Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My Dilemma in Grading Student PBL Work

There was this fear I had about PBL. I was afraid that the learning was not authentic because of the multiple opportunities students have to demonstrate mastery during a project. It felt like I was cheating the system by returning the student's work with feedback, letting them revise their work based on that feedback, and then resubmit the work (with perhaps another round of feedback/revisions). And this fear held back the development of my skills in teaching PBL. I was initially drawn to PBL because of all the positives: the relevance of the learning, the inquiry-based nature of the learning, the student choice. But I wasn't sure how to reconcile the iterative nature of the feedback/revision cycles with how I give grades.

I realize now that there was a mismatch between the intrinsic motivation inherent to PBL teaching/learning and the extrinsic values that govern the grading system I use. And this mismatch caused me a lot of tension! For the PBL projects I've done so far, my solution was to ignore the problem; I gave a lot of feedback and let students revise and resubmit, but I didn't actually grade the final product students produced. (but don't tell anyone I did that!)

Last year my ELL students did amazing projects about immigration in the United States for the statistics unit in algebra. This work was phenomenal. And it was a six-week project. But I didn't grade the final product they produced. Is that ok? Isn't a good grade the 'reward' for a high-quality product?  (And a low grade the punishment for a low-quality product?)

For the current PBL project my students are doing, I think I've found a solution to the grading problem: the single-point rubric.  I plan to use two versions of the rubric: one without points for the feedback/revision cycles and then the same rubric, with points added, for the final project grade. This post from Cult of Pedagogy has guidance on how to turn rubric scores into grades.

The other 'problem' with the iterative feedback/revision cycles of PBL is fairness: if one student completes a project with one round of feedback/revisions and another student completes the same project with three rounds of feedback/revisions, then it's not fair that both get a final project grade of an A. Right? That's not fair.

Wrong. At least for me. Both students produced high-quality work. If finishing the project with only one round of revisions was the criteria for success, then both students getting an A would not be fair. But the number of revisions was not my criteria for success. Educating the public about an issue related to immigration and presenting a counter-narrative to what we hear in the media about immigration was the criteria for success. In that case, both students getting an A was fair as both students met the criteria for success; they just took varying amounts of time to do it.

I share this because these were the biggest roadblocks in terms of authentically implementing PBL in my classroom. And I think any teacher wanting to do PBL should consider this before fully jumping in. The fact is, so many of our schools are built on a system of extrinsic motivation--grades. Yet, PBL is, at the core, all about intrinsic motivation. Reconciling the two forms of motivation, especially in a school like mine that uses a traditional grading scale, is an important step in any PBL journey!

Here are a few posts on PBL projects I've done. Some projects are in my algebra class. Other projects are from an elective class I teach for beginning English Learners. I don't teach only PBL; rather, I am trying to add 1 or 2 projects each year.

Stories About Status (project for beginning ELLs about identity, social status, and the dominant culture)

Photo Essay Project (project for beginning ELLs about identity)

The Immigration Project (a stats project in algebra 1 for beginning English Learners)

The Stats Project (my not great 1st attempt at PBL. This was a  project for a non-ELL algebra 1 statistics unit. The project was about teen health and social media)

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Identity Project: Student Podcasts

This year I am teaching an elective class for beginning English Language Learners (ELL). The course is project-based and uses California ELD standards as well as social justice standards from tolerance.org. The course is called Identities in Society Today. Here is a post on the background for this course.

The second unit is focused on social status and identity within the dominant culture. The essential question is "how does the dominant culture add and subtract from my identity?" In this unit ELL students are learning the language needed to describe social status in different situations and to compare/contrast the status and/or identities of people in social spaces. The culminating project for this unit will be a podcast.

The podcasts students create will serve to educate the staff at our school about the unique educational needs of beginning English Learners. As part of the podcast, students must interview someone (adult, student, other staff, bilingual, English only, etc). And that interview must help the students tell a story that relates identity and social status to the unique educational needs of beginning English Learners.

The post details the development of the project, how I scaffolded the learning, and different language production strategies I used to support students in accessing the content. As I write this, the project is not yet finished. Students are just about to do the interviews.

Knowledge of the Issue 

The first step in this process, before I even introduced the idea of a podcast, was to build students background knowledge and academic language about the issue. I wanted students to understand how differences in identity can create unequal social status among people, which, in turn, leads to unequal power dynamics. I also wanted them to learn the language needed to talk about these ideas in English.

I want to shoutout Teaching Tolerance for providing such a rich bank of resources to help guide teachers like me in this work. I used a number of the readings (and a few StoryCorps stories) found on Tolerance.org as central texts to this unit.  We spent two weeks doing close readings and structured listening activities to help build students background knowledge about issues related to status and identity. If I want beginning English Learners to be successful in this project, then there needs to be frontloading; that was the point of texts and audio stories we used in class.

