Back in the Saddle

I gave myself the month of June off after a busy year. On July 2 I sat down and started a project that I was stewing about all year long. I am happy about the problem sets I wrote for Geometry, I think that they are a nice set of interesting problems. Many of them have been borrowed from sources all over the internet and I think that my students who took them seriously are more persistent in their problem – solving than they were when the year began. However, I also learned a couple of important things along the way. Not all of my students gained in persistence through these problem sets. In part, I think that the students found them a bit intimidating at times. I also think that they skewed a little long on time needed for thoughtful reflection. I have two solution ideas for the upcoming year. We purchased a license to Kuta’s Infinite Geometry (and their other course options) and I did not use this as often as I should have last year. I do not think that these are terribly thoughtful exercises, but I do know that they are flexible (for me) and supportive (for my students) and I need to use them more often. Since all of our classes in our new schedule are at least 50 minutes, I will be able to carve out comfortable space for in-class practice on basic skills as we are developing them. I also made a commitment to reviewing my problem sets and working on two improvements. I wanted to clean up the language and make sure that problems are a bit clearer in what I want my students to focus on. I got engaged in a great twitter conversation about how important it might be to have students answer y-intercept questions as ordered pairs rather than as a number and how important it is to talk about the graph of a line as an object that is distinct from the equation of a line. I tried to make sure I talked about points on the graph of the line whose equation is 2x + 3y = 12 instead of asking for a point on the line 2x + 3y = 12. Just one example of how I tried to clean up the language I was using. More importantly, I trimmed many of the problem sets by eliminating some questions. I have posted all of my HW problem sets on my dropbox and I am happy to share them with anyone who wants to borrow (or just outright steal!) from them. You can find those problem sets here.

I would love to hear any advice/questions/concerns about these HW assignments. Please reach out by commenting here or through twitter where I am @mrdardy

 

So, What Kinds of Change?

In my last post I wrote about our department’s terrific two day workshop with Henri Picciotto. One of the major decisions we made based on the time we spent together is that we have decided, as a whole department team, is that we will allow test corrections on all tests in our department. Before I dive into the format of the decision we made, I want to include a couple of important links here with other points of view about assessment policies. The first comes from a new twitter contact Steve Gnagni (@Steve_Gnagni) who shared this interesting document written by Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli AND @rickwormeli2 for reasons I am not sure I understand!) called Redos and Retakes Done Right and the second is a link Henri shared gathering together some of his ideas about assessments.

So, a little history here about where I am as a teacher and where I, and my team, hope to move. In the past three years I have had a policy in some of my classes. In any class where I have been the only teacher I have allowed test retakes. If you are unhappy with your test score, make an appointment to sit with me and look at what went wrong on your test and sometime within the week that your test was returned, you can take a new version of this test. Originally, I averaged the two test scores but this year I weighted the retest so that the score that stayed int he grade book was two parts retest and one part original test.  I also told students that anyone who scored below a 70% on the assessment were expected to take the retest. I did not do this in classes where I was part of a team teaching the course since not everyone agreed with this policy. The advantages of this policy were that students who were struggling to master material and perform on tests felt that they still had a lifeline. Those students were more likely to follow up with me and try to figure out what went wrong with their original attempt. Students were willing to take the extra time and energy to try and improve and I had reason to believe that material was sticking a bit better for many of my students. The primary disadvantages? This created quite a bit of extra work for me writing and grading reassessments. Some students seemed stuck on a perpetual hamster wheel of assessments and a handful of students were very honest about the fact that they sometimes pushed my assessments down their list of priorities since they knew this lifeline existed. This was a small group of students but enough that I was questioning the wisdom of this policy.

