Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Do We Change?

This is long, and I'm unapologetically not going to bother proofreading much. This post is more or less a free write reflecting on the most intense day of my teaching yet. A day in which I didn't teach any math. I wrote this for myself, but I'd love to get some feedback.

This is my first year teaching, and my first experience teaching geometry. I have three standard, blocked geometry classes, and it is hard. The pace is quick, most of my students are freshmen, and we're having trouble "covering" what we need to at a pace necessary to finish.

I introduced proofs for the first time about a week ago, and we had a test yesterday. Scores were, well, less than what I was hoping for. I expected trouble with the proofs, which I found, but I was more concerned with the basic lack of understanding that I was seeing. The core pieces of the test - conditionals, converses, inverses, contrapositives, biconditionals, and the properties of congruence and equality - were simply not there. It's not that the students could properly interpret them and use them to judge and create. They failed to demonstrate a basic recall and application.

As a new teacher, this is difficult to deal with. It's frustrating and depressing. Without a doubt, part of this reflects my (in)ability to effectively teach the material and skills. I think this is more devastating to me than it is to my students.

However, I also know that this isn't all me. For one, I know that my students need to take responsibility for part of this. The choices that they're making in class aren't often the ones that will help them learn, and I think I need to teach that. Learning does not just happen; it is a choice that you make. I will do everything I can to make that a positive and helpful experience if you do choose to learn, but I can only do so much. I need to help my students understand that they are more of the class than me.

So, the response. Even though our schedule is a breakneck pace, I decided to take a full block - 90 minutes - to talk about how we do class. Preparation, learning, studying, review, interaction, behavior, everything. I wanted to do something to help them realize why we are in class, what the goals are, and what drives my decision making process.

So, rough lesson plan:

I asked six very basic questions that only require remembering the information absolutely necessary to doing well on the test. This is basically the lowest bar. I then read off the answers, had students mark their own answers, and then asked them to think about how they did. We talked about Bloom's taxonomoy and the different levels of thinking.

Passed back tests
I gave student a few minutes to go through their tests, thinking about what we had done so far. I explained that most scores were 5's and 6's. I use an 8-point standards-based grading system. A 5 means you demonstrated only a slight understanding of the concept, and a 6 means you're on the right track, but there is still a significant gap in your knowledge. So we have a ways to go yet.

Free write
I gave students about 4-5 minutes to write whatever they were thinking and feeling. Frustration, anger, reflection, ideas for improvement, whatever. I said that I wouldn't collect, so they could write anything. During the third block, I gave the option to turn it in, with or without a name, and I was surprised at how many students wanted to turn it in. They felt a need to be heard.
Next, students got in their groups and had a brief discussion about what they felt comfortable sharing. The discussion was reserved. While some students were happy to talk, I think many were feeling quite vulnerable and weren't entirely comfortable.

Word wall
On the whiteboard, I put a heading of "Thoughts/feelings", and encouraged students to write anything they wished relevant to this class. This was mildly terrifying. At first, only one or two students would slowly walk up. Then a few more, and then more. The atmosphere became markedly more relaxed. Students were seeing that they were not alone - others shared the same ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and I think it was comforting.

Then we spent a few minutes discussing what was up there. I summarized what I could, and students added a few more thoughts. Discussion was starting to roll.

Next, I had students brainstorm ideas for improving things. Class structure, assessments, practice, homework, behavior, teaching - anything and everything was fair game. Groups recorded their ideas, and then as a group, we transferred the ideas to the whiteboard up front. Once a few ideas were up there, more hands and ideas started popping up. I was impressed with the thought that students gave this.

Next, I offered my thoughts on what I was seeing. I explained why a few things were non-negotiables, but left it open for discussion. For example, I do not review immediately before a test. I explained that this is because I try to base every decision that I make on two things: does it help learning, and does it promote accurate assessment. We don't review right before a test because it's not testing true learning - it's testing short-term memory. Not all students liked this, but most understood.

Again, I was impressed with my students' engagement during this discussion. We were truly discussing learning and assessment. They were bring up things that they liked from previous teachers, and then we were discussing it in terms of "will this improve learning?" and "does this promote accurate assessment?" I've got a lot to think about here.

The Plan
To wrap things up, I asked each group to come up with three specific, concrete things that we could change in the context of our discussion. Each group presented their three, and then we voted as a class what three things we could change. There was a remarkable similarity between the three blocks.


This was an incredibly intense day for me. I spent 4.5 hours discussing everything about how I teach. I am emotionally exhausted. It was incredibly powerful, but my energy is gone. 

At the end of my third block, I was speaking to a few students in the last two minutes, and they asked me some innocent sounding questions that really capped off the day:
Why did you decide to teach? Are you sure you like teaching? You should have more fun!
I didn't have time to fully respond, and the questions were asked with true interest. I don't think they were suggesting I shouldn't teach. I think they were picking up on the fact that this job is hard, and this day especially was draining. In the 30 seconds I had, I said that I had been having this discussion for 4.5 hours today, and that it was scary for me. I was letting them write and say anything about my teaching, and I think they understood it.

After the class, I took a walk around the school to let things soak in a bit. I'm tired. I don't know exactly what to do. But, I do know one thing. I need to show students my love. I do love this job, and I love my students. I don't think I share that. Enthusiasm and spirit are tough for me. I've always been a rather reserved, introspective person. People who get to know me learn to pick up my emotion and excitement, but I need to do more than that. But remain who I am.

