I have been meeting with several of my supervisors recently and discussing education. I love the different philosophies of education and the debates and discussions my supervisors encourage. During these talks, I discovered that most teachers are very subject centered. We believe that our subject (math for me) is the most important thing in the life of a high school student. Unfortunately, this is not true for the 16 year old students. This also puts us in competition with teachers of other subjects. I’m sure math teachers could start a debate with the English, Science, and History departments over which subject is the most vital for success after graduation.
I try to be a realist when it comes to my students; math is not the most important thing in their lives. I have come to the realization that other than my Pre Calculus students, I am not training or teaching future scientists, engineers, doctors, or mathematicians. I am training and teaching students who will graduate high school and attend college and find a non-STEM job. Math is not the most important thing to them. I do not expect it to be. So what is my job as a math teacher?
My job is to ease their fear of math. I want them to leave my class not hating math. I want to change their minds about math. Teaching and grading in a traditional manner will most likely, not accomplish this. This is why we watch “How I Met your Mother” clips and discuss the Crazy -vs- Hot scale. I want them to love my class and not hate math.
This has always been my belief, until last week. My husband is looking for a new job, so I have been scouring job openings. I have come across so many job openings that do not require a diploma or experience, but demand “math aptitude”. I’m not sure how they are going to test for this, but I’m sure the companies will. So how do I teach students to develop their “math aptitude”? This is not the same as memorizing the quadratic equation or a list of logarithm rules. Math aptitude is being a good problem solver. It’s deconstructing a box and creating a net for it. It’s finding the most efficient way to pack a truck. My fear is that it is some of the things I brush over in the curriculum or standards because it may be difficult to measure or teach. There may be more than one way to solve the problem, and God-forbid, more than one correct answer. Teaching and grading rules or equations is easy developing math aptitude, is not.
So what does it all mean? Math will never be the most important thing to a 16 year old, and I don’t want to be so cocky as to think that math is the super subject all others lead to. I do want my students to realize that in their future job searches, math aptitude is critical.
I have been using SBG (Standards Based Grading) for two years now. I love it. I have tweaked it over the years to better fit my students and their needs. (Isn’t that why we are here?)
My first year using SBG, I only allowed students to earn a 9/10 on retesting opportunities because I really believed that the students who mastered the material first, deserved the 10. I have since changed this belief. At the end of my first semester with SBG, I ended up with a whole lot of students who knew all of the material but only had 90% to show for it. This was a mistake on my part.
Also, my first year with SBG, I did not give any type of summative assessment until the final exam. This was a major mistake. I learned that my students did not know how to take a large, multiple choice, accumulative test. I’m not a huge fan of large tests, but they are a part of our state assessment model. So last year I implemented summative assessments every 6 weeks. It counts as 10 – 15% of the students grade, depending on the class. I thought I would be greeted with weeping and gnashing of teeth by my students, but I was not. The students received it really well. It also had a surprising result I did not expect: my final exam scores increased from years past.
In the past, my students always did bad on the final exam. Before SBG, I would give chapter tests. The students would cram and their was no motivation to go back and fix gaps in learning. SBG fixed this. It motivated my students to master material they might have missed before. Using SBG with no summative assessments did not allow my students the chance to practice taking large tests. SBG with summative assessments fixed this.
This school year, I converted several of my colleagues to come to the SBG side. The entire freshman academy math department decided to implement it. I have heard nothing but good things. The teachers love it and it is a great tool for transitioning the freshman to high school. I know in my heart that this is great, but I wanted proof (I am a mathematician). I had the vice principal run some numbers for me and here is what we discovered:
Last year, not using SBG with Summative Assessments, 35% of the freshman class failed their final exam for Algebra A. The average failing grade was a 60%.
This year, using SBG with Summative Assessments, only 24% of the freshman class failed their final exam for Algebra A. The average failing grade was a 62%.
This happened using the same group of teachers, the same curriculum, and the same final exam. The only changes were the students themselves, and the implementation of SBG. I can offer no other explanation. I’m so proud of this group of teachers and the hard work they have put in this year. They did this to help the students. SBG wasn’t easy and it is not a quick fix. It is hard work and extra time before school, after school, and during lunch; but it has paid off. I can’t imagine ever going back to a ‘traditional’ assessment model.
