Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Discouraged and Scared

Maybe it was a mistake to ask the students to help me figure out the conversion from standards based grading to a percentage and letter grade. 

Yesterday, when I introduced the grading policy, there was a thoughtfulness to their reaction. One or two said they liked it. The rest seemed open to it. 

Today, as we discussed what sorts of marks they thought a person should have to earn an A, an A-, etc., they had more and more "what if" scenarios, which led to more and more complicated acceptable conversion rules. I'm not really surprised by that, but I am pretty discouraged by how readily they accepted the thought that you aren't going to be able to be proficient in every skill in a math class. That there's at least always one idea that you can't get no matter how hard you work. But as long as you work pretty hard at it, your teacher should still give you an A, because you know everything else.

There was a bit of an outcry when I admitted that my original inclination was that if you have a beginning score on any skill, you can't get any higher than a C. 

(Here's the criteria for "beginning" again:

  • Demonstrating little to no understanding of the concept.
  • Using inappropriate strategies to solve problems
  • Using inappropriate or very little appropriate mathematical terminology or notation.
  • There is no mathematical reasoning
  • Mathematical claims or statements are not justified.

I'm willing to allow for a "beginning" mark up to a B-. I just don't see how I can say you've earned a B or an A if you there's a concept that you have essentially NO understanding of.)

The atmosphere of the room just felt like it was getting darker and darker. A few times my responses to the "what if" questions actually reassured the girl asking, but it wasn't often. 

It was discouraging to watch them push so much against something I've worked so hard on because they're still so focused on the end grade. I realize I opened this can of worms by starting a conversation specifically about the end grade, but I wanted them to have input on it, because I know they have strong ideas about "fair and right". I just didn't realize they were so different from mine! (At least when it comes to grades...)

I do understand where they're coming from. They don't really have any idea what a "developing" response would look like. Or an "advanced" response. In fact, they asked if I could provide some examples of student work that would fall into the different categories.  They're scared that it's going to be next to impossible to earn an "advanced" mark. They're scared that there will be so much to have memorized at all times. They want to know that this grading system will give them an A- if the traditional grading system would have given them an A-. 

I'm hoping once we get into the routine they'll be reassured - that experience with the process will make more sense of it all. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"How it works..."

I'm taking part in a new blogger initiation. Some really great people (<--list of names at bottom) are putting it on for 140+ people. Are they not awesome?!

Anyway, each week for a month they send us newbies some prompts we can use to write a post. Here's what I picked for this week:

5) Here’s a comic. Respond.:

"How It Works"

How could I resist this?!* I have a classroom of girls who don't suck at math.

How could I resist asking THEM to respond?!

Here're some highlights:

"Just because one girl does something wrong doesn't make all girls bad at math. Some girls are better at math than men. This is inaccurate because boys think they are better at everything and that makes boys stupid." 

"If the teacher is on the left and a student is on the right, this is unfair to both children, whether the kid was a male or female. :p"

"One person could be bad at something, but that doesn't mean that everyone like them is bad at it. Boys often think that they are better at EVERYTHING, but in reality, they're not."


"I'm so mad. That was so sexist we are all wonderful at math and we are females. Look at us, we are all in calculus class. This is unacceptable. >:0"

"This comic shows how people generalize about all women or girls instead of treating each one as an individual, in this case about their abilities in math. When the boy was wrong, it was just about him, not men in general.
Ignorant people!"

And my favorite response...

*My response: It's a centuries-old attitude... 

"She proved to the world that even a woman can accomplish something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of the sciences and for that reason would well have deserved an honorary degree." - Carl Friedrich Gauss, about Sophie Germain [Emphasis mine]

Someday, we'll grow out of it. Norms change, but not overnight.

Also? This.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Experimentation, Part 2

I have another experiment with my calculus courses this fall. I've never been happy with continuity following direct substitution. It feels too much like being asked if your feet will get wet after you just put on wellies. The only functions you can (immediately) use direct substitution on are continuous functions! 

