Second Semester Reflections

Some explanation that’s not really important so you can skip it if you want…

Because we start school so early in my state, we finish our first semester and have end-of-semester final exams before winter break. When we return to school after the break to a new semester, and since we do our grading on a semester basis, the kids have a brand new start with a fresh grading period. Since I teach freshmen, who have never experienced the consequences of failing a class that is required for graduation. Many of them have failed classes in the past and received no consequences (as we rarely retain students in grades K-8 for failing classes) so they can have a hard time adjusting to this huge change in expectations.

This means I have an advantage right now – nearly 30% of my Algebra 1 kids have seen Fs on report cards during the break and are starting to realize that it means something. Something bad. (Some of them won’t actually have this realization until next year when they might end up back in Algebra 1 for the second time. A few will take even longer.) So when I was planning for this week, I decided to spend the first day back (yesterday) having them reflect on last semester.

I started with a reflection sheet that I found as a free download on TPT and customized it for myself: second-semester-reflection-sheet. Yesterday I had the students fill it out, trying to encourage them to be specific about what they were going to do this semester to be more successful and about how I can help.

Man, this was awesome. I can’t believe how good a job these kids did reflecting on their semester, what they did well, what they could have done better, what they should do this semester to change things, what I can do to help them. The kids were honest with themselves and with me. Many of them indicated that they needed to do more and I was doing everything I needed to. The ones who did have suggestions for me actually had productive things to say, not just “don’t give homework” or anything like that. Reading through these (and organizing the responses in a spreadsheet because I’m a huge nerd) has given me a lot of food for thought.

The actual point of this blog post…

I’ve been struggling with one of my classes all year. They’re very chatty and I try to allow them to use that to learn. We get off-topic more in that class because they’re so chatty with each other and with me, and because as soon as I allow them to talk even for a moment, it takes ages to get them all to refocus. (I know some would argue that I shouldn’t allow them to talk at all, but that’s not my style.) So I know that I need to try some different things with this particular class.

It was interesting to read their reflection sheets because they were so different from my other two classes. The kids in this class focused a lot on accountability. They wanted me to check in with them more during class to check their understanding, to remind them to come to tutoring, to hold them accountable for actually coming to tutoring, to let them know when they’re off-task, and to push them to understand instead of giving up. Cool. Great ideas, but really hard to implement in a class of 30, often with a lecture-style format.

So I’ve spent some time today brainstorming ways that I can change the structure of the class to work better for this group.

Small groups would be good. I can’t check in with 30 students individually, but I could check in with 7 or 8 groups. I have a bunch of really highly-performing kids in this class who could help their classmates with the material if they work in small groups. I like the idea of having them hold each other accountable – everyone in the group gets the concept, or you’re not done.

So then how do we have time to work in groups like this? I spend so much time on notes that we usually don’t have time to work through problems or even do that much practice. It’s why I assign homework, even though I realize that if they can’t do the homework, there’s no point in giving it. Maybe I could do a pseudo-flipped-classroom? I don’t feel comfortable assigning videos to be watched at home (although maybe we could get to that point later) because not all of my students have access at home. But maybe they could watch videos on devices for the first 5-10 minutes of class? If someone doesn’t have a device, the group could watch the video together. How do I have them take notes so they can remember what they learned? Should I provide some structure to the notes or just let them do it? Should a group member be designated to take notes for the group? Then I could give an in-depth problem or rich task after the video, or just assign some practice with a chance to check in with everyone as they work.

I have a bunch of students in this class who really struggle with motivation. They are very social and don’t seem to care much about their grades. (The beginning of basketball season helped that a little bit, as a bunch of them are on the basketball team.) How can I make sure that everyone is held accountable for their own work, while also getting the support they need from the group?

I’m ready to make some huge changes to the way that I normally structure my classes, I just don’t know how to do it. The only math teaching I ever experienced was direct-instruction, I-do-we-do-you-do, traditional, so I don’t even have a model in my head for what I could do differently.

I told the kids some of what I was thinking about today, and asked them to give me suggestions too. I told them that whatever they want to try, we can always try for a day and see how it goes. They seemed open to the kinds of things I suggested, although it’s possible they just really liked being told that they could tell me how they want me to run their class. I like being honest with them about what I’m thinking, why I do the things I do in class, and what I’m struggling with – the questions I still have. They respond well and we build a good relationship. Now I need to figure out what to try.

Anyone have suggestions for ways I can answer the questions above?

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