Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ode To Room 112

Four years ago, I received a call from the personnel department at my district letting me know that, after several years of teaching high school students, I would be moving to the Junior High School to teach 8th grade mathematics.

I was assigned to Room 112.  When I got to the room, I realized that it was a bit smaller than most of the others in the building.  The Promethean Board was covering some of the blackboard space and was oriented landscape rather than portrait, meaning that the students on the edges of the class would have a terrible vantage point.

I took my classroom and ran with it.  I put posters on the walls for as long as the painted bricks would allow me to.  I got a second-hand fish tank for the counter and added my own library of science, math and education books.

I made my class my own.

Over 4 years, I made improvements to the environment, adding dry erase boards, better posters and rearranging the desks into better configurations.

I have spent over 3000 hours teaching and working with students in this room.  It was my home away from home.

I've had friends and colleagues observe the work that I did there.  People that I met only briefly in person donated supplies to my students, my classroom and myself, helping me to make this room into a place where I wanted to be.

They have helped me to make it into a place where my students wanted to be (or at least didn't dread.)   My room became a place of exploration, games and laughter.  My students created, built and learned.  They pretended to be vampires and constructed towers from spaghetti and marshmallows.

They gave me cornrows. (Well, cornrow...)

They learned.

Room 112 wasn't always the most welcoming place.  In the warmer months, the small windows not allowing for ample cross-breeze, frequently drove the temperature into the high 80's and low 90's.  In the winter, those same windows often refused to allow heat to stay in the room, putting it in the 50's.

It wasn't always comfortable and didn't always smell the best, but for 4 years, it was mine.  It was my domain, my realm, my home.

On Wednesday, I left Room 112 for the last time.  Next year, I will be teaching at the high school again and the current Junior High building will become the home of grade 4, 5 and 6, which I can't teach in the state of Pennsylvania.  Room 112 will become the home of someone else.

I removed all of my possessions, took down my posters and dry erase board.  I put all of the text books in boxes to be sent to the high school.  I moved the desks back to their original positions.  I shut out the lights, closed the door and walked away from my work home for the last time.

It wasn't the best home, but it was mine.  I shall miss it.

Whatever the future holds for me, in whichever classroom I end up, Room 112 has been my room longer than any other.  I did not wish this transition to pass by without my expressing gratitude for the room which housed me.

Thank you, Room 112.  I hope that your future occupants treat you with respect.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Day 177: "Fun" Day

30 minutes classes while a few of the teachers set up stations for "Fun Day" means I got to pack everything back into my car while wearing shorts.

A 25 "small" box limit for the move means that the Art and Music Departments will either be leaving the majority of their supplies in this building, or will be shelling out their own money for a Uhaul and a storage unit.

Thankfully, I have no supplies to send up.  Everything in my room that isn't a text book is owned by me and I was planning to take it home over the summer anyway.

My room is 99% empty meaning I'll be spending 16 hours over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday updating my resume, reading and streaming movies.

My math 8 classes was vastly underpopulated as students who are not allowed to participate in Fun Day due to behavior stayed home.  The kids in geometry played the most intense and violent game of catch I've ever seen while doing a High School Musical 2 sing-a-long.  I honestly don't know how it didn't end in MORE bloodshed.

Then I manned the water station and hurled water balloons and wet sponges at kids for 2 hours.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Day 176: Symbols

Over the past few days, I've been enamored with my latest Kickstarter acquisition.  The BilletSPIN Pro is a stainless steel top that sits on a tungsten carbide ball bearing.  On a polished plate in my kitchen, I've been able to get it to spin for over 6 minutes.

It's pretty...

 It came with the display cube that is machined from Billet aluminum.

I was asked why the top makes me so happy.  It is, after all, just a top.  I was asked what it symbolized to me.

It is a simple object.  Tops have been around for thousands of years and are one of the oldest toys found in archeological digs.  They come in uncounted shapes, sizes, colors and patterns.  They do an amazing job of demonstrating angular momentum.

As much as I appreciate the historical, scientific and mathematical properties, I've never really been interested in them.  I like things that spin, but tops were always boring.

This one, however, is different.  It's heavy, solid and perfectly balanced.  It spins. And spins...and spins.  After having it for less than a week, I have already conditioned my wife to respond to "Hey! Guess what!" with "it's still spinning?"

I love complex machines.  I love things with lots of moving parts working together in harmony.  I love steam-punk machines because complex tasks are completed with a series of very simple objects.  I love the concept of emergence that comes forth from ant colonies and the human brain.  Single pieces with simple purposes working together to create a beautiful harmony.

