Friday, August 14, 2020

Remote Teaching - the community edition

 I just finished remotely teaching two one-week courses for rising 9th graders in which at least half the class was brand new to the school. Each group met for 3 hours every morning for a week and I had the luxury of creating my own curriculum that didn't have to cover any particular topics, but did need to be fun, engaging for students with a variety of math backgrounds, introduce new students to how we teach math at my school and how to learn math remotely, and most importantly, foster a sense of community.


Fortunately, Michael Pershan shared some words of wisdom about the need to build student-student connections over student-teacher connections in a remote space and this helped me rethink my original plan for each week.

Based on his experiences with a virtual math camp this summer, I did a few things that I think helped students get to know each other and feel safer sharing and discussing than they would have otherwise. Here are some things that seemed to go well (at the end, I'll post some things that didn't go as well, not to worry).


  • Low stakes whole class interactivity

I started the week with an activity in which students had to drag their name somewhere on a set of axes so we could learn about each other. 




I asked some chill follow-up questions about each set of axes as kids dragged their names, which they could answer in the chat or out-loud (almost everyone opted for the chat).

I then had kids drag their names somewhere onto an oval and go around the oval, saying their name out loud and answering another easy icebreaker question, the goal being - everyone knows how to unmute their mics, everyone gets to hear how each student wants their name pronounced. 

Every morning started with a low-stakes interactive component. We did a "Which One Doesn't Belong" with kids dragging their names into a quadrant and typing their reason for that choice into the chat box. We did a "Contemplate then Calculate," with kids typing their numerical expression into the chat box. We did an "Estimation 180" task, where kids typed their "too low/too high/best guess" into the chat box. Just something small and relatively low-stakes where every kid interacted with the whole class. As the week went on, kids were more likely to use their mics voluntarily to participate, especially if I sent them into breakout rooms for a few minutes to pair-share first. The chat box is maybe the best feature of teaching remotely though - getting kids comfortable using it and setting the norm that it's basically a backchannel for classroom discussions, where kids can type questions and ideas and respond to those of their classmates was a huge component of building community for my students. 

  • Breakout rooms

Breakout rooms was where most of the community building happened though. I'm no remote teaching expert, but in my limited time doing this (spring + summer), kids are approximately 1500% more likely to talk out-loud in a breakout room than in a whole class setting. Each day, I created visibly random breakout rooms that stayed together for most of the day's activities. They started with an icebreaker here too. The first day, I used "personality coordinates" shared by Dan Meyer a while back, which translated really well to a remote space.


Each breakout room worked on one slide in the slideshow, putting their names next to the dots first, and then coming up with variables that could be placed on the axes to make this graph true for their group. Kids had a great time with this activity and came up with some clever and hilarious variables for their groups that we then shared out in the whole class. Following days had more traditional ice breakers, but I also had every student bring in a photo of something meaningful to them and add it to their group's slide and share about that photo, something I likely wouldn't have done in-person. That was another favorite.

  • Games

Games are another low-stakes way for strangers to interact and build some familiarity and trust. I mostly used two-person games, borrowed from this list by Ben Orlin. Fortunately for me, Mike Flynn had already created online templates for two of the games (Black Hole and Ultimate Tic Tac Toe) and I made one for Magical Squares so we had a variety of games to play. I think games like Sprout, Nim, and Hex would translate well to remote space if you want more ideas. After students played a game against an opponent, I asked them to share out possible strategies and things they noticed in the whole group and got kids to participate who were quiet otherwise. 

  • Norms

 Throughout these activities, but especially at the start, I was very explicit about the ways that I wanted students to engage with each other. The first time that students went into breakout rooms, I assigned a group leader and gave that person several tasks.


Each day, I had students reflect on how they supported each other, had students name peers who supported them along with what they did that was supportive, and asked students to share out strategies that were helpful in promoting effective collaboration. This was mostly done in a Google doc journal that students wrote in at the end of each day, but I also asked students to share out some of these things in breakout rooms at the start of the day. I frequently reminded them of our norms and why they were there. 

  • Choice

My last hot-tip for building community remotely is about giving kids choice for how they interact with each other. While I really wanted kids to work together, I also gave them opportunities to work on their own, if they wanted to do so, or to pick specific peers to work with rather than be randomly assigned. Knowing that some of the time, they would have choice for how they worked and who they worked with seemed to increase buy-in and willingness to work with new peers during the times that I asked kids to collaborate with strangers. I also tried to give kids different ways to participate - even though the norms asked for participation, we talked about different ways that this could happen, whether by typing in the chat box, asking others questions, affirming or pushing back on ideas, writing out the group's work on a shared virtual whiteboard, or using nonverbal cues if their camera was on, like looking at the speaker, nodding along, giving a thumbs up. I didn't require kids to have their cameras on, but tried to make it a safe space to do so and where there would be a reason to be seen and heard by others.

