Empowered Problem Solving / Empowered Teachers

Not too long ago according to my calendar, but a long time ago now according to how the pace of school life moves, I finished an online workshop run by Robert Kaplinsky. The workshop, in six modules, was called Empowered Problem Solving. The modules were released on a weekly basis and were centered on videos of a workshop that Robert ran. These videos were accompanied by some outside reading in the form of blogposts and some PDFs. There were question prompts to encourage lively conversations on a message board, and there was quick support through emails from Robert and others working with him in the one or two cases early in the course when questions popped up about navigating the interface that they had set up. I did not recognize the names of folks on the message board there but I came to develop a sense of kinship through our conversations over the course of almost two months. Several themes emerged, of course, and it was interesting to go back through message boards from earlier lessons to see how my thinking was moving/growing and how the conversations deepened over that time. Looking back now, a few weeks after the course ‘ended’ [we still have access online for at least another month to revisit ideas and to help deepen our understanding/comfort with the ideas of the course] at a folder I created with documents that Robert organized for us, I realize that it will probably be out extended Christmas break when I can really digest and inject some of the habits of mind that are encouraged in the course. It made me think of my journey in grappling with/enacting/understanding the principles of inquiry and open-ended problem based lessons in the math classroom. I was forutunate to have had a Master’s Degree class in 1987 (before my teaching career began) called Mathematical Problem Solving. My grad school advisor, Prof Mary Grace Kantowski earned her Ph.D. in 1974 and her dissertation was Processes Involved in Mathematical Problem Solving, so I got a dose of this working with her and taking her class. I entered the high school classroom in the fall of 1987 and I have been honing, adapting, striving, to really figure out how to incorporate something more meaningful than practice exercises with my students. I was further energized by my first visit to the Anja Greer Conference at Phillips Exeter (I know it was between 2001 and 2005 but I cannot remember for sure what year it was) when I met Carmel Schettino and learned from her about problem solving in the math classroom and I am certain that this was my first exposure to the Exeter problem sets . The conference was mind-blowing and I was fortunate enough to attend one other time since then. Carmel’s work and advice energized me further and I started writing my own modest problem sets. Later, I wrote my own Geometry text that our school used for five years and in the process of that, I wrote HW for the course in the form of smaller problem sets. I have been fortunate enough to attend a summer think tank styled workshop that Carmel ran. I went with three colleagues to a workshop run by some folks from Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn last year. I visited the Peddie School in New Jersey with three colleagues and we saw what they had done with their curriculum. Our school was visited by a member of the math department from Saint Andrew’s School in Delaware and he shared what they have done with their curriculum. All of these experiences led me to want to enroll in Robert’s online classroom and it was well worth my time and energy and the school’s investment of professional development funding. Conversations are happening in our school about the direction we want to go for our students and the visits and workshops last year helped prompt these conversations. The ideas and resources from Robert Kaplinsky’s workshop will be immensely helpful in moving this conversations forward.

All of this is a long winded way of me saying thank you to Robert, to Carmel, to the folks at Peddie who welcomed us, to Eric Finch from St. Andrew’s in Delaware, to my advisor Prof Kantowski. All of these voices throughout my career seem to be pointing the way to a more meaningful way of teaching and learning mathematics. Robert will be running his workshop again in February and March and I encourage you to take part. Whether you are just beginning to grapple with the ideas of running your classroom as a place of open inquiry and driven by problems (rather than exercises – a distinction that Prof Kantowski often discussed) or if you have been working with these ideas for years and are looking to be re-energized or more organized, this will be a great experience for you.

Thanksgiving

November is a rough month at my school with days shortening, exams looming, and temperatures dropping. I have been meaning, for some time now, to write about a fantastic experience I recently concluded with a workshop run by Robert Kaplinsky called Empowered Problem Solving. On Thanksgiving with family here, this is not the right day to write in depth, but it is the perfect day to send out a quick note of Thanks. Not only to Robert whose workshop energized me and made me think about my classroom in new ways, but to my entire community of virtual friends and colleagues. The lives of my students have been so enriched by the interactions I have had for years through blogs, through twitter, through Global Math Department chats, through workshops online, through TwitterMath Camp experiences, through EdCamps that I learned about from my online team, from classroom activities shared freely by thoughtful educators around the world, …

I will write something meaningful and targeted about my workshop experience but today I want to make a more general and wide open thanks to all those out there who have made me a better and more thoughtful teacher in the past ten plus years of blogging and tweeting.

