Thursday, October 23, 2014

My Yearly Ah-ha Moment

Once again, I never have time to blog anymore but about once a year something happens that just makes me start typing.  Last year it was the ingenuity of a couple kids that made me realize that I should quit trying to teach concepts and start teaching kids to be more inquisitive.  I have to admit I did a pretty bad job at that.  Sometime around December I started having splitting headaches and when my doctor told me in January that it was stress, I pretty much focused on getting myself straight and not so much my curriculum.

I have only had the opportunity a few times this year to do something that I considered to be really interesting to the kids.  Most of the times it's a Mathalicious lesson or something I also use in AP Stats.  And I already have a great idea in the works, but today it happened again.

Yesterday we found out our proficiency rate for our classes that took the District Wide Benchmark tests.  These tests are made by our teachers in the district but they are terribly unreliable and they definitely don't measure what they are supposed to.  You'll never guess where the questions come from....Schoolnet (owned by Pearson).   I could go on and on but everyone knows where that road leads.

It was just wild that the day after I found out 33% of my kids are proficient in PreCal, one of my kids calls me over during the chapter test to ask me if he worked a problem correctly.  It was a standard arc length problem but instead of giving them the radius and central angle, they had elapsed minutes on a clock.  Most kids missed it because it made them think which they don't like to do.  Many more asked me what to do because they didn't know where to start.

But one kid just figured it out.  Instead of finding the angle formed by the clock hands, he found the circumference of the circle and then found the ratio of the minutes to 60, then the ratio to 360 degrees.  Then he applied the ratio to the circumference to get the solution.  He didn't need the formula (although he knew the formula for circumference) he just needed the drive to get the solution and a few tools.

It reinforced that I need to spend less time covering objective after objective to make sure I cover the benchmark minimums and spend more time trying to get kids to be inquisitive.  So many of our kids nowadays just want to get the answer, get it done and get the grade.  It's not their fault.  They get tested to death and they even get paid to test (as much as $1000 in our district if they test well).  We have ACT Prep classes on our schedule and a 28 will get you free tuition at most state schools.

It's an epidemic that no amount of technology or curriculum will fix.  It's only going to get better if we stop testing our kids constantly and give trust and autonomy back to teachers to do what is best for the kids that sit with them each day.  I promise to make my kids think more and be less helpful.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lessons Learned from The Justice Project

So I average about 1 post a year on my blog, so it's about time for me to try again.  The blog is supposed to be a brain dump for my thoughts on teaching math in a high school, but it turns out that I just have too many other things going on to keep up the posting (golf, AD duties, kids, etc.).  But I finally had a revelation last week in class that I thought deserved some attention.  WARNING:  I'm not selling this as an awesome activity you have to try.  It's more of an Ah-ha moment that made me realize we're doing it all wrong.

I have often complained (mostly to myself) that when you teach upper level math like PreCal, there just aren't many real world projects that you can do that will help kids learn the standards.  There are real world connections that can be made but finding hands-on projects for the kids always eluded me.  Just like most other connected math teachers, I have searched the web for these magic bullets that would teach factoring or trig identities so that I didn't have to just stand up and work problems with my students.  You can find all kids of cool stuff on slope, geometry, etc. but the higher you go, the tougher it gets. (Confession:  I have always been jealous of every other subject because I can think of a million cool, hands-on ways to teach anything from the Civil War to Lord of the Flies to Newton's Third Law.)

@ddmeyer has clearly come closer on this than anyone with his #graphingstories, #3Acts and #MakeoverMonday.  Many have followed in his footsteps and there are many twitter math rockstars that I could mention here.  So it finally occurred to me to look for problems in my text that maybe could be made over, or at the least turned in to something my kids could get their hands dirty with instead of expecting someone else to do the work for me.  (Another confession:  I have taken way more than I have given to the MTBoS folks).

