Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ten Good Things

Inspired by Meg and Matt,  I'm listing ten things I do better than I did before. I teach middle school math, and ...

1) For the most part, my kids are not afraid to make mistakes. I've done "first best answer," and I ask for volunteers who know they got it wrong so we can help.  I also make a big deal about never allowing anyone to say "this is easy" since it isn't easy for everyone... but mostly I just say "it's you on a deserted island and this question is your ticket off - you've got to make a guess so give it a shot!"  and I wait. Which leads to #2

2) I can wait for a long time. "Take a minute and look it up," I might say. "Put your hands down; I'm glad you know it but I'm worried that he doesn't," I often say to everyone else. 

3) I use big words. We have the option to create passcodes for online tests and I use an SAT prep website to come up with words. So I'll say "the passcode for the practice test is 'grimace;' do you know what 'grimace' means?" The best is when I overhear a kid using a word I used with them. Even if they already knew the word, i like to think I'm reminding them to sprinkle more variety into their conversations. 

4) My kids move a lot. Ok, maybe not "a lot" - it's so objective- but certainly more than we moved when I was in school. Sometimes it's as simple as "stand up if you disagree" and sometimes we even tuck out the back door and take a lap around the track.  I have really taken to heart everything's that's being written about how exhausting it is to just sit all day and I just want these guys to have a chance to wiggle. 

5) I'm not afraid to try new things. In fact, I'll try just about anything my principal asks me to. I respect her that much, and I know I'm green enough to need suggestions. 

6)  my kids ask questions. Sometimes good questions, sometimes less good questions, sometimes silly questios, and sometimes it's an affirmation-seeking-statement-but-in-question-form question.  But I get a lot of questions. Which is good because ...

7) I'm down with letting student questions guide the lesson. If I want to cover a topic, and I want to be sure to cover points A, B, and C, I'm fine if something about A prompts a student to ask about C or D. I'll throw up that example and eventually work my way back to B - if none of the students bring it up, that is. I'm pleased with my ability to think on my feet so I don't get thrown by a question that deviates from the scripted order.

8) I try to do as much hands-on and real-world activities as I can. Multiple entry points, higher-order thinking, higher level of engagement, and a chance to do something besides sit and write. I prefer it as much as they do. 

9) we write. Sometimes it's just a sentence about the bell-ringer graph, estimation, etc. sometimes it's a longer reflection on an activity we did in class. And I count off for crappy grammar or spelling whenever it's something they have time and opportunity to edit. Because math isn't an isolated subject AND they should be expected to be articulate outside of English class.


10) I don't suck. I have seven preps in an eight period day and I'm surviving. Could I be better? Sure! Could it be easier? Sure! Could I be eating better, sleeping more, or exercising at all? Absolutely! But I'm not completely drowning (most days) and I will make it to May. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why I love Common Core

When my son Jack was in kindergarten, he had an amazing teacher.  I"ll call her VB. She used a marvelous routine she called "Plan-Do-Review."   Every day the students would plan how they wanted to spend their morning, and write it up (plan).  This is kindergarten, so emergent literacy, of course!  Here is Jack's from early December:

VB would make notes - correct the spelling of "pirate" for example - and then the kids would play (do)!   When that time was over, VB would gather the class around one child or team, and they would explain what they'd done.  Not just what they planned, but how it turned out, and what decisions they made along the way.  Then the other children were allowed to ask questions, and then they were allowed to make comments (review).  In the case of Jack's pirate ship, it was built from blocks.  He spent several days building various things with blocks, until one day one of the other children said, "That one block looks like a slingshot."  The next day, the same little cluster of kids used a rubber band and the Y block, and spent the morning knocking over their block constructions.  His Plan sheet says, "Can I play angry birds?"

All in all, it was a fabulously fun experience for the kids, but also terrific for their cognitive development.  As the year went on, their Plan part got more elaborate - they learned punctuation and the difference between a period and question mark.  They learned possessives, and numerals, and proper nouns, and it all showed up on their Plan sheets.  The Do-ing was fabulous, too.  They learned to collaborate, to share, to imagine.  And the Review part - they learned to speak in front of people, to articulate their processes, and to share ideas. 

This process addresses - among others - Common Core Standard W.K.5 "With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed."  It is age appropriate, provides guidance, and allows for growth.

