Monday, March 31, 2014

Day 131: Coopers, Steelers and Time-Outs

I'm starting to worry about my geometry class.  I'm finding myself waiting for them to get themselves under control more and more often.  It's hard to tell if it's the way I'm covering material or the fact the weather has been shifty, or that we've been going for two solid months without a break, or...or...or...

I think one of the biggest challenges that a teacher faces when they are reflecting and analyzing their teaching is to distinguish between things they can control and things they can't.  In the past, when things slipped out of my control, I responded by tightening my grip.

Kids talking more than I would like? Punish any talking!

Kids walking around the class? EVERYONE MUST STAY IN THEIR SEATS!!

The more I talk to teachers and more I actually think about it, the more backwards this seems.  Yes, students need structure.  Yes, students need rules.  But it's almost always a mistake to do group punishment.

In many schools around the country there is no recess, or even really down-time for the students.  They have shortened lunch periods and, during lunch, the students are required to stay in their seats.

While this may seem harsh, this decision was made for very well-intentioned reasons.  It was found that lunches went very well for the first 30 minutes.  Then, once all of the students had finished eating and began walking around, that's when all the fights happened.  So the lunch periods were shortened and movement restrictions were put in place.

As a result of this, students have less time to burn off their nervous energy and socialize.  That time gets moved into the classroom with students acting up and bouncing off the walls.  So the school institutes stricter policies for behavior, clamping down tighter causing more nervous energy to unleashed in inappropriate places.  This cycle spirals out of control until the school is either shut down or drastically changes its mindset on student downtime.

I call this The Educational Tarkin Effect.

At the same time, completely letting go of restrictions is equally as disastrous.  Students need to learn to be responsible and the school must provide a safe place for them to learn those skills.

In any event, the geometry kids are getting squirrelly and I don't know how much of it is under my control.

I've been trying to cover more curriculum content with them after the complaints I received last week.  I want them to learn math, but apparently, if I don't at least throw in calculation, they think I'm not teaching them.  I want them to be able to distinguish between "doing math" and "doing calculation" but that's a long hard road and I have to backtrack to lecture occasionally to make them feel ok about what we're doing.

I did manage to intersperse a good tale of applied geometry from this weekend.

I went with my family to a Maple Festival yesterday where I met a cooper.  I talked with him for 10 minutes about the math of how he makes his barrels and buckets and got some great information to bring back to my students, along with two spectacular pictures for them.

They were highly engaged and we had a nice talk about the process of barrel making and the mathematics involved.  I wonder if I can find a cooper to come to the school and demonstrate either in class or in the woodshop.

It's something to look into.

Half of my period 4/5 was meeting with Wes Lyons today for the first half of class.  The kids who remained got some great momentum going as we worked through percentages and weren't derailed by the addition of the rest of the class.  Wes joined the class for a bit and we did an impromptu Estimation 180 to guess his height.

I'll never forgive myself for not getting a picture standing next to him.  He's 6 feet 8 inches tall.
That's not me, but that's about the height difference.

He sat with me and a student as I helped her through the concept of converting percentages.  He was very encouraging to her and I was glad he joined us.

In period 8/9 however, without about 20 minutes left in class, I got tired of being talked over, having the same kids ask the same questions because they weren't listening, telling the same kids to stop talking and having them take an attitude with me, claiming they weren't doing anything.

I gave them their assignment and put myself in time out.

Sometimes I just need a time out.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Day 130: A Letter From The Island

Captive Log: Date Unknown

I have been on this island for 4 days.  At first, it didn't seem so bad.  It's peaceful and quiet.  I have plenty of room to stretch and a comfortable enough place to sit.  It didn't take long for boredom to set in.  There are several other people here, but I am unable to interact with them.  My captors do not allow it.

Nor do they allow us the use of waste facilities, except at designated times, which seem to be scheduled randomly.  When pressed for a reason behind this, my captors shrugged and muttered something about a secure work site. 

I use the word "captors" loosely because they, too, appear to be trapped here, serving out some penance. They put on a good face when reading off work assignments for the morning, but I can clearly see the boredom and frustration in their eyes.  They give us speeches about how our work is for our own benefit and how it will help us down the line, but I don't believe them.

Interestingly, I don't think THEY believe them.  When pressed further about the purpose of their work, my captors responded that this is apparently the best way to know if we are all making the best use of our time.  When I stated that that seemed counter intuitive, they shrugged and told me to return to my work station.

Each morning that I have been here, we have been separated into work groups of no more than 15.  One day, I caught a glimpse of the rest of the island and the people in other coves and I estimate that there are at least 500 other workers, all broken into smaller groups.

I can't speak for those other groups, but my work group has been given a different array of seemingly meaningless tasks to complete in a designated time frame.  For example, today, we were forced to do calculations for an hour or two, followed by what might have been a letter-writing campaign.

The more interesting, and disturbing part, is the island itself.  When one thinks of an island, they might picture trees and flowers, plants and rocks, waves crashing on the shore and wild animals calling to each other.  This island is eerily silent and empty.

The tree and bushes are bare as though long dead, but everywhere there are signs that this place used to be a colorful and lively island.  Something has taken away that life, apparently very recently, as though even the slightest encouragement might adversely affect our work, leaving everything bland and muted.  When I say "muted" I mean both figuratively and literally.

The sounds seem to be blocked out, creating an unnerving silence.  It's not the non-sounds of an empty place because I can hear the noises, coughs, leaf-rustlings and shifting of my labor group, but the silence of a sound-proof booth.  The trees seem to drink the noises causing no echoes and blocking things I think I should be hearing from elsewhere on the island.

Even the waves lapping at the shore, while they appear normal, seem to be afraid to let the slapping noises get too far away from them, like over-protective parents of adventurous children.  They reach out with invisible watery hands, pulling the splashing to them and hording it.

As I look around in my work group, I am amazed at the variety of reactions among the other workers.  Several tend to their work assignments with enthusiasm, diving in and working very hard, apparently in an effort to please...someone.  Who could it be?  Others have taken the attitude of bored resignation, completing their tasks without joy or interest.

There appears to be no incentive to work hard since we've been told that we won't see the fruits of these labors until many months after we have completed work.  In addition, there is no incentive to work quickly since we are required to remain in our work groups until every member has completed their assigned tasks.

On top of this, we are not allowed to leave our work stations until EVERY worker in every group is finished and an alarm has sounded.

Even after 4 days of this routine, I still cannot comprehend the higher purpose that it serves.  My hope is that it will end soon and that I, and my fellow workers, can return to our normal lives of self-imposed boredom and ennui.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Day 129: PSSA Day 3

Half of my geometry class was out all day for a field trip that was scheduled before the state changed the testing window.  The ones who remained almost came to blows about which move they should make in 2048.

It's truly a challenge to explain to students why they should put maximum effort into a test that doesn't determine their grade or future class placement. In theory, the PSSA is used as a factor to determine which students are ready for the next level of math or English, but ultimately it's up to grades and teacher recommendation.

