Friday, December 27, 2013

Progression of Homework

So I am still thinking about homework, how to do it (or should I), how much value does it have, what is the best thing for my students?

Where I started teaching just 8 years ago I ran a traditional class - or at least the class I was use to in High School (even though I was more than 15 years removed from it).  I did like many first time teachers - I taught  like I was taught (quite a bit). 

Class started with checking homework, I usually collected it too.  But we spend time grading it, answering questions and then answering more questions.  Then correcting what students did incorrectly the evening before, or copied in the hall.  And the whole time - 6 students really focused while 20 were zombies - eyes open and nothing going on.  Then I would be pressed to teach the lesson.

I quickly moved to just collecting and handling questions by doing a different problem with similar content so everyone could work it.  That quickly help, at least everyone was involved.  But I still had a ton of questions from homework and misconceptions to "clean up" from students trying to do their work and doing it incorrectly.  And why wouldn't I have to fix misconceptions?  I was assigning something  new, something that we had just been introduced too.

Then I started not assigning new concepts immediately, we would do new in class together for a number of days, and then my question time quickly decreased I would lead the problem as I walked the isles. 

And now over the span of years I have migrated where I supply solutions and just have students turn in their work occasionally.  That way a student who is struggling can have an extra day, find time for help in the class or study hall.  It opens up a ton of my time to help students during the hour. 

And there you see the progression, I no longer consider homework really important.  Otherwise I would be "on my students" to be done every day.  But homework is for the student, it is what he/she needs, thus I give some flexibility.  

The students know they are responsible  for the material in the text (I sure say it often enough) and their grade is based on their knowledge of that material.  I often joke that students "can learn through homework or through test and quizzes, I really don't care which way."  Note, in my class, grades are based upon summative recursive assessments on mastered material.  And since the quizzes are recursive, always focusing on mastered material students are continually "practicing" twice per week. 

Now is good time to mention that my goal is not their grades but the knowledge they leave my school with, are they college and career ready.  (They can be a pain with some students or parents sometimes - but when is last time a person was asked about their Algebra 2 grade when applying for a job?) 

I don't care how they learn it, students that play school do the work and earn a better grade typically.  But the student who really won't play school still typically gets the skills!  And a D in my class means they are ready for the next course.   (I find the D thing to be an epidemic - if a student gets a D and cannot do the work - how are they ready for college/career -- no wonder we have 30-40% of college students doing remedial math!)

And over the span of time the end results have gotten constantly better.  I have had better results on the ACT test, better results on the class assessments, better results from students who report back to me about how they are doing in their jobs or in their college math courses.  And that is because I feel I have increased the time a student does math!  I went from most students being zombies, who spent 20-30 minutes per day on math with homework, to an entire class doing math for 45 minutes, 5 days per week minimum.  Now the 6 students with questions just wander in before school or during homeroom for help.  My room is now a whirling dervish of math activity!   The homework is beyond that, and so if a student copies it (and that never happens) he or she is still doing 45 minutes of work per day.

Now I am pushing for less paper & pencil and more instant feedback practice - websites (Khan, IXL, textbook), spreadsheets, etc.  The hard part is changing me, I still find myself more comfortable collecting homework, than checking website reports -- and weird as that sounds it takes a lot more time to change me than to stay the same.   

I know practice is important and I will keep working for a balance between paper/pencil (a skill that must be maintained) and some sort of on-line portion (which I think gives students better feedback and increases the return on their practice time).

Most importantly - we will keep on trying to be better each day.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Open Letter to the Wisconsin Committee Taking Comments on the CCSS

To the Select Committee reviewing the CCSS in Wisconsin:

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this issue.  I am a father of 3 children (13,12 & 10 years old) and a second-career teacher just starting my eighth year of teaching High School math.  I spent my first dozen years of my career as an engineer and manager in the private sector, which gives me a different view of the standards.   As a nation we must embrace the ideal of making students who are college and career ready, and while the CCSS are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction. 

