Category Archives: Journal entries

Beats “you don’t belong here” — right?

Just wrote this on a student’s latest test:

Time to face the reality that to succeed this semester you will need to spend more time on the new material and polish up your Algebra 1 skills. I recommend doing all assignments twice. (The second time through should be neat and clear enough that it could go in a textbook.) Call/email/text a buddy at night to compare even-numbered answers. You will be ready for the next day if your homework is perfect and so complete and legible that someone in this class could learn from it, even if they missed the lesson.

I also added a note, with an arrow pointing to the paragraph above: “Please show this to your parents.”

If the kid were a behavior issue, I might take a more direct approach: “Please find another class. Here’s a pass to your counselor.” I don’t think he has a hope. This is an Algebra 2 Honors class, and he’s missing all kinds of basics. He failed to pick up the crucial difference of squares pattern when we reviewed it, and it’s hurting him now.

His homework is a mess. He never asks questions or shows up for tutoring. The class has 41, so if he chooses escape (without my prodding), it might be best for all.


Student teacher

My student teacher began this week.

(This is semi-astounding, considering that it was only ten years ago that I started taking math classes, motivated primarily by the desire to stay ahead of my kids as they began high-school math. My interest evolved into an inkling that I might want to do this for a living and then into a new career. I now have a teaching credential and a master’s degree — plus the student loans that go with them — a student teacher, a health academy, and a math department to chair. And I’m starting a competitive robotics club on campus.)

The student teacher completely took over two periods for me today while I attended meetings on campus. She’s even doing her own planning. I’m almost bored!

JK. We cruise different parts of the room, pull out groups of kids for special remediation, discuss upcoming lessons, …. I’m still busy. But it’s always nice to have another adult in the room, even if it’s only to roll eyes with.

Obfuscatory elucidation

What is it about this email that kept me irritated all night? Something more than the verbosity, I’m sure.

This is from one of my 8th graders who always needs to be the exception:

  • I shouldn’t have to re-take the test because I just made dumb little errors.
  • Sorry I’m late (for the 10th time this semester). Can you check my homework now?
  • Can I turn in the assignment late since we had to drive to San Diego over the weekend?

In this latest example, it’s “can I use different software since my computer plus my browser won’t do what you’re asking?” (For the record, every one of my Internet assignments includes the warning, “Do this wherever you can. If your system at home isn’t working, use the one at the school library/your friend’s house/my classroom.”)

It seems to me that my server or browser is of the “lesser-compatible side of the scale” next to the lucidcharts system. I believe that the creator(s) are aware of the software’s slow-speed and inability for Internet explorer, thus I have taken notice to a window in the top left corner of the screen advertising to “run lucidcharts 20% faster”. Most, if not all of these options are highly unlikely to take effect on my computer, due to recent computer crashes from foreign software (my father had grown rather cautious, thus he is reluctant to install unknown software onto our desktops.) With your permission, I would think it more efficient to create a powerpoint “lucidchart” and to email you the file link early tomorrow as my rough-draft, rather than use the lucid chart system. The final item of business that I am uncertain of is the time the file must be emailed by. Must it be emailed by late tonight, or by early tomorrow morning? Either way makes no difference to me, because it will be done by then.

Also, I think that I should raise the fact that I need to take my chapter test, as well as retake a few quizzes that might help my grade. I figured I would do these tasks after school at the high school, with your convenience and permission. As the last item of work to be brought up, I never requested you to stamp the homework I did over my absence. Would it be possible to receive full credit for completing it, even though it wasn’t stamped right away?

Thank You.

I think this warrants the direct approach: “Little Johnny, as you go through life, you’ll find people don’t appreciate this. You may have noticed that I don’t appreciate this. This will be the last exception I make for you.”

Journal entry: Assault

April 12, 2008

The textbook [for the class at CSUSB] arrived today, and I read the first chapter.  The prose is dull and repetitive.  If this were a Humanities class during my freshman year of UCI [25 years ago], this would have given me license to whine and rag on the book endlessly, for my own self-righteousness and entertainment.  Since I’m more mature now, I’ll try to make lemonade.

If I wasn’t already convinced, the first chapter convinced me that interpersonal skills are important.  I would dispute several of the related points, however.  Is the definition of what a human is only related to an individual’s position amongst society, or are such things as the ability to reason, to solve problems, to use one’s mind to explore one’s mind, and to consider the infinite and the infinitesimal also part of the definition?  I will grant that language – being irrelevant without contemporary and future co-inhabitants of Planet Earth – is at the top of the list, but isn’t one of the primary purposes of language, especially written language, to store information, not necessarily for recall by others?

I keep coming back to a relationship which I would rather not have to think about.  A freshman student of mine has decided that I am The Devil.  He and I had no problems that I know of throughout the first semester, but we can’t get through a week this semester without an incident.  These incidents are usually relatively minor – although I have taken to documenting them thoroughly in light of the overall turn of events – but they keep recurring.  This student shoved me out of his way one day when I blocked his access to his backpack during class, as he was preparing to walk out.  (I won’t do that again.)  I chose not to pursue expulsion or arrest, in the interest of taking the high road, and I’ve tried to stay out of his way as much as possible, but he keeps making efforts to provoke me.  This week it was some sort of rhythmic hand-clapping during a quiz.  I believe the efforts are escalating, which I guess is an indication that he’s not getting the reaction from me that he wants.  He’s frustrated because no one will let him transfer out of the class, and as a result of the “assault” (so labeled on the behavior incident) and his failing status in all of his classes he can’t play school sports anymore.  My communication efforts with him lately have amounted to leaving him alone except when he makes it impossible to ignore him.  I don’t honestly believe that asking him to sit down and discuss things would be productive; I think it would be more likely to frustrate him further.

