Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 24: Square the Circles, or Intimations of Insanity

As I wrote on Thursday, I was disappointed with the quiz performance so I allowed all of my students to take their quizzes home and make corrections.  When they came in today, there was a new answer sheet on their desks and the warm-up was to transfer their new answers over.  The geometry kids did well with it.  After putting the new scores in, the class average jumped to 80%.  Students had pages of work justifying their new answers and were very grateful for the opportunity to show what they knew.

We talked a bit again about how a test does not determine what kind of person you are or your intelligence or value.  Then we moved on to construction.  Anticipating several mechanical issues, I talked a bit about how to use the compass without putting holes in the paper or drawing ovals.  They were a bit rambunctious but excited to be working with their hands.  We went through a few basic constructions together followed by independent practice.

I found some great animated videos to remind me what I was supposed to do.  I had them running on the board while the kids were working as a reference.  I'm reminded how much I love doing constructions and I need to do them more.  I have enough compasses that we can do them even if everyone is present!

Tomorrow, we're going to finish up the section on polygons and begin test review for the chapter test this week.

In Math 8, I once again made the mistake of not planning something.  I'm having tremendous difficulty moving on since their skills are not at a point where I can do so.  Some of the students are ready, but the majority are not.  They are still having difficulty with basic concepts of subtraction and problem solving.  I HATE just giving them more practice, but they need the practice and I don't know how else to get it into them.  I've had activities that deal with order of operations and subtraction of integers, but I've run out!  The disparity in the skill level is SO wide, it's like I'm teaching 3 different classes.

The kids who are behind are there, primarily, because they refuse to do work.  Giving them MORE work isn't a solution and, since I am not a 5th grade teacher, I don't have a collection of activities on their level to give them the practice that they need.

I am not blaming them.  For the most part, I know that their lack of willingness to do work stems from their frustration.  I'd like to show them success to help them see that if they would just DO what I ask them to, they would be where they want to be.

Then my own frustration comes through and I think "If I wanted to be teaching these skills, I would have earned my certification in elementary."  I don't feel equipped to help students who can't perform basic operations.

In any event, about half of the pre-algebra students didn't bother to revise their quizzes from Thursday and, of the ones who did, about half of them actually got a worse score.  I was so annoyed at them squandering the chance to show off their knowledge that I ended up reading Too Many Daves to them and we had a discussion about planning ahead and time management.

The analogy that I used was about push-ups.

Me: "If I want to do 1000 pushups in the next 100 days, how many do I have to do each day?"
S: "10!"
Me: "Good! Now, if Mike thinks 'I have plenty of time!' and doesn't start my pushups until day 50..."
S: "20 each day!"
Me: "Good! Now what if he waits until the last day?"
S: "He'll have to do 1000."
Me: "At the end of day 100, how many pushups have I done?"
S: "1000."
Me: "And Michael?"
S: "1000."
Me: "Which one of us did more work?"
S: "You did the same amount, but his seemed like more because he had to do it all at once."


I have a few topics for tonight's #MSMathChat that involve motivating students who don't care about knowledge OR grades.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Weekend Thought: Children's Books and Life Lessons

In an effort to pretend that I am a good father and husband, I tried to give my wife a few minutes to herself this morning by offering to read to my daughters.  When it's just my 3-year-old, I've started reading her The BFG, but when the 2-year-old is also around, we have to read other things.  I have a small collection of books from my childhood that I love to read to them, like The Five Chinese Brothers, Professor Wormbog and the Search for the Zipperumpazoo and anything by Dr. Seuss.

I've known for a while that most of the Dr. Seuss books, while they are great tales for kids, also carry political or social messages.  The Lorax is about environmental conservation, Green Eggs and Ham is about being open to new experience, the tales in Yertle the Turtle are about treating people fairly and being happy with who you are and The Butter Battle Book is about the futility of the escalation of violence.

The book I picked up to read to my girls this morning was The Sneetches and Other Stories.

I've read these stories to them dozens of times and I've seen the underlying meanings before.  I really appreciate the metaphorical way that Seuss tells us that all people should be treated equally and well, regardless of their physical appearance, and how, if given the chance, someone could take advantage of arbitrary hatred for their own gain.

When the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax meet in the prairie of Prax, their stubbornness and lack of compromise causes minimal to no impact in the rest of the world, but destroys both of their lives.

The narrator in What Was I Scared Of? discovers that his fear of the unknown is unfounded and, if he had given the pale green pants with nobody inside them a chance, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble.

The message in the fourth story struck me fully for the first time today as I was reading it to my 2-year-old.  Not just the message, but how I could apply all of these stories to my classroom.  The last story is Too Many Daves and goes like this:

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did.   And that wasn't a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, "Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!" she doesn't get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves'
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos.   And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot.   And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack.   And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy.   And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt.   Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy.   And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill.   And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy.   And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters.   And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate ...
But she didn't do it.   And now it's too late.

I started thinking "Man! If she had taken the time to name them properly at their birth, she wouldn't be in such a bind now!"  That thought was immediately followed by "This is exactly the point I've been trying to get across to my Math 8 students!  Keeping up with their work at the beginning of the year will make sure they don't get swamped and overwhelmed later in the year!"

My concern with not penalizing students for late assignments has been two-fold.

First, the traditional teacher in me thinks that part of the purpose of due dates is teach students about deadlines and time-management.  While I no longer think that students should be punished for not learning a concept quickly enough, there should be emphasis on the importance of promptness.  Employers will set deadlines that must be met and, whether or not we like it, work MUST be completed by the end of the school year for students to pass.

Second, since I think most students have never been taught time-management skills, and since I know my own habits, I am concerned that when teachers say "It needs to be turned in by the end of the marking period," students will hear "I have plenty of time and don't need to start it right away."  They will put it off until the last minute and end up being overwhelmed, producing sub-par work that doesn't properly demonstrate their true abilities.

Full disclosure: I still haven't learned this lesson well.  I haven't written my lesson plans for this week yet.

So my thought for today was about how I could read some of these stories to my students, and what questions I could ask them to get to think about these lessons.  I feel that if I were just to tell them the meanings, it wouldn't be as solid for them.  Asking directed questions is something with which I struggle.

I also don't want them to feel that just because I'm reading a children's book that I think they are stupid.  I think that could be avoided by having good questions ready to direct the discussion.

Maybe Too Many Daves would be a great story to utilize the "I notice, I wonder" strategy.  Let them develop the questions and pick the ones that I think would create the richest discussion.

Why didn't I think about this stuff when I teaching reading last year?

Oh right! Because I was thinking about how much I was hating being a teacher.  Thank you again, MTBoS and TMC for saving my career!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 23: Grades Make Baby Jesus Cry

With progress reports going out on Monday, our grades have to be in by 3 pm tomorrow.  As a result, I have to actually grade some stuff.  I have two geometry projects and a quiz in each of my classes, but not much else.  So today is quiz day for everyone.  The math 8 kids will also have their homework checked in a clump.

