Friday, February 12, 2016

Dear Learner - A letter to my students

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Dear Learner:

I am sure you have heard from your parents, grandparents, teachers, counselors and other advice-givers-at-least-twice-your-age, that we know what’s best for your future and everything you do now will affect you later. I am not going to go on a long rant about the philosophical life-lesson part of that concept, but I am going to explain my reasons for holding you to high standards and expecting that you learn everything that I teach you in our Algebra 2 class.

I can not predict what you will do after you leave Schaumburg High School and while you may have some idea now what you want to do, it is entirely possible that will change. I can, however, predict what you will need to know mathematically in the years that you will spend at SHS taking mathematics courses. Actually, it is not a prediction at all. The government and school board have set a list of required concepts - called standards or learning targets or objectives - and each course in high school has 9 months to teach you a portion of that list. The skills and concepts are in a specific order and each course is designed to prepare you for the next.

Think of it like this: Little league baseball prepares you to make the freshman baseball team, where you continue to perfect your skills so you are prepared for the JV team which intern prepares you for Varsity. If you are really talented and passionate about baseball, you may get the opportunity to play in college or even make it your career. Now see if you can follow this metaphor for learning mathematics. Elementary school mathematics taught you the basics - the arithmetic and number sense. You used those skills when learning Algebra 1 and applied some of those skills in Geometry where you learned the mathematics of logical, orderly argument and justification. This year you are working your algebra skills again to deepen your understanding. Why? To prepare you for upcoming classes: Trigonometry and Calculus.

The road ahead for you while at SHS is already laid out. You will take Trigonometry/PreCalculus next year where, like geometry you will exercise only some of your algebra skills, but then you will take Calculus. Whether you take AP calculus or non-AP calculus , you will need to not only have a little experience with algebra but you will need to be really good at it. More than 70% of every calculus problem is algebraic manipulation - in other words - you most likely will not find calculus difficult unless you are unprepared algebraically. That is my job - to prepare you algebraically and to create thinkers rather than robots. I know this not just because “I was your age once”, but because I have taught the next course and I work with the teachers everyday that teach the courses that you will take after you successfully complete this one. I actually know what is ahead for you because it is my job to know and to prepare you.

Imagine if the coach of the JV baseball team only practiced batting skills and never addressed running the bases or outfielding? Maybe that year his team did alright, winning just over half the games - like 60%, a ‘passing’ rating. How will this bode for the Varsity team next year when all those skills are necessary to make it to state? Are those players going to be prepared for success?

I understand that in every other math class you have been given a percent that represents an average of scores on assessments and that seems comfortable and maybe logical. Here is why I no longer average my student’s learning. For simplicity sake we will keep it to 5 learning standards, although I hope you can see how this is magnified with more standards.

Skills/Learning Standards
Percent Accuracy on Test
Graphing Functions
Solving Linear Equations
Solving Quadratic Equations
Solving Inequalities
Writing Equations

The student depicted above would earn a 75%, a C - a passing grade - if the scores were averaged. At first this appears fair and reasonable, but look more carefully and think about this student’s future. If a teacher “passes” this student on to the next course because he has an average of a 75% and never addresses the deficit of solving quadratic equations, this student will not be prepared when that concept is called upon in subsequent courses. This student may struggle not only with the new concepts in the next course but also with re-learning the skills of previous courses that were not learned when taught.

I don’t aim to make life or school more difficult for my students. Nor do I expect this course to take precedence over another at all times. I merely want to prepare my students to be successful for the future that I can predict for them - the upcoming mathematics courses at SHS.

If you share the same vision, that is being successful in future classes, then one thing you can do is take the preparation and learning opportunities that I am providing seriously. I will not average your scores because it lessens the importance of the concepts that you are not excelling at and increases the weight of those that you found success on. I will not ignore that “one standard” that you got a “2” on, because that means that I am sending you on to another course unprepared. I will provide you a safe learning environment, many learning opportunities and endless opportunities to demonstrate that you have learned the concepts - the concepts that I know you’ll need to be successful in the near future.  

Please feel free and comfortable to share a response by clicking here. My students are my job so I want to hear from you.


