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jargonize (järg-nz), v. -- to translate into jargon

What Are We Testing? Assessing the Assessment


Last Wednesday’s divisional discussion of PG&E goals was useful to me in a number of ways. I appreciated the chance to bounce ideas off of the small group of teachers that gathered to discuss assessment and classroom practice. It was encouraging to hear how other teachers deal with the same question, and also to hear some of their goals for improving their teaching practice over the course of the year. One of my professional goals this year is related to assessing my assessments. Are the elements that I think are important for students to know about a particular curricular unit that I teach (like photosynthesis) reflected in the assessment that I give them at the end of the unit? What do I want them to take away from a process like photosynthesis? It’s a broad question, sure, but an important one to ask. I have tests from previous years on file, and they vary a bit in their format from year to year. Some contain more short answers; some are more open-ended. In other years I’ve assessed mastery of content through projects, oral reports, and student-made videos. But which one is the best? Do I just grab last year’s, or do I revise and rewrite, considering this year’s particular group of students? And am I committed to doing that each year?

One of the tests that I’m most proud of this year was quite different than ones I’d given in previous years. For a unit on cellular respiration, I asked the students to take a few days to write a study guide that would be useful to any other student taking a biology class that would be preparing for a test on cell respiration. We talked about what they should know: general principles of synthesis and decomposition reactions, various forms of energy “currency” in the cell, overall goals and outcomes of the process, etc. etc. It was fairly open-ended, and open-book. Put this guide together. Make it detailed and clear. Go. That was the test. I actually think that preparing that document would have put them in good shape for a more conventional test. So going through the extra step in this case wouldn’t have been terribly useful. They didn’t all get As, in case you were wondering. With access to class notes, text, and the internet, it’s still a difficult topic to explain, and they did that with varying degrees of success (and detail). It’s not something I do for every unit and every test, but I think it’s a really useful way to test their understanding of a topic from time to time.

Some questions for the group:

What do you want your students to demonstrate?

What constitutes a good assessment?

What constitutes a bad assessment?


The HW Conundrum

NOTE: Bart posted this in the comments section of “thoughts and testimonials” but I thought it warranted its own post.  At face value, it feels like Math and English (two subjects that are connected closely to the completion of their respective texts) will require the most attention in this regard, but maybe I’m wrong.  How are teachers in other disciplines going to approach homework now that we are meeting fewer times per week?  Will you still expect 30 mins/night?  Will you give students time to work on assignments in class?


So, here are some of Barts thoughts re. how to use 65


We had about 16 so-called “drops” in the Blue-White, ten-day cycle. If my math is correct, there will be about 23 “drops” in the seven-day cycle. I have been thinking about this since the new schedule was announced, but I still have not come up with a plan for reconfiguring homework. For us, English will be the more problematic of our subjects, as you suggest.
I also have been thinking about the use of the 65-minute period in each subject. Initially, I created a plan to give each its own unique character by doing a special unit in each: current events in World Cultures and a foreign-film unit in English. But now I am not so sure that is a good idea–I say that because it could be restrictive given the unknowns of the new schedule. My current thoughts are to do the two special units but not designate the long period for them. All this is thinking falls under the category “work in progress.” I want to get a feel for the new schedule before I decide what to do.



A Case for Debates

For anyone considering using 65ers as an opportunity to engage in hands on, activity-based learning, consider the following website.

I consider it to be, essentially, the hypothetical offspring of CNN, NPR and TEDTalks, if the three were to combine DNA and create a child.  Watching a subject-appropriate debate, then discussing it in your own classroom dialogue could be a great opportunity (in any subject) to engage students and maximize use of the 65 minute block.  Or, you could elect to have your students read a “written debate”, then discuss and respond before reading the “expert responses” on the site.

After a quick glimpse of the topics, here are some possible starting points for various subjects.

 “Western Kids Have it Easy — A Look at Tiger Mothering”

 “Protecting nature makes economic, as well as ecological sense.”

“It’s Time to Talk to the Taliban”

“Torture can never be justified”

“The Dangers of Fear”


I have a confession: I have lost my affection for Google searches.  You see, when Google first surfaced on the internet in 1997, I was enamored by the plethora of enticing search engines that seemed to literally materialize at my fingertips.  Granted, I was still in the early stages of my relationship with the web and I was about the age of the students I now teach.  But seriously, there was,,,,,,…the list seemed to go on and on.  Yet something about Google stuck with the internet-using population.  Presently, Google owns about 65% of the search engine market share, so one might assume that Google is a great way to search on the web.  But, with 2.1 billion internet users in the world, there remains such a daily influx of garbage on the web that I have grown tired of searching for academic-related things on the internet (on the flipside, google scholar searches tend to focus on a level of academia too advanced for our student body).  It’s just become too challenging to sort through the heap of resources, all in the hope of finding something that’s worth my time.

