Category Archives: Classroom Theory

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.

But are we learning?

A couple of days ago, one of my students asked me if I was going to stay up that night to see Mars. It was news to me that Mars was doing anything special, but I didn’t ask him to clarify. I just explained that no, I was not going to stay up late to see anything. I was going to get some sleep, because “I am a much nicer person when I’ve had a decent amount of sleep. Trust me, you want me to get some sleep.” Another student asked me if that’s why I’ve been so nice to them lately. Continue reading

Crazy-Busy, and One Good Thing

So have I mentioned I have a new job? I mean, like a second job. I didn’t change schools. I am still teaching at the same school, which lost its grant coordinator last year. We are receiving a grant for before- and after-school activities worth over a million dollars over 5 years, and this is the second year. The guy who was coordinating the grant last year is still in our district, but moved to another school. Anyway, I’m basically going to be in charge of overseeing our before- and after-school tutoring and enrichment programs. Our teachers have some cool ideas for things they want to do for enrichment, and many of them have stepped up to do tutoring a few hours a week, so I’ve got the schedule nicely filled out. It’s all coming together, but it’s been a lot of work. Continue reading

Link: What Students Really Need to Hear

Yesterday, a colleague of mine linked to this post on Facebook:

What Students Really Need to Hear by Chase Mielke at AffectiveLiving

If you haven’t already seen this, go read it. Right now. It’s ok – I’ll wait.

My first response: It’s like Chase Mielke works at my school!

This is exactly what has been causing me the most frustration lately – my students don’t persevere through hardship of any kind. I hear “I don’t get it”, “I can’t do this”, and “This is too hard” more times than I can even count every day, and I’m a math teacher. I can count pretty high. I was having a really hard time expressing in words why I’ve been so frustrated. I couldn’t explain why it drives me crazy to have to repeat instructions 56 times, or why I can’t stand hearing “I don’t get it.” Then I saw this post from Chase and I was floored. This is EXACTLY what’s going on in my classes.

This morning, my first period started asking me why I’ve been so frustrated lately. They’ve asked me this before, but as I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t really put it into words. I explained this to them, and said that another teacher passed along this post to me yesterday that explains it perfectly. I asked if I could read the post to them. I managed to make it to the last few paragraphs before I started to tear up, which I think is pretty good.

I’ve never seen them pay such close attention to anything I’ve ever said. Every eye in the room was on me, and every student’s body language said they were listening. I was interrupted in the middle of the post by an announcement over the intercom, and they asked me to finish reading before we left the room to respond to the announcement.

When I finished reading, the whole class applauded.

I don’t know if this will make any lasting difference in their attitudes about my class or their other classes, or high school in general. It will give me something to go back to with them:

Man up. Woman up. No more excuses. No more justifications. No blaming. No quitting. … Let’s do this.

We have 11 days of school left until final exams. Let’s do this.

Homework…Piles and Piles of Papers

Before I started school, I had talked to the other members of the math department and found that almost no one in the department collects their students’ homework every day. This seems logical since we’re math teachers and we are assigning homework just about every night. I have 111 students, and that’s just a lot of papers.

During the first week of school I was just assigning review worksheets as homework so I didn’t collect them. I also didn’t make a big deal about it if a student didn’t do them. Yes, they got a 0 for the assignment, but they didn’t count towards an Incomplete in the class.

(Side note: my school has implemented a policy this year that if a student is missing an assignment, they receive an Incomplete for the class instead of a grade. Yes, even one assignment.)

During Chapter 1 of the textbook, which I started during the second week of school, I went over the answers to the homework in class and collected it every night. My purpose in doing this was to help them understand that homework is important and I expect you to turn it in every day. I’ve emailed parents about missing work and tracked down students multiple times to tell them what they’re missing and that they need to get it turned in.

Many of my students weren’t turning stuff in, and the logistics of catching each and every one of them to tell them what they were missing was a nightmare.

My mentor teacher suggested a different strategy, the one he has been using in his classes since the beginning of the year. He walks around at the beginning of class (during bellwork) and checks the homework. He just looks to see if it has been completed. If the student doesn’t have the homework, he makes them write it on a Missing Assignments Log (that he created and the students keep) and show him that they have written it down. Then he moves on to the next student.

I’ve started using this same strategy since we started Chapter 2, and it’s fantastic. The biggest advantage to this system is the most obvious – guess who does NOT have to be in charge of keeping track of which of my 111 students are missing assignments and what exactly they’re missing? That’s right – ME. Instead of coming up to me and saying, “What am I missing?” they can now just look at their Missing Assignment Log and know right away.

My workload has decreased drastically this week. I even went home last night with NO work to do at home. (I stayed at school about 2 hours after the end of school, BUT I didn’t have more to do after I got home.) I was sort of confused, too. I thought first-year teachers weren’t supposed to be able to go home with no work! Is this allowed?

More importantly, I actually have more students doing the homework now. I think this is because I walk around and actually check in with them verbally about each homework assignment. They are held immediately accountable for not doing it because I ask them, one-on-one, where it is. I’m not emotional about this process – if they say they don’t have it, I ask them to write it on the Log and I have to see that it has been written down. Some of them are even making up the work they’ve missed, although others need some more nagging encouragement.

I’m thinking next year I’ll start not-collecting-homework-and-filling-out-Missing-Assignments-Logs right from the beginning. I didn’t need to kill myself during the first chapter trying to keep track of all those papers. (I will still collect homework occasionally, and I did a Homework Quiz at the beginning of this chapter – they copy 2 questions from their homework onto a separate sheet of paper and that’s their first quiz. That scared them sufficiently.) I’ll kill myself with other stuff, like grading their chapter tests. That was a painful experience.