During the geometry quiz, I commented on how these kids, the elite matheletes in the school, don't own calculators.  Really.  So I passed some out.  One girl who does good enough work but refuses to really acknowledge my existence or make eye contact asked for one.  I made her give me a fist pound AND blow it up before I gave it to her.  My demands that she do so got increasingly loud and boisterous while she laughed, embarrassed and refused.  She told the kid sitting next to her to do it, but I told her that wouldn't be acceptable and took that kids calculator until she hit me up!

I used to be convinced that I shouldn't be myself in front of my kids.  I was worried about crossing the line into having too much familiarity so I gave them nothing.  My first few years, I didn't tell them I was married or where I lived or talk about my life in any way.  It was exhausting.

This year, I will tell them all sorts of things and I have been silly and fun and interesting and it seems to be paying off.  I am getting better interactions with my students and they know that I'm an actual person.  It was very scary at first and left me feeling vulnerable, but now I'm having such a great time, I can't imagine going back to how it was.

It was suggested that I write a post about all of the ways that my educational worldview has changed and I would like to.  Well, here's the first bit (second, I guess, if you count student interactions.)

The scores on the geometry tests were not great.  It was an open note 20 questions quiz.

The kids were VERY upset.  I don't blame them.  We've been having a great time in class, learning a ton of stuff so a crappy test score feels like a huge blow, to me as well as to them.  We talked about it after I graded them.

Me: "Does a low test score change what you've learned? Does it make you a bad person or a bad friend?"
S: "No."
Me: "Does it make you stupid?"
S: "Yes."
Me: "Really? Were you stupid two hours ago?"
S: ""
Me: "But the test MADE you stupid since then?"
S: ""
Me: "Right! People can do poorly on tests for any number of reasons, not the least of which is carelessness.  You are bright enough to be here, or you wouldn't be. Up to this point, many of you have been able to get by with a minimal amount of studying and work because you were smart enough to coast.  The same thing happened to me.  I was a straight A student until about 7th or 8th grade (it was actually 5th) when my brains alone couldn't carry me.  At that point, I had to learn how to do work and study, not just be smart.  (I didn't even do that until college) I will help you with all of this.  Never EVER let a test upset you.  It doesn't change your worth.  All it does is gives you information on your strengths and weaknesses.  Take that information and learn from it.  Improve and be stronger."

In line with my new philosophy on grading, I made them a deal.  I told them that I would put the grades in (although I might forget until after progress reports are due) and they would spend the weekend working on the tests.  When they come in on Monday, there will be a new score sheet on their desks.  The warm-up on Monday will be to transfer their answers to the score sheet and I will replace their old scores with the new ones.  I also told them that I would expect them to show all of their work as well.

I have such high hopes for this group and I know that they will rise to the challenge.

When I offered the same deal to pre-algebra, half of them said that they would just keep the score they had, even the girl who got a 50%.  What do you do for kids who think that failing is good enough?  As many times as I try to explain to them about how bright they are and how much potential they are wasting, I can't seem to get the point across.  I know that my mom and my own high school teachers are screaming about irony as they read this.

This right here is why I didn't want to put in grades.  Kids who would work hard to get the right answer suddenly settle for a 70%.  How do we combat this as an institution and how do I combat this as an individual teacher.  My kids were doing well with just my encouragement.  Well, maybe not "well" but they were working and improving.  Now, because it was decided that we have to give them grades every 4.5 weeks, they see their situation as hopeless or "good enough."

I find it horrifying, but not surprising, that grades actually have a de-motivational effect on students, especially students of traditionally lower ability.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 22: A Long Day

I had planned to start geometry on constructions today, but they were asking good questions on the homework, which lead to further discussion and good questions, so I put it off until tomorrow.  I've also decided that I'm not going to walk them through the guided notes.  Instead, I'm going to assign them as homework and then go over them quickly in class to make sure they have what I want.  This was effective for the last few sections and I think I'll continue it.

Pressure is starting to mount to give them grades.  Part of it is them, but most of it is administrative.  Our progress report grades are due at the end of the week so I REALLY need to grade the two projects that they've turned in so far.  We are also going to have a quiz tomorrow so I can see what they've retained from the last few weeks.  I think it will be open note, but individual.

In the pre-algebra class, I collected all of the worksheets for the chapter together in a booklet that the kids carry.  It helps them minimize the number of things they have to keep track of.  We don't do all of them and so far this year, between homework and classwork, I've assigned about 35 pages.  When they are taking their quiz tomorrow, I'll check for 25 pages and give them an arbitrary grade accordingly.

I gave them  a practice quiz today, which they took individually.  After that, I had them get into pairs, compare answers and convince their partner that the answer they received was right.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well this worked.  As a circulated through the room, there was a ton of good discussion happening.  Two students got into a heated argument about which answer was right and after watching for a minute or two, I stepped in.

Me: "What's the problem?"
S1: "I got 14, but she got -14. Which of us is right?"
Me: "Is there a way for you to see which of you is right without having to ask me?"
S1: "NO! That's why I'm asking!"
S2: "We could plug it in, dummy!"
Me: "What do you think, dummy? Do you think you could plug it in and see if it's right?"
S1: "...Oh yeah!! I AM a dummy!"
Me: "We're all dummies, even me. We're here to try to be less so! You got it now?"
S1: "Yeah. Thanks, dummy!"
Me: "Don't thank me. Thank your partner."

I REALLY need to get my Standards-Based Grading system up and running ASAP.  I am having more and more trouble justifying the traditional grading system.

Students are showing proficiency in one area and deficiency in another, unrelated area and I'm supposed to average those into an appropriate letter grade?  A test grade could go from A to B by switching one question in one topic.  That doesn't sit right with me.

The majority of people who I think read this blog have only recently met me and don't know what kind of teacher I used to be.  I think it would shock them as much as my current coworkers are shocked by the change that I underwent after attending Twitter Math Camp this summer.  My educational worldview is drastically different and is much more fluid, evolving daily.  It's a weird feeling for someone as stubborn and set in my ways as I am.

I find myself getting WAY off track in my last class of the day.  These kids aren't any more or less interesting, so I'm going to attribute this fact to the idea that by the time that class rolls around, I'm very tired of trying to keep everyone on task.  We get done what we need to do, but bringing them (and myself) back to task is a struggle.

Tonight is Open House.  I expect a very high turnout for parents of my Geometry class and mid to low turnout for the rest.  I always have difficulty getting parents to understand that Back To School Night is different than conference night.  You're not here to find out how your kid is doing.  We might be able to talk about it if we get a private minute, but they are here to find out about the school and meet the teachers.

I'm pretty interested to see how the parents react when, if even 3/4 of them show up, they can't fit in the classroom...

"Welcome to my class. Please have a seat...oh...uh..."

Final Thoughts:

Quote from a very dark-skinned African American student: "I try not to have black friends outside of school.  They get me into trouble."

I got my next batch of guided notes for geometry from our printer.  I'm excited.  It's like Christmas, right?
Looks "pulsar pink" to me!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 21: Backtracking and Frustration (Anger)

I spent almost the entire geometry class going over 7 problems on the homework.  Some of this was general confusion over what was being asked and how to find it, but much of it was hand-holding.  Lots of "you know how to do this. You've done this for years. Now do it." These kids are very bright, but very few have been actively encouraged to think, which is an odd idea to anyone who isn't a teacher.

