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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

No Banana Hat...

As I trek into more and more group work, I have struggled with a signal to pull the class back together.  (This was the only direct criticism I received from my principal last year, and I want to get it right this year!)  At my school, they clap.  The teacher claps a rhythm, and the class repeats it. Sometimes this repeats with different rhythms until not only is everyone quiet and listening, but everyone is actively engaged.  This works remarkably well in an auditorium full of kids, and is seriously fun to listen to, but never seemed to fit in my classroom.

One of the elementary teachers shared this week that she says, "Class, class!" and they answer with "Class, class!"  and then they are quiet after.  I really like this, except that she is stunningly beautiful and sophisticated and the simple statement really suits her.  I don't think I can pull it off.

I thought maybe a meme.  I'd say, "Who's got time for that?" and they would say, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"  (   or maybe I'd say, "One man's trash..." and they'd say, "is another man's come up!" (from the Macklemore song "Thrift Shop")    When I shared my idea with our gifted specialist, she cautioned that choosing a particular meme risked isolating subcultures within the population, and would have to change regularly to keep up with how swiftly memes morph - my ideas are already dated, frankly.

She said, "just make sure everybody gets it."  To that end, I've decided to show them a cartoon that has made me laugh since I saw it on a greeting card in college, and I am quite sure none of them has ever seen.  It's by Rupert Fawcett, and I got this image from his Facebook page here. 

I will say, "No banana hat," and they will say, "no dinner."  I think it's just silly enough that it will get their attention, and it does not run the risk of becoming quickly dated, since the cartoon is 20 years old anyway!

Now, all that being said, feel free to chime in with other suggestions.  This is going to be a very important piece of my classroom management, and I want something good.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: Payne's Framework for Understanding Poverty

One of the things that was most striking to me about last year - compared to my previous experience many years ago - was how completely undisciplined the students seemed to be.  And I don't mean that no one else disciplined them, but that they had no self-control.  A student would walk in to the classroom and, with no recognition that everyone else in the room was actively engaged in something, announce that they were late because they'd been to the bathroom.  Students were constantly touching me, touching my things, picking up stuff off my desk and setting it down somewhere else.  In a perfectly quiet room, waiting for someone to answer, students had no problem announcing that they had a thread hanging from their sleeve, but could probably just break it off with their teeth.  It boggled the mind, what these students took for appropriate behavior.

I had decided about a quarter into the year that I was going to have to add study skills to my list of objectives; I took for granted that seventh graders would know how to do things like keep a notebook, write down an assignment, or look back at examples in order to complete new work.    Somewhere in the third quarter, I realized I was going to have to add a few more:

1) Don't be an asshole.
2) Don't touch my stuff.
3) Don't be an asshole about not touching my stuff.

Seriously, it will be just as important to these kids down the road if I can help them learn appropriate classroom behavior as to learn ratios and proportions.

And then, in May, my principal and I were talking about equity and un-tracking, and she gave me a
book that I wish I'd read a year ago.  A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Dr. Ruby Payne.  It was remarkable.  Truthfully, reading it a year ago might not have done me as much good.  Reading it 
now, I was able to mentally point to students in each chapter.  "Aha!" I said, "That's why she acts like that.." "That's why he says that stuff."

Please don't get me wrong.  While I did grow up very middle-class, I was not isolated from poverty.  My parents grew up in Appalachia, and I spent much of my childhood there.  My husband and I intentionally bought a house in a run-down neighborhood and for the last 14 years I've watched a parade of single parents, welfare recipients, addicts, dealers, and prostitutes move in and then out of the house next door to us.  From each of these individuals and their situations, I have grown in my understanding, and in my compassion for the challenges many people face.

But - for all of my understanding of poverty as it affected (those) individuals - it wasn't until I read this book that I began to identify aspects of the culture of poverty.  The language, emphasis, values, and rules of the culture.  And from there, to understand how the culture affected their behavior and attitudes - and my classroom.

I can't summarize the entire book, and I'm not sure I can even adequately articulate the ways that I have internalized the ways that it has changed my thinking, but it HAS.  The best I can do is to recommend that you read it, too.  If you have even a small part of your population that comes from poverty, it's worth checking out. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

un-tracking. de-tracking. mixing it up.

