Assessment Is On My Mind

Our school is making a pretty big change next year. We are moving from a static schedule where we have seven classes that meet in the same order every single day. Our class lengths are either 40, 45, or 50 minutes depending on the length of our assemblies and our ending time each day. Next year we will be on a rotating schedule in 7 day blocks. Each class will meet four times for 50 minutes and once for 90 minutes over that interval. Five classes will meet every day, four of them will be 50 minutes long and one will be 90 minutes long. As a result of this upcoming change we are being asked to do some deep reflection about our practice and our curricular choices. As department chair I have been encouraging my department to think deeply about trimming or eliminating items from our curriculum to make time to think and have more open ended (and open middle!) problems. This schedule change will really push us to do this and I suspect I’ll be thinking out loud on this space as we move through this process. Where my mind is tonight is on the subject of assessment. I was asked to facilitate a group this morning to talk about our assessment habits and goals. Years ago, I moved to a school that had a rotating schedule with a long block. At the time I was not the same teacher I am now (at least I don’t think I was) and I don’t remember being all that thoughtful about the impact on my practice. The fact that I had moved to a new school and just had to adapt probably diminished any sense of dramatic change that I might have felt. Around here right now we are having some pretty valuable conversations and I was part of one this morning.

My takeaways from the meeting are:

  • I want to have more frequent, but shorter, opportunities to check in on my students’ learning. Ideally, some of these would not have any letter or grade attached at all but simply serve as formative checks of their developing understanding of the material at hand.
  • I think that the old model of a 45 – 50 minute timed sit down assessment where everybody takes the same (or VERY similar) tests needs to shrink, at least in my discipline. Our time together will be too precious to take up too much of it silently hunched over a piece of paper with problems, no matter how creative the problems are. We have 154 class days this year that are not devoted to term exams. Meeting 5 out of every 7 days changes that to 110 days. Granted, these 110 days will be a minimum of 50 minutes each (our current longest class) so contact time will feel different. But we are still only going to see our students for 110 days and we need to make those days count.
  • I want to expand my palette. My students’ grades are almost entirely dependent on times tests and quizzes. I know that there are other smart ways to do this, I want to learn more and I want to grow my toolbox.
  • I have been sneaking in group quizzes lately given that my class is set up on pods. I want more of this. I experimented with my Discrete Math elective in the fall. We have a stretch of days leading up to our term exams called test priority days. On these days we are limited by department for who can have assessments so that our students do not have these pile up on them. Each department has two of these days. I chose to have a group test on the first day where everyone chipped in ideas (obviously some students were more vocal than others) and they all got copies of my feedback on their test. Four class days later, after one new topic was introduced, each student had an individual test. My best students performed about the way that they always had, I wasn’t too worried about them. What pleased me was that some of my students who had struggled during the term clearly benefited from the group work not only in improving their grade by the addition of this group test score, but they performed at a much higher level on the individual test. The combination of the work with their peers and the ability to study from that work and from my feedback all seemed to work well together. I want to capitalize on this and try more ideas like this moving forward.


So, the reason I am thinking out loud here about this is the reason I always cite. I would love to hear from you, dear readers. Please share successes and failures you have experienced as you expand your assessment toolbox. I want to hear how you wisely spend time with your students on extended classes like the 90 minutes we will have periodically next year. I want to hear what pitfalls to avoid that we might not even be anticipating. In general, I just want to continue learning from all of you!

As always, feel free to comment here or to engage me on twitter where I am @mrdardy


Thanks in advance

Hands-On Geometry

I’ve been at this high school math gig for a good long while now but I periodically have to remind myself of a couple of important facts. The most important one is that not everybody’s mind works like mine. Just because I like a certain way of thinking, or dislike a certain way of learning, I should not assume all my students will agree. In fact, I can be pretty certain that all of my students will not agree, there’s too many individuals for that to work.

When I studied Geometry I did not like physical drawings and constructions. In part because I am a bit inept when it comes to controlling something like a compass, but also because getting my hands engaged does not seem to fire too many of my neurons. So, when I wrote my Geometry book a couple of years ago I did not include much in the way of hands-on manipulations. The past couple of years of working through the text with our students has pointed out the weakness of this approach. So, I put my head together with one of my talented colleagues to try and make an activity that would trigger some neurons for those students who come to life when they get their hands busy. I had been using a pretty cool activity I ran across from Jennifer Silverman but I made pretty flimsy paper copies to work with on a pipe building activity where kids had to manipulate bent angle joints with different pipe lengths. It’s a great activity but using simple paper copies dragged the activity down. We invested in some packs of AngLegs this year and my colleague wrote a pretty cool activity modeled off of our pipe building activity. You can find his document here.

