Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 92: Drained

I cherish the conversations and questions that come out my geometry class.  While going over orthocenter and centroid today, students began asking questions about proportional area and whether or not those points would be the same on polygons other than triangles.  We did an informal proof about whether the area of the two triangles created by the median were of the same area.  The inquisitiveness and willingness to explore that some of my students possess fills me with a sense of longing for all that we could do if we only had the time.

I was SUPER excited about their homework assignment and MAY have rushed through the lesson a bit fast so that I could give it to them.

S: "Is this like the assignment we did at the beginning of the year?"
M: Yes it is. "I don't know what you're talking about."
S: "The one where you and a friend have two jobs and you need to find a place to live that's halfway between."
M: "Yes! Except this time, since you're living in LA and it's more expensive, you need two roommates.  The locations at the bottom of the paper are where the three of you work.  Find the intersection where the three of you should get an apartment so that you are all the same distance from work."

It was homework, but most of them worked on it, and finished it, in class.  Several students thought the map was too cluttered so they found the points, transferred them to the back of the paper and found the circumcenter that way.  I should have made them justify to me why the circumcenter would be the same for the reflected triangle.

Oh well.  Hindsight...

They were VERY excited about this, so clearly, I should be doing more activities with maps.  Next up to try with them?

Triplets of Cellville from Mathalicious!

I feel as though I'm losing my focus with the pre-algebra classes.  My frustration and disappointment is starting to come to a head.  Today, I gave them an assignment and put myself in the corner of the room, willing to answer any questions.  A few kids worked VERY well.  Others did not.

I need this weekend to compose my thoughts and develop a plan so that I don't give up on the pre-algebra class.

I hate the frequency with which I think that previous sentence.

I'm feeling that I need to spend some time teaching at another district to determine if it's me or the kids.  A large portion of it IS me because I don't believe that there are students who are unteachable.  But I don't believe that I have a realistic grasp of how much more I could and should be doing.

If I'm going to feel this way no matter where I am and what I'm teaching, then I need to change careers.

If this is just a function of the time and place, then I will continue to work my hardest and help who I can help.

I hate the idea of waking up in 30 years to realize that I should have picked a different career that would have made me happier.

Report Card Data:
In the 8th grade, there were 18 students who received a 4.0, 6 are in my geometry class (33%)

The average GPA in that class is a 3.6

Thank goodness the grades came out when they did. I don't want to have to wait until the standardized test scores get here to know what my students are worth.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Day 91: Constructions and Teen Pregnancy

One of the state requirements for certification to be a math teacher in Pennsylvania is to take History of Mathematics.  When I took this course in grad school, I was in awe of how amazing the professor was, especially since I was expecting it to be very dry.

Instead, it was a course on comparative cultures in terms of their mathematical knowledge.  We did a ton of work with constructions, which wasn't something that I had done much of during high school or undergrad.  I loved it!  Not having taught Geometry in a long time, I haven't been able to do much since I've been back in the classroom.

But today...

On Monday, when we started going over the guided notes in Geometry, we were talking about the incenter and the circumcenter.  As I wrote on Monday, I was disappointed that the textbook and the notes didn't talk about, what I consider, the most interesting pieces of information: the incenter is the center of the inscribed circle of a triangle and the circumcenter is the center of the circumscribed circle of a triangle.

Today, I gave my geometry students a piece of white paper with a triangle on it.  Half of them were told to find the incenter and half to find the circumcenter.

Having never really done constructions before, they did amazingly well!  I was able to walk around the room assisting students who needed it, showing them how to make an angle bisector or perpendicular bisector.

I'm contemplating an activity for homework over the weekend.  A few months ago, we did an activity where they and a roommate had to find a place to live that was equidistant to their two jobs.  I'd like to do that again, but for three people.  The extension would be to ask them if it's possible for 4, or 5 people, and if so, could they do it?

It's something I need to actually plan and I hope to print out a map for them.  It's surprisingly hard to find a good printable map with neighborhoods or street names...

In pre-algebra, we are continuing to cover unit rates.  I took an idea from Kaci McCoy, gave the kids some supermarket circulars and had them find the unit rates of 10 items.  They were very engaged and having interesting discussions.

I was going to have this post be about authentic tasks vs. mindless calculation, but then one of my 8th graders told me she was pregnant.

I had a discussion planned for the second half of the class, but I felt that allowing this student to talk and feel safe was more important.  I threw a workbook page up on the board for kids to work on after they had finished the assignment and sat and listened to her talk for 40 minutes.

Her home life could be described as unhealthy at best and disastrous at worst.  Child protective services has been to her house multiple times.  She's in charge of her 4 younger siblings, the youngest of which is 10 months.

What I think I find most upsetting is not her age, or her situation, or her academics, but how willing everyone is to accept the pregnancy of a 14-year-old.  This has become common enough that the response from her peers was "Can I feel it kick?"

There are so many things going on for these kids that it's sometimes difficult for me to justify the importance of my class.

In period 8/9, not a single student did the homework assignment on unit rates, so we were unable to do the activity on the circulars.  While they were working on the assignments that should have been completed already, I called parents.  I was able to get through to 20%.

I think that I will go ahead with my plan of sitting in the corner and having students gather around me if they wish to learn.  I don't like the underlying philosophy behind this, but I'm at a loss for how to not allow these students to take away from the education of the few who wish to learn.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest Post: Feudalism Lesson

This week, history teacher Wil Ragen was substituting in a middle school Emotional Support classroom and trying to figure out a way to teach the students about feudalism.  Out of thin air, he came up with a lesson that was so awesome that it made me want to teach history!

