An overly long post about Homework

I mentioned in my last post that I would do a post about my classes. I started it, but it got out of control. So I’m breaking off this bit about homework. And maybe I’ll break off another bit about warm-ups. We’ll see.

For a post just about homework, this goes on a bit. I’m far too verbose.

I need to do a better job this year of giving some time to review homework. I’m thinking after the warm-up I give students 3 minutes to ask their group any questions they might have had, and then I’ll take two pressing questions no one at the table could answer. I’ll be flexible with this based on what I hear while they’re reviewing. But I also want to be strict with myself that I don’t jump in during those 3 minutes. I hate, hate, hate being the “Sole Arbiter of Knowledge” in class. There are definitely times where I need to offer clarification, but too often their default is to ask me. I’m making a renewed effort to stomp that out this year. Instead I will use this time just to check their work. I walk around with a simple stamp and just stamp if they have it or not. No time to check for correctness, just completeness. The stamp changes every day, and I mark the stamp I used on a given day on the homework tracker.

HW tracker

I have a tracking sheet like the one to the right where I write down who is missing their homework. Usually the list of who’s missing homework is significantly shorter than who has it, and it’s easier to remember three or four names.  Plus absences and assignments are all in one place, and it’s easy to read.

In general I don’t accept late homework. Each assignment is only 2 points total. If it’s done very obviously poorly, I will give half credit. If a student is missing the assignment, they get a zero. At the end of every week (or more realistically every few weeks) I tally up the number of times I see a student’s name and deduct points accordingly. So if there were four homework assignment, then the score for the week is out of 8. If a student’s name is written down once, I enter a 6. If it’s there twice, I enter a 4. If I over-counted a student’s name, they should be able to show me the assignment with a stamp and I fix it. If I undercounted a student’s name, then chances are a few extra points won’t hurt them.

Unless a student is absent I don’t accept late homework. My reasons for this are that A) a few missing 2 point assignments shouldn’t drastically affect a student’s grades, and B) trying to keep track of late homework gave me a huge headache. This whole process was an effort to drastically simplify checking homework, and checking for late homework doesn’t make it less complicated. I will admit to feeling a little shitty about this, because I do think extra practice is important and I do want students to complete assignments and I do understand that sometimes kids just have super busy days. But I have to have a system that is manageable for myself. Grading is not my strong suit, and in the past when I tried to allow for late assignments it just overwhelmed me logistically. Last year I made each nightly assignment out of 4, and I hope that lowering the point value will make homework less stressful. Hopefully they will complete it because I sell the value of practice, but if they don’t then it won’t torpedo their grade. The one exception will be assignments on DeltaMath, which will count for more points (since students will have more time to complete it).

My goal of the low point value and checking for completeness was to make homework low-stakes, so students would just work on it without stressing about making mistakes. What actually happened is kids started just copying from the back of the book.  I don’t have a good fix for this. I will challenge kids if there’s no work shown, and it’s easy to catch when there’s a typo in the answer key and the kid doesn’t think anything of it, but day-to-day it’s just difficult. At the end of the day, though, homework is such a small part of their grade. Maybe doing more Edmodo quizzes or something to force them to think? But not everyone has consistent internet access at home.

In my opinion students should not be spending more than half an hour on any particular assignment from me a night. Hopefully less. They have so much to do, I don’t need them spending hours on anything I give them. I think eating a decent meal and getting a full night’s rest is probably better for their learning then completing an extra few math problems. I plan to tell them on the first day of school that if they find their homework taking more than 30 minutes, they should stop doing it and make plans to come see me after school. I’ll check in with some trustworthy students throughout the year if my goal of less than 30 minutes is actually a reality.

For homework in Algebra 2, we are going to try a modified lagging process that I heard about from Julie. Last year I tried lagging homework by waiting almost a week to do problems based on a topic, and I think there were definite advantages to the system. Kids had more time to review topics before a test, and spaced their practice more. But I did a terrible job of giving kids feedback while they were learning, so it turned into this weird system of kids not knowing what they didn’t know. The new ideal is as follows:

  • On Monday we cover topic A. For homework students get one or two “easy” problems on Topic A.
  • On Tuesday we cover topic B. Homework is one or two “easy” problems from topic B, and one or two “medium” problems from Topic A.
  • Wednesday we cover topic C. Kids will get a few “easy” problems on C, a few “medium” problems on B, and a few “hard” problems on A.