I was impressed as each of the seat groups in my class played with the AngLegs making some discoveries about combinations that worked and those that would not. We discussed, without naming it yet, the triangle inequality theorem to explain why some combos did not work. But the real fun, and the clever heart of my colleague’s activity, was when I asked one student from each group to come to the front of the room. When they left their group the remaining group members were given the following task – I slightly modified the original document on the fly – I asked them to make and measure a triangle. Find six measures, the three side lengths and the three angles. They then put the triangle away where it could not be seen. I sent the volunteers back and their teammate gave them three pieces of information. I left it to each group to decide what information to share. Once given three clues the volunteer student needed to manipulate the AngLegs to copy the triangle described. What ensued was a terrific conversation about what information is necessary to guarantee that I have to make the same triangle. We used this as a launching pad to discuss congruence theorems for triangles. I have some great links in the text to some wonderful GeoGebra activities up on the GeoGebraTube site but I know that many of my students do not do these explorations.  I also know that some just need to get their hands dirty, so to speak. Some kids were able to recreate the triangle but admitted that it was a bit of luck. Some stumbled upon the ambiguous case of the Law of Sines without being told that this is what happened. Some realized that they had no choice but to create the correct triangle.

I was really pleased by the level of engagement and I am now thinking about ways to use the AngLeg sets again soon when we start talking about side and angle bisectors. I want to have tables create and draw their own triangles before we stumble into discoveries about concurrence of these bisectors. This will feel, I hope, a little more authentic than me just giving them a prescribed triangle which may feel a bit like I am just luring them into some pre-prepared trap. I think that this activity we ran benefited my students and we have referred to it on a number of occasions already. The grouping of three or four students together at a time helps and allowing them to get their hands busy has helped. Looking forward to loosening up a bit more and letting my students be more tactile in their approach to Geometry. I’ll still show them the GeoGebra and introduce them to Euclid the Game  but I need to remind myself that they are not a bunch of mini Dardys in the room.

Questions about Questioning

I feel I am long overdue to write this blog post. In part, this is due to, you know, life getting in the way. In part it is because I have about three posts swirling around in my head right now. Next week our students are taking term finals so I will have a little more unstructured time and I may finally get around to writing more. That is, if I get around to writing plans for the short stint between thanksgiving and winter holidays.

Today, I am going to try and make sense of a fantastic post by Mark Chubb (@MarkChubb3) that can be found here. In the post (which you DEFINITELY should read) Mark raises important questions about the questions we ask our students AND the purpose, the goal, of those questions. I often tell a story about a student who graduated back in 1993 named Ashley. I had the privilege of teaching Ashley for four years in a row up through Calculus BC. The week before her AP exam I asked her how she was feeling. She told me that she was not worried at all because she knew that if she got stuck on a problem she would hear my voice in her head asking her what that problem reminded her of or what have we done in the past when we have seen this. I was flattered that she had internalized some of the strategies we had worked on together and I felt good that she felt comfort in my leading questions that I had been asking her over the years. She was also a tremendous student who was in a group of talented kids who pushed each other over that four year span. Since then, however, I have begun to question myself about the sort of questions I pose. I still believe that most of my students would be able to effectively work through problems they are presented if they can have an internal monologue that is similar to the conversations we have as a group. What I worry about is whether my guided questions are taking away their agency, their ability to discern what they think is important in a problem. I made it through high school math pretty successfully and I have confidence that I can guide students through this journey. But posts like Mark’s, and conversations I have had through this blog, in conferences, through twitter all push me in the direction of making my voice less central in my class. I have taken great strides in this direction in the past few years, but I still feel that I talk too much, that I initiate conversations and lines of questioning too often. That I impose my sensibilities about what to notice and what to wonder about on my students. The trouble is that many of them are happy to have me, and their other teachers, take on this burden. It is easier, it feels more stable and safe to hear the expert in the room direct the conversation. I know that this is not the best strategy but I too often fall into this trap.

I am going to lift a portion of Mark’s post here to draw attention to the central question about questions that I think he was trying to raise.


Funneling vs. Focusing Questions

As part of my own learning, I have really started to notice the types of questions I ask.  There is a really big difference here between funneling and focusingquestions:


Think about this from the students’ perspective.  What happens when we start to question them?

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After reading this and playing back a number of classes in my head, classes that I was really proud of, classes where I felt that my students had made some major breakthroughs, I realized that I do FAR too much funneling and not enough focusing. An easy excuse is that my students struggle in metacognitive processes, so it is more painful and time-consuming to do this. And, just like my students want the more comforting path of me telling them what is important, I am prone to take the comforting role of the guiding questioner. But my students are not going to get better at monitoring and understanding their own thinking this way. They are not going to take ownership of what they feel is important in a problem this way. They can get to be better mathematicians and be more successful at high school math, but I fear that I am training students to be mini mrdardys instead of being better high school mathematicians as themselves.


Our school is moving to a new schedule model next year. We will be on a seven day cycle where in each rotation we meet four times for 50 minutes and one time for 90 minutes. This will force us to re-examine how we run our classes, how we will value and plan for our time together with students. There are many layers of what we will have to examine but for myself, I think that I will be going back to Mark’s post over and over, I’ll be looking at a few classes that I have had videotaped and I will be working out how to hand ownership of ideas to my students. I will be working on how to make sure that the classroom and the class time we spend together is not so dependent on my point of view and my insights into problems. I want my students to leave my class better high school mathematicians, that is absolutely true. But I want them to be better models of themselves as high school mathematicians, not imitations of me. As Ben Folds sang once, I do the best imitation of myself. I don’t need my students to be imitations of me.