Mini Math Festival

Today Last Tuesday was a pretty cool day. [I need to do a better job of finishing my drafts...jeez!]

If you’ve never heard of a Julia Robinson Math Festival, the following won’t make sense to you. So, go read about them and then come back.


Welcome back!

Today in my Math 2 classes (and in the other Math 2 teacher’s class) we conducted a mini-JRMF. And it was super-fun. We posted problems around the room–the classroom for my two classes, the “great room” for the other teacher’s group–and let students work on whichever problem they chose for as long as they chose with the only caveat being that they had to be working on some problem for the whole block.

Students got started pretty quickly, then either realized they needed help and therefore either got it or moved to a different problem or they got really entrenched in their problem. In my first class I put out my stash of metal puzzles, which were a little too popular…in my second class I made it explicit that the puzzles were to be used as a “brain break” when students needed to step away from a problem for a few minutes.


Tuesday was actually the last school day of the week this last week, as we had a work day for teachers on Wednesday to prepare for family conferences for freshman and transfer students on Thursday and Friday. So, it was the perfect time to do something that didn’t necessarily tie into our unit, but that allowed students to stretch their problem-solving abilities–thereby giving me some nice things to talk about during their upcoming conferences…genius. I tell you, I’m getting better at this teaching thing every gosh-darned year!


All in all, it was a lot of fun. Something I definitely plan on doing again.

Having “The Talk”

I have been putting off “the talk” with my students for so long. For three weeks now! But the time has come.

We need to talk.

About grading.

How have I gone three weeks without talking about grades? Well, through a strategic methodology of giving students interesting work to do, vague handwaving about things like “participation” and “homework completion” and, of course, out and out delaying.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll talk about that later.”

Well, later is finally here. The real reason I’ve been waiting is because I literally haven’t graded anything students have done until this week. They’ve been doing work in class and homework and I’ve been assessing what they know like crazy, but I have. not. graded. And why should I? They’ve been learning new things; they’ve been practicing. You don’t grade practice. You just don’t. I go around with a roster and check off who’s done the homework and make little check-marks when someone puts a warm-up problem on the board. I’ve even given them rubrics for them to self-assess their written work and their collaboration. But I haven’t graded diddly until their first quiz this Thursday/Friday.

Now that they have something graded in their hands [or rather, they will have something, on Monday] it actually makes sense to talk about grades. They can look at this quiz and it’s a concrete discussion: “I need to do this,” versus an abstract discussion: “If I do this, then I need to do that.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am using Active Grade, rather than my school’s online gradebook. Since I’m doing things differently, it behooves me to explain clearly to students just what I am doing and why. Oh yeah, and my Academic Dean is making me as part of the conditions of the deal. Not that I wasn’t planning on doing this anyways.

So, I have been working on articulating my grading policy for students (and parents) and the process has been really fruitful. Here’s my handout explaining my version of SBG. I’m pretty pleased with it.

And if some of the language in my handout seems really familiar, that’s because I lifted most of it from a couple of similar documents people sent me in an earlier call for assistance. However, I didn’t copy/paste citations when I stole your text, so I don’t remember whose is whose! Sorry.

If you recognize your work, let me know in the comments and I’ll update.

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.