Meanwhile….midterms again

I originally thought I could blog daily. Ha, ha. I managed close to that in January 2012, the first month of the blog, but it made me unhappy. Since then, I’ve usually managed an entry every five days or so. Sometimes I’d go 8-9 days after a really successful post, hiding away and watching reruns of Quantum Leap or The Mentalist, worried that I’d written my last good thing.

But this gap is more like the two-week plus hiatus I had in April of last year, when I spent most of a month working on a piece (under my real name). When I’d finally finished, I couldn’t even think of a thing to write about for a week or more. And so it was with my Philip K. Dick and preschool piece, which I’ve been thinking about since late December and working on for over a month. Kicked my ass, a bit. Happily, it was extremely successful—already #8 on my greatest hits list. My Twitter followers know that the piece had one fan that truly made it all worthwhile, and it kills me not to namedrop, but I won’t.

And then, midterms. My school covers a year in a semester, so we just finished the “semester” grades for the second “year”. We teach 4 block periods a day, so the kids can take 8 classes a year. Not great for test scores, since half the kids haven’t looked at the material in four months, and the other half haven’t entirely finished the courses. But it works in other ways.

One thing I noticed in my first “year” at this school: I wasn’t testing enough. In a normal schedule, I test or quiz kids every 8-10 school days, with the occasional longer gap. But in a block schedule covering a year in a semester, that’s the equivalent of testing kids every three-four weeks. Nothing terrible, but I decided I should up the pace slightly.

Except I’m teaching four classes and three preps—one of them for the first time. So I upped my quiz/test activity, thus increasing both my test creation and grading load, at the same time I was working a heavier teaching load, both in time and in preps. I work straight through from 8 to 3, in front of an audience of 35, with a brief 10 minute break at 9:30 and a half hour lunch at 12:35.

You know how teachers complain about grading, the tyranny of tests? I never have. I never even knew what they were talking about. I work fast, read fast, think fast, and I’m an insomniac. So the occasional two hour grading stint never struck me as particularly onerous. I’d generally schedule the grading session on a weekend, but if I had to grade things on a Tuesday or Wednesday every so often, I could manage easily. I pride myself on a rapid test turnaround, returning quizzes and tests within 3-4 days, a week at worst.

And suddenly, I was giving tests or quizzes to 140 students in three different subjects every week. Every time I turned around, I had a stack of tests to grade. At a modest estimation, I’ve spent 6 hours a week grading since February.

Then midterms. My geometry midterm is fifty multiple choice questions (multiple choice), my intermediate algebra 33. I have two sections of algebra, the test was four pages long. I graded it a page at a time on Sunday. Figure it took me 30 seconds a page to grade. 30*4*70 is 8400 seconds, or over two hours just to correct them. Then I had to calculate the curve and write the scores on each test, which takes another half hour or so, so three hours. And most teachers will tell you that’s a fast job.

Then my geometry test, which was five pages. I did two of them on Monday night, then just couldn’t take it any more. So Tuesday, I passed the tests out to the kids (geographically arranging them so no kid had his own test or a near neighbor’s), gave them red or blue pens, and we went through the whole test in 10 minutes. The kids loved the activity, were scrupulously exact, and asked why we didn’t grade tests this way all the time. I told them I usually look over the tests closely to see what kind of mistakes the kids make, what areas need revisiting, and so on. But I wasn’t going to be managing that little activity on this test.

Then Pre-Calc, the test that I spent five hours building the night before I gave it, and four hours grading on Wednesday night/Thursday morning (grades due 1:30 pm on Thursday).

The next day, Friday, I gave my intermediate algebra kids a quiz, so I have seventy quizzes to grade this weekend. I also have to build a pre-calc test (polynomials) and a geometry quiz (similar triangles).

I am not whining. Were I teaching a normal schedule this work would be entirely manageable. The longer day itself exhausted me for all of February, but by the first week of March I’d acclimated to the extra strain. I am getting well-compensated for the extra work, if you assume my normal salary is adequate, and I do. I get a 33% bump for the extra class.

But I finally know what teachers are talking about when they complain about the workload. It took an extra class and a concentrated effort on my part to assess my kids more regularly to get me to the point that many teachers reach on a normal schedule. Given that I’ve always had an inordinate ability to work long hours and do a lot of work without noticing (I worked full-time through all three of my degrees), I figure that I’m odd and the rest of teachers aren’t lazy.

Meanwhile, I’m beat.