Example: If I search lesson plans for, say, Lord of the Flies, I will likely encounter a number of websites that provide English teachers with bios of author William Golding, character and vocabulary lists and group activities, all of which can be beneficial, but most of which either require a membership or have a cost attached.  Additionally, the sites don’t provide me with insights…they just leave me with sources (most of which are relatively uncreative).  There is simply no collaboration or dialogue.  The same goes for a language teacher who is looking to incorporate Skype into their daily lesson plans. By simply searching “skype for language teachers” there is no guarantee that it will yield the grade level, or the purpose, you’re looking for.  But, this isn’t Google’s fault – after all, how do we explain our intentions and desires to a machine?  Still, the act of searching has become so specific that it can drive a person crazy as they modify their search terms until a better result appears.  Ask Jeeves was supposed to work like a personal butler, but nothing can replace human interactions.  The internet doesn’t know what you want — it merely knows how the Google algorithm should respond to your literal keystrokes.

Enter Twitter.

As Scott explained during our end-of-year meetings, Twitter does not have to be a social networking tool.  In fact, one is not even required to “follow” anyone on the site.  Use in this manner can allow you to utilize Twitter as a web search alternative.  I do not have a smart phone, so my Twitter access is limited to the few times each day when I glance at my account.

What Twitter does is allow teachers to share content, articles and inspirations, while also offering advice and recommendations to other like-minded educators. One great way to search on Twitter is through the use of “hashtags.”  Hashtags are essentially keywords that allow you to filter what Twitter is showing you.  When someone “tweets” they are able to add a hashtag so that their tweet becomes searchable.

For example, if I was trying to figure out whether other physics teachers had done Rube Goldberg projects with 8th graders, I might tweet:

Any middle school science teachers have positive experience w/Rube Goldberg project?  #science #scichat #edchat

 My hashtags here are the terms that follow the # symbol

This tweet enables other science teachers who search #science or #scichat to see my question and respond.  They can easily post a link to an article, to their blog, or even create a new hashtag #rubegoldbergproject in an effort to provide me with ideas and spread the word to other science teachers.  Then, if the teacher seems like a valuable resource, you can begin following them.  Suddenly, they’ve become your personal AskJeeves butler, sending you articles and ideas that are applicable to what you’re teaching.  Thus, next time instead of searching google and sorting through all the consumerist educational garbage that’s out there, you are actually engaging in dialogue with other educators.

Furthermore, by following folks like Alfie Kohn, Rick Ackerly and Ken Robinson, I developed a network of great “search engines” who are real people and with whom I can ask questions and share ideas.  Suddenly, I am reading articles by Muslims living in Gaza and Egyptwho are informing me of new articles and photographs that I can share with my students.  Instead of going to BBC for my news, I just follow a journalist from each region of interest and I read what they’re reading. 

I Google less now, but of course there are still things Twitter can’t do.  If I need a quick word definition, dinner recipe or Wikipedia refresher, Google’s my game.  But for my own personal inquiry and growth as an educator, teacher and learner…I’ll take my tweets any day.

For a list of Twitter hashtags that involve education, click here.

Follow me at @MrMcDonough and consider following these other fascinating educators, too:

@davidwees, @danielpink, @21stprincipal, @tombarrett, @sirkenrobinson, @alfiekohn, @school_climate, @joe_bower, @rickackerly, @tedtalks, @salilley, @cpurcell, @rkimmett, @bhallett, @tdelehaunty, @jeanodell1, @dianeravitch

Testimonies and stories

Here are some testimonies & stories from teachers and students who have dealt with block scheduling in the past (schedules that include drop days and varied class lengths, including at least one of 60-90 minutes).  This could serve as inspiration for those of us still searching for direction (Language, Math, Music, Life Skills, English ideas, anyone??).

also, a link to a Math forum of resources re. long blocks of time.

A World Cultures 65 plan (draft 1)

[After originally posting this in comments, I received feedback that it needed more visibility, so I am posting it here.  If you have a response, you can either post to comments or if you have a curriculum-based plan for your 65, e-mail it to me and I can post it here]

Hello All:
I have been thinking quite a bit about the 65er periods, and I am finally to the point that I feel ready to start rolling out some ideas I’ve been considering. My goal in doing this is to get feedback from this thinktank while allowing others to do the same. After all, as Gallagher (see above article) explains, we have to rethink what we do, not just do the same thing for a longer period of time.

I am trying to finish this comment before Naomi wakes from her morning nap, so I apoligize if it is a stream of consciousness with many run-ons and mechanical errors…


World Cultures 65 Minute Proposal 1

I have been toying with the idea of students creating newspapers based on current events in World Cultures next year. The connection to 65 is that students would be responsible for discussing the news of the past 7 days during the long block. At the present state of my theoretical brainstorm, the students in my two sections would be paired up and responsible for a region of the world.

