Class and Learning Expectations

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Today marks my school’s fourth day of school.  I’m starting to notice that students and teachers are starting to get used to routines again.  Students are getting used to backpacks and teachers are getting back into doubling up on coffee in the morning.  So much energy has been used in getting classrooms ready and activities planned for kids.  Individual classrooms are in the midst of continuing to introduce and reinforce school and class expectations.  Every year classrooms use different activities related to creating classroom expectations.  Generally, individual classrooms take input from students and create a few different norms for a class.

I’ve used similar strategies over the past few years to help co-create expectations for my classroom.  This year I decided to call an audible and try a different strategy.  I tend to loop with many of the same students so they generally feel like the expectations carry over from year to year.  This year I outlined four expectations that I feel like match the classroom.  I actually borrowed a few of these (she has many more) from Jessica’s fantastic post.

  • Lean into the struggle
  • Own your education
  • Own our culture
  • Feed your passion

I believe all four of these expectations are important.  While introducing these expectations I gave a number of examples of how they can be applied in the classroom setting.  I then had the students get into groups and discuss what each statement means to them.  We had a brief classroom discussion about the expectations and the community that we’re in the midst of building.  Students were then asked to think of a hashtag that matched one of the expectations.

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The hashtag is intended to have the students internalize that particular statement. Students signed their first name and then placed the tag underneath it.  This is what it ended up looking like by the time we finished.

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I’ve already referenced the expectations at least a few times a day since last Thursday.  I’m looking forward to seeing how students internalize this moving forward.

Math Exposure Isn’t Enough

A few months ago I remember sitting in a meeting where teachers were discussing students and their math placements.  The conversation revolved around the topic of whether students should change math placements for the next school year.  For example, should a student stay in a homeroom math class or be part of an accelerated class?  How will we provide additional math support for particular students?  These types of questions tend to occur throughout the school year, but action for the next year often takes place near the end of the school year.

The decision to change placements is based on a variety of factors, but many schools/districts narrow down their criteria using standardized assessment data.  That data is often in the form of achievement, cognitive, and/or even aptitude tests.  Each district that I’ve been in has had a different process to determine subject placements.  This placement process becomes even more apparent as students travel from elementary to middle or middle to high school. Students’ birthdates, norm-referenced test scores, and percentages often take center stage during these decisions.  Sometimes the conversation evolves into whether students would be able to transfer the skills to a more rigorous math program than the one that they’re currently attending.  The conversations are usually productive and emphasize how to best meet the needs of students.

The topic of exposure is often brought up when making these types of math placement decisions.  A quick Google search will bring up one of the definitions – “introduce someone to a subject or area of knowledge.” I have heard on more than one occasion the following paraphrased statements/ideas:

  • If students haven’t been exposed to the content then they won’t be prepared
  • Those students weren’t exposed to above grade level work so they won’t be ready for that class
  •  The reason the student scored at the ___%ile was because he/she was exposed to that skill before the test
  • If they’re not exposed to this class then they won’t take higher-level classes in high school

I feel like these types of phrases are thrown around lightly and in a way that doesn’t hit at a bigger issue  Being exposed to content doesn’t necessarily equate to applying it in different situations.  Showing a students how to complete a specific skill/process doesn’t mean that they fully understand a particular concept.  Students might understand a process, but are limited during the application stage.  Also, educators need to keep in mind whether an above grade level curriculum is developmentally appropriate for students.


I believe the bigger issue here is equity.

  • Are all students receiving high-quality math instruction?
  •  Do the tasks and math routines allow students opportunities to explore mathematics and build solid understandings?  
  • Do students need enrichment opportunities instead of acceleration?
  • Will being exposed to a new curriculum/topic/grade-level be the panacea to move students to a higher math placement?  Is that even a goal?  

So many questions are above and I’ll admit that I don’t have a solid solution for them.  I think we have to go back to what a school/district values. I do know that I want students to be curious about math and dive into its complexities.  Classrooms should develop a culture where taking mathematical risks is the norm.   High-quality math instruction takes investment from a school and district.  Ensuring that this instruction is occurring and support is provided is also important.  Mathematical tasks that encourage students to observe, create, and apply their understanding beats limited exposure any day. Exposure is the first step and it doesn’t end there.

