Monday, September 29, 2014

Day 24: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

I am conflicted.

I want to write a post about a student's responsibility for learning versus a teacher's responsibility for teaching.  I think about this frequently, mostly every time an administrator tells me that we need to be engaging our students.

I am 100% on board with this!

I think that what I do is engaging.  I try very hard to come up with lessons that will catch the attention of my students and I try to make my assignments relevant to the tasks at hand.  My students need practice working with our concepts, as do all students.

Rather than spending the 90 minutes of my class period grinding through practice problems, I try to incorporate activities that get kids up and moving, get them talking about math and thinking, get them working with their peers to answers important, relevant questions.

With two notable exceptions, I think I'm doing a fairly good job.  The first one I notice is during 1st period.  at 7:50 am, a large portion of my students are still asleep.  Many have just rolled out of bed and aren't awake either physically or mentally.  When I see them later in the day, they are up, alert and involved, but at 7:50, they simply are not with it.
"Shhh...it's time for learning..."

A large portion of this group falls into the second category: assignments.  Many of my students will engage in discussions in class in a very productive way, offering answers and contributing very positively to the learning environment.

Until it comes time to actually write something down.

My school has a homework policy, that being that teachers will assign regular homework.  I have stopped grading homework regularly because, were I to do so, a large portion of students who understand the concepts and perform adequately on assessments, would fail my class.

In period 1 today, not a single student had done the assignment from the weekend.

Not a single one.


For the majority, this is due to lack of organization.  They don't bring materials to class or take materials home.  They are so good at compartmentalization, that when they leave my room, they often don't think about it at all until the enter again the next day.

This is something that I am used to and don't consider a phenomenon among my students alone.  I know that, unless there is a concerted communal effort to help kids get organized, such as a study skills class, or a consistent homework sheet, students are terrible at this.

I don't judge at all!  I am horrendous at organization.  I am awesome at following check lists.

Now I just to work on writing good check lists.



So this is my struggle:

At what point is the student responsible for their own learning?

I am trying very hard to make my classroom a learning environment.  I try to make it safe for students to experiment with academic methods and I don't force them to use whatever system works for me.  The classes where I was least engaged were the ones where the teachers required that we copy things verbatim, or used a VERY specific format. (I'm looking at you, high school physics class!)

I tell them frequently that I don't care HOW they solve a problem as long as the method is valid and they understand what they are doing well enough to explain it to someone else.

At what point can I be comfortable to say "I've done everything I can to help this student. It's now his/her turn to do the work."


A few years ago, an administrator (not mine) told me that we need to meet them halfway.  I partially agree with this.  The phrase I prefer is "meet them where they are."  In my experience with this specific subset of students, I have found that halfway is often not enough.

When someone has their back to you, you can't simply get closer. You have to tap them on the shoulder.

Ideally, we would never stop tapping.  We would keep tapping until they turned around.  Then we would encourage them to come with us, helping them run, or walk, or crawl, as far they needed us to help them.

In reality, we simply can't.  Class sizes are simply too large to provide the individual attention that many students need or want.


I want to be clear on two points.

First, the metaphor above doesn't require that they come with US, simply that they move forward.  If they don't know which direction in which to move, we can offer them choices.  Under no circumstances do I think that my road is the only one and students who choose a different path are wrong.  They are individuals with their own goals and desires.  I don't need them to move in my direction, simply to move.

Second, I am not talking about academic achievement, but rather academic willingness.  A student who is struggling, but working, I would start a war with Troy over!  My purpose here is talk about those students who refuse to pick up a pencil.  When I ask them to sit up, they stare blankly at me and put their heads down.  When I ask them to get started on an assignment, they ask for a pencil, then let it sit on their desk.

I want to help them, but I don't know how.

"Make the lessons and assignments more engaging."

No matter how delicious the food happens to be, the person who refuses to put it in his mouth will never know.


No matter how engaging I make my lessons, at some point, the student has to do the work.

I don't know where that point is.


In VERY general terms, I think the graph of responsibility looks something like this:





As the years progress, teachers should be handing it off to students so that, eventually, we can be comfortable saying "You are now adults and you have to make your own choices."


Isn't the whole purpose of education that we are trying to develop capable, independent citizens?

I am conflicted.

Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Tom Rademacher used a much better analogy than I did.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Day 23: I Am LOVING These Rectangles!

I'm ready for the weekend.  Thankfully, we have a clerical day tomorrow, so I have put off all of my grading until then.  I've also decided that I can't spend any more time explicitly teaching fraction addition and subtraction.

