There and Back Again


Every year in Biology, we start the year off with an introduction to science unit.  We talk about lab safety, the scientific method, proper science technique, and how to write an accurate hypothesis.  We wrap up the unit with a test on evaluating experimental design and then a two day “water lab.”

The idea for the water lab is that there has been a nuclear war on Earth and all the water has been contaminated with nuclear fallout.  The students (aka, the explorers) go out to another planet where the aliens there don’t speak English.  Through gestures and drawings, the aliens give our explorers 8 types of clear liquid.

The lab is to design an experiment and determine which of the eight is the actual water.

Usually, the will do a pH test, using known tap water that they collect as the control, and that will eliminate the water that is mixed with bleach, ammonia, and vinegar.  This leaves the water, the sugar water, the salt water, the sprite water, and the rubbing alcohol water.  At this point, they’ll usually eliminate the the alcohol because “it smells like a doctor’s office and that’s not natural.”  After that, a boiling test usually reveals that the sugar water, salt water, and sprite water won’t boil at the same time the control water does.

Usually, this is what happens…

But this year, my fifth period class, proved me very, very wrong.

“Mrs. H-squared?  What was number 7 because (Student) drank it and now she’s been throwing up since three in the morning.”

Are you kidding me right now?  Are you freaking kidding me right now???

“Don’t get mad at just her…. (Other Student) drank number three, but she’s fine, so we think that might be the water.”


These beakers aren’t food safe.  They’re clean, but they aren’t food-safe clean because they shouldn’t have to be.  It’s a safety rule.  I shouldn’t have to remind a group of high school students not to drink out of beakers in the back of the classroom during a lab because that is completely and totally idiotic.

The waters they drank, by the way, were the sugar water and Sprite water, respectfully, but still… There’s no telling what residue was left in those beakers from last year.

I lost it:

“This is absolutely unbelievable.  We have the burning lab coming up soon where you will actually LIGHT THINGS ON FIRE, and how can I trust you with an OPEN FLAME if I can’t trust you with a BEAKER OF UNKNOWN WATER?  That’s it… we’re done.  You’re getting a seating chart tomorrow, which I shouldn’t have to make for a bunch of high school students, and we’re done playing Classcraft.  It’s over.  I try to reward you for good behavior, but it’s impossible when you don’t give me any.”

There have been better days in my classroom.

And I followed through: I wrote the seating chart during my planning period when the anger at their stupidity about drinking an unknown chemical in my room was still fresh.  I’d laid into them about the dangers they put themselves in, fumed about how I wasn’t sure I could trust them with any lab the rest of the year, and shut down every single one of their arguments until the only thing they could do was hang their heads in guilt.

I hope and pray that it was legitimate guilt because you can never be too sure with high school students.

So then we got to today where they came in to the seating chart on the board, and all I heard was, “What?  Are you serious?  No!  This sucks.”

And all I could reply with was, “Well, you drank the water, so…. what did you expect?”

I explained to them that a seating chart in my room was punishment and that they would be in this arrangement for at least a week, but that we would re-evaluate their situation the Monday after next week.  I told them that if they get out of this, they would be right back in it whenever I chose, and they should take care not to make it get to that point again.

Then they said:

“Can we have Classcraft back?”

And after a unanimous class vote, they got Classcraft back, so now we’re back where we left off.  Today was quiz day, so it was fairly uneventful.

They asked about using their powers on the quiz, but no one has earned them yet, so they all got on to make sure they had learned the powers they needed to get to where they wanted to be, but everyone is still level one.  It’ll take awhile to get to the level where they want to be at, but I think they realize now that their grades and behavior will count towards getting them there faster.

Then someone asked:

“Can we have a random event?”

So I gave them a random event….

….And after everything that happened the last two days…

….I have to bring them candy on Monday….


Classcraft: Days Two and Three (post-set up)

Today was day three with Classcraft, and I can tell you that there is DEFINITELY a learning curb.  In my district, they recently changed the cell phone policy to “teacher discretion, but no phones can be taken from the students, since it is there private property.”  Basically, we can tell them to put the phones away, but if they don’t comply, then they get a referral for disobeying rather than having the phone picked up by me.

Most teachers have really hated this change, but personally, I like it because it takes the responsibility of the students’ passing or failing and puts it squarely on the students.

“What do you mean ‘Little Johnny is failing biology???'”

“Well, Mrs. Smith, Johnny’s been spending a lot of time on his cell phone in class, and he isn’t putting it away when asked to.”

“Why don’t you just take it from him them?”

“I would, but according to district policy, it is up to the student to put their phone away and I am not allowed to take them anymore.  I can write him up for disobeying, but that will end up on his permanent record, and either way, he’s still not going to get the information.”

“Oh, well!  I’ll take care of that at once!”

“Thank you.  I’d hate to add a blemish to Johnny’s record for something as silly as a cell phone when he’s such a nice kid.”

Personally, cell phones aren’t really a problem in my classroom to begin with.  My classroom is so technology heavy that the kids having cell phones actually makes it easier on me to run my classroom.

Classcraft would be one of those times.

CapturecfThe game allows you to run it in two different ways.  The first is to have it up on a projected screen that allows it to run in the background while you are teaching; the second is to have the kids run it on the cell phones during class.

