Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Day 63: Games

All of my classes were given the same assignment today:

Pick one of the following:

1) Work on things you owe me.
2) Work ahead
3) Play games

Most of the geometry students and the kids in 8th period opted to play games.  My group of students who are almost continually disruptive in class spent 80 minutes playing Tsuro!

They talked strategy and alliances.  They worked together to create paths that would keep them alive as long as possible.

They showed fascinating interest in different kinds of games and it was surprising to see who chose what.

Even more interesting was that the majority of the students in period 1 chose a 4th option: stare at the wall for the period.

I suppose some people prefer boredom to putting effort into fun.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Day 62: A Heart To Heart

All of my students took tests today (except for the 3 who refused) so I had a ton of time to think.

I was thinking about a phone call that I had last night where a parent was concerned that I was picking on their child.  I spent a ton of time justifying my actions and telling myself that the student was seeing bullying where none existed.

Then I remembered that it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if I'm nice or mean, cruel or kind.  The reality of the classroom doesn't matter nearly as much as how our students perceive it.

It doesn't matter if I'm picking on this child or not.  If they feel as though I am, it's something that I need to address and be aware of.

While I was thinking about it, another student finished her test and expressed some of her concerns about the class.  Her unease, in a gross oversimplication on my part, comes from the fact that she feels she isn't learning.  My teaching style is not what she is used to and she would like us to cover more content.
So we had a talk.

I asked her flat out if she would prefer for me to lecture, give formulae and practice problems, then go over them and move on.  She said yes.

I explained to her that it would never happen.  That's simply not the kind of teacher I am and it's not the kind of instruction that I know is effective.  We had a very nice and civil discussion about my goals in the class and how I am working to accomplish those goals.

I told her that I know that what I'm doing is outside of her comfort zone and I completely understand that it makes her nervous.  I told her that just because I wasn't doing skill & drill doesn't mean that I wouldn't answer whatever questions she had.

She said that she felt she didn't understand any of the material and that she thought she failed the test.  I asked her for specifics and she mentioned a type of problem that we talked about yesterday.  I asked if I had answered her questions and she said yes, but that she still didn't understand.

Then I graded her test.

She earned an A.

I asked her, with no sarcasm and with all sincerity, if that afforded me and my methods a little bit of trust and latitude.  She said that it did.  I told her that I would, under no conditions, allow her to fail my class, but if I let her only work with methods and problems that were easy, she would never grow.  She agreed, at least at the time.

I know that what I do in my class can be scary to students who have learned very well to play school.

I think that I have built enough trust with most of my students that they will come with me on this insane journey.

But there are still more to convince.

Including myself...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Day 61: The Struggle Is Real

I didn't have a good day on Friday.  My coworkers went out after work, but I didn't feel as though I would have been good company so I didn't go.

I spent the weekend with my wife, watching a roller derby tournament, cheering on my friends and genuinely feeling wonderful.

When I returned to school this morning, I slipped right back into my own head.

Several students asked if I had had my coffee, if I was feeling alright.  I lied and told them I was just tired.

The reality is that I'm feeling defeated and overwhelmed.

I've had several observers in my class telling me that I'm doing good work, that I'm building relationships with my students (which I know is more vital than anything else.)

I KNOW that right now I'm stuck inside my head and riding a wave of disappointment, frustration and sadness that came off from Friday.

I KNOW that I have not been wasting my time with my classes and my students.

But this is how I feel.

I don't feel as though my students are making the kind of progress that I would like to see.  They aren't asking the kinds of questions I want them to be asking.  They aren't making the connections that I want them to be making.

Yes, they are a different group of students than previous years.

Yes, I'm a different teacher than I used to be.  I have different expectations of myself and of them.

Yes, I am well aware that I wrote similar posts last year.

I am fighting a battle inside my head.  This is a battle that I fight regularly.  Usually, it starts on Monday with a very quiet voice telling me to give up and give the students worksheets.  It wants me to open my book and sit at my desk with my feet up.

For the last year and a half, I've been doing a great job of winning that battle, although when it's loudest on Friday's, it's very hard to block out.

The weekends have been doing wonders at helping me push it further back and start the fight anew on Monday.

