Category Archives: engagement

Have a strong vision of your success. And… don’t let anyone get in your way

As we move into the winter vacation cycle, I am taking some time to visualize my ideal classroom situation. I want to create a detailed picture of what I’d like to see. If you can’t envision it, you won’t move towards it, right?

I’m not going to derail my own goals by coming up with ideas of why it won’t work, or why I can’t have certain things or do certain things. I’m pretty sure that there will be plenty of other people telling me to give up for one stupid reason or another. But, I won’t listen to them. I’ll keep moving towards the vision. I’m going to ask, “How can I make it work?” and “Where can I get funding?”

Here’s a bit of my personal history (or herstory)

When I was younger and in the Army, I was really unhappy. I felt like a victim in my life. In high school, I skipped class a lot. Really, a lot. So much so that my very wonderful counselor, Anne Scott, called me into her office to ask me what was going on. Of course, there were problems at home. And, of course, I told her nothing about that and said, “I’m bored and not feeling challenged.” Seeming to believe me, she sent me to the local community college for rest of my senior year. It changed my life. I loved college and I loved not going to school 6-7 hours per day. I transferred my units back to the high school so I could actually graduate.

However, I was not successful once I graduated from high school. I really didn’t have a plan or a vision for my life. I had always wanted to join the military because I really wanted to experience that. So, after a year of community college, I joined the Army.

While there, I was definitely challenged and I was never bored. What an amazing journey that was. It shaped me. What really stands out all these years later is one night, in Basic Training, I was talking with another soldier. Even though I was still feeling like a victim, with no control over my circumstances,  I was talking to someone else who seemed worse off than me. I told her, “You need to set a goal and then make sure you move towards that goal everyday. Eventually, you will get there.”

And, the weirdest thing happened…  I took my own advice.

My whole life changed.

When I got out of the Army, I went back to school. I didn’t turn into a straight A student over night. But, I had a goal that I set for myself. And, I kept improving. Eventually, two master’s degrees later, some publications and a resume with some high caliber companies and organizations on it, I found myself right back at the high school that I had been flunking out of. I’m teaching math. And, next year, I’ll teach AP Economics. I’m pretty excited about that. But, I digress.

My point is, you need to have a vision. And it needs to be something you feel good about and are excited about. Picture your successful classroom. Are kids working together? Foster that. Open up to finding resources that support you in in fulfilling that vision. Read Strength in Numbers. Open up to Twitter to surround yourself with other teachers who share your vision or at least elements of it. Start here if you want to get started… National Education Association

One of the best pieces of advice that I recently saw on Twitter was, ‘Stay away from negative teachers’ by Tom Loud (@loudlearning). Those are the ones who always tell you immediately why your idea won’t work. They say, ‘that won’t work because…’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those kinds of comments through the years. Well, maybe the timing was off, or maybe that was with a different admin team or maybe they just didn’t have a real vision. Maybe it just didn’t work right away. The point is, there are some negative people out there. Don’t let them derail you.

Think about the details of your classroom. Are kids allowed to use their phones? If not, how do you regulate that? If so, how do you regulate that? I  have gotten so many good ideas from my students. I have actually asked them  what they think about about using phones in class, and I have asked them what other teachers do. In doing that, I went to some of those other teachers to talk more about their ideas and strategies. So awesome.

When you have a vision, you open up your conversations. When you start to talk to others about what you are moving towards, they can help you. You will actually gravitate to growth oriented relationships and resources. There is so much good stuff out there. Don’t forget about Donors Choose for funding. I’ve had a couple of things funded through Donors Choose. There are a lot of companies with funds available for education. Find them. Apply.

We need to picture what we want. I am having one of the best years of teaching I’ve ever had. I have never seen such high grades or such a strong sense of community in the classroom. However, I want both of those things to be even stronger next year. I still have students who seem a bit checked out. I want to engage them. I want them to interact with other students. I have classes with freshmen through seniors in the room. I want them to break though the class barrier. I have to facilitate that. They won’t do it on their own.

Bottom line: Have a vision and move towards it everyday until you get there. That’s my advice and I’m taking it!

