Yours, Mine and Ours

Yesterday we had a speaker in our faculty meeting who came to talk to us about decision-making process in our school.  He spoke about the way some colleges, universities, independent schools are very different from businesses, the military, and other governing bodies that have to make decisions because we are made up of “loosely-coupled systems.” These are relationships that are not well-defined and don’t necessarily have a “chain of command” or know where the top or bottom may be.  They also don’t necessarily have a “go-to” person where, when a problem arises, the solution resides in that location.  The speaker said that this actually allows for more creativity and generally more interesting solution methods.

About mid-way through his presentation he said something that just resonated with me fully as he was talking about the way these systems come to a decision cooperatively.

“The difference between mine and ours is the difference between the absence and presence of process.”

Wow, I thought, he’s talking about PBL.  Right here in faculty meeting.  I wonder if anyone else can see this.  He’s talking about the difference between ownership of knowledge in PBL and the passive acceptance of the material in a direct instruction classroom.

Part of my own research had to do with how girls felt empowered by the ownership that occurred through the process of sharing ideas, becoming a community of learners and allowing themselves to see others’ vulnerability in the risk-taking that occurred in the problem solving.  The presence of the process in the learning for these students was a huge part of their enjoyment, empowerment and increase in their own agency in learning.

I think it was Tim Rowland who wrote about pronoun use in mathematics class (I think Pimm originally called it the Mathematics Register). The idea of using the inclusive “our” instead of “your” might seem like a good idea, but instead students sometimes think that “our” implies the people who wrote the textbook, or the “our” who are the people who are allowed to use mathematics – not “your” the actual kids in the room.  If the kids use “our” then they are including themselves.  If the teacher is talking, the teacher should talk about the mathematics like the are including the students with “your” or including the students and the teacher with “our”, but making sure to use “our” by making a hand gesture around the classroom.  These might seem like silly actions, but could really make a difference in the process.

Anyway,  I really liked that quote and made me feel like somehow making the process present was validated in a huge way!

Repost: Always Striving for the Perfect Pose

Back in 2010, I wrote an blogpost comparing teaching with PBL to doing yoga. Since I have been doing Bikram Yoga for almost a year now and still can’t do “standing head to knee pose” *at all* – I thought I would repost this one just to give myself some perspective, and possibly many of you out there who might need a little encouragement at this beginning of the year time. I know that every year when students begin a year in a PBL math class the obstacles return. Parents are questioning “why isn’t the teacher teaching?” Students are questioning “why is my homework taking so long?” Teachers new to the practice are questioning “When is this going to get easier?” and “why aren’t they seeing why this is good for them like I do?” The best thing to remember is that it is a process and to understand how truly different and hard it is for students who are used to a very traditional way of learning mathematics. Give them time, have patience for them and yourself and most of all reiterate all of what you value in their work – making mistakes, taking risks, their ideas (good and bad) and be true to the pedagogy.

Here’s the original blogpost I wrote:

I don’t think my professor, Carol Rodgers, would mind me borrowing her yoga metaphor and adapting it to PBL. I use it often when talking to teachers who are nervous about falling short of their ideal classroom situation or teaching behaviors. I think this can happen often, especially when learning best practices for a new technique like facilitating PBL. There are so many things to remember to try to practice at your best. Be cognizant of how much time you are talking, try to scaffold instead of tell, encourage student to student interaction, turn the questions back onto the students, etc. It really can be a bit overwhelming to expect yourself to live up to the ideal PBL facilitator.

However, it is at these times that I turn to Carol’s yoga metaphor. She says that in the practice of yoga there are all of these ideal poses that you are supposed to be able to attain. You strive to get your arms, legs and back in just the right position, just the right breathing rhythm, just the right posture. But in reality, that’s what you’re really doing – just trying. The ideal is this goal that you’re aiming for. Just like our ideal classroom. I go in everyday with the picture in my head of what I would want to happen – have the students construct the knowledge as a social community without hierarchy in the authority where everyone’s voice is heard. Does that happen for me every day? Heck no. I move the conversation in that direction, I do everything in my power for that to happen, but sometimes those poses just don’t come. Maybe I just wasn’t flexible enough that day, or maybe the students weren’t flexible enough, maybe we didn’t warm up enough, or the breathing wasn’t right. It just wasn’t meant to be. I have exercises to help me attain the goal and I get closer with experience. That’s all I can hope for.

