Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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Standards-Based Grading: In the Helicopter Above the Forest

I sat in the hallway with a student who is retaking biology for the third time. He failed the first time. His cogency surprised me, and his frankness caught me off guard. I’m totally used to this kid coming up with questions that can only be the result of actively inverting my words, but there I sat, listening to a damned treatise on three-chambered hearts.

My current flavor of SBG (I’ve tried six, by the way) includes very little in the way of formal testing. The students have the list of standards in BlueHarvest, which, by the way, just received an epic upgrade, and I’d really appreciate it you’d check it out. The students work on whatever standard they want, however they want. My job is to coach, and you can’t even begin to imagine how much better the conversations are.

The emphasis there has to be on coaching. I’m sure you’re imagining my feet up, chair reclined listening to James Brown while the kids plagiarize The Wikipedia. I assure you, the reality is that I scurry from student to student addressing specific project-related concerns bell-to-bell.

I have noticed that students just want to “tell” me about what they know. This seems fine on the surface, but it doesn’t address the core problem that students don’t see school as something bigger than the building. I’m still actively grappling (as I type this past my bed time) with how to get students to do more interesting projects.

The students ask the most amazing things:

  • “Do you think the smooth endoplasmic reticulum is kind of lame? I do, I can’t even come up with a good explanation of what it does, and I’ve tried. Is it really important?”
  • “I know I need to include more about gallbladders, but do you think this part of my paper about different kinds of large intestines is good?”

I keep track of their progress, and everything is a kind of assessment and kind of a journal entry.

To me, school as planned and run by experts is designed for experts to succeed. Our students are not experts. They have no idea what, “go learn about livers” means. Helping them parse a lot of information as a coach has been way better, and a hell of a lot more meta-cognitive than chewing it all for them ahead of time, which is how I think about traditional teaching.

I got asked tonight how these methods affect smart kids. I couldn’t help but think about all the “smart” kids who can’t retain anything longer than two weeks.

I want kids who learn long, not fast.

Oh, and I designed a natural selection game that has laser pandas. Materials forthcoming.

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2 thoughts on “Standards-Based Grading: In the Helicopter Above the Forest
  • Jake says:


    After reading this and looking at BlueHarvest, I really want to see what your standards look like right now and I want to know how you determine a student’s grade. What does a student need to do to get a “92%” in your class? And how does that conversation undermine what we’re trying to do with SBG in the first place?

    In my school we are in an on-going process of reviewing learning standards and considering a move to a standards-based report card. Part of that discussion is dividing the course standards into “Need to Know” and “Nice to Know”. Students would be required to show mastery of all the Need to Know standards to pass the course. Nice to Know mastery gets you up into the A/B range.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Kelly Holman says:

    Could you do a post on your six flavors of SBG? Pros/cons, why you changed certain policies, etc. I’ve read posts from various times in your evolution, but sometimes your application of SBG in a particular context is outdated, and if I even realize it, I can’t figure out why you changed or what your current ideal is.

    You’re blazing this trail, and I need a map. (not that I’m necessarily going to stay on the path, of course) I discovered you the last week of my first year of (totally untrained) teaching, and if I get another opportunity, I want to be prepared to do things totally differently.

    Thanks for your great work!