This is not to say that everything was amazing and the students are now life-long friends. Creating a community virtually is going to be a challenge, even with all the tricks and best intentions because it's a weird, awkward space that's not conducive to vulnerability and intimacy. For example, the last hour of the last day was a choice project, and the majority of the new students chose to work on their own. I didn't force the issue, but I would have loved to see them choosing more collaboration. Something that I plan do differently in a few weeks when I meet my year-long classes is to have more opportunities for substantive sharing. I feel like we didn't really get past the easy icebreaker stage, and partly that's due to only being together for a week, and partly it's because I wasn't sure how much to push kids to share. I did have students share a Google doc with me in which they wrote a reflection at the end of every day, and those were much more substantive and raw. I'd like to have kids feel comfortable sharing those types of written reflections with each other and not just with me. With a class that I will have for longer, I'd also like to spend more time having students model and practice participation norms. 

I'd also love to hear your ideas of how you plan to foster community in your classes remotely this fall. Please reach out on Twitter or in comments to this blog!

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Remote Teaching - prepping for next year

I'm in the same boat as a lot of others, without a concrete plan for the fall yet, but with schools in my area leaning more and more towards starting remotely. Even if not fully remote, we will be at least hybrid in order to reduce the number of students coming to school at any time so my current plan is to assume remote instruction and to have in-person students join via Zoom to work with at-home students, if we do end up hybrid for some of the time. If conditions improve beyond current expectations, it's a lot easier to roll back and move towards face-to-face instruction than the other way around. This past month of summer break has given me a bit more time time to play around with tech tools, listen to webinars, look at my curriculum, and build on the work I did in the spring in teaching synchronously while remote. This blog post is an attempt to organize some of the work and thinking I've done so far in preparing for next school year. It's pretty long so I have no expectation that others will read, but I need to write out my plans for my own sanity.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I'm working in a small school where all students have school-issued laptops and where classes will be run synchronously via Zoom, which influences the types of instruction I can do, but please don't hesitate to reach out here or on Twitter if you have any questions for how this might look at your school.

I'm jumping into tech tools first to get them out of the way, but the important stuff is below, my unpacking of the most difficult part of remote learning - students' need for relationships, understanding, and agency.

Tech Tools during Class
The most useful tech tools that I used during class in the spring and that I plan to keep using in the fall were Desmos Activity Builder, Classkick, and virtual collaborative whiteboards for breakout rooms. I used Desmos AB and Classkick for students working individually - both platforms allowed me to see students working in real time and to give them feedback via comments in Desmos and by writing directly on their papers in Classkick. Desmos was better for content that involved graphing and making and testing predictions, while Classkick was better for students writing out their steps, working especially well for the small minority of my students who had iPads or tablets and could write with a stylus instead of their trackpad (but it also worked pretty well for kids with laptops only).  I remade a number of my lessons as Desmos activities or simply imported pdfs of problems into Classkick. The drawbacks of both of these platforms were that they did not foster collaboration between students, even if I put them in breakout rooms and told them to talk to each other. This was very surprising as students had been used to collaborating effectively in my classes before we went remote so there's clearly something about a remote space that is much less conducive to working easily together. One strategy I plan to use in the fall (as shared by @mpershan a few days ago) is to assign one student in each breakout room the role of sharing their screen.





Teaching students how to work together in breakout rooms is clearly a new skill and one we'll need to explicitly teach and practice in the fall rather than relying on their face-to-face collaboration skills to just extend into online interactions. I'm considering how to amend structures like group roles and participation quizzes to work in breakout rooms, since I can no longer observe multiple groups at once.  For example, new roles could be: 1. Someone who ensures that a screen is being shared and everyone knows what they're working on, 2. Someone who pauses the room every 5 minutes and checks for understanding and who can call in the teacher if there's a group question 3. Someone who ensures that everyone is writing out their work and there is documentation for the breakout room.

It might be good to shift teacher feedback on collaboration to a peer- or self-assessment model in which students set goals around collaboration, then reflect to themselves or to group members ("in what ways did you contribute to your group today?", "in what way could you be a better group member next time?", "tell your group one thing they did well today" , "give a specific shout-out to a peer who helped you learn today"). A very concrete thing might just be to ask students to track the number of times they asked or answered a question in their group. I think it might also be possible to do an amended form of a participation quiz where I pop into breakout rooms and record what I see in a shared document, although I won't be able to project it to them in real time.

I'm also going to be looking to inject more fun and interactivity into breakout rooms - icebreakers, sharing something non-academic, Anne's concentric circles activity, something small that gets kids talking and sharing their screens and builds their comfort level with digital participation. In whole class discussions, using the chat feature of Zoom (set to "chat to host only") was incredibly helpful in drawing in shy students in the spring and I will continue using it to invite more participation and to get insights into kid thinking in real time.

