How Do I Level Up?!


I’ve been getting this question a lot, so it has become clear that I needed a better explanation for what Level 1 means (see this post for explanations of all three of my levels). So team Socratic Brain came up with this list of questions.


Bonus: Here’s our Constant Velocity model summary! See if you can spot the subtle mistake in there that I haven’t had a chance to fix yet.


Setting Up the Game and Our Story So Far


Setting up the game:

1.) We’ve established levels of mastery for each LT, here they are:

POSTER - Level Zero POSTER - Level One POSTER - Level Two POSTER - Level Three


The way I’ll track the levels is through Socratic Brain. If you haven’t heard me talk about SB before, it’s the sbg system I use. Basically, I input my LTs and it lets me set a level for each kid on each one. It’s awesome, and I’ll definitely do a post on all the details later. For now, here’s a sneak peek at the interface:


sb levels sample
2.) Our Story So Far:

It starts on Frogstar World A. Arthur and Trillian have landed and are confronted with a problem at the spaceport. We’re not sure if its a riddle just to unlock the computer or a legit problem. I’m purposefully keeping the story vague right now so that I have options for where to take it later. Here’s the activity:


3.) Maps!

I would really like to get the ARG going this quarter, and I think my activity maps are going to be a great platform to make this happen. So far, they’re just a way to present the activities to the students, so that they can move ahead or get help when they need it if I’m not available. Click here to check out the map for 1.1: Write a rule to describe a pattern.


Not established yet:

Badges! I want to use badges as a way to acknowledge excellent work, different perspectives, growth mindset awesomeness, etc. My plan is to print them on stickers and have students put them on their binders. But with such limited planning time (I’ve to cover classes the last 3 days in a row), I haven’t got the stickers printed out. Anyway, the first badge will look like this (everyone gets this one):

BADGE - Don't Panic

Update on the new #SBL scheme


Here’s the plan as it is now:

Step 1: Students complete some learning activities! Sometimes these are whole class, teacher directed (like a 3-act or something). Sometimes they are individual, student paced (like a guided handout). All activities exist on a Blendspace page for each learning target. If an activity covers multiple targets, it exists on multiple pages.

Step 2: Students complete some practice (usually). If a learning target is not easily assessed in a multiple choice or numerical response question, this step can be replaced with some reflection questions, like “what did you learn from activity ____ ?”.

Step 3: Teacher conducts brief “interview” with each student to check for understanding. The student should be able to show their completed activities and practice work, AND be able to explain what new skills and learning were acquired. (Note: this earns the student Level 1 on a target)

Step 4: Students take a separate quiz on each learning target. Some LTs will be better suited to multiple choice or numerical response, and some will require a constructed response. Possible results:

  • Student aces quiz, earns Level 2 for the LT
  • Students misses one or more items on quiz, keeps Level 1, but does not level up. To earn a second shot at the quiz, student must complete any extra learning activities (as there are usually more than the required amount), or redo the practice, or both.

Step 5: Students reach Level 2 (have aced the quiz) for ALL LTs in the unit. Then, and only then will they gain access to the Level 3 task. This task covers all the individual LTs and is never computer graded. An example from Physics would be our Energy Screencast task, in which students choose a YouTube video and thoroughly describe all the energy exchanges taking place in the video. Each Level 3 task is accompanied by a rubric that indicates exactly the things we are looking for. For the Energy Screencast example, we would include:

  • make reasonable estimates of relevant heights and distances, in meters
  • define the system in which energy flow and transfer is to be modeled
  • model energy distribution within the system using bar graphs

…among others.

Step 6: Teacher reviews the Level 3 task entry and uses a rubric to indicate mastery of each LT (or not). For instance, let’s say a student turns in a screencast in which they successfully estimate the relevant heights and define the system, but do not include bar graphs to model the energy distribution. In this case, the student earns Level 3 status on the first two LTs, but stays at Level 2 on the bar graphs one. (Note: This could even have been part of this student’s plan. A unit with at least 3/4 LTs at Level 3 will still calculate as an A for the unit and students will know this.)

Let’s see how this looks! 🙂 My colleague has been working on some upgrades to our system (same name, but it’s not 100% ready. For now, here is a partial screenshot:

screen capture2

Notes: When you click on “Practice”, it shows whatever the teacher puts in as practice for that LT. So, in the case where a multiple choice item is not appropriate, the teacher could include a link to something else, or just a few reflection questions. When you click on “Level up” it gives you the next level task (whether it’s the Level 2 quiz or the Level 3 performance task). If the button says “Not Ready”, then when you click it, it tells you what you’ll need to do to get ready.

