Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Day 14: Misplaced Stress

I am very much enjoying my classes. I am looking at areas in which I can improve both my planning and my instruction, but overall, I'm pleased with how they are going.

With that said, there is a very brief period of my day, entirely unrelated to my classes or my students, that is the source of a disproportionate amount of my stress.  I am examining ways to mitigate this, but as of now I am unclear on what to do.

I had a conversation with a supportive coworker today that helped me to pinpoint some areas for improvement and shed some light on the reasons for my anxiety.  It's going to be a process.

I'm also noticing an interesting phenomena in my Algebra II classes.  I gave an assignment yesterday for students to practice solving equations with 1 variable.  With no exceptions, my students fell into one of two categories: they either blew through the problems (accurately) and asked what was next, or they became hopelessly stuck on the first one and spent 15 minutes trying to solve it.

There was no middle ground.

Looking at the questions, they were remarkably similar to those given today by the Algebra 1 teacher to his classes as well as bearing a striking resemblance to the ones I gave to many of these same students in Pre-Algebra.

Why do we teach the same problems over and over again and why is there no retention of this information?

A good friend who is working on her doctorate reminded me that OF COURSE there is no retention of this information.  The process of solving equations doesn't really make a ton of sense and is often put out to a level of abstraction that makes it difficult for students to relate to.

The process of solving an equation is disjointed and unconnected to any tangible concepts.  This goes slightly better when we use a physical representation, such as a scale balance, but ultimately this process has the same faults.

I am doing what I can to put in more concrete questions and lifting the restrictions of "write an equation that represents this situation."  Instead, my directions are that I want to come up with an answer that makes, using whatever process makes sense provided that it is mathematically sound and they explain it.

To illustrate this point, we did a series of problems today that read something like:
Stefan left school and drove to his friends house. Eugene left school 2 hours later. He drove at 40 km/h for 3 hours and arrived at the same time as Stefan. How fast was Stefan travelling?

The traditional process would want students to set up an equation relating the various speeds and times.

As a class, we talked about how they would solve this problem if they weren't forced to make a single equation. What if they solved it like they would solve any problem outside of school?

We solved it one piece at a time, picking apart what we knew and finding things we didn't.  When we finished, I showed what the traditional process would look like and we talked about whether one was better than the other. One way was better for generalizing and was more efficient, but the other helped students to understand why we were doing what we were doing.

I prefer the second way as I would rather they have understanding, trusting that efficiency will come later.  I wish I had more time. 40 minute periods are not enough...

Monday, September 17, 2018

Day 13: What's Important?

I put up a question on Twitter today, seeking advice from other math teachers on an issue of precision:

How important is this distinction?

Specifically, what I'm concerned with here is the amount of emphasis that should be placed on the distinction between congruence and equality.

My understanding has always been shapes/segments/angles are congruent while the measures of those objects (lengths, angle measures, etc.) are equal.

As usual, when I put this question out to my teacher community, I received back a wide array of constructive answers that forced me to think about my goals for the class.

On one end, one of the major focuses from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has been an emphasis on precision of both work and language.  As a result of this, it's important to teach students the precision language that is used by mathematicians.

On the other end, there is the work of students making themselves understood without bogging them down with the semantics.  As Brian pointed out, he isn't 5'10", he's a human being.  At the same time, when he says "I'm 5'10"" you'd be hard to pressed to find someone who would say "Nice to meet you, 5'10"! I'm Justin!"
Before the discussion, I was heavily leaning towards the view and reasoning expressed by Christopher Danielson:

Yes, the precision is important. Yes, students should be exposed to how mathematicians speak and express their ideas, but I also don't want to lose student interest over semantics.

I feel as though this may be the math-specific version of:
"Can I go to the bathroom?"
"I don't know! Can you??"

If what you're teaching is the difference between "can" and "may," then this is an important distinction to draw.

Along these lines, I want my kids to know and use proper notation, but I don't think it's the most important aspect of the lesson.

I've settled somewhere in the middle.

I, too, will model appropriate use, making corrections where I see them. I want kids to get used to seeing the difference between congruence and equality.  As the year goes on, I may become more strict about the usage, but for now, I think I'll simply settle for modeling.

I have enough things on my plate that I don't think I need to add this.

But I may be wrong...

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Day 11: Exhausted on Purpose

I noticed something interesting today.

My energy and attitude are staying at pretty high levels during my classes, but I'm finding more and more that as soon as class ends, that changes drastically.

I'm finding that the conscious effort of maintaining the high energy and positive attitude is emotionally draining.

With that said, I feel the need to clarify 2 things:

First, the energy and attitude aren't fake. I'm not putting on a show for the students, nor am I pretending to be happy when I'm not.  The effort comes from continuously looking for how to make the best of whatever situation may arise.  Rather than expressing disappointment when only 1 student has completed the assignment, I am using it as an opportunity to talk about decision making.

"I know that you all have things going on. I'm not going to harp on you about your homework because you need to be making choices based on your goals and needs. If you want to understand this material, you're going to have to practice it."

