Sharing the Process: Teaching Math through COVID

By Terri HerrNeckar, Math Teacher, Milton Academy

In the spring of 2021, EXPLO Elevate hosted the Tech Tools for Teaching and Learning Community of Practice, in which educators shared their experiences and lessons learned from a year of online and hybrid learning. In our final meeting, we asked participants to share one practice or tool they adopted during remote learning that they would continue to use in the future. The story Terri shared was so powerful, that we asked her to share it with our broader community.

Acknowledging the special circumstances of the Covid school year, my school encouraged every teacher to redefine their teaching goals.

Throughout the year I chose not to give any individual quizzes or tests, focusing instead on language, process, sharing, and feedback. I then made a few simple tweaks in a staple of our Honors Precalculus course, the spring independent project, and the results were a credit to our students and their overall education. The main theme of this year’s April project was sine waves, a topic we covered in a basic way, but not with the depth of pre-pandemic years. Rather than pushing my students to solve more difficult traditional problems I had them choose a topic of their own interest from “wave trig” in and focus on collaboration and presentation.

The students used Google’s Jamboard to share in one frame what they believe constitutes a good group presentation and in another frame what constitutes useful feedback. “Think ‘TED talk,’” I suggested. “Focus on conveying the power of the idea. You want to evaluate the presentation of the work rather than the math itself. From all the writing, videos, slide decks you’ve made, what makes for the most effective communication?” I agreed with everything they wrote and chose not to add anything, but I wrote the prompts for the final reflection. Some students were still remote, so everything had to be presentable using a slide deck on Zoom.

“The best incremental innovations often sound kind of boring.”

– Mark Greenlaw

The students formed groups so they were all working on something they wanted to study/create. In terms of technology, we used only Google Jamboard, Slides, and Docs (for a daily journal of research)

For the past several years, our Honors Precalculus course has culminated in a project with the basic framework of independent choice in both topic and group members, along with a daily log, a paper/presentation/artifact, and a final reflection. This time, however, I asked ALL groups not only to present but also to evaluate the presentations according to the standards they saw evolve over the course of the year.

Immediately following each presentation and the Q&A, each student went into a discussion board on our LMS to give feedback. (They could not see what others wrote until they submitted their own feedback.) The evaluations were supportive, offering praise and constructive criticism, and the presenters could read the feedback immediately.

Having the students set the standards and hold each other to those standards in a way they could accept was a BIG win.

When the students did their final individual project reflection they talked about the choices they had made, and why they got the feedback that they did. Having the students set the standards and hold each other to those standards in a way they could accept was a BIG win. It was the first time in my (35 year) career that all my students embraced what they needed to do better, what they needed to pursue further.

One of the project groups created and shared a (laughably awful) digital song based on sine waves. They knew it was “bad” and they were proud to be able to share how it was created and exactly what they would do with more time. They attempted something very difficult, enjoyed the challenge, presented what they created, and learned from all the feedback they received. This group took a creative risk and was empowered by the honesty and trust embedded in the process.

Now, I’m focused on the simplest way to create digital portfolios to chronicle risk-taking and learning, rather than focus on splashy results. This has always been the goal for the Precalculus project period. This year my students achieved that goal because together we worked to create three-dimensionality in a 2D world of Zoom through constant feedback— the biggest win of all.