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Connecting the Pieces: Open Source, Big Data, and the Origins of the Common [sic] Core [sic]

April 6, 2014

Mary Dooms:

I must admit as a middle school math teacher I drank the kool aid. With the passage of time I’ve now come to view the Common Core as Obama’s answer to stimulating the economy ( i.e. edtech start ups peddling their wares). This thoughtful prologue needs to be shared. It may be long but not one word is wasted.

Originally posted on Bob Shepherd | Praxis:

800px-Japanese_camera_for_surveillance_2How educational publishers PLAYED and PWNED a nation’s educrats and politicians

(A term from the gaming world, pwned, from owned, is a neologism meaning “achieved total control and/or domination over.” If an opponent uses you, against your better interests, to achieve his or her own objectives, or if you are obliterated within seconds of the beginning of game play, then you have been pwned.)

The last state has now pulled out of the proposed national database of student responses and scores. Those who were horrified at the prospect of such a privately held, Orwellian Total Information Awareness system for K-12 public school education, one that would have served as a de facto checkpoint and censor librorum for curricula, are cheering.

But don’t think for a moment that Big Data has been beaten. I am going to explain why. I hope that you will take the effort to…

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Relying on spring break for more practice

April 6, 2014

I hate giving homework over break, but this time I had to do it.

Before spring break I gave my pre-algebra students an assessment on rate of change, slope-intercept, etc.  The results were disastrous. Students could calculate the slope, but many had difficulty graphing. Some were lost when converting the standard form of a line into slope-intercept form. I have to take most of the blame. I thought they were ready, but they weren’t. If you ask me why I thought they were ready the only response I could give you is, “Because we covered it in class.” In hindsight, I was an idiot. Not only did the kids check out before spring break I did too. In my haste to squeeze in an assessment I didn’t provide enough practice opportunities. Plus my in class checks for understanding had been limited.

I collected the assessment and began to grade the first page of the test. I was livid. They should have known the concepts, or so I thought. The following day, the day before break, I was going to be absent–out of the building attending a social studies workshop on Rwanda 20 years later. I couldn’t take a chance on the sub reteaching the concepts so I created a screencast for the sub to show in class. In it I walked through similar problems from the test. Their homework was to rework every problem. I also made a practice packet for them to complete over break.

Additionally I wanted to communicate the situation to the parents. So I emailed them a copy of the packet along with the answer key as well as the YouTube link to the test corrections screencast. I explained that I may haven been too hasty in trying to get an assessment in before break and appreciated their support. I closed with, “I hope this homework won’t be too much of a nuisance over break.”

I know I was gambling here. Not so much if the homework and test corrections would be completed, but if it would be completed correctly. I had no doubt if the students watched the video, stopped, and replayed when making corrections they would be successful. Would they use it? I can’t control that. That’s why I’m not a fan of a flipped classroom where the essential learning is done at home.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending. Over break I watched the YouTube hit counter increase from zero hits to 23 hits. When I saw the students on Tuesday we went over the test corrections and some of the homework problems. No major issues. I gave the kids an additional practice test to work on in class plus their homework was to make and take their own practice test creating similar problems of each type.

When they assessed on Thursday the results were soooo much better. Only five students didn’t quite meet the standard, earning 80-85%. The practice tests they made didn’t include all problem types.

The rest earned some form of an A and they took the time to create a thorough practice test.

My spring fever caused this. Don’t ask me where I went over break. I didn’t go anywhere.

Ending the Magic 8 Ball approach to RtI

March 28, 2014

When your building’s schedule doesn’t include an intervention block, about the only tool in the teacher’s toolbox is ask the Magic 8 Ball.


The great oracle is helpful, but it has its limits. It is only able to provide advice. We need to provide students on our team an intervention plan.

Our team has identified nearly 25 students who would benefit from an intervention program that currently does not exist. These students are not necessarily at risk. They are students who demonstrate difficulty completing work that demonstrates effective effort on a regular basis. While the criteria may be broad, we created three tiers of intervention for a three week after school program:

  • Level 1:
    • Independent after-school work time. Students will be asked to report to the library for quiet work time. Students will sign in and out for that day.
  • Level 2:
    • Supervised work time. Students will be asked to report to a teacher’s room after school for a supervised work time.
  • Level 3:
    • Study Skills. Students will be assigned to an after school study skills program. Skills will include: Agenda use, assignment prioritizing, time management (1-2 hours of out-of-school work time each and every day), resourcefulness, and strategies. The program will spend 15 minutes a day working on a study skill and 30 minutes for supportive work time. Entry in and exit from the group will be based on the following:
      • Regular, proper use of the Agenda
      • Ability to prioritize assignments on a daily basis
      • Regularly complete work that demonstrates effective effort with a minimum of support, in and out of school
      • Demonstrate academic progress (learning!)

Last week each tier of students was called in for a brief meeting with the teachers before lunch. On Monday we met with the tier one students, on Tuesday we briefed the tier two students, and on Wednesday we met with the tier three students. At the end of each meeting the students received a  letter and were to obtain a parent signature. The tier assigned to the student was circled on the letter.


We felt it would be more effective if we met the students as a team of teachers. That way it wouldn’t appear to the student that, “Mrs. Dooms wants me to stay after.” It would be, “My teachers want me to stay.” We also felt it necessary for the students to see the three levels of intervention, not just their assigned intervention. We established a three week, Monday through Thursday time period for commitment and consistency. After three weeks students will either be exited or they will stay on for another three week session.

Only one parent returned the letter with a note saying the intervention will be handled at home. The remaining 22 students are on board for starting Monday.


