The Struggle

The battle lines are drawn in Alg 2. The price of poker has gone up.

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Pocket aces. Image via cardplayer.com

Beginning this year, our district has mandated that we weight tests and quizzes as 75% of the overall grade. For track 3 kids, who historically struggle on unit tests, this is a huge deal. They are feeling a little pummeled, watching their grades nose-dive with every assessment. Doing what they’ve always done is not getting them what they’ve always got. Their grade is now performance-based. Mastery is the goal. And the ones that are used to skating by, copying worksheets and guessing on multiple-choice tests are panicking at having to actually do math and support their answer.

“I have no clue, I study the very same way for years and now is the only time that my method hasn’t worked. The 75% is crushing my GPA because “I didn’t show work.” So I have no clue, I don’t have all the free time in the world.”

One of my students, responding to a survey question on how they could change their study habits to obtain better outcomes on quizzes

That’s like saying, “no fair grading me down on my essay because my spelling and grammar is poor and I didn’t support my argument”. We’ve spent a lifetime letting our low-level students slide, turning our heads, giving them freebie points for busy work and extra credit for tissue boxes (guilty!) and we’re crippling them.

But no creature fights back like a hurt bear.

That goes for kids and grown ups.

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My ego is stinging a little bit too. Fight or flight is a powerful impulse. We stopped mid-unit to review when an informal formative assessment showed they were struggling. I started using Julie Reulbach’s One-Sheets for unit review. Then I ran the data spread on their Unit 2 quiz and the average score in both classes is about a 45%. Over stuff they learned when they were freshmen. I want to get on my soapbox and have that Come To Jesus meeting with them. But I know from experience that preaching at them won’t change things, except maybe to make it worse.

Teaching them is the only thing that’s gonna work. Took extra care Monday to model “showing work.” Gave them an example of what “meeting expectations” looks like in a job setting (teachers get evaluated too). Offered them a study skill guide from an AVID school. I’ve set up a remediation plan after school, enrolled interested students in it, and emailed all my parents to let them know it’s an option for their child. The students who commit to getting help from me and working to master the skills can re-take a mini-assessment. If they show mastery, I’ll change their quiz grade. I’ve asked my colleagues for advice. I’ve dug pretty deep into my bag of tricks.

Now my job is to listen, and then to do.

Today we used another of my long-time go-tos, the “Solving Systems Three Ways Miniposter Project“. Students divide a poster page into three sections, and solve the same system by graphing, substitution, and by elimination. Of course, since it’s the same system, they should get the same answer all three times, so it is kind of self-checking. But I allow them to work in groups, use their notes, ask me questions, making sure that I support those who need a little one-on-one time. Then they complete some reflection questions about the methods.

Then I’m going to let them replace three exercises on the upcoming quiz with the three worked-out problems on the poster. They don’t know that yet. But on a unit that is universally, historically a disaster, it’s just my way of meeting them halfway.

I figure that’s only fair. Their struggle is my struggle.

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Image via campuscitizen.com
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Linear Systems Stay and Stray

Systems. Ugh.

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My very first go-round at systems of linear equations and inequalities, lo those many years ago, was an eye-opener. I was ready to drop the quiz score, all the scores were so bad. Clearly I must have done a terrible job teaching it. I’ll take the hit for this one, I figured. I related my misfortune to a colleague who had a couple of years experience under her belt. She wrinkled up her face and said, “All algebra I students are bad at solving systems. It happens every year. Don’t drop the quiz.”

Turns out, she was right. Truth: When you find a wise teacher, trust them.

My Algebra II students are struggling more than usual this year though. I covered another teacher’s IED class for a couple of days at the start of the unit, leaving one class of my students with a sub and some pretty thorough video notes, I thought. My first real try at an in-class flip. Thud. But my live class struggled too.

Scale of 1 – 10? They gave themselves a 3.5. No bueno.

So, let’s back up. We need some practice opportunities and a shot at understanding, not copying. We spent an entire class period working thru homework questions and setting up a word problem. That moved the needle a little. Got them to maybe 5. Still room to improve.

Sounds like a job for a Stay or Stray gallery walk. Picked this one up from my instructional coach in Hammond, Rhonda Fehr.

I provided a 9-question practice set, split 3/6 between graphing and substitution. Students group up, take ten minutes to work through problems as a group while I circulate to help troubleshoot. Each group should now have one problem on lock. My job is to subtly notice which problem that is, and assign it to that group as “their problem”. Now they put their work on a piece of poster paper which I strategically place around the room. One student is the “answerer”, the other group members ask questions to get to the point where they could teach it to other groups as they rotate around the room. Now one stays, they other group members rotate to the next station. After each round, a new student (not from the original group) stays at the station to become the new answerer, while everybody else moves on to ask questions at another station.

