Saturday, March 17, 2012

1 year anniversary

I've been sick with a flu type virus for the last week and a half or so.  I've been in a torpor- not reading blog posts, not thinking about teaching, barely dragging myself to school and home and sometimes not even managing that.  Sadly this sick torpor couldn't have come at a worse time.  I spent days planning a spectacular pi-day (but it was supposed to extend over the week with various competitions) and I've been absent for most of it.  My husband and I were supposed to have a getaway weekend this weekend that we've been planning for a year, a YEAR! And now all I can do at this awesome resort is whimper and sniffle.  Finally, this week marked the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  If I hadn't been in a congestion induced coma I would have thought to do something at school about this.  Fortunately my boss thought of it first and sent us all packing yesterday on a field trip to visit a local university that had a talk about the earthquake and tsunami.  It was kind of a terrible talk, but it inspired me to share some of my thoughts about this anniversary.  I wish I'd been able to get my act together to talk with my students about this stuff, but maybe it's better I talk about it somewhere than nowhere.

You may wonder why I would talk to my students about this at all.  My school was established on the philosophies of Japanese education 15 years ago and all our students study Japanese for two hours a day- so the earthquake and tsunami already would have caused (excuse me but I must) waves at my school.  But a year ago I was sitting in my classroom on a grading day when I heard the news that an earthquake, then tsunami had struck Tohoku, Japan- a region I lived in for two years.  I don't know how explain my connection to the region or it's people in a non cheesy way- but I studied abroad in Morioka, Iwate when I was 19 and fell in love with my host family and the region.  For the last 8 years my host family and I have written letters to each other monthly- have bi-monthly phone calls and send each other goodies from our respective countries.  I was so torn when I left Morioka as a student that as soon as I graduated with my MAT, I applied and was accepted into the JET Programme (a program to bring native English speakers into Japanese schools) and I requested to be placed in Iwate near my host family.  For a year I worked in a town an hour away from Morioka and took a bus into Morioka every weekend to see my host family.  They took me on trips throughout Japan, took care of me when I was sick, and christened me with their last name because they said I was their American daughter.  They're alright- this is not a build up to a "now they're gone and I'm heart broken" story.  But I had a very difficult weekend a year ago when I saw video after video of the town my host-sister lived and worked in being swept away.  When I finally made contact with my host parents 3 days after the tsunami hit- my host sister still hadn't been located.  You'll never guess what my host mom kept telling me throughout this phone call and subsequent phone calls throughout the week as her daughter remained missing- "thank you so much for caring from so far away."  While her daughter was missing and her prefecture was in ruins (no power, water or food), my host mom was thanking me for caring.  The speaker we went to see for our field-trip yesterday went to Japan for a few weeks last summer to help with clean-up and he characterized the Japanese people he met as "respectful".  He had no experience with Japan before he went on this relief effort, and he's right, they are respectful, but this is such a small word to characterize how the Japanese have responded to such a massive cataclysm.

