Thursday, March 6, 2014
We make all sorts of excuses why an athlete didn't do as well as expected. We blame the weather, the ground conditions, the latest stomach bug going around, the lack of familiarity with a strange field/hill/track, etc. We do not, however, make the same allowances for students taking tests.
As my geometry students completed their standardized testing today, they were called up to my desk one by one to discuss their results. This is the only test that I do not fight tooth and nail because the feedback is immediate and split between various content sections. It provides me with some valuable data about a student's strengths and weaknesses. It also provides me with data about the class as a whole, allowing me to tailor my teaching based on areas of need, such as algebraic concepts.
The other benefit to this particular test is that students take it 2-3 times each year. This means that I, and the students, are able to see growth over a shorter period of time.
In sharp contrast to this, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) is designed to assess the school, rather than the students. It takes place over 2 solid weeks for several hours each day. The district uses the scores to help determine which English and math classes the students may take the following year. The scores take 3-4 months to come back and are categorized into 4 levels of proficiency (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.) Students do not receive any meaningful feedback about this test and, while they are told how important the tests are, are never told why.
As I met with each student today, we went over their results, discussing areas that I need to focus on as a teacher and strategies for them to demonstrate their knowledge as a teacher.
For the most part, there was great improvement shown from October until now. There were several students who stayed at the same level and two or three whose scores decreased.
One such student came up to the desk, saw her scores and immediately burst into tears.
At the time, I found this incredibly upsetting.
No test, certainly not one that doesn't have an effect on grades, class placement, or personal worth, should have this effect on a student. she is a smart, hard-working, kind, wonderful young lady and I think the world of her. Watching her break down upon seeing her score tore the heart from me.
No matter how many times I try to tell them that test scores do not determine their worth, the idea is so engrained that they are unable to shake it. This is a systemic problem that I don't know how to cure. I want my students to be able to tell themselves that they tried their best.
After spending the day ruminating on my conversation with this young lady, I have come to a very different conclusion. While I'm not sure the situation warranted tears, I am very proud of her disappointment. She knows that the test does not affect her grade or determine which class she takes next year. She knows that it is a purely a diagnostic assessment.
And yet, she was still upset. I like to think that this is because she was hoping to have grown in the past 5 months. I like to think that she was disappointed in her ability to demonstrate her increase in knowledge.
THIS would be a good reason to be upset.
As many educators know, standardized tests are not accurate predictors of success or indicators of knowledge and skills. They are, at best, an indication of what a particular student can do while in a particular mood on a particular day.
When the Americans didn't perform as well as expected during the Olympics, there was lots of rhetoric about how the event is just one day. The various pundits claimed that doing poorly in one event on one day didn't mean that the Olympians were anything less than stellar athletes.
This is the message I was trying to get across to my students. Do the best you can, but recognize that the results of one test on one day may mean very little about anything other than that one day.
Regardless of the reason, a standardized test should never make a student cry.
It may be a pipe dream, but I want my students to greet test day by saying "YES! I get to show off what I know!" If they do poorly, I want them to say "Crap! I didn't get to show off what I know!"
Pipe dream or not, this is what I strive for.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
After the dark, gloomy, depressing picture yesterday, I feel as though I needed a brighter, more cheerful one today. It worked with moderate success.
My geometry class was postponed so the students could take a computerized diagnostic test. This is a state test and, shockingly, the website wasn't working properly. What do my geometry students do while waiting for a standardized test site to start working?
Browse pictures of Doctor Who gear
Play zombie-killing games
Practice math (on Think Through Math)
Read my blog.
The site finally started working and they plugged along very well.
My pre-algebra students are also doing the test, but due to infrastructure and logistical issues, only half of them can take it at a time. The math coach and I split the two classes in half with the first half of the alphabet taking the test today while I work on content with the other half. Tomorrow, the groups will switch.
Progress reports got issued today. That means that students who have been sleeping, or talking, or dancing, or singing, are suddenly DEEPLY concerned about getting their grades up.