I spent a large portion of both pre-algebra classes going over the importance of showing work.  These kids are so capable and every time they make a mistake, they convince themselves that they are stupid.  I constantly hear myself saying "Making mistakes is not a problem. Quitting is."

Then, I stole an idea from the brilliant and creative Sarah Hagan who stole an idea from the brilliant and creative Kate Nowak who stole an idea from the brilliant and creative Someone But Couldn't Remember Who.

I put 10 single step equations on the board and had the students pick one at random.  They wrote those equations on a piece of paper, crumbled it up and had a snowball fight for 15 seconds.  They picked up a ball near them, solved the problem on it, showing their work and checking their answer.  Then they crumbled them up again and had another snowball fight for 15 seconds.  They picked up a ball near them, solved it themselves and graded the other person, scoring it from 0-4 depending on the answer and the amount of work shown.  There were no names associated so no one could be embarrassed by their work or lack of work.

In the first class, this is where it ended.  In the second class, I went around the room asking student what scores they gave and why.

Me: "What score did you give?"
Student: "I gave a 3 out of 4."
Me: "What made it a 3 instead of a 4?"
Student: "They got the right answer and showed their work, but they didn't check it."

After we went around the room, I told them that when they do homework or quizzes, they should be answering questions as though their classmates are going to see and score them.  They should consider the things that we talked about in terms of feedback when deciding how much or little work to put on their own paper.

I seem to be having tremendous difficulty getting certain expectation across to my students.  Specifically, I want them to answer the questions that I ask them and in their desire to show off what they think they know, they jump the gun and either give me a wrong answer very loudly, or give me the right answer before other students get a chance to even hear the question.  It's VERY hard to give wait time when kids are yelling out answers.  I am so pleased with their enthusiasm, but no matter how many times I explain it, I can't get them to understand that there are other people in the class.

When they DO put their hands up and I call on someone else, they take it as a personal insult and refuse participation for the rest of the class.

In addition to that, after giving my pre-algebra classes a 10 minute rant about the importance of showing your work, followed by asking them to put answers up on the board, 2 students out of 12 showed their work.  I know it sucks writing down every step.  Being pretty good at mental math and very lazy myself, I understand not wanting to write more than you have to.  In most situations, if they can get the right answers, I don't care as much.  The problem is that I can't see where they are making the mistakes and then when I ask them, they can't remember what they did.  I don't want to give an entire assignment about showing work, but I may have to.

It's making me nuts.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 20: A Deal, Valuable Information and Connecting With Students

After I spent the entire class on Friday talking about physics and not geometry, I made a deal with the students.  I told that I was deeply moved by their interest and that I wanted to foster their curiosity, but we also had several topics that we have to cover during the year.  The deal was that if they work hard for me 4 days a week, I'll do my best to answer whatever (appropriate) questions they have on the 5th.  They seemed VERY interested in this, so now I have to follow through and create some sort of suggestions box.  I have a giant dry-erase board in my room that I could hang up and have them write their questions on.

In class, we went over the next two sections of guided notes.  I've been trying to do the flipped classroom model by asking them to fill out the notes at home and we'll go over them quickly in class before moving on.  Today, I had them work in small groups on the next section and then we went over it.  For the most part, this worked very well, but it shed some light on a misconception that I've been carrying.

I was under the impression that these kids were brilliant savants who would pick up everything I said on the first try.  In reality, it turns out that they are students.  Smart and motivated students, but still students.  I need to do a much better job of understanding their individual needs, abilities and limitations.  I've been relying on them to ask me questions when they don't understand something, but I have left a few kids behind so I need to be more careful about it.

I think tomorrow, I'll have them put homework problems on the board and explain them to each other.  Also, I've done an awful job with having them write reflective entries in their journals.  I get easily distracted and too quickly fall back into my old ways of teaching.  I need to come to grips with the fact that I'm not failing at this, but that it will take lots of time to break old habits and create something new and wonderful.

I've been making a conscious effort in my classes to meet my students halfway with their cultural identity.

I re-wrote the paragraph that went here several times before deleting it entirely.  No matter how I phrased it, it seemed culturally insensitive so I gave up.

I come from a very different background than most of my students.  I don't understand their lives or struggles in ways that would be beneficial.  All I can do is listen and try to be understanding of who they are and where they come from.  Cultural identity plays a HUGE role in this population and if a teacher doesn't take it into consideration, they will never truly be able to connect with the students.  I think that it comes off as understanding and not tragic...

It's hard to do it and NOT feel like Shrek.

Listen, Artie, eh, if you think this whole mad scene ain't dope, I feel you, dude. I mean, I'm not trying to get up in your grill, or raise your roof or whatever. But what I am screaming is, "Yo! Check out this kazing thazing, bazaby!" I mean, if it doesn't groove, or what I'm saying ain't straight tripping, just say, "Oh, no, you didn't! You know, you're getting on my last nerve." And then, I'll know it's...then I'll, I'll know it's whack!

Edit: I spent more time hunting for the appropriate video or image than I did actually writing this post...

Delayed Weekend Thought: On Standards

Author's Note: Do not take the following article as argument in favor of any policy.  It is merely the train of thought that arose when I began thinking about the implementation of "Standards"throughout the public school system.  I do not advocate the creation or destruction of "Standards," just ask that, if those "Standards" are going to be put into place, what would be required.
In addition, I would like to make a distinction between standards and "Standards."  The first is the level to which teachers hold their students, regardless of academic ability and can and does include things such as behavior, conduct, and effort.  These standards are not graded, but are expected nonetheless.  "Standards" are specific skills that students are expected to master regardless of any quality beyond the year in which they were born.

All over the country, public schools and public school teachers are working their butts off trying adapt their lessons and practices to the new Common Core Standards.  The basic idea (I suppose) is that if everyone is working towards the same Standards, then all students will be at equal levels of knowledge (or at least have the same minimum of information) when they are in the same grade.

To be completely honest, I'm not entirely sure what the point is because I haven't been paying attention to any of it.  It seems to me as though the goals and standards for what we are supposed to teach change every few years, so what's the point in adapting everything when it'll just be thrown out and replaced with something new soon.

"But these Common Core Standards are here to stay!"

Right.  Sure they are... Except in the states that have opted out and decided to create their own "Common" Core Standards, like Pennsylvania.  But I'm getting off topic.

I don't want to imply that I don't think there should be common standards, because I think we need them.  Something needs to unify us as a nation and, since we know that education can provide opportunities for people, why not make it that!

My argument is that we are not serious about "Standards."  If we were, I think it would require a complete revamping of how public schools were run.

We currently group students by age with VERY minor subdivisions based upon ability (read: effort).  If we consider that one of the purposes of school is to teach students about socialization, this makes a certain kind of sense.  On top of that, we don't want 17-year-olds in the same class as 11-year-olds for various reasons.  Beyond that, grouping students by age for academic purposes is nonsense.

