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 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 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 I ended up doing the 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 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 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!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

There Are No Answers Here, Only Questions

I was grading final exams today. And when I got to Maya's final exam, I felt really frustrated. Maya is a student of mine. Of course, Maya is not her real name. But what happened to Maya is real. Maya failed my class. She got an F. And what made me feel so frustrated is that I'm telling the story of Maya as a math student with that single letter F.

Maya and I had a rough start this year. She was in my 9th-grade algebra class. Maya's behavior wasn't great. Her foundational skills were low. She wasn't successful in previous math classes.

So I used my favorite teacher moves with Maya: I was patient; I was helpful, but not too helpful; I assigned status to Maya when it was authentic and I knew she had taken an academic risk. This came up in group work tasks. I also had to remind Maya of class rules and norms  (we had many, many conversations about appropriate cell phone use). And slowly some of the barriers Maya had created towards learning math came down.

Towards the end of 1st semester, Maya had an incident. One result of the incident was that her learning environment had to be modified. She couldn't take tests and needed frequent breaks. For several weeks, she was only allowed to attend class for 30 minutes. Of course, this set her way back in terms of finding success in my class. Which caused her barriers towards learning math to go back up.

Mid-way through 2nd semester, Maya got back on track. One day, I asked her to stay after class. It was after a lesson where she took several risks by sharing her thinking with the class. I let her know that I was extremely proud of her and that she should be proud of herself. And she was. We talked openly and honestly about both her growth and her struggles. I let her know that even though she was failing, it was my belief that she could still pass. We talked about revising a test she did poorly on together and then having her retake the test. But, unfortunately, those things need to be done outside of class time. She never came in. I found out later she had really good reasons to not come in.

However, she kept working exceptionally hard in class. And she kept demonstrating growth. She would raise her hand and say something like, "I'm not sure if I'm right but I think...". She was usually right, but not always. Her willingness to take that kind of public risk was evidence of growth.

Things weren't always perfect--Maya didn't always get along with everyone in her group. Some days Maya and I didn't get along. And some days she really wanted to put her head down on the desk. But overall Maya demonstrated growth in both mathematics and in herself as a learner.

That's like 2000 letters so far...and I'm supposed to tell Maya's story with only one letter!?

Maya also has some intense stuff going on at home. Given the gravity of the situation at home, she could have easily checked out in class. But she didn't. Even on the days when I got a heads up that Maya was having a bad day, she would still participate, talk to her partner or group, ask questions to the whole class, make mistakes and want to look for her error without my help. Maya did all the things I want students to do.

But Maya failed the final. And the class. Then, I have to tell Maya's story as a math learner with only the letter F.

And then I'm left with a lot of questions. No answers.

What does a grade really mean? I had professors in college that curved the grade for a test. Grades seem negotiable in that situation; other times a grade seems like a final decision and, often, act as a gatekeeper. I've heard teachers talk about rounding grades. But I've failed students that missed a passing grade by 0.5%. I don't share that fact with pride...I share that to acknowledge I'm part of the problem. The point is that letters grades seem easily influenced by bias--conscious or unconscious. How have my own biases affected grades in my classes? I don't know if I can objectively answer that. Can a grading system be a tool of institutional racism--either at my school or other schools? Lots of questions but no answers.

Should I try standards-based grading?  Can I be the only teacher in my department to do that?? Do I want to take on something new when I'm already feeling burned out and exhausted?

In my school, geometry comes after algebra. If a student does not pass my algebra class, does that mean that student cannot do geometry? Maya showed the habits and mindset that I would want for any math student. Frustratingly, there are students in my class with higher letter grades than Maya. But they have worse habits. So what is my grading system really rewarding? Content knowledge? How to do school? Procedural fluency? Does passing my algebra class offer confirmation of readiness for geometry? Or can a student do well in geometry without mastering all of algebra?

Does my grading system honor the complex lives of my students? It would be very hard for Maya to do homework, study, or get extra help outside of the school day. Students like Maya are why I stopped giving traditional homework this year.  But I still give traditional tests. And I still give traditional grades. So does my grading system honor Maya's complex life and growth as a learner or does my grading system honor tradition?

