Monday, February 28, 2011


This week my school will testing all of our 11th grade students. They will take the ACT tomorrow, the Work Keys on Wednesday and Thursday will take the Michigan Merrit Exam. Students who are not testing do not have school tomorrow but have half days on Wednesday and Thursday. The half day starts at 11:30 and we have difficulty getting students to come in for a half day. As a result my attendance is usually really low. It's hard to plan for these days. I cannot begin a new lesson or continue on a previous one when so many people will be absent. A lot of teachers show random movies or allow students to work on missing assignments. It makes this whole week almost a waste of instructional time.

So what's a teacher to do with low attendance and students who are bored in their classes? Take them to the lab of course! It is the perfect solution. Students who do not come can make up the time at home. Students who do come will get to do some meaningful math and be engaged in learning on a day that is a waste of learning time in a lot of other classrooms. Myself and another teacher are going to combine our classes so that we may both take advantage of the limited lab space we have. Stead of trying to fill our time with review assignments or meaningless busy work our students will be challenged and working on relevant mathematics. Plus the tutor will help prepare them for their turn to take the test a few years from now.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

If They Build It, They Will Learn

I asked my principal this past summer if I could teach our math enrichment course. It is an “elective” course where students have a second hour of math either because they failed TAKS in seventh grade and/or are not being successful in their current pre-algebra class. To my delight, he agreed to let me take on the challenge.

There is not a set curriculum for this class. Basically I can do whatever I feel is necessary. Going into this, I knew that I did not want it to just be another study hall for these students to work on homework. Although the students are occasionally given time to finish assignments from other classes.

We spend Mondays looking over all their grades from all their classes and setting goals on how to improve and bring up failing or low grades. This mostly means getting the students to go into tutorials to turn missing assignments or make-up failing ones. Easier said than done. At the same time, I am encouraging and trying to instill into the students the habit of being proactive, planning ahead for major projects and tests.

They then spend Fridays on Cognitive Tutor. For some reason, Carnegie Learning and Cognitive Tutor have a reputation in my district as being a “remedial” curriculum for those who are not successful in the regular setting. Boy is it far from that! Just ask my advanced algebra students. Carnegie Learning and CT make the students think and reason through math concepts as well as apply them to real-life settings. Nothing is dumbed down.

My math enrichment kiddos spend the rest of the week supporting what is being taught in their pre-algebra classes. Sometimes I set the foundation for what’s to come. Other times I reinforce what their pre-algebra teachers are doing. Whether I’m pre-teaching or re-teaching, I try to make the lessons and activities hands-on and engaging, many times non-traditional.

My pre-algebra students recently finished a two-month long study over geometry. Over the holiday break, I kept wondering what I was going to do differently with my math enrichment students. One of my family’s favorite traditions is building gingerbread houses. This became the inspiration for my ME class. The best part? Gingerbread house kits are on clearance after the holidays!

My student teacher and I divided the class into groups of 2-3 students each. Each group received their own gingerbread house kit. They spent the next month or so naming shapes, measuring (a lost skill for most people) the dimensions of the cookies and calculating their perimeters, areas, and volumes. It was so nice to see the students come to class every day excited about doing math! To top it off, they cooperatively worked together, helping one another and being supportive. Each person had his/her own strengths to offer to their group. “Riley” is your typical passive student who won’t give you trouble but at the same time will not put any effort into learning. During this unit, he “woke up” and came out of his shell. One day I overheard him explain to his group why they were only given three of the walls (cookies) instead of all six. I love it when my students take leadership roles in class!

Overall, the GEOMETRY-bread House unit was a success! I can’t wait to implement it again next year.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Change is Inevitable

Those of you who know me or have gotten to know me through this blog wouldn’t be surprised to read that in the back of my mind, I teach with the philosophy “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I stopped writing in journals when I went off to college, but I am constantly reflecting on my teaching and how lessons are received.

If my students struggle on certain units or lessons, I ask myself, “What do I need to change in order to help them grasp the concept?”

I don’t play the blame game.

