This is part 3 in a year long reflection of one specific class period. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found here: All Bridge to College.
Some of my favorite lessons have all been from the MARS Shell Classroom Challenges. The structure is predictable and they are all built to encourage meaningful student to student discourse and yet they are easy to implement and run. I have used them in two ways, to see where students are and begin to develop conceptual understanding near the beginning of a topic or as an end of the unit recap/group work quiz. Part of the students grade in this class comes from their work on mathematical communication both written and verbal. I am also trying to build up the idea of peer support. When my students leave high school, part of their success in higher education might depend on whether or not they ask for help from their professor or their fellow students.
The following work is from the Sorting Equations and Identities Lesson. When I assign group work, I travel around with a clipboard to take notes. This particular lesson, each group seemed to approach the task differently and there work styles were different. One group really wanted to do a lot of rough draft work and then put together a clean, well explained poster. Others wanted a more informal capture. The groups with the least writing were also struggling more with talking to each other. Some looked at structure of the equations only, some solved to see what happened. Instead of answering questions, I asked groups to explain pieces to each other.
Finally, they each individually took a quick assessment. The group that struggled the most at talking to each other also struggled the most on the assessment. I wanted to check in to see what was the issue. Did they all have a conceptual gap which prevented productive discussion? Nope, just struggled with motivation to talk. I showed them quiz results and asked them to talk to each other for 10 minutes and retake quiz with no additional guidance from me. All the quiz scores went up. Then we had a quick chat about why group work can be valuable and I extracted promises or increased participation in the future.
I want to address the idea of collaboration and learning with the full group in the future. I think the next time we assess I’ll have them all try alone and I won’t even grade/look until the end of the next step. Then talk to each other for 5-10 minutes and then re-assess on a clean quiz with no instruction/input from me. My assumption is that scores will go up. If that hold true, as a group we’ll talk through why that happens and what strategies that implies for future problem solving.
I jumped on board the VNPS (vertical non-permanent surface) bandwagon this year and have loved the result, but I also installed contact paper style sticky white board material on all the tables and that has made a MAJOR impact in student work. Students definitely need time to get up and think together, but they also need a quiet, semi-private place to think, make mistakes and move forward.
The stuff is relatively cheap, can easily be peeled off, and seems to clean as easy or easier than my actual white board. But most importantly, the students are so much more willing to try new strategies, make mistakes and then keep trying. Other students are more likely to help each other by adding there own thoughts and even basic practice seems more efficient and productive. As opposed to having actual little boards that have to be taken out, these live on the desks. Markers and erasers are left out on the tables and students can use them whenever. I’ve pushed the idea of rough draft math thinking as a great use of the boards, but we do independent practice and group work there too. I even caught a student inventing his own problems while waiting for class to begin.
One roll cost be about $6 on Amazon and it was enough for 3 tables (~18x26ish on each one). Its a simple idea, but probably my favorite thing that is different about this year.
Aside from my role as math teacher, I also teach an advisory class. Advisory is a key part of our school culture. Our main focuses are around community and restorative circles and building up the Chain of 8 Non-cognitive Variables. We also work on post high school plans, parent and community involvements, goal settings, as well as making sure each student has someone who really knows/tracks/advocates for their needs. This post is technically about advisory, but easily pertains to any class.
As a fun warm up and opportunity to encourage group conversation/problem solving, I had students decide on a single word group goal to focus on. Then I handed each of them a string which as tied to a marker. The entire task was to write the word on a piece of poster paper together, only holding the end of their string. Another adult at our school happened to pop in and so I had him join in the group.
It was interesting to say the least. The purpose was for the students to problem solve and communicate with each other. What ended up happening was the adult took over and directed the students on what he wanted them to do. I think a lot of teachers and adults in general do this. We are used to authority and instead of letting the students struggle immediately jump in with directions. I 100% believe the adult was trying to be helpful and had no idea how it looked from the outside. But the adult talked/directed the entire time. I don’t think I heard a student voice.
I had an interesting debrief with the students after (The adult had left, but it would have been interesting to rope him in as well). Said adult knows some of the students and I didn’t want to place any blame on anyone but myself, but I also wanted them to notice what had happened. (Adult took over) and think about when this happens outside of class and their thoughts on the matter and how/when/if they should address it. It was a powerful and messy conversation.
Two lessons for me: 1) I should have asked him to stop. I am not great at calling out adults of authority, especially in front of kids, but I should have found a nice way to tell him to be quiet and step back. I don’t know this person very well. But I ask kids to do uncomfortable things, so I should try to do so as well. 2) I believe my approach of making kids work things out together even if its uncomfortable and less ‘efficient’ even more important than I did before. They so rarely get the chance to do that in low pressure, no consequence situations. It is a vital skill to learn and practice.
We’ve been in such a good grove so far this year. Students are coming on time, attendance has been good, the focus and willingness to struggle productively has been awesome. And then…….
Last Friday hit. Groups of two were working on the Shell task on polynomial dot patterns together. Three students wandered in late and started trying to get students off task. I had to redirect some less than appropriate for school discussions. I put the three new ones in a group together and tried to get them started. The task was tough for all of them. I had to spend too much time redirecting the new group and didn’t offer enough support to the others. I walked away from that class feeling pretty down.
Then I turned here for some reflections:
- I chose to group the late ones together so they could start at the beginning, but group dynamics worked against that. I think I’d rather have them split up and jump into already started groups. It could be good practice for the groups to explain/teach the late students.
- Should I have spent more time with the on-taskers? I’m not sure where I fall here. They would have gotten more out of class had I let the others stay off task, but there is a line where I can’t ignore behaviors. It is so rarely an issue that I haven’t spent enough time thinking about it. Normally, the late students join in so seamlessly.I want to find a better balance.
- I need to be okay with that fact that not all days will be the best day. I’ve been so pumped about this specific class that I took the not so good class too hard.
- I wanted to address it. I had a plan to do so.
Monday. I had planned to have a quick discussion with the students about how working in teams requires a different level of respect for each other. I’m actually less concerned with someone interrupting me than a group of peers.
I didn’t have this conversation. Instead, before I could say anything one of the involved students came up to me to apologize. He says, “That wasn’t me on Friday. You know. I mean, I’m sorry. That’s not who I am, I hope you know that. I’ll do better.” Instead of giving my spiel, I answered, “We all have bad days. And you’re right, I do know that you are a fantastic student. I’m glad today is better.” And it was. Class was back to going well. Students worked hard. We used Fawn’s Visual Patterns to work through seeing patterns. Students worked with teams and then came up to the board to show the whole class when they found a unique or interesting way to look at the patterns.
And we do. I have days when I’m not feeling it. I’m sure the students know. In fact, I often tell them I’m having an off day so if I say or act differently I am sorry and its not about something they did. Teenagers are certainly going to have those days. These kids have so much going on. And they haven’t had as much time to figure out how to deal with those off days. I pulled said student aside again after class. To thank him and tell him I was proud about how he handled himself.
With that in mind, that students are going to have days where they act in ways we wish they wouldn’t, I want to keep brainstorming strategies to respect both the students who are ready to work and those that need a little gracious understanding. I’m hoping that as I continue to get to know each student I can sense when the day might be off ahead of time, but I know that won’t always be the case.