Should I pass Maya? I think I should, but I'm not going to. Why? Honestly, I'm afraid to challenge a system I am part of. Maybe this is how institutional racism and oppression work. If I am afraid to challenge the system I am part of, then my silence is equivalent to complicity. Clearly, the system my school (and many schools) use is incongruous with my own value system. But I still participate in the system my school prefers. So am I ignorant or racist or scared? Or all three? Is there a difference?

How do I present a counternarrative to the current system? How can I tell Maya's story in a way that is authentic and captures the complexity of her life as well as the growth she demonstrated? How do I communicate that she worked incredibly hard in class but had a series of life events that prevented her from doing well? Moreover, even if Maya got an A in my class, what story would that grade tell?

I guess the bigger issue isn't that Maya failed, the issue is the lack of dimension to the grade data that we (schools, teachers, parents, society) put so much emphasis on. When we hear, "that is an A student" it communicates something about that student. Whether fair or not, we are telling that student's story with a single letter. Similarly, when we hear "that student got an F," it communicates something about that student. We are also telling that student's story with a single letter. Something about that feels wrong to me. Sadly, there are no answers here, only questions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


I'm not a big fan of review activities before a unit test or final exam; I'm also not a big fan of unit tests or final exams. But that's not what this post is about...

The fact of the matter is, it is the expectation of my department/school that I give some type of summative, comprehensive final 'thing' at the end of the year. Someday, the final 'thing' I give will be an authentic, socially relevant project that allows students to show intelligence in different ways. For now, however, the final 'thing' is just a final exam. And my students expect some type of in-class review to help them prepare for the final exam.

My first several years' teaching, my review activities were pretty standard. For example, we did a lot of station review where I there are different stations set up around the room--each with a different concept. Students choose the concept they want to work on and go to that station. I didn't like the station structure because it felt passive: how do students decide where to go or what to work on? Are students reflecting on what they know/don't know? Or are they just working? Probably my biggest dislike of passive review is the message it sends to students: we spent time in class 'studying' therefore you are better prepared for the test. However, I feel like this message neglects to acknowledge that action (being in a room where studying is happening) isn't always synonymous with accomplishment (greater understanding of a concept).


A few years ago, I came up with a review structure that I felt like it addressed some of the issues I mentioned. I call the review structure TeachBack. I don't think it's a perfect structure, and it can be a lot of work to set up the right partners/groupings, but I think it is a step in the right direction.

The main idea for TeachBack is that I thoughtfully group students, give students the tools they need to be an effective peer coach and then watch as the room FILLS with amazing conversations and learning. Also, I can focus on the few students that really need intense intervention since all other students are diligently working with their peer coach.

What are the key ideas for TeachBack?
  1. Intentionality: I narrow down the review concepts so that we are only focusing on the essential concepts. There can be a lot of skills in a mathematics unit. My goal is to sift through all the skills to identify those skills that are most essential. In a linearity unit, this might mean focusing on the skills equation to graph, point and slope to equation, graph to equation, and identifying a linear function in a table or equation. In terms of being the most essential that is all subjective. The point is, rather than just reviewing everything from the unit, I am very intentional about WHAT skills I want students to work on.  
  2. Clarity: However I decide to tweak the structure, I am very, very clear to the students on what success looks like. This means I use sentence frames and word/phrase banks to model how I want students to talk to each other. I also do a fishbowl before the start of the activity. I usually sit with 1 or 2 students (depending on how I'm going to structure the activity), call everyone to gather around us, and the students and I model what the activity should look like. I also try to use positive praise in the first 10-ish minutes of the activity to shoutout groups that are demonstrating the body language and words I expect students to be using. 
  3.  Choice: Students can choose what skills to work on. And if they want to practice the same skills more than once, I try to have multiple versions of practice sets for each skill ready to go. 
  4. TeachBack Cycle: This is the 'TeachBack' part of the activity. The TeachBack process is three steps. First, the coach does an example problem for that skill. The coach needs to make their thinking visible by talking out loud while they do the problem. And the student(s) need to ask questions. Second, the coach and the student(s) do the problem together. Again, talking out loud, asking questions, and having discussions about mistakes or misconceptions. Third, the student does the problem on their own. The coach cannot answer questions at this point. The student is encouraged to try their best and the student and coach will discuss the work and any potential errors once the student is done with the problem. 

