Category Archives: attitude

Helping Students Deal with Test Anxiety

Sixteen students and one parent just left my classroom after I hosted a math test anxiety workshop. The purpose was to provide some knowledge and insight about how to recognize the cause of their anxiety and to manage it before, during, and after a test.

We discussed what test anxiety is, the causes and symptoms, and then some techniques to manage those symptoms. I used three resources for the workshop (links at end of blog post). Most of the following is primarily from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at this link. I used some prepared notes as we talked and had students write in causes and symptoms of anxiety, then reflect on what they were experiencing.

Here’s a play by play of the workshop:

Get ready:

First, set up the room with a seating arrangement where everyone can see each other. A circle is best, but tables pushed together to form a square works, too. Have some snacks out and ask student to pass them around and put away phones or homework.

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Provide a handout and let students have space to write down the  information and reflect on their own experiences. Here’s a test-anxiety-workshop-handout with the guided notes sheet I created and a printed article from teenshealth.org  available here. All of the links on the handout are listed at the bottom of this post (since you can’t click on the pdf links).

Encourage students to have a snack and pass the plate of mints (or other snack) around. This gets them to interact on a small (but fun) scale.

Intro: What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. Much like a gymnast who has practiced her routine, she will feel nervous the day of the competition. Also, like the first day of school when we, as teachers, meet our class for the first time. We’ve prepared our greeting, have our course information organized and then suddenly get nervous as we actually start to speak. Students feel this during presentations, during competitions, and during tests. A little bit of anxiety can be a good thing. But, when it interferes with your performance, it needs to be recognized, examined and addressed.

Causes:

  1. Prepared or not prepared? If you’ve prepared and feel you know the math, you’ve been successful on practice problems and you’ve completed the assignments, you’ve paid attention during class and understood the material, then you are very likely prepared for the test. However, you may not have done all those things and you may be feeling like you should have studied more. As students walk in the room, they are talking about things you are suddenly feeling unsure of. You may now be feeling unprepared for the test. This may be the source of your anxiety.
  2. Fear of failure and/or the consequences of failing. It’s possible that you have really high expectations of yourself or someone else has really high expectations of you, putting a great deal of pressure on you to perform well on the test. Maybe you think you must get an A or you will not get into that prestigious college. You don’t want to do your best, you want to do THE best.
  3. Prior bad experiences in math or on tests resulting in a negative attitude towards your performance, or the test, or school. These past bad experiences can be causing anxiety.

After discussing these causes, students were given some time to reflect on what was causing their anxiety. It could be from one, two or all of the above. We took about 5 minutes to share out. This share out allowed students to talk and hear what was causing stress for others. They could share their personal specific situations. After the share time, the mood in the room was more relaxed. People were talking to each other about what was bothering them and what they were worried about.

Symptoms:

  1. Physical: headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and feeling faint. It can even lead to panic attacks which can make a person think they are having a heart attack or can’t breathe. All of these physical symptoms detract from a person’s ability to focus on other things.
  2. Emotional: People can feel feelings of anger, fear, disappointment or helplessness. All of these feeling interfere with one’s ability to concentrate. They can be a consuming. It is hard to simplify a rational expression on a test if you are dealing with these feelings.
  3. Behavioral or Cognitive: Having negative thoughts or comparing yourself to others can cause anxiety. Your concentration is lowered when you are telling yourself that you aren’t as good as others.Are you telling yourself you’re bad at math? Or that you are not a good test taker? Those are negative thoughts and they cause anxiety if you are about to take a test.

Again, give students time to write down their symptoms and share out.

Tips and techniques to manage anxiety

Before the test: (and maybe during for some)

  1. Minimize the susceptibility to anxiety by taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Not just the night before the test, but regularly. Eat a healthy breakfast – eggs, oatmeal, something nourishing. Drink water. Get exercise and take time to yourself on a regular basis.
  2. Make sure you’ve actually prepared. Ask your teacher for guidance. Check resources at TeensHealth.org for ideas about study skills. Studying takes place early and often. Cramming rarely results in sustained strong performance.
  3. Keep a positive attitude and remember that this test is not a measure of your worth as a person. Do your best and keep expectations reasonable. When you expect A’s and A’s only, well, that’s putting the highest expectation on yourself that you can. Would you do that to a friend? Probably not.
  4. What would you tell a friend? Tell yourself the same thing. Use positive self-talk. Remember that great 3-pointer you shot, or think about how great your boots look, or how you wrote a great poem, or paper. Think of your favorite song or book. Think of a favorite character from a favorite book and imagine what they would say or do.
  5. Have a reward planned for after the test. Give yourself something positive to look forward to. A movie after school, ice cream with friends, etc.

