Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Day before break

We were informed yesterday that today's first and second periods would be mentor groups. This is the third time we've met this year and we were free to come up with our own plans. I'm the cutesy-crafty type, so I figured we could make Christmas cards, write Christmas letters to reflect on the year, or cut out snowflakes. It reminded me of Dan's snowflake math last year (and Jason's redux.) I'm not pulling it out today, but might try it on a half-day next semester. 

We're watching movies instead. The principal just came around, "Candy. Why wants candy?" I don't know what's happening for the rest of the day. Guess we'll figure it out as we go along.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This week's schedule

Planned (for most classes): 
Wednesday--Return quizzes, free day for the dozen students in the school

Monday--Late Start
Tuesday--I leave in the afternoon for eye doctor (current glasses are five years old), afterschool basketball teams, knowledge bowl teams, cheerleaders, and other students leave for Lakota Nation Invitational
Wednesday--Half-day for the dozen students in the school, still waiting for announcement on the school-wide freeday

The question:
My afternoon classes should be okay with the review/quiz schedule. 

My morning classes all fell behind schedule by at least two days last week. (Late start, testing, lockdown, assembly...) My tendency is to try to teach so we can be at a decent pause point as we begin the 2.5 week break. But I'm nervous about how many students won't be there. Know that I'll have to reteach anything after break anyway. Is it less wasteful of our classtime to give them the chance on previous concepts they haven't mastered?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


It's not easy being a hard teacher* and recently I've been feeling worn down.

This morning my lunch buddy, who informally serves as my mentor teacher, reassured me that I am doing a good job. "No matter what you see in the classroom now, no matter how often they blow up at you, how much they hate you, they're learning something. They'll appreciate it eventually. The students who give you the hardest time now will be the most grateful later."

I've heard the platitudes before. I want to believe them. But sometimes I wonder how much this is just what we tell ourselves to make it through the day.

And then, as I was walking out the hall to the bus circle after school, D sauntered down the hall. I didn't notice him until he called, "Miss Cannon."

He gave me hell last year. Starting with the testing on day one. Only somehow I never passed. (And I'm not sure he did either.) I was relieved when he was absent and dreaded his class on mornings when I saw him at school. 

So it was strange to greet him in the hallway. He's home for break. Hanging out on the rez. Somehow, despite missing most of second semester last year, he is the student who is making it at college. I asked how his classes were. What's your favorite? 


He's in Intermediate Algebra. They started this year with material he learned in my class, so that helped him. He wanted to apologize for his behavior. He thanked me for what I did. 

He blew my mind.

I asked if he'd write a letter to students about college. Or come in and talk to a class. He said that he's telling his friends. He think word will get around. I didn't push more. 

The rest of the conversation was a bit awkward for both of us. Our relationship is fraught with tension, being friendly was almost unsettling.

As I walked away, I realized the platitudes are rooted in truth. And for once, it came years sooner than I expected.

* Expecting students to learn. Consistently holding them to a standard. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

PSA from my sister

Much as I hate it, sometimes drill practice is what students need to internalize a concept. I'd rather have the computer generate and check problems than do it myself. I'm excited that FreeRice subjects now includes "Basic Math/Prealgebra." I don't know that I'll pull it out in class, but I will use it during tutoring. 

Sharing here in hopes that someone will be as excited as I was when my sister told me about it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

World Aids Day Word Problem

It is estimated that 8 out of every 10 deaths caused by AIDS occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. If 2 million people die from AIDS this year, how many are from sub-Saharan Africa?

Showing this cartograph from Worldmapper was the highlight of my day. I didn't emphasize the connection between the numbers from the problem and the map as much as I could have--we worked the problem above and then I put this on the board with a "What do you notice?" Even without spinning a whole lesson out of it, we had a decent discussion. While it's not something that shows as learning on standardized tests, it felt like this was the lesson that might stick with a few students.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Claiming what's good

Some days are too ridiculous to share publicly. I'm afraid tomorrow will be one of those days. I think it already is. In place of the post I want to write, a few positive notes.

My Algebra 1 class conducted a survey about student experiences in the blizzard. We've been working with visualizing and analyzing the data. I'm hopeful that we'll have a summary of results on the webpage this week.

While watching a video about classroom management at a staff meeting, I felt bored. "Don't I already do this?" Made a more conscious effort of briefly asking students "What are you supposed to be doing?" during class today. It actually made a difference with fourth period. Sixth period still had it's sleepers though.

I'm interpreting students creating a romantic drama for me as a sign that they like me. They're comfortable with me. It seems to be in good fun (and they even knock it off when I tell them that's enough).

Finally, I'm going to bed before 11:00 tonight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Melting

I updated my post on the blizzard yesterday, but realize you who use the RSS feeder probably won't see it. A friend who worked in the area last year asked how the melt was going. The situation caused by the blizzard is bad. But in the protection of my trailer, I've also been sheltered from the news. It is rare that I feel as lucky to be where I am as I do now. 

In part of an effort to convey what is happening here, I am linking to others' stories and telling my own below.

Stories from School

Nov. 11--It may not be a normal school day when:
  • you already have an early release planned
  • students haven't been in school for a week
  • you drop in on a conversation about how to offer showers to students 
  • you hear that your students won't get power for another TWO WEEKS (Parmelee again)
Today's lesson plans. Opportunity to talk. Choice to review homework that was due last week. Potential project collecting and analyzing our statistics from the blizzard.

Others' Stories

Marion has a detailed account of her storm experience. Some of my students live in Parmelee which is still without power. KELOland has some coverage of the situation as well.

A week ago, I was planning on spending this weekend in Wanblee teaching my friends Kathy, Sarah, and Noah to knit. After living in the school for four days they have escaped to a hotel in Rapid City. They do not expect power in Wanblee until Thursday. The Rapid City Journal article can be read here.

Evan, Anne, and Anna also have posts about the storm. 

I will continue to update this post with links to more stories as they are told.

My Story 

We had Family Night after school last Wednesday. Most weeks I drive a half hour to have dinner with a friend on Wednesday evening. But I was feeling behind on my school work and decided not to increase my stress level by driving in the falling snow. When the call came at 10 pm that we would have a late start in the morning I breathed a sigh of relief, worked for another two hours, and went to bed.

I had planned to sleep in for an hour, but the howling wind got me up. Looking out the window I turned on the radio waiting for the announcement that school was canceled. It didn't look like there was much snow on the ground, but there was no way to run buses in that sustained level of wind. Vicki and I settled in for a day of cooking, reading, and relaxed work. Periodically I would open the door to marvel at the snow being blown about.

Midmorning I called my grandmother who worries about me after watching the weather channel. I wanted to reassure her that I was okay. Two minutes into the phone call my cell phone lost service. Towers were down. Cell phones would not work for the next two days. My landline and internet still worked; I was never unable to contact my family.

Thursday evening Anne told me that school was canceled for Friday and she was going over to Jen's to celebrate. Vicki and I bundled up and ventured outside for the first time all day. 

When we arrived there were already six teachers there writing a song for our friend Andrew's birthday party that weekend. The power went out around 8 pm. We had candles, musical instruments, and lots of layers. At the peak of the evening, 13 teachers were hanging out in the living room. Eventually it was time to go to sleep. Vicki, Anne, and I decided to venture home where we could sleep under our own blankets. Anne promised to make breakfast in the morning and we went out into the storm. 

That was not the smartest decision I've ever made. The wind pushed the falling snow in our faces. No power meant the ever-glowing street lights were off. The storm meant there wasn't a moon to light our way. We had flashlights, but could only see a few steps ahead. It was a straight shot. We knew we'd run into the fence of our trailer park if we kept going. Two steps after we considered going back Anne saw the fence and we were home again.

