General Interest

This place is for posts that don’t fall under any specific category.

Absence and Growth: An Inconclusive, Pseudo-Scientific Analysis

March 2, 2011

When I turned 18 and headed off to college, I tried to declare my de facto freedom from parental control, but Dad was paying my tuition. He still ruled, and one absolute rule, in his mind at least, was this: DO NOT SKIP CLASS.  No excuses.

He knew what all teachers and most parents know—you can’t learn if you aren’t present. This belief—this assumption—is what led me to begin analyzing data about absence and EOC growth. The question: to what extent does student absence impact the likelihood that a student will achieve growth on an end of course test.

Using NCWise attendance data for each EOC course—so data that does not include absences due to ISS or Choice—I added to our EOC growth spreadsheet a column of data listing the number of absences for each student beside a column that indicated (Y or N) if the student had or had not made growth on the exam for that course. Students without predictor or exam scores were filtered out.

This information was used to determine the average number of absences for students who made growth and for those who did not make growth.

Then I grouped students according to degrees of absence: minimal (0-2), some (3-5), several (6-8), and many (>9).  This data was then analyzed to show the likelihood that a students in each absence category demonstrated growth.

These methods, I assure you, lack perfect mathematical and scientific precision. I did not account for outliers, such as those students who missed a ridiculous number of days. My goal was to use data to form an impression, which might be why I made a C in Algebra II and Calculus.

Students who made growth averaged 3.8 absences, while those who did not make growth averaged 4.6 absences.

Over 48% of students with minimal absences (0-2) demonstrated growth.
Nearly 40% of students with some absences (3-5) demonstrated growth.
Approximately 37% of students with several absences (6-8) demonstrated growth.
Approximately 34% of students with many absences (>9) demonstrated growth.

Inconclusive Conclusions
I have to admit that when I started compiling this data, I was hoping to share it with Mr. Medlin, so that he could stress to freshmen and to students with frequent absences just how absolutely and perfectly connected attendance and achievement were. I’m not sure that’s what the results show us.

Students who showed growth definitely averaged fewer absences, but it was less than a one day difference, not enough to make a significant impression.

The most significant statistic for me was that students who almost always attended class had an 8% advantage over any other group and were almost 50/50 for showing growth.

Nearly as telling a statistic is that only 6% separates the success rate of students with some absences from students with many absences. That “many” group includes kids with over 30 absences, some of whom actually made growth.

I hate—I mean I really hate—to admit it, but it just doesn’t appear that attendance was the deciding factor I imagined it would be. So what is?

The fact is, I don’t know. The teacher seems to play a much greater role in student success than absences do. Comparing growth percentage within each tested standard and honors course, the gap from the highest-performing teacher to the lowest ranges from a 13% to 45%. Those differences result from a wide range of factors, including teacher experience within a particular course. The fact remains—teachers make a difference in student learning. That’s good (and obvious) news. It means that what we do—how we teach, our instructional methods and management strategies—makes a difference.  It means that we can get better at teaching, even if problems beyond our control get worse. It means that we are not doomed—impacted, yes, but not doomed—by challenges like poor attendance.

I tend to agree with my father’s rule—attend class no matter what. For those students who don’t, all we can do is teach, teach, teach.

I’d love to hear your comments.

Solving Problems in the Real World

January 31, 2011

Life presents us with few multiple choice tests. Our jobs and our lives are filled with more complex problems, often with no correct answer. We hope only for the best outcome, or at least one that will not result in an explosion, unless we wanted to blow something up. 

One of the great problems we must solve as educators is teaching students to become problem solvers themselves–to assess information, consider options, experiment with outcomes and analyze results. I was intrigued to learn from two colleagues, eager to emphasize the value of developing problem solving skills, how problem solving took center stage in their classes the first day of school.