During the test:

  1. If you notice anxiety setting in, work to balance it. For physical symptoms, take three deep, slow breaths. Then, relax your jaw. Actually let your mouth open a bit, making sure your teeth are not touching. Wait 5 seconds. Then relax your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades down your back and relax. Place both feet on the floor to relax your leg muscles. Jaw, shoulders, legs. Now relax your abdomen. Now your hands. Put the pencil down and rest your hands on the desk or your thighs. Take 3 deep, slow breaths.
  2. Then, tell yourself how great you are.
  3. Remember to read the directions and questions. Start with an easy problem. Scan the test before starting. Do the problems out of order. Where possible, check your answers. Always try something on every problem. Your idea is probably a great starting place.
  4. Focus on the test, not other students.
  5. Remember to look forward to your reward.

After the test, remember that you did your best. Enjoy your reward. For next time, if you need to study differently, ask your teacher for ideas. If you need more help with managing anxiety, ask the counselors for help, or check out the websites on the handout.

Give students time again to imagine which techniques they can see themselves using. Let them use some space to creat some positiev self-talk messages. Let them think of a possible reward for them selves. Ask them to share out.

Time’s up! Workshop over!

Resources: 

  1. ADAA: Test Anxiety
  2. TeensHealth.org : Test Anxiety Article
  3. Weber University: How to Overcome Math Anxiety

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!

The kids were a bit unruly today…

I take that unruliness as a challenge to work on a more engaging experience for them. Today I was teaching polynomial expression operations, which is, admittedly, one of the more nuts and bolts type of topics and not terribly exciting math. This blog post is about how to find ways to raise the engagement on some of the dryer topics that we cover.

And, what’s ‘dry’ to me means that I can’t readily think of great activities, applications, or problems that engage. 

To create a higher level of interest is to create a higher engagement level. This means less need for a disciplined atmosphere centered on direct instruction when the kids are just not in the mood. Which is often in my 5th period (after lunch) class.

The kids are energetic, they are social and they are comfortable enough that they interrupt, throw stuff and eat candy, throwing the wrappers on the floor, sometimes near the garbage can. God bless ’em. 🙂 I really do love these kids and I have fun with them. BUT, I do have a hard time getting through direct instruction for 20-30 minutes, so it drags out longer, which makes it even tougher for me and for them. Way too much!! Especially for the half of the class that is quietly waiting to get through a concept or problem.

Let me say, direct instruction has it’s place, but it’s not working well for me with this group. So, I need options. First stop: Desmos. What great activities already exist for us?

So many! Here’s a link to the classroom activities that come up when I search on Polynomial Functions: http://bit.ly/2drqtGd and a screen shot of the list. If you haven’t already, please set up a teacher account at Create Desmos Teacher Account and get inspired!

polynomial-function-activities-on-desmos

It think for polynomial function operations, though, I’m not really seeing anything that I could use. Bummer. Hmm… Let me think about a flipped approach.

What if I had thought sooner about this being a dryer topic and had planned in advance? I might have had student preview the material, using a YouTube video or checking out Flipped Math’s Algebra 2 topics. Ah, yes, there it is. Here’s a screen shot of the webpage with a video lesson and some links at the bottom, where kids can print the notes sheet or do an assignment. In the past I’ve printed the notes sheet ahead of time, made copies and distributed them during the previous class.

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At the site, you can click the Semester 2 tab, then click polynomial functions, there’s a lesson for operations. The site provides a student note page that students can print and fill out while they watch the video. This way, they have guided notes, they can go at their own pace, and they can ask questions when they get to class. In class, we can quickly summarize the key concepts and ask questions. They can do that in groups, or as a whole class.

Would this really help in terms of engagement? Well, hard to say, but at least I wouldn’t be trying to hold their attention so long when it’s just physically hard for them to stay tuned. They would get a very similar experience of direct instruction, just when they are not in a group with their friends after lunch on a warm day. So, I think it’s an improvement, but it’s not exactly innovative or exciting. 

Next, if I do the flipped math for instruction, what activity could I have this energetic group do during class? One option is some sort of matching activity. But, wouldn’t it be better to do a live matching activity where they are the variables? Like, everyone gets to be a cubed-x or a squared-x or a single-x or a constant term? Then, I could write problems on the board and they could group themselves as the equation and solution, and maybe make a video, and maybe put it on YouTube and maybe I could tweet it and blog about it. 🙂 Wow, I’m gonna do that next time.

Another option is to create some open questions. Ways to do this include using some closed questions, like most of the text book questions and simply withholding some of the information and/or instructions, then ask students what are we going to try to solve and what information do you need?

If only I had thought ahead. Well, for me, next time as I look ahead in my planning, I’m going to be a bit more proactive for the sake of this particular class.

Direct instruction + Dry topic = Headache by the end of the block. Never again. 🙂

Teaching Through Grief and Cancer

Teaching math is always a tough job. Kids often need more from you than you can give. The bell rings and kids are still not understanding the material.

