Thursday, December 25, 2014

Math Humbug

I'm not a huge fan of the Christmas season.

I have nothing really against Christmas itself, but I find the season unsettling.

It isn't really the month and a half long orgy of consumerism.  It's not really the fact that the radio becomes unlistenable starting in mid-November.

It isn't even the irony of the fact that people who mock my enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy for 11 months out of the year have no problem spouting the virtues of a time-bending geriatric who constantly watches the deeds of small children under the auspices of knowing which ones are naughty or nice.

What I find incredibly upsetting is the way that people who don't jump into "the Christmas spirit" with both feet like a free-runner with a Go-Pro strapped to his head in search of YouTube stardom are looked down upon as though they are mental patients.

"You don't LOVE Christmas??  Are you on medication?" they say with lips curled back in a rictus of disgust.

I like Christmas.  I enjoy the feeling of being with friends and family.  I enjoy seeing faces light up when they open gifts.  I even enjoy classy Christmas carols (in moderation).

What I do NOT like is being made to feel like an outcast for not wanting that for the entire month of December.

I enjoy this.
No thanks, you have enough Christmas spirit for all of us...

I have found that the majority of the people who cause me to throw up my Scrooge-wall are doing so by accident.  I don't TRY to rain on their parade, but it always ends up coming off that way.

Inevitably, they say something like "why can't you just let us enjoy this season?" and I reply (usually in my head) with something like "why can't you just keep your enjoyment to yourself."

It always makes me think of someone happy that it's their birthday and they are confused as to why you don't care.  Except it's not their birthday, it's someone else's birthday and is celebrated in a completely different month then their actual birthday.

While I was driving back from another excellent Christmas celebration with my wife's family, I was thinking about how much they enjoy the season.  Christmas was never my holiday, but they have welcomed me into their home and their traditions in a way that made me feel as though I could actually enjoy it.  It wasn't until I started spending Christmas with them that I started to understand that there was a way to celebrate Christmas without making people feel bad for not.

I then thought about my students.  The way that the majority of society makes me feel about Christmas is often the way that teachers make students feel about school in general and their subject in particular.

We are so INTO our content areas.  We love math, or science, or social studies and we almost take it personally when our students don't.

"Why can't you just see how cool this math is??"
"Why can't you just see that I don't care about this math?"

When a student isn't passionate about my content area, I tend to think that there is something wrong with them.  I think it's so fascinating that I don't understand how they couldn't!

But they don't.

When Scrooge is taken on his journey by the three spirits of Christmas, each spirit plays a very specific role.
"I was a very lonely child, spirit."

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him how he got to where he is.  This spirit gives him a feeling of melancholy for missed opportunities.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge where he will be if he doesn't change his ways.  It fills him with dread and sadness.  This spirit is the embodiment of fear.

I think that educators all too often rely on this spirit when it comes to their classroom.

"If you don't learn this material, YOU WILL FAIL!!!"

We hope that the fear of failure will motivate students to change their ways, much the way that the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come motivated Scrooge.

But in the majority of the productions of A Christmas Carol that I have seen, Scrooge has already changed his mind by the time the threat comes down.  The spirit who has changed his mind is the Ghost of Christmas Present.

As someone who has never really been into Christmas and often sympathized with Scrooge, this was the spirit that always resonated the most with me.  In all of the Christmas movies and shows that I've seen, this is the scene that I love the most:

I find myself singing this song for days and smiling without realizing it.

When it comes to my class, I want to be the Ghost of Classroom Present.  I don't want to remind my students of their shortcomings and I don't want to scare them with consequences.  I want to help them instead to see the beauty and joy of what's happening all around them.  I want to help them to open their eyes to see what they're missing and how to enjoy it.

We can't force them to love our subjects. All we can do is show them why WE do and not make them feel badly for not feeling the same.

What School Spirit are you?

Which one do you want to be?

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Day 77: Half Classes

There was a field trip today to take a large portion of the 8th grade to see a documentary about the Holocaust.  As a result, the majority of my students were gone.

The ones who stayed seemed to think that, since the other half was gone and it was the day before break, there was no need to bring anything to class or participate.

I had intended to help them clarify any questions they had. Instead, when they ignored me, I did programming.

I was deeply annoyed until I remembered that half the class was gone and it was the day before break and I had a splitting headache.

I don't have to be PowerTeacher every day.

I had 4 kids in geometry.  One of them told me that she reads my blog every day (Hi, student whom I didn't ask permission to name! I hope you have a great break!).  She said she sets her alarm so that at 5 pm, she goes on and reads my latest post.  I asked her which post was her favorite.

She chose this one.

What I found fascinating about her choice was that it was an incident that involved her and her group of friends that inspired me to write that post in the first place.

I have some pretty amazing students.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Day 76: Reflections of Reflections

I've been thinking lately about the kinds of impact that I make.  I don't just mean with my students, but also with my coworkers, my administrators, the parents and other teachers throughout the world.

Megan Schmidt has been trying for months to get me to realize that I'm doing good for the teacher community as a whole, but I have mixed feelings about how true that is.

And then yesterday happened.  It wasn't a good day for me.  My energy and willingness to teach were very low.  I spent some time casually browsing non-teaching job postings on the internet.  I got home and sat quietly on the couch for a while.

Then I got a tweet from Dylan Kane posted a link to his blog.  Dylan is doing incredible things and thinks about wildly deep and important ideas.

And he wrote about me.

So I made a decision.  I created a folder of links to the various blogs that have mentioned me or this blog.  Even as I type this sentence I realize how obnoxious and arrogant it sounds.  I reworded it several times and couldn't come up with a different way to say it.

