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Helping students who fall behind in math

I think one of the hardest things for any math teacher is helping the ones who are falling behind, the students who either don’t get it or aren’t motivated.  I wrote about my frustrations with this a few days ago – this blog entry will be a bit more positive than that one 🙂

So some students fall behind – what do I do about it?  It depends on why they are behind.  The reason why seems to fall into a few groups:

1) Students who are convinced they can’t do it so don’t try.

For this group I try to find ways to show success, and reward them when they do.  Then when they get frustrated I can remind them about the one time they didn’t think they could do it and did.  Something else I do for this group is try to find something they are good at and relate it to that.  For example one girl who does cheer leading said in class that math makes her head hurt, so she doesn’t try.  I asked her how she feels when she knows she does something perfectly in cheer leading.  She had a huge smile and was excited to tell me about it 🙂  Then I asked her HOW she got to that point.  Did she have to practice?  Are some things hard at first?  and those harder things feel even better when you practice enough to get it, right?  She stopped complaining about math and that one conversation seemed to totally change her attitude about it!  I’ve had similar conversations with other students.  Just find something they are good at and help them see that work = success = happy feeling!

2) Students who really are already trying and still don’t get it.

This group breaks my heart… It is a small group.  But I have a few who try so hard and really just don’t get it.  Most of the ones in this group are at least passing the class, but they want to do better, they get frustrated that math is so hard for them.  For this group I offer help for 20 minutes before school each day and the school has tutoring available after school for an hour twice a week.  I also teach a math lab class where they can get extra help, but many students who could have benefited from it didn’t have room for it in their schedule.

For students in my Saxon classes I have a test tracker they use to see what concept they are missing on each test and where they can find examples in their book.  I then email the answer key to practice problems to their parents so they can check the practice work at home.    For their daily homework I also allow them to pick what to work on, then they can focus on the areas that are more difficult for them.

For the class I have that’s not Saxon (we use, I have a class website where they can go for extra resources.  The class is set up on standards based grading.  The class website has a resources page where they can find the standards listed.  Under each standard I have videos, tutorials, examples, practice problems, etc.  I encourage them to go there for help.  This has been especially useful for one student who is gone about half the time.

3) The last group of kids falling behind are just unmotivated.

There are different reasons they are unmotivated, but for some reason they have decided to not care, or at least act like they don’t.  Some of these students act this way because they don’t understand the math.  I kind of treat everyone in this group as if that’s the reason they are acting unmotivated.  I’ll also try to tie in something that interests them, like when I used a football analogy for systems of equations.  For this group I also try to make sure they know that I am there for them if/when they want to work on it.  And sometimes they do decide they want to try!  Getting parents involved helps with this group sometimes too.

Well… this is what I’ve been doing so far to help them out!  I look forward to reading all the other ideas from this week’s Sunday Funday!Sunday Funday

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Keeping Students Organized

CAM00398For my regular education classes (not honors) it’s pretty easy for them to keep track of what we are doing.  We just go in order of the book except for rare occasions.

For my honors classes sometimes we will do two lessons in one day, or do them out of order, or take time off from book lessons and do something else.

I’ve always had the students write what we are doing each day in their planner and in their notes (if we took notes).  It’s a requirement in our school that we state an objective for each day clearly for the students.  On my first evaluation one of the things I was marked down for was not having the objective posted, and just when I was projecting my copy of the notes apparently doesn’t count, even though I was told it would when I asked…   I’d get over it a lot easier if that evaluation didn’t impact what I am paid 😦  Oh well, evaluations = different pet peeve.  So, moving on, not only does the objective go in planners and on notes, it needs to be posted during the full class time.

One of the teachers has an extra whiteboard in the back of his room where he just writes everything at the beginning of the day.  But I only have one white board. One of the teachers writes hers at the side of the white board, but it looks cluttered and messy with 6 different classes listed up there.  One of them has laminated papers on a bulletin board, and that’s kind of where I got my idea.

My solution was to cut out large pieces of paper and laminate them.  I have one for each class.  Color coded of course 🙂  Everything for my classes is color coded.  6 classes: Pink, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple.

On the papers I have a place for their power up (bell starter), daily question(s), and their homework.  Its working really well!  I have everything written for the students, they know where to find it, they have no excuse for doing the wrong lesson, it keeps my board uncluttered, and it still allows me time to meet the students at the door instead of standing up front writing when they come in.

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Differentiating Saxon Math Homework

Sunday Funday

At first all of my students were required to do the same 30 problems from their math book.  There was no choice, no varied levels, they all did the same work.  The only differentiation in homework came from what class they were in.  The honors class was one book ahead of the regular class.

I realized pretty early on that this was a problem.  I also realized that doing 30 problems every night was encouraging cheating and discouraging checking their work and slowing down a little.  They were stressed, overwhelmed by doing 30 problems, and just rushing through it to get it over with rather than to learn from it.

Now students pick 10 problems out of the homework assignment.  We use the Saxon math program, so homework is spiralled.  There will be many different types of questions on each homework assignment.  They also don’t turn the homework in every day anymore.  We will check all 30 problems in class and they are required to go back and fix the ones they missed.  In hindsight, I think I should have said 15 problems instead of 10, but it is working out with just 10.

I have popsicle sticks with names on them and draw 3-4 students each day.  I only check homework for those students.  I check to make sure they a picking appropriate problems, showing ALL the steps, and correcting anything they missed.

Going into this one of my big concerns was that they would just pick the easiest 10 problems.  And some of them do.  But they are the same ones who just didn’t do any homework before, or copied it from someone else.  So they are still doing more than before! Most of the students however are picking good problems.  and some do more than 10 if they have time to or if they think there are more they need to practice.

During our recent parent teacher conferences I asked all the students and parents who came in what they thought of the changes.  Are you actually doing homework, do you feel like you are learning, more, less, about the same?  I had one parent who was upset that I was making any changes to the curriculum because she picked this school for Saxon math and wants me to stick to it exactly as designed.  I told her 10 is my minimum, she can have her son do all 30 if that’s what she wants.  She liked that solution.  her son didn’t seem so happy about it 🙂

The rest of the conferences were pretty much a stream of parents saying thank you for recognizing the needs of their student!  They’ve observed that their students are enjoying math more (something I think is important because junior high is about when many students decide they don’t like math). They have seen their students go back through notes or the book instead of just guessing and moving on if they hit a hard problem.  Several of them also said tantrums, crying, etc over math homework has stopped.

I have noticed in class that students notice their own mistakes more often (and mine, which they get points for!)  Their conversations are related to math a little more often than before.  they are asking better questions.  They are asking why more often.  They are showing detail, they are looking for patterns.  They are doing much better with the Common Core’s 8 mathematical practices!  They also are more aware of what they get already and what they still need to work on.  I never used to have students come ask for extra practice on a certain area before.  Now they do.  They know what they need to work on and focus on those types of problems.


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.