Thursday, September 29, 2011


My bellringer today for Testing Thursday was this question from the 2009 Ohio Graduation Test:

To be honest, I didn't feel it was a particularly difficult question. I was quite surprised when all three of my Algebra 2 classes who saw this question today had no idea where to start. They didn't even want to hazard a guess at it. I had one student in my Advanced Algebra 2 class who knew the answer, but this particular student catches on to some things mathematically that most students wouldn't even want to venture towards. I'm not totally sure how to explain him, but let's leave it at that it doesn't surprise me he figured it out and rather quickly.

I have noticed over the last week or so that my students already are not really engaging with the OGT testing questions I have put in front of them. Part of me can hardly blame them, but on the other hand, I do need to prepare them for this test that many of them will have to take this year and giving them the opportunity to see previous test questions is a helpful way to do that. I know the best way to prepare them is to teach the material that will be covered by the test in the first place, and I am certainly doing that.

At the moment, I have two questions bouncing around my head that I need to figure out answers to:
1) How do I get my students more engaged with these questions/bellringers? I'm not grading them (remember - SBG here). I have set the expectation in front of them that they are to be working on them - it's not happening as much as it should be.

2) (and this is the more important one to me at the moment) How do I help my students to be able to engage with a question like this? I think many of them flat out wrote it off today without even playing around with it. If I have hopes of incorporating rich tasks into my classes , students have to be willing to play with the mathematics involved. I saw a whole lot of blank stares today and very little attempts at figuring out an answer.

You know, I was just starting to work up the gumption to try to design or find an activity to modify that would involve (*gasp!*) thinking and after seeing this today, I'm back to being scared of it. Help!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review - or lack thereof

In the past, I have given "unit" tests. Taught the concepts that (loosely) fit together, did a couple of days of review at the end of the "unit," and then gave a test (which was about every 2-3 weeks). Last year, I started doing feedback only quizzes, which I ended up abandoning - I have *never* done quizzes well. I wasn't completely happy with how things went testing wise last year. Here are my previous posts on the revisions I made from last year.

So, at the moment I am teaching 3 concepts and then quizzing 6 concepts - the most recent 3 are being given feedback only, the 3 before that are being graded. For example, most of my classes are getting graded on Learning Targets 4-6 this week and being given feedback on Learning Targets 7-9. I'm not really sure I'm liking this at the moment. My main beefs at the moment are -

1) I feel like I am constantly assessing my students. At the moment (especially since these are easier concepts that are mostly review for my students), I am quizzing about every 5 days (or once a week). Multiply that times 3 preps and you get the picture...

2) I am not reviewing with students in class. There is a part of me that says that my students - especially the ones in Algebra 2 and Advanced Algebra 2 who want to be heading to college - need to learn to do some outside preparation. I think the reality is that my students have no idea how to prepare for a math test. Without doing some sort of review in class, I don't think they do anything to prep for a test. For the upcoming Advanced Algebra 2 and Algebra 2 quizzes (Thursday and Friday respectively), I put together a short review sheet just over the Learning Targets that are being graded (4-6) along with answers. I'm intending to give some time to answering any questions from it, but I don't want to devote a whole period to it. If I do that, I will end up losing a lot more time in the classroom and I don't think that's the answer either.

3) Writing feedback on quizzes certainly takes a long time. I can't honestly say I'm "being less helpful" in them. I am really making an effort to not use the second person pronoun unless I am saying something positive - and sometimes, that is really hard. (Thanks @RobertTalbert for the suggestion.) But I think it is less critical to students and I am hoping they are more receptive to the comments.

Any comments or suggestions from my readers? I'm especially struggling with #2. I am not sure how to best accommodate review for my students (who I think probably need it). Do I just bite the bullet and review in front of every quiz? Do I restructure and go back to giving tests at the end of each "unit" and throw in feedback only quizzes in the meantime? Does someone else have some other brilliant suggestion? Please help! Thanks in advance. - hope to see you in the comments.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lacking Rhythm

I feel like I am having difficulty establishing a rhythm this year. The teaching part seems to be going as it has in the past and I have fallen into that rhythm okay. It's the planning and test preparations and such. I feel like I am out of sorts. I am usually much more on top of that part of the planning - even last year when I felt like I was constantly doing SMART Board files and doing prep outside of work I was on top of things. Not so this year. I wrote up the test for Math 1 for tomorrow tonight. This is not like me at all.

