Reflections on Curriculum Implementation, Week 11

I have written before about the curriculum my district is implementing this year, and I have a bit of time to add another update to process my ongoing thoughts today. First, we have had an AWESOME couple of weeks in class. We had a week-long break 2 weeks ago and since then I’m really starting to see the teamwork come together in class. I was actually pretty blown away the day we returned from our break – normally when kids take even a couple of days off school, they forget everything they know about how a classroom is supposed to run, and you have to spend a day reminding them how to be students again. I didn’t have to do this after they had 9 straight days off from school. Yes, I was prepared to have to do it, so we went over reminders at the beginning of class and I was watching for off-task and unproductive behaviors, but it wasn’t much of an issue that day. Weird, right?

This week we had our 6th day of training from CPM and a number of things became clear to me during the course of that day through conversations with others. First, a fellow teacher pointed out that she has noticed her kids are learning to take care of details on their own and not need as much hand-holding in class. Things like putting their names on their papers, labeling papers with the lesson number, grabbing materials and homework worksheets, cleaning up at the end of class – these things are just happening without me having to remind them anymore. What a difference! I have seniors who have more trouble remembering to put their names on their papers than my freshmen do. The kids are getting more self-sufficient and learning how to not need to rely on the teacher for every aspect of the school day. This is evident during lessons as well – I am answering fewer logistical questions during class, they are reading the directions more closely, and they are learning to rely on each other before asking me. Ultimately, I believe that one of my roles as a teacher is to “teach myself out of a job”, as it were – to teach kids how to develop skills on their own without needing to rely on me, because they won’t have someone guiding them through adulthood. They are so much more prepared for this after 11 weeks of this year than any students in my prior years of teaching.

To clarify, I still help them. I still walk around the room and make sure that understanding and comprehension are happening. The difference right now is that I can focus on mathematical understanding and not clarifying details that were given in the instructions. Continue reading

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Reflections on Curriculum Implementation, Week 5

My district just finished our fifth week of school. This year we adopted a new math curriculum that I am really excited about, and I wanted to write a bit about my experience so far, partly so I can process, partly so I can remember later, and partly because I might be using this information in my final project for my Equity and Social Justice class I’m taking for my master’s degree.

First, having a curriculum at all is a huge change over our previous arrangement, where we basically didn’t have anything. Our previous “curriculum” included a curriculum calendar, descriptions of standards, and a wiki site where others using the same system could upload their resources for the standard. As you might imagine, this was inconsistent at best, and downright useless at worst. My planning time was spent searching the internet for lesson plan ideas. My class periods were spent giving students notes to write down because they didn’t have a textbook they could refer to, so I felt like I needed to give them some kind of reference. Nearly all of my class time was spent lecturing.

The longer I taught, the more convinced I became that my teaching method was horribly outdated and may have actually been harmful to students. Sure, they’re used to the sit-and-take-notes, lecture format of a math class, but given my course failure rates and my abysmal final exam average scores, I knew this wasn’t working. This discontent has led me to research problem-based learning and attempt to implement some aspects of it on my own in my classroom, but these attempts were usually pretty terrible experiences that I don’t really want to re-live.

Last spring, my district formed a textbook selection committee to choose a math curriculum for us to adopt across the district (K-12). They chose two curricula, one for grades K-8 and the other for 9-12. We have implemented CPM (College Preparatory Math) at the high school level. CPM is a collaborative, problem-based curriculum that uses the ideas of mixed, spaced practice for long-term retention. All of these are things that I have read over and over again are best practice for deep student learning that gets retained over time, so I was thrilled to be getting a curriculum that would be in line with all the research that I have done. Continue reading

Automated Emails With Google Script

I spent the summer interning at a tech company for my masters program, and my job was to learn and use Javascript, HTML, CSS, and some Python to redesign an internal website. I was also chatting with a friend of mine who interned at the same company, and he mentioned that if you have contact info for a lot of people stored in a Google Spreadsheet, it’s possible to write a script to automatically send customized emails to each person.

