Episode #87 How To Teach My Class When Students Are Underprepared – A Math Mentoring Moment

Jul 27, 2020 | Podcast | 0 comments


In this episode we speak with Math Moment Maker Stephanie Moore from North Carolina. Stephanie is a college instructor recently became a Making Math Moments Certified Educator after enrolling in our Full Online Workshop. 

We chat with Stephanie about how to prepare students who are underprepared, how to handle lesson flops and what to do next, and what can you do when it seems everyone is struggling. 

This is another  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 prepare students who are underprepared;
  • How to ensure we cover content when teaching with problem based lessons;
  • What to do after you have a big lesson flop;
  • What you can do to assess your students in replace of always testing;
  • How to look at your class when it seems everyone is struggling.


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Stephanie Moore: … I see that it’s a problem this not having the basic concepts for the grade level you’re teaching, or giving out high school diplomas really are essentially worthless because the students can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t do critical thinking. But in college when you give a grade, employers are looking at resumes, they’re saying, “Well, this person passed this class. They must know some of the material.” Right? In that sense, when they come to my classes, I can’t give them a passing grade unless they really know the material. [crosstalk 00:00:29].

Jon Orr: In this episode, we speak with Math Moment Maker, Stephanie Moore, from North Carolina. Stephanie, a college instructor recently became a Making Math Moments certified educator after enrolling in our full online workshop.

Kyle Pearce: We chat with Stephanie about how to prepare students who are under-prepared, how to handle lesson flops, and what to do next, as well as what can you do when it seems everyone is struggling? It’s important to note that this episode actually was recorded before beginning her journey in the Make Math Moments online workshop.

Jon Orr: This is another math mentoring moment episode, where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker community like you, who is working through struggles. And together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them. Hit it.

Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce from tapintoteamminds.com.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.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 lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: Fuels sense-making.

Kyle Pearce: … And ignite your teacher moves. Welcome to this next episode with our now good friend, Stephanie Moore, who recently joined us in the online workshop.

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 time to share feedback by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts.

Kyle Pearce: This week, we want to highlight Kay Party of Seven, who gave us a five star rating, and review that said-

Jon Orr: “Great resource. This podcast is an inspirational tool for all math educators. It has helped me to shift my thinking on what is important to emphasize, to create first-class problem solvers.”

Kyle Pearce: That’s awesome. We can’t thank Kay Party of Seven enough for taking the time out of their busy day to not only listen to our episodes, but to also help us increase our number of listeners around the world by giving us a rating and review. And now, we have over 250 ratings from around the globe, and over 100 written reviews in Apple Podcasts. Can you believe it, Jon?

Jon Orr: Woo. It is mind-blowing there. If you haven’t taken a moment to go and give us an honest rating and review on Apple Podcasts, we would certainly appreciate it.

Kyle Pearce: All right. Now, one last thing before we get to our discussion with Stephanie, if you’ve been listening to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast for some time now, it’s likely that you’ve heard us raving about using vertical non-permanent surfaces in our classrooms to get our students up out of their seats, and actively fueling sense-making. While regular, old chalk or whiteboards will do the trick, oftentimes, there are not enough vertical non-permanent surfaces in your classroom to accommodate all of your learners.

Jon Orr: Well, that’s where our friends at White Book come in. Toby and Frank from White Book have these super cool and very portable flip chart packs that are great for filling the vertical non-permanent service void in your classroom or wherever you’re facilitating.

Kyle Pearce: Jon, and I even use them at conferences and workshops to get our teacher participants up, and actively fueling their sense-making. And now you can too. White Book is an official Make Math Moments partner, which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting whitebook.com/moments.

Jon Orr: That’s whitebook.com/moments. And if you’re ordering for a school or a district, and need more than a few packs, then you can head over to whitebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well.

Kyle Pearce: All right, enough about our good friends at White Book, we’re going to jump into this awesome conversation with pre-workshop Stephanie. Hey there, Stephanie, thanks for joining us here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. How are you doing today?

Stephanie Moore: I’m doing very well. Thank you.

Jon Orr: We’ve had a little chance to chat before we hit the record button here, but let our listeners know Stephanie. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you coming from? How long have you been teaching? What do you teach? And give us a snapshot of what it looks like for you on a daily basis.

Stephanie Moore: Well, I’m located in North Carolina, and I’ve been teaching at a college level for this’ll be my fourth year coming up. I started teaching late in life. And I generally teach two or three classes in the fall, and then two or three classes in the spring. I have been teaching developmental math and pre-calculus, although, I did teach intro to stats for a couple semesters. And next fall, I’ll be doing all developmental classes.

Kyle Pearce: You know, we’ve learned a lot about you from some of your sharing that you’ve done in the forum of the academy, which is fantastic. I’m wondering now … This is a question for everyone who’s listened to any of our episodes, previously, we always ask this question to kick things off, and get us into a great conversation. We like to talk about a math moment from your learning experience. So, thinking back, and when somebody says math class, what moment pops into your mind?

