My Struggle with Homework

The math classroom I knew from school followed a typical pattern.

  1. Review/Collect/Correct previous assignment.
  2. Teacher introduces new concepts/topic(s).
  3. Teacher walks through several example problems.
  4. Students are given an assignment.
  5. Repeat process.

Some math teachers are quicker with a joke, or friendlier, or more strict, but ultimately I think the majority of classes follow this pattern most of the time. When I first started teaching I struggled with how to handle steps 1 and 4. Here is the story of how I came to my solution.

My first year teaching at my current school I followed this pattern fairly religiously. At first I collected homework assignment and tried to check every problem from every student. I quickly learned this is a nightmare. Between students not showing work, poor penmanship skills, and trying to decipher multiple approaches, it is just way too time consuming.

I next tried an approach I picked up student teaching. I wouldn’t correct every assignment, but I would choose them randomly. It was still time consuming to correct, but at least that time consumption was limited. However, there was still a flaw with this system. One day when I went to collect a homework assignment to grade I had a student approach me. He didn’t have the assignment done. Every other assignment was completed, but something came up and he didn’t get that assignment done. I liked the kid, he normally was everything a teacher wants from a student, so I decided to give him a break. The problem was that more and more students asked for breaks, and every now and then I would get the rare student that skipped every assignment, but just happened to complete the one that was collected. I felt like this system was just to coincidental and happenstance to represent some sort of accurate measure of knowledge.

And it was still time consuming. So I adopted something I saw during student teaching, instead of collecting entire assignments, I started collecting just a few specific questions from homework assignments. But the outcome was still largely the same, it just felt like the grades were coincidental and happenstance.

There was also one large problem with which I had an issue. Correcting homework for accuracy led a lot of students to blatantly copy a handful of students. This defeated the purpose of homework to me. I firmly believe homework is there for students to reflect and practice the skills covered in class.

I decided to handle this problem by making homework a participatory grade. About two times a chapter I would collect homework from the students and just check to make sure they did something. I used this system for three years. I liked it because it allowed me to distance myself from student responsibility. If students took the time to understand the homework, great, and if they just filled in their notebooks to get the participation points that was fine with me too because they would just get low test grades. They didn’t put in the effort to learn the material, so they would suffer the low grades. I didn’t feel bad because I was essentially offering 30% of their grade for free by making homework participatory.

Then, at the end of one school year, about 20% of my students failed. It came down to their homework. They weren’t making the connection between doing quality work and success in school. I heard reason after reason, excuse after excuse, as to why the homework wasn’t done. Some of them were legitimate and some weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. They saw me as an authority figure and the homework I assigned was about following directions, not an educational opportunity. I had already struggled with the cycle of detention, and I do fall on the side of the debate believing they don’t achieve the desired result. I kept second guessing myself, thinking maybe I should have assigned more detentions. But those detentions just would have reinforced the cycle of obedience for those students.

If my goal is to breed compliance and obedience in students there are much more effective ways than math homework and detentions. Actually, the more I think about it, math homework and grades are about the dumbest way to teach concepts of compliance, obedience, and following directions. A paycheck and a job are much more effective for that.

Sending 20% of my class to summer school or back to Algebra I again wasn’t enough to make me change my ways though. I spent one year teaching summer school and have had several students go through the process. Though summer school itself is largely unresearched, my personal experience is that it serves largely as a prolonged detention to avoid repeating a class. By sending kids to summer school, the homework wasn’t about obeying me, as a detention would have been, but the homework was about obedience in the system.

And I was perfectly okay with this set up until the end of the next school year. I didn’t have nearly as many students fail this time. Actually only a couple, but one stood out in my mind. It was the last day of class and I had a student who was sitting at around 50 some percent. His homework, 30% of his overall grade, was negligibly above a zero. I had always told students it’s not when you learn something, but rather that you learn it. Well, here it was, the last day of school. Simply do some of the homework and the student could pass the class. I knew the kid had the math ability, I had watched him do math during class before, he just needed to get enough participation points to pass the class.

When he claimed he didn’t have enough time to get the work done, one of his classmates offered the use of her old notebook and worksheets to copy. He still refused because, as he stated, he didn’t care. Homework still wasn’t having the impact I wanted it to. I decided I needed to change something for next year. I couldn’t keep going having so much of a student’s grade represent obedience.

