Sunday, April 6, 2014

What My Classes Look Like

Yesterday, I attended EdCampPGH at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh.  It was amazing and inspiring and I love everyone whom I connected with.  Two of my students went as well and I'm looking forward to speaking with them tomorrow about their experiences.

While there, I gave a talk about this blog and the benefits of reflective practice.  I talked about where I was as a teachers last year, where I am now, and how I got there.  There were several people who asked very tough questions and had me thinking about my goals both for my class and for this blog.

Late last night, I received an email from someone who attended my talk.  This person stated that their classroom is fairly traditional and that they are maybe looking to get away from that.  "I am now where you were last year."  This person asked me how my classes are run and, after replying to the e-mail, I decided that it would be a good blog post as well.

Since I know several of my students read this, I hope that if I get anything wrong, they will let me know so I can correct it.

My classes run very differently from what I would like, but they are moving in the right direction.  I'll tell you how they go now, which is much more traditional than at the beginning of the year.  I will say that I lecture on content VERY little.

Geometry:  Students enter the room and have an Estimation 180 question on the board.  They give their estimates and I give mine, along with my reasoning.  Then we either do an activity, or go over the guided notes and homework questions.  From the beginning, I told the students that the responsibility for learning is on them.  This means that we don't do the notes together and I don't really have to cover content.  Their homework assignments are "do the next section in the guided notes and as many homework as you need to feel you understand the concepts."

The next day in class, I pull up the notes on the Promethean Board and have them fill them in as a class.  I have them give me answers for everything and am constantly asking them "how do you know that?" and "what leads you to that conclusion?" and "explain how you got there."  It has taken several months, but they now KNOW they will have to explain any answer they give me, or at least be ready to.  I ask if they have any questions on the homework and, if they do, we do the problems as a class.  By this time, I'm usually off on some tangent about science or history and we have a discussion about that.  If there is time left, which there usually is, I let them start on the next section of questions and guided notes while I walk around and answer questions.

Math 8:  The format for this class is mostly the same.  However, since only about 5% of my students will do any work outside of class, we end up doing much more calculation in class.  I'll pull up a workbook page on the board, give the kids a few minutes to work on it (not enough to finish) and walk around keeping them on task.  After a bit, I hand off my Promethean pen and have the kids put their answers up on the board.  Recently, I've been making sure they don't put their names on it.  At the end of each section (12-15 problems) I ask the rest of the class if there are any answers they disagree with or would like explained.  If so, I ask a student to do it and ask probing questions like I do in geometry.

I've been trying to move this class away from book work and calculation problems, but they fight me every step of the way.  I completely understand why.  They like the success that some from completing a page of problems that LOOK hard.  They are also VERY used to doing worksheets and think that if they aren't, then they aren't learning math.  I've been desperately trying to break them of this habit, but I don't think I've earned their trust enough yet.  I'm not sure I ever will.

They trust me enough to answer questions that are within their comfort zones, even if they don't know the answers, but branching out is not something I've been able to do yet.  We are moving in the right direction, but I'm not sure we have enough time left in the year to get there.

I do feel, however, that the geometry students trust me.  This has been evident is the kinds of work they produce and their willingness to accept a type of instruction to which they are not accustomed.

This is not my ideal classroom.  It IS closer to what I want than I've had before and that has come with me doing a ton of soul searching about what I want them to get out of my class.  My educational priorities have shifted greatly over the past year and have moved away from content in a very significant way.  Instead, I've been focusing on helping my students develop metacognitive skills.  Apparently, research shows that students who focus on that rather than content do better in both the short run and long run than ones who focus on content. 

It's VERY hard, especially when many of the students fight me the whole way.  It's also hard because I don't know 100% where I'm going with it.  I don't yet have a clear vision of what I want my classroom to look like and something inside me is still pulling me back to the lecture model. I want my classroom to be Standards-Based, but doing it alone slows the process down and makes it very difficult to find proper guidance or direction.

I don't know if this has helped, or even if I've answered your questions, but I hope so.  If not, please let me know.

Don't hesitate to call, write or tweet if there is anything I can do.


  1. Hey Justin ... I have a few questions!

    First: Tell me about the guided notes. Where do you get them from? Are they provided by your textbook company, or a supplementary textbook company? Or did you make them yourself? Do you recommend them? Can you?

    Second: Is a Promethean board like ... a "smart" board? How would you complete the work you described here if you didn't have a Promethean board?

    I really appreciate your thoughts on metacognition being more worth studying than content. I'm thinking of actually reviewing this blog post of yours to start off class with both my Geometry and Algebra students tomorrow.

    Also, I'm sorry I wasn't there to be your 50,000th blog visitor. I guess I will just hang in there for 100,000. Should be any day now.

    1. 1) In geometry, the guided notes were created by the high school geometry teachers. They spent hours on them over several years and are gracious enough to share them with me. I am deeply appreciative for that. In pre-algebra, I made packets of notes and worksheets from the student workbooks provided by Glencoe, our text publisher.

      2) Yes, Promethean board are very much like SMART board. If I didn't have one, I would have kids put their answers up on the chalk board. I think...

      The part I left out is that those activities are usually found an hour before the kids show up...

    2. Thanks J, hope you're having a great Monday


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