Teacher Evaluation Systems

Thinking about teacher evaluation can be daunting, especially as a student teacher trying to imagine the different categories upon which I will soon be judged. How can I possibly become a proficient teacher in just a year? Isn’t my first year review bound to be terrible and does that mean I’m down and out for the count?

As I look over the different evaluation systems used for teachers, I’m floored by the vast number of possible evaluation methods and their many different applications to judging a first year teacher, let alone veteran teachers. I’ll focus specifically on the Tennessee Valued-Added Assessment system and the more relaxed evaluation system used by Aurora Public schools in Colorado. Both state legislatures have mandated teacher evaluation, but the results are very different.

In Tennessee, the Value-Added system depends on comparing the progress of students to the average of the progress of students of similar achievement level. To operate fairly this system requires knowledge of a student’s previous achievement level before entering a class. This is good, in that it is putting the student in a specific category of knowledge before the teacher begins instruction, so a teacher will not be penalized by the initial knowledge base of a student. This is bad because students move around and change states. There is no guarantee that data will be available for every student in the classroom. Indeed, I felt that was the one clear flaw in the value-added system. Regardless, the teacher is then evaluated by if their class maintains the same growth rate, falls behind or is brought ahead.

The system in place in Aurora Public Schools (APS) is somewhat different and much less regimented. 50% of the teacher evaluation is based on student growth, but this growth is, as of yet, not taken from standardized test results. Indeed, Colorado has recently changed to the PARCC tests and the legislature decided that test results from the inaugural year of testing could not be used in teacher evaluations. At present the APS teacher evaluation is rooted in whether or not a teacher achieves a learning objective set at the beginning of the year by the teacher. This falls into the student growth objectives type of evaluation and is good for evaluating a single teacher, but is not standardized enough to compare teachers.

When I look toward teaching, especially in my first few years, I want to be evaluated using a metric that give me an opportunity to grow and is not merely based on the achievements of my students. APS has three formal observations per year for probationary teachers (all first year teachers would seem to fall in this category) and I look toward these observations as a source for growth, not an evaluation to fear. The more ways I can be evaluated that delve into how I teach and how I can improve rather than just student performance on tests, the better.  Teachers need to be constantly evolving and bettering their craft. An evaluation system that encourages growth, but maintains accountability such as student growth objectives, measures of student engagement and a light dose of testing-based evaluation sounds just my speed.

Reference Material:

Teacher Evaluation: A Resource Guide for National Education Association Leader and Staff. Accessed from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzYfzjQoASL_eGdtNFdsbXRIRDQ/view

Tennessee Valued-Added Assessment System. Accessed from: http://tn.gov/education/topic/tvaas

Guidelines for the Evaluation of Teachers in the Aurora Public Schools. Accessed from http://aurorak12.org/hr/HRForms/eval_guidelines.pdf

Formative Assessment in Nuclear Chemistry

The standard is as follows: Develop models to illustrate the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and radioactive decay. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on simple qualitative models, such as pictures or diagrams, and on the scale of energy released in nuclear processes relative to other kinds of transformations.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include quantitative calculation of energy released. Assessment is limited to alpha, beta, and gamma radioactive decays.] (HS-PS1-8)

The standard wants students to be able to illustrate various nuclear reactions qualitatively and to understand how to model changes during these reactions.

Big ideas for overall unit: Conservation of mass and energy. Protons/neutrons stay the same during nuclear reactions.

The particular learning performance objective I chose: Students identify alpha, beta and gamma decay products.

Since the standard emphasizes that this is a qualitative type of standard, I do not expect students to be able to fully use alpha, beta or gamma decay in nuclear reaction equations. Instead, I expect them to differentiate between the types of decay products and to compare and contrast them. Two important facets come from this expectation. First, I want students to understand how these different products act differently. This means I will introduce them to the idea of penetration depth, how far the decay products can penetrate. They will learn that alpha particles are stopped by a sheet of paper or even their own skin. They will learn that gamma rays are highly penetrating, needing thick slabs of lead to stop them. Secondly, students will learn several common nuclear reactions that create these products so they have a context for these particles in the “real” world.