The most popular readings we did was Julia Moves to the United States by Sean McCollum. To help the beginning English Learners access the text, I scaffolded two ways. First, we read the text together several times. We first read the text out loud as a class. I started and students would volunteer to continue reading when I paused. We did that twice. Next, students read out loud in partners, alternating reading paragraphs. Then, in partners, students answered the close textual analysis questions I added to the document. Finally, we went over the questions together as a class. Altogether, this took 60+ minutes (I teach on a block schedule so classes are 90 min).

One of the most popular StoryCorps stories we listened to was Crossing the Border by Connie and Blanca Alvarez. I scaffolded this with a three-listen strategy. First, we listened as a class. The students used a graphic organizer to track the main ideas. Then, we listened again as a class, with students adding to the main ideas they heard on the first listen. We listened one more time so they could add details to what they had already written down. Then, we had a class discussion. This worked really well and is an example of TEACHING listening rather than just making students listen.

Academic Language Production

If beginning English Learners are going to make a podcast to educate the staff at my school about educational issues related to ELL students, then there needs to be a lot of language production!

Earlier in the year, the class developed an identity vocabulary anchor chart. And we've been referencing and adding to as the year progressed. 

For this unit, I added sentence frames to the chart to help students talk about identity and social status. 

I also developed activities that gave students the opportunity to practice the language that I eventually want them to use in their podcast (more frontloading). 

The most popular activity with the students (and successful in terms of language production) was a last minute idea: I posted an image that I found on the internet. For example, people waiting in line at the grocery store. Students would talk to their partner and use the word bank and sentence frames to describe the identities and different levels of social status they saw in the picture. I showed a picture of the Queen of England greeting people in the street. I also showed a picture of people waiting in line for airport security. There were a bunch more. 

I planned to do this for about 10 minutes. We ended up doing this activity for over 30 minutes! One of the reasons was the RICH discussions we had. Since there is no 'right' answer, students were arguing back and forth about their ideas. It was super! If you are interested in using the activity, let me know. I can share it.


Project Launch

After the readings and listening activities and language production activities, it was time to do the project launch. Which was a complete failure. 

I used the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) structure from the Right Question Institute. I've blogged about using QFT for a project launch before. Previous attempts at QFT worked so well that I was truly surprised it flopped this time. 

The question focus was a graph of high school graduation rates for different identity groups in California. In the graph, English Language Learners have the lowest graduation rate. Then, I had students use the QFT process to come up with questions about the graph. Their questions weren't bad (some were very low quality--"why is the line blue") but the questions they generated didn't connect to status or identity. 

Why did it fail? I think I didn't use a good question focus. I also think the timing was bad. We did this on a Friday in late October at the end of what felt like a really long week. I have them the last class of the day for what felt like a really long day. Those things matter. 

So, I tried again with a different question focus and more success. I showed students this slide: 
They thought silently for a minute. Then, I had them share their ideas with their group. I asked groups to have each person in the group share one idea and to write that idea on a butcher paper. They did this until everyone had shared. 

Note: I used Spanish and English (something I don't usually do) because 100% student access at this juncture of the project was ESSENTIAL. If students didn't buy in at the beginning, then they would be less likely to engage later. I wanted everyone to be a stakeholder in the learning. 

Then each group picked their top 3 ideas. Groups shared those top three with the class. After they left I grouped those ideas and created this document that listed the project options. The next class, students used a Google Form to select their top three interests for a project. I used that info (plus what I knew about how the students work together) to create groups of three. 

The Interviews

From the beginning, I knew I wanted my students to interview someone for the podcast. And I'm glad I stuck with that initial thought. However, I didn't realize all the component skills that go into doing an interview! (this is a good pitch for the importance of backward design in PBL)

First, students had to come up with GOOD questions to ask in an interview. Again, these are beginning English Learners so there is quite a steep learning curve with language related things. We did several lessons and activities to teach how to write open-ended questions. 

One favorite activity was "A Celebrity is Coming." I told students that a celebrity was coming to class. For the first example, I used Rihanna. In groups of 3, students had to come up with questions to ask Rihanna. They put their questions in a Google doc. Then, as a class, we used the questions and students had an opportunity to see which questions produced a "yes" or "no" response and which would elicit an in-depth response from Rihanna.  Then, groups revised the questions with a yes/no response to be open-ended. This was a great activity! We did it a few different times. 



Students then began the process of writing unique questions for each person they planned to interview. As has been the theme of this blog post, there were several cycles of feedback and revisions. I'm incredibly proud of some of the questions students came up with:
  • Can you tell me about a time when somebody put your status down because you were an EL student?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you did something bad to fit in?
  • Can you tell us about a time when you felt embarrassed about your race? (being Mexican and speaking Spanish)
  • What were your feelings in school not being able to learn and communicate with teachers because of the different language?
  • What was your proudest moment being an EL student?
  • What was your hardest moment being an EL student?
I could go on but won't. Point is, the iterative feedback/revision cycle works. These students, beginning English Learners, wrote high-quality, interesting, and thought-provoking questions. 

