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Live look-in to my class these days:

Apollo’s shoulders sagging as he shakes his head at Rocky’s tenacity is one of the greatest moments in sports cinema.


 

I made my students a promise after Spring Break. Knowing that with three-fourths of the year behind us and the toughest math of the year ahead of us, many students check out mentally, I told them:

“When I start to mail it in, you can start to mail it in. But if I’m here, you’re here.”

Translated: Finish strong. Practically a class motto. But it’s not easy. We’ve got roughly two weeks till finals. Nothing I’ve seen as far as student apathy the last month or so is new to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna keep trying to find ways to make sure learning occurs at the end of the year. Sometimes that means recognizing that my students feel like they’ve been in a 15-round heavyweight bout, and adjusting accordingly.

That Desmos piecewise project seemed like an excellent solution. I definitely plan to incorporate it (and more, cut from the same cloth) next year.  But still, I had only about 60% participation. This on a project I provided class time for, and worked hard to shepherd my students through. I had hoped to scoop up some of the students who are intimidated by a standard-issue pencil & paper quiz, and entice some of my more artistically talented but math-resistant students to stick a toe in the water. And I think there was some of that.

I can live with it. But like The Little Flower, I want it all.

Time now to help get these guys ready for finals.

Image result for final exams gif
GIF via Odyssey (link).

 

Like a racer taking advantage of a tailwind, I’ve been looking for a little boost where I can find it here in the homestretch. I’m going to help chaperone prom, and attend graduation. My students like seeing their teachers there, and I like seeing them happy. I submitted a proposal to present at the South Shore eLearning conference in Hammond in June. And I’m already making a mental  list of things to tackle over the summer to hit the ground running in August.

Sometime soon that should become a real list, or at least a digital one.

So I’ve got my marching orders for the next two weeks, and for the summer. I’ll hand it off to the great Phil Georgeff for the stretch call…

Here they come, spinning out of the turn….

10 Pounds of Math In A 5 Pound Sack

School Countdown
You can pay for an actual working countdown clock for your site at countingdownto.com.

Real talk? If you ain’t counting, you lying. Yeah, I know. We’re not supposed to be counting.

But we are supposed to be planning. And adjusting when plans go sideways.

Which is how this happened at our Algebra II (Track 3) Late Start Wednesday Meeting:

Here's The Math

Related image
Low-Grade Panic sets in amongst our ragtag band of Alg II teachers. Image via What A Day For A Daydream.

29 days.

1 day for the final exam, preceded by 5 days of review. That leaves 23 instructional days. For 21 sections across 4 chapters which will account for 32 final exam questions.

Yikes. Something’s got to give.

I’ve got a thought about how to fire up a spaceship on 12 amps. So do my math department colleagues.

But you know who else has a thought? My students. And they might be willing to go along with some changes if they have proposed those changes.

So I asked them.

Here’s what they told me:

  • Skip bellringers
  • Skip the Friday Self-Assessment
  • Shorten up the notes
  • Do the practice assignment (“homework”) in class
  • Quick-hitter quizzes over a couple of day’s worth of skills
  • Rinse, repeat

Good Lord. Why don’t you just tell me to teach the class while standing on my head in a corner? Because that would be an easier change to make.

One of my students heard her classmates making these suggestions about cutting back on notes and not taking “homework” home and said under her breath “Oh God, that’s stressing me out”. Guess what, my dear: it’s stressing me out too. Wayyyy too traditional a classroom for my tastes. And for my students’ needs.

Or is it?

If they are telling me what they need right now, and what has worked well for them in previous years with teachers in my building, it’s worth a listen. Using a solid, ancient negotiating tactic, I came to the table with a mental list of concessions I was willing to make. Then I can can lay it on the table at make-or-break time, like it’s something that it absolutely kills me to give up. I love giving my students a chance to engage deeply with math thru Estimation 180, Which One Doesn’t Belong, 101qs, and Would You Rather?, but right now I’ll make the trade for the time and hope that over the last 7 months we built a culture of curiosity and problem-solving in my class that carries over to “traditional” tasks.

Plus, it’s nice to have a little leverage as the temperatures (inside and outside the classroom) warm up. “Hey you guys, you told me if I did x, you would do y. Time to hold up your end of the bargain.”