Last year, we didn't get the PSSA scores back until after the new school year had already started.  A local middle school principal wrote an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that stated his opinion that we need to do away with these tests.  This year, we were required, for test security apparently, to remove all decorations from the walls.  This included motivational posters and examples of student work.

The image that pops into my mind is one of three guys in camouflage with binoculars sitting behind a bush and watching the school.  The first guy giggles and says something like "Oh man! They actually did it! They actually took down that post of the cat hanging on the tree branch so that no one would cheat!"

"This is just too easy! What should we do next?" asks the second man.

"OH OH!!  I know!! Next year, we'll tell them that in order to keep students from being unduly influenced by the emotional effects of certain colors, anyone who doesn't wear a blue shirt will have their scores invalidated!" chimes in the third man.

"I love it!" declares the first. "Plus, all essays must be typed!  Like, on an actual typewriter!"

"Perfect!" says the second man, stifling a laugh. "I'll call it in to the Department of Education."

The preceding scene was brought to you by The Council For Incomprehensible Testing Requirements, all rights reserved. (Unless you're wearing a blue shirt.)

I will say that during this extended period of "active monitoring", I have been able to gain a foothold on my navel-gazing quota and I have come to an interesting conclusion:

I think that belly buttons are SUPER weird.  Seriously! They aren't tied off when we're born, just clamped shut.  Somehow, this hole to our insides manages to not ever open up again.  Your belly button is literally held together by it's own force of will!

With shortened periods after hours of testing, I didn't want to delve too deeply into new information with the pre-algebra classes, so we continued talking about percentage.

I absolutely hate having them do a worksheet covered in problems, but it does have it's uses, especially at the start of the chapter.  In this case, because of the amount of time spent on proportions and ratios, they were able to blow through 40 problems on converting fractions to percent and back again.  While this task is slightly mindless, it provided them with two vital things.

First, it gave them success.  We started with VERY easy problems and gradually worked on more complicated ones (still very easy)  Students who normally tune me out or complain about how hard problems are very VERY engaged.  It was low level engagement, but still engagement.  These successes will hopefully translate to them staying with me as we do more complex and interesting tasks.

Second, it gave them a glimpse of what my class is like WHEN they are engaged.  It has been a VERY long time for most of these students.  I'm not sure if it's the activity or the temporary testing setup for the desks back to rows for the week) but the disruptive students moved to the back and the rest moved up.  It worked very well.

Regardless of how good or bad the day was, I didn't end up with urine on my floor, which makes me better off than some teachers in my hallway.

I consider that a win!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Day 128: PSSA Day 2

Today's schedule consisted of standardized testing and administration from 7:50-11:30.  Then we sent the kids back to class to be productive learners.

Due to the rotation of duties and various teachers being out, I was in the presence of students from 7:30 until 2:50 with a single half-hour break for lunch.  This is not a complaint, merely a statement of fact.  I get to add another coverage slip to the growing pile in my desk.

Testing is exhausting for the kids, the teachers and the administrators.  Yesterday, after a single section, we had three fights and the kids were off the wall.

Today, they were running down the hallway screaming.

My testing group consists of about half of my geometry kids.  At the break between sessions, and then again after testing, they played 2048 on the laptop, projecting it onto my board.  With one person working the controls and 9 others yelling about which direction to slide the tiles, it was quite a sight to see.

I love that they spent their down time playing logic games and doing math doodles.

In the 30 minutes that I saw my pre-algebra kids today, we did a quick intro to percentages and they started working on their chapter packets.

During my coverage, the sub plans read "Have students continue to watch Frozen."

In geometry, we talked about what the arithmetic mean and geometric mean actual are.  There seems to be much confusion among math students about the difference between what something is and how that something is calculated.  A prime example of this is when a teacher asks "What is the circumference of a circle?" and the students answer "2 times pi time the radius!"

They aren't wrong, but that wasn't really the question that was asked.

I've been spending a ton of time and energy this year being aware of the questions that I ask.  When I want the formula or something similar, I ask "How do we find" or "How do we calculate."

When I want them to explain a concept or definition, I ask "What is" or "What does that mean?"

A series of this type of questioning led us to actually derive the formulae for arithmetic and geometric means.  They were much more rowdy than I'm used to, but it was the end of the day after 3 hours of testing, so I cut them some slack.

One student said "Mr. Aion, I don't think you would like our class if we had you at the end of the day."

I think I would still like them, but my patience for them would be MUCH lower.  I really need to think about how that plays out with my pre-algebra classes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Day 127: PSSA Day 1

This is PSSA week.  "What is PSSA week?" ask those of you who are not from Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment is the state-mandated standardized test for public schools in Pennsylvania.  It may also be required at private and independent schools, but I'm not sure.

I have a very long rant in me about standardized tests in a public education system that puts increased pressure on teachers to provide differentiated instruction and assessments, and another about how the mathematics questions test calculation and not interpretation, critical thinking or problem solving, but those are for another time.  The only thing I WILL point out is that the PSSA is not an assessment of the students, but an assessment of the school.

So, over the next 4 days, our students will be taking the equivalent of 1.5 SATs and then going back to class to learn.

There is a reason why we do SATs on Saturdays and I don't think it's about scheduling around school.  After any test, students need time to decompress and unwind.  The SATs are SO major that we give them the rest of the weekend.

Due to this need to decompress, my classes this entire week are going to be low-stress, low-intensity.  That doesn't mean we'll be watching movies all week **cough cough social studies cough** but the assignments and activities are designed to be more of a mental cooldown after their mental sprints in the morning.

My geometry class was split between the beginning and end of the day, so we just talked about the PSSA during the first part and worked on their new guided note packets for the second part.  Content-related, but low entry, low engagement.

I gave my pre-algebra kids the Jack Problem.  Their letters, while perhaps not as eloquent or fluid as those written by the geometry students, were just as thorough and correct.  The discussion we had afterwards was VERY similar to the one I had with my geometry kids yesterday.  They agreed that the number line method was valid, but thought it was stupid.

"That's a dumb way to do the problem!" called out a student from the back of the room.
"So? The question asked us to find the error, not do the problem for him" came the reply from the other side.

Another group of 8th graders who are, apparently, more capable of doing math and reading and interpreting directions than an electronics engineer.

Here's a letter written by one of my geometry students.

Then, at the start of period 8, the doorknob came off in my hand.
Doorknob Selfie!! #LOL
All in all, a good day!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Day 126: Applied CCBS

This weekend, I wrote an article about the Common Core nonsense that has been floating around.  It was surprisingly popular, so I thought I would try it out in class.

The only edit I made was adding the arrows.
I had students work in pairs on this activity and they met my expectations and exceeded them.

The students all figured out the method that Jack was using to solve the problem, identified where he made his mistake and, with varying degrees of eloquence, wrote letters, many of which contained diagrams.

I did not prompt them in any way other than the above picture and the instruction "provide Jack with the kind of feedback that you would want from me."

After I collected their letters, we had a talked about it, discussing whether the method was valid one and, more importantly, whether it mattered.

Then I showed the original picture and read them the parent letter.