If we are serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then we should stick to them.  Once a student has proven that they have successfully completed a Standard, they should be moved on and should not have to wait for an arbitrary period of time to finish.  Every teacher has encountered students who are able to move VERY quickly through the curriculum and, unless the district provides alternatives, or the teacher is very clever and proactive, these students become bored with school.

Why shouldn't that student be able to move on to the next level of learning when they have proven mastery of the Standards?  I mean, other than the logistical nightmare that it creates for districts.

Similarly, if a student is taking longer than their peers to master a standard, there should be no stigma in allowing them more time to work on it.  By grouping students by age, we create a false timeline in which students must complete a task or either be bored, or suffer the mental blow of thinking they are "stupid."  We KNOW that every student learns at a different pace, so why do we insist on grouping this way?  I mean, other than the logistical nightmare that it creates for the district.

If we are serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then we must allow students the freedom to move through them as quickly or as slowly as they need to.  Anyone who claims that we do has not been to a school that is experiencing pressure to graduate students "on time." 

Classes should not be a year long, or even a semester.  Classes should be broken down into smaller chunks that focus on specific skills or "Standards."  One might argue that they already are and that's what the 6th grade, 8th grade, etc. are.  In 8th grade, there are 28 different Standards.  (61 for 8th graders taking Algebra 1)  Should the students who master 20 of those by January REALLY be in a class with students who have mastered 2?  Both groups are not having their needs met.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg.

If we were serious about having "Standards of academic progression" then there would be no need for letter grades.  At all.  Report cards would be a collection of standards that students had yet to master with their level of proficiency of each standard.  Is this beginning to sound like "Standards-Based Grading"?  If you're a teacher and you don't know what that is (which I didn't 6 months ago), that's just another indication that we aren't serious about having "Standards."

Primary and secondary schools would begin to look more like colleges.  Students would progress through the curriculum at the pace that they could handle, either faster or slower depending on the student.  Students could, conceivably, be in 5th year math, 9th year history and 8th year English.  (Although they would be called something else.)

I realize that removing grade levels and academic letter grades would require a complete change to the education system, but it seems to me as those these are just some of the things would be needed to properly implement a series of "Standards."

Since none of that is happening, I am left (possibly erroneously) with the conclusion that the current system of "Standards" does not exist to help student reach their potential, or even identify which students are making adequate progress.  It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards exist for the sole purpose of holding SOMEONE accountable for the academic progression of students through an arbitrary time period.

It seems to me that the current system of "Standards" does not exist to monitor student progress through a curriculum, but to monitor teacher effectiveness to move those students, regardless of whatever other factors might be in place.

Again, I ask a simple question with a very complex answer:

What do we as a society see as the purpose of public education?

I don't have an answer to this.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 19: There Is No Math, Only Zuul

Geometry wasn't so much as a geometry class as much as it was an "ask Mr. Aion questions about quantum and astrophysics in an effort to better understand the nature of the universe" class.  I spent the entire time (after the warm-up) talking to them about quarks and anti-matter and the life cycles of stars and the big bang and the possibility of alien life.  They were engaged and interested and asking deep questions.  When I mentioned that anti-matter would annihilate any container that it was put in, one kid asked if it would be possible to keep it "in a jar, but have forces pushing on it from all around so it didn't touch the sides."

For those of you who don't know, this is exactly how scientists contain small amounts of anti-matter.  I told him to go into physics.

I'm thinking that this desire to learn something that they find interesting should be harnessed.  I may put up a question box and have them drop questions in there throughout the week.  Then, if we've done everything we have to, on Friday, I'll answer questions from the box and follow-ups that come in class.  I would rather do this all 5 days, but apparently, I'm supposed to be teaching them geometry.

Classes like this make me remember why I wanted to teach.

Also, the class MAY have ended with me telling all of the kids to be quiet so two students and I could discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who.

There was some difficulty understanding the concepts of keeping an equation balanced in pre-algebra yesterday, so I pulled out an old standby:

My favorite modification of this is the stick figures.  The boys are negative, the girls are positive and they meet "up in da cluuuuuub," pair off and leave.  I'd rather not exclude homosexual couples, but that messes up the algebra.  When Sarah Palin starts using my examples, I'll find something else.

I know the analogy isn't a perfect way to teach balancing equations, but it seems to make sense to the kids.  I told them that they don't have to use it, that I'm just trying to give them another way to think about it.

I need to start putting grades in soon or people are going to start to wonder what I'm doing...


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 18: The Slow Grind

The geometry kids are fun and great, but their maturity is not quite where I need it to be yet.  I need to work more with about bringing them back to attention when I need it.  They get excited about all sorts of topics and ask deep and insightful questions, but have trouble letting go of something when it's time to get back on task.  It's not a huge problem, but it is something that needs to be improved.

We continued talking about angles and I would like to get more of them up to the board to put up problems.  With 31 kids in my small room though, it's hard enough for me to get around, let alone kids running back and forth to their desks.  I'll try to figure something out.

I had the students fill out some feedback form about the Mathalicious Project that we did last week.  I am hoping to fine-tune it so I asked them what they liked, what they didn't and what I could do differently to make it better.  The majority of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.  The students really liked the freedom to express themselves in a creative manner while still producing something specific.  Several students wanted more specific instructions on what was expected and many said that I should have done a better job of explaining.

Did you come to ask me any clarifying questions?  No?  Alright.

Regardless, I will try to explain things a little more next time.  Or at least explain why I won't explain them.

The hand-holding in pre-algebra continues.  While I don't mind it, it is getting boring.  I need to find something else to do tomorrow.  An activity of some sort that deals with solving equations in one step...

I signed up for information about a "Blended learning academy" that my district is trying.  Apparently, that meant I was signing up to do it.  From what I can tell from the e-mail, it will be mostly Edmodo.  Great.  In a district with unreliable, outdated tech and a population who may or may not have internet access and home computers.  While I think it's a great idea, I question the viability.  In addition to this, I don't want to skip my geometry class to attend a "How to set-up Edmodo" seminar.  I love those kids.

I'm tired and I have a faculty meeting.  I want to go home.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Day 17: Frustration, Pushing Through

In geometry, I used an extension of yesterday's warm-up for today.

The ensuing discussion was excellent.  Some students we claiming that a certain angle was obtuse, while others argued that we didn't have enough information to be able to tell that.  For much of it, I was able to step back and simply moderate, rather than lead.  THIS is how learning happens!

Kids that are used to being leaders will gladly lead.  Kids who used to being lead have to be taught how to be leaders.

Anyone who is not native to the English language would have tremendous difficulty with those last two sentences.

Since we are behind in the prescribed curriculum, I had flipped my class and assigned the guided notes as homework.  As a result, we were able to fly through them with the students filling in the blanks with only minor tweaks from me.  I was able to spend more time clarifying misconceptions rather than explaining basic concepts.

I introduced the next Mathalicious project and sent them on their merry way.

In pre-algebra, the honeymoon period seems to be over.  It's becoming more and more difficult to maintain order in my class the way I would like.  Much of this comes from students being overly familiar and speaking to me as though I am one of their peers, or at least, not an adult.  Many of them seem to be used to existing in a world without consequences or repercussions.  As a result, they seem confused at my reluctance to answer their questions when they have spent the entire period either asleep or talking to their friend.

