In My Classroom # 9: I’ve Come to Have An Argument

Welcome to the KABT new blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:


This year, I am working on what kind of labs my students are conducting, and building my students skills in inquiry.  We have spent the first weeks focused on questioning and the inquiry process.  My students have already conducted a guided inquiry on Drosophila behavior in choice chambers where they came up with their own testable and measurable conditions, and followed through the scientific method. It was a great learning experience for all of us, but I want to find ways to make these labs a richer experience for the students.

Students are investigating Drosophila behavior in their choice chambers.

Students are investigating Drosophila behavior in their choice chambers.

In a process to embed the Scientific Practices and Cross-Cutting Concepts into my labs, I am starting to follow the model for Argument Driven Inquiry in my classes.  I have so far been very pleased in how my students have engaged in the experiences, and it’s exciting to see my students have a chance to engage in planning investigations and leading their own learning.  They also get a chance to share their ideas and understanding with the class when they defend their claims in an argument session.

My students are currently working on their second argument.  In our first argument, students worked on making and defending a claim to answer the question “Should Viruses be considered a living or non-living thing?” We talked briefly about the problem, and the data they had access too, but I did not explicitly teach them much of the characteristics of life before jumping in.  I simply helped model the process and what are final product could look like.  I was blown away by the results.

One group of students begins defending their claim to whether viruses are living or non-living. Their evidence and justification were a key part of their boards that they were assessed for.

One group of students begins defending their claim to whether viruses are living or non-living. Their evidence and justification were a key part of their boards that they were assessed for.

Most of my students were digging much deeper into the content then I had ever planned on assessing them for.  I had many groups looking into how viruses replicate and asking questions about why some viruses had DNA and others RNA. Students were going as far to research and describe plasmid structure, and how that may affect their claim. I did not ask for a specific amount of evidence, but only that it be sufficient to defend their answers to the guiding question.

Argument Boards

Once the evidence and justification was gathered, we all had a round-robin where we went around and critiqued other groups arguments and evidence.  Many of my students sided with the camp that viruses are non-living, but I had a couple groups that defended their status as living things.  This made are initial argumentation session somewhat one-sided, but the conversations we had were excellent.  After students recieved critiques, they went back and reformed their arguments if needed, and turned in final written arguments as groups.


A student in my class defends his group’s divided claim on virus’ living status. Some groups found evidence to support both sides, and were a little divided on whether viruses fit the model for life.

Having this experience made teaching the characteristics of life much easier. I am now having my students forming arguments on “Why do Great White Sharks travel such long distances” as a way to study animal behavior and ecology. We are using real shark tracking data from a group called OCEARCH , and going deeper into the process by having students formulate their own methodology for collecting data.  My advanced bio classes will also be doing a peer-review of final argument papers to help improve their content writing. So far, my students seem to really enjoy the process of argumentation and I hope to post more on this topic in the future.

For now, I am passing the torch on to our Kansas Teacher of the Year, Shannon Ralph, to see what’s going on in her classroom.

The Great Gradeless Experiment #2

Well, after 5 weeks of using the gradeless system, I figured it’s time for an update. If you’re just now joining me, my first post can be found here:

We’ve just finished our first unit (Structure and Function), which means we’ve had our first summative assessment. We’ve also submitted our first progress report grades of the year. I’ll be using this update to talk about both of these things.

Summative assessment:

In early August, Steve Young at Olathe East held a workshop over how students learn (if you have a chance to attend in the future, I highly recommend it!). My big “a-ha” learning moment of the workshop also solved a major problem I was having with setting up my gradeless system – How will assess my students?

If you’re following along at home, I’m using a 0-4 scale to assess student learning. This means I need a way to assess students at all levels. I originally thought of including test questions of varying difficulty. Steve Young taught me to differentiate.

I offered my students 3 different exams to choose from. The level 2 exam tested basic skills and vocabulary, the level 3 exam tested application, and the level 4 exam was an open-ended writing assignment. Link to the exams: DNA and Protein Synthesis Test 2015

My students were able to choose which exam they were comfortable taking based on how well they thought they understood the information. Students were encouraged to come in after school to retake the exam at higher difficulties to demonstrate mastery of the content. Exams could be retaken an unlimited number of times.

Most students tested at the level 2 and level 3 level. A handful of students were comfortable (and successful) at level 4. This is about what I expected. Most students were honest about how much they knew and where they were in their learning. Since taking the test, I’ve had a number of students come to me to take the exam at a different level.

Progress report:

A gradeless system doesn’t play very nicely with a more traditional A-F grading system. We’re not bothering with percentages in my class (because honestly, can you tell the difference between student work if one student earned an 88% and another that earned a 92%? I know I can’t.). This means I had to figure out how to translate my 0-4 scales into letter grades. The obvious way would to make an A=4, B=3, C=2, etc., but what happens if you have a student that scores across the board, depending on the content?

I chose to hold individual conferences with each student. During these conferences, I asked each student what letter grade they thought they deserved and why. When students received reviewed work from me, they kept it in a folder in my room. This became their evidence during their conferences. If a student earned mostly 3s and 4s on assignments and wanted an A, they were able to argue for it. Together we decided on the letter that would represent their learning for the first grading period.

Overall, my letter grade recommendation and the students’ matched almost every time. If anything, students tended to underestimate their learning.

These conferences were enjoyable to do – I got to talk to each student one-on-one about their learning and I think it helped students learn to trust me more in regards to this new grading system.

Final thoughts:

This grading system is not perfect yet and I’m still trying to work out a few kinks (like eligibility for athletes), but so far I am pleased with how things are going. It’s still early into the school year, but I feel like the students are starting to worry less about their percentage and letter grade and are focusing more on learning the content.

I gave a presentation over this gradeless system during the Fall KABT conference last Saturday. If you weren’t in attendance, we have the videos linked in the post below. You can also find my PowerPoint at: Going Gradeless PPT

The 2015 KABT Fall Conference Is Here!!!

2015 KABT Fall Conference Agenda

We’ve got a fantastic group of scientists and educators ready to engage teachers in conversation and action during our 2015 Fall Conference at the Konza Prairie Biological Station on September 12th! Make plans to join us!

Registrations is $35.  This includes participation in all Conference events, 1 year full paid KABT membership, & a meal.

In My Classroom #8 – Get At the Engineering

Welcome to the KABT blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.


The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:


My student teacher and I made a decision to try to do a better job of addressing the engineering aspects of the NGSS expectations this year. I wanted to take a new look at the end of my Scientific Method unit to insert some engineering considerations. Vivian Choong had the idea to discuss water quality and use the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a context for a PBL.


It's in the standards, seriously.

It’s in the standards, seriously.


We decided to retool my blackworm lab to use them as bioindicators of water quality and take measurements of the worms’ homeostasis before and after different remediation attempts on some “polluted” water. Students designed ecological water filters (soil, sawdust… that kind of thing, not chemical filtration) and considered the economic costs and ecological benefits of their interventions.

We thought the students would measure blackworm pulse rate or other behavior indicators, but they gravitated much more to measurements of water turbidity and coloration. It’s super cool and they’re really engaged with the topical nature of the problem. This is a keeper that I hope to formalize after some debrief and further revision.

Here is our anchor video for the activity. Don’t ask me for submission tiers, because we’re not there yet!

IMG_20150902_090823 IMG_20150902_090839

That’s it for me. Tag Andrew Davis, you’re it.