And So It Begins…

The year in full swing, and it feels like I’ve been teaching for days upon days, even though it has only been two days, so I suppose I should have said “day upon day.” It shocks me (BZZZ!) that a person can go from lazing about, jaunting off for coffee, picking up a book and reading it through in a day, watching an entire season of real housewives of (insertanycityhereandit’sprollytrueforme), going to the restroom whenever you please… to being trapped in a building (no AC!) with a hierarchy, having to answer to a lot of someone elses, having inhaled and not having the opportunity to exhale until hours later. And then you remember: oh yeah, I have to plan for the next day.

So it’s like I’ve never left. And I love it. There are things I cringe at, but heck if seeing my kids and my colleague friends, and getting to think about how I can do what I do but less sucky: it’s thrilling. I suspect this glow will be gone in a week, so don’t worry: my normal self will return soon enough.

Glow Self:

I just wanted to talk about the first two days of Algebra II. I usually start out the year with a honest but (upon reflection when I looked at it a few days ago) boring exhortation about mathematics and why it’s useful, beautiful, interesting. Then I talk a bit about the course expectations. And then we jump straight into talking about sets. I did it this way because I wanted to dive right in and show them what I valued: doing math. This wasn’t going to be a class where we get derailed with non-math things.

Well, I was unsatisfied with that, because it was boring. A boring set of slides with me speaking (albeit with a wildly inflecting voice, which can make anything less boring), followed by possibly the most boring topic: union and intersection of sets. It also was me lecturing about sets.

This year I vowed to take risks in how I teach. Less lecturing. Less partner work. More group work. More deep thinking and problem solving. And since I made a post saying some of the things I wanted to try, I decided to scrap everything and start anew.

I looked through the Park School of Baltimore’s curriculum and found a perfect thing to transition us into sets: mathematical symbols.

So on the first day, I sat kids down in their seats, I explained how they were to move their chairs to get in their groups. I asked them how they were feeling, I told them my goal was to make them feel good about math. Then, suddenly, I asked students to get in their groups. I projected the first page of the Park School packet that I photocopied. We did one part of one problem together (I had kids read the problem aloud and work in their groups to come up with the answer). Then I set them free, after handing out the packet, with only the following instructions.

Then they started (some faster than others) and I went to the following SmartBoard page [update: here if you want to download it]…

… and started the participation quiz (what I’m calling “groupwork feedback”). [To understand what comes next, you have to read the link above.] I didn’t explain anything. I just typed and dragged and typed and typed and walked around. Kids would ask me questions, and I would just shrug. They stopped asking me questions and started relying on each other and their brains. I didn’t stop groups which were off task. One group of four broke up into two groups of two, and then rejoined. I just kept on filling in the grid, not talking about it.

Honestly, the idea that I would have to be filling in this grid scared me. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. I didn’t know if I would have the heart to put “off task” if a group were off task. I didn’t know if I could keep up, or if I could hear the kids talking, or keep track of everything. But it was easier than I thought. Students worked for about 30 minutes. I think that’s the right amount of time, because I wouldn’t have gotten a critical mass of feedback if they had worked any less.

Then I stopped them. What I noticed after doing it in two classes is that engaging in this type of observations of groups is super interesting and helpful for me. I had a good sense of which groups knew how to do groupwork already and which groups didn’t. I heard some great conversations, really great conversations, about some rich problems (“does it mean that the only way to get an odd number is with …”). I saw group dynamics at work (especially the difficulties that present themselves with groups of 4). I also saw that one of my two classes already has a good handle on how to work in groups, and the other is going to need some time and coaching.

We spent 12 minutes talking about the results. We talked about if “I don’t know” is a good or bad thing to have on that chart (it depends…) and finally I asked groups to look at this thing that I whipped up (not great, but I needed something) and to classify themselves, and to think of some ways they could improve and think of some things they did well. And we went around and had each group explain.

Although terrifying, I’m glad I did it on the first day. It was scary to try something new (new problems! groupwork feedback!). I feel confident that I showed my kids what I hope to value in the classroom this year. Communication. True thinking. Independence. Collaboration in the learning process. (I don’t see the last two things as contradictory.)

That was the first day. Today (the second day) I saw only one of my classes. And what I did in it didn’t unfold nearly as well, in my opinion. I wanted kids to present their solutions. The night before I had them do a few more problems on their own, so I gave groups 8 minutes at the start of class to talk through their work, telling ’em that they were going to be asked to explain.

Then I had individual students come up and explain their work for some of the problems (after a short discussion on how it’s great to not get something and to have misconceptions / confusions, because that’s where we learn, and a discussion on how to be a good audience for the explainers).

