Thinking About Work and about Homework

I took my mom to the airport this morning which means I have one less reason to start thinking about work again. We start back on Jan 5 – as many of us do, I am sure – and I have a pile of papers to grade and some class planning to do. As I have written before, we are working with a new Geometry book that I wrote last summer. You can find a dropbox link to it here. I have also posted a folder of the HW assignments we’ve written for it here. I’ll be updating the HW folder regularly. I have been compiling a list of edits for the text and I’ll be doing the updating work this spring.

As I think about our next Geometry unit I have really been wrestling with the role of HW and how to incorporate it into my classroom routine. I’ve been mostly teaching AP classes the past few years and I have definitely adopted an attitude that HW is assigned but not graded. I’ll discuss it in class when someone asks a question, but I don’t plan around that activity. These questions from my students pop up on quiz days or on test review days but not too often otherwise. I am under no illusion that the students are doing all of what I ask from them, but their performances indicate that most of them are doing enough to get a grasp of the material. I believe that their understanding and mastery of the material would be deeper with more practice. I also believe that they would practice more diligently if I incorporated HW into my grading system somehow. What I have seen is that any way that I have tried to include this into my grading system encourages copying and shortcuts that are frustrating to me and reward bad behavior. This year, however, I am working with younger students again in the Geometry class. These students pretty clearly crave much more attention to HW than my older kids seem to want/need. Days when I post the last HW on my AppleTV and spend time directly addressing it are clearly appreciated. What I am wrestling with is the feeling that these days also lack some of the creative problem solving feel of days with more open-ended questions driving the conversation. Am I wrestling with the balance between what motivates me and what motivates my students? I know that there is a cliche that most of us become the teachers we had. I certainly think about some of the inspirational teachers I had and try to capture some of that magic. However, I also find myself thinking at least as much about the experiences that were NOT inspirational and try to avoid those scenarios. For me, many of those uninspiring days centered around 20 – 30 minute conversations about last night’s HW. Days where we seemed to be spinning our wheels. I know I was not the only student who had completed the HW from the night before and did not need to have most of those problems reviewed right after completion. I know that I have students who drift away from being engaged when we are going over problems they have already thought about and completed correctly and confidently. I am really struggling with how to best strike a balance between what some of my students crave and what I think is best for them. I think that our time together is best spent on open questions that push our understanding forward, problems that would be a real stretch for them on their own. I want to include those (periodically) on HW assignments and concentrate on THOSE problems when we are together. Given that a number of my students seem to crave the comfort of the routine of doing HW and then going over it together, I need to find comfortable ways to incorporate that without stalling other routines. One way I am thinking of – and I know that this is not original at all – is to have answers posted at the beginning of class and asking students to take the lead on any review questions that pop up. I can have a few kids up at once and cover this material more quickly and in a more student-centered way. This way, we can get to the more challenging questions together more quickly and I can respect the desire to have space for HW review. Since we are writing our own HW assignments, the students have no answer page to look at and this may be an important source of the difference in HW attention desired. My older kids have standard texts with answers in the back of the book for reassurance.

I’ll report back soon after we start again and I’ll write about how this works. In the meantime, as always, I welcome wisdom in the comments section or through my twitter @mrdardy

Hosting a Colleague

One of the professional expectations at our school is that we visit a departmental colleague and an out of department colleague at least once each year. I love visiting other classrooms and my job as chair makes it easy for me to ask in my department. I recently hosted a colleague in AP Calculus BC. She is a history teacher and a class dean and she chose the BC class because it fit her schedule and because I have some empty seats in that room. She joked that she would likely not be able to follow much of our conversation but she was excited to come and watch my rock stars in action. There are two main reasons why I love having someone come to my classroom. First, it reminds me to appreciate just what a high level most of my kids are operating on. In BC it is too easy for me to set REALLY high standards and then be disappointed when a few kids don’t reach them. Having my colleague visit and listening to her talk about the level of conversation – and the speed of the conversations – reminded me of how lucky I am to be working with this group of students. I also always appreciate the questions that my visitors ask about my classroom strategies. The past three teachers who have visited my room are all members of our school’s history department. They all commented on the fact that I use specific students’ names so often in our conversation. I’ll toss out a general question, pause, and then add something like ‘What did you do with this problem Greg?’ or I’ll field a question from a student and turn and say ‘Emma, how did you approach this?’ I am pretty sure that I picked up this technique in my classroom methods courses. I have always taught in independent schools – a story for some other time – and most of my colleagues do not have much background in ed classes as part of their college experience. I wonder if this explains why this practice of mine seems so striking to them. It feels like a natural to me as it allows me to remind my students that I know that they are there and that I want their voices to be part of the classroom.

