Week X: Let’s Recap

It’s Spring Break, I’ve made it this far. Now for the unfortunately-large task of figuring out which journal responses I’ve yet to catch up on … you know this whole blogging idea seemed great a few weeks ago …

Going to make a big post of things I missed blogging about earlier, write until it looks awfully large, then start another one and schedule them to post a bit later.

“Mindful notes”

One thing we discussed in class is the really, really abysmal evidence of the usefulness of teacher-dictated notes. Peter’s phrase here is to replace them with “mindful notes”, which is fairly loosely defined (I think) as “notes based on student thinking instead of teacher thinking”.

I’ve enjoyed having students write their own notes and it’s seemed somewhat successful in the moment, but two weeks later and students were still fairly unlikely to be able to find them, review from them, etc. I wrapped up one major unit with my Math 10 class by giving them a slightly more structured page with areas to fill in on each topic covered – just a heading, nothing more, similar to an example Peter showed in class. I gave them time to fill it in but then reviewed it with them afterwards to answer questions. This seemed to be a reasonable balance between offering some support and allowing/encouraging student thinking, and gave them a better big-picture view of what they’d learned (or not-quite-learned!) over the last weeks.

In the follow-up unit on Linear Systems, I gave them the outline sheet partway through the unit when I realized this would be a tough one for me to frame for open-question learning once we got to the algebraic solutions stuff. Everything up to then wasn’t too bad, but framing the learning of algebraic substitution as a puzzle / challenge is a tough puzzle-design problem. Anyway long story short, I don’t think I’ve settled on a “give them the notes outline sheet ahead of time or at the end” routine, it might vary based on the unit.

On managing flow and self-managing stress

Flow is a wonderful thing, and the Thinking Classroom strategies are good at enabling it. But whiteboards, open problems and random groups aren’t going to make flow happen if you just set the students to a task and sit down to watch. As student groups work on a problem, you need to circulate around, engage with them, prompt and hint where they’re stuck, drop them an extension question when they reach a solution. This is how you maintain flow – or in other words, how you help them keep thinking.

Maintaining flow is great when you’ve got a good problem to work on. It’s more challenging when you’re working on curriculum-drawn problems and haven’t mastered crafting them into more ‘open’ problems. Sometimes simply giving students more of the same will do as an extension, but if it doesn’t come with a bit of extra challenge it can drop students down into the boredom zone. Sometimes hinting will pull students out of frustration, but if a problem doesn’t have a good, accessible beginning you might find yourself trying to recover students who’ve already dropped out of play due to frustration.

I’ve also noticed that I need to work this in with self-management of my own stress levels. Sometimes mid-problem I need to be able to take a minute to sit down and let them do their thing and do that aware-but-relaxing-a-bit thing that lets you not feel like you’re going to burn out on being 100% “on” all the time. When you’re doing notes-then-do-these-twenty-questions this kind of happens automatically; when you’re trying to maintain flow for an hour straight, you might need to be more conscious of it.

Some classroom journal prompts I missed

• Assuming you were starting a new year how would you start the year? What are you going to do in the first week or two to build a thinking classroom culture? Be specific.

So far I think the classroom activity would start out a lot like what I did this semester: a week or so of good “open problems” to make it relatively easy to build up a classroom culture of group work, sharing ideas, and an expectation of being challenged and being successful in rising to the challenge.

Things I would do a bit differently would be mostly week two: give a clearer outline of curricular content structure that we’ll be covering, start assessments earlier. Nothing massive or scary, but start easing them into different modes of assessment: narrative recaps of problem solving, rough/good from whiteboard work, short quizzes, self-assessed rubrics on classroom cultural values.

• “Comment on your perception of your students’ abilities. Are some of them surprising you (for the good or the bad)?”

I don’t feel like I’ve been drastically surprised overall, but I have had to catch myself from making a few assumptions about students who seem to be ‘tuning out’. Sometimes those students are capable but holding back until I give them the opportunity – or make it clear that I value their thinking.