11/15/06 Percents. I discovered that the district’s Chapter 3 test includes four problems on percent, when our pacing guide specifically skipped that system. So I developed what I thought was a nice, simple lesson on percent problems, including interesting stories from my own life. The stories were interesting enough, but the problems were too difficult. How dare I assume they would still be able to solve one-step equations, a full two weeks after we last studied the concept?? Rather than use the stupid system of the book – learn three different archetypes for percent problems, with a different formula for each – I taught the translation method. I showed them a nice two-column, four-row table, where “is” becomes “=” and so on. Fine, except then the second step is solve the equation you just created. They were left with a fraction, times an integer, times the variable x, and it all became too much math for their arithmophobic brains. “I don’t get it!” I could hear their eyes glazing over from the board, as I demonstrated canceling factors out of denominator and numerator.
Apparently, every time you teach The Right Way to solve percent problems, somebody pipes up and recites the way she learned it from her elementary school teacher. (This is the three-archetype method.) This is fine when you don’t know algebra, but it’s clearly inferior to the translate-and-solve method that you can use once you know how to work with equations. Just the same, some people would rather not give something up that works. Only both times I’ve had a girl stand up and announce that there’s an easier way, they either get the answer wrong or can only remember one or two archetypes, rather than all three.
11/16/06 I’m happy with a rewards system I’ve come up with. A minor branch of it is stickers: “WOW” stickers (which we like to call “MOM” stickers) which I put on papers for sitting down and beginning the work at the bell. To get one, you really have to have all your materials out and ready to go before the bell. This is inconceivable to a lot of the students, who feel you should be able to socialize, gaze off into space, and/or chase each other around the room until a little bit after the bell stops ringing, or until the teacher says, “OK, let’s get to work! You’re assignment’s on the board!” Whichever comes last.
The more important component of this system is a bag full of Room 14 Random Rewards. They’re like little Chance cards (of Monopoly fame) which the students get to pick for various good deeds: turning in homework (on an unannounced day), helping someone else, or articulating the perfect question or answer (vocabulary counts). Once I gave one to a student who put his hand on his paper so I could initial it without it spinning under my pen. The rewards include: a day working in my chair, a day as class factotum, three origami papers, one new pencil, one day operating the LCD remote, one half freebie on the day’s homework (full credit for half done), one free minute tardy. The chair, projector and tardy are popular, and they are distributed about the same as all the other cards (about four cards each per 32-card deck); I’m going to come up with a couple very special cards that will be more rare.
11/17/06 One of those classroom events that might have been handled better by an experienced teacher. Direct instruction went on way too long – mostly because of chatter and other distractions – and then the boys in Quadrant III started screwing around. This continued for about five minutes, in spite of my proximity and other subtle hints. I muttered, “Fine – we’ll start the phone calls home,” and then I walked to the computer, looked up one boy’s phone number. I dialed it and reached his grandmother; I put the boy on the phone and then attempted to resume the lesson. Soon, he was crying and saying he didn’t do anything. The conversation went on for another three or four minutes, and he finally hung up and gave me his father’s number. (Later on, when I reached his father, he acknowledged that his son is a talker but didn’t feel I handled it fairly.) I called another boy’s number and got an answering machine. There were two others in my sights, but I didn’t make it that far. Meanwhile, the neighbors of Boy #1 started telling me that he hadn’t been screwing around. I believe he was guilty of joining in, either this time or some other time; however, it was not my intention to humiliate anyone, just to get the attention of the distracted kids. I’ll probably abandon that technique.
11/27/06 In the interest of not “turning off” students who exhibit reluctant-learner tendencies, I had several private heart-to-hearts today: “Hey, uh, Jimmy. We need to talk. I’m trying to do my job here, which is to help you learn. Your job is to learn. When you choose to chat while I’m talking, it makes it hard for both of us to do our jobs….” Not sure if the somber attitudes of the students, as I spoke, was actual comprehension or just well-practiced “be quiet and let the old guy talk so he’ll let me leave” behavior.
I made an effort today to share tasks with students. One class clown in particular – who announced as he entered the room after lunch that he was “freezing his nuts off” – really warmed up to the responsibility of reading the night’s homework to the other students. He has his belligerent moods, and he definitely spent too much time acting like the teacher (“I’m going to have to write you up!”), but he surprised me by actually making an effort to read loud enough to be heard and to wait for class silence and attention.
11/28/06 Yesterday, I assigned two-paragraph essays about the state of things in the classroom. This was in response to (secondarily) the chronic sick state of behavior and (primarily) a four-day classroom-management workshop, which began last week and continues later this week. The first paragraph was meant to list three things that were broken in the classroom; the second paragraph listed three things that were working. I got the first set of these essays today and learned several things instantly. I believe the students gave me honest answers, and I was happy to see many complete sentences, along with a few topic sentences. I found that some people are very happy with how things are working. Of course there were generic complaints (too much homework, not enough opportunity to socialize), but many students had some very constructive things to say. I’ll try to incorporate some of these changes.
11/29/06 Got matched up with a buddy teacher at school this week, and he watched my worst group (period 6, after lunch) today. His impression was that it wasn’t as bad as I had led him to believe, but he had a few concrete suggestions, including giving the kids (returning after lunch to their second math period of the day) a required activity to get them settled down, practicing the basic classroom procedures (handing out and collecting materials, for example), and giving more wait time after asking questions.
The activity of this period was a step-by-step exploration of an equation’s intercepts, starting with “draw a coordinate plane” and “plot the origin.” Each student had a whiteboard: a transparent sheet protector containing a white card-stock sheet, with a dollar-store dry erase marker and a paper towel for erasing.
My buddy teacher specifically recommended that I give the students opportunities to discuss their answers with each other. He said that I should be requiring students to write their answers down before answering, both as a way to lighten a bit of their anxiety about answering questions and as a way to get them involved in the answers, rather than just zoning out or trying to get away with off-task behavior.