Can best practice result in malpractice?

March 26, 2014

Matt Coaty’s recent post on learning experiences has caused me to reflect on posting the daily objective on the board and a district’s mandate. Is there room for discussion regarding what an appropriate learning target looks like across grades? For example is an explicit “I can…” statement be too low level for most middle schoolers? Can we challenge their thinking by reframing it in the form of a question? Is an image or anagram appropriate? Can it be process based rather than content based (i.e. mathematical practices, thinking strategies). If a teacher has strong rationale for not posting the daily objective at all isn’t that okay?

Here’s an example of one of my daily objectives–“You will be able to express equivalent ratios.” This is what I think of it:

It’s a low level, non-intellectually engaging bunch of words forming a lousy, declarative sentence that describes what I’m doing going to do to you this class period. There. Done. I’ve checked it off my to-do list.

Instead, what if I posed this image with a question? It’s not the greatest, but it is a tad more perplexing.

equiv ratios

My point is that learning targets should be crafted to evoke thinking. Simplifying them into ordinary “I can…” statements turns them into trivia.

Additionally, there are other times when I think posting the daily objective on the board is equivalent to “Spoiler Alert!” It can stop curiosity dead in its tracks. If the day’s learning experience is discovery based have I not given away the ending by posting the objective? Even if the lesson is direct instruction, wouldn’t it require some critical thinking on the student’s part to close the lesson with a reflection and the specific mathematical practices applied, rather than the teacher explicitly posting the purpose at the start? Let’s have the students create their own understanding in an exit slip, journal entry, or think-pair-share with a closing prompt, “Demonstrate what you learn today. Describe the mathematical practice(s) you applied.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for an incoherent lesson. A clear lesson objective and linking it to the math practices are at the heart of lesson planning and instruction. I’m suggesting at times it’s appropriate to save the story’s resolution for the end of the story, and that a good question evokes more learning than a declarative sentence.


Progress reports

March 19, 2014

Even though parents and students have 24/7 access to grades, missing assignments etc. the two 7th grade teams in our building generate paper progress reports. It’s our way of making sure both kids and families are informed. We can’t rely on Eschool as the only form of communication because for whatever reason some kids or parents don’t check it. So twice a quarter–at the 4th and 8th week, students are required to check Home Access, write down the percentage and letter grade for each of the core subjects, note the number of missing assignments and obtain a parent signature.

Our team has done some soul searching of late, and we came to the conclusion the kids were treating the progress report task as just another assignment to be checked off.  We never bothered to ask students to reflect on student skills and learning. You see we have several students with weak student skills, some with strong student skills, and some are somewhere in between. It can be a cause for celebration, or a cause for concern. In any case it is something that parents and students should discuss. So for the past three weeks our team meetings have focused on what a new progress report should include. We now have something much more reflective.

Progress report

One of my teammates, who prefers to leave no trace of a digital footprint, designed the new progress report. We’ve increased the number of reports from two to three for the fourth quarter. The front side of the tri-fold will capture student reflections and the reverse side will be used for students to graph the academic progress for each of their core subjects.

In a future post I’ll describe the after school intervention program our team is launching at the start of the fourth quarter.

Lost in the halls: distance between two points task

February 7, 2014

It’s been a great week, and a rough week. The highlight was having my pre-algebra students experience the Distance Between Two Points task.  I discovered it among a collection of tasks at the Complex Instruction Consortium website. I tweaked it a bit, and what I really liked about the task was that it got the students out of the classroom. They liked that too. In fact at some point I lost “visual contact” with every student but they never took advantage of the situation!

Students were anxious to get started, so many didn’t pay attention to the directions we read aloud.

distance task directions

Student: “I don’t get it!”

“Read the Resource Fact.”

“So we have to count the tiles?”

“Is that what the resource fact is suggesting?”

distance count

Student: “But how do we find AC and BD?”

To give you an idea of the layout of our building here’s what the kids were doing. I did NOT give them this diagram. They had to come up with it on their own, which was extremely helpful when describing the group’s procedure.


Here’s an example of the student work. They’re getting better at constructing an argument and explaining their reasoning.

distance student work

PARCC assessment influences local assessment design

January 29, 2014

The math committee met today to continue our work creating local assessments. During our learning time we walked through 6 sample PARCC assessment items. Note: The math questions come after the ELA so keep hitting the right arrow until you get to the grade 6-8 math questions.


If one of your classes has been chosen to pilot the assessment, be sure your students play with it. When PARCC suggests students get used to the scrolling and buttons they mean it. I was using a 15 inch laptop and had to scroll.

But the real focus is on the assessment itself. For the past year and a half we’ve been designing local assessments with the common core in mind, but today’s preview of actual sample problems was an eye opener. Turns out we’ll need to revise some of our current assessments to address the performance requirements.



Instead of going back and revising some our previous local assessments we thought it would make more sense to begin applying what we now know to the next unit of study–inequalities.

Our students need to be exposed to multiple choice problems with multiple constructed responses. We spent a good twenty minutes on this problem and we’re still not satisfied with the wordsmithing. It may be better framed as Part A and B instead of problem 5 and 6. Anyway, here it is:



I’m beginning to second guess myself with some of these problems. We do a form of standards based grading. Is #13, in the image below, really a level 4? I’m now thinking it should be a level 3. And problem #14, is it too much of a reach to expect a 7th grader to write this inequality?


I’m looking for help. Please comment, point me to good assessment questions, or to bloggers who write about  assessment design.

Thanks in advance.


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