Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuesday I wrote about the flu starting to sweep through our school. By the 3:08 bell, it had made its way through enough students to bring our school to close for the remainder of the week. While 3 days off is enjoyable in some ways, I worry about many things with this closure.

Of course, the most obvious is the well-being of students and staff who become ill. While the H1N1 flu seems to be not as serious as once thought, it has the potential to take young lives. On a personal note, I worry about my own 6 month old granddaughter. With me bringing home germs from students at school I am in constant contact with, I fear she is exposed to more than her share of germies.

Another facet of worry is how will we continue to meet the needs of students who are gone for extended periods of time. Retention of material taught is always a concern but with large unplanned gaps such as this, I know my students will struggle picking up where we left off without some back tracking. It isn't so much that I mind the review of skills and material as it all becomes a time game.

With President Obama's decree of the flu being a national emergency, speculation over whether or not we will have to make up time missed is still being bounced around. We have 30 hours built in for snowdays so assuming these 3 days are all we miss, with minimal true snow days, we will still meet our annual attendance requirements. That all seems unlikely with this wave of flu hitting so early, and the weather service predicted a wetter than average winter.

If we make the days up, covering the material is simple in theory. However, if we do not make the days up, we will be forced to choose between not covering as much material or zooming through it quicker to get to everything in the time span alloted. Neither is a perfect solution. I find it difficult to adequately cover everything as it is! Given the choice between depth and breadth of curriculum, I always choose depth, even at the risk of not getting to everything.

Monday will find us back in the classroom, hopefully. Sniffling, coughing, sneezing students all grouped back together, sharing germs, waiting for the next tsunami of illness to hit shore!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Today's posts will be random ramblings, so be forewarned!

Sunday afternoons invariably find me at school, prepping for the week. With 3 academic classes to prepare for and one hour of prep time during the day, I simply do not have enough time to get everything taken care of - lesson plans written, website and PowerSchool updated, assignments corrected and recorded, etc. I could take things home at night, but I choose to do that very rarely. Instead of hauling things, I find it much easier to come in early each morning, and then on the weekends to keep caught up. I am one of many teachers in my district here on the weekends doing the exact same thing. Winter has kicked in here in the Upper Peninsula. Our building has a terrible, old heating system. It is now being shut off on Friday afternoons and turned back on Monday mornings. When I was in school this weekend, it was 54 degrees in my room! Just a tad chilly for working. To me, this is treating teachers as un-professionals. I can guarantee if central office personnel had to work on weekends, they would certainly not expect them to sit there in the cold! It just irritates the heck out of me that because we are "just teachers" it doesn't matter if we have heat or not!

Onto other ramblings now...

Each year, when my social studies class begins its study of world religions, I invite our district's transportation director into my classroom to talk about Native American spirituality. Because we have a significant Native population in our area, most students are somewhat familiar with powwows, various medicines such as tobacco and sweet grass, as well some of the tribal contributions to our area. He does a great job of explaining how most world religions actually have much more in common than they have differences. His overarching talk sets the tone for our more indepth look at religions which often seem foreign to my almost entirely Christian students. What a great way to utilize a school employee in a new way!

The homework saga continues..... I gave my math class 7 problems multiplying fractions for homework yesterday. They had about 10 minutes in class to get started, enough time that several students finished the work. Those were kids who know their multiplication facts, and who came to me fairly well prepared for 7th grade math. Keep in mind that multiplying fractions is actually NOT 7th grade material, but we review it quickly before moving on to other things. However, even with this short assignment, I have students who did not take it home, who do not care, who refuse to work unless I am standing over them. I have made parent phone calls, to no avail. The one young man just sat in my homeroom during seminar, the half hour class period each day, much like a study hall, where students can get extra help with assignments. He came with part of the first problem done from yesterday. The entire half hour found him having completed that one problem and one more. Unless I was standing over him, he will not work. I cannot stand over him! I have 25 other students, more concerned, and wanting and accepting help. It is unbelievable to me that as a 12 year old, a person has already ingrained these sluggish habits into himself. It is almost as if breathing is too much of a bother for him.

