Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Day 53: Not Sure What I've Been Doing For 53 Days

There's something ironic about incorrectly spelling the name of a TV show that advocates for education

My morning question and picture prompted me to give my students an impromptu lecture on the achievements of LeVar Burton as both an advocate for education in general, reading specifically and as a strong, positive, African American male role model.  I gave bonus points to the kid who was able to come up with the name "Geordi laForge."

For almost this entire school year so far, I have been in assessment crisis.  As I have talked about before, I can no longer justify the grades that I give students as I don't think they are an accurate representation of learning.  I have yet, however, to figure out how to fix this.  I love the idea of moving towards Standards Based Grading but I have yet to find the time/energy to make the major shift or to sit down and examine the standards the way I want to.  I've found amazing resources and support on Twitter (@algebrainiac1 and @WHSRowe to name just two) but taking the leap has been more difficult than I anticipated.

So I've been doing what I think is the next best thing: I've been playing around with different assessment types.  My geometry class has been the perfect group of Guinea pigs for this because they are so excited to try something new and they trust me.  They trust that if it flops, I'll hold myself accountable and not them.

Previously, I did a group test where students were not allowed to talk for the first 20 minutes, but were allowed to pass notes back and forth within the group.  That style worked very well with the geometry kids, so I did a modified version today.  They had a group test, but were not allowed to talk at all!  For the entirety of the assessment, they were only able to communicate with their group mates by passing notes.  This may seem like eccentricity, but my goal is to get them to think about their processes and be able to not only explain it to someone else, but to be able to write about it.

In addition, I wanted them to think about the various skills that are needed for each problem and how comfortable they are with those skills.  To that end, I "appropriated" an idea from the brilliant and inspirational @algebrainiac1 and had them fill out this sheet as they went through the assessment:

Students fill out the first 4 columns during the assessment and the last 5 after it has been graded.

After a thorough explanation of what I expected of them today, I asked for any questions.  As I expected, I got one about grades.  I explained again that good or bad grades do not reflect on them as people or as students.  It is a vague measure of their understanding, but not the only one and certainly not the most important.  Assessments are times to learn, not material, but to learn how solidly they grasp that material and are able to retrieve it as needed.

"I need you to understand something else as well.  No matter how well, or how poorly, you do on this test, I am deeply proud of each and every one of you.  You have come with me on this incredible journey, maybe with skepticism at first, but now with energy and enthusiasm. You are amazing people and you are doing incredible things.  I am so very proud of you and, more importantly, you should be proud of yourselves."

Immediate thought (prior to grading):
The assessment was too long.  The kids were working well, but about half of them didn't finish in the time they had.  This could be partially due to their familiarity and comfort with material, or familiarity and comfort with the skills sheet and process.

Because they put the work in, I'll grade it and give it back, but I think instead of putting that grade into the book, I'll let them make corrections and turn in a corrected copy.

I am, however, VERY excited about the homework assignment I gave them:

Tell me everything you can about the triangle with vertices at (2, 2), (3, 9) and (-5, 3)

It's opened ended with tons of possibilities for students top explore and it will lead very nicely into our next conversation about triangles.

In math 8, we began the class with a discussion of alternative assessments.  The warm-up was:

Describe how you might demonstrate that you completely understand a topic.

Several students needed clarification for this prompt, giving me answers like "you could show your work."  While I suppose this is true for the question I asked, it's not the line of thought I was hoping to induce.  So I changed my line of questioning and the answers I received were VERY telling.

Me: "If someone claims to be a cook, how do you know if they are a good cook?"
Student: "The smoke alarm don't go off."
M: "So, anyone who doesn't burn the food is a good cook?"
S: ""
M: "Then what else? How do you know if someone is a good cook, other than the fact that they don't burn their food."
S: "They can mix stuff."
M: "I think that might be more process than outcome. How could we show the outcome of being a good cook?"
S: "They can follow a recipe?"
M: "Again, I think that might be process. Do you need a recipe to make you a good cook?"
**it continued like this for a very long time until...**
S: "If the food looks good and tastes good?"
M: "What do we think? If someone makes tasty food, does that make them a good cook?"
S: "Yes!"
M: "So, making something delicious would be a good way to demonstrate that you know how to cook.  Is there a way to show that you know the concepts in math class, other than taking a test?"
S: "You could show your work!"

We have some work to do, but I think it will be worth it in the end.  In the meantime, I have another issue to tackle.  The assignment for today was an extended response question with multiple parts where students were instructed to "Demonstrate your knowledge by giving a clear, concise solution to each problem."  Here is the first question, verbatim:
  1. For a school bake sale, each student has been asked to bring 6 dozen cookies.  Help Eva plan for the bake sale by completing the exercises.
    1.  Eva has chosen a recipe that makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.  The expression 6 / (2 1/2) can be used to find the number of recipes that she should make. Explain how to evaluate the expression.  Then evaluate the expression to find the number of recipes Eva should make.  Express the answer as a fraction or a mixed number in simplest form.
I don't love this question for several reasons, but the main is that I was worried that it was telling them specifically what to do.

