Meditations on a Cogen (No. 3) • Thursday, October 28, 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 third post in the series.

Because of parent-teacher conferences, all after-school activities were canceled today. As a result, my cogen met during lunch. It was an impromptu change that I made last minute to build early continuity. I didn’t want to miss a week. I also wanted to show the students that our dialogue was vitally important to me. Even if after-school was canceled, our weekly exchange needed to happen. We had to find a way.

Thankfully, I lucked out because all the members of the cogen have lunch 4th period. After running down to retrieve two kids from the cafeteria (they forgot), we ended up spending 30 minutes together over snacks. Heeding their suggestions from last week, I brought bottles of water for us to sip while we chatted. We had bevs.

We opened the dialogue by checking in. How was everyone doing? We had a funny conversation about Slim Jims and Pringles. Who knew there was “mechanically separated chicken” in those things? Ouch.

After more small banter that warmed us up, I asked if they would prefer to meet during lunch (since we all share it) or after school like we have been doing. They were all indifferent, so we decided to keep holding our meetings on Thursday afternoons.

Next, we reviewed last week. We debriefed the roundtable I had with each of the classes last week on collaboration. It happened Friday and the cogen helped prep me for it last week Thursday. At the roundtable, the classes and I co-created a rubric to help us improve things like communication, asking questions, and presenting problems — all key elements of collaboration. The cogen felt that it went OK, but, outside of period 3, they hadn’t noticed much of a change in the levels of collaboration this week. This was hard for me to hear, but I owned it. I had to keep enforcing the rubric. To continue to improve collaboration, one suggestion from the cogen was to turn it into an in-class competition. We didn’t know what the competition would look like and how we might measure it, but agreed that it could motivate students to collaborate more. I loved the idea. As time passes, I also hope that our chemistry improves. This would help us build a more cohesive classroom community, foster collaboration, and help us feel responsible for each other’s learning.

The second item on the agenda — and what I wanted to focus heavily on — was tutoring. After I led a good-sized tutoring session this week for students retaking our most recent exam, I asked the cogen about it. How was it? Three members of the cogen were present at tutoring. But even if they didn’t attend, I ask them to think about what would make a good tutoring session. How could we ensure that attendees get the most of these sessions, I wondered. Is it better that it be teacher-led (i.e. whole group direct instruction) or can students be organized in small groups with me floating?

Their feedback was really helpful. After brainstorming, we decided that I would provide an answer key of the original exam (it seems basic, but I have never done this) and additional practice problems that mirror those from the exam. This way, the students could see correct solutions for the exam, discuss them together and with me, and then be able to spend time actually doing math. The tutoring session earlier this week consisted mainly of me reviewing the solutions on a whiteboard (i.e. direct instruction) and fielding their questions, but included no time for students to actually do mathematics. In the moment, I totally overlooked this. It’s no wonder why several students did poorly on the retake.

Towards the end, we spent a few minutes discussing the “cheat sheets” that I allow students to use on exams and — surprisingly — how a good amount of students don’t actually use them. This led to a bigger conversation about note-taking and studying for exams. I mentioned the idea of my future plans for “notebook quizzes” and how this will help them be more intentional about the notes they take this year. There was a mixed reaction from the group, some professing their dedication to taking noes while others dismissed it as tedious and confusing. I appreciated their honesty.

As the session concluded, my vibe was that the students seemed to feel genuinely comfortable expressing their ideas this week. They seemed less rehearsed and more natural in their gestures and commentary. Nonexistent was the awkwardness and silence that lurked during our first two meetings. This was reassuring and proof that we’re making progress as a group. There was even some back and forth between students, which was a weak point of my cogens last year. They were exceedingly brief, but during those moments I caught myself listening in to my students being critical of the class without me needing to keep the dialogue afloat. I appreciated that.


Meditations on a Cogen (No. 2) • Thursday, October 21, 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 second post in the series.

Before this meeting, I made sure to touch base with all of the students throughout the week to remind them about it. All four students from the first meeting were able to attend. One of the students who couldn’t make it last week was also able to attend. It looks doubtful that the remaining two students that I originally spoke to are going to be able to participate because of availability and attendance issues. In the coming weeks, I need to find replacements.

We opened by sharing how our day went and grabbing some snacks. The goods are plentiful, but the kids noticed we had no beverages. I promised to bring water next week. I was so glad that they actually came back a second time that I told them this. There are many things that young people are asked to do these days. Requesting for 30 minutes of their time after school may not seem like a huge ask for some, but to me it is. I showered them with gratitude.

After checking in, I followed up on how we ended our last cogen. How did the DeltaMath review assignment go? We agreed that I would create it to help students prepare for the exam this week. It was optional and no one — including cogen students — was obligated to do it. Last Friday, I paid a visit to the teacher who was mentioned at last week’s cogen. He was the one who gave DeltaMath reviews that the students praised for helping them on exams. He and I talk often. I simply asked him how he did his reviews and if he had any tips. After our chat, I posted the review assignment on Monday. The exam was Tuesday.

In class, when I announced that I created a review assignment, I nodded to the cogen students as a sign of respect and appreciation. They were the reason I created the assignment and I wanted them to understand that — at least on a personal level. I haven’t announced the cogen in any of my classes, but that may change down the road.