The flu is making its way through our school, though we have not been hit as hard as some areas. Yesterday, there were over 200 schools closed in the state of Michigan. Some of them have closed for a solid week in an attempt to slow the spread of H1N1 among their students. I applaud their efforts. It is difficult for students to keep up with assignments when they are gone for extended periods of time. While all my work is posted online, math concepts often require students more help than they can get from the book alone. They need that adult coaching to grasp the process of the new concepts. It becomes a balancing game of how slowly can we move with the students who are here, while trying to not leave behind those who are absent.

Whew.. enough of a rant for today :)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

OH MY!!!

We could toss in the Vikings and Patriots, but I digress :)

My kids have been working on one of my favorite things all year: Cartesian Cartoons. When I student taught, back when we had rocks to write in the dirt, instead of laptops and projectors, my supervising teacher had this great book of pictures students could draw from a set of cartesian coordinates. The kids had a blast, it was great graphing practice, and best of all, cool stuff to hang on the classroom walls, which doesn't happen an awful lot in math class.

When I started teaching math, I bought the book she had, along with a couple others I found. I had my high school cadet make copies and laminate them to use. It has become a perennial favorite assignment.

6th graders should become proficient at coordinate graphs, but unfortunately, each year I find students in general struggle with the process. These graphs provide a fun way, a quick way, to brush up on those skills.

I load my Easiteach program with a coordinate grid, choose a dozen or so random points, combining all possibilities, all 4 quadrants, as well as points on both the x and y axis. We practice on the whiteboard (oh wouldn't a Smartboard be amazing....) and then, I turn them loose on their graphs.

Soon, lions and tigers and bears, along with Indian heads (our mascot), mice, mountains, and other assorted pictures adorn my bulletin boards and wall.

Somewhere down through the years, my original books have been loaned to another teacher and not returned. I am thinking I deserve a new set!!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's been a long, tough 2 weeks. My biggest challenge has been trying to keep both of my prealgebra classes together despite the weird schedule. Part of me thinks I should have just pushed forward with the group not missing class due to testing. Part of me knows it is easier for me, and the kids to have those 2 groups together. However, the logistics of 'entertaining' them for the extra time drive me bonkers. We have played games, drawn Cartesian Cartoons, played online math games, board games, etc... But my patience is drawing to an end. One more day, one more day....

It is enormously easier for me as far as planning, to have both prealgebra classes together. I already prep for 3 different subjects, so having those 2 classes together keeps that prep from growing to 4. It makes things like writing the day's work on the board easier - which sounds petty- but in all reality, I don't have room to write 4 subjects!! The classes being in the same place also means the kids can help each other, regardless of which class they are in. And last but not least, I am so scatterbrained I am not sure I could remember which class has done what, who has what homework due, and manage to keep it all straight in my head! Just juggling the 3 different classes already pushes my mental capacities to their limits.

After tomorrow, it will be an irrelevant issue thank goodness. The last of the MEAP's are finished in the morning, and life can get back to normal, FINALLY!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sitting here quietly, watcing my students plodding their way through their math MEAP tests, I wonder how seriously some of them are taking this. Granted, the group I have in here is fairly motivated to be successful, being one of my 2 prealgebra sections. However, I see the glazed over looks on faces, the boredom setting in, on this Day Three of testing.

Some teachers are completely against high stakes tests, period. I am not one of those. I see the purpose in these events, and support increased accountability in schools and on the part of teachers. I am just not sure this is the most accurate way to get feedback on those.

Score comparisions are usually done on a year to year basis, comparing one group of students to another, this year's 7th graders to next year's 7th graders. To me, that makes little sense. I prefer to look at scores longitudinally, looking at one group's growth over a period of years. Are we increasing the number of students we have proficient within THAT group of students?

Anyone who has been a teacher knows the variations you see between groups. Some groups are smaller, with few problem students. Some are large, with high percentages of special needs students, or behavioral issues. To compare these seems counter-intuitive to me.

NCLB strives to have 100% of students proficent. Great, wonderful, but EUTOPIA! I do not see any possible way to have all of our students proficient, ever, in any subject. That is like saying all students will become professional basketball players, or nuclear physicists.

