Sunday, September 10, 2017

Making a Commitment

We are currently at the end of unit 1 and the beginning of unit 2 at the same time.  The in-class discussions are focused on the beginning of unit 2, and the at-home assessments - more essay-like questions that are proving to give me a far better feel for what the kids know, and what they don't - are focused on the material from unit 1.  So, to me this was the perfect time to have the kids do some reflection/self-assessment and goal-setting.

At the beginning of each unit, I have the students take a look at the learning objectives, written in student-friendly language, and assess where they believe they currently are with each topic by marking "I completely understand this topic", "I somewhat understand this topic", or "I do not understand this topic".  Review topics tend to get either "completely" or "somewhat", while the new topics tend to get a "do not".  I then ask them to write a statement or two about each of the ones they marked as "somewhat" and "do not", being as specific as they can about what it is they don't know or understand.  I have them do this on an actual sheet of paper (a lot of things have gone paperless this year), and sign a statement at the bottom of the page in which they commit do doing what it takes to get their questions answered, including preparing for class, looking things up when appropriate, and actively participating in the discussions.  This time, however, there was a twist.

On the back of the sheet, I asked the students to make two lists, both of which were to concentrate on the "student skills" and not the "math skills".  The first list was to be about what they did well in the first unit: did they prepare for class, did they participate well, etc.  The second list was to be about what they need to improve on to make the second unit better than the first.  But let's be honest: just writing down the goals for the unit isn't really all that effective.  Most kids take the goals and tuck them away at the back of their folder or binder and never look at them again.  My solution?  Make a video.

There is a new website/app called FlipGrid, and it's whole purpose is to help kids share their learning through video.  Among other things it does well, FlipGrid uploads videos waaayyy faster than anything else I've tried, taking only seconds instead of minutes or hours.  Another great feature is that I can set the videos so they are shared with the entire class, meaning the kids are getting feedback from one another as well as from me.  For the unit goals, this is perfect.  The kids had to make a short (less than 30 seconds) video in which they were to state their "student skill" goals for the unit, which was to be shared with the entire class.  As we make our way through the unit, it is now our responsibility - all of us - to hold each other accountable to these goals.  I didn't tell them about the video until they had written their goals, and needless to say, there was some nervous laughter and a bit of hesitation.  But, they did make the videos, and they did watch the videos made by the other students.  

We've only had one class since the videos were made.  For my part, I plan to remind the kids about their commitment, both to themselves and to the others in the class, on a daily basis.  We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Above the Line, 4 for 50

Early in the summer (as in, the day after school let out), I was lucky enough to attend a workshop led by Dave Burgess.  If any of you have had the same good fortune, then you know the energy and passion Dave has to “Teach Like a Pirate” are infections, and that you walk away from the workshop with a firm commitment to do something different, even if you don’t quite know what that different thing is.  After spinning lots of different thoughts around, I decided to be more focused and more intentional during the first three days of class, which is something Dave mentions in his presentation and dedicates himself to in his own classroom.  I mentioned this briefly in the last post, but now that the three days have passed, here are the details and how it went.

Before Day 1: Since I had the class lists and a way to contact the kids, I sent out a couple Google Forms to collect basic contact information and to begin to get to know the kids.  The questions I asked for the “get to know you” part were:

  • How did you last math class empower or disempower you?
  • What were the qualities of the best teacher you’ve ever had?
  • How do you handle conflict with another student? (In a discussion-based class, this one can be very important.)
  • What type of feedback do you expect to receive in this class and how often do you expect to receive it?

The number of responses to the last question that were along the lines of “every two weeks or so” shocked me, and made me realize that even though I may be giving feedback every day, the students need to realize that I’m giving them feedback.  If they don’t realize it and internalize it, then it’s not really feedback, is it?  So, one more thing to focus on this year.

Finally, I made a short video introducing myself to the class and I asked the students to do the same.  If nothing else, I’m ahead of schedule in terms of learning the students’ names this year, but I think it made them realize, even before they got to my room, that this class was going to be run differently than other classes they have experienced in the past.  It also allowed me to find out a bit about their hobbies and their personality...always a plus.

