In this post I want to concentrate on a couple of the afternoon sessions I attended. The TMC program (you can find it here) was filled with so many interesting opportunities that I kind of agonized over some of the choices. One that I knew I would attend was the session run by Danielle Racer (@0mod3) discussing her experiences in implementing an Exeter-style problem based approach to Geometry this past year. Danielle and one of her colleagues (Miriam Singer who is @MSinger216) came back from the Exeter summer math program (it is called the Ajna Greer Conference and if you have never been, I suggest that you try to change that!) all fired up and ready to reinvent their Honors Geometry course. Danielle spoke eloquently about their experiences and shared out some important resources. We had a great conversation in the session about the benefits and struggles of problem based curriculum. This conversation tied in to another session I saw as well as some thoughts and conversations I have been having for years. First, the afternoon session that I think linked in here. Chris Robinson (@Isomorphic2CRob) and Jonathan Osters (@callmejosters) are colleagues from the Blake School in Minneapolis. Chris and Jonathan spoke about a shift in their assessment policy that centered around skills based quizzes using and SBG model and tests that were more open to novel problem solving. I am simplifying a bit here for the sake of making sense of my own thoughts. I thought that their presentation was thoughtful and it generated great conversation in the room. Perhaps we (especially I) spoke out more than Chris and Jonathan anticipated and we ran out of time. Another sign of a good presentation, I would say. When there is more enthusiasm and participation than you thought you’d get, it probably means that you are tapping in to important conversations AND you have created a space that feels safe and open.
These two sessions had me thinking about some important conversations we have been having at our school and I am totally interested in hearing any feedback. The first conversation I remembered was with a student who had transferred to our school as a senior and was in my AP Calculus AB class. She was complaining about my homework assignments which were a mix of some text problems and some problem sets I wrote. She said in class, ‘You seem to think that AP means All Problems.’ A little probing revealed that she saw a difference between exercises and problems. A brief, but meaningful, description I remember reading is that when you know what to do when you read the assignment then it is an exercise. If you read it and you don’t know what to do, then it is a problem (in more meanings than one, I’d say). The next conversation I recalled was with a colleague who has now retired from math teaching. We were talking about homework and the struggles with having students persevere through challenging assignments. He also used this language making distinctions between exercises and problems and he suggested that HW assignments should have exercises and problems should be discussed in class when everyone was working together. He felt that the struggle and frustration of problems when you are on your own would be discouraging to too many students and would likely lead to less effort toward completion on HW. A similar conversation came up with another former colleague who was frustrated with some of the problem sets I had written for our Geometry course. She did not want to send her kids home with HW that they would not be able to complete successfully. I recognized that this was coming from a fundamentally good place. She did not want her students to feel frustrated and unsuccessful. However, I firmly believe that real growth, real learning, and real satisfaction are all related to overcoming obstacles. I have witnessed this recently with my Lil’ Dardy who just became a full fledged bike rider this summer. I heard it from my boy, my not so Lil’ Dardy, who made the following observation recently, ‘You know, I find that I like video games much better if they are hard at first. Why do you think that is, dad?’
I know that we can anecdote each other to death on these issues and I also know that there is not ONE RIGHT WAY to do this. But I am in the process of trying to make coherent sense out of my inherent biases toward problem based learning. I want to have deep and meaningful conversations with students, with their parents, with my colleagues, and with my administration about how to approach this balance and about what a math class should look like and feel like in our school. While I have been writing this I was also engaging in a meaningful twitter chat about some of this with the incomparable Lisa Henry (@lmhenry9) and with one of my new favorite people Joel Bezaire (@joelbezaire) so I know I am not the only one struggling with these questions. Please hit me up on twitter (@mrdardy) or start a raging conversation in my comments section sharing your successes/failures/theories about how to strike a balance between exercises and problems between challenging students while making them feel safe and successful and between running your own classroom with your own standard and fitting in with a team at your school. These are all big questions and I wrestle with them all the time. I want to thank Danielle, Chris, and Jonathan for sparking them up in my mind again and for creating lovely spaces for conversations in their afternoon sessions.