Stephanie Moore: Not so much moments. Well, there’s one bad moment, but there’s several good times. The bad moment was in 10th grade, I was taking trigonometry, and I just for some reason was not getting the trig functions were ratios, and I’d go home and cry. My parents didn’t ever have trig, so they couldn’t help me. And I was asking the teacher for help, and she called me a quitter in front of the whole class. And I cried. And that did not make her a popular teacher with me. Fortunately, before her, I had a teacher in seventh to ninth grade, she taught both years, who was very kind.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody in middle school that learned Venn diagrams, and the bullying logic structures, and then rigorous proofs. And she taught us all that. I don’t remember which grade, because I had her both grades, but that really stood me in good stead.

Kyle Pearce: I’m so happy that you were able to recognize a moment that maybe wasn’t so favorable, but then also luckily had some moments that were. I can relate to you on the trig side of things. I was a memorizer. We talk about it a lot. Jon and I are very similar in our experiences. And I very vividly remember using trig, being able to calculate based on SohCahToa, or whatever other acronyms that we use in mathematics to help us memorize things. But I will tell you, it was not until I was a teacher that I actually am sure I wrote down in my notes a million times that trig functions were ratios. But I did not have the understanding that trig functions were ratios. To me it was a button on the calculator. You hit this button, and then everything is A okay.

And to be honest, I never really questioned about it, but I was a lucky one who managed to follow the procedure, and I managed to get through. So, while our stories are a little different with trig, I think we can definitely relate on that level that we both didn’t feel we had that understanding at least initially. So, thanks for sharing that with us.

Stephanie Moore: I think that anything we try and teach we learn more about. Like my husband teaches chemistry, and he’s got a PhD, and he says every semester he learns something new. And he’s only teaching intro chemistry.

Jon Orr: Yeah, totally. Every year I’m learning something new about the content, but also how the content can be taught, but are not taught, or how it reacts with students. So, I definitely agree there, Stephanie. Stephanie, I’m wondering about that interaction that was negative for you. And sometimes I just get curious, and this part right now has me curious in you were called a quitter in front of everybody, which is super hurtful by that teacher, but I’m wondering what happened after. Do you think that it affected you to do something different, or same? Or I’m just curious of whether that interaction … Obviously, it has stuck with you, and rightly so, but I’m wondering if you use that to help do something next.

Stephanie Moore: I think it really made me determined to never be called a quitter. I mean, it just made me mad, and I was going to prove them wrong.

Kyle Pearce: That’s always an awesome approach for sure. I had a very similar experience like that. Sometimes I wonder if maybe those negative experiences the universe is in some crazy way nudging us to think differently or do something differently. And maybe there was a positive from that. Not encouraging people to say that to students, but sometimes I wonder how the universe works in funny ways. Maybe that gave you a little bit of grit to keep going and prove that teacher wrong.

Stephanie Moore: Possibly. Yeah. I think with my students, I try to always get to know them. I like to know as much about them as people as possible. And so, when I’m approaching them, I can say, “Well, this one needs encouragement, or this one needs a kick in the pants.” You know? It can be tough love, or it can be encouraging, warm, cuddly kind of love to get them through whatever it is they’re going through.

Jon Orr: Definitely the interaction, and the way you give feedback to a student differs on that student, especially, if you know them. You could know how they will take it. And I think that catering, or that customization is super important for us. Would you mind sharing a recent success you’ve had in your teaching role?

Stephanie Moore: I was talking with my husband about this last night. And I think, for me, when I think of success, the reason I went into teaching was I wanted to impact people’s lives in a positive way. And I didn’t really care if it was math, or history, or English that I was teaching, but math happened to be the thing I could get a master’s in the quickest. So, recently this past semester I had a student in pre-calculus whose parents were very domineering. She was a high school student doing a college course, and they were just absolutely going to be all over her case if she didn’t get an A, and she was just freaked out. She didn’t understand my test, and she didn’t come see me, and kept talking to her.

And by the end of the semester, she had relaxed. Like I sat and talked to her for a long time about taking ownership of her own life because she was going away to college in the next year. And she really seemed to take that to heart. And she started coming to me with questions. And by the end of the semester the As were there, and she wasn’t freaked out anymore. So, that’s a success to me.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I would definitely say that’s a success. Those interactions that we have with our students go a long way. And you know, I was a teacher … Stephanie, I’m not sure how many episodes of the podcast you’ve listened to, but we like to share where we were and where we are now. And I was the teacher that was very concerned about content, and not students. And I’m sorry to say that now, but I was really focusing on, “Let’s learn this content.” I interacted with the kids, obviously, on a regular basis, but I really didn’t focus on who they were. And to provide that support that all those students need.

I’m glad that you brought that up because I think that’s so important now, and that I’ve definitely made that change now. And I’ve seen that power that just knowing your students and getting to know them on a personal level works wonders with so many different aspects of teaching mathematics.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. For sure. And something else too, I think is really important for us to remember, and that it’s easy to forget is we often reflect on our classroom experiences, and we look for successes that are very instant. Oftentimes, failures feel pretty instant. Like when we have struggles, they happen sort of fast and furious. But the successes I find we have to be more patient to recognize them. And I’m hearing that in your story that you’ve shared is that it did take time.