Day 1: The class period was shortened due to homeroom, so we had 40 minutes together.  I displayed the kids’ names on the whiteboard courtesy of the projector that’s hooked up to my computer (along with their number for the semester, which I use to place them in groups each day), and had them cross off their name before they sat down, which made attendance on the first day a breeze.  I also had them make a “name plate” from a folded, large index card, on which they were to place their first name on one side and their number on the other.  Rather than give directions after the bell rang, I explained to one student what was to happen as they walked into class, and then asked them to lead others through the process.  As soon as everyone knows the name of everyone else in the room, we will stop using the name plates, but until then, the students will be required to have them out during the discussions.  Once the students were seated, we left the room to do a tornado drill followed by a fire drill, and we spent the rest of the period outside.  There were lots of comments along the lines of “Thank God we’re not just sitting again for another 40 minutes.”  Outside, I went through the basic set-up of the class and what their responsibilities are to the class, to one another, to me, and to themselves.  Nice, relaxed beginning, and a tangible reinforcement that this class is not going to be like others they have taken.  Plus, no homework, unless they didn’t fill out the pre-day 1 forms or make the video.

Day 2: Since I switch groups every day, the students need a brief description about how to find their seat, which means on day 2 (similar to day 1) I told one kid as they walked in the door how to find their seat, and that they were in charge of making sure everyone else understood what to do.  I then briefly took them through the class page on Schoology, just to show them where all of the paperwork for the class was located.  Not exciting, but necessary.  After this, I gave them ten minutes to individually look through three exercises and make as much progress as they could.  This was followed by having one group do a practice discussion which the rest of the class watched,  During this discussion, I interrupted the kids a lot, noting what was good and what to try to avoid.  I also explained how to use the green, yellow, and red cups that are placed on each table.  If the yellow cup is on top of the stack, then that indicates to me that the group is fine, but still discussing the exercise.  If the green cup is on top, that indicates the everyone in the group understands the solution, and that they would like for me to come over and hear their explanation (I normally ask a student who has not been as active in the discussion to give this explanation).  If the red cup is on top, that indicates that the group is stuck and needs a hint.  Again today, no homework.  They know it’s coming tomorrow night, but there’s no need to give them work just for the sake of giving them work.

Day 3: Among other books I read this summer, I finally got around to reading “Above the Line” by Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer (as a Buckeye I should had done this a few years ago, but…).  In it, he describes the type of leadership he tries to instill in his players, how he tries to instill it, and the ways in which this manifested itself during the championship season in 2014.  “Above the Line” refers to an overall attitude of self-responsibility, of being purposeful, intentional, and skillful when making decisions and leading others, and of avoiding blaming, complaining about, and getting defensive with others.  This sounds a lot like the attitude I try to instill in my kids, but I’ve never been able to look at the process as systematically as I have this year, and I think Coach Meyer’s book is a big part of the reason why.  In addition to this, he talks about instilling an attitude of “4 to 6, A to B”, which in the world of Ohio State football means “go as hard as you can for 4 to 6 seconds from point A to point B”.  Finally, Coach Meyer describes the concept of being “nine units strong” on the football field, meaning that to be an elite football program, all nine units of the team (offense,defense, special teams, etc.) need to be running at full capacity.  I took these ideas, synthesized them, and gave them a discussion-based classroom flavor.  Signs that say “4 for 50, Above the Line” are now in several places on the walls of my classroom, meaning that for the classroom to run at full capacity, for the students to learn and to grow as much as they can, we need all four tables to have students learning with an above the line attitude for 50 minutes every day.

