Another New Beginning – Around the Corner

On Monday I report for beginning of the year meetings for the 33rd time. As usual, I have thoughts scattered all about and, as usual, I am going to try to use this space to help whip those thoughts into shape.

This morning I read the latest NCTM email and there was an essay included written by President Berry. In his essay, he challenges us to think about our why. Why do I teach math? He suggests that figuring out the why is a HUGE step to making our classrooms more coherent and productive. In the essay he links to a couple of posts and my favorite of them is from David Wees. You can find it here and it is well worth your time.

David’s post made me think about a time when I was struggling a bit with thoughts like these (I have a post about that here ) and I was thinking that the beginning of a new year might be an excellent time to be explicit with my students about the teacher that I try to be and to try and tease out from them the teacher that they feel that they need. I think back to a story about a former student. He was a brilliant student and has gone on to do some serious financial analyst work in his life. He uses math skills and habits of mind regularly in life. When I taught in New Jersey Chris (the former student in question) lived in Manhattan and he and I would periodically meet for lunch. He told me a story one day. He was working in a small office at the time and had been struggling with a challenging case. My memory is that he said he had been working off and on with a certain problem for a few days. He told his boss that he was going to take a long lunch to get away from this problem and clear his head. Chris told me that when he returned he found some post it notes on his file folder with some questions/suggestions from his boss. Chris said ‘Jim, he reminds me of you. He asks questions I would not have though of asking.’ I have considered this to be the best compliment I think I have received as a teacher. This brilliant person – WAY smarter than me – one who I taught for four math classes (he and I started at a very small school) doesn’t remember a certain lesson. He didn’t point to some trip that we went on together (he was an expert Brain Bowl member and math team member, both activities I supervised) No, he remembered that I asked him questions he would not have thought of on his own. I was prompted to think of this yesterday when an old post by Christopher Danielson was referenced on twitter. You can find that post here. Also, well worth your time as is David’s post above.

So, I guess my question here (see what I did there?!?!?) is this – Is it meaningful to my students to have me share some version of the story above so as to clue them in to my priorities? Is it meaningful to share my priorities in a personal way as an avenue to have them think about theirs? After all, the classroom is theirs more than mine. I need to find a way to recognize and respect their needs in a way that supports what I believe (what I think I know) about teaching and learning. I want to be explicit in discussing our goals and it feels that a personal story about what motivates me to do what I do might be a smart way to do this.

Thoughts? As always, please share any wisdom here in the comments or hit me up over on the twitters where I am @mrdardy

The Case For, and Against, Test Retakes

I am overdue in writing about a high energy twitter exchange I was engaged in recently. I am going to include a few links here in this post that will help give some background to the conversation.

First, many thanks to those on twitter who are willing to engage and get my brain moving. In this particular story the star twitter pal is Kristie Donavan (@KristieDonavan) who went on quite a twitter tear and wrote a GREAT blog post. First, I will link the article that started the whole discussion.

A colleague shared an article from Edutopia with me. You can find the article here The article is called The Case for not Allowing Test Retakes. Now, the idea of test retakes/corrections is something that has been on my mind for awhile. Two years ago, after a wonderful PD session with Henri Picciotto (@hpicciotto or over at https://www.mathed.page ) our department adopted a policy of test corrections. You can read my original blog post about it here. Well, last year the department voted to move away from that policy based on a number of concerns that they had about how kids dealt with the policy. Many of their points were raised in the Edutopia article linked above. We have some new admins at our school in the last couple of years and there is reason to believe that we will be urged to move back to some form of test corrections or retakes. That is why my colleague sent me the link in the first place. I tweeted out a link to the article asking for insights and boy did I get some. Most vigorously from Kristie. Who sent a tweetstorm and wrote an awesome post. Here is where you can find Kristie’s post, I urge you to read it. So, what I am wrestling with is a real sense of hypocrisy that might be simply the result of a strong but unsound argument presented in the Edutopia article and in other debates/discussions about educational goals, student motivations, balancing workload, etc. When Henri was with us one of the things he said that REALLY resonated with me was this – ‘When you are grading you help one student. When you plan for a class effectively you help all of your students.’ [I admit I might be mixing his words a little, but the message here was clear, spend time and energy planning for your class do not get buried in grading] What he also urged, and I saw it in our policy, was to concentrate on learning not on grades. When we did our test corrections I saw kids dig into their work, they debated with each other why something was wrong and how to fix it. They engaged with their tests when they were returned instead of simply filing them away in their backpack or locker. I truly believe that my students, my youngest ones especially, benefited for the motivation to reflect that the policy provided. In the wake of an overwhelming feeling by my department colleagues that we needed to move on from that policy, I adopted a variation for two of my classes – the two where I was the only teacher. What I did was I wrote a reassessment for every test mirroring skills as closely as I could for each problem. Students were allowed to reassess on up to three of the problems that they originally took and I would average scores from the original and the retake. I wanted to minimize time and effort on their part so that they were not mired in looking backwards while we were still on the move. I also wanted to make it more realistic that we could find time during our day to make this happen. There are all sorts of tweaks I wish I had thought of, but it felt like a good faith way to try and hold on to the benefits of reflection while providing some motivation to do so. However, the time and energy spent on some much rewriting and regrading was exhausting. I found myself getting resentful and not enough of the kids were showing the same kind of benefits I expected. I also am actively struggling with what SBG would look like in my classroom. I admit some ignorance here, but my understanding from some reading and from a workshop I attended about four years ago makes me worry that my assessment strategy would not mesh well. I cannot regularly look at a problem on a test or quiz and put it in a nice box. I tend to write problems that pull different ideas together or put an old skill in a new context. Twitter pal Julie Reuhlbach (@jreulhbach) very kindly shared a folder of assessments that she uses in her SBG approach and I am beginning to dive in and try to figure out how I can make some form of this fit my life. She also hosted on her blog site a nice post about SBG. That post is here

So, here I am with about two weeks left before the beginning of my school year. I am trying to balance what would make sense for me as a teacher in my classroom with what would work for my department and what would work in our school context as we try to figure out the path that our new leadership wants to explore. All of this needs to be framed with our students in mind, they are the point of why we are doing any of what we are doing. I have an additional ingredient in my head that becomes more and more pronounced and that is the fact that my older child is now in our high school. Factors that I had been thinking about in terms of educational philosophy are suddenly feeling more urgent and more personal.

Where do I stand this morning? I worry that many of my students are SO driven by grades and by trying to balance their commitments that they are motivated to reflect and learn more by grades than by almost anything else. They tell me this year after year by saying things like ‘I would do more homework practice if you graded homework regularly’ They say this even after acknowledging that they would learn more and do better if they practiced more regularly. Given this fact (at least I am pretty convinced it is a fact) I want to have a set of classroom practices and policies in place that take advantage of this motivation and reinforces habits in a way that leads to better learning, less stress and, hopefully, better grades so that my students feel a tangible sense of their efforts. I want policies and practices that do not increase stress and put time pressures on me and my students. I want students to feel that there is equity across their classes, not to feel like they lucked into (or were cursed by) certain teachers. I think that some sense of uniformity of expectations is kind of important. I want a coherent set of principles to be visible to my students and their parents, a way to express what I believe is important about our work together.

This month I start my 33rd year of classroom teaching. At one point in my life I thought I would have figured all of this out already. I suppose the job would be less rich and rewarding if that were true.