So I tell my colleagues who are just starting out – give yourself a break, be happy for the days you do a nearly perfect downward facing dog, but be kind to yourself on the days when you just fall on your butt from tree pose. We are all just trying to reach that ideal, and we keep it in mind all the time.

Getting Kids to Drive the Learning

It doesn’t always work this way, but it would be awesome if it did.  When PBL is perfect or ideal, the students are the ones who make the natural connections or at least see the need or motivation for the problems that we are doing.  Yeah, some of them are just really interesting problems and the get pulled in by their own curiosity, but as all math teachers know, we have a responsibility to make sure that students learn a certain amount of topics, it is quite that simple.  If students from my geometry class are going into an algebra II class with trigonometry the next year where their teacher will expect them to know certain topics, I better do my job and make sure they have learned it.

So how do I, as a PBL teacher, foster the values for the problem-based learning that I have while at the same being true to the curriculum that I know I have a responsibility to?  This is probably one of the biggest dilemmas I face on a daily basis.  Where’s the balance between the time that I can spend allowing the students to struggle, explore, enjoy, move through difficulty, etc. – all that stuff that I know is good for them – while at the same being sure that that darn “coverage” is also happening?

So here’s a little story – I have a colleague sitting in on my classes just to see how I teach – because he is interested in creating an atmosphere like I have in my classes in his.  We have just introduced and worked on problems relating to the tangent function in right triangle trigonometry in the past week and now it was time to introduce inverse tangent.  I do this with a problem from our curriculum that hopefully allows students to realize that the tangent function only is useful when you know the angle.FullSizeRender (3)

So as students realize they can’t get the angle from their calculator nor can they get it exactly from the measurement on their protractor (students had values ranging from 35 to 38 degrees when we compared), one of the students in my class says, “Ms. Schettino, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to undo the tangent?” and the other kids are kind of interested in what she said. She continues, “Yeah, like if the calculator could just give us the angle if we put in the slope.  That’s what we want.”  I stood there in amazement because that was exactly what I wanted someone to crave or see the need for.  It was one of those “holy crap, this is working” moments where you can see that the kids are taking over the learning.  I turned to the kids and just said, “yeah, that would be awesome, wouldn’t it?  Why don’t you keep working on the next problem?” and that had them try to figure out what the inverse tangent button did on their calculator.  They ended up pressing this magical button and taking inverse tangent of 0.75 (without telling them why they were using 0.75 from the previous problem) to see if they could recognize the connection between what they had just done and what they were doing.

At the end of the class, the colleague who was observing came up to me and said, “How did you do that?” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “How did you get the kids to want to learn about inverse tangent? I mean they just fell right into the thing you wanted them to learn about.  That was crazy.”  I really had to think about that.  I didn’t feel like I did anything honestly, the kids did it all.  I mean what made them all of a sudden care about getting the angle?  Why were they invested?   It doesn’t always happen in my classroom that’s for sure.  This is not a perfect science – there’s no recipe for it to work – take a great curriculum, interested kids, an open, respectful learning environment and mix well?

I do think however that a huge part of it is the culture that has been created throughout the year and the investment that they have made in their ownership and authorship in their own learning. We have valued their ideas so much that they have come to realize that it is their ideas and not mine that can end up driving the learning – and yes, I do end up feeling a little guilty because I do have a plan.  I do have something that I want them to learn, but somehow have created enough interest, excitement and curiosity that they feel like they did it.  It is pretty crazy.

Considering Inclusion in PBL

It’s always refreshing when someone can put into words so eloquently what you have been thinking inside your head and believing for so long.  That’s what Darryl Yong did in his recent blogpost entitled Explanatory Power of the Hierarchy of Student Needs.  I feel like while I was reading that blogpost I was reading everything that I had been thinking for so long but had been unable to articulate (probably because of being a full time secondary teacher, living in a dorm with 16 teenage boys, being a mother of two teenagers of my own and all the other things I’m doing, I guess I just didn’t have the time, but no excuses).  Darryl had already been my “inclusive math idol” from a previous post he wrote about radical inclusivity in the math classroom, but this one really spoke to a specific framework for inclusion in the classroom and how in math it is necessary.