Over the years, I have modified this structure a lot. One thing I like about this structure is that it is easily modifiable. And I like that there are a million ways to modify this structure. To me, that 's one of the benefits. And, depending on the personality and/or needs of a certain class, I can easily tweak this structure to better meet the needs of those that class. Some modifications:
  • sometimes I offer an assessment at the beginning and end of the activity so students can think about what to work on and then see how they did
  • sometimes I do partners with no defined coach--the instructions are clear that partners take turns on coaching
  • sometimes I do triads with an assigned coach

Finally, I like this structure because it is about more than 'review'. Students are learning soft skills like how to reflect and how to coach. So I'm not just reviewing material that's already been learned, I'm also making space for students to develop higher-order skills.

an example of what a skill practice page looks like

the reflection that students/coaches complete after each skill

an example of a coaching phrase bank for this activity

Grouping Students

How I group students is key to this activity. No matter what modifications I make, how I group students is an important part of this activity. I am not an expert on grouping students. However, my basic philosophy is this:

When I group students, I think about what combination of students will best put the students in that group into their ZPD. For example, I would NOT partner the student most proficient in a skill with a student that is least proficient in that skill. Neither student will be in their ZPD. Rather, the most proficient student might be partners with a student that is doing well on foundations but is ready for a challenge. Similarly, I might partner the student that is least proficient with someone that has shown a lot of growth in the unit and is thus ready for the challenge of being a tutor. 

The other factor I consider when grouping students is their ZPD for coaching. Some students are not ready to be coaches and this has nothing to do with comfort in the content. They just aren't ready to be coaches (I image my college professor for Complex Analysis teaching my 9th-grade algebra class...he is an expert in content that is NOT ready to be a teacher for 9th grade). So I try to consider who is ready to coach and what students would make the most sense to put them in their ZPD for coaching. 

Finally, when grouping students I think about status. Classrooms are messy places where gender, race, socio-economic status, and other forms of status all intersect. Ideally, my groupings assign status or competency to the right students without reinforcing existing status that may or may not be healthy. For example, I don't make the male student that shouts out the answers first to be a tutor. That would be reinforcing the "male, fastest = smartest" status. I don't want to do that. (side note: if there are a lot of those types of students in a class, I tend to use the 'no assigned coach' model and make clear that students need to alternate coaching). 

Does TeachBack solve all my problems? No! Is it the easiest activity to facilitate/develop/implement? No! Is it worth it? To me, the answer is yes. The traditional review never felt satisfying. TeachBack addresses some of the things that made review feel unsatisfying to me while still honoring that my students want/need/expect some type of review to feel prepared for the final exam. And that feels like a step in the right direction. Also, I get to sneak in a lesson on soft skills--students learn how to talk to each other, coach, and work together. So a win-win! 

If you try it, let me know how it goes. I attached a pdf of the TeachBack for Linearity that I'm using this week. 

TeachBack Linearity PDF

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Circles + Squares

I've been experimenting with Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in my math classes this year. I used QFT for the fourth time today. And I had a big ah-ha after the lesson.

The purpose of QFT is to shift the intellectual authority from the teacher to the students (or maybe from the teacher to the students AND the teacher...since I'm still part of it).  The result is student-centered, student driven lessons that appeals to students' curiosity while also meeting content standards. Easy, right?? Not really.

My first attempt was ok. I used QFT as a launch for a Project Based Learning Statistics unit.  As I look back, I think the QFT was great. My follow through was lacking (more on that in a minute).

My second attempt exceeded my expectations. But that was a perfect storm of a lesson. I also spent way too much time planning that lesson. And my follow through was on point.

My third attempt was ok.  We used QFT to launch the exponentials usit. Actually, after some reflection and a quick conversation with the amazing people from The Right Question Institute, I think the third attempt was decent. But my follow through was non-existent. And I think the achilles heel of QFT is the follow through.

I am not an expert in QFT, but my process for QFT tends to look like: 
  1. Have students participate in some event. Watch a video clip, or a lab demonstration, or read a provocative quote, see a startling statistic, etc. But the event needs to evoke the curiosity of students. 
  2. Give students the "QFT Rules". Again...I'm not an expert. Here are my rules. Mostly stolen ideas from others. 
  3. Let students ask as many questions as they can. (you def need to encourage them to keep questioning. 
  4. Go through some filtering. Have groups change close-ended questions to open-ended and have groups select their top 3 questions.
  5. Have a class share out. The goal is to make sure each groups top questions are represented. 
  6. something with the questions. This is the follow through. And, in my experience, the follow through is the tough part. 
As a participation structure, QFT is genius. One reason I like QFT is that it gives students an opportunity to show different ways to be smart in my class. Since I teach math, students with strong procedural fluency are sometimes assigned status by peers and labeled as smart. QFT helps address that. 