I will keep these links the way I keep tweets, letters and emails from students; as something to look at when I'm questioning myself.  It will remind me that I'm working towards something and that the transparency of my journey is helping others as well.

I've been toying with the idea of skipping a day or two on the days when I'm feeling bad.  I've been told that skipping a day wouldn't be a problem.  It's my blog. I can skip a day if I want.

Dylan's post reminded why I don't skip days, especially when I'm feeling bad.  Part of my journey is talking about what I feel, whether it's good or bad.  He points out that the majority of teaching blogs are about lessons that were great or interactions that made teachers feel good.  I think there's an incredible amount of value in that.  There are so many factors trying to drag down teaching and our profession that it's amazing and refreshing to see teachers doing well and loving what they do.

The purpose of my blog isn't that.  It is, and always has been, a chronicle of my journey to become a better teacher.  On any journey, there are pitfalls and perils.

Imagine if Tolkien had written "On the way, they met some folks, escaped from some orcs and got hurt a bunch."

The struggle is the story.

In geometry, I gave a problem from GoGeometry that looked like it was level appropriate.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to have the students struggle while I did as well.  I told them I would be working on it too and one of my students asked if he could watch my process.
After a while, I got stuck (as I was trying to do the problem without trigonometry) and so did the group of students on the other side of the room.  We got together and started talking some things out.

It turned out to be more complicated than I was originally hoping for, but it pulled a ton of kids in and they got to see my actual struggle rather than a contrived one.

When we finally came up with an answer, I looked it up to see if we were right.  The two comments on this post had solutions, one obtained through trig and another through complex numbers.

Both had the same answer that we developed through algebra.

It was very cool.  This was a good day.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Day 75: Beneficial Detachment

As break approaches, other teachers are having End-Of-Unit projects and any time I give my kids to work on my assignments are spent finishing up work for others.  I sympathize with them attempting to meet their deadlines, but I also find it confusing.

Are students doing work for my class in history or English?

I'm also confused by their reactions to poor assessment results.  They seem baffled when they don't know what's happening in class and don't understand why my tests aren't asking about the Holocaust or the Treaty of Versailles.

The fight has gone out of me.

The advantage is that my new-found indifference seems to be a boon to my patience.  I am willing to sit and work more carefully and more attentively with students who wish it.  Instead of feeling as though I need to spread my attention to 9 different places in the room, I am finding that I am eminently present with small groups or individuals, providing them with what they need.  I am reminded again about how much more effective this class would be with half as many students.

I decided to utilize the computer lab for the geometry class today and set them up on  Before we went over, we talked about how programming is related to mathematics in general and the skills I'm emphasizing in my class in particular.  I related them back to the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice and talked about logical progress of commands in relation to geometric proof.

They LOVED it!  By the end of class, kids had worked through a large part of LightBot or Code Combat.  They were designing their own flappy bird games and making Anna and Elsa skate around in snowflake patterns.  For 80 minutes, they programmed and created and laughed and enjoyed learning and exploration.

I wish I taught computer programming...

In 8th period, I got tired of being talked over, so I sat in the corner.  I told them that I would be teaching and anyone who would like to join me may do so.  A group of students came over and we had an excellent discussion about slope-intercept form.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Day 74: Not Just A House

I seem to have come detached from my teaching experience.  I feel as though for the last week or so that I'm really just going through the motions and it upsets me.  I'm hoping that the two week break for the holiday will give me some time to get my head back on straight.

My classroom no longer feels like my own for various reasons.  I feel as though I'm having difficulty maintaining the educational environment that I've been trying to build.  My mother wisely pointed out to me that it's not the physical environment, but the emotional and mental one, that is what the kids are looking for.

This is the difference between a house and a home.

I don't want my classroom to be just a house. I want it to be a home.

I'm the only one who can bring it back to that.

I'm pushing my students outside of their comfort zones and many are seeing the value in that.  There are still several, however, who resist me as much as possible.  I don't think that I'm being sympathetic enough to their discomfort and struggle the way I am with the rest.

They push back with frustration and fear and I'm not giving them the encouragement that I should be.  I will not turn my class back into lecture because I know it's not the best mode of education, but I need to respect that some students think that's what learning looks like.

Rather than just saying "No it's not and we're not doing it" I need to be working with them to show them WHY I'm doing what I am.

I picture the opening of a Coming-Of-Age movie where the parents have uprooted the family to move to a new town.  The parents and 2-3 of the kids are excited about the move and the possibility of new experiences and friends and adventures.  There is, however, always one child who is angry and feels betrayed.  They loved the life and the friends they had back in the city.  They were comfortable and knew where they fit in.  In this new place, they don't know anyone and all their skills mean very little.
El Diablo cares not for that novel you're trying to write.
"Don't worry, sport! You'll love this place in no time!" say the parents, hoping to be reassuring.  The child never believes this and it only makes them feel more alienated.  They have to discover their purpose on their own and while it usually starts with the parent saying "just go play outside" it's not the parent who leads them to that purpose.
You won't find Terabithia until you're ready to

I worry that I have been doing the educational equivalent to "Look how great it is here.  LOOK!  IT'S AMAZING!!  ENJOY IT!!!!!" without giving proper respect to those students who aren't comfortable with the move.

I will never move them back to the city, but I can be more understanding of their discomfort.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Day 73: 4 Days Left Until Break

I had a nice and relaxing weekend, even with the grading and lesson plans that I had to write.  I felt good about the tests I graded because, even though the average was not as high as I would like, there was a clear delineation between the students who were participating and taking notes and those who were not.

I'm hoping that we will be able to have a serious conversation about the benefits where I can point to specific people who drastically improved as a result.

