In Algebra II, I am trying something that I find is working pretty darn successfully that I’m going to replicate it in all my classes next year. One of the things that aggrieves me more than anything is asking a student to take out a recent worksheet or assessment, and they reach in their backpacks and dig around — their hand burrowing and further crumpling piles of papers from all subjects. It’s always miraculous when they do find what they were looking for, but you all know what it looks like.
Crumpled. Torn. Smudged.
In other words, terrible.
What’s clear is that students haven’t yet learned the skills to keep themselves organized. So this year I thought I would integrate that explicitly into the course. In the process of doing this, I’ve also found a way for kids to do homework and test corrections as part of their routine. No longer is homework something that students do at home, come to class and ask questions, and then forget about. Let me explain.
Materials: Each student is required to have a binder and a folder. The folder is to be brought to and from each class, while the binder can stay in their lockers unless instructed to bring them to class. The binder has one divider in it, to separate “homework” and “assessments.”
Implementation: Each day, students keep their homework in their folder, organized chronologically. They date everything — textbook homework, worksheet homework — with the date these things were assigned. We make sure to be very consistent with our labeling — especially because we only meet 4 days a week because of our rotating schedule. I also post the homework (and daily notes) on something called a course conference (for those of you familiar with first class) — also organized by the date assigned.
Each night that homework is assigned, students are expected to work assiduously on it. And if it is from the textbook, they are required to check the odd answers in the back — and mark the right answers on their papers if they get something wrong. At the start of class, I always display the even answers to textbook problems (or the answers to any worksheet we did), and I go over questions. At this time, students are expected to correct their work on their homework. They are expected to write down the correct answer. They are expected to ask me (or their colleagues) questions. And if they don’t have enough time to finish all their corrections (I expect them to show work to get the right answer, not just the right answer), they have to finish it at home.
In other words, there is no reason that my kids should have anything less than perfectly completed and corrected homework assignments. (And similarly, when they get tests back, they are required to correct them too.)
For this to happen, I had to talk about this a lot at the beginning of the year. I reminded them constantly about correcting their homework. About dating their work religiously. About writing down the correct answers if they’re getting something wrong — and figuring out why they got something wrong.
And at the end of each unit, students file away all the homework and all the assessments in their binders. They start fresh with an empty folder.
Why would they do all this for me?
Because half of their homework grade is based on this. On binder checks. I sell it to them by letting them know there is one certainty in this course: it is totally ridiculous if they don’t get 100% on the binder checks — it’s me giving them free points, in essence. Just for being organized and checking their work. That’s all!
We scheduled 2 binder checks in the first quarter, and then we only have 1 at the end of each of the three remaining quarters. We wanted to do 2 in the first quarter, so students could learn from the first one. We assumed (pretty rightly) that some kids would just bomb the first one because they wouldn’t take it as seriously as they needed to.
What they look like
On announced binder check days, students come into the classroom with their binders, and see a note on the board saying to have only their binders on their desk… Nothing else, no writing utensils, no papers, nothing . When all their compatriots arrive and are set, I hand everyone a red pen. I also hand them the binder check which might look like this :
They are given 5-10 minutes to flip through their binders, and circle their work and answer for the problems asked for. That’s all. It doesn’t take very long at all, especially since their binders are organized chronologically.
I collect them, and we go on with our lesson.
How I Grade Them
Each time I collect them, I get a nice stack of binders that I store under my desk, like I had today:
I pick up a binder, and look for all the circled questions. If the student was neat, and had the correct answer originally, they get full credit for that problem (5 points). If the student messed up but had the corrections (and new correct work), they get full credit for that problem (5 points). However, if the student messes up and has a wrong answer, the student only earns 1 point (or none, if they aren’t neat). I go through the whole binder this way.
Clearly I care about students getting things right. And I love this binder check because it can do so much work for me. I don’t have the time to collect and grade homework everyday. I don’t want homework to be graded for correctness the day after a student learns new material. (They could go home and be totally lost!) However, I do want students to eventually have things right. To work on correcting what they don’t get. Be proactive about what they don’t know. Ask questions. Figure things out.
The stack of binders above looks daunting, right? But let me tell you, I can get through a stack of binders for my class in 2 hours. It surprises me how quickly grading those goes. Seriously!
How I Pick the Questions
It’s no secret here. I pick questions for the binder quiz that span a number of homework assignments, and require some deeper thought and written work. I usually try to pick questions that students get wrong, or asked about in class.
What I’ve Noticed?
My kids now check their odd answers in the back of the book, they are really attentive at the beginning of class checking their even answers (or their worksheet answers), they ask questions so they can make the corrections, and they are much, much, much, much more organized.
You can see the learning curve my kids had with this. On the first binder check, the average grade was in the 70s. On the second binder check, the average grade was in the mid 80s. (And the standard deviation went from 18 to 11.) Almost every student improved, some drastically. Which is all the more impressive because I graded more harshly on the second one because students knew exactly what to expect.
There are three major other benefits I see from these binders.First, I can collect the binders before parent teacher conferences, so I can show parents the totality of their child’s work.Second, when I write narrative comments on my students, I can use these as a reference to be more specific. Third, when it comes time for cumulative assessments (e.g. midterms, finals), my students will have all their tests organized in one place, to study from.
Overall, I see this initiative as a TOTAL SUCCESS.
P.S. Things to note:
There needs to be a place for students to write the “Date Assigned” on each homework assignment. If it is something from their textbook, they need to write a clear and consistent header. If it is a worksheet I create, I always make sure to put a “Date” section.
Everything handed out needs to be hold punched. You can’t expect students to use the binder if you don’t make it super easy for them to use.
 The reason for this is that I don’t want students using pencil to fix up answers to questions they didn’t correct. What they come to class with in their binder is what they get.
 For the 2 binder checks in the first quarter, there were about 8-10 things students needed to circle, including not only problems from homework, but also problems from assessments.