I’m going to focus my notes more next year. Students slavishly copy down whatever is on the board, after they confirm that you want them to, to the detriment of learning, in many cases. They don’t hear the message, and they get frustrated when the text or image they’re copying down disappears a couple seconds too early. One girl told me today during open house that “the slides sometimes go by too fast,” and her mother pointed out that the girl is a perfectionist, to the point of being unwilling to abbreviate. I always tell the kids to abbreviate, and I even point out (using proofreader’s marks) what to leave out. I’ve been giving them too much credit. They need to be told exactly what to write, and it needs to be a reasonable amount. (I learned to be explicit earlier this year, after the 901st time I heard “do we write this down?” I thought my answer — “if it appears on the board, write it down” — was good enough, but there are things I want to post on the board because I want them to hear and see them but not write them. So, it’s clear we need to help 8th graders take notes. We’ve been encouraging Cornell Notes in our school, and we’ve considered requiring them. I think this would be a good thing. In terms of my Powerpoint slides, it might be a good idea to have way fewer slides, with each slide containing three sets of items: the message the teacher wants you to hear, the Cornell Notes question pertaining to this message, and the abbreviated way to write down the answer to the question. I’ve listed these items in chronological order, so an example would be a slide about perpendicular lines and their slopes:
- [I say, and they read,…] When two lines are parallel, their slopes have a product of -1. In other words, take the slope of line a, multiply it by the slope of line b, and if you get -1, then the lines are perpendicular.
- [In left margin…] How can you tell if two lines are perpendicular, if you know their equations?
- [Main body of slide…] slope of line a times slope of line b = -1
- [left margin…] What’s a shorter way to write this?
- [Main body of slide…] ma * mb = -1
I finally figured out what’s wrong with the beginning of my classes: wasted time. Pencil requests, paper requests, other missing items, seating-chart changes, casual chit-chat, insults across the room, and now that my seating charts are a little bit out of date it takes me five minutes to dodge the requests while finding each student so I can take roll. OK. So, I just need to keep the seating chart current and enforce radio silence for the first two minutes. I’ve attacked the problem this week with a clear goal, posted each day, of readiness. Most days this is 90% readiness: 90% of the students should be seated, silent, and facing forward, with pencils and paper ready. If they don’t make this goal, they lose our “Festive Friday” reward period. They’ve been very enthusiastic about making this goal, encouraging each other to SIT DOWN AND GET READY! I’ve been a bit lenient this week, so next week I’ll crack down, and one or more of the classes will probably miss their mark. I drop a pink card on the desk of anyone who isn’t ready; it’s amazing how they can protest – while walking to their desks immediately after the bell rings – that they “were ready” while it says on the overhead that they must be seated. I think I’ll take away their privilege in five-minute increments so they don’t lose hope. (The reward time has been used for origami projects and videos. I’m showing music videos by Michel Gondry – director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep” – and I explain that they are “math-appropriate” because they deal with musical patterns.)
What can I do better? I spent some time prepping for the next lesson by studying the “note-taking guide” produced by the publisher for this section. I see this: vocabulary, a couple examples, some formal rules and two checkpoints. This won’t work for my kids at all. The formal rule — “for all real numbers a, b and c, if a > b, then a + c > b + c” — is totally true and indisputable. The kids will copy it down, but they won’t comprehend a bit of it. I’m going to present a number of examples in a table; the table will be oriented around the solution of each inequality – column heads “a,” “b,” “inequality,” “inequality (verbal),” “operation,” “solved inequality,” “solved inequality (verbal),” “sample solutions” — with a tiny introduction. The introduction will be meaningless, but the kids will quickly make sense of the examples and will volunteer to complete the table. I can then transition to numerous examples of homework problems.
What I’ve under-emphasized, as I did last year, is the importance of repetition. However, I think what caused me not to give the students enough opportunities to repeat homework exercises was a good motivation: students need to understand the concepts with greater depth. They tend to look at an exercise and launch into it based on its appearance, in spite of the instructions. (I’ve played with this by giving them quizzes that have instructions unrelated to the problem: “Which number is larger? 7 + 5”)
Perhaps a better way to teach algebra properties to the students who tend not to immediately grasp the abstract idea is, rather than to present a rule, to teach it backwards; that is, if they are given that “x > 7” then they should be claim without doing any arithmetic that “x + 2 > 7 + 2.” From there, they should be able to write “x + 2 > 9.” Would it be helpful or just confusing to then use the subtraction property to undo this work?
