Project Based Learning

Teaching with Urgency

By Amanda L. Checque, Mt. Lebanon High School

I am not an expert in anything, mathematics or teaching. I do, however, love both. I like to think of myself as a relatively successful teacher in my district. My students seem happy and tend to excel in my classes—that doesn’t mean they all get As.

I like to think of myself as a challenging, yet fair instructor. I am a firm believer in “teaching a man to fish,” but the most important part in my mind is that the teaching happens over an extensive period of time, often with failures along the way. The successful teacher must be willfully able take the journey with them: supporting, adjusting, and critiquing in just the right way until the goal is achieved. I cannot find success as a teacher without the help of my students. I need them to work hard, even when they don’t want to.

The following strategies and suggestions stem from purely anecdotal evidence. They are the ideas that guide my professional decisions. No formal research has been done, data has not been gathered. (Although, even when collected, data has a way of being skewed to fit any side of an argument, doesn’t it?)
I have found that there was one key element in every successful lesson and the same element lacking in those that were not as successful. I came to the conclusion that my sense of urgency, above all else, could hook the students; it kept them motivated, engaged, and, therefore, successful.

The three sections that follow attempt to explain the beliefs and strategies that help me teach with urgency:

1. Setting High Expectations
2. Types of Communication
3. Extensive Knowledge of Content Area.

Setting High Expectations—from Day 1

I find the first day of school to be a great opportunity to put my high expectations in place. In high school, the students are capable of reading through my course expectations sheet I distribute. I spend little time discussing these items and use the vast majority of the class to teach the first lesson and assign homework.

The time I spend addressing the class involves me referencing my daily expectations (at right) that I include in the course expectation sheet I distribute this first day. During this first lesson, it is my goal to convey that the work students produce matters to me, that they are capable of achieving the level of expectations I have set, and that we have no time to waste. (I always tell my students, and parents during open house, that I have roughly 180 days to teach hundreds of years of mathematics.

We will work every day and there will be homework every day! “If your child tells you they don’t have homework on a given night, they are probably lying.”)
I set very high expectations for my students, but I know that if I do not subject these same high expectations on myself, the students will see right through them.

Setting high expectations for myself means:

A. Returning tests within one (or two) days. Students are so eager to see their score and it is urgent to them. I feel it should be urgent to me.
B. Presenting material in the most concise way possible without sacrificing depth or content.
C. Holding them accountable to the expectations I have set forth. Call students out on their lackluster efforts, but do so in an encouraging way that will make them want to respond.
D. Treating my subject as a profession that should be respected and letting the content speak for itself. Show the students why I love it.
E. Continue to convey to the students that they can turn their grade around during the year. Seeking help is the first step they must take and I WILL BE HERE to help them when they struggle or fail.

Types of CommunicationBe truthful, but know what your individual students can handle.

Communicating truthfully with students is a key facet of teaching with urgency. I have found there are several ways in which teachers (perhaps unknowingly) communicate with students. The most significant part of teaching with urgency is conveying to the students that they are not on their own in your class.

Verbal Communication
I have found that communication with students should be clear and direct. It surprises me how they can struggle to read between the lines. When you tell the students exactly what you want, they deliver!

There are times I am brutally honest with students, sometimes in front of others, sometimes just one-on-one. For example, when assigning homework, I will explicitly state that I expect solutions to be organized, all work to be shown, and that I will be evaluating the extent to which they have met these expectations by awarding points.

If a student’s homework is not completed with enough detail and effort, I call their attention to that fact. I do not wait until a poor test result of lackluster efforts. A more reserved student may require slightly different types of redirection than a student who is more comfortable. Regardless of personality, it is necessary to critique technique and behaviors honestly in a way that encourages change, not acceptance of subpar work.

Assessments, especially the very first one, must be administered with a sense of urgency. When giving an exam, I always move my desks into separated rows. I also collect phones; students do not get a test until I have their phone. I also convey to them the importance of integrity at this time. I explain that integrity is the only thing no one can take from them until they choose to give it away.

Using terminology unique to the subject area is a way I convey the “coolness” and sophistication of the subject I teach. I do not give vocabulary tests, but I expect students to understand the language, speak the language, and write the language appropriately. In any regular education classroom, I truly believe the students are capable of using the correct terminology.

During class discussions, students are expected to respond to questions mathematically. They must speak in front of their peers and be prepared to answer questions. It sets the expectation for class communication and keeps students engaged and accountable.