This wasn’t something that you could just implement in your classroom, show some care, and some concern for a student then suddenly the success is there. It’s like you have to nurture it. And it takes some time. So, thanks for sharing that. When we chat with our math mentoring moment, guests, we always like to chat about anything that might be on your mind lately that we might be able to dig into here. So we’re wondering about any problems of practice, or struggles, or challenges that you might’ve experienced along your journey, and might be on your mind now that we can chat with together, the three of us.

But I also like to think that we’re tackling it as a community because the whole Math Moment Maker community is challenged with many of the same struggles. So, I’m wondering what’s on your mind lately, Stephanie?

Stephanie Moore: I’m doing your academy now, and it’s helpful. I was listening to the five big mistakes you can make. And the last one about being consistent, not intense. I think that it’s been a few times I’ve tried the three math, and it’s been a big flop because it’s not in the culture, I think. I see a lot on the community that people worry about covering all the content if we do this, this kind of lesson going to take too long, or can I really do this every day? Kind of thing. So, that’s one thing. And then the other thing is I had begun talking to you in emails about how our system today the students are just passed from grade to grade to grade to grade, and they don’t know the math, and they’re still graduating high school.

And then at the college level now, we’re seeing four year schools that offer developmental math. Almost every four year school offers a developmental math course because I got students coming to me that don’t know even integer addition, and subtraction, and multiplication. They don’t know how to deal with negative numbers. Their calculus teachers complain they still can’t do fractions. And I’m thinking, “How did we get to this state that we’re graduating students from high school that can’t do simple math?” And it’s hard when like I teach the developmental course, and we’re supposed to start with graphing things, and linear equations, but they’re lost from day one because they still can’t add two negative numbers.

Jon Orr: I like to repeat some of the struggles that the teachers share with us, just so that makes sure that we’re all on the same page. And I think this last one that you’ve articulated about lack of basic math concepts, moving from grade level to grade level, this is a common thing that I think we all have to deal with. Remember Kyle, we heard in a kindergarten classroom that the grade ones are lacking the concepts needed to learn at a grade one, kids going into college, like you’re suggesting, but we’re also saying kids going into ninth grade, this is something that we’re all dealing with. So, I’m glad you’ve brought this up.

I think we can also definitely chat about the big flops that we’ve had in our lessons. And where do we go from there? And maybe why did we have these big flops? I think you’ve thought about some possible reasons why that might have been already when you stated that the culture has to be there. And I think we agree there, but we can dive into that a little bit deeper. The third one there you’ve articulated is like, will I be able to cover the content if I switch to teaching in this model? Definitely a big concern that we all have. So, I’m wondering before we get into all of that, is there anything else that you want to add?

Stephanie Moore: Yes, actually. I mean, I see that it’s a problem this not having the basic concepts for the grade level you’re teaching, or giving out high school diplomas really are essentially worthless because the students can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t do critical thinking. But in college when you give a grade, employers are looking at resumes, they’re saying, “Well, this person passed this class. They must know some of the material.” Right? If they got a C or better, they should know some of the materials. So, in that sense, when they come to my classes, I can’t give them a passing grade unless they really know the material. I can help them along in their math journey, but the grades still has to reflect, do they know what this class says they should know?

Kyle Pearce: And this is definitely a common challenge. This one in particular, and maybe we can do a little bit of riffing on that. Back in episode 26 is what Jon was referencing, where the title of the episode is How To Overcome A Common Math Myth From K Through College. And it’s something that I think every teacher at every grade level is feeling. And I’m not saying that it’s not true because I think it is true that we have so many students at varying levels of readiness, that it can be extremely difficult. And it’s something that we’ve chatted about quite a few times, not only on the podcast, but in a lot of our online trainings, our webinars inside the academy, our workshop.

And it is a challenge. This is something that we all are struggling with. And I think as you move through and you head into postsecondary, this is where it sort of comes to a huge head because you’re in a position where you’re now out of the K-12 system, and you’re in postsecondary. And there’s a lot of really difficult things going on there. And I mean, some of the challenges we could discuss, we could talk about logistics, and how do colleges accept students into programs? And all of those things, which we can’t control. So, we won’t talk about them now.

I think what we might be able to do is maybe chat about what might we be able to do that’s within our sphere of influence? Because some of these things are in our sphere of concern, but we actually don’t have any real means to address them ourselves. So, when we’re chatting about these things, I’m wondering, in particular, what would it look like or sound like when let’s say students are coming in? So, clearly, this is on your mind. What are some of your thinking, and maybe some of your pre-planning approaches to help you try to address some of these varying levels of student readiness currently?

Stephanie Moore: Can I go back to something you said just a moment before we go into that?

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely.

