Sunday, December 22, 2013

Weekend Thought: Why We Despise Teenagers

I've been listening to a great podcast when I run.  It's very bizarre and prides itself on being "indescribable" so I won't try, but you should check it out.

Welcome to Night Vale!

The format is that of a community radio show talking about the happenings of a small town in the middle of the desert.  I love every episode, but every once in a while, the announcer will say some things that strike at the heart of what I've been thinking about.

The following is a transcript from Episode 33: Cassette

Listeners, especially our younger listeners, consider this:
When we talk about teenagers, we adults often talk with an air of scorn, of expectation for disappointment. And this can make people who are presently teenagers feel very defensive.
But what everyone should understand is that none of us are talking to the teenagers that exist now, but talking back to the teenager we ourselves once were – all stupid mistakes and lack of fear, and bodies that hadn’t yet begun to slump into a lasting nothing.
Any teenager who exists now is incidental to the potent mix of nostalgia and shame with which we speak to our younger selves.
May we all remember what it was like to be so young. May we remember it factually, and not remember anything that is false, or incorrect.
May we all be human – beautiful, stupid, temporal, endless.
And as the sun sets, I place my hand upon my heart, feel that it is still beating, and remind myself: Past performance is not a predictor of future results.
Stay tuned now for whatever happens next in your life.
Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Day 77: An Instructional Day

In the 5 years that I have been in my current district, this was the first time that we didn't receive an email right before a break reminding us that it was an instructional day.  Instead, we were encouraged to watch Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk about creativity in school and use today to allow our students creative expression within the bounds of the curriculum.

So, I did what I had planned to do anyway.

Geometry had another game day.  As did the second pre-algebra class.  The first one had a test.  This was partially done out of spite, but also partially done because I want them to realize how different my class is and the activities that I'm trying to do.  I feel as though I need to occasionally remind them that things could be boring.

They reminded me instead, that they don't care.  They would much rather do rote assignments that require no thinking because they are easier.  I have no idea how to break this barrier down.  If I work with higher order thinking tasks, they refuse to participate, or are so disruptive that I can't work with the students who DO want to do the work.  They don't care about their grades enough to do the work under the threat of failing.  Most know that the district will move them on regardless of whether or not they fail my class.

They don't care about the knowledge, or the skills.

I watched a boy carefully aim and throw a pencil across the room at a girl. When she got up to hit him, he started screaming about how she was out of her seat and attacking him.  I pointed out that I watched him start it and he had a fit, as though he was being singled out for punishment.

Another student wouldn't stop talking, and when I moved his seat, he refused to sit where I put him and refused to finish his test.

This is a level of immaturity that I don't know how to deal with. I know there are ways, but I don't know them.  There is no way to contact the parents that I need to contact.

If we want the state of public education to improve, then schools need to have one rule: No student will be allowed to detract from the learning environment of any other student.

There needs to be a place where overly disruptive students can go to get their issues resolved in a way that doesn't keep other kids from learning.  That place CAN'T be just a holding tank, like in-school suspension.  It needs to be a place where someone can talk to them about WHY they are choosing to behave the way they are.

As many people on both sides of the gun control debate have stated, we don't have a crime problem.  We have a mental health problem.  We NEED to be providing our students with adequate services to get them what they need.  There should be counselors in abundance in schools, especially in middle schools.

Sometimes, my students just need a minute to calm down, to talk to someone about why they are so angry and then come back in and be awesome!  But without somewhere to send them for that, they simply stay in the room and disrupt the environment.

In most of the classes I've had, there's only one or two at a time and I'm able to deal with it on my own.  But my 4th period this year, since the introduction of 13 new students a few weeks ago, has felt a bit like the baby nightmare from Shrek.

When I pull a student aside to talk to them, three more start in on it.  They are all friends so I can't just move their seats.  My room is too small to adequately separate them.

I have much thinking to do over the break.  I need to reach out for some help.  I don't think I can solve this problem on my own.

They say one rotten apple spoils the bunch, but I don't think that analogy works for two reasons.  First, a single apple can be thrown away, saving the rest of the bunch.  A more accurate analogy would be a moldy strawberry. Once it's in the package, the whole package is trash.

Second, we can't (and shouldn't) throw the students away.  We need to help them to become better however we can.

