Getting Around

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Exponents Padlet

We're starting a short unit on exponents. We encourage the students to use Khan Academy and other online resources to learn and practice whenever they can, but kids have trouble finding the right things to look at online. Now I've created a Padlet wall that has the KA links to the exponent topics we're studying this year. I wish I was better at making things look nice, but at least it's all in one place.

I've used LiveBinders to organize links before, but my lack of decorating ability made it super ugly. I'm hoping this Padlet business is at least a little nicer to look at. I've also tried linking from my website (no one looked but other teachers or if I made kids do it in class) and from various places in My Big Campus. MBC has been a huge disappointment to me both last year and this, so I'm abandoning it for now.

Friday, September 20, 2013

An Open Letter to the Trapezoid Kid

Dear 7th Grader With a Love of the Trapezoid Formula,

I love your work. Your mathematical mischief brings me joy each time you use the "wrong" shape formula to get the correct answer.

Oh, did you think I wouldn't get the joke?  Even if I didn't, the smiley faces and exclamation marks would have tipped me off. I keep looking at your papers to take the edge of grading all the other ones.

Yes, I am aware that the trapezoid formula can be used in a variety of situations to find shape area if you know what you're doing. That's why I love your work so much. It shows me that you have a deeper understanding of what you're doing than the average plug-and-chugger. Even if it didn't, the elaborate shape schematics would have told me so.

So now: How would you like to be challenged? Is it time to show you how to PROVE that what you're doing is mathematically legal? Do you just want to do some more complicated arithmetic tricks? Or are you interested in learning something completely different? You aren't quite ready to be moved into a more advanced math class, but I don't want you bored.

And how do I let you do that without making the rest of the class feel like a bunch of losers?

And one more thing, though I hate to even bring it up. Please save your playful spirit for class. Don't share it on the standardized test later in the year. I'm not sure a tired, underpaid, overworked test grader will view your cleverness in the same light I do. I can't believe I'm even worrying about this, but I don't want anyone, anywhere, to crush your spirit.

Off to make some composite shapes with hidden trapezoids, just for you...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Naked Classroom - HELP!

Hard to believe, but I'm two weeks away from the beginning of my school year.  I should be able to get back in the building sometime this week, so I've been thinking about my room.  I didn't get my room until after the school year started last year, so it spent most of the year being undecorated except with student work.  I am very, very bad at decorating, as anyone who has been to my house can attest.

I need help!

Here are some pictures of my classroom.  What would you do with it?  The only true restrictions are that the lab tables cannot be moved and my desk can only be rotated but not moved away from its area.  Oh, and nothing highly flammable near the lab tables, since I do teach science for part of the day.  Both bookcases can be moved, but I don't think the glass case by the cabinets can.

View from the back of the room. The cork board hangs behind where I sit when the students aren't there (who has time to sit when they ARE there?):

View of the entry.  The screen on that wall is unused, but it's unclear at this point if I'll be allowed to have it taken down:

View of the way back:

The wall of cabinets, mostly filled with previous teachers' stuff: 

The big, blank wall.  The eye wash station messes the spaciousness of it up a bit and the TV in the corner hasn't worked in years. I had been keeping turn-in folders and supplies on a desk along the wall so people weren't always walking over to the bookcase by my desk, but I'm not married to that:


I had been thinking I might get some cheap Asian-inspired screens to put between the two parts of the room to make it feel cozier when we're only in the front part, but I'm not sure if that's making more work for myself.

I am not into foofy decorations.  I like stuff to be useful or to show evidence of learning.  I'm hoping to use a lot of anchor charts this year since I scored a sticky easel pad from a friend over the summer (only ELA teachers get them at my school).

I had a wish that someone would make me a flannel coordinate plane that I could use like a giant feltboard on the large wall, but I haven't convinced anyone that I need it badly enough.

HELP!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Do You Know That?

In math and science we try to get kids to use evidence to explain their thinking. We'll ask how they know something, what evidence they have to support their assertion, or we might provide a sentence starter of some kind. We seek to make this a habit, and now I have evidence that, for some people, it really is a habit.

I had the pleasure of taking a car trip with two friends who also happen to be professional astronomers. As we were discussing how the gravel road we were traveling on in a backwoods area was no longer going to be maintained by the county, I mentioned that the mapping software I used to make an alternate route to our destination suggested that a different road than the one we were on was a better choice for our trip anyway. But the map had no indication of what type of roads the other route used.

Have you ever traveled a gravel road for any length of time? Your brain starts vibrating after awhile. We were at that point.

