Friday, January 10, 2020

An Apology

Sometimes I forget that students care if I like them.

I received an email from one of my students a few weeks ago, and the subject line read, "an apology".  She apologized for "being moody".  She went on to say how much she likes my class and thinks I'm funny.  Then she wrote this: I'm worried you think I dislike you because it feels like you don’t like me.

That was the exact moment my heart broke.  When I think about it, she's right.  Not that I don't like her....I do.  But that it probably feels like I don't.  Ugh.  That was really painful to type.  I get on her case about being late to class, about being out of dress code, about owning a pair of glasses.  But do I ever compliment her?  Do I ever ask how her day is?  Do I ever show an interest in this child other than to nag her?

Our opinions matter to these people.  I've made it a point to be more mindful about my actions toward the students.  Even though I felt terrible reading that message, I'm glad she wrote it.  I obviously needed that feedback and I would gather that she wasn't the only student feeling that way (sigh) but I can and will do better. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Cell Phones In The Classroom

First, watch this:

My first reaction to cell phones in the classroom was that they are a powerful tool.  And really, what's the harm if they have their cell phones on them as long as they don't use them at inappropriate times?  Shouldn't I be teaching my students when it's appropriate to use a cell phone and when it isn't?   Obviously, there is harm and yes I do need to teach them appropriate use. 

Once we became a one-to-one school district I tried to crack down on cell phone usage.  If I saw a cell phone, it was MINE!  That was exhausting!  Then students got tricky about it and would place their calculators in their lap so I would think it was their cell phone.  They got a big kick out of proving me wrong.  It was embarrassing and awkward.  There has to be a better way. 

When we administer the state test, students are required to hand in their cell phones and smart watches during the exam.  Almost every single student complies.  I've been wanting to do this in my classroom but I was afraid that I didn't have the right to take a student's cell phone, especially if they weren't using it inappropriately. 

I had a discussion with my department and we decided to go for it.  Every student would be required to place their cell phones in their assigned pocket at the beginning of class for every math class.  Every. Single. Day.  Students wouldn't be allowed to take back their cell phone until the teacher gave permission. 

We started this on day 1 of school and most students complied.  The understanding the students and I had was that if I saw a cell phone during class, the punishment would be severe.  Then they tested me, of course, and we're back to square one.  It was so bad that in one class not a single student would put their cell phone in their assigned pocket.  No one wanted to be the teacher kiss-butt who followed that rule.

I needed a new plan.  I decided that instead of punishing those who didn't follow the rule, I would reward those who did.  I needed to make it okay (and not uncool) to follow this rule, so bonus points it is.  Before you judge me (like I did), the points are minimal compared to their actual grade.  For instance, a student could increase their quarter grade by 3% by complying.  But, they will increase their quarter grade and knowledge by so much more by getting separation from their smart devices.  I felt it was worth it.  

Everyday at the beginning of class I place a checkmark next to each student's name if they handed over their cell phone.  At the end of the week, I count up those checkmarks and put those bonus points in the grade book.  

I've been doing this for about 4 weeks now and everything is running smoothly.  It has even alleviated some of the restroom issues: students aren't leaving the room as often to use the restroom.  My assumption is because they can't take their phones with them, so now they can't text (or whatever) in the bathroom anymore.  

I realized it wasn't fair for those students who don't own a cell phone.  Apparently this isn't the case because every single student is putting their cell phones in the pockets.  However, I will give the bonus to anyone who does not have a cell phone on them during class.  I don't care if their cell phone is at home, in their car, in the pocket I provide, or if they don't own one, they still get the bonus.  They simply need to tell me (in private if necessary) that they don't have a phone.  

Overall my classes run smoother.  The students are less distracted by their phones, I am less distracted with trying to catch them with their phones.  I'd say we're happier (and smarter).  

Friday, December 20, 2019

Take What You Need

CLICK HERE for the file.

I started putting these posters up in my room.  At the bottom they can rip off the little piece of paper and take it with them...a physical representation of what they might need at that moment.  Things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.  You know?  The fruits of the spirit.  But I had some room left, so I added success, understanding, sleep, motivation, support, courage, forgiveness, strength, and hope. 

I know I'm not actually giving the students these things they need, but I hope that in some small way, they know I care.  And I would give them these things if I could.  

I go through about one of these posters a week.  Sometimes I take a piece of paper and I wonder if the man who cleans my room at night has taken a few.  

Please, take and print what you need.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Common Assessments

Our math department is going through a change right now, a good change.  The administration has noticed our struggle and decided to emphasize support for us.  All the Algebra 1 teachers meet at least on a monthly basis, sometimes more if our schedules allow. I have to admit that this isn't as easy or convenient task for some of the teachers.  Both 8th grade Algebra 1 teachers work in different buildings (one is a half-hour drive away), and our PLC times do not co-inside with each other (they need coverage for their classes in order to meet with us). 

