Back to School Night

Last night was Back to School night at my institution. So, of course I woke up with a sore throat. Gotta love the impeccable timing of viruses (viri?).

For some reason I can never seem to find a BTSN plan that works and then stick with it. Every year it’s the same thing: start from scratch and do something completely new. Why I spend so long each and every year planning for an event that lasts 15 minutes is a mystery. Something in me must enjoy it deep down in the dark inner recesses of my being.

I tend to go back and forth between making parents do an activity and just talking at them non-stop for the whole time. [Look at that! Guess we won't have any time for questions after all. Sorry.]

This year was a “doing” year. And it went really well. I had parents do the Trains problem.

And not only did I have them do fun math, but get this: I showed pictures of their students doing the exact same activity on the projector while they were working. Oh yeah, I am good.

For my one section of math 1, I decided to introduce parents to the Interactive Notebook. I did this by making them construct their own INB demo which were all about INB’s.

Turns out this was the one group of parents who didn’t bring pencils with them to class, so other than the cutting and gluing there wasn’t much substance to their INB’s, but I think they heard my spiel about brain research and note-taking. It was the end of a very long day after all.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even do these activities again next year!

Day Three–Timing is Everything

So I guess I’m doing the daily-debrief thing this week, just offset by one day. I have been teaching, getting an idea about what to write about, titling the post and then saving the draft ’cause I just don’t have time rightthen! And then, I have gotten home and something has prevented me from finishing. Yesterday it was Chris Hunter’s fault:


I mean, given the choice between writing a blog post and having a tweet-up, what would you do? I rest my case.

So, yesterday…

My students–many of them freshmen–have been commenting pretty regularly and pretty consistently that our 80 minute blocks have been flying by. It’s kind of interesting hearing the variety of class lengths they had in middle school. I’ve heard everything from 30 (!) to 60 minutes. And every one of them has said that the time seemed to go by slower in whatever ridiculously short time interval their middle school used.

Now part of this is certainly novelty. But the other part is the fact that I am being a complete task master this week. Yes, you have 80 minutes of math; but that doesn’t mean you have an extra 2 minutes to goof around with your buddies. Oh no.

Yesterday was a prime example of that. I had a task that students had begun the previous day, working in parallel. Each kid had their own pile pattern and had to extend the pattern (in both directions), find the area of each pile and represent it in a table and graph, and to sketch pile 100 and pile x. Today’s task was to compare and contrast their individual patterns and see how they were all representative of the same general type of pattern (in this case they all happened to be quadratic). But I broke it down for them:

Okay class, right now you have 5 minutes to look at each other’s patterns and write a list of all the ways in which they are similar.

Five minutes is up! Next task. Each of you needs to write a sentence (yes, using words) that describes how your individual pattern is growing.

Okay, time’s up! Now…

(You get the idea.)

Having a short amount of time to complete a task (but not too short) creates a sense of urgency, which leads to active engagement, which leads to productivity, which makes time seem to move more quickly than normal. It’s kind of funny how that happens.

Yesterday the classroom was buzzing, students were getting a ton done and they were forced to interact with one another–a good thing for freshmen in their first week of school! This is one of the things I really enjoy about starting a new class.

Sometimes as the year progresses I get more comfortable with students and then I forget to use these kinds of tricks. Hopefully writing them down will help me to get them all stuck in my brain for future use this year.


Day Two–Letters from Students

I have a long stretch this morning of no classes. And, since it’s the third day of school, I don’t have much grading to do. What I have been doing is reading my students’ letters to me. I have a tradition, going back to my 2nd year of teaching, of having students write me a letter introducing themselves to me for their homework on the first night of school. I write them a letter and they write me back.

I really love how I get to know the students through their words. They tell me a lot about their interests and hobbies that I wouldn’t necessarily learn for quite some time in the regular day-to-day conversations that we have in the first few weeks and months of school. I get a lot out of their letters to me.

But yesterday I was reminded of how my letter to students is a really important part of the process. When I was collecting letters from the students who printed theirs out yesterday I happened to glance down and spot this:


To think that my letter helped someone feel less anxious about their first day of school–wow! That’s something.

It’s a simple thing, really, once you’ve written your letter. I edit my letter every year (to update the number of years I’ve been teaching and how many National Parks I’ve been to) but I don’t do a lot of thinking about it. This sentence made me think about how my letter to students helps create the strong relationship I generally have with my students–starting from day one.

Day One

I’m exhausted, y’all.

I almost hit publish then, but I’ll push through.

Tuesdays are my hardest days, schedule-wise. Three blocks back to back with no break until lunch at 12:10 (even later today because of first-day special schedule). It’s been go-go-go!

