Friday, October 31, 2014

Day 47: A Pervasive Disease

I was out yesterday (hence no post) and when I returned, was greeted by a lengthy note about the inappropriate behavior of one of my classes.  My other two did fine work, according to the sub.  According to other teachers, however, several students who normally present me with challenges were out providing that service to others around the building.

I arrived back today feeling disappointed.

Some of it was in the students, but mostly, I am disappointed in myself.  I thought that I had set up my expectations in a way that would increase success in my absence.  That was the case in 2 of my classes and I made a special point to thank them for it.

In honor of Halloween and the fact that we've been working on exponents, I decided that today would be a perfect day to do Pandemic.  This is a lesson about exponential growth from Mathalicious.  In last years class, this was wildly successful.

When I began it in period 1, the students were very excited and interested.  One girl asked why we couldn't do lessons like this all the time.

As the class progressed, I became increasingly frustrated with the amount of time I had to wait for them to stop yelling about Twilight.  Each new idea sparked a new round of yelling.  It was on topic in that it was about vampires, but that was all.

"I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but maybe lunch would be a better time to talk about Bella and Edward.  Right now, the discussion is about this little town infested with vampires."

I did appreciate their enthusiasm.  What I did NOT appreciate was their unwillingness to stop yelling out.  For the most part, it was the same small group of students with whom I am frequently addressing their outbursts.
"Perhaps they would more inclined to listen if you used the proper spelling of "you're"."

It occurs to me that our system has done such a wonderful job of crushing participation and enthusiasm that students often don't know how to participate productively or appropriately.  We don't have a system in place for the difference between time to talk and time to listen.

I didn't get to finish the lesson.  I gave up.  I just didn't have the patience to constantly be talking over students or asking them to be respectful of me and their peers.  A handful of kids got REALLY angry at their peers for ruining what could have been a cool lesson.  I did my best to apologize to them individually for being unable to maintain a learning environment in my class.

I addressed the girl from the beginning of class. "This is why, my dear.  This is why we can't do more activities like these."

After I sat down, a young woman came up and asked me to grade one of her late assignments.  She was a major perpetrator of the disruption in the class.  She has spent the period working on late work for my class as well as for history.  She was talking and laughing loudly with students on the other side of the room and consistently yelling out off topic questions for the entire period.

I did not react the way I should have.

"I'm sorry.  I'm very disappointed in your behavior in your behavior today.  You were constantly disruptive and made it impossible for me to teach the rest of the students who were interested.  Now, you are asking me to do you the favor of accepting late work and grading it now, when I should be working with your peers on this lesson.  These are the actions of someone who thinks that what they are doing is more important than everyone else."

This is close to what I should have said.

"You were rude to me and your classmates for the last hour and now you want me to do something for you? The marking period is closed and I will not be accepting that work."

This is closer to what I did say.

I am pleased that I refrained from screaming at her, but my anger has a tendency to come with quiet rather than volume.

Plus, getting into a shouting match with a teenager is always a mistake.

I began typing this entry by talking about the flaws in the system and what behaviors we should be punishing versus what we ARE punishing.  I typed out about 2 paragraphs before I deleted it.  This blog is supposed to be about me and what I can do to improve my practice.  Complaining about the system won't help me become better.

I need to talk to someone about how to accomplish the goals I've set for myself and my students in the current environment.  Every school in every district has its challenges.  The good teachers are the ones who find ways to overcome those challenges.

I don't understand social dynamics.

The rest of the day went VERY well.  The students were interested and engaged and we had excellent discussions.  They displayed enthusiasm, but brought it back together when it was time to move on.

The best discussion happened when we began to discuss immunity.  The question came about whether a person who is immune to a disease could expose others to it.  One of my geometry students came up with a great analogy that gave me a great idea for a demonstration/activity.

The idea was that everyone is wearing velcro suits.  One person is covered in fuzzy balls and begins to throw them at other people.  Anyone who gets stuck with a ball is now infected.  People who are immune don't get velcro suits and the balls just fall to the ground.  No matter how many balls are thrown at that person, they will never stick and so that person couldn't spread it to others.

This was much less morbid than my analogy, which was that I had 5 puppies to give away.  One of those puppies died and couldn't have more puppies.

I liked the student idea better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Day 45: The Flopping V!

A Sports Analogy:

Imagine, if you will, Emilio Estevez, a self-centered lawyer, is sentenced to community service coaching a rag tag youth hockey team.  Over the course of a few months, he builds them into a cohesive team and, in the process, learns a ton about himself.
I can't wait to see if they win the championship!

We all know this story and if I talk about it any more, Disney will sue me for copyright infringement.

Now, imagine if you will, that after months of working together, developing strategies and plays, the final game approaches.  Instead of executing the Flying V and driving fans to their feet in amazement, they skate in all directions, reenacting the initial scene, collapsing all over each other.

Now, imagine if you will, that rather than a rag tag team of hockey playing misfits, you're looking at my pre-algebra students and the quiz they took today.  The scene would be similar.

They have been working VERY hard for me over the past few weeks.  They ask good questions and have been explaining their thinking.  The work that I see in class has been quite good and accurate.  We've been working on exponents, which are admittedly tough.  They have been told (and have done repeatedly) that if they aren't sure what to do, that they should expand the problem all the way out and see what they can see.

We've been doing this for at least two solid weeks.

Then the quiz came around.  Instead of doing what we've been doing, most of them fell back on rules that they couldn't remember.  For the few kids who showed their work, they started out well but the answers that they put on the test were unrelated to the work.

It was almost as though they thought they remembered a rule and only showed work to justify that rule.  When they work didn't show what they thought, they ignored it.

I've also been trying to emphasize the strategy of "try an easier problem."  This assessment had that built in with 6 being an easy problem and 7 being more complicated.  Even so, the mistakes that I'm seeing are inconsistent, not only from student to student, but from problem to problem.

Perhaps I should be designing my assessments so that they flow more.  If each new problem were related to the preceding ones, would the students be able to see the connections in strategies better?  At the same time, if they are set up that way and the student messes up step one, are they doomed for all of the subsequent problems?

In a Twitter conversation this morning with +D'Alice Marsh, I realized that this assessment doesn't adequately reflect the skills that I've been emphasizing in class.  I want the students showing their thinking, but I didn't ask them to do so on the quiz.  This is something I NEED to change.