So, on day 3, we watched a short video that describes what “above the line” means, had a brief discussion about it, and introduced the phrase “4 for 50”, after which the students did a pre-unit self-assessment for unit 1.  Essentially, I list out the skills we will be covering and ask the kids to indicate where they think they currently are with each skill.  Sample exercises are given so they can check themselves.  I don’t look at these; they are purely for the kids to use during the unit, focusing on the areas in which they are weak and keeping track of their progress.  Once they filled out the form, the kids had brief discussions about whichever exercises they wished; however, I asked them to focus on the topics and skills that more members of the group said they were having trouble with.  No need to run from the things you find difficult. Run toward them, and master them.

The preparation for day 4 was to get ready for the first “real” discussion, which would consist of the first five exercises from the packet for the course.  It also included filling out a brief Google form in which they stated (for each exercise) that they were ready to lead the discussion of a particular exercise, or which listed the questions they had about it.

Day 4 was the smoothest first discussion day I have ever had.  While I am certain there are other factors that could have contributed to how smoothly things went, I honestly think that being this intentional about how I started the class has already made a significant impact on how things will go this year.  So, my thanks to Dave Burgess and to Urban Meyer.  Who knew that a high school social studies teacher from San Diego and a college head football coach could have such a positive impact on a math class in southwest Ohio?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


It’s been far too long since I’ve sat down and really reflected on how things are going.  Not that things aren’t going well, because they are, and I think that’s been part of the problem.  So often, we only reflect on what went wrong, in the hopes of making it better.  We lose sight of the fact that if something went well, we should reflect on why it went well, and on ways it could be even better.  In addition to this, if things are going well, we tend to push the reflection off, prioritizing other things ahead of it (like planning, giving feedback to students, etc., …), until eventually we fall completely out of the habit of assessing ourselves on a regular basis.  I know this has been the case for me over the course of the last year.

That ends, starting now.

So, as I being to prepare for the year, here is the plan:

  1. Have the kids prepare the exercises for the discussion the night before, but with an emphasis on asking questions.  For the five exercises that will be assigned each night, the homework will be to fill out a Google form that commits the student to leading the discussion for one of the exercises the next day, and then requests that they list at least one question for each of the other four exercises they would like to have answered the next day.
  2. In class, for each exercise, step 1 for the students will be to put the questions they wrote for homework on the board.  If someone has committed to leading the discussion, then it is their responsibility to make sure each of the questions is addressed during the discussion.  If no one has chosen to lead a particular exercises, then the questions will be the introduction to the discussion.
  3. Continue to be “gradeless” as far as possible, placing the focus on the learning rather than on the grades.  The year and a half of evidence-based assessment has gone really well, but I’m still trying to find a way to keep the grades out of it.  Unfortunately, the fact that we have to report grades regularly (as opposed to having the option to report feedback and progress only, which I would love) prevents this from happening as completely as I would like.  I understand why; I just wish there was something better available.
  4. Have students produce a “spider diagram” of the discussion each day.  My plan is to model this during one of the first three days, and then have the students take it from there.  I will probably have a different student take responsibility for each exercise.  However, if it gets in the way of the students being able to effectively get what they need out of the discussion, then I’ll probably drop this.
  5. Continue to use the red-yellow-green cups that allow the students to indicate where their group is with a particular exercises.  Last year, each table had one red, one yellow, and one green cup.  They were stackable, so the cup on top indicated where the group was: yellow meant they group was working toward a solution, green meant they had a solution that needed to be checked, and red meant they were stuck and needed a nudge in the right direction.  One thing I need to do better is to require the kids to use the cups, and to stick by my self-imposed rule of not interfering if the yellow cup is on top.
  6. Since our school is going 1-1 this year, have the kids take notes (as well as possible) on the same document.  Since word processors still aren’t very math friendly, especially when trying to take notes quickly, I’m not sure how it will go, but I think it’s at least worth a try.
  7. Get the kids outside at least once a week.  This may be with projects, but it may also be with just doing what we usually do in class, but doing it outside.  My working title for this (admittedly stolen, but I can’t remember where I saw this...Twitter, maybe) is “deskless Wednesdays”, but it may be better placed on some other day of the week.  Along these same lines, I plan to take the class outside on the first day, at least for a little bit to do a fire drill...why just talk about where they need to go when we can actually go outside?
  8. Continuing with this, I think it will help if we spend the first three days really setting the stage for the year.  The plan is to have a group talk through an exercise (maybe a 3-act exercise, maybe something that more closely resembles one of the “standard” daily exercises, maybe something else), make a spider diagram, and so on, and then debrief afterwards, creating a list of expectations on a Google Doc as we go for reference.
  9. Have the kids reflect everyday on the discussion, focusing on who was the best prepared, who asked the most useful question, and so on, and not focusing on things like “who got the answers the fastest” or “who answered the most questions”. If I really value the questions, creativity, and learning from mistakes more than the answers (and I do), then the work we do and the feedback I give needs to emphasize this.  Another way I want to emphasize this is for the kids to bring in an exercise for me to do, cold, right there in front of them.  If I solve it, fine.  If I don’t, fine.  The point is the discussion, the willingness to try something, being comfortable with the mistakes, and so on, and to give the kids license to do the same.

