Virtual engagement strategies that don’t require webcams

This post follows from my Notice/Feel/Wonder/Act about webcam visibility.

1. Jamboard Opening Circle

I’ve used this opening circle on Day 1 with each new group of students. I then use it to start each week (See #10) and each time we do a restorative justice circle.

Students sign into my class, and I greet them and send them the link for this week’s Jamboard opening circle to sign their name. It’s also shared in Google Classroom for those who are Zooming from their phones and have their Chromebooks open to interact. There’s also another activity or assignment launch available in Google Classroom in case students want to get a head start while waiting the 3-5 minutes for everyone else to log in.

Once the number of names matches the number of participants in the call, I ask everyone to come back to my shared screen. I say that this circle above my name is the “talking piece,” and when the talking piece moves to your name, I invite you to unmute your mic and speak. I start. “My name is … ” and go through the three questions. When I’m done, I move the talking piece to my right, and wait patiently for that student to unmute. Some students choose to introduce themselves in the chat instead of unmuting. Other students don’t realize they haven’t unmuted yet.

I was thankful that this structure was already in place when a series of Zoombombing incidents unfolded at my school during the first three days of classes. The school didn’t provide any immediate guidance for how to repair the harm done by the racially and sexually explicit words and images that broke into classrooms, and although my classes were not affected, it was necessary to provide a space for students (and teachers I worked on a team with) to process. For the group of 10 teachers, we passed around the circle twice with the singular question of “How are you feeling?” and unpacked a lot that was on our chests. For the groups of 20 students, we passed around the circle twice, once with feelings (I heard that most were tired) and once to share out our plans for the weekend. When the questions are short, we were able to get around the circle of 20 students twice in about 20 minutes.

This visual circle on Jamboard allows students to know ahead of time who is going to speak next. It’s the equivalent of “going around the room” and is more reliable than “if you have something to say, go ahead and unmute and ask,” which is a lot harder to do. Though I can’t “tell” because students’ webcams are off, the rate at which students quickly unmute to go after the previous person tells me that they are mostly paying attention, that all eyes are on the Jamboard. I plan to use this circle to do restorative justice circles once a week in my class, hopefully just to check in as a community and not have to use it only to respond to something “bad” that happened.

2. Get to Know You Slide Deck

On the second day of class, I created a slide deck with 22 copies of the following slide. I placed each student’s name at the bottom of each slide. I made the entire deck editable and posted it in the chat at the beginning of class and into Google Classroom. I gave students 10-15 minutes to work on it, with an alternative exploration assignment to do if they finished early.

I had my slide already prepared. Students were able to find images on the internet, on their phone, use gifs, emojis, etc. Most students used a combination of internet images and personal photos. I privately chatted students who hadn’t gotten started on their slides yet after the first 5 minutes. I pulled some students into breakout rooms for one-on-one help. The order of the names in the slides were based on the circle order from the previous day, because I wanted to avoid alphabetical order (boring, overused).

I called the students back together and presented the slides. I shared first, and then just went down slide by slide (by now, students know who they come after, and they see their name!) as students shared. I took notes vigorously. Again, the rate at which people quickly unmuted to share their slide when it came up showed me that most students were paying attention!

3. Class Trivia Kahoot

With the notes I took that students shared, I make a class trivia Kahoot. Questions like “Which of the following students shared that they play soccer?” that allow for multiple correct answers allow for learning about each other in a fun and not competitive way. This idea came from my summer school admin, who did one for the staff after our opening share-out, and it was a hit!

4. Two Truths and a Lie Slide Deck

In the same vein as the Get to Know You slides, another slide deck I’ve done is “Two Truths and a Lie.”

Once again, I create a class set of slides in one Google Slides deck, and put a placeholder of a name for each student on each slide. Students change their name to how they want to be called. Then they write three statements (I even provide 1… 2… 3… for them). Once the class is given some time to finish these statements (15 minutes to write the statement and find a picture that represents them, whether it’s from the internet or their own phone), we start sharing out. The first person whose slide is after mine (perhaps ordered in the circle from Monday) introduces their photo and the three statements. The rest of the students (and myself) put into the chat which one of the three they think is a lie. After the person who is sharing sees a few guesses roll in, they explain which one is the lie, and we chuckle and move on to the next person.

