Blind Balloting a.k.a. 34 Angry Students

So I’m the kind of nerd that puts in three 11 hour days and comes home and starts brainstorming about math ideas.  My only solace is that I know the majority of people reading this are the same kind of nerd.

I was sitting here trying to help Julie work through some issues she was having with lopsided quiz scores. Lots of As, but too many Fs at the same time. So I suggested a number of error analysis techniques I’ve used in the past, but then something popped into my head (further developed by Sam).

Full disclaimer I have not yet tried this in my classes, but I think it has some serious potential. Also I’m slightly punch-drunk from exhaustion after my first two days.

Basically the goal of this activity is to get everyone in the classroom to agree on an idea. The teacher puts some problem on the board, then a set of multiple choice answers. Students discuss the problem in small groups, and then everyone votes anonymously. If the results are not unanimous, then groups shuffle and discuss the problem in their new groups. Students vote again, and again if ideas are not unanimous then they shuffle and start over.

Here is the example I have in my head right now:

After a test, put an example of a common student error on the board.  Maybe number each step the student took. Then ask the class “Is the error in step 2, step 3, step 5, or step 7?” Students discuss at their table. Then they use Plickers to vote. The key here is that the teacher can’t show the bar graph of responses. The teacher just looks at their mobile device and says whether the results are unanimous or not. If they are not unanimous, then have groups shuffle (visual random groupings? Jigsaw of some sort?) and have another short discussion. Then students vote again. If everyone agrees, then you can move on to the next problem. Otherwise shuffle again.

The whole class is working together towards a common goal, but in small groups. They’re practicing talking about math and making arguments and analyzing the arguments of others. But the votes are still anonymous so no one has to feel like they’re being called out.

In my dream world it would be like 12 Angry Men where one student dissents, then sticks to their argument, and eventually everyone comes around and sees that they were right.

This, with 100% fewer switchblades

This, with 100% fewer switchblades

And think how crazy interesting it would be if everyone was unanimous, but they were all WRONG?!** The discussion after that could be so interesting. Sam suggested giving them a seemingly-easy hard problem and having one of the answers being seemingly easy. I have no idea what this would look like because I’m not smart enough for that, but I think it could be so cool (I’m envisioning the situation as saying “You all listened to the smart kid in the room, but he’s wrong, so start over”)

The biggest (non-logistical) challenge I see is that it moves away from the idea that there are multiple ways to do math. So I don’t think the question should be something like “What’s the best way to solve this problem?”. I think it’s better for things where there is only one right answer, but it’s not immediately obvious what that one right answer is.

I think there are still logistical issues to iron out here, this idea is by no means fully formed and I’m in no place to try it out for a couple weeks. If anyone is inspired and tries it, let me know!

** It occurs to me the analogy of 12 Angry Men followed by a unanimous-but-wrong vote parallels just a little too closely to falsely imprisoned people. But hey, that’s something to talk to kids about!


What’s Different This Year

As Fawn Nguyen said, “I’m not exactly sure what good teaching is. But I know what Bad Teaching is. Bad Teaching is NOT knowing that your lessons could be better, much better, therefore these teachers do not seek to improve.” This is something I’ve always taken very much to heart, and I’m always looking for things to tweak about my teaching.

When I got into teaching, I did it for probably the standard reasons of wanting to make a difference. And I was good at it. And I loved planning new activities and working with kids. My first year of teaching was an awful experience that really, really messed me up in the head. For my second year, I moved to a terrific school that gave me freedom to do so many things. I regained my confidence, but was still recovering so I didn’t try all the things I wanted to. Also as a second year I didn’t even know what it was I wanted to change and I was still figuring out my place in the classroom. Going into my third year, I want to shake it up a bit. So here are some things I’m trying. I welcome any feedback in advance that helps me avoid potential pitfalls!


“Interactive” Notebooks

What: I’ve said it in a couple different posts, but basically I’m adapting Jonathan’s $1 textbook idea (So many pingbacks on this…) to my classes.