Stephanie Moore: There is a lot that’s not under our sphere of control, but I think that having these kinds of conversations, if there’s so many websites or groups that want to say K-12, like we’re a little thing, and there’s postsecondary, and people are people throughout the spectrum. And I think the more conversations we can have across all education levels, the better the students will benefit, and the more the teachers will benefit. So, I’m glad that you’re willing to talk with me even though I teach post-secondary.

Kyle Pearce: Oh yeah. I think the big differentiator between K-12, because even when we talk with elementary or middle school teachers, and high school teachers, we can almost look at it as like a, it’s almost niched down, right? Where an elementary teacher feels like they aren’t connected to the middle school teacher, and the middle school teacher doesn’t feel connected to the high school. But I think the biggest disconnect is definitely when you leave K-12, because you’re in publicly funded education. I know here in Ontario, and this may be slightly different in different states across the United States, but here our mandate is to help students learn, to help them be contributing members of society.

The end goal of K-12 in Ontario is not only postsecondary. And some students are on that path to postsecondary, but other students are not. And that’s another piece that kind of makes it a little bit trickier because I think the mindset that we have in North America, anyway, and I feel it’s probably common in many countries around the world is that everyone must go to college or university. And the reality is that there are other options out there. And that makes it a little harder when everyone’s feeling a pressure to go down a certain path. And maybe that’s not the best path for every student, but it doesn’t take away from the challenge that you’re experiencing at that level. Right?

I want to be completely respectful to that where you have students coming in, and your course content is this, and students are struggling with course content that you had assumed, or at least the course content creator, the curriculum writer has assumed students have. And we know that’s not the case. In any grade level, I think anyone who’s teaching any grade right now, K through postsecondary is nodding their head going, “Yeah, I’m experiencing this too.” And I think it shows up more dramatically as we move through the years because those gaps get even the larger. As we’re thinking about this, maybe we can all brainstorm on some ideas on how to meet those students where they are. Things like holding students back, which was used in the past.

Things that I bring up when I get in these types of discussions that we should at least think about is that dropout rates were very high back when that was going on. And a lot of research suggests that students are held back a grade, in general, they don’t necessarily … It’s not like the gaps magically close. Like a lot of students will get down on themselves, and then maybe just feel like school isn’t for them, but that’s not always the case. But that’s why I think a lot of systems have moved towards more of a, let’s try to meet students where they are. Let’s try to give them that experience.

So, what might that look like or sound like as you’re planning? Knowing that I’m going to have students coming in at all these varying levels, what might that look like, sound like? Or maybe this is a challenge that you’re experiencing or a problem of practice that we can even dive into?

Stephanie Moore: Well, I think for me, when I’m teaching developmental math at a college level, my assumption is these kids don’t like math. That’s pretty standard, have done so badly in math, you’re in a developmental class. You usually don’t like math. And it’s usually a pretty scary subject. So, I think one of the first things I do with all my classes, anyway, is try to establish a classroom culture of being safe to ask questions, safe to fail. And I try to really encourage the students to get to know one another because you can’t laugh at somebody that you know as easily as you can. You would never poke fun at one of your friends, try and hurt their feelings. So, I try and get the students to know each other, and I try to get to know them, and try and say, “It’s safe to come see the teacher. It’s not like going to the principal’s office in high school.”

And then sometimes, I give a little diagnostic not as a test, but just a little diagnostic homework at the beginning to say, “Where are you? Because I don’t know you at all. Let me see how you do on these problems.” And that helps me know where to focus better. And then, in spite of what I’m supposed to teach, I usually do try and do about a week of fractions, or maybe even a week of integers, and then maybe two weeks on exponents because they struggle with that in order of operations. So, it’s really basic stuff that I’m having to do before I can really start where the curriculum is supposed to start. I might spend a month on all of that.

Jon Orr: I want to get a better picture of this. And so, I’m wondering if you can paint us a picture. You mentioned that you want that class to feel super safe. What does that look like? What activities have you used? And I’m sure the community here can benefit from this too, is that what activities say do you recommend, or have used to build that culture early?

Stephanie Moore: I usually try a different one every semester just because I like finding new things. But one I tried was from a … I don’t know, it was from an English teacher or somebody. They said, “Just walk into class the first day, come in right at the time class starts, don’t say anything, have a box or bag with you, and you pull out 15 different items, put them on your desk. Don’t say a word, just put them back away, and then ask the students how many of those items they can list.” And you get the funniest responses. I had one kid sitting right in front of me. He said, “Well, I don’t know, because I thought you were looking through your purse for something, and I didn’t want to be nosing in on your private business.”

And I thought, “I don’t usually carry a paper bag for my purse, but that’s okay.” You know? Then you can discuss. Well, somebody will say, “I didn’t have a pencil, or I couldn’t see, it was too small.” And then you can discuss, you need to sit up front, you need to bring pencil, be prepared for class. And then you do it again. And you teach them a lot of learning skills just by going through that little exercise, doing it over again, and describing each item, and having them describe each item. So, now you’ve added sound to it. And I’ll usually put them in groups the first day or two, and have them get to know each other, maybe introduce each other to the class instead of introducing themselves.