In period 8, I told them that they could earn half credit by showing their work.  75% didn't.

Something must have been off today as well because multiple students in 8th period refused to stop talking while others were taking their tests.  They made a scene out of pointedly ignoring my directives.

At the end of the period, I stood by the door.  When the bell rang and I didn't move, the class began policing itself, yelling at each other to sit down and stop talking.  When the class was silent, I began naming students who had behaved appropriately.

As I said their names, they got up and left.

As I watched the rest of the silent class, I commented about how confused I was that they were unwilling to follow explicit directions that I gave them, but had no problem following ones that I didn't give.

I pointed out that at no point did I ask them to sit in their seats and be silent at the end of class.  I had asked it of them throughout and they had refused.

I asked them why they were still sitting there when the bell had rung and the day had ended.  They told me it was because I didn't dismiss them.

I asked them to think about how they decide which directions they will follow and why?  I am honestly curious.

I hope it is something deeper than "If I do what I'm told now, it'll effect me.  Before, it didn't."

There is a severe lack of empathy and I'm not sure how to develop it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Day 44: The Doctor Is In

I have never fully understood the black and white nature of heroes and villains.

I have trouble with villainous motivation.  Other than revenge, the reasons why villains do what they do has always seemed hollow to me.


Me: "...why?"
Them: "...Because RULING THE WORLD!!"
Me: "Yeah, but why? For what purpose?"
Them: "I...what do you mean?"
Me: "Say you rule the world. What are you going to do with it? What would you do with yourself then that you can't do now?"
Them: "I would be in charge! I could do whatever I wanted!"
Me: "So what would you do?"

In James Bond, the villains have mixed motivations: world conquest, power, money, shaping the future, etc.

They create these deeply elaborate schemes that require insane amounts of money.  They have henchmen, armies, toys, gadgets and resources beyond imagining.  The precariously balanced plans never seem to lead anywhere that's BETTER than what they already have.

In Tomorrow Never Dies, Elliot Carver is a media mogul who has the goal of ruling the media of the world.  But they never talk about WHY?  He already controls MOST of the media and he has enough money to buy whatever he wants.  He doesn't have a clear ideology that he seems to want to brainwash people with.  He just wants to rule the media.

But why?  To what end??

It always seems to come down to money.

"I'm gonna use this money to get more money so I can have more power to get more money!"

But it's not as though they are trying to find a way to go from middle class to upper class.  They are always moving from insanely rich to slightly more insanely rich.

What could you buy with $500,000,000,000 that you couldn't buy with $400,000,000,000?

Hero motivation is always fairly simple.  "I need to protect."  This, I understand.  I see this every day and it doesn't require any overarching goals.  Nobody is ever asked why they need to protect because that seems like a silly question.
"Yes, but WHY Hulk smash?"

The real world is MUCH more complex.  People have multiple motivators both explicit and implicit.  In many cases, they don't fully understand them.  I know that I don't always understand why I do what I do, or why I feel what I feel.

I held conferences with most of my geometry students today.

Me: "Tell me what you think you deserve this marking period and why?"
90% of them: "I think I deserve a high B."
Me: "Why not a low B or a low A? or a high A?"
905 of them: **mumbling something about being able to do better but feeling comfortable with the majority of the work**

What they are really saying is "I want an A, but if I say that, you'll think I'm arrogant and laugh at me.  If I say a C, you'll think I'm pretending to be humble. B seems like a safe bet."

When I pointed this out to them, they almost all admitted that I was right and then we had a better discussion.  I explained that all I was looking for was the truth.  I also asked about their plans for improvement during the rest of the year. I got some amazing gems from a few people.

"I need to check my work without second guessing myself.  I often put down the right answer, but then think I must be wrong and change it.  I need to trust my instincts more."

A few said they needed to study more.
"Is studying really your problem?"
" I don't really ask questions when I'm confused."

It was clear that they have never really been asked to self-evaluate.  After the initial false humility and attempts to give the answers they thought I wanted to hear, we had some good conversations.  Many students do have a firm grasp on how much they actually know and what they can actually do.  Away from the social pressure, they are much better at introspection.

I am proud of them.

And then, when I asked a young woman about what grade she thought she deserved, she started to cry.

I was completely taken aback.

This is the second time this week that students have broken down into tears in my class.  It's only Tuesday!

All I was able to get out of her was that she hates talking to teachers about her grades.  She currently has a VERY good grade in my class, so I don't think it's a shame thing.  There is something deeper here that I don't understand.

I told her that she didn't have to talk if she didn't want to, but I would be available if she did.

I'm starting to feel as though I need to put a couch in the corner on my room.

I desperately wish I had more time with some of these kids...

Monday, October 27, 2014

Day 43: The Human Fund

Last week, I gave my pre-algebra students a collection of worksheets that will cover the content for the next month of so.  Their assignments have been to work through them at their own pace, either on their own or with a partner or two.  I have set milestones about where they need to be and when.

The first milestone was today.

In my 1st period, 1 student is where I was hoping they would be.  In most cases, the students have been working very well, but not at a speed that I deem to be appropriate.  I also don't feel great about this strategy.  It feels lazy to me and allows students who don't want to work an easy way out.

At the same time, it allows me a chance to see where my students are and which concepts are causing them struggle.  I want to be doing activities and projects with them, but this independent work had value as well.  I need to find a way to balance the two.

I made a casual mention to my geometry students about a quiz and they immediately reenacted the scene from Scanners.

Notes on what? We've been talking about critical thinking and problem solving!

I hate how anxious the idea of assessment makes them.  I've been assessing their skills since day one, but as soon as a number or letter gets attached, they freak out!

It's so weird for me, as a numbers guy, to say so but they need to ignore the numbers!  Just show me what you can do!

They are totally on board with what I'm trying to do in the classroom, long as they get A's.

I know it's a different mindset that I'm trying to develop, but it felt as though I lost a ton of ground today.

And then they came to class.  Several students were missing and the rest told me they were still with the Gifted teacher "dealing with some drama."

When they finally showed up, it was clear that something major went down.  The gifted teacher came with them and thus began a 90 minute Airing of Grievances.

This had apparently been building behind the scenes for a VERY long time.  Students talked about their concerns with each other, with the gifted teacher, with me, with my class, with their parents, etc.  It was a discussion and not a complaining session.  I was very impressed by the maturity all around as students allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of their peers.

