Goals for 2019-2020

I find that over the summer it is far too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking about all of the things that I could “fix” for the next school year (and I don’t think that I’m unique in this). First off, this is probably even the wrong mentality to entertain. While I certainly have things to improve upon, this is a different framing than having things that I need to fix in my teaching. Secondly, I want to try to rein in my goals to a manageable level this year.

I am teaching the same content this year, Geometry and Honors Geometry, that I have taught for the previous 3 years. I feel good about my content and pacing. I have a good variety of activities that I am able to incorporate through the year, both with technology and manipulatives. I am happy with my current policies about homework, corrections, etc. Knowing myself, I will certainly be tweaking those things throughout the year, but I don’t think that those areas need to be my focus.

The two things that I would like to focus on this year are warm-up/closure activities and technology policies. Some of the strategies that I am hoping to utilize in pursuit of these goals are:

  • Use a format that I read about on Twitter over the summer for spiral review in warm-ups with one question each from the previous day, week, unit and year. In order to keep it manageable for myself, I’d like to try this once a week, focusing on my Geometry courses.
  • Try Google Forms for exit tickets this year. To that end I made up several templates for myself, just using some general exit ticket questions. I tend to push my lessons probably a little bit too close to the bell, so I need to also work on my lesson pacing in order to ensure time for exit tickets or other forms of lesson closure.
  • I am pretty hands-off in regulating technology use in my classroom, which generally works for me, but I would like to see how students could benefit from developing a little bit more discipline in this area. One app that I recently heard about is called Pocket Points and it offers rewards for staying off of their phones. Right now I’m trying to decide if I want to try it out just in one class or dive in and try it with all of my classes.

Its tempting to keep brainstorming about what else could be improved upon, but I’m really going to try to focus on these pieces for sustainable improvement rather than a burst of change in August and then a return to my typical teaching habits.

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Class Instagram

A few days ago, I happened upon a Twitter conversation that was discussing having a class Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, etc. I just tried to find it again to credit the poster here, but due to the nature of Twitter, things go by so quickly. If it was you, please comment! I had made a class Instagram several years ago in order to do some midterm exam review via Instagram live due to some poorly timed snow days. Last year, I had great plans to use it more regularly, but did not post even once. I think that Instagram can be a way of connecting with students and sharing about different activities.

One suggestion that I read about in the Twitter thread was assigning each class section a week that they were responsible for posting class activities, etc. One teacher even had an old phone available in their classroom for taking pictures in class to post to Instagram. I also thought about creating just a simple Google Form where students could submit posts for Instagram. Because of my previous lack of follow through on my class Instagram, I wanted to a way that I could get some immediate buy-in. I decided to make an assignment for the first week of school just thinking about where students can find geometry around us. They will submit their picture and caption as an assignment on Google Docs and I’ll select my favorites to post on our class Instagram (or I might do some kind of in-class vote or tournament style bracket?)

Click here to check out my assignment with rubric.

13 Weeks Away

I had a baby in February and once my maternity leave was up, I was back in my classroom for the last 3.5 weeks of the school year. While I was grateful for the time that I got to spend at home with my son, I grew increasingly excited and ready to be back as my return to the classroom drew closer. I anticipated that my primary challenge would be figuring out how my students were doing with content amid a very tight timeline before state testing. The challenge that I did not expect was in finishing up student grades at the end of the year. The process of having someone else step into my classroom for 13 weeks and giving them grades all along brought into sharp focus some questions that I have had over the past few years.

One was the specific issue of missing assignments. Over the course of the past year and a half, I had been waffling on whether or not to give zeros for missing assignments. I do not assign very much homework and so I was able to argue that the little that I did give was important enough to warrant grading. I understood the cognitive argument about how zeros can disproportionally affect students’ grades, but I tried to check to make sure that no one was failing because of missing work. When I returned, I had an even harder time thinking through this. Did the sub give them clear expectations about turning in work? Did she remind them about their missing work? Was the student even present in class when the assignment was given? While I didn’t know the answers to these questions for the 13 weeks that I was away, initially I was feeling pretty good about the way that I typically run my classroom. I felt like I did give clear expectations about when assignments were to be turned in, reminders about missing work and checking in with absent students, but the more I stumbled through these questions during the last few weeks of the school year, the more I felt like perhaps I need to be doing a better job as well. Ultimately, I am still processing how future me will deal with the missing assignment issue.

