I don’t give a damn about points.

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I check homework daily for completion at the beginning of each class. This serves two purposes for me:

  1. To ensure that they’re doing it. In other words, to give them points.
  2. To meaningfully assess their level of understanding on the mathematics involved and use this knowledge to facilitate a class discussion.

My problem is with 30 students it takes me forever to walk around during the Bell Ringer and complete this process each day. Because it eats up so much time, the entire process is rushed and places much more focus on #1 rather than #2.

So, in an effort to combat this, I’ve started having a student go around with my clipboard and check homework for completion. It’s a different student each day. This frees me to drop in on groups and gauge understanding, feel out the class, and answer some questions in the process.

I’ve discussed that the honor system is in place when it comes to the homework check. I expect them to give credit where credit is due, only. I want them to get that I trust them to do what’s right.

Some teachers may push back and mention that there’s bound to be some students that earn credit for the homework who don’t actually deserve it. That’s probably true. Other than my occasional spot check, I’ll never really know. But I’ve realized that I don’t care anymore.

I want them to be accountable to each other, not me. And besides, if my students are concerned about compliance when it comes to homework, then they’re less concerned about learning mathematics.

I don’t give a damn about points. HERE, take all the points you want. The value is in learning…and I hope this is clear to my students.

 

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The day after

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I don’t like review days before exams. I’d much rather spend that day after an exam analyzing mistakes and relearning. I find this to be crucial in promoting a growth mindset in my students. My struggle has been how to structure these post-exam days. Here’s a formative assessment idea that I’ve used a few times this year.

The day after an exam, I set up the room in 3-5 stations. Each serves as a place to study a particular concept that was on the exam.

My bell ringer asks students to check their exam performance on the bulletin board in the back of the room. It lets them know for which concepts they earned proficiency. I also email the kids their performance immediately after assessing the exams, but many don’t check.

I hand back the exams and they move to a concept that they need help with based on their performance. If they have earned credit for every concept on the exam then I ask them to float and help others. At each station they use notes, each other, and the feedback I provided on the exam to analyze and learn from their mistakes. I also have practice problems at each station so they can make sure they understand the concept. I float around the room and help. Of course, the SBG data allows me to sit with students who need me most.

After a student feels they have successfully relearned a concept, and I usually check in to confirm, they can retake that concept. The retakes are in folders in the corner – students grab one and do it anywhere in the room. They submit it and begin working on another concept, if necessary. It doesn’t matter how many concepts a student retakes during the period, but it usually works out to be 1-2.

Before I did this activity I was concerned that since the stations would be full of students that struggled on a concept that they would all sit together and get no where. This hasn’t been the case. The kids are diligent to relearn. This may be because they like retaking exams and earning proficiency during class time, as I usually make them come after school to do this. It helps that the relearning is targeted and individualized to each student. Plus, it’s all formative. They go wherever they feel they need to. They assess themselves, but use one another in the process.

It can look and feel chaotic. But that’s the point. Improvement is messy. It’s also amazing – especially when it happens amongst your students.
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Thank you hint tokens.

Steps

A few weeks ago I stumbled across the idea of a hint token. Think of it as a get out jail free card, but for the classroom. While working on a task, groups can trade one for a hint from me.

Loving this idea, I immediately went to implement it. This, I thought, would be a great way to give students more ownership over their learning and hopefully learn to rely more on one another. The first time around we were studying sequences and I gave each group two hint tokens in the form of Jolly Ranchers (thanks Sam).

What happened was something unexpected: no tokens were used.

They may have simply wanted to eat the candy afterwards, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t doubt it. That said, what was most impressive was how they worked interdependently to solve the problems. I was essentially ignored.

Afterwards, I realized how empowered I was. The kids need me far, far less than I think. Understanding something and feeling something are very different phenomena. I’ve always known that my students should need me less, but I now know how that feels. It’s incredible. I even communicated this to the kids and saw the realization in their faces. They felt the same way.

This experience has had a dramatic affect on my teaching. What’s ironic about this is that you’d think I would move to incorporate hint tokens every day. The thing is, I’m not. Instead, I ensure that students have the opportunity to own their learning and sit longer in each other’s thoughts. It usually consists of 10 minutes of focused, small-group discussion and productive struggle during every lesson (I have 42 minutes class periods). During this time, I provide no any assistance of any kind.

As a result, it’s common for me to pull up next to a group, watch and listen. Before, they would be inclined to ask me something simply because they could. Now, they forget I’m even there. I silently assess their thinking the entire time – which reminds me of a live version of video-based PD.

It’s a win for everyone. They purposefully and interdependently think through a problem, which spurs engagement and ownership, and I get valuable insight into their thinking that serves as a driving force for the rest of the lesson…and beyond.