So here's what happened my first year teaching ... We had 50 seventh graders. The  25 of them were put in the "advanced" math class, 25 of them in the "regular" math class.  Truly, they needed to be in different classes.  They'd been tracked for years, and they were worlds apart.  The advanced class was doing Algebraic topics, the regular class was busy learning positive and negative numbers.  There's no way I could have taught them all in the same room.

This was not good.  Not good at all.  As a result, I had a classroom full of kids who thought they were in the dumb class, didn't think they could learn, and didn't bother to try.  They had no confidence in themselves at all.   If they got home and couldn't do the first problem on their homework, they'd just quit.  They didn't ask their parents, or each other, or message me on Edmodo.  They just quit.

And the classroom behavior.  Oh. My. Heart.  The behavior.   Every now and then I'd leave the room for something, and I'd come back to find whatever adult was in charge completely losing their religion.  The collaboration specialist, the reading specialist, the PE teacher ... all seasoned educators, all defeated by 10 minutes with this one class. I have to admit that I felt relieved when that happened, to know that it wasn't just me.  They even did it with the principal in the room.  I used the word "tedious," and the punk on the front row said, "Did you say titties?"  When he didn't get a reaction, he said it three more times until finally the principal said, "I'd like to thank you all for not taking Jack's bait," and he quit.  And usually some kid's goofy antics DID get at least a ripple of reaction around the room.

I tried EVERYTHING.  I tried classroom dojo, bribery, punishment, positive reinforcement, silent lunch, contacting parents, to no avail.

But ONE thing worked, just a bit.  When we came back from Christmas break, I told them that according to the standards of the Common Core, if they did well enough in 7th Grade Math, they could be placed into Algebra I with the advanced kids.  That they weren't So Far Behind that they couldn't catch up.  Slowly, the tide turned.  Leaders emerged.  Kids identified that they wanted to advance and began to work toward that goal.  A couple started coming back during study hall to work problems.  But - the best part - they started telling each other to shut up and learn.  A few of them began to have hope, and that was all it took.

I'd be lying if I said they turned into a model class.  They were still the toughest crowd of the day, hands down, but it wasn't the unmanageable mob that it had been.  Only a few of them excelled enough to be placed into Algebra I, but I'll take it.  And the rest of them will be in something we're calling "Algebra Lite" on "non-credit Algebra" and we'll keep pushing forward.

All of this got me thinking, though, of what I want to do differently next year.  I realized that ability-tracking the classes left a horde of bad attitudes.  The regular students I've already described, but the advanced students weren't much better.   They were arrogant, were indignant when things weren't easy for them, and generally spent their time waiting for me to give them the algorithm.  Math had always come easily to them, and they were unwilling to struggle any more than the regular kids.  I know I have to completely transform the whole culture next year if I am to reach anyone.

My state did a terrible job transitioning to Common Core, and my district transitioned to a new curriculum the week before school started.  At a complete loss for who should be where, the principal threw all the sixth graders into Sixth Grade math.  The classes were split by ability level, but they were all working out of the same book.  The gift in this is that they're all going into seventh grade math next year.  I asked the principal if she'd consider un-tracking the 7th graders, and she said yes without hesitating.   I love her.

The science teacher is thrilled, by the way, at the thought of un-tracking. Because we have two classes of each grade, his science classes are always composed of the kids who aren't in math.  So his classes are math-ability-tracked as well, and he runs into the same behavior and lack-of-leaders problem that I was having... although not entirely the same because they don't hate science like they hate math.

Road blocks I have considered: The biggest roadblock that I see is that it's going to be a HUGE endeavor to make sure that every student stays challenged on their level.  I truly subscribe to the "deeper, not faster" theory, and want to make sure that any student that has mastered the task at hand is given a deeper-thinking question, not scuttled on to the next standard.  This is going to require serious pre-planning, so the high-flyers aren't allowed to get used to spinning their wheels or goofing off.

Another roadblock I've considered is how to group the kids.  I've decided that there is absolutely benefit to heterogeneous grouping for some things, but there is still a need for homogenous grouping, too.  By the time you get to the end of a unit, some of those kids are going to be pushing deeper, some of them are going to need remediation.  I'm planning to address this by having different seating assignments on different days.  You can read more about that plan here.