5. Breakout Icebreaker

Much of the collaborative work in my classroom happens in breakout rooms. One of the biggest pieces of feedback from students is that it is super awkward when you’re in a breakout room, and no one is talking, and you’re just waiting for the time to pass until the teacher calls you all back. I decided that students would get a new breakout room group each day, but they would stick with that group for the entire class period.

Before introducing the “math” activity, I would send students off to their breakout rooms for a quick three minutes to get to know their breakout room.

I model what this dialogue looks like. I say, “This summer, I watched Trinkets.” And I tell them that if I just provide this one-word answer, then everyone will be done in 30 seconds, and then it will be awkward! After I say something like “I watched Trinkets,” I explicitly model how to ask a follow-up question. “Oh, interesting. What is that show about?” or “What did you like or not like about the show?” or “Would you recommend that I see the show?” Which then lobs the question back at the first person, who might respond, “Oh, I liked the show because there was a lot of LGBTQ+ visibility and presented things that were morally difficult,” or something like that. And then we would move on to the next person who shares.

Then, I copy and paste the question prompt in the chat, and send students off.

Developmentally, we were taught to socialize in one particular way when we were children, and here we need to relearn (or reteach) how to socialize in this awkward digital format. This [painful] scaffolding of conversation is how I’ve found the get-to-know your breakout room to last for more than just 10-30 seconds. Eventually, during the summer, my classes got to know each other due to the randomized groupings every morning, and this level of comfort showed in their mathematical group work.

6. Breakout Room Norms and Roles

The following is my implementation of @howie_hua’s breakout room norms, and the breakout room roles that the summer math team I was on demonstrated. (P.S. I don’t like the word “norm,” yet I want people to do these things, so…?)

The one I emphasize the most is “invite others into the conversation.” I tell students that some people may not feel comfortable unmuting, so invite them to type into the chat. Others might not feel comfortable sharing an answer they are not sure about, so invite them to share their thoughts if you feel that they’ve been particularly quiet.

This brings me to the group roles in my breakout rooms.

Before I had explicit roles, I found myself looping around to breakout rooms and spending so much time getting students started on the assignment. I now share this slide to a) enforce the norm of “inviting people into the conversation,” b) remind students that there exists an “ask for help” button, c) set the expectation that someone is sharing the screen and all are looking at one screen and working together, and d) reducing the awkwardness of post-“okay, who wants to share out from their group?” silence when we get back.

I still pop into each breakout room to check that someone is sharing their screen, and I still broadcast a reminder toward the end of the work time to have someone share, but here, those expectations are clearer before the group jumps in.

Eventually, the rooms devolve into my encouragement of “okay, who hasn’t shared their screen yet in these past two weeks?” and they become the screen-sharer. Or, “who is less comfortable with working with Desmos/Geogebra, that they don’t mind sharing their screen so we can help?” And the rigid structure of the group roles dissolves and students know to loosely take up roles to meet the expectations of engaging in collaborative work.

7. Check on Your Breakout Rooms

Being able to see what is going on in all of your breakout rooms from a birds’ eye view is essential. I like to think that this mimics having vertical whiteboards in my classroom (oh my, I miss them so much!) because students can technically take a peek at another group’s work, and see how much they’ve gotten done.

Here’s what one of my slides might look like:

Which one doesn’t belong? Lesson from Illustrative Mathematics Algebra 2.

This same slide is duplicated n times where n is the number of breakout rooms, and I change the heading to indicate which breakout room is assigned to this slide. (This prompt is from Illustrative Mathematics Algebra 2.) This is a shorter breakout room, where I have students work for about 5 minutes as a team to come up with a reason for each of A-D.

I’ve also had students work, in a similar format, in Jamboard in a breakout room. I use Jamboard slides when I know there will be less typing and more “drawing” as part of the scratchwork for the problem.

An example of students working on a version of the Josephus problem.

Here is a slide I had teachers work on for a PD I led on unpacking our discomforts about letting go of webcams in our classroom.

Here’s what the “bird’s eye view” of the slides looked like as participants were working in their breakout rooms.

I might use this information to see which of the four boxes were heavily answered and which were less heavily answered and pick which boxes to go over as a whole group after breakout rooms, just like I could walking around my classroom and reading the vertical whiteboards!

8. Public and Private Chatting

When I ask an opinion-based or low-floor, open-ended question, I encourage students to type their answer publicly in the chat box, but wait to hit send. I then invite all of them to hit send at the same time, and we all get time to scroll back up and read some responses. Here’s an example of such a prompt:

Image for the problem from Math Busking.

