Are you a 1, 2, 3, or a 4? What’s numbers got to do with it?!?

I, along with a couple of other teachers, are piloting a grading strategy that is generating some interesting conversations on a DAILY basis with our students!

We’ve all read that grades do not improve or motivate learning. In fact, once a grade is given, the student assumes that idea is ‘done’ and drops it, moving on to acquire the next grade.

What I am about to share with you has MY KIDS talking about how THEY can improve their learning… 

First, I have to give credit for the base of this idea to an amazing educator that I work with every day: Rebecca K. She, of course, credits it to an idea she learned in a workshop some years back. Anyway, she started the year off with a cool bulletin board, that looks something like the image above, which I used to create a powerful way to motivate my babies to take more responsibility for their own learning!

The students I am talking about are your average 9th grade (yes, FRESHMAN!!) students, that run the gamut of every freshman stereotype you’ve ever met. Really. (This includes students with personal learning plans and students whose first language is not English!) AND  we’ve got them talking about growth – THEIR growth – as learners. When we hand back a paper, instead of the ‘crumple it up and put it in the bookbag or the trash’ mentality, the comments are varying forms of, “..tell me what these results mean!”

Here’s how it works:

Four numbers, four learner identities:  1. Novice, 2. Apprentice, 3. Practitioner, 4. Expert

Novice: I’m just starting to learn this and I don’t really understand it yet.

I explain to the students that this is where everybody in class starts out. Algebra I will have lots of things that are new to them, and we expect that they won’t be familiar with the material! We don’t expect them to know it all before we teach it. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes you have to be explicit with Freshmen. I think that’s where the name originates!

Apprentice:  I’m starting to get it, but I still need someone to coach me through it.

The apprentice is the beginning of the learning phase. When a student gets a 2 on a problem or a whole assignment, they are in the initial learning stages. As a teacher, I’ve just told them (by marking it a 2) that I know they still need help with the concept, and that I will be supporting their learning. This also tells them that they are not there YET – and that they have room to continue learning. Sometimes we have to give kids permission to not know things YET!

Practitioner: I can mostly do it myself, but I sometimes mess up or get stuck.

This is a proud moment for most of my students. That little 3 next to a problem or on a paper, tells them so much more than a traditional grade. This sends them the message that I get it that they’ve got it! This affirms their learning. This affirms their work. This is personal. Better than that, this motivates them to keep going, to keep learning. They ALL want to be….

Expert: I understand it well, and I could thoroughly teach it to someone else.

Isn’t this where we want our babies to be? You know that if they know it well enough to teach it – THEY KNOW IT!! That peer tutoring thing is for real! Please notice that there are TWO parts of this level: knowing and teaching.

How does this work? 

My (totally awesome) co-teacher, Stephanie W.,  and I, use the following grading process. Feel free to modify it to fit your students, and what is happening in your classroom. We know that what we are doing is working for our kids – you may want to start with this, and then modify as you see what is working for you.

We give an assignment or quiz. We grade each problem with a 1, 2, 3, or 4. We add up all the grades and divide by the number of items. That gives us a number between 1 and 4. Many times that will generate a decimal, say 1.8 or 2.5, or even 3.8. Here is an important point: we DON’T ROUND UP! We DO EXPLAIN the process to our students. It is important for them to understand that this is not arbitrary. They must own the process for this to work. These conversations happen EVERY time we return an assignment. That’s a GOOD thing!

Our goal for our students is mastery, so unless the resulting average is an actual 2 for example, the child is still a NOVICE (1, 1.2, 1.8, 1.9 – doesn’t matter. They are still a 1). Same with 2 point anything – they are still a 2, same with 3 point whatever – still a 3. The ONLY exception is 3.8 and above. If the student has one or more 4+ answers, with clear justification statements, then, and only then, will we round up to a 4. See below for the PLUS explanation!