Additionally, this new reality changed some of my attitude and conversations with students about their grades. My Honors students especially, are very concerned about the specific letter grade which they earn. In the past, I suppose I would describe my point of view as being mathematical, but hopefully fair. If your grade averages out to be an 89%, that’s what it is, I’m not going to randomly give you some extra work just to you can bring it up to a 90%. I was the one who assigned and graded all of the components of your grade and so it was easier for me to justify why you earned the grade you earned. Students always did have the chance to correct work and receive support in order to improve their understanding (and their grades). When I returned after those 13 weeks away, it was harder to justify an 89% being an 89% when I was not the one who graded all of the pieces that made up that grade. I ended the year at a much more flexible point than I had in the past and had individual conversations with many students about why their grades were what they were. I offered many of them additional chances to demonstrate mastery and it was fascinating to me how few of them followed through on the extra opportunities that I gave them. Ultimately, it seemed that they did feel that their concerns were listened to and respected, which is perhaps what they needed. Some of the questions that were raised for me through this process led me to wonder if I should explore more about standards-based grading.

As I head into another school year, I’m not sure yet how these shifts may translate into another year of teaching (my 10th!). I am also anticipating how new leadership, both at my school and district level, may impact how I think about different grading practices.

September #MTBoSBlog18

Well, I suppose today is the last possible day that I could blog and make an argument about it counting for my September MTBoSBlog18. This draft has been open since the 18th, but I felt lacking in direction. It has been a busy start to school, but that’s not a surprise. It always takes me some time to get into the rhythm of my different preps, but again, not a surprise. I also feel like I am still getting to know my students and how all of their personalities meld and merge to develop a class personality.

For all of the excuses that I could make for my lack of blogging (99% of which could probably apply to any teacher at the beginning of a school year), I do have a lot to be grateful for as well. Here in my ninth year of teaching, third at my current school, I am again struck by the joy that it gives me to build on something that I have done in the past and adapt it or tweak it to improve upon it. My current class schedule also gives me the opportunity to do this in overdrive. My first block Geometry class is only held on A days and will be with me until June, but my fourth block Geometry class is held every day just until the semester break in January.

Here’s one example of this tweaking in action. I have tended to prefer introducing angle relationships on parallel lines through some kind of discovery activity. For the past two years, I have used this activity reviewing our work with the equations of parallel lines and then having them use protractors to look at the angle relationships (this activity is modified from something that I saw at a local math conference a few years ago). I had been frustrated by my students’ difficulties using protractors, plus it can be difficult to use protractors accurately. It just felt like too much hand-waving to talk about those angles that are basically the same, rather than the angles that are definitely the same.

When I got to this point with my first semester class, I decided to have them use what they knew about linear pairs and vertical angles to fill in a diagram with lines crossed by a transversal. I gave half of each group a diagram with parallel lines and the other half nonparallel lines. I drew by hand enough diagrams so that everyone in the class had a different diagram. I wanted to make sure that everybody had to do the work, but the downside was that many students wanted me to personally check their work. We spent longer than I wanted making sure that everyone’s diagrams were filled in correctly, but overall their groups did have good conversations about what they noticed in the different diagrams.

A few weeks later when I got to this same point with my yearlong class, I knew that I wanted to have an activity that followed the same outlines, but provided more scaffolding for ensuring the correctness of their calculations. I decided to set up a jigsaw. Students first did their calculations individually, then moved into their groups where everyone had the same diagram to check their calculations, and finally moved into a group that had four different diagrams – two with parallel lines and two with nonparallel lines. I also had the diagrams color coded based on the parallel versus nonparallel, which I think that I would eliminate in the future because it could be too leading. We then used the diagrams to create class hypotheses for angle relationships on parallel lines. Next semester, I would consider having them do this in their groups perhaps with some sentence frames.