The next step in the process of conducting the interviews was to have students write to the people they wanted to interview. Each group choose at least one student and at least one adult. I suggested groups interview no more than three people. Some adults they selected: the principal, a district EL point person, a teacher that was a former EL student, a guidance counselor that was a former EL student, and a student advocate. They also chose to interview a variety of students--both EL and former EL. 

Again, language is key here and I think writing a professional email is an important skill for students to learn. We took three lessons to develop the emails they would be sending to their interviewees. For the first lesson, I showed example emails I had sent and received, I explained how I would assess their final emails, and I told them there would be lots of feedback and revisions. They were totally into it! 

Then, groups did draft emails in a Google doc. I gave feedback. The next lesson they revised the emails and resubmitted. I then did one more cycle of feedback and revisions. 

 Next week students will do their interviews and then...we start recording! Actually, those two events will happen concurrently; since I've done so much front-loading, I think the students are ready for self-directed work time. I just need to make sure I'm very clear on the goals. 

I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Identity Project: The Single-Point Rubric


This year I am developing an elective course for beginning English Language Learners (ELL). The course is project-based and uses California ELD standards as well as social justice standards from tolerance.org. The course is called Identities in Society Today. Here is a post on the background for this course.

The first unit focused on identity. The essential question of the unit was "who am I in my different social spaces?" Students learned the language to describe their different identity groups. Students also learned how their identity can change in different social spaces. The culminating project was a photo essay that answered the question "who am I?" Students presented their essay to a teacher or administrator in a one-on-one, interview style format.

The second unit is focused on social status and identity within the dominant culture. The essential question is "how does the dominant culture add and subtract from my identity?" In this unit ELL students are learning the language needed to describe social status in different situations and to compare/contrast the status and/or identities of people in social spaces. The culminating project for this unit will be a podcast.


Beginning At the End

I knew I wanted students to make a podcast (mostly because I made a podcast this summer and learned a lot from the experience). And this unit on identity and the dominant culture seemed like the perfect place for a podcast.
Standards for Unit 2 of Identities in Society Today

It took some time to get the product (podcast) to authentically align with the social justice standards from Teaching Tolerance and California ELD standards I would be using in the unit.

Finally, inspiration struck: the podcasts the students create would serve to educate the staff at our school about the unique educational needs of beginning English Learners. As part of the podcast, students must interview someone (adult, student, other staff, bilingual, English only, etc). And that interview must help students tell a story with their podcast that relates identity and social status to the unique educational needs of beginning English Learners.

As I write this, we aren't yet done with the unit or the podcasts. Students are hard at work on their podcast--they are currently getting ready to conduct the interviews. And I'm still figuring out how to teach all this! But I wanted to take a moment to share my reflection on the work so far. I also want to share a new (to me) PBL strategy that I'm very excited to use!

Single-Point Rubrics

I've seen other teachers post on Twitter about single-point rubrics. Cult of Pedagogy has an excellent blog post to introduce the idea of single-point rubrics. However, I never saw a natural opportunity to use one in my own teaching. Until the podcast. 

I originally made a traditional, analytic rubric for the podcast. It was unwieldy and didn't seem very usable. And I'm the teacher! I could only imagine how confusing it would be to students. And, given the complex nature of the task for beginning English Learners to make a podcast that will educate the staff at my school about an educational issue, confusing criteria for success hardly seemed helpful.

Again, inspiration struck and I realized the podcast would be the perfect opportunity to use a single-point rubric. Here is the current version, though I imagine I'll modify it as we progress through the unit.


I plan to use the single-point rubric to guide students as they develop their podcast. Groups will have the next four classes (we teach on a block schedule so classes are about 90 minutes) to record their interviews and to record the rest of the podcast. However, during those four classes, I will be checking in with each group and using the single-point rubric to guide our discussion on what 'high-quality' work looks like for the podcast. The point of these conversations (besides guiding the students to develop high-quality work) is to offer many, many opportunities for students to become familiar with the criteria for success for this project. In other words, the single-point rubric.

At the end of the fourth class, groups will turn in a draft of their podcast. I will use the rubric to give feedback on the podcast (no grade, no points--yet). Then I will return the rubric filled out with feedback and suggestions for revisions. Groups will then have another two classes to revise their podcasts. Again, there will be a lot of check-in conversations with each group guided by the single-point rubric.

I might even do a third round of feedback and revisions with the students. Maybe not. It depends on what the students need. If we are going to share the podcasts with the staff at my school, then we need high-quality work to share. And, as adult learners know, high-quality work is the result of a thoughtful and iterative process. The same should apply to my students.

You might be thinking the same thing I did as I was planning this: after three rounds of teacher feedback and student revisions, won't all students be guaranteed an A on this project? Yes. That's the point. I want the students to make high-quality work. And the single-point rubric guides them (and me, to be honest) on that journey to high-quality.

The Rest of It

There is a lot to this unit. I'm going to do a different post to highlight some of the teaching strategies I'm using to create a high support/high challenge environment for my beginning ELL students. I'll also explain in detail how students went from initial idea to final podcast. 