April 13, 2008

I’ll find out next Tuesday whether formatting the journal like this is acceptable.   I have chosen the usual typeface and font size, with one-inch margins all around.  I’m also eager to find out whether I’m discussing the right things, in the right depth.

On the subject of communication, my children [teen-agers] are chronically annoyed with my skills.  Technically, they’re satisfied with a dad who can spell and doesn’t say “between you and I,” but I apparently don’t listen, and I choose inflammatory words.  I try to choose words that mean exactly what I want them to mean.  I abhor euphemism, so I presume this means I’m indelicate to people.  I try to counter that by smiling as I speak.  On my worst days, my students take this as “sarcasm” (actually, they usually mean “irony”) and one student in particular saw my smiling as a sort of smirk which preceded my sending him out of the room for misbehavior.  (He was a good communicator – before our school revoked his district transfer for his behavior and sent him back to his local high school: I knew exactly what he meant when he called me “faggot” five times out loud in class.)

Irony is difficult in a group setting for the same reason it’s difficult in email: you don’t get the facial expressions and other subtle signs that mean “I’m kidding.”  So, I’ve worked to minimize irony and eliminate sarcasm.  But good teachers do it, don’t they?  Juan shouts out my name (without raising his hand) for the fifth time in one period, and so he needs a message such as, “Juan, how did they teach you to get your teacher’s attention in first grade?”  Doesn’t he?  Is that irony?  No, I’m being direct.  Is it humiliating?  I’ll ask him.  And I’ll make a better effort next year to recognize the impulsive and needy students and get on this behavior immediately.

As far as irony goes, if everybody’s in on the joke, it makes the class enjoyable, doesn’t it?  “Mr. F, what’s the assembly for?” “Good question, Chelsea.  We’re shortening all our class periods by ten minutes today so we can have a pep rally to celebrate academic achievement.”  Aside from the questionable purpose of mocking the administration, isn’t this a shared example of life’s ironies that helps students think, leverages a teachable moment, and gives everybody a pleasant chuckle?

April 15, 2008

Assault Al has begun taunting me.  Today, when he was chatting with a neighbor during instruction, I quietly walked to the neighbor and asked him to change seats.  He new seat was across the room from the student in question.  The kid who shoved me said, as the neighbor was silently getting up to move, “It doesn’t matter.  I’ll still talk to him.”  He did as he promised, speaking to him across the room.  I documented it for the AP, who suspended him one day.  We have a meeting with the student, the mom and the teachers Wednesday.

April 17, 2008

Al is back from suspension.  Not doing any work, but also not taunting me.  I am not interested in reaching out to him.  (He will only be at the school another 40 days or so, and will be failing this class and several others.  I believe he will have his intra-district transfer revoked and so will be going to his home school, not ours, in September.)  I appreciate the claim that it is impossible not to communicate; however, I am avoiding all explicit communication with him.  I thought I saw him texting under his desk today, watched him for a few minutes, and then quietly asked him if he had a cell phone – as I would for anyone.  (Actually, if it were someone with whom I was on good terms, I would probably quietly just say, “Put the phone away.”  No implied confrontation, given the context.)  He said, “It’s put away.”  Two weeks ago, this would have lead to a challenge, escalation, etc.  I suppose what I’m communicating is, I’m keeping my eye on you.  I don’t know if this is counterproductive (since it might be interpreted as antagonistic) or productive (since he may be taunting me because he wants attention, and any attention he can get from a teacher is a good thing).  From conversations with his other teachers, it appears he is generally ignored in his other classes.

April 19, 2008

[The professor] mentioned that he practiced “non-aversive” discipline.  I’m interested in this.  On the spectrum of attitude toward disciples during discipline, with 1 being arbitrary, purposeless and vindictive and 10 being predictable, meaningful, and compassionate, I’ve been trying to move from 1 to 10 since I started teaching.  Or at least, since my own kids started raising serious concerns about my choices and motives as we discussed my teaching day.

I have two models I try to keep in mind as I make decisions about discipline on a daily basis.  The first model is the lesson I learned about serenity under fire while working at Disneyland during college.  In my job, I stood behind a counter and sold hot dogs and Coke to hot, frustrated, angry tourists who had spent hundreds of dollars to get to California from all over the globe, waited in lines all day, and had now made it to the front of the longest line of all, with kids screaming at each other, husband or wife screaming at the kids, money and tickets falling out of their pockets, and NO PEPSI!  I learned to work as fast as I could without attempting to work any faster and to nurture a sense of inner calm.  (What I realize is a little different in the classroom is that there actually are deadlines.  These include the bell and announced deadlines during the lesson, along with the constant deadline of the moment when a critical mass of students shuts down from confusion or boredom.)  I make a point of never yelling at kids, and I remind them that I don’t and haven’t yelled at them.  I also occasionally tell them that they cannot make me flustered.  (True or not, it’s a worthy goal, and by publishing the goal, I fell compelled to strive to reach it.)

