Homework Plan, 2016-17

I’m about to talk about homework even though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The system I’m about to describe is all about working around my big teacher weakness (I hate updating grade books) and as a bonus, helps me at staying organized. I have no idea if this is even a feasible system, so would love your feedback before I unleash it on my freshmen in two weeks.

About the environment: We’re a 1-1 laptop school, student absences are mostly due to doctor appointments and sporting events (and therefore mostly known in advance), and more kids do homework than don’t.

About me, the teacher: I absolutely hate grading work overnight. I have trouble establishing routines like starting class.

I’ve developed a homework & classwork tracking system that I think will be manageable. Would you consider giving me feedback once you’ve read about it?

The System

1. Students get Work Tracker handouts to be kept in their binders. Here’s a screen grab of the current iteration of the Work Tracker:


2. At the end of each class meeting, students update the Work Tracker with the next due date.

3. At the start of class (while kids are doing a warm up problem), I go around to each desk, glance at the work laid out for me, and enter a grade for yesterday’s assignment on each Work Tracker. In the event of absence or tardiness, a student must see me during the next scheduled office hour.

4. I update the gradebook once per unit with the average of the 15ish assignments on the Work Tracker.

Potential Problems

What if a kid loses the Work Tracker? That’s gonna suck for them. I plan to model backing up their data by taking a picture weekly. Also, the data can be recompiled because all the work should either be on paper in their binder or in the cloud in WebAssign. Side note: it’s gonna be rough on anyone who loses their binder. We’ll cross that bridge if it happens. I’m not trying to be a jerk here but this will still make some kids nervous.

How open am I leaving myself to fraud? Couldn’t a kid write in their own scores on the Work Tracker? Yes. That’s a flaw in my system, because I’ll be writing the scores in by hand. We have an honor code and if I catch anyone cheating, I’ll hand it over to Honor Council. On the flipside, the Work Tracker accounts to just 10% of a kid’s grade, so getting away with this crime isn’t terribly valuable.

Won’t it take a long time to go around the entire class and grade everything? Yes. I’ve tried to mitigate by putting many of my assignments on a generous “did you even try to do something?” scale, so I envision laying eyes on most papers and granting a perfect score. Class discussion will sort out the correctness of the work. The stuff I grade on correctness is kept in WebAssign, so I’ll ask kids to open their computer so I can just copy the grade down. Yes, it takes time but I see three benefits: 1) no matter what, I enter grades daily, 2) I get an idea of who’s falling behind daily, and 3) kids have an established class start routine. All of these were problems in last year’s system.

Benefits for the Students

Organization is generally good. I hear from the type A students that they like when teachers give out all the assignments at the start of the unit. I’ve never been organized enough to do it, plus I’ve always held on to notions of the class being too prescribed. I’m thinking that the type A kids could possibly work ahead and if I get a weird idea, I can always change out assignments and accept either the old or the updated work for credit.

Thinking about physics nightly is generally good. The nightly work ranges from “read this and answer 3 questions” to “solve these 10 problems”, from 15 minutes to an hour. In the past, I’ve only ever given out the second type of work and it was far more infrequent (maybe once a week). The new assignments encourage more independent reading, which I think will help their study skills.

Get the Work Tracker

Download the Work Tracker (.docx, it’s on the last page)

Your Homework

So, that’s my system. What do you think of it? I have a few questions if you want to help refine the process:

  • Did you spot potential problems I haven’t thought of?
  • I’ve never looked at work at the start of class. Have you? How hard is this to maintain?
  • Would it make more sense if I kept all the Work Trackers in my own binder to eliminate fraud and loss risks? Kids could have a blank copy with assignments and due dates.

Math Teachers Curate the Internet

The Global Math Department newsletter is my single favorite element of the internet for math teachers. This weekly gem highlights all the best stuff happening in our little corner of the world and that’s gold for busy teachers who don’t have time to be on Twitter or their blog reader hours every day.

This week’s issue includes blurbs on

  • social justice in math class, NCTM’s response, and resource links
  • analyzing student work using Desmos by Michael Pershan
  • highlights from the Park City Math Institute (PCMI)

Subscribe to Global Math Department’s newsletter. It’s free & weekly.


A Day Playing with WebAssign

Here’s what I learned from a day writing questions in WebAssign — I’m a fan of its randomized question-writing engine. It’s quite flexible and can do just about everything I want with the feature.