Monday, December 31, 2018

The Three-Minute Observation Club

First, the Three-Minute Observation Club is not my original idea. I was introduced to the Three-Minute Observation Club through a conversation I had with colleagues at another school.

The purpose of this post is to share my enthusiasm for the Three-Minute Observation Club as a structure to support peer-to-peer teacher observations. I also want to share best practices and resources from my own experience implementing a club should you want to start your own Three-Minute Observation Club.



What Is It?

The Three-Minute Observation Club is a structure that teachers can use to facilitate peer-to-peer observations. There are lots of permutations but here is the basic idea:
  1. At the beginning of the school year, I take about 5 minutes during a full staff meeting to present the idea of the Three-Minute Observation Club to the stuff.
  2. Based on my presentation, teachers decided a join the club. I choose to invite teachers from any department in my school, however, I know other teachers that have organized a Three-Minute Observation Club with only teachers in their department. 
  3. The lead of the club sets up a schedule for the observations. My club does observations roughly once a month (we skip December and February). Other teachers have used different time frames. This is the Observation Cycle. 
  4. For a particular Observation Cycle, the club selects an 'Observed Teacher'. The observed teacher picks an observation focus from a bank of options I give them. This observation focus is what teachers will be collecting observation data about during their visit. 
  5. At some point during the Observation Cycle, the other teachers in the club drop in to observe the Observed Teacher. We use a Google Doc to share relevant information regarding the observed teacher (schedule, test dates, room location, etc). At my school, there are seven periods in the day and teachers have two 'prep periods' off to grade, lesson plan, etc. So, teachers use part of one of their prep period to drop in and observe. An observation is typically 3-10 minutes but is completely up to the teacher that is observing (I know teachers in my club that have stayed for most of the period). Sometimes prep periods don't align--see Roadblocks to Implementation below.
  6. In my club, after a teacher has done their observation, they fill out a Google Form to summarize their observations. This way, I have a record of everyone's observation notes and I share those at the debrief meeting. 
  7. At the end of the Observation Cycle, all the teachers in the club get together to debrief their observations. In my club, we use a lunch period to do this. I really think this is the most important step. Observations are great, but the learning is one way unless there is a debrief. We use a protocol to guide our debrief conversation. 

Here is a link to a Google Drive folder with all the supporting documents for my club. 

Why Do I Love the Three-Minute Observation Club?

My best teachers moves were not learned in my teacher prep program; rather, my best teacher moves have come from observing other teachers in my school via the Three-Minute Observation Club. I've come to believe that the work we do in the Three-Minute Observation Club at my school is the most relevant professional development I participate in. I'm observing teachers in my local context; a teacher with the same bell schedule, the same district/school guidelines, and the same population of students--often I'll see students from my own class when I am observing. Even if the students aren't in my own class, the general profile of the students I see during my observation is representative of my school. This isn't always the case when I go to state or national level professional developments. 

Moreover, the Three-Minute Observation Club at my school creates a sense of community. I get to observe teachers and classes (art, band, AP classes) I would never otherwise see. And I get to see them in action! And we get to meet at the end of the month to eat together and talk in a positive and productive way about teaching! As the year progresses, the community we build supports our willingness to take professional risks as it relates to our work with the club. Maybe a new teacher takes a risk and volunteers to be the Observed Teacher even though it is only their 2nd year. Or a veteran teacher chooses an area of focus that is a professional risk--something they know they aren't great at and want feedback on.  And those professional risks, however big or small, create opportunities for us to improve our individual teaching practices through our collective work in the club. 

At some schools, a Three-Minute Observation Club might not be necessary because teachers naturally drop in to observe each other. Or, perhaps peer observations are built into the work teachers do as part of their job. Neither of those things was true at my school--a large, comprehensive, public high school. Thus, I started the club. 

How Did I Start My Club?

I actually started mid-year (in January) four years ago. Rather than announcing the club to the whole staff, I shoulder-tapped a few teachers that I knew would be interested and that I thought would follow through (they did). We were a small group of 5 teachers (including myself). However, starting small was good. I got to experience the bumps and roadblocks of the club with a small group that was committed to the work. It was an excellent learning experience. I would suggest starting small. 

At the start of the next school year, I presented to the entire staff as I mentioned above. And we've been going strong ever since! At the start of each year, I give the Three-Minute Observation Club presentation to the whole staff. Some teachers continue on each year; some do it for only one year and then drop; others alternate years.

Tips For Successful Implementation

Like I said, don't be afraid to start with a small group of teachers. I'm glad I started with a small group. Each year, a few more teachers would join and the group has slowly grown over the years. 

During an observation cycle, I send email reminders twice a week to the members of the club. The email is a reminder to observe the Observed Teacher for that month and submit their feedback. I keep the email short and bold the important info. Teachers in the club have expressed that they appreciate the twice weekly email reminders. 