I needed to devise a way to grade so that those grades represented math ability and not classroom obedience. I needed to get students to realize the work they do with homework is what led to success, not watching me give notes. Most of all, I needed to break the cycle where students defend their behaviors with, “…but I didn’t think you’d care.” If all we ever teach is school is to do things because the teachers care we haven’t really educated anybody.

I Used to Teach Algebra I

I used to teach Algebra I. Over time I had developed some eccentricities that matched my personality, and made my classroom fairly efficient. My current seniors are the last students that had me for Algebra I, and when they talk about it, often they will mention the movies they got to watch. HOLY LABEL MAKER BATMAN! I don’t want to give the impression that all we did was watch movies though. When most people recollect their math class experience the imagine, something like this.

And that’s what my class was like, for the majority of time. It started with some sort of homework review, introduction of new material, and then I would release the students to work on their assignment with roughly 10 to 20 minutes of class left, very much following the, “I do, we do, you do.” This wasn’t everyday, but it was the vast majority of them.

The last time I taught Algebra I though, it was different. I would simply start class by presenting the students with a question that would be familiar to them. Either something from the previous day or something that they had been taught the previous year. I had them show me their work on whiteboards right there so that I could give them feedback right there, instead of waiting until the next day.

This worked for me because of two reasons.

The first, and most important was consistency. The last time I taught Algebra I it was my fifth consecutive year teaching the class. With the exception of open enroll students, the pipeline was from the same teacher, so I knew what to expect in terms of prerequisite capabilities. The standards were the same, the state testing was the same. Teacher evaluations were the same. Utilization of special education resources were the same. All of the consistency meant that I taught using my schema, allowing me to devote every ounce of my working memory and fluid intelligence to provide feedback for my students. I think it takes me five years of teaching consistency to be a good teacher with a curriculum. It really makes a cycle; master curriculum to teach (this is different that getting answers to tests); find a good sequence of topics; properly pace the topics to align with state testing; analyze assessment choices; and then finally be an effective teacher.

Now I said there were two reasons that allowed me to teach Algebra I the way I wanted and I’ve already talked about the consistency of a schedule. The second reason was because of the degree of autonomy I was allowed. Basically, I was told to go teach math, and that was it. As long as math was taught, the how I taught wasn’t nearly that important. So I decided to make my class fit my personality. I dumped activities that seemed to represent more of an obedience (sorry, “on task”) component. I made a promise to my students that I would not have them do any activities that I felt were there solely for busy work. I stopped feeling guilty about providing my students with downtime. Every now and then I found myself mentally fried by the curriculum, especially that first year teaching Pre-Calculus, so I couldn’t imagine how it would be affecting the students, and I didn’t feel guilt acknowledging that I was stressed too.

That manifested itself in that first Pre-Calculus class in a manner where there were several discussions about learning and mastery in general because my students were stuck with a teacher who only a survivor when it came to his math background. Much of the math class was dedicated to trying to understand why things work because I was trying understand why they worked myself. Since I was so comfortable with Algebra I, I would look at student feedback and decide I was happy with where they were for the day, and occasionally notice that there was 10 to 15 minutes of class left. Remembering that I promised that I wouldn’t spend their time with busy work, I used the time to build relationships and share aspects of my life that I found important, and yes, that might manifest itself as movies. As my relationships with my students improved I noticed that learning became more natural, and more productive.

Then, rather suddenly it all changed. First, my schedule was altered, Algebra I, the class that I was so good with, was taken away going into my sixth year at my current school. This is what my schedule has been since then.

Year 1 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, 6th Grade math aide, junior high lunch duty, senior class adivisor

Year 2 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, junior high lunch duty

Year 3 – Algebra I, World History, Calculus I, Economics, Geography

Year 4 – Algebra I, World History, Economics, Geography, Pre-Calculus

Year 5 – Algebra I, Algbera II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus I, Math Intervention, Personal Business and Finance Math, senior class adivisor

Year 6 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Personal Business and Finance Math, Statistics

Year 7 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Statistics, junior high study hall/math intervention

Year 8 – 8th Grade Math, Geometry, combined Pre-Calc/Calc I

I was still excited to teach because I felt comfortable teaching how I wanted to, I still had that autonomy.  So I showed up the first day during year 6 with a stack of whiteboards, enthusiastic about how having the students work in class impacted the outcomes, only to be crushed when I shared that philosophy with the administration and that’s not how you should teach. I was pressed to defend myself (in writing) and referred to the experts at the local educational service center. I was even questioned about going out of order in the textbook.

