Sunday, August 23, 2015

First Day of School!

I get so excited at this time of year, I can hardly sleep!  This is the same feeling I used to have as a kid on Christmas Eve, anticipating the family visits, the food, and, of course, the presents.  Although there are no actual presents or special dinner tomorrow, the first day of school never gets old for me, despite the fact that I've had over 25 first school days as a teacher.  My wife tells me my inner teaching geek is showing, but I can't help wondering who my students are this year and thinking up ways to help them learn (and maybe even get excited about) math.

If you are reading this because you are one of my students, Welcome!  This is going to be a great year!  I really believe that you can get better at math this year, and most of my job is helping you be the best person, student, and mathematician that you can be.

If you are the parent or guardian of one of my students, know that I feel blessed to have the chance to know your child.  I know that as a core class, math is really important, and I will do my best to help each of my students succeed.  If you ever have a question, concern, or suggestion, please call or email me.

See you tomorrow!

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Am I Grading? (Part 3)

After talking to a colleague about my grading policy, I found that she has a similar grading policy, but states the weights of the categories a little differently.  Rather than 75% tests, she states that the homework and quiz grades together count as a test grade.  This works the same as my system, but her students seemed to respond more positively to the system.  (Am I giving away too much to my students by telling this?)

We also talked about how to cue students to important problems in the homework, and how to give students choice about which homework problems to focus on.  Additionally, we brainstormed ideas about how to have students practice writing about their thinking, and how we might provide feedback (not necessarily a grade) to this work.  Lots of ideas, but I am not yet sure which I will incorporate into my classes.  It was really exciting, thought-provoking, and satisfying to talk to another teacher about our work.  (Thanks, Cory!)  I think I was missing that last year.

Finally, I saw a really short article today, "Is grading killing learning for our students?"  which raises issues about grading and learning that I continue to worry about.  In particular, how do I create (or balance?) a culture of learning and a culture of performance?

As this year starts, I want to work on few things regarding grading:

  • providing growth mindset messages to my students
  • providing helpful and actionable feedback (not necessarily a grade) to my students about their work  (balancing learning and performance)
  • making sure my expectations for good work are clear.

I'll have to revisit my thinking as this year goes along.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Am I Grading? (Part 2)

At the end of last year, I talked to another teacher about the "standards-based" grading policy.  For this, students are given a list of the things they are expected to know and be able to do by the end of the unit, and instead of putting a grade on a quiz or test, the teacher gives them a score for each standard, which gets translated into a letter grade by the end of the quarter.  This is intriguing to me because I want the students to focus on the skills and understandings of math rather than on the grades.  I also tried this method of grading a number of years ago (almost ten years, I think), but the system seemed more confusing to students since they were not entirely sure how their grade was calculated.  (I also don't recall how I made this calculation.)  Now that we have an online grading program, parents and students can track their grades on a daily basis, and I'm really not sure how to make the calculations or how to make the calculations clear to the users.

Having some system through which it is clear to students (and parents) how well they are understanding the topics is important to me, so I am thinking about how to include aspects of standards-based grading into my classes.

One thing I tried over the summer, and plan to continue this year, is having a unit outline of four to six big ideas I would like the students to learn over the course of the unit.  I'm hoping to keep the number of these to four "skills" like "identify the important features (domain, range, vertex) of quadratic functions based on their graphs and equations", and one or two practices like "construct clear critiques of possible solutions".  I'm figuring that the practices will appear across multiple units, but the skills belong in only one unit.  The idea here is to alert the students to the important information I want them to learn, to provide me with reminders about what understanding I want to check (via exit slips, short ungraded quizzes), and to cue students to self-assess their understanding.  So I'm creating a set of "sample problems" to go with each big idea, and providing space for students to monitor their understanding over the course of the unit.  I'll still give graded quizzes (and allow retakes) and a graded unit test.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What Am I Grading?

As the summer is starting to wind down, and I have two weeks before the staff meetings start up, I am thinking about how I structure the grading systems of my classes.  Lately, I have been dividing up quarter grades based on the following weights:  homework is 10%, quizzes are 15%, and tests are 75% of the quarter grade.  I don't penalize students for late homework, although I pester students who are not turning it in on the due date.  I also allow students to retake quizzes once they have corrected the original quiz and reviewed the material with me, and I only count the higher grade.  Finally, the last test of each quarter covers all the material from the quarter, and if a student gets a higher grade on this test than on a test from earlier in the quarter, this test grade also replaces that earlier, worse test grade.  My intent for this system is to try to assign grades based on a student's understanding of the material over the long term rather than his/her ability to turn in homework on time, to cram (or not) for a test, or to quickly perform well with new material versus needing time to practice.  (I don't think catching on quickly to new material and keeping oneself organized should be the criteria for getting an "A".)

The positive outcomes from this grading policy include:

  • more homework is getting done
  • fewer students report copying homework from classmates
  • more students spend time reviewing quizzes
  • more students reporting that they understand the material better.
The negative outcomes from this grading policy include:
  • students report feeling stressed about tests since they are weighted so heavily
  • the students who perform the worst on the quizzes were not taking advantage of the retakes
  • the students who turned in the least amount of homework by the due date were least likely to turn in assignments at all or appeared to spend very little time on assignments they did make up
  • some students seemed more concerned about making up homework (without really trying to learn the material) than about retaking quizzes, and expected their grades to improve more than they really would given the relative weights.
  • most of the students described in the last three bullet points were Black or Hispanic.
I should note that on the end of the year surveys last year, only two students said the homework policy encouraged them to procrastinate and the quiz policy encouraged them to not study for the quizzes.

I'm happy about the positives; I think the policy matches the growth mindset I try to maintain for myself and engender in the students.  The negatives concern me in that I don't think they are a direct result of the grading policy, but probably have more to do with the way I sell the students on growth mindset and how I talk to, work with, and connect to the students of color in my classes.

More reflecting to come ...