When I intro the Three-Minute Observation Club to the staff at the beginning of each school year, I am always very clear that teachers need to consider their schedule before joining the club. Of course, emergencies come up and life changes, but, for the most part, if a teacher joins the club, they are committing to the work for the year. Each year a few people drop for legitimate reasons--I understand that. But, for the most part, the teachers that join stick with the club. 

The debrief meeting is so, so important. While I glean new teacher-moves or lesson ideas during observation, I don't really understand those things until I get the full context during the debrief lunch. At the lunch we hear the interesting things we noticed during our observations, we engage in discussion about the Observed Teacher's area of focus, and we deepen our learning about the things we observed and want to use in our own practice. 

Roadblocks To Implementation

The first full year I did the club at my school, I let teachers drop in and out for each cycle. In other words, you didn't have to commit to the full year. This was a nightmare to implement and there was no sense of community. I strongly recommend you ask teachers to commit to a full year. 

Sometimes, a teacher's prep will not align with the Observed Teacher's schedule. In this case, the teacher can't observe the Observed Teacher. If it works with everyone's schedule, I'll volunteer to cover for a few minutes for the teacher during one of my preps so they can observe. Other times, the teacher just doesn't observe that month. This only happens once in a while. 

Club size matters. Based on my experience, I think 3 to 12 people is ideal. Those numbers are also based on the length of the lunch period at my school. Given the protocol we use, we need about 35 minutes to meet. If we have more than 12 people, there just aren't enough minutes to give everyone air time. 

This year about 20 teachers wanted to join the club at my school. This is WAY too many! I split the group into two smaller clubs and asked a colleague to lead the other club. Problem solved! 

If you give the club a try, let me know how it goes! And if you have questions about implementation, please reach out. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Identity Project: Photo Essay


Students just finished presenting their photo essays. This was the first summative unit project for the year-long, PBL-based EL course I am teaching that is based on identity. Here is a blog post with background on the Identity Project

For the photo essay, EL students had to use 3-5 photos that represented different parts of their identity. Students then wrote a 2-5 minute presentation that answered the question "who am I". Students then presented their photo essay to another teacher in a sit-down, job interview format.

Warm Feedback

The students did phenomenal work. And given that this is all new to me, I'm happy with my work as well. I'm primarily a math teacher, so the content of the class can feel intimidating to me (I'm using social just standards from tolerance.org as well as CA state ELD standards). However, I've done PBL (in math) numerous times and, while I'm not an expert, I feel confident in my ability to guide students through a project. 

I gave the students a survey after they gave their final presentations. I asked them to tell me three things they learned, two things they would do differently next time and one thing they are proud of. I'm really glad I gave the survey--their responses felt validating. (the photo essay presentations were in English, but I let students reflect in their preferred language).  These comments are data. And I feel like this data suggests I was trying to teach for social justice and that I had some success. 





My favorite thing about PBL (and this unit) was the multiple opportunities that students had to get feedback on their final product BEFORE they actually were done with the product. I gave each student three rounds of feedback with time for revision. I had a few other teachers volunteer their time to give each student feedback using the same rubric used for the final presentation a week before the students actually did the final presentations. The students gave each other feedback using the final presentation rubric. In the three weeks dedicated to project work time, each student received feedback at least 5 times.  After each feedback round, students dedicated time to revise their presentation. And this resulted in a high-quality product for the students. 

Final Rubric


I like that I broke down each part of the final presentation and then taught ALL THE SKILLS with formative feedback cycles. We did lessons (with feedback) on eye contact, shaking hands, academic vocabulary, hand gestures, posture, and project-specific vocabulary and language (about identity and expressing one's identity). I wish I had done pronunciation lessons--that is for the cool feedback! 
A rubric for formative feedback

I'm forever thankful for tolerance.org and their wonderful, rigorous, well-organized, rich bank of teaching for social justice resources. I used so much of their material in this unit. Their standards are really specific and clear and helped give my instruction a clear social-justice purpose. They had grade-level specific readings, lessons, activities, teaching strategies and more. Check it out! 

There was lots of opportunity for student choice in this project. Students could choose their photos. They could choose how to present them (slides, an instagram, in a document). Students could also choose what type of final interview they would have. Some students have been in the US longer and their conversational English is better. I encouraged these students to be open to questions from their interviewer--I suggested they think of the final presentation as more of a conversation. The newest students, however, were quite nervous for their first English presentation. They could choose to have no questions and stick to a script the whole time. 

Cool Feedback

I wish I had done more lessons with feedback on pronunciation. After all, I teach newcomers that speak little to no English. And they presented about their identity--in English! They did amazing and the feedback from the judges was overall very positive, but there was a clear need for more pronunciation instruction. I'm not a language teacher so it makes sense that I didn't see this until after the fact. While I did give feedback on pronunciation as part of our work, there was no explicit pronunciation teaching/feedback happening in the unit.  Pronunciation is definitely something I am adding to our current unit! And this is something I will add to Unit 1 for next year. 