There were tears shed as a student talked about the trauma that happened to her over the summer and the pressure that her parents are putting on her.  Another began to cry as she talked about how unaccustomed she is to the difference in expectations between 7th and 8th grade.  Another talked about how she loved me as a person, but she hates my teaching style.

At no point did I, or I think anyone, feel attacked.  I felt as though students with legitimate concerns were addressing them in a respectful and meaningful fashion.

At several times the Gifted teacher apologized for derailing the class.  I explained to her, and the students, that this was not a derailment.  It wasn't what I had planned, but it was more important.  I need my students to know that my room is a safe place and that I recognize that they are more than just brains that I need to fill with math.

I feel as though we made many strides today in understanding each other and helping to build a more positive and safe community.

I gave hugs.  Partially because the students looked like they needed to be reassured and comforted, but also because I needed it.
I was very proud of them.

Tests can wait.  Showing humanity is more important.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Day 42: Dat Rut Tho

I can't wait for this weekend!

I feel as though I've been stagnating in my lessons lately.  My student engagement has been acceptable, but not great.  On top of this, however, I'm feeling as though my approach, while it may be effective, is accidentally so.

I feel as though I chosen it so that I didn't have to develop anything better.

I can justify given the pre-algebra students a giant packet of work by claiming that they are working at their own pace.  I can let students explore new topics in a self-guided environment without feeling as though they are lagging behind or being held back.  I'm also able to spend time with students who normally get overlooked because they don't cry for attention the way some others do.  These are legitimate reasons.

But I have mixed feeling about it.

In 8th period, however, this tactic seems to be a fairly successful.  As long as I continue moving around the room, the students stay on task.  I gave them a checkpoint for Monday and that seemed to really help focus them.

Even in geometry, the activities are great and informative, but I'm beginning to doubt my unifying goal.  I want them to be better problem solvers and to experience mathematics in new and interesting ways and I'm using the curriculum to provide those experiences, but something seems off.

I'm hoping that I'm just in a rut and I'm excited to talk with other educators this weekend at EdCampPGH!  Every education conference I attend fills me with energy, excitement and ideas. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Day 41: Stamps and Self-Direction

I FINALLY got the books that I ordered last week.  Each of my pre-algebra students received the gift of organization today.

I gave each one a bound book of all of the practice sheets that we will be using for this section.  They can work at their own pace through the curriculum and I can provide individual attention to the students who need it, allowing individual or group work to those who will thrive that way.

We have been doing Estimation 180 and over the past few weeks, I've been asking random students to justify their guesses.  Today I also gave them a warm-up book that is to be kept in class.  They will now be writing their estimations and reasons, earning a stamp when they've completed it.  There is also an exit ticket for each day where they are being asked to summarize what happened.  In addition, I left TONS of blank space so they can use them as notebooks!

The pre-algebra class today was their first experience working at their own pace with no real pressure from me.  I took a seat with a group of students and began working through the worksheets myself.

S: "Are you doing the problems? Why are you doing what we're doing?"
Me: "Well, practice never hurts.  Plus, I think it would be unfair to give you a thick book of practice pages and then be unwilling to do them myself."

Yes, there were students off task.  Yes, there were kids playing with hair and talking about sports.

But there were also many students diligently working.  They moved around the room and worked with their friends, enjoying being in class AND being productive.  On several occasions, I heard conversations where kids corrected each other and got back on task right away.

Since I was sitting with a group, I was much more approachable to students who are normally quiet.  Several came to ask me questions that I know they wouldn't have been comfortable asking in front of the class.

My favorite part was that I was able to model how to work while still being social.  The group with which I was sitting was working, talking and laughing.  We were all on different pages, but helping each other out when someone got stuck.

In addition, 8th period seemed very amenable to this idea.  The group of more rambunctious students broke into smaller groups and kept checking in with each other to see who was further ahead.

Since it took over a week for these books to arrive, we had already covered the first 2 sections, allowing students to know success right away.

"I know this stuff!  This is easy, bro! I'm blowing through it!"

My pre-algebra students are, traditionally, used to being terrible at math.  They think it's hard and complicated and stupid.  If I'm able to show them that they KNOW how to do it, have them experience the success, then hopefully, I'll be able to use it to scaffold to more complicated and more interesting problems.

I'm hoping this will help with buy-in.

There was a field trip today and, as a result, I had 7 students in geometry.  I took the opportunity to teach them how to play Swish and Set, two of my favorite card games!

I'm hoping to play Swish with them more often.  Then, when we start working with transformations, they will already have experience thinking about that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Day 40: WORK! Or Don't...

After barely making it through our Estimation warm-up, I got tired of trying to talk over my first period.  I sat down and began working on some math of my own.

Over the past day, I've been looking at devising a generic form of a polynomial from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd (etc) differences from other polynomials.  I miss doing math.  It works my brain in ways that I want my students to experience cherish.

As I sat there, several students came up to ask my questions.  I gave them my full attention.  A few others came and asked if they could do practice problems on the board.  I handed over my pen and they worked.

There was a group in the room who decided that today would be better spent playing beauty shop.

For the second half of class, we went into the computer lab where they worked on Think Through Math, a web-based math intervention program that our district has purchased.

Geometry was fantastic.

We had the computer lab and I introduced them to one of my favorite tools.  I sent them to play Euclid.

This brilliant puzzle game is the brain child of Kasper Puelen.  It slowly has students do more and more complicated constructions while slowly introducing them to the toolkit available in Geogebra.

I set a challenge for them to get to the highest level they could.  The room was loud, chaotic and productive.  Students worked individually or in pairs, racing each other to higher and higher levels.

Each time a level was solved, a cheer went up around the room.  Students were laughing and yelling and calling out in triumph and frustration.

They didn't even realize that an hour had passed.  As they walked out, I heard several say that they were going to do more at home.  This is a game that we will revisit as we cover more topics relating to angles and circles.

And then comes 8th period.  On Friday and Monday, they worked in silence as a result of their horrendous behavior in my absence on Thursday.  Yesterday, they were on point and some incredible work was done.

Today, they were right back to where they were, yelling insults at each other across the room, off task and unproductive conversations.

I know it's the end of the day.  I know they are tired from having to sit still for 5 hours.  I know that they haven't had a break all day.  I am willing to provide them with latitude for all of these things, provided they aren't making it impossible for me to teach.