After he told me about it, I asked if he would write it up and I would happily host it on this blog.  Even if you're not a history teacher, I highly recommend that you check this out and then share it with every history teacher you know!


Index cards (however many students you have)
8”X11” lined white paper
Station signs (Ocean, Mill, Granary, Salting Mill, Dungeon)
Directions handout (one for each students)
Title cards (fisherman, farmer, miller, knight, lord, monarch)
Fish pattern
Colored chalk (or expo markers)
Construction paper


To start class, pass out instructions sheet with “job” information posted on it.  Have students pick a job card from a hat or bucket or whatever is convenient, if the class is too large and time is a luxury, simply assign students a job.  Students will be assigned a job, either fisherman, farmer, miller, knight, or lord.

Student Roles:

The king or queen.  Your teacher.  The teacher is responsible for ruling over all the land.  He or she will survey the kingdom and ensure that everyone is doing their job properly.  If the monarch sees fit, he can imprison anyone in the dungeon for not doing their work.  Imprisonment results in loss of points on the activity.

The lord is the inventory keeper.  On a sheet of paper, he will take stock of all production.  If the lord sees someone not doing their job, they will consult with the monarch to see if a serf or knight needs to go to the dungeon.  The lord must present the monarch with evidence of wrongdoing.  The lord must keep inventory of the number of fish harvested, the number of loaves of bread made at the mill, the amount of grain stored in the granary, and the number crops harvested from the fields.  A simple tally for everything produced will suffice.  Farmers must have the permission of the lord to harvest their crops, as the crops are growing on the lord’s land.

The knight is the law in the land.  If the knight sees a serf not performing his duties, or not performing them satisfactorily, the knight can seek permission from the monarch to imprison the serf.  Evidence must be given to the monarch or the knight will be sent on a crusade, which usually results in the knight fetching candy for the monarch.  The monarch will the decide whether or not to move serfs around to maximize production to ensure the protection of the realm.

A fisherman is a serf.  He or she is responsible for harvesting fish from the ocean.  In order to do so, the fisherman will cut fish out of the blue construction paper provided with the pattern given.  A fisherman can only catch (cut) one fish at a time.  If a fisherman is seen wasting the king’s resources (not using the paper as much as possible), he will be placed in the dungeon by a knight.  If a fisherman is seen cutting out multiple fish at one time, he will be accused of sorcery and thrown in the dungeon.  The fisherman can only take five fish to the salt mill at one time before being able to go back to the ocean on his or her boat.

The farmer is a serf.  He or she will drawn his crops on the chalkboard.  Once the farmer has drawn 10 crops, he must seek permission from the knight or lord to harvest.  A farmer can only plant 10 crops at once. After permission has been granted, the farmer erases the board, takes the corresponding number sheets of paper for each crop harvested to the granary, then begins “planting” anew.  Lazy farmers will be sent to the dungeon if they are not working hard, or are planting the wrong crops.

The miller is a serf.  He or she must “mill” the grain and turn it into bread.  In order to do this, he must take the crops from the granary to the mill.  In order to mill and bake the crops, the miller must fold the crops into paper footballs.  A miller’s cart can only carry five completed loaves of bread (paper footballs) at a time, so he or she must make several trips to the granary with the completed products.  If a miller demonstrates abnormal strength in carrying too many loaves of bread at once, or is seen tainting the bread in any way, he will be imprisoned in the dungeon.

With those roles in mind, place several sheets of paper at their designated locations.  Construction paper in the ocean, 5 sheets of paper in the granary to start, and a stack of paper next to the farmland for when crops are harvested.  

Students will draw their roles from a hat, most students will be fisherman or farmers, with few being millers and even fewer being knights.  About two knights per class, and one lord should be enough.  The lord role is ideal for classroom aides if one is lucky enough to have one, but if not available, the king should assign the title to a student.

Once the students are set upon their tasks, set a timer for roughly 15-20 minutes depending on how long the period is.  Describe this time as one growing season.  The monarch should circulate around the kingdom to make sure students are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  You can assign different chores that students in the dungeon will have to do, such as wiping the board clean at the end of the class, cleaning up fish guts (scrap paper), or cleaning the mill (collecting scrap paper from the mill).  The monarch may also introduce arbitrary rules throughout the exercise, such as blights to crop (can only produce five crops at once), faulty machinery at the mill (use one hand to make paper footballs), lack of bait (three fish at a time) in order to illustrate the very real challenges serfs faced during the feudal period.
After the season ends, have the lord collect all crops, loaves of bread, and salted fish from the salt mill.  Put them on a big desk and have every student gather around.  Students in the dungeon get nothing.  The monarch will then give a generous amount of the foodstuffs to the lord and a slightly less amount, though still generous amount to the knights.  The monarch will then take the remaining food and keep nearly all of it for his or herself.  The serfs will be left with barely anything to survive the winter on.  Play up the persecution angle with the students and ask them questions such as:

Do you think this is fair?  Why or why not?
What would you do if you were a serf in a similar situation?
How would you seek to change this system?
Which person in society do you think is most likely to help out the serf’s situation?
How do you think this eventually changed?

The last questioning part should take up the remainder of time in class.  Have the students take notes on those questions or have them printed on their instruction sheet.  Ensure each station the students will be working at will also have instructions on how to perform their duties.