Some things I love about this system: 

  1. Students must demonstrate some level of understanding before “leveling up”. I’ve struggled with how to help students who fall into the habit of “I’ll just take the quiz over and over until I figure out the pattern”. With this system, the teacher is in control of access to the quiz, so if they want a try at it they have to show what they’ve done to earn it.
  2. I LOVE how the Level 3 task becomes the focus of the unit. One big failure of mine from last year was not providing summative tasks that combined LTs. In this system, the only way for a student to get an A for the unit is to complete a task that does exactly that (combines multiple LTs).
  3. Last year, we had a big problem with students turning in Energy Screencasts that showed a clear lack of basic skills and understanding. It was way too time consuming to provide appropriate feedback on those. The hope is that by requiring Level 2 status on ALL LTs before attempting the Level 3 task, we will avoid this problem. Then, we’ll be able to really push students further with our feedback, instead of pointing out simple mistakes and omissions.

What do you think? Any advice or feedback is appreciated!

[Gamification] Must-Have Game Element #1


So, I’ve decided to look at the different game elements I want to bring to my class one at a time, in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses and decide which ones will best benefit the learning process. I’ve already put a few into the “must-have” category, so I might as well start with those.

First up is the health meter.


These are used in games to indicate the health or life force of a character. When the character is hit by something, the meter goes down (or loses a heart). What makes the health meter different from points or gold is that it starts out full and goes down when something bad happens. And if your health reaches zero, you die. 😦

What need does the health meter fill?

Practice assignments need to get done, whether they’re done at home or at school. If a student is not practicing their skills, they run the risk of being ill prepared for the more important task of completing quests/missions. So I want to track progress of practice assignment completion, but I also want it separate from any sort of proficiency measure (just because you did the practice doesn’t mean you understood it). So, I plan to use the health meter for this.

Miss a practice assignment, lose a heart. Simple. Want to get that heart back? Drink this potion. Do the practice and show it to me. If you lose all your hearts, come in after school so we can talk. Why have you not been practicing? What can I do to help? Do we need to bring your parents into this?

I think this also may help with the “I was absent” excuse. It doesn’t matter one bit why you missed the practice, you missed it so you lose a heart. Do the practice, get it back.

And I can give rewards for keeping full health, like extra XP or gold or something tangible that they want and doesn’t cost a lot.

Please let me know any thoughts you have on this one! I know I haven’t looked at this from all angles yet, so I need some help.

Function Notation Can Wait


It has been way too long since I’ve blogged, but from what I’ve been reading lately I am not alone on this.  Like many others, I have been feeling a little overwhelmed this year.  It is tough trying to keep up with new curricula in Algebra and Physics, and I’m basically constructing my textbook as I go too.  </whine>  So far, I’m happy with the way things are going in both classes.  In Algebra, I’m using the learning targets that I wrote over the summer (modifying as I go of course) and I’ve been using a bunch of the handouts from Connecticut’s model Alg 1 curriculum (click “CSDE” then “Mathematics” then “CT Common Core Alg 1”, thanks to Jen Silverman for sharing that resource with me!).  If you teach Algebra I or MS Math, I’d give them a look at least. (Edit: guest password is CSDE.)

I’ve also been writing a class blog to keep in touch with students and parents.  That blog also serves as a model for my students when they finally start their blogs (we have them set up but haven’t started posting yet).  I’m thinking maybe we should do an Explore-MTBoS-style series of missions! Gotta get to work on that with all my free planning time. 😉

A highlight for me this year has been doing a lot of problem based lessons.  Some I got from the CT curriculum, but mostly from online sources like MARS,, or the twitterblogosphere in general.  I’ve really been enjoying this type of lesson and I think most of my kids have too.  Many parents told me at back to school night that their kids were enjoying the class.  However, I’ve found that many kids are struggling to make the connection between the lesson and the assessment (I have the same problem with modeling instruction in physics).  My worry is that if I don’t come up with some fixes for this problem, I’ll revert to old ways and abandon the problem based course design (which I think is going well otherwise).  Anyway, here’s an example of my assessment scheme:

First, the lesson handout:

So, we did this handout.  As a class, we noticed that the cost would depend on whether or not the dog needed a bath each visit.  We decided that it was a dirty dog, so yes it did need a bath every time.  Then, we wondered which would be the better deal and decided that it would depend on how many times you visit the place.  With some guiding questions, groups of kids modeled the scenario, made some nice TI and Desmos graphs and most decided that they should go with  Super Dog Delight because it would be cheaper in the long run.