As I teach to this learning objective I will make use of many formative assessment techniques. In general formative assessments should give the students descriptive feedback, identify their current comfort level with the topic, and give a pathway toward achieving full proficiency. Each of my formative assessments will not only let me know how well my students understand alpha, beta and gamma decay particles, but also give them a self-check and an understanding of what they need to do to achieve higher proficiency.

The first formative assessment I will use is a “Yes/No” chart that will be used both individually and in a group. Often a student thinks he or she is the only one with a specific question, so the use of this chart will help students understand that their peers are having similar difficulties and give me the opportunity to provide descriptive feedback to the class as a whole. Students will be asked to list what they do and don’t understand about a given topic, Yes or do know on the left and No or don’t know on the right. They will do this work individually during a Do Now time at the beginning of class. Once they have completed a list with a minimum of three items in either column we will have a class discussion where we put a universal Yes/No chart on the whiteboard up front. This will serve the purpose of answering specific questions students have while also showing them that their peers are facing similar difficulties.

The next formative assessment will focus on how students see alpha, beta and gamma particles in the greater context of nuclear chemistry/physics. Students will be asked to diagram the context of these particles, e.g. draw out or explain how alpha, beta and gamma particles relate to nuclear reactions. Once again they are not expected to have any quantitative mastery of the subject, but rather be able to place these particles in the greater pictures of isotopes and nuclear chemistry. For example, students could explain how all of these particles result from nuclear decay, which in turn might happen in carbon atoms used in carbon dating. This can be done visually or verbally. Upon completion this assignment will be turned into the bin and used to inform future lessons.

The next assessment is very similar to the last in that it focuses on illustration, which is good because modeling and illustration is a focus of the standard. Students will be asked to sketch out what they do understand about alpha beta and gamma particles. There is no expectation of a broader context in this case, rather just a check to see what students know. Evaluation of this visualization will give students direct feedback about concepts that are unclear to them in addition to giving them positive feedback for the aspects of their visualizations that are correct. Specifically. Students will be asked to draw alpha, beta and gamma particles and illustrate some of their differences visually. This will be done individually followed by a group activity where students sketch on small whiteboards together. Each group will share their whiteboard with the entire class, allowing for feedback from both the teacher and their peers.

The next type of formative assessment is less specific. Comprehension checks at the end of class are important and a variety of questions can be asked on an exit ticket. That said, the questions asked during the alpha, beta and gamma particles portion of the unit will focus on the students’ ability to illustrate these particles and place them in a broader context. These tickets will be collected after every class period and used as a medium to give detailed feedback and suggest strategies for improving comprehension. This is a more direct link between teacher and student than some of the other strategies that are more generalized to the group.

Another more general strategy I will use as a formative assessment in the classroom is notebook checking. Students are expected to keep an up to date notebook that includes handouts, quizzes, and tests as well as their notes from class. Randomly after a class I will ask students to turn in their notebooks for a comprehension/completion check. This random chance assessment promotes good note taking and attentiveness in class, but also gives me the chance to evaluate their comprehension of the subject. In this context as well as in the context of the exit ticket I can give directed feedback that will help the student study better and rise to proficiency. This formative assessment will be used in all my classes, regardless of which unit we are in, because it helps keep both the teacher and the students accountable.

Each of these formative assessments will help me understand how well my students comprehend what alpha, beta and gamma particles are and how well they understand how these particles fit into the greater context of isotopes and nuclear reactions. I don’t want my students to be simply memorizing information; I want them to be creating a new understanding of the world around them. These in depth formative assessments will help make that possible.



