Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day 44: Backsliding and Deep Self-Criticism

Well, it turns out that I was having such a good time teaching that I didn't actually teach the kids anything.

I collected homework in the geometry class for the first time today.  I told them I was going to, so it wasn't a shock to anyone and almost everyone turned it in.  The problem was that, while we've spent several weeks talking about deductive reasoning and, while assignment was a practice test on deductive reasoning, I had dozens of questions and frustrated and confused looks.  I have been relying on these students to be self-directed and notify me when they are having trouble, but that isn't always the case. John Mahlstedt wrote a great post about Why "Smart" Kids Hate "Why" that really hits the nail on the head about forcing students to think about their own understanding.

I have run into this issue in geometry, where I am teaching one thing but assignments are about something else.  I'd like to blame the fact that I'm using the high school guided notes, but the reality is that I'm having too much fun with this class and haven't been following the curriculum.  We are going to spend some intense time over the next few weeks getting back on track and making sure we hit the "critical points" in the curriculum.

It seems to my students as though I am organized, but I am clearly not.

I would think it was an isolated case, but when we went over the warm-up in pre-algebra, the same basic thing happened.  They were asked to two solve 1-step equations, one with a decimal and one with a fraction.  When they got stumped, I took it back a step and made it a problem with just integers.  My plan was to make the connection between the two, showing that they are essentially no different in method.

They couldn't solve the easier one either.  They couldn't tell me that we were trying to isolate the variable.  They couldn't tell me how to do that.

In the end, I drew a balance scale and we completed the problem with boxes.  While I didn't mind this approach, it felt as though they had never seen it before.  Their attention was acceptable, but retention was awful.

I see several reasons why this might happen and I dislike all of them.

1) They are only pretending to understand when we cover topics.  I am at fault here for not doing a good enough job of checking for ACTUAL understanding before moving on.
2) They understand, but don't have the retention skills to keep those ideas accessible.  I am at fault here for not making good enough connections that allow those bridges to be spanned and fostering recall.
3) There is not enough spiral review.  I am at fault here for not providing students with adequate opportunities to keep those skills fresh in their minds.
4) They are not willing to put forth the effort to find the needed information either in their minds or their notes.  While they bear a large portion of the responsibility here because it is their education, I am also at fault for not doing enough to encourage persistence and perseverance when solving problems.

Last year, this entire post would have been a rant bout how lazy the kids are and how they need to grab onto their own education because it's the only thing that will save them.  This year, I'm actually wracked with a certain level of guilt about the amount of fun I've been having while doing a woefully inadequate job of educating them.

I should clarify that before it seems like I'm falling into self-loathing and self-doubt, I will acknowledge that I have been providing my students with an education.  I have been honing certain critical thinking skills and allowing them to become more comfortable in math class.  I don't, by any means, think that I have wasted their time, or mine.

At the same time, we are not nearly as far into the curriculum as we should be and, clearly, they don't have as solid a grasp on the concepts as I would like.  They don't have the perseverance that I would like them to have and, sadly to say, neither do I.

But every day is a new day and, now armed with this knowledge, hopefully, I will be able to design better lessons, including more spiral review and critical thinking skills that will help them to be successful.

I have some serious thinking to do.

In happier news, #MSMathChat trended again last night!!!
I really need to learn how to take and edit screenshots.
Thank you so much to everyone who came out, contributed, watched, etc.!


  1. What a powerful shift in thinking you're documenting here, from "how lazy these kids are," to "here are 4 hypotheses about what's going on, each of which I could turn into something actionable."

    While it's too bad the latter comes with that pang of "if only I'd been doing one or more of those four things all along," I hope where you end up is giving yourself a big ol' pat on the back for being in a place where something's not going how you'd hoped and you can generate 4 thoughtful ideas about why not and what to try next!

    Yay for persevering and making sense of problems!

    1. It is a huge step for anyone, but especially for me. I went from "not fun, but great content" to "great fun, little content."

      If I can get to "great fun, great content" I will be set!

      Or I could revolt and teach what the kids want and forget about state tests...


  2. Justin,

    I love how--despite your post's title--this is an upbeat and forward-thinking reflection. You are seeing your classroom both with realistic eyes (what your students are struggling with, what the causes might be, and what your successes have been) as well as with hopeful ones. You are totally rocking the can-do spirit, and you wear it so well.