I am trying very hard to honor who they are as people and not just as students. In middle school, it seems more important to emphasize the school as, in theory, their parents are taking care of much of the rest.  As junior and seniors, many of them have jobs and activities, or are responsible for younger siblings.

In addition to this, we talk about getting students ready for the real world, but if we don't allow them to make decisions about what to prioritize are we actually doing that?

Second, the energy and effort spent to maintain this level of involvement is, in my opinion, 100% worth while. I am doing what I can to provide my students with an environment in which they feel safe and comfortable asking questions and taking risks. Students greet me in the hallway with a smile, a handshake, a high five or a fist-bump.

Teaching is about building relationships, otherwise you might as well be an audio book or video playing in front of the class.

At the end of each class, I am exhausted and am tempted to take a nap before the next group comes in, but I don't plan to change what I'm doing any time soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Day 10: Multiple Pathways

One of the major hurdles that we have to overcome in math class is the misconception that there is one right way to get the answer.

Unfortunately, due to the pressures of the amount of material we are supposed to cover and the limited time in which to do it, we often opt for the "fast way" rather than helping students to understand the how and why.

I've encountered several math teachers who require students to complete assignments using specific procedures and take off points if they find the answer a different way.

I'm not going to judge their pedagogy, or criticize this approach except to say that those are not the skills I choose to emphasize.

I'm lying.  I think this is a terrible way to teach. I think it fosters hatred and confusion for mathematics in students who think differently.  There is no one way to do mathematics and grading students on whether they use your preferred method assesses compliance more than mathematical understanding.  I understand that there are times for this, but if a kid can get to the answer and explain how they got there using mathematical methods, should I penalize them for that?

In any event, once this habit has been formed for students, it's very hard to break.  In my experience, this manifests itself in two main forms:
  1. Students asking "is this how you're supposed to do it?" Occasionally, this a conceptual question, but more often they are really asking "is this how you want me to do it," expecting a single path to be the right one.
  2. Students glancing at a problem and immediately giving up, claiming they don't know what to do.  What this frequently indicates for me is that they think there is a single procedure for each problem and they can't remember it.  In this world view, it makes sense to give up. If there is only one path and I don't know that path, what's the point of trying? Requiring a single procedure in mathematics discourages them from experimentation and trying to "figure it out."

Trying to combat this takes a serious effort.

Today, to help the Algebra II students remember what they know about working with proportions, I had an opportunity to do exactly this.

When presented with a proportion that contained variables on both sides of the equal sign, many of the students fell back on memorized procedures, some of which only work in specific cases, others of which would always work, but made the problem needlessly complicated.

We did the problem at least 5 different ways.  I wrote so that everyone could see the work and so that multiple students could provide feedback as needed.

Each time we went through the problem, students would ask what we do and I replied with "what do you WANT to do? What's your instinct? What do you see?"

No matter what their response was, I wrote it on the board (as long as it was mathematically sound). We played with numbers until we ended at the same spot.

I loved it! There was a ton of "what if" discussions and, since I was the one doing the writing, the risk to the kids was minimal.

There can be great value in working deeper on fewer problems, especially if it's being used to value student thinking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Day 9: Perspective: A Play in One Act

Scene: A classroom
Students are working on pattern recognition

Mr. Aion
Tell me about this pattern

Student 1
It looks like a plus sign

Mr. Aion
Awesome! What else?

Student 2
Each time it's adding one block to each side

Mr. Aion
Say more about that

Student 2
It starts as just a square, but each side of that square has another square on it.  In each new picture, another square is added

Mr. Aion
Cool. What about the next one? What will that look like?

Student 2
It will be a square in the middle with 4 squares in a line on each side

Mr. Aion
Do we agree?

Students nod and murmur approvingly

Mr. Aion
Alright, so what about the 10th step? What will that look like?

Student 3
It will have 21 squares each way

Mr. Aion
**smiles cunningly** 21? Step 1 had 1, Step 2 had 2. Tell me how you counted 21

Student 3
It's makes a plus sign and there are 21 squares going up and down and 21 going back and forth

Mr. Aion
**looks around to rest of class** Thoughts? This isn't at all how we were examining the pattern. What do you think?

Brief discussion ensues where students ask clarifying questions.

Mr. Aion
Since day 1, we have been talking about how mathematics is a language. Everyone speaks it to a certain degree, but our goal is to become fluent. Student 3 had an idea that was different from the rest of ours, but she was able to make her thinking understood, turning an answer that, on the surface, was wrong, into a class discussion about perspective.  While there are answers that may be incorrect, it's important not to discount results that are different without examining the thinking behind them.

Math is more than calculation. Math is discussion, debate, argument and exploration.

**Bell Rings**

Students climb onto their desks.

Oh Captain, My Captain

**Curtain falls**

Monday, September 10, 2018

Day 8: Cracked Expectations

We are beginning Algebra II with a review of linear equations.  This was a topic that was covered in Algebra I, Pre-Algebra and Math 7.  This means it should be a breeze of a review.

It's not going as smoothly as I would like, which is alright.  I don't have a problem with the kids struggling with this topic because I understand how much material was covered in those classes and how long it has been since they worked with the concepts.

