Friday, March 24, 2017

Day 136: Guest Post

Yesterday, I had a couple of upperclassmen observe my Pre-Algebra class.  Following a discussion about their experience, I asked one of them to write up her thoughts for me.

The following is what she wrote without any edits by me.

Before I begin, I’d like to first and foremost state that I love learning. I truly do. There’s something valuable in everything, and no information is useless. There’s always something to learn, to improve upon, to be better at. Everything has a lesson. Even if the information is familiar, something new can be still be learned. There’s no reason not to listen, especially to a teacher. They deal with teenagers all day. The least I can do is listen to them and respect them. They have a lot to say and a lot to teach, and once again, all information is valuable. However, I think I underestimated just how much I’d learn within two days of observing Mr. Aion’s class.

I was grateful he’d even let me sit in his class while he was teaching to begin with. I really just wanted somewhere somewhat quiet to sit during my lunch period to read on my phone or just catch up on my homework. I’d had some good, thought provoking discussions during my study hall with him, so I was looking forward to the experience subtly. To be fair, though, I was on my phone, even if Mr. Aion was teaching. However, I still listened into the class discussion. Watching someone teach is a much different experience than being a student. It’s fascinating to see the students work through something and figure it out. I really enjoyed the questions Mr. Aion asked. When you’re not concentrating on figuring the concept out, it’s much easier to see where the questions are headed and why they’re being asked.  Although, I’m already very familiar with the material, so that definitely aided in knowing where the class was going. Even so, I couldn’t help but answer the questions he was asking mentally. They were probing, asking them to figure things out step by step. I personally quite like that approach to learning. People tend to understand better if you let them figure it out themselves, and that’s what the questions were doing. They were all building up to understanding the concept at hand.

That wasn’t all I learned listening in, though. There was an entirely new way to both solve and think about Pythagorean theorem and distance formula problems that both my friend (who joined me during my second day watching) and I had never learned or really considered. It was a way of relating the numbers back to the triangle. When my Pre-Algebra class (god, that was years ago) covered solving for the hypotenuse length, we always did it through the method of plugging the given variables into the formula. I didn’t even cover the distance formula until I was in Geometry, I always was aware that it was solving for the missing length, that I was using the other sides to do so. But I’d never really considered it the way that Mr. Aion explained it. I think that’s a problem in math classes -- kids are given formulas and are taught how to use them, but that’s it. I can manipulate the numbers, yeah. I know what they mean. But there’s not always this click, this connection, between the numbers and the application of those numbers. It’s almost as if you’re solving a puzzle, and you know how the pieces fit. You know how to complete it, but you can never really see the completed picture to know how all the pieces fit. The way that Mr. Aion explained this, though, made my friend and I see the big picture. It clicked. It was this entirely new way to solve the problem, and it was absolutely exciting. It was this moment of sheer joy, of ‘I get it’.  I don’t get moments like those a lot in my education. I tend to ‘get it’ pretty quickly, so the feeling doesn’t get me excited like it used to. Even when I research and learn in my spare time, it’s not as exciting, unless I decide to take up a particularly difficult topic. This was exciting. It was new. It was this entirely brand new way of solving and thinking and conceptualizing. Personally, I don’t think that happens a lot in classrooms. That might just be my experience, but I don’t see a lot of those ‘a-ha’ moments. This was revolutionary for both my friend and me. So revolutionary, in fact, that we started whispering about the next problem Mr. Aion was going to talk about with his students, attempting to figure it out. He called us out for talking, and let me tell you, that is an absolutely mortifying experience. Having the eyes of about 15 seventh graders and a teacher on you is fear inducing. I was extraordinarily relieved to that no one was upset and that we were really just making a good point. Quite frankly, I was disappointed that we had to leave to go to our assigned class. However, I’m looking forward to coming back to the class, and I sincerely hope I get to have more experience like I had today.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Day 135: Student Visitors

I have several students throughout the day who spend their free periods in my room.  They keep their stuff on a table in the corner, stop by between classes to store and retrieve books, or put in headphones and sit in the back doing work.  A few kids have open invitations to come in whenever they have a study hall, lunch period or permission from their teachers of record, but there will always be one or two others who stop by to ask if they can stay.

I almost always say yes.

I welcome them to my class for a variety of reasons.

