Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now it's 2014, any progress on changing how the math looks? Is it 1985? Is it 2003? Is it 2014?

So last June I made the simple declaration that math homework was going to look different than 1985 in my room (It's 2013, shouldn't HS daily homework look different than 1985?).  I set up some ideas and defined a mission of my vision going forward.  I was looking at a 3 prong approach to practice (homework): weekly practice, projects with milestones, and combo of workbook/text problems (1-2 times per week). 
Now we are done with 3/4 of the school year, so how does homework look in my room?   Is the "time-machined math teacher" from 1985 comfortable in my room, or would he/she think it is a futuristic math room?  What year is my room?  (I will answer those questions at the end)

But first - how do the three prongs look like currently?  First, I did start by having weekly practice on IXL Math and Khan Academy.  I felt the review and feedback would work well.  For high schoolers I quickly discovered that IXL was not going to work with me, it is too rote for my students and myself.  Khan worked better and for the first semester I used it as part of the homework, I asked for 2 to 3 focused 20 minute sessions.  Khan would e-mail me each class with a report, which worked okay.  I still found it hard and time consuming to track what my students had done (and that is the kiss of death for me personally).

I continued to keep pencil and paper homework assignments small (about 6 questions) and completely review.  We moved to two times per week with review homework, but the move from daily homework to just a couple of assignments really made me wonder about the value of it.  Over the past few years I have changed my classroom to a point where we do not cover homework questions (it is all review material), we do not grade together (everyone has the answers) and the expectation is for the student to complete and turn homework into a slot by my desk (no stopping class to collect or ask are you done, occasionally I mentioned that "You should turn in your work").  I have just found taking homework questions, grading homework and collecting took too much precious class time.

So as I lowered the homework amount I really reflected on whether this homework had real value, so I let the homework become de-emphaisized -- I did not ask for the work or follow up with students about it.  This underemphasis was quickly picked up by the students and then I had the students who wanted to do well doing the work, and the others would "learn through tests and quizzes."  I discovered a lower limit with regards to homework, without it student performance started dropping (I really was truly surprised!).  So we went back to occasionally mentioning of the homework, making minor pushes for it and 'making' students do it; now student learning is back up.

Second, I had mentioned a workbook to get some practice on concepts and skills in my original post.  The goal of the workbook was practice, but I was concerned about the rote nature of worksheets.  What I needed was more time in the classroom to integrate problems in the course of the 44 minutes to keep students skills "in-practice."  Plus I really did not have the budget for workbooks.  So instead of a workbook, I flipped the first semester of Algebra 1 (Playlist 2).   And it has worked alright!  I plan to continue this next year and expand it into other courses.

Finally third, we continued our large scale projects.  I have slowly (so slowly) added more milestones, but this part of the change will have to continue into the summer and future school years. (Pay Day Loan Algebra 1, Stocks Algebra 2 and Constructing a house Geometry)  The long term goal with the projects is to have them become a larger part of the curriculum and make them tie better to direct mathematical concepts, for example teach area of a parallelogram through the house project versus lecturing on it and using it in the house project.  This PBL idea for math is still slowly, glacier-ally slowly happening.  (Though in my Physics class we have add a year long class project very successfully, our school is driving towards have 10% of our energy generated on site done by the class.)

So "Has it worked?" is the wrong question, is it making my room 2% better per year is a more appropriate question.  And yes, my room is evolving and getting better.  The projects are good and I am adding milestones (success).  The flip lessons were a great start in flipping and have worked well (success).  The on-line component has been too much work and has gone from a major weekly component in the first semseter, to once per week,  so we are back to paper/pencil homework 4 times per week. (in process). The on-line part will take more reflection this summer.

