Discussing Fair Grading

Our school has a monthly book club for staff members. The list of books includes current adolescent and young adult literature, adult novels, and occasionally professional titles. This year a focus for our staff has been Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal. For those unfamiliar with Rick, he is a former middle school teacher, Disney English Teacher of the Year, phenomenal advocate for sensible, intelligent practice, and an all around good guy.  He has written several books on middle grades education and assessment.

Fair Isn’t Always Equal is about standards based grading and fair assessment practices.  One of the initial discussions that came out of the introduction of the book was the practice of replacing zeros in the gradebook with 60s. Many people imply that students are getting “something for doing nothing” with this practice. That’s exactly right, they’re getting a failing grade for doing nothing.  It’s just that the failing grade doesn’t have the same negative impact on their overall performance.  Quick example:

  • A class is given 4 assignments, Student A completes 3 of the 4, earning 100s on all completed assignments. The fourth assignment is not completed and the teacher assigns a zero for that particular assignment.  This makes the students average in the class a 75, or a D in most systems. Is this an accurate portrayal of what the student knows and is able to do?
  • Situation B, the class is given the same 4 assignments, Student B completes 3 of 4, earns 100s on the completed assignments. The teacher now assigns a 60 (still failing) and the students average is a 90, or a B in most systems. Is this an accurate portrayal of what the student knows and is able to do?

Notice that both scenarios result in the same final question. Our task as educators, and ideally fair assessors, requires we know exactly what our students should know and be able to do.  We must determine what the Essential and Enduring Knowledge is from our state mandated curriculum. From there, it becomes an issue of designing assessments that provide a variety of levels of mastery and paths to mastery. Our grading system should be one that fairly documents how each student stacks up to our pre-determined set of standards.

This is a difficult thing to do. Many teachers cling to their grading practices as the one constant in their classroom.  When examined some of these practices are truly mind-boggling:

  • Providing grades for effort
  • Excessive weight for homework in final grades
  • Focusing on formative assignments rather than summative assessments
  • Harsh penalties for late work

There will be hours and hours of debate over these issues, but what it all boils down to is: What does an A in your class mean? What does ANY grade in your class mean? Grades are ridiculously subjective in the first place, so why make them moreso by clinging to unfair grading practices?

Further Reading:

The Case Against the Zero – Douglas Reeve, Phi Delta Kappan

Assessment Manifesto – Rick Stiggins

15 Fixes for Broken Grades – Ken O’Conner (overview available on page 7 of this PDF – Assessment FOR Learning)


Unleashing the Wind Revisited: Keyboard

My US English keyboard for the Wind finally arrived. I took it long enough, eh? Sorry, there’s a little of the Canadian keyboard use left over there.  I read through the posts over at the MSIWind.net forums concerning replacing the keyboard and thought the instructions looked good enough. Here’s a link to that post:

MSI Wind Keyboard Replacement

The MSI Wind U100-422CA comes with a standard US Canadian keyboard as shown below:

Canadian Keyboard

Canadian Keyboard

The process was simple enough. The keyboard comes in one piece that is removed all at once.

US Keyboard

US Keyboard

Above the F2, F8, and PrtScr keys are three little black clips as shown below.  These clips need to be pushed up toward the screen of the Wind. I used an unfolded paperclip to do the job, others have used small screwdrivers.

Clips above F2, F8, PrtScr

Clips above F2, F8, PrtScr

Once the clips are pushed up, the keyboard will pop up above the clips.  Tugging gently toward the screen will pull the keyboard loose at the bottom.

Underneath is a ribbon that attaches the keyboard to the main unit.  There is a black plastic clip that needs to be gently flipped up using your fingernail. Once the clip is raised, the ribbon slides out and your laptop will look like this:

Wind Without Keyboard

Wind Without Keyboard

Reverse the process to install the new keyboard.  Slide the ribbon into the slot, press down the black clip. Place the bottom part of the keyboard into the slots on the bottom of the unit.  Snap the top of the keyboard under the three clips you pushed up with the paperclip. Voila! Your keyboard is replaced!

U100-422CA with New US Keyboard

U100-422CA with New US Keyboard

EduCon 2.1, Day 2

My 2nd day of catching sessions online of EduCon 2.1 was much more subdued than day one.  I started the morning listening to the panel discussion on school reform with a screaming 1 month old, so my recollections are rather fuzzy. I do remember a number of great zingers from Gary Stager today.  One major point that came up near the end of the discussion but never really got much of an answer was “Why are there so few people of color who attend/take part in educational technology?”  This is a question which undoubtedly has many answers, however it is something that should be considered and looked into as the technology education movement goes forward.

