Monday, January 13, 2014

Does it matter? I'm a work-to-rule guy.

You know how students ask "Why do I need to learn this?" or "When am I ever going to use this?"

Well I think it is time teachers start asking "Is my extra effort going to matter?"

I enjoy reading math blogs I really do, but while I read them there is this little voice in the back of my head that screams "That's more work!" It isn't true for every post, and I'm not a numbers guy but if we compare time adding posts to time saving posts I bet the ratio is 10:1. And still I wonder, does it matter? For so long teachers have been told "Everything you do makes a difference!" but I'm starting to doubt it. I'm starting to think that was just a phrase invented to keep wages low.

I'm going to work to rule for as long as I can make it. I'm going to make a point to focus hard on teaching 7:10 am - 2:20 pm Monday through Friday and then at 2:21 I will go home, go exercise, go play video games, go on reddit and waste an evening, go do something not teaching.

Wait, say that again, you're going to work just during the time you are paid to work?
Yes, I'm going to try to keep it to the contract hours, yeah I might go over from time to time, every profession has that, so its not a hard deadline where my brain will shut down at 2:20 but I am going to try my best to do it.

So you will just suck at teaching?
I don't want to suck at my job, I just want to make sure the extra effort that I put in is worth it. How do you value time? One could break my salary down to an hourly rate but can you transfer that to a 'knowledge rate'. How does an extra hour of planning influence my students? I'm starting to put less and less stock into that rate, if any.

But won't somebody think of the children?
Let me bring renewed energy to contract time. What if every time I show up to work it had been 15-16 hours since I was last here? Wouldn't that be nice? I waste so much time during the day because I'm tired of students, I'm tired of emails, I'm tired of correcting papers or making reviews. A side effect to this plan and a hope of mine is that I will work harder during the time I am at school.

So you are lazy?
Yes I am. That hasn't changed since I was in high school that won't change probably forever so that's not why I'm going down this road. I want to find out if I can be good (or at least be where I am prework-to-rule) at teaching while only staying within the confines of the time I'm paid to teach.

Oh so you are a revolutionary? A martyr trying to show the trials and tribulations of teaching and how we don't get paid enough?
Work to rule has been something discussed at the lunch table if our teacher contract doesn't get resolved but it is just lunch room talk, that has nothing to do with this. Nor does our salary. I think I'm paid enough considering I work nine months a year(Would I mind a raise now and then, sure.) I have never worked a weekend or a holiday, nor many of the days surrounding them.  If I need to take off I can do it. My benefits are good, my boss/admin is all in all supportive and my students' parents aren't jerks. I complain here and there because I'm human but when your biggest complaint is your winter break was only 11 days long instead of 15 you've got it pretty good.

So what now?
I can't tell you how long it will last or how it will go. I will update this blog as time passes and I find out the holes in my plot. I'll post here on the pro's the cons, what I'm doing with my extra time, what I'm struggling with, how students react and I think the most interesting will be how my peers view it.

My biggest philosophy here is that time does not equal student success. I''ll let you know if that philosophy changes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Proofs Pt 2

I am never sure how long it should take to teach something. Part of me says lets teach until everyone gets it, but that could mean I'd only teach geometric notation all year. Part of my says lets go as fast as we can so when there is something we need to slow down on we have extra time. All along though the big question for me continues to be, does another day make a difference, do I make a difference.

I set out to try and measure that impact with a difficult concept in geometry: Proofs.

My colleagues and I decided on a seven day unit on proofs with a test the seventh day. I agreed but told them I'm going to test on day two and day seven. I wanted to see if they improve. Really I wanted to see if what we do in the class is worth a damn. I don't think people are 'born' with math ability, but I do think some students walk into my class better at math then others. Proofs exemplifies that 10 fold. Those that give up easily, those that lack prior skills, and those that won't try, usually suck at proofs. So can I change that or is it a lost cause?

Day2: I tested and scored them. They were mostly terrible. Very few getting to that higher level proof completion. So instead of a score which may set students back, I gave them an X or a Y. X was for those students who barely knew how to start a proof and Y for those that made progress but didn't have it all together.

The next 5 days: We did things as a class and we did things as separate groups. We would work as a class on flash cards for the first 20 min, then the rest of the time X would work on page 10 and Y would work on page 11 (different pages symbolize varying degrees of differentiation). Nobody complained, nobody said "Why do we have a harder assignment?" and I even had X group people wanting to get done with page 10 to get into the Y group and work on page 11.

