Saturday, January 30, 2010

As always, I am frustrated with some of my students who just simply seem not to care. I feel like a grouch because I am always, always, always on them, trying to get them to be a student, to do their work, to use their time productively. While I realize this is part of the nature of the beast of 7th graders, I struggle with the way those kids zap my patience for the good ones, the one who do their work, who come to class prepared, and try their hardest. It seems I end up snapping at them because I am out of patience from dealing with the other ones. Especially towards the end of the week, especially towards the end of the day, I struggle to find patience with one more question about something I've said a hundred times, one more struggling student who seemingly can't get the smallest of concepts, and the student who needs constant reassurance that everything they write on their paper is correct.

It seems an almost argument for having flip-flop school days, where every other day, classes are in reverse order, so I could see my end of the day students in the morning on occasion. Or perhaps, a floating schedule, where each hour becomes first hour in a rotation type schedule, Monday being a 1,2,3,4,5,6, the Tuesday, 2,3,4,5,6,1, Wednesday, 3,4,5,6,1,2, and so on. I wonder how different it would be having those students earlier in the day, when my mind is fresh and full of patience and excitement, and their minds are alert, not overstuffed, and eager. Would a schedule like that ever become routine, or would chaos ensue every day?

I would love to experiment with it.... hmmm.... do you think I would get stoned at the next staff meeting???

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tangram day is one of my favorite days of math class. While students each individually cut their own set of tangrams, we learn vocabulary words. This is a terrific interactive way to review previously taught concepts as well as learn new terms.

One of the big concepts in 7th grade math is similarity of polygons, so I use the tangram pieces to teach congruent, similar, as well as corresponding sides and angles. Touching the pieces as we learn the terms seems to help most students grasp these before we start looking at figures on paper and trying to match up sides and angles.

The fun part really begins when students start using their pieces to create predetermined shapes. It is such a visual spatial thing that many students, boys and girls, struggle to manipulate the pieces. I love the way their minds wrap themselves around the struggle, working against themselves many times, trying to force a match where there really isn't one.

I think geometry and playing with shapes, drawing 3-D isometric drawings, etc.... are more important to the development of young minds than our curriculum allows time. Unless at a young age, students work to strengthen those parts of their thinking process, the ones that create visualization, I think it is lost forever.

For today, we will continue playing, and shaping, and stretching our brains!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Once, in a very blue moon, I allow my students to take a test with a partner. This practice was common in our previous curriculum, Connected Math Project. I like students working with each other because they tend to catch the silly errors, the not including a negative sign, or a simple miscalculation. The discussions between partners can be rich with math terminology, and lead to a more in-depth understanding by both members.

I had done this with this particular group of students once this year, with some marked success. I decided to try it again today. I gave them a choice - #1 they could choose to work with a partner with no re-do's on their test, their partner being their re-do, or #2 they could work alone and redo their test after I corrected it.

I had thought most students would choose to work with a partner, but out of my first hour class, only 2 sets of 2 buddied up. It will be an interesting progression through the day.

My 6th hour class is the lowest group, the one that could probably benefit the most from the discussion with a partner, the interaction of ideas. They are also the group who exhibits the least concern about work completion and grades. They also tend to be very social. My hope is this group will choose the work together option.

When I allow this, I always question the validity of the test scores. Are the scores truly indicative of what students know? My gut instinct tells me yes, they are pretty darned accurate. Occasionally, a low student partners with a brighter student and likely benefits from the pairing, gradewise, but that is a rarity. More often, the partners are like-skilled. Even in the off-balance pairings, I like to think the lower student benefitted from the interactions and explanations of the other partner, gleaning understanding from the matchup.

It is not a practice I would implement for every test, but on occasion, it is a fun option for students.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

It's been an event-packed week.

I started out Monday away from school at a Formative Assessment Team meeting at the EUPISD with 3 representatives from there and 4 other teachers from our region. We met virtually with folks from the State Dept of Ed, talking about this new project being launched to use formative assessment across our region to improve instruction, and ultimately, our students' learning and growth. I was struck by the conversation's turn towards how to help other teachers learn to use formative assessment, how to formatively assess our own actions, rather than focusing on the actual use of this tool in teaching.

Ironically enough, that made more of an impact on me than one of those sessions where you go and get all these cool ideas to use in your classroom, but by the time you have gotten back to work, you have forgotten most of them and put your notes in that huge to-do someday pile, and forget about. I spent the rest of the week second guessing everything I was doing, wondering more where my kids were at in their learning, and thinking, oh wait, this is a great example of formative assessment, and whoa.. I thought they would GET that problem. How to I remedy their misconceptions?

Often in education, we are searching for that quick fix, that WOW moment that will change everything for the better.

Learning to use formative assessment is a process. It is a new way of thinking about the things you already do, and yes, perhaps expanding your repertoire with new skills, but more importantly, thinking about the results of what you do differently. Formative assessment is a constantly changing process, a true process... it means my Monday lesson plans for the week won't be set in stone, that day to day I will have to look at what I have done, and where it has taken me, where on the journey my students are, and re-evaluate the next days' lesson based on that information.

I love the reflective piece of this puzzle. I love the natural formative assessing I already do without having called it that. I am excited to think more intentionally about the learning process and the role I have in creating a successful end point in that journey for my students.