In the spring, I also used virtual whiteboards quite a bit when I wanted kids to work on novel problems together or to go over homework questions. I bounced around a few different ones - assigning a page in Jamboard or a slide in a shared Google slideshow per group were great for students adding photos of their handwritten work and incorporating typed comments, but not great for handwriting. Bitpaper was best for writing and graphing math, but unfortunately, due to increasing use, they removed their free version for new users a few months ago (if you made an account before this and had some boards, you can keep using these for free, which is what I'm doing). GoBoard is probably my second favorite for writing out math work and has handy integrations with Desmos and LaTeX. If you have some money to spend, either Bitpaper or Ziteboard work really well for writing out math work and integrating photos of work on paper with handwriting and typing on a computer. If not, Jamboard and GoBoard are decent options.

Online whiteboards are going to be a big part of my remote plan this year as well, and I need to also be explicit about norms there - the role of writer should rotate, everyone works on the same problem, students should look for multiple methods or connections between problems, there should be a check for understanding before moving on to the next problem, work must be clear enough that someone not in the group could understand your process. As these will be largely used in breakout rooms, these norms will need to be incorporated with the breakout room participation norms. So! Many! Norms! I will have to be very intentional about rolling these out sequentially and creating a small enough list that won't overwhelm students. But I know that time invested up front in fostering effective group work will pay huge dividends in how well students are able to learn from each other and work productively together for the rest of the year in a remote environment.

The big new tech thing that I plan to use in the fall is OneNote digital class notebooks. There was a pretty steep learning curve to figure out how they work from the teacher side, but I think they're now ready to go for the start of school and should greatly simplify the coordination of classwork and homework, as well as giving easy feedback to students in real time so that I may no longer need tools like Classkick or Google Classroom to organize assignments and feedback. It also means that I'll want to build in some time at the end of class for students to take photos of their handwritten and Desmos or whiteboard work to insert into their digital class notebook and reflect briefly on their understanding. One of my big takeaways from the spring was that everything takes 50% longer when teaching a class remotely, but it is also documented more thoroughly. There is potential here for deeper learning, but I will have to account for the amount of time that things take and be focused on the most essential topics in the curriculum.

It might also be helpful to state that I'm not planning on investing a lot of time and energy into making content videos. I have provided curated video resources for students in every class for several years now and based on student feedback and my own priorities, I'm going to continue outsourcing this. I don't think it's worth it for me to record a lot of videos teaching math content when there are already so many out there, many made by people with way better video recording technology and know-how. In the spring, I did often make short videos in response to student questions or common errors on their work, and I will make these as needed again this year, using the Notability app for iPad and iPad's native screen capture or by recording a Zoom call with just myself in it and screen sharing from my iPad so that my face is also in the video. But these videos are going to be in response to student work, not a replacement for synchronous class time.

Relationships/Communication/Support
I'm thinking a lot about teacher-student as well as student-student relationships for the coming year and while I list out individual ideas below, I know that a conversation with my department and school about values and priorities is going to be the most important. We need to plan out how to care for students remotely, how to know how they are doing and what we can do to support them as students, but also as kids and people who are lonely, bored, scared, and disconnected from their normal support networks.

I loved a suggestion from Audrey around students sending her photos of things that have meaning for them (sounds like pets were a crowd pleaser) and starting each class with a student talking about that photo. She then compiled all of the photos for an end-of-year slideshow. Several others have also proposed converting Sara VanDerWerf's Name Tents, which is how I usually start the school year, into a digital form where students respond to prompts either in writing or via short Flipgrid videos. Teachers and students could respond to these with their own videos. This also made me reflect on the power of audio or video feedback to foster teacher-student relationships as this was something mentioned by several teachers who regularly teach online. I'm excited that OneNote will allow me to easily record an audio response to student work. I had been planning to use Voicethread to do this before I committed to OneNote, but I know that students really appreciated video responses to their work in the spring and that they help to humanize what could otherwise feel like dry content-focused interactions.

Another idea that I liked that was shared this morning in response to Julie's post on teaching in a hybrid model (in which students are split into two groups and each week, they rotate which group is at school and which group is at home) was assigning each student in a group a buddy in the other group who could help them know what was going on during class or let the teacher know if there were issues when their buddy was learning from home. In the spring, I used Padlet for students to post and answer each others' homework questions and ran an after school homework help time over Zoom where students could drop in and work with peers and math teachers for a few hours each week. I will continue using Padlet and running after school Math Lab, but am also considering other outside-of-class structures that might encourage more interactions between students. Study groups? More group projects? This is an area where I could really use the wisdom of the collective - how are others planning to foster student-student relationships in their schools?