Students knew what was coming and that makes testing easier, maybe it doesn't make them smarter or better at proofs but I gave them a test that was closely mirrored to what the test was going to be like on day 7. They had a goal, not all set that goal for A level completion, but they all knew there was something on that test they could complete. So everyone tried, everyone tried to get better over the next 5 days. The question is did they get better?

Day 7: Punched them in the brain with a quick review and we tested, this test has three levels of proofs, C, B and A. C level is 3 steps, B level 4 steps, and A level 6 steps. They did better, but it closely mirror the day 2 results. Student improved but only slightly.

Meaning: I'm not sure yet, days after the end test we came back had another retest, chance for students to improve scores and it continued to get better. I don't have enough evidence, but I'm very close to saying we speed up our curriculum then monitor and adjust after.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Teaching Proofs pt 1

There has been a lot of chatter recently about proofs. Bad drawing guy posted some interesting things. Even Dy Dan flashed a little proof knowledge.  What is boils down to is we all have our own little tricks, methods, and approaches. (Like 'mequals' ala Marshall Thompson). Some 'purists' want perfect notation and exact mathematical properties. Other 'free-spirits' just want them to learn the ways of our people proofs without the unnecessary distinction between equal and congruent.

My intentions have changed over the years, I started a bit towards the notation side and have since swung to free-spirit. There is evidence to suggest I've gotten better at it as the years add up, I can better predict struggles and pinpoint problem areas in advance. But it dawned on me that maybe I'm just better at teaching to the test, and not really getting better at teaching proof, logic, argument and reasoning.

So I set out to find a concrete reason we teach proof, and I saw it in a dirty subway station in NY city.

A subway map.

In our proofs we have a starting point (given) and a destination (prove). I liken it to needing to get form point A to point B in NY. I like proofs and in the same way I admire the transit system in NY. It is a puzzle, you know where you are and you know where you want to be, the challenge is deciding what route to take.

If you live and ride in the city every day you are probably good at the subway puzzle. Much like me completing my 7th year of teaching proofs, I see a start and an end and I know how to get there, math teachers know which routes to take.

If you live and ride in the city every day you feel safe on the subway (at least about where you are going). You are on the red line and you don't need to look at the map, you don't need to check the sign at every stop and count down in your head how many stops till yours, you just know when to get off and transfer. Math teachers are the same way with proofs, we know when the segment addition property is coming up, we don't need no stinkin' maps.

If you live and ride in the city every day you know there are a couple of routes you could take, but you know the best and fastest ones. "Oh you didn't know this was an express and missed your stop" doesn't happen to you. Math teachers don't go down wrong avenues either, we don't make mistakes and get on the wrong subway.

Our students are tourists lost in NY with a crappy map and little desire to get anywhere.

So how do we take these lost little souls and turn them into veteran subway riders. 
  • Break down the train lines (aka properties) get them comfortable with what each train line does. They should know that when they need to get to JFK they need to take the blue line. When they see midpoint use midpoint formula.
  • Start with shorter routes and work to longer ones. Confidence is half the battle, they starting feeling good on the trains they will take that next route right or wrong, instead of sitting at the station afraid to ride any trains (blank paper).
  • Do mix in long routes. Shorts are good but they usually aren't great proofs. They leave you feeling like "Why the hell did we just prove that, it was obvious and pointless." Don't let that become your first 3 days of proofs. You wouldn't go to NY and take the red line one stop for the first 3 days.
  • Remind them the lines don't change and they go both directions. Green will take you to the Bronx every time. That goddamn 'definition of congruent' ain't gonna do nothing but change from congruent to equal and back, don't use it for anything else.
  • If a student gets on all the right trains and makes it to point B celebrate that. Don't worry too much about the names of the trains, in fact don't worry at all about the names. If they can just describe the train and what it does be happy.
    • "Segment Addition Property"   -good
    • "The property that says you can take part + part = whole"   -THIS IS FINE
    • Students aren't going to use segment addition property after your class, they will use logic and reasoning though, so let them reason it out for themselves instead of jamming specific words, definitions, and theorems in their proofs.
So we have the metaphor,we just need a way to carry it out.

Stay tuned for part two of proofs.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Smart kids hate to ask questions

Two things have happened recently

  • We had conferences and I had multiple parents tell me students are struggling with HW.
  • Yesterday I had time in class for students to ask questions and nobody asked a thing.