In my dissertation research, I took this idea from the perspective of adolescent girls (which, as I think towards further research could perhaps be generalized to many marginalized groups in mathematics education) and how they may feel excluded in the math classroom.  These girls were in a PBL classroom that was being taught with a relational pedagogy which focuses on the many types of relationships in the classroom (relationship between ideas, people, concepts, etc.)  – I did not look at it from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Student Needs and this is really a great tool.

Interestingly,  I came up with many of the same results. My RPBL framework includes the following (full article in press):

  1. Connected Curriculum– a curriculum with scaffolded problems that are decompartmentalized such that students can appreciate the connected nature of mathematics
  2. Ownership of Knowledge – encouragement of individual and group ownership by use of journals, student presentation, teacher wait time, revoicing and other discourse moves
  3. Justification not Prescription– focus on the “why” in solutions, foster inquiry with interesting questions, value curiosity, assess creativity
  4. Shared Authority – dissolution of authoritarian hierarchy with deliberate discourse moves to improve equity, send message of valuing risk-taking and all students’ ideas

These four main tenets were what came out of the girls’ stories.  Sure many classrooms have one or two of these ideas.  Many teachers try to do these in student-centered or inquiry-based classrooms.  But it was the combination of all four that made them feel safe enough and valued enough to actually enjoy learning mathematics and that their voice was heard. These four are just a mere outline and there is so much more to go into detail about like the types of assessment (like Darryl was talking about in his post and have lots of blogposts about) the ways in which you have students work and speak to each other – how do you get them to share that authority when they want to work on a problem together or when one kid thinks they are always right?

The most important thing to remember in PBL is that if we do not consider inclusion in PBL then honestly, there is little benefit in it over a traditional classroom, in my view. The roles of inequity in our society can easily be perpetuated in the PBL classroom and without deliberate thought given to discussion and encouragement given to student voice and agency, students without the practice will not know what to do.  If we do consider inclusion in the PBL classroom, it opens up a wondrous world of mathematical learning with the freedom of creativity that many students have not experienced before and could truly change the way they view themselves and math in general.

Revisiting Journals: Getting Kids to Look Back

I have been using metacognitive journaling in my PBL classroom since 1995.  I first learned about it the Summer Klingenstein Institute when I was a third year teacher and just fell in love with it.  At that time, the colleagues at my school thought I was crazy trying to make kids write in my classes – it was just “something else for them to do” and didn’t really help them learn but I did more reading on it and there was clearly more and  more research as time went on that showed that writing-to-learn programs especially those that prompt for metacognitive skills really do help in learning mathematics (see my metacognitive journaling link under the Research tab for more info and sample journal entries).

Every once in a while a student will write a journal entry that I think is so thoughtful that I will write about it like this one a few years ago that just impressed me with his insight into his learning process of a particular problem. But other times kids write about their understanding of their learning overall like one I’ll write about today and I am also blown away.

Here’s a student I’ll call Meaghan reflecting on a problem that she found challenging for her.  Really, it doesn’t matter which problem it was or what topic it was, just the fact that she had a hard time with it at first, right?  The most important part was that after she wrote about how to do it correctly, she then took the time to write this: (in case you can’t read her handwriting, I will rewrite it below).


Part of Meaghan’s Journal Entry

“This problem was a challenge for me.  When I saw the question, it didn’t look that difficult but once I was trying to solve by [sic my] brain wasn’t thinking on the right track, and it was trying to use prior knowledge that was irrelevant in this case.  I wasn’t making connections to the properties of triangles that I had recently learned.”

Why is this realization so important for Meaghan?  Polya’s Fourth Principle of Problem Solving is “Look Back” – why is this fourth principle so important?  In my mind, this is where all the learning happens.  The three other principles are very clear

  1. Understand the problem
  2. Device a plan
  3. Carry out the plan

These three are all very basic – if they work, right?  But most of the time they don’t work for kids.  It’s the fourth step that we know is the most important – it’s where the critical thinking and analysis takes place.  If this part isn’t taken seriously and the right steps within it are not taken nothing happens, no moving forward, no growth.

