This cycle I’m teaching a problem solving class with some pretty high stakes. In the past I would teach the problem solving class as almost a diversion, or a a path away from the Algebra-Geometry-Trig avenue that students expect. After the pandemic the pressure around going through content has lessened, and the focus has shifted to let students ‘Do Mathematics‘. It’s kind exciting! I’m reminded of that Halloween where my Mom said I get to eat all the candy I want! Of course, a couple hours after my Mom’s announcement, I was in the bathroom sick to my stomach. Planning this cycle has not involved anyone getting sick, and only moderate amounts of candy, but it hasn’t been exactly exciting. The increased pressure around a thing that used to be a fun little diversion has caused me to look at my planning differently. Here are some of things that I have done so far that has made the class work or are still a work in progress.

Go with what you know

Initially I decided that I need to do things totally different. I thought that I needed to rethink the entire class from the ground up using one of the previous times I taught it as a guide, but largely throwing everything out. As I got just a little bit into this re-design it became clear that we are still in a pandemic, our school has a lot of stuff to do, and I didn’t have time to anything other than print out the old stuff. We use a few units from Crossing Rivers with Dogs that focused ofn Drawing a Diagram and Systematic Lists. This ended up making so much sense. Relying on the muscle memory of something I’ve done a bunch of times reduced mental stress, and as I go through it with the kids I notice a lot of ideas for fixes. Now I can gather all the ideas that I would want to improve so we can give it a quick overhaul before the next time we need to teach it.

The Thinking Classroom remains undefeated

One of the reasons I wanted to overhaul the class was because the old curriculum wasn’t optimized for Peter Liljedahl’s thinking classroom, which I have been working on. If these old problems were broken into smaller pieces to make it easier for students to try it, I thought it could make for a better thinking classroom sequence. There wasn’t time for the overhaul, however, so there wouldn’t be time for the thinking classroom…or so I thought. Yesterday I had decided to make VRG (visibly random groups) and doing VNPS (vertical non-permanent surfaces) because there was a level of independence around creating ideas just wasn’t happening. It went really well despite not doing norms or even really talk about what was going to happen, and also a bunch of kids came in late group sizes were wonky. The task was really heavy, but it was great for people to say, everyone did it a different way. Not everyone even got it right, and everyone was ok with it. Lesson learned. Next cycle of problem solving I’ll have the whiteboards up at the beginning of the term.

Escaping the ‘curse of the undone grading’

For each class session of the last 3 weeks I’ve lugged all of the folders for all of the students down 3 flights of stairs to my desk, only to lug them back up the same stairs before the next class. Why do I do this? Because I keep telling myself that “I’ll grade these before next class. Kids need feedback. There will be some time tonight and it won’t even take that long.” Lies. Why do I tell myself this? Well it’s not all a lie, the kids really do need feedback and if I am not giving the clear ideas of what a well-solved answer looks like, they might think they can just hand in something that they pulled out of photomath (this happened on Tuesday). I want students to use their brain and think, but it seems like they don’t want to get invested in the problem solving process if they think I am ultimately going to tell them it’s wrong. My idea of feedback isn’t to tell them they are wrong, but to give them a clear picture as to what may be wrong and how it could be right-er. This entials me giving each student a full detailed breakdown of each of their homework problems, pointing out all the possible avenues for further elaboration and actionable steps for what can be done. As I type this, that doesn’t sound feasible or even useful.

If  a student is going to receive a giant stack of feedback on some of the classwork from weeks ago, it will place a lot of stress, emphasis and pressure on the wrong place. In those assignments, students are to be practicing their problem solving skills. As it is practice, it’s expected that they can make mistakes and foibles. Students who see that this formative work is placed under the magnifying glass could leave students feeling like they don’t have a safe place to grow their skills. I thought of Grading for Equity which says how decreasing pressure around the homework lets students have a place to practice. A place to make mistakes. Perhaps not going hard with the red pen was actually a good thing for students.

I was sitting downstairs after Fridays class with a noticeably lighter load and realized I had forgotten the folders. I’d have to go upstairs if I was going to get the folders, but realistically there wasn’t going to be any more time to grade it today than there was the days before. Before actually continuing to repeat this feedback cycle, I asked Lavonne, a science teacher who happened to be nearby, about how she did feedback. Lavonne regularly gets creative work back from her students so she was a good person to ask. She described a feedback practice more focused on giving students the information they need about the work they are doing in the moment, instead of waiting until later. Imagine going around to students and letting them know this is what they are doing and this what they need to know. She had no stack of grading to carry home, nor any intentions to gather folders from three floors up. I decided that I was not going to do that either! Instead I was going to figure out how I am going to try to give feedback for now and in future classes.

With math I want students to take ownership of their problem solving which has been associated may mean being ‘less helpful’. When kids say “is this right?” I say “How can you find out?” because I want to remove myself as a thinking crutch and build their math confidence. At the same time, students need direction that they are on the right track if they are doing anything. If I continue to not give students the right answer, I could at least try to support the process of documenting their problem solving efforts so expectations are clear about what is needed in our final projects. I’ll try to figure out how to build more formative assessment around open-ended problem solving. If you have any idea how I can do that, let me know in the comments.