Since I rarely teach from my computer, the second choice was better.  The other reason option two is better is that my classroom looks a lot like the classroom in the Classcraft advertisement, except that my screen for my projector is permanently fixed in the worst Photo Sep 15, 2 21 02 PMpossible position.

Seriously?  Who’s idea was this?  That’s a perfectly good white board behind that mounted Promethean board.  If I don’t tell anyone and just did all the work myself, I could move the board, but then I’d have to repaint, and now you’re just asking for me to do more than I’m capable of doing… I cannot move that whiteboard on my own…

The back of it has become a place for secret notes to get written, which is what my students do because why erase behind the board when it won’t be used ever?

Anyway, the set up of my room requires that I use my Promethean board almost exclusively, and I don’t feel like going back and forth between ActivInspire and Classcraft.  Those few seconds are precious in a class that could implode in on itself at any moment.

And no, that’s not my cat.  I had a class last year that got on my nerves a lot, so I found that picture one time and told them that this picture accurately described how they made me feel.  I then place it in the rotation of images for my background, and somehow it got stuck on this one over the summer, and I haven’t bothered to change it.

So the last two days…

I’ve basically told the students they can use their phones in class for the purpose of playing the game; however, if they choose to not pay attention and use their phone of other things, then I will find out because it will reflect in their grades.  I haven’t had many problems with cell phone usage.  They’ve had their first test, and they’re a little more worried about the difficulty of my class now.

Yesterday, we spent almost the entire class trying to get our vocabulary written down and the getting make up work to the kids that needed the make up work that by the time we actually got started on the lecture for the new unit, the bell rang.

The interesting thing that happened yesterday though?  During vocabulary, they were completely, 100% silent and focused.  They haven’t been that way since the first day of school.  I almost wanted to ask what they’d done with my normal 5th period class, but I didn’t want to jinx myself.

One kid did lose 25HP for “jokingly” calling a friend of his in the class, who is a girl, a “slut.”  I told him it “wasn’t funny” and that “it was definitely points off” and “he’s lucky that we have this game because I would have written him up otherwise.”

I didn’t have any other problems from him after that, and he even apologized to me and to her for comments.  She didn’t find it very funny either.

Today was lab day, so I knew this would be a make it or break it even for classcraft.  It took a minute for the kids to get settled, but then they worked…. and they worked all period.  Two lab groups got 100XP for their effort, and my trouble makers?  They all got 100XP for cleaning up another lab groups’ messy lab stations.

I’m telling you, this is amazing.  These kids want to level up for the tier 3 rewards so bad that they are reading every word on my slides twice to try to find errors.  They are asking multiple on task questions and jumping to answer the questions I pose to them.

Who needs to go out and buy bribery candy rewards when XP will do the same thing?

I’m telling you, I was really, really skeptical of Classcraft when I saw it at first, but now… I’m really looking into grant writing the PTSA for the $100 I need to get the paid version for the year.  Not only is Classcraft helping me better manage my classes, but it’s making me pay my PTSA dues as well.  I guess it’s a win-win for everyone!

Classcraft: Day One


Disclaimer: I am not paid for my blogs or reviews.

Always there is that one class that seems to have nothing but the best of friends and worst of enemies in it.  Always there is that one class that seems to not care about anything: they’ve realized that they far outnumber you, and there is nothing you can really do about it that they really care about.  Eventually, punishment stops working.

And that would be my fifth period class.  This is my pilot class.  We have 28 students, about an equal distribution of girls and boys.  We have all races, all background types.  This class is a mid-level biology class that will be faced with an end-of-course exam at the end of the year.  This class is high-stakes.  My stakes, really, and their comprehension is my number one priority, but it’s very difficult for them to get it together.

This is my pilot class.  The worst class, behaviorally, that I have all day.

So right now, you may be asking… my pilot class for what?  For Classcraft

Over this past weekend, I was surfing around on the internet, specifically Facebook, and suddenly, I saw this advertisement for Classcraft, a computer program, entirely free for the lite version, that would turn your class into a role playing game.  They kids would get teams, a login in and password, and a player type (mage, warrior, healer).  Their good behavior gained them experience, and their bad behavior cost them health points.

Getting down to zero health meant a real world consequence, such as a phone call home or detention, and higher experience gained them levels, which grant them powers such as homework passes or getting answers to a test or quiz.

I thought it over, said no, and then had a really, really bad day with my fifth period class.  I followed that period by setting up classcraft for them and today… Today, I explained the game and got it going.

It took 50 minutes out of my 55 minute class period.

But my kids are really excited about it.

I set them up into groups based on their most recent quiz grade.  Each group has a student who made an A and each group has a student who failed or made a D.  There are seven groups: Diamond, Garnet, Emerald, Ruby, Krypton, Pearl, and Gold, and each group has four students each in it.

When we started out, I explained to them that this game was optional.  They didn’t have to play if they didn’t want to.  I explained to them that if they chose not to play, that today was their final warning, and all disruptions went straight to detention: this game was the better option for them.

I explained the consequences first and ended on the high note of the benefits.  At the end, I had 100% of my students agree to play.  After I got back all the signed papers, I showed the students what teams they were in.  Some were not happy about being split up from friends, but at that point, they’d signed the papers, and there was nothing left that they could do about it.

They got into their groups, picked out their player types, wrote down a password, and turned the slips into me.  This part took the longest to set up.  Once it was set up, kids took a minute to log into their account on their phone, check out their avatar, and looked to see what they looked like.  Some went ahead and learned a power.

