I teach at a school where we definitely keep score. In pretty much everything. Our kids, the ones that care, they already beat themselves up over their self-perceived shortcomings. They probably don’t need us riding them too.
If you’ve stopped by this space before, you know I am a sports guy. At this time of the year my heartbeat probably sounds a lot like the staccato dribble of a basketball and the squeak of Nikes on hardwood.
This past weekend was the regional round of the IHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament. Since 1911 kids across this state have advanced through four weeks of increasingly difficult challenges (sectional, regional, semistate, state). For the last 20 years the tourney has been split into classes based on enrollment. Thus Da Region had 8 teams competing in regional play on Saturday.
The high school where I teach was one of those eight. A school famous for its methodical approach to shooting free throws, our team missed double-digit free throws in a game it lost in overtime to a team it had already beaten during the regular season. Afterwards, I imagine our kids were pretty down, beating themselves up, thinking about this play or that play they could have made better.
This morning, our coach tweeted a link to a newspaper story about the season-long improvement of one of our top players. It was one of our best shooters, but a player who had struggled shooting free throws in that regional loss. Who was probably feeling at least a little bit responsible, like he let his teammates down. But his coach was there to lift him up.
For folks who follow him on Twitter, it was pretty easy to crack the code. In a state that probably takes games played by 16-year-olds a little too seriously, here’s a guy publicly saying, “hey, you’re good. A few minutes of one game on one Saturday morning doesn’t define you.”
The walls of the gym at my school are ringed with the dates of all 52 sectional championships in school history. That’s tied for 10th-most all time in a state known for basketball. This year’s sectional was our first since 2011… when our current seniors were in 6th grade. But I don’t care if we win another one as long as I teach here. The boys basketball coach is the kind of teacher I want to be. I want him to coach our kids here until the day after forever.
I can’t add much. Except to say that I could do a better job of not harping on people’s worst moments or days. I think I’m pretty chill, but it seems like a reminder I needed. Maybe tomorrow I make a point of thinking about everything that is positive about the people around me. And maybe for my students, letting them know that one bad day or poor test score doesn’t define them.
So, lots of changes in my classroom since the semester break. Seems like a good time to check in, just maybe a little sooner than Pete Alfano. How’s it going so far?
To recap, I’m trying to provide more opportunities for my students to work together in class, to have the support of their teacher as they work through practice sets. My lever is a flipped classroom. Trying to move in the direction suggested by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler in DitchThat Homework.
So they are viewing the notes outside of class, writing a 3-2-1 Summary when they finish taking notes from my video, splitting into Island/Peninsula/Land work groups based on student readiness to be self-sufficient, getting an opportunity for relearning and retakes on quizzes.
My main goal is to provide a proper level of support for all my students. I had to let go of some things like a rotating schedule of MTBoS-inspired bellringers. Truthfully, that decision made me die a little on the inside, but this wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I weighed my options. What’s the best way to maximize the math happening when we are together in class? I want them thinking critically, but I also want them getting enough practice on basic skills to make them stick.
After 15 years of teaching I already have a good idea of what independent practice looks like outside of school (hint: not really independent), but I was curious what happens when I ask them to watch a video and take notes on their own, and then write down some questions about their learning.
I got my answer a few days ago when a scheduling crunch inspired me to have my students watch the video and take notes in class. It was actually a very efficient way to get note-taking done – way faster than direct instruction with a million distractions. I figured we could get the notes in and still have enough time for students to try the practice set and for me to get around the room and help.
I found that many of my students were focusing on the examples, taking good notes, backing up the video to rewatch certain parts, writing a thoughtful summary – pretty much the model of how flipped instruction should work.
I also saw kids blow it off entirely, playing on their phones or on other sites. And a few were just forwarding the video to a screenshot of the worked-out examples, copying them down, putting some nonsense down for the summary and checking out.
In other words, the students who cared before, care now. And the students who tried to slide by before, are still giving me their absolute minimum effort. So, can I snap up a couple from that last group and give them a nudge towards the first group? Good question.
I’m way past thinking that any of the tactics and strategies I pick up from my online PLN are going to be magic dust. They are all just tools in the hands of a teacher, for use to benefit student learning. So let’s use them.
Logarithms are killing my students, slowly, like one class period at a time. It couldn’t be less clear if I wrote the instructions in Chinese. So we’ve taken three days to review: two days with a packet to get some reps in, and one day where I wanted some collaboration and mistake-finding built in.
I’ve been dying to use Log War for a while. But I’m not sure my students are in that place yet where they can rapid-fire evaluate logs. Plus I was a little short on materials and funding to purchase more index cards and labels.
And Sara Van Der Werf’s “Add ‘Em Up” activity made an ideal Plan B.
I endorse this review method. Click through for full details and materials, but the executive summary is: students are grouped in fours, working on butcher paper or big white boards, each with his own log exercise to work out. I give them the sum of their answers as they are working on the problems. If their answers add up to the number I’ve written in the middle of the page, yay us! If not, that’s cool, it’s time to play America’s favorite game show, Let’s Find The Mistake!
