Friday, August 29, 2014

Day 5: Problem Solving and Plane Segments

The more I thought about the vocab activity from yesterday, the less I liked it.  Or, more accurately, the less confident I became in the efficacy of the activity and whether it would be worth the investment over time.

Isn't that the true question about deciding which activities to use in class?

Will the activity be worth training the students?

There are activities and projects that the students grasp right off the bat and are able to utilize for higher level purposes, like content and skill development.  There are other activities that require multiple iterations for students to understand how they work before those higher purposes can be achieved.

When you were an economics undergrad, everything is about cost-benefit analysis.

Pre-algebra started talking about problem solving strategies today.  A fairly lengthy conversation ensued in which we talked about the steps that we should take for solving problems and we worked out 4 steps for doing so:

Then we put them to use!

It costs Mr. Brown and his son $13 to go to the movies.  Mrs. Smith took both of her children and it cost $18.  How much will it cost Mrs. Beauregard to take 4 children to the movies?

1) What am I looking for?
S: "We are looking for the cost for Mrs. B and her 4 kids to go the movies?"
Me: "Does it have to be that specific? Can you back it up a bit and talk about general terms?"
S: "We want the cost of 1 adult and 4 kids to go to the movies."

2) What do I need to know?
S: "We need to know the cost for 1 adult and 1 child."
Me: "Why only 1 child?"
S: "If we know the cost of 1, we can find the cost of 4."

3) Do it!
At the direction of the students, I drew the following:

4) Does my answer make sense?
Me: "What were we looking for?"
S: "The price to send that woman and her 4 kids to the movies?"
Me: "And what did we find?"
S: "How much it costs for 1 adult and 4 kids to go to the movies."
Me: "So, did we find what we wanted?"
S: "Yes."
Me: "Does it make sense that it would cost $28 dollars for 1 adult and 4 kids to go to the movies? (Ignoring the absurdly cheap prices.)
S: "Yes!"

Then I gave them a group of other problems to work on.  They worked in groups, moving around the room to get with people who could help them (without my prompting them to do so.)

A student asked if she could use the calculator on her phone.  I stopped the class and we had a quick talk about the cell phone use policy in the school and how they could use their phones for this task, but if I saw them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, etc. I would be required to take the phone.  They agreed that it was reasonable and there were no problems.

I was able to circulate through the room, working with students from the rest of the period.  When students got stuck, I directed them back to the 4 steps.  Since they were a bit rusty from summer, I chose problems that were not overly taxing, but also not straight forward.  I heard great conversations from groups with students convincing each other of their reasoning.

"So we have 1 chaperone for every 8 kids, so if we have 8 chaperones, that means we have 3 kids left over."
"If we divide it, we get 8.3 chaperones."
"Look at step 4. That answer doesn't make sense. How can you have .3 chaperones? That's a person, yo! You got to have a whole other chaperone for those 3 kids!"
"So 9 chaperones?"

I was giddy!

8th period started off poorly with one of my repeating students having to be removed because he couldn't control himself enough to stop talking.  I asked him to stand in the hallway to cool down and when I invited him back in, he refused.

After that, the rest of the class was great! We had the same talk that I had with period 1 and they worked incredibly well on the problems!  Groups formed again on their own and they utilized the "vertical non-permanent surfaces and visible random groupings."  There were, again, great discussions among some of the groups about what answers are reasonable.

I was very impressed with the work and effort that many of the groups were displaying.

In geometry, we had a talk about maturity and how there needs to be a shift in that area.  As "advanced" students, I'm very disappointed in the childish behavior that I'm seeing so far in that class.  We talked about the idea of time and place and I think they understood, but I expect that I'll have to hit it again.

In our discussion about points, lines and planes, I once again talked about An Unstable Chair, which is one of my more popular lessons from geometry last year.  We went back and forth about intersections of lines and planes until one of my students asked me a question that stopped me cold.

"If a piece of a line is a line segment, is there such thing as a plane segment?"

The ensuing discussion didn't last very long, but I can't get the question out of my mind.

This was a good day and I felt good at the end of it.

