Friday, November 27, 2015

Finding great activities - an unending priority

Always finding the best way to teach math is an unending battle.  Finding ways for the students to truly discover high level math concepts is a difficult endeavor.

This past summer I was lucky enough to be part of a grant with UW-Platteville on STEM (along with 4 kick-butt co-workers).   We have done a number of things as a team to help make our school a better problem solving place.  One thing from the summer course was to do a STEM assignment in one of our classes - tape it, keep student data and reflect upon it.  I figured why not post it here too.

My project was to use ziggurats to help drive summation understanding.  It is a project I took directly from the summer grant.   And I am thankful that I was able to have the materials given to me versus me having to create the materials.  Making projects during the school year itself is a tough mission; that is why getting projects during the summer is so important.

So the project had plane views of different ziggurats (pyramids) which I combined with set of blocks where I wanted the students to calculate the number of blocks in 7 layers of zigguarat, but more importantly to create a summation that would represent the total too.

There were three designs, it was a challenge for the students.  Each group quickly calculated the number of blocks in the ziggurat, but to turn that into a summation proved more challenging.  Especially when the summation had to have an odd number in the sequence!  (It went 1 squared, 3 squared, 5 squared, and so on).

I have taught Pre-Calculus for a decade and this was the first time where I truly saw the "a-ha" moment with all my students working on summations.  And unsurprisingly it is the first time I have taught summations any way besides lecture and practice.  So why hadn't I done it?  Plain and simple - just time.

Finding and creating projects is time consuming, and I just had not had it before this grant - that is why professional development like this and time in our district is so important.  It is important for us to remember and ask for the time, without making and taking time we end up in a routine.  And that routine will rarely lead to improved teaching.  And small successes are the stepping stones to larger things.

Our school's larger thing now is our commitment to have all our students get a hand-on STEM experience - we do that by using homeroom time working outside of a class and a grade.  We were able to do this through a grant and community support and the results are looking great (STEM progress video).  It all starts with small steps - like the STEM class at UW-Platteville.

And while time is important, activities come from being fearless also.  I remind myself that sometimes I just need to make the time to try something new.  I need to say if it does not work it is okay, try, revise.  I just need to make finding great learning opportunities a priority.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Just too impatient for real gains

Big news in Wisconsin this fall, we have a (another) new power test this school year - the Wisconsin Forward Exam.   Replacing the long used WKCE and the 1 year used Smarter Balanced.  For years the WKCE was given and basically ignored by many educators, what do you do with a test given in the fall with results returned in the spring.  It never tested problem solving, collaborating, revising, either.  Then....

We worked for multiple years to shift to the CCSS and a new test.  A test which was suppose to be easier to use data from and provide a better picture of whether our students were learning the necessary problem solving skills.  Big change, new way - new things to do.  And then, boom, we moved away from the Smarter Balanced assessment after only one year (yeah the roll out was bad).  Maybe it is the right move, I am not sure, but it really shows how easily education drifts with the winds.

Now the Forward test is coming, and it has to hurry for spring; rushing  from the normal 12-18 months, it is being made in about 9 months.

Removed are the performance tasks from the Smarter Balanced, which did have some issues last year.  But the move makes sense because we all do so much scan tron work in the real world....
Now I had not been a fan of the Smarter Balanced assessment performance tasks.  But again - we don't revise, we don't correct - we remove, thus a new wind and another new direction.

So a rushed test, with a different format.  Good, bad I don't know.  Are we really going to have useful data?  Again, not sure.  But it simply shows we have no long term goals for real improvement.  We have no backbone for our vision and path.

Worst of all, we have armed a small, very small, but vocal minority of people whose rally cry is don't change.  Why work at the new things?  So initiatives simply disappear - we don't revise in education we replace.

This all is part of the perfect storm of education, it takes years in industry to run long range plans, you set it and hold it.  Little bumps are expected and dealt with - education does not have that resiliency.  And now for the first year our national scores dipped in over 2 decades - it is not isolated.

I truly believe that dip is because of the lack of professionalism shown the teaching profession coupled with a vision that changes with the wind.  We are simply not doing the right things long enough, we are just too impatient for real gains.

(FYI - I started this blog weeks ago - when the news was fresh - I was just raging too much to make a readable post until now)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Context is not enough. The power of sentence fragments, the need to be oh-so careful....