All of them seemed excited.

I gave them all 500XP for a good first day.

Monday is when the real fun begins.

Review: GradeCam

Name: GradeCam
Price: Free for first 3 months; $15/month/teacher or $2.50/year/student


Every five years in South Carolina, teachers have to “re-up” their teaching certificates.  The regulations vary by state, but in South Carolina, we have have to have a certain number of graduate classes (if you don’t have a certain degree level) and a certain number of professional development points, which some have to be classified under “technology.”

We have a curriculum resource teacher (CRT) who is responsible for developing all these professional development classes, and each year we have an in-house technology symposium where teachers volunteer to do PD throughout the day on different technology they use in the classroom.

Every year, I get asked to do a professional development on ActivInspire, and because of that, I usually don’t get to go to any of the other events (because I get the points I need by teaching the class).  This year, another teacher in the building did a class on this new program that she somehow found out about called GradeCam, and when I heard about it, I thought, “I don’t need that, I have my set up, and it works just fine.”

Holy moly, was I ever wrong.


GradeCam is a website for teachers.  It provides quick and easy grading with powerful long-term item analysis.

When you go to the website, you create an account, and you start out with three free months of the paid service.  If you can get people to sign up through you, then you get extra time for free, and if you run a professional development about GradeCam at your school, then you can get the entire year for free.

GC3The first thing you need to do is set your classes up.  If you use an attendance program such as PowerSchool that comes with Gradebook, then you can easily accomplish this.  By going under Report>Student Roster in Gradebook, you can export your students names and ID numbers into an excel sheet or .csv file.  On the GradeCam website, you simply upload this to the website, and your classes are good to go.

Sidenote: I went through and edited everything that I needed to edit to make everything look more attractive.  The GradeCam website copied first and last names into both spots in their program.  For example: If my student’s name was John Smith.  His name would “Smith, John” in the first name spot AND the last name spot, so it showed up online as “Smith, John, Smith, John.”  It’s really just cosmetic, and not anything that will affect how the program functions.  And there may be a way around it, but I just don’t know what it is.


After you’ve set your classes up, you click “create” and it will ask you what you want to create.  Exams are what will usually get used.  You can have multiple choice questions with up to five options and true-false questions.  There is nothing else: no matching, no short answer, no essay.  So if you want anything else other that MC and TF, you’re out of luck.  Pick the number of questions (up to 100 on the paid edition; 10 on the free).

GC4Once you’ve created the assignment, a blank key will pop up on the screen. To create the key, simply click on the correct answer to darken it.  You can have questions worth different amounts of points (or no points if you just want a survey). then click on “Forms.”  Here, you have the option to print blank forms OR print forms with student names and number already on them.  No more trying to figure out handwriting or determining which Sarah’s paper you’re looking at!

The forms will print out and then it’s just simply giving the form to the student with copy of the test.  Since you are using an answer key, you will only need a class set of the test, so that will help conserve paper (and if you’re a seasoned teacher, chances are, you may not GC5even need to print new tests).

The students simply take the test and turn it in.  Then the real awesome happens: place the answer document under a camera that is attached to your computer and GradeCam will grade it for you!

You can use a document camera, a webcam, or even your smart phone. You read that right: GradeCam has an APP FOR THAT!  I simply turned on the scanner on my phone, hovered over the students answer document, got their grade, and gave it to them before I even picked up the test.

Once everyone is finished, you can click on the “summary” section of the assignment and get all the item analysis you could ever want.  As a science teacher, I dream about graphs and data, and GradeCam gives me a graph for every single question so that I can easily see if a question was confusing or where the students are having problems understanding.

And you want one more bonus to all of this?  You can import your grades from GradeCam back into Gradebook.  You don’t even have to enter ANYTHING!

In My Classroom:

I haven’t switched fully to GradeCam yet.  I plan on starting this tomorrow with my students next test on Mitosis.  Since I’ve been using the ActivExpression 2’s almost exclusively in my room, switching to GradeCam means that I am going to have to create new tests; however, I will be able to make my tests more dynamic and more similar to the EOC, which the students face at the end of the year.

I used it in an emergency the other day when one of the ActivExpressions died on me and suddenly I didn’t have enough for my class to take their vocabulary quiz.  It actually worked out really well, and the kids seemed to respond to it in a positive way.  I think it helped that I was using my phone to grade them because it was “cool.”  Afterwards, I checked out the item analysis, but it didn’t give me much information other than some students didn’t study like they should have.


  • Easy To Use. GradeCam is extremely easy to use.  It doesn’t require that you change anything you are doing except that you make and print your keys online.  The only reason it’s a transition for me is that I’ve been using ActivExpressions now for two years.
  • Next to No Grading! The answer sheets are graded through the online program via a camera (either one attached to your computer or your phone).  All you have to do is input the grades into your gradebook, and if you use a compatible gradebook, you don’t even have to do that: just import.
  • Item Analysis. GradeCam lets you see where students are struggling.  You even have the ability to assign standards to assignments and see how students are doing on the individual standards.  You can assess where holes are in their knowledge and fix it before moving on.
  • No Guessing “Who’s Paper is This?” The forms can be printed with student name and number.  You won’t have to worry about what number a student is (if you have used ActivExpressions before) or what a student’s handwriting looks like (if they forget to write their name on things often).
  • Instant Feedback. With the ability to scan and grade, students will be able to immediately get feedback.  No more waiting to see what they made, and no more having to take that grading home with you.
  • Quickly Identify Struggling Students. With the item analysis, you can quickly see which students are struggling and where they are struggling so that you can individualize an improvement plan to help them.
  • Make-Up Testing is Easy! With the ActivExpressions, the students have to take the test on paper (which is then graded by hand) or they use the handheld (which means you lose the use of your board for a time).  With GradeCam, just give them the answer document and the test, and then scan when they finish.  No problems!