It does, mean, however, that I needed to readjust my Monday plans.

Instead of "Any questions on the homework? Cool! Let's start the next section" we ended up with "Anyone do the homework? No? Ok, let's talk!"

We had a brief conversation about how as they get older, the onus of learning passes more to their shoulders.  I explained how I don't want to give them absurd amounts of work just to prove that they know it, but if they aren't doing what I do give, then I don't know what they know.

There are a few reasons why students don't complete assignments on time:

  1. They don't understand the material and then give up
    • If this is the case, then I need to know about it. Students who are lost can become insanely frustrated. (I saw this last week with my own 2nd grader, but that's it's own post) I want a level of frustration that makes them feel they can accomplish a task if they just knew one more thing, and so they go find that thing. This is a difficult balance and I'm still working on it.
  2. They forgot
    • Bruh, get yourself organized! You have a school issued planner to write down your assignments and you can always shoot me a message over Remind. In addition, if they are subscribed to my class using Remind, they get notifications for any assignments I give.
  3. They don't want to
    • As a crappy student myself, I totally get this. I spent WAY too much time thinking that I knew what was going on in class only to get to the test and discover that I was wrong. I sympathize with this completely, which is why I've tried to minimize the amount of out-of-class work I'm assigning and making sure that what I do assign is relevant.  My plan has been to do mini-lessons and then give them time to practice the skills in class where I can help them.  This has been working well in theory, but the majority of the students who REALLY need the practice have been taking too long to get started and too long to complete the tasks, making themselves believe that 10 practice problems will take 6 hours.  ANY task can take forever if you don't start it!
  4. Extenuating circumstances
    • Mom/dad/grandparent/sibling is in the hospital, they are homeless, they have to work 6 hours a day after school, they have to babysit siblings, etc. etc..  I am, in no way, judging these reasons. Many of them are incredibly valid and many of our students live lives more complicated than I can fathom.  Everyone has their own struggle.

I think that, moving forward, I will need to be much more deliberate about my classroom structure. Today, I gave extension activities to the few students who completed their work for today.  The rest of the students and I went over some examples in great detail.  I worked on some problems using a very clear format and engaging my kids, rather than just having them copy the answers.  I also tried to make it clear that my going over these things wasn't a punishment at all.

It was an opportunity for them to learn note-taking and to create a resource for themselves that they could reference as we delve deeper into the content this year.

I will also admit that this strategy changed over the course of the day. I asked my morning students to work more independently and by the afternoon, I realized that they needed a bit more structure.

Unfortunately, we aren't a point yet where I can say "here's the assignment, go to it" and they will.  I have several students who need me there with them, giving them support and encouragement.  I don't mind doing those things, but too many need that at the moment for independent work to be productive for more than one or two.

We will get there! I have faith in my students and myself.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Day 7: Beep Beep!!

All aboard the struggle bus!

I started most of my classes with the following statement:

Today is day 7. For the last 6 days, I have tried my best to be upbeat, energetic and excited. Today, it's not working for me. I'm not sure if it's the heat, or the lack of sleep, or just the normal stress of starting a new year, but I'm on the struggle bus today.  I need you to understand that it has nothing to do with you.  I don't want you to think that my mood, which is obviously depressed from what it has been, has anything to do with how you have been participating, acting or working. You are all champs and have been doing great work since day 1.  Some days you just aren't feeling it and, for whatever reason, that's me today. I'm sorry for that and I will try to do better.
 In addition, the weekly warm-up sheets are coming in and I'm seeing student responses to "I wish Mr. Aion knew..."

The vast majority are either random and funny, or very encouraging.

"I am enjoying this class this year"
"It's ok to not be energetic all the time."
"I would smile at his jokes, but I cut my mouth and it hurts to smile."
"He is one of the coolest, respectful teachers."  (Seriously)

There are, of course, a few that are discouraging

"I used to think I was better at math than most people, but now I've been knocked down a peg."
"I used to think math was easy, but now I know it's not."

Since I am a human being who is currently working on myself, I am WAY over focused on the negative comments, despite the fact that they are vastly outnumbered.  Is it in the nature of humans to look at 99 successes and see 1 failure, or are teachers more susceptible to that mentality?

The goal for next week is to get kids up out of their seats, or working on activities as much as possible.  I want the Geometry classes to start doing constructions and I'm going to browse my resources for a good Algebra 2 activity.  I avoided it this week simply because it has been too hot to ask people to move around.

Overall, it's been a great week and I'm thankful for the kids I have in class.

Time to nap until Monday!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Day 6: What the Buck-et

I've taught geometry several times before this year.  In all of that time, I would say that the aspect of the course that my students find most challenging is the ability to visualize the shapes without having a physical manifestation.

I'm not sure if this is due to the lack of abstract visualization in the K-12 curriculum, or it's simply an insanely difficult skill.

When we begin to study 3-dimensional shapes in 5th and 6th grade, we hit on the idea of nets as representations of objects.  When I did the cereal box project last year, this was, by far, the most difficult aspect.  Students had tremendous difficulty figuring out what their box would look like when they were unfolded and, similarly, struggled with how to create a net for a box of a desired shape.