Problem Sets

For quite a while now I have been writing problem sets for my AP Calculus BC students. I scour old books, math competition files I have, problem sets from Exeter and other schools. I cobble together odd, open ended sets of problems intended to give my students the opportunity to grapple with novel problems in a manageable time frame. I encourage the students to confer with each other, to talk to me, to play with GeoGebra, Desmos, WolframAlpha, etc. In a way this is intended as a grade buffer, but mostly it is a way to get them to play with fun students. This year, I am also writing problem sets for my Calculus Honors and Precalculus Honors students. I want to write about something cool that some of my Precalc Honors kiddos presented. Here is the question I presented:

  1. Consider the graph of the function f(x) = 5/x  from the point (1,5) to the point (5,1). Explain a way to approximate the length of the curve between these points and arrive at some numerical approximation. You can describe your process in words, with a graph, or a combination of the two.

Now, my goal with this is to prime the pump for important calculus notions of infinite sums, Riemann sums, etc. I hoped that some students would suggest plotting a couple of points along the curve and adding the distances. One student in particular kept pressing me on this question which, admittedly, is probably more open-ended and formless than it should be. I already have ideas about improving this for next year. Anyway, I asked this student to draw the curve on the board and nudged her in the direction I wanted. I probably gave away my thoughts and she probably shared this idea with a bunch of other students. That’s alright, they’ll earn points and they have a seed planted that might come to bloom. However, a few students presented an argument I did not anticipate at all. A GeoGebra sketch will help:

A few students observed that the arc in question seems pretty similar in length to one quarter of the circumference of the circle in the diagram. They concluded that 2*pi would be a decent approximation. Calculus tells me that 6.1448 is the length. This a fantastic approximation and it is pretty fantastic thinking. These students knew that they did not have a formula for the length of the arc along f(x) = 5/x but they do know how to find the length of an arc on a circle. I am pretty proud of this line of thinking and I want to brag about them here tonight and in class tomorrow.

Thinking About Stories

One of the newer initiatives at our school is to help students listen and tell stories. We partnered with an organization called Narrative 4 (you can see their work here) I am simplifying the mission here a bit but the idea of storytelling is on my mind for a number of reasons. Next Wednesday our sophomore and freshmen students will participate in a Narrative 4 workshop sharing songs that mean something to them and explaining why. I love the power of stories and am prone to share them myself to try to make a point. I was reminded of this in the Empowered Problem Solving (#epsworkshop) run by Robert Kaplinsky. He made reference in one of the videos in a study module to ‘the story we are telling in our math class’ and this made me think of a recent frustration with our precalculus book. It all comes together, at least in my mind! Anyway, we are starting our unit on conics and our text, as many do, suddenly changes format of how a parabola equation is presented. Our students are used to y – k = a(x – h)^2 and this format makes sense to them. We can easily adapt this to x – h = a(y – k)^2. Suddenly, we are talking about the directed distance from the vertex to the focus and we introduce this new constant p. Okay so far, right? But suddenly, my students see 4p(y – k) = (x – h)^2 and they see 4p(x – h) = (y – k)^2. Why? It is pretty simple to let them know that the a that they have grown to interpret has a side personality as 1/(4p) It is easy to find a point on the curve and show distances that are equal to each other. I do not want to ignore the examples in the text because my students use it as a reference and a resource. I also do not want to stray from a meaningful way to write equations simply because of the whims of our textbook author. I also suspect that so much of what kids learn in school feels like an arbitrary set of equations and definitions and I want to battle that. I want the story in our math class to be that this is a journey together that builds on what we’ve known before. A journey that ties ideas together. A journey that feels logically coherent and consistent to the best degree that I can possibly make it. Lofty goals, I know. I just find the weird changes like the one above undercut that sense of logic, consistency, and damage the connective tissue of ideas that I try to nurture. I am almost certainly overreacting to this weird quirk of Precalc texts, but that feeling was amplified when I thought about our storytelling exercise at school and tried to reflect on Robert Kaplinsky’s message in our workshop. I love it (LOVE IT) when my brain is agitated by these ideas, when I see connections and themes in my life. I try to share that joy (agitation sometimes!) with my friends, colleagues, students, and you, my dear readers.

