From Bad to Great: How my Difficult Math Past Has Helped Me Make Math Fun for my Students

“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32.  Today we are going to learn about Long Division.  Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?”  Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school.  My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook.  Did they think we couldn’t read?  Why did they teach us from the book?  They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class.  What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard?  Certainly not me.

While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner.  I was not the “typical” student in a classroom.  I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school.  I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer.  If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive.  I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking.  Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts.  Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content.  How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill?  As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject.  I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll.  I just didn’t get it.  Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others?  Why can’t all numbers be written the same way?  Why does division need to be so long?  If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem.  I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”

As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class.  I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts.  I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math.  Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting.  Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.”  The joy is palpable.

After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood.  Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way.  Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something.  Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.


While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught  Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year.  Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games.  I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.”  I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.

I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable.  Here is how I’m going about doing that:

  • During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles.  I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master.  I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them.  There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed.  We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
  • Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students.  We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.”  I had the students discuss what this means for them.
  • From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
    • Step 1: Think, “I can do this.  I’ve got this.  While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
    • Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel.  Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
    • Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  Remember, it’s process over product.
  • Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math.  This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year.  I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem.  The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan.  They really got into it.
  • The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans.  Did your plan work?  Were the strategies helpful?  Is there anything you should add to your plan?  I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem.  A few students revised their plans based on their reflection.  I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
  • Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students.  I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process.  While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system.  It’s also very interactive and fun for the students.  It game-ifies Math instruction.  They began using it in class yesterday.  They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program.  For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone.  It was awesome.  Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning.  The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
    • “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
    • “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
    • “This is so much fun.”
    • “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
    • “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
  • This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy.  Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade.  It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts.  Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student.  I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
  • I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.

That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade.  After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable.  I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach.  I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction.  It’s all about perspective and mindset.  Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.

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Taking a Risk and Trying Something New in the Classroom

As humans, we are creatures of habit.  We do not like to be stagnant or bored.  Our bodies and brains need us to be moving and doing for survival.  We are wired to be engaged in tasks, especially those that are routine and repetitious.  Eating at the same time every day or parking in the same spot day after day, for example.  It feels good when we know what to expect, but our brains are also wired to expect the unexpected.  We are animals, after all, prepared to live in a world in which other creatures are trying to attack and eat us.  Being ready for any type of situation is an evolutionary survival tactic that is hard-wired into our DNA.  However, in the very modern world in which we currently live, we don’t need to worry about an attack from a saber-tooth tiger, and so getting comfortable with a repetitive routine is quite common and calming.

I love knowing what to expect.  Because I have a long commute to my amazing school each morning, knowing what the weather and driving conditions will be is vital to my schedule and plan, especially during the winter months, as I live in New England.  I check the weather on a daily basis so that I can allot myself extra time if the roads may be slippery the following morning.  My brain feels very happy when it knows what to expect.  This knowing brings about a sense of harmony within my life.  When I am prepared for the weather and have a plan for everything, everything in life seems to fall into place just so.  I like that, but at the same time it can also make me complacent and bored.  If things always go as expected, my brain isn’t able to flex its survival-skills muscles.  As I’ve aged and matured, I have found absolute value and beauty in trying new things, taking risks, and being open to not having a plan.  It’s nice to mix things up from time to time.  I’m not advocating free-form living, I’m just suggesting, that for me, occasionally going into an experience without a plan feels good, as it allows my brain the novelty of something new.  What do I do now?  How do I solve this problem?  I try to be open to not having a plan or being open to all possibilities at least three to five times each day.  While the unknown can be scary, it can also be enlightening and magical.