Jennifer Mabe
Jennifer Mabe introduced her students to the challenge of her advanced functions and modeling course by asking them to produce exactly seven cups of water from two unmarked pitchers measuring three and eight cups. She explains, “After filling up containers with water, dumping containers of water, and transferring water between pitchers(SEVERAL TIMES!!!!!) we were finally able to determine the correct method of getting 7 cups of water.” Student engagement, she observed, was extraordinarily high during that lesson.

Jed Smith
Jed Smith also wanted to observe his physics students’ problem solving skills, so he challenged them with a simple building project. Students  received a few supplies–sheets of paper, paper clips, plastic cups–and one simple instruction: build the tallest free-standing structure you can. The task challenged students to analyze their materials and explore their knowledge of physics as they constructed their creations.

A Paradigm Shift
Mr. Smith and Ms. Mabe both understand the fact that to educate our students we must challenge them intellectually with the real problems of the world in which they live. We must engage them not only as receivers of information, but as thinkers, as doers, as active participants with hands and eyes and brains. The video linked below–a speech by Sir Ken Robinson enhanced by an artistic interpretation–explains this idea (and much more) brilliantly. I hope you will take a few minutes to view it.

Video link: Changing Education Paradigms 

Let’s have another contest. Submit a brief description of an activity you have used or plan to use that challenges the real-life problem solving skills of your students. Submit your response by the end of the day on Wednesday, Feb. 9 either as a reply on this blog or via e-mail.

Prize: two gift cards for Panera
The winner will be determined by random selection.

Feedback Fridays & Contest

January 6, 2011

(Read on for contest details)

The newest member of our English department is a bright young lady named Uvonda Willis. Ms. Willis seems driven to meet the needs of her students and to constantly improve what she is doing, two goals she attempts to tackle with a strategy she calls Feedback Fridays. Each Friday, she solicits input from her students by passing out note cards and asking them to share their comments and ideas regarding the lessons and activities for the week. Students drop their cards in an attractively-decorated box; then, Ms. Willis reads them and facilitates a brief discussion.

A word of warning. This strategy is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. The teacher must be willing to hear whatever criticism students offer and must demonstrate a genuine interest in student feedback. Sometimes that means being flexible.

For Students Who Don’t Care
Those teachers who have participated in the book club for Allen Mendler’s Motivating Students Who Don’t Care will certainly remember the author’s thoughts on building relationships, one of five key factors for motivating the unmotivated. Mendler writes, “It is as if we make deposits into a reservoir of goodwill from which we can make withdrawals when needed.” The Feedback Fridays strategy is exactly the type of deposit Mendler has in mind. By soliciting students’ input and making a genuine effort to consider it in planning and instruction, the teacher invests in the relationship. The return comes in the form of effort.

Going Digital
Ms. Willis is not yet satisfied with her feedback strategy. She recently discovered and realized that the reply function on the website makes it easy for students to provide her with the weekly feedback she desires. So, along with much of Ms. Willis’ communication with students and parents, Feedback Fridays might go digital this semester. Either way, it is a strategy certain to help teachers improve their teaching and foster stronger relationships with their students.

Building relationships is important for motivating students. Briefly describe one strategy you have used in the past or plan to use this semester to build relationships with your students. Please submit your strategy as a comment (scroll to the top of the screen and look for the word “comment”) by Thursday, 1/13/11.

All submissions will be entered into a drawing for a gift certificate to the Great Outdoor Provision Co. and will be posted to

Teaching Writing Is My Job, Too

November 27, 2010

Last week I was fortunate to be invited to observe Jed Smith’s biology classes while they worked on a research/writing assignment. Rather than spending hours lecturing on fungi, mammals and fish, Jed decided that his students would be better served discovering information themselves and writing about various organisms in newspaper-style articles, including feature interviews, sports stories, horoscopes and even comics.

The lesson is an excellent reminder of two facts.

1. Students learn more about the content you are teaching when they write about it. When they have to research it and get creative with the writing, the effect is even stronger. Jed’s assignment epitomizes this challenge.

2. Writing is not an English-only activity. Exposure to writing in all disciplines, in various formats, for various audiences and purposes, enhances students’ writing skills.