The second model I keep in mind about discipline is Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha: non-violent resistance.  Much was accomplished by Gandhi, King, and others through the specific methods of satyagraha.  The rules are generally applicable in a classroom setting: harbor no anger, suffer the anger [of the student], do not curse or swear, never retaliate to assaults, do not insult [the student].  I picture myself as a benevolent boulder.  Fine; however, in the context of EDUC603, how do I communicate this picture accurately?  I’ve mentioned one of the drawbacks of smiling, but I haven’t found a facial configuration that works better.

I believe a calm tone is crucial.  I yelled “HEY!” at one class a couple weeks ago.  The phone rang, and during the one-minute conversation, the class began chatting, and the chatting escalated in seconds into many loud voices that made it impossible to hear the speaker on the phone.  My one-word outburst (followed by the calm words, “I’m on the phone”) worked, but how could I have handled it better?  In the future, early in the school year, I will directly address classroom volume, and they will know what my silent sign is that things have gotten out of hand. (I have one sign that works great: I write the dismissal time in huge letters on the board, and then raise my Expo marker near the last digit, indicating that it is about to be incremented.)  In addition to procedural adjustments, I’ll also invest in a portable handset so I can talk on the phone and stand at the front of the class where everyone will see me.

April 21, 2008

My philosophy this week is “learned behavior is the fault of the teacher and can be unlearned.”  I’m more calmly than ever explaining what I expect, how what I’ve observed doesn’t match my expectations, etc.  Today my “let’s go outside and discuss this” pet peeve was the near-constant request to go to the bathroom.  Okay, so I whined to a couple guys, but the actual solution is to address the problem with clear statements of policy, motivation, consequence.  I believe I’ll give out restroom tickets next year, two per semester, to be used, traded on the black market, or redeemed at the end of the semester for EC points.  I will also use the tickets as first reminders about the value of punctuality: on the first or second day of the year, everyone who is seated before the bell will receive an additional restroom ticket.

April 22, 2008

Breakthrough?  “Al” (who pushed me) was a model student today.  He took notes, he worked with his neighbors (questions and comparing work), and he asked me questions and volunteered to do work on the board, and proudly showed me his correct answers!  Huh?  I have no idea where that came from.  I praised him – honestly, 5% of me was keeping my distance due to gun-shyness – and pointed out his correct board work for the room.  From caution and habit and human fallibility, I was not able to grab his hand, shake it with glee, and cry tears of joy; I doubt that would have done anything other than to scare him anyway.

April 23, 2008

“Al” was still working today, although some bad habits came back: sunglasses and chatting.  He also used his personal whiteboard for doodling after repeated reminders to get to work.  We’ll have to see how things work out at our next class.

April 25, 2008

More chatter and general off-task behavior.  Al was one of four kids today who spent the period waiting for me to look/walk away so they could play.  I gathered them after the bell and calmly and firmly told them that I was very disappointed and that I expected them to try harder next week.

May 2, 2008

My first impressions of non-aversive discipline tell me that I need to identify the motivation of the acting-out student and then pander to it.  No, that’s not exactly true.  The experiment described by [the professor] wasn’t meant to represent an actual classroom scenario: student shrieks in class, so student is trained to raise his hand, and as a result student raises his hand repeatedly and is waited on instantly.  Surely, in a working classroom with only one teacher, the needy hand-raiser won’t get immediate attention every time.  Some other behavior ultimately has to take the place of constant hand-raising.

But it’s a fascinating approach which I’m sad to say I’ve never tried.  So, I played with this this week.  In the same class with Al, I have four more chronic off-task students: one is benign, mostly concentrating on his sleight-of-hand hobby, and the other three are active chatterers and goof-offs.  ([The professor] estimated “two or three” kids who don’t respond to the classroom-management signals that the rest of the class responds to.  Apparently, this group exceeds my quota for two classes.)  I’ve trained myself not to let them get to me, but they continue to drain momentum and other resources from class.

This week, I found myself addressing one of these students repeatedly.  Quickly concluding that he was looking for attention, I asked him to lead the class through the ten problems displayed on the board.  (The timing was right, since I had already presented the skill we were reviewing and gone through a bit of group practice.)  He jumped up and instantly took on the role of [me], calling on people whose hands were up, writing their responses on the board, and even making up new problems.  It was a big hit.  I wouldn’t mind having him do this every day, except for two complications: (1) it isn’t always the right time for him to lead the class, and (2) there were two other people practically pushing him off the stage so they could play Teacher.  I realize that when I say, “It isn’t always the right time,” I’m probably being unimaginative; that is, there are probably a lot of moments during the period when this student could be running the class.  I’ve decided in the last few weeks that next year, everyone will have a job.  If I can handle the management of this (another job for a student: HR Director!), this will take care of tons of problems in the class: boredom, me-as-bottleneck, engagement, ownership.

As to the second difficulty, the other attention-starved students can be given their own roles and can serve as understudies for the primary classroom leader.  All of these roles should be assigned under the condition that the student is otherwise behaving.  I have watched one of these students train himself to (first) raise his hand and (second) not shout my name out as he raises his hand, so I know they can learn to control themselves.

May 6, 2008

Interesting discussion tonight about learned helplessness.  Many (most?) of my students have some degree of this.  In some cases, it’s shyness, or distraction, but I think a lot of them take the low grade they’re earning and just accept it.  Sometimes the parents step in and tell the kid, “Go to your teacher, and ask what you can do about your grade.”  When they don’t, it’s our job to teach the class grade advocacy: how to be a grade grubber.  This is important because if we overlook that duty, then we’re constantly called on to remind individuals of their low grades.  Working with adults, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but at the high-school level, we have to make the kids take on responsibility for their grades.