Practiced for the chapter test today using XMG Football. Students play football – boys against girls – on overhead, moving ball based on their ability to solve problems determined by roll of dice. Nice game, with lots of opportunities for volunteers: dice roller, marker mover, referee. Some students complained about unfairness when the referee didn’t recognize their hand as first up, but the biggest problem was that one group of kids lost interest and just started chatting. I’ll anticipate this next time and find a way to keep the whole room focused. (I’ve seen this whole class be focused on a competitive game, so I know it can be done.)
Another approach to using this game is to get a set of six or eight placemat-like football fields and have groups play. I would then have to try to prevent “shrinkage” (theft), especially with this crew, which has already stolen from me two calculators, a laser pointer, and the rubber feet from the bottom of my stapler.
Speaking of that, one thing I will do differently next year is to start out secretly not trusting the kids with anything other than paper and to slowly give them more freedom to work with my possessions. Apparently, by the end of the year there is more of a relationship, and you should be able to trust them with more things.
Next year I plan to poll some teachers at the site I’m at (wherever it turns out to be) and implement a strong, helpful, consistent homework policy. My students still think it’s okay to turn in homework that looks like this:
No kidding. That’s what I got today.
Have I ever told them not to do that? A bit. Not enough. Today, I said, “Well, I really want you to be sure to go ahead and write the whole question and answer down.” I think I’ve been letting their whining influence my willingness to stand firm.
Which reminds me of another thing: Whining should automatically cause the work to be harder, not easier. I’m not being consistent when I tell the students to let one person at a time have the floor, to treat each other with respect, to try their best, etc., and then to not only allow whining, but to respond to it as if it’s part of a civilized classroom discussion.
So, homework needs to include the following characteristics:
- Not too much.
- Enough to get good practice.
- Published assignments, on the web and in a predictable location in the classroom.
- Either directly tied to the day’s lesson, or clearly review of an earlier concept.
- Well-known formatting rules.
- Regular communication with parents about homework, including good and bad news.
We’ve made some progress on the formatting and the predictable location. (I still have one guy – crack baby? — who hardly seems with it most days and who never remembers to write his assignment down. I remind him, but it often turns into a discussion about which required materials he’s missing that day.) My students are currently getting away with all kinds of stuff on the homework. Part of the cause of this is it’s impossible to collect, grade, record and return nightly. I collect packets every two weeks. This is only marginally acceptable as a way to keep the students accountable for their homework.
Not to get too sentimental or idealistic, but I am totally stoked about August. Got an offer from [other district] at Saturday’s job fair and am hoping for one to match from [other other district]. Wherever I end up, it will mean that I will have ample time to prepare for the first day of school – for the first time. (This year I came in three weeks late; last year I came in as a long-term sub with one weekend of warning.)
Surviving at the front of a classroom is all about setting up systems that work: Where does the paper go? How does the discipline work? What tasks are shared out to the students, and how is that managed? Etc., etc., etc. Just to start a short list, here is what will happen in August:
- Acquire an LCD projector, from the district, from a friend, from eBay, whatever.
- Purchase and label trays and other storage for the movement and temporary storage of paper: students’, mine, parents’, others. This will include scratch paper, graph paper, writing-assignment blanks, standard outbound memos, etc.
- Establish long-term storage for student-discipline folders, student papers, assignments (including blanks and keys), memos, reference material, etc.
- Establish digital-storage for student info (custom database or open-source database or something built in to district office-automation system).
- Establish, approve (with school administration), and document classroom rules and procedures.
- Establish and document classroom policies and consequence systems. Include “daily data display” (lesson name, number, goals, standards, homework, etc.) on small whiteboard or portion of class whiteboard.
- Design rewards cards, lunchtime-homework-opportunity cards, and other reusable paper.
- Write, approve, copy and store syllabi.
- Acquire forms from administration for discipline.
- Set up the classroom: desks, projector, trays, boards, teacher desk, posters, tables, forms, signs, supplies, etc. Wash windows, walls, boards, desks, tables. Vacuum floors. Clean ducts.
- Confirm all necessary network access: Internet (district computer as well as laptop). Design seating-chart blanks for substitute folder. Write welcome letter for substitute folder.
- Check wardrobe for ample summer/winter wear.
I am hoping to have a classroom where the kids are busy the entire time – and don’t notice it – and where early on the temptation for idle moments will be discouraged through non-punitive backup activities. I want to take the first two weeks of class and establish a healthy classroom community and procedures, including formatting of work. I realize this is optimistic, given the realities of pacing guides, but I’ll see how much I can eke out of the system.