I have spent the last few years working with the CCSS in mathematics and have formed some solid opinions:
1) Being from industry I knew some states' graduates were not as strong as others, some sort of national guideline is most likely needed.  Many countries that we trail in education have a national set of standards.  And anytime a small group forms a large set of standards there will be problems and complaints - as a nation we need to work together to move forward. 
2) The core in math is strong K-6 but in my opinion simply has too many standards in High School, thus these individual standards take precious time from class room teachers to teach problem solving, deeper discovery, reasonsing, etc (the mathematical practices).  But the practices are a strength of the CCSS which can be built upon and the standards will need to evolve.
3) We try to move too fast in education (the CCSS being a great example of too fast).  We should move on a continuous improvement path; yet education moves with an all or nothing mentality.  That is why the testing in 2014-2015 will be disastrous, we are trying to be 20% better in 2 years versus 2% better year after year.  Whether the CCSS can survive the poltical "firestorm" that is coming (or is here) is an unanswered question.
And finally, 4) The standards are plenty rigorous and we need to focus on the practices in the CCSS.

As a parent and educator I worry about the CCSS being a list of standards to check off, and since the list is long deeming it rigorous.   I worry about the politics and the desire for instant results derailing the opportunity for there to be true progress with the CCSS.  I do not believe the CCSS are perfect, far from it, but it is a decent starting point.

And the CCSS should be a starting point for Wisconsin.  While I feel the HS math standards are overloaded on topics, I think they provide a framework that can be used to move Wisconsin and the nation forward in education.  It is the practices we should be focusing on - problem solving, tenacity, the ability to read, justify and revise.  And that is why the CCSS should not be dismantled but allowed to evolve, I do believe the mathematical practices to be the strength of the CCSS.

In the end I support the CCSS with its flaws, because I view it as a first step in a continuous improvement process.  We need national standards, and I feel the practices are good.  I am hoping that as time passes we can correct some of the "mile wide, inch deep" issues and in the end have better students who are ready for college and career. 

Scott Anderson
Math Instructor
Juda High School
Juda, Wisconsin


Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's nearly 2014, does my HS daily homework look different than 1985? Update time!

Any time you try and change it is hard work.  And changing homework to this century is slow, changing is just hard.  What I mean is that I am trying to make sure my class looks distinctly different than a math classroom of 1985 (previous post).  And with today being a snow day on the last scheduled school day of 2013, I can state that it is the end of 2013 for my classes.  (Whether I am dedicated or simply lame for working on a snow day is up for debate though.)   And while the year is about 1/2 over I cannot say I am 1/2 way on making my class(es) like I would like.  There are a lot of times it still seems like 1985.

So I committed to not being the same.  I decided to have 3 elements: weekly practice, projects with milestones, and combo of workbook/text problems (1-2 times per week).  So I am half way through the year, and it is time for a mid-term check (I suppose I could grade myself - but I hate grades, progress does not move strictly by a clock - and that is what grades measure.  Plus I would be brutal on myself with respect to a grade.)

The first prong of my trident was weekly practice being on online sites where feedback is immediate - since my budget for the move was basically zero I defaulted to Khan Academy.  And this has actually worked okay, the problem was getting the students on problems that they needed to practice.  Initially they spent time on things that were "too easy."  But once things are mastered they moved to topics that were more "grade-level."

When I committed class time for Khan , which included the initial set-up and time for practicing during my precious class time the results were good.  The big problem is how to check that students have done the time and staying on schedule. 

Again small school teaching is different, I have 8 different courses in 8 hours.  That can sometimes be a little overwhelming, and Khan did a new roll off of there site in August, too late for me to get comfortable with using quickly.  (Yes - these are all excuses)   So I have been stuck with seeing where students are at certain times,  And because that can be cumbersome I have found myself in the last month falling back to assigning 6-8 problems from the text in a couple of my preps (mainly Algebra 2 and PreCalc) - just because it was easy and I have found myself to be too busy.  (Have great excuse here - won Solve for Tomorrow Contest).   

I have found Khan to be good for my students who need more practice.  Students in my lower Algebra groups etc.  I think that has been better than average.  But all the courses above Algebra 1 the progress has been choppy at best.  I have given credit like homework, it has been less than 0.5% of their grade.  (I believe a grade is a representation of their total math ability - which is why I use assessments versus homework to demonstrate mastery.)

So the mid-year evaluation of the on-line work, is well, a work in progress.  I plan to commit a class period during January and Febuary to see where that leads.  (We have progressed pretty well in the curriculum so that is a move we can do).  I need to figure a better system to record the students progress.  I am leaning to weekly emails where they tell me there point total, and weekly change.  Or I could just do a daily check during the class period, but I really want to make the students own their learning.   The big thing moving forward will be to double or triple the time so I am close to my goal of 20 minutes, 3 times per week - a solid hour outside of class per week of targeted practice.  