I woke up in the morning underneath a pile of blankets. It was light enough to try reading in bed, but my hands got cold. I put on a hat and alternated between snoozing and reading Zorro by Isabel Allende. At 10:00 I realized I was listening to the whir of the heat. I called my parents to tell them the power was back on. An hour later I bundled up to climb over waist-deep snowdrifts to go next door for brunch. By the time I left, plans were made to have dinner at 3D. The dinner party evolved into a movie viewing and eventually a slumber party. They were out of propane, so we didn't have much heat. I was impressed by the difference two space heaters can make. 

Saturday I worked on digging my car out. The snow plow left a pile right behind me, but we were able to get Vicki's car to back out and mine to go in front of her's. I still haven't tested if I can actually get my car out. Most teachers left teacher housing, either to go to families in other parts of the state or to Andrew's birthday celebration. 

Yesterday the school had inservice. Most of the staff was there, some after digging a quarter mile to get their cars to the road. We have today off for Veterans' Day. Tomorrow I have a half-day of school (early release for correlates) and will finally hear what my students have been through.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I've heard the elders say winter will be hard this year.

Day two of this blizzard. I worry about how the rest of the community is doing. Teacher housing may have leaky windows and broken screen doors, but we're more protected than most. My power just came back on after being out all night. I'm sure others are still waiting.

I won't see students again until Wednesday.  I pray they stay safe between now and then.

Edit November 10: Marion's post and the article on Wanblee (where some of my friends live and teach) makes me feel all the more grateful for the protection we had during the storm. And all the more worried for my students.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Yesterday I took down my poster of Rosie the Riveter.

She'd been defaced. First a black eye. Then bloodshot eyes. Now blood trickles down her lip. 

I no longer have my icon to remind me, more than the students really, "We Can Do It."  Taking her off the board sent the message to me, "Can't."

Morale is down across the school--I know these aren't just my issues. I'm trying to fight through this. Trying to find the motivation to pull together and push on. Today was a hard one. But I didn't call in. My car was the second one in the school parking lot this morning. 

I skipped the drum song because I couldn't face people quite yet. I'd almost collected myself and caught up to the point to be on pace with my work when a knock came at my door.

Someone else had called in sick so teachers were having to sub during their prep.

When your teachers are already at the breaking point, piling more work on them isn't going to improve the situation. My attitude went kerflump.

I think my tears is what prompted the assistant principal to tell me, "Dear, you need to take a personal day," and hand me a leave slip. I briefly talked with him, the principal, and the school's teacher mentor. It was clear that I needed a breather and they'd see me tomorrow. But I don't think any one of them has a clue that it was the subbing that sent me over the edge.

I feel guilty losing a learning day. Obviously there aren't subs. They advised me not to worry about running off worksheets, my students are going in with the PE class anyway. Tomorrow we're running a shortened schedule so we can have a Halloween party in the afternoon--there won't be enough time to explore new material. 

But I know I'd be a waste today too. Half-a-prep wouldn't cut it on a day when I needed a whole one. 

Hopefully taking today will help me get back on track. Help me remember why I'm teaching here. Help me believe that in fact I can do it.

I can.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Word Problems Before the Election

I like the idea of social justice math.

I have absolutely no training in it. I haven't found resources that can be lifted as is, though the previous link has several inspirational resources. Ideally, I'd customize ideas to my students, or better yet have them customize the ideas. Hasn't happened yet. 

My small compromise is to bring up issues in the warm-up journal word problems. This week's focus is the election. If you're looking for ideas, read on. (Though they will need adapting unless you're interested in South Dakota.)

For every 23 registered Republicans in SD, there are 25 people who are registered as something other than Republican. If there are 243,524 registered Republicans, how many people are registered as something else? (Link)

Proposition 11 is the state issue that will probably get the most national attention. (It’s the law that would ban abortion in the state.) An Argus Leader Media/KELO-TV poll showed a dead heat on Initiated Measure 11, the state's proposed abortion ban: 44% said they'd vote for it and 44% said they'd vote against it if the election were held immediately. It takes one more than half the voters to decide an election. If there are 508,240 registered voters in the state, how many more people does either side need to convince to win the election? (Link)

The poll about Measure 11 talked to 800 likely voters. If 12 % of people polled were undecided, how many people were undecided?

Most people in South Dakota have 6 weeks to vote early by stopping by their local courthouse. Saturday was the only day early voting was offered on the Rosebud Reservation. How many fewer days of early voting do residents of Todd county have than other people in the state? (Link)

In the last presidential election 149,244 South Dakotans voted for Kerry and 232,584 voted for Bush. If there were 508,240 registered voters in the state, what percentage of registered voters did not vote? (Link)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Night Comes Too Soon

I'm still plugging along here. Somewhere I know that I'm doing better than a year ago, I am able to take brief breaks, but I still feel overwhelmed.

Teacher Me

One of my friends complained that I haven't taken pictures of myself recently. As a way of making myself feel better about staying late Friday afternoon, I took some shots of the classroom. I posted them on Flickr and had a request to share with a group within a day.

View from the back of the class

It's not the best time in the year for classroom set-up, but here are a couple of pictures for inspiration whenever it helps.

Word wall

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Phone call #4

I call my parents after school daily.

It's something I started last year. I need to process the day with someone from outside the system and they're great for it.

They had a meeting this evening, so I called a friend instead. I had stories from tutoring that I wanted to share.

Because I talk to my parents so often, I forget how sensational my stories can be. I remembered somewhere in the midst of telling my friend--a friend who's on the phone with me weekly; who has other teacher friends--because I didn't want to paint too negative a picture.

The theme of today's stories was one of hope. The lightbulb moment when a student saw the connection between repeated multiplication and addition. The awe that I've become a person that students can tell me some of the problems they're dealing with. And the way that students face their challenges.

These are the moments that remind me both that I have improved since last year and of the power of being a consistent presence here. These stories hold the promise of the coming year. My friend was able to catch the hopeful rays, but there's still the shadow reminding me how different the world my students experience is from my own.

After all, I can call my parents every day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mathmagic Video

So far as I know, we haven't set up a forum for discussion of Dan Meyer's amazing Geometry resources. (Thank you, thank you, thank you, for freeing up hours of my nights for sleep.)

My addition, comment to save when something gets going somewhere. If you want to show the Donald in Mathmagic Land video on billards, the Youtube link is here.

(And yes. We're a month into school, but I'm only in Week One of lessons. It's been a slow start of the year... Those stories that I try not to post often.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Yesterday's warm-up

It's based in fact. I don't know how much the elementary school really has, but I'm bracing for a sugar high as we let the classes have their candy. Time to go decorate floats.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I like statistics.

I love playing with data.

I believe that testing can be a good thing.

But, yet again, good in theory comes off as horrible in reality. I’m sitting with students as they take our in-house standardized test. They’re bored.

For the seniors it’s the 10th time they’ve taken it. It being this exact version of the test. Same questions. Same choices. Same order. Don’t write in the booklet, because we need to use it next time sameness.

If the data was useful, maybe it’d be worth it.

You already know it's not.

The math version has as many questions on it about Roman Numerals as questions about variables. We have one evaluate the expression, one single-step solve the equation, two plot the points, nothing about actually graphing lines. The Roman Numerals are ones I’d have to take my best guess on, though my mom could answer them.

But this is what the school board uses to judge the teachers. (Students saw their scores only once last year.) Hopefully we’ll have enough practice with fractions and decimals to “show improvement.” Because this year I’m saying, “You’re in Algebra/Geometry/Algebra II. We don’t have time to go over fractions for a month. You need to be able to use them. They’re in our problems. If you need help, ask!”*

I could teach to the test. It might impress school officials. Or I can keep looking at what we’re supposed to teach (even our vague standards are beyond what we’re testing) and pushing beyond.**

*I am working through some examples on the board. Trying to remind students of rules they never learned. And then enough walk me through it examples where we should do something.
**At least this time we're giving it during homecoming week. So instead of losing two weeks of instruction to whatever, we're only losing one?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Song for Labor Day Dinner

We started school last Tuesday. Classes went well overall. I can tell I'm much less high-strung than a year ago--though I still wouldn't call myself low-key--and I'm connecting with students much more easily. They're good at reminding me why I'm back.