Something isn't adding up. Either parents are liars... or students are good at faking it. 

I see it in most math classes I teach, if you don't see it you've got it figured out, or your students are better fakers than mine. Problem is I bang my head against the wall every time I correct a test and think to myself, "Everybody knew this yesterday didn't they?" Turns out they didn't, turns out they don't ask.

I'll let you dive into the why: Fear, laziness, social stigma, procrastination...take your pick, point is they don't ask when they don't know.

So today, the day before a pretty important test, I made every single student ask a math question about the review. No matter if you are the smartest person in the room, you had to ask a question. 

  • I talked to every kid in my room, rarely do I do that. 
  • There was a more even distribution of wealth (my support).
  • Whinny kids (yeah I said it) knew my time was sparse and they needed to figure some S out on their own.
  • Too cool for school kids had to ask a decent question which means they had to do decent work.
  • Too scared for school kids timidly raised their hand and asked a question out of fear that I would dock them 1 million imaginary points if they didn't.
  • I answered the same question a lot which can be frustrating.
    • I way value answering it individually compared to answering it with the whole group, but it is still exhausting
  • Smartest kids were under utilized
    • As soon as a girl asked me what she should do when she was done and there was 20 minutes left I should have said, "Help people with hands up." Instead I said "Get a job."
    • No I really said, "Work on the assignment for tonight." 
Try it for yourself, it started as kind of a whim, hey lets makes these nerds ask some questions, but it really turned into something that was noticeably different in my classroom.

Good Luck

Monday, October 14, 2013

Teachers Teaching

The district I work in has had some rough years. We've tried implementing standards based grading and it happened poorly. We had poor leaders who had lost touch with what happens in a classroom. We had decisions being made by people that don't have to implement them. There were teacher groups that were supposed to 'guide' the practice but it turned into a "thanks for your ideas but we'll take it from here' kind of guiding.

The same thing is happening at our staff developments.
(insert funny picture of something funny and witty because I'm both those things...)

Friday we had a workshop and it was brutal. I'll admit I stayed up late the night before, yeah I spent some time at a bar with some friends watching any and all sports but I was there Friday morning on time and I ready to go.

Que music teacher teaching us about rubrics from a script created by people that just learned what a rubric was the night before (maybe at the same bar). Across the district (across the 3 high schools at least) we all sat through the same terrible presentation.

Highlights include:

  • A 50s TV show reference from Dragnet that went over everyone's head because anyone old enough to watch and understand TV in the 1950's is well retired or will retired after that terrible workshop day.
  • an arbitrary out of place Cyndi Lauper audio file.
  • Scripted jokes forced in by a teacher who just isn't funny.
  • Coloring activities where we identify the noun, verb, capital letters and punctuation.
It was bad followed by worse..."courageous conversations" came after lunch and I can't even describe how painful an experience it was listening to someone not talk about the achievement gap for an hour. 

Enough complaining though, what was good?
  • We got work time. Year after year, workshop after workshop they ask for our feedback and we tell them "we need work time" they are starting to listen.
  • Our teacher coaches presented and actually made it seem like they know how to speak to adults. More on that later
  • Pizza buffet for lunch with great co-workers.

How do we improve it?

It is an embarrassment that a group of teachers can't get together and teach. 
  • Some people have a hard time in front of a large groups of their peers. If that is you STOP PRESENTING. 
  • Do the same things in staff workshops we are expected to do in class everyday.
    • Differentiate.
    • Adapt to audience.
    • Find out prior knowledge and encourage growth where ever a student is.
    • Student centered
    • AGE APPROPRIATE learning
The last one is what is going to get me in trouble some day when a professional asks a group of high school teachers to color code something. That kind of crap works with high schoolers because they can't handle more then one thing at a time. Some high school students will drop out, some will become doctors, there is a wide variety of skills in a high school classroom you need to keep it general.


We are a group of adults concerned about student learning, that is what unites us. We also all have our undergrads or better, we can all read at or above a high school level, we can focus for more then 2 minutes, and we can think and reflect on something without having to fill time with meaningless coloring activities.

We need our leaders to allow people who can speak to adults do the presenting. This starts with hiring the right people in the right positions. Then letting them present appropriate things based on the group they have.


Friday, October 4, 2013

So why not post right now.