So today, we moved on to multiplication.  Of all of the rectangle manipulation of fractions, this was the one that I had the most difficulty figuring out how to communicate.  With addition and subtraction, we were taking rectangles with different sized slices, cutting them into equal sized slices and moving them around.

Multiplication was a little more complicated, so I started off simple.

Me: "If I have a problem like 2 x 3, what's happening here?"
S: "We are adding two, three times." (I swear to God this was said without prompting!)

The conversation went well from there.  We talked about the difference between whole boxes (integers) and partial boxes (fractions) and how to manipulate them to solve a multiplication problem.  After I moved a student from a talkative group, everything else went fairly well.  Student participation was up and notes were being taken.




They even asked to do more and harder examples!

Their willingness to take notes makes me think that they were not doing so before simply because I wasn't explicitly telling them to.  Hopefully by the end of the year, I won't have to, but if that's what it takes for now, I'll start the class by telling them to take their notebooks out.

In geometry, I started one of my favorite lessons!  I had them watch this clip from Labrynth:

I paused it in the middle and asked them what question THEY would ask.

They tried every conceivable way to cheat.  They wanted to ask two questions, or compound questions, or ask one to each door.  When I realized they were having trouble with the concept, I picked two kids.  I took four post-it notes and wrote True, Lie, Live, Die on them.  I put the first two behind my back, shuffled and had a kid pick one, then did the same with the second pair.

Now, only those two knew who told the truth and whose door lead to certain death.  Then students were able to ask them questions.  After that, I talked about the idea of The Lady and The Tiger.  Students were put into groups and asked which door they would pick.

Again, they tried getting around the rules, but I refused to ask any questions.  We managed to get through 3 trials before the period ended and they were VERY excited to finish the days in the coming week.

One student was distraught because her team didn't have as many points as the other teams.  She wanted to change teams and was worried that they were going to bring her grade down.  We had a chat about how she could be helping them to improve.

I ignored her questions about the grade for the exercise.

Why can't we just do some things for fun and education? Why does it always have to be for a grade.  I think I'm going to stop handing back assignments with grades on them, only giving feedback, and see how long it takes that class to have a breakdown.

I'm taking bets.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Day 22: The Pump Needs Priming

Since my previous plan for pre-algebra (to have students devise problems and create a Tarsia puzzle for other groups) flopped so miserably, my plan for today was to give them a puzzle that I had devised.  Working in groups of 3's and 4's, students would solve fraction addition and subtractions problems and match questions with answers to reassemble a square.

That was the plan, anyway.

In reality, only two of the groups managed to solve more than two of the fractions in the hour and of those two, neither was able to reassemble the puzzle.

The questions that they asked me made it seem as though we had never talked about this material.  One student even went so far as to say "I've never seen this before."

I felt as though I was in the Twilight Zone.

"Take the case of Mr. Justin Aion: a middle school math teacher in a moderately sized school.  To all appearances, he has a normal classroom with normal students.  In reality, each night, his students are replaced by identical clones who have never attended his class before.  Each day, the students are confused about seemingly brand new material, while Mr. Aion is confused as to why his students are so confused.  But this is all par for the course when you have registered for a class in...The Twilight Zone."

I want them to be able to do independent work, but I'm not sure how to get there.  When I stand in front of the class and ask them to complete the next step, anyone whom I call on is able to give me a good answer.  But it seems that as soon as I say "Great! Now you do it!" someone performs a full format on their brains and they are completely lost.

When I'm giving individual attention and assistance, the majority of the students seem to be asking the same questions and making the same mistakes.  Even when they take their notes out and go over step-by-step how we did previous problems, they seem completely lost, as though they are notes taken by other people for other classes.

I know that they are largely unfamiliar with this method of adding and subtracting fractions, but we've now been covering it for a week and I feel as though more of the concept should have been retained.

When beginning a new concept, I allow a certain amount of time for students grasp it.  I try to work with them patiently until they do.  Then, we build from that foundation to higher concepts.  As time passes however, I start to have the internal debate about blame.

The old me wants to say "I've spent enough time on this. If they don't get it, it's because they aren't paying attention or doing the work.  I need to move on."

The new me is saying "This is a new concept and I need to give them time to master it.  If you spend enough time working with it now, it will build that foundation that you're looking for.  Front-load the skills and the content will follow."

The guy sitting on my head dressed in red and white stripes is wondering if, after a week of attempts and ineffective teaching, they aren't going to get it and I should cut my losses and try something else.  Don't move on to a different topic, but try a more traditional method to transition them."