Other times, I do a close-ended check for understanding. Below, I post a summary of the previous day’s lesson so that students who were not in class could technically reason through the prompts. I ask students to privately chat me an answer to one of the questions. If some students are finished early, I encourage them to answer more or all.

Diagram from Illustrative Mathematics Algebra 2.

I can use this as data to see which questions were more popular or what the most common mistake was but not put students thinking on blast. I want to reiterate the importance, as Howie Hua mentioned, to have students type “I don’t know yet” privately to you as feedback as well.

9. Hands-on and Hands-off Breakout Rooms

Because the participants list is alphabetized by display name, you can ask your participants to change their display name to manually put them into breakout rooms.

I tweeted about this idea but didn’t get to try it myself until this week. It worked out well for independent work. I have a co-teacher and will have an intern soon, so I can afford the adult human capital for multiple “I want to work with teacher” breakout rooms. But I hope you can adapt to your classroom structure.

I got this idea from Esther Park, who implements this in Google Meet (respect!). Esther also has a much more beautifully designed slide for this than I do.

After having just attended a Zoom meeting via phone, I realize that these screenshot instructions in my slide will not work on a phone. Instead, have students go to Participants, find their name, and change it under the “More” menu.

Prior to this implementation, my summer administrators used this method to divide our staff into content-area groups. This “put the number in front of your name” strategy is really helpful to quickly divide up a large group of people (say, 40 people on a call!) into groups of their own choosing. Placing the number in front “alphabetizes” the participant list so you can quickly assign people to rooms. This strategy will also work if you want students to re-enter the same breakout rooms the next day: Take a screenshot of today’s randomized breakout room assignments, and have students change their display names according to the screenshot tomorrow.

10. Color-Coded Mathematical Connections

Perhaps not a 10th new idea, but here’s something I tried new this week.

On Mondays, I’ve asked students the same three questions:

  1. How are you feeling?
  2. What did you do over the weekend?
  3. How does it relate to math?

In the beginning, students are not used to answering the connection to math question, so many just say, “I don’t know.” This week, I came up with this color coded sticky note idea for the most common first-week math connections. This small change both makes suggestions for areas of their life that could be mathematical and stops it from being so easy to say “I don’t have a mathematical connection.” (That said, “Time” was way too popular this week, so that might be changed next week to something more specific to our content from this week.)

In class, I’ve typically not allowed “time,” “money,” or “counting” after the first three weeks of weekend-shares unless they appear in a rate, to push students to think of a variety of mathematical applications.

By the time this blog post was finally really to publish, Zoom just came out with a feature to allow the host to designate a frame location for each person in the meeting. I haven’t tried it yet / don’t know if it works with our school’s basic plan, but I wonder if it will take the place of this Jamboard circle idea very soon…

Notice/Feel/Wonder/Act: Webcam visibility in my mathematics classroom

The following is the evolution of my thoughts about webcam visibility in my virtual classroom. Some of these thoughts are hard to commit to words, but I hope they will help others dismantle the policing of students’ turning on webcams in class. 


  • I notice that only White students in my honors classes voluntarily turned their webcams on in Spring 2020 emergency distance learning.
  • I notice that in my non-honors classes, my summer school credit recovery class, and my summer program for students of color (SOCs) in honors classes, only one out of ~45 students voluntarily turned their webcam on during class.
  • I notice that a colleague who previously taught at a private school said that there were no problems with students turning webcams on at her school.
  • I notice that students refer to each other by name by reading off the white letters in the middle of the sea of black boxes in the room.
  • I notice that I cannot see students’ facial expressions.
  • I notice that I do not actually know if students are there behind their computers.
  • I notice that I cannot read students’ body language to tell if they are understanding the lesson, or if I’ve lost them.
  • I notice that when I lead students through an origami activity, they happily flash their webcams on to show what step they’re on, or what they’ve made, and then quickly turn their webcams off until they’re ready to show the next step.
  • I notice that when I’m working with a student 1-on-1 during office hours, about 25% voluntarily turn their webcams on.
  • I notice that for several students, while they had their screen shared as I was helping troubleshoot their work, they would sometimes click back to their Zoom tab to watch my face as I was talking to them, even though their own webcams were off.
  • I did virtual restorative circles with my classes immediately after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in which I explicitly invited students to turn their webcams on in their breakout rooms to process the events together as a community. I noticed that everyone who had a working webcam did. (And then turned them right off when we went back into the main room and next class.)


