Meditations on a Cogen (No. 1) • Thursday, October 14, 2021

During the 2021-22 school year I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the first post in the series.

Come October, I knew I wanted to start my cogens. I needed a month to let the dust settle on the start of the year and to get the know students. I also needed them to get to know me before I asked them to be critical of our class. Interestingly, last year, my first cogen was on October 9, 2020 — almost a year ago today.

Despite my eagerness to do cogens in person this year, with so much going on, identifying my initial students for the cogen kept escaping me. “I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it…” is what I kept telling myself. Drowned in a million To Dos, my cogen would have been swallowed up whole if I didn’t force myself to drop everything and write down the names of prospective students who would make up the initial group. I did this seemingly at random one day. I had to.

And so, last week, I sat down and identified six students from my three Regents-bound Algebra 2 classes (two from each class). They were diverse (ability, gender, race) and with whom I had formed an early connection in some small way. I wanted to two from each class because (a) six is a good number and (b) if any student from a class can’t make it on a given week, there’s still another student who can represent that class.

After I had my kids, I used my free period to traverse the school and visit them in their other classes to formally ask them if they would like to participate. I gave my best elevator pitch and framed it as my group of “advisors” who give me ideas and feedback in order to make the class better. I explained the time commitment (~6 weeks) and the accompanying perks (snacks, extra credit). Thankfully — and surprisingly — they all felt like it would be a good use of their time. I wanted to meet weekly and the consensus was to meet every Thursday from 2:45-3:15pm. We would convene in my classroom, room 227.

This week, leading up to today, I half-thought the kids would all forget about the cogen so I found myself reminding them almost every day. I’m pretty sure they found it annoying, but I could help it. In preparation, I scribbled down some loose talking points, but mainly wanted to see what came up naturally, and then spend time following those threads. I bought a variety of snacks from the local supermarket.

I was anxious — the good kind — when the kids started trickling in. They remembered! I hid my excitement about their arrival by wiping down the tables with disinfectant wipes and putting out the snacks. After an entire year of remote cogens, I was elated to be on the brink of having an in-person one.

In the end, three of the students I spoke with couldn’t make it today for various reasons. They still wanted to be part of the group, but couldn’t do it today. Nonetheless, this meant I was down to three kids. Despite feeling slightly discouraged, I managed to find a late addition right before we started. This made four students, plus me. Importantly, all of my class periods had at least one representative.

I opened the dialogue by profusely thanking them for being there. After that, I grabbed a snack, sat back, and asked them how they were doing. We did a soft whip around and I sprinkled in some follow-up questions about each of their days to help them feel comfortable. I asked them to introduce themselves to the group. We were off and running.

I offered up some house rules: one mic, not privileging one voice over any other, and being action-oriented. The kids were ok with these. I reminded them of the extra credit that they’ll be receiving, the time commitment, and overall expectations. I reexplained the purpose of the cogen and the need for it. For the betterment of the class, I asked them to try their best to be earnest and honest while also focusing on solutions. I vowed the same.

Ten minutes in, we transitioned into a conversation about our class. I asked them how everything was going. What’s working? What’s not? I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was far too idealistic and broad. To the students, everything was fine. They liked the vibe of the class, the whiteboards, the energy. As we went around the table, there were questions — like how newer, more complicated topics were going to be introduced — but no real critiques or problems of practice surfaced.

Our talk was pretty bland until a student commented on the most recent DeltaMath assignment. He had completed the entire assignment, but his grade online didn’t reflect this. I assured him that I would double-check later, but his question got me thinking about DeltaMath more generally and its role in our class. Seeing an opening, I threw it out there to the cogen. What did they think of the weekly DeltaMath assignments I give? Are they too long? Too hard? Do they align well with what is learned in class?

The students told me that they find value in the DeltaMath assignments and felt they were challenging, but not overbearing. This was good to hear, but it wasn’t until a student mentioned the possibility of using DeltaMath to review for exams that I began to move to the edge of my seat. The student said how her teacher — my colleague — did this last year and how they found it helpful in prepping for exams. The other members of the cogen agreed. I haven’t given/done review before an exam in years, but thought this was a great opportunity to try it again. With their suggestion, I promised the students that I will post a DeltaMath review assignment for our next exam, which is next week. We agreed the review would be ungraded and optional. We will debrief how it went next week.

Unlike what I tried to do earlier, asking them about DeltaMath targeted a specific aspect of our class. It allowed us to dig into something definitive, which ultimately made for better, more opinionated discussion. It proved to be a turning point in the dialogue.

I was concerned at first, but I’m glad that we walked away from the initial cogen with a concrete action that can improve our class. This won’t always happen, but in our early meetings, I need my students to feel that their ideas are being used to shape our class (I also need to feel this). I want to reassure them — through action — that their voice matters. This will hopefully keep them coming back and keep our train of improvement moving.


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