Now, it’s time to go try to land a 747 on a two-lane road. In a crosswind.

Wish me luck.

Hockey Sticks

Stickers
Yep, that’s frost on the inside of the windows.

When you drive an old car you get used to some rough sounds.

You also get very attuned to new, strange sounds. To the point where you almost don’t need an engine light to know when something’s not right.

So it is when you teach Algebra 1 frequent fliers, or in my current position, Track 3 Algebra II students with “Junioritis“. As my math coach in a previous district once told a room full of algebra teachers: “Your students have been going to school now for what, 11 or 12 years? Don’t fool yourself. They are not going to instantly start liking math all of a sudden just because you are their teacher this year.”

Image result for math student meme


So we started a chapter on exponentials and logs last week. We kicked the whole thing off with a day of graphing exponential functions by making a table of values. How did it go, you ask?

“I didn’t get to the back page because the front page made me cry.”

Yep. Rattle-rattle-thunder-clatter…

How do we fix this? (Hint: The answer is not “Call the Car-X Man.”)

We go Back to Basics:

Opened up class with the odds of a perfect NCAA bracket, graphs included. Because, the first day of the tournament (mid-day games, yo) dominates my students’ attention like little else.

Odds of a Perfect NCAA Bracket, Graphed

Then on to the bellringer – a Would You Rather on the evergreen task: would you rather have (insert giant sum of money) for a month’s work, or would you rather get one penny the first day, two pennies the second day, four cents on the third day, and so forth, with the daily pay rate doubling each day.

Several students lowered their shoulder and did the grunt work, either on calculator or on paper. And the answer became crystal clear. They actually “justified their answer with math”. Serious “light bulb” moments. (“Woah!……..”)

Then we walk through graphing an exponential with a fractional base, from the previous day’s assignment. Once I reminded (and showed) them that a negative exponent means write the reciprocal to the positive power, things fell into place. And hey, wait a minute. The shape of that graph looks very familiar. Like, we’ve seen it before. Maybe, today even…

I Feel Like I've Seen This Graph Before
Mind. Blown.

They still freeze up any time they are asked to graph a function from an x-y table, but I think they left class that day having a little clearer view of the *concept* of an exponential function. For just one day, I’ll take it. Let’s just say I’m guardedly optimistic. We’ll do some review at the end of the week, and a partner quiz on the day before Spring Break.

Not willing to rest on my laurels, next we pave the way for Inverse Functions. With a Desmos Activity borrowed from Jonathan Schoolcraft and tricked out with some Iron Giant themes.

Inverse Function AB Screengrab
Desmos Activity Builder, grab a bat. You’re up.

Moral of the story: it’s my job to stay in tune with my students’ level of understanding, and back them up when it’s needed. Visuals, a chance to play with numbers, and a chance to manipulate graphs definitely helps.

Or I could sit in a corner and mutter H – E – Double – Hockey Sticks. Those are the options.

Still Learning

End of Semester 1: imminent. That must mean it’s time for five days of endless, mind-numbing review worksheets so we can all pretend I helped them prepare for a really hard test.

Image result for sike

Borrowing a theme from the great Matt Miller, I opted for the Epic Review OlympicsPlanned ahead, before Christmas Break. Made a Jeopardy review for one day, planned out the rest, made my materials.

Then, the actual beginning of review. Snap back to reality

We only got to like 5 practice items out of the 25 on the Jeopardy game board. That’s not enough. I had students grouped up so they could work together and lean on each other. I hoped that would help more students get more assistance than I could give alone.

But instead:

“I can’t learn like this.”

“My group isn’t doing anything.”

“Can’t we just have a worksheet?”

(record scratch/freeze frame….)

Wait a minute. Aren’t all the MTBoS-inspired, student-centered lessons and activities supposed to be a magic wand that miraculously transforms unmotivated, under-prepared students into raging cauldrons of curiosity?

Image result for magic wand gif
Image via The Telegraph

It turns out…. no. One of my go-to guys, Matt Vaudrey, a teacher who literally wrote the book on crafting non-lethal math lessons, has run into the exact same situation:

Ugh. Yeah. Fine. But it’s not working for the class.