The cafeteria women made a ham and pineapple pizza just for me!

And I found sunglasses that fit nicely over my regular glasses!  It was a winning day!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Day 4: Front Loading Vocab

Time to start hitting some content!

I have problems with vocabulary assignments.  The ones from my own education that stuck with me were ones where we had to write sentences or stories that utilized the words.  When we copied definitions, I didn't remember any of them.  Especially when we had a giant list to define, the words slipped away from me and it became about copying out of the book.

We have been told that front-loading vocabulary leads to success, I suppose.  So today was a vocabulary day.  In the past, I've given the students a vocab list and had them copy definitions from the book.  This was a great way to fill time and the kids always did it!

And then promptly lost the papers or forgot the words.

This year, I decided to modify my assignment.  Rather than giving every word to every student to mindlessly copy definitions, I split the class into groups of 4 and gave each group 4-5 words to master.  For each word, they filled out a Frayer Diagram, giving a textbook definition, their explanation or drawing of the word, examples and non-examples.  The idea, I explained, was that their group would become experts on the few words that they were assigned.  Then, as a class, we would discuss the answers and put the Frayer worksheets together into a book for the whole class to use.

I encountered the same problem that I did last year, and the year before, and the year before.

When given 20 easy tasks, the students burn through them mindlessly, learning very little.  If, however, I hand them 1 complex task, they give up very easily and don't complete it.  I know that it's early in the year and I'm going to have to spend time training my students on my expectations of writing and various assignments, but I am always disheartened by how little effort many of them are willing to put in.  Some of the others were showing great efforts, but minimal comprehension.  It's clear to me that very few teachers have asked them to define terms in their own words and they struggled with that immensely.

My prompting question was "If you were telling your friend what this was, what would you say?"

This worked for several students, but not all.

We are at that point in the year where the students don't know what I'm asking of them and I don't know how to communicate those needs to them.  I re-ask my questions in different ways, I use analogies and metaphors.

I deeply struggle with meeting them where they are, intellectually, at this stage in the year.  My consolation is that I know (hopefully) that it will turn out alright by the end of the year (hopefully) because it has in the past.  In previous classes, students understood what I was asking of them and if they didn't do it, it's because they chose not to rather than couldn't.

I believe in this activity, but perhaps I need to word my questions better.  Or maybe they just need practice with it.

The geometry students did a much better job with it, and it may have been because I spent more time going over my expectations.

I'm going back to my thinking that students, at this level, in the advanced class are there not because they are smarter than the rest, but rather because they have consistently worked harder.

The geometry students, so far this year as well as last year, show a level of persistence that I simply don't see in the pre-algebra classes.

In period 8/9, the off task behavior and yelling across the room was so prevalent that I had to stop the class and assign them individual work.  I talked about how I need my class to work and, while I'm perfectly fine with talking, work needs to be done as well.

After that, I spent some time walking around the room and working with various students.  I very quickly identified that the disturbance was coming from 4-5 kids while the rest were working VERY hard on what I asked.  I made sure to let them know how much I appreciated their work.

Of the 4-5 kids who were a disturbance, I corrected their behavior and then heaped praise on when they were on task.

We are Pavlovian dogs at heart.  If they don't have the intrinsic motivation to behave constructively, then I will give them extrinsic motivation, reinforcing what I want to see.

The trick will be to not lose my patience during that training.

I'm going back and forth on my thoughts on this vocab activity.  I think it WILL be good, but I'm not sure I know how to make it so for the pre-algebra kids.  The geometry students were invested in it and did a fairly good job.  I don't know what the difference is or how to transfer that to the pre-algebra classes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Day 3: Marshmallows and Drowning Animals

People were congratulating me on a great first day after yesterday's post, but I went home and felt awful.  I was feeling no energy or inspiration for this work and was very disheartened.  Things went smoothly, but I wasn't excited.  I talked about it with some colleagues from Twitter and with my wife, trying to get my head on straight.

My wife very helpfully reminded me that the start of the year is always rough for me.  I went to bed early last night, then got up to work out this morning, put on a clean shirt and came in to school with the hope of turning it around.