Random notes on the classes:

Geometry: my most difficult class, academically speaking, since it’s a 10-12 class. Six kids are probably bored, because I can’t give them enough to do—the bottom half of the class is not unmanageable, but I can’t leave them unattended for too long without havoc ensuing. But they’re learning despite themselves, and the algebra progress is extraordinary. The kids right out of the top 6 but above the halfway mark are appropriately challenged, I think, and doing well. But I rarely feel good about the class.

On the other hand, last week, right at the time I was feeling really low, I gave the kids a worksheet (looked something like this, with a wider range of difficulty). I told them their task was twofold: 1) use what they knew about isosceles and equilateral triangles and 2) most importantly, build on the diagram, using what they knew, to solve for x. The second part, I said, was incredibly important. They couldn’t just look at the diagram and create an equation. They had to take the given information and work forward. The equation might be two or three steps away. I was not hopeful. And glory be, the kids surprised me by doing a bangup job—the weakest kids finished at least half the handout without begging for help every second. So I must have instructed them well! Need to remember what I said. Midterm performance: exceptional. They averaged 81% on the midterm (with a 15 point curve), and even the weaker kids did a great job on a long test.

Intermediate Algebra class: Having spent too long last “year” on linear equations, I used the same amount of time to cover linear equations, inequalities, and absolute values. We’re now wrapping up quadratics. Now that I’ve kicked linear equations and inequalities into submission, I’m struck by how damn complicated quadratics are. They don’t easily model. They have multiple forms and multiple methods of solving, all of which are complicated. But these kids, too, are doing well. Midterm: average 73% with almost no curve.

Precalc: longer post coming, eventually. Fun class. Midterm average was 69%. I have about 5 kids who simply do not understand the material, and I’m a tougher grader at the precalc level.

I was going to write this post first, but I’d seen one too many wails about American Indian Public Charter High, so I got back into it with a bang.

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About educationrealist


7 responses to “Meanwhile….midterms again

  • tim-10-ber

    So…if one wants to read what you write under your real name how does one find them? Thank you!

    • educationrealist

      Thanks for your interest, but I think it best to keep my two identities separate. Too many teachers get fired for blogging. So if you ever read a fabulous essay written by a teacher, just tell yourself it’s me!

  • Florida resident

    Dear Educationrealist,
    you wrote:
    “I’m struck by how damn complicated quadratics are.”
    Can you elaborate, what is so complicated about quadratics ?

    I can understand that the formula for _three_real_roots_ of cubic equation requires the use of complex numbers.
    Thast is what, in my very humble opinion, “damn complicated”.
    But quadratics ?

    With fascination of your nble work and your courageous blogging,
    your F.r.

  • surfer

    For quadratics, you have three cases: two separate real roots, a repeated real root, and double complex roots.

    You also have easily factorable solution or very hard to factor solutions (complicated square roots or imaginary numbers). For the latter, you pretty much need to complete the square, use the quadratic formula, or use estimation.

    I assume that recognizing which quadratics are hard or easy is part of the issue, although I always found myself using the formula for all of them at a certain stage, unless extremely obvious how to factor.

  • surfer

    I wonder how your blocks work? Do the kids have four 2-hour classes? Or some free time? They take 8 classes a year? How do they decide what to take what semester? In any case that seems like a lot of class time. I remember 6 period day when I went to school (50 minutes class, 5 minutes in between, half hour lunch).

    Also how do you manage the two hour blocks? Do they get a break in the middle or trapped the whole time? Do you have them do a mid class stretch? Do you have some typical formula to use the time? (e.g. lecture first hour and practice second? Or even 30/30/30/30?)

    How do you test within blocks? Use the whole two hours or just half of it (and which half then and how do you manage the kids not being distracted before or after if only half?)

    What is four classes and three preps? Don’t understand what that means.

  • surfer

    My best math teacher (calc and precalc) always did a weekly test, every Friday. One thing I have learned from the corporate world is that having meetings at set times recurring is very helpful. Condition the animals! Frequent testing helps learning. It is enforced practice, for one thing.

    My teach would always have the tests from first period graded before end of day Friday and everything done by Monday. I really don’t think you should wait several days to give tests back–it is poor pedagogy. Think of the test as a training mechanism, not purely evaluational. If anything evaluation is just useful to make the training better, make the students tray more.

    I’m not sure how this would work for blocks, but recommend you to become more set patterned as my HS teacher above.

    Not sure how to take more strain off the grading time. Especially since you are already doing MC.

  • surfer

    Still reading through the blog, but I am intrigued to learn what you are teaching in precalc in terms of syllabus. Also if there is any coordination with the calculus teacher who will receive the kids (or are they mostly seniors already?)

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