Carly, for example — the student who respectfully pointed out “we shouldn’t be tested on this if we didn’t cover it in class” — called me over during test review last week.

She asked, “Mr. Vaudrey, when are we going to practice more… like… actual math? Like, I understand that all these things (she motions at the review problems printed on colorful “stations” around the room) are important, but like… are we gonna get more notes on, like, equations and stuff?”

Ugh. Carly just loves when school is hard.

Students like Carly are accustomed to math class working a certain way. When their usual method of success no longer works, they get nervous.

It’s not wrong to give students what they require to succeed in class; a variety of nutrients is necessary for a healthy diet. If they want notes, it’s okay to give them that for a meal sometimes.

So, a moment of decision: What’s more important – doing a cool/fun game, or providing an opportunity for students to review/relearn?

(Both? Ideally…)

Call me greedy. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered a choice of two crowns, I call “both”. To the MTBoS Search Engine we go.

And we come away with Four In A Row (hat tip to Sarah Carter/Fawn Nguyen). Long story short, I needed 25 practice problems (in this case, for solving systems). And as Fawn Nguyen points out: Kuta makes it easy. Pick the level of difficulty and type of system to solve, generate the problems, have Kuta make a separate answer sheet so the problems and answers can be printed back-to-back.

So what happened?

  • Cutthroat competition: always a benefit when it comes to getting buy-in from students on an activity.
  • Collaboration after each problem: Students working together to find mistakes and re-working problems (AYKM?)
four-in-a-row-1
Two brains are better than one.
  • A triumphant “Yes!” from students who have struggled all year long, when they check their answer on the back and find out they worked the problem correctly:
  • And from another who managed to string together a series of boxes: “I’m taking this sheet home and putting it on my wall!”

Win-win.

Oh BTW: to give the activity a long tail I posted the problem set on our Canvas page for students who wanted more practice on their own before the final.

They got what they wanted. I got what I wanted.

Learning has occurred. For students, and for teachers.

Learning Together

Electric.

I know just enough to be dangerous. I can change out a ceiling fan or a car battery. Replace a plug on an extension cord. A few other things. I know enough to shut off the breaker or otherwise disconnect power before beginning a project. But how it all works?

Magic

I mean, I could give you a dictionary definition if you want. But I think you want a little bit more than that.


 

We blew past the circuits module in POE this year. We are smack in the middle of a major renovation right now, and my classroom is ground zero. There are decades of projects, binders, materials, tools, everywhere, across three classrooms. Despite receiving a literal truckload of brand-new PLTW supplies, I couldn’t track down the breadboards and wires for my students to work with. Fortunately there is an online sim for circuit building, which is what we used at my former school, but I need for my students to get hands-on with all of this. It’s one of the major selling points of PLTW – learning by doing.

Thanks to that turn of events, I’m a little ahead of schedule. Too early to start the next unit. But: amongst a recent shipment was a half-dozen boxes of the VEX building kits, including a hydrogen fuel cell and small solar panels for an energy activity.

Nothing says we can’t skip back and do that project now, right?

Turns out we didn’t have quite everything we needed. But in the spirit of American ingenuity and the can-do spirit (and the Porter County Career Center’s Alternative Energy program), we improvised. And learned. Every day I’d dig through stacks and storage of old equipment, find something that looked useful, give it to my students and said, “here, see what you can do with this.”

 

And because they are pretty slick, they’d go to work, think, try things out, look stuff up on Youtube when they needed to, and make some magic happen.

I told them up front that I had not done this project beginning to end before: “I’ll be real honest with you – we’re going to learn together”. I’m not sure I could get away with that just anywhere. I mean it as an opportunity for students to take control of their own learning. They get it.

Good thing, too.

My strategy: Ask a lot of probing questions, help when asked, get out of the way otherwise, check for understanding later. Plus, we eventually found the breadboards and some alligator clips.

And the next thing you know: Solar/Hydrogen Cell Car. Yeah.

 

There are places where this kind of “go forth and play, and oh, by the way, learn something” might not be met with great enthusiasm. “You’re the teacher. Teach us.”

I believe I have.

But wait. There’s more: Wait ’til we start coding in the next unit…

hello-cortex

Robots are coming.