Public education DOES have a responsibility to educate all students. For too long, we have shirked that responsibility in too many instances. We have teachers who are ineffective, unmotivated, and without pedalogical skills necessary to connect with students. THAT must be addressed.

However, often times, factors beyond our control impact student achievement. Until our societal paradigms swing back to making education our #1 priority in the home and community, many students simply will refuse to be active participants in their own learning.

But in the meantime, bubble away my little sweets, bubble away! I have answer sheets to collect, test booklets to secure, and #2 pencils to sharpen for the afternoon session!

Wordle: 0ct20blgo

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I am struggling this year with getting kids to complete assignments. Teaching math means kids need to practice skills on their own in order to cement in their brains, the processes learned. We usually spend the first day/s on a topic, working together, usually using small whiteboards, practicing the process, the steps, the how-to of our new skill set. But at some point, students must work independently to make those skills stick with them in long term memory.

I try to give time in class to work on the problems assigned. There is a two-fold reason for this - #1, I want students to have me or others as a resource should they run into problems. I want to be able to look over their shoulders, sit next to strugglers, help them through the rough parts. #2, Students often do not complete work once they leave my room.

Hence, my struggle. I try to give a reasonable amount of independent work, what I think it will take the average 7th grader to complete in the alloted time in class.

Unfortunately, there are students who work slowly and need more time. That might be because they process slowly, needing more time to think about what they are doing. Those are the kids who work steadily, determined to be successful. They are using class time wisely, asking for help, using the resources made available to them. They will plod their way through, step by step by step.

Others that do not finish are the ones I struggle the most with. These are the intentional dawdlers. They just simply waste time. Regardless of the task in front of them, they tackle it with as much enthusiasm as a snail slithering across a cold sidewalk.

Unfortunately, just cutting an assignment in half for either of these groups is probably not the answer. The first group, the slow processors, need more problems than the average student to grasp what is being taught. They need practice, practice, practice to get it right, to make it automatic in their minds. Much like the star basketball player who spends hours to master those shooting and dribbling skills, these kids should be spending MORE time instead less time, if they ever want to be math stars.

In the second group, the pokey group, some of these kids could probably grasp the concepts with fewer problems, and for those, I do not mind adjusting an assignment. However, usually, it is so difficult to assess whether or not they know what is going on or not, I am reluctant to do that!

What's the answer?? I am not sure.. I can sit with the individual students, trying to prod them to work faster, but with some of them, that is like torture, for them as well as me.

There has to be a solution...

.....parents forcing kids to do homework? Maybe... but often times, there are legitimate reasons kids don't do schoolwork outside of school.

....more time in the school day to work on math skills? sure, but what is going to be taken from their schedule to make time for this?

..... some other option I have yet to discover? probably....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

It was a week in middle school, no doubt. Highs and lows and everything in between.

The little red headed girl who was so adament that a negative plus a negative was a positive a couple of week ago, and was just going to go home and ask Dad, do you remember her? She is a remarkable student and we have met in the middle together. She is an avid reader, taking an AR test each day, devouring books like other students eat Skittles. In PreAlgebra, she has started asking questions, learning, questioning and participating. Yesterday, on her way out the door, she said casually, "Mrs. George, you might be the best teacher I ever had! You actually explain stuff instead of just expecting us to learn it." Coming from her, I was simply teary eyed to think how far we've come together this year.

My 6th hour class is THE CLASS. The kids come back from electives, in a rush, loud, wired, and having run all the way from the high school to make it in time. Couple that energy burst with this group being my 'low' group, and a high percentage of boys, and it makes for a rough hour. Many of the students in there have such low math skills, I am not sure what to do with them. Trying to help the one little guy, we finally got the equation to the last step, 40-36. He had no clue what to do, even when I suggested counting up from 36 to 40 on his fingers. He started counting, looking at me the entire time with his huge blue eyes, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42... "WHOA! Stop, where are you going?" I asked him.

He shook his head downward and said, "I don't know what you mean by count up."