  • Paper Usage.  Unlike with the ActivExpressions, you not only need a paper copy of  a test, but each student needs their own answer document.  The answer documents take up an entire sheet of paper, so it can add up really quickly.  If you have 150 students, that’s a lot of paper to give out ONE test.
  • Increase Risk of Cheating. Answer documents put all of a students answers in one space making it a lot easier for students to cheat off of each other.  It’ll require increased diligence by the teacher to make sure any would-be-wandering eyes aren’t wandering.
  • Student Complaints about Grading. When I first suggested the use of GradeCam in my room, a couple of students told me that another teacher had “grading issues” with hers where the students forms weren’t being graded properly (or possibly uploaded properly) and that it was negatively affecting their grade.  I, personally, haven’t experienced this yet, but it’ll be something I definitely keep an eye out for.
  • Cost.  GradeCam that’s worth anything (the version that gives you 100 questions) costs money.  It’s money that you either have to pay for by yourself or that has to come from someone in your district.  We’re lucky enough that our principal has agreed to buy us out the rest of the year and then look into a school-wide license for next year.
  • Low Choices on Question Types. GradeCam only offers multiple-choice and true-false question types.  It cuts down the diversity of testing unless you want to create a second section and then grade it by hand.  For me, I design all my tests as best I can like the final, so it’s not as important for me; however, I don’t use GradeCam for my Genetics classes, which are 50-75% written.
  • Max Number of Question is 100. This may seem trivial, but 100 is not that big of a number.  My mid-term for my remedial or lowest-performing students is 125.  As a school, advanced students have to have an exam of 150, and the honors classes are all 175.  You can create two separate keys, but you’ll have to figure out the grade on your own


I think GradeCam may end up being my new BFF.  I’ll still use the ActivExpressions, but probably for their original use: informal assessment throughout a class.  GradeCam is by far the more superior tool when it comes to grading and learning where student weakness is.  It’s fast, easy to set up, easy to use, and the feedback is wonderful.  It’s like teacher-inspired magic, but just like Rumpelstiltskin in Once Upon a Time said, “All magic comes with a price, deary.”  And if you can’t find funding through your school or district, GradeCam’s price could quickly add up.

Grade: 98, A

  • I didn’t give these a higher grade for two reasons: The paper usage and the cost.  The cost, while not great, will add up to more than what the ActivExpressions cost in the long run, and there is no way around it: this will use more paper than the AEs.

Review: ActivExpression 2

Name: ActivExpression 2
Cost: $1,600 for a set of 32
Website: Here


I think it was the end of my second year of teaching.  We were going through a technology upgrade, which happens every few years, and we had some money left over at the end of the year.  The “higher ups” did some digging and decided to purchase three sets of 32 ActivExpression 2’s.  They sat there for nearly a year before I realized what they were and nabbed a set at the end of the year.

Our school is blessed to have a Promethean Board and ActivInspire technology in every classroom.  I think, but don’t hold me to it, that this is something that happened district wide just prior to the start of my teaching career.  The ActivExpression 2’s are a technology designed to get students more engaged in their learning, and I have used them a lot in my rooms the last three years.


They come in an easy-to-carry pouch.  There’s a hand strap and a shoulder strap, and it’s not heavy at all.  They come with an ActivHub that plugs into the side of your computer via a USB hub.  Each device has to be registered to the hub, but once this is done the first time, it never has to be done again, and luckily, the media specialist took care of this for us.

For ours, the media specialist and the curriculum resource teacher wrote down the IMG_7884numbers for the handhelds as they were registered and then marked down the numbers on their carrier so that they were easily organized.  The ActivHub was also marked on so that it could easily get back to the set it needed to get to (remember, the school bought three of these sets to be used.)

The device itself is not what you would consider lightweight by today’s standards, but it is not heavy by any means.  There’s a small screen, which can be back lit.  The language settings can be altered, and it has a full QWERTY keyboard.  It reminds me of a Blackberry, but a lot thicker.

It uses regular batteries, and the back simply screws off for easy replacement.  I’ve been using these in my classroom on a regular basis, and in the nearly two full years I’ve had IMG_7885them, only three have ever died, so the battery life is long with these.

The slanted back allows the students to rest the handhelds on their desks and have them be able to see the screen clearly, but they’re also really easy to hold.  And they’re fairly durable: I’ve had some IMG_7887students drop them, and they haven’t broken yet.

In the ActivInspire software, the ActivExpression 2’s allow for real time interaction with material.  You have the ability to pre-set a question or a group of questions, or you can poll the students randomly throughout the class period.

With the random polls, once the time runs out, the student responses will display on the board and you can discuss where the problems are or why some answers are better than others.  It’s an immediate assessment of student understanding in real time.  With the pre-set questions, you can quiz or test your students and then look at the results as a whole.