May 7, 2008

I proctored the AP Calculus Exam today.  Numerous humorous examples of the adolescent brain at work:

  • In spite of clear instructions on all materials, students arrived with cell phones, without extra batteries for their calculators, without pens, without erasers.
  • Although this is one of the most important tests they’ve ever taken, and they’ve spent a year preparing for it, several students forgot instructions not to talk about the test during the break.  Students also spoke while waiting for instructions and in some cases during the test itself.
  • When we checked in contraband cell phones, we had the students label them with their names.  Some students just put their first names, although there were approximately 70 test takers.  Their world is still so small!

The news is not all bad: these students said please and thank you for the smallest thing.  They also did not whine during the test or ask for instructions about the math, which is one of the things that still mystifies me in my own class.

May 12, 2008

Students in my P2 class are reacting to me lately with what seems to be familiarity? Fondness?  Reduced contempt?  They are my most difficult class, and I complain about them to my family and occasionally to the next period class.  (Bad form, I know, but I don’t really complain.  I say, “I’m so happy to have you all here!”  And then know I mean I had a rough time with the previous group.)  Extremely immature 9th graders with a lot of bad habits, academic as well as social.  But I’ve made an effort to be consistent, outwardly respectful, and fair.  Is it possible that that’s half the battle?

May 20, 2008

Al, the kid who pushed me, seems to be making overtures.  I used the sink outside my classroom today, just before class, and he walked by and greeted me.  There were lots of other people around, and I was looking away from where he was, so it was absolutely unnecessary.  This confused me, and made me uncomfortable.  Life is so much simpler with grudges and feuds that are unsupported by facts!

May 21, 2008

Many of my kids are asking about what I’m doing next year.  They want to get me as their teacher again.  I tell them (truthfully) that I have no idea what my assignment will be.  (I’ll have to remember to thank them and tell them I’m honored.)  This is my third full year teaching, and I’ve never had anywhere near this level of apparent loyalty.

May 23, 2008

One thing that’s been happening all year: a few kids in each class stare off into space, and I pause or walk into their view and make eye contact, or I just remind the class as a group, “I’ll know you’re ready to continue when you’re looking up here.”  This is one of many areas where I make a conscious effort to be patient.  I smile and breathe slowly and deeply, and I raise my eyebrows.  I’m pretty sure I don’t look angry or exasperated.

I’m wondering if staring off into space might be a legitimate way to take in information for auditory learners.  I’m sure for most of the kids who do this it doesn’t represent engagement, but maybe there are those who do this to absorb.  How can I identify them?

The district superintendent showed up at my class today.  I got five minutes warning, by phone from the front office.  Definitely not enough time to hide some messy-looking stacks or scribble the standards on the board.  She stayed for about two minutes and asked me about our small learning communities.  I tried to be honest, helpful, and detailed.

May 27, 2008

Another surprise from Al today.  A student next to him mentioned that he only had three weeks to pull up his F.  This student has had problems focusing all year.  With my encouragement, he has learned to wait to begin talking until I recognize his raised hand.  (This must be really hard for him if he’s still learning it in 9th grad.)  He made a half-hearted effort to come for tutoring and never could stay focused longer than about 20 minutes.  (I try to “chunk” my presentations, vary the technique, include small-group work as much as possible, and stay “on-stage” as little as I can, but there are days where I have spent most of the period presenting new material.  He learns very little on these days.)

The surprise, Al said, “Me too” to this other kid.  He turns in about 10% of the assignments and often misses tests and quizzes, so he’s somewhere around a 15% in the class.  This tells me that the numerical score needs to be 100% transparent, visible to students constantly, and the changes that occur need to be noticeable.  Ideally, a student’s score would move day-to-day and even minute-by-minute, with some kind of graphic indicator, so they could follow it like a video game.  I’ve worked on ideas like this all year long.  I’m planning to clone one of my co-workers’ classroom economy systems next year, with little dollar bills that students collect and redeem.  This will definitely be a step in the right direction.  (The research results are not all in: some researchers say extrinsic rewards cause reduced intrinsic motivation, and others disagree completely.  Since I will be rewarding for classroom behavior (that is, the reward itself is a guide to my expectations) and the effect of the system will be limited to 10% of the grade, I don’t think I have to worry.

Journal entry: “Importance of notes and beginning of each class session”

March 6

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:

  1. [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.
  2. [In left margin…] How can you tell if two lines are perpendicular, if you know their equations?
  3. [Main body of slide…] slope of line a times slope of line b = -1
  4. [left margin…] What’s a shorter way to write this?
  5. [Main body of slide…] ma * mb = -1

March 7

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.)

March 8

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?

March 9

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.

March 12

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:

  1. A
  2. C
  3. B

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.
  • Accountability.

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.

March 13

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.

Journal entry: “A more positive environment?”


February 15

I am trying to assign regular writing assignments to all classes. One paragraph, consisting of five sentences, including a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion. Complete sentences only. “Are fractions easy or difficult?” “Was yesterday’s lesson successful?”

I’m happy with the results. Most students required very little explanation to understand the assignment. Even more noteworthy, students had opinions about the assign itself; one girl insisted that these were not “essays” since they were only a paragraph, so I now refer to them as “mini-essays.” A few students cut corners, but most students really warmed to the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Ultimately, I hope to have the kids tell me what they get and don’t get about a lesson’s concepts, giving them access to higher-order learning modes.

