It’s been quite a year. I moved from Boston to Leadville, Colorado. Went from 8th grade to high school, teaching Algebra II, Precalculus and AP Calculus. Left a charter school for a wilderness semester school.
I am really happy with the move. Small-town living suits me, and there’s a ton of outdoor adventures to get into in Leadville and the surrounding area. Good people, quiet, clean air, and beautiful scenery.
There were some fun new challenges as well. Adapting to new curriculum, a new student population, and new routines. In addition to teaching math, I lead backpacking trips, and we teach outdoor skills, a leadership curriculum, and English, history, science, and environmental ethics while on expedition. It’s a small school — I’m one of two math teachers — and the kind of place where we all wear lots of hats.
I’ve added some new skills to my teaching repertoire. I’ve gone all-in on standards-based grading. I’m using more and more whiteboarding, and finding more ways to do it effectively. I use visible random grouping almost every day. I’ve implemented a spiraled homework system. I’ve improved my ability to launch discussions based on student work. I’ve found some reliably successful ways to get kids engaged to start class. Those are the bigger things that I’ve stuck with over the course of the year, and I’ve seen make a difference in my practice.
At the same time, there was a great deal more I wanted to improve this year. Too many things were attempted and abandoned, or didn’t get the effort necessary to make a real difference in my teaching. Next year, I want to be more deliberate in the skills I develop and the way I approach that improvement. Here’s what I’m thinking about now:
Feedback. Dylan Wiliam’s newest book Embedding Formative Assessment has been a big influence this spring. In it, he advocates for a “four quarters” approach to feedback. One quarter of student work receives comments (but not a grade). One quarter I quickly look over and decide how to respond to. One quarter gets peer feedback. One quarter is self-assessed. I’m not particularly attached to the percentages attached to each feedback method, but I’m letting students do too much math without significant feedback. I want to improve at deliberately using a variety of feedback tools, most of which should not create too much work for me, and all of which contribute to student learning.
Minute-by-minute formative assessment. I’ve gotten much better at responding to student understanding, or lack thereof, on a day-by-day basis. Still, I want to get better at eliciting evidence of student thinking and doing something about it. One tool I’m not using enough is individual work with some systematic way of seeing what students know and don’t know. There are lots of ways to do this; fundamentally, I want to rely less on what partners and groups know and more on what individuals know. I need to plan out ahead of time how I’m going to get that information so I can do it quickly, efficiently, and accurately, with the flexibility to do something about it right away.
Structuring effective group work. Tracy Zager has helped me think about this, by laying out four types of group work: thinking partnerships, cross-pollination, math disputes, and peer feedback. I want to be deliberate about both teaching these different purposes and structures for group work and using them with appropriate activities, in conjunction with individual work and think time.
Classroom management. Matt Vaudrey laid it out beautifully last week: the foundation for effective classroom management is a combination of high expectations, respect for students, and effective use of instructional time. My biggest weakness here is effective use of instructional time. My transitions drag, some poorly planned activities feel purposeless, I get sidetracked easily. Lots to work on here, and lots of potential to improve.
Contemplate then Calculate. David Wees has been doing some great work articulating the value of instructional routines, and I particularly like Contemplate then Calculate as a way to get students to slow down, make sense of a problem, and see its connections with other topics we’ve studied. The majority of the curriculum David and his colleagues have developed won’t fit with my classes for next year, so developing some of my own Contemplate then Calculate activities will be a focus on the curriculum development side, and figuring out how best to facilitate them will be a focus on the instruction side.
Those are big goals. I’m sure I will focus on some at the expense of others at different points over the next school year. But I chose these because they are all outside of my comfort zone, and they’re areas of my practice that I didn’t do a great deal to improve this year when I wasn’t focusing specifically on them. I hope that, with some more effort and a clear articulation of my priorities, I can develop some new skills next year and get a little better at this whole teaching thing.