Episode #105: How Can I Use Portfolios Without Losing My Sanity? [PART 3] – A Where Are They Now Math Mentoring Moment

Nov 30, 2020 | Podcast | 0 comments


Today we bring back Carmen Sinatra from Richmond Hill Ontario for a 3rd time on the show. Carmen continues her chat with us about teaching during a pandemic both face-to-face and online!  

By sticking around you’ll hear us discuss two big struggles: how to use portfolios for assessments instead of tests without drowning, and how to manage giving out feedback so you can stay sane! 

This is another Where Are They Now Math Mentoring Moment episode where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker Community who is working through struggles and together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them.

You’ll Learn

  • How to Use Portfolios for Assessment Without Drowning?
  • How to manage feedback in a reasonable amount of time.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Carmen Sinatra: I just started this past weekend and yesterday looking through them, and on the Google Classroom, when kids hand in an assignment, there is a feature to make comments. You can make comments right on there, so they appear like little speech bubbles. That has been pretty good because I have noticed the kids who I have done that for, they've gone through and they've read some of the comments and made some of the changes or done some of the suggestions, so that's good. Again, I just feel like I've got to pare it back, where I'm not giving them too much detail or ...

Jon Orr: Today, we bring back for a third time Carmen Sinatra from Richmond Hill, Ontario. Carmen continues her chat with us about teaching during a pandemic face-to-face and online.

Kyle Pearce: By sticking around, you'll hear us discuss two big struggles, how to use portfolios for assessments instead of tests without drowning and how to manage giving out feedback so you can still stay sane.

Jon Orr: This is another Where Are They Now Math Mentoring Moment episode, where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker community who is working through struggles and together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them.

Kyle Pearce: John, are you ready to do this?

Jon Orr: As always.

Kyle Pearce: Hit it! Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce from TapIntoTeenMinds.com.

Jon Orr: And I'm John Orr from MrOrrIsAGeek.com. We are two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: ... with you, the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: ... fuel sense-making-

Kyle Pearce: ... and ignite your teacher moves.

Jon Orr: Let's get ready for another jam-packed episode. But, first, we'd like to say thank you to all of you Math Moment Makers from around the globe who have taken the time to share feedback by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that's right. This week, we want to give a shout-out to Math Martian, who gave us a five-star rating and review that said-

Jon Orr: ... "My weekly pick-me-up. I love this podcast. I listen to it each week. And when I start to get flustered with administration, paperwork, and hoops I have to jump through, it keeps me positive and focused on what's important."

Kyle Pearce: We can't thank Math Martian enough for taking the time out of your day to help grow the podcast through positive ratings and reviews. It means so much.

Jon Orr: And because Math Martian shared a screenshot of his review on social media, this Math Moment Maker has been entered into our rating and review contest for one of five copies of Peter Liljedahl's new book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12.

Kyle Pearce: Right, that is so awesome, and, actually, in my own district, we are starting a book talk around this very same book, so, clearly, it is near and dear to our hearts. So here's the details on how you can get in as well. Step one, we're going to have you head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a rating and review. If you're on a different platform and there is an opportunity for a rating and review, rock and roll, we'll take it as well. But I think it's really Apple Podcasts is where you have that opportunity.

Jon Orr: Step two, take a screenshot of your review and share it on Twitter or Instagram mentioning @makemathmoments or in our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. And step three, this is the final one, and this is just to make it easy for us to find. You're going to hashtag it with #mmmgiveaway. So hashtag #mmmgiveaway.

Jon Orr: And that's it. You're in. Right now, we only get a handful of ratings and reviews each month, so you being all Math Moment Makers, you know your chances are really high of walking away with an awesome read with Peter Liljedahl, our guest from episode 21 and 98, his brand new book, Building Thinking Classrooms.

Kyle Pearce: That's right. We'll be giving away five copies of this awesome book. So far, as of this recording, we've only got 10 people in so far, so your chances are super high. Make sure you dive in and get in on this. But this rating and review contest giveaway will be ending on December 31st, 2020.

Jon Orr: If you're listening after December 31st, 2020, go ahead and leave us a rating and review and follow the same process to be entered into our future giveaways. We will be having them run periodically.

Kyle Pearce: All right, enough from us, Math Moment Makers. Let's get onto this fantastic conversation with Carmen, part three.

Jon Orr: Hey there, Carmen. Welcome back to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. You know, I think you are the most repeated guest we've had, being this is your third time chatting with us, and we are super pumped.

Kyle Pearce: Woo!

Carmen Sinatra: I'm so honored, three times.

Jon Orr: Yep, three times.

Kyle Pearce: The medal is coming in the mail.