Parent emails, everyone. Quickly email the parents of everyone who is failing a class, email all Algebra 1 parents with the parent tips of the week provided by the new curriculum we are using… Easy mass parent emails. Continue reading

Three Good Things (I’m an overachiever)

At the moment (as in, this week) three things are going really well in my classes. I considered writing about one of them, but I’m an overachiever so I’m going to write about all three.

Also, my masters degree is going fine. Being an overachiever helps with that too.

Problem Solving with In-N-Out

On Friday, the kids started the In-N-Out problem (see link for Robert Kaplinsky’s take) and we finished it yesterday. I love this problem. This year, I hung up my group-sized (2ft by 2ft) whiteboards at the beginning of the year, put the kids into random groups (different groups on the two different days actually) and told them to get cracking.

They did great. They discussed with each other (as much as freshmen who aren’t used to collaborating on things could be expected to), they wrote their ideas, some of them labeled their work really well, and some of them looked around the room from time to time to get ideas or see if they were on the right track.

Today, since they finished the problem yesterday, I used it as an example in each class to move into discussing slope/rate of change and the y-intercept in an equation. When I brought it up, the kids told me they really enjoyed working on it and requested more problems like that.

So now I have to find more problems that are good for vertical non-permanent surfaces, and preferably are related to standards that I actually have to cover in Algebra 1.

This is an amazing problem to have. I am so excited right now. I told the kids that I had a great time watching them solve the problem, and it’s true. I had so much fun. I definitely want to do stuff like this more often, and would be very into the idea of moving toward a much more problem-based curriculum.

Evaluation

Yesterday I also had my formal evaluation, during one of these Algebra 1 classes. My administrator sat in my room and listened to the kids solve this problem, which is not exactly an EEI-structured lesson format but I don’t care. It’s so much fun. And it’s so great to do for an evaluation where the biggest thing they are judging me on is student engagement because I probably had nearly 100% engagement, nearly 100% of the time.

The administrator told me a funny story afterward, and is planning to put this quote in the write-up of the formal evaluation. Apparently the group he was sitting nearest had a student who just kept insisting “It’s 90 cents. It’s 90 cents.” Another student in the group kept asking him how he knew. (!!!) He just kept insisting that it was just right and couldn’t explain his answer, and she finally told him, “You know that when she [meaning me] comes over here, she’s going to ask us! You have to be able to explain it!”

Woo hoo!

I nearly jumped for joy in front of my administrator when he told me that. This is amazing – we’re seven weeks in and some of them already know that being able to explain it is more important than the right answer (as least, it is to me).

This is a great sign, and I’m so excited about what this means for the rest of the year.

KenKen Puzzles

Clearly my theme for this blog post is about explaining reasoning, because this point is also going to touch on that.

So I do a bellwork routine, where we do the same type of bellwork question every week. Mondays are visual patterns, Tuesdays are estimation questions, Wednesdays are Which one doesn’t belong, Thursdays are a writing assignment because our school is doing a writing initiative this year, and Fridays are KenKen puzzles.

Mondays and Fridays are my favorite. I’ll probably swap out the estimation and WODB days for other things as the year goes on, but I usually keep the patterns for the entire year. This year I think I’ll keep the KenKen puzzle all year, because it’s going REALLY well.

I do this bellwork routine in Algebra 1 and Geometry, and since I had a handful of the Geometry kids in my Algebra 1 class last year, the Geometry class has been trained very quickly and very well. They can do harder patterns and are ready for harder KenKen puzzles than the Algebra 1.

The Algebra 1 kids are definitely picking it up, and getting the hang of how to fill in cells, what’s helpful and what’s not helpful, and how to think about the clues. We moved up from 3×3 to 4×4 a couple of weeks ago, and I bet they’ll be ready for 5×5 after fall break. (6×6 will be longer because moving up to an even number is harder than moving up to an odd number.) Every week, I make them do as much as they can on their own, and then we go over the puzzle as a class. I ask the class “What do we know now?” after each step and write down pretty much whatever they tell me. I spend a lot of time paraphrasing and restating what kids tell me, because I want to focus on the logic of the puzzle.