So what did Meaghan do?  She realized that she had not made a connection between the triangle properties that we had just learned and how it applied to this problem.  She had not use the correct prior knowledge.  She  just created more openings to other knowledge that she knows- and I know what you’re thinking.  Does this mean that next time she will use the correct prior knowledge in another problem?  From my experience with kids, no, it does not.  But honestly, what I have seen is that the more they realize that there are more possibilities and also that the option of just saying “I don’t get it” or “I can’t do this” is unlikely, the more they will keep trying.

So what did Meaghan do? By just being asked to write a reflection about one problem (every two weeks) she has reinforced her own potential in problem solving on HER OWN.  That she may, in the future, weed out the irrelevant prior knowledge and possibly see the connections to the relevant prior knowledge, with more practice.  I think it’s made her feel just a little bit more confident – and they said it was just “something else for them to do.”

Everything Old is New Again…(or why teaching with PBL is so great)

So I heard that what everyone is saying about the new Star Wars Movie, The Force Awakens, is that “Everything Old is New Again” – go ahead google it, there are at least 5 or 6 blog posts or articles about how “BB-8 is the new R2D2” or “Jakku is the new Tattoine” or whatever.  I actually don’t have a problem with J.J. Abrams reusing old themes, character tropes or storylines because I think that really great stories are timeless and have meaning and lessons that surpass the movie that you are watching.  I still thought it was awesome.

This concept of everything old is new again really hit home to me today in my first period class when I was having the students do a classic problem that I probably first did in 1996 while I was under the tutelage of my own Yoda, Rick Parris (who I think wrote the problem, but if someone reading this knows differently, please let me know).  The problem goes like this:

Pat and Chris were out in their rowboat one day and Chris spied a water lily.  Knowing that Pat liked a mathematical challenge, Chris announced that, with the help of the plant, it was possible to calculate the depth of the water under the boat.  When pulled taut, directly over its root, the top of the plant was originally 10 inches above the water surface.  While Pat held the top of the plat, which remained rooted to the lake bottom, Chris gently rowed the boat five feet.  This forced Pat’s hand to the water surface.  Use this information to calculate the depth of the water.

What I usually do is have students get into groups and put them at the board and just let them go at it.  Today was no exception – the first day back from winter break and they were tired and not really into it.  At first they didn’t really know what to draw, how to go about making a diagram but slowly and surely they came up with some good pictures. Some of the common initial errors is not adjusting the units or mislabeling the lengths.  However, one of the toughest things for students to see eventually is that the length of the root is the depth of the water (let’s call it x) plus the ten inches outside of the water’s surface.  Most students end up solving this problem with the Pythagorean Theorem – I’ve been seeing it for almost 20 years done this way.  Although I never tire of the excitement they get in their eyes when they realize that the hypotenuse is x+10 and the leg is x.

However, since everything old is new again, today I had a student who actually is usually a rather quiet kid in class, not confused, just quiet, but in a group of three students he had put his diagram on a coordinate plane instead of just drawing a diagram like everyone else did.  This intrigued me.  He initially wrote an equation on the board like so:

y= 1/6 (x – 0)+10

and I came over and asked him about it.  He was telling me that he was trying to write the equation of one of the sides of the triangle and then I asked him how that was going to help to find the depth of the water.  He thought about that for a while and looked at his partners. They didn’t seem to have any ideas for him or were actually following why he was writing equations at all.  He immediately said something like, “Wait, I have another idea.” and proceeded to talk to his group about this:

Jacksons solution to Pat and Chris

Jackson’s Solution to the Pat & Chris Problem

He had realized from his diagram that the two sides of the triangle would be equal and that if we wrote the equation of the perpendicular bisector of the base of the isosceles triangle and found its y-intercept he would find the depth of the water.  He proceeded to find the midpoint of the base, then the slope of the base, took the opposite reciprocal and then evaluated the line at x=0 to find the y-intercept.  I was pretty impressed – I had never seen a student take this perspective on this problem before.

This made my whole day – I was really dreading going back to work after vacation and honestly, first period was the best class of the day when this wonderful, new method was shown to me and this great experience of this student’s persistence refreshed my hope and interest in this problem.  Perpendicular bisectors are the new Pythagorean Theorem!

