It was a bit strange to wake up the last few days and not have to go to school. Last night I dreamt I was going to work on the first day of my second year of teaching high school. The weird thing is that I was a passenger in a car with two strangers and we were very lost. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make it to school on time and I was freaking out about missing the first day of school. Then I woke up…

Just in case you were wondering, I will be going back to my home university in September and will not be teaching high school again in the near future. This summer, I will be traveling and attending various teacher professional development workshops. During that time, I hope to process all that I’ve experienced over the past 9 months so that I can give a more coherent answer to all the people who have been asking and will ask me, “So, what have you learned?” (Maybe the dream I mentioned is an indication that my brain is trying to work through things.) If you see any common threads in this blog, I hope you’ll also write to me to tell me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I probably won’t be updating this blog regularly. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you all for joining me on this adventure. I’m very grateful for all of the kind words of encouragement that many of you have sent to me this year. Thank you!

P.S.  And please do me a favor–next time you meet a teacher, please tell her/him how much you appreciate the work that she/he does.

Classroom break-in

Ah! What better way to end the school year than having your classroom broken into?

Today is a pupil-free today, which we’re supposed to use to clean up our rooms and pack up our stuff. When my colleague and I got to our classroom this morning, we noticed that students had gone through her stuff. (My stuff is pretty much all packed up already.) Our adjoining teacher’s room was also similarly rummaged. Someone must have gotten into our rooms (which were locked) some time over the weekend.

It appears that nothing of value was taken, but there were three bags that were packed up with things that the hooligan(s) were presumably going to take but then left behind for some unknown reason. Here are some of the things that they were going to take:

  • almost empty bottle of hand sanitizer
  • stickers
  • markers
  • hot chocolate
  • pencil sharpener (with the shavings dumped out on the table)
  • sticky notes
  • rulers
  • tissue
  • blow bubbles
  • plastic forks and knives
  • staplers and staples
Some of the things that the miscreants were planning to take.... I didn't know there was a black market for slightly-used school supplies.

Clearly, these were not professionals as they weren’t interested in things of value like computer equipment or calculators. The miscreants also put a bunch of staples into the wall. And… the best part!! They did some math on the white board.

(simulated conversation) Thief #1: "I bet you can't add 1/3 and 2/5." Thief #2: "Oh yeah? I'll show you."

So since I’m a teacher…

Thievery Assessment Rubric:

  • Cleanliness: 2/4
    Comments: Pencil shavings were left on the table, but there was some interest in hygiene (vis-a-vis the hand sanitizer).
  • Mathematical content knowledge: 2/4
    Comments: Good work on correctly finding the lowest common multiple of 3 and 5 (even though 9 was not listed as a multiple of 3). Also, good job changing 1/3 into 5/15. But how can 1/3 and 2/5 both turn into 5/15? That shows poor mathematical reasoning.
  • Thieving: 0/4
    Comments: If you’re going to go to the trouble of breaking in, at least take something of value.

Total score: 4/12

Final grade: F

Last class

I’m sitting in an empty classroom after my last high school class. Still have to calculate final grades for everyone and clean up the room, but otherwise am done. No strong emotions yet, maybe because it’s too fresh.

Only a handful of students showed up for class today, but a few of them still did math right until the last possible moment. That was a nice feeling to see that they were still interested in learning.

In my last Algebra 1 class, we had a chance to have some closure. I explained that I wouldn’t be returning to the school next year and that normally work at a university. We then talked about the etiquette of giving and receiving business cards and I gave each student my business card.

This afternoon, my Algebra 2 students will come by the room and we’ll go have frozen yogurt together.

Textbook silliness

When I took over an Algebra 2 class in the middle of the school year, the person in charge of textbooks gave me a bunch of copies of our textbook. I kept these books in my cabinet and unfortunately didn’t keep close track of them. I returned all of the books I had to the textbook office yesterday and I was told that I am still missing 5 Algebra 2 textbooks. If I don’t return them, I will be charged for them. I have no idea where those books would be. The only thing I can think of is that since I use a colleague’s room for Algebra 2, I maybe some other students looked in the cabinet and used those textbooks. ???

Are textbooks as big of a headache at other schools?

By the way, all students are required by law to have textbooks (Williams v. State of California, 2004). Back in May, a woman from our district came to our school to make sure that all students had textbooks. She came into our classes, asked “Do you all have textbooks?” and left in less than 10 seconds. Ta dah!! Our school is “Williams Compliant.”

Dilemma about a graduating senior

A 12th grader transferred to our school and into my Algebra 1 class two weeks before the end of class. He needs to pass Algebra 1 to graduate from high school. He tells me that he had a B in Algebra 1 before coming to our school, but I have no proof of that.

He shows up to class about 4 days in those two weeks, doesn’t do a whole lot of work, then takes the final and gets a 16/40.  This week the seniors are all out of class practicing for graduation and checking out of school, so we won’t get a chance to work on the math any more. But, would that be productive anyway?

I would hate to fail this student and prevent him from graduating from high school just because of Algebra 1. He’s already passed the CAHSEE, so he should have a passing knowledge of Algebra 1.