They put their work up under the document projector. And talked. But what I learned is: I need to work on having students be effective presenters. And how to encourage the audience engage with the presenters more. And how to balance me intervening versus letting the student go on. (It’s hard for me to let go of the “explain” part of class.) So now I know I have to work on this. (Luckily I was meeting with my teacher friend mentor for lunch, who does a lot of modeling work in her classroom, and she had a lot of good things to suggest. )

So there we are. I’m trying to be very intentional (thanks @bowmanimal for the word) in how I start the year. I also printed out “exit slips” for my classes tomorrow because my goal is to get formative feedback at least once a week in each class. And I tried to do “What’s the Question?” (known in my class as “Que es la Pregunta?”) in Calculus to activate prior knowledge on rational functions. However it kinda totally fell flat. It did what it should have, but it wasn’t as enjoyable/fun as I hoped. I think I might need to rethink how I set it up.

And there you are. Some words on the first couple days of school.



  1. Sam, I can see why you were so excited when you heard of this process during the summer. It is brilliant. Thank you for sharing an opening day activity that is more useful than lecture or review sheets.

  2. Hi Sam,

    Long time follower, first time responder. Thanks for all the ideas and thoughts you have shared. In my Algebra 2/Trig classes I started something new – put up a problem, invited students to discuss and share without input from me. Getting them to discuss was the first challenge, many just sat and waited for me to do it, I didn’t. In one class it worked – after reminding them they could go to the board, they could get it started but didn’t have to finish, that is was okay to fail, etc. someone finally got up and explained the right answer! Others began to ask questions and small group discussions started. After a bit some were still confused, so I asked that another student go up and re-explain what the first did. It worked awesomely and after 15 minutes of struggling everyone understood! My other class the activity bombed and we never went over that specific problem. Some got it, some didn’t but I stuck to my resolve and I knew by the end of the lesson they all would eventually get it. I have another chance on Monday with my last section (no school today due to flooding). It is a work in progress.

    1. Interesting idea! At first I was like “whoa, so early in the year to do that…” and thinking how it would probably flop if I did it. But then I realized: early in the year is the time to do that sort of thing. You show them what you expect, what you value. And it’s going to be a hard transition, but doing it AFTER you do something else for half the year would be waaaay harder. And this way you’ll reap the rewards if you can get it to work consistently.

      I’d love to hear — if you can tease it out — what conditions that you set up that you think made it successful in one class or another? Or if it is the kids? And how you did it again with the class that bombed.

      Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds more than exciting, and I love the fact that you’re taking risks in your teaching. I’m trying to do that this year, even though it’s really scary for me.

  3. Hi Sam,

    Thanks so much for sharing your participation quiz. I love it! I’m going to have to adapt the wording a bit for my 6th graders but I certainly am going to have to start it up next week!

    Thanks again!

  4. I see more than one packet on that linked page. Which one were you using?

    I started out the semester trying to use what I’d learned about Complex Instruction, but I haven’t followed through much. I do have them working in groups of 4 on challenging problems once in a while. And I do compliment students who are helping their group with good questions, but I haven’t criticized less helpful communication (except in one group that was clearly off-task). One problem is that I have trouble hearing when they’re all talking. Also, I don’t know how much differently I need to treat college students (as the CI model and most of the bloggers I read are from high school level). (Will they feel disrespected if I comment too much on their behaviors?)

    1. I used the “Defining New Symbols” one… There are some great conversations to had (we had nice convos on counterexamples and what constitutes a proof — even though they were shorter than I’d have liked).

  5. I totally had a nice realization while reading your blog post. I struggled a lot with having students present their problem solving process, and I thought I had modeled it for them at the beginning of the year, but I really hadn’t. I think the way to get them to become effective presenters is to watch one group’s process from start to finish. Maybe with a video camera, maybe just sitting down with them, and you (the expert presenter) present their process. While you’re presenting, the students should be thinking about what’s useful about your presentation, and what’s missing. That can create the framework for an effective presentation of work to the class.

    Normally I would toss this together and try it out in my own classroom, but I’m on a hiatus from teaching. So If you try this, PLEASE blog about it!

    And excellent use of the participation quiz! I can see how having this digital can make it much easier to keep up the record.

  6. Thanks Sam — I was wrestling with a lesson plan when this solution was airdropped into my feed-reader. Thanks for presenting it so clearly — I was able to use it the next morning almost unchanged (I think your 4-point scale is pretty darn good) and it was a clear win — I’ve seen a lasting improvement in quality of group conversation. More details when I have a minute to write.

    1. CLEAR WIN! I love that this worked for you. The 4 point scale was okay for me too… one student asked “what’s the difference between eh communication and okay communication” and I talked a bit about it clarifying it. (I didn’t have time to have a class discussion.)

  7. Great post! Thank you also for the smartboard file. Question (I may have missed it somewhere), how big are your groups? I have classes of 33 and would need to make more than four groups to be effective.

    1. Yeah, I teach at a small independent school, so I only have 3 or 4 per group. But I wonder if it could be adapted to larger classes. Like some periods you take notes on only certain groups? But I don’t know… You’re right – if you have 10 groups, I wonder how much good data you could get? Even if your board doesn’t fill up, though, I bet it could be good just for the discussion afterwards.

  8. Sam, Perfect timing! I just had a disastrous group activity that left me asking, “How can I teach my students to do a better job working in groups?” You answered my question, and I can’t wait to try this soon. Thank you! Amy Gruen

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