The QWERTY keyboard allows you to ask short answer questions along with multiple choice and true/false questions.  There’s also a setting that allows for you to put in math equations.

In My Classroom:

In my classroom, I use these with my Biology students.  We have a standardized state test at the end of the year, so I have modeled all my tests after that state test in an effort to reduce test anxiety.  The devices are perfect for multiple choice question tests.

I assigned each student a number based on alphabetical order.  When a student takes aRead Out test or a quiz, they take it on the same handheld each time.  After the quiz is complete, I can export the results to Excel and have all the grades for that class.  It color codes correct answers as green and incorrect answers as red.  At the top of each column is the student number and their grade, along with how long it took them to complete the assignment.  Then, I just type the grades into the gradebook, and I didn’t have to do much on my own.


  • Cuts Down on Grading.  Using these has dramatically cut down on the amount of grading I have to do at home.  Now, I just have to input grades into the gradebook, and I don’t have to worry about grading each and every question for a quiz or a test.  The program does it all for me!
  • Cuts Down on Paper Usage. We are given certain amounts of paper at the start of each year that is supposed to last us the entire year, but it never does.  The ActivExpression 2’s actually cut down on my paper usage so much last year that I had a fourth of my paper left over at the end of the year.  You can type the questions directly into the program, so there’s no need for printed tests OR answer keys.  It’s all in the system.
  • Cuts Down on Cheating. The screen on each device will only display one question at a time.  Once the question is answered, then it goes to the next one and doesn’t come back to it (unless you set it to).  This means that it’s almost impossible for students to copy off of each other because once the question is gone… it’s gone.
  • Instant Feedback. The students love using these in my classroom.  I can set them to tell the student if the question was answered correctly or incorrectly, and if answered incorrectly, I can set them to tell the student what the correct answer was.  At the end, the students can see what their grade was and what their class rank is immediately: no more waiting for me to finish grading everything.
  • Increase the Amount of Questions. When I would do a test on paper with a paper answer key, my students were struggling to answer 50 questions in a 50 minute class period.  Now, I can give them 60 questions on a test, give them time to review or study before hand, and still end up with kids finishing 10 to 15 minutes before the end of class.  The students are use to working with this kind of technology, so they read and work faster.
  • Works with ExamView. If you use ExamView to create your tests, then you can import your tests into ActiveInspire and it will automatically convert it into the format it needs to be for your students.  You can do this with Excel too, but I’m not sure how to do that yet.
  • Quickly Identify Struggling Students. The green and red color coding lets me see students who are struggling.  I can also get a good picture of questions that might not have been fair or questions that I had messed up on.
  • Option to Print/Save Question Sets: I have some students who take their tests in a different room so the questions can be read to them, or so that they can have more time.  The software has the ability to print the questions in a paper-test format for students who need the hardcopy.  I can then type their answers in myself, or have just grade it by hand.


  • More Work Up Front. In order to use the devices for a test or a quiz, you have to create the questions and get all of your settings set correctly.  If you’re use to using the same tests year after year, then this will add work to what you have to do because you’ll have to convert it over or type the questions in yourself.  However, you only have to do this once, and then you can save it to use again.
  • Loss of Board Function.  When the Expressions are in use, the ActivInspire software cannot be used.  This means that if a student misses and needs to do a make up, you will not have access to your board until they are finished.  This is the one thing that bugs me about the Expressions above all else: they will NOT run in the background, and unless you just give them the paper version, you’re going to be stuck.
  • No Long-Term Item Analysis. Immediately after the students have finished, you can click on a question and open a graph to see which answers were picked and how often.  You also have the ability to look and see which question was answered the most incorrectly or correctly.  However, once you close the window, export the file to Excel, and delete it from ActivInspire, you cannot go back and look at any item analysis.
  • Exporting Hassles.  You cannot have more than one class take a test or a quiz with the Expressions unless you export each class once they finish.  I made the mistake of having two classes take a test back to back, and it exported everything into one file, and there was no way to separate each class.  I had to grade both classes by hand.
  • Class Size Limitations.  If your class is over 32 students, you won’t have enough Expressions to go around.
  • General Technology Problems. If a student puts in a wrong answer, they can’t go back and change it later.  You can set it up to where students can change their answers, but it will make their grade change as well.  Each question answered, right or wrong, will count towards their grade.  For example: A student misses one question on a 10 question quiz, they get a 90 (9/10).  If you set it so that the student can change their answers, and they change it and get it right on the second time around, they don’t get a 100, they get a 91 (10/11).  If you set it so that students can retry incorrect questions, and they guess four time before getting it right, they’ll have a 71 (10/14).  And I have never had a class where “I accidentally click X instead of Y” has not been said at least once.
    • I fix this problem by allowing students to use their own paper to keep track of their answers.  If they miss a question and the tell me they put it in wrong, I will go back and double check what they wrote to make sure.  It’s more work, but it’s still less than grading 150 10-question quizzes.


At the end of the day, even with it’s nuances, I still love the ActivExpression 2’s.  They’ve dramatically cut down on my paperwork and on student dishonesty.  The kids love them for the immediate feedback.  The problems don’t necessarily outweigh the benefits, but they can become annoying.  Student names aren’t associated with the handheld, so you have to have a list of the numbers that students were assigned to keep track of grades when you input, but as long as you have a class size under 32 and are organized, it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.