My first class went VERY well.  I introduced them to my friend Mr. Stadel and #Estimation180 and we talked about number sense and why it's helpful.  Then, since they didn't get to do it yesterday, they did the Marshmallow Challenge.

I started them with the basic challenge:

Using 20 pieces of spaghetti, 1 yard of string, 1 yard of tape and 1 marshmallow, build the tallest free-standing structure with the marshmallow at the top.

There was a ton of good work coming out of all of the groups, although a casual glance would not have seen that.  A casual glance would have seen kids goofing around and talking about shoes and singing songs.  But under that shell, there were good discussions about stability and utilization of resources.

After 18 minutes, we found that only 2 teams had been able to construct towers and I had them write about their strategies.  I put stickers in their notebooks when they were done and we talked about it as a group.

Then I gave them the chance to do it again with one change.  They could either have 8 mini-marshmallows, or they could use thicker noodles.  Only one group opted for the thicker noodles while the rest wanted the mini-marshmallows.

I won't spoil it by saying which group won, but there were MANY more viable towers the second time around.

This is a chatty group, but very nice and I'm looking forward to getting to know them.  I have almost all of their names memorized already.

Marsha Mallow is proud of these kids!

In geometry and the second class of pre-algebra, we worked on Fawn's Noah's Ark activity.  I started it the way I do with many of my activities: with a story.

I told them how I had made the mistake of watching Noah this summer and what a terrible movie it was.  This lead to a basic explanation of dry docks and why boats dip down into the water rather than being large rafts, like the ark in the movie was. We talked about the importance of the center of balance in a boat and how not to drown the animals.

The geometry kids worked insanely hard for over an hour.  The discussions were excellent and heated.  The groups were eager to get the right answer and got frustrated with my replies.

Them: "Is this right?"
Me: "I have no idea. Tell me how you got it."
Them: **explanation** "Is it right?"
Me: "I'm confused. How did you get this?"
Them: **explanation** "Is it right?"
Me: "Where did this come from?"

etc., etc....

When the period ended, there had yet to be a satisfactory explanation.  Tomorrow, we will talk about the importance of the struggle versus the answer.  I am working on being less helpful.  This is a huge task for me since I love to show off my abilities.

The pre-algebra kids slid in and out of productivity on this task.  A few of the groups spaced out and refused to work, but got back into it with a bit of encouragement.  By the time they got to my room, it was 87 degrees again, so I was much more lenient with my on-task requirements.  As I sort of expected, they, as a group, were much more willing to give their explanations verbally than writing them down.  I will ease them into writing about math, but we will be doing it.  Lots of it.

When I sensed that they were about done, we discussed the problem as a class and I gave them some time to sit and chill (as much as they could in 87 degree heat).  I think I'm going to be much less strict about going bell-to-bell this year.  Down time will need to happen.
It was too hot for Marsha Mallow 

Overall, today was a much better day than yesterday.  I'm going to go home and enjoy that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Day 2: Here We Go! (For Real)

The 8th graders showed up today.

Or at least those 8th graders who weren't assigned to the bus that never arrived...

We sent the 7th graders to homeroom and the 8th graders to the auditorium where they were given the same speech as yesterday and last year about expectations for the school year, reminding them about dress code, acceptable hallway behavior, etc.

I sat in the auditorium feeling nauseated.  I don't know why the start of this year has felt different to me.  Perhaps it's because I was hoping to be in a different place, both mentally and physically, right now.  I sat there, not feeling the excited and rejuvenation of a new school year, but the drag of repetition.

As I watched, a teacher pulled a student out of the main body and sat her to the side (right in front of me) for disruptive behavior.  The girl sat there, complaining and tapping and generally being a 13-year-old who feels that she's been wronged.

When it was time to separate the kids by homeroom, I called my group with a smile on my face, waiting patiently until they were ready.  The young woman who had been pulled aside was in my group.

I had planned to do the marshmallow challenge with them, but the shortened time and first day homeroom clerical stuff cut that out.  Rather than rush it, I decided to do it tomorrow.  Instead, I welcomed them to my class and started talking about the Zome Tools.