Your teacher - Ms Moran

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In Progress Grades for Athletic Eligibility

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Today was the start of second semester. I asked my students what they liked about our class and what they would like to see changed. There were quite a few positive comments about retakes and the feedback that I provide on formative assessments. They liked the group work and the cup system I have in place for communicating levels of struggle as I walk around the room. Many students like the flipped videos and taking notes at home, which allow them class time to work on homework with their peers. Others would prefer if I taught in front of the class more often and suggested that I do that twice a week. All of their comments were thoughtful and it was good to see that my intentions were effective and well received.

Another suggestion, that breaks my heart a little, is the lingering desire for a traditional letter grade. The students that asked for this, and there were not many, explained why they felt they needed it. I still read their words and tear up because the reason they gave is athletic eligibility. To me this seems simple – if you’re making progress then you are eligible. Because learning is a process I don’t issue grades until I am required to do so. How do I capture a weekly grade while progress is being made but the last piece of evidence has not been submitted?

In perfect situation, I would mark “Making Progress” or “Progress Stalled” or “No Progress” for eligible or ineligible each week.  At the end of a grading period, I would only issue “Evidence of Proficiency Demonstrated” or “Has Not Yet Met Proficiency”. That’s right only two marks: Yes or Not Yet. To justify using this two-pronged approach, because I am on the SBL Island alone in my school, I can issue traditional letter grades at the end of the term. But only at the end. (I also wish there didn’t have to be an “end,” but there is an end in June-every year.) Every day before the last day of school is still an in-progress learning day – there is no grade – we are STILL learning.

So, I can stand on my Island and talk to myself and send messages in bottles hoping to be heard, but I really want my students and their parents to understand and be comfortable with my policies. The current concern seems slightly less focused on the grade for the sake of a grade, which warms me, but rather focused on the need for a grade for athletic eligibility. The thing is I am very committed to communicating with all parties involved so I complete athletic eligibility every week based on my student’s progress and use standards - “Making Progress” or “Progress Stalled” or “No Progress”.  Is this enough?  How do you determine athletic eligibility?

Please share your thoughts and the way that you address athletic eligibility for your standards based learners on twitter @stemflowerlc or by emailing Aric and Megan at

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Monday, February 1, 2016

Asynchronous Classrooms

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words “I run an asynchronous high school math classroom”? Do you think I am crazy or that it is impossible? Does the idea make you panicked or curious? When I first heard a high school science teacher tell me that his students work asynchronously, I had two questions: has anyone been seriously injured, and if he can do it, why can’t I? And of course, I wanted an answer to my first question before I moved on the second.

I have been running an asynchronous classroom for over three years, and it has been a great change for my students. It is also a mental workout for me. I found interest after running a flipped classroom for two years and wanted to utilize the flip for differentiation. So, how did I wrap my head around this seemingly insane concept? Well, contractually I have had a math tutor supervisory position for 10 out of the last 12 years. Our academic center is staffed by one science, one English and one math teacher all day everyday in 25 minute increments. In this position, I greet and tutor 5-15 students each day with needs from “can you just check this one question?” to “I’ve been absent for 3 days and have no idea what’s going on.” The topics are anything from basic Algebra 1 to AP Statistics to ACT preparation. That means that as I roll from student to student I need to switch topics, or more often courses, and I must be ready to meet the needs of each learner regardless where they are in their learning process.

I reflected on my hours of flexibility in the academic center as preparation for an asynchronous classroom everyday. I was really good at resetting for each learner so that whatever their needs were, I could meet them, pleasantly. But what does it look like? To some it may look chaotic and that can scare both young and experienced teachers away. But look closer with me. That chaos is actually active learning. When students are learning at their own pace, not only can the slower learners “keep up” but the faster learners are also permitted to “move ahead.” Those that get bored because they “get it” can move on to the next lesson instead of nodding off, distracting others, or tuning out. It is also great for students that are planning ahead because they have a busy weekend or a basketball tournament that will get them home too late to finish their homework.