Thursday morning, I set my classroom up for our monthly Yoga session with the amazing and talented Lisa Garside, a local Yogi.  My students began that morning learning about the five Tibetan Rites.  They were really into the mindfulness of it all.  The atmosphere in the classroom was serene and peaceful.  In the past, following our Yoga sessions, I had the students reorganize the classroom and return it to its normal configuration.  It just seemed to make sense to me.  Having a huge physical change will help them ready their minds to focus and work.  However, as I observed my students during our most recent Yoga session, I realized that they seemed very at home on their mats.  Their effort and joy were both very high.  So, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a risk following Thursday’s Yoga session.  I asked the students, before we reorganized the classroom, “I notice that you all seem calm and peaceful right now, and I  wonder if putting the classroom back together is really the best option for you all at this moment in time.  What do you think?  Should we conduct our math lesson on our Yoga mats or return the classroom back to its original configuration with desks and all?”  The students unanimously voted to keep the Yoga mats.  And so, Math class was completed on Yoga mats.  The students lied down on mats to complete their Mad Math worksheets and various modules via Foolproofme.org.  They were more focused and happier than I’ve ever seen them during Math class before.  It was awesome.  They worked effectively and efficiently to complete their assigned modules using the online financial literacy curriculum Foolproofme. They were attentive and scored better on the final assessments than in past weeks.  They helped each other through challenges faced in quiet and appropriate ways.  They did not distract each other, but instead, helped motivate each other to work well.  It was so cool to observe this outcome.  They were mindfully present and aware following our Yoga session.  It was awesome.

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So, what was the catalyst for this outcome?  What allowed this peaceful atmosphere to be cultivated during Thursday’s math class?  I don’t believe that it was one single thing that led to this outcome; instead, I feel as though many different factors contributed to what happened.

  1. I went into the day with an open mind and growth mindset.  I wasn’t married to having the students reorganize the classroom after our Yoga session.  I was flexible in my thinking and open to possibilities.
  2. Our monthly Yoga sessions help center and relax the students so that they are more open to being able to focus and work hard.
  3. Thursday’s Math class was a bit different from a normal work period as the students were completing Mad Math worksheets and a module within the Foolproofme program.
  4. I have created a classroom culture that promotes student choice and engagement.  I want the students to feel heard so that the most effective learning environment is created within the classroom.

When you combine these four ingredients together, magic happens.  And that’s exactly what happened in the fifth grade classroom on Thursday.  Because I was open to any sort of outcome or plan, I allowed for anything to happen.  While structure and routine have their place in middle school, student choice and voice are also a necessary part of creating an engaging atmosphere in the classroom.  Students love to feel as though they can choose how learning happens.  Perhaps that was the biggest contributing factor to this epic outcome.  Maybe, due to the fact that I allowed the students to choose how Math class was conducted, they were more engaged and motivated to work hard.  I suppose, anything is possible when you are open to everything; and as teachers, shouldn’t we always be open to allowing our students to tell us what they want and how they learn best?

The Benefits of Working with a Co-Teacher

When I first started teaching, I used to think I could and had to do it all.  I would arrive to school early and stay late just so that I could accomplish everything.  I would never think to ask for help and certainly never accepted it when offered as I thought it was a sign of weakness.  I was an island unto myself and I liked it that way.  Little did I know how harmful it was to me and my teaching.  By not talking to other colleagues and bouncing ideas around with them or asking for help, my teaching became very stagnant very quickly.  I figured that everything I did was great as I had no one to say otherwise, and so I kept doing the same thing year after year.  Then, I worked with a co-teacher and everything changed.  I realized that I was far from perfect and needed to change my approach in the classroom.  So, I did.  I grew and became a better teacher because I had someone who could provide me with feedback and offer help and support at every turn.  My first co-teacher became one of my best friends as we worked so closely together.  I offered her suggestions on her teaching and life and she did the same for me.  We both grew and became effective educators because of this collaboration.  Working with someone else who can offer me advice, feedback, support, and help is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my professional life.

Today’s STEM class provided me with yet another prime example of how vital and important a co-teacher can truly be.  My students are in the midst of a project that will allow them to understand where they stand mathematically,  Are they ready for seventh grade math?  If not, what gaps still exist in their learning that need to be filled?  Are they ready for pre-algebra or algebra I?  This project is all about helping them figure out what they need to do over the summer to prepare for the math course that they would like to be in next year.  In class today, the students were working on filling in their learning gaps by watching videos, working with a peer, or asking the teachers questions.  It also meant that I needed to be available to provide them with practice problems and worksheets.  As I was busy setting the students up with practice activities, my co-teacher fielded questions the boys had and monitored their work habits to be sure they were focused and working to prepare for Thursday’s final placement exam.  We worked together like a well-oiled machine.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were all on track learning new skills and reviewing old ones.  While there was a lot going on in the classroom, it was very controlled and focused.

