From Raging about a Mouse to SBG

Change is slow.

From the cocaine-addicted mouse day until now, I have taken many incremental steps in the journey of standards based grading.  On that day, I had never even heard of standards based grading, and it would be a few years until I did.  However, even with my limited knowledge, I took some steps toward SBG organically, and those steps were crucial in the progression when I finally did gain the knowledge to completely make the change.

One of the first steps that I took in my progression was to change my assignments.  I used to be the teacher who defined rigor as workload, so I gave my students 3-4 assignments a day, which ended up being more than 100 assignments in a 45-day marking period.  As I thought about my students’ grade obsession, and their permanent link to the online gradebook, I wondered what would happen if I substantially reduced the number of assignments and, instead, focused on creating meaningful, project-based experiences for them instead.

So, I started working on creating learning experiences in my class instead of assignments (It hurts my soul to think that I actually had to consciously do that–shouldn’t that be the goal of all teachers?).  We started to look at multiday, multistep projects that covered many learning objectives, allowed students to use their creativity, and almost forced prolonged engagement into skills, themes, and ideas.

In the beginning, there was a lot of blow back.  Students struggled with the new ideas, and my principal didn’t like that I wasn’t updating the gradebook daily because there wasn’t anything to update until we finished a project.  It was interesting to see what the complaints were, from students feeling like I had increased the workload (even though I had significantly decreased the number of assignments), parents worrying how their student could possibly pass my class if I was basing the grade on a handful of large projects instead of 120 little assignments, and administration worrying about the perception of a teacher who only had 5-6 scores in the gradebook for a marking period.

The story takes a bit of a turn here.

In November of 2013, I left my job at a local charter school and accepted the only teaching job available in the middle of second quarter at a residential treatment center for students with severe emotional, behavioral, and cognitive issues.  It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, but also the most rewarding experience that I have had in my teaching career.

The most real teaching that occurs in the world happens in residential treatment centers.  My classes there were so diverse in academic ability, behavior, literacy, study skills, etc.  I had to focus on each individual student each day.  Everyday was different.  I had to dramatically alter the way that I taught in order to be effective.

Because of the way that school was structured in the RTC and the rapid turnover of students, working on protracted projects for days or weeks at a time wasn’t really a possibility.  I tried in the beginning to keep up that teaching strategy, but it didn’t work, and the students became frustrated quickly.  Because of this, I adopted a “win every day” strategy, where I focused on one skill or concept that I tried to teach well and have the students understand each day.  We used short works of literature, small writing assignments, and focused grammar assignments to work through the language arts curriculum a day at a time.

My time teaching in the residential treatment center taught me the value of little victories and the need to teach individual concepts and focus on mastery.  It was a key component of my development as a teacher and as a practitioner of standards based grading.  It was also probably the closest I came to actual SBG without even knowing what it was.

After a year and a half in the treatment center, we were told that the facility was closing, and we were all out of a job.  This was in April, and I set about the job search vigorously.  At least the timing was better this time, and  I landed a job at a high school near my home town, and set about creating curriculum for a more traditional school environment by combining the project-based curriculum from the charter school with the “win every day” mentality from the treatment center.  The result was one of the most effective teaching years that I’ve ever had and the final step along the way to standards based grading.

During that year, I noticed that some of my students were playing what I have come to call “the game of school.”  They were manipulating the system, working hard on smaller assignments to accumulate points in order to do poorly on or completely skip larger assignments.  Unfortunately, even though I had taken steps to make it more difficult, this type of point manipulation was still possible, and the students were well versed in how to game the system.

One day on my prep hour, I was doing some research and discovered a set of YouTube videos by Rick Wormeli (starting with this one).  I watched the whole series over the next couple of days, ordered several books, including Fair Isn’t Always Equal and How to Grade for Learning by Ken O’Conner, and my move toward SBG was almost complete.  I vowed to make whatever changes I needed to make in my classroom to create a culture of learning and a growth mindset.

That was two years ago.  I have learned so much since then, and my classroom is much more about learning and much less about the game of school.  There is still room to grow, but we are moving in the right direction.

Installing Ubuntu (or Ubuntu Variant) on Acer Aspire A114-31-C4HH

**Warning: Non-SBG related post**

For the past couple of months I have been working on a new educational software program that will implement what I have been doing in my classroom with standards based grading.  In the beginning, I was coding the program on my Chromebook using Crouton to boot into Linux.  While that solution mostly worked, it was a limited Linux experience, and I found that I needed a full fledged Linux distro in order to successfully create this program.

So, I started looking around for an affordable laptop that I could put Linux on to be my developer machine.  I found the Acer Aspire A114-31-C4HH on Amazon.  For the $209 price tag, it is a very functional machine, and it is all Intel based, so I running Linux on it should have been a fairly straightforward process.

It wasn’t.