Still, under pressure of EOCs, VOCATS, and mile-wide SCOS, writing instruction is often neglected. We all have a responsibility to teach writing (if for no better reason), so that our students’ scores on the 10th grade writing test will demonstrate growth. The scores do factor into the ABC model, but with no department holding responsibility for the scores, we seldom bother to process the data as carefully as we do EOC scores.

Here’s what the data shows us:

  • Over the past three years, our projected mean score was 11.93. Our actual mean score was 11.18, an effect size of -.73.
  • Last year, our effect size was -1.25.
  • African American students predicted to perform at middle and higher levels on the test had an effect size of -1.68 and -2.03 respectively.

What does this mean?

In brief it means our sophomores, and particularly our African American students, are performing below potential in writing. It means they are not growing adequately in their writing skills.

Why? That’s much harder to answer. It is easy to blame student motivation, which is certainly a factor in most schools throughout the state. Let’s ignore motivation for now and consider three questions about writing instruction, instead:

1. Do our students write in most classes most days?

2. Do our students spend time revising writing assignments?

3. Are we teaching students skills that might improve their writing?

I would love for Rose High to be able to answer, “yes, yes, and yes.” That’s where I come in. As instructional coach, it is my responsibility to help teachers find strategies for incorporating writing instruction without significantly detracting from their ability to cover the content of their courses. I can:

  • Model or co-teach writing and revision lessons.
  • Collaborate with you to create writing assignments pertinent to your course.
  • Offer write-to-learn strategies to increase the frequency of writing in your class.
  • Assist with time-saving strategies for writing assignments.

Unfortunately, I can only help you if you want my help. Stop by my office in student services or send me an e-mail if I can help you with writing instruction.

Feel free to share your comments below.

Curiosity Contest (read to find out who won)

November 15, 2010

I take a lot of my cues about teaching and learning from my three-year-old son. Three year olds are surprisingly similar to our teenage students. On Saturday, Elliott and I attended the Pioneering Technology Days event at A Time For Science in Ayden. Earlier in the day, I had attempted to “quiz” Elliott on his ability to recognize simple words based on first letters. “D is for dog. Can you point to the word dog?” He loves books but quickly quit the book we were reading in favor of his cars.

At A Time For Science, his reaction to a loom was much different. Seeing a nine-year-old girl learning to use a loom to weave fabric, he was intrigued. The loom’s owner allowed Elliott a turn. She talked him through the steps as he worked the shuttle and bead board. He learned slowly, but she continued to “quiz” him into the correct action. “Do the brown balls go up or down? What goes next?”
What was the difference between the two activities? The teacher? Certainly. The kinesthetic activity? Of course.

The degree of curiosity? Absolutely. In fact, curiosity about the contraption and how it works, I would argue, could have sustained Elliott’s interest in the loom for another thirty minutes. What better way to develop that understanding than to watch and operate the device? How does this thing make that cloth? For Elliott, and I think for all of us, the time to teach about weaving is when curiosity about weaving is established. The time to teach about the rotation of the earth is when a child wonders why the sun rises. The time to teach about any skill or concept is when curiosity has been piqued.

The Contest
With that premise in mind, I posed the question, “What do teachers do to create curiosity in the classroom? To make students wonder.” I received several terrific responses. Here they are:

Angie Byrne:
We began a unit on Infectious Disease a few weeks ago in Biomedical Technology. When each student arrived in class they were given a test tube of fluid and a note card. Students “exchanged fluid” with three people and recorded who they exchanged with. I then told them that there had been reports of an infectious disease and added a chemical to their “fluid”, some test tubes turned pink in color. What they did not know is that one person had a test tube with sodium hydroxide and the rest of the students had plain tap water at the beginning of the activity. As they “exchanged fluid” they spread the sodium hydroxide (our disease) to their classmates. At the end of the activity we had 8 positive test tubes. They then compiled the information into a chart and tried to determine who spread the disease. In their lab reports each student stated their hypothesis and concluded if the hypothesis was correct in the end. Most students were shocked that our disease spread to so many so quickly!