Today’s class went so smoothly because my co-teacher was in the room providing support and help to the students while I was busy creating their practice assignments.  If she wasn’t there to help, chaos would have ensued very quickly.  The students would have been yelling and screaming for help and perhaps even swinging from the lights.  Our STEM class works so smoothly on days like today because of our co-teaching model.  We support one another and the students very well.  It’s great.  I can’t imagine trying to do what I did today without her support.  It would have been nightmarish.  Having extra help in the classroom, a person to provide you with feedback, and a creative sounding board are just some of the amazing benefits of working with a co-teacher.  While I realize that it’s just not feasible for every classroom or teacher to have a co-teacher with whom to work, when complex projects are being worked on, it is hugely helpful for both the teachers and the students to have a co-teacher in the classroom.

Helping Students to Own their Learning

As a teacher, I sometimes feel as though parents and people in positions of power blame teachers for problems in our country: “Our leaders can’t lead because of bad teachers.  Kids get into drugs because the schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs.  My son is getting a C in history because his teacher isn’t doing his job”  No one is willing to take ownership for their actions and choices, and so it seems to be easier to blame teachers and schools as students spend so much time at school anyway.  Parents aren’t willing to take responsibility for their ineffective parenting because then it makes them look bad.  Just blame the teachers.  And this is one of the main problems with education in our country.  Our government has made it acceptable to blame teachers for problems facing our country and its youth; therefore, teachers are not given the respect they need and deserve.  Teachers work long hours, all year long despite what many people seem to think, to create engaging and meaningful lessons.  Teachers go out of their way to help support and challenge students.  We care for our students as if they were our own.  We are not paid what we deserve and schools rarely help support teachers when problems arise.  People no longer want to go into the field of teaching or stay there long because of how we are treated by the community and country.  Until our country takes ownership of their actions and choices, teachers are going to continually be viewed like Cameron Diaz in the movie Bad Teacher.

To help my sixth grade students begin to learn the power of ownership as it pertains to their learning, I’ve created a final math project that will help set them up for success in their seventh grade math class.  I want my students to realize that they are in control of what math section into which they are placed next year, and that it’s not fixed based on their work in the classroom this year.  I want them to own their learning so that one day they will own their actions and choices, paying teachers and schools the respect they deserve.

The project is divided into four phases:

  1. The students will complete what I’m calling the Math Pre-Placement Exam, which includes a series of questions based on the three different levels of math offered in the seventh grade.  The first page of the exam has the students reflect and respond on their math ability regarding the specific section they feel they will be or should be placed into next year.  I want them to set a goal for themselves before completing this project so that they can begin to align their self-perspective with the reality.  The final page of the exam is a guide sheet that shows them which questions are related to which particular course.  Once they have completed the exam, they will be provided with the answer key and grade their exam.  This will give them a good idea of where they are currently in their math trajectory.
  2. Then, the students will do some reflecting on their performance on this pre-placement exam.  They will make note of any gaps in their learning, skills they haven’t yet mastered, and then learn those skills via Khan Academy, working with the teacher, or seeking help from a peer.  They will practice these skills by completing problems in the textbook or on worksheets.
  3. Once I feel they have mastered the skills they are lacking, they will complete the final Math Placement Exam, which is very similar to the one they may take at the start of the next academic year.  They will then grade their exam to see how they have progressed and to help them see into which math course they may be placed next year.
  4. The final phase of this unit involves the students reflecting on this whole process as well as creating an action plan for what they will do over the summer to be sure they are prepared for seventh grade math and the course in which they would like to be placed.

I want my students to see where their math skills line up with the math courses offered at my school in the seventh grade.  I find that sometimes students think they are better or worse at math than they truly are.  This way, they can see what is what and then take ownership of their learning.  They get to decide what they want to do to be placed into the math course that they feel would be best for them.  It takes teacher placement out of the equation and puts the onus on the students.  They have the power to change their future.  If they do poorly on the placement exams but really feel as though they should in Algebra I or Pre-Algebra next year, they have the entire summer to prepare for the placement exam come September.  The figurative math ball is in their court.

I’m excited about this project that we just began yesterday in STEM class.  I feel as though it will help the students fill in any gaps in their math learning and help them see the reality of their math skills.  The boys seemed invested in this project and process yesterday when I introduced it.  They asked some great questions and seem to know that the power lies within them regarding what math class they will be in next year.  I’m hopeful that this project will help them feel and be as successful as they want to be while also learning how to own their choices and learning.  If I want my students to grow up to be able to make good choices and then own them, I need to create learning opportunities in the classroom for them to practice showing ownership now.

