Beating the Blahs

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This long stretch between Christmas break and Spring Break is taking its toll on the staff and students at school. We’re all ready for a break, and it’s beginning to show. Nevertheless, I’m pushing through and making the best of each day–what else can you do, right?

My partner and I have been experimenting with a variety of teaching methods to see which ones work best for, and continually engage our students. We’ve found that lessons involving physical movement tend to be best at keeping the kids interested in math. We’ve also had some great discussions about  major topics, like negative numbers, the relationship between addition and multiplication, etc, which I love seeing from middle schoolers. They’re working on cooperating with partners and sharing their thoughts in front of the class. This is something that has been extremely effective–having them come up to the board and justify their solutions and thought processes with everyone else. Watching their excitement about being able to assume the role of the teacher is inspiring, because it shows their understanding of a concept and confidence in justifying their reasoning. I try to call on them as often as possible to give them this opportunity. It can often be difficult to ensure that I am getting all of the students to volunteer equally, because some volunteer more than others. However, I think it’s important to get everyone up to the board because it gives me a better sense of the entire class’s understanding, rather than just those whose voices tend to dominate the classroom. I try to regularly reinforce that making mistakes is no big deal–in fact, it can actually help us learn more as a class. This has gotten a few more volunteers to come up and share their thinking with the rest of us.

In order to “beat the blahs,” our school is hosting a slew of events and activities to motivate the students to keep pushing through. We’re currently in the midst of spirit week (which the teachers may be enjoying more than the kids!) as well as activities like student vs. staff basketball games, mini-olypics and more. It has seemed to make the school days a bit more enjoyable for the students, but a break is definitely much needed.

I’ve been teaching at least one hour a day most days, and it is amazing to me how much more comfortable the students are around me compared to when I first arrived. I feel like I’ve built up a good relationship with them, and I really take the time to get to know them–their likes, dislikes–and try to incorporate them, even if only briefly, into the daily lessons. It’s the little things that count. 🙂

That’s about all there is to report as of now. I’m still loving every moment of being in the classroom and teaching the students. In fact, I’m learning quite a few new words myself–urban dictionary has become my new favorite tool! Ha-ha

What? So What? Now What? (Round 2)

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Today was my first day being observed by my content field coordinator, so this post will serve as a reflection of both my lesson and the debriefing I had with him. It will follow the what? so what? now what? format, just like my third blog post.

WHAT?: Today I taught a lesson on evaluating algebraic expressions to first hour. I have to say that I went into it quite nervous, because first hour tends to be a bit challenging when it comes to classroom management. However, I made sure to set goals for myself so that I knew what I was working toward. My goals were to make connections back to the main goals/objectives and vocabulary for the day and to try to keep the students engaged constantly so that I wouldn’t waste time asking for a zero (the system my school uses to get students’ attention). I don’t like to be that teacher who is constantly telling the students to be quiet, or that I need them to stop doing such and such–I think it should be an entire class effort, because it’s their classroom, too.

I taught my lesson and worked through the activity with the students, mostly circulating through the room while they worked to answer questions and monitor their work. The activity had them working in pairs with manipulatives (little cubes of different colors in this case) in which they counted the number of each color cubes they had and let these represent the variables in the algebraic expressions. Their job was to substitute the values they found into the expressions and evaluate them. The two vocabulary words which went with this lesson were substitute and evaluate.

As I reflected with my field coordinator, I realized that I hadn’t done as well with the fulfillment of my “making connections” goal as I would have liked. Although the lesson went well overall, there were opportunities I missed to connect to previous lessons, or even concepts from earlier in the day. I was, however, able to make connections with the vocabulary from the day, as well as spend a relatively small amount of time on getting the students’ attention. You win some and you lose some, I guess.

SO WHAT?: Being able to lead this lesson completely on my own was an amazing experience and showed me that I can do this whole teaching thing! There are definitely aspects I would like to change and improve for future use, but that’s why this observation was so great. I was able to discuss what worked and what didn’t so that I can make the necessary adjustments for next time. The discussions with my coordinator showed me things I forgot (such as referring back to previous concepts which connect) and things that could go more smoothly next time (such as giving the students explicit instructions and tasks so that there is no question, and no reason for them to be off task) as to what they are supposed to be doing. Sometimes we become so absorbed in the teaching that we don’t pick up on the little things in the classroom that may be causing a distraction or may not be clear to students. It’s nice to have the opportunity to be observed so that I know what is going on in all areas of the room when my eyes and ears are with other students.

