Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Too Many Choices: Good and Bad

Our 8th graders here at AMCMS will start their high school registration process in January or February. On this past Monday they went on a tour of the Career and Technology (CATE) classes that are offered at the high school.

At one point during the tour, I asked one of my students what he thought. Thinking that most students would like the wide selection of different possibilities, I was taken aback by his reply.

“Too many choices. Kinda overwhelming. I wish they would just give us five electives to choose from.”

I expect this particular student to go on to a four-year university and probably graduate school.

So for the rest of the hour and half of the tour, I pondered about what he said. Too many choices. There are nearly 100 different elective CATE classes spread out amongst nine categories. Mind you, these are only some of the elective courses. There are also sports, band, orchestra, choir, art, and drama to choose from. Don’t forget the core subjects with regular, honors, pre-AP, and AP options.

What a phenomenal opportunity! Students can dabble in so many fields for FREE before they go off to college. Marketing and Finance. Law. STEM. Architecture. Information Technology. Human Services. Health Science. Business Management. Audio-Visual Communication. Agriculture.

I wonder if these students realize how fortunate they are. Some courses will give dual credits, giving students up to 15 hours of college credit when they graduate. Others leave with certifications and go straight into the workforce.

As I sat through each presentation, I saw the fundamental math that is needed in order to be successful in all these courses. Math is interwoven into everything. You cannot avoid it. Real-life application. Do they know math is involved in building a trailer from scratch for the livestock show?

That’s what so great about Carnegie’s curriculum. Their lessons and activities are problem-based. Not merely isolated skills drill. Great things are coming with Carnegie’s new Middle School Math curriculum, geared towards middle school students’ experience, humor and personality.

Now when my students ask me, “When am I ever going to use this?” I can honestly say, “Next year at the high school in your elective classes!”

Too many choices. I say it’s good to have choices.

Tomorrow as you look across the dining room table at the wide range of choices, remember – you don’t have to eat everything! :-)


Take a Break

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Wow its hard to believe that it's already almost the end of November. I don't know about at your school, but at mine the time from September until November is the hardest. It is the time you are getting to know your students (both personally and academically). It is also the longest period of time without any sort of break. Now that thanksgiving is here the rest of the year usually flies by.

How will you spend your extra time off? I'm going to be spending Thanksgiving Day with my family of course. It seems like before the break I always say that I'm going to finish a whole laundry list of things over the extra 2 days I have free. This year I'm taking a different approach. For once I'm going to try to relax. Of course I will still do my lesson plans and be ready for Monday, but I'm also going to spend sometime doing things for me. As teachers we often put our students before ourselves. While this is admirable its certainly a way to get burnt out! I'm thankful that I have a job that I love and a family that loves and supports me. To celebrate I'm going to try to take a break and for once relax. I suggest you do the same. You deserve it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Let Go and They Will Fly

Are you one of those control-freak teachers who obsess over minute details, which in the end are really irrelevant to the contribution of the success of students? That’s me – guilty as charged!

When I was first setting up Cognitive Tutor for my classes last year, I was told about an option where students would be able to use a prearranged shortcut on a computer’s desktop to access Cognitive Tutor. This would eliminate the need to go directly online, which requires a school ID password. Sign me up, I said.

If you are asking yourself, “So what?”, let me explain. If students don’t know how to access Cognitive Tutor online, then they won’t do Cognitive Tutor outside of class. Lord forbid that they would do math outside of class! In hindsight, what was I thinking?

Well, actually, this is what was going through my head at the time.

I want to make sure that the scores and data on Cognitive Tutor accurately reflect each student’s ability. The only way to guarantee this is to limit student access to Cognitive Tutor during class time when I can keep my eyes on the students work. Don’t want parents, siblings, or friends to be working out the problems for them! Plus, I’ve got to make sure that they don’t try to sneak in using calculators. I’ll make sure that the students get 40% of class time to work on CT. Perfect. Got it all planned out. Let’s get started.

This is what actually happened:
Our laptops didn’t come in until late October or early November last autumn. My school of 650 students has only one open computer lab. Melissa and I were “hogging” lab time, both us trying to get our classes on the computer 1-2 times per week. The 40% soon dwindled down to 20%, then 10%, and before we knew what was happening, our students didn’t get to work on CT but maybe one day every two to three weeks!

There are going to be system beaters out there, no matter what policy I put into place. It wasn’t worth punishing most of my students for the few who won’t do the work and get someone else to do it for them. Luckily I had 7th graders last year taking algebra who are 8th graders this year. They are enthusiastic about CT and sing its praises to my current students. I couldn’t ask for a better cheering section. I didn’t even bribe them to do this! Honestly!

As for allowing students to use calculators, it is an internal struggle I haven’t fully worked through yet. Our state standardized assessment does not allow 8th graders to use calculators, therefore, our math department’s policy has always been to not allow students to use calculators on assignments and tests. How realistic is that? I am OK with students this year using calculators with CT, esp. since some of the numbers would be daunting to calculate long hand.

