly is not justification for removing tenure. However, I’m still considering the idea that it needs to be reformed. The jury’s still out on this one.

The Questionable

While the movie brought up a number of reasonable problems, it also based many of its conclusions on flawed information. The most prevalent flaw involved the classification of “successful” schools, that seemed to rely on only two pieces of information: test scores and graduation rates.

The easiest strike is thrown by relying on standardized test results. There’s a slew of research that shows how worthless standardized tests are at measuring student learning. Yet schools are still being classified as good/bad (or passing/failing) based on the results. There’s a reason why NCLB was a flop!

The next strike is a bit of a screwball, and I had to think about it a bit before I realized what was happening. In the video, they show lots of fancy graphics that compare the graduation rates of “failing” schools (in some cases as low as 40%) to the graduation rates in the desired “high-performing” charter schools (all above 90%). But here’s the rub – the movie was played up the dramatics of the lottery system these charter schools use (which is the basis of another ed movie, The Lottery), showing how desperately the kids and their families want them to get in. When they do, the families are overjoyed at the idea that their student will be successful – and why shouldn’t they be? But with a student who recognizes the importance of the school and a family who will do virtually anything to get them to succeed, is it any wonder that these motivated students are graduating at a higher rate?? Of course not! I don’t mean to say that the school has nothing to do with the graduation rates, but merely to point out that the students applying to charter schools with limited spots WANT to be there – and that can make a huge difference.

But there’s one big, burning question that I still have – what about the other students? Sure, creating charter schools can provide opportunities for students to succeed (if they want to), but how do we reach everyone else? Let’s pretend for a moment that all of the students who wanted to go to successful charter schools were actually able to do so. Almost all of the charters would maintain their “high-performing” status – with students who are trying to make the most of their opportunities going on to be successful. They get to fulfill their potential as a human beings, it’s a happy ending, right?  If all of the motivated students leave, who is left in the public schools? All of the students who didn’t want to be there in the first place, and who don’t care enough (or have enough support) to try to get into a more successful school? The drop-outs, burn-outs, and slackers? Would it be the end of public education as we know it??

Uff-dah. Just thinking about working in a school like that makes my head hurt.

Winter Break Reading

One of the best parts of winter break is that I actually have large chunks of time where I can sit down and read – rather than just the 30 minutes of SSR time at school. After racing my way through The Hunger Games trilogy, I spent a chunk of time last night and today reading articles about education. Specifically, I had come across a link to an Alfie Kohn article talking about educational research and some of the ways it is used improperly. As a scientist who is always on the lookout for ways that scientific data is ignored or misrepresented in the media (teachable moments, you know!) I thought it was interesting to look at educational research in the same way. It’s kind of a long article, but if you have the time its worth reading. The last portion – a more in depth analysis of research about homework and its (lack of) benefits – was very intriguing.

After reading the article, I perused Kohn’s website for a while as well, and looked at a few of his other articles as well. I can understand conservative critics finding issue with his progressive views, but I surely appreciate his critical look at many “common sense” practices. In many ways, it reminds me of similar ideas in Ken Kumashiro’s book, Against Common Sense (which I read for class this past semester).

Another book I received for Christmas is called Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. I’ve only looked at the first few pages; I will give a more complete review when I’ve finished it!

I’ve also found a few articles about modeling in science; not sure if I will have time for them this break but they are on my list as well.


The 5TTT (5 Tech Teaching Tools) program is a new professional development program being offered by the Media Specialist at my school, and those of us that are participating are given one technology task a month to complete, through the end of the year. First up is using a blog* – which I’ve already got some experience with.

The first task is to watch and post the following video:

I’m intrigued by this video, and I agree with a lot of what they are saying. I constantly struggle with the idea of what “learning” means, especially when kids have access to such a wealth of information via the internet. It seems that the idea of memorization (which is not the entirety of schooling) is a bit outdated; if students can look something up in 5 seconds rather than spending at least 5 hours to memorize it, why should they? At the same time, memory is a key part of intelligence – and until computers and the internet are directly hooked up to our brains to store of information that can readily be accessed, it is a skill that needs to be practiced and taught to students. I am not saying we need to make students memorize facts (like the fact that Columbus sailed in 1492) but in order to synthesize information you need to be aware that the information exists.

Another piece that really stood out to me was one of the guys in the video talking about what students need to be able to do:

“…the coin of the realm will be, do you know how to find information, do you know how to validate it, do you know how to synthesize it, do you know how to leverage it, do you know how to communicate with it, do you know how to collaborate with it, do you know how to problem solve with it. THAT’S the new set of 21st century literacies.”