When Henri was with us he spoke passionately about the advantages of students correcting their own work. He talked about a cycle of student reflection and about the burden of careful written feedback on assessments. A sad fact is that most students (we probably know this about ourselves from when we were students) simply look to the grade. While many of us take careful time to highlight problems and write notes or to write congratulatory notes for work done especially well, much of this probably falls into the cracks. I know that I have read research – and I wish I could find it quickly – about the tension between writing comments on papers and writing grades on papers. These two forms of information for our students do not work in support of each other. So, after some conversation with Henri and then a long, productive final faculty meeting in the week after Henri left, we came up with a policy that we feel pretty good about. On unit tests when we grade them the first time we will assign one of three options to each problem. If the problem is done well, clear work and a correct answer (or a minute problem like some minor arithmetic error) that problem will receive full credit. If a problem shows no sign of clear explanation and no clear sign of understanding that problem will receive a zero. The vast world of problems in between these two poles will receive half credit. We will not highlight or circle errors in solutions. We will not write notes about the problem-solving process. We will simply return the paper with an initial grade. We will be able to do so quickly under these circumstances. The students will then have time to take this assessment and rework any problem that received less than full credit. They can earn back half the points that they missed by submitting corrections. The resubmission will have the original paper and two requirements for earning back points. They will need to submit correct solutions AND they will need to submit a written reflection/explanation of what went wrong and how it was corrected. Students can meet with each other, they can ask their teacher for guidance in our extra help sessions, they can look at their notes and their text, in general they can seek any kind of help. Some will inevitably just take the word of someone or something (like Wolfram Alpha) but ALL will be encouraged to take some time to reflect. ALL will be allowed to earn back some part of the points that they missed. ALL will know that test day is not such a high stakes day where it is do or die. There will be some bumps along the way as we train ourselves and our students to take this process seriously. We will have to be very conscious early in the year about establishing standards for what these written explanations need to look like. The student who earned a 60% the first time has a meaningful lifeline. The student who earned an 85% the first time still has motivation to rework and rethink the material. We will need to think about timelines, especially near the end of a grading term, but these are good problems to have and good conversations to make public. Teachers will be talking to each other about this process as we unpack it. Students will be encouraged to talk to each other about math and to seek guidance from each other. This will feel like a serious sea change for our department, I am totally excited about it.

Or, I should say I was totally excited about it. I know that there are different ways to view this process and the meaning of it. I know that we decided that events that we call tests are subject to this correction policy. We decided (for a number of reasons, some more ideologically defensible than others) that short quizzes were not subject to this policy. I know that I will be balancing this with graded take-home problem sets and on these problem sets I always encourage collaboration. So, when Steve Gnagni shared the article above, I found myself doubting some of the decisions we made. I found old reactions about grades being really seriously challenged and I began to doubt whether our decision on process is ideologically pure enough. I also know that this is progress. I will be sharing Rick Wormeli’s article with my team in the fall and we will be checking in with each other on how we feel about the impact of this new process.

I want to thank Henri again and to thank my new twitter pal Steve Gnagni for sharing their ideas. As long as we are all willing to keep questioning ourselves we can continue to help our students grow.

A Change is Gonna Come

A little background info to the story I am about to relay.

Our school has operated for quite some time with a static schedule of 7 classes that meet every day and in the same order. Our class times vary a bit based on assemblies and special events with the primary class times being 40 minutes, 45 minutes, or 50 minutes. There is certainly a comfort level with having a steady rhythm. As a teacher, I am pretty sure what my 8 AM class will be like after a few weeks. I know who is sleepy in the morning, I know who is a bit frisky right after lunch. Unfortunately, I also know who will be late to first period and who plays a sport each season so they will be missing my last class pretty frequently.