So that’s where I am right now at the beginning of Harkness, Year 6.  And I need to commit myself to keeping this blog updated far more regularly, mainly because I need to reflection and self-assessment as much as the kids do.  The fact that I’m not being graded on whether or not I’m do should be irrelevant.  Otherwise, I’m a hypocrite.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Food Network

I enjoy watching Food Network.  There are a number of shows that, as I’m flipping through the stations, I will always stop to watch.  Two of my favorites are Good Eats and Cutthroat Kitchen, both hosted by Alton Brown.

Good Eats doesn’t appeal to everyone, as Alton goes beyond the usual format of a cooking show and explains why all of the ingredients interact the way they do, and oftentimes makes suggestions as to what you could use as a substitute for some of the ingredients.  This makes the show sort of a hybrid between the standard PBS cooking shows and chemistry class.

Cutthroat Kitchen, on the other hand, is more of a game show where the contestants are told they will be making a certain type of dish (not a specific recipe), but then Alton throws different sabotages at them that force them to think on their feet without the assistance of any new ingredients or utensils.  Most of the sabotages are ridiculous and would never be experienced in a real kitchen, but the entertainment value is high and the dishes actually turn out well in most cases - at least that’s what the judges on the show say.

Those who watch Good Eats purely for the recipes are usually annoyed by the chemistry part.  They don’t care about why the recipe works. All they want is to have the recipe in hand, watch Alton make the recipe, and then try it themselves.  Substitutions aren’t important. Variations aren’t important. The only thing that matters is to be given step-by-step instructions to create the recipe.

But what happens when you have to change the recipe, either because you forgot to buy one of the ingredients at the store or because you have a friend who is allergic to something in the original recipe?  For those who rely on step-by-step instructions, the answer is to go back to the store or to pick a different recipe.  For those who understand how the recipe works, a quick (or a planned) substitution can be made, and the dish will turn out just fine.

Sound familiar?  All that matters in many math classes, to both students and teachers alike, is that the students are able to follow a set of step-by-step instructions to get the right answer. Why it all works isn’t important, just follow the directions.  Variations aren’t important, since there won’t be any variations on the tests, at least not the ones given in class.  So the teacher sees their job as being to present the material in as many ways as necessary for the students to be able to follow the step-by-step algorithm.  Students repeat the refrain “just tell me what to do” because they see their role as being to memorize the steps and reproduce them on the test.

Ummm...this isn’t math.  Not really.

Real math involves understanding why the algorithm works, and being able adjust it to fit a new situation.  This is why both teachers and students struggle with preparing for some standardized tests - namely, the ones that make it a habit of throwing in exercises that rely on the appropriate concepts but that are not like the standard exercises found in a textbook.  The AIR test last spring is a good example of this.  At times, AP tests can be.  When this happens, the students complain that the test wasn’t fair because they had never seen any problems like these before.  The teachers complain that if they had known “that kind of problem” was going to be on the test, they would have made sure the kids saw some of them.  In other words, both the students and the teachers see memorizing the algorithm for a specific type of exercise as the purpose of math class., it’s not.

