Saturday, October 8, 2016

What are Students Saying? - First Grading Period Reflections

As I've often said, I like giving students regular opportunities to reflect. I've had a goal for some time to gather student reflections at the end of each unit. That has not become a reality, yet, but there are few points of the school year in which I make sure I ask some reflection questions: the end of the first grading period, the end of the first semester, and the end of the year.

Believe it or not, it's the end of the first grading period.

I love Google Forms for student reflections. I can ask multiple choice questions and short answer questions and easily see responses and trends. I also save lots of paper. :)

I used a survey I used at the end of the first grading period last year that I called "The Goldilocks Survey." There were five multiple choice questions addressing such areas as how the class has been going, course difficulty, class structure, student-teacher interaction, and (self-perceived) student effort in which the answers were some variation of "too much," "too little," or "just right."

The three short answer questions asked students to describe something they enjoyed about the class, something about the class they would change, and anything else they would like me to know.

I questioned Algebra 1 kids and Pre-Algebra kids separately, so I could see responses of kids in the same course together and notice any trends for a particular course.

Most of the responses to the multiple choice questions fell overwhelmingly in the "just right" category. I was thrilled to see a large percentage (almost 40%) of my Pre-Algebra kids say that the class was going "better than expected."

I haven't done a specific survey about flipped lessons this year - I might do a short one when we return from Fall Break - but videos were mentioned frequently as a favorite part of the class for both Algebra 1 (videos for homework) and Pre-Algebra (in-class videos).

Students appreciate light homework loads.

The aspect of the class brought up the most and that has me doing the most thinking is group work.

What do you like about the class? Group/partner work
What would you change about the class? Group/partner work

I have become a huge believer in partner work. I found several years ago that students are much more focused and accomplish so much more with a partner as opposed to groups of 4. With a partner, there is less hiding and letting two or three other people do your work for you.

I was reminded this past week that groups of three or four are not as successful as partners.

On the survey, my Pre-Algebra kids asked for more partner work. I agree. I had an "a-ha" several weeks ago that my Pre-Algebra kids were not getting enough opportunities to work and talk together. I've made it a point to give them more of those opportunities.

Several students in the survey mentioned how helpful it was to discuss their thinking with someone else. One student likes that they have a partner to ask for help if I am busy.

A few students talked about how groups are selected. I've been giving students more choice in who they work with. But occasionally I pick the groups. Sometimes I allow students to work alone, if that's their preference.

All of these aspects were alluded to in the responses to the survey questions.

Some students want me to pick groups/partners less often. I am a (developing) believer in student choice (I have made great strides), but I believe it's important that students learn to work with a variety of personalities and not just their peer group (I am reminded, though, of teachers' reactions when we are made to "mix it up" and sit with someone different in a meeting).

Some students never want to work with someone else. My heart hurts for my introverted students who would rather crawl under their desk than work with somebody. I do feel it's important they learn to work with others; it is unlikely anyone will go through life and not have to work with another person.

Some students feel alone in class; this makes me sad. I've seen those kids who are excluded when students are allowed to choose who they work with. I appreciate the kids who make an effort to include them.

I think a balance of all the options - sometimes I pick their partner, sometimes they pick their partner, sometimes they are allowed to work alone - is necessary to keep most everyone happy most of the time.

I find that's true with most things in the classroom. Keep things mixed up, and don't ever do something the same way every time.

I might give my "Partner Preference" survey when we start the second grading period (have I mentioned how much I like Google Forms). That way I can lend a little bit of structure plus choice to our work with partners.

Overall, I believe students have had a positive experience in my classroom to start the school year. I think we've laid a good foundation, and I can't wait to see the growth - in them and me - as we continue to work through the 8th Grade.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Mathematical Gallery Walk

"Writing in math class" has long been a topic of discussion. Like many, many other topics of discussion it is an aspect of my teaching practice that is undergoing transformation.

It started with "write your answer in a complete sentence."

Mary bought 2 dozen apples.

THAT was writing in math class?!? Yep, pretty much.

My transformation probably began with Laying the Foundation training. I was introduced to what was expected of students' writing on Advanced Placement tests. And I began to expect more of my students' explanations. (For the record, they hated it.)

Then we began administering the ACT Aspire as our spring test; there's an entire "Justification/Explanation" section of the scoring. And our students are not scoring as well in that area as we would like.

I determined this year to focus on students' mathematical writing. In the past I would be thrilled if students could tell me ANYthing when asked to explain their work. Now I want to focus on those explanations being thorough and precise and using correct mathematical language.

I knew I wanted students to read and evaluate each others' writing as part of our work on justification/explanation, but I was unsure how to do it. Our instructional coach mentioned a gallery walk in one of our department meetings, and I realized that was the approach I wanted to take. I found this post to help me organize the gallery walk for my classroom.

Completed Gallery Walk

I split my Algebra 1 students into groups and gave each group a multi-step equation to solve. On chart paper, they had to show their solution and explain how they solved the equation. Then the groups rotated through each problem, making notes (via post-it) of what they liked about the explanation and any suggestions or questions they had about the explanation. When groups returned to their own problem, they revised their explanation.

Solving a problem and writing the explanation

Making post-it note suggestions
For my first attempt at a gallery walk, I think it was very successful. Students have to be taught how to critique each other's work, but that is also a Mathematical Practice standard, and all-in-all they did pretty well. Each class - unprompted - was able to pick an explanation that they thought was well-done. One class picked up on a explanation that was a bit wordy and made suggestions for making it more concise.

My goal is to incorporate more gallery walks throughout the year.

One issue I face when working on student explanations is TIME. It is hard for me to take time to work on writing and justification when there is so much math to cover. But I'm learning to work it in where I can. I am trying to put at least one thing on every test that requires students to explain in words. On the equations test, it was an error analysis problem. After the tests were graded, I made a warm-up for each class that included snapshots of actual student answers to the error analysis problem from that class. We discussed what was good about each response and elements of each response that should be included in the "ideal" response. Then I had students rewrite the "describe the error Carlos made and explain what he should have done correctly" part of the problem. I got some impressive rewrites!

As with everything else in my classroom, writing/justifying/explaining is a work in progress. Seeing student progress in that area is exciting and motivating.