  • I feel uncomfortable when I’m talking into a sea of black rectangles, and I don’t know who is listening.
  • I feel uncomfortable when I tell a joke and I cannot see if anyone is laughing, even silently.
  • I feel alone if I am talking to a sea of black rectangles and no one is responding.
  • I feel nervous when I ask everyone a question, and there is not one response.
  • I feel unbalanced when I have to have the webcam on me, with my tired face and unpresentable background, but the students don’t have to.
  • I feel like I’m being surveilled, when the students can see me, but I can’t see them.
  • I feel worried that I am not reaching the students because I cannot see how they are feeling.
  • I feel concerned that I will not actually get to know my students, that they will not actually get to know me, and that they will not get to know each other, because only they can see me.
  • I feel betrayed if I think a student is receiving credit for attending class because their black rectangle is present on my screen but they are not physically behind that black rectangle.


  • I wonder if there is something tied to race and webcam visibility.
  • I wonder if there is something tied to class and webcam visibility.
  • I wonder if there is something tied to adolescent development, identity building, self-image, and webcam visibility.
  • I wonder if there is something tied to power and webcam visibility.
  • I wonder if my students feel as awkward about this classroom space as I do.
  • I wonder if I can still build community in my classroom if I can’t see my student’s faces.
  • I wonder if my students can still get to know each other if they can’t see each other’s faces.
  • I wonder if my students feel safer in my classroom because their webcams are turned off.
  • I wonder if my students feel surveilled when their webcams are turned on.
  • I wonder if my students are able to focus more on thinking and mathematics because their webcams are turned off.
  • I wonder if my students are safer from discrimination based on race because their webcams are turned off.
  • I wonder if my students are safer from harassment based on appearances because their webcams are turned off.
  • I wonder if my students are more relaxed and less tired than I am during my class because their webcams are turned off.
  • I wonder how I’m supposed to teach if I can’t see who I’m teaching to.
  • I wonder if my students are able to take more academic risks in class because they don’t feel the webcam constantly watching them.
  • I wonder if my students are able to be more patient with themselves and with each other because they don’t have the webcam constantly watching them.
  • I wonder if my students feel more comfortable with their webcams off.
  • I wonder if my colleagues know not to police webcams in their own classes.
  • I wonder if my school will continue to hold a “we will not make a policy about webcams” policy about webcams.


  • I read up on the relationship between mirrors and trauma, as explained by Karen Costa. I try to spread this writing to colleagues, deans, administrators, and other co-conspirators on Twitter.
  • I make the connection between a history of surveillance and policing regarding cameras in the United States. I reread about Foucault’s panopticon and recall that some students made comments about the security cameras that were installed at the end of the hallway near my classroom back in school, while other students didn’t even notice.
  • I read up on adolescent development, and how for a slew of developmental reasons, identity questioning and identity building building, including race, many students may not like how they look right now. I realize that in in-person schooling, one never has to see what they look like, unless they walk past a darkened classroom’s door window or go to the bathroom. An hour at a time of constant self-monitoring is exhausting (even for me).
  • I develop new strategies for building community that doesn’t require students to turn on their webcams.
  • I develop new strategies for checking for understanding and checking for engagement during content instruction that doesn’t require students to turn on their webcams.
  • I try out these strategies in my own classroom, and share these strategies with my colleagues.
  • I actively remind colleagues to turn their webcams off when the presenter is about to show a video, to save bandwidth.
  • I proactively seek out administration and my superiors to continue to reinforce their good decision to not police webcams.
  • I make no mention of webcams or their requirements in my introductory email to my students and their families, or during class.

I pause here. I invite you to jot down your own list for Notice/Wonder/Feel/Act. Next, I will share strategies I’ve developed to check in and build community with students despite not having their webcams on.

Notice/Wonder is a strategy developed by The Math Forum, which was expanded to Notice/Feel/Wonder/Act by @Laurie_Rubel.

High school rehumanizing mathematics project, Take 1

I’ve been teaching a credit recovery high school geometry course for the past three summers. This summer, the program was offered virtually, with half as much in-class time as we’ve had in the past (appropriately so). After hearing from so many students that they were in summer school with us because a) they didn’t turn in homework, and/or b) distance learning in the Spring just didn’t work for them, I decided to abandon what is usually the final project and devised this one.

A screenshot of the student-facing project page.

Here is the full student-facing file of the project.

