Checkpoints and homework, circa 2016

Here’s my current structure for exams checkpoints and homework. Everything is a work in progress.


  • First off, terminology. Formally known as exams, I now call these summative assessments ‘checkpoints’ to further establish a low-stakes classroom culture. It feels much less formal, but I still reference them as ‘exams’ when in a rush. Plus, my frustration with the Regents exams is at an all-time high, so distancing myself and my students from any term that references them is a good thing.
  • I really liked how I lagged things last year, so I’m going to continue with this routine. This means that each checkpoint will only assess learning from a previous unit. In most instances this will be the previous unit, but once a month there will be a checkpoint that only assesses learning from material learned at least two units back. With my standards-based grading, students can lose proficiency on a standard at any time during the course of the year. The hope is to interweave what has been learned with what is currently being learned to help improve retention.
  • Speaking of SBG, I’m reinstituting mastery level achievement in 2016-17. I have yet to work out the kinks regarding how this will impact report card grades.
  • I will not review before any checkpoint, which is what I started last year. Instead, that time will be spent afterwards to reflect and relearn.
  • I make these assessments relatively short, they take students roughly 25-30 minutes to complete…but my class period is 45 minutes. I’m still trying to figure out how to best use that first 15 minutes. Last year I didn’t have this problem because my checkpoints always fell on a shortened, 35-minute period. Right now I’m debating over some sort of reflection or peer review time.
  • I have begun requiring advanced reservation for every after school tutoring or retake session. I learned very quickly at my new school that if I don’t limit the attendance, it is far too hectic to give thoughtful attention to attendees. Right now, I’m capping attendance at 15 students per day with priority given to those who need the most help.


  • Disclaimer: developing a respectable system for homework is a goal of mine this year.
  • Homework assignments are two-fold. First, students will have daily assignments from our unit packet that are checked for completion the next day. Second, they will have a DeltaMath assignment that is due at the end of the unit, again, checked for completion.
  • Homework is never accepted late.
  • Homework is not collected.
  • To check the daily homework, I walk around with my clipboard during the bell ringer. While checking, I attempt to address individual questions students may have. This serves as a formative assessment for me gauge where they are on the homework. After the bell ringer, but before any new material, I hope to have student-led discussion around representative problems, depending on the homework that day (I haven’t gotten here yet). The goal is to have students write on the board the numbers of the problems that gave them a headache…so we know which ones to discuss.
  • I’m going to do everything I can check it this year. It sounds simple, but over time things can slip away from any teacher.
  • I’m posting worked out homework solutions on our class website. I used to include the solutions in the back of the unit packet. This is an improvement on that, but also requires students take an extra step. Students must check their thinking, assess themselves against the solutions, and indicate next to each problem whether or not they arrived at the solution.



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A teacher’s dilemma: taking risks beyond the elimination answer choice C


We ask teachers to embrace change, and the pressure on teachers is not to take risks but to march whatever children they can, lockstep, toward higher standardized test scores. – Robert P Moses, Radical Equations (p. 126)

Thanks to a recent conversation, once again I’m confronted with the heavy hand of high-stakes exams.

How can a teacher, like myself, establish and maintain a classroom centered on inquiry, contemplation, and sense making within a system that rises and fails on the scaled scores of New York State Regents exams? How can a teacher move a classroom of students beyond a no. 2 pencil and bubbles containing A, B, C, and D?

I guess this is nothing new. I’m simply reiterating a concern that most teachers have.

I find myself more entrenched in this battle than ever before. The more I teach, the more I realize how oppressive these exams are. I am forced to get kids “through” by whatever means necessary. Schools get recognized and accolades given out for producing students that are “college ready,” which is a reflection of students’ performance on Regents exams. This sort of verbiage gets everyone on the same page. The result is an unspoken, politically correct pressure placed on me and my students to conform to these narrow measures of mathematical fluency. This pressure results in anxiety and dramatically affects the quality of my instruction.