I needn't have worried about that.  I should have worried about other things.  I spent the next 45 minutes going between groups and explaining what they were being asked to do.  Once the question became clear, it became obvious that the majority of the students had no idea how to do it.  When I suggested that they take a look through their notes or text books to find a method, they were lost.

I don't even know where to begin with this.  It's as though we hadn't spent the last month and a half going over fraction operations.  On top of that, many of the students couldn't even get to the idea that they were supposed to divide 6 by 2 1/2 even though it was explicitly laid out for them.

The purpose of this assignment was to move them beyond just number crunching and starting thinking about HOW they solve problems.

I'm not sure what to do.  The first class had an amazingly difficult time with it and most of the students gave up unless I was standing over them.  I had them working in groups so that I could assist more than one student at once, but students worked until they didn't get it (a sentence or two in) and then just sat and waited for me.  I tried to tell them that I would be with them as soon as I could and that they needed to keep trying until I got there, but they wouldn't.

When I worked with the groups, holding their hands a bit as we walked through the first question, they were following along, but not well enough for me to think that it was just a misunderstanding of the directions.

Tomorrow, this class will have an additional 11 students who are coming from another teacher.  They are not at the same place in the curriculum as my students and now, I don't even know where my current students are.

I need to think long and hard about the cause of this problem AND how to fix it quickly.  Some of the causes are obvious to me and lie at both my feet and the feet of the students.

  Are not taking adequate notes
  Are not coming prepared to class
  Are not completing assignments
  Are not persisting

  Am not holding them accountable for their learning
  Am not doing enough assessment to keep track of their progress and understanding
  Am not engaging my students enough
  Am not finding ways to help their retention of material
  Am not adequately impressing upon them the importance of persistence

At the end of class, I asked them to please finish the assignment tonight, rewriting it neatly if necessary.  At least 7 students left their papers in the room.

I'm so tempted to fall back into "I know I taught it! They just didn't learn it!" But the reality is that if they didn't learn it, I didn't teach it.

So now I am put in that difficult position where I have to decide what to do with my math 8 classes.  Do I move on and try to incorporate as much spiral review as possible? Or do I go back and attempt intervention with projects and problems dealing with concepts that they didn't master?  Or...I don't know.

I have some thinking to do.

And I have to figure out how to incorporate 11 new students into my classroom.

I finished my day by blasting the Duran Duran station on Pandora, grading the geometry quizzes (not great) and amusing myself by referencing PeeWee Herman.


  1. I lose my voice with surprising frequency. When I was in public school, some of my more successful classes were when I taught silently, something I got from my former high school band director. I didn't say a thing during class (I couldn't!); I had simple instructions on the board, and they followed them, even with new procedures. And, weird bonus, the kids were also very quiet for no apparent reason while working with each other.

    I also want to start a SBG-type-something, but it'll be hard to implement in my current one-on-one situation. I'm finding myself doing much more reflection this year than years prior, and the awareness is already boosting my own teaching-confidence, making me more aware of my-vs-their responsibility, and wanting more solutions for the (newly found but recently discovered) problems.

    1. I have found on days when I am visibly angry with them, they work better. They also work better when I give them mindless worksheet. They will grind through practice problems for hours as long as I give them in small groups. but ask them to THINK or do a problem that requires interpretation or more than a single step and it's too much.

      They will do 50 single step problems, but not 5 double step problems.

      As an economist, someone mathematically inclined, and a very lazy person, this makes NO sense to me and I don't know how to combat it.

  2. I like that idea from wwndtd. I'd be trying that without actually having lost my voice just to see what happens!

    Justin, I'm curious, do you know if your students have ever been explicitly taught ways to take good maths notes? Could you/do you model effective note taking on the board while teaching maths? How unprepared is unprepared? (I know of students who forget to bring their entire bag).

    1. They have not and I couldn't model it because, honestly, I don't know how to take good notes. In addition, their ability to bring anything to class with regularity is suspect. I give them workbooks with study guides inside and many of them have notebooks, but they rarely come to class with them.

      By unprepared, I mean they walk into my room with the clothes on their back and nothing else. Not even a pencil. Or they bring a binder that has nothing in it from my class.

      I don't want to imply that this is all of them. The ones who come prepared are almost always successful. The ones who don't, aren't.

    2. Maybe I'll try writing a blog post about my journeys with learning to take maths notes. Not sure if that would be helpful, but it might be interesting or useful to someone.

      If they don't want to learn, it's almost impossible to make them. I remember being in year 8 and saying "you can carry me to class, you can chain me to a chair, but you can't make me listen and you can't make me learn" there were other things going on, I had to learn my own (painful) way that education was important. Sure I had some pretty ordinary teachers, I had plain scary teachers, I also had friendly teachers, there was little they could have done. We expect all kids to go through school at basically the same rate, learning the same stuff and expect that they're all maturing at the same rates. I guess what I'm saying is, it's not all your fault - you probably did teach it, and they may have even understood it at the time, but in some ways, schools are terrible places to learn - there's so many distractions.

      I wish there was more freedom in teaching to focus on developing a passion for subjects. It's hard to do that and follow the curriculum and prepare for testing. I wish that the kids could work at their own pace, being ahead in one subject and behind in another, but still working on it and not feeling ashamed. I wish education could be more about discovery and less about making everyone fit through the same hole at the same time.