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding). I couldn’t have said it better myself. We spent a lot of time in one of my grad school classes (History and Nature of Science) talking about the different ways to teach kids not only how to find GOOD information, but teaching them how to evaluate the information so they know what’s good and are able to filter through the mass of slanted/biased/crappy information that’s out there as well.

I thought a lot about a mini-project that I did with my students researching water contaminants and their effects (I even collaborated with Dhaivyd to set up a website of resources, and he gave a lesson on databases) and yet all the kids wanted to do was type their question/topic into google and copy down the first resource or resources that gave some semblance of an answer. How will they know if it’s good info? Teach them how to evaluate it.

The only statement in the video that didn’t sit well with me was when someone said something like, “a shut off device is a shut off student.” Not sure I agree with that – and if we ever get to that point, I’m very curious to see what our society is like (I’m imagining the civilization in Wall-E).

Just a quick plug as well – I’m very glad that the video took a shot at standardized testing. It seems like the only ones who don’t realize it’s hurting/hindering our students is the people who are requiring the tests (aka state and federal legislators). On a lighter note, see this article.

*This is actually a repost – I started a new blog specifically for the 5TTT; all of the blogging tasks were designed using the blogger program and not wordpress. I was surprised that some features that are quite easy to use there are not so easy here… and vice versa. Regardless, I will be posting my work from the other blog here as well.  

Workshop Wrap-Up; Week 1 Worries

Last week I couldn’t wait for the first week of school to start; today, I can’t wait for the first week of school to be over and done with.

It took a good deal of time during workshop last week to finish writing my learning goals and creating tracking sheets. I finally got to a point where I feel satisfied enough with them that I will be able to distribute them to students (although I have since made some other minor changes). I was also feeling good about my other, more traditional chemistry class in which I am working with a couple of other teachers to plan; I always appreciate being able to share ideas and responsibilities with each other.

Today was only the 3rd day of class, and I’m more than ready for this week to be over. I’m ready for the students (and me) to be settled into our routines, for the daily schedule to stay the same from one day to the next and to have some consistency in the flow of day to day proceedings.


I’m worried about cramming 35 students into a class that is built for 28. It’s crowded; transitioning from large-group to the lab stations takes longer than I would like it to mostly because of the tight spaces where students have to shuffle past each other. There are only 7 lab stations – and 5 students to a group is more than I would like.

I’m worried about using SBG (or SBAR, if you prefer). After the initial talk about the grading system (learning goals, assessed on proficiency not points, etc.) there was not a SINGLE student that had any questions about it. I was really surprised – I’m not sure if it’s a good sign or if I should be worried… or maybe they just weren’t really listening.

I’m worried about having enough time to do everything. I think this is on every teacher’s mind, but this week it’s especially prevalent.

I’m worried about the students that I’m teaching – they are the “bottom of the heap” in terms of our different tiers of chemistry. I want to keep them engaged, I want to connect with them and I want to gain their respect. I just worry that classroom management issues will get in the way and undermine these things.

I’m worried that I will get burnt out. On top of my teaching responsibilities, I’m taking 2 grad school classes this semester. I’ve found this week that when I get home, I’m not really in the mood to think about school anymore… so when will I do my homework?

I could probably go on and on, but I think those are some of the major concerns that keep on surfacing. I’m not expecting solutions to these from anyone or anywhere, I know with time they will work themselves out. For now, it’s uncomfortable and uneasy – I guess I just need to live with it. It would just be nice if they would work themselves out soon.

The Process Pt. III

Ok, so here’s what’s up – I’ve regrouped my thoughts and laid out all of the “standards” that we cover for the year. I then grouped them into topics, and now I am working on flushing out the specific learning goals for each topic. The first one I started with is “water purification,” where we take a look at water contaminants, laboratory purification methods, and then large-scale purification methods (municipal and natural). So far, here’s the tracking sheet that I’ve come up with:

Water Purification Tracking Sheet

Any feedback you have would be greatly appreciated! I am particularly curious about the overall topic scale (1-4, first page) and the tracking of each specific learning goal. As it is now, I only have a tracking graph for the topic as a whole, but I’m wondering if it may be beneficial to have a graph for each learning goal – especially with the circular curriculum. In this particular case, the book talks about the lab purification methods first and then contaminants and last is the large-scale treatments (with a bunch of other topics sprinkled in between), so can I give them score on the topic as a whole when there is so much time in between learning goals? Perhaps I need to modify the scale, with 1.0 as knowing the lab methods, 2.0 as methods + contaminants, and 3.0 as all 3? Does that make sense? Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. I’ll just leave it to the comments to continue the discussion.