Another thing I’ll be thinking about over the break: I’m seriously considering a move to no big tests. At least, something that feels like no big tests. Why? Because they stress kids out. And kids seem really stressed these days. So, I’m open to hearing about low stakes testing, testing alternatives. Mini tests? Anybody else thinking about this? Is this possible? Maybe, and I’m planning to explore it.

I’m wondering if a ‘no big test’ situation would deepen students appreciation of math. Maybe they could just learn for learning’s sake. Because it’s interesting. One of the hurdles in our system is in having to issue grades. How do I do that without tests? Well, this is what I’m envisioning and moving towards. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please comment if you have ideas to share.

 

Recommended Motivational Reading: (all these links take you to Amazon, but these books are available in many places!)

Strength in Numbers on Amazon: Strength in Numbers (also available at NCTM website – discount for members!)

Jo Boaler: Mathematical Mindsets

Carol Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Do you think you may be dealing with negativity? Try reading this blog:at Get A Life – How to Stop Being Negative

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.

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.

alg-2-flipped-math-7-3

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. 🙂

My Classroom Culture Is Shifting

Well, it looks like the past six weeks of having students sit in groups and emphasizing that they work together is possibly paying off. Today, instead of hearing, “I have a question…” I heard “We have a question…”

That was beautiful to me. I had just rearranged the seating chart. At our school, we have moved into our second of three grading periods for the semester. These kids knew to work together with their new partners, and they were doing it. They knew I was pretty much only answering questions no one in the group could answer. They are learning to check in with the other students in the group before asking me for individual help.

I highly recommend this type of group seating and emphasis on student-to-student communication. It’s been so helpful to have students talking to each other about math. This should happen during warm-ups, work times, activities, and class discussions. To get them to start talking to each other, I sometimes ask why something works a certain way and ask them to discuss it with each other. Then, I might walk from group to group to check in with the group. Then I might summarize for the class what I learned from the groups.

Full disclosure: I used to be afraid to have them “Discuss at your tables…” because I was afraid they would talk about other things. And, that was often true because I was letting them sit with their friends. Better to mix them up. I first made a seating chart that was alphabetical. That was helpful to get to know their names and faces and to check off homework and take attendance quickly. Now that I know them better, I mix up the seating thinking about male/female, test scores, personalities, etc. I plan to change the seating every grading period. We have six throughout the year.

Groups are working better than two partners. I think it’s because students have more people to talk to who might know the answer. It’s important for me as the teacher to circulate to each group several times during the class period. I ask if the table has any questions. If there are questions, I ask if anyone at the table can answer. Then, if so, I’ll listen to that discussion and help if needed. Or, I’ll walk to the next group and repeat. I try to only answer what students can’t answer.

Students learn that I’m available and want to help, but can’t take the time to answer every single question from every single student. It’s like an economic situation where the teacher’s time is the scarce resource. Students are learning to make their questions be worthwhile to their group.

 

Last minute quiz inspiration

Yesterday, I suddenly decided on a new quiz format. I had been writing a quiz for my Honors Algebra 2 class and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t interesting or challenging. I really didn’t want to make a second version (my kids sit at tables), and was hoping for several days that some inspiration would hit. Our text has a set of alternate assessment questions, but they are a bit involved.

So, in the 5 minutes before class started, inspiration hit like a tons of bricks.

I let them use the alternate questions, and work in pairs. There are 6 students at a table group and we were covering two chapters. I gave them packets of the questions. There were about 7 questions for Chapter 1 and 6 questions for chapter 2. The guidelines were that they had to answer one question from each packet and couldn’t answer the same questions as the people at the table group. So, that’s a total of 6 questions for the table, three from each chapter, two for each pair of students.

To make it an actual quiz, they couldn’t use notes. They also couldn’t ask me questions. Actually, they could, but they would lose a point. Each question was worth 10 points, for 20 points total. Asking one question would still yield an A. But, no one asked any questions. The kids were engaged and worked steadily for about 35-40 minutes. Most finished, no problem.

I called time at 45 minutes. Some students hadn’t finished. I gave 5 more minutes. However, a couple of groups didn’t get to the second question or had just started it. Uh-oh.

So, as this is a group of motivated, grade-stressed students, I allowed them to come back at lunch or after school or during our tutorial time to finish. They appreciated it, so we were good.

