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. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past 13 years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. In her free time, she enjoys reading books about math education and following other teachers on Twitter.

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