I didn’t even boot the computer into Windows when I got it.  I downloaded pop!_os on to a USB drive and booted into the live system on my new laptop.  The Ubuntu-based distribution worked beautifully, even running just in RAM, and I found that I had access to all of the hardware: wifi, webcam, sound, etc.  I was very excited.

I clicked install, went through the process, and the installer froze when it tried to install Grub.  I forced shutdown, and when I restarted the machine, it wouldn’t boot into anything, including BIOS.  I thought I had just ruined the computer and now had a $200 paperweight.

Long story short, I fought with the machine for nearly two days before getting it working.  There is little documentation about how to make it work.  I finally stumbled on this blog post that has detailed instructions that I want to share below.  Kudos to Ahmed ElSayed for saving my bacon.  What follows are his words.  I have cleaned up the grammar and spelling, but he gets all the credit.

To start installing, boot into a live USB then do

> sudo -s
> ubiquity -b

Then follow the installation process till the end, choosing “Continue Testing” at the very end. During the installation, I chose “Use entire disk”. The laptop only has 32GB so there is no point doing anything else.

After that go back to the terminal and do

> mount /dev/mmcblk0p2 /mnt
> mount /dev/mmcblk0p1 /mnt/boot/efi
> for i in /dev /dev/pts /proc /sys; do sudo mount -B $i /mnt$i; done
> modprobe efivars # https://askubuntu.com/q/906574
> apt install --reinstall grub-efi-amd64
> grub-install --no-nvram --root-directory=/mnt
> chroot /mnt
> echo nameserver 8.8.8.8 >> /etc/resolve.conf
> apt update
> apt install grub2-common
> update-grub
> cd /boot/efi/EFI
> cp -R ubuntu BOOT

Then reboot 🙂

As you can see from the picture above, I have pop!_os rocking on my laptop, and now I can get back to development.  I share this to maybe help someone in the same situation.

A Room Full of Computers and a Cocaine-Addicted Mouse

Six years ago, I was teaching in a charter school in rural Utah that had technology as its charter.  Because of that, I had a full computer lab in my classroom, and my students were expected to complete their work paperlessly on the computers.  As will be discussed in other posts, this is where my love of innovation and creation came from since I had to figure out how to run a paperless classroom without Google Classroom, which didn’t exist back then, or Canvas, which we couldn’t afford back then.  But, that’s a different story about my love affair with Google Apps Script.

I noticed as my students worked that they were distracted by their computers.  At first, it might seem that social media would be the problem, but my students were distracted by something more surprising (and more sinister): the online gradebook.  It seemed like every time I walked by, several of my students would be obsessively checking the online gradebook, hoping that it would magically change and their grade would look better than it had before.  I would tease the students about their obsession and point out that they were missing important parts of my class to check their grades, but it had little effect.

One day, after being fed up with the obsession, I accessed the hosts file on each computer and modified it to make the gradebook unavailable.  In hindsight, I should’ve asked for permission before doing this, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I just knew it was for my students’ own good.

Long story short, when students complained to the principal that I had blocked access to the gradebook in my classroom, she made me undo what I had done despite my pleas that it was necessary.  She also told me to find another solution to the problem that didn’t deny them access to the gradebook.

The next day, after begrudgingly unblocking the gradebook, the students and I had a heart-to-heart.

I began by telling them that we had a problem.  The focus of our classroom was not where it should be.  Instead of focusing on learning and growing as English students, we were focusing on how to gain points and get the grade we wanted.  We were playing a game, and the game was robbing us of our education.

After naming the problem, I talked with them about the online gradebook and its role.  Many of them had been using the online gradebook as a planner.  They would wait until work appeared as missing in the gradebook; then they would do it.  I explained that not only was this out of bounds of what the gradebook was designed to do, but it also meant that they were doing every assignment late because they didn’t hit the gradebook until after the due date.

I also told them a story about an experiment that I had read about where researchers put a lever in a cage with a mouse.  When the mouse would push the lever, a day’s worth of food would be released into the bowl.  They found that the mouse would push the lever once a day, eat the food, and leave it alone until the next day.  When they replaced the food pellets with cocaine pellets, however, the mouse would push the lever over and over again, obsessively trying to get its fix.

My students were acting like the cocaine-addicted mouse, obsessively clicking the refresh button on the online gradebook to see if their grade would magically change.  Many of them were checking 10 times in a 45-minute class period.

I challenged the students to make a change, to start with one day that they didn’t check the gradebook at all.  One day without cocaine.  I even made them chant, “one day without cocaine!” over and over again.  I challenged them to go to class, pay attention, learn the material, and do the work.  I promised them that if they would focus on that, their grades would reflect their hard work.

While some of them took me up on the challenge, many didn’t change at all.  The game of school was too ingrained in the culture.  Grades had become abstract and meaningless, easily manipulated by finding a point here or losing a point there.  School had lost its focus on learning.

I’ve spent the last 6 years trying to shift the focus back to learning.  This blog is a place for me to explore what I have learned and share with other like-minded teachers thoughts, strategies, and ideas on how to make this change.