The real meat of my day came in the final session where I caught Tech in 20 presented by David Bill.  The premise of his session was simple, his school offers technology professional development in 20 minute sessions.  The topics are presented by different teachers in the building, the sessions are recorded, and posted to a Google Site. The current site is available here.

The idea seems fantastic to me for several reasons.  First of all, many technology tools can be presented easily in 20 minutes or less.  One of the problems of technology staff development is trying to cram too much into each session.  Many try to incorporate introduction, exploration, and classroom applications all in the same session.  With the 20 minute presentation idea the staff development is limited to one of these three.  Most sessions will primarily focus on introduction of a technology tool. The exploration portion could then be tackled by each teacher in their own manner.  Finally, a second Tech in 20 session might focus on classroom applications. Alternatively, the school could set up a wiki for teachers to post their own ideas for classroom applications.

A second reason the Tech in 20 idea is appealing is the way it allows tech facilitators to meet their staff at their level.  Sessions could be provided on entry level technology topics for those who are less comfortable, and other sessions could be provided for more advanced teachers/learners.  Additionally, 20 minute sessions allow people to step out of their comfort zone for a short amount of time. Teachers are much more likely to accept the “learner” tag if it’s only in short bursts rather than feeling less proficient for long periods of time.  Finding teachers in the building to conduct a 20 minute session is also easier than asking for full hour PD sessions.

Finally, recording the sessions makes the most sense out of all of this.  There is relatively little to stand in the way of being able to record PD sessions with the increased availability of low-cost webcams or computers with built in webcams.  Recording the sessions allows all teachers to attend at their own time and pace, and provides some of the 1:1 attention that is so difficult to provide during the school day.  After the 20 minute introduction, teachers are free to experiment in their own classrooms and then have multiple outlets for further investigation.

Sessions presented by co-workers allows both the presenter and the tech facilitator to provide further help.  This gets us closer to the critical mass of teachers needed for the tech tools to make the in-roads in our schools that will ultimately get our students creating, modifying, and thinking in 21st Century terms.

Tech in 20 Presentations Slides

Tech in 20 EduCon Wiki Page (Presentation Video to be made available soon)

Thoughts on EduCon 2.1, Day 1, Session 2

For my second session at EduCon 2.1, while sitting in the comfort of my own home, I headed to Games in Education.  This session was led by Sylvia Martinez.  The session led me to a couple of interesting links, one which I had seen before and one that was new:

One of the major focuses of the session was on the realism required for games for educational purposes.  The discussion centered around the physics involved in some basic puzzle elements of a certain game. Sylvia pointed out that while the player may end up with a certain “feel” for the physics involved they do not come away with any real knowledge of the mathematics behind why the physics works.  My immediate thought was: “At what level is this game being used?”  If indeed it is being used in a Physics classroom, then perhaps the game could serve as an opening for a discussion or real life experiment to determine the feasability of the the gaming solution.  At the middle school level, the “feel” may be all the teacher needs to help get across to the student at the time.

The real interest in this session, however, came when I begin chatting in the back-channel on Mogulus.  The only other person participating in the chat to begin with was a student at the Science Leadership Academy, known only as sciencelead4_video.  He was actually working the camera for the session but was in chatting, posting links, etc.  Here is a 16 year old high school student, volunteering his time to run video for a teacher’s conference on a Saturday.  That in itself was a bit amazing, but beyond that he was able to carry on some very good conversation about the games being mentioned.

One discussion centered around the game Spore.  I was having trouble hearing Sylvia as she discussed it, but from the wiki link I posted above it appears her opinion of the game is similar to my own.  The marketing of the game (up to 2 years before it’s release) made it appear to be an excellent look at the biology of evolution. Your job was to help your “creature” evolve and grow to survive in the game environment. The reality was that none of the “evolution” in the game was based on any scientific information, and the gameplay turned out to be less than impressive.

The discussion on the backchannel soon moved to a few questions  I had about SLA itself.  I learned that SLA currently has only a freshman, sophomore, and junior class, each of about 140 students.  The campus is 1:1 with Apple computers, the juniors have iBooks, the freshmen and sophomores have MacBooks.  The student said that all his teachers are technology enthusiasts.  He said most assignments were completed within Moodle and I asked if any teachers were using Edmodo.  He told me they weren’t but looked it up and said he would mention it to a couple of the teachers.  His next statement floored me:

I’ll tell two teachers and if it’s any good, after about 2 hours I’ll have 6 coming to me asking me more about it.

