Friday, February 14, 2014

On Peer Coaching, Struggling Students, and Green Pens

Backstory #1: I've mentioned before that this is my first year teaching two levels of Algebra 2. The regular (i.e., not advanced) class has challenged me like no other. When things go well, I must document so I can try to make that happen again.

Backstory #2: In our PLC recently, we resolved to look for ways to increase peer tutoring in our classes. This is something that has been important to me for a long time, but lately I've been looking for ways to be more intentional about it.

We are at the end of a unit in Algebra 2 and for the past two days, my lesson activities have looked like this:

Step 1: Finish yesterday's assignment (rational equations, most had 2-3 problems left).
Step 2: Work on a set of 16 review problems. Get a green star from me on each and every problem. (One of my strategies has been to check every problem. It helps me to locate errors and misconceptions, and students seem to be more confident and make more forward progress when they have immediate feedback.)
Step 3:  If you have any incomplete assignments from this unit, work on these pages in your composition notebooks.
Step 4:  Teacher will assign extra practice or tutoring another student.

On Day 1 all students progressed from Step 1 to Step 2. No one finished step 2 entirely. I roamed from table to table answering questions and placing green stars on papers.

Day 2 was perfect. I was a little frantic for the first 10-15 minutes as I ran around with my clip board answering questions, giving green stars, and double checking to make sure everyone was working on the step they were supposed to be working on. But there was a moment, about 20 minutes into the class, when about half of my students had finished step 4, received a green pen, and been assigned to another student who was working on another step. All of the sudden I became an observer to the learning that was happening. I still monitored progress and answered an occasional question, but the students who were assigned to tutoring were doing a GREAT job! They were sitting there, green pens in hand, talking about greatest common factors and common denominators and reciprocals and exponents. This is what I want my class to look like. 

Things I'm still smiling about:

1. The look on each student's face when they reached step 4 and I handed them a green pen. I have written about green pens before, but I haven't used them a lot in this class. I didn't feel like these students were ready. But on this day I trusted them and they exceeded my expectations. The green pen truly conveys confidence to a student. Students feel honored to receive it.

2. When I borrowed someone's green pen and they said "May I please have the green pen of power back?"

3. Four students who got everything completed and were assigned to extra practice on white boards. They kept asking me for more problems so that they could race. I was using this set of problems from Kate's rational expression speed dating since I already had them printed out. These are not easy, but these "struggling" students were asking for more.

4. Realizing that these students are mastering the exact same content as my advanced algebra 2 classes. We are going more slowly, pausing more for reinforcement and review, but they are doing the same sets of practice problems and the same tests. I was not sure that this would be possible. But maybe it is.

5. My superintendent walked in to visit when the green pen students were all paired up and tutoring away. She is always welcome, of course, but it was nice that she got to see a moment that I was particularly proud of.

And a few reflections:

1. I am wondering if the green pen is so powerful because I use it constantly. I am always walking around, looking at students' work, and giving them green stars when they are good to go. Students might view it as kind of an authority thing. Hence, the way they feel when they receive "the green pen of power". 

2. Using multiple steps for review was a win! I noticed that when students got to step four, they were pumped that I assigned them to tutoring rather than extra practice. And the few who finished up on tutoring were not surprised or upset when I told them they were ready for extra practice. It was right there on the board, so no one was surprised. Truth, I really only cared that everyone made it through step 2. There would have been so many missed opportunities if I had let them stop there!

So, I have plenty of days that don't go as planned, but this was a great day. Here's hoping something in this post will serve to help me re-create it more often. :)


  1. I LOVE this - I've been looking for a way to encourage peer tutoring and the "Green Pen of Power" will be perfect!!

    1. Hi Mary! I am so happy you think you can use this! I'd love to hear how it goes . . :)

    2. Now I cannot wait to begin using the Green Pen of Power with my students. Thank you for sharing this!!!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

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  3. This is a wonderful idea, Amy. Thank you for sharit it (and all of the others!) I tend to walk around with a colored pencil, making check marks on the problems that are right. If two students are working together, I'll just check one person's paper. Often the other student will ask for check marks on his paper, too. There's something about stars that sounds even better.

    I especially like the idea of handing over a pen and sending some students out to help others. My classes are fairly small, so it doesn't take me very long to make a round. Still, this could be much more powerful. It would also get students moving around and working with different people.

    Thank you again!

  4. I love the green pen idea, but have a couple of questions to clarify.
    1. You check their answers on each problem individually? How many students are in your classes approximately?
    2. What are the students doing while they are waiting for you to check their answers? I might have missed something, so if you explained this, I apologize. :) Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Monica! I do not check answers on each problem individually. Depending on the lesson, I may do this for 1-3 problems during a class period, at any point when I want check for understanding. My classes range from 15-24. I know that is relatively small, but I think the process lends itself well to larger classes since you only have to check a few yourself and those first finishers are responsible for checking others.

      There is not really a lot of waiting around. I simply check those who finish first, and then those students will coach/check those around them. The whole process generally doesn't take long. That said, I usually give my students instructions for what to do next. Generally I would tell them to get a star on problem #1 and then work on #2-4 while they are waiting for everyone else to get a star.

      I hope that helps. Thanks for reading!

  5. Two things:
    1. I LOVE this and plan on using it.
    2. I am so very jealous of you Quill Jamberries! <3