I was intrigued last week to see a talk given by Dr. Megan Koschnick.   She's not wrong about children and their developmental phases, but about minute 19, something caught my eye.  Dr. Koschnick was discussing the exact standard I've cited above, and imagines the implementation in this way:

This little kindergartner, is the little adult, right? Is going to hold this board meeting, where she’s going to present her writing, she’s going to elicit feedback from her peers, and then she’s going to take that criticism -“feedback”[air quotes hers] - back to the writing table and she’s going to edit her work to include details and strengthen her writing based on the suggestions of other people. ...  anybody who's had kids is like "what? that's not going to happen."

She then goes on to say that this is unrealistic and, in her professional opinion, will lead to "loss of creativity, frustration, possibly conflict, and lots of tears."  She probably is right ... except that it doesn't have to be that way.      I have read a lot of stuff about common core that makes me angry, but this frankly made me sad.  It made me sad that a simple standard, the student will "respond to questions and suggestions from peers" - that I had seen executed so fabulously - could be carried out in such a horribly destructive fashion.

Teaching can be done well, and can be done not well.  Common Core can be done well, and can be done not well.  Do it well! 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I never, not ever...

When I was in college, we played a game called, "I never..." When it was your turn, you said something that you've never done - I've never kissed a boy on the first date, or I've never been to Colorado - and anyone who had done it would take a drink.

We played a version last summer at church camp. We had one-too-few chairs (musical chairs-style) and the person in the middle would claim something - I've never run a marathon - and anyone who had would have to jump up and find a new seat.  The slowpoke who didn't get a new seat had to be the next "caller."

Tuesday we played with my algebra students.  We had learned polynomial vocab on Monday, so Tuesday I put them all in a circle and gave everybody a polynomial.  I would say, get up and move if you are a binomial! ... if your leading coefficient is 2! ... if you're a quadratic!  What ensued what raucous fun!  Those 8th graders wrestled and played like kindergarteners.  We laughed and shouted and cheered.

What surprised me, though, was how much real learning was happening.  I had expected it to be a diversion, another way to get those vocabulary words out there, but was impressed by how much it actually helped.  Kids would say, "wait, wait, am I a binomial?" or (not surprisingly) they'd tell on each other, "Kaylan was supposed to move!" I could ask, "why do you say so?" and then "Kaylan, care to defend yourself?" MP3, folks!!!

Real-world activity? Umm, no. High engagement? Most definitely.

On Wednesday, I tried to grab a restroom break between second and third period, and when I walked into my classroom they had moved the tables and put the chairs in a circle.  They were shouting out questions and answers - one girl would yell "binomial!" and everyone would yell back "two terms!" I was so touched, I scrambled to come up with a way to keep playing.  I grabbed a sharpie and a stack of index cards and gave everybody either a constant, or a single variable raised to some exponent.  I reminded them about factors of a number, and then gave a quick defintion of factors of monomials.

First we did a few rounds where I'd write a monomial on a white board, and you had to jump up if you were holding a factor. Then I started writing two monomials, and you would jump up if you had a common factor. After each round, I would have all the people who were holding factors stand up. We'd confirm, and them we'd decide whose cards comprised the Greatest Common Monomial.  What had been a review and reinforcing exercise yesterday had become a teaching exercise today. And it was just as fun the second time!

My daughter is in that class, and just to be mean I gave her "1" on the second day. It was fun watching the kids notice that she was getting up every time and tying to work out why. One boy raised his hand and said, "is there a case when Kate's the only one who gets up?" You could really see the wheels turning!

I stopped the game for a few minutes to re-group and give examples of factoring GCMonomials from polynomials.  We factored a multi-variable monomial from a trinomial, and they started murmuring about how easy it was, when would I get to the hard stuff?  I was pleased with how accessible they found the whole thing.

I'm a big believer that fun and engaging aren't the same thing, but this game really was both.  I also contend that this game didn't actually have anything that put the concepts in context, or any of the other edu-trends, but it did reinforce the skills in a motivating way. I am genuinely curious to see how the summative assessments turn out for this. I'm also more than a little worried about how to ever live up to this week!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What interests middle-schoolers?

Recently, the topic was what would engage middle-schoolers.  It's a valid question, spoken to nicely by this quote from Edutopia:

Look at it this way: your teaching every year is like a narrative, and ...if the A-story is the standards-based content, then the B-story is the tween-based content, and there is a huge difference between a middle-school classroom run by a teacher who takes on this added curriculum and a middle-school classroom that doesn't. It's the difference between silver and gray.

I am personally of the opinion that it is not just my job to present things in a context they're interested in, but also to interest them in things they hadn't thought about, heard of, or really considered before.

