Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Category: Uncategorized (Page 5 of 14)

Reviewing #NCTMAnnual proposals and the ‘Access and Equity Question’

For a few weeks last June I was one of the lucky volunteers who were able to review proposals for San Antonio’s 2017 NCTM conference. It was a lot of reading and it is a great opportunity to hear what math educators from around the world think should be talked about at the conference. Reading the words from hundreds of speakers provided a glimpse of math education thinking from the minds of teachers and educators across countless numbers of different contexts. It was a rare kind of opportunity that was both a great honor and also genuinely fun.

The Access and Equity Question

After reading over two hundred proposals, I noticed that some of the prompts from the application were better addressed than others. Particularly, the responses to the Access and Equity question were at times brief, or sometimes didn’t seem to address the question that was being asked. This question is the last written section of the proposal application form and asks:

“How does your presentation align with NCTM’s dedication to equity and access?”

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Starting off with my plans for next year

Last year was my first year in a new role and it was…something. I left for summer like a survivor of some mental and emotional ordeal. My family vacation was spent thinking about things that I didn’t do, or need to do. Relaxation never came on all my family travels as little flashbacks of this year’s events kept interrupting whatever was going on. Spending so much time thinking seems like a pre-burnout symptom, so there needs to be a change and what else can I change but myself.

So, how am I going to avoid ending the year feeling like a weathered and grizzled old man.  Well, I want to have a plan, three plans actually: a plan for the upcoming year, and also a plan for how I will work and carryout that plan, and finally a plan for myself. Since today is the first day that I’m officially returning, why not start the year blogging!

My back-of-the-napkin plan for this year for teaching, administering, and leading.

My school gives teachers so much autonomy and such great possibilities, that teaching here is truly magical. But like we’ve learned from the Harry Potter series has taught us anything, magic can easily become a burden (I only watched the movies, is that a valid reference?). Figuring out what to teach, staying on top of my classes, and giving timely feedback to students became burdens very quickly when teaching was not my primary focus. I am going to teach 4 classes next year, 3 of them I have taught before, 1 of them is going to be brand new. Class 1 is the Quadratics/Linear, 2 will be a new Exponential/Linear class. This is part of my plan to teach linear and another function at the same time to promote connections. Class 3 will be Probability, and Class 4 will be Statistics. Both of these classes are repeats that I am excited to ratchet up the rigor on, and can build off of one another for students who repeat. Pedagogically speaking I want to turn my classes into a series of instructional routines. After #tmcnyc16 I am on board with the ideas of activities that can support students in connections and I really hope my department can get on board with this too. Making kids think about new things every day is hard at a school that has new students changing classes frequently. Reusing different modules that kids can get familiarize in my class, and maybe other classes, will help to have more consistency. Teaching will have to be covered more in another blog, time to get on to administrating.

Administrating last year was treading carefully around many little things that  can bubble up into real emergencies if not dealt with well. Let’s call ‘administrating’ the and overseeing of tasks necessary for a school to function, in order to separate it from working with people and moving the school forward, which could be called ‘leadership.’ It wasn’t until halfway into the year that the full scope of administrative problems came into focus. This year I am starting to set up lots of small things successfully in order to make this year smoother. The student records are reorganized. The computer systems are upgraded. I took pictures of every classroom in the school so I can answer any furniture questions without having to run the stairs. Hopefully I can carry this proactiveness into the year. That will mean meeting early with the leadership team, the math team, and the support staff and make sure we all are completely clear about the direction we want this year to go, which also deals with leadership.

Leading, and how I am fulfilling my role as a leader, was only rarely thought about last year. I don’t really even know what to write here, that’s how little I thought of it. This year I plan to think about it more, and as I think about it, I’m going to blog about it. Let’s say twice a week for now, over on systemsforthecity.wordpress.com. I’ll meet more with other school leaders and try to pick up ideas, as well as reading some relevant books (or let’s be real, watching videos about them), and try to be open and honest about that journey.

So that is the back-of-the-napkin plan for the year. I’ll talk about how I am carrying out that plan and how I’ll try to plan for myself.

What I Learned About Teaching While Playing Pokemon Go

“Whoever designed Pokemon Go is pretty smart.” This thought as I was standing in my socks throwing imaginary Pokeballs at this Charmander that was virtually standing in my parents yard. The technology was impressive, but what impressed me the most was how they made the game so darn playable. The only Pokemon knowledge I have is from overhearing student conversations, I don’t have any games installed on my phone and would not have heard about this game if it weren’t on the evening news (and everywhere else). If Niantic, the creators of the game, can get a mobile game recluse to spend their vacation trying to catch imaginary “Pocket Monsters” in order to reach level 16, they must be doing something good. After playing pretty consistently for the last 3 weeks, I found plenty of connections to teaching which are worth sharing here.

Wait, what does this have to do with teaching?