NOW WHAT?: Two areas I really want to focus on are classroom management and explicit instructions. I have a feeling that the explicit instructions will help address some of the classroom management, so I’ll start there. Students seemed to be a little confused when I was going through the worksheet, so next time I would be sure to pass that out first before going through it, but without the manipulatives so they aren’t tempted to start before hearing the instructions. If I can go through an example with them, then they will have a model to at least base their work upon, even though our answers won’t be exactly the same due to the variation in colored blocks. Also, when students were at the board writing their answers, I need to give the other students a task so that chatting doesn’t become a temptation. As far as classroom management, I’d really like to try out some different methods of getting (and keeping) the students’ attention. That way, they’re less likely to engage in side conversations. I’m not sure what these methods are yet, but I will be doing my research and trying them out so that I can report back!

This experience was more than helpful and I feel so much more prepared to teach even from that one observation. Having a second set of eyes to monitor your lesson and classroom skills is a lifesaver!!

Teaching Around the World

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In one of my education classes, we are reading the book The Teaching Gap by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert. This book compares teaching styles and methods between math teachers in the United States, Germany and Japan, which is proving to be extremely interesting and eye-opening. We have also been learning about the Five Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions and how to implement them in the classroom to help facilitate class-wide conversations. This blog post is going to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I’ve observed and what I want to implement in my classroom as a future teacher.

Chapter five of The Teaching Gap focuses on something that I had never thought about–how the use of a whiteboard (or other technological board) affects learning. Teachers in the US tend to use projectors, doc cams, smart boards, etc to project information, which focuses students’ attention on the “information of the moment.” Japanese teachers, on the other hand, start their work on the top, left side of the board and work their way to the right–never erasing the previous work. Their purpose for using visual aids is “to provide a record of the problems and solution methods and principles that are discussed during the lesson.” This makes so much more sense to me, because math is (supposed) to be all about making connections. So, having the ability to look back at what was done at the beginning of a lesson makes sense if we think about math as a system rather than separate, disjoint concepts. I knew there was a reason I disliked Smartboards so much! They’re machines that add “fluff” (which is often times irrelevant and simply added for visual effect) and allow for very little space to write. With a whiteboard I would have almost an entire wall length to work a math problem or proof, but with a Smartboard, I’d have to move from page to page–never allowing the students to view their work as one long process, but rather fragmented pieces. I know it comes down to personal preference, but I personally think the Japanese really have a handle on this concept here.

Another idea mentioned in chapter five is that of the student role in the classroom. How many of us have had a math class where the teacher shows us the procedure, we learn it and practice it and then perform it on the test…and then likely forget it after that? I’m assuming that most are nodding their heads along with that statement–but that’s not math! Math is all about problem solving, thinking critically, collaborating and making connections–none of which can occur if we’re simply programmed to execute specific procedures. German and Japanese teachers have their students work on problems which they’ve often never seen modeled before. And guess what? They can accomplish them just fine! We don’t have to spoon feed kids, because they’re actually incredibly smart–they might just need some motivation to realize that. Once they see that they’re going to have to exert some brain power to solve a problem, I almost guarantee you that most of them will rise to the occasion. This is something I’m hoping to do in my classroom. I don’t want mundane, boring worksheets that provide little challenge, but rather activities that are hands on or based on real-world situations. This will take a great deal of effort, no doubt, but I truly believe it will create more motivated students who have a desire to tackle a problem head on with confidence.

So how do I make sure the “big ideas” are still being transmitted to each and every student? I’m so glad you asked. 🙂 This is where the Five Practices comes in to play. They are: Anticipate, Monitor, Select, Order and Connect (click on the link for more detailed descriptions). While the students are working through these more complex problems, I (the teacher) would be circulating throughout the room looking for common misconceptions, picking out methods of solving that I think are well written out or would lead to beneficial class discussions and the order in which they are shared. This is the “monitoring, selecting and ordering” from the Five Practices. The most important practice (in my opinion) is connect. If students can’t make connections to previous mathematics, real-world situations, etc then the math will have no meaning. I would love to write the objectives for each day on the board and ask the students periodically how whichever point we’re at in the lesson connects back to the main objective. This gives substance to what the students are working on and empowers them to continue thinking critically and making those powerful connections.

In summary, I’m finding The Teaching Gap a must read for all math teachers–present and future! As for The Five Practices, learn them, internalize them and put them in practice. I firmly believe they will make a huge difference.