A couple of years ago some momentum was (finally) building to look at alternatives to our daily schedule. I was one of the people agitating for this change. My current school is the fourth one where I have taught and each of my last two schools had rotating schedules. Each of them also combined some class drops and one noticeably longer class than others in the day. While the planning for a long class sometimes felt like a bit of a burden, the benefits of minimizing class misses due to sports and tardiness related to time of day were pretty big. I also noticed a benefit that surprised me. Different kids step up as class leaders at different times of day. The personality of my class never seemed as set as it has in the two schools I worked with static schedules. After many meetings and discussions, we hired a consultant to come in and learn about our school, talk to us about our goals, and suggest a working schedule. We settled on a  seven day rotating schedule. Each of our seven periods takes the starting block once during this rotation. Each of our seven periods gets a 90 minute block once during this rotation. Each of our classes meets five times during this seven day rotation. We get a two day back-to-back, a day off, then a three day back-to-back-to-back before another day off. Obviously weekends and school days off work in as well here. When a class does not meet for 90 minutes it meets for 50 minutes. So, what used to be our long class becomes our short class. We get the benefit of a 90 minute block with each of our classes once during a seven day rotation. There are all sorts of things about the schedule that makes me happy. But, there area also quite a few of my colleagues who have not taught in a rotating schedule, they have not planned around class drop days, they have not taught a 90 minute class. This leads to some anxiety, naturally. So, when we adopted the schedule in the spring of 2016 we set the fall of 2017 for the beginning of our life this way. We also announced that we would run a test trial sometime during the academic year that just ended. As a department chair, I started poking around for ways to help my team out in easing their concerns about this transition. I found a nearby school that had made a similar change and I arranged for a team of three teachers to visit that school. I was convinced that seeing this in action and talking directly to people who had lived through such a change would help build enthusiasm. I was right on that front. I also spoke directly to an administrator at that school and asked for advice about how to build support structure in my department for this change. He told me that the best thing his school had done for the math department was to hire a consultant specifically for math who came in and talked about long-term planning for rotating schedules, he talked about utilizing the 90 minute block, and he helped them start some important conversations about curriculum. With fewer contact days, some things we hold dear have to go.  This admin remembered that the consultant came from the Bay area of California and that his first name was Henri. I guessed who he was talking about just from the first clue. After the second clue, I knew I guessed correctly. He was recommending that we seek guidance from Henri Picciotto. My guess is that anyone reading this knows of Henri. If not, fix that quickly. Find him on twitter @hpicciotto. Go to his web home http://www.mathedpage.org  You’ll be happy you did. If your school is considering such a change, or if you simply need motivation and inspiration to really examine your practice as a department and to start serious conversations about curriculum, you should consider reaching out to Henri. I sought approval from my bosses and made arrangements for Henri to spend two days with my department during our final exam week. My Dean of Faculty arranged final exams so that we would have two days with no supervising responsibility so that we could spend two workdays as a team together. Let me tell you a bit about those two days and publicly thank Henri for helping to spur some serious conversations among my team, conversations that have been hard to start otherwise.

I reached out to Henri and shared the praise I had heard. I was excited about arranging this for a number of reasons. I had been reading Henri’s web page for some time and was excited when he dipped his toes into twitter. I had reached out to him for guidance about lagging HW (more on that later) and was happy to have met him in person last summer at twittermathcamp in Minneapolis. I also knew that we had already batted around a number of ideas together as a team here at my school and I felt that we needed to hear a new voice to prompt us to make some tough decisions. We also were looking at a brand new way of living in school that made these decisions feel much more urgent. We ran schedule trials twice in the winter/spring. Once, we ran a seven day cycle one time. The second time, we ran two full cycles. This prompted a combination of optimism about some of the structural advantages of the day under these new circumstances, but it also prompted some real concerns about pacing and curricular pressures. We were primed to have serious conversations and we needed guidance/wisdom/structure for these meetings. Once we agreed that the dates would work, Henri started peppering me with some questions via email and he sent me a set of files to run off for our meeting days. He sent me a broad outline of goals and times and we established that we would spend two days together from 8:15 – 3:15 with a lunch break and a few small breaks built in. I was excited for a number of reasons. First, Henri clearly had a vision for our time together and some rich activities were being sent my way. Second, we never have this much time together focused as a math team. Whenever we are together as a faculty for big pieces of time, we are together as a full faculty or broken into smaller non-departmental groups. I was so excited to spend this kind of time just talking about math and about teaching math. As the days got closer I was increasingly happy about this time together. I was appreciative of my team for being so open minded about this. Normally, during exam week if you do not have proctoring responsibility, your time is your own. I was able to get serious buy-in from six teachers who were trading in time off to grade for two eight hour workshop days. I cannot thank them enough for this.