Still, I think I'd blocked how exhausting teaching here is and how difficult it can be to motivate myself somedays. This week we're actually getting into content*, but creating all my lessons for the week has not been what I've wanted to do over the long weekend.  I know people say year two is easier, but I'm less than convinced. Last year, I just tried to get something done. This year, I'm much more critical of my lessons. I hope some of what's coming will be decent, but 

The song in this video captures my mood this weekend. I've played it repeatedly while driving, cooking, and just relaxing. Ignore the video--I'm too lazy to try to go around Blogger's aversion to audio--kick off your shoes and dance** the last bits of summer away.

* Last week we were advised not to teach content, which makes sense because student schedules were still being shuffled. I still don't have rosters for my classes...

** Carolina shag preferred. 

Thursday, August 28, 2008

After I'd stopped procrastinating for the evening...

Freerice has new subjects. Including multiplication tables! I'm not sure when they were added, so everyone else may know about it already. But I'm excited.

Monday, August 25, 2008

On using a dead week for introductions

It's a half hour after I told myself I'd turn off the computer, but I'm still in first-day-anxiety zone. I know I have plenty of activities to do, but at the same time don't feel like I'm nearly prepared enough.

So I'm taking a moment to show off my use of Wordle. Replacing the traditional syllabus. I want to take some time during this week to discuss what we're learning this year. Took my long term plan, got rid of the numbers and distractor words, and got the pretty picture. Figure I'll toss it up once someone comments, "You're the teacher. Don't you know what we're learning?"

That's Algebra 2 for now. (It's the long term plan that's the least finished at the moment, so it's more along the lines of first semester. But I figure that's still a decent picture.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why I'll Keep Concept Quizzes

To say M struggled in my class last year is an understatement. M failed quarter after quarter through the year. I'm convinced she hated me for the first semester, but something changed when I came back after Christmas.

In the middle of spring semester, M buckled down. Graduation was coming. She needed to pass my class to get her diploma. We had a lot of catch-up to do. 

And we got it done. M was in my class for extra tutoring every chance she got. She took work home. She commented, "Man, this would be easier if I'd just done it in the fall." And while I wish she had done the work originally because I know she could have learned even more by the end, I jumped up and down in my trailer when I graded the test that brought her up to a passing grade. A week later I saw her graduate.

That's the allure of Dan's concept quizzes for me. Being able to (1) give students the chance to succeed all the way through the year (2) without letting up on the rigor of assessments. M and I focused on her lowest quiz grades, she knowing that their changes would have the biggest impact on her grade, myself trusting that they would increase her overall mastery. 

M was at a parent orientation night this week. She's enrolled at a local college where she tested out of the math requirement. I'm a little sad that she won't take another math course, but I'm thrilled that she knew enough to meet their requirements. 

I'm not as on top of things as other teachers, haven't yet hammered out sample questions for this years concepts. (I'm not even sure what my concepts will be.) But I'm grateful for the reminder that this method does help my students in a way that I'm not sure anything else could.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Three months later...

Teachers submitted Purchase Orders for this year's supplies in May.

They weren't processed until a week or two ago.

I was trying to save the school some money, and instead of using our catalog found an online vendor that has lower prices. I especially relied on them for the materials that other schools expect students to provide. Binders. Notebook dividers. Notebook paper. You know, the basics

Think about the past three months. Gas prices are dipping now, but companies are already raising prices.

So my shopping cart of materials is more expensive now than it was then.

School starts next Tuesday. Hopefully, I'll be able to get this processed so the supplies will arrive to an (empty) school on Monday.

At least I didn't try to save too much money and ordered extras of many supplies. Maybe those 30 bumper binders will save enough money to help this go through.

The question: what supplies do you find most necessary for your students?

Monday, August 11, 2008

End of Summer

I report to inservice in 40 minutes. Two weeks and then students.

A photo I took on my walk last night. The brightness of the flower against the incoming storm sums up how I'm feeling right now.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Knitting and Goals

Or How I Don't Work

I’m a knitter and, when I get the chance, I like to hang out with other knitters. Overall, knitters have two ways we approach our work.

There are the knitters who are project oriented. The ones who ask, “When are you going to finish that?” or “How long did that take you?” These are the people who know the techniques to speed up their knitting so they can finish one project and move on to the next. And they always seem to know what they’re going to work on next.

Then there are the process knitters. The people who will work on something for a while, just enjoying the process of creation. They experiment with techniques for the effects they have. They have more works-in-progress than planned projects, because if something looks interesting then they should try it out now.

I’m a process knitter. Currently there are two major projects I’ve almost completed, but finishing--joining pieces, weaving in loose ends of yarn, blocking a project to define it’s final shape--bores me. Completing the project isn’t enough motivation for me. I want to be able to really experience it. When winter comes and I’m ready to wear that wool sweater, I’ll find the time to finish it. I’ll block my shawl soon, but there’s no way I’m wearing it mid-summer.

As such, I hate being pushed to give an end-date for a project. My senior year of high school, I worked on a sweater jacket.* As the bag carrying the sweater became fuller, the question, “When will you be done?” came more and more frequently.

My answer? “By the time I graduate...
...from college.” **

I have a similar attitude toward goals outside of knitting. I understand that some people need them. I hear that they help you more if you define them specifically. But they feel more constraining to me.

It’s a bit of a lie to say I don’t have goals. I do.***

I just don’t like spelling them out. (Despite my tendency to plan ahead. And my apparent tendency to make other people spell out their goals.) I don’t like sharing them. (Despite my frequent conversations with friends.) I don’t respond well to people asking me how I’m doing with them. (Though it doesn’t stop me from inquiring on how other people are doing.)

I don’t know. Maybe my GPA would have been .15 points higher, if I had more explicit goals and found some extra drive during my worst college classes, but I still wouldn’t have graduated summa. Maybe that sweater jacket would have finished 8 months earlier, but I wouldn’t have worn it any more. The fact is, I’m perfectly happy being a process person.

But, I face a dilemma at school. The beginning of the school year is ripe with goalsetting. I’m told I should do it, but it just seems so forced. I believe in the end-product, but the process fails at motivating me. Student goal-sheets never did anything for me as a student. How do I convince students of their benefits when they’re not something I get genuinely excited about?

Because most people aren’t process knitters, I understand that setting goals is a useful skill for most people. In a region where kindergardeners give you a blank stare when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and high schoolers think it’s okay to tell their teacher that they’ll sell drugs, I do believe it’s crucial to create visions, to repeatedly go through the process of defining action plans and following them to an endpoint.

But I haven’t found an overall method that’s comfortable for me. I didn’t have much buy-in with my pep talks and personal conversations last year, perhaps because they felt trite even to me. I’m realizing I need to try something else.

How do you bring goals to the classroom? What do you set for students? What do you have students define for themselves? How do you motivate anyone to set honest goals, and not follow my habit of filling in the answers I expect people want to hear?


*I was, and often still am, that girl who knit during class. It helps me concentrate.

**I had the pieces completed and pinned together by the time I graduated high school. A friend convinced me to sew them together in the fall of my first year at college.

*** A personal goal for this school year is to take the pictures necessary to create a calendar of hay--because my phrase last year was that I was living in said calendar. But I classify it as a project rather than a goal.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Building My Motivation

There are moments where I find it difficult to believe that I am going back to a second year. When the stress of school is overwhelming, even in the midst of summer.