Kyle Pearce: It sounds like that piece, I think, by far is one of the most important pieces of starting any school year at any grade level, K-12 or postsecondary. And I would argue that when we do our actual workshops in-person, when we’re actually with people, we spend a good chunk of time with building that community and that trust. And I heard that in your message earlier is if we build that community, then there’s no fear of being judged. There’s no fear of being laughed at, or anything like that. And I think that’s so important. And I think this would be a great spot for anyone who’s thinking ahead to next school year.

Hopefully, everyone’s back in this upcoming school year. Everything’s going to be back to face-to-face, and everything’s going to be back to normal after the whole COVID-19 experience. But we do have an episode, episode 36, How to Start the School Year Off Right. And there’s a guide there that you can download for anyone who’s listening, just for some ideas, just like what Stephanie’s shared. So, you’ve got one from Stephanie, and then you’ve got a bunch of others that you can check out there as well. That’s so important.

Now, I want to dig a little deeper into, so obviously building that community, that culture is so key. And then you had shared this idea of spending some time going through some of these past skills. And this is common, again, at any grade level. This is something commonly that we hear teachers doing. I know I did it for many years where I was like, “All right, I’ve got to do the review of grade eight if I was teaching grade nine.” Or whatever it might be. What might that time spent with fractions, for example, what would that look like, sound like? If we’re like, “All right, we want to make sure students are okay with fractions before we move on.”

What does that look like, sound like? And if you’re willing to share some of the results. Have you seen some students their light bulbs going on, or maybe there’s some things that we can riff on about how we might modify that while still bringing those past skills to the table?

Stephanie Moore: Yeah. I’ve written an investigation that I’m not sure they really grasp. I’ve been working on trying to modify it. But I have a little investigation that asked them to answer questions with a different partner for each question. And the first one is just, what is a fraction? What do you think a fraction is? And discuss it with your partner, and come up with the answer you both agree on, hopefully. The next question is, I have a quarter of a sheet of paper, does that mean each quarter of it is an equal size, or can I divide it into four pieces of any size, and claim I have a quarter of a sheet of paper? And write down your answer, and your explanation.

And then, if Rob and Sue order two medium pizzas, one pepperoni, and one cheese, and each pizza is cut in eight slices, and in total they eat three slices of pepperoni, and four slices of cheese, have they eaten seven eights of the pizza or seven 68s of the pizza? Draw a picture to help, write down your answer, and explain it. So, that depends whether they’re looking at each pizza as a unit, or if they’re looking at the total number of pizza, right? And then I got this one from Jo Boaler. If I want to divide three large cookies equally amongst four people, how much does each person get? Draw a picture to help you figure out the answer? And she explains in her book, Mathematical Mindsets, that second graders can do this one just by dividing each cookie into four, and seeing what happens.

Jon Orr: Those are great examples. What I really love is the openness of some of the questions like the investigation portion. And open questions for me, which I learned from Marian Small from her book, Good questions, and More Good Questions for high school mathematics. That was my ticket into changing the way my math class went. I definitely gave a diagnostic assessment and spent a week on basic facts before any of my courses. And when I started to switch from that model to go to more investigative, to go to more problem-based tasks, to start the year, to start the class, to build in that culture that we’ve been talking about instead of using the diagnostic, since I’m talking about that right now is why I went away from a diagnostic assessment? Now, I completely understand that some schools, some districts will require you to give one, but mine didn’t.

And I did it for the same reason I think many of us do it is to go, “Oh, let me see how they do on this test.” And I felt like, eventually, when I shifted away from that one, I wanted to build this great culture is that giving them a short test rate in the first week didn’t welcome them in? It just reiterated that, “Hey, math class is going to be about tests. That’s how you’re going to communicate your understanding and learning to me. And here’s one to start us all off.”

So, I went away from that because I also felt that when I watch them in action after one day … And I’m sure you felt like this too, Stephanie, is that when you watch kids interact with the mathematics, and each other, you can walk out of that classroom that day and know about those students probably just as much as you would have known if you spent the time marking a diagnostic assessment. You can know which kids are showing skills from previous knowledge, which kids aren’t, which kids are going to be engaging, which kids aren’t, which kids are showing leadership, which ones were kind of hesitant.

I think we learned so much when we jumped right into tasks right off the bat than going and doing the diagnostics. So, that’s why I moved away from a diagnostic assessment. And I moved into the open questions for Marian Small, because I think by giving those open questions, and you sitting back and listening to how they interact, some of the investigations that you’re incorporating into your early week is so important just because I think it gives you so much more information than what a piece of paper might show.

Kyle Pearce: And something there too, Jon, you were mentioning that that’s something you heard that you’re really liking. I immediately went to the thought of math discourse, which essentially, and everything that you’ve outlined Jon, and shared about what you’re liking about what Stephanie is doing here, math discourse is that part where you get. When you provide those great prompts, those open prompts like you’re suggesting, you get to be walking around, and monitor, and listen in, like you were sharing, you’re hearing students’ math discourse, or sometimes it’s lack thereof, right?