We met on a Tuesday and a Wednesday in the middle of exam grading week. Within the first 45 minutes of our time together on Tuesday, I was pretty sure that I had made the right decision in inviting Henri to come. We started with a math exploration looking at the relationship between area and perimeter of polyominoes that had us talking in small groups, had someone on the board drawing and explaining a pattern, had me guessing (incorrectly) that some fancy combinatoric idea was hiding in the wings, and just generally energized the minds in the room. When we meet as a department we are usually wrapped up in talking work, in looking at schedules, in discussing policy. It is a shame that we rarely talk math when we are together. This activity immediately engaged everyone in the room and had us thinking out loud and working together. I won’t go through every activity we did together, but I will say that everyone in my department either thanked me for having Henri come to visit or told someone else on our staff about what a great experience that the workshop was for them. I have already heard second hand a number of lunch table stories where my department members were talking about the positive experience that the workshop was. Most importantly, conversations are flowing right now. Conversations that did not seem urgent without a schedule change looming. Conversations that are hard to have in small bursts between classes or through emails. Conversations that are hard to fit in on a crowded agenda for a monthly department meeting. Most importantly, these are conversations that are better started when a coherent, clear agenda for the conversation has been established. This is one of the places where Henri far exceeded my already high expectations and where Henri was just better suited to be a conversation starter than I am. Within fifteen minutes of our meeting on Wednesday ending, I had two teams of teachers discussing the curriculum for their courses. Debating sequencing of curriculum, debating what topics or chapters can be entirely eliminated from a course. Debating how we can offload some responsibility from earlier courses with younger kids to later courses where the students are more sophisticated and see more clearly the need for learning. Remember, my team had already sat through two eight hour workdays on days where they would normally be at home on their own time grading exams. After all of this, they were sitting excitedly debating their courses for the fall. Henri created such an energetic and focused atmosphere to tackle these big questions that my team did not want to leave. I had my children arriving on their bus while my team was still in my room talking. Conversations that I had been trying to have for about five years were happening. The combination of the impending schedule, the valuable structured time together, and Henri’s wisdom and enthusiasm kick started these conversations. I cannot overstate how valuable our time was together and how important these conversations are for our school and our students. After exams, we had another professional development opportunity to look at teaching in a 90 minute block and one of my department colleagues was there as our representative. She talked about how enthusiastic the members of other departments were about this activity, but she remarked that she was spoiled by the two days we spent together with Henri. Pretty nice praise there.

Is your school is looking at structural changes to your schedule? Are you  wrestling with structural conversations about curriculum? Are you looking for high quality, focused professional development time with your math department? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I cannot recommend Henri Picciotto highly enough. I am not his agent, I am not a paid actor here, I am simply a happy happy teacher who has benefited greatly from the time my department spent with Henri two weeks ago. My team seems much less anxious about the changes in our life and they seem clearer on curriculum and instructional goals. I am convinced that our students will benefit greatly from this time we spent together.

Brief thoughts on Graduation Weekend

Yesterday was graduation day here at my school. I am pretty sure that this was my 31st high school graduation ceremony – mine and 30 years as a teacher. I think that I did not attend my little brother’s graduation for some reason or other. At least, I do not remember it if I was there.