Was reminded again how powerful the teacher can be for evil (by mistake).  Often I talk about the need in my calculus class for students to study and make sure they treat the course like the college class it is (4 credits - is 8-12 hours per week in 1 semester, we do it over 2 semesters - so 4-6 hours per week).

But I accidentally ended a sentence with "you cannot get an A in this course."  And that is what is remembered.  Now that ending sentence fragment was part of a speech that you need to study to do well.  And the whole sentence that ended the speech was "If you do not study, you cannot get an A in this course."

But that is not what gets remembered.  I made sure to correct it and made sure students understood that everyone in the course can get an A.  And I reflected on how I talk about studying and Calculus - knowing now it would be better to say "If you do not study, it makes this course extremely difficult typically" or something like that. 

It is the details that count and we must remember the power we, teachers, have.  And even after a decade I still trip up.  That is why reflection is so important....

So to all my calculus students - studying is important and As are completely possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Maker-Space Saturday....

   Today I am at a conference on Makers-Spaces (thank you Sun Prairie HS & presenters from   My idea today was just to blog through-out the day as thoughts hit me.
    Maker-Spaces are about hands-on.  Using building blocks, electronics, cars - anything, so long as you create.   It is the idea that doing is learning, that doing is understanding.  I know in math that the doing is critically important - but the skill I want to deliver is problem-solving.  And that happens by solving problems -- thinking about and handling problems.
    The first activity was the question what can you do with a paper plate, the instructor used Socrative and we thought about what a paper plate can be used for, then we built something.  It was interesting to think about a problem and then how to solve it.  My gang from Juda (4 of us) designed a car to deliver candy down the ramp at our school building (the cloths pin had a Kit-Kat prior to the picture - I ate it....).    A project that was a problem where students could build, test and revise.  Again - to get "good" at problem solving you must practice problem solving.

   We then discussed room redesign - remaking learning spaces.  The question from the speaker that I grabbed was:  "Is the classroom for me and my stuff or my students?"  After a decade of teaching I need to take a couple of days and make sure my room is actually their room.    I need to continue to make the space multi-purpose, make it a place where the cost of errors is non-existent and opportunity to succeed is always present.  That is part of the maker-space mentality also.
   Finally our group talked about our school.   That was big part of the day for us.  Our school's discussion centered on our vision for students and student learning.  How do we create the environment to help our students become better problem solvers?  And for us it centers on the idea that everyone needs the chance to be hands-on (forget a particular class) and is done for practice (thus not for a grade).  And lastly, probably most importantly, there is a culture where mistakes are not discourage but embraced as a step forward.  That mistakes occur on the path to success and those mistakes along with revisions are a normal part of problem solving (not to be avoided or made fun of).
    It was a good Saturday.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Checking for skills versus procedures

I assess often.  I have many reasons why, but that is for another time.  To help grade efficiency I have rules about writing on one side of paper and leaving space for problems.  I joke about helping an old man out with my students.

But what do we do when a student does not do it?  Should we take points off for not following directions or for being insubordinate?

I don't - I grade math and work with the students for the next assessment.  In the real world you often get chances to correct "format" things (and lets not kid ourselves school is not real world).  And I don't agree that this type of instructions is about responsibility.

I write messages - a :( with a drip of water for a tear on a paper, or a message from a character - like a superhero or singer or a even just from a tree, like this:

While it is tempting to punish, my job is to teach.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Okay versus Great, planning is key

So I have entered my 10th year of teaching (how I am not sure, actually I cannot believe 10 years has already pasted, but that is another topic for another day), and most educational "people" would say that those years make me better.  And that I agree with - so as I prepped for the first week of school - prepared my room, my google classroom (my virtual room), and many details with the telepresence course I teach - I decided to use my daily plans from last year for the first 3 days.   I am always thinking about ways to skip good to do great - reusing did NOT result in great.....

So this experiment I ran with planning just did not work.  I felt under-prepared, it took me 10 minutes to plan 3 days by "re-using" (copying) last year's plans.  I typically would take 90 minutes and I now know with certainty that I must give that time and thought to each week.  It is a combination of planning and reflection, where reflection of how to teach and reach the students is my driving consideration.