February 16

A more positive environment? I work on this all week long. I have rewards cards (“operate the projector,” “one homework freebie,” “one minute tardy pass”) for good deeds or especially insightful questions. I give out gold stars and “Wow!” stickers. I give an EC point to anyone who points out (after silently raising his or her hand and waiting to be recognized) a typo or math error I’ve made on the whiteboard. I have a 15-minute period of music, videos, and origami at the end of each week – “Festive Friday” – set up as a reward for my classes which maintain a consistently high level of readiness and homework completion during the week.

So how can I create a more positive environment? I am working on “compassion-ifying” all my student interactions: corrections, suggestions, consequences and other behavior discussions need to be always motivated by concern for the student, even if I secretly would rather not deal with a given student ever.

February 19

For my 8th-grade Algebra classes, I’m developing a post-testing (probably May) project that will give the “non-math” kids an opportunity to succeed in math. I’m going to describe the optimal angle for solar cells at our latitude and then have the students survey the roofs in the school. (There are at least five different roof angles on our campus.) They will be measuring and computing slope. They will be required to present their results on a science-fair board, giving them all kinds of graphic-design opportunities. They will learn a bit of science and a bit of math. The rubric will include language-arts requirements.

Last year for the year-end project in my Geometry class, we made “creatures” out of rectangular prisms, cones, spheres and cylinders. They had to build the creatures, make up stories about them, measure all of their dimensions, and compute their surface areas and volumes. It was a huge success. They kids had fun, cooperated with each other, said they learned a lot and wished they could have done it earlier. It would be great to create something similar with this project.

February 20

This week I’m trying to come up with corrective actions for a student who makes inappropriate comments in the classroom. Danny has been doing this since we met in September. He has improved; he no longer chooses words such as “Jap” and “faggot,” words which got him a referral and us a meeting with his mother and sister (who had been told I was picking on him). However, I still hear “shut up” several times a week. Danny and his friends apparently say this to each other a lot. Danny apologizes to me now, sincerely I think, but continues to say “shut up.” Sometimes he says it to someone on the opposite side of the classroom.

I don’t really want to keep writing Danny up for these things. I’m trying to minimize the amount of paper I submit to administration. I’m looking for a small reminder, some kind of levy which Danny will have to fork over but which is outside of the usual escalating intervention matrix. We were collecting money for a cancer-charity campaign, and I was thinking of asking Danny for a quarter or two for each “shut up.” (This would not be “required” but would instead be a voluntary choice that Danny could choose in lieu of the regular escalating consequences.) The campaign is over, but I could still collect money toward a pizza party or something – after checking with the administration.

February 26

Today’s assignment was right out of the book, a review of the basics of the coordinate plane. I’m trying to help the kids get more involved with the material, especially in a verbal way. I required them to copy all instructions from the book and to underline several key terms, including ordered pair and coordinate. I good-naturedly chastised the room for verbal imprecision. I’m trying to deal with behaviors such as citing a single number or pointing at the board (when I tell someone to identify a point) instead of just naming an ordered pair, hedging verbal bets (“the y-intercept, or whatever…” and saying “and then” instead of “equals” or “over”), and hazy justifications for steps in solving equations.

February 27

I have a couple students with some issues. One boisterous girl who was belligerent and confrontational in September lately seems to be working hard to get my approval each day, at least when she’s with us. Her flakey attendance got worse lately – she recently disappeared for a week – and I found out today that she’s started having auditory hallucinations, voices that tell her to kill stray animals and classmates in ways that are detailed and bloody. The counselor is working hard to get her some mental health help. I’ve decided to give her a break on my usual lunch-”invitation” (detention) for a while: I’ll invite her in if she doesn’t bring in homework, but with no pressure, just as an opportunity to help her stay caught up with the rest of the class.

Another girl has some anger things going on, mixed in with complicated family dynamics. She also disappeared for a while. I found out yesterday that she was in the hospital for a week after slashing her forearm with a big piece of glass. She has been trying to strike up conversations with me, and I decided to let her visit once to talk during lunch. (I checked with the administrators this afternoon, who convinced me it’s probably not in my interest to do this again, even though I kept my classroom door open.)

I will find ways to make this girl more comfortable in the classroom, through errands and other responsibilities, regular greeting, and queries during the lesson. I’ll also be sure not to try to “rescue” her, as we’ve been trained to do in our CSUSB classes.

Journal entry: “Hijacking the class”

February 5

The students reminded me today of the math classroom’s absolute total dependence on verbal skills.  We are studying linear equations, and we just moved from slope-intercept form to point-slope form.  The students are beginning to be comfortable with the instruction, “Write down point-slope form.”

Some of them can use this on their own in response to my prompt, “What do you do next?”

But the book is inconsistent in the meaning of “form,” and the students sense my discomfort.  The template or model equation itself — y – y1 = m(x – x1) — is described as “point-slope form”; at the same time we say that a specific equation — such as y – 5 = 3(x – 4) —  is written in in “point-slope-form.”  I don’t know how I would teach this differently next year, and we’re too far into the process for me to make a big deal out of it right now.  I need to keep looking for these things (and find solutions for them) that make the students whine out loud, “Why does math have to be so complicated?”

February 6

Period 3 had 100% homework today.  All students brought in homework.  I was astonished and praised them way too long.  Some apparently went home with tales of their weird math teacher.  (I even heard of parents who responded to these tales with their own praise of their children.)  It all felt really good.