I offered for my Math 8 classes to be able to do a test recycle.  They can make corrections to their quizzes if they choose to do so.

The recycle has a specific format and I told them it was important to follow that format, but I'm thinking I'm going to ignore it as long as they have all of the aspects I want, including answer, work and reasons for mistakes.

If I can get my laptop to run Skype, we will doing a Mystery Number Skype with a 7th grade class in Georgia tomorrow.  At its most basic, the classes give each other word problems to solve.  I am hoping that this will be a good experience for my 8th period but I'm very nervous about how they will represent themselves, the school and me.

I Skyped with another class last year and the behavior of my students was so appalling that I called to apologize to the teacher afterwards and we never did it again.  I am hoping that with a little more prep and much clearer expectations, I can avoid that this time.

We spent the second half of class developing a few problems that we could ask them.  It went fairly well and we came up with some pretty good problems.

While all of this was going on, a few students were in the hallway making up the tests that they missed on Friday.  Another faculty member relayed to me later that one of these students was asking her questions to Siri.  She was reading them off of the test and directly into her phone.

Siri: "How can I help you?"
Student: "Juantay spent $8.58 for 3 notebooks last year. This year, he needs 5.  How much is he going to spend?"
Siri: "I don't understand the question."
Student: "How much will he spend this year?"
Siri: "I'm not sure I know what you mean?"
Student: "I need to know how much the notebooks cost."
Siri: "Let me look that up for you!"  **links to amazon**

I have said that if your questions can be looked up on the internet, you're asking the wrong questions.  Clearly, this tests that theory...

I'm having deep philosophical differences with a few of the students in geometry about the nature of education and the purpose of a teacher.  I could have handled the conversation better, but the feeling of insult that I perceived was very strong.

I was asked to go over the guided notes for the section, which I willingly did.  Instead of me boring them with the droning monotone of my voice, I handed off the pen to a student and took a seat in the back of the room.  For the rest of the period, she fielded questions and answers from the class as I watched and made sure wrong answers didn't stay up on the board too long.

When we finished and I gave a challenge problem, one of the students who disagrees with my methods asked if she could go to see another teacher "since we are done."

We were not done and, this far into the year, for her to think that since I wasn't lecturing that it meant we weren't learning was very insulting.  I know that I shouldn't take it personally, but it's hard to avoid.

I can see this interaction getting worse before it gets better and I'm not sure how to handle it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Day 72: Student Appreciation

Today I find out if my emphasis on note-taking in the Math 8 class has been even remotely valuable.

In the first class (of the double period) I asked for clarifying questions from the notes, homework, worksheets and activities that we have discussed over the past two weeks.  We went over several examples and I asked them questions meant to push their thinking beyond what we had covered and into the realm of understanding instead of just remembering.

The test I designed had these things in mind.

I don't normally design my own tests and I consider that a major shortcoming of my assessment strategy.  I designed this one.  I picked questions that cover both mechanical and conceptual understanding.

I asked very few questions like ones in the book and many more practical application.  The test started with the questions "In your own words, what is slope?" and "What things do we need to know to find the slope of a line?"

Since I've been drilling them on proper language, the majority of the students used the phrases "vertical change" and "horizontal change."  A few even wrote "delta y" and "delta x."

I allowed them to use their notes and those who have been paying attention and taking good notes, did MARKEDLY better than those who haven't.  I'm hoping that I can use this as leverage to show them that note-taking can be very beneficial.

My geometry students missed me.  When class started today, several of them cornered me at the door and had a group hug.  I missed them as well.

During my professional development yesterday, I had several tweets from them about what was happening in my absence.

I could not have been more proud of them.

They asked for more challenging problems today and I am not one to deny them a challenge.

This was a fantastic end to a pretty awful week.  I am eternally grateful to my students, both current and previous, for reminding me why I teach.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Day 70: [This Space Intentionally Blank]

My mood is getting more gray as though it is directly tuned to the weather.

My students are not getting worse and my classes aren't getting harder.

I'm having trouble identifying why my enjoyment has been declining.

I needed a bit of a break to think about some things and I got it today.  Almost my entire geometry class went on a field trip, so I was left with 1 student.  We played board games and hung Zome Tool polyhedra from the ceiling.

I will be out tomorrow for professional development, so I've left some complex problems for the classes as well as basic practice.  I left instructions that students may choose what they work on, as long as they are working.

I think I need to talk to someone about how I'm feeling.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Day 69: Dr. Spock, Ed.D.

Yes, I am WELL aware that it was MR. Spock and not DR.

I made a dozen phone calls home last night to parents of the students I was discussing yesterday.  My main statement to them was that the interventions that I have tried in class have not been effective.  I asked for their input on what else could be done and let them know that, moving forward, I would have to remove the students from the classroom if they continued to disrupt the environment.

Of the parents to whom I was able to speak, all agreed that this was an acceptable plan.  I don't like throwing kids out of my class, but at this point, I don't feel ok allowing the rest of my students to be pulled down by the willful disruption of a very small minority.  I feel that I have given them a fair chance to make better choices.

I will continue to give them a fresh start each day and will continue to attempt to redirect them, but my threshold for tolerance has been lowered.

I like to think that Spock would agree with me.

Public education is a weird animal in this respect.  We are required to provide a "Free Appropriate Public Education" to anyone who wants it, which is an excellent thing and necessary for a functioning society.

Each student is important and has their own needs.  The major problems often come when the needs or desires of a single student adversely affect the needs or desires of others.

Some cases are clear cut.  When a student poses a physical threat to others, that student is removed from the environment.  Other students, however, may pose an emotional or education harm to others.  These are much harder to deal with.