Old me rebuts with "How many different ways do you have to teach a basic concept before you can wash your hands of it??"

New me claims that you can NEVER wash your hands of it.  Furthermore, if they haven't grasped the concepts, then I didn't teach them.

The striped me says that we can't spend the year on a concept that they should have mastered in 6th grade, but neither can we really move on without it.  Kicking the can down the road only hurts the students in the long run.  Instead, I should move on to the next topic and incorporate this concept into future lessons.



And then in came 8th period.  Instead of explaining the exercise and then getting frustrated, I started with a review of the process.  I put two different types of problems on the board and we went through them as a class.

And then they worked.  They worked well.

Perhaps the wells are not dry, but simply need to be properly primed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Day 21: A Confluence and Accidental Math

Today, two of my three classes are taking CDT tests.  The geometry kids will take them tomorrow.  I wrote last year about how this is the only version of a standardized test of which I approve.  It provides dynamic questioning and immediate feedback for both students and teacher, not about individual questions, but about topics that require strengthening versus topics of strength.

In addition to that, we have Open House tonight from 6:30-8:30.  Since I live almost an hour from the school, this means that I won't be going home.  I will be staying through at school for 14 hours today and will be facing parents in clothing that has looked as though I was at school for 14 hours.

"Good Evening! I'm Mr. Aion and I am your child's math teacher this year!"
It turns out that this coordination of events works very well for me because of the schedule that I've been keeping.  Last year, I was at school around 6:15, which meant I had to leave my house around 5:30.  So my alarm went off at 5.  I get to school this early because I use the time before the kids show up to make the copies I need, make sure my room is ready and that I'm in the proper frame of mind for homeroom and the day.

This year, at the encouragement of @VeganMathBeagle, I've been doing T25 in the mornings.  This means that my alarm has been going off at the unholy hour of 4:30.  Those 30 minutes make a HUGE difference.

Today, however, since my homeroom students were going to be testing, the only prep I had to do in the morning was to get the room ready.  I was able to sleep in until 5!

Knowing that I won't be home until close to 10 tonight made those 30 minutes oh so sweet.


As my students completed their tests, they went onto the game site that isn't blocked by our firewall, Cool Math.

For the most part, students play 3 specific games.  Up until this morning, it annoyed me that they were playing these games.  This morning, I started watching them.  I realized that they were performing complex mathematical analyses without realizing it!  So, here are the games:


Run 2
This is a game where the characters (surprisingly) run.  They move through levels of ever increasing difficulty.  Why is this different from (and significantly superior to) Temple Run?

As the level progress, the characters have to start moving in 3 dimensions.  They have to jump over, under and around the environment as it progresses towards them.

Then it gets even better!

A few levels in, the player is given the ability to rotate the environment around the character!  Players are forced to make instant decision of rotation to ensure that a surface will be under the character when they land!
Students don't have any idea how much mental effort it takes to rotate objects in their minds before they do so in reality!  In my opinion, this is a solid math game to help develop spacial reasoning.



B-Cubed
This is a strategic puzzle game where the player moves a cube around a floating platform.  As they move off of a space, that space falls away from the board pretending the player from moving backward.  The goal is to remove all of the spaces and make it to the exit as quickly as possible.

As the player progresses through the levels, new obstacles are added, including blocks that create or destroy bridges, or blocks that have to be hit several times before they fall away.

This is very similar to another game that my students like called Bloxorz where a player has to move a 1x1x2 column around a platform to get it to slide into a 1x1 slot.  In this version, players are not timed, but the number of moves taken is counted.

Both of these games do a great job of helping students to think about planning both ahead and backwards, knowing where they need to end up and how to get there in the most efficient fashion. 

Planning and strategy are also highly valued in the last game

Ninja Painter 2

Players take on the role of a ninja in charge of painting a dojo.  This ninja, however, can only move in straight lines until he/she hits an obstacle.  There are colored pots around the board and specific colors that have to be placed in certain spots.  The player must run over the proper color before the space will accept it.
This game, along with B-Cubed, does a great job with helping students to view unintended consequences. "Oh man! I needed that spot there!" or "Oops! The ninja ran too far."


I think we spend a ton of time as teachers forgetting that play is a form a learning.  Free play has value, as does directed play.

To underscore this point, our music teacher, who I consider one of the best teachers in the district, uses Guitar Hero as one the stations in his classroom.  When people (adults) give him complain that he's just having the students play a stupid video game, his response is to invite them to sit and play the drums.

They usually can't.

