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

1. justin,you might try selecting two social goals for your groups to work on in addition to the academic task and then monitor through the activity, collecting data on the number of times you noticed them meeting the social goals. Congratulate them, let them know that you really noticed how they worked together. praise brother… and constant monitoring to let them know when you notice a minute success within the group's dynamics. just a thought love.

1. This is a really good idea! Thank you. Other than "Stop talking over me with snide remarks about how much you hate me" what do you think would be good goals?

That was a little too snarky of me.

Maybe things like:
Taking turns talking
Rephrasing group members contributions: "What I hear you saying is..."
Complimenting contributions

2. I'm flashing back to a semester where I decided to *really* work on my organization skills. I kept a log....
.... it was the worst semester of my life. In July, I looked back at the log and realized that I'd been regularly, systematically verbally abusing myself ("this is the stupid thing I did *today.*") Pretty good recipe for depression...
Might not have anything to do with your situation but be sure to write out the successes, too, and make sure it's in your internal dialogue.

1. This is a very good point. I think much of my self-loathing comes from my perceived expectations from administrations and higher up (What content I should be covering rather than what skills I should be teaching.) None of this was ever explicitly stated, but there is constant talk about testing.

Last year I didn't care if they were learning or not. I put all of the responsibility on them "If you don't want to learn, that's your issue, not mine."

This year, I think I may care too much and I'm not putting enough responsibility on them. If they aren't engaged, or aren't doing work, I wonder about what I did wrong.

I need to find a balance.

3. How can I get that Futurama episode? Is it on Netflix?

1. It is! I think Episode 2 of season 10

4. It's obvious that you care. They will come around. How many students are in your pre-algebra class? How much time do you get to spend teaching them each week?

1. I have 5 90 minute periods a week with each class. The one I'm having difficulty with has 28 kids. There were 15 up until the beginning of November when they put 13 more in there.

It's not really the size that I'm having difficulty with. It's the social make-up. Everyone is friends with everyone and seem to encourage bad habits in each other.

5. COSMOS! you know that NdT is doing a new version, starting in March, right?

I don't have a lot of advice on the tough audience. Do they know much about you? It's easy to get on-guard when you're dreading something (that 2nd period at my old school... erg!), but maybe it'd loosen them up over time?

You're clearly doing right by them, being worried about what they get out of your class. Sometimes, just having a safe classroom is a lot (and I know you've got other examples of being the "safe" teacher).

1. OF COURSE I know that! I think it will go over VERY well with many of my students once he does.

I don't know how right I'm doing, but I will admit that I'm trying. I hate to think that the last two year, when my students were afraid of me, they were more willing to do work.

2. "When your students were afraid of you" ... sounds like what you got from them was compliance -- it's clear following your blog that you're hoping for more from them this year. Interest, engagement...

With that in mind, I just assigned the following chapter to my preservice teachers. I don't know if it has any answers for you or not, but it might help you frame your thinking a bit.

3. In previous years, I believed that if students complied, then we could do all of the interesting things. I expected them to meet me before I met them.

I still expect compliance, but now I expect it because I have earned respect and shown them that I have their best interests at heart. Not compliance for the sake of compliance.

6. I like the social goals idea a lot. I'm also wondering whether - even though it's a lot of work - set up something where they are responsible for their own learning goals - kind of a checklist of all the skills you want them to master (including social/group work skills?), and then a system whereby they can self-select/work on/practice that which they need to work on. You would need to create a lot of the structure for them, but once it was set up, your role would be more to keep them on track.

I had a 90 minute trial-by-fire class my first year of teaching - I had about a third of the students you have, but all the same issues and envelope-pushing behavior. I feel your pain, friend.

7. Here's a thought on your large group that is having difficulty.....maybe what is needed is to take one giant step back and do some team building, norm establishing like you do at the very beginning of the year. I would try beginning the class with a discussion of the problem and then ask the students to come up with the norms for working together in class. Have one of the students record the suggestions on the board/overhead/chart paper. Ask the students to condense those norms down to about 5 main behaviors. Then engage in the team building activity. The are lots of ideas out there for team constructions (geometry, problem-solving). Have each group rate themselves on each of the 5 behaviors/you rate the entire class on the 5 behaviors. Talk about it from a positive point of view. I agree with one of the others above - try to focus more on the positive that you AND the kids are doing well. It's going to take a while for change to occur in a group that has a different focus. Your compassion and caring is going to drive the change. Kids are looking to us to lead the way. As much as we and they would like them to be in charge, most of them feel powerless in most areas of life and have no clue where to start. Afterall, they're kids. We've got the life experience.

Justin, I applaud you for your courage in the face of these circumstances. I know how hard it is with large groups. I have three classes of 30/31 students and two others with 23 and 28. One of those groups of 30 is filled with all the students with IEPS, three major behavior problems, a hearing impaired child, and an assortment of pre-teen chatty girls. In one of my other classes yesterday, one of my students was having a "puppet show" with some glue sticks and other materials on his desk, wrapped his sweater around his head, and was in and out of his seat like a jack-in-the-box. Highly unusual behavior for my star "nerd". Seems as though his medication dosage was half the usual rate! OMG! There is so much for teachers to deal with every day - you've practically got to be a super hero just for showing up! LOL Keep reaching out - we can offer ideas for you. Something will make the difference!

Take heart, my friend - it will get better.

8. Justin -
First, well done. These questions and reflections are necessary.
Second, I agree with MsJudi and Valerie. Taking a step back is helpful.

My class had a similar situation, here's how I handled it:

Short thesis: I sacrificed a dynamic classroom where no one was learning everything for an old-school one where most of them were learning something.

Period 4 took a giant leap backwards, as far as dynamic classrooms go. They couldn't handle engagement or discussion, so we went back all the way to compliance. We did regular Direct Instruction, take notes, do a practice activity.

Meanwhile, the other classes were going outside, taking pictures of stuff on their phones for math responses, and playing math games.

How long do you think it took for 4th period to ask why they weren't getting those activities?

Here's how the conversation went:

Stef: Mr. Vaudrey, how come we don't get to go outside?
Vaudrey: Why do you think?
Mark: Because we keep talking?
Vaudrey: Oh, I don't mind talking. Look around, lots of students are talking right now.
Maria: Why, then?
Vaudrey: Because I don't trust you to stay focused. We tried doing those activities, and it was too much work for me to keep everybody on board. Do you want to do those activities?
Many students: Yeah!
Vaudrey: (Surprised) Oh! Okay! We'll try one tomorrow and see how it goes.

The activity that day lasted about 2 minutes before Robert lost focus. Next (and I don't do this often), I rebuked Robert loud enough for the class to hear. When he continued, we stopped the activity and went back inside.

Middle School have mush for a frontal lobe; they can't understand the big picture: when to talk and when not to (which is why it drives me nuts when teachers use words like "inappropriate", thinking that 12-year-olds will understand the abstraction). By giving a concrete example of what I wanted with very clear goals, Period 4 turned their ire where it belonged:

Onto Robert.

The next time, they were policing each other and we made it longer into the activity.

Bad news: That battle of "ending cool lessons early" kept up throughout the year. Sometimes we made it through a whole thing, but only when they did it on my terms.

Short thesis: I sacrificed a dynamic classroom where no one was learning everything for an old-school one where most of them were learning something.