Brief Post – First Days

Busy busy start to the year. I want to take a moment to reflect on and remember a couple of important highlights.

Opening Day

We meet all classes for 30 minutes on day one and we have an hour long convocation ceremony. Our Student Body President is always one of the speakers. This year’s President was in my Precalculus Honors course last year. She delivered a touching speech about productive struggle in my course last year – a course she ended up excelling in, by the way. I have heard a number of speeches by adults advising the importance and lasting power of productive struggle. I imagine that this speech by one of their colleagues probably meant more to our students than hearing some grown up tell them about the glories of allowing yourself to struggle through something. The fact that she highlighted the very things I hope my students take away from my class made it pretty special. The fact that the whole upper school community (and my immediate supervisors!) heard it as well made for a pretty special opening day.

Regular Old Day One

My day started with my AP Calc BC team. I had assigned a HW problem I had never done before. They were asked to graph x + |x| = y + |y|

The table group that had this problem struggled a bit and we talked it through as a group. We then called on Desmos to graph it and the result was not what we thought it should be. I did what I do, I tweeted out the problem and within fifteen minutes one of my former advisees tweeted out a fix so that Desmos would agree with us. It is delightful to have that connection with a student who my current students still remember. It was also fun to think that my questions are still interesting enough to warrant his attention.

There will be some rough days this year, there always are. I want to remember days like this so it is easier to get through the tough ones!

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.

Thinking About Speed and Time

On first glance, the title of this post has me thinking about my Calculus classes, but that is not the speed and time angle that is on my mind this morning. Yesterday, I finished listening to the newest episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. The episode (found here) is called Puzzle Rush which is the name of a variant of chess. In the episode Gladwell raises some interesting questions regarding chess, the LSAT, and various places in our society where it seems that speed is valued more than deep thought. He keeps referring to the hare and the tortoise and wonders when the hares got to make the rules. This pod has me thinking about my assessment practice. As I often do, I am going to use this space to think out loud and I am going to hope for the usual outpouring of wisdom here and on twitter to help me work through my questions/concerns.

Earlier this year, some colleagues were having a grumpy conversation about the kids these days. You know, the usual grumpy late winter talk about what is wrong with kids. A totally natural conversation that happens at some point every year. Not a criticism here. However, I did push back a bit and I said that while my current Calc BC kids would be dismayed by my Calc BC tests from 20 years ago, my kids from 20 years ago would also be dismayed by my tests from today. I am pretty convinced that my students today are being asked for deeper analysis of why the math they have learned works the way it does and they are asked to make more predictions and asked to tie together information more deeply. I am also pretty convinced that they are slower in their calculations and in their algebraic manipulations. If my students from today tried to complete in 50 minutes a test I wrote more than a decade ago, many would flounder. If my students from ten years ago tried to complete a test I wrote this year, many would be flustered by the open nature of some of the questions. In general, I think that the thinking I am asking for now is more important. If I still thought that the old ways were more important, I would not have evolved in my assessment practice in the direction I have moved. Where Gladwell has me questioning myself is that there is still a distinct flavor of speed that comes into play. I have a number of students who are still furiously writing when I give them a three minute warning. They are still furiously writing when I give them a one minute warning. Heck, they are still writing as students are passing from class to class in the hallways and I have to bark at them a bit to give up their work. I am somewhat convinced that this might be true no matter how much I shorten the tests. I also admit, not proudly, that I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of a 50 minute class test only taking 20 minutes for some of my best students. I do not believe that speed is the best judge of talent, I know better. But I also suspect that speed is an ingredient in success in many endeavors. What I am wrestling with in the wake of Gladwell’s pod is how do I strike a balance here. I keep flashing back to an essay I read years ago by Dan Kennedy in which he advises ‘Value what you assess and assess what you value.’ I think that there is a very real part of me that values some level of automaticity. Maybe I am being shallow here, but it feels like my best students, the ones who have really mastered ideas, can do so quickly. Maybe I am just fooled into thinking that they are my best because they move quickly? I can keep rambling with this internal monologue, but I won’t bore you this way. I will just jump to some questions that I have for you, dear reader, and I hope to get a nice conversation going in the comments here or over on the twitters where I am still @mrdardy