Then, again without prompting, I asked "Tell me you first impression of this letter."

The first three reactions were "That guy's an idiot. That wasn't hard to figure out what was happening."

The fourth student I asked gave me an amazing answer:

Full disclosure: None of the students in my geometry class have degrees in electronics engineering.

We did have an excellent discussion about place value and what it truly means to subtract.  They agreed that they saw the value and validity in using the number line, but were split about whether or not THEY would use it.

So I wrote 1001-2 on the board and asked a student, called on at random, to do it in his head.  He laughed in an embarrassed way and then told me "999."

Me: "How did you do that?"
S: "I started at 1001 and took off 1 to get to 1000, but I still had to take another 1 off, so that got me to 999."
Me: "Awesome! Can you write it down?"

That's where it fell apart.  He got confused quickly, so we crowd-sourced it from the rest of the class.  We put it on the board and they wanted to use the column approach.  If you want to know exactly how it went, almost verbatim, check out this video from Christopher Danielson's write-up about this task.

I even went so far as to ask what grade level they felt this was an appropriate task for.  The class consensus was 2nd or 3rd grade, but they felt that the letters wouldn't be so well written. Their optional homework tonight was to read the parent letter again, react to it and respond to it.

This was another good discussion that I've had with them about numeracy and the basis of their mathematical knowledge.

Then I got an e-mail telling me that some of my geometry kids were concerned that they are not learning math and won't be prepared for Algebra II.  They were concerned that they were doing too much science and not enough math.  The wind in my sails vanished in an instant.

Then pre-algebra took their chapter 4 test, in partners.  It was 20 questions, 18 multiple choice, 2 open-ended.  At the end of the first class, not a single group was done.  They barely finished by the end of the second period and I'm VERY dubious about the quality of the work.

Most of the groups were working VERY hard and I give them full kudos for that.  Their questions to me, however, showed a complete lack of retention and understanding of any of the topics from the chapter.

The most depressing questions for me during the test was "Is this the kind of problem where you flip the thing?"

Even though I have been struggling to get them to make connections and be able to decipher what a problem is asking them to do, the need to have a set procedure is so deeply engrained that I don't know how to overcome it.

I watched them try to re-invent the wheel on every single problem, not even looking back to previous problems to see how they had just done it.  I watched them give up (and rightly so) on a simple proportion problem after 10 minutes.

I can engage my geometry students in meaningful discussions, but I am having tremendous difficulty figuring out how to help the pre-algebra students build their own bridges, or even retain and recall material.

When they can't remember what to do, they feel stupid.  When they feel stupid, they tune out the class.  When they tune out the class, they fall behind.  When I try to catch them up, they claim they are stupid and tune out the class.

Our building math coach has been coming to my class for the past few days to help me identify areas that I can improve.  His suggestion was to break the test up into smaller parts and time them.

I did this for period 8/9 with MUCH greater success and engagement.  Students worked in pairs on 2-6 problems at a time.  I set a timer and collected the pages, giving out the next one, when it went off.  If they finished early, they could move on, gaining more time for harder problems.

I haven't graded it yet, but there were many fewer blank papers turned in at the end.

So geometry class went VERY well and I will focus my positivity on that, drawing strength from my passion there to keep pushing and striving to find a way to reach the pre-algebra students.

Friday, March 21, 2014


There have been many pictures floating around the interwebs lately that claim to be the insane mathemagical techniques required by Common Core.  The majority of these are shared on Facebook or Twitter with a statement similar to "I'm a PhD in engineering and I don't understand any of this! Common Core is poisoning our kids!!"

The images are then shared by hundreds of people who add their own comments that sound very much like "This is crazy! If a PhD in engineering can't do it, how can we expect children to?"

The most recent one was posted to my own wall and a discussion ensued that made me feel as though I needed to write about this.

I asked my wife to look it over and her response went as follows:

This is crazy! ...So, he started at 427, then subtracted by hundreds? Ok, I can see that. So he went down on the number line by 3 sets of 100, then... It should have been a 10 and six 1's, but he went down by six 10's instead.

This entire process took her less than a minute.  I did not prompt her to figure out what was happening or how to do it or what mistakes had been made.  She came to all of those conclusions on her own.  While my wife is a college graduate (with a better GPA than I had), she is not a mathematician or a math teacher.  Her area of study was biology.  Yet, when presented with the above problem, she worked through it to figure out what was going on.

Several things struck me that I'd like to lay out, but first I feel the need to clarify one thing:

Common Core is NOT a curriculum.

It's NOT a curriculum.  It is a set of skills and concepts.  When students are asked to "solve this problem using the Common Core method" there is either a misunderstanding of the teacher, or the Common Core standards.

There is no "Common Core method."  Students are not being required to learn a new type of magic that no engineers, and certainly no parents, can possibly grasp.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let me address the image above.

I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronics Engineering... Even I cannot explain the Common Core Mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.

First, there is no "Common Core Mathematics approach."  I will assume that what the author was trying convey was that he/she wasn't able to explain what was happening with the number line.  This means that the author has no problems solving skills, or simply chooses not to apply them to determine the method being used which, while it may be unfamiliar to the viewer, is fairly easy to discern with some minor effort.

Second, I'm not sure what the author means by the inability to get "the answer correct."  A quick glance at the directions shows that no answer is being asked for.  What IS being asked for is for the student to examine the method used in the example and determine where it went awry.  At no point does it require the student to use the method or reproduce it.  It asks to explain the mistake.  They are being asked to analyze the work of another person, examine it for errors and convey what those errors are.

- 316

This is the method of subtraction that has been taught for decades to countless children.  While I (and Common Core) have no real problem with it, it doesn't convey an accurate understanding of number sense. If you did this method, you probably said something along the lines of "four minus three equals one."

This is true!

But it's not what's happening in the problem above.  What's actually happening is "four hundreds minus three hundreds equals one hundred."  This is a minor change that makes all the difference.  The latter wording expresses a solid understanding of mathematical practice and numeracy where the first one does not.

To further illustrate this point, let's examine a slightly different problem.

 -      2

Using the "traditional method" for this example requires "borrowing" from the next column.   This makes it even more difficult for a child to explain how and why "one minus two equals nine" as well as why every other number in the problem must be changed.  A person with a solid number sense would not have difficulty doing so.  On a number line, starting at 1001 and moving two spaces to the left is a very simple concept that anyone can grasp.

The answer is solved in under 5 seconds.

Absolutely! This is an incredibly simple problem.  That's why the student was not asked to do it.  The student was asked to analyze the method used by another person and explain where a mistake was made.  Since the person writing this claims to be an electronics engineer, perhaps they would have had a greater understanding of the problem if the directions had been written as follows:

Jack wrote a program to display a number line and solve 427-316. Examine the output and create a bug report.

All of this, however, is minor compared to the major issue in this letter.  What it comes down to is this: A parent, instead of encouraging their child to face a difficult task head on, devise a plan and search for solutions, instead writes a complaint letter.  Instead of modeling appropriate behavior when faced with a challenge, this parent demonstrates that it is acceptable to give up and blame their failure on a "ridiculous" process.

