Monthly Archives: November 2016

Teaching about Habits for Studying Math

This year, one of my focus areas is helping kids learn how to study math. It seems that Algebra 2 is a tough year for a lot of students. Students are combining so much of what they’ve learned – geometry, fractions, factoring, solving, graphing – and applying it to learning new and more complicated functions: polynomials of higher degree, rational functions, exponential functions, piece-wise functions, step functions, etc. The list is long!

I’m trying to teach habits that have worked for other students, using students who are successful as a model. However, a lot of the habits of successful students are those that are picked up from and reinforced by parents, teachers and friends. They are habits that they may even enjoy or at least find easy to do, and have likely been doing for years. They are the traditional obvious habits: go to class, take notes, practice in class, finish your homework, check your homework, make corrections, and find the answers to your questions. Finding the answers to your questions is important. You can check the book, online, ask a friend or the teacher during the next class.

What about some not so obvious habits? Maybe these traditional study habits are based on traditional learning styles that work well for traditional teaching environments. What about kids who’ve tried these, but need more? Well, this blog is meant to give some other ideas to try.

Here are some things to try:

  • Sometimes, just reading the question or concepts out loud helps. That’s a technique that’s not always taught. Sometimes, we just didn’t read the question and so we get the wrong answer and can’t figure out why.
  • Here’s a really helpful one that is often not used: look at the material before you come to class. The teacher will hopefully be following some sort of shared schedule and you can look at the topic ahead of time. That way, when you get to class, you have an idea about the topic and you are actually now hearing about it for the second time. This is a good idea as there are sometimes distractions during class and we don’t always have full focus every minute. This is a really helpful habit to use in college.
  • Make vocabulary flashcards.
  • Make a cheat sheet even if the teacher doesn’t let you use it.
  • Read the chapter review section and the practice test problems (back of the chapter) before the end of the unit. Look every week, not just at the end right before the test.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat well.
  • Exercise.
  • Be realistic – it may not happen for you just by wishing. Do you need to put your phone in another room while you study? Are you really concentrating? Have you been avoiding thinking about math and avoiding spending time on it? Do you think you can study right before the test and do well?
  • Are you telling yourself positive things or negative things? Tell yourself you can learn, and you can succeed and do well. It takes work, and you can do it. If other people can do it, so can you!

I provide my Algebra II students with a list of habits – some traditional, some of the above – as well as a schedule. I keep getting better at presenting this. Every grading period (we have 3 per semester) I make a new one and each one is better than the first. The first time, I just put the space for them to write the topic, then I included the topics, then I included the topics and the dates. Prior to that, I had a separate calendar sheet, assignment tracker and habits checklist. Now, it’s combined. Attached is the most recent: r3-assignment-tracking-and-self-checks   The second page is the habits/topic schedule and checklist.

I really need to reinforce it, too. I want to spend more time reminding them to check the list.

What do you do that works well? Let me know!

My first #ObserveMe went poorly

Well, I was really looking forward to being observed using the #ObserveMe rubric from Robert Kaplinsky. I’ve really been consciously aware of elements from the rubric and want to make sure that in every class I am allowing time for students to work together, to ask questions, use diagrams and discuss strategies. I want them to do partner work, individual work, and participate in full class discussions.

Today, I had a colleague scheduled to visit me and do an observation for 30 minutes. I was trying to accomplish two things today:

  • Connect intercepts of a graph of polynomial functions to the factored form of the equation
  • Teach how to factor after creating a desire to use factored form

I’ve noticed that most of my students struggle with factoring. This year it seems to be that more students struggle with it than in the past. So, I don’t think they struggle, really, I think they just haven’t practiced it enough. Maybe it’s just not as emphasized as it used to be. No problem. But, for polynomial functions, factored form is pretty nice.

I’ve seen that most of my students can factor using GCF really well and they can factor quadratics really well when a is 1 and some do well when a is something other than one. They are good with the box method and the diamond method. Some are using the box method to factor higher order polynomials too (third degree, mostly). But, most struggle if they are used to the diamond method and a isn’t 1. Many also have a hard time recognizing a difference of two squares. So, lots to review and lots to learn.

Because we just finished a grading period last Friday, I spent much of the weekend grading and planning. I had some trouble finding what I was looking for for today’s actual focus. Polynomials: graphing, factored form, factoring. There’s actually a lot out there, but I can be picky and I didn’t want to create my own. I ended up purchasing a bundle on Teachers Pay Teachers. There was a good assortment of problems, note templates and it was well organized, covering all of the concepts and factoring that I was looking for.

