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.
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