Like, especially, early in the year, you can get this good read on different students, and how open they are with sharing their thoughts. And you probably notice that certain students are more comfortable doing so than others. Others might not even want to engage initially. So, it sounds like lots of great ideas here. You’d mentioned Jo Boaler, and you cubed great activities there, and thoughts to get things going. Do you mind helping us continue painting that picture? This is like a big mural you’re painting for us, and everyone who’s listening, where would it go from there?

So, you’ve given some students some great prompts, some things to investigate. Where does it go next? Again, I’m trying to bring in some of this past learning that I’m pretty sure you had already mentioned, like you’re pretty confident that some students aren’t going to be super strong because in the past they haven’t. So, you’re using that as an assumption to work with and build on, what happens next after students have engaged in some of these open questions, investigations? Where do we go next?

Stephanie Moore: Well, in the past, I’ve always gone back to the … I get a lot of pushback if I try to flip the classroom, or if I try to keep doing open activities because I get students throwing up their hands going, “Just tell me the answer, tell me what I have to do to get an A.” And that’s all they care about. And I’m prone to giving into that because most people don’t like conflict, or to not be like, “This is a terrible class, blah, blah, blah.” And I do still give the assessment, like I said, I usually give it as a homework assignment, or outside of class assignment. And I tell them, “No, it’s not for a grade, not at all. I just want to see where you are.” And a lot of times, I don’t even give it back. They don’t know what they got. I just want to see what they know.

Because I think the assessment is useful to see what they’ll do on what a typical test will look like. I have not found a good way other than tests to assess math knowledge that I feel comfortable giving a grade on. I’ve done some projects where they get to put it all together, especially, with stats, it’s easier to do that. But a lot of times it’s really hard, and especially, in college to say, “I’m going for that A. I don’t care about anything. I just want my GPA to be good.”

And then they turn in work that’s not good. You know? And it’s difficult to convey your expectations to them, and to get them interested in the concepts not just the grade.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I think when you said kids only care about getting an A, and I think that’s partly true in the sense that I think what kids are really saying is that they just want to be successful. And they equate the A with being successful. So, I’m gunning for this mark. And when kids see that mark, they feel successful. And so, there’s a little feedback loop right there. And in my classes, everything’s a work in progress. And one of my classes, I’m shifting some of that mindset of my students to instead of say, getting an A, and I definitely want them to get an A, and do I have to give grades, and marks? And oh yeah, I have to do all that. But what I would rather them do is shift towards feeling the success.

And I feel like I’ve been doing a better job of that without say giving them a number mark or a letter mark. For example, I think kids are used to say, “I want to see an A on that test.” But I feel like … And Kyle and I have talked about this many times off air and on air, in the sense that by the time a test rolls around from the activities that we’ve been doing in class, giving kids a chance to showcase learning before we do the whole, I do, we do, you do kind of model where we just demonstrate and show mathematics calculations.

When we give kids an actual chance to solve problems through tasks, and investigations, and you learn about what they’re doing, I feel like by the time the test comes around, you already know which kids are going to be successful on that test or not. And the test is just a confirmation of what you already know as a teacher. And then we use that test to say, “See, this is proof that you need to do a little bit more work, you’re progressing well.” Whereas, I’d rather my students know all that before that test too.

And that’s just communication. Like, I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of feedback, and this is verbal feedback. Not necessarily written feedback on student work in class. I guess, all of that boils down to having more confidence in assigning grades without seeing an actual piece of paper, just because of the experience of, “Yep, that kid has shown this, this, and this. I’ve recorded it by either taking a picture of their work, or writing a comment down in my comment book.” Or maybe it’s in our learning management system online, if that’s the way we’re tracking marks right now, or tracking progress right now.

I feel like the confidence I get in knowing what my student knows through the tasks, through the activities, in interacting with them on a regular basis has allowed me to say, “You know what? I don’t actually need this test to give them a mark.” And I know that’s controversial for a lot of people, and I know that’s new in thinking, but I feel like just through experience, they correspond anyway. And so, yes, do I give quizzes and tests in certain classes? I definitely do. In certain classes I don’t.

So, I guess, where we’re going is I just wanted to comment on this idea of kids just want to feel success. And if we can show them that success in different ways, then I think that they will respond to that. They’ll feel like the class is worthwhile. They’ll feel like the teaching is worthwhile. And the choices that teachers are making to run class [inaudible 00:37:12], there’s less retaliation. And like, “What are you doing? Just tell me how to get the right answer.” That common, they have less of that if a kid feels they trust the teacher, and that they have their best interest in mind. I know that was a lot. What do you think, Kyle?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, Jon, that was quite a mouthful. However, lots of really good ideas to be shared there. And again, what it sounds like to me is you’re not necessarily advocating that we’re not assessing because that’s definitely not the message. It just might be that maybe assessment doesn’t have to always happen in the way that we typically used assessments in order to evaluate students. So, we’re going to flip it back to Stephanie. I want to get her thoughts, her wonders, her noticings from what you’ve shared. And then we’ll build off of that there, Steph. So, what are you thinking based on what Jon’s talking about in terms of assessment?