Halftime Adjustments

this-is-fine
Live Look-In to my class during the quadratics unit. Image via http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/06/arts/this-is-fine-meme-dog-fire.html?_r=0.

A piece of our teacher evaluation rubric is evidence of using data to drive remediation and instruction, not just on a one-time basis but as a habit, throughout the year. The suggested method is doing a quick analysis of quiz/test grades, then planning intentionally in class based on the results.

Here’s what the quiz over solving quadratics by factoring looked like:

i-feel-shame-1
That’s. Not. Good.

I… feel shame.

It’s a Track 3 class, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have high expectations. But coupled with those high expectations has to be a plan to help students rise to meet them. I’m big into “you do, y’all do, we do“, and collaboration and 1-on-1 student sharing is baked in the cake just about every day. My long-time philosophy is: Accommodations For All. Quizzes are open-note, and we do a day of review before every quiz. I tell them exactly what is going to be on the quiz itself. There’s no “gotcha”. Everything but walk them by the hand, sit them down, and give them the answers.

And yeah, at some point it’s on them to prepare for class.  Those 39 of the 55 F’s that scored less than 40%? I don’t know what to say.

But I do know what to think: “what else do I need to do for them to have success?”

Did some soul-searching after pondering the results of that quiz. We had a quick turnaround to solving quadratics by completing the square, and using the quadratic formula. I needed to make some changes, pronto.

Upon further review – my students’ needs:

  1. Need more reps for review
  2. Need student choice for quiz
  3. Need shorter quizzes

As so often happens, the solution to at least one of my needs came through my Twitter feed, courtesy of the great Sarah Carter.

A sure-fire way for students to get a chance to solve three (or four or five) quadratics in one class period. Enough to go from a 1 to a 5 or 6 on the confidence meter. Build some muscle memory. By the time I was ready for the review, Thanksgiving had come and gone. But, hey, I know enough to stick a good thing in my back pocket for future reference.

As for the second and third items on my wish list: an old standby. Give them a list of problems from which to choose. In my mind’s eye, here’s what I saw: give ’em 8 quadratics, solve two by factoring, two by taking square roots, two by the formula, two by completing the square.

But, is that still too much? Covers all the skills, but man, that’s a long quiz. What to do, what to do?

Ask the MTBoS:

The response: Tighten it up.

So perfect. Done and done.


 

It is Indiana, after all, so “Turkeys In The Oven” became the basketball-themed “They Got Game.”

 

I’m not above bribery when it comes to methods of getting students to participate in a review. And if they think “extra credit to the winning team” is their idea, all the better.

No lie, you guys, they were begging me for another problem to work out. Asking each other for help when they got stuck. Calling me over to show off work.

use-your-notesthey-got-game-teamwork

Last period, one group was practically high-fiving each other: “We be ballin’!”

scoreboard
Scoreboard. Photo cred: me.

So we totaled up points, announced a winner, gave a pep talk, checked for understanding. They assured me they all felt much more prepared for a quiz than they did an hour ago. And for those who wanted or needed more practice, I posted a review module on our Canvas page with all 10 problems and worked-out solutions.

I think we got this. Looking forward to tomorrow.

One Shining Moment, baby. Because we be ballin’.

 

Observe Me

That’s how you become great. A bit on the NSFW side, but the basic theory holds. As John Shedd mused: A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.


So this week I received an email from a new colleague.

peer-observation-request
Took me about three seconds to reply in the affirmative. Before I could change my mind.

I’m down. Anything for the team. And seriously, anybody that intentional about getting better at teaching is my brother.

Truthfully: for a second, I wasn’t sure. I’m new here. My fellow teachers are really, really good. I have nothing to hide, but still. What if he comes in here and I’m actually terrible? What if my kids pick today to regress to middle-school?

But several members of my online PLN are all-in for the #ObserveMe movement credited to Robert Kaplinsky. There’s a whole lot of aweseome, risk-taking teachers putting, uh, themselves out there.  So yeah, come take a look. Tell me what you see, good and bad.