Jon Orr: If folks haven't listened yet, she was first on episode 92, when we were gearing up for teaching in the pandemic. We were coming up into September. We weren't really in the classroom yet, and we were planning for it. We had a nice chat about what that looks like and how do we do the thinking classroom, how do we do group work. So if you haven't listened to 92, you might want to get back there and listen to the getting ready to go into the classroom. Then we chatted on episode 102, which was Carmen had got into the classroom, but it was kind of an online model, and I'll let her share what her model looks like in a few moments, but if you haven't listened to 102, get back there because we talked about how do we spark curiosity with abstract math concepts, especially in senior classes. We looked at all-day math blocks and what are some benefits there, so that's a good chat in episode 102. But, Carmen, welcome back. How are things going, and, again, remind everybody here what you're teaching, where you're from, all those kind of normal things?

Carmen Sinatra: Okay, yeah. Things have been going pretty well. I'm at Richmond Hill High School in Richmond Hill, and our system currently is that we have one live class in the morning, two and a half hours, and then we have the rest of our classes online in the afternoon and the classes are ... They're set for 50 minutes, but by the time kids come on and we get everything set up, it's probably closer to 40, 45 if we're lucky. So second time ... No, yeah, the first and the second time I think I chatted with you guys, I actually hadn't even had a live class yet because I happened to have period one was my prep period. But, since then, I've had my grade nines for a two-week block in the morning, so they had me for two and a half hours every other day, two different cohorts. Now, I'm actually in the next block with my advanced functions group, and they are coming in every other day. My other two classes are in the afternoon online.

Kyle Pearce: So interesting. Such an interesting model. I know we had mentioned it last time, so we won't riff too much on the model. But, now, I'm wondering, as you already mentioned, I know John mentioned it, you just mentioned it, the last time we've spoken ... And this is kind of one of the reasons why we wanted to get you on for a third time really, really close to those previous episodes, was to kind of get a sense as to how that face-to-face experience is going. So, now, from the sounds of things, when you're doing that face-to-face block, you've got two and a half hours in the morning and then you've got two groups at 50 minutes each in the afternoon virtually. How is it going? We briefly chatted before hitting the record button. I said you were just about to go into the gauntlet. How is it going, and are you bruised, are you broken, or are you rocking and rolling? How's things going?

Carmen Sinatra: At the beginning, I will say it was pretty overwhelming, actually, to go from three online classes then to having the one live for two and a half hours. It was a bit stressful, and it's stressful in the fact that we're in the middle of a pandemic, we're wearing face masks, we're wearing shields, we're cleaning constantly, and it was a bit stressful just knowing that you're there with the students. I had kids actually live in front of me, so you have to be more careful of what you're doing and be mindful of their safety and your safety. So it took a little bit of getting used to.
Then, when things kind of settled down ... Feel like our school went through a little bit of growing pains in terms of how do we deal with when students are not feeling well things like that. But it's really settled now, I feel, and it's been ... I'm much more settled and calm about things, and kids are getting used to it. I think, at the beginning, there was a lot of wild eyes, like, "Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this? What are we doing?" We're making due with how things are going.

Jon Orr: It's definitely tough, I think, no matter what your situation, and I think we've talked about this on previous episodes with you, how different everybody is, you having to manage ... I was just thinking about I'm in the classroom all day with my students from 8:00 till 2:15 and the same class, and we do that every day for a week, and then we flip-flop. We talked in the last episode about some of the silver linings of that but also the struggles, and I can't imagine you having to do the two and a half hour block, so half a day, and then switching to manage online and having also to prepare not only your two and a half hour block but also for that same day all the work that the other classes are doing online when you're not there during the morning with them. So I think there's so much work-

Carmen Sinatra: There's so much going on, yeah.

Jon Orr: Yeah, you've got a lot to manage and juggle. So I'm wondering, in the midst of all of that, because I know that that poses a lot of struggles that we can get into here today, too, but would you be able to share a success in the last couple weeks since our last chat, even though we know that this is tough for everybody?

Carmen Sinatra: I've definitely found that even going back to the Building Thinking Classrooms, even when you are in the middle of trying to keep everybody safe, it still can be managed, and when it does happen, it's a great feeling. I had my nine applieds. I had them up at the white boards, and I had one student say, "My mom is really nervous about social distancing," and she said, "But, look, we're making it work, Miss. We're six feet apart." But they were still ... If she was at the white board, she had her own marker. My classroom, thankfully, has a lot of white boards around the room, so there was a lot of room. I had three of them in a group, quite far apart but yet they were still able to talk. I'm lucky in the fact that my nine applied class was very small, and so when they split them in two, I actually only had seven in one group and eight in the other. So it was great.
There was a day when we were doing area of composite figures, and I just projected one on the screen. I said, "Here you go, try it out." When that one group was finished, I said, "Show me another way," and they were really getting into it. It was really great to see. In that same class, I had a student who her English is not very good, recently come to Canada, paired her up with the girl who's very outgoing, and the two of them were pointing at things, not touching either other, but still pointing at things. That visual really helped that student, and the smiles coming out on their faces, even though they're below masks, you still see them, they're still there. So that was really, really great to see.
I'm trying to do the same thing with my grade 12s. Sometimes, they're almost more reluctant, and they still want to sit. But I'm still saying, "No, no, let's get up. We can do this. You're old enough. You can be six feet apart, still standing. It's okay, right?" They're doing it. Some days are better than others to get them up, but I really think that I can't have them sitting for two and a half hours.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, goodness. Even back in, I'm going to say, the olden days when we used to teach 75-minute periods, right, back then, that was even long. We'd mentioned it before on a previous episode. I've done a shadow day where I've gone and shadowed a class of students and did what they did, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, there's so much sitting." So imagine two and a half hours in the same room, but, again, the visual I got when you were describing your applied group, that class of students who were in an applied class, that small group size, though, must offer such an interesting dynamic from the perspective of being able to differentiate a little better and spend more time with students to be able to get some of that formative information.
Again, that silver lining that sort of emerges from this in all the challenges, and, again, I don't want to discount how difficult that must be, where you're literally teaching all day long. In John's case, it's all day long with the same group, but at least when you're planning that, I have to at least assume that's it like at least it's the same class so you don't feel like you're jumping all over the place. But when you have multiple classes going and multiple cohorts going, it's a real-