In the past we had this unwritten philosophy that we could teach the Algebra 1 topics in the order that we wanted, we just had to make sure that we taught all the standards.  This really isn't a problem, as long as you are the only Algebra 1 teacher in the district.  Because we taught in different orders, it didn't allow us to communicate with each other effectively.  It also created a problem if a students needed to have their schedule changed.  

Change #1:  As a department, we decided the order of the standards.  
When we sat down to discuss this it surprised me that no one had a strong opinion as to what order they wanted to teach the Algebra 1 topics.  This step was fairly easy for us.  We also checked and double checked that the information we are teaching is aligned with the state standards and eligible content.  You would be surprised (or maybe not) on how easy it is for a teacher for spend a significant amount of time teaching a topic that is not on the standards but that the teacher really enjoys.  Guilty!!

Change #2:  Write common assessments for the end of each quarter.
I love, love, love this change.  At this point, when we meet, we are creating our common assessments.  We agreed to create assessments that would have the following:

  • They would cover the material covered in the particular quarter and be given at the end of instruction of those standards.  Hopefully that would happen very close to the end of the quarter.
  • They would follow the structure of the state exam as far as the proportion of multiple-choice questions to constructed response questions.
  • The length of the exam had to be reasonable so that the students could finish in 45 minutes.  
  • The scoring of the exam had to be consistent with the scoring of the state exam.
  • The grade had to count (unlike the benchmark tests).

I love that we can discuss results once the students take the exam.  We complete an item analysis of the exam and discuss the results both individually as teachers and as a whole group.  Our focus was to look at the top 3 and bottom 3 questions and ask ourselves "why?".  Why did the students perform poorly on these 3 questions and why did they perform so well on these 3 questions? 

I also want to point out that the common assessments do not hinder our individual teaching styles.  At no point did anyone say we have to teach a certain way or not.  We have a lot of flexibility when it comes to instruction, but we need to make sure we cover the material.  We also have our own say when it comes to homework, quizzes, classwork, and unit tests. 

Pennsylvania Math Teachers:

Most of the questions that we use for our common assessments are from the SAS portal. 

If you are a Pennsylvania math teacher, then there is a good chance you have heard of the SAS portal.  Click here to find out more

To find sampler questions:

  1. Log in.
  2. Click on your name in the upper right .
  3. Click on "my assessments".
  4. Click on "start new assessment".
  5. Click on "Choose Grades and Subjects".
  6. Click on "Courses" and pick Algebra 1.
I like to use the filter option for specific standards, but of course you can poke around there as you like.  
I have noticed that it seems to only give me 15 questions at a time.  For instance if you use the filter to find all the questions for 3 different standards, there might be 30 questions that apply in their question bank, but it will only give you 15.  You would need to pick one standard at a time to get all the questions.  

Friday, September 27, 2019

Twitch Dice

Recently in my Game Design class I gave an assignment called "Twitch Dice".  The students were asked to create a twitch game that involved a die or dice somehow.  One group came up with a game that is so simple and fun that I took it home to share with my family....and now you!

FYI: A twitch mechanic is where the player's response time is challenged.

1 standard deck of cards
1 die

Game Play:
Deal cards face up in the middle of the table, one less than the number of players.  For example if there are 4 players, place 3 cards.
All players place both their hands flat on the table.
One player rolls the die:

  • If the die is odd, all players then grab a card from the middle of the table.
  • If the die is even, all players are suppose to stay still.  However, if a player's hand lifts from the table, they must put one of their cards back in the deck.  The player gets to pick which card.  
Once all the cards have been claimed, this process is continued until all the cards in the deck are gone.  

Ace is worth 1.
Number cards are worth their face value.
Face cards are worth 10.

The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.  

Friday, August 16, 2019

What I Learned from my High School Social Studies Teacher

Back in high school there was this Social Studies teacher (Let's call him Mr. A) that made teaching look easy....almost too easy;  like is he even a real teacher kind of easy.  He never seemed to have a lesson plan and I always felt that he was flying by the seat of his pants.  All the other teachers had homework, quizzes, and tests planned.  Planned so much so that they had the time to type them up and copy them before class or at least tell you where to find it in the book.  But not this guy. 

Here's the thing:  I still remember most of what I learned in his classes, but I can't even recall who my 10th grade history teacher was.  I wanted to reflect on why this might be.  Why did I learn so much from a guy who was so unprepared, or was he?

As a teacher myself I know that I was wrong about Mr. A winging it.  Even though he didn't spend his time preparing for class in the copy room, he did come to class prepared.  Here, check out some of the things he did differently from the others and why I now know why they were effective.

