Previously...

How do you recover from apparent disaster? First, I recognized that some of this was generated by me. Usually an across the board problem is evident of a teaching problem. And throwing standard integrals in combination with u-substitution integrals can cause some headaches, especially for amateurs. It was classic overthinking, lots of students trying to make substitutions that weren't there. I didn't yell or anything. Current class grades were posted and I just put on the serious face and said "you be quiet for a minute."

We reviewed the test, they sighed at how easy it all was. I made a peace offering and held a retake on the skills portion the following Wednesday. This is actually not different than my normal policy. Skills portions are always eligible for retake. The only qualifier is that you had to have done the previously two homeworks. As noted last week, a lot of kids couldn't be bothered.

Normally the day prior to the test I'll put some bullet points up for study purposes. This week I tried to make a point:

I'm cautiously optimistic that the message was clear. You never know.

They were also given a series of assignments to do in the class days that followed. I grouped them together as a project grade that took the place of their normal mock AP exam (which is happening later so we can cover more).

Deep breaths and time.

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I like what I do. I like writing about what I do. It's not all sunshine and rainbows though. Understand that about anyone who documents their practice. Today I share an historic bad day.

It's second semester in Calculus, we are plodding along through integration. Practice is going fine, there is some confusion about u-substitution, but nothing out of the ordinary. Homework completion rate is a little low, but hey, second semester seniors are super like that.

For Calculus I hacked together a weird SBG kinda thing. Tests have three sections, two skills sections rated on a 0-6 scale, and a concepts section rated 0-8. Rather than have a built in two attempt system, they can redo skills but not concepts after school. I gave 8 tests and 3 mini AP exams last semester. This year we've had 3 tests (with 3 remaining) and they will take 1 mini AP exam and 1 full length exam prior to the real one.

First two tests of the semester were fine, higher than average, I was feeling great about our progress. And then, last Friday:

Complete and utter devastation. The first column is an average out of 12, the second out of 8. I didn't do anything different. I even discussed the test with another teacher the night before.

It has been a long time since something like this happened. I was mad, I was screaming at them mentally. There was a bad energy in the room the day of, I could feel something was wrong, it put me in a bad mood. I delayed grading them as long as possible to avoid any anger bias.

A lot of coping via loud music later and I had calmed a little.

The story of how we moved on coming soon.

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Frank had a few thoughts to consider a couple weeks ago.

I got to thinking, do I overtest? Would the tests I give be considered high stakes? Having implemented a standards based system for several years, I have tons of data on the idea. I think the answer to the first question is "maybe" and the second is "no." Though I think my students disagree.

Raw Numbers

Some notes: SBG was introduced in Algebra II as a mid-year experiment; in 2011 and 2012 I gave a one time test of basic skills at the beginning of the year in Pre Cal before the SBG style tests began. In 2012 I gave fewer Pre Cal tests because, ironically, Texas toyed with the notion of increased standardized testing: 15 exams required to graduate high school. We administered benchmarks and real versions of all those tests that school year, in addition to the previous slate of tests still required for the class of 2013. That summer they retracted the plan after public outcry.

I allow about 40 minutes for each test. They happen every 7-10 calendar days. What I think is missing from Frank's numbers is a considering of that old stand by the quiz. Usually at least two quizzes accompany those three term tests, and take about 20 minutes each. Also, it is more common for schools here to have six terms per year. Estimate 15 tests and 12 quizzes per school year and you get about 14 hours, excluding the final.

My Opinion vs Student Opinion

If you ask my students, a lot of them would tell you we test a lot. In the case of testing successive Fridays, that's when many will moan "didn't we just have one?" If you ask the right followup questions, you can get them to see beyond the gut reaction. Do we have quizzes? No. Do you have more grades? Yes. Do you know more about how you're doing? Yes. Do you have homework on top of all of this? No.

I have had them interviewed before, year after year, lots of feel like they have a more specific idea about how they're doing. They can misfire on one part of an assessment but celebrate success on another and come out feeling like they learned. They can share heartbreak over coming oh so close to that elusive 4.

The Stakes

Are these test high stakes? I don't think so. My students get nervous about them, sure. They THINK it's life or death (thanks grade culture). Some of them really push themselves to get double 4s as much as possible. A lot are ready to have a shot at improving something that didn't go well previously. How do I know they aren't high stakes? I have watched the data for years. The standard 15 unit tests allows 15 attempts at 15 test grades. My students have over 80 attempts at 40 test grades. One misunderstood topic in the mix doesn't make a dent.

