I haven’t posted in a while. The first few weeks are in full swing, and that’s been my top priority. As much as I love the feedback and sharing that occurs from posting, I haven’t Why? I think I have a few reasons.
1. I’m lucky to have plenty of colleagues to share / reflect with in my own office.
I’m currently working with a teacher who is new to AP Statistics. He’s asking lots of excellent, important questions. He’s also a very experienced, dedicated teacher as well. His questions make me reflect and help me justify why we do what we do in AP stats. His comments and reactions as a new teacher force me to re-evaluate and remind my self why the “norms” of the class exist. He’s also made be re-think some things that I have assumed to be “best practices.” His input and feedback are extremely valuable, specific, and helpful. This teacher is only one of a dozen of great folks who work in the same office I do. We’ve all been away from each other for three months, and the renewed dialogue, feedback, and reactions are electrifying.
2. Starting up new classes is time consuming, labor intensive, and extremely important.
My students are concerned for their success, willing to work, challenged, and scared. They don’t know me. They want to trust me. I need to earn and build their trust. This involves correct, specific and helpful feedback about their progress quickly and effectively. Many of my students are seniors, and highly anxious about those first- quarter grades. Some may argue that the imperfect evidence of the first few grades are not appropriate ways for students to decide questions like “Am I in the right class,” “am I on track,” or “What do I need to do to get better grades?”
I agree. However, their anxiety is real, and their concerns are real. Whether we like it or not, first-quarter grades can impact decisions about college, and the students I work with feel these pressures acutely. I don’t wish that pressure on anybody. For this reason, I know that students need a lot of verbal and emotional feedback and support. This takes lots of e-mails, talks, preparation, clarity, and reassurance. The challenge for me is to articulate clearly, “You do X well. Y can improve. You can do stronger work on Y, and here’s how.” They also need to be reassured that early grades are not inappropriately weighed in a way that impacts them disproportionately. So I’m sending lots of e-mails, having lots of student-teacher conferences, and preparing for the questions and anxieties that inevitably accompany the first quarter of any new course. Do I allow “re-do” situations? If appropriate, yes. One might argue that students “need perspective,” and “need to stay focused on the process and not the grade.” If they weren’t being judged by their grades in the college admissions process, I might agree.
The reality, I believe, is different. They are judged (unfairly?) by a disproportionate emphasis on first quarter senior grades. Do I have absolute proof of this? No, only anecdotal. But my kids are savvy. They read the signs from their college counselors and peers. They know where their payoff is. They are sophisticated thinkers and not passive about their situation. Their admissions counselors seem to confirm that their concerns are not merely anxiety but also real. So I will take the extra time required for them to gain early success, clearly articulate their areas for growth, and help them improve.
Secondly, they don’t know what I deem important (as the giver of grades). My expectations may differ from previous teachers. They don’t know what “good work” may look like in this class. We teachers hope that they can make abstractions from what they’ve learned before, but this ability is certainly an adult skill, from what I’ve learned. My students are not yet adults. They are bright, ambitious, and willing to work, but they are not yet adults. In addition, “good work,” at the detail level, truly does differ from teacher to teacher. Is roundoff error at the fourth decimal place important? Sometimes it is, depending on the course and the situation. Throw in different teacher expectations, and kids can easily become confused. I frequently re-asses what are “universal norms” of clarity, precision, and specificity for my students. I’m not convinced that we teachers all tow the same line in this respect. Should we? I don’t think so. But this means that our kids need our clarity and help in our class. This is especially true in my AP Statistics class, where writing is a heavy component of their work. They are not used to allowing some things to slide (like mild computation/ roundoff error), and little/no tolerance for incorrect use of language to justify their reasoning (like mis-using terms like “most,” “majority,” “more likely,” etc…).
The social culture of our math class has, I think, been turned upside-down. They are used to writing carefully (?) in classes like English or History, but maybe not in mathematics. But this is essential in Statistics. I see universal norms (from looking at English and History teachers’ rubrics for “good work”), but that doesn’t mean my students know how this is applied in a math class. I have to think and prepare class questions/activities to make these expectations clear, specific, repeatable, and achievable by my students. My best students see this, but not all of my students.
If/when I achieve this clarity for my students, I think my students will feel supported and ready to succeed. I’m on the way, but much work still needs to be done.
So to summarize, I have been deeply involved in the kind of feedback, sharing, and thinking that these blog posts are intended to represent. But I have found it necessary (and helpful) to keep them focused on the micro-community of my school and my students. No offense. I love your help, feedback, reactions, criticisms, and questions. But for me, first things first: my school, classes, and new students are my baby right now.
My partner is not amused. But he’s used to it.
So what about y’all? What issues in your classes require extra attention and care for helping students?