Students had been showing me a reasonable rate of return, maybe 60-70%, and a few had excuses occasionally.  A few however, were just never bringing in homework and merely shrugged when I asked them why.  A couple weeks ago, I cracked down: no homework → lunch detention; skip lunch detention → official after-school detention.  I found that one total homework abstainer (after he got done complaining about my calls home and his detentions) is now bringing in his homework every day and even seems to be understanding more of what’s going on.

So, I learned from the students that even though they complain about having to work, they also are happy to be learning.  This is what we want, since when they’re learning, they’re engaged and not screwing around.  Plus, they’re learning, since they’re not screwing around.

February 7

The principal visited today on a pre-announced observation.  I was surprised to learn from defiant Frank that not everyone fears the principal.  After a couple reminders to turn and face forward, and then my next classroom-intervention-matrix step of a writing assignment, Frank began complaining about being singled out.  He reached the point of demanding to see the assistant principal and even the principal, whom he knew was right there in the room.  I spoke to him calmly but firmly at each stage, and I think it may have felt to him that he was being singled out.  I believe, however, that this is someone who is usually not denied anything.  Or maybe it’s the opposite, and he feels like the classroom is one place where he can make his own decisions.

Nevertheless, I was forced to deal with his hijacking directly, and eventually I had to ask him to leave.  The other students were complaining about his behavior, and after the class was over, the principal told me I had done the right thing. Regardless, it would have been nice to have an errand to send Frank on that would have allowed him to calm down without having to get in trouble.

February 8

Sean wrote in today’s mini-essay that the lesson hadn’t gone well.  He had trouble focusing (which was reflected in his disruptive behavior) and wrote that this was because he hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before.  I now casually ask him, nearly every day, if he got plenty of rest last night, as a reminder to him to do so and as a way for both of us to recognize the cause if he becomes belligerent.

I learned to remember that behavior is not spontaneous and usually not premeditated.  I have tried since this discussion to be ready with questions about the students’ preceding 24 hours – enough food?  enough sleep?  enough peaceful opportunities to do homework? – whenever issues begin to arise.  This feels like a great use of my time and worthy investment toward classroom sanity.

February 12

I began using my 30-sided die today for random selection during lessons.  I learned from students today the following: this is a great technique for equity.  The first couple (or ten) times, they think you’re kidding.  Then they begin to figure out that the teacher is serious when he says, “Answer this question.  [Pose question.]  Turn to your neighbor, and discuss this for 30 seconds, and be ready to answer when I roll the die.”  Be sure they learn that you won’t let them off the hook with the response, “I don’t know.”

I’m happy with using this technique in just about any lesson now.  I knew, of course, that many students were hiding behind the hand-raisers and troublemakers and consequently not learning a thing. But I was letting the momentum of a marginally functional classroom keep me from fixing this problem.  So, the random-selection technique is working great.  And students are even learning about probability first-hand: “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the purple die will give each of you an equal opportunity to show us how much you’ve learned!  And the purple die doesn’t even remember that it chose Maria a minute ago: it might just choose Maria again.  She still has the same chance as everyone else!”

February 13

Terrible day.  My students taught me today, among other things: don’t let them use the stapler (someone stole the rubber feet off the bottom), don’t let them have paper clips (they folded them into dangerous macelike balls), don’t let them out of their seats (they chased each other around), don’t let them have rubber bands or paper (somebody got hit in the eye with a folded missile from across the room).  Probably better not to let them have any freedom at all.

More realistically, I need to do a better job of limiting the choices the classes make (especially my difficult afternoon periods), and I need to simultaneously tie the students’ choices to their freedom.  I have an official “Festive Friday” each week: 20 minutes of origami, music, reading.  I can (and have) taken this privilege away from individual classes for misbehavior during the week; however, it’s been way too subjective.  I need to make yet another system – a numeric scale to tie Festive Friday to various behaviors in the class, including punctuality (see February 12), attentiveness, respect, and homework completion.

I told the class at the end of the period that I didn’t think it had gone well at all and asked them for their opinions.  They agreed by consensus that they had had too much freedom.

Journal entry: “When didn’t you learn about input/output tables?”


January 24

Some lessons seem to spontaneously skitter off-track into a mud puddle of confusion.  It feels like the students are distracted, annoyed, and politely bored all at the same time.  “Just be quiet and let us get our backpacks and start cleaning up.”  Today is one of those.  It’s hard to tell whether they’re mad at me because I’m frustrated with them or the other way around.  Sometimes I try stopping instantly and asking them what they have planned for the weekend.  (It takes a minute for them to warm to the topic and then they won’t shut up.)

I’ve decided that a couple of the many causes of this kind of confusion include (1) they don’t see where we’re going or the context of where we are, and (2) they hate algebra and don’t know “when they’re ever going to use this stuff.”  Today, I try to head off the second problem by acknowledging that most people truly won’t do algebra every day for the rest of their lives, but we hope they get other things out of this class, such as the ability to think critically —  “how do you know that?” for example.  I even indulge in a little harmless indoctrination: “For example, how you know there are weapons of mass destruction?  How do you know sending 21,000 more troops will fix everything and everybody will get to come home?”

My solution to the second problem is to post a small whiteboard next to my main board with Today’s Questions on it.  These questions are today’s objectives, turned around: How can I write an equation in slope-intercept form, given a slope and the y-intercept?  What is slope-intercept form?  I tell the students that each day they should keep an eye on these questions, and by the end of the lesson, they should know how to answer them.