In an effort to improve my outlook, some things I'm looking forward to this year.
  • Being more prepared than last year.
  • Already having established favorite resources while planning. (If you want more, look at my account--it's listed over to the side.)
  • New math teacher.
  • Greater motivation to collaborate with new math teacher. (We'll be living together, so my guess is it will be hard to avoid.)
  • Introducing class blogs. (Planning to be a teacher-centered list of resources. I can't count on students having a constant phone, never mind internet access. But I can publish websites where you can practice and set students to work on them when they come in for tutoring.)
  • Hope that as a returning teacher, I'll have better relationships with students.
  • This year's precalculus class--I already know most of the students who will be in it and they know me.
  • Word-problem warm-up journals.
  • Teaching organization skills through notebooks.
  • More groupwork for discovery lessons.
  • Having actual discovery lessons.
  • Knowing more about how different manipulatives work.
  • Hearing back from last year's seniors. (Though I'm afraid they'll be like campers and not really keep me updated as much as I'd like.)
  • Creating studentwork that can decorate our classroom.
  • Being more of a stickler about teaching what the class should be, not falling back to where students were left behind. Running with them to catch up.
I've got some of my motivation back for the moment. At least, I'm feeling positive enough to make it through the rest of the night.

I'll be out of town celebrating my grandmother's 80th birthday for the next week. After that, I'll drive back across the country to start in-service. Here's to savoring the break of summer so that there's energy enough come fall.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Month’s Worth of Reflections in One Post

Excerpt from Conversation Type A

Setting local cafe (or library. This time it’s the cafe). I’m sitting at a table with my computer and a textbook.

RANDOM GUY: What school do you go to?
ME: Oh, I’m a teacher in South Dakota.
RG: Wha? You never…
ME: Yessir, just finished my first year. Working on planning some lessons right now. Holds up textbook to read cover. Algebra, teacher’s edition.
RG: South Dakota? What are you doing down here then?
ME: Visiting family over summer vacation.
RG: Okay...When do you go back?
ME: Well, I’ve just got a few more days in town before I go on a trip with my family.
Awkward silence
ME: I’m working on writing my “Welcome to Algebra” letter to students. What would you have wanted to hear from you teacher on the first day of school?

I hear other people talk about how little time they took to write and reflect during their first year teaching. The end-of-year comments on blogs that started enthusiastically in the fall only to be pushed aside by October. Compared to some of the people who are dedicated bloggers, I’m an irregular presence here. But between my writings here and elsewhere online and my actual journal, I wrote more details about last year than I remember at given moment.

Then summer came and I stopped.

Few entries here. Fewer there.

During my writing sabbatical, I’ve been talking more.

Excerpt from Conversation Type B

Setting Stitch and Bitch at a yarn store (or book club at the library or local church. This time it’s the S&B). I recently joined the conversation and made everyone else introduce themselves.

CONVERSATION LEADER: So what school do you go to Sarah?
ME: I just finished my first year teaching.
CL: What do you teach?
ME: High school math.
CL: And where do you teach?
ME: I’m teaching on a reservation in South Dakota.
CL: Wow. How’d you get here?
ME: I’m visiting family in town for a few weeks. My parents moved here after I left home, so I don’t really have connections in the area. I found your website and came here tonight.
CL: And what’s it like in South Dakota?

I’ve been telling stories. Trying to convey my experience truthfully, but hopefully. Trying to separate my experience of the place from my experience as a teacher. Trying to keep teaching separate from first year teaching.

I don’t know how to do it.

Instead, I talk about students. I talk about the weather. I talk about teacher housing. I talk about the drive to the grocery store. I talk about the insanity of not knowing whether a student has dropped out or just isn’t in school for a month. I talk about the student who threatened to get me kicked off the reservation in the fall and invited me to his confirmation in the spring. I talk about how far behind they are. I talk about how much progress we made. And sometimes, sometimes, I talk about how uncertain I am.

Excerpt from Conversation Type C, Part I

Setting local farmer’s market (or book club at the park or wherever I find people closer to my age. This time it’s the farmer’s market).

CUTE GUY: How’d you end up in South Dakota?
ME: Well, I joined Teach for America and wanted to go someplace rural and not in the South, so there I was.
CG: I’ve been thinking about doing a similar program. What’s it like?
brief pause
ME: South Dakota’s pretty different than other regions, so I can’t say what it’s like elsewhere, but... lots of the aforementioned rambling...

The thing is, my identity this year has been framed by being a math teacher on a reservation in South Dakota, not by being TFA. The program is very much present, but it’s not what I name first. For this year at least, I think it’s claimed me more than I’ve claimed it.

It has shaped how I teach. But so have the education courses I took in college and the people I’ve found online.

Excerpt from Conversation Type C, Part II

Farmer's market. The conversation draws to end. I scribble on a piece of paper and hand it to CG.

ME: Here’s my e-mail address if you have any more questions. I’ve also included the address for my teacher blog. You can find some links to other people in my area there. Get a larger sense of things. I haven’t updated for a while, but I will once school starts again.

This blog has suffered for lack of definition. Any guidelines I tried to impose on myself here disappeared pretty quickly. I’m going into the next year with a different approach--an approach that I think I’ve already taken, so I don’t think anything will change. I’m stating the guidelines more for my benefit than yours, but writing them here so you know what we’re getting into.

I’m going to let this be my space to share what I feel comfortable about my life. About being a math teacher on a reservation in South Dakota. It will have stories from the classroom, both student anecdotes and reflections on teaching. It will almost certainly will have requests for help (which may well be accompanied by comments on others’ blogs so you know I’m asking). Posting will probably be irregular, so if you have a feed reader go ahead and subscribe. We’ll see how much I reflect about my second year.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Docent Doe

For what it's worth, I highly recommend other first year teachers take an extended road trip during the summer. It seems impossible for me to tell how much of my isolation is geographic versus job focused, but I hadn't realized how distant the rest of the world had become.

I'm currently in DC and am loving the opportunity to play tourist. Hitting museums right and left.

In Feburary, I saw this article and resolved to visit the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Seriously, I saved it to tagged to a friend in the area with the note, "Can I visit this whenever I make it out to visit you this summer?"

I did not visit with that friend, but with another friend. We arrived just before a docent tour of the portrait gallery started and decided that would be a good way to start off our day. The tour was wonderful. Our guide took a route where she stopped in every room that we walked into. She would tell us about a portrait, giving all sorts of fun facts. (Which president had a rubber jaw? And where was the secret surgery performed?) And she kept us moving. If there was something else in the room that you wanted to see (for instance when I saw a Lakota cradleboard), that was fine. She kept everyone else moving through. The style was so exciting that I wanted to keep up and find out what else was going on.

After that experience, we were eager for the next docent tour this time of the Art Museum side. Maybe our expectations were raised so they had farther to fall, but we were not impressed. When we were given the out (another docent tour starting now) we jumped for it. And were thrilled to find our first guide doing a different tour.

The thing is, the second docent did the things that good teachers are "supposed to" do. She started out telling us where she would take us. When we were touring she asked us questions about the paintings. She waited for us to stop looking at other pieces in the room before she started talking. She got out the special docent gloves and showed us things that most visitors won't get to see.

And I was BORED.

If I wanted to talk about the pictures I would go through with my friend. I was there to learn more. I wanted the action-packed excitement. And the docent gloves weren't it, no matter how much she liked them.

I keep thinking about how this applies to my classroom. I fear I'm too much of the second docent. Too much of the following the rules. Too much of being excited about myself. Not enough contagious excitement about the material.

I'm not always sure of what makes the excitement contagious, but I think having the deep knowledge of the material. Having the confidence to say, "I don't know the answer to that. Let's look it up." Having the knowledge to be comfortable asking what students want to learn. Where do you want to go from here?Being able to say, "Oh this museum is confusing. I came up a different direction than normal and now I'm lost. You enjoy in here while I go find the picture I really want you to see."

Hopefully I'll have a bit more of that confidence in year two.

And lesson for anyone visiting DC, on Docent tours at the Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, and the other museum where she works, try to get Madonna as your guide.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Note to self past

It's interesting how I remember so much of each individual day from this time last year. Today, for instance, I sat with a new friend, who had agreed to be my housemate for the coming year, as she made the call to resign from TFA.

10 schooldays since I turned in my keys for the summer and I may be ready to reflect on the year.