And then I remind myself of everything I just typed.  I know that I need to work with this class differently.  I need to find a way to get them to use that energy in a productive way instead of trying to bottle it up.

I'm just not sure how...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Day 39: Accountable Talk

"Why do I have to do it?"

We were reviewing the practice problems on monomial multiplication and division in pre-algebra.  I asked students if they had specific problems that they wanted to go over and received several.  We began going through them as a class.  I was writing, but offering no other assistance.

"What should we do here?" I asked the class.
"Couldn't you expand them out like we did the other day?" they replied.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Can you elaborate?" I said coyly.

And they did.  As a group, we went through half a dozen exercises.  I called on random students to tell me what they did next, or to agree or disagree with the previous students had said.

Then I got to one young woman.

"What do we do?" I inquired.

Her reply came with a surly tone and attitude.  "I don't know. I wasn't paying attention."

I smiled.

"That's fine.  We will all work together on this. What do you THINK you do?"

"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention."  She was gonna be a tough nut to crack, but I knew she could do it.  I felt that her resistance was due to an annoyance of being called on rather than the frustration of not knowing.

For the next few minutes, I cajoled her and encouraged her.  I asked her to look at previous examples that were on the board and tell me what she noticed.

"Why do I have to do this?" she asked, putting emphasis on the first person pronoun, indicating that perhaps someone else should be the victim of my academic encouragement.

"Because I know you can do it and I want you to know it too."

She bit.  Yes, she continued to fuss and complain and claim that she had no idea, but she demeanor changed and she began answering.

Then I handed the pen to a student to put her answer on the board.  That broke the dam.

Kids were fighting over who got to do what.  I let them pick which problems they wanted to do and, by allowing them to write, I was able to use proximity with normally disengaged students to get them more involved.

"While she is putting this one on the board, I want you to try it here.  Tell me if you get the same answer."

I didn't tell anyone if they were right, but looked instead for consensus in the classroom.

For the first time in a long time, the productive students were louder than the unproductive ones.  Accountable talk reigned.

This was followed by a VERY productive and supportive parent meeting.

I may play the lottery tonight.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Day 38: Routine

I need to do a better job of planning activities for my students, especially the pre-algebra classes.  I'm falling back too heavily on worksheets.

My two main justifications for doing so are "they need the practice" and "if I give them the practice for homework, they won't do it."

While both of these are true, there are better ways to get them practice.

I could also come up with dozen of reasons why I'm not developing the activities, most of which would be student/system blaming and would be not really true or productive.

I'm also feel less enthusiastic about writing this blog every day.  There are fewer and fewer things happening in my classroom of which I am proud or about which I wish to talk.  This isn't to say that things are going poorly.  They are simply routine in a way that I'm not sure needs attention.

Or perhaps the routine is what needs attention.

I know we can't do amazing things every single day.  I don't have the energy or the creativity for that.

Rather than interesting and unique activities, I have been working on relationship building with my students.  There have been several incidents where student behavior has made it impossible for me to teach and my interventions have been ineffective.  I am still solidly of the belief that a kid will work for a teacher they like, even in a class that they hate.

This doesn't mean that we should be working to get our students to like us.  Our job is not to be liked, but to teach.  At the same time, a student will not learn from someone they hate.

It's a very difficult balance.

Period 8 sat in silence doing their work again today.  Several students (including trouble makers) received rewards because they were on task, working hard and not distracting other students.  Conversely, several of my favorite students did not get those rewards because they had not completed the tasks I set out for them.

I'm glad that I was able to do that because it helped to solidify that I was punishing behavior rather than students.

I want my students to be at the bottom of this pyramid, but getting them there isn't as simple as "read Chapter 3 and teach each other."

In geometry, I saw that my students need a ton of practice in justifying their arguments and I will probably switch over the verbage that Chris Luzniak uses (My claim is that... My warrant is that...).

Somehow, we managed to get into a discussion about motion in multiple dimensions, which is something I've been thinking about all year.  I was able to emphasize the importance of good questions.

"When you are on a rollercoaster, are you moving in 1, 2 or 3 dimensions?"

I need to start a Question Wall...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Day 37: A Disappointed Quiet

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be selected to go to the Penn Literacy Network workshop led by Joe Ginotti.  It was, by far, the best professional development workshop that I have ever attended and I'm very much looking forward to parts 2 and 3 in the coming months.  It was very validating to find that many of the recommendations that he made (based on research) are already in place in my class.  I feel as though I'm on the right track and received many suggestions on to further my practices.

Things I'm doing already:

Students in groups of 2 and 4
Attempting to connect new lessons to prior knowledge
Asking students to generate ideas rather than simply remember formulae
Encouraging group work and collaboration
Getting students to explain their thinking using mathematical language
Having students read the goals of the classroom on a daily basis
Offering problems with low entry points that allow students of all abilities to experience success

Things I need to do more frequently:

Have students do quick turn-and-talks
Have students writing more (this will happen more starting in the second marking period)
Have students questioning and reflecting more
Develop projects that are marking period/semester/year long
Give students a specific long term goal to achieve
Encourage more productive, academic interactions between students

It's nice having a clear list of things to work on rather than "make things better!"

I returned to school today to find that chaos had taken over in my absence.

I received a report that security and our school police had to be called to my classroom no less than 4 times in a single period.  7 students had to be removed and several others walked out to avoid getting in trouble for things they didn't do.  The teachers who were covering that class left me notes about specific behaviors, none of which surprised me.

I want to be clear that I do not blame the chaos on the covering teachers.  They are all veterans with their own classrooms well under control.  I do find it slightly validating that they had such difficulty not because of them, but because I've been finding that group particularly challenging.  Knowing that others would have the same (if not worse) issues with that group makes me think that I may be doing something right.

In addition to this, I received a message from the teacher who covered my geometry class telling me that they did the Pledge to Improved Mathematics without me being there.  He was very impressed.  I was impressed and proud and made sure to tell them so today.

In addition, I wanted to talk about justification of mathematical thinking as an introduction to proofs and, somehow, we ended up talking about manipulating fractions through the use of rectangles!  Clearly, I'm stuck on this idea...

My 8th period, however, had a less than pleasant day.  In light of the reports that I received from my substitutes, as well as security, our behavioral specialist and the building police, I decided that they needed a silent day.

I gave direct instruction.  I went over key examples from the assignment that I left yesterday, answering questions that were asked in 1st period.  I was thorough and explained concepts in multiple ways.  Then they worked.