As someone in the classroom everyday doing this work, I’m so wrapped up in these damn exams that I don’t even have time to prepare my students to be “college ready.” Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

I’m essentially a Regents-driven machine whose sole job is to produce other machines who can generate positive results on these exams. Please, forget about the genuine, messy learning of mathematics that I desire.

Furthermore, in a society obsessed with test scores, obtaining a 65 (or 95) can indeed be the ticket to success. Students are only as good as the score they produce. They themselves know this, so their motivations often rise and fall on these exams as well. This is the cherry on top.

Despite this downward spiral, there is hope.

Patrick Honner’s Regents Recaps help me keep things in perspective. His reflections are thoughtful, full of mathematical insight, and shed light just how much of a joke these exams are. Without knowing it, he compels me to teach beautiful mathematics far beyond the expectations of a Regents exam.

And then there are educators like Jose Luis Vilson, Christopher EmdinRobert P. Moses, and Monique W. Morris. Through their writing, they’ve cautioned me that earning a 65 on a Regents exam for many of my students is the least of their worries, despite what school and New York State may tell them. They motivate me to bring often-ignored social issues to the fore.

There are many others who I have met either in person or online who have provided similar inspirations. There are far too many to name.

This leaves me torn.

On one hand, I’m fortunate enough to have a fairly high level of autonomy in my classroom. What my students and I accomplish in the 45 minutes we’re allotted each day is up to us. There’s relatively low oversight. Despite the immense pressures to bubble our lives away, I aim to spend time asking big questions, sharing the joy of mathematical discovery and learning, and enjoying the ride. This is empowering. Hell, I don’t even call my class exams “exams” anymore.

On the other, I am confused. And worried. The fear of a low passing rate has left me paralyzed in the midst of students who desperately need me to be fully aligned with their needs. But if I cannot afford to take meaningful risks in my classroom that go beyond eliminating answer choice C, if I can’t be bold in the face of oppression and conformity, what does this mean for my teaching? More importantly, what does this mean for my students?




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Day in the Life: September 24, 2016 (Post #3)

I’ve decided to chronicle this school year through my blog. It’s part of Tina Cardone’s Day in the Life book project. This is the third post in the series.

4:45am | It’s Saturday and I’m up. Yes, willingly. I slept great. After the first full week of school, I was fulfilled, but exhausted. Today I was hoping to attend a day 1 of a two day UFT sponsored institute for National Board Certification candidates, but for a variety of reasons, that’s not going to happen. Day 2 is next Saturday and I hope to attend then.

I spend some time reading and starting this post. I stray away from my current book, Radical Equations by Robert Moses, to dive into a couple of posts from Sahar Khatri over breakfast. Ever since she mentioned on Twitter that she was going to Cuba this summer on a Fund for Teachers grant, I was looking forward to reading about her travels. While on her blog, I was also inspired by her school’s effort a couple of years ago to visit every child’s home. Talk about going above the call of duty. I also finally met Sahar in person the other day at a MfA workshop, which was really cool.

6:00am | I’m a little behind on planning my next unit for algebra 2, so I commit around 45 minutes to this.

Th remainder of the day is spent running errands, watching college football, hanging with the fam, and a trip to the library.


1.Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming. When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of? What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?

My teacher-related decisions were minimal today, but certainly the best one pertained to reading Sahar’s blog. She is such an inspiration for me.

2. Every person’s life is full of highs and lows. Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher. What are you looking forward to? What has been a challenge for you lately?

I’m not sure whether it’s due to my own introverted disposition, the new school environment, the start of the school year, or the fact that I’m new, but I definitely feel isolated at school. I rarely have meaningful collaboration with colleagues, let alone the mathematics department. Other than rushed conversations in between classes, my conversations with math department colleagues have been nonexistent since day 1. I’m planning and reflecting on an island. It’s lonely, tiring, and I’m not used to it.