I was nervous and started rambling, but the kids seemed very interested.  We talked about geometric prefixes like tri-, oct-, and hex-, as well as the differences between -gon and -hedron.  I made sure to encourage the exploration and participation of the girl who started the day off poorly and by the end of class, she was my buddy.

I know that most teachers spent their time going over the syllabus, but I didn't want to do that.  I handed it out so that I could talk about Remind, but that was it.  I channeled my friend Sebastian Speer and told them the following:

There are procedures on this paper, and you can read them, but they all boil down to the only two rules I have.
1) You will do your best to learn.
2) You will not make it harder for other people to learn.

If you are sitting at lunch and someone comes up to eat your cookie, how would you feel?  What if they didn't eat it, but just threw it on the floor because they didn't like cookies?

You would be pretty upset.  Don't eat someone else's cookie and don't throw it on the floor.  It works the same way in here.
Seriously, don't be this guy.

The remainder of homeroom was taken up by clerical stuff, getting them into their lockers and figuring out the schedules.

The geometry class went about as I expected.  The students were eager and interested and very high energy.  We had a very long conversation about the hyper-dodecohedron and how it was a 4-dimensional object projected into 3-dimensional space.  We did the first two days of Estimation 180 and talked about number sense.

It's a smaller group than last year and with a VERY different social dynamic.  I look forward to figuring out how to utilize it to get them to push beyond their boundaries.

By the time 8th period rolled around for my second pre-algebra class, it was 86 degrees in my room.  Several of the students already had attitudes from their encounters with teachers earlier in the day and the rest were half asleep.  I need to spend some serious time thinking about my expectations for this class, especially in terms of size, willingness and time of day.  The social make-up scares me quite a bit since there are several students who play off of each other in destructive ways.

With so much going against this group, I know it's going to be a struggle to figure out how to reach them.  They seemed to really be into the Marshmallow Challenge, so (surprise surprise) projects may be the way to their heart.  Now I just need to find a ton of projects.

After creating marshmallow towers, I asked the groups to write a few lines reflecting on their work and strategies.  After we discussed it as a class, I gave them thicker noodles, better tape and another marshmallow and had them try again.

Of the 6 groups, 3 worked hard and quietly, 1 worked hard and loudly.  In the other two groups, half of the students worked while the rest goofed around, throwing pasta at each other.  I need to be reminded that just because 10% of the class is messing around and off task, that the rest of the class is still doing what I need.

My major goal this year is to figure out how to keep that 10% from sabotaging the other 90%.

I know that last year I talked about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in terms of students productivity.  I don't see how anyone can be expected to learn when the room is 87 degrees.  I also know that the room above mine is closer to 90.

I will, as always, do the best I can do with what I have.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Day 1: Here We Go! (Sorta...)

There are students in the building.

Not MY students, but students.  My district brings the 7th grade students into the school on the day before the 8th graders to help them get acquainted and give them a bit of ownership of their new surroundings.  The transition from Elementary to Middle School can be quite scary, so I think this is a great idea.

I also think it's a great idea because it gives me another day to get ready.

Author's Note: The above paragraphs are almost exactly what I typed on Day 1 of last year. I like consistency...

I will probably waste it.

I am not ready for this school year.  My room is not ready, my lessons are not ready and my mind is not ready.

I had an amazing summer of professional and personal development!  I drove to and from Jenks, Oklahoma with some amazing people to attend, and present at, Twitter Math Camp.  I spend a week in Philadelphia with some amazing people as an EnCOMPASS Fellow, working with the Math Forum at Drexel University on student feedback software.  I spent Monday nights moderating #MSMathChat on Twitter.  I spent countless hours having incredible conversations with teachers from around the world on the nature of mathematics, educational philosophy and strategy and how to implement those in a classroom of math-averse teenagers.

I did everything I could do to pump myself up and be excited for this coming year.

I am not ready.