Carmen Sinatra: It's very confusing.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, what a struggle. So I'm so happy for you. I'm happy to hear that you've got a success and some successes that you feel like you can reflect on. Tonight, let's not waste any more time. What can we dive into here? Now that you've been through, we'll say, a few weeks of this face-to-face/online model, what can we dig in? What are some challenges or current hurdles that are ... We'll call it the ... A good friend from the Ministry of Education here in Ontario, Jim Strachan, always says, "What's the pebble in your shoe right now?" That thing that it's there, I'm getting through it, but it'd be great if I could get rid of that pebble. What's the pebble for you?

Carmen Sinatra: Right. We are trying to implement portfolios in, well, all of my classes. I've got probably about almost half of my math department is doing some kind of portfolio, so half of our classes, which I think is fantastic. Part of that just came out of the need because we've been told we're not going to have final exams, so we have to have something else. I've been tossing around this idea, and you talk about the silver lining, been talking about this kind of idea for a little while because one of my colleagues does the markless classroom and I do as well for my nines. She often does conferencing, and we're like, "How can we make this conferencing a little better?" Well, this idea of digital portfolio, John, I saw it from you as well on FreshGrade, you talked about it. So we're trying to implement this portfolio, and I'm finding a lot of good things, but kind of here to ask some advice.
Probably one of the biggest things is the time management. How do you manage all these portfolios from students in a way that I can get feedback to them in a reasonable amount of time? How do I get them to put in what I want, I guess, to not have it be so ... I don't want to say shallow, but maybe that's the way. I have different standards, obviously. Nine applied's going to have a different standard than a 12 advanced, right, functions. And I'm seeing lots of good things, but, yeah, I'm kind of here for advice, time management and how do I get them to dig deep?

Kyle Pearce: Gotcha.

Jon Orr: Okay. So let's kind of dig deep a little bit on what this looks like for you because I think when you say digital portfolios, that could mean lots of different things to lots of different people. Paint me a snapshot. I have a couple questions just to paint every listener right now a snapshot. But let's say in a traditional math class, a teacher might teach some lessons, and then that's in a unit, and then they would have a unit test. Let's start there. Are you having tests still, quizzes still, or is everything just portfolio?

Carmen Sinatra: We are not having tests, but we are having quizzes online and in the classroom.

Jon Orr: Okay.

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah. The decision behind that, we talked about it as a department. We have so few classes face-to-face with students. Really, when it comes down to it, because we have this rotation schedule, it amounts to having about ... I think it's, I want to say, nine to 10 of these two and a half hour classes for each course. That's actually not that much, and-

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. Because the rest is online.

Carmen Sinatra: If you're thinking about then filling that time with a test, like, say, every time they're in, there's a two week ... It's just not reasonable.

Jon Orr: Yeah, if they're with you, you want to maximize that time and get as much thinking out from them so that you can see it and help them. The last thing you're going to want to do is say, "Hey, let's spend an hour and you just show me what you know on a piece of paper instead of actually demonstrate and learn." Because you could do that online, like you said, it does seem reasonable for you to have, say, a quiz online. Okay. Let's keep going with what a portfolio kind of looks like. Timing-wise, are you scheduling portfolios? Why don't you pretend we're your students and then you explain this to us?