How does it work? On a learning curve of my own, which involved too much freedom for the learners at first, I realized the asynchronous classroom could be the recipe for procrastination for students if not enough guidance is given in the beginning of the school year. My first year, I planned months in advance preparing a variety of practice opportunities, formative checkpoints that, if failed, would direct students back to more practice and multiple versions of practice-including a variety of methods of assessment. I was ready for learners to be up to 2 units ahead of my typical schedule if they were proficient and driven. At the start of the year, when setting the foundation for a positive learning environment and culture in my classroom, I introduced the asynchronous classroom. Reactions were generally positive, filled with excitement and a touch of apprehension.

The go-getters were thrilled to have permission to move ahead, asking what would happen if they finished before June. The apprehensive learners expressed their concerns about the freedom being too much. What I witnessed was many students working ahead and a few that would only use class time to work, as though 45 minutes in class was always going to be enough time to complete the learning, practice, and assessments. There was a group of students whose procrastination surfaced quickly and as the first 9-week grading period drew near, were struggling to complete the work. I issued more incompletes that year than I had in the lat 8 years combined. Of course, my first thought “Was I to blame for this?
As we entered the second quarter, I began to make workload recommendations daily and created a big picture timeline; I then suggested that students plan their week of learning every Monday with me and then reflect on Friday if they accomplished it. I advised that if they set the goal of four lessons and a formative assessment in the five days we spent together and they accomplished it, then they could take the weekend off. This made them much more at ease with the freedom of my classroom. I saw more students keeping up and others realizing how easy it would be to get ahead. The reward of a “math-free” weekend was appealing to many. Others liked the idea that they could plan around athletic events and other school related commitments including work for other classes.

As that quarter rolled on and we moved into second semester, more students needed less of my guidance. They were now in control of the pace of their learning with the safety net of their teacher: me. Still a small handful asked for a pacing guide to be spelled out for them with daily in class and out of class tasks.

For each year since, I have eased my students into the freedom of being asynchronous. I offer them the support and guidance that they need to be successful. I check in with each of them at least once a week specifically about their pace and learning. I make frequent contact to parents, to coaches, and to counselors when appropriate. I encourage them to assess when they are prepared rather than when the schedule dictates. Students approach learning with some ownership and enjoy the control they have in the classroom. Their confidence is higher when they assess because it is their choice when they demonstrate their knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about asynchronous classrooms, please email Megan and Aric at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Friday, January 29, 2016

Let Kids Fail?

hybrid small.pngLike many of you, I have a young child at home. Watching him grow and learn has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. From teacher training and dad instinct, I know that letting him struggle with putting on his pants by himself, opening fruit snacks, and building Legos is best for his personal growth. However, whether it is to save time or avoid personal frustration or laziness, I sometimes “do it for him” and immediately regret that decision.

The patience and personal integrity it takes to let a learner struggle is difficult to achieve at times. This same difficulty translates to our Standards Based Learning classrooms. As my learners have zero extrinsic, mathematical motivation to complete a task or improve on already “proficient” work to achieve mastery, I am confident our assessment system is best for their learning. However, there have been multiple times this school year where I have had assignment X. For assignment X, we practice the skills necessary to succeed in class together with multi-faceted instruction, class wide feedback, multiple exemplars, differentiated instruction, and peer editing. In addition, learners have enough in class time (while I float around the room as a consultant to help) to finish 80% of the task, leaving about 10 minutes of at home time to finish. With respect to remembering due dates on assignment X, I remind the students verbally at the beginning and end of class, the date is posted on the board, and I send a text message reminder to their phone through Remind 101. On the due date of assignment X, 40% of the students complete the task on time. Many times, those that finish the task are often missing a key component or have a pronounced misconception within the task or merely replicate the exemplar.

Immediately, I turn the evaluative eye on myself and ask myself several questions about the task: Were the directions clear and given in multiple formats? Did the learners have sufficient background knowledge and practice of the standard(s) in a guided atmosphere in order to be expected to have some success on their own? Did the learners have equal and abundant access to resources that they needed in order to succeed. If the answers to these questions is yes, then I am left with the question of, “WHY?” Why did my learners not complete the task and/or struggle so prominently.

