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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day 56: My Compass

On Friday, Megan Schmidt observed my classes and wrote my blog post.  I am deeply grateful to her for (at least) three reasons.

First, she took the time out of her schedule and away from her family and students to fly over 900 miles to help me become a better teacher.

Second, she wrote the post on Friday so that I didn't have to.  These things sometimes get burdensome.

Finally, her post and our subsequent conversations truly helped to put my teaching, my methods, my goals and my outcomes into perspective.  By providing me with an outside view, not just as someone who teaches different classes, but in a different part of the country, she was able to see what I was doing without having to view it through the lenses of knowing my students.

I worry that same-school observers frequently come into the classroom already having a list of expectations based on the environment and the individual kids.  I frequently see my coworkers either smile or roll their eyes at the mention of a specific student.  While there is value in knowing the environment and the students, what I look for in observations is how I am interacting with students.  I believe that the best way to receive such feedback is to have the observer not have preconceptions about specific students.

I have been worried that I wasn't "doing enough" with my students.  Consciously, I know that relationship building is a major element of education, but it's so difficult to push aside the thought that says "I'll learn about my kids later. Right now, we have content that we HAVE to cover."

For some reason "I haven't covered as much content because I've been developing relationship with my students and making them feel like humans instead of robots" still feels like an excuse.

I know that I have a long journey before I'm the teacher that I want to be, but Megan's observation and feedback made me feel as though I'm on the right path.

I will be sure to bookmark it and read it when I feel that I'm losing my way.

My colleagues on Twitter and throughout the internet are my compass.  I owe Megan, and everyone else, deep thanks for helping to remind me of my journey and my path.

It's all too easy to forget the progress that we've made and focus only on the pain, frustration and struggle.  Having someone unfamiliar with the environment come and see what you're doing provides such an incredible service.

They lift you up above the canopy and let you see how far through the forest you have come.  They also help you to get your bearings, find your path and keep moving.


We need someone to take off the blindfold and show us what we truly have done, and can do.


I try not to give advice to other teachers because I don't feel as though I know enough to help people in a meaningful way.  I offer up my experiences in this blog as a way to allow people to empathize and know that there are other teachers out there who know what they are going through; who struggle with the same or similar problems.

I will, however, break with my stance and offer this piece of advice:

For future teachers, new teachers, old teachers and administrators, I strongly advise you to leave your rooms and go observe another teacher.  I don't mean someone down the hall, although that should be done too.  Find the time to go to another school, another content area, another grade, and watch.  See what you like and what you don't.

Providing meaningful, actionable feedback to another teacher will help you to think about what you are doing in your own practice.  This I promise you.


Megan and I have been talking lately about the importance of time for teachers to collaborate during the school day.  My experience with having her visit my classes, and her experience of visiting, only serves to underscore this point.

Megan, thank you so much for helping me to continue my journey towards being the teacher I want to be.  I am forever in your debt.

The rest of you: Get out there and observe other teachers! And have them observe you! (If you have the chance.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Day 55: Rush of Cold Minnesota Air

The following is a guest post from Megan Schmidt:

I normally blog over at Mathybeagle, but I have the pleasure of guest blogging at Re-Learning to Teach as I was a guest in Justin Aion's classroom today.  What a tremendous experience it has been.  And complete validation that what teachers need to improve their practice is time during the school day to work with other teachers. 

We arrive very early in the morning.  Justin swears that we are much later than usual, but at 6:30am, I'm not sure how he does that any earlier.  A friendly custodian greets us at the door.  We wander the building a bit, and Justin courteously introduces me to his fellow colleagues.

At 7:30, the students enter the building, the teachers report to their "posts," and the magic begins to happen.  Justin has such a strong, positive presence with those students in the building.  He's charismatic (in the good way) and the kids flock to him and look to him for positive adult interaction.

The first period bell rings, the estimation task is up.  It's fascinating to see students from the other side of the country engage in the same mathematical arguments that my students do over how much soda will fit in the vase.  A few buses are late and with every new student that joins the room, Mr. Aion acknowledges, in a positive way, his desire for them to join the learning environment.
And I can't convey in words how amazing it is to see a group of 14 year olds put their hands on their heads and recite the student-friendly version of the Standards of Mathematical Practice - most from memory.

I got the opportunity to work one on one with a student, we'll call her Stella.  As a struggling math student, Stella is having trouble grasping how to "undo" x^2.  We talked about squares and their sides.  Then I handed her my TI-84.  "Is this an iPad?" she asked.  I showed her a few buttons and then she WENT TO TOWN on figuring out how the square numbers worked.  We had so much fun guessing and checking for square numbers.  I hope she learned half as much from me as I did from her.

6th and 7th periods are geometry, which loyal blog readers may be familiar with.  This class culture is incredible.  There is a real cohesion which allows them to challenge one another respectfully and productively.  I've never witnessed Dance, Dance Transversal, but this was 45 minutes of pure educational joy. 


He's correct, his 8th and 9th periods have more energy than the rest combined but still so much curiosity, life, and creativity.  And a defining feature of this group of kids is their desire to hold each other accountable to standards of good behavior.  The ones who interrupt and act out are quickly hammered with a barrage of "suggestions" to change their behavior. This can be very powerful when kids encourage one another to make better choices.

I realize that some days are tough for Mr. Aion in room 112.  However, what I saw today was a man who has a gift for orchestrating an environment of learning and a passion for creating a community where students voices are valued. Thank you, Justin, for sharing this part of your world with me.  I'm grateful that I was able to take the time out of my school day to have this valuable experience with you. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Day 54: Updating Grades

This year (and last year) I have been awful about putting grades into our online gradebook.  This is partially because I have trouble figuring out what I want to be grading and how to grade it.  I don't really want to grade things based on completion because it shows the students that my priority is the work rather than the understanding.

In geometry, they are SO focused on the grades that they will miss the point of an assignment and focus solely on the grade attached to it.

As of tomorrow, I will have 2 grades in the gradebook for pre-algebra and 1 for geometry.  In pre-algebra, they've been working in their workbooks for what they THINK is a completion grade.  I'm giving them a grade based on the number of stamps they have (maximum of 3 per section.)  The catch is that when they come to me for stamps, I can check their work and make sure they are in the right direction.

"This looks really good! Let's talk about number 3. Tell me what's happening here."

Instead of "I'm done! I need my stamp!" we have a conversation about the work, their understanding of the concepts and their pace through the material.  This also allows me to differentiate my requirements for each student.  If a certain student understands the basic ideas of scientific notation, but is struggling with very large or very small numbers, I can address those concerns individually.

Yesterday, I wrote about how engaged they were with what I consider to be a low-level task.  Today, I'm seeing it in a new light.  This is allowing me to differentiate my instruction for each individual.  There have only been 2 major issues so far, one positive and one negative.

My main concern is that if I am not working directly with a student or their group, they have a tendency to be disruptive to the rest.  This may just be a function of the amount of time that they are given and I need to devise stations for them.  This is something that I've been thinking about for a while, but have not done the logistics work for yet.

Someone needs to light a fire under my butt!


Geometry took a quiz that was partner graded  We went over the answers as a group and I never saw the results.  We talked about what they needed to do if they were not happy with their scores.  Even without having the grades entered into the book, several kids were upset for the rest of the period about their performance.

I need to be more focused on the growth mindset for them, the idea that failure only happens when you give up.

Everything else is a learning experience.
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