A greater teacher than myself could probably come up with a way to get students to some metacognition while they play.  I would love to have some sort of assignment where they could play some of these games and then do a write-up about the math involved and their strategies.

I'm just not sure how to do it without A) ruining the game for the them, or B) having the assignment be "Do a write-up of the math involved in this game the strategies that you used!"



I think a fantastic test of SMP1 would be "What is the highest level you can reach on Bloxorz?"

Perhaps the assignment for this game play would be to have students record which game they are playing and what levels they have beaten.


What I found interesting was that the students who chose puzzle games like the ones described above seemed to do better on the test today than those who chose games that required no thought, but merely reflex.

I know that correlation doesn't imply causality, but I found it interesting.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day 20: Fractional Bellyflop

After several days of working with fractions and rectangles, I knew my students needed more practice, but I didn't want to just give them a worksheet.  We are constantly being told, and I agree, that the best way to learn is to do.  So I had an idea to get them to "do."

Last year, I discovered the name of this type of puzzle:

The beauty is that there are no edges and every piece you place MAY be right, but it may mess up others and you won't know until the end.  It can be infuriating, but it's also GREAT for practicing calculation.

This type of puzzle is known as a Tarsia Puzzle and dozens of teachers have written about using them in class.  When I used them last year, I created one, cut the pieces out and had my students assemble them.  My idea this year was to have the students do it!

Here was the thought:

"Your group will create 8 fraction problems with addition and subtraction.  You will also come up with plausible, but incorrect answers.  You will then put the right answers across from the problems on this diamond sheet that I borrowed from Kathryn, with the wrong answers along the outside.  Then you'll cut them out and pass them to another group to solve."

What a cool idea! Get the kids practicing problems and solving puzzles!

And then, instead of a beautiful and graceful swan dive, this activity not only landed on its ample, patchy-haired belly, but actually missed the water entirely, hitting with a sickening splat on the concrete about halfway between the lifeguard chair and the concession stand with other pool patrons hiding their children's eyes and calling not for an ambulance, but rather a coroner and a clean-up crew.

Of the 7 groups in my period 1, only one did what I asked of them.  The other 6 stared off into space or went back to talking about their weekends.  My frustration and irritation mounting, I went to the different groups to tell them to get to work.  It quickly became apparent that, despite what I thought was success on Friday, the majority of the students had no idea what to do and, if they were trying the activity at all, were doing it completely wrong.

I spent some time going between the groups, trying to push them in the right direction, offering encouragement and guidance.  As soon as I moved to another group, the vacant stares returned, making me think that many of my students were the counterpoint to the Weeping Angels, in that they only moved when someone was staring directly at them.
Don't blink. Don't even blink. Blink and they stop working.

It became clear that I needed to do some sort of intervention.  I pulled the class attention back to me and we went over a problem on the board, not only the problem itself, but how we are using the rectangles to solve them.  I offered no information, but instead had my students tell me what to do next.  I had them give me the steps that we took, which I wrote down on the board as they told me.

I handed out a notebook to every student who didn't have one so that they could write down the information.  Even if they weren't going to DO it, writing it would solidify the concepts better than just listening to me or their peers.

I asked several students to come to the board to demonstrate, but they refused.  I hate when I'm the one doing all of the work in class partially because I'm lazy, but mostly because I know how much more they will learn when THEY do it.

We have trained them for so long that doing something incorrectly is such a terrible thing that it's better for them to not even try.
The J stands for "Jay"

I will continue to encourage and praise effort, regardless of the results.  I will continue to try to make my class a safe place to fail.  I will continue to have faith that this is a goal that can be accomplished.

But man is it frustrating...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Day 19: Gallery Walk

The pre-algebra class did a few more examples of adding and subtracting fractions using rectangles and then I unleashed them to work independently, or in groups as they saw fit.  I had written 5 fraction expressions on whiteboards around the room and gave each kid a half sheet of graph paper.  The task was to pick a problem, solve it showing all their work, then get it checked out.  If it was good, they were to tape their problem up on the board and get another sheet for another problem.  As I did yesterday, I sat at a desk and helped any students who came over.


The main issue that I saw was, when adding 1/3 and 1/4, why we would use a rectangle that was 3x4.

Me: "We use that so we can cut one direction evenly into 4ths and the other evenly into 3rds."
S: "...so this rectangle should be 1 by 3?"

It was quite clear that I'm not as good at explaining things as I had hoped.  In any event, I believe in the efficacy of this method and will continue having them practice it.