As wonderful as this weekend was, I wasn't able to push the voice back far enough today.

Luckily, all of my classes have quizzes and tests tomorrow so today was a review day.  The math 8 students got sample tests to work on while I walked around answering questions.  A good 50% of the students were on task for the entire class with another 20% floating in and out.

In geometry, I had the students with specific questions move to the front of the room and the rest move to the back to work on their reviews.  I was able to talk in a normal conversational tone for the entire period and helped answer questions for a small group of kids at a time.  It felt productive, but I still have a feeling of dread about the tests tomorrow.

I need to get out of my own head if I want to be a good teacher for these kids.

Maybe I just need to get back into a heavy workout schedule.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Day 60: Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

I had a student start to cry while I was trying to explain direct variation to him.

His frustration welled up to a point where he could no longer contain it.  Since he is a mild-mannered, nice, respectful kid, his frustration took the form of quiet tears instead of screaming, throwing books and storming out.

As a direct result of that, my heart went out to him instead of it getting my back up.  I took the book away from in front of him and had him take some deep breaths to calm down before we started at it again.

But it reminded me that just because is acting out, being obnoxious, destroying my classroom, etc., doesn't necessarily mean that they are a bad kid.  They could simply be overly frustrated with what I'm trying to do and don't have the ability to express that frustration in a useful or productive way.

When geometry rolled around, I had to remove a student from my class for consistent disruptive behavior.  This is the first time that I've had to do that in geometry.  I can't seem to get through to this student about what is and is not appropriate classroom behavior.  I can't reach a parent either to try to create a plan to get him back on the right track.

In 8th period, enough students, when they came to check in their work, showed a lack of understanding of the concepts that I decided to do a mini-lesson.  I was answering the same questions over and over again and thought it would be better to address the class.

I was wrong.  The talking and noise making made it impossible for me to complete examples or answer questions.  Coupled with several students DEMANDING that I check their work immediately, I lost my cool.  I threw down my book and walked out.

I put myself in time out.

When I had cooled down, I came back in the room and attempted to contact several parents.  None of them were available and left several messages.

Today was the perfect day for a Friday.

I wonder if all of this was in spite of starting my day with a Rebecca Black Dance Party.

Maybe it was because of it...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Day 59: Movies and Patterns

In my humble opinion, one of the major problems with mathematics education (and maybe other content areas as well) is that we take very basic concepts and give them names that are something other than very simple.

Today's example is direct variation.

Two things vary directly when they are proportional!  I like this explanation because it's as clear as mud.

I find that my students are better at understanding concepts when I apply them to real world examples. (Crazy talk!!)

So I took them to the movies.

I'm going to the movies this weekend.
"1 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be $5."

I love the movie so much that I want some students to go with me.  So Bryah and I go back.
"2 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be..."
S: "$10"

Then I decide that it's a little creepy for a teacher to take a single female student to the movies, so we decide to bring a few others.
"4 for Big Hero 6, please!"
"That will be..."
S: "$20"

The 4 of us enjoy it so much that we ask the whole class to go.
"27 for Big Hero 6, please!"

We had a discussion about how you would know exactly how much that would cost because the price of the ticket doesn't change regardless of how many people are going.

To provide a counterexample, we went into the theater and looked at prices and sizes popcorn.  We discovered that with popcorn, it DID matter how much you bought as the price decreases per ounce as you buy more.

I was pleased with the level of engagement and my hand-drawn popcorn.

During the second period, I attempted to an activity from Visual Patterns.  I put pattern #137 up on the board, gave them graph paper and asked them to draw the next 2 patterns in the series.

The majority of the students attempted the assignment, but as I asked them to tell me how many squares would be in the 8th pattern or the 12th, that number quickly dwindled.

I only had 1 person trying to find the number of squares in the 43rd pattern.

I had a second pattern, but we didn't get to it as so many of my students were concerned with their history homework.

90 minutes is a VERY long time for these kids to be in the same room, regardless of how many tasks they work on.

This was, however, a GREAT task for several students in geometry.  It was right on the edge of their frustration level where they felt they knew enough that they couldn't give up.  A few screamed and threw their notebooks, only to cry "OH!" and immediately get them and get back to work.