To meet the needs of my students, my curriculum is forever evolving. I am always tweaking or changing something from year to year. This has put a strain on my family because the time commitment it takes to search for different, better ideas and then to mesh it with the other lessons in the unit. My husband realized early on that I couldn’t teach any other way and is supportive. Luckily he’s there to keep me on track when I stray off too far.

One of my biggest challenges the past couple of years has been the lesson on how change of dimensions affects perimeter, area, and volume. All of us here have tried to improve this lesson one way or another. CSISD’s 8th grade teachers committed three days to the concept and Laura had revamped the lessons and assignments to align with one another. Much to my dismay, 95% of my students this year still struggled with this.

Carnegie Learning is currently working on producing lessons on change in dimensions. It should be ready for the national edition of their middle school curriculum. Until then, I am asking for your help. Do you have any suggestions? Do you mind sharing? I’ve searched online and haven’t found much. NASA put something out in 2004 in conjunction with their Personal Satellite Assistant robot. I haven’t had a chance to delve into it yet to see if it’s feasible to implement. Because direct instruction hasn’t worked, I am looking for a discovery lesson where students must be able to generalize the concept for themselves after they’ve done some kind of hands-on activity. Am I asking too much? I hope to hear from some of you out there!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Feeling SMART

So this week I was able to attend training for my new SMART Board. I am so excited about the new possibilities. I think this will help me to make more connections between the text and the Cognitive Tutor. I used to have to bring in my laptop and extra cables to show the tutor in class. Now all I have to do is launch the tutor on the board. It will save me so much time!

I also think I'm going to use the screen capture tool to bring problems from the tutor into my lessons. (This means no more print screen!) The digital copies of the text are going to be very useful too!

Does anyone else have ideas for using Carnegie along with the SMART Board? I got the feeling at the training that one teacher thought that he couldn't use both simulataneously. I on the other hand think it will enhance what I'm doing and will increase my use of the tutor examples on nonlab days. What do you think?

Monday, February 14, 2011

ready set... test

In Michigan our AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) status at the high school level is determined partially by testing that occurs each March. All Juniors take the ACT, ACT Work Keys, and the Michigan Merit Exam. Our students performance on these test is one of several factors that determine AYP. Last year my school improved our math and reading scores and we're hoping for an even larger increase this year. The students that are testing this year are the first group to use the Carnegie Curriculum for Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. Everyone is anxious to see how our students perform.

Next week our school will be on midwinter break. When they return students will be testing. Our school came really close to meeting our testing goals last year and are really confident that this year we will meet our goals. However, next year might be a different story. The state of Michigan recently decided to raise the bar for students to receive a "passing score" on these exams. Next year it will be even harder for students to pass these high stakes test. This means that our school and our students (along with every other school in Michigan) will have to work even harder to meet the goals set by our state. This has caused some anxiety amongst our teachers who are already anxious about this year's scores.

For now all we can do is wait and see how this years scores turn out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Math Phobia

I am having a great time teaching the Bridge to Algebra curriculum and am absolutely in love with the software. The course that I am teaching is for middle school students who need to transition into the high school due to their age. I have taken my class to the computer lab only 3 times since the semester started. They had a hard time adjusting to the idea of picture algebra at first but now are doing great. My students have started asking one another for help (instead of calling for me!) and are really progressing through the software well. Today I got a new student. As I was getting him setup on the software and was teaching him how to use the tutor he told me "math isn't my thing" and "I've never been good at math". I told him that this class was going to be different and that I was going to show him that he cannot only learn math but that he might actually learn to enjoy it. I hear this comment a lot from students. It seems like I always have to get them past their math phobia and build their confidence to prove to them that they can do math.

Why is it that so many people have a math phobia? Whenever I tell people that I am a teacher the first question they ask is, What do you teach? When I tell them math they wince and say something along the lines of "that was my least favorite subject" or "I don't like math". It's strange to me that people are not embarrased to say that math is not something they are good at. Usually people try to hide their faults but with math it seems to be socially acceptable to admit that it's not your strong suit.