Wil would love to hear your feedback on this lesson, including how it might be modified for larger classes, longer periods, more in-depth concepts, etc.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Day 90: EduAngel vs. EduDevil

It was very cold and snowy this weekend.  Not the kind of snow that lets kids go outside and have fun, but the kind that makes parents shut and lock the door for fear of frostbite or yeti attacks.

I would guess that might be the reason why my students were out of control today.

The geometry kids were much more rowdy than normal, bordering on rude with constant side conversations.  We started discussing properties of triangles and I went over their guided notes on circumcenter and incenter.  The note packets that I've been getting from the high school talk about the circumcenter as the point of concurrency for the perpendicular bisectors or a triangle, but it doesn't talk about what the word "circumcenter" means.  I think the circumcenter and the incenter are fascinating because of what they are! The center of the circle that contains the vertices of the triangle is the circumcenter while the center of the largest circle that can be contained inside that triangle is the incenter.

So I talked about this, even though it wasn't in the note packet.

I tried doing the constructions to show them.  The instant I faced the board, they were talking again.

I can't really be angry with them because they are normally great with this stuff and I have to remember that they are still children.  What I CAN be upset about is the 4 students who had their heads down after I had long conversations with their respective parents about why they were earning "not an A."

My frustration with the class as a whole reached pretty high.  I ended up talking to them about the problem with being "the smart kids" in the school.  It went something like this.

"If you are a first round draft pick to the NFL, what does that say about your abilities?"
"That's you're really good."
"Exactly.  Now, if you show up and think that you're hot stuff and so you don't need to practice, what will happen?"
"You'll get out of shape and not be good anymore."
"So, you understand this about sports, but not about academics.  If you aren't practicing what we do here, if you aren't paying attention, if you aren't participating in the discussions, you will get out of shape.  The people in the other classes, who are working, will pass you by.  You will go from being an easy A student, to a struggling B or C student not because you're dumb, but because you're out of practice on how to study, how to work."

I also threw in some stuff about how that was me and how high school just about killed me because I was out of practice and didn't know how to work.

I'll do a construction activity with them this week when I feel I can trust them with sharp objects again.

I've been thinking more and more about putting the pre-algebra kids back into rows.  I've been trying for 4 months to have them in groups and, especially since the addition of the 13 students to my class, that has been failing miserably.  I simply can't put them in groups where they WON'T talk constantly when I'm not standing over them.

At the same time, my room is too small to have one section in rows for them and one in groups for Geometry.   I may have to put everyone back into rows and have the geometry kids turn their desks for group work.

I HATE the idea of going back to rows.  It feels as though I've failed to make my class a place of positive education.  At the same time, the current set-up isn't working.  My level of frustration is causing me to give up and then I hate myself even more.

Rather than rows, tomorrow, we will be assigning seats.  I have to be willing to deal with the griping and false complaints about how they can't see the board (which, interestingly, only ever comes from kids who put their heads down when I move them closer.)

Self-directed learning didn't work.  Teacher-directed learning didn't work.  I can't keep complaining about how this group of students was purposely separated for exactly this reason, because complaining doesn't fix anything.

I'm not complaining.  I'm stating that I don't know what to do.  They have days when they are quiet and let me do my thing, but I am highly suspicious of the engagement. and days when they are loud and don't let me do my thing.

The worst part is that the frustration is SO exhausting that when school is over, I don't want to think about it.  I don't want to spend the time to try to find activities for them because the pessimistic Mr. Aion on my shoulder is telling me "why bother? They are just going to talk over you anyway! They are just going to not do it anyway."

I've been trying extremely hard this year not to listen to him.  I've been trying to listen to the other guy who reminds me that some of them come from horrible circumstances and them just showing up to school is a victory.  He reminds me that they are still children and don't have fully developed frontal cortexes (cortices?) and impulse control hasn't been developed.  He reminds me that I love solving puzzles and this is just another puzzle to figure out.

He reminds me that if I would put in the extra effort to find, develop and prepare more or different activities, I might eventually find one that gets them excited about my class.

It's days like this, internal debates like this, that make me wonder (again) if I am too lazy to be a good teacher.

In period 8/9, I taught to four students while the rest sang and danced around the room.

I know that classroom management and lesson planning are tied together and that, while there are off-days, good lessons will lead to good management because students will be engaged.  But I find myself asking myself the kinds of questions I asked last year and I hate it.

I would truly appreciate some guidance.  I promise that I will try not reply with reasons why it won't work.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Day 89: ALL THE SKILLS (By Accident...)

2-hour delay.

Midterm in Geometry.  I told them to make it VERY clear which answer they were choosing because in the case of ambiguity, I would mark it wrong.

The results are mixed.  The facts are that they did not do nearly as well as I would like (60% average, mostly clustered around there with a few outliers in the 80's and 90's) and in addition to this, the problems that most of the students got wrong were ones that we had gone over in class.  Problems that I thought would be a stretch and would require more critical thinking and extension didn't seem to be a problem.

So then I think about analysis:

Optimist: Students have little retention for facts, but have developed excellent extrapolation skills.  When they encounter a problem that they KNOW they don't know (like the word "centroid" that was never mentioned in class), they attack it like a puzzle, determining which answers make sense, which ones don't and how to narrow it down.

In reality, this EXACTLY what I want them to do.  This is the skill that will serve them the best in life and my ultimate goal for my classroom.

Pessimist: When students encounter problems that they know they SHOULD know, they dig through their brains for the first thing that looks similar, feeling that their recall of facts and formulae should be better and if it came up, it must be the right one.  This is my failure as their teacher for not doing a better job of instilling certain values of checking work, taking time etc.  A major misconception among math students is that doing a problem quickly means you are better at math.  Too many of my students turned their tests claiming that they checked their work, but the mistakes I see are simple ones.