I launched my math 1 students’ INB’s which was cool. I think I would spread it out over two steps when I do it again next trimester. I wanted them to do our River Crossing problem first and then set up the INBs. But it would have been better to set up the INBs first, do the River Crossing problem and then glue that into the INB at the end of class. Oh well. Now I know. I used Cheesemonkeysf’s amazing INB intro activity and threatened them with a quiz tomorrow. Got to follow in the footsteps of the masters after all.

In math 2 I did a reprise of last years Subversive Lab Groupings and Venn Diagram activities, with the added bonus of Avery’s suggestion to have the kids Venn up the lab grouping cards at the end. Brilliant! The flow of the lesson went much better and I didn’t have to fill too much time talking at them about class logistics.

All in all, it was a good day.



I’m a Special Snowflake

…just like everyone else.

Macro Snowflakes by Alexey Kljatov

photo credit: Alexey Kljatov

Though, actually not like everybody else in this particular context.

This year my school is moving from a hodge-podge of every teacher using his/her own gradebook, to a system in which everyone uses one online gradebook through the same program that handles our attendance and such. We were given assurances at the end of last year that the gradebook we would be using would support whatever manner in which we currently assessed/graded our classes. And if such a way did not currently exist, by gum, we would find a way to make it work. I was actually part of the team that developed this recommendation (and some other ones too) to present to the faculty as a whole. I’m down with the universal gradebook plan.

However, I’m not actually going to be using the school’s gradebook.

For the past several years I’ve been using Active Grade, with what I call standards based grading–but which I always feel a little bad about, because it’s more broad than that. I was reading up on some of Jason’s old SBG posts and I realized that what I do could better be described as Topics-Based Grading (or TBG; because we really need more acronyms in the MTBOS, ammiright?).

As it turns out, our new universal gradebook doesn’t allow for teachers to input their own topics/standards. These are my options:

Assignment Types

No way to edit these. No way to add new assignment types to only my gradebook. To add them would mean having every single teacher have their drop-down menu explode with content and process standards that are irrelevant to the way they grade. Even if you select just three of these assignment types for your own gradebook calculations, you still see all the options when you input each assignment.

No can do.

I tried to wrap my head around some way to reverse engineer my TBG system to fit into this box, but I couldn’t make it happen. Luckily for me, my academic dean (the person who is launching this change) gets what I’m trying to do with my grading system and fully supports it. As he said when he gave me permission to not use the gradebook everyone else is using, “I’m not going to let the system force you to change how you grade, which is in many ways more evolved, just to fit into the system.” [paraphrasing heavily here, as I do not typically record all of my conversations]

So, yippee! I get to keep doing what I’m doing–which is the best way I’ve found to make me comfortable with the idea of giving grades [if it was up to me, I wouldn't give them at all]. If at some point our gradebook can handle what I need it to do, then I will switch over. Until then, I’ll keep using my Active Grade and my TBG and fight the good fight to move assessment away from earning points and towards learning content.




Accountability Structures

Hello Fellow Partners in Crime,

I have been busy telling my colleagues, my Academic Dean, and now you that I will be experimenting with INB’s this school year. I’m planning on using them in Math 1–which I am solo-teaching this year, so every student in that class will have the same experience provided that I follow through with my plan.all y'all

This is where all y’all come in: I’m telling you about it so that I have to follow through.

Whatever help you can provide, whatever noodging you can give me, whatever encouragement you want to share, whatever questions you want to ask–go for it. Make sure I am accountable.

Thanks in advance.

“Hey, You Guys!”

Last year Jackson Katz came to speak to our school. Afterwards, during our next morning meeting, our Dean of Faculty said that from then on she would be more thoughtful about beginning her announcements using gender-neutral language, specifically avoiding the phrase “you guys” and she invited the rest of the community to do the same.

It was awkward for a while, hearing people say “Hey — School!” or “Hello all” with obvious self-consciousness when they began their announcements. Occasionally someone would say “Hey guys” when they made an announcement and the audience would respond in some audible way, often prompting the speaker to start again “I mean, ‘hey everyone’.” It was strange and people made mistakes and it was weird. Change feels uncomfortable. Things felt a little uncomfortable for a bit.

Over time, though, the practice has seeped into our collective mindset. Saying “Hey guys” has become something we just don’t do very often. There are a couple of people who do say this, but the vast majority of our students now say something gender neutral each and every time they make an announcement. Without self-consciousness, without much thought. Just business as normal.

Using gender-neutral language is something I’ve done for a long time as a teacher. I’m not really sure when I made the conscious shift, but at some point it just sounded funny to my ear to address a room full of boys and girls with the term “guys.” I usually say something like “ladies and gentlemen” or “Hey folks!” which sounds funny at first, until it just starts to roll off of the tongue. I can’t remember the last time I addressed a class with “Hey guys, listen up!” or the equivalent. However, I’ve noticed that I continue to use “you guys” with small groups. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the less formal nature of addressing a group of two to four than speaking to the entire class. But for whatever reason, I haven’t–yet–eliminated this from my vocabulary in this context.

Something to keep working on…