I may be overreacting here. Everything is relative. At my previous school, the mathematics department met every day for common planning. It was in our daily schedule. This is the high end of the spectrum. And I knew that meeting daily isn’t the norm in most schools, but damn do I miss it. Whether we had a protocol to examine student work or simply sat around to discuss why one of our lessons crashed and burned, I now know how indispensable this time was. It was nonlinear. It was relevant. It brought us together.

So it’s wrong for me to expect that level of collaboration, I know. But still, I hope the situation improves. Don’t get me wrong, I notice the genuine efforts on behalf of colleagues to collaborate, to reach out to one another, to connect. But it all has felt unstructured and rushed.

I just don’t want to simply get used to being on island. I don’t want hurried conversations between classes or after school to be the primary means of teamwork. It shouldn’t be that way. I cherish informal conversations, but I also need structured time to exchange ideas. Teaching, when done thoughtfully, is always going contain struggle. But collaborating with my colleagues shouldn’t.

I should mention that, technically, there is a rotating schedule for collaboration (i.e. whole school, grade teams, departments) every Monday after school, but I have yet to feel sincerely connected to any of those conversations. Again, I hope this changes.

3. We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is. As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students. Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.

Things at school seem to be happening so fast for me. Everyday feels like a blur. It has gotten better since the first day of school, but it still feels like I blink and the day is over.

One day this week, when the day was over, I had an impromptu conversation with a colleague. The basic premise revolved around my contributions to the school and how that will look for me. I had, and still have, so many questions about how to begin establishing myself while helping to move my new school forward. He helped answer some of those. Unexpectedly, it lasted about an hour and was the most insightful conversation I’ve had all year. It was candid and real. I really appreciated this.

4. Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year. What is a goal you have for the year?

I have made some headway on my goals for the year. My Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes is going well. I’ve stepped up my parental outreach. I’m using instructional routines to emphasize mathematical structure. I’ve done minimal work with mistakes. I have what seems like a respectable homework system.

With all of that said, I’ve mainly  been trying to keep my head above water these first few weeks. There’s still so much to accomplish from a goals perspective. The struggle is real.

5. What else happened this month that you would like to share?

I’ve felt a huge range of emotions these first few weeks of school. Seriously, I am all over the place. Euphoric one day, in the dumps the next. I’m trying to maintain some sense of normalcy, but it is unbelievably hard.

In trying to connect with students, colleagues, and parents, I have realized how challenging this really is when starting from square one. I didn’t fully understand how my reputation and history played a role in my success as a teacher at my previous school. I knew all the students, all the staff, and had established relationships with all of them. Now, all of that is gone.

In short, I am redefining myself to everyone I meet. This is incredibly taxing. It takes time, even years, to fully develop. It can’t be rushed.

But that fact doesn’t make any easier to accept.



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Be careful what you ask for

It’s the beginning of the year and Jimmy is a student in your algebra 2 class. Your colleague down the hall, Mr. Math, taught Jimmy geometry last year. At some point during the beginning of the year, you and Mr. Math begin discussing students on your algebra 2 roster. Jimmy’s name comes up. What’s the natural thing to do? Of course, you ask him for insight into Jimmy. What to look out for, how to best reach him, what to expect.

I see the obvious value in sharing information about students. Teachers are essentially transferring prior knowledge about students to better serve those same students. But part of me has always felt that knowledge gained through a situation like this can actually do more harm than good.

When I ask a colleague for details about a student’s tendencies, regardless how they respond, my understanding of the student becomes immediately biased. In other words, the moment Mr. Math tells me all about Jimmy’s strengths and weaknesses, I suddenly have expectations of Jimmy. Whether I like it or not, Jimmy is not just Jimmy anymore to me. On a subconscious level, my approach towards Jimmy is no longer organic.

Maybe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing.

While in the past I have openly turned to colleagues to gain details about current students, I am questioning myself these days. Is it worth it?



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Day in the Life: First Day of Classes (Post #2)

I’ve decided to chronicle this school year through my blog. It’s part of Tina Cardone’s Day in the Life book project. This is the second post in the series

5:15am | I wake up. Eat breakfast and drink coffee. I read for about forty-five minutes, and get ready to leave for school.