Anyway, about the assignment, half of the cogen students said they didn’t have time to do it. The other half started it but didn’t complete it because they got stuck on a problem and didn’t push through. One student complete it and said that it significantly helped her. Having all the topics in one place was what she liked best. Her exam score reflected this; she did far better on this exam than she did on the previous one.

After looking over the data, I noticed that about 20% of students completed the review assignment, with around 50% of students trying some part of it. I presented the cogen with this data and probed them. I was curious, what could encourage more students to do it? Given all the demands placed on them, what could make the review assignment a priority?

They threw out the idea of giving extra credit for doing the assignment. The extra credit could be awarded on a sliding scale and added to the final score of the exam. I expressed my hesitancy about giving extra credit but remained open to it. I got some nods from some of the students who understood the optional nature of the assignment. Interestingly, one student also asked whether we could track the students who completed the assignment with their exam performance to see if there’s a correlation. I nearly hugged him when he said this! Ultimately, we decided to try the assignment again sans extra credit and see what happens. It was only the first time, so maybe engagement with it will improve once students see its value. Given that the next exam is 2-3 weeks away, we tabled the discussion and made plans to revisit it.

Other than revisiting the review assignment, I wanted to ask the cogen about our class discussions. I’ve noticed many more of my students struggling to collaborate in effective ways these last couple of weeks. In some ways, I think the honeymoon of being back at school is over. As a result, their willingness to reach across the table for help — or to help– is starting to diminish. At the same time, I think I overlooked how intentional I needed in helping students to communicate, present solutions, and seek help from others. To address this, I’m planning a whole-class roundtable for tomorrow to discuss these issues. I want to use the time to talk about what good and bad collaboration looks like and co-create a collaboration rubric with my classes. This rubric would be used to help us measure our levels of collaboration and improve them over time.

After saying this, I asked the cogen what they thought. They offered up reasons that might explain our current struggles. Some felt uncomfortable critiquing other students’ work. Some felt that the work on the boards could be neater and the presenters could be louder. Others didn’t feel responsible for other students’ learning and instead subconsciously viewed themselves as islands. This last point struck me as something to pursue further as a possible yearlong theme/goal with my classes — to the responsible for each others’ learning. Near the end, there was a suggestion about me being more deliberate about identifying “problem leaders.” I try this when I select presenters, but this proposal felt different. It made me think of small pockets of students forming around certain boards which are led by students giving explanations. These would be students that would lead other students in understanding the problems we study each day.

As the meeting came to an end, I felt really good about how things went today. The discourse was productive and less awkward than last week. It helped that we had a change — a collective decision — to reflect on. Where and how we ended our talk really prepped me for having the whole class discussion tomorrow around collaboration.


Meditations on a Cogen (No. 1) • Thursday, October 15, 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.


Some pre-school year thoughts on cogens

In June, at the end of the school year, a student of mine described our weekly co-generative dialogue as, “A meeting where you can talk to your teacher and other students about the class and what the teacher can improve on.” Another said, “It’s a safe space where we can talk about anything, but most likely about the class and how it’s going. The student gives feedback and the teacher tries to use that feedback in class.” When reflecting on the effects of the co-generative dialogue, a third student mentioned, “We had more control of how our learning was structured. We got to say our ideas about the class and actually have them taken into consideration.”

Those comments were the result of 24 co-generative dialogues (cogens) I had with 19 different students last year. Each session had 4-6 students, an occasional colleague, and me. We came together every Friday for 30+ minutes to find solutions to making my virtual classroom a success. I started my cogens in October and held them through June. They were both insightful and therapeutic. Midyear, I used a blogpost to reflect on my successes and share my motivations for wanting to keep them going after remote learning.

As I return to school this week, I’m excited to make a steep investment into cogens. Obviously, with in-person learning making its much-needed return this year, things are going to be a little different. Last year I remember thinking about how much more effective in-person cogens could be. The eye contact, the smiles, the shaking of the head — these small conversational details should elevate what my students and I accomplish this year in our talks. Rooted in natural, face-to-face conversation, cogens are not designed to be experienced through a screen and impersonal Zoom icons. After a year of doing them remotely, I finally get the chance to tap into their true magic.

This doesn’t mean I’m not rethinking them. One issue that’s staring me down as I type this sentence is timing. Cogens are worth the investment, but last year, with the flexibility of remote learning, we (my students and I) were able to schedule them conveniently and efficiently. We won’t have that luxury this year. Also, last year, a major obstacle for me was not knowing anyone else who was doing cogens. I was heavily advocated for them and knew their utility, but I had no one to connect to and share ideas with. This year, thankfully, I’ve found a small group of teachers through my fellowship at MƒA who will be meeting once a month to do just that. We’ll also be diving into the research behind this transformative spaces which, I hope, should sprout even more ideas.

In the end, the goal is — just like last year — to simply position myself as a learner from my students. To give them their rightful place at the table. If I can do this, if I can continue to push myself to view my students as key sources of intellectual, social, emotional, and pedagogical insight, then I think my cogens will work out just fine.