Dear Me '07,

Congratulations! You've made it through the whirlwind of finals/induction/graduation/packing-up-and-saying-goodbye/putting-stuff-in-storage-and-meeting-everyone-new
/9-hour-drives/flights-galore! Doubtless you realize that the whirlwind is just beginning. Take a moment, however brief, to savor these moments. They will be the last ones you have for a year without the pressure of lesson planning, grading, or just thinking about students.

During the fall, a friend will ask you, "If you could go back a year ago, would you still do it? Would you still check the box signing up to teach?"
My answer? "I don't think I could have talked myself out of it."

Claim it for what it is. The confession that you wonder why you agreed to this despite the warnings. The acknowledgment seeing the achievement gap from the student side is a different story than seeing it from the teacher side. All the more so in a strange and foreign land.
This accompanied by the optimistic hope that you can help the education system in some small, albeit stopgap, way. The determination that what is happening is not right and that doing something is better than not. The faith that, at least for now, teaching is your calling.

Because no matter how much you hear the stories, you don't know it until you live it. And even after living it, yes, especially after living in it, you realize you still don't know it.

After two weeks visiting friends in cities I've realized that when I'm in one world, I can't really imagine the other one. On the reservation, the neighborhoods of the suburbs aren't even a dream. The stores of downtown might as well be on the moon. The fifth-graders on a scavenger hunt at a museum are a sight to take pictures of, never mind that I have no connection to them.

As I drive farther from the reservation, it becomes ever harder to describe. When asked about jobs in the community, should I avoid mentioning the 85 percent unemployment rates? As the force of the number is reflected in people's face, should I remind them that this is among the poorest places in the states. I feel guilty for falling back on the deficit model--there is a rich heritage, my favorite tradition is the morning flag song--but there is truth that in other, larger areas there is wealth nearby. That wealth symbolized by something more than trailer-park teacher housing. Meaning not only is it existent, it's visible.

Given that I fall short of describing the reality you'll face, offering wisdom of how to prepare for it is beyond me.

My general advice?
Take advantage of your ability to ask for help.
Be amazed at how much you can keep in touch with people when you really need to.
Retreat to the edublogosphere when you need to passively plan for the future (or just not plan for tomorrow quite yet).
Take a mental health day when necessary and hope for conveniently placed snowdays.
Get out of town to remind yourself of the different worlds when you need to.
Own the successes of each day as they happen (too many will still feel like failures at the end of the year).

And remember, you couldn't talk yourself out of it. There's something here you believe in. In the students. In the community. In yourself. You may not know what it is, but it was strong enough to get you to check the box. And for what it's worth, it's strong enough that you'll be back.


Me '08

Monday, May 26, 2008

Little bit of politics

President Clinton was in town campaigning this weekend.

Not my town. But the town where many of my students live. The town with the closest grocery store. Best gas prices in the area, because its large enough to have more than two pumps at one store. He was there. Where the tribal college is. That's actually where he spoke. On the steps to the museum. Drum group and tipi to the left*.

I found out less than 48 hours before the event. I wish I'd known sooner. School ended on Thursday. (And most students stopped coming before then.) I would have encouraged them to go. I don't want to promote one policital agenda before another, but I do want my students to feel empowered in national politics.

I saw my politically active student at the event. He's already clear on his candidate of choice. (More so than I am of mine.) He came to school about three weeks ago telling me about a rally he'd attended in a city 4 hours away. But he was the only one.

I hadn't attended political rallies before this year. At the campaign events I've attended this year, I've learned that I get snarky when listening to political schmooze. I'm not sure that they've really influenced my vote in the primary. Still, it's the type of live-it education that I want to offer my students. When it comes so close to us, is so accessible to us**, it's so frustrating that the school can't do anything with it.

* It was interesting to classify the people at the event as locals or coming from elsewhere for the event. Racial sterotyping? Oh yeah. I say this knowing that I look like an outsider. Then again, after only living here a year, I am an outsider.

**I arrived three minutes before start time and still got to shake hands before leaving. Totally different from waiting outside in the cold for three hours to see a speech in January.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Word Problems

I knew I wanted to do some sort of warm-up this year. Finding one that worked was a bit more of a challenge. I finally settled into doing word problems. The requirement is that you have to show your work, write a complete sentence answering the question, and ask another question that could be answered from the information we have.

They're all handwritten on chart paper. I went through and typed most of them up. See them here if you need some sort of inspiration. (Or in your feedreader. It took me a bit to figure out how to get it up with blogger.) Warning that the quality of the problems vary.

I'm leaving the last warm-up word problem on the board. It's a reminder to myself of the situation here.

This year’s graduating class is 1/3 the size of this fall’s freshmen class. If we had 45 freshmen this year and assume that the seniors entered SFIS with a similar class size, how many students are not graduating this year?

Edit: Hrumph. Link not working yet. I'm leaving for my summer travels in the morning and need to pack. I'll update when I figure this out...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I know it's not just about the grades, but at this point it is.

Can someone give me a good reason why students should come to school on Wednesday and Thursday when grades are due at closing bell on Tuesday? I didn't have a convincing one for my students today....

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Departmental Differences

Yesterday, we skipped seventh period to hand out academic awards. The school left it entirely up to teachers to do their own awards, though they did provide stationary to use for certificates.

The math department gave a couple of students to the top students. (I gave awards for "Most Concepts Mastered" and "Most Persistent.") The English department spoke about how proud they were of everybody and made sure that every student in the school received something.


It's final exam day for the algebra kids. I think I'm more nervous about it than they are. Too many have checked out (classes are half the size they're supposed to be). Too many have given up. Too many just don't care.

I'll take some of the responsibility for it. I have some plans of what I'd like to change next year, but at the moment I'm feeling afraid of my shortcomings.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Letter to my students

I'm grading my first batch of final exams. Newsflash for you, worrying does not equal studying. Thinking about the test is not going to help you prepare if your thoughts aren't intentional.

This class got screwed over. Everything's interrupting them this week, so the final got moved up three days with very short notice. It cut down on the time when we explicitly reviewed as a class, but after all the talks about needing to prepare, I'm lacking sympathy. If you have to stay back from next week's field trip to a theme park (that was just announced last week) in order to really prepare and learn the material, so be it.

Stop worrying. Or, if you're going to worry, do so productively.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Such a rebel

I got written up yesterday.

For letting students come in for tutoring.

They came to my window to ask me to open the door. My phone rang at the same point, hall monitor saying the doors were locked and she would not open them for the students. I walked to the entrance, escorted them back to my room. I figure explaining that I got written up for trying to give students extra help so they could graduate would not look bad on my record.

Thankfully, I think my assistant principal agrees.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ignore the snowflakes

It must be spring.

It's the only way I can explain going from this*

to this**

in the course of one day.

*my first branding

**my first time chaperoning prom

Monday, April 28, 2008

6 days until grades are due for seniors

18 more days of school total.

But I'm sorry, I'm not staying after school for tutoring today. I'm here twice a week. And the last time I stayed after for you, you didn't show up. You know the extra credit work you can do to bring up your participation grade. I'll be here tomorrow if you want to retake any concept quiz. If you want to come in before school, let me know. And if you absolutely CANNOT make it on the days when I'm scheduled, talk to me in advance, so I can adapt my schedule. (Yes, it needs to be at least two days in advance, even though you don't think this is a business.)

Yeah, it's pretty miserable you were suspended for school this late in the year. Sure, it's legal for you to chew. It's still against the rules to have tobacco products on school grounds. Maybe it's not fair for them to "just search your locker" like that. But if the drug dogs found it, and you know that the dogs do come to school, I'm not feeling much sympathy for you.

I understand that your favorite student want to go to college. But that's one of the reasons why I don't feel comfortable passing him. He really does not know the material. He gets mad and gives up if the idea doesn't click with him immediately. I'll keep working with him, and I'll be glad to help you so you can help him too. If he wants to go into a career that requires lots of math courses, then he needs to be able to tackle the math courses. We're here to help him do that now, but I can't pass him based on a desire that's not matched by effort and understanding. If he's frustrated in this class now, we'll all be even more frustrated if he's in a more advanced class next year.