Stephanie Moore: I had a teacher at the community college who I was taking a physics class and an astronomy class for him. And he was very much into standards-based grading. And he got so much pushback. Students would just routinely drop his class because they didn’t know what the grade was. So, I think he would say, trust me, and you’ll get an A, if you do the work. And I was okay with that because I was just taking physics for fun. But people that were trying to get into med school or whatever were all stressed out, and freaked out because you really couldn’t determine your grade.

You just knew whether you met the standard, or didn’t. You didn’t really know how many you had to meet, and how many there were going to be. And so, I teach at a private school, small private school, that’s very expensive, and most of the students are on scholarship, and so to keep their scholarship or their government loan money, they have to make certain grades, or be suspended, or lose their scholarship. And a lot of them are on athletic scholarships too. A lot of athletic scholarships at our school. So, the grades become very important. I tell them, “Homework doesn’t tell me you know the material, especially, with an online homework system, you can cheat, and have somebody else do the homework.”

So, I’ve struggled with how to assess other than tests. But you’re right, you do know who’s going to do well, and who’s not, for the most part. Occasionally, they’ll surprise you. But just from watching the interactions, even in a lecture back and forth. I don’t know what lecture you call it, where you ask questions, get feedback, and stuff, or where you walk around, and watching working groups, you do know who knows this stuff and who doesn’t.

Kyle Pearce: These ideas are so big. And actually, I’ll say many of them are very common because they come up a lot when we chat with people in workshops as well as in the forum, but also on the podcast. And standards-based grading, one piece here. We don’t want to dive too deep into that idea because this could turn into a 12-hour podcast very quickly because we’re talking about some big ideas. But just to touch on that. I know that when Jon and I started shifting towards more of a standards-based grading system, what I found it did for me, personally, was it made me clarify for myself what it was I was actually looking for.

And not saying that I didn’t know, in general, what I was looking for before, but now it made me look at ideas, like say fractions. We were discussing fractions earlier, like to look more specifically at what about fractions am I trying to look for? And if I don’t see it, if I’m walking around the room, and Jon and I are big advocates for problem-based learning. So, even if we were trying to do “review” of previous content, we would try to pick tasks that would give students this opportunity to do exactly what you were sharing earlier, which is this idea of allowing them to discuss and collaborate together.

And that gives us an opportunity to walk around the room, and monitor what students are saying, what they’re doing. And then that also gives me the opportunity to go a little deeper in an area. And I found before standards-based grading, I wasn’t looking specifically enough, or I wasn’t thinking specifically enough about what it was I wanted to know whether a student understood, or could do based on that bigger topic. I knew I wanted to work on fractions, but what about fractions did I want to make sure that Susie understood, right? Or another student, Eli, understood in my classroom.

And by doing that, it gave me something to think about. And it helped me frame some purposeful questions around those ideas, so that I can do some of that assessment more on the fly in the classroom. Because like you’re saying, Stephanie, you already have a good sense of how students are going to do, but what I’m hearing is you don’t want to just put a mark down, and say, “Well, I was walking around the room.” Right? That’s not going to fly very well with many students. And in your position as well, where you’re in postsecondary, like the grades do matter.

We can’t control what those systems will look like, but if we can make that process easier for ourself, I think that will be really helpful. And I know right now that you’re in the online workshop, and working through the content. We do have specific modules that are going to go into planning. So, talking about this idea of like the before moves of a lesson. So, we’ve been riffing on them a little bit here in terms of that first couple of weeks of school, like planning what we’re going to do when we go into the classroom.

But then also those jarring moves, which are really important. And then, we also have a module where we dive deep into the idea of how we organize our content as well as how we actually assess. So, those are coming up later in the workshop. I know you’re in the first module or two of the workshop. And as you move through, we’ve had such a great conversation thus far. I’m wondering if maybe we would be able to invite you back on to the podcast maybe sooner than we typically invite people over. Like once you’re done the workshop, and then maybe we can build on what we’ve discussed here.

Maybe talk about some of the things, the thinking that’s changed, or some of the moves that may have changed as a result. And then we can dive even deeper into some of these ideas that we’ve discussed today. How does that sound for you on your end?

Stephanie Moore: Yeah, that sounds really good. And maybe by that time, I’ll know whether we’re going to be face-to-face or online in the fall because-

Kyle Pearce: Oh, please, we’re hoping for it.

Jon Orr: It’s possible. Yeah.

Stephanie Moore: I know because I really don’t know how to get these group interactions in an online setting even with Zoom, in the breakout rooms, it’s just different.

Jon Orr: It’s definitely something we’re working on too. This is all new to all of us. And we definitely, we’re trying to learn as distance learning, and you know in the academy that we are building out is all of our webinars last week were based on distance learning, and how to do this on a regular basis. We’ve built a new course inside the academy just specifically on that. So, we’ll be looking to branch that out over time. Stephanie, I’m wondering as we wrap up here, what in this discussion would you say is one of the big takeaways you’ve had that you’re going to take with you, and apply into your teaching coming up?