For 70 minutes, they sat in silence working on practice problems and activities individually.  I made myself available for individual questions and worked with any student who asked, including those whose names were in the sub report.

It worked very well.

Without the social pressure to be funny, the students who normally cause disruptions were not disturbing others and, for the most part, did very good work.  They asked good questions and completed the task I set.  The rest of the students, free from the attention-demanding behavior of the minority were able to get more individual attention from me and address their own educational needs.  There was no stigma or fear of asking questions in front of the whole group and there was a quiet environment for them to concentrate.

I am disappointed that this group has been unable to handle group activities and I'm unwilling to change my seating layout for a single class.  Over the next few school days, I will be working them slowly back up into participation, loosening the leash slightly, praising the kind of behavior that I wish to foster and making sure that I heavily separate my reactions to behavior versus academics.

On a more absurd note, today was picture day.  I had the Herculean task of surpassing my faculty picture from last year:
This was pretty amazing...
 I won't tell you what I did until I get the pictures back.  But here's a hint...

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."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Day 34: Dem Phones, Dem Phones, Dem CELL Phones...

I allow my students to use their phones in class.
"Involutarily collaborated" from

**waits for gasping to subside**

This is the first year that I've allowed them.  The majority of my students use them as calculators, or to fix their hair and makeup.  It can be annoying.  I don't LOVE it.

It's just not a battle that I'm willing to fight any more.

Last year, when cell phones were banned in the building, a young man had his phone every day.  It was confiscated 2-3 times per week.  This would force his mother to come to the school to pick it up where she would claim up and down that he would never get it back.

The next day, he had it back.

When he is in my class, he's checking Facebook and Instagram.  He's sending texts to his friends.

And he's doing the work that I ask of him.

Does he do it perfectly?  No.  Do I pretend to post Facebook statuses behind him at least once each day? Yes.

But he does the work that I ask.  And he cares about doing it well.

I have another student who sits with his headphones in when we are doing individual work.  When I go over to ask him if he has any questions (instead of "why aren't you working?") he says that he doesn't and shows his completed paper.

He does the work that I ask of him.

Short of wrapping an electro-magnet around the door and performing strip searches on students every day, there is no way to keep cell phones out the school..

For the first student, allowing cell phones in my class or not would not change his behavior.  He has a demonstrated history of using his phone regardless of the rules.  Banning the phones in my class would only force him to be more sneaky and foster a sense of me as his enemy.  As it is, he puts the phone away when I ask him to and we have a very good relationship.  He feels comfortable asking me questions and talking to me about things that he might not otherwise.

For the second student, banning cell phones in my class would change his behavior.  He is the kind of students who likes to figure things out on his own and only asks for help when he really needs it.  If I forced him to put the headphones away, he wouldn't be able to focus on the task at hand and would simply stare off into space or go to sleep.  I know this because he and I talked about it at the beginning of the year.  He agreed to keep the headphones away when I was going over material and to complete the work that I asked.  In exchange, I let him listen to music when he's working.  This works out well for both of us.

I know that other teachers are very dubious about cell phone use in class.  I don't begrudge them their choices or feelings.  For me, however, fighting having cell phones in school is a losing battle.  The students will have them anyway.  They will never be able to learn how to use them responsibly if we don't teach them.

Today, my pre-algebra students took a test.  Many of them used their phones as calculators.  A few, including the first student I talked about, were surfing the web.  This got me thinking about cheating.  What if students were texting each other for answers across the room?

I decided that I didn't really care.  Yes, they could be using their phones to cheat.  They could be looking up the answers on Google.  Then I asked myself something.

If the answers to my tests can be looked up on Google, are they really worth asking in the first place?

I want my students to be creating, to be evaluating, to be synthesizing information.  I want them forming opinions and interpreting answers.  It would be great if they could determine the circumference of a circle from it's diameter.

It would be better if they could tell me which of the given answers is the most reasonable estimate.

A smart phone can't make judgement calls.  They can't interpret answers.

If a smart phone can answer my test questions, I'm asking the wrong questions.
Or on Google.

I think this is a topic that should be discussed.  I welcome the discussion.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Day 33: 5-Minute Mystery

I was planning to give a test in pre-algebra today, but decided against it.  Instead, I did an activity where they discovered pi by measuring the circumference and diameter of various circular objects.  I snagged every round object from my house (tupperware, tape, mugs) and snagged several beakers and corks from the science room.

After a quick intro, I handed out string, a log sheet and rulers.  They grabbed various objects and started measuring.  The work was slow, but steady.  I was very impressed with their tenacity and, for the most part, the only real problems came from mismatched units.  We had a few brief discussions about making sure that answered made sense.

"If the majority of your answers are a little bit higher than 3 and this one is closer to 8, what does that tell you?"

It was the kind of activity that I like, but makes me very uncomfortable.  After a brief talk at the beginning, there was very little for me to do.  The kids worked on their own and didn't need me there.  This is exactly how I believe in my heart that teaching should be.

Teachers should be curators of meaningful activities and guides as needed.

What makes me uncomfortable is the bit of "traditional" teacher that still resides in my head, telling me that if I'm not addressing the students, I'm not "teaching" them.

I REALLY need to get over that and, hopefully, experience will help me do so.  The best learning comes from exploration, not from following a predetermined roadmap.

In geometry, we continued our discussion of inductive and deductive reasoning.  I read the students a "5-Minute Mystery" about a rich man's will, a long-lost child and imposters.

Then I told them to find the murderer and the real child.

They RAN with it.  The arguments were fascinating.

They started drawing charts without my prompting, many of which were excellent!

I walked around the room listening.  Occasionally, I asked if they were able to rule out a suspect and asked them to present their evidence.  If they were using flimsy or circumstantial logic, I told them so, whether or not it was correct.  "That may be true, but it wouldn't hold up in court.  Can you find something stronger?"

After 15-20 minutes, I tried to bring them back together for a discussion.

They refused.

They were so ensconced in their group debates that they didn't want to stop.  They hadn't come to a conclusion yet and didn't want another group to ruin it for them.  I saw a flash of where I wanted them to be.  Suddenly, they didn't want the answer alone.  They wanted the understanding.

They wanted the victory, not just the win.

An hour later, as the period was about to end, I finally called a close to it.  We went through and talked about why each suspect could be eliminated and whether certain evidence was enough to draw a conclusion.  I kept order, but the students ran the debate.

