What to Expect from me as your teacher

I thrived under the older and more "traditional" methods of high school math instruction, but I appreciate that math is a terrifying subject for many students. My first objective in the classroom is to make it a safe place and one where the mindset of "I'm not good at math" amended to include the growth mindset twist of "not yet!" You can expect me to work hard to make our classroom a place where we are challenged, play with math, and get better at making mistakes that teach, not mistakes that shame.

I will challenge you to *think* above all else. This means that I am very cautious about answering too often the question "Am I doing this right?" Do students find this frustrating? You bet - but that's not a bad thing, necessarily. A mentor I had early on made the wise point that as a teacher, you want to keep the students in that low level of frustration that comes from not quite understanding something - a sweet spot of not so much that they get upset or defeated and quit, but just enough so that they are really dying to reach that insight and "get it." I won't leave you adrift, though. I will coach you to find confidence (or skepticism, as appropriate) for your ideas and encourage and support you to collaborate and consult with your classmates. More often than not, collectively we will automatically move in the right direction, though I am always present and attentive to nudging us back on track or over the taller obstacles as we work together.

Contradictory to the experiences of many - especially those of my generation - I strive to make our work fun. And math *is* fun! Math is not a long, scary list of skills that need to be mastered. Math is a language of thought, and a field full of curious wonders, and asking the right questions can spark surprising conversations, with genuine problems that demand a surprisingly high degree of creativity to solve. It is often asked of math "When will we ever use this?" and to that I reply "Who cares! It's amazing!" We don't ask that question of art history, critical reading, the study of the causes of warfare, or dance - these all have obvious benefits to a healthy, connected, and thoughtful life. So too with mathematics, if we just approach it with a better attitude (and lots, and lots of pedagogical training in the teaching of the stuff, to be honest!)

To boil it all down, I will exhort you to Think Hard, Think for Yourself, and Take Chances - I'll be doing my level best to make sure no one falls too far and that they will always be helped back up.

What I expect from you, the student

Often in the first week, as part of building the culture of the class, I ask students (you) to reflect on the following quotation:

"Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where explorers often get lost."   - W.S. Anglin

I don't agree with much of Anglin's writings about math, necessarily, but he captures very well here my attitude as I approach the classroom. To a certain extend, I will want you to adopt this attitude as well.

We are on an adventure!

That sounds like a kindergarten teacher but it's still true in high school. To be in a state of learning, you must be on the edge of your understanding, pushing yourself into an unknown land. This is scary stuff, at times, especially if you've been burned in some way (bad grades, academic shaming of some sort, etc). I'll do my best to keep it exciting and not scary, but I will need buy in from you that I will make you safe but not necessarily comfortable - you must adapt to this, make friends with the discomfort, and apply yourself to find your way around, mapping out your own understanding, and thereby broadening your own world.

This amounts to:

  • come to class prepared materially
    • with something to write with
    • something to write on
    • your work completed
  • come to class prepared mentally and emotionally
    • sleep adequately
    • eat breakfast and lunch
    • be open minded about what is going to happen, and game to participate

Grading Practices

Rather than give scores in categories like Tests, Quizzes, HW, etc. I align scores with Learning Standards, which is a fancy teacher term for the things students should be learning in the course. The list of Learning Standards varies from course to course, and the total number will range from 5 to 25 ideas or skills.

Further, the students get feedback on those standards according to a simplified scale - Not Yet, Approaching, Got it, and Advanced which get coded in Aspen as 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively. Most students start off at the 2 or 3 level, but subsequent assessments in each standard will presumably move up that scale. To facilitate this, I accept reassessment on any standard at any time as many times as students wish until they have attained a score of 3 - that is, until the "get it." The new score replaces the old score and the most recent results are the only scores used to compute a final grade of any kind. The notion is that if you know it now, why would I care that they didn't know it last week?

Our report card system needs a single summary grade, from 50-100, so I do compute this score based on the standards scores of 1-4. The particular method to do this is something I am always tinkering with from year to year trying to satisfy the many competing priorities of reporting grades. I haven't committed to a method for this year yet, but I will settle on something before next week and publish it here. If you are in one of my classes now, you will get an announcement in class and online about this update, but please be proactive about understanding both how you will receive feedback about your work and how your grade will be recorded in school records (note that these are not the same thing).

Currently, Aspen doesn't integrate the standards-based scores into their alert systems, so I'm afraid that isn't a helpful feature in this case. My advice is to keep track of your rubric scores, request reassessment often, and pay attention to the actual standards as we encounter them and formulate your own meaning of them.

This general approach is called Standards-Based Grading, and though it is a departure from the system I learned under, it is commonly practiced in schools across the state and country. For more information, I have included a very short list of links to articles - both published and online - that give other perspectives on the practice.

An article from Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

A published article from the National Council of Teachers of English (it's not just math teachers!)

A collection of entries on Standards Based Grading from a teacher who writes well on this broad and rich topic. 


My Homework Philosophy

  • Try not to assign homework.
  • When you do, make it a lead in to the next lesson - something to use from the students.
  • ...or a focused demonstration of a skill - probably one they should have mastered and need to confirm on their own before advancing.
  • Assign it infrequently, but check it when you do.
  • Question those who don’t do it, to raise the stakes of not doing it, but without shaming. (is this possible?)
  • Make it clear what they should keep and what they can toss.
  • Portfolio assignments with required elements.
  • Periodically invite students to share their work with other students and/or the school (Awesome Math Board in the hallway)