I do appreciate the opportunity that blogging gives me to take a step back and consider intentionally the decisions that I make every day that do not seem all that unusual at the time. This sequence of processing and adapting is of course just one example. I hope to hold myself to at least blogging once a month throughout this school year because of the intentional thinking that it helps me do. Thanks to Jennifer Fairbanks for instigating the #MTBoSBlog18 challenge that encourages me to at least try to get to that bare minimum of once a month.

On the Eve of Year 9

As I await the beginning of my ninth year of teaching, I feel probably the fewest nerves that I ever have despite also feeling the least prepared as I ever have for the first day of school. To a certain extent, I’m sure that this is natural, though it also does feel a bit unsettling.

I anticipate this year being an exciting one. One big change within the teaching culture at my school is a shift away from the use of TI calculators to Desmos. We certainly have teachers who have used Desmos Activity Builder or who used the graphing capabilities in focused ways, but we are working toward a more continuous and comprehensive use of Desmos. I think that this transition would have happened eventually, but we are being propelled by changes in Virginia state testing. As I understand it, for the current school year, students will have the option of a handheld calculator or the onscreen Desmos calculator, but next school year, a Desmos onscreen calculator will be the only calculator option for state testing.

We did have a district staff development last week (thank you Nolan Doyle), which I think got many people excited about the possibilities; however, the reality of implementing things throughout the school year that are exciting in August is a whole other challenge. I had used Activity Builder in the past, but was excited to learn more about the possibilities for Geometry. Since I teach only Geometry, I will certainly be focused on ways to incorporate Desmos Geometry both as a teaching tool and a tool for student exploration.

In addition to the challenges of what does it mean to plan and incorporate new technology in genuine ways, I think that many teachers are wondering about logistical questions:

  • What if a student doesn’t bring their Chromebook to class? How can we provide supports for them without setting a precedent that we’ll always have extras?
  • What does it look like to give a test with students using Desmos? How can we use technology to help students demonstrate academic integrity?
  • How does using Desmos change classroom management practices? How can we encourage students to demonstrate appropriate use of technology?

I look forward to having these discussions with colleagues in my building as well as trying to engage with others on Twitter to see what resources might be of use to us. Desmos isn’t the only item on my radar for this upcoming year, but I think that’s probably a good enough start for the night before school.

 

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This post is part of a blogging challenge called Blaugust. Click here to check out the other blogs that are participating.

Homework Policies

When I first began teaching, there was no question in my mind that I would assign homework. I was a firm believer that students needed practice outside of class in order to solidify their mathematical skills. I don’t really remember really even questioning this idea through college. So it was that through my first six years of teaching, I assigned homework on an almost nightly basis, though I was very cognizant of keeping assignments short. It always pained me to hear students and parents complaining about their schedules and struggling to balance everything. I was also teaching at a Christian school where I was strongly discouraged from giving homework on Wednesdays as many students had church that night. I didn’t tend to follow that recommendation because I felt that it would set my students behind.

In my transition period between two very different schools, I reflected a lot over my teaching procedures and routines. As I spent those first six years teaching, I had learned more about changing ideas and research about the value of homework. I also began to have some awareness of different socioeconomic realities and how homework norms can advantage or disadvantage. I wondered what would happen if I just threw homework out. What was the worst case scenario?

For the past two years in Geometry (I’ll get to Honors Geometry here in a moment), I have not really assigned homework. Occasionally, I will offer an “optional homework” where students can earn credit (not extra credit) for doing some extra practice, typically on a topic that students especially tend to struggle with. At the end of each unit, I had given students a work day to complete a study packet and then what was not completed was homework. I don’t have stats in front of me, but I would estimate about a 50% average turn-in rate for those packets. The study packet seemed to be the norm with my Geometry team, but after 2 years of not being happy with this system, I’m throwing it out! My most significant complaint is that those students who needed the practice the most weren’t getting it because they were also the students who tended to struggle with the self-regulation necessary to sit and work on a study packet. But that’s a topic for another post, I suppose. All that to say, I really only gave homework once a unit.