While there are a few possible answers, one of the first reactions in my head is to, “Just give them the right answer.” I know this would be the path of least resistance and easily put everyone on the same page. However, what does it do for the learner that got the right answer on his or her own on time? What does it teach the struggling learner about the standard(s) being assessed or about task completion? What will my child learn if I zip his own coat for him every time it takes his nimble little fingers an extra two minutes? The answer is, “Nothing.” In fact, just giving in, just giving the right answer, just having the teacher/parent do the work for the leaner/child is enabling, is placating, is condescending, is damaging.

If you are like me, you struggle with letting little people in your care struggle. However, you realize that this struggle is where more learning happens. If you are interested in hearing more about this idea, please email us at or follow up with the following articles below.

“When, and how, to let students struggle”

“Constructive Struggling”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chants and Metophors

One of the criticisms in a Standards Based Learning classroom is that, “Kids won’t do tasks if they are not for points, if there are no carrots or sticks.” It is clear to see that this criticism comes from an established mentality of “the way we have always done it.” Why do toddlers build Legos without points or final grade? Why do high school athletes go to optional lifting sessions or practices without immediate, tangible rewards? While motivation is certainly part of the discussion, an overlaying paradigm that permeates students “doing tasks” without “carrots of sticks” is culture. What classroom culture have we bred to not just facilitate but also encourage learners to learn, and in many cases, “do extra”?

That’s nice, but what does building a positive SBL culture look like? While there are many factors that the teacher in the room cannot control or influence in the lives of learners, one tangible aspect that we as educators CAN control is the language used in the room. You may have noticed in these newsletters that we use the term “learners” more than students. This simple shift subconsciously, and in many cases consciously, places more emphasis on learning and being learners rather than playing school and being just students. For example, in my classroom, we call homework and activities and formative assessments “practice,” while summative assessments (that actually count towards final mathematical calculation of the final grade) “game time.” For more about the language we educators use with our learners, you might want to survey The Power of Words by Paula Denton, EdD. at

More specifically, in my classroom, we have several metaphors in class that we use to establish the cultural mood of the room. In the first week of school, we read the parable of “The Grasshopper and the Ant” ( Throughout the year, when formative practices are at hand, I remind the students that there is no extrinsic, mathematical reason to do the work of the task. Then I add that the grasshopper couldn’t see the long term damage of his present decisions either. Asking questions like, “Are you preparing for winter?” and “What did the ant do to make himself successful in the long term?” use this simple allegory as a way to help kids internalize seeing the future consequences of their immediate actions and to invest in learning, rather than put time in a chair to make the teacher happy.   

To further emphasize this point, we chant the lesson from this metaphor every day. We use one specific chant for about five weeks at a time. Starting the third day of school, then repeatedly every day, when the beginning bells rings, I walk in the door, shut it, and say, “Good morning.” After the learners say, Good morning,” I ask, “Who is going to be happy and healthy in the winter?” They respond, “The ant.” Yes this is cheesy, yes this is a bit below the maturity level of my teenagers. However, I am insistent that we say the words everyday. This enables me to consistently refer to the allegory all year and use the allegory in one-one conversations with kids who have missing work. Then, after some learners perform poorly on the first summative assessment, I don’t scold or reprimand them. I simply ask them how “ant-like” they were in the time leading up to the first “game.” They get it. And, more importantly, they start to see the vision, the benefit, the culture of Standards Based Learning.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. My learners hear and practice these “one million words” everyday to build and breed an academic  culture that puts learning at the forefront.

Share you comments and thoughts below, email Aric and Megan at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Struggle of the Rubics Cube

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Many English Language Arts teachers, like myself are familiar with using rubrics to evaluate student papers and projects. I have dedicated countless hours “perfecting” rubrics, as I am sure you all have as well. With this dedication, comes some confidence that the four boxes on the activity are a useful and effective tool to assist student learning. However, is that confidence founded?

In her article, “Using a Rubric does NOT Ensure Student Learning,” Starr Sackstein cautions teachers to not be complacent with their rubric usage. Rubrics, whether they are checklists or boxes or other graphic organizers, certainly work to make it learning targets and outcomes clear. However, do they lock us teachers into a figurative and literal box?