One of the things I took away from a "Designing for Online Learning" course I completed at the start of the summer from Global Online Academy is the importance of clearly organized course materials and easy to access supports for students. I used a Google Site in the spring with a daily agenda so that students could easily follow the sequence of a lesson and know what was going if their audio or video cut out or they lost their Zoom connection. Moving to OneNote will make it easier to share monthly, weekly, and daily plans with students so that they have a clear understanding of the content goals and work they are completing.

I am also going to cycle in one-on-one conferences with students to find out how things are going, build relationships, set goals, and go over feedback together. I conferenced with the majority of my students in the spring and although it was a lot of time and work to set up, I felt that they were incredibly worthwhile, even more so in a remote setting than in face-to-face school. My students benefited, but I also benefited tremendously in my ability to empathize and support specific students. In my experience, making these meetings required and ongoing (once a month is a good frequency, I've found) is key. My school will also be setting aside one day each week for tutorial slots so those will also be great opportunities for students to access support. I will also continue seeking feedback from students on how things are going and using that feedback to correct course. Short, anonymous student surveys once or twice each semester, rather than an end-of-year longer survey, have been more helpful for me in getting actionable feedback. Relationships and timely feedback were critical in the spring for motivating students to show up to class, engage with content, and reach out for support, and I know they will be even more so with a new crop of students who don't know me or each other very well yet.

Curriculum
My biggest content take-away from the spring was the importance of student agency in motivating students to stay engaged and work remotely, without the norms of being inside a school building. I built choice into assignments, I let students select their own breakout rooms every few class periods and let me know how they would like to work during class, and I designed the end-of-semester projects to have options and to include a variety of student interests. Student choice to support differentiation is something that's been important to me for a long time and I presented on it this summer, but in a remote environment, I need to be way more organized with helping students set goals, receive timely feedback, and revise. I've done a bunch of curriculum work this summer to hopefully be in a place where more of my time is spent giving feedback and conferencing with students and less on writing problem sets and planning lessons. And I'm hoping that OneNote is a platform that supports organization of assignments, quick feedback, and revisions.

With respect to deepening the curriculum, I've also revised several projects to include more choice and to bring an anti-racist lens to student mathematical thinking. For example, the first 8th grade project for the last several years has been to find a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem from the many options available and present it to the class.



The revised project will include more of a humanistic look at how different cultures have used and thought about this right triangle relationship and why it is that we have named it after a Greek mathematician instead of the many others who also explored it. Students will learn more context and history of the mathematician whose proof they are presenting and the work of non-majority culture mathematicians will be celebrated. A key understanding for this project this year will be to critically examine who gets the credit for a mathematical idea and how different cultures come to understand, apply, and prove mathematical ideas. Two later projects (one on modeling data and one on using concepts of standard deviation and z-scores to analyze outliers) will have a social justice lens this year - students will still have choice in their research questions, but will be working within the realm of social justice topics.

I will also be focusing more explicitly on retention this year since learning remotely may really impact how deeply students are learning content and there may be more gaps from last spring. Working on a curriculum team this summer, we revised the standards for 8th grade to more explicitly connect back to earlier content and we've rewritten homework problem sets to spiral in previous topics. Sara VanDerWerf has blogged about her use of green reference sheets to better support students with gaps in prior knowledge and I plan to use a form of this as well, since we already start each unit with a pre-assessment to help us and students know what topics in the upcoming unit will need the most support. I've been incorporating an "Important Concepts" section into notes packets, but am still thinking about how to best use this with students. Should students be creating their unit summary page? Should there be more explicit use of teacher-made reviews and references throughout each unit? Since many class periods are structured around problem-solving and student-led exploration, with some time spent synthesizing and applying at the end, rolling out a summary of what students will learn ahead of time seems detrimental to that process. At the same time, many middle school students are not great note-takers and having a clear summary that can help them see the big picture or review and solidify what they explored in class seems like a good idea. I'm going to play around with summary structures this year that build off student thinking and will hopefully, have more to report on this soon. I'd love others' input on how they've integrated review and content summaries with problem-based learning.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Remote Teaching

As I end the first full week of remote teaching, I wanted to quickly jot down some of the things that I've tried this week and what is and isn't working for me. First, a bit of context:

- I'm in San Francisco and teach Math to 7th and 8th graders at a K-12 independent school
- We are 1-to-1 with laptops in the middle and high school and have reached out to students with internet connection issues to help them access remote classes
- We don't have textbooks or give grades, which means that we need to think differently about structures and motivation for kids to engage in remote learning
- Two weeks ago, school rolled out a Remote Learning Plan that involves synchronous video classes over Zoom for most core classes, along with assignments and drop-in hours, but no synchronous class, for P.E., music, art, and electives. We are on an A/B block schedule and classes have been shortened from 75 to 60 minutes so kids get a 20-minute break in between, but otherwise, have 3-4 remote classes four days a week, and then a day to work on homework, projects, work from their asynchronous classes, and meet with teachers one-on-one.