Carmen Sinatra: So what we did was one of my colleagues was working as a consultant last year and she developed some of these materials. They've made a Google Slide document, I guess, and within there, we have a template. So what we've done is we've listed out the expectations for the unit. For the grade 12s, it was almost verbatim from the curriculum documents. For the grade nines, I simplified it and put in some I can statements. So I have that on there, and then what we've done is we've highlighted about ... I think for the grade 12s I highlight three of them, and I said, "I want you to show me evidence of your learning for these three and then pick one more of your choosing."
Then we showed them ... We had a number of blank templates of how you could show us your learning, so you could upload a video of you describing your solution. One of the templates that I really liked was one where it said, "This is what I used to think, and this is what I think now," and you could put in some information about a topic and how you misunderstood it and now you understand it. So that's what we've showed all the students. I took some time in class to explain it. We actually have a little explanation sheet for here's some instructions how you're going to do it. On the Google Classroom, I made an assignment, and I made a copy for each kid so that they have their blank copy.
We've just finished for the grade 12s. They did their unit one polynomial functions, and I've started to look through them. My grade nines, takes a little bit more time with them to explain how it's going to work. With the grade nines, I have a tracking sheet for those guys, for their marks, not really marks, it's a markless system, and I've showed them the exact same expectation sheet. It has the expectations listed. Then I've said, "If you see X's on certain areas, those are areas that you're going to need to work on and you're going to need to show me. So those are the ones I want you to show me." I'm guiding them a lot more than I would my grade 12s. Does that help explain how I've done?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, no, definitely, definitely. I'm picturing this. First of all, it sounds super proactive, especially given the situation. Now, pre-COVID, I'd been talking about trying to encourage some teachers in my district, especially our high school teachers to start at least considering, not necessarily for them to throw away tests or anything like that, they can still do some of that work as well, but, really, to try to use portfolios as a way to truly get a sense of where they are and where the assets are, so the things kids are bringing with them and then some of the things that maybe they're struggling with.
It sounds like you've got yourself set up in a really awesome way, especially digitally using Google Slides. For those who have never used Google Slides, there's collaborative features just like a Google Doc, so I'm hoping we can dive more into that as well. Now, before we do, do you have certain times throughout the day? Is this something you want your students doing daily? Is it weekly? Is it sort of like this is on them to fit in at some point independently? What's your take on that, if you were to give us a sense as to how that's operating?

Carmen Sinatra: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For the grade 12s and even for the grade nines, my intention was to do it by unit. So now that we've finished the polynomials unit, we've said, "Okay, now, we're giving you a quote-unquote due date." I say that because we did tell them we are not going to attach a mark to it just yet. The only time that we're going to attach a mark to it is as midterm and at final. Part of that was just for management from a teacher point of view because I don't want to have to have another thing that I need to put a mark to every unit. It takes a lot of time. So that was one of the reasonings behind that. The other one is simply because if this is a portfolio, it's supposed to be more of an ongoing assessment of their learning. I don't want to stop, hey, I'm going to give you a number now, and stop, I'm going to give you a number-

Kyle Pearce: Right, close the door on it-

Carmen Sinatra: Right, exactly.

Kyle Pearce: ... and say, "This is over," when maybe there's more learning to be done.

Carmen Sinatra: Exactly. So I want to have it being much more fluid, I guess, so that they can constantly be working on it. Part of the issue is, of course, you have some students who, "Oh, give me feedback on this, Miss. Give me feedback on this." I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I don't have time for feedback, that much."

Kyle Pearce: What have I done to myself?

Carmen Sinatra: What have I done, yeah. So, yeah, that's kind of where I'm struggling with right now. I think, with the grade nines, part of their difficulty is just sometimes getting used to using Google Slides. It's another layer. But when they were in the classroom, I introduced it and made sure I had one class where I dedicated almost an hour of just let's work on the portfolio, let's put a picture of your work up, and let me show you how to do it.

Jon Orr: It's definitely ... For nines and any student, really, who has never used the tool the way you want them to use the tool, there's definitely a training process, and I think everybody listening right now is nodding their heads because they all went through this back in March to June and are still doing it and are still retraining kids to write emails and to use Google Slides and Google Classroom and Desmos and all of those things.

Carmen Sinatra: And it's a lot, whew.

Jon Orr: Yeah, there's a lot of things that you think ... We all say kids are digital natives, but they don't know how to use digital tools for school. We have to show them what we want them to use it for and how they can use it and show them the power of those tools. So it sounds like you've got some great setup here on the portfolio. It makes sense that ongoing learning is useful. That's what I use in my class, is making it clear to students that just because we put a mark on it at midterm doesn't mean that that's your final mark or that means it's locked in stone at that point. It sounds like you've got your portfolio laid out by what Kyle and I called the learning goals for a long time, which are just standards. It's great that they're laid out like that because kids can see them.
Then something that we've often done is said they're open all year, and just because you showed evidence back in September on that particular learning goal from that unit, it doesn't mean that you can't go and contribute to it later on and show new learning and new evidence because we want it to be fluid. We want it to be, by the end of the course, you're supposed to demonstrate this understanding, not, say, by the middle of September. I guess it depends on, for some school districts, middle September is the end of the course.

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah, no kidding.

Jon Orr: But we just recently saw ... I think some schools ... I'm sidetracking now, but-

Kyle Pearce: The octomester.

Jon Orr: Yeah, the octomester.

Carmen Sinatra: Yes, yes.

Jon Orr: They're over already. It's-

Carmen Sinatra: I know. My niece is in that system, and, yeah, she just finished her month and a whatever, month-long English class. It's crazy.

Jon Orr: So I guess the real struggle, I feel, you've stated before here, is you want them to use the portfolios, they make a lot of sense for you and your team. However, when a student wants to know how they're doing, you're saying, "Ah, I haven't even looked at the portfolio. I can't figure out a good way to give you feedback on that, written or verbal." I don't even know how it looks. But, I guess, what is your plan right now to do it? Then maybe we can figure out ways to make it more manageable.

