Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Start to a Great Year!

It has been 2.5 weeks since we got back to school! During this time, because of various back-to-school grade-level bonding activities, we only had 2 good weeks' worth of classes in each grade. Still, I am feeling somewhat settled into my classes, having learned all the kids' names, and am starting to figure out who needs help and to meet regularly with some students outside of class. So, things are good!

In addition to revising curricula, I am trying a lot of new classroom procedures this year. At first I thought these changes wouldn't be manageable, but so far, although I am working a fair amount, my work time has been very productive! I can clearly see the impact of various small changes on my classes, and that leaves me to spend my energy where it counts the most (ie. trying to tackle the big challenge of having many more high-need students this year).

Here are some things that I am trying this year:

* Assigning group roles for each group member: The one benefit that has stood out the most to me is the role of the recorder. The group's facilitator and time-keeper help me ensure that every student in the group tries the problems independently and jots down their individual work, but at the end of the activity/discussion, I only collect 1 copy of the worksheet and notes (from the recorder) to make sure the answers they went over are in fact correct. I also ask the recorder to write down additional items as per their discussion, such as a description for the algebra process used and definitions for key terms. I then correct just that one copy (from a group of 3 or 4), and then make copies for the other group members to keep. This way, everyone has the conceptual explanations, to help them remember what was discussed in the group besides just the answers they have on their paper. It also cuts down on the amount of grading I have to do, while being able to give written feedback to the entire group. Playing the role of recorder has also been very motivating for the kids who are the weakest performers, stay actively engaged. They know that their role is highly relied upon, so there is some unsaid peer pressure for them to make sure that they understand the process enough to write down important pieces of it on paper. Besides the recorder, I also have a facilitator, a time-keeper, and a questioner in each group. (The basic construct comes from Complex Instruction, but I am not sure if I am following their protocol exactly.)

* Green, yellow, red stickers: In lieu of grades, this year I have been, thus far, giving feedback in terms of colored stickers. Eventually we will have quizzes that will count for points, but in the mean time, "mock quizzes" are just about 3 questions I write on the board, and I collect them to see how the kids are doing (and to take notes on who needs reinforcement on what), and we discuss the answers as a class. The next day, I return the mock quizzes with a colored sticker to show whether each student needs to keep working on that concept. It's de-coupled from grades, but my secret hope is that kids will just want to get green stickers. And, so far, that is pretty true!! I have been using this colored-sticker system on the collected discussion notes (from recorders), mock quizzes, and conceptual "check-in" homework assigned individually. The kids who got red stickers from me on a quiz or an important assignment have approached me to automatically resubmit the assignment after revision, to ask for help, or have been very happy when I proactively approached them to set up a time to meet outside of class. They treat the red stickers very seriously, which is great. It's such a visual way to alert them that there is a gap. The fact that the assignments are de-coupled from grades makes it possible for me to focus on meeting with them for their learning, rather than the conversation being about grades. It also makes it possible for me to have multiple "mock quizzes" in the same week without it being stressful for the kids. So far, I love it! I got a pack of round stickers from a local drug store's stationary/school-supplies section, and it already has all the colors I needed. One of the science teachers started using the same system with his students after hearing me talk about it, and he thinks it's much more clear than giving kids check plus, check, and check minus. Eventually, my goal is to have the kids self-assess via a sticker when they turn in certain assignments. And then I'd give a second sticker upon returning it, to confirm or correct their self-assessment. 

* Green, yellow, red cups: I know this is not news for other teachers, but I wanted to try the green, yellow, red cups in groups as a passive indicator to me whether the students need help. Sometimes, I think as a teacher, it's hard for me to tell when students are positively frustrated or negatively frustrated by a task. The cups are a clear way to indicate to me whether I should intervene. My secret hope in introducing this was that if they looked around the room and the other students all have green cups, maybe the group that was already about to give up would push themselves to persevere just a little more. Also, because they could only indicate green, yellow, or red to me as a group, they would be forced to communicate amongst themselves before they reached out to me for help on a problem. I have thus far only used this in my lower-grade classes (Algebra 2 and Geometry), because I am not sure whether it's a bit too cheesy for my 11th- and 12th-graders. But, I may roll it out to them eventually.

