Capitalizing on What Students Do Best: Socialize.

Actual picture of me in my classroom.

Sometimes I pretend like I am a ghost in my classroom. As a ghost, I am invisible, float around, and just listen. At this point in the semester, it is a thing of beauty: a room full of learners working together like an orchestra, all doing different things at once, but somehow managing to achieve the goal of learning.

See the thing is, I like a loud classroom. I am actually extremely uncomfortable in silence in part because I was uncomfortable when I sat in a classroom in complete silence being talked at. Actually, I still am uncomfortable being talked at, be it in graduate classes or meetings (sorrynotsorry to my administrators). Last year I worked to change the structure of my classroom, focusing heavily on the student experience. That meant I had to monitor and evaluate the amount of airspace I took, create opportunities for learner choice and voice, and, essentially, give up control of the classroom to my my learners.

I notice that last piece invokes a sense of fear and anxiety in many teachers, and I get it. Teachers are, traditionally, the knowers of all things; they are the experts. They are the center of the classroom. Throughout my entire learning experience, and at the beginning of my teaching career, this is how classrooms were structured:

curriculum transfer modelCurriculum Transfer Model (Geni, n.d.)

One problem with this learning model is that it is impossible for the teacher to learn everything about the curriculum. They might be really knowledgeable in a specific content area, but to know everything? I’m skeptical. Likewise it is impossible for learners to learn everything about the curriculum through the teacher for a variety of reasons (intellectual maturity, sufficient and appropriate explanations or lack thereof, content knowledge deficits, and more).

This model also shows that learning is very passive. There is little interaction between learners and the curriculum. It is boring. If I am being honest: I zone out during teacher-centered lecture, even today. I will doodle, text, tweet, check my Instagram feed, and send SOS Snapchats to my friends…just like our students.

To combat the passivity, boredom, and isolation, I have built a community learners that capitalizes on what students are good at: TALKING.

community of learnersCommunity of Learners Model (Geni, n.d.)

One of the first things that most people notice about this model is that the curriculum is at the center of the classroom, with all parties engaging with it and each other. There is another, more subtle difference in this picture. Do you see it? I’m talking about the arrows: they point in both directions. This small detail emphasizes the importance of the idea that that no single person knows everything, not even the teacher, and everybody in the classroom has something to contribute to learning.

My learners and I have a classroom mantra: share the wealth. It really speaks to what  I have described above, and drives home to purpose of why we are in class, school: to learn as much as possible and to grow as much as possible…with each other.

In order for this to work, a certain environment must be set up such that each member of the group, class feels valued. A lot of the structures that I implemented were adopted and modified from/with Larry Geni, a former high school physics teacher, current consultant, and my educational therapist (seriously). For more information about building a social learning environment, as well as structures to promote self-directed learners, check out Geni’s books; they are free to read on his website.

Social learning environments can definitely be very scary. The status of the teacher is lessened dramatically, while the status of each individual learner is raised. It brings this idea of “student-owned learning” to a whole new meaning. But it is a delicate thing to accomplish.

Interested in facilitating a classroom like this? I know I was very eager at the beginning, and I jumped right in. To put it lightly, I failed a bunch of times. But you know what? That’s the whole point of learning! We try something. Receive feedback. Try it again. Reflect. Repeat.

At this moment, I feel much more confident in facilitating a social learning environment. Many of the facilitation strategies I utilize were picked up from the Complex Instruction Consortium, and my educational therapist, Geni. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Phrase that Pays

In essence, I like to emphasize the importance of sharing ideas and openly communicating with each other. I will typically open an activity/task with something like:

Today you will work together on a task. It is important that your group works together on this task. While you may think you know everything, unfortunately you do not. BUT each of you has something to contribute, and the more each of you contributes, the richer your group solution will be…

Whenever we do group tasks, I always deliver The Phrase that Pays (TPTP). To me, and to our classroom, it just reinforces our mantra. It encourages learners to actively and effectively communicate with each other, which Tony Wagner identifies as one of his Seven Survival Skills.

Classroom Spies


What are spies good at? Creeping around. Watching. Listening. Not being seen. These are a few of the attributes I recommend to learners if they are stuck and want some help without interrupting anybody else’s learning. This facilitation strategy works particularly well with students working on similar tasks. I encourage learners to send one group member to spy around the room, picking up, err, writing down and information that might help their own group.

It is crucial to encourage the rest of the group to continue discussing the task at hand while their spy is floating around, because, you know, classroom management.

Group Questions

Whenever an individual raises their hand, I walk over to that individual, maintaining eye contact until I arrive at their desk…and then I abruptly turn to someone in their group and ask their what about the question. If they do not know, I walk away.