There are always waves of joy/sadness/pride/regret that run through me on graduation days. I saw some alums and had lovely conversations with them that made me happy. One joked that his Calc 3 class at McGill was easier than his BC Calc class with me. I think that this is probably a compliment in the end. Some students went out their way to find me to express gratitude while others certainly showed no inclination that I was on their list of people that they wanted to talk to on graduation day. Every year ends with the good feeling that there are students who I have made connections with in or out of the classroom. Young people who appreciate that I was part of their lives here. Every year also ends with the disappointment that there are some students I was not able to connect with. Students who were frustrated by my class, did not connect with my goals or my classroom strategies. Students who will not remember me fondly – if/when they remember me at all. This is both a cause for sadness/frustration and motivation to recharge soon when I think about next year and plan for how to reach a broader set of students where they are.

I had a conversation with a colleague recently that made me reflect on graduation feelings and helped me make sense of them. My family moved in the middle of August 2016 from the boys’ dorm where we lived for six years and into a house on campus that the school owns. Since school was already looming when we moved, we did very little in the way of yard work to make the place feel like our own. This past week, my wife and I were able to spend a notable amount of time working outside and trying to make the place feel like ours. I was talking to a colleague at brunch and mentioned that I felt satisfied about the work we had done that morning. While I do not find any zen-like sense of peace and serenity while doing yard work, I do find a sense of satisfaction in looking back after two hours of work and seeing a recognizable change in our flower bed. When talking at brunch about this I contrasted the work in our flower bed with the work we do int he classroom. It feels pretty rare that we see noticeable change in just an hour or two in the classroom. The sense of satisfaction and pride I felt on graduation day when reflecting on the successes I have had is certainly deeper than my satisfaction about the flower bed, but it takes a great deal more patience to get to that graduation day feeling.

 

Seeking Wisdom and Guidance from my Students

In my last post I was reflecting on some of the important differences between students based, in part, on their age and experience. Thinking about that since the post, I also realize two other important differences between my Geometry classroom and my AP Calculus BC classroom. In our school, Geometry is the last class in our curriculum where there is not a distinction available for Honors credit. Starting in Algebra II, kids get sorted out and those students who don’t see math as ‘their thing’ or simply want to back off a bit in my subject area can. This creates rooms, in both the honors track and the non-honors track, where there is more homogeneity in interest level. In my Geometry class there is a wide divide in interest/background/ability/age in the same classroom. In my Calculus class there is a more level playing field. I think that this goes a long way to explaining some of the data I received this week. The second major difference is that, due in part to the fact that new students enter our school at every grade level, there is a more noticeable age difference in my Geometry class than in either of my other classes. I have students from grades 9 – 12 in Geometry. In my other classes I have only juniors and seniors. I think that this leads to a real difference in the social environment in these classes.

Our school asks each teacher to administer course evaluation forms to all students. The format that the school developed asks many questions, almost all of them Likert scale questions with space included for short answer explanations. I appreciate the emphasis our school places on seeking student input but I have developed the feeling that too many students just glide down the page circling essentially the same answer to questions and they are reluctant to write much down. Some have stated that they are concerned that their teachers recognize their handwriting, but I suspect that most just aren’t that terribly invested in the process. We spoke about this extensively in our last department meeting and one of the conclusions we reached was that we will administer some form of course evaluation at the end of each of our trimesters next year. After all, if the goal of the feedback is to improve the students’ experience, then telling me what to change in May does not have much weight to students who are leaving my classroom in another week. I am kind of embarrassed that I have not come to this conclusion by myself, but at least I am learning, right? I did do two things differently this year. I wrote my own surveys for each of my three classes and I administered them electronically in the hopes that I would get a little more detail from my students. If you are interested, you can see my surveys here for Geometry , here for my Discrete Math elective , and here for my AP Calculus BC class . There are not many differences between them, but I did tailor a bit for differences in the classes.

Here are screenshots of the pie-charts generated on the Google forms. First the response of the Geometry students to the group seating decisions I made this year.

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Here is the response of the Discrete Math Students. One of my sections was small enough that we stayed in one group together all year. The other section had rotating groups for two of the three terms of the year.