I think a more accurate analogy for poor behavior and decision making in education would be the flu, or mono.  When someone gets sick with either of these diseases, we isolate and help them as much as we can.  We don't expect doctors to treat a flu patient in the middle of a healthy crowd.  We know that the flu will spread, making others sick.

We don't throw that patient away either, leaving them to die.  We help them as much as possible and stay with them until they are healthy again.

We need to be doing this for our students.

Also, I spent the day wearing this hat:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 76: Pride and Disappointment

Many of the geometry students did skill reassessments today, with a few improvements, but a several drops in score.  The way that SBG works, they can't UNearn a score that they have earned, so I was a little distressed when students who earned 3's on the first go around earned 1's this time.  Clearly, they didn't actually master the skills.  I need to talk to some of the SBG gurus about what to do.

I don't like traditional grading because it requires mastery at a specific time when mastery the next day is just as good.  The problem I'm encountering, however, is backsliding.  Perhaps, I will only award a score of 4 once a student has shown mastery in a topic twice, or three times...

After the reassessments, they played games.  I truly feel as though I could have game day every day with my geometry students and they would learn more valuable critical thinking, planning and logic skills than I can teach them using a standard geometry curriculum.

Near the end of the class, a few of my students called me over and asked in quiet tones if they could talk me.  They asked if they could take a collection for one of the other students who needs new glasses, but whose parents can't afford them.  They wanted to collect a few dollars from each person in the class and give it to him after break.

I am so proud of them for thinking of this student.  He isn't someone that they spend time with or even really talk to much.  He's not an outcast, but they travel in different circles.  I, of course, will give whatever I can.  I want to be able to support and foster generosity as much as possible.

In pre-algebra, the tech ed teacher joined us for an activity, which I think is SUPER cool!  The students were given a price sheet and asked to design a device that would transport a wooden block across the room on a fishing line.  They could use tape, zip ties, balloons, nails, hooks, etc, but they had to "pay" for each item they used.  They could also run as many tests as they wanted, but they had to pay for each of these as well.

They were to work in teams and the team that managed to successfully move the block across the room with the lowest cost would be declared the winner.

It started out about as I expected.  They were very excited about it, but hadn't fully listened to the directions, so there was lots of clarification and "Did you read the directions?"

One group, rather than read the directions (which were, apparently, "too much") they put their heads down.

Several groups got REALLY into it, arguing over the best designs.  Others just sat and stared at the wall.  When I asked them what they were working on, or how they planned to move the block, they replied with familiar statements about how it's too much work.

After about 30 minutes, things started to fall apart quickly, with students hitting each other with inflated balloons, sabotaging designs from other groups and just generally reminding me why we don't often do projects.

I'm also once again reminded about how much less complicated my 4th period class was before it was doubled in size.  The social dynamics in there now are more confusing than I have seen in a long time.  Everyone seems to be friends with everyone else, so it doesn't matter where I move people to separate groups.  They simply form new groups.

It would be so much easier to go back to rows, having all of the students facing the front while I lecture.

I think it might even work to put the pre-algebra students back in rows, but the geometry kids would miss out.  Plus, I don't know if it would work for the pre-algebra.  It might be making it easier for me, but worse for them.

I don't know how to get them to understand what I'm trying to do.  I never have to yell at the geometry kids to keep their hands to themselves, or not throw pencils at each other, or not steal each others binders.

And then, just as I'm about to condemn the activity, throw in the towel, I'm reminded that activities work differently with different groups on different days.

My 8th period ROCKED the activity!  They worked hard, built well, analyzed their mistakes and made corrections.  It was a pleasure to work with them today.  They will get a chance to work on this again tomorrow.  I wonder if it had anything to do with certain students being absent today...

4th period will be taking a quiz.

The major difference, in my opinion, between the successful students and the unsuccessful ones, not just on this activity, but in school in general, is not academic ability, but decision-making ability.

The students in my geometry class choose to make school a priority.  Even if they don't like it, they choose curiosity and mental exercises over not.  Not always, but often enough to be successful.

The students in my pre-algebra class, for the most part, choose to make other things a priority.  I'm not in any way criticizing these decisions, because my mom will tell you I was exactly the same way.  It's difficult to be a middle school student and making good, long term decisions is VERY difficult.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Day 75: I Admit It, I'm Counting The Days

I don't go to many sporting events.