So what would a guest see in our math room?
The typical class now looks like this:  students enter and immediately start the warm-up on the board (usually using expo markers on their desks), we spend the entire period working on math, the room is loud with everyone working on problems, some helping others, some getting help from me.  We hit the recent concepts, the problems that have been a struggle, some easy, some hard.  (No homework help, no grading, no working on tomorrow's assignment - it's homework).  A quick lesson is presented  - where students are often ask to work problems as the lecture is happening.  We work on math for nearly the entire hour, I am guiding the room versus lecturing to it.  We recently received a grant for a new quad smartboard, and instead of just replacing the current board, we moved it to the back of the room - so we have 2!  Now I am trying to keep one student or 2 on the back board at all times, I am constantly having students do the work.  I simply prowl the aisles looking to assist while always remembering to "be less helpful."

Twice a week we have short recursive summative assessments of nonnegotiable mastered material (quiz), once week we have a test on current material and once every 2 weeks we will have a project day.  So 3 days per week there is some sort of recursive assessment, we never test on one concept, or one unit.  The class, the assessments and the homework are always set to make a Juda graduate ready for college and the world.

So is the "time-machined math teacher" from 1985 comfortable in my room, or would he/she think it is a futuristic math room?  What year is my room?  (the end is near....)

A teacher whether from now or 1985 would see plenty of action, practice is done in a variety ways, students always working, very little lecture, and no emphasis on pencil/paper homework.  They would be slightly uncomfortable with how much the students do, or how little I do.  It would be the project days where students justify the math, make assumptions and conclusions and chase projects that would make a time-machined math teacher confused. 

But alas that is only one of ten days, maybe next year it will be 2....

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Wanting to become a teacher - How I changed careers (Part 1 of a few?)

So I have been asked about becoming a teacher from another career (Engineering to math/science), what it takes, why I did it, am I happy, etc.  So this is the first post of a multi-part post in how I moved.  First, if you are moving for the number one joke -- "The 3 best reasons to teach - June, July & August"; DON'T do it.  Teaching takes a desire, it is hard work from September to June, and you spend plenty of time in July and August working on curriculum etc.  My hours per year are most likely surprising.

I worked less total hours in my 12 month, 50 hour per week engineer/manager job then the 9.5 months of teaching and summer curriculum.  But also don't let hours stop you from moving, changing to a teacher has been the single best career move of mine in the 20 years I have worked.  I am more than happy (though like every job there are hard moments).

And if you think you can just get in front of class and do it, and a lot of people think that, you are most likely sorely mistaken.  (I am sure someone can, but I know most cannot).  Though I am not sure education programs really get you 100% ready either -- depends on the program.  It is really a journey you must want to do -- a desire to be beyond mediocrity, when I came into teaching as a second career simply being a teacher for me was not enough.  I wanted to be excellent at the craft.

A little history, I was a young man who believed the cliche "Those that can do, those that can't teach."   So as I went to college at 17  and selected the the most well paid career in my fields of interest, math & science -- Mechanical Engineering.  I liked math and science and thought teaching was interesting but its salary was about 18K starting where engineering was about 42K starting.

So I took the money path, graduated and took a job in engineering within a manufacturing environment.  I liked the problem solving but every time the "new-ness" wore out I found myself looking for another challenge/opportunity.  I move thru 5 engineering/managing jobs in about a decade with 3 different companies -- I always moved up but I was always moving.  The reality of my life for me occurred after 9/11, as the small business I worked for struggled with lagging sales and eventually went into bankruptcy.  I worked my ass off trying to keep the business afloat, but after laying off over 100 people, having an ulcer and really soul searching I knew I wanted a change.

At this point, at about 33 years of age, I sat back and said what do I really want to do....  At any point in my career I felt I had been successful, I am a problem solver by training (and nature).  But when I thought about my accomplishments they were all general.  I knew that in any given year, month or day I was part of a team that fixed this widget or that widget. But when I tried to remember the actual widget - rarely could I describe it with any detail.  I was missing the human touch.  I was missing the feeling of having a truly lasting impact on the world.