It's great that you all made it to class today. Your work was amazing. Look at how much you're learning! Make sure you come back and make-up the quiz you missed when you were absent for four days last week, I don't want your grade to suffer. I'll have you in the next class next year? We're going to be awesome.

Hey look! By taking the quizzes that you hadn't done anything for, we've brought you up to a passing grade. We can get that even higher if you keep studying some of those concepts that you didn't do so hot on. Get those checked out and let's move your grade to the level where it should be.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anyone have a clue what's happening with ilovemath? I actually had a lesson (coordinate plane battleship, so nothing too new, just a decent powerpoint) to upload. When I visit the site, I'm coming up with this.

I Got Observed Today, Part II

A Lesson the Day After a Test

Algebra kids had a concept quiz yesterday. I scored them last night, put them in the gradebooks, gave them back today. But if I want students to learn from the quiz, I figure they need a way to go back and review the quiz.

The method for today was to give them just the answers to the problems. They had the rest of class to work with a partner/group to discuss any problems missed. (I answered questions by turning them around, pointing them to their notes, the filing system of old notes, or a poster on the wall.) Half-way through the review time, I gave them each a post-it with a problem from the test. Yes, the problems were strategically chosen to be one they missed, even better if their partner missed it too. If students were working, I assigned a problem that I knew they were discussing. If they were slacking, that's when they got the "harder" problems.

In order to get your participation credit for the day, you needed to put your problem on the board by the end of the review time. You didn't have to explain it to the rest of the class (my students really shy away from talking). You weren't going to embarrass yourself by getting it wrong (you have the answer and you have people helping you).

It's a decent way to review. I like it better than me working all the problems on the board. It has the perk of getting students to the board (they tend to stay away from it to work, but will doodle and tag their name all over it otherwise). They were more likely to ask questions of a single peer than they are to ask questions to me in front of the class. They were also more likely to ask questions when they knew they needed to do this again and soon. I'm not knocking this method. I'll use it again.

But there must be other ways to review tests. What are they?

I Got Observed Today, Part I

Dear people who observe me,

It's not that I don't like good reviews, having someone pump up my ego is fun. When you actually name things that I'm doing well, I appreciate it more than just hearing "That was great."

But, I am still new at this.

I am nowhere near perfect.

I can tell from how poorly students do on tests that there's a lot they don't get, meaning I'm not doing my job as well as I should.

So please tell me what to do better. Please give me some concrete ways I can improve.

Thank you,


Monday, April 14, 2008

Spring is here!

Today's warm-up word problem is awkward, but I couldn't find information about the rate of snowfall.

By 8:45 Thursday morning, it was snowing in St. Francis, but not in other parts of the state. It wasn't until 2:45 in the afternoon that it started snowing in Pierre, 114 miles away. Find the speed of the system to approximate the average wind speed.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Once a month, our school has an early release so that teachers can have special correlate meetings. (Originally they were scheduled afterschool, but people didn't come so we decided that they were more important than actual class. I don't know.) The best thing about them is that they make me appreciate full days more.

For the most part, half-days seem to be a weird balance of fulfilling a requirement to be in school and just a waste. I only remember having them the day before holiday breaks. In those cases it's easy to attribute the rambunctiousness to the excitement over the break. But really it's hard to get anything accomplished on days when students are just excited to get out. The question, "how much time is left?" is asked triple the normal frequency. Classes are still long enough that I feel like we should be able to do something, but focus flies away.

I wish I knew what happened yesterday. Because they worked. I left school feeling better than I had on Tuesday. 

Of course, school's been canceled today due to snow.  (Which I prefer to going in and being dismissed at 10. If half-days are usually bad, days when we know we're getting out but don't know when are INSANE.) My frustration with trying to plan lessons in this situation continues.

Monday, April 7, 2008

My Group is Done Testing

Revised plan for the day: Spiderman Marathon.

If you're done with testing, it's a free day. Apparently I'm not supposed to offer tutoring, but if you want it, stop by. We'll take over the back corner of the classroom, no problem.

Edit: Tutoring took over the back half of the classroom. Stuff was spread out, so there weren't that many students. Still, I didn't watch more than 5 minutes of any of the movies playing.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Follow-up on Testing Lessons

Memories of My Test Prep

# 1
When I was in high school, South Carolina was desperately trying to improve its SAT scores. (And something must have worked because I remember a headline proclaiming that we had moved up, "We're 49!") One of their strategies was to have an annual SAT competition. 

Each school would have a team that would compete against the same schools you played sports against.  Three rounds of competition. 
Round One (district): Everyone on all teams takes a mock SAT test. 
Round Two (regionals): The top teams from each district take another mock SAT test. 
Round Three (state): The top teams from each region take another mock SAT test. And a state champion is declared!

Yeah, I was one of the nerds on the team. For three years. We would have practice before school, going over strategies and taking practice tests. It may have helped me some, but really it was something I did because I was invited.

I attended two high schools. The first one had a policy requiring that every class begin with a  standardized test question or vocabulary tests. I don't remember them being related to the subject at all. They got on my nerves then, which is probably why I haven't used anything like them this year.

Bringing us up to date
I wasn't planning on doing formal test prep this year. (This goes back to my frustration of not having a released test; though,  based on what I saw the seniors take, it's just as well that I didn't.) But then testing was scheduled for the first full week after two short weeks. There wasn't enough time to move into the next unit, so testing strategies it was.

The way the four-day week played out.
Tuesday was flop day

Wednesday went a little bit better. I gave a 10-minute multiple choice test and tried talking about general time-saving tips. Most students seemed to be at least somewhat interested in the ideas we went over. (Then I found out this week that the tests we're taking aren't timed. Oh. At least I was lazy and just stole my ideas from the College Board?) 

Thursday, I took on H.'s idea of having students generate possible choices. I took questions from released multiple choice tests from elsewhere that related to topics we have done in class. Each section of Algebra had 8 questions to come up with answers. We spent the end of class reviewing the problems and choosing which answers to use. I put together a quiz that night using their answers.

Friday I gave them the quiz. I allowed them to refer to their worksheet from the day before. Students were to choose the correct answer (1 point each) and to explain what mistake the other answers made (1 point each). I tried to make it a competition between classes, so that the class with the highest average would be allowed to watch a movie during the two class periods of testing week.

One class really got into it. One class really did nothing. I think it has more to do with my connection with the student leaders in each room than the lessons themselves--the troublesome class has been so since one student transfered in.

Plans for next year
If I were doing another mini-test-prep-unit next year, I'd start off the week with a quiz. I'd want to time it where there wouldn't be quite enough time (exactly one minute per question, no bumper time). I would include a few questions just a half-step beyond what we've done. Hopefully this would help students get the message that timing is important and good guessing strategies are important.

I'm not sure whether I'd review guessing strategies and then have students generate questions or the other way around. I do like ending the week with the competition.

I almost hope that the scheduling doesn't work out for this unit (unless I find some amazing ideas in the meantime). Maybe it was just overdone for me when I was in high school, but if SAT team competition wasn't exciting...well then, testing is not exciting.

The Idea that is Brewing
I'm beginning to love the "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" theme Jackie suggested. Students complain all the time, "We've seen this before," or, "My little sister could do this." They have. I hope she could. 


They did not really learn it. Seniors had to refer to the multiplication table on my wall during testing. The usual suspects are problematic. Fractions. Decimals. Negative numbers. Order of operations. Division. Addition. Subtraction. Basically anything you should have learned in elementary and middle school math. Students think they know it, resist learning it, and continue being wrong. 

My current thought is to use a released test (probably California, New York, or Texas) from an elementary grade level as a diagnostic at the beginning of the year. Give it back to students as a basis for where they are.