We had a VERY long talk in geometry today that dealt with moving from lines to planes.  We talk about each wall in the classroom, as well as the ceiling and floor, can be seen as a plane. Things written on those walls are contained in that plane.

Where it usually falls apart is when we're deciding whether three corners of the room that are NOT all on the same wall happen to be on the same plane.

"Are points E, D and B co-planer?"

"They aren't on the same plane because they are on different walls."
"They are because you can draw a line between any two of them."
"They are because you can make a triangle between them."
"But that triangle isn't on any of the planes."

How do you get students to realize that ANY three points can make a plane? How do you get them to SEE that plane when one isn't there?

I tried drawing it.  I tried having them picture a mesh net between those points.

After they left, I realized I needed a bucket.

I have several small rectangular crates in my room to hold pencils and markers at each table.  I held one up as a physical representation of the space. It allowed me to turn it around and have the kids look inside.

I needed a bucket.

If I had a bucket, I'd bucket in the moooo-oooorning.
Get out of here, you three!
If I had had a bucket, I would have filled it with water.  Then I could put the crate in it, using the water level as the representation of the plane!  Is there a way to submerge the crate such that those three points are on the surface of the water?

I come up with great ideas for yesterday's lessons!

I'm taking a bucket of water to class tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Day 5: Lesson Plans?

Well, that didn't take long!

Something about the best laid plans...

I managed to fall behind my lesson plans already.  To be fair, our schedule has been messed up by having early dismissals from the heat.  I was also reminded that I have a tendency to ramble when I find an interesting topic.

In geometry, we were defining terms, specifically points, lines and planes.  We were talking about what it means for something to be three-, two-, one- or zero-dimensional. I was reminded of one of my favorite ideas in geometry, which is that two-dimensional objects (like squares) can be seen as the projections or shadows of three-dimensional objects (like cubes).  Similarly, one-dimensional objects can be seen as the shadows of two-dimensional objects.

Extracting from this, it's a great way to ask students to visualize that they (three dimensional objects) are merely projections of some other four-dimensional object.

"Mr. A, what's the highest level math class you can take?"


In other, more reflective, news, I'm having difficulty realizing that my 3rd period class is my 3rd period.  I keep thinking it's 4th and I keep getting shocked when kids come after they leave.

No worries though. I have 175 more days to get it right.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Day 4: Lesson Plans

Due to concerns about heat, our district, as well as many of the surrounding districts, closed school early today and will do so again tomorrow.

As much as I'm disappointed to be losing some of my classes so early in the year, my intense desire to fall asleep in front of an open refrigerator tells me that it's a good idea.

In spite of the heat and humidity, my students worked very hard for me today.  I've been scouring various curricula and picking the things that I like in order to try to organize these classes that I haven't taught in many a moon.  I'm also making a concerted effort to be more organized than I normally am.  This is helped along by our new mandate to have lesson plans available for the next week should someone ask for them.

The plans themselves don't have to be anything absurd, just a basic outline and topic list so someone could grab the folder and teach the class in case of emergency.

This is the 12th year full time classroom teacher.  Including the two years that I spent working on my Master's Degree, this is the first time when I have been told to make lesson plans that meet the needs that I set out for myself.

In all previous years, when lesson plans have been mandated, a specific format was chosen and implemented district-wide, regardless of whether aspects of it were useful to individual teachers.

Anyone who has attended an education program can attest to the fact that the required lesson plans would make Tolstoy say "that's a bit much."

As a result of this, I have almost never taken lesson plans seriously.  I would spend hours on a format that was filled with information that I didn't find helpful and would only confuse me further.  In addition to that, they were almost never checked.

A former colleague went a year without changing the plans, only modifying the date before they were submitted.  She was told that her attention lesson plan submission was exemplary.

She even turned in several plans that were laced with profanity, or contained excerpts cut from fiction articles.

No one noticed.

I am not opposed to lesson plans.  I am, however, deeply opposed to assignments that serve no purpose except to check a box.

When we were told that we would be required to have lesson plans on hand in the classroom, I'll admit that I grumbled and planned to look for the old plans from years ago.

This weekend, I actually started doing just that and quickly realized it was a mistake.

Lesson plans in the past have not been helpful to me, but this was a chance to make them so.  With the ability to choose the format, I was able to make it what I wanted.  It is very minimalist, but contains what I'll need to keep my classes moving at a good pace.

I need structure.  I need time tables and check lists and to-do's.  I wander off task in my content, hitting things that are interesting, but not necessarily helpful to my students' learning.

I am glad to be writing lesson plans again.

Education programs, instead of forcing students to write 35 page lesson plans, should be teaching them how to develop their own planning style, selecting the items that are important and productive for them.

I stuck with my lesson plans today and will continue to do so.

At least until I see something shiny.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Day 3: FRIDAY!!!

Well, I'm exhausted...