This student totally gets the social nature of learning in the 21st Century.  He understood that by putting information in the right hands he could get it moved around and used in a positive manner.

Unfortunately, the feed cut out shortly after this conversation happened so I didn’t fully get to finish my discussions with the student. However, my eyes were opened to the potential that is out there for networked learning when a full staff is on board for the experience. I can only hope that eventually I will find myself in a similar environment.  There is plenty of work to be done in getting teachers ready to teach and students ready to learn in a fully networked environment.  Time to get started…

Thoughts on EduCon 2.1, Day 1, Session 1

So I woke up this morning knowing I would come out of the day amazed.  Today was the first full day of EduCon 2.1, a technology conference that takes place at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  The majority of the sessions were streamed out via Mogulus, and the sessions are being archived at the conference wiki. The only complaints I have with the streams is that the audio feeds were not loud enough and some of the student videographers were intent on rotating the camera around to catch a glimpse of the crowd, causing many to experience slight motion sickness, or at least Blair Witch flashbacks 🙂

For the first session, I was trying to decide where to focus my attention and I started off with Gary Stager’s session on “The Best Educational Ideas in the World.”  I previously had little expereience with Gary’s work. I had read a few posts of his online, as well as some comments to other bloggers posts. I had even perused an outline of a session he was planning to present at NECC.  My first impressions of his message were not that great.  Gary’s main point was that we have moved away from the creation aspect of technology.  He is a strong proponent of robotics and feels this is the best way to get our students educated in technology.  Now, I must tell you that two fantastic early technology experiences in my life were a week long computer course where we discussed programing in DOS and another week where we put together a small robot kit.

Now, I didn’t disagree with everything Gary had to say.  In fact, I agreed with quite a bit.  These are not exact quotations but they capture what I feel was the intent of his statements:

A major focus of technology in education is on gaming. Educators logic follows this line: kids love video games, kids hate school, so if we make school more like a video game, kids will love learning.

I agree this is a dangerous and slippery slope. Games can be powerful motivators for some students.  Properly designed games can also be great educational tools. I believe the two games in my previous Serious Games posts are perfect examples.  However, we don’t need more “edutainment” games of the variety I grew up with: Number Munchers, Writer Rabbit, Oregon Trail…My recollections of these games go as deep as learning that Troggles were dangerous, never try to caulk the wagon, and don’t even think about shooting that buffalo because you can’t carry all of it back anyway.  This is not educational gaming in the same vein as Global Conflicts: Palestine or Quest Atlantis.

The other statement, or at least implication, of Gary Stager’s session was this:

We’ve moved away from technology as a creative process. Our focus is on simplistic things like where the space bar and return key are on a keyboard.  We should use robotics to get kids to create more.

Yes, creation needs to be more of a focus. I even think programming needs a better treatment in the classroom. However, the creation can come about in some of the programs that are being taught in a limited fashion. Not that I agree with all the mandates handed down to teachers, but adding “Build a robot in your class” to the list does not fit the bill in a majority of situations.  Should kids be able to have experiences in robotics? Absolutely…does every teacher who focuses on technology need to drop the keyboard and mouse and pick up a soldering iron? No…that is unrealistic at best and irresponsible at worst. Yes we need students who CAN think in ways to create in a field like robotics, but we also need a much larger group of students who are competent with the tools of technology that will be used in their everyday lives going forward.

I lasted through about 45 minutes of Gary’s hour and a half session.  The breaking point for me was the third video of someone talking that he played. The audio feed was bad enough trying to listen to a presenter, it was impossible to listen to the video feeds that were being piped in and then back out over Mogulus. Apologies if there was much more to the session that I missed after I checked out, however I got a strong sense of where things were going in the first portion of the presentation.

Serious Games in Education: Quest Atlantis

Trying to get some of the heavy hitters out of the way early in this series of posts.

Our school has been using Quest Atlantis for a couple of years now.  I received the initial training, but our school has primarily used the program with sixth graders as it’s geared toward 9 – 12 year olds.  My 12, turning 13 year olds and some 14 year olds are really on the upper end of who QA is geared toward.

Quest Atlantis is a Multi-User Virtual Environment modeled after Second Life and World of Warcraft.  In the game, students control an avatar who travels through the world and attempts Quests.  According to the QA website:

A Quest is an engaging curricular task designed to be educational and entertaining. In completing Quests, students are required to participate in simulated and real world activities that are socially and academically meaningful, such as environmental studies, researching other cultures, interviewing community members, and developing action plans.