Why: My first year I used guided notes but they basically wound-up in the trash on the way out the door. Last year I was just terrible about checking their notebooks. Halfway through the year I glanced at some notebooks and they were out of order, didn’t have enough information, were messy, and frequently missing.  Plus this is a two-year course, so I want my kids to have their first-year notes organized so they can more readily study in their second year.

How:  With Sam’s help I flushed out ideas I had from Jonathan and James.

  1. Everyone MUST have a notebook. Composition books are preferred but spirals are ok. NO BINDERS. They’re hard to keep organized, hard to store neatly, and require me to hole-punch everything (which I hate and/or forget to do). I know some kids claim to be better organized with a binder, but I want to force the issue for a year and see how it goes.
  2. Notebooks can be kept in my room in a big plastic tub. I’ll color code each class so it’s easy for kids to put their notebooks in the correct place ,and easy for me to sort any misplaced notebooks.
  3. Students come in to class and open to a new (or mostly new) page. If there’s a line or two at the top of the page, that’s fine, but I’m going to be annoying about not starting notes at the very bottom of a page. Warm-up and notes go into the notebook.
  4. Practice will be done either in the notebook (if it’s just one or two questions) or on large whiteboards. The idea I got from James was to have students do work on the big whiteboards, and then at the end of class pick one problem to copy into their notes. I really like that this forces kids to evaluate the problems they’ve done and pick one that they think is most important to have down.
  5. I’m thinking I want kids to have some sort of organizational system in place for their notes. Sam suggested putting a colored box (with a highlighter) around an example problem, and then a different box around a practice problem. That way as I flip through their notebooks I (and they) can see exactly where things are.
  6. I want students to label pages by day. So on our first day, it’s all “Day 1” at the top outside corner of every page they use. This way there’s some organization that we can refer back to, but it’s not a strict table of contents. It also helps keep things consistent for kids that take 3 pages to write notes when it only takes other kids 1 page.
  7. To help keep students accountable, I’ll do periodic notebook checks for a small number of points. The trick is that grades are cumulative, so these points will eventually add up to be a fairly large project grade. I also think I might throw in the occasional notebook quiz to further incentivize the process.
  8. I have to be extra-mindful that all of my handouts are half-sheets. This unfortunately means I will have some extra work the first year in adapting worksheets from the other teacher. It also means making copies for me will be annoying for anyone else until I figure out formatting issues.
  9. I also need to get a ton of glue sticks. I’ll try to keep it so all of my papers can just be put through the paper-cutter, but they still need to get attached somehow. I need to pick up small boxes that can hold scissors and glue for each table, and a way to carry all of them for my one class that’s in a different room.
  10. Homework is my biggest stumbling block. I want kids to be able to take their notebooks home, but I don’t want them to forget them or lose them. I’m thinking I will leave it up to the student’s discretion. You are more than welcome to do your homework in the same notebook, or get a separate homework notebook that goes back and forth from home, or do homework on a separate page and keep a binder where it’s all collected. All I really care about is that your notebook is in class everyday and your homework is done. This may be something I have to adjust as the year goes on, but I can’t come up with a better system after stressing about it for a bit.

Table Whiteboards

What:  I’m synthesizing this and this. I bought a large 2′ by 4′ marker board for each of my 8 tables. Students will do practice problems and brainstorming on the whiteboards.

Why: A) I really want to have students collaborating more.  I found when they were working in their notebooks it was sometimes difficult to show their thinking to others at their tables. I hope by giving them more space to write it will be better. data highlightedB) The data from the study that Alex posted is crazy. First notation in 20 seconds and double the time-on-task from a notebook?  Insane and awesome.  C) I just want kids to be able to see more math. By having giant whiteboards all over the place with different math on them, kids will just be exposed to math a lot more.  It will also allow them to critique work from other groups.

