Thursday, September 5, 2013

Learning From Failure

*Warning:  This is a long post.  I get that.  But keep in mind, this is my way of reflecting for my own professional growth too and sometimes, there's just a lot of stuff to think through and remember.*

Tuesday was a total flop.  I gave a test in 3 of my classes and they all did SO badly.  There are a lot of teachers who would just chalk it up to "oh well, guess they didn't study hard enough" or "that'll teach them to sleep through my class".  I, on the other hand, believe that the average grade on a test is MY grade.  If the average grade for 19 kids who took a test on a chapter is 58%, then that's MY teaching grade.  Kinda depressing when I look at it that way, but I think it's the only way that I can keep myself on my toes and always wanting my kids to do better.

So, as I was grading the stack of tests in an empty room, I had "conversations" with the kids.  You know how it goes...

"WHAT?!  Why would you do that?  We talked about this a million times in class!"
"UGH!  I told you to be careful of this..."
"Forgot to reduce here - how long have you been taking math classes?!"

Those were my outer conversations.  They dealt mostly with the students' failures.  My inner conversations focused on my own failures and went more like this:

"Okay so obviously the foldable we did for these wasn't very memorable...need to rethink it."
"UGH!  How can I get more practice in for that..."
"What crazy thing can I do to help you remember this step that you forget EVERY time???"

By the end of it, I knew the lesson I had planned for the next day was simply not going to work.  I couldn't just pass back a bunch of failed tests, shrug my shoulders, and wish them better luck next time.  I knew I couldn't do that, but honestly...I wasn't sure what else to do.  I knew I'd taught the material once already.  I didn't have time to reteach it, but it obviously didn't stick.  Going over the test as a whole group would probably but the students AND ME to sleep and they wouldn't hear most of it anyway...

I just kept wondering "how can I quickly review this material in a way that they can learn from their mistakes and not be falling asleep in class while we do it?"

So like any decent scholar, I googled it.  Straight up.  "What to do when almost the entire class fails a test."  Check my browser history.

After reading some really great advice (and some really dumb advice), I had a plan.

I strategically paired the students based on their scores.  I printed up blank tests.  For the next class period, they could use our small whiteboards, their partners, their books, and their notebooks to learn from their mistakes.  They had to write what mistake they'd made on the old test, and show the correction on the new test.  For their efforts, every correction would earn them back 1/2 a point. 

Here's WHY I did it this way:
           - Strategic pairs:  The higher performers could teach the lower instead of staying clumped up with the people they always work with.  Also,when you work with the same people all of the time, you communicate the same way all of the time because your little group "gets" you.  I wanted them to be stretched to really think through and communicate what they were doing on a deeper level.
           - Whiteboards:  Students love writing on whiteboards.  It's a fact of the universe.  Also, it allows them to make and fix mistakes quickly.  It also allows them to "duke it out" when they disagree about an answer or a method.  It can be fast and messy - at the same speed as their thoughts - and can be quickly erased if needed.  It lowers the risk factor tremendously.
           - Books and notes:  Students needed to PRACTICE looking into their resources when they got stuck.  They kept wanting to just stop when they got stuck.  I wouldn't let them.  Having a partner was nice with this step too, because they could look things up together which is faster and it's easier to stay focused when working with someone else to find information in a book.
           - Writing the mistake:  It wasn't enough to just make the correction.  That had to identify the mistake so they would be less likely to make that mistake moving forward.
           - Correct it:  Practice makes permanent.  They did it wrong once and I want to give the correct way (at least) as much attention as the wrong way, so once they identified the error, they had to do it correctly.
           - 1/2 credit back:  I want there to be some record of the fact that they struggled because it gives them a starting point from which to grow.  That's why I only give 1/2 back for just making corrections.  Plus, if they could always just make corrections for 100%, they would lose the motivation to try in the first place. 
          -  In class:  Submitting test corrections for 1/2 credit back is something I allow for the entire year, but in order for that to work for them, they need to buy in to the idea that this is a beneficial way to spend their very limited time.  Doing this in class with a partner for the first time shows them a few things - a)it's not super hard to figure out what you did wrong, b) most of the ones you missed were simple mistakes that are easily avoidable if you know what they are, c) it doesn't take as long as you might think, d) it really does help your grade quite a bit.  Once they walk through this process, they believe these things and are more likely to do the corrections on their own next time, but if I just TOLD them about it, most would never try it.

Final thoughts?  It was glorious.  All of the failure that I'd felt on Tuesday as I graded the tests melted away as I spent the class period on Wednesday going from table to table, listening to 19 juniors and seniors talk, argue, teach each other, encourage each other, and "get" math.  I got to teach several different mini-lessons at each table targeting the specific needs of the small groups when they got really deadlocked about something.  During the last 10 minutes, as they were turning in their corrections, I'd ask "so how do you feel about this test now?"  The responses were like candy for my soul!

"Oh man, Mrs. C.  I totally could have done so much better.  My mistakes were all dumb little things that I KNEW but just overlooked."

"I feel so much better about this test.  I thought I just didn't get it, but it makes so much more sense to me now."

"I feel way more confident.  I know this stuff..."

"I totally didn't realize I was doing the order of operations wrong.  Now, I know I won't make those mistakes again."

In giving them an opportunity to learn from their failures and redeem themselves, I learned from mine and was able to redeem myself as well. 

I seriously have the best. Job. Ever.