This used to make me irate. You want to sleep in my class and now all of a sudden, I should go out of my way to help you boost your grade so you can go back to sleep tomorrow? I don't think so!
Now, it makes me sad. My concern now is more that these students very clearly don't care about the learning at all. They don't even care about the grades beyond how they may or may not be yelled at for those grades.
A large portion of my students do very little throughout the marking period, followed by furious bursts of work, tears, screams of frustration, clumps of torn-out hair and cries of "THIS IS TOO MUCH!"
Of COURSE it's too much! You're trying to learn 9 weeks worth of material in 2 days! I give them analogies about practicing sports, or musical instruments, or going to the gym, to express the importance of doing a little each day, but they never believe me. Then, at the end of the marking period when a ton of work has to be done to make stuff up, it's overwhelming and they shut down.
Then, my period 8/9 had a farting competition. I'm done with today.
On a more positive note, I received an email from a concerned parent this morning. She was very upset about her son's grade and my lack of assignments in the gradebook. It felt as though she was looking for someone to blame. After several exchanges back and forth, she thanked me for my responses, I reassured her of my commitment to her son's education and thanked her for contacting me with her concerns.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
|This picture was so realistic that I was instantly depressed. I blame this picture for how today went.|
I am not a patient man.
One of the reasons I often doubt my ability to be a good teacher is because the patience to explain something to students who are not paying attention. Students who put the effort in, I will go over the same question 50 different ways. I deeply value effort. Students who were sleeping, talking, singing, dancing, drawing SpongeBob, passing notes, etc. while I am answering a question and then expect me to explain it again? Absolutely not.
When my patience runs out, I am not a nice man.
I respond to these students in ways that aren't nasty, but are certainly not nice, tolerant, understanding or kind. It is one of the traits that I dislike about myself and have been trying to change.
Ignoring student behavior that distracts me, but not other students, has helped a little. Repeatedly singing "Let It Go" from Frozen and "This Too Shall Pass" by OK Go has helped. But some days, they don't help enough.
I lost my temper in all of my classes today. In geometry, one of the students was going through the papers on my desk and my response was disproportionate. Later in class, a young lady who sits in the front row, who has not done adequate work in a few weeks, didn't bring her materials and was talking while I was trying to explain a concept. She was literally 2 feet from me and didn't seem to care at all about how rude she was being.
In pre-algebra, I was doing very well keeping my patience in check. I handed out the assignments to the students who were not in class yesterday. One student knocked the paper from the hand of another and every time he went to pick it up, she kicked it further and further from him.
I lost it. I managed to not use profanity, but just barely.
On top of that, after two days of teaching students how to use a ruler, I ran out of patience to continue teaching that skill. Two groups of students were working very well on their drawings, although doing them poorly with a constant need for help. I worked with them patiently and kindly because they had been putting in a sincere effort.
The rest of the groups either sketched faces with total disregard for the measurements, or didn't draw anything at all. Several other students, seemingly with the inability to keep their hands to themselves, broke the folders and binders of students who, foolishly, left them on their desks while they worked.
I understand that they are children, but I am constantly shocked by how nasty some of these kids are to each other. They seem to go out of their way to anger each other and not in the playful joking way. The students that they poke at aren't usually their friends, just their victims.
Not being a nice person, I don't know how to teach them to be nice. I don't understand how to combat this level of nastiness. I don't even know how to address it without asking "Seriously!! What the hell is wrong with you??"
Maybe it's just a bad day.
Maybe I'm just tired of my efforts to make the class interesting being rebuffed day after day after day.
Maybe I'm tired of hearing "that's too much" to every single assignment.
Maybe I need to take a deep breath and enjoy the students who are enjoyable.
Maybe they will help me to maintain the energy I need for the students who are challenging.
Student will work for a teacher they like or respect, even in a subject that they hate. I truly believe this. While I don't mind not being liked, I try to treat my students fairly. Many of my students have seen that over the year and have come to like me and their effort reflects that.