Reflection on Understanding and Applying Standards

The process of going from standard to lesson plan is a complicated one that we have just begun to unravel. Unpacking a standard can be extremely difficult considering standards are often dense with additional implications that may not be directly addressed in the wording. For example, the standard I chose to focus on for nuclear chemistry mentioned mass and energy conservation, protons and neutrons, and even alpha, beta and gamma decay processes, but it never mentioned isotopes. Since isotopes are the foundation of understanding that different atomic elements can be heavier or lighter but still have the same charge and chemical characteristics, addressing isotopes in the learning objectives is essential. Thus, to fully unpack the standard, I needed to dig deeper and use my own knowledge of nuclear chemistry to fully understand what knowledge the standard required.

I find that backward mapping is not a particularly new concept to me despite the fact that I haven’t been formally taught it before. Every day when I go to the ice rink and coach my private and group lesson students, I’m practicing backward mapping. I know the element they need to perform, say an Axel jump, and I go backward from there to look at the skills required to get to that point. It makes perfect sense that this process works just as well in classroom teaching. After all, looking at the end product required, determining the assessments needed and the activities to be accomplished does a very good job of setting up how lessons will be shaped. The nuclear chemistry standard I chose had several very clear proficiencies it required, which led to productive backward mapping from these proficiencies. For example, students need to be able to explain the conservation of neutrons and protons in nuclear reactions. This means they need to understand isotopic formalism and to identify decay products of nuclear reactions. Each of these becomes a proficiency required for the standard from which assessments and learning objectives can be created.

Once the backward mapping and unpacking of the standard has been completed, writing learning objectives is fairly straightforward. All that is left is identifying the specific skills required by the proficiencies and turning them into learning objectives with specific verbs. For example, in my nuclear chemistry objectives I use “explain,” “identify” and “give examples” in my wording. These verbs can be assessed in traditional written test formats, during oral presentations and in written assignments such as research reports. I believe it is very important to put these objectives in the voice of the student. An objective must be something the student can say, such as “I can identify alpha, beta and gamma decay products.”

The processes of unpacking, backward mapping and writing learning objectives do a great deal to simplify the translation of a standard into a lesson plan. These tools make it clear what students are expected to do and how these tasks meet the expectations of the standard. The backward mapping is essential for creating useful and pertinent lesson planning. Remembering what standards we want students to meet and creating lesson plans tailored to the skills explicitly or implicitly included in those standards will make a big difference in the classroom. Each lesson I teach my skating students is directed toward them gaining a skill; teaching in the classroom should be no different.

I find that unpacking science standards can be difficult, especially if a teacher doesn’t have a super strong science background. I’ve been around the science block, taking classes in physics, astronomy, geology, and geochemistry, so I’m able to dig deeper into the meaning of certain science standards. I worry, however, that I might be missing something if the standard is not in my area of expertise. Making the unpacking, backward mapping and learning objective process a collective one can solve this problem. At the school where I am student teaching, the chemistry department does an exceptional job of working together to unpack standards, define the “big ideas,” backwards map each of the units, and work together to create achievable learning objectives. I feel this process would be best done in a collective environment like that and that in doing these activities in isolation we only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Backward Design Example

To begin thinking about lesson planning, I’ve chosen a standard from the Next Generation Science Standards that could be applied in a physics or chemistry classroom. Nuclear reactions are at the core of both atomic physics and nuclear chemistry so I believe this standard is important for use in both high school physics and chemistry. The lesson plan that I have devised is for a non-AP level course in either physics or chemistry. At the AP level students would be required to balance nuclear equations, but that is beyond the scope of the standard I have chosen.

The standard is as follows: Develop models to illustrate the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and radioactive decay. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on simple qualitative models, such as pictures or diagrams, and on the scale of energy released in nuclear processes relative to other kinds of transformations.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include quantitative calculation of energy released. Assessment is limited to alpha, beta, and gamma radioactive decays.] (HS-PS1-8)

The standard wants students to be able to illustrate various nuclear reactions qualitatively and to understand how to model changes during these reactions.

The big idea of this standard is that mass and energy interchange during nuclear reactions, but conservation of mass and energy still applies. This is specifically seen in understanding that in nuclear reactions atoms are not conserved, but the total number of protons plus neutrons is conserved.

