Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Clog: Unfortunate start, unexpected finish

Class Begins

I had a cute exchange with my kid right before last period class on Friday. The kid was talking to a girl, and tried to appear tough, and then I appeared tough back, and he backed down, but it was cute. I walked down the hall and into my class and he went down the stairs and cut class. This student spent two weeks away from school to celebrate Christmas and he has yet to get started on the project after break.

Another kid asked me for water. “You know,” I replied, “last class you went for water and didn’t return.” “So do you want to me leave, like, collateral?” “Yeah leave your gloves on the table and get water.” I looked back 10 minutes later and her seat was empty and his gloves were gone. This student has missed a lot of class and has yet to start the project.

Rocky Start

For all of this week, and all of next week students are going to be working on their projects, so there will be a lot of independent work, which means Work Time. Today’s class began with self reflective questions on the board about the project. After Wednesday I began to form a plan to make Work Time as productive as possible. The plan for today was to was to precede work time with these questions to quickly assess needs. Unfortunately, timing is everything, and by the time I got all of the questions up on the board, laptops were out and projects were started. Kids were too distracted by the prospect of making progress, and their individual questions around that, to want to start on those questions on the board. I tried to get everyone to start it. Then one girl said, “Hey. Let me ask you a question about the data table…real quick.” This led to her neighbor asking a follow-up. Then a kid across the class verbally wondered why they can’t also ask a question. And so on… At this point it was like a bunch of kids sitting there saying “Let me eat my vegetables!!!” and I kind of caved on the questions, except to point people to them when I walked around.

Around the time I caved on the questions it became clear that the monster at the drinking fountain swallowed the student from above. My plans for structuring Work Time is precisely for those kinds of students. She had missed the last two classes, and had no clue about how to get started on the project. Theoretically she would have answered the questions, and in the process gone down the list of things she would need to do to be on track. Instead I’m assuming she walked in, saw everyone working and gave up. Perhaps actually writing the questions on the board takes too much time, I should make an actual handout that can help people go through the parts of the project, but not feel super redundant for kids who have been there the whole time.

One of the kids who have been there the whole time was still struggling with the project. This student was super focused today for some reason though. Once the class devolved into the typical work time set up, I spent a lot of time near his table answering questions and clarifying the project. I kind of feel like a crutch for students who aren’t truly independent learners. Given the kinds of math phobias students have before they come to me, it’s clear to see why they might need a crutch. The questions don’t help this student, because this student probably wants a much more specific and detailed sets of questions than what was on the board. What the student probably needs is a whole new conceptualization about himself as a math learner. This is something I have to figure out I guess.

Class Ends

After class was over the student above asked what the next part was. I said, “you make a histogram with that data.” He quietly walked over to the table where the project components were laid out. He then headed back past his departing classmates and sat back down at his desk and picked up his pencil. He worked well after school to start and finish this histogram. We worked for a full half-hour after school had ended. ON A FRIDAY. Oh, and all the while we were working, another student who also stayed working on her project. It was certainly unexpected, and inspiring to see students rising to the occasion.

Clog: Attacking Work Time with Questions

Yesterday’s blog helped me prepare for this class, as it ended up being 90% Work Time. The Work time was necessary because we are beginning working on our survey project. The students are working on this assignment, which asks that they work through a number of tasks independently. Structuring the time to work on these kinds of projects is a struggle, as almost all students have holes in their learning. Today also needed to be a better class than Monday. The class looked like the waiting room at the DMV as everyone was killing time until it was my turn to see them. There definitely needs to be new ways to help kids become more independent.

Starting with Questions

Today’s class I began with some questions that I wanted students to respond to on a small sheet of paper.

  1. Have you read the initial prompt of the assignment?
    1. Did you complete all of the previous work listed on the front?
    2. Did you complete the plan for the questions you will analyze on the back?
  2. Did you go online to get our spreadsheet data and set up your own copy?
  3. Have you made a data table? (The first item in the toolbox)

These questions took 2 minutes for students to read and start to answer. While they were on the board I went to each kid and looked at where they were at and confirmed what their next step should be. I made it around the room in about 5 minutes! The whole thing took about the time it would take for kids’ computers to turn on, but it made the class get focused very quickly on what steps they need to take.

The questions line up with each day of the project, which now provides structure for upcoming Work Time. Perhaps the rest of the days can have a big question for each day of the project, so kids can know how they are doing.

As students began working, I knew a lot students need to understand the formulas in the spreadsheet. It was clear that a mini-lesson would help, but then I got worried. All the writing about Work Time yesterday had this side benefit that I was clear about ways where I would be over helpful. Today, when students would ask me questions I would be better able to resist from overloading them with help. Because I had been thinking about what I DON’T want to do, it was easier for me to stop myself before I relapsed into doing it again. With a mini-lesson, I would typically try to get everyone’s attention and have them all follow along, but today I would give a shorter mini-lesson that only appeals to the people who need it. This time I announced that I’d soon start a mini-lesson and they can pay attention if they need this. It worked out well, and I started the mini-lesson earlier and was able to finish it faster than compared with Monday. It went pretty well.

Pretty successful work time today, let’s hope there is the same success on Friday.

My Struggles With Work Time

For the longest time, I have faced a classroom situation that can only be described as diabolical. This type of situation started rearing it’s head early in my teaching, but now it seems to have turned into my nemesis. We have our run-ins at the end of unit, when I am managing the unstructured class time while students work through a multi-stage project. I call this situation Work Time and I hate it, largely because I’m scared of it. So today I am going to write about it.

A solid metaphor might be a good way to look at this. As a teacher, I have a lot in common with Beverly Hills Cop. I’m from Detroit, I’m resourceful, and my classes are a nice mix of humor and action. The metaphor extends beyond Axel Foley. Traditional teaching methods mirror the police methods of  “supercops” Taggert and Rosewood, which I try to avoid. Student success in this scenario would be arresting the bad guy, Victor Maitlin. The bad guy seems so evil, it seems like it would be easy to catch him, but it isn’t. Same thing with students success. Plus, when we have success it seems like there was a lot of needless collateral damage. Things feel a little unresolved, as if there needs to be another sequel.

Ahh, Work Time, we meet again…

If I’m Axel Foley, trying to get to student success while avoiding the Beverly Hills PD, then there is one more piece of this metaphor. The henchman that is always getting in my way. The big-boss-man’s right-hand man that seems to pop up at the worst times. The henchman is a sign that there is trouble, but that you’re also on the right track. In Beverly Hills Cop that henchman is played by this guy:Related image

This guy is Jonathan Banks. He plays a henchman that has the upperhand on Axel from the start (he’s also Mike from breaking bad). For my teaching, this henchman is “Work Time” and he shows up right after I assign a project.

The Scourge of Work Time

Because our school has a project based assessment system, we need to work on multi-step projects every cycle. That means students need to be assigned the project, and given time to work on it. The project typically starts off well. I have a collection of good tasks, and students have done a lot of pre-work. Yet once students begin working independently, some of the myriad problems of Work Time shows up and start to deal their damage.

  • Some students race ahead while others struggle to get started
  • At least one student wants me to walk them through every step
  • Students spend all day working through some issue where I wasn’t around to give them the two second re-direction they needed to get back on track
  • Technology of some kind doesn’t work
  • A kid who missed prior work now needs to be walked through both the project, and/or the previous assignments
  • I stop everyone from working to do an impromptu mini-lesson on the board that results in more confusion and eats time.

These projects always feel like they are going to lead to an easy road to students success. Unfortunately, I’ll turn around and “Wham!” I’m in a shoot out with Work Time.

How do I defeat Work Time?

I’m not sure how I’m going to defeat work time, but my plan involves lots of checkboxes. On my “Data Statistician’s Toolbox” Project, I gave kids a whole host of check boxes and scaffolding that can help them understand what they need to do. I put a list of previous assignments on the top of the project. The project is broken into modules, so students can work on any given part on any given day. Technology is the big problem, as a lot of kids need to use spreadsheet formulas to figure this out, but I can make a checklist of those too. I’m hoping these checklists will help. I also plan to have a regular check in for people, so they can tell me about their daily progress.

I don’t think this will be the end of the battle with Work Time, but it should be enough until the next ‘sequel.’

Clog: Disaster Planning – Avoiding A Trainwreck

Most school days I set aside time away from admin stuff to prepare before classes. This planning doesn’t usually intrude on the rest of my schedule, as I only 3 days a week, but today was different.  A perfect storm of parent visits, meeting faux-pas, and email deluge combined with an lesson plan from the night before that I just wasn’t happy with meant that I had half the time to do all of the prep. It was time for Disaster Planning.

Disaster planning is my term for doing lots of last minute large structural planning for a class right before I have to teach. By large structural planning, I mean when you know the topics that are slated for today on the unit plan, but you don’t have finished materials about large chunks of the lesson, not just needing to print worksheets or grade yesterday’s homework. Maybe you don’t have a worksheet that covers the topic you want in the way you’d like, or you know a manipulative approach would be better, but you just don’t have a task that works. Today my issue was I wanted to students to see a variety of scatterplots, and the worksheet from last year used only examples of scatter plots of time series data, meaning the scatterplots were more like line graphs.

Full disclosure, I definitely do not think this is a good idea. This bad habit arose early in teaching on days when I would have a lesson planned the night before, but then in the shower I would have a brilliant idea and come to school and try to change everything to incorporate whatever the magical idea. “We’ll do a gallery walk!” While disaster planning is something I do more now, I never want to do it, and am certainly not recommending it as a good procedure. It is, however, something that has been happening enough that I can write some best practices and realistic expectations to those who tend to chase those last minute moments of inspiration.

Carl’s Disaster Planning Words of Wisdom

  1. “It’s going to be horrible and you shouldn’t do it.” Thinking through a lesson is as important as having the materials printed, don’t fool yourself into thinking that that it’ll end with a freeze frame high five. Understand that you made a mistake and try to avoid this situation again. Be honest with your class and let them know you’re doing something that might have mistakes. As class is going on take note of changes you should make before this material is used again, and make those changes as soon as you can after class.
  2. “Class structure  is as important as the materials.” Today I found a task online that covered on scatterplots and made copies, but that wasn’t enough. When I was first in situations like these, I foolishly thought having the materials in my hand made me feel prepared. You’re not really going to be prepared until you’ve thought through the timing, the possible questions, and everything else. Give yourself time to plan the structure. Stop working on the materials with time to spare in order to actually think through the way the learning should be structured. Maybe your kids will have to copy the last two problems off the board, but it’s better than having them go through a debrief that doesn’t cover all of the main points.
  3. “Lean on your routines.” If you have daily activites in your class, emphasizing them will make your class run smoother. If you have a great new idea that struck you on the way to work, don’t throw out the “Daily Do Now” or the “Thursday number talk,” instead incorporate it. Lack of consistency freaks students out. All of a sudden you’ll have management issues on top of whatever issues arise from your last minute whatever you planned. Instead, lean into these routines. Today I planned an extensive review Do Now because it would allow the class to get settled, and it would be a good review of the material that is leading up to scatterplot. The students were successful with the familiar routine and it lead smoothly into the class.
  4. “Brace yourself for pacing issues” If you aren’t really familiar with your materials it could go faster or slower, so have a back-pocket plan for either scenario. If it’s taking longer than you’ll have time for it may not be a bad idea to tie off the activity early and plan to address the rest on a later date. It may be a good lean on your routines and have an optional prompt for an exit ticket ready to go. If it is going fast and you have time at the end, you can also have an exit ticket ready to go, and maybe you an add an extra question (i.e. review a previous topic, or gather information to include as you discuss a future topic).

This marks my first #MTBoSblogsplosion post!

Get your 2017 blogging off on the right foot with #MTBoSblogsplosion

Happy 2017 #MTBoS!! With every new year comes the opportunity to commit yourself to positive habits. If you navigated the series of tubes to this post, then you probably are interested in writing about math teaching and learning, or supporting those who do. For people who plan to start 2017 blogging, or people who want to them on, I present a individualized, flexible initiative, to support writers and streamline process for readers who follow along. It’s the #MTBoSblogsplosion!

Why #MTBoSblogsplosion?

It’s been shown that the practice of writing reflective helps one think deeper and helps the brain make connections. The collective blog posts can form an accurate snapshot of teaching and education in a world where the realities of the classroom can be lost beneath messages from people outside of education. When initiatives like this take place, it affords the opportunity for writers and readers to have real conversations, helping to strengthen the bonds that make the #MTBoS such a wonderful place.

What is the #MTBoSblogsplosion?

Simply put, bloggers will decide the kind of blogging they can commit to, then they will blog, and all of it will be shared on social media with the hashtag #MTBoSblogsplosion so others can follow along.

You can think about it as a 3 step process. Step 1 is to make a commitment to a realistic amount of blogging. Maintaining work-life balance isn’t easy, and the #MTBoSblogsplosion isn’t trying to force that to be much harder. Choose the kind of blogging commitment that makes sense to you. Start with a regular Frequency such as:

  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Twice each fort-night
  • Three times a week unless my kid doesn’t go down for their nap on the weekend
  • Something else?

Then you may want to choose a duration, or how long you want this to go. Maybe the month of January would work for you? Maybe you want to take it through February vacation, go for it! Do you only want to dip your toes in the water and go for two weeks? That’s also great!

Finally, you may want to focus your writing. Here you want to think about whether you want to document what is going on in your class, maybe you want to write about the different tasks that you’ve been working on, maybe you want to discuss your new role as department chair. It may help people to write with prompts, if so you can do that. Here are prompts and some other ideas:

  • The 2016 Blogging Initiative blog prompts are here. Great for beginners!
  • Teachthought.com has a full month of prompts around teacher gratitude
  • Summaries of books and NCTM Journal articles
  • Taking a picture of student work each day
  • Isolating and describing a memorable teacher-student interaction
  • Describing classroom activities that you would like feedback on
  • Are there other prompts?

If it doesn’t help you to have a focus, then don’t pressure yourself, feel free to leave it open.

So now you’ve got a commitment. You’ve decided an amount, a duration, and a focus. Step 2 is to share your commitment. Twee this out as a nice sentence so readers can know what you’re trying to do, and cheer you on! For example:

  • “Starting today I’m going to blog twice a week until Feb 1 about ways I can support my students. #mtbosblogsplosion”
  • “This month, I’ll write posts every school day (even if they’re short) about teaching and learning. #mtbosblogsplosion”
  • “For my New years resolution, I’m writing twice monthly, about a book or article that I’ll read,#mtbosblogsplosion”

After that initial tweet comes Step 3, start blogging!  Each time you post, tweet out a link along with the hashtag #mtbosblogsplosion.

And now the final step… Step 4 is to read and support others. The best part of initiatives like this is the positive energy and support you can get to reach your goals. Help generate and spread this energy by reading and leaving comments for other #MTBoSblogsplosion posts. This is a step that people can do even if they skipped the first 3 steps.

 

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