Carmen Sinatra: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I just started this past weekend and yesterday looking through them, and on the Google Classroom, when kids hand in an assignment, there is a feature to make comments. You can make comments right on there, so they appear like little speech bubbles. So I've been doing that, and that, I find, has been really good. I do have to tell the students, "I believe you have to open up your file in another window to see the comments." I'm not sure. Sometimes, they say, "I don't see anything," and that can be a little frustrating.
But that has been pretty good because I have noticed the kids who I have done that for, they've gone through and they've read some of the comments and made some of the changes or done some of the suggestions, so that's good. Again, I just feel like I've got to pare it back, where I'm not giving them too much detail, or I'm going to be spending all of my time making lots of comments. Yeah, so that's what I've been doing right now, and it's fine because on the Google Classroom, once they hit return to me, once they hit submit, I can make some comments and then I can return it back to them, and then we can keep going back and forth.

Kyle Pearce: Nice. So I think, obviously, much of this portfolio or at least parts of this portfolio you're probably going to be receiving digitally and having a look at and so forth on your own time, it sounds like, in these weeks that you're face-to-face because there's really no prep time happening there. You want your feedback to be timely, so it's not like you're going to wait until you get back to that week where your prep is back or whatever it might be, right? That creates a struggle for obvious reasons. My wonder is is there any opportunities, is there any way throughout ... If you were to visualize your two and a half hour face-to-face block, do you see, with especially your smaller class sizes, like your grade nine applied class ... Is there an opportunity for you to be able to do ...
I heard you say conferencing was something that your colleague had been doing a lot of and it sounds like you're either doing or interested in doing. Is there any opportunities there for you to maybe, if, let's say, I've got this class size of seven, or even in your advanced functions, maybe it's 15 because it's cohorted, to be able to, in every single face-to-face day, I try to pull three students and have them essentially take me through their portfolio and try to at least get maybe your head wrapped around some of the work that they're doing? Or maybe it's even observing them do it as they're doing it in some of that face-to-face environment? What does that look like or sound like to you, and what sort of problems might that maybe introduce if you were to try to take something on like that?

Carmen Sinatra: I think that that could definitely help, I'm just thinking, because it would probably save me some time in typing if I could, like you said, just pull maybe ... Really, if I pulled three of them aside, then it would take me five classes to get through everybody, which is about exactly the time I have with them, so it could work, it could work. In fact, my colleague and I were thinking ... And I could just call them up verbally. As long as I've got my face shield on and they're standing beside me, I could easily call it up on my screen and we could go through it together, and I could make comments verbally. Often, verbally helps a lot more, too. Sometimes, you're typing and typing and typing, and you're thinking to yourself, "Wow, I could've just" ... It's like when you're texting somebody. I'm texting a long text, I could just call you, right? So same thing. Yeah, I think that that could definitely work with the 12s. I definitely see that working because they can be very independent workers, so I wouldn't have to worry about classroom management or anything.
And I feel like, as well, my colleague and I were talking about this just today, we've taken out test days. We've taken out a lot of the review days that we may have dedicated before a test. We've taken out some of those. We were actually looking at our timing, and we're thinking, "You know what? I think we're doing okay for timing, and maybe we need to take a pause." This could be a really good opportunity to what can we do in a pause rather than just saying, "Hey, here's a review period, guys."

Kyle Pearce: Right. Your portfolio and the way you're approaching it, obviously, this is a very different situation than when John and I've first started exploring portfolios. We were doing, it sounds like, a lot of the same thinking you were doing, trying to dabble with this idea and just really trying to experiment on what is going to work, how can I do this without completely losing my mind or my life, in terms of a time commitment. Something for us that we eventually did, and this was also when we started experimenting with spiraling curriculum content and breaking free from this rigid unit sort of approach to teaching everything, was that we realized that we were doing the review in the past as a means to essentially re-familiarize them with something that they didn't really understand, right? It was just to get them through it, so it was like a re-teaching of a unit worth of content. Then we would do it again near exams. We'd go back through the entire course, and it was like nothing had ever happened throughout the school year.
It made us realize that we were essentially pulling the wool over our own eyes. We were essentially helping students to get through, quote-unquote, get through these assessments that we had created or these evaluations we had created, and it wasn't a true representation of what they knew, whereas when we went to this portfolio, things got a lot more clear to us on what students needed, like individual students needed. I also wonder, too, you're saying maybe if we're face-to-face, I might be able to pull a couple students or almost make yourself a schedule. I wonder if we were to flip to the other side and let's say you're thinking about your online groups, maybe there's something similar going on as well, where maybe it's like, "Okay, so each day, I'm going to look at" ... And you have yourself a cap of whatever that number is of these virtual class portfolios. Maybe it's two students a day, or maybe it's four, whatever is manageable where you can say, "Okay, I'm not going to allow this to pile up."
I think that's the part that gets us as teachers, whether it's portfolios or assignments or tests or if you're an English teacher and it's essays. We let them pile up where they get almost out of control and it's haunting to try to dive into this huge task, this huge burden, whereas if we were to maintain this schedule where we say, "All right, let's make a habit of this, that we're only going to do whatever that number is for you." I don't want to say the number. But if it's three students a day or whatever it is, it's like you check that off your list, you feel good that you're where you want to be, and then you carry on. It almost forces you to maximize or, I guess, set a maximum on how much you're going to do here because it's really easy for us to lose control and just keep on feedbacking.
John, I know you've got some tips as well on how you might even be able to maybe expedite or simplify some of that process as well. Because I heard, Carmen, you say, oftentimes there's a lot of typing going on, and even then, I've got to assume there's a communication breakdown along the way, too, where you're maybe not understanding what the student wrote or they're not understanding your feedback. John, what are your thoughts on some of these ways that you've used?