I'm worn out as well. I can feel that I am physically worn out this year - I can't seem to go on the 6 or so hours of sleep that I used to be able to do. It caught up to me this week. Fortunately (*knocking on wood*) I haven't gotten sick, but I definitely feel more tired this year. Part of that may very well have to do with turning 40, or at least I am telling myself this.

Things have just been so crazy around here - between the bathroom remodel finishing up (and still needing to be put back together) and what seems to be our new usual busy-ness around here between my 3rd graders' homework, my commitments, and the usual keeping-up of the house, it just seems like I have little "down" time. Maybe that's why I'm struggling with finding a rhythm - I feel like I am constantly going and there isn't a rhyme or reason to it all.

I read Sam Shah's blog post from today and I have to say I'm jealous. I wish I was doing such fun things outside of my school life. But I'm also thrilled for him that he is getting to do some fun things and is stepping back from doing school all the time. I do feel like I am not doing school all the time - but I do feel like I am *doing* all the time. That can't be good.

I'm sure what isn't helping at the moment is that I feel like all of this stuff I am doing is going unnoticed and unappreciated. I spent most of Sunday battling with my daughter to get her work done and to get done what we needed to around the house. I just finished my first round of quizzes at school and my students didn't do as well as I had hoped. My Algebra 2 group in particular seems to be struggling with skills that I think are rather basic and necessary for Algebra (solving equations!) and I feel like at times I am pushing them on the most basic things. My first period class has turned out to be a bit of a delight, which has been a pleasant surprise. But for the most part, I feel like I am pushing them harder than they are used to and I am unsure whether they will continue to rise to the challenge.

Hopefully I'll have a more positive post later in the week - reassessments are starting and this will be the third set of SBG assessments with grading 3 and feedback on 3 concepts. The post is percolating in my head - we'll see how it comes out later in the week.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Change is Hard

I'm about a month into school as I sit and write this post tonight. I feel like I am finally settling into the groove of the school year, however, I'm not sure if I like the groove this year is settling into. It's not the students I have - for the most part, I am pleased with how my students are putting forth effort. I'm in the process of getting to the first set of quizzes with graded sections. We had the set of feedback-only quizzes last week - this week has 3 graded concepts and 3 feedback-only concepts. I didn't really do any review with them in front of their quizzes. I haven't finished grading the set I gave today (the 2nd of my 3 preps), but the initial look wasn't as good as I hoped. I am sitting here questioning if this is the way I want to do SBG this year - teach 3 concepts, quiz, repeat. That means a quiz about every week and I need to do a much better job of fitting review in. Any suggestions from my readers are welcome, especially since I am not doing any review at the moment except for one warm up a week.

The daily warm ups are going well, I think. I definitely like the themes - it has really focused me and made sure that I do them. Of course, as I am typing this, I am realizing I haven't set up the lessons for tomorrow. I think the kids are putting forth good effort and I feel pretty good about how my classes are going so far.

However, I wanted to make some changes this year. As you can see, the bathroom remodel is done. I still have to put things back in order (hopefully tomorrow!), but it's done. As far as my own changes in the classroom, I'm trying. I haven't incorporated as much problem solving as I want to. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do with it. I just need to start somewhere. I did use this great explanation for absolute value equations and inequalities that Kate Nowak blogged about. We'll see how that turns out with quizzes - although today as I glanced at some papers, I could still see that several students didn't get it. Many of them were ones who weren't paying good attention - and it showed. I am looking at putting together a rich task based on what Kate Nowak did. I did a similar task at the NCTM Institute for Reasoning and Sense Making in Orlando this past July. I keep thinking about it, but I haven't put it into action. My Advanced Algebra 2 kids will probably be ready for this one on Friday, but I'm not sure if I'll be there yet. Guess I better get moving on it.