Coming soon will be my last entry in this series where I think out loud about the amazing keynote delivered by Tracy Zager (@TracyZager)
This was my third year in a row attending TMC and for the past two years I was co-moderating a morning session. (Thanks to both Tina Cardon (@crstn85) and Lisa Bejarano (@lisabej_manitou) for working with me the past two years!) While I enjoyed each of those experiences immensely, I must say that this TMC felt a little less stressful for me. There were a number of appealing sessions and two in particular jumped out to me. I was torn between Henri Picciotto’s (@hpicciotto) morning session called Advanced Transformations and the session run by Matt Baker (@stoodle) and Chris Luzniak (@pispeak) called Talk Less, Smile More: Getting Students to Discuss and Debate Math. I chose the latter and it was a pretty terrific way to spend six hours over the three days of the conference.
A little background into why I made this choice. Nine years ago when I moved north I made a commitment to blowing up the traditional rows/columns seating arrangement in my classroom. I had three years of small, moveable ‘pods’ of desks at my last school. Here, I had four years with two large conference style tables before asking for desks and now I am back to smaller pods. I have been explicit with my students about my expectation that they be active participants in the classroom thinking process. I think, for the most part, that I have managed this reasonably well and have generated interesting conversations in class. I believe that my students gain some important skills in being able to think out loud and I am certain that they all benefit from hearing so many voices. What I know that I do not do well enough is to decentralize myself in the classroom. Too often fantastic conversations from small pods gets directed to me instead of to the rest of the class. The students use me and their sounding board and as their speaker and I want to learn how to get out of the way ore often and figure out how to elevate small group conversations to the space of the entire classroom. The course description seemed to match this goal.
It was an extremely popular session and we were kind of crammed on top of each other in our classroom, but it helped to develop an easy, comfortable rapport in the room right away. So, my big takeaways are as follows:
- I have to figure out some strategy for randomizing groupings somehow. I want to balance what the research says with the norms of my school. I also have to contend with my weakness in bookkeeping. Not ever having a seating chart works well with my lack of attention to this sort of detail. Conversations in this morning session and vigorous twitter conversations have me convinced I need to do something. The big debate in my mind now is how often to shuffle the pod memberships.
- One remark on twitter today really has me thinking. In debating randomizing seeing every day versus once per week, Anna Blinstein (@borschtwithanna) observes that daily regrouping seems to focus attention on mathematics conversation while weekly regrouping seems to focus attention on classroom discussion norms. I am inclined to think that weekly regrouping will work best with my student body and with their previous experiences. I want to foster some familiarity and comfort in small group conversations and I think that daily switching might make that challenging. I am open to being convinced otherwise.
- I am inclined to ask my boss to have my desk removed from class so that there is no longer any centralized seat of power of any sort. I think that it would go a long way to creating the classroom culture I want if students came into class and everyone had the same desk.
- I need to get in the habit of sitting down while a student is talking and have that student stand to make sure that attention is directed to the person sharing their ideas/questions rather than being directed at me to see my terrible poker face in action.
- I have three large walls of chalkboards. I need my students up and at them regularly. I think that this might look different in my three very different classes that I teach, but this needs to happen.
- I need to be careful and consistent about the use of language from me and from my students. Chris strongly advocated formal language from the world of debate where students make claims and support them with warrants. This feels like it would work particularly well in Geometry this year.
I need to be clear that some of these remarks/reactions are directly prompted by the helpful session that Matt and Chris ran but some of these are older ideas that have been clanging around in my brain. My reactions were given shape by the meaningful conversations we had together in this morning session.