Then to have a powerpoint file of questions from different strands and grade levels. Throughout the year, when there's the extra time that needs to be filled, whip out the file. Take a question. Maybe say what percentage of the class is smarter than a 5th grader. I'd need some sort of end of year test to see where they are. Again, pulling from released questions could make this manageable. I think the challenge may be to keep moving with the high school math and not just try to create the missing pieces. At least that won't be a new challenge. 

"Didn't we take this test already?"

"Yes. But they want to give you the same test so they can see how much you've learned."

I hate saying it. I don't believe it.

The same exact test. Three times a year. For at least four years.

I don't blame the senior who just bubbled it in. (Though, I still wouldn't let him move on to the next section until a convincing amount of time had passed.) When I did the "listening comprehension" section with him, he would tell me the answer before I read the sentence. I asked what the sentence was; he knew the key words.

Between not trying and being completely bored, it doesn't sound like a valid measure to me. But this test is just for the school and the biggest impact for students is that is helps determine if you can be in the Gifted and Talented program. Really it's the time out of class that bugs me the most.

Never mind that it's not aligned with my standards. (Which is impressive given how general they are.) So I rebel. Teaching them Roman Numbers could improve their standing. Instead I teach them algebra, because that's the class name, even though there are only three questions that the test categorizes as algebra.


At least it's done for this year? 

And really, outside of the Super Bowl and European Kings, Queens, and Popes, when do you use Roman Numerals?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Honestly, I'm going to bed soon

In the last sweep before turning off my computer, I discovered the work of Stefanie Posavec on NOTCOT.

Infographic design that I love meets my English teacher housemate.

The title of this one is Literary Organism, but I misread it as Literary Orgasm. That amazing. Honestly, go look at her stuff. NOW.

All I need now is a good printer

Frazz this week is great for math. I think today's comic in particular needs to be printed up as a banner for my class next year.

I need the right motto to go with it. Suggestions? (The best I'm coming up with is "Be smart for your age.")

To remember when students hate on me

Subtitle: Like when I ask the student who's missed one-third of the school year what he wants from this class and am told "for you not to be my teacher"

At the beginning of year T was one of my nightmare students. I don't know why we butted heads, but it was bad. The "at least I don't have to kick you out of the classroom this time because you walked out on me" nightmare situation. I couldn't motivate her to do the work. At the end of the first semester she had a solid failing grade. 

I'm not sure what happened, but this semester has been much better. T's still not passing, but is much closer.

Today we went over grade reports and had a chance to do extra credit or makeup work. T's conference:

Ms. C and T are standing beside each other by T's desk.

Ms. C: Okay, so here's your report...
T: Shh, be quiet so other people can't hear.
Ms. C lowers voice even more and leans in close.
Ms. C: These are your absences, obviously they're hurting you. 
These are your quiz grades. You're doing well recently, but here were some rough ones.
Here are your participation grades. I know you've been doing them, but make sure to turn them in to get the grades. Remember when you miss school that hurts you too.
Now you can do either of these assignments to bring up your grade up....
T: flipping through binder Hey. Those worksheets that I didn't finish earlier, could I turn those in for credit?
keeps flipping to some material from the beginning of the year
Remember last year when I didn't like you and wouldn't do the work? Can I make that up?

Ah. Last year. I love the implicit message here that something really has changed since then.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Or I'll just be a lazy bum

My plan of working on blog posts was not fulfilled today. But I did catch up on reading your blogs! So many new posts in my reader; I only missed four days. Other activities from the day (listed so I don't feel like the complete slacker, even if I am one).

  • Got more sleep
  • Finished reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (Also, after a friend asked if I understood it, I scanned the wikipedia article and took the Sparknotes quiz. I didn't get a perfect score but 88% isn't bad for a "whatever I get out of  it" read.)
  • Tried a new tofu recipe for lunch. (Hot lunch that I want to eat on a weekday. Luxury indeed.)
  • Half-watched LOTR: The Two Towers 
  • Took time to go through links and check out some new blogs (because there wasn't enough new material coming in through the reader)
  • Read the early posts of teachers who have made it past the few years to reassure myself that you felt like miserable teachers at one point too
  • Baked pizza for dinner
  • Attempted to build snowman
  • Read up on fractions in Elementary School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally by John Van de Walle (suggested by Dan, who I still owe a huge THANK YOU for talking with me in January)
  • E-mailed my principal my plan of study for the year 
On the one hand I feel like I should have "done something productive" with the time off. On the other hand, I'm continually learning that I have to take time to myself. It may have been low-key, but today was definitely not a waste. (Except for the whole learning time thing. I'm not sure how this will mess with our testing schedule. Joy to find out in the morning.)

First official snowday

We've had early-releases. We've had days off school for a funeral. We had one day where they announced a late start at the end of school the day before.

But today is my first official snowday as a teacher.

I'll try to spend some of the time posting what I ended up doing last week. (My family visited from South Carolina and Minnesota this weekend, so I disappeared with them.) But first I think I'll finish reading my current fun read.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Doubting Thomas

At H's suggestion, I'm reading Rafe Esquith on standardized testing.

Students have become so burnt-out taking the tests that they no longer care how well they score on them.

TFA Trenches has a great post on how these tests don't always reflect what we know students know.

Perceptive as always, C--- recognized that he had missed a slew of problems not because he didn’t understand the concept but because he didn’t know “the words,” the specific language of the specific questions of this test.

My housemate points out how the "real-life" situations in essays and word-problems are a different world from our life on the reservation.

How's this for a classic example of tests written to favor middle class suburban students:

"The city council is considering an ordinance banning cycling on all sidewalks. Consider the effects such an ordinance would have, and decide whether you support or oppose the measure. Then, write an essay in which you express and support your opinion on the issue."

What??? Some of my students have probably never SEEN a sidewalk! And kids around here do not have/ride bikes.

I love data. Statistics is fun for me. In many ways it is why I'm teaching math. I know enough about data collection and survey design to know that the data's only as meaningful as the questionnaire it comes from. The more I look at these tests, the less I trust our collection method.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Falling flat

Okay. People keep saying I should share lessons. Here's one that I'd love some ideas of how to improve.

We have a 4-day week. Next week is testing. It's not really enough time to get into new material and I feel like I'm supposed to help students review before the test. I don't want to teach to the test, but given that South Dakota does not have released tests I'm not sure it's even possible.

What does make sense is to go through and talk about testing strategies. My students don't seem to have been taught them before, so I'm taking the week to go over the ideas that I learned through all the years of SAT team practice. At least that's the plan.

But today fell flat, so I'm not sure how the rest of the week will play out. I'd love advice from anyone who's not totally off on spring break.

Tried to start off with a bit of discussion about why we're doing this. How these strategies work for any multiple choice test, be it the ones next week, the ACT/SAT for college, or the ASVAB for military. Really, I think I lost them care. Testing is boring and I didn't find a way to make it fun. 

When I asked students why we take the tests the most consistent answer was, "So we can see how bad the school is." They know the school is low-achieving, but they fall back on the excuses of being on the reservation. In one typical teenage fashion, they mostly mocked my cheerleading attitude. Alas. Most of that is actually my real personality, so it won't be changed anytime soon.

I decided to start off with the general strategy of eliminating choices to improve your guesses.I put the numbers on the board to show how better guesses can raise your score, next time I'd use a graph to illustrate. 

I focused on how you could eliminate options first by working backwards, checking the answers given rather than generating your own. We've just come off of polynomials, first multiplying and then factoring, so the option of working a problem in the order you want seems sold me. Still didn't catch the students.

Most classes perked up a bit when we talked about estimating. I think they felt more comfortable with that idea. Confuses me. I've been talking about checking your work all year long, haven't mentioned estimation before today. 

Not a thrilling narrative by any means. The PDF matches, but I've submitted it to I Love Math.  I'll toss a link here when it's up. 

So yeah. There we go. My first shared lesson, admittedly rough. What do you do to improve it?