Things I like that I'm doing:

  • Three-acts Dy/Dan style which I am sure you know about if you are reading a math education blog.
  • Keeping grades fresh and updated.
    • I hate grades but they make me keep them so I might as well keep them updated on the hour every hour
  • Only yelled at my student once.
    • I'm not sure why yelling makes me feel better, its an odd relationship I have with teaching. I don't like it some days. Some days I love it. I like to think I spend more time on the like to love side rather then the dislike side, but each year is it's own adventure. I don't think I'm alone in this description.
    • They deserved it.
  • Weekly calendar is staying updated.
    • I plan only as far as the hour that is happening. Sometime my colleagues don't work well with that. Often time my favorite copy lady doesn't like that. But it is who I am. I tell me students at the beginning of the year to use their planner but I am such a hypocrite when it comes to planning.
  • Alternative Assessments
    • Had a colleague that was pushin' portfolios but I wasn't buying it. His seed grew into "Alternative Assessments" which take the place of in class tests. We've done some 'sequels' off the 3 acts. We had a sketch-up assignment where students build a 3-d model of something. I don't know if they are hitting everyone but I am happy if one student enjoys it. 
Future Matt reading back: keep these things going.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Grand Theft Lesson Planning

Just finishing the first week back at school and I had to reflect on the changes I made from my previous first weeks. Both as a reminder to me next year, and a way to acknowledge that fact that much of what I do in the classroom can be improved. Here are a few of the things and who I stole them from.

#1) I stole this lesson from dy/dan. He worked it in a little bit different then I did. Infact I paid credit to him in the lesson. Mostly with this photo. I told students this guy I met in Duluth (met meaning heard speak) held the record for most amount of paper clips clipped together in a 24 hour span. I presented the certificate and waited for the questions to poor in.

After battling the "why" questions, which are easilied answered with "I don't know." I challenge them to ask questions we could answer together. Questions about cost came in, about rate/speed, wither we could beat the record. Lot of different ideas, the one I wanted to run with for this lesson was the rate.

Why convert units? Many different reasons but one of the uses on this day was to make the huge (24 hours) into small (a class period). I started putting paper clips together and asked if I would beat the record, students scream YES or NO but it was all feel, it was a judgement call and I wanted to know forsure. We needed to compare rates but our units were not matching. So we converted paperclips per 24 hours to paperclips per 10 seconds. It was a worthwhile introduction to a fairly basic yet sometimes confusing topic.

Wisdom gained: Last year I did a unit conversion for them, then let them work on a few, then gave them a 'challenge' problem. Last year sucked and was boring and students were doing a task that was arbitrary and ugly. They didn't know why they were doing it. Poor lesson.

#2) In the advice of @mpershan I had all my students email me with in the first 3 days. I loved having the connection with the students right away. I made it a point to email everyone back which worked much quicker then it sounds, and I was able to get some good insight from students. I might change the questions I asked next year, maybe add another layer but for now I have everyone's contact and we have something to talk about.

  1. Do you have consistent internet access at home? On your phone? Have you followed me on twitter yet?
  2. What is one thing you look forward to this school year? What one thing are you going to different from last year?
  3. What one thing can I do to make this a successful math course for you this year?

#3) I dusted off a clip I have been using ever since I became a teacher. This is a video from the 1994 classic Little Big League. Billy the new manager of the MN Twins needs to finish up a tough word problem before the big game. He enlists the help of the whole team to crack the classic question "If I can paint a house in 3 hours and you can paint a house in 5 hours how long does it take us to paint the house together?"

If anything an entertaining watch. I pause it after the introduction of the problem, after 'Mac' says "You never told me this was a word problem." I have students write down a number they think is close to how long it will take. I pace the room, have them circle it, verify it with a partner and then we go through the answers the players give and debate wither or not they have used sound reasoning. This is fun cause we separate math and reasoning. I always ask "Does anyone disagree that 3X5 is 15??" "no" "Does anyone think that reasoning is correct..." and so on.

What I particularly like about this part is when one player says 4 hours (an average of 5 and 3). I always have a bunch of students guess 4 here. (reasoning skills) But what is nice about the video is that I ask students why the player is wrong, I am not looking to embarasses the kid with a giant 4 on their paper.

I pause it again before the answer is revealed and let students try to get it down to the minute. With a little guidance most can start to combine the rates and figure it out. (I use a filling the pool metaphor, two hoses one at 27 gal/min the other at 20 gal/min how fast is the pool filling? They seem to understand that we can add those rates, painting a house is harder to visualize.)

Overall a great week, here is to hoping the next is even better.