So the plan was there, but the reflection was not.  It kept me from having the insights, often when planning I think about misconceptions, vocab, common errors - when I just reused the opening days I missed those thoughts and thus felt like I was chasing my tail during the lessons (FYI - I teach the very first day -- I do "class" stuff, like rules, etc later -- we have math to do!).

So even though I have more experience, shortening planning time is not a trade of good for great.  Planning time is a requirement of great.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

9 Things You Should Know About Teaching Through Teleprensce

Working in a small district means figuring out ways to be creative with course offerings, there just is not enough time to offer all the classes a larger school can offer.  One way to be creative, which is happening in my school, is shared courses with other districts using telepresence units (thanks WTI!).  After doing this for some time I have some suggestions.  There are issues like homework moving and grading that must be dealt with, but as I think about the telepresence there are other things.  So for those "other" things here are some tips.

9 Things You Should Know About Teaching Through Telepresence:

1) It is not just a camera and a TV.   
I started sharing about 6-7 years ago.  There was a student at a neighboring district who really wanted Calculus, I used a webcam and Web-Ex -- that was like Web 0.2 versus Web 2.0!  A motivated single student and it went okay - he watched but really could not interact.   Now with my CISCO system and SMART board connected to all the other districts we all share a board and can interact in real-time.  Again, I am teaching Calculus to a fairly motivated group(s) - I loathe to think how I would teach a class that took a "high-level" of classroom management, cause.....

2) Students can tell where the camera is looking, or not-looking.
Even a college course like Calculus meant students did not always do what they were suppose to do.  Students are mice, teachers are cats and you know what mice do when the cat is away (or when the cat is trying to watch by telepresence).  Motivation really falls to the students, or someone on location making sure that students are on-task.  Moving the camera around a lot is not an answer either, we are not camera-persons.  Personally I don't worry about the other end with on-taskness, I teach, help and make sure I have someone at the other school to help - to be an ally, so.......

3) Get an ally on the other end - some staff member - a teacher, an aide, a secretary (oh -my!).
These people are your salvation when you need just a bit of help for whatever reason they will rescue you  -- copying a quiz, getting homework back or anything.  Also, administrators are tricky, they may seem like allies (or not!), but their time is always in the air and sometimes they cannot help - typically not the ally you need.  The simplest teaching tasks are difficult without an ally.

4)  Completely test everything for your telepresence class before the start of the year.
Telepresence is different than other classes, when the details don't work your class won't work.  You need to test your connections before school, check how students will get grades, assignments, everything.  Check your roster closely - and make sure all the students have access to your materials (books, emails, etc).  The simple things like adding a student to Google Classroom take more time to do (you cannot add a student from a different district to Google Classroom, last year it meant setting up new emails for my non-district students).  Things like this must be handled prior to the start of the class, because......

5) Start on time, figure out the schedule so teaching time is maximized!
It is easy to lose minutes moving the unit, adjusting unit, etc.  Remember students have a remote let them fine-tune.  As the teacher - you gotta use those precious minutes.  Get the class and students started ASAP, it is important to use the time you get because.....

6) Know that some days it just does not work.
No matter what they tell you, sometimes for reasons known and unknown the unit will not connect (internet lost at your school, their school -- someone forgot to sacrifice the chicken, etc).  The point is pick a set time to work on it (say 10 minutes) - then just record your class.

7) Remember, it is still teaching math (or whatever subject); you are not teaching about technology or to the technology.
I try to remember not to teach about the unit or how we connect.  I teach calculus and treat the camera like another set of student eyes, making sure I look directly at it when I make room scans.  I also remind myself that it really is not a camera but another student.   That helps reduce my Rockwell induced nervousness with the camera watching me.

8) And probably most importantly, since it is teaching - remember relationships matter.
Don't get caught up in the telepresence unit or your material too much.  Even at a HS level you need to take time to make relationships -- even with a real-time connection you as the teacher must make the real-life connection.

9) Finally - have fun.  
Passion sells, if you are excited about telepresence and chance to gain more students, then the students will be excited about you and your course (the telepresence  is just a porthole).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Teach 15 Reflect 4

So how do we make students really reinforce concepts and ideas we spend our precious class time showing, leading and/or guiding?  How do we make sure they are reflecting on the lesson objective, using the practices  - that they are making connections?  It is an interesting question - I often ask how do I make sure my students understand the concept and embrace their learning - but perhaps I should be asking how do I make students reflect?