Our evaluation goes something like this:

a) Answer that is incorrect, No work shown, or No answer at all: give it a 1.

b) Answer with some work shown (they attempted a solution) but it is incorrect in major ways and answer is incorrect or incomplete; give it a 2 (remember they are still learning and need more help!)

c) Answer given is incorrect, but work is also shown. (OR answer is correct, but NO work shown to support the answer). Student did pretty good, but minor errors and/or mistakes caused the incorrect answer; give it a 3. This student is obviously getting it, but he/she is letting errors get in the way. Maybe they are lazy, maybe in a hurry. The 3 tells them that they are getting it – but they NEED TO BE MORE CAREFUL! (The 3 for NO work shown is to allow us to ensure students are not ‘borrowing’ answers from another student! We are giving them the benefit of the doubt until further notice.)

d) Answer and work is shown and is completely correct. This baby gets the 4!  The student can feel the glow of being an expert. But wait, there’s more! This only satisfies HALF of the description. What about the ‘teaching’ part?

Four “+”? What is Four Plus??? 

‘Four +’ is that special designation for the child who not only knows the material, but can prove to us that they are able to teach the material to another student. Time dictates that we don’t have the opportunity for EVERY student to demonstrate teaching ability (although we do try to build in those opportunities!). We have explained to our students that the way to demonstrate this ability is to justify the work they’ve shown, with brief written explanations.

Written Justification sets the student up for PROOFS in Geometry

Algebra I is a class of foundations. It is important to teach with an eye to the future courses our kids will encounter, and proofs are some of the most difficult lessons for students. One of the Algebra I standards is to be able to justify the steps taken to solve simple one step equations. This is an important step to understanding that there is a mathematical reason for being ABLE to take that step – and not just because the teacher said so! By building this into the idea of EXPERT, we are modeling the concept that understanding – that is, the realization that there are solid REASONS for why math ‘works’ – is a valuable part of the learning process.

What WORDS do you use to tell a parent how their child is doing in your class?

I know this is just a brief overview of this process, but I wanted to share because I feel it is the first solid step in moving towards talking about GROWTH and LEARNING, instead of grades. I believe it is important that we take the focus off of grades, for students and parents. To do that, we, as teachers, have to stop using GRADES as the unit of measure in communicating with our students and parents. Unfortunately, our grading systems, and I’m talking the actual computer systems we have to use, are not set up to show mastery – they are set up to show GRADES!

I already changed my conversations, my wording, my language,  with my students. It will happen with my conversations with parents in my next phone call/email home, as well. Will YOU?

What’s the downside?

My school still uses a grading system built on averaging traditional grading numbers. That means I can’t just put in 1, 2, 3, 4, or 4+. I have to turn these numbers into a grade between 0 and 100 that will accurately translate and describe my students’ mastery of the curriculum.

My solution is two-fold. The grades in my gradebook are tied to one of the required standards, and each of the above levels is tied to a number that has already been given meaning by how it is used as a grade. While the first is fairly easy to accomplish, the second is based on how parents and students interpret grades. A 100, for example is the ideal. That sends the message that the student has mastery of the assignment, or the course. In fact, anything above 93, in my County school system, is an A, and as such, denotes pretty much the same thing as a 100. Same for a B, or a grade in the 80 range. Those two grades are obviously acceptable to most parents and students. The grade of C is a little more ambiguous. The C denotes that the student is somehow less than perfect, but still passing.  While a student may be GLAD to have a C – it does denote that the student is doing the work and IS mastering the concept – it doesn’t have the same cache’ as the A and B grades.

So how do I reconcile the grades with the numbers? 

A novice receives a grade of 65. The Apprentice receives a 70. The Practitioner has earned an 80, and the Expert, a 90. The 4+ student will earn a 100, as long as all problems on the assignment or quiz show justification, evidence that they have not only mastered the concepts, but have gone above and beyond to be able to communicate their knowledge with others.

The final issue I will address here: What happens when a student makes no effort at all. Our students never do that, do they??? In that instance, the student has given us no information on which to base a grade. Effectively, they have NOT TURNED ANYTHING IN. The grade in the book becomes an NTI, and we are made aware that we need to step up our efforts with that student. An NTI is a zero, until the student completes an assignment on that material, and we can assess mastery. From there, the averaging work of the gradebook takes over, and the grade reflects the whole course mastery. Grades in this context are fluid, and can be changed by future mastery as evidenced by quizzes or testing situations.

