Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Transparent Algebra: Course Expectations

Teachers at my school are required to create a list of course expectations that they give to students (typically on the first day of school) and often also post to their website. This is pretty much what you would expect, a list of general information, procedures, and rules and regulations regarding the class.

I'm creating one as well, and it will be similar to everyone else's. But I won't be printing, copying and distributing mine, it will just live on the web and I'm going to ask students and parents to read it before school starts (via an email sent to the parents that I'll ask them to share with their student).

But I also wanted mine to be a little different in another way. Many of the course expectations from my school that I looked at when brainstorming what I wanted on mine included phrases such as:
No food, drinks or hats are allowed in the classroom.

Any academic dishonesty as defined in your school calendar will result in a zero grade.

Three attendance points will be lost for each tardy.

Late homework will not be accepted.
It's not that I necessarily disagree with their policies, although I do with the points off for tardies and the late work policy, and I certainly don't approve of academic dishonesty. I guess what I didn't like was the overall tone of the course expectations. While about half of each course expectation was tone-neutral (essentially informative), the other half of each of them seemed very negative to me. They seemed to be listing all the ways kids could mess up in their class and what the penalty was for each type of infraction.

That troubles me for two reasons. First, it seems like the basic assumption is that students are going to be a problem, so let's make sure we identify all the punishments up front. Now, I'm certainly all for transparency, and stating these policies up front is certainly transparent. But my basic assumption is that students are going to do the right thing most of the time, so I don't want my course expectations to focus on the outlier events.

Second, it troubles me because, in many respects, the course expectations are my first impression on my students and their parents. I don't want my course expectations to send the message that I think they're going to mess up, I want my course expectations to be welcoming, informative, and perhaps begin to convey a little bit of my philosophy. I realize I may be over-thinking this a bit, but you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and I want mine to match what I hope my classroom is going to be like.

So, here's the current draft of my course expectations. I would really appreciate any feedback you're willing to give.


  1. I teach high school math. We have a "no hats" policy in our school. What do you think about it?

  2. @ZeroSum - Our policy is that the hats come off when they cross the threshold of an instructional space. Seems to work fine and allows me to see into my student's eyes, yet still allows them to wear what they want when not in class.

    If it was just up to me, I'd probably allow hats in my classroom and only deal with it if they became an issue, but I'm okay with how it's working.

  3. I like your Course Expectations. I have always felt that reading the rules and regs the first day sets a very negative tone. Can you imagine being a kid and hearing that six (or more) times on the very first day? I would build up resentment at that, and I was a kid who tried to learn and comply with the rules. In fact, I have quit doing it the first day, just to give them a bit of relief and make the class stand out as being different. Besides, they know what to do, really. Most of the things are the same.

    Another thing I have done is to put all of the rules in positive form. For example, instead of "Don't miss more than possible" (I don't remember your exact wording) I would say, "It's very important to attend class." And then if I wanted to elaborate on why, I could do so.

    I like your intent.

  4. I agree that when teachers cover "expectations" it appears as though they are expecting trouble. I like your one basic rule, "Do the right thing." Rather than the litany of don't student hear on the first day of school. When I was still in the classroom, I had two "rules: - Respect and Responsibility. They cover everything.

  5. Karl --

    I think you're on the right track trying to formulate expectations that are positive rather than negative (what do negative expectations say about teachers' assumptions of their students' learning experience?). Reading through your expectations, I was struck by two things: 1) the explicit statement that you would be developing a set of class norms in class and 2) that part of "doing the right thing" is not creating "problems."

    On the first, I salute you: way to get buy-in from the students.

    On the second, I would question whether defining a broadly non-specific (but understandable) goal with non-specific bullet points is informative. If you're going to to talk about "problems", maybe it would be better to outline the kinds of problems that you're thinking of: problems that disrupt your own learning (with examples) and problems that disrupt someone else's learning (with examples). Maybe even tie together the course goal of problem-solving with the issues raised by "problem" behaviors?

    -- S

  6. I liked the wording of this policy, but you may need to add a little more...

    You may engage in any behavior that does not create a problem for you or anyone else (and that includes me, your teacher).

    I am enjoying the time you are taking to rethink your classroom environment.

  7. I agree with your course expectations. I also believe that we should expect students to do the right thing. I know that we will get more positive results when we are expecting the best.

  8. Thanks for sharing this. I got some great ideas that I will definitely, in some form, use (I love your four course goals and your descriptions).

    A couple things...

    1. Maybe this is just semantics, but I'd be careful about your use of the term "formative assessment." I'm in no way an expert, but the literature I've read seems to agree that this should be used to adapt instruction and NOT for grading. While I understand that you're using SBG and that quizzes can be used for self-reflection and meta-cognition purposes, it's not clear you're using them to adapt instruction and you're definitely using them as part of their final grade.

