Monday, November 2, 2009


So far it seems like the only form of assessment are tests & quizes. My CT gives points each day for class work and homework, but I wouldn't really count these grades as a form of assessment. Points for both are awarded on whether or not you completed the assignment. Doing an assignment doesn't necessarily mean understanding it. An efficient approach can be to copy the assignment from someone who understands it best. It seems though that waiting until a test or quiz to find out info about students' progress is too late. I will sometimes go around and ask students what they learned from a particular activity or exercise. Students rarely seem to understand what the meaning is behind what they are doing and/or they don't have the words to explain what they do understand. I'm wondering how one teaches students to explain their reasoning other than modeling it for them and requiring them to do it over and over.

Students don't seem particularly accountable for their work either. A class typically goes like this: The CT checks for homework completion as students check their answers/finish up their work. Then the CT lectures or leads an activity. Then there are book problems. It is usually unclear to me whether these problems are considered class work or homework. Many students opt not to do the work in class and instead say that they're just going to do it for homework. It is unclear however if the CT checks that the classwork got completed. Also, I'm not sure what the mechanism is for assessing understanding through class work. Whether or not there's assessment or accountability, it seems like an extraordinary amount of class time is wasted by students choosing not to work. I can understand that students might need some time to disengage, but class time does seem like the best time to do the work so that they can get ideas/feedback from the teacher and classmates. It also seems to breed a culture of slacking in the classroom. This is the part that troubles me most.

As I think about taking over these classrooms in January, I have to say that I am quite nervous to see how students respond to my accountability measures. How do I keep kids working for the entire 50 minute period if they are used to checking out for the last half?

Parent Teacher Conferences

Last Wednesday were parent/teacher conferences. I was able to sit in on about 10 before having to leave for class at UWB. (The day started at noon so that teachers could stay late to meet with parents in the evening.) These conferences went very differently than what I have experienced at SGS with learning team meetings (our equivalent of the parent/teacher conference).

First off, students were not usually present. Aside from that obvious fact, the tone and focus of the conferences were different as well. At SGS, the parents, while they are appreciative and postive, can be very challenging of both the teacher and the student. They are concerned with how the curriculum is taught, the level of difficulty, and the amount of homework. They also challenge their daughters to do better (whether that means being more organized, not procrastinating, putting in more effort, asking questions, or better prioritizing what they put their effort into.) At Chief Sealth I saw a lot of smiling and nodding on the parents' part. They didn't have too many questions for the teacher (at least few that probed into how the classroom was run/how curriculum was designed and why). The information exchanged was very grade focused (as opposed to skill focused). And my CT didn't have very specific information on how students could improve, other than to come in after school for help and especially before tests to do some practice problems. In the case where a student was getting a high grade, often very little other information was exchanged. Parents were happy to hear their kid was getting a high grade and moved on to the next teacher.

Imaging how I would run a parent teacher conference and what information I would prepare to share, here are the ideas I have. I would probably have the students do a self evaluation in class before the conferences (even if the student's parent(s)/guardian(s) aren't coming in). I would focus the evaluation on the skills learned thus far and I might ask students to show some evidence. (Although, I'm noticing that metacognitive reasoning just isn't that high among the student body in general. I'm not sure how to fit that in with all the other skills that are mandated.) I would also ask the students to come up with a plan for how they could improve. Thus, I would have more specific information to share other than just grades. Plus it would incorporate the student's persepective as well.

On a side note...I don't want to get into a whole debate about privatization of schools, but I can see how the private market for schools requires teachers (at least in my experience) to become better teachers. Parents pay a lot of money and expect a high quality product. In the first several years of teaching, I was always nervous about parent/teacher conferences, specifically because I was afraid of being called out for something I wasn't doing well. After 8 years of teaching, I now feel like I can handle just about any parent question. Everything I do, I do for a reason, and I can often cite research to back up my choices (though knowing what I know about education research, there's probably evidence to the contrary as well). I don't think I do everything perfectly, but I am confident that I deliver a good product and know that I work hard and am always striving to do better. To some extent, I do think that I am where I am now because of parent pressure to make private schools better. One way that SGS responds to that pressure is to develop their teachers, and I have benefitted from that. I'm not sure that public schools feel the same kind of market forces, and I witness a lot of mediocre teaching here.

Prior Knowledge

I've been thinking a lot about the role of prior knowledge in teaching. Today my CT lead an investigation around indirect variation (when one variable goes up by a certain factor, the other goes down by the same factor, or in math terms xy=k). The investigation involved balancing nickels on a ruler which had a pencil under the center point at 6 inches to act as the fulcrum. The point of the investigation was to notice a pattern that the number of nickels * distance from center was equal on the left and right sides. When I checked in with some groups to see how they were doing, more than once I heard a response of "this is stupid." When asked why, the response was that the student had done an activity like it before in middle school or elementary school. My response was, "That's great! So you have a sense of what the pattern is. if you keep stacking more nickels on the left side, what do you have to do to balance them?" These students had an awareness that more nickels meant moving them closer to the fulcrum. When I asked them if they new what the pattern was, they were not able to answer. So I encouraged the students to look for a pattern in the numbers (which they were unable to do without a lot of prodding).

If I were to teach this lesson, I would make sure to elicit from the students what experience they have with balancing activities (either formally in school or informally like on a seesaw) and ask them to make a prediction as to what will happen when they add more nickels and to explain why they made that prediction. From there I would ask them to focus on finding a pattern between the distance from center and the number of nickels. Perhaps restructuring the lesson in this minor way would 1) show respect for what students already know, 2) activate what they do already know so they can draw upon it in this lesson, and 3) focus the students on what the new part of the learning is.

Another way that I "deal" with prior knowledge in my classroom is to give pretests to see what students know. I do this before a unit and test for the specific skills that my unit will uncover. I have noticed that when I give a pretest, I get fewer comments from students like "I've done this before" or "I already know this." Whether students have done some of the math before, pretests usually reveal a lack of mastery and students seem to have a stronger desire to learn. In the case where students do have mastery, then I can structure an alterative project for them to extend their learning.

On a side note, the directions for the investigation (out of Discovering Algebra) were way too long. I think they could be rewritten in a much more concise way so that students don't get hung up on reading and interpreting steps.