The second tine of the trident is large multiple answer projects with milestones.  I have started my large projects that I have used in the past with more milestones and hopefully a higher level of expectation.  Algebra has started a Pay Day Loan project, Algebra 2 has Stocks and Geometry has started the House Project  (Google sketch up in Geometry, youtube video). So far the quality of work is better than years past.

I think adding more milestones has helped with the quality of work.  I have worked at adding milestones that still make the student be a "critical thinker" but allows them more feedback, more often. The key remains that no one flunks a project - everyone needs to deliver.  Just like the world, if the boss (me) does not like the quality the employee (student) reworks/revises.

The last part of the trident was the workbook/text book combo.  This was the fuzziest part in the beginning and the part where really little has changed from last year to date.  I am working from targeted worksheets much more this year versus just using the text.  That has seemed to work - but that is a "gut-feel" opinion, I have no data to support the opinion.  And I always feel there really is no difference between worksheets and the text book. 

The last part with the textbook was "moving" low level things out of my class (flipping & outside reading).  And some of that has been done by flipping my Algebra 1 course.  I spent the end of my summer completing a self-paced course called FIZZ -- which really helped me.  But I have not done any text reading yet, which can be an important college skill.   I also find that making videos is much more work than doing the equivalent in class lecture.  So I am doing a mixture of videos outside of class and lecturing inside class. 

Has it worked?  Well, again there is progress, but it is slow.  But I always stick to my line that I just want to be 3% better every year - cause in 5 years you are 15% better which is huge.  And 3% is achievable - because it is not a pendulum but a slow steady climb of a hill. 

So in the new year, the second half of the school year, I want to focus on the on-line portion and the flipping portion.  Those are the 2 items that seem to have the largest return.  And just try to be a sliver better each day.  I also have agreed to present this homework change at the Wisconsin Math Council conference in May, so I really would like to show "more" progress than I currently have had.

And while I don't think my room screams 2013 - it definitely is no longer says 1985.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What I control

Lately I have been doing a large amount of reflecting on what I control in a classroom (working from Whitaker's 14 things great teachers do ).  I cannot control what a student does outside my door very easily, heck, it is hard to control them within my room (from a desire to learn perspective - from a classroom management perspective I do okay).

I control myself, the relationships I make, the passion I bring to the room.  If my class is boring whose fault is that!  I know math can be dry -- but I don't have to be. I control my room, my relationships and expectations, the projects we do, and what the students find important.

I cannot control others in the building, or other schools, or in the community or in the state legislature, I can only make sure that I make an environment where my room is a sanctuary of learning the math skills the world requires of today's students.  I try and create a place where we do things the students need to know to succeed - sorry Smarter Balanced Test.   Where students don't strive for an artificial grade but for real skills, real problem solving - skills that will allow them to succeed beyond the walls of my school.  I don't teach math for students to play school but to gain the ability to be successful outside the walls of my room.

Those are the things I control.  And everyday I know I have to approach my room with a desire and fire.  What we do within my room is greatly important.  We work hard to skip merely good and go for great.

I control that.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Competition -- Juda Students and Teacher write contest Lesson plan and win.

So today I received an email for Samsung telling me Juda had won the State competition for their Solve for Tomorrow contest.  I was very excited - winning is good, being the state winner is awesome, round 2 is making a video which is exciting (there are 50 state winners and 5 go to the "finals"), and $20,000 of Samsung products will be great.  And though I did do some work on the grant, it was a combined effort with my Physics class.  They brainstormed, wrote, and are the bigger part of the "win" and more importantly are the major cog in making the next step in our solar, green energy project happen.

Our project is to push hard and make Juda get 10% of its energy from green supplies (increasing another 6% beyond what the current solar array does).  And more importantly showing other schools how they can do this project.  Rolling out our documents, our lessons, and using our video to get people excited.  Students can make change.  It will help by showing how they can get green, reduce their school's operating costs and show how students, whether in a class or an organization, can take ownership in making their school, their community, their world a better place.  Our video will support this vision!

So today I am simply over-joyed, so were my students.  Tomorrow we start this year's project - with funding already there.  Ahhh.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

School Spotlight! Juda makes Wisconsin State Journal

So one of the things the Physics class did with the solar installation was to get publicity for our school and green energy.  And we were really pleased to be put into the Wisconsin State Journal (1 of the 2 really major papers in the southern part of the state).

Read it here!  I am feeling really good about it!