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