2013-14 Mid-Year Math Class Reflections

“I use Grammarly’s online plagiarism checker because it’s fast, it’s easy, and you know what? It just flat out works!”

Photo by j. Rawls. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Car_side_mirror_sunset.jpg

Photo by j. Rawls. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Car_side_mirror_sunset.jpg

I wish I could think of a better title for this post, but that’s what I’ve got for now. The year 2014 has just started but it is the middle of the 2013-14 school year and this is a good time to reflect on what I’ve done different, what I’ve done the same, what has worked and what hasn’t, and what needs to change to make the rest of the year more successful. It’s been a pretty good year so far, but I am sure I can make some improvements.

I also have some things to reflect on with respect to science, literacy and our innovation classes, but those will be done in separate posts.

What’s the Same

My Prealgebra 7 classes work on an ever-evolving inverted (dare I use the term flipped?) principle. I don’t require the watching of any videos but I do ask learners to come to class with some inkling of what we will work on. To this end, I assign as little problem solving homework as possible to reserve most of that for class time. It doesn’t always work out (sometimes problems have to be finished outside of class—especially if you choose to spend your class time not working on the problems) but as much as possible, the “homework” is to show up with a set of notes on the topic of the day taken either from the book or from videos.

There are one or two auto-graded online quizzes and a summative paper test at the end of each unit. You get the best of four attempts on the quizzes and are allowed retakes on the unit tests. Retakes are required for scores below 75% (unless you choose to find a way to avoid it, which some do). I spend little time lecturing and learners spend most of the class time working individually or in small groups to figure out how to solve a set of problems with my occasional help as needed. Once in awhile we try an investigative exercise before trying to learn in a more formal way, but that doesn’t usually seem to provide as much bang as one might hope it would for the amount of time devoted to it.

As has been the case in the previous two years, students self check their own work and show me the result at which time we have a short individual discussion about it.

What’s Different

Updated Cabinet Storage Space

Updated Cabinet Storage Space

This year I brought back the Intensity Table. This is a place where there is space for kids to come and get personal instruction and feedback from me as they work. When I am not circulating around the room seeing how things are going, this is where I am found. I had previously discontinued it because I was running out of space in the classroom. But, I removed the doors from a cabinet to store stuff that was previously available on a table to make room for a brand new Intensity Table with room for several students to be there at one time. I just could not bring myself to get rid of the previous table (that had stuff like public supplies, manipulatives and things) so with a little rearrangement I ended up keeping it and converting it into a microscope repair station.

The New Intensity Table

The New Intensity Table

I have also instituted a modified learning procedure. Previously I would check each person’s notes before approving them to start on the problem solving phase. The notes included doing the On Your Own (OYO) problems from the assigned section in the book. Now, I still do that, but I also require the OYOs to be checked one-by-one as they are completed so I can monitor the extent of the actual learning and understanding that is taking place and to correct any misconceptions or misunderstandings. Once those are checked off, then I approve moving on to the problem sets. This has slowed the rate of progress, but the progress is more, well, more like actual progress instead of just taking a shot at doing some problems. Feedback from the kids is positive and they agree that they are learning better this way.

One other change is that I now more frequently begin each class with a short group discussion of the topic at hand or one closely related to it to give a bit of background or example of a practical application or to perhaps spark some curiosity about it.

Finally, myself and the other prealgebra 7 teachers are working closely on our assessments. We now all give the same unit tests and have improved the format considerably. We provide answer spaces that require work to be shown for full credit and there are no multiple choice questions. Interestingly, I have seen no drop in class averages or the range of scores after eliminating multiple choice questions. So, I think we are on the right track with this.

What Still Needs to be Different

Microscope repair table

Microscope Repair Station

Okay, not bad. But here are some things that still need improvement, some big, some small.

  • I need to do a better job of using the agenda in ALEC (our localized version of Moodle). I started doing this at the end of the semester but need to make a habit of entering a brief summary of the day’s work so kids who are absent can be more informed about what went on in class.
  • I also recently hung up a sign to remind myself to check certain planners (not by name of course) before leaving class. The end of class is often kind of hectic, and I am not that reliable at doing that.
  • Now that the school year is half over, I have a pretty good handle on who is who and who is capable of what. So, those who have demonstrated the desire will be allowed to work faster than the rest of the class and move at their own pace.
  • In the past I have sent home semi-frequent personal messages to individual parents to update them on their child’s progress. I need to start doing that more (again).
  • A lot of research indicates that investigating before studying is a more effective way to develop deeper understanding in most (maybe only some?) learners, so I still need to give that approach more attention and effort.

What do the Students Say?

At Edcamp Colorado earlier this year, I attended a session wherein three sisters participated in a discussion about their school experiences and we got some good feedback on what it is like to be in a range of classes in our district. Here is what they had to offer and I hope to keep this important feedback in mind moving forward.

  • Mixing kids of different abilities from different grades (as in younger kids being placed in advanced classes) leads to some friction and esteem difficulties and kids don’t really like it.
  • They liked working problems on the board in front of the class.
  • Try to make a personal connection with the unmotivated.
  • Don’t lecture for a long time (check!).
  • Do not just give some instructions and sit down.
  • Students collaborate on Facebook, so why not make it easier for that to happen at school?
  • They want their teachers to be happy, passionate about their subject, and willing to help.

I hear you!