The goal was to have students engage in the unpacking and dismantling of a feature of a traditional mathematics classroom, and redesign that feature. They would then make a presentation (essay, Google Slides, video, podcast, etc) to share their redesigned vision.

Supporting Students

I broke the project down into components based on what I guessed students could get done each day. I included a rubric that functioned more like a checklist (I’m aware of the oppressive nature of rubrics, and the program I worked for required that all of us submit our projects along with rubrics, and mine is not very rubric-ky, and I do believe that checklists / clear expectations help students who have organizational challenges take bite sized chunks out of a daunting task like a project like this.)

I also prepared a sample presentation so that students who had difficulty starting could get a sense of what the final project would look like. Some students made a copy of this sample presentation and just erased all my content off the slides and filled them in with their own. Others built their own presentations from scratch.

A screenshot of the sample presentation I made.

Every day that we worked on the project in class, I opened by showing the slides from my sample presentation of that day’s project objective. I then sent the teams into their breakout rooms and circulated. Because each team shared me on the documents they had been working on, I had each of them open on a separate tab on my computer and could quickly figure out which breakout room to jump into to help give a hint / move students along.

I also created a spreadsheet checklist which I populated each day with the to-dos for that day. Each team got their own tab and were encouraged to check things off of their checklist as they completed each segment. Some teams I ended up doing the checklist with them, while others used the checklist to move forward without having to wait for me to give further instructions. The goal was to keep giving feedback until all teams got a perfect score on every point on the rubric (in reality, I ran out of time, because I did not want students to have to work on this project outside of class).

A screenshot of the spreadsheet checklist.

The final project work day was explicitly designated for presentation rehearsal. Three of the five teams actually had completed projects by halfway through the class, so I could jump in to help them start to practice their presentation, and then leave and help the last two teams who had not yet finished their slides. During rehearsal, students were asked to decide who would share the screen, and to put the names of the person who would be sharing each slide in the Speakers’ Notes. I also explicitly pointed out that rehearsal was the time to decide which sentences from the slides would be read out loud, and what extra information the speaker for that slide would be saying that is not explicitly on the slide (instead of just “don’t read off the slides.”). On presentation day, I think the rehearsals made a huge difference.

Finally, I invited caregivers/families to the final day’s class. I had been corresponding with them all five weeks of the summer course, and re-sent the link to our class to them in a reminder email for them to join us. I actually got a few caregivers to join us (and one who told me later that their child asked them not to join!). It was even possible for a caregiver who was at work to hop onto our Zoom call for a few minutes to watch their child’s presentation.

Opportunities for Improvement

I had hoped that students would get really creative with the redesigning of the classroom attribute that they chose, but I do not think I left nearly enough time for this, nor did I really model this. One of the unpublished takeaways I had hoped that students would learn is that it’s really hard to get your audience (say, teachers) to change how they run their classroom if you don’t explicitly present them with a better alternative. This was why the redesign portion was so important to me, but it got lost in the shuffle and rush of finishing presentations within the limited time we had in class. Also, since I had not planned for this project at the start of the summer, I had done little to support what redesigning to effect change looks like.

The fourth bullet point in the published objectives (“Demonstrate mastery of a piece of geometry content from this summer / previous school year”) also got overlooked completely. We had spent the weeks leading up to this project talking about dilations, proportions, and scaling, and used proportions to find racially problematic policies, such as discipline and AP enrollment, at our school. So while I did try to give lip service to any semblance of “geometry content” in the traditional sense in the project description, my not choosing to allot significant time to it during the project work days meant that it did not appear in the final projects.

Student Takeaways

  • Students were glad they did not have to take a test or a final exam or anything like that to pass summer school.
  • Students got to tell their stories and openly question how a mathematics classroom ran, and “get credit” for questioning that attribute, rather than allow that attribute “take credit” away from them.
  • All three groups that chose “homework” as their attribute to dismantle spent a considerable time outside of class voluntarily working on their project. I pointed this out to them as a question on their final presentation day as a curiosity.
  • Students were opened up to the wealth of literature on the internet that also questioned the same things they had called into question.

At the time of writing this post, I’m not sure I would give this project again to high school students. Maybe if I taught a Math Methods course to pre-service teachers, this would be more appropriate. I have a hard time resolving whether this project was more for me, or for them. I tried to make a project that was centered on them and their narratives, but dismantling the math classroom is really something I’m passionate about. I would like for my summer school students to feel empowered to write to their teachers with the evidence they’ve compiled as a start to challenging the system that we all work and learn in, but I also am not as hopeful that many of my colleagues are ready to listen.