Then came the day, during the first week of school, when I lost one of my Algebra II classes to a fundraiser meeting that came with no notice. I decided to take the opportunity to spend some significant time with the other Algebra II class not working on math, but building relationships that would make the rest of the year more productive and efficient. Of course, that would be the day that I got a walk through, my first experience with a “gotcha” moment, and was proceeded to be lectured about wasted time. I was told that this wasn’t an official walk through, but just checking to make sure I am using my time wisely.

In my Personal Business and Finance Math, another class that I was new to, I showed a video to the students about rationalization, and it just didn’t sink in. YouTube made the recommendation to show this Berenstain Bears video, so I tried it. It went perfect, the kids embraced the dorkiness of being high school students watching kids cartoons, and they seemed to grasp the concept of rationalization. But one of those educational service center experts walked by and I was later lectured on the inappropriateness of showing a cartoon, and then had to provide a written rationale for my choice.

Then came the day I gave a problem in Pre-Calculus that got me in trouble. We had spent weeks working on trig functions, especially transformations of trig graphs. I gave the students a problem in a worksheet that asked them to do the reverse, given a set of points, find a trig function. I was called down to the office and was lectured about how students aren’t capable to performing this task without being explicitly being shown how to do it first. It just goes on and on.

Novice learners were timed on problems to see how fast they could complete them.

I give out too many A’s.

No one learns anything in your class.

Students told me they didn’t care, they’re going to get a B.

There needs to be more ways to succeed in your classroom.

It is impossible to learn anything in your class.

You let the students do nothing.

More people would be complaining if the grades were lower.

Students will lie to defend you.

I want to tell them to shut it and punch them in the face.

If I were a student I don’t know what I would be learning.

There needs to be more grades in your class.

I’m not going to do it since it’s not graded.

On top of all those messages I have been receiving, the state has changed the end of year test. We have new standards to deal with. I’ve had to adapt to becoming a full inclusion classroom that doesn’t track students, meaning I have had classrooms with students with IQs in the 80’s have been in classes with gifted students. Now students are being pressured more than ever to get college credits while still in high school. Students and teachers are feeling intense pressure to get the most amount of academic achievement at an ever earlier age.

When we give students messages over and over and over again that they are dumb they start to internalize it and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. The messages I’ve received the past three years, that my students are lie to me, that all they do is take advantage of me, that all they do is walk all over me, well, I start to internalize that too. So when they come to my class exhausted and stressed, then do not respond to my prodding questions with thought, quit from fatigue during complex tasks, I no longer meet them with sympathy. I just keep going because, well fuck them, I won’t let them take advantage of me anymore. If they are tuning me out it must be because they have already mastered the content. They can fail, their grades aren’t my problem. That’s the teacher I am now.

And here’s the bottom line, in this current environment, I am not the teacher anyone needs. I tried desperately to hold on to a few of my values, but slowly selling out one little piece at a time, bowing to the pressure from administration, students, parents, tests, has made me a bad teacher. I am a bad teacher because I got sucked into the spiral of my own paranoia. Instead of meeting my students fatigue, exhaustion, and confusion with sympathy and grace, I coldly pressed on. As it just became more confusing for them, more of them decided to just quit and I don’t blame them. Why should they stress out over math they won’t need other than to jump through some hoop to get a college degree? They have no incentive to master the topic. As long as they are getting a B or C, they’re good.

As I write this, I keep staring at the information about conic sections on my board that I used in Pre-Calc and thinking over and over to myself, this is not how it should be done. The more I look at it, the more appalled I am. It dumbs down our students and it dumbs down the math. It’s a result of me trying to hold on to three years ago, adapting to my new pressures, but producing an abomination.

That’s not education. If that’s what I am producing it’s time for me to go. I thought I knew what my calling in life was, but if this is all the more I am capable of making, this passion has just turned into a burdensome job, which means I am no good for anybody right now. I’m not teaching. I’m torturing.

I hope that I actually made a difference for a couple students along the way, because right now I shouldn’t be here.

 

 

All My Students Are Special

Apparently I work in Lake Wobegon. We were given a sheet with a grade breakdown from the first semester. Removing all the “fluff” electives left slightly over 1500 grades that were given. Of those grades, 733 were between an A- and an A+, and another 535 were between a B+ and B-. In core classes, I work at a school where 82% of the students are above average.