In Honors Geometry, I have been assigning homework in what I suppose is a pretty traditional way. At the beginning of each unit, I tell them which problems I would like them to do and when, but again being very conscious of homework length, especially because my textbook is very proof-heavy. Following the date when homework was supposed to be completed, I posted the answers on Google Classroom and took questions during the next class period. Then they took a homework quiz over this assignment, which I know means different things to different people, but for this iteration:

  1. I selected 1 – 2 problems from the assignment and either copied them exactly or modified slightly.
  2. Students could use their completed homework (or whatever they scrawled down while going over the homework).
  3. Graded typically out of 4 points based on accuracy and work shown. This is the only component of their homework that is graded and goes into a category that is 10% of their overall grade.

Pros: It allows students who understand the content to ignore the homework and be graded only on their homework quiz. Because the answers are posted on Google Classroom ahead of time, students also have a chance to look over their work or seek additional help outside of class if they realize that things really didn’t go well.

Cons: Sometimes students believe that I don’t grade homework and therefore it can be ignored or other students realize that they can game my system by copying off of Google Classroom. In both of these cases, students typically figure out after a few units that their grades aren’t where they want them.

My homework plans for this coming year are as follows:

  • Geometry: I plan on incorporating DeltaMath this year, which I have never used before, but am really excited to experiment with. One specific reason is the instant feedback. I am getting rid of the end of unit study packets and will be finding different ways to review.
  • Honors Geometry: As much as I don’t love my current system, the pros outweigh the cons for me and so I think that my policies will largely stay the same. I may also explore DeltaMath with this group as well.

Since beginning teaching, my views on homework have certainly become more flexible. I still believe that students benefit by extra practice outside of class time, but that providing prompt feedback and a looser structure may help me to make homework work in my classroom.

 

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This post is part of a blogging challenge called Blaugust. Click here to check out the other blogs that are participating.

What does it mean to be a teacher leader?

Just this morning I got around to watching Julie Reulbach’s keynote from TMC. I had seen on Twitter the #TeacherLeader posts and the stickers, but wanted to know what it was all about. I was especially intrigued because earlier in the summer I had read an article (which of course I cannot find now) revolving around the question: “Why do teacher leaders feel they need to leave the classroom?” As I remember it, the point was that there is no one better to lead teachers than teachers. I think that also ties into a common criticism that I hear of administrators that they forget what it feels like to be in the classroom.

While I am about to enter my ninth year of teaching, I decided pretty early on in my teaching career that I probably wouldn’t stay in the classroom until I retired. I didn’t know quite what that would look like, but I pursued a Master’s as a math specialist and have moved from a very small school to a much larger one all with this general career trajectory in mind. At my small school, I served on their “Academic Leadership Team” and learned how to find my voice and consider topics that affected the school at large. At my larger school, I was able to take part in a “Leadership Academy” for those wanting to explore leadership (mostly in traditional administrative roles). For this upcoming school year, I was hired to be a co-ITL (Instructional Team Lead) for our math department. While I am excited and energized by all of these things, at times there is a voice wondering “why me?” or “can I really do this?”

For those reasons Julie’s points about imposter syndrome really spoke to me, especially how social media can exacerbate the problem by promoting all of the fabulous lessons, ground-breaking books, exciting technology, etc. that everyone else is developing. I was also encouraged by her point that its not those official roles that we play outside of the classroom that make us teacher leaders, it is the ways that we support colleagues, whether in our schools or online, that shows that we are teacher leaders.

Throughout her keynote, Julie asks the audience to stop and tweet their answers to 3 prompts. I have included my responses here as well.

  1. I am a great teacher because I seek to improve my teaching practice and work to meet each student where they are at.
  2. I am a teacher leader because I love sharing resources with my colleagues and encouraging them to try something new.
  3. I want to grow as a teacher leader this year by encouraging those around me to find ways that they can step up and support the people around them. It is not just the responsibility of those in official leadership capacities to support teachers; we all have something to bring to the table.

Will I stay in the classroom until retirement? l don’t know (and that’s a long way away), but I can tell you that I do have a different perception of my influence on those working around me. I also hope to be able to infuse this model of teacher leadership throughout my department.

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This post is part of a blogging challenge called Blaugust. Click here to check out the other blogs that are participating.