Back to School Night successfully came and went this past week. As a parent, I’ve sat opposite a teacher, or series of teachers, at the Back to School Night (“BTSN”) ritual for a decade now. As a teacher, I have three notches in my dry erase marker. For last week’s, I prepared, and presented, a nearly similar story to the parents of each of my courses: an overview of my education, my teaching philosophy, my classroom values & norms, my grading policy, and my supplemental resources / support. This post details each.
I teach three preps this year: one section of an algebra 1 math lab, two sections of AP Calculus AB, and two sections of algebra 1. As a second-year teacher, I find this schedule more challenging than last year’s “official” schedule where I had three algebra 1 sections and two AP Calculus AB sections; however, the two AP sections last year morphed into one AP section and one regular calculus section, which was very challenging as a first-year teacher. While the content matter in the math lab is very straightforward, as most of these students suffer with the most elementary of arithmetic operations, the emotional challenge is extremely high as many of these students act out with their defense mechanisms to mask their discomfort. My heart goes out to each and every one of them as I seek ways to diagnose their deficits, develop prescriptive lessons to help them recognize their misunderstandings, and comfort them as they engage with a subject that belittles them in its insensitivity to mistakes, misunderstandings, or misconceptions. Fortunately, for some, we’ve discovered a stumbling block with operations with signed numbers, aka integers, and are now steadfastly chipping away at that obstacle.
I glossed over this slide quickly, simply showing it to let parents know I brought a fair amount of post-secondary school education into the classroom, especially my recent focus on teaching mathematics to high school students.
I spent little time here, as well; a quick glance let parents know I was serious about teaching students mathematics. I did point out my emphasis on “productive disposition,” especially for my AP Calculus students. I did underscore this for all periods, too, since this trait is critical to overcoming self-doubt or a student’s belief that they are not “good at math,” which pervades students in this country. I wonder how students in European countries think about mathematics versus those in Asian countries versus South American versus here?
Student voice is critical in mathematics classrooms, and its inclusion is a key element in my pedagogy. Students should have a say in what they learn, how they learn it, and more.
Teachers need to ask for students’ opinions on matters relevant to their learning, as well as involve them actively in their learning. I do this in many ways to include periodic online, verbal, or written, surveys; designing student-centered learning opportunities incorporating techniques such as “think-pair-share;” as well as, engaging students in small-group work, to include students presenting their work to the entire class using either a document camera, or the whiteboards. My USMA classmates and I fondly recall “taking boards” as a regular exercise in mathematics courses.
Inclusion of student voice in the classroom creates a virtuous cycle where students are motivated to engage with the content, learn it, and ideally, master it. Student reflections on what they recently engaged with offer opportunities to refine subsequent instruction, as well as revisit aspects of earlier learning that may be necessary to cement understanding.
Classroom Values & Norms
I spent more time on this slide to encourage parents, and students, that my focus is a list of student “Do’s” and not “Don’ts.” More importantly, my “Do’s” focus on students being positive, having an open mind, believing in themselves, and etcetera. The following slide tied together my underscoring of “productive disposition” earlier with these values, where I focused on the frog not giving up even though it was in a predator’s beak.
This led into a brief discussion of Mindset by Carol Dweck, which emphasizes the benefits of a growth-mindset over a fixed-mindset. Many of my AP Calculus students, in particular, seem to have a fixed-mindset view, perhaps solidified by the methods of instruction used by most public schools.
Most parents, and students, focus most of their attention on letter grades, as education around the world uses these symbols to indicate student proficiency, irrespective of how effectively they serve that purpose. Given the high degree of concern for grades, and my insistence on providing students with a rigorous, standards-based education, holding each of them to high expectations, I use a more reasonable grading scale that I believe suits my intentions.
Key to my grading scale, and noted at the bottom of the slide above, is my belief that “My emphasis [in instruction and with grades] is on student learning. As we all learn at different rates, and in different ways, it takes time for that learning to occur, sometimes an entire semester.” Since so few school districts permit standards-based grading, and so few parents understand them, it is very difficult to walk a line between them and traditional grading policies. Nonetheless, I am committed to this approach as I believe it is most fair to students while holding them to a rigorous curriculum.
Last, but not least, I explained how I offer significant supplemental resources for every subject, mostly via my course website. It is amazing how many resources are available to students today, as long as they have access to the internet. Few, if any, students who want to learn, try to learn, and seek support when the learning gets difficult have to face insurmountable barriers as did students of yore. Parents need to know of these resources so they do not believe they need to bear the full weight of supporting their children. However, they still must help in that support, and learning, as sure as they make sure their children are fed, clothed, and sheltered.
All in all, BTSN was a success this year. Last year went well, too. I suspect next year will go well, too, as long a I keep up my focus and commitment on student learning while continually reflecting on how to improve as a teacher for all students. Now, to focus on lesson planning for the week, and grading papers from last week.
NOTE: Each slide has the logo for Stanford University and the Stanford University School of Education on it, as I am proud of my association with those institutions and their impact on shaping my views as a teacher. The views expressed in these slides are solely mine and do not represent those of either institution.