I still struggle with letting go of the control, the organization, the moving along at a pre-determined speed. The overwhelming pressure of meeting the standards is always there, breathing down my neck like a fire-breathing dragon. How to meld the using formative assessment to drive instruction, and still stay on pace to teach all the required material each year will be a challenge.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rise over run... rise over run... rise over run....

Every year, slope is such a difficult concept for students, given that it seems such a simple one in reality, and one so easily applicable to real life. Stairs, roof lines, even road grades are measured in slopes. Counting how far up, compared to how far over, seems trivially(is that a word??) easy.

We talk about rate of change, in particular how things change over time, comparatively. We look at graphs of points, lines, and explore many different scenarios. I even developed a game called Slope Mania for them to practice slope. Still, for so many students, it seems like black magic!

What is so difficult??? How can I make this concept easier for them to understand???

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I wish that just for one day, I could zap myself back to my 7th grade school year. When I look at the faces of my students, and try to imagine what it must be like to be them, I wonder about the me of then. Granted, 7th grade is an entirely different experience now than it was in 1973 when I was in their chairs, but whether an adolescent then or now, I wonder what it would be like to be trapped again in that time in my life.

What kind of a 7th grader would I be in today's world? Would I be popular? Would I be smart? Would I be a social outcast? Would I be one of those peripheral kids, the wanna be's? Could I survive the pressures placed upon students today?

I think back to me, my friends, our classmates, and I don't remember there being the marked discrepancies there are today. Or perhaps, they existed, but we didn't notice?

Thrown into 7th grade, I think I would be a peripheral kid, one who struggled to be with the in-crowd. My parents would not buy me the cool clothes, the cell phone, the iPod, that all the cool kids have. That fact alone would have aligned me outside the cool kid crowd. As sad as that is, it is a middle school reality. The have's and the have-not's become marked at this age. It isn't about the house you live in, or the car your parents drive, the jobs they have, it is all about you and what you as a teenager have. My parents were also strict. I am sure I would not have been afforded the freedom to go to the movies or a ballgame, unsupervised with a group of friends.

I was always a smart kid, one who easily got good grades, eager to please my teachers. To some extent, those are still traits that help the transition into the cool kid club.

How would I feel, being on the edge? Would I find that unacceptable, and like so many kids who WANT to be in the in-crowd but can't quite make it, would I rebel, and chase that other group of kids? Would I become a 'bad kid'?

What does this knowledge, this look inside a 7th grader's mind tell me as a teacher?

I know for sure it tells me for many kids, many days, there is much more on their mind than the European history lesson I am trying to teach, more than the rate of change formula I am trying to get them to internalize....

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

High stakes tests are what schools are measured by now, for better, worse or indifferent. While I think we as educators need to be held accountable for teaching the specified curriculum (which I do not always agree with content-wise), I struggle with my worth as an educator being measured by a fill-in-the-bubble sheet given to my students a solid 4 months+ after I have them in class.

Some years my scores are up; some years my scores are down. I take them all to heart, celebrating the highs and mourning the lows, wondering what I could have done differently.

Truthfully, those scores are little a reflection of me and my teaching, and more a reflection of those students, their innate intellect, and their mindset about school.

Some kids learn, soaking up knowledge like their very being depends on that nourishment. They come from every possible home situation, bringing along baggage too heavy for the average adult to carry, shouldered upon their young adolescent shoulders. Knowledge is their escape from reality, offering them an open window to a sunny place they long to grow.

Other students come from homes where school is considered their job, their reason for existing at this point in their lives, where expectations for success are high and unbreachable. These students never need a pencil or paper, or lunch money, or clean clothes. Even when their families struggle financially to make ends meet, educational needs are a priority.

But then, the ones the politicians accuse me of leaving behind fill the rest of the classroom. These are the students who come to class hungry, but not for knowledge. Instead, they seek acceptance and kindred spirits. They do not feel like they can learn, or worse, do not care if they can. Education is nothing in their mind. It doesn't offer them window to look out, because they are unable to see beyond today, beyond the walls of school, to any kind of future of success.

Some of these struggling students make a connection with a particular teacher or counselor and find help opening their window. These are the lucky ones.

Many more, come with their windows so tightly closed, often dealing with drug, alcohol or other abuse issues, that as a teacher, I struggle to help them. I can try, and try, and try, and sometimes, it seems, make a dent. More often, they are lost to me despite my efforts.

Other students simply do not come to school. We have no consequences for extreme absences, so we have students who miss 30, 40, even more, days a year. But yet, these students take the same bubble in test their peers do. And, those are the students who miss by choice, whether it be illness or just lackadaisical parenting. Others miss that many days because of suspensions. Either way, it is instructional time lost, that cannot be replicated.

The saddest students are those who come hungry, dirty, tired and without hope. The ones from homes destitute for sustenance. How can we expect those students to learn, retain knowledge and apply it, when their brains are deprived of nutrients?

Students come to class with nothing, no textbook, no pencil, no intention of learning. I can plan engaging lessons, work individually with them, try to connect with them on a personal level, but I simply cannot make them learn.

I don't want to leave them behind; I just can't figure out how to drag them along....