Math class is supposed to be about empowering the students with both the basic concepts and mechanics as well as with the problem-solving skills to flexibly use them in new situations - even if the situation occurs on a standardized test.

The implications for what needs to happen in the classroom are deep.  Teachers are told that they need to differentiate the instruction to meet the needs of every student.  Students come to expect the teacher to “teach the way they learn best”.  Let’s be honest: we all learn differently.  That means a high school teacher would need to teach the same lesson in over a hundred different ways each day, assuming the teacher knows the way each student learns best.  This is not reasonable.  Actually, it’s not even possible.  Twenty-four hours wouldn’t be enough time for this to happen, let alone the seven hours in a school day. And besides that, this would still focus on the basic algorithms and not on the flexible problem solving.

So what is possible?  Does the method of instruction exist that empowers the students to take responsibility for their learning?  Can one method actually be used every day that provides the opportunity for every student to learn how to problem solve the way they learn best?

Yep.  Any of the discussion-based methods - project-based learning, problem-based learning, and Harkness, for example - do exactly this.  It’s not necessary to change the instruction for each student.  What is necessary is to give the kids the freedom to learn the material in the way they are most comfortable, and have a deep enough understanding of the material ourselves to be able to support them when they get stuck without resorting to “here, let me show you how to do this”.  And by learn, I don’t mean memorize the algorithm.  I mean learn the material to the point that they can use the content and skills flexibly.

The kids can’t stop once they are able to make dinner from the recipe.  The standardized tests - and life, for that matter - demand more than the ability to reproduce a recipe they've seen on an episode of Good Eats. They need to be ready to compete on Cutthroat Kitchen.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Evidence-Based Assessment: The Self-Assessment

At the beginning of each school year, we, as a district, as a school, as a department, and as individuals go through the process of setting goals for the year.  We set metrics against which we will measure ourselves, work throughout the year to make progress on the goals, meet with peers and administrators to get feedback, and make adjustments along the way.  In addition to this, we keep track of our own progress, often times being our own harshest critic.  Occasionally, we will do a short reflection to see what we have accomplished and what we still need to work on.

Now, imagine replacing all of this with a system in which we receive a new set of goals every three to four weeks, and at the end of every three to four weeks we are judged, without regard to anything else that may be going on, on how well we have met the previous set of goals.  If we haven't met the previous goals, we have no chance to revisit them and no chance to improve our performance on them. Instead, we receive a rating that will be used at the end of the year as part of a final judgement we will receive.

I'll take the first system. Thanks.

Especially since I have a lot of control over the process in the first system.  Of course, I also have a lot of responsibility to monitor my own progress, as well as to seek out and respond to feedback from others.

Many doubt that students have the capacity for the responsibility part of the equation. That doesn't mean we should resort to the second system described above, which, sadly, is the standard system we use to give grades to our kids. Instead, it means that we should teach them how to set goals, how to self-assess, how to respond to other words, we should help them gain the life skills they will need.  You know, the skills we need as part of our professional growth.

This is why we  included self-assessment as part of the process of going gradeless.  The structure was simple:

  1. Give the kids a list of the skills we have been working on, asking them to choose from a list whether they can do any question, a limited set of questions, or essentially no questions based on each skill.  Emphasis was placed on the evidence the students have provided (on checkpoints or in their portfolios) and not simply on how well they feel they understand the material.
  2. Have the kids look at their responses to the list and, based on the responses, give themselves a letter grade.

