Monday, October 17, 2016

Combating Student Absences

This blog post is intended to give you a glimpse of how Mr. Huntimer and I have modified some of the logistics in our geometry classes to help combat the fact that we a high percentage of students missing a high number of classes.  We have been extremely happy with the changes we made.  They have helped our classrooms run a lot more smoothly.

Before I start with the details, I want to clarify what we're dealing with.  Our geometry classes are composed of mostly sophomores and freshmen.  Overall, we have very good students.  They work hard; they do their homework; they care.  That's 98% of the battle.  But these student types are often times very involved in co- and extra-curricular activities.  

Here is part of the attendance record for the first quarter for one of my classes.  As you can see, I've got around 20 students for this particular section.  The letter code is this: "A" is an absence cleared by parents; "T" is a tardy; "U" is an unexcused absence; and "X" is absence due to school activity.

As you can see, some students have been in class every single day.  Others have missed literally 25% of class due to school related absences.  And here is the news... it only gets worse as the school year moves along.  In the fall, sports are the major culprit.  Once winter and spring roll around, there seems to be a lot more missed time due to music rehearsals and competitions and things such as FFA events.  Even many of the athletes miss more in the winter and spring.  For example, the football teams only play once a week in the fall, and the games start after school.  The track teams will often have meets twice a week in the spring, many of which start sometime in the afternoon.

This post is not intended to shine a negative light on students who miss class for various reasons.  (In fact, Mr. Huntimer coaches in the fall, and we both coach basketball in the winter.  Both of us miss more than a half-dozen days of our afternoon classes each year due to having to leave for games.)  It's intention is to inform you of some changes we implemented that have helped erase the headache caused when students ask, "Mr. Kreie -- what did I miss yesterday?"

Hardware & Software Details:

Our students each have a school-issued laptop with Geometer's Sketchpad installed.
We use Google Classroom (GC) as our learning management system.
Students use Google Drive for their file storage.
Students have a textbook and online access to our Pearson textbook resources.
We grab resources from numerous places, creating MS Word documents along the way.
We use Camtasia software to record a screencast of our lessons.

Changes in Implementation:

Change #1: We give an assessment each Wednesday.

Our formal assessments come in two forms - tests and quizzes.  We reserved the name "test" for the summative assessment at the end of each unit.  Tests are not able to be re-taken (unless 504 / IEP modifications call for it.)  We reserved the name "quiz" for the formative assessments checkpoints found along the journey through the unit.  Quizzes can be re-taken by any student who scores below a 90% on the first attempt.  *The maximum score on a re-take is a 90%.

The change to Wednesdays has been awesome.  In years past, we've steered away from Wednesdays for assessments because class periods are 5 minutes shorter than every other day (our district has early release time on Wednesdays).  However, Wednesday's are the day that very few school activities happen.  (See table above - only one "X" on a Wednesday.)  Most students are in class, which means fewer students needing to make up the assessment the next day.  To allow for the shortened class period, we've simply shortened the assessments.

Two unforeseen side effects of this change occurred.  First, this structure has allowed us to have a little faster pace through the first quarter.  In past years, if we were going to give an assessment, we would always make sure that there was at least one work / review day on the day before the assessment.  No new material or lessons would be covered the day before assessment.  This year, depending on the week, we don't always have a work / review day.  On at least two occasions we have presented new material on Tuesday but then simply not included the new material on that week's quiz.

Morever, in the past we have always ran into lesson timing issues at some point each unit.  For example, maybe the last lesson of the unit happens to fall on a Thursday and there is a homework assignment that goes with it.  Did we give the unit test on Friday?  No, because we want to make sure that students understand the material and provide feedback before giving the unit assessment.  So what do we do?  Give the test on Monday?  Probably not, but it has occurred from time to time.  Push the test until Tuesday?  Most likely, and now in a sense we've used one more day than needed waiting for the "right" day to assess.

This change has now dictated when we assess.  No more "searching" for the correct day.

(*Note: I do admit that we pushed our first unit test to Thursday this year.  We simply needed one more day to clarify some concepts that students were struggling with.  That particular week there was no assessment on Wednesday.  Even though this change has dictated our assessment schedule, we still make the rules and can adjust them to fit our needs!)

Secondly, this change has broken our units into smaller "chunks" and students seem to have a clearer sense of what is expected of them each week (see change #2 below).  We actually made our units a bit broader and more conceptual based, but each week sort of takes on it own identity.  One might expect that students struggle with retaining the material from early in the unit since it is a longer period of time between unit tests, but we have not seen any sort of drop off in the scores.

Change #2: We use a "task list" each week.

Each Wednesday we release a new task list on the GC stream.  The task list is simply a list of items and resources for students to have and use during the upcoming week (Wednesday to Wednesday).  [An example task list is shown below.]  The task list is released just before our first geometry class of the day, which happens to be immediately following lunch.  When students come to class on Wednesdays, they take the assessment and then have access to the new task list.

Along with the task list, we also post on the GC stream all homework assignments and due dates that need to be completed before the next assessment (the following Wednesday).  

This change has helped fight the problem of students missing class immensely.  Now, students don't have to ask, "I'm going to be gone on Friday.  What are we doing?"  Their assignments are already posted.  

Each day other than Wednesday, we also post a video of what happened in class that given day.  Some days it is a brief announcement with reminders.  Other days it is a lesson with highlights of our discussion.  Regardless, students are expected to watch the video any time they are absent from class.  This is also helpful for students who happened to be in class but would like to review or re-learn at a slower pace.

The task list & release of assignments on Wednesdays have also helped cut down on the number of missing assignments.  I don't have any data to back that claim up, and I'm not sure the cause (maybe it's just a good group of students).  But I have far fewer missing assignments this year than in the past three years of teaching these same classes.

One final thought about this...
Mr. Huntimer and I both agree that we wouldn't have been able to do this task list idea during our first two years of working together.  It really has been a three year process in the making.  Our first year, we were starting from scratch and learning about each other as much as anything.  Last year, we  restructured some things and made tweaks along the way.  This year, we continue to tweak and improve things but we have a strong idea of what we want from certain lessons, assignments, assessments, and activities.  The task list requires us to have everything for the following week finalized before lunch on Wednesday.

Change #3: We have made vocabulary a major focus this year.

As part of the task list each week, we provide students with a list of vocabulary words for the week.  Each student was asked to have a composition notebook exclusively for geometry class that we use as their vocabulary journal.  Students are to find the definition and provide a sketch / diagram for each word we assign.  

As students enter class on Wednesdays, they turn their vocabulary journals in for us to grade them.  While students are taking the assessment, we check their vocabulary journals for completion and return them to the students when they are finished with the assessment.

Again, an unforeseen side effect has taken place.  After they complete their assessment, a large majority of students open up the new task list and begin defining their vocabulary words for the week.  This keeps students engaged in class while others are finishing.  It has also led to more students having some prior knowledge about topics as we move through the week.

Overall, I have been very pleased with how the vocabulary implementation has improved our classrooms.

Here is an example task list for this week.
Task List -- Week 8
October 13 - October 19
Major Concepts:
  • Types of Transformations
  • Properties of Transformations

  • Transformation (of a geometric figure)
  • Pre-Image
  • Image
  • Rigid Motion
  • Composition of Transformations
  • Translation

Assignments / Tasks:
  • Complete Vocabulary
  • Homework 9.1
  • Problem of the Day #10
  • Desmos Activity - Translations

Textbook Resources (
  • Section 9.1

Other Resources:

Next Assessment:

  • Quiz 08, Wednesday, 10/19
  • Vocabulary Notebooks due Wednesday, 10/19

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