The other thing I've thought a lot about is how important it is that the classroom climate support the self-esteem of all learners.  I attended a talk at NCTM Dallas last year and listened to a team talk about un-tracking their 9th grade algebra, and one comment was that while the experiment HAD been beneficial for the lower level students as far as learning and achievement, it had NOT been beneficial as far as self-perception. This I can't exactly explain, since their surveys showed self-perception actually went down for the lower-achieving students.  It is hard for me to look at those children, already defeated by their position in The Dumb Class, and see how it would be possible for them to feel worse.    The only thing I can think is that I will have to be diligent in monitoring their interactions as well as providing activities and lessons that are accessible to every student on every level.  Wish me luck.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

To Flip or Not To Flip

I joined Twitter in an attempt to expand my professional network, and it was absolutely the right thing to do - there has never been a better time to be a math teacher, nor have more resources been available at my fingertips. 

In an attempt to explore everything Twitter has to offer, I've begun following several different threads/philosophies.  It is remarkable how little overlap there is between the various schools of thought.  It's as bad as religions and sports teams.  Giant Dividing Line #1 is To Flip or Not To Flip.    I have to admit that I'm landing on the non-flip side because I'm working towards a less-lecture approach.  However, I do know that sometimes you just have to be told.

Last night, I watched my daughter drilling lowest common multiple problems.  She had learned it in class, but didn't feel confident, so she and I reviewed a bit.  She had struggled for what seemed like way too long, when her dad offered to help.  I couldn't hear what he was saying to her, but then I heard her exclaim, "Oh! I get it!  Mom showed me that earlier, but I didn't understand! Thanks!"  It really sunk in at that moment, that sometimes - no matter how brilliant my presentation is - students just need to see/hear it 1) again, 2) differently, 3) with a British accent.  (OK, that last bit doesn't apply to my husband, but my Geometry teacher was Irish, and I sure hung on his every word!)

What about the kid who doesn't have a mom AND a dad who are mathematicians?  What about the kid whose parent doesn't have the patience to slow down and repeat it, or who remembers it one way, and therefore can't formulate multiple approaches?  Maybe this would be a key place for a video they could access from home, pause, play again, parse, etc?

Now I'm thinking that I need to find the best videos out there that I can post on Edmodo or other places, so students can have every opportunity to learn.  This is especially important since our district has gone all digital and we have no textbooks. This means that parents can't even look at the book to try to help their child figure something out.  How can I best send kids home armed for success?

So, in pursuit of as much yin and yang as this Presbyterian can muster, I will continue to stalk track both the Flippers and the Non-Flippers and hope to accumulate the best resources available!  Go Interwebs!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

When a PhD does your homework...

There are a myriad of reasons, that I will write about later (one post here), that I have chosen to emphasize group work and collaborative learning this year.   I had two hurdles from last year that I wanted to tackle:
1) the whining I must deal with when they get new groups, or the whining I must deal with when they stay in the same groups too long, and
2) the time it takes to put students into new groups.

So I decided that I wanted established groups from the first day, and more than one.  My principal had read an article that suggested students should have groups for A days and B days, but I wanted to be able to decide each day which groups to use.  What if we didn't finish that task in one day?  We can't be swapping all willy-nilly! Plus I wanted some that were ability-grouped and some that were heterogeneous, because there is call for both on different days, but not simply every-other-day.

I tried making lists of random groups, but I got bogged down.  So I asked my husband, whose PhD is Graph Theory, to help me and he thought it was a delightful task!  Here's what he came up with:

But then he interpreted it for me, and voila!  A way to arrange 24 students into 4 different sets of 4, so that for FOUR days out of the week, no one is in a group with the same person twice!  Honestly, he's a genius.  If you replace the numbers on the left side with your students in order of achievement/ability, the first column is a set of ability-groups.  One of the random groups is less heterogeneous than the others, but two of them are completely mixed.  I then chose to create a fifth set of groups where my high achievers and lowest strugglers could be grouped, but the middle kids are still muddled.   Check it out...

So if you get put in a group with a kid you're not crazy about (or you are crazy about, which can be worse in middle school), no worries ... it'll be different soon enough, and often enough.  And if you're in a group with your bestie of besties (which has the potential to derail learning and/or drive your teacher crazy), no worries ... it'll be different soon enough, and often enough!