The bottom line is that change is hard. I am trying to do some different things, but I still feel like I am teaching things mostly the same way. I am trying hard not to fall into old ruts - I am doing better walking around to check on students to see how they're doing. I am doing better with asking students what questions they have instead if there are any questions. There are some subtle changes I am making that I think are working. I have done a better job of formative assessment this year so far I think. I am making a point to not use the second person pronoun ("you") when commenting on what students have done wrong (@RobertTalbot I think was who I saw tweet about it). I am trying to give students feedback to help guide them. But there are still lots of things I want to improve on. I guess I have to remember that it is easier to make small changes and to improve what I can. Hopefully I'll get where I want to be during the course of the school year.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Student Comments

As I was reflecting on the last two days in Algebra 2, I was not comfortable with where they were at as far as solving equations in one variable. Yesterday we worked with equations that had parentheses and/or like terms on the same side and from what I saw as I walked around the room, I felt there was some confusion or difficulties with it. I hadn't totally decided what to do about it today when I had left yesterday and never really came up with an answer, but on the way into work this morning, the brilliant idea hit me - Gallery Walk! (Thanks to @druinok and Bill Thill for sharing this activity with me over the summer.) See, those half hour drives to and from work pay off sometimes...

After procuring some 12 x 18 paper from the art teacher and finding some problems to use, I was ready to go. I wrote out the problems on the paper and gave each pair of students a paper. I directed them to individually work out the problem on their own paper, compare answers and work, come up with what they felt was correct and to write the work and solution to the problem. After the pairs were done, I gave each person some post-its and directed them to walk around the room, look at each problem's work and solution and offer constructive and/or positive feedback. We talked about not being mean (2 times 3 is 6, you idiot is not acceptable or helpful...) and about making sure to let people know when they did a good job. All was good until this point....

As they walked around the room, many people briefly looked at the problems. Most people wrote things like "good" or "awesome" or some other brief but positive comment. All three of my classes had problems where mistakes were made. In my first class, the errors were caught and mentioned on post-it in a positive manner. In my second class, errors were caught but not by as many who viewed the problem. In my third class, two papers had errors in the second step and neither one was caught by a student when I went by (on one of them, a student remarked on the error after I had been past). In fact, on both of those papers, almost every post-it was "good" or "nice work" or "awesome." I ranted talked about how simply putting "good" or "nice" when there really were errors was worse than making the error. I talked about how important it is to carefully review the work you are looking at so you can be helpful. But I left feeling like what I originally thought was a good activity and use of class time was a waste.

My students have no idea how to look at (someone else's) work and determine correctness. They can certainly give positive comments and goofy comments (and there were a few of those too). The ones who found errors did give constructive comments - but mainly in the sense of pointing out the error. I am at a loss, especially with my last class who did not seem to take the feedback portion seriously.

I really did like how the activity did go. Students were engaged with the problem given to them. I'm not sure how much discussion happened in some partner groups as to who had a correct answer and why, but I believe there was some discussion. The lack of (good/real) feedback has me a bit down though. What would you do if you were to do this kind of Gallery Walk in your class?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Slowly Adjusting

We are just more than a week into the new school year. Things are moving along slowly but steadily. I have been wanting to blog for about two-three days now, but things have been a bit busy at home. Our bathroom remodel started today. It's getting late, but I need to get a couple of things out of my mind before heading off to sleepy-land.

Advanced Algebra 2
Numbers in this class are up to 18 - I had a late switch of a student from Algebra 2 to Advanced. So far, not too bad here. As usual for this class, the students are delightful (personality-wise) and fairly disciplined workers. I am hopeful that we will get to do some great things with this class this year. I did discover the lack of fraction skills with this group - which is a concern. We spent the good part of a class period reviewing how to deal with fractions. I am hoping that for the moment, that will hold off some of the problems with fractions and that their skills will increase. I have set up a Moodle for them, but students haven't signed up yet for it. I am hoping that will get remedied this weekend. This class looks to have some good potential.