To identify my learning plan for this unit, I first identified a number of proficiencies I wanted my students to achieve during the unit:

1.     Students illustrate that the total number of neutrons and protons are conserved in nuclear reactions.

2.     Students describe how the total amount of energy and matter in a system is conserved.

3.     Students illustrate the flow of matter and energy in and out of a nuclear reaction

4.     Students identify alpha, beta and gamma decays

5.     Students discuss different nuclear reactions in an informed manner with their peers and the teacher.

6.    Students can visualize different isotopes and show different numbers of neutrons in their visualizations.

To further identify what I want my students to be able to achieve during this unit I devised the following assessments:

1.     Final assessment where students are able to perform proficiently on written assessment that asks:

a.     Free response questions about alpha, beta and gamma decays

b.     Asks them to illustrate fission and fusion reactions

c.      Gives several multiple choice questions about the nature of matter and energy in nuclear reactions

2.     Final student presentation

a.     A short ~5 minute presentation to the class where they describe a nuclear reaction of choice.

b.     Show proficiency in illustrating nuclear reactions

c.      Show proficiency while discussing nuclear reactions

d.     Identify what type of decay is happening in their reaction

3.     Formative assessment using several quizzes are given throughout the unit:

a.     Quiz on the differences between fission, fusion and other decay processes

b.     Quiz on identifying nuclear reaction species: alpha, beta, gamma

c.      Quiz on neutron and proton roles in nuclear reaction and the conservation of mass and energy

4.     Research project on a nuclear processes

a.     Students identify a nuclear reaction that interests them

b.     Students write a 1-2 page report on the history/discovery of the reaction and its applications in the “real” world

To guide my students toward success in these assessments and proficiencies, I constructed a few learning activities that would help solidify the nuclear reaction concepts for my students:

1.     Group activity to understand alpha, beta and gamma decays

a.     Given in a group-quiz style

b.     Groups are asked to identify if the decay products are alpha, beta or gamma decays. No balancing of the equations will be needed.

2.     Workshop to learn how to illustrate fission vs. fusion

a.     Students work in groups and then independently

b.     In the style of “I do, we do, you do together, you do”

c.      By the end of the exercise, students are comfortable with the differences between fission and fusion

3.     Whiteboard session on fission, fusion and other decay processes

a.     Groups of students are given a fusion, fission or basic nuclear decay reaction on a note cards

b.     Students illustrate on a white board each of their reactions and then present to the class. Each groups is given a different reaction.

c.      When sharing the whiteboards to the entire class, the students are asked to identify familiar and different aspects of their reaction illustrations.

Finally, after specifying learning proficiencies, designing assessments and constructing activities, I have a good idea of how I want to structure my unit. I realize there are several lessons on foundational material that will have to occur first. This includes having students understand what an isotope is and what conservation of mass and energy really looks like. I also believe in putting science into an understandable historical context, so I will have an entire lesson addressing nuclear chemistry and its context in the making of the atomic bomb.

The learning units I propose after initial study are:

1.     Isotopes

2.     Conservation of mass and energy

3.     Fission vs. Fusion

4.     Alpha and Beta particles

5.     Gamma radiation

6.     Nuclear reactions and equations

7.     Historical context of nuclear chemistry: The Atom Bomb

I’m sure this unit will continue to evolve, but the analysis of proficiencies, assessments and learning activities gives me a good foundation.

Student behavior + Flowchart

Directing behavior in the classroom is essential to keeping students on task as well as maintaining student-teacher relations. Disruptive students impede not only the lesson in progress, but also the atmosphere of the classroom and the positive environment a teacher works to create. Methods for dealing with good and bad behavior vary between subjects and grade levels. Since I’ll be teaching high school science, I will focus on techniques appropriate for high school students here.