In the real world, if I asked an employee to complete a task and their response was to hand it back, incomplete, with a note about how the process was ridiculous, THAT would "result in termination."

I will conclude this rant with three things.  First, the link to the Common Core Standards so that you can read them yourself.  Please take the time to do so before you believe what you see posted on Facebook.

Second, the statement that I acknowledge that there are many things to object to in Common Core.  There are legitimate concerns about training and implementation that should not be taken lightly.  However, images such as the one above, which provides no source or context, do not serve the public discourse.  They exist for the sole purpose of misinformation and praying on the fears of confused parents and teachers.

Third, in case you don't have time to browse their whole site, here are the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  These are, in my mind, the most important parts of Common Core.

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
  4. Model with mathematics
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically
  6. Attend to precision
  7. Look for and make use of structure
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning
Aren't these the things that students, and all citizens, should be able to do?

Day 125: Drawing My Students

In geometry, I started talking about gravitational waves, moved through chemical bonding and into torque, which lead to us watching Veritasium videos.  It wasn't content, but I was alright with it.

My frustration had leaked out enough that our building math coach offered to come to my pre-algebra classes today.  Having another set of adult eyes makes a huge difference in a classroom and my classes were much more productive.

Relatively, but I'll take it!

I had the pre-algebra classes working on the Chapter review in the text book for the last few days, so today, we went over it.

I listed all of the numbers on my dry erase board and asked which student wanted to do which problem.  After a short period of kids avoiding my eye, I called on someone and asked which problem he would put on the board.  As soon as he picked one, there was a rush of kids to call problems they could do.

One by one, they went up, put their work on the board, answered the questions I asked and passed the pen.  I started by putting smiley faces next to the names of kids who completed their presentations.  After a few, one girl asked if she could have a star instead.  Then a boy asked for a smiley face in a different color with stars for eyes.

Then it escalated.

In period 8/9, I started the same way, but a girl said "That doesn't look like me! Where's my pony tail?"

That escalated as well.

Overall, it was a much better day than I've had in a while and so I will revel in it and be pleased with the positive interactions with my students.

Tonight, I'm bringing my daughters back to the school to watch a presentation of Frozen that's being played by the students in the Service Learning Class as a fundraiser.  Many of those students are my geometry kids and I would like to support their efforts.

It will be a good time.

Then tomorrow, ROLLER DERBY!!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Day 124: Working Through My Crisis

I am deeply ensconced in a professional crisis.  I know that much of it has to do with the weather and the time, but there are other factors as well.

I have so many things running around in my brain that I don't feel as though I can adequately put them down here and do them justice.

Suffice to say, I'm not happy professionally.  I don't know how to reach many of my students and I feel that in many cases, I have pushed them further away.

I have been nicer and more understanding this year than in previous years of teaching.  I have been more flexible and more positive.  I have been more energetic and creative.

I am beginning to feel as though I have done less for my students than in previous years.  Earlier, I was willing to content myself with the lack of academic progress by telling myself that I was building relationships with my students.

I have said previously that I believe that relationships will make or break education.  This is one of my most favorited and retweeted tweet is the following:
I truly believe this is true and was willing to postpone content to develop those relationships, asking for student trust as I trusted them.

Over the past few weeks, I have started to feel like a sucker.  Most of my students still wouldn't work for me and, indeed, they seemed to take the freedom that I gave them and use it to disrupt the learning environment of other students.

I know this is not a fair assessment.  I have many students, spread across my classes, who respond very well to me, greet me with smiles, do the assignments I ask of them and ask perceptive questions.  I do not have the arrogance to think that I will be able to engage 100% of my students, although I won't stop trying to.

My issue and frustration is only in part due to my inability to engage a large percentage of my students.  The majority of my crisis comes from my seeming inability to stop those disengaged students from dragging the engaged ones away.

I do not mean this as a complaint about my students, their parents, my colleagues, my administration, my district, my state, or public education in general.  It is a statement of my own limitations and no more.

I acknowledge that perhaps more could be done by others, but I only have control over myself and my own actions.

A discussion with my 8/9 left me with a solid feeling that they have no idea what behavior is appropriate or how to react when gently corrected.  I don't even know how to begin fixing this situation.  Asking for things politely gets me accused of "being smart."

I am also falling into the same trap that I have for the past 5 years.  I have been focusing on the failures more so than the successes.  I DO have students who like coming to my class.  I DO have students who consistently do what I ask of them and, as a result, are progressing.  I desperately need to remember that.

The first half of this year was so great.  It had ups and down, but it was, overall, amazing.  Perhaps it was naive to think that it would last, but I did hope.

I will continue to hope.  In spite of the failures, the insults, the disrespect, the lack of connection, the lack of energy, I will continue to hope.

If I don't, who will?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Day 123: Migraines and Man-Hugs

On my sick day, I graded the geometry quizzes and was VERY disappointed.  First, I was disappointed by how few of them were actually turned in on time.  I feel as though my students are taking advantage of my willingness to let them turn in late work.  I don't mean "take advantage of" to mean that they are utilizing the flexibility for the purpose of creating a better product.  The work that comes in late does not seem to be of any higher quality than work that comes in on time, which leads me to the second disappointment: the scores.

The class average was about a 50% with no problems being singled out as overwhelmingly wrong.  Incorrect answers were scattered throughout the test.  After putting in the grades that students earned, along with zeroes for the assignments that haven't been turned in, there are 12 students with F's and another 9 with D's.

For all intents and purposes, this is an honors course.  We had a discussion today about the lack of effort.  Also, how it isn't just in my class.  I've spoken with their science and social studies teachers who tell me similar things.  The quality of work with these students has dropped off precipitously in the past 2 months.

Instead of going over the questions with them, I did the following:

I wrote the number 1-20 (questions on the quiz) on mini post-it notes.
I folded them up and put them in a box, going around the room having each group pick one at a time.
The four remaining numbers were mine.
The groups were take their 2 problems, come up with solutions and explanations for each.
During the second half of class, the groups presented their work and explanations to the rest of the class in 2 minutes bursts.

Since the numbers were chosen randomly, a few groups got problems that everyone in the group got wrong and had to solve them before them could explain to the class.  Overall, I was very pleased with this activity and plan to do it again.  The next time, however, I need to change a few things:

  • Leave more time for presentations (2 minutes per problem this time)
  • Give more specific directions on how presentations should be done
  • Perhaps have giant paper to hang up around the room so problems can be displayed for viewing after presentations.
The pre-algebra classes did a cumulative  review, working in partners, for the period.  A large portion of them were on task.  The pace at which they work, however, is incredibly slow.  I don't think this is due to lack of understanding and much as the fact that they are easily distracted.  As a result, it takes three times as long to do a problem and they think they are bad at math.

In reality, they are bad at attending to a task.  It doesn't even seem to matter what that task is.  With the variety of activities that I've tried, to maximize engagement, I've noticed that the same kids are consistently off-task.  This leads me to believe that it's not necessarily the task that needs to be modified as much as a vital skill that needs to be honed.