In my A section, for example, the fourteen students might be assigned Cantral/Northern Asia(4), Southeast Asia(2), Oceania (2), Central America and Mexico (2) and Africa (4); my B Section would then be responsible for coverage of the Middle East (6), South America (4) and India (4).

Students could use to debate different sides of the topics they’ve covered, take a poll of NCCS students and teachers, and they would be responsible for writing a one-page position paper (editorial, rant, letter-to-a-political-figure, etc.) based upon a notable news story they have read (and they would provide all applicable links to the story they’ve followed throughout the week). At the end of each trimester, the focus group would change, enabling students to cover a new region with new group members. My thought is that students could follow topics daily, then on the long block, it would essentially become a “newsroom period” where students catch their peers up and we have a roundtable discussion of the week in the world.

My goal in doing this would be to (a) have a unique theme to the 65 blocks; (b) provide students with a better grasp on current events; (c) allow students to follow a specific story that is of specific interest to them, instead of just providing the current events that I think have merit; (d) give students something to look forward to during the 65 block, instead of them dreading the day’s arrival.

This plan is clearly in its early stages and will likely take on a very different form by the time September rolls around. Still, I think there is lots of potential here…I imagine a group of kids following the new nation of South Sudan as it endures the growing pains of arriving on the international scene at such a tumultuous time in history; I foresee kids connecting via multiple news sources to get a better understanding of the alternative energy boom going on in China; really, I think that giving the students a bit of autonomy and CHOICE is the key here. A quick tangent: a struggling D+ student in my class last year, for example, became fascinated by OPEC and the oil situation in Africa during his cultural anthropology research simply because he loved being the expert. He loved that he was teaching ME things I didn’t know and that he was getting affirmation and positive feedback for his intrinsic motivation/fascinatio. I want to replicate this.

I am excited about the possibilities, and whether the “paper” manifests itself in a blog, a website or a (see compilation of sources, I don’t know, but I welcome any thoughts people have.

Are other people planning to have the 65 minute blocks be “specialized” in some way?
Science, are you conducting labs during this time?
Are people giving tests?
Showing movies?
Inviting guest speakers?
Taking experiential field trips?

I’m very curious to hear what others are thinking (even if you’re not sure…I’m not either) so that we can build off one another’s ideas.

Expanding Your PLN


Cross-posted at Once There Were Lions.

So, with the interest of collaborating and sharing ideas with other educators, many teachers have begun to “build” their own Personal Learning Network (PLN). “Grow” a PLN might be a better way to put it, since a PLN expands organically (in some ways), and it requires tending, occasional pruning, and general upkeep not unlike a plant or garden. It’s also made of living people. Making connections with other professionals in one’s field is not a new idea. Professors and scholars of all kinds have been traveling to other cities, monasteries, and universities for centuries with the intent of sharing information and learning from others. This happens today, although The Professional Conference now plays a significant role in many fields, as do the organizations that sponsor those conferences (NSTA, NABT, NCTM, NAIS, etc).

Everybody has a PLN, by the way. Your PLN includes the people in your department, colleagues present and past; they could be down the hall or a phone call or email away; it might include classmates from your college or university, folks you’ve met at conferences, on trips, through old fashioned social networking (family connections and cocktails), or sometimes they are simply friends of friends. Who do you turn to when you have a question about content, about teaching, assessment, learning styles, use of time, lab procedure? Who do you bounce ideas off of? Those people are part of your PLN (whether you’ve called it that or not). I can’t help but think of the old Sesame Street song — and I apologize in advance, a little, for getting this stuck in your head — “Who are the people in your neighborhood?

What’s different now is how people are making connections outside of those conferences, using the Web to share best practices, pedagogy, breakthroughs, field work, etc. (a web-based PLN). Blogs can also be a terrific forum for conversations, ones that allow for reflection, thoughtful comment, and discussion.

There are many ways that the Web can help to connect people:

Teaching networks like Classroom 2.0 are designed with connecting teachers of all disciplines. The Synapse is a similar network specifically for teachers of biology, and I’m looking forward to making new connections and participating there.

Twitter is a remarkable resource that’s used by many different people in many different ways. Thousands of educators have latched onto this tool as a way of sharing information and making connections. I joined Twitter during a workshop at November Learning‘s Building Learning Communities conference back in 2008, and it’s been key in growing my PLN. The website Twitter4Teachers is one of many that make it easy to find colleagues by discipline in other schools, districts, states, and countries. It can also be used in the classroom.

I use Delicious primarily as a way to keep track of web links from interesting articles I find online. If I don’t have time to read it all, or if I know I’ll want to have access to it later, I’ll add it to my bookmarks. I’m curious to find out how other people use Delicious.

This is just a start. Which tools you’ve found most helpful in connecting with other educators?