I was very impressed.

My favorite line from that class had to be tweeted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Day 58: BRAIN FOOD!!!

I have been asked to examine our current salary schedule and put together a few proposals for what I think it should be going forward.  This has had me thinking about our priorities when we create teacher salary schedules.

It seems to me that a salary schedule that starts high and progresses slowly is designed to recruit and retain new teachers.  A schedule that starts lower but has jumps in the middle or near the top is designed to bring in MORE teachers and reward those who stick it out.  The number of steps to reach the top of a scale is much harder to interpret.  Fewer steps could mean that the district feels mastery comes sooner or that they are trying to recruit teachers who are concerned about their pensions, or any number of other concerns.
None of these are from my current district

I know I've missed a bunch of reasons, so please don't spam my comment section listing all of the positive and negative reasons that salary schedules are created the way they are.  I am much less concerned about the ideology of teacher pay (for the purposes of this post) than I am about the mathematics of hypothetical pay scales.

What does it mean if we add $4000 to the bottom salary and increase all the others as a percentage of that?  How does that change the overall look of the pay matrix?

I love this stuff!

I whipped up an Excel sheet and started messing around.  I dropped steps off the scales, redistributed the pay jumps, changed the top and bottom caps and looked at percent increases.

I lucked out that I was given this puzzle on a day when my students were in the computer lab working on Think Through Math (our district-selected online intervention program.)  I was able to log on to one of the faster computers and play around with my spreadsheet for a significant amount of time.

So it got me thinking about how I could get my students to feel the same way about number manipulation that I do.

And I came up with no answers.

I would want them to explore and discover but I don't know how to even start them on that path.  I don't think "Open up an Excel spreadsheet and see what you can do!" wouldn't be a productive way to start that.

How much background do I need to give in order to ask them to find interesting trends?  I know they would have different interests, including sports, video games and movies and there is a wealth of cool data available to explore.

I don't even know what kind of projects would be age appropriate or how to start them.  Clearly I need to do some research into these kinds of products.

And, to be honest, the project idea was just a minor afterthought.  I just really enjoyed playing around with Excel today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Day 57: Slopes and Games

I have been struggling to get my students to understand how slope in calculated.  They understand what it is and what it means for slope to be positive or negative.  They understand how to make something steeper or less steep by growing or shrinking it in various directions.

They are struggling to translate that to calculations.

I attempted to channel the brilliant Fawn Nguyen and her very cool Staircase and Steepness activity.  It did not go as well as I would have liked.  The students did a very good job with the first part and discussed their strategies and reasons with each other.  Then when it came to measuring and verifying, they lost interest and got distracted.

After the break, I set them back on their independent work and called them up one at a time to check their progress.  Several students came up to ask about slope calculation and I helped them individually.  Then I got tired of repeating the same thing over and over and pulled the class back together for a mini-lesson.

They were very attentive, which I both appreciated and found frustrating.  The mini lesson was almost verbatim the one I gave yesterday that they pointedly ignored.

But if I got them to pay attention today, that's a win.  Yesterday is gone.
I'll do that, Internet stock photo with motivational quote. I'll do just that.

In geometry, I had a small class for various reasons and short period (read: only 1) so they could get their weekly science lab in.

I have been wanting them to be playing more games and thinking about strategy. Plus, this weekend, I bought a few new games that I wanted them to try out.

I developed a sheet for them to fill out for each game they play that asks them to describe the positives and negatives of each game, describe the basic game play and discuss the strategies that they used to try to win.

For a first attempt at "describe your strategy" they weren't bad.  For the most part, the students simply described game play.

"My strategy was to see where the laser goes."
"I angled the mirrors to hit my opponent."

A few, however, had the concept down and gave legitimate strategy and I will be using them as examples of what I'm looking for.

"I tried to stay away from other players until they were eliminated."
"I started by stacking 2 cards in the proper pattern and then changing them out as needed."

I was very impressed with their work and it's fascinating to see which games certain students love or hate and which ones pique their interest and passions.

I'm looking forward to tweaking the feedback page and getting them to think more about strategy and describing their thinking.
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