I spent a good amount of time preparing reassessments for my geometry kids so that they could boost their scores on my SBG.

Then, half of them went on a field trip, or something.

So the other half played games!  It's difficult enough to get kids to concentrate on school work in the week before a long break, but they were all HIGHLY engaged in their games, discussing strategy and arguing about the math and logic.  Two students who fought in the cafeteria yesterday managed to play Forbidden Island, a fairly complicated cooperative game.

Games: The ultimate peacemaker!

One of my students, after learning how to play Set, challenged me to a math during the next game day.

I know, at some point, someone is going to want me to "educationally justify" the games that we play.  To that end, I think I need to start working on a Game Log and Reflection sheet where students will write down which games they played, things they liked, things they didn't like, how they chose the strategy that they did.

Even as I'm typing this, I'm thinking that a long-term assignment will be for students to find or make a NEW game that we can "educationally justify," become experts on it and present it to the class.  I'll have to pick the brain of @jacehan because he runs the game club at his school.

Plus, I hate reinventing the wheel, so someone out there MUST have a "reflect on this game!" activity.

Maybe I'll just show this card that a student gave me today...

In pre-algebra, I was looking for a fun activity dealing with Pythagorean Theorem and, in my Googling, happened across this cool hands-on activity from my dear friend, Julie Reulbach.  It has students making right triangles on grid paper, then drawing squares on the sides and using more grid paper to measure the length of the hypotenuse.  It's a kinesthetic version of the activity we did last week and talked about yesterday.  It lead me to an interesting discovery.

I found something more frustrating than students not reading or listening to directions: HALF-reading or listening to directions.  Worse than this is half-reading or listening to directions when they are asked to color/cut something.  I went through twice as many grid papers as I should have because students couldn't listen to the instructions about where and what they were supposed to cut.  There was even a PowerPoint with picture for the visual learners.

After the activity, they worked on their independent work.  Once again, I wasn't able to put out all of the fires that needed my attention, so I picked two to concentrate on.  The two fires didn't necessarily need my help, but by focusing on them, the rest of the class was MUCH more on task.  They didn't need my help with math as much as with focus.

Productive teaching through strategic selection!

My frustration in the second class came with the sheer number of times I heard "Mr. Aion, my square is 5 by 12!"

I typed two paragraphs about students making bad decisions before I said to myself "OF COURSE they make bad decisions! They are children! Most adults can't make good decisions, why should I expect them to?"

I've been having many internal and external debates as of late about the purpose of school.  I think the answer I give will depend on the day, which I think means I have no idea.  That scares me.

How can I continue working towards a goal if I don't know what that goal is?

The answer, of course, is that I have to come up with my own goal and purpose.  What do I want from my students?  When they leave my class at the end of the year, what do I want them to be able to do?

I want my students to be critical thinkers.  I want them to be problem solvers.  I want them to be empathetic to others.  I want them to be citizens in the true sense of the word.

I want them to develop curiosity and take ownership of their own education.

Many of my students do incredible work when I'm sitting with them, even if I'm not helping.  I need to figure out how to extricate myself.

Or get 20 cardboard cutouts of myself with a quizzical, yet warm expression.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Day 74: It's Hip To Be Squared

I used my geometry students as guinea pigs today for a lesson with my pre-algebra kids.  They were excellent sports and didn't even complain about the needles or backless hospital gowns!

Last week, I did an activity with the pre-algebra students that I thought was great, but MAY have gone over some of their heads.  They worked on it well, but I worried that they didn't make the connection that I had hoped, which was to discover the reasons why the Pythagorean Theorem worked and the various implications.

Basic Premise:
  • Draw a right triangle on a grid
  • Draw a square with each leg of the hypotenuse as the side
  • Find area of squares attached to sides a, b and c
  • Examine relationship between the areas of the three squares
  • Discover that the sums of the areas of the squares attached to the two smaller sides adds up to the area of the square of the hypotenuse
  • Remember that if given the area of a square, the side length is the square root of the area of that square
  • Calculate c based on area of the square attached to side c
  • Profit
When we did the activity last week, the kids worked very well on it, but apparently retention was lacking.  So we did a few examples as a group.  They were, for the most part, very attentive.  They asked good questions and answered me and each other well.