So the KenKen puzzles are going well, but some really cool things happened on Friday.

First, Algebra 1 – I had kids raising their hands and participating in the KenKen discussion who have NEVER raised their hands in my class before. They can tell me what goes in a cell and how they know. At this point, pretty much all I have to say is “Ok, how do you know?” the entire time. They are really getting into it.

Now Geometry is a whole different ballgame. On Friday, we’d been doing proofs for about a week. They’ve done examples of proofs, they’ve used CanFigureIt.com to explore proofs in a structured environment, they’ve written reasons for proofs that have all the statements written, and they’ve attempted writing their own proofs.

On Friday, we went over the KenKen puzzle on the board, solved the whole thing, and I stopped them. “You guys. Everyone. Did you hear what you just did?” They all stare at me. “Did you hear what just happened as you solved that KenKen puzzle?” Now they’re really staring at me like I’m a crazy person. They’re probably sitting there like, yeah, we solved the puzzle, just like we do every week. So I said, “You just did a proof.”

Now they’re 100% positive I’m crazy.

I said, “For every cell in that puzzle, you made a claim, and you justified it. You told me what should go in that cell, and you told me why. That’s a proof. You just did a proof to solve the puzzle.”

Blew their minds. It was amazing. It took a solid few minutes to calm them down again, but the sudden realization of the connection between proofs (which they currently hate) and something that they are generally enjoying was totally worth it.

Also, I enjoy blowing the minds of high school students. It’s a major part of the reason why I teach.

Classroom Management

I struggle with classroom management. My preferred method of “classroom management” is to get the kids to do what I ask because they like me. This doesn’t work for some kids who either don’t like me or don’t care enough.

This summer I discovered SmartClassroomManagement.com (probably through Pinterest or something). Some guy named Michael Linsin runs the site. I started reading blog posts, looking for stuff that would work at the high school level and trying to avoid paying the $7 for the ebook that describes his high school plan. I’m not a huge fan of his writing style (dude, each sentence does NOT need to be its own paragraph), but his advice appears sound.

A lot of what he says is similar to what you find in the Harry Wong book, but less…I don’t know…condescending? Linsin also emphasizes clear, consistent expectations, which is a reminder I need, but I found his specific advice about specific situations to be helpful. This is the advantage of running a blog over publishing a book – he can write bite-size chunks about specific things and do this as often as he likes.

I read a bunch of posts that were interesting and pretty helpful, then I found two posts about talking to parents. I don’t like talking to parents. I procrastinate then tell myself that I’ve waited too long so there’s no point in calling them now. The posts I read were and “How to Talk to Parents About Their Misbehaving Child” and “How to Talk to Parents Who Just Don’t Care” (the somewhat offensive title is misleading – he handles the topic very well). Specifically, what caught my eye was this advice:

  1. Tell the parent what happened.
  2. Tell the parent what you did about it.
  3. Say, “I thought you’d want to know.”
  4. End the conversation.

Linsin argues that this structure removes the implication that you’re blaming the parent or asking them to do something about the issue, which is what causes them to get defensive and angry. You’ve already handled the issue so all you’re doing is informing them. I liked this because I suck at phone calls, so having a plan like this is really helpful for me.

At some point I decided that since this advice, that I had gotten for free, was so helpful then maybe it was worth paying $7 for the high school plan. Heck, it was worth paying $7 just for the strategy about talking to parents.

The high school plan is helpful. It gets a little sales-pitchy and there were a couple things that I didn’t agree with so I’m adjusting to suit my preferences, but it’s good. After today, I’m sold.

At one point, Linsin specifies that you should teach students what your consequences look like, including telling them what the “conversation after class” will look like. He says to tell the kids what you’ll say in that conversation: You broke these rules, you lost this many points, goodbye. The point here is to tell the kids they won’t have to sit through a lecture from you or an attempt at a guilt trip or anything else. This is the consequence, have a good day. I like this.