The system is not perfect, but the teachers with whom this is working believe that we have created a system that truly tells us where our kids are with the curriculum, and allows us to modify our teaching darn near immediately, so that we can address the areas in which they need further help – which is the actual point of all this grading, isn’t it?

Here is the poster we use in our classroom to explain the levels. Our students get their own mini copy for their notebooks. We utilize a small chart of “I can” statements for each unit – no more than 3 – 5 statements – that allow the students to chart their progress. Here is the chart for our Unit 1 standards. The kids get this, too. You can use any “I can” statements you need for your particular units.

At the beginning of each unit, the STUDENTS determine their pre-assess level, the quizzes give them the mid-assess levels, and then the unit tests are the post-assess level. The students keep track of these themselves. We incorporate a running conversation DAILY of what their goals are, where they think they are with these goals, and how they are going to get to the 3 and 4 levels. I have personally found this is a great way to have the students tell me where they are at the end of instructional and practice periods throughout class. I simply ask them where they think they are – 1, 2, 3 or 4. The majority of students are incredibly honest, because we are all speaking the same language. The ability to quickly assess and modify my teaching is been made incredibly easy! Grading has become a process of assessing growth, not despairing over what they don’t know. I LOOK FORWARD to grading the work, knowing most of my students WANT to have a conversation about where they are, and what they need to do to get to the next level. Let me know if you would like the rest of the “I can” levels we are using with this course. I’ll be glad to share!



Gwinnett County Public Schools is hiring…

They are looking for math, science, and special education teachers. 

I work with absolutely excellent educators! We need teachers who teach students the subject matter, not the subject matter to students. There is a difference, and it matters.

Our county has been the recipient of the Broad Prize for excellence, not once, but twice. We excel. We are Gwinnett. It’s what we do.

Please put my name in the comments of your resume to let them know you heard it from me!

Good Hunting! Your next job is out there.

Knowledge Machines are here; How will you use them?

There was a time when school was about learning the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Sounds like the beginning of a long ago time story, doesn’t it?

After reading this 1993 article from Wired, I realized that Papert’s ‘Knowledge Machines’ are, in fact, here.

Continue reading “Knowledge Machines are here; How will you use them?”

New Year’s will be in August, this year.

If you are a teacher, that is.

On August 8, hallways and rooms will fill with the wriggling eager bodies of their parents’ best! I can hardly wait! During the summer, I’ve been loading up on great ideas, reading about effective teachers, discovering new tech and new resources, and creating learning plans that will put them into practice!

I am teaching my students Algebra I this year; 9th graders, some returning 10th, and I want them to feel the excitement, the sizzle that I feel with math. This is a new year, a new crop of children, a new chance for me to share what I love- math – with children who never fail to delight me (and challenge me, worry me, turn my hair gray, and, well, you get the idea- but that’s another post!)

The year I have planned, this year, will be different. This will be the year that every student tests proficient on the EOC, aka Georgia Milestones. My lessons will start with Wonder/notice, there will be lots of student conversation, with roles for small group work, and conversation starter posters on the wall! My class will be fully engaged, will actually complete their assignments, will receive thoughtful feedback, and grades that really show how well they’ve mastered standards. I’ll make all the calls, on time, to the parents. 

My IEPs will have clear goals, my re-evals will be works of art! I’ll handle my discipline issues with skill and compassion. This year, I’ll have strong closure routines, include literacy in every lesson, hold awesome number talks, and have nimble responses to my formative instruction. 

This year, my room will be organized. I’ll have study centers, whiteboard walls, standing desks, and engaged, curious students! This year – well, this year will be everything I was hoping last year would be… 
So, you see, teachers really do celebrate New Year’s in August!

Reflections that push me towards next year.

As I rest and recharge myself this summer, I am like one of those little chipmunks- stuffing my cheeks with ideas, thoughts, and nubbins of lessons.

I start a list of those items that MUST go into my lessons next year: good starters, exit strategies, literacy activities… You, too?!?