[Cue the argument between group mates]

L1: Wait, where are you going?! Why did he just walk away??!
L2: Why didn’t you ask us first? We could have helped.
L1: [zero comeback]

Nine times out of ten, the learner who had the question did not ask their group. Well, at the beginning it is nine times out of ten. Once a group picks up on the whole “group question” thing, they are much more cognizant of utilizing each other as resources first.

Peer Pressure

I remember growing up hearing that peer pressure was bad. Not from my parents or anything, but from television; my parents are first generation immigrants who did not know what the teenage American upbringing entailed. Having said that, peer pressure is very real, but it can be used in a classroom to encourage learners to work, both individually and as a group.

One of the structures Geni helped me build with my high school mathematics classes dramatically improved homework/practice completion across the board. The short answer is I started stamping practice that was completed on-time. Some of the criteria to receive a stamp include:

  • Title & date
  • Attempt at each problem
  • Level of understanding for each problem (up, side, down arrows)
  • Questions, comments for problems any side or down arrow

Mind you, no points or grades are awarded for doing practice (s/o to the #tg2 squad). Completed work did receive a sweet stamp (including, but not limited to, a number of different, amazing dinosaurs). This is where the peer pressure comes in: if everyone in the group received a stamp for a given practice (on the day it is checked in), each member gets a double stamp. And if the group continues to do so for consecutive days, they can build a streak (a la Snapchat) and receive triple, quadruple, quintuple, …, n-number of stamps. It really is so simple and so trivial, but for some reason it worked wonders….on high schoolers. Apparently streaks are a big deal; learners got mad if a streak was broken.

What I saw in doing this really amazed me: learners talked outside of class, making sure each group member knew what the assignment was, and even offered to hold out-of-class study sessions to get work done together. There were a few instances where learners screenshot their FaceTime session, with each group member holding up their math journal, cheesing for the camera. It was absolutely adorable.


From my perspective, learning happens best when it is done with others. Being able to share ideas, critique each other, and work towards a common goal is so much more meaningful than sitting and listening to a lecture. Plus, it is way more fun! But as a teacher, allowing for so much freedom is both a common fear and a big challenge. While there are a number of other facilitation strategies that I use on the regular, the four above happen to be some of my favorites. If you are interested in discussing more, or if you have some that you would like to share, send me a tweet!



Things I wish I learned as an undergraduate: Educational technology

I have made it to my fifth year of teaching, and I do not have the urge to leave the profession. It is weird for me to say this because data shows that approximately half of all 17% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching (s/o to @mpershan for finding current data from The Washington Post #statisticsproblems). So I guess I will change my opening statement to “…and I do not have the urge to leave the profession…yet.” All kidding aside, I have made it this far in my career with the tremendous support of my wife, family, friends, colleagues, and, of course, my wonderful students. But something that did not really help me all that much was my undergraduate teacher education program. Sorry to say, but while I learned a lot about theories of learning and educational philosophy, I did not really learn about what it would be like once I got into the profession. Granted, I got a sneak peak during observations and student teaching, but that was only one hundred hours and one semester.

To be honest, it is a little upsetting.

I feel shortchanged.

This is not me bashing my alma mater. This is me expressing my feelings about education programs in general. After many conversations with current teachers, newbies and seasoned vets, I have come to the conclusion that teacher preparation programs need to change. Plain and simple, they are not preparing future educators in many different ways.

I am going to start this series with a topic we did discuss in school:


Here are just a few things I wish I learned as an undergraduate related to educational technology:

  • TI Calculators are the greatest inventions since sliced bread not the only things students can use for calculating and graphing. Something I have been emphasizing recently is mental math.  I recently started class with Math Minutes, where students work on mental arithmetic for n-number of minutes. It makes me frustrated, but also makes me laugh, when I see students type 1×4 into their calculators. (Insert sigh) And do not get me started on graphing. Every math teacher needs to play with Desmos. I cannot express the amount of love I have for the Desmos Team. It is immeasurable. To be fair, Desmos was not live when I was an undergraduate. BUT I hope teacher preparation programs are introducing this to prospective math teachers right now. I will say the only thing TI has on Desmos is that their calculators are permitted on standardized tests.
  • Twitter is an evil social network that students use to follow Kim K. and Justin Bieber the best free professional development network…EVER. Where else can a teacher share their best practices with teachers on five other continents? Where else can a teacher learn about grading reform (#sblchat #ttog), building a healthy culture of learning (#COLchat), flipped classrooms (#flippedclass), math blogs (#MTBoS), and other math-ed related topics (#slowmathchat)? Twitter is also a phenomenal place to learn about in-person professional development opportunities. As a new teacher, it could be difficult finding PDs. I remember not knowing where to look for these opportunities outside of receiving snail mail offering workshops that did not pique my interest.
  • Cell phones will prohibit learning can be a valuable resource in the classroom. BYOD (bring your own device) schools are popping up more and more, and why not? There are free graphing calculator emulators for students who might not have access to a TI (wabbitemu), Desmos (another plug because yes), text/email reminding services (Remind), formative assessment tools (Kahoot, Socrative), and countless other free resources. There many other ways to use cell phones in the classroom, too. Think outside the box, then post it to Twitter and tag me (@mrgarychu); I’d love to hear steal what you do!
  • Smartboards are the future and will be in every classroom you will ever step foot in cool, but I have never used one…ever. All this talk about Smartboards is neat, but I have only seen them in the wild a few times in my career. More popular are tablets (iPads and Surface Pros). But as a teacher candidate, you cannot get too excited and assume you will have one in your classroom. Get comfortable writing with dry erase markers. Learn how to manage board space. Or just buy a tablet and use it in your classroom.
  • Technology is evil, and will be the end of mathematics as we know it has helped me realize that I am asking the wrong questions in my classroom. Calculators, solver apps, websites like Wolfram Alpha, they are all phenomenal tools to help solve problems worth solving. If I am asking thirty of the same type of questions that takes two hours to complete, it is pointless. Having these tools encourages me to think beyond skills, and pushes me to ask more meaningful questions. I am not discounting the importance of skills. I am emphasizing the importance of pushing our students to apply knowledge and skills.

Geez, rereading this makes it look like I am getting paid by these companies, but I am not…yet #insertlaughingemoji. In all seriousness, I have learned a lot about technology these past few years. A big shoutout to my colleagues and Twitter fam. You all have taught me so much.

What do you wish you learned about as an undergraduate in the field of educational technology? Do you have anything to add to this list? Feel free to comment and share!

I have an 89.018%. Can you round me up to an A??

One lovely Wednesday evening while on the Twitter (many moons ago), some folks in my PLN and I were exchanging tweets during #sblchat. Always a great conversation, an idea started brewing….

Next year, I think it would be neat to engage students and parents in an activity to show how much information percentages give relative to grades.

It’s still relatively rough, but here’s the gist of it:

Starting at 100%, have participants describe, in words, what each percent means in relation to a grade.
If they get stuck, to 0% and work your way up.

My gut, I hope, tells me that the participants will quickly see how there is not much of a different between 75% and 76%. Or even better, the difference between an 89.998% and 90.032%.

From there, I would introduce descriptions of the different levels of understanding. Whether you are using a scale like Mastered, Approaching mastery, Tutoring needed, Help (M-A-T-H, if you missed that), or something more universal (4, 3, 2, 1), having clear descriptions of each level is crucial.

I might even throw in sample work that depicts each level. That would be a great experience, particularly for students. What I am currently struggling with is students differentiating between minor, non-conceptual errors and major conceptual errors. I hear things like “Oh, I just have to flip the fraction upside-down. That’s a small error,” when in reality there is a deeper misunderstanding of the concept.

Feedback on this activity? Has anyone done something like this before? If so, I’d love to hear about how you implemented it, its reception, and how you might change it if you were to do it again.

What’s in a grade? – AFL (Part 2 of n)

During my first year teaching, I learned a lot about building a healthy learning environment, creating meaningful relationships with students, classroom management strategies, collaborating with peers, and, of course, grading.

As mentioned in a previous post, I began my teaching career grading similar to how I was graded. I counted tests, quizzes, homework, classwork, projects. I even gave extra credit (#shivers). The whole nine yards. It wasn’t until a few veteran teachers shared their grading philosophies: they followed and implemented Assessment For Learning (AFL).

At its core, AFL is a practice that encourages students to be more proactive in the learning process, teaching them how to self-diagnose understanding and misconceptions. It acknowledges that learning is a process, and that individuals learn at a different paces. Reassessment opportunities are allowed for students to show growth. The ultimate goal is to create self-regulated learners. In the beginning, I thought it was just something new and trendy that some teachers were trying. But the more I learned about it, the more AFL began to make complete sense.

