My Year in Math: What Worked, What Didn’t

A MiddleWeb Blog

Down south where I live, the school year ended in late May. I usually give myself a few weeks before I try to reflect on the previous school year. Taking a little time gives me a chance to gain some perspective.

By the last day of school, often the only things I can remember are the things I did wrong, and just focusing on the negative is not very productive.

So to help me reflect on the positive as well as the negative, I am going to assess myself the way I sometimes formatively assess my students — Got It, Almost Got It, and Not Yet.

“Got It”

I worked hard this year to encourage my students to “stretch themselves” and try things that they might not think they could do. I didn’t want them to give up right away if something was hard. I think in this area I was successful.

On the end of the year survey I give my students, almost 100% responded that they were held to a high standard and could not get by without working in class.

Even though I wanted my students to see the value in setting high standards for themselves, I knew I needed to provide the supports they required to be successful. I think this is another area where I “Got It.”  I tried several new things this year to help support my students. One such support was allowing students to take “group tests.”  Although this isn’t a perfect solution, it did help lessen student anxiety and provided peer support.

For certain tests I also allowed students 5 minutes to talk with other students before they took their test. This actually worked even better than I thought it would. It was interesting to hear what they talked about. I found it was mostly related to vocabulary and making sure they understood what the instructions meant. I also allowed retakes in certain instances.

“Almost Got It”

I’m always trying to develop good relationships with my students. I work on relationships year after year because I know it’s so important, and I also am aware that this is an area where I need to improve. This year I fall into the “Almost Got It” category in regard to cultivating student relationships. I did have success with many of my students.

I tried several strategies. I called home to as many students as I could before school started. I tried to show an interest in what they were interested in. For example, several of my students love to read, and I do too. I used this as an opportunity to get to know them better. We found that we shared a love of YA books, so I brought my personal stash from home and lent them to students who were interested. It was a nice way to get to know students outside of a “math” context.

Unfortunately, there were a few students I just couldn’t reach (hence the “almost got it”). Of course, these are the students that I can’t stop thinking about it. Over the summer I will need to reflect and think more deeply about what I can do to improve next year. I have all the data from my end of year survey that I can dig into to see what patterns emerge (I’ll share some of that in a future post). I hope that will give me the insight I need to improve in this area.

 “Not Yet”

If there is one area that I really missed the mark, it is in cooperative learning groups.  I just did not do well in this area.  These are the main areas I struggled with:

  • Random grouping – I started the year using random grouping, but by the end of the year I had abandoned this because I was so pushed for time.
  • Choosing good, rigorous tasks – I ended up using tasks and activities that I had used before, even though they weren’t the best tasks for keeping students engaged and for helping them cement their understanding.
  • Holding all students accountable – The procedures I had in place were not sufficient to make sure that all students were working and contributing.

Reading the book Necessary Conditions (I wrote about it here) helped me self-diagnose the weaknesses I mentioned above (for which I am grateful) and also helped me find some solutions. I plan to reread the whole book this summer, paying special attention to the sections dealing with cooperative learning.

I’ve also ordered a highly regarded book recommended by Sarah Carter @mathequalslove entitled Designing Groupwork by Elizabeth G. Cohen and Rachel A. Lotan. I am eager to learn some new ideas from this book, and will write about it when school starts back next fall.
Final Thoughts

All in all, I feel better at the end of this school year than I have in the past. I have always found reflection to be a little tricky. It usually turns into a nonstop self-bashing session. So I think applying the “got it,” “almost got it,” “not yet” structure that I use for my students has been a help.

While there is always room for improvement, there were some things that I did rightSome things were almost right, but just need a little tweaking. Although cooperative learning was an area of weakness, I’m not going to give up: I have a plan to improve.

Summer Reading Plans

I have two books I plan to read this summer (mentioned above). But I can always read more; please share what books you plan to read over the summer break!

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (@michel1erussel1) is a math teacher at Florence (AL) High School, where she serves as the Academic Leader of the math department. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past dozen years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. She is currently involved in the Laying the Foundations initiative and the Mathematics Design Collaborative. In her free time, she enjoys reading blogs and tweets from other math teachers.

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