There are, however, several students that I seem unable to reach in any way. I work with them as much as I can, boosting confidence and celebrating success. The willingness to put in any effort, however, seems to be missing. This creates a vicious spiral for me where I get annoyed and they shut down, so I get more annoyed and they shut down furthers, etc., forever and ever amen...
I don't know how to break this cycle. I feel as though I have made monumental strides to meet students where they are. I feel as though I have been pouring my heart into this year. If I look at my successes objectively, I don't see that my "good" students are any better in my class than they are in other ones. My challenging students are just as challenging for other teachers.
If that's true, then have my efforts been in vain? Will they continue to be in vain? If so, I still don't believe that means I can give up. Even if I'm bailing a ship with a thimble during a thunderstorm, I'm still bailing. No matter how much despair and frustration I may feel, I can't stop bailing.
Even on days when it feels like the kids are drilling more holes in the boat.
I can't stop bailing.
Monday, March 3, 2014
The 2-hour delay this morning led me to have a prolonged and interesting conversation with the art teacher about cross-curricular projects, pedagogy and student interaction. I've been spending so much time making connections with educators outside of my circle that I have been neglecting the experts in my building. I should talk to them more.
I went to speak to him to see if he had any insight to offer about my plan for pre-algebra today. The conversation was refreshing and helped to remind me that, while they may be worn down and tired, the teachers in my building do care deeply about students and student learning. I'm ashamed to admit that I often forget this fact.
In geometry, the students were given class time to correct their Solution Guide test from chapter 4, finish and submit their Solution Guide test from chapter 5 or work on their guided notes. I am disappointed with what many of them have turned in (or not) and I think they will be a little upset when their progress reports show that they are failing.
I've been having conversations with my "team" teachers recently about how the geometry students' work has dropped off dramatically in the last few months. I attribute it to the way our system is set up to separate students. The majority of the students in geometry are there not because they are smarter, but because they grasp concepts much faster. Many of them have parents who stay on them constantly to achieve.
While neither of these is a bad thing, it does create an interesting situation around middle school. Up to this point, many of these students have been able to get A's through minimal effort because the concepts came to them faster. Once they get to my class, I start pushing them and they are simply unaccustomed to it. Many of my students don't know how to correct their work because they simply haven't had to before.
Edit: At this point, I know my mom and any of my teachers reading this are probably screaming at their computers. This is exactly the same complaint that was made about me through most of my school career.
I have full faith in every student in my class and I will do everything I can to get them where they need to be. Due to my willingness to allow students to make up work, demonstrating mastery of material whenever it happens, none of the current grades are static. I expect that many VERY upset parents will either ask the students or myself what happened and how it can be corrected.
Near the end of period, it was discovered that a baby mouse was loose in the room. The kids (who fancy themselves hardened thugs) screamed and jumped on desks. After a bit of time trying to trap him, we managed to get him into a cardboard box where he died mysteriously. So we did the only sensible thing to do.
We held a mouse funeral. I gave the eulogy in which I claimed that he was a vicious killing machine who had to be stopped.
My pre-algebra classes started, what turned out to be, a two day project. I am having them measure various parts of their faces and draw a scale picture based on a conversation factor. Since the Park Project flopped so mightily, but proportion and scale factors are so important, I am revisiting the topic using a more basic approach.
I began by talking about growing and shrinking rectangles based on a given scale factor. I had the student figure out from context what a scale factor was. Then, using their definition, I gave them two similar rectangles, had them find the scale factor and the missing side.
They did VERY well with this, coming up with practical definitions of scale factor in their own words, giving them more ownership over the process.
The extended time that I've been taking to draw out the explanations that I want, coupled with the two-hour delay, meant that we only just started measuring faces when the period ended. Their homework was the finish measuring (to the nearest quarter inch) and convert the measurements using the scale factors.
If I'm honest with myself, I will be stunned if any of them do it. As hard as they may work in class, the number of total students in pre-algebra who do work outside of class can be counted on one hand. I'm not overly upset by this, merely annoyed at how the progress is stymied by the lack of practice. How much further we could be, how much more we could do if they would be willing to do some outside work.
