Communicating with students

Sam Shah, math teacher extraordinaire from Brooklyn, has recently written a useful post about getting information from students. Like many of us, he begins the year by asking his students to write something about themselves. In my own classes this takes the form of a “math autobiography” or something similar. For example, from my Honors Geometry class:

Write your math autobiography and email it to me or write it in Google Docs and share it with me if you know how to do that. This should be a short, coherent essay, not a list of answers. Here’s what it needs to contain:

  • Describe — with specific examples — your biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses in math. Explain what makes the former a strength and what you think you can do to compensate for the latter. If you have not been in the Weston Public Schools all along, be sure to say what schools you went to and for what grades.
  • No matter what school you were in last year, who was your most recent math teacher?
  • Describe what you’ve liked and what you’ve disliked about past math classes, and why. (Feel free to name names when you’re saying something positive, but be cautious when you’re saying something negative.) Explain what works for you as a learner of math, and what doesn’t work. Talk about specific years. In all your previous schooling, what was your best year in math? Your worst? Why?
  • Say something about your hopes for this year in Honors Geometry.
  • If you have any special needs — medical, optical, cognitive, or whatever — mention them somewhere in your essay.
  • This essay is not a tweet! It needs to be at least two or three paragraphs long. (As a minimum, we suggest 200 words.) Please use Math Autobiography for Your Name as your subject, but replace the words “Your Name” with your own name, of course.

That works reasonably well — most of the time — but now I have some new ideas from Sam. In particular, rather than having kids write a (more or less) coherent essay, he asks them specific questions — specific but still sometimes open-ended. Not all of his list would work for me, but I like the questions a lot. For one thing, they seem to ensure that the course expectations will actually be read, something that has often been an issue for my students. I can do without some of his cute style, but look at the content of some of his questions:

  • What are you most nervous about in math this year?
  • Do you have any math question (at all) that you have always been curious about?
  • Why does your teacher think that being confused or wrong is actually a good thing? [Great question! — Ed.]
  • What are you required to write at the top of every homework assignment? [Boring question, perhaps, but I wish my students had answered this.]
  • Describe one moment that you had (in or out of class) that made you think “Heck yeah! Math is totes awesome!”
  • Describe one moment that you had (in or out of class) that made you think “Ugh! Mathematics is the absolute worst!” [Like me, he adds that they shouldn’t use real names in this context.]
  • If you were absent for an assessment, what do you do to make it up? [Boring again, but critical.]
  • What determines your semester grade in this course?

There are several more, but this gives you the general idea and plenty of specific examples. Read some of his sample responses; they certainly provide food for thought. But I can’t imagine writing long, individualized replies to each student, the way he does. Either he has many fewer students than we do in public schools, or he’s an exceptionally fast writer, or he doesn’t sleep. I’m not sure which.

Categories: Teaching & Learning