He asked the same questions over and over. 
Mr. A would start and end class with the same questions and these questions would be the same throughout the unit we were learning.  At the time I was mildly insulted by these queries.  Does he really think we're that stupid that we can't remember the answers from day to day?  And sometimes, yes, I wouldn't be able to recall the correct answer.  But as the days went by, the information must have started to store in my long-term memory and I didn't have to work so hard to recall the correct answer.  Huh.

He never handed out a test. 
For assessments Mr. A would hand each of us a blank piece of paper then stand at the chalk board at the ready.  He would ask, "What questions should we put on this test?"  This is where I though he was lazy, but I now think he was a genius.  I do want to point out that he would sometimes reject questions or he would act like he just had a great idea for a questions when I'm sure he knew he wanted it the whole time. 
The questions we typically came up with were the ones he repeated over and over throughout the unit.  This would prove to him that we were listening, learning, and most important that we understood the objectives of the unit.  So not only did we know the answers to the questions, we knew the questions too. 
Every once in a while a student would come up with a really great question and that's when he would make you feel like a million bucks.  He would praise you in front of the whole class.  So of course we would all try to come up with the best questions.  And on top of that, you would need to know the answer too. 

So what does this look like on the teacher's end?

For starters you would need to determine what questions to ask over and over again.  I found expert suggestions in the book Hacking Questions by Connie Hamilton.  Specifically chapter 5 entitled Play the Broken Record.  She suggests looking at your lesson objectives and turning those into questions.  I like how Mr. A would bookend each class with these questions and that he did them verbally.  This way when I didn't know the answer to a question, I had immediate feedback from my classmates and would try my best to remember for the next time he asked. 

I have tried Mr. A's method of assessment with my students.  Before class I create a list of objectives that need to be covered in the quiz/test and if the students don't hit that question, I make sure I do, making check marks down my list and having questions on the ready.  If there are repetitive questions from the students I cull those.  If a student creates an amazing problem I make sure to praise them. 

Give this a try, I would love to hear how it works for you!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Keystone Algebra 1 Exams

A few weeks ago while on vacation I received preliminary results on my students' state test scores, the Keystone Exams.  Talk about a kill-joy.  I literally felt like crying and not for me, but mostly for my students.  We worked so hard this past school year. 

In the past I've tried to ignore the tests and just put my whole heart into teaching.  I mean Algebra 1 is Algebra 1, right? ...but then our scores really tanked.  After that I had a friendly conversation with an administrator who expressed his concerns.  He gave a few suggestions for me to try in my classroom and also let me know that he's supportive of what I do.  What I took away from that conversation is that I needed to take these exams seriously.  So I have taken them seriously in the past few years; studying the standards, practically memorizing the sampler questions, talking with other educators about their approach.  And yet....and yet, I still fail. 

So, I decided to do something drastic and write my own curriculum.  I've been using the one we created as a department when the exams first came out.  This was back when we only had the standards to refer to and there were no sampler questions yet.  But now, I have a few years of sampler questions to glean information from and that is what my curriculum is based from. 

I started back in March and have a few units written, but this is a long process.  I like to try each unit with my students to make sure the flow and pacing is right before I give access to other teachers.

The bad news:  I don't have any data yet to show if this curriculum works or not, since it's not finished.

The good news:  I am selling what I have to date.  This means that you can buy what I have so far and then receive the new units for free.  Each time I include another unit in the curriculum, the price will increase.  Each unit includes notes, practice problems (homework), and two versions of the test.  Longer units also include quizzes.  You could also purchase individual units rather than the whole curriculum. 

On the side bar of this blog is a link to my page with the order of the units as I plan to present them to my classes.  It also includes links to other activities that support the curriculum.  Like Kahoot! and desmos activities. 

Here is a link to what I have so far.  CLICK HERE!

As of today I have three units that are finished and tested:

  • Compound Probability
  • Data Displays and Analysis
  • Domain, and Range
These are the units that I have finished over the summer but need to try in my classroom:
  • Tables and Intercepts
  • Rate of Change, Slope, and Slope-Intercept
  • Writing Linear Equations
These are the units that I have to write and test:
  • Systems of Linear Equations
  • Systems of Linear Inequalities
  • Compare and/or Order Numbers, Simplify Square Roots
  • GCF, LCM, Algebraic Properties
  • Evaluate Expressions, and Estimation
  • Linear Equations
  • Linear Inequalities
  • Polynomial Expressions
  • Factor & Simplify Rational Algebraic Expressions

An Apology

Sometimes I forget that students care if I like them. I received an email from one of my students a few weeks ago, and the subject line ...