Monthly Archives: September 2015

Making Stuff Up

One of my favorite questions to ask for bellwork is, “Write everything you know about [insert today’s topic here].” It’s quick, it’s easy, and it activates the students’ prior knowledge about whatever the day’s topic is. (See how I remembered all that PD I did as a first-year teacher? Go me.)

A possible disadvantage to this strategy is that a few students will always write, “I don’t know anything about [insert today’s topic here].” This may be legitimate, but I don’t really want that to be an option.

My strategy is to write this in my bellwork: “(If you don’t think you know anything about [insert topic here], then make up something that sounds good.)”


Identity Crisis

I just realized something about myself as a teacher. I wonder if this is something that a lot of teachers experience during their third year of teaching, as it seems like kind of an appropriate time.

I’m having an identity crisis.

I spent many years of my life assuming that classrooms were supposed to look like they do on TV – neat, orderly rows of students sitting quietly with their hands folded, waiting for me to impart my precious wisdom to them. (I assume TV is where I got that idea. Or maybe my own elementary experience – I’m sure not everyone in my class was that kind of student, but I was. And I didn’t care if anyone else was.)

When I became a teacher, I did the reading and learned that the sitting-quietly-in-rows thing isn’t really the current trend. And I thought, “Oh, that’s cool! If kids aren’t the sitting-quietly-in-rows type of kid, we can still teach them! We are learning how to reach kids on their level, instead of forcing them to conform to ours! What a fascinating shift in education!”

I’ve spent two years trying to learn how to become one of those teachers who embraces collaborative work, who encourages conversation in the classroom, who teaches in a way that all students can learn from.

But I kind of suck at it.

I think I’m still fighting a battle between how I think I should be teaching and how I want to default to teaching. Direct-instruction, sitting-quietly-in-rows teaching is what I’m most comfortable with, because it’s the only way I was ever taught. I have never seen a good model of any other form of instruction. Mentally, I embrace the idea that the best teaching uses many different approaches – direct instruction, collaborative work, independent practice, flipping, problem-based, project-based, blah blah blah – but I’ve never seen many of these in practice. I have the time this year to do projects, and do cool, in-depth lessons, and all kinds of collaborative activities, but when they fall apart (because they always do), I don’t know what to do.

Take today, for example.

This week, my students are doing a lesson from the Shell Centre. They started with a formative assessment which they took on Friday. We began the lesson with direct instruction yesterday (no school Monday due to inservice) and the students spent today working on a card matching activity in groups. The short version of the lesson is that the students need to find the equation of the lines given two points or the slope and one point to figure out which lines are the same. They have just spent two weeks on slope in their Algebra 1 class. Apparently, all they’ve taken away from those two weeks was “something about x1 and y1 and x2 and y2” and “rise over run”. It took us at least 10 minutes in each class to decide that a line must have a constant slope yesterday during “my” part of the lesson. Today, they seemed to have forgotten all of that. If another person tells me that they don’t “know how to do it”, I might lose my mind.

(My biggest issue with that statement, frankly, is that assumption that there must be one right way to “do it”, and since I didn’t show them that one right way, they can’t “do it”. My other big issue with that statement is that I DID SHOW THEM. Yesterday. I did an example on the board. We talked about slope, how a constant slope means the line is straight, how to calculate it, how graphing isn’t always the most accurate way to determine something, how to calculate the slope, and how to find the equation of a line.)

Continuing with my parenthetical train of thought above, this is a normal thing at my school – this severe lack of retention. It feels like no matter what we do, our students will not remember any of what we have taught them all year. I’m honestly not sure if it has something to do with our school culture, if there’s lead in our water or something else messing up their brains, if it’s related to a drill-and-kill style of teaching rather than a focus on true comprehension, or if I’m really just a shitty teacher.

Actually, you know what, I’m not done with this spiral-of-doom train of thought. Maybe I am a shitty teacher. Algebra makes so much sense to me! Of course variables can be used to represent unknown quantities! Of course you can manipulate them like numbers! Of course you can write an equation using numbers and variables to show the relationship between these two things! WHY DON’T MY STUDENTS “GET” THIS?! Why can’t I seem to explain this to them in a way that makes sense? I can’t get them to focus, I can’t get them to stop talking, and I can’t seem to explain anything. I can’t teach.

Ok, I’m going to try to finish my main point.