At lunch, our building behavior coach approached me about one of my students.  This young man has a history of discipline problems in the school.  When security goes around in the morning to collect kids to speak to the vice principal about behavior of the previous day, this kid is always snatched up.

For me, he excels! He works hard, he's polite, he asks good questions.  He plays around on his phone and he talks to people around him, but he does what I ask and he does it relatively well.  Once he leaves my class, however, his day goes downhill.

So I went to see him in In-School Suspension.

I knelt down by his desk and asked what he was doing.  He started telling me about other kids and I stopped him.  We talked about how he does so well for me and how proud I am of the stuff that happens in my class.  He's doing what he needs to do and doesn't let other stuff get in his way, so why does he when he leaves my room?



I may also be breaking through to some of the geometry students in terms of their priorities.  Their options today were to continue working in their notes, work on their recycles (revisions of last weeks test), start the chapter assessment that's due on Monday, or work on the mobile problems.  I told them from the beginning that the mobile problems were not for credit, but were a transition to the next chapter on logic and reasoning.

Several students, upon being reminded that they weren't getting points for the puzzles complained that they did them for nothing!

"Not for nothing. You did them to help hone your skills of logic and reasoning.  Those are infinitely more important than 'points.'"


I've been concerned that period 8 hasn't been grasping the concepts that I've been trying to teach and, as a result, have been acting up more and more.  Today, during our gallery walk activity, I was able to move between groups, helping them to work on the rectangles and discovered something interesting.

The class is having a little bit of difficulty, but the majority of the issues are stemming from a very small group who, when they have difficulty, throw things at everyone else and generally make the classroom as unproductive as possible.  I need a solution.

They are already separated around the room, but that means they just end up yelling louder and further.  I think I'll be rearranging seats this weekend and will put that group all together on one side of the room.

Overall, I'm still struggling with the same issues that I have in past years.  When I am sitting with, or talking to, a group of students, they are on the ball and doing great work.  As soon as I move away to work with another group, they stop working and start distracting others.  I feel as though I am constantly putting out fires and running back to stop kids from lighting more.


I'm glad it's the weekend.  I have many phone calls to make to try to get some kids back on track and still more to praise kids for their hard work.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Day 18: Rectangle? Damn Near KILLTANGLE!

After how well the rectangle talk went with the pair of students yesterday, I decided to scale it up to the class.  My students (and every student I have ever encountered) have tremendous difficulty understanding the concept of fractions and the work of manipulating them.  Last year, I was introduced to the work that Fawn does with rectangles and I embraced it whole-heartedly.

I continued our discussion from yesterday in talking about equivalent fractions:


My plan was to spend the first of the double period talking about the physical realities of fractions in terms of rectangles and pizza.  My favorite way to start any discussion of fractions is with the following scenario:

"We had a party this weekend and it was awesome! We ordered some pizzas from a few different places.  At this party, Ki-Shawn eats 3 slices of pizza and William eats 2 slices.  Who ate more pizza?"

It seems like a simple question, but I keep the discussion going until a students points out that they might be different sized slices, so just knowing the number of slices isn't enough for us to tell who ate more.

So I lay out some more information. We ordered 2 large pizzas, but they came from two different places.  One place cuts their pizza into 8 slices while the other cuts theirs into 12.



The students can see that they ate the same amount of pizza even though they ate a different number of slices.  This leads into equivalent fractions and how, if we want to talk about slices of things, we need to those slices to be the same size.

Today, a student suggested that we slice the pizza slices up smaller so they are all the same size.

Me: "What do you mean?"
S: "We could cut the bigger slices into 3 and the smaller slices into 2 each. Then they'd be the same size."

AMAZING!  This let us go right through to where I wanted to be!  We did several examples of this process.  I was hoping they would catch it sooner so we could do some activity on the vertical non-permanent surfaces, but they were highly engaged and asking good questions for clarification.

8th period decided to spend some time looking up answers to our #Estimation180 warm-ups so 9 kids knew exactly what the answers were.  I gave a long rambling talk about having multiple lottery winners from the same town and how that indicates cheating.  When I was tired of being yelled over, I handed out a worksheet and told them I would be sitting at a back table working with anyone who wanted help.  Several students flocked over and anyone who came to ask a question was invited to sit and join us.

By the end of the period I had almost a dozen students sitting around me with graph paper and white boards working on adding and subtracting fractions.
I'm pleased with the lesson and will continue it tomorrow.  My fraction questions are up on whiteboards around the room.  The plan is to have them do the work and then go hang their answers, creating a gallery walk.

I think it should be a good time!

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