Every single thing that a student touches in my class

I stand outside my open door as students trickle in. I have my clipboard, and I mark attendance using a pencil. A few students opt to fist-bump me. They go inside to find their seat.

I realize that I made copies of a handout for the day and the copies collated but did not staple. I ask one of the first students who arrive if they would so kindly grab the stapler and staple every two pages together, so that each student will get both pages. They happily oblige.

The bell rings, and I grab a box of small-pack cheese crackers and stand at the front of the room. Students take out their Mary Jackson Dollars, and give me three if they would like to purchase a cheese cracker pack and eat it during class. One student buys a pencil from me for one MJ. Another student buys a mechanical pencil from me for five MJ. Three other students don’t have pencils in class, but they don’t want to buy new ones, so they go to the supplies desk at the front of the room and pull out the drawer of lost and found writing utensils and grab one. Before they go back to their seat, they help themselves to some lotion from the communal bottle on this supplies desk. Another student gets a pencil from their neighbor. Another student asks for a bandage, which I grab from one of the drawers and hand to them. My phone timer rings after five minutes, and I walk over to close the classroom door, and put the box of cheese crackers away.

Students have two minutes to complete the warm up on the board. It’s a Which One Doesn’t Belong? I walk around during these two minutes and write a quick piece of feedback on each student’s warm-up paper. Two students did not retrieve their binder from the boxes in the back of the classroom when they walked in. One of the students gets up and goes to get both their binder and their friend’s binder and comes back, handing off one to their friend. One student wasn’t here yesterday, so they don’t have the warm-up paper for the week. They go to the communal storage bins for this class and find the warm-up paper for the week and return to the seat. I hand a whiteboard marker to three students who had separately made a justification for why A, B, and D don’t belong. They know this means to go to the whiteboard and write their justification for the class to see. I take their markers back before they return to their seats. I call the class to whole-group attention. We make a justification for C, which I write on the board with one of the markers, and I start to describe our first activity.

One student walks in late. Because the door is closed, the student opens the door from the outside and leaves it open. I ask another student close to the door to close the door. While students speak I have one student who is the teacher helper for the day keep track of participation points / MJs earned on my clipboard using my pencil, which I had just used to mark students present at the door. The student who stapled the handouts together now walks around and passes them to all the students. I hand a plastic shoebox of compasses to one student, a stack of rulers to another student, and a box of patty paper to a third student, and they pass out all the materials for today’s lesson. While we are completing the first activity, I circulate and help students use the compass and fold the patty paper. Students help each other with the compass. They switch patty papers at some point and help each other make sure they completed the construction correctly.

The next activity takes place at the group whiteboards. Students move to their designated vertical whiteboard in the room, and grab one of four markers stationed at the whiteboard. They point to the problem they are doing that’s attached to the whiteboard, while discussing. One of the problems falls to the ground, and they reattach it to the putty that’s sitting there. One student makes a mistake and asks the other student to hand them the rag to wipe off their work. I realize that we need calculators for this activity, so I run around and hand each group four calculators from the yellow bins that hold my class set. After most teams have finished working, I have the teams rotate one whiteboard over and give feedback by writing on the board next to the work from the other team. Then everyone returns to their original whiteboard and sees the feedback they received. While this is happening, I pick up the compasses and rulers sitting on students’ desks. I pass back a few quizzes for students who were absent yesterday and did not get them back. Students wipe off their whiteboards, and leave their calculators and markers at their whiteboards in two nice piles. They return to their seats.

While students were at their whiteboards, a student asked to go to the bathroom. I said yes, they may leave, and they walked to the front of the room, signed out on the clipboard using the pen that’s attached to it on a string, and took the bathroom pass lanyard off the wall, and put it in their pocket. When that student returned, a student who was waiting for them, signed out, and took the same lanyard.

At students’ seats whole-group, I ask for a student scribe to come to the board and write down students’ reflections on the whiteboard activity, handing them a marker. I high-five this student to thank them as they return to their seat after the discussion.