Students need to be taught about attention to task and task completion, regardless of the task given to them.  My students who consistently do what I ask of them say that when they hate what we're doing, they still do it just to get it over with.  I think this is a vital insight and if it can be taught, it should be.

Period 8/9 had maybe 10% of the students doing what I asked.  Even with directions written on the board, several wasted at least half an hour asking what we were supposed to be doing.  Then sat there with their books closed from the remainder of the period.

I let several students bait me and ended up calling several parents during the period.  I'm beginning to wonder if there is a game going to see who can give the greatest level of disrespect to teachers.

During period 4/5, I got a migraine.  I get occular migraines.  Those of you who are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain.  A typical migraine is like a VERY bad headache.  They can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.  Occular migraines are slightly different.  There is little to no pain associated with them.

I just go blind for a bit.

It starts out like an afterimage that slowly spreads across my vision, leaving "holes" in what I can see, making it difficult to read, or do anything that requires my eyes.  If I take some Advil right when I notice it, it usually only lasts about half an hour.

But it is a scary half hour.

I am very glad that today was not a "lecture" day.

I pulled aside a student who, by all rights, should have an A and has been slacking lately.  I told her how concerned I was and asked if there was anything I could do to help.  She said that she didn't know what was up, but had been out of sorts.  She appreciated my concern and promised to let me know if I could help.

Then, I pulled aside the student in pre-algebra who was at the center of my bad week last week.  The situation had resulted in a 3 day suspension for him and I felt we needed to talk about it.

I told him about what a great he had done when we first came into my class and how sorry I was that things had gone off the rails the way that they did.  I told him how much I liked him and I hoped that we could start over with a clean slate.  He said he'd like that and I didn't detect any anger or sarcasm.  We shook hands on it and when he went in for the "man hug" I obliged.

He is a good kid and I do like him.  Things just got way out of hand and I'm hoping this is the first step to getting both of us back on track.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 121: Sick and Tired

I'm 90% sure that I have an upper respiratory infection.  I am going to blame that and not seasonal burnout for my current mood.

I've been avoiding complaining about the weather because everyone is doing that and there is nothing to do about it.  I am now convinced, however, that if it snows again, I will have to take a day off of school and sit at home and cry.

Even after a weekend at home, I was not ready for this morning.  I knew what I wanted my classes to do, but I wasn't ready to do it, either physically or mentally.

It turned out, I wasn't the only one.

Plans were:
  • Collect the take-home test that was assigned over the weekend
  • Discuss general questions on the topics included on the test
  • Verbal quiz on terms of the chapter
  • Watch Sunday's episode of Cosmos
What actually happened:
  • Collect the take-home test that was assigned over the weekend
  • Discover that more than half the class didn't complete the 19 question test, with 7 students not even starting it
  • Discuss my expectations for the class
  • Remind them that trying and failing is acceptable
  • Remind them that not trying is unacceptable.
  • Hand out scaling project that was going to be homework
  • Field comment from a student that boiled down to "we should do more calculation. I have a question on the homework."
  • Ask student where he was when I asked about homework (for the past week)
  • Patiently and understandingly go over questions on various homework problems, making students do the work.
  • Not watch Sunday's episode of Cosmos (maybe tomorrow)

Plans were:
  • Hand back quizzes from Friday
  • Go over quizzes
  • Hand out scaling project to be done in class
 What actually happened:
  • Hand back quizzes from Friday
  • Go over quizzes
  • Get into 20 minute discussion of combination/permutations involving email and PSP passwords
  • Hand out scaling project with detailed directions
  • Go over detailed directions as a class
  • Ask for question on detailed directions
  • Acknowledge no questions on detailed directions
  • Ask students to begin working
  • 20% begin working
  • 15% ask "What are we supposed to be doing?"
  • 25% put token effort into pretending to work
  • 40% don't bother pretending

Two students in my 8/9 were so disruptive that I had to remove them. They began screaming about having to go to the bathroom.  I told them that they could come back in as soon as they were able to control their volume.

Then I called home.  They were disruptive for a suitable time after that to show that they weren't calming down because I called home, but because THEY wanted to.  I was alright with that since they also then got to work.

As I'm typing this, I'm thinking about the things I could have done differently.  I could have modified the instructions to make them more clear.  I could have asked students (called on randomly) to explain the directions.

But I don't want to.

I want, just for a little while, for the kids to do what I ask without a massive fight.

I want, just for a little while, for them to not take (or pretend to take) requests to do work so personally.

I want, just for a little while, to have more parents answer the phone when I call than not.

I want, just for a little while, to skip the time of the year when I hate being a teacher.

My throat hurts.

My head hurts.

I have a fever.

I am coughing.

I think tomorrow, I'm staying home.

Edit: After school, a coworkers told me that it's time to collect a paycheck and worry about teaching my own kids.  Rather than go into a long rant about how my paycheck isn't enough to pay the bills I have, I'll simply state that I need to try to surround myself with my positive coworkers.

They are hard to find.  We are all burned out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Day 120: Buffon and A Quiz

I honestly have no idea why the numbers in my world are so violent...

I managed to only spend 20 minutes of geometry talking about space-time and the nature of the universe.

I planned to do Buffon's Needle with all of my classes today.  I wanted to use frozen hotdogs just so that I could have that be the title of the blog.  It is, however, to know our students and, upon some serious reflection, I decided that frozen hotdogs would be more of a liability than an asset.

So I used chalk.

The geometry kids got really into it and we had a good discussion about statistical anomalies and the value of multiple trials.

I am still missing assignments from MANY of those kids and their parents are starting to notice the zeroes on their online grades.  The Chapter 5 solution guides were due three weeks ago and more than half of them still haven't come in.  I don't mind work coming in late, provided they are using that time to improve the quality.  From what I've seen, that has not been the case.

The pre-algebra kids took a quiz today before moving on to the next section.  They were allowed to work in groups, but each person had to turn in their own.

7 students decided it would be a better use of their time to not do the quiz.  It sure made it easy to grade!

I think that, after the horrible day I had on Wednesday, my mind is overcompensating and swung me hard into indifference.  This is not a good place to be for a teacher, especially one who cares about improving their craft.

It feels very much like a defense mechanism.  I have been trying for 120 days to get these kids to care about their futures, their learning, their effort, their...anything.  I have come to a conclusion.

I don't know how to make kids care.

The ones who do, I can be a very effective teacher.  I can work with anyone who wants to learn something and I can use personal interests to bring in those on the fence.

As far as I can tell, there are four major motivations for students working:

  1. I want to learn
  2. I want the approval/respect of my parents/teachers
  3. I want good grades for me
  4. I don't want to get yelled at for bad grades

I think a great teacher can spark curiosity in their students, moving them from numbers 3 or 4 to number 1, or at least number 2.

I can't even identify where some of my students are on this list, so my ability to move them is minimal.

On a more content-related note, I think I have successfully cured my pre-algebra students of using "cross-multiply."  When we started proportions, I heard it with every other problem.  Now, I don't think I've heard it in over a week.  What I'm hearing instead is "don't we multiply 15 to both sides?"