Thinking about student reflection was part of a speech from Naomi Harms at a professional event I recently attended - she spoke about the need to only do 15 minutes of teaching, lecturing, practicing, working, etc and then 4 minutes where the students reflect.  That reflection can happen any number of ways - but the key is to allow that time.    And I am now working hard to set up my daily teaching to make sure students are reflecting, and that they are really embracing their learning.

It may seem like a modest change, but after reflecting on it I am hopeful that it can have a large impact in my students.  I think this reflection can have a large payback - the investment is small, about 8 minutes per period - but if students can make their connections in those few minutes then the impact will be much greater than 8 minutes of more lecture, or more practice, or more anything,

Seriously only 4 minutes reflection for 15 minutes of attention, seems too easy.  But when I think about myself - even now as an adult I struggle to pay attention and connect ideas when a lecture or speech is more than 15 minutes straight.  I am shifting my classroom, I had provided time to make connections but never said "Reflect on this," or "Discuss this with a partner," etc.

So I am going to add it and see how the first month goes.  Nothing ventured.....
Finally I just want to thank Juda, JAM'M, WTI and Morgridge Family for making the conference possible - hearing Naomi is making me think about my teaching and work on making it better.  So it was a good day.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Curriculum - searching for the grail.....

So how do you select curriculum in a small district?  Form a committee?  There is only a few of us in the entire district (Grades:  4K-5, MS, HS, Admin -- ~7 to 8 of us).  So as the HS teacher, the only HS teacher it feel likes it starts with me.  So like any other school you ask for books and start searching through them, and finding what?

I hope for the book that helps our school make the students better problem solvers and learners, ready for whatever they do upon graduation.  And I am constantly thinking about what that should look like in a textbook.  How does that text book progress from Kindergarten to Calculus?  (or 4K versus Kindergarten)

I am feeling like I am searching for the holy grail, I need the theme song to Indiana Jones just to survive it.  I am sent books that are over a 1000 pages long (1300 pages/180 days --- 7.2 pages per day -- CRAZY!) -- I know that I don't have to teach the whole book - but we (the students and I) get to carry them around all the same.

I have looked at integrated and non-integrated, CCSS aligned, ACT College and Career Readiness models.....  And it leads me to one common belief, it is what we do in the room, not which book we have that matters most.

It is how we make sure they understand concepts versus procedures.  It how we lead them in problems solving, encouraging/modeling persistence.

The curriculum is not that important, the teaching is...      except....

Except I really need the text book series to have assessments and workbooks - because with so many different preps there is no time to make everything I need.  (Which is why I am scared of CPM, great book - but I don't feel I can prep for it, not enough hours in the day).  I currently make a lot of my own assessments with projects, but sometimes I need to use book assessment or worksheet as a base for a class (then just add a question or two, cross one off, etc).  This modification process is what keeps me sane (or at my present level of insanity).

So as a small district searching for texts you would figure someone would have made good assessments that use high level skills and practices -- cause big or small we all want that resource.  You wish for assessments that would be awesome (I mean they are written by the authors!),  But often they are the same "pump & dump" - little different than the 10 plus year old texts I have -- except they cost $100 each.

Perhaps I want too much, but I will keep combing the desert in search of that text book series that matches my school's vision.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

STEM, Teaching Math is more than just the M

I have been lucky to be part of a STEM grant at UW-Platteville the last couple of days (STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) - we, the participants, have had the opportunity to do some STEM projects, reflecting on practices and working with a great group of dedicated excited educators.

And the big thing for me - with 2 days out of 8 done is a new mantra to repeat - that STEM has M (math) in the STE part too.  Meaning that the STE part can have a huge impact on my students - a bigger impact in their ability to problem solve, their ability to be ready for the world versus just doing M.

So a question discussed was: are you a STEM teacher? The question followed the story of a 5th grade teacher using STEM to teach Math (and her need to teach parents that M is STE).  And my answer today is I am a math teacher who has large STEM projects.  I integrate STEM into math as I can but I rely on the projects I assign to do STEM things (and also the math practices).  For me the next step is continuously improving my lessons to include more STE - to teach more math concepts.