As a long-time Moodle fan, I think I’ve been convinced to make the switch to WebAssign. Lemme show you some of the stuff I learned:

Randomized Questions

I can write randomized (Moodle calls them calculated) questions. Here’s what that looks like to the student:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.01.13 PM

Numbers in red are randomized — everyone gets a different value within the parameters I’ve set.

WebAssign supports all the usual question types such as multiple choice, numeric answers, and matching. (By the way, the second part to the above question above uses a new-to-me feature: physPad, a symbolic equation editor. More on physPad later.)

When coding these randomized questions, I can do something like this:

$v = randnum(342,348,1);

which means make the variable ‘v’ be a random whole number from 342 to 348.

Because the WebAssign authoring system is based on Perl syntax (I’ve used it before), I found it fairly straightforward to adapt to the code. Below is a question I wrote with a multi-part randomized set of questions. In case you’re wondering, line 2 shows a weird workaround for randomizing numbers less than one.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.07.29 PM

WebAssign’s question writing interface is also its programming interface.

I’m impressed at WebAssign’s documentation, which includes video introductions and fully-documented details. Check out “Create Numerical Questions” for example.

Multi-Part Questions

I mentioned multi-part questions above. These were tough to do in Moodle, though possible. Multi-part questions are important to me because I can string together several questions into a coherent whole. Here’s another I wrote:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.06.09 PM

Multi-Part questions are natural friends with the randomized question feature I loved on above.

With more time, I’m eager put together smart multi-part questions that help  students move from concrete arithmetic to symbolic algebraic problem-solving.

physPad is Promising

Oh, so working with numbers is too juvenile for you? WebAssign also has a feature to write symbolically. Below is an example from the student POV:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.05.57 PM


The interface is similar to most WYSIWYG equation editing software out there, plus obvious keyboard equivalents do what you want (for instance, I used the slash key to create the fraction above instead of the physPad button).

I’ve played with some answers that are mathematically identical but look different symbolically and the system was smart enough to recognize a correct answer in several forms. I’m eager to push the limits with physPad.

Direct Measurement Videos Included

Peter Bohacek’s Direct Measurement videos are the bomb and they’re a resource available to WebAssign users.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 12.40.25 PM.png

This is a screen grab from a Direct Measurement video.

The Verdict?

WebAssign is robust. Combine the question-writing interface with the numerous supported textbook question banks, and I think I’ve got myself a pretty good  system for online testing and homework. WebAssign may replace Moodle for me this year.

Summer Institute on Experiential Education

I’m just back from the ISEEN Summer Institute on Experiential Education in the classroom. After four days of thinking deeply about teaching experientially, I’m motivated to share some thoughts here.


The science cohort included bio (left), physics (center), and chem (right) teachers.

The Wikipedia: Experiential education article gives a great overview. Though experiential education (EE) has become synonymous with outdoor education these days, I think EE can be more general-purpose.

The ISEEN Summer Institute brought together about 60 classroom teachers from the US, Canada, and Hong Kong.


Also at the Institute were arts and math teachers.

You might remember experiential education and John Dewey from your history of education course. He’s the guy who started the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and wrote…a lot…about education reform. More recently, David Kolb extended Dewey’s work.

Kolb says that to gain genuine knowledge from an experience,

  • The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  • The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  • The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  • The learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

These requirements form the Kolb Cycle for Experiential Learning, pictured below:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 11.11.42 AM

Later, the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) suggested The Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities.

At the institute, I was challenged to demonstrate Experiential Ed in action with a classroom activity. My choice was pinhole photography because our location was beautiful and sun-drenched.

  • Concrete Experience: I started my class off with camera obscuras built out of toilet paper tubes, foil, and parchment paper. Even outside the world of experiential ed, many of us are putting the experience first — it’s our hook.
  • Reflective Observation: Reflection is the means by which a student makes sense of their experience. There are so many ways to reflect, including journals, portfolios, role plays, games, model construction, and discussion. Taking a page from the Math Forum, I asked the teachers what they noticed and what they wondered. We all noticed the image was upside down. We also noticed it was hard to see the image unless the viewing screen was dark.
  • Abstract Conceptualization: According to Saul McLeod, “reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept.” You can conceptualize through lecture, experimentation (a form of further experience), solving problem sets, etc. Based off of the notice and wonder comments, I showed everyone how the camera obscura works. In a traditional classroom, this stage of the cycle is the most prominent and almost always precedes any experiences (such as labs) students might have.
  • Active Experimentation: According to Saul McLeod, this is when “the learner applies them [abstract concepts] to the world around them to see what results.” We built pinhole cameras, took, and developed photos. The teachers were encouraged to experiment with exposure time. The amazing results are below.