QFT also pushes students to be curious. Sometimes learning can feel prescriptive or rigid. While the structure of QFT is somewhat prescriptive, the process creates a safe, encouraging space that supports students in the process of taking intellectual risks and asking really good questions. 

Today, I used QFT to introduce the quadratics unit. I showed students a bingo chip and showed them a 23x23 inch square I had measured on the board. I asked them how many bingo chips fit into the big square. (This is borrowed from the Penny Circle task...the algebra 2 teachers at my school build most of the quadratics unit around the Penny Circle task and they kindly asked that I modify so that it isn't immediately recognizable to students. Hence, Circles + Squares Task.) The task is linked below...nothing special though. 

Then I gave each group a few squares and a lot of bingo chips. I had squares of side length 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 inches. Each group got 2 or 3 squares. Students collected the data. We put the data into a class data table (averaging the number of bingo chips for a given side length as needed). I then asked students to tell me what type of function would best model the data in the table. I gave them like 3 minutes to discuss this. The goal WAS NOT that they have a definitive answer. The goal was to get them to explore the data in the table or graph (some groups also graphed the data). 

Then, I stopped them and we started the QFT process. They had really good questions. I teach two classes of algebra 1. These are the QFT results from both classes. 

The QFT was great. But the follow through...sigh. The follow through. Here is what I realized today:

QFT is awesome, but QFT isn't really the goal. The goal is to make my classroom student-centered and to make learning student-driven. QFT doesn't do that. What I DO with the questions students come up with is where QFT really becomes a tool to make my classroom more student-centered. 

In my first attempt at QFT, the QFT went great. But we never really used the questions to drive the project or the learning. 

In my second attempt at QFT, the questions the students generated BECAME the students' projects. The questions drove the learning and the focus of our work. And that was powerful, student-centered and student driven. 

In my third attempt, the QFT was great, the questions were solid, but I got buried in other work and never really referenced back to their questions as we moved through the unit. 

Thus, the goal with quadratics is to explicitly connect our learning back to the questions generated for the QFT. This is my opening slide for the next lesson (there are two different slides because 2nd and 3rd block had different questions):

2nd block
3rd block

I also plan to revisit these slides at the end of that lesson as a debrief. 

Basically, I took the lesson I had planned, looked through their questions and then found the questions that matched the existing learning objectives (or learning goals...or standards...not sure on the right term).

I think it will be powerful to show them this tomorrow. I also am amazed that they came up with the questions that, more or less, align with the standards I have to teach. 

Each time I do QFT I learn a little more. Which is the motivation to keep doing QFT. 

But, as I am finding, the QFT can be phenomenal, but if I want to effect change in how I teach and how students learn, the crux of the work happens in the follow through. That is, what I do with the questions the students generated is essential to the process. 

My goal now it to keep referencing back to the students questions as we move through the quadratics unit. I'll let you know how it goes! 


Friday, March 23, 2018

Lesson Reflection (homework)

(there are links to my Lesson Reflection templates at the bottom of this post)

I've struggled with homework for many years. When I was a new teacher, I struggled with homework logistics: managing my time grading it; getting students to do it; having a coherent, enforceable, sustainable absent/late policy.

My third year teaching, I came up with a homework system I liked: I began letting students 'grade' their own homework and I graded the quality of their corrections. Here is a blogpost on this homework system. Many of my teacher friends use this system--and I still like it. And it addressed some of the logistics problems. But something still bothered me about homework.

This year I began to notice a few things. These things were always there in front of me, but I didn't really see them until this year.  First, I noticed that the handful of students that didn't do their homework in each class tended to share a few characteristics. They struggled in class; but they also struggled with 'doing school'. Which often meant struggling to complete homework.  And their grades suffered because of it (I changed my grading policy a long time ago so that no student could fail for not doing homework). But all the zeros still dragged their grade down.

I also noticed that in parent emails, IEP meetings, or conversations with AVID teachers (or teachers of other support classes), one of the first topics to come up when we discussed struggling students was homework. I feel like the assumption we were making is that if the student worked a little harder outside of school on their homework, the other problems would go away. Like, not doing homework was the cause rather an effect of a greater problem.

