The Clock, Counting Down

It’s Monday night and the first day of classes is Wednesday. I am teaching only two preps this year — the first time since I started teaching! I have a couple Algebra II classes and a couple Calculus classes. Also for the first time ever, I’m in a single classroom for all of my classes. It’s not a pretty classroom, really, and it is one of two rooms in the entire school with chalkboards (ugh! chalk!), but it’s mine! And I share it with another math teacher. So go me.

The past few days have gotten me to school, doing lots of logistical things. Like making minor revisions to my course expectations (here they are from two years ago, and not too much has changed) and my calculus SBG rubric (a 5-point scale, now, taken almost wholesale from @cheesemonkeysf), and photocopying them.

I made a few small changes to how I’m grading in calculus: now 80% of a student’s grade will be their SBG score, and 20% will be projects/problem sets/groupwork. Basically it’s an “other” category which will involve synthesis, problem solving, and less-routine-thinking. Although 20% might not seem like too much, I don’t have all these things lined up (I do plan on doing a lot of Bowman’s activities tho!), and I didn’t want to overwhelm myself this year by having to create all this new stuff. After much deliberation I decided not to grade homework, even though students last year clamored for it in their evaluations.

In Algebra II, the grading will be pretty much the same as in previous years, except we are integrating problem sets into the mix. So we are having 70% formal assessments, 10% binder checks, 10% home enjoyment (“homework”), and 10% problem sets. More about the problem sets as they develop, but I think they’re going to be heavily related to the habits of mind work that the Park School of Baltimore engages in. I honestly think that when their curriculum is finally published (I’ve gotten to see a bunch of it), it’s going to change how so many of us teach.

I figure I’d share a few concrete things I plan on doing throughout the year, with my emphasis on formative feedback, growth mindset, and habits of mind.

(1) To gauge where students are at, I created these pretty cards which I will use to get feedback and how kids are feeling about the material. So after maybe I have them do a sample problem, or do a think-pair-share, I’ll have ’em throw up a card to lemme know where they’re at — and from that I’ll know whether to move on, whether to switch partners for the remainder of the class (pairing someone who gets it with someone who doesn’t), or something else.

(2) But it would be crazy to have these cards, and not make them even more useful.

So these are the backs of the same cards. And so I can throw up a multiple choice question on the board, and have kids hold up their answers. Or anything that involves choices. If you’re going to do this, just know you shouldn’t write As on the backs of all the “totes get it” and Bs on the backs of all the “almost there” etc., because you don’t want anyone influenced by what other’s have up.

And yes, these were partially inspired by the fantastical Kate Nowak, and I’m really excited about them.

(3) @mythagon has an amazing way to get kids to start talking at the start of class: what’s the question? I can see it being really fun, get kids talking, and amazing for activating prior knowledge. I’m so doing this.

(4) Kate Nowak trying to instigate fights in her classroom by using good questions. I am going to try to instigate fights! FIIIIIIGGGGHHTTT!

(5) I have miniwhiteboards, but I’ve never really used them except occasionally and poorly in my seventh grade class in my first year of teaching. I want to use them, but want your advice on things that work. I was going to have kids do “check yo’self before you wreck yo’self” questions (math questions directly related to something we covered in class, right after we cover it in class) on them — and hold them up and I can walk around and see where we’re at. But there’s gotta be more and better uses.

(6) I designed my planner (as I do every year) (and yes it’s beautiful and coveted by many)… and this year because of my emphasis on formative feedback, I made a small checkbox at the bottom which will help me see if at least once a week I either gave kids feedback (non-graded), or if I got (non-graded) feedback from my kids to help see where we go next.

(7) I hope to use exit slips this year at least once a week, either to check my kids’ understanding of the material we’ve been learning or to check in on my teaching. One idea I had was to have a coordinate plane, where the x-axis goes from booooring to engaging and the y-axis goes from no idea what’s going on to this is all coming up roses, and having kids mark down where they are.

(8) I historically tend not to do a lot of group work. Mainly partner work. This year I’m going to try to get more voices into the mix, and have students do things in 3s and 4s occasionally. But kids don’t know how to work in groups, and what it means to be working together effectively. And that’s because they’re not really taught. Which is why I love the idea of participation quizzes.

(9) I hope to put up a short agenda and a goal or two for the day, on the board, everyday. Where we go and what we do shouldn’t be a mystery. I always think it should — we’re unfurling mathematics, and in the unfurling we get the beauty — but that’s not how someone learning the material thinks or how they can organize information. They want a destination and to know how we’re getting there. I get that. When I’m in a class, I want that. I only want things unfurling in very special cases.

