Last week, I finished teaching several Exploding Dots lessons to a group of seventh and eighth graders. I was remote, and their classes were hybrid; their teacher, Ms. Anna, and a few of the students were in the classroom with masks, and the rest of the students at home. Most of the kids did not have their cameras on, and several were active in the chat. When I asked them to think about a problem, I could hear nothing because everyone was muted, but I could see the students in the classroom having some animated discussions. I was really glad to be talking to students again, and recognized that while my experience this year is different (and much less difficult) than Anna's or other teachers, I still learned a few things.
First, the students were amazing! I'm not surprised by this, but I think I was starting to forget how exciting it is to be with kids. I was new to their class and only coming once a week, so the novelty of the experience probably had something to do with their engagement. Even so, learning their names and a few of their faces, and getting to hear some of their thinking was the highlight of my weeks with them.
I was also reminded how difficult teaching remotely really is. I missed seeing the students who were not on camera, and I wasn't able to see what was on anyone's papers and whiteboards, or hearing their discussions. Some colleagues have shared stories about their remote and hybrid experiences, and I know my few times in this classroom are nothing compared to what they've been going through. Many kudos to Anna, Quinton, Sara, and Matt, along with all the teachers this year; you are all incredible professionals making a very difficult situation work.
Building relationships with students takes practice, patience, and perseverance, and is much more necessary and difficult in a remote situation. So thank you to James Tanton, who trained a group of us on Exploding Dots, for demonstrating how building relationships can look, even when you can't see or hear some of the students. I was gratified that one of the students would say "Hello, Mr. Peter!" the minute he joined the zoom call, another would make sure to appear on camera at the beginning to say "Hi!" and others would share their favorite movies, or how they were feeling when we did a quick ice-breaker question at the beginning of class.
It is likely that because I wasn't grading the students and I was teaching them something outside the ordinary curriculum, they showed a great willingness to participate. Which has me thinking again about how I use grades and feedback in my own classroom, and what ideas I choose to teach and focus on. The first few lessons of Exploding Dots are more about seeing something familiar in a new light and learning how mathematics works, than about one more procedure or fact. Along with that, it brings some humanness and history to math, which I supplemented with things I've found at the Library. I think the most important bit is that it also encourages students to play with math ideas and connect some things they already know in new ways.
During one lesson, we played the game NIM, and the students quickly figured out that there must be some sort of trick that allowed me to win the game. In their breakout rooms, they played the game against each other and discussed strategy. One student, thinking about her next move, said, "Wait while I look into the future." By the end of the lesson, some students had figured out some strategy, and they were excited to show me what else they learned about the game the next time we met. So, how do I incorporate games in my classes on a regular basis?
In the last lessons, I showed the students how Exploding Dots related to multiplying polynomials, which they were working on during the days I wasn't with them. I took a poll in one class about how well they were understanding what I was talking about, and found very mixed results. So I put three different problems, of varying difficulty on screen, and asked the students to solve whichever one looked challenging but doable. On camera, the students in the classroom raced for their whiteboards, and after a few minutes of working, I asked the students if they were ready to discuss their thinking. Almost everyone, including those off camera gave a "wait" sign, and I realized that the students who started with the problem that looked the easiest were trying out the other problems as well. By the end, everyone felt comfortable with the middle level problem, and a bunch more were satisfied with the harder version. How will I build this kind of differentiated activity into my lessons when I return to the classroom?
One of the best moments for me was when a student who was mostly quiet and off camera responded in the chat with "I'm not sure about this, but I think ...". His thinking was excellent, even though he was unsure where to go with it. I asked him if he would mind turning on his mic while I asked him some questions. He agreed, and as he explained and clarified his own conceptions, other students started typing ideas in the chat. For me, it was an amazing example of trust and flexibility, and both Anna and I praised his participation, pointing to all the ideas he expressed and helped other students generate. And this happened with lots of students as we went along. So, what was it that Anna and I were doing that helped the students be willing to publicly wrestle with new ideas?
I want that kind of productive struggle and student engagement in my classroom all the time, and I need to think about how to bring that to life even more. In the meantime, a big "Thank You!" to Ms. Anna and all the students in 701, 801, and 802! You were wonderful to work with, and have given me lots to think about!