So I told the kids today, “If you continue to break a rule, I’ll ask you to stay after class for a few minutes to talk to me. During that conversation, I’ll say ‘These are the rules you broke, you lost this many points, bye.’ That’s it.”

As I say this, I’m watching them and gauging reactions. Plenty of kids were still pretty blank, but the ones who were reacting were nodding. Nodding that says, “Ok cool.” Like, this kind of nodding:

giphy

I get it. They like knowing what to expect. They like knowing that if they break a rule, I’m not going to lecture them, yell at them, guilt-trip them, ask them how they’re going to make sure this never happens again, tell them how disappointed I am…or whatever. I’m sold. Clear expectations, let them know what I want and what will happen when I don’t get what I want – got it.

I think I will still struggle to be consistent. It’s hard for me not to take it personally and get frustrated when misbehavior continues. It’s going to be something I have to remind myself about daily. But it’s something I need to work on, so this is a good time to work on it.

Second Semester Reflections

Some explanation that’s not really important so you can skip it if you want…

Because we start school so early in my state, we finish our first semester and have end-of-semester final exams before winter break. When we return to school after the break to a new semester, and since we do our grading on a semester basis, the kids have a brand new start with a fresh grading period. Since I teach freshmen, who have never experienced the consequences of failing a class that is required for graduation. Many of them have failed classes in the past and received no consequences (as we rarely retain students in grades K-8 for failing classes) so they can have a hard time adjusting to this huge change in expectations.

This means I have an advantage right now – nearly 30% of my Algebra 1 kids have seen Fs on report cards during the break and are starting to realize that it means something. Something bad. (Some of them won’t actually have this realization until next year when they might end up back in Algebra 1 for the second time. A few will take even longer.) So when I was planning for this week, I decided to spend the first day back (yesterday) having them reflect on last semester.

I started with a reflection sheet that I found as a free download on TPT and customized it for myself: second-semester-reflection-sheet. Yesterday I had the students fill it out, trying to encourage them to be specific about what they were going to do this semester to be more successful and about how I can help.

Man, this was awesome. I can’t believe how good a job these kids did reflecting on their semester, what they did well, what they could have done better, what they should do this semester to change things, what I can do to help them. The kids were honest with themselves and with me. Many of them indicated that they needed to do more and I was doing everything I needed to. The ones who did have suggestions for me actually had productive things to say, not just “don’t give homework” or anything like that. Reading through these (and organizing the responses in a spreadsheet because I’m a huge nerd) has given me a lot of food for thought.

The actual point of this blog post…

I’ve been struggling with one of my classes all year. They’re very chatty and I try to allow them to use that to learn. We get off-topic more in that class because they’re so chatty with each other and with me, and because as soon as I allow them to talk even for a moment, it takes ages to get them all to refocus. (I know some would argue that I shouldn’t allow them to talk at all, but that’s not my style.) So I know that I need to try some different things with this particular class.

It was interesting to read their reflection sheets because they were so different from my other two classes. The kids in this class focused a lot on accountability. They wanted me to check in with them more during class to check their understanding, to remind them to come to tutoring, to hold them accountable for actually coming to tutoring, to let them know when they’re off-task, and to push them to understand instead of giving up. Cool. Great ideas, but really hard to implement in a class of 30, often with a lecture-style format.

So I’ve spent some time today brainstorming ways that I can change the structure of the class to work better for this group.

Small groups would be good. I can’t check in with 30 students individually, but I could check in with 7 or 8 groups. I have a bunch of really highly-performing kids in this class who could help their classmates with the material if they work in small groups. I like the idea of having them hold each other accountable – everyone in the group gets the concept, or you’re not done.