Someday I’ll get this assessment thing right… (Part 2 of giving feedback before grades)

So, all assessments are back to the students, tears have been dried and we are now onto our next problem set (what we are calling these assessments).  What we’ve learned is that the rubric allowed us to easily see when a student had good conceptual understanding but perhaps lower skill levels (what we are used to calling “careless mistakes” or worse). We could also quickly see which problems many students had issue with once we compared the rubrics because, for example, problem number 6 was showing up quite often in the 1 row of the conceptual column.  This information was really valuable to us.  However, one thing we didn’t do was take pictures of all of this information to see if we could have a record of the student growth over the whole year. Perhaps an electronic method of grading – a shared google sheet for each student or something to that effect  might be helpful in the future – but not this day (as Aragorn says) – way too much going on right now.

We also changed the rubric a bit for a few reasons.  First, we found that when students completed the problem to our expectations on the initial attempt we felt that they should just receive 3’s for the other two categories automatically.  We considered not scoring them in this category but numerically felt that it was actually putting students who correctly completed a problem at a disadvantage (giving them fewer overall points in the end). Second, we also changed the idea that if you did not write anything on the revisions you earned 0 points for the revisions columns.  Many students told me afterwards that they felt like they just ran out of time on the revisions and actually had read the feedback.  This was unfortunate to me since we had spent so long writing up the feedback in the hope that the learning experience would continue while doing revisions.

Here is the new version of the rubric: Revised Problem Set Grading Rubric new

What we decided to do was to try the revisions this time without the “explanation” part of writing.  I think it will keep the students focused on reading the comments and attempting a new solution.  I was frankly surprised at how many students stuck to the honor pledge and really did not talk to each other (as they still got the problem wrong the second time around – with feedback).  Truly impressive self-control from the students in my classes and how they were sincerely trying to use the experience as a learning opportunity.

I do think the second assessment will go more smoothly as I am better at doing the feedback and the rubric grading.  The students are now familiar with what we are looking for and how we will count the revisions and their work during that time.  Overall, I am excited about the response we’ve received from the kids and hope that this second time is a little less time-consuming.  If not, maybe I’ll just pull my hair out but I’ll probably keep doing this!




Why Teachers Don’t Give Feedback instead of Grades, and Why We Should

First in a series of posts about my experiences with “Feedback Before Grades”

Holy Mackerel is all I have to say – Ok, well, no I have plenty more to say – but after about a week and a half of holing myself up with my colleague, Kristen McVaugh, (big shout-out to Ms McVaugh who is not only teaching PBL for the first time but was willing to dive into this amazing journey of alternative assessment with me this year too), I am totally exhausted, almost blind as a bat, partially jaded and crazy – but mostly ready for a drink.  This little looped video of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats pretty much sums it up…

So here was our well-intentioned plan:  we wanted to start the year off with a different type of assessment.  I put out my feelers on twitter and asked around if anyone had a rubric for grading assessments where the teacher first gave only feedback and then allowed students to do revisions and then once the revisions were done the students received a grade. Kristen and I knew a few things:

  1. we wanted to make sure the revisions were done in class
  2. we wanted to make sure the revisions were the students’ own work (tough one)
  3. we wanted to give students feedback that they needed to interpret as helpful so that we weren’t giving them the answer – so that it was still assessing their knowledge the second time around
  4. we wanted to make sure that students were actually learning during the assessment
  5. we wanted students to view the assessment as a learning experience
  6. we wanted students to be rewarded for both conceptual knowledge and their skills in the problem solving too

So we created this rubric Initial Draft of Rubric for Grading.  It allowed us to look at the initial conceptual understanding the student came to the problem set with and also the initial skill level. Kristen and I spent hours and hours writing feedback on the students’ papers regarding their errors, good work and what revisions needed to be done in a back-handed sort of way.

Here are some examples:

Student 1 Initial Work

Student 2s initial work

Student 3 initial work


Some kids’ work warranted more writing and some warranted less.  Of course if it was wonderful we just wrote something like, excellent work and perhaps wrote and extension question.  The hard part was filling out the rubric.  So for example, I’ll take Student 3’s work on problem 6 which is the last one above. Here is the rubric filled out for him:

Student 3’s Rubric

You will notice that I put problem 6 as a 1 for conceptual understanding and a 2 for skill level (in purple). In this problem students were asked to find a non-square quadrilateral with side lengths of sqrt(17).  Student 3 was definitely able to find vertices of a quadrilateral, but he was unable to use the PT to find common lengths of sides.  I gave him feedback that looking at sqrt(17) as a hypotenuse of a right triangle (as we had done in class) would help a bit and even wrote the PT with 17 as the hypotenuse in the hope of stimulating his memory when he did the revisions.