I decided to compare it to my own grades from the first semester. I learned that I am part of the problem, if it is a problem. While I gave out many more B’s than A’s, overall, 79% of my students are above average.

But why give out the summary of grades in the first place? Are they too high? Are we going to be dictated to bell curve the students? There was a statement about making sure we are asking rich questions that align to new standards. So I assume this was directed at the idea that we have average test scores and college placement, but our grades are extremely high. How does this happen? I can think of a couple of possibilities.

These will be skewed in a secondary school direction because that is where I teach.

First, maybe our teachers just don’t have adequate content knowledge. If I have substandard mathematical knowledge, I would have no basis to make judgement decisions on whether students have mastered the subject. I probably would struggle to make meaningful assessments. In spite of what students might think, I don’t really subscribe to this idea. It’s been awhile since I have met a teacher who I think just doesn’t know the subject.

Second, maybe our teachers match their criteria for success based upon personal experience. Maybe the experience of our teachers have taught them valuable lessons about work ethic, consequently the criteria for success in their classes, possibly made subconsciously, has consisted largely of assessments that allow students to demonstrate work ethic. Maybe our students have above average work ethic. This is somewhat true for me, but I actually have set up a system that only implicitly rewards work ethic. Work, on it’s own doesn’t get rewarded, however, if that work improves understanding and comprehension, then there will be a reward.

Third, and I hate to think how much it influences me, is the pressure to make sure there are equal outcomes. Right now, if a student fails my class and then complains, it isn’t the student that has to prove that the teacher made a mistake by demonstrating mastery of content. If a student fails, I have to justify the grade. When students get good grades though, A’s and B’s, and even C’s occasionally, no questions are asked. When that “A” student comes back with an ACT score of 16 we just write it off as test anxiety, which apparently has almost reached epidemic proportions. That ultimately stems from the pressure to make sure that learning opportunities are accessible to all.

But at some point accessible to all somehow morphed into everyone gets the same grade. Equal opportunity, which I don’t think anyone would ever be against, simply means everyone gets a chance, it doesn’t ensure everyone will succeed. It all sounds great until it is you or your kid that fails. Maybe the material wasn’t presented correctly. Maybe the teacher didn’t provide the right resources. Maybe there is some sort of disability that prevented content going to long-term memory. The point is this, when a student comes home with a report card, we ask what’s on it and if it’s A’s and B’s we congratulate the student and move on with our lives. If that report card has poor grades, the inquisition begins, with everyone looking to blame someone, teachers blame students and parents, parents blame students and teachers, students blame everyone.

Considering how utterly useless my subject is to most people, I find it easier to devise a grading criteria that will keep everyone happy. Students get the grades that will keep them scholarship eligible and parents off their backs. I get to set a standard that makes an “A” a token achievement of mathematical understanding, yet passing my class takes minimal effort. Sure, this is a very cynical take on grades, but it is an accurate description. I could make my grades really be reflective of mathematical knowledge, but I don’t think students would want that, nor would parents and administrators want the outcomes that would ensue.

Besides, if I really was concerned with mathematical knowledge, grades are a terrible motivator.

Best to keep living “A” lie and move on with our lives.

Creating an Image of the Self

Earlier in the year I had a student write a paper for a psychology class. In that paper the student talked about an idea of self-concept, or self-image. We tend to be happy individuals when out our image of ourselves matches with how others see us. And when our image of how others imagine us, we have clearly defined roles that keep us content.

What role do I play in creating a student’s image?

One of the biggest influences on students are grades. When a student receives good grades they tend to start thinking of themselves as a good student. When I get a student coming into my class that had good grades I tend to think that they were a good student. When I give students good grades, the students tend to think I hold them in high regard.

Now imagine that cycle taking place over the course of 10, 11, or 12 years? What if it was a cycle of negative reinforcement (bad grades) occurred? Should we be surprised when so many students have either a love/hate relationship to school?

