Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Day My Support Math Class Taught Me More About Socratic Seminars.

After the incredible experience I had implementing socratic seminars into my Accelerated Geo B/Advanced Algebra courses, my next mission was to find a way to incorporate this into my Algebra 1 support class at least one time before the end of the year.  I knew I did not want to be as structured as the accelerated class with them, but I still was not sure exactly what it would look like.  My support class had a lot of personality, and there were both good and tough days with that, but definitely more good.  It was nearing the end of the year, and I really wanted to encapsulate the good times, but I was tired just like they were.   I absolutely loved teaching these students, and they knew I cared about them and worked just as hard as they did to make our 2-hour block run productively each day.  We were in-tune with each other’s routines and expectations, and I firmly believe that is what drove them to set the tone of their seminar.

We were in the middle of the Georgia Milestone’s End of Course review for Algebra 1.  We were re-capping the year, and that is a tough undertaking, but they were troupers.  They wanted to do well, and I believed they could.  I believed it so much so, that on a whim, I found the Accelerated Algebra 1 teacher’s review packets in the copy room and used those for their review.  The problems were a little tougher, but I wanted to push them – I wanted them to have every advantage possible to do well on their state exam as it is state mandated that it be 20% of their grade.  Now, I did not tell them the level they were working at until later – I wanted them to realize just how capable they were if they made it through the packets; if not, I would re-group and use my original problems.

That particular week, the class was in 3-4 hour blocks of time because of the testing schedule.  We would open class by looking at multiple choice problems that were most missed from the practice test I had given them from state resources.   What I wanted them to do was find a way to solve the problems – I did not care how.  I told them this was their time to become total detectives, be creative with what they learned throughout the year, and use any way they could think of to find their way to an answer.  At the same time, we had what I called a “concepts toolkit sheet” for each unit of the year (I stole this idea from the CPM curriculum I student taught with in Minneapolis)    This was a notetaking guide that  I encouraged them to write the problem-solving ideas and concepts that made the most sense to them as we discussed them  in class for any particular unit.  I did add some generalizations for them, but mostly I wanted it to be written in their own words and understanding.
Now, the socratic part.  I came in to school the first day of that week, and I was about to have them for a three-hour block that morning.   I put my middle rows into a “U-shape” set up in the middle of the room; 2 desks curving out the bottom of the “U” and 10 desks comprising the “legs” of the “U”.  I then  placed a desk behind each of the chairs on the legs of the “U” for a second tier.  I placed white boards on the 2nd tier desks and then hoped for the best.  I did not know how many of my support students did socratics in their English classes or how much, so I was kind at a loss for how they would take to this.  I did decide that I would designate Malika as the group lead on the “U”.  Malika was a student with a large personality and definitely a leader in the classroom; sometimes productive, sometimes not depending on how quickly she would get bored.   She had strong math skills, stronger than she realized, and I somehow knew this would be a positive way to encompass the leader and mathlete in  her.

The students started filing in at 8:20 for class, and many of them asked excitedly:  “Are we doing a socratic seminar???”  I told them yes in a sense, may a very informal one.  I told them I was not sure how much they had worked with socractic seminars in the past, and that we would see how it went as the class went on.  I had put names on all desks for them to know where to sit, and I told Malika that I wanted her to lead out our first seminar.  She tells me:  “I got this Mrs. Daas – don’t worry, we are going to make this work!”

And that they did.   I started with the most missed multiple choice problems giving them 2-3 problems at a time and had them first work them silently.   Malika instructed the 2nd tier to work and put their ideas on white boards.  Next, I called for answers, which sometimes they agreed on an answer, and sometimes not.  I loved the conflicting answers because then I asked the 2nd tier students to raise their whiteboards with work and show what they did.  I could hear “oh I did it that way too” or “oh  yeah, I didn’t think to start there-I remember now” or “oh, I see what I did wrong now!.”   Now, I always wanted to discuss an answer that some of them agreed on was wrong and why.   This discussion would involve both tiers and I would ask students with whiteboards to show visuals of how the mistakes could become corrected.   There were so many strategies being discussed during this informal seminar.  One of my students Nick was a student who embraced multiple choice and the opportunity to work backwards with answers.  He was not the only one who would do this, but he was pretty enthusiastic about itJ   I did not hesitate to highlight this because it is a problem-solving strategy, and let’s face it, when a whole year of content is being tested at 20% of their grade, a pretty darn good one.  Malika liked that strategy too, and for students that were not prone to doing this, she would ask someone with a whiteboard to show an example.   At the end of each set of 2-3 problems, we summarized concepts we discussed, and the students would add to their unit toolkits.