Stephanie Moore: Boy, I hate these kinds of questions [crosstalk 00:44:30].

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. And that’s why we ask them. Right? It’s definitely hard thinking, hard thoughts, but again, with a big takeaway, it could be something that made you go, “Huh.” That you want to think more about, or maybe it’s something that you want to maybe focus more intently on or explore more. Yeah, for sure.

Stephanie Moore: I was really intrigued by your mention of the book, Good Questions and More Good Questions, because I think I struggle to frame good questions, and to not jump right in there and give students answers. Because I have these little investigations here and there, but I struggled to do that every day to come up with good questions. And so, maybe the planning part of your workshop will help me out because I planned really well for the first two weeks. And I’m like, “Okay, I’m done.” And then after that it fly by the seat of my pants. You know?

Kyle Pearce: You know what though, you’re not alone. I know people at home are saying, yes, because that is something that’s big. I’ve talked about it a lot recently that one of my own personal, professional learning goals is the idea of posing purposeful questions. And I’ve referenced the eight effective teaching practices from NCTM quite a few times on the podcast. And posing purposeful questions is like we talk about math instruction. And I used to think math instruction, it was very formulaic. It’s very scientific. You do these things, and everything’s good. But I now realize that there’s so much of an art form. And questioning I think is part, is really heavily in that art form piece.

So, I’m trying to monitor what students are doing in my classroom to influence the questions that I can ask in the moment, but also as I plan forward. So, those next moves that we talk about in the workshop as well. And that for me is a big one. I also am hearing you’re saying something that we hear a lot, and I know we have been there. And we’re still working on these things, is this idea of it’s great to have an awesome investigation, let’s say to start the class, but then oftentimes it’s really hard for us to shift away from that, “All right, now let’s get into the “lesson” where now I’m going to tell you how to do these different things.”

How do we use purposeful questions as the launch pad for my entire lesson? For how I can lead that more of a problem-based lesson from start to end? So, that’s something else that throughout the workshop you’re going to be seeing here, Stephanie, we’re going to be encouraging you to try to think about different topics, and then think about how we can approach them from a problem-based approach. Now, the bonus is inside the academy, you also have access to our problem-based units, and lessons. So, that’s a great place to start as well as you work through these ideas.

But I’m really excited to bring you back on after the experience to see where you are in that learning, hear about the questions that you still have. Obviously, we’ll be seeing that happening through the forum. But I’m really looking forward to having that discussion because we dug into a bunch of ideas today, but again, they are very big. They’re very broad. And then maybe in this next episode, we’ll be able to hone in even deeper and even further, so we can continue that transformation towards more of that math moment, problem-based lesson experience.

So, we’re really excited for that. And on behalf of Jon and myself, I just want to thank you so much for hanging out with us for this last little while. People won’t know this on the other end, but we did have multiple tech issues. So, I appreciate you handling that so well. We are going to put this together, and it’s going to sound like nothing even happened. So, thanks on behalf of Jon and myself. I hope you have an awesome day. And hopefully, the weather is looking up just like it is here in Southwestern Ontario as of late.

Stephanie Moore: Thanks. I appreciate it.

Kyle Pearce: As always, both Jon and I learn so much from all of our episodes, but in particular, these math mentoring moment episodes. But in order to ensure that we all hang on to 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 yourself, so you can take action on something that you’ve learned.

Jon Orr: A great way to hold yourself accountable is to write it down, or even better share it with someone, your partner, or a colleague, or with the Math Moment Maker community, by commenting on the show notes page, tagging at Make Math Moments on all social media or any social media you have, or in our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12.

Kyle Pearce: And before we go, we mentioned it earlier at the top of the episode, vertical non-permanent surfaces is our thing. And if you’re looking for a durable and easy way to create services in your classroom, then our friends at White Book have you covered. White Book is now an official Make Math Moments partner, which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting whitebook.com/moments.

Jon Orr: That’s whitebook.com/moments. And if you’re ordering for a school, or a district, or just you want a whole whack of them, you can head to whitebook.com/momentsbulk. That’s all one word, whitebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff there, Jon. And guess what my friends? We have been going through our list of math mentoring moment applications. And we’re looking to add a few more. So, if you’re interested in joining us for an upcoming math mentoring moment episode, where we unpack a big math class struggle, come on over and apply @makemathmoments.com/mentor. Again, that’s makemathmoments.com/mentor.

Jon Orr: In order to ensure you don’t miss out on the new episodes as they come out each Monday morning, be sure to subscribe. Hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: As always, we have show notes, links to resources, and actually full transcripts for every single episode on all of our show notes pages. So, for this one, it’s makemathmoments.com/episode87. Again, that’s makemathmoments.com/episode87. Well, my friends, until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And a big high five for you.

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  1. Episode #97 How To Teach My Class When Students Are Underprepared - A Math Mentoring Moment - Make Math Moments - […] Episode 87: How To Teach My Class When Students Are Underprepared? – A Math Mentoring Moment […]

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