I tell all of my students that I will not allow them to say "I'm not good at math" or "I don't do math". Instead I tell them to say "I don't get it yet, but I will". I truly believe that all of my students can "do math" if only I can help them build confidence and believe in themselves. As for my new student today... by the end of the period he had already finished the first unit and was already telling me "I can do this". I have to thank Carnegie for making confidence building a little easier!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Nod to Super Bowl XLV

A football field is a good analogy to use to introduce integers and to visually show adding and subtracting integers. A good teacher friend of mine told me about this activity about ten years ago. It was the pre-technology age, at least for our school, so we created our football field out of green butcher paper and drew in the boundaries, lines, and numbers. The butcher paper was laminated for longevity’s sake. My friend decided to cut out helmets from construction paper. I, on the other hand, went to the local craft store and bought 3-D football helmets used for making homecoming corsages. I then hot glued magnets on the backs of the helmets to use on my chalkboards. Not only did we use the field to introduce the lessons, but we then also used it for a review game. Can you imagine how easy this all would be to create on a SMART Notebook?

So who did you root for during Sunday night’s football game? I wanted the Green Bay Packers to win. Well, I’m not actually a cheesehead. Brett Favre – is there more to say? I was actually against the Steelers. Why? Growing up in Texas in the 70s, the Dallas Cowboys were our hero. I vividly remember those Super Bowl games that Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers barely beat our Cowboys. Roger Staubach and Tom Landry (God rest his soul) are/were two great classy men. I admire them for the virtues they embodied both on and off the field.

I’ve gotten off on a tangent. I’m going to apologize in advance for offending any Packer or Steeler fans. Go, Cowboys!!

Friday, February 4, 2011

School Canceled for Today!

I woke up this morning to find the grounds covered with a light blanket of snow. It’s quite a beautiful sight, unadulterated and serene. With school canceled for the day, pretty soon all the neighborhood kids will be out building snowmen and pelting each other with snowballs, my own children included. I think I will lounge in my flannel pajamas as long as I can and enjoy the scene from the warmth of my home.

Today was originally designated for Cognitive Tutor time for my pre-algebra classes. I have made a conscious effort this semester to allot one day per week for my pre-algebra students to spend on CT. (My algebra and math enrichment kiddos have always had class time to spend on CT this whole school year.) My dilemma is whether to allow them to spend Monday on CT or to push forward with my plans to continue our unit on surface area. They will have next Friday to be on CT. I totally haven’t decided what to do.

I received word from Carnegie Learning this past week that the trial-version for their new middle school Cognitive Tutor software program is coming out this month. I am so excited to have my students try it out! Supposedly this new program is geared towards the humor of middle schoolers. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have a good weekend and stay safe.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Building Bridges

This semester I'm taking on a new class. The last period of my day I am teaching a transition math course. The students are in middle school (even though their classes are held at the high school) but because of their age need to transition into our high school. My job is to get them ready for Algebra 1 next year. I'm using the Bridge to Algebra Carnegie text and Cognitive Tutor to get the job done! It's only been two days, but so far I am in love with this class. The students are eager to learn and are really excited about using Carnegie (especially since they know that's what the high school kids are doing).

Today was my first time working with students on the Bridge to Algebra version of the Cognitive Tutor. I started them out on the picture algebra unit. I absolutely love that students visually get to see "twice as much", "three times as many", etc. It took them a little while to get used to the tutor but once they got used to drawing the pictures they were soaring through the problems. It was so fun to see them get excited about their bars growing and turing gold. They were helping each other out as they were figuring out how to work the software. These students have had difficulty being successful in school yet they were all successful in class today. The smiles on their faces and enthusiam for gold bars was so contagious!

Here in Michigan we are preparing for a large blizzard. School is already canceled for me tomorrow and it maybe for a few days. One of the things on my to do list for these snow days is to work through some Bridge problems on the tutor. I need to be prepared for helping my students and to properly do so I must make myself familiar with the software units. I'm sure I'll be telling you about more of my exciting discoveries with this new adventure over the rest of the semester!

Stay warm and enjoy your snow day if you're being affected by this blizzard!