One clever feature of pre-service internship teaching is the spectacularly awkward newness of all things great and small. One detail that has been particularly vexing for me is “checking off” homework. I’ve tried the checklist idea: roaming, glancing, and ticking off names on a list. But knowing that this is such an unproductive use of time, I’d try to fly through as quickly as I could (hint: if that’s the answer, there’s probably something wrong with the question). There’s looking, then saying, “Great. And the other side? Oh…,” like I’m a drill sergeant checking cuticles and belt buckles. Then there’s finding the name. Then I think: “Hmmm. Is that a check or a check plus? Are those answers even right? If the front seems to be done well and the back isn’t done at all, what’s the code-icon for that? Is that a really good effort there or just scribbled-out guesses?” And of course the faster I tried to finish this business, the less I noticed and the more I wondered about the value of it all. Does “checking off” really tell me anything (worth the time it takes to get)? I do need to know about and keep track of homework habits, especially the quality of the effort being made. It was for this record-keeping part of homework that I wanted a better mechanism.
So I tried using these awesome color pens. Each student (these are 7th graders) would grab a pen and use it to correct and/or annotate their work (which should have be done in pencil). They would self-check their work in small groups, adding notes and comments as they went, and I would keep tabs on this as I roamed. Then we’d come back as a group and look at some examples all together. I don’t think that’s way different than what most of us do (or is it?).
But my point here is those nice pens. Here’s what I like about them:
- Color is good. These cool pens add a kind of pleasant gravity to the ritual that I would like this process to be.
- Movement is good. Even though it’s early in the period, it’s a legit motor break. Middle school number rockets love moving around. They get up and choose their pens then they get up and return them. Then, we do whatever’s Next.
- Special is good. These pens live on my desk. They will always be there when needed and they are only used for this one activity.
- Feedback is really good. When I collect papers at the end of this homework review, I can see who did what because if it’s written in color ink then it wasn’t there at the start of class. I can see errors and read annotations. It’s all there in one place at one time and I can do a lot more than just “check off”— and I can do it whenever I want for as long as I want. I record a symbolic “score” based on three parameters (which I have explained to them in detail): completeness, thoughtfulness (which includes annotation), and understanding. They get this feedback the next day when their homework is returned.
- Ownership rocks. Kids seem to like the pens: special tools for special work. They add little stars and flowers, spiky monsters and goofy faces. They (should ) write comments about both their mistakes (“Added here instead of subtracting.”) and their mad keen grasp (“Nothing wrong! I get this!”). It’s all part of my diabolical plot to develop my students’ taste and skills for the practice of self-reflection .
 Kids don’t care if I call it feedback or symbolic score or, for that matter, phlinge. If it looks like a grade and walks like a grade and talks like a grade, they want a good one. In this case, a good one can be achieved by striving to do well according to the three parameters that I have explained to them.
 Just want to acknowledge my big big gratitude to Sam Shah and that band of merry mathfolk who have, through massive generosity of spirit and time, inspired me to delurkify myself and leap into the deep end of the sparkling waters of community self-reflection. Hello blogworld!