Maybe that’s a bit selfish on my part. I mean, I want to know what my colleagues think of my work. And I want to share all the awesomeness of the #MTBoS and the “Classroom Chef” mentality with all my fellow teachers. But it does take two – someone willing to invite, and someone willing to accept. That happened this week….. aaaaaand they’re off.

The plan for the day? A Desmos activity. On phones. First time on the small screen. So, kiddies: let’s find out together. (As an aside, we are headed towards a BYOD 1:1 environment so we are encouraged to begin piloting this school year. The carts in the math department are spoken for, so taking a page from one of my favorite risk-taking teachers, I scouted out a Desmos activity that I thought would work well on the small screen, logged in as a student to test it out, saw what I needed to see, and decided to let it ride.)

dab-screenshot
Yeah, so they got to scroll down to see the text entry box. Other than that…

As for the activity: Awesome formative – I knew what they knew (and didn’t know) right away. Although I’m not sure how much of that had to do with math knowledge and how much was related to navigating the slides, especially on ther phones.

The “Wait And See” mode that students love: off. Instead of waiting for me to write stuff down, then copying it, the students, working in pairs, had to think through the questions and come up with answers. Win!

Still a little off task. Not as much of a win!

(I think students are way more tempted to play around on their own phones than on school-issued devices. Also, it’s easier for me to see who’s playing around on a bigger screen.)

Interest definitely waned at the end. But that’s on me. The end of the activity is a word problem, which is like hand-delivering a kryptonite sandwich to class. So would I do it again? Yeah, if it’s the only way to get them doing Desmos activities, phones are better than nothing. But in a perfect world?

Next time: get the cart.

And: Oh yeah. Observe Me.

observe-me-snip

 

Linear Review: “Children Must Play” Edition

Image result for teacher at the board meme

So: Quiz Review.

I promise my students at the start of each year that I will never drop a quiz on them without scheduling a review day. Now, if they happen to be absent on that review day, that’s on them, not me, but still. I’m not here to play “gotcha”, right?

I also learned way early in my career that me standing at the board and working out problems while they watch me like I’m a trained seal is the worst kind of review.

Seriously, “Sit and Get” didn’t work the first time. Why should I think anything has changed because there’s a quiz tomorrow? So for a while now I’ve been on a quest for quality review activities. (Looking at you, Speed Dating.)

But the reality is, anything can get stale if you let it. Even really good, student centered activities. It helps to have a deep bench. Mix it up. Keep ’em on their toes.

Between the MTBoS and the Classroom Chef/Ditch That Textbook crew I stalk follow online, there are virtually limitless ideas out there. Beautiful thing is, creativity breeds creativity. Reading about my fellow teachers taking chances and putting themselves out there inspires me.

So come time to do linear review with my Algebra II classes, I planned a double-barreled approach: A Desmos Activty based on my Clark County School District enrollment trend project (trend line, writing equations, making predictions), and (inspired by Rafe Esquith, who wrote in his book “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” that as test prep he’d have his students predict the common mistakes that generated the distractors on the California state tests), a Make Your Own Kahoot.

I assigned the Desmos Activity as a do-at-home, which was probably a mistake. Other teachers I follow have had great success using AB this way, but the mistake I made was not priming the pump with an in-class Activity. Not too many of my students logged on to try it out after-hours.

Live and learn. I did do a little crowdsourcing for the slides, and got some good feedback.

That’s a good first step.

Still, I took some time the next day to debrief and walk through (OK, more of a 10k-pace run) through the activity screens, pointing out how the students that attempted the activity had the chance to apply what they had learned about slope to a (semi-) interesting problem.

Next up: a chance to dig in to the common mistakes that derail my students. Time for “Make your Own Kahoot!”

It was a two-day review of linear equations for an Algebra II class, which sounds excessive. But I think it was worth it. Day one, I challenged them in pairs to write their own Kahoot!-style multiple-choice question. With good distractors. No ridiculous, obviously wrong answers, but instead answers generated by common student mistakes, just like the testing companies do.

make-your-own-kahoot-equation
Photo credit: me. Brainpower credit: my kids.
make-your-own-kahoot-slope
How many ways can you mess up slope? Let’s see…

Then I collected the questions and answers and went home and made the Kahoot quiz.

Next day, we played their quiz.

Good folks have their issues with Kahoot.