First, why is it so relevant to teaching. Pokemon, and the Pokemon universe is a rich established body of knowledge. There are books of Pokemon knowledge, published well before this game came out, that contain relevant information for any player. For Niantic to achieve mainstream success they needed to break this information down in a way that someone new to this world could slowly pick up, while also not boring experienced knowledgeable players. Don’t forget, they also had ensure understanding of the complicated nature of the game itself, whose mechanics and relationships are also things needing mastery. Niantic had to do a lot of teaching in order to get people in to this game.

Immediate immersion, immediate success

The teaching for this game gets started very quickly. After you install the app, before you even decide your username, the first thing the game has you do is go out and capture Pokemon. Before you know if the introduction has finished, you are out of your seat. In my case I was out of the front of my parents’ house. The task was very intuitive. By following the map a short distance and clicking the Pokemon that appeared on the screen I was all ready participating in authentic game play. I immediately learned to flick the Pokeballs at the creature to capture it and saw the animation which confirms that it has been added to my collection. The little Charmander that I captured was actually a real thing, and the process I followed in capturing it was one that I would repeat over and over again. By immediately giving players a real experience, and one that ensured immediate success, it created confidence and a desire for more.

It left me thinking, “How quickly can I get my class into a math task?” Do we have to get the seating chart figured out, hand out books, and talk about the cell phone policy? Maybe the icebreaker can be built into a group task and they can learn names along the way? Why not take Pokemon Go’s lead and throw students into an activity that is actually related to the content that they will be learning. Have them follow the processes for reflection that they will repeat over and over like using their math journals or engaging in a group conversation afterwards. The administrivia can get covered next class, or next week, and instead engage the kids in an interesting math task right from the start.

Low-entry, high-ceiling gaming

The big news stories about Pokemon go describe hordes of people in public areas going after certain characters. It’s quite amazing that Niantic was able to create a game that so many people can be engaged in. There is effort required to play Pokemon Go, but not much. Two days after signing up I joined my mom on her morning walk around the neighborhood. The goal was to catch up with my mom, and also catch some Pokemon.  The effort required to play the game was the same that my 73 year-old mother puts forth before her morning tea. Because of that, there is a very low barrier to entry for this game.

Once you’ve started there are things you can also do but they are different for each player. The app will vibrate your phone when a Pokemon is close enough to catch. On that walk it showed me a low-strength Pokemon that is easy to catch. If I clicked on it today, the game would show a Pokemon of the same species but one with higher strength that is harder to catch because now I have leveled up 16 times. The game makes the Pokemon capture experience seem the same despite being of different challenge for players at different levels. Similarly, if two players get supplies from a Pokestop, the game gives more valuable supplies to the more experienced player. The game builds in differentiation so that players of all ability can walk along together. Because of this, the game has a very high ceiling for participants to be able to play and be challenged.

Facilitate teamwork

After playing the game for a few days everyone playing must join a team. These teams really come in to play when players want to try to attack these gyms, something that I was never really successful with. For people who want to be victorious in these virtual Pokemon battle grounds it is directly beneficial to work with your team. When I first had one of my Pokemon in the gym, I could see the icons of other people’s Pokemon who were fighting along with me.

Protecting a gym requires contributions of multiple players. If you win a gym, the game lets anyone assign their Pokemon to the gym to defend it. Players can only put in one of their creatures, which forces cooperation. The strongest player can’t put all of their strongest Pokemon to protect the gym, they need contributions from other members of his team if they are going to be successful. Like with good group work activities, it’s a situation where everyone is able to contribute, and benefit.

 

Balancing highlighting progress and not over-sharing

Less than a month after it’s release, scores of fans threatened to quit the game forever. The reason? Niantic temporarily shut down the feature allowing players to track how close they were to nearby Pokemon. Players were ready to give up because of the lack of information about their progress when Pokemon searching. Then I wondered if students check out of my class because they similarly don’t see how they are progressing.

Niantic’s decision came from the desire to shut down 3rd-Party websites who used that tracking system to find Pokemon. These apps showed where certain creatures are likely to spawn and appealed to people who didn’t want to find out the hard way. Niantic was worried that their tracking system was giving too much away to the players, and preventing them from learning about the Pokemon themselves. It is one of the few non-classroom example of the struggle between giving feedback and giving away too much information.

Targeted, instructional, real-time feedback

One afternoon I decided to battle at a Pokemon Gym that I found across the street from my school. These battles are interesting examples of how real time feedback helps you learn. Firstly, you can find see your character or the opponent lose strength as you attack, as do most games. The game will also tell you whether the attack was “Super effective” or “Not effective”. You learn quickly to swap your ineffective Pokemon with one of the other ones that you have captured in order to finish the battle. Effectiveness is determined by a ridiculously complicated set of relationships between individual Pokemon of certain types. No amateur player is going to sit down and memorize or even consult these giant charts before killing some time on their phone. The timely feedback about the battle, that comes at the right time serves to instruct the person with enough information about this larger set of relationships to finish the battle. If a Pokemon you’re using is flawed, you know to replace it, if it is Strong, you can remember to use it for next time. It’s a nice recipe for giving students some feedback as they are working on a task. Just point out what they are doing that is effective, or maybe ineffective. When you catch your self giving them the information outside of the whole task, back away and let them figure out those larger relationships on their own.