This top is one of the most simple machines.  But it has been moved a step closer to perfection.  As tops spin, they loose energy through air resistance or friction with the surface on which they are spinning.  The length of time that a top will stay upright is determined not only by the amount of energy imparted to it in the initial spin, but also the friction coefficient with the surface and how cleanly it moves through the air.

The ball bearing on the bottom greatly lowers the friction by minimizing the contact area with the surface while maintaining enough strength and stability to hold up the top.  The disc shape minimizes air resistance and the fact that it is machined from a single piece gives it almost uniform density.  As it spins, the momentum evens out and it appears as though it is simply standing up straight.

All of this means that it can, under the right conditions, spin for 13 minutes.

There is joy in the creation of complex things.

There is also joy in the refinement of simple ones.

I need to work on finding more joy in simple things, such as being employed.  There are hundreds of teachers who are reduced to substituting rather than having their own classrooms.  There are hundreds more who don't have jobs at all.

I am thankful that I am employed with a job that pays me well enough to keep a roof over my family and provide them with medical care as they need it.  I have colleagues and coworkers that I respect and with whom I enjoy spending time.  I have principals who have always been fair and friendly.

As I move into the 2015-2016 school year, many of these will change, but change isn't always bad.  Sometimes, change is just the refinement that you need to stabilize your top allowing it to spin forever.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Day 175: Games, Games, Games

I will NOT show movies to kill the time.  There are a few movies that I CAN show because I feel there is some valuable mathematics in them, such as Moneyball.  Unfortunately, I don't have a copy and our network is too slow for streaming.

So my Math 8 kids are playing games instead.

The geometry kids presented their games and they were AWESOME!

Finding the Family: A problem solving game for 2-5 players who either work cooperatively or against each other.  Solve problems to escape from the robber and get your family safely out of the house.

Unicorn: The Survivor: A team game for 2-4 groups, incorporating basic geometric knowledge, physical challenges and unicorn horns!

Geopoly: A mathematical version of Monopoly with unique place names (Pythagorean Palace, Angle Ave) that will challenge players to build shapes and wealth.

United Hairlines of America (UHA):  Four score and seven hairlines ago, Abraham Line discovered that the people in his town had terrible hairlines.  2-4 players use transparent cards to create the unique hairlines as quickly as possible.

Design Your Destiny: A double sided board with built-in windows and doors sets two players or teams against each other in a speed-based logic challenge.

Pac-Man Attack:  Be the ghosts, be Pac-Man, just don't be eaten.  Strategy is king as players avoid each other to obtain their goals.

Goalazoo:  In this board-game version of soccer, players can only kick at designated angles based on cards they draw and at certain strength based on the pieces.  Which pieces will you play in which order?

Solve or Strike Out:  Players solve problems to advance around a baseball diamond.  Miss one and you head back.  Be the first around to win!

Match 'Em Ups:  This memory game will challenge players to keep track of geometric shapes in a competition against each other, or solo play.

As was the case last year, I am deeply impressed with the concepts and follow-through that I saw here.  I wasn't sure that everyone was going to be able to pull it together by the deadline, but I was happily surprised with the product.  This was a great project for them for multiple reasons and each time I do it, I revise it slightly to make it more of what I'm looking for.  The next iteration will involve actual game inventors coming to talk about their process.

Clearly, my students didn't NEED that since what they developed was pretty fantastic, but I think they would benefit for conversations with experts.

"Sup! Just chillin' wit ma ponies!" #UnicornSquad4Life

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Day 174: Game Refinement

I began my geometry class today by making it VERY clear that today would be the last day that students would be given class time to work on their games.  Of the 8 groups, I expect that 6 will be ready for tomorrow.  There are some incredible ideas and I really hope that they come together at the last minute.

It appears that many of my students have learned valuable lessons about selecting their friends as group mates.  Just because you really enjoy hanging out with someone does not mean that they are reliable in a pinch.  They have learned some important things about delegation and division of labor as well as not waiting until the last minute to print, since the library may not be open.

"If the library is closed, and we can't print, how are we supposed to finish?"
"I suggest you not wait until the last minute to finish up.  You have had a month to get to this point"

Most of the groups were putting finishing touches on their games, adding lamination, coloring and decorating.

The Math 8 class is starting to fall to chaos and I don't know if I have the energy to keep it together.  As we approach the last day, kids who are suspended are simply told not to come back, so my class size is dwindling.  Grades close tomorrow with 2 days left of school and the kids know it.