This was done through a Google form, which made administration and compilation easy.  The first time we did this, the algebra 1 kids were brutally honest with themselves, with many giving themselves a lower grade than I would have assigned.  Their honesty continued throughout the semester.  The honors precalc kids, on the other hand, all stated they currently deserved an A.  My response was not to tell the kids they were wrong, but rather to tell them that the evidence did not match their assessment, and to please provide the evidence .  While there were a few kids who consistently gave themselves higher marks than the evidence indicated, the overwhelming majority of the precalc kids were as honest as the algebra 1 kids for the remainder of the semester.  At the end of the semester, when we did this self-assessment one last time, we followed it up with a one-on-one conference with each student.  If the student and I agreed on the semester grade, then the significance of the final exam was to confirm the grade.  If the student still believed they deserved a better grade than I believed their evidence had demonstrated, then the final exam became the vehicle through which they could convince me they were correct.

So, looking at the entire process, while we obviously have to set a few of the goals in place - the curriculum is the curriculum - we allow the kids a lot of choice in the way in which they demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the material, discussing their progress with them regularly and responding to their work with feedback and opportunity rather than with judgement.

In other words, we're preparing them for the real world far better than chasing points for a grade ever could.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Evidence-Based Assessments: The Checkpoints

So what about the tests?  Surely you still had tests and didn't just rely on stuff the kids did at home and put into their portfolios?

We did, along with all of the review that comes along with it. However, there were a couple important differences:
  • We refer to the tests as checkpoints, because they aren't "one and done". Courtesy of it being this way for years, the word "test" has the implication that if the student doesn't do well on it, there's nothing they can do about it.  By using the word "checkpoint", we intend to imply that we are just getting an idea about where the student currently is with the material and what we need to do moving forward.  In other words, we treated the checkpoints in a very formative way rather than in a summative way.
  • The opportunity to make up for a poor performance on the checkpoint was mentioned from the beginning.  The kids knew from the beginning of the semester that an individual day would not define their grade.
I have heard two main arguments against allowing students to redo anything in general, and tests in particular.

First, that making "that many" different versions of one test would be difficult to impossible, let alone trying to do so for every test.  We found a simple way around this: have the students create their own make-up exercises. This was done topic by topic on the checkpoints, so putting a percentage or letter grade on the checkpoint didn't make sense.  Instead, it was about giving the kids feedback about which things they showed they understood and which they didn't - and why.  Just as I described in the previous post, the exercises they created needed to be approved by us so that they weren't wasting their time solving an exercise that wasn't going to be at an appropriate level (either too easy or too difficult).  After the checkpoint, choosing an appropriate exercise was easier for the students, since they had now seen an example.  Of course, the difficulty with this was trying to get the kids to do more than just change the numbers.  On the other hand, the new exercises we would have come up with would probably have been at least close to the "change the numbers" type, so while certainly not our favorite type of exercises for the kids to create, it wasn't the worst thing that could happen.  Once the exercise was approved, the feedback process for the portfolios took over, with an emphasis on having the students explain their work.  Once it became clear that the student understood the material, the folder in the portfolio was marked with "meeting expectations". However, if on a subsequent checkpoint it was clear that the student was now struggling with a topic that had been previous marked as "meeting expectations", then the student needed to create and complete a new exercise.

The second objection to allowing students to work until they show they understand the material is that "the real world doesn't work that way".  With all due respect, yes, it does.  To cite a specific example, the evaluation process I go through as a teacher is not about a one-time test. Instead, it's about an ongoing conversation between me and the administrator doing the evaluations. Yes,  it includes in-class observations - "tests" - but the observations don't get an A, B, or whatever. Instead, the observations give us a common experience on which to base our conversation, looking for strengths and opportunities for improvement.  In other words, the evaluation process I go through with an administrator is strikingly similar to the checkpoint and redo process I go through with my students.  In fact, the only common "real world" thing I know of that works in a one-and-done way after high school is college. Everything else is much more dialogue and improvement driven.

What we found through this process was that the students were more comfortable both day-to-day and on the days of the checkpoints.  And despite the lack of one-and-done opportunities throughout the semester, the algebra 1 kids did well on the common assessment we give for our final exam.  In fact, they did better on the second semester exam, after a semester of portfolios, than they did on the first semester exam which didn't have them.