"Sheryl was a red-head, but they said the baby was blond."
"So what? People can change their hair."
"So we can't talk about how they look because people look different as they grow."
"She had ink on her so she could have printed a fake birth certificate."
"Yes, she COULD have, but that doesn't mean that she did."

For a first major discussion of logic and reasoning, I was very proud of them.  I foresee great things happening here.

As they left, I handed them a second 5-Minute Mystery to work on over the long weekend, if they chose to do so.

"YAY! Puzzle weekend!"

It was not sarcastic.

The section on logic and reasoning is, by far, my favorite in geometry.  I love puzzles and I love being able to do them with the students.  If I could find a way to skip over "shapes" and "numbers" and just do puzzles all year, I totally would.  I think this can be a great way to suggest that we start a puzzle and game club in the school.

8th period, however, really had me questioning my post from yesterday.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Day 32: For The Love of Students

A few days ago, several of my female students quietly approached me to say that one the male students was making them uncomfortable.  They said that he was "slyly" touching girls in ways that they didn't like and he would stand too close.

I'm not going to speculate on why they approached me, but I have fierce paternal instincts towards many of my female students.  I'm not sure if this is because I have daughters of my own, although my wife will tell you that I was this way before we had kids.

Hearing the concerns from these students gets my back up in ways that almost nothing else does.  I pulled the young man aside and told him what I had heard.  I said that I didn't know if it was true and I wasn't yelling at him, but he needed to be aware of where his hands were at all times.  He needed to know that his actions, rightly or wrongly, were making other students uncomfortable.

The situation has since gone further up the chain and is being dealt with on a building level, but it really made me think about my reaction.

I stop and address inappropriate behavior in the hallway. regardless of the perpetrator or the victim.  I am highly attuned to sexual and verbal harassment.  It is often hard for me to tell when students hitting each other are joking around or being serious, but I address that as well.

Early in each year, a student will use the word "faggot" and I will stop the class to address it.  I talk about the origins of the word and how it will never be used in my presence again.  I snag on racial and ethnic slurs that students use even without them knowing what the words mean.

I'm not sure why all of this gets under my skin the way it does.  I was never, to my recollection, the victim of any of this, nor were the majority of my friends.  I'd like to think that it's because I am trying to be a decent person and, in turn, teach my students some decency as well, but I know plenty of very decent people who let these things slide.

Perhaps my reaction to the current situation with my students stems from a much more selfish place.

Perhaps my own social insecurity is so strong that I cherish anyone who shows me care.  My appreciation of that shows to that person, who in turn cares more, creating a feedback loop that instills a sense of love and loyalty in me that I will defend to the death.

Could it be that I am simply a stray dog, lovingly defending the hands that pet me?

I honestly don't know and that idea makes me wildly uncomfortable.

What I will say is that this had made me realize openly something that I think I've known secretly for a long time.

I love my students.  They are my family and I want what's best for them.  Sometimes, I lose my temper and say things I don't mean or react in ways that I regret later.  Sometimes, I get frustrated that my love and care are not reciprocated and respond poorly.

But I love these kids.  I may not like all of them all of the time, but I do love them.

And I will fight for them until the ends of the Earth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day 31: Pot Au Feu

I've been trying to find ways to get my students to talk about use of fractions in practical terms.  My thoughts went to food and recipes.  Since I don't like to reinvent the wheel, I placed my hopes in Our Lady of Google and looked around the Church of the Interweb.

The majority of fraction activities that I found were for 4th or 6th grade.  I wanted my activity to be a bit more challenging but not so hard that they give up.

I went to the library and grabbed 10 cookbooks of various styles, purposely omitting Paula Deen's But Mom, Butter IS A Vegetable: A Healthy Cookbook For Children.

The students were asked, in their new groups of 4, to pick any recipe they wanted, and copy it to a separate page.  They then needed to double the recipe, half the recipe and then show how many of each ingredient would be needed to serve that recipe to 20 people.

I was incredibly impressed by how well the groups worked on this!  The original project that I found included a poster presentation and was for individual students.  I wanted to solidify the new groups working together and I wanted them to complete this in a single class rather than a few days.

What I found the most interesting was the choices of recipes.  The majority of the groups picked desserts, mostly with strawberries.  One group picked hamburgers.

And one group picked pot au feu.

This is a meat soup with 5 different kind of meat, including oxtail, veal knuckle and beef shin.  When finished, this dish looks like it's for a carnivore who doesn't care about the appearance of food.

I want to try it...

In the second class, the majority of the groups picked either fried chicken or desserts.

And one group picked chicken livers.

I suppose there's always one group...

In geometry, we continued talking about the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg.  We moved into the idea of networks.  They had a collection of 16 shapes with points and connected lines and were asked to determine which ones could be drawn without picking up their pencil, or going over the same line twice.

Here are 4 examples.  Which ones can be drawn without lifting your pencil from the page?  What quality do they have that lets you say yes or no?

I LOVE these puzzles.

I especially love them for this unit on conjecture and counterexample!  Students were asked to come up with conjectures about the shapes and their groups were told to try to find counterexamples that destroyed that rule.

I was very impressed with the effort they put forth and the amount of time that they were willing to spend working on this single problem.  I was, however, slightly distressed by their thought processes.  In very few cases was there any sort of method to their conjectures.  It seemed very much like shotgun blast of ideas.

As the class continued, however, several groups started to narrow their focus a bit.

I tried to stay out of the conversations except when they thought they had an a good conjecture and wanted to check it.  Even then, I only gave input by drawing a counterexample if I could and asking them to refine their conjectures.

I was VERY pleased with the work that they did.  I believe that it's activities like this one that helps them to better understand my goals for the class.

After a rough start, I feel as though I may be starting to win over more students in that class.  I have a feeling that the year is going to get better and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Day 30: How We Group

There is a ton of debate about how to effectively group students.  At the start of every year, I group students alphabetically because I don't know them.  It's the easiest way for me to learn their names and to get a basic idea of who they work well with.

For intents and purposes, this is a random grouping.  I don't put the kids together based on personality because I don't know them.  I don't put them together based on ability because I don't know it.

I don't put them together based on clothing style because...that's not a thing.

I would prefer to group them by fictional dance-gang affiliation, but the school says that has to be saved for gym class.
If you do a google image search for "sharks with human teeth" you will NOT be disappointed

After the first couple of weeks, I get a pretty good idea for who can and who can't work together, either because they don't get along, or they get along too well.