Then - and here's the part I'm really pleased with - I created labels for each child.  So whomever I put in slot 1 gets a sticker with their name, four solid circles and a solid edging around it.  And I did this for all 24 of them.  Like this:

All the F1's are because I created it as a mail-merge so I can easily use it with each class list. That's where the name goes.  NOW, each day I can decide if they will sort by color, by shape, by shading/filling, by number, or by edge style... and I just have to post it as part of the warm-up so they know where to sit when they come in.  And, so they can keep it straight, the stickers will go on the front of the notebooks they will be required to have everyday ... as inspired by a blogger to whom I now refer as "I Heart Claydon."  I can't figure out how to post the word file with all 24 labels (sigh...).  If you want it, comment and I'll email it to you.

HERE is the question of the hour:  Is it as brilliant and efficient as it sure seems to me to be?  Or is it just that it's so stinkin' cute that I can't help but be enamored of the idea?   As the military analyst who teaches history across the hall from me always says - no plan survives first contact.  Any suggestions on what might ensure success with this?


New thought - I wonder if I want one set to be gender-grouped.  Any thoughts??


New groups for 2nd quarter ... new clever idea.  update here

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When am I ever going to use this?

If the question is "When are you ever going to use this in real life?" my answer is generally "Who cares?" although sometimes it's "You probably won't ever."

I mean, if you're honest, the great majority of people don't use higher math in their everyday jobs and lives.  But you do use simple concepts like negative numbers - golf is scored with strokes above and below par.  Every time you ask yourself if you have enough money to buy those Skechers, you're using "above and below" estimations.  And the question of here's where I am, and that's where I'm going, so how am I going to get there? is an Algebraic concept that transcends to any field/occupation/basic conundrum. 

However, you really MIGHT use this some day.   If you want to be a nurse, doctor, or pharmacist  .. or an architect, engineer, or any kind of scientist, an accountant (did you know that there is no Nobel prize for Math?  but several mathematicians have won in Economics), you're going to need SOME of it.  And, if you're one of my students, you're too young to rule out any future possibilities.

But my favorite answer is an analogy.  I liken learning math to a learning a foreign language.  There will always be people who only want the minimum - Can I just learn how ask for a burger and the bathroom and call it a day?  To really learn a language takes years of study.  And starting out, it's pretty bad.  You spend two years learning to say "The horse is standing in the road.  The horse was standing in the road.  The horse will stand in the road," and memorizing oodles of nouns and verbs and adjectives with very little context.  But suddenly you get into the third year and you start to learn literature and poetry and a whole other world opens up!  Math is like this.  You spend a long time learning formulas and algorithms and basic rules, and definitions, and trig functions, and then suddenly you get to Calculus and everything blooms! If you're lucky, you like math before then - it clicks for you, or you feel satisfied when you get a right answer - but even if you're not one of those people {dripping condescension}, don't give up hope.  It really might get better.  I've had too many students come back and say how beautiful Calculus was, even though Algebra felt like such slog work.

Lastly, and this is the Real Beauty: even though math is applicable to the real world, it is not bound by the real world.  How exciting is it that mathematicians were discussing Hyperbolic Geometry - its behaviors and definitions - two centuries before Escher drew his Devils and Angels, or biologists saw it in sea slugs, or Margaret Wertheim and her team crocheted innumerable examples?  or that we are seeing now how Hyperbolic Geometry and saddle-points begin to describe the Space-Time Continuum?  It is the abstraction of Algebra - not just how does this number behave, but how would any number behave - that makes these conversations fun.  It's engaging our creativity, our imaginations, to ask "what if..."   but you have to have the basic building blocks - the nouns, verbs, and adjectives - of math to even begin.


And why this diatribe today, you ask?  Because there is a great movement afoot (again?) to teach math to students only a real-world context - that the only way to keep them interested is to pose questions that they might someday have to answer.  

The great question for the Twittersphere this week is: what's the real-world application of "a negative times a negative is positive"?  to which my only answer seems to be "who cares?"  Most (ok, all, but maybe there's one I haven't read yet) seem highly contrived and not any better than those "why would you tell me you're 3 years less than half your dad's age?" questions we're working so hard to eliminate.

Maybe - every now and then - the answer should be "because I told you so."  or "because the whole system falls apart if we don't define it that way."  or  something non-mathy but memorable like "what's the opposite of  the opposite? back where you started!" or something as silly as "because 'ain't got none' means you do have some..."  [and when is a double positive a negative? When you roll your eyes and say, "Yeah, right!"]