Jon Orr: Yeah, so I haven't used the Google Slides as a portfolio yet, but I think I might migrate that way. I want to give it a shot because I think what you've set up here ... Everyone who's listening, Carmen shared with us what the Google Slide looks like. It's really slick, lots of pre-made templates. I really like the idea. But what I'm leaning towards in FreshGrade is where I've got my portfolio set up. It's set up very similar to what you've got. We've got learning goals or standards, and kids can upload evidence and pictures and audio and video to their learning goals, and it demonstrates their learning. Then, also, I provide them next steps in those learning goals, which I've pre-set up. So if you upload some work, but then you want to dive in further, I've got, really, just follow-up problems to solve, and then kids would solve them and then upload those solutions so I can see more consistency. The learning goal pod, which I call them, which is really a folder or a slide on your Google Slides, just holds a lot of different ways they've met that learning goal.
So it's a little less choice on my students' end, whereas yours seem to be very I can choose whatever I want to put on learning goal. But to simplify a little bit, which I've found useful in FreshGrade is I can leave audio comment. Instead of me typing, it's easier for me just to explain it. On FreshGrade, it's pretty simple. You just hit the record button and start going on your phone, and it automatically gets synced to the kid's portfolio. However, I just looked on your portfolio, and you can insert an audio file. So what I would do in that situation would be I'm looking at the kid's portfolio, I'm on the slide, I would just pull up my phone and use my voice notes and record, "Hey, I see this. I think you're doing great here, but maybe on your next iteration or your next addition, can you please show how this moves into this, or maybe try this problem or fix this idea."
Then all you probably would do is just drop it onto that slide, just insert it right onto the slide. I know that might be a little bit of monkeying around in the background, but I feel like when I type ... I'm not a big fan of typing, for sure, anyway, in math class. But if I had to type, I have to think about it first anyway and then start typing, whereas I feel like a verbal comment, you can just go.

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Jon Orr: Especially in today's age, who cares how large that file is? It's all in the cloud. Kid's going to click on it and listen to it when they look at their slide again. So it's possible to do that, and you could drop it into your ... I just went to insert, and then there's an audio, and then it just allows you to pick an audio file from your drive or you can upload it from your device.

Carmen Sinatra: Okay, cool.

Jon Orr: Yeah, I found that that kind of streamlines things. It just makes it a little quicker, but crosstalk-

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah.

Jon Orr: ... still in the sense of you're commenting on their work. I guess I sometimes wonder, it's like, "How much feedback do they actually need?" For example, in my class, it's like I'll write comments on my students' work if it needs to be fixed. I know there's camps that say that we should always be commenting on everything and giving them the next step, even if it's perfect, whereas, in my class, in a high school class, it was a test. If you would've given that question a perfect score on the test, normally you wouldn't have left a comment. You would've just wrote, "Four out of four."
So when I see stuff like that in my portfolio, I actually still just go, "Four out of four," or I reward it. On FreshGrade, you can choose colors instead of numbers, which is kind of cool. It keeps kids thinking about growth instead of values of scores. Then you can say, "Oh, you've got the color orange, which is great." But if it's not correct, that's when I want to be very specific with the feedback. It kind of cuts, also, down on how much feedback and commenting I do because if it's great and I got nothing, actually, for you to fix because it's great, then I don't. I just say, "Hey, you did it. You got your four out of four." Then we move onto something where you do need the help. So those are some tips. We've been chatting a lot, Kyle and I. We'll let you jump in here and share your thoughts.

Carmen Sinatra: Oh, me?

Jon Orr: Yeah.

Carmen Sinatra: Sorry, inaudible-

Kyle Pearce: Yeah.

Carmen Sinatra: Me?

Jon Orr: Back to you.

Kyle Pearce: I kind of liked the silence for a second. I was like, "Oh, this kind of peaceful."