Time Management

I learned a lot of things from Pokemon Go. Now that summer is ending and I have to get busy planning other things, I don’t have time to keep trying to “Catch ’em All” so I had to uninstall the app. This probably the most valuable lesson that I got from the game, your time is too valuable to waste.

CLOG: Google Sheets and Flash Cards

Yesterday in class we had a day of getting kids on board with the technology and ramping up for our final project. For this class, students write a little research paper about what their peers beliefs on, well, anything. Prior to this class I looked at the calendar and freaked out a little after realizing that we need to get this survey drafted and out to the school ASAP.

But Before We Start On The Project…

Before we get started on the project I want to bring back the conversation we have been having about outliers and review it a little. I had an idea for a review “game” that was slightly more interactive then asking kids to do a bunch of problems and could also serve as a reference for finding outliers with Standard Deviation and the IQR. I made little cards that kids could work in pairs to see if they could put the steps for finding those outliers in order. It was cute, check it out, let me know what you think in the comments.

Let’s learn spreadsheets!

The next part of the lesson was to have students learn how to do all of this statistical analysis we have been doing by hand on our good buddy Google Sheets. I asked the kids to learn average, median, mode, min, max, range, quartile 0-4, Standard Deviation, and Variance.

Whenever I do this kind of thing, flashbacks of the age old ‘calculator’ debate echo through my brain. Visions of my old professors glowering at me appear like a bad dream alongside images of students understanding withering from the glow of their computing devices. I’ll probably never get rid of the dirty feeling associated with replacing by-hand work with computing devices. I think when it gets down to it, kids need to be able to explain the purpose of all the statistical tools that they are going to use in the future. They will get to have more practice explaining if they do more calculations done on computers than if they only did work work by hand.

Starting the Survey Project

Once I finished asking students work on their spreadsheets I asked them to get in groups and talk about their potential survey questions. The kids decided on the following topics: Color/Haircolor, Music, Meditation, and (As always) Marijuana Legalization. They went on Gallup, Harris, and others to learn more about their topics. By the end of the period students had some ideas of things that are interesting about their topic that they can ask questions about. Next class we will write the questions down on paper and talk about biased questions, and also sample size.

 

CLOG: They chose the worksheet!?!?

So I was about to teach standard deviation today, and from the beginning of the unit I had planned to revamp this power point that I originally made sometime before 2010. Unfortunately the revamp didn’t happen, so I got a little flashback to what my teaching was like in the naughts, and it wasn’t pretty. I mean it wasn’t bad, it was a Powerpoint where I go step by step through what Standard Deviation was using an example comparing two sets. There are lots of discussion prompts that get at why standard deviation is useful. Here’s the file if you want to check it out. LINK TO CARL’S OLD SCHOOL POWERPOINT Because my day was busy, I had no choice to but teach it pretty much identically to how I taught it at that time.

Stepping back in time

Teaching this lesson was like taking a quantum leap back in time to my previous teacher self. As I was teaching it I realized that I had not built in a way to see if students really understood the reasoning behind the the calculations, there were a few students who answering the discussion prompts in the class, but the rest mostly stayed silent. I tried to think of a way to modify the lesson on the fly instead of just using the results on a worksheet where they practice finding the standard deviation. I thought up  some different writing prompts that would be good ways to see if students understood why they were doing what they were doing, and I offered the class the following choice.

“Either do this worksheet, which asks you to calculate a lot of these giant standard deviations by hand…or answer some reflection questions that shows that you really understand standard deviation. Worksheet? Reflection questions? You pick!”

Would you believe that they picked the worksheet???

Why did they pick the worksheet!?!?

Having my reflection questions rejected was a pretty shocking occurrence in my classroom. One of those things that makes you suddenly question your whole approach in the middle of a class where you don’t have time to flesh the ideas out. Here are some of the things that ran through my head.

Should I let them choose? It wasn’t unanimous, the kids who were really into the lecture were the ones who were the ones who would write the reflection questions everybody else wanted the worksheet. Would allowing people to choose really result in everyone thinking about the ideas equally? (I said no)

What if they just didn’t get it? My first thought was that the pro-worksheet students might be students who may not have gotten much out of my Powerpoint, or any powerpoint in general. How many other times has an oversight on my part prevented a group of students from getting access to the big ideas.

Should I just do more practice? Should I allow students more opportunities to practice computations instead of asking them to describe big ideas? If I do, will math class turn into this thing that everyone hates (including me)?

How do I make reflection more natural? Students in the class need to be able to explain the ‘why’s’ behind all of the ideas in the class, so reflection should be though of as something as important as practice. Should I be doing more to change students thoughts about what math class is about?

 

Perhaps I am over thinking it. The fact that I had so much to think about made me glad that I am much more reflective teacher than I was when I originally made the worksheet. At the same time, I’m sure it’s unanswered questions like these that I need to reflect on if I want to keep getting better.

 

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