I need to have a conversation with some other teachers to discuss a good way to encourage students to check their work...

In pre-algebra, we talked about ratios and unit rates.  I would like to find a fun activity for them to do next week, but the most engagement I get from them is pounding through worksheets.  I know I've written about this before, but I'm still struggling with getting them to be engaged in more interesting, thought-provoking activities.

If I can find something that's a good hybrid of mindless grinding and active participation, it may help to transition them to higher levels of learning and comprehension.

One of my students told me today that her step-mother kicked her and her 10-month-old brother out of the house.  The reasoning was that my student was not doing a good enough job of taking care of her brother.  This upsets me greatly, but it doesn't surprise me.  The major struggles of a low-income school isn't that the school has no money (although that's a huge issue) it's the community that is built around that school.

If students are not safe and secure, they can never learn.  If you want to improve public schools, improve the public communities.

Depressing quote of the day: "I cannot get an F! I am NOT a failure!"

I know you aren't.  The F only signifies that you failed to demonstrate mastery of the topic.

Also, I love dry erase markers...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Day 88: EdCamp Midterm, Day 2

As much as I love having the kids teach each other, asking me minimal questions, I was bored.

There are much worse problems to have as a teacher.

I think this may also be why I prefer lecture-style teaching.  I like to talk.  I like to explain.  I like to tell stories.  This is one of the reasons why it has been very difficult for me to hand over the reigns in my class.  I've spoken before about how, unless I'm lecturing or going over problems, it doesn't feel as though I'm "teaching."

I think that one of the major changes in my educational philosophy has been a partial shift away from direct instruction and towards student-driven instruction.

With that said, near the end of geometry, a discussion about my picture lead to my telling them the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, which somehow lead to me teaching them some basic calculus.  I can't remember the sequence of conversation, but we did end up there...

I must have been in a story telling mood because I told my 4th period the story of Prometheus when my student asked why my Promethean Board had a picture of fire as the symbol.

Over the last day or two, while students were making up work in pre-algebra, others began working on the next chapter and defining vocabulary in order to front-load before we dove in.  After story time, we discussed the definitions in a way that went something like:

Me: "Who can give me the definition of 'center'?"
S: "The given point from which all points on a circle are the same distance."
Me: "Great! What does that mean?"
S: "The middle of the circle?"
Me: "Ok, so what makes it the middle? Just being inside?"
S: "No. It has to be the exact middle?"
Me: "What does that mean?"
S: "It's as far away from the outside no matter how you measure it."

It continued on like this.

The discussion of definitions using pictures and examples continued through the entire period.  The group of 4 or 5 students who are rarely engaged were DEEPLY engaged in the discussion, asking insightful clarifying questions.

The rest of the class, however, was spaced out, talking, doing other homework, etc.

It's often hard for me to balance how to grab everyone.  When I don't grab those 4 or 5, they are so disruptive that I am constantly having to stop whatever I'm doing to get them back on task.  When they ARE on task, they dominate the discussion, not letting other students participate in a meaningful way.

Perhaps this is why these kids were split up at the beginning of the year...

I know that it benefits students to be with others of mixed ability levels, but there are limits to that.  It's why schools have "honors" courses.

My lack of energy caught up with me by the end of the day.  I simply did not have the energy to talk over a room full of rowdy students, nor to wrangle them.  After 30 minutes of being talked over, ignored, and interrupted, using every trick I knew to regain attention, I decided that they were clearly not ready to learn and I had a book that I wanted to read.

We will try again tomorrow.  There is always tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Day 87: EdCamp Midterm

First response from my female students: "His hair is brown, Mr. Aion!"

I can't say that I've ever had an effective method of test review for my students.  What I HAVE had is a comfortable, familiar method.  Stop me if you've heard this one!

Students come into the room and tell them we're going to have a test soon.  They groan as though we don't have a test at the end of EVERY chapter.  I give them a review packet or practice test.  Sometimes, I go CRAZY and let them work on it in groups, asking each other and me for help with problems they don't understand.  After a sufficient amount of time has passed, I pull the class back together and go over any specific questions that students have.  Then we have a test.

Over the past few months, I've been preaching the gospel of EdCamp, the self-directed style of professional development is something that speaks to me on a deeply personal level.  I have previously written about EdcampPGH (and will again after the next one in April) and tell my colleagues how they should be attending.

So I'm ashamed that it took me so long to come up with this idea.

Today, I hosted EdCampMidterm!

With the 2-hour delay this morning, I had more than enough time to set up my room in a mini-version of the Big Board from EdCamp.  Here's the idea:

Yesterday, the geometry students received a 71 question Midterm Review Packet.  They were given all day yesterday to work on it and were told they would also get today and part of tomorrow, with the midterm on Friday.

When they came in today, they saw sign-up sheets on the walls for numbers 1-72 in 8 questions increments.  They were told to sign up for any number that they feel they could adequately explain to another student.  There are a maximum of 4 spaces per number.

When a student has a question about number 43, instead of asking me, they go to the Big Board, see who understands that question and then seeks help from that student.