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Finally, here is the image for my Calculus team

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I think that there are some interesting things happening here. I had the chance to talk to my Discrete class and they were willing to share some interesting insights. I think that the comfort level with rotating groups is closely tied to a combination of comfort level with the material and with each other. My BC kids all came from AB the year before and many of them were in the same AB sections. They know each other and they are confident with math. My Geometry kids are a wide blend of ages (grades 9 – 12) and backgrounds (a good number are new to our school this year) so there is not as much cohesion. My Discrete kids come from all over the place. Some just finished Algebra II, some had a year of Precalculus. Some had part of a year of Precalculus before switching over. Some are brand new to our school. There is a good degree of camaraderie in the classroom, but there is not a consistent feeling that everyone is on the same page. This is something I need to be more aware of and a piece of classroom culture that I think I can help improve next year. During my conversation with them yesterday, we focused on two topics. The first was group assessment – I have some group quizzes and we have a group final each term. We had all eleven people working together and they seemed to appreciate that, but felt that I needed to trim the number of questions since debate/discussion took some time. Duly noted. They also seemed to largely feel that rotations are okay, but maybe they should change after more than a week. I am thinking that they may change at the beginning of each new chapter. With our new schedule at school next year, this might work well.

I feel good looking back at this year. I took the plunge and moved from static seating in small groups to dynamic seating that created broader networks of communication among my students. I personalized the feedback I ask for and I feel that my students took these questions seriously and shared some remarks with me in a pretty honest way. I have a lot to think about this summer (as always!) but I feel that I am moving toward becoming the teacher I want to be.

Trying to Help My Students Help Themselves

Years ago, I ran across a calculus document by a teacher and AP grader named Dave Slocum. He called his document How to Succeed in Calculus and gave it as a handout at the beginning of the year. I modified it and used it as an intro document when I was teaching AP Calculus AB for years. Last summer I modified it for use with my Geometry kiddos. As many of you know I wrote a text for Geometry that we use at our school. If you are interested in it, you can find it here. In the last two years using this text I realized (remembered?) that these younger students don’t always have the same good habits that my AP students have. So, I created a document called How to Succeed in Geometry (you can grab it from the link) and shared this with all of my students and their parents. I revisited this document two or three times in the first month of the year. I am realizing now that this is not enough. If I am serious about supporting my students and helping them develop positive habits, I need to revisit this over and over again in the early part of the year. I stopped doing so for a number of reasons and none of them are valid enough. I don’t like to read to my students, I know that they can read. However, I should also know that many of them will not read a document like this one. I stopped revisiting it because I was getting frustrated by saying the same things repeatedly about classroom behavior. This is not a good reason. I need to be more patient and realize that all of the teachers that they have during the day have different expectations. I need to remind them of my expectations, just like I need to remind my children at home to do their chores or to put dishes in the sink. I think that the difference is that I am more willing with my own children to be a nag. I am more confident that I have built up a decent reservoir of good will with them. Early in the school year, I do not have that sort of reservoir with my students. The reason I am writing this now is that I sort of snapped with my Geometry students last week after a particularly disappointing set of quizzes. The mistakes made on this quiz made it abundantly clear to me that many of my students were not taking my advice about how to succeed in this class. One student said out loud, somewhat dejectedly, that he wants to succeed. Without changing behaviors, it is hard to take a statement like that one as being particularly meaningful. If I genuinely want to be healthier and more fit, I need to change behaviors to make this happen. If my students genuinely want to succeed, they need to be willing to change some behaviors so that this is more likely to occur. I know that I want them to succeed and that is one of the reasons why I prepared the document that I did. I just need to be far more committed to using that as a breathing document next year and not wait until the last week of April to mention this for the first time since September.