This plan is awesome! But also a lot of work. To make our lives easier we’re trying to plan out homework ahead of time and give them to students at the start of a unit. Since this whole curriculum is new this is going to be tricky, but I have high hopes. Some students may work ahead, but even if students fall behind then all assignments will be in one place.

We’ll also supplement the nightly book-work with DeltaMath  on the weekends. The assignment will be posted at the beginning of the week and will be due by 10pm on Sunday nights. They have all week to knock it out, so even if they have bad internet at home they can find us during the week (or obviously speak with me and explain their situation) and work on it another time. As a result, we won’t assign book work on Friday nights.

In my Studies 2 class, homework will probably be a bit more traditional with the assignment following the lesson. That said, I want to be constantly spiraling in old content from last year. The students are taking an exam in May that is summative on everything over two years of the class, and I don’t want to wait until April to start reviewing. Maybe rather than book work the students will get problem sets? I’m realizing this is a thing I have to think through further. I like problem-sets because they feel more official, but then it’s more stuff for students to do, and the fall of their senior year is going to be crazy.


My goals for 2016-17

There’s still two weeks until students come back to class, but since most of the rest of the MTBoS is already back my brain is churning about all the things I want to do this year. Not that I’m making any big changes, but there are lots of different aspects of the year that I keep thinking about and all those ideas rattling around are starting to get too noisy. So I’m going to write three (maybe four?) blog posts:

  1. Teaching goals for the year
  2. What I want students to do in an Algebra 2 class
  3. What I want students to do in an IB Studies 2 class
  4. (Possibly) Grade leader goals for the year.

This is all aiming high, as I’m historically not the most dedicated blogger. Especially once school starts. But too much is unrecorded and if I don’t put some of this stuff down I worry it will be too amorphous to be instituted this year.

I should also say that these teaching goals are sort of outside of my #1TMCthing of including more social justice in my classroom. Not that I don’t think that’s important, but as I indicated in my last post it intimidates the crap out of me. These posts will be things I want to start doing from day 1, and the Social Justice stuff will come with time as I become more familiar with the curriculum and with social justice topics.

So anyway, my goals for the year:

1. Close every lesson – The last year or so I’ve gotten really lazy about closing lessons. In fact whenever I saw a summary slide from a previous teacher’s work I would always chuckle that there was no way we’d get to that. But after listening to Tracy at #TMC16 I’ve come to believe that it’s so important.  This year I’m also shifting away from SWBAT-style aims to Essential Questions, and I think the whole idea of a closing makes more sense now because we have to see if we can answer that question. I also found last year that I wasn’t doing nearly enough formative assessments throughout a unit. Kids would do homework but weren’t getting any feedback from me at any point before an actual assessment, and those count for a lot. So I need to be more consistent about, at the very least, summarizing what we’ve learned, and hopefully also finding ways to give ungraded feedback to kids so they can track their own learning.

2. Be intentional about note-taking – After looking through various student notebooks last year, I realized my kids have absolutely no idea how to take notes. Some kids tried to write down every single word that’s on the screen, others scribbled the Aim and put down some out-of-context math work that they’d never be able to study from. Our department tends to just tell kids “Write this down!” but aren’t very good about taking the time to discuss what good notes look like and how to take good math notes. I’ve done guided notes in the past but I’m not crazy about the idea because I want them to be more self-sufficient, especially the seniors. Learning to paraphrase what a teacher or a slide says is a very valuable skill that I want to think about. To that end I’ve already created a slide that looks like notebook paper, and I’m also going to start taking notes on chart paper next to the board so students can see how I might organize my notes. It’s time consuming at the beginning but it’s something I think is important so I’m going to try. And once I set it up well enough, then I stop answering questions they should have in their notes (which I think…Sarah? suggested) to make my point even clearer.

3. Use Desmos more – Descon 16 was amazingly inspirational. There are so many things we can do with the software if we just spend a few minutes ahead of time, and I want to utilize that more. Especially card-sorts (which I LOVE pedagogically but HATE logistically). The biggest challenge here is that we are not a one-to-one school, and most of our laptops are terrible. With only 40 minutes in class, by the time the laptops are on and actually ready to go you don’t have a lot of time if you want to make sure they are off and away by the end of class. Plus I don’t even have a full class set of functional ones, so kids have to share. And if we have five sections of a class, it gets tricky to keep them all charged (and that assumes no classes meet at the same time). I don’t offer these up as excuses not to, but more as a reminder that I need to think through a few more logistics than just “What cool activities can I do?!” But I think it’s possible, and a lot of the kids have smart phones, so if I’m careful I can make it work.

