Friday, June 20, 2014

What to do after THE TEST

Here in Virginia, we call our standards tests SOL Tests:. It is supposed to stand for Standards of Learning, but - you know.

Anyway, these SOLs occur at the end of the year, often as close to the very end of the school year as possible. In most schools that I know of, the testing usually ends with just a week or two left in the year. That means that when THE TEST is over, students assume all learning ends. It doesn't help that most teachers fall into this trap as well (we know how burnout goes - and once the kids think you're done it's hard to convince them otherwise). I try my best to do math as long as possible. It's even a great time to fiiiinally get to show some of the cool things math can do. Also, my Algebra students get to do "expedited retakes" if they fail the test within 25 points, so I am often remediating them and have to amuse the other students with something they can work on pretty independently. Here are just some of the activities I've done with my middle school students:

Logic Puzzles - A lot of the students enjoy these puzzles, which they see as "not math." Oh, if only they knew how important logic is, not just in math but in life in general. Ha! Tricked you! The cool thing is my students often come back asking for more puzzles.

Basic Cryptography - I show my students just a couple of basic cyphers. A random letter cypher and then a Key+ cypher (if this has a better name, someone please let me know). They decode my messages, then spend the class writing secret messages to each other. A lot of my students want to go into the military, so they find this particularly interesting.

Transformation Pictures - My pre-algebra students loved doing these and I liked that they challenged themselves with content we studied, even if they didn't realize that. We did a tessellation picture for translations, then for rotations, dilations, and reflections they created their own pictures to transform. They were interested in how some of the pictures overlapped and others didn't. Plus they were able to get super creative with their coloring/designing.

Graph Pictures - We've all done these Graphiti-style pictures where they plot the points, draw the lines, and color the picture. I take it a step farther by having students create their own picture and write their points. Then they rated the pictures Easy, Medium, or Hard and switched points with someone who had the same rating. Differentiation, skills practice and review, "making it fun." A perfect lesson.
The list of points created by one student. This one created a robot I believe. 

Set - This is an awesome game I learned when I was in 8th grade. My students love to play card games - and generally when we have some downtime I allow them to get decks from the closet and play. I love having an open classroom where they have certain drawers and/or cabinets that they know they can go into. It just makes the whole setting more comfortable.

What cool activities do you do with your students?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Math Pledge

I've never really thought about this before. In algebra, there are so many ways to solve problems.

Isn't that supposed to be the beauty of it? Isn't that the focus of new math standards?

It is and it is. So why, then, when I give my kids tests, do they include sections such as Solve each system of equations graphically  and then two problems later Solve each system of equations using substitution and THEN (can you guess it?) Solve each system of equations using elimination ?? Why, why, why?

I just finished teaching my unit on slopes and graphing linear equations. I spent quite a bit of energy emphasizing how COOL it is that they get to CHOOSE their favorite way of approaching a problem. I mean, that is cool, isn't it? Don't give me that look - I get it enough from my students! I used this quote a lot over the last month: If you're a numbers person, do it algebraically! If you're a picture person, do it graphically! Or choose your preference based on how the question is asked - I literally do not care!  And I don't! I want them to be comfortable and use whatever method worked for them. I give my personal preference because they ask - if they give me a graph, I use rise-over-run. If they give me points, I use delta y - over - delta x. We solve equations both ways. We sometimes use both to verify answers. SO MANY OPTIONS!

So I started to look at the test I had prepared. It gave specific directions on how to solve equations. It use to be important to me that my students prove they could use EVERY method. Then I started to question my methods. The purpose is to give students the tools they need to succeed, not to make them masters of everything! Let's be honest, if you are more comfortable watering a plant using a glass of water, would you also go out and get the hose to do the same job? No, we choose the best method.

If I tell my students which method to use, how will they ever learn how to figure out which method is best?

My #mathpledge is to stop giving my students so much direction. I've given them the tools, and if they understand the topic, they will know how to use those tools to choose the best method. Or they will use what they are comfortable with. As long as they get to the answer and understand how they got there, that's all that matters.

What's your #mathpledge?

This topic makes me think about this blog post I also read about making students show their work. I'm still working on that one.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Slope Book Project

My students have a project due every grading period. For us, this means every six weeks. They range in difficulty and almost always involve something we're working on. I'll share more on all of the projects, eventually.