At the end of some grading terms, topic 7 or 8 might make a 1 point difference. Nobody fails a grading term for an isolated problem, it takes a series of miscues. At I've noticed the problem long before it's ever actually a problem.

I think a better question is: what are you getting from your 14 hours?

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Last semester I gave a nifty test question. Students had to reason through whether something I presented them is valid using a combination of things we have talked about. Some of them followed the lines of thinking I intended and a few went beyond my expectations.

A similar thing happened recently. Last year in my Algebra II revamp I wanted to put more emphasis on the purpose of graphs. My current Pre Cal group didn't necessarily get that connection during their Algebra II experience. Early early on I brought it up as we began with quadratics. Now that it was time for trig equations I brought it up again. Why would trig equations have a series of repeatable solutions?

I had them hack it out via Desmos first:

I gave them some equations and showed them how to plot it. They jotted down a ton of the solutions and I asked if they noticed anything. Hoping they caught on to the presence of a pattern, even if they didn't necessarily know what was causing it.

Anyway, we spent some time solving trig equations algebraically, representing the solutions as a multiple of the period. Some of that was on the test. But then I threw this at them.

The expected process would involve taking the equation given, solving it algebraically, and seeing if the intersection points in the picture appear. Simple.

A few demonstrated some great understanding of trig functions. In this particular example, the student solved the equation, noted the presence of an intersection point and agreed. But, BUT. Do you see the part where they verified that the GRAPH itself makes sense, that the presence of an intersection point might not tell the whole story? I mean, I had to stop for a second. This was so great.

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AuthorJonathan Claydon

This summer I come up on three years maintaining this site. Has the mission changed?

When people discuss online collaboration and contribution, some will mention that you have to be a little selfish. And primarily, I'm the primary reader. I am thrilled that other people draw benefits from it. But if anything, I have benefited the most.

The three biggest points I will cite to anyone thinking about archiving their teaching online:

  • You can assemble supplemental materials for your appraiser in a snap. Every year I have a dozen or more blog links as evidence that I met school year goals.
  • Even though no one really looks at them, I love my photo collection. It provides source material for great classroom conversation pieces. And again, valuable evidence.
  • Should you ever be nominated for an award, or field a question from a curious teacher, or lead professional development, it is the first place you can turn to show people how you do you. Nothing makes you look more prepared than a massive archive of everything you've done and the ability to say "here."

I love how this has helped me improve my practices. And thank you to everyone that motivates me to keep it fresh.

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AuthorJonathan Claydon

Soon after I introduced notebooks, my classes started getting bigger. Testing started to become a challenge. Long ago I'd make them physically separate a bit, but now it's impossible. I tried the folder blinder thing. And still, the determined would try to deceive me. Different test versions have had the most success. But I'm trying to remove the motivations as much as possible.

In the spring of 2013 I said forget it, they put so much effort into these notebooks anyway, let's make them available on the test. Day one of school last year I mentioned this policy, with much excitement, naturally.

It felt appropriate in academic level classes. These students needed a little more support. I want to reinforce good habits like keeping a worthwhile notebook. It helped me prove a point when I could draw correlations between the state of someone's notebook and their performance. They usually weren't doing the classwork anyway.

Fast forward to now and I've got PreAP Pre Calculus. A lot of people hold up Pre AP as this sacred thing. We don't mess around in here, mounds of homework, and the highest of high stakes on tests. Again faced with students on top of one another I said you know, if I make enough versions (three each time) I'm ok just making them all open notes.

You might see that as a cop out. But it actually affords a lot of unique opportunities. For one, we don't review for tests. Straight up, no. I announce the date some days in advance and I might mention the list of topics. But there's no scripted review.

The content of my tests has changed as well. A lot of the sections model things we've done in class, but each and every time there's something in there that can't be copied.

And in the end, everyone in there did ridiculously well. Over half got an A for the semester. That might sound wrong and unnatural, but aren't the kids supposed to feel like they learn something rather than satisfy a normal bell-curve of grade distribution?

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A brief description of the tools that power my classroom. This is in addition to assumed stuff like word processor and spreadsheet.