We did two close readings in this unit. Little Red Riding Hood and The Ugly Duckling. Both fit well into the theme of identity, however, I wish I had done at least one of the readings I picked out from tolerance.org. I ended up doing the tolerance.org readings in the second unit and they were a big hit with the students AND the readings sparked a rich class discussion on immigration. I think a reading related to immigration would have added to the bank of ideas students used to create their photo essays and enriched the final products. This is something I'll add for next year. 

Final Thoughts

The students excelled in this project. Newcomer EL students, some in the US for less than one month, gave a presentation on their identity in English! Students talked about how their identity changed when they came to their new country; how their identity changed as their language changed. Students talked about being a proud Guatemalan and a US citizen (we discussed the difference between race and nationality).  These weren't just about food and flags. Their essays spoke to individual traits like shyness or extrovertedness. Their essays gave insight into the complicated lives of immigrant teenagers in a new school with a new language. Students talked about how parts of their identity stayed the same, like religion or hobbies, while others changed, like working and going to school. 

In our next project students will be making a podcast that educates the teachers/staff at our school on how to improve educational outcomes for EL students. Students will have a lot of choice in terms of content and style of the podc






Friday, August 31, 2018

Functions in Multiple Representations Task


I am a big fan of complex instruction (CI) tasks. And I've written about my appreciation of CI tasks and how I'm forever grateful that I went to a training by Laura Evans to learn about CI.

But today I asked myself why. CI takes a lot of work. First, I had to modify the (pretty good) worksheet a coworker made into the CI task. Then, I arrived at work super early so I could cut up the task cards. I have two classes each with six groups of four. (I recognize my class size is a huge luxury.) But it was still a lot of cutting! Finally, for me, CI is a very active way to teach. I am constantly rotating around the room or calling a particular group role for a huddle or asking checkpoint questions. It's controlled chaos. But it's still chaos. And I'm exhausted at the end of it--in a good way.

School is status. And status is school. And I recognize the power of CI tasks in minimizing the effect of status. In school students are assigned status because of race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc. There is also academic status. Especially in mathematics, being perceived as smart has a high-status connotation. And this complicates the learning. If a student feels low status, either because they self-assigned as low status or because peers/teachers assigned that student as low status, then that decreases the student's willingness to take academic risks. And if the student isn't taking academic risks, then that has a negative impact on learning.

Today was the first time I implemented a CI task with my 9th grade algebra 1 students. It is the second week of school and we had been working on learning goals related to functions for the previous four class periods. We have a block schedule and I see them every other day. And today was the day I remembered why I love CI tasks.



I watched my students persevere on this task for 45 minutes. And no one was off task. Students were thanking each other for asking good questions. Students were critiquing each other's thinking. It was great!

The Task

The goal of this task is that students represent functions in multiple representations. There are four levels and each level has a checkpoint question. Most groups get to level 2. And I'm totally fine with that because they are having amazing conversations and challenging each other to understand--not just move on. 

In each level, students are given four representations of the same function. Some of the representations are filled out and others are left blank and students have to fill in the missing representations. 


Students need to know how to represent functions using function notation. It also helps if they have some math 8/linearity exposure, but I think they can get by without it.

What Makes it CI?

I'm not an expert in complex instruction. But I've been experimenting with it for a few years now. I usually do a CI task every three or four weeks. I know other schools where all teachers use a CI model. I think that's awesome, but not possible in my context. CI can still have a powerful effect on minimizing the effect of status in my classroom even if I use it occasionally. 

The intent of CI is to reduce the effect status has on student learning. It's all about status! For me, there are four things that 'make' a CI task.

A group worthy task. You can't give a team a worksheet and expect CI magic to happen. The task needs to be group worthy. Group-worthy tasks are math tasks that can not be done by an individual or a pair. Group-worthy, CI tasks require students to use higher-order thinking skills and engage students in non-routine mathematics that creates a need for students to negotiate meaning with each other to complete the task. However, not all the tasks I give are group-worthy and not all the mathematics I teach lends itself to CI tasks. Hence, I do CI when I can!  

Meaningful, useful group roles.  I'm still experimenting with names for the roles but, in general, the roles are:
    • "Energizer"--this is super important role because this person does the team shoutouts (more on that below)
    • "Facilitator"--the purpose of this role is to have someone coaching the team on the checkpoint question (or whatever check for understanding I"m using)
    • "Liason"--the purpose of this role is to 'do stuff'. Ask other teams for help, get the next task cart, ask the teacher team questions, etc. 
    • "Unity"--the purpose of this role is to keep the team together. 

I think I can improve a lot in terms of facilitating and implementing group roles. These are pretty basic. I do have a few sentence frames for each role which helps students understand what success sounds like. I also do team huddles and that helps reinforce the expectation of group roles. 