  1. How do you estimate the time needed for your students to complete a task in class? I have 50 minute classes (mostly) for testing. I generally work on the idea that I should be able to carefully write out my solutions in about 15 minutes. No real science behind this, just accumulated experience.
  2. When writing a test where I am pretty sure that there is one especially challenging (I usually call them interesting!) question, I try to place that one near the front half of the test. Students can, of course, skip around but most just plow through. I want the problem requiring the most thought to be placed where there is still some time for that thought to occur.
  3. When students finish their test, they are dismissed. Is this smart? How do you approach this?
  4. Our schedule, like many of yours I would guess, does not really encourage flexibility with students who might want that simple two to three extra minutes to wrap up work. I have students coming in for their class and I want to respect their time. My students are on their way to their next class and I do not want to interfere with that time. I am uncomfortable, for a number of reasons, with the idea of having them just come back to wrap up later. Any comments/ideas/hacks that have worked within these pretty common scheduling restrictions?

As always, thanks in advance for any wisdom. I am looking forward to a good conversation that will benefit me and my students.

Balancing Group vs Individual Work

For over ten years now, my classroom has been setup for group work and talk. Currently, I have desks in groups of three and I reshuffle the groups after five class meetings using flippity. One of the courses I teach is called Honors Calculus. It is a differential calculus course that is an option instead of AP Calculus AB. What is typically done be the first week of December in the AB course takes us into May. This allows much more time to review algebra and trig ideas and to really dig into the mechanics and principles of Calculus. I don’t skimp on the level of analysis I ask for in this class, we just have more time to settle in. This year, after a conversation in the first trimester, I settled in to a routine where we have group quizzes – I write five versions of each quiz – but we have individual tests. My hope was that this would decrease the level of stress in the classroom, that it would increase the level of communication between the students, and that hearing multiple voices would increase the likelihood of ideas and techniques sticking with my students. What I have witnessed is that this process has decreased the level of stress overall because a handful of students just don’t worry much knowing that they are paired with confident kids who can carry them to the finish line, the level of conversation HAS increased, but only for a subset of the students who end up in the role of explainer, and ideas are NOT sticking. Mistakes made in November are still being made. Skills practiced (or at least skills that have been available for practice) are not embedded. On our most recent individual test about 15% of my kids did not recognize the need to use the product rule when taking the derivative of a product. I have asked a variation of the exact same question for the last three tests and there is no noticeable improvement in answering that question.

There is another feature of our class that is at play here. In the 2017 – 2018 academic year our department adopted a test corrections policy that I wrote about previously. For the 2018 – 2019 academic year the department voted down this policy. I had spent a considerable amount of time and energy promoting this policy and talking about its importance in the learning process. In the wake of this decision I reached an uneasy compromise with the two courses where I am the only instructor. They can review a test when it is returned and they can reassess on up to three questions from that test with the possibility of earning up to half of the credit they missed. There was a lot of debating in my mind and with my students before we arrived at this imperfect solution. This was in place before the conversation with Calc Honors about group quizzes. Looking back, I feel that the combination of group quizzes AND opportunities to reassess provides too much of a sense of safety net and many of my students are pretty clearly not preparing themselves too carefully or they are simply not practicing much. With the level of practice opportunities provided/the number of times to talk together in class/the class conversations led by me with examples and old assessments offered as practice/etc. I simply should not be seeing the test performances I am seeing. I am clearly complicit in all of this due to the decisions I made about assessment and the decision I have made not to collect or check HW practice. In my last post I thought out loud about the idea of frequent, low stakes, skills-based check in assessments. Had a great twitter chat last night with the #eduread crew (prompted in large part by this article ) and I went to sleep convinced that I need to incorporate some of these ideas into this course next year. I also need to remove the added layer of reassessment, it has not worked in conjunction with the group quizzes. I think I probably still need group quizzes separate from the check-in layer of ways for me to see progress AND as ways for kids to feel that they can buffer their grade with legitimate skill progress. I hope that the combination sends a couple of important messages about what I value. I really (REALLY) like the conversations that do happen in the group quizzes. I am more than willing to write multiple versions of quizzes so that conversations can happen out loud without worrying about giving away information. Our discipline, I think, allows this more easily than some others might. I do not want to collect HW daily for all sorts of reasons, but I think that frequent low stakes check ins send a message about the importance of mastery of topics. I think that I need to adjust my problem sets so that they feature more reminders of topics. My kids know how to take derivatives with the product rule. They probably need to be periodically reminded of it in a more tangible way. I also wonder about balance in point values between these three ways of assessing and reporting on my students’ progress. I do not want to retreat into a mode where I am scaring (or bribing) my students, but I do think I need to be more clear and explicit about what I value and balance it accordingly when/where I can.