That’s about all I got for ya now. More to come as the year gets underway.



  1. I used “What’s the Question” on the first day of classes with my students as a way to get them talking with their “partner” (I have tables that seat 2) right off the bat, before we even did introductions. I was so glad I did it – everyone was eager to share their ideas, and my students surprised me at some of the things they were able to come up with.

    (For example, one of the “answers” I put up was sqrt(2). I was expecting to get things like hypotenuse length of 45-45-90 triangle if legs are 1, etc… but had a kid offer up 4^(1/4)… YEAH KID! So awesome! Also this gave me a chance to do storytime about Pythagoras and Hippasus and mathematical urban legends, which is always fun…)

    Thanks, @mythagon for an awesome/quick activity I will definitely be using again. My plan is to use it at least as often as I mix up students’ seats (every 2-3 weeks) as a way for them to break the ice with a new seat-mate.

  2. If you hate chalk and your school allows it, I recommend buying shower board at lowes/home depot and gluing it to the chalk board. Instant white board and they are about $14 for a 4’x8 board

    1. Sadly, can’t. Another teacher in the room likes it. I think we requested (as a dept) that the board get replaced this summer, but I think there was too much construction so there wasn’t time to do it. It’s okay, I have one whiteboard and a smartboard and miniwhiteboards, and who knows, maybe I’ll find working with chalk romantic, like ye olde days of yore.

  3. Awesome post!! I love the cards…I may try and set it up to use them as well.
    I use exit slips as well and created/found a template that I love that has them tell me their involvement in that day’s class as well as their comfort level on the material.

    Whiteboards…I have them too and haven’t really used them much. I have forced myself to use them this year and have the kids pick them up as they walk into class. They grab a marker and a small piece of fleece (works as a great eraser that you can wash when it needs to be refreshed). IT saves paper and I have found they tend to work on the problem more knowing they can erase.

    I also like your planner…care to share the file? I created one years ago, but stopped using it because I couldn’t make it as user friendly as yours…nice job!

  4. This is a great post. I really love to instigate fights to in my classroom and the discussion that ensues. I’m always proud of when my students are able to verbalize their thoughts. Sometimes lessons don’t need all the flashy presentations and a simple question will do. I also really like the “what’s the question” idea and am looking foward to trying to incorporate it into my lessons.

  5. I teach jr high math. One way I use mini whiteboards for algebra 1 is a problem relay! One child starts the problem, but only completes one step ( 30 seconds), then passes the board to the next kid in the line. The last person in the line gets the longest amount of time to check the team’s work. Then the lines rotate so everyone has a chance to be the starter and the “anchor” :-). Thank you for a great post!

  6. Instead of front and back of the card, try using top and bottom (perhaps inverted on the bottom, so that students can rotate the card). That way the backs can remain blank and not provide cues to people behind them. Kids will quickly learn the mapping of the fronts and backs for the kids in front of them, unless you scramble the cards every day.

    1. I think I wrote this – but each set of 4 is random in terms of what’s on front and what’s on back. and I’ll be handing them out instead of keeping them on the desks (there’s just no good place for them) so each person will not get the same set each time.

      1. I saw the back-front randomization, but not the daily pass-out randomization. It looked like there was a book pocket for holding the cards, so I assumed that they were either attached to the desks or in the students’ notebooks. If they are randomized every day, students will be less likely to guess and retain the mappings.

  7. The reason kids don’t work together effectively in math classes is that there are essentially no tasks that are more efficient for a group than for the best student in the group to do alone. If the most efficient way to do the work is to have the smartest student do it and the rest gossip, then there is no incentive to learn to work as a group.

    Forcing group work on problems that are not amenable to group work results in students learning to hate group work and do it very badly. Getting them to unlearn this when group work is really needed adds an extra burden on their future teachers and employers.

    Please don’t force fake group work—you’re doing no one any favors that way.

    1. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree with your view of groupwork. I just don’t see the kids work in the pattern that you note, and I know in previous years that my kids have learned (and have said they’ve learned) via groupwork. But I know what you’re talking about because I used to be that kid who wouldn’t want to collaborate. So I never did much groupwork in my first year of teaching. I’m slowly realizing my own experiences are not exactly normal or indicative, at least at my school.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s