1) These students are all juniors and seniors who come to sit in on 7th and 8th grade classes.  I like them to be there working as a conspicuous example of responsible students, setting a precedent for what will be expected of the younger kids as they get older.

2) In a similar vein, I like the upperclassmen to be reminded of what it was like to be 7th and 8th graders, struggling with academic concepts and organization.  I want the older kids to see how far they've come since they were in those seats and to appreciate the struggle that they had.

3) I also like for the upperclassmen to see what it's like to be a teacher.  Observing a class is a vastly different experience to be a member of it.  On numerous occasions, I've noticed a change in the mannerism of the visiting students in response to the behavior (or lack thereof) of the students in the class.  There is an element of "he deals with this all day, I'm going to be nicer."

4) It humanizes teachers for the visiting students and helps the class members to remember that we aren't trying to "sneak" anything.  I know teachers who are different when there are visitors in the room and I think it lends some credibility to my teaching-style that I remain the same, regardless of who is watching.

5) I LOVE, after covering a concept, being able to point to a senior in the back of the room and ask "in your calculus class, do you still use this thing that we're covering in 7th grade?"  Since I know my business, I of course only ask this when I know the answer and can make a solid point about the lasting uses of mathematics


There are a ton of other reasons, but my absolute favorite is "The Epiphany."

I love watching the expressions of upperclassmen who, while watching a 7th grade class, suddenly understand a topic that they previously didn't.

Today's topic for epiphany: The Distance Formula


I don't love the distance formula.  I think it takes a fairly basic concept and abstracts it into difficulty for students who are still struggling to understand the basics of algebraic concepts.  As a result of this thinking, I've been framing it in a different way.  We started by discussing the Pythagorean Theorem, then talking about applications of it.  We used it to derive the distance formula, all the while continuing to discuss the segment between two points as the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

Rather than asking them immediately identify the multiple values of x and y, I asked some simple questions.

"How far apart are the x-coordinates? How far apart are the y-coordinates? Could we see those as the legs of a right triangle?"

I didn't think this was a particularly revolutionary idea.

When I looked around the room, I noticed something strange: the two upperclassmen who had been hanging out in the back, listening to music and checking their phones had suddenly perked up.  They had moved their desks together, taken out paper and were talking animatedly, but quietly.

I had an inkling of what they were discussing, but asked them to elaborate.  They felt bad, thinking they had interrupted and starting apologizing for being disruptive.

"Not at all! I want you to tell the class what you're talking about."

The students (one in Pre-Calc and one in Algebra 2) had never thought about the distance formula in these terms before.  This concept, which they had been using for years, finally clicked in a way that worked for them.

After class, they both came up to me, excited to have learned something new.  One asked if she could keep coming to my class during her lunch.  When I asked her what she found so valuable about it, her list was shockingly similar to the one I wrote above.

I asked her if she would write up her thoughts on observing my class and, if she decides to, I will include it in a future post.

When we talk about spiral review, clearly we need to include topics from years before, revisited and examined in light of new information.  We should also be incorporating more connections between older and younger students, having them share strategies and advice.




Other highlights:

In Math 7, we had a deep discussion about what it means for something to be "steep."  This is a strangely difficult term to define without using technical terms.  We approached it by talking about speed, another quality that only exists as the relationship between other units.  They were VERY engaged.

Numerous students told me today that I was one of their favorite teachers and that I was one of the nicer ones they've had.

A student who slacked off for the entire marking period and earned himself a 26% spent the last week working insanely hard to make up his work. We had a long conversation after school about choices and the lessons that he learned from the experience of choosing his friends as group mate rather than people with whom he can work productively.

My 8th period ended up in a deep discussion of social justice issues, including homelessness and women's right issues.  The group, normally distracted and a bit goofy, were highly engaged and incredibly insightful in their contributions.  They can be very empathetic and insightful.  I was immensely proud of them.



It was a great day.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Day 126: #GoodCallsHome

Today was rockin'!

Not me. I rarely rock it.  The kids were rockin' it!