Some things that I've found really helpful so far:

  • A class webpage... I use this to structure what we're going to do during each remote class. It was super, duper easy to make a webpage using Google Sites. Mine is not fancy, but has a tab for the day's agenda, another one with assignments students complete outside of class (which are also posted to Google Classroom), and a final tab that organizes class notes and online resources for each topic, since we don't have a physical textbook.


Here's last Wednesday's agenda for 8th grade:




Kids can use this to get to the different parts of that day's lesson, which is especially helpful if they lose their connection and have to reconnect to the Zoom class or have bad audio.
  • Structures that break up the class into different types of learning environments seem to be going well. We usually start with a warm-up problem that is linked in Google Slides that we either discuss as a class or in breakout rooms. Then, I have each breakout room work on problems together in a slide on Jamboard, a virtual whiteboard. 
Here's a whiteboard from one breakout room in a 7th grade class from last week:


Some kids are writing using their mouse and trackpad, some kids are using text, others are doing work in a notebook and uploading photos of their work. Having the virtual whiteboard means that I know which groups are struggling and can be more efficient in which breakout rooms I visit while they work together, as well as identifying responses I want to highlight when we debrief as a whole class.

The last part of class is usually a Desmos activity I can use to see how individual kids are doing with the topic and decide on whether I want to see any for one-on-one time. I'm mostly taking Illustrative Mathematics lessons and converting them into Desmos Activities or creating quick exit tickets that I can have students complete in the last five minutes of class.
  • Using Google Classroom to get homework out and collect written work is going really well. Students are submitting photos or scans of their handwritten work on homework assignments and the Classroom app for iPad lets me annotate submissions so that I can give them written feedback on their work. This is another important avenue for me to see how individual kids are doing and to identify kids I want to follow up with one-on-one. That might mean asking a student to see me during office hours or recording and sending them a short video addressing something I am seeing in their homework. I just figured out that my iPad has its own screen recording function so I don't need to download and use a different app, I can just jot and talk through a quick note in Notability, upload it to Google Drive, and send the student a link.

Things I still want to work on as California will remain "sheltered in place" for at least for the next month:
  • One-on-one meetings with every student; I have been mostly using office hours as an optional drop-in time for students, although I have reached out to those that I can see are struggling, but I want to schedule a one-on-one meeting with each and every student in the next few weeks to check in and find out how things are going for them and to look over their work together. I'm finding that middle school students are just not great at taking in written feedback over the computer and knowing what to do with that information or what their next step should be. 
  • More variety in the activities I am doing with students during class; right now, they seem to like the mix of class discussion, breakout rooms, virtual whiteboarding, and Desmos activities, but I imagine that these will start to get old soon. These are pretty similar to activities we did in class when regular school was in session, but we also did collaborative projects, labs where students gathered and modeled data, student presentations, and explorations with manipulatives, which are all missing from remote Math class. I'd love ideas of what others are doing that might create more balance and variety in working with students remotely. 
  • Ways to check in with every student during class; I really miss the ability to walk around the room, scan what students are doing, and ask quick questions to probe their thinking or identify cool ideas that I could then ask them to share with the class. It's really hard to informally see the work of individual students and and talk to them without drawing a lot of attention to it in a video meeting while still keeping an eye on the rest of the class. 
  • I want to build more community and connections between students because I know this is something they're really missing in this remote learning space and is one of the main reasons that kids are excited to go to school and learn. Initially, I focused on structures that would help with content and organization because that's how I deal with stressful situations, but now that classes are running pretty smoothly and we have a system, I want to develop more ways for us to be human and connected together. 



Thursday, January 16, 2020

Proof in a non-Geometry classroom

A beef that I have long had with the standard math curriculum is that for many students who don't take college math courses, proof is a weird one-off that you do in a Geometry class for one year, writing algorithmically in two-columns full of acronyms. You know it's coming, but certainly aren't expected to do anything about it until you get to Geometry, and then, just as enigmatically as it appeared, it vanishes from the curriculum again. Truly, a mystery.

I began to rethink my own views on proof and how its definition might be broadened to make it a more regular component of ALL math classrooms when I read Avery's blog post on redefining proof several years ago. More recently, I've been thinking a lot about how to help students become more rigorous and formal in their proof writing, while still treating their informal reasoning and ideas as valid and interesting in their own right, not just as a stepping stone to "more correct" proof.