Community Building and Content

I think it’s safe to say that I’m slowly transitioning into school mode.  It’s inevitable and happens every year, but the month of August seems to fly by as a new school year approaches.  Over the past few weeks I’ve bought items for my classroom and have started some planning here and there.  Next week I’m planning on dropping by my room and start the unpacking process (I changed classrooms).  That is unless HGTV decides to makeover my classroom over the weekend.  So right now I’m drinking coffee and being a bit reflective.  I’ve opened up my planbook and am starting to ink in the first couple days.  While doing this a few questions have crossed my mind.

Will students be receptive to the beginning of the year tasks/activities? Are the activities related to my content area and does that matter?  Will the activities be remembered one day, five days, or even five months from now?  How will the activities impact the rest of the year and how will students remember them?

Many students get excited about new tasks or activities.  I find this happens quite frequently at the elementary level. The beginning of the year often yields plenty of classroom community building activities.  These may or may not be associated with the content that’s taught.  The emphasis is on building a positive classroom environment and often helps set the stage for the rest of the school year.  During this time students often work in groups and there’s generally a reflective piece near the end where a consensus is made.  Sometimes the classes develop norms and touch on the idea of growth mindset.  Usually these activities end after the first few days of school.  As the community building time ends students know what’s going to happen next.

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Should this be the process?

A shift is approaching and then it comes.  Kids know this and so do the adults.  All of a sudden homework starts being assigned and lesson sequences arrive.  It’s no longer “community building time” and we’re now in (insert your content area) time.  It’s often expected that the norms that were established and community building will last throughout the year.  It’s been established, right?

Not so much.  I find that teachers have to revisit the community building, norms and other themes periodically – not just after a long break. Otherwise those themes become like the posters on classroom walls – ignored after a certain amount of time. Students are used to playing the game of school.  Having novel beginning of the year activities and building a classroom community aren’t mutually exclusive.  Students and teachers are often reminded that the culture of the classroom is always evolving.

There’s often a perception that teachers need to dive into curriculum as fast as possible.  This is often perpetuated with scope-and-sequence guidelines and expectations.  Why not blend the community building activities and your content area?  That’s why I’m a fan of having math as part of the community building process.  Blending in content and community building can happen and I think it helps the sudden transition that sometimes becomes apparent.  I think also revisiting some of these community building activities throughout the year can give perspective and remind everyone of the importance.

Back to School Night

My school’s Back to School night (also known as Curriculum Night) is in a few weeks. Usually this presentation creeps up on me and I end up tweaking last year’s slides for this annual night.  This year I’m trying to be a bit more productive and get my plan started before the school year begins.  It also helps that @druinok has a great #MTBoSBlaugust initiative this month so I can actual address this now!  Better now than later, as once school starts it gets a bit hectic with time management.

I generally have about 30 minutes with parents during Back to School night.  My time occurs before the principal has an annual address.  I usually have around 30-40 parents come into my classroom to hear about what the class is all about and they also sign-up for conferences.  It’s usually a rush to get a preferred time.  You’d think that we’d move to an online system, but not yet. I try to pack my room with adult-sized chairs, but there’s usually quite a few that are standing. Parents sign-up for parent/teacher conferences during this time so it’s usually a packed room.  I loop with almost all of my student for three years, so some parents sign-up for conferences because they already have an idea of the policies and procedures and head out.  Newer parents often stay to hear about the class.  I also mention earlier in the year that the Back to School Night presentation is on my website.

I start off the presentation with introductions.  I usually say this is my ___ year in the district and tell everyone to hold onto the questions until the end.   Every year someone still asks questions around the second slide.  Go figure :-).  We go through an agenda to give everyone a heads-up to what’s coming.   I review the materials that are needed for the course.

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These supplies generally last for a few years.  Each item gets a whole lot of use throughout the year.  The first one to go is the accordion file as students put in their homework, quizzes and sometimes even their journals in there.  I have a roll of duct tape  on hand for the accordion files that don’t hold up.  The “pro” compasses are the best and I try to get a hold of them when I find them on clearance.