I had the opportunity to meet with a small cohort of new teachers and a veteran, henceforth Ms. A (not her real name), who was implementing AFL during my first year in district. She shared her experiences in preparing students for this shift in assessing and grading, as well as how she had to modify her teaching. One of the biggest takeaways from my year with Ms. A had to do with assessments, particularly how to “grade” them. Gone were the days of tabulating points. In came written feedback. I’m not talking about “Nice job!” or “There is an error here.” Descriptive feedback is an extension of scaffolding. Its intent is to guide a student and provide support to help them realize their error, ultimately to learn from and correct it. John Hattie reports that, with an effect size of 0.73, feedback is among the top-10 things that strongly influences student achievement.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story.

The first semester of my teaching career just ended, and I decided to make the bold move of adopting AFL. Yep, mid-year. But what exactly does that mean? For me, all things related to compliance (homework, participation, attendance, etc.), as well as non-summative assessments no longer counted for points. Students’ grades were determined based on how they performed on their summative, end-of-unit assessments. Intermediate, formative assessments were given regularly to check for understanding, but it was all about the test. And if students did not perform to their liking, they were allowed to reassess so long as they met the retake requirements (corrections to all unit assessments, completion of practice/homework, and at least one tutoring session with a student tutor, teacher, or private tutor with appropriate documentation of what they worked on during their session[s]). Additionally, and most importantly, I had to make sure students understood what was going to happen. Parents had to be informed as well. Regular, open communication is key when making a change this drastic (or any change for that matter).

Things went well for the next two and a half years, as I didn’t make any significant changes in grading. The grading practice detailed above gradually became the norm in our department, and then school, with some modifications from teacher to teacher. Students got used to formative assessments and homework not counting for points. Correction time was built into instructional days, with students using each other as resources and support. Students began to regularly self-assess and report their level of understanding on each assessment, which, according Hattie, is the number one influence on student achievement based on effect size (1.44).

It seemed like I found the resolution to my grading dilemma. So why did I feel like something was wrong?

It wasn’t uncommon for students to stick around after a tutoring session to talk about school, extracurricular activities, life in general. I recall one particularly lengthy conversation with a couple of students who shared their feelings about school and grades. One thing has stuck with me since:

“Grades make school very stressful.”

And that’s all I needed to hear. I needed to somehow eliminate grades, or eliminate stress, or….both.

Next time on What’s in a grade?: Standards Based Grading. What’s changed since last year? What am I doing now? How is it being received by students? Parents? Other teachers, faculty? Administrators?

What’s in a grade? (Part 1 of n)

My limited time as a teacher has allowed me to see a lot of things. There’s the usual: students come and go each year. Students in my homeroom growing up before my eyes. I saw Common Core roll into our department (and yours). The ensuing struggle to interpret the Common Core once it arrived. I saw social media post after social media post from parents and teachers alike sharing their opinions about Common Core. I’ve seen growth mindset become a “thing.” I’ve seen smiles, high fives, and fist bumps after a fantastic lesson. I’ve seen tears shed because of a loss, breakup, and final exam (true story). But something I didn’t see was a change in the way we grade; that was relatively consistent through the beginning of my career.

Earlier this month I sat in the audience listening to Thomas Guskey talk about grades, and I recall him asking a very simple, straightforward question: why do you grade the way you grade? Now, I’ve come a looooooooong way since year one, in many regards, but my thoughts when asked this question immediately rewound back to that first year: I graded my students like I was graded as a student. Come to think of it, I was, for the most part, graded the same way from kindergarten through elementary school, from high school through graduate school. I was given points. So, naturally, I gave points…a lot of points. And, in part because I really didn’t know any better and veteran teachers suggested I follow suit; so I had weighted categories. You know what I’m talking about:

Tests — 60%
Quizzes — 15%
Projects — 10%
Homework — 10%
Participation — 5%

The above is a pretty generic example, but you get the point (pun intended).

But shortly after I started teaching, I began to question what I was doing. Some things just didn’t make sense to me. I faced my first major dilemma in teaching: grades. It became frustrating to grade because I found that I frequently asked myself questions like:

What do my grades represent?
What should a grade represent?
Should effort be a factor when calculating/determining grades?
What’s the difference between a 79.63% and an 80.24%?
Why is there an 11-point spread to get an A?
Why is there a 60-point spread to get an F?
How emotionally damaging is it for a student to see a 12% in the grade book?
Wouldn’t it just make sense to give them an F? I mean, it’s still an F…
How much does a zero really impact a student’s grade?
But what does that F really mean?

These were just a few questions I pondered…

So my question to you is, what do your grades mean?


This is Part 1 of an open-ended series on grading and my journey to Standards Based Grading. Stay tuned to hear about where I was and where I am; they’re two entirely different places (in case you couldn’t already tell..).