I explain my reasoning to them as best as I can without anger or frustration, but I know it slips out.  I try to explain that I need to spending my very limited time with students who were not exceedingly rude to me.  Then I pull them aside after class and talk to them about their decision making and how could we have handled that situation better.

Several of the personal relationships that I was trying to cultivate have turned into student thinking that they can walk all over me because I am concerned about their parents or siblings.  I have one student who does everything I ask of her, but constantly has a look on her face that says "You and everything you do is stupid." I let it slide because she's never rude to me and she completes her assignments well, but it does irk me.

I had students put problems on the board and then explain those problem to the rest of the class.  I've seen a few videos where teachers have designated whiteboards around the outside of the room where students will put up work, rarely sitting.  I like this idea, but the physical limitations of my room make it impractical. 

I had so many great ideas for this year, I think I blew a circuit.  Every day I come up with something else that I want to do with them, but the sheer number of ideas is overwhelming and I end up suffering from Three Stooges Syndrome.

I need someone to make a list that I can work from.

The List:
1) Sleep more
2) Don't scream at students
3) Repeat

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Day 16: Off Topic and Proud

Geometry did not go as planned.  Instead of covering the concepts intended, I ended up on an hour long lecture that dealt with various topics including bullying, the importance of education, overcoming financial hardships, the difficulties of potty-training children, why they don't have recess or breaks, thermal dynamics, goal setting and the concept of genius hour.

I know that I've written before how I wish I didn't have to follow a curriculum and could just teach the kids what they wanted to learn.  Today, I did that.  I had their full attention for the entire class.  They were engaged, asking insightful questions and having well-considered discussions about the consequences of actions.

Just as the bell rang, one of the student said that she felt she learned more in that one period than in all of her other classes.  As much as I wish it would have been about math, I'm perfectly alright with what happened.

Without 15 minutes left in class, we finally got to the warm-up.  I was particularly proud of this one.

Of course, I forgot to take a picture of it...
I was wondering why it wasn't coming up...

Most of the things they noticed were math related, along the lines of "there are 4 rays" and "they meet at a single point."  I was REALLY hoping that someone would notice that I didn't ask a question, but they didn't.

Most of the things they noticed were ... dull.  "Why are the points A, B, C, D, and O?" "Why are they rays?"  Good questions, but kind of boring.  Then I got a fantastic surprise.

"I wonder if they are all on the same plane."  If it wouldn't have gotten me immediately fired, I could have kissed him!  What a great thing to wonder! I'm really excited to start working in more than 2 dimensions with this group.

In pre-algebra, we continued our discussion of adding and subtracting positive and negative integers.  Since I had talked about it in terms of money and in the more abstract sense that it is traditionally taught, I thought today should be different.  I gave out bags of red and yellow beads.  I explained that the red beads were negative and the yellow were positive.  Then we did a few problems together of increasing complexity.  Many of the student really grabbed onto the idea and liked that they had a physical object to touch.

Normally, I do this lesson while talking about the Zero Pairs Principle, but I think introducing that term needlessly complicates a very simple issue.  A red and a yellow cancel each other out.

I have been known to do this lesson with poorly drawn pictures of sharks and surfers.

The second section did not go as well.  There was a small group of students who were unable to control themselves and, much to the annoyance of myself and the other students, held the class hostage.  We were able to get through some of the examples that I wanted, but not all.  I moved a few, but it seemed to only made it worse.  Attempts to call parents were received by a cheery operator explaining that the numbers were out of service.

The students who WERE paying attention and trying to do the work seemed to really enjoy the concept of the beads, much the way they did in the first section.

In other news, I was approached yesterday by a non-teaching faculty member who wanted to know my secret to being happy and calm all the time.  I had to honestly tell her that I was faking it, that I was almost continually in a rage of frustration and annoyance at the behaviors of the students when they are NOT in my room.  We talked for a while about how to cope with various situations involving non-compliant students as well as mixed messages from administration.

For many people, this district is a rude awakening.  The outward appearance is often VERY different from the reality and the learning curve is VERY steep.  That's not to say it's an awful district by any means.  We have strengths and weaknesses like anywhere else and there are some amazing students and some unique opportunities here, but it's not for everyone.  If I can help someone deal with the pitfalls of being here, I will do so.

I opened my class for her to come observe whenever she would like because I think my classroom management is effective for this environment.  She will taking me up on this on Thursday.  I'm hoping that, in addition to finding something valuable in what I do, she is able to provide me with some outside feedback.

It's impossible for anyone to improve their craft in a vacuum.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Day 15: Slow Down, You're Moving Too Fast...

In order to make sure that the geometry students fully understood the concepts of distance and midpoint, I let them work on the open-ended section of the quiz in small groups in class.  I made sure to circulate and look at where students were having difficulty.

They are beginning to grasp that I am not going to give them answers when they ask, but rather will ask them more directed questions, or point them to examples that we covered in class.  I want them to become more reliant on their resources so that if they have questions when I'm not around, they will know what to do.

I gave them 15 minutes to work on it, but it ended up being closer to 30.  Normally this would bother me, but I'm getting used to changing my expectations with this group.  It took longer than I had hoped, but almost everyone was on task and working hard.  For the most part, I need to adjust my expectations, but only in terms of the amount of time required to complete some of these tasks.  I keep my academic expectations high and they are clearly rising to that challenge.

The pre-algebra students are lacking in numeracy skills in a way that I'm having trouble coping with.  They are willing to practice whatever I give them, which is helping somewhat, but their ability to grasp how numbers work is bordering on distressing.  The more and more I look into standards-based grading, the more I realize that our current system of letter grades is not only a farce, but can often be detrimental to student development.

What's the purpose of having a "fail" grade if students are moved on to the next level of coursework anyway?  Maybe my next "Weekend Thought" will be my philosophy on school should be organized, but this isn't the place for it.

I've been doing much more hand-holding in the pre-algebra than I am used to, but it seems to be paying off.  I called two parents on Friday just to say that I enjoyed having their kids in class but I was becoming concerned because they were developing attitudes where previously none existed.  I was worried that something was going on outside of class that I should know about.  Both sets of parents were very happy to hear from me, which also was a nice change.

A few years ago, I made a similar call and the response I got shocked me.

Me: "Hi! This is Mr. Aion and I'm your daughter's math teacher.  I wanted to give you a call because **student** started out the year very strongly.  She's a very bright young woman and I see wonderful things in her future.  Lately, however, she seems to have started developing a bit of an attitude with me where she hadn't before.  I had thought we had good report, but she's also stopped doing her assignments and is growing increasingly belligerent.  I'm calling because I want to nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand.  I'd like for everyone to have a good year!"

Parent: "She's a little girl and there are people in your school who are pays millions of dollars to help you.  If you can't control a little girl, I think you should talk to one of them and maybe think about what you do there.  In fact, I'm going to call the principal and tell him that you, a grown man, can't control a little girl and maybe you should find a job elsewhere.  Don't call here again ever unless she's dead."  **click**

Now, several years later, I find the opposite response equally shocking.  Did she just THANK me for caring about her child??  As pleased as I am about how receptive the mother was to my call, I am equally disturbed by how out of place it felt.