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah, those are some great thoughts. I will definitely try the audio comments. Sometimes, we're reluctant to try and do things because you think, "Oh, no, it's another techy thing to learn." But a little bit of work up front can save you a lot of work at the end, so, yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think I need to cut back on the detail maybe of my comments because it's how much are kids reading and how much do they need to read. If I say a little bit, do I really need to say that much? Maybe that will help me as well. I like the setting up a number of kids to look at.
Again, my colleague and I were talking about how the online class I find so challenging still. The 50 minutes goes by so fast, and sometimes it's still talking into a void, like, "Okay, can I please have some feedback here?" On the days when I do things like a Jamboard or something, it's much better. But, also, we feel like we're go, go, go. There's zero time to ask questions from homework, and we haven't been. So I have my one class, my period four class, that I haven't even seen them yet, and there's just no time to ask for homework. My colleague and I were saying, "Maybe we need to build in a day once a week where we just say, 'All right, it's time for questions.'" Again, instead of doing that, maybe I can somehow make that a portfolio day, something like that. It's kind of got my wheels turning about how I can make use of a day like that.

Kyle Pearce: I guess the one caveat or the one challenge here is obviously time is definitely more crunched. But, as you had mentioned, if you've removed, especially from the face-to-face experience, more formal tests, review days, those sorts of things ... Also, too, I have to assume school assemblies aren't getting in the way, sporting events, extracurriculars, all of these other things that constantly came up during a regular-

Carmen Sinatra: Exam days, review days, you know?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. So this idea of a portfolio day, like you're saying, that was something John and I were doing for quite some time. I know John's still doing it. I'm not in the classroom right now in my role. But John, I know, is doing ... His was weekly. Now, John, actually, I'm curious. I wanted to comment on one other thing, but, John, we haven't talked about this. How are you doing your portfolio days now that you're full day?

Jon Orr: Yeah, so we're full day. We still kind of break it up in blocks. I feel like it's good for the kids to also switch gears because I divide my blocks up, also. It's not like four blocks in a row on just linear relations or trig. I try to keep the spiraling happening so that it feels like they're not in the same math class every day or all day. We'll do linear relations in the morning, but then we'll do measurement in the afternoon. So we'll do stuff like that.
But, anyway, we were, just like Kyle said, spending one day a week on our portfolio days, or we called them growth days. We would open up our FreshGrade accounts or our portfolios, and we'd look at where we are in the learning goals, and we would pick a learning goal to work on and then do the assignments or the questions or the problems or pick something from the past that we had contributed to or even pick something that we struggled on and said, "I struggled here. My next step is here." Then they would upload that to a learning goal. So we'd spend one full period doing that a week. I was just thinking about your time. Kyle, do you remember that when we started those, we thought, "We don't have time to spend one full day a week doing that?"

Kyle Pearce: Yep, totally, totally.

Jon Orr: We thought we would not get through the curriculum if we did that. We found that we actually saved a ton of time because we eliminated the review days. We're eliminating test days because our quizzes and our assessments happen through the portfolio on those days. It was also great, is there was so much reflection from the students happening on those days that it was like every week, they got the review day. But they got to review whatever they wanted. It was very personalized, and every kid was working on something different from their portfolio.
So what does it look like now was Kyle's question, and every four blocks is like four class days or four lessons, so it's kind of like every day I should be doing it, but it didn't work out because we're going to lose a little bit of time there. I've been doing a portfolio block, so an hour, every two days. Today, we did it in our third block, and then we'll do it again on Thursday. After Friday, I won't see that group again for a week, and then they'll come back and they'll do it probably on Tuesday and Thursday or Monday and Wednesday, stuff like that.

Kyle Pearce: And, John, I think, too, I didn't want to lose this because you had mentioned as well just this idea of it almost saved us time in a number of ways. But what we tend to do as well was we started to give kids a question or two on concepts that we actually haven't even explored yet.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep. Tried to unlock them early.

Kyle Pearce: So it was kind of diagnostic, you know?

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah, that's-

Kyle Pearce: We would float something out there, and what it started to make us realize was something that research has been telling us for a long time, but we just always, in our minds, made excuses as to why we couldn't do diagnostic assessments was time. So we would just float in a question. It kind of worked in a couple of ways because, first of all, it kind of forced our students to be better problem-solvers. They had to look at things, and we'd try to keep it low floor enough. We didn't use a bunch of language that we know they wouldn't have come across yet. But we'd try to at least start with the beginnings of a concept that maybe we haven't introduced yet or maybe they may have never even seen before, but based on the way the question was stated, it was almost like an early exploration into that idea.
Oftentimes, we were a bit shocked because especially the things like ... In the past, you'll hear teachers go, "Well, we haven't done that yet," and, in reality, kids have seen a lot of math throughout the years. Maybe we haven't done it yet this year, but they've done it in the past oftentimes, right? Like, fractions is always one elementary teachers, they-

Jon Orr: Especially that grade nine program, yeah.

Carmen Sinatra: Oh, yeah.

