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.

Ten more days to go

Only ten more days of school left in the school year! (Thank you, furlough days!)

Today was a surprisingly successful day. Students in Algebra 1 were amazingly attentive and quiet today, even though (a) it was Friday, (b) we are so near the end of school, and (c) these kids are usually a wild pack of beasts.

I think some of it had to do with the fact that I was pretty strict at the beginning of class and somehow we got into this weird situation where we had a long enough stretch of time when it got absolutely could-hear-a-pin-drop quiet and no one seemed brave enough to break the silence while working (one of those weird group psychology things, I bet). But I think the main reason for their focus was that they were doing math and doing pretty well. I must sound like a broken record by now, but I really do feel that motivation is mostly a function of whether students feel like they are or can be successful at a task.

Oh, and apparently I was voted “Most Chill Teacher” today by the students. Go me!

Mistakes made this year

There have been many times this past year when I have wished I could go back and correct or redo something. I can really appreciate the struggles that new teachers face. There are an overwhelming number of new things to consider and so there are bound to be things overlooked or mistakes made. At my usual university job, when I think of something to fix or do better the next time I teach a course, I jot down notes to myself and I read those notes before teaching the course the next time.

This time, it’s unlikely that I’ll get to teach Algebra 1, Geometry or Algebra 2 to high school students any time soon. However, I’ll still write down my thoughts anyway.

One of the biggest mistakes that I made is that I didn’t plan in larger instructional units. My lesson plans tend to be conceived from week to week, day to day. My teaching this year lacks a larger architectural design and I’m sure this manifests itself in students who don’t see the forest for the trees. I haven’t been doing much foreshadowing (preview of coming attractions) in my teaching and so there are fewer connections between topics. I also did not realize the extent to which district, state or school tests impose themselves on my instructional choices; so many times I scrambled to “cover” something before a test instead of allowing the tests to do what they are meant to do–to assess students’ understanding of topics that they have already had the chance to master in my class.

I am a big fan of “backwards course design” (espoused by James McTighe and Grant Wiggins in Understanding by Design) and have even led professional development sessions about this kind of instructional design. But have I done much of it this year? No. I feel like such a hypocrite.

Fire alarm

During the last period of school today, the fire alarm went off. This is a terrible thing, but all of us at this school have gotten so jaded by false alarms that we didn’t move for a while until someone PA system that it was a real alarm and that we needed to evacuate. We made our way to the field where we hung out for a while, then returned to class. More wasted instructional time, oh joy. It turned out two students set two separate fires at the same time in two bathrooms, so it wasn’t a drill or someone pulling the alarm for kicks.

I am looking forward to the four day weekend that has been made possible by furlough days in our district. Wheeee!!

Kids say the darndest things

While I was sick last week and out of school, my colleague got my students to write me get well cards and thank you notes. It was super awesome gesture on her part and my students wrote some really nice things.

This one really got to me, mostly because for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was really reaching this student or not. He doesn’t speak much English and he sits by himself off to the side of my Algebra 1 class. This student is in the United States illegally and he’s afraid of getting deported. He understands English better than he can speak it, but sometimes I have to use Google translate to communicate with him. I love that he only knows me as “Mister Jhon” (not my real name, obviously).

One thing I’ve learned about teaching high school: the low points can be so low, but the high points are correspondingly high too.

Was innumeracy a factor in the recent housing bust?

Here’s an interesting research article that I found by way of this article in the Economist: “The Fear of All Sums” (May 13, 2010). The authors of the paper found a strong correlation between individuals with poor math literacy and individuals who were delinquent on their loans in the recent housing bust, and this result was robust even when controlling for age, ethnicity, level of income, FICO score, highest level of education, and other sociodemographic variables. Furthermore, the authors of this study found that people with poor math literacy were not more or less prone to enter into subprime mortgages than people with high math literacy. The reason suggested by the authors for the difference in mortgage delinquency is that people with poor math literacy are not as good at managing their daily finances.

Here are the five questions that they used to measure math literacy:

  1. In a sale, a shop is selling all items at half price. Before the sale, a sofa costs $300. How much will it cost in the sale?
  2. If the chance of getting a disease is 10 per cent, how many people out of 1,000 would be expected to get the disease?
  3. A second hand car dealer is selling a car for $6,000. This is two-thirds of what it cost new. How much did the car cost new?
  4. If 5 people all have the winning numbers in the lottery and the prize is $2 million, how much will each of them get?
  5. Let’s say you have $200 in a savings account. The account earns ten per cent interest per year. How much will you have in the account at the end of two years?

I’m curious to see how my students will do on these questions. I feel a sense of personal responsibility that even if students aren’t going to learn Algebra 1, Geometry or Algebra 2, that I try to help them raise their basic math literacy skills.

I like Open House Night

Last night we had an Open House night where parents could visit their students’ classrooms and talk to their teachers.

I’ve been to two of these now and I like coming to these things. For one thing, not many parents show up, so it’s a good time to tidy up around the room and get stuff done.

Open House night is also good for my ego. At our school, it tends to be the involved parents who come to these events and there is a high correlation between involved parents and students who are doing well. These parents say nice things–it’s nice to feel appreciated. One parent told me “You’re a beautiful person.” Another told me I’m a talented teacher. I hope this fuel will last me until the end of the year.

Dirtiest Floor Contest

Lack of janitorial staff and services due to budget cuts at your school? Then you may be interested in this…

Announcing: First Annual Dirtiest Classroom Floor Contest

Eligibility: Only active classroom teachers are eligible to enter

Prize: Lifetime supply of magic erasers, bleach wipes, and tetanus shots

Judges: Um.. me. I’m biased, also.

How to enter: Email unedited photos of your classroom floor to me or post a link to your photos in a comment. You must sweep the floor before taking a picture. Samples of photos are provided below.

Closing date: May 30, 2010

Good luck!