Grade: 93, A-

  • Powerful tool for formative and summative assessment; instant feedback on student performance, but a lack of item analysis or student name attached to handheld causes it to fall short of being the most powerful tool it could be.

The New Face

I originally started this blog to be a place to talk about my attempt at Flipping my Classroom, specifically my Genetics classes.  And, as with many plans, things did not turn out in my ideal vision of my classroom.  I had a lot of things happen in my personal life (engagement, sister moving to the other part of the world, wedding, possible adoption) that I ended up not having the amount of time required to properly plan out a flipped classroom.

The truth is, when it comes to my Genetics class, I haven’t had enough years to properly solidify how I teach the class, and if you don’t have your non-flipped teaching down, then trying to flip the class is even harder.  In the three years that I’ve taught Genetics now, I haven’t taught it the same way twice.  The first year, I jumped all over the place (because we don’t have a book OR standards), and then my computer crashed and I lost everything.  The second year, I bought a book, and we focused on going through the book from start to finish, but I ended up not liking the order of the book, so this year, we’re using the book, but not in any kind of order.

I haven’t been able to flip my classroom this year, and I’m not sure I will really feel comfortable with this class to really teach it flipped until maybe next year… and even then, I don’t think it will be a total flip.  I need more time.

So this blog is getting transformed into something different.  I’m going to use this space to talk about what works, doesn’t work, and new technology that I’m integrating into my classes.  I am in no way paid or compensated for any technology that I review.

So here we go… let’s try this again!

Green Light

We got the green light to go ahead with with flipping one section of our classes for next year.  We sat down with the principal, two APs, head of guidance and the CRT and showed them a video.  Everyone seemed fairly excited about it, but there were some concerns about it not working for everyone.  They were worried about parents getting upset if they felt like the teacher wasn’t doing what he or she was supposed to do (which is teach).

I’ve noticed that a lot of parents seem to be stuck in the idea that traditional learning is the best way to go, and that’s just unfortunately not the case.  In a world that is so technology-centered, we can’t teach our students well enough if we don’t integrate technology into the classroom.

Some of the questions we were asked were:

How do you plan on publishing your videos online?  YouTube is blocked for students at the district level.
There are plenty of other alternatives to YouTube.  There’s TeacherTube, which is like YouTube, but for education.  There’s plenty of software available to do screencasting and vodcasting out there, but we’re currently still exploring our options.  There’s also a lot of videos already out there that other teachers have done that we could use as well to supplement our own stuff

Well, how will you make sure that the students are actually watching the videos?
We are planning on providing students with a guided notes set that will complement the videos they are going to be watching.  We could give them a quiz or require some sort of online blogging or discussion to respond to what it is that they’ve seen.  We also plan to make it so that students actually want to do the fun group activity stuff in class, so they’ll do the required watching before class so they don’t have to play catch up.

But what if a student doesn’t have access to the internet at home?
This was/is our biggest concern.  We talked about giving students lab time to work on the videos if they can’t do it at home, but we were concerned about them getting behind for feeling out of place because they had to do something different.  The other alternative was to give those students a reading assignment or transcript of the video with power point style notes to complement.  Hopefully, with everyone seeming to have smart phones these days, this won’t be too much of an issue.

How will you communicate with parents who might not think this will help their child?
Communication is always important.  We plan on having an online space where students can complete assignments and where communication will be a priority.  Parents who are concerned or not comfortable are always welcome to come and talk to us about whatever they need to.  We’ll make the first assignment be to watch a video about what flipping a classroom is about so that parents can also see it and be informed.  Open House would explain a lot to parents who come that night as well.

These were the big questions we were asked at the meeting today, but everyone seemed excited and ready to get started.  Now that we know we can, the next step is making the preparations to make it happen!

Common Core isn’t the Problem…

I am not a policy maker.  I do not write on Education policy often.  I don’t go out there and analyze how well this or that policy works based on this or that statistic.  I don’t go and post pictures of students’ work and how confusing it is.  We’ve seen those viral posts again and again and again.  I am just some average science teacher in South Carolina, a state who has decided to go through with the Common Core standards.  I don’t make the laws.  I teach what the laws tell me to teach, and often times I don’t even get a say in that.

Specifically, I teach Biology.  Biology in the state of South Carolina is an End-Of-Course exam class.  This means that I have a set of standards, and at the end of the year, my students take a test over those standards.  Then, I get graded and the school gets graded on how well my students did.  Common Core is separate, right now, from the standards I’m required to follow.  In fact, Common Core ADDED standards to what I already have to teach.  I am required to teach literacy, research and problem-solving in my class.  What.  A.  Shocker.

I looked at the standards when they were handed to me TWO YEARS AGO and thought, “Well, this is actually pretty awesome because I already do this and now I’m justified in the teaching that I already do.”

We, as educators, are training students for jobs that don’t exist yet and to use technology that hasn’t been invented yet.  Back when technology wasn’t a prevalent as it is now, we could get away with traditional styles of learning where a teacher lectures, students take notes, and then there’s some sort of lab with an expected result and maybe some practice problems and a quiz followed by a test.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

And this style of learning can still work if you have a biology standard that says, “Students will be able to recall the three major tenets of cell theory” (S.C. State Standards B-2.1).  It’s memorization: here’s the three parts to the cell theory, now memorize them and tell them back to me.  And the other standards for biology read mostly the same: recall, summarize, compare, explain.  I can easily get up in front of a class and tell the students the information they need to hear and then pound it into their head with repetitive drills until they dream about it and can recite it back to me without any hesitation whatsoever.  And when you have a Biology class with a standardized test at the end that expects them to be able to do that, it makes lecture-based learning seem like a good idea.