Sometimes, we are able to provide remediation or intervention for this student and bring them back into the fold.

This is why we offer geometry and algebra 2 and calculus and pre-algebra all as separate courses.  It is not the best educational environment for a student if they are fighting for teacher attention to answer their addition question with students who are finding multiple derivatives.

We know enough to have to different classes with different content, but we haven't figured out a way to do this adequately for behavior and learning styles.  I'm not saying that these don't exist, because there are plenty of alternative educational settings, but the efficacy of those placements is debatable.

It seems that more often than not, these alternative placements serve one, or both, of two purposes: to hold the student until something can be thought of to do with them, or to keep them separate from the general educational population.

I don't mean to criticize the idea of these placement centers.  I think they are important and can offer services and attention that public schools simply cannot.

What I will say is that, like prisons, we wouldn't need so many of them if we would be willing to invest in school psychologists.  So many of the issues that my students have could be helped greatly through intervention services and counseling that we simply cannot provide.

Sometimes there needs to be a conversation about how it's not acceptable to throw pencils at people or punch people in the side of the head.

The middle of a lesson on direct variation is usually not the place for that conversation, especially if it only needs to be had by 2 students out of a class of 30.
Please stop selling drugs long enough to let me teach calculus.
My classroom is not anywhere close to this chaos.  I believe that I have fairly good class management skills.  I almost never write anyone up and deal with most discipline problems internally.  With this in mind, I have to admit that I don't know how to manage this situation.  It is just on the tips of my fingers in terms of control.

I may have to ask for an assist.
It's all you, Vice Principal James!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Day 68: Gettin' Low (Vocally, That Is)

When my alarm went off this morning, I was sleeping deeply, face-down in my pillow.  The movie-style buzzing woke me with a jolt so strong that I may have strained a muscle in my back.

Not a great way to start a Monday.

I took this into consideration when interacting with my students today.  I purposely kept my voice lower than normal because it gives me pause with my words and makes me slower to anger and frustration.

Conversation has its own laws of momentum.  If a conversation starts out loud, out of anger OR excitement, it is much more likely to stay there, with excitement turning to anger very easily.

A teacher who is speaking loudly will, through their actions and demeanor, encourage students to do the same.  There are times when this is beneficial and times when it isn't.  Similarly, a teacher who is speaking softly sets a different tone for the class, for better or worse.

I know that on days when I am teaching at a high volume, even though it's from excitement, I am much quicker to become frustrated and that frustration is much quicker to turn to anger.

When I teach more quietly, either in a conversational tone or lower, I am more likely to think about my responses to students before they come out of my mouth.  Rather than yelling at kids, I am more likely to wait, or to calmly and politely ask them to stop being so rude.

In addition to that, the majority of my students are desensitized to yelling and it isn't an effective form of discipline or behavior modification.

At this point, I can't really say that my silence is much more effective, but it keeps me from yelling and, therefore, keeps my blood pressure down.

The sad thing is that it's always the same 5-6 kids that I have to wait for.  I have tried making contact with parents and guardians, but to no avail.  In the heat of the moment, I am blaming them for their poor choices and rude conduct, but I know it's not entirely on them.
It's tough to pay attention to terrible pictures like this one...

I am getting increasingly frustrated with myself because of my inability to make myself and my expectations understood to them.  I have talked to them individually, I'm talked to them as a group.  I've asked them to put themselves in the shoes of others.  I've been gentle and I've been harsh.

I don't have any idea where to go.

In bother period 1 and period 8, the rest of the students are starting to get beyond frustrated and annoyed with their classmates as I become increasingly reasonable and they are not responding.  I wonder how much longer until I get a phone call from of their parents asking why I can't control my class.

As a counterpoint, my geometry class is turning very quickly into a seminar class where I talk about a few things, then give them a single problem to work on.  Most excitedly work on it while other do guided notes and practice problems from the book.  It seems to be working out well for them and for me.

It's fantastic to watch kids explore mathematics!

I plan to include this and all of the other tales and pictures of successes of this kind under the hashtag #KidsEnjoyingMath which started this past weekend.

It does my heart good.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

#KidsEnjoyingMath : A Challenge

Math class has an image problem.

Back in September, I wrote about how math is often portrayed as the enemy of children.  In movies and television, math class is the dreaded nemesis, spreading its hated and vile tentacles into the free time and home life of innocent kids through the cunning use of "homework."

Losers, dorks and nerds are the only ones who like math, as indicated by them carrying calculators, pocket protectors and walking around with Steve Urkle-level fashion sense.

There are Tumblr pages and Facebook pages and groups dedicated to decrying the evils of math.

A Google search for "math is evil" returns 23,900,000 hits!

This is a problem.

It sets sets up students and teachers as adversaries before class even starts.  Frequently, math teachers have the task of undoing the image damage that pop culture has done in order to get kids to learn.

So what can we do about this?

I propose a challenge!

I am calling on teachers to post pictures, videos and stories of students enjoying math.  I don't mean fake enjoyment the way that districts post pictures of kids excited for final exams.  I mean genuine enjoyment.

These submissions can be done as blog posts, pictures on Twitter or Facebook, or shared anywhere and everywhere that people will see it.

In order to track these and find them easily, I propose the hashtag #KidsEnjoyingMath.  My deep hope is that we can show parents, teachers, students and society that math is not the enemy and that going to math class is not the worst thing that can be done to a child.

We need your help.

Here are my first three submissions.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Day 67: Conversation and Trust

A discussion of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with another teacher resulted in an hour long conversation with 3 students about race and gender issues in our society.  We talked about assumption of authority and educational goals.  I won't bother recalling the details because I could not do it justice, but it was excellent.  The students expressed many concerns that they had as minorities and as young women.  One of them hasn't been the biggest fan of my teaching methods, but I feel as though every time we have a discussion like this, I am able to win her over a bit more.