How:  This is still a work in progress, but what I have so far:

  1. I will have the boards in class, and whenever we are working on practice problems they will be passed out to each table.  I’m going to try to get a large number of extra whiteboard markers, but I’m going to encourage kids to get their own. I also need to get some new erasers, I’ve been using facial cleansers as erasers so far because they’re cheap, which I’ll do in a pinch.
  2. Students can work horizontally on the tables or figure out a way to prop them up against the wall. I don’t have a ton of wall space but I will encourage them to try vertical if they can figure it out.
  3. After students have been working for a bit, I will have them pick one practice problem they did to copy into their notebooks. The message will be that they should pick a problem that they think will adequately show them the process (and associated challenges) of the type of work we’re doing. In other words, does it make sense to have the easiest problem in your notebook when you go back to study?
  4. I can also use the large whiteboards for brainstorming when we do some more activities. In that case I will only have one person writing, but they can’t write their own ideas.
  5. I’ll be honest, I think this is a really cool idea and I’m really excited but I’m not exactly sure how it will look. I’m worried about issues with everyone sharing a large whiteboard, about kids drawing inappropriate pictures, about kids not copying problems down into their notebooks for later, etc. I think it’s something that will work really well once I iron out the kinks, and I’m resigned to having to deal with the kinks as they come and respond constantly.

Popsicle Sticks of Destiny and Questioning

What:  Everyone will have their name on a popsicle stick, and I will pull the sticks to call on kids to answer questions. Last year I used notecards for the same idea, which I called Cards of Destiny, so I’m adapting the idea to be popsicle sticks.

Why: The problem I have with hands is that only kids that are confident want to answer, so I don’t hear from several kids. I also find myself calling on the same kids over and over, or doing that asshole move of calling on kids I think aren’t paying attention. By leaving it up to chance I can’t be accused of picking on anyone, and I get to vary who I hear from. I’m changing to popsicle sticks because I found when I used notecards that I’d call on one person and then not call on them again until their card came around. I like the idea of popsicle sticks because it feels more random and there’s more chance you get called twice in a row (on the flipside, the cards forced me to call on everyone at least once).

How: Pretty straightforward

  1. Write everyone’s name on a popsicle stick.  Color-code for each section (same colors as the notebooks, maybe?)
  2. Get a large water bottle or something so I can shuffle the popsicle sticks.
  3. Don’t allow calling out of any kind. Try to discourage hands.  If a student is called on they can phone a friend, but need to understand that I will come back to them (this is a growth area for me, I’m really bad about coming back to students).
  4. This also figures in to my goal of being a better questioner (hence why I joined the betterqs blog). By using only popsicle sticks it will remind me to give students some more time to answer. It will also help me jump around the room and get different answers for the same question.
  5. For the first couple weeks I will have kids “BUZZ” me if I ask for hands. They’ll enjoy the chance to catch me, and it will help to train me. Later in the year, I can have a student pick the popsicle sticks for me as a student of the week perk or something.
  6. I need to remember that I don’t always have to show the stick to kids, so I can game the system slightly if necessary to help move conversation along (i.e. if it says Johnny but I know Steve has the answer, I’ll just say Steve).
  7. I think I will also still have my cards in place just in case there’s activity that would work better with them.


There are other things that are changing, but more in a “general point of view” way than a specific set of actions. I have a really strong desire to talk less this year. I want kids to be talking to each other and struggling through things, not taking notes from what I say. The whiteboards are great because it gives them scratch space and it lets me see what they’re doing a lot better from a distance.

Like I mentioned above I also want to improve my questioning. I was really happy with asking “What questions do we have?” rather than “Are there any questions?” It sounds like a minor thing but I think it’s a lot to do with messaging. I want to further change that by saying “Ask me questions” this year. And I want to press students to ask each other questions more.

I want to implement lagging homework. Especially given the long-term nature of this course, I want to build on recall skills as much as possible. Lagging homework will hopefully save me some review time later because kids have seen things more recently.

We’re starting the year with a short conversation on mindset. I want kids to understand that their math ability is in their own hands and not predetermined at birth. I want them to try, and appreciate their own effort.

Plickers and Talking Points! Starting the year with them so I will have them in my toolbox whenever I need them.

I’m really excited for this year. I feel like I’m gaining my footing. I’m a little nervous that my added role as a Grade Level Leader will be exhausting, but I think I’m ready for the challenge. And I’m ready to try some new things. It’s not jumping off the ledge and starting over, but I think it’s taking some chances and seeing what works for me.