So then how do we have time to work in groups like this? I spend so much time on notes that we usually don’t have time to work through problems or even do that much practice. It’s why I assign homework, even though I realize that if they can’t do the homework, there’s no point in giving it. Maybe I could do a pseudo-flipped-classroom? I don’t feel comfortable assigning videos to be watched at home (although maybe we could get to that point later) because not all of my students have access at home. But maybe they could watch videos on devices for the first 5-10 minutes of class? If someone doesn’t have a device, the group could watch the video together. How do I have them take notes so they can remember what they learned? Should I provide some structure to the notes or just let them do it? Should a group member be designated to take notes for the group? Then I could give an in-depth problem or rich task after the video, or just assign some practice with a chance to check in with everyone as they work.

I have a bunch of students in this class who really struggle with motivation. They are very social and don’t seem to care much about their grades. (The beginning of basketball season helped that a little bit, as a bunch of them are on the basketball team.) How can I make sure that everyone is held accountable for their own work, while also getting the support they need from the group?

I’m ready to make some huge changes to the way that I normally structure my classes, I just don’t know how to do it. The only math teaching I ever experienced was direct-instruction, I-do-we-do-you-do, traditional, so I don’t even have a model in my head for what I could do differently.

I told the kids some of what I was thinking about today, and asked them to give me suggestions too. I told them that whatever they want to try, we can always try for a day and see how it goes. They seemed open to the kinds of things I suggested, although it’s possible they just really liked being told that they could tell me how they want me to run their class. I like being honest with them about what I’m thinking, why I do the things I do in class, and what I’m struggling with – the questions I still have. They respond well and we build a good relationship. Now I need to figure out what to try.

Anyone have suggestions for ways I can answer the questions above?

What a Crazy Semester!

Well, it’s late in the evening on New Year’s Day, and I was supposed to be traveling to another state to visit family, but we had to cancel our trip due to weather. This is the first time in a while that I’ve had the time/inclination to write a blog post. Actually, I just looked at the date of my last post and it was during the first week of school. So yes, it’s been a while.

This semester has been insane. (And no, it’s not going to get better for a while.) I started my masters program in May, so I was taking a graduate course all semester. I spent most of the semester feeling like I was behind on my grading, which was usually followed by a day of realizing I wasn’t that far behind because my student aide is awesome, and then another 3 weeks feeling behind again. Also, I hate grading and I infinitely prefer planning, and I’m a professional procrastinator. My poor students. They were very understanding though.

While we’re on the subject of my students, my freshmen are amazing. Now sure, not every single one of them has a fantastic attitude every moment of every day, but in general, as a whole, they are wonderful kids. They really do have great attitudes most of the time. They will do pretty much whatever I ask them to, without much arguing or complaining. They’re a really nice group of kids – they’re nice to me and to each other. I teach because I love my students, but this year the students have made themselves really easy to love. Did they all pass first semester? No. Are they all stellar students? No, although I will say that their academic skills are stronger than I’ve ever seen from a class of incoming freshmen. But they’re great kids. I don’t go back to school for a week and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again.

We started learning about adding, subtracting, and multiplying polynomials at the end of the semester, and I told them I LOVE polynomials. Most of them laughed and rolled their eyes, but someone said, “Didn’t you say that about graphing?” I said, “Yeah, I love graphing too. Oh, and solving systems. And function notation. And writing functions. And next semester we’re going to do factoring and we’re going to solve quadratics, and I love factoring and quadratics.” (As I say this, my voice gets gradually higher and more enthusiastic.) At this point they’re pretty much all giving me that Miss-is-crazy-and-we’re-pretty-sure-she’s-torturing-us-but-it’s-kind-of-funny-and-we-like-laughing-at-her sort of look. So I grinned at them and said, “Do you see why I teach Algebra 1?” Now they’re actually laughing.

Speaking of polynomials, in two of my classes when I explained that we were going to add, subtract, and multiply polynomials, someone asked, “Are we going to learn to divide polynomials?” So cool, because I got to explain that we sort-of divide polynomials in January when we do factoring, and then we learn how to actually divide higher-degree polynomials in Algebra 2. This is fun because now I can talk about that question when we learn about factoring in a week or two.