This activity got my students engaged, working together and talking with each other, referencing their notes for help, and it gave me an opportunity to sit with everyone individually for feedback and help. That’s the core message of a Ditch That Anything: teachers need to get face time with students, and build relationships along with teaching standards. That’s the big payoff of flipped instruction, Island/Peninsula/Land, and collaborative review time.
Still – it’s not a cure-all. Sitting with one group, looking at the work provided by one particularly uninterested student…. it was perfect. I asked her, “tell me how you got from this step to this step”. She looked me in the eye and said “Photomath did it. I’m not gonna lie to you. I don’t know how to do this. No clue. Teach me”.
I appreciate the request for help, and I’ll be happy to teach you, but I can’t reteach this unit to you in 10 minutes the morning before the quiz.
Especially not after you’ve been playing on your phone and not doing work for two weeks. That remediation gig is gonna take way longer than 10 minutes.
The Irish, 11-point underdogs, were 3-4 and had lost their last three games, all of them in South Bend. They hadn’t lost three straight at home since 1956…. Down the schedule, Navy, Penn State and USC waited to pick over the Notre Dame carcass. Faust was asked by ABC’s Keith Jackson if he’d ever win again.
Jackson: “You have the definite possibility of a 4-7 season.”
Faust: “Yeah, but also one of 7-4.”
That exchange defines the man. “Wouldn’t it be something,” he had said earlier in the week, “wouldn’t it be ironical if it was a game with my first opponent that turned the thing around?”
Gerry Faust is an optimist. The faith we share dictates that. I’m more of an optimistic pessimist. But I still believe in the turnaround. If I can’t go 11-0 anymore, can I get to 7-4? I’m gonna keep looking for things that work, keep what’s good, giving my students what they need, and it’s gonna happen. Come around sometime and see.
I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?
Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:
“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”
My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.
I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.
The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.
Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.
So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.
One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.
As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.
In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.
I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.
Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by MattVaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.
I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.
Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.
The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.
The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.
Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book. Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.
If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.
In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”
Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.
Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?
The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.
My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.
If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.
In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.
Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.
My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.
This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?
So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).
I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.
“It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.
As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.
Just like the rest of life, right?
So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”
Spending some time today pondering: How would I answer a parent (or a student) asking that same question: “Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”
School starts in a week, and I’m having long thoughts about grading and homework and how class time is spent and everything. I can do better. I know my grading/points system was out of whack last school year. Many times I knew a student’s letter grade didn’t really reflect his ability to do math.
I have to fix that.
I know there’s a premium on time when classes are 50 minutes long. I want kids thinking and arguing and defending their positions and solving problems and working together and practicing skills and having a chance to ask questions and get feedback on their efforts.
And I’m pretty sure that unless I invent a way to elongate time that I can’t do all those things in one class period.
Along comes the Dynamic Duo: MattMiller and AliceKeeler. The question has been around for a while: is homework worth the time and aggravation? Does it encourage learning? Does it increase the educational divide between students of different socio-economic classes? There is much research that at least suggests there is a better way. These two well-known teacher/presenters aim to provide the why and the how for doing things different.
I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for years. I read his first book, Ditch That Textbook, around this time last year. I’ve seen videos of Alice pitching her homework theories. To be honest, the Halo Effect is strong around these two. I’m predisposed to read their stuff, punch my fist in the air and shout “Yes”! So I’m intentionally adopting the posture of a skeptic as I read #DitchHW. Playing the Devil’s Advocate. I’m trying hard to punch holes in their argument. I’ve got a tendency to take a new idea and run with it. I want to make sure this one has staying power. To justify putting my teaching money where my mouth is.
But they’re making their case well.
I don’t know about you, but when I don’t see the value in something I’m asked to do…. I don’t want to do it. That just sounds like the set-up for a power struggle. Even if the research leaned towards homework as a great educational tool, the kids who refuse to do the homework won’t do the learning. And that’s a problem.
Here’s what I saw in my classroom. Pick a year – could be 2003, 2008, 2012, or last May:
About 35% of my students legitimately do the homework on their own
Another 30-40% copy the work from the students in the first group
The rest don’t do homework at all
Even when I point out they are getting points just for effort, enough points in a quarter to equal a quiz score
They’ll copy homework blatantly in class from a seatmate
They’ll snap their homework and text/snapchat it to friends
They will see similar problems a week later on a review sheet and look at me like they’ve never seen that type of problem before
Learning has not occurred, people.
On the other hand, the best days for my students are days when there is collaborative work, with students having chances to help each other and to get help and feedback from me.
That sounds like something I’d like to have happen more often.
These two really know how to get my attention, that’s for sure:
So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.
Miller and Keeler go on to suggest ways for teachers to build relationships with students and parents so that we get buy-in from our two most important stakeholders, offer tips to provide timely and useful feedback, and they examine the brain science of the change-over that will help students own their own learning.
So the Why is in place. We’ll look at the how, and process my takeaways, in Part Two.