Does Study and Preparation Impact the Outcome of an Assessment?

In my previous blog entry from yesterday, I examined the most effective way to help prepare students for a math assessment.  I hypothesized that because we provided the students with lots of extra time to review, practice, seek help, and prepare for the exam, that they would all fare quite well and not need to complete the test redo process.  Following Saturday’s final preparation period, I felt as though each and every student was prepared and ready for the assessment.

Then came the assessment, today in STEM class.  While many of the students did do quite well and felt successful, two of the students in my math groups do need to complete the redo process for one objective.  Now, this isn’t at all a negative outcome.  In fact, today’s result is actually an improvement from past assessments.  Usually, at least three to five students need to complete the redo process for one or more of the objectives.  This time, only two students need to redo one objective.  That’s a huge change from earlier in the year.  So, in my mind, the extra preparation and review time we allowed, helped the students better meet, and in many cases, exceed the graded objectives.  The boys seemed to feel prepared and felt confident, for the most part, when they turned in their completed assessment.  In my mind, today’s outcome was successful and positive in every way, and proved that students do need extra time to process information to prepare for a math assessment.

But what about those two students who need to complete the redo process for one objective?  What happened there?  Why did they struggle to display their ability to meet one graded objective?  Did they not effectively study and review the skills covered outside of class?  Each of the two students struggled with the same objective involving word problems.  They were unable to transform a word problem into an algebraic expression in simplest form.  Was this because the problems were too tricky?  The two problems came directly from previous lesson check-in assessments, and had been reviewed and discussed in class on a few separate occasions.  While they were challenging problems, they were not impossible or meant to fool the students in any way.  So then, why did these two students get both word problems wrong on their chapter assessment?  What happened?  Although their answers were, in some cases, somewhat close and showed an understanding of the skill, they did not simplify their response or properly execute the needed computations.  In this particular case, more review did not help these students understand how to turn written descriptions into algebraic expressions.  Would anything have helped them?  Some students just struggle with word problems, which is why we completed a whole unit on how to tackle word problems earlier in the year.  I even reviewed the four steps involved in the problem solving process when the students worked on this skill of turning words into algebraic expressions.  Nothing seemed to help these two students with this one objective.  While I would have loved to have seen all of my students master every objective covered on today’s assessment, these two students still have a chance to master the skill with which they struggled by completing the redo process.  Some students just struggle with word problems and how to decipher them.

Overall though, I was very pleased with today’s outcome and realized how important giving the students time to review major concepts prior to completing an assessment is to the learning process.  We can’t expect our students to master skills in just a day or two before completing an assessment; they need time to ask questions, complete practice problems, and review the concepts covered before demonstrating their mastery of the skills or topics covered.

How Much Test Preparation is Effective?

I was never a good test taker in school.  For one, I didn’t really know how to study.  Do I reread the pages in the text book?  Make flashcards of vocabulary terms?  Reread my notes a bunch of times?  My teachers never taught me how to study.  So, I usually just glanced over my notes and called it a day.  As I was a relatively good writer, essay exams were my jam.  I generally aced those.  But when it came to standardized tests or multiple guess exams, I struggled.  The questions were tricky on purpose and I didn’t know the material well enough to take an educated guess.  No test prep in the world could have helped me when I took a fill-in-the-bubble test.

As a teacher, I’m armed with my experiences as a student.  I hated tests and still feel as though they prove very little about how much students have learned material.  Most students cram for exams and will often due quite well, but when you ask them about the content learned weeks later, they remember almost nothing.  In those cases, there was clearly no genuine learning taking place.  So, as a teacher, I rarely use tests as assessments, except for math, as that is how they will be assessed in all future math classes at my school.  Being mindful of this, I know that I need to prepare them for next year.  Following each math unit, I have the students complete a math assessment.  I make sure there are no multiple choice questions on the exam.  I also spend much time going over study strategies and techniques.  What’s the best way to study and what does that look like?  Usually though, I only have one day of review in class prior to the assessment, and what I have found is that some students struggled on the assessment.

