Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Day 35: Drudgery

Just before my first daughter was born, I started a parenting blog.  I knew that I didn't want it to be a daily (or weekly) account of their behaviors, but rather a collection of stories and anecdotes about what it was like to be a parent.

I feel very much the same about my teaching blog.

Yesterday, I had something on my mind.  I wanted to write about my cell phone policy and elicit a discussion.

That discussion continued today with my coworkers and had me thinking long after school ended.

I have noticed that my students (and I suspect most students) are terrible at check their answers to see if they make sense.  On the quiz that my pre-algebra students took yesterday, there was a question that read something like "Todd cut a cake into 9 slices and ate 2 of them. What is the decimal version of how much cake he ate?"

A significant percentage of students gave me the decimal equivalent for how much cake was left, which I see as a careless error in the reading of the question.  About half of the students, however, gave me 4.5.

Through the work that was on many of the papers, and knowing how students think, it was clear that they divided 9 by 2 instead of the other way around.  This is a very common and understandable mistake.

What I've been trying to work on is having the students ask themselves if the answer makes sense in the context of the problem.

I set up the problem on the board using both 2 divided by 9 and 9 divided by 2.  I had the students work both of them through so they knew there weren't any problems with the calculations.  Then I asked which one was right and why.

After about 5 minutes of discussion in the wrong direction, I finally asked them what they were looking for.

S: "The amount of cake he ate."
Me: "So what do these two answers mean?"
S: "That he ate either 4.5 cakes or .22 repeating cakes."
Me: **waiting**
S: **also waiting**
Me: "Does one of those make more sense than the other?"
S: "Is that 4.5 the number of slices?"
Me: "You tell me."
S: **waiting**
Me: "Maybe it would help to look at the problem again."
S: "Yes. It's the number of slices."
Me: "Ok.  What in the problem tells you that?"
S: "It says he ate 2 slices."
Me: "Alright. So what got you to 4.5 slices?"
S: **shut down**

They are getting better at going through this discussion.  Even a month ago, they would have shut down much sooner.

On the way home, I was talking with a colleague who was lamenting that she had to do direct instruction today.  As she was talking, I was thinking about alternatives to direct instruction and my thoughts followed this path:

If there is a topic that you have to cover and you aren't sure how to integrate an activity, perhaps it would be beneficial to give the role of instructor to a student.  Have them go to the board and lead the discussion.  You could sit in the class and act a guide, keeping the talk on topic and ensuring that the math is done correctly.  You could ask students what they notice and how they could extend the work on the board to the next topic.

This is a really good idea and I spend too much time talking in front of my class.  Why don't I do this?

I don't do it because I don't trust my students to be able to either lead the discussion or allow another student to do it.  I believe that they would see another student presenting and tune out until I was back up at the front.

So if I think that some students would be too disruptive to allow other students to lead, why don't I assign THOSE students the leadership role?  They are going to be talking anyway, so why don't I give them a microphone and the responsibility to lead?

I have too many disruptive students for that.  I would give one student the role of leader and the others would heckle or otherwise disrupt the learning environment.

Of course they don't know how to productively lead a classroom. They are 13.  This is a skill that I could be teaching them.  Much like anything else, they may be horrible at it when we first begin, but if it's something they need, how will they learn if I don't teach them.

How will they learn if I don't teach them?

This is the exact question that I pose to my colleagues who claim that students can't handle phones in class.

"It may work in other schools, with other kids, but ours don't know how to use them responsibly."

That may be true, but isn't our jobs to teach them to be responsible?  Responsible with knowledge, with assignments, with schedules, with materials, with social media, with computers, with cell phones?

With leading a group of their peers?

I don't have an answer, but I do know that I can't just fall back on "they can't handle it."


  1. Yes, I think you are onto something. I tweeted an article today that talked about how a really impressive and experienced math teacher taught students two things: math and how to work together and share ideas. I will link you to it because I think it is what we need to do -- and it is very hard.

    Happy to keep this conversation going...

  2. I have chaired a committee at our school charged with implementing a 1 - 1 program in our middle school. Last year when we announced that we were going with laptops rather than with tablets (or with some blended batch of devices) we were deluged with parents telling us that our kids are not mature enough to handle this responsibility. Even when we pointed out that there are a number of other schools with policies like ours for middle school (hell, there are programs with 3rd graders having their own laptops) parents (and some teachers) insisted that our kids are not ready for this. It's amazing what adults will say about the children in their care. It's depressing that I heard this from our parents. It's also depressing to hear your colleagues saying this about your (their) students.

  3. How about instead of students leading or being in charge "up front" just making them the scribe? You stand in the back or off to the side, but have a student front and center doing as they are told by you? I am thinking about trying this as well. It might be a good incentive for students to behave while other kids are doing it if they know they might be next!


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