Good behavior is expected at the high school level and therefore most instances of following the rules and behaving as expected will not be acknowledged. That said, if a student goes out of their way to help me or other students during class, I will certainly acknowledge their effort. As shown in the flow chart at the bottom of this post, if the behavior is particularly notable, I will give a student’s parents acknowledgement of their good behavior.  Helping other students and taking on a noticeable positive leadership role in the classroom is an example of this type of outstanding behavior.

Dealing with non-ideal behavior is more important than rewarding good behavior in a high school science classroom. Catching this behavior early is especially important in a science classroom since safety is a real concern.  Physics students can make potato cannons, which send the potatoes flying at high velocity, and chemistry classrooms can contain numerous dangerous chemicals. Mitigating the risks that come with these environments starts with stemming inappropriate behavior and creating a classroom environment that does not tolerate disruptive, and possibly dangerous, behavior.

The flowchart below identifies several possible disruptive behaviors. If a student is not actively disruptive, there’s no point in interrupting class to deal with the issue. Indeed, it’s better not to give the behavior any more attention than necessary. Non-verbal techniques that acknowledge that the student is misbehaving, but don’t draw attention to the student, will be my first line of defense. If the behavior continues after several indications from me that it is inappropriate, I will pull the student aside after class. A student clearly under the influence of marijuana, but not causing any disruptions, is an example of this. Another example is a student who is misusing their cell phone, but not causing any distractions to their classmates. In the latter case, I would likely remind them quietly of the rules of cell phone use in the classroom, but wait for a full confrontation until after class.

If a student is only disrupting a few students, say just the students sitting next to them during group work, I will give them non-verbal signs to cease their behavior. If this is not effective, I will come speak to them quietly during a moment that does not take away from class content. Examples of these students include students who are talking to their friends, but not staying on task, and students who are interacting with groups that are not their own. This is not unusual in high school since friend groups are often split up during group work and students are often distracted by each other for whatever reasons, e.g. flirting, etc. If the student continues to engage in the inappropriate behavior after we have had a conversation about it and the disruption continues, I will have to issue a formal warning to the student. A formal warning will have to be communicated to the student’s parents, so it holds more weight than just me correcting behavior. If the warning is ignored, then I will send the student to the office and contact their parent about their behavior. This is the last thing I want to do, but willful disobedience cannot be allowed in a science classroom where such behavior could put other students at risk during lab activities.

If a student is disrupting the class as a whole, I will try to use the power of peer pressure first. Chance is there are students in the class that do want to get through the lesson, lab or group work. Thus, I will use group contingency strategies. An example of this includes a student that refuses to follow the correct steps during a lab. The entire class will get to wait for the student to conduct the correct steps or we will not continue with the lab. Since labs are the “fun” part of class, the peer pressure will be considerable. If disruptive behavior occurs during lecture, I will issue a formal warning to the student. Since this warning means I will be contacting the student’s parents, this will usually be enough to redirect behavior. If the negative behavior continues despite these steps, I will once again have to send the student to the office. I would like to use that method as a last resort, but the class needs to continue and if a student stands in the way of that I will have no choice.

As I go through the process of deciding how to deal with student behavior, I will use a flowchart like the one below. The good thing about formalizing the process is that I will be consistent in my reaction to student behavior since I have an immutable guide. 

High Expectations in Classrooms

Three videos involving different teaching techniques are considered below. These videos are:

Whole Brain Teaching

Chinese Math Lesson

Roller Coaster Physics

These videos each showed a different discipline and a different age group being taught in a distinct manner. The whole brain teaching video was a grade nine high school class that was covering both English and geography concepts. The whole brain teaching strategy includes hand gestures that are paired with teacher prompts and with material covered in class. For this strategy to work, the students are held to very high behavioral expectations. Each student is expected to fully participate in the callbacks (e.g. Class-Yes) and to demonstrate complete understanding and usage of the hand gestures involved in the instruction. In addition, a set of rules that is often reviewed by both teacher and students is the backbone of the classroom. Students are required to be actively engaged in their learning and are expected to be full participants in classroom learning activities. There isn’t much down time where students are working quietly alone or in groups. In fact, the class seemed to be constantly filled with both audio and visual interactions. Although there is no explicit statement of high academic achievement, the students are clearly under the impression that their participation is essential and that their knowledge should be increasing. All students are held to the same standard and expected to participate at the same level regardless of academic ability. This could be a good thing, but also could lead to students feeling trapped in a classroom that is racing ahead without them. Overall this teaching strategy seems very intense and might be a bit intimidating to some students who are shier. Of course, the expectation that the whole class participates is good since it makes the learning experience shared across the entire group.

