Saturday, March 10, 2018

An Improvement in Feedback

Timely, efficient feedback is an area I consistently find challenging. I believe I have improved over the years, but I could often be so much better.

A flipped classroom obviously allows for better feedback. I am with students as they work with content, and I am able to give frequent, verbal feedback as I walk around and watch students work.

I struggle with stuff I take up. Things I would like to look at, make comments on, and return to students. The turn-around on these things is seldom quick enough to make a difference. And students aren't keen on reading comments I've written on something they completed yesterday (or...before yesterday).

I want them to learn from feedback. I want them to be able to try and try again until they get something right.

A few weeks ago I had a mini A-Ha.

I gave a warm-up on material from previous days' content. When students finished they were to let me check their work. If everything was correct, they moved on to the next thing in the day's agenda (I love self-paced days, and kids do, too). If they missed anything, I returned the paper to them, and they continued to work.

My feedback got more specific the more I returned to a student. At first, I told them which problems they missed. The next time, I would give them something more specific about where they were missing a problem. Eventually, we might have some one-on-one instruction about difficulties they were having.

Students worked until they got everything correct.

They received immediate, meaningful feedback.

They acted on the feedback. Immediately.

I've used the process a few times since then, and I like it. Students are improving at finding their mistakes. They are developing perseverance. I think the process helps with stress levels, as they know they can work with problems until they get them right. I am able to give lots of high-fives as students conquer a problem that is giving them difficulties.

The only issue I saw is that one issue that permeates every aspect of what I would like to accomplish in class: time. A few students (not many) have spent most of the class on a few problems and not had a lot of time with the new material for the day. It hasn't been a deal-breaker, but it is something I will have to continue to look at and see if there's something I can do to make it better.

Overall, though, I like this way of delivering feedback. Anytime I can tell students right NOW what they need to work on, and they can work on those things right NOW, students will make progress and deepen their learning.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Retention Conundrum


While it's always been an issue and something I deal with as a teacher of middle school students (who - in the words of one of my interviewers years ago - wake up in a new world every morning), lately I have found myself particularly frustrated by it. Confused, even.

It doesn't seem to matter if we covered a topic last week, last month, or last semester. It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we spent a good deal of time with or how successful they were when we covered it (solving equations). It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we've been on for months, step away for a lesson or two, and return to (graphing linear equations). Sometimes it doesn't matter if we were working on it yesterday.

I find myself saying things such as, "We've covered this!" "You knew how to do this _____ long ago!" "You learned this in ______ grade!" All in an increasingly exasperated tone and more often than I would like.

Before the end of the first semester, I was determined to figure out a plan for spiral review for the start of the second semester.

I have NEVER been happy with the times I have tried to incorporate spiral review. Most of the time the process has involved students being given a few minutes to work a few problems. There is a handful of students in each class who will sit through the time allotted and not attempt anything, waiting for me to work the problems. After the designated time, I work the problems, and those who sat there for five minutes copy what I write, learning very little.

I found an eighth-grade spiral review product I liked and tweaked it some for my classes. Students have four problems to work, four days a week.

When I first started, I told students, "This is review material. You know how to do this. Look things up you don't remember. I'm not working the problems for you. Try SOMEthing." My goal was to check their work at the end of the week, highlight mistakes, and then work through problem areas together.

This was met with a little success in my Algebra 1 classes, but my Pre-Algebra classes were really struggling with the work. And checking all the papers of all my classes every week proved to not be my best plan.

So, I softened my approach a bit. I walk around and answer questions as students work. At the end of the allotted time, I ask for questions and will work a problem or two (but I seldom work all of them). Problems through the week are similar with a few included from previous weeks (hence the spiral, LOL), and students are seeing things over and over.

This week I had the idea of giving a "quiz" with a few problems similar to the ones students had been working to see how they are doing with the concepts we are reviewing.

I am seeing some progress.

Concepts that I would not have thought students would lose - like determining how many solutions an equation has - have been reviewed and strengthened.

Students are coming up with strategies that might not be the process I taught them the first time, but the "new" strategies are ones they understand and, therefore, will have a better chance of remembering.

I am learning - and am surprised by - how many times students must be exposed to material before it "sticks."

Rather than continuing to be frustrated, I am trying to figure out what I need to do to ensure students REALLY learn concepts for the long haul.

During this same process, I am in the middle of solving systems of equations with my Algebra 1 students, and I have seen that students need spiral review within a unit on top of the spiral review they need for topics from throughout the year.

