Random Updates From the Front Line

0. A few students I taught in Algebra II last year came up to me this year and told me that they’re using my binder system in their math classes this year to stay organized. One wants to show me his binder to see how organized he is now. Organization was his Achilles Heel last year. Just hearing that was vindication enough. Because I’d guess about 1/2, eh maybe 2/3, of my Algebra II students last year came to me unorganized. They just had never been taught to correct and organize their work. I had hoped to introduce them to a skill that they might find helpful in the future. So hearing that caused my chest to puff up, my heart to swell. It may indeed have been a heart attack. But what a glorious way to go.

1. I suspected that I would experience cognitive dissonance, because I’m doing Standards Based Grading in Calculus, but not in Algebra II. That — indeed — has panned out. The one SBG-style change I’ve made in Algebra II is that I’m entering things in the gradebook by topic now for Algebra II (e.g. “Compound Inequalities” and “Absolute Value Equations”). At the very least, I can see very quickly in what areas each kid is successful, and similarly, where each kid needs to work.

But here’s the rub. I’m so transformed in the way I’m thinking about student learning, and what assessments mean, and what grades mean, that I am already frustrated that I don’t have a good response to the Algebra II student who comes to me upset about their test grade. Last year, I would have calmed the kid down, and had a talk about the causes of what might have gone wrong. Studying poorly? Not following things in class? Not enough sleep? Whatever. And then we would have made a plan for the next assessment. We were always looking together towards the future.

And that conversation is important. Because part of being a teacher, and highlighted by SBG, is that students need to be hyperaware of their own learning, and proactive in their approach to it.

However, when I’m having these conversations with students this year, I want to also say: “Oh, you’ve figured things out? Prove it. So what if you got a C on the assessment. Show me you know it, and I’ll have your grade reflect that.”

3.  One of my concerns before embarking on the SBG express (woot! woot!) is that I wouldn’t know how to grade on the SBG system. What a 4 is versus what a 3 is versus what a 1 is. But you know what? That’s actually not hard at all, with my rubric. Whenever I get stuck, I ask myself: “From what they’ve written, what level of understanding do they have?” That question settles it. I have a copy of the rubric posted at my desk, and there’s a poster of it hanging in my classroom. To reinforce the importance of the rubric, I photocopied it on the first assessment, so students could refer to it.

4. I’ve raised the bar in calculus. It used to be that on an assessment I would give a bunch of problems, to suss out a level of understanding. Like, I might ask students to find the vertical and horizontal asymptotes, the x- and y-intercepts, any holes, and the domain to the following three rational functions: f(x)=\frac{1}{(x-2)(x-3)}, f(x)=\frac{(x-2)(x+3)}{(x-2)(x+5)} and f(x)=\frac{(x-2)(x-3)^2(x-5)}{(x-2)(x+1)^2(x-1)}. Now I only give one question on the skill, but it tests all I need them to know. That would be the last and hardest rational function, in this case. And to get a 4, I demand perfection.

5. In calculus, I don’t feel any of that “guilt” when a student does poorly on an assessment [1]. You know that moment when grading a non-SBG test, and there’s a question worth 5 points, and you see that the student factored correctly but couldn’t do anything else… and you know if you were being honest with yourself that you shouldn’t give any points, but you think “oh, maybe I’ll give one point just because the student showed me he/she could factor.” You know the thought. Right? RIGHT?!? Well, I have those moments. (FYI: I always go with that is right, rather than what is in my heart.)

With SBG, all that moral teetering goes away. My heart and my mind are finally in sync. I give a student what they deserve and then say “You’re there, you need to be here. Let’s help you find a way to climb that mountain.”

6. Students have started reassessing. So far, not a lot, but I anticipate next week to have — oh, I don’t know — maybe 10 or so? (Reminder: I teach less than 30 kids in calculus.)

7. I tried groupwork & presentations  in Algebra II. It failed. Probably worth another post, if I feel like writing about it. Nothing really exciting. I tried to teach absolute value inequalities by having students muck around and come up with patterns and then generalize and come up with general procedures. I was impressed with the students’ abilities to get to where they did. But it was my organization of the groupwork, and my facilitation, and my rushing because of time pressure, that made it less efficacious than it should have been.

8. I got two really nice emails since school has started: one from a college counselor who said I wrote really great college recommendations, and one from the head of the Upper School who said I had really great course expectations for my students. It’s amazing how a few kind and genuine words can go a long way.

9. Three photography students are putting up an art instillation throughout the school. It’s an amazing idea. They are having faculty each write a short paragraph about why we teach. Then they take photographs of us and post them around the school with our blurb. I had my fashion shoot today, and I’m excited to see what results. If you are so curious, you can read my paragraph here:

Initially, I became a teacher because I loved mathematics so deeply that I wanted to share its beauty with others.. Since I started teaching, though, I’ve come to love something else. I relish the delicious challenge of getting someone who doesn’t know something to actually know something. The thought of changing someone’s view of the world… jut a little bit… therein lies the new thrill.

10. I have to be cautious about SBG. I love systems. I have to make sure that SBG doesn’t just become a system of test, reassess, test, reassess.  It’s not something that students should feel is mechanical. But a process that students go through to learn about themselves, as people and as learners.  And armed with that, they can be proactive and achieve anything. (Sappy, I know.) So here’s a reminder for myself: talk explicitly every couple weeks or so about what we’re doing in this class. It’s not a system. It’s not a system. It’s not a system. It’s a philosophy.

[1] That’s not to say that I don’t think about my teaching, and my teaching’s role (both positive and negative)  in my students’s learning. That’s a given. I’m talking about something else.



  1. I so agree with you on your thoughts about grading using SBG – I have actually found that my rubric makes it easier rather than harder. Actually, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the thoughts you shared on SBG. I am hoping to have time to blog this weekend about where my classes are at with it as well as where I’m at with SBG.

    Thanks for sharing, Sam!

  2. Sam,

    Thanks SO MUCH for this post!! I need to reassess my assessments. So many questions cover more than one concept. I need to remember this, especially for the pre-assessments! It will save me so much class time and (even better) grading time later. LOVE YOU!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s