I have a confession. I am terrible with students’ names. I can’t remember them. I really struggle. I’ve tried everything. I think I have finally found a fix for me. It does involve some work, but if you are like me, you are willing to put in the work so as not to embarrass yourself in front of the students.
On the first day of class, I have each student make a name tag out of construction paper. I have the students write their first name in large letters and draw a few items around their name that help to define them. Here is my example:
I then give the students an activity to work on and I go around with the camera and take their pictures. (I’ve only had one class think this was creepy.) I collect the nametags and hand them out the next day. After school, I make a trip to WalGreens and print the photos. I separate them into classes. I now have flashcards to work with. These flashcards stay with me for the next several days. If I’m at the YMCA on the treadmill, I have the flashcards. While watching Fringe, I have the flashcards. Any spare moment during the week, I’m reviewing the flashcards. After about a week of photo flashcards, I have the names down pat.
I keep the photos for a few reasons. First, after the students leave my class, I often forget some of them. They are still students at the school and if I ever need to remember a name or face, I have a way to do it. Second, when we are doing activities in class that involve random groups or volunteers, I pull out the photos and draw them like they are a deck of cards. The students love this.
There’s an app for that:
I have to give credit to my fellow teacher and blog follower, Ann Pickens for bringing this activity into modern times. She did the same activity, but took the pictures with her cell phone. She now has instant access to the photos on her phone and can flip through them at any time.
Like most teachers, I struggle with what to do on the first day of class. This year in my Geometry classes, I started with ‘Me by the Numbers’. It worked well and the students seemed to like it, but even this activity only takes 15 minutes of my 90 minute class. I decided to try something new. I broke the students into groups of 2 or 3. I gave each group a net for a cube. I masked each group to design a cube. They had access to colored pencils, scissors, and tape. Some cubes were basic and others were quite ornate.
When all the groups were finished, I collected the cubes. I then redistributed the cubes to different groups. Each group now had a cube that they did not design. I handed out another blank net and asked them to copy the cube that was given to them. Some groups had a more difficult time than others depending on the complexity of the cube assigned to them. The students had a good time and it gave me a chance to walk around the room and get to know them. My goal with this activity was to get my students to realize that taking a 3 dimensional object and trying to reconstruct it using a 2 dimensional template is difficult. Some students really excel at this and others really struggle. I feel like Geometry is often the math for those students who aren’t as good at solving equations. I wanted to take the fear of math and the unknown away as we started Geometry.
This last semester, I had three new courses I had never taught before. (Ok, one of them I had taught, but we had new standards.) I worked really hard. I felt like my entire life revolved around school. I struggled to keep my head above water. To make matters worse, the textbooks I had were useless. The students never used their textbooks and I never opened mine. When TN adopted new standards, they made things much more difficult. Several of the topics that were now required were not in the textbooks. I loved the challenge. I have since decided that I hate being tied to a textbook.
With the new semester, I am looking at my schedule and breathing a sigh of relief. I am teaching two classes I have taught before. My husband is relieved. But, I don’t think I can do it the easy way. I can’t do the same thing I did last time in these classes. I want to be better. I want to be fresh. I know that what I did last time was ok, but not as great as it could be. I guess I’m not satisfied with the job I did last time. So here is the question: Will I ever be satisfied? I know several teachers who pull out the same tests and the same projects and the same power points and the same… You get the idea. This reminds me of a sad side story:
I met a parent a couple of months ago and I briefly explained how my class operates. I was standing with another teacher who taught a different subject. This teacher had taught the parent of the student many years ago. He told the parent, “My class is pretty much the same as when you had it. I haven’t changed things a lot.” I nearly cried.
So the question remains: Will I ever be satisfied with my class? I hope not. I want to always strive to be better. I don’t ever want to get too comfortable with my teaching. I never want this to be so easy that I stop trying. I never want to stop scouring the internet for new ideas. I want to read blogs written by excellent teachers and strive to be one. So this year, I resolve to keep working hard. I will not dust off an old test or pull out an old project with out critiquing and revising it first. I will tailor each class to the students in it. Will this make my job more time-consuming and harder? Probably. Will it be worth it? Yes!