And then I'm hit with the constant amidst all the variables of my day: I have 50 minutes a class period. My students need spiral review from older topics, spiral review from current topics, introduction to and practice with new material all within those 50 minutes.


Flipped lessons help. Self-pacing helps.

But it still feels very overwhelming. Insurmountable, at times.

I don't have it all figured out, yet. But the wheels are turning, and I will continue to work on keeping topics in front of students until we don't feel like we're starting over every time a concept reappears.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Random Thoughts

Wow. There has been a marked absence of blogging. I don't think there have been three months between posts since I began blogging.

But life outside the classroom has been nearly all-consuming, and blogging has taken a backseat to everything else.

I've missed it, though, and have wanted to blog about SOMEthing.

There are several little things I thought of that might warrant a blog post, but I didn't know if I could make a full post out of any of them. So I decided to just combine a few random, unrelated thoughts about things going on in my classroom into a single post. Some of them might become stand-alone posts at a later time.

Self-Checking Google Forms
This probably needs its own post at some point. With the help of my new 8th-grade colleague, this is the "new" tech thing I've implemented this year that I really like. Students seem to like it and benefit from it, too.

We create a Google Form with "sections" and use "response validation." Students can't get to the next question until they answer the current question correctly. If a student attempts a question a couple of times and doesn't have the correct answer, he/she asks for help.

A few students will try to guess answers until they accidentally get it right, but most students give it an honest effort.

The "response validation" is not perfect, but Google Forms is improving it over time.

I have started using the Google Forms for test practice and any other time I don't have a self-checking activity I like better.

We're also learning how to use "Equatio" to make correctly-formatted math questions easier, and the use of Google Forms is becoming more and more attractive.

Since my first notice-wonder activity with the Pythagorean Theorem, I've been a fan. I don't use it as often as I should, but it's a great way to get kids thinking and making connections before they know specifics of a topic.

At the suggestion of a Twitter friend, I used the technique to introduce point-slope form to my Algebra 1 students. I gave them things they were familiar with - slope-intercept form, standard form, and the slope formula - along with point-slope form and asked them to record what they noticed and what they wondered.

The introduction and foundation-laying for point-slope form took almost two full days, but students struggled much less with the concept than any group before. In fact, I noticed a difference in students who missed one of the foundation days and those who received the full lesson.

The notice-wonder activity also let me know of misconceptions students had with things we had already covered, and I was able to address those.

Early Finishers
This is something I struggle with yearly. I have a few students who breeze through a day's activities and have lots of time leftover. I never want to punish them with more work, but I would like to be able to extend their understanding and knowledge in ways they wouldn't consider "busy work."

While looking through some resources I hadn't looked through in a while, I found some "challenge" problems. Most of my early finishers are highly motivated and like math. They like challenges that are presented as puzzles and they consider "fun."

I printed a challenge problem and gave it to a boy who was finished with some work I had intended to last another class period (and most everyone else needed that time). He played with it some, asked me questions about it, and got better and better at the process as he worked through the problems. Then...and this was the best part...he shared it with another student and wanted them to work on it together.

I need to be better at having the "next thing" ready for early finishers (like I did last year in my attempt at self-pacing), but I also need to have fun problems ready for them to tackle. I will be on the lookout for them, probably using sites such as Open Middle and other places that have interesting problems.

The Seekers
This is something I've noticed this week in a couple of my Pre-Algebra students. They have found a thing or two we've mentioned in class and are examining it on their own. One student has become all about pi. He wants to memorize lots of digits - I will have to finally do the Pi Memorizing Contest for Pi Day this year - and as I give him facts about pi, he looks them up and shares with me other things he's found.

One student took an interest in systems of equations this week. In Pre-Algebra, we introduce systems, and they solve them by graphing and substitution, where both equations are in slope-intercept form. On a day with a substitute, I assigned a practice sheet where some of the equations were in standard form and didn't change nicely to slope-intercept form (I gave students the answers to those problems). The next day, this student asked what it meant when x and y were "together" in an equation and if it was possible to change that to slope-intercept form. Then, as we discussed how many solutions a system can have, he said, "Ohhhh...that's what that meant on yesterday's work! I was trying to figure it out!"

I need to be better at finding the little things that interest students and figure out how to give them just enough information to make them want to know more, thus transforming them into the mathematicians they don't realize they are.

So...there's my rambling blog post. A brain dump. Hopefully, I'll eventually have the time and energy again for more frequent posts on specific lessons and methods from my classroom.