#TG2 in Science – Part 1

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am looking into the idea of having students and teachers discuss and decide on a suitable grade at the end of a grading period by using one-on-one conferences. During the conference, the teacher asks the student to reflect upon their own learning by evaluating their growth.  I have been inspired by a group of educators that has formed a group DM on twitter and a Facebook group.  We have called our group #TG2 (Teachers Going Gradeless).  Many of the experienced members of the group are English Language Arts teachers, whose curriculum is based mostly on skills and processes (see Common Core ELA Standards).  Practicing skills allows the class to continually go back over the same principles again and again and show growth.

But what if the course is more content driven than process driven?


My cooperating teacher, Tom DiGaetano (Mr. D to the kids), during my student teaching always used to say “Just as a house is made of stones, so too is science made of facts, but a pile of stones is not a house, and a pile of facts is not a science”.  I agree the content (aka, data or facts) is essential to learning science, but the doing of science is not fact gathering.  So how can we practice content?  How do we show growth in content?  How can we ask students to discuss their improvement in collecting a pile of stones or acquiring facts?  I have come to the simple realization … We can’t.  But what we can do is demonstrate growth by demonstrating the doing of science.  So I am looking towards the Next Generation Science Standards (and NY State Science Learning Standards) for answers with a little guidance from my #TG2 friends.

NGSS for High School Life Science:

8 Science and Engineering Practices(SEPs)

14 Discipline Core Ideas (DCIs) in the Life Science

7 Cross-Cutting Concepts (CCCs):

With all of these standards – Where do I start?

  • 8 SEPs, 14 DCIs and 7 CCCs …
  • Do I start with the content?  The practices? Cross-cutting concepts?
  • I didn’t even mention the performance expectations, mostly because there are 24 of them.  Having too many standards means too many things to try and remember.  Having too many standards means it is difficult to show growth.

So, here is my dilemma, how do I show growth through content when most of the content is explored in a one-time deal in class and rarely recursive.  For example, LS3A Inheritance of Traits might only be covered in a traditional Genetics Unit.  True, it might be covered again in Evolution, but certainly not to the same depth as in Genetics and even if it was, is two enough to show growth?  In my opinion giving the students only two chances to show mastery is not much of a chance to show growth.  It is not sufficient to use it as the foundation of one’s assessment practice.  The scenario was going around and around in my head …

I couldn’t get past it.  I couldn’t get past it because I was stuck in the paradigm of asking for a pile of stones while expecting a mansion.

Like Mr. D would say, Science is not a pile of content, but the content is foundational to the doing of science.  However, the science practices ARE the doing of science.  Once I was able to get out of confines of my mental block I could see alternatives.  The alternative … instead of measuring growth in the DCIs, I could measure growth in the SEPs.

Measure growth through improving student science practices rather than their memorization of disconnected content.

Use the Science and Engineering Practices to measure growth.  I do believe that content provides the foundation for success in science much like a solid foundation is critical to building a house.  But more questions remained … Do you need to build a house on a perfect foundation, or can you build a house on a foundation that is adequate for the house being built?  I wondered the same thing about being able to do science.  Do students require perfect knowledge base or will an adequate base suffice to start doing science? (More on how to achieve an adequate knowledge base in part 2).


Is one foundation better than the other or will they both adequately do the job?  
Should we spend all our time on the perfect foundation when we really are interested in the house that is built on top of it?

These questions made me think about what type of students end up making the best scientists.  Are they the students who can memorize all the facts?  Well, sometimes, but is that most important in order to practice the doing of science?  One must get into the science practices by practicing science.  If a student spends all their time memorizing facts to get closer to the perfect foundation, what time is left to actually DO science?  Students will learn science by doing science.  If the students are doing science practices over and over then couldn’t growth be measured?