The Chinese math lesson had some things in common with the whole brain teaching strategy, but was more focused on memorization and group recitation. The third grade class sat on the floor and worked through the progression of a multiplication table before moving on to several example problems. The entire class knew the rhyme that went with the multiplication table, so there was full class participation during that section. When the teacher transitioned to solving example problems, she called on some students and others simply stated the answer when she asked a question. The behavior expectations were less obviously strict than the whole brain teaching strategy and students were allowed quiet dialogue amongst themselves. The students were used to the format of the lesson and knew that to expect as the teacher went along. The academic expectations were high since all students were required to know the rhyme and any member of the class was expected to help solve the example problems. As this article states, the parents of Chinese students have high expectations and the entire school system is designed to meet those expectations. The class resembled more of a “drill and kill” type of instructional strategy, but the students were gaining academic knowledge. The Chinese style is based on the belief that rigorous practice makes perfect and while that is true for some students I can’t help but think this strategy will not work for all. Students who have difficulties reading written words or memorizing would find this approach difficult, but would likely be stuck trying to make it through since it doesn’t seem like there is an alterative instructional style for math in China.

The roller coaster physics lesson was the least obviously disciplined classroom. That’s not to say there weren’t expectations or specific tasks students were required to fulfill, but rather to say that students were engaged in open dialogue and very few specific transition strategies were used. In a way, this meant the behavioral expectations were higher since the teacher was expecting the students to police themselves and work together to stay on task. No one is looking over their shoulder, so it is up to the students to finish the tasks at hand. The middle school class was clearly very engaged in the experience of creating roller coasters for marbles.  The students had a large measure of control over how they worked on the project, from the design process to choosing their role in the group, so they were very invested. Students knew the norms of the classroom and understood how they could use the “chiming” session to help further the design process. The high academic expectations were not explicitly stated here, but the teacher clearly expected students to be able to problem solve on their own. By restricting the amount of material and making students work on a budget, the teacher pushed them beyond simply making a roller coaster. They were truly experiencing the engineering design process and learning how to operate within its confines.

Creating a learning environment with high expectations can be done in many ways, as demonstrated by the videos. I believe my style for a high school physics/chemistry classroom will be more aligned with the roller coaster physics strategy and the advantages that come with project based learning. I know as a student I would have hated the whole brain learning classroom. I’m sure it works well for many students and I certainly believe hand gestures can complement science material, but I find that level of control over the actions of the students to be uncomfortable. I believe transition strategies should be used, but that students should be allowed to dialogue freely outside the confines of any classroom prescribed formula. High expectations can be communicated not just through behavioral norms, but also through posing difficult questions for students to answer together. By asking non-trivial questions, students know that you expect them to solve advanced problems on their own, which is a benchmark of high academic expectations. Behavior expectations will be more implied than explicit in my classroom, but a conversation about basic rules and procedures will be necessary for students to understand their roles as individuals and group members in my classroom. These videos definitely spurred my imagination and helped me to better understand how I would operate my classroom. 

Mobile Technology in the Classroom

Mobile devices open up a new realm of possibilities for activities in the classroom. The ability to record and edit audio or video transforms the possibilities for student presentations and projects. The ability to take data in real time changes the game for science teaching entirely. If students can use mobile applications to directly record data and perhaps even graph or analyze it, the scientific method is that much more accessible to them. All of this said, the urge to not allow distracting devices into the classroom is very understandable. While students can achieve great bounds in understanding with these devices, the devices are also the source of much distraction for many students. Finding the balance between mobile devices as merely unneeded distractions and important classroom assets is not easy.