Thank you hint tokens. Thank you for facilitating this change in the culture of my classroom.

I’m left thinking that this shift may be directly related the class chemistry I’ve developed this year – which has cultivated a willingness to learn and explore amongst the kids. In other words, the tokens could have simply been what I needed use in order to realize the new path that learning is taking in my class. I don’t know. Maybe next year I will need the tokens. We’ll see.
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“You need to have your aim posted”

What impact does posting the aim, or central question of a lesson, have on teaching and learning? What purpose does it serve?

I’ve heard throughout my career that “you need to have your aim posted” at the start of every lesson. @stoodle got at this idea recently and made me realize that I myself have been pondering this for quite some time.

A year ago someone at a PD mentioned that they never post the day’s aim. Nor do they “announce” it at the beginning of class. Instead, the aim is elicited from students during the learning process. The essential question is built upon their prerequisite knowledge and pulled from their comprehension of what they learn from the lesson. It is never given, but rather discovered by the students.

When I heard this, I had an ah-ha moment. It made complete sense. Other than in the classroom, how often are we informed of what we’re going to learn before we actually learn it? Sure, you may have a goal you want to accomplish (e.g. complete yard work before 1 pm), but what you actually learn in the process (e.g. how to mow my lawn as efficiently as possible) is often unknown at the onset. We notice, strategize, experiment, learn, and then realize what we’ve learned.

Recently, I didn’t post the aim of a lesson on arithmetic sequences. I required my students, as part of their exit slip, to write what they thought the aim was for the lesson. Not only did 90% of the kids nail it, but one was even better, and more creative, than what I originally intended for the lesson.

Aim

(This is directly related to the overarching problem from the lesson)

This made me think. Whatever a student feels the aim is (during or at the end of a lesson), provides remarkable feedback as to the effectiveness of the lesson.

Another thing. I’m a firm believer that lessons should be based purely on questions. One question should lead to another, and then another, and then another. Ultimately, the central question – the heart of any lesson – should eventually be provoked. Because of this, I want my students to need the central question of a lesson to accomplish a task or goal. They can’t need it if I openly post it.

I’m left with many questions about this widely-adopted practice of aim-posting. What are the consequences of openly telling students the aim of a lesson? Conversely, what are the consequences of structured learning that promotes the discovery of the aim? If I don’t tell my students the aim, how do I frame a lesson from the onset? Does explicitly stating the aim perpetuate a top-down approach to learning? How can we use student-generated aims to inform our teaching?

 

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Exams: tools for feedback, answers provided, and lagged

I’ve made three fundamental changes to my unit exams this year.

Part One: Exams as tools for feedback

After a student gets an exam back, what’s the first thing they notice? Easy: their overall score. That’s why I’m not putting scores on exams.

All too often a student sees their score and, especially if its low or mediocre, views the score as the only thing that matters. Even with standards-based grading, sometimes students will get caught up in whether they’ve earned proficiency on a particular concept (which isn’t a bad thing). What they forget about is how to correct mistakes and improve based on how they did. This attitude is more present in struggling learners than it is in high achievers, but it is present throughout.

This is why this year I’ve decided to not put scores or grades on exams. I am only putting feedback. That feedback comes in the form of highlighting incorrect work, asking clarifying questions, inserting direct how-to, and cheers for correct responses. Never will my students find an overwhelming (or underwhelming) score on their exam. When they critic their performance, I want them to focus on their work – not lament on their grade. My next challenge is to get them to actually internalize and grow from the feedback.

Part Two: Exams that focus on why

On exams, I’m providing the answer to every question.

I know this is ridiculous and unheard of, but here’s my thing: I want to build a classroom culture that hinges on questions, not answers. In fact, I fear my kids being answer-driven. I want students to focus on the how and why rather than the what. In addition to simply talking to them and encouraging this frame of mind on an ongoing basis, I wanted to add a structural aspect that can help accomplish this. Providing every answer is what I came up with.

I know this doesn’t simulate standardized exams outside of my room and is fairly impractical, but I hope that I’m helping them see the bigger picture. Besides, I already include them into classwork and homework assignments, so I figured why not exams too?

Part Three: Exams that lag
After reading much about the power of lagging homework from the MTBOS, this summer I decided to incorporate it. In addition, I’ve decided to lag my unit exams. 

It just makes sense to lag both. In fact, when I made the choice to lag my homework, I found lagging unit exams to be direct corollary. Summative assessments (e.g. exams) should always align with what and how I teach. If I lag homework and 80% of what students are doing every night focuses on review content, how can administer an exam of 100% new content?

This all may backfire completely. But at least then I’ll be able to add them to the extensively long list of things that I’ve failed at implementing.



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