Quests are also tied to one of seven “Social Commitments”:

  • Social Responsibility
  • Compassionate Wisdom
  • Creative Expression
  • Diversity Affirmation
  • Environmental Awareness
  • Healthy Communitites
  • Personal Agency

How well a student does on a Quest is determined by their teacher. The teacher can accept a student response or request that they dig deeper into the task in order to recieve credit for completing the Quest.  Completion of Quests earns the student “Cols” and “Lumins” in the game which correspond to currency and experience towards a higher rating in the game.

Quest Atlantis is divided into multiple worlds, 11 at the moment, which each have a distinct theme.  Worlds are divided into 3 Villages, each with approximately 20 to 25 Quests.  This equates to over 600 available Quests for students to attempt in order to build their character. Many of the Quests involve students going out and conducting some brief online research and coming back to the game to prepare an answer to the question. Missions are longer, usually involving multiple Quests.

A brief overview of gameplay is shown in this video by Tony Forster:

The game is very reading intensive. The conversations between non-player controlled characters and your student’s avatar are text based instead of spoken. There is also a chat area where students can interact with their classmates and other Questers all over the world. There is currently a very strong group of classes using QA in Australia. Additional reading can take place in either of two novellas that describe the world of Atlantis, it’s history, and some of the on-going challenges faced by the Atlanteans. There is also a short graphic novel that discusses the history of Atlantis. All of these things combine to make Quest Atlantis a wonderful supplement to regular reading, science, and social studies instruction.

Quest Atlantis was developed by Sasha Barab at the University of Indiana as a research study in the use of 3D virtual environments for educational purposes.

To get involved with Quest Atlantis, visit:

Serious Games in Education: Global Conflicts: Palestine

This might be the first and last post in this series, as I may not find another game worth devoting an entire post.  The first game I want to review really pushes the boundaries of what can be considered a “game”.  The game in question is called Global Conflicts: Palestine.

Here’s a brief video clip showing scenes from the first mission and giving an overview of the game:

The basic premise of the game is that the player assumes the role of a journalist dropped into the middle of the conflict in Palestine.  From there, a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” gameplay style unfolds. Your responses to conversations with characters in the game increase or decrease a confidence score with each character and your decisions affect whether you are viewed as Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israeli.

As you go through missions you collect quotes from those you interview. At the end of the mission, you publish an article selecting quotes to support your stance, a headline, and images. Based on the strength of your choices your article can wind up on the front page, or buried deep within the newspaper.

The first mission involves going along with Palestinian authorities to investigate a report of terrorist activity.  A man accused of terrorist acts is dragged from his home and weapons are produced as “evidence”.  Your job is to document his treatment and report on it.  The “Choose Your Own Adventure” style offers a number of possible pathways for the game.  Two students could go in and have an entirely different experience while both winding up with front page articles.

This game is fantastic on a number of levels. First, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is very difficult for students to understand. This game gives them an intimate look at what life is like in the middle of the conflict.  Second, for anyone teaching journalism, media bias, persuasive writing, history, sociology, or any number of other subjects there is tremendous depth for discussion of topics in each course. Finally, the game is engrossing despite it’s simple interface.  There is little in the way of the gameplay. There are no advanced gaming skills necessary.  You simply play the game, interact with characters, select your quotes, and develop the best possible article.

My one complaint is in the selection of quotes. Your “notepad” has limited space for quotes. If you fill it, and a better quote comes along, you are unable to replace an older one. This can be frustrating as it seems a supporting quote always pops up right after your notebook is full.

After a concerted effort to do a great job with the first mission, I had learned a fair amount about the treatment of suspected terrorists in the region, selected the perfect quotes, developed a top-notch article, and found out that it appeared on page 7 of the newspaper.  This is definitely not a game that I would expect students to master within the first few minutes.

A couple of quotes from supporting documentation I found interesting:

We are convinced that learning about topics are interesting, and that it is a matter of engaging students at the right level and provide tangible experiences that provide relevance and good examples that abstract concepts can grow from.

On the expectation of some teachers for the game to teach for them:

Imagine our game as a field trip. Students will experience important issues in fully immersive 3D world. But, they still need the teacher to broaden their understanding of these experiences. We can take them some of they way, but to be quite frank it is up to you as a teacher!

Though a school license for the game is quite expensive, individual licenses are far more reasonable. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fits well into your curriculum I encourage you to look into Global Conflicts: Palestine.


Resource Page for GC:P

Direct Link for Demo Download (Win)

Direct Link for Demo Download (Mac)