Both of my friends were relatively new to the area, so I was surprised when the husband remarked that all the roads off the main road were gravel, so he couldn't see how a route that goes farther away from our destination and then returns could take less time. I was quietly wondering how someone new to the area knew this, since there's no reason to travel on this gravel road except to go to our destination, to which he had only been once before. But, since he's a smart guy and he was doing the driving, I kept that slightly challenging thought to myself.

And then his wife quietly asked, "How do you know that?"*

Aha! This particular habit of mind appears even in her personal life!

The question is, how to we make this a habit for our students? I have no answers, but now I know it's possible and I have a real-world observation with which to support my assertion.

* For those who are curious, it turns out that my friend is also an avid cyclist. Biking down the main road, he was frustrated to find that every turn was onto a gravel road. While we cannot assume that some of those roads don't turn into paved roads further in the forest, it does seem unlikely given what little is back there.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It's Clear Math Teachers are Feeling Rested When...

they start blogging again.  Either that, or they all went to Twitter Math Camp and this is their homework.  Amazing how many posts have gone up in the last week or so.  It's nice to hear all the voices again.

I love it.  My mentor and I have already started setting out our plan for the next year.  It's so refreshing to work with someone who doesn't love a pacing guide.  We've got a mathematical theme (everything's going to be related to basic geometry), a progression that makes some sense, and a plan to try to create a mathematical community that spans across classrooms.  It feels good.

I go back to school in less than a month.  I realize some of you are still working off the end of your years, and I'm a little jealous.  But I'm also excited to be planning!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pro-Solution, Not Anti-Reform

I'm not sure what did it, but something sent me in a rage this morning about the anti-reform movement in education. Before you flame me, hear me out.

People who know me personally know that I don't care to teach to the test. I am a firm believer in teaching what I'm supposed to teach in the most engaging manner I can that respects each student's learning needs. I'm not a huge fan of the standardized tests we have now, and I have little faith that the new ones coming with CCSS will be any better.

I tell my students that complaints will get them nowhere. They need to be looking for solutions, no matter how frustrating that is. I am tired of all the complaining in the anti-reform movement. It's time to come up with student-centered solutions.

Putting my money where my mouth is, here's my stab. Just a place to get the conversation going.

Attitude

We need to give up on the "or" attitude. It's time to look for an "and" attitude. As in, "I know we need to allow children to construct their own meaning in their own time, AND I respect your need to make sure the children we send out in the world can actually read." We don't have to choose one, we need to find some moderation that helps children learn to function in this world.

Change is not always bad, people, and if we don't try we'll never know if there's a better way.

Standards

I have no problem with standards. In fact, they guide me in what students should learn. But we need to understand that writing MORE standards does not make them "rigorous."  It just makes them impossible. My own state has math standards a mile wide and an inch deep. Our state politicians are reconsidering the CCSS because our standards are more "rigorous." But numerous does not equal rigorous on the ground. What those politicians don't understand is that students cannot possibly learn all the standards in any given year because there are too many and they're too unconnected. Note that I didn't say I couldn't cover them. I can. But most of my students are not able to move that quickly. So whether I cover them or our district decides which ones are most important so I have some focus, my students are not learning them all. For me, CCSS is a step in a more sane direction. Not perfect, but an attempt to move toward better. They are better sequenced and deeper than our state standards, which aren't really that bad, just too many.

Testing

I respect the need of the people who send money to my school district to know that their money is producing an educated citizenry. So, I offer a few changes to testing:

Have teachers write the tests. 

That sounds crazy, but I'd be happy to contribute to a bank of questions based on the standards that some fancy-pants, highly-paid non-educator can then turn into tests. It means less centralized control but more input from the people who are actually teaching the stuff that's tested. We have the technology, we can build this. Heck, I used to write systems to do this kind of collaborate work for businesses, and I'm no genius.

Don't evaluate everyone every year. 

We have a cutoff for passing. I say, have a cutoff for skipping. If you get above some certain score on your multiple choice test (which should be much higher than the passing cutoff), you can skip testing for a year or two. I need to focus on the kids who need remediation. I know who those kids are and it's fair to evaluate how much farther they need to go on a regular basis. Testing everyone all the time doesn't tell me that and wastes resources. While everyone else is testing, these top kids should be working on an interdisciplinary problem that will provide their teachers with the QUALITATIVE data that current standardized testing can't. Don't whine to me about logistics on this. Where there's a will, there's a way, and you know it.

Use some task-based testing. 

