Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

At the end of every school year I have my students complete some sort of written evaluation of their math/science class and of me as their instructor.  For the first time I used a Google form which allowed the students to respond anonymously to specific questions.  Remember, I teach middle school.  What I love about seventh and eighth grade students is that they are brutally honest.  They will tell you that they think your hair looks horrible, not intending to be mean, but to just spew the thought that is currently in their adolescent brain at the time.  I also have to honestly admit that although I appreciate my students no holds barred honesty, it is sometimes difficult to take in.  So, here are some insights into my students' responses.

Standards Based Grading:
The Good
Overall my students liked my implementation of standards based grading.  They liked the fact that it was based on their understanding of math standards and not on behaviors such as homework completion.  They also liked how they could easily track the standards and know their proficiency levels, which enabled them to take responsibility for their learning and prove understanding of the math standards.  They loved that they could improve their grade as their understanding increased.  They noted that I needed to provide more timely feedback and more frequent feedback which is something I know I need to improve!  They also noted a difficulty with my grade book not matching the rest of the schools which made checking grades difficult.  This is something I plan on working through this summer.

The Bad
It was interesting because many of the students who appreciated standards based grading were also extremely mad at me as an instructor.  They were mad because I did not spend class time lecturing and giving them a step by step process for solving math problems.  Class time was a time to struggle with difficult problems in groups rather than me spoon feeding them specific steps to follow.  They were appalled that I was forcing them to problem solve, think, and build understanding instead of giving them a "recipe".  They felt ripped off because I did not embrace the passive lecture style that other math teachers in my department utilized.  This students summed it up perfectly:

"My least favorite part of math this year was the inconsistent learning environment and curriculum.  I would have liked to go more in depth with each math concept rather than do real life math problems.  This is because on the CSTs (our standardized test in CA) I didn't understand the majority of the material, when my friends in other classes understood it with great ease.  I enjoy working with real life math problems because it is practice for how we will actually use math later in life.  But unfortunately that isn't how the Rocklin District and California State Tests view math.  I believe I would be better prepared for Geometry next year if we had learned more of what the district expects from us."

This student comment summarized the general feeling for most of my algebra 1 students.  They appreciated the fact that the real-life problem solving I did with them would relate to their future jobs.  However, they were concerned about their state test scores and the fact that I did not tell them how to do/think which in turn left them feeling inadequate. It is also interesting to note that we have common unit assessments so my students did learn the same exact standards and took the same tests as the other classes.

The Ugly
Even though the students appreciated my use of standards based grading, a few suggested I go back to letter grades.  These folks knew how to manipulate the letter grade system.  They did not like that they had to continuously prove their understanding of standards.  Again it was about me doing the work for them so that they could regurgitate and get the grade.

A Long Hard Look in the Mirror
I have to be honest, when I first started sifting through the student responses, I asked myself why in the heck I had the students fill out this evaluation.  Then after my ego got over itself, I stepped back and looked at myself as an educator and this is what I learned from my student responses:

  • I really appreciate my students honesty even if it is difficult to hear
  • I need to provide more frequent and effective feedback
  • I need to backward map my classes and create meaningful and useful formative assessments
  • I need to teach middle school students how to "practice" math and how to individualize their "practice"
  • I need to help students apply their mathematical understanding using real life problems and connect the application to district and state expectations
  • I need to teach my students to "find, filter, and apply" their mathematical understanding
The Amazing
As I reflect I have to acknowledge that with the implementation of standards based grades I no longer heard the sentence: "Is this for a grade?"  I also no longer heard the sentence: "can I have some extra credit?"  What I did hear on a daily basis was: "Can I prove to you my understanding of this standard?" and/or "What do I need to do to prove my understanding of this standard?"  It is easy for me to be hard on myself and feel defeated by the 140 honest responses by my students.  But instead I appreciate my students' candid responses and how they have forced me to look at myself and work to improve myself as an educator for my future students.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ending the Year on a High Note 2012

During a conversation with one of my close friends at the beginning of this school year,  we discussed how we would go "out" of teaching either by retiring or by making a career move.  We decided that we would approach each year as if it were our last and that we would make sure to make it our best year.  We made a sort of a pact that we would make sure to go out on a high note no matter what.
I am a huge Seinfeld fan so I have shared a video of George Costanza going out on a high note...
George Costanza Leaving on a High Note

Shortly after that conversation, we had to endure the daily countdown of days left in the school year recited from a teacher who was looking forward to retirement.  I can appreciate the anticipation, but hearing the count at lunch everyday got on my nerves a bit.  Being a math teacher, I figured a good way to quiet my colleague would be to give the count of days I have left which was quite large for a number of reasons one being my 6 year old son (5 at the time) and me having to send him to college and have the funds to do so.  The number I so boldly shared at lunch made everyone laugh and did not silence the countdown at all.

An educational blogger who has influenced me greatly this past year wrote a bit about cruising at the end of the school year: Josh Stumpenhorst - Cruise Control
Even though our state testing took place a month ago I decided to end my school year on a high note and not hit the cruise control button.

Last year I was inspired by Dan Meyer.  I combined what I learned from him with the need to prove to my husband that I could utilize a smart phone in my teaching and created "Real Life Mathematics Connections" for my students.  Connecting Math to My Life  I took pictures of the mundane activities my family and I did on the weekends and it morphed into the link above.  In the process, I was banned from taking pictures in our local supermarket until I had a chat with the manager and pleaded for my math students.  I now have permission to use my smart phone camera if I "check in" when I enter the store.

The link requires many more blog posts describing the process etc... it was also the impetus for the end of the year project  I assigned this year: What Does Math Have to do With It?  I made the decision to be vague in the description of what I wanted my students to do.  They created math blogs using blogger at the beginning of the year and I had them write about their passion.  My intent was to have students make periodic math connections to their passion.  It did not work out that way for a variety of reasons (again to be discussed in a future blog post).  I did get some interesting work from my students What Does Math Have to do With It?  I am not pretending that  this is stellar work.  This is a first attempt at students connecting math to their passion or interest and some of the examples I have included hit the mark and others are not close.  The important thing is that I have 120 or so student samples that will help me make this project more meaningful for my future students.

Check out the links and student work and let me know what you think!