So the final reflection on this process will be on how we determined the grade that was place on the transcript - which I'll do in the next update.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Evidence-Based Assessment: The Portfolio

One of the first things about making the transition to evidence-based assessment is letting go of the idea that tests are the gold standard when it comes to determining whether or not the student really understands the material.  As teachers, we know this already.  How many times have you had the experience of having a student who is able to explain everything in class, answers all of the questions, clearly understand the material completely...and then bombs the test?  If the tests and quizzes are the main contributors to a semester grade - as they usually are - then this student ends up with a much lower grade than they deserve.  They understand the material better than the grade shows, and you know it.

Traditional assessment focus on answering the question "Has the student shown that they know that material in a way I have prescribed?" Evidence-based assessment focuses, instead, on answering the question: "Does the student know the material?"  The big difference is that it is up the the teacher and the student - instead of the teacher alone - to come up with ways by which the student can demonstrate their understanding.  Yes, this is intentionally vague.  In removing the restriction of "you can only show me you understand the material on the tests", I didn't want to indirectly place another restriction in the way.  The only requirement was: "Show me you understand."

To that end, here are the directions that were given to the students on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester:
"Your semester grade will strictly reflect your ability to communicate your understanding of the material, both verbally and in writing.  Throughout the semester we will gather evidence of your learning, and based on the evidence we will determine the letter grade that will be placed on your transcript.   The evidence I will gather will be my observations of the daily discussions, the checkpoints, and the final exam.  The evidence you gather and present can take on any form you wish; for example: second-chance projects (similar to those you did on Google Docs after the checkpoints last semester), presentations of discussion exercises in class, leading the discussion of a review exercise as we prepare for a checkpoint, and other pre-approved projects.  Please keep in mind that your grade will depend on your ability to communicate your understanding of the material both verbally and in writing, so the evidence you gather should likewise include both."
The only reason the other projects needed to be pre-approved was to make sure what the student wanted to do would actually demonstrate an understanding of the material. I didn't want them to waste their time on something that from the beginning wasn't going to meet the requirements.

So, what we needed was a way to capture all of this evidence in one place so that we could easily look at all of the evidence at the end of the semester.  The answer we found was an online portfolio and assessment tool called FreshGrade (  Th strengths of the site included:
  • students had the ability to contribute to the portfolio anywhere, anytime
  • the folders in the portfolio were labeled with the skills we were working on, rather that with "unit 1", so the students were focused on the material
  • parents had access to the portfolio, and so had the ability to see the progress their child was making in real time
  • parents also had the ability to see whether or not their child had contributed to the portfolio
  • the site provides the ability to report progress without putting a letter nor a number to it ("meeting expectations", "approaching expectations", and "not meeting expectations" was what the students and parents saw regarding the student's progress)
  • apps for Android and Apple, with slightly different apps for students, parents, and teachers, so everyone had access anywhere, anytime
While there was a bit of a learning curve and there were some glitches with the site itself, it did what I needed it to do.  The students placed samples of their written work, links to a Google Doc that contained their work, videos of them explaining their work (both in class and at home), etc., in the portfolio, in the folder specific to the topic they were covering.  If the work did not match the topic, then I directed them to put the work in the correct folder and did not give any other feedback until this had been done.  If it was clear from the work that the student independently understood the material, then that category was finished.  Otherwise, we began the feedback loop, with me pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work the student had turned in, continuing until the work was up to par.  If too many loops were needed, then I had the student prepare another piece of evidence to demonstrate that they really did understand the material independently.

By the end of the semester, the students were asking questions such as, "Before I make my video, could you look this over to make sure it will work for demonstrating my understanding of how to solve a linear system by elimination?"  Seriously, freshmen in algebra 1 were asking me this.  And among the questions I didn't hear was, "What do I need to get on my final to get an A?"

The portfolio helped focus the students on the material, and not on the grades - just like I wanted it to.

Next time: Reflecting on the fact that yes, we still gave regular checkpoints (tests) in class.