What happens when one teacher tells them they are intelligent, but another tells them they are incompetent? Sometimes students write off that teacher, but sometimes the students internalize the negative feedback and it absolutely destroys their potential. Let me use a story to illustrate what I am trying to describe. I had a student in class, both math and history for the first time during her freshman year. She was actually a year older than her peers as she had been held back in the past. She had all the classic signs of a student that would struggle in school, anxiety, learned helplessness, scapegoating, etc. I finally had a breakthrough with her during the second year she was working with me when she finally started to develop some confidence. While talking to her I learned that her struggles in school began around the fourth grade, when she received poor grades. It began a self-fulfilling spiral that culminated in high school with a student perpetually on the verge of summer school and credit recovery. She eventually gained enough confidence that she avoid summer classes, and even passed Algebra II with a teacher who failed many other students. But that’s not why I want to bring attention to this story.

During her senior year she had gotten into a small argument with her boyfriend. Specifically, they were arguing about one of her childhood friends who happened to be male. Her boyfriend perceived that he was a threat, she didn’t. I found this for her to read. After reading it she exclaimed, “Ewwww, all my guy friends want to do me.” Regardless of the appropriateness of the statement, here was a girl who had struggled throughout school, had defined herself by that struggle, interpreting graduate level research. I would be the last person to tell students that they can do anything they want, we do have limits, but how many potential career paths have been closed off for this one student because one teacher set in motion cycle of failure that is now defining her life. (The reverse is also true. It is possible to falsely build up a student only to watch them crash and burn later.)

I work at a small school. Since it is a small school I usually see every student for at least 268.5 hours of instruction, usually in classes with under 15 students. Because of the constant schedule fluctuations I have encountered, a hand full of students have spent 537 hours with me, sometimes in classes as small as 3 students. Interacting with those students over that amount of time makes it very possible and probably that they become much more than a grade to me. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t formed favorite students over the years, but by spending so much time with them I hope they realize that the grades they receive in math class are by no means a reflection of their individual self-worth. With all the time that we have spent together I think that we can build an accurate representation of their abilities going forward, regardless of the grade in class. It absolutely destroys me when I see a student that I have worked with for so long building up that confidence, only fall victim to one bad placement test or one bad grade.

However, I need to ask what is my role in this whole process is. Do I play a larger part in the creation of a students self-image because of my position as an authority figure? If I do, I need to tread lightly and cautiously as I have a larger impact on a student’s future than just a grade.  If I am making a positive impact I need to figure out how to make that impact more permanent.

 

 

It’s Not My Responsibility

When is a teacher free from the responsibility of teaching? I’ve heard the concept called release time. There might be other terminology for the concept, but I am not sure. So what is release time exactly?

As a teacher I provide explanations and examples to my students. I answer questions, walk through procedures, and attempt to ask thought provoking questions to stretch my students. I provide resources such as practice problems from a textbook or links to videos for further explanation. But when do I get to say, “I’ve done enough.”?

To me release time is when I get to release myself the responsibility and burden of educating a student. When release occurs the burden of education falls upon the student. However, there is not set standard for when this can be accomplished.

Is it a time thing? Are three class periods enough? Maybe a week?

Is it a certain number of exercises or worksheets?

Is it when students can successfully mimic the instruction in the class?

I find myself at an impasse. I think I have covered material thoroughly. I have explained all of my reasoning. I have used a multitude of examples of varying difficulty. Yet, in spite of my efforts, I feel like I have a large portion of my students who are willfully neglecting to learn.  I really don’t know what else I can do short of dumbing down the standard even more than I already have.

I feel like the students are being dismissal of my teaching efforts, a feeling that rarely happens on such a large scale. I know some would say it is the topic itself, that it isn’t interesting, or that it is just too difficult. It is confined to this one topic. Usually, it is a great group of kids, with great motivation, but I put the work in front of them and it’s a chorus of eye rolls, moans, and “I don’t get it(s).”

And so I am conflicted. Part of me wants to say, “screw ‘em, I’ve done my job,” but part of me is constantly trying to think of ways to make this make sense.  I can’t decide, is the shut down out lack of desire or is it because of lack of skills? If it is the latter, I can keep constructively working on improving skills, but if it is the former, there is nothing I can do. The more I watch, the more I try, the more I believe that it is the former, that they just don’t want to do this.

But I need to assess them, right? The purpose of assessment is to make sure the students understood the information. Can I give an assessment in good conscious when so many of my students refuse to participate? Maybe I should just forgo the assessment. Does the topic really matter in the all encompassing life of school? Or is that granting too much power to the students, to let them dictate the topics to be tested? I know that we always should think of the things that we can do better, but just this once is it okay to be selfish?

Can I say, just this once, that I’ve done enough?