Anyhow, for the observation, I had thought to focus our class discussion and activities on multiple representations of polynomials – equations, tables and graphs. Then, with the help of Desmos, students worked together to complete an assortment of questions. Some were lower level fill in the blank, others were more big picture, “How do you know when you are done factoring?” I’m still thinking about that. I can’t wait to see what they say.

Well, in the last 30 minutes of our 90 minute class, it was time to focus on factoring rules and patterns. Using what I thought was a pretty nice set of sample problems and a nice set of practice problems, I projected my note sheet so that we could all go through the problems together. But, suddenly it’s was 9:05. I had 5 factoring concepts to get through in 25 minutes. So, I pretty much grabbed the reigns, led/dominated the conversation and worked through the examples (too quickly), with students mostly following my lead.

First set: Factoring with GCF, difference of two squares, then together. Ideally, those were review, right? So, going quickly through those is okay, right? (No, Laurie, not right. The whole reason I was doing it was because there some people who needed to learn/relearn that.)

Next: Hurry, gotta get to the sum and difference of cubes!

We got there, and I really just told them the rule, did a couple of sample problems (which weren’t super easy) and gave them the assignment. I didn’t get to the fifth concept, so cut the assignment short. No problem, we can go over that next time. Class ends…

Observation wise, my colleague was there for the last 30 minutes – the transition, then the ‘I lead, you follow’ method of instruction. Not my finest. She gave me all zeros.

Well, as much as it hurt my pride, it was really good feedback. I’m glad that I know I don’t usually teach like that. And, my students are actually doing really well this year. Things are generally really good. That is not meant to be a deflection or me trying to give myself a pass. I took that feedback to heart and immediately tried to find better ways to teach it.

To be honest, on some of the nuts and bolts stuff, I default to direct instruction. I would have been complacent about that and never changed had it not been for that rubric. I never expected to be an all zeros teacher. I know part of the problem was getting stressed about the time. Usually, I don’t care about that. But, overall, I feel like I am behind schedule, so I was feeling pressured to get that factoring happening.

As I’ve had the day to think about it, the direct instruction was okay, the notes and practice problems were all fine. It was the way I organized the discussion that left no room for student input, problem solving, strategy analysis, practice or interactions with each other, much less with me.

I might have run my next class the same as the first had it not been for that feedback. Instead, I gave more time for the factoring, and had students suggest first steps. We tried various methods. I had students talk to each other and work on a problems together.

Time was a factor today, certainly. However, my conscious decision to organize the conversation around student input and interactions in my second class, allowed students to have more time to think and express their reasoning. More time to ask questions of each other and answer questions. Those processes lead to better retention and interest.

On the upside, I’m glad that I know where my students are with factoring and was taking steps to improve what they know and expand on it at the Algebra 2 level. I look forward to seeing my first class again in two days, to better address those concepts and get some meaningful conversations and practice happening. That’s one of the great things about teaching. You get to see them again and fix what you did wrong.

Thanks, Robert Kaplinsky for that rubric. Thanks, my dear Colleague, for your time and feedback.

Creating a culture of observation and sharing

I’m really interested in trying to perpetuate a culture of classroom observations with my colleagues at school. I think most of us value the opportunity to observe and be observed, but we are all soooooo busy!

Fortunately, we have had some funds become available for instructional coaching in our district. One of the ways this can manifest is through release time to observe other teachers. I’d be happy to do it during some of my prep time, but not everyone feels the same way or is able to do it during that time.

After some discussion with the coaches, and knowing we have two new teachers this year who would probably enthusiastically sign up for this, I’ve just sent the email, hoping to get back some positive responses. Oh wait… my email just dinged… YES my first yes, “I am interested.” Now, just a few more and we can get this going, right?

What could go wrong? Well, a lot if people aren’t on the same page about observing and reflecting and respecting the vulnerable position of the observed. For help with learning how to be observed and how to be a good observer, check out this Education World article.

I’m really excited about getting this going. I think it can really transform our teaching and our sense of collegiality and support. The main thing is that it’s really best for students when it’s done well.

I can’t wait to write about how it goes…

PS. Check out Robert Kaplinsky’s #Observe Me post