Resolving Dissonance

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Motivating Students

One of the teachers in my school has her classes compete against each other.  they get points for negative behavior and the class with the fewest points at the end of the term gets a class party.

I like the idea of classes competing but there were a couple of things I didn’t like about her system.  The first is that I’d prefer to reward good behavior instead of punishing negative behavior.  There’s not much I can do for consequences.  They loose participation points (which are only a tiny part of the grade) or go to the office eventually (which doesn’t bother them.)  So I want to reward good behavior instead of punishing.

The second weakness I saw was that when one class gets too far ahead of the others, the others become discouraged.   Considering the HUGE behavioral difference between my classes, I could see that becoming a definite problem.

While I was considering how to overcome that problem – I found a game of Chutes and Ladders in the copy room with a paper taped to it that said “free.”  Problem solved!  Someone who gets more turns is more likely to win, BUT with this game, there is always the possibility that your position, or the position of another class could change drastically.  So, even if someone is ahead, you can stay motivated and still have hope that you might win!

I originally wanted to use something with variable interval reinforcement, so about every 5 minutes a timer goes off.  If everyone in the class is doing what they should be you get a point.  But it’s a variable interval, so sometimes it might be after one minute, sometimes not for 8 or 9 minutes.  Or I could do a variable ratio schedule – maybe reward them for approximately every 5 examples of showing the desired behavior, not after exactly five as it is set up now.

I’m sure there’s a way to set that up, but I tried an easier solution for now.  I let each class give rule suggestions, then we voted on them.  We decided that you can’t lose points.  You need 5 points to  take a turn.  A turn consists of one roll dice roll.  I decided that points start over each day (IMO – 1 point each for 5 days is not enough to earn a turn.) Each class voted on what they want their prize to win (my guidelines: has to be allowed by the school and I’m not spending any money.)

Our rules:
– 1 point for starting power up (bell ringer) as soon as the come in
– 1 point for asking a really good question
– 1 point for everyone working during homework time
– 1 point for catching me making a mistake (they love this one!)
– 1 point for doing extra work.  (If I see someone going really in depth on a problem)

Each class gets a different color.  I laminated the paper before writing the rules.  They are written with wet erase markers.  I use dry erase for the daily tallies.

class game

My 6th and 7th period still struggle a little, but the game is helping!  6th period wasn’t even on the board yet when I took the picture.  They finally are now though!  I thought when we started that 5 points might be too easy.  But it actually seems about right.  Most classes get 4-9 points during the period.  Twice a class has had 10 or more.


NWEA testing = no school for me :)

Our school does NWEA testing three times per year. The first week or two of school, toward the end of January, and then toward the end of May. Usually it’s done during the Language Arts (English) classes, but this time around they decided to do it during math class. So my only class to actually teach for the first 4 days of this week is “math lab.” Which is kind of a study hall for math.

Seems like a good time for a couple of days off! I went to school today for the first day of testing to get everything going and the kids into the routine. Now two days off! I’ll be back for the fourth day of testing because it’s the make up day, so I can work with students who finished already. For the one class not testing I made a list of all their missing assignments for any class and the tests they need to go back and fix/study for my class and left that for the sub. Along with some math worksheets just in case.

I’m excited to see the results from the test! It will be good to see what they’ve learned since the beginning of the year, and good to see what areas we need to work on during the next half of the year.

Also excited for two days off of course. I’ve been needing to go file for an eviction of a tenant… so now I can get that done. And need ro re-register my car this month.

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Math Study Hall: individual work or collaborative?

I teach 6 classes.  Four of them are honors classes.  One is a “math lab” for students who need extra help.  The last is the 9th grade class.  We only have about 20 ninth graders in the entire school, so they are all in the same class, no split between honors and regular education.

The 9th grade class I struggle with.  I’m not sure what the solution is yet.  I keep adjusting and keep getting better.  I’ll write more about them later.  My most recent adjustment is helping them focus on the goal by grading standards and testing less material more often.  Little quizzes instead of big tests.