Assigning Competence. This is the part of CI that really helps address status issues. There are a few CI tricks I use to assign competence. 
  • Shoutouts are HUGE and happen on two levels. Typically, I start students on the task. As they work, I'll circulate to look for students that are taking academic risks by asking questions or asking for another explanation. About 5 minutes into the task (read the room), I stop everyone. [I try to be dramatic when I do this] All students need to put their pencils down. All eyes on me. Then I'll thank 2 or 3 students publically for taking risks and I will be specific in my acknowledgment. "I want to thank Remy for asking his group to explain function notation a second time. I appreciate that he took a risk by asking for another explanation." When I do this, I'm assigning competence to the student (as I define competence) and I'm disrupting the status dynamic. I tend to shoutout students that are low-status OR I shoutout high-status students for doing things that are not usually seen as high-status in a math class (going slow, focusing on process not product, asking questions or sharing confusions). 
  • The other form of shoutouts is team shoutouts. After students have been working for 10 minutes or so, I'll call the Energizer person from each group. We will do a huddle and I will explain that they are going to do the next round of shoutouts. I'm careful to explain that they still need to be doing math with the group, but now they have a new job as well: to look for students taking risks or communicating productively and be ready to share that with the class. I send them back to their groups and give them a few minutes to think about it. Then, I have the entire class stops again. Each Energizer publically recognizes someone on their team. It is heartwarming to hear 9th graders say things like "I want to shoutout Marlon for asking a question when he was confused. He took a risk." Seriously, I get teary eyed when they do this. It's wonderful. 
  • I've mentioned team huddle already. This is a way to enforce group roles and assign competence. I try to do two huddles per task. I will usually call the facilitators up and talk about an important part of the task. In the Functions in Multiple Representations task, I call them up to talk about how to find the input for a given function when they are given the output (solving). Most students haven't seen this before, but understand it once they see the connection to solving. I'll call facilitators up, I'll show them an example on the board, I'll leave the example up, then have them go back to their group and explain it. If I notice groups getting stuck on a certain part of the task, I'll have a team huddle with facilitators. 
Reinforcing Positive Behaviors. I want to amplify the good work students are doing, not call attention to the negative. The actionable norm stamp card is something I stole from Laura Evans. And it is an amazing way to reinforce positive behaviors. 


Before we start the task, I'll explain to students that there are a few behaviors that I think will help them be successful in this task. And, as they are working, when I see them demonstrating these positive behaviors during the task, I'll give them a stamp. Yes, I work with high school students. And, yes, they will do anything for a stamp. The stamp DOES NOT equal points. It is just a token of acknowledgment for demonstrating positive behavior. 

Again, I am specific in my acknowledgment. I don't just stamp. I say something like, "thanks, Julie and Tim, I love how you pushed through your point of confusion" or "wow, I see everyone in this group leaning in and persistently working on this problem. Thank you!". Then I give a stamp to the individual or individuals that were demonstrating the positive behavior. 

Implementing this Task

Shoutouts, team huddles, stamping, checkpoint questions: does all this take a lot of class time. Yes! Is it worth it? YES! Because even though I'm taking class time for non-math work, the time they have to do math work is so much more productive FOR ALL STUDENTS!! 

For this task, I cut everything up.


I cut each multi rep page up so that each group member can work on the task. 

Mistake on the graph! We had a good conversation. 

At the end of each level, groups call me over. I randomly select one student from the group to answer the checkpoint question. If they get it right, the group can move to the next level. If they get it wrong, I walk away and they need to practice more. 

Do I grade any of this? No. Is there points involved at any point? No. Do students ask if I'm going to grade this? No. Do students ask if they get more points for more stamps? No. 

The task is linked below. If you try it, let me know how it goes! And if you modify it, please share your new version with me! I'd love to see how you improved the task. 

Here are the Functions in Multiple Representations Task as a word and PDF file:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Identity Project


My primary job at my school is teaching mathematics. However, I also teach a support class (note: not a math-specific support class). I've taught this support class for the last five years. And this support class has always been my least favorite class to teach.

One reason it is my least favorite class to teach is that the support class has always felt poorly defined in terms of the purpose of the class. When I took over the class five years ago, there were no curriculum, tests, or units. Basically, the class was a study hall and the students used the class to do homework.

The other thing: this support class is for English Language Learners. So all the students in the class are recent immigrants to the United States. They have low (or no) English proficiency. Often, they have experienced a disrupted education. Since most of these students are from Central America where the school calendar runs from February to December, they often come to the United States in January and start at my school in February--bad timing!

In short, there is a real need for 'extra' support for these students. But I've seen the data and the result is clear: this support class--my support class--is not increasing opportunities for students to learn. At best the class maintains the status quo: 'good' students keep doing good and 'bad' students still struggle with school.

That's Called Paternalism 

I am embarrassed to share that in the last five years I've taught this class I haven't done much to define the purpose of the class. I haven't done anything to define the why. I've added a few structures to promote 'good student habits' and reflection on learning. And those structures are doing a decent job. But those are whats or hows, not a why. Why do I teach this class? Why do students take this class? I feel like I can answer those questions for the content math classes I teach, but not for this support class.