The Beginning Of The Year paperwork is horribly overwhelming and, in addition to the new district initiatives and observational "look-fors," I have been spending the last week with my fingers in my ears, eyes shut and rocking back and forth denying the inevitable passage of time as it counts down to the start of homeroom tomorrow.

I know how terrible of a strategy and coping mechanism this is, but why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after?

So what HAVE I been doing with my time?

I put up a few posters that deal with fixed and growth mindset.  I hung a few that deal with SBG that I'll be attempting this year as well as the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice in student-friendly terms.  You should check out @TeacherPaulP and the amazing design work he did on these. I put up a motivational poster that I found that deals with destiny as a choice.  I have left most of my walls blank, telling myself that I want my students to fill them with their work.

The Cupcake one is not mine, but I wish it were...

This is mostly true.  I do want to fill my walls with student work, but I also am super sick of fighting with the walls.  It takes an act of god to get stuff to stick to them.  The posters I hung on Friday are already falling off.  I could plaster everything in duct tape, but that looks awful.  I may end up doing what I did last year: lining the walls with duct tape strips and taping things to that.

I taped dray erase boards to the wall for student use.

I've moved my desks in the groups that we will be using from the start of the year.

I printed my Remind Invite papers and course syllabi.

Then I spent 5 hours putting together various objects using Zome Tools.

I'm doing everything I can to not think about the students showing up tomorrow.  I wandered the building helping 7th graders open their lockers...

I do not like the start of the year.  I don't like re-establishing my expectations for a new group of students.

And I'm scared.

I set the bar so high for myself last year with this blog, and my drawings and my innovative lessons and discussions, I'm terrified that I won't be able to improve, or even keep status quo.  I exhausted myself last year and the prospect of doing it again is daunting.  I've already decided that I won't be doing daily drawings again, but I will be keeping up with the blog.

For the first time in my career, students are excited to be in my class.  One of my students spent the summer harassing another teacher until she was promised that she would be in my class.  I don't know if I can live up to the expectations that I set for myself and still manage to keep my head on straight.  I am deeply worried that my students, the geometry students specifically, will be expecting miracles from me that I won't be able to deliver.

Consciously, I know that I'm not a miracle worker. I know that if I do the best that I can do, everything will be great.  I know that they will give me a certain latitude, imagining that my mistakes are simply clever ruses to get them to do something else.

I am terrified of letting my students down.

My pre-algebra classes are about twice the size they should be in order for me to provide the kind of intimate, individualized instruction that those students require.  I need to find a way to create that environment in a room where students will be shoulder to shoulder.  Since they will already be in groups, I'm thinking that stations will work, if I can get them up and running.

In addition to all of this, I have to stop on my way home to buy some pasta for class tomorrow and some work shirts that aren't horribly stained in the front.  I'm planning to, once again, do the Marshmallow Challenge using the format that Sarah Hagan uses because she rocks.

On a totally unrelated note, does anyone know how to get grease and oil stains out of a shirt?

Thursday, August 7, 2014


This was originally at the end of the previous post, but upon reflection, I decided that it needed to be its own post.

I have several friends and family members who are vegetarians or vegans.  Each person has made this choice for their own reasons.  Some of them do it for the health benefit while others have made this very difficult choice because the morality in the way that the food industry treats animals.  There are more reasons than I can list, most of which I completely understand.

My amazing mom is a vegetarian
This amazing lady is a vegan
Because of who I am, I accept the choices that my friends and family have made, but I have trouble letting it go by without making a joke.  My standard joke is that they are only vegans and vegetarians because they can't hear the plants scream.

I have a tendency to send @VeganMathBeagle text messages when I'm eating salad to tell her how much I'm enjoying the death cries of my lettuce.

On the road trip to Twitter Math Camp, the following picture was taken:

As is the wont of my mind, I then often venture down existential paths, asking myself questions such as "What WOULD it be like for inanimate objects to have consciousness?"

As a parent, I often think about the horrendous, prison-like existence in which Thomas the Tank Engine is trapped, unable to move anywhere but back and forth along the path, unable to stop people from climbing inside him, unable to scratch his nose.