The next few slides discuss the different classroom routines, tasks, and resources that will be used for the year.

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I discuss how the adopted-text that we use spirals and there’s a large emphasis on problem solving / application.  I also indicate the different resources and activities that take place during certain grade levels.  I usually have an example that I can refer to but I have to keep it to a minimum because of time.  I usually get some curious eyes when I bring up the Stock Market Game, Estimation180 and AlgebraByExample.  Around 5 – 10 minutes is spent on this particular slide.  It’d be amazing if I could have the parents actually participate in one or two the activities. Maybe during a math night at some point?

The next slide communicates the homework policy.  Basically, I state that it’s not part of the overall grade, but expect to see it come home around 2-3 times a week.  Over the years I’ve reduced the amount of homework that I generally give.  I find that the students that actually need the practice don’t complete it and I’m eventually chasing down those that don’t turn it in.  It adds some unneeded anxiety for just about every party involved.  I’m actually even thinking of dropping this down to 1-2 times.  I’m still internally debating this issue even as I write this post.  I then discuss the grading scale which is 50% tests and 50% quizzes.  I also mention how students are able to retake certain assignments.

I then mention how to access the school math resources.  I point the parents to the school website and how to access the student portfolios on SeeSaw.

At this point I have around 5 – 10 minutes left and then answer questions.

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I have a list of FAQ questions and  mostly relate to how parents can contact me.  I mention that the study guides will be available on my website.  This is new this year and something I’m encouraged to try after reading Make it Stick. I try to end the time on an important point.

I use Fawn’s slide and go through her points.  I generally follow the same plan for the past few years.  You can find more information about how I use this here.

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I feel like ending on this slide is powerful.  I want to ensure students create their own math identity in my classroom.  There’s some resistance to this (especially # 1) but I feel like parents are receptive to the idea as they see their children develop perseverance skills and develop self-confidence.

My time is generally up after this last slide.  I remind parents that they should sign-up for a conference before leaving.  I usually walk with a few parents down to the auditorium where the principal gives her address.  I’m looking forward to this night seeing that I feel better prepared now.  🙂

Study Guide Issues

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This past week I started working on my school website.  It’s a journey every year, but this year is a bit different since my district adopted a new math text and quite a few of my links need to change.  In the past I’ve posted homework, a few math strand practice sections, and class newsletters to my website.  I’ve decided to change a few things up for the 18-19 school year.  I’m nixing the homework section and adding a study guide piece.  The reason I’m adding a study guide section is because I’m not thrilled with how it’s currently being used.

Study guides have been a sticky issue for me over the years.  There are so many different ways that they’re used.  My class tends to give and review a study guide a day before the unit assessment.  Each teacher in my school uses them slightly differently, but the process usually follows this sequence:

1.) Students use class time to complete the study guide

2.) Study guide is reviewed by the class and teacher

3.) Students correct their answers and feedback is provided

3.) Students use the study guide to prepare for the test

It seems that most teachers use some version of a study guide or review before an assessment.  Some teachers use games, while others go the paper and pencil route.  I think it truly depends on the teacher and their students.  This study guide process works well for many students, but I think it needs some tweaks and to a certain extent, improvements.  This summer I’ve been reading Make it Stick and it affirms some of what I’m seeing when it comes to memory retrieval.  Teachers want students to be able to retain what’s experienced in the class and giving a study guide with only that night to prepare isn’t as helpful as other strategies.  I’m starting to become more critical when it comes to questioning study guide practices. I sent out a Tweet indicating my concerns.

Here are my issues:

  • Students aren’t being given enough time to process what’s being discussed on the study guide
  • Students aren’t benefiting from enough retrieval practices
  • Students solely rely on the study guide to review for the test
  • Students might not be engaged or they decide to copy the answers from their partner
  • Students aren’t aware of how to study (this could be a whole different blog post)
  • Students aren’t experiencing enough reviews throughout the unit
  • The questions on the study guide are very similar to the actual test

I’m aware that some of these issues will occur regardless of the policies or procedures that are put in place.  I’d like to specifically address the blue issues in this post.