It’s time to transition to our restorative circle to close out class. Each student grabs their chair and pulls it into a circle in the back of the room. Some students use this time to put away their binders in the communal boxes in the back. Some students arrive to the circle a little later than others, so students have to shuffle their chairs to the left and right to help others fit into the circle. I hold today’s talking piece and reiterate the norms and ask the first question. I pass the talking piece around. Each student hands the piece to the next student, regardless of whether they say anything. We pass the talking piece around the circle three times, and my alarm goes off to remind me to clean up before we leave. Students get up to put their chairs back to their desks and return their binders to the back of the room. A few students who came in late ask if they can buy their cheese crackers for the day at this point. More MJs exchanged for a pack of cheese crackers.

The bell rings. The first student to the door opens it, and the rest exit after them. I collect the pencils left behind and put them in my lost-and-found drawer. I go around and collect my calculators back up and put them back into their bins. I collect the worksheets the students left on their desks.

Subject: Ideas for alternative forms of assessment

The following is an email I sent to my math department on May 25, 2020 with a few edits in [] for clarity and to preserve anonymity.

Dear Math Colleagues,

I write this email as a fellow math teacher, not necessarily as a facilitator of the Geometry CPT [common planning time team], or any other pseudo-leadership role I’ve somehow taken up in the past few months.

Per []’s Friday email, it seems that we have been mandated to give a final-exam-disguised-as-a-diagnostic-test-but-we-promise-totally-not-a-final-exam during the last week of school according to a totally-not-final-exam schedule.

For many reasons, I do not believe that this is right.

I am jumping on this early opportunity to suggest a menu of alternatives. In doing so, I am asking you not to be tempted to just give your final exam from previous semesters in some hastily adapted digital fashion and call it a “diagnostic test,” as loosely suggested by []’s email. Instead, here are a few ideas that I think will still earn you points for meeting this mandate but won’t betray the equity and rehumanizing work we’ve been striving for in our classrooms, which I think popping out an exam in less than 14 school days does.

0. Don’t give a separate “diagnostic test.” You’ve known each student for 15 weeks by this point in the semester. You’ve been assigning work every week during COVID for at least the past five weeks. Surely you do not need to give one more test to report “for planning purposes” what students know and what students don’t know. You have the attendance data to your virtual class meetings, you’ve been keeping track of the work that has/not been turned in. Come up with a “score” based on all the work that your students have already submitted, that qualifies as a recommendation for what students will need next. Report this score as your “diagnostic mandate.” This captures the spirit behind this mandate without the need to write, modify, administer, and grade “for completion” a separate “diagnostic test” to report data that you already have. This idea does not require any new materials, any new integrity policies, any special accommodations, and it allows you to give the most fair, comprehensive snapshot of a student’s ability prior to leaving for the summer.

“Okay, but rules are rules, and I have to give some test, or else.” Fine. Here are alternative forms of assessment I am also considering (Note: []’s email says it must be same for the entire content team).

1. The one-question diagnostic. This is the placement test we gave 8th graders to be placed into Alg 1, Alg 1 HN, Geo, and Geo HN for 9th grade at my old district. It is literally one question that has a low floor and a high ceiling. Though I would not recommend this particular problem for your “diagnostic” this quarter (we have written about this so much, that the solution is too easy to Google), perhaps you might be able to find a problem for your content area that similarly taps into students’ creativity and problem solving skills while allowing them to show you how much they know, without too much stress.

2. A math reflection portfolio. I tutor a private school student whose school uses end-of-semester reflection portfolio presentations in lieu of any test / exam for all classes. Here is a presentation template in that style, which each student could fill out in lieu of taking a traditional exam. The slides ask students to give an overview of their semester, list concepts they learned, list concepts they still find challenging, and prepare a lesson of a concept they would like to teach their family. This assessment allows students to show you their learning, reflect on areas of growth, and practice explaining a concept they feel confident about, without having to take a “test.”

3. A video or written essay answering one of the following prompts by Francis Su. Su gives the option to write about Persistence, Curiosity, Imagination, Disposition toward beauty, Creativity, Strategization, and Thinking for Oneself—all of which are qualities of a mathematician that traditional exams do not capture.

4. A specially-curated 3-5 question assessment. From the work that your students have submitted during COVID, pick 3-5 of the most-often missed questions, and go over them with your students in the week leading up to “exam day.” Then “administer” those 3-5 questions (keep them exactly the same or change out the numbers) as your diagnostic test. Report that score.

 (Thank you, Tina Cardone, for these last two ideas!)

I hope these suggestions will help you think outside the “let me try to digitally give my final exam to meet this diagnostic test requirement” box. I know colleagues out there have other creative ideas, and I hope you all will share them. Together, we can think about what “better” can look like (and, selfishly, relieve some of the frustration I’ve felt and hung onto this entire long weekend since that email landed in my inbox).