Keeping this in mind when I planned my current math unit, I made sure to leave more than a week for review, discussion, and preparation.  I want all of my students to feel ready and prepared while also being successful.  I had the students complete a math review packet last week.  Once they completed the packet, I gave them the answer key so that they could correct their work.  For every problem they got wrong, they had to explain why it was wrong, as I want them to own their learning and truly comprehend the skills covered throughout the unit.  Then, I made myself available throughout the week during class and outside of class for extra help.  A few students took advantage of this extra support and saw me for help.  I addressed their questions and had them complete sample problems regarding the skills with which they struggled.  This seemed to help those few students feel much more prepared and at ease for Monday’s exam.

As this lengthy preparation is a big change from past units, I wonder if this new method is more or less effective.  Did I spend too much time preparing my students for tomorrow’s math assessment?  I could have used that week to begin another unit.  Did I spend too much time having the boys review the major vocabulary terms covered in the unit?  Will they be better prepared for tomorrow’s exam because they were provided with extra time to process the information and complete some practice problems?  Will I see a difference on their assessments?  I’m hopeful that they will all do very well as I feel as though I had a chance to check-in with all of them over the course of last week to be sure they understood and had mastered all of the skills covered.  I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out for certain, but I do feel as though giving the students extra time to review for tomorrow’s assessment will help them be and feel successful.

When Things Don’t Go as Planned in the Classroom

I like to think of myself as a classroom prognosticator.  I feel as though I am generally quite good at predicting the future in my classroom.  I know that if two particular students sit together, they will chat and distract each other all day long.  I also know that my students will be excited in Humanities class on Monday because they love Reader’s Workshop.  My crystal spherical object usually points me in the right direction.  Because I spend so much time planning and preparing for lessons, activities, and field trips, I almost always know how things will go in the classroom.  I need extra time for some lessons and less time for others.  I know these things to be true because I’ve experienced them before.  New things, lessons, or activities, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely.  While I am still pretty good at predicting how new things will go in the classroom, every once in awhile my prediction turns out to be wrong.  Now, why is this, you must be asking yourself.  If I am so good at reading the future on a daily basis, why do I struggle with predicting the outcome of new events?  It’s those unknown factors.  What if the technology doesn’t work properly?  What if students don’t understand my directions?  What if there is a fire drill during the lesson?  Those unknown variables are the ones that mess me up.  They are my kryptonite.  Although I try to prepare for every unknown situation, it’s just not possible.  I occasionally miss one or two variables every time I plan a new lesson.  Generally, those variables are so minute or not relevant that the lesson usually will still usually go as planned; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

Today saw one of those exceptions play out in my STEM class.  My goal was to help the students learn how to use the flashcard making application Quizlet to create flashcards for the vocabulary terms we’ve covered in our math unit.  I had the list of words already prepared and posted to our learning management system.  I checked it twice yesterday to make sure that it still worked.  I played around with Quizlet to be sure I knew how to navigate the website as well.  I even made a test set of flashcards to try out the games and test.  I felt ready and prepared.  I had thought of everything, except the biggest, most crucial part: What if the students can’t locate the vocabulary terms in their math book?  I failed to think about how they would locate the terms in their book.  What if the definition wasn’t in their book?  What if they needed to infer the meaning of the word from the book?  What if they couldn’t remember a certain concept?  Then what are they supposed to do?

After explaining the activity to the students, modeling how to use Quizlet, and answering all of their questions, I let them get to work.  Soon after they started working, the questions started pouring in.  “I can’t find the definition.  What if I don’t know what the word means?  I don’t understand this word?” many of the students said as they worked on the task of making math vocabulary flashcards.  I had forgotten to tell them how to use their book to find the words and what to do when a word wasn’t directly defined in the text.  While most students were able to draw conclusions on their own to solve the task, a few students struggled to complete this task because of the directions I had omitted.  Had I better explained this portion of the activity, they might have felt more successful and needed less of my support.  What I thought was going to take 15 minutes, ended up taking more than 30 minutes to complete.

The moral of this story is, I can’t predict the future no matter how hard I try.  Unknown variables are called that because no one knows what they are.  They are unknown for a reason.  I can’t possibly plan for every single issue, dilemma, or happening.  Luckily, I rolled with today’s lesson and most every student was able to finish the task by the end of class.  I felt a bit off though because I hadn’t properly prepared my students to complete the activity successfully.  Next time, I need to be sure I model how to complete the task and not just how to use the technology tool.  At the end of the period, I shared my thoughts and noticings with the students.  I explained how I thought this activity was going to be short and simple but ended up being a bit convoluted and took much longer than anticipated.  I shared with the boys how I need to better prepare for an activity like this in the future.  I need to be sure I show them how to complete an activity like this.  Although today’s STEM lesson didn’t go entirely as planned, it taught me an important life lesson and allowed me to show vulnerability to my students.  Even teachers make mistakes.  With a growth mindset, failure can quickly be transformed into an opportunity to learn.