About 5 or 6 days after the tsunami hit I received word from my host mother that my host sister was ok.  She is also a teacher and she was at school with her students when the earthquake hit.  The school was up pretty high on a cliff overlooking the water, and because of its altitude, it had been designated as the place the towns people should flee to in the event of a tsunami.  The teachers of the school, when they saw the swelling water, decided that their students weren't high enough and they collected all the students in the field and evacuated the students into the hills while the towns people came in behind them fleeing to the school.  The teachers were wise and the towns people (including many parents of the students) were all killed when water flooded the school.   My students knew about my connections with Tohoku and after the tsunami, we spent months raising money for the students of my host-sister's school.  Every student in our school wrote two letters, (there are 88 of us and 160 of them) decorated manila envelopes, and collected toys to put in the envelopes for students of the school.  The money we raised went to buying games and gym equipment for the students at the school now living in shelters.  Last summer my husband and I went to Japan to visit my host family and personally delivered the letters and gym equipment to my host sister's principle.  I'm glad we did something, but I'm so sad we didn't do more.   As we drove around in Japan this past summer visiting my host family, the country seemed almost unchanged from my previous visits.  The Japanese people I met were still very respectful and polite, they still were or pretended to be impressed by my Japanese, they laughed and joked and worked as hard as ever.  They spoke very matter-of-factly about the earthquake and tsunami, often without discernible bitterness. I felt like a clown- bringing these letters and these donations to a school as a great charitable act.  It was such a small thing compared to the mountains each individual Japanese person has moved to push themselves and their country forward.  Underneath their smiles, politeness, respect, and humor lay deep wells of emotion that they control and harness for collective good.  There's a word for this in Japanese- "gaman"- it loosely translates to perseverance- but it is closer to the word "stoic" I think.  I don't really know how to put it in words- but I know most of the people I saw while I was on my trip were suffering deep personal  losses.  Their whole worlds had been turned upside down.  They lost homes, parents, children, spouses and in some cases- their entire neighborhood or town had been washed away.  But they hadn't fallen to pieces.  They hadn't turned to bitterness, over indulgence, listlessness, cynicism, or regret.  I'm sure they felt many of these things but they didn't show any of it.  They rebuilt, they welcomed tourists, they thanked us whole heartedly for the small support we were able to offer.  They gave us tea and let us take pictures of their ruined lives.  There are many things about Japanese culture and society that I disagreed with, or made me feel uncomfortable- of course there were, I am from entirely opposite cultural values- but I'm proud that my host family always said I have a Japanese heart because I can't think of a better heart to have.

I haven't really shared these pictures with anyone, but I think I want to now.  These are pictures my husband and I took when we were vising my host family this past summer.  Maybe you noticed above, but I feel pretty sheepish for even having taken these pictures.  It seemed like such an awful thing to do-fat American tourist snapping shots of ruined Japanese towns while Japanese residents watch on from shelters.  I felt compelled to take these pictures though because I was representing my school and I knew my students back home would want a share of my experiences because they had worked so hard to produce the letters and toys that I was delivering.  I did not end up sharing these pictures with my students though.  There never seemed like a good time to do it and it all just seemed too sad to bring up again.

Here's a view of where the town my host sister lived in used to be:
Here are some various sights throughout the town.  The "OK" spray painted onto buildings meant that it's OK for the buildings to be demolished- anything inside that was salvageable has been taken out already.
This is one of the most striking sights to me.  The boat is upside-down on a tsunami wall.  These walls were designed to withstand tsunamis produced by earthquakes up to 8.5 in magnitude.  
This is my host sister's car sitting outside the school where many of the towns people died.  
Here's the school itself that was hit by the tsunami.  When we first pulled in this mural- of children playing in the sea- was the first thing we saw:

Here are a few pictures around the school.  

Here's a view from the school out to the ocean

Finally, here's a picture from the new, temporary school.  They're using an old office building to house two displaced schools.  They won't be able to rebuild new schools for about 10 years according to my host sister. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Don't Break the Quotient Rule or Our Friendly Giant will Stick You Between His Couch Cushions that Never get Vacuumed!

I've been meaning to put these up for a while.  My pre-algebra students finished their exponents brochures (description here) and they're kind of awesome so I thought I would post them.  Unfortunately, they did not do as well on the test following the brochures as I would have liked (80% average which is ok, but I wanted better).  I think they performed poorly because even though the brochures helped them cement the basic rules, it didn't help them review how to tackle the different types of problems they might see.  I was trying to avoid doing a drill and kill review worksheet by doing a project instead, but since the test had drill and kill problems, the only way to really prepare them for the test was with a worksheet.  So we're going to spend another few days reviewing exponents and we'll have a retake in a week.
I already started the review.  With our first extra day on exponents, I made a fake test for them that I had "taken" by compiling all the mistakes they made on their first test.  I showed them how I grade tests and then asked them to grade "my" test without an answer key.  I tried to make it a little bit fun in that I said I would award a prize to the student who's final grade was closest to the grade I would have given this test.  Every single student graded the test to within two or three points of the grade I would have given it.  They also found all the mistakes and discussed how frustrating it was when I didn't show my work or circle my answer.  It actually turned into a pretty fun activity because they got to scold me and they were having great discussions about which errors constituted arithmetic errors (which is only -1/2 a point) and which errors constituted understanding errors (which is -1 point).  So clearly they know the material well enough to recognize good work from bad work.  I just need to get them to recognize their own good work and bad work.  When I was wondering aloud about how the same student who got a 65% on his own test could have identified and corrected 100% of my mistakes the very next day, one of our Japanese teachers mentioned that it's easier to understand a language that you're studying than it is to speak it.  So I need to give them more speaking practice?  Maybe I've been focusing too much on error correction.  I decided to make one of my teaching goals this year to help kids learn to recognize their own errors and I guess I went a little overboard.  I have a nice, long drill and kill practice test lined up for them next.
Anyway, without further ado, here are my students' "exponent planet" brochures.

Front of brochure
Inside of brochure

Here's another one 
Inside (The pictures are adorable)

And just one more because I can't resist the math puns this student used

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Systems of Equations Scavenger Hunt

My algebra 1 students are coming to the end of their unit on systems of equations.  So far, they've done so much better with it than my students last year that I've been completely blown away.  They even had very little difficulty with the word problems which still has me reeling.  I set up a ladder game type activity where they did problems in pairs and then came to check answers with me before getting a new problem to work on.  I told them I'd award jolly ranchers (I know, I know.  Bribery is not the solution to student engagement, but it just works so well...) to pairs that got the answer on the very first try.  I thought I wouldn't really be handing out any candy because they would struggle so much with the word problems that they'd never be able to get the right answers the first time.  I went broke.  They tore through my stash of candies.  All students got through the 4 problems that were part of the game and about half got through the additional 9 problems that were on the homework all in the space of one class period!

So this week I've been trying to come up with a summative assessment that really challenges my students.  I'm a little bit bored of tests and I want to try something related to the real world.  I spent an hour earlier this week trolling around the internet hoping to find some good, real world application, performance assessment type activity, or worksheet or project but I didn't see anything I liked.  There are some activities out there on supply and demand, but my students I think are more intrinsically motivated to do math than to learn about economics, so a supply and demand activity that's unconnected to their direct experience seems contrived, and less engaging to my students than pure math would be.  Maybe I could fabricate some scenario when they'd be interested in figuring out a supply and demand problem?  I think that this would be a really cool way to go with a summative assessment for this unit, but I can't think of anything practical, doable and a manageable amount of prep.  I played with the idea of a Settler's of Catan type game (where students trade for resources to build stuff) but this is WAY more prep than I can manage right now.  I'm really torn because after reading so many blogs and articles that stress the importance of showing students how their math knowledge can be used practically in the real world, I really want to plan projects and simulations into my classes but I just don't know how to make it genuine.  I could try something like what dy/dan does and find a cool and interesting real life example, but I haven't found one yet and I don't have the time to keep looking.  I played with other ideas like taking a map of a town or city and plotting the paths of cars and seeing where cars may crash or where the road would be the most worn down.  This seemed doable, but again, contrived and impractical.

Because I ran out of time to work on this, I made a game that's maybe a bit of a compromise.  I made a map of our school and superimposed a coordinate grid on it.  I'll hide envelopes in 9 different locations throughout the school.  Each envelope will have copies of problems in them.  I'll hand each pair of students a system of equations problem and they need to solve it, graph the solution on their map, and go to that location to find another problem.  That problem will send them somewhere else in the school.  This is just a variation of a test, but at least it gets the kids moving around and potentially gives them a spacial understanding of what systems of equations mean.  It only took me about three or four hours to prep this game (uggg...).  And it's not really what I wanted, but I think it will be pretty fun.

Here's the map.  I'm especially proud of this.  It will be really useful to have when we're doing any graphing activity in any of my math classes.

System of Equations Scavenger Hunt Map of SJS With Cartesian Grid

Here are the scavenger hunt problems I'll hide in different places around the school:

System of Equations Scavenger Hunt Cards
Here is the worksheets students will fill out as they go around the school

System of Equations Scavenger Hunt Handout
Finally, here's the answer key.  Of course, none of this is of any use to someone who doesn't work at my school and it won't be of any use to me when I leave this school (which is probably going to be soon), but I did put a lot of time and thought into it so I felt the need to share.

System of Equations Scavenger Hunt Key