My current plan is to take his prior “B” and average it with my “F” and give him a “D” so he can graduate.

I think it’s crazy that students are transferring to our school at such a late date.

Final exam results

Seems that the students in my geometry class had the lowest retention compared to the students in my Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classes. More than half of my students in geometry still don’t know the meaning of the word “perpendicular” (they confuse it with “parallel”). They still don’t know that a linear pair of angles (adjacent angles whose outer rays form a straight line) adds up to 180 degrees. And, I wrote a few days ago about students not knowing the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle. Even after I impressed upon them the need to memorize those formulas for the final exam that day, more than half still could not find the area and circumference of a circle. It’s so !@#$!@#$ frustrating. I’m still trying to figure out why that happened.

As with other exams, I am allowing students to correct their mistakes to earn a portion of points back on their exam. If they work hard, they can raise their grade on the exam back to an A or B. To earn correction points, students have to write an explanation of why the corrected answer is right and what they did incorrectly. This system has some problems: some students will copy the answers and explanations from their friends and thus not gain any benefit from it themselves and it’s also a big pain for me because that means I basically have to regrade every exam multiple times. But, I feel that the extra learning and confidence that they get from correctly answering exam questions is worth it. Most of the students seem motivated by the prospect of an improved exam score, but it’s the ones who are diligent and hard working that usually get their their exam scores raised in any significant way. And, I can tell who is really working on learning and who is copying from friends.

The school year is almost over! We’re just working on our exam corrections now, and we’ll do some fun activities the next few days.

High school graduation rates

Education Week’s June 10, 2010 issue is devoted to the issue of high school graduation rates in the United States. Fascinating stuff.

One of the things that you can see with the power of data analysis is that the U.S. high school graduation rate (measured using the “Cumulative Promotion Index,” which is a product of the completion rates for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades) is lower than its been in decades. And, not surprisingly, the graduation rates for White and Asian students is much higher than for Hispanic, Black and American Indian students.

The largest two districts in the country (New York City DOE and Los Angeles USD) have the largest number of non-completers. But while NYCDOE has roughly 257,000 high school students compared to LAUSD’s 162,000 high school students, both districts have roughly the same number of nongraduates (43,000 and 42,000 nongraduates). LAUSD is one of the worst districts in the country in terms of students not completing high school.

This year I’ve repeatedly experienced that strange disconnect you get when you alternate between the macroscopic and microscopic views of the same issue. All of these numbers are informative and they tell a story. That story makes you think of the students around you who are the ones who are making up those statistics–each of them has a story too.

One very hard-working student that I know (but not in my classes) is not graduating because her mother is refusing to provide child-care for her while she finishes high school. And remember that student who  wrote the nice card for me a few weeks ago? He hasn’t been to school since then and he’ll probably not finish the 9th grade as a result. He is in this country illegally and I wonder if something happened to him.

Teachers have to be flexible

Many times I have heard that the best advice to new teachers is to be flexible. This is such excellent advice. So many times, there have been all kinds of unexpected events that have disrupted learning: fire alarms, field trips, assemblies that I didn’t find out about, all manner of useless announcements over the PA system that cut you off right when you’re getting to the punch line at the end of the lesson, etc. Then of course, there are the issues that students bring.

I’ll be administering finals over the next few days. Students invariably have all kinds of excuses and last minute issues and there is nothing else to do than to just roll with the punches. Some students told me they are going to skip school on Friday because of the World Cup. I told them it’s their decision if they want to fail their math class.

Other students have very legitimate issues. One student’s father passed away last week (and I know that this student would definitely not lie like this) and will miss school because of funeral preparations. Another student told me that her mother was sent to jail last week and she’ll be skipping school to take care of younger siblings. I’m not sure if the latter one will be back to take finals.

What to do about poor retention?

I was really frustrated today by my students’ poor retention of information. We were reviewing for our final exam in Geometry today and half of my students could not find the area and circumference of a circle. The problem was not obscured by context in any way, I just drew a circle, marked the diameter as 12 meters, and asked for the area and circumference. Students were working on personal white boards and as I walked around the room, I saw lots of blank boards. A few students were confused by the fact that you have to first find the radius (6 meters), but many students just didn’t know the formula for the area and circumference of a circle.

We have practiced finding the area and circumference of circles in various circumstances at least a dozen times. We measure circles, drew circles, made cylinders out of cardboard. A few times we just practiced doing exactly the task that I described. It is so frustrating that the information is just not sticking.

And this is just about finding the area and circumference of circles. Just imagine what the retention was like for other topics. It was pretty sad. It made me feel like a super huge failure as a teacher. I know part of the problem is that over half of my class does zero homework–without extra practice, there’s not enough repetition for  things to sink in. But still, I thought by now students would know the formulas for area and circumference of a circle, even without doing homework.

What do I have to do so that students will retain information better? And I’m not referring to some of the more detailed facts (like the fact that the intersection of the angle bisectors in a triangle is the incenter), but very basic and fundamental ideas and facts.