As always, any words of wisdom here or over on the twitters (where I am @mrdardy) are much appreciated.

Thinking Out Loud

Been too long since I wrote, all sorts of reasons but none of them meaningful enough really.

I often use this space to air some thoughts and questions and I always value the conversations that ensue either here or over on twitter (where I can be found @mrdardy)

So, here is what I am pondering now and would love to hear some pushback or validation or further questions to help me organize my thoughts. For years – all 32 of them in the classroom – I have told my students that I do not believe in pop quizzes. I said that I do not want quizzes to be seen as punitive, I don’t want them waiting for me to play ‘gotcha’ with them. Similarly, I don’t do surprise HW checks or anything like that. However, I am thinking that I might have been wrong about this. I see (so often!) kids frantically studying (cramming) knowledge into their brains for a short term amount of time with the intent of performing some data dump on their quiz. I have even had students argue that they do not want me to answer any lingering questions from their classmates because they don’t want to forget before the quiz. As if 8 extra minutes will somehow erase meaningful understanding. However, the more I think back on these, the more I realize that the message being sent to me in these conversations is that there is not meaningful long-term knowledge that the students think is their job. Just be able to reply and re-present skills/techniques. I think I do a pretty decent job of asking interesting questions that encourage/allow/demand some real thinking and some really knowledge to be displayed. But if every assessment is announced and planned for and worried about, then I suspect that I am not really getting a meaningful picture of any developing understanding that my students are working on. I wonder if periodic low stakes check ins would be a better use of my time AND a more true picture of what the students are understanding. These check ins would take less time allowing us to have more time to talk/debate/discuss (heck, just BREATHE) in our time together. These would occur more frequently giving me more granular data, more of a sense of continuity in charting their understanding. They would not be a source of stress at home and they might (might!?!) send a different, more meaningful message about what my goals of assessment are. A downside is that these feel like they would be more directed at quick skills check ins rather than meaningful, complex and connected questions. those questions take more time, they might not be at home on a quick exit ticket (or entrance ticket?) type of check in. If I do enough of them – or if I build a system with some drops/mulligans – then any particular ‘bad day’ would not have much of an impact. If I am thoughtful about these and I enact Henri Picciotto’s ideas about lagging HW and think of these as lagging assessments, then the notion of a busy night for school or family activities, would not be a meaningful argument about why a particular quiz might be below par. If I lean in on this idea, I think I would move away from my current practice of quiz / quiz / test rhythm in many of my classes. I would probably feel less stressed about time taken for assessments and would feel that there was reasonable data about student performance and understanding. I have adopted a system of problem sets in two of the three courses I teach, open problems that are sometimes thorny but the students have seven school days to complete them and they are encouraged to collaborate on these assignments. This feature also helps ease the concern about grades to a certain degree.

So, I guess what I am asking dear reader are these questions –

Are unannounced assessments inherently unfair?

Are check ins on developing understanding reasonable data to register and count (in some way) as part of the report on progress that is expected at my school?

Is the habit of cramming an inherent part of the problem that we math teachers see all the time – Fragile knowledge or simple lack of ability to recall and reorganize information that has (allegedly) been learned in previous courses?

Thanks in advance for any wisdom shared here or over on twitter