The first project is always My Math Future. Generally they have to pick a career and figure out how math is used, among other things.

This year, their second project was split into two parts. Some students were still really struggling with solving equations, so their project was really just redoing a quiz and making up a few of their own equations that all had the same solution. The other kids were struggling with properties, so they had to complete a few equations that included naming the properties that justified the steps and then drawing/diagraming/whatevering three properties. I got some super creative answers with that and I loved it.

Later we will do a Pi Day project where they have to write a nonsense story, following the pattern in Pi: 3 words, 1 word, 4 words, etc...

What I'm sharing with you today is the project on slope. I stole this am using an existing wheel template idea from Math Tales from the Spring.

The idea is they create a book about slope: what it is, what it means to them, what the types of slope look like, how to find it, etc. They need to have 10 pictures of various slopes and a description to go with each. They also need a front and back cover and an introduction page that describes slope in words. It could be a paperback book or digital.

Here is an example I made for them. I can't wait to have some student examples to share!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Virginia History in Coordinates

My kids have already studied the Civil War and Virginia History by the time they get to the 8th grade, but I think it still interests them. I say I think because they don't really talk about it, but they wear a lot of Confederate flags and there's still a "South will rise again" mentality.

I spent the week in NYC with some awesome history teachers and am actively working to connect what I'm learning (the history and development of NYC from immigrants to 9/11) to what I teach (Algebra I).

When we learned about the little studied Battle of Brooklyn in which Washington was flanked on all sides, I thought about making a coordinates lesson out of it. (I won't say this idea was mine, for the inspiration came from some of my colleagues. Let's set aside the fact that I have to teach about coordinates and plotting points in Algebra I.)

So talking with these other amazing teachers, they told me that General Lee was apparently a brilliant strategist and, since I'm in the south, my students really might connect with that. So instead of, or perhaps in addition to, learning about Washington's patterns, we could also talk about coordinates in terms of Lee. For all of you (or maybe the few of you) advanced geometers out there, the lesson I am thinking of very closely resembles taxi-cab geometry: "If Lee wanted to get from A to B but the trail went this way and the other troops were in the way here, show two ways he could get to B. You need to name the coordinates at which he would turn." Something to that effect.

I would take a map like this:

From Almost Chosen People
and a brief story of what was happening. Then I would implant that onto a coordinate grid:

And it would look something like that. I would ask them to try to head off McClellen at the James River. The troups would need to be able to report back specifics of their movements, so the students need to name which group (coordinate) they are starting at and what coordinates they are moving through to make their move.

This idea is so adaptable to whereever you live - Oregon Trail, Trail of Tears, Alamo...and of course it doesn't have to be limited to history. You could talk about city streets and the best way to get to the theater, getting around a local college, etc. The possibilities here really are endless.

I linked up!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Decision to Go From Rows to Desks

This is a big year for me. It's my third year as a teacher, so I figured it's the last year I can claim being a Newbie. This means I might as well take a big leap and change some things up - if I fail miserbly then at least I can say it was while I was still a new teacher.

I have two pretty big changes this year. The first is that I am going to try to use Interactive Student Notebooks. It's going to take a lot of work on my part to get everything ready, but I am excited to try it.

The second is something I've thought about doing, I've done in pieces now and then, and something that research says is beneficial to students. I decided to put their rows of desks into groups of four. They're in the "star" pattern:

The yellow papers on the desks are the names of the groups that sit there. I made these up before school started and had them find their own seats when they got to the room, that way I could stay at the door / hallway and welcome and guide students. I also have directions up on the bored so A) they can get started and B) I can see what kind of directions followers they are. The scissors are on the desk because they started putting together their Interactive Student Notebooks. I am so excited to start this ISN process (clearly because I've said it twice now) - wish me luck!

Okay so the reasons behind this decision:

I think group work is really important and I try to encourage my students to explain their reasoning to their peers. There are always reluctant learners, shy students or students who generally prefer to work alone and it is difficult to get these students to open up to others. If they are in groups, my hope is that they would be more willing to share.

