I’m Tired and Frustrated, and Just Finished Grading Tests

My students took their first test today.

In reviewing for the test and then grading the tests today, I have learned:

• They don’t understand that there is a difference between 24 divided by 12 and 12 divided by 24 (both if these are 2, apparently).
• They get so freaked out by the idea of a fraction in the problem that many of them skip the whole problem or just ignore the fraction part. (I’m referring here to a problem that asked them to multiply 1/2 by 8. Asking them to multiply 1/4 by 12 just about caused heads to explode.
• I have absolutely no idea where to start here. As a first-year teacher, I consider it a good day when I can spend 30 seconds thinking about the next day. Forget trying to figure out how to teach the Algebra curriculum and remediate basic math skills at the same time.

Also, this weekend I learned that 2/3 of my students did not pass their Arizona standardized test last year in 8th grade. The test isn’t that great-even students who pass it may not have a fantastic math foundation. It does explain why so many of them aren’t understanding what goes on in class, but again, I have no idea how to deal with this.

How can I teach my students the Algebra they have to know for their semester final in December and teach them how to not panic at the very sight of fractions? We’re already behind in our pacing, and it’s only the 4th week of school. I’m probably only going to get further behind, because I can never get through a lesson in the time I think it should take.

How am I supposed to find time to even think about this when I have to write lesson plans and PowerPoints and quizzes and tests from scratch?

Math Properties

I hate teaching properties in Algebra. You know why? Because this happens:

Me: “So the Commutative Property says that we can add or multiply numbers in any order and still get the same answer.”

The students stare blankly at me because they’ve known that since they learned to add/multiply.

Me: “Let’s try this again. In math, we have properties to tell us that something is always true, all the time, for all numbers. That way we don’t have to go out and test all the numbers to see if it’s true.”

The students stare blankly at me because they don’t understand why we need properties to say something they already know is true.

Me: “You’ll be using properties next year in Geometry. Now let’s talk about the Associative Property.”

Ugh. Yes, they need to understand why we can manipulate numbers and variables the way we do in Algebra, but do I care if they know the names of each of those properties? No.

I spent 4 days teaching various identity and equality properties, including Commutative, Associative, Distributive, Reflexive, Substitution, Transitive… and the kids still don’t get it. I know this because I’ve graded some of the quizzes they took on it. The highest score I’ve seen on a quiz so far was 8/10, and I even let them go up to the front of the classroom and look at the poster on the wall that defines all of those properties! I’ve only graded one class so far; I’m afraid to grade the rest.

Instead of having them re-take the quiz, I’m going to have them fill in a graphic organizer for the properties to earn back some partial credit for the quizzes. Like I said, I don’t care if they know the names – I care that they know how to use the properties.

I created a nice little concept web (using a pencil and a ruler because apparently you can’t make a blank freeform concept web using a computer). I’ll give them a day or two to work on these, and I have no idea how I will grade them. I left off the properties I don’t really care about (Reflexive Property of Equality, anyone?) but made sure to include the important ones.

Properties Graphic Organizer

The blank organizer is linked above. (It’s a scanned PDF of my handwritten organizer.)

The properties that should be included are: Additive Identity, Multiplicative Identity, Multiplicative Property of 0, Multiplicative Inverse Property, Associative, Substitution, Distributive, and Commutative. It’ll be interesting to see if my students figure that out, because I’m not planning to give them much guidance here.

The Smoke

On Friday afternoon, I asked one of my mentors to observe my last-period class and give me some advice on getting them to shut up managing their talkativeness. We were talking about the Distributive Property to prepare them for the lesson I’ll be teaching on Monday, and I asked them a question. Because I’m a teacher, and that’s what I do. I ask lots of questions.

Anyway, I asked them a question, and I don’t even remember what the question was. That’s not important. They were really struggling with the question (whatever it was), and I was getting a lot of blank stares and confused looks.

I see this a lot in math at the secondary (middle and high school) level. The students have been trained to think that math is hard, and therefore any question must require a lot of thought to answer. Or they think it’s not even worth trying, because they’ll never get the answer. One of my mantras in my classes is “Don’t over-think this, guys!” I probably should have that posted on my wall along with the Rules of Math that I blatantly stole from Mathy McMatherson. (Thanks, Mr. Schneider!)

So as they sat there looking confused, I said, “Ok, you guys are majorly over-thinking this. I can tell because there’s smoke coming off your heads.”

And about 10 high school boys immediately looked up to see the smoke.

Priceless.

Two Weeks In

Yes, I probably could have posted at some point in the last two weeks, but I was tired.