The practices we want are there in the STE part and any math room will always have M - so a message to myself : keep pushing the STE part.  Keep finding the projects, keep making the math learning happening through discovery.  Keep using a holistic approach and make each class just a little bit better (continuous improvement).


A day without math is like a day without sunshine.

is still true (love that phrase)!!  Now we know that STE portion is pure sunshine too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A broken foot slows you down..... A thought on expectations.....

March 8
So  I have not posted at all in the last 2 months and the reason is sort of ironic.  I broke my foot by landing on it incorrectly playing volleyball (remember the rule - always land on two).

Ironic because I have been chair bound for 12+ weeks; and yet I have not reflected on my teaching much, and have not blogged once since early April.  I did complete an award applicant which required reflection during that time which I will blog about later this summer.  Currently my mind is on why I have not blogged.

I know for me, in this case, when  large external stresses, non-normal stresses entered my life everything suffered.  I was not the same teacher (or same husband, dad or community member).

As a teacher, my students and I covered less, unfortunately learned less, and we did many more worksheets.  I was truly doing the best I could, yet it was less, seemingly to me far less, than before.  I think everyone understood from the students (my customers), to my co-workers, to my bosses (board, parents and administrators) but it was frustrating.

June 23
Working and learning are affected by outside situations.  A simple statement we often forget in teaching.  We have to be aware of our students, their life's and situations.  It is not fair to be equal.  When an external event happens to a student - that student's learning plan changes - because their capability to learn has changed.

Yet - sometimes I expect student's to make up too much work on their return or during a time of stress.  I need to remind myself that plans change as conditions change.  Meaning not everyone has to do problems 1, 3, 5 and 7 in Section 4.2 on page 240 -- they have to master the concept, but once external pressures come into play how that mastery is achieved must change.

So is this idea due to empathy?  Perhaps.  Sympathy?  Not sure.  But our job is to teach students regardless of conditions or situations  - which means we need to adjust our lessons on conditions and situations.

Now, finally, my foot is healing - crutch free I am now searching through new math curriculum.  But I have a renewed focus on working with students when life throws them their landing on one foot incidents.

And perhaps to help them land on two feet the next time.....

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Testing burn out will lead to poor student effort.

Most teachers and educators (and politicians) were good students, did their best - wanted good grades, tried hard on standardized tests.  So as schools & states set up their testing it was often with little thought about how the student is going to react.  There was little thought of what a student finds reasonable.

We are entering a period of state mandated testing that borders on insanity in my opinion.  We are looking at many days of testing.  And I think about myself - I received good grades, but never was accused of being a great student.  The instance something did not affect my grade it became non-essential (part of my disdain of education due to my early struggles in reading - another post for another day).    So in High School, the Iowa Basic Skills Test became just a fill in the blank exercise - I just filled in B... and stated "I had a premonition that the answer was B."  Ironic that now I will be at least partially rated by student test results - where the students have nothing at stake.

Sometimes we need to remember that students are people and unreasonable things are met with the equivalent amount of effort.  Perhaps we should inform our lawmakers....

Friday, March 27, 2015

Has shaming ever worked?

Read an interesting article from my boss today - UW System wants to reduce remedial math classes - this article fits right into philosophy about our jobs as high school math educators -- which is we must prepare our graduates for college and career with respect to math.

Thus I was excited to read that UW schools plan to make data available on its incoming students math readiness - with the (correct) idea that if HS teachers know the deficits they can correct going forward.  And all the information we can get helps us as educators, info is the key to decisions.

Right now I have to track my students myself - ask (harass) how they placed, how their first math course went etc.  Pretty easy when you are a small school teacher in a rural community where everybody knows everybody - but pretty hard otherwise I am guessing.

But UW System also plans to make the data public saying " That number (of remedial students)  has prompted new legislation that would require the UW Board of Regents to disclose where students taking remedial math classes went to high school."

And perhaps I am reading this wrong but it seems to imply that the numbers would be public immediately - and I wonder how that will effect teachers..  If it will push them to teach to the test.  If the public shaming is the motivating factor - to improve?  to make better math students?

Or is this simply a push to provide cover for the UW system schools saying - it is not our fault that students don't graduate because of math.

I do believe it is on me to make sure my Algebra 2 students finish that course capable of testing into college Algebra thus not being a remedial math casualty.   And with the new rule you will soon see my results.....