The second session of the class has been disrupted by the addition of two new students.  Both of them seem VERY bright with a ton of potential, but it seems as though (not unexpectedly for new kids in the middle school) they are more concerned with making reps for themselves, which often translates to class disruption.

I'm sorry that I'm so boring...

It would be so difficult to be a middle school student in a community where street cred is everything.  It makes it almost impossible to make good long term choices.

I wish I could do more for these kids.  I wish I could help pull them out of the difficult social and emotional situations in which they find themselves.

I wish I knew how to explain to them that things can get better!  I wish I knew how to explain that they won't always be awkward, walking piles of hormones and social angst.  I wish I could make them understand that there are more important things that what some kid in the cafeteria calls them.

But I can't.  I don't know how and, even worse, there is nothing more important than what some kid in cafeteria calls them.

Middle school can be a social prison.  Students are starting to become people with hopes and dreams.  Many of them are starting to realize that their social group is going to hold them back, or send them in directions they do not wish to go.  But they don't know how to escape.

Social pressure has never been greater and if smart students exist in communities that do not value smarts, they are at a disadvantage that can be almost impossible to overcome.

But we still have to try.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Day 73: Hell Week

Their answers are getting better!

People involved in the performing arts have what is known affectionately as "Hell Week."  This is the week before the opening of a play or show when everything is being finalized and, it seems, everything that CAN go wrong WILL go wrong.  Stage crews spend every waking moment putting the finishing touches on the sets.  Costumers are finding the perfect hat for scene 6 and cleaning out the stains that the lead actor left on his shirt while consuming a burrito in costume.  Directors update their wills in case they die of stress induced heart attack.

It is, without a doubt, the most stressful time.

Schools have something very similar in the days preceding a long break.  With less than a week left until Christmas break, the school has taken on an air of a handful of cats.I'm not how to explain this analogy, but I feel it fits.

As the break approaches, the energy increases exponentially while the teachers attempt to maintain some semblance of control to prevent students from running up and down the hallway screaming "CHRISTMAS!!!!"  I begin to feel as though the week is lost before it even starts.

So I've taken a different tack this year.  Those of you who read this blog at least semi-regularly already know that I've been releasing control of my class more and more to my students.  It works for some kids, not at all for others and it is generally pretty terrifying for me.

In any event, I gave back SBG assessments in geometry meaning they now have 12 skills from which to identify their aptitude.  We discussed the tests briefly, along with basic strategy on what to do next if they didn't like their score.
  1. Correct mistakes (ask for help if needed)
  2. Find practice problems to work on of the same type/skill
  3. Try again!
I gave them the period to work on it.  They (for the most part) did exactly what I wanted them to do!  I put up a sign-up whiteboard so they could ask for help without crowding me or yelling out.  When I got to them, they were prepared with thoughtful questions.  The geometry kids learned VERY early on that I don't respond to things that sound like "I don't get it!"  They come up with specific questions that can be answered.

In pre-algebra, a student who is frequently absent, either physically or mentally, asked for my help in making up old assignments.  I made a quick calculation.

I knew that if I didn't help her, she would be lost to me for weeks.  She would feel slighted and spurned and would resent me.  It wouldn't matter that her effort in the past has been next to none.  It wouldn't matter that the other 25 kids in the room would also need my assistance.

So I chose her.  I managed to keep an eye on the rest of the class, putting out fires when they got too big, but essentially, I spent the entire double period showing her how to do area and perimeter for one problem.  I pushed her hard with patience and caring until she was just about at her wits end.  Then I throttled back to give her time to recoup some energy, then off we went again!

She stuck with me the whole time.  If she doesn't remember what we talked about today, I won't be surprised.

I will, however, be surprised if she forgets that someone took that time to attend to her needs.

In the second section, I spent a ton of individual time with certain students, giving them guidance and asking directed questions to help them understand Pythagorean Theorem.  I was very pleased with the work that they put in.

It just solidifies again for me the need for small group instruction.  I am better able to help a group of 3 or 4 than a group of 25.  Certain fires can be ignored for the sake of an individual student.