Maybe the answer lies somewhere between everything in context and math purely for the beauty of it because success lies - as is true with most aspects of life - in finding the right balance.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Accumulating with a Purpose

"That's not for our house, right?" says my husband, as my pile at the rummage sale grows.  See, I  have a little hoarding problem.  Not like an actual disorder, but enough that my children watch the show and see the similarities to home.   And while the pile going TO the rummage sale is larger than the pile FROM the sale, I still can't help but walk out with something that I need.

"It's for my classroom," I assure him.  And it is.  And even better: it's not just stuff I think I might need ... it all has a purpose.  Last year, I inherited a classroom that the previous teacher had simply walked out of.  There were still Christmas gifts in gift bags on the shelves. No kidding.  There were also 4 filing cabinets full of stuff that I pulled out and threw away.  In fairness, I think she honestly thought that I was just going to pick up where she left off, but it would've taken me longer to find her purple mimeo-graphed material than it would be to create my own.

On the other hand, she had every manipulative a middle school teacher could possibly need, and buckets full of rulers, compasses, protractors, measuring tapes, stop-watches, counters, and so on... and so on...  That part was GLORIOUS.  As I struggled through a ridiculous year, every time I threw up my hands and said, "let's try something different!" there was just what I needed on one of the shelves.  yay!

So, as I buy things this year from my classroom, I'm not randomly stocking the "I might need this someday" pile ... I'm only accumulating things I genuinely think I'll need and use.  Today's haul:

A baker's rack with a butcher block top - this will live just inside the door.  It's going to hold hand sanitizer and tissues and all those pesky "home room" forms - yearbook order forms, and free circus tickets - so students who were absent at distribution can just come and pick them up.  Right now I'm thinking the bottom two shelves will hold all the boxes of tissues that the students turn in at the beginning of the year.  Last year I kept them on a high shelf, and it was always such an ordeal to get one down, and we always seemed to need one at an inconvenient moment.

The wooden drawers are a particularly key piece of this plan.  You see, I asked the custodians to remove my desk.  Say what? Yep.  I won't have a desk any more.  I found that at the end of the year, I didn't have anything in my desk except what I started with.  Now that we're all digital, I didn't even have papers to store.  Just a bunch of paper clips and discipline referral forms.  Instead, the surface of my desk collected things that I would then sort through every day.  But I can come up with a different plan for that.  I decided the space the desk takes up would better serve as space for a work table, for groups or for tutoring.

When all the teachers were moving rooms at the end of this past year, I grabbed a rolling library cart and a table-top podium.  This is where I will "station" my things.  I'll be able to handle attendance and lesson plans, plus the shelves will give me a place to put papers I've taken up as well as papers I'm giving back.  All I really needed was a place to keep paper clips, rubber bands, and staples.  Voila!  Little wooden drawers! and I can paint them whatever color I need!  (Husband suggested color coding by contact, but I decided that labeling would tax my brain less than trying to remember if blue was staples or if red was rubber bands!)  The best part?  They're actually pretty shallow, which will be excellent because my shelving is not very deep, and this will sit nicely on top of it... maybe just a bolt through the back to anchor it?

There's also a bucket of clothes pins.  They're nice, plastic clothes pins, and they have holes on the ends.  Last year I hung a bunch of stuff from the ceiling, but every time I put something up or took something down, I exposed myself to dusk and who-knows-what falling from the ceiling tiles.  I'm hoping I can hang these, and not have to take my life/eyesight into my own hands every time I want to hang projects this year.

oooh, and the fun part?  Those desk pads behind the drawers?  They're quadrille paper!!  How cool is that?  I don't know what we'll do with them, but surely some nice, large graphs!  what a bargain!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Teaching: For the young and young-at-heart?

OK, so I adore Dan Meyer.  Here's the depth of my smitten-ness with Dan: last October I found myself in similar proximity to Dan Meyer and ROB LOWE.  No kidding.  And guess whose picture I asked for?

(seriously should've taken 2 to try for a less star-struck look on my face)

I had been a little intrigued ever since I saw his Ted Talk.  It's fantastic.  It's a whole new way to teach math and to engage students who probably  Beyond that, he's a nice guy.  When I was particularly bummed last year after standardized testing, the inimitable Cherise Albright sent him an email and he sent me a pep-talk.  For real.