At some point, I need to actually plan! And I will. But not today. Today I am going to read a book. Not a ‘teacher’ book! This one is purely for pleasure: a new mystery novel. But first, let me check out this new email from Edutopia…

What do you mean, it “…can’t be solved?!?”

I came across an Algebra I review problem the other day on Classworks. The challenge was to solve a quadratic using the Quadratic Formula. One of the answer choices was “can’t be solved.” Which I did not notice.

I was working with three students who did not understand what to do. Once I wrote out the quadratic formula, (actually, all I had to write was the negative b plus or minus!) they began to remember. One boy immediately told the other two how to find a, b, and c. That required a discussion about standard form, so we had to do a little rearranging of the problem given on the screen. Once we got the formula equal to zero, the second student plugged the numbers into the correct places! The third began offering solutions to various parts. I thought we were doing pretty good! Until we came up with a negative under the radical.

Like the music in Jaws… Dum, de dum, dum… They looked at me, dumbstruck.

“What do we do, Ms. Maxcy?”

I asked them if they had learned about imaginary numbers. (Of course they hadn’t – yet. This was only Algebra I! But sometimes I forget which level I am teaching… Which is another story altogether!!!)

Still not checking the given answer choices, I blithely proceeded to give them a brief ‘reminder’ lesson on real and imaginary numbers. They continued to look at me blankly.

As I magically (to them) unraveled the answer as 2 plus/minus 2i sqrt 11 divided by 3, they stared at me. Then they stared at their answer choices. They looked back at me.

“It’s not there, Ms. Maxcy.”

At this point, admit it, we teachers think, “it’s got to be there, that’s the right answer; why is it not there? Gosh, did I do it wrong?” And then we doublecheck our answer. And then it hit me. This was Algebra I. We don’t teach imaginary numbers. Yet. It was then that I finally looked at the answer choices…

The correct answer was there, but it wasn’t the correct answer at all! 

Right there in front of me, there was the answer that the students were supposed to choose: choice “D) Can’t be solved.” 

Right there in front of me, there was the answer that the students were supposed to choose: choice “D) Can’t be solved.” This is a terrible choice! It’s not the right answer! It’s not a good answer! Okay, so we don’t teach them imaginary numbers in Algebra I, why don’t we just list the result with a negative under the radical as the answer?!? 

The kids get used to seeing the beast (negative radical) and we teach them how to simplify in Algebra II or geometry, depending on your school system. But, please, NOT “can’t be solved”!

That is just setting them up for trouble ahead! Lay the foundations, don’t build a wall that will have to be torn down later. Please!

Rant finished. Thank you for listening.

Murder Mystery Solved with Trig!

Dateline: April 14, 2016

The murder of Maria, whose body was conveniently found at right angles to Leg Streets A and B, has been solved! Investigators found the weapon across the river, apparently thrown there by her assailant while he was running down Leg Street A in an attempt to escape. A quick thinking officer (who had majored in math at the police academy) was able to calculate an angle measure for the angle made by the throw from the perp and the street leading to the victim.  Another savvy investigator was able to determine the distance from the suspect to the location of the attack.

With the mathematical evidence in hand, investigators were able to triangulate a conviction. Math teachers everywhere weighed in, saying it has the proportionate ability to change the way investigators do business!

Dimensions of the prisoner’s defense will be released at a later date. Film at eleven.

Okay, so I don’t really have film (we forgot to assign the job of reporter!) What I do have are a room full of kids who can now set up the proper proportions for trig problems!

Here’s how the crime went down:

Scene 1: Before the murder, I handed six students a few props:

Each student had to use the prop to arrange themselves into a triangle. The other students watching were, um, helping. (that’s what they called it!)

A short q&a followed:

Me: Okay leg A, are you opposite or adjacent to angle b?

Hapless Student holding Leg A sign: “I’m opposite, um, no, I’m right next to him (indicating student holding the angle b sign)! What does adjacent mean, again?”

We were able to sort out the definitions, and the students holding the leg signs got pretty good at determining whether they were “opposite” legs or “adjacent”  legs. A big moment came as students noticed that they could be opposite OR adjacent. More importantly, they were able to articulate WHY the status would change.

 More importantly, they were able to articulate WHY the status would change.