  • Students are teaching each other, thus solidifying their own understanding of concepts
  • Multiple sign-ups per question allow a student to choose who teaches them, not being forced to rely on someone with whom they not get along
  • Looking at the sign up sheets, I can clearly see which questions I need to address to the class as a whole (ones with no sign-ups)
  • Instead of putting themselves out there with their weaknesses (raising their hand to ask questions) students are putting themselves out there with their strengths ("This is what I can help you with")
Anticipated Trouble Spots:
  • A student signs up for nothing
    • Talk with student about what issues they are having, work with them on a problem, once they work through an answer, encourage them to sign up for that problem to help others
  • A student unwilling to help a specific student
    • I didn't think this would be a huge problem because my students love to show off what they know, but I had to keep my eyes and ears open for social difficulty
  •  Student teaching each other with mistakes
    • Dealing with this is a simple matter of being present and observing the interactions
Occasionally, I am SUPER pumped to try out an activity with my kids.  This is one that I'm VERY excited about.

I am hesitant to try this with my pre-algebra students, but I will on the next test they take.  Today was just a pilot to see if the idea is sound.

I approached one of my pre-algebra students who had nothing on his desk.  I asked if he was working on the Emperor's New Math Homework.  When he didn't get the reference, I told him and his friends the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.  When I had finished, they had this conversation:

"I don't get it..."
"He saying you butt naked in your work!"

On a totally unrelated note, I did a teaching podcast when I first in the classroom.  I found out today that I was quoted in a book called Podcasting for Teachers! (Page 232) How cool!!

Also, more of my students wore Doctor Who gear today!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Day 86: Easy Day for Mr. A!

With the end of the marking period approaching, there is nothing more important than allowing students time to make up the work they neglected over the course of the marking period.

That was only partially sarcastic.  In the past, I had a make-up week because it made for an easy time for me.  I didn't really care if they made up the work, but it was a great way to cover my butt when my failure rates were over 50%.  "I gave them a ton of time to make up work.  If they chose not to do it, that's on them!"

This year, I'm still allowing a ton of time for them to make-up work, but for a different reason.  I haven't moved enough towards Standards Based Grading, but the philosophy is there.  Traditional grading uses grades to punish student for two things that I feel it shouldn't:
  1. Grades are effected by behavior.  This means that students grades go down when they don't turn in assignments, don't participate in class, etc..  There is merit to this if your educational goal is to teach them responsibility and task completion.  These are important skills and they should be taught, but I'm not sure they should be covered under the auspices of content.  There are content standards that talk about perseverance and problem solving, but none that state "students will complete tasks on time."  This may be an oversight, but it's not there.  Along these same lines...
  2. Traditional grading imposes arbitrary timetables on learning. As long as school years are broken into semesters, trimesters, marking periods and the like, we will never get away from this.  To a certain extent, I don't think we should.  We do need deadlines of a sort in order to move content along but I think about tests and ask myself the following question: "If the test is Thursday, why should a student be penalized for mastering the content on Friday?"
SBG takes cares of both of these concerns.  Students have 0's for skills they have not demonstrated, which does impose a bit of a deadline, but once they demonstrate that skill, they receive no penalty for the timing of it.  If they have mastered the skill, they have mastered the skill.  It takes much of the pressure off of students in terms of "I have to know this by Friday!"

Similarly, it adds a different kind of pressure.  Under the traditional grading system, if a student bombs a test, they have little to no incentive to go back and master that content.  They know the test is over and, while it MAY appear on future tests, it most likely won't.  SBG takes off the pressure of "I have to know this by Friday" while having students remember "I still have to know this."

In the LEGO video games, there is no pressure to finish quickly.  There are even incentives to taking your time and exploring the environment. At the same time, completion of a level doesn't mean the end of that level, but allows the player additional privileges, such as playing with new characters and new skills.  There are certain areas in each level that can only be accessed by characters with skills that have to be unlocked throughout the game.
"Only 2 more chapters until I can take my Geometry test as Darth Maul!"

The more I think about gamification and SBG, the more I realize that there needs to be this same structure in education.  Students need to have incentives to explore the current environment if they wish to.  They need to have "unlockables" that benefit them in a direct way as they complete missions, making future missions either easier, or more fun.
One of the reasons why I have been putting off gamifying my class is because I have no idea what rewards to give kids! I would rather they be intrinsic, but I think I am too traditional of a teacher to come up with something viable.

There are simply too many things that I want to do in my classroom...

Except grade.  I don't wanna do that.

On a more specific note, there are two girls who have been ... difficult since the start of the year.  Recently, they have had a change of heart.  I have not questioned it, just encouraged and helped them as much as possible.  While much of the class was pretending to do work while discussing shoes and weekend plans, theses two were working diligently on a make-up test, debating ideas and solutions.

I am so amazingly proud of them.

Also, I have some super cool students...

Friday, January 17, 2014

Day 85: Applications and Grinding

You can't really see it, but there are tiny stars on the flag.

After the complaint about grades yesterday, I decided I needed to grade something.  So my geometry students got a series of activities from the 4 chapters we have already covered.  Each activity is from a book called "School-to-Career Masters" and all deal with applying the topics of that chapter to various professions.  The activities range from navigation to robotics to engineering.

I gave each kid 5 activities and asked them to complete at least 3.  The majority of the students did at least 4 and were very into all of them.  Near the end of the period, a few asked if, since they were finished with theirs, they could take the rest of the time to study for a Spanish test.  I let them do so and found it interesting to watch how the interacted while they studied for another subject.

One of the things that schools never seem to teach is how to study for tests.  When they study for me, they read practice problems.  Studying for Spanish, they quizzed each other by reciting vocab words.

I have no idea how to study for anything, which is why I was a terrible student...