The day of the revisions Student 3 was only capable of producing this:

Student 3 revisions

He followed my direction and used 4 and 1 (which are two integers that give a hypotenuse of 17, but did not complete the problem by getting all side lengths the same. In fact, conceptually he kind of missed the boat on the fact that the sqrt(17) was supposed to be the side of the quadrilateral altogether.


One success story was Student 2.  She also did this problem incorrectly at first by realizing that you could use 4 and 1 as the sides of a right triangle with sqrt(17) as the hypotenuse but never found the coordinates of the vertices for me. I gave her feedback saying there might be an easier way to do this because she needed vertices.  However, she was able to produce this:

Student 2s revision

Student 2s revision

Although she did not give me integer-valued coordinates (which was not required) and she approximated which officially would not really give sqrt(17) lengths it came pretty darn close! I was impressed with the ingenuity and risk-taking that she used and the conceptual knowledge plus the skill-level. Yes, most other kids just used some combination of 1’s and 4’s all the way around but she followed her own thought pattern and did it this way.  Kudos to student 2 in my book.

Next time I will talk about some of the lessons we learned, other artifacts from the kids’ work and what we are changing for next time! Oh yeah and some great martini recipes!

Why PBL Works for Introverts

My school year is underway and as September just flew by, I have been completely overwhelmed by work – of course.  I am undertaking a new assessment method with a colleague of “feedback first and then grades” (blogpost to come when I give back the first set next week) but for now I wanted to comment on an article I just read this morning entitled “When Schools Overlook Introverts” that was posted on the Atlantic’s website.  This is a very thoughtfully written piece by Michael Godsey that is discussing how so much education is based on the idea of social constructivism which might be hard on those of us who are built to work best in “quieter, low-key environments.” This implies that the environments of collaboration and working with others are always loud, chaotic and multi-faceted.

And you know, sometimes it is.  Classrooms where kids are all at the board or working with technology can be messy.  Everyone’s talking at once, kids are calling me over and asking questions out loud (often the same questions 5 times in a row) and they are seeing themselves as the center of attention.  Once they understand, they move on and help their partner move on.  In my classroom, they take pictures with their iPads, record work in Notability or use GeoGebra to get a different perspective – either algebraic or geometric.  This can be quite chaotic.

However, most of the time in the PBL classroom.  everyone is required to sit quietly and listen to one student describe their thought process.  They need to learn to sit patiently while another student works though confusion and misunderstanding and ask questions of the presenter.  An introvert has a great deal of time of quiet to themselves being inside their head while the presenter is discussing his or her own grappling with a problem from the night before and the introvert can sit there and think, “Huh, that’s not what I did.  Should I say something and comment, or just accept that as the right answer?” The introvert grapples with different demons in the PBL classroom if they are a strong mathematics student in many ways because they might feel confident in the material but not confident that people care about their ideas.  Who knows?  It depends on their personality.

The introvert also has the opportunity to write journal entries for me and also to write bi-weekly learning reflections about what his or her learning successes were for the week.  This year I have a student with a speech impediment who was upfront with me about it at the beginning of the year.  This student has quickly become one of my best communicators because he realized how much I value what he has to say and that I would be patient and so would the rest of the class.  If he can’t say what he needs to say at the moment he wants to in class, he will always have an opportunity each week to do it.

I am very clear on my classroom contribution Assessment Rubrics that the grade does not depend on quantity of contribution, but quality.  Introverts should contribute because they have something important to add, an excellent question to make a clarifying point or something that will add depth to the conversation – never just to add to their grade. They can look at what they need to improve on by using my Student Analysis of Contribution which I will be doing next week – it’s about that time of the term.

I believe that although PBL strives to allow for all voices to be heard (both extrovert and introvert) it is the teacher that makes or breaks the classroom culture.  We need to be continually checking and rechecking the barometer of communication and tone of the class to be sure to all students are feeling heard. So that as Godsey says at the end of his article, the kids can learn with others and not by the “hell of other people.”