  • Students aren’t being given enough time to process what’s being discussed on the study guide 

In order to give students more time to process the study guide I’ve decided to give the packet in advance.  This requires more planning on my part (let the uploading and copying process begin!).  I’m planning on posting the study guides on my school website and giving students a paper copy at the beginning of the unit.  Students will have 4-5 weeks to finish up the study guide before the assessment.  In addition, this will help students preview the learning, as Mary pointed out.  It’s likely that some students will lose the sheet as they’ll need to hold on to it for about a month.  That’s why I’m deciding to post the study guides.  I’m also planning on having students code their work with a few self-monitoring strategies. I really like the completed, mistake, misconception, and correct coding.  Occasionally the class will review concepts discussed on the study guide so that the class won’t have to wait until the last day before receiving feedback.

Giving students more opportunities to experience math has its benefits.  Being more  intentional in how retrieval practices look is important.  I currently have specific exit cards and review checkpoints that are used for particular units.  I’m planning on creating more and placing them strategically throughout the units.  I’d like to give students multiple opportunities to address standards and receive feedback.

  • Students aren’t experiencing enough reviews throughout the unit

Moving forward, I think students need to have the opportunity to review topics as the unit progress.  The text my district uses has reviews, but the students need more opportunities to address skills that are taught at the very beginning, middle, and end of the unit.  Like David said, I’m planning on adding deliberate interleaving of concepts to the study guide.  That may add additional questions to the packet, but I think it’s worthwhile.  I also need to keep in mind that students will have around a month to work on the packet.

  • The questions on the study guide are very similar to the actual test

I’m conflicted with this.  I think students should be aware of what skills are on the test and the format shouldn’t be a surprise.  Being unfamiliar with the questions or format can cause anxiety.  There’s already enough anxiety surrounding testing.  I think sometimes giving questions that are too similar can cause students to be overconfident.  I think there’s a balance, I just haven’t found it yet.  I’m placing this bullet point in the ‘to be continued’ section.

From here, I’m currently updating my school site to include study guide materials.  It’ll take a shift in expectations as I loop with many of my students and they’re not used to that process.  Change is inevitable and I believe being aware and making a shift will benefit students. I’m looking forward to seeing how this process plays out and will write a post about it at some point.


 

 

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More Accurate Self-Reflections

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Improving how students reflect on their math progress has been one of my goals during the past few years.  It’s a topic that I’ve been trying to incorporate more in the classroom. That reflection piece in my classroom has changed quite a bit since starting this journey.

Last year students would take an assessment, review their scores and then fill out a reflection sheet.  Students filled out the reflection sheet the best that they could.  The students and I would review the test and reflection sheet to determine the next steps.  Some reflections were spectacular and had a lot of insight, others didn’t. Most of the time the next steps included items like studying more before the test, reviewing a certain concept in more detail, practicing specific skills, or dedicating more time to the subject.  I’ll admit that too many of the nexts steps were vague and wouldn’t match the SMART criteria.  I was glad students were creating goals and following through.  Refinement was needed, but I appreciated that students were lifting up more responsibility for creating their math identities. The students did a fine job following up with the next steps, although this was inconsistently implemented.  I’d check-in on goals during the next reflection time.

While reading Make it Stick (I’m on the second renewal from the library), I found something that I’d like to keep in mind for the new year.  In chapter five the authors discuss the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Research has shown that people (students) sometimes overestimate their own competence.  They “… fail to sense a mismatch between their performance and what is desirable, [and] see no need to improve.”  As I continued reading I found that lower-performing students were the most “out of touch” in gauging how well they were doing compared to the standard.  After reading this I started to think about how students accurately reflect on their math progress.

Students are often asked to compare their work to the criteria for success.  The points/letter on the top of graded work is generally perceived in black and white.  Students either view themselves as doing great or poor.  There’s nothing in the middle.  I rarely have a student that says they had an average test.  This becomes even more evident when students complete the reflection and goal setting sheets.  I’ve had a number of instances where students can’t come up with a goal for themselves.  Through probing questions I’m generally able to help students create a goal that is worthwhile, but this doesn’t always happen.  I believe math confidence and adopted math identities play a role here.  The perception is stuck on the score and it’s challenging to move beyond that number.  Maybe it’s because students aren’t as familiar in gauging how they’re performing compared to the standard? I’ve used different methods to encourage students to look at skills compared to points and this has helped, albeit the success using the table has been inconsistent.