Math 1
For the first time in quite some time I think, I only have one section of Math 1. This section is half IEP students (LD primarily) and half regular ed students. As is typical of this type of class, it is a chatty bunch and there is a potential for some discipline issues. I am still waiting for the population of this course to shake out - it looks like I may lose 3 more students yet (1 IEP, 2 regular) and I think that will keep the balance at about 50-50. I do have an aide in this class with me and I am very familiar with her - she was in my Algebra 2 class last year with an autistic child. She does a super job and I work well with her. So far, things are going pretty well. I have been impressed with how the students have worked and they have done well so far I think. I do like having only one section of Math 1 - it allows me to proceed at a pace that I feel works for the class and I am not having to be concerned with keeping pace with the other section of Math 1 (which a different teacher has). In the long run, I think that will allow this class to flourish.

Algebra 2
I was a bit worried after Wednesday's pretest last week. Between having discipline issues in my last class and the lack of effort on the pretest, I was concerned that I would not see good effort out of these classes. For the most part, they have been working pretty well. Last period is going to have some issues and they will stem around 2 students (both of whom I have had twice previously). One parent I have already talked to, the other I think I will be talking to shortly. This class also has the largest percentage of juniors and seniors - these are students who are taking Algebra 2 later than the "normal" track, which means they have definitely had issues previously in math. Some of these students are doing a super job (including a couple of last week's discipline issues), some of these students, not quite as well. Should be interesting how it plays out. I have also been rather impressed with how well my first class has done. They have been very honest in their self-assessments of where they are at mathematically and they have worked exceptionally well this week.

Some New Things (for me)
So far, the bellringers are going okay. I do like having a "theme" to work with - it has helped keep the idea fresh for me. We've done more than our fair share of testing review over these two weeks - I am looking forward to having a full week to shake things up a bit. My "Free-for-all Friday" warm up tomorrow is 2 3x3 KenKens. I'll be curious to see how they do with it.

I have been getting kids in all three preps up to the board to show selected problems. This is new for me - not something I have done very regularly (or even at all) in my teaching career. I think, so far, this has gone well. We'll see how this continues.

As far as being less helpful, that's a bit of a struggle for me. I am working on asking more questions instead of automatically diagnosing errors, but this has been difficult. It is especially difficult because I really feel that these students (in Algebra 2 especially) are so low and behind of where I would expect them to be that they need to be guided to get them up to speed. I'll have to keep working on this one.

I did my explanations of solving equations a bit differently this time around. I'm not sure why or what light bulb went on as I was doing the explanations, but I think it's helping. Since students come to me with the perception that they are moving variables/numbers and/or "cancelling," I have really tried to hit home with them that they are supposed to be getting 0x's (or whatever variable) on one side, then 0 for the numbers on one side, and finally ending up with 1x. I think it is helping and hopefully when we get to assessments next week, I'll see that.

I think that's about it for the moment. I haven't delved into rich problems as I want to yet. I'm still thinking about how I want to go about that first. For Math I, our next unit deals with reviewing the operations rules for integers. I am hoping to find something that will work there. For Algebra 2, I am looking at doing something similar to what Kate Nowak developed. Next up for them is graphing linear equations and the related materials (slope, writing equations given certain information, parallel & perpendicular lines).

Also up next are the first SBG quizzes for them. I am trying to figure out how to incorporate some review without giving up too much class time. In the past, I would spend 2 or so days at the end of a unit reviewing and give a unit test (even with SBG last year, I did that). This year I am trying the "teach 3, quiz (3), teach 3 more, quiz (6)" method and giving only feedback on the newest 3 concepts. Any help from my readers who use this basic method of testing as far as how to handle reviewing would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks for taking the time to read - I am a better teacher because I take time to reflect and many of you have commented or tweeted me with suggestions or things to think about, which has also helped me to be a better teacher. Thanks!