7:00am | I’m out the door – about 10 minutes later than I hoped for. My commute is 12 minutes. It’s humid this morning, so I’m easily sweating by the time I lock up my bike in the school parking lot.

7:15am | I walk in and “clock myself in” by moving my time card to the “in” column. I check my mailbox and there’s nothing in it. I’m new to the school, so I don’t know any of the office staff, but one them catches my attention to give me my daily attendance just before I walk out of the office. En route to my classroom I unexpectedly run into a teacher friend who participated in the NYU RET with me two summers ago. We were both shocked to see one another. We catch up for a few minutes and wish each other well on the first day of classes.

7:20am | I get to my classroom. I spend some time preparing for the day’s plan with the students: a get-to-know-their-teacher activity. I don’t like the whole syllabus-and-class expectations thing on the first day. It’s dry and the kids are going to forget it all anyway. Because no one knows me, I need for the students to have some sense of who I am. Plus, I want to spend some just talking with them, interacting. I prepare ten questions about myself on some slides. I add some photos. I’ll present the question (e.g. how long have I been a teacher?) and allow the kids do some fun, strategic guessing before I reveal the answer. I take care of some other odds and ends before I head out to first period.

8:05am | I make my way down to my first period algebra 2 class, which is down the hall. The class technically begins at 8:15, but I need to arrive early to get situated. The period 0 teacher is closing her lesson. When the kids arrive, I’m hurriedly connecting up my laptop to the SMARTBoard. I do manage to catch some of them at the door as they walk in. I welcome them and yield a warm smile.

I greet the students collectively. This class marks a milestone for me and I proudly let them know this. They’re special. They are the first class I’ve taught at the school. I run through the activity and it seems to get better over the course of the period. I feel the kids really get a sense of who I am and why I came to the school. They also learn about how I teach – as if I had a son or daughter the roster. I can tell that this hits home with them. This particular class is full of upperclassmen and they’re obviously excited about seeing all of their friends again. The energy in the room is great, something I hope maintains itself given that its first period. Around five students walk in late through the period and I take a mental note to get a late log set up.

9:03am | Period two and three are preps for me, meaning that I do not teach. It’s basically time that I can use to plan, get stuff done, etc. I hit up the library. There are students and a teacher that I don’t know. I had my period 1 kids create name tents and had them to give me feedback on the inside of it (e.g. Sara Vanderwerf), so I look at these and write some responses on each one. I print out three #ObserveMe posters to hang outside of the classrooms where I teach. I make my way back to my room during period 3 and get some work done. My to do list is slowly growing throughout the day. Probably the best teacher in the school is teaching in my room this period and he doesn’t mind that I linger at my desk in the back. Inside, I’m really stoked about this and am looking forward to taking some cues from him. I set up an email group for one of my classes. I manage to scarf down two tangerines.

10:39am | Period 4 algebra 2 begins, my second class of the day. This class is in my room. I arrive in time to set up my computer and greet most of the kids at the door. This time the activity goes better than period 1. I’m more dramatic with the questions and the answers. I leave them on the edge of their seat on several occasions. Overall, it’s fun and engaging. Although, I come to the realization that I’m talking a lot.

11:27am | I have another algebra 2 class period 5 which is directly across the hall. This is an honors class. (I’m developing feelings tracking students that I haven’t finalized yet. More to come on this.) The start of the class is weird for me. After closing out my period 4 and seeing every student out, I look across the hall and expect to see all of my students in the hallways waiting for me to walk into the classroom – so that they can do the same. Instead, I see a full classroom of students sitting at their desks. I look inside and think, there’s no way those are my students. I even ask an AP nearby if period 4 ended, thinking that these students are from the previous class. They were my students. This blew me away. The students simply came in orderly, sat down, and patiently waited for me. What does this say about my previous experiences? I’ll always remember this moment.

