Meditations on a Cogen (No. 13) • Thursday, January 20, 2022

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 13th post in the series.

Today’s cogen came at the end of the first semester. With grades due, and many of my students struggling to say afloat, my mood these last few days has been somber. I needed this week’s cogen to give me hope.

Yesterday and today I spoke to most of the students and reminded them about today’s session. I was pleasantly surprised when most of them nodded and said they remembered. The result today is solid: five students. This includes one student from the previous cohort who wanted to come back again. There was one new member from 3rd period. Another from period 7 couldn’t make it because of basketball.

There’s one empty seat from 1st period that I need to fill. I have my prospects, including a student who came after school today to take an exam. He walked into the room, saw me setting up our table, and asked, “Mister, what’s this?” I sensed his intrigue and satisfied his curiosity with some playful statement about it being a tablecloth, and then gave him the exam. After he finished, the cogen was long over. I gave him my cogen elevator pitch and he seemed interested.

Post-exam: a surprise and a revision
For the last couple of months, I’ve been asking about specifics of the class that I’ve needed their support on. This week, with mostly new students around the table, I wanted something different. I decide to cast my net out and see what I catch. So, after I oriented our new member to the cogen, I opened by asking simply, how was class the week?

We are studying complex numbers this week and the first four students mention it directly. I’m using Michael Pershan and Max Ray’s geometric approach, like I have for the last few years. The kids like it. They say playing Simon Says in the hallway was fun. I thank them for their praise, but get that feeling again. It’s the annoying feeling that the students — mainly because they’re new — aren’t able to supply ample critiques of what they’re experiencing. To them, as long as the classroom isn’t burning to the ground, everything is “fine.” I can’t blame them for this, however. How often are students asked to be critical of their teacher and then actively heard out?

I figured this might happen, so I wait and listen. I’m ready to pounce on the smallest hint of dissonance that I hear. When the last student shares, I get my chance. Interestingly, she breaks rank with the rest of the group doesn’t mention complex numbers at all. Instead, it’s her performance on the most recent exam that’s weighing on her. She is the most soft-spoken of the group, so I literally have to lean in to hear what she says. I invite her to tell me more and she goes on to ask about my retake policy. Why can’t students merely submit corrections for an exam instead of having to retake it altogether?

Some context in her question: I’ve been allowing students to retake exams — with their new score replacing their original — for a while now. It’s my meager effort to have students’ grades reflect what they actually know about Algebra 2, even if it takes them a little more time to know it. For a lot of reasons, correcting an exam after the fact doesn’t do that for me. Corrections, in my experiences, give an inflated sense of what students know — especially when the student does poorly on an exam. Hence, my policy: any student who scores less than 85% on an exam can retake it without penalty. Before this year, fearing abuse of the policy, I only allowed two retakes per semester. This year, after reading Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity, I removed my constraint and allowed unlimited retakes to any student scoring below 85%. To be eligible for the retake, students must attend tutoring after school and earn at least 65% on the corresponding DeltaMath assignment.

For the record, students who scored above 85% have no way of showing me they understand more mathematics after an exam; they have no way to improve their grades. I know this is a flawed policy, but my reasoning for it aligned with my sanity: I feared that so many kids would retake that it would be unmanageable. The policy also helped to ensure that my attention would be given to the students who needed me the most. If I had a bunch of students retaking to improve their grade from an 87% to a 95%, for example, that would take away from me helping students who score 53% and are in desperate need of my reteaching.

Anyway, back to the cogen. We discuss these policies and something fascinating happens: the students say that they didn’t know that the retake replaces their original grade. What?! It’s January — how do they not know this? I preach about it after every exam. I’m shocked.

After my astonishment fades, I realize that the student who asked the question about retakes vs. corrections thought that I treated them the same way. I also realized that I need to do a much better job explaining retakes to my students, which I vow to do in front of the cogen today. Some of my students for sure know about it, but given this conversation, it’s probably not the majority.

As for the retake policy itself, the kids like it but opine that there should be an option for those who score above 85%. I hear them out. As we chat, they help me see that corrections can indeed work for 85%+ students. Our reasoning is that if you perform that well on an exam, you probably don’t have huge gaps in your understanding. Submitting corrected work with an analysis of your mistakes is sufficient to show that you’ve relearned the content (these students will receive 1/4 missed credit back don’t their grade). I agree to change the policy for semester two.

DeltaMath Day
We have less than 10 minutes remaining and I revisit something that was mentioned last week: using class time for DeltaMath. I share that I love this idea as a way to help everyone get some in-class practice. We coin it “DeltaMath Day” and discuss possible structures. Should students just come in and work? Can we have co-teachers (students who are finished) float around the room and help others? What about using stations? We don’t leave with answers to these questions, but do decide that DeltaMath Day should occur during the second half of each unit. It will lead up to the exam and serve as review.

Before we close, I reiterate the DeltaMath goal that we’ve started using in class. It was developed by the previous cohort of cogen students and want to ask if these students are on board with unveiling the final percentage to the class on Mondays. They’re good with this responsibility.

I appreciate how a student’s disappointment about her grade triggered a collective deep dive into one of my grading policies today. By centering her experience, it afforded us the opportunity to interrogate my retake policy and help me see how poorly I was advocating for it, which eventually led us to revise it. The student who spoke up is one of the quietest students I teach and this fact only magnifies my appreciation for our dialogue. Without the cogen, would I have made space to act on her feedback? Would I have otherwise known about my blindspot? I hope she sees how valuable her comment was to me and other students.

As I remove the tablecloth and tuck away my snacks, my mind lingers back to the closing of the first semester and all of my struggling students. A few of them were present today at the cogen. Two of them are failing. If I’m not careful, this might discourage me from engaging with them at the cogen. Besides, they’re failing. Shouldn’t I be lecturing them on what they’re not doing, creating a plan of action for their individual success? Shouldn’t I be spending this time tutoring them?

Despite their struggle — and probably because of it — it’s vital that I stay proximate to these students and get their feedback. I need them close to me. Their experience in my class has been less than ideal and they can help me explore why. It’s through their eyes that I can find a way forward.


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