Category Archives: teaching methods

Unit 1 Planning: Get them engaged on Day One!

(8/21) I will have my first day with my Algebra 2 students on Thursday (8/24). Here I sit, thinking about what to start with. Last year, we learned how to write numbers in different bases. Kids enjoyed it and asked to do more with it. But, we didn’t have a lot of time for it and it did not show up on the first test. It’s not part of the Algebra 2 curriculum. However, I remember learning about different bases somewhere in my high school math classes. It’s disappeared from the curriculum. Or, maybe it’s reappearing somewhere else.

Having kids learn to write the number 25 in base 5  (looks like 100), 7 in base 7 (looks like 10), 12 in base 4 (looks like 30), really is interesting for them. Their little neurons start firing. They say things like “Whoa!” and “That’s so cool!”

We also spent time issuing texts, getting kids signed up on Remind , and doing getting to know you activities. We went over some expectations, etc. But, I knew I had won them over. Then I started teaching.

This year, I want to do that again. And get them on Desmos quickly – download the app, etc. Play Marbleslides: Lines, etc.

(8/23) I make a plan often based on all of the great ideas and inspiration I get from Twitter math teachers (#mtbos #iteachmath), Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer and many others. I recently read a great article about not grading students in the first month (or some time frame like that) and I thought, “Wow, what a great way to build culture and address equity issues.”

So, I’m thinking about that right now.

I feel that the most important things I can do as a teacher is invite students to be curious, let them know they are an important part of the class, and teach them mathematical concepts. After meeting with my excellent colleagues, I’ve come up the following plan:

We are going to see if those iPads work. If they do (fingers crossed) I want to get students to do a card sort activity, and hopefully play some marbleslides and then get into some vocab around linear functions and translations. We will get signed up on Remind and learn about a few classroom expectations. Seriously kids, no phones and limit your bathroom breaks.  Be nice. That’s really it. However, when working with teens, there is always a need to discuss these things, come to an agreement and then move forward. They will test these agreements. We will need community building. I look forward to that.

I’m really excited to get going. I’ll be working some great activities and mathematical ideas into my lessons. We’ll explore some history, look at different bases, play games on Desmos, be creative, and have another great year!

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.

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.

 

Tough grading moments….

One of the toughest things about grading is when the students with 79% or 89% ask/plead/argue for the B- or the A-. I do round an 89.5% or higher, to the 90%. I think that’s just doing proper rounding, as I like to teach in my classes, as opposed to truncating the grades. [Don’t know what truncating is? You can find out here] . But then, the 89.2% kid asks for the A-, too. I would be inclined if their test scores were in the A range, but they weren’t completing all the assignments, and so homework was dragging the grade down. But, if the test scores are in the B range, and homework completion is bringing the grade up to B+, I think that’s good enough.

I have several students who’ve missed a lot of school, or have ADHD and just don’t complete every assignment, or just never are there or aren’t organized enough to present the assignments for credit. If they have high test scores, I’m inclined to round their grades towards those test scores. However, high homework scores with lower test scores are not a compelling argument for me to round the grades higher, even though that’s the request I get a lot.

We just had final exams, another tough grading challenge. I think it’s normal for students to score about one grade lower on the final exam than their unit test scores. And, when that happens, I usually let them keep the grade they earned prior to the exam. An example would be a student who had a B in the course, earned a C on the final, bringing their grade to a B-. I would be inclined to let them keep the B. But, if they score low on the final (a D or an F), I do let the grade drop, but not by more that a half a grade. And, if that same student with the B earned a D on the final, they would end up with a B-. They see the B part and are still feeling content, I think. However, if a student had a B- to begin with, scored a D on the final, and ended up with a C+, they will see the C and possibly (probably) be upset about the outcome. The difference in the GPA would be the same (0.3 points) but, suddenly, the letter B to the letter C is very noticeable. That’s when I get the email with the ask/plead/argue message. Sometimes the parents get involved, too. But, I have to stick with my convictions on the grading in these situations.

My grading policies and decisions around tests versus homework and semester grade versus final exam grade are pretty generous in my opinion. Many teachers let the computer calculate the grade based on the settings for the weights they decided at the start of the semester. Many others make exceptions, too.

In addition to the above rules of thumb around my grading decisions at the end of the semester, during the semester I’ve been known to drop some low scores when the class doesn’t do well on a quiz. I think that I didn’t teach them very well when that happens, and we revisit the material.

Algebra 2 is a hard class and not everyone will get an A, even if they usually get As in other classes or in prior math classes. This is one of the tougher lessons for high school students to learn. They are hitting a level of math that really requires studying, critical thinking and perseverance for the longer, more involved problems. They aren’t all ready for that level of problem solving. Even if they are, the course is content rich, meaning there is a lot to learn and a set amount of time in which to learn it.