I have some truly remarkable students this year.

At the start of Math 8 today, we reviewed slope and how to find it.  I'm doing my best to make the students use mathematically accurate language.  Instead of "rise" and "run," I'm having them use "vertical change" and "horizontal change."

We did a few practice problems from Illuminations that asked them to draw the slope triangles on a grid to determine the vertical and horizontal change.

Then I decided to trust them.  We went to the end of the hallway and found the slopes of the three ramps there to determine if they were in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Inside the classroom, they were loud, rude and disruptive.

In the hallway, they were pretty great.  The majority of the students worked together to get accurate measurements.  Since we had talked about how units didn't matter, provided you used them consistently, several groups groups chose ... unconventional units.
"This ramp had a vertical change of 1.5 Daryl's"

There were very few students who needed constant redirection and overall, I was very pleased with their behavior.  A few asked if we could do more activities like that one and I told them that we could, if they could continue to behave in appropriate fashions.  They are starting to police themselves in more effective way, so I think this is something we can do more frequently.

I'm doing a better job of utilizing differentiated instruction with the geometry students.  The young women who worked on the problem yesterday, came in today asking for another.  This time, I was able to give them one that bridged very nicely into the next section, dealing with the triangle sum theorem.

The students who didn't want to work on that problem were working through their guided notes or practice problems.  I was, once again, immensely impressed with the effort that the students put in to solving this single problem.

"What I love about what happened yesterday was that when I gave you a problem that you weren't familiar with, you worked hard and kept at it until you came up with a solution.  This means that now, when I give you a problem that is much closer to your current content knowledge, I KNOW that you won't give up until you solve it.  You'll tell yourselves 'this problem isn't nearly as hard. There's no way I can give up on it.'"

Again, it took most of the period, but the conversations were amazing.  The students challenged each other on their statements, keeping each other from making assumptions about the properties of the triangles.  Work was scattered on whiteboard and notebooks all over the room with the group of students migrating from desk to desk as new ideas were hatched and discoveries were made.

THIS is why I teach.
Well, this and the hats. Oh, the hats!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Day 66: Do What Works

Another day of notes and I'm starting to notice a few interesting things:

My students who are disengaged from this style of instruction were disengaged during all previous instructional strategies.  Several of my students who were previously disengaged from the learning are becoming engaged and, while they complain about taking notes, do so VERY well and ask clarifying questions.

My two major take-aways from this are:

1) My students who are traditionally low-achieving are starting to thrive. The more organized and chunked fashion in which we are covering material is helping to keep them on task and not overwhelmed.

2) Several of my more disruptive students are becoming less so because, instead of chatting with their friends, they are first making sure they have the notes copied.  They also seem to be interested in being the first ones to answer questions and making them write everything down is giving good wait time to the students who don't process as quickly.

I am keeping myself amused through the cunning use of laser pointers on my wall-grid and color coding the notes.  I used several pieces of painters' tape and asked the students to determine the slopes of the lines.  I had them do it silently for 90 seconds, then turn to their groups and compare answers for 30 seconds.

Then we went over it as a class.  I was very pleased with their engagement and work and, as much as I hate direct instruction, I'll do what works for my students.  Again, I'm hoping that I can use this success and engagement to move towards more authentic tasks in the near future.  Tomorrow, I hope to have them measure the ramps in the school for ADA compliance.

As geometry started, one of my students asked if I had another "hard problem that would take the whole class."  As it so happened, I had just received a message from +Megan Schmidt with a math question.
The sides of the square are 20. What is the diameter of the circle?

I handed it to the young woman and started going over the guided notes with the rest of the class.  During breaks and down times, I kept checking in with her and the 2 or 3 others who were working on it.  I watched them work through their frustrations and dead ends, going to the text for information that they knew we hadn't covered yet.

I was going to talk more about how proud I am of the young women in geometry who worked on this, but I think it would be more powerful coming from them.  I asked one to write up her experience:

Mr. Aion had told me today was going to be a boring day, definitely not my style. So I asked for another problem and the lovely Megan Schmidt had given up a problem that looked very simple. Once Caitlin, Amani, and I had started to work on the problem we were very lost. Had no idea where to start, and that's when Mr. Aion came in. He got our brains to start working. He suggested some things that may or may not help us figure out the problem. Coming closer to the end of the class we sat there frustratedly flipping through book pages, we hadn't learned any of this before. Mr. Aion came over once again to check on us. I was very annoyed at that point, but being the stubborn teenage girl I am I refused to give up. That's when it hit us, we were going in the right direction. I was so happy, and relieved. I was proud also, and so were my classmates. I am so glad to have such amazing friends and such an amazing geometry teacher. 

I am so impressed with them but, more importantly, they were proud of themselves.

If we can find a way to give students agency and excitement over their education, there is no way we can fail.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Day 65: Starting Over

I'm doing it.

I'm starting over.

I am resetting my expectations of my students and myself.

In Math 8, we had a good day of taking notes.  We went over several examples of Scientific Notation, with students asking good questions that showed me they were actually paying attention.  I made several references to previous examples and notes that we took yesterday and I saw many of them flipping back for the answers.

I kind of hate how eager they are to take notes when I've seen how unwilling they are to participate in meaningful activities.

For the moment, however, I will be pleased that they are doing what I've asked.  Hopefully, I will be able to use this willingness to expand outward into more meaningful tasks.