It was hectic. It was loud. That definitely turned off some of my students. “Mr. Dull, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “I didn’t learn anything from him”. “We didn’t have enough time to figure out a problem/ask questions/make our poster”.

I wanted to give them an opportunity to learn one problem deeply, know it so well they could explain it someone else. I didn’t hit everyone. Maybe just a few in each class. But I posted the original problem set on our Canvas, with a worked-out answer key, and several committed to going home and at least trying the rest of the problems.

So some learned today by explaining to others. Some learned by being taught by peers. Some will go home and get in some reps and check their own work, and learn that way.

I’ll take that.

My Favorite Lesson

My online PLN is blogging about Favorite Lessons this week. I have a handful of topics I really enjoy to teach, such as quadratics. I think this has to do with the subject matter being a challenge for my algebra students, and that there are so many ways to inject life into the subject. I also really like some of the class activities I’ve tried out, but those belong to someone else and have been written about by way better teachers than me. (This fantastic teacher‘s treatment of the In-N-Out 100×100, for instance. I’ve taught that one at two different schools, as well as to teachers at a conference session on building a PLN. It’s always a hit!)

So I want to write about a lesson that is my baby. Rewind to about 2010. The WCYDWT bug got me. Inspired by Dan Meyer, I was always looking for things in the world around me I could use as a hook for math. We had moved back to the Region from Las Vegas a few years earlier. The Clark County School District is the fifth-largest in the nation, with over 300,000 students, and had been growing rapidly for years.  When we lived there, 5000 people were moving into the Valley every month. The district was opening roughly a dozen new schools a year. Then: the crash. I was curious what effect the Great Recession would have on enrollment trends, and dug up a little data. I compiled a worksheet, printed it back-to-back with a grid, and the CCSD Enrollment activity was born.

It lived on paper and pencil for a few years. Then along came Desmos, smoothing over the struggle of a paper graph. Then Desmos Activity Builder. And…

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Desmos Activity Builder: CCSD Enrollment

They think. They write equations. They analyze data and make predictions. They examine each other’s work. and they think some more.

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(They also do some inappropriate teenager things, but what the hell). That’s a day, right there. In anybody’s class. We just spent a department meeting talking about needing to embed SMPs in our lessons and amp up DOK. It was all I could do to keep from leaping out of my seat and going “You guys! I got something I need to show you RIGHT NOW!”

Plus, just the fact that I’m on version 4.0 of this activity makes me feel like I’ve grown as a teacher, giving my students a chance to notice and wonder, appropriately using technology to amplify the learning target, and improving the questions and the way they are asked.

I think my students enjoy it almost as much as I do. Almost.


 

mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.

Linear Review Three Ways

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I’ve learned a few things about high school kids the last 14 years. One of those things is: they are not shy about telling you they need help. Might be verbal. Might be non-verbal. But the message is sent. So the question I have for myself is: You got the message. What did you do with this information, Mr. Teacher Man?

 

  • They need support.
  • They need a chance to collaborate and help each other.
  • They need to be able to think their way through a problem.
  • They need to see each other’s work
  • And they need reps. Lots and lots of self-checking reps.

We’ve got a quiz coming up on linear stuff. It’s all warmed-over Algebra I from their freshman year, but that was two years ago and for a lot of them at the beginning of the year it’s about as clear as mud. That’s a bad way to fly when we’re trying to rebuild a foundation for the rest of Algebra II.

I need a plan. Like Gerry Faust recruiting future Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown out of Texas:

Faust Recruits Tim Brown
The Golden Dream, by Gerry Faust and Steve Love

All the bases covered. And then some. Rapid fire.

I’m all-in for the gamified review favored by many members of my PLN. I like to have fun in class too. But my students in years past have also asked for a way to get more practice. Maybe even… a worksheet.

(Which, BTW, aren’t always as evil as they are made out to be. Depends on the worksheet. And the teacher, probably).

So I lined up a parade of varied review styles and methods for them this week:

We started with version 4.0 of my CCSD Enrollment activity on Desmos, because children must play. It had its ups and downs:

Next up is a review method promoted by Julie Reulbach known as One Sheets – all collaborative and student-centered. Plus it makes an excellent “as-needed” support on the quiz itself. The cleanup hitter is my very first MyMathLab assignment. The students can work on this online assignment over two days outside of class, getting multiple attempts at a problem, and able to access hints and help. That one’s targeted at my “give me a worksheet, please, Mr. Dull” people.