I concluded the class by showing them the Google document where I've been storing all of the whiteboard questions.  I explained that it was an open document where anyone could add prompts.  To demonstrate the power of collaboration over social networks, I tweeted the link and the students were able to watch the number of active participants jump.  They were also able to see someone edit the document in real time.

It was a great way for them to see how they could interact and collaborate outside of their own worlds.  They also told me that my drawings are getting better!

I wanted the pre-algebra kids doing some more practice problems, working on setting up the Pythagorean Theorem, so I gave them a worksheet of mindless practice, which they happily worked on in groups without complaint.  They asked questions (good ones) and corrected their mistakes.

I'm beginning to wonder if my attempts to give them more engaging lessons and activities have burned them out.  I'm not giving up on the more involved activities.  I want them to be better at problem solving, but I think by trying to do it every day, I haven't done a good job of meeting them where they are and helping to be where I want them to be.

I keep forgetting that this is a process, and one with which they aren't familiar.  I can't expect them to be willing to jump as far out of their comfort zones as I would like.

At least not right away.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Day 84: "Lecture Practice" or "Lecture, Practice"

One of my geometry students, in a fit of frustration, asked if we were doing something today that would give him a grade.  When I asked him about it, he said he just wanted to learn something.  I tried to explain to him that we were learning things and, through snippets of conversation, figured out that he wanted a higher grade and thought that "learning something" meant memorizing a formula.

This is a student who has been doing very well in terms of participation and engagement.

A direct instruction lesson on Pythagorean Theorem in my 4th period turned into a lecture about how you could use trig and the Pythagorean Theorem to determine the radius of the Earth.  It went from there to a discussion about various professions that use geometry and why Pennsylvania is called the Keystone State.

The engagement, especially among the students who normally tune me out, was almost complete.  Kids who look half asleep on the best of days were alert and asking great follow-up questions.

It may have been because I started by telling them that I wasn't going to ask them to do a problem, that I just wanted to show them.  Then I had them do it anyway in an informal way.  They were amazed.

I've been thinking a considerable amount about the correlation of the success of "non-traditional" lessons to how a community values education.  I don't mean for it to be a judgement, because it truly isn't.  Several of my students had a discussion today about the last time they slept in an actual bed.  One students sleeps on a couch with her mom, her sister and her cousin.  Education is important, but other considerations come first.

The conclusion that I've come to is that it depends entirely on how a person defines "education" and "learning."

If, like I used to (and still sometimes do) you see education as lecture and practice, then projects, no matter how much you love them and how much you learn, will never FEEL like learning.

Even with everything I've seen, done and learned, even with all of the conversations I've had with other teachers, I still only feel as though I'm "teaching" when I'm answering student questions or going over examples.

I wish I could scrub that feeling.

Students drew me pictures of me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Day 83: I Am Tired

I'm running on about 3 hours of VERY broken sleep and my back hurts, so it worked out well that 90% of my geometry class was out, either for a field trip or for standardized testing.

The remaining students and I watched an episode of Mythbusters and then played games.

In pre-algebra, it was another day of direct instruction.  It was almost as successful as yesterday, but close enough to make feel alright about it.  Our warm-up on Estimation 180 lead to a discussion about comparing volumes, which lead to a discussion about gas mileage, at which point I managed to get us back on topic.

My throat hurts from talking so much and from trying to wrangle kids back to attention,but I've noticed two very important things:

1) The kids who weren't engaged with the projects weren't engaged in this lesson either
2) The kids who spend class talking to each other, continue to talk to each other and refuse to complete tasks unless stood over.

The old me would use this information to claim that disruptive students will continue to be no matter what you do, but I don't believe that's true.  I completely and whole-heartedly believe that different students will engage in different way for different types of lessons.

There are those who prefer and excel with projects, those who prefer and excel with direct instruction, those who prefer and excel with group work, individual work, etc.

The true trick of education is finding a way to organize a classroom full of all of these types of learners in a way that maximizes attention and engagement.

But if you're reading this blog, you probably already know that.

I just don't know have any idea how to do it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Day 82 (Again): Back to Basics

I've been trying to break my classes away from the traditional approach of direct instruction.  I have been spending a considerable amount of energy finding, creating or curating activities and tasks that are more than just rote calculation.

I not willing to say that it has been a failure in my pre-algebra classes, but I will say that it has not produced the results I've been looking for.  My frustration has been momumental.

That was not a typo.

I say "momumental" in that it has given birth to a plan.  I am going back to "I do, we do, you do."  I am going over Pythagorean Theorem (the chapter we just finished) as though we never talked about it.

It was one of the better classes I've had in a long time.

Today's pre-algebra class went as follows:

Remind students about the activity we did dealing with squaring the sides of right triangles
Obtain Pythagorean Theorem
Slowly set up equation
Go over one example, explaining my thinking
Go over second example, asking for student input
Ask students to do third example
"Good! Do the next three on your own!"
Circulate, redirect, encourage
Ask for volunteers to put up answers
Discuss as a class
Give more problems to work on
Assign practice as homework

It could be the familiar routine that students were responding to.

Or it could have been the 2 hours worth of parent phone calls I made last night.

The world may never know.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Day 81 (Again): TEST DAY!

A terrible question for my students, but a great drawing!

Apparently, I was amiss in my day numbering.  Apparently, we don't count days that were canceled so today is really only 81.

Knowing that today was going to be Test day in all of my classes, I made a huge mistake over the weekend.  I had a great time and didn't think about school at all.

That's not exactly true.  I thought math and such, and how to demonstrate real world math to my classes, but I didn't think about "lessons" or "grading."