At least for the foreseeable future, I'm doing the notes on the Promethean Board so that I can keep distinct copies for both classes.  If students miss a day, I'll be able to go back and see exactly what they missed based on the date and their class.

I'm trying to get organized.

I've also started the process of converting my Math 8 classes to Standards Based Grading.  I know I've talked about this before, but I actually went a few steps down the path today.

I went through the PA Common Core Standards and started mapping them to our Math 8 curriculum.  This process didn't take too long since we were told earlier this year that the standards were the curriculum.

Last year, the math coach did me the solid of going through the standards and writing them as "I Can" statements to make them more accessible for the students.

My next step will be to give those standards student-friendly codes (Goal 1, Goal 2, etc.) and set up the 4-point scale of mastery.

I feel good about this. I've been wanting to do it for a while, but never actually took the leap.  I attribute this new push to the amazing presentation from Jenise Sexton last night at the Global Math Department meeting.

She is doing incredible stuff with students who seem to be very similar to my own.  I'm planning to send her messages asking if she'll be my mentor (in the monumental amounts of free time that I'm sure she has.)  She is now where I want to be in 2-3 years in terms of grading, organization, classroom management, etc.

Seriously, check her out.  She's inspiring.

My geometry class spent (again) an entire double period working on a single problem.  Again, this problem came from the Five Triangles blog.  I picked it because it's a great transition problem from parallel lines into properties of triangles and polygons.
Yes, I know there's a typo...

What I found most gratifying was that several of my students, right on the border of insane frustration, refused to give up on the problem.  They worked VERY well and, when they realized that they didn't know quite enough, they looked it up!  They knew it had something to do with parallelograms, so they got their text books out and went hunting for the information! (SMP 5)

I also really enjoyed that another student made a physical model of the problem to play around with.
Hand-made manipulatives? Yes, please!

Also, a HUGE bonus to my day was that I got to read to Kory Graham's elementary class in Minnesota over Google Hangout.  What a cool experience!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Day 64: Fixing the Cracks

I feel awful.

I feel as though I have failed my students.

Over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with self-directed learning.  This takes the form of them working at their own pace through the curriculum with deadlines and markers set by me to make sure they stay on track.  When they come to class, we do the warm-up together, maybe I do a small mini-lesson, and then I set them to do their work.

When they complete a task, they bring it to me to be checked off.

Here's the problem:  I gave a test before break.  It was a total disaster.  The high score was still under a 50%.

Part of this was simply because they didn't read the directions.  When a question asks for the answer in scientific notation, the student needs to put it in scientific notation.  When a question asks the students to explain their steps and the simply put an answer, they aren't completing the task.

The issue of not reading direction or checking their work isn't unique to my students in any way.  It seems to be pretty universal and the person who can figure out how to fix it will write a book, make a million dollars and retire to the Bahamas where everything they drink will be served with a little umbrella.

Part of it was due to the fact that several of the questions asked on the assessment were in different forms than I've asked them to write about previously.  We have talked about their reasons for what they do, and the importance of justifying steps, but I haven't asked them to WRITE as often as I should have.

I have to admit that a major portion of the mistake on this test were made because I wasn't providing enough oversight and checking in on their work over the last few weeks.  As a result, it seemed to me that they understood what was happening and were familiar with the concepts, but this was clearly not the case.

So now what?

I had an administrative walk-through last week and the feedback I received was less than glowing.  They provided me with many avenues in which changes could occur and I am going to start implementing several of them.

So here's my plan going forward:

1) I will be severely limiting cell phone use.  We will have clear times when they can and can't use their phones to limit the amount of Facebook-surfing and teaching-ignoring they can do.  If I am addressing the class either with instructions or by going over examples, all phones must be away.

2) I will be creating rubrics for my assignments and have them displayed all over my room.  I thought that I did a good job of making my expectations clear, but I'm starting to see that may not be the case.

3) I am starting to teach my students how to take notes.  I have very few concerns about this in the geometry class, but my Math 8 classes struggle with keeping their notes organized.  I'm not sure that anyone has taught them how to do so beyond "you should write this down."  Today, we talked about organization, headings, examples, and keeping thoughts separated much in the style of Cornell notes.  The majority of the students seemed amenable to this and willingly copied what I had on the board.  The trick will be weening them off of copying and into doing it in their own style and in a consistent place for easy reference.

I have very little faith that they will be able to keep track of their notebooks, so I will be ordering books for everyone and having a specific place in class where they can keep them.
Something like this

I made sure to express that I held the lion's share of the guilt for the lack of conceptual understanding and, for the most part, the students seemed to grasp what I was trying to convey and went with me on the note taking.  My goal is to get them started with a structure and then let them branch off as they discover what works for them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Day 63: Games

All of my classes were given the same assignment today:

Pick one of the following:

1) Work on things you owe me.
2) Work ahead
3) Play games

Most of the geometry students and the kids in 8th period opted to play games.  My group of students who are almost continually disruptive in class spent 80 minutes playing Tsuro!

They talked strategy and alliances.  They worked together to create paths that would keep them alive as long as possible.

They showed fascinating interest in different kinds of games and it was surprising to see who chose what.

Even more interesting was that the majority of the students in period 1 chose a 4th option: stare at the wall for the period.

I suppose some people prefer boredom to putting effort into fun.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Day 62: A Heart To Heart

All of my students took tests today (except for the 3 who refused) so I had a ton of time to think.

I was thinking about a phone call that I had last night where a parent was concerned that I was picking on their child.  I spent a ton of time justifying my actions and telling myself that the student was seeing bullying where none existed.

Then I remembered that it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if I'm nice or mean, cruel or kind.  The reality of the classroom doesn't matter nearly as much as how our students perceive it.