Whenver I try to do discovery learning or group activities it seems to be a little out of control because they are more excited to together. I feel confidant in my classroom management techniques and we always seem to accomplish the task at hand, I just wish it was a little less chaotic in the beginning (you know, when I'm trying to give out directions). It takes longer to start than I want it to. It is my hypothesis (and I'll let you know how it goes) that because they are already use to being in groups, they won't spend as much time in off-topic chit chat as they would if I moved them into class for just one class period.

I don't necessarily need my desks in rows for testing, but I don't want them to be in these tight groups, either. During SOL writing tests I let them move their desks anywhere in the room as long as they can't see others' papers. It is easier and quicker to move desks apart the few times they really need to be, than it is to move desks into groups whenever I remember to.

It's like a perpetual cycle of terror: I'm afraid of the (time/learning) cost of randomly putting them into groups every now and then so I don't put them in groups as often. Because I don't them in groups that often, I am afraid that when I do, there will be a sacrifice of time and learning. By having them in groups from the get-go, I no longer need to be afraid!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Getting Ready: 2012 SOLs

I know, a lot of you are probably thinking - what are SOLs? I mean, I know what you think it stands for. Growing up in NJ, SOL stood for one thing - you were sh*t outta luck. You know what? That's how I feel for my kids right now, too.

In VA, SOL means Standards of Learning - it's our state test. Yep - what a GREAT name for some really important, end-of-year, all-inclusive exams. And now it's worse.

There are many theories as to why the test has changed this year. See, they made it a LOT harder. Mucho dificil-er. Seriously. Across the state, Alg I had a 48% pass rate - 48%!!! Let me break it down - that's the percentage - of students - who took algebra the first half of the year (with block scheduling) - who passed. That means more than half the kids failed! a test they need to pass to graduate! I don't know how close they were to passing and they do get to re-take it at the end of the year, but C'MON PEOPLE! From a mathematics test, I don't know how valid this is.

So we've been told the test is harder. Trickier. Wordier. More vocabulary. More meaningless words. More context. More multi-step. More looks like multi-step but isn't. More looks like single-step but isn't. More of everything. It took some children 6 HOURS to complete this test. It took another child going through 12 questions before he found one he knew how to do. You think teaching isn't hard? Try getting kids ready for this!

In my county, we also ramped it up so all 8th graders take algebra I. I think it's great for reasons we can get into later, even though I concede many of them are not quite ready. Or so we say. They are ready for computers at 5 but can't do algebra at 14? I digress....

Anyway, with the idea of not complaining (I know, too late) I have decided to share with you some of the wisdom we received from a county that actually did well.

1) Follow the curriculum framework closely! This is a bit more detailed than the specific standards and include common vocabulary and tells what the kids should actually be able to do. For example: The standard says to factor polynomials but the framework says what kind of polynomials and to do it graphically, algebraically, and using modeling. Also use the scope and sequence documents the VDOE provides. Do the practice items, too.

2) Don't count on released SOL test data. If you use these to benchmark your kids and try to predict the outcome of the SOL, it will fail you.

3) Teach students to read the ENTIRE question. Make sure they know what question they are answering. The first step may be to distribute, but if it asks for the 4th step they'd better put the multiplication property.

4) Concepts taught in previous classes are wide-open. This seems like it should be evident, but considering we don't focus on angles, Pythagorean Thm, stem-and-leaf plots, etc in algebra, I wonder why they brought this up.

5) Remediate all the time. Sleep at the school. Don't ever stop doing math.
Okay, this is what we were told: "Weakest students were pulled and tutored 1 1/2 months prior to the test. Math teachers got together, identified students, and developed a plan for doing this during their planning, before school, after school, during lunch, during NTA's, whenever they could find time."
Doesn't that say  remediate all the time - sleep at the school - don't ever stop doing math.?

6) The test takes longer and there are little to no thank-you-for-coming-questions. I've always banked my kids would get 3(x-4)=3x-12 represents which property but that's no longer an option. Teach kids to do the ones they know first!

7) The Algebra I test had a lot of modeling related questions. Hmmm...

I'll share my strategies for implementing all of this, but for now I hope this helps you. If you're a VA math teacher, on any intermediate level, please share this with others. Of course 6-8 tests haven't been tested yet but I wouldn't expect much difference.

A dear friend posted this on Facebook and I had to take it. I definitely feel this way sometimes!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Non-Linear Thinkers in a Linear World

Ooops! I accidently posted this one to the wrong blog. Please read the post here.