So once I admitted that money was only as important as the need to be "comfortable" - I saw myself working with young adults.  But a family of five with three kids under 5 cannot live on a starting teacher's salary...  Anywhere...  So there would need to be planning.  So how do I get there from here. 

I had to get my teaching certificate in Wisconsin which required college courses, plan on how to student teach, and all the while support my family during the college portion but also save for the truly lean years of pay during the first few years of teaching.

My next post will weave how I looked at colleges, and what my thoughts were on student teaching.  It will be on my first steps of action.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The more the students do...

As teachers we all seem to agree that the more the students work the more learning that occurs.  Yet we seem to be prepared to lead them step-by-step through mathematical processes, we make them sit and listen to long periods of lecture, we read solutions to homework - we make them sedentary.

So I have been reflecting, planning and working hard to keep them doing math - utilizing the entire 44 minute class period.  Class time is our time for math, I couple that with smaller homework assignments and a constant barrage of "You have to study math" versus assigning problems to grade or check.  But making the class period a power packed period of doing math has been #1!  So no homework grading, lectures are broken into segments with students doing (trying to get to 6 minutes max of me talking).    The goal is to get most of the doing (which is learning) in the class period, where as an instructor I can guide them.

It means not being too helpful though, struggle is okay when guided - when I ride in on my white donkey (budget cuts) to save a student I am most often doing a disservice.  So I constantly remind myself to "be less helpful."

In the end - students need to work more, I need to guide more, "teach" less and I expect better student outcomes. yself to "be less helpful."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Smart Educator!

I am really excited to annouce that I have joined Smart's Exemplary Educator program.  I am hoping to connect, share and learn from some of the best.  It is fairly exciting!

I am really looking forward to finding some cool math tools!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why you should not assign new topic homework.

Imagine you have just listened to your 403 Abstract Algebra professor drone on about Sets A & B and their union, his passion for the subject is evident (or maybe not), but the sunlight from the window is really distracting your attention.  What does bring your focus back to 100% is when he says "Alright we will hustle through this last proof so you can do the homework for tomorrow."

Ahhhh.  Can you do the homework efficiently for this topic?  You have just heard this topic once and really did not understand it.  You know you can get it, but who understands a new math topic after seeing it once - just that Anderson guy (Jay).  And why would you get it, it is the first time you have heard it, heck there aren't even any numbers in this even to help you push your way through it!  Maybe if you saw it once more, saw how the next concept related to today's lesson you would be okay -- but nope you're screwed.   Instead of getting skills and confidence - you are going to spend hours struggling and may actually learn it incorrectly.  

Now while college may be a place where students need to learn themselves, I believe, that should not happen in High School.  To be clear I think students need to show tenacity - but should not happen from new mathematical concepts.  Large projects require tenacity (problems with multiple answers, requiring justification,it stretches skills versus creates them, etc)!  When I send a student home too soon with new material I am really allowing them to proceduralize the math, why spend time understanding - just follow the example and finish.  And for most students whether they are doing it correctly is not even a concern.

My job as a math teacher is to reach everyone, thus I believe when I send work home for practice - traditional homework - it should be just that --- practice!  It should not be a struggle, it should be "easy."  If it isn't the student knows to come find me -- that something has been missed!

I think anyone who has taught math for awhile can find a time when students went home and completely screwed up a topic.   That is why I don't want to send a student home to factor trinomials the first day (or anything)!  They learn all kinds of things incorrectly!    Such as x^2 - 6x - 5, how many times have we seen (x-6)(x+1) as they learn?

But math teachers fall into the rut of assigning the current material, then answering tons of questions the next day in class.  Why not plan topics over days, use class for practice versus answering questions.  That makes the students do versus the teacher!  

Changing what you are assigning may seem a small step - but as the culture changes you can gain lots of time.  And time is our precious commodity!  It is one simple step, so when you do Chapter 8 section 4 for lecture, assign homework from section 1.  It will make a difference for you, your class and most importantly your students.