I’d love to hear any words of advice about reinforcing these habits of work and habits of mind. You can drop comments here or over on twitter where I remain @mrdardy

Off Topic – Delightful Conversation

Yesterday morning as my daughter, dubbed Lil’ Dardy by Christoper Danielson, and I were walking to the dining hall we had a delightful conversation. I shared it with a couple of folks who urged me to write it down to remember it. I feel that this platform is probably the most permanent one I have access to, so here goes.

We have two cats, one is named Olympic and one is named Titanic. Here is a picture of them.

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The black one is Titanic and he is the subject of our conversation.

We have a neighbor cat across the street who closely resembles Titanic. The neighbor cat, my daughter has dubbed this one Mr. Whiskers due to his long white whiskers, was sitting on his porch Monday morning. Lil Dardy says that she likes Mr. Whiskers because he makes her think of what Titanic will look like. She said he looks like Titanic five years from now. I proposed that, perhaps, this was a Titanic from the future who traveled in a time machine to look after his younger self. Lil Dardy responds by telling me that scientists are working hard on building a time machine. It would be great, she informs me, for kids who don’t like school. They can just skate past their school days in the time machine. She then gets serious and says ‘Dad, I’m sorry but I think I like science more than math.’ I assure her that this is not an insult and I follow by asking why it is she likes science so much. Her quote was pretty great. ‘In science you think of something and then try to make it true.’

Pretty great conversation to start my day.

#ObserveMe

I know I was not alone in being inspired early in the school year by the talk surrounding the #ObserveMe theme that was appearing on twitter and through blogs, in the wake of Robert Kaplinsky’s (@robertkaplinksy) blog post in August. I discussed this idea with my academic dean and with our school’s president and they were both supportive of the idea of trying to launch such an initiative at our school. For a variety of reasons, I did not want to be the teacher doing this, I wanted a cohort along with me.

In one of the wonderful synchronicities in life that make me so happy, I received our staff received an email about a program led by a local leadership group. They launched a class last year for local teachers and the capstone of the year long class is a school improvement project. Two of my colleagues participated last year. One of them launched an initiative related to the libraries on our two school campuses and the other launched a character awareness/character development project that is run by students. I saw this email as my opening to formalize this goal of mine and to have a reason to seek participation from a number of my colleagues. I asked for permission to apply since the program would require me to miss one day each month from September through April (our last class meeting is this Thursday) and this would put a bit of a strain on my students and my colleagues. I do not think that I have missed 8 days of school combined in the last three years, so a guarantee of 8 absences in one year felt like a huge commitment. I was approved by my school and accepted by the program and I am glad that it worked out that way.

Over the course of the year, we have had a number of pretty inspirational speakers and conversations. I have met colleagues from local schools and learned about their school cultures. I have learned a great deal of local history that I was unaware of before. Overall, it has been a worthwhile experience and I am recommending one of my department colleagues for the program for next year.

I pitched the idea of launching an #ObserveMe initiative at our school to my upper school peers at a faculty meeting late in January. We had five weeks of uninterrupted school scheduled between the end of our spring break and a long Easter weekend. I pitched this time period for the project and I solicited volunteers. I had nine colleagues volunteer to join the project and they came from everywhere in our school. An administrator who teaches history, a school counselor who does not currently have classroom duties, our lead college guidance officer who teaches a section of French, and six other volunteers who together represented every major academic department at our school. I asked them to commit to one class visit per week over the course of the five weeks I had targeted.

The project had a rough start. One day after returning from our two week spring break, a record snow storm hit us dropping over two feet of snow on our school. We were out of school for the remainder of the week. I regathered and asked folks to still try to commit to one visit per week, but it would now be four weeks. Since we had ten participants (myself included) I hoped for 40 class visits over a month. I set up a shared google spreadsheet where participants would have their schedules posted and they could make notes for days/times where visitors would not be appropriate. They also all made notes about what they wanted their visitor to focus on during the time in class. I tried to make sure that people were comfortable with visitors and that they understood that these visits were not for evaluative purposes, they were for sparking conversations. If the observer kept comments focused on the concerns raised by the classroom teacher, then (I hoped) the conversations would feel supportive and instructive.