But this is the hand we are dealt. Maybe I'll ask around on Twitter and see if anyone has suggestions on how to encourage homework.
Friday, February 28, 2014
After the multiple videos from Vi Hart yesterday, my Geometry kids asked if they could have a "doodle day." I went one better and made it full blown crafts.
Before class, several kids told me that they had spent some time watching other videos online and had some ideas that they wanted to try today. After a brief introduction, I unleashed them and let them explore. They did not disappoint! I'll let their work speak for itself.
It was so interesting to hear them talk about how they chose to draw, paint, color, construct what they did. Almost all them, without realizing it, picked an arbitrary rule and stuck to it.
"I made a bunch of dots and connected every other."
"I connected the Popsicle sticks at the ends and made them go at similar angles"
"I put some triangles into other triangles"
"I DREW A SNAIL!!"
Since February is(was) Dating Violence Awareness Month, we had an assembly at the end of the day. This meant I didn't see my period 8/9. Since they are already a little behind period 4/5, I didn't want them falling further by forging ahead with period 4/5. So, after we went over the warm-up and the homework, they had a game day.
As was in line with the gender-based observations I've made before, the girls played games and the boys played at hitting each other in the crotch. Business as usual.
This was a pretty good week, but I am certainly ready for the weekend.
My student quote of the day: "Why can't I use your chapstick? We're both white!"
|It's good to know that my gender is not in question...|
Edit: I had to add the following for posterity!
@JustinAion Your students are awesome! They had some great ideas. Say hello to them for me.
— Vi Hart (@vihartvihart) February 28, 2014
Thursday, February 27, 2014
In geometry, once again, I got way off topic, talking about math rather than calculation. We ended up watching a series of videos from Vi Hart. They were 100% engaged, to the point where they asked for me, asked insightful questions and were doodling the entire time.
Vi believes (and rightly so) that there is a major disconnect between the mathematics that we teach in schools and ACTUAL mathematics. I completely agree with her and it has been on my driving goals this year to close that gap. I want my students to be able to do math. I want them to understand why I love math as much as I do. This was an excellent way to show them, and for them to show me what they can do.
We even had the talk where I said "I'd love to assign you to do something like this, but the assignment would defeat the purpose. Instead, I'll say that anything you do that you think it interesting, show us and I'll put it on my wall!"
So what they asked for was a "Doodle Day" tomorrow. I'm so excited to see the results!
We had a team meeting today and pulled in a young lady who has been declining steadily over the past few months. We expressed our concerned without accusing her of anything. I finished the meeting by asking her to think about what we (her teachers) could do to help her to be successful. She said she would think about it.
Period 4/5 started out normally. We did Estimation 180 and I handed out the quizzes from yesterday. I told them how the students who had been consistently paying attention, participating, asking questions over the last 4 days all earned A's and B's while the kids who hadn't, hadn't. Several of the kids who earned A's and B's are ones who are traditionally more "difficult" students and I made a point to make eye contact and tell them how proud I was of them.
When we started going over some practice problems, there were suddenly only 6 kids who were tuning me out. The rest either moved closer to the board to pay better attention, or moved off in small groups to practice the exercises on their own.
I had several kids actually fighting over which one of them got to put the exercises on the board! Two or three students took upon themselves to go around the room tutoring others who were confused and didn't want to ask for help. The end result was several groups of students diligently working with little to no encouragement from me. I quietly walked around, giving reassuring should squeeze and back pats to kids. I was so proud, I think it might have been spilling on everything.
One of my more difficult students, after being tutored by one of her peers for a solid 45 minutes, meekly asked me if she could retake her test. I thanked her for her hard work and let her do so. Her score DRAMATICALLY improved.
I was so happy that I didn't even maim anyone when a kid, not where he was supposed to be, smudged my whiteboard drawing.
Period 8/9 eventually got to the same point of small groups breaking off to do the work, but it took a little longer. In addition, the 8 students who were loud and disruptive (to me) composed a larger percentage of the class. Overall, however, I was incredibly pleased with how they worked and I made sure to make myself available for them.