The Common Core standards that I am responsible for read like this: “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content” (Common Core State Standards WHST.9-10.1).  They begin with words like: Cite, Analyze, Assess, Argue, Write, Use technology, Research.  They aren’t vague.  This, combined with “describe the stages of cell division,” can make a science class, or any class for that matter into something that it really should actually be: a place for research and actually doing science.

So why all the negativity?  If Common Core is so great, then why am I hearing all this bad stuff about it?

Teachers, just like with our students, are trained for accepting teaching jobs that didn’t exist at the time.  Teachers and the people who train teachers can’t predict how education is going to go from year-to-year.  We (and I include myself in this) are taught to teach how we will need to teach for jobs that are out there right now, but the problem is, those jobs will shift and will change pretty immediately with new standards or new theories coming in almost on a monthly basis.

Classes and expectations for students aren’t going down, they’re going up.  Students are being required to know more at a younger age because they need to know more than we did coming out of school.  They need to be better prepared for a job market that is high-stakes and cut-throat.  They need more skills sooner so they can learn more skills by the time they graduate from high school.

And it’s NOT easy.  School isn’t meant to be easy.  School and education are designed to challenge students.  Students shouldn’t be able to just coast through their classes without lifting a finger.  That doesn’t do them or us and our future any good.

Most of what I’m seeing when it comes to the negativity around all these math problems are distraught and concerned parents who have children who are confused working on problems they don’t understand and the parents who don’t know how to do them either.  It’s a lot of pictures that say, “I should be able to do my elementary school student’s math homework, but I can’t.  Obviously, this is confusing and ridiculous.”

And yes, maybe it is confusing and maybe it is ridiculous, but before we blame Common Core, we need to look at how our children are being taught.

You mean we should blame teachers?

No.  I don’t think we should blame teachers.  Common Core is just as knew to us as it is to the students and the parents.  It’s challenging.  It’s a little weird.  And sometimes it’s a little confusing.  Teachers need to be educated on how to adjust teaching to become less lecture-focused and more project-focused.  We need to move away from traditional styles of teaching to more inclusive styles of teaching.

The “hard stuff” like applying knowledge needs to be done at school with an expert (the teacher) and not at home with parents, who weren’t taught this material in school because it didn’t exist then.  This is why I’m such an advocate of flipped classroom learning: the “lecture” is done at home with a video or reading assignment and a basic knowledge assignment to cover close reading and basic understanding of concepts, and the “homework” is done at school with the aid of a teacher, working with other students, to apply what they learned at home individually.  It takes pressure off parents for not understanding the new material and ways of doing things and it frees up class time to apply knowledge rather than deliver information.

Common Core problems aren’t the policy’s fault.  Blaming the policy isn’t going to make it go away and allowing students to continue in a system of education where application is almost entirely cut out so that memorization and fact-vomiting is priority is hurting student chances for doing well in the future out in the real world.  The number one complaint I got from professors while I was in school was that students coming out of high school were not prepared to think critically, write, and research.

Common Core is attempting to correct that, but we can’t do it unless we overhaul the way we’re teaching students.  We can’t change the expected outcome if we aren’t teaching to prepare students to succeed with that outcome.

What we have now is not okay.  State Standards are not requiring kids to think critically and analyze, read and write well.  Common Core can’t get the students to do that if we don’t change how we teach the students.  Teachers can’t teach properly unless they’re given the resources (professional development, graduate classes, and technology) to properly serve their students.  And leaving current students in the current set-up isn’t preparing them for the real world.

Taking the Next Step


The teacher at a nearby elementary school who works in a flipped class setting wrote Anne and I back today to tell us that we could join her class on Edmodo.  After looking through her class and looking through Edmodo on my own, I have fully determine that I do NOT want to use it if at all possible.

I want to be able to put all my videos and quizzes and notes and assignments into one folder for each unit to keep it organized, and Edmodo doesn’t let me do that.  I really wish that Moodle was updated for the district because that would be ideal, but it’s not.  Anne is going to the district to see if we can use it on the state level, but I don’t know how well that will work out.

We met with the principal today, who was familiar with the concept.  He seemed on board, and suggested we talk to guidance about getting the classes picked out.  Then later, when I ran into the principal again, he told me to come talk to him… again.  This time, he seemed a little concerned.  I don’t think it’s going to be an issue, but I don’t know for sure.

Guidance will be the hardest group to get on board because they’re very resistant to change.  Anne wants to hand select her students for the pilot class to see how it will work out.  I don’t think I’ll have that option with genetics because it usually only makes one section.  Hand-selecting may leave me in a situation where I don’t have the ability to actually have the class; however, I’m not at concerned because Genetics is an elective class, so the students who take it know that they made the choice to have me as a teacher.

I spoke with the CRT again as well, we can’t add any new classes, but she thinks that the classes can be hand created, it would just require that all the students be able to get into that class based on what the rest of their classes are.

In any case, we’re meeting again Monday after school to make a plan to take with us to guidance.  We really want to get this plan going.

So It Began with a Simple Hello….