I will continue reaching out and hoping for similar positive responses.  Even negative ones will be met cordiality.

In a way to bring up something that I like bringing up, I've been thinking about how to impress upon the students that mathematical success will not happen over night.  If they wish to be successful, they will have to work hard over a long period of time.  I'm not sure how to do this by using the following picture and NOT have it seem like I'm inventing an excuse to show it.

Did I mention that I ran a half marathon this past weekend?  No?  Oh.  No big deal.  I just ran a half marathon this weekend.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Day 14: Pizza, Data and Tests! Oh my!!

Today was quiz day!!  Last year, and much of the year before, EVERY Friday was quiz day!  I think the original intention was to summarize what we did for the week and give myself a chance to get caught up on grades.  This year, however, I've been thinking much more about the purpose of grades and tests, so I'm starting to rethink my reasons.

I'm thinking that I may move quizzes to Mondays.  This will keep each week from feeling like a separate event and will help with continuity.  In addition, slightly easier quizzes will serve to activate the memories from the prior week.  My OTHER thought was about making the quizzes about half the length that they are now and putting one on Friday as a wrap-up and one on Monday as an activation exercise.  Like a warm-up and exit-ticket for the week.

The geometry kids turned in their Mathalicious projects today and I was blown away!  This is the kind of work that I hope for from all of my students and shows a level of creativity and thoroughness that I've been missing as of late.  The instructions were general enough that it gave them considerable freedom in their presentation.  They told me stories of how they obtained their data.  Some ordered pizza and counted the toppings.  Apparently, enough of them called Domino's that when one girl called, the guy gave a resigned sigh and rattled the number of slices of pepperoni right off his head.  She said "Thank you!" and then called to order from Pizza Hut.  The enthusiasm and effort was good enough that I plan to do this as much as possible.

Completely unprompted, the last girl figured out cost vs. price!  AMAZING!!

Now I suppose I have to figure out how to grade these things!  I hate when grading gets in the way of learning.  What a shame I have to follow the curriculum instead of letting them learn what they are passionate about.

I suppose that just means I have to inspire passion from that which they think is mundane! :-)

Day 2 without being able to use my Promethean Board the way it should be used and I'm realizing how frighteningly dependent I am.  I have so many tools that I use with it which simply become impractical if I can't use the pen.  On top of this, my first two periods are too dark for me to able to use the board and write on the blackboard.  With the lights off, the kids can't see the chalk, but with them on, they can't see the screen display.

The advantage, however, is that I sent more kids to the blackboard to put problems up.  When I didn't have to worry about them taking turns with the pen, I had 5 or 6 putting up problems at a time.  This isn't something I normally do, but would like to do more often.

I am starting to notice a divide between the kids who pay attention in class and those who don't.  The spread on the first quiz, however, was pretty much were I wanted it to be.

There was an opened ended section as well, but enough of the students left it blank either because they ran out of time or didn't realize there was a back, that I think we'll do that part again on Monday.  I'll let that be my warmup.

The Math 8 kids didn't do as well on their quiz.  The first class had an average of 67% with a standard deviation of 26%  If I discount the student who refused to take it, that probably with decrease the deviation and increase the average, but not significantly.  The second class did MUCH better.  They brought the average for the Math 8 classes up to 74% and, more importantly, did well on every question except for the ones where they had to name the properties of equality.

Comprehension is there! I just need to remind them that they know!

I also REALLY need to be impressing on them that they have to ask questions when they don't understand what we're doing.  I know this is going to be a bit of a "duh" moment for all of the teachers reading this, but the kids who succeed are the ones who ask questions.

After school, I called a few parents about their children sleeping in class or not bringing materials.  The two parents that I was able to speak with were VERY receptive and were very happy to hear from me before things became a problem.

Almost nothing will help a child succeed like effective and meaningful communication, whether between parent and teacher, child and teacher, or child and parent.

I found out after school that my geometry kids threatened our tech guy with badness if he didn't get the Promethean Board up and running again.  Kids who love the educational technology enough to threaten adults for it: Priceless.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Day 13: The Day The Tech Stood Still

Since I have came to the junior high school and was given a classroom with a Promethean Board, every lesson I have done has involved the board in some way.  Everything that I do is on the board, supplemented by handouts.  I rely on it to do examples, to expand on students questions, to have students do problems on the board, to access the internet for applications and as a centerpiece in the classroom to maintain attention when I need it.

Today, in the middle of the geometry warm up, it stopped working.  The pen refused to interface with the screen.  The technological infrastructure in my district is a bit dated.  I do not rely on lightening fast internet for streaming videos.  Our firewall often blocks websites for random/no reasons.  The network is in such a state that if there is a class of students in the computer lab, my computer runs noticeably slower.  All of this is the background to a huge tech push from higher up.  They want us to be flipping our classrooms and using Khan Academy (barf) and various other technological services on a regular basis.  It's becoming part of what they look for during observations.  I don't mind any of that, except that when the tech fails, I'm in trouble.

So when the pen stopped working, and my board turned into a VERY expensive projection screen, I had to improvise!  Luckily, I still had a single piece of chalk.  I used it to draw graphs on the board to explain the distance formula.  I used it to have students go to the board to show off their work.  I used it for 6 classes and it didn't run out.  It was like the Hanukkah oil of chalk.

In the math 8 classes, I'm focusing heavily on trying to drum out bad habits, like putting too many equals signs in a problem, or writing everything on the same line.  In addition, their basic arithmetic skills are quite lacking, so we're also working on numeracy.

When I teach addition and subtraction at this level, I need to remind students that they already know how to do it.  There have been several discussions on Twitter lately about trying to move traditional mathematics concepts from being taught in the abstract and then only brought to the concrete later, to the opposite.  In theory, I'm all in on this, but in practice, I've been having some difficulty.  What I found, however, is that with the concept of reinforcing addition and subtraction, I'm already focusing on the concrete rather than abstract.

My students have tremendous difficulty trying to remember rules like "When you add a positive and a negative, the answer will have the sign of the number that was bigger before you added them."  Seriously. Why do we teach it this way??  For example:

(-13) + 8
"So, I subtract 13 and 8 and get 5 and since the 13 is bigger and it's negative, my answer should be negative, so -5."

Yes, but how scary is that??  If you're not a person who sees patterns everywhere (like I do) or is comfortable fitting things into rules or a formula, this can seem like a very confusing way to solve the problem.  A few years ago, I stumbled on a way to get kids to do this problem without even thinking about it.  Think about it in terms of money.

"If I owe you $13 and I have $8 in my pocket, where am I after I pay you off?" I ask
"You still own me $5," they say without pausing to think about it, and before they realize they have done math in their heads.

I find two things really amazing about this.  First, it has worked with EVERY kid that has tried it.  There are occasional calculation errors (someone will say $6 or $4) but almost never are there conceptual ones.  Most students, by 8th grade, have a very decent concept of money.  It's something they understand and are comfortable using.  Today, a student talked about it in terms of yards as well.  "If I'm 13 yards down and gain 8, I'm still 5 yards down!"  Perfect!

