Improvising…

Today, I did one of my old favorite lessons with Algebra 1 – Inequality Speed Dating. By this time of the year, students are starting to think that they either have mastered solving equations or have no idea how to solve equations, and if we do any sort of straightforward practice they will be either bored or won’t try, based on which group they’ve sorted themselves into. So I like to use this activity to kind of jostle them into life a bit and force them to take more accountability for their work.

On Friday, we completed the first portion of the activity, which is for students to “become experts” at one single inequality. This year instead of gluing them into their notebooks, I gave them each a post-it with an inequality written at the top. Once they’d solved it and had it checked by me, they stuck it on the most recent page in their notebooks.

Today, we took out the post its and I explained the rules. Find a partner, write your inequality at the top of their whiteboard, 3 minutes to solve, then 1 minute for each partner to “coach” the other on how to fix their solution. If you read my post about this activity from last year, I changed several things about how I ran it.

And it fell apart a bit.

1st hour, I had two girls who flat out refused to participate, plus a small class, so those who were participating ran out of problems quickly after they had matched with only a few partners. Luckily, I had extra inequalities because my other classes are larger, so I gave them all new sticky notes with new problems and we managed to continue. Improvisation #1.

2nd hour, my students were super grumbly once they could no longer find a partner who was within their immediate vicinity and it became clear that they would have to move, God forbid. Cue Improvisation #2, where I put 5 new inequalities on the board and asked them to attempt all 5, then consider those 5 and the ones they had been coached on by their partners and tell me: 1 thing they felt they understood, 2 things they needed to work on, and 1 action they were going to take to improve. The last thing is inspired by that class period’s unwillingness so far to take responsibility for their own learning – they still have very fixed mindsets so we’re trying to work on them taking actions when they don’t understand.

4th hour, students were more receptive and almost all participated willingly and appropriately. We ran out of new partners with about 15 minutes left in the period, so in came Improvisation #3: I put two new inequalities on the board and asked them to solve them, then tell me 1 thing they felt good at and 1 thing they needed more practice with. This group, I encouraged them to write an example for their “one things” because I realized in glancing quickly at 2nd period’s that most of them did not have words to describe either what they were good at or needed to work on.

I was kind of upset, because this activity is usually one of my favorites and it…didn’t go well today, and I had many students so reluctant to participate. So, part of this post is taking credit for my own teaching improvisational skills. I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened 2-3 years ago, because I didn’t have the background knowledge to realize that pressing on was not the right choice, or the skill and capacity to come up with an alternative on the fly. So I’m proud of all three improvisations and I think they helped increase the effectiveness of the activyt.

 

But mostly, I want to reflect on why it didn’t go as well this time and how I’m going to regroup.

  1. Since my room isn’t set up in rows or a U shape of tables this year, I decided to have them move around to find their own new partners. This was clearly a mistake because it was where almost all of the refusal came in. “I don’t want to work with any of these other people”, “I don’t want to get up”, “I only want to work with this person”….there are less excuses if I set it up like I have before and set it up with chairs across a table with an inside and outside ring, and have one ring rotate each turn. Definitely worth rearranging my classroom for half a day to organize this rotation.
  2. Last week had a lot of absent students, as about three different viruses were going around. A few of those that were here on Friday weren’t confident about their solutions, and I had several students that I just had to hand a worked out solution to today so they would have a problem to exchange with their partners. Not really much I can do about that, but I’m acknowledging that it contributed to some reluctance to participate and low confidence today.
  3. I think the recording sheets I’ve used previously are necessary to this activity. As much as I love nonpermanent surfaces (whiteboards), and as much as our district is pushing us to make less copies, I think the accountability of “I actually solved the problem my partner gave me” and “I actually checked and coached them through their solution” are needed here.
  4. Good change: I think specifying 3 minutes to ONLY SOLVE, then 1 minute to coach the first partner through their solution and 1 minute to coach the second partner through theirs was really helpful. It led to less rushing than in previous years because they weren’t allowed to look at each other’s solutions until the first timer went off. I think I need to be even more explicit about this next year though, with NO MOVING ON to the next stage until the timer GOES OFF. We need to cultivate more time for thinking.
  5. Good change: problems on post-its instead of glued in notebooks. No need to bring the entire notebook with you around the room unless you wanted your notes. No constant flipping back to the right page because you shut it.
  6. Good change: we had a talk about “coaching” beforehand, along with an example conversation you might have with someone whose solution was incorrect.
  7. Idea: One thing students always get confused on in this activity is multiple solution pathways. That’s part of why this is a great activity, because it starts those discussions, but I get students coaching their partners that their solution was incorrect because they moved their variables to one side before they undid adding 7, or because they moved the variables to the opposite side that their partner had. I think it would be nice to solve an inequality like 2x + 5 < 4x  – 7 several different ways on the board to start class – perhaps something like 3 correct solutions, and 1 incorrect one, and then discuss how the coaching period would look for each of the solutions.

I want to remind myself that I still really like this activity – and that some of my favorite benefits of it did still happen for some students today, but I also want to acknowledge that I did something that didn’t go so well publicly, and I want to reflect on those failures to continue making my teaching better. I already feel better after typing those reflections out! And see, still some good coaching and solving going on in these pictures I took!

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