Teaching an integrated math course to 8th graders this year gave me some unique opportunities to play around with proof and formalization. The year starts with a unit centered on the Pythagorean Theorem and culminates with a project in which students choose a proof of the theorem (we used a collection of proofs at Cut the Knot) to study and then present their proof of choice to peers. There's a great variety of proofs there in terms of complexity and usage of algebra/geometry/trig/similar triangle concepts and focusing on analysis of existing proofs emphasizes what it means to understand a proof and be convinced by its reasoning. We also had a great class discussion about the difference between an example or demonstration and a proof, looking at several videos "proving" the Pythagorean Theorem that really only showed it to be true for a specific instance.

Image result for prove pythagorean theorem
Look, it works!

That was pretty great, but there was nothing in the curriculum that built on this for the rest of the year so I decided that halfway through the next unit, we would do an exploration of polygon areas that would lead students to Pick's Theorem where they could start to write their own proofs, but I really struggled with structuring it in a way that honored students' existing reasoning, but also pushed them to formalize more and consider proof techniques, such as casework. If you haven't seen Pick's Theorem, it's a neat little formula that connects the area of a polygon whose vertices are points on a lattice to the number of lattice dots on the perimeter of the polygon and the number of lattice dots in interior of the polygon. 

The structure I eventually created seemed okay, but definitely produced mixed results. All students were able to come up with a conjecture for the area of a lattice polygon, but even with my hints (which I thought were maybe too helpful), virtually no students were able to make progress on proving the theorem on their own.



Questions I now have:
  • Was it too big of a jump to go from analyzing proofs to having students write their own proof, even with lots of hints?
  • Is this problem perhaps not the right one for first proof writing?
  • What other problems or structures could I have used to transition more effectively towards proof-writing that still build on students' original reasoning and perspectives?
  • Would students have benefited from writing a proof (or the start of a proof) together as a class first?
  • Where should I go next to develop students' formal proof-writing skills?

I do have some thoughts on these, but would love to get more input and ideas from the community.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Flexible groupings

I wanted to respond to @MarkChubb3's tweet (below) in more characters than Twitter would allow.

Mark asks some great questions about groupings, specifically focusing on issues of equity, identity, and experience vs achievement gaps. I would highly recommend going to read his post, where he details his recommendation for a progression between Tier 1 (all students), Tier 2 (small groups), and Tier 3 (individual students) instruction.

These are questions near and dear to my heart. My school, like many, has tried a variety of approaches to groupings over the years. As a school that targets gifted learners whose needs were not being met, we see huge ranges in students' experience in Math that make purely heterogeneous groupings challenging. However, as Mark points out, the danger of groupings, especially ones that are static, holistic, and that lead to diverging learning and opportunities, are manifold. This year, we have piloted a model in our 5th and 6th grade Math classes that has tried to walk the fine line between the benefits of some groupings, while trying to avoid some of the negative effects of groupings discussed above.

Flexible groupings model

Our model relies on the fact that for 5th and 6th grade, students have Math at one of two distinct times every day they meet. That means that there are several same grade Math classes scheduled at the same time. The other component of our schedule that makes flexible groupings easier is that these Math classes are happening in classrooms next to each other and two of the rooms share a retractable wall that can be moved out of the way to create a large shared space.

We started the year with all students who were taking Math at that time in the large shared space, working in random, heterogeneous groups that we mixed up every day. All three Math teachers for that grade were present so that students could get to know the entire teaching team and vice versa. The first unit for both of these grades focuses on Mathematical habits of mind so problems are rich and low-floor/high-ceiling and don't have specific content objectives. Students were able to work with a variety of peers and we were able to gather a great deal of data of how students approach new problems, collaborate and communicate, and write down and process their thinking. We then moved into content-based units, which all followed a similar pattern:

Key features of our model -- student-facing

  • Students start each new unit in random, heterogeneous small groups within a large shared space with multiple teachers, working on open tasks that introduce some of the new concepts.
  • At the same time, students complete a take-home pre-assessment that looks at their prerequisite knowledge, as well as knowledge of the concepts and skills to be taught in the upcoming unit.
  • Teachers create new groupings based on the pre-assessment and observational data of students' learning strengths and needs.
  • Students move into their new groups, which last for two-three weeks.
  • There is some student choice built into each grouping - as we review and prepare for an assessment, students select what and how they would like to review and are regrouped based on this choice. 
  • Students are assessed on their understanding of content for this grouping cycle and are given feedback and opportunity for individual revision, intervention, and/or extensions. 
  • These unit assessments and pre-assessments are used to drive groupings for the next cycle. 
  • Most homework assignments are the same for all groups and are differentiated by giving students choice over which problems to work on. 
  • Students regularly reflect on their needs, choice of homework problems, and how they are working in different groupings and settings.
  • Units that are more project-based (we have three large units like this during the year) are done entirely in heterogeneous groups.