The Crosscutting concepts are a huge part of the NGSS and I do not want to leave that out either.  When it comes to the number of standards needed to demonstrate growth – less is more.  If there are fewer standards to demonstrate growth, then those standards will be addressed more often.  If they are addressed more often then there is a greater opportunity to show growth.  With that in mind here is a (very rough) draft of my standards to measure growth in science:

  1. Connecting cross-cutting concepts in biology (A combination of all the CCCs)
  2. Asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations (A combination of SEP1 and 3)
  3. Analyzing and interpreting data in order construct explanations (A combination of SEP4 and 6)
  4. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information in order to engage in argumentation. (Combination of SEP7 and 8)
  5. Developing and using models (including using mathematics and computational thinking) (A combination of SEP2 and 5)

But what about the Foundation?  How do we know what is adequate?  More on that in part 2 …

In the meantime, please let me know what you think.  Can growth in a science class be assessed with these five standards?  Do they address the NGSS standards?

What if there were no grades, would students still learn?


Get a room full of teachers and eventually, a few topics comes up … Grading, Student motivation/apathy, and testing to name a few.  However, more and more I am seeing fewer teachers talk about learning.  I have found myself drawn into conversations on twitter and other social media platforms about what grades should really mean.


Are grades a motivating factor or a demotivating factor in regards to student learning?  Are grades actually required to encourage student learning, or do they get in the way of student learning?

Are grades meant to encourage compliance?  If you do your homework you get a 10/10, otherwise, it’s a 0/10.  Are you complying with the teacher’s wants and needs?

Are grades meant to show what a student has learned? Standards Based Learning/Grading takes this completely to heart.  Show the students a learning target and evidence that shows that they have reached those targets and only assess that.

The research I have been reading “Why don’t students like school?” by Daniel T Willingham, “Drive” by Daniel Pink, “The Gift of Failure” by Jessica Lahey, “Visible Learning for Teachers” by John Hattie, to name a few, seem to point to the idea that external rewards (like grades) may motivate in the short term but actually demotivate in the long term.  And more importantly it totally short circuits creativity.  So although the year is not complete (we are not even into the final quarter yet), I am thinking about next year.  As a teacher and (hopefully) a motivator, what can I do to spark student curiosity and creativity?

One idea is to remove grading from the equation.

I have been really encouraged by a few other teachers I have connected with in Twitterverse to leave the grades up to a one-on-one Student – Teacher conference at the end of the grading period.  John Hattie reports that Self-reported grading has by far the biggest effect on student learning based on his research.  During that conversation, some important questions should come up.


During Student-Teacher one-on-one conference, some important questions should come up.

Aaron Blackwelder (@AaronSBlackwel1) uses three questions: What evidence do you have that demonstrates mastery of the standards? What is your evidence of growth? What evidence you have that you can create your own projects to meet standards (transfer of knowledge)?

Adam Lester (@CoachLesterBHS) has 5 major questions: What areas do you feel like you improved over the course of the grading period/year? What areas do you feel like you didn’t grow as much as you should/could have? What major assignment is the best representation of your skills? What major assignment do you feel isn’t representative of what you can do? What grade do you think you deserve and why?

I am not sure I am going to go in this direction but I am definitely going to look into it.

What do you think?  What are the advantages of traditional grading?  Standards-based grading?  Self-reported grading?

Need a spreadsheet of student emails? Have Google Classroom do it!









I was recently playing around with the new Gradebook Feature on Google Classroom and I quickly realized a cool little trick to collect emails in one Google Sheet.  Having everyone’s email in one sheet is a nice feature if you do anything with VLOOKUP or Autocrat

If you have not seen that Google Classroom now has a simple Gradebook program check this quick video to show you how to get there.

So what, why not just use the “email my students” feature that Google Classroom has?  Well you can use this for other sites that do not have the easy single sign on that we all love, perhaps it has “upload with a CSV” file. Like this:


Well now you have a quick and easy way to collect emails – just download the CSV file and upload it to that site.

Flipping the Science Lab with videos embedded in Google Forms?

I just wanted to get some feedback from some of the experienced flippers here about an idea to “Flip the Lab”. Next year, all of my students will have their own iPads from the school. I teach HS Biology, and we have two basic types of labs – one is more of a guided inquiry style lab, and the other is a much more Inquiry-based lab.  For this idea, I am referring to the more guided inquiry.

Here it goes.  Most of these labs are in sections where one part leads to the next.  Most of the labs are modified from University of Rochester Life Science Learning Center.