After doing some estimation, I had the students watch a few videos about exponential growth, including my own video in which I make pasta!

I haven't put in grades in my classes in over a month and it's making me insanely conflicted.

The old-school Justin is FREAKING OUT because he used to put in grades every week and we have a district policy that says grades have to be updated weekly.

The new-school Justin has really been enjoying the learning environment in which his students have been exploring math without the pressure of grades.  They have been completing assignment very well, participating in discussions and becoming better at their chosen skills.  They just haven't been graded on them.

This morning, several geometry kids asked me the same question: "Are you going to update grades?"

The follow-up is really what bothered me: "My dad is really unhappy with my grade."

We are never going to get away from the destructive A-F grading system until parents stop pushing for it.  I've been trying to move towards Standards Based Grading, but I haven't given it the fair amount of time that it requires.  On top of that, I'll still have to translate it back to an A-F system at the end of the grading period.

At the same time, there is something in the back of my mind that's nagging at me, making me wonder if the real reason I've become so anti-grading is out of sheer laziness.  I don't wanna do grades. I just wanna teach!  I want to explore mathematics with my students and not worry about developing a numerical system for evaluating their knowledge.

No matter how many times I tell them otherwise, students can't seem to stop using grades as a measure of self-worth.

Maybe I should start telling myself the same thing about student engagement not being a measure of my value as a teacher.

I think I'm starting to psych myself out.  I think I was expecting, with such a drastic change in me, there would be a drastic change in the students.  There may be over time, but not as instantly as I would want.

I need to keep reminding myself of that.

Do the best you can and don't stress about the rest.

But am I doing the best I can?

I doubt it.

Upon further inspection, 3 geometry students have C's while the rest have B's and A's.  In the pre-algebra classes, however, there are 5 C's, 7 D's and everyone else has an F...

This is similar to the grade books for the science, social studies and English teachers for the same children.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Day 82: A Brand New Day

I don't spend enough time telling my students how proud I am of them.  Every person is fighting a battle that other people know nothing about.  I have a tendency to forget this.

Since I spent all of geometry yesterday talking about theoretical physics, today we I gave the students the chapter test review from Monday.  I also gave them another problem from Go Geometry as a practice problem/puzzle.

Immediately, several differences between this class and the pre-algebra classes became apparent.

First, every group was instantly on task, not wanting to waste a minute of review.  I had to constantly be on top of the pre-algebra groups to keep them on task.

Next, I overheard several comments similar to "that problem is TOO easy! We won't get good practice and he won't pick it for the test!"  I had to remind several groups that the "Easy" problems should be ones that they know with minimal thinking, while the "Hard" ones should be difficult, but still doable in a reasonable amount of time.  These reminders were usually followed up by "This problem you have listed as 'Easy' is actually a 'Medium' or 'Hard.'"  I debated keeping my big mouth shut and letting them work those problems out, but I didn't want them to get stumped on a problem they thought was "easy" and lose confidence in their abilities.

The accountable talk around the room was amazing.

The pre-algebra students were put into groups and worked on a practice chapter test.  They were told that all students in the group would earn the same grade and if that grade was an A, the students in that group wouldn't have to take the REAL test.  In 4th period, the students that one might classify as "lower-level" or "middle-level" students, the ones who typically struggle with the content, worked VERY hard.

The ones who could ace the test with minimal effort did almost nothing.  However, since the majority of the class was on task, I was able to focus attention on those students who needed the attention, either for academic or behavioral reasons.

The assignment was, however, about 20 minutes (or 10 questions) too long for the attention spans.  The groups worked VERY well until that point when they either burned out, lost interest, lost momentum, or found something shiny.

As bad I as felt at the end of the day yesterday, today was MUCH better.  It reminds me of something I desperately need to remember.

Every day is a new day.  Each one will be somewhere on the spectrum between heaven and hell.

This job is a lot of things, but boring is not one of them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Day 81: **This Space Intentionally Blank**

I managed to watch TV in my geometry class this morning.  After explaining that the show has more math and science PhD's on the writing staff than any other show, I played an episode of Futurama.  The episode I chose was "2-D Blacktop" which was a mixture of "The Fast & The Furious" and "Flatland."  After making multiple jokes about dimensions, the crew of the Planet Express ship actually gets thrown into a 2D world, where Professor Farnsworth explains many differences between living in 2D and living in 3D.

Afterwards, we had an incredible discussion about the differences between the dimension and what it would be like being a 3rd dimensional creature in a 2nd dimensional universe.

Then, just to hurt them, I showed them animation of a hypercube.

If we had the technology (computers, iPads, smart phones, etc.) I would have had them write down their questions and find the answers on their own.

I'm also toying with the idea of having "Futurama/Physics Friday" where we watch an episode of either Futurama or Cosmos, or something like that, have the students write down questions and then have a discussion afterwards.

I told them at the beginning of the year that I am less interested in them mastering geometry than I am in having them become passionate and interested in SOMETHING.  I stand by that statement and I will happily teach them whatever they want to learn, whether or not it's in the curriculum.

Those three paragraphs took me 15 minutes to write as I kept getting distracted by the hypercube.

Before my pre-algebra class even came in, I could feel the dread welling up and was immediately angry with myself.  I don't know how to help this class.  I spoke with them about my fears and concerns.  I talked about classroom dynamics and how ours was thrown off (not ruined, but changed) when the new students entered my room.  I explained that it wasn't their fault, but something we were going to have to work on together.

I tried to have a discussion about what they were interested in and they thought it was a trick.  They began by giving me answers like "I am interested in music and music is all about math, so I need to learn math."  I think we have failed a large portion of these kids.  They think every question is a trick question.