Want to know more? I put together this framework for planning experiential ed lessons alongside the pinhole lesson.


Sunrise in Santa Fe.


About Orlando

pulse we are orlandoI help out with the LGBTQA affinity group at school. It’s called United and after Orlando, we decided to send a message to the kids. Below is that message.


We now know that the shooting early Sunday morning at the Pulse in Orlando is the biggest mass shooting in American history. The country is rallying around our community, sending their thoughts and prayers out to those affected at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Sunday was a hard day for many of us. I encourage you to reach out to us, a counselor, or your parents.

How are we, your faculty, getting through this tough time?

  • Limiting our time reading the news. It’s gut-wrenching news that is best consumed in small doses.
  • We’re highly selective in choosing our news outlets. Sources I trust include Huffington Post, the BBC, and Al Jazeera.
  • Scrolling past and not engaging in the hateful rhetoric we read.
  • Donating blood if we qualify. The Red Cross here in Atlanta lists their eligibility requirements on their website. It is true what you’ve read that gay men who’re sexually active are barred from donating, making this time especially painful.
  • Attending a vigil. People are coming together to remember the dead and console the living. If you’re considering going to one, you may want to attend We Are Orlando: Vigil and Community Gathering at the Center for Civil and Human Rights on Tuesday night at 7pm. In this difficult time, gathering with community can be a great comfort.
  • Reaching out to our friends — in person and online — to talk. I encourage y’all to reach out to each other for support.

With the world asking how they can help, Instagram user @adriennemareebrown said it well, “listen to queer people of color. This hate crime happened in diverse Orlando at Latinx night at the Pulse. That very much matters.”

Also, you may hear folks suggesting that this was an act of Islamic terror. Please don’t believe the rhetoric. I love how David Klion on Twitter said it: “There will be attempts to pit two vulnerable communities, LGBT and Muslims, against each other. Resist them.”

Above all, know that you are loved, you are safe, and that you are going to be ok.

If you or a friend need immediate help and are feeling depressed, suicidal or all alone, PLEASE call 404-730-1600 in Atlanta, a local 24 hour Mental Health Helpline or the Trevor Helpline at 866-488-7386, a 24 hour GLBTQ Youth Crisis Hotline Line. Both are free and 100% confidential. Talk to a trained counselor that will help you find local resources. If you want to talk to another LGBT youth, call the Peer Listening Line at 800-399-7337. It is staffed Monday-Friday from 5:00 PM till 10:00 PM ET.


Ms. Hayes-Golding

Dr. Stewart

Ms. Dracos-Tice

And all your other LGBT Faculty


Transgender & Gender Nonconforming Students

Subtitle: a 15-minute primer for educators.


cisgender & transgender: Sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”[1]. Transgender people experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression and their assigned sex [2].

gender nonconforming: “refers to people who do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth” [3]. I am a gender nonconforming woman.

genderfluid, & genderqueer: This is the gender identity for people with a non-binary experience [4]. Miley Cyrus identifies as gender fluid, for example.

FTM & MTF: Abbreviations used by some trans people, meaning “female to male” and “male to female”.

Areas That Require Thought

  • Gender segregated spaces such as rest rooms and locker rooms, but also including graduation, homeroom, and health education.
  • Policy and records includes all the legal areas related to a student’s school life. This includes the name on official transcripts. Check out the GLSEN webinar below to learn several areas NOT in official policy, including yearbooks and class rosters.

source: GLSEN’s webinar on Supporting Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender

[3] http://srlp.org/resources/fact-sheet-transgender-gender-nonconforming-youth-school/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genderqueer

What’s the Job You Didn’t Get?

If I hadn’t become a teacher, I would’ve liked to be a human-computer interaction (HCI) engineer. What would you have done if you hadn’t done what you do?

HCI isn’t too far from what I do for a living now — I think about how someone will come at a problem and predict how they might interact with it, then guide them along to a solution.

h/t to Colleague Eliot for the idea, computer scientist-slash-teacher who would’ve been an economist. Leave yours in the comments.