Throw in some personal problems for the teacher. My dad died about six weeks ago. I got a cancer diagnosis about five months ago, that I basically ignored, because my dad was really sick, on chemo, and shrinking. So, I didn’t want to be laid up or worrying anybody with my own cancer.

Granted, my cancer wasn’t that big of a deal on the surface. That’s kind of funny because it was skin cancer. Get it … surface? Ha ha. It was just basal cell carcinoma. On my face, my nose. So, I’ll be going to school with an obvious wound. However, it was my third cancer. The others were a bit more serious. So, I’m a bit upset about it. I’m only forty-eight. Okay, truthfully, I’ll be forty-nine this month.

So, today was my surgery. It went really well. Mohs surgery. I only needed one round. That’s rare. Most people need two or more. So, I’m feeling pretty good.

But, my students have suffered. My daughter is having to deal with a pretty solid amount of turmoil, grief and upset feelings during her last semester of high school. She and I are at the same school. So, she may need to field questions about my stitches and bandages on my face. I’m worried about all of this and I’m still grieving.

So, how are my students doing? Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t been there much. I’ve been out of the classroom a lot this semester because I also served on a hiring committee (two days) proctored the SBAC (one day) and serve on a countywide committee for Algebra 2 alignment (two days).  My daughter went to State championship for wrestling (two days) my surgery was today and I’m taking tomorrow (2 days) plus out for bereavement (three days).

So, my plans for my classes are all blown to shit.

And, even when I have been there, I’ve been less than I’d like to be. Even though I do forget about my troubles when I’m at school. I love teaching. I have good relationships with my students. But, they need more than that from me.

So, this blog outlines my problems and hopefully sets the stage for my next blog, which is going to be about how my students are doing in light of it all. And, about how I’m planning to compensate for it in the last month of school.

Many of us have dealt with or will deal with these kinds of serious issues while teaching. If you have, post a response below. How did you handle it? What do you wish you had done differently? What would you keep the same? What advice would you give a teacher going through these types of things?

 

Attitude Matters, Everyday…

Attitude – sometimes mine’s not as good as I’d like it to be. What’s my attitude towards my students, towards teaching math, towards my colleagues, my administration, etc? My attitude may change throughout my day, week, year, and over the life of my teaching career. Or, maybe I just lose touch with why I got into teaching and why I decided to teach math, thanks to all the hurdles that seem to toss themselves in front of you.

I actually really like my students and I think my job, teaching math, is really important. But, things get in the way sometimes and my attitude can suffer.

Luckily, attitude isn’t a fixed frame of mind. It’s a changing and evolving beast and while it can get bent out of shape by other things, such as fatigue, illness, tough teaching assignments, difficult colleagues, etc. it can also be straightened back out. We really have control over our attitude. I’ve decided to focus on it for the rest of the month, and see what happens. For a better breakdown of the impact of life’s events on our attitudes, check out this article by Micheal Graham Richard, Growth vs. Fixed Mindset. It asks which one are you, but my theory is that will very likely evolve and shift.

Staying in touch with your good attitude towards your students and teaching is probably the most important thing to do everyday. In fact, I’ll argue the most important thing to prepare each day, before lessons and tests, homework, etc., is our attitude about our students. It will define our approach to problems that arise during the day. It will allow for open mindedness and acceptance when our lesson doesn’t go as planned (especially when it is way below expectations).

My plan is to think of my students as the multi-faceted creatures that they are. They have interests and math may or may not be one of them. My goal is to try to inspire students to enjoy math, feel challenged, but not overwhelmed. Sometimes, this attitude really drives the activities and sometimes I lose touch and get caught up in the ‘listen, take notes, here’s your 20-25 problem homework assignment.’ this is usually when I get concerned about how much I’m supposed to teach them in a year and how little time I feel that I have to do it. I also realize that there’s nothing wrong with notes, lecture and lots of problems. However, that can be a drag for a lot of kids, so I don’t do it everyday, and when I do I try to give lots of class time to work the problems together. Even better, I love it when I can engage them in open questions. I think that’s one of the best times I have with them.

For the rest of March, I’m challenging myself to adjust and refocus my attitude each day, before the kids arrive, and to have some good open questions ready. My hope is, by giving attention to my attitude and this one teaching tool for the next few weeks, these two things will become second nature. I’m hoping my attitude will not only be positive, but will evolve and become better as I open up to outcomes with my students. And, as I open up my questioning. I’m hoping to open my mind enough that I transform my classroom and kids experience for the better.

I think our attitudes are really important and I know I don’t give mine enough attention. I want that to change. I think attitude may be like a muscle and for it to be strong, it needs attention and proper feeding. Otherwise, it feels like I’m sometimes being swayed by the event in front of me, or the person in front of me. I want my attitude to be really strong and drive my response to that event, or that person. Teaching math isn’t easy. So, I need to tend to my thoughts, my views, my attitude towards my students, towards teaching, towards my school, my colleagues, etc.