So I was a little bit saddened to hear (read) him say that it was not uncommon for him to be at school until midnight preparing slides for the next day.  And the more I read from amazing teachers out there in the blogosphere (i.e. Fawn Nguyen) the more I find they are regularly up until the wee hours of the morning.  Some people (my husband and my son) don't need as much sleep as others (myself and my daughters).  I mean, Ms. Nguyen is my HERO for having made a legitimate career of teaching middle school and clearly not resorted to phoning it in, but I CANNOT exist on as little sleep as she gets.

And this month - I guess because it's the end of the school year - a huge slew of teachers that I stalk on Twitter is leaving the classroom to tackle other adventures.    All of this leaves me wondering  - is excellence really sustainable? Moreover, is it even possible for me?  I have only morning duty because I leave when the bell rings to ferry children to practices and lessons.  I don't get to grading and planning until after they're all fed and bathed and bedded down. I didn't know any of the children in my son's kindergarten class - much less the parents - like I did when my daughters started school. This entire school year, my house has NEVER been clean.  Not even the kind of pretend-clean you do when company's coming.  I finally quit apologizing for the mess - it's our new normal.    My husband has taken over all the cooking ... although that actually pleases us both.  I would LOVE to LOVE this job, to feel like back-to-work was the right choice for me and my family, but can I survive even one more year if - between school and home - there is simply nothing left of me?

Is teaching perhaps left to others, more suited for the task at hand? But I do think I have something to offer ... I'm a strong mathematician.  I have oodles of experience tutoring that gives me terrific insight into what mistakes students are likely to make, and why!  I have compassion for the student who was somehow taught alongside fractions that fractions are supposed to be hard, and they aren't good at math anyway.  And I want to be an excellent teacher; surely that's something?

So the sum of it is this:  As I spend this summer preparing for next year, and all the ways it HAS to be different than last year, one of the key things I have to focus on is finding the balance between school and home. Some thoughts:
-  I must make sure that every.single.thing I grade is worth my time, that it helps the students AND me.
-  If I can't stay after school, I have to find ways they can try to find things they missed ... how can I post lessons or links to other people explaining the same thing, how can I build and encourage a community where they ask each other for help?
- How can I keep the parents informed regularly on "what happened today" and "what Johnny should be doing" so we can be allies in this process?  How can I structure assessments so that parents get frequent feedback, but I'm not spending all my time uploading grades?
- and *most importantly* How can I help them to feel responsible for their own learning?  How can I help them feel ... inside and outside the classroom... that this is something that want to do, to figure out, to be successful at and not just sit and wait for me to tell them the answer/algorithm? 

Other questions/suggestions/procedures/thoughts?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time,I taught high school and, in grad school, college math.  Then I had a baby three babies and ended up taking 10 years off with no thought of ever going back into the classroom.  Last spring, I was offered a teaching position at the very school all three of my children would be attending.  We could go to school/work together every day! Who could ask for a better situation?

But, I had never taught Middle School math before.  I marched confidently into that classroom and ran head-first into Piaget's Concrete Operational Stage. (ouch.)  I have struggled wildly this year.    I have found myself incredulous A LOT - .  How can you be 12 and not know what a radius is?  Why would you come to class with no pencil and no notebook?  Why can't you just sit still?   I tried a lot of different approaches.  Some things worked.  Mostly things didn't work.  And I realized that for me to survive another year, it will have to be completely different so I hit the Interwebs for ideas. 

I had a bit of a come-to-Jesus when I read this blog post from a fella named Jonathan.  In the midst of his discussion about the relative merits of various graphing apps, he mentions that it has been 12 years since he took pre-Cal and that graphing calculators haven't changed much.  Guess what! It's been more than 25 years since I took pre-Cal and graphing calculators had barely been invented, much less used in the classroom!  I think I may have taken pre-Cal while (my new friend) Jonathan was stacking blocks to count to 100!  So what does this mean for me? It means that I am way behind the curve.  I might as well be a brand-new teacher, and - here's the kicker - I don't even have recent learning experience to draw on.

So away we go.  This is my adventure in re-inventing my middle school Math classroom. I've got some ideas, and am looking for more.  I welcome ALL feed-back - from  teachers and learners - it's the only way to get any better.  And there are a lot of young folks out there who are doing some seriously good stuff, but I'm going to have to be willing to learn some new tricks.  (Flash to an image of me teaching my mother Facebook, and it scares me a bit...) And I'm hoping the young folks will be patient and generous with me, even though I still use vowels when I text.

Me, in Pre-Cal, in 1986.

Johnny Depp, circa 1986, in case you need a reference point for how much things have changed.