First Day

I had a bunch of stuff I planned to do when I got to school, including unloading my trunk, re-hanging the posters that insist on falling down off my wall, printing off all the stuff I wanted to say on the first day, and making sure all my technology was working the way it was supposed to. Then, on my last trip moving stuff from my trunk to my classroom, I locked myself out of my room. It took two phone calls to the front office and almost 30 minutes for someone to finally come unlock my door and let me in. (I’ve spent the last two weeks triple-checking my pockets to make sure I have my keys every time I leave the room.)

So my first day started in a bit of a panic.

First Week

I only got through about half of what I intended to get through with my students, and had to finish up my first-day stuff on the second day. My students took a test for me on the prerequisite skills they need for Algebra (integers, fractions, decimals, etc) on Tuesday, and I didn’t get around to getting them graded until the end of the week.

On Monday, I was informed during 5th period that the counselors had a senior with nothing to do during 4th period, so would I like a TA? I jumped all over that. Then a student walked into my room during 6th period saying she was my TA. Within about an hour on the first day of school, I went from having 0 TAs to having 2 TAs, and no idea what to do with them. I’ve spent a fair amount of time this week coming up with things they can do. I am loving the fact that I can have them grade, except when I discovered the answer key was wrong after they had graded 3.5 of my 4 periods’ worth of stuff.

The first week went fairly well. The kids weren’t used to the school environment or each other yet, so they stayed pretty quiet and at least pretended to listen while I was teaching. Most of them did their homework. My only issue is my last class of the day – they just won’t stop talking! I rearranged seating charts this week because I couldn’t take it anymore (and because I wanted my students to be sitting in groups, not rows) and that helped a little bit. What really helped, however, was calling the parents of about 4 of the worst offenders and letting them know I’m “really concerned that [your kid] isn’t getting everything he/she could be out of this class”. The parents I talked to were great, and the class was much quieter for the rest of the week.

Second Week

I started my second week feeling panicked and frustrated because I’d had a to-do list a mile long over the weekend and hadn’t gotten much done. Specifically, I hadn’t done lesson plans for the week. (At this point “lesson plans” actually just means “powerpoint presentations”, not all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing.) I went to bed unhappy on Sunday night, and woke up still a little panicked on Monday morning. I didn’t lock my keys in my room this time, and managed to be ready for 1st period.

Now, here’s the trick: my planning period is 2nd, so all I really have to be able to do is get through 1st period on Monday morning, and the rest of the week will be fine.

I’ve started teaching material from the textbook this week, which has provided some much-needed structure to my plans. I’m struggling to get through everything I need to in the amount of time I have, although I’m getting better. I’m sure in a few months I’ll be pacing my lessons much more consistently. Pacing has always been a big issue for me – I tend to talk too much and not move on to the next thing when I should.

This week, I got an email asking how things were going with my mentor, and if I’d had a chance to talk to him yet, which I thought was funny. My mentor’s classroom is across the hall from mine, and I talk to him almost every day. Clearly, not everyone is lucky enough to have an easily-accessible mentor like I am.

Another teacher from the department, my instructional coach, commented on Friday that I looked a lot more relaxed this week than I did the first week. I was. Honestly, I’ve learned the hard way that even if I don’t get everything done that I want to over the weekend, I’ll still survive, and that has gone a long way toward my mental well-being. (In the future, that may not be such a good thing for me to know, but for right now, I needed it.)

My instructional coach also came in and observed my last-period class (at my request) to see what I can be doing better to discourage the constant talking. She had a lot of positive feedback on my teaching, including telling me that she couldn’t tell that I was completely unprepared for the class. (I had been typing bellwork questions for the students during the passing period when I realized I had forgotten to finish my powerpoint for that class.) She also hadÂ a few helpful suggestions for me to focus on in that class. The one I’m going to focus on first is how I position myself in the classroom. On Friday, I had the kids working on homework for a while, and then a review worksheet. As they did so, they had lots of questions, so I ran around the class answering them. My instructional coach recognized that when I do that, I often position myself with my back to half the class, making it very obvious that I’m not paying attention to them, and they take advantage of that. This week, I’m going to work on where I stand and how much I appear to be aware of what is going on in the class.

My students have their first quiz tomorrow and their first test on Friday, and then we’re finished with chapter 1 of the text! I can’t believe how fast this has already gone by. As the teacher, the day never feels like it’s dragging – usually I don’t have enough time to say everything I need to say. I can’t even remember how many times the bell has rung and I’ve nearly growled in frustration. “What?! Class can’t be over – I’m not done!” And because it’s high school, I have to let them go so they can get to their next class.

It’s only Sunday morning, and I feel much more prepared for this week. I have a couple of finishing touches to add to my powerpoints when I get to school tomorrow morning, but I have them written for the first 3 days of the week. I may even write up formal lesson plans this afternoon so I can say I’ve done it. I would work on writing my chapter test, but it’s saved on the hard drive at school, not in the cloud, so that will just have to wait.

I have a funny story to post from one of my classes on Friday, but I have to get ready to leave, so I’ll do it later.