Ok, so one of the skills I am looking to assess after this activity is solving equations with variables on both sides.  Here’s how I did that:

1.  Formatively assess during the activity.  Notice the different methods for writing and solving equations, point them out to the whole class.  Have students demonstrate their methods.  Celebrate mistakes!

2.  Multiple choice summative quiz.  5 questions, randomly generated by Socratic Brain (according to my specifications).  Students must get 5/5 twice (on different days) for full credit.  They can take the quiz as many times as they need to.  Questions look like this:


3.  Screencast!  Our school got an iPad cart (20), so I checked it out and had students make screencasts explaining their solutions to a particular equation.  Here’s an example of one.  He made some nice mistakes in there.  I gave feedback, but I’d love to work out a system where they view and critique each other’s screencasts (working on it!).  We also used Infuse Learning to practice literal equations:

photo (2)

4.  The Exam.  So, to assess this skill one more time, I have a scenario similar to the Dog Spa problem on their quarter exam.  My strategy on the Algebra exam is inspired by a History teacher I had in high school who would give us essays on every test, but let us know the topics beforehand so that we could prepare.  I decided to try something similar by giving the students the scenarios, but not the questions.  Here’s what I showed them:

And here’s the questions I asked:

And I gave them some class time to prepare for them.  I told them to think of questions they have and how they might go about answering those questions.  I also told them to think about what questions I might ask and how they would answer those.  Feelings about the exam were mixed.  Some students were excited that I was giving them a peek at the exam, but others were confused as to how to proceed because of the lack of questions.  I think the latter group of kids is the group I referred to earlier.  They’re the ones who are not making the connections between the activities we do in class and the skills required for the assessments.  Like maybe they participate in the group activity by making a graph, but then never learn about writing an equation (“my part’s done here”).  Now that I’m thinking about it though, it seems like the solution might be more problem solving activities, not less.  That would mean more chances for that kid to write some equations, right?

So why the title “Function notation can wait”?  Well, I started the year with my Unit 1 called “Modeling with Functions”.   But, I found that my students were thrown off by the notation and it was hurting the learning process.  For instance, we did the checkerboard border problem 3-act-style (thanks to Dan Meyer for the fancy graphics).   Here’s a few examples of what they came up with:

photo (3) photo

They explained how they saw the pattern very well and then also used function notation in their equations.  But when I asked them to explain why they wrote the equation that way, I got “Because that’s how you did it”, and that’s not what I want!  They should use function notation because it’s useful as a labeling tool, not because I said so.  Other groups wrote the equation as (# of blue tiles) = 4*(width of smaller square) + 8, which I like much better anyway.  I don’t want to confuse anyone when they clearly get the idea conceptually.

So, new title for Unit 1: Patterns and Modeling.  Function notation can wait.

Summertime Plans


So, here’s some stuff I’m working on this summer:

1.) Re-working Algebra I units and learning targets to make them more coherent.  After using SBG this year, I found that some units had way too many targets and some had too few.  Also, some targets were really the same as others, and they needed to be combined; whereas some targets were too complex and needed to be split into two separate ones.  I also need to split up my learning targets into the categories Fundamental (procedural), Core (conceptual), and Advanced (synthesis).  I think I’ll find that after doing this, I am woefully lacking in the Advanced category.  Must fix!

2.) Writing algorithm generated questions for practice and assessments.  For any target that I can legitimately assess with a multiple choice or numerical response question, I want to have a bank of algorithm generated questions so that I don’t have to write new ones every time a student wants to re-assess.  They just go to SocraticBrain, log in, then enter the quiz password to re-assess.  I want to get these written and out of the way so I can spend more time writing task and project based (Advanced category) assessments.

3.) Getting to know SocraticBrain, the SBAR system I will be using for Algebra I and Physics next year.  There are some new features and I’ll need to figure out how they work and how I’m going to implement them.  For instance, it is now set up to automatically generate practice for students based on their scores on any recent work they’ve done.  Awesome!  But it means that I’ll have to be very careful when deciding what practice problems or tasks the system will spit out based on the areas the student is struggling in.  When a student keeps missing a fundamental question, maybe they just need to see an example worked out and then practice some more.  In this case, the system should spit out both resources (a video with a worked out example, and some practice problems).  When a student fails on an Advanced task, more skills practice won’t necessarily help them.  What they probably need is more specific feedback.  I think in this case the system should spit out a self reflection form based on the task.  Questions like “What parts of the task did you get stuck on?” and “What skills do you think are required for this task?” could go on there.  Then when it comes time for me to enter the picture, they will already have thought about these things and my feedback will be more useful to them.