PDFPen: Edits and creates PDF files. Useful for adding images to problem sets.
LaTeX: The pretty way to typeset equations. If you've had it with Word nudging your equations in random directions, you might like this.
Adobe Illustrator: High-res vector images that don't look like garbage when printed. Great for making posters.
Pixelmator: Simple image editor that powers the red-boxed children in my photo gallery.
Dropbox: C'mon. Duh. I pay for the pro version which was kind of pricey for 100GB, but they've since made it 1TB.
Final Cut Pro X: I don't make a lot of movies, but it's necessary for our goofy class films.
Rdio: I know Spotify is the cool kid these days, but I've been a subscriber since 2011 before there were other options. And it still carries Taylor Swift. So there.
AirServer: Mimics an AppleTV on a desktop computer allowing you to display iPhone and iPad screens.
Aperture: Technically discontinued and soon to be replaced. I take my classroom photos using my phone and Aperture has hooks into iCloud putting the pictures on my home computer instantly. Less clumsy than iPhoto.
DeskScribble: Annotation on top of the desktop.
OmniGraphSketcher: Allows you to create a graph of any shape or size when you don't want to figure out the equation that's necessary. Recently open sourced.
SketchBook Pro: Primary method of delivery. I use layers like different pages.

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An article made the rounds a while ago: Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science

A lot of smart twitter folks had the same reaction I had: "duh."

Now, to be fair, at no point in my career have my techniques met with strong critique. No one has accused me of doing harm or doing less than what's required. But there's a stigma. You can feel it in professional development sessions. You're showing some veterans about how great it is to have kids talking to each other and figuring stuff out and they kind of scowl or find a way to tune out. They play along to be polite but you know 0% of what you discussed will make it back to their classroom.

And in these instances it comes back to the eternal straw man: we've GOT to prepare them for college.

No one stops to consider that college teaching is sub-par. Or that the environment is completely foreign to high school. Other than desks and books it's not the same thing. Around the time I saw this article a teacher from another campus was remarking about some college professors who were blown away by Bloom's Taxonomy, something engrained in high school PD for like, ever.

Why do most people lecture eternally? Because they do it in college. Why do most people give mountains of homework? Because they do it in college.

You know what else happens in college? Class sizes of 150. Three hours of "face" time a week. Learning for the sake of learning disappears. GPA becomes the only thing that matters. You give a student two opportunities to perform in 18 weeks and they're going to get desperate. You make a student a number on a list and they won't care about deceiving you. You find the right kids on a college campus and you can earn a master's degree in cheating. No one likes talking about that either. Now, the students I knew who relied on that sort of thing didn't last long, but essay mills are a thing.

You all had the bad professor. Sixth semester fluid mechanics for me. Fellow walks in and says what are your questions. None? Ok. Ninety minutes of reading overheads. Scolding us for not asking questions. Threatening to go faster. Whipping overheads every 15 seconds. Getting more disgruntled each time. A week later he told us that merely sitting there complacently for an entire semester will earn us a C. I got a B in the class, and I know nothing about fluid mechanics (my exam grades were all less than 50%). Nothing he did inspired me to care one iota about his material. Said professor had several prestigious teaching awards to his name because, of course.

It was anomaly, and I had plenty of good instructors. But c'mon, THAT's allowed to happen? That's what everyone was trying to prepare me for?

Why in the world should I do anything like a college professor? I know all of my students by name. I see them five hours a week, every day of the week. I ask them to perform dozens of times and watch them grow from feedback. They produce something every day. There's no need to offload the instruction into a daily pile of homework. Final exams are meaningless to me, because I've watched a student every day for months, I don't need some high stakes 80 question test to tell me if they learned anything.

If a university lecture hall forms the basis for your high school classroom culture, go visit a lecture hall and update your memories.

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I ran a seating experiment in Calculus last semester. A couple weeks in I had them request a buddy that would follow them around the room. I came up with four configurations and we rotated every couple of weeks. The kids had minimal protests. Now that I've had a chance to observe them for a while and see who really works well together, I've simplified the idea for second semester.

Before we left again they gave me some preferences. I took that and made two configurations. In the case of each kid, one of the rotations represent their "dream team" scenario.

I also spread them out a little more. Previously they only used five of the six groups available. Now we'll use them all just to provide some legroom. No one stays in the same seat, but if they had a condition like "the front works best" at least one of their rotations will put them there.

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We have a bit of an AP retention problem at my school. Kids sign up and give up. As newly installed Calculus teacher this was a problem I wanted to solve. It started with some heavy handed talk at the beginning of the year about how no one's letting them out anymore. That worked. Some kids asked about leaving and were denied. And then, accidentally, I found another way. Thanks to something stupid I did when I was 18.

And then it just kind of escalated.

And now, coming in a week or so, we will have official Varsity Math t-shirts. I styled them up to look like a letter jacket, patches and everything. For $20 kids get a shirt, contribute to an ad in the yearbook (you better believe we're taking a team photo), and the rest goes towards having some food on the Friday before the AP Test. And then we might go play laser tag. Like, for real.

It's the dumbest and best thing.

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