It doesn't matter if I'm picking on this child or not.  If they feel as though I am, it's something that I need to address and be aware of.

While I was thinking about it, another student finished her test and expressed some of her concerns about the class.  Her unease, in a gross oversimplication on my part, comes from the fact that she feels she isn't learning.  My teaching style is not what she is used to and she would like us to cover more content.
So we had a talk.

I asked her flat out if she would prefer for me to lecture, give formulae and practice problems, then go over them and move on.  She said yes.

I explained to her that it would never happen.  That's simply not the kind of teacher I am and it's not the kind of instruction that I know is effective.  We had a very nice and civil discussion about my goals in the class and how I am working to accomplish those goals.

I told her that I know that what I'm doing is outside of her comfort zone and I completely understand that it makes her nervous.  I told her that just because I wasn't doing skill & drill doesn't mean that I wouldn't answer whatever questions she had.

She said that she felt she didn't understand any of the material and that she thought she failed the test.  I asked her for specifics and she mentioned a type of problem that we talked about yesterday.  I asked if I had answered her questions and she said yes, but that she still didn't understand.

Then I graded her test.

She earned an A.

I asked her, with no sarcasm and with all sincerity, if that afforded me and my methods a little bit of trust and latitude.  She said that it did.  I told her that I would, under no conditions, allow her to fail my class, but if I let her only work with methods and problems that were easy, she would never grow.  She agreed, at least at the time.

I know that what I do in my class can be scary to students who have learned very well to play school.

I think that I have built enough trust with most of my students that they will come with me on this insane journey.

But there are still more to convince.

Including myself...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Day 61: The Struggle Is Real

I didn't have a good day on Friday.  My coworkers went out after work, but I didn't feel as though I would have been good company so I didn't go.

I spent the weekend with my wife, watching a roller derby tournament, cheering on my friends and genuinely feeling wonderful.

When I returned to school this morning, I slipped right back into my own head.

Several students asked if I had had my coffee, if I was feeling alright.  I lied and told them I was just tired.

The reality is that I'm feeling defeated and overwhelmed.

I've had several observers in my class telling me that I'm doing good work, that I'm building relationships with my students (which I know is more vital than anything else.)

I KNOW that right now I'm stuck inside my head and riding a wave of disappointment, frustration and sadness that came off from Friday.

I KNOW that I have not been wasting my time with my classes and my students.

But this is how I feel.

I don't feel as though my students are making the kind of progress that I would like to see.  They aren't asking the kinds of questions I want them to be asking.  They aren't making the connections that I want them to be making.

Yes, they are a different group of students than previous years.

Yes, I'm a different teacher than I used to be.  I have different expectations of myself and of them.

Yes, I am well aware that I wrote similar posts last year.

I am fighting a battle inside my head.  This is a battle that I fight regularly.  Usually, it starts on Monday with a very quiet voice telling me to give up and give the students worksheets.  It wants me to open my book and sit at my desk with my feet up.

For the last year and a half, I've been doing a great job of winning that battle, although when it's loudest on Friday's, it's very hard to block out.

The weekends have been doing wonders at helping me push it further back and start the fight anew on Monday.

As wonderful as this weekend was, I wasn't able to push the voice back far enough today.

Luckily, all of my classes have quizzes and tests tomorrow so today was a review day.  The math 8 students got sample tests to work on while I walked around answering questions.  A good 50% of the students were on task for the entire class with another 20% floating in and out.

In geometry, I had the students with specific questions move to the front of the room and the rest move to the back to work on their reviews.  I was able to talk in a normal conversational tone for the entire period and helped answer questions for a small group of kids at a time.  It felt productive, but I still have a feeling of dread about the tests tomorrow.

I need to get out of my own head if I want to be a good teacher for these kids.

Maybe I just need to get back into a heavy workout schedule.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Day 60: Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

I had a student start to cry while I was trying to explain direct variation to him.

His frustration welled up to a point where he could no longer contain it.  Since he is a mild-mannered, nice, respectful kid, his frustration took the form of quiet tears instead of screaming, throwing books and storming out.

As a direct result of that, my heart went out to him instead of it getting my back up.  I took the book away from in front of him and had him take some deep breaths to calm down before we started at it again.

But it reminded me that just because is acting out, being obnoxious, destroying my classroom, etc., doesn't necessarily mean that they are a bad kid.  They could simply be overly frustrated with what I'm trying to do and don't have the ability to express that frustration in a useful or productive way.

When geometry rolled around, I had to remove a student from my class for consistent disruptive behavior.  This is the first time that I've had to do that in geometry.  I can't seem to get through to this student about what is and is not appropriate classroom behavior.  I can't reach a parent either to try to create a plan to get him back on the right track.

In 8th period, enough students, when they came to check in their work, showed a lack of understanding of the concepts that I decided to do a mini-lesson.  I was answering the same questions over and over again and thought it would be better to address the class.

I was wrong.  The talking and noise making made it impossible for me to complete examples or answer questions.  Coupled with several students DEMANDING that I check their work immediately, I lost my cool.  I threw down my book and walked out.

I put myself in time out.

When I had cooled down, I came back in the room and attempted to contact several parents.  None of them were available and left several messages.

Today was the perfect day for a Friday.

I wonder if all of this was in spite of starting my day with a Rebecca Black Dance Party.

Maybe it was because of it...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Day 59: Movies and Patterns

In my humble opinion, one of the major problems with mathematics education (and maybe other content areas as well) is that we take very basic concepts and give them names that are something other than very simple.

Today's example is direct variation.

Two things vary directly when they are proportional!  I like this explanation because it's as clear as mud.

I find that my students are better at understanding concepts when I apply them to real world examples. (Crazy talk!!)