I also started noticing that I often said (and I often heard other teachers say) things like: if it's a review topic just assign it for homework. Or they can do it for homework and ask questions if they have them.

One reason I think these things were on my radar is because I read Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler over the summer. It's a great book and the chapter on homework was a game changer for me. Boaler really helped me see the inequity in homework. Homework is a social justice issue. Homework is an equity issue. If you haven't read Mathematical Mindsets, I would definitely recommend the book!

At the start of this school year, I began to think about what it would mean to not give homework. And, one day in October, I got the courage to ask the teachers on the algebra team what they thought about me not giving homework anymore.

Then, during our winter break, I decided to change my homework policy for the coming second semester. I decided I would no longer give daily, content based homework. Instead, I would give students a weekly Lesson Reflection. I loved some of the reflection questions I saw in  Jo Boaler's book so I used those as a starting point.

Implementing a new routine midyear is always a challenge. So there was a lot of norm setting and communication that had to happen in January and February in order for the new Lesson Reflection system to actually work. One of the best things I did to help communicate my expectations to students was to scan student examples of "high quality" work and "low quality" work. In the first few weeks of rolling out the Lesson Reflection system, I would show these examples daily. It was a slow start, with lots of very basic answers from the students (example: "I learned how to do a new problem"). But, with fervent communication to the students around my expectations for this new system, the quality of the student's responses began to improve.

this is a slide I would show students at the start of each class to help communicate my expectation for quality of their work
We are now in late March and I'm happy with what I see in the students work. The quality of their responses have improved greatly. But, more importantly, the Lesson Reflections give students an opportunity to express their math identities in different ways. Homework isn't just procedural fluency. Students can share a point of confusion; students can ask interesting questions about the content; students can reflect on something that was difficult or something new they learned that is exciting to them.

I also invite students to keep their Lesson Reflection for the week on their desk during class. That way, if they come across an interesting problem or a point of confusion, they can make note of it during class.

Has this system solved all my problems? No. Absolutely not. There are students that still don't do homework (remember the students I mentioned earlier that have trouble 'doing school'...they still do not do homework). But I've taken the content out of homework. And that makes things feel different to me. I used to get frustrated because students that didn't do their homework seemed to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers that did the homework ("you didn't get the practice you need to be successful!"). Now I don't feel that frustration because what I teach isn't dependent on assumptions about what students having done something content related outside of class.

But grades haven't changed. Students that did well on tests still do well on tests. Students that struggle on tests still struggle on tests. So, the outcome hasn't changed (and i'm willing to admit that is a fault in my system). But that also means that the traditional homework I used to give also wasn't an important factor in understanding/not understanding math.

But what has changed is my relationship with the students: I don't nag them for homework because homework has become low stakes in my class. And when I talk to them about their grade (or I discuss their grade with parents or support teachers) we don't talk about homework. We talk about what the student does and does not understand IN CLASS. And what behavior/habits the student needs to change IN CLASS to be successful. And this feels more powerful to me.

Moreover, I'm not making students that struggle with school do content work OUTSIDE of class. Which is how I think homework becomes an equity issue. Why have I been asking students to do math outside of class for the last 6 years?? I don't want kids doing math in isolation, at home, without support. I want them doing math with me and their peers. Celebrating new findings and puzzling over challenges together. Supporting each other in our learning. Math is social. Homework is anti-social.

Also, this is all new to me. So I can acknowledge it is not a perfect system. And it is a new undertaking during a year when I'm doing a lot of new undertakings (Stats Immigration Project, Social Media Stats Project). So this system isn't perfect. Ideally, I would have a rubric to help guide the quality of students work--and I will make a rubric for next year.  I do grade the Lesson Reflection, but each one is only worth 5 points. And the impact on the overall grade is negligible.

For now, reimagining my homework system was more about me: my willingness to take a risk and challenge a school tradition that has never felt compatible with my teacher identity. And Jo Boaler helped me understand why homework felt incompatible with my teacher identity. And the Lesson Reflection is a baby step in addressing that feeling of incompatibility.

Lesson Reflection (basic version)

Lesson Reflection (upcoming test version)

Lesson Reflection (lots of new vocab version)

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