Even as I type this, my inner Spock is reciting lines about the needs of the many.  Even now, after all of my supposed educational enlightenment, I have trouble with my willingness to sacrifice the class for the needs of a small number of students.  I console myself with the knowledge that it won't happen every day and I'm building up credit with those kids who receive the individual attention.

Any administrator who demands that we cover content on the last day of school has been out of the classroom WAY too long.

"Do your best to cover content" is much more realistic request.

I will not blow off this week, but I certainly will be adjusting my expectations of myself to fit the circumstances.  I expect the same level of work from my students as I always do, but if they don't meet those expectations, I'm not going to beat myself up.

And above all, ...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Day 72: Virtual Diabetes

After my disastrous picture yesterday, I had to really up my game.  So I did this:

Answers I got from friends on Facebook:

We function in base 10 because Chuck Norris has 10 fingers.  That is the only reason
Chuck Norris knows every digit of pi.
90 degree angles are only "right" because Chuck Norris said so.
Chuck Norris once roundhouse kicked an integer.  This was how fractions were invented.
Chuck Norris is his won abelian group.
X solves for Chuck Norris.

If you have better ones, please add them in the comments!

After I received my copy of Chocolate Fix, and read a blog post about using it to teach congruent triangles, I decided I wanted to do it in class.

So I spend the morning making a basic Promethean flipchart with a board, pieces and clues for 7 puzzles of increasing difficulty.  After I explained the basic rules, we went over the first puzzle together.  In geometry, I had them work the rest individually or with their groups.  After it seemed like most of the groups were done, I had them tell me where to place 1 piece along with their reasoning of WHY that piece went where they put it.

My most frequent question today was "How do you know that it goes here and not here?"  They did an amazing job of explaining their reasons, using conditional statements.

"If we put this piece in the top, then the pink triangle will overlap with the square and that can't happen."

We made it through all of the puzzles and had a little bit of time to talk about Mr. Vaudrey's Mullet Lesson and Mr. Kraft's Toothpicks.  They were VERY excited and claimed that they would be the class to help put me on the map of math ed bloggers.  I'm touched that they want to help me!

We did the same activity in pre-algebra with anticipated results.  After a slow start, the kids got REALLY into it, working on white boards, paper and, one group with the physical board.  They were hunched over the board, arguing animatedly about which piece went where.

Their attention waned fairly quickly when the puzzles got harder, however, because, as I've stated before, the main problem that the students in this class have is their lack of persistence.  If they don't get something solved in 20 seconds, they give up.  With the intermediate level puzzles, they stuck with them until they were solved: 8-10 minutes.  With the advanced, they gave up after 3 and they only glanced at the expert before quitting.

Lesson for the next time I do this activity:  Have several clue pages already printed out for kids who finish a puzzle early.

In between classes, I spent 45 minutes reordering objects on my Promethean Board so that colored objects and shapes would always be on top when we slid clues around.

I know how to use my time wisely!

In the second class, the kids were MUCH more interested and engaged and lasted all the way through, asking if they could play with the pieces on the board.  This type of activity was CLEARLY up their alley!

I am VERY ready for this weekend.  Today was a good day, but this was a VERY long and trying week.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Day 71: Low Floor, Low Ceiling

I'm ashamed of this one...

After my post on Friday about games, I had several discussions with the amazing people at ThinkFun about using games in the classroom and, long story short, I am now the proud owner of Rush Hour, Brainteaser Kit and Chocolate Fix!

After excitedly opening the boxes, my 4-year old wanted to know if it was for her.  I told her that, no, it was for my students, but we could play for a bit if she wanted.

So I opened up Chocolate Fix and showed her the pieces and the board.  Then I set out the clue for Challenge 1.  She went to work!

This was challenge 3 or 4 that she managed to complete on her own!

I showed the video to my geometry students today, mostly because I was bragging about how amazing my daughter is.  The kids were suitably impressed and I explained how we would be doing more games and puzzles in class.

To further demonstrate the power of Twitter to my students, I was able to send along a mistake that they caught on the ThinkFun website.  I'll tell them tomorrow how I got a reply and that the problem that THEY found will be corrected because of them!

I then had them complete another quiz for the first 6 skills of the SBG and when they finished with that, they got to work on the brainteasers from my new pack!  They were fully engaged and working together.  When they got frustrated, they simply traded puzzles with another group and kept working.