Confession time: I was having a pretty rough day a couple of weeks ago, and yelled at one of my classes. I told them I was going to put them into groups so they could play a review game for their final exam, and they started whining. I was sick, it was the end of the day, and I was exhausted. I threatened them that if they didn’t want to work in the groups I assigned, then the whole class could spend the rest of the period working silently on their study guides. I ran my random group generator and immediately heard at least 4 different kids complain about their group. I explained (ahem…loudly) that I don’t care how they feel about who is in their group and they have to learn to deal with it. I turned back to the board to check that I was ok with their groups, determined I was, and turned back around to tell them to get together with their groups. One poor kid who was right in front of me said, “I can’t-” then saw the look on my face and didn’t get any further into that sentence. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the class, I’d had it. I explained to them (again, rather loudly) that once again I don’t care how you feel about the people I pair you up with. In fact, that’s why I do it! You have to learn how to work with people you don’t like in high school because it WILL be a part of your life after high school. And if you can’t, then you are likely to lose your job. I said a few other things as well that I don’t really recall now, instructed them to work silently for the remainder of the class period, and sat down at my desk in a huff.

Well, about half an hour went by and after I finished being furious I started to feel guilty. (It only takes a few minutes.) They did work in silence for the rest of the class, which was a testament to how angry I was because this particular class usually can’t make it 30 seconds without talking, much less 30 minutes. A few minutes before the bell rang, I stood up and asked for their attention. I told them I knew I shouldn’t have yelled at them, and I was sorry. However, I believe that the things I said were still valid, and that they needed to hear them…just maybe not quite at that volume. (They smiled at that.) I explained, in a much more reasonable tone of voice, that as an adult you do not get to choose the people you work with or for. You do have to learn to work with people you don’t like. I gave the example that one of the people that has been the most difficult for me to work with is someone that actually worked for me. I couldn’t fire her because she was a great employee, even though I personally couldn’t stand to hold a conversation with her…which is also a kind of decision you have to be able to make as an adult. I reminded them that my goal this year is not just to teach them algebra but to teach them skills they will need to be successful after high school, and working with people you don’t like is one of them. So again, I’m sorry that I got angry and yelled, but I’m not sorry for what I said.

The interesting thing is how they responded to this. First, they seemed to have no trouble accepting my apology (judging by the looks on their faces and the fact that they didn’t seem to hate me when they came in the next day). But they also agreed with me that they needed to hear my point. The class nodded when I said that and a couple of students even stayed after to tell me they agreed with me.

I love how quick teenagers are to forgive and forget when you own up to your mistake and apologize. I especially love this because it’s not like I’m going to stop making mistakes.

It’s been a crazy semester. Most of the days have been really good but very busy. In my “free time” I’ve been reading papers and writing papers. The first day all semester that I made a point to reserve for myself and not do any work was Veteran’s Day in November. It was much-needed too, let me tell you. I was starting to get a little snippy in class. I’ve spent much of the semester frustrated about some other things happening at school that I’m not going to post on a public forum, but suffice it to say there was an added level of stress from other causes as well.

But my kids are awesome. I have not managed to make it through a single day without laughing all semester. I’ve had some really great parent meetings where I got to share positive information about students. During the last few weeks of the semester, one of my classes turned around from being my quietest, least-engaged class to being my most focused and productive class. Almost all of my students are taking great notes and using their notebooks (when I remind them) to find answers. They didn’t panic about their final exam and actually did pretty well, compared to past years. We’ve figured out some good strategies for class – they’ve figured out my teaching style and are responding to it and I’m figuring out how to manage the extreme chattiness of the one class and the overwhelming size of another class. I’m still working on convincing them to come to tutoring next semester. It’s very likely that I’ll see increased attendance at tutoring now that a bunch of them have failed a semester and might realize they need to not do that again. (Fingers crossed, anyway…)

My masters program isn’t supposed to end for another two years so next semester will be just as busy. I’m greatly enjoying winter break, as it’s the only time I don’t have work of either form for the entire year. Here’s to a restful week before I go back to school, and a productive semester for both me and my students.