Yes, this is hard to design and evaluate in a standardized fashion, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt it. No one will EVER walk up to my students in the street, provide them with the dimensions of their garden, and ask how many tiles they should buy for the perimeter. But their grandmothers might ask for help with an actual garden and only an idea of what the end result should be. We can get all sorts of data from actual, real-world tasks (I am NOT talking about ridiculous, so-called, real-world word problems) beyond whether they've learned the standards that will help us help whole children learn.

Use tests in the manner for which they were designed. 

Standardized tests right now are not really designed to assess if teachers did a good job. I'd argue they also don't necessarily test whether students have mastered the standards, but that's a rant for another day. If we want to evaluate teachers based on tests that students take, someone smarter than I am will have to build a more appropriate test. I don't mind being evaluated by my students' performance, but I do mind being evaluated by an inappropriate tool for that job.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer PD

I'm sure everyone is planning or starting their summer PD.  Just for fun, here's my list:

1. PLC training.  This training is a local linkup of a training going on elsewhere.  Since I'm new to the district and I haven't had formal PLC training yet, I thought this would be good for me to do.  Several of my colleagues will be at this training with me, so I won't be alone.

2. Creative Computing Online Workshop.  This workshop is 6 weeks of creative computing activities run asynchronously with the organizers.  It is free, and I'm pretty sure you can join late even though it started yesterday.  They are using Scratch as the programming language, which is pretty easy to pick up.  I also like that I can do this on my own time, when I have time.

3. ARRL Teachers Institute on Wireless Technology.  This course covers several of our physics standards.  It's paid for by a grant, and while I will eat some of the cost because I have to travel more than halfway across the country, I think it will be fun and worth it.

In addition to all this, I need to finish my capstone project for my master's.  And clean the house.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Did you Differentiate?

Some reflections on the past few weeks:

Worksheet Hell Works For Some
After I threatened to make worksheets, we did them. Some of the kids preferred them! It turns out that my kids with behavioral issues preferred the security of knowing exactly what to do. Hmmmm. My other kids were miserable, but this class is about 2/3 difficult and it was nice to have a peaceful period, so help me (GUILT GUILT GUILT).

Differentiation Can Work For Short Bits of Time
We have double periods for a couple of weeks so that we can do the state standardized tests and so I decided we'd remediate and retest the last set of standards. The kids who mastered all the standards got out their iPads and began doing online practice for our next topic, integers, in the back of the room (I'm in a science room with lab space). I told them that they couldn't watch any videos because some kids would be testing and that they had to use trial and error to see if they could figure out the rules regarding integers.

The kids doing remediation (another packet) worked really hard. Most of them did well and I was able to spend a few minutes one on one with each kid as I went around the room.

The kids moving ahead did very well too. By the time everyone had finished their retakes I had two kids who had worked through absolute value, addition, subtraction, and had figured out that two negatives multiplied together make a positive. I did not work with this group at all other than to make sure their technology was working. When we debriefed at the end of the period a few of them were so fired up they planned on working on integers at home with friends.

Some Kids Aren't Ready For Freedom (This Makes Me Cry)
As the remediation kids finished their retests they got their iPads to begin work on integers. Here is where it started going south. These kids had trouble focusing on the task. Many of my kids who are behind in math are also my behavior challenges (I see you all nodding there). As soon as a enough of them got to the iPads I ran out of classroom space to keep them separated, which seems to be part of the key with them. I ended up making everyone move back to their desks as soon as the last retest was finished. I had to take one kid's iPad away for working on an unapproved website.

The Upshot
I am trying to figure out how to give my mature students more freedom to make choices and move ahead at their own pace. At the same time, my kids with behavioral challenges seem to thrive in more controlled and scripted environments. When I asked another teacher how to do this, she said, "When you figure it out, let me know!" Not really the response I was looking for.

Ideas?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Miss Nelson is Missing!

I came across this video of one of my favorite books when I was a kid, Miss Nelson is Missing!, by Harry G. Allard. It strikes a chord with me because in my math class right now I feel like Viola Swamp, who I imagine was a worksheet packet kind of teacher. I hope to turn back into Miss Nelson someday.  If you remember the book, you'll love this adaptation by a class of Kindergarteners.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Behaviorally Overly Ambitious

My morning math class has been struggling with behavior this year. For whatever reason, I get the kids who move into the district. They tend to be lower-skilled students, since a move into our school is often the latest in a long line of moves. Such moves disrupt their education. At some point, they learn that there aren't very many benefits to being a good student since all that work counts for nothing at their next school.

Disengaged kids become bored kids who tend to get into trouble.

