Grading and Practice in Algebra Support

I was thinking earlier today about how I grade in my Algebra Support (math-intervention-type) class, and reflecting on how I think it was really effective for the kids last semester. So I figured I’ll write a quick post about what I wound up doing.

I used a standards-based system in that class, although I’ve had to implement it in a school that uses a traditional (percent-based) grade book. In my grade book, the quizzes category is worth 60% of their grade. In that category, the only “assignments” are the standards that I assess on. Every time we assess a standard, I overwrite their previous score for the standard (even if it goes down). This means that, with practice and effort, it’s very easy for a student’s grade to drastically change in my class from one quiz to the next.

We basically go through a teach-practice-assess-practice-reassess-practice-reassess…etc. cycle for each standard. This means we spend a lot of time practicing skills during class, which is basically ungraded (sometimes I’ll enter assignments as a completion grade in the In-Class Work category, but not often). However, as the kids complete each practice worksheet, I do check each problem for correctness. I highlight the ones that are correct and give it back to them to fix. They don’t get to turn in a page until all the problems are highlighted.

This method of checking practice worksheets has a few advantages:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Kids have a chance to see what kinds of mistakes they are making and fix them right away
  • Kids can work at their own pace, and ask me to check at whatever interval makes them comfortable
  • Emphasizes the idea that with practice, they can “get” anything (growth mindset rather than fixed)
  • Emphasizes the idea that they are not done with practicing until they are 100% solid (I don’t let them stop assessing on a standard until they’ve earned three 5s in a row)

Last semester, I know that their skills with integers improved drastically over the course of the semester. (We’re doing polynomials right now and I can ask them what -3x and -7x are and they say -10x!!! It’s amazing!) One of our Algebra 1 teachers says that she sees a difference in her class as well, so I’m pretty excited.

This semester, I’m going to do the same thing with my class structure and grading, but the standards we’ll be focusing on are the same as they’ll be doing in Algebra 1. Right now we’re representing, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing polynomials using Algebra Tiles, and then we’ll get to factoring and completing the square (with tiles and on paper), and using the quadratic formula.

I’m looking forward to seeing the same kinds of progress that I saw last semester. I’m also really enjoying teaching actual Algebra 1 content – I love teaching factoring. So much.

Math Hangman

My students invented a game today. I was busy helping one student learn how to factor the greatest common factor from a polynomial at the back of the room, and some of the kids were goofing off going over homework problems on my Promethean Board at the front of the room. They told me they were playing “Math Hangman” with the rest of the class, and had this drawn on the board:

Math Hangman

They were asking the class to fill in the circles on the outside of the box. (I taught them to use the box method to organize their work while multiplying and factoring polynomials.)

I shrugged, told them I was totally cool with this game, and let them carry on (for the 30 seconds or so until the bell rang).

I think I’ll keep this in mind for next year as a way to introduce factoring. This could be cool – after we learn to multiply polynomials, tell them we’re going to play a game. Fill in the box, then have the kids figure out what we multiplied to get there. Talk about what strategies the kids used to figure out the missing values. Come up with a strategy that works all the time, then introduce factoring as a way to put vocabulary with the strategies that they have come up with.

Could be fun.

Algebra Tiles

I started planning for Algebra Support this weekend, specifically related to their lessons on Algebra Tiles – what they are and how to use them. I needed to start by sketching out what I wanted their notes to look like by the time the lesson is over. I wrote out 5 pages of notes (in a composition notebook) – 1 page each on the following:

  • What each type of tile usually represents and how to create expressions with them
  • What the Zero Principle is and how it works with the tiles
  • How to show adding and subtracting polynomials with the tiles
  • How to show multiplying polynomials with the tiles and a product mat
  • How to show dividing polynomials with the tiles and a product mat

(Writing out the notes like this gives me the added bonus of having a master copy that I can tell students to copy into their own notebooks when they are absent. This has always seemed like such a great idea to me that I never really get around to implementing effectively.)

When I say “dividing polynomials”, I don’t mean polynomial long division. I’m using it as a sort of intro to factoring – if I give you the multiplied expression and one of the factors, use the tiles to find the other factor. I’m hoping that this will help the students make the connection to factoring – when you have to find both factors. Since I’m planning on getting to this concept before one of the Algebra 1 teachers gets to factoring, I’m hoping it will help the students understand what they’re doing when they get to that point. (I don’t know what order the other Algebra 1 teacher is using for all the quadratics skills we are teaching in January, so I’m going to have to find out this week and adjust to figure out how to assist those students.) Continue reading

Things A-Changing…

I’ve got some changes to make for second semester in both classes, and I’m going to write about them in the hope that I can solidify some of my own ideas about them before committing to them. In Algebra Support, I was always intending to make some changes second semester because my plan for the class was for different goals and a different structure in the spring vs. the fall. In Financial Literacy, I have realized that I am being WAY too lenient with my classroom management and expectations, and it has caused significantly lower grades than I had last year. (The average final exam score was 13% lower than last year, and I had 6 students fail the semester as opposed to 2 last year.) Continue reading

Fall Semester Update

I have a few more in-depth posts planned regarding what went well or not well about this semester (in both classes) and what I am going to change for next semester, and am hoping to spend the time writing those during this winter break. For right now, I have a few random thoughts to work through.

First, I’m finally feeling like I’m starting to see some success with those discipline issues that have been haunting me since the first week of school. I think we’ve finally reached a point of decent give-and-take, and the kids are transferring their liking for me as a teacher into a small amount of “obedience” – doing their work when I ask them to. I’m still having to remind quite a few of them that the whole point of them being in an Algebra Support class is to ask me questions, so saying “I don’t know how to do it” doesn’t hold water. (They’re not fans of this – they would rather I shrugged and left them alone when they say this.) I’m not entirely sure what’s changed, and I’m getting nowhere near 100% from them, but I feel less like I’m constantly fighting them, and more like they’re actually getting stuff done and learning things. Maybe I’ve just out-stubborned them. Maybe they’ve finally decided they like me. Maybe they’ve realized their lives are much easier when I’m not irritated with them. Maybe they’re starting to grow up a tiny bit. Maybe they’re just better at pretending to look busy (a valuable job skill, in my experience).

I bet it’s either some combination of all of these things, or it’s something I haven’t even considered.

My Financial Literacy classes did TERRIBLY on their final exams (on average, 15 percentage points worse than last year’s classes), so I’m going to be making some pretty significant changes to the way I run the class next semester. This is one of the things I plan to write a lot more about in a future post, because I want to unpack and solidify my thoughts before we go back to school.

I’m also going to write about my plans for Algebra Support in the spring, for the same reasons – I need to reflect and solidify my own ideas before school starts again.

In retrospect, this might be the biggest difference between my mental state during Fall Break in October vs. now – I am ready to think about what changes I need to make, instead of just needing time to not think about school at all. Clearly, some things have changed over the second quarter, even if it’s not perfect.