Morning Count

Before classes begin, our school drum group sings the Flag Song in the commons area. Students aren't allowed back to the classrooms until the Flag Song is over, meaning that it's a good chance to get a sense of who is present any day. Today the other schools in the area have the day off.

When Flag Song began, I counted 32 students. That's right. Total attendance at my school appeared to be smaller than some of the overcrowded classrooms some of you are teaching.

Somehow, my actual classes have had better than average attendance. Apparently looks can be deceiving.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Most of the time I'm good at staying on track, not letting students get me off on tangents for long stretches of time. But I have one student who knows how to play me better than I do. He picks the right topics at just the right times. Today we had an early dismissal combined with low attendance. He's just starting a new topic, we have a four day weekend, and, yeah, I totally let him get away with it.

I'm glad I did.

Yesterday, we spoke briefly about his poetry. I asked him to bring in a piece to share. Today we were one-on-one, so we just talked. He performed his piece, which was an amazing moment for me. It gave me a chance to hear his perspective, to better understand where he is coming from. He's a pretty good writer, especially when I remember what his education has been.

At some point, the conversation turned to his plans post graduation. (I might have pushed it there.) I could envision him sitting around the cafeteria discussing philosophy, politics, religion, and whatever; having the courage to give his perspective during lectures; hanging out late at night; just being that voice from such a different life than his classmates. I can even see him finding his way to bring it back here.

I think it was the first time that I really saw any of my stuents succeeding at any college, not just one of the smaller, more local ones that caters to them. I could tell that he would have the courage to ask for help, a confidence that I lack for other students.

It makes me proud of him. I haven't fully learned his back story, but I think he spent time in JDC. I am almost positive he's been a trouble student in the past. He never expected to come this far. His poem included the line, "I never expected to live this long." And I'm sitting here dreaming of how far he can go.

I'm frustrated that the system has failed him. He has a brilliant mind, but his education is roughly at the same level as the middle schoolers that end up attending the colleges where I want to send him. I'm sure my visions of college are skewed by my own experience. I feel like he's best prepared for a community college or technical school, but wish I could send him somewhere like Middlebury. (Which both my sister and my cousin strongly considered last year.)

He's not always a stellar student. Mostly it's because he's absent so much, not because he's not capable. In some ways, taking the time to connect with him may be better for his math grade in the long run--who knows, maybe having a stronger relationship with me will help him come to school more. In every way I'm grateful that I have this student who is willing to share so much and help inspire me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On wishing students were somewhere else

Inspired in part by Dan.

You may not need to be told this, but attendance can be a huge problem at my school. When I took the time to look at the numbers recently, I was astounded by the number of students who had missed over 8 days this semester. That's 8 days since January 14. I guess it's less than one day a week, but still I don't think I missed 8 days of high school total.

The cynic in me notes that this is why I struggle to help students learn the material. If you're not here to hear it; if you don't have the time to practice it; if you miss bits and pieces along the way; if you miss a huge chunk in the middle; learning is never easy, but some situations create more work for yourself.

And yet, there are times when I feel like students would be better served outside my classroom.

The Gifted department has a field trip this week. Take 2 days (the middle 2 of our 3.5 day week) to go to Rapid City and Spearfish to visit colleges. For most students I signed the slip saying they could go no matter what their grade was. (I did say one student could not go. Yesterday was the first time I'd seen her in two weeks.)

I was disappointed when half of them showed up for class today. "Aren't you supposed to be on the trip?" For some reason, they decided not to go.

Yes, you need to be in the classroom learning. But some days I know you're learning more when you're not here.

Light Bulb Part II

There are days when I don't know what it is that clicks with students.

But I'm so relieved when it does. 

F stayed afterschool today for tutoring. We've been struggling all year. He, more than any other student, is in a class way above his current knowledge. A few weeks ago, there was a breakthough. I realize how my expectations for students aren't really where they should be when I expect so much more now.

After school, it was a lot of drill practice. Not the fun stuff that I like. But getting the material again and again helps. And finding the right balance is a trick I haven't mastered yet.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

There's no halfway

After missing two days because of the nasty flu, I went back to school today.

Teaching is truly an all or nothing job. There's not the chance to work some, take a break, and work some more. I have to be THERE for students all the time. At least all of the time that I'm physically present. So I left at lunch. 

For the classes that I was there, I  started with a bit of a spiel. "I've been sick. I'm not fully well yet, just listen to my voice. But you still have so much to learn this year. It's important for me to make sure you can learn the material, but I need your help. We have to work together." 

One class really responded. They shaped up, paid attention, asked questions, got the work done. It almost makes me wish I was sick more often. 

But then another class reacted with the opposite. Same old antics. And me without the energy to manage. Thankfully, I'd kept the office notified about my health, so was able to call for some backup. I hate sending anyone out of the classroom, but, man, today it was worth it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Migrating from the lap pool

This resolution seems to be falling into the stereotype of resolutions. Love the way Frazz sums it up.

This week has been bad for posts over here. It's hard enough to figure out what I want to write about during a normal week. But classes keep being interrupted by one thing and another.  I revised my long-term plan before school started back in January. The algebra class is already two and a half weeks behind schedule. My pacing of what I can get done in a class period seems to be on target. We've missed that much class.

We wonder why students are already mentally checking out of school. Could it be that the routine of classes isn't established enough to make it worth checking in?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Teach it right.

R is one of those student who argues and complains.
His two favorite phrases:
"You didn't show us that."
"Yeah, well, you didn't teach it right."

Definitely a student who makes me want to claim the victories while I can.

Yesterday was a practice day in his class. I gave them time and space to work, checking in with everyone periodically. After looking over one problem he'd solved, I told him it looked great.

"That's all you have to do? That's so easy."

A relief to know that even though the day before I hadn't taught him anything, he can work through problems that require mastery of previous concepts in addition to the new material.

Good morning sunshine

Juniors and seniors had an assembly today that started during first period and went until middle of third. A few of my second period juniors and seniors showed up at the beginning of class. While I was trying to sort out with them whether I could keep them or not, a sophomore from third period came in. He looked groggy as he picked up his notes. Standing at the door, I said his name.

"I know I'm tardy. Just..." mutter under his breath.
"You're in the wrong class."
"What hour is it?"
"Second. See you in an hour."

The second period students had a good chuckle, before the hall monitors came to take them to the assembly or ISS. (Really? They can't do the work in my room? How is ISS any better?)At least, having a handful of students coming to class, getting ready to work, when they don't need to is a morale booster.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"You want to talk about technology in schools?"

Tomorrow we have an early release so that the staff can break into teams discussing different issues at our school. Conceptually, the meetings are a good idea (though maybe they should occur on inservice days rather than cut into teaching time). I remain to be convinced of how useful they are.

I joined the technology team in hopes of finding a way to exploit the system to benefit my classroom. That hasn't happened. We spent the first half of the year discussing what our research question would be. I think we settled on something broad enough to include anything and not really spur us to any action.

I was talking to my housemate about how I'd like to bring in ideas from the blogosphere (or maybe just mention the presence of the blogosphere) to the meeting. An hour later, she complained that she doesn't know if the school secretary has an e-mail that gets checked. I happen to have the address in my book. It's a yahoo address. Mine's g-mail. We don't have school addresses. It sparks the comment, "You want to talk about technology in our school? Talk about getting everyone communicating by e-mail."

It's simple enough, really. I have the impression that at one point we were all going to be given school e-mail accounts. But I haven't tried opening Outlook on my school computer this year. My housemate tried hers.... once. No one knows other people's personal e-mails. There's no formula to figure them out.

Communication can be a struggle at our school no matter what the form. All the papers in my box just get shuffled around and lost. Conversations constantly need to be written up in memos in order to be documented. I know I'm more comfortable with technology than others, but could we join the e-mail movement to help our organizational skills? To save on printing? To make everything searchable? Please?

P.S. I know I didn't post for my resolution last week. I have some entries that need editing. I need to go through so I can have a better outlook for my own sake.