The best part, was in the ask for feedback about the quiz format.

I gave them three prompts:

  • Partner quiz again? yes/no
  • This would have been better if…
  • This was good for…

They unanimously liked the partner quiz because they had another brain to work with. Asking for feedback is gold! Making myself vulnerable was scary. Here I had changed up the quiz in the last few minutes, kids didn’t finish, they were afraid to ask a question even when it would have gotten them to the finish.

Would I do it again? Yes! Overall, it was a positive practice for them and for me. In fact, I’m doing it again today with my other section of that class. I’m happily incorporating their feedback with what I observed to make the following changes for the next class and next partner quiz. Here’s my list:

They asked me to:

  1. Make more copies of the questions – it slowed them down to have to share.Yes. Done. Easy.
  2. Allow questions. Well, I’m thinking no on that, because I think they will ask me a million questions. So, modified practice: they can ask the question. If it’s a fair question, I will guide with no point deduction. If it’s a question about not understanding the content, then I will take a point if I answer. They can ask the question, then I will answer or respond with, “Yes, I’ll answer, but it will cost a point.” Then they can decide if they want the answer.
  3. Give more time. No, but I will advise students to read the entire question before choosing (most have multiple parts) and remind them that they can change the question if they get really stuck. Also, I will be more active in making sure everyone is employing strategies to finish on time.
  4. No one mentioned this in the feedback, but I didn’t give them a time frame before they started. I wasn’t sure how long it would take. When half the class was finished, I announced 10 more minutes. I should have circulated a bit to check on their progress at around 20 minutes to let students know they should start on their second question within 5 minutes, so they have time to finish.

Now, I just have to grade them. That’s nice too, because I only half the number of quizzes to grade. Another teacher benefit from the partner quiz.

Please comment below with questions or ideas or practices you have tried. If you want to know more about the course or text, send me an email.

 

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?

 

How 2 questions took 1 hour to solve

I was responding to a post by Dan Meyer about his awesome recent talk at NCTM. Here’s what I wrote in my comment:

I am working hard to keep engagement high. This week, we actually started with two blank triangles, one right and one obtuse. I asked kids to solve the triangle, and ask me questions. There were no measurements on the triangles. The triangles were to scale. They could ask me for one value.

From there, they had to measure another part of the triangle and let the solving begin. They could only measure one other part, no more. So, depending on what they chose, they would use different tools to solve the rest of the triangles. They used rulers or protractors, ratios, triangle sum rule, right triangle trigonometry and Laws of Sines/Cosines. They worked in groups to try to figure out what information they needed, they worked together to try different strategies. In the end, the only way they knew the answers were correct was by rationalizing whether or not they made sense.

We spent 1 hour on two problems. Engagement was high, completion rates were nearly 100%, participation was 100%. It was a really great day for me and I was able to coach them. They did the lifting. It was great. Great conversations.

So much of Dan’s work inspires mine. I love his 3-act-math ideas, though I don’t use them much. More so, I respond to the idea of opening up questions. I love the idea of putting out a skeleton and asking kids what they need. They actually answer, they actually engage in the problem and start to think and ask questions. Once they are invested like that, they don’t like to give up. Giving up has been like an epidemic in mid level high school math classes like geometry and Algebra 2.

Today’s geometry warm up looked like this:2016-04-22-13.44.41.jpg.jpg

We didn’t even get to the third problem. Yes, it was hand drawn. Like, free hand. That actually made the problem kind of interesting because I don’t really have a right triangle, do I? Just almost one. So, depending on what side or angle students measured (by the way I told them the base side of the triangles in both problems one and two was 15 units) the answers they got might be a bit different.

It was also a great talking point about how real life problems are rarely perfect and we rarely get to check the back of the book to see if we did it right. We have to trust our methods and our team.

Great conversations. Such a great day. It was hard for some of them to keep going to finish the second problem. They were a bit tapped out. We have block schedules, which means 90 minute periods. This took way longer than I expected. But, totally worth it. We’ll do the third problem next week. They actually asked for a book assignment when we were done. I guess their brains were tired. But, they did it! And, they did really well! Go team!

More about problem three in another post. Maybe.