Kyle Pearce: Right, yeah. In elementary, they always say, "Oh, well, we haven't done fractions yet," and it's like but kids, they've been doing fractions since kindergarten. So what's the question we can ask that might be able to actually maybe even save us time from the perspective of I was planning to do this big lesson around this or this big activity or experiment or investigation or whatever it is, and then you realize it's like, oh, they actually already know a lot of this. I can maybe skip over this part and be able to dive deeper into a different part. So I love that part about the growth days or the portfolio days. I think in doing so you'll be kind of unlocking some key knowledge. The benefit, as well, with these portfolio days is that John and I would walk around our classes as kids were working, and we would essentially be evaluating or at least feedbacking their portfolios as they went. So when we were talking about trying to balance this out a little bit, it's like you're finding a way to use observation and conversation to help.
The final thing before we'll do a final takeaway and wrap this thing up was just this idea. You had mentioned it as well, Carmen, about sometimes we get carried away, right? We write too much. Are kids even reading it? How useful is this to take this time and dedicate that much time to this written feedback? Just keeping in mind that you can be reviewing a portfolio and you can make yourself one point form comment that will make no sense to kids but if it's to you and you go, "Today, when I see that student, either online or face-to-face, I'm going to have this conversation," that might also really help you as well. So it's like point form, address blah, blah, blah with Tony, and then, oh, okay, when I see Tony, I'm going to actually elaborate on this rather than me having to write it down.
I think sometimes when we write things down, in our minds, we feel like we've done it, like we've done feedback, whereas when we say feedback or when we actually have that conversation, it's like we don't give it the same credit that it deserves, when in reality it's probably more useful than the written. So we'll turn that back to you, and any last thoughts on that, any takeaways today? I guess, really, how are you feeling after the conversation, I think, is one of the big pieces we're hoping to hear from you here before we wrap up.

Carmen Sinatra: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely feeling like I can make this more manageable and hoping that it will help out some of my colleagues as well and that we can get this portfolio going. I really feel strongly about the portfolio. Even the things that I've seen so far with my class really is interesting. You can really tell who really gets the topics and who's just being a little bit superficial. So I really want to get into this idea of growth with the kids. I'm excited to try some of these things, like leaving audio feedback. I think that could be manageable. I can try that out. Yeah, there's ways to go here. I can even start tomorrow when I see my kids. So that's going to be great, yeah.

Jon Orr: We do, too, and I think it's going to be a game-changer in your class. So, Carmen, we want to thank you one more time, being the third time we've chatted with you here on the podcast. We want to definitely thank you-

Carmen Sinatra: Thank you.

Jon Orr: ... for joining us and sharing your insights and being brave enough to talk about your classroom and your struggles. So hats off to you. But thanks so much, and we look forward to, I guess, I'm sure, chatting with you in the future, right, Kyle?

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah, sure.

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely. Well, we're wishing you nothing but the best here. It sounds like, honestly, you are making the best out of a difficult situation, so I'm sure everyone who's listening in the Math Moment Maker community, those who are feeling stress and anxiety and just the challenges that everyone's facing, I'm hoping that through this conversation, they're hearing those silver linings. Hopefully, it's helping everybody take a step in the right direction.

Carmen Sinatra: Yeah. Everybody's doing their best, doing all we can. We take one day at a time and learn from our mistakes and move on and try to make things better continuously with our help and with that community that's out there. It's fantastic.

Kyle Pearce: Thanks so much, Carmen. We'll talk to you soon.

Carmen Sinatra: Okay.

Kyle Pearce: As always, both John and I learn so much from these Math Mentoring Moment episodes, and, in particular, we're really enjoying bringing Carmen on with how relevant her journey has been through this crazy, crazy experience we've been going through in distance learning. But let's be honest here, in order to ensure that we hang onto this new learning so it doesn't wash away like footprints in the sand, we must reflect on what we've learned. An excellent way to ensure this learning sticks is to reflect and create a plan for you, for yourself, to take action on something you've learned here today.

Jon Orr: And a great way to hold yourself accountable is to write it down or, even better yet, share it with someone. It could be your partner. It could be colleagues at your school or with a member of the Math Moment Maker community by commenting on the show notes page, tagging @makingmathmoments on social media, or in our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12.

Kyle Pearce: Now, since we've discussed so much about assessment throughout this episode, through portfolios and other methods, we wanted to make sure you knew about a course inside the Make Math Moments Academy. It's called Assessment for Growth.

Jon Orr: That's right. If you want to take a deep dive into assessment, get started by grabbing a month of membership for free by visiting makemathmoments.com/academy.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, that's makemathmoments.com/academy. And just so you know, you can probably get through all of that material within that month, so go check it out.

Jon Orr: I'm sure you would. I'm sure you would.

Kyle Pearce: Dive in and enjoy the learning.

Jon Orr: Are you interested in joining us for an upcoming Math Mentoring Moment episode like this one here with Carmen where you, too, can share a big math class struggle? You can apply over at makemathmoments.com/mentor. That's makemathmoments.com/mentor.

Kyle Pearce: Show notes and links to resources from this episode as well as full transcripts that are downloadable can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode105. Holy smokes, we are over 100 episodes. Again, makemathmoments.com/episode105. Well, my friends, until next time, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm John Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High-fives for us.

Jon Orr: And a high five for you.

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