4.) Re-working physics units and learning targets to match the NGSS.  This one I’ll be working on with the whole science dept at my school. We’ve got a full two weeks blocked off for this.  It’s awesome that we’re doing it together; we will hopefully end up with a nice vertically aligned science curriculum.  Once the physics learning targets are made, I can start to align the Algebra targets to them.

I plan to post my aligned Algebra I/Physics units and learning targets by the end of the summer for review by the mathtwitterblogosphere.

Real Differentiation! Finally…


I had an education professor at UNO that told us a class should pretty much run itself.  He said by the end of the semester, there would be at least one occasion where he would not even show up, and yet our class would go on without him.

It did.  We were working on short lessons and presenting them to each other to get feedback.  He never showed, so we started without him and everyone stayed the entire time.

Today I came into class and basically said “You know what you need to work on, let’s get to work!” and it happened.  Here’s why I think it worked:

1.) They were all very aware of exactly what skills they need to work on.  I use standards based grading and report their scores with ActiveGrade.  When they login, each student gets a report that looks like this:


2.) They are accustomed to getting help from outside sources.  I have been getting better at providing good resources for my students this year.  My newest adventure has been in using Edcanvas.  It  is super easy to use for teachers and for students, and it tracks views (and emails you a daily digest if you want).  Here’s one of mine (click it if you want to see how it works):

Edcanvas pic

3.) They are accustomed to getting help from each other. Since I teach using modeling in physics (and try to in algebra as well), the students are used to not really getting answers from me (hence the “Never” tagline of this blog) 😉 so they have gotten much better at learning from each other.  They are getting way better at spotting when someone has a skill that they do not, and asking that student for assistance.

BTW Even though it was awesome (!!), we didn’t use the whole class period for this “extra practice” session.  The second half of class was used to work through this handout (which you can see in the Edcanvas as well):

The awesomest thing was how I had never used the term “zeroes” before and they already knew what I was talking about!  I also love how it really ties everything together nicely.  I got a lot of “ooohhhh, now I see why we did that” out of it.  The thing that it is missing is a real, quality application to real life.  Any suggestions??

Modeling in Algebra I: An example


The modeling method I’ve been using to teach physics has really made me think about way I teach Algebra.  Here’s a good example:

The topic:  Exponential Functions

The way I taught it last year:

Step 1: Introduce the topic with some notes and some example problems.  I used a PPT presentation to show the students the equation y = a*b^x and explain what all the parts mean.  Then we looked at some example problems.

Step 2: Explore the topic with an activity.  We did the classic M&M’s activity to explore a “real world” example of exponential growth.

Step 3: Practice.  We used problems from the text, most of which did not have a context.

Step 4: Assess.  We had a test after about a week or so.  Done.

The way I taught it this year (modeling):

Step 1:  Explore the topic starting with this clip from the movie Contagion.  I got the idea from Leslie Macfarlane on 101 Questions.  I used this handout with it.  We started by discussing what factors would effect the spread of a virus.  We came up with a bunch, but most importantly: the type of virus (R-0 in the video clip) and the number of people who currently carry it.  Here’s what their handouts looked like filled in:

Photo Jan 13, 3 54 15 PM

Step 2:  The kids figured out on their own (in groups) that the flu virus doubles each cycle and the smallpox virus quadruples each cycle.  They also were able (with a little help) to figure out that the cycle # (x) needed to be the exponent in the function.  Then, it wasn’t hard to get them to write the function like this:

(total # of people infected) = (starting number of people) * (mutiplier)^x

Step 3:  Generalize it!  We then discussed a general form for the equation.  They needed to make a connection between the R-0 number from the video and the multiplier they used to generate their charts.  As soon as I brought up the question, they noticed that it was just (1 + R).  At this point, my head almost exploded from awesomeness.  Now, they understood that the “multiplier” they used was given by one plus the growth rate.  How did that happen?!  I didn’t “teach” it to them!!  So now they’ve got y = a * b^x, they know what the “b” means, and since we graphed each initial scenario, it was simple for them to see that “a” is the y-intercept.

Step 4:  Expand the generalization to new scenarios (exponential decay).  We used this handout to figure out that if you are losing a certain percentage each cycle, then it’s just (1 – R) instead.

