Nominations, Part I

At TMC this past summer, Kathryn Belmonte introduced an idea about sharing student work in the classroom. Something she termed “NOMINATIONS!” I loved the idea — and wanted to use it when kids do their explore-math project. But I saw it was so flexible, and pretty early on, the time was right to test it out. So I modified it slightly and this post is about that…

In all of my precalculus classes (I teach two standard sections and one advanced section), my kids are being asked to do tons of writing. A few who have had me before in geometry are used to this, but most are not. And honestly: getting down what mathematical writing is, and how to express ideas clearly, is hard.

So what do I do? I throw them into the deep end.

On day two of class, I ask them to write an answer to a problem for a seventh grader to understand. On the third day of class, they come in, and are given the name of the student who comes after them alphabetically (and the last person is given the name of the first person alphabetically). Then they read these instructions:

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Everyone moves to the desk of the name they were given. Then I project on the board:

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And I give students to read through a different student’s solution. They have to make sense of it — pretending to be new to the problem. And then they critique it. Eventually, probably after 3-5 minutes, I left them return to their seats. They read over the comments. I talk about why the feedback is important. And how specific feedback is useful (so “good explanation” is less useful than “your explanation of how the groups were made was easy for me to follow”). And then we continue on with class.

Here are examples of some post-its (front of a few, then back of a few):

To follow up: that night for nightly work, I gave students a writing problem — a simple probability problem. My hope was that this would help them pay attention to their explanations. I collected the problem and read through the writeups.

They weren’t so hot. Most of them didn’t talk about why and some didn’t have any diagrams or visuals to show what was happening with the problem. So I marked them up with my comments. (They got full credit for doing it.) The next day I handed them back and shared my thoughts. I also shared a copy of a solid writeup — one that I had created — along with four or five different possible visuals they could have used. (I realized –after talking with Mattie Baker about this — that I couldn’t really get my kids from point A to point B unless they saw what point B looked like, and what my expectations were.)

At this point, I wanted to figure out if they were taking anything away from all of this. So I created a page with three questions. A formative assessment for me to see what my kids understand and what they don’t about the content. But I also asked them to take all the feedback they’ve gotten about writing and explanations, and explain the heck out of these problems. Here’s an example of one of the problems (one I’m particularly proud of):

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I collected them today. I haven’t looked through them carefully yet, but from a cursory glance, I saw some thoughtful and extensive writeups. And even from this cursory glance, I can see that these two activities — plus all the conversations we’re having about explaining our thinking in class — have already made an impact.

Yes, they’ve gotten some ideas of what a good writeup looks like. They know diagrams can be helpful. They know words to explain diagrams are important. They know the answer to why is what I’m constantly looking for when reading the explanations.

But more important to me is the implicit message I’m trying to send about my values in the classroom. I think a lot about implicit messaging to communicate my values, especially at the start of the year. And I am confident my kids know with certainty that I value all of us articulating our thinking as best as we can, both when speaking but also when doing written explanations.

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