The student that we pulled aside earlier in the day worked her butt off for me and I was able to honestly tell her how proud I was.
I am not for a moment thinking "IT WORKED!!! THEY CAME AROUND!!"
I know that each day is a different day with different dynamics so I'm not going to read too much into it.
But I see it as a HUGE step in the right direction and I'm very pleased. It does mean, however, that I now need to redouble my efforts to make sure they don't backslide into their old habits. The new ones haven't had enough time to solidify yet.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
I meant to talk about ratios in geometry. Instead, a student's answer to my "Question of the Day" (Koch's Killers) sent me off on an hour long tangent (hah!) on fractals and Benoit Mandelbrot. We talked about the idea of an interating function and recursive patterns. As usually happens in geometry when I go flying off into oblivion, the students came with me, propelling me further with excellent and insightful questions.
At some point, I would love to do a project where these students come up with a rule and have other students replicate their fractals without looking at pictures of them.
After watching a video of zooming in on the Mandelbrot Set, the students came to a conclusion that may become my mantra:
When you have mathematics, there is no need for drugs!
I can trace my love of mathematics back to school when, during bouts of bored, I would draw Sierpinski triangles in my notebooks. I hadn't realized that I had actually said this out loud to my students until two of them showed me what they were doing during class.
We did eventually get back to a discussion of ratios and, in retrospect, I should have used a segue to talk about the ratio of large triangles to small triangles in the Sierpinski gasket and the Koch Curve. Hopefully, I'll remember to ask them about it tomorrow...
Another day in pre-algebra of me focusing my attention on the students who are engaged. Not as many as yesterday, but I'm not discouraged. The ones who were engaged were, with 2 exceptions, different than the ones from yesterday.
We spent the first of the double period going over practice problems, having students go through each one, telling me what to write on the board. There were several good discussions about why they were doing what they were and I was fairly pleased.
So we took a quiz! The second period began with a 10 question quiz on what we had just been talking about (since Friday.) The students who had been actively participating in class were finished in a VERY reasonable amount of time while the rest had their tests trickle in slowly, offering up weak statements about lack of understanding. When I asked them if they thought there might be a correlation between their confusion and the amount of time spent talking about not-math, they seemed even more confused.
They still seem to believe that I am aimlessly wandering through concepts without a goal or direction. I wonder if that is a failure of them to pay attention, or a failure of me to clarify. I much prefer discovery learning. I believe that the journey of education is MUCH more important than the destination.
But the image that comes to mind is that of people sitting inside a covered wagon, all of the flaps down, complaining that they aren't moving just because they can't see the landscape.
Clearly, I spent WAY too much time in my childhood playing Oregon Trail.
At least my students aren't hunting buffalo in the hallways.
On another note, my Twitter friend, Adam Holman, VP at a school in Austin, was in town today for a mini-conference. Since he was unable to come to me during their short lunch break, I went to him! No sooner was I in the door than he introduced me as his friend that he had never met as a way to illustrate the power of the PLN that is Twitter.
He could not have been more right! I can't imagine how many traffic laws I broke trying to get to him with enough time to talk before we both had to be back where we needed to be, but it was SO worth it. His energy was invigorating and, after 45 minutes of chatting, I was ready to return to work and get the most out of my day!
An interesting note about student distraction. In period 8/9, 3 of the 5 tables of students had their heads down diligently working on their quizzes while the remaining two tables were singing, dancing, braiding each others hair, etc. What was fascinating was that it didn't seem to distract the working students in any way. They continued with their quizzes as though it were silent.
This only confirms for me the theory that was proposed by Max Ray and that I have been working off ever since. Just because I find something distracting doesn't mean that my students do.
I need to be more aware of their attention than mine.
In addition, the quiz grades for the kids who were consistently paying attention and working for the last 3 days? A's and B's.
The ones who weren't? F's.
I wonder if there is a relationship between active participation in class and content mastery...