Step 5: Practice.  I gave them 3 or 4 scenarios of each type to practice.  For each scenario, they made a chart and a graph (using Desmos or by hand).  The answer to any questions asked was secondary to showing me that they could analyze the situation using the exponential model.

Step 6: Assess.  Two short multiple choice quizzes, some questions with contexts, some without.  Then an open ended task in which they had to explain to me the differences between two functions.  Retakes are available on all three assessments as needed.  They also take the assessments when they are ready.

Why is this new way better?

I have students now who are willing to try figuring things out on their own.  They see that it can be done.  Especially in Step 4, I saw a bunch of students working to find a function that defined an exponential decay scenario.  They didn’t say “Mr. Owen, what’s the formula?” or “I don’t know how to do this because you didn’t teach us this yet.”  Check out the example below.  This girl decided that (hmw * .10) = y  and that the next value in the table was given by (original amount – y).  I just had to suggest using substitution to combine those two expressions.  From there, it wasn’t too hard for her to see that to do that 10 times, you just raise the expression to the tenth power.

Photo Jan 10, 9 26 28 AMHere’s an example of a practice quiz done by a student (this one has no context):

Photo Jan 11, 11 57 23 AM

SBG = I got this! SBAR = Wait, what?!


SBG = Standards Based Grading

SBAR = Standards Based Assessment and Reporting

Same thing?  Maybe.  Depends on who you ask.  But the second one really gets at the heart of this problem I’ve been having.  And I know I’m not the only one with this issue.  Here goes:

As soon as I began implementing SBAR in my classes, I knew I wanted a system in which kids could work at their own pace and assess when they were ready.  Awesome! Let’s do that.  Well, I’ve got the A and I’ve got the R, but putting them together is a mess!  Here’s the setup:

I’ve been using ExamView for my assessments and it’s been working out great.  Kids take quizzes when they are ready.  You can read about that here. Now, once the assessments are taken, I have to get those assessment scores from ExamView to ActiveGrade, my standards based gradebook.  But it’s not as simple as a cut and paste from one spreadsheet to another. Each student is taking a different set of quizzes each day, and even if they were taking the same quiz, one kid may be on attempt 1 and another on attempt 3.  So the plan I’ve worked out goes like this:

1.) Kids take whichever assessments they are ready for that day (all online, but they turn in constructed response items on paper). The questions change each time they take an assessment.

2.) I score the constructed response items right away.

3.) I enter (by hand) all scores from constructed responses and multiple choice quizzes on a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has three columns for each learning target (attempts 1-3). That way I can tell how many times that student has done that quiz.

4.) I transfer the scores from the spreadsheet to ActiveGrade.  In AG, I enter “group assessments” called “3.1 Take One” “3.1 Take Two” and “3.1 Take Three.” Then I take the handwritten spreadsheet and match it up to those three “group assessments” entering in scores wherever there are blanks.

The problem is: THIS PROCESS TAKES FOREVER!!  What I need is a system that seamlessly integrates the assessment and the reporting.

To be clear, what I am talking about is a system in which I can create question generators (like what I’m doing now with ExamView Test Generator), give assessments using those generators (like what I’m doing now with ExamView Test Player), have them auto graded (like what I’m doing now with ExamView Test Manager), and then have the results reported in a standards based gradebook for students and parents (like what I’m doing now with ActiveGrade).  See where the disconnect happens there?  ExamView does the assessment and ActiveGrade does the reporting.  Why don’t they talk to each other?  Does anyone know of a software that does this?


ExamView for Re-assessments


Sorry if I sound like a commercial in this post, but this software is really helping me assess better and more frequently.  With that said…

If you’ve ever used eInstruction’s ExamView software, you know that certain questions will recalculate values and give you a whole new question.  But did you know that you can create these “question generators” yourself to fit your needs?  It’s true!  You can make multiple choice or constructed response items that will calculate new values with just a click.  With this capability, you can create a quiz that students can retake as many times as you’ll let them.  I’m still planning to let students re-assess in other ways, like presenting in class and making short videos (haven’t tried this one yet, but I want to), but the number of students needing re-assessments on each learning target has been too large to keep up with so far.  This is a way to cut down on the time required to re-assess all those students.  Of course you need the software first, but it comes with a bunch of textbooks, so you might already have it.  Here’s a document that I found (from William McIntosh who works for eInstruction)  with some good instructions on how to get started making your own dynamic questions: