Tracking Journals

Alright, it’s time to resurrect this poor, neglected blog.  For lots of reasons, life has been extremely busy for the last year and I keep accumulating little notes to myself with ideas for posts I’d like to write, but those posts haven’t been materializing on their own, so here we go.

Today I’m writing up something I decided to be more intentional about this year: getting my students to commit reflections on their learning and thinking to paper.

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Ever since switching to SBAR a few years back, I’ve had students keep tracking journals separate from their class notebooks.  I started doing it for two main reasons.  Several people with experience in the SBAR world (I don’t even remember who anymore—my apologies) recommended it as a way to ensure students had a sense of the learning goals and were aware of what the focus of their efforts should be going forward.  The second reason is that I knew I never really spent enough time congratulating student achievement and handing out ata-boys/girls.  Not that I’m not an encouraging teacher, just that I tend to encourage on the, “You can do it!” side rather than the, “Look how awesome it is that you did that!” side.  I thought maybe if the students were tracking their progress, they’d get a little more of that post-achievement encouragement than I was in the habit of giving.  I know, I know: it’s not the same.  Making sure I take the time to stop and point out how far students have come is something I am working on.

For those first couple of years, I tacked on some metacognitive reflection almost as an afterthought.  I know it’s important to think about how you learn, what’s working, what isn’t, and why, but I really didn’t follow through in a way that made the practice useful.  When I’d give back a quiz, if it was the first time students had received scores on a particular target, I had them fill out a sheet with the target code, the full target description, etc., and then record the scores for all of the targets on the quiz on the appropriate sheets.  Afterward, I would say something like, “Write a paragraph about how you feel like your learning is going.”  I didn’t really give them much guidance and as a result they didn’t do a very good job reflecting.  We didn’t do anything with the reflections and every year, after a quarter or so, I’d pretty much stop even asking them to write reflections; they were just recording scores.

This year I resolved to make the practice more worthwhile.  After the first quiz, we talked as a class about the value of several things: the ability to sniff out what’s being asked of you, the ability to self-assess, and the ability to reflect on how you are learning. Then I projected the following writing prompts on the board and asked the students to respond.

“What learning targets were covered on this quiz?”

“How well do you think you communicated your understanding of each of them?”

The next day, when I handed back their quizzes, I did so with written feedback, but no scores.  After giving everyone a few minutes to look over their quiz (and talk with neighbors about questions—I don’t answer anything at this point), I put up another set of prompts.

“Based on the feedback you received, what score do you think you earned for each of the learning targets?”

“How well do you think these scores match your understanding of each of them?  Why?”

A few minutes later, I handed back each student’s scores and told them to record those scores on the tracking sheets they’d previously filled out.  Then I put up the final set of prompts.  I told the students they didn’t have to answer all of them, but rather that these should give them some inspiration for what to say.  I wanted to be sure the students had some leeway to write about something meaningful to them.


In case you can’t read all of those, they’re:

“What about this quiz was difficult?  What about it was easy?”

“How did you prepare for this quiz?  How well did it work?  What, if anything, should you do differently in the future?”

“How well did your self-assessment of your performance line up with the scores you received?”

“What might you do to keep from making the same kinds of mistakes next time?”

“Which learning target from this quiz is the most difficult?  What about it makes it tough?”

For the next five or so quizzes, once students began handing their papers in, I would project the first set of prompts.  The next day, after handing the quizzes back, I would project the next two sets of prompts, giving scores in between.  After a few runs through this routine, I don’t even have to give the students the prompts any more, just a reminder that “you know what to write about at this point.”

There are a few things about my procedure that I really like.  I’ve stopped giving students a rundown of exactly what’s going to be on a quiz in advance.  I make sure they have a general idea of the range of topics, but most of the time I don’t tell them for certain which topics they’ll see.  This makes the, “What learning targets were covered on this quiz?” question meaningful, since they don’t know walking in and I want them to have to think carefully about it.  I believe that getting better at figuring out what is being asked of them will improve their ability to provide stronger evidence of their understanding, so I want to draw that out.  This seems to be working well.

Improving their self-assessment skills will also be valuable to them long after they’ve left my class, so I really want to make them work on that as well.  I sometimes talk about getting the difference between self-assessments and actual scores down to zero reliably enough that I don’t even have to hand back scores, just feedback, but I don’t think we’ll ever actually get there.  It’s also nice to force them to dig into the feedback I provide, which they seem to do a lot more meaningfully if there’s not a score to skip to.  At first it drove them nuts to get papers back without scores, but they’re used to it now.  (By the way, I’d love to hear if anyone has any suggestions for how to manage delaying the scores, logistically.  I’m currently doing it by writing scores out on little scraps of paper by hand, but I’d love something more streamlined.  Email, although more environmentally friendly, wouldn’t be any less tedious—probably more, actually.  A friend and I joked how cool it would be to write the scores in something that only shows up under black light and installing a black light in the classrooms I teach in.  Hand out papers, let students reflect, and then—*flip switch*—the scores appear!)

I’m currently torn on feedback.  On one hand, I’d like to provide clear feedback that gives the students well-defined steps toward improvement.  On the other, sometimes I think it might be best to simply indicate where things aren’t quite up to par and make them dig deeper/talk to classmates/etc. to figure out where they went wrong (and that by handing them a list of what they should do, I might be robbing them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves).  It’s still up in the air for me.  Thoughts?

In any event, being more specific with the writing prompts I give the students has made a world of difference in the quality of their reflections.  I don’t respond in their journals and don’t read them on any kind of schedule (just from time to time, usually when students are taking a quiz), but some of the reflections I’ve seen are fantastic.  We’ve made it through the first semester without giving up yet, and the end isn’t anywhere in sight.  Another nice thing is that last year our school switched to student-led conferences in the spring (students give a run-down on their learning in all of their classes to their parents, no teachers involved), and their journals will provide them with almost ready-made material for those presentations.  I definitely want to not only continue the practice in years to come, but to improve and make it even more meaningful.

One of the shortcomings of my current system is certainly that we don’t do much with the stuff that they write beyond the student-led conferences.  I don’t regularly read the stuff (mostly due to time constraints) and we don’t necessarily act on any of it as a class.  I think I’m still leaving it too much in their court to pull the pieces together and make the connections.  Some of the students write wonderful reflections and some don’t.  This has to be due in part to my lack of follow-through.  Perhaps I should incorporate it into the grade somehow?  My gut feeling is not to, but I can imagine a few ways to do it: a long-standing learning target that goes into the mix with the others to determine their grade, or perhaps a separate portion of their grade, say 5% or 10%, coming from outside the learning target system and instead dictated by how seriously they take these reflections.  I could make this fit with my philosophy of what I think grades should represent (what a student knows and can do—since I have to give grades, that is) because the things I want the students to work on in these journals (the ability to sniff out what’s being asked of you, the ability to self-assess, the ability to reflect on how you are learning) are at least as important in the long run as the specific math we’re doing.  But I’d really like to think I could get even more meaningful engagement just by having solid practices in place so that the students know by our actions that this stuff is important and come to see the value through results more than they already are.

I can also probably do a better job promoting real metacognitive understanding.  What questions would you ask and what discussions would you have around that?  Do you have any routines that work well for your classes?

I’d love to hear what other teachers are doing along these lines.

Class Project: Modeling the Spread of Ebola

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My absolute favorite thing from last year was my Applied Calculus class’s project on modeling the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.  What started off as a simple task extending some of the ideas from the course ended up becoming, on several different levels, an authentic and powerful learning experience. Read More…

Mathematical Learning Objectives

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At my school, we’re currently in the process of identifying what we see as our essential educational objectives.  The document that emerges should help to guide all of the decisions we make in the future, including everything from an upcoming rethinking of our graduation requirements to discussions around how strongly we embrace learning experiences that happen outside of the traditional classroom setting.  I imagine this list of objectives as something to point at whenever we’re making arguments for why some practice should change (or continue, as the case may be).  It’s exciting because this has been a bottom-up approach, with input coming from all faculty, coaches, staff, and administrators as we try to discern exactly what it is that we want to instill in each and every one of our students before they graduate.

At the moment, all of the input that’s been received has been boiled down into three broad categories: dispositions, skills, and content/knowledge.  The dispositions and many of the skills are cross-disciplinary, covering things like recognizing one’s place in our global community and being able to productively work with others.  Other skills and much of the specific content tend to break out more along discipline or department lines and, as such, have been shopped out to the departments to produce lists which will then be revised and aggregated. Read More…

Birthday Puzzle

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My class openers are getting to be my favorite part of a lot of my classes this year.  (Huge thanks to Andrew and Fawn for their part in that.  I need to do another post on how I use those two excellent resources.)  After seeing this article in the Times last night, I put the following puzzle to my students as our class opener today.

Albert and Bernard just met Cheryl.  “When’s your birthday?” Albert asked Cheryl.

Cheryl thought a second and said, “I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll give you some clues.”  She wrote down a list of 10 dates:

May 15               May 16            May 19
June 17              June 18
July 14               July 16
August 14         August 15        August 17

“My birthday is one of these,” she said.  Then Cheryl whispered in Albert’s ear the month — and only the month — of her birthday. To Bernard, she whispered the day, and only the day.

“Can you figure it out now?” she asked Albert.

Albert: “I don’t know when your birthday is, but I know Bernard doesn’t know, either.”
Bernard: “I didn’t know originally, but now I do.”
Albert: “Well, now I know, too!”

When is Cheryl’s birthday? Read More…

Reflections on My First Year of Standards-Based Assessment, Part 3

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In my final post reflecting on last year’s shift to SBAR (Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here), I’d like to take a look at some data.  It should be noted up front that the sample size we’re dealing with is very small (i.e., two) since 2012/13 is my only comparable pre-SBAR year, at least as far as calculus is concerned.  During 2011/12, I was using a drastically different curriculum (which ended up becoming the basis for my current Applied Calculus course, perhaps soon to become Mathematical Modeling – more to come on that later).  Since I just started in the math department halfway through 2010/11, I don’t think any comparisons with that year would be fair.  Prior to 2010, my calculus teaching was done at the undergraduate level for a very different student population.  That said, while I don’t want to read too much into what follows, I do think it bears examination.  Time to dive into this data rabbit hole. Read More…

Reflections on My First Year of Standards-Based Assessment, Part 2

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After one year of keeping a disaggregated gradebook, I can confidently say that I will never go back to my old way of doing things. That’s not to say that I will repeat exactly how I did things last year.  There is certainly plenty of room for growth and a need for refinement, but the things I explored during the 2013/14 academic year will be at the heart of my assessment system for years to come.

In this post I’d like to examine a few of my policies and procedures from the year, what I liked and think went well, and where I see room for improvement.  (For background and a bit about the basic set-up of my system last year, see Part 1 of this series.  Part 3 is here.  My course syllabus with all policies outlined is available here.) Read More…

Reflections on My First Year of Standards-Based Assessment, Part 1

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A year and a half ago, the 5th-grade science teacher and I asked for and were given permission to launch a pilot program to try out standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR) in our school.  We read lots of stuff, checked out what other people were doing and had done, and spent plenty of time thinking about how we wanted this to change the way our gradebooks classrooms operated.  Joined by a physics teacher, we dove into the 2013-14 year armed with a new way of doing business, a way that turned my calculus class on its head and more closely aligned with my educational philosophy.

For the next few posts, I’m going to talk about SBAR in general, how things went with my first year, and some things I’m thinking about for the coming years.  (Parts 2 and 3 are here and here.)

To begin, I’m going share my responses to some interview questions I was posed back in October by one of our students writing an article about the new grading system.  I think this pretty clearly explains why I am interested in transforming assessment and what I hope to achieve by doing so.  It also lays out some of the details about how I implemented things last year. Read More…

The Times They Are…

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Based on events of the last year, it appears that change is imminent at my school.  The direction of the wind seems favorable, but time will tell.  In the meantime, some thoughts: we have a need, not to reform, but to transform.  If we cannot answer “why?” a current practice is in place, it must be discarded.  We must be willing to have these discussions in earnest; lip-service is insufficient.

It is clear that what is required is a transformation of our classroom practice.  Transmission of information is a consequence of what we do, not the goal.  It should be hoped that technology will play a supporting, not leading, role.  Rather than being shoe-horned in for its own sake, appropriate technology should be utilized in support of real, genuine work.  Assessment should be utilized in the support of growth.  Until we are throwing in the towel, all assessments should be formative.  Assessments must be real; real projects intended to be shared with a larger audience as opposed to papers for the teacher’s eyes only, one more thing to be marked and discarded.  We need interdisciplinary connection.  We must be willing to try one radical thing every semester.  We must be student-responsive. Read More…

Trigonometry Notes

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I’ve often spoken to colleagues (and students and parents) about my dislike of high-school-level mathematics textbooks.  None of the books I’ve seen (with the exception of some calculus texts which are probably intended to be university-level) provide a sufficient logical foundation for the ideas they contain.  Most don’t even pretend to try.  They simply give cookie-cutter, template examples and throw you twenty or so “problems” which you can then use to ape their techniques.  No discovery, no understanding.

Here’s part of an email I sent to some colleagues last year as I was considering what I could do to improve the current landscape:

During a department meeting last semester in which we were talking about textbooks for next year, I lamented the poor quality of our
Algebra II text (and was met with general agreement from the department).  Apparently, all of the versions of Algebra text we have used in the past have had different, but not dissimilar, issues.  There always seem to be at least a few places where the ordering of topics is strange (which I’m sure the author(s) had reasons for, but these are lost on me), the page layouts are apparently designed to give you a wicked case of ADHD (if you don’t already have it), and (worst of all), ideas are introduced as cold facts, rarely presented with any sort of justification or indication of how they tie in to the big picture (if, indeed, there is any big picture) and with only some oblique references or watered-down examples to show why you should care to understand them.

101questions / Three-Act Lessons

One of my favorite new things in the classroom this year is my use of three-act lessons. I first came across three-acts last year on Dan Meyer’s blog and immediately fell in love.

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(For the uninitiated, check out Dan’s TEDx talk and his post on why students hate algebra, then go look at his three-act repository along with Andrew Stadel’s.  For ideas on creating three-acts of your own, check out Makeover Monday.)

I first tried out three-acts in a brush-up course at the end of the summer.  The class was mostly kids who are not typically strong math students and needed some remediation before the new year.  After the first meeting, we did one three-act each day, afterwards reinforcing and building on the  necessary skills (along with some other stuff I deemed important).  It was a huge success.  After a couple of days the kids came to class excitedly asking, “Are we gonna do another video today?”  They weren’t even being sarcastic; they genuinely loved it.  And the level of engagement was astounding.  I’ve never had buy-in like that from the “weaker” math students.  They are normally the ones that hate math class.  I don’t teach any of those students in my classes during the regular year, but a couple of them have stopped by to let me know that the brush-up was really helpful for the classes they’re in now.  Couldn’t ask for better results. Read More…