We only had 3 days of class this week, but I've been going full blast! In addition to getting up before 5 am, being in an 85 degree (and up) classroom for 8 and a half hours, getting home to take care of my own kids, and running a 5k each day, I've been pouring on the high energy during my classes.

It was so important to me to make this first week a good one, not only for me, but for my students.  Knowing that the room was going to be a bit toasty, and that math would be happening in it, I knew many of the kids would be coming to me with some ... demeanor concerns.  I don't blame them.

I will get them up and moving around when it cools off a bit, but for now, I wanted to create an air of fun and interest in my room, demonstrating the beauty that is mathematics.

I THINK I've done that.  It's hard to tell, simply because the nature of high school students is so different than that of middle school students.  It will take me a bit of time to relearn how to read my audience, but so far I think I'm heading in the right direction.

What you do during the first few days will set a tone. What kind of tone do you want to set? Do you want the students to be in charge? Do you want them to be afraid of you? To love you? Do you set a tone of cooperation, or one of domination?

I'm making a conscious effort to use names of everyone I address and to keep a smile on my face as much as possible.

I managed to write back to every student this week on all of their name tents.  It has been time consuming, but very worth it.

We are babysitting for a friend tonight, so I need to run before that happens and then I plan to sleep until school starts up again on Tuesday.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Day 2: Still Hot, Still Cool

It hit 90 in my room again, but it was another great day!

We began looking at procedures with our daily warm-ups and recitation of the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practices. I gave a brief explanation of the Standards-Based Grading system that I use and answered any questions that they happen to think of right then.

Then we were off into content!

I explained to both classes (Algebra II and Geometry) that mathematics is a language.  It's insanely hard to learn a language by simply reading the dictionary.  Those who wish to become fluent regularly engage in conversation with native speakers, learning the conjugations and idioms.

Math is no different.  In order to learn math, we have to engage with it beyond simply using the operations.

We need common language.

In Algebra II, we started a card sort activity that was..ahem...appropriated from Jonathan Claydon.

Student groups were given 24 cards, consisting of 8 terms, 8 equations and 8 graphs.  With no help from me, they were asked to put them into 8 piles of 3 cards each, matching term to equation to graph.

I reminded them that it has been a few months and so they shouldn't panic if they don't know it right away. 90% of the groups ROCKED it! They dove in, using different strategies, pulling out the ones they knew (linear, absolute value), picking ones that seemed to go together (f(x)=log(x) and "logarithm") and using process of elimination to find others.

After about 10 minutes, we stopped to talk about how they could figure out which graphs went to which equations if they didn't remember what they looked like.  None of the groups had built a table of values, but when I asked this question directly, they almost all said that you could plug in numbers and graph it.  We did some examples on the board before the bell rang.

In Geometry, we worked on defining terms and notation that we will be using throughout the year. I gave them a check list to try, knowing that most of the notation was beyond what they had covered yet.  Several students asked "what's notation?"

When it became clear that I wasn't going to give them the answers, that I wanted them to struggle, most stopped asking me anything more than clarifying questions. They worked in groups for a bit and when I began to sense the frustration level getting too high, I stopped them.  We looked at the board and built the beginning of our vocabulary notes as a group.

Even in the heat, the kids were engaged and working hard!

I had them fill out the second day of their Name Tents (Ask me a question) and I managed to respond to all of them before I left school!

They were great questions, but a few stuck out to me.

It's a shame that no one will be able to read my response.

I think this is going to be a pretty darn good year!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Day 1: Chill Out!

My alarm went off at 4:45.

By 5:30, I was in my car driving to the first student day of my 12th year as a teacher.

I honestly can't reconcile that fact in my mind. I still feel as though I'm in my first few years as a teacher and, in a way, I am. This is only my third year in my current district and those have been full of transition and change.

I took a break from blogging last year and I think there were unintended consequences in terms of my own perspective on my teaching, so I'm going to start up again.

Today was...


Like, for realz!

I began this year, not by introducing the syllabus and classroom rules and grading policies, but by having my students write.

My typical Day 1 activity has been asking students to define a "sandwich."  I always get groans and laughs and GREAT discussions and today was no exception.

In an effort to make it more rigorous and mature, since I'm teaching older kids this year, I took a page from the playbook of my kindred teaching spirit, Brian Cerullo (Give him a follow!)

I asked them to write silently for 5 minutes followed by a discussion. In a few cases, I kept having to propose "whatabouts" to challenge their definitions, but by and large, the other students did that.  I was able to sit and watch them interact, keeping track of points I wanted to hit and asking certain students to answer the concerns made by others.

Many of the students left the room with their heads hurting and frustrated in a good way. All day, I only had one student yell out "just tell us what a sandwich is!"

"What do YOU think it is?" the teacher asked socratically. 

"Socratically isn't a word, Justin" you say.

"How do you know?" I respond socratically.

The other first day change this year was that I used the Name Tents from the brilliant and incomparable Sara Van Der Werf.

I asked students to write a sentence or two at the end of class, reflecting on the class, making comments and giving me their thoughts, and I promised to respond to each one!  Out of 75+ kids, only 3 left them blank.  The comments that I got from them were so interesting and I was glad to hear and be able to respond to each one.