The second thing that I find amazing, and baffling, is how quickly this idea flies out of their heads as soon as they pick up a pencil.  We can talk about doing addition and subtraction in terms of money for an hour and as soon as I give them some practice problems to do on their own, they go right back to "the bigger number is negative..."

I think part of it is conditioning.  They have been conditioned to think abstractly when it's in front of them on the paper, but the conversation we have lifts that veil for duration of our conversation.  I'll keep reinforcing it in the hopes that it will stick.

The girl I pulled aside last week (or earlier this week, it has been a long week) was asked to put a problem on the board.  She and 6 other students went up, put up their problems and then walked us through them.  Hers was almost entirely wrong, but my enthusiasm for it didn't wane.  I picked out at least three things that she did that I LOVED, including not having an equals sign anywhere in her work, putting each step on a new line, and drawing lines between numbers that she combined to their result in the next step.

I'm trying to impress upon them several things, but this above all:  Mistakes are not failures.  They are necessary steps on the road to success.  Giving up is the only failure.

Overall, I was very pleased with the class.

The second section of the class, not so much.  Their blatant refusal to stop talking over me lead me to turn the lights off and give them drill work.  I immediately hated myself for it but I didn't know what else to do.  I don't want to yell at them because yelling isn't effective.  It only serves to show the anger, which isn't productive.  I told them that if they had questions, to put their hands up and I would be around but that I didn't want to hear any conversation.

Three students came into my classroom with nothing.  No book, no notes, no paper, no pencil.  One of these then proceeded to ask me questions about an unrelated topic.  I know that they are still children, but I can't figure out how they could see this as acceptable behavior.

After I told them to sit silently and work, they did!  I have been very strict in past years and this year, I've been letting up a bit.  I don't think that was a mistake, but I need to make sure to remind them of the expectations in my class.

Also, since we had a fire drill during the first section, which ate up 15 minutes of that class, and I promptly forgot about during the second section.  I did not fill the time...

In geometry, we derived the formula for distance between two points on a coordinate plane from the Pythagorean theorem.  It was not what I had planned to do and it was a bit haphazard, but as I said, my technology failed, so I improvised.  I may have stated previously (in my post on preparation) that I think I am a master improvisor.  (Ok, passable.)

I realized halfway through the explanation that I was going WAY too fast so I backtracked and did a better job the second time, doing a considerable amount of formative assessment to determine where questions were arising and addressing them before they got swept under.

The warm up was fascinating.  When I wrote it down, I figured that it was a basic problem on algebra and line segment length, but when we started going over it, we discovered something interesting.

A picture on a computer of a picture on a computer.  Meta...

It was (maybe) a very poorly written question.  I say maybe because if my lesson goals had been different, it would have been AMAZING!  We quickly found, through conversation, that since the order of the points was not given, there were three distinct configurations for the problem, one of which was impossible by the numbers given.  I had the students explain to me why it was impossible and why the other two answers were valid.

It was a great teachable moment for them and for me.  Especially in that class, I'm constantly being reminded that I have a ton to learn.

Speaking of my own learning:

I've decided to start working on switching over to Standards-Based Grading.  It seems to align much better with my goals for my classroom and I'm becoming increasingly concerned that my current grading system is arbitrary and I can't justify it any more.

I have an insane amount of work to do and things to learn, but I have incredible resources through Twitter and the MTBoS who are willing to hold my hand as I make this journey.  If you are an educator interested in improving your craft, and you are not on twitter, you are missing a huge opportunity.  It has changed my life and it will change yours too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Day 12: Too Hot To Trot, Or Work.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed his hierarchy of needs.  He stated that in order for people to be healthy, certain needs must be satisfied and all other concerns would fall by the wayside until they are.  In school, we want our students to be at the highest level of this hierarchy, which Maslow called "self-actualization."  This is the point where creativity, problem solving and spontaneity occur.  In order for students to get there, they must satisfy their needs for physiological existence, mental and physical safety, love and belonging, and esteem first, in that order.  If one of these pieces is missing, it's impossible to build a strong foundation for the next.

This is one of the reasons why schools in low socio-economic areas traditionally do not do well.  If students have to spend their time wondering about where their next meal is coming from, or if they are going to be shot at, they have tremendous difficulty moving up the ladder and perform the complex self-actualization tasks that we ask of them.

As educators, we have limited control over what we can do for them.  We can provide an environment in our classrooms that is safe both physically and emotionally.  We can help them with the esteem need by showing them success. Sometimes, even the safety of the environment is out of our control.

When I got to work this morning at 6:10, it was 82 degrees in my room.  After some refection yesterday, I realized that the reason I was not getting the work I wanted from my students was that it was unbearable to be in my classroom.  The heat and humidity were sapping energy faster than my enthusiasm could replenish it.  So today, I took a different tack.

I yielded to Maslow and mother nature.  Neither was particularly interested in having my students write a survey or answer questions.  Today, I did my best to satisfy the need for safety.  I don't want my students to dread coming to my class, ever.  I was focusing mostly on the dread that came from a society that says math is hard and if you're no good at it, you are stupid.  Today, I focused on the dread that comes from being shoved into an oven and roasted in your own juices.  Since I was unable to take them elsewhere, I tried my best to recognize it and not stress out about the math that they weren't learning while they were passed out from heat stroke.

"Mr. Aion, I believe Jauntay is dead."

In geometry, I had planned to do more notes.  I was going to do something mindless that needed to be done so that the kids could not burst into flame.  Instead, they got me a bit off track and, while the conversation started around the half-marathon that I'm running on Saturday, we ended up playing Wuzzit Trouble as a class.

I HIGHLY recommend this game!  The basic idea is that these unbearably cute "Wuzzits" have been captured by a mad scientist and put into cages with combination locks.  To unlock the cage, you have gears with a given number of teeth that turn back and forth that are used to dial to the keys or bonuses.  The trick comes in unlocking the cage in the least number of moves.

This is the kind of activity that I would normally have students do in small groups or individually, but I figured that this time, since I hadn't planned to do this at all, I could walk around with the iPad and have the class as a whole give me answers.  The discussions that happened were very interesting.  Students were arguing about which way we had to go because the keys were on odd numbers and the cogs were all even.  They discussed strategy and, as a class, were not happy until they got all 3 stars on each level.

I had planned to play this game with my pre-algebra classes at some point, but the geometry kids really enjoyed it and asked for harder and harder problems.  I wonder if I could print out the harder puzzles and have them complete them for extra credit.

With math 8, they are still lacking in some very basic skills, so we worked on word problems as a class after going over the project planning sheet for their Mathalicious project.  I have the sneaky suspicion that they have no idea what they are going to do, even though we've spent two days going over it.  I hate to think I picked a project that was too difficult because it meets the 6th grade standards, but...

If this weather doesn't break soon, I'll have to set my room on fire just to cool it down...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Day 11: Crash, Burn, Cry, Try Again

I should have known that when I was sweating through my shirt before the kids even entered the building, that it was going to be a rough day.