The pre-algebra classes now have a large enough stack of pages to do in their workbooks that the assignments are differentiated.  The kids who have been keeping up with them are moving on to new stuff.  The ones who haven't been have students in the class who can help them and I can spend more time working on the kids who need the attention.

I watched kids loudly talking, laughing and having a good time.  If someone had walked in, they would have thought that nothing was happening, but a close inspection would have shown 80% of the students were working diligently on one task or another.

It's often hard to know what engagement looks like.  I used to think that engagement was kids quietly working on problems.  Then I started doing more projects and group work and realized that engagement can take myriad forms, not all of which make teachers comfortable.  Some of them make me downright squirm, but if lesson engagement is the goal, I have to be willing to squirm a bit for the benefit of my students. 

Something happened today which hasn't happened since 2009.  Students came and ate their lunches with me.  Almost nothing makes me happier than when kids feel safe enough in my room to hang out there on their free time.

Two boys came to finish a test and asked if they could stay and play games.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! Don't show excitement!!!
**sigh** "I SUPPOSE you can in. Just don't be noisy!"

The Part Where You Groan At Me:

Maybe I'm just like my mother.  She's never satisfied!

Today was one of the highest levels of student engagement that I've had in pre-algebra since my class doubled in size.  My problem with it is that they were working on worksheets.  They weren't doing projects, they weren't expanding their thinking, they weren't developing the skills that I want them to develop.

But they were engaged.  (With the exception of the two students who run on motion sensors. When I'm not standing right next to them, the light goes out of their eyes and the gnomes who control their movements go on a coffee break.)

I'm going to count it as a day to reset.  I know that I can't get them where I want overnight.  I know it will be a long, slow process.  I know that I have to give them praise when they do well and occasionally give them a break.

I also need to remember that I too need to feel success.  I too need to give myself a break from dragging them kicking and screaming into a higher level of cognitive processing.

Sometimes, I need to give a bit of slack on the rope so that I can renew my efforts with greater energy and vigor.

I know that many teachers would rather have kids do low-end tasks with energy than high-end tasks with none.  "If I give them something harder, they won't work.  I would rather them work!"  This may be a legitimate teaching strategy and I don't begrudge teachers in difficult situations who choose.

But it's not what I want for my students or for me.  So today will, hopefully, be rare.

Several of my students are in the orchestra, which has a concert tonight, and they asked me to attend.  I'm going to quickly shove food into my children and go back!

I love being asked for my presence!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Day 70: Oh No He Didn't!

Not my best picture, but probably my favorite so far!

"We have a theory!  7 was dating 9, and 6 and 9 were 'friends' but secretly dating.  7 found out and went crazy and killed 9, his girlfriend, and is on his way to kill 6, the other boyfriend.  So 7 is now just a crazy maniac murderer."

I had a nice conversation this morning with the geometry students about the results of their first SBG quiz.  They filled out their skill sheets and analyzed the group results.  We determined that for the most part, the class is good with skills 7, 8 and 9.  Skills 10, 11, and 12 need some work, but since we haven't covered them in class yet, I was VERY impressed with the results.

I reiterated again that if they earned a score that they didn't like, they had steps to take to improve it.
  1. Identify why they got the problem wrong
  2. Review notes on that topic
  3. Select several practice problems to complete
  4. Set up a time for reassessment when ready
It was wonderful to see students identifying their strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way.  I talked about one student who earned 3, 4, 3.5, 1, 1, 0 on his 6 skills.  I explained that on a traditional test, he would have received a 50%, or an F.  On this type of assessment, however, he clearly understood half of the problems and so doesn't need to worry much about them in the future.  The students agreed that this was a MUCH better way to do assessments.

With them on board, I think it will go MUCH smoother and I'm excited to work with it further.

I'm ashamed to say that frustration boiled over in BOTH sections of pre-algebra.  I found an activity involving geoboards to help us discover the Pythagorean Theorem.  I think it's much more valuable to students to know WHERE a formula comes instead of just being TOLD that formula.

The activity dealt with drawing a right triangle of certain dimension (1X1) on the geoboard, then constructing squares along each side of the triangle, finding the areas of those squares and finding a pattern.