Last night, I spent over an hour calling parents, grandparents and guardians.  The conversations went something like:

Me: "Hi, this is Mr. Aion from the school.  I'm your child's (grandchild's) math teacher. How are you?"
Them: "...Fiiiiiiine. How are you?"
Me: "I'm doing well, thank you.  I just wanted to give you a quick call to let you know that (student) has really been doing an excellent job in class lately.  The work has been getting harder and can tell (student) is getting frustrated, but has been sticking with.  They've been helping other students in the class and are genuinely a pleasure to have there."
Them: "...but?"
Me: "But nothing.  I don't think we do a good enough job with calling home when students are doing well.  We only ever call when something is wrong and I think that's a problem.  Nothing is wrong.  Your child is doing well and working hard and I wanted to let you know."

At this point, they either expressed deep thanks and shock at being told this, or they said "ok. Thanks. Have a nice day" and hung up in confusion.



I've done this before, gone down my roster and called as many families as I could to give a good note.  I often have high-minded ideals that I'll call everyone on my list, but I forget how long each call takes.  Last night, I stopped because it got to late to call.  I managed to get through two of my larger classes.  Since I knew I wouldn't get to everyone, I started at the end of my roster, the end of my day.  Those two are my more challenging classes so I thought it was more important to start there.

I wanted to remind myself, as well as them, about the good things that they are doing.  I made a conscious effort make sure I had a good comment for the kids who are most challenging for me.

Today, the halls were abuzz with kids talking about how I called their houses.  The kids whose homes I called were awesome! They paid attention, took notes, volunteered to put problems on the board and helped explain concepts to each other.

The kids whose homes I didn't call, even more so.  Maybe they wanted a good call for themselves, or maybe they didn't want the other kids to know that they didn't get one.


Students stayed after school today to work on homework and several came to my room throughout the day to ask questions.


I need to make good calls home more often...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Day 125: Ups and Downs

I was on fire today.  This may or may not have been a good thing, but it was true.  I was in full-on high-energy "let's bang out this content" mode.

We went through examples quickly and I wrote a ton of notes on the board. We didn't have much downtime and, it appeared, that this was beneficial for the kids.

Without the opportunity to lose focus, they did an excellent job of answering my questions and making connections with prior content.

The level of participation was also excellent.  Kids who usually chat were too busy taking notes and the kids who are usually bored with the pace were pleased and involved.

Several kids said "can we have class like this every day?"

I was very pleased with this!  And then I received and angry email from a parent and my head went spiraling down.

I thought back to the kids who loved the way class went today and it sort of broke my heart a bit.

I've been struggling to move my classroom out of the box, away from the traditional model of "here are some problems. Let's do a few together, then you do some."

I know there is resistance to change and that's normal.  Perhaps my problem is that I tried to change too much too quickly?



125 days into the year with this new district and I feel as though I'm starting to get a handle on what the kids need.  I'm just not sure yet how to get them there.


Yesterday, a student told my colleague that I never teach.  Last Thursday a student said I was the best teacher she'd ever had.  Monday, a student said that he likes my class because it helps him to feel smart.  Last year, I had two students in the same class tell me that I never teach and I teach everything.

One parent has demanded to see my qualifications to teach their child, while another sent me an email thanking me for the amazing impact that I had on their child.


I'm trying.  I'm trying so hard to be the teacher that my students need.  So often, however, the teacher they need isn't the teacher they want.  I know I won't be able to make everyone happy.  There will always be students and parents who disagree with my methods and ideology.

I will never stop trying.  I'm not perfect today, but I hope I'm better today than I was yesterday.

Tomorrow, I'll be even better!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Day 122: Loose Lips

I've been slacking.  I've skipped more blog posts in the past three weeks than in the last three years combined.  I have no excuses save laziness.


When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I cried a lot.  I cried when I was younger too, but I have many visceral memories of my Middle School and the specific places where I shed tears.  I cried at school dances when I couldn't gather the courage to ask my crush to dance.  I cried on the field when I was last one to finish my mile in gym.  I cried on the floor outside of classrooms when I was embarrassed for acting out.

I cried in the gifted office when my grades started to slip because I wasn't doing my assignments.  I didn't care much about my grades any more than other kids did.  I cared about not getting in trouble for my grades.

I was worried about facing my parents and so, in true middle school fashion, I wound myself up to a fever pitch and found myself sitting in the gifted office, crying.

This incident sticks out in my mind because of what I said.  I told the teacher in the room that if I told my mom about my grades, I wouldn't be able to sit down for a week.