Jennifer Mabe:
I recently did a “hand’s on” activity with my Tech Math class entitled … “Life is Like a Box of Chocolates … You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get.” But I prefaced it as to whether Forrest Gump’s chaos theory was really true … if we open a bag of m & m’s or skittles, do we really not know the proportion of colors or is it simply random as Forrest hypothesizes? My kids had a great time working through this activity (that I have sort of used before but got the idea offline) and coming up with the idea that in fact, we CAN predict the proportion of colors and that Forrest Gump is WRONG :)

Jed Smith:
I wanted my students to wonder what it would have been like to be in Charles Darwin’s shoes. So we watched an IMAX video about the Galapagos, then I asked my students to imagine what it would have been like to be on the HMS Beagle on a 5-year voyage around the globe. I asked them to write 2 entries in Charles Darwin’s diary, one when they arrived at the Galapagos describing the animals they saw, and another at some point later when Darwin had thought about the implications of what he’d seen. Got some good work and not so good work, but I think it made the “history” more meaningful to them.

Monica Edwards:
I have all students answer the question: “How/Why?”… it not only inspires curiosity but also stretches their imagination. They must also “exhaust” all the possible answers to the question before they reach a conclusion.

Alicia Carawan:
I’ve been talking about Genetic Engineering this week. Today we were looking at how to “read” DNA fingerprints to determine whether or not the parents were the “true” parents of a child. I then asked the class what they thought should/would happen if the parents discovered the child they had been raising was not really their child? Oh, the discussion that one question caused! The students were branching off into all kinds of “what-if” scenarios. I definitely stimulated a huge amount of curiosity with just one question.

Heather Smith:
As part of our exploration of Newton’s Laws of Motion, students constructed bottle rockets out of 2-Liter soda bottles. The object was to create a rocket that stayed aloft for the longest time. Students had to create a rocket that not only propelled as high as possible in the air, but returned back to Earth as slowly as possible. Following the rocket launching, students evaluated each other’s rocket designs and planned improvements to their designs. We plan to test these new designs in the future.

Darlene Harrell:
Due to a CTE staff development recently, I had to have a substitute. In an effort to try and keep it simple for my Engineering class I assigned them a creative project. They were to write a paper or create a power point about an engineering feat describing the challenges and successes for the project. I gave them a few links to inspire them but there were a few that had their own feats to write about. Their research needed to include the what, when, who, where and how for the feat. They were asked to use several sources and to include pictures. The next day they had to present their project to the rest of the class.
Ryan D. had an interesting presentation on the F-22 Raptor and included a video taken at an airshow. Other feats included Hoover Dam, Statue of Liberty, Space Station, Coliseum and Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Fantastic strategies, everyone. I liked them all so much that I had to select a random winner. And the winner of two gift certificatets for Panera is…
Heather Smith. Congratulations, Heather.

A Mobile Unit Museum

May 21, 2010


Steve Hill’s mobile unit is a museum, and he is part curator, part tour guide, and all teacher. The décor isn’t pretty. There are no tassels, no window treatments, no striking color themes. It is, however, a constant lesson in history, and it covers almost every wall.

What do Hill’s students encounter each day?

• Statuettes of ancient Greece and Rome, including Romulus and Remus
• Propaganda posters of Mao Tse-Tung
• WWI and WWII helmets
• Portrait photos of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt
• A student replica of “The Death of A. Marat”
• Personal plaques, awards and certificates
• Philadelphia sports memorabilia
• Images of the Vietnam War and WWII dog fighting planes
• Hanging maps
• A fallout shelter sign
• Shelves of history books

Of course, these fragments of history are useless without the historian. Hill is a storyteller, a historian to the core, and the lessons he teaches are filled with visual support, frequently straight from his trailer walls. His students learn about communist China with Maoist propaganda staring them in the face. They learn about the development of military firepower holding a 30 inch inert, wood and steel bullet in their hands.