Written Communication
Commenting on students’ tests gives me the opportunity to reinforce any great work a student is producing and train my students to be resilient during failures. If I only point out what they are doing wrong, I’m not reinforcing and encouraging them to continue what they are doing correctly. Here are just some examples of comments I’ve made that I believe had a major impact on their perspective of the class and their place in it.- “Keep working hard. Work on writing things out when you practice.”
– “You are capable of much more.” (C work) Then, on the following assessment, “Very impressed.” (A work)
– “You have some great work here. Keep working hard.” … “I know you can do better. You have some great work here. Keep working hard.”
– “Impressive solutions, Amy!”

Teachers are busy and it is not always possible to write something on every student’s paper. So, I default back to oral communication while passing back assessments, too. I will plainly make an announcement that, although I may not have been able to comment on each student’s test, they must know that I am aware of how hard they are working and that I am proud and pleased with the level of mastery they have been able to demonstrate.

Unspoken Communication
Perhaps the most important form of communication is that which is unspoken. The daily ins-and-outs of classes and inner-workings set expectations.

Here are a few examples:

-When passing out papers, I do so between bells or have an efficient system that allows me to continue to teach. I often use commentary during distribution to foreshadow the importance of the particular lesson, even if students do not necessarily understand these connections. Doing so builds the teacher’s credibility in the eyes of the students. The students need to know that the teacher has a plan and they are in good hands as students sitting in this particular room.
-On the first day of school and many times throughout the year, all students are out of their seats and doing math on the white boards in my classroom. Through this practice, I am communicating that I expect THEM to do the math, not watch me do the problems.

I’m not afraid to admit I don’t have all the answers, that I make mistakes, that I, too, am a student in my own classroom.

Underlying Communication

Actions speak louder than words.
I treat my subject area as a profession that deserves respect.

  • I ensure each lesson looks professional. Fonts match, writing is clear, diagrams are computer generated (unless the lesson is about creating graphs or images by hand). Tests are composed in the same manner. I believe that the level of sophistication and professionalism with which I present material will subconsciously set expectations of the level of student work I expect.
    Keep things serious, but fun. I am not a fan of games or puzzles or other artificial means to make lessons ‘fun.’ It is not that I do not have fun, or do not want my students to have fun. However, it is important that the content area speak for itself. There are many reasons I chose math to study at the post-secondary level, but π-SUDOKU wasn’t one of them. Presenting high-level ideas, showing my students they are capable of mastering it, and supporting them to push beyond what they believed was their own limit is how to show the subject-area is AMAZING. On the first day of school in AP Calculus AB, I have students standing up at the white boards in preparation for a test two days later. One student commented at the end of class on the first day of school that he had so much fun. That is why we do math. 😊
    Encourage students to see you for help. It will build conceptual foundations and trust. The sooner they get help, the easier they will find later material. Be available to help students before school, after school, during study hall, during lunches, etc. Their questions must take priority, especially at the beginning of the year. This will build trust. Students must trust that you are just as invested in their performance as they are. If so, they will work hard. Tell them when you are available and BE AVAILABLE in the beginning. Then, when individual meetings are not possible, students will understand, adapt, and perhaps become more independent.

Extensive Knowledge of Content Area
I learn all I can about concepts I present to my students. I talk with colleagues if something does not quite add-up (pun intended!). I read outside books by current researchers, watch videos made by math enthusiasts, and use the historical facts to supplement my lessons. The “what” is not enough to get students genuinely interested, but rather the “how” and “why.”

Demonstrating to high school students that math is a field that is STILL evolving can be difficult. I make sure to reference mathematicians that are alive today and are making strides in the field. I tell my students that the most humbling thing in my life was learning more math in college. It showed me how little I will ever truly know.

I find myself relying on an extensive understanding of how concepts integrate to bring out the urgent nature in even the most mundane of lessons. In almost every lesson, I try to reflect on what it is they can already do and begin the lesson by bringing this to the students’ attention. (If they are already capable of part of a new skill, students will start the lesson feeling great about themselves.)

While the “boring” lesson continues, it is necessary to point out the importance of mastering the skill at hand. I like to reference what they will eventually be capable of doing, which is why this dry lesson is so urgent!

As extensive as one’s knowledge can be, it will never be all-encompassing. I continue to learn about math ideas and connections daily. It is something I seek out; it takes work. My desire to know more is seen by my students and sets an example; they should learn more than is required.

I also continue to adapt and change lessons each year, as I learn from the students! They have great ideas and have shown me connections I had not yet made. I’m not afraid to admit I don’t have all the answers, that I make mistakes, that I, too, am a student in my own classroom.

Amanda Checque is proudly from Pittsburgh, PA. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.S. in Mathematics, a minor in Japanese, a Certificate in Asian Studies, and an M.A.T. in Mathematics. Amanda has been teaching in the Pittsburgh area at Mt. Lebanon High School for nine years and currently teaches AP Calculus AB and College Preparatory Mathematics. She resides in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two sons.

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