Sure I can give him a calcutor to use, but honestly, with that little number sense, he is going to struggle all year with the algebraic concepts we cover. How can we change our paradigm in lower grades to insist students know, grasp, and have those basic facts down? It is frustrating to try and teach them strategies such as estimating the answer, checking to see if it a logical answer, etc... all of which require number sense. On a regular basis, I see students who don't see how 40 is an illogical choice of an answer for 100-96.

But back to 6th hour....

Working with this group is a challenge, period. But Friday, I had a small epiphany. There are 2 young men in there who are bright, very bright. While we are doing the first examples on the board of each lesson, they GET it. As I plod my way through with other students, over and over trying to get them to grasp the smallest hint of what we are doing, these 2 are off on their own planets, looking for trouble. THey are not the kind to pursue something independently enriching on their own. They are the type to build paper airplanes and organize a flight school :) I keep trying to come up with things for them to do, differentiate the lesson to their level. Then, I realized the solution - I suggested the boys move to prealgebra!

This will solve a couple of problems. The boys will be more challenged in my class so managing their off-task behaviors will become easier (in theory!!). It will make my 6th hour have 2 fewer students, making it more manageable, discipline wise as well as behaviorally. It will also shuffle schedules separating some of the major trouble makers all day.

Add to all that, the boys were FLYING HIGH, so proud and excited to have the chance to be moved into the higher class!

Next week starts MEAP testing, so we will see how things go with the move, their new schedules, hoping everything falls into place as it does in my mind.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I am struggling with some logic here today. Once a student takes the final assessment (i.e. chapter test) is there a reason for that student to complete the work associated with that assessment? For example, in social studies, once the chapter test is completed, why on EARTH would you have a student take notes, write vocab words, answer section questions, or complete worksheets on that material?

It seems to me, in education, too often we focus on the quantity of work given, not the quality of the work. If an assignment has merit, by all means assign it, require it, assess it, grade it, talk about it, share it,whatever it takes to get that knowledge bouncing around in the students' heads and stick there for the long term, as well as on the assessment.

On the other hand, if the assignment is busy work, or just practice for the assessment, why force them to do it if they can prove mastery in another way?

We had a speaker recently who wanted to completely banish worksheets, likening them to the devil himself. In some instances I agree. Worksheets promote very little in the way of higher order thinking skills, for the most part. They tend to be predictable and rote.

However, in math, I do use worksheets for practice. I believe students need to practice math skills in order to become proficient.

In social studies, I also use worksheets, though more sparingly. For some students, these provide a safe, consistent, predictability they do not experience in the more creative assignments. I find them a valuable tool for basic things, like vocabulary words, or understanding the nitty gritty parts of what we are learning.

Do worksheets take the place of deep thinking writing assignments, class discussions, open ended projects? No! Absolutely not! But that does not mean they are without merit or purpose.

But backing up to the initial concern, if whatever final purpose those worksheets were preparing students to be proficient at has come and gone, why have them complete them after the fact?? That DOES seem like busy work to me, with no purpose or relevance.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The routine of the school year has fallen into place, expectations known, procedures down. We've gotten used to the early morning arrivals, and the long days shuffling through the schedule. I know my students and they know me. The honeymoon is over.

While I have yet to have any marked discipline issues with the "just wait until you get this group" group, I am begining to see their true colors. The boys who would rather draw than listen and participate. The girls who are caught in the boy drama. The ones who don't get enough sleep each night and tend to nod in class. The readers when they ought not to be reading. The non-readers who find every excuse not to read. The bathroom wanderers. The "I don't have a pencil" chronics.

So begins my own training of how to best meet all those diverse needs in an ever changing classroom. I have to capture the attention of those who are determined not to be caught, engage them long enough to hook them, and then drag them along the lesson until the message sinks in. I have to be ever vigilant, wandering, hovering, noticing, redirecting, and complimenting. To me, that is the most difficult part of my job.

In my mind, in my own school experience, the teacher shouldn't have to be the redirector so constantly as some of these kiddos demand. School IS their job, their task at hand, and they should be sticking with it until they meet success. My job is to be their guide, suggesting the direction they should take and remaining close to offer guidance along the way. For many of my students though, I feel as if I am steering a large barge down a narrow canyon of rushing whitewater rapids, unable to waiver even for a moment least I lose them, crashing violently into the craggy rock walls.