Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Day 45: The Flopping V!

A Sports Analogy:

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

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

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


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


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




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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Day 44: The Doctor Is In

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

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

Them: "I WILL RULE THE WORLD!!"

Me: "...why?"
Them: "...Because RULING THE WORLD!!"
Me: "Yeah, but why? For what purpose?"
Them: "I...what do you mean?"
Me: "Say you rule the world. What are you going to do with it? What would you do with yourself then that you can't do now?"
Them: "I would be in charge! I could do whatever I wanted!"
Me: "So what would you do?"
Them: "...I WOULD EXECUTE PEOPLE WHO ASK ME QUESTIONS THAT PROBE MY SHALLOW AND POORLY CONCEIVED MOTIVATIONS!"

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

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

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

But why?  To what end??

It always seems to come down to money.

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

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

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

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


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

I held conferences with most of my geometry students today.

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

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

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

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

A few said they needed to study more.
"Is studying really your problem?"
"...no. I don't really ask questions when I'm confused."

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

I am proud of them.


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

I was completely taken aback.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Day 43: The Human Fund

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

The first milestone was today.

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

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

I made a casual mention to my geometry students about a quiz and they immediately reenacted the scene from Scanners.
"OH MY GOD!!!  CAN WE USE OUR NOTES???"

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tests can wait.  Showing humanity is more important.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Day 42: Dat Rut Tho

I can't wait for this weekend!

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

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

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

But I have mixed feeling about it.

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

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


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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Day 41: Stamps and Self-Direction

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geometry was fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

I'm just not sure how...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Day 39: Accountable Talk

"Why do I have to do it?"

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

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

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

Then I got to one young woman.

"What do we do?" I inquired.

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

I may play the lottery tonight.
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