I want my limits and continuity unit to grow out of a review unit on functions and graphs. I want my students to look again at polynomials, rational functions, holes and asymptotes, and start putting together some observations about when there's a hole (or an asymptote) and when there isn't. I want them to talk about when we might "assume" a function to have a certain value, and when it would be wrong to have that "assumption". (We all know what happens when you assume... well, at least part of the time.)

At some point we'll switch our language from "assumption" to "limit". We'll make tables and look at graphs, and compare the actual function values to the limit values. And then we start categorizing, conjecturing and discussing, and viola! Continuity!

And from continuity? From that comes "Mrs. Hamilton, if we know this function is continuous (see? Look at the graph!), can't we just say that the limit of f(x) as x approaches a is whatever f(a) is?"

I can dream, right?

Now I just have to figure out how to work/weave in the properties of limits and continuity and more formal proof work.

Monday, August 20, 2012


I’m switching to standards based grading.

I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with my traditional grading system. I can't quickly tell by looking at my grade book what a particular student is struggling with. I mean, I can narrow it down to 3 or 4 possible topics, but that's it. I can't even tell if it was really a problem with the calculus ideas, or if it was due to algebra errors! I give lots of feedback on the what I return to students, but there isn't a good way to concisely incorporate that into my grade book. 

Then there's getting students to actually read the feedback I give them, and do something with it. Tests, quizzes, etc. get shoved in a folder, a locker, a laptop bag, who-knows-where and that was that. It took asking them to make corrections (entirely redoing each problem) for half points back on correct work for them to start reading what I wrote and asking me what I meant. And we all know why they did it - for the half-points they could earn. In the end, for my students (and most parents), it was about the final grade, NOT the fascinating, mysterious, totally awesome math (or physics) we'd been studying. 

While I was getting frustrated, I started working on a personal learning network, collecting blogs in an aggregator - especially blogs by other calculus and physics teachers. And the more I read about SBG, the more it felt like something I should do.

So now I'm meeting with my director later this week to go through the formal write-up of my policy (posted when it's done - it's mostly bullet points, at the moment.). She sounded excited about it. I'm looking forward to explaining my reasoning, and getting her advice on any possible improvements and phrasing. And if she knows exactly what my policy says, she can help correct any misunderstandings parents or students might come to her with. 

Next Monday, I'll introduce the policy to the girls. I like the idea of starting with a discussion of what grades mean and what they're for. I also want to get their opinions on what an A in the course would mean in terms of the values and number of scores earned. (I'm planning on a conjunctive grading scale - so something like "To get an 80% (B-), the lowest score you can have is 2, and you have to have at least a 3 on at least 75% of the standards.") I have a pretty good idea of what I want the final grading scale to look like, but they're more likely to buy in if their ideas are incorporated. And who knows - they might actually be tougher than I would be. That's what happened when we asked for student input on the academic integrity policy!

Parents will get to see the policy (sans the part about converting to a letter grade for the report card) when their daughters bring it home next week. The week after, we'll get a chance to sit down at meet the teacher night and discuss it. I think the biggest resistance to the change will be because it's a change. 

That's the roll-out plan... now to get the details written out coherently so I have something to roll out!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Introductions are in order

Hooray! My first post to this blog! (And as I type that, I have to think, "Holy crap, what am I doing?! I don't need one more thing to do this year!" But, really, this thing? Yes, I need this.)

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Katrina Hamilton, and I am a nerd/geek. (I'm working on the social ineptitude thing...) I love Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, McCaffery, Lackey, etc. I even have my ham radio license (N8XUG), though I don't really use it any more. College-wise, I went to Michigan Tech for my BS in math, a minor in German, a teaching minor in physics and my teaching certificate. Now I'm working on my MAED through Michigan State - math & science and technology concentrations. Nerd cred established, hey?

I currently teach at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Specifically, in the all-girl upper school. I probably have one of the cushiest teaching jobs ever. I teach the classes I really want (physics and calculus), my classes are made up of anywhere from 3-15 juniors or seniors (all girls!), we have a 1-to-1 tablet PC program and fantastic tech support, supportive parents (usually), and a high number of motivated students. Don't get me wrong, though. I still whine and complain - I just feel guilty about it, because I know I could be grading 150 papers instead of just 36.

Also, I use parentheses. A lot.