Almost every other teacher in the building is showing videos at this point and I'm feeling like the guy who wants to stay to watch the end of the credits when everyone else wants to go to dinner.
"GUYS! Philip Maldonado, the ager and dryer for the costumes for this movie was ALSO the costumer for Firefly! Isn't that awesome??  ...Guys??"

Monday, June 1, 2015

Day 173: Reflection

My district, for the last two years, has been utilizing differentiated supervision.  This means that some teachers get observed, some work on group projects and some work on individual projects in an effort to improve their teaching practice.  At the end of each year, we are to write a reflection on our experience.  I find this VERY meta since my project was this blog, which was itself a reflection.

While I know this is a bit early to post here since the year isn't over yet, I'm doing it anyway because I'm lazy and this is my blog.

My primary goal this year has been to create a safe space for my students.  I want it to be somewhere that allows them to explore mathematics as well as other topics they find important.  Academically, I’ve striven to emphasize 8 practices with all of my classes.
  1.  I can solve problems without giving up 
  2.  I can think about numbers in many ways 
  3.  I can explain my thinking and try to understand others 
  4.  I can show my work in many ways 
  5.  I can use math tools and tell why I chose them 
  6.  I can work carefully and check my work  
  7. I can use what I know to solve new problems
  8. I can solve problems by looking for rules and patterns

In an effort to put these practices to use as a modeling strategy, I have kept a daily reflective journal of my journey to become a better teacher.  I have written about lessons that went well and ones that flopped.  I have written about my philosophies of education and about interactions that I have had with students, both positive and negative.

I have shared my struggles and my triumphs with other teachers from around the world and received their input.  Dozens of teachers have reached out to me to express their gratitude for my writing, explaining that it sheds light on a very hard truth about teaching.

Teachers are expected to be perfect.  Each lesson is supposed to be amazing and ground-breaking.  We are supposed to work miracles with every student in our care and, if for any reason, those students don’t live up to various expectations, teachers are always to blame.  There is always something more that we SHOULD have done.  When it comes to the struggle of a single student, it is often forgotten that that struggling student is in a room with 29 other struggling students.

We are often Emilio Estevez, given a rag-tag team and expected to turn them into national champions.

We do what we can, but we are not perfect.

The purpose of my writing has been to share my failures and struggles in a public way that allows other teachers to know that they are not alone.  I give a peek into my classroom and into my head in a way that very few are comfortable doing (including myself.)  I offer a view into the daily struggles of a teacher who wants to be better.

Why do I engage in this insanity?  Why, over the past two years, have I written enough to fill 10 novels on the subject of classroom teaching?  Why do I chronicle my struggle and put it out for the whole world to see?

I believe in the growth mindset.  I believe that in order to get better at something, we have to learn from our failures.  I believe that it’s alright to fail and that there is more growth from failure than from success.  I believe a student who starts the year with 50% proficiency and ends with 85% should be celebrated more than one who started with 90% and ended with 95%.

I believe in the growth mindset.

But I don’t practice it.

As I look back through what I have written this year, I notice a distinct lack of growth mindset in my own work.  I am terrified of failure.  I want my lessons to work the first time and every time.  By having two sections of the same class, I have an opportunity to test a lesson, tweak it and try it again.  I admit that I haven’t done that as much as I’ve wanted to or should have.
In addition, the journal has made me much more mindful of my actions in my classroom.  In both my interactions with students and lesson development, knowing that I will be writing and sharing it publicly has forced me to take a hard look at my thoughts and actions.  The idea of “I don’t want to have to write that I got into a screaming match with a 13-year old” has helped to keep me grounded on multiple occasions.

It has also forced me to remember that my students are still children.  They all come from complex and varied backgrounds.  They have their own struggles, their own goals and priorities.  Middle school is an insanely hard time to be a person and I’m not sure that we always do a great job of recognizing that.  As educators, we often think that education is the most important thing is life.

My journal, and the weekly chat that I moderate, has led to my being invited to speak at various others school and conferences, allowing me the opportunity to share my struggles and triumphs with educators, administrators and parents from around the country.  In October and November, I will be presenting at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on the topic of reflective practice.

I have made many mistakes this year.  I have had interactions with students and parents that I wish I could have done differently.  I am unable to do so.  What I am able to do is reflect on those interactions and learn from my mistakes so that I can have them be more productive the next time.

Improvement can never happen until we acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses.  In this way, I believe that keeping this journal has helped me to be a better teacher this year than last year.  I believe that it will help me to become a better teacher next year than I was this year.

I wish to continue to grow and improve.

Beyond that, I made paper unicorn horns today for a student game.

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