It had gotten so bad it was almost impossible to teach. The last straw was the day class was interrupted 10 times in 46 minutes, mostly for students in my class being called to the office to be told they would be serving a working lunch because of all the assignments they had missing from my class...the one they were just pulled out of.  *sigh*

I had had enough.

So this week I rebooted the class on the advice of a colleague. We practiced walking into the class. We practiced raising our hands to talk*. We practiced working with a partner.

The rest of the week I had to have them walk into class multiple times. If they didn't get it in a way that supported the learning environment, we practiced it until they got it.  A few of my trouble makers were out frequently this week, so class time was mostly OK and I only had to remind them to raise their hands rather than do another lesson on hand raising.

Then yesterday I got bold. They had been working hard. I was tired of seat work/training. I decided that we would do some math practice with a relay race.

That was stupid. They weren't ready, behaviorally, for something that had them up and about. It got so loud before we even got through a trial run of the relay that I had to cancel the whole thing. I even had my mentor in the room to help me. Some kids got so angry with the kids who ruined it I was worried there might be a fight on the way out of class. I'm angry with myself for wasting so much valuable learning time.

I promised the students some nice worksheets for practice next week. This is not the kind of teacher I want to be. I hate worksheets. I EVEN MADE PACKET, so help me. I'll probably make up some challenge packets for the kids who are ready to move on, but they're still packets.

I have to remind myself to go in baby steps. As a group, we can only move as fast in terms of behavior as the least-skilled kid in the class.

I'm afraid the last 6 weeks of the school year are going to be dead boring for the students and for me. Blech.


*I prefer a more open, conversation-type feel to class and I don't usually enforce raised hands to talk. I hit my breaking point with these kids though, so I felt compelled to be strict about it. We'll see how long I can do it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Introducing Slope

line by geogebra
We are working on graphing right now and it's time to do slope. I hated, Hated, HATED slope when I was in middle school. Rise over run made no sense to me at all. I thought about how to approach slope this year for weeks.

Usually I start with a line that's got points on it, I do the whole rise over run business, and we plug away until we can do it without too many errors. Eventually I take away the pre-plotted points and they have to come up with those.

Since one of our standards is that students will be able to draw a line given two points or a point and a slope, I decided to start by drawing this time. Once we had a line with two points down I gave them one point and asked what I'd need to know to draw a particular line.

They thought about it. I love this. They really thought about it. At one point someone suggested that we needed to know how to get to the next point so we'd know what direction to go in. Brilliant! So I told them to go 2 up and 3 over (to the right, because right now we're always reading graphs left to right). I wrote 2/3 as a ratio with the words "up" and "over" next to the numbers. Then, on a new coordinate plane, I drew the same starting point but with different "clues" to the next point. And then another one. And another one. And then I let them tell me how to find the next point on the line.

This could have flopped in so many ways, particularly since this class has many behavioral issues. But it worked!

What I love is that THEY figured out that the top number is related to y somehow. THEY decided that we could skip the word "down" and slap a negative sign on there. THEY noticed that 3/2 gets you the same line as 6/4.

I only barely brought up the word slope toward the end of class. I briefly mentioned rise over run, but didn't dwell on it. Their whole assignment was to take points and slopes I gave them and graph them for practice. I plan to do more practice in class tomorrow before we start finding slopes on lines that have already been drawn. I'm thinking I might make it a treasure-map sort of activity, or one where one kid comes up with the slope from a line and passes it to another kid who has to draw the original line based on what the first kid gave them.

While I have no expectations that they will understand slope better than students who learned with me before, I really loved trying something new and having it work out so well. I wish class could be like that everyday!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Bombed the Test

We recently had a test over percents. It did not go well. I tried multiple ways of teaching and practicing over the unit to engage everyone. I really don't know what went wrong, but I spent a few hours this weekend coming up with a study guide and review packet. Because I was already behind some of the other teachers, kids will have to spend some time working on this on their own.

One of the other teachers had extremely good results from his classes. His teaching style is very different from mine, but it really seemed to work for his students this time around. I use his worksheets as homework frequently because they are effective, but since several parents have complained to me about not following along with the book (their kids lose the worksheets) I've tried to use the book whenever possible. Our book is common core and we haven't switched standards yet, so I can't pull much out of the book at times. I wonder if switching back and forth was part of the problem.

We also had part of the state standardized test toward the end of the unit, making those class periods very short. But it still gave me over two periods for review. I knew some of them weren't getting it, but I thought more of them were. Ugh. I've had a lot of very disruptive periods during this unit. I'm not sure there's a single factor I could point to, but I feel terrible for my students.

All I can do is try to do better next time.