    2. You have 4 course goals, but I'm not seeing where/how the final three goals are being assessed (in a formative or summative way). I worry that this will affect the importance kids place on these goals.

    Food for thought.

  9. I like the course expectations you have here :) I also really liked the option of taking the Final Exam mark as the final mark in a class if the mark was higher on the final than the semester long average. I've never seen that before.

    Going back to the original point of the blog, however, what we do at the college I work for is use a student rights and responsibilities document. We just drew it up in the last day or so in response to some dishonest behaviours observed by some of our online students this past year. We too didn't want to have a list of "Don'ts" presented to the students, so we created this:

    Student Rights and Responsibilities as an Online Learner

    You have the right to:
    • ask questions and receive feedback from your instructor in a timely manner
    • learn in a positive, respectful, online environment free from harassment
    • discuss your assignments and progress with your instructor (either through course messaging system, email, telephone, or Skype)
    • know how you will be evaluated
    • learn by applying your new knowledge and skills
    • use materials and methods suited to your needs
    • complete a course within the one year time allotment
    You have the responsibility to:
    • log into your course and check email on a regular basis
    • access and utilize all of the learning resources made available to you, including electronic and paper-based
    • ask questions when you don’t understand something
    • respond promptly to your instructor’s requests for information and contact
    • conduct communication with your instructor in a formal and respectful manner
    • read and apply the corrective feedback the instructor gives you on assignments and tests
    • do your own work (see the explanations of cheating and plagiarism below)
    • consistently complete assignments according to the timeline you have established for yourself
    • comply with course software requirements
    If you keep these rights and responsibilities in mind and do your best to apply them to your endeavours with the College, then you will reach your educational goals.
    Cheating and Plagiarism:
    Both cheating (e.g. copying and/or using someone else’s work as your own) and plagiarism (e.g. copying information off the Internet; copying out of a book without crediting the source) are examples of student misconduct at Parkland College. Neither practice is tolerated in any of the courses Parkland College offers. It is expected that students do their work honestly and that all assignments and tests are completed by the person enrolled in the course. Proper use of quotations and properly-formatted citations are expected in student writing. Students found to be plagiarizing or cheating will be assessed a grade of zero on that assignment. Repeated infractions could result in further penalties.
    Declaration of Understanding:
    I, ________(type your name here)________ have read and understood these rights and responsibilities. By typing my name here and uploading this document onto the course site, I am declaring my intention to comply with these policies as they have been outlined above.

  10. The Sultan - My wording was “If at all possible, don’t be absent.” I’ve now changed it to, “It’s very important to attend class every day.” Thanks.

  11. Seth - I see what you mean with our second point. I wasn’t really trying to “define” my first statement with the bullet points, but I could see where students and parents would see it that way. But I really don’t want to outline the problems, because I see that as getting back to what I’m trying to get away from.

    I sorta like the non-specificity of “problem” in those first two bullet points, because that makes the students really think about what causing a “problem” for themselves or others looks like. It also makes then think deeper about perspective, as they have to consider what someone else might consider a problem, even if they don’t themselves think of it as a problem.

    Having said that, I’m now going to think a little bit more about a better way to lay this out and perhaps elaborate a little bit.

  12. ed techie - Wait, I don’t get to be included in “anyone else?” :-)

  13. Avery - I address the use of “formative” here . Basically, I agree that I’m not using “formative” in quite the normal way, but I’m sticking with it anyway. Hopefully that post explains why in a semi-rational way.

    I sort of address the assessment of the four course goals here, where I basically say I don’t know of a good way to assess goals two through four. I’ve seen various techniques for trying to assess those but, in my opinion, none of them have really been meaningful. So, until I can come up with something that I think works, those are going to be assessed through more informal means.

    I’m also hoping to convince my students that the grade isn’t the goal, and that therefore they shouldn’t only care about things that end up being “counted” toward that. I know, that’s going to be tough to do, but I’m gonna try.

  14. m.clarke - Thanks for sharing that. My hope is that the list of expectations of each other that we develop together in class will include things like this.

  15. I used to do something similar when I was a middle school librarian. My one rule was "consider others." That pretty much covered everything. I think you are definitely on the right track with what you are trying to do!

  16. I really liked the overall intent of your document. I use similar techniques with my students and find that when we take the time to talk about why the expectations are important, the students are more likely to follow through and don't act surprised if I call them on their actions.

    I followed your link to the student "I understand/agree" page and I would love a crash course on how you connected that to a Google doc. If you can give me the basic steps, I could figure it out. I am assuming that it creates a document that you can check off that all students have responded.

    Great post!