But beyond "these two should not be together" I really struggle with how to set up my groups.  Many of my colleagues advocate for random groupings and I see a real advantage to that.  I have done the groups where I pick names out of a hat, then adjust based on personality, but I don't love it.

At the suggestion of our literacy coach, whose opinion I greatly trust and judgement I deeply value, put together a list of the students based on Lexile levels.  Her suggestion was that we organize groups this way, grouping students of different, but relatively close ability together.  The theory behind this is that teacher attention, which is already spread thin, could be focused on a group of struggling students.

The group of struggling students could be given a modified assignment.

By having their ability levels be close, they would be able to work together and achieve more than if they were with a higher lever group and being left behind.

I would like to have my higher level students help out those who are struggling, but in the 8 years where I have had my own classroom, I haven't seen this happen more than a handful of times.

So I tried it this way.

I'm not completely sold, but I will say that day one of this went relatively well.  There were no cross-room conversations.  Students worked well in their groups, helping each other along.  At no point did I see one or two students spacing out while the rest did the work.  The kids worked.

So did I...

I spent the period running from group to group, clarifying questions that they had clearly discussed together beforehand.  I found myself, more than answering questions, settling disputes.

"Aren't we supposed to do it this way?"
"Tell me why you think that."

More often than not, I was able to walk away without saying anything.

Students who had been stuck in previous assignments were working well.  They were still struggling, but at least this time it was a group struggle and they didn't give up.

I know that there are many arguments against grouping by aptitude or ability and it makes me nervous to do so, but at the same time, we are expected to modify and differentiate our assignments for learners of different needs.  I don't know how to square both of these concepts.

I'll stick with these groups until they stop working, or until I see students falling behind as a result.

In geometry, there a bit of complaining about the groups, but I gave them a difficult problem and they got to work.

I miss drawing...
Their assignment: Find a way around the city, back to the start that covers all bridges only once.  If it's impossible, explain why.

I gave them 6 minutes.  At 35, they were still working VERY well.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Day 29: Group (Un)Work

I am trying to get my students to do more group work.

I began class by reviewing the homework and the work we did on square roots from last week.  I handed out a group assignment.  I had a student read the directions and outlined the expectations for the class.  I asked if there were any questions about what they were being asked to accomplish.  I said go.

24 pairs of glazed eyes stared off into space.

I walked around from group to group, asking if they needed clarification.  I asked the to run through the steps that we've been using since day 1, asking "what am I looking for?"  We had discussions about the assignment.  I answered the questions that they asked and clarified objectives.

24 pairs of glazed eyes stared off into space.

It took a solid 15 minutes to get all 7 groups working on the assignment.  For some, it was confusion about the directions.  For others it was anger at having to work with a group that they didn't like.  For the majority, it was the belief that if they sat there doing nothing, eventually, someone else in the group would pick up the slack.

This is not an assumption.  This was explicitly stated by at least 1 person in each group.

So how could I have made the assignment better?

I could reword the questions.  The assignment was about cooking and finding proper measurements based how many cookies needed to be made, how many each recipe produced and the amount of ingredients.  It was a fairly basic fraction exercise couched in practical terms.

I should have re-written it.  I should have talked about it as a story in plain language.

I rely too heavily on material that is not my own.  I know my kids and know what they are willing to do.

I fall under the delusion that it's all about the teaching.  If I teach well, the assignments will take care of themselves.  Or worse, if I teach well, the kids will be able to do any assignment.

But this is simply not the case.  I am working with them to come around the my way of thinking, but the assignments that I'm giving are not always in line with that.  This is because of my own shortcomings as an educator and a planner.

Two years ago, this is where I would type my excuses for why I don't do these things, even knowing that I need to.  I list the reasons why it was out of my control, but the reality is that it's not.  If I were willing to put the time and effort in, I could do it.

As usual, I'm the only one standing in my way.

Thankfully, I'm able to learn from period 1 and fix many of the errors by the time period 8 shows up.  We spent MUCH more time talking about fraction division and did several examples as a class.  For the most part, period 8 did much better with the calculation aspect of the assignment, but they still got tripped up by the interpretation.  What were they trying to find?  What did their answer mean once they found it? What was the question asking them?

However, after several attempts to get the groups in period 8 back on task and failing to do so, I gave them an appropriate homework assignment.  Tonight, the students in my 8th period are to write me 2 paragraphs answering the following question:

When you are off task, how would you prefer Mr. Aion to get you back on task?

I am at a loss for how to keep the few loud students from sabotaging the rest of the room, so hopefully, they can help me.

I will be making up a new seating chart tonight based on aptitude, seating students of similar ability near each other, allowing me to concentrate my effort where it is most needed.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Day 28: I Took A Breath

Yesterday was not a great day.

Today was better.

I chalk it up to a combination of spending time with my children, talking with other teachers who are immensely supportive, and spending a few hours sailing around the Caribbean waters of the 1600's as a privateer hunting down British and Spanish merchant ships for plunder.

I cannot adequately convey the therapeutic benefits of chasing a merchant vessel around Nassau and firing heavy shot cannons into their hull.

All in all, I came in this morning feeling much better.

I had a tense interaction with a student before first period even started and had to remove her from the room.  After she and I had both calmed down, she came back in of her own volition and we had a very good conversation about the lesson.  I sat with a group that, up to this point, has been the most disruptive and the least productive.  With me sitting there, they worked very well and asked good questions.

I pulled her aside later in the day to let her know how much I appreciated that she came back in and helped to make the class productive.  I need to do a better job of taking steps like that more often.  Students need to know that they are allowed to mess up and it won't make you hate them.

We've been entered the topic of square roots and I have framed it in a way that it different from what they're used to.

Traditionally, we teach students that the square root symbol asks the question "What number multiplied by itself gives us the number under the symbol?"

However, since we have been talking about fractions in terms of rectangles, I framed the discussion in a different way.

I started by asking them, since we've been talking about using blocks, to write down all of the ways that they could represent the number 6 using multiplication.  They gave me exactly what I wanted: 1x6, 2x3, 3x2, 1x6.

For each representation that they gave, I made a cluster on the board with those dimensions.  I asked them to do the same thing for 12.  I put those up too.  "What do you notice?"