How to Effectively Communicate with Students

I was raised in a time when spanking children was an acceptable form of parenting.  When I sat on my baby sister, I got spanked.  What did that teach me, you ask.  Well, it taught me not to sit on my sister, or at least don’t get caught doing it.  It also taught me to fear my parents.  Was that an effective method of parenting?  Well, who am I to say what is right or wrong.  I learned much about life growing up and I feel as though I turned out okay, for the most part.  In the modern world in which we live, parenting like how I was raised is completely unacceptable and unheard of.  If you spank or hit your kids, you can go to jail or lose custody of your children.  We live in a world where words are used to solve conflict and help bring people together.  My wife and I parent through love and compassion.  Of course, we’re stern and hold our son accountable, but we try to do so in a collaborative manner.  It’s not us versus him.  We’re all on this crazy journey together.  While the method of parenting that we are using to raise our son seems to be working, it’s hard to tell if other approaches would be as effective.  Are we doing the right thing?  Saying the right thing?  Are we being too tolerant or too hard?  Parenting, much like teaching, is all about finding what works for the situation and time.  People do and say what they think is right for them.  But, is every approach, action, or word appropriate for every person?  Would raising a completely different child using the same method used to raise me work for that child?  Maybe, but it’s still hard to tell.  Parents and teachers do what they think is best for them and the situation.

Communication is key when connecting with students and building meaningful relationships.  For students to genuinely learn in the classroom, they need to feel safe, cared for, and supported.  How we talk to our students helps lay the foundation for the future.  If we show our students that we care about them and will do whatever it takes to support them, they will reciprocate accordingly.  The opposite is also true, however.  If we talk at our students or use disrespectful words when communicating with them, they will put up walls and be defensive.  Students need to feel cared for, and effective communication is an easy and vital way to make this happen.

Today in STEM class, as my students completed a check-in assessment for the lesson covered in class on Saturday, I noticed that one student, sat, doing nothing.  He wasn’t working or trying to complete his assessment in any way, and he wasn’t asking for help either.  My co-teacher and I have seen this sort of shut-down behavior from this particular student in the past.  When he gets overwhelmed or confused, he will often stop working and sit at his desk area, unmoving, almost motionless.  As I’ve found ways to help him get unstuck and make use of a growth mindset in the past, I wanted to help him again.  Part of me, though, was just frustrated with him.  Because he wasn’t fully engaged in Saturday’s mini-lesson, he struggled to understand the concept, but didn’t ask for assistance or help at all during or after class that day.  So, part of me wanted to ignore him and let him struggle.  Of course, the teacher in me realized that I needed to support and care for him.  So, I thought long and hard about what I would say before I approached him.

“It looks like you are really struggling.  Can I help you in anyway?  What seems to be the problem?” I asked him.  He responded, “It’s not that I don’t know how to do this, it’s just that I don’t remember how to do it.”  I then directed his attention to the first question that asked him to create a table regarding some data.  “Do you understand what you need to do for this one?” I asked.  He then asked some clarifying questions before getting to work.  Once he saw that I wasn’t going to let him struggle and fail without trying to support and help him, he was able to believe in himself and demonstrate his understanding of the skill being assessed.  A few minutes later he asked for assistance on his own.  He didn’t understand what one of the word problems was asking.  So, I reworded it in a way that would make more sense to him.  I also used visual cues.  He then looked at me with a strange expression on his face and said, “Did you just tell me what to do?”  I said, “No, I simply reworded the problem for you in a way that would help you better understand it.  Your brain processed the information in a meaningful way, telling you what to do.”  He then smiled and wrote down the answer.  He finished the rest of the assessment on his own.  He seemed to realize that I was there to support him if need be and so he wasn’t afraid to take a risk and try some of the problems.