* Self-reporting math efforts outside of class: I feel strongly that as juniors and seniors in my Calculus class, the students need to be doing self-directed learning outside of class. Practically, that means that I don't assign problems everyday, because I want them to use their at-home time to make flashcards, concept outlines, re-do tricky problems, do new problems on their own, see me for help, etc. It does not mean that on those days when I don't assign specific problems, they shouldn't be working on math at home!!!! But, I am also a realist; I know that most teens will do the minimum unless there is some visibility into their action. So, I made a Google Form that collects data about what the students are doing. (You can click on it. This is a copy of the link I sent out to the kids, so even if you fill it out, it won't mess up their data.) I created a link to the form I made for my students, and I asked them to fill it out every time that they do math outside of class. I stated that, as "homework", I expect that they're doing/logging 20 minutes of math outside of class, 5 times a week. Of course, they can clump the times if that is not possible, but if they are doing 100 minutes of math once a week, that is probably something I should talk to them about. Anyhow, I think the information collected this way will be a great resource to allow me to have productive learning dialogue with my students, while encouraging them to be self-directed learners, asking me questions like, "What else can I be doing with my studying time?" I've only rolled this out on Thursday, and already I can see some data being logged by some students, with comments on what they might need from me as next steps. I'm very excited about this!!!!! If this is successful, I will extend it to my Algebra 2 class. Throughout the term, it'll be a very valuable resource for me in terms of giving them specific feedback on their learning strategies. It'll also make writing narrative report cards a breeze at the end of the term.

So far, these are the "systematic" changes that I am trying to make. I have already noticed a tremendous difference in my classroom culture this year, in terms of how equitably and actively students participate, and how positive they are. I will observe a bit more and write a big post about that, maybe next week! 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Experimenting with Structured Group Work

I am trying to change my classes this year drastically in the way that I handle group work! I want to be intentional, intentional, intentional.

So far, it has been one day and that one day has been excellent. I decided that for Day 1, I would talk to the kids about inquiry-based learning vs. direct instruction, and then pass out a task that is accessible for everyone to start. All they had time for on Day 1 was the individual thinking time, which I am going to build into every group activity this year.

In Geometry and Algebra 2, I did Mark Driscoll's folding task on Day 1, but emphasized that the content of the task is not nearly as important as the students practicing the expectations for group work. In Calculus, I made a custom sequence from Desmo's Function Carnival that consisted only of the parachute height vs. time, followed by misconception analysis, and parachute vertical velocity vs. time, with subsequent misconception analysis. The students in all classes then were asked to go home and finish the rest of their individual thinking.

Tomorrow, when we come back, we will do verrrry structured group work, and I will ask the students to do first one round of just making observations with no comments from their peers (Round 1). Then, they will go around and ask clarifying questions or challenge each other to justify their thinking (Round 2). Then, the group will engage in an open discussion while the recorder continues to take careful notes, to turn in later and to distribute to the group. Afterwards, they will summarize the findings and record what questions they still have as a group. To help the Calculus students focus in on the misconceptions I saw today, I will give them this handout as generated from their parachute graphs, and ask them to brainstorm as many observations as possible for each graph before we discuss as a whole class. The recorder of each group will record all the accuracies and inaccuracies that they notice about each graph.

Here is some language I will offer the groups tomorrow to help them with their structured discussions:

Beginning of discussion (Round 1):
"What have you tried so far?"
"I noticed that ______________"
"I tried __________ and found that to be (un)helpful, because _____________"

Middle of discussion (Round 2):
"I was confused about how to _______________"
"Are you saying that _______________?"
"Can you explain why you think ___________ ?"
"I don’t get that. Can you explain it in another way?"
"If we changed __________, then what would the result look like?"

End of discussion:
"In conclusion, we agreed that ______________"
"We found it hard to agree on _____________"

"As a group, we still have trouble understanding ____________"

I am really excited about this! Having structured group work is allowing me to slow down the pace at the start of the year and to emphasize quality over quantity of work done, in order to set the right tone for the rest of the year. I plan to have the kids stay in these groups for about a week, and then we'll discuss what have been the most helpful parts of the structure, and then switch into new groups. Wish me luck!!!