At a time of year when it is easy to feel tired and run down, this visit really helped give me a shot of energy. How about your schools? Do you have much time to visit classrooms?

Trying to Sort Out Some Ideas

so, I wrote a post on Friday in a time of frustration and took it down later that day. Need to learn to use my drafts folder to sit on these ideas. (Thanks to hermathness and others for this idea)

I have spent much of the past day and a half in bed and will be back there soon, so I am going to divide some of the ides that were on my chest and weighing me down.

i wrote a Geometry text last summer and have been putting together HW assignments as we move along this year. It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but I feel that I am really learning about myself, Bout my students, and about what I value. Instead of just selecting some subset of problems from a text or relying on prefab worksheets, I have really been thinking about what kind of work feels important to me. We have a 14 day period of school between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and one of my Geometry teammates offered to take the reins of planning during this stretch. I am grateful for this and it have saved me much energy. Last week my colleague sent out a partial assignment and asked for help in fleshing it out. I scoured through some resources I have and proposed three problems to add on to an assignment where the section of the book concentrated on the Hypotenuse – Leg theorem. One of the problems in particular involved two steel rails that met with no gap and then buckled upward due to heat. I think it’s a pretty cool problem, but I knew that I would have to work it out for most of my kiddos after asking them to ponder it for HW. I am TOTALLY fine with giving my students some problems that I think only a few will complete correctly.  It is becoming obvious that most of my students do not agree that this is a great idea and some of my colleagues disagree as well. I see this as a failu on my part. I have not been clear enough in articulating why I think this kind of struggle is a good idea. I feel that I have a better idea of addressing this with my students than I do with my colleague. She told me she would not give that problem for homework because she did not want to freak her students out. I appreciate her concern about her students, I just happen to believe that freaking them out a bit is pretty important. Especially when it is a low stakes situation like a homework problem.

i ned to frame this conversation carefully and with only four days before winter break, it feels like I ought to sit on this for a little while. As always, I welcome any wisdom you have to share!


What Are Grades Supposed to Mean?

I’m troubled today by an email conversation at my school this week. We just came back from a long Thanksgiving break which came after fall term finals (we are on a trimester system.) We have the whole week of Thanksgiving off and some kids did not come back until Tuesday night from their travels. These are some boarding kids and they did not communicate clearly their travel plans with the school. For some combination of reasons they did not return until last night. Two of them are students in my AP Statistics class and we already have our first quiz tomorrow. Now, I understand that these kids goofed up and I know that the administration is dealing with it in some way. Probably either after school detention or Saturday morning detention is in the works for these kids. We received an email instructing us to hold these students accountable for any work missed. I understand that this is a pretty standard response. I’ve been at three other schools and I am certain that they all would issue a similar statement. I am certainly guilty of having enforced such disciplines in the past, but I find myself troubled by this now. Maybe it is my exposure to such a wide world of reflective bloggers and tweeters, maybe it is because I now have children of my own, maybe it is because I live with so many of my students and I feel for them in a way that is noticeably different than my other school experiences. Whatever the reason (or combination of reasons) I find myself troubled by the idea of giving these kids a quiz tomorrow when we have discussed a section for three days and they were only here for one of those days. I know that they could have gotten back sooner, I know that they are seniors and should be responsible. I also know that they are pretty bright kids and might very well perform at a reasonable level tomorrow. I am not feeling that this will happen and it feels to me that a disciplinary mistake will turn into an academic grade punishment. I don’t think that I feel good about this. On the other hand (there always seems to be that ‘other hand’ doesn’t there?) if I give them an extension I know that some of my students – those who came back on time, who were jet lagged or simply tired from travel, those students who would have enjoyed an extra day or two of vacation – would likely feel that students receiving extra time are receiving some extra advantage as a result of their irresponsible actions. I don’t want my students to feel that grades are some sort of competition or some sort of reward system, but I know that many inherently see it this way. For those students, it would seem to be an insult to have an extension offered here. It might even be another sign to them that they should try to ‘game the system’ and take time off when it suits them. I know that I feel that grades should reflect the knowledge that a student is able to display. I don’t think that it should reflect good behavior or bad behavior. I think that there are avenues to recognize behavior issues that are separate from grades, but I also know that most schools feel that pressure on grades is the most effective way to get a students’ attention and the strongest lever we have to modify behavior.

Sigh, I know that there are no easy answers here. I would love to hear any comments here or tweets directed to @mrdardy to share how you deal with these issues. How does your school deal with behavior like this? Are you bound to school policies or do you have the freedom to make individual decisions? Please share your wisdom.