I looked but I got no inspiration for the first few days but then I got lucky.  There was a problem on factoring out the greatest common factor from an expression.  Here was the problem
BOOM:  the Flash Sale at Justice.  For those of you without daughters, Justice is a clothing store that is kind of like shopping in an Austin Powers movie.  I need a Xanex every time I go in there.  Everything in the store is always 40% off and they actually have signs posted to show how much everything costs with the 40% off (shows you how good our society is at math).  Shopping there is like a giant math problem because you also get these discount cards where you get $25 more off if you spend over 50$ so that's why my wife makes me go with her to make sure we get the best deal.

But the Flash Sale is an extra 20% off after the 40%, so I thought it would be a great way to intro this problem in Makeover fashion of the text problem and help them learn to factor.  So I gave the kids this slide on their Edmodo page (we are completely 1:1)
 and asked them the following:  How many of you have been to the mall? (all of them)  How many of you have been to Justice? (a few)  Then I said:  DON'T GO IN THERE NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, IT'S AWFUL!!!

I told them my wife makes me go to figure out how much the clothes will cost and I NEED you guys to figure out a way for her to calculate the 40%/20% deal so I NEVER have to go there again.  I asked them to define all variables, write your formula in a general form and see if you can factor it.

Then it was like the Beastie Boys song "Paul Revere."  Hands went up and people hit the floor.  Luckily, no kids ran for the door.  I just told them to figure it out, that's all you get.  I didn't even do a real makeover and develop the problem, the perplexity, and any supporting material.  I just winged it.  I knew only a few might actually get the answer the way it was intended, factored and all, and a few might find another way, but it was what happened next that blew my mind.

In three sections of PreCal that day, I had at least 5 different correct solutions where kids figured out the discount really equaled 52% off and that I could just tell my wife to cut the price in half.  They figured it out in ways I had never even thought of and they were totally correct.  One group figured out the discount for about 5 different prices, then divided the original by the discount and found a common ratio of about 2 and said I could just divided by 2 every time.  I was high fiving kids and thanking them because I don't ever have to go to Justice again!!!

I completely forgot about factoring and writing the factored form.  I didn't even make them turn anything in.  I could have cared less.  Of course I showed them the "proper solution" but I also told them how impressed I was by their effort and solutions and that the only thing that would matter to me this year was that they got a solution, no matter how they arrived there.  I think it gave most of them the confidence to try anything instead of shutting down and trying nothing at all.

Even though they probably learned nothing about factoring with the GCF, I count it as a victory because factoring may only be something you need if you are going to continue on down the math road.  Most kids in regular PreCal are smart, but not in Math and Science.  They are AP Lit smart and will go on to become teachers and writers and won't ever take Calculus and probably won't ever factor anything again.

As usual, there won't be one of these for every section of every chapter for every standard and the sooner you realize that as a math teacher, the better off you will be.  Your job is to give kids the opportunity to be wrong and creative and to think for themselves.  It's an opportunity they rarely get in this day and age.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

1:1 Digital Initiative

I was asked to write something for our student newspaper on how our implementation of 1:1 Laptops was going at our high school. I think I went a little overboard but I thought I would put it here for everyone to see, since most of you don't subscribe to the Red and Blue.  Even the student newspaper industry is dying...

I am both excited and worried about all of the new technology in the system this year. On one hand, I think it's great that our kids finally have tools in their hands to engage and stimulate their learning. On the other hand, I don't think teachers, students and parents were adequately prepared to handle the challenges that go along with implementing these tools. And that's just what computers are: tools. 

Like a book or calculator or SmartBoard, they can't replace what a good teacher can bring to the table. Not that I am a good teacher, but when I feel anxiety or frustration about kids who get error messages or have login problems, that has a negative impact on me and the students. The other problems that come with a new textbook and new curriculum are magnified when there is not sufficient time, training or guidance. In an industry where we are constantly bombarded with more testing and more paperwork, it is disheartening to add more fuel to the fire without proper preparation. Other industries don't treat their employees in that manner. They realize that their #1 resource are their employees (go watch Undercover Boss once). 