In five years why haven't I fixed it? Good question. I could have. One roadblock is the number of different classes I teach. This support class is my 3rd prep. So after planning lessons for the other two classes I teach, I don't have the time/energy to do more lesson planning. Also, I'm not superhuman; I'm just human. Thus, like any decent human, there are many areas I need to improve on. And this class is one of them!

Then I read Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit. As I was making my way through the book, Delpit helped me realize that the support class is paternalistic and the lack of challenging standards (or any standards) was an example of the racism of low expectations. In this class, I was forcing students to "attend to hollow, inane, decontextualized subskills" that Delpit suggested are a sign of good intentions gone bad. After reading Other People's Children, I was really not feeling the support class.

So I decided to finally fix it. (Thanks Lisa Delpit!)

At the end of last year, I read another book called Influencer.  One of the many things I pulled from the book is the idea of a positive deviant. A positive deviant is a person that should fail but doesn't. In my context, this might look like an English Learner (EL) student that had a disrupted education and low English proficiency. The student might work a job on the nights or weekends. Or take care of siblings. Maybe the student doesn't live with close family but with a cousin or aunt or uncle that they may or may not know very well. And the student lives in poverty. In short, the student has many valid reasons to give up on school. And many students in this situation do exactly that: they give up on school. But positive deviants do not give up in school.

Postive Deviants

After reading the book, I decided to interview EL students that were positive deviants. I wasn't sure how I would use the interviews as data, but the book made me curious. I wanted to find those EL students that should fail, misbehave, and cut class but aren't. After talking to a few teachers, I decided to also ask a few students that struggle with school these same questions. Here is the full list of questions I asked both groups of students. Here are a few of the questions I asked:


  1. What do you hope to get out of school?

  1. What is the most important reason for you to come to school?

  1. What makes you feel good about coming to school?

  1. What makes you feel bad about coming to school?

  1. Who do you hang out with?

So what did I learn? I learned that positive deviants have a purpose. When asked what is the most important reason to come to school, one student said, "to get to the next step, the next level. Each level of school is a step and I need each step to reach my goal of being a civil engineer." Another student explained how her parents sent her to the US and didn't want her to be in Mexico because "school is different in Mexico" (her words). Her parents sent her to the US so she could have a future and be someone in life. And these aren't straight A students. But they are demonstrating effort and motivation even in the face of challenging circumstances. They are working for something in the abstract future because they believe in tomorrow and they believe in themselves. And they believe in tomorrow because they have a purpose.

Those students have a purpose--and it is not school. Rather, school is a means to an end. But they come to school because they have a purpose.

I also learned that the students who struggle don't have a clear purpose. They come to school because they "want to see friends". Another student talked about "just getting done with it [school]" so he can move on with his life. Or they had a purpose that seemed false. One student said he comes to school to make his mom proud. I asked him how his mom felt about his low grades and poor attendance. He said he doesn't talk to his mom about school and she doesn't ask. For these students, the purpose of school is social. Or school itself is the purpose--they come to school because it is what they do. These students aren't working toward the abstract future; rather, they get through today.


We interviewed about 10 students. And after reading Other People's Children, I realized I had a use for my interview data! I would use what I could glean from the positive deviants to help me build a curriculum for my support class.

Teaching for Social Justice

Here's the thing: I can't give kids a purpose. And I can't make them find a purpose (see paternalism). But I can definitely provide opportunities and experiences that help students explore what their purpose might be.

The EL students I have do need support! But not sit the kind of support I was providing--which was superficially a study hall and arguably a textbook example of the low expectations we often have for EL students.

The students need support in understanding who they are in their new social space, their new country. The students need support in understanding how their own culture intersects with the dominant culture in the United States. The students need support in knowing how to express complex emotions that arise as one is exploring and building an understanding of identity. And, I hope, that once the students have built an understanding of their complex identities and how their identities intersect with the dominant culture, they will be able to find their purpose.

Easy, right? Of course not. But I'm going to give it a try! Here is my plan:

My goal is to do four PBL based units in the support class this year. At the end of the year, students will have created a multimedia portfolio. Students will then present their portfolio to a panel and 'defend' their work. A lot of this is still in development (ok... I'm lying...most of it is still in development!). There is an amazing teaching for social justice resource I am using called Tolerance.org. They have lessons, activities, readings, videos and more all organized by grade level and social justice strands.

My year will be broken up into four units. Each unit will have a final project.


Here are links to the tolerance.org projects I am using. I will definitely be blogging about my adventures in this project. If you have questions, ideas or suggestions, please let me know!

Final project: Photo Essay Exhibit

Final Project: Oral History Project

Final Project: Artistic Expressions Showcase

Final Project: PSA for Change

Students will still get homework support and academic support--I'm going to feel it out, but less than half the time in the class will be allotted to homework help (previously, 100% of the time was homework help). But, more importantly, the purpose of the class has shifted from homework help and academic support to exploring one's identity and building communication skills. The students will be learning the English language by engaging in meaningful communicative endeavors. And they will build an understanding of the complex intersectionality that exists in their life. And, for the first time in 5 years, I'm looking forward to teaching this class!

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