Tuesday, January 21, 2014

First on the Drop Pile

I wrote about this once before. Go back and read that if you want. Or don't. I'm about to summarize here anyway. :)

Yesterday the math PLC at our school did a "Keep. Drop. Create" activity. Among other things, "questions at the beginning of class" ended up in the drop pile. This is something I have felt strongly about for a while, so I am very happy that our whole department is in agreement.

I am probably preaching to the choir here, but if you give practice assignments on a regular basis and you're using the first ten or fifteen minutes of class to answer questions about yesterday's assignment, you should consider using that time for something else. Here's why:

Low student engagement. During question time, most of our students fit into one of three categories:

1. Students who didn't do much (or any) of the practice. They are now sitting there writing down the problems while you work them out. They're not thinking. They're transcribing.

2. Students who did most of the practice. When they got to a tough problem, they gave up because "I'll just ask that one in class". They learn to wait for help rather than persevering.

3. Students who did all of the practice before coming to class. They are now bored to tears while they watch your performance of math problems they already know how to do. Not learning.

(There may be a fourth category of students who legitimately have a question and are now eagerly anticipating your answer. But there are maybe two students in that category. Also, I would suggest that doing the problem for them while they watch is not the best kind of help.)

They're ready to learn. If there is a portion of the class period that students are most ready to do something, it is at the beginning. Don't lose them here.

Opportunity cost.  Instructional time is precious. Let's use those ten minutes for something else. Something that engages all students. We are working on a list.

In the mean time, we have decided to have little slips of scrap paper cut up and ready to go. At any moment we can do a quick formative assessment by posting a problem, collecting the slips, sorting them into piles, and identifying where students are having trouble.

What will you do with your extra ten minutes?

Or, an even better question, what other "math class traditions" need to go on the drop pile?


  1. I love the idea of Keep, Drop, Create. I plan PD for Algebra teachers and I would love to know how you did this - did you have a list to start with? Did the department see a need for this that triggered the conversation? What process worked for you? This sounds like something my teachers could use. Thanks!

  2. Hi Maura! Our PLCs are in the process of reading "Learning By Doing" by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. The Keep, Drop, Create activity is found in that book. We used color-coded sticky notes for each. I think the activity is meant to address topics in the curriculum, but we also used it to address teaching strategies. We did not have a list to start with and found it particularly difficult to think of items for the "drop" pile. It is so important, though! With all the new changes coming our way (common core, etc.), we must drop in order to add. It is nice that our administration recognizes that we cannot add to our plates without removing. I hope that helps. Thanks for reading! Amy

  3. I replaced question time with hw groups, which I assign. 3-4 in a group, with a mix of strong/weak and guy/girl. I begin putting the answers up and circulating to check for, essentially, a completion grade. They answer each other's questions. If, after those 10 minutes, any questions remain, I answer them. I got perhaps two total last semester. The kids who got it all are engaged in answering their peers questions -- which is doubly beneficial, as teaching is a great way to cement learning.

    To be fair, I have pretty motivated kids. But even with a reluctant group a few years back this worked pretty well. They'd much rather here themselves talk than me.

    1. This method does a great job of eliminating one of my biggest concerns . . . what about the students who don't have questions? I hate wasting their time. But you are using them to tutor the other students, and everyone benefits. Nice.

  4. I'd love LOVE LOVE to do this but when do u go over homework then? On an individual basis? The other question I have is when do you check homework to see if it was completed?

    1. I guess the short answer if that I do not go over homework. I provide students with an answer bank so that they know if they are on the right track. Surprisingly, I have had very little complaints from students over this. They will ask peers outside of class or come see me before school if they have a question. It may also have something to do with the fact that I generally assign homework as additional practice (over topics we've learned in class). If I anticipate that students are going to need extra support for something, I will use class time for that.

      As for checking work, I have found that a clipboard with an attendance grid for each class works well. I ask students to place the previous assignment out on their desks and I walk around while students are working on something else and record how much they've completed. This usually takes 5-10 minutes and gives me an opportunity to check in with each student while I'm doing it.

      Thanks for reading, Jennifer!