In the first section, we had a great discussion and demonstration to get them started.  Then when it came time for independent work, they sat and stared at the wall.  It took several minutes of cajoling to even get them to pick up their pencils.  My frustration level was so high that I didn't even care WHY they weren't doing the assignment.  I managed to sit with three students who were asking very thoughtful questions and were genuinely lost.  I worked with them with infinite patience and care, explaining whatever they needed me to, asking questions to lead them down certain paths.

In the mean time, other students began a bickering match about who stole a pen from whom.  I did my best to ignore it, but when they tried to draw me into it, I snapped.

In my mind, the worst sin a student can commit is taking away from the learning opportunity of another student.  When a student who had done nothing for 45 minutes interrupted  my work with three students who were working hard and struggling, I may have lost my mind a bit.

I have several parents to call tonight.

I think it may have scared the kids who were doing what they were supposed to.

In the second section, it took me 40 minutes to get through the demonstration because students would simply not stop talking.

After that, however, two students who are generally off task and disruptive worked incredibly well and did an amazing job on the rest of the paper.  I made sure to heap genuine praise upon them and their efforts.

When my geometry kids came back to me at the end of the day to get progress reports, they knew something was seriously wrong.  They had never seen me in such a state and I think they, too, were a bit frightened.

It's so important that when I get frustrated at students that I don't take it out on innocent kids.  When I snapped at the one today, I was able to turn around and calmly and patiently get back to work with the others who were on task.

I hate how angry I was.  The level of immaturity is not something I can tolerate.  I understand that they are still children, but at 14, the behavior was unacceptable.

Still, I hate how angry I was.

I hate even more that they saw it.  I hate that I wasn't able to keep my cool and calmly diffuse the situation.  I've been working so hard on cultivating positive student relationships this year and this just flied right in the face of that.

I'll have to pull that student aside tomorrow and talk with him calmly and patiently, apologize for my outburst, but make it clear that his behavior was not acceptable.  I think I try to have too many heart-to-hearts in the heat of the moment, while tempers (mostly mine) and frustrations (mostly mine) are still high.

They are still children, and children who are going through the toughest times in their lives: middle school.

This job is hard...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Day 69: Heheh..."69"

Started the day off with a 2 hour delay, which is always a nice way to start.  I did not, however, use the extra time wisely.
Expo REALLY needs to make a "cartoon Caucasian" colored dry erase marker
Their answers are getting better!

Yesterday, the geometry class took it's first foray into SBG.  We took a unit test that was developed by the amazingly brilliant @Algebrainiac1.  It didn't go that well, but it showed the students what they should expect.  We went over it together and today, they took a quiz that was broken into specific skills.  It's fascinating to see, as I grade them, that certain kids are amazing at certain topics while completely lacking in others.

I started an Excel spreadsheet to color code and track the proficiencies of the different skills.

I'm pretty excited to go over it with the kids tomorrow after I grade their quizzes.  It also highlights for me how much work I have to do if I want all of my classes to be on SBG when we get back from Christmas break.  Here's my basic list:
  1. Identify the Common Core Standards that correspond to the skills in the next chapter in each class.
  2. Translate the skills into "I Can" statements for learning targets
  3. Write up LT handout for students to track progress
  4. Separate quizzes into skills
Ideally, I'd like to have all of this done by the end of the semester to make a clear midterm with the skills that the students should have acquired by then.

For the first time this year, it feels as though I have an actual goal beyond "Make the class relevant and interesting." I've been wanting to do this for a while, but have been putting it off out of fear and laziness.  I have lots of irons in lots of fires and have justified putting this one off.

Maybe during the break, I'll do a Google Hangout with other pre-algebra teachers and organize the LTs.  Anyone want in?

I also wanted to start a Google Hangout book club to read Teach Like A Pirate.  Who is in on that?

All Hangouts will be scheduled during naptime for my children.

My favorite answer on today's quiz:

I don't often reflect on previous days, but something happened yesterday that made me think.  A student who had been out on Game Day returned to school and the following conversation ensued:

Student 1: "What'd I miss yesterday, bro?"
Student 2: "Bro! We didn't have school yesterday!"
S1: "You know what I mean! What'd we do on Friday!"
S2: "Nothin'. We had a free day."

I don't know how I feel about this.