If nothing else, I consider this a massive victory.  If you don't know why, check out Nix The Tricks.

I have noticed that they head towards specific tactics, not just as individuals, but as a class.

Students: "We don't want the x on the bottom.  So let's take the reciprocal of both sides."
Me: "Do we have to do that?"
S: "No.  We could multiply x on both sides, but it's easier to flip them."

Then the interesting stuff started showing up.

S: "Can I move the x to the other side?"
Me: "What do you mean?"
S: "It's easier for me if the x is on the right instead of the left."
Me: "Show me."

Me: "Why can you do this?"
S: "The equal sign is a balance and both sides are the same so we can switch them if we want."
Me: "Fair enough.  What's next?"
S: "Then we multiply by 6 on both sides so the 6's cancel out and simplify."

They get the concepts and, from what I can tell, they understand the underlying math.  What I don't understand is why they (as a class) feel the need to move the variable to right side of the equation.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day 119: Vocab Review, Gettin' Ma Hur Did

It was commented that I need to stop drawing lockers and graveyards because there appears to be a correlation between the images I draw and the day I have.  I am well aware that correlation does not imply causality, but I can't deny the connection.

Through my various conferences with my geometry students, I discovered something interesting.  They don't know the terms that they are using.  Specifically, they have difficulty distinguishing between altitude, median, and perpendicular bisector.  These are kinda important, so I decided to reinforce them.

"Jake! What's an altitude?"
"It's a line from the vertex to the opposite side?"
"What else?"
"It has to be perpendicular to that side."
"Good! Travis! What's an altitude?"

It went on like this, with me calling on about 8 kids asking for the definition before everyone was giving approximately the same answer.

Without warning, I switched words.

"Donovan! What's a median?"
It threw him off slightly, but he got it.  I asked 5-6 kids to define altitude.

Then I started randomly switching between altitude and median.  Then I threw in perpendicular bisector.  When a student didn't know the definition, I would move on to someone else, then come right back to them.

The kids got really into it, much more so than I anticipated.  We did it again at the end of class and I plan to do it with vital vocab from now on.  The positivity that was pervasive in the class was wonderful and really helped to lift my spirits from yesterday.

I was dubious about pre-algebra today after how yesterday went.  We went over the problem that should have been for homework, but no one did and spent the period working through example of indirect measurement.  There were several students who were engaged for the entire period and several others who checked in and out.

Overall, I was pleased with how the class went.

Of the two students with whom I had difficulty yesterday, one wasn't there and the other sat quietly in the back and did her work.

I have spoken numerous times with other teachers about how nothing is more important for the education of students than the building and developing of a trusting relationship.  No one learns from someone that they don't trust.

So, in the spirit of building relationships with my students...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Day 118: Remembered Anger

I am tired.  Too tired.

I lost my temper.  I said some things I should not have said.  I reacted in ways that I should not have reacted.

I had two particularly bad interactions with students in which, I felt justified at the time, but afterward, I think I handled very poorly.  I have a sharp tongue and instead of trying to get to the root of the problem, I tried to shut the students down to end the interaction.

It turned into a power play, which I've been trying to avoid all year.

Power struggles with students are always losing battles, even if you win.  I managed not to yell, but that doesn't change the fact that I did not behave in the fashion I should have.

I ended up calling the parents of both students to express my (genuine) concerns about their behavior and academic performance.

I began the conversation with the second parent by telling her the complete story and apologizing for my unprofessional behavior.  Either she was an inherently reasonable person, or she heard the defeat and despair in my voice and realized that I knew I had gone too far.

Either way, it was a good discussion that, I feel, was very productive.

Regardless, I feel awful.  I have 6 kids in the class who have been doing amazing work for me and I can't teach them because I don't have the skill or ability to deal with the rest of the class.  I have tried a multitude of different tactics with minimal success.  It's not as though certain tactics work with certain kids.  No matter what I've done, those 6 kids are engaged 80-100% of the time.  No matter what I've done, the rest are engaged 0-20% of the time.

I don't believe that kids are unreachable, but I'm coming to the conclusion that I can't reach them.

I need to go back and read my blog posts for 6 months ago to renew some of my enthusiasm and energy.  I feel as though I've slipped back into my frustration, anger and despair of the previous years.

Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe enthusiasm and energy aren't enough.

Maybe 90 minutes every day with this level of disinterest and apathy is enough to drain the love of teaching from anyone.

A few years ago, in the midst of an entire year that made this single day look a ray of sunshine, when I was complaining to a colleague about how unhappy I was, she told me something interesting.

She said that in this district, there is so much good that you can do.  She told me that the "higher end" districts didn't need us as much.  "Anyone can walk into those classrooms and teach those kids.  You can do so much more good here!"

I don't believe her assertion that anyone could walk in and teach those kids.  Having taught at one of those districts, I know that every place has it's unique challenges.  There are teachers who do well in certain situations and poorly in others.  I don't believe that there is something as the universally good teacher.  I believe that even the best teachers (of which I would never consider myself one) would have situations, classrooms, districts in which they would flounder and struggle.

My response to her was flippant and probably sheds some light on the kind of teacher I was.

"I don't want to 'do good.'  I want to enjoy what I do."

This year, I've been revising that statement.  If she asked me now, my response might be "I like doing good, but I also want to enjoy it."

My enjoyment has been decreasing as this year has continued.  There have been spikes of good days, but examining the overall trend, I see a decline.

Even in my geometry class, where the students do, for the most part, everything I ask them, I'm almost done.  My interest in developing new lessons and plans has dwindled.

I keep thinking "It's probably just today!  It's just the weather.  It's just that time of the year."

But how many times can you think "it's just today" before you have to admit that it isn't.

I don't know how to hit the reset.  I don't know how to bring back the energy to fight, to remind myself that I AM making a difference, even if just a small one and even if just for a few kids.

If a lawyer loses 90% of his cases, should he stay a lawyer?

I'm not posting this in the hopes that anyone will comment about how great a teacher I am, or how dedicated I must be to becoming a better teacher, or how dedicated I am to my students.  I'm not posting this in the hopes that anyone will suggest I find a different district in which to work.

I'm posting this for the same three reasons that I post everything else.
  1. I have thoughts I need to get down. 
  2. I will have a record of my methods and mentality at some later date
  3. Hopefully, someone can find strength and solace in my struggles.  If I can't help my students in the way that I want, maybe I can help other teachers.

What I do NOT want this blog to EVER be is my complaining about my district (which does what it thinks is best), my administrators (who are supportive and dedicated), my coworkers (who are trying incredibly hard every day), or my students (who are children and usually act better than I did at that age).

It is merely a reflection of my actions and thoughts.  Today, they were not up to par.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Day 117: Going Out (Into The Cosmos)

Fewer things make me happier than infecting my students with my excitement.  My major excitement for this week was the premier of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by my hardcore man-crush, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson!  Due to television concerns and time constraints, I had not been able to watch it.