Students are busy with tough course loads, sports, hobbies or jobs, and social and family activities. Many students don’t have adequate time outside of school to study as much as they need to in order to get the grade they want. Others make sacrifices and get every assignment done every day. They come in and ask questions after they’ve tried to figure things out on their own. Some ask questions immediately without giving themselves time to try a solution, because they are used to the quick answer or they feel pressed to get the questions answered quickly, without a deeper understanding for when the next question comes. In learning math, you learn so much from making mistakes and trying new approaches. Especially at this level. But, I think that requires a level of calm and concentration that many teens aren’t used to. Trial and error are involved. I try to talk abut this to my students when I can.

Some people may wonder about the purpose of the final. Well, I think it’s important to review what they learned over the year. I think it’s important to have a idea of what they’ve retained and to remind students what they need to know for the next course. I think it’s good for them to have an idea of what they remember and what they may need to re-study. And, I don’t let the final exam kill their grade. I think that’s the bad part about finals, which is why I have some of the policies listed above. A final exam can bring a student’s semester grade down much more than it can raise it.

I plan to include these grading philosophies and practices, and study tips and techniques for retention and deeper understanding in my beginning of the year mini-unit next year. I introduced the idea in my blog post  Summer reading, relaxing and revamping…. and will post it when it’s done.

Comments, experiences, input welcome…

Open question: How do you find the hypotenuse?

In Geometry, we had a super-awesome-open-question to start the day. I just made it up on the spot, and had no idea it was going to turn out the way it did.

I was planning to put this problem up…

20160311_123942.jpg

As I started to draw it (with a different orientation because it was from their about to be assigned assignment), I stopped here….

2016-03-12-16.41.13.jpg.jpg

I changed the question from a sine question to an open question. I asked,

“What additional information do you need to find the measure of the hypotenuse?”

We had been learning about trigonometry and they knew about the Pythagorean theorem, so, I thought I’d get a range of suggestions.  And, I did. I asked everyone to take a minute to think about what they needed. Then I asked them to take share their idea with a partner. Then, I asked for ideas to write on the board. As students suggested their ideas, I replied, with, “Ah, okay. And how would you use  _____ to solve for the hypotenuse?” And, they would explain.  Then, on to the next idea.

Building their anticipation…. I didn’t tell them if they were RIGHT or wrong. It was really making them re-think as more ideas went on the board and were explained.Of course, there were many RIGHT ideas. When all of the ideas were out, I asked another question.

“Okay, there are several ideas out there. Let me ask you another question. Is there a way to solve for the hypotenuse with only ONE more piece of information?” There were many blurted responses. I really couldn’t understand what any one person was saying. So, I raised my hand as a reminder that I need a hand to go up. I called on a student and asked if they thought they could solve it with one other measure. They said YES, another angle measure.

So, I called on another student to give me a number between one and 89. They said 12, so I labeled one of the angles 12 degrees. We solved for the other angle measure, 78 degrees. We determined we still couldn’t solve it because we now had an AAA triangle, that could produce more than one possible triangle.

Okay, erase the angle measures. Ask another student for a side length. “Five.”

Okay, label the short leg 5. Can’t solve it. So, we decided we needed 2 pieces of information. But which two? Back to our list.

At this point in the hour, we had talked about many ideas, many possibilities and drew conclusions based on things we had learned. What I noticed (and knew I needed to write about) was how the level of engagement was so much higher than usual. Students who were normally a bit “checked out” were generating ideas and were “hooked” into knowing which method was going to work. Were they RIGHT?

So, I grabbed a ruler and measured the hypotenuse. It was 13 inches long. No one had suggested a ruler. So, that was just for fun. What I loved, was that no one suggested using a ruler, like they had at the beginning of the year. Back then, they would ask, can’t we just use a ruler or protractor to measure the sides and angles? Of course not, this is about relationships and we find the answers other ways. You cant’t assume things are drawn to scale, right?

We then went through each idea and tried it to see which ones worked and which ones needed more or different information. They all worked. I was pretty happy. Kids felt successful and it was a fun way to start the double block review period before the test.

I really saw how far we had come since last August. My students are amazing. God bless you, third period Geometry. I can’t wait to do this with my 7th period class nest week.

The beauty of the open question is that more kids can enter the conversation, the lesson is geared to the student’s knowledge and it’s exciting for the teacher, because you don’t know what they are going to say and you get to learn about your students. And, it keeps you very engaged, just like them. 🙂

 

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.