    3. It's so hard for us to say "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" in education because it feels like giving up on a kid, but the reality is that there are dozens of other kids in the class who also need our attention and will get more out of it than other.

      We never want to sacrifice one student for another, but at some point, we do have to think about where would be the best place to spend our efforts, the most return on our time investment.

      And I totally agree with you about self-paced schools. If only...

    4. I think sometimes, you could be the right teacher, in the right place with the right student, but it's the wrong time for the student, i.e. they're not receptive to the help at this moment. Or sometimes you won't even know that something you've said or done has changed them, only its changed their thinking somewhere else down the line, possibly years later when it finally clicks.

    5. This job is difficult in ways that can never be understood by people who aren't teachers.

    6. Justin thanks as always for posting; I'm grateful that my Internet meandering can lead me to your site and thus back to the classroom--and such a familiar place! I know those kids!
      Tegan--yes, please, I would really like to read the experiences of someone who has tried explicit teaching of note-taking. I was thinking of doing Cornell Notes next semester. Just a thought at this point.
      Justin, one more thing: This is from the book "Spitwad Sutras," which is the awesomest book in the world, incidentally:
      "That same year, my class simply stopped working two weeks before Christmas vacation. At first, I was outraged by their lack of discipline, until I realized that what was really upsetting me was not their behavior, but my inability to change it. I just could not admit to myself that I did not know how to motivate them, that I wasn't as great a teacher as I thought I was, that there were things I didn't know--that there were things NO TEACHER KNEW.
      "Once I owned up to my own imperfection, the class did not bother me as much; it fascinated me. Instead of dreading being in the room with those manipulative kids, I actually almost looked forward to being there to watch them, to see exactly how they resisted work and how they played me off against myself, to watch my own reactions to them, and to fathom the dynamics of classroom insincerity and bogus participation.
      "I began to catalog their intellectual evasions. I never took anything they did personally, but I did take it seriously--as a specimen of intellectual rebellion. In fact, this process worked so well that I decided to give up all my cherished notions about education altogether and just watch for my failures. I did this for ten years. It was my cross, my destiny, my power. It became my way."

    7. Mark,

      Thank you for that! That's a fantastic thing to think about and I clearly need to pick up that book.

  3. Justin, I am familiar with all of those issues with classes of struggling students - not enough notes, poor attendance, checking out in class despite my herculean efforts to engage them - with the content, with each other, with their own brains. I keep trying to find the ENTRY POINT that will work, and as long as I am doing that, I don't beat myself up - because I did present the content, I did differentiate the practice, I did go over it more times than I thought I would have to, I did provide opportunities for the students to get help. Could I do it better? I am sure I could. I'm not the pirate I would like to be (yet). But I work harder (as you clearly do as well) than I ever worked in my getting-to-be-long life, and harder than a lot of people. So keep trying to reach them, I say, but don't blame yourself so much.

    One thing I wonder is whether the students could have solved the problem in groups if they weren't told that they expression was 6/2.5. It seems to be that they might have created visual models which would have helped them. (Big whiteboards? Chart paper and markers? You know that markers make EVERYTHING better.) As soon as you tell the kids they have to divide by a mixed number, they freak out (and they still do in 11th grade gifted Algebra 2).

    They are all lucky to have you as a teacher, as we are lucky that you share your stories so candidly.

    1. I thought about editing that part out in the hopes that they would, but I never in my life anticipated their inability to translate "use the expression 6 divided by 2 1/2" into the expression 6 divided by 2 1/2.

      I did go over how it might be done using Fawn's rectangles. I also did the "solve a simpler problem" strategy by saying:

      "If I have to make 6 pies and my recipe makes 1, how many recipes do I have to make? What about if my recipe makes 2? How did you get those answers?"
      "I divided 6 by 2"
      "Great! Then if I have to make 6 dozen cookies and my recipe makes 2.5 dozen...?"

  4. Sorry, it's annonymous but it's the only way I can post.

    I know exactly what you mean; I struggle with the same issues. When I cotaught math, I found out that students had no idea how to use their notes to help them solve another similar problem. I used direct, explicit instruction with lots of questioning to help them make the connection. I had some success but I think they would have learned the skill if I started earlier in the year. I took me a long time to realize that they didn’t understand what to do with their notes.

    Many students have learned that if they stop working long enough, the teacher will “spoon feed” them the information and they won’t need to think. It going to take A LOT of opportunities for them to stop a behavior that has worked so well in the past. I found success using scaffolding and frequent review. Try the same problem but without the last 2 lines, possibly the last 3 lines. Practice often with similar problems and when the students are ready, add the next step/line. Once they experience success, the students will eventually become less likely to give up as quickly. To help them retain the information, we did short 15 minutes centers every other week (ideally every week) to review the skills taught.

    Oh and I love the name in the word problem ;)

    1. I try to do scaffolding as much as I can, providing students with little successes in the hopes of fostering bigger ones, but more often than not, I come across "Meh. That was enough."
      "But, you rocked that! You can rock the next one."


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