I spent most of my time today trying to help students figure out a strategy to get them started on the activity (most groups had barely started by the end of class, some had still not started at all). I tried to ask them questions to lead them through the thought process they needed to follow (which, by the way, is the EXACT SAME thought process we used yesterday during the example problem). They didn’t know the answers. I tried to come up with better questions. They still didn’t know the answers. I gave them instructions to think/talk to their group about something specific. As soon as I walked away, they were back to doing who-knows-what and insisting that they didn’t know “how to do it”.

I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to get them from where they are to where they need to be. I really don’t know how to do all of this three times a day without getting really sick of the process and nearly-yelling (or actually yelling) at my last class. (And yes, I realize that telling them they should know how to do something does not magically make them know how.) They want worksheets with clearly-defined instructions, not open-ended tasks that actually teach them something they need to know, because that’s what they’re used to. They don’t want to have to think, and I don’t know how to get them to think.

I want to teach them to work together (without being assholes to each other the whole time) and I want to teach them how to reason through something and I want to teach them to explain their reasoning. I want to be that kind of teacher. But I don’t think I know how.

A Series of Observations on High-Fives

At Twitter Math Camp this summer, Glenn Waddell (@gwaddellnvhs) talked about a few things he does in his classroom to help create the culture of positivity that he wants to foster, and one of the things that resonated with me was giving each student a high-five as they walk into class. He said that at first, the students thought it was pretty weird, but after a few weeks, they were waiting for him to come to the door so they could get their high-fives, and would ask for an extra high-five if they had been absent the day before.

I thought I would try high-fives this year. I do already greet my students at the door, and I am a high-five kind of person, so I figured this could work for me. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

At first, most of the kids gave me weird looks as they high-fived me. One refused to do it altogether (in a joking, not defiant manner). I allowed them to make that choice – if they don’t want to high-five me, that’s fine.

After a few days or maybe the first week or two, everyone expected a high-five as they entered the room. I started to see them put their hands up in anticipation, instead of responding to my hand being up. (And that one kid started giving me very half-hearted high-fives.)

After a couple of weeks, some of the classes have lined up outside the door and waited for me to come greet them. This doesn’t happen often – I don’t usually have anything I need to do during the passing period.

One student (again jokingly) refused to give me a high-five because I “scared him” by not being at the door when he expected (I was in the bathroom). He informed me I was grounded. I asked him what I was grounded from and he said I was grounded from teaching that day. I told him that was ok because he was taking a quiz. He tried to change his mind and insist that I was grounded from giving quizzes, but I told him it was too late – he’d already chosen my punishment. (Freshmen are hilarious.)

Occasionally, someone will still get by without a high-five (usually because they weren’t paying attention) and I’ll make a pouty face. Someone else in the hallway (not one of my students) will usually come over and give me a high-five to make up for the one the first kid didn’t give. This is always funny.

Most of the time, the high-fives give me a chance to gauge the moods of each student in a split-second. (Glenn pointed this out too.) I can tell by the tone of their high-five, the way they return my verbal greeting, and their body language if something is “off” that day.

Most of the time, the high-five garners a smile from most of the students. The act of doing the high-five seems to elicit a smile, almost subconsciously.

Most of the time, the high-five has that effect on me, as well. I have to smile, which improves my mood (if it needs to be improved), and means that the first thing my students get from me each day is a smile, or at least an action with a very positive connotation. It’s good for me. And it’s good for my kids.

The In-N-Out Problem

I did “The In-N-Out Problem with my Algebra Support classes this week. See “The In-N-Out Problem” here.

This conversation introduced our lesson:

Me: “So, have you guys ever been to In-N-Out before?”

5 minutes of discussion, which inevitably includes one kid screaming across the room to another kid, “WHAT?! YOU’VE NEVER BEEN TO IN-N-OUT BEFORE?!”

Me: “Great. Have you ever heard of the ‘secret menu’?”

5 more minutes of discussion, which inevitably includes half the class yelling that they’ve never heard of a secret menu and demanding to know how you can see the secret menu, and the other half of the class still yelling about how much they love In-N-Out.

I introduced the idea of the 3×3, and 4×4, and showed them the picture of the 20×20 (see link above).

5 more minutes of discussion, which inevitably includes someone thinking they are HILARIOUS when they yell out that the picture looks like diabetes.

Me: “No, diabetes is caused by too much sugar. This is heart disease.”

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