I believe teachers should embrace mobile devices, but be very clear about the expectations surrounding their use. The positive impact mobile devices can have in a classroom, especially once students are at the secondary level, far outweighs the distraction potential. Students will be able to interact with their classroom using the same methods they interact with the rest of the world. Whether we as teachers agree or not, mobile devices are part of the norm for our students. They interact with the world through their screen and if we can help improve and make that interaction more meaningful we should. Opening students eyes to the abilities of their mobile devices beyond simple texting and picture taking will be helpful both in a classroom and in the world beyond. That said, not all students will have access to mobile devices, so the requirement of their use should be restricted to group activities where personal devices aren’t required or activities where devices are provided by the school.

My guiding principles for mobile device use:

1.     The device must enhance the activity

a.     Does it expand the activity in a new dimension (audio, video, data recording)

b.     Can the activity be done with equal impact without the mobile device? (Is the data recording something you could do using a pen and paper to equal effect?)

2.     Does the use of audio/video create innovative presentation possibilities?

a.     Is it just video or is it edited to create a greater impact?

b.     Do students learn to communicate in novel ways that aren’t just recording video, but rather coming up with other ways to use that medium to communicate ideas.

3.     Have clear mobile device rules and consequences

a.     What is allowed on the mobile devices (can students listen to music, text?)

b.     What is the consequence of misusing the device? (5 points off activity grade, loss of device privileges?)

c.      Signed parental agreements for use of school devices

4.     Compile a list of apps used by students at the beginning of the year

a.     This creates of a pool of common apps to help students use in new ways

b.     This also lets you know what apps students are unaware of and come up with novel experiences for them

5.     Be clear and specific about the use of the mobile device in the activity

a.     Make sure the mobile device portion of the activity is tested before hand and be prepared to deal with any technical hiccups… have a backup plan

b.     Give clear directions to students before asking them to use their devices so they are not left wondering what they should be doing and thus get distracted or otherwise disengaged.

My experiences in the classroom lead me to very firmly believe that mobile technology can and will have a positive impact on education practices. The important thing is both introducing the use of the technology in a controlled way and making the goal of the technology use clear. If students are simply asked to play around on computers or mobile devices there is little chance they will be fully engaged no matter how well planned the mobile activity is.

In the sciences, the use of phones and tablets as real time recording devices when coupled with technology that transmits either wirelessly or via blue tooth has extraordinary potential. If students can automatically record data, they can gather more and learn more about how to be critical thinkers as they analyze their real data. For the longest time we were stuck with simulated data to analyze and basic experiments that involved nothing more than stopwatches, which depend on the imprecision of human reaction speed. Now we have technology that can instantaneously record the speed of an object and then transmit that speed to a connected mobile device. Students can now take instantaneous measurements and view problems from a whole new frame of reference.

Beyond data recording, some mobile applications come with the ability to plot simple x, y data and curve fit using basic functions (linear, parabolic, log, exponential). The application I used in my mobile device activity was iSeismometer (http://www.iseismometer.com). This application uses the accelerometers on a mobile device (it’s available across platforms) to measure the displacement of the device in three axes. When students jump near the device, they see a large displacement in z (out of the floor direction) and small displacements in x and y (in the floor plane). As they moved further away, these displacements got smaller, showing the effect of distance on an earthquake. iSeismometer also allows the data to be transmitted in csv format to a computer, where students can analyze the data recorded with their mobile device if warranted.

The use of mobile technology in the classroom can be a great thing; teachers simply need to stick to their guiding principles and make the use of such technology deliberate and targeted. The 21st century is going to be full of these types of innovations and it is our responsibility to determine how to harness their capabilities in constructive ways. 