  17. Hi Karl,

    I like it, and I totally agree with not starting out on a negative note...I send my policy sheet home the first day of class to be read as homework. I cover a few things here and there over the next week, but I get to spend the first day sparking kids interest in biology.
    A question...will this blog be a place for you to post your homework and serve as your class webpage, or will you use the district website or something like Moodle in addition? I upload a paper version of my expectations on to the website, but I doubt anyone opens it again as I have handed out a hard copy. I like the electronic version...

  18. Karla - That's a Google Form - the responses populate a Google Spreadsheet that you can then manipulate like any other spreadsheet. Really easy to use within your Google Docs (or Google Apps for Education if you have that).

  19. Cara S. - My current thinking is that the blog will be where they go for everything. It will list what we do in class, homework, resources, etc.

  20. I like your classroom policies, Karl. I will certainly use this as inspiration for my own revisions this fall.

    I see you're using a quality points scale for the Formative Assessment. Are you using something similar for the preparation, too?
    Grading has been an issue I've been grappling with over the last two years\. As an English teacher and an admittedly mediocre student of math, I've struggled with the weighting issue as well as the larger philosophical issue of what should receive weight. So, I appreciate seeing what you're doing and the insights into the whys, too.

  21. Hey Karl:

    I thought your syllabus looked great. I have provided the link for my work in progess, which I am taking 100% online this year for the first time.

    Mike Meechin

  22. I love this idea and the overall tone of your expectations. I'm stealing a lot of it for my language arts courses this year... My very first head of school gave me the wise advice that students will do exactly what you expect of them. So if we expect poor behavior, that's what they will do. You're right. We should articulate our expectations of ideal behavior.
    I wonder if your mention of "problems" might go against your intent of a positive first impression. Perhaps we instead encourage students to engage in behavior that helps support everyone else's ability to learn and perform?

  23. Great idea. Two suggestions which may help;

    1. Put the really important stuff up the top (is your Skype handle more important than the goals of the class?)

    2. It still focus a bit too much on the rules. (Does it really convey that the main goal is to be awesome at basic algebra and charting that will help you for the rest of you life plus ace the test which can be worth 100%?)

    Maybe you could convey everything you want to say in a "10 things you need to know about Algebra with Fisch"

    1. You will need 3-Ring Binder, Paper, Graph Paper, Pens and Pencils, Calculator (graphing please)

    2. You will learn algebra skills that will help you solve complex problems in the test (worth 20%), inclass assessment (worth 70%) and for the rest of your life (worth a whole lot more!)

    3. Homework will include videos, problems, and reflection on how you and others could use these new skills.


  24. Karl,

    Thank you for this post. It made me think about the tone I set on my rules and regs, something I battle with every semester. I like how you take similar ideas, but change the diction so it does have a positive connotation. Maybe I'll have you peek at mine in the fall. :)

    2 things to ponder...

    I agree with MarkN's bullet #3; I do not feel it is necessary to say what the homework will not be.
    Also, I agree with a previous commenter that suggested you be more concrete about how you define the wrong thing and what the consequences of those incorrect behaviors entail for your sake. One of the reasons I define those behaviors and their ensuing consequences is so I can respond to student, parent, and, on rare occasions, counselor and adminstrator inquiry by referring back to the piece of paper (or electronic document) the 3 of us signed at the semester's beginning. Because you don't want this to create a negative tone, maybe consider creating a separate document that students and parents can refer to if the “right thing” goes wrong.

  25. Hey Karl! I really like the "do the right thing" approach. At the school I teach at, we have a overall statement that students should "respect themselves, respect others, and respect the environment" which covers most situations, but I might just add 'do the right thing' as well.

  26. I especially like the Essential Skills list. I have the feeling that your primary focus is the learning of the skills, not the herding of cats, or complaining endlessly about behavior that hasn't occurred yet. I think it is a syllabus to aspire to! Thanks!

  27. The teenagers in your class might miss the allusion, but the first thing I thought about when I read your dictum to “Do the right thing” was Spike Lee’s 1989 movie by that name. Mookie, the main character in Lee’s movie, illustrates the complexities of moral choice when he throws a garbage can through Sal’s Pizzeria and thus starts a race riot. Hopefully the students in your class will share your vision of what “the right thing” means. (Imagine a smiley face here.)

  28. Chris - I’m still thinking about how to grade the preparation part. I’m vacillating between all or nothing (either you prepared, or you didn’t) and the scale I’m using for the formative assessments.

  29. Mike Meechin - I really like how you explicitly state this “It is this instructor's belief that there is a difference between assessment and grading. Not all of your work will be graded, but all work is used to assess student learning.” I may try to add something similar into mine, although I worry that it’s going to get too lengthy.