    "I have been providing my students with an education"--this says it all. This belief and confidence is the foundation. Everything else is effort and technique. Good luck with the hard thinking. Do it to it!


    1. Thanks, Justin! I don't want to seem like I'm wasting their time because I truly believe that they are learning a TON of stuff!

      But I think my lack of organization and adherence to the non-existent curriculum will come back to bite them and I can't have that.

      I'll keep it up as long as you guys keep helping me!

      I do know for a fact that I can't do this on my own.

  3. I think finding that balance is important. I have actually had a conversation with my assistant principal this year about how parents have given her feedback that I "don't teach anything." I keep getting pulled in different directions because the MTBoS seems like they have so much fun every day, but I also feel that I need to make it through curriculum (not that I am accusing other MTBoSers of not teaching curriculum), and my teaching style is very different from the styles they have had in the past, so getting them on board with my teaching is taking time as well. Remember that we are just trying to help find what works for the students while also inspiring them for greater things than they expects from themselves.

    1. I find that the most engaged my students ever are is when I am WAY outside of the curriculum, talking about space, or bugs, or history or anything other than adding fractions. It's one of the reasons why I would prefer to teach high school instead of middle school. I LOVE math, but this content bores me and even with all of the resources, I still don't know how to make it exciting enough to stick with it.

      I can justify everything I do on a day to day basis in terms of critical thinking skills and problem solving, but the truth is that if I don't get back to the "real" stuff, my students won't be ready for the state tests at the end of the year.

      My phrase before was "I hate when grades get in the way of learning." Now I'm thinking it needs to be "I hate when school gets in the way of learning."

      I don't have a solution, my friend, but I would like to talk with you more about it since you seem to be struggling the same way as I am.

    2. I find that my students are engaged when we go outside the curriculum too, so I wonder if we've just set this whole curriculum thing up entirely wrong.

      I find it interesting that the content bores you and you want to go up. I think my preferred move would be downward to build number sense and numeracy from the ground up. My issue there is, and it was when I switch from my Masters in Elementary Ed to Masters in Math Ed, I don't really want to teach any other subject.

      Especially when looking at the Standards for Math Practice, I think we can justify some really cool things with real-world application and problem solving, but so much of it comes back to how these concepts will be presented to them on the test at the end of the year, because as much as we don't want to admit it, those tests and their grades matter going forward.

      I don't have a solution either. The best we can do is keep trying.

  4. If I was ever in a position to hire a new math teacher, one question I would absolutely ask them is, "If most of your class failed a test,quiz,whatever, what would you do?" The answer to this question can tell you a ton about a teacher. Unfortunately, I know a lot of teachers who would focus on what the students didn't do (their homework, participate in class discussions, ask for help, etc.), that contributed to THEIR failure. That's one of the things I feel like separates great teachers from all of the rest. Great teachers look at themselves first when something goes wrong in the classroom, and ask themselves what they could have done better to help their students. I try to do the same thing when my students don't succeed, but it sucks because it seems that you, like me, really take it to heart and worry that we're not providing our students with what they need at times. Do we get off topic sometimes? Yes. But are our students still learning? Yes! Are they engaged? Yes! Do they appreciate the fact that we're actual human beings with interests and curiosity like them? YES! All we can do when we encounter a failure is look in the mirror, figure out where we went wrong, and try to do better next time. The key word being: try. Sounds like you've created an awesome learning environment for your students and I'm sure they enjoy coming to your class. And anytime we can get students excited about math class...go us!!!

    1. I agree. I've been finding myself getting defensive in arguments in my head with imaginary administrators and I often ask the question "Would you rather them do well on the test, or enjoy coming to school? I can do both, but not if I start with the first."

      That's not to say it can't be done. I just don't know how. It's so important that we build relationships with our students that I'm willing to sacrifice some content for the sake of creating a safe, fun and interesting learning environment.

  5. I empathize with you,Justin, and I see a lot of myself in you. I'll try to avoid clich├ęs here. Finding the right balance between engagement and developing skills is our greatest challenge. If only we had a board game like Monopoly for all math topics! Children reinforced skills while enjoying themselves. Imagine!
    The best teachers are always reflective and their own harshest critics. Feel good about yourself. Don't try to change too much at once. Of all your observations I feel that 'checking for understanding' is the highest priority. Without that you really don't what they understand and can do. The rest will follow. .. It's also good to know that no one really knows the secret. We're always trying to find our way in the darkness and we're in there with our students too!


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