What Do My Students Really Know? Part 2

During the second semester, I only assigned homework using Delta Math. This worked well for several reasons, with the most important one being that it gave me better insight into what my students actually understood than pencil-and-paper homework ever did.

The Delta Math homework I assigned surprised me right off the bat. The image below displays one student’s results on the first assignment of the second semester. Many students had similar results.

HW 1 Linear 1

This assignment consisted entirely of review material. We had assessed linear functions at least once in December, and for the most part, students did fine. I knew that students would be a bit rusty after Winter Break. That’s why we completed this assignment. The surprise came from the misconceptions I saw in student responses.

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Although I could only see their answers, I found it relatively easy to determine their misconceptions. Unsurprisingly, I saw all of the classic slope mistakes.

  • Writing slope as an ordered pair instead of a ratio
  • Subtraction errors, especially with negative numbers
  • Putting the change in x in the numerator instead of the denominator
  • Mismatching x and y
  • Forgetting to simplify (not exactly a mistake, but Delta Math marks this wrong)
  • Misinterpreting \frac{4}{0} as either 4 or as 0

These aren’t new mistakes. I’ve seen them many times, and we’ve corrected them together many times. We said “vertical divided by horizontal” at least ten times each class period every day for a month. And the students got this! Like I said, students did fine when we assessed linear functions in December.

So why did so many students continue to display these misconceptions? I’m not naive. I realize that students master the material at different rates. But how could so many of them who had mastered the material make these mistakes? Why did they return to misconceptions that they had overcome a month earlier?

One explanation is that students managed to know the material well enough to pass an assessment, but they did not develop the robust understanding necessary to maintain their skills even a month later. That’s the explanation I originally subscribed to, but I think it lacks something important. Many of my students did understand slope. Throughout the fall, they worked hard to connect proportional relationships, steepness, and lines. They built a solid conceptual foundation. They thought mathematically. They solved problems. I think what they lacked – and this is on me – was a proper emphasis on procedural fluency. Sure, we had plenty of opportunities to practice and to develop that fluency, but rarely did they have the “Uh oh, I’m wrong!” moments that Delta Math gave them. My Delta Math assignments required students to get a certain number of problems correct to get credit. You just can’t fake a right answer. That’s what I like about Delta Math – it holds them accountable.

The other major advantage of Delta Math over pencil-and-paper homework? I can look through as many assignments as I want to in a relatively short time period without having to carry papers around. I have a bit of a problem with keeping papers organized, so moving homework online and avoiding paper altogether saves me some serious time and energy. The obvious drawback is that I cannot see the work that the students did. In the examples above, it’s relatively straightforward to identify misconceptions without seeing the student’s work, but that certainly won’t always be the case. I think, though, that simply being able to see that a student struggled with a problem type may be enough, especially given that some sort of intervention would need to take place anyway.

I’m not sure yet what homework will look like in my classes this year, but it seems like I’ll want to place more emphasis on procedural fluency. Perhaps such an emphasis earlier in the year will lead to better understanding all year long. I hope 2018-19 is the year I finally figure out how to make homework work for me and for my students!

Sandra Cisneros – “One Holy Night”

Sandra Cisneros – “One Holy Night”

Last summer, I read two books with a student. We read The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Our conversations about The Awakening proved fascinating, but we didn’t have as much success reading and discussing Mrs. Dalloway. Nevertheless, I found the experience meaningful, and I think the student did too. She sent me the following Remind message before the school year ended:

Hey Carlson, are we reading this summer?

How could I say no? We haven’t yet started, but we plan to read The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Additionally, I asked one of my students from this past year if she would like to read a book with me, and she agreed. We’ve been reading Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros. The story “One Holy Night” led to an interesting discussion. Here are the highlights and my rambling commentary. To maintain her privacy, I will refer to my student simply as C.

In “One Holy Night,” an eighth-grade girl tells of how she loses her virginity to a man who calls himself Chaq Uxmal Paloquín. He claims to be descended from Mayan kings. The people in the neighborhood call him Boy Baby, and no one seems to know much about him. We find out later – after he has left town and our narrator has become pregnant – that he is actually thirty-seven years old and that he is a serial killer. The story is only nine pages long, and it focuses more on mood and feeling than on specific details.

For whatever reason, our conversation fixated on rape. C rightly pointed out that Boy Baby committed statutory rape. She expressed some discomfort with the story and mentioned that some readers might be deeply disturbed (“triggered”) by the story. We talked about the choice Cisneros made to avoid detail and use poetic language to describe the rape:

Then something inside bit me, and I gave out a cry as if the other, the one I wouldn’t be anymore, leapt out.

C was glad that there wasn’t more detail. Because rape is so disturbing, she asserted, only a bad writer would need to include more detail to bring about the desired response from the reader. This assertion seemed to extend past “One Holy Night” to all literature (and other works of art, for the matter), so I asked if there could ever be a situation in which more detail might be necessary. She said no, again emphasizing that a good writer wouldn’t need to include the details of the rape. I told C that I didn’t disagree but that I wanted to press the point further. Could there be any value in graphic description of such a violent act? And what about other violent acts like murder? C felt that rape belonged to a category of its own, that it was even worse than murder. I wondered whether a rape victim might consider it necessary to express the horror and the violence she went through. C agreed this might be possible, but she expressed her concerns about works of art that use such violence for shock or entertainment value. She talked about the show 13 Reasons Why (which I have not seen) and how she felt like it glamorized suicide. We talked about how the narrator seemed to romanticize her own rape, describing Boy Baby’s face as “the face I am in love with” even after discovering he’s a serial killer. It was a meandering conversation, but it was a meaningful one.

