Friday, April 3, 2020

Life Of A (Socially Distant) Math Teacher: Midterms

Spring break is coming up fast in my corner of the world and you know what that means. 

This week we had math midterms. 

My original plan was to deliver my students' midterms by mail. But as the days ticked down to our test date, I had second thoughts. 

Why not deliver the tests myself, I pondered.

Of course, I wouldn't risk any face-to-face interactions. But I can deliver an envelope as well as any post office worker, and with far fewer hands touching it as well.  By propping my parcels up on my students' front porches, and asking them to do the same for me upon returning the tests, we could completely avoid seeing each other, which is a sorry thing to have to say but alas, this is where we're at. 

As usual, communication was my biggest challenge. Before the Covid crisis, I never realized how much information I convey to my classes in effortless conversation. Give me thirty seconds before the midterm and I can prep my students with testing instructions, give them a few hints about tricky problems, and pump up their confidence, all while they are picking up a pencil and taking a breath.

But distance teaching ruins all that. In order to get my students in pre-testing gear, I'd need to write out all the last minute details I wanted to be dancing through their brains. How best to get them to actually read my words?
I'm a firm believer in the power of our names. 

I fell back on an old standard, the manilla envelope. 

Even the name of it sounds charmingly outdated and decidely low-tech. 

The deep golden paper,
the little metal foldy things
the lickable glue (that I opted not to lick because the last thing any of us need is to touch each other's saliva, dried or otherwise),

and the big roomy interior of the envelope all feel wholesome and good to me.
Even when you know there's nothing but a big ol' math test inside, it's nice to see your name written out on an envelope in someone else's handwriting. I don't know why but it just is. 

I used the front of the envelope as a to-do list, giving each student a personalized list of other assignments due, and logistics for the pick-up.

Inside the envelope, I doubled down with sticky notes on individual pages to clarify my clarifications. 

I realize there's a risk of overkill - I mean, it's a test...just work the problems, right? But I'm always going to err on the side of providing explanatory detail, and these basic tools let me do that in spades. 

So off I drove, Gracie's head hanging effusively out the window, cruising up and down the side streets of Edmonds and passing out tests like it was Christmas. 

Math Christmas, anyway. 

A few hours later, after everyone had radioed in to say they were done, Gracie and I hopped back in the car for the pick-up round.

Did not interact with a single soul. Hallelujah.

This is my haul of midterms for Thursday.

Once we were home again,  I dumped the pile of tests on the floor and then the next round of fun began.

In a non-pandemic world, I typically grade my students' tests as soon as they finish, right on the spot of whoever's dining table we happen to be seated around. Each student helps me compare their own answers to my homemade answer key; we discuss any mistakes, decide on a fair score for each problem, and tally the total score before anyone stands up. 

But this process was going to be different.
Each problem is worth five points. To earn full credit, the student must show all 
formulas, equations, and calculations. 

Sure, I swiftly graded each test, but when it came time to discuss the errors - and for my money, understanding your mistakes is the essential component of the test-taking process - I faced another huge communication gap.
Multiplying binomials with fractional exponents is a tricky business.

I found myself writing out elaborate explanations of the errors, and then sending a photo of the page back to the student to review. And since most of my students don't have their own phones, I was actually sending the photos to the moms who then called their kids over to stare at the tiny version of their math test and try to make sense of my commentary.

I'm not sure how much they learned from their mistakes this time around. But I gave it my best shot.
Twelve dimes, yes, but how many quarters???

In several cases, a student would be cruising along through a complex calculation, but suddenly stop short of the final answer. Normally, if I find such an error of omission, I slide the page back over to the student and say, "Finish this. You're not quite done."

Instead, I found myself texting a photo of the partially-solved problem to the appropriate mom, and providing a hopelessly wordy explanation that the student wasn't quite done yet. In order to fairly grade the problem, I requested that the student re-read the problem, figure out what they were missing, and finish the work...and then take a photo of the additional work and send it back to me. And THEN I printed out hard copy of that final photo and attached it to the original problem to show all the work in one place.

The instructions say to solve, not simplify, and that forgotten "= 0" makes all the difference. 

I jumped through all those hoops twice, but I'm happy to report that both students immediately caught their mistake and successfully worked the last step of the problem. 

And finally, finally, with many days of extra preparation behind me, our socially distant math midterms were done. 

* * * * *

Sometimes adults give me a bit of side-eye when I explain my grading procedures. "Back in my day," I sense their thoughts, "my math teachers didn't give a bunch of namby pamby partial credit. A math problem was either right or wrong and we didn't earn any participation trophies for getting a problem half-done."

Well. I understand that stern approach, and I often regale my students with stories about college math professors who play the testing game with much less leeway than I allow. And I remind them that when they get to university, they will have to be ready to play hardball. 

But as a high school math teacher, my strategy is somewhat different. I expect my students to work hard and I hold them to high standards, but I'm also coaxing them to, well, maybe not love math, but at least enjoy the ride. I figure they will benefit more from a testing process that gives them every opportunity to show what they know, rather than one designed to trip them up and highlight their failures.
I love numbers so much that I hang them on my wall as art. They make me feel orderly and calm. 

I'm not fooling myself into thinking I can convince my students to love math. 

I mean, I love math and I think it would be really cool if they loved it too.

But all I really wish is for my students to master the math that will unlock the doors to their dream careers, and to come out the other end of this wild ride with some love in their hearts for numbers. 

* * * * *

Read more stories about my life as a math teacher:

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