No one told me that I smelled bad, even though it hit 90 in my room today!

I'm looking forward to an interesting (in a good way) year.

I'm going to go crawl inside the refrigerator now.
...show off...

Friday, July 20, 2018

Developing My Grading

Warning: If you already know the basics of Standards-Based Grading and how I've been trying to work it into my class, or if you don't care about my exposition, skip down to the baby shark below.

At the beginning of the 2016 school year, I changed school districts. Over the previous few years, I had been reading quite a bit about Standards-Based Grading systems and the change of district seemed like the perfect time to implement a change in grading that I knew was going to be daunting and massive.

Under a standards-based system, students receive grades based on their progress and proficiency through a set of clearly defined standards and objectives.  Since I was going to be teaching 7th and 8th grade students, I was using the curriculum standards for those content areas as laid out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Then, I took each standard and converted it into an actionable statement in student friendly language, such as "I can solve linear equations that have rational coefficients."

During the first year that I worked with SBG, I used a 4 point scale, assessing student performance on tasks and assessments based on the approximate following rubric:

4: I GOT this! I can teach it to someone else!
3: I get this, but I need to be more careful with my work or explanations
2: I kind of get it, but we should go over it again
1: What are we talking about again?
0: I didn't assess this skill

My personal grade book looked like this:

So many Christmas! Much jolly!

Since I was teaching in a traditional grading system (one where all student grades and feedback are boiled down to a single number at the end of the semester/year), I needed a way to convert the 4-point scale into a 100-point scale.


Changing all of those to percentages was super fun!

Last summer, I attended a session on SBG at Twitter Math Camp and, after speaking with several other teachers, decided to switch from a 4-point scale to a 10-point scale!

This let me add a bit more subtlety to the grades and provide more accurate feedback to the students.

This past year, I implemented the new scale and my students seemed to like and appreciate the change.

My grade book this past year looked like this:

One of the philosophical components of SBG is that students are not assessed on their behavior or habits, but only on their progress and demonstration of the content standards.  This meant that I didn't have homework or participation grades.  Another important tenet of the system is the understanding that students learn at different paces.  Since we want growth and want students to learn from their mistakes, I offered reassessments on any skill in which a student felt they could do better.

In order to do the reassessment, however, students needed to show that they put in the effort to learn the material.  This meant doing practice problems and correcting their assessment errors.

After a conversation with my principal, I added homework and participation grades back into the mix, but I wasn't happy with how I did so.  I wanted/needed to make some changes, but wasn't sure how to do it.

Doo doo doo doo doo doo!

Fast forward to today.

I woke up this morning trying to figure out how to modify my system to maximize the benefit to my students while retaining emphasis on the things I wished to...emphasize. **looks for thesaurus**

I attended an afternoon session at Twitter Math Camp today that was run by the brilliant Bob Janes.  He has been doing this work for a few years and the conversations that we had as a group pushed on some of the issues that I wanted to fix.

My first major take away (see what I did there? Take-away? Get it???) was another change in the scale. I had already been thinking about this after a conversation with the amazing Anna Vance, who happens to have a post about this exact idea at the top of her blog right now! (ANNA! Write more! The world needs your brilliance!)

Instead of having the scale be 1-10, Anna has moved to a scale that is 5-10.  Bob goes a slight step further, having the scale be as follows:

10: WOW!   - Above Mastery
9: Yes!          - Mastery
8: Yes, but... - Some procedural errors
7: Kinda...    - Some conceptual errors
5: Not Yet    - Weak understanding
0: Yeah, no.  - No understanding/blank

I VERY much like these idea because it allows for the subtlety and differentiation in feedback, but lumps the varying degrees of what we traditionally call "failing grades" into the category of "not yet" while still giving them credit for their work and thinking.

The other huge piece with which I've been struggling for a while is about the Standards of Mathematical Practice and how to integrate them into the assessments. I also need to integrate homework and participation grades into the overall scores.  Bob talked to us about what he referred to as "Scholarship Standards."  These are the skills that are transferable to other learning environments and are not content based.

He writes it up MUCH better than I could, so you should read more about it on his blog.

My favorite part of this was the re-framing of homework, study skills, participation, preparation, etc. as Standards of Scholarship.

When I re-write my syllabi this fall, I will be changing the section on grading to talk about "Content Standards" and "Scholarship Standards." This reframing also gave me a way to work with my students on assessing their development of the Standards of Mathematical Practice.  They know what they are, but I don't spend enough time working with them in a formal way on what they should look like.

There is much to process.

In addition, I began this year's Twitter Math Camp by meeting someone with whom I've been interacting online for a few years.  She told me that my blog has made such a huge impact on her life (now that I think about it, I didn't ask if it was a positive impact...) and that reminded me of something important.

I began this blog to share my struggle and to help other teachers see that they are not alone.  In her keynote today, Julie spoke about how many of us look online, see the amazing things that other re doing and feel that we can't live up to those examples.

