Question More

I’ve realized that it has become a goal of mine to improve my questioning. Here’s some of what I’ve been pondering (and doing) as of late.

1. Asking “what if…” questions. This will usually come into play after we finish a problem. I try to change the conceptual nature of the problem, which provokes students to examine relationships and see the problem under a new context. I also really like giving the students a minute or two to generate their own “what if…” questions about a problem after we’ve found a solution.

2. Asking students to find errors within student work samples. I really started focusing on this last year with my exit tickets, but I’m doing it just about every class. I usually pick up someone’s paper and slide it under the document camera for the class the assess. Quick, easy, authentic. Plus, it creates a culture of identifying and accepting mistakes on a regular basis.

3. I’ve also begun asking students to identify potential errors within problems before examining any sample work. The result is always rich classroom discussion over creatively wrong solutions. The goal is for them to identify both subtle and more serious mistakes that could occur.

4. Having students construct their own questions (that are good). I really need to get better at this. I’ve had some success in the past, but usually when I least expect it. I’m thinking of researching more into RQI to find some useful strategies.

5. The other day, out of the blue, I utilized a “convince me” statement to a student during a class discussion. We were factoring and I proposed a (wrong) solution to him. I essentially asked “why is my solution wrong,” but in a way that felt more like a challenge rather than a question. I felt the power when I uttered it. It probably bled through from a workshop from Chris Luzniak a couple years ago on using debate in math class. He has great stuff.

6. Using questions as a foundation of my class. I want my classroom culture to be one that emphasizes the why behind the answer instead of the answer itself. As a math teacher, I’ve always emphasized work and how critical it is. But I’ve never lived out that creed by how I teach my kids. Trying to change that this year. More to come on this.

7. If one student X makes a statement about something we’re studying, I’ll sometimes turn to student Y and ask them to “Interpret what X just said…”

8. During an intervisitation, the teacher I was visiting posed a question to the class and no one responded or seemed to have a clue. He said “Alright, take 30 seconds and brainstorm with a neighbor about the question.” He waited and asked the question again and there were several responses. This was awesome.

9. The questioning doesn’t begin and end while I’m teaching. I’ve started questioning more of what I plan and structure for my students, including things that I’ve done for years. I’ve put my teaching philosophy under a microscope too. It’s changing. This will have repercussions far greater than any question I could ever pose to a student.



Starting the year with letters


Last year I really started getting into writing more with my students. (This probably started because of my first year of blogging.) Specifically, I did Friday letters and notes that I wrote students while they took exams. I also had my students write themselves a letter mid-year that I held onto and gave back to them at the end of the school year. 

To culminate all this writing, on the last day of school I had each student write me a letter that I didn’t open until the first day of classes this year. I asked them to give me some inspiration for the new school as well as simply capturing the moment at the end of a long, hard-fought school year. I locked the letters away for the summer.

When I opened my closet a few weeks ago upon my return to school, the letters were staring directly at me. I strategically placed them in front of all my crap so I wouldn’t forget. 

What I read convinced me that I have to do this again in June. Some letters provided fresh perspective and advice of how to teach more effectively. There was some really good advice, like being tougher and expecting more. Others served as reminders as to exactly why I became a teacher. I was informed by one kid that I was head and shoulders their favorite teacher of all time. Others proved more serious, like the one that shared insight into the world of living with divorced parents. 

They were heartfelt, real, and unadulterated. The letters allowed me to reconnect, at least in spirit, with those kids and all we experienced in room 516. I learned a lot too. They were exactly what I needed to start the year. 

Set sail

It’s that time of year again. Classes began this week. Here are a few goals that come to mind as I set sail for the year.

1. Conference with my students more. I have a table set up in my room designed for this. My hope is to sit and have small group discussions on a regular basis.

2. Lag homework/practice. I see the power in requiring students to recall information while learning new concepts.

3. Lag unit exams. I see this as a corollary of lagging homework; if students are spending the majority of their practice time on “old” content, then it only makes sense that their informative assessments follow suit. Therefore, unit exams will be given in the midst of the following unit. My hope is that it will set higher expectations for preparedness and promote better long term comprehension. I may be off my rocker, so we’ll see.

4. Be a better mentor and colleague to new and developing teachers.

5. Earn highly effective. It’s a label that can be subjective, but in my eyes if I can earn it, then I deserve it.

6. Encourage my kids to show their thinking (vs. show their work).

7. Work towards NBC. It’s daunting, but a challenge I’m looking forward to.

8. Simplify my school day and focus on what matters most, both in and out of my classroom.

9. Mandate all students to retake standards on which they didn’t achieve proficiency. This was an option in the past that I didn’t push hard enough for.

10. Set higher, more rigorous expectations for my kids. This is a fine line, but I’ve become too lax and my students are suffering because of it. In conjunction with 3 and 9.

11. Seek in-depth student feedback.

12. Get my kids to understand the ‘why am I doing this?’ aspect of each lesson. Thanks Z.

13. Give students more control of their learning. I simply do too much. When they have ownership over their own learning, the need for my inspiration minimizes.

14. Have a top ten posted in my classroom. Overall and Most Improved?



Summer 2015: An Immersive Research Experience…The After Party

Earlier this summer I wrote about a research experience that I was taking part in: SMARTER, an RET instituted by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The experience was profound. Here’s a recap of my takeaways.

  • Firstly, a learned a good deal about composite materials. Going into the program, I had the slightest idea what a composite material even was. During orientation my curiosity was stoked by Nikhil Gupta, my research mentor, about his area of expertise (primarily because he mentioned that his research impacts the U.S. military). But other than that spark, I had no real foundation for where to start the research. Naturally, this equates to an information overload and, in the end, a substantial amount of learning on my end. Part of me wished my research tied in closer to what I teach everyday, but the other part of me understands that being forced into foreign territory was exactly what I needed.

  • My partner and I decided to make repurposing waste materials the centerpiece of the research. Specifically, we were interested in the impact that fly ash, human hair, and glass microspheres have when integrated with cement. What did we learn? The results were somewhat inconclusive, but we did discover an ideal proportion of fly ash to glass microspheres that would optimize the peak stress (i.e. the point at which the material begins to break down) of the composition. We expected that the human hair would have a greater impact on the overall strength of all the composites, but the results were fairly mixed.
  • A facet of the experience that surprised me was the collaboration that it involved. When you work with a perfect stranger for an extended period of time, things can get rocky. I didn’t learn to appreciate my partner’s perspective until later in the research; she taught me a ton about seeing things with a starkly different outlook and how this is necessary for the team to succeed. It also pushed me to open my mind and connect with ideas that I initially found hard to accept. I was reminded that everyone has strengths that are both unique and amazing…and that productivity sometimes hinges on the ability to focus on those strengths.
  •  The most significant impact of the experience was the uplifting inspiration it provided me. Before SMARTER, I had a deep-rooted desire to grow as a professional, but I had no ambition to further my education or seek a higher level of certification. But after a brief conversation with a Ph.D candidate who was aiding in our analysis, I left with an unexpected desire to push myself further than I ever thought I would. It was his laudable attitude coupled with the overall atmosphere at the university that left me wanting much more than just to complete my research and get back to teaching.
  • What does this mean? It means that one day I will 1) earn National Board Certification and 2) obtain a doctorate in mathematics education. Yup. I am now eagerly awaiting these immense challenges in the years to come. Thanks Eduardo.

This is my evolution thanks to SMARTER. My students, school community and myself are all much better because of it.




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