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.