Key features of our model -- teacher-facing
  • Teachers who share a common pool of students use a shared spreadsheet to track observations/feedback on classwork, homework, assessments, and projects. This is really important in order to know how students are doing as they move through different groups and work with different teachers. We spend time as a team discussing what we think is important to include in our notes and what our notes reveal about different students' needs.
  • Each grade level team meets twice per week to discuss lesson plans, how students will be grouped that week, students we are concerned or wondering about, how we're giving feedback, and all the other little things that need to be aligned when co-teaching. 

Benefits of flexible groupings
Students and families have been really positive about this implementation. It has many of the benefits of both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings and has ameliorated a lot of the issues we have seen in the past with groups forming a fixed mindset about their abilities and trajectory. Especially in our project-based units, we see students working productively with a greater variety of peers and having a better understanding of themselves as learners. It supports a philosophy of meeting students where they are and the idea that different students have different mathematical strengths and areas that need more support.

Questions and next steps
I would like to see more heterogeneous mixing within a unit rather than just at the start when the unit is being launched. There should be other opportunities for rich, low-floor high-ceiling tasks that many different students can access and work on together. At the same time, I would also like to see more differentiated materials used for intervention/re-teaching/practice. We currently give students access to a spreadsheet of practice problems and guided notes, but don't have fine-tuned intervention and reteaching strategies or problem sets. I would also like to see more spiral review built in to the curriculum so that students who are still working on concepts can continue with the rest of the grade, but continue to revisit material. 

The biggest question that I have is whether this model can continue into the higher grades. In 7th and 8th grade, we have traditionally broken students up into two tracks that had different curricula and that resulted in different placement in high school math classes. Our high school math classes are not grouped or tracked, but students can start at different points in the sequence of classes, which is another way of trying to avoid homogeneous, fixed groups, but is very different and operates on the assumption that students of different grade levels can take Math together. This is really different from our middle school model, where the entire schedule for a student is driven by their grade level. I'm very curious to hear how others (both middle and high school) are solving this issue and whether anyone has been able to make flexible groupings work for higher grades.

11/22/19 update: I recently co-presented on how the flexible grouping model interfaces with a growth mindset at a conference with one of my coworkers. Here are the slides from this presentation.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Differentiation and the limitations of groupwork

It's important in any profession to stay humble, but teaching has a way of reminding you of this in particularly in-your-face ways, I believe. This semester has really brought home this issue for me in the challenges presented by my upper school Math 3 class. The issues have been around productive groupwork, an area in which I have felt particularly strong and well-trained, so it was perhaps an especially humbling experience to see all of my strategies and approaches come crumbling down and leave me turning to my Twitter network and colleagues to find new ways of helping students work together and feel confident in their progress. I wanted to share and summarize here some of the issues I've worked through that might perhaps be helpful to others.

First, some background.

I have been incorporating the essential elements of a Thinking Classroom in all of my Math classes for the past few years, but most notably in my high school class, where the focus on content and pressures to teach to the test are greater. This year, just like last, I had students read and reflect on Thinking Classrooms and we discussed why most of our time together is spent working on problems in random groups, sharing out ideas and conclusions, and using these to synthesize and summarize learning from the bottom up rather than top down via teacher-led instruction. Students initially seemed bought in and supportive of this type of classroom environment. We set up class norms and discussed the use of group roles, how to step up/step back in group environments, and how to be a skeptical peer and give respectful pushback on ideas.

Several weeks into the semester, however, I started noticing a troubling pattern - some students were disengaging from their collaborative work and seemed very hesitant in sharing their thinking within either small groups or the larger class. Then, I started to hear two different complaints from students - some were feeling that their work during class was unproductive because their groups moved too fast and they were feeling increasingly anxious and uncertain about their mathematical understanding and abilities. They were feeling unprepared to do problems independently on homework assignments or assessments and wanted more teacher guidance and structure, as well as more opportunities to go at their own pace and understand ideas more fully. Other students raised the opposite issue - they felt that the pace of the class was too slow, that they were doing too many problems that they already knew how to do or could figure out quickly and wanted more challenging and deeper problems, both during class and on homework assignments.

When group work goes wrong:


In reflecting on these issues and why they were coming up this year, I realized that we had actually made quite a large change to the Math program without making any changes to our curriculum or pedagogy. This was the first year that we had decided to mix all grades taking a particular Math course - Math had been the only discipline at the Upper School in which students were separated out by grade level. In the past, 9th and 10th graders taking Math 3 (students who had accelerated the normal sequence) were in different sections from 11th graders taking the class (students who were on grade level in terms of their progress through the sequence). This year really was different in terms of prior math experiences, expectations, and desire for challenge/acceleration for students in the same class and the normal groupwork structures were not sufficient to bring together students with such varying backgrounds and approaches.