She was making the point that we are all amazing just by doing what we do.  She even gave out stickers to everyone (Oprah-style) that read "You are not an imposter. You are enough."

For me, I think the converse of her message is also true. Even those people online who are sharing amazing things and appear to be amazing teachers have days that are terrible.  When we only share the good, it can be scary to those of us who (frequently) have bad days.

There are lots of things that I don't do well, such as dance, plan lessons, eat healthy food, contact parents as much as I should, organize my desk, speak at a reasonable volume, dress myself, or finish a sentence without rambling incoherently about how much I like Doctor Who and Dungeons & Dragons and how I'd love if someone would make an RPG for Doctor Who and yes, I know there is one but it isn't very good and what was I talking about?

One of the things that I think I do fairly well is reflect on my teaching practice.

I plan to keep this blog again this year.  This profession is too important, and too hard, to do alone. We are in this together and I will share what I can.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mr. Aion: Student/Teacher

During my first semester as an undergraduate mathematics education major, I was told by one of my professors that I should change my major.  After meeting 18-year old me for a total of 7 times, she determined that I wouldn't be a good teacher.  While I can't necessarily say that she was wrong at the time, thinking back, I'm amazed that someone so ensconced in education would be willing to give up on a student.  She dismissed me from the start, rather than helping me to see what I needed to.

While I did change my major, I didn't give up on being a teacher. After graduating, I moved to New Jersey and entered an Alternate Route Certification program where I was hired as a full time teacher and enrolled in education courses at night.

As a direct result of this process, I didn't student teach until I moved back to Pennsylvania and enrolled in a Master's of Education program.  I butted heads with several of the professors in the education department over things that I saw as the short-comings of "education" education, many of which I have laid out previously.

I believe that as a result of these differences in personality, I was placed in a student teaching assignment that was meant to be a punishment.  While many of my classmates were placed in affluent districts, I, as well as some of my more vocal associates in the program, were placed in districts deemed "failing" by the state.

This turned out to be a blessing for me, as I thrived in this environment.  My cooperating teacher was a thorn in the side of his administration, but an excellent teacher.  He and I were of a similar temperament and teaching style, and we hit it off right away.

Since I had already taught my own classes for a few years, he handed over his schedule to me right away and we were off to the races.  The experience of teaching in someone else's class was amazing and, for the first time, I realized what I had missed by not doing student teaching the first time around.

Having another, more experienced teacher in the room who knew the kids and the system was excellent.  He never interfered with my lessons or class management, but we had several conversations of reflection afterwards, the function of which was replaced by this blog for many years.

It may not have been at that point that I realized I wanted to be a mentor teacher, but it was very soon afterwards.  In my previous district, I never had that opportunity, but now I do.

Last Monday, my very first student teacher showed up.  She is eager, energetic and ready to go!  She comes to my class so late in the semester because she spent the first half in an elementary placement.  My 7th and 8th graders are the oldest students that she has taught and, while she admitted she was nervous, she has taken to it admirably.

But this post isn't about her.

It's about me.

Because everything is about me.

Last week, she was observing me teach, learning the kids' names, interacting with them, writing lessons and getting ready to take over.  We had several conversations about what role she wanted me to play as her co-operating teacher; silent observer, class participant, co-teacher, etc.  I want this experience to be as valuable for her as possible, and that means giving her what she's looking for, rather than just checking the boxes handed out by her program.  Her previous co-op was more reluctant to hand over the classes, being worried about upcoming standardized tests.

I have no such concerns.

On Monday, I handed over my Math 7 class, giving her free reign over 25 7th graders at the end of the school day, all of which come to us from gym class.

I took my seat in the back of the room and immediately realized my error.

Folks, being a cooperating teacher is HARD.

Teaching is a strange profession for many reasons, but one of them is that we come to see our classroom as our domain.  This room is my space.  When I am in it, I expect certain things to happen and things to go a certain way.  When they don't, I usually know why.

When you observe another teacher, you are forced to notice things that you wouldn't normally notice.  You go into their kingdom, taking stock of similarities and differences. You note how they interact with students in a different environment.

Being an observer in your OWN kingdom is WAY strange.

I had decided I wasn't going to do any discipline or interacting with the students.  I was going to let her teach and interact the way she wanted to and let the chips fall where they may.  I sat in the back, blank expression, watching a lesson happen in my classroom, biting my tongue.  As my mouth slowly filled up with blood from biting my tongue, I wrote notes for her based on what I saw, and what I didn't see.

It was overwhelmingly positive.  I loved the way she interacted with the kids, the way she presented the lesson, and many, many other aspects of her teaching.

The biting of my tongue had absolutely nothing to do with her and everything to do with the difficulty I having giving up control in the first place and resisting the urge to helpfully jump in.

Upon reflection of my reaction, several things occurred to me, all of which boiled down to a single statement:

I need to be a better teacher.

Saying this isn't a statement of self degradation, but merely an observation.  I am a teacher. I think I'm a fairly good teacher, but I am by no means a master teacher.

I have so much to learn.