Apparently someone said, "Middle-schoolers aren't interested in health insurance" and the gauntlet was thrown down!  The good people at Mathalicious offered a free sticker to anyone who taught their lesson "License to Ill" and gave feedback by Thursday, and I couldn't resist.  I'm just hoping the deadline is midnight Central Time, not Eastern.


We live in a town that was widely impacted by the Federal Shutdown last month, so I thought my students would as least have a little bit of knowledge about current events.  I have two classes doing the regular 7th grade curriculum - one of average-to-below-average seventh graders, one of above-average 6th graders.  I opened each class with questions about why the government came to a grinding halt, and they all could say it was because "they couldn't come to an agreement."  They also readily answered "Obamacare" ... but none of them could articulate what exactly made health insurance such a big deal.

We worked through the math ... expected values, expected costs, who buys?  who doesn't?  very nicely.  More hand-holding with the seventh graders, but nobody quit or grumbled about not needing this or not being interested.  I only have 45 minutes in each class, so I split the lesson over two days.

Day 2 I opened with the promotional video the Mathalicious people had made (apparently you have to be beautiful to work there).  It was basically a re-cap of the math we had done yesterday, with live people, but I thought it would be good to bring everything we'd done back together - without me doing the re-tell.  Sometimes I think students get so bogged down in the calculations that they lose sight of the big picture of what they're doing and why. It was also a quick catch-up for the couple of kids who were absent yesterday.

Then I had them do the final questions - pros and cons of different options (denying care, denying coverage, mandating coverage, etc.) - and I told them I didn't want their opinions, I wanted them to demonstrate that they were thinking about all sides of the issue. I had them discuss in their groups, and then they reported back to the whole group.  I was very impressed with what they came up with.  Both classes came up with pros and cons that weren't addressed in the video/work and really remained engaged.  They were also VERY interested in the social justice aspects.  Sometimes it took a while to come up with the pros for "deny coverage" and "deny treatment" because both seemed so inherently wrong that they really had to work to see the financial side of it. I loved hearing them say things like, "If they can't afford insurance, how can they afford surgery?" or "but it's no good if the hospital goes bankrupt, either..."   They were able to relate to the downside of mandated coverage, and offered how they hate for their parents to tell them what to do, even when they know their parents are right!

I asked them to turn their packets in because I wanted to look at what they'd written down, and one seventh grader asked if they'd be returned because he wanted to keep his.  In the 6th grade class, as they were leaving, a girl said, "Are we going to do more stuff like that?  Because I really liked it." [side note: we do Mathalicious stuff regularly, but this was the first one that had the social-justice-discussion aspect.]

Lastly,  I told them I was hoping to get a sticker for doing the lesson, and they wanted to know what it would take for them all to get one. {big grin}


 Oh, wait. If you don't know the lesson, this might help:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

bugs. and they're brilliant.

So this summer my husband came up with seating arrangements that rotated 28 students through 5 different sets of 4 so that in a week's time, no one sits with the same person twice.  (more here)

It worked great, but after 8 weeks, it was getting tired.  I decided to make new assignments for the 2nd quarter.  But this time, I was downright brilliant.  Instead of having five days' worth ... I kept it to 4.  And I used the 5th group as my worst nightmare.  See, I placed into groups the kids that absolutely could not sit together under any circumstances.  And then I rotated the list and came up with 4 permutations in which those kids were absolutely not together, and still no one sat with the same person twice!   Brilliant, I tell you.  Brilliant.

The other thing I did with one particularly whiny class was that I allowed them to write down the one person they least wanted to sit with and promised them they'd only be together in one group.  Hee hee hee.  Since they only sit with any particular person once anyway.  Get it?  I'm so sneaky...

 I also wanted to shake things up, from the shapes, so I created these bugs.  They look like bugs from a computer game one of my children played many years ago.  Each child has a unique bug with four attributes: number of eyes, number of antennae, number of legs, and body pattern.  I printed them in black and white and let the kids color them, cut them out, and glue them to their INB, with contact paper over it. They turned out so stinkin' cute.

 and I'm happy to share the file if you'd like it ... the bugs, the shapes, or just the org chart for the groups.
beccaphillips72 (at)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why I've only quit once this year ...

I'm very pleased to say that we're a half-day short of the five week mark and I've only come home once vowing not to go back. This is a big deal, really.  Last year I came home almost every day and said things like, "I don't think I"m cut out for middle school," or "maybe I'm not healthy (physically or emotionally!) for a full time job..."  I knew this year would have to be different, or I wouldn't survive.