Scene 2: The next six students were given the cards. This time, I stood back and let the first group help position the players. A little skirmish ensued as Leg A and Leg B were being positioned. After a brief discussion about whether or not leg locations could be interchangeable (did Leg A have to go in the same place as the first triangle?), it was decided that as long as a leg were placed on each side of the 90 degree angle, it didn’t matter what we called them.

The opposite and adjacent discussion began again. It was fun watching students correct these new players, or making them guess by giving them tantalizing clues!

(If you ever want to know what you look like teaching, give your students the reins. Mimicry is not dead!)

Scene 3: With everyone up to speed on definitions, the murder could now commence! Maria was positioned. Ryan was immediately suspect, as we put the crime scene tape in his hand and instructed him to escape a bit down the hall. The “weapon” was given another piece of crime scene tape and told to take off in the opposite direction. The “hypotenuse” was asked how far the “perp” had thrown the weapon. We stretched the crime scene tape from the suspect to the weapon location. It was at this moment that I heard several students say “Hey, we made a triangle.”

It was at this moment that I heard several students say “Hey, we made a triangle.”

(Scary, I know, right?)

After a bit more discussion, the students determined that we needed an angle and we needed the distance from the body to the suspect to set up a proportion to solve for the distance. Two students were dispatched with the piece of crime scene tape that had been held between the victim and the suspect (Leg A, for those of you following along). Twelve inch square floor tiles assisted in the crime scene measurement. I used my oversized protractor to come up with the angle measure, and we were ready to set up some proportions!

Back inside the room, our eager detectives checked their trig proportion info sheet (yes! They used their NOTES!) and settled on cosine, adjacent and hypotenuse. I stood back and watched them argue over who was going to set up the problem, exactly how to set it up, and how to enter the information into the calculator. Then I watched them convince one another which answer was correct.

Concrete to representational to modeling AND peer tutoring…I love it! I would say that a murder wasn’t the only thing that got solved today!

We’d like you to take over this class, six weeks into second semester….

Six weeks into second semester, I was asked to become the teacher for a group of Algebra II students.

I met the Continue reading “We’d like you to take over this class, six weeks into second semester….”

“It isn’t that I don’t like math. Learning takes time in math, and I don’t always get the time it takes to really understand it.”*

How many more of our students feel this way, but instead of telling us with words, they distract, joke, sleep, or skip class:

…Math is such an interesting subject that can be “explored” in so many different ways, however, in school here I don’t really get to learn it to a point where I say yeah this is what I know, I fully understand it. We move on from topic to topic so quickly that the process of me creating links is interrupted and I practice only for the test in order to get high grades.

Taking Time Learning Math:A Student’s Perspective by Evan Weinberg

Would I want to come to my class?
This question haunts me. What are my kids seeing, feeling, thinking? Why does this kid come, but stay totally uninvolved? Why does this child talk, constantly, but about anything but math? Where did curiosity go? Is my class a class I would look forward to?

My personal enjoyment of math comes from the struggle with ideas and the satisfaction I get from my connection of and understanding of the relationships among those ideas. It’s like a huge puzzle that will take the rest of my lifetime to fully understand. The student’s comments in Evan Weinberg’s post resonated with what I see happening with my students. They are not learning math so much as preparing for a test about math.

They are not learning math so much as preparing for a test about math. 

The current situation of ‘learn how to do this; learn how to do that’ mentality is slowwwwly changing over to ‘understand why this is so; why does this relationship work’ exploration. It will need a shift in how we teach, letting kids struggle and connect ideas (we must facilitate this exploration, but not down some tightly designed path), and changing our view of grades and mastery. I can’t say I don’t have the answer- I am working on an answer that works for me and for my students. And I’m sure I am not the only one teacher who has found the path that is taking them closer to the ideal.

This post grew out of my response to Evan’s column. His response,

“I completely agree that this is a shift, and it is ongoing. Clearly, despite the changes I’ve made to the way I teach, students still get the sense that the test is the important part, which means there is still a great deal of improvement yet to be made!”

*Taking Time Learning Math:A Student’s Perspective by Evan Weinberg