Sometimes Hill wears the memorabilia, like a WWI doughboy ammunition belt and German hate belts adorned with buttons from slain soldiers.

Hill says on open house nights even parents, perhaps slightly concerned, ask about the image of an execution in the back of his room. He breaks into a history lecture, and soon they see what his students see all semester—the deep, complex, fascinating stories of history.

Can’t you just put pictures on Power Point?
Of course you can. Hill does, too. And, like many teachers, he enhances his instruction with film. But the memorabilia in his room has two advantages.

1. It’s  in the room the day students walk in the door, just waiting to be explained. It creates intrigue—a problem of sorts—whether students are inquisitive enough to ask about it or not. Students most frequently inquire about the WWI and WWII US, German, French, and West German helmets, which they finally come to understand when instruction reaches the 20th century.

2. It’s still in the room after Hill has incorporated an item into a lesson, rekindling that lesson each time the student sees it, strengthening the memory, the ability to recall. If Hill’s students stare off into space, chances are they’re accidentally reviewing history lectures.

Hill explains, “Historic memorabilia adds another dimension to my teaching and student learning. I use the different artifacts to teach and inspire students to ask, “WHY?” Even if students are zoning-out, the visual treasure of history surrounding them in my classroom is teaching them by giving them visual anchors to history that can be cued in later instruction.”

Mobile Unit 5 isn’t exactly the Smithsonian, but it is an extraordinary classroom and a wonderful place to learn.

Students Acting Out

May 6, 2010

In Civics and Economics, tenth graders learn the difference between civil and criminal. Defining the concepts and distinguishing between the two is simple enough, but last week Mark Grow’s students performed short skits to make sure the concepts were clear and unforgettable.

Having learned all the basics, Grow’s students were instructed to form groups of three to four students, choose a type of case (criminal or civil), create a skit demonstrating that case, and act it out. Keep reading »

Know thy students

April 22, 2010

Three wonderful teachers shared their strategies for getting to know their students, and all three are worthy contest winners. I hope you will enjoy reading what they do to develop a stronger understanding of who their students are as individuals. I am, as always, amazed by the brilliance and dedication of our teachers.

Tracey Moore

It is hard to get to know my students by teaching them math. I’ve always admired english teachers because they get to know their students through their writings.

The first day of class I give out a student information sheet. On the first page is all of the normal information…parent’s names, schedule, phone numbers, etc. On the back, however, I ask questions like:

What would you do if you were given a million dollars?
Who is someone you admire and why?
What do you think are the characteristics of a good teacher…a bad teacher?
Do you consider math to be something you are good at or a difficulty?

That night, my husband and I go through all of the sheets. We learn which of my students come from single parent homes (this year I have 5 students total that live with both mom and dad!). I learn who is self centered and who is giving (from their answer to the $1,000,000 question). I learn who is already defeated by math before they walk in the door Keep reading »

Using Data to Guide Your Goals

April 20, 2010

One role of an instructional coach is to help teachers reflect on how they deliver instruction and how students receive it. Such reflection can be facilitated in several ways, the most telling of which is data–data about student behavior, questioning techniques, student engagement, teacher movement.
Consider inviting me to your classroom to gather data and reflect with you. Here are a few ideas:

  • High-level Questioning: What questions are you asking your students? Where do they fall on Marzano’s taxonomy?
  • Reinforcement ratios: How are you reinforcing student effort and performance? To what extent is your feedback positive or negative? Keep reading »


April 8, 2010

I ended my last blog with observations about some of the collaboration that occurs between our biology teachers. Before Spring Break our Spanish teachers (Luisa Haynes, Ashley Watson, and Sara Dunham) allowed me the pleasure of observing collaboration in their department.

They learned together.
My involvement began with an hour-long training CPS training session the entire department, including Walt Spencer and Mike Lupo, scheduled with me. This training led to some consensus on the usefulness of the device and to an agreement about building a database of review questions using Exam View software.

They planned together.
On our recent work day, the three Spanish teachers spent several hours tackling a common problem. Keep reading »