My midyear report card

So my midyear report card results are in. As always, they’re a mixed bag. Here are a few comments directly from the kiddos. First, the good:

  • I like the amount of time we have to explore math in the class. It’s not just sitting down listening to a teacher all period.
  • I like how resourceful we are and a teacher isn’t always 100% necessary.
  • I like how we get to put up the problems on the board and are allowed to go to other tables to compare answers or to ask help. 
  • The way we learn from each other’s work.
  • I like how the students have a right in their teaching in a way.
  • I have the freedom to walk around and don’t have to be confined to my desk.
  • I like the freedom in the class and learning from the problems rather than cumbersome units.
  • Nobody judges others on their work.
  • We focus on different types of problems that all connect to each other.

And the not-so-good:

  • It can be improved by actually teaching a lesson so that the lesson can be more clear.
  • I think there should be more traditional teaching.
  • You can try to lead the class a bit more rather than the students teaching it.
  • More lessons and notes rather than just problems.
  • Topics can be gathered into categories by Mr. Palacios so we know what we’re dealing with.
  • You should talk more.
  • Our class should try to identify problems or topics we are confused on therefore allowing you to step in and teach the topic.
  • I would really want for you to take charge of the class instead of the students.
  • Teaching in front of the board like once a week.

Notice a theme?

Based on the comments, it’s clear to me that my students are uncomfortable with the high levels of autonomy that I have afforded them. Well, let’s talk about the structure. It doesn’t happen everyday, but usually I assign 5 problems for homework (designed as learning experiences, not traditional practice). I expect them to come in the next day, put their work to the problems up on the whiteboards and thoroughly discuss the solutions they found in small groups. While this is happening, I assess their thinking and step into their group’s conversations to help drive the learning. For the most part, they can move freely about the room, but at times I will strategically move kids to different groups, a.k.a. visible random grouping. Afterwards, I sequence the presenters for the 5 problems and a whole class discussion around the solutions to the problems closes things out.

Through this structure, I have tried to minimize the amount of direct instruction that I do all the while interleaving mathematical ideas through problems. I’ve wanted student discussion to completely direct the learning and the problems to be the vehicle that makes that happen. Damn, that sounds so good in theory. I know in September it did.

Admittedly, I probably went a little too gung-ho about the student-driven, discussion-based learning. It was just so tasty. But I could have taken baby steps. I could have tried it out for a few lessons, learned its flaws and iterated on a smaller scale. But, no, I had to go all in. And I’m drowning because of it.

But all is not lost. The kids really love working on the whiteboards and freely getting help from others in the class. This is liberating for them. They aren’t confined to their seat and they appreciate this. The whiteboards give them an outlet to collaborate, which they have been eating up. If nothing else, at least they are engaged. They just need more guidance from me. And the problem-based learning has enabled the content to be interleaved and naturally spiraled, which has been so worthwhile for long-term learning. For the most part, the kids have gotten over not having discrete units.

So where do I go from here? Well, after seeking therapy from my colleagues all day, I think I’m going to begin incorporating “anchor” problems throughout the problem sets I give students. These should take a full class period to solve and I will help guide students through them with direct instruction. I hope that they will serve as a shared experience that future problems will connect to and provide them with a basic understanding of a concept.

In addition, I want to do some problem strings with them as a whole class. Again, this will serve as another shared problem-solving experience that can allow for in-depth exploration of future problems…and more direct involvement of myself.

Every few days at the start of class, I plan on giving 5-10 minute, unannounced “checkpoints”  to check for understanding on what we’ve been learning. A huge weakness of semester one was not giving the kids opportunities to validate their learning. This resulted in them feeling confused and thinking they weren’t learning. Plus, I didn’t measure where they were in their understanding of key ideas until an exam. Not good. The checkpoints will inherently result, again, in more direct intervention by me and will help me adjust how we move forward.

Lastly, we just need to have more fun in class. Things got somewhat tight and tense near the end. I hated it.

I’m going to start day 1 of semester two sharing all this with my students. I want them to hold me accountable. I’ll share my reflections and ask them to reflect on what they can do to make the second half of the year better than the first. They will write a few paragraphs and submit them to me as I’m going to hold them accountable, too. Many of them don’t do the assigned homework each night because I don’t give points for it, so I hope to pull this out of them.

 

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Internalizing feedback without seeing it

Feedback on exam in spanish

I’ve found that students all too often overlook, or simply ignore, the feedback I give them on assessments. For whatever reason they just don’t use it. This is a problem.

I value reassessment and see feedback as crucial in that process. If a student struggles on an exam, I need them to learn from their misconceptions. My feedback reflects this. I’ve always provided fairly detailed feedback, but this year I’ve stepped it up significantly. In fact, all I do now is give feedback. I provide no scores or grades on exams. This helps, but I still need to find ways for students to grow from the feedback they receive.

I have experimented with kids relearning concepts the day after an exam without seeing their actual exam. The day after the exam, I give a copy of the SBG results to each group. Each student uses the data to identify the specific concepts that they need to relearn or review. The groups are a mix of proficiency levels (based on the exam results) so if a student needs help with a particular standard, there’s someone in their group that understands it and can help them. I also give them blank copies of the exam to work on and discuss.

After about 15-20 minutes of peer tutoring, I give them their exams back. Based on their newfound understanding, at least some of their misconceptions should be alleviated. They now spend 15-20 minutes correcting their mistakes on a separate sheet of paper while directly responding to the feedback I’ve given them on the exam.

Ideally, this means that they are using feedback from their peers to understand and respond to the feedback I’ve given them. It serves as relearning/remediation before they retake the exam. What I’m missing, though, is a reflection piece that ties into the feedback as well.

A colleague conjured up a different spin on this. After an exam, he informs students which standards they didn’t earn proficiency on. (He doesn’t hand back their actual exam either.) He allows one week (more or less) of relearning/remediation on those standards – either on their own, or with you. He actually uses an online resource for this. Then, when they feel ready to retake, he returns their exam and asks them to self-assess and correct their original mistakes. If they can, he allows them to retake. If not, they continue relearning. It may not focus on feedback, but I like this.

Closing thoughts: what if I do get my students to internalize my feedback? Are they just going to be doing it to satisfy the requirements that I ask of them? When they leave my classroom, will they view feedback as a necessary component of success? Will my feedback really make a difference? How else could I get them to value it?

 

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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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