So I watched it with the geometry class.  We had to watch it on Hulu, so there were commercials, but there was dead silence during the show itself.  They were riveted!  Except, of course, for the three kids who tune out no matter what activity we do.

This is where I would normally go off about the "unreachables" but I'm too pumped.  Maybe another day.

We had an excellent discussion afterwards and I'm hoping that we can watch each new episode together, fostering a months long discussion of the nature of reality.

I also decided that if my pre-algebra kids weren't going to do the practice that I asked of them, and they weren't going to pay attention when I went over new concepts, at least I would enjoy myself.

So we went outside!  It's one thing to talk about authentic experience and another entirely to help students have one.

We've been talking about ratios and proportions and last night's homework was several problems dealing with indirect measurement.  After we went over a few of them, I took the kids outside into the beautiful weather and had them measure their height, the length of their shadow and the lengths of the shadows of three random objects.  After staying outside as long as I could justify, we talked about how the movement of the sun affected the lengths of shadows and then headed back in.

Once inside, I had students draw diagrams to represent the objects they measured and show the calculations for determining the heights of objects that they chose.

In retrospect, I think I could have provided a little more guidance in terms of what I wanted them to hand in or display, but overall, it was a fun activity and got us outside into the fresh air for a bit.  Not everyone did what I asked them to do, obviously, but I was very pleased with the ones who did and I made a point to tell them so.

I plan to ask around and see how the behavior of my kids after that trip was changed.  I have this crazy theory that if kids are allowed to relax a bit, blow off a little bit of steam, then they will be more relaxed and willing to work in their other classes.

In the second class, it was amazingly hard to come back inside.  The gorgeous weather just sapped my energy and I wanted to lay down in the parking lot and take a nap...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Day 116: Running on Empty

Daylight Savings Time is a cruel joke.  Just as I begin to feel as though my morning commute will be nice and enjoyable, watching the sun shine its first rays down upon a mostly sleeping community, we switch the clocks and I am, once again, driving in the dark, desperately trying not to fall asleep at the wheel.

I arrived at work exhausted and never really recovered.

It worked out well in Geometry, where I asked the kids to continue whatever they were working on while I did more conferences.  Sitting and having a conversation with students is not something I've ever really done.  I have done conferences before, but it wasn't really a discussion.  It was me talking, asking questions, and them answering very briefly.

This time, I had them talk and I listened.  I asked clarifying questions and waited for them to expound on what they said.  I asked them to self-evaluate and tell me why they felt they deserved an 8 instead of a 9.  I asked if they wanted to go back and try again and many of them did.

I am hoping to instill in them two separate skills.

First, more transparently, I want them to be able to explain their work thoroughly.  I feel that their ability to do this will help them to develop more critical thinking skills, which is my ultimate goal in my classroom.

Second, I want them to take pride in their work.  It starts with me actually asking them "Is this the best you can do? Are you happy with your product?"  My hope is that, eventually, I don't have to ask, but they will have my voice in their heads asking.  Ultimately, I want it to be their own voice that's urging them to do better, to be proud of what they produce.

This goes back to what I was talking about on Friday.  I want students, when they score poorly on tests, to be upset because it doesn't adequately show what they know.  Similarly, before they turn in an assignment, I want them to ask themselves "Does this accurately express my knowledge?  Am I proud of this work?"

It's a long and difficult process to go from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic, but I truly believe that schools will not succeed until we are able to do that.

My lack of energy made my pre-algebra classes more difficult than normal.  I don't know if it's the weather, the time of year, or the change in the clocks, but I simply don't have the energy to fight with them anymore.  Kids tune in and tune out at the drop of a hat.  When I try to do more interesting projects and examples, they refuse to do the work.  When I grind through problems slowly, laboring over the details, the slower students happily stay with me, participating well, but the faster students tune out.  When I try to give them more challenging work, they won't do it.

If they can't reach the apple from the ground, they would rather starve.

I pulled a student into the hallway when her laughing, chatting, singing and snacking got to be too much me.  I didn't yell, or scream, or insult, or threaten.  I told her that she was going to have to start making better decisions if she didn't want to be here next year.  I told her that she was making it very difficult for me to keep trying to help her.  She stayed in the hallway for a few minutes, then returned and was on task.

I made a special point to tell how thankful I was that she decided to join our learning environment.

I am getting increasingly concerned that my responses to student behavior is becoming too harsh.  My patience at the excuses, the rudeness and the lack of effort is almost at an end.

I could make a list of things that students say and do that drive me up a wall, but any teacher could do the same.  What I NEED to do is figure out how to better deal with it than I am.  My reactions are not good my students in the long run.

I feel as though, at least in the pre-algebra classes, I had better learning outcomes when I spent my class time doing skill and drill.  I HATE that that might be true.

If it is, then I need to finally admit that I have no idea what I'm doing and find a different profession.  I've been trying for 116 days to drag them out of the cave, kicking and screaming, and I don't know if I'm anywhere closer to the entrance.

Maybe I just need to sleep more.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Day 115: Conferences and Feedback

I started a new type of assessment after thinking heavily about what I value and my goals for the class.  Two weeks ago, I gave my geometry students, several open ended questions from the text book to work on in groups with the following instructions:

You are to solve these problems, but you are also going to be writing a solution guide.  This means that you answers and explanations should be clear to anyone who picks them up, regardless of the mathematical background.  You should not need to be present for your explanations to be clear.

They were confused, but they worked very hard.  When they turned them in, I wrote feedback, gave them a score, made suggestions for improvements and handed them back.  The class average was about a 60%.

"If you are not pleased with your scores, take a look at the comments and suggestions I have left.  You can make improvements and clarifications and turn them back in.  I will replace the old score with the new one."

While one group argued over whose fault it was that their score was so terrible, the rest of the class took my suggestions to heart and turned in honest efforts.  I am so proud of them for this.

Last week, I did the same for the next chapter, but this time, they were to hand in their work individually.  They could collaborate, but each person needed to do their own.  They were due on Monday.

Two students turned them in on time.  When I asked a few others about it, their reply was "I didn't think it was good enough to turn in yet. I'm still working on it."

I LOVE this! We can work on promptness and deadlines later.  Right now, I'm going to dive into their pride and swim around in it, Scrooge McDuck-style.

Today in class, I announced who had turned in the latest assignment.  Those who had not were to work on it. Those who had could either revise their previous assignments or continue working in the guided notes.

While they were working, I called students up one at a time to go over their assessments.  I read what they wrote out loud to them and asked clarifying questions.  Then we talked for a bit about the concepts and how they could have more effectively communicated their knowledge.

Then I asked what they felt they deserved on each question.

Almost every kid low-balled themselves.  On a problem that I thought should have earned a 9/10, they felt they earned a 4/10.  I don't think it was false humility.  I think (and fear) that they have been trained over years and years to not adequately evaluate their own work.

How often have they (has anyone) turned in a school assignment that they thought was awesome, only to get back a terrible grade with no feedback?  I'm trying to put a stop to this.

