Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Category: Improving Teaching (Page 1 of 2)

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!

The Fear of Being Shipped On

Fair warning.  Since it’s late, in a couple of ways, this post might get a little ramble-y.  It’s late at night, or at least late for me.  I wanted to crash since I got home but I spent a bunch of time working on Powerpoint instead.  This blog is also late on posts, behind is a better word, as I am on the verge of missing 3 out of 4 days for this 30 day challenge.  I imagine I can pick back up with a flurry of activity during the conference.

One of the reasons I am busy is that now is the end of the 3rd cycle of our year and our students are finishing up their final projects. These final projects cause kids to work late and freak out and otherwise barely hold it together right until the very end.

Shipping, a term to describe finishing a project and meeting expectations on time, is scary for for kids.  It’s scary for adults too.  Seth Godin talks a lot about fear of shipping, as does a lot of the internet. He writes:

Shipping is fraught with risk and danger.

Every time you raise your hand, send an email, launch a product or make a suggestion, you’re exposing yourself to criticism. Not just criticism, but the negative consequences that come with wasting money, annoying someone in power or making a fool of yourself.

It’s no wonder we’re afraid to ship.

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#AprilBlogaday meets #MTBoS30

This marks the 5th post of my #MTBoS30, which is continuous daily blogging that began with @crstn85 ‘s post on April 1st.  There seems to be a similar set of blogging taking place simultaneously using the #AprilBlogaday.  I’m not sure whether or not these two things have ever been brought together.  Seems weird that these two events have yet to have any kind of cross-promotion.

#AprilBlogaday seems like the bizzaro Seinfeld episode of the #MTBoS30.  It seems like it centers around a list of prompts that are updated reguarly on the #AprilBlogaday Google Sspreadsheet while #MTBoS30 keeps things open for bloggers.

It looks to have been started by another person whose name starts with ‘Chris’.  Chris Crouch (@the_explicator) spread the word early in the month with a number of calls to action tweets like this one:

Blog writers coming from across the educational spectrum have been joining #AprilBlogaday, leading to a wide diversity of potential posts.  #MTBoS30 is focused on the awesomest of subject areas, and with that leads to more depth and focus on a certain topics.

Moving forward, I think I will incorporate some of the #AprilBlogaday ideas into my blog. Given how often I am short on ideas for posts, I think I may use some of the #AprilBlogaday prompts with my posts, but I must stop short of committing to join that movement as I am already knee deep in other people’s #MTBoS30 posts that I need to catch up on. Regardless of that, it is still inspiring and invigorating to see educators reflecting online.  Here is my first attempt at using an #AprilBlogaday prompt

#AprilBlogaday Prompt 4/1:  Are you where you thought you’d be?

It is weird to look back at what I used to think.  At each point in my past, I had dozens of thoughts about the future.  Most of those thoughts made were ridiculously off-base (like hoverboards), but looking back on it, I have traveled the road that I could have predicted. Past Carl would be pretty happy with my current job because, as a boy, I always wanted to work in a big city and wear a tie to work every day.  When I decided to pursue a teaching career, it was born from a desire to get better at something that was hard.  While I haven’t mastered it yet, I realize that I probably never will.  In reality, the opportunity to wake up each day and try something new only to go to bed each night thinking of tweaks that can still be made is a version of what I desired from this profession.

Of course all my predictions have not come true.  I didn’t predict I would still be teaching 5 years after getting an Administrators license.  After 10 years of teaching I predicted that I could confidently and effortlessly teach any topic to any student, or domesticated animal. It is kind of sad to look think about why you aren’t where you “should” be.  These things may just be part of larger stories that are playing out. The struggles with my career shortcomings may be valuable in what I learned.  My struggles with meeting girls in my teens (and Twenties) made me quicker to realize how that my girlfriend, now wife, is really special.  Perhaps these career struggles will make push me to fight harder for things looming in the future.

What is really important for where I am is closing doors on things that need to end.  I am glad to say that the time where I would not go to NCTM, not reach out to other math teachers, and otherwise hide in my classroom.  In fact, where I am now, I am disappointed that I am left alone to do what I please, as I instead wish for an environment where people are all collaboratively working together to grow and get better.  Right now, I am looking to quit a number of things that aren’t working to make me a better educator.  Hopefully this whittling down process will be the most important action I take today to get me to where I want to be tomorrow.


Grocery Store Takedown

In my last class I focused a lot on proportional reasoning, and at the end of March I wanted to give the kids a project that would be rich with a lot of different examples of the topic.  My original idea was to do a theme based on turning a beat into a song, but it seemed contrived.  Frustrated, I headed down the street to the only empty grocery store, and thought about how all the prices there were really high.  Suddenly a flash of insight hit.

The students can take down their expensive local grocery store!

Kids can imagine a product that they like to sell, and then look up how much cheaper it would be at a warehouse store, and compare the difference in prices.  Then students can use evidence from their local store to estimate how much money they would make from a day of selling the products, and then scale what the products would make over a month.  I went back home and scribbled a bunch of notes about the idea with a Doc-Brown-Esque level of enthusiasm, but I didn’t really put together a polished task until last week.

Download (PDF, 939KB)

Here is what I gave kids, although I really wish I could have made it better.

What I like about it:

  • It is a pretty straightforward task whose end goal makes enough students that all students can really understand what their end product should mean.
  • Students need to use proportional reasoning in so many different places that there are countless numbers of places to discuss it.
  • Since all students can do different products at different stores, the entire class can come up with different project results so there is no copying fear.

What I wonder about:

  • As a project to help kids express their proportional reasoning, should I have asked them to explicitly demonstrate two or three different ways of finding a number that would proportional to some other set of numbers?  If so, which ways should they all HAVE to know how to do?
  • How could this be better?

IF you can give me any feedback about the project, I’d appreciate it if you mentioned it by commenting on the google doc of this here.


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