Videos inserted into Google Forms

I thought I could video myself demonstrating parts of the lab.  I could embed those into a Google form and have the students answer the lab questions on the form.

In NY State, we are required to hold on to the labs from the previous year in case the state asks for them (they never do though). With that in mind, I thought I could use not only the correct answers but multiple wrong answers given by my previous students to create multiple choice answers and use Flubaroo to have it graded.

Due to the sheer volume of students, I rarely grade each student’s labs question by question, but I will check for completion and then I might check a few questions to determine a grade.  It is not ideal but out of survival.  This solution could alleviate that problem.

Students submit a “section at a time.”

Since Google forms do not “save” where a student currently is – they must complete the entire form before they close the window or all is lost.  Therefore, I thought I would have them submit one section at a time.

Also when students complete a form there is customizable, statement the teacher can give to the student.  I thought I could give them a link to the next form that has the next section.  This would also allow me to embed a new video explaining or reviewing the concepts they just completed (with the answers from the previous section).

Students can complete the lab when ready

Since I have the labs set up in premade “kits” this process would make it easy for a student to do the lab when each student is ready, not when the teacher decides.  This also makes for an easy make-up procedure for students who were absent.

If you stayed with me to the end, thank you! I would love some feedback.

Mike Szczepanik


Also posted on Flipped Classroom Network

An eLab-book? Can we fix it?

So far, my limited blogging has been somewhat reflective in nature, as a blog should be. However, this is a mix of reflection and a call for help or ideas. Let me explain what is my current situation and what I have used so far to achieve my goals.


My current classroom / technology side:

I have been one of the Guinea Pigs at our school piloting using iPads. This is year three in which I have had a class cart of iPads in the room. This year our district started phasing in 1:1 iPads. There are several grade levels which will be getting iPads each year. 9th graders received them at the high school level and all incoming 9th graders from this point on will receive a new iPad, either as their first iPad or if they already had one they will get an updated iPad. I teach biology classes which are 85% sophomores and 15% accelerated freshman. Most of my technology integration is using Google products, such as Classroom, Docs, Forms, Sheets, Slides and I have started playing around with creating a Google site.  I also flip my classes and use Edpuzzle as the medium to present the videos.  (If you flip and haven’t heard about Edpuzzle – check it out, its very cool, but that is for another blog post).


My current classroom / science pedagogy side:

The idea of ditching the “Sage on the Stage” and becoming a “Guide on the Side” pretty much sums up my science teaching pedagogy beliefs. I pull from a variety of sources to guide my teaching including Kristen Dotti of Catalyst Learning Curricula, UB Case Study Collection, POGIL, Science Take-Out, and recently I have invested some time learning Argument Driven Inquiry by Victor Sampson (et al.).  All of these are inquiry-driven in nature and/or collaborative in nature.  I use the Learning Pyramid as my guide to instruction.


My goal:

So now that you have a little background, here is where I would like to go.  I would like to create an interactive e-lab book.  There would be text, pictures, and video for the students to view while they work the assignment, but they wouldn’t simply write their answers or complete lab sections on paper as before, it would be all on their iPad.  I would like to have them answer questions that would be automatically graded (ie Flubaroo), but there would be areas where they are completing longer answers like Google Classroom and also other times where they would need to take photos or video or make a sketch, again all on their iPad.  So there are parts where I see Google Docs linked to Google Classroom but other parts I see Google Forms being used.  I almost would like to use a hybrid of the two.  Then there are other parts where Notability would work …

So in a sense a working lab/activity document that has …

1. Teacher created instructions in the form of Video, Text and Pictures

2. Student answered MC questions, free response questions

3. Student created drawings, photos, video (or more)


As I watched my two boys play and watch Bob the Builder, I wondered …Does anyone know how?  Can we fix it? (Yes we can?)

“Wait, they just copied it from Google!”


Its a Friday afternoon and the school is just about empty except for a few sport teams and one or two other teachers.  I am trying to finish some grading so that I do not have to lug a bunch of papers home and back again.  I am still annoyed that I assigned so much paper anyways … “one more year” I tell myself knowing that next year my mixed 9th/10th grade students will have have iPads as part of our phasing in process to go 1:1 iPads.  “One more year and then paperless, or at least less paper”.