Too much over-thinking about a children's show? or WAY too much over-thinking about a children's show?

I started thinking about dandelions and what it would be like to be a dandelion with consciousness.  What would their lives be like?  The best that I can think of that they would lead lives of community.  They would grow up surrounded by their brothers and sisters, cousins and friends.

Then I thought about their children.  They grow their children right out in the open and a casual breeze snatches them away, scattering them to the four corners of the earth.  The dandelions never know what happens to their offspring, assuming that some will find a place of their own, but the majority will end up in the stomachs of bird, or drowned in bodies of water, or crushed under the tires of cars, or landing in spaces where they can never drop roots and start communities of their own.

As soon as I had this thought, I realized "this is what we do every day."

We pour our hearts and souls into developing our seeds for the future and then the end of the year comes and blows those seeds away.  It carries them onto their futures, their lives and we almost never know what happens.  We put our trust in the hope that they will land safely, planting deep roots on stable ground.

But we don't know.  We hope.

Except, sometimes, just sometimes, we know.

A student returns to us to tell us about the impact that we have had on their lives.  They tell us about the casual comment we made that changed how they view the world, how they interact with others.  Sometimes a seed lands in an open field is able to flourish and thrive in ways we never could have expected.

I received the following email to my school account this morning.

Mr. Aion,
I just wanted to thank you for your exceptional efforts with our daughter,during her tumultuous eighth grade year. Your support and guidance meant a great deal to her, in the classroom and beyond, and I know you will be a teacher she remembers and cherishes for years to come.
Thinking of you as the new school year gets underway and wishing you all the best.  Hope you find some Whovians in this new crop of students.
Warm regards,

I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for this note.  I am sitting in a room with amazing educators and education innovators and I'm having tremendous difficulty pretending that my allergies are acting up.

THIS is why I do what I do.

And I suspect that's the same for most teachers.

We don't know where, or even if, most of our seeds land.  We must continue growing them and allowing the wind to take them away, trusting in the strength of the seed and the power that we have put into them.

Starting Anew and Regrets

I have 11 days before I am due to report back to school and 18 days until students arrive.

I am not prepared.

I have spent much of this summer recharging and rejuvenating myself.  I have spent time with my children, watching them play and enjoy the summer heat and experience the beach and the ocean.  I have done weeks of professional development, gaining ideas and support from colleagues from around the world.  I traveled halfway across the country to share my experiences and passions with other math teachers.  I spent a week in a hotel with math teachers working on better ways to provide feedback to our students.

I am not prepared for the new year.

At the start of summer, I made a mental list of the things that I wanted to do to get my class ready for this year.  I wanted to develop my Standards-Based Grading scheme.  I wanted to work on my classroom management to make it a more positive environment for those students who need that the most.

I wanted to start the year with a solid plan.

That's not who I am.

I am a man of the moment.  I live right now, thinking about tomorrow, but planning for today.  It's one of the things that I hate about myself, but have yet to change.

As a student, I always liked the first few days of school.  It was a time when I had nothing that I needed to do except show up with awesome new school supplies.

As a teacher, I dread the first few weeks.  Once the year is underway and the students know what to expect from me, the routines solidified, I am good to go.  Each day leads into the next and my style of teaching carried me through the year with minimal bumps.

But those first few weeks are awful for me.  I am almost constantly anxious and spent much of my energy putting on a good face for the students who are looking to me to impose my own order on the room.

Instead of using this as a motivator to push me to better organization, I find it paralyzing.  I find ways to distract myself, productively or otherwise.  I do the equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears, shutting my eyes and yelling "NAH NAH NAH NAH!" to block out the impending change of reality.
I think my lesson plans are down here!

I don't regret the choices that I made this summer.

I am deeply thankful for the time that I was able to spend with my kids.  I greatly value the people I met and experiences that I had at Twitter Math Camp and the EnCOMPASS Summer Institute.  I am eternally grateful to my wife for finding a way and allowing me to spend 2 solid weeks on the road to make those experiences happen.

I do wish that I could make better choices about preparing for the coming school year.

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