Had I spoken to him in a frustrated tone or not carefully chosen my words, I could have caused him to stay shut down throughout the period.  While communication is an important part of connecting with students, it also needs to be effective communication if we want to build strong relationships with our students.  I wanted this particular student to feel cared for and supported and so I needed to make sure I used words that displayed that to him.  While this interaction was successful for this student today, it may not work for every student, every time.  I read this situation and acted accordingly.  If something similar happens to another student, I might need to use a slightly different approach that would work for that student in that moment.  With so many variables at play all of the time, there is not always one right answer when communicating with students; however, there are plenty of wrong ways to communicate with our students, and it’s important that we avoid them.  Thinking before acting and then using compassionate and caring language when communicating with students who are struggling is usually the best approach for these types of situations.

Is Collaboration an Effective Strategy for Teaching Math?

Sometimes I wish life came with an instruction manual.  Sure, it could be digital, but it would need to be prescriptive and descriptive, with diagrams.  In fact, it would probably be best in digital form as it would need to be millions of pages long.  I wonder what that might read like…

  1. Breathe.
  2. Cry.
  3. Drink mother’s milk.
  4. Poop.
  5. Pee.
  6. Sleep.
  7. Cry when you want to wake up.

There would truly be an infinite number of steps.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know how to deal with all that life throws your way?  I would really like validation regarding some of the things I’ve done in the classroom or at home as a husband and father.  Am I really doing the right thing?  Should I have done something differently?  Knowing, for certain, what I am supposed to do ahead of time in various situations would definitely help me feel more prepared.  This way I would also know if what I’m doing is the best option.  While I do like the freedom to choose and the excitement that comes from the unknown at times, I often question myself later on.  Did I handle that situation appropriately?  Could I have better addressed that issue?  Knowing what to do and being prepared at all times removes questioning from the equation altogether.  Imagine if you never needed to wonder how to deal with that student or address that issue with your child.  Wouldn’t that be great?

Since life doesn’t, sadly enough, come with instructions, I find myself often wondering if what I’m doing in the classroom is effective.  Is one teaching strategy better than another?  Today in my STEM class, the students worked on their assigned math course.  My co-teacher conducted a mini-lesson for the students in the supportive group while I lead a mini-lesson for the students in the accelerated group.  After the mini-lesson, which lasted about 15 minutes, the students got right to work on their assigned homework.  The students in each of the two groups, huddled together to complete the homework.  I was a bit worried that they would simply copy off of each other, and so I monitored these groups closely.  As we have fostered a strong sense of collaboration and compassion in the sixth grade classroom, the students are great at supporting one another in appropriate ways.  The groups of students seemed to be effectively working together to accomplish the task.  They talked through each problem, mapped it out on the whiteboard tables, and answered each other’s questions.  When one student was confused, another student helped by explaining the process or problem to the student in a meaningful manner.  Each student in both groups seemed to really understand the skill covered in today’s mini-lesson.  It was quite amazing to see this form of effective collaboration in action.  Because the content covered for the accelerated group was a bit challenging as it dealt with word problems, I was worried that two of the students in that group would really struggle to complete the homework as they tend to take much time to process new concepts.  Instead, these students helped their group persevere through the challenging homework problems.  One student who I thought was about to get frustrated and walk away from his group, was in fact, having an a-ha moment and able to help his group solve the particular problem they were working on.  I was so impressed with my students and how they worked together in STEM class today.

I find that collaboration is a challenging skill to teach young students.  For me as a student, collaboration meant that the students next to you would copy from your paper and there was certainly no talking to each other.  Usually one person did all of the the work.  In our current global society, collaboration has taken on a new meaning.  It’s not about doing the work, it’s about talking, discussing, problem solving, and the group think mentality.  This can be difficult for students to understand, especially those from different cultures and academic backgrounds.  For some of our international students, copying is the appropriate way to accomplish certain tasks.  Helping students to learn a new way of collaborating is definitely tough, but very important.  Students need to understand how to support one another and help each other understand concepts and how to solve problems without one person doing all of the work.  As a teacher, I often wrestle with teaching collaboration and group work.  Should I allow the students to work together?  Are they really working together or is one person doing all of the work?  Is effective collaboration really happening?  As teachers, we need to observe and monitor our students.  Conferencing with them one-on-one to assess their understanding of concepts and skills also helps.  If we are teaching them the strategies needed to successfully understand how to work together and collaborate, and we monitor their progress throughout the year, then we will know whether or not they are truly and effectively collaborating and if it work for them.