I like this list because it addresses a bunch of things that annoyed the hell out of me last year. Test scores were always frustratingly low because I did a terrible job of letting kids know just how little they understood about topics (biggest takeaway from last year: Kids don’t know what they don’t know). And then when we went to do test corrections, theirnotes were a hot mess (if they even had them). And I hope Desmos can 1) Help me talk less in class, and 2) Help solidify their understanding of concepts more than just me talking them through practice problems. And I think all of these things don’t require some drastic reimagining of my lesson planning process, just the adding of a few more things to consider when I work.

So those are my goals. As always I welcome any feedback you might have!


I need help with my #1TMCthing

I had a really hard time picking what one TMC thing I wanted to do this year. Partly because I led a morning session, I feel like there wasn’t some central focus that I could go to. I almost picked “Use more activity builder” because I learned so much about that and I loved all of it. But something else has gotten stuck in my head and rather than fading I’ve gotten more and more determined.


It started with Jose Vilson’s keynote on Saturday. Like I said in my recap post, I thought the message he was making was so important but I was frustrated that there weren’t more specific resources about how to have serious conversations in class (or at least they’re not readily available). If we all agree we need to have these discussions, how can that be facilitated in math class? Then Sheila’s afternoon session on using Problem-Based Learning to bring Social Issues alive in your class made me realize remember that we can use math to analyze complicated math problems and talk about solutions. Then on Sunday I attended Nicole’s afternoon session on Identity in the math classroom (specifically about one’s identity as a “math person,” but she introduced that idea with other pieces of identity that students have). I feel like all of this tied into a common theme of making math personal for the kids. Or maybe relevant is a better word? I want to find ways for students to talk about themselves more, and to use more math in those conversations. Or maybe a better way of saying it is I want kids to talk about themselves using math, but in a meaningful way.

I had several conversations about this with other people at TMC. One of those conversations led to Anne’s podcast called Chalkline, in which she talks to different people in education about issues of social justice. Since I was driving from Minneapolis to Chicago and back, I decided to give it a go in the car. I then proceeded to power through all available episodes, as well as start listening to the Code Switch podcast that several of the speakers recommended. All of this has just pushed me even more to believe I need to help my students to have conversations of social justice and to tackle math around relevant topics.

The kids at our school are great public speakers. I’ve watched them in seminars bringing up amazing ideas, and I’ve seen them declaim fantastic and emotional pieces, and I’ve seen them show activism through their extracurricular pursuits. Granted I’m not a humanities teacher, but I’ve always been really impressed at how our kids can analyze texts to support their arguments. And after listening to things at TMC and the podcasts and everything else, I realized it’s not that I want kids “talking about themselves using math” so much as I want them “advocating for themselves using math to support their arguments.”

The next thing I realized is that I don’t know how to do any of that myself.

I’m a white dude from an upper-middle class background. The few times I went to church, it was Methodist. Sure, I’m gay, so that gives me some insight into the struggles of minorities, but by and large I can “pass” when I need to, and am young enough that many of the biggest struggles for my community happened before they became an issue for me. So I’ve never really HAD to advocate for myself, and when I did it was largely just parroting interesting articles I found online. I know I should be critical of statistics, but not necessarily how to do that.

So I’m asking for help. Any resources or ideas you have that can help me integrate more social justice into my class would be great. My goal is to have kids explore social justice in a way that better enables them to use math to question the world around them. I’ve been looking for stuff recently and here’s some of the stuff that I’ve found so far (that I haven’t already mentioned above):

I’m positive that there’s more, but my brain is a little overloaded at the moment. Please let me know! If something wasn’t included it’s not because of some bias, it’s because I either didn’t know about it or honestly just forgot in my rush to finish this post. I welcome any and all input on how to diversify this list.

This task is huge. I don’t think I’m going to get it done by October 19th. I don’t even know if I’m going to get it done by June 19th. I’m not even sure what the end product looks like, or how I can measure my degree of success at doing this. My goals at the moment are admittedly vague as I’m just starting out. But it’s something I want to start working on and thinking through. Thanks for any input that can be provided!