In addition to helping the students better explain their thinking and communicate their reasoning, I loved that I was able to spend some time just talking with each student.  I used it as a chance to check in with them as well about how they felt the class was going.  I didn't get through all of them, and many took their papers back with them to make revisions based on our conversations.

I wish I didn't have 31 kids in this class so that I could do these conferences more often.  Perhaps more independent work is the answer? Once they have a clearer view of my expectations, I have faith that they will exceed them with flying colors.

As class ended, one student held back.

Student: "Mr. Aion, can I talk to you for a second?"
Me: "Sure thing.  What's up?"

He told me that he had applied to a private school in the area and had been rejected.  His admissions scores were good, but apparently not good enough.  He was incredibly disappointed and wanted to know why he didn't get in.  I told him he would have to ask them, but gave him some advice on how to do so.

Me: "When you guys ask me about your grades, what's the only questions I want you to ask?"
Student: "What can I do to improve?"
Me: "Exactly. Ask them the same thing.  Don't ask them why you didn't get in. Ask them what you could do to improve your chance of acceptance the next time."

He thanked me and, after we talked a little more, I walked him to class.  This is a kid who has seemed a little off in the last few days and when I asked him about it privately, he said it was nothing.  I told him that if he wanted to talk, I was there for him.

I am so proud that he took me up on it, even if it took him a few days to do so.  I need a reminder every once in a while that I'm getting through to my students, not just on an academic level, but on a personal level.

I truly believe that teaching is not about content.  It's about relationships.

One of my students started to ask me a content question yesterday and quickly stopped.
"I hate how you never answer questions except with more questions.  But I read your blog and I know why you do it."

I have mixed feelings about students reading my blog, but on balance, I like it.  I have always written here as though they (or their parents, or my administrators, or potential administrators) might read it but never gave it much thought.  It's interesting to hear their perspective on the difference between my classroom self and my blog self.

"On your blog, you're so professional.  Not at all like in class, where you're fun!"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Day 114: Tears For Fears

We make all sorts of excuses why an athlete didn't do as well as expected.  We blame the weather, the ground conditions, the latest stomach bug going around, the lack of familiarity with a strange field/hill/track, etc.  We do not, however, make the same allowances for students taking tests.

As my geometry students completed their standardized testing today, they were called up to my desk one by one to discuss their results.  This is the only test that I do not fight tooth and nail because the feedback is immediate and split between various content sections.  It provides me with some valuable data about a student's strengths and weaknesses.  It also provides me with data about the class as a whole, allowing me to tailor my teaching based on areas of need, such as algebraic concepts.

The other benefit to this particular test is that students take it 2-3 times each year.  This means that I, and the students, are able to see growth over a shorter period of time.

In sharp contrast to this, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) is designed to assess the school, rather than the students.  It takes place over 2 solid weeks for several hours each day.  The district uses the scores to help determine which English and math classes the students may take the following year.  The scores take 3-4 months to come back and are categorized into 4 levels of proficiency (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.)  Students do not receive any meaningful feedback about this test and, while they are told how important the tests are, are never told why.

As I met with each student today, we went over their results, discussing areas that I need to focus on as a teacher and strategies for them to demonstrate their knowledge as a teacher.

For the most part, there was great improvement shown from October until now.  There were several students who stayed at the same level and two or three whose scores decreased.

One such student came up to the desk, saw her scores and immediately burst into tears.

At the time, I found this incredibly upsetting.

No test, certainly not one that doesn't have an effect on grades, class placement, or personal worth, should have this effect on a student.  she is a smart, hard-working, kind, wonderful young lady and I think the world of her.  Watching her break down upon seeing her score tore the heart from me.

No matter how many times I try to tell them that test scores do not determine their worth, the idea is so engrained that they are unable to shake it.  This is a systemic problem that I don't know how to cure.  I want my students to be able to tell themselves that they tried their best.

 After spending the day ruminating on my conversation with this young lady, I have come to a very different conclusion.  While I'm not sure the situation warranted tears, I am very proud of her disappointment.  She knows that the test does not affect her grade or determine which class she takes next year.  She knows that it is a purely a diagnostic assessment.

And yet, she was still upset.  I like to think that this is because she was hoping to have grown in the past 5 months.  I like to think that she was disappointed in her ability to demonstrate her increase in knowledge.

THIS would be a good reason to be upset.

As many educators know, standardized tests are not accurate predictors of success or indicators of knowledge and skills.  They are, at best, an indication of what a particular student can do while in a particular mood on a particular day.

When the Americans didn't perform as well as expected during the Olympics, there was lots of rhetoric about how the event is just one day.  The various pundits claimed that doing poorly in one event on one day didn't mean that the Olympians were anything less than stellar athletes. 

This is the message I was trying to get across to my students.  Do the best you can, but recognize that the results of one test on one day may mean very little about anything other than that one day.

Regardless of the reason, a standardized test should never make a student cry.

It may be a pipe dream, but I want my students to greet test day by saying "YES! I get to show off what I know!"  If they do poorly, I want them to say "Crap! I didn't get to show off what I know!"

Pipe dream or not, this is what I strive for.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Day 113: A Non-Day

After the dark, gloomy, depressing picture yesterday, I feel as though I needed a brighter, more cheerful one today.  It worked with moderate success.

My geometry class was postponed so the students could take a computerized diagnostic test.  This is a state test and, shockingly, the website wasn't working properly.  What do my geometry students do while waiting for a standardized test site to start working?

Browse pictures of Doctor Who gear
Play zombie-killing games
Play Tetris
Practice math (on Think Through Math)
Read my blog.

Wait what???

The site finally started working and they plugged along very well.

My pre-algebra students are also doing the test, but due to infrastructure and logistical issues, only half of them can take it at a time.  The math coach and I split the two classes in half with the first half of the alphabet taking the test today while I work on content with the other half.  Tomorrow, the groups will switch.

Progress reports got issued today.  That means that students who have been sleeping, or talking, or dancing, or singing, are suddenly DEEPLY concerned about getting their grades up.

This used to make me irate.  You want to sleep in my class and now all of a sudden, I should go out of my way to help you boost your grade so you can go back to sleep tomorrow?  I don't think so!

Now, it makes me sad.  My concern now is more that these students very clearly don't care about the learning at all.  They don't even care about the grades beyond how they may or may not be yelled at for those grades.

A large portion of my students do very little throughout the marking period, followed by furious bursts of work, tears, screams of frustration, clumps of torn-out hair and cries of "THIS IS TOO MUCH!"

Of COURSE it's too much! You're trying to learn 9 weeks worth of material in 2 days!  I give them analogies about practicing sports, or musical instruments, or going to the gym, to express the importance of doing a little each day, but they never believe me.  Then, at the end of the marking period when a ton of work has to be done to make stuff up, it's overwhelming and they shut down.

Then, my period 8/9 had a farting competition.  I'm done with today.

On a more positive note, I received an email from a concerned parent this morning.  She was very upset about her son's grade and my lack of assignments in the gradebook.  It felt as though she was looking for someone to blame. After several exchanges back and forth, she thanked me for my responses, I reassured her of my commitment to her son's education and thanked her for contacting me with her concerns.

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