January 25

Today’s lesson was humbling.  The lesson itself was about the slope-intercept form of a linear equation, and part of the small-group activity was to build a table of values.  I demonstrated the process, gave the students specific instructions on what values to choose for x, displayed complete instructions on the overhead, and by third period figured out that nobody had a clue what I was talking about.  They were confused about the example on the board,  which I had clearly labeled “Example,” and half the class copied the x and the y values directly from it.  We studied input-output tables a month ago, so I’m a little surprised that the students acted like they had never seen these in their lives.

I spent a lot of my childhood in many different books, including my father’s old college textbooks.  One analytic geometry book in particular provided all kinds of activities; I made a lot of input-output tables in order to graph curves such as parabolas.  This concept was already familiar when I had to do it in various math and science classes.  It’s a real eye-opener to find dozens of kids who need to have this explained to them over and over.

As a result of this lesson, I added a mini-lesson on tables of values to my next lesson, and I’ll probably continue to do it.  Our district tests have given low priority to functions and relations, so this has indirectly contributed to our skimming over tables.  I’ll add some table building to my sub plans for my absence day (when I’ll be in San Diego for the math teacher conference).

January 26

I’ve stretched the slope-intercept lesson another day because of the class’s unfamiliarity with tables of values.  (They were meant to build a five-row table of values and then plot the points in order to draw a line.)

In addition to the problems understanding the use and purpose of a table of values, the students are still having troubles with slope.  A few of the more attentive students have seen the pattern where slope emerges from five points in the table: I’ve required the students to work with the x values of -2, -1, 0, 1, and 2, and this means the differences between subsequent vales in the y side of the table are each the slope of the equation.  It makes me wonder if (when?) I should do a mini-lesson on these things.  Clearly, I need to incorporate these tables in lessons at every opportunity.

Another teacher recommends adding a third column to input/output tables, between the x and the y column, which would be the expression equivalent to y.  So in the equation y = 3x + 4 there would be an x column, a y column, and in the middle a 3x + 4 column, where the substitution and simplifying happen.  It bothers me a bit because it seems to duplicate effort, screw up the peer/peer relationship between x and y, and feels like coddling.  I’ve resisted doing this for a couple lessons now.  The trouble with not doing this is I can’t really tell the students where they should be doing the evaluation for each row; it’s kind of just hanging out there with no home.  Happily, I think all my repetition of the steps of evaluating an expression is paying off: I say, “Next step?  Next, after we write down the expression?  I’m thinking of a word that starts with S?”  And the majority of the responses are “substitute,” outnumbering “simplify” and almost completely wiping out “solve.”

January 29

I’m really trying to anticipate and forestall this “I don’t really get this stuff” lazy-ass blanket response.  Half the time I hear this, it’s because someone hasn’t been paying attention.  Still my problem.  The other half the time, does that mean I haven’t been doing my job right?  I’m trying to give them context, motivation, a sense of esprit de corps.  I present our daily destination three different ways these days: questions on the Today’s Questions board, as goals (described on the main board in the housekeeping section and in the slide presentation), and as graphical shorthand (a graph symbol, an arrow, an equation – representing that we can derive an equation from a graph).  Still they say, “I don’t really get any of this stuff.”  I need to encourage the outgoing 10% to paraphrase our destination for their peers.

I gave a few token writing assignments and an easy quiz for the first week of the semester, so that a maximum number of students start off on the right foot.  Half of the students now have honest-to-god A’s; for the rest, I’m offering makeup assignments.  One of my troublemakers actually saw “A” next to his student ID and had to ask me to confirm what he was seeing, apparently a rare event in his life.  (Imagine a cartoon character rubbing his eyes and blinking in disbelief.)

January 30

Today’s lesson in conversion of point-slope form to slope-intercept went pretty well, other than the predictable roadblocks: fractions and integer arithmetic.  They brought a fear of fractions with them from elementary school.  I’ve tried mocking it, lightheartedly: “I know you all got up this morning, and the first thing you thought was, ‘Dude.  I hate fractions.’”  And I’ve tried “counseling”: “It’s going to be okay.  We’re not even doing anything with this fraction.  We’re just writing it down.  It’s not going to hurt. … There.  Now, did that hurt?” This is an ancient dilemma, and I know a lot of smart-ass comments, but I don’t know a solution.  I will leave them with a fraction-simplification worksheet while I’m away Friday, and I will prep them for this Thursday.  Maybe that will help.

And then there’s the lingering inability to work with negative signs during basic operations.  I’ve tried reasoning with them – “if two times two is four, then would negative two be the same thing?” – but they don’t have enough number sense to be persuaded by such logic. I probably need to add more justification to (what seems to me to be the “paperwork”) part of the exercises: simplification.  The student should be able to explain why -4 + -2 = 6, rather than just hearing me tell them it’s wrong.

January 31

Continuing discussion of point-slope form and conversion.  Apparently, some students think that when you subtract the same amount from each side of an equation, that’s just for the assignments where the book says “solve” or “isolate”; we’re now seeing students who can’t make the next step when all it takes to get to y = mx+b is to subtract 2 from each side.  On the other hand, I seem to be seeing fewer messed up distributions than a couple months ago.

Students continue to have trouble reading a graph.  The book presents a line with a clearly marked point (labeled) and arrows representing rise and run.  About half the class can identify the point, fewer can identify the rise and run, and fewer still get the slope from this.  I need to develop a mini-lesson on identifying these elements of the line of a graph.

Journal entry: “Collaboration”

Teacher Journal

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.

