Adapting for Discourse

In one of my classes (Bridge to College) there are sets of developed lesson plans that address the standards for the course. Because of agreements with the community colleges in our state, I do have to stick fairly closely to the outline provided. Luckily, the lessons themselves are pretty well thought out and have a huge focus on the practice standards and the idea of more than one right way to solve problems approach that I like to employ in my other classes.

I do, however, take the opportunity to make small additions or adjustments to further the opportunity for student discourse. Continue reading “Adapting for Discourse”

Bridge to College 4: Collaboration

Part 4 of a year long series: The first 3 here.

Not a long post today, but its been longer than I’d like between posts. There is a push in Bridge to make sure students have a chance to develop skills that will serve them in life after high school. One of those skills is creating a collaborative peer group to support learning in college or the ability to work on a team.

Students were asked to think back to a successful group they’d been apart so far this year and brainstorm why they though it worked. They shared those out and are in blue on the poster below. They also had to think to when their group struggled or weren’t as successful and what might have been the reason. When we shared those answers, they had to come up with a solution or the opposite positive of the issue. Those are in green on the poster. When they work in groups and are giving self-reflections or if I’m giving feedback we reference the poster. “We compared ideas and strategies at a level 3 today, but probably told instead of helped when someone got stuck. I’d give us a 2 there today.” “I saw you guys justifying your work and providing constructive criticism! Be mindful of where your whole group is pace-wise though.” It was their words and their ideas. Harder to argue about cell phone use when they said it was impeding their learning.  Continue reading “Bridge to College 4: Collaboration”

Bridge to College Part 3

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.

Sticky Whiteboards

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.

Learning my Own Lesson

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.




Bridge to College Part 2: One of Those Days

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.

DITL – A Thursday

6:00 am – Wake up and get 3 year old ready for preschool. She tells me she I should go back to bed and rest because apparently daddy is better at telling stories at breakfast. I’m not going to argue 🙂

7:00 am – Start the drive north to drop said child off at school. I spend at least 1-1.5 hours commuting in the morning and at least that much in the afternoon. I work in downtown Seattle and the cost of childcare and rent are far above my monthly salary, so the commuting is painful,  but unfortunately necessary.

8:30 am – We got five new students today. Our site has 4 teachers, one of whom is out this week. She is the scheduler extraordinaire, so I normally don’t have to do much of the paperwork of new students but I make them a temporary schedule and give them a quick tour of the school.

9:00 am – First period is Geometry. We are working on angle relationships with traversals. Students are tasked with taping the floor and measuring angles.They gallery walk the floor and make predictions. Hopefully a little dancing is in order by the weeks end.

A staff member from our central center stops by to check on the new students, touch base with the ones who started the week before, and give us some paperwork.

9:50 – Second period starts. These are my seniors who are putting together a portfolio of work to get ready for the state test. Its a small group so lots of one on one work to help fill in individual gaps.

A parent stops by to discuss her daughter and the plan for her this week.  We make plans to check back in next week.

10:40 – Third period is advisory. I have the juniors and we are working on graduation plans and job/internship searches But first we have a community circle. This is year two of circles and they are going well. Today we talk about police shootings, protests, and the media. Its an intense, but important 15 minutes. We switch gears to planning and goal setting. Lots of our students have interesting high school histories so getting realistic pictures of what needs to be completed for graduation is important. One student actually found out he had caught up and is now ahead of his scheduled graduation, but a few others are getting the opposite realization. We make plans and timelines to complete classes. I edit a few resumes.

11:20 – Fourth period is Bridge to College Math. (If you are seeing a pattern, in that I have completely different classes all day, ding ding, its true. No getting bored here). its my biggest class and always full of energy. We are digging into equivalent expressions and student misconceptions. Students get in small groups and are off and running. If all my classes could look like this hour I’d be thrilled.

12:05 – Lunch!! and even more exciting PREP!!!! We didn’t have a prep period the first two years so having 45 minutes that I can count on (at least most days) is amazing. I still take home hours of planning, but to have the space to make copies, check in with students, and take care of the mountains of paperwork I always seem to have is nice.  Today I mostly try to get more information on our new students to make sure they are where they should be in terms of scheduling.

1:25 -Sixth period is first semester Algebra.  Most of the students have attempted this class two or three times. The skill levels are all over the place from trying to learn about adding negatives to students who failed the class only due to attendance or other issues.  We have more flexibility here and I used standards based grading so  students are working on different parts of the content. Introduce a group problem then introduce concepts as needed to each student.  All the new students are registered here, but a few think when we get transcripts they might be elsewhere. I get them settled in, make a note to send some emails about transcripts, but jump them right into class, assuring them it will count for credit even if they switch classes.

2:15 – Seventh period is second semester Algebra. Only two students are here today. We work on factoring polynomials. Its quiet, but productive. The change from the earlier scramble to get the new students settled is appreciated.

4:00 – Start the drive north to daycare. Traffic is even worse in the afternoon. I get rear-ended 😦 But the other driver seems nice, we exchange insurance, hang out while the police report is filed.  I get  my husband to go get our daughter while I wait.

5:30 – Home. Cook dinner. Play with daughter. Start on my own homework (I’m working on a Masters in Finance) and Prep for tomorrow. I actually get to bed around 12:30am.  A few more hours until I do it all again….minus the car wreck hopefully.