I teach in a district which places a very high value on school, teachers, and academic achievement, so this conversation in and of itself was not the surprising thing.
I explained about using Standards-Based Grading, frequent formative assessment, and the remediation and reassessment method I first
My Algebra 1 classes are unusual for a middle school in that they contain a mixture of 7th and 8th graders. I find there are huge benefits to this kind of heterogeneous grouping. For one thing, the students in one grade tend not to have met the students in the other grade, so there are fewer preexisting status issues to contend with among math learners (for an excellent discussion of working with status issues in the math classroom, see Between the Numbers' presentation on this issue from the Creating Balance conference on Math & Social Justice in an Unjust World). For another, it creates a healthy competitive atmosphere in which neither age range wants to be shown up by the other. 8th graders do not want to have their clocks cleaned by a bunch of 7th-grade whippersnappers, and this is an excellent antidote to the problem of 8th grade "senioritis." At the same time, 7th graders are somewhat intimidated by being around the older kids, and that motivates them to bring their A game to class to help them compensate for any feelings of insecurity. The mixing of students encourages everybody to notice and value what others bring to the situation and to stay focused on their own work.
I am pretty much tied to the curriculum, our pacing guide, and the state testing schedule, with minor variations allowed to deal with large-group (or whole-group) lostness as need be. But that means that there are times when the most with-it students could get frustrated or bored if I did not provide them with some differentiated alternatives to keep them engaged while I work with the 75% of the class who are catching up to them.
So I allow students who are ahead of others to either "work ahead" or "dive deeper" during these times. I see no reason to bore them when I can challenge them and call them back to work with the whole group when I need everybody (or when there is a whole-class activity they do not wish to miss out on). I provide them with self-selectable options and I find that it works out really well.
This fits well with Dan Pink's thesis in his book Drive that intrinsic motivation arises from our basic human desires for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Middle-schoolers do not have much autonomy in their own lives, so giving them a little bit in the classroom goes a long way towards both motivation and harmony (which is how I prefer to think of "classroom management").
Apparently this has been my unwitting secret to getting many of my students' cooperation. Students who would be bored or frustrated at being tethered to a whole-class pace that is either too fast or too slow feel happy and engaged because I try to make it possible for them to work at a pace and a depth that is meaningful for them. I did not realize this was such a giant change for so many of them.
The Grading of Homework
The other thing that seems to be working for my students is the change in emphasis on the "grading" of "homework," in that I do not actually grade their homework.
I was convinced long ago that Sam Shah's approach to Binder Checks is the best way to place an appropriate value on homework — namely, that homework is work one does at home to improve one's own learning. In an SBG world, mastery is measured by the student's performance on assessments — not by the teacher assessing each of 40 problems that one has worked on at home. The purpose of homework is to provide practice and investigation time, in addition to exposure to different kinds of problems and issues that may come up. The purpose of "assessing" homework is to assist the student in developing good study habits and organizational habits so that homework becomes a meaningful part of their school lives.
When I moved from high school to middle school, I discovered that the full binder check approach was a recipe for discouragement. It seems to be a developmental issue. So instead, I have modified the program into a system of "mini-binder checks," in which I check the corresponding homework "chunk" while they work on the test/assessment on that particular chapter/chunk. The "grade" or "score" they receive for "homework" is merely a completion score. It is not a problem-by-problem assessment of their thought process on each homework assignment.
Apparently it's a novel approach to trust motivated middle school students to do their homework and check it all at the assessment point in one fell swoop. At conferences this week, I heard some pretty upsetting stories about students staying up until midnight or one o'clock in the morning, trying to get all their math homework done so they would not get punished and graded down. I heard stories of students I think of as super-mathletes breaking down into tears and meltdowns because they couldn't get their homework all done and they got punished (and shamed) in class because of this failure. So I heard a lot of appreciation that I assign a reasonable amount of homework and expect them to take ownership of getting it all done in time for a reasonable assessment of completion.
It makes me kind of sad to hear these stories because I think of the students in my Algebra classes as pretty joyful learners. And it also saddens me because I do not see these practices as leading toward the "positive dispositions toward mathematics" that we are supposed to be building.