I'm going to take the time now to say that my mother has never hit me.  I wasn't spanked growing up and came from a family who truly believed that violence wasn't the answer to problems.  My parents were not abusive in any sense of the word.  They were, however, fierce and I didn't want to feel their wrath.  I feared what My Little Pony fans know as "The Stare."

As soon as I said this, the mood in the room changed.  I had made a huge mistake and even as a stupid middle school student, I knew something was different.  It was palpable.

"Are you saying that your mother hits you?"

I began backpedaling fast enough to challenge Lance Armstrong.  I didn't fully understand the implications. but I knew that I wasn't abused and that my saying I was, or even implying it, was going to blow up MUCH bigger than I could handle.

I wasn't trying to cover anything up, other than my own insecurities.  In trying to deflect attention from my grades, I had created a much bigger problem.

I managed somehow to convince the teacher that I wasn't in fear of physical harm from my parents, and I have no idea if they even knew about this exchange, but it stayed with me in vivid detail.  I couldn't probably identify posters on the walls during that meeting.


Children don't always understand the implications of their words.  When interacting with each other, they can say and do things with minimal lasting effect, but when interacting with adults, especially adults who are specifically tasked with their safety, the rules change.

As a mandated reporter, if a student came to me with these same claims now, I would be required by law to report the incident to Child Services.  It wouldn't matter whether this child had a history of lying, or if I knew for a fact that the event had no happened.  The law requires me to report it.

Failure to do so would put my job and career in jeopardy.


If I had not changed my statement to something truthful, I could have severely impacted many different lives, including my own.  I do not believe that most students are aware of the grave implications that come with casual accusations.

We need kids to be safe.

We need kids to be believed when they speak up about abuse.

But this means that we need to be having conversations with them about the implications of their statements.  They need to understand that their words have consequences.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Day 118: Presentations

For the last few weeks, my Integrated Math Class has been working on a business development project.  There were several mileposts that they needed to hit, such as creating letterhead, writing job descriptions and creating a business plan.

Today began Shark Tank style presentations.  One group at a time will present their work to the class as though speaking to investors.  Presentation order is chosen randomly each day so everyone had to be ready to present today.

The students in the audience were told to ask questions the investors would ask and the presenters needed to be ready to answer legitimate questions.

The first group did an incredible job on their presentation but fell a bit short on the Q&A afterwards.  I thanked them for being willing to be the first ones to present and said that if they wanted, they could use the critique that I gave them and the feedback from the other students, revise their presentation and go again at the end of the week.

I pointed out to the rest of the students the great aspects of the presentation, as well as areas for improvement and told them to keep them in mind when doing their own presentations.

We had an interesting discussion about the types of questions they would need to be able to answer to possible investors.
"Sure, your ROI looks promising, but do I get free tattoos for my investment?"

It was also eye-opening to see how teenagers viewed the salary requirements for their potential employees.

"We require a college degree" was often followed by "minimum wage."  I reminded them that they should be calling around to comparable businesses for market research.



I haven't been feeling well for the past week or so.  When I'm under the weather, my patience with my students seems to increase exponentially.  It could be that my quiet tone inspires students to try a little harder, leaving me less frustrated and creating a positive feedback loop.

It could also be that I don't have the energy to fight.

Either way, I've been teaching quietly for the last week and more questions are being asked and more content is being covered.



I'm going to chug a bottle of Nyquil and go to bed...

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Day 116: Math Team

Yesterday, I took a group of juniors and seniors to the regional Math League competition.  It was an interesting experience and it was nice to be able to spend time with a group of kids with whom I don't normally interact.

When I returned to my own classes near the end of the day, I presented a few of the problems to my 8th graders.

"There are 78 kids in a class.  41 take French, 22 take German, 9 take both.  How many kids don't take a language?"


"Starting at Point A, how many different paths are there through points B and C, returning to A?  You can only use each path once and go through each point once."

They ate it up.

**working hard**
"Is it 6??"
"No."
**goes back to working hard**

Two kids were so into it, that they came to school early today to work on it.


One kid asked for the answer and the rest nearly killed him.  They wanted to figure it out on their own.

"What's the difference between this and the stuff we do normally?"
"The normal stuff is boring."


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