Sunday, February 23, 2014


Right now, I'm making lesson plans for my first period algebra 1 class.  Here is the first slide I decided to add to my presentation for tomorrow.

"Right now...

  • 4 of you have As
  • 2 of you have Cs
  • 9 of you have Fs
It's really easy for me to tell though without looking at my gradebook who is passing and who is not: those who are here everyday are passing.  Those of you who are absent two or more times a week are failing."

What do I do?  I can't teach students who don't show up.  When I make this announcement, most likely at least half my class will be absent and won't even hear the message I'm trying to convey.

Update: 3/8
The Monday after writing the above post I decided to try a new grading system in my class to see if that could help with attendance. I had been assigning homework and calling it homework, but I had been giving the students time to complete it in class.  Only if they didn't finish it in class would they need to do it at home.  I did this because I didn't want students to feel pressured to get the work done quickly- when I assign only classwork the slower and more careful students tend to get stressed out.  The problem though was that students were not using class time well.  When I asked them to work they said they would finish it at home, and then of course it (and the student) never came back.

I thought that maybe if I made their grade entirely based on them showing up and using class time well, then I would have more luck with both attendance and with comprehension.  Miraculously all the students did show up on Monday and I told my students that attendance was our biggest problem.  That those who were failing were failing because they weren't here.  I explained that I was going to make their grade based entirely on if they came to class, took notes and if they completed the work asked of them during class.  Immediately, I saw relief wash through the classroom.  I think because for the first time all year, they realized that they could pass.  That they could do what I was asking them to do.  The late homework, missed lessons and poor classwork completion had been weighing on them and had been causing them to avoid class.  It was easy for them to not show up because this class is first period and at our school, only freshmen and sophomores have to come to first period.  So my freshmen were hanging out with their Junior and Senior friends instead of coming to class.

They want to do well and only their guilt and lack of confidence had been keeping them away from class.  They constantly tell me that they like me as a teacher which is why I was so baffled by their poor attendance.  Maybe the fact that they do seem to like me contributed to them not wanting to face me when they thought they'd let me down.

Since changing my grading system two weeks ago, my attendance has sky rocketed.  They're all completing class work, asking questions and performing well on quizzes.  They still definitely lack initiative.  Since I require them to turn in an exit ticket to receive credit for the day's work, the end of class has gotten awfully chaotic as students frantically try to get my help because they don't trust their own abilities.  But they're trying and showing up now.  We can work on initiative later.  

I am torn about this no- homework system.  I have been following the homework vs. no homework debate and I'm more on the side of assigning homework because I've seen students grow so much from wresting with problems when they have no one around to help them.  They take better notes, ask better questions, and demonstrate much more mastery over the material than when I don't assign homework.  This experiment has reinforced my belief that homework does significantly contribute to learning because my other algebra 1 class to whom I still assign homework are demonstrating much more confidence with the material and are growing more rapidly.  Both my first and fifth period Algebra 1 classes are composed of low-income students who have failed algebra at least once before.  But my fifth period class has time earlier in the day (usually during lunch) to complete their homework so their homework turn in rate is good, their attendance is good and their learning is evident.  But clearly when students can't do homework and the not doing it wears down their self confidence and causes them to avoid class, the homework needs to be nixed because it's doing much more harm than good.

I guess this just reinforces my belief that there are no absolutes in education.  Every thing about teaching needs to be modified depending on the composition of students sitting in your classroom.  When students do homework it's good for them, but when they can't do it and are still expected to do it, it's bad for them.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Asking for help

I seek help on-line constantly when it comes to lesson planning.  I've grown used to the idea that anything I can think of, someone out there in the blogosphere has probably already perfected and I love that I can see kernels of lessons I've just dreamed come alive in others' hands.  This doesn't even include the gazillions of ideas I've never thought of that are about a hundred times better than anything I can dream.

But when it comes to actually teaching- implementing the lessons, getting my kids excited, supporting their growth, encouraging them to persevere, I've never received much help (administrators never pop in.  I've been formally observed only once and that was by a coworker) and I feel like at this stage, I don't need much help.  I have a thriving community of students coming during lunch to do math because they enjoy it, and I've watched the most recalcitrant math students slowly gain confidence and enthusiasm and I feel like this is what I'm good at.  I'm good at patiently coaxing students into learning that they can learn math and over time, that they enjoy learning it.

But this semester I have the most stubbornly anti math student I've ever taught.  For three weeks, she was an angel in my advisory and a demon in my math classroom.  She refuses to accept help saying that she doesn't need it, she'll do it at home.  Then she proceeds to do nothing at all through the whole 80 minute block.  When I try to help her she slides under her desk, covers her paper, refuses to look at the problem, gets up and walks away, or starts ranting about the uselessness of math.  She's a wonderful student in advisory so I know she's bright and capable, but she refuses to cooperate in math (especially whenever division becomes involved.  She says she never learned it and she never wants to learn it.)  She slept through all of my math classes two weeks ago and refused to stir when I tried to rouse her.  She got a 30% on her first test and even though I discussed with her the consequences of her actions through all of advisory that day she slept through math again the next day. I asked her if she wants to fail? It means she'll have to do it all again next year.  She replied she doesn't but she can BS her way through the other tests.  I said that learning to read is tedious, but once you do learn, it's magical what you can discover and that math is the same way.  She replied that reading is vital but math is superfluous.  I said that everyone needs help to learn math because it's several thousand years of accumulated knowledge that we're trying to impart in a few short years and that all I would like is for her to let me help her.  Right now I don't even care about notes or homework or tests.  I would just like her to allow me to talk to her about math without arguing.  She wouldn't budge.

I thought that I'd have to just wait her out.  I'd need to stop nagging her and let her come around on her own.  Maybe over time she'd start to feel left out.  Or she'd realize that she couldn't BS her way on her own and she didn't want to fail.  She was so obstinate that maybe just the fact that I was pushing was making her push against me and if I stopped pushing she'd stop fighting.  I was worried though that she would get so far behind by the time she came round that it would be too late to learn what she needed to learn since she was already so far behind.

So I turned to our vice principle, explained what was going on and what I'd tried and he said he'd talk to her.  The next day she took notes, completed her homework and asked for help.  I asked him what he said and he told me he'd talked about how many thousands of years of knowledge we were trying to teach her in a tiny span of time and that she could not learn without my help.  He said that this will be maybe the only time in her life where she had a teacher who was willing to give her extra time, extra help and who really cared about her and if she waited, she would never get the help she needed.  It was almost exactly the same logic I'd tried on her.  Her efforts have continued through the week.

I guess this just reinforces my belief that if I ever get to a place where I think I've figured it out- that means I've grown too complacent.  Teaching will always and forever be something I'll need help with and that's the way it's supposed to be because it's a collaborative endeavor.  I hope I'm always humble enough to ask for the help I need.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Angleatron Failure and Distance Formula Game Success

I taught the lesson on angleatrons that I previously posted about and it was not very successful at all.  I'm reluctant to write about my failures because I'm already the type of person who doubts everything I do and even my most successful lessons leave me feeling like I'm not the teacher I wish I was.  This is also why I'm a terrible blogger.  In my most insecure moments, I can't help but compare my teaching to these fantastic teachers I so admire and aspire to me more like.  I hope the fact that I am constantly striving to be better makes me a better teacher, but it also makes me very uncomfortable in my own skin much of the time.

The lesson was unsuccessful for several reasons beyond my control.  My speakers broke partway through showing the video so the students couldn't hear Vi Hart's narrations.  I then tried to paraphrase what she was doing with paper folding but students grew bored watching a soundless video.  This made me rush through the video to move on to the activity, but then students were confused about how to do the paper folding.  Their confusion reinforced my reasoning behind doing the activity because if students couldn't grasp the idea that the corner of their paper can be used as a 90 degree angle, then they really did need to practice basic angle drawings.  About half the class did take off doing drawings and folding angles.  A couple of them produced really beautiful designs and I think all of them did grasp what 90 degree and 45 degree angles are supposed to look like.  The other half of the class adamantly refused to draw, or refused to draw precisely (sloppily drawing 90 degree angles that looked more like they were 100 degrees because they refused to use the corner of their papers to guide their drawings.)  Their reluctance and difficulty only convinced me that they did need to practice, but the activity didn't work for the students who needed the practice.

I did try some other games this past week and they were much more successful.  For me, the simpler the game, the easier it is for me to pull off because I have a very minimalist classroom (I have to buy all my own supplies, the students have tiny desks and we don't have a white board, only a smart board which allows only one student to write on it at a time.)  I came up with a game to practice the distance formula which worked beautifully mostly because it was so simple.  First, I had to bribe the students to play because playing games involves more thinking than taking notes and they actually wanted me to keep lecturing so that they could passively copy/ sleep.  Then I asked them to group into threes and told them they were competing against their group members to convince them to work with people other than their best friends.  Finally, I just displayed four numbers on the smart board.  The students could rearrange the numbers into two ordered pairs however they wanted and could add negatives if they wanted.  The person in their group that was able to organize the ordered pairs in such a way as to maximize distance won and earned a candy.  I started with 0,0, 4, 12.  Then gave them 2,3,4,5.  Then started giving them bigger numbers.  At first the students just paired the first two digits and the last two digits and used the distance formula.  But after a round or two they started figuring out how to add negatives and rearrange the bigger numbers with smaller numbers to get larger distances.  They also were doing a good job of checking each other's work because they only earned candy if they did the calculations correctly.  By the end of the game, every student had figured out how to maximize distance and they were all tying and I was going bankrupt on Jolly Ranchers.  My favorite part was when one person in a group announced their largest distance was 13.2 and students from a different group came over and clustered around asking the person from the first group how they'd gotten such a big distance. I think the game worked very nicely because it was simple, strategic, competitive but not so competitive that students who were "losing" became disheartened.  By the end everyone was winning.

I didn't like the game because I don't like the distance formula.  I would much rather students use the Pythagorean theorem enough that they could then extrapolate the distance formula by picturing triangles on the coordinate plane without needing to graph.  Unfortunately I just didn't have the time to reinforce this method of calculating distance so I caved and taught them the distance formula (but at least I did show them how it came from the Pythagorean theorem, though half my class fell asleep or glazed over when I tried to show the derivation to them.  I've tried having them do the derivation themselves but their algebra skills are too weak.)  At least though, they did do some critical thinking in terms of figuring out how to maximize distance.  That was the saving grace of this game.