South Carolina is an interesting place to live and teach, especially if you teach biology (since Evolution is apparently really, really bad).  We like our weather hot and our roads clear, so in the dead of winter, things can get pretty interesting.  Last year, we didn’t have a single day lost.  We got out half way through the day one Friday for an ice storm, but it was in the 60s the rest of the weekend, so after that day, it all melted.

At the beginning of the year, I got all of my set up done on the first day, which I was really proud of because that NEVER happens.  I still had to be there, and once the meetings ended, I ended up with not a lot to do. I asked the CRT at the school if she needed any help, and she gave me the list of all the new teachers in the school and asked me to check up on them to make sure they were set up with their technology.

The science hall is above the social studies hall, and there is a stair case right next to my room that connects them, so I started there.  Science didn’t have anyone new, and neither did math.  I met Anne, who moved here with her husband from Ohio, and I knew pretty quickly that we were going to get along well.  We had similar personalities and senses of humor.  She was pretty laid back and open to new and different things.  The school was a lot different from her previous job as a teacher in Ohio.  We were quickly friends, and with her room really easy to get to and us on the same prep-class schedule, we saw a lot of each other.  I checked in on her fairly regularly to answer any questions.

Three weeks ago, there was a “threat of snow.”  I kept telling people that if we were “gonna get any weather, then it was gonna be in February or March, and it had to be coming up from Atlanta.  If they didn’t get it, we didn’t get it.”  Well, three weeks ago, there was a “threat” of weather.  We were in session, but no one really expected us to be there all day.

I was checking for that early dismissal from the district about every 3 to 4 minutes.  My Genetics class was asking be about it in between lecture slides, so I kept hitting refresh.  “No, nothing yet.”  Bell rings, Genetics files out, and I have my second prep of the day, and then we get the word: schools are closing at noon.  Everybody go home.

I, literally, danced down the hall and showed it to EVERY teacher I passed on my phone.  You could hear student cheering in classrooms as their teachers broke the news: you have one hour left before your school day ends.  I decided to go down and show Anne, and that got us onto a catch-up conversation because we hadn’t seen each other much since Christmas break.

I asked her if she had ever heard of a flipped classroom because I saw a video on it and it sounded cool.  She told me they were working on doing that in Ohio right before she left and she’d love to do one here.  I told her we should do it.

We were then out for a almost an entire week because of our freak snow storm (Remember? It shut Atlanta down completely with a horrible traffic jam.)  The next week was panic-we-have-state-exams-and-we-need-to-catch-up-week.  Then we went to school on MONDAY and were out until next TUESDAY because of another freak weather storm, this one dropping a WHOPPING 6 inches of snow and an inch of ice.  (Yea, the south… we only put salt our our fried food, not on our roads.)

When we FINALLY got back, I ran into Anne again who asked if I was serious about flipping.  I said yes.  We met later that day in the media center (they have wireless) to begin our planning.

Here are some of our initial thoughts:

  • What classes do we want to do this in?
    My biggest concern with running this experiment for the first time was that I would royally screw it up and then my student would be highly unprepared for their state standardized test at the end of the year.  If that happened, it would come back on me for messing it up with this teaching strategy that I wasn’t use to.  We decided for the first year to do this in a non-tested class.Anne is hoping that we’ll get to hand-select the students for the section so that we get an ideal mix to get our feet wet with it.  My genetics class is an elective class, and the kids are told prior to signing up that it’s a fun class, but it’s no joke.  Anne’s only option is to do her half-year economics class that is required for all seniors to take, so selecting students may or may not be an option for her.

    We decided on doing one section.  I don’t think this will be an issue for me because the last two years, I’ve only made one section of genetics.  If I end up making two sections, then I will need to decide if I basically want to give myself a third prep by teaching the classes differently or if I just say “screw it” and go all in.

  • How do we cope with a potential lack of technology in the classroom?
    We want to get our classes that will be flipped during the same period preferably in the morning.  This way we can schedule the media center or labs on the same days and have what we call “study halls” where the students can either use the time to catch up on missed work, complete online lectures, or work on the big class project.  It would also give us the chance to work with the classes and get them to collaborate together.
  • How will we organize the online content?
    The school district offers Moodle that the teachers can use.  We also have a district code for Edmodo.  The Moodle needs to be updated, and we ran into a snag where the district decided not to update the program and suggested we use Edmodo, which we really would like to avoid.  The main reason is that we can’t organize units in Edmodo, it ends up in an unorganized list that will probably look to be overwhelming for students.  We’re looking into Google Sites and Wikipages to see if they would work, but we’re still not getting  everything we want.The next option is to go past the district and talk to the state about getting Moodle for the school (because the state has the update, the district doesn’t).  We’ve talked to the administration about it, and they’re on board.  Moodle would be our best option and we really, really want it.

When it comes to our priority list, we’ve decided on the following check list:

  1. Get a basic plan together to present to the administration for a final go-ahead.
  2. Talk to guidance about class selection and blocking classes as needed.
  3. Speak with the CRT about the formation of a new flipped-classroom PLC group so that we have dedicated time twice a month after school to work on planning and troubleshooting the project.
  4. Finalize a website and begin set up.
  5. Record video lessons (this will take a lot of the summer).
  6. Design our semester/year project and begin planning.
  7. Create activities and reviews to keep the class interesting so that students will be engaged while in the classroom.

We want to start this next year, and we’re going full-force to make it happen.