Today I want to focus on my math lab class.  Typically in my math classes I encourage discussion.  I encourage them to talk to each other, work together, etc.  I actually have a class point system where they compete against other classes, and they earn points if I overhear good questions and explanations.

I started out the math lab class (a new class for second semester) the same way.  I teach them good study strategies/habits in quick mini-lessons, then they get the majority of the class period to work on whatever math they are doing in their class.  After the first couple days I realized that wasn’t working out this time.  Was REALLY not working.  They were wasting a lot of time.

The math lab class is mostly students who have a hard time staying focused in their math class, or at home.  Many don’t necessarily do poorly in math because they struggle to learn it, but because they are easily distracted.  VERY easily distracted.  Some diagnosed with ADHD/ADD, some not.  I’d get them all working then one tiny little thing would distract half the class.

If I allowed students to work together it became such a distraction to other students.  But if I don’t let them work together, many don’t get questions answered because I can’t make it around to everyone.  And they don’t get the opportunity to explain and discuss what they are working on.

I talked to the special education teacher about it to get some suggestions and two of them helped!  The first one was headphones.  Worked great to help some of them block out extra noise!  The other suggestion was give them something quiet to do with their hands, so they aren’t making noises.  Both of those suggestions have helped TONS.

They are doing much better at focusing on the math work.  So my final solution? (for now)

They mostly work on their own.  But I have students grouped together with others who are either in the same class or who work well together.  Then if they do have a question they can ask the people around them.

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Awesome Student


At least she remembers learning it And even better – she’s being responsible for figuring it out and has a plan!


Gradebook: List by Standards?

As I started looking for ideas regarding not grading homework I found the idea of standards based grading, or SBG.  I read a lot about it and really liked it for one main reason:  It focuses on what the students need to learn.

Right now a student will come in to retake “test 10” but they don’t really know what was on the test.  Their focus is fix the test score, not fix the concept I don’t get.  Most of my classes use a Saxon text book, so we test every 5 lessons, and they are all cumulative.  I also know what concept each test question covers.  It would make listing grades by standards pretty easy!  If I would have had time to do all that during the break…  so that’s in the plan for summer.

I am already tracking concepts in a different way though.  Before I ever read anything about SBG.  I made a chart where each student can see what lesson each question on a test comes from.  Looking at the grid we can track their progress over time.  We can look to see if they are missing the same types of questions.  We can look to see if it’s normal for them to miss a type of question a time or two before catching on.

I have once class however that is NOT using Saxon.  We are using this:  The first semester we got through most of the first 4 modules.  Wrapping up the 4th now.  Then 4 more for the rest of the year.  Last semester I gave a test at the end of each module.  All cumulative, but mostly focusing on newer learning.

Changes for this semester:  I went through our state standards (Common Core) and the list for what 9th graders are expected to learn.  Utah is keeping the secondary math integrated, which I love.  No separate Geometry, Algebra, pre-Calc, etc.

I mapped out what which of the state standards we’ve already learned and what we still have to learn – then summarized it into about 30 learning goals for each of the next two terms.

They aren’t turning homework in, just like my other classes aren’t.  Grade is based on assessments, which will be more frequent (once to twice per week) and smaller,  1-5 learning goals on each one instead of an entire unit.

The gradebook will report their progress on each learning goal.

The students are a little confused still.  I think it will make more sense when they see what it looks like in the grade book. I’m going over it all again on Friday.  I also have a chart for them to keep track of their own learning.  I think I’m going to have a folder for them to keep in class for the chart… the group of kids I have this year looses things easily.  They are hard to motivate, easily distracted, and unorganized.  Not all of them, just about half the class, enough to create chaos sometimes 🙂  Love them all, but they are the hardest class I’ve ever had.


Notes from parents :)

So far all the parent feedback on the new grading policy has been good!  Most parents just signed it (and hopefully read it) but didn’t say anything.  A few have written back that they love the new homework plan, sounds great, etc. 

This one made me smile: “Thank you for holding my child responsible for her education… This will help her as an adult to succeed!” 

