Meditations on a Cogen (No. 7) • Thursday, December 2, 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 seventh post in the series.

Transitions and Fellowship
Because of Thanksgiving break, it has been two weeks since we’ve met. We have three new faces in the house today. The changing of the guard is now complete — every original cogen member has now been replaced with someone of their choosing. To help with the transition, I asked the original members to attend with their replacements today. The same thing happened last week and I liked it. With their predecessor present at their first session, I feel new members can better understand the cogen experience.

With so many new faces this week and last, we opened today with the students introducing themselves, sharing their grade level, and announcing which class period they’re from. I asked a couple of the vets to share the purpose of our gathering and acknowledged the new members and the older members who appointed them. It was endearing to witness the instant fellowship that formed between the students when I did this. There were daps, smiles, and nods. I could tell that the new members felt seen. They felt special.

Including me, there were nine of us around the table. This was the largest cogen so far. It would have been bigger, but one member from 7th period had to attend tutoring. Earlier today, I asked all the new members about their favorite snacks and went to the market up the block to get them. We were due for new snacks anyway, but I hope this small gesture made the newbies feel welcome. We settled in and dug into Oreos and tangerines.

As our transitional period comes to an end, I’m making a mental note to set up a cogen exit survey by next week. As new students get selected by their peers to join, I want to give the survey to the students who are leaving to gather data on their experience. Last year I also gave a similar survey, but I waited until June to have the students complete it. This meant that kids who were part of the cogen in October were asked to reflect on their experiences a full 8 months after they left. Needless to say I want to avoid making this same mistake.

Group Exam
Last week, before the break, I gave my classes a group exam. It’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time now and usually pull it out around this time of year. It’s a wonderful tool to force students to work together; the buzz in the room is a teacher’s dream. The protocol creates an edge and gets students hanging off the sides of tables, frantically ensuring that their work aligns with that of their groupmates. They ask questions, clarify ideas, and work in concert to learn way more than they would on a traditional exam. Like any group assessment, however, the exam sacrifices my understanding of what individual students know how to do. But given the benefits I just described and the fact that I only do it once a year, this is a sacrifice that I’m willing to make.

Curious about what my cogen students thought of the group exam, I asked them. Their feelings were mixed. Some confessed that the exam got them to work harder than they have at any point this year. Others lamented that it wasn’t fair to have their grade be dependent on what their groupmates do — especially when they have between 3-4 people in their group. One student said that she had to teach a lot of content to her groupmates. She was ok with this, but the workload was considerable. The table nodded when I shared that there was tons of learning happening and that this learning was the whole point of the exam.

Our conversation about the exam created a healthy tension of ideas. Feeling this, the students offered up some recommendations to help relieve it.

  • Some thought that shortening the exam might help. I thought about having a oversupply of problems and having groups select which ones they want to answer.
  • Another idea was to turn it into a “partner exam.” This is fascinating because not only does it mitigate some of the pressure of 5 group members all being on the same page (I collect one random paper at the end of class and this is the grade everyone in the group receives), but it also makes my assessment more reflective of what individual students’ actually know. As compared to a group of 4-6 students, I think I could actually glean somewhat meaningful assessment data from two students working on an exam together.
  • A few students agreed that I should do more group quizzes (see previous cogen), but keep exams traditional — like they regularly are. They said this could provide a nice mix of collaboration and individual accountability over the course of a semester.
  • Another idea to create balance was to modify the group exam protocol to allow students to work together, but receive an individual grade for what they know. The kids didn’t know the propoer name, but they were essentially asking for a two-stage exam.
  • There are typically 2-3 exams for every six-week marking period. A wondering by the group was if we could always have one “collaborative” exam per marking period (the others would be traditional). This gave me pause because students would have less opportunities to demonstrate what they — as individuals — know and also make it harder for me to assess them individually. But given the benefits of group assessments, I’m open to the idea. It would definitely help me move towards triangulating students grades like Peter Liljedahl recommends in Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics.

The cogen’s input on the group exam was more than I expected. The exam happened over a week ago so I was pleased with the depth of our reflections. I told the students we will revisit their suggestions in the coming weeks when I design another collaborative exam. In the meantime, I’m going to make an effort to have more group quizzes and see how that goes. We bookmarked the conversation.

Homework
We spent 20 minutes of today’s 30-minute cogen wrestling with the group exam and the implications it holds for us, but I did have another item on the agenda: homework. Ah, the H word! The minute I uttered it, I saw eyes roll. In that moment, it’s like a wave of guilt swept over the students. Heads dropped. There was a vague sigh. They were mentally bracing themselves for what they thought was going to be a you-need-to-do-your-homework lecture from their teacher.

Perceptive as I am, I reassured them: I was not going to press them about doing their homework. The noticeable decline in homework completion is something I’ve been pondering for a while. As my trusted advisors, I simply needed their input. Why were the majority of students not doing it? Is there anything I could do to change this trend? Is it a pointless goal to even assign it?

This is not a new problem for me. As someone who doesn’t check or hand out points for my daily homework, I’m always grappling with how to encourage students to do it more often. One of the students at today’s cogen exemplified this point when he said, “Mister, I was doing it at the start of the year, but then slowly stopped when I realized that you don’t check it.” Other kids nodded in agreement. One student shared that our weekly DeltaMath (assigned Monday, checked Friday for credit) is more important than the daily homework I assign, and so they focus mainly on doing that during the week.

Most of my lessons are designed around the homework problems from the previous day. The problems take around 15 minues to complete; they’re written to surface key ideas and so we spend all of our class time discussing them. Some of the cogen students highlighted this as another reason why they elect not to do homework. We’re guarunteed to discuss the problems in class anyway, so why do them on my own?

One solution the kids offered up was for me to do random notebook checks. This would help keep students accountable. I tried to do something like this a few years ago with my unannounced “homework quizzes,” but they mainly turned into “I gotcha!” moments. It wasn’t a meaningful practice and the kids resented it. It became a game of cat and mouse. I’m left thinking, could I change the quizzes to make them more effective? Could I use the class quizzes somehow to incentivize doing homework?

I shared my apprehension towards assigning daily homework problems moving forward because so many students flat out aren’t doing them. In response, the cogen suggested that each week I formally announce a “gameplan” to the class. In other words, on Monday I give advance notice on which problems we’ll be discussing each day that week. (To remain flexible, right now I determine the homework on a day-to-day basis.) By outlining the week in advance, I don’t have to call the problems homework anymore and I’m still not checking them, but everyone knows which ones we’ll be discussing on any given day. This way students can get ahead if they want to, but if they can’t or don’t, they won’t miss out on anything. This speaks to me not because it changes the structure of homework, but because it frames the problems differently. Instead of hounding the class to do them each day, I’m revealing the bigger picture to them and offering up the problems as a way to get ahead. Right before we left for the day, I told the cogen that I’m going to try this strategy out next week.

Professional growth via the cogen
Good teachers know the importance of feedback. It’s good to give it, it’s good to receive it. We know it matters if we want to get better at whatever it is we’re doing. When it comes to my teaching, I find it striking that I’m receiving so much feedback from my cogen and so little from my colleagues. If I’m to listen to conventional wisdom around professional development, my department, co-teachers, and administrators are supposed to be my greatest source of feedback and ideas.

With my cogen burning bright these last two years, this couldn’t be further from the truth for me. My colleagues (including my admin) possess little knowledge of what actually happens in my classroom, let alone the ability to provide me feedback to help me improve. This is disappointing, but makes leaning into my cogen all the more vital for my growth. It has proved itself to be a galvanizing force for my professional development.

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