Differentiation, you guys. For real.

But not because it’s a buzzword (which it is), or because it’s a sub-domain on my evaluation rubrics (which it is). It’s a response to my students’ needs.

That’s a message I hear loud and clear.

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Define “Emergency”

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Image via stedi.org

I am a former holder of a State of Nevada Substitute Teacher License (very nice day job while finishing up work on my teaching degree at UNLV: Work When You Want To, Sleep In When You Have To). So: I’ve been there. I have a pretty good idea of what a sub needs from me when I’m not there. And: I have a pretty good idea what I need from a sub when I’m not there.

There are basically three kinds of sub days:

  • scheduled in advance, such as a workshop or personal day
  • night before/morning of with time to plan, such as waking up to a sick kiddo
  • unconscious, the reason your office manager asks you for Emergency Sub Plans

This last one is a capital-E Emergency. The middle one can turn into an “emergency” with poor planning.

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So: Let’s not.

My daily goal: everything done a minimum of two days in advance. (You can credit my mentor teachers during my student teaching year for that timetable). That’s a Canvas assignment fully set up with student work documents, resource links, and videos. My notes are set up in Google Slides, with the in-class examples recorded with my doc cam and Screencast-O-Matic. The slides are embedded in the Canvas page so students can access them even if I’m not there. The handouts are printed out ahead of time and waiting on my desk. PLTW is a totally different animal as the entire course is set up in Canvas. I figure that commitment to planning takes most of my days back to DEFCON 5. The sub can point the students to the Canvas page for the day, and everything the students need is there for them. When I worked at a non-Canvas school, I used Edmodo. Google Classroom is another option that several of my teaching colleagues used.

It doesn’t always work out that way that everything is set up in advance, but when it does, that covers 96% of the horrible things that can happen.

For the other 4% there’s my PLN.

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As part of my teacher evaluation I needed to submit an formal emergency sub plan last year. With a little digging, I ran across this from MTBoS superstar Meg Craig – an activity for her ACT Prep class in which students do some research on the score require to gain acceptance to their school of choice. It’s an ideal Emergency Sub Plan: one class period, suitable for all my students, relevant, minimal demands on my sub. I’ve never had to use it, but it’s there if I need it.

I just need one more thing: to be able to set this up in Canvas somehow so my students can get to it while I’m in an emergency room somewhere, without Mrs. Dull having to hack my Canvas account to activate it.

But then, what’s an emergency without a little rampant panic, right?

Know what tho? I’ve got a big round-number birthday coming up this week. My life can do with a little less drama. I’ll take the plan-ahead route and roll the dice.

It’s practically a family motto: Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

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mtbos-sunfun-logo

This is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.

 

Can You Help A Digital Native Out?

1:1 is here. I’ve been waiting awhile to get this party started.

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Oh, the possibilities: Students creating content! Diving deep into math! Self-directed learning! Even on a Sub Day!

Happy Happy! Joy Joy!

No, that’s not what it was like at all. In reality, well, it takes students a minute to get on board with something new. I had to take a sub day on short notice on Friday, but I had fortunately planned far enough ahead that my materials were already set up in Canvas for all my PLTW classes and my Algebra II students. All they had to do was sit back, absorb some instructions and/or notes, and commence to churning out pure awesomeness. The worked out examples we do in class are embedded right inside the slides:

What I ended up with was Substitution Mass Confusion (clouds inside your head).

*Greets students on Tuesday morning*

Me: “So, how’d Friday go?”

Students: “The assignment was easy. We could do that. But we couldn’t do the notes.”

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We ended up going back over everything on Tuesday. OK, they need some guidance on this. Digital Natives or no, they need someone to teach ’em what they don’t know how.


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Image via Desmos.com

Which is how I came to be teaching them Desmos on a Tuesday morning. I had embedded a quickie Desmos activity into their practice set Friday. Problem is, I’m not sure in retrospect they know how to graph a function in Desmos. Actually, after I looked at the dashboard, I know they didn’t know how to graph a function in Desmos.

“So how many of you had a teacher who used Desmos with you last year? Wait. None?!?!? You never? Really? Well guess what: This is your lucky day, kiddies.”

Angel choirs sing, rainbows arch across the sky, unicorns prance, chocolate abounds.