Special Education Referral Process

While I was unable to interview any teacher or councilor in person, I was able to complete e-mail exchanges with two teachers and a school councilor. One of the teachers is a high school teacher at an alternative education school near Modesto, CA. The other is a first grade teacher in Santa Barbara, CA. The school councilor works at one of the combination middle/high arts school in Denver, CO. The high school teacher in Modesto and I had the most extensive conversation and much of this post is comprised of her responses to my questions.

The school councilor provided me with the basic outline of how they proceed with special education referrals. She noted that the school uses RTI (Response to Intervention) and that there are several steps before a formal referral occurs. She notes that all of the IEPs are individualized and that provisions provided for students vary over the referred population. Parent involvement is equally variable with some parents playing a very active role and some not very involved at all in the process. This was useful to know, but did not provide more insight than materials available at special education specific sites on the internet.

My conversation with the first grade teacher amounted to a case study of a 1st grade boy she has been working with. The boy has frequent disruptive behavior, is attention seeking, walks on his toes, is generally destructive, rolls on the ground and does not follow directions. The frequencies of these behaviors were high enough for her to contact the principal, who had a psychologist observe him in the classroom. After the observation the psychologist gave her a few ideas for coping with the boy’s behavior. They are going to see if these methods work before furthering the special education referral process. They suspect the student has a combination of ADHD and Autism. If more intervention is needed, the teacher would love to have a special education specialist in the classroom providing extra help. The school, however, does have separate classes for emotionally disturbed and moderate special education students. Students with other disabilities are generally included in the regular classroom.

The high school teacher I corresponded with works in an alterative education high school. Her number one priority is keeping kids in school and helping them finish their education. This philosophy greatly shapes her approach to special education referrals.

When she identifies a student for a special education referral, she pays careful attention to the gaps in their work. If something is consistently off they are a likely candidate for referral. Signs of a struggling student include agitation, frequent bathroom breaks, work avoidance, bad attitude, and refusal to accept help. She makes sure to note that there is a difference between a struggling student actively seeking help and one avoiding help. Failing some tests isn’t a sign that a student needs a special education referral; they are simply working through the material.  If they are consistently failing and will not accept help, then they are struggling and may need a referral.

She believes in trying as many alterative methods as possible before referring a student. She believes they need to learn strategies to help them cope both inside and outside the classroom, so it is best if they try many alterative methods. She uses visual options, technology, verbal, group work, solo work and one-on-one methods. Some students are allowed to choose locations to complete work if that helps. If these strategies don’t work, then it is finally time to call in the special education specialists.

If the alternative strategies are partially successful, she checks to see if the student and/or parent still wants a special education referral. In cases where the referral would cause the student to drop out of school, she chooses not to continue the process with the hope that the alternative methods will be effective enough. As I stated before, she works with at-risk teens and staying in school is a large part of what she wants for each of her students.

I asked her about disruptive behavior and how well it correlates with the need for a referral. Since she works with at-risk youth, many of her students exhibit disruptive behavior. She pays attention to when the disruptive behavior occurs. If it always correlates to reading aloud or some other type of work avoidance, then it is a sign of a real problem. If the behavior is generally random, she understands her students are likely just being jerks

Full inclusion is her preference in the classroom. She has taught to classrooms with mostly deaf, legally bind, brain damaged and mental birth defect students. She admits each student was an individual challenge, but including them in the regular classroom was worth it.

She is very invested in special education students and has been on more than half the IEPs for her school since she has requested to be the teacher present in the IEP meetings. She notes that a large portion of the special education population in her school is composed of students who are minorities and were referred for “stupid” reasons. She wishes she could do something about that, but it hasn’t been within her power to change how other teachers treat those students.

I believe that teachers like her are the future of special education. She has put a lot of time into learning alternative techniques and fights for each of her students to remain in her classroom. Being as invested as she is can be exhausting (she can tell you all about that too), but we need educators like her as we move to include special education students in the classroom and remove the stigma of “special” education. I grew up in a school that believed in inclusion and it benefited not only the special education students, but also those of us with no major learning disabilities. We all live in this world together and the more we are exposed to people of different background and abilities, the better off we are.