Tomorrow three of my four classes will be taking unit tests. I have always devoted the class day before a test to review. Over the past 5 – 7 years I have become more and more insistent that a review day should be a day where I am here to answer some questions that students come to class with and to help facilitate some meaningful conversation between my students. What many students seem to believe is that review day before a test is simply a time for me to tell them exactly what will be on the test. I always come to class on these days with some prepared questions in my back pocket and I always dream that those questions will stay there. That is not often the case, and it certainly was not the case today.
My Geometry class, the one I’ve been SO proud of recently, was in pretty good shape. We looked at our last HW together, they had some good questions about that but they could not really generate too many meaningful questions of their own. I displayed the review questions I had prepared and they perked up and were terrific in joining in the conversation. I just came away wishing that the class had been more about them and what was on their mind. In retrospect, perhaps it was exactly about what was on their mind. They are concerned about what I am interested in right now so that they can glean some important clues about preparing for tomorrow’s test. Sigh…
My two AP Statistics classes are in a different place emotionally than my Geometry class is. They are almost all seniors and the energy level that they brought back from winter break is distinctly different than the energy level I see in my Geometry students. I gave them class time yesterday to work on their own or with their neighbor on the review exercises at the end of their most recent chapter and my observation is that there were relatively small pockets of productive conversations. However, there were also quite a few incidents of aimless chatter, obsessive checking of their phones, silly debates, and general non-statistical conversations.
So, I feel that I am asking myself the same question I asked myself on these pages just a couple of days ago. How can I be less helpful in the standard sort of hand-holding way that my students want me to be while actually being helpful to them in modeling smart behavior about how to work, how to be metacognitive, how to be reflective, and how to be more self-aware. Trying to recall who I was when I was in high school is probably not the best exercise in answering these questions. I was a different person then than I am now. I am remembering through a distinctly tinted memory lens and I am not teaching four classes of teenage Mr. Dardys.
Gotta keep thinking and keep pushing.
So we are starting our final push for AP review in both my courses now. I teach two sections each day of AP Stats and two sections each day of AP Calculus BC. Yesterday we had our last Stats test for the text and today I gave them a complete released multiple choice section. I thought it would be more helpful to them (and to me!) if I sat quietly and listened and worked while they worked on these questions. It’s probably helpful to know that I have my class set up in two large tables that seat ten students each. They are elbow to elbow and they can all face their peers directly. They don’t need to stare at the back of people’s heads. I encouraged them to scour their own brains. to pick the brains of their neighbors, to prowl through their books and notes, and to air out their ideas and questions. Now, when I was a senior our AP Calculus teacher, the great Barry Felps, rarely ever spoke for more than 15 minutes a day. He’d field a question, maybe two, from the most recent homework, he’d introduce a new idea or work an example to lead us on our path. Some days he’d really work the boards but most days he said very little. He told us he had work to do and so did we. We’d huddle up in groups and work. I LOVED it and I keep thinking that my students will love that freedom as well. Well, it doesn’t seem to always work this way. I just read a great post earlier today called Can You Just Tell me What to Do? and, although he is addressing a different classroom environmental concern, I feel that some of my students probably want to say something like this to me. I know it’s late in the year and I probably cannot make major strides in changing this, but I REALLY want to be more helpful in establishing a classroom structure where we are comfortable exchanging ideas with each other. As I have written before, one of my Calculus classes tends to be terrific at this. One of them is very quiet by nature. I get that, and it’s a small group so I don’t push a great deal on them. However, my two stats classes are each big (by our standards) and I just have not been able to create a space where they seem comfortable having the kinds of rich conversations that I would love to hear. When I am guiding the conversation, I sometimes can get some really great chatter going. Those are fun days and I long for more of them. However, when I sit down and shut up, so do they. I’ll hear a few pockets of chatter among neighbors but nothing like the heated exchange of ideas and opinions that I dream of. So, my question to my dear readers is this – What strategies have you found to be effective in helping to create a culture where the students see it as their job to share ideas?
I’m looking forward to adding to my bag of tricks.