I walk in and learn of a deaf student enrolled in the class (from her interpreter). That’s a first for me and sets a billion questions racing in my head. I have to gather myself as I haphazardly get my computer set up and greet the class. Again, there’s very good energy from this crew. I really like them. There are a couple of young ladies in the back that quietly talk amongst themselves all period. Mental note taken when I create seating assignments.

12:15pm | Lunch! The day has been a blur so far and I’m so glad to be able to sit, gather my thoughts, and eat. I run down to the AP’s office to use her microwave to heat up my food. Chicken meatballs, quinoa, mash, and a salad. It’s delicious and hits the spot. While eating, my to do list grows even more. Thanks Evernote. I meet up with the special education teacher that I’m co-teaching algebra 1 with during period 8 to finalize our plans.

1:03pm | My period 7 algebra 2 class is in my room. Things go well. This is much smaller group than all of the others and I like it. By this point, my throat is sore and my voice raspy. This is partly the result of a restful summer. Also, did I mention that I’m talking a lot? I realize during the course of the period that I have really positive feelings about this class. No sure what it is. Call it teacher’s intuition. Or maybe it’s because I know that it’s close to the end of the day.

1:51pm | My last class of the day is also in my room. Whew. By this point I’m not sure that I can make it across the finish line. My co-teacher walks in and we greet the kids as they walk in. Moderately sized group. I modify and shorten my question session with the kids. My co-teacher answers the questions as well. He then goes into course expectations and the grading policy. We’re pleased with the group and he gives me a run down after class about some of the students that he knows from last year and over the summer. (I have thoughts about this commonly adopted strategy to exchange info concerning previous students. Post coming soon.)

2:45pm | I sit at my desk, spent. The principal and couple of teachers come in and ask how the day was. This seems like a thing here. We check up on one another, especially new teachers. I like that. I’ve been made so incredibly welcome during this transitional stage of my career. It’s a family. I spend the next two hours providing feedback on name tents, making more to-dos, and hanging up my #ObserveMe posters. I leave school and arrive home at 5:33 pm. I conclude the day with a gingerly walk around the neighborhood and relax.

1.Teachers make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Sometimes we make so many it feels overwhelming. When you think about today, what is a decision/teacher move you made that you are proud of? What is one you are worried wasn’t ideal?

I was felt that my new students connected with me on the first day. The question and answer session proved to be a hit, despite my seemingly endless talking. Really proud of this since strong relationships with students are incredibly important. At the same time, I am concerned that some of the quieter students may have been put off by the whole thing. I saw some looks that were in realm of, “really?”

2. Every person’s life is full of highs and lows. Share with us some of what that is like for a teacher. What are you looking forward to? What has been a challenge for you lately?

Being a teacher means being always on from the moment you walk into the building. Not even lunch is sacred. It’s comes with the territory. I most look forward to interacting with students. Talking with them. Finding them. It makes me forget about all the other stresses that teaching can bring.

3. We are reminded constantly of how relational teaching is. As teachers we work to build relationships with our coworkers and students. Describe a relational moment you had with someone recently.

I asked the students to guess how long I’ve lived in NYC. The answers were all over the board. After I shared the answer of ten years, the follow-up question was how often I visit The Bronx. She didn’t know this, but I’ve lived in The Bronx for all of those ten years. My impression was that she wasn’t expecting me to reside in a borough not associated with being White. Instead, she figured that I may come to The Bronx to teach and go home to “another” borough. The conversation brought up lots of questions for me that I’m still wrapping my head around. More food for thought on my deep analysis of stereotyping and cultural relevant pedagogy.

4. Teachers are always working on improving, and often have specific goals for things to work on throughout a year. What is a goal you have for the year?

Concrete steps towards my goals should begin the rollout of instructional routines and group norms next week. I’m adopting the Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes initiative from Annie Perkins this year, which I will present next week as well. I’ll be posting and sharing the success of a vast array of minority mathematicians throughout the year.

5. What else happened this month that you would like to share?




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