That being said, I do understand the positive effects of the digital curriculum. I have seen much more engagement from students when working on problems. I have the kids sitting in groups of threes and they have been awesome at helping one another to figure out problems. That collaboration is something they are going to need when they enter the workforce and I am glad they are doing it. I love the instant feedback we get from a problem. It helps me to see where the group needs additional help and where to give an individual push. I have been doing my best to integrate those technologies and other web tools like Edmodo and Twitter the past few years, so it is nice to see us trying to catch up to the pack. 

I still think the missing step is that kids need to be creating stuff, and not just working problems. It is difficult, in my PreCal class for example, to have them do anything other than learn the standards, then repeat. I want them to tackle real problems about real things and then create and collaborate with the new technology they have been given. But creating those kinds of lessons take time and resources that I simply don't have. I hope that one day the technology allows me to get back that time so I can come up with engaging and meaningful stuff for my kids.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Pet Peeve about PD

Last week I participated in my first #edchat discussion on Twitter. I had seen the hashtag around before but I never understood how it worked until this summer when I finally had some time to play around on Twitter. I jumped in with both feet to and decided to try the Tuesday Noon chat. Here are a couple of observations.

1. My pet peeve is waiting. Specifically, waiting for things that aren't worth waiting for. I don't mind waiting to pick up my kids from gymnastics because it's worth watching them tumble and then getting a big hug afterward. But at weddings, I'll wait until everyone else eats to get at the buffet. If I get to the License Branch to renew my tags and there's a line, I leave. This is my problem with most professional development. I wait all day to get that one (maybe two) idea that I can take back and actually implement. The rest of the time is usually listening to people complain about how they CAN'T do something because of NCLB or whatever else. The PD I have done on my own this summer has taken a grand total of 3 hours and has lead me to find so many other resources that my time has been much more well spent. I can't count how many hours I have spent after those, following up and building stuff.

2. An Army guy I know calls this value-for-value, and it's rare that us teachers get value-for-value with our time. I get $600 to coach Boys and Girls golf. I love doing it but do you think that's value-for-value on the time I spend scheduling, traveling, being away from my family, etc? If I spend two days at a workshop where I have to prepare two days worth for a sub, buy my own lunch, and come back with little of good use, is that value-for-value?

3. The #edchat allowed me to expand my PLN in a short amount of time. I probably follow 7 or 8 new people on Twitter as a result of the chat that I have gleaned information or inspiration from already. That doesn't happen when I sit at a table with my own math department at an all day workshop.

4. Just in doing the chat, I learned how to use TwitterGrid and Twitterfall and already have some ideas of how to use this in my classroom. Simply participating gave me some new tools to add to my arsenal (OK, tool belt, it's not like I am my own militia of a teacher).

I feel like I have taken control of my own learning and I am getting the value that I was never able to get before. If I can get my students to do the same thing I feel like I will have solved all of my "classroom management" issues that I have fought over my first 5 years as a new teacher.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Posting is Hard Work

I thought I would post throughout the school year and I NEVER did. It was just too crazy with my wife still in her Master's Program and coaching and my classes that were pretty bad this year to say the least. But I am getting a new classroom, some new classes (Precal instead of 1A) so I am hoping that things are looking up. I still think this will be my last year unless it is just a perfect year because of all of the stuff going on in the school system and my wife going back to work. But who knows...hopefully I will keep posting to keep up with how my year goes. As I am famous for saying, we'll see....

Monday, August 9, 2010

First Day of School

The boys with belts and shirts tucked in. Plus.

The number of kids in my classes, so far. Plus.

The number of kids who didn't show up. Plus.

The number of kids who didn't show up but will tomorrow making me repeat everything. Minus.

Heat index of 108. Minus.

Lost freshman. Plus.

Lost Seniors. Plus, Plus.