Which is fine. I wouldn’t do it every day, or every week, for that matter. But damn, do the kids love it. You should have been in the class where one kid picked “harambae” as his screen name.  (Get it? Haram-BAE”). Rich.

Doc here: diy-kahoot-ch-2-review-directions.

Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun?

Oh, hell yeah.

 

 

One Year On

time chicago flies
Day to night and back again. Image via imgur.com.

Tempus fugit.

Time flies.

A million things are floating around in my head, and on my to-do list right now. But in the midst of all of it, I take a look at my “Archives” sidebar and see 12 months listed. Been blogging for a year. For real.

My actual Blogiversary is Aug 31, roughly three weeks from now, but still. New Teacher Orientation is August 11-12, less than a week away.

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How to spend the last carefree Friday evening of the summer. At peace. Photo cred: me.

This is a good time to look back and think about what I’ve learned.

You know, Reflective Practitioner and all.

 

#1: Blogging is more for me than for anyone else (good thing)

I made a commitment to myself last school year that I would begin blogging. I was beginning my 13th year of teaching, had been actively reading some great math and teaching blogs for more than half of than time, and definitely saw value in the practice. First, as we tell our kids, writing things down helps to cement the learning. I’m a mid-career teacher and I am committed to learning something every day. When I made a rookie mistake on a set of activity cards I made for a class, I included it in my recap. When a lesson bombed, I owned it. Some of my favorite bloggers out there strongly recommend that blog posts are not just the “greatest hits” of glorious lessons and light bulbs going off, but included the hows and whys of the disasters. Especially the whys.

I’m a numbers guy, and let’s be honest, in the age of social media, if you aren’t keeping at least a passing glance on numbers (followers, likes/favs, RTs, blog hits) you are either a liar or super-human in your humility. Our kids gain at least a little of their self-worth by thumbs-ups. Hell, I overheard my youngest son practically begging for comments on his youtube page late last school year. I feel at least a little bit like everyone who sits at a keyboard is probably seeking an audience they aren’t getting in real life.

In a little under a year of blogging, I think I’ve posted 40 times, and the Class of 2017 at my new school will have more graduates than I’ve had blog hits. But that’s OK. Because…

 

#2: Its good to have a place for thoughts to spill out

There’s a lot of crazy stuff in there that needs a landing place. Especially one that almost nobody is gonna see.

My desk at work is best described as “organized chaos”. There’s a place for everything, and everything’s in its place, but the average person walking by would look at it and go “Man, what a mess!”

Cluttered desk

Thing is, I know where everything is. And, I have a routine in place at the end of the day. Everything I need for the morning is set out the night before.  It’s kind of a personal motto: You Can’t Leave The Building On Friday Till Everything Is Prepped For Monday.  John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey, authors of The Classroom Chef, would call it “mise en place“.

Kind of the same thing with reflecting and blogging. Writing it down here gives the clutter of my day, my lesson, my brief flash of inspiration, a place to stay. And, I know where to find it when I need it.

 

#3: It gives me some legit goals for the new school year

Looking back on 40 posts, I’m pretty pleased at how things turned out, without a plan. Mostly, the events of the week would coalesce into A Theme, which would float around in my head for a bit until it became A Post.

For the 2016-2017 school year, I’m thinking seriously about starting to drop some events of the day at One Good Thing (subtitle: “every day may not be good, but there is one good thing in every day”). Quite a few of the #MTBoS crew post there on the regular. And as much fleeting personal satisfaction comes from a good bitch session, sharing out the good is much more beneficial, long-term.

Also, hoping to post more materials and post-mortems. To the extent that my fellow teachers do find and read this blog, part of the reason we all do this is to share what we’ve made, done, and learned, so others can critique, and improve upon. I’m down.

Speaking of #MTBoS people, I’m teaching Algebra 2 this year for the first time in about 6 years. Realistically, I’m teaching it for the first time since I started this quest to get better. I’m really learning to teach it all over again. Julie Reulbach of I Speak Math has organized a willing group of teachers to share their thoughts at the #Alg2Chat hashtag, and I get the feeling I’ll be spending some time there. Because sharing is caring.

Two turntables and a microphone. Here we go…