One change I have made this year, as inspired by edcamps and the twittersphere is to put the rubric at the top of the page, as opposed to the bottom. On some assignments, I put it at the top AND bottom. By putting the rubric first, students have a clear purpose and focus for the task at hand. It also channels my feedback to be directly tied to the learning target that the students are practicing.

On the other hand, on occasion, the wording of the rubric restrains me from assessing a nuance of student performance that I did not predict. On a recent practice of making inferences, my students made several predictions. While predictions are in the same thinking family as infer, they are merely cousins and not exactly inferring. As I began marking boxes on the infer rubric, I felt my hands were tied to effectively use the rubric at hand to address the common confusion my learners had between predicting and inferring. While I certainly addressed the confusion the next day in class and did some re-teaching, I found the rubric lacking in helping me address this concern. This experience led me to a few conclusions about rubrics:

  1. They are certainly neat and helpful in focusing student learning and teacher assessing.
  2. They require the teacher to be mindful of the delicate balance between vague and specific wording.
  3. They are more effective when used as a guide that students use to self-assess.
  4. They are best used to direct evaluation of the academic learning at hand (such as infer) and not work habits (such as collaboration).

Especially since many of us don’t count formative assessments as a contribution to final grades, why do we need to score every rubric ourselves? What if we simply wrote specific feedback or circled words on the rubric and then asked learners to score themselves? Wouldn’t this change “rubrics cube” from a sometimes confusing, constraining mess of numbers and words to a useful tool to foster the learning feedback loop?
On the other side of the “rubrics cube” is  Megan. She has worked to fit her standards into rubrics and each attempt leads to the same frustration. After writing her standards and building sound assessments, she has written rubrics to evaluate the proficiency of her students’ learning. They are either too general or too specific, missing possible outcomes produced by students.  Not that students are creating new and unheard of mathematical errors, but that the value of each error should be weighed differently and collectively over the entire assessment. One missed negative sign or minor arithmetic error may not mean the student is not proficient on a particular standard. However, how is that written into a rubric? For Megan, rubrics were too restrictive and rather than guiding the learning and self assessment rubrics, they got in the way of a holistic evaluation of student learning where both skills and conceptual understanding came together.

What are your thoughts about rubrics? How have you used them in the past? What concerns do you have about rubrics?

Share you comments and thoughts below, email Aric and Megan at or visit

Starr’s article can be found at:

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Sunday, January 17, 2016

INFORMative Assessment

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All of us remember those times when we were learners where we reached an assessment and got to question #8 and thought, “I know the teacher didn’t go over this.” If we were right in our thinking, the teacher had a disconnect in the assessment path that we all learned in Teaching 101: Objectives ⇒ Activities ⇒ Assessments. We all know this path needs to be aligned and transparent. If concept/practice X is in the objectives, it needs to be practiced in activities and should be assessed effectively in the assessment; concepts that weren’t practiced, shouldn’t be assessed.

We understand this path from Teaching 101. However, as education evolves, Teaching 2.0 asks us to consider designing class time with a new path in mind: Objectives (or standards) ⇒ Summative Assessments ⇒ Activities (or formative assessments). After synthesizing standards for our course and creating a summative performance task that will clearly assess those standards, our job is then to “backfill” class time with tasks and activities that will foster success. When we follow this path, it increases the likelihood that learners will feel more prepared for the summative and will actually show proficiency in the standards with greater success.  

In her article called, “Formative Assessment” at, Heather Coffey makes this approach even more opaque. By providing clear bulleted lists and authentic practices any teacher can use in their classroom today, Coffey promotes using formative assessment as a “thermometer” to gauge student progress on this path and not just a way to “do fun activities in class” that may or may not appropriately prepare learners for summative assessment day.

Today, formative assessment informs my teaching. I tell my learners that they are the Thanksgiving turkey. They should be done cooking around Thanksgiving time (our summative assessment day). Along the way, I will periodically pull them out of the oven and check their temperature. Some of them, I continue to explain, will be cold and clammy and not even close to done. Some of them will be nice and toasty, but still need more marinating before they reach their optimal temperature. This “temperature check” is what formative assessment does for my learners and me. It is a way for me to measure their progress on the standards in a safe, supportive environment (that does not contribute to their final grade). It is a way for me to guide my instruction to most appropriately meet my students’ needs. It is a way for me to continue to build a feedback loop that breeds learning, not a paper checking system that “catches” kids for getting the wrong answer along the way to summative assessment day.