As I am grading my students answers from a set or review questions I start to notice trends in the wrong answers – the same ones keep coming up … why? What made them put that answer??  I look back through all of my handouts, links, videos and some from other Living Environment teacher’s … nothing.  This is a common review sheet that we had all used and the questions are about as low level as you can get.  Another teacher is there and she also has similar type answers.  We started searching together.

“Wait they just copied it from Google” my colleague responded.

At first I was mad, why would my students cheat?  Had I not instilled the value of doing one’s own work.  But is it cheating or is it what we all do, when we need a basic question answered?  I know I do it.  Why shouldn’t they?  They are simply using the tools at their disposal.

I have to do better, my questions should be at a level where a Google search doesn’t just give them an answer.  Or if I have an assignment like that – I shouldn’t use it to assess their learning from it.  So its a chance to grow as an educator – anything that easily accessible isn’t really stretching them.  It isn’t educating them.  It certainly isn’t causing growth an inspiration.

Its time to do better.




Hard to Teach Biology Concepts – intro

A Framework to Deepen Student Understanding
by Susan Koba and Anne Tweed

I purchased this book a number of years back but was pretty overwhelmed by it there is a lot of stuff in there and I just didn’t take the time necessary to really flesh out the information in there.  This past NSTA National conference at Boston, I saw that the book and its authors Susan Koba and Anne Tweed were presenting about it.  I was compelled to attend the session and boy am I glad I did.  First off I found out they are planning on a new edition to match NGSS in the near future (seems like so many books are doing just that)


The concept is simple and I don’t know why I didn’t get it – actually I think its because I skipped the first few chapters where all the explanation was found and jumped right into the frameworks.  But now that I was able to listen to both Susan and Anne I understood the concepts much better.  I even suggested after the session that they consider adding a DVD to the next edition so that they could go through the process like they had with us.  They both seemed to like that idea.


So here it goes … The first phase is called the predictive phase (which I think they are simply changing to Identifying essential context)

1.  Determine what the learning goals are

2. Break it down into smaller learning targets

3. Connect the learning goals into a logical sequence

4. Provide success criteria (aka performance expectations)

The process that follows is called the responsive phase which uses the students preconceptions and misconceptions to adjust teaching.

1.  Elicit preconceptions (Keeley’s formative probes?) and get the students to verbalize these

2.  Gather the information about the students preconceptions and misconceptions

3. Create learning experiences to confront those pre and misconceptions (called sense making) which if done correctly will force the students to change their concepts into “durable” understandings (I love that statement)

4. Formally assess the students – if progress has been made go on to the next learning target – if the students have not met the success criteria (performance expectations) then they return to the same cycle


To relate to the new NGSS, they would start with the DCIs and then on to the Cross Cutting Concepts and the Science practices.  Ideally each learning target contains all three.  They suggest teasing out the three domains into what they call “developing a story line”.  Organize the order of the Learning topic by DCIs then address the cross cutting concepts (like Models for instance) then Practices (“develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships between systems or between components of a system”) and then using all of that find a representation or activity to include.


It truly is simple but pretty complex at the same time – but whats most important is that it makes sense.  It is a systematic way to both address the concepts in science and the students thinking.  I am also reading Page Keeley’s Curriculum Topic Study which seems to really fit into this approach, but more on that later.


I never really thought of myself as a “blogger” … Never had the intention of being one of those guys, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I did not want to forget how I went from A to B … How did my changing thoughts change my classroom? So here I start – I would like to consider myself an agent of change.  A teacher who is not satisfied with the status quo and is always striving to be a little better than I was before.  My problem is that during a revelation of a new idea or a paradigm shift – I tend to try and change too much and I almost always rush in without completely examining how it will all work out.  Instead of relaxing restful summers, my summers become an intense period of time where I determine what must be done with little regard for what I have learned from previous years.  This is my purpose – continue moving forward but remember what has been done in the past and learn from it.