My algebra students this year are on CT at least 40% of the time every week, a majority of it done either at home and/or during tutorial times. As it is reinforcing the lessons we are doing in class, this has to be benefiting the students. I only have these kiddos for nine months. I need to make most of the little time we have and not worry about the power struggle.

There are twin girls in my algebra classes. Just this past week, one told me about how they like to each get on a computer at home, crank up the music, and see who can get the furthest on CT in one to two hours. “Mrs. Park, it was SO much fun! We couldn’t stop laughing all night!” Yes, this is an exception to most of the cases, but it’s nice to hear these stories from my students.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Test Generator... more than just tests!

Last week I was out of my classroom to attend another Algebra For All workshop. With 90 minute periods it is hard to find something that students can do that will keep them busy for 90 minutes. Normally I do not have a problem filling the time with group work, discussions, and other activities. But when a sub is there I'm always worried about keeping them busy. I was trying to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape) parts from several different skills practice assignments to make a review sheet when a stroke of genius hit me! Why not use the test generator software to create the worksheet? Did you know you have access to the assessments, homework assignments, homework helper, and skills practice assignments are available on the test generator? This means no more cutting and pasting! I love the skills practice assignments but sometimes they are too long to assign all at once. Now I can choose bits and pieces through the test generator to make my own unique assignment. Then when I was finished choosing the items I wanted I exported the "test" as a rich text file. This allowed me to open it as a text document to edit the heading and add other items. It worked out great. I don't know why I never thought of this before!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just Walk Away

Wow this school year is flying by! My school officially finished the first quarter today.

Anyway.... The past few weeks I've really been trying to force students to talk to each other instead of asking me for help. At this point in the year my students are pretty much used to working in groups. However, I still find that they want me to justify their answers and for me to answer their questions instead of asking each other for help. I've made a new rule in my classroom that I probably should have had a long time ago. If I help one student in a group with a particular problem that group can no longer ask me for help with the same problem. I'm trying to get them to explain and talk mathematics to each other.

While this doesn't sound difficult, I think it has been harder for me to keep up with than my students. It's so easy to rush over and "help" a student with their question. The hand goes up and I go running... this has made them far too dependent on me for the answers. This week I had to literally force myself to just walk away. Instead of staying with a group for a long time I would drop a hint or comment and walk away to let them think. This seems to be helping them work together. However, it does make the lesson take longer and some students are frustrated when I won't answer their question. I'm hoping that the more I use my new rule students will become used to it and the frustration will subside for both them and myself. For now I just keep telling myself to walk away and let them think.

Friday, November 5, 2010

More than just a Word Wall.

I do not pass out the Carnegie books to my students to take home or even put in their lockers. If I did the books would not make it to class everyday and I would have problems getting students to participate in the lessons. So instead I have them tear out a chapter at a time and I keep the packets until we are ready to use them. This eleviates a lot of pass writing for students to get books and eliminates the "I forgot it at home" excuse.

One problem this has created is that students do not have easy access to the glossary from the text. I had them tear it out during the first week of school and put it in their math folder (which I supplied). Some of them did keep it, but many did not. To solve this problem I created a word wall in my classroom.

Despite having an elementary education background, I never truly understood what good a word wall was to a student who did not know the definition. So my word wall has the word, a definition, and when appropriate an example.

When a student does not know the meaning of a word they can look at the wall (even if it requires moving to see it), ask someone near them, or use the glossary that they were supposed to save. My students really like it and it frees me to help students with math instead of vocabulary. Each time I start a new chapter I post the words. This also gives students a preview of what is to come. If I forget to post the words they are always sure to remind me!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Visiting Baltimore

I am in Baltimore this week attending the National Middle School Conference. Being from Texas, I am enjoying the cooler weather. I had the best crab cakes last night for dinner! My hotel room directly faces Camden Yards and we're planning on doing some sight-seeing tomorrow before we leave on Saturday. I sure do miss my family back home!

All my sessions today have been good. A lot of what I heard today was research-based, common sense classroom practices, many of which Carnegie already encourages teachers to implement in their own classroom. I am fascinated with the presentations on brain research from neuroscience. I learned today that telling students that they're smart backfires and doesn't help students develop resiliency for the difficult times when they face academic road blocks. As a teacher and parent, I should instead praise kids for their strategy selection, hard work, and perseverance. That was my biggest AHA! moment for the day.

Another session was on how a campus's master schedule could improve student learning. My school is anticipating a growth of 200 additional students in the next two years. Many changes are inevitable at my school in order to accommodate this growth. Doing away with teaming is an option. A compromise might be going to an 8-period day and have block math and block science while still keeping teams on my campus. I am in favor of this option. Do you know what I can do with my students if I had them for 90 minutes every day? Students would participate in-depth activities that have them go beyond the surface level of math concepts. They might even be able to be on Cognitive Tutor the suggested 40% of class time. I'm trying not to count my chicks before they hatch. I have dreamed about having a 90-minute class day my whole career! Keep your fingers crossed for me.