Meditations on a Cogen (No. 8) • Thursday, December 9, 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 eighth post in the series.

Short staffed with a tablecloth
Of the six cogen members — most of whom are in their second or third week of cogen membership — three couldn’t meet today. One didn’t come to school because she was concerned about Covid and used the day to stay out of school and get tested. Two others are on the girl’s basketball team, which had a game today (they won BTW!). After today’s cogen, I looked at their schedule and realized that they have several more games on Thursdays this season. I’ll have to touch base with everyone next week and see if we can change our cogen day or otherwise make it work. If not, these two students may need to choose a replacement. That would suck.

Our meeting space each week consists of three rectangular tables jigsawed to make a larger rectangle. It fits six people comfortably, with plenty of room to dump our snacks in the center. I decided a few weeks ago to get a black tablecloth to dress things up a bit. I want the cogen to have curb appeal and feel important to anyone that’s around the table. The tablecloth is a simple and inexpensive way to do that; it transforms the space and elevates the status of those who are in it. This was the first week I used the tablecloth and there were already oohs and aahs from a few non-cogen students and teachers who saw us at the start of today’s talk. Two of my students from 1st period even asked if they could be part of the group. I informed them that all are welcome, but that participants are selected by their peers.

Every week that the cogen has met, I’ve spent the few minutes it takes to prep our table (cleaning and sanitizing it, this week throwing on the tablecloth). In thinking about our physical space, I’m making a note to have a cogen student take on the duties of prepping our table in the future. With dialogue that embodies co-creation and shared responsibility, it’s only natural that our physical space also reflects these principles.

We filled the first several minutes of today’s dialogue with informal chatter. I learned that one student recently got a new job. He’s working with a family friend and spends all of Sunday doing custodial work. We also talked about the trek another student has when coming to school and how the bus he takes in the morning has been busier than usual. We rapped about the benefits of arriving early so the transition from street to 1st period isn’t so rushed and disorienting.

As the conversation went on, it crossed my mind to ditch my planned talking points and subscribe to what was turning into an advisory. Were the students and I expressing a need to escape some stress? It reminded me of last year when this happened and how needed it was. Eventually, the mood shifted and our classroom appeared in bright lights. We carried on.

The weekly planner
The first thing on my mind was the weekly planner I used in class this week. It was the result of last week’s cogen discussion around homework. The planner was organized in a table and outlined the problems and concepts we were to study each day. I overviewed it on Monday and revisited it each day in class, hoping that it would create an arc of our learning for the week and, in lieu of “assigning” homework, give students the specifics of what we would be discussing each day. Interested to see if the cogen students benefited from it, I asked them.

Like most things, their reaction to the planner was mixed and came loaded with recommendations. They liked how it communicated the work ahead of time and how it was clearly laid out. On Friday I caught up with one of the students who missed today and she loved the idea of having a weekly calendar. I never posted the planner on Classroom, so they said I should do that next week. They suggested that I include exam dates, DeltaMath due dates, and other pertinent info on the planner. These are worthy criticisms. Next week I hope for an updated planner, though I’m still not convinced of its effectiveness.

In pursuit of a motivator
The next item up for discussion was our weekly DeltaMath assignments. The submission rates for these assignments haven’t been great. They’re designed as the main form of practice my students get each week, so with many of my students not doing it, their learning is suffering (not to mention their grade). I’ve adapted my instruction to include more scaffolding and direct instruction, but we still have a long way to go. Many students are flat-out not doing the DeltaMath assignments or doing it weeks after the due date. I willingly give them credit for all the work they do no matter when they submit it, but want to find ways to support them in getting the most out of the assignments. This means completing them by the due date.

I paraphrase all of this to the cogen. They concede that doing DeltaMath aids with their understanding of the weekly concepts, but they still struggle to get it done on time. A few anecdotes are shared illustrating their point. I offer two solutions that I’ve been mulling over during the last few days and ask them for their feedback.

The first is to instate a penalty on late DeltaMath submissions. Up to this point in the year, late work has not been penalized. The students nod. It’s a fair demand to have a late penalty. A couple of them say it would motivate them to do it on time, but the other student said the penalty wouldn’t matter at all — they would merely accept the late penalty. Being all gung-ho about the idea, I say that I’ve been thinking about a 25% penalty no matter how late it is completed. The students wisely suggest that I adopt a sliding scale that varies based on how late the submission. This makes waaaay more sense. Before we get too invested, I pivot to bring up my other idea.

My second solution does the opposite of the first: instead of penalizing students for not doing the DeltaMath on time, I suggest an incentive if they manage to complete it on time. What if I set a collective goal for the homework that, if reached, unlocked a reward for the class? For example, what if 75% of the class completed 75% of the weekly DeltaMath? Could I offer them a bonus problem on our next exam? Could I create “choice quizzes” for them that week, whereby I give them two problems (quizzes are normally just one) they get to choose which problem they want graded? Could they simply earn extra credit on the next exam? (I would like to avoid giving them outright extra credit and instead give them more options for the work we already do.)

I’m not a fan of rewards and extrinsic motivation — believe me. In my gut, I feel that whatever positive impact occurs as a result of the incentive will not be long-lasting. But like many teachers nowadays, I’m searching for answers to help my kids! Other than keeping a closer eye on their completion percentage, this one doesn’t require any additional work from me (DeltaMath gives the rates). This last point is important and I mention it to the cogen: pedagogical solutions have to be friendly to the students and teacher. I can’t be driven mad simply because it is a great motivator for my classes.

The cogen likes the idea and we spend our last 15 minutes discussing the ins and outs of what it might look like. We say that it would be fun if every day I announce the completion percentage to each class. (What if a student did this instead?) One student proposed that if the class goal is reached, it should be made slightly harder next week. If 75% is the completion rate and it is achieved, for instance, the following week the goal could be 80%. I loved this idea. It made me think that each class would need to have different goals and the first one needs to be based on how they’ve previously performed on DeltaMath. Another student expressed that only the students who helped the class achieve the goal should be given that week’s perk. If 75% of the class has to reach 75% completion on the DeltaMath, then only the students who were part of the 75% should earn the reward.

An important aspect of this incentive is that it is rooted in the collective achievement of the class. If the goal is 75%, one student mentioned that it might be demoralizing if only 72% of the class completes the DeltaMath. They wouldn’t unlock the reward and this might deter them next week. I honored this, but noted that the point of a goal like this is to have students encourage each other to get the work done. In that instance, if they would have pushed just one or two more students to get their DeltaMath done, the class would have achieved the goal. The incentive is engineered for students to push each other; one person’s fate is tied to everyone else’s effort. You won’t lose anything if you only worry about yourself, but you can earn more by working together.

I’m not sure which of the two solutions I’ll be implementing in the coming weeks (maybe both?), but I’m leaning towards the incentive-based option. There was more energy around it at today’s dialogue and it seems like a better motivator — for now. But I still want to run it by the other cogen students before I put it in motion.

An impromptu guest
During the last five minutes of our session today, a colleague walked into the room and I asked him if he wanted to join us around the table. He gracefully found a seat and even grabbed a snack. He sat and mostly listened, but it was a delightful way to close things out. Afterward, we talked about one of the students. My colleague remembered how the student was a knucklehead in ninth grade and how refreshing it is to see him in a leadership position like that of the cogen. I hope I have more colleagues around the cogen table this year.

As I leave today, I remember that I still haven’t set up and sent out my cogen exit survey for the first cohort. Ugh!

bp

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