I hit a major stumbling block.  I hinted about this yesterday, but today it became a glaring issue.  My frustration started to get the better of me.

I began working on the project extensions from Mathalicious in all of my classes.  Mathalicious provides an amazing worksheet for the students in the form of a Project Planning Guide.  I explained to the students that it is just a guide, something to help them focus their ideas into a flow chart. I wasn't looking for specific answers to any of the questions, but rather I wanted them to fill out the planning charts in a way that direct the flow of their projects.

The geometry kids got it and worked very well.

The math 8 kids seemed to have tremendous difficulty with the concepts being asked of them.  The driving question of the activity is:

How does displaying menu items in terms of minutes of exercise, instead of calories, affect what people order?

The first question on the planning sheet is "Restate the question in your own words."  The responses that I'm getting are depressing me to no end.  Many of them are things along the lines of "how do certain exercises burn calories?" or "How many calories are in a meal?"

I tried asking directed questions, but clearly I have some gaps in my questioning skills.  I wasn't able to come up with the right question to get them to say either what I wanted, or something close enough that it even made sense.  The inability to even analyze a sentence to determine the contents is frightening to me.  I asked the class as a whole and only one person could even come close.  We tweaked it together and when we finally got something close to what it needed to be, everyone refused to write it down.

I told them that we could cover the same content doing worksheets for an hour and a half a day, 180 days a year but that I wanted to do projects and interesting content.  I got blank stares and heads down.  I had flashbacks to last year and almost had a panic attack.
I know it's going to be a long road and I'm committed to it.  I have to teach them persistence as well as myself.  I need to learn how to ask enough questions to get them to the answer I want, or one that's acceptable, but not so many that they (or I) get bored and frustrated.

I also need to remember that they aren't used to this type of assignment or project.  As I said yesterday, there will be an adjustment period, not just for them, but for me.  I think I made a huge mistake having them try it on their own, or in small groups.  With the first time we're using the form, I should have walked with them, holding hands where I needed to, perhaps through a class discussion of each piece.

At least I know what I'll be doing tomorrow!

I found myself thinking "If they can't answer these basic questions, how can I expect them to write a survey, ask people questions, compile data and display it in a coherent fashion?"  Now that they've left my room and my frustration has mostly passed, I'm able to answer that question: "I can teach them how to do those things.  I can take the time to show them the methods and help them as much as I have to."  I'm not going to give up on this project, or on doing projects.  I will teach them to struggle and to succeed.  I will teach them that hard-won accomplishments are the sweetest.

Maybe I'll even teach myself that in process.

On the other hand, maybe the fact that my room was overcrowded and unbearably hot was what lead to their lack of involvement...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Day 10: Mathalicious and Making Connections

Today I started new lessons with my classes.  In Geometry, we began Domino Effect, which deals with prices of pizza based on the number of toppings and creating equations to determine price.  In Math 8, we started New-Tritional Info, which has students calculating the amount of basketball Lebron James has to play in order to burn off an extra value meal.  Both lessons, and the subsequent projects we will be doing, are products of the amazingly brilliant and creative people at Mathalicious.

These lessons, as well as the others on the Mathalicious site, are designed to add an authentic and real-world approach to learning mathematics and, from what I can tell, it's working.  The geometry kids did VERY well with theirs.  It was interesting to watch which kids struggle with which parts of the assignment and how I was able to redirect their thinking using pointed questions, many of which were suggested by the Mathalicious lesson planning guide.

It was clear that the students had seen the material before but that it had been a while.  Some of them needed a bit a of refresher, which I told them to get from their partner or small group.  Several students gave up early, claiming they had no idea what to do.  After some directed questions, it became obvious that they DID know what to do, but fell into one of two categories: 1) They didn't want to work or 2) They were having trouble with directions that were not explicit.  They wanted step-by-step Ikea-style directions to follow and when they weren't given those, they were uncomfortable and shut down.  Some poking and prodding got them back up again and back to work.

Overall, I was pleased and am looking forward to extending some of these in the next few days.  I hope to do this same lesson with the Math 8 kids near the end of the year, once they've talked about linear equations.

The Math 8 lesson did not go as well, but I don't think it had to do with the lesson design.  I think I vastly underestimated the skill level of my students as well as the way they think about math problems.  I need to find a class set of calculators, but more importantly, I need to train my students to answer a certain question before they complete a task:

Why am I doing this operation?

All too often, they say "We just multiply, right?" but can't tell me why they want to.  They don't know how to analyze a mathematical situation to determine the best course of action, or even a sensible course of action.

I don't blame them for this in any way.  We have trained them from elementary school that math comes in small, discrete packets.  We will provide them with one question and expect one answer.  "What do we do next?" is important, but so is "How do we set this up?" and we don't spend enough time on it.  On top of that, as soon as they see decimals or fractions, they shut down.  I don't want to modify the lesson to make the numbers "pretty" because then it loses some of the authenticity.  I even hate to pick an easier lesson because this one is designed for 6th graders.

Perhaps I simply need to have a more open discussion about how to find what is being asked for instead of relying on them to simply know.  I have plenty of time with double periods.  I can take the time to explain these things, but I REALLY don't want the class to turn into lecture.

I have faith that the more of these activities and projects I do, the more students will begin to understand what is expected of them.

In response to my query about good math practice and function over form, the brilliant and forward thinking Christopher Danielson suggested that I test my students' understand of the equal sign by having them answer the following question:

8 + 4 = [] + 5   What number goes in the []?

The idea being that students who have a less accurate understand of the equal sign would put an answer of 12 because the sum of 8 and 4 is 12.  These were the results:

It's not nearly as bad as expected, but clearly, we do need to have a discussion of the equal sign and how it does not mean "Put the answer here."

The second class did a bit closer to my expectations, which is unfortunate.  There are some interesting answers here, including ones that I think are clearly calculation errors instead of conceptual.

On the personal front, I had a student walk into my room today clearly in a funk.  She immediately put her head down and when I asked her repeatedly to pick it up, she got an attitude with me.  I set the class to a task and pulled her outside.

Me: "What's up with you today? You did great work for me last week and now you're giving me attitude."
S: "I don't want to be in this class."
Me: "I can understand that.  Have I done something to upset you?"
S: "No.  I just don't want to be in this class."
Me: "Well, unfortunately, there's nothing I can do about that and nothing you can do about it, right?"
S: "I guess."
Me: "So if there's nothing that either of us can do about it, then you giving me attitude is just making things tougher for you and for me, right?"
S: "I guess."
Me: "Alright then, I know everyone has bad days.  Hang out here for a few minutes, take a couple deep breaths and then come on back in ready to work."
S: "Ok."

AND SHE DID!!!  She did great work today!  I made sure to find her at the end of the day and thank her again for her great work.

P.S. Since attending TMC13, I've been thinking about every day things in terms of how I could use them in my math class.  When I saw my kids swinging, I immediately thought about Max Ray, the Drexel Math Forum and "I notice, I wonder."

I think there's a great lesson here about periodic motion and pendulums!
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