I need to figure out my way of showing students my love. For them, for my job, for my life.


  1. Bravo. I never would have had the courage to try something like this my first year.
    You've got a ton of things going for you as a first year teacher—this blog, SBG, and what seems like a real willingness to listen to your students (this is something I still feel like I have to work on 13 years in). Plus, as I think you've figured out, the community of math bloggers out there is unbelievably amazing and helpful.

    I do wonder a bit about a need for an 8-point SBG scale—over time, I've found myself drifting more and more toward a binary scale. As for having more fun in class, one thing I found I had to learn is how to embrace tangents a bit more. Students really want to know who we are as people. This year, I've found myself sharing more personal stuff about myself than ever before—how I was obsessed with grades as a student, the concern I have for my daughter as a parent, and the first job I had as a ride operator at Six Flags. I used to think the questions students asked about these things were just an effort to distract us from learning physics, but now, I see often, they're a genuine effort to connect, something I need to take better advantage of.

    I've added your blog to my google reader. I look forward to following your adventures.

  2. Thanks for the support! I've been amazed by the Twitter and blogging community, and have been eavesdropping for about a year or so now. Last spring, I realized the reason it is so alive is the discussion, and that requires me to actually speak up.

    As for the 8-point system, it is something that I have been thinking about lately. I find that I give mostly 4's, 6's, or 8's, and I don't really like giving 6's because some students see a 75% as good enough. I might try a binary system next semester, but I'm going to keep riding with the one I've got for a while longer.

    I'll try out your advice about taking tangents more often. They're definitely reaching out, and up to now I have interpreted it as simply trying to distract me.

  3. Kevin,

    I'm wondering what kind of formative assessments you had done in advance of the test itself.

    Also, I read somewhere that beginning teachers make terrible tests, so that could be another place to look for an issue.


  4. David,

    I'm working on my formative assessments. I've had trouble figuring how to get feedback to students quick enough since we give about one test each week under our block schedule. I recently started giving exit slips each day that assess the previous day's material. However, I need to do a better job assessing how well students grasped my objectives for each day.

    As for the tests, I'm using the common assessments that my department has created and tweaks each year. The only thing I change about them is the order so that it works a little more smoothly with my SBG system. I'm not thrilled with the tests, and I'm actually sparking some discussion within our department about assessment.


  5. Very thoughtful post. I teach all freshman too and have had similar experiences and lessons as you have described here...sometimes no one in the room knows who's more scared: the students scared to take risks in front of peers; the teacher hoping he or she is doing a good job and actually teaching kids.

    A former student of mine dropped in after school yesterday. He needed to talk to an adult who wouldn't judge him about behavior and attitude toward authority (he knew I would just listen because he,s no longer my student). He was starting to realize that the teacher's only job isn't just to get kids to sit still long enough to get information across and to tell kids constantly to behave. I think he just realized that teachers want their kids to learn so bad that when students misbehave or make choices in class that don't promote learning, that it's incredibly frustrating for the thoughtful teacher who spent hours planning what he or she thinks is a great lesson.

    I've learned that most of my freshman students will never realize this while they are still freshman. So to expect that from my students as a whole would be setting myself up for frustration and burnout and I've gotten better at meeting my students where they are. (And with more enthusiasm - if you really do love this job, keep being yourself...and when you know and understand the kids you're teaching, your enthusiasm will come out and students will appreciate it because it is authentic. Don't force it; it could take a couple years.)

    And new teachers do make fairly poor tests. I have my first student teacher this year and he's struggling with writing tests questions at the appropriate reading level, and aligned to only one standard at a time (essential for SBG). Practice. Ask kids to write their own questions so you can see their reading and writing and thinking levels. Start there and then add complexity or higher Bloom's as the students improve.

    You have another subscriber,
    Mark Davis

  6. I'm trying to do something similar to this in two parts. My algebra students bombed the first test, which was probably 60% my fault, and 40% on them. So, I took a day where we could tie their habits to their grades. Working in a poverty district, they have exceptionally bad habits. They throw away all their assignments, refuse to take any notes unless forced or bribed, and wait to for me to solve every example. I saw this last year, but not to the same extent.

    Anyway, they tend not to take responsibility for much of anything, so I wanted to strengthen that connection. (By the way, I don't blame them for this. They are a product of their educational environment.)

    Now, this week, I want to give them an opportunity to assess me, but I haven't been able to decide what that would look like. I am not as brave as you, but I think I am going to steal some of what you did, and I'll let you know how it goes.

  7. Sara - very cool, please do let me know! I'm working in a pretty comfortable suburban district currently, but I did my student teaching in Milwaukee, so I can kind of understand where you are coming from. I taught a couple of algebra classes when I was there, and I think it would have been incredibly frightening to try something like this. However, I also think that could make it even more powerful. Whatever you try, I'd love to to know how it works out.

    For me, I am pleased with the results. It's been a few weeks, and I've noticed a change in the class attitude. My students and I are more on the same page about how were doing and what we need to do. I'm still working on instilling a responsibility for their own learning, but I think the positive changes I've recognized are largely due to the fact that I gave them a voice and forced them to think about their own learning.