Floating teacher in my room during planning. Minus (not her fault).

First day on a Monday. Minus.

Overall. No use in keeping score, still have to go back tomorrow.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My First Shot at Standards Based Grading

This was my first year to implement Standards Based Grading in my classroom and I was scared to death to try it but I have to say it worked out great. The kids seemed to catch on pretty quick, only a few parents asked questions or made comments and even the Inclusion teachers with me thought it was a hit. Here's a summary of what I did and what I learned. By the way, I teach Algebra 1A and 1B (Algebra 1 split into two years).

1. I took my book and typed out each section's objective on a spreadsheet and then compared it to the Alabama Course of Study.
  • First, I was able to eliminate some sections of the book completely because they weren't in our CoS.
  • Then, I combined sections into single concepts where possible. For example, I put Add, and Subtract Rationals into one concept, Multiply and Divide Rationals into another. That's four separate sections in our book and they are actually in two different chapters.
  • It was even more interesting to find some things in our CoS are not in our book and alot of stuff in our book doesn't need to be taught, something they don't give any guidance on for new teachers!!!
  • I narrowed it down to 36 concepts for each course (although I went back and split one concept, so really 37 for 1A).
2. I posted the Concepts on my website and gave them a copy of the checklist, explaining how they would keep track of their scores for mastery. I spent about half a day going through it with the kids. I used Dan Meyer's method of grading on a scale of 4 and then increasing the difficulty the second time around and raising the scale to 5. That was the hardest thing for them to comprehend at first.
  • Turns out they kind of just have to do it to see where it leads them. It's just hard to explain.
  • Only about 20% of them really kept up with their checklist to see what they mastered. I probably should have checked those every 9 weeks for a grade or something to encourage them to keep up with it more.
  • I had a few kids that were hooked when they realized they could retake as much as possible without their grade going down, but that they always had a shot to improve.
3. Making the tests was the best part. I have a PDF of my book and all of the test questions so I just cut and paste them into my template. Going by concept cut down on the number of questions on each assessment (which saved time grading) and allowed me to tweak questions easily (which is almost impossible when you are giving the Chapter 2 Test).
  • I kind of used a rolling method: First test was Concepts 1,2,3. Second one was 1,2,3,4. Third one was 2,3,4,5 and so on. I could drop off or add as many as they could handle which was so perfect.
  1. Grading was so much easier. Even though they had to show work it was better than grading long tests. Assigning the rubric score was easier than I had thought it would be too.
  2. I was worried about how going to 70% tests and 30% other, while almost wiping out grading homework, would work. But I was fortunate to have some kids in my 1B class that I had the previous year in 1A so I knew their level and ability and the grades were pretty darn accurate. What happened was kids would make a 1 on a concept and see a huge drop in their grade (because there were fewer grades and little homework). This motivated them to do the extra work and come back for the re-tests. They would see a huge impact when they went from a 1 to a 3 or 4.
  3. No more extra credit!!! In the past when kids would ask for extra credit or how to get their grade up, I would give them a list of zeroes they had (work for me), they would copy it off of someone or halfway do the work, then I would have to grade it (work for me) and then update their grade (work for me). OR I would come up with an alternate assignment (work for me) and then grade it, etc. (work for me). Now I just pull up my grades and say, "Huh, you made a 1 on Concept 12. Why don't you go home and rework that concept and come in during PE tomorrow and try again?" They would either never show (no work for me) or come in and I would make up 4 problems on the spot and let them retake (minimal work, even less if they didn't improve their score).
  4. It made talking to parents easier. When I got an email about a low grade, I would just tell the parents to ask to see their checklist. Usually never heard another word. If I did, I just explained that they could come anytime to retake any concept and the parents would be like "really, why haven't they come in?" Good question...
  5. Overall, it was the best thing I ever did in my five years in the classroom. The concept lists are on my site if you want to peek at them and I'll help any way I can.