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Homework: Grade vs. No Grade

Mathematics homework

Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started out my first year teaching math doing what everyone else did – x% of the grade is composed of homework scores, y% of test scores, and z% for participation. It made sense, it seemed rational and everyone was happy with it. For a month or two at least.

By the time we hit Thanksgiving I was realizing some SERIOUS flaws with the way I grade students. Students corrected their own homework in class the next day, then turned it in so I could enter it in the gradebook… and just that part took about an hour and a half every day. That’s a lot when I only get 50 minutes of “prep time,” during which I’m supposed to grade AND plan for 5 different classes.  Psychology, Math 6 (traded for Math 7H second semester), Math 6H (my only class I teach twice), Math 8H, Secondary One, and Secondary One Honors. I wanted more time to plan, needed more time to plan.  All my time was spent entering grades.

I kept doing it though because that’s what I was “supposed” to do. I had to keep track of all the homework scores so I could make sure they were all being good, responsible, students. And because of course a grade should include homework, it always does. If it was good for my students, it was fine that it took a while. And I was getting a little faster the more practice at it I had.

Then I started to realize that maybe it wasn’t actually best for them. Most of my college classes were based on assessments only and I LOVED it. I could do as much work as I needed and nothing more, but sometimes I did extra. I kept thinking it would be awesome to teach college classes so I could grade like that. But why not grade like that in junior high too?

Besides, as it was, the homework wasn’t valuable to many of them. They had 30 problems per night. Most of them rushed through it. They didn’t put effort into showing their work. After I entered grades then handed the papers back most threw it out – even though they were allowed to fix mistakes for full credit. And I blatantly caught about 1/3 of them cheating, with rumors that there were plenty more. Simply put, they didn’t care about homework. They weren’t learning from it. So what’s the point?

New plan: instead of doing all 30 problems from each lesson students pick 10. The lessons in our text are all cumulative, so it mixes in everything we’ve done so far this year. I don’t tell them what 10 problems to do. They pick. But I’m pretty aware of what most of them need to work on and told them I’ll be checking to make sure they are picking appropriate problems. The deal for getting to only do 10 problems is they need to do them well. Messy work or no work at all won’t cut it. Also, they need to fix ALL of their mistakes now. Finally, I’m not grading their homework anymore. I do random checks still. It’s counted as participation, which is 30% of their grade. Assessments are the other 70%.

We are one week in and here’s what I’ve notices to far:
1) I’ve actually had time to plan lessons! and get around to starting a blog 🙂
2) Students are more productive during homework time in class.
3) Students are asking better questions.
4) I’ve had students come ask me where they can find more practice problems for one they missed.
5) I’ve had students ask for harder problems.

Basically, they seem to care more. Not all of them of course. There are still a couple that don’t do it, but they didn’t do the homework the other way either. I do have several however that were NOT doing homework before that are now. One of them told me they do it because they feel like it’s not busy work anymore, it matters to them because it’s what they need to work on. Another told me he does it now because 10 is less overwhelming than 30, so he doesn’t feel defeated before he even starts.

I did have 2 who have caught on that doing 10 problems well, then fixing them is really not any less work than doing sloppy work on 30 🙂 But they said it’s fine still, because at least they don’t have to waste time on the easy ones.

Final conclusion?

No Grade.

Well, mostly no grade, I couldn’t quite wean myself off from at least doing participation points for random checks. Random checks are definitely good to give feedback… but points? Maybe shouldn’t have kept that part. I might change that next year.


I did lots of reading over Christmas break 🙂

I started out the break determined that something about my homework policy needed to change, and preferably I didn’t want them to turn it in anymore.  But could I do that in a junior high?  Has anyone else tried that and did it work?  In my search for an answer to that question I found the SBG Gala! 6 of them actually:
SBG Gala #1
SBG Gala #2
SBG Gala #3
SBG Gala #4
SBG Gala #5
SBG Gala #6

Apparently yes, the whole no homework grade thing has been done, and yes, it works pretty well for many people.  Plus a TON of other good ideas.  Some of which I also changed 🙂  some of which will happen over summer.