"The ones with 12 are bigger because we had more blocks
"Each one is doubled, it has the same shape, but flipped on it's side. Like 1x6 has 6x1."
"They are all rectangles"

Then, I asked them to do the same thing for 16.  With all of the representations visually on the board, I asked them what they noticed.  Eventually, we got where I wanted:

"16 is the only one that can form a square."
The discussion proceeded  to talk about shaded squares and how the square of 16 (or 9 or 25) blocks was related to the number 4 (or 3 or 5).

We got around to the main idea:

The square root of a number is the length of the side of a square that has that area.  To find the square root of 9, draw a square that is made up of 9 blocks.  Each side has a length of 3, which is the square root of 9.

We did several examples of how this worked, including how to use it for the square root of fractions.

The students seemed to really grasp this and, when we spent the second half of the class working on practice, they did VERY well.

I was able to sit with different groups, helping to guide them towards success.  As I saw my students using their phones, I confiscated them, signed them up for my Remind class and gave them back.

It was really nice to have the majority of the students working well so that I could spend time with those who needed me the most.

It doesn't happen often, so I'm very pleased when it does.

It was a good day.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Day 27: The Educational Suicide Bomber

I should have called off today.

I have been feeling irritated and on a short fuse all day.  Over the past 9 years, I've gotten much better at not taking it out on my students, but it does mean that my patience is a bit shorter for nonsense.

After speaking with our instructional coach and the other teacher in charge of pre-algebra, we have changed the sequence of the course to reflect the PA Common Core Domains.  If you were to ask me what any of those things are, I will show my best impression of someone who has no idea.

What I DO know is that the other teacher went through and reorganized the course sequence based on the way that the Pennsylvania Department of Education wants us to teach it.  I am deeply grateful to him for this work, because it's not something that I would have done.

For my part, I'm going through and making packets for the students that will cover all of the material in the new sequence.

I love packets.  They are lightweight, easy to get new copies of, don't need to be returned and, if well designed, can be the only thing other than a pencil that a student needs to bring to my class.  In the past, I've added notebook paper into the packets so they serve as notebooks as well as worksheets.

My students are pretty terrible at bringing materials to class.  Since they are not allowed to carry backpacks, they often carry nothing.  This means that when they DO take notes, it's often on a piece of loose paper that is left in my room, or their next class and never seen again.  I don't assign text books for students to take home because I don't assign textbook homework and I don't want the books to go missing.

A well curated chapter packet is a great way to solve all of these problems.  I have found in the past that students will forget notebooks, textbooks, etc, but if they have a packet with all of the work for the chapter, it will be there more often than not.  I think part of this is knowing that if they lose it, they will have to do it all over again.  In addition, when students are absent from class, they know to simply work further into the packet.  They don't have to worry about having the right assignment because it's ALL the right assignment.

But much like most of the important things on my to-do list, it has gotten postponed.

As soon as it's completed, some of my stress and distress will be alleviated.

My conversations with a colleague lately have centered around what I can control and those forces that I am powerless against.  I am very clear on the extremes.  There are district policies that are out of my control and I've been doing a great job of not worrying about them.  The assignments that I use are well within my control and those are the things on which I chose to focus.

The things in the middle, however, are where she and I disagree about level of control.

There are many students whom I have not won over to my way of thinking or teaching.  My growth-mindset wishes me to add the word "yet" to the end of that sentence, but my colleague claims that there are students whom I will never reach.  Intellectually, I know this.  There will always be students who slip through the cracks, no matter how hard we try.

But isn't it my job and responsibility as an educator to never stop trying?

When I moderate #MSMathChat on Monday nights, the question often comes up of "when is it ok to cut your losses and move on?"  To be accurate, it's usually a kinder version of this.

Or, to make a second sci-fi reference in 10 seconds:
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one."

I can't answer this.  I will say that there are days when allowing a student, or a small handful of students to remain in the room destroys the learning environment for everyone else.

Today was one of those days.  Halfway through period 8/9, I just sat down.  I apologized to the students within my earshot for the substandard education that they were receiving as a direct result of my inability to convince their classmates to get with the program.

The "program" being "allowing me to teach the other 23 kids in the room."

I have made phone calls home, I have assigned them leadership roles, I have spoken to them privately.

I am out of interventions.

I am starting to feel as though the things that are out of my control are getting to be more than I can handle.

We will see what tomorrow brings.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


I was very disappointed with the scores on the pre-algebra quizzes yesterday.  I knew the students would be as well since they seem to know what's going on in class.  I don't want them to get discouraged and give up on the class, so I decided to let them revise.

"These tests were pretty terrible, which I find confusing since you guys clearly know what you're doing!  We've been talking about this stuff for 2 weeks now and everything you've done in class has been quote good.  So, here's my deal: show me what you know and I'll acknowledge, in grades, that you know it.  But I need you to also think about what happened on this quiz."

"Mr. Aion, can I just keep this grade?"
"Unless it's 100%, there is room for improvement. I want to see you improve."
**grumble grumble DO AMAZING WORK!**

I was very impressed by the effort in 1st period.  Students formed groups and worked together, asking good questions of each other and thinking that they were cheating by dividing up the work, but I know the truth: They were teaching each other.


In geometry, I lead a number talk, apparently.

I had a mild argument with a friend on Facebook about the "Common Core problems" that her son is working on and frustrated by.  I plan to write a longer post about this, but in short, the purpose of Common Core is to help students think about numbers.

All too often, the methods that we teach our students are VERY different from the ways that they think about numbers on their own.  So I asked them.

"I'm going to put a problem on the board.  If when you have a strategy for solving it mentally, I want you to put your fist to your chest.  I don't want anyone to call out the answer, but be ready to explain your strategy."

I put a series of simple problems and asked the students to explain their strategies.  I wrote their strategies on the board and asked the rest of the class if they understood.  Only 1 or 2 seemed counter-intuitive, but after explanations, they were quite clear.

We had a nice discussion about the importance of "thinking about numbers in many ways."

I was VERY impressed with the reasoning that they demonstrated and the ensuing discussion about multiple methods for problem solving versus using a "standard algorithm."

Even the students from yesterday who have expressed their desire to focus on "the way to do it" agreed that there were many multiple ways to solve problems and to think about numbers.  It wasn't a huge win, but it was a win and I'll take it.

I meant for the discussion to only be a few minutes, but when it lasted for the period, I was ok with that.
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