Journal entry: “Origami, puzzles, and ‘slates'”

Teacher Journal

10/17/06 Students worked in pairs on individual “white boards”: transparent page protectors containing white card stock. Students could write on these and erase them. I supplied exactly one tissue and one pen for each team. We wrote down equations as they were modeled on the overhead (in +/- diagrams), and it was semi-competitive as students spontaneously tried to get the answers before the other teams. This method could be used for all kinds of learning – which I guess is what they were thinking of 150 years ago when individuals all had slates to work on. I’ll be doing this again in the future. There was no pen theft!

10/19/06 Students made playing cards and played in pairs to win tardy passes. Each team folded one blank piece of paper twice and tore on the seams to make four two-sided cards. The cards were labeled with eight potential “moves” in solving linear equations: + (meaning you will add a number to both sides of an equation), –, ×, ÷, CLT (combine like terms), DP (distributive property), MBR (multiply both sides by the reciprocal of a fraction that would otherwise be distributed), and CHECK (indicating solution is complete and all that’s left is to check our work. I displayed equations on the board in various stages of completion, and the team which displayed the correct next step first won two points. (I announced taking away a single point for displaying the wrong next step, but that turned out to be redundant.) During one period, I had the students just hold up their hands when they had the answer – first one up would get to announce their guess – and this turned out to be unrealistic, since most students quickly figured out that they could hold up their hands immediately and then use the next couple seconds to figure out the answer before they had to say it out loud. I like the game as originally planned except you need enough eyes to see everywhere in the room. Having a scorekeeper helped, but then that student is excluded from the game.

10/25/06 Reflections on problem solving. I present puzzles occasionally for transitions or sometimes for warm-ups. The students enjoy them. I also try to lead students to discover the skills and concepts we’re studying – with limited success. They get impatient with the indirect approach. Their attitude is, Can you just tell us how to do it? They’ve been conditioned over the years to believe that math is procedural: to get the answer, use these steps. They’re pretty good at learning this way: we just finished the unit on solving linear equations, and I’m happy with our progress. However, there’s no understanding behind most of their knowledge, and so the students on the fringes (who’ve been absent physically or mentally) have picked up a bit of information but have huge gaps in their ability to adapt or, some cases, to even do the basics. They will attempt to collect variable terms on one side of an equation, but will write down “–2” under each side of the equation, rather than “–2x”; or they’ll subtract a number from each side of an equation, producing a zero on one side but not writing down the zero because they don’t perceive it as even a number.

10/27/06 I presented a puzzle today – the fishing puzzle from our class Wednesday. A few students worked on the problem quietly, a few rowdy students blew off the assignment completely, and a few of the “troublemakers” got into it. Of course, it was hard for them to explain their thinking process, and nobody actually got the answer, but I think if you do this regularly, they might begin to recognize this kind of work as an actual math activity. In general, I’m not happy with any of the groups’ willingness to take turns talking and listen to each other. (One problem: as the level of discussion rises, the students who aren’t interested find the background noise serves as an excellent mask for their off-topic conversations.)

11/1/06 I keep looking for excuses to do origami in my algebra classroom. Rewards? Problem-solving? Instruction-following practice? (They’re so bad at following instructions. It’s all part of a general problem with listening to others – to me and each other.) I briefly taught a daily origami class to middle-school kids. It was delightful: almost 100% engagement each time. We worked simple models for a week and were just about ready to move into modular origami when the class ended. I realized as I was doing the class that we should have supplemented the geometry lessons the previous year with origami. My students never understood classical constructions: they would draw arcs free-hand, use the ruled markings on the straightedges, and pick endpoints arbitrarily. It was very frustrating. Would they have followed the origami instructions better? I know from experience that a lot of novices will go ahead and eyeball the origami folds rather than line up edges and creases per the directions. But I think the average user is more comfortable folding paper than using a compass, so we’d probably get more commitment.

11/3/06 What about using origami for teaching “non-graphic” math? Of course, you can use origami for various geometric ideas, but what about things like algebra and number theory? I researched this a bit and found a lot of discussion by mathematicians, math teachers and expert origamists regarding geometry (constructions and proofs), 2nd-year algebra (solving 4th-degree polynomials, folding parabolas), and various advanced topics, but really nothing about beginning algebra. Is all lost? Maybe not, if I make origami an ancillary activity and consider it valuable for teaching problem solving and prepping the algebra students for geometry.

11/7/06 Really bad lesson today on solving for a given variable in a formula. For starters, the students didn’t know how to use a formula, and then the first example in the book was the Fahrenheit/Celsius conversion – which I thought was a good example and which I illustrated with a nice table of temperatures but which completely overwhelmed the students. They didn’t know any of the basics about temperature, including where water boils and freezes. One girl even said that Celsius was “colder” than Fahrenheit. So, we were distracted by what I thought was fundamental. And then, although the kids were comfortable with the two basic equation-solving moves – adding/subtracting on both sides, and multiplying/dividing on both sides – they had completely forgotten (or never mastered in the first place) the alternate move of multiplying both sides by the reciprocal of a fraction, when the fraction “wants” to be distributed. (Many of them saw the “– 32” inside some parentheses and wanted to add 32 to both sides.) So, they got confused by the by-now unfamiliar multiply-by-a-reciprocal move. And then at some point they saw a variable in a denominator and really freaked out. I’m going to back up and re-teach tomorrow, focusing on the simpler examples, without any applications. Just: solve “y – 3 = x” for y.