When I chose Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, I didn’t know much about its content. I didn’t intend to pick a book with a story about a young girl’s rape, so I’m glad that C and I managed to have such an interesting discussion. I’m forced to wonder where this sort of conversation takes place. Or if it even does. It’s not easy to talk about rape, but it seems important that we do. Sometimes we don’t give our students enough credit for the depth of their insights. I look forward to learning more with C as the summer continues.

Black History Month

I took a risk this February. My school celebrates Black History Month in a number of ways, but I always feel like I need to do more. Here’s what I tried.

I’m not sure what made me think of this, but I decided that we would read a poem by an African-American poet each morning in homeroom. I figured this could be a simple yet powerful way to celebrate African-American culture, and honestly, I just thought it would be interesting. You can find the poems I used here.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the first day. Would the students really listen? Would anyone want to participate? Would the experience be meaningful to anyone but me?

I explained to my homeroom the plan for the month. I told them that anyone could volunteer to read a poem or even bring in a poem of their choice. As I prepared to read the first poem, I paused and thought “Why not ask for a volunteer now?” I expected dead silence and blank stares. Instead, an energetic, excitable young man – who happens to be African-American – said he wanted to read the poem. Overjoyed. I was absolutely overjoyed.

As the month continued, I kept bringing in poems, and my students kept volunteering to read. It might have only been 7 or 8 students, but when I started, I had no expectations whatsoever. And while my students sometimes struggled to read the poems, they truly committed themselves to their delivery. And the rest of the class? Quiet, respectful, attentive. Did they find the poems interesting or meaningful or enjoyable? I can’t say, but I do know that they respected my idea and made it a reality.

Students read nearly all of the poems. I had to read 1 or 2 because of time constraints, and I asked a guidance counselor to read one. Her reading of Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” truly moved me. I had hoped that having a “guest reader” would be special, but I was totally blown away. I think the kids were too.

For the last day of February, I decided to talk briefly about the idea of Black History Month and close with a short selection from a poem that means something to me. I thanked my students for committing to the poem readings all month and told them that I would really miss not having a poem to read every day. Then, I attempted to tell them how I’d like us all to carry the message of Black History Month forward. That we need to spend all year trying to make our school, our community, and our country more tolerant and more just. I think I stumbled over my words a bit here. I was emotional, especially knowing what would come next. I closed with the last few lines of Amiri Baraka’s “Three Modes of History and Culture.”

I think about a time when I will be relaxed.
When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves
away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
and soften, and my songs will be softer
and lightly weight the air.

I’m not a poet. I’m not an English teacher. I’m not a literary scholar. Maybe this poem or any of the others mean something totally different than I think. I don’t think it matters, though. What matters is that we pushed ourselves to do something different, that we worked outside of our comfort zone, that we really tried to learn and understand.

But it’s not enough. I need to do more next year. I need to do more for my students. To let them know that their history and their culture matter. To let them know that they matter. To help us all learn to be better, more tolerant, more understanding, more generous in spirit.

This was a risk. I don’t know if I did a good thing. I don’t know if I made a mistake. I badly want feedback, but I’m also terrified that I sent a message I didn’t intend to send. It’s uncomfortable sometimes – teaching – but it’s worth it for those moments. Those powerful moments when twenty-five thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students devote their attention to listening to a classmate read a poem. I hope that I made a difference.

Reflections on The Classroom Chef

Reflections on The Classroom Chef

Take risks. More than anything else, that’s the message of The Classroom Chef by John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. It’s 2018. We owe it to our students to do better than just teach the same lesson we’ve been using. We owe them better than life in a textbook universe. We owe them more than just lectures and practice. We owe our students a meaningful classroom experience that will help them develop understanding and not just procedural fluency. We owe them more.

Take risks. I told this to my students when we returned from winter break. I told them that I planned to take risks this semester to make class more interesting, to help them find meaning in what we’re doing, and to allow them to learn and refine academic and life skills.

Take risks. Grades don’t matter. Test scores don’t matter. Coverage doesn’t matter. Standard algorithms don’t matter. Compliance doesn’t matter. The book doesn’t matter. The pacing guide doesn’t matter. Standards don’t matter.

Take risks. What does matter? The students in front of you right now. Their thoughts and ideas and energy and interests and passions and enthusiasm and suggestions and questions and feelings and understandings and beliefs and knowledge and motivation and … What matters? Their future. What matters? They do.

Take risks. We owe our students the best education we can possibly give them. John and Matt understand this. They understand that we need to change if we really want our students to grow. They understand that it’s not enough to do the same old thing – even if it has been effective in the past. They understand that we need to keep pushing forward lest we end up going backward. They understand that education in 2018 can’t look like education in 1950 or 1990 or 2005 or even in 2017. They understand that students need us to value their engagement, their thinking, and their future.

Take risks. The Classroom Chef offers a ton of great ideas and useful advice. But beneath all of the stories and suggestions lies one simple message – take risks.