  30. Danielle Mari - That was the part that I struggled with the most when I was drafting this. Does the very mention of problems undermine my goal? At the moment, I think it doesn’t, but I’m going to revisit the language and see if I can reword it more along the lines you suggested.

  31. markn - I think I was subconsciously (and maybe a little consciously) trying to follow the format that other teachers used in my school, so let me think about your first point a little bit more. I guess right now I think it’s all important, and the flow of the document is more critical than having the “most” important stuff at the top.

    I really like your idea of “10 things you need to know . . .” – so I’ll play around and see if I can make that work, although I am a little concerned about being too much different than what other course expectations look like.

  32. lgaffney - I think the reason I included what homework was not was to try to concisely convey that homework is going to look different than they’ve likely seen in previous math classes (or even other math classes at AHS). I like how markn worded his as well, but I’m not sure that the average student/parent would read that and see how it was different. I’m going to revisit the language and see what I can come up with.

    As far as your second point, I think we may have a difference of philosophy that might make it difficult to agree on this one. I really don’t want to be more concrete because I want the students to really think about their actions (I’ll perhaps expand on that slightly in a comment to Cheryl below). I see this as part of the problem solving/critical thinking goals of this course and really of all that we do in high school.

    I think delineating specific offenses and punishments is a no-win situation, as you can never cover all the possibilities. As an example, we had a school group at AHS take an out of state trip (this was before you joined us at AHS) and some students got in trouble. One set of parents was unhappy with the punishment the school meted out and their argument was, “But you never told the kids that shoplifting was illegal in California.” True story.

    Philosophically, I also don’t believe in hard and fast listings of crime and punishments in a school situation. I think there is always context, and I think every student – and every situation – should be dealt with in an individual manner. Kids aren’t widgets, they aren’t identical interchangeable parts that we can simply apply the laws of physics to and say, “When this happens, then this is going to happen.” Obviously, that won’t work for teachers who don’t share that view, but I’m going to try to make it work in my classroom.

  33. Bob Esty - Yeah, I wanted to include respect in there in another fashion then the way I did, so I need to look at that some more.

  34. cmakovsky - Thanks for continuing to read and comment, Cheryl. Luckily, my beautiful classroom will not have any windows [sarcasm], so I won’t need to worry about that particular incident happening.

    To address what I think perhaps was your point, I actually want to have some of that ambiguity in my classroom. To some extent, I want to co-create with my students what “the right thing” actually is. I think if we continue to tell them what the right thing is (our interpretation of the right thing), then they’ll be less likely to learn how to determine what the right thing is on their own.

    Most of their lives will be comprised of decisions, most of them small but some of them large, where they’ll have to decide what the right thing is. And most of the time, there will not be anyone there to “catch them” and there will be no immediate consequence for doing the “wrong thing.” I want to give them practice during their time at AHS so that they hopefully make the right choice more often when they’re on their own.

    After all, previous generations didn’t think slavery was such a bad thing, or that women should vote, or that people deserved civil rights no matter what. But then subsequent generations decided a new “right thing.” Undoubtedly, those of us currently with power have a few “right things” that perhaps aren’t so right, so I’d like the next generation to have some experience struggling with how you determine what the right thing is.

  35. Hihi-

    I like your course expectations - clear and positive. I also do the google form thing (great minds think alike!) but I also ask them a few questions on important stuff they should know on the course expectations (e.g. what do you do if you miss 2 days of school, with regards to making up homework?).

    I also am a big proponent of humor. I wonder if you might want to throw some of that in there... I try to populate my expectations with some whimsy and seriousness to balance things out and get students off realizing I'm on their side [].


  36. Sam - I really like your course expectations. I'm concerned about the length of mine already, but yours blow them out of the water length-wise. I also like the idea of perhaps putting something in the Google Form, maybe even something humorous, as a way to reinforce that, yes, I do actually want you to read the course expectations.

    I agree that humor is very important, but it would help a bit if I was actually funny. Seriously, I'm not sure I want to go quite that far (at least not this first year). I'm already going to be doing several things that are very different from my colleagues, I don't want to get too far out on the proverbial limb just yet . . .

  37. Love it...they KNOW what is right. Do we really need to list them?

    If anyone is interested in collaborating on a new (hopefully) innovative website, check out

    I just started it to encourage innovative education through how-tos, product reviews, and general teacher muse.

    I am really not just looking for a plug...just to get better!


  38. I don't think you are over thinking this at all. It is very important that your course expectations suit you and present the right perception to your students and families.

    I also think rule and expectations are too negatively worded. It implies punishment. And probably imminent punishment at that. It makes it sound like WHEN you break the rules, instead of IF you break the rules.

    FWIW, I like your positive tone and goals for your course expectations. I am sending the link to my wife, an Algebra II teacher (I teach 4th graders).

    Thanks for sharing!
    - @newfirewithin