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The authors of book discussed an experiment where poor performers improved their judgement over time.  These students received training specifically on the test concepts before the assessment. That time spent improved their self-reflections and they were more in-line with reality.  Basically, the students are better able to show sound judgement during self-reflection if they understand the concepts.  Accurate self-reflection becomes an uphill battle if they don’t.

Moving forward I’d like to spend more time discussing error-analysis and misconceptions with the class.  When students are aware of how these specifically exist then they’re better able to analyze their performance.  Pre-loading that meta-cognition piece is something I want students to keep in mind during the self-reflection process.  I think it will deter students from making statements like “I don’t know what goal to make” or “I need to work on everything.”  These types of statements are disheartening.  I think having exemplars might help instead of just diving in and asking students to reflect.  Having a clearer direction and possibly having a reflection time that occurs more frequently could also help.  Math isn’t always perceived as a subject where students are asked to create some type of narrative and connect to the text/content. I find that students rise to the challenge when I give them an opportunities to do so.  I believe that giving students opportunities to analyze, reflect, and set goals for themselves will empower them to create more accurate math identities.

Embracing Difficulties

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I just finished up chapter four in Making it Stick.  Parts of the chapter involve the topic of challenge and how it impacts memory.  Looking back at my K-12 experience, what I remember is often associated to how I felt during the experience.  The best experiences for me required an extensive amount of effort and perseverance that eventually led to a productive outcome.  Some of the more challenging experiences were also memorable.  I learned from both those positive and negative outcomes. It’s interesting that the experiences that I remember were either positive or negative.  I don’t have many so-so memories during school – they don’t stand out.

Chapter four emphasizes how difficulty can help students retain information for longer periods of time.  I’m going to interchange the terms difficulty and challenge for this post. Challenge triggers retrieval processes and encourages students to make connections to find a solution.  This is often termed “desirable difficulties” by the Bjorks.  Chapter four discusses the importance of generative learning.  Basically, generative learning places students in a situation where they solve problems without being explicit taught how to solve them.  Students are required to make connections and generate answers without repeating a process that was clearly taught by a teacher.  The responsibility is on the students to generate a solution.  When I first read this I wasn’t exactly sure about this idea.  I work with mostly elementary math students and some want to know exactly what and how to complete a task.  If they’re unsure students might say “you never taught us ______.” It takes a shift in mindset to take a risk and generate solutions based on prior knowledge.  In the end students might be absolutely right or wrong, but they took a risk and came up with a solution.  Praising the effort involved and reflecting on the journey is important.   When coming across open-ended tasks students need to understand that learning is a journey and challenge is part of that process.

Next year I’m planning on incorporating more opportunities for students to participate in generative learning.  I believe it first starts with creating an environment where students aren’t “spoon-fed the solution” and they have to think critically about the situation.  I find that students are more likely to check their answer for reasonableness with tasks like this.  That environment should encourage students to speak up, offer their ideas, use trial-and-error, make connections, and become aware that learning is a journey.  This culture and mindset takes time to build, but the dividends it pays throughout the year benefits all involved.

I’m staring to to take a look at next years plans. Currently there’s one task for each unit that’s designed for generative learning.  Sometimes I have students work on these tasks in groups, while other times it’s independent work.  These types of tasks are often open-ended and may have multiple solutions.  They also involve a hefty time commitment and can reach multiple math standards within one tasks.  Over the summer I’m planning on finding additional ideas using MARS and Illustrative Mathematics resources.

Next steps: At the end of each task I’d like to have a class conversation about the task.  Have a regular reflection component can bring additional connections.  I’m planning on continuing to have students journal about these experiences throughout the year.  I’m also hoping that these types of tasks translate into students being more willing to take additional ownership for creating and monitoring their math identities.