What’s the Best Method for Teaching Math to Students?

I was a terrible math student in school.  Not only did I not like math class, but I didn’t understand the concepts covered.  I had great difficulty comprehending and processing what was being taught.  Regardless of how pointless I found every math concept ever covered, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how to do math.  How do I find the LCD when adding fractions?  Which property is being used in this geometry problem?  How do I prove that a triangle has three sides?  Math seemed like a different language to me, which is strange because I had a much easier time learning how to speak Spanish.  So, what was my problem?  Was it how my teachers taught me?  Was it their instructional methods?  Did they not effectively teach me the math concepts?  Some of my math teachers utilized projects to help me see the relevance in what I was learning.  That I liked.  My seventh grade math teacher had us complete this cool project on accounting and money.  I had to maintain and update a checkbook, write checks, deposit money, and do all that fun banking stuff.  I remember that unit very well as my teacher made math seem fun.  Then came high school and it was all about bookwork, homework, solving problems, discussing the homework, and repeating the process day in and day out.  As I constantly struggled to understand the concepts covered, I quickly began to hate math.  If my teachers had utilized different instructional strategies when teaching me the content, would I still have felt the way I did?  Would math have been such a struggle for me?

It wasn’t until I became a teacher, that math started to make sense to me.  As I had to teach it to other people, I realized that I wanted to find a way to make math fun and engaging.  I wanted my students to see the relevance in the concepts covered.  I wanted my students to see math as a journey and not repetition.  Over the years, I’ve worked hard to maintain this mantra in my classroom.  Creating a STEM class a few years back helped remind me to be sure I was making math fun and engaging for my students.

Last year, I felt as though I struggled to do this.  While I tried to take the focus off of direct instruction and repetition, I found that I wasn’t effectively educating my students.  They were often confused by the time the chapter assessments rolled around as I hadn’t clarified their questions nor had they been given the time needed to practice the skills covered.  So, this year, I’ve been much more purposeful in my planning and instruction.  Each lesson includes a mini-lesson with time for the students to practice the problems and ask questions regarding the skill covered.  The boys then have at least 10-20 problems to complete on their own to show that they understand the concept covered and can apply it independently.  At the end of each unit, the students must complete a chapter assessment, to demonstrate their mastery of the skills covered throughout the unit.  Test retakes are completed by those students who struggle to accurately apply the skills covered.  This process has seemed to work so far this year.  I’ve also made use of several hands-on math activities, online games, and other projects throughout the year, to allow the students to see the relevance in the math skills covered as well as to help the students see math as fun and engaging.  I feel as though these instructional strategies used are working.  The students are faring much better on the chapter assessments and there is much less confusion regarding the math concepts covered.  However, I do wonder how much fun the boys are having in class regarding the math content.  Are they engaged?  Are they seeing the relevance in the concepts covered?  While they seemed to really like our unit on the Stock Market, did they see how the math skills covered throughout the year were applied?  Do they enjoy the mini-lessons?  Am I making the content seem fun?  Do they really understand the concepts covered?

As the end of this academic year is less than two months away, I feel compelled to ponder the effectiveness of my math instruction and curriculum.  Am I making the math skills covered relevant to the students?  Could I better implement the math skills into the STEM projects?  Could I make my mini-lessons more engaging?  Am I effectively preparing my students for the rigors of seventh grade math?  While I’m sure I could write an entire novel on this topic and all of my questions and thoughts regarding it, I feel as though I’ll never know the exact answer.  Perhaps I should ask my students.  Maybe, creating a survey on Google Forms with questions like the ones I’ve posed here will help me to elicit responses that will allow me truly reflect on my math instruction.  Yeah, that’s what I should do.  I’ll provide my students with the chance to provide me feedback on my math instruction.  What did they really think?  Was the math content presented in an engaging and relevant way?  Did they find it fun?  Did the concepts covered make sense?  I feel as though an activity like this will provide me with real, genuine data that I can use to plan my math instruction for next year.  How can I make the math instruction better for my students?  Although I think I know what might be best for my students, I don’t really know what works best for them.  By gathering data from my students, however, I will then truly begin to know what they think works best for them.  What a brilliant idea!  I can’t wait to learn what they really think about my effectiveness as a math teacher.