So I took them to the movies.

I'm going to the movies this weekend.
"1 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be $5."

I love the movie so much that I want some students to go with me.  So Bryah and I go back.
"2 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be..."
S: "$10"

Then I decide that it's a little creepy for a teacher to take a single female student to the movies, so we decide to bring a few others.
"4 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be..."
S: "$20"

The 4 of us enjoy it so much that we ask the whole class to go.
"27 for Big Hero 6, please!"

We had a discussion about how you would know exactly how much that would cost because the price of the ticket doesn't change regardless of how many people are going.

To provide a counterexample, we went into the theater and looked at prices and sizes popcorn.  We discovered that with popcorn, it DID matter how much you bought as the price decreases per ounce as you buy more.

I was pleased with the level of engagement and my hand-drawn popcorn.

During the second period, I attempted to an activity from Visual Patterns.  I put pattern #137 up on the board, gave them graph paper and asked them to draw the next 2 patterns in the series.

The majority of the students attempted the assignment, but as I asked them to tell me how many squares would be in the 8th pattern or the 12th, that number quickly dwindled.

I only had 1 person trying to find the number of squares in the 43rd pattern.

I had a second pattern, but we didn't get to it as so many of my students were concerned with their history homework.

90 minutes is a VERY long time for these kids to be in the same room, regardless of how many tasks they work on.

This was, however, a GREAT task for several students in geometry.  It was right on the edge of their frustration level where they felt they knew enough that they couldn't give up.  A few screamed and threw their notebooks, only to cry "OH!" and immediately get them and get back to work.

I was very impressed.

My favorite line from that class had to be tweeted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Day 58: BRAIN FOOD!!!

I have been asked to examine our current salary schedule and put together a few proposals for what I think it should be going forward.  This has had me thinking about our priorities when we create teacher salary schedules.

It seems to me that a salary schedule that starts high and progresses slowly is designed to recruit and retain new teachers.  A schedule that starts lower but has jumps in the middle or near the top is designed to bring in MORE teachers and reward those who stick it out.  The number of steps to reach the top of a scale is much harder to interpret.  Fewer steps could mean that the district feels mastery comes sooner or that they are trying to recruit teachers who are concerned about their pensions, or any number of other concerns.
None of these are from my current district

I know I've missed a bunch of reasons, so please don't spam my comment section listing all of the positive and negative reasons that salary schedules are created the way they are.  I am much less concerned about the ideology of teacher pay (for the purposes of this post) than I am about the mathematics of hypothetical pay scales.

What does it mean if we add $4000 to the bottom salary and increase all the others as a percentage of that?  How does that change the overall look of the pay matrix?

I love this stuff!

I whipped up an Excel sheet and started messing around.  I dropped steps off the scales, redistributed the pay jumps, changed the top and bottom caps and looked at percent increases.

I lucked out that I was given this puzzle on a day when my students were in the computer lab working on Think Through Math (our district-selected online intervention program.)  I was able to log on to one of the faster computers and play around with my spreadsheet for a significant amount of time.

So it got me thinking about how I could get my students to feel the same way about number manipulation that I do.

And I came up with no answers.

I would want them to explore and discover but I don't know how to even start them on that path.  I don't think "Open up an Excel spreadsheet and see what you can do!" wouldn't be a productive way to start that.

How much background do I need to give in order to ask them to find interesting trends?  I know they would have different interests, including sports, video games and movies and there is a wealth of cool data available to explore.

I don't even know what kind of projects would be age appropriate or how to start them.  Clearly I need to do some research into these kinds of products.

And, to be honest, the project idea was just a minor afterthought.  I just really enjoyed playing around with Excel today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Day 57: Slopes and Games

I have been struggling to get my students to understand how slope in calculated.  They understand what it is and what it means for slope to be positive or negative.  They understand how to make something steeper or less steep by growing or shrinking it in various directions.

They are struggling to translate that to calculations.

I attempted to channel the brilliant Fawn Nguyen and her very cool Staircase and Steepness activity.  It did not go as well as I would have liked.  The students did a very good job with the first part and discussed their strategies and reasons with each other.  Then when it came to measuring and verifying, they lost interest and got distracted.

After the break, I set them back on their independent work and called them up one at a time to check their progress.  Several students came up to ask about slope calculation and I helped them individually.  Then I got tired of repeating the same thing over and over and pulled the class back together for a mini-lesson.

They were very attentive, which I both appreciated and found frustrating.  The mini lesson was almost verbatim the one I gave yesterday that they pointedly ignored.

But if I got them to pay attention today, that's a win.  Yesterday is gone.
I'll do that, Internet stock photo with motivational quote. I'll do just that.

In geometry, I had a small class for various reasons and short period (read: only 1) so they could get their weekly science lab in.

I have been wanting them to be playing more games and thinking about strategy. Plus, this weekend, I bought a few new games that I wanted them to try out.

I developed a sheet for them to fill out for each game they play that asks them to describe the positives and negatives of each game, describe the basic game play and discuss the strategies that they used to try to win.

For a first attempt at "describe your strategy" they weren't bad.  For the most part, the students simply described game play.

"My strategy was to see where the laser goes."
"I angled the mirrors to hit my opponent."

A few, however, had the concept down and gave legitimate strategy and I will be using them as examples of what I'm looking for.

"I tried to stay away from other players until they were eliminated."
"I started by stacking 2 cards in the proper pattern and then changing them out as needed."

I was very impressed with their work and it's fascinating to see which games certain students love or hate and which ones pique their interest and passions.

I'm looking forward to tweaking the feedback page and getting them to think more about strategy and describing their thinking.
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