After we went through the most missed problem set for the day, about 10-12 problems, I gave them their Units 1 and 2A review packets.  They continued the seminar!!!   I was hoping to get us through the most missed portion, and they took it beyond what I had envisioned; they set the expectation.  They tackled each problem as a group, Malika ordered quiet time for 1st tier and 2nd tier to solve 2-3 problems, and then they would check with each other and discuss when they were not in agreement calling for help from their peers with the whiteboards.  I would chime in when I heard certain strategies/concepts that I wanted to reinforce at the board.   What I did not realize at the time, was that we were knocking the door of Number Talks, only the students were still writing rather than working out calculations mentally. 

This was an amazing way to review for a standardized test with students in a math support class.   Best yet, it was student-driven and managed, and I learned how to look at socratic seminars in a different way.  This was not a seminar in which each person took their time talking with everyone else listening, it was a full collaboration with some pairs discussing before contributing.  The students were not a group that worked well with listening only to one person at a time, but that did not mean they could not have meaningful discussions about the math they were doing.   I did not have a 3rd tier of students listening and recording the math spoken; there was no way that could happen in these seminars, and there was no need. 

 I  saw my support class three times that week in large blocks; we continued the informal seminars each time.   I was truly amazed to see what they knew and furthermore, what how they worked with each other to correct what they did not know.  I gave them many packets of problems to work on and discuss that week.  Each time, because again, these were problems given at the accelerated level, I had them “star” problems that I felt were super challenging and told them that while that level is not necessarily required for preparation, to try and see what they could do with the problem; many at least tried them.  All students wanted to know why those problems were there:  “Mrs. Daas, are you trying to scare us???”  I said “no, but you all are working on the same packets and the accelerated level students.”  They looked at me in shock and asked why I gave them those packets.  My response:  because I believed that you could work at this level, and clearly you have proved to me this week that you can; look at all you have learned and what you can do.   Their excitement level was awesome, and I know that spiked their confidence level at the same time.  I told them I was excited to see what they could do on their test.

The Results
The students took their Algebra 1 EOC on May 6th.   By then we had thoroughly reviewed all 6 units through the group work and discussions the students led through the informal seminars.   When the results came back, I walked down to the office with a lot of nervous energy about seeing the scores.  Did this form of review work?  I mean, it was rigorous, and there was a lot of great discussion and preparation, but did it really reach to all as much as it could have?   With some students still on the edge of passing the course (passing is 70% in Georgia), they needed a score at least in the passing area…  
And so I believe it did reach all.  Out of 24 students, 19 passed, and the remaining 5 were within 5 points of a passing score.  Many students scored well above passing, and most student grades raised in the process.  These were students that were in the support class because they had not passed their standardized test the year before, and this was an incredible gain.  I was so proud of them, not only for their endurance during long hours of re-cap, but also throughout the year keeping up with their interactive notebooks and working hard in class.  I ask a lot of them all year and even more with this preparation, and they stepped up to the plate like no other class I had seen in my years of teaching.  When I got back to my classroom and saw their results, of course tears ran down my face.  I was so happy for them!  I immediately posted a congratulations to them on Edmodo – our shared communication network.

The  Take-Away

Why wait until the end of the year to do this?   My biggest advice for teachers is to never assume that students that are at a support level are not able to do some incredible thing.  Try all the things you do in other classes with them, and they may surprise you beyond your wildest dreams.   Informal socratics will now become a common practice throughout the year-possibly at the end of each unit at the support level.   One of my goals to add to this is formal number talks as there is a clear call for it that I saw develop in the seminars.    I am excited for a new year to start, so I can continue this journey with both strategies and see where else it leads.

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