My next step was to look for feedback from colleagues as well as the Twitter math teacher community. Some suggestions that I implemented that seemed to make a difference:

  • Taking a break from random groups to help students regain their trust that the class would meet their needs; doing some work in pairs designed to foster productive collaboration; allowing students choice as to who to work with while also asking them to work with different students at times; being explicit when the goal of a task was to build collaborative skills
  • Structuring activities so there was time at the start for individual exploration before asking students to share their thinking with others thus giving more processing time for students who worked more slowly; circulating and helping some students get started; building more optional challenge into tasks for students who worked very quickly or who had already had prior experience with a topic; creating tasks that could be approached with a greater variety of methods and building more writing into tasks so that different ways of thinking mathematically could be valued
  • Meeting students where they were to regain trust and buy-in; this included at times splitting the class into two groups (students chose which group to join) - a more free-form exploratory group with more open and challenging problems and a more structured group where students would get some problems to activate prior knowledge and smaller, more concrete problems that would build over time to greater generalization and abstraction and more teacher guidance and reassurance that they were on the right track
  • Noticing struggling students' successes and highlighting them publicly; selecting which students would share their thinking to make sure that different voices could be heard over time
  • Make sure to leave time for synthesis and practice problems (at different levels) during class - this helped address student concerns that they were leaving class with lots of questions and feeling unsettled about the concepts they had explored that day
  • Giving students more feedback during class about their understanding of a topic rather than relying more heavily on groupwork and self-assessment for students to know how they were doing and what might be helpful next steps
  • Providing more problems at different levels and helping students navigate which problems might be more helpful for them to do during/after a particular lesson - here is an example of a tiered homework problem set.
  • Providing more textbook resources - explicitly linking textbook sections to problem sets for students who wanted more references and examples
We are considering sorting students for next semester by grade level to decrease the heterogeneity of classes - while these strategies have alleviated the issues significantly, it does seem that productive collaboration and exploration is challenged when students in a class are so spread out. Despite these strategies, for example, it usually doesn't make sense for students who have worked quickly and deeply and have figured out challenging extensions to share their ideas with the whole class, most of whom have not even tried these problems. As a result, the class sometimes lacks cohesion and feeling like a true community. Additionally, the amount of work required to run a class with this much differentiation is really, really high. I'm essentially designing at least two different classes, creating both lesson plans and homework assignments that can reach the full spread of student interest and background, and giving individual and frequent feedback to students or small groups of students into which the class has fragmented. This is not really tenable for the whole year given my other preps and teaching responsibilities. However, breaking up students by grade level seems to run counter to our values of equitable access to challenging mathematics for all students and means that Math classes are essentially different from all other classes at the Upper School.

I would welcome any feedback or suggestions that others have around this issue - what strategies have worked for you in working with very heterogeneous groups? 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Connecting Math and CS with probability game simulations

One of my goals for this school year was to build out a few interesting and relevant projects into the 7th grade curriculum, which seemed a bit dry and skill-focused. One area that seemed to beg for an application project was the first unit on Data and Probability. Since one of my other goals was to incorporate more computer science into my classes, it was a no brainer. Developing a cross-over computer science project for this grade level proved to be a bit tricky because students are all over in terms of their experience with programming - we have students who have been coding for years as well as new students who have never coded anything before. I tried to develop a project that would differentiate appropriately and allow students to either explore the CS or the Math parts in greater depth, depending on their interest in and experience with programming.

Here is the project description. You'll notice that I created three distinct strands with different goals and let students select the one that was most appropriate and interesting for them. I was also lucky that the computer science teacher was able to come to my classes for some of the time that students worked on this project. Having many intermediate checkpoints for students to submit pieces of the project was very helpful here in ensuring that I could identify those who were behind or struggling and work with them during class.

Things that I would still like to build out:

  • A more robust peer editing process -- I'd like students to be able to present their optimal winning strategy to peers and get critical feedback on how convincing their reasoning is that they would be able to incorporate into their final draft
  • A revised rubric to make it more concise
  • Move some pieces of this project out to computer science class - this definitely took up quite a bit of time, especially because I felt that most or all of the coding work should happen during class where students would have support
  • A clearer division between group and individual aspects - this is always a challenge for me when designing group projects in terms of maximizing student learning and individual accountability. Students seemed to work well together during class, but this isn't an explicit part of the project currently. 
  • Some sort of final presentation - for projects like this, I think that having the final product on display or presented to others creates a much more authentic need for clarity and functionality. I haven't figured out a good way to do that for this project. Should students do a gallery walk of projects within the class? Can this be presented or shared with students in other classes somehow? What about with parents?
  • Other connections - is this something that can connect to students' work from previous years so that it feels less like a stand-alone project and more like a continuation of ongoing work and thinking? Are there other aspects of this project that can connect to other disciplines, like writing? Can we build on this in future years of either computer science or math curriculum?