On one hand, I want him to recognize that it WASN'T a free day.  What we were doing was directed play with a specific purpose.  I want him to tell his friend about the amazing games that he played and all of the cool things he did.

On the other, part of the purpose of Game Day was to covertly teach students logic and reasoning.  He was learning all of those things and I don't know if I care that he knew it.

I'm torn, but it still rankles.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Day 68: Progress, Or Lack Thereof

In grading quizzes and make-up work over the weekend, I came to a few interesting conclusions.
  1. My students are, for the most part, acceptable at math.  I'd like them to be better, but their progress is appropriate for the level with which they entered my class.
  2. My students are, for the most part, TERRIBLE at expressing their understanding or their thoughts.
I need to get them talking about, and writing about, math more often than they are.  Not just math, but anything!  When they were asked to produce explanations, I received broken sentences, fragments, or just plain incoherence.

When asked "Why do you think Ponzi schemes are illegal?" I received answers very similar to:

Because you would no get anything well beside the people that send it to you or that you sent to them.

Grammar aside, it still leaves me asking "Ok, but then why is it illegal?"

The whole situation makes me very uncomfortable.  If the students know the skills, great, but it's all for nothing if they can't convey those ideas.

It also came to light that the majority of my pre-algebra students have failing grades.  Most of this is due to assignments simply not being turned in.  I gave out progress reports today that detailed everything they have or have not completed and I think it was a wake-up call to many.

I suppose many of them thought that active participation in class would be enough, but it's clearly not.  I'm once again reminded how dissatisfied I am with the current grading system.  I wish I had Standards Based Grading set-up for the pre-algebra kids.  I know what my goal is for winter break...

When the progress reports were handed out, an outcry went up.  I explained that my goal in giving them wasn't to get the kids in trouble, but to help the see what they still needed to turn in.  I then gave them the period to work on those assignments.

The amount of effort that was put into making up work during today's classes was equal to the total amount of effort put forth in the past 6 weeks.  I was GREATLY impressed with them and learned a valuable lesson for myself.

With the second pre-algebra class, this didn't happen.  Even given a list of assignments that they owed, they made the decision not to work on them.  The average in that class is much higher than the previous class, so it's possible that the grades were not low enough to shock them into action, as happened in the first section.

With the pre-algebra kids, I need to be giving them more updates on a more frequent basis.  I hate holding grades over their heads, but if that's what it takes to get them to work...

I was having a discussion with one of my coworkers about the skills that are so vital to success, but are never tested.  He was as lost as I am about how to teach perseverance, problem solving and literacy when it seems as though so much is stacked against us and the students.

I feel as though I never know which questions to ask them to get the answers I want.  I want to be leading down the path instead of pushing, but they are either unwilling or unable to follow.

I want THEM to be leading ME, but I don't know how to instill the curiosity that would help them drive forward without being led.

I think that I'm doing so well.  Then I give an assessment, or update the grades, and I am filled with despair.  Since my mid-day class doubled in size, the grades, effort and behavior have taken a nose dive.  I know that there will be a period of adjustment, but I'm starting to lose hope.  I don't feel as though I can possibly give these kids the attention they need.  The district has decided that, since this class is mostly composed of "students of need" that the pre-algebra classes are supposed to be small.  Before a month ago, the largest in the school was 20.

Now, instead of 3 classes that were working towards a state of proficiency that was acceptable, there are 2 classes struggling to keep their heads above water.

Before a month ago, my two pre-algebra classes were keeping pace with each other.  This is no longer the case.  Not by a long shot.

Without a higher level of perseverance and adherence to tasks, I can't give attention to the students who need it the most.

But I will continue to try.  I can't and won't give up on them.

I just wish they wouldn't give up on themselves so easily.

I didn't write all of this to start a pity party.  I'm just venting some of my frustration, verbalizing some of the problem so that, hopefully, I can work on a solution.  I found myself tossing stacks of papers in the trash today, looking at lessons that I thought were going to go so well, only to have them blow up in my face.

I hate letting the kids see my frustration, but as the year goes on and I'm not seeing the progress I was hoping for, it's getting harder.  I know that it's not productive and that I have to keep pushing forward, but my energy is waning.

Today was a day to be disheartened.  I'll try again tomorrow.

Also, I've apparently become someone who takes pictures with hats...

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