While life got in the way of some of the participants, we got close to my goal. A total of 37 class visits occurred during the 19 day span of the project (we were off on Good Friday during the fourth week of the project window.) I sent out a questionnaire and received a number of positive responses, some of which I will share (anonymously) below.

  • More to the point, I like that having visitors in my class keeps me “honest” in a way; I find that having someone new paying attention to what is happening really helped me to focus on my own words and interactions with students.
  • I remember up until about a year or 2 ago we were required to be visited by one colleague and visit one or 2 colleagues each year. Then we had to fill out a sheet saying who we visited and who visited us.  I always found this to be a chore, something to check off my “to do” list. Although your project was more involved (many more visits to be made and many more visitors than the old requirement), it felt more helpful and less annoying. I believe the reasons for that were that it was more of an exchange (you visit me/ I visit you) and there was a purpose – we wrote in the google doc the feedback we were looking for.  This structure really helped make it worthwhile.
  • It makes me want to take classes again.  I appreciated seeing how everyone engaged their classes, especially the quiet students.
  • Overall I really loved the opportunity to see my peers in action. It brought me a sense of respect for the energy they put out with students and pride about the quality of education the students are receiving.
  • I really liked the opportunity to visit classes and talk about teaching with colleagues, and I think it would be a good thing for visitations and discussions to become part of the school culture. But, I am skeptical about it happening without teachers being made to do it.

Overall, I have to say that I am pleased with this experience. I chose not to hang a note on my door as I know many others have done because I chose not to be that public about this at this time. Since I had a small, dedicated group of volunteers and I did not want to insist that they hang such notes, I chose not to do so. I am seriously considering starting next year with such a sign outside my door. I came into this project with the idea/belief that visiting each other more regularly and more intentionally would lead to important conversations about our craft. The feedback I received, and my experience in so many different classes during this time, have reinforced and deepened that belief. I worry about the skepticism that a number of the participants expressed regarding whether this can become a part of the regular fabric of the school. I believe that this would be a much greater benefit to our students AND to my colleagues if this became a regular and widespread practice, but I suppose I should concentrate my energy on planting these seeds in my little corner of the world first.

Many thanks to Robert Kaplinsky for sparking this fire and to my colleagues who jumped in and gave their time and energy in addition to their normally busy days.

Proud of My Students

A while ago I wrote a post over at onegoodthingteach.wordpress.com (link here ) about being proud of my students on a day I was away. I have been engaged with a local leadership group this year that has had me away far more than I prefer to be. I have routinely received positive reports from my colleagues about how my students handle their responsibilities while I am away and I have always tried to share these comments with my students.

I was reminded of the importance (and joy) of this recently by two events. My blog post got a belated reply from a fellow named Josh. He linked to a post he had written on this idea. This was an important reminder not to take it for granted that my students know how much I appreciate being able to leave and knowing that some good math might still occur. The second reason is linked to my leadership program. The group in our area works with business leaders, teachers, college students, and high school students. I was asked to host one of the college students recently. The young woman who was my guest is a math major in the education program at her college. She sat in on three of my classes that day. Unfortunately, she had to leave for her class before my Geometry group met. The feedback I got from her was wonderful. She remarked on the conversations that my students were having and on the level of ideas that they were willing to wrestle with. I was SO pleased not only to hear kind words, but specifically to hear her compliment the discourse in my classroom as this is a big focus of mine. The best part though, was being able to share the remarks with my students the next day. I think that they just shrug it off a bit when my colleagues say nice things, like, maybe, they are just supposed to be nice. However, there was a more tangible reaction when the words of kindness came from a stranger, especially one who is studying math in college.

The fact that these two events happened in the same week was pretty awesome for my flagging energy level and it was a reminder of just how fortunate I am.

I’ll also be posting this reflection over at onegoodthingteach.wordpress.com

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