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  • Jason Appel

High School Mathematics in a 21st Century Classroom

Last year, school year 2015-2016, I documented the evolution of my classroom as part of My Fuse RI project. To learn more about the project, read my previous blog posts or watch this video:


My classroom looks very different today than it did throughout the first eighteen years of my career. In fact, it looks very different than it did just one year ago at this time! In this post I will attempt to capture what it looks like today.


A typical 55 minute class period looks something like this:

Students enter the classroom, open their devices (we are 1:1 with Chromebooks), access our class planner, and start working on a playlist. Playlists consist of:

  • Short videos introducing new content

  • Links to skill practice exercises on sites like Khan Academy

  • Questions that promote critical thinking and problem solving through the application of new skills combined with prior knowledge

  • Extension questions or tasks for those who demonstrate mastery more quickly

From day to day, students pick up wherever they left off. They choose how they work. Some start out working independently, checking in with classmates as needed. Others prefer to begin working with a partner or small group, watching videos together and collaborating throughout the learning process. Seating is free-form. Whatever arrangement helps them learn is fine with me. Some sit on the floor. Some stand. Some bring in yoga mats.

Instant Feedback is Critical

I build my playlists in a tool called Formative. This is a recent example. Students get instant feedback on multiple choice and short answer questions. They can change their answers as many times as they like until it is correct. Additionally, when they have completed a video or Khan Academy exercises and are ready to move on, they indicate their progress by responding to a true or false question . They answer "true" if they feel confident in their understanding, and "false" if they do not. A "false" response is comparable to putting a star in their notebook. It tells them that they need to come back to that part of the playlist in the future. It also enables me to easily track their progress and shows me where students are struggling.

I spend most of the class period monitoring student progress in real time on my iPad and circulating throughout the room. If I see a student is "falling behind" (I'll explain the quotes later) I check in with them directly and provide support as needed. I also try to check in with each student at least once in a class period. If they tell me they are fine and getting it, sometimes I move on while other times I probe a bit, asking them to tell me about what they are working on. This is a great technique for engaging with kids who don't like to ask questions. If they can articulate to me what they are learning, I get to know more about the type of learner they are and how deeply they are understanding.

Small group, large group and whole class mini-lessons occur occasionally. If my data shows that several students are struggling with the same question(s), I may bring them together for a mini-lesson or intervention of some kind to address the problem. I also offer mini-lessons as an alternative to videos for students who request them.

"Falling Behind" A.K.A a Point

Since my department uses common assessments, we give tests and quizzes on the same content at the same time (give or take a few days). A typical unit lasts about two to three weeks, consisting of 4-6 playlists. Within each unit, students work through playlists at their own pace. I give soft deadlines, dates by which each playlist should be completed, with the understanding that there is no penalty for lateness. If students are falling behind, they may need to do work outside of class in order to ensure that they are ready for a scheduled assessment.

I Do Not Assign Homework

That is not a typo. I said I do not assign homework. This is not to say that I don't expect work to occur outside of my classroom. I do. It just looks different for each student. We know learning looks different for every student. So why should they each be practicing in exactly the same way? Here are some examples of what it might look like for students working outside of class.

  • Student A: This student feels somewhat confident after completing a playlist, but felt a little shaky on one or two topics. She will revisit the playlist that evening, spending a few extra minutes practicing a particular skill, re-watching a video or exploring a topic.

  • Student B: This student is a methodical learner. He pauses videos repeatedly to take meticulous notes. He refuses to move on until he is confident he fully understands. Student B will often be "behind" his classmates and will need to do a bit of work at home in order to keep up.

  • Student C: This student moves quickly, easily mastering new material. She only does work at home when reviewing before an assessment. However she loves a challenge and may work at home on the end of unit extension task.

  • Student D: This student usually works at a pace that allows him to not work at home. Today he had a rough time at home before coming to school. He had trouble focusing during class. I told him he could go for a walk if he needed. He did. He will catch up at home or during class tomorrow.


This model is still a work in progress (isn't that always the case for teaching?), but one month into year two and things are going incredibly well. Students adapted to a new way of learning much more quickly than last year and anecdotally seem to be liking it. I conduct surveys throughout the year to collect concrete data on what is/isn't working. I look forward to seeing how my students compare with their peers on common, summative assessments. Stay tuned!

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