In the 7 days that she has been in my room, I have been more reflective on my own practice than I have been in months.  I have thought of better ways to present content, more encouraging ways to interact with the students and my coworkers, and better classroom environmental structures. Having a room full of students who are supposed to be learning from you is a very different experience than having one adult in your room who is looking for you to be a mentor.

Introspection is, once again, becoming my most common partner.

It has been almost 15 years since I have been on the dating market, but I do remember that during the first few weeks and months of dating a new person, people become the best versions of themselves.  We want to impress our new partner.  We do all of the things that we know we should do, many of which fall off of the wagon of complacency that comes from the comfort and familiarity of a long-term relationship.

We have more patience for the faults and more appreciation for the strengths of the person we are dating.  Everything they do is amazing and we go above and beyond in order to make the relationship work.

Having this future educator in my classroom is rekindling many of my own feelings about education that I had no realized needed to be stoked again, blowing new oxygen on the embers until they blaze.

I have been complacent.  I have been lazy.  I talk a good game, but my follow-through has been lacking.  I have not been the better educator that I want to be.  My student teacher, simply by being present in the room and asking me to help her to become a better educator, is doing the same for me.  I am already grateful for her.

I am invigorated.  The next six and a half weeks will be so fascinating.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Preparing the Future of Teaching

My student teacher starts on Monday, so I've been doing some informal research. I've been asking new teachers about their experiences and what I can do to make this one as valuable as possible for my student teacher. I'm hearing consistency across the board:

Education programs do not prepare teachers for the reality of teaching.
Actual footage of a 1st-year teacher
They focus very heavily on lesson preparation, content knowledge and organization, which is all important. Unfortunately, they skip or miss the most important aspect: Kids are kids

My own grad program did an excellent job helping us to develop cool lessons and understand the history of educational policy. Unfortunately, they gave the impression that a solid lesson will make everything great. Yeah, no.

I see this philosophy all throughout my educational interactions with people who are not classroom teachers. The idea of "if the kids aren't engaged, you need to a better lesson" is pervasive, foolish, misguided and dangerous. When teachers complain about how their students are not doing what we ask, the go-to response is (infuriatingly) that we should make the lessons more interesting.

Teaching is about interacting with students. A good lesson is the first step of a marathon. The rest is student interaction, knowing your kids, empathy, knowing your kids, improvisation, building a culture of safety, and knowing your kids.

My education program required 7-10 page lesson plans for each lesson, citing educational research, state standards, scripting interactions with students and multiple avenues of follow-up. Each plan took me 2-3 hours to write.

At no point in my program, did we have a discussion about what it means to interact with middle school students as though they are people. We talked about them in the abstract way of "clients."
We had long conversations about how kids change all the time, but my professors hadn't been in a classroom in decades.

We talked about the importance of making your lessons engaging, but not HOW to engage unengaged students beyond "make the lesson better."What we didn't do was have discussions about interacting with students beyond the surface.

At no point did we talk about what do when your students can't concentrate because they or their family members have court dates coming up and are worried about going to jail.

At no point did we talk about what to do when you have two kids in your room who simply will not stop throwing things at each other.
At no point were we taught how to interact with unreasonable parents. What to do when a first phone call is to the superintendent. How to survive when administration requires you to do something that YOU know is counterproductive to your students.

What do I do when I've spent weeks building up to a lesson and the day before, the loud, popular girls gets dumped and spends the whole period crying?
We never talked about how to deal with bullying in class. We never talked about what to do when a student dies.

Teacher burnout is a real thing. It's an epidemic and is doing awful things to our education system, to future teachers, and to our students. We need to provide teachers with support, but more so, we need to give pre-service teachers the reality of teaching.

Teaching is about students; first, last, and always. Yes, it deals with lessons, content, activities, self-doubt, homework, plans, stress, seating charts, rosters, and crying yourself to sleep. It deals with those, but it's about the students and their needs as people.

Education programs do observations throughout the programs, but student teaching is always at the end. When you discover the wonderful and horrid realities of what it means to ACTUALLY teach, you've been invested for years. This is a tremendous disservice to new teachers.
This is a metaphor!

So what do I want to do for my student teacher? I want to give her space and support. I want to let her deal with issues of walking the tightrope while remaining the safety net far below. Let her learn, fall, get back up and grow.

I want to remind her that just the way that school isn't a good representation life or learning, education programs are not a good representation of teaching. I want to help her become the amazing teacher that she can be.

I want to speak with more pre-service teachers about the reality of teaching, but I think the first time I did so in an education program, I wouldn't be invited back. Colleges, like any other school, are so invested in their curriculum, that any slight push sending them crashing

There are amazing teacher prep programs out there, but they are few and far between. I've met teachers as college students and watch them leave teaching in less than 3 years because of how unprepared they were.

You will cry regularly during your first year. You will be scared and sad and questioning. You will be angry at your coworkers, your students, your parents and your admin. You will be elated when a lesson goes well and crushed when it doesn't.

Teaching is hard as hell. Anyone who says otherwise is either doing it poorly or works in the recruiting office at a University.

I just hope she can write a good lesson plan, otherwise her classroom management will be up the creek.

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