On the absurdity of mandating ‘diagnostic tests’ at the end of a COVID-19 interrupted school year

We received an email from our principal on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, saying that teachers are expected to give “year-end diagnostic tests in lieu of exams” to start in less than 14 school days. No expectation for any tests or exams during our two months of emergency distance learning had been communicated prior to this moment.

The email included a six-day schedule of which period’s test would occur on which date, spanning the final six days of the school year. Additionally, a few sentences indicated that teachers should continue to comply with 504 / IEP / ELL testing accommodations as legally required. While students would be given a score of 0 or 1 for completing the “diagnostic test,” teachers would score the test and report those scores to help with summer and fall planning.

A “diagnostic test” at the end of a COVID-19 interrupted school year is an absurd demand to put on teachers and students, for several reasons.

  • It is definitionally paradoxical. A “diagnostic test” literally means “test test.” A diagnostic is typically given at the start of a unit or course as a formative assessment, to see what a student already knows and to inform instruction. The teacher who created the diagnostic uses the results to tailor the next lessons to the student’s needs. At the end of a unit or course, traditionally, a student takes a test or exam, which is summative assessment, typically used as a tool to capture what the student knows in some stagnant, quantitative measurement. (I don’t condone giving traditional tests in math class in general, but that’s for a later blog post.) It does not make sense to give a test at the end of the school year, which is effectively summative because teachers will not have these students again, and call it a “diagnostic test.” Next year’s teachers will not know what was on these tests, nor will they probably have access to these test scores, so they will not be using these tests nor test scores to “inform instruction,” so these tests that we are being asked to write and administer are not formative. At best, they are summative, and we should not be giving summative assessments at the end of this school year.
  • It is inequitable. Giving a summative assessment disguised as a “diagnostic test” is antithetical to the equity-based practices our district advertises. Namely, a summative assessment cannot fairly quantify (and should not attempt to quantify) “where students are at” in terms of content knowledge in the middle of a pandemic.
    • Here are two students I teach in this district: Student A lives with both biological parents, who are both professors at local universities. The family has a stable income, meaning that consistent access to internet, food, shelter, and healthcare are not a concern during this pandemic. Since schools closed, Student A, has been completing all of their work for my class with little guidance from me. Student B lives with a single parent who still goes in to work every day because they are an essential employee of one of those universities. Two weeks after school closed, that parent gets infected with COVID-19 and loses hours at their workplace, putting the stability that that parent brought to the student’s home at risk. Student B has to take care of their sick parent and consider finding work during this pandemic and putting the entire household at more risk of getting infected. Student B has been doing their best to keep up with schoolwork, but the impersonal online platform has made it difficult for them to keep up with new concepts. They are not able to get help during Office Hours because any free time is spent taking care of their parent and younger siblings.
    • Both Student A and Student B are in my Period 3 math class. I cannot ethically administer a summative assessment disguised as a “diagnostic test” amidst this pandemic to help decide which of Student A and Student B should be placed in summer school, or have their honors course designation change in the fall. Both students are living in conditions that are at no fault of their own, yet one will be poised to perform better on this assessment than the other. There is no “diagnostic test” that I can write that will accurate capture in a single score the tremendously different life experiences both students are having and learning from during this pandemic.
  • It is impractical. Creating an assessment in a distance learning platform is not a small task, especially in a subject like math, where all previous tests prior to the end of school have been hand-written. Additionally, most of my colleagues have not been administering tests since we’ve left, so students are not used to taking tests online. The curating of topics to cover on this diagnostic, the curating of test items, the adaptation of test items for a virtual platform, the decision of which virtual testing method to implement the test items, the teaching of the students to be able to take the virtual test in the virtual platform that we choose, the making accommodations and reference sheets for students on IEPs / 504s and who are ELLs, and the ability to prepare review materials for students and inform them cannot possibly done in in the 14 days that the administration has allotted us with any quality. A poorly written test benefits no one.

But how will we plan for the summer, know what to teach in the fall, or allocate resources to students to remediate missed content?

  • Remember, that we need to care about our students as humans first. This means we need to worry about their physical and mental survival during this pandemic, first.
  • Remember, also, that “on grade level” is a completely arbitrary designation, which means it can be as easily moved as it was determined by some wave of a hand.
  • There are other ways to get this data without over-testing students.

More on this later.