So step One: How to enter a function into Desmos:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 1
Borrowed a word problem from an old textbook. Instead of making a vague, mostly useless graph by hand, we turn that part over to Mr. Desmos.
Desmos Tutorial Screen 2
That’s great, but what are we supposed to do with that vertical-looking line?

OK, so that doesn’t look like much of anything that tells us anything about this flight. But wait. You guys, does negative time or negative distance make sense in this problem? No, they tell me. Great. Let’s get rid of those portions of the coordinate plane:

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Light dawns. This was a low-key truly beautiful moment.

Now let’s start rubbing some brain cells together:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 4

That took us to the end of class but definitely lit a fire. I sent them home with instructions to finish the activity. Many tore into it during their study hall, because when I went back to check the dashboard on my prep the thing was lit up like a Christmas tree.

From what I’ve been able to gather from observing other 1:1 initiatives from a distance, this is a huge step. In this order: Got the teachers trained up, got some in-house tech coaches in place, now we give the students the guidance they need and we are ready to rock.

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“Uh, excuse me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the action on this keyboard.”

Hacker-Proof

I don't care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.

So, Teacher Hacks.

Lifehack Definition
Via Merriam-Webster

I don’t have many. My big one? Like literally a Family Motto?

Automate what can be automated.

  • That’s my coffeemaker, for sure. Spend the extra 10 bucks and get one that’s programmable. We went Hamilton Beach Brew Station about 10 years ago. I wake up every damn day with the glorious aroma of Chock Full O’ Nuts wafting up the stairs. Let’s see, 5 minutes of work per morning, times 180 school days… That’s 15 hours I claw back every school year by setting the Source Of All Life And Awareness And Human Functionality And Everything the night before.

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  • I’m not as good at clawing back time after school. For real, grading will be the death of me. Alice Keeler, co-author of Ditch That Homework, has a thought:

As of late I’ve been having my Principles of Engineering students post a video showing their work and explaining their thinking to Flipgrid.

They divvy up the problems, taking one or two apiece, then they can check the rest of their work by watching their classmates’ posts.

  • I’m starting to see that Desmos can be an awesome formative tool now that we are 1:1. I can plan a quick bellringer or stick a Desmos Activity into a classwork assignment.

Desmos Match My Line Screenshot

Then all their thinking shows up on the dashboard, all in one place.

  • Lord knows we could all use a little extra cash. Extra Duty opportunities abound. The trick is not to run yourself ragged or cheat your family out of their time, just to get a staple. Eventually in my house we settled on a guideline: anything that happened during the school day (pull-out remediation, staff coverage on short-sub days) or immediately after school was OK, since I was in the building at that time anyway. Anything that would keep me there for hours on end or require weekends was out.

Mrs. Dull did make an exception for a couple of years as an assistant on the boys tennis team, which is a short season.


As for a Wish List? What could I make better:

  • I’m super-intrigued by the Parent Contact Form w/auto-email that Matt Miller and Alice Keeler designed in their book Ditch That Homework. If there’s anything in Teacherville that could stand to be lifehacked, it’s parent contact. One of my favorite colleagues from my early days of teaching told me how she committed to making 10 calls a day, every day, so that once every 3 weeks she had a parent contact with every student. She said it was her best year of teaching. She also said it was almost impossible to sustain. I tried it once. I couldn’t keep up.
  • Our student records system has a pass-back feature with Canvas, meaning I can grade in my LMS and the scores automatically get sent to my gradebook. Like the old rule about paper: Only Handle It Once, right? I feel like that might save me some time.

 

As we get comfortable with 1:1, the temptation is to use a tech tool for everything. But as many of my PLN have pointed out, it’s worth asking the question: “Is it better on paper?”

  • I’m a long time “Attendance/GBWA on seating chart” guy. I slip the seating chart into a page protector, walk around with a Vis-a-vis, mark my attendance or scores, and away we go. I also slip a copy of the full-detail version of my class roster in the sleeve back-to-back with my seating chart. At a previous school, we knew that some of our students didn’t know their address or contact phone number without having their phones handy to look up the info. If we ever had to evacuate the building, the roster meant that I had all my students’ contact info ready for them.
  • I need a better plan for grading quizzes/giving feedback, the way a starving man needs a cheeseburger. I’m open to suggestions. I got nothing.

P. S.: Even still, in teaching and in life, some things can’t be hacked.

And yes, I read Mommy Blogs. Especially Catholic ones. Don’t @ me. Unless you do it as an IFTTT.


mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.