Monthly Archives: January 2017

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.