Student: "We would do more work if it was something that we were interested in!"
Me: "I completely understand. What are you interested in? I will do my very best to make this class a place that you want to come and learn.  What do you want to learn about?"
S: "It doesn't matter."

I know why she said it, but it doesn't change anything.

I pulled an activity from Yummy Math about whether a football team should run, punt, or kick a field goal from the 4th down based on where they are.  I gave it to two different groups.  In one, a great discussion sprouted forth about the situations in which the statistics failed and the shortcomings of statistics.

While they were talking about that, I went to work with another group about Pythagorean theorem.  We went through an activity that we did before break about creating squares on the sides of a right triangle.  They were working VERY well.  Until I walked away.

This is such a common problem, that I want to cry.  In a smaller class, I can always be close enough to get kids back on task, but in 4th period, it is simply too big.  It feels as though I'm playing a game of academic Whack-a-Mole.  No matter how on task a group is, as soon as I walk away, they stop.

There are 5 kids who are able to consistently work independently.  I get them started and then make my rounds putting out fires.  It doesn't seem to matter what activity we do.  Since my class doubled in size, the amount of work that gets done has decreased drastically.  I have yet to figure out a formation for the class that allows students to be themselves and still complete the tasks.

Last year, I would have been angry or indifferent about the lack of progress.  This year, I'm just sad.  I can't get over the feeling that I am failing a large group of kids, some of whom WANT to learn, and I don't have any idea what to do about it.

That depression is starting to carry over to other classes as well.  If I'm not serving these students as they should be, I may not be in the other classes as well.

I don't know how much geometry I'm teaching the geometry class.  They are interested and involved and engaged, which I really want, but is that my job?

I seem to be solidly in the middle of a crisis of confidence and purpose.  I don't know what I'm doing, so I'm going to stop typing right n

Monday, January 6, 2014

Day 78: Welcome Back!!

At 1 am, I was awakened by the buzz of my phone.  In anticipation of a delay, I was immediately alert, but it was nothing more than a notification from Twitter.

At 3:30 am, I was awakened again, this time by the sound of the wind blowing rain and, what I can only assume was small animals and rocks, against the side of my house.

"That sounds awful! Surely, they will call a delay with weather like this!" But alas, it was not to be.

At 4:36, my alarm went off and I began a morning routine that I have not done in 16 days.  I gathered clothes in the dark, quietly as to not wake my wife, started a pot of coffee and went to shower.  After coffee and breakfast, I checked closures and delays again to find nothing, except that the entire state of Minnesota was closed.  The phrase used all over my internet alerts was "Arctic Blast!!"

I bit the bullet, got in my car and began my drive to work, thinking about my plans for the day as well as the drawing and question that I was going to put on my back board.

No sooner had I entered the highway than my phone rang, notifying me of a 2-hour delay!  We have a district policy, however, that all teachers must be at school at the regular time, so I continued my commute, albeit slower and more careful.

Halfway to school, I watched an SUV with more weight and better tires than my little car completely spin out for no apparent reason.  Luckily, everyone was far enough away that we were able to avoid him with renewed caution.

Within 30 seconds of witnessing this, I lost control of my car and watched in slow motion as I went slowly, but inevitably, towards the ONLY telephone pole in a 100 foot radius.  Luckily, my tires got traction as the last minute as I managed to just scrape the front of my car on the curb.

With that trial completed, I made it the rest of the way to school without incident.  I then sat in my classroom for over an hour, doing menial tasks to keep busy while the network, and therefore all of the computers and printers, were down.

Over break, I saw a great triangle problem posted on the interwebs over at Go Geometry.

Rather than have my geometry students grind through a list of mindless crap, I assigned this one problem for them to work on in groups for the whole period.  None of them completed it, which is great, but they all worked hard, which is better.

I wanted to ease all of my classes back into the routines of school without overloading their minds.

The plan for pre-algebra was to have them develop their own Chapter Review Test/Packet.  I gave them blank sheets and asked them, as a group, to find one easy, one medium and one hard problem from each section.  They were then to work through each problem and produce a good example of each.
The results were disappointing.  One group picked three easy problems for the first section (square roots.)  When I explained to them that their medium and hard questions were too easy if they could do them in their heads, and they would benefit from picking more challenging problems, they quit the activity entirely rather than redo 2 problems.  I tried talking with them to get them back to work, but they completely checked out and looked through me as though I wasn't there.

I will try again with them tomorrow.

My 4th period has 28 kids who need constant attention to remain on task.  They are very bright, but their persistence needs a ton of work, so if I'm not standing over them, they have difficulty completing tasks.  They are, for the most part, what I would classify as "passive learners."

My 8th period, with a few minor exceptions, did MUCH better with the activity.  We started with 6 groups and 5 actually working.  After about 20 minutes, it became 5 groups with 4 actually working.  I circulated through, encouraging and helping when needed.  Most of the groups divided the work and each worked on a different section.

I like this kind of activity because it isn't just mindless calculation of practice problems.  It requires students to actively evaluate the complexity and difficulty of problems, selected ones of varying levels.  In the 8th period, it seemed to sink in that I was going to make the test based on what questions they chose.  Knowing that another group may pick something more complex drove certain students to work harder, hoping not to be tricked on test day.

I think I will do this more often for test and quiz review.

Also, one of my students couldn't wait to show me his socks today!

On another note, school has been cancelled for tomorrow and we have a 2-hour delay on Wednesday.
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