If we follow this Teaching 2.0 path, if we constantly use formative assessment as a “points free” way to check for student understanding, if we alter our instruction to fill gaps in standards proficiency, we can be more confident that #8 on the summative assessment won’t surprise the learners and that Thanksgiving dinner will be delicious.

Share you comments and thoughts below, email Aric and Megan at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Power of the Zero

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In Douglas Reeve’s 2004 article "The Case Against the Zero" published in Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 86, he presents readers with the argument that a zero used a 100-point scale has devastating effects on a students and their grades. I have now read this article half a dozen times.  

Let me summarize Mr. Reeve’s case: On a 100-point scale A, B, C, D are on 10-point intervals, and an F ranging from 0-60, often assigned to a student that failed to complete or turn in an assignment, is up to 6 times more impactful to the overall grade. He explains that using a 4-point scale with equal intervals offers a proportionate opportunity for students to improve if a zero is given for non-compliance. If using a 100-point scale, he suggests using a 50 as the lowest grade to maintain the equal intervals between the traditional A-F letter grades. And he challenges readers to consider appropriate consequences for students that do not complete assignments. His recommendation aligns with Power of ICU authors, Danny Hill and Dr Jayson Nave: require the assignment to be complete.

I have done a great deal of reflection on this and my stream of thoughts have flowed along these lines: alright, don’t give a zero, give a 50; but a 50 let’s them off the hook; those students that were okay with getting zeros (since grades didn’t motivate them in the first place) are now okay with getting a 50; I have had some turn in a measly attempt at an assignment or assessment because they knew the lowest I could assign was a 50 and that wouldn’t “hurt that bad”; got it, now I’ll use a 4-point scale, but my online grade program makes a C look like 50% which confused the parents; so I turned of the percentage column on the online gradebook and parents were confused as where the overall grade came from; and students still chose to not do work because they could “recover” if it were just one or two; but to me those one or two where extremely important to their overall learning and mastery of the concepts in my class.

Whew! So where am I now? Well, you may remember that I employ standards based learning and grading in my classroom. I use a 4-point scale. However, these numbers to not translate to the traditional A-D, and a zero is not an F. A zero is used to communicate that the student has not YET been assessed on the learning standard.  In April 2014, Reed Gillesepie reitterates Mr. Reeves’ case and addresses an extremely important point that was misinterpreted by many teachers and administrators in his article “The Case for the Case Against the Zero” on He makes six strong arguments for a No-Zero policy with which I could not agree more or state more clearly.

  1. If it’s worth assigning, it’s worth requiring students to do it.
  2. Work completion is often influenced by home life, learned behaviors, economic standing, etc. It’s not fair to punish students for factors beyond their control.
  3. Punishing students for failing to complete an assignment doesn’t motivate them. In my experience, low grades are more likely to discourage students from making greater efforts.
  4. Often a handful of zeros doom the student for the entire term, causing students to simply quit.
  5. The students we most worry about losing (those who are often deemed lazy or are below grade-level are labeled at-risk) are most harmed by zeros.
  6. Zeros distort final grades, which should be an indicator of mastery.

So where does that leave the zero? Well, coincidentally I have zero zeros in my grade book today. Students complete the work that I have intently selected for them to practice that depicts concepts directly tied to the learning standards of my courses. They are assessed on the standards, and their grade is determined not by their completion of one hundred point assignment, but instead by their proficiency on the 16 learning standards.  If a zero is used in my grade book, it is a means of communicating that a standard has not been assessed and must be assessed before a grade can be determined. In my class, a zero does not have a numerical weight on a student’s grade: it might as well be a sad face emoji indicating that I have yet to see if a student has learned.  

How are zeros used in your gradebook? Is a zero too powerful in your current system? I encourage you to review your “zero” policy.

Share you comments and thoughts below, email Aric and Megan at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants