Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Clog: A Couple Stories from presentation week.

Story 1: learning through presenting

The first presentation of the day was a student presenting a math project about Misleading Graphs. This student clearly had no fear about this process. Earlier in the year he got on stage for the mental health panel and had also signed up to have 4 panels in one day. His confidence was as high as his substance as he was able to describe multiple types of misleading graphs and the news sources that keep making them. Even on the best presentations we have to keep asking questions that push the student. It is pretty rare when a student demonstrates total mastery over the math, the context, and the strategies the used. In this case, he didn’t really understand all the features he used on google sheets, and one graph that he made stepped over the line of being ‘misleading’ to just being incorrect. Presentations are great places to talk about wrong answers because you can really walk through the student about why it would be wrong, and correct any misconceptions on the spot.  Sometimes even the teachers have misconceptions. That’s a great thing about presentations is that there is space to really root out any misconceptions.

Story 2: a kid comes in and says “my teacher is in the hospital, so they sent me to you to approve my independent project.” Independent projects have become a thing of the past thanks to me and the rest of the team. We’ve asked that projects that to be presented to only come class projects to avoid getting things that aren’t on a high school level. However, someone gave him a green light but couldn’t finally approve the work that the student did, so I had to step in and help him finish. The paper was titled “Old Testatement.” I was worried.

His paper was actually super interesting! He asked two questions. Could Adam and Eve have populated the Earth in the 6000 years since being cast out of the garden of Eden, and could the the earth have been covered by flood of Noah’s ark (which we learned was originally told in the Epic of Gilgamesh) have actually covered the Earth? It was brilliant! He made an exponential model to describe the growth of human population from Adam and Eve’s 44 kids, and used the volume formula to find out that the earth would have required 3 times the amount currently in the oceans to be as high as it was described in the book.

The ingenuity and the curiosity on display wasn’t the best part. He actually became a different math learner during his presentation. He was vocal about how much he hated math class, and this disdain was what led his teacher to go along with this independent project idea.  He presented with three other kids, and offered to go first because  he felt his project was the “least worthy.” But when he finished the kids sitting next to him said he did such a good job that they didn’t know how to follow it. We also commented on how well he answered questions and explored his original problem. He left the room with his back straight and his head held high.

It was a great example of independent thinking and what is possible when kids are pursuing their own questions. Now the policy around independent projects seems like it should be reconsidered. Or, we should have more opportunities for kids to do modelling tasks where they pursue questions as opposed to doing it just because. Having a ‘mythbusters’ class where the kids try to model some historical story or other event could be really interesting. Kids could also try and compete with each other and come up with the best model possible.

Opening Up About Mental Illness In School

Our amazing guidance department has combined together to put on events for Mental Health month throughout May. There have been lots of events each day during lunch, and experts brought in to talk to the staff and answer questions. While all of the events are valuable, I think the most memorable event was the student health panel during our two town halls. There’s still programming left for next week, so maybe more good things were in store, but this panel looks to be the most memorable for a number of reasons.

First off the student health panel was great for the 9 students who were brave enough to sit on the stage and open up to the school. Some kids were shaking as the panels started, while others were bubbling with nervous laughter. Everyone was ready to do this, but ‘this’ was certainly not a normal event. Between these students there were some 20+ different diagnoses, including Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder to Bulemia to Depression, with many people having one kid. A counselor served as moderator and asked three questions:

  1. Introduce yourself, and as much about your condition(s) that you want to share.
  2. Describe your mental illness. How does it affect you, what do you do to cope?
  3. What are things at the school that help you?

Once the questions were asked, panel members took all the time they needed to explain their situation.

It was amazing to see these kids up there detailing their struggles, and their traumas, and their approach to handling it, in front of a huge group of kids. Each time a student responded to a question they were met with rounds of applause, and occasional cheering. The effect of the audience’s outpouring was visible as members of the panel relaxed and started to let their guards down. The audience also became more interested and more engaged as each person spoke, and cheered more when they finished. It was a great display of empathy on the part of the audience. The weeks of activities leading up to this, as well as the on going work of our guidance department, really helped to create this culture. Deep down, most kids have the capacity for empathy, even though they don’t show it. This event gave everyone a chance to put theirs to use.

At the same time, I’m aware that not every kid thinks kindly about people with mental illness. Stigma against mental illness pervades our society, so I’m sure it was operating in that auditorium perhaps among some of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium. It’s not their fault. The idea of writing off or being hostile towards mental illness has a long history, and comes from a lot of different places. That doesn’t mean it makes sense. Especially now that we have the plethora of ways to treat mental illness. Some people, who could benefit from treatment, avoid it and live a much more difficult life without it, all just to avoid the label “Mentally Ill”. This kind of stuff is deep and hard to mandate that people change. Through the school’s work in creating this culture, hopefully there is an environment that will force people to question stigma and the ideas that come from it. In the auditorium this week, it was clear that the stigma was not in the majority and hopefully it will spark a change in the minds of the quiet kids sprinkled through the auditorium.

The kids requested a staff member be on stage, and I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a habit I’ve held since March of 2003 when I just left the hospital after a week’s stay following a manic episode. When someone asked me, “where were you?” I wouldn’t make up a story or change the subject. I’d say, “I was in the mental hospital because I have manic depression.” At the time it was practical. Life was hard enough trying to catch up with classes, I didn’t to create some elaborate story of my whereabouts that week. So I told people straight whenever it came up, and I continued to do so until I started working. Lots of fears kept me from revealing my illness to coworkers and all but a handful of students, at least until the town hall committee started looking for volunteers.

If you’re a teacher and you have a mental illness, let me say why it might be useful for you to share it with your school as well. When kids come back from a mental hospital, or share that they are going to therapy or trying out new medication, it is always helpful for them to know that an adult has gone through similar stuff, and was able to finish college and get a job, etc. It’s also valuable for you. Society forces us to hold so much in about our conditions, it’s rare when you get a chance to use your condition as a way to help someone. It’s personally uplifting when I get a chance to talk through the side effects of whatever a kid is taking, or get to point them to resources that can help them. My school is really supportive, so I may have a different view of things than most. In some schools stigma is the dominant voice around mental illness issues. This may be coming from the captain of the football team, and it could also come from some of the adults. It may not feel safe to be totally open around all the people of the school. Definitely pick your spots. But for one or two students it could be super valuable.

To close it out, here’s an email that I got from a student who sent this as I was writing this that speaks to how valuable opening up can be:

Hi, I really want to say thank you for being able to participate in the town hall yesterday. I really don’t really enjoy them, but yesterday it really had me appreciate it because normally I would expected that the student would be talking about mental illness. I never would of expected you to get up there and speck about your illness. I too deal with depression and anxiety disorder and I am on medication too. It had me appreciate that every one of us have own stories. I thank you again for being so bold and so courageous…

What are they thinking? Sharpen your analysis of student thinking with rich tasks and video – #NCTMAnnual 2018

Thanks to everyone who came to our session. Below are our slides. If you want more information, including some videos, that can help you use this with other teachers, let me know!

Big thanks to Liz Garvey-Clark (@GarveyLiz) who did literally everthing

Clog: Oh, This Is Much Better

After a morning flash of insight, I spent way too much time on this Linear Regression Desmos Activity. It seemed like too cool of an idea to not do, although I’m sure it could be better. be For 4 weeks I’ve followed the IM 8th grade unit on data associations with my Algebra class, but I didn’t really have a cool way to talk about what linear regression is, or have a way to teach the kids how to use the regression features in Desmos. In retrospect, I could have sailed into the #MTBoS and found what other people are doing around regression, but I sort of burned my boats when I started making this thing. I trudged on in making this thing until 8 minutes before class, when I realized I needed make copies, and get upstairs. In all the work on the activity and the copies I didn’t get a chance to get the laptop key. We couldn’t use computers!

So I was up in the front of class, trying to keep my kids engaged while Jayla went to find the teacher who last had the laptop key (he was in the bathroom). “Alright guys, let’s review what we’ve been doing the last few days.” Doing a little mini-lesson at the board seemed like a good way to kill time. “How many people know what kind association this might be?” I said to the class while gesturing towards a hastily drawn scatterplot. Students looked back at me with silence and agony. It was clear they were not engaged, maybe because they knew the computers were coming. Their body language screamed that they were not invested in doing any part of this whole lecture thing. Then I thought to myself, “Teaching like this SUCKS.”

Over the past cycle I have been working on teaching with IM. Those materials have a lot more interaction, and realy prioritize the student voice. Kids were getting used to debating about which terms should be used, and agreeing on what is the right answer. There was a smooth flow to those classes while this little mini-lesson felt spreading the last of the natural peanut butter jar. The previous cycle I worked with a co-teacher who really pushed me to have more interactive lessons, with videos for the lectures, so I really haven’t done any kind of lecturing in a while. It really blows.

It set an awful tone for the Desmos Activity, which required a little bit of me in the driver seat since the activity was unclear in some parts. After the Desmos I had the last few lessons from the IM unit. The kids did a card sort, and used the card sort to learn about frequency tables and made some stacked bar charts. Everything felt kind of normal again.

Well kinda… I still need to fix that Desmos Activity, let me know if you have any feedback!

Grading, Assessments, and Hot Pockets

So you’re at a PD, a really awesome one at that. Everybody is quietly thinking about the prompt “What is assessment?” Your neighbors are writing things like “Assessment is knowing where kids are, where they need to go, and what you should do next.” These poetic statements allude to many parts of a real-time data gathering and analyzing process . Diagnostic assessment, summative assessment, formative assessment are all critical pieces of information that end up letting the teacher know what they need to maximize student growth and learning. The information gained from assessment become the ingredients that “Chef Teacher” can use to create any number of delicious stews, or salads, or souffles.

The facilitator tells everyone to stop writing and to stand up and share with someone new. After 15 awkward seconds of trying to lock eyes with someone, you find a partner across the room. After shaking hands you read your poetic statement with a serious flourish. Your partner responds with the following:

Assessment is how you give kids grades.

You wonder for a second if their table was given the same task. This statement describes a calculation chore that happens at the middle and the end of each term. Grades are what you show to parents and administrators if they want to know how the kids are doing. Assessment is a process that ensures that you have the information at any given point to be able to make the grade, but also to do so much more. Assessment can help you make decisions in the moment, tweak tomorrow’s lesson, or even alter your unit structure. Your assessments can tease out which students understand what you taught today and which ones are relying on the trick they learned last year. Viewing assessment as only a tool for finding grades is like “Chef Teacher” going to the kitchen, by passing all the groceries, and microwaving a Hot Pocket.

You rack your brain for how to begin a conversation about Grading, Assessments,…and Hot Pockets, when your partner cracks a smile. Turns out he was messing with you. He didn’t really believe that Assessment is solely for producing grades, but lots of teachers out there do. How would you describe all the things that assessment could be to someone who thinks it is only for getting the numbers to put on the report card?

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