Here's a fancy student trick:

Know what I love best about this picture?  My quick snap of a fun student trick actually captured some of the things that have been crucial to preserving my sanity this year.  1) the math bag.  The ziploc you see in the bottom right corner that is supposed to come every day stocked with composition book, pencils, a pencil sharpener, and a calculator.  Then I can expect that they have nothing on their desks except their bags.  No digging through pencil cases and book bags, no stuff  all over the place, which leads me to 2) the hooks you can see on the wall.  Everything but your bag gets hung up.  No backpacks, computer bags, purses, or lunch boxes should ever be at the tables.  Now the aisles are clear and I can walk around helping people without risking life and limb.  (Although I did slip today in the creamed corn someone spilled in the hall. Landed right on my ass in a puddle of corn juice.   On the incident report, for "witnesses" I wrote, "the entire 5th period class" but I declined the option to turn the page over and provide a sketch of the humiliation.)

Lastly, I love 3) the bucket and seating assignment.  The bucket has glue sticks and scissors, plus whatever lost and found pencils and pens I find.  It represents the notebooks, which I love, and the group assignments, which I love.  sigh...

Here's another thing that has made this year unbelievably better, represented in an email from a parent:

I made a giant decision to ditch our school's digital curriculum.  I know, I know.  It's risky for teachers to go out on a limb like that.  BUT, I'm still using digital tools provided by the district for formative assessments and daily practice, as well as for summative assessments.  I'm also using the curriculum for pacing, and to gauge my rigor.  I'm just not using the lessons they provided, or the homeworks they provide, or the tests they provide!  If you want to have a private conversation about why not, message me.   beccaphillips72 (at)

Instead, I'm using a whole lot more stuff I'm pulling from the interwebs.  Group work, hands-on stuff, and real-world questions.  Thanks goodness for twitter!  (Too bad we can't access it at school.)  I'm using videos from youtube to get their attention and shift their moods.  I'm also working to find the balance between self-discovery and just telling them.  Because, honestly, sometimes you just have to be told.  I'm sure I'll write an entire post about that struggle, if I find time to breathe.

The best part of the year, though, is that we are ALL - me and the kids - just having more fun.  A student wrote this on my door yesterday.  It says, "Mrs. Phillips classroom - awesomeness in progress"

I couldn't be more pleased.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How I spent my weekend...

This morning my pastor said, "Oh! Your kids are with their grandparents?  So you're on vacation too!"  Well, only sort of.  My husband and I spent the bulk of our weekend in my classroom getting ready for school to start.  I am thrilled, because the job he did was one I couldn't have done by myself, and wouldn't have done as well.

At our school, the students used to be required to leave their back-packs in the hall.  Now that each of them has been assigned a computer, they are forbidden to leave their bags on the floor, or unattended, which creates a whole lot of mess in the aisles.  Even when bags are tucked carefully under chairs and desks, the errant strap inevitably sneaks into the aisle - and trips me every time.     

The other problem with bags in the room is that they are accessible.  Always. So who needs to have their pencils ready on their desks when you can just hunt for one whenever it occurs to you?  Why not try to sneak chips during class if you're hungry?  And look, here's something interesting sticking out of your bag that I'd like to pull out and discuss with you!  {sigh...}

I've decided that this might be the single best space decision I've made.   Ben hung coat-hooks - 35 of them - evenly spaced along two walls.  He even painted them the color he painted the walls last year, and used his open paint-bucket to touch up places that tape and finger-prints had marred the walls.  The space already looks cleaner than it has all week.

I'm supposed to get furniture on Friday, which is good because school starts Monday!

Things I'm thinking:
1) number them, and assign them, so there's no jostling for position when they come in.
2) Leave a couple near outlets open for students who ask if they can charge their computers during class.  They'll be able to plug the computers in while still in their bags, still hanging nicely out of the way!

Any other thoughts or suggestions?


Edit:  Seven days in, and I conclude that this was in fact the best classroom management decision I made.  I numbered them, randomly assigned